UK Department of Health: Citizen Space

at the UK Department of Health: “We recently ran a survey of our internal DH Citizen Space users. Citizen Space is the digital tool that DH and a number of other local and central Government Departments use to run their consultations.
Overall, our survey results were positive with staff reporting they had found the tool relatively easy to use and access. The survey did flag some internal issues eg. visibility of the tool in the Department, minor technical issues etc, which we’re planning to address through better promotion of Citizen Space and training, but on the whole our internal user experience seemed to be good.
However, there was one area where internal users did seem to be experiencing problems, and ironically it wasn’t with the tool itself. Many of our survey respondents seemed to be struggling with the analysis of their consultation responses, with some teams even questioning the usefulness of the data they were amassing from their digital consultations.
Some common mistakes
To help us get to the bottom of what was going on, we contacted some of our respondents and met with some consultation teams to talk about how they design, run and analyse the responses from their digital consultations. We found some common mistakes:

  • Not thinking ‘digital first’ – not designing consultations with a digital audience and digital responses in mind. Eg. writing consultations for print and then trying to shoehorn them into a digital tool
  • Not identifying what ‘real’ success means for a consultation before launching it or not putting in place the metrics needed to measure for success. Eg. not setting benchmarks, not measuring qualitative data or not identifying key target audiences and how to reach them.
  • Not thinking about the type and/or amount of data that will be returned and planning resources and tools accordingly. Eg. asking lots of free-text questions and then drowning in responses

As a team, we are trying to address many of these issues by improving the way the Department approaches and designs its digital consultations. The next iteration of our Digital policymaking toolkit, which will combine a new set of Policy Standards with our digital tools, techniques and advice for policymakers, should help. Alongside other work our team is doing to build up digital capability in the department and to produce analytical tools for data mining and sentiment analysis that will help teams with free-text analysis.
…how to use or build a consultation in Citizen Space, you can find one of those in the Citizen Space User Guide and further guides and user forums on the Citizen Space Knowledge Base website.

The Right Colors Make Data Easier To Read

Sharon Lin And Jeffrey Heer at HBR Blog: “What is the color of money? Of love? Of the ocean? In the United States, most people respond that money is green, love is red and the ocean is blue. Many concepts evoke related colors — whether due to physical appearance, common metaphors, or cultural conventions. When colors are paired with the concepts that evoke them, we call these “semantically resonant color choices.”
Artists and designers regularly use semantically resonant colors in their work. And in the research we conducted with Julie Fortuna, Chinmay Kulkarni, and Maureen Stone, we found they can be remarkably important to data visualization.
Consider these charts of (fictional) fruit sales:
The only difference between the charts is the color assignment. The left-hand chart uses colors from a default palette. The right-hand chart has been assigned semantically resonant colors. (In this case, the assignment was computed automatically using an algorithm that analyzes the colors in relevant images retrieved from Google Image Search using queries for each data category name.)
Now, try answering some questions about the data in each of these charts. Which fruit had higher sales: blueberries or tangerines? How about peaches versus apples? Which chart do you find easier to read?…
To make effective visualization color choices, you need to take a number of factors into consideration. To name just two: All the colors need to be suitably different from one another, for instance, so that readers can tell them apart – what’s called “discriminability.” You also need to consider what the colors look like to the color blind — roughly 8% of the U.S. male population! Could the colors be distinguished from one another if they were reprinted in black and white?
One easy way to assign semantically resonant colors is to use colors from an existing color palette that has been carefully designed for visualization applications (ColorBrewer offers some options) but assign the colors to data values in a way that best matches concept color associations. This is the basis of our own algorithm, which acquires images for each concept and then analyzes them to learn concept color associations. However, keep in mind that color associations may vary across cultures. For example, in the United States and many western cultures, luck is often associated with green (four-leaf clovers), while red can be considered a color of danger. However, in China, luck is traditionally symbolized with the color red.

Semantically resonant colors can reinforce perception of a wide range of data categories. We believe similar gains would likely be seen for other forms of visualizations like maps, scatterplots, and line charts. So when designing visualizations for presentation or analysis, consider color choice and ask yourself how well the colors resonate with the underlying data.”

