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9 April 2008

Digital democracy and new media

Our blogger Bill Thompson is back again for another year of New Media Awards. In his first blog he

By Bill Thompson

In some respects it’s a shame that the New Media Awards are still going strong. When I was the facilitator of the judging panel for the first awards in 1998 I think we believed that the fuss over ‘new media’ would have vanished by now as they would have simply been absorbed into daily life.

The absorption has happened, at least to some degree, and many of us live in a strange space between offline and online, checking Facebook and MySpace, telling our friends what we’re up to on blogs and Twitter, and using mobile phones for unfettered access to websites and email.

But many of the issues that motivated the awards in the first place still remain. We still need to encourage activism, engagement, education and innovation in the social uses of new technology, while too much of what we do online is driven by the needs of commerce rather than any understanding of the broader needs of society. The awards are still a good way to raise the profile of the best work and perhaps even stimulate creativity.

A good indication of how far we have come, and also of how far we have got to go, is the recently launched campaign from Mysociety, the charitable project that builds socially useful software, and former winners of various New Media Awards.

‘Free Our Bills’ is their first serious campaign, a profoundly non-partisan, cross-party attempt to persuade the nice people who run the information systems within Parliament to make the text of Bills and details of amendments proposed and voted on available in a form that can easily be analysed, processed and used by sites like TheyWorkForYou.

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Free Our Bills has a lovely logo of a Platypus narrowly avoiding decapitation by the House of Commons portcullis. And it may also be successful, since it’s difficult for Parliament to argue in favour of the current system.

From one point of view it is reassuring that there is now enough public interest in the workings of Parliament for this sort of campaign to be launched and have some traction. But it’s also depressing, because the campaign simply should not be necessary — Parliament should have the sense to make its operations more accessible and transparent by using appropriate technology without having to be bullied into it.

I fear we’ll see a lot of nominations this year that feature projects which would not really be needed if the state did its own job properly, soaking up volunteer effort and scarce resources filling gaps in provision, correcting mistakes in official information systems or simply doing things that people need instead of things that administrators think they should have.

But at least we can hold some of them up to the light, and perhaps doing so will prompt some change inside the administration too.