Knowledge Hub Closure: What have we learnt?

We should think of the LGA announcement of the closing down of the Knowledge Hub as an opportunity rather than a problem. The original concept was for a sustainable, sector driven cultural and technological environment in which collaborative knowledge generation, learning, sharing and problem-solving would be supported with minimal mediation by national bodies. The reality is that it is has become a closed and proprietary LGA network, with very little transparency about strategy and development priorities, and clearly now a growing burden to a cash-strapped organisation.

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There has been quite a buzz of activity on the various blogs, Twitter streams and social networks following the recent press announcement about the pending closure of the LGA’s Knowledge Hub. Here are some of them:

Or just follow the Twitter hashtag #khub

It’s encouraging to see that there is fairly widespread concern about the potential impact of the cessation of this service, albeit with some valid points about how the service could be delivered more simply and cheaply. But more on this in a moment.

As the original design lead for the Knowledge Hub, and the IDeA Communities of Practice platform that preceded it, I might have a lot to say about all of this, and not all of it complimentary to the LGA, given the direction the development took the moment I was out of the door! Suffice to say, it doesn’t exactly meet the original vision, as described in one of my earlier posts: http://steve-dale.net/2009/09/21/knowledge-hub-part-1/

Original Positioning Statement

Knowledge Hub is an innovative new social business platform that will allow councillors, officers, policy makers, experts, regulators and practitioners across the public sector to take greater advantage of new media tools and techniques to support more effective knowledge sharing. It will provide access to new and emerging practice for public service improvement and innovation, and tools for developing and sharing open and linked data applications.

There is no doubt that compromises had to be made as various budget cuts kicked in, but one of the biggest mistakes – I think – was to collapse all design and development decisions into a very small and inward-looking LGA project team, removing the sector-wide governance structures that I had worked so hard to establish. At a stroke, the wider perspective and wise council of The Knowledge Hub Advisory Group was lost, and with it any vision or strategy to deliver a joined-up approach to using open data to derive actionable information and lead to better decision making. Thereafter, opportunities for innovation and knowledge sharing become lost or widely disaggregated across different channels and networks. Hence we’re still left with a separate ESD-Toolkit network, and an LGInform project that continues to plough its own furrow. The original vision was for both of these to be fully integrated into Knowledge Hub and thereby eliminating costs of having separate hosting and support infrastructures, as well as reducing overall complexity for the users.

But the cost of the technology is not the real issue here. Considerable time and effort has been put into the development and growth of the KHub, which is still the UK’s largest public sector membership network. With the private sector now investing heavily in enterprise collaboration and ‘social business’ to encourage innovation and deliver better services, it seems a paradox that a successful and established network operating across local government and the third sector is being closed because the value hasn’t yet been recognised.

When considering “value”, does anyone seriously think that Yahoo! is paying $1.1billion (£723m) for the technology that runs Tumblr? No! They’re paying for the 50million or so users of the network and what this means for advertising revenue. Clearly Knowledge Hub is not there for advertising revenue, but there are two important principles at play here:

  1. Users have an inherent value
  2. Building a network from a standing start is not a viable option – for anyone!

Looking at the announcement from LGA I can’t see any evidence that the value of the network of users has been given any thought at all. And in particular, scant regard for the fairly unique skills and experience of the small band of community managers and facilitators that really understand how to develop and nurture a collaborative community.

So, perhaps we should think of this announcement as an opportunity rather than a problem. The original concept was for a sustainable, sector driven cultural and technological environment in which collaborative knowledge generation, learning, sharing and problem-solving would be supported with minimal mediation by national bodies. The reality is that it is has become a closed and proprietary LGA network, with very little transparency about strategy and development priorities, and clearly now a growing burden to a cash-strapped organisation.

What I think is needed is:

  1. A new owning authority to be established, along the lines of a cooperative or member-owned, not-for-profit organisation. This organisation to take overall responsibility for future strategic development of Knowledge Hub. The Knowledge Hub will thereafter be owned and managed by its members.
  2. A new business model to be established around member/organisation subscription. Membership would guarantee privacy, security, persistent content ownership and no advertising (advertising could be considered as a revenue stream for freemium membership)
  3. Utilising the same technology (the Intelligus platform is capable of delivering everything that was in the original vision and specification), but available in a more open environment that would encourage entrepreneurial development.
  4. A new Knowledge Hub mandate is agreed setting out its purpose in providing a secure and trusted collaborative environment for use by any person or organisation working to improve public services, or delivering community services.
  5. Subject to consultation, members and content to be seamlessly migrated to the new open environment.

I appreciate there are many other factors that also deserve consideration, not least the possible loss of LGA staff that may have been instrumental in supporting the many KHub communities and who possess that unique blend of “community management” skills. I believe this discussion should be more formally part of the LGA consultation rather than speculate as part of this post.

I’m happy to receive views/comments on any of the points raised here.

 

 

 

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Knowledge Hub: A response.

The Knowledge Hub community of practice facilities were meant to be a step on the way, and not an end in itself, which is what I think the Knowledge Hub has become. The unfortunate conjunction of original concepts and vastly cut-down capabilities (per the original specification) has resulted in a just-about-adequate user interface (UI), but a fairly hostile user experience (UX).

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My colleague Dave Briggs has posted an interesting challenge about the Knowledge Hub – the new community platform for local government – questioning whether it is reaching the parts that the legacy platform used to reach and particularly its relative lack of activity and fairly laboured user experience.

