Crowdsourcing public policy in Malaysia

malaysiaprimeministerEarlier this year I wrote about plans by the Labour party here in Britain to turn to the crowd for policy suggestions.  They created a new website whereby people could suggest new ideas for policies, which could then be voted on by fellow users, with the most popular then being considered by the party for their election manifesto.

As attempts to involve the public more in politics it was a pretty weak attempt, but it appears to have inspired politicians in Malaysia, who are looking to crowdsource ideas for its upcoming budget.  The initiative will be hosted on the prime minister’s personal website and offers users the chance to both make suggestions and vote on others suggestions on topics ranging from public service to health and public safety.

The site has already attracted some interesting suggestions however, such as one in the public service category asking for government information to be made both open and machine readable as a default.  Another requests a tool to allow citizens to monitor procurement and hold officials to account.

The site itself is a fairly simple affair, with suggestions having typical features such as a like/dislike button and a comments area.  With one of the suggestions submitted to the site being an improvement in government websites, maybe this will be something they look to improve, especially with an increasing number of civil servants utilizing sites such as GitHub for smarter development.

Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak welcomed the proposals and said that they would be considered in the Budget planning process. “I have always maintained that the era of ‘government knows best’ is over. Your ideas, your concerns and your needs will be considered when drawing up an inclusive, balanced and fiscally responsible 2015 budget. The contributions we have already received show Malaysians – young and old – working with the government to develop inclusive policies that benefit everyone.”

It’s a small step towards the prediction aired by NESTA earlier this year that 2014 would be the year we’d see politics crowdsourced however.

…In response, existing political institutions have sought to improve feedback between the governing and the governed through the tentative embrace of crowdsourcing methods, ranging from digital engagement strategies, open government challenges, to the recent stalled attempt to embrace open primaries by the Conservative Party (Iceland has been braver by designing its constitution by wiki). Though for many, these efforts are both too little and too late. The sense of frustration that no political party is listening to the real needs of people is probably part of the reason Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman garnered nine million views in its first month on YouTube.…

Even that is rather a poor showing however given how much control other organizations have managed to supply their stakeholders with.  Public bodies need to do a lot more to be truly embracing the crowd.

How gratitude can be used to grow your social network

lesbian couple huggingI’ve written before about the value a simple thank you has in the workplace.  Indeed, a study from a few years ago found that younger employees rated receiving a thank you as more pleasurable than having sex.  Hard as that is to believe, it does nevertheless underline the potent power of those two simple words.

The power of saying thanks is grounded in what’s known as the find-remind-and-bind theory.  The theory, proposed by Sara Algoe from the University of North Carolina, suggests that the gratitude we express in a thank you prompts a number of things in the recipient, including:

  • the initiation of a new social relationship between the two of you (ie the find part)
  • reminds us of existing social relationships (the remind bit)
  • encourages us to invest and maintain those existing relationships (the bind)

A recent study has set out to delve a bit deeper into the find part of this theory, to test whether a simple thank you may help to extend our social network.  The researchers attempt to craft a situation whereby expressing thanks could be manipulated in such a way as it reflected reality (at least a little).
The subject of their experiment therefore was a mentoring program, whereby participants were to act as mentors to a younger pupil.  Each mentor was asked to deliver advice on a piece of written communication produced by their mentee.

After they had delivered their help to the mentee, each was given a thank you note supposedly written by their pupil.  Half of the notes did little more than acknowledge the advice given to them

I received your feedback through the editing program. I hope to use the paper for my college applications.

The other half however had a much warmer note of gratitude sent to them.

Thank you SO much for all the time and effort you put into doing that for me!

Each mentor was then asked to fill in a questionnaire where they were asked to give their impressions of the mentee.  They were also informed that they could write a message or two on notecards for their mentee should they wish, but this was completely optional.  The aim was to test how socially affiliated the mentor was with their pupil, and whether this was impacted by the type of gratitude they’d received.

How important is gratitude?

