Information Society – be careful what you wish for… it might come true

Simon over at Tuppenceworth shared his thoughts yesterday on comments by our Minister for the Information Society and another Public Servant on bloggers at a conference that had nothing to do with blogging (’twas about Software Quality and testing).

[Update – Imagine my shock when I found the speech on the Dept of the Taoiseach website…scroll down to the section on Innovation and see the exact terms used by the Minister responsible for the Information Society. On one hand he has a point, but it could have been phrased a lot more… politically]

As usual, bloggers have shaken their fists or slapped their foreheads in disbelief at what it seems was said.

Now now children. Comparing a Junior Minister to a scooby doo villain is impolite if chucklesomely accurate. Also, it is just possible that they may having been having a go at BOGGERS – an equally maligned group that is misunderstood and misrepresented by ‘traditional’ media. (Just watch Killnascully for the evidence). [Sadly that was not the case, as evidenced by the text of the speech]

I was at the conference in question and having thought about it overnight I think the Local Government Computing Services person’s comments should probably be taken in the context of decisions to adopt open standards or not… bloggers are all for mashups and open standards based solutions as it is the “Web2.0 thing”. However if it all falls apart because the person making the widget that holds it together stops maintaining their stuff then you get kicked. If you are a blogger your site goes down or comments don’t work or your google maps mashup goes on its arse.

If you’re a government organisation you end up on the front page of the Irish Times… “Government IT investment fiasco”. The we bloggers chip in and the spin and bluster gets questioned and then your day goes from ‘challenging’ to ‘fricking nightmare’ in a matter of hours. But guess what… project managers in the private sector have to put up with that stuff too. I have no sympathy. Lots of empathy though.

Looking back at notes from that presentation, at the time he made the comments about bloggers he was discussing Open Source solutions. His point was simply that Open Source solutions bring a degree of risk with them, particularly if they are being adapted for use in a given context – if an Open Source solution falls in the forest and there is no developer community to hear it, is your solution f*cked?

That is a risk that all companies have to balance between Open Source and Proprietary solutions. His mistake, as I would see it, has been to take criticism from bloggers about decisions a little bit too personally. Of course, if the bloggers turned out to be right in their criticisms then that might make things sting even more.

Another presenter on the day gave a good insight into how to pick Open Source tools though.. he recommended only picking stuff from SourceForge with 90% or higher activity showing a maintained and managed piece of software, not a hobby project.

Also bloggers are not synonymous with Open Standards/Open Source developers. We’re just as screwed if someone moves the cheese and useful piece of software or useful standard stops being supported (PHP4 vs PHP5 for example… too many webhosts are still running PHP4 while Open Source developers are moving to PHP5 based apps – I think of Drupal and CiviCRM as examples. Hosting providers who can’t support PHP5 leave organisations using Open Source tools like civicrm stuck on less effective or efficient and unsupported versions of the applications. A bit like a proprietary vendor end-of-lifing an application).

I’ve written extensively on this blog over the past two years about information management/information quality issues in government processes (PPARS, Electoral Register, IBTS etc) so I think I might fall in to the category of annoying and obsessive bloggers. However, and I’m open to correction, I do believe that I’ve ‘played the ball and not the man’ at each turn, with my focus being on leadership (ie Ministers) and on sound practices (many people I spoke to yesterday who had happened on my blog said nice things about my IBTS posts). And I’ve never shied away from debating the point to build a better understanding of issues.

Importantly, I believe that my posts and comments have been fairly balanced. I did my best to argue that the problem in PPARs wasn’t the software or the project team but the sheer mind numbing complexity of consoldiating non-standard data and divergent processes into a system that requires standards and standardisation. Each ‘custom’ work calendar represented a ‘customisation’ in the application – ergo the cost. The project team did a great job to achieve anything with the mess they were given to start with. The electoral register… I put the blame were it needed to be – on the Minister who is responsibile for defining strategy and allocating resources. I analysed the root causes and issues and criticsed the door to door clean up because it wasn’t a solution and it wasn’t operated consistently. I won’t mention the IBTS in detail but to say… harrumph – and watch this space (I’m not finished there).