I wasn’t too sure whether or not I should contribute to the discussion, given that I probably have more insight on the history of this project than most people, and as the lead consultant and architect for the project over two years until October 2011, I’m party to some information that I can’t (or shouldn’t) make public.

However, in the light of the comments and feedback I’ve seen on Dave’s original post, I feel compelled to correct a few assumptions.

The original thinking and concept for the Knowledge Hub, which I articulated in a Knowledge Management Strategy paper I was commissioned to produce in 2008 for the Improvement & Development Agency (IDeA, now part of the LGA), was to leverage emerging social web technologies to provide better opportunities for collaboration across local government, encourage innovation and break down the silo’d working practices that were becoming prevalent on the legacy CoP platform.

The fundamental design concept was to map every user’s social graph (people and relationships) against their interest graph (the topics and themes they followed, e.g. housing, environment, planning etc.). I wasn’t to know it at the time, but this is precisely the thinking behind Google+ and specifically Google+ Circles.

Of course, each person’s social and information graph could span both internal (to Knowledge Hub) and external (the web) environments. Consequently the design incorporated facilities to link to conversations happening on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, together with external blogs and RSS feeds. The aggregated feeds would be stitched together using a ‘filterable’ activity stream that included internal (Knowledge Hub) conversations. The user would then see relevant information (i.e. people and topics they had chosen to follow) coming to them rather than having to go out and find it.

Since all content would be tagged (some automatically), aggregated streams would show topics that were trending (similar to what Twitter has recently released as Tailored Trends), thereby helping to manage the information torrent. The system would also support powerful semantic search across all of this content.

The original specification also included support for the development of mobile and web apps, using tools that would enable non-technical users to create these apps, similar to the facilities provided by iBuildApp, but specific to local government data and services.

I noted that one comment referred to local government still being wedded to long and confusing email chains. This was also a consideration in the original design specification, and a feature was included to enable blogging direct from email, i.e. the user didn’t have to learn to use any new tools to create a blog post – they could do it all from their email account.

An important point to note was that the community of practice facilities (as currently being debated on Dave Briggs’ blog) were meant to be a step on the way, and not an end in itself, which is what I think the Knowledge Hub has become. The unfortunate conjunction of original concepts and vastly cut-down capabilities (per the original specification) has resulted in a just-about-adequate user interface (UI), but a fairly hostile user experience (UX). If you’re not sure about the difference between UI and UX, check this blog I posted a while back.

To my mind, this is proving to be the biggest drag on user engagement and activity. Knowledge Hub is a complex system, but a good UX design will ensure this complexity is hidden, and that navigation and actions become intuitive. This can be achieved by being aware at all times about what a user is trying to achieve (e.g. filing a document, writing a blog) and ensuring that:

  • links and sign-posting are contextually relevant
  • each process has a logical flow
  • there are no dead ends
  • action links are defined by verbs (e.g. write a blog, file a document)

If experienced social network/social media users like me, or Dave Briggs, find the environment a little confusing, I can only sympathise with users who are only just starting to embrace the world of the social web.

Since I doubt there will be any major changes made to the UI or UX, the effort falls on the Knowledge Hub support team and community facilitators to ensure that users understand how to get the best out of the system. And this will be hard work.

Going forward, I would encourage the LGA think about re-convening the Knowledge Hub Advisory Group. These were highly experienced knowledge, information and data professionals who helped me to shape the original specification and acted as critical friends throughout the procurement, architecture and design stages. They were disbanded when I left the project and all subsequent strategic design decisions were folded into a small in-house project team. A case of  “none of us are as smart as all of us” perhaps!

I hope I’ve gone some way to setting the record straight on what Knowledge Hub was meant to be. Community of practice facilities were just a small part of a much bigger idea, sadly not realised.

Other blogs in this sequence:

 

 

 

 

 

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Government launches public sector app store

I came across this artcle on the BBC website today. For those who remember my involvement with the early design and business requirements for the Knowledge Hub, the Khub App store was one of the main features of the new platform. Regretably it got lost in the budget cuts (or was de-priotised?), and hence an opportunity lost.  As can be seen from the announcement, this could have been a net revenue stream for LGA as opposed to being perceived as adding to bottom line costs. See this earlier blog post.

To quote from the BBC article:

“It is hoped the service will allow organisations to purchase services on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, rather than be locked into lengthy contracts. They typically include services such as email, word processing, system hosting, enterprise resource planning and electronic records management.

The Cloudstore would help contribute to overall planned savings of £180m by 2015, the government said, although a spokesman admitted it was “difficult to anticipate total saving with the constant changes in technology”.

Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “Simply stated, purchasing services from Cloudstore will be quicker, easier, cheaper and more transparent for the public sector and suppliers alike.This bold move has potential to showcase the UK as a global leader in online service delivery, providing the procurement culture in government evolves to take advantage.”

And the following could almost have been lifted word for word from my original business case:

“Cloudstore (read Khub Appstore) represents a revolution in how the public sector buys (procures) software and services,” Chief executive Suraj Kika said.  My additions in brackets.

