Share your idea with mySociety

This is not a regular post but I have been a mySociety (the renowned UK non-profit org) fan for a long time and I thought it was important to share this information: Tom Steinberg has just published a “Call for Proposals” for 2009. The name itself does not do justice to the spirit of the organization which has always been operating outside the straitjacket of useless government or EU funded projects, but the call is a genuine attempt to gather innovative ideas and suggestions for the organization to work on.

More in line with their own spirit, mySociety published a loose but essential set of guidelines which the ideas have to follow (what they call “an insight into the mySciety mindset”). I particularly liked rule no4: “they will be ideas that have clear social, civic or democratic benefits that are really easy to explain to the least political person you know, even if the technology behind them is fiendishly complicated” (my bolds).

Considering the track record of the organization I would urge anyone to think hard and submit ideas to them. If there is anyone out there that can deliver, MySociety is surely one of them. I’ll be watching what type of new projects they may come up with and… possibly think of any of my own.

mysocietycall09

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The EU Profiler is finally launched today

Today, a very exciting and long-awaited project is officially launched in Brussels, the EU Profiler (http://www.euprofiler.eu)
Readers of this blog may have read an older post on the various online tools deployed which allow any citizen to match his/her personal political preferences to the various official party lines;  projects of this kind include the Electoral CompassGlassbooth,  Smartvote and the Stemwijer.

The EU Profiler aims to do exactly that for the upcoming European Parliament elections in June 2009, where more than 300 million voters will elect 736 MEPs. The novelty and complexity of the EU Profiler is evident since it is available for all Member States of the European Union in their respective languages. There is also a simulation for a number of non-EU countries like Turkey, Croatia, Switzerland and Norway.
Here is how the tool works:

  • By answering a simple questionnaire (30 questions), users will obtain a presentation of their policy preferences which allows them to compare those with the positions of all national, as well as European, parties. The EU Profiler provides multiple options for further analysis of the position of the user.
  • The results are displayed in a party match (i.e. percentage of user preferences and positions matching those of parties), in a two-dimensional graph (‘compass’) as well as in a multidimensional spiderweb graph (‘smartspider’).
  • The tool enables the user to analyse his or her political choices and to position him in the European political landscape.

eu-profiler-shots

The partners for this project are the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, which has cooperated with the Kieskompas in Amsterdam and the NCCR Democracy/Politools network in Zurich. Professor Alex Trechsel,  a political scientist with the EUI, is leading the project.  Alex (who I had the honour of meeting in various occasions), is one of the leading authorities in Europe in e-democracy theory and practice, an academic who regularly advises the Council of Europe, the Estonian government on its e-voting efforts etc.

The selection of the political issues and statements, as well as the positioning of the parties in the EU Profiler is done according to strict academic standards by a group of leading academics. There is also a dedicated country team which in the case of Greece is the following: Angelos-Stylianos Chryssogelos (team leader), Ilias Ntinas, Sofia Tzortzi and Sofia Vasilopoulou.

Good luck then to the EU Profiler!
In this day and age where political parties frequently blur their policies to attract voters and real differences are hard to detect, the average citizen is more and more confused on his real choices. Tools like these -if done correctly – can greatly help towards better informed publics.

[Other background info links on the EU Parliament elections:  See this interactive map of the EU countries , and the EU Parliament site for information on the elections]

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Innovate or Perish

The stereotype goes that we live in an age of blurring lines.
But sometimes there is merit in stereotypes and a recent e-debate on e-participation organized by the Pep-Net network  reminded me of this fact. In one of those threads we discussed what the private and public sectors can learn from one another.  Well, a lot it seems. But most of all, the importance of innovation I think; by opening-up, by embracing and experimenting with crowdsourcing ideas and mostly through persistent cultivation of a new more daring mentality. Some are already walking down this one-way street and they will be positioned to reap significant benefits in the future – a few are enjoying these in the present. Let me cite three examples that may hopefully inspire you:

1. Spread the Jam: IBM’s Collaborative Innovation model

ibm-jam

IBM, which used to be the embodiment of a huge, “grey”, inertia-stricken conglomerate, has done great strides and has embraced knowledge management in a big way. In this way, it fosters creativity within the organization but one of their most impressive undertakings is none other than the IBM Jam Events, an example of their Collaborative Innovation model.  Here is how IBM describes the concept of Collaborative Innovation:

In a world where innovation is global, multidisciplinary and open, you need to bring different minds and different perspectives together to discover new solutions to long-standing problems. Therein lies the essence of collaborative innovation.”