Twenty-one European Cities Advance in Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge Competition to Create Innovative Solutions to Urban Challenges

Press Release: “Bloomberg Philanthropies today revealed the 21 European cities that have emerged as final contenders in its 2013-2014 Mayors Challenge, a competition to inspire cities to generate innovative ideas that solve major challenges and improve city life, and that ultimately can spread to other cities. One grand prize winner will receive €5 million for the most creative and transferable idea. Four additional cities will be awarded €1 million, and all will be announced in the fall. The finalists’ proposed solutions address some of Europe’s most critical issue areas: youth unemployment, aging populations, civic engagement, economic development, environment and energy concerns, public health and safety, and making government more efficient…
James Anderson, the head of government innovation for Bloomberg Philanthropies, said: “While the ideas are very diverse, we identified key themes. The ideas tended toward networked, distributed solutions as opposed to costly centralized ones. There was a lot of interest in citizen engagement as both a means and end. Technology that concretely and positively affects the lives of individual citizens – from the blind person in Warsaw to the unemployed youth in Amsterdam to the homeowner in Schaerbeek — also played a significant role.”
Bloomberg Philanthropies staff and an independent selection committee of 12 members from across Europe closely considered each application over multiple rounds of review, culminating in feedback and selection earlier this month, resulting in 21 cities’ ideas moving forward for further development. The submissions will be judged on four critieria: vision, potential for impact, implementation plan, and potential to spread to other cities. The finalists and their ideas are:

  1. AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Youth Unemployment: Tackling widespread youth unemployment by equipping young people with 21st century skills and connecting them with jobs and apprenticeships across Europe through an online game
  2. ATHENS, Greece – Civic Engagement: Empowering citizens with a new online platform to address the large number of small-scale urban challenges accelerated by the Greek economic crisis
  3. BARCELONA, Spain – Aging: Improving quality of life and limiting social isolation by establishing a network of public and private support – including family, friends, social workers, and volunteers – for each elderly citizen
  4. BOLOGNA, Italy – Youth Unemployment: Building an urban scale model of informal education labs and civic engagement to prevent youth unemployment by teaching children aged 6-16 entrepreneurship and 21st century skills
  5. BRISTOL, United Kingdom – Health/Anti-obesity: Tackling obesity and unemployment by creating a new economic system that increases access to locally grown, healthy foods
  6. BRNO, Czech Republic – Public Safety/Civic Engagement: Engaging citizens in keeping their own communities safe to build social cohesion and reduce crime
  7. CARDIFF, United Kingdom – Economic Development: Increasing productivity little by little in residents’ personal and professional lives, so that a series of small improvements add up to a much more productive city
  8. FLORENCE, Italy – Economic Development: Combatting unemployment with a new economic development model that combines technology and social innovation, targeting the city’s historic artisan and maker community
  9. GDAŃSK, Poland – Civic Engagement: Re-instilling faith in local democracy by mandating that city government formally debate local issues put forward by citizens
  10. KIRKLEES, United Kingdom – Social Capital: Pooling the city and community’s idle assets – from vehicles to unused spaces to citizens’ untapped time and expertise – to help the area make the most of what it has and do more with less
  11. KRAKOW, Poland – Transportation: Implementing smart, personalized transportation incentives and a seamless and unified public transit payment system to convince residents to opt for greener modes of transportation
  12. LISBON, Portugal – Energy: Transforming wasted kinetic energy generated by the city’s commuting traffic into electricity, reducing the carbon footprint and increasing environmental sustainability
  13. LONDON, United Kingdom – Public Health: Empowering citizens to monitor and improve their own health through a coordinated, multi-stakeholder platform and new technologies that dramatically improve quality of life and reduce health care costs
  14. MADRID, Spain – Energy: Diversifying its renewable energy options by finding and funding the best ways to harvest underground power, such as wasted heat generated by the city’s below-ground infrastructure
  15. SCHAERBEEK, Belgium – Energy: Using proven flyover and 3D geothermal mapping technology to provide each homeowner and tenant with a personalized energy audit and incentives to invest in energy-saving strategies
  16. SOFIA, Bulgaria – Civic Engagement: Transforming public spaces by deploying mobile art units to work side-by-side with local residents, re-envisioning and rejuvenating underused spaces and increasing civic engagement
  17. STARA ZAGORA, Bulgaria – Economic Development: Reversing the brain-drain of the city’s best and brightest by helping young entrepreneurs turn promising ideas into local high-tech businesses
  18. STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Environment: Combatting climate change by engaging citizens to produce biochar, an organic material that increases tree growth, sequesters carbon, and purifies storm runoff
  19. THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Civic Engagement: Enabling citizens to allocate a portion of their own tax money to support the local projects they most believe in
  20. WARSAW, Poland – Transportation/Accessibility: Enabling the blind and visually impaired to navigate the city as easily as their sighted peers by providing high-tech auditory alerts which will save them travel time and increase their independence
  21. YORK, United Kingdom – Government Systems: Revolutionizing the way citizens, businesses, and others can propose new ideas to solve top city problems, providing a more intelligent way to acquire or develop the best solutions, thus enabling greater civic participation and saving the city both time and money