However, whilst feeling (perhaps understandably?) frustrated that the App Store never got implemented for KHub, I am encouraged that UK Gov have seen the benefits of using an app store as a cost-effective way of procuring and delivering business software, at a time when more and more users are getting familiar with this way of accessing and using new functionality. As I mentioned in my original article, the benefits of this distribution model are:

  • Easy to use and trusted conduit of software.
  • Download model is widely understood by both consumers and developers of software.
  • ‘Mashup’ tools will make it easy for apps to be built and shared by anyone.
  • Provides centralised control and value-add including commercial, security, access controls, digital rights.
  • Stimulates ideas for compelling new business scenarios and service innovation.
And of course users have the advantage of discarding or updating their apps if they no longer serve their immediate business requirements.
So, presumably local councils seeking to make cost savings in the procurement and distribution of new business applications will make the most of this new Cloudstore. I think the business case is pretty compelling.
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Maximising the power of collective knowledge

Introduction

This is a summary of one of the breakout session I ran at the Cisco Public Services Summit, Oslo 9-11 December 2011.  It describes the role of Communities of Practice in supporting more effective collaboration and knowledge sharing between organisations working in the public sector. It notes the key lessons learnt from a 6-year journey, starting from the launch of the UK local government CoP platform in 2006 and how this led to an ambitious attempt to create a new kind of platform for online collaboration and data sharing – the Knowledge Hub.  The slides are embedded at the foot of this post, and also available at Slideshare.

Project Purpose

The main purpose of the project was to break down some of the silo’d work practices both within councils and across the public sector. Local councils were delivering the same set of services, but were not learning from each other about good/best practice. This was also the first time that communities of practice had been used within the public sector environment as a process and methodology for encouraging knowledge sharing and personal development.

I’ve made clear in the slides the difference between “Communities of Practice” (CoPs) and “Social Networks”. Put simply, CoPs operate from a sense of shared values and objectives. Social Networks support a far more personalised agenda, or in other words, its “we” as opposed to “me”.

The following points correspond to the slide presentation, and as noted previously, represent the lessons learnt from a 6-year journey.

Communities of Practice – Lessons Learnt

1. Don’t expect everyone to join in.

Command and control structures are alive and well, particularly in public sector organisations.  Joining a CoP where status and rank mean nothing, and where the free-flow of knowledge is encouraged can be a bit of a culture shock for some people.  By all means encourage colleagues and managers to join, but accept that collaboration and knowledge sharing doesn’t come easy to some people. Concentrate efforts instead on building trust between those who want to be there and create a safe haven for knowledge.

2. Community Facilitation is essential.

You need a community facilitator or moderator to provide cohesion and maintain direction for the CoP. Almost without exception, the most successful CoPs had a good and effective facilitator. Some of the roles and duties of a facilitator include:

  1. Supporting sociability, relationship and trust building
  2. Seeding and feeding discussion topics
  3. Maintaining and sustaining the community ‘rhythm’.
  4. Curating and signposting knowledge artefacts for capture and reuse
  5. Helping to connect community members
  6. Providing help with the CoP tools and facilities
  7. Ensuring the community space is kept “tidy” and navigable
  8. Reporting CoP activity – metrics, evaluations, newsletters
  9. Monitoring success criteria and impact.

3.  Establish your KPIs.

Be clear about what your CoP is trying to achieve. Remember this is a “community” so engage with the members to agree purpose and intended outcomes.  Once the purpose and outcomes are agreed you can identify the metrics that will measure progress. Try to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative data for the metrics you measure.

When monitoring the metrics, remember that each CoP will have a particular rhythm or cycle. Some will be light on discussion and strong on shared document building and vice versa. Others will be ‘one-shot’ supporting a single challenge.  Not all communities will be a hive of activity; some will support its participants at a low level of interaction over a long period, others for short bursts around face-to-face-meetings or events.

Key lesson: Don’t rely on metrics to claim your community is successful; use metrics and indicators to understand your community better. 

4. ROI can be measured.

You can guarantee that someone, sometime, somewhere is going to ask about return on investment. I’d much prefer to consider the “I” in ROI as meaning “Impact”, but we live in a world where – for some – value can only be measured in terms of cash saved.  Be prepared for this and consider how ROI can be quantified. In the example for local government CoPs we identified cash savings for online (virtual) conferences compared to physical (face to face) conferences and found that on average £8000 can be saved for each on-line conference.  Online conferences have now become a fairly regular feature, so the potential savings continue to accrue.

5. Hotseats generate heat!

Hotseats are where you invite a recognised expert or illuminory to spend some time answering questions from the community. The event should be promoted and advertised in advance to generate interest, and the person invited into the hotseat can seed the discussions by issuing a statement or question (possibly controversial) prior to the hotseat starting. Questions and answers are posted in the forum. The event can generate a lot of interest and discussions within the community usually continue long after the hotseat has finished.

6.  Use stories to promote the benefits

Don’t just rely on newsletters, statistics or case studies to promote the benefits of the CoP. Bring it alive through stories and anecdotes from the community members. Publish, promote and reward these stories. There is no better endorsement for the success of a CoP than from the CoP members themselves.

