Archive for September, 2007

Social software means not having to know who knows what

I recently listened to an excellent podcast on Technation from Rob Levy, the CTO of BEA systems. They have software development teams in Silicon Valley, China and India. He was talking about the challenges of communicating over distance and timezones. He discusses how in conventional modes of communication you have to know who to ask, or risk spamming everyone in the company with broadcast email. Even if you do know who to ask, timezone differences can mean a 2 day delay between each post a conversation, and they might not even have the best answer to your question. With social software like wikis he says, you don’t have to know who knows what. If the knowledge community is actively using the tool, anyone who’s interested and has a useful contribution will respond.

He also talks about how if a new idea comes up, in the past the champion of the idea would have to ‘socialise’ it. This meant talking to lots of people, delivering presentations, and lobbying senior management for support to consider it in a wider forum. In the world of social software if the idea comes up, and people listen and start discussing it, that means it may well be a good idea. If they don’t, it’ll die on its own due to lack of attention. Senior management will be far more likely to fund further exploration if lots of people are already enthusiastic about it and are talking to each other across operational silo boundaries. If the idea can thrive and survive in a space mediated by social software, the argument goes, it’s more likely to be a good one.

The podcast is definitely worth a listen. in the news

The NZ Herald has just published an article about GroupServer, a GPL open-source system for email based group collaboration. I’ve used the system for several years now (along with a number of others) and it’s been fascinating watching it mature.

The things I really like about it are the ability to send posts through the web interface, the centralised user management across multiple groups, and the way it strips email attachments and puts them in a file repository and provides a link to the file.

The way the system is implemented also encourages you, when you set up a group, to think carefully about group membership, what sort of behavior is acceptable/encouraged, and how much facilitation/moderation you’ll need to do. Most of the groups I run are private groups (invite only, the rest of the world can’t see them), because they’re for various committees I’m on etc. I’ve found that doing this thinking up front, and agreeing on expectations, has really paid off in terms of the way the group functions online.

It’s also interesting to see how heavily the Canterbury Public Issues forum is being used in the run up to local body elections. I was skeptical about whether this would work at first, but the politicians are all on there, going at the issues in full public view. From what I understand they’re listening to all the non-politicians in the group, and because of the email format, they’re making much more considered, open responses than you get in mainstream media.

More info on the system/service itself is at

Barcamp Wellington eGovt

Today I attended the first barcamp in Wellington. It was quite different to the Christchurch one in that it was focused on e-government, and there were four different streams.

Several of the same people who attended GOVIS attended this barcamp, but the atmosphere was completely different. It was relaxed, collaborative, and people seemed to be willing to share more openly and talk about contentious issues.

It was interesting watching the programme get developed. Topics were written on post-its and they were put by presenters into timeslots on a big schedule sheet. There were three half hour timeslots for each room for each time period (e.g. morning tea to lunch). The session post-its seemed to self organise into related topics in each room/time period, without any overt coordination of this.

There was open access to wifi so there was a fair amount of live blogging on the event. Bloggers are listed on the barcamp site. Here’s my mindmap of the event.

At the end we did 3 word summaries of the day. Here are some of them:

good clean fun; collaboration action next; introductions variety wordprocessors; yay egovt; change starts here; opportunity understanding; unconferences rock severly; creative constructive connections; make stuff happen; let’s move on; make the web fun; you’re all reallysmart; plotting scheming ranting; great ideas guys; do it again; be the difference; let’s fix it; sco is dead; developers, developers, developers; go the allblacks; resourceful thoughtful people; geeks are cool; web services arrghh; open is good; its about people; shift in power

Then I facilitated (I couldn’t help myself) breaking into small groups to discuss “what’s next”. Here’s my quick write up of the feedback.

