LONG READ: A Tomorrow’s World for future comms

tomThere was this great TV programme when I was a kid called Tomorrow’s World where amazing new concepts were demonstrated.

Back in 1979, the amazing invention called the mobile phone was road tested. We would, they said, no longer have to have to rely on landlines. In 1969, they called school computers and in 1994 it was the internet.

The mood music of it all was that one day, things would be so much different. It would be better but we were in control. For a while now there’s been a few emerging trends that I’ve been trying to make sense of. They’re now just starting to drift into view and they’ll change things for everyone. Not just comms people.

Bear with me. It’ll get weird, but let’s walk through it together.

A man in glasses has told me my fridge will talk to my scales

A couple of years ago a futurologist in sharp glasses told me that the internet of things was coming. This would be objects connected-up to the internet to allow them to talk to each other. Your scales would work out your ideal weight and, if you wanted, tell your fridge when milk stocks were running low to re-order semi-skimmed milk rather than full fat. And not chocolate. Or your smart whiskey bottle will let you know if someone is nipping at your Johnie Walker Blue Label.

Of course, the possibilities of all this are endless. Predictions of the scale of the internet of things – or IOT – range from the seriously mindblowing to the you’ll need to sit down because you’ll be rocking back and forth unable to comprehend. Deloitte says that a billion devices will be shipped in 2015. By 2020, Gartner says this will reach 25 billion devices or the equivalent of six devices for every person on the planet.  Cisco says it’s 50 billion. Intel have it at 200 billion. Either way, it’s going to be a lot and my new printer that I can email and has its own URL blinks back at me as proof.

There’s always a trade-off with tech and one that equates to the Native Americans getting a handful of shiny jewels in return for the island of Manhattan. They dangle something cool in front of us and we handover loads of stuff they want. In this case its stacks and stacks of personal data. Think of Facebook. They give us a place to post baby pics and view cat videos. We give them our date of birth, school, University, where we live, where we work, spending habits, political beliefs and who we want to win Strictly. It’s a marketer’s dream. But the University library of information you’ll give to the internet of things will make Facebook look like a Janet and John easy read book.

Your communications will be automated

So, as the internet of things grows the more devices will communicate to each other. We just won’t see it. But what we will maybe see is sharp tailored personalised communication based on our sleeping, spending and drinking habits. It’s happening already to some extent. I think of the Troop canvas shoulder bag that keeps cropping up in my Facebook timeline after I google searched it last week. However, with lots more data the possibilities open up.

“More of our communication will be artificial and less of it will be human,” says Tracey Follows in The Guardian. “It is now common to say that the world is uncertain and therefore can’t be planned for. One thing is certain though. We are entering into a world that’s post human.”

The link did the rounds on Twitter. The tag ‘post human’ certainly jarred with some people in my timeline but it’s an eye-catching line. To some extent it is factually accurate. All that data. All those fridges. All those supermarkets. But to some extent it’s also wrong. The communications that will really stand out will be that which makes best use of the data to personalise it. As a married father of two children who likes cricket, technology and doing things with my family at the weekend anything that takes that data and helps me spend my time and money better is welcome.

Your crisis comms needs to be really, really good

We have the expansion of tech through the internet of thing and others the surrender of all that data.  Here’s a really bright and cheery prediction. There’s going to be a massive cyber attack along the lines of a web 3.0 9/11. Not if. When.

Thomas Lee upon sees an internet of things showroom in San Franscisco by US firm Target where a car alarm wakes a baby whose cries are spotted by sensors which play soothing music. It dawns on him:

“We are so screwed… it was all very impressive, but I couldn’t help notice an irony: the retailer that ion 2013 was subject to a hack that compromised the credit card data of 100 million consumers now wanted people to entrust their entire homes to the internet.”

So, I’d maybe look at how you respond when there’s a data breach and things fall over.