Knowledge Hub

The final part of the session was devoted to the thinking behind the development of a “next generation” community of practice platform – the “Knowledge Hub”.  What problems were we trying to fix with this new platform?  Briefly stated these were:

  • Over 80% of the CoPs had been set up as private spaces (gated access via the Facilitator as opposed to just being able to join).  In effect these were silo’d knowledge repositories. We wanted a system that would encourage more interaction between CoPs.
  • There was lack of permeability with external (outside the firewall) conversations. We wanted a system that could easily integrate with external web services.
  • We wanted to address the perennial issue of information overload, perhaps more accurately described as “filter failure”.  Using explicit data provided by the user in their on-line profile, e.g. where they work, their area of expertise, what groups they join, etc., filters could be established to improve the relevance of information received.
  • In a similar way to the way that Amazon works, we wanted to track user behaviour (their digital footprint) in order to “push” relevant information – e.g. conversations, events, and documents to the users.
  • We wanted active and guided navigation to help users find and access relevant knowledge.
  • We wanted to tap into the emerging market for mashups and apps; providing users with the tools to combine and link data to create value-added apps for improving council services.
  • We wanted to reduce development costs and open up the architecture to enable developers and entrepreneurs to create additional value. We would use open source software and adopt open standards (e.g. OAuth, OpenSocial, OpenGraph etc.).

However, as with all things public sector, the budget was radically scaled back early in 2011 and consequently not all of these features will be implemented. The cut-down version of the local government platform was launched 27 October 2011. (http://knowledgehub.local.gov.uk).

But the dream lives on. With support from PFI Knowledge Solutions (Knowledge Hub developers) a roadmap of future enhancements for their innovative Intelligus platform may eventually deliver all of the original requirements. More on this later; a matter of “watch this space”!

I’ll be happy to answer any questions about the Community of Practice project mentioned above, or the Intelligus platform that may realise the original vision for the Knowledge Hub.

 

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Communities of Practice: a strategy for more effective collaboration

Acting as a public administrator, it was my privilege to arrange and facilitate a meeting this morning between a delegation from the Government of Singapore and some of the ‘expert’ Community of Practice Facilitators from the local government Community of Practice platform. My thanks to Etienne Wenger for making the original connections with the Singapore Government, and to Adrian Barker (Policy & Performance CoP – 3913 members), Neil Rimmer (Productivity and Efficiency Exchange CoP – 2513 members) and Michael Norton (Facilitator’s CoP – 528 members) for their input and presentations.

The delegation was from the Public Service of the 21st Century Office (PS21 Office) and was led by the Government of Singapore’s Permanent Secretary, Ms  Lim Soo Hoon. The purpose of the visit was to share knowledge about building sustainable learning and sharing networks in the public sector, and we used the learning experience gained over the past 5 years in establishing the LGID Communities of Practice platform as the largest and most successful professional network in the UK, with over 96,000 users and more than 1,500 CoPs.

During the course of what turned out to be a highly interactive session, I was reminded of so many useful lessons as to what makes a successful CoP, in terms of user engagement, establishing and sustaining a culture of sharing and trust, and building a knowledge ecology that encourages cross-organisation, cross-agency and cross-regional collaboration. Though I’ve been involved (and in all humility – I started it all off!) with the local government CoP strategy since 2005, there is no better learning experience that hearing from practitioners who have been at the sharp end in building and nurturing their communities, and having a real understanding of the skills and effort involved in facilitating a CoP.  They know what works and what doesn’t, but if there was one common denominator, it was that successful CoPs invariably have active and engaged facilitators (sometime also referred to as community managers or community moderators).

I’m not at liberty to post all of the presentations used at meeting (except my own – see below), I thought it might be useful to summarise all of the key lessons for establishing and sustaining successful CoPs, as follows:

Facilitation – what is it?

  • Facilitator’s engage and connect community members by encouraging participation, facilitating and seeding discussions, and by keeping events and community activities engaging and vibrant.
  • Guiding a group to use its knowledge, skills and potential to achieve its goals.
  • Helping by making the processes easier. It’s about guiding rather than directing.
  • Looking at the process rather than context – how you do something rather than what you do.
  • Making it easier for the group to get to their agreed destination.
  • Striking a balance between ‘the group’ and ‘the task’.

Factors influencing success:

  • Forums, blogs, events, library.  Wiki less so.
  • Good quality, active facilitation: making it useful; concise, informed, informative; and giving community members  ‘room to breathe.’
  • Day to day content; monthly update summarising key content + alerts; one-offs (e.g. on-line conferences)
  • Size – critical mass.  Confidence that someone will respond.
  • Face to face element
  • Honesty and trust (who else is listening in?)
  • Keep on topic (urgent, immediate, wide interest, range)
  • Openness, honesty, trust (who else is listening in)
  • Technology – ease of use, facilities, integrated elements (e.g. wiki draws on discussions)
  • An art.  Non-linear: results don’t automatically match your efforts.  A few small things can make a big difference.
  • Presentation at regional and local events
  • Promotion through other online channels (website pages and bulletins)
  • Links with social media channels, e.g. having a Twitter account
  • Organised regular ‘Hot’ and Warmseat’ events to stimulate interest
  • Use of regular polls to assess member opinions

Lesson Learnt:

  • You need trained and dedicated community facilitation
  • On-line events take at least as much organisational resource as traditional – but save time, money and the planet!
  • Need to constantly engage members with interesting and new content
  • Membership rises whenever we promote events – it keeps their interest fresh
  • Use social media channels for promotion for the new on-line generation
  • Lots of work needed to engage older, traditional generation.
  • We are social beings who thrive from human interaction; technology is just an enabler.
  • Don’t be over-prescriptive; give the community a range of collaborative tools and let them decide which ones they want to use and how to use them.
  • Don’t assume everyone understands how to use social media tools.
  • Identify and look after your (power) contributors.
  • Identify and look after your facilitators – they are quite often the difference between successful and unsuccessful communities.
  • Condition your managers for failure – not every CoP is going to be successful.
  • Most senior managers still don’t get it!
  • Command and control will hamper the development of a community.