Tom Kitt’s comments, however, baffle me as it did seem to be a throw away remark triggered by some deep seated frustration. Perhaps my focus on Dick Roche’s bumbling mis-management of the Electoral Register issue and John Gormely’s apparent lack of a sense of urgency to implement the legislative changes required to correct the processes (rather than pissing around on the edges doing scrap and rework and working with a marketing company to design a new logo for the department that looks like three snails in an orgy) have irked the political classes? Perhaps the blogger commentary on the Mahon Tribunal have peeved the Fianna Fail leadership?

Perhaps some blogger has written something nasty about Minister Kitt’s offsprung, the folksy crooner David Kitt? (Twenty – if you did … tut tut). Maybe he read some comments about the car in the re-invented Knightrider TV show and took them out of context?

Who knows.

What I do know is that an Information Society starts with an informed community that shares information. Blogs and blogging provides an opportunity for informed people with experience and insights into niche areas and obscure disciplines to share their thoughts and views on things.

Occassionally that means that the type of person who, in the Service would never be left alone in the same timezone as a Minister because they are hard-core techie (beard, jumper and sandals with socks – and that’s just the wimmin) and are passionate about a solution or approach that is not ‘status quo’, can find a platform to make their opinion known. An occasionally a newspaper picks up on that (not, sadly, in the case of the Electoral Register) and it gets a broader airing.

More often, it means that people who have experience in a particular industry, process or discipline but might otherwise have no access to media can peer behind the spin and bluster put out by the political classes and their handlers and by public sector organisations to raise questions about what might have happened really or suggest alternative approaches for consideration. If that makes people uncomfortable then tough. An informed society requires higher standards.

However, Marshall McLuhan’s view that ‘the medium is the message’ has gone the way of the dodo. The medium is not the message. Not all bloggers are good. Not all bloggers are informed. Not all bloggers want to criticise constructively. But to dismiss all bloggers and their opinions with a frustrated sigh is to miss the point completely (a bit like Mr Waters did).

The blog is the medium. The message comes from each blogger as an individual member of society.

An Information Society. (tada!)

Of course, to counter the criticism bloggers need to up their game and take a moment’s pause to engage their brains a bit before letting their fingers to the talking. The right speak does not guarantee you the right to be heard. But speaking well, clearly and appropriately, with sound ideas that you are willing to accept critique on (as long as that critique likewise plays the ball and not the man) increases the chance that people will want to listen to you.

By improving the quality of your personal blogging you improve the quality of the Information Society. By ensuring that you have checked your facts (or are willing to correct errors quickly) you improve the Information Quality in this Information Society. Then we will find ourselves in a functioning, citizen supported, Information Society.

Another aspect of Tom Kitt’s alleged comments might also relate to the fact that there are a sizeable proportion of the population who aren’t bloggers (yet). Government needs to manage for the needs of the State as a whole, not just the needs of lobby groups or hobby groups or bloggers. (I’m shitting myself laughing as I write this)

Informed lobby groups (trade unions, IBEC, the SFA, even the late lamented IrelandOffline) influence Government policy to various extents. The media affects government policy (if it gets criticised in the media the Minister may hold off pushing the policy, particularly around election time). Grumpy old men walking around outside Leinster House with placards on their backs… well they don’t really achieve anything on their own (perhaps they should blog).

Whether you blog or not does not deprive you of your right as a citizen to seek to affect and effect change in government. So, you can seek to influence through an established media fair play.. get your op ed piece in The Irish Times, go on Questions and Answers and rip the token politician a new one (or punch right wing columnists who haven’t got a clue about the real world), write your letters to the editor, or start a pressure group and doorstep your elected representatives. Fair play to you.

Or you can start a blog to raise awareness of the issue (perhaps combined with the other approaches). If the handful of bloggers who have written specifically about Information Society issues or the challenges of may government/quasi-government IT projects and performed a critique of the strategy (or lack of), best practices (or lack of) or solutions (or lack of) that were delivered can raise the frustrated ire of the Minister responsible for the Information Society then we’re a pretty darned effective group.

If the government chooses to dismiss your opinions because you are not an established lobby group or because you are just ‘citizens’ then there is something rotten in the pre-Information Society society.

Minister for the Information Society… we’re bloggers. We’re here. We’re informed and we want to be social, socially active, active on social issues, and to build a strong foundation for a ‘realised information society’. Some of us are already elected officials, some of us might consider running for office. Some of us might be advisors to your opposition. It’s not because we’re bloggers. It’s because we’re citizens.

