Disruption In The Newspaper Industry — A Framework

Even though there have been volumes of work published on every single aspect of the current upheavals changing the face of the newspaper industry, consistent yet simple representations of the big picture seem really hard to come by. Which is why we have tried to create a framework showing a bird’s eye view of these causes and their interrelations.

Most of these trends shape the structural underpinnings of all media types, however our reflections are centered around the newspaper industry in a narrow sense.

Aim — Identify the key drivers of disruption and show how they are connected

Our flowchart is designed to help capture the most important macro trends at a glance, placing them in relation to each other. The first goal of this framework is to create an understanding of the challenges that we face as an industry. The second goal is to allow the mental positioning of projects and activities in relation to the drivers of the current structural change. This can help in assessing various options, identify innovation gaps and synchronize strategic measures. The latter being a step from the «problem level» which is visualized here to developing responses and solutions in order to tackle these challenges.

Diagrams like this are an oversimplification of reality. Yet we think that for practical purposes sometimes exactly this is necessary to facilitate high level strategic discussions.

Explanation — How to read this

By collecting and clustering the topics that are regularly discussed in news industry, we have identified four basic forces that drive the aforementioned structural change:

  1. Increasing content supply in the attention economy
  2. Increasing «power» of the individual
  3. Increasing role of technology in the core business
  4. Traditional business is no longer financially viable

While numbers 1. and 2. can be broadly subsumed under the category of market participants (indicated by the dashed line grouping them together), the forces under 3. all relate to infrastructural changes. Those under 4. fall into the category of monetization issues. Some of the subtrends originate in one category but exert their influence in other categories. «Falling barriers to market entry by declining costs» for example is a subtrend in the infrastructure category yet has «new, digital native content providers» as a consequence. These cases are indicated by corresponding colors. However: If you take away only one thing from this, it would be the four big drivers.

Feedback — A living document

We plan to treat our framework as a «living document» that will be expanded and refined. If you have feedback of any kind — be it criticism or aspects that we didn’t think of, we would greatly appreciate an email to labs_at_nzz.ch. Also: If you want to further discuss these themes, by all means, get in touch.

Hi-Res version (PDF)

This post first appeared on labs.nzz.ch. Founded in 2011, NZZ Labs was the R&D team of Neue Zürcher Zeitung. In 2015, the lab grew to a larger team and got a new name: Entwicklungsredaktion. Which is a rather untranslatable word.

Idea and concept: Florian Steglich, Thom Nagy, Gudrun Moeller. Design: Samuel Raymann. Input: Florian Gossy, Mathias Menzl, David Bauer, Markus Hametner, Nick Lüthi (thanks again!).

Next Story — Have an anonymous TED Talk? We want to hear it.
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Have an anonymous TED Talk? We want to hear it.

Today you may have heard that TED announced a rather unusual experiment with Audible. I’m pretty excited about what we’re doing here and want to share some thoughts.

Broadcast journalist Jad Abumrad once said that the most powerful thing about audio is what it lacks … that is: pictures. When a human voice describes something, the listener’s brain is wired to connect images and assign meaning to that voice. This is true for the many creative and expanding possibilities that digital audio now offers.

This act of co-authorship — between the speaker and the listener — to fill the gap of “picturelessness” does something really interesting. It connects us, perhaps more intimately than any other medium. We’ve certainly learned how this rings true for audio content TED puts out to the world.

And here’s something else audio can do that is quite special. A voice disconnected from visual identity provides anonymity to the speaker — while at the same time, letting their ideas reach millions of people.

And so, through this partnership with Audible, we’re creating a platform for TED Talks to be given anonymously. Why is this important? We’ve made it our mission at TED to track down a special breed of under-celebrated hero: People who have knowledge that matters. We find them, and invite them to share their knowledge on a global platform that gets billions of views.

But what if that exposure — the very spotlight that until now has defined the TED Talk experience was actually the reason some people chose not to submit their ideas? How many people have an important message but refrain from “going public” out of fear of losing their jobs or hurting loved ones? How many ideas worth spreading remain hidden because some speakers simply can’t publicly be associated with the very thing the world needs to hear?

Our best guess? A lot.

“Sincerely, X from TED and Audible” is an original audio series that will feature talks from speakers whose ideas need to be heard, but whose identities must remain hidden. Sincerely, X lets us share important ideas without sacrificing the privacy of the speakers or those close to them. In other words, this thrilling project opens up a category of talks that simply haven’t been possible previously.

Imagine ghostwriters, witnesses, wise souls who’ve survived something profound. A public figure living with mental illness. Someone who secretly gave up a child for adoption. A teenager who fought back against bullying and won. A parent who found a way to balance the needs of an autistic child and a neurologically normal one. A doctor living with a life and death mistake. An illegal immigrant with ideas on how to change the system. A CEO who knows exactly how and when companies go wrong. Someone living a double life.

We’re curating talks from those who need to separate their professional ideas from their personal lives; people who want to share an idea, but fear it would hurt others in their family or company if they did so publicly; perhaps even those who are just scared to death of public speaking.

There won’t be a stage, and there won’t be any standing ovations. But those aren’t the essence of TED Talks. What matters is only what can be shared: an idea that matters.