Now, it emerged that all but three of the mentors left their mentee a note, with all of the three who did not coming from the ‘cooler’ control group.  The researchers trawled through what was written to try and decipher any potential patterns.

It emerged that when a mentor received a warm note of gratitude, 68% of them would include their contact details in the note, thus initiating further contact.  This dropped to just 42% for those who received the cooler note of gratitude.

Why is this so?

When the researchers looked through the questionnaire data, it emerged that mentors rated the ‘warmer’ mentees much higher than their peers who were paired up with a cool mentee.  The mentee in the gracious group was generally regarded as more interpersonally warm, even if there were no real differences in the competence ratings of each group.

It underlines that saying thank you and expressing gratitude are not just a matter of good manners, but can also significantly help in the forging of social bonds.  The researchers suggest that reaching out to new people can be a risky endeavour, and therefore the gratitude is a good proxy for a warm and welcoming person (thus lower risk).

The message appears clear that we should all be a bit more forthcoming when it comes to showing thanks, to whomever it may be.

The importance of someone who understands organizational knowledge

whoknowswhatAt the heart of the knowledge economy is having the best talent available to your organization, whether on a contract basis or more flexibly via freelancing or crowdsourcing.  With innovation increasingly being a collective endeavour however, it’s increasingly valuable to have people within your organization that know just what knowledge resides in their colleagues heads.

A recent study suggests that this kind of specialist knowledge works best when it’s contained within the mind of one individual.  The researchers gathered together 112 teams, each consisting of three members, and asked them to rank the commercial prospects of five distinct drinks, going from the best to the worst.
Each member of the team was given a particular specialism, and asked to read some unique information about the products according to that specialism.  So for instance, some were given R&D type information about the products, others were given legal information or marketing data.The task at hand had a perfect answer, with that answer relying on the teams identifying various interdependencies.  So for instance, they might find some information in the legal data that suggested that a key part of the R&D for the product was about to become illegal.The meta expertTo test the role of the meta expert, half of the teams had one member that was provided with a written overview of the talents and specialities of their team mates.  In the other half of the teams, this role was divided between each of the team members.It transpired that after an initial team discussion, those teams with this information purely in the hands of one person produced much better outcomes than in those teams within which the knowledge was split.Why was this so?The researchers had conducted a previous study into this topic, and found that people tend to share information most readily when they are made aware of how each person possesses different knowledge and experiences.  In other words, when each person has part of the jigsaw, it makes sense to collaborate to find all of the pieces.So they reasoned that pooling this ‘knowledge map’ inside of one person would force that person into this perfect collaborative state.  What’s more, by encouraging that one person to think in such a collective way, it also emerged that their peers would begin to think in this way also.When the researchers evaluated videos from the experiment, they found that the teams with one central meta expert would ask more questions about who knew what, and subsequently incorporated all of this knowledge into a bigger collective whole, which in turn led to better team performance.The ideal scenarioThe researchers suggest that this kind of role is most effective when the knowledge contained within a team is highly segmented by speciality, something that is highly likely to occur in the modern enterprise.  Of course, the researchers don’t speculate as to how much of this kind of information one person can realistically retain.  One would imagine that there is a definite capacity, beyond which the process begins to break down.
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting finding for those organizations that are looking to better empower the knowledge workers in their midst to work better together.

Research explores what makes a collaborative software project work

githubCrowdsourcing has had a pretty big impact upon most industries, but perhaps software development has seen a bigger impact than most.  The rise of social coding sites such as BitBucket and GitHub have transformed the way software projects are undertaken.

Such sites offer developers the opportunity to collaborate on projects with other coders from around the world.  The success of the sites has been overwhelming, with millions of developers contributing to applications on all manner of topics.

A recent paper set out to explore whether there were any fundamental differences between successful projects and unsuccessful ones.  The study, conducted by researchers from Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, combed over some 300,000 software projects on GitHub to try and understand the things that contributed to success.

As with any software project, the initial stages will often see a group of developers who have an idea for a project come together to work on it.  These are known as internal developers, and they will update their software via a series of ‘commits’.  Add these together and you get a sense of the activity levels on a project.