Further detail and related elements for this year’s Mayors Challenge can be found via:”

In Belgium, speed camera locations are crowdsourced from citizens

Springwise: “As much as local authorities try to, they aren’t able to stop every single civic infraction because they only have a limited number of eyes on the street. However, smartphones have already enabled councils to crowdsource details of law breaches, through apps such as Parking Mobility that let users log when a driver is using a disabled parking bay without a licence. Now the ikflitsmee campaign in Belgium has encouraged citizens to send in locations where they believe speeding is a problem in order for the police to invest in safety measures.
Open until April 10, anyone could log onto the ikflitsmee website to nominate locations such as schools, playgrounds or sharp turns in the road where speeding is a particular problem. The initiative spanned the whole country, involving both local and Federal police forces. After receiving more than 50,000 suggestions, those forces were then invited to check the pinned locations near to them to see if a speed camera would be a feasible solution. The website gets residents to flag up the areas they know to be dangerous and helps authorities by creating an instant data resource to plan future audits.
By asking residents to show them where potential speeders are, local authorities can curb accidents and deliver more fines to culprits, boosting their revenue. At the same time, citizens feel empowered and involved in the improvement of road safety in the country. Are there other ways to tap citizens’ smartphones for more rapid gathering of data that can help councils improve their service to the community?

Finland opens new portal launched to support transparency and interaction

Epractice:” The Ministry of Justice (of Finland) has launched a new portal,, which gathers together information from various democracy-related sites and news in the field of political decision-making. The site thereby makes it easier for citizens to find the best channels for participation and influence, and increases government transparency and interaction. summarises the eDemocracy web services maintained by the Ministry of Justice, namely, and Later in spring 2014, a fourth site will be added,, which is intended to streamline the consultation procedures and make it transparent and open to the public. The service will digitise the current consultation process.
The administration is acting in accordance with the principles of the Finnish action plan for open government, to strengthen citizens’ rights to information and participation in the development of common solutions and services. Matters that are under preparation should be reported at an early stage of preparations so that citizens have genuine opportunities to influence the process. also contains links to other public authorities’ websites with information on current matters that are being planned or prepared. In addition, it highlights the latest news from, for example, the parliament and the government.”

Can Government Play Moneyball?

