Some background thoughts on direct action in an internet enabled democracy.

Again, an un-proofread background piece; Hopefully the last one before part 2 of the trapeze and circuses post is done.

Question: Is a mySociety-esque group the Direct Action/Intervention team equivalent for an internet enabled democracy? And if so, what does that group need to do?

By Direct Action/Intervention team, I mean the online equivalent of awareness raising/behaviour change organisations; say, for example, Students for a Free Tibet who do work at great personal commitment and risk; or projects behind who have different risks to put a small piece of information in a larger whole. This isn’t about (D)DoS, it’s about engaging to change behaviour.

No one performs an action for any of those “offline” groups without a net to catch them should they stumble in any way. Alongside all the UKUncut co-ordination work and messages, there is a clear and vocal message of looking after each other, resources and support.

6 years ago, various people in the predecessor to mySociety-ish (which has changed significantly in constituency, focus, passions and thought over time) created and 11 years ago was and STAND; 2011 will produce

The different groups are very different in method, practice, but not that far apart in metaphor.

There are generally two reasons for those sites – inward focus to lobby the policy process directly, or outwards activism to raise awareness of an issue to show a constituency for lobbying later.

There is a relentless focus on achieving something – but not necessarily exclusively immediately. FixMyStreet took a little while to become FixMyStreet that we know and love now. At the time,most councils were ambivalent, and many still are – but that’s changing over time as the site becomes part of the accepted world. And users would be quite sad if it went away.

In his recent talk at #ogdcamp, Tom Steinberg mentions that 55% of users leave TheyWorkForYou with a more favourable view of their politician than when they arrived – this is both unexpected and a good thing. While most awareness raising is about negative things, we can also do it about positive things just as equally. It isn’t necessarily about convincing people of anything; but just informing. The entire talk is worth watching for many different reasons.

A few weeks ago, I spent a Sunday at the LG kickoff meeting, where many of the radically different groups and communities looking at this from the many different angles. It is certainly a continent sized project, of which I don’t really have my head around (see previous post). Coming together to look at it from many different angles, from the inspired to the idiosyncratic. Baskers posted her thoughts on the day to which I don’t have much to add as most of it was covered previously, other than in effect, it’s a load of different worlds colliding, and someone has to keep the plates spinning to avoid a large crash. But sometimes, that just isn’t enough.

Those worlds often collide. I’ve never had a good amusing, anonymisable story to tell about how that sometimes works in practice, but now I do. (To the friends who know the names, please don’t quote them publicly).

I was “recently” invited to be an “expert” at an event, with various others with slightly different backgrounds. It was also a chance to meet various people I knew by their significant reputation but hadn’t met. Standing chatting to one person whose excellent work is well known to the community, someone walked up, grabbed hold of my shirt, and started punching me in the arm.

Not painfully, but distinctly unexpectedly. After all, that’s not what you expect to happen in a meeting room at a learned institution.

My immediate reaction was something along the lines of “what just happened?” closely followed by “Who the hell are you?”.

While I may not have been that polite, it was the second question that gained a reaction – he was utterly surprised that I didn’t know who he was. Once he said his name, I of course recognised it, but not from his work at one of the Government Organisations I’ve heckled a little (but generally ignore). His work there was something of which I was completely unaware – but clearly he believed my offhand comments (and occasional evening’s prototyping mockups for fun) around some projects caused various reactions in his organisation. All evidence to the contrary.

The issue I seek to highlight here, is not that this happened – the individual involved is slightly contrite that it did, and I consider it a funny story – but the justification given was a set of FoI requests that, it turns out, I didn’t file (but others in a group I know did). Freedom of Information Act requests – requests for public information, generated that reaction.

As Tom says in the video, when the FoI Act is amended to increase data availability, there will be screams, screams about it; and sometimes, the outcomes may be that those “screams” be results of impacts on us. Here Be Dragons.

In this case, further discussions ensued, principally to figure out what the hell was going on, and how that was the approach he preferred. In semi-informed retrospect, there are many smaller interventions that could have been made, different questions that could have been asked, if additional information had been known.

What is the forum for getting that “reality” out to the activists who are working in the area, but who don’t have the ability to go to meetings. Especially where the project is not a high priority. Open Data has a collective of people working this way, in a way that many of the other areas of interest for the much broader community do not. For what Linkedgov is doing for connecting people on all sides of the Government (open) data scenario, what is there for all the other areas of “civic hacking”? Admittedly linkedgov is trying to crack a much easier (although far from easy) problem.

