Helpful arrows?

October 5, 2010 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

I map for clarity. My mind works through arrows: possibly through my musical education, with its hairpin crescendo and diminuendos, my notes have always been notated both mathematically and musically. Employment ↓, as inflation ↑. Neoliberalism → to an < in soup kitchens. Economic growth ≠ socio-economic development. I do not think in a linear fashion, so these small arrows then become cross-referenced by the type of ↘ and { that would cause word to have a hissyfit and then die.

At the RSA I am social network analysis ‘champion’, trying to mainstream my love of sociograms and graphs across the whole organisation. These visual maps of people’s social ties and information flows allow us to ‘unpeel’ the community, laying hidden links and structural weaknesses bare.

Yesterday I was thrown an interesting challenge. If I map out all the civic actors in a given place, do I make it easier and more efficient for them to act, or do I merely make it easier for the most powerful to co-opt what they are doing, all in the name of the Big Society? In an era of open information, but unequal access, who does the democratisation of information actually benefit? In a recent blog Thomas Neumark directed us to a report that showed that computerising all land records in Bangalore had lead to increased monopoly and far more targeted corruption.

If information is power, how do we stop this open-source informational power disproportionately benefiting those who already pull the strings?

This all → the question. How can our mapping for clarity be targeted at those who need such clarity most? Finding that postmen and dustbin men (people?) are hidden reserves of connectivity is fascinating and sheds new light on how we view those links that make community. Yet using this information to re-brand badly paid public servants as big society information outlets would be exploitative and probably achieve the opposite of its intended outcomes. Highlighting community organisers can make volunteering more effective and far-reaching; yet we do not want those who live to organise and do, to become next years’ unpaid social service providers. If information is power, how do we stop this open-source informational power disproportionately benefiting those who already pull the strings?

I really do like the internet, but…

September 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

I just finished reading this fascinating case study.

(Hat tip to Michael Gurstein for this)

Much has been claimed for the open data movement, and it is certainly a core part of the “Post-Bureaucratic Age” which David Cameron has talked about.

What this case study makes clear is that groups who are better at manipulating data, can use open data to increase their power within society.

This goes to show that closing the digital divide is about much more than access to computers and broadband and should be aligned with broader efforts to address the reasons for entrenched inequalities.

The question remains, can open data be part of these broader efforts?

It’s NOT about ‘jobs’, stupid.

February 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

The RSA event advertised in our last post, Can Online Markets Tackle Poverty? was a rallying cry for Whitehall to get over their fixation with creating ‘jobs’ and start focussing on using technology to develop existing economic activity.

As Jerry Fishenden(Centre for Technology Policy Research) put it: “The state’s idea of what a ‘job’ is is constraining productivity” and Wingham Rowan(Silvers of Time Working) added that “local authorities are beaten up by Whitehall on job creation” (thereby constraining attempts to create more flexible labour markets).

The problem is not jobs as such, but untraded resources, especially time. The focus should be on how we better harness and develop existing economic activity and help people earn money, rather than how to create ‘jobs’.

So how can we help people earn money? Who are ‘they’, and what is stopping them? It seems they tend to work at the lower end of the economic spectrum, functioning in what Wingham Rowan called unfocussed markets, where the conditions for the demand and supply of labour are fuzzy and changeable, and buyers and sellers can’t find each other(the exact opposite of the more efficient targetted markets- the kind that traders operate in).

Think baby sitters, people wanting to borrow a bike, others wanting to borrow a tenner to pay back the next day etc. There is lots of such ad hoc economic activity.., things hired, time offered, money lent, and many can do work of this nature who can’t fit in to a job structure.

The solution lies in new technology that we know to work well calledNEMs: National E Markets. Think Ebay writ large and better regulated.  Slivers of Time working is an exmplar in this field, but merely one example of a much wider and still under-utilised phenomenon.

I liked the example given by Wingham Rowan:

If you suddenly need a baby sitter, you might be horrified of looking for one online, but you don’t need to merely post an add on a random website. Instead you have access to a focussed market where you can see existing baber sitters, be certain that they have the relevant  CRB and ISA checks completed, have a certain amount of experience and references etc. You can aslo narrow your search to find baby sitters who have worked in your area, or with people you know. The technology can do all this hard work for you, and tell you exactly how much it will cost. You get meaningful data immediately- the kind you need to take a quick decision, just like traders do all the time… so, strange though it may seem, NEMs become a very safe way to get a baby sitter. And of course, from the baby sitter’s perspective, they are not locked in, not forever doomed and blessed to have the ‘job’ of being a babysitter, but being one as and when it suits.

How can such a system we brought into being? The most likely scenario would be that, as with the National Lottery, the private sector would fund these markets if Government could put the conditions in place.

The technology is not the problem, the problem is political will and bureaucratic inertia. The British welfare system has a binary view of being in work or out of it. If you can only earn £25 a week before your benefits are cut, you are implicitly encouraging people to work in the informal economy, or to put it more sharply, the black market. (And in this respect, Mathew Taylor commented that while working in goverment he noticed the strange reluctance of politicians and civil servants to even talk about the informal economy; “nobody wanted to go there”.)

The Government needs to work much more with the natural behaviour of people. Selling time and possessions, rather than products as such, is very difficult to regulate, tax etc, but it can and should be done.

Five Reasons why you should care about social networks.

November 4, 2009 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Sometimes you need to back up a little. I have spent most of the last few days trying to get my head round the intracacies of social network analysis, and I fear I am losing sight of the bigger picture.

