I went to a public meeting at the Assembly buildings in Cardiff last night, which was a chance to meet Wales’ new Cross-Party Digital Group and have a discussion to answer the question:
“How can we make better use of new media and digital technology to engage with the people of Wales?”.
The members of the group are the Assembly members Alun Cairns, Peter Black, Alun Davies and Bethan Jenkins. Not all of them could actually make it but as an intro conversation with q&a it was worth attending.
Foomandoonian has blogged last night’s line-up (with representatives from Google UK, Oxfam GB, MessageSpace and chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones). He’s also blogged some of his highlights of what the guests said.
Below are some of my thoughts. I did raise my hand and ask a question about monitoring blogs and other social media. I also filled in a feedback form (on good old paper). Maybe I can explain/expand on them here. I’m offering them from my perspective and as someone who works with the web and is interested in seeing Wales do well.
Getting attendees at the meetings. I get the impression there will be more of these meetings. “Engagement” is a popular word to drop in, how can we actually do this? Well, for what it’s worth I only heard about the meeting because a friend emailed the details to me. Otherwise I would have missed it. So next time please put a page on the Assembly site about this meeting. Then it can be found by Google and we can send it around by email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and all the other various networks. Whatever existing publicity there was worked well because there were about 80 people in attendance, give or take. This was described as a good “turn-out”. It seemed that most of these people were middle-aged white men in suits. It’s just an observation, there were exceptions of course and it’s actually a good start. But not to have an open page (none that I could find anyway) on the web about a digital Wales meeting is missing a trick. Get a bigger room next time because we’ll be spreading the word!
The meeting itself needs to be more open. The meeting is already somewhat open because people are blogging about it and some people were using Twitter with the hashtag #digitalwales. Please record it next time. Just the audio will probably be fine, with a roving mic for questions. Document the whole thing. That is engagement because you can upload it somewhere and make the best use of public money. It’s a public meeting, so make it as public as possible! There’s no reason why time and space should prevent people from at least hearing meetings anymore. Someone in Pen Llŷn will thank you. I recently wrote about recording meetings on my Native blog.
Bill it as open. This is a public meeting. If people want a private discussion with the AMs involved, there are already lots of ways (email, phone, face-to-face). So just make it clear to attendees that things will be recorded and for the benefit of everyone in Wales.
Let’s have a discussion about open data in general. The USA house their open public data at data.gov and the UK are not too far behind with data.gov.uk (not launched yet but currently on a developer preview). On the feedback form I suggested mySociety as guests for a future meeting because they’re probably the UK’s leading experts on making tools that use political and other data to benefit the public. Good to see that this is what they’re planning. There are almost definitely opportunities for Wales in open public data. By that I mean business opportunities that create employment and projects which help communities – as well as ways to understand the viewpoints, hold politicians to account and run a proper democracy.
But we would like Assembly data in standardised formats please. The online transcriptions of AM speeches are a bit disorganised at the moment. If the Assembly exists to serve Wales, then one way to achieve that is to make them machine-readable. Ideally this would be XML format, but it doesn’t actually matter as long as it’s consistent all the way and the original language and translation are clearly indicated (English and Cymraeg). Then all kinds of things become possible. A good example is the volunteer project They Work For You, which has a search engine for parliamentary discussions and related functions. It has UK parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly – but it’s missing the Welsh Assembly. I’ve written about the need for They Work For You to index Welsh Assembly discussions before. It’s been discussed on a mySociety mailing list and we welcome all coders! But the main point is NOT to raise the specific issue of They Work For You because it’s a volunteer project and only one of many possible applications. The point is making it as easy as possible for citizens to use the data.
Good broadband access. There was some discussion of this last night. I don’t know much about the situation elsewhere in Wales, other than that it’s important. Broadband is infrastructure, like railways. In the past, the railways moved coal and steel. Now we also move information, at much higher speeds. As with any infrastructure, it requires good usage – there is no magical transformation. But it does increase the possible ways people can communicate, learn and work.
Let us see the political process. So much of the discussion at the Assembly and the Assembly Government is private and it doesn’t need to be. I suspect it’s private because people tend to rely too much on email and waste opportunities to “engage”. The question for ministers and staff should always be: does this NEED to be private? If yes, then use a private method like email. If no (could even be the majority of cases) then quickly upload/publish it somehow (blog or wiki or some other tool). Now email the link to people. Thanks, you just opened up the political process! Don’t spin or polish the posts. We’ll vote for you if you’re honest and you communicate.
Some quick notes on tools. Posterous is a good tool because you blog by sending it an email. It’s not the only one with this feature but it’s quick, easy and free of charge. Facebook is OK here but be careful. By default your personal profile is not open – it’s halfway between private and public. My suggestion here would be upload/publish on an open platform (blog etc.) then post a link to Facebook for your friends and supporters.
I could have emailed my thoughts here to somebody. But I blogged them instead. Now anyone can email the link to anyone – or link from anywhere. It doesn’t mean they will but it allows it. People can also find it via search. I’d like to see this model in action.
Your blog posts don’t have to be as long as mine! Preferably they would have a name and a face next to them, not a logo.
Search is key. An AM should probably monitor (or have someone monitor) mentions of their name and issues they care about. Google Alerts are OK, but RSS is probably better. It’s not “ego searching” to look for your name. It’s… that engagement we keep talking about.
Thanks for reading, comments are open.