And so I am asking you to help the world bring these ideas out of hiding. Do you have an important idea too important to stay secret? We want to hear about it. Perhaps it will change someone else’s life — perhaps it will even have a shot at shaping a better global conversation and a better future for all of us.

Here is the form to submit your proposal for an anonymous TED Talk. Only our internal team will see what you write. (Please don’t leave your proposal as a comment on this page, for obvious reasons!)
Next Story — Terrorizing Ourselves?
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Terrorizing Ourselves?

I was in Terminal 1 at JFK on August 14th, and scared at how easily we terrorized ourselves.

Imagine receiving a text like this:

The Experience

I was traveling to Malmö, Sweden to give a talk at a conference on “Building an Empathetic Company” by way of Norwegian Air via Copenhagen. It was a red-eye flight scheduled to leave at 9:55 PM.

Since it was the first time I had flown Norwegian and I couldn’t check-in online, I left for the airport with plenty of time. At 7:30 PM on a Sunday night, Terminal 1 was busy but not hectic. I had a carry-on and a duffel bag, got my ticket and made it through Security quickly.

I stopped at a restaurant in-between Gate 4 and Gate 6, had dinner, and read. When 9:15 came around, I paid my bill and walked to Gate 7 to board my flight. The crowd loitered, until the gate agents announced the flight was delayed an hour. So I walked around looking for a seat that didn’t feel claustrophobic.

I’m telling you this, because where I ended up sitting made a difference.

I chose a seat to the far left of the terminal in the last aisle of Gate 8 where there was nothing but open space and a food stand. I figured I should do something productive, and started to write out goals for the upcoming week when a piercing alarm filled the terminal.

Lights above the terminal gates started blinking a long pronounced floodlight warning, and lights on the ceiling darted in a hurried blue and white whir. I realized the alarms had been going off as I typed and that they had gotten louder, or it wasn’t until others around me began to notice and react, that their message reached me.

People started to scream.

“What is happening?” I asked myself.

I watched as people darted through the terminal towards me. I put my carry-on on my back and grabbed my duffel with my free hand. Phone in the other, I tried to open the camera app as I backed up against the window a few seats away.

The screaming became deeper, and echoed through the terminal.

I remembered thinking, “Men are screaming too” as I managed to swipe to video, bent down behind a row of seats and began to film.

I did this for exactly 16 seconds, before I realized something was wrong. Very wrong.

Still from the video I shot. You can see the full one on Twitter @MsSapone

The video shows dozens running for the emergency exits. What it does not capture is the scale of what happened next.

I think so few videos were shared from that night, because people were too afraid to even think about filming

As I dropped my phone, a stream of people came at breakneck speed through the terminal.

There was another wave of piercing screams and the echo of people running.

It was a stampede of people. It was like the terminal had been lifted vertically and people were falling like checkers on a Connect Four board, slamming into a pile at the exits.

I let my duffel fall and surveyed the room. I could cross 100 feet to a door where people were crowding, or another 200 feet to either corner of the terminal where dozens more were pushing their way out.

It registered that the last two exits at the end of the terminal were better. They had bigger doors.

Another wave of screams filled the terminal. I dropped to my stomach and slid underneath the aisle of seats. To my right, many people were doing the same. To my left, a woman hid behind a waste bin. She was bigger than the square recycle/trash canister, and it skid and reverberated as she banged into it.

It was the same reaction a caged animal has when a trap slams down. It wants to get out. Every cell in its body moves at an incredible speed to fulfill this desire. It cannot feel pain.

I looked down at my own hands. My right hand gripped my phone and my left was shaking. “Was I afraid?”.

Interrupting this thought a sound filled the terminal.



Or was it clapping for Usain Bolt’s gold-medal victory?

Or the sound of line separators that direct traffic at Security, falling in cacophonous succession (all the way back before the gates began)?

Or maybe the sound of joints exploding off a door?

None of these media-suggested alternatives occurred to me.

It was gunfire. To me. To many others.

My brain searched furiously for an explanation. “Where is Security? Where the F#&*! is everyone?” Lying flat on the ground under the seats, I locked eyes with a Filipino man and his young daughter. His eyes were bulging and he uttered one statement on repeat.

“Oh God. Oh God. Oh God,” as he pulled his screaming daughter beneath him.

I looked at his daughter and whispered, “Shhhh… It’s Ok…Shhhh.”

A cacophonous scream erupted in the terminal moments after the shots fired. I looked with others out onto the empty aisle of the Terminal.

We were waiting for the person that had fired to emerge, a group of people even. To make demands, or maybe no demands at all. Maybe just make a point.

People have asked me what it felt like. I think this is the first time I understood what the word “terror” means to so many people who have really experienced it.

Yes it was scary, but that’s not good enough. Imagine being in the desert and a wild animal is chasing you, hell-bent on ripping every limb off. It’s that, and the realization this animal is not acting on basic predatory instincts. This animal is a human, and it wants to hurt you.

It’s a deeper level of fear that your mind can not comprehend — it is in complete disbelief. A state of terror.

Your mind goes to 9/11, Orlando, Columbine, what your Military buddy must have felt in Afghanistan. In the moment, you reference these other events.

No security came. No announcement. Just chaos. I had no doubt at the time, that in that moment, my life was in my own hands.

