Guardian Activate London 2012: The Great and the Good


Last week I was lucky enough to go to Guardian Activate London 2012 with fellow PHD’er @anjali28. For me it was a day of the great, the big themes in digital’s role in business and society, and the good, the many exciting individual projects and individuals doing using technology as a tool to good things.

The great in 3 parts:

  1. Agility. Agile business, government and product design in the digital were big themes of the morning session. Mike Bracken of the GDS, Matt Webb from Berg and Jonathan Moore from Skype spoke variously about the power of the ‘quick-do’ (focusing on things you can change and make happen now), macroscopes (linking macro perspectives on projects and problems to their specific contexts) and developing digital services by proven increments (evolution vs. revolution).

    But for me it was about more than just agility. It was about the capacity to make things happen. Less talking and more doing: whether it’s chunking new projects into realistic goals (100 hours), tackling the problems you can solve now before getting tied up in knots about problems you can’t, or working in small, empowered teams (7 is the magic number apparently). This is a well-worn theme, but one of the amazing things we can learn from the growth of digital services is the principle of launch-to-learn, being confident and flexible enough to build something quickly, then shape and build it based on how people interact with it.

  2. The power of open source. One of my favourite speakers from the day was Matt Mullenweg, one of the founders of WordPress, which is obviously an amazing influential, flexible and powerful platform. And it’s driven by open source principles, something that is arguably being lost in the command-and-control, increasingly closed Facebook/Apple/Microsoft/Amazon Internet.

    I know I sound like a digital hippie, but it reminded me of the importance of protecting the open web: It has arguably been the driving force behind the scope and pace of innovation in digital, and clearly something to be valued.

    Something else Matt spoke about which resonated with me was ‘working’ vs. ‘the work’. WordPress have a refreshing approach: the focus is on the work, and doing good work can happen anywhere in the world, at any time. Too often it seems we do things in our professional lives to show we’re working (and let’s face it we do this with clients all the time), when ultimately what matters is output.


  3. Computation as an everyday phenomenon.

    Stephen Wolfram, of Wolfram Alpha (and Siri) fame, was as interesting and challenging as you’d expect. The thrust of his vision for the future of digital services is computation for everyone – the layering of computational and interactive services into our digital devices and even into our working documents.

    It seems to me this requires some literacy on the behalf of users for how and when computation works, not only so that we can work with it (just try and do a simple search on Wolfram Alpha) but also so we can understand the answers it gives us – an informed role as interpreters of the digital ‘answers’ (vs. facts) that services like search will increasingly deliver.


The good in a few (smaller) parts:

–          Though data visualisation has at times become a parody of itself, the work that and the Guardian Datablog do are a reminder that they be a really powerful storytelling tool. But obviously you have to have an interesting story in the first place.

–          There are lots of amazing projects aimed at making government and society more transparent: environmental business intelligence from AMEE, the authentication of user-generated video evidence of human rights abuses from Witness Labs, the many amazing things (e.g. The Public Domain Review, OpenSpending, European Energy use, open text books) the Open Knowledge Foundation do, and more many amazing thing that MySociety do.

– is really much, much better than, kudos to GDS and a great example of what really good UX design can do.

–          We all need to try and attend a Technology Will Save Us workshop, a glimpse into the future of digital literacy.

–          BBC have done an amazing job of designing digital services for the Olympics, centred on their interactive, live video service.   It’s one of the few things I’ve seen where I’ve genuinely thought that watching something on the web will be better than on TV.

Posted by Mark W. Holden, @holdenmw


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