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The Catalyst Awards shortlist wins praise from Tim Smit

With a little more than 48 hours before we announce the Catalyst Awards winners, I want to pay tribute to all of the shortlist. I said in Strange Memes & Community Innovation that "the exciting part about running the Catalyst Awards is that we don't really know what we're going to find. The web is a place where unexpected social experiments can have far reaching consequences". IMHO the shortlist lives up to these hopes, as it includes:

  • The world's first disability nightclub in Second Life
  • Social networking for young gypsy travellers, for carers of aged parents and for users & designers of disability living aids
  • The use of wikis - for young refugees and asylum seekers, and for enterprise policy makers
  • Web 2.0 sites connecting young people with politicians, the NHS with patients and carers, residents with those in power
  • X-factor voting technology being used for community decision making and consultation
  • The use of cool wireless technology (like biomapping) by socially excluded young people

 

There's still time to cast your vote for the People's Choice award. In the mean time, here's the Eden Project's Tim Smit (of the one of the judges) explaining that several of the projects are going to be "genuinely world changing":

See videos from many of the projects on our Catalyst Youtube channel.

The NHS: Agile at 60?

Listening to plans for the Darzi review of the 60 year old NHS I was struck by the parallel between the user stories surfaced by Patient Opinion and the user stories that drive Agile software development.

Like a lot of memes that start in tech space, Agile development is breaking out of it's pure software background and being applied in other ways, which is why I asked Rob Purdie to do an Agile workshop for Make Your Mark. In Agile, the user stories have the form "As a [Type of User], [Function to Perform] so that [Business Value]".

At the same time, bottom-up initiatives like Patient Opinion are aggregating the stories of NHS users. As it says on the site: "People tell us that the most important thing for them is that their story is used to make services better for other people".

The Darzi review of the NHS makes great play of patient's views, without really explaining how these will gain traction within a top-down bureaucratic structure. The scaleability of the social web has the potential to push patient stories through the force-field of institutional inertia. May the good old NHS become more agile at 60.

Empowerment White Paper & web 2.0 for Government

A motley mix of social web heads (inc. yours truly) mingled with UK Gov types at yesterdays workshop on the Empowerment White Paper. I respect the intent of the day's main question; "How can we best use digital media to get public services to where people are going to be in five years time?". Some UK Gov insiders genuinely care about getting services to people and aren't blind to the importance of the digital public.

But for me it misses the most exciting bit; that people are going to start generating their own services in response to their needs, using widely available digital tools and the collaboration they enable. Then the question becomes 'How can government support this?".

Foto NAGI's: Copy of teemeara08%20(2)

Here's a good example. Estonia is one of Europe's most wired democracies; e-government is the norm and most urban areas are giant free wifi clouds. But there was a huge problem with waste being dumped in the wilds and the government wasn't tackling it effectively. At the workshop on Crowdsourcing for transparency in Central & Eastern Europe an Estonian participant told me about Let's Do It! (Teeme Ara in Estonian) where 50,000 volunteers cleared 10,000 tons of illegal waste from the fields, forests and riverbanks in the space of a day. Granted, it was catalysed by a couple of very web-savvy guys (including Ahti Heinla, one of the founders of Skype), but the tools they used to map and take images of illegal garbage dumps across the country (like Google Earth and mobile phones with GPS) are easily accessible these days.

E-government by itself doesn't make for social innovation, but the alchemy of web plus community can catalyse something unexpected. I think normal government responses will seem like Flatland compared to the digitally-enabled citizen initiatives that are going to pop up.

How will we spot the difference? As someone said at the workshop, these new solutions will be based on assets rather than deficits i.e. they'll aggregate what people have to offer, rather than seeing us as a set of atomistic needs that only government can address.

And there's the question of empowerment itself. Someone else said that the idea of an Empowerment White Paper made them queasy, because empowerment isn't something that's handed down by the government but comes from communities themselves. Fair point, only we know how disempowered people feel right now.

On the opening night Social Innovation Camp, the Young Foundation's Simon Tucker told me the buzz was different to a normal gathering of social entrepreneurs. There was more positivity, more sense of being able to make stuff happen. Interesting, isn't it, that the digital can act as the trigger for a sense of empowerment. And maybe this comes from it's ability to aggregate people with a shared passion. The Estonian forests weren't cleaned up by GIS software but by people who cared and found out that a lot of other people did too.

Watch for more examples emerging from initiatives like the Catalyst Awards and the 2gether Festival .  

The Catalyst Awards; Strange Memes & Community Innovation

Catalyst Awards logo

What happens when social need collides head on with the social web? How are widespread and easy-to-use technologies being used to benefit communities?