David Bornstein in the New York Times: “…For all the attention it’s getting inside the administration, evidence-based policy-making seems unlikely to become a headline grabber; it lacks emotional appeal. But it does have intellectual heft. And one group that has been doing creative work to give the message broader appeal is Results for America, which has produced useful teaching aids under the banner “Moneyball for Government,” building on the popularity of the book and movie about Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, and the rise of data-driven decision making in major league baseball. (Watch their video explainers here and here.)
Results for America works closely with leaders across political parties and social sectors, to build awareness about evidence-based policy making — drawing attention to key areas where government could dramatically improve people’s lives by augmenting well-tested models. They are also chronicling efforts by local governments around the country, to show how an emerging group of “Geek Cities,” including Baltimore, Denver, Miami, New York, Providence and San Antonio, are using data and evidence to drive improvements in various areas of social policy like education, youth development and employment.
“It seems like common sense to use evidence about what works to get better results,” said Michele Jolin, Results for America’s managing partner. “How could anyone be against it? But the way our system is set up, there are so many loud voices pushing to have dollars spent and policy shaped in the way that works for them. There has been no organized constituency for things that work.”
“The debate in Washington is usually about the quantity of resources,” said David Medina, a partner in Results for America. “We’re trying to bring it back to talking about quality.”
Not everyone will find this change appealing. “When you have a longstanding social service policy, there’s going to be a network of [people and groups] who are organized to keep that money flowing regardless of whether evidence suggests it’s warranted,” said Daniel Stid. “People in social services don’t like to think they’re behaving like other organized interests — like dairy farmers or mortgage brokers — but it leads to tremendous inertia in public policy.”
Beyond the politics, there are practical obstacles to overcome, too. Federal agencies lack sufficient budgets for evaluation or a common definition for what constitutes rigorous evidence. (Any lobbyist can walk into a legislator’s office and claim to have solid data to support an argument.) Up-to-date evidence also needs to be packaged in accessible ways and made available on a timely basis, so it can be used to improve programs, rather than to threaten them. Governments need to build regular evaluations into everything they do — not just conduct big, expensive studies every 10 years or so.
That means developing new ways to conduct quick and inexpensive randomized studies using data that is readily available, said Haskins, who is investigating this approach. “We should be running 10,000 evaluations a year, like they do in medicine.” That’s the only way to produce the rapid trial-and-error learning needed to drive iterative program improvements, he added. (I reported on a similar effort being undertaken by the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.)
Results for America has developed a scorecard to rank federal departments about how prepared they are to produce or incorporate evidence in their programs. It looks at whether a department has an office and a leader with the authority and budget to evaluate its programs. It asks: Does it make its data accessible to the public? Does it compile standards about what works and share them widely? Does it spend at least 1 percent of its budget evaluating its programs? And — most important — does it incorporate evidence in its big grant programs? For now, the Department of Education gets the top score.
The stakes are high. In 2011, for example, the Obama administration launched a process to reform Head Start, doing things like spreading best practices and forcing the worst programs to improve or lose their funding. This February, for the third time, the government released a list of Head Start providers (103 out of about 1,600) who will have to recompete for federal funding because of performance problems. That list represents tens of thousands of preschoolers, many of whom are missing out on the education they need to succeed in kindergarten — and life.
Improving flagship programs like Head Start, and others, is not just vital for the families they serve; it’s vital to restore trust in government. “I am a card-carrying member of the Republican Party and I want us to be governed well,” said Robert Shea, who pushed for better program evaluations as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Bush administration, and continues to focus on this issue as chairman of the National Academy of Public Administration. “This is the most promising thing I know of to get us closer to that goal.”
“This idea has the prospect of uniting Democrats and Republicans,” said Haskins. “But it will involve a broad cultural change. It has to get down to the program administrators, board members and local staff throughout the country — so they know that evaluation is crucial to their operations.”
“There’s a deep mistrust of government and a belief that problems can’t be solved,” said Michele Jolin. “This movement will lead to better outcomes — and it will help people regain confidence in their public officials by creating a more effective, more credible way for policy choices to be made.”

Crowdsourcing medical expertise in near real time

Paper by Max H. Sims et al in Journal of Hospital Medicine: “Given the pace of discovery in medicine, accessing the literature to make informed decisions at the point of care has become increasingly difficult. Although the Internet creates unprecedented access to information, gaps in the medical literature and inefficient searches often leave healthcare providers’ questions unanswered. Advances in social computation and human computer interactions offer a potential solution to this problem. We developed and piloted the mobile application DocCHIRP, which uses a system of point-to-multipoint push notifications designed to help providers problem solve by crowdsourcing from their peers. Over the 244-day pilot period, 85 registered users logged 1544 page views and sent 45 consult questions. The median initial first response from the crowd occurred within 19 minutes. Review of the transcripts revealed several dominant themes, including complex medical decision making and inquiries related to prescription medication use. Feedback from the post-trial survey identified potential hurdles related to medical crowdsourcing, including a reluctance to expose personal knowledge gaps and the potential risk for “distracted doctoring.” Users also suggested program modifications that could support future adoption, including changes to the mobile interface and mechanisms that could expand the crowd of participating healthcare providers.”

Good Governance – Performance Values and Procedural Values in Conflict

Paper by Gjalt de Graaf and Hester Paanakker in The American Review of Public Administration: “Good governance codes usually end with a list of public values no one could oppose. A recurrent issue is that not all of these values—however desirable they are—can be achieved at the same time. With its focus on performance and procedural values of governance, this article zooms in on the conflict between two different types of values, signifying and exemplifying how output and outcome on one hand and the process of governance on the other may coincide or collide. The main research question is, “What is the nature of value conflict in public governance and what specific conflicts between performance and procedural values do public actors perceive?” A literature review and two case studies involving aldermen and the most senior public administrators in public governance set out to answer these questions. The most frequently perceived conflict is between lawfulness and transparency in procedure, on one hand, and the attainment of effectiveness and efficiency as performance values on the other.”