Inspired by James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” and Jeff Howe’s “Crowdsourcing” ideas, IBM subscribed to the belief that public discussion of research ideas could solve problems faster than IBM’s own researchers tackling them secretly. There came the “Innovation Jams”, where the company’s researchers, employees and outside experts are invited to join in virtual brainstorming sessions. They post their ideas for innovations and then others join in, commenting on the posts and voting for their favorites.

“ValuesJam in 2003 gave IBM’s workforce the opportunity to redefine the core IBM values for the first time in nearly 100 years. During IBM’s 2006 Innovation Jam- the largest IBM online brainstorming session ever held – IBM brought together more than 150,000 people from 104 countries and 67 companies.”

The Bottom-line: Jams started in 2001 and by 2006, 46,000 ideas were produced, the company invested more than $100 million in seed ideas and created 10 new divisions to follow up on those. 

Now, what can the public sector learn? This is what IBM suggests:

“Jams are not restricted to business. Their methods, tools and technology can also be applied to social issues. In 2005, over three days, the Government of Canada, UN-HABITAT and IBM hosted Habitat Jam. Tens of thousands of participants – from urban specialists, to government leaders, to residents from cities around the world – discussed issues of urban sustainability. Their ideas shaped the agenda for the UN World Urban Forum, held in June 2006. People from 158 countries registered for the jam and shared their ideas for action to improve the environment, health, safety and quality of life in the world’s burgeoning cities.”

Naturally, most public officials and corporate leaders will shudder at the thought of disrupting the long-established hierarchical and rigid structures. Adam Christensen –Social Media Manager at IBM- offers a few insights on this process in a short presentation found here.  His main points and suggestions are: Cultivate a bottom-up culture change, trust and empower employees (“after all they are the brand”), don’t be afraid of failure and, experiment-experiment-experiment.  

[Links: IBM Jam Events, IBM Innovation Jam 2008, IBM Social Network to advance SOA, VentureBeat on Jam 08, Global Dialogue Center-Habitat Jam, check also Luis Suarez’s KM blog]

2. Innocentive: A market place for innovation

innocentive

The idea is simple: You have a problem-any problem. You post it and you let anyone offer solutions. You pay for the best one. In other words, as New York Times puts it: If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone. In “Innocentive-speak”:

  •        If you have a problem (called “Challenge”), you are a “Seeker”.
  •        If you have a solution to suggest, you are a “Solver”.
  •     You connect online in the Open Innovation Marketplace : Seeker & solver identities are kept completely confidential and secure, InnoCentive managing the entire IP process.

“Solvers” who deliver the most innovative solutions receive financial awards ranging up to US$1,000,000 and “Seekers” include commercial, government and non-profit organizations such as Procter & Gamble, Avery Dennison, Pendulum, Eli Lilly and Company, Janssen, Solvay, GlobalGiving etc.  

The company was founded in 2000 as an in-house innovation “incubator” for the Elli Lilly pharma company and gone independent in 2005. Initially it focused in life sciences, pharmaceutical, biology etc but now this marketplace connects companies, academic institutions, public sector and non-profit organizations, with a global network of more than 170,000 of the world’s brightest minds, in more than 175 countries. One of the recent “Challenges” is how to improve the US health-care system.

As they describe it, the system provides a flexible tool-set to be used anywhere in the organization. Considering that Innocentive is often seen as a last resort for organizations that cannot find a solution otherwise (meaning internally), an impressive 40% of problem-challenges posted are solved.

Innocentive believes that if organizations overcome their initial fears -these essentially being “what do they pay me for, if I cannot solve the problem” – and integrate it organically within their strategy, it may well become a “first resort” solution in the quest for innovative solutions.