Quiet overcame the terminal. I became aware of the feeling of my stomach against the ground. I surveyed the three exits again and not consciously, but with my feet, made the decision to run for the far right doors. I ran across dropped food; a giant soda cup; ice avalanched; Coke all over the floor. There were hundreds of things everywhere, computers, bags, shoes, jackets. Things were still spinning from the wave of people that had just kicked their way out.

Why did I run? There was an overwhelming feeling of being trapped. There was a window of opportunity, and since I could not see the perpetrator, there was still ambiguity on the outcome, and maybe the opportunity to escape. We were in danger. I felt like a deer bounding across an open field, hoping the hunter was looking the other way.

I ran 150 feet, did a running jump over a row of chairs and ran other 20 feet through open doors.

I ran with others into a wide, cement stairwell. A pilot and two flight attendants crowded in the corner, staring at the running crowd in nonplussed, confusion. They grabbed their wheelie bags close, seemingly unsure what to do as people whizzed by them.

“Go down the stairs!” my brain told me.

I watched a man help another man hop down the stairs, limping and jumping down the steps as if he had a sprained ankle.

Their faces communicated fear, “We are not moving fast enough.” The exit stairwell was wide and people rushed down, toppling, getting up again and running.

Now one floor down, I had a choice. “Get out on this level? Get out here? No. Keep going. Get outside.”

I ran through the doors out onto the airport runway into a crowd of hundreds and hundreds of people. People around me darted across the tarmac. Hundreds of people huddled along the terminal walls as planes landed. I looked around for Security. “What are we doing? What is going on?”.

More people raced onto the tarmac from behind me. I watched people hide in luggage trolleys, under cars, by the wheels of planes. Most of us kept moving, some with rolling bags, many with nothing. Shoes were missing. People were running in torn tights. We made our way in fast procession to the farthest corner of the tarmac near what would have been Gate 1.

The crowd seemed to be asking the same thing, “Are we safe?”.

There were men in yellow, reflective vests who were unsure what to do — “Stay right, keep moving” — one said quietly.

Near the Arrivals door under Gate 1, Port Authority Officers screamed into their walkie talkies. They gestured for us to wait. I turned my face to my phone and opened Twitter. I had bad reception, but I tried to share an update.

Then the quiet. People crowded. One man near me opened a pack of cigarettes and lit one. People around him jumped at the sight of flame. I took a picture. We waited. Then the cops announced, “Ok, out these doors”.

A crowd waits on the tarmac outside Arrivals in Terminal 1

The crowd started to move forward slowly. It didn’t feel safe yet.

Security had expressly not said, “Everything is under control”. They didn’t know. And this was being communicated in what they said, and what they hadn’t. Letting children and their parent’s go first, I stood next to the man smoking a cigarette; he dropped it to the ground, darted forward, and ran to the top of the line.

Without warning, screaming erupted, and the crowd that was exiting into the airport, exploded. There was a quick shoving match between a frantic outgoing crowd and the ingoing procession and then instantly, everyone changed direction.

OUT!” People stampeded out the doors, terror on their faces. A woman fell, her knee gushed open. The crowd dispersed along the sides of the tarmac.

Security ran too.

I hid behind the back of a van in the corner. Others huddled around me. A few minutes passed. Crowds started to descend from planes 500 feet away. They were standing and sitting in orderly squares. Slowly, people started to stand up near me as two security guards emerged and told us — once again — to make a line to leave the asphalt tarmac to the ground floor of the Terminal into Arrivals and Customs.

A woman from Sweden with her son, asked the police — “How do you know it’s safe?”. She had just watched people stream out in terror.

Still behind a large Homeland Security van, I stood on the bumper to watch what was happening. People started to file into the terminal.

“Ok. I can go too.” I thought. I jumped off the bumper to the right of the van and began to make my way to the door when screaming erupted and for a second time, dozens came running out the door stampeding into the exiting crowd. I hit the floor again, and shuffled under the van.

People would ask me why I choose to go under the van. “Was it smart? What if a police officer suspected me?”All I can say, is in that moment, I had watched people run for their lives in five separate waves.

There was no feeling of calm, or evacuation.

This wasn’t a fire drill.

I remember looking down and watching a large ant walk past me. I stretched my feet and lay them flat on the ground, pressed my hands against the gravel like a pose in yoga, ready to push out from under the car. It still wasn’t safe — people ran around me. It got quiet again, and I sent texts to several people including a friend who was a Navy Seal inside the terminal, who would later be quoted in the the New York Times as saying:

“I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’ve never been in this situation where you’re in a massive crowd and there’s nothing you can do.” -NYT

and in his own blog he wrote:

I was confident that I was in charge of my own destiny at this point. -SOFREP

Many minutes later, a cop flashed a light under the car and asked me to come out. I obliged, and sat on the curb with others.

I went to Twitter to look for any answers on what was happening. No statement issued seemed to reflect what I was experiencing. Twitter trolls were out and active.

It surprised me that while I was still experiencing what was happening at JFK, people continued to tweet at me that “there was was no event”. Another twenty minutes went by before we walked through the doors of Arrivals. Baggage Claim and Customs where mobbed.

Who knows how many people went through Customs without showing their passports? Passengers would later recount watching a stream of people, at least 40 people, running through Customs to the curb of Arrivals. This is significant, but not reported.