Why bother with community? Who needs connections?

The first answer that jumps out at me is trust. Trust is closely related to connectivity and we want a trusting society, not just to reduce transaction costs, but because we feel better when we feel trusted and trusting. Anthony Seldon developed this point at length at a recent RSA event. So the connected community project is partly about trust, in particular about how to build it, and to better understand how it can be lost.

The second answer is loneliness. The first RSA speaker event I attended was John Cacioppo’s lecture on lonliness, which detailed decades of interdisciplinary research into the pervasive feeling of subjective isolation, and details the deleterious effects of lonliness on health, wellbeing and, yes, trust. We care about social networks because we are looking for such patterns of isolation and exclusion.

The third answer is scarcity. What do you do when the money runs out? There may or may not be green shoots signalling the beginning of the end of the recession, but we know that the public sector typically lags two years behind the private sector, and there will soon be acute pressure on budgets for local public services. If that were bad enough for the short term, rising energy prices and an ageing demographic create enduring pressure on existing services. So what can you do when the local authority faces a funding shortfall of (on some estimates) around 30%? Well, you can look for money elsewhere, rely on enterprise, or you can seek to build social capital so that people make better use of their available community resources(time banks, car pooling, local currencies etc.)

The fourth answer is inequality. There is now good evidence that societies with lower levels of inequality tend to be happier, and we know that social capital is used to perpetuate patterns of inequality. The more we can understand the functioning of these networks, the more informed we will be in our efforts to create a mor egalitarian society.

The fifth and (for now) final answer is friendship. People are basically social creatures who we now understand to be
conditional altruists. In other words, we are inclined to want to help others, but only insofar as we expect that help to be reciprocated. I walk past several people every day without saying hello, or asking how they are or who they are. Some of these people are random passers-by, but many I know I will see again, waiting for the same train, selling the same magazine. Understanding networks will not shift this sort of intertia, but it’s a start. The more we realise the powerful impact of social networks on everything from health to wealth to happiness, the more value we will place on making these links and measuring these effects well.

I am glad I got that out of my system. Now I can go back to reading about alters, nodes, name generators, betweennesss, sample sizes etc without feelign completely disconnected from the real world!

Media Ecologies

October 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

One of my more eccentric school teachers had two things permanently written on her blackboard: “The word ‘interesting’ is banned!” and “The medium is the message!” I gradually came to appreciate that ‘interesting’ doesn’t mean very much, and when I found myself wanting to use that word, I thought more precisely about what I was trying to say. I was never too sure what to make of the second statement though, but I found that if I ended my essays with “The medium is the message!” I was awarded with a big red tick, and extra marks.

The expression comes from Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian Professor, Patriarch of media studies, and perhaps most famous for a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. McLuhan’s point is that the way information is delivered is not innocent, because it defines and shapes our experience more than the information itself. So whether ideas are delivered in, for example, a book or a film, matters more than what those ideas actually are. The next time you write an inane text, or check your email (again) remember McLuhan’s words: “we become what we behold“.

Yesterday I was introduced to the idea of ‘media ecologies’ by Emma Agusita who has been doing research at the Knowle West media centre in Bristol . We are highly accustomed to thinking about our living environments as things we see, hear and smell, but we rarely think of the technology around us as part of that environment, perhaps because it is more functional- not so much somewhere we live but something we use. The Arts and Ecology team at the RSA is reflexive about the use of the term ecology, and William Shaw recently posted about how the web will inevitably change our relationship with art. But as far as I know we haven’t dealt with the idea of media ecologies before- the idea of thinking of our media environment as a living enviroment which influences our view of ourselves and each other, rather than just a bunch of gizmos and gadgets.

The concept of media ecology could be quite important for the RSA’s attempt to understand the relationship between digital capital and social capital. If you compare an affluent suburban area with a relatively deprived inner city area, the media ecologies will look very different. What remains unclear is whether there is an etiological relationship between digital capital and social capital, or whether this amounts to a distinction without a difference.

Knowle West, Bristol, is a relatively deprived area on most socio-economic indicators, but it has a relatively young demographic, a large media centre, and on most measures its digital capital is relatively high. What remains unclear is whether there is a way to harness the digital capital in such a way that social capital is increased. Whether you can do so depends a lot on definitions and measurements, but our hunch is that, at the very least, increasing digital inclusion is a promising strategy for lowering social exclusion. In other words, working on the media ecology of an area can improve the social fabric of a community. Does that sound plausible?

Table or wiki?

February 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 
What matters is what you do with it... (Kyle Walton/flikr)

It all depends what you do with it... (Kyle Walton/flikr)

As a little addendum to the previous post, here’s a nice little critique of the wiki as wunder participation fix from Bruce Hoppe at Connectedness.

And it’s a nice summary of the thing I was trying to say, but only waffled about: When do online networks turn into “true” communities? Things with trust, resilience, problem-solving capacity and other-regarding behaviour?

The amateur social psychologist in me is thinking: it matters how a network makes you feel about yourself and other people. And that’s got to be part of the answer.

Hoppe reckons something similar, though he’s less worried by participation inequality being a consequence of that than me, I think. He takes Clay Shirky up on his “internet is the best thing since the table for collaboration” thesis on that basis, partly because tables predate writing and it’s factually dubious. But also, what *can’t* you do with a table? Tables are just a piece of furniture; what matters is what you do with them, who’s at them, where you put them, who’s sitting next to you…

And I’m intrigued to know – which do you reckon comes first in a healthy community; the wiki or the table? The relationship or the idea?