Exploring the Citizenscape

Earlier this week Public-i launched a new brand and a lovely new design for their product suite . I’m not going to get into the details of relaunch as Catherine has already provided a post on that.

In my role at Public-i I’m focused on the product Citizenscape, It has got a bit of a facelift, which I personally feel brings it to a stage where the design will start to match the capability it provides. If you aren’t aware of what Citizenscape is or does the product webpage states:

We see Citizenscape as a new way to work with your users, citizens or stakeholders – harnessing the power of the social web. In the world of the social web, where everyone has the means to publish themselves, the days when you could build a website and expect people to visit and to use it are gone. Instead, Citizenscape is a dynamic online engagement platform that enables you to connect with your citizens, stakeholders and partners in a way that supports the work you are already doing together and is in keeping with the way they are already communicating. With Citizenscape you can build shared civic spaces and networks that support, encourage and enable the people you want to connect with to find new ways of collaborating and co-creating.

Now what I think is hard to get across is the actual power this product has in connecting people and networks…The technology underneath is actually really clever but it isn’t really that which creates the value. Obviously it is valuable and does what is required at the moment but let me explain what I mean a bit further.

I read with great interest this blog post from TEDGlobal 12 about Rachel Botsman where it talks about trust in strangers and reputation and provides examples of websites and platforms which facilitate connection between people and also help validate aspects of that trust through sharing others experiences. The examples referenced in the post are TaskRabbit and Airbnb, which are good examples of how trust develops and can be fostered. Rachel says:

The amazing thing, is how fast our ability to trust online has evolved. But with her optimism, there is a note of caution about how this will work in practice: “How do we mimic the way trust is built face-to-face online?

When I think about Citizenscape as a platform, it is aiming to address the heart of these issues, in the projects where it is used, it is really about fostering empowerment within communities and networks online and offline. Rachel also refers to empowerment as a key outcome of platforms like TaskRabbit and Airbnb – I’d almost go as far to say that her description of them matches my view of  Citizenscape, she says:

At its core, it’s about empowerment. Empowering people to make meaningful connections, connections that are enabling us to rediscover a humanness we’ve lost along the way.

So when you consider this and then what Citizenscape states its value is, the value isn’t directly in the technology itself (although without it, it would be pretty empty) but in the connections, the networks, the communities that are now able to come together and share learning, to reconnect at a civic level to address local issues and problems. The key role for the platform (Citizenscape) is to facilitate those connections, without it those networks may not get the chance to reconnect.

When I look back and reflect on how I thought this role would develop, how I thought the product would develop and find its place, how it would differentiate itself from the free social media monitor tools out there. This is what I said back in February:

The CitizenScape pages  state a set of assumptions which I feel are a good starting point to focus my thinking around the product – are these assumptions still correct for example.

“The assumptions behind Citizenscape are simple:

Council’s should not be building social networking sites themselves – there is already a lot of activity online. Local Authorities need to connect to that rather than starting from scratch

You need tools that reach out and exist on the sites that people are already visiting – not waste your time trying to get them to visit you

The social web encourages co-creation and participation – this makes it the right place to start to engage people in democratic debate”

…On the whole they are still valid..but how does this actually translate into real life…

It is important for me to state up front that the product doesn’t quite work yet, I mean it does work technically, but in terms of the real opportunities I think it has some way to go.

The current version does make me think whether or not I could achieve perhaps 70-80% of the output within some free products like pageflakes or netvibes…that isn’t to say the existing product is poorly made or developed because it isn’t but the challenge is trying to build or create something that is actually still hard to articulate and explain even with the assumptions listed above.

Now whilst the redesign provides opportunities to simply make it look more engaging and to ensure that the responsive design allows it to be delivered across multiple devices. It has now come to a point where the value is easier to understand and communicate. The challenge is no longer about “what the product is” but do public services understand and recognise the value of providing spaces, opportunities and platforms for networks to come together and reconnect online and offline.