Exploiting Innocentive for non-profit purposes seems to be an even more successful endeavour and “The Rockefeller Foundation knows that very well. They went into partnership with Innocentive and created the “Accelerating Innovation for Development Initiative”, dedicated to showcasing challenges facing poor or vulnerable populations around the world. Through the partnership, the foundation explores novel and proven approaches, including crowdsourcing, collaborative competitions, user/customer-centered innovation and user-generated innovation. “Reducing Risk of Malaria with Solar Powered Device” and “Solar-powered wireless routers” are two examples of solved problems.  

By the way, Gary Hamel – who has been called “the world’s most influential business thinker” by The Wall Street Journal – was recently appointed to the InnoCentive Strategic Advisory Board.

[Links: New York Times, Business Week Podcast, Corporate blog, InnobloggerFacebook Page, Twitter]

3. SAGE: On track to create the “Google of biology”

sage

One of the most secretive, introverted, patent-based industries in the world, the pharmaceutical industry, is now having a new treatment from Stephen Friend, a cancer research guru and Merck’s former senior vice-president of cancer research. Friend – who believes that Cancer drugs don’t help 75% of the people who take them – seems that has secured $5 million in donations to kick-start a new non-profit organization in Seattle called Sage.

Sage’s vision is to “Create an open access, integrative bionetwork evolved by contributor scientists working to eliminate human disease” and for this purpose it aims:

  • to build and support an open access platform and databases for building innovative new dynamic disease models
  • to interconnect scientists as contributors to evolving, integrated networks of biological data

Possibly oversimplifying here, physicians could look at genetic profiles from their patients, match it up with the Sage free open database – which will contain anonymous genomic profiles collected from scientists around the world – and then prescribe the medicine most likely to work. In other words, get all of the data to talk to each other (sounds like Tim Berners-Lee’s  Linked Open Data project?)  for the benefit of all:  The FDA, health insurers and drug companies, providing better insights and potentially save years of wasted efforts and millions of dollars.
Significantly enough, in order for Sage to gain insights from the open-source model in the computing world, John Wilbanks, the vice president of science at Creative Commons is joining the Board.

Sage’s co-founder Eric Schadt says: “We see this becoming like the Google of biological science. It will be such an informative platform, you won’t be able to make decisions without it. We want this to be like the Internet. Nobody owns it.”

 [Links: SAGE, Open Access Overview, Bio-IT World, Forbes, Xconomy Seattle]

Now you have a choice: Innovate or Perish

The moral of the story is all too clear for business. What about politics?  If private enterprises and conglomerates with a single-minded profit mandate dare to innovate by “opening up” and engaging into a conversation with their employees and stakeholders, there must be something rotten with political parties and governments whose mandate is to represent citizens’ voices but resist even the simplest act of listening, let alone engage into a meaningful conversation and exploit the wealth of human intelligence. 

Unless of course there is a “grand plan” which says that their constituents will eventually diminish so much that they will no longer need the web to discuss…they will simply invite them home for coffee.

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Skoll World Forum 2009

There are only 3-4 world forums that I would like to participate in my lifetime, one of them is the renowned and unique 2009 Skoll World Forum , a joint venture between “The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship” at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and “The Skoll Foundation“.

The forum, which is dubbed as the “Davos of Social Entrepreneurhsip”,  runs between 25-27 March and is covered by Social Edge, the online media partner for the sixth consecutive year. 

The Skoll Foundation was founded by billionnaire Jeffrey Skoll (first employee and first president of eBay) who stressed in his opening speech that ” Nothing can stop a social entrepreneur. The world needs you more than ever”. 

The forum, focuses this year on the theme of “Shifting Power Dynamics” and is attended by record numbers. Some 800 social entrepreneurs, academics, financiers, politicians, policy makers and others from over 60 countries around the world have assembled in Oxford to look at new ways to tackle the challenges that face humanity: poverty, climate change, disease and more. 