The UK Catalyst Awards are an experiment in surfacing social tech innovation. The bet is that social activists across the UK are using technology to benefit communities in lots of different ways. The awards aim to shine a spotlight on these projects, big or small, as a way to boost those projects and also to spread the inspiration.

The closing date is June 16th so there's still time to enter! You can enter yourself or nominate someone you know, either as individuals or as part of a business, charity or community group. We’re looking for examples of people creating new social technologies as well as using existing channels in a different way. More details on the UK Catalyst Entry Form.

For me, the exciting part about running the Catalyst Awards is that we don’t really know what we're going to find. The web is a place where unexpected social experiments can have far reaching consequences - who could have predicted Wikipedia? So what new forms of community action will emerge when strange internet memes like Crowdsourcing and The Long Tail are applied to social impact?

Projects like Liftshare and Patient Opinion tell us that the web can pack a social punch, and Social Innovation Camp proved that there are loads more great ideas ready for that dash of tech magic to bring them to life. And it's not just the web; mobile and gaming technologies are also being turned to socially positive ends.

There are nine Catalyst awards - Community Awards for Social Technology - up for grabs. The entrants can have created their own social technology or used existing channels innovatively. Our categories expect the unexpected - they include:

  • The Shock for Good Award: for something that shocked people into doing something good
  • The Revolutionary Award: for something that makes people in power more aware of the need for change
  • The Self-Help Award: For something that helps the creator to help themselves
  • The Chalk & Cheese Award: for something that brings two different groups of people together
  • The David and Goliath Award: for something little that made a difference to a something big and powerful

The Catalyst Awards are also proud partners of the 2gether Festival and we'll be presenting the shortlisted projects at a special preview session. We'll also be opening a discussion about Catalyst Phase 2; how to incubate and grow digital social projects to a scale where they can have significant social impact.

And thanks to DK of the rather excellent Mediasnackers you can watch a vodcast of me explaining why the Catalyst Awards are only the start...

social startups versus strategic bankruptcy

Somewhere in the rough and tumble of April's Minibar there was a moment of alchemy. Minibar is always lively - turning the usual suspects of startups, VC's, coders and designers in to a once-a-month carnival night. But April's line up included the two winning projects from Social Innovation Camp, dropping the notion of social impact in to the mix like acid at a 1960's happening. I could sense the start of something.

But, of course, that 'something' is already happening. Although the London digital startup scene is hot there's already a well-formed critique of the Silicon Valley model. Folk like Headshift's Lee Bryant are clear there's no point in emulating a US scene whose sole goal is inflating a startup to the point that is can sell out to Google (or whoever). And the other bee in people's bonnet is tech-enabled social innovation and making a positive difference.

But imagine my surprise when the inimitable Steve Moore pointed me to Umair Haque's Open Challenge to Silicon Valley. You could have knocked me down with a feather; soundbites for social innovation coming straight outta the Valley!

Haque talks about "moral and strategic bankruptcy of today's crop of venture investors" - that in the face of today's global challenges (food prices, financial meltdown, energy crisis) entrepreneurs are "lost in the economically meaningless, in the utterly trivial, in the strategically banal: mostly, they're cutting deals with one another to try and sell more ads". Obviously not a man to mince his words, Haque says "the failure to address these problems is a strategic bankruptcy as well. The self-indulgence of today's so-called revolutionaries in a darkening economic twilight is a recipe for strategic suicide. So here's my challenge. If you're a revolutionary, then be one: put your money where your mouth is, and fix a big problem that changes the world for the better - if you really have the courage, the purpose, and the vision, that is."

To an NGO leftover like me it feels like the London startup scene is ready to grow beyond the 'we wanna be the next Facebook'. Part of that will be the development of sustainable niches with social goals, and there are many dissatisified midshipmen (non-gender!) in charities who would jump ship to join them. This will get an unexpected boost from broadcast, as Channel 4 puts big money into creating digital public value , and the Mike Butcher's of this world badger the BBC to get stuck in. No doubt July's 2gether festival will be a trigger for more evolution of the space. And it's evolution we need; of a European social innovation ecology that can grow the social startups we deserve. And here's my twist; as the pervasiveness of social technology continues apace, the innovation is going to come from the fringes. Note that it's recent immigrants driving advanced mobile phone use, both in Europe and in the US. It's social need that's going to pull new tech across the chasm in the diffusion curve!

Roma rights, social networks, molotov cocktails

I was very disturbed to read about the recent attacks on Roma camps in Italy . The report says:

"Young Neapolitans who threw Molotov cocktails into a Naples Gypsy camp this week, after a girl was accused of trying to abduct a baby, bragged that they were undertaking "ethnic cleansing". A UN spokeswoman compared the scenes to the forced migration of Gypsies from the Balkans. "We never thought we'd see such images in Italy," said Laura Boldrini."

