I finally got round to wrapping up this WordPress.com blog and putting my stuff somewhere I can have a bit more control. It’s still hosted by someone else (it’s on Github) but the whole thing runs on my computer first and the web second.

I like this as a compromise. The technology I’ve used also reinforces the personal-first approach. You can read more about that here (on the new platform). Over the next few months I’m going to be thinking and doing more about moving to a more independent way of working; my personal blog is a small part of that.

In the meantime, please take a moment to subscribe by email to the new blog. It’s handled by another third party (Mailchimp), but it gets it up and running. If you have other solutions that don’t massively sacrifice the simplicity please let me know in the comments.

Anyway, there’s a long way to go with all this. For now, it’s goodbye WordPress.com and I hope to see you in the new place.

How do we build design principles into the deepest architecture of things, into the algorithms and mechanisms?

It goes deeper than an ethos or mission. Those things change, get re-evaluated. Good intent can be reduced to a veneer while the core values are dismantled and exploited. 

But what if something couldn’t exist at all without the complete set of design principles? Like a human body, every system present and functioning or no life at all. 

What are the means by which the architecture and the principles become inseparable? More importantly, how does this inseparability transcend enforcement and become a fundamental aspect of existence? 

Last weekend I attended Open Data Camp in Winchester; my first ever “Camp”. As someone who works primarily in design, attending designey events for designers, I’m not used to taking part in the more tech/data end of the events spectrum so I wanted to get my thoughts down.

I’m not going to go into the format or general organisation of the weekend. To me it seemed to go pretty smoothly. I knew where to be, when, and I got plenty to eat. We never ran out of coffee. I’d like to make particular mention of one of the brilliant organisers, Lucy Knight, not least because I’m lucky enough to work with her.

I attended a pretty diverse range of sessions: democracy, food, design, and mapping the benefits of open data. I enjoyed them all, although I repeatedly found that the conversation just started as the session ended. From past experience it’s usually the case. As the first Open Data Camp it’s probably more expected than in other, established events like GovCamp, but it’s no bad thing; it helps to plot the course.

So, general experiences aside, a few things that stood out for me.

Public Sector Focus

It’s inevitable that there will be a strong focus on the public sector in an event like Open Data Camp. Most discussion in the UK around Open Data is still heavily connected with the public sector. And to be honest, if the public sector didn’t push on the open data thing who knows how far we’d have got by now.

My concern is around where we go next. For me, some of the most useful data, the most vital, is going to come from outside the public sector. Finding ways to get corporates to open up what they have is a difficult but worthwhile challenge and I feel like this needs to be pursued as aggressively, if not more so, as open data advocates are pursuing the public sector.

How can events like Open Data Camp help here? Is there a danger that the public sector focus makes it easier for private entities to slip the net? What are the routes in to these silos?

The other issues for me around the public sector focus is the potential for us to accept the public sector as it is. I was thinking about this in the session on democracy. With all the technology and data available to us is it enough to engage with machinations of democracy as they currently stand? How can technology, data (and design) help us to advance democracy at its most fundamental level?

Design and Data

I’m particularly interested in how to get data into the hands of designers and in fact I ran a session on this. It was a difficult one. The first thing I realised was that my definition of designer might not have been shared with everyone in the room. When we talk about data and design the natural common ground is web/app development. In this context it doesn’t seem too much to expect designers to learn a bit of code and help bridge the gap that way.

But many designers are a long way from this. I have to remind myself that my interest in coding says more about me (geek) than the design profession as a whole and that the real common ground comes from creative ways to translate the essence of what each field is about. To this end I think I saw a card game in one of the sessions. We need more things like this. It would be remiss of me not to mention Redfront’s own Data Loop too.


Martin Howitt ran a session on identifying the benefits of open data for different stakeholder groups. Bias aside (it appeals to my designer tendencies but I’m also lucky enough work with Martin as well) this seems to me to be a vital undertaking. If we’re going to unlock the real potential of open data then we need more people to understand it, make use of it, demand it.

If you’re interested in contributing to the benefits mapping of open data you can help by adding your comments to this spreadsheet.

Hacking Together

One of the sessions I was in made me realise just how much work there is to be done in translating open data into useful things. There are some clever people out there doing clever things with data. There are challenges and hackathons that produce fascinating new applications. And yet the propagation, evolution and adoption of the outputs seems negligible in comparison.

From a biased designer’s point of view I might say that the problem could lie in a missing human element. Are we successfully engaging and designing for the people who really need or want these apps? Could we do more to bring humanity into the process? As I talked about above, I’m passionate about the design component of open data, and as the technology landscape introduces new platforms and devices we need to be even surer that we’re embarking on its exploration as a diverse groups of makers and users.

Blog commenting systems have evolved very little since their inception. One of the more interesting examples of some kind of evolution was Branch’s inline commenting system; part of the platform’s attempt to encourage thoughts-in-progress rather than finished pieces. 

Medium has similar functionality at the paragraph level but it fails to realise the potential due to its focus on polished editorial, and so the nearest thing we have to an unfinished ideas platform is Twitter. But still we rarely see the level of vulnerability and open thinking necessary to make it work there. 

The ability to share half-formed ideas is a vital thing. Face-to-face conversations  are built on these foundations. Without them we’d just be trading a series of pre-prepared monologues. And yet the internet still doesn’t seem to effectively support this fundamental behaviour.