So, once again – my grateful thanks to all of the contributors to this morning’s meeting, both the presenters and the members of the Singapore delegation.  I wish the PS21 Office every success in establishing their own collaboration and knowledge sharing networks, and can assure them that there is plenty of help, advice and support available from the growing global CoP environments.


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Knowledge Hub – part 5: Day of the App

appstore apps

Continuing my sequence of blog posts about the Knowledge Hub, the new and innovative community and collaboration platform for the UK public sector. I am devoting this post to the Knowledge Hub’s “App Store” facilities that will get delivered in the next development phase (no dates yet, but potentially around Sept/Oct 2011).

I think maybe a pause here for a definition as to what an “app” is and how this might differ from a ‘widget’ or a ‘plug-in’.

“App” is an abbreviation for application. An app is a piece of software. It can run on the Internet, on your computer, or on a mobile platform, such as a smart phone or tablet device (e.g. iPad). Apps have become synonymous with Apple’s iTunes App Store, where proprietary apps can be downloaded for use on any Apple product. Platform/device independent apps can be accessed from the Android Market.

Web-based apps (device and software independent apps that are accessed and run from the ‘Cloud’) include Google Apps,. Common applications include calendars, webmail and on-line documents. Web applications are popular due to the ubiquity of web browsers. The ability to update and maintain web applications without distributing and installing software on potentially thousands of client computers is a key reason for their popularity, as is the inherent support for cross-platform compatibility

A “widget’ is software that can be embedded into an app, or in the case of a Web Widget it can be installed and executed within a web page. A widget is usually tied to a platform, such as an iPhone widget.

A plug-in is a set of software components that adds specific abilities to a larger software application. Plug-ins are commonly used in web browsers to play video, scan for viruses, and display new file types. Well-known plug-ins examples include Adobe Flash Player and QuickTime.

Knowledge Hub will support apps, widgets and plug-ins, but for the purpose of this post, I will use the generic label ‘apps’ to include all of these varieties.

opensocial image

All apps on Knowledge Hub will conform to the OpenSocial standard, which has been supported by a number of vendors, such as Google, MySpace, Yahoo!, IBM, Oracle, Saleforce.com, Ning, Plaxo, XING, Six Apart, LinkedIn, to name a few. This means that that the app will be interoperable with any other social network system that supports this standard. This is part of the underlying “open standards” design philosophy for Knowledge Hub, which is positioned as an “open” alternative to the Facebook Platform.

Why is any of this important? Well if you’re not one the several million smart phone users that are accessing and downloading the million or so apps available from the various app stores, then maybe you’re not aware of what the fuss is about. This is clearly a growing market – some analyts are quoting growth of over 70% for this year alone.

For the public sector it offers new and exciting ways of delivering products and services at a fraction of the cost of traditional channels (e.g. online transactional websites). Opportunities will be fuelled by the growth of publicly available government/local government data (Open Data). This offers a number of models that can be exploited by users of the Knowledge Hub, e.g.:

  • downloadable mobile or desktop apps – Apple-style app store approach. These apps can make use of externally hosted datasets registered on Knowledge Hub, datasets uploaded to and registered within Knowledge Hub and external datasets not registered on KHub.
  • hosted web apps – runs on a server somewhere and the user logs into it via a browser. Knowledge Hub could in principle provide hosting capabilities for this kind of web app as part of a ‘premium’ service to the sector, but demand for this sort of facility will need to be tested with users and stakeholders.
  • client-side Javascript mashups, visualisations, apps. Code that is downloaded as part of a web page and runs as Javascript inside the user’s browser.

As with the majority of the commercial app stores, Knowledge Hub will encourage users to rate and review the apps they download in order to identify the most popular apps.

The main benefits of the apps store can be summarised as follows:

  • Easy to use and trusted conduit of software.
  • Download model is widely understood by both consumers and developers of software.
  • ‘Mashup’ tools will make it easy for apps to be built and shared by anyone.
  • Provides centralised control and value-add including commercial, security, access controls, digital rights.
  • Stimulates ideas for compelling new business scenarios and service innovation.

Though I’ve frequently mentioned mobile devices in this post, this does not mean apps are just for small screens. Newspapers and e-books have started to wrap their content in apps that come with additional features, hoping that it will allow them to charge for more things. And as other electronic devices—television sets, alarm clocks, e-readers and even electricity meters—become smarter and more connected, consumers will be able to download apps for these too. Perhaps, in the end, everything will have an app!

Some examples of where apps are being used in local government:

Scores on the Doors lets you and I see businesses’ and schools’ hygiene ratings by searching through its online database. You can check the hygiene ratings for any takeaways, pubs, clubs, schools, restaurants and food halls in your area (as long as your council is one of the 200 participating in this scheme!)

food hygiene

Smartphone owners can report graffiti, vandalism and anti-social behaviour in Wokingham thanks to a new app. The Looking Local app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch enables residents to use a ‘Report It’ feature to let Wokingham Borough Council about problems in their area.

Daventry District Council used location-based technology to improve refuse collection routes through better planned routes. This resulted in £223,000 savings from reduced mileage, less overtime, smaller vehicles and fewer rounds.

London Transport for iPhone – Real time journey planning, live departure boards, licensed taxi booking, wireless printing, bus stop timetables, nearby stops and stations, live traffic cameras, and more…

In a future post I will explain how apps can be developed using the Knowledge Hub’s “Mashup Centre“.