My take on this is that some are and some already do in various ways but the future of public services pretty much requires it. It will be at the core of the re-imagining and re-designing of public services. It won’t be an easy journey for many people as the budgetary situation in local government will only get worse and the past few years don’t even represent the real reductions in budgets across local government…so the only option has to be to open up to a more co-operative and collaborative future with networks and networks of networks being at the core and heart of local change.

Reflecting on my first month at Public-i

At the start of March this year, I began my part-time employment with Public-i, the details of which I shared here.

So over a month later…what are my thoughts!

First and foremost the Public-i I team are a great bunch of people, they are all passionate about what they do and are very focused. They are all easy to get along with and all have very interesting things to say on a variety of topics. Even if I wasn’t working for them the people are the type of people I’d want to connect with. So if nothing else I’ve made some great contacts and had some great conversations which will no doubt continue in various places.

It wasn’t the major culture shock I perhaps had anticipated but it was still a pretty in-depth learning curve, which has made the first month a very tiring but fulfilling experience.  I think I underestimated how tired it would make me feel, but a good tired. I’ve had a lot to think about and if it wasn’t for the four plus hour train journeys to Brighton and back I’d wonder how I’d find the time to process all of the information, although I’m spending more time reading and checking things via my iPad and laptop then I previously did as I also have a number of voluntary positions that I still need to maintain on top of these paid positions.

So my role at Public-i is Product Manager for the Citizenscape product and this entails championing the product, defining the purpose, signing off development, designs and being clear about the overall vision and direction.

If I’m honest, I probably only do about a fraction of that at the moment and my initial focus has been on being clear in my mind as to what the purpose, proposition and vision is for the Citizenscape product. I’m not 100% there on that either yet as my thoughts are evolving the more I get into deeper conversations with people but I am becoming clear on what I think are the key underlying features of the product (more on this at a later stage).

In my previous post I referred to the issue around whether some of the free tools that exist to help aggregate content are in direct competition with the Citizenscape product. Well I think I can answer that question now…No they aren’t…So my personal opinion is that if a council wants a “free” tool to simply listen to some social media channels then do it, use those products, in fact I think they are very good at that and I’d certainly recommend addictomatic as a really usable platform.  This level (listening) is really quite a simple step, although finding and knowing your social media landscape is another matter and one which is likely to involve a social media audit of some kind.

The Citizenscape product isn’t really about listening, although it does do it, it is about a wider set of features (travelling content, interaction, participation, statistics and connecting people and networks) which in my opinion set it aside from the free tools. The challenge of course is in making sure the design, interaction and usability all come together to provide a product people will buy.

Aside from the Product Manager position it has been great learning more about what Public-i do and how they approach things. I perhaps didn’t appreciate the importance of the Public-i User Group in shaping developments, not just technical developments but also developments within the sector itself.

What I’ve learnt about myself

I need to give myself more time overall to reflect on things that are happening around me. In a work context I need to give myself time to think and make sure that what i am doing is right, fits with a vision and makes progress.

I need to be more organised, I’m trying to work out how I can manage my calendars for all the things I do without them all being loaded with the same information…It simply isn’t appropriate…I’m trying some things out, and only time will tell.

I should have more awareness of the skills and value I can bring to situations. I really need to complete the Business Model for myself to help me with this.

I really love what I’m doing but maybe I need to focus on one thing and do it really well instead of spreading myself so thinly…Sometimes I think I am actually being counter productive by only dedicating a proportion of my time.

I do actually trust those people around me to help fill the gaps, although I need to be more explicit with people in relation to the help I actually need. (I’m unaware that mind reading is a universal skill yet).

I actually set very high expectations of myself and I get frustrated when I’m not meeting them, this is an internal process but is something that I need to work through

I could work at a higher level than I am now if I simply believed in myself more.

I’m was never fond of train journeys but they do create time for thinking, especially if you have music or audio books to help you gather your thoughts.

Clarity of vision and pragmatic in delivery is a very useful tactic.