  • The coverage of the event is not very user-friendly but the patient reader will find a wealth of information by surfing around the various blog pages at Social Edge
  • The Social Enterprise online magazine has a very good coverage of the event here
  • Live streaming is here: http://www.skollworldforum.com/
  • The Twitter hashtag to follow is  #swf09 

About Social Entrepreneurship

Muhammad Yunus (the founder of Grameen Bank microfinance) of course is almost synonymous to the concept of a “social entrepreneur”  and his Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 helped to bring the social entrepreneurship idea to the forefront of attention.  

The definition of a social entrepreneur put forward by the Skoll Foundation is that of “a society’s change agent; a pioneer of innovations that benefit humanity”.  

Bill Drayton, CEO, chair and founder of Ashoka, the  global nonprofit organization devoted to developing the profession of social entrepreneurship, has described it in this way: “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.” 

[Remark: It sounds funny to speak about social entrepreneurship in countries like mine, Greece, where the notion of entrepreneurship as such is still a question mark and it sometimes comes under fire; however it always pays off to open up to new concepts because you never know who listens and where radical change will come from]

Online innovation by non-profits: The missing link

Yesterday, a very interesting conference took place in Athens, the “Social Media and Communication” event organized by the Institute of Communications.  All in all, it was exciting to watch a true “culture clash” between the “old” (marketing/advertising community) and the “new” (web2.0 and e-gov/e-politics people), two worlds that rarely coexist in the same room!

But once more, as in the case of past Interactive Marketing Conferences organized by the IAB, a glaring oversight was evident once more:  The – almost – complete lack (barring G700 and Yanis Larios’s excellent presentation) of speakers and themes around the non-profit sector, one of the most innovative and early adopting sectors worldwide.

This of course reflects on the state of things in Greece where the non-profit sector itself is underdeveloped but is no excuse for the well informed social media and communication people who are an information collection maniacs bunch of people.

The undisputed fact that non-profits are early adopters of innovations in the online world (the most brilliant ones are called “social entrepreneurs”) is a result of very rational and simple facts:

  • They are not bound by the straitjacket, the inflexibilities and introversion of the business sector
  • They possess a unique capacity to attract talent and young creative people who find ample room for experimentation (before they move on to the private sector to make some money)
  • They don’t have the budgets for conventional marketing tactics, so the web as a tool for communication, collaboration, marketing, fundraising etc, is almost a one-way road for them with respect to cost/benefit constraints
  • Their objectives are varied – its not only customer acquisition or sales, but “impact” – so the uses of new technologies and online media have to serve more complicated goals, uses that constantly need fresh thinking.
  • They need to overcome the indifference of people by being creative: they have no other way to grab attention (their “currency”)
  • The “larger” ones address the widest target group of all: Everybody, and this is a marketing challenge
  • They need to manage, organize, collaborate, persuade, mobilize, disseminate, campaign, fundraise ….all at the same time! (…someone recognizes  different “platforms” behind those words?)
  • …the list could go on…

So, it is a pity that what international organizations, think-tanks, digital agencies, some academics etc acknowledge, the local business community is oblivious to it, losing valuable insights from innovative case studies and projects around the world. Some examples:

Amnesty International (with their Crisis Prevention and Response Center (CPRC)), put up the “Eyes on Darfur” amazing project which monitors 12 distraught villages in Darfur, through a combination of novel tracking techniques using satellite imagery and geospatial data. The result is satellite photos of villages before and after various hardships suffered (that was back in 2007). The site allows for mobilization around the issue via various methods. By the way, the design merits of the website itself would be the envy of many business web sites.

eyesondarfur

Amnesty International has also launched tearitdown.org, another beautiful site, aiming to “tear down Guantanamo and end illegal U.S. detentions one pixel at a time”.

amnesty-pixels

Way back at the end of 2006, Asociación Mensajeros de la Paz (Messengers of Peace), a humanitarian organization which seeks to fight poverty and improve the situation of vulnerable people around the world, through a Second Life awareness campaign featuring a homeless avatar, raised enough money to provide a month of healthcare and education for a real-life child. Second Life is also used for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life event which has run for 4 years and raised virtually more than $118,000 in 2007.

Of course, one of the largest grass-roots mobilizations in the world, the GCAP (Global Call to Action Against Poverty) campaign and especially its UK counterpart MakePovertyHistory, implemented such a sophisticated online campaign which will take years for the Unilevers and P&Gs of this world to copy with any success….and all that back in 2005! 

