Kick at the Darkness ’til it Bleeds Daylight

Mistake #11: Mistaking the Enemy

When we launch projects to improve transparency and accountability it’s easy to overestimate the impact they will have. We dream of wildly successful websites, frequented by millions of people, all holding their representatives to account. However, this is very unlikely to happen, no matter how good the site. For the greatest enemy we face isn’t excess bureaucracy, or secrecy, or corruption, but apathy. The vast majority of people simply don’t care about your site.

We’re not in a battle against our governments, no matter how much it may seem like it at times. They, after all, are merely our servants1. Our job as citizens is to hold our officials accountable, but many people don’t realise they should do that, don’t know that they can do it, or simply don’t know how to do it. Our job as site-builders is to make that easier.

You’re not simply trying to reach the small number of people who are often thought of as holding power. Rather, the goal is to remind everyone else that it’s really they who hold the power, and then help them exercise it. That’s much harder to achieve, but you don’t need to do it all on your own. You don’t need to reach everyone, nor do you need to achieve everything immediately. Participation is a process, but it’s a slow and often painful one. Your job is simply to do something — anything — to make that a little bit simpler, and less painful. Each little thing you can do to smooth the process is an another attack on the forces of inertia and apathy. Each time you help another person bypass bureaucracy is another step forwards for democracy. It’s a journey of a million miles, but we can only get there step by single step. Just keep kicking the darkness along the way.

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  1. Here, like throughout this entire series, I’m assuming the presence of some form of democracy. Without that, then it’s a whole ‘nother story []
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Leave Out The Kitchen Sink

Mistake #12: Lack of Focus

One of my recurring frustrations at Social Innovation Camps is a project presentation which is going well, but then includes the line of death: “And, of course, we also plan to add X”. Here, ‘X’ can be almost anything, but without exception, it’s something only tangentially related to the main project. Clearly the team believe it to be important to show that they haven’t simply been focused on the project they’re demoing, but also have plans for all the other exciting features they could have added, had they only had more time. With me, however, this approach almost always backfires, and simply leads to me instantly deducting a boatload of marks. I would be much more impressed if someone were to say1 “We’re sorry this version does so much — we didn’t have time to make it simpler.”

As previously discussed, simplicity is key. But it’s hard. One of the reasons most government sites are so crazily complicated is because they tend to include every conceivable thing they think you might ever want to know or do2. In a bid to make a site which people actually want to use, are able to use, and indeed like to use, you need to make things as simple as possible, and then, repeatedly, go back and make them simpler still. It’s always easier to add new features, than the simplify existing ones. And it’s a very seductive trap. It makes you feel good. You can write a self-congratulatory announcement for it and have it liked and retweeted everywhere. But the key, fundamental question should always be: does this make things easier for your users? And, usually, the answer is no. Having too many options not only confuses people, but actually drives them away.

Putting effort into repeatedly simplifying your site isn’t glamorous. It’s harder to get good PR out of it. “Website relaunched, now with fewer features!” isn’t a common headline. But your users will love it. Remember: “perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.”3

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  1. with apologies to Blaise Pascal []
  2. which usually differs significantly from what we actually want to know or do, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant []
  3. Antoine de Saint Exupéry []
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Make Someone Squirm

Mistake #13: A focus on data.

Over at the OKFN blog, Rufus Pollock expounds on a theme close to my heart: Open Data is a Means not an End. If I’d finished this abecedary last year, that would have been my ‘T’ — “Transparency Is Not Enough”. But I’ve jiggled things around a little, and so it fits better here, because my answer to Rufus’ question of what the real goal is, is to Make Someone Squirm.

Transparency (of which Open Data is only a small part1), is, on its own, fairly meaningless. The value comes from using it to increase accountability. Usually, that involves doing some digging. Occasionally there is information so explosive that the main fight will be in obtaining it in the first place, but much more often our job is to uncover what’s hidden in plain sight. There is often a very significant gulf between information being available and it being understandable. Public Whip was born because Julian Todd found it interminably difficult to answer the simple question of how his MP voted in the Iraq War debate — even though theoretically all this information was already publicly available. Julian and Francis did a great job of making that information much more accessible, and it’s great to see that being replicated now in many other countries.

