WTF is digital anyway

Last week I went to the National Digital Conference in London which had a stellar line-up including a government minister, a Lord, an award-winning digital first council, the Executive Director of the GDS and a true celebrity in Maggie Philbin.
Whilst the speakers had a lot of valuable things to say, the comments by and conversations between delegates on Twitter was where the action was happening.
Rather than try to recreate what I learned by rewriting it all I’ll group the soundbites together under headings and try to make some sense of it all for you.


Organisational transformation

  • Innovation and disruption are key for the digital future. Risk-averse organisations take note – you will be disrupted!
  • You can’t redesign a service without redesigning the organisation that delivers it
  • It’s easy to upgrade to the latest device. It’s hard to upgrade digital skills
  • Digital transformation means business transformation, not just shoving forms on the website. We need to transform the way we deliver services and the way we work
  • Electoral registration was given as an example of good use of real-time data. However if it’s about business transformation, when will Parliament be transformed? It still took an age to have the ‘emergency’ legislation passed to extend registration
  • You can’t transform the whole organisation overnight. Start small – GDS was purposely a bolt on to the Civil Service with a clear remit to transform a handful of high volume transactions to prove it was the way forward
  • The GDS was deliberately conceived as an insurgent start-up and it’s delivered 20 brilliant public services digitally
  • If you want to attract the right employees to an organisation in the throes of a transformation programme you need to rethink your recruitment process. Change recruitment and the image of the organisation to align with the transformation programme
  • Job adverts and job descriptions need to be disrupted to bring diversity. Engineer or coder could be called problem solver to attract right people
  • The challenge isn’t getting troublemakers into your organisation. It’s making sure they still want to cause trouble after a year in the job. Create an environment to let them disrupt. Don’t make them conform
  • Providing digital services is a journey without an end point
  • Don’t write passwords on Post-it notes? Well, stop making me have 23 different passwords which need changing monthly then!
  • Automate processes and humanise jobs


  • Data needs to be used with caution. What are the human stories behind the data
  • Data can be manipulated and can be difficult to analyse, especially when there is a data analysis skills gap

Digital literacy

  • There is a desperate shortage of digitally capable staff in the civil service and local government. This has been identified as a major barrier. There is also a lack of CPD for staff with digital skills
  • Digital literacy should be part of the curriculum and there should be modern apprenticeships in digital (when I checked Skills Development Scotland there are no digital apprenticeships in our area, only social care. Imagine if those carers were digitally literate and could help those they care for to use digital to enhance their lives)
  • The future is inspiring and the digital opportunities are endless – why then are IT classes in school so dull. Time to reframe?
  • According to @maggiephilbin the teachers who supported her TeenTech programme did so in their own time and bought resources with their own money. They shouldn’t have to
  • Qualifications have become a proxy for skills. It’s time to disrupt the education system and move to experience-based assessment of capability instead of rote learning and exams
  • Chicken/egg. We have a digital skills gap but right now who’s going to teach our teachers so they can teach our kids?
  • Let’s celebrate the creatively disruptive pupils in our schools. They may hold the key for our digital future
  • Coding is just a language and should appeal to people used to being around languages (research has shown that the part of the brain used for learning a new language shows more activity in girls than boys. Girls are more likely to think abstractly about language than boys. All of this means that girls are more than capable of learning coding – it just needs framed in the right way to attract them to it –
  • I want to talk about STEAM not just STEM. The real magic happens at the intersection of STEM with the Arts
  • You don’t need to know how to code to work in digital. There’s more to Digital than coding & IT, there’s design, ux, marketing. We need to break down stereotypes and get more girls engaged
  • Social media is the easy way into digital for girls but most schools see social media as bad and a risk. This needs fixed
  • IT and digital are different worlds. Digital needs removed from computing class and embedded in every subject, along with data analysis

WTF is digital anyway?