Bags and shoes were scattered throughout Baggage Claim. People started to line up again, but there was no real order, or clear direction. One guard asked me what flight I was on and led me to the front of the line at Customs. The white-faced security guard asked my name. He typed on his computer, seemed to look at a manifest, and waved me through, not making eye contact.

Inside the terminal

It seemed like we were free to leave. The Navy Seal texted me that he was already home in the city. My bag was still in the terminal, and passengers whispered to each other that flights were still leaving. Eventually a guard asked us to stand in line to go through Security.

Terminal 1 TSA stared the crowd down. They spoke amongst themselves, and cracked a joke or two to release the tension. They tried to ignore passengers asking them what was happening. An airport security guard or gate agent told us to form a line. I waited in one line or another for four hours, waiting to retrieve my bag from the terminal. I would get home from the airport at 5 AM.

Exhausted. Adrenaline. Waiting in those lines, I watched Twitter and the media form a perception of what had happened.

There was no mention of Terminal 1 — as if everything you just read was a figment of my imagination. Passengers were exhausted. I think most people were too in shock to exchange experiences. The terminal was very, very quiet.

Many of the media reports that night and in the following days used the word hysteria. I would describe the feeling differently. It was a feeling that did not end until 11:48PM for me. More than 90 minutes after this all began. Internalize that.

For 1 hour and 30 minutes, I and others in this major American airport, in 2016, were in a true state of terror.

Did We Terrorize Ourselves?

If you saw the news, the headlines and message communicated “no big deal, move along”. That was not my experience. It was a big deal to me and hundreds of fellow passengers at JFK that night.

I shared my experience because I think it’s important to put it out there. It should make people uncomfortable.

And not because it was scary, but because it’s scary how much of a discrepancy it is to what was officially reported.

At the end of the day, I went home and got on my flight the next day — exhausted and a little shaken — but just 24 hours later, I was back to living my life.

Which, is another reason I believe:

We live in one of the greatest, safest places that’s ever been and it’s our responsibility to uphold that greatness and safety.

Could the passengers have had a better reaction? It’s hard to know. Perhaps, our media and entertainment diet has us on edge?

What I do know, is that thorough and clear reporting is necessary for us to communicate rationally with each other.

To uphold a great, educated society we need to be objectively informed. We do that by demanding better journalism — real stories. Reading long form. Opting out of pablum, and listicles, and puffery on blog sites.

The cursory reporting that came out on this event simply wasn’t good enough, and people didn’t ask enough questions before playing Monday morning quarterback on the social sphere.

We are our own editors these days and if we only read “How to Launch a Startup in 3 Easy Steps” we start to lack empathy for the world as it really is.

I believe our reactive behavior on social media — drowning ourselves in opinions, knee-jerk reactions, insults, and trolling. even by would-be-presidents — is eroding our safety more than any single bad actor could.

There is a raw, exposed nerve from the divisiveness of our online discourse. America is great, when it acts greatly. We can’t let feelings, unsubstantiated by true facts, grow into into a toxic force that pulls at the fabric of our society.

No clear reaponse was given on what actually happened. We have to set a higher bar for ourselves and our institutions. We must learn together.

We can’t let fear stop transparent communication from authorities to the public. Suppressing, downplaying, or avoiding isn’t the safe or smart move. The preliminary official statement from the Port Authority suggested the response at JFK was acceptable and “tactically sound”. It would have been more reassuring if the authorities withheld any opinion on the quality of the response and shared real facts.

We can be thoughtful and positive. I do not expect our institutions to be perfect, and the response at JFK was clearly not — but we need to learn. Let’s make a plan to fix the clear failures in the response at one of the world’s busiest airports.

The media should not let the story fade away.

How is it possible that with so many people in the airport, no account like this has been shared outside of the New York Magazine piece?

Reporting is a noble job — I hope it continues to attract great people to take on the challenge.

Lets be better humans, please.

Get off the junk food diet of cursory reporting, PR masked-as-news, and non fact-checked opinion threads. Dont be a social media troll. The people that control the news, control perception. In many ways, we are more in control than we’ve ever been. The papers of yesterday may not be able to afford deep reporting, so we need to do it ourselves and demand better with our attention, wallets, and time.

And to take it full circle. We all need to practice a hell of a lot more empathy for others and ourselves.

People throughout the world go through worse experiences than this, everyday. It’s a good lesson for all of us to realize how good we have it — and appreciate the security we do have — but to understand that there won’t always be a room behind a room ensuring our safety. This can happen to you. So let’s be grateful and not take the safety we do have for granted, but we need to stay alert.

The immediate reaction by media and the authorities also lacked empathy. It alluded to passengers creating false hysteria, in effect, disenfranchising their experience before anyone had had a chance to report in detail.

I shared my experience (a week after the event) so you could feel what it was like to be there. I think more empathy and less reactiveness could take us a long way.

We have to be active in our society. We have to stay informed, and stand up for what is right. Next time it could be life and death — as it easily could have been this time.

If we don’t learn from this experience, we have in fact terrorized ourselves.

You can find me on twitter @MsSapone

Next Story — Stats squared
Currently Reading - Stats squared

Stats squared

Now I’m back from New Zealand (boo! hiss!), we have a new website (yay! phew!) and Andrew is inbound to take over the day-to-day evolution of the site (hallelujah!) I’ve been taking a bit of time to revisit some other ideas that have been rattling around in my head the last couple of years sparked by the opportunities and challenges the new site was likely to offer.