NB: Knowledge Hub is built and supported on the PFIKS Intelligus Platform

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The Knowledge Hub – part 3 :User Experience (UX)

KnowledgeHub_Strap_RGB

I thought it was probably about time to post an update about the Knowledge Hub; I’ve had my head under the bonnet of the technology for longer than I had intended and given the proximity of the Beta release in April this year I should probably surface for air and reorientation.

Background

Given it’s been a couple of months since I last posted on this topic, a quick recap on what this is all about:

The concept for the Knowledge Hub surfaced as part of a 3-year Knowledge Management Strategy I was commissioned to produce for the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) in 2008.  IDeA has since been rebranded as Local Government Improvement & Development (LGID).  I’ve since been involved in the project as lead consultant in bringing the concept to a functional reality. This included an exhausting and exhaustive technology procurement process that lasted almost 9 months and was completed in November 2010 with contracts signed with PFIKS.  We’re now in the actual development stage.

We’re using an agile development (Scrum) process, where the original 260 or so business requirements have been distilled into ‘stories’ describing the outcomes and which are clustered into a series of 2-weekly Sprints. Each Sprint is tested and signed-off before moving onto the next Sprint. There will be 28 Sprints in total, taking us up to a live launch around end of September, but an early ‘Beta’ release is being prepared after Sprint 8, which as noted earlier will happen around April. PFIKS and Liberata are the technology partners for delivery of the KHub and the technology solution will be developed on the PFIKS Intelligus Open Source platform.

I’ve previously blogged about KHub (Part 1, Part 2), and there is a growing mountain of material describing what it is and what it will do, including a video and a ‘de-jargonised’ or Plain English description that I’ve added as an attachment to this blog post. I don’t propose to regurgitate all of this background information here, but have tried to condense the key aspects into the following two paragraphs:

The Knowledge Hub is an open collaborative platform, developed using Open Source software,  that will support greater knowledge sharing across the local government and public sector community, including Third Sector and private sector partnerships. It will join up conversations, data sets and information sources and make available free online tools and services shared across the local government community.

Aside from the collaborative aspect of KHub, data and services (e.g. Apps and Mashups) will be key to providing added value to the KHub as they provide tangible deliverable products within KHub which can be accessed and reused across the local government community. Providing an environment for uploading, accessing, reusing and further developing data and applications will result in savings of software development and data management.

KHub - conceptual

However, coming to the point of this blog post; I’ve been aware for some time that generalised descriptions of KHub positioning and benefits do not adequately describe what this ‘thing’ is, or what it will do for its users. To this end (and to satisfy my feelings of guilt for not having blogged more frequently about what I firmly believe is an incredibly innovative product) I have decided to start a series of blog posts which (I hope) will illustrate in more depth and detail some of the fundamental design decisions. I’m also going to focus more on user experience than any detailed technical discussion, though I may need to refer to the technology when describing some of the features. I’m using a numbering scheme in the blog title to assist with assembling these posts over time into a comprehensive knowledge asset.

User Experience (UX)

For this post I will look at what we are doing for ‘User Experience, or ‘UX’.  This is arguably the most important element of the project, since any amount of investment in the technology is worthless if people have difficulty in using the system or it isn’t fit for purpose. If we get this wrong then our current cohort of over 80,000 Community of Practice users (who will be migrated to the KHub platform during 2011/2) will abandon the new platform, and new users will try it once and leave.

Maybe before delving too deeply into this topic, we should pause to clarify the difference between the User Interface (UI) and the User Experience (UX)

The UI is defined as the system by which people (users) interact with a machine. The user interface includes hardware (physical) and software (logical) components. User interfaces exist for various systems, and provide a means of:

  • Input, allowing the users to manipulate a system, and/or
  • Output, allowing the system to indicate the effects of the users’ manipulation.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The UX is about how a person feels about using a system. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction and product ownership, but it also includes a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As starter for this exercise we developed a number of pen portraits for typical users. These were then expanded into user profiles that can be used to inform the business flows that we need to develop for the user interface, and the types of knowledge assets that need to be available. The four roles that have so far been mapped out in this way are:

  • Director of Finance and Performance
  • Social services Team Leader
  • Organisational Development Manager
  • Deputy Head of Environmental Health

They can be seen at  http://picasaweb.google.com/steve.dale/TheKnowledgeHubOffer?authkey=Gv1sRgCMeA5aG6v8TIXw#

It is recognised that these are only four out of potentially many hundreds of different user roles operating in the public sector, but more will be developed, (a priority will be Council Member roles) but it’s a useful start.

UX Design Considerations

The following points highlight the main User Experience design considerations:

1. KHub is significantly more complex than the legacy CoP platform and even experienced users migrating from the legacy platform may find the new environment confusing. In fact, legacy CoP users may have more problems getting to grips with the new environment than first-time users since they will be looking for familiar navigation features, typography and functionality that they have used with CoPs.

2. KHub is leading-edge technology and we need to bring leading edge thinking into the UX design. The UX for the legacy CoP was unique at the time in providing a clean and simple interface, devoid of any clutter and limited in terms of personalisation options. This suited the demographic of the time (2006 launch) that were only just starting to use social networking facilities.  Much has happened during the intervening five years, and many public sector staff are now both familiar and comfortable using social media tools, hence we can start to deliver to a more sophisticated audience. However, we must also ensure that we continue to cater for the novice user and strike a balance between user freedom to explore the features and facilities without the clutter of context-sensitive help, and the guided navigation that some users may require.

