Friday, November 25, 2011

Authenticity is my only metric

My thoughts are a mess - this week has been intense both on and off the ice; invariably many thoughts have passed through my head, but I haven't had the time I need to collect them.

That said, I suggest you read the transcript from this year's Gordon Osbaldeston Lecture given by Allan Gregg (a man I respect greatly, and who is far more informative than I).  Gregg's thesis can be summed up as civil society (elected officials, public servants, and citizens) need to be more authentic.  

It's a thesis I agree with, one that any proponent of open government or open data will agree with, and one that I have strived for in this space since its very inception.

When the dust settles and my career comes to an end, authenticity will be my only metric.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Look who's talking about the new Web 2.0 Guidelines

If you guessed me, you'd be wrong.

Here is everything I have read thus far on the subject (presented in the order I read them):


If I missed anything, let me know, and I can retroactively add it to the list.

Two things I haven't seen mentioned in the commentary yet:

  1. How the guidelines (and probably more importantly the code of values and ethics) relate to anonymity or pseudonymity online
  2. According to Treasury Board Secretariat guidelines are usually targeted at managers and functional specialists and the application there of are voluntary (as compared to say a directive where enforcement is mandatory).


Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Public Sector Microtasking

Given our propensity for micromanagement I suspect many will look at the idea of micro-tasking with come skepticism, but I think the idea is worth exploring (as do others).

A primer

For the uninitiated, micro-tasking is simply the breaking-down of more complex tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. The most widely talked about micro-tasking service is Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk); which according to Wikipedia is:
a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace that enables computer programmers (known as Requesters) to co-ordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are unable to do yet. It is one of the suites of Amazon Web Services. The Requesters are able to post tasks known as HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), such as choosing the best among several photographs of a store-front, writing product descriptions, or identifying performers on music CDs. Workers (called Providers in Mechanical Turk's Terms of Service) can then browse among existing tasks and complete them for a monetary payment set by the Requester. To place HITs, the requesting programs use an open Application Programming Interface (API), or the more limited MTurk Requester site. Requestors are restricted to US-based entities.

Requesters can ask that Workers fulfill Qualifications before engaging a task, and they can set up a test in order to verify the Qualification. They can also accept or reject the result sent by the Worker, which reflects on the Worker's reputation. Currently, Workers can have an address anywhere in the world. Payments for completing tasks can be redeemed on via gift certificate or be later transferred to a Worker's U.S. bank account. Requesters, which are typically corporations, pay 10 percent over the price of successfully completed HITs to Amazon.

In short, corporations post tasks that computers can't do, other people do them, and in so doing earn some small modicum of compensation. (Note if you are interested in learning more about microtasking and Amazon's Mechanical Turk, I suggest watching Aaron Koblin's TED talk: Artfully visualizing our humanity)

In practice

Aphid Farm by binux
Common public sector tasks such as translation, document formatting, fact checking, and basic editing could all be tested in a microtasking environment. While these tasks aren't necessarily sexy they are probably the easiest to manage at the outset. They can be easily broken up into smaller bits (e.g. translate this paragraph, format this 5-page PowerPoint presentation, fact check this page, etc) and are directionally straightforward. In order to ensure some modicum of consistency, users could take qualifying tests prior to being granted access to a particular category of microtask.

That said, microtasking shouldn't be limited to strictly perfunctory tasks. Service providers and policy makers could leverage the same system by presenting scenarios and asking people to complete questionnaires, say evaluating proposed changes to service delivery models or interpreting legislative or regulatory changes. There is an important caveat here, that obviously not everyone in the organization would have the requisite specialized knowledge to provide an in-depth analysis on a given topic. Meaning that feedback acquired from microtasking is more likely to be a better proxy for the general public than it is to be for a specific or specialized stakeholder group.

The motivation

One of the most common criticisms levied against microtasking is the incentive structure; why would people bother completing any of these tasks? First let me start by stating that I don't think that the problem of motivation is a deal-breaker when it comes to public sector microtasking. The answer to the problem is gamification.  If we could create a system that leveraged game mechanics while allowing users to engage the system on their own terms it offers them an opportunity for greater autonomy, mastery and purpose; qualities that Dan Pink argues are the hallmarks of motivation.