What hasn’t worked so well.

I’ve not been very good at reducing my work load at the council so the first month has a been a challenge, this is more my fault and my responsibility – it isn’t possible to try to fit 5 days work into 3 days (obviously), so I actually have to stop doing some things and hand them over to my team.

Managing my time has been a struggle…I’ve now started booking time in my calendar simply to get work done as my diary fills up very quickly now that I’m 3 days a week. However I also need to question whether my attendance at meetings is actually required and whether I would actually add value to the discussion.

Both jobs are very interesting but I don’t know if splitting my time is going to be practical long-term, this also includes some of the voluntary work I’m doing…I think i need to rethink my use of time and ensure that I maintain a healthy balance…but it is early days and I need to make adjustments which may well resolve some of these early challenges.

Finally

I don’t regret taking this opportunity, it is already proving valuable to me in a variety of ways. I need to give the whole thing more time to settle down.

Working with @curiousc and Co @Public_i

I’m very excited to announce that from the end of this month (w/b 27th February 2012) I will be working 2 days a week for a fixed period of 6 months with the lovely folks at Public i as the Citizenscape product manager.

Why am I doing this?

Well that is a good question, I didn’t need to look for additional work, nor was I actively seeking to leave the council, in fact I’m very happy working at the council and we have lots of work to do and push forward as well as some of the additional things that I’m trying to push forward with Sarah Lay like the new Content Strategy Community, all of that will still happen as I’m not working alone and have lots of amazing people to work with to help make these things happen.

But I see this as an opportunity to experience a different culture, different ethos and working with people who are trying to solve a problem I care deeply about – the impact and opportunity of social technologies on democracy.

I’m already doing lots of things in my spare time so volunteering wasn’t ever an option here and I do love working on a variety of topics which are actually at their core linked around a set of common issues:  empowerment, engagement, social capital, participation and of course “digitalness”.

What will I be doing?

First and foremost I’ll be working with the development team and the rest of the good folk at Public I on helping them improve the overall user experience and focus of the Citizenscape product.

I’ll be providing constructive disruption and challenge and hopefully help make it a solution which helps the democratic process evolve.  Obviously 2 days a week is limiting so it will be a challenge but one that will also be a great learning curve for me as well.

The CitizenScape pages  state a set of assumptions which I feel are a good starting point to focus my thinking around the product – are these assumptions still correct for example.

The assumptions behind Citizenscape are simple:

Council’s should not be building social networking sites themselves – there is already a lot of activity online. Local Authorities need to connect to that rather than starting from scratch

You need tools that reach out and exist on the sites that people are already visiting – not waste your time trying to get them to visit you

The social web encourages co-creation and participation – this makes it the right place to start to engage people in democratic debate

On the whole they are still valid..but how does this actually translate into real life…

It is important for me to state up front that the product doesn’t quite work yet, I mean it does work technically, but in terms of the real opportunities I think it has some way to go.

The current version does make me think whether or not I could achieve perhaps 70-80% of the output within some free products like pageflakes or netvibes…that isn’t to say the existing product is poorly made or developed because it isn’t but the challenge is trying to build or create something that is actually still hard to articulate and explain even with the assumptions listed above.

In addition to that another challenge will be to either accept that aspects can be replicated on free platforms and move onto understanding the real value of the remaining 20-30% or increasing the opportunity of the whole product.  I’m not sure what the answer is yet but that is something I’m looking forward to working on over the coming months – whatever the answer, it has to be sustainable.

Will I succeed?

Who knows, I’m lucky to have such an opportunity and to be able to explore this in such a “low risk” environment…I won’t know until I try, It may not work out, or it may work really well…

I want to thank Catherine Howe for allowing me this opportunity to start with and for believing in me enough to allow me to temporarily adopt one of her projects and help steer it forward…that in itself is an honour and a privilege.

All I know is that along the way I’ll be learning, sharing my thoughts and thinking here on my blog.