I'm pretty obsessed with how the web and digital technologies can advance human rights , and whether they can prevent gross violations and genicode, so I started wondering how useful they could be in this situation.

I remember the launch of the Roma Information Project (RIP) back in 2002, a great project using the erider model to support Roma groups in Central & Eastern Europe. But there's also potential for defending Roma rights using social web & mobile technologies through cloud campaigning. Obviously, the communities are going to be using mobiles to coordinate their self-defence. But maybe there's a role for using mobile to report human rights abuses in the way that Fahamu tried with Rural women in KwaZulu Natal. And mobile video can be uploaded to the Witness Hub (a "YouTube for human rights") which allows people to create campaigns around them by adding context and joining discussion groups.

I think the other critical point is the influence of culture on whether human rights are defended or abused. The digital space is a cultural space and racism towards Roma & travellers online will affect what happens in real life. And likewise, a healthy online culture would respond with outrage to the kind of attacks that happened in Italy.

One pioneering project that's trying to create a positive cultural space online is Savvy Chavvy where young Gypsies and Travellers in South East England are being trained in podcasting and video blogging skills ('Chavvy' is a Romany word for a young person). Many of the participants report having been abused on other social networks so the Ning network is just for Gypsies and Travellers and there's a strong debate within it about the presence of 'Gorjas' (non-Travellers). One of the public videos produced by the young people is called 'You've been logged', a story which challenges schools to think about how they deal with bullying, specifically the bullying of young travellers.

As a truly transnational cultural community, the Roma are well placed to leverage the international nature of the net despite all the obvious obstacles of access and tech skills. In fact, the conjunction of the internet (international, low barriers to access, relative freedom) and the transnational experience could make them one of the demographics of innovation. And (given that necessity is the mother of invention) this could first kick-in in the defence of their rights, in the same way as for other diasporic communities. Check out another Savvy Chavvy video called A Better Life In Gravesend where young Slovakian Roma students in Gravesend describe why they fled Slovakia (and the moment where the very young boy says "my house back home - broken windows...")

At the crowdsourcing & transparency training in Prague I met a very tech savvy Roma from romacenter.ro and I really hope the Roma will get it together with digital activism. But what about the rest of us? I don't want to pick on Italy because racism and fascism lurk everywhere, but the stuff that happened there a couple of weeks ago is a clear precursor to some really bad human rights violations. We'll know that there's a human rights culture online when the digital space is plastered with responses to attacks. It was some comfort to read katrinskaya's tweets from South Africa about the first demonstrations against the xenophobic attacks on immigrants there. It's tricky to report a whole demo in 160 character snippets, but she reported a speaker paraphrasing Niemoller ; "First they came for the Zimbabweans, but i did nothing, because I am not Zimbabwean"...

Cloud Campaigning

Cloud Campaigning. A term I came up with when struggling to get across the campaigning potential of the social web to NGOs in Central & Eastern Europe . I needed a quick image to shift the focus from the organizational website to the Oort cloud of possibilities represented by the blogosphere, the videosphere, the social networks and the game-worlds. These are the places where people already are; these are the places where campaigning can scale and touch people who wouldn't normally go near an activist website.

It's also an idea that extends the notion of cloud computing, as neatly summarised by the Guardian's Bobbie Johnson :

"The cloud, that huge bank of online power that lives somewhere and everywhere, is fast becoming the lifeblood of the internet economy. Web services let small dotcoms outsource what they're not good at - plumbing - and focus on what they really do. The result is that startups no longer need to worry about server loads, file hosting or coping with traffic: they can just stick everything in the cloud and let somebody else handle the tough stuff."

I think the social web offers the same leg up to online campaigners. No need to build a global video streaming infrastructure - someone's already done that, and anyone can use it for free! [see note 1]. Like the startups, the challenge isn't to set up infrastructure but to generate ecampaigning ideas that will benefit from web 2.0 .

Of course, cloud campaigning is an experimental art, and for most organisations it'll reinforce rather than replace the well-established principals of traditional ecampaigning . But the final message I wanted to get across in Prague was "Don't think like an NGO". In my experience, approaching the social web through the lens of the NGO limits the potential for social innovation. So the image of the cloud is also a statement about the cause; whether it's human rights or youth enterprise, the cause isn't owned by any one organization but is present across the universe of particular and individual passions that are now becoming visible across the social web.

[note 1]I surely know that YouTube is free as in beer not as in open source ;)

geeKyoto and the buzz

geeKyoto is the latest eclectic social-impact event with it's roots in London's digerati. Inspired by TED and last year's Interesting2007 event, Mark Simpkins and Ben Hammersley have taken the DIY approach to curating a cross-discipline event to discuss the future and how we'll live in it.

