Thoughts from #WAODigital18

This was my second (maybe third?) outing to a Wales Audit Office Digital event. They’re fast becoming one of my favourite things on the calendar for the following reasons…

  • They’re for everyone. I really like the blend of people who attend as it brings a more diverse range of views rather than just one set of professionals or a singular sector.
  • They’re FREE. For those without lavish training budgets, being able to attend without having to approve spend can’t be overstated enough.
  • It’s a half day morning event and I reckon it’s the perfect length (..for me). Being a bit of an introvert, I find it’s the right amount of interesting discussion and social interaction before I get utterly knackered and need to retreat to a darkened room to recharge.
  • It’s smack bang in the middle of Cardiff, which made it super easy to get to (I did a combo of cycling/train/walking) and I had a lovely morning stroll through Sophia Gardens to boot.
  • They’re about digital, but they also importantly recognise that technology is an enabler rather than the final destination.
  • The emphasis is ALWAYS on sharing learning and putting that learning to good use for the whole of the public sector. No harvesting of data for mailing lists. No hard sell. Just good open practical discussion and plenty of opportunity for an exchange of views over a sandwich.

So, kudos to the Good Practice Exchange team for providing such an invaluable public service.

If you’re interested in what was said, I’ll include some threaded tweets at the end of this post which roughly encapsulate the key points that caught my attention. (*Disclaimer — not a verbatim account, considerable paraphrasing used to keep pace with the talk!)

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts from the day.

The times they are a changin’

I was chatting with Paul Taylor and Shirley Ayres (who coincidentally are as brilliant and lovely in real life as they are on Twitter) and I asked them if they thought the landscape had shifted much since they last visited around 5 years ago. Both thought that the conversation had moved on and that people were at least trying to engage with a different way of working.

If I had but one short term request, it would be to see more people attempting to work openly. Whether it be a blog post or the occasional tweet. We have some brilliant connectors working in different bits of the Welsh public sector, but there’s always room for more people thinking and talking out in the open so others can benefit from the learning and avoid duplication of effort. It won’t solve all our collective problems, but I think it’s a sizeable piece of the puzzle.

Whilst things haven’t perhaps moved as swiftly as some might like, it does seem that there’s recognition that what worked before won’t work for much longer. Brexit, Automation, Globalism, Climate change, The Gig Economy, people living longer.. take your pick of why ‘business as usual’ is going out the window.

Relative positions on the digital maturity curve

There was an interesting discussion on my table with regards to what people thought their organisation’s ambition was for using technology. One person who was working in a rural part of Wales held up her work phone. It was not entirely dissimilar from the Nokia 3310 I had back in the early 2000’s. It spoke volumes with regards to where some people are starting their journey on the digital maturity curve. It’s a realisation that whilst everyone is trying to keep up — the gap for some is actually widening as they struggle without even very basic digital infrastructure.

Another person mentioned that even where they were trying to forge ahead and better join up services for the benefit of front line staff and citizens, there was often resistance from certain bits of the public sector with ‘data protection’ or ‘security’ being cited as the reason for not working in a more connected and collaborative manner.

IT and digital ambition

Continuing on that theme, I picked up on an undercurrent of frustration with public sector IT in general. I have huge amounts of empathy for all parties involved.

I’ve spent many years working in technology and have my own modest catalogue of howlers to share. This stuff is hard. The juggling act of both human behaviour and technical complexity means there are more ways to get it wrong than right. But there are emerging practices to better ways to navigate uncertainty.

If we want to realise our digital ambitions and create things that make a real positive difference to people’s lives, I think we’ve got to fundamentally bridge the gap between the people who have a hand in designing systems and the people who use them. Empathy and clarity of purpose needs to be ever present in everything we collectively do.

That means putting more trust in users and really listening to what they say. It means spending more time separating signal from noise to really refine what people need and understanding the context of what they do. It means working openly, patiently and iteratively rather than trying to deliver huge amounts of unrealistic change in one go. It means not locking everyone in vaults to try and completely mitigate risk at all costs (a highly secure system that nobody wants to use is not a roaring success).

