I’ve been in England this week for the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Before the meeting in Oxford, David Halpern of the Prime Minister’s hosted a meeting, and Will Davies invited a bunch of people involved in civic technology initiatives in the UK.
Sorry for the length of this post, but here are some highlights of interesting people I met on this trip:
- I’ve been wanting to meet David Halpern for several years, because Bob Putnam has suggested it several times. Having met him, I now understand why. He’s exactly what I’d want in my country for an academic-truned-public servant: thoughtful, open to new ideas, trying to get to the bottom of things, wanting to experiment but really learn from such experiments, but still action oriented. I hope I’ll get to be part of some future advisory group that he assembles to design careful experimentation on civic technologies.
- Will Davies wrote a very nice report last year on uses of technology for local communication.
- Tom Steinberg, MySociety. Very interesting guy. He was kind enough to give me a little walking tour of the area around parliament after the Strategy Unit meeting, and also arranged to have drinks with William Perrin, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Cabinet Office e-Government unit, and also introduced me to several people during the Skoll Workshop. MySociety is incubating several interesting experiments, including PledgeBank, which allows people to “pledge” that they’ll do some civic activity if enough other people join them. Sort of combines the idea of public RSVPs that I think is the power behind eVite with goal setting and “thresholds” or “provision points” for public goods. Wom, William, and I hatched some ideas about government support for a civic technologies platform, with open APIs and a free hosting service if you agree to open source your software– once you’ve demonstrated sufficient usage of some service, you’d qualify for a proper government evaluation of the public benefits, which could then lead to further subsidies. It seems like a nice idea, because it would allow continual bubbling up of new initiatives, without anyone in government having to decide too early which seemed most promising.
- Ellie Stonely, from UK Villages. This non-profit is a shoestring operation, with 3 staff, piecing together funding. But they’ve got a useful portal of local information. Several British sites have data indexed by postal code (which are very fine-grained, often identifying as few as a dozen houses), and they link into those. But they also allow anyone to post village notices. They again take advantage of geographic indexing to automatically show things in nearby towns using a distance-based search. In the U.S. these kinds of sites are all defined around hub cities, but here every town is its own hub, collecting notices from a radius around it.
- Someone from the BBC’s iCan project was there (didn’t get cards, but Tom Loosemore and James Cronin were on the invite list for the event). This BBC-developed portal, still in beta, encourages people to organize all kinds of civic and political activities, and provides tools for coordinating them.
- Alejandro Litovsky, from the Keystone project at AccountAbility. He’s a colleague of David Bonbright who I met earlier this winter at a meeting in New York. David helped me connect the research I’ve been doing for a dozen years on recommender/reputation systems with the notion of democratizing accountability, which is an important social mission in its own right and something of increasing importance to the non-profit/civil society sector, where questions of legitimacy and accountability are rising to the fore. David is trying to figure out new accountability processes for civil society organizations that will also serve internally to enhance organizational learning. Alejandro is trying to organize a global dialogue on the question of civil society accountability and we had some interesting discussion about how to organize that dialogue in an inclusive way.
- Ed Mayo from the UK National Consumer Council is thinking about recommender systems for products, especially ticket items and where there’s not repeat interaction between a single customer and provider.
- I caught up with Mark Moore, from Harvard’s Kennedy School, who I knew from the Saguaro Seminar.
- The most exciting connection (and that’s saying a lot, as I look over the rest of the list) was with JB Schramm of College Summit, who I recognized because David Bornstein told a story about him during his lecture at Michigan earlier this winter. (David was also at the meeting, and I got to have dinner with him one night.) J.B. and I hatched an idea about how to use recommender/reputation systems to help more students from less elite high schools get into colleges. We played hooky from one session and spent a long time mapping out ideas and evaluation methods. Possible project pending.