So potentially this is the first of three or four posts about what I might try to tackle next.

One thing I have long been interested in is finding a way of making web analytics data both more available and more understandable to the people actually providing the statistics, analysis and commentary we publish. Whilst analytics tools like Google’s Universal Analytics have become increasingly powerful they have also become increasingly complex. They have also developed a vocabulary that is focused on e-commerce and advertising — the language of conversions, clicks and eyeballs.

At the moment ‘raw’ access to the analytics can often be as harmful as helpful as it is easy to misinterpret the data and focus on the wrong metrics.

It has become clear that this is far from a local problem. A couple of blogposts this week drew my attention to the Ophan analytics platform at the Guardian while a separate article introduced me to Lantern, a project with similar goals at the FT. I also found articles about not dissimilar undertakings at NPR and the New York Times.

They are all trying to solve the same user needs — to develop an analytics service that speaks the language of their core users (journalists) and just provides the metrics that matter to them.

As Renée Kaplan at the FT says they are trying to;

“..translate (analytics) into journalese, into newsroom vernacular, all of the metrics of engagement, all of the metrics that show not only how a story is doing in terms of the more traditional pageview performance, but also how our audience is integrating, reacting, and interacting with it..”

While the Guardian and FT built new platforms the approach at both NPR and the NY Times has been more about translating the metrics Google (and others) already provide in to using more palatable and actionable for their audience;

“NPR doesn’t introduce any new form of measuring analytics with its dashboard; rather, it takes existing information and presents it in a way that’s more easily digestible.”

It seems to me there are a few steps to making this sort of thing work.

Identify (via user research) what metrics are actually helpful to the teams providing the content. Some things that spring to my mind could be;

  • How many people viewed this page?
  • How much did they read?
  • Who read it?
  • Did they download anything?
  • How did they get to the page?
  • Search? Social media? Browse?
  • If it was search what were the search terms?
  • Where did they go after the page?
  • Has it been shared on social media? How often?

Then you need to find out the best way (if at all possible) to actually capture the data for these needs. Now that might be using the API of an existing product (Google Analytics, Chartbeat, Parsely etc) or building on top of something like Splunk to spin your own tool out or even start from scratch Guardian style. Whatever works best.

Finally find a way to present it that is genuinely user friendly, uses the language of its audience and is available via the right channels. One thing I liked about the NPR solution is that it automatically pushed emails with the top level metrics to the owners of the content.

I also always loved the idea of the /info/ pages on GOV.UK and I think there is potentially something interesting possible about offering metrics that follow the same structure as the site.

Browse to https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy (maybe just adding /info GDS style) and get high level metrics for the Economy section.

Go to https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/grossdomesticproductgdp and get everything related to GDP but go to Second Estimate of GDP: Quarter 4 (Oct to Dec) 2015 and you get detailed page level metrics.

Clearly we are not a publisher on the scale of any of these organisations (not even GOV.UK) but I think the parallels are valid and while we aren’t fighting for subscribers or advertisers we do have pressures as well as limited resources so the ability to make more ‘data-informed’ decisions seems worth the investigation and potentially the investment.

To do this right you would probably need to find a way of folding in social media analytics from Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (that is pretty much where we focus our efforts) as well as email newsletters and the like.

Sounds like a lot of fun to me.

Next Story — Digital transformation, technology and local public services: Camden and beyond
Currently Reading - Digital transformation, technology and local public services: Camden and beyond

Digital transformation, technology and local public services: Camden and beyond

The London borough of Camden is home to approximately 230,000 residents with a daytime population double that. Nearly 2% of the nation’s wealth is created by 29,000 registered businesses located from Covent Garden, the major Knowledge Quarter institutions of Bloomsbury and Euston and the emerging tech hubs of King’s Cross, Camden Town and Kentish Town.

Since 2010 Camden council has been on a journey, outlined in this Prezi, to understand the emerging benefits, opportunities and challenges of the digital revolution to public services.

From my perspective as Cabinet member for Finance, Technology and Growth there the journey really started in 2012 after the development of the new Camden Plan when we fundamentally reviewed revenue spending. You can therefore argue our plans were largely finance-driven rather than customer-service or modernisation-driven — although there are strong elements of each in our approach. The emphasis may differ from council to council but there will be some commonality.

The point in me writing this piece is to begin to paint a broader picture of digital transformation and local public services away from channel shift. In my experience there is a much deeper story to tell around the use of data and digital leadership in making a difference.

Note to reader: I am not a techie by background myself, but worked with Martha Lane Fox at Race Online when digital thinking transitioned from the Labour to Coalition government in 2010 and subsequently saw innovation through the eyes of the video games industry, where I have worked for the last 5 years in addition to being local councillor (which I have been since 2002).

Technology and public service reform

Over the last decade there has been a fundamental shift in the application of technology arising improvements in data analytics. During this time I became increasingly convinced of its relevance to the reform and delivery of local government services.

In central government there has been some groundbreaking thinking going on in Whitehall through the Government Digital Service which has clear applicability to local government. I feel today that GDS Design Principles (“start with user needs” etc.) are not just a good a starting point for public servants seeking to redesign systems, but an invaluable aide-memoire for councillors providing challenge and leadership to their officers.

