Manchester’s Future Everything festival is a key calendar date in the world of digital thinking and innovation — an event that opens a forum to explore possibilities and showcase cutting edge work from leading thinkers, designers, developers and artists. This year’s theme was ‘Tools For Unknown Futures’, an invitation to critique the limitations of the tools and platforms that we’re currently invested in.
The format of the conference was split between traditional ‘sit-back-and-listen’ keynotes, participatory workshops and intimate chats with leading thinkers. A diverse collection of tools were discussed, ranging from grass roots hacks to government public service solutions, yet all shared a common principle of community.
Future Everything never fails to offer a unique experience that combines academic thought with hands-on talent. It’s an event that prompts us to sit back, take stock and question the key principles of the technological culture and ask, in the words of founder Drew Hemment “where are we now for our digital society”.
Here are just some of my conference highlights.
The government’s digital department is making progressive headway with its digitisation of public services on the gov.uk platform with a mission statement to reduce complexity and place the user first. The plan is to create a ‘digital by default’ government and embrace practices such as Lean, Agile and Continuous Delivery to offer a platform that is cleaner, faster, iterative and responsive to change.
Head of Government Digital Services Mike Bracken delivered a keynote where he emphasised how important it was to “get the basics right” and build prototypes as quickly as possible. The concept of open sourcing and prompting sharing is also key to their ethos.
It’s great to see inspirational and admirable work coming from the heart of cabinet — not an area typically regarded for innovation culture…
How to Create a Tool
Tools are an important principle of digital culture and act as the enabler and interface between humans and data.
Gov.uk showed how tools are being developed by governance but there is also a key ‘bottom up’ approach from hackers and citizen groups that is rewiring society at a deep level. Recent examples of this have come from Arduino, openFrameworks, Raspberry Pi and Smart Citizen.
A highlight was the launch of the Smart Citizen platform for Manchester, a network of grass roots, Arduino-based sensors that will enable localised data collection. Such data sets include temperature, noise levels and air quality, all of which will be made available via public API allowing for new possibilities for community focused applications. As this network matures it will add to an increasingly rich set of open data for Manchester and give rise to the next challenge: making the data meaningful and useful.
Open Data: Where is the Value
Open data is the concept of having a data set that is free for anyone to use without restriction or the need for permission; basically, data that is opened up by companies and governments for third party use. The possibilities for solutions built on top of open data sets is exciting, from rich transport applications to localised social and community tools.
Open data is on the increase as governments and companies see the value in third party applications that build upon data sourced by them and which are being used in ways that they could never imagine themselves. This session prompted us to seek the actual value of open data now that its abundance is increasing and to discuss some of the challenges which have arisen.
The true essence of open data value was distilled down to two key points: consistency and closeness to reality.
The key challenges faced by the open data community come in the form of tying together this (often siloed) data in a way that is meaningful and prompting establishments to open data. Peter Colpaert discussed that an API is not required to open data, it just needs to be published — developers can worry about how to consume it later; the priority should be getting the data released.
Emer Coleman, former open data champion in government and now withtransportapi.com, introduced the idea of the ‘City API’, a conceptual ideal that would see the city acting as a platform in its own right. Imagine a city that broadcasts all events, from traffic light signalling to pop up event spaces — and picture the possibilities for applications…
This concept is often bundled with the phrase ‘smart cities’ and goes hand in hand with open data to act as the bedrock for the future city API. The idea is still in its infancy as we await data to be opened in a form that is linked, semantic and readily available.
Katalyn Gallyas, Open Innovation Policy Advisor for Amsterdam, discussed the fact that citizens will be the key to making this happen, stating that a city API should be designed for and by “active citizens”, promoting participation through incentives.
One key take away was the admirable attitude and approach to building open data applications, where Emer spoke in favour of iterative prototyping and adopting a “just do it approach”.