Social machines in Action – Second ANZSOG Report


We have just released our second ANZSOG Research report as part of our “Government as a Social Machine” which can be downloaded here.

This report concludes this initial research work which has resulted from the work that I have been doing with Peter Thompson for ANZSOG over the past four years.

The second report follows up on the first overview report (which can be found here) and identifies seven ‘social machines’ which governments in Australian and New Zealand have developed in order to utilise digital technologies in order to deliver more effective and efficient services, develop better business practices, and enable better accountability and transparency. It gives an overview of each ‘social machine’ in context, describing the social need that is being met, the community that has developed it, and begins to unravel some of the socio-political consequences that might arise from the use these social machines within the public policy context.

In addition I have been doing a lot of thinking around the whole “social machine” concept and Valentina Cardo pointed out that within the SOCIAM framework it is largely considered as a “socio-technical” idea. However, the “social machine” should also be considered within the “socio-political” context and I intend to pursue this in further work.

I would encourage you to read the Appendices which expand this further, and give a more detailed account of the social machines themselves.

Happy reading!

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Patterns for living and learning – bringing forth a digital literacy


Two weeks ago I participated in the annual ANZSOG Master Class held at the Melbourne Business School and facilitated by Professors John Alford, Jon Brock and Mike Vitale.

The workshop brings together academics from the public policy space and this year the first day was spent focusing on the potential impact of online education and how current teaching practitioners are working within this area.

As a part if this I was asked to talk about my own observations and, as I listened to the conversations around me, and thought of the people that we teach within ANZSOG, it reinforced in my mind that the most fundamental education that is needed across the board is to teach digital literacy in order to facilitate digital competency.

Let’s start with some definitions.

Wikipedia (place of all knowledge in the Web driven world!) defines “digital literacy” as

the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies. … Digital literacy … builds upon the foundation of traditional forms of literacy and brings together: digital information as a symbolic representation of data, and literacy, which refers to the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word. 

A “digitally literate” person may be described as a “digital citizen”, which is 

a person utilizing information technology (IT) in order to engage in society, politics, and government participation.

As governments the move towards “digital by default”, where “public services should be delivered online or by other digital means” this means virtually all who engage with governments will be required to operate in the digital information space. Therefore, the need for digital literacy will become universal and, in fact, mandatory, if citizens are to both receive government services, but also to hold governments to account and to properly provide governments with the appropriate information relating to their needs.

This is a big deal, and with this in mind it becomes obvious why the UK government has recently announced a new curriculum for schools where children from as young as five will be taught how to code, how to create their own programs, and not just how to work the computer but how a computer works, how to make it work for them. They will be taught not just computer science and information technology, but digital literacy.

This is all occurring within a business environment where organisations are realising the need to compete for people with “digital” skills, and leaders and executives are beginning to recognise that they need to learn about “open data” and digitisation.

As I surveyed the ANZSOG master class participants, I developed a sense or urgency as how important it is already to teach public sector managers and leaders these same skills, before they fall behind both the general populace, but also the demands of the upcoming generation.

As a way of explaining the importance of this I developed the following model.

The hierarchy of data, information, knowledge, and sometimes wisdom, is often represented in the following fairly simplistic way.


Information used to predominantly be in “analogue” (as in physical) form, on physical substrates (cave paintings, rocks, tablets, printed paper, soundwaves).  With the advent of electronic computing technologies it is now also “digital” in form as well.  (For those wanting to take the next step, it can also be “quantum” in form, that is both physical and digital at the same time).


We experience information through the “affordances” of the media we work with (see the work of James Gibson and Donald Norman and Harper and Skellen), and from this we develop a “literacy” around how we work with that information.  For most of human history that “literacy” related to information in analogue form, and we developed a “literacy” relating to our ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information in analogue form.  Given the importance of language and communication to human society this specifically meant that we developed the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word.


As the amount of information in digital form increases so are our experiences with information in digital form through the “affordances” of digital media.  And what is slowly evolving is a literacy around how to utilise information in digital form, which is not a replacement for traditional literacy, but a complement to it.