Later thinking by then GDS Director General Mike Bracken developed the concept as government-as-a-platform in UK context: the ‘delivery crisis’ outlined to the civil service in Digital Government: the strategy is delivery also played itself out in town halls right across the country. Of course, major innovation has been seen in city government in New York through Mayor Bloomberg and his patronage of Mike Flowers’ Office of Data Analytics, a.k.a. the Big Apple’s Geek Squad.

As with GDS the relative success of Camden’s approach relies on active sponsorship by senior politicians and public servants, reformed governance on IT procurement as well as good links to the private sector. We similarly saw change as a necessary response to wider changes to customer expectation, services and the economy — to move from the old ‘vending machine’ model of public services of rigid inputs and outputs to one which see the benefits of application platform thinking and the iteration of services as technology evolves.

Tim O’Reilly describes ‘Government 2.0’ as a variant of ‘Web 2.0’:

In a nutshell: the secret to the success of bellwethers like Google, Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter is that each of these sites, in its own way, has learned to harness the power of its users to add value to — no, more than that, to co-create — its offerings.
Now, a new generation has come of age with the Web, and it is committed to using its lessons of creativity and collaboration to address challenges facing our country and the world.

Camden’s challenge

Digital transformation takes time during the biggest service cuts since the second world war. The scale of the cuts (£163m+ off Camden budgets over 7 years, which I have written extensively about here plus massive reduction in capital budgets) and demographic pressures on children and adult social care are so great that local councils have been unable to balance budgets without stopping services outright, radically reshaping them or limiting their scope.

But when we turn to talking about using technology in councils the conversation often descends into a far more limited discussion about ‘front-line vs back office’ cuts. This posits that if you restructure or outsource costly and sometimes unproductive administrative services which operate behind the scenes, you can save enough money to keep the everyday street services people see and use open. Services such as these have therefore been prime targets for large IT solutions companies over the last decade.

As you will see from the account below, this narrative is less helpful in describing the context and decisions of operating public services in today’s climate and does not capture the dynamic relationship modern services have with data.

So I see a technology-based to public service reform as particularly invaluable to meeting budget pressures in three main ways:

(1) use of technology directly (agile working, innovation in design, culture and delivery)

(2) use of technology to plan local budgets better and measure performance (data via new platforms)

(3) imagining what the future of public services look like and enabling more innovation.

In our current plans some 85% of all savings needed to balance the books in Camden have a technology-based solution in one form or another. What follows are my observations on how we’ve gone about this, some of which will be explored in more detail in later posts.

Technology enables modernisation

An obvious point but one which probably needs to be dealt with first. While councils invest in new customer centres to serve the public in new ways, many council offices the public don’t see behind the scenes still look like they did 15 years ago. Teams are allocated to permanent desks in old-style departments, filing cabinets abound. There are many printers and photocopiers attached to fixed computer terminals.

Moving to new offices, investing in IT services and capacity has meant Camden effectively became paperless in 2014: going from 22km of paper held by the council to about 2km.

Staff now work in an agile way, not in static departments but in teams set up on projects and to solve problems. They use laptops and don’t have their own desks, in fact there purposefully aren’t enough desks/employees (6.5 desks for every 10 workers) as we allow and expect staff to work remotely either from home or elsewhere in the borough, e.g. in community centres. More technology and a better use of office space means we can free up buildings to sell and use the capital for the council’s agreed objectives (investment in schools and homes) or by using old office space and renting it out as modern commercial to support spending. Investing capital in our new HQ in King’s Cross saves in excess of £2.5m in running costs a year.

Staff are able to operate from their own devices (BYOD) as well as council equipment, which allows for greater flexibility and familiarity. The quality of our offices means we are regularly approached by other public sector organisations seeking to rent space from the council, generating further income.

Reforming the way we work

Technology has enabled us to move to performance-related pay (PRP) right across the organisation, so staff are also rewarded for their success at meeting objectives agreed not just through annual increments. We are able to monitor performance, pay and diversity far better as a result.

Savings from PRP enabled the council to become a London Living Wage employer by 2017 and we’ve just completed a major restructure to 3 departments (Performance, People and Places) moving us further away from the ‘strong department’ model popular 1990s onwards.

More use of digital in day-to-day services

Many town halls have changed how people can ask for information and report issues by improving their websites. It is near universal now for websites to operate on a mobile-first way, enabling far greater reach. Councils like Camden have set up personal accounts for residents and businesses to pay their taxes. In the future these platforms can be used for all sorts of communications, e.g. missed bin collections or notifications of service suspensions, well as important transactions.

Face-to-face cashier’s desks have either been put online or we partnered with the Post Office and linked up our respective IT systems so our residents and businesses could continue to pay for council services in local post offices. Not only did this improve the local offer, and help smaller post offices with around 30,000 transactions a month, it has saved the council £1.13m per annum.

Notification for planning applications is now conducted through a new portal, now in Beta, rather than unaddressed letters sent to adjacent properties. This allows greater personalisation (you can set notifications for your neighbourhood, not just your street) and saves £300k year in second class postage stamps alone.