3. We should seek out design/UX experts and exemplar websites and in particular, to consider moving away from the traditional approach of presenting the user with lists, tabs or buttons which label various tools (blog, wikis, forum, wiki, etc.) and more towards ‘calls to action’ that describe business processes. Or in other words, to design around what the user is trying to achieve rather than the traditional typography of labelling tools in a toolbox.  For example, if a user wants to open up a document for collaboration, the call to action may be ‘collaborate with contacts’. The actual social media application being deployed could be a wiki, but the user would not necessarily have to know that.

Jyri Engestrom calls this “finding your verbs”. Given a noun, what actions are associated with it? So, going back to school-day English lessons:

Nouns (objects) Verbs (actions)
Videos Play, stop, edit, store, upload, comment on, embed.
Articles Read, archive, quote, link to, share, comment on, annotate, tag, review
Photos Store, views, add to favourites, edit, link to, make prints, share, comment on, embed, tag
Books Read, purchase, add to wish list, comment on, rate, tag, discuss, review

Many of these verbs translate directly into features and can inform the typography to be used for the site. Also notice that the verbs are both personal and social. This is to be expected since we interact with objects on a personal level and a social level.

4. We need to seek out and utilise UX design good practice, for example, limiting the available choices on any page to no more than 4 or 5 options in order to avoid ‘cognitive dissonance’

5. We need to ensure that there are no ‘dead ends’ for any user process, e.g. always ensuring the user remains oriented and in a position to choose other actions on completion of an action they have started.

6. We need to recognise the continuing role of email in the daily work routines of users. We should ensure seamless integration of workflows between email and KHub facilities, e.g. making it simple to pots content to Khub from email clients, and ensuring relevant KHub content updates can be received by email.

And last but by no means least:

Community Building isn’t about Features. If there was one immutable law of social software, it would be this: Technology cannot solve people problems

No matter how great the technology you are using, it can’t solve what are fundamentally human social problems. Garnering interest, getting people excited about a topic, reciprocating knowledge – these are all social interactions. Technology may help you along the way, but it can’t have conversations for you and it’s no substitute for actual human interaction. It might be worth remembering that it’s people who collaborate, not machines!

Example of User Experience Design

The following is one of the many business scenarios we have used to help develop thinking around the features, functionality and content that the Knowledge Hub must deliver.  The questions probe for solutions to the business problem, and answers to the questions inform the design for the UX. All references to places and individuals are fictitious, and any association with real people or places is purely coincidental.

Parking problems in Freedom City are now, in the words of one opposition councillor, the nightmare that won’t go away. Since the introduction of new parking restrictions in the City, each day sees councillor postbags packed with complaints about new parking rules, behaviour of the wardens employed by Yellow P (the parking contractor), and new higher rates of charges and fines.

Today the Freedom Times (the local morning newspaper) has run a single front-page picture story headlined ‘We’re Alright Jack!’ A picture takes up half of the front page and shows Council Leader Jack Bright parking his car next to other members and staff cars, in the city council’s own car park, right in the heart of the city centre. The article fills page 1 and most of page 3. It reports that Freedom Council provides all year around free city centre parking for members and staff, while at the same time pushing through ‘massive’ increases in charges and parking fines for ordinary residents. The Chamber of Commerce, city centre businesses and residents are all quoted condemning the council for hypocrisy and being self-serving. The paper says that the council was asked for a response but that the Director of Highways refused to comment.

The paper’s editorial condemns councillors for feathering their own nest with free parking, while at the same time ripping off residents, businesses and visitors to the City. It has started a petition demanding that councillors and staff pay for their parking like everyone else.

(Freedom City has been experiencing recruitment problems for key jobs such as social workers and planners. It has recently highlighted free parking as a benefit to people applying for the hard to fill jobs)

Councillor Bright is away in London today. You have agreed to appear on the regional evening news programme to put the council’s case.

Questions:

1.1 Where would Councillor Bright go to find evidence of what other councils’ policies are for town and city car parks?

a)       KHub will be a key resource. It will identify policies and charges made by other councils. Additionally KHub will identify

a.        Parking for Councillors being a key benefit used to keep salary and recruitment costs to a minimum

b.       Information from Freedom City on average commuting distances and numbers of council workers living in rural areas

c.        Freedom City’s carbon footprint and how this has been reduced over the last few years

d.       Car sharing as a % of council workers’ commuting practices

e.       Numbers of workers who also carry childcare duties and therefore have flexible transport needs

f.         Innovative thinking (such as that by Richmond) on charging based on engine size

g.        Facebook/Twitter etc. campaigns relating to for/against parking arguments

h.       Policies of the Green movement

i.         Other Freedom City initiatives that reduce the carbon footprint

1.2 How could this council compare their costs for maintaining free parking for staff with other councils?

a)       Charts and graphs by councils around the nation relating to different vehicle types

b)       Chart average revenue per car/resident comparing Freedom with other councils

c)       Allow user to select five(?) comparative councils and drill down (tabular/visual) into deeper metrics

d)       Set up an online debate / forum with councillors from other national councils

e)       KHub search and filter tools across all third party content to re-present that content in the most relevant format for the user’s needs and mode

f)        Develop marginal cost/benefit analysis through dynamic online whiteboarding solution