Paying Farmers to Welcome Birds

Jim Robbins in The New York Times: “The Central Valley was once one of North America’s most productive wildlife habitats, a 450-mile-long expanse marbled with meandering streams and lush wetlands that provided an ideal stop for migratory shorebirds on their annual journeys from South America and Mexico to the Arctic and back.

Farmers and engineers have long since tamed the valley. Of the wetlands that existed before the valley was settled, about 95 percent are gone, and the number of migratory birds has declined drastically. But now an unusual alliance of conservationists, bird watchers and farmers have joined in an innovative plan to restore essential habitat for the migrating birds.

The program, called BirdReturns, starts with data from eBird, the pioneering citizen science project that asks birders to record sightings on a smartphone app and send the information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in upstate New York.

By crunching data from the Central Valley, eBird can generate maps showing where virtually every species congregates in the remaining wetlands. Then, by overlaying those maps on aerial views of existing surface water, it can determine where the birds’ need for habitat is greatest….

BirdReturns is an example of the growing movement called reconciliation ecology, in which ecosystems dominated by humans are managed to increase biodiversity.

“It’s a new ‘Moneyball,’ ” said Eric Hallstein, an economist with the Nature Conservancy and a designer of the auctions, referring to the book and movie about the Oakland Athletics’ data-driven approach to baseball. “We’re disrupting the conservation industry by taking a new kind of data, crunching it differently and contracting differently.”

Passage Of The DATA Act Is A Major Advance In Government Transparency

OpEd by Hudson Hollister in Forbes: “Even as the debate over official secrecy grows on Capitol Hill, basic information about our government’s spending remains hidden in plain sight.
Information that is technically public — federal finance, awards, and expenditures — is effectively locked within a disconnected disclosure system that relies on outdated paper-based technology. Budgets, grants, contracts, and disbursements are reported manually and separately, using forms and spreadsheets. Researchers seeking insights into federal spending must invest time and resources crafting data sets out of these documents. Without common data standards across all government spending, analyses of cross-agency spending trends require endless conversions of apples to oranges.
For a nation whose tech industry leads the world, there is no reason to allow this antiquated system to persist.
That’s why we’re excited to welcome Thursday’s unanimous Senate approval of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act — known as the DATA Act.
The DATA Act will mandate government-wide standards for federal spending data. It will also require agencies to publish this information online, fully searchable and open to everyone.
Watchdogs and transparency advocates from across the political spectrum have endorsed the DATA Act because all Americans will benefit from clear, accessible information about how their tax dollars are being spent.
It is darkly appropriate that the only organized opposition to this bill took place behind closed doors. In January, Senate sponsors Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) rejected amendments offered privately by the White House Office of Management and Budget. These nonpublic proposals would have gutted the DATA Act’s key data standards requirement. But Warner and Portman went public with their opposition, and Republicans and Democrats agreed to keep a strong standards mandate.
We now await swift action by the House of Representatives to pass this bill and put it on the President’s desk.
The tech industry is already delivering the technology and expertise that will use federal spending data, once it is open and standardized, to solve problems.
If the DATA Act is fully enforced, citizens will be able to track government spending on a particular contractor or from a particular program, payment by payment. Agencies will be able to deploy sophisticated Big Data analytics to illuminate, and eliminate, waste and fraud. And states and universities will be able to automate their complex federal grant reporting tasks, freeing up more tax dollars for their intended use. Our industry can perform these tasks — as soon as we get the data.
Chairman Earl Devaney’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board proved this is possible. Starting in 2009, the Recovery Board applied data standards to track stimulus spending. Our members’ software used that data to help inspectors general prevent and recover over $100 million in spending on suspicious grantees and contractors. The DATA Act applies that approach across the whole of government spending.
Congress is now poised to pass this landmark legislative mandate to transform spending from disconnected documents into open data. Next , the executive branch must implement that mandate.
So our Coalition’s work continues. We will press the Treasury Department and the White House to adopt robust, durable, and nonproprietary data standards for federal spending.
And we won’t stop with spending transparency. The American people deserve access to open data across all areas of government activity — financial regulatory reporting, legislative actions, judicial filings, and much more….”