Our street cleaning, waste and recycling contract — a classic council long-term procurement — has not been comprehensively re-tendered since 2002. Since then, technology has improved and new innovations developed, such as in-cab technology which allows drivers to see if a recycling bin has been contaminated and cameras to help resolve missed collection complaints.

Our new waste contract signed this year will involve a much more active use of technology to improve the effectiveness of the service and resident awareness of what their new responsibilities are. This time we have taken a completely new approach focussed on the outcomes we want, e.g. increased recycling rates, prevention of fly-tipping and less contamination of recycling bins, rather than a prescriptive list of tasks involved in cleaning a particular street, say, every Tuesday to a rigid specification.

By changing the way the contract is negotiated, taking advantage of new technology and working to reduce littering and increase recycling, we hope to save more than £5 million a year while making sure we keep the borough clean and tidy.

Joining up all of our data

The Camden Resident Index from IBM brings together data from 16 front and back office services about Camden residents and shares it across the council — everything from benefit payments to whether they have a library card. Although residents give the council a lot of information, they’d be surprised how little sharing of information there has been, mostly due to compatibility of IT systems, culture and privacy concerns. Also, a lot of public data just isn’t clean enough — people don’t necessarily sign themselves up to things using exactly the same name (nicknames etc.); they move or split with their partners and don’t update their details.

So we now have ‘one version of the truth’ about residents enabling us to know more about them. The CRI has helped us reduce fraud and the system is now used to safeguard children to identify more about vulnerable households.

In adult social care we have mapped a 10-year journey of a very complex social care case with an anonymised citizen which shows the interactions they have had with the council and external agencies providing new insights around the system as a whole and flagging where interventions could have been made earlier to improve preventative care and stop their acute needs arising a such late stages. The key here is exploiting the data that is held across multiple different systems to gain new and predictive insight. We are now exploring the capabilities of technologies like IBM Watson to help use predictive analytics to give us new insight into complex cases, such as what prevention measures are most effective based on analysis of the data we hold on our resident.

Our systems are now so resilient that they can share the NHS number between the council and the health services, allow much more effective working — very few councils are able to do this.

Improving performance and accountability

To do this effectively you require a significant amount of data to determine what your outcomes are (via a borough plan) and how you aim to achieve them, and in what order of priority. Camden (like many private sector organisations) began to use Qlikview Business Dashboard to capture the data in a consistent form in order for it to be interrogated by managers and local councillors.

Currently 75 different services are viewable by managers, so they can see how these and other services are working and cut the data in a variety of ways. This effectively replaces a heavy paper-based system required for government monitoring. Soon these performance tables will be publicly accessible as well. We have an Open Data Charter and a Socrata open data platform similar to the one used in New York where more and more searchable information is available online by default — information on parking, for example, has led to a reduction in costs on FoIs and the development of private sector innovation through apps to direct people to parking spaces.

Setting better budgets and priorities

Technology is changing how councils budget from annual or medium term departmental budgets (the MO from 1990s+) to outcomes-based budgeting. Our outcomes-based review in 2014/5 looked at the entire scope of what we spent money on, how it was spent and what the purpose was. It considered what we were required to do by law (statutory services) and what we did to respond to resident wants and needs (discretionary services). It examined the interplay between the two and sought to eliminate duplication and to invest money into agreed outcomes instead of just spending it as we had done, a process which previously provided certainty but was prone to inertia/group think over time.

A good example of where we used technology to make better decisions was looking to change community safety budgets in 2015. Here we aimed to “reduce levels of crime, particularly violent crime.” Historically we did this through investing in street wardens to assist the police and provide visible reassurance on the street. Starting over a decade ago Camden street wardens helped issue hundreds of ASBOs against drug dealers and signpost vulnerable tenants and residents to services. However, ten years later we asked ourselves whether they were the most effective means over time of achieving our objectives? When the data showed that unreported violent crime was more likely to be committed at home, we decided to invest in domestic violence and take a saving from street wardens.

Now, it’s not necessarily straightforward to do this. Wardens were popular, especially in the estates where they had made the biggest difference. But the availability of data to back up our decision between resident wants (visible reassurance) and needs (prevention of serious violence to the person) was something which could be justified. Using the example social service journey above, we found that our housing repairs team often replaced internal doors in the tenants’ properties several times, logged as just another a building repair the significance of which we had missed. However the use of data coupled with the judgement of staff flagged this as a potential indicator for domestic violence and therefore possible outreach and intervention.

Promoting a better business environment

Finally, recognition that public services are responding to the digital revolution has enabled a greater understanding of the changing needs of the business community. Camden led the procurement of public Wi-Fi concessions across 16 other London boroughs, so residents and visitors to our high streets have at least 30 mins free Wi-Fi per day. There are now over 100 Wi-Fi hotspots across the borough in areas as a result of the project and the contract is forecast to generate over £3m of investment over the next decade.

We are leasing rooftop space on tall council housing and office blocks to mobile and broadband companies to improve competition locally to residents and businesses. This will bring in at least £600k revenue a year as well as digital inclusion benefits by giving free Wi-Fi to 57 tenant’s halls in the borough.

New policy was developed to allow digital advertising in the borough for the first time to allow our buildings and others to monetise space. We champion digital skills in schools and have sponsored links between tech firms, universities and the authority to roll out code clubs locally.