1.3 How could this council identify opportunities for efficiency savings?

a)       Closed/open consultation process with councillors/council workers/public

b)       Public debate captured both on KHub and in the Freedom Times with RSS feeds in/out to both sites (depending on security settings)

c)       Online debate (with offline element?) between Council leaders and local activists

d)       Consideration of entire range of environmental efficiency savings put to public/private vote

e)       Use of KHub to explore and consider efficiency savings and developments from other local councils.

f)        Use of KHub to identify and converse with leading national voices on the issue to bring outside expertise and depoliticise the issue

(Other examples business scenarios available on request)

Other References:

1.      Designing for the Social Web, Joshua Porter, ISBN13:978-0-321-53492-7

2.      Digital Habitats, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, John D Smith, ISBN 13: 970-0-9825036-0-0

3.      UX Experience User Design http://uxdesign.com/

4.      UX Design Planning, Boxes and Arrows.

5.     Knowledge Hub briefing October 2010 V1 (PDF)

In future blog posts I will cover:

  • ‘Social Graphs’ and ‘Activity Streams’ (which are key to how users will interact with the Knowledge Hub)
  • Workspaces – setting up and managing
  • Personalisation
  • Semantic search and the power of the Intelligus Retrieval and Matching Engine
  • The Mashup Centre, the App Store and App development
  • Open Standards, including OpenSocial, OpenID and OAuth
  • Integration of web services (blogs, Twitter etc.)
  • Online Conferencing facilities and Webinars
  • Social Network Analysis, Analytics and other user/usage metrics.
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Knowledge Hub Linked Data Spend App.

The confluence of a number of initiatives around the UK Government’s transparency agenda has opened up a significant and exciting opportunity to deliver the first of a number of applications that will be made available in the Knowledge Hub App Store. The foundations for this initiative include:

1. The transparency agenda requirement for all authorities to openly publish spending data in reusable from January 2011 onwards.

2.  Announcement about the publication of Government spending data

3. LG Group Practitioner Guide to publishing local spend data

4. ESD-Toolkit project to develop an online tool that will convert council csv files on spending into RDF, Linked Data format.

5. The announcement by Talis to offer UK Local Authorities free Linked Data hosting for published expenditure data

6. The Knowledge Hub project to provide an open platform for community collaboration and development of value-added applications (mashups etc.).

The key differentiators between this KHub app and the many and varied apps and websites that are now publishing details of government or local government spend data are:

1. The purpose is to provide insight and opportunities for improving local council performance and efficiency and not just to know where and how money is being spent. This will be achieved by including additional contextual data from sources such as ONS, to provide data on spend per head for specific service lines, e.g. social care.

2. The app and the business intelligence it offers will support the work of local council officers and heads of department; it can be used by citizens though this is not the primary audience.

3. It is, as the name suggests, using linked data to add context to open spend data, i.e. delivering the benefits of a semantic web application. (What is open and linked data?)

The proposed KHub App will interface with an aggregate store of local authority open spend data, hosted on the Talis platform. The App will enable the user to perform deep-dive queries and visualisation of specific spend data categories, and spend data comparisons across local authorities.

The specification of the Linked Data Spend App is currently work in progress, but some ideas for what the App could potentially deliver include:

  • Spend by category: charts and tables, drill down into service
  • Spend by supplier: charts and tables
  • Supplier by categories: who are the suppliers and who do they supply: table with links to companies house information
  • Spend by region or council by category: overlaid on an interactive map
  • Spend by region or council by service: overlaid on an interactive map with drill down into service and category
  • Spend over time
  • Productivity measures: spend per head on social care, spend per head on bin collection, spend per mile of highway maintenance.

Outputs from this project, apart from the app itself, will be:

  • Documentation on how the application(s) could be hosted on any web site.
  • Published code developed for the visualisation application(s) under open source license.

The Linked Data Spend App will be launched early 2011 and will be one of many apps delivered as part of the Knowledge Hub App project.

Data flows for the Linked Data Spend App.

Linked Data Spend Data App

See also the Talis blog on this project.

More details will be provided as part of the launch communications. In the mean time I will be happy to respond to any questions.

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Bonfire of the Quangos

The promised axe is coming down hard today on 192 quangos that will be abolished, with another 289 being radically overhauled. 380 quangos are staying.

As one insightful blogger noted:

The regular hoeing to keep the soil clean has rather been neglected these last few years. Hence the need now for the Round-up and flame-thrower approach. It’s brutal, but it’s cleansing. With the rubbish cleared, the productive can be nurtured.

Any bets on when the first new quango of this coalition will be created?

List of QuangosPublic-Bodies-List-FINAL 14-10-2010

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The Lean Machine

Much has been written about ‘Lean‘, and what a ‘lean’ organisation looks like. ‘Lean’ quite simply means creating more value with fewer resources. A popular misconception is that ‘lean’ only applies to manufacturing industries, but in fact it can be applied to any business process, including within service industries. Clearly it it is a concept that should be concentrating the minds of Government and Local Government in these austere times, though whether an intelligent and disciplined approach is being made to the cost cutting we’re now seeing, or whether its more of a ‘slash and burn’ approach I’m not too sure. Perhaps this will become clearer when the spending review is completed this Autumn.

While we wait for this, and for anyone still confused as to what ‘Lean’ actually means, I can recommend this presentation from Claudio Perrone. The best I’ve seen in explaining a simple concept in simple terms.


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