My waffly first blog about Opentech 2010 & being a PR amid techies

Opentech

As a public relations officer for a Welsh council my role is about, of course promoting and maintaining the reputation of the authority, but our focus is about true engagement. I’m really interested in opening up channels of communication between ‘us’ and residents, partner organisations and all stakeholders really.

 

Which is why Opentech 2010 seemed like a good way to spend a Saturday.

 

Open Tech is described as an informal, low cost, one-day conference on slightly different approaches to technology, politics and justice.

 

It was a packed programme of talks, and most of them were so tempting that when I was there I found many instances of people pantomime creeping out of the room in the hope of not disturbing the audience while leaving to catch a bit of a session held in another room.

 

Other attendees will be able to give a much better picture of what went on in the day: I felt distinctly like a pr person amid crowds of clever techies.  But not having an understanding of coding and having limited webby capabilities did not stop it being a really inspiring day. 

 

 

Open Data 

 

I took in bits and bobs from four of the sessions – overall, what I got from it was just a taste of how much work is required to make government and big corporations open up data for public consumption.

 

It’s our data. It seems like a simple principle, opening up government data, but it’s a big job for organisations to find ways for staff to simply make the information they work with available in a format that people can use. There must be tens of thousands of different databases and spreadsheets just in UK councils all using different methods of recording. We’ll have to adjust to screw ups (and great things) becoming public. And we need to find ways of reducing the barriers to getting involved.

 

But it’ll be worth the work and the culture change to have better equality of access to information, more efficiency and no duplication. Who knows what can come of giving people the opportunity to use two or more datasets to create more meaningful information about their lives. Whatever, it has to happen and it’s exciting.

 

Games

 

As I said, I know public relations better than technical stuff discussed at Opentech.  It’s always good to be reminded that I’m missing ways to engage and it’s energising to get a glimpse of a whole new train of thought to add to my work.

 

Here, I’m veering slightly off my experience of the event on Saturday, I’ll get back eventually. If there’s one thing guaranteed to make me want to run down the corridor howling it’s when someone says “I want to set up a Facbook page/Twitter account/YouTube channel to reach young people”.

 

My reaction tends to be – ok, you’ve identified an audience (it’s not specific but never mind).  Fine.  But what do you want to achieve?  How do you know your idea is the right channel?  Is this part of an overall communication plan?  What do you want to talk about?  Are the people you want to talk to there already?

 

Average ages of social network users is not young (not by young people’s standards anyway): MySpace: 31, Facebook: 38, Twitter: 39, LinkedIn: 44.  Not to say young people aren’t there but it’s just not as easy ‘go there and they’ll engage’.  The content has to be right – for instance, if a council has a council-branded Facebook page that just feeds updates from its website or/and Twitter account, would the average teen want to become a fan of that page?  Create a group for people who are interested in art projects and entertainment in their local area and get them to make it their own forum for discussion and you might be getting somewhere.

 

What was fascinating at Opentech last week was the discussion about using games as a space for social and political engagement.

Alice Taylor at Channel 4 spoke at Opentech at the For the win: game-space and public engagement session about using online games aimed at 14-19 year olds to get useful and helpful information to teens.  Everyone there was gripped.

 

My description of this will sound very uncool to anyone who plays online or video games because I’m lacking the knowledge. I read papers, I’m a lover of social media, and I can bore people rigid with details on those.  I am not ‘a gamer’; I know a bit about Farmville on Facebook because I regularly ignore invitations to play. 

 

Anyway, the panel talked about why people play games: to gain a sense of achievement, to be entertained and to learn. 

 

Making it easy for a gaming dunce like me to understand, Cory Doctorow described a study done at the University of British Columbia where very young children were able to name almost 400 of characters in the Pokeman game but were hard-pressed to identify four birds.  So they came up with a game that mimicked the structure of Pokemon using natural science instead of fictional characters.

 

This principle, of changing the purpose from money-making to life-enhancing, can be applied to almost any form of game, including online and video games.

 

They discussed mechanics of gaming, how users get involved and are willing to complete repetitive and boring tasks to get to the next level of the game.  Users like to feel like the time that spent came up with a result, they want social elements like being able to see how they did with other people, and they want to play in teams with others and against other people.

 

And real life rewards for online behaviour can be very powerful.

I’ve no doubt that local authorities have already done good work in using games for social good. It got me thinking though and now I can’t stop seeing (crude and simplistic) ideas for council games in everything where I live.

 

How about

  • A Foursquare style game – as you really make your way through the streets of your county you use your phone to report potholes, street light faults, graffiti and dog poos.  As drivers spot these things, they report real life problems and gain points for each confirmed case.  Wards would be in competition with each other.
  • A shoot-em-up based in Newport, running around the castle remains, the Riverfront Theatre and the Newport Museum and Art gallery – points for shooting people in places of cultural significance and deducted for damaging the artefacts.  Making a standard game have a cultural landscape.  (The PR person in me says ‘NO! Imagine if the Daily Mail got hold of that’ but it’s fun to think of the educational possibilities.)
  • A driving game where two or more players work together to control a vehicle, avoiding vulnerable people stepping into the road, slowing down outside school zones and stopping to clip ASBO hoodies around the ear.

They’re silly ideas but I love that kind of thing as it often makes us more open to creative solutions in communicating.

It was suggested at Opentech that Farmville’s unofficial motto is ‘do evil’ so hopefully, after Opentech, more people will look at using opensource games to redress the balance and ‘do decent’.

 

What was also good from Opentech

 

  • A project that gives people skills and the opportunity to develop apps that actually mean something to them.
  • Ben Goldacre’s talk about plans to open up the data from clinical trials.  Without knowing which trials haven’t been published, we’ll never have a full picture about the effectiveness and side-effects of medicines we are given. He made an entertaining argument, even when despairing at an example of anti-depressant, Seroxat, being prescribed in children despite it causing suicidal thought.  The drug company argues that, even though it is prescribed for children, it is not licensed for use in children therefore they need not publish relevant studies. So he’s looking for volunteers who can help spot the gaps.
  • VisionOn.TV: Is corporate media dying? Will the clever ones survive? Our media is not yet fully formed. This was an interesting look at citizen journalism training, running live-edit wind and solar-powered studios and breaking barriers between geek builders, content providers and consumers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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