One of my favourite ideas development approaches is World Café. Its primary focus is to promote conversation, half-formed thoughts, as a means of drawing out the good stuff. To do that it encourages us to huddle together, relax, be human. 

But World Café isn’t about just talking. It’s designed to get our thoughts down, make them visible. And very little on the Internet comes close to this kind of all-in talking and doing.

The power of conversation in the right context is huge. Early conversations where ideas are hazy provide the true substance of individual and collective originality. They are the earliest prototypes of everything we do and they can take form with remarkable speed. 

But where are the digital enablers for what we instinctively know? Why are we building more and more platforms for fully-formed thoughts when we should be tackling the barriers to unguarded originality?

Is it that the business models for the internet are built around content? Do they require finished think-pieces to effectively commoditise our thoughts? Is it a technological failing? Or is it a fear of sharing our flimsiest, most fleeting thoughts that stops us from realising the  value of collective uncertainty?

Facebook’s recent release of a standalone Group app and its less recent Messaging app are indicators of something important in the way we use social networks.

One of my least favourite things about social media is the way in which all new platforms perpetuate the follower or friend model; one of the obvious criticisms of something like Ello is that its architecture requires us to scale our connections. It wants to replicate Twitter or Facebook. Just without the ads. 

All new apps seem to want to replicate the fundamental dynamics of Twitter or Facebook. The thing is, the longer Twitter and Facebook go unchallenged, the harder it gets to compete with a platform that embeds itself more into our lives the longer we use it. 

So, one of the reasons Ello might not last is because few people want to rebuild what they already have on other platforms. We’ll happily stare at a few ads to avoid the work of starting again. 

But Facebook’s unbundling of its core functions, and purchase of companies like Whatsapp, are symptoms of an interesting paradox in the pervasive social network architecture. We’re unwilling to throw away the hard-won networks of Facebook and Twitter but at the same time we don’t find them terribly useful. 

So, apps that allow us to message individuals and groups, or create fluid groups based on interest, are popular because they make social networks genuinely useful. And they sit uneasily alongside the disengaged, Liking and Faving sprawl of the networks’ core business. Until they get unbundled. 

It’s no surprise that Facebook paid what it did for Whatsapp. It works, and its backbone is as lightweight as our mobile phone numbers can be.

Real competition for Facebook and Twitter isn’t going to come from platforms like Ello, who insist on attacking the parts of the business that few people care enough about to reimagine. It’ll come from things even better than Whatsapp, platforms that abandon the follower/friend model altogether and focus on meaningful usability and experience.

At some point, caring about how many friends and followers we have will be the preserve of the self-obsessed and the corporate. What really matters is what we can do; how we can embrace the fluidity of the web as a living stream, and make the most of it.

Weight training works by pushing muscles to breaking point and then allowing them to recover, and grow. Formal education doesn’t work this way. It supports and guides, providing children with a safe environment to acquire knowledge.

We already exerience information overload, so it seems pretty likely that a couple of key skills for our future society will be the ability to learn and the ability to filter.

So, how do we prepare children for this reality? Do we guide them through a supporting learning experience or do we throw them into chaos?

As my children flit from one project to the other, from one interest to the next, I’ve begun to realise that what they’re learning isn’t the topic itself but something more meta. They’re exercising their learning muscles, learning to learn, learning to filter.

I’m understanding that I can’t teach them what they want to know; instead they’re developing the parts of their brains that help them to do that for themselves. And my role becomes much more about getting out of the way, much more about connecting them with the chaos.

When I was growing up the adults in my life often judged me on the basis of something they called common sense. For them it was some sort of unquestionable constant.

Its values helped them to assert their dominance over young people, children, me. Suffice to say, I lacked it. And the constant reminder that I lacked it contributed in no small part in my growth from an awkward, unsure child to an awkward, unsure teenager.

Common sense is all about the basics. Or at least the basics from the perspective of the adults I grew up with. Does this young person know how to sweep a driveway? Do they know how to hold a hammer? In other cultures theses things might not matter too much. In my circles they were the cornerstones.

And so, every time I swept a driveway, or held a hammer I felt eyes on me. Could I do the most basic jobs of humanity? I felt a heightened awareness of my inadequacy. I felt inferior, awkward. I couldn’t even do the simple things. I most certainly lacked common sense.

Common sense is a great way to keep a hold over people. It gives you the capability high ground. Whatever else that person could do, from playing musical instruments to programming computers, if they lacked common sense then, well, what use were they?

Clinging to an idea of common sense is a brilliant defensive position. You can use it anywhere. See that clever person on the news? The scientist with the breakthrough? Probably not an ounce of common sense. And through that defence nobody can be better than you.

But common sense as a protective strategy is not what this post is about. It’s what got me thinking about it: that sense of awkwardness, the constant thread of inadequacy it instills, and how it lingers. But then I realised that there’s a wider issue.

The real issue is that we believe in a core set of knowledge at all. After all, beyond being able to survive, and reproduce (ironically one of the common sense things we prefer not to educate young people about), what actually is common sense?

And yet we build our whole society on a single body of knowledge. By a certain age there are things we must know. If our children don’t know those things then they’ll “fall behind”. But the question is, “fall behind what?”

If the survival of the human species is dependent on everyone knowing solid arithmetic then we’re in luck. But I suspect that what we really need is people who couldn’t care less about times tables; people who have no idea how to hold a hammer; people obsessed with honey bees, photons, the way sea currents manipulate the sea bed.

We need people with a complete lack of common sense.