But often people don’t go far enough when they expose information like this. Giant tables of voting records, for example, are largely only useful to journalists, activists, or people who are already politically engaged. Most people don’t know, don’t wan’t to know, and shouldn’t need to know what a division is, or intricate nuances of Parliamentary theory. What the average citizen cares about is simply whether or not they agree with how a politician or political party (particularly one supposedly representing them!) votes or acts:

Distilling a vast amount of raw data into something like this is hard work — but it’s important, and even essential, work. This makes MPs squirm. This cuts through their spin, and PR, and propaganda and exposes, in clear, accessible, everyday language, what they actually do in your name.

Schooloscope (Go study it now before it closes down!) did a wonderful job of making school information beautifully accessible to parents who have little desire or inclination to wade through dense and dull OFSTED reports and DCSF tables. Your job is go do likewise with lots of other data. Please let me know how you get on.

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  1. and yes, there are other uses for Open Data too. But we have a much more targetted focus here! []
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Narrate Your Work

Mistake #14: Working in splendid isolation.

Despite the ever-growing number of digital transparency and participation sites, we still don’t really know very much about what we’re doing. Largely this is uncharted territory. People are hacking their way through the dark undergrowth, but few are taking the time to build the map of where they’re going. Those who follow can sometimes catch glimpses of prior trails, but generally everyone still has to find their own path.

People often promise to write up their story after their projects are launched, but that rarely actually happens, and when it does it’s mostly just a PR exercise, concentrating on a few key points, and almost invariably on highly sanitised successes. Sometimes, if we’re really lucky, there’ll be a charming story of how things almost went wrong, but were turned around. We rarely hear of all the little detours, frustrations, or setbacks along the way. But these are the most important. If I see a great site in another country and want to build something similar locally, I’d love to be able to read the story of what was actually involved in building it, as there’s a high chance I’ll otherwise end up falling into the same traps along the way.

I’ve long been a fan of people narrating their work. It’s really useful for lots of reasons, even if you never make it public. Taking the time to regularly1 write about what you’re doing forces you to think that little bit more clearly and raises your own awareness in ways that are almost always positive (like a rubber duck with a memory.)

And if you make that available to other people (even if it’s only people inside your own organisation), you get the added benefit of other people being able to spot potential problems you may be completely unaware of. The hidden icebergs in any project are usually not the things we’re aware enough to ask for advice about, but the unknown unknowns we don’t even realise are issues until it’s much too late. The more people who are aware of what you’re up to, the more chance someone will be able to spot a mistaken assumption, an overlooked danger, or decisions you’re making based on incomplete or incorrect information.

And, universally, I’ve found that even if the only audience for this sort of information is a future you, it’s much more useful than almost anyone imagines. It’s not difficult to see why it might be useful to go be able to go back a month, a year, or even later, and remember what you were doing, why you made certain decisions, what your challenges were, who you talked to, etc. But what surprises most people is how much their memory plays tricks on them — remembering some issues as being much bigger than they really were, and vice versa. Comparing the two is not only fascinating, and fun, but is a useful way to get better at both planning and development over time.

In the corporate world it’s difficult enough to get people doing this, but even those who have seen the great benefits from doing so internally often don’t open it up to the public, citing fears of competitors gaining a lop-sided advantage etc. In this world, that shouldn’t be an issue though. We’re all working towards common goals, right? Right?

It still requires a certain degree of bravery to show people all the mistakes you’re making (and you will make mistakes), but it’s worth doing. Many groups explicitly have “education” in their mission, and there are few things more valuable than being able to see a true picture of what’s actually involved in a project, rather than a clean, sanitised final outcome.

So, please (pretty, pretty please!), tell us the day to day story of what you’re doing — warts and all. What have you achieved today? What lessons are you learning? Why are you a month behind schedule? What’s not working the way you thought it would? What do you hope is going to happen now? What are the interesting stories you’re discovering along the way? What has surprised you about how people are using your site? If you don’t know what to write, or don’t think what you’re doing is really that interesting, find someone who is good at asking you the right questions to unlock all these wonderful stories.