You can also read a Times article from 2007 about charities using Facebook and MySpace deploying various applications. Also read here about others, like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) or the JustGiving application in Facebook which allows you to donate and raise money for 3000+ UK registered charities and has reached 100,000 installations.
And of course the latest Twestival, the twitter event for Charity:Water which raises money to provide safe, clean water to people around the world, should also give some ideas on how to use the latest buzz-tool.

The examples are numerous but lastly, it’s worth remembering that TakingITGlobal and OneWorld, have long been true and sophisticated community sites that go back before the Facebook/MySpace era (they were not called “social media” back then).

The non-profit sector has truly amazing cases to show, way before any marketing executive catches on with the latest buzzwords and trends (which by then are yesterday’s trends).

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Making sense in a senseless world

In view of the hype around the Obama-driven promise of a more participatory governance through ICTs, it is worth remembering that all this discussion is not created in a vacuum; it is a hard road travelled and fought before and things are not as simple as a lot of journalists and other…”experts” make it to be. Many worthy people and organizations have long been investigating models of online deliberation, argument visualization and “collaborative models of sense-making”, necessary when millions of people each with his/her own individual views are called in to co-shape complex policy issues. 

David Price reminds us of this fact in his article in Independent Minds (the Independent’s contributors’ blog), where he rightly says that,

Deeper challenges remain…. The emerging set of collaborative sensemaking and deliberation tools….are still nascent, still figuring out the basic principles….The tools require a basic visual literacy that itself is only just beginning to emerge in society. And the maps, and other sensemaking constructs, require time to build and time for reflection in an impatient and attention-poor age.”

And he should know, as he is one of the people behind some innovative projects like Debategraph (co-founded with the former Australian cabinet minister Peter Baldwin), which is a wiki debate visualization tool that enables users to decompose a conversation, by visualizing the arguments and counterarguments surrounding complex issues and track different debates which are semantically interrelated.
For example, Ofcom, the UK regulatory authority, has praised the attempt to use the platform to map its own consultation into the future of Public Service Broadcasting in the UK.  The tool has also been used to visualize and disseminate the debate on “what Obama should do next”  (and here) and the current discussion on the “Crisis in Gaza”.
 (sorry could not embed, but click to go to maps)

gaza-debategraph1

Click to visit map

 

Click to visit map

Click to visit map

David Price is also one of the people who have initiated Global Sensemaking(GSm), a group “dedicated to helping humanity address complex, interrelated global problems—such as climate change, energy policy, poverty, and food security—by developing and applying new web-based technology to assist collaborative decision making and cooperative problem solving”.

GSm’s current leading project is ESSENCE, the world’s first global climate collective intelligence event, an internet experiment designed to bring together scientists, industrialists, campaigners and policy makers, and the emerging set of web-based sensemaking tools. The aim is to develop a comprehensive and distilled visual map of the issues, evidence and options facing the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Why am I saying all that? Simply to show that the intelligent use of social media to elect a president, although admirable marketing-wise, is not an indication for successful crowdsourcing politics…the road ahead is more demanding and more bumpy than it looks.

e-participation: Are we on the right track?

Following my participation at the relevant session of the Global Forum 2008 in Athens last week and my experience from e-participation projects, here are a few scattered thoughts that I would probably raise if time allowed me to do so.

  • e-participation and e-democracy are frequently hosted within ICT related events. Is this right? What does that mean? It seems to me that e-participation should be more about methodologies, sound political thinking and insights into citizens’ needs. It would seem that socio-political and media-communication fora are more apt for this kind of conversations. It’s interesting to note that many people from the ICT-related sector “re-present” e-participation projects. Has the “e” overtaken the essence of the debates? After all, e-democracy is about democracy not technology.
  • Related to this point is also the fact that way too few people with communication expertise also have a presence in those fora – and actual projects for that matter. I believe there is an immense know-how within people, organizations and companies that deal with communication, opinion polling & research and this is greatly underutilized in most of the projects that see the light of day.
  • A related symptom is Continue reading