Your internet is being automated

Data, data everywhere. That’s for the geeks, right? Actually, no. Not really. In a really challenging piece in Vox Todd Van Der Werff wrote a piece under the headline ‘2015 is the year the old internet finally died.’

He drew a simple conclusions from a number of recent stories which he maps out in the piece here before concluding:

“The internet as we know it, the internet of five, 10 or 20 years ago is going away as surely as print media replaced by the new internet that reimagines personal identity as something easily commodified that plays less on the desire for information or thoughtfulness than it does the desire for a quick jolt of emotion.

“It’s an internet driven not by human beings but by content, at all costs, And none of us – neither media professionals, nor readers can stop it. Every single one of us is building it every single day.”

People prefer the snackable and the fun, he argues. And it’s true. Yet most comms people haven’t got that.  They – we’re – born in a world of newspapers and press releases. They – we’re – institutionalised to think that the organisation we work for is the centre of everyone’s waking moment and if it isn’t that’s their fault not ours.

At this point I think back, not for the first time, to the former Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher who said that we need to communicate like insurgents. In other words, fast, agile, snackable, fleet-of-foot content that thought more about the person than the organisation.

Getting good at data… and saying ‘no’

Of course, we’ve said it for years that data will be important to communications. We’ve said it but I’m not sure we really acted upon it. I’ve got a bit testy with the open data community in the past for not being very good at talking to people. But I wouldn’t deny the potential that data has to make the world a better place and to help you communicate better. I think of open data helping to expose massive fraud in Canada. I think on a very micro level the Coast Guard comms person who when I showed her followerwonk realised there was a spike in how active her Twitter followers were at 6am and then decided to schedule some content every day at that time.

The reality is that communications and PR people are very, very bad at using and interpreting data and need to be better. We also need to be much, much better at kicking back and asking for the data to be produced by the people who are asking us to write the press release, set-up the Twitter account or plan the campaign.

There is an art to saying ‘no’ and I don’t think comms people say it often enough. Sometimes, this can be done politely. Sometimes, this needs to be done by banging the table. Or in other words, to be able to command the skills of ‘Yes Minister’ alongside almost but not quite ‘The Thick of It.’ But maybe just be really careful who you are Malcolm Tucker direct with, okay?

So what does all this mean?

It means more things changing faster. It means the Robert Phillips phrase of ’embrace chaos’ being ever more relevant. Why? Because that’s all we can do. There’s a long tail with all of this. This will take shape in some sectors way before they reach others. But this is the direction we’re headed.


GOOD IDEAS: What is a hack day? And why you should be bothered

A hack day? That’s breaking into the Pentagon computer, right?

Why would normal people go to something like that?

Why stare at banks of geeks staring at laptops coding?

As a spectator sport it fails. Utterly.

But the potential of it is immense.

Why?

Because getting several talented people in the same room means better ideas surface.

But you simply MUST make it open for everyone. By that, I mean they must be space for non-tecky people too and I’m not sure that always happens.

A room full of geeks will come up with geek ideas.

A room full of the digitally unconnected won’t know where to start.

It’s when you put them both you are beginning to be on the road to a winner.

Although not strictly a hack day, for me this pro-am blend is why something like Local by Social works as an idea. Or CityCamp. Getting real people in the same room as techy people to come up with solutions to problems.

After attending a couple of hack days and being out of my usual comfort zone and contributing little other than cups of coffee and a few – often bad – ideas here’s a few things that struck me.

WHAT’S NEEDED FOR A HACK DAY?

Some space. Some volunteers. Some time. The internet. Some people who know about stuff. Plug sockets. Coffee. Pizza is optional.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT?

It means people actively re-using using data – or information – to produce a web application or an interesting new website. There are some that say local government shouldn’t be doing this themselves. It should be people in the open data community. I don’t buy that one. Outside the pockets of open data innovation in the country, there’s a role for local government to produce things using open data. If there are no coders in a small town or if the market hasn’t moved there, then why not?