I've argued in the past that:

An increasingly diverse workforce coupled with an increasingly diverse scope of work means our organizational models have to contend with increasingly jagged edges, wider gaps and unforeseen overlaps. Upon closer reflection, my gut tells me that if we took the time to examine our organizational structures more closely we would find conflict at the jagged edges, delays at the gaps, and duplication at the overlaps.

It also means that many public servants oscillate between periods of hyperactivity and lethargy in the workplace. I think the most compelling benefit of a microtasking system would be that it would help alleviate the pressure of both ends of the spectrum. Those who were incredibly busy could more easily surge as required because they could gain access and expertise from those whom were less busy at that particular moment in time.

Some of our most basic performance issues stem from the fact that few of us have things we can work on when everything else has been accomplished. If you have ever heard anyone say that they had to stretch their workload over the week you know what I am getting at. The problem, at its core, is that we (public servants) don't have a common place to aim our cognitive surplus.

Imagine what we could do if we did.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

Let me tell you a story

She impressed you. She was professional, articulate, quick to answer, but thoughtful and enthused. That's why you hired her.

You parade her around the office, introducing her to her new colleagues, welcoming her as the new addition to the family. It’s a flood of new faces. It’s a touch overwhelming but she's going through the motions anyway.

Eventually you arrive at her cubicle, give her her login credentials, suggest some reading, requisition her a blackberry, drop off some forms she needs to fill out and head back to your office.

She sits down, still smiling, and starts soaking in the atmosphere.


You take it for granted, but the atmosphere feels foreign to her. She just spent the last 7 years earning her Master's. She honed her skills in the noisy campus coffee house, armed with an iPhone tethered to her MacBook, surrounded by others doing the same.

Now she finds herself surrounded by drab grey walls, sitting in front of a desktop computer, and telephone with a cord attaching it to the wall.

A cord?

But it’s not just the antiquated nature of her technological surroundings that puzzles her; no, the discomfort is much, much deeper. It’s so quiet - eerily quiet. No one is arguing, in fact no one is even talking. She misses the conversations about the big ideas. The important conversations.

She listens in as you speak to one of her new colleagues in the cubicle next to her. She is confused by the language you invoke, replete with acronyms and jargon, but what she finds even more confusing is her new colleague's complete and utter deference to authority.

Did he just surrender?

The entire thing is unnerving.

Yet she tolerates it.

She's new, her head swirling with the pressure to be liked, to be seen as a good employee, to otherwise make a good impression with her new 'family'. Her faith, or perhaps more rightly her naiveté, leads her to believe that a larger context will materialize, that eventually her surroundings and her motions will seem less foreign to her.

She is right.

Over time, she slowly learns behaviors from her colleagues and adopts their vernacular. She stops asking so many questions, she goes through the motions, she stops feeling discomfort.

She stops feeling anything at all.

You pass by her in the hall, you smile widely, she mumbles something and keeps walking. You can't help but wonder what happened to that articulate, thoughtful and enthused person you hired six months ago.

The thought is fleeting, you are too busy to look into it now, you are on your way downstairs to the security desk, you have a new hire starting today.


Ps - if you are looking to step up the open government conversation, I suggest clicking here.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

This one's for my old man (#movember)


As you may know my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer last February, he has since undergone surgery and to the best of our family's knowledge he is currently cancer free.

But we are never really free from the cancer are we? Fear, worry, reminders of what it has done - or worse what it could still do - linger.  Moving on is often difficult, if not downright impossible.

As you probably know, the month of November has, for many, turned into the month of Movember. The month where men grow moustaches to raise awareness and money to help end prostate cancer.  This will be my third year participating in the effort.

Sure, its a simple gesture, but one with a noble cause at its core.  My Movember team this year is no different, its just me and my Dad.

If you'd like to make a donation my Movember efforts, you can do so here, or better yet, you could support my father's here.

PS - I've set up another blog to hopefully share side by sides of me and my old man as we race to grow the best mo.

PPS - Dad - I love you like a father, like a brother, and like a friend.  This one's for you.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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