And don’t view this a promotional tool. If you have marketing or PR people, don’t, don’t, don’t allow them anywhere near this. They have plenty of places already to tell their stories — keep this one for the people actually developing the project. This isn’t a promotional tool, although it can certainly function as that. It’s a tool for conversations. You want people interacting with you, challenging things, making you think harder about certain issues, pointing you at other interesting things you should be looking at, or ways of doing things. It’s a way of not working in isolation. There’s a growing community of like-minded groups and sites worldwide. So talk to each other, but in public, and not just on mailing lists. Distill all those thoughts some more and put them out in public with a sharper focus. Pull other people and groups in too. Momentum attracts people, and writing about what you’re doing is a great way of showing that that momentum exists.

And along the way you’ll end up with a great archive of useful learning-by-example material for people to want to build a similar system in some other country next year. You’ve almost certainly diverged significantly from your original plans, and learned a lot about why lots of the things in your original proposal were unrealistic or flawed. If you’d been able to read other people’s stories in advance you might have avoided lots of those traps. But those of us who went before you let you down badly. Don’t repeat our mistake. Write the sorts of posts that you wish you’d been able to read six months ago. Not only will it make it easier for the groups who follow, but I promise you’ll get lots of direct benefit yourself.

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  1. and here I mean at least every day, preferably much more often []
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One is the Magic Number

Mistake #15: Needing an Army

In all the pitches I’ve heard and all the funding proposals I’ve read, it’s surprisingly rare to hear anyone talk about how many users their site will get. It’s almost as if the only thing that matters is the technology, and not the people who’ll use it. Sometimes this is the Field of Dreams Fallacy (“If you build it, they will come”), and often it reflects the all-too-prevalent misapprehension that the whole world cares deeply about the same issues as you do, and are waiting on the edge of their seats for your site to appear so they can finally make their society better. But no matter the root cause, the closest we usually get to any theory of user dynamic is a section on PR and marketing. If pushed for targets or expectations in this area, a classic hockey-stick graph usually appears, or we get some discussion on how to scale the site if it grows too quickly.

I’m much more interested in the question of what it means to not get enough users. Or, from a different angle, how many people need to use your site for it to be successful. This isn’t simply a worse-case scenario disaster planning exercise — the answer to that question cuts right to the heart of your strategy, and should shape not only your marketing but also your development, release, and maintenance approaches.

If you’re trying to build any kind of social network, the answer to that question is likely to be quite a large number. Sites that involve users having to come together to do something, whether that’s an auction site, or something that helps you find a tennis partner, follow the same sorts of power laws as trying to introduce the first fax machine: there’s close to zero value for the first few users, so you want to get as big as possible as quickly as possible. Generally, as I’ve mentioned before, this is a really bad strategy, unless you have clever way to bootstrap or millions of dollars to spend1.

A much better approach is to make the Minimum Acceptable Users number as low as possible — ideally one. Amazon.com was successful the first time someone bought a book. FixMyStreet.com was successful the first time someone came along, reported a problem, and got it fixed. It was irrelevant to those people who else, if anyone, was also using the site.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you want to only ever have one user. I’ll bet Jeff Bezos was ecstatic the first time someone he didn’t know ordered a book, but I suspect that would have been short-lived if no more customers had ever turned up. No, what I mean is more subtle than that. When you finally help someone achieve something, that’s a key inflection point. Your dream has become a reality, you’ve succeeded in making the world that little bit better, and now you can concentrate on replicating that again and again and again, helping an increasing number of people have increasingly better experiences.

It’s easy to sucked into thinking that to change the world you need to make a huge impact all at once. We all love the stories of millions of people coming together to make a difference, and we dream of being able to orchestrate something like that ourselves. And sometimes to make something important happen you really do need to be able to harness a large number of people all at once. But for most of the things that improve society, it’s simpler, cheaper, less risky, and, often much more satisfying to simply help one person. And then another. And then another. And another. And another, ad infinitum, one by one by one.

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  1. and if there’s already an existing competitor, make that billions of dollars []
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