Similarly, if there is a need to present information in a more interesting way than just a static website.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR PR?

Yet again, it’s more evidence that Comms 3.0 is upon us. That’s a subject I’ve blogged about before which you can read here. It’s more evidence that the old school press officer is not the gatekeeper to the message. But the forward thinking comms person doesn’t need to write script and eat pizza. They just need an appreciation of what’s going on. They can also contribute with ideas and inspiration.

 WHAT CAN BE BUILT AT A HACK DAY?

On Twitter, Digital Birmingham’s Si Whitehouse made the point that a hack day doesn’t always need to have something working at the end of it to be a success. It’s a fair point. Sometimes it’s enough to try out a concept or a new approach that could be expanded and invested in at a later date. Or just make connections. Or create the data itself.

WHAT AREA WORKS BEST FOR A HACK DAY?

As far as I’m concerned, an area that is sitting on piles of data and is quite keen on people to come and build things with it. It’s as simple as that.

Here’s a few examples of things produced at hack days.

GO FISH: Something that makes you explore a museum archive and tell a story.

At the WAG Hack Day in West Bromwich staged by Black Country Museums the excellent Ben Proctor and others built this something useful that demonstrates it. It’s a way of pulling nine items from the collection and you building your own story about them. It’s creative. It also gets you to explore the museum’s stores.

WHO WANTS TO NOT GET STABBED? A way of comparing how safe you are in rural and city locations.

An excellent game that uses crime and Google street view data. You can play it here. You get certain scenarios put in front of you and you get to choose which is safer. You’d be quite surprised at what the actual safe places are.

LOOQUEST: A game that directs you to nearby public toilets.

With a retro look, this hack by Neontribe is really quite wonderful and makes you smile, is a help and raises the problem of a lack of public lavs. I kept getting eaten by the toilet. You can play it here.

EDINBURGH PLANNING APP MAP: Takes planning applications and puts them on a map.

At the Scraperwiki event in Glasgow, this map which updates daily with planning applications to a map is worth looking at. This blog tells you how its done.

WARD MAPPER: A tool to compare and contrast vital ward data.

At Hackitude in Birmingham, this rather fine model to demonstrate how data from data.gov.uk can be turned from something dusty emerged. You can read the blog from Stuart Harrison here.

SO, WHAT TOOLS CAN NON-CODERS USE AS A PLATFORM FOR SOMETHING INTERESTING?

There are scores of web tools you don’t have to be a coder at. You can be like me. Someone who dabbles and explores a bit.

Here’s a list I drew-up at the Black Country Museum hack day at The Public in West Bromwich. They had history data in mind but could as well apply to other areas of local government data and as a way to engage with residents.

Flickr.com – as a place to post images from museum stores and encourage people to submit new shots.

History Pin – a brilliant interactive site that you can literally pin old pictures onto contemporary Google Streetview images.

Google Fusion Tables – A way to visually present downloaded datasets.

A WordPress blog – A place to post text, images, stories, sound files and embed old footage.

Vimeo – The full and frank exchange of views that blights YouTube comments means that Vimeo could be a better route. Especially, for oral history.

A council website – In local government, your website shouldn’t just be a static place. It can be used as an interactive thing too.

Useful links:

An idiots guide to open data Simple explanation of what open data is.

What is Open Data? A brilliant short film from the Open Knowledge Foundation as a primer for open data.

What is a hack day?  An explanation of what a hack day does from Rewired State.

Scraperwiki A site of resources for people who know how to code.

What we’ve done. A further list of things built by Rewired State.

Hat-tip for pointing out links for this to Harry Harold of Neontribe, Janet Hughes of the London Assembly, Julia Higginbottom of Aquila and 10ml.com.

Creative commons credits:

Hacker with computer http://www.techshownetwork.com credit: Jochen Siegle/TechShowNetwork original image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/techshownetwork/2946209857/

Other images from my Flickr stream.

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