  • IT costs are going up 60% every year. Digital does not mean IT. People are at the heart of digital – digital needs humanised
  • So it should really be Customer First rather than Digital By Default?
  • If the Executive Director of the GDS says digital isn’t about computers then it’s not. End of
  • Disabled people use digital every day to live their lives. Use them and their experience when building digital services. If it works for them it will work for everyone




  • Feel the fear and do it anyway
  • Creativity, bold thinking etc. should be considered ‘core skills’ not ‘soft skills’
  • If you need to pitch digital to your CEO you may have the wrong CEO – he/she is a black cab driver when all his/her customers are using Uber
  • Women need to apply for digital leader positions, and commit to applying until women fill more than half of digital roles
  • GDS are leading by example on equality – staff won’t speak at events which don’t have a balance of diverse speakers
  • You can’t impose culture on a team, all you can do is provide the right environment
  • It’s OK to think out loud about organisational culture


Wigan Council – doing digital right

  • The Wigan Council Deal – contract between citizens and the council
  • 1 in 3 citizens in Wigan use an online account to transact with the council
  • Wigan Council have co-designed with residents and partners and in doing so have connected communities


Growing old digitally

  • Medicine can prolong life. Can digital make life worth living?
  • Watches have changed from time pieces to heart monitor, fitness monitor and more
  • For wearables at work look no further than @Rarelyimpossibl Theirs are even linked to personalised soothing @Spotify playlists
  • We no longer have a 3-stage life (education, work & retirement). Lifelong learning and digital resilience is needed to enhance the lives of those living to 100

What about the tech

  • Tech and tools aren’t about bells and whistles, they are about enabling you to do your day job effectively
  • We downgrade on the tech we use when we walk through the office door

The irony wasn’t lost on those delegates, including me, for whom the event wifi wouldn’t work!

I also think that it’s about time the annual National Digital Conference left London and went on tour – I have suggested Glasgow next year.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Happenstance is a wonderful thing

So this year I’ll be 47 – three years off 50. I thought my life would be slowing down, but then sitting on the couch watching Coronation Street or Eastenders has never held much appeal.
Last week my latest course started so I’ve been busy reading research papers all week. The course is brand new, a Pg Cert in Making Use of Digital Research, distance learning at Edinburgh University. The first module looks at the social shaping of digital research – I had my usual wobble, thinking I wasn’t going to be intelligent enough but I suspect I just picked the wrong paper first.
One paper struck many chords though. My last post about teenage relationships on Facebook drew a comparison to some of Danah Boyd‘s research and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t even know who she was at the time. I did a bit of digging though and was pleased to discover that my random thoughts are actually being proved right by actual research by someone so influential. Her paper Six Provocations for Big Data echos more random thoughts of mine about how the white male geeks have had their way too long and that coding and data analysis should be core to every pupil’s learning, across every subject, a conversation I’ve had with our Education Improvement Manager and Caroline Stuart Business Development Director at Oracle. About 18 months ago I had a T-shirt made with the legend ‘The geek shall inherit the earth’ on the front and if we don’t act soon it’ll come true. For our children to understand the world round about them they will need killer coding and data analysis skills.

Geek T-shirt
This course is aimed at policy makers and our employee development manager is keeping an eye on the course for colleagues. I’ll give you regular updates on here but if I’m anything to go by an old dog can definitely learn new tricks, especially if there are biscuits involved!
The other things that will be keeping me busy is a research project at Glasgow University. I was asked by the project lead for some feedback on his initial proposal and after a couple of reads it blew my mind.
The Serendipity project’s aim is to develop a dashboard for use by organsations to help with decision-making when working on new policies. It can also be used to give a real-time picture of a place or scenario and maybe even used during emergency situations to help work out the best decisions on the fly.
The idea is to overlay real hard data with all available social data to create community biographies. It’s hoped that public behaviour could also be predicted over time.
For instance if you overlay all the anti-social behaviour data a council has about an area with all the sentiment created about the area on social media you’d get a rounder picture than just all the bad news.

Serendipity equation
If there’s a major accident on the roads, social info about how people divert around it can be used to model future behaviour and help roads departments and the police plan ahead.
During incidents, past research can be overlaid with social data and emergency planning decisions about evacuations etc and can be tested for potential public reaction before they are actually announced.
It’s looking highly likely that the council will be signing up to the research to be partner, although the details still have to snagged. Needless to say I’m excited.
I might not be ready for the easy chair yet but a nice comfy pair of slippers wouldn’t go amiss and maybe a SAGA holiday brochure.

A song from me to you

Miles Kane – Happenstance

I’ve got data and I’m not afraid to use it

A couple of weeks ago I did one of the most intense training days of my career. Luckily the trainers gave us ample breaks, wonderful healthy food and plenty of encouragement so at the time it didn’t seem that intense. It’s now I’m back at work and reflecting on those nine hours trying to work out how to apply my new knowledge that I realise how much of that learning I have to rationalise and consolidate with what I already know and do.

