Growing up digital

23 Feb 2012

Cited by Wired magazine as one of the Top 100 Digital Power Influencers, Irishwoman Emer Coleman has taken up a role at Government Digital Services in the UK

In her role at UK Government Digital Services, Irishwoman Emer Coleman is challenging the civil service to become less risk averse and embrace openness.

In her former role as director of Digital Projects for the Greater London Authority, Coleman caught the eye of many in the digital world as she championed the open data cause, ensuring that data be free and accessible to researchers and to business in the London area.

In 2011, she was cited by Wired magazine as one of the Top 100 Digital Power Influencers. Few were surprised then when she was snapped up as deputy director of digital engagement at Government Digital Services (GDS) in the UK at the end of 2011 to work with its dynamic executive director Mike Bracken, former head of technology at The Guardian.

Working on cultural change

The new role, which she took up in January, sees her working with Bracken as part of the new, open government put forward by the UK’s ‘Digital Champion’ Martha Lane Fox in her Digital By Default report in 2010. While Coleman’s role sees much work in the social media sphere and the opening up of government to the public, much of her job is about cultural change, she says.

“When you start talking about digital, really what you’re talking about is behavioural and organisational change, not technology. Even talking about use of social media in government, the conversation often becomes about risk.”

In most countries, the civil service is by its nature risk averse, so Coleman’s role is quite challenging.

“The UK civil service has come a long way and most of the departments have a Twitter account, for example, but it is still often seen as a broadcast tool. Some tend to try and do the same thing across Twitter that they would do in a press release, which sort of defeats the purpose.

“So it’s about trying to explain to people that this is about building relationships and trust over time, not about headlines. It’s about trying to get government officials to understand that these tools can help to build trust, because that way you can get a lot more consensus. Governments need to re-establish trust more and officials need, I would argue, to become more visible and accountable.”

In some ways, she would like to see departments functioning more like young start-ups.

“We have to look at where corporate communications go in a social world. You are surrounded by chat, so government can’t hope to control the debate. There is an element of letting go, and that’s a good thing.

“It’s always the same when you’re trying to change behaviour. You have to make strong arguments and lead by example. That’s why having people like Martha Lane Fox out there is so important. We’re never going to get change until people stand up, and I think that means a different contract between public official and politician, too. It’s a bit like Euan Semple saying in his book – organisations don’t tweet, people do. We need to grow up.”

Economic benefits of open data


Coleman is clearly passionate about the idea of openness and transparency at government level but the other side of the coin, she says, is the economic benefit of opening out data for the economic good.

Coleman made her name in the world of open data, when in 2009 she went on secondment from Barnet Council to London City Hall for a year.

“Obama had come to power shortly before and the whole global movement towards open data was gaining strength,” she says.

Her responsibilities at the Greater London Authority included the development of the London Datastore, a project to release all of London’s public-sector data into the public domain.

She recalls how it all got started.

“Rather than the state decide to do this on its own, we put an open call out to the software development community in London and asked would they like to come and help us,” she explains.

“We didn’t build anything, we didn’t make any decisions until we consulted with who we felt would be the first primary users – the developers.

“Some 60 developers turned up on a Saturday morning for that first workshop and we asked them what was the most important data to them. Crime and transport were the key data sets that they wanted,” says Coleman, adding that she and her team also gained valuable insights from their advice.

“They told us not to get into a flap about data formats, to just get it out there. Often the state will fret about quality of data to such a degree that it doesn’t release it at all. Their attitude was, ‘Go early and ugly, and if there’s problems with the data we’ll help you fix it’. That was quite critical. And clearly transport and crime were areas where they were going to be able to do business – and that’s the really important thing, the stimulation of the SME sector. Really dynamic, real-time data is the thing that makes those businesses fly.”

The London Datastore has been a significant success, with more than 70 apps now available across iPhone and Android, all built on Transport London data.


2015: The year by which UK government aims all its transactions will be carried out via digital channels (Directgov Strategic Review)

8.2m: The number of people estimated to have still never been online in the UK

2,000: The number of developers following the London Datastore website on Twitter

120: The number of Tube stations in London that will be Wi-Fi enabled in time for the London Olympics 2012

“I always say that the data store was a collaboration between the state and the software developers. We wouldn’t have the data store without them, and it allowed us to leverage in a huge amount of intellectual capability.”

She says the economic benefits are significant.

“We’ve always said the state is very good at collecting data, it’s just not terribly good at using it. Our role should not be to get involved in the creation of apps, but rather bring the data to the table and let the market do what it can with it.”

And, of course, free access is crucial, she says. “The runway for a start-up is so tight that any cost put in there in the beginning is going to be a deterrent to innovation in my view. So the fact that we were able to say, whether you’re a Microsoft or a solo developer, you’ve got the same chances, was really important.

“We know already that people operating using that data are returning tax revenues to the exchequer. So that’s the model. Rather than the state charging at source, it should just put the data out there and then take what comes back in tax revenues.”

That other ‘f’ word – failure

Returning to the present day, Coleman’s strong views on how governments need to transform in a social age can apply just as easily to Ireland.

“Basically, government has to get better at trying things out, iterating, testing, not always scoping out to the nth degree and saying, ‘Here’s where we are going to be’. We have to behave like other small agile businesses that say, ‘Let’s try this’.

“Why is there an expectation in government, which you have nowhere in business, that you have to get it right first time? People have this idea in public policy that you can’t fail, but how on earth can that work? It is well known that we only learn through failure. We know this in life, why do people expect that government can’t?

“You don’t want to get things wrong in sensitive service areas, of course, but the reality is that in order to change we have to experiment and experimentation of its nature is a risk.”

Emer Coleman is one of the keynote speakers at Silicon Republic’s Digital Ireland Forum on 23 March in the Convention Centre, Dublin.

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human