Research note 7
I was back in Oxford this week after the holidays. I wasn’t sure how much reading I should or shouldn’t have done, especially as my holidays were a long way from books. I got through John Postill’s new book on Nerd Politics, which I had both a good and bad reaction to (some of it /feels/ very right, some not, but then I’m comparing apples to oranges).
I was back in and immediately listening to fantastic presentations from Yas and Charlotte in my cohort. They’re both looking at completely different things to me (Yas is aiming to study conceptions of feminism and women’s movements in Pakistan, Charlotte is all about the semiotics and production chains of women’s reproductive health in Guyana) but we all had a “Community” moment, talking about how we’d missed talking over the holidays, that the critiques, insights and suggestions from each other are incredibly valuable.
The last thing this week was the first real test of my idea in the real world. This weekend was UKGC19.
The central event of the UK’s government digerati. Your chance to play buzzword bingo on the session grid. An opportunity to see old friends, colleagues and now, for me, “informants”.
I was testing out the question ‘is this civic tech?’
I want to try and work out what is and isn’t civic tech. The definition seems pretty movable. In this article, I note that civic tech seems to cover DemSoc (a think tank/culture and participation group [nothing against them, but they don’t really do tech, but they do do a lot of ‘civic]), FullFact & MySociety(definitively Civic Tech), Change.org (maybe civic tech, depends who you ask) and Luminate (a funding body). So, it needs narrowing down. So I asked people. Mostly in the pub at the end of the day and I mostly asked people who I already knew and who I knew had at some stage worked in civic tech (my definition, narrow definition). One of the people just kept asking “but why”? And I felt a bit unstuck by that. I guess I need to demonstrate that the definition is contested, that it is stuck in words like “purpose”, “profit” and what you consider to be “civic”. Was Sukey (the app for avoiding being kettled in the 2010/11 student protest season) civic tech? More questions to follow.
The rest of the conference had the usual ups and downs. I find the better sessions are ones with a multi-part conversation rather than a lot of people trying to get their one point across in isolation. I was well served by Dan Barrett’s session on his pre-christmas blogpost and the balance between corporate comms, internet shouting and taking a lead for your team.
There were a couple of things that came out for me. Mainly the realisation that, personally, the thing that I felt with seeing the Parliament data team being torpedoed was that it was a blow to the community around government technology. I’d relied on work that Michael Smethurst did on ontology when I was at Barnardo’s. I’d marvelled at how far they’d got on an incredibly difficult problem. It’s difficult when you see something that is an obvious good get dismantled by an organisation because their organisation needs are different to yours. But, it can feel like the same effect as if a key software dependency is shut down and you have to either take on that work yourself or understand that it now can’t happen. But at least when software shuts down in the open source world there is usually a blogpost apologising and reminding people to fork the code. With gov/public sector projects, shutting projects smells of weakness or on the other side, the idea that you would have to justify yourself doesn’t fit with your organisation’s (pompous) mental model.
This whole conversation reminded me that govcamp has way fewer comms people coming to it these days and that is a shame.