Decoded’s Code in a Day course came highly recommended by a colleague at Socitm but I could never justify attending as we have in-house developers. Imagine my glee then when they started a Data in a Day course and my gratitude to my boss for being allowed to go.

The morning started with a brief introduction to data and its history which included coxcomb charts devised by Florence Nightingale in 1857 to show the causes of death, by month, during the Crimean War. Although these charts are misleading – the data maps to the radius of each wedge, not the area – whether intentional or not, they helped her make her case that soldiers were dying of disease and not of the wounds they received during fighting. Her diagrams make us assume her conclusions without analysing the data behind them.

Florence Nightingale's infographic

From there we had a look at open data sources including UK Government open data and data from Transport for London. This part struck a chord and will with most public sector organisations. TfL and the Government are too busy creating the data to also think about nifty ways to use it so they open it all up for developers to use for the apps some of us use every day. One of my reasons for wanting to do the course was to understand how open data could help reduce the number of FoI requests we deal with – maybe if the data was there in a format developers and journalists could use, people would stop phoning.

Our first practical session had us creating Google charts using datasets from the United Nations which got me thinking about the data local authorities sit on. This was my second reason for doing the course. Stats and figures swim in front of my eyes. Words are my game but complex data sets don’t work with words alone – pictures can be better (back to Florence and her dying soldiers). I’ve been doing a lot of work with Mosaic data lately and nothing tells a senior manager the story about their service users like a pen picture, complete with an idea of the family, the house they live in and what they like to do in their spare time. Sometimes an infographic can be more persuasive, not only with managers but with the public too. I’m keen for us to use infographics for things like the council budget, not only on our own website but also to go out to the local papers for them to use.


I’ve always thought that the Guardian is particularly good at infographics and I remember seeing their Government spending bubble graph and being impressed. The guys at Decoded showed us it again and then they showed us something even better. The Daily Bread is an interactive infographic which lets you see exactly what each penny of the taxes you pay are being spent on. But what’s nifty about this is that the data updates in the background so it’s always current at the front end. Imagine if you could put to bed once and for all exactly what people’s council tax pays for.

We also looked at some cutting edge visualisations some of which are simply beautiful to look at, mouse over or take inspiration from but next to useless as they stand (my opinion, not Decoded’s):

  • Movie Galaxies is a fisheye visualisation which shows the relationships between characters in films

  • US gun deaths in 2013 is an emotive visualisation with real-time data driving it

  • Out of sight out of mind is a visualisation of all the US drone strikes on Pakistan driven by live data maintained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

  • Tweetping is mesmerising and shows the world’s Twitter activity in real-time

Our afternoon practical session saw us using the Twitter API and Python to create charts/visualisations comparing four different Twitter accounts in real-time. I chose Westminster, North Lanarkshire, Falkirk and Fife. Had I realised we’d be looking at sentiment I’d have used @mentions but I ended up looking at the tweets the four councils were putting out rather than what people were saying about them so the sentiment was always going to be positive. I’ll have to go back into the code and change that to see what the charts come out like.


That took up most of the afternoon and, given my limited coding skills, was the most challenging bit – but I did it.

After that we looked at the fabulous D3 website. There you’ll find the code that makes a lot of data visualisation work, all open source and free.

And after all that my ears started bleeding and my head exploded. Only kidding – after that everyone on the course kicked back, had a chat then headed our separate ways.

I probably don’t have the confidence to tackle a big data visualisation myself but I now know that these fancy, interactive infographics aren’t done by smoke and mirrors and powered by hamsters on treadmills. They’re only as good as the data you start with but from there on in it’s a combination of art and science – a bit of coding know how and a designer’s eye. Luckily we have all three elements in spades at South Lanarkshire Council. I just have to get the finger out and get people to hand over their data.

I firmly believe that knowing your way around data and the stories it can tell is an essential tool in today’s communications toolbox so I’d thoroughly recommend this course and the many data journalism MOOCs that are springing up.

For those of you in the Scottish public sector I’m talking with Decoded about getting them up to Scotland for some tailored pop-up sessions. If you’re interested drop me an email at and tell me what you’d like to be able to do with your data, the challenges you face and what you’d like the Decoded team to cover.

We all have quality data – we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Tune of the week