Berks, wankers and wonks: how to pitch science policy advice

Stian Westlake in the Guardian: ” If you think about the kinds of people whom policymakers generally hear from when they cast about for advice, the distinction between berks and wankers is rather useful.
The berks of the policy world are easiest to recognise. They’re oversimplifiers, charlatans and blowhards. Berks can be trusted to take a complicated issue and deliver a simplistic and superficially plausible answer. In their search for a convenient message, they misrepresent research or ignore it entirely. They happily range far from their field of expertise and offer opinions on subjects about which they know little – while pretending to be on their expert home turf. And they are very good at soundbites.
Policymakers who consult berkish experts will get clear, actionable advice. But it could very well be wrong.
Most researchers, especially those with an academic background, will find avoiding berkhood comes naturally. After all, graduate school teaches rigour and caution. Academia reserves an especially withering contempt for professors who use their intellectual authority to advance controversial positions outside their area of expertise, from Linus Pauling’s speculations on vitamin C to Niall Ferguson’s opinions on US economic policy. No one wants to be a dodgy dossier merchant.
The risk of becoming a wanker is far more subtle. If the berks of the policy world are too ready to give an opinion, the wankers never give an opinion on anything, except to say how complicated it is.
In some ways, wankers are more harmless than berks, in the sense that being overconfident about what you know is often more dangerous than being too modest. Much bad policy is based on bad evidence, and rigorous research can expose that. Sometimes policymakers are asking the wrong questions entirely, and need to be told as much.
But policymakers who get all their advice from wankers are likely to be as ill-served as those who rely on berks. As anyone who’s ever advised a friend will know, good advice is not just a matter of providing information, or summarising research. It also involves making a judgment about the balance of facts, helping frame the issue, and communicating in a way that the person you’re counselling will understand and act on…
Neither glibness or prolixity make for useful advice. There are lots more tips on this from initiatives like the Alliance for Useful Evidence (of which Nesta, my employer, is a funder) and WonkComms.”

From Potholes to Policies: Technology, Civic Engagement and the Path to Peer-Produced Governance

Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob at Living Cities: “There’s been tremendous energy behind the movement to change the way that local governments use technology to better connect with residents. Civic hackers, Code for America Fellows, concerned residents, and offices such as ours, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, are working together to create a more collaborative environment in which these various players can develop new kinds of solutions to urban challenges…

These initiatives have shown a lot of promise. Now we need to build on these innovations to bring public participation into the heart of policymaking.
This is not going to happen overnight, nor is the path to changing the interface between citizens and government an obvious one. However, reflecting on the work we’ve done over the past few years, we are starting to see a set of design principles that can help guide our efforts. These are emergent, and so imperfect, but we share them here in the hopes of getting feedback to improve them:

  1. The reasons for engagement must be clear: It is incumbent on us as creators and purveyors of civic technologies to be crystal-clear about what policies we are trying to rewrite, why, and what role the public plays in that process. With the Public Schools, the Community PlanIT game was built to engage residents both on-line and in person to co-design school performance metrics; the result was an approach that was different, and better, than what had originally been proposed, with less discord than was happening in traditional town hall meetings.
  2. Channels must be high-quality and appropriately receptive: When you use Citizens Connect to report quality-of-life issues in Boston, you get an email saying: “Thank you for reporting this pothole. It has now been fixed.” You can’t just cut and paste that email to say: “Thank you for your views on this policy. The policy has now been fixed.” The channel has to make it possible for the City to make meaning of and act on resident input, and then to communicate back to users what has been done and why. And as our friends at Code for America say, they must be “simple, beautiful and easy to use.”
  3. Transparency is vital: Transparency around how the process works and why fosters greater public trust in the system and consequently makes people more likely to engage. Local leaders must therefore be very clear up-front about these points, and communicate them repeatedly and consistently in the face of potential mistrust and misunderstanding.”


Innovating to Improve Disaster Response and Recovery

Todd Park at OSTP blog: “Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) jointly challenged a group of over 80 top innovators from around the country to come up with ways to improve disaster response and recovery efforts.  This diverse group of stakeholders, consisting of representatives from Zappos, Airbnb, Marriott International, the Parsons School of Design, AOL/Huffington Post’s Social Impact, The Weather Channel, Twitter,, Twilio, New York City, Google and the Red Cross, to name a few, spent an entire day at the White House collaborating on ideas for tools, products, services, programs, and apps that can assist disaster survivors and communities…
During the “Data Jam/Think Tank,” we discussed response and recovery challenges…Below are some of the ideas that were developed throughout the day. In the case of the first two ideas, participants wrote code and created actual working prototypes.