Next steps

Our Digital Strategy is now 2 years old. To refresh our approach Camden officers mapped the interdependencies to draw together a suggested scope for a new approach embedded in the next corporate plan for the borough.

Some clear themes have emerged as we discuss digital transformation in the context of the new Camden Plan 2017+

  1. Digital Foundations — What are the basics that we need to get right internally to facilitate transformation?
  2. Digital Aspirations — How can a set of digital principles further our goals and ambitions for Camden?

Legacy systems create a large technical burden when launching and integrating new tools. There is an opportunity now to rationalise these systems and applications and identify new opportunities through ongoing systems-thinking reviews of each service. Where services are protective of their existing approach, engagement is needed to help them understand how transitioning to new systems (such as QlikView) cut the data so that it is more beneficial to the organisation as a whole.

It will also be critical that we have the right skills and behaviours within the authority. We need to make sure that we can spot and act on opportunities, be clearer about the user needs and problems we are trying to solve, and universally understand the value of, say, good quality data and effective engagement. These are not technical issues at all, but basics of good management — how can managers run a good service without good data telling them what is going on and feedback from the people they are trying to serve? We have staff at all levels whose basic skills are lacking and we will need to ensure that leaders are seen as digital advocates.

Working with other councils

More immediately Camden proposes to share IT services with neighbouring Islington and Haringey, a resident population of over 700k. Over 450 staff are in scope and the programme will establish a Digital Advisory Board with the best from the public and private sector to advise us. Each council is expected to cash several million in savings, but the real benefits could be service improvements and expertise. Ideally the shared service would be converted into council-owned company with its own ethos and reward structure to ensure we continued to recruit the best in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

London-wide and England-wide principles

The new Chief Digital Officer for London pledged by Mayor Sadi Khan presents a major opportunity for boroughs to learn from one another and become greater than the sum of our parts. Camden hosts the Local Digital Coalition to improve sharing of innovation between authorities and the development of common standards.

In the future a new open data and standards culture of public services should enable better budgeting and intervention as described above, as well as propel innovation.

We also believe there is an important coordinating role between central and local government, whether through GDS or other leadership set out in the proposed UK Digital Strategy, with several clear actions all local councils should sign up to.

The question of what real local government leaders should be doing is a big one which will be explored in other posts in more detail. Certainly releasing more information and government-provided data APIs is fundamental. But it is also the adoption of cloud computing, wikis, crowdsourcing, mobile applications, mashups, sponsoring developer contests and so on.

Getting public professionals to define the scope and scale of problems they require solving is a new challenge which will also demand leadership. To do this is we will have to continue to invest to ensure we are skilled enough at identifying digital opportunities, which must be informed by the work flow and the intended user.

Even further into the future

There is no reason why with the right leadership local government should be at the cusp of adopting the latest tech. PWC highlight 8 technologies businesses will use in the future. It is unclear the immediate application of Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality will be but we can see how Internet of Things (IoT) is developing in public services as well as Artificial Intelligence/machine learning for where there is a high volume of data.

Camden is piloting IoT technologies, starting with parking sensors, street lighting and waste management to provide data to improve services and help us target resources more effectively. Building on these pilots we are looking at how technology in our buildings and fabric can then be joined up to help inform more complex social care issues.

Intelligent (or robotic) process automation for high scale transactional services (HR/finance, customer services) and further context brokering will be another area to explore. We will see further utilisation of technology that pulls together data from an ever-wider set of sources and provides contextual outputs for us. Sources such as mobile phones (use of location data); communication networks (greater capacity and utilization); sensors (temperature, pressure, device on or off); personal analytic devices (monitoring the condition of a person); our own application systems (council tax systems, records of recent transactions); finally, publicly available datasets such as open data and commerce sites (retail statistics).

This will give us a repeatable and systematic approach using public and private data sources for the discovery, preparation, analysis and delivery of insights in the form of derived context data. Again, the benefit to residents and taxpayers is greater well-being and the prevention of acute (and costly) demand arising.

Finally, we will see much more advanced use of personal analytics –this is the use of data by our residents/citizens to help achieve objectives across a range of domains, including personal healthcare (fitness); safety; financial management; employment; social connection (spending time with others) and self-esteem (personal development). The authority’s role here will be to enable the use of this data, through our tech for our residents to use.

Realising the benefits of agglomeration here may mean some challenging public policy questions around privacy and data sharing — and even changes to legislation. The agreement between Google Deep Mind and the Royal Free hospital being the first of these new ventures to be discussed publicly.


There is much more to explore here but my main point is that local government transformation cannot be a narrowly focused strategy about moving government services online. It’s about enabling the transformation of government, business and society for the better. This is how we have approached digital in the borough and our ambitions are set out in our Digital Strategy and our ongoing work.

In the future local government must be recognised as integral to the delivery of cross government transformation, economic growth and making everyday lives easier. Local and regional government must invest in digital leadership at an officer and councillor level so at the very least local government be empowered to:

  • See digital transformation, open data and common standards as a necessary part of devolution deals and long-term government efficiency deals;
  • Develop local digital plans to integrate local and regional digital developments across the locality to accelerate progress, synergise investment and spur future innovation;
  • Lead the development of an interoperability framework that enables data sharing and end to end process automation across local and central government;
  • Play a full and participatory role in the development and rollout of Government-as-a-Platform.


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