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Archive for the ‘Thought repository’ Category

The Cabinet Office has released their e-Government framework for Information Assurance for draft consultation. The document sets forth guidelines for implementing the transformational government agenda of delivering more effective, more efficient customer-centric public services. These guidelines are intended to inform all transactions (and their supporting infrastructures) between UK government and its citizens.

The document has an interesting list of relevant legislation under appendix B, ‘Related Policy and Guidance’ (cited below).

The principal pieces of legislation that are likely to inform the IA requirements for e-Government service implementations include and are not limited to [links are added]:

  • the Human Rights Act and the underlying European Convention on Human Rights set out everyone’s right to privacy in their correspondence;
  • the Data Protection Act sets requirements for the proper handling and protection of personal information held within information processing systems;
  • the Electronic Communications Act sets the requirements for electronic signatures and their equivalence to conventional signatures;
  • the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act makes it an offence to intercept communication on any public or private network; case and time limited exemptions may be granted subject to warrant;
  • the Terrorism Act makes it an offence to take actions which are designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system;
  • the Wireless Telegraphy Act controls the monitoring of wireless telegraphy;
  • the Police and Criminal Evidence Act defines conditions under which law enforcement may obtain and use evidence;
  • the Computer Misuse Act makes attempted of actual penetration or subversion of computer systems a criminal act; the Public Records Act lays down requirements for the proper care and preservation of documentary records of government activities;
  • the Official Secrets Act lays down requirements for the proper control of government information;
  • the Freedom of Information Act lays down the citizen’s rights of access to government held information.

I’m posting this list because it illustrates what a balancing act information policy is. On the one hand, we fight to preserve open paths of communication to our legislators and civil servants; we encourage all individuals to be involved in their government; we promote citizenship and interaction through digital inclusion of those who might otherwise be marginalised. Similarly, we have charged the same government with protecting us and our communities; we want them to have full access to the ‘bad guys’ and to anticipate — even pre-empt — any threat to us. From those arguments, we should open everything to everyone!

On the other hand, we have agreed that our human rights grant us the freedom to our own confidentiality. We have also agreed, through our democracy, that the government should have some leeway in keeping information from us (particularly about each other) to deliver effective public services to us and our neighbours and to protect us from the bad guys. security
Both of these bits of secrecy mean that each party wants to maintain a certain level of control over allowing access into our conversations.

It’s a lot to juggle.

[Consultation on the e-Government framework for Information Assurance runs until 13th March 2007.]

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The messages we broadcast

As I wander through my day, I’m reasonably conscious of the messages I’m broadcasting: I try to dress well to present an image of being competent, I phrase my comments in such a way that my colleagues will feel good about working with me, I’m conscious of editing out any commentary about the wine from last night or having burned breakfast this morning. I’m not obsessive about it, I just try to put my best foot forward.

I think we all do this, to one extent or another. We show certain sides of ourselves to whoever the audience happens to be, some of which is selective and some of which is situational (for example, it may be that I don’t mention the breakfast mess to my colleagues because I’m too busy to remember that it happened). We try to balance the messages we’re sending deliberately (for example, the words I choose) with the back channel information we project (like the fact that I smell like burned toast or that they overheard me telling someone else about my head ringing from the smoke alarm).

We therefore end up with each person/group seeing a distinct part of us, some of which we control and some of which we don’t.

What they see of me
What they see of me

We play to that, trying to make the best impression possible with the information we’re sending out to each specific audience. It’s nice to be well-liked, and having allies facilitates getting things done when you need help. In the business world it’s called marketing, self-promotion and networking; in psychology it’s situationally responsive behaviour and relationship-building.

Who we are online

Now let’s take it to the virtual world. Part of the success of chat rooms, avatars, role playing games and online communities comes from the fact that you get to create and control everything that makes up others’ opinions about you.

Me online - what they see
Someone online can project the appearance of anyone they want. This picture shows that the ‘me’ hiding on the inside has nothing to do with the shape that the online contacts think they’re seeing on the outside.

As my father’s favourite New Yorker cartoon spells out, once you get to create and control the messages that go out, you can be anybody. You won’t be betrayed by any back channel information, so no one will notice that you’re having a bad hair day or are too tired to speak at the meeting or aren’t, in fact, of the same species (see below).

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog
Cartoon by Peter Steiner. The New Yorker, July 5, 1993 issue (Vol.69 (LXIX) no. 20) page 61.

This is, unfortunately, not just an opportunity for reinventing yourself to hide your insecurities; it’s also an easy mark for fraud. The US House of Representatives passed the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 in response to concerns about paedophiliacs posing as children on social networking sites to build trust and arrange meetings with their prey. The controversially-worded bill was intended to protect kids from people who were misrepresenting themselves, which is evidence of how much potential we have for being anyone we like online. (The bill is currently awaiting debate in the Senate.)

Why we bother to be real

Most of us actually live in the real world. We meet the majority of our work contacts face-to-face (or at the very least, exchange phone calls). We hug our families and share a sofa when having coffee with a friend. Physical presence — and it’s associated accountability — are priorities for us. It’s how we are used to relating to each other, and the best scenario for us to communicate the most information, accurately and efficiently.

When I began this blog, I thought carefully about whether I would use my real name. There are legitimate privacy concerns around exposing any personal information that is available to the 1.076 billion people who have internet access. But ultimately, I’m out to share my views, spark discussions and create contacts who will be useful to me in my real life. I want any benefits of this ‘virtual’ work to be connected to who I am in reality. So I’ve made that link.

Similarly, the news has been busy in the past few months with stories of how online worlds can grow to successfully parallel reality. The hype surrounding Digimask‘s technology, which takes a 3D image of the user and puts you literally into the multi-player game, reflects this trend. (See today’s BBC News video rundown of Digimask). Apparently if we’re going to go to the trouble of blasting bad guys in Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas on your Xbox 360, we want the credit for our real selves.