- Paul Hodgkin, of Primary Care Futures was on the panel with me. He described a system for patient ratings of health care providers that will go into beta test in one region of England next year, nicely coinciding with a big move the National Health System is making toward patient choice about which provider they’d like to go to for care. They’ve thought through many of the details quite nicely, including offering ongoing information to patients (e.g., reminders, directions to upcoming appointments) so that when they send a follow-up after the care, people will be more likely to fill it out. They’re also offering to patients that if the comment is positive, they can have a note sent directly to care providers (“thanks to Nurse Mary on the third floor for providing such wonderful care during my recovery…”), which I’m guessing will be quite popular. They may suffer from the usual problem of grade inflation– how to get people to express mild dissatisfaction, and not fear that others will overreact to it if it turns out not be a pattern. I suggested the possibility of letting patients volunteer to act as on-line “guides” or “mentors” to future patients. They already were thinking about ways to have facilitate support of various kinds (e.g., 10 questions that previous patients suggest you ask your doctor), and he thought that individual matching might be an interesting possibility as well. If it works, it would be an incredible example of using technology to convert potential social capital into real.
- Some possible connections for students interested in international information work:
- James Fruchterman from Benetech, which develops software for human rights organizations and other tools to “help solve social problems with sustainable enterprises”. (My high school soccer teammate Patrick Ball works there now. He’s apparently the world’s foremost statistical expert on human rights monitoring, and testified at Milosevic’s trial.)
- Rodrigo Baggio from CDI, which runs a whole network of community technology and learning centers in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. He was one of the “Skoll Awardees”. They had a very nice ceremony, MCed by actor Ben Kingsley (from Gandhi). It was a genuinely moving ceremony: you couldn’t help but be amazed by the things these people have accomplished. Rodrigo was the first to receive his plaque, and he got things off to a good start by raising his hands above his head in genuine celebration.
- Martin Burt from Fundacion Paraguaya, which teaches entrepreneurial skills to youth in Paraguay. He was another Skoll Awardee.
- Karen Tse from International Bridges to Justice, which is establishing legal assistance networks in China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. She’s thinking about a knowledge management system to connect their participants.
- The first night at dinner I was seated next to Sushmita Ghosh, President of Ashoka. (CEO and founder Bill Drayton was also there and gave a very good plenary speech, but I didn’t get a chance to talk with him.) She had just heard about collaborative filtering recently, as a result of an Economist article, and was very interested. I was amazed that she was able to quote something from the article about the difference between item-to-item vs. person-to-person filtering methods. For someone to be far enough removed from the tech world to have not heard about collaborative filtering until this year, but to grasp that distinction and remember it a week or two later, that’s one smart cookie. I’m not kidding– she was the first to mention the term item-to-item, not me!
- Someone from the Calvert Foundation (I think Tim Freundlich) was part of last night’s dinner group. Calvert Foundation runs an investment fund that makes loans to community development organizations. Caroline and I are investors, so that was kind of fun. I was surprised that he knew our investment advisor by name and had met him (apparently, the advisors are a key way that funds get the word out, so they put some effort into marketing to them individually).
- A report on Evaluation in the Field of Social Entrepreneurship was just released, and discussed at one of the sessions. It’s available for download at Foundation Strategy Group‘s website.
- Brian Trelstad of the Acumen Fund, a social venture capital fund. He’s just finished an article for a Stanford business publication, evaluating the non-profit org evaluators like GuideStar. I’m looking forward to getting a copy.
- Melanie Edwards, a Stanford lecturer, started MediaMobile, which gathers demographic and market data in Brazilian slums, by having local residents go door-to-door surveying neighbors. Unlike low-income communities in the U.S., who sometimes are fearful of census takers and turned off by marketers, she says that in these commmunities people are generally so glad that anyone wants to hear their opinion that they answer very openly.
- There were a couple interesting sessions with MBA students from elite business schools in the US and Europe. One of the emerging ideas from the session and discussion afterwards was that professional schools are really training people to be Chief Operating Officers for social enterprises, not to start them. If we want those organizations to be high-performance organizations, then COOs are going to be helpful. But we shouldn’t get confused with training entrepreneurs, for which professional degrees aren’t the best path. I met Beth Anderson, faculty at Duke’s Fuqua school after that session.