External developers can then get involved in the project by following its progress (or starring it on GitHub).  The number of stars therefore is a useful proxy of the projects popularity within the community.  External developers can also suggest changes to the project, which is known as a pull request.

The researchers downloaded all of this data across 300,000 projects and began trawling through it to uncover those successful traits.  One of the first nuggets the researchers found was that the number of internal members was key to both the activity levels, popularity and sociality of a project.  The higher the number, the higher each of those corresponding traits became.

Alas, it also emerged that the more internal members there were on a project, the fewer commits each of those people made to the project.  Indeed, it transpired that the most efficient projects were when a single developer was working on their own.

Efficiency would be relatively constant from 2 developers up to the 60 mark, at which point it would start falling rapidly.

“We conclude that it is undesirable to involve more than 60 developers in a project if we want the project members to work efficiently,” they suggest.

Work distribution

The study also explored how work would be distributed between internal members of the project.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that when work was evenly distributed, it tended to produce higher activity levels.

It also emerged that popularity amongst the external community was highly dependent upon the faithfulness with which suggestions were implemented by the internal team.

Suffice to say, there are some doubts around causation and correlation with the study, but overall it’s an interesting look into a fascinating area, and should provide some guidance for coders looking to do better with their own projects.

Hack4Good brings the world together to tackle climate change

hack4goodThis weekend I was invited along to the Hack4Good global hackathon by Fauna & Flora International’s Gavin Shelton, a judge at the event.  The event aimed to bring developers, designers and anyone other interested parties together to help tackle the weighty issue of climate change.

To provide a bit of direction to what is a huge topic, the weekend was focused around 15 core topics:

  1. Public Awareness
  2. Personal Impact
  3. Digital Activism
  4. Compelling Visualisation
  5. International Negotiations
  6. Resilient Communities
  7. Extreme Water Impacts
  8. Intense Heat Impacts
  9. Ecosystems and Nature
  10. Collaboration
  11. Consumer Behaviour
  12. Energy production
  13. Responsible Finance
  14. Sustainable Business and Energy Efficiency
  15. Reforestation

Some 3,000 people were said to have participated in the project across 40 locations around the world, with all teams given the weekend to pull something valuable together.

It was fascinating to see the formation of the teams, with location proving no barrier.  It was common for teams to have participants joining in from far flung places, and it lent a very international air to proceedings.

What did the hackers produce?

I was a little skeptical about the kind of products that could be produced in such a short space of time, but listening to the pitches given by the teams last night I was pleasantly surprised.

Low carbon councils

The first saw the team develop a website that would rank each local council in the UK according to the level of renewable energy they generated as a percentage of their overall energy.  The team created an interactive map that would allow users to hone in on a particular council, and various bits of data would be provided about them, together with how they rank against other councils in the region.  You can also contact the council via social media to ask them to raise their game.  Sadly, my own borough was not only one of the worst performing in London, but also in the whole country.

Wepromi.se

Another interesting site was very much attempting to piggyback on the pledge style interest generated by the recent ALS ice bucket challenges.  Wepromi.se is a pledge site geared around more eco friendly behaviours however.  It allows you to challenge your friends to do things, with various forfeits to undertake should you fail to complete.

Treevotion

Another innovative approach came via the Treevotion project.  This was billed as a matchmaking site, albeit one with a difference.  The site was developed in partnership with Fauna & Flora International, and users would complete a simple user profile survey, after which they would be paired up with a particular tree that matches their characteristics.  The aim would then be to engage in some kind of activity around that species of tree, whether it would be conservation, fresh planting or merely education.  The hope is that the project will eventually be fleshed out sufficiently to become a standalone site at Treevotion.org.

So overall some interesting ideas produced, and the hope has to be that many of them will find sponsors willing to help take them a bit further.  There were some interesting projects around things such as carbon footprint reporting and sea level rises that I think could be very valuable with a little more work.  Hopefully the event will prove the catalyst to ensuring that happens.

Adi Gaskell on Social Business - Bringing the world of social business to you