What hath digital good intentions wrought

It was uniquely powerful user research which demonstrated the bureaucratic brutality of the old carers allowance forms, and which changed that system for the better.  The user research philosophy undoubtedly works when you have a benevolent hierarchy interested in helping people, but will that describe the new Government?

If ‘user research is a team sport’, it has become increasingly necessary to check that everyone is actually playing for the same side. The institutions have adapted and now undermine good intent in favour of internal interests – user research is little more than a push poll used to justify what institutions wanted to do anyway.

The same applies to algorithms and AI – user research can find an argument to justify anything, no matter how harmful. Algorithms are used to justify choices that no human would be willing to justify to a court.

The data you need to run efficient and effective digital services is the same data you need to run just digital services. From the perspective of justice, the 13 data items identified by Dr Byrom serve as the indicators of potential discrimination in digital (justice) services. Instead, we focus on narratives from user research which don’t necessarily cover all real world user needs, and often policy just hopes that user research has caught everything.  

None of this is new or silo specific, it shows up across data and digital, from AI to algorithms, from business models to ‘patient involvement’. NHSX recently put out a call for “Patient Voice Advisors” – 2 people to cover the entire NHSX remit is ambitious, but will likely result in appointing professional astroturfers rather than engaged patients and real users for real questions. But it ticks the civil service boxes for involvement, and if each civil servant involved knows that every business model they propose will get gamed (they do and they will), they can still ignore it because it’s not their problem to solve.

The user research mantra of ‘you are not your user’ is entirely true, but contains an implicit assumption that those reading or commissioning the research care about the difference at all (or, more harshly, care about their users at all). Doing anything without user research is a crapshoot; but that doesn’t mean something based on user research can deliver something good – good is sometimes excluded by deliberate policy choice.

It is better to do user research than not – but it has to be both read, and not kneecapped at the beginning to only look at things that are politically palatable, and disincentive the other things. It is far easier to give technical assistance to those who already understand justice and the rule of law, than it is to teach Mark Zuckerberg about discrimination.

There is now an entire community who have to be served by UC who hear ‘service design’ and think of the vindictiveness of DWP’s choices in delivery – that is what service design and user research has delivered for them. Those people see the harms of ‘digital first’ from Government – and those harms are all digital is for them. It may be a well oiled machine for policy and well designed services, but what is the machine being used for?

GDS is part of the Government, (obviously), which sometimes causes political trouble at the office. Code for America avoided that problem by not having Political leadership – CfA is a not for profit who works for the people (and for a summary of the consequences of the distinction between the two, see the opening paragraph of the preface to Edward Snowden’s book). 

Where is the equivalent of ‘getCalFresh’ for Universal Credit? A better question is which organisation would you think of to build (and run) it? How would we know if it’s good?

posted: 26 Dec 2019

Puntcon 2019

So it’s been fifteen glorious years, and while we may all have aged (or been born, for some regular attendees), and the political system has been ‘challenged’, and atmospheric CO2 may have gone from 399.77 to 411.75ppm, we persist, and we plan to head off up river again on Sunday 30th June 2019.

The first Geek Punt Picnic took place in 2003, and in 2004 it morphed into Puntcon, and was announced in an email in June 2004 as follows:

NotCon was fun, but didn’t have water. Or champagne. So this year’s first Geek Punt Picnic will also coincide with PuntCon ’04, the Cambridge leg of the alternative conference circuit.  In a small break with tradition there will be no talks, no presentations, no agenda and nothing to disturb the quiet delights of the river on a Sunday afternoon. But apart from that, it’s a conference and therefore probably tax-deductible.

We’d love to see you on the 30th June 2019.

The Official Invitation:

You are invited to Puntcon, the fifteenth great geek punt picnic, taking place on or about the River Cam on the afternoon of Sunday 30th June 2019.

Full details are here on Eventbrite. There’s a Facebook event, too, for those who want it.

Although it says there are 250 tickets that is ‘nominal’ as it’s a big river… but Eventbrite needed a number 🙂

How it Works:

As before, turn up outside the Mill public house on Mill Lane between 1200 and 1230. (https://map.what3words.com/deck.jungle.junior)

Four or five people will be deputised as PUNTERS and will come with Sam and Bill to collect the boats, the others will walk up beyond the rollers where we board https://map.what3words.com/vibrate.galaxy.volume(See this useful post about What3Words from Terence)

We will head off  between 1230 and 1300 – if you are late you can walk up river and catch us as we don’t punt very fast!  We will be heading upriver rather than along the Backs – more picnic places, fewer tourists. We normally stop half-way along Grantchester Meadows and hum Pink Floyd tunes.

Bring something to drink and something to eat. Actually, bring a lot to eat and a lot to drink – it’s thirsty work!

Note that there aren’t any toilets (but there are hedges) – the nearest pub/tea room is approx 20 min walk)

Punts will be booked/organised/commandeered for you so you do not need to hire one. We will take as many punts as we need – we get four or five of the big punt that hold 12 and then extra six-person ones –  and head up river to a convenient picnic place on Grantchester Meadows where we will eat/drink/carouse. Those arriving late can join us there.

Anyone can punt. Anyone can be shown how to punt. But you are not expected to punt. While we support the consumption of apples in all forms, please keep electronic devices in the punt and not in the river.

We normally get back to Scudamores around 1800. Those heading back to the railway station can be dropped at a bridge within walking distance.

Post punting we have the option of retiring to the pub or a restaurant and letting Sunday evening happen around us.

How Much

You are asked to contribute your share of the punt hire. There is no registration fee. Bring food and drink and entertainment. Punt fare will be split between all comers –  it works out at twenty pounds per person. Infants are not expected to contribute.

The Invitees

Please feel free to invite other people – it’s a big river and there are lots of punts. This page is here to give us a rough idea of numbers in advance

Some idea of who’s coming is available via The Facebook (unfortunately, other platforms aren’t really available, yet). Book your spot in a punt via eventbrite.

So come along — it’ll be fun.


@billt and @smithsam

posted: 06 Apr 2019