The old top down compliance culture that still exists in some places has to evolve if IT wants to stay relevant. It is done with mostly good intentions to ensure safety and order. But in the context of consumer technology driving the barrier of entry down and the Internet connecting everything and everyone, people’s expectations of technology can do for them and been irreversibly raised. Telling people that they can’t access widely used productivity tools like Trello because of VIRUSES/RUSSIAN HACKERS/GDPR SAYS NO doesn’t feel like a viable strategy for the future.

As with any new endeavour, there is always an element of risk. But if the Auditor General of the Wales Audit Office recognises that things must change and is willing people to take well managed risk, to experiment, to learn, to innovate, there really are few excuses for standing still.

Consumer Tech > Niche Tech

There was a hugely interesting session by Innovate Trust that talked about using Personal Smart Assistants like Alexa and Google to enhance independent living for people with disabilities. Apparently most telecare solutions are fantastically expensive and this is the default option offered by most services. The recent boom in smart homes has really helped provide an array of consumer level alternatives that duplicate quite a lot of functionality and in some cases exceed it – a fine example of disruption in action.

Philips Hue colour changing bulbs for sensory rooms. Alexa Show for easy video calling. Samsung Smart Things to automatically open blinds or lock/unlock doors.

It was also interesting to note that people actually wanted to own these things. Unlike the specialist devices which tend to be grey, clunky and decidedly uncool, people loved using things like Alexa. Because they’re using audio interfaces, they’re much easier to get to grips with because the technology is largely invisible. They’re fun, they tell jokes. And they’re widely available so friends and family to can own them too and be connected, which is great in terms of tackling loneliness and isolation.

My initial reservation was.. “Hmm.. this is an area of technology that’s changing rapidly! It’ll be tough to keep on top of that”. But in the context of the alternative costing ten times as much and people really needing something that enables them to live more independently, why not take a punt on a cheaper consumer alternative and make peace with the fact that you might just have to swap devices out as and when they become defunct. Perhaps this doesn’t scale up further down the line, but manageable enough to get going and capture some learning in the process.

I also really liked that they had started concocting their own smart devices from scratch. They fashioned a rough £70 prototype out of a baseball cap, a Raspberry Pi, a camera plus a little bit of magic from Microsoft AI + Alexa — and they had designed something which could describe a room via Alexa to someone with a visual impairment. Whilst not being completely practical for real world use, it enables them to start a conversation about the potential for this kind of device and the benefits it could bring.

All in all, I thought it was a great example of taking small managed risks to innovate. We can all do this kind of thing, but only if we make the space and time for it.

Understanding and empathy through co-design and starting small

There were five session in total, but only time to attend just two, which triggered some najor personal FOMO! From what I can see from Twitter, the majority were extolling the virtues designing things WITH the people rather than imposing design on them.

Also lots of talk about starting small to avoid costly time consuming failure. As Paul put it… by default we all love jumping to solutions before we’ve really defined the problem. Small real world tests can quickly deliver some valuable understanding and insight before you start betting big on potential solutions to a problem that you may or may not actually have.

These were quite novel practices even a few years ago, so it’s brilliant to see these approaches being talked about and used more widely now. I remain cautiously optimistic that this is the new direction of travel.

The uniqueness of Wales (… that I occasionally take for granted)

Someone from outside of Wales remarked that they were slightly envious of the way that our public services actually do come together at events like this and talk to one another (I think there were 14 different sectors/services in the room) which is apparently a rarity over the border.

It reaffirmed to me that there’s a huge amount of opportunity to be seized in Wales if we can be a little bit more bold, be a little bit more open, embrace our unique strengths and do the ace things that we’re most definitely capable of! I think the Wellbeing and Future Generations Act shows that we have massive amounts of positive ambition to tap into. <insert Welsh flag waving gif here>

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