The most common example of this keeping-it-real trend comes from multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like Entropia Universe and Second Life. Entropia Universe (formerly Project Entropia) calls itself a ‘massive online virtual universe’ and maintains a (real) cash economy. In May the developers sold a ‘virtual space resort’ to one of its users for $100,000. The purchaser bought it to establish an online night club, a marketplace through which the (real-life) entertainment industry can sell their wares to other members of the Universe. When you’re looking for cash, keeping ties to reality (and credit cards) are the only way to go. (For more information, see this article on BBC News.)

Second Life is another online world that has caught the attention of significant corporations out to encourage spending by actual people bringing their real wallets. In just the past day, ABN-AMRO has announced that it is opening a branch of its bank inside the virtual world, while IBM have hosted a Virtual Worlds European Media & Influencer Event. (They’re also proud of having replicated this year’s Wimbledon inside Second Life.) This continuation of big-business commerce on the virtual site is only possible because the users maintain links to their real-people bank accounts and come to the site with their banking or marketing needs in tow. Users don’t divorce Second Life from their first lives.

Keeping it real
I’ll repeat what I usually say: technology is most useful when it is supporting something we want to do anyway. And whether that’s sparking conversations through my blog to further my professional growth, finding new routes to market for existing commerce, or knowing that the world reveres me because I slaughtered more bad guys than my buddies could — we can only collect on the real-world rewards when the online contacts know who we are.

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Happy teamWhen I was in fifth grade, our math teacher introduced us to tessellations. Here’s the brief rundown:

A tessellation is a repeated pattern of 1 closed shape, arrayed one after the next, with no gaps or overlaps. At their simplist, a grid of squares or a pattern of hexagon tiles on a bathroom floor are tessellations.

We were taught that if you start with a tessellating shape (like a square) and remove a section of it from one edge but add that same section to another edge, the shape will still tessellate. (This preserves the surface area of the shape. See diagrams below for examples.) We cut these tiles out of construction paper and glued 4×4 squares of them of them to a black background, learning from the 20-some examples in our class that this process always works.

Recently, this memory has been tapping me on the shoulder and it’s taken me a few days to figure out why. In constructing a project team, I’ve been conscious of allowing space for conflicting personalities and filling skills gaps. But the team members need go grow together: for the team to successfully accomplish its goals, each member should be adaptable, ready to interact with any of the other members at any time. They need to allow for personality differences and varieties of skills across the group. Tessellations make an interesting metaphor for this adaptation. (Each shape represents one person)

Tessellating squares
A group of colleagues working in the same space, but on different projects. (Can you see the outlines of cubicles forming?)

Rough edged team
A close team, as you might find in a small company. Each team member is adapting for the others, compensating for gaps and allowing for preferences. This team doesn’t necessarily work much with other teams, so it’s allowed to have “rough edges”.

smooth edged team
A close team within a larger company of other teams. Each team then has to tessellate with the other teams. Smooth outside edges make this easier (on the assumption that the other teams will also have smooth outside edges, to collaborate with whomever they need).

These are ideals for a team, and generally take quite a while to build. In my experience, when you initially bring a team together, it looks something like this:

New team
A newly-formed team

The “team-building process” is one of learning to identify the shape of your colleagues and adapt yours to accommodate them (and vice versa). With a bit of work, you can end up a bit more like this:

Adapting team
The newly-formed team is adapting.

This is a model (and I admit I like the uniformity of a tessellation) and I’ll acknowledge its limitations. For the sake of argument, we should note that each team member doesn’t generally tessellate to the roles of their counterparts in the team. (Because each person brings differing experiences and personalities to the situation, they may each end up with a shape of their own, as opposed to being one repeating uniform shape labelled “team member”.) But there is one benefit to approaching the metaphor with the concept of uniformity:

When you remove one team member and replace them with someone outside, the clearer that tessellating shape is (ie., what it means to be a member of this team), the easier it will be for that new person to adapt.

Take these two teams as examples. The first is tessellating, each member has adopted a uniform method of interacting and set of expectations for their team members. (Therefore each has the same shape.) Along comes the new person, who can learn from any of the original members how to fit in and what is expected of them.

Coherent team with newbie
A well-organised team with clear ways of working together and expectations for each other. While the new person, in black, will have to adapt to fit into the team, they should have a fairly easy time of it due to the clarity in the existing team.

In contrast, this picture below shows a chaotic team with no coherence. The new person has no idea how the members are working together, let alone how to join them. The best he/she can do is to pick an outside edge (anybody’s!) and start there, try to connect with everyone in due course and build up a shape of their own to fit the odd structure already there. If you’re the new person, it’s a much less fun scenario.

Crazy team with newbie
A team with no coherence or organisation, attempting to incorporate a new person. This scenario is hard for the newcomer, as the team’s ways of working are unclear and even communication between the existing members doesn’t appear to be guaranteed. How should the newcomer adapt themselves?

These visual images provide a model for the ways team members work together. Though I’ve found that the shape of each tessellation changes from team to team (and even changes when a new person joins a team), it’s important to have a fundamental model. Every team member I’ve worked with has indicated that they are happier and more productive when they see the whole of which they are a part. Understanding the shape (or role) they are to take is a big step towards seeing the bigger picture — the entire team, the company, or even the entire industry.

Happy team

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For the wish-list: I’d love to find a comparison/breakdown of the infrastructure and uses of :

  • share nothing clusters
  • SMP (Symmetrical Multi-Processing)
  • grid computing (Globus-based)
  • map/reduce implementations

(This list is subject to grow)

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