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Day of Disruption

It’s 10 o’clock on the first day of November and 100 delegates from central and local government, the private, community and voluntary sectors from all over the South West and further afield are at Bristol’s Watershed to examine how digital technologies can be used to transform the way public services are provided to communities, building on the experience gained from Bristol successfully reaching the 10 finalists in the Government’s £7 mn. Digital Challenge.

We’re welcomed by Connecting Bristol’s dynamic duo of Dick Penny (Watershed) and Steve Hilton (Bristol City Council). Steve kindly explains what is meant by ‘digital disruption’, i.e. technology leading to the disruption of normal services and how technology can be embraced to improve public service provision. After the usual warning about mobile phones and last call for objections to the event being recorded, we’re off.

First at the podium is Stephen Dodson, Innovations & Challenge Programme Director at the DCLG on the subject of digital inclusion. He starts by calling for a quick show of hands for delegates’ use of various technologies: PCs, email, mp3 players, Flickr, blogs, Second Life and so on to gauge the degree of inclusion of his audience; only one delegate from a full room does not have a mobile phone. Stephen then outlines the history of the Digital Challenge and its place in the Government’s thinking. We learn that digital exclusion has very similar causes as social exclusion, e.g. homelessness, poverty, poor education. A stark warning is given that the UK will fall behind the rest of the world if digital exclusion is not beaten.

Next at the rostrum is Dr. Jonathan Drori, Director of Changing Media Ltd., but previously a senior civil servant at the DCMS and commissioning editor for BBC Online. He’s also a Digital Challenge judge, so started his presentation with a disclaimer. Despite his modest claim not to be a good public speaker, he treats the audience to three-quarters of an hour on “Compelling User Experiences”, discussing such matters as the importance of interactivity and creating a virtuous circle, ways of developing new services and some of the common mistakes. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Jonathan’s talk is how General Motors in the USA found out about the needs and desires of its customers – by having “ethnographers” camping out in peoples’ cars and recording their lives!

After a quick coffee it’s all change on the platform, with the baton being passed to James Farmer of the DTI. His chosen subject: effective content; a major part of James’ work for the past year has been leading the DTI’s the Effective Content Initiative. The Government’s strategy would appear to be using broadband-enabled services to – their jargon, not mine – improve delivery quality, increase reach and scale, increase efficiency and cost savings and, finally, meet the expectations of citizens. To do so, services need to be (more jargon) citizen-centred, results-led and excellent users of the medium. To illustrate his talk, James shows us examples of content thought by central government to be effective, e.g. Directgov, MySpace and Teachers TV.

The morning ends with a panel discussion with the 3 speakers being joined by Jaya Chakrabarti of Nameless Media Group. The discussion ranged widely: one delegate voices his dislike of anything from Rupert Murdoch (e.g. Sky television, MySpace); your correspondent manages to mention the GPL and Creative Commons during a discussion on intellectual property rights – and is supported from the panel by Jaya; and Kim Spence-Jones of OpenHub also puts in a good word for open source software.

The ‘graveyard shift’ after lunch is in the capable hands of Ayleen Driver of Bristol LEA. Her topic: “What will learning be like in the future”. Faced with a roomful of sated delegates digesting their food, a couple of well-aimed jokes made sure the class was paying attention and we’re off. Ayleen outlines how ICT is transforming the landscape, e.g. 36 billion text messages sent in the UK in 2005, the rise of wikis, as well as describing some of the habits of today’s young people, such as their almost total absence from the ‘quiet’ carriages of trains. Furthermore, Ayleen predicts the demise of schoolbooks, their place being taken by handheld devices (PDAs featuring both a mobile telephone and mp3 player). Moreover, smart cards have several uses in the school environment – safety, security and toilets that are pleasant to use. Ayleen finishes with a short video showing innovative use of ICT in schools; I believe everyone at the back is paying attention…

If they are not, they might just miss Dick Perry and Steve Hilton’s short presentation on Bristol’s Digital Challenge bid to date and a brief outline of the work envisaged for the next stage.

The podium is then handed over to Fabian King, Head of Regional ICT Development at the South West Regional Development Agency, who is to act as master of ceremonies for the workshop sessions. Delegates are given handheld voting machines that are successfully tested by asking about modes of travel to the conference: interestingly, we prove to be a green bunch; 52% of delegates either walked or used public transport.

The workshops themselves take the subjects of connectivity (priorities and results), compelling content (priorities and results), skills and knowledge (priorities and results) and technology and environment (priorities and results). The workshops themselves determine the priorities, which are then voted upon by all the delegates.

Fabian then hands back to Steve Hilton and Dick Penny to draw formal proceedings to a close. Perhaps the most important point is made by Dick Penny, who winds up by saying that we need “symmetric access so that we can be contributors as well as consumers”.

After the formal proceedings, delegates have an opportunity to meet members of the Momentum Group backing Bristol’s bid for drinks, hopefully after getting snared for the ‘Speakloscope’ – a video vox pop that has been running thoughout the day, inviting people to divulge their indispensable technology.

Audio downloads of proceedings should be available from the start of the week commencing 6th November on the Connecting Bristol blog. In the meantime, contributions and comments from delegates have started appearing there, as well as notes and copies of the presentations and much more.

Footnote: one unforeseen outcome of the conference was that at least one senior civil servant now refers to your humble scribe as ‘Woodsy’!