Organise small barcamps (in real bars if necessary), tack them on to events that are already happening (e.g. web stock, GOVIS), topics likes digital identity, open govt data, creative commons and privacy commons.

barcamp reality tv, nat hats humans, cat/dog/robot barcamp, code goes to barcamp, what they said, run a hackathon with a deliverable at the end of the day, make a wish foundation for frustrated public services, have a geek roadshow

record what happened here, don’t let it be forgotten. public consultation, discussion papers and policy stage, can we get more of those tagged and put into RSS feeds so you can watch them. some sort of wiki tool to explain and track the process of government, e.g. theyworkforyou. who are the key people. accountability for stopping services.

get more govt people here. get to decision makers. find out what the problems are and have another session just to address them. training on validation, just meet in a bar. document the successes. pick your fights, win them and talk about how you won. mashup government.

wiki around barcamp, standards, connect to microformat wiki. There will be one on the govt guidelines apparently. buy in to microformats. moving towards the semantic web. getting government to get more service focused. 7 x 7 format, people just speak for 7 minutes. aligning opensource with NZ national policy. ownership of egovt needs to be widely held. understanding the users. more rapid content creation. better RFPs, a site where vendors rate govt RFPs.

Barcamp and Unconferencing

barcamp.jpgWe had New Zealand’s first BarCamp today. A BarCamp is a way of doing a ‘conference’ in a very unstructured way. From the BarCamp website:

BarCamp is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos, and interaction from participants.”

BarCamps are also planned in an ad-hoc way, generally using a wiki, an email group etc. This particular BarCamp was focused on the Chch tech community sharing knowledge about hardware hacking, mobile applications, open source, search, wireless mesh networks and many other things. About 50 people attended over the course of the day.

The BarCamp methodology is similar in some ways to Open Space Technologies. The rules of BarCamp are:

  1. You do talk about Bar Camp.
  2. You do blog about Bar Camp.
  3. If you want to present, you must write your topic and name in a presentation slot.
  4. Only three word intros.
  5. As many presentations at a time as facilities allow for.
  6. No pre-scheduled presentations, no tourists.
  7. Presentations will go on as long as they have to or until they run into another presentation slot.
  8. If this is your first time at BarCamp, you HAVE to present. (Ok, you don’t really HAVE to, but try to find someone to present with, or at least ask questions and be an interactive participant.)

They tend not to be as goal directed as Open Space sessions, and are more focused on sharing knowledge, building social networks, and bouncing ideas off each other. They do have a lot of the same attributes as OST though, in terms of developing the agenda at the beginning of the day, things taking as long as they need to, everyone is a contributor, voting with your feet.

There’s another one in Wellington next weekend on e-Government.

Brightstars and meisterminds

Last week I chaired the Brightstar 7th Annual Strategic Intranets and Enterprise Portals conference. It was a fantastic event, with a really good atmosphere, largely due I think to the community that’s sprung up around the KiwiIntranets online group over the last year, and due to Michael Earley’s engagement with that community in planning the conference.

One of the presenters at the conference, Helen Baxter of Mohawk Media, used a new Web 2.0 mind mapping tool called MindMeister for her talk. It’s similar to Freemind, and Mind Manager, but is web based and allows collaborative authoring. I was so impressed with it I used it for my conference summary.

The key themes of the conference were, for me:

  • Radical trust in users – turning Intranets into read/write collaborative spaces
  • Maturity and pragmatism in Intranet development methodologies
  • A strong culture of learning from each other in the Intranet professionals community
  • Web 2.0 concepts moving into Intranets and creating a more open content authoring paradigm, and social networking
  • Kaizen – applying the japanese philosophy of continual incremental improvement to Intranet development
  • Open source is a real option now
  • Sharepoint is ready

For more details on this, see the conference summary.

Michael Sampson also live blogged the entire event, his prolific effort is here.

My favourite quotes of the conference were:

“invisible rain is captured by Web 2.0 companies and turned into mighty rivers of information. Rivers that can be fished” – (I’m unsure of the source of the quote)

“a blog is an unexploded bomb” – Paul Reynolds

We need to start from the cold blooded premise that almost everyone is a genius - not that almost everyone is worthless.
John Taylor Gatto