I had a great chat with Mark about the event, and I'm sure it will really rock. How can you not love an event who's rallying cry is 'We broke the world. Now what?'. geeKyoto is on Saturday 17th May 2008 at Conway Hall in
London (a venue with a noble history of supporting free thought). Tickets are a modest £20 and available at http://www.geekyoto.com/ where you can also find a listing of the groovy speakers.

As David Wilcox has pointed out there's a growing buzz in London about what happens when the social web meets social need, of which our social innovation camp was one flowering. Something's cooking. Steve Moore, the arch (un)organizer, is bringing together social entrepreurs, innovators , software dvelopers and other social media types for the 2gether Festival (July 2 and 3rd, backed by Channel4). Maybe that'll be the ignition point for some serious stuff at scale.

Crowdsourcing for transparency in Central & Eastern Europe

This weekend I'll be running a workshop for Transitions Online in Prague. It kicks off for a year long initiative to give NGOs in Central & Eastern Europe the web tools and strategies to promote transparency, anti-corruption & good governance. I think it's a pretty cool project because it's tapping into internet memes like crowdsourcing and applying them in a context where there's an urgent social need.

The project is also trying to seed learnings from the USA (Sunlight Foundation) and UK (mySociety) and build on local initiatives like Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza appealing to its readers to report on their experiences of Polish maternity wards.

I think it's vital that young civil society organisations learn to use the power of the web. I'll be passing on what I've learned about social media campaigning, but I'm also trying to think of other ways that these groups can get ideas and support. Maybe finding mentors from more experienced groups, maybe encouraging them to join UnLtdWorld as a way to stay in touch and find friendly help. Any other ideas gratefully received.

More details from the Transitions Online project spec:

Project: Interactive Tech Tools for Better Transparency

Project duration: 12 months

This year-long initiative seeks to provide NGOs in the new member states of the EU (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria) with web tools and strategies that will better enable them to promote transparency and good governance norms in their respective countries. The Internet is a powerful tool for the dissemination of information to the public and policymakers; however, NGOs in this region have been slow to adopt Internet-based approaches and, as a result, a great deal of their socially-useful research remains unavailable or poorly organized, having limited influence on public policy.

In addition, rarely, if ever, have NGOs used innovative Internet approaches to recruit their members or the larger public into data collection or analysis – though these approaches have started to undercover public wrongdoing in North America and parts of Western Europe.

The core project activities include a training seminar in Prague, drawing together representatives from various NGOs in the region; three pilot projects to test the strategies discussed at the seminar; the creation of an e-learning course; and a closing evaluation meeting in Riga to access the lessons learned over the course of the year.

The pilot projects will take the form of "watchblogs" or online monitoring sites tracking key issues of importance, as well as a website aggregating the affiliated watchblogs and collecting feedback from participating organizations and the wider public. The watchblogs will be modeled after successful corruption-combating projects like FollowTheMoney.org, a website tracking the sources and uses of money to influence officials in the United States, and OpenCongress.org, a non-partisan resource monitoring the development of legislation, issues before Congress, and Congress members' votes. These and other similar projects have been sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation , an organization that harnesses the power of the Internet to help citizens better understand and monitor what their elected officials are doing.

The proposed project also aims to acquaint NGOs with the concept of crowdsourcing as a potentially valuable strategy "specifically, recruiting the aid of the public in the analysis of data. Crowdsourcing has been effectively used by NGOS and journalists to promote transparency in the United States over the past several years: since 2006, the Sunlight Foundation, in coordination with other NGOs and newspapers, has invited the public to help uncover which members of Congress sponsor secret spending earmarks that direct taxpayers' dollars to personally-motivated projects (see: http://earmarkwatch.org/). After a bill strengthening the Freedom of Information Act was blocked from reaching the Senate because an unknown senator placed a secret hold on it, the Society of Professional Journalists asked journalists across the country to poll their senators in order to discover who had placed the hold. (see: http://www.spj.org/ogahold.asp ). These techniques are especially useful for under-resourced organizations that would never be able to conduct such investigations on their own.

As of yet, the technique has been underutilized in Central/Eastern Europe, with one notable exception: in the summer of 2006, the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza appealed to its readers to report on their experiences of Polish maternity wards. The paper received 40,000 reviews of care standards, which were fact-checked by a team of 170 editors and volunteers. The project has since spun off into message boards with millions of posts, 200,000 uploaded photos, and local editions.

Social Innovation Camp - The Movie!

Mikey and Hektor from The People Speak have done us proud with Social Innovation Camp - The Movie! You can almost smell the coffee and the over-heating laptops...

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