This model seemed to resonate with the ANZSOG participants, and so Peter Thompson and I are now developing some ideas as to how we could integrate this into a broader teaching programme which we will, hopefully, be able to deliver this year.

In his 2011 Lecture to the British Council internet technologist and author, Ben Hammersley states that “we are right now at this moment in the middle of something which will define humanity for the next couple of centuries”.  In his lecture he gives an overview of the development of government and political systems in Britain over the past century, and quite categorically states that:

“What Alvin Toffler in the 70’s called future shock we can now see as being the result of people having the wrong cognitive frameworks. People who are in charge today see everything remaining in hierarchies and yet what we have is a world which is very radically moving towards networks. … We are facing a generational gap where the people in charge don’t even know that they don’t know, that they don’t know what is going on. … We have a problem and the problem is – the people who retain the old way of thinking, the hierarchical way of thinking which has been shown not to work and shown not to be suitable – if we want to prosper in this new age, if we want to prosper in an age where culture can travel around the planet at the speed of the Internet, if we want to prosper in an age where e-commerce and disintermediation and all of those great buzz word that you have known for years and years and years, if we want to prosper in that world then we have to have a ruling class, and a ruling elite, who understand that or get out of the way.”

The key to that “understanding” is to develop a “digital literacy”, and I believe it is the responsibility of all who are in positions of leadership and authority to not only embrace this challenge, but to do so with enthusiasm and excitement to build a “brave new world” that we actually want to live in, not one that we suddenly wake up to find that we regret.

Posted in Analogue, ANZSOG, Data, Digital, Education, Government, Information, Leadership, Social Machine | Comments Off

Government … within a social machine ecosystem


Last week we submitted our {Government as a Social Machine in an Ecosystem” Paper for the SOCIAM workshop to be held at the 23rd International World Wide Web Conference in Seoul.

The paper is the result of numerous  conversations which began with the ANZSOG research project (see our first report here), the visit of Dame Wendy Hall to Australia in October last year, and  the work that I am now doing with the Web Science Trust.

As we state in our Abstract

The Web is becoming increasingly pervasive throughout all aspects of human activity. As citizens and organisations adopt Web technologies, so governments are beginning to respond by themselves utilising the electronic space. Much of this has been reactive, and there is very little understanding of the impact that Web technologies are having on government systems and processes, let alone a proactive approach to designing systems that can ensure a positive and beneficial societal impact. The ecosystem which encompasses governments, citizens and communities is both evolving and adaptive, and the only way to examine and understand the development of Web-enabled government, and its possible implications, is to consider government itself as a “social machine” within a social machine ecosystem. In this light, there are significant opportunities and challenges for government that this paper identifies.

This paper will incorporate the findings of the second ANZSOG paper “Government as a Social Machine”, together with work being done at the University of Southampton on “social machines” and the development of the “Web Observatory”.

These projects are in their early stages, but already there are an exciting number of publications and this blog on the SOCIAM Web Observatory gives an overview of this project which aims to develop the technical and analytical infrastructure in order to observe, analyse and understand the characteristics and evolution of social machines.

Governments around the world are seeking to understand, leverage and proactively manage socio-technical systems in order to more effectively and efficiently meet community needs. But, the reality is that

“(m)ost of the failings of government can be connected to the fundamental assumption that humans are rational creatures and the inherent structural biases toward mechanical processes and short-term thinking. … We need designers, political scientists, and social activists … to take up the challenge of designing new systems of governance … that are open, accessible, and learning. They need to embody the latest thinking about how the world works, how people work, and how we can use our technologies to make life better for all.” (Jake Dunagan, “The Future of Government”)

We believe that this “latest thinking” should embrace the potential and promise of “emergent systems”, in particular the concept of “social machines”, and the accompanying initiatives that are being developed in order to more effectively observe and understand them.

Notions of what “Government” is are already being challenged and redefined, and the digital age has only just begun. What is important now is to bring together as many disciplines as possible in order to try to understand not only what is going on, but to begin to make predictions and to proactively design socio-technical systems that enhance the relationship between government and the governed.

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