  • A real-time communications platform that allows survivors dependent on electricity-powered medical devices to text or call in their needs—such as batteries, medication, or a power generator—and connect those needs with a collaborative transportation network to make real-time deliveries.
  • A technical schema that tags all disaster-related information from social media and news sites – enabling municipalities and first responders to better understand all of the invaluable information generated during a disaster and help identify where they can help.
  • A Disaster Relief Innovation Vendor Engine (DRIVE) which aggregates pre-approved vendors for disaster-related needs, including transportation, power, housing, and medical supplies, to make it as easy as possible to find scarce local resources.
  • A crowdfunding platform for small businesses and others to receive access to capital to help rebuild after a disaster, including a rating system that encourages rebuilding efforts that improve the community.
  • Promoting preparedness through talk shows, working closely with celebrities, musicians, and children to raise awareness.
  • A “community power-go-round” that, like a merry-go-round, can be pushed to generate electricity and additional power for battery-charged devices including cell phones or a Wi-Fi network to provide community internet access.
  • Aggregating crowdsourced imagery taken and shared through social media sites to help identify where trees have fallen, electrical lines have been toppled, and streets have been obstructed.
  • A kid-run local radio station used to educate youth about preparedness for a disaster and activated to support relief efforts during a disaster that allows youth to share their experiences.”

New! Humanitarian Computing Library

Patrick Meier at iRevolution: “The field of “Humanitarian Computing” applies Human Computing and Machine Computing to address major information-based challengers in the humanitarian space. Human Computing refers to crowdsourcing and microtasking, which is also referred to as crowd computing. In contrast, Machine Computing draws on natural language processing and machine learning, amongst other disciplines. The Next Generation Humanitarian Technologies we are prototyping at QCRI are powered by Humanitarian Computing research and development (R&D).
My QCRI colleagues and I  just launched the first ever Humanitarian Computing Library which is publicly available here. The purpose of this library, or wiki, is to consolidate existing and future research that relate to Humanitarian Computing in order to support the development of next generation humanitarian tech. The repository currently holds over 500 publications that span topics such as Crisis Management, Trust and Security, Software and Tools, Geographical Analysis and Crowdsourcing. These publications are largely drawn from (but not limited to) peer-reviewed papers submitted at leading conferences around the world. We invite you to add your own research on humanitarian computing to this growing collection of resources.”

White House: "We Want Your Input on Building a More Open Government"

Nick Sinai at the White House Blog:”…We are proud of this progress, but recognize that there is always more we can do to build a more efficient, effective, and accountable government.  In that spirit, the Obama Administration has committed to develop a second National Action Plan on Open Government: “NAP 2.0.”
In order to develop a Plan with the most creative and ambitious solutions, we need all-hands-on-deck. That’s why we are asking for your input on what should be in the NAP 2.0:

  1. How can we better encourage and enable the public to participate in government and increase public integrity? For example, in the first National Action Plan, we required Federal enforcement agencies to make publicly available compliance information easily accessible, downloadable and searchable online – helping the public to hold the government and regulated entities accountable.
  • What other kinds of government information should be made more available to help inform decisions in your communities or in your lives?
  • How would you like to be able to interact with Federal agencies making decisions which impact where you live?
  • How can the Federal government better ensure broad feedback and public participation when considering a new policy?
  1. The American people must be able to trust that their Government is doing everything in its power to stop wasteful practices and earn a high return on every tax dollar that is spent.  How can the government better manage public resources? 
  • What suggestions do you have to help the government achieve savings while also improving the way that government operates?
  • What suggestions do you have to improve transparency in government spending?
  1. The American people deserve a Government that is responsive to their needs, makes information readily accessible, and leverages Federal resources to help foster innovation both in the public and private sector.   How can the government more effectively work in collaboration with the public to improve services?
  • What are your suggestions for ways the government can better serve you when you are seeking information or help in trying to receive benefits?
  • In the past few years, the government has promoted the use of “grand challenges,” ambitious yet achievable goals to solve problems of national priority, and incentive prizes, where the government identifies challenging problems and provides prizes and awards to the best solutions submitted by the public.  Are there areas of public services that you think could be especially benefited by a grand challenge or incentive prize?
  • What information or data could the government make more accessible to help you start or improve your business?

Please think about these questions and send your thoughts to by September 23. We will post a summary of your submissions online in the future.”

The Political Web: Media, Participation and Alternative Democracy

New book by Peter Dahlgren: “As democracy encounters increasing difficulties, many citizens are turning to the domain of alternative politics, and in so doing, making considerable use of the Web and other new communication technologies. Clearly this is having significant impact, and we see that new modes of political participation and even political cultures are emerging. Yet, we would be foolish to expect some simple ‘techno-fix’ for democracy; its problems are more complex than that. This volume analyses various factors that shape such Web-facilitated participation, including features of the Web itself as well as broader societal realities. Avoiding simplistic optimism or pessimism, the discussion highlights the tensions and force-fields that impact on participation. The presentation also addresses several key topics in regard to citizens’ engagement, such as civic subjectivity, web intellectuals, and cosmopolitanism. While anchored in an extensive literature and wide theoretical vistas, the book is written in a clear and accessible style.”