Dismiss us if you want, but like the smell of boiling cabbage on a hot summer’s day we’re not going away in a hurry. To paraphrase Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman:

“Makers of an Information Society. Creators of an Information Society.Be careful what kind of Information Society you’re producin’ here.

hoo hah.

(of course, that cuts both ways – bloggers need to seek to seperate the ‘signal’ from the ‘noise’ so that good blogs and bloggers can be distinguished from waffle and bile).

But I still can’t f**king stand David Kitt’s music and the Knightrider car is just dire (sorry).

4 thoughts on “Information Society – be careful what you wish for… it might come true”

  1. Okay, once again, I won’t pretend to understand everything you say, and I won’t pretend to appreciate the ire you feel, but I’m still a noob – with experience comes indignation. But being a noob, I have been asking questions of and looking into the blogging concept and why people blog and who are these bloggers anyway. This is why your post piqued my interest.

    Firstly, “If an Open Source solution falls in the forest and there is no developer community to hear it, is your solution f*cked?” – Genius line!

    Secondly, I can see how your focus could be drawn by that Dick’s handling of the Electoral Register and Gormless’s apparent disinterest. If I was to politicise, I would wax political about this issue.

    Anywho, my point is that your view of bloggers as (in many cases) being part of the mythical ‘informed society’ is an interesting one. A line from Men In Black, of all things, always stays with me – “A person is smart, people are stupid”. Many of these bloggers are very intelligent, but it’ll be sometime before they constitute an informed society. We need only look at society’s disinterest in the carry on of An Taoiseach to see that we are not seeking any higher standards. Your comment, “An informed society require higher standards” is probably true, but I fear it’s just an untested theory.

    I agree with you that the standard of some blogs should be better, but that’s true of any publicly available material. There’s always going to be a variety of standards. That’s why we have The Star and The Times, Nuts and Esquire.

    “Some of us are already elected officials, some of us might consider running for office. Some of us might be advisors to your opposition. It’s not because we’re bloggers. It’s because we’re citizens.” How true this is! That’s where blogs differ to other media. A blogger does not need to be a trained journalist, a highly paid consultant or an expert in their field. They need only have passion and the fact-checking you mention, and they will have an avid readership. Perhaps this will lead to that ‘informed society’ and then perhaps we, society, will seek higher standards. Perhaps then, but not yet.

    A great post, but, I think rather than quelling my quantity of questions, you’ve exacerbated the entourage of enquiries I’m entertaining.

    (And Val Kilmer rocks!)

  2. Darren

    Thanks for the comment. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Blogs are a new medium that does for content, creativity and opinion what the printing press did in the 15th Century – it opens it up to people to chip in with their 2 cents worth (almost said tuppenceworth there… shameless plug).

    What pissed me off about Tom Kitt’s comments (and the comments of the Assistant Director of Services at the LGCSB is that they seemed to miss the point and had consigned bloggers to the realm of cranks because bloggers criticise and question and don’t accept the simple spin. Often the people who get most exercised are people who know a lot about a thing. And the contributions from noobs and other interested but less informed people simply helps to bring the discussion to a level that people can understand.

    One of the most published articles i’ve written on Informtion Quality was about the way the Dept of Environment tackled the problems in the Electoral Register. It started as a slightly technical post but through comments and questions I rewrote it as a more accessible piece which has been published in the UK, the US and Australia (but not in Ireland…)

    And if a Person is smart but People are stupid, where does that leave the “wisdom of crowds” theory? The higher standards that I refer to are higher standards within the blogging community – we need to raise the bar for ourselves with regard to how we communicate – that includes fact checking, keeping the head about things (no one listens to/reads angry rants – even informed and intelligent ones. However there are times when it might be justified), writing well (e.g. only using profanities when abso-fucking-lutely necessary).

    In short – what we choose to do we need to do well.

    As for Bertie.. harrumph. Sometimes the challenge is knowing what battles to fight and when… it isnt that people don’t care about it, but there is fatigue setting in. When it is all finished, the facts will probably be drowned in a tidal wave of “thank fuck that’s over”. If i was cynical I’d be forgiven for thinking that was the plan all along.

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