What are the fora for those on both sides of the fence move forwards in the context of a trusted multi-partite way? Troublemakers Inc doesn’t work in the traditional NGO style with a HQ in London where we can nobble someone over coffee; and many of the people we most want to talk to don’t get let out of the office anyway. That’s part of what makes mySociety, WDMMG and others similarly highly successful where most groups in this space are possibly not. But both are run by a committed individual with a huge amount of goodwill surrounding them who will happily go to lots of meetings. Maybe a teacamp-esque organisation?

(Shortly after writing that appeared. Something sorta-like that)

But I’m not sure whether that would automatically help with the most critical cases.

People who’ve been in meetings with no2id tell a story, of how the Identity Card staff tell the rest of Whitehall stories of how unreasonable the no2id lot were; which worked well for the IC staff until no2id went for met those who’d been told the stories. Reality intervened. It always does.

Do we, as people working in this field, need something (or maybe it’s just me). Although a number of projects are run by one person;

Do we need a form of support community for those projects?

As Tom Loosemore recently blogged, it’s easy to lose perspective in a long fight you think you’re losing, when there’s not necessarily the right form of support around you:

An Aside on Boundaries

There was a recently a small storm in the papers about Oxbridge students being disproportionately white, and rejections being disproportionately black. And, there were calls for that admissions data to be much more rich, linked and transparent.

At the moment, it’s a set of single counts – numbers per course, or numbers per college, etc – but no breakdown of information on numbers per course per college. And there were calls for that to be released. That may be one of Tom’s 5 datasets that shouldn’t be released publicly, as at that level, numbers are small, and you can see detail about people; both those who got in, and those who did not. Any such data about individuals should be carefully considered. Maybe there should be cases in which it is released, but what are they, and how do we protect everyone? This is an exceptionally hard problem; as for every case that needs protection; that damages the data. Given some in the open data world were publicly asking for that data, what’s the middle ground where this gets discussed semi-privately before we blog about it?

As in many other areas, one person’s ambiguity may be another person’s truth.

One of the best mailing lists I’m on, is Dave Farber’s Interesting People list. It’s a curated and moderated list with a balanced view on topics. But the makeup being the broadest definition of topics and view; often taking in radically different reasoning for similar positions.rarely consensus, but always highly interesting. That conversation can be had there

This debate is needed more

There are lots of different people, working in different places, with different motives.

I can completely believe that my friend felt that, walking up to me and introducing himself with his fists seemed like a sane and rational way to begin to engage. While I fundamentally disagree, from where I come from, that it seemed like a viable option is lunacy.

In this example, it’s relatively clear, but more generally and less clearly, does one really have to be wrong, for another to be right?

No, of course they don’t. But there are certain practices which mean that certain methods need work in different contexts at different times.

While some of my positions are strongly stated, they’re not necessarily strongly held – I’m perfectly happy for a change of facts or positioning to change what I think. I like ideas; not ideologies; and facts that prove me wrong are welcome.

When we’re working on projects, it’s easy to get into a strong disagreement with people who fundamentally agree with everything that we think. It’s called the progressive community; which loves to find the smallest things that divide. And if you see yourself outside of that, say in the tech community, all I need ask is “vi or emacs”; “ruby or python”. But, in general, those discussions are ones you had with people who actually agree on the vast majority of what you think; most of the time it’s fun. But it always is until someone throws punches.

But generally, most of us (who read this blog, and work in the various areas in which I operate) believe in ideas, not ideologies. Sometimes strongly stated, but often loosely held in case a better idea comes along.

And hopefully it will, given the diversity of people working in different ways, in different places, at different times. Hopefully friends wont need to start punching me to figure this out 🙂

It’s that diversity that leads to different views on services; and it’s that diversity that moves us forwards; it’s that diversity that moreopen may hopefully want to help with (and from what little I know about it, it seems to).

[I again ask for those who know the person involved not to out him in the comments. He remains anonymous for a reason.]

Dec 2010
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One Response to : Some background thoughts on direct action in an internet enabled democracy.

  1. Pingback: Why do I work on what I do? | Disruptive

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