What works, what might, and skunks UKGC11 Part 2

Chris Chant at UK Govcamp 2011, photographed by Janet E Davis

Chris Chant at UK Govcamp 2011, photographed by Janet E Davis.

For the first session, I opted to hear Chris Chant ( @cantwaitogo on Twitter) talk about the challenges faced in changing government’s IT services. Unsurprisingly, it was a large crowd to listen to him.

He spoke calmly and quietly, with occasional displays of wry humour. His awareness of the gritty reality of the current state of things and the practicalities of the task ahead impressed me. There was something almost hypnotic about the way he spoke. Chris Chant certainly convinced me that he is determined to make a difference, and that the difference will be good.

Mark O'Neill leading the Skunkworks session at UK Govcamp 2011, photographed by Janet E Davis.

Mark O'Neill leading the Skunkworks session, photographed by Janet E Davis.

I had seen mention of Skunkworks now and then recently, so went to the session on it led by Mark O’Neill so that I could find out more. It was another popular session, with standing room only. I do enjoy Mark’s presentation style and, from the smiles and chuckles at intervals, so did everyone else.

Skunkworking is about having some space and permission to try new things, to be experimental, and have permission to fail sometimes. Mark made it clear that it would be for small to medium-sized projects, not for the big things. It sounds exciting and I look forward to hearing more about it.

What I think could work well is having different people working with each other across Departments and across different public institutions to carry out some experimental things. Sometimes a less technical person who understands the content or work processes can see things that may not be obvious to the more technical one – or vice versa. Sometimes, in explaining the technical side, it suddenly becomes clearer how to solve a problem.

At one point during the session, I had a strange moment that haunted me a little for days afterwards. I am not sure whether I had missed something someone had said whilst concentrating on taking photographs. People seemed to be talking about introducing Web Content Management Systems and introducing staff to the idea of non-IT staff creating and entering content. They were talking about it as a new thing to do.

I first led a project that included such a system from 2002 to 2004. It was only a relatively small project (funded as part of the NOF-Digitise programme) but we created a system that enabled non-technical staff to create and enter content. I wrote a manual and gave a few of the permanent staff some training. For another project (2006 – 2009), we created a system that should be easy enough for volunteers of varying levels of computer experience and equipment to add articles, new records, news or events items, via a Web browser interface (it probably does not display properly on Internet Explorer 6). It is entirely possible in the Skunkworks session, however, that whilst thinking about best ways of photographing to allow for the artificial and natural light sources, I may have totally misunderstood what people were discussing and even if I had not, there would clearly be a lot of changes in institutional culture required to do it on a larger scale.

There was some discussion about the differences between implementing new digital things in central and local government. I should have said (but do not remember saying) that both national and local IT staff might find it useful to talk also to people at national and local level in public culture organisations.

I found the session very thought-provoking, enjoyed Mark’s leadership of it, and could quite happily have spent the rest of the day discussing the issues.

The session led by The Simons on the forthcoming release of WordPress was interesting (it is moving from being a blogging service to a Web CMS (Content Management System). It was more detailed information than I needed at this stage so I left after about 30 minutes. I had a gap in the afternoon when the rooms for the sessions I wanted to go to were too full. During the day, I was especially sorry to have missed out on Dan Slee’s session on using Flickr in local government work, and on the session on archives. I would also liked to have joined Anke Holst’s session on the Unlibrary.

Rupert Redington and Harry Harrold talking about paper prototyping

Rupert Redington and Harry Harrold talking about paper prototyping, photographed by Janet E Davis.

The final session of the day for me was on paper prototyping by Rupert Redington and Harry Harrold of Neontribe. I must admit that I have seen them in action before at Rewired State: Rewired Culture last year so I already knew that it was likely to be an enjoyable presentation. They did not disappoint. Unfortunately, it was only after they had delivered the first two points that I remembered that my iPod Touch can video. I did record the other three points though, so if you watch that, I do not have to explain further what they said.

I would really like to try the paper prototyping but suspect that it is the personality of the people leading the work that helps it to be a successful method. Rupert and Harry are good performers and have the personalities that most people would find engaging. One of the reasons why I was keen to see them doing a presentation was to analyse something of why and how it worked, and to think about how I could provide more lively, creative presentations in the future.

There was a brief round-up of the day before people dashed for trains, buses or the pub. Although people were exhausted and a little overwhelmed by all the ideas and conversations and new things they had learned, there was an air of excited optimism still.

Towards the end of the day people gathered in corridors

Towards the end of the day people gathered in corridors. Photographed by Janet E Davis.

PS I regret not having a go at the Kinect.

PPS I was astonished to find a web page still existing about NOF-Digitise. Its launch press release has lasted longer online than some of the projects.

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