How Mechanical Turkers Crowdsourced a Huge Lexicon of Links Between Words and Emotion

The Physics arXiv Blog: Sentiment analysis on the social web depends on how a person’s state of mind is expressed in words. Now a new database of the links between words and emotions could provide a better foundation for this kind of analysis

One of the buzzphrases associated with the social web is sentiment analysis. This is the ability to determine a person’s opinion or state of mind by analysing the words they post on Twitter, Facebook or some other medium.
Much has been promised with this method—the ability to measure satisfaction with politicians, movies and products; the ability to better manage customer relations; the ability to create dialogue for emotion-aware games; the ability to measure the flow of emotion in novels; and so on.
The idea is to entirely automate this process—to analyse the firehose of words produced by social websites using advanced data mining techniques to gauge sentiment on a vast scale.
But all this depends on how well we understand the emotion and polarity (whether negative or positive) that people associate with each word or combinations of words.
Today, Saif Mohammad and Peter Turney at the National Research Council Canada in Ottawa unveil a huge database of words and their associated emotions and polarity, which they have assembled quickly and inexpensively using Amazon’s crowdsourcing Mechanical Turk website. They say this crowdsourcing mechanism makes it possible to increase the size and quality of the database quickly and easily….The result is a comprehensive word-emotion lexicon for over 10,000 words or two-word phrases which they call EmoLex….
The bottom line is that sentiment analysis can only ever be as good as the database on which it relies. With EmoLex, analysts have a new tool for their box of tricks.”
Ref: Crowdsourcing a Word-Emotion Association Lexicon

From Collaborative Coding to Wedding Invitations: GitHub Is Going Mainstream

Wired: “With 3.4 million users, the five-year-old site is a runaway hit in the hacker community, the go-to place for coders to show off pet projects and crowdsource any improvements. But the company has grander ambitions: It wants to change the way people work. It’s starting with software developers for sure, but maybe one day anyone who edits text in one form or another — lawyers, writers, and civil servants — will do it the GitHub way.
To first-time visitors, GitHub looks like a twisted version of Facebook, built in some alternate universe where YouTube videos and photos of cats have somehow morphed into snippets of code. But many of the underlying concepts are the same. You can “follow” other hackers to see what they’re working on. You can comment on their code — much like you’d do on a Facebook photo. You can even “star” a project to show that you like it, just as you’d “favorite” something on Twitter.
But it’s much more than a social network. People discover new projects and then play around with them, making changes, trying out new ideas. Then, with the push of a button, they merge into something better. You can also “fork” projects. That’s GitHub lingo for then when you make a copy of a project so you can then build and modify your own, independent version.
People didn’t just suggest changes to Lee’s Twitter patent license. It was forked 53 times: by Arul, by a computer science student in Portland, by a Belgian bicycle designer. These forks can now evolve and potentially even merge back into Lee’s agreement. The experiment also inspired Fenwick & West, one of Silicon Valley’s top legal firms (and GitHub’s law firm) to post 30 pages of standard documents for startups to GitHub earlier this year.”

Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger: Remaking government for the digital age

New Report by PolicyExchange (UK): “The government could save as much as £70 billion by 2020 if it adopted plans to eliminate paper and digitise its activities, work smarter with fewer staff in Whitehall, shop around for the best procurement deals, and accelerate the use of data and analytics.
Smaller, Better, Faster, Stronger shows how the government is wasting billions of pounds by relying on paper based public services. The Crown Prosecution Service prints one million sheets of paper every day while two articulated trucks loaded with letters and paper work pull into the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) every day. In order to complete a passport application form online, the Passport Office will print the form out and post it back for the individual to sign and send back.
In the near future, everything the government does should be online, unless a face-to-face interaction is essential. The UK is already nation of internet users with nearly 6 in 10 people accessing the internet via a smartphone. People expect even simple government services like tax returns or driving licences to be online. Fully transforming government with digital technologies could help close the gap between productivity in the public and private sectors.
The report also calls for stronger digital and data skills in Whitehall, making the point that senior officials will make or break this agenda by the interest they take in digital and their willingness to keep up with the times.”

Nonsectarian Welfare Statements

New Paper by Cass Sunstein: “How can we measure whether national institutions in general, and regulatory institutions in particular, are dysfunctional? A central question is whether they are helping a nation’s citizens to live good lives. A full answer to that question would require a great deal of philosophical work, but it should be possible to achieve an incompletely theorized agreement on a kind of nonsectarian welfarism, emphasizing the importance of five variables: subjective well-being, longevity, health, educational attainment, and per capita income. In principle, it would be valuable to identify the effects of new initiatives (including regulations) on all of these variables. In practice, it is not feasible to do so; assessments of subjective well-being present particular challenges. In their ideal form, Regulatory Impact Statements should be seen as Nonsectarian Welfare Statements, seeking to identify the consequences of regulatory initiatives for various components of welfare. So understood, they provide reasonable measures of regulatory success or failure, and hence a plausible test of dysfunction. There is a pressing need for improved evaluations, including both randomized controlled trials and ex post assessments.”