Reflecting on UKGovCamp 19

A festival/conference for government/digital geeks

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

If it’s January it must be UKGovCamp. A chance to meet up with old friends, talk about how things are going in the public sector and widen one’s horizons a little.

I went to How can non-profits and work better at co-ordinating around disasters?, What to do with all the spreadsheets, How to make people feel truly included, What tech cannot solve/fix, and AI + public law — making robots that don’t get you sued.

You can see the full range of workshops and read the notes using this service from Convivio (which works beautifully on mobile).

Things UKGovCamp got me thinking about

Riding the tiger

We typically (maybe in society generally but certainly in that community) frame technology as something we own or control. You could certainly sustain an argument for that of course. I’d argue you could sustain an argument that technology is emergent, it arises within societies and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we are in control of it.

Technology also changes things, radically, and frequently not in the short term interests of many citizens. You can draw a line from the printing press to 2 centuries of violent conflict across Europe. You can draw a line from the horseshoe to the highland clearances.

Maybe technology is like the weather. It profoundly affects us and we may even be able to influence it at the margins. But basically we have to adapt to it. We’re pretty terrible at this of course. We are tied to the tiger. We just have to ride it.

Why we design environments to kill cyclists

The session on AI was very stimulating with a bunch of very smart people debating very intelligently. At one point we touched on the question of algorithmic decision making. A team at MIT has been exploring the trolley problem in different parts of the world. The trolley problem is the moral dilemma where you have to choose between killing one of two different groups of people or living things. In 2016 it was reported that Mercedes Benz AI systems would prioritise saving the driver.

“Gosh” we all say. Imagine designing systems that have to trade one sort of human life against another.

This got me thinking about our urban environments. In the part of Hereford where I live the cycle-infrastructure is so poorly designed (for cyclists) that I have largely given up cycling into town. This infrastructure was designed by civil engineers using modelling and their professional experience. It prioritises cars at the expense of cyclists and has the consequence of making cyclists feel unsafe and, potentially, being unsafe.

Nobody set out to design an environment to kill cyclists. But that’s what we end up with.

AI is important. Public servants (and citizens) need to get up to speed with what’s going on there. I have some thoughts about how we can help with that which I’ll share soon.

But the thing I think I want to reflect on is the fact that because the application of AI risks embedding our current biases, it should prompt us to examine those biases in any case.

Specific new things I came across

RefAid from Trellyz is essentially a specialist directory of services with some neat looking features. Directories of services are a fascinating problem. There is general agreement they are a good idea, creating the directory is easy, ensuring it is comprehensive and up to date is hard. Adur and Worthing Council and 2 partners have been funded under the MHCLG Local Digital Fund to work on this very topic. Maybe this time they’ll crack it.

Oxford City Council is using SmartSheet and Neil from there is very happy with it.

Datasette looks like something I might enjoy.

Flickr is going to start deleting my oldest photos soon.

Though not directly relevant to me, it was great to see a creche there. We’ve talked about having a creche for GovCampCymru but not actually done it. I’d really like to know how it worked from the organiser’s, parent’s and children’s point of view.

Big thanks

My first GovCamp was 2009. My first UKGovCamp was 2010. I have gained so much from this community, friendship, learning, inspiration and more.

I know how much effort goes in to making an event like UKGC19 a success. Well done organisers and CampMakers. Thank you so much.

I’m delighted that The Satori Lab was able to give a little back by sponsoring. Looking forward to 2020 already.

#Reflection is great

We have a collection of questions that many people find helpful in reflective practice

The Satori Lab Reflection Questions

These are available on a postcard. If you didn’t pick one up at UKGC, let us know and we’ll send you one.


I work at The Satori Lab. We also host ODI-Cardiff.

We provide a range of services to help people deliver excellent public services in the connected age.

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