PPPs 2.0: the presentation

Above is my presentation to the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society – the background blurb of which is here. You’ll find the first half of the presentation on the fractal ecology of public and private goods is effectively the same content as the first half of this presentation from late last year. However where the first presentation takes the introductory framework as a basis for talking about social capital, the same framework is used as a basis for sketching out a terrain for public-private partnerships. Anyway, I mention this to save you time. I’m not much of a fan of watching videos, as it’s more efficient to read something but in case you’re OK with them – here’s another. But if you want to read the ideas presented you can read them in very summary form in the column here. But I’ve also completed a draft paper on the whole thing. If you’re interested, please email me at ngruen AT gmail and I’ll send you a copy on which I’d be grateful to receive comments and suggestions for improvement.


All you ever wanted to know about bitcoin but knew you shouldn’t ask an academic

Prologue to a blog post:

Gentle Troppodillians, as you know, we keep up with the times here at Troppo. Some people like to think just five minutes ahead. Here at Troppo we’re focused on the long-term – eons are seconds in TroppoTime – or seconds are eons depending on the way you look at it. So I know you want to get the latest on Bitcoin – and in that regard this post should not disappoint. It is indeed about bitcoin. But . . . there’s more. This post is also a meta on academic discourse – and how limited it is.

Academia is where one would hope to find a large proportion of the most insightful minds. But for some time I’ve been struck by how limited the academic genre is at engaging with the social and economic transformations that are going on around us. Thus Tim O’Reilly’s “What is Web 2.0” and Clay Shirky’s Here comes everybody, were far more insightful than anything in academia. Indeed I remember the articles on government and web 2.0 I first came across in around 2008 or so were particularly woeful.

Their methodology was often something like this:

  • Interview some practitioners
  • If it’s an article about government, interview some government practitioners
  • Ask them some questions and then report their answers in wide-eyed form.

Voila, there’s your article – ready to be published by some worthy mid-level government administration or policy journal. And something you can present at seminars. The people you’ve interviewed may not have a the slightest clue what they’re talking about, but their ‘outputs’, give you ‘inputs’. They’re answers to your questions (they might not be the right questions either) will give you ‘data’. And you understand what that means. It means that in seminars you will be able to begin responses to questions with expressions like “According to our data”.

Your conclusions will contain such gems as “Make sure objectives are clearly specified”. “Be clear about who your stakeholders are, and what they are seeking from the project”. “Stay in close touch with stakeholders”. ”Ensure the project is flexible and responsive to feedback”. “Evaluate the success of your project when it’s complete and (if you’re feeling frisky or a little flamboyant, ensure that evaluation methodologies are considered throughout the process).” All deliciously useless, masking a total lack of insight in generalities. One could offer this advice about any and everything from building a bridge to toilet training your kids. Further elaboration can be had here.

Anyway, here’s another example of the  . . .  Continue reading

Disclaimers: Angel funding edition

Crowd Sourced Equity Funding Discussion Paper - Australia CAMAC Septmber 2013

I’m a fan of Angel-list and have invested in two companies already over the platform (as trustee for Club Troppo’s 4.7 billion self-managed super fund). Here’s the disclaimer which you verify before you get to invest. I like it, though even here I’d rather just one or two clear and simple statements to tick. At least on the consumer side, it’s the sort of thing that we should be moving towards in our review of crowdfunded equity. Will we? Well I’m not holding my breath.

Angel investors should expect to lose their money—almost all startups fail. Even if you diversify, you should expect your total losses to exceed your gains.
I understand that I will likely lose my money
Unlike public stocks, angel investments are illiquid. You can’t sell your stake when you choose—it may take years for a startup to return money, if it ever does.
I understand that I have no control over the timing of liquidity
Investing with notable investors does not guarantee a return. Make your own decisions. Watching notable investors can inform your decisions, but you must do your own diligence.
I understand that I must do diligence and read the investment docs
Early investors are diluted every time a startup raises money. Your share gets diluted in every subsequent financing and you have no right to invest in those financings.
I understand that my ownership will be diluted in subsequent rounds
Startups change plans constantly and often enter a different market with a different product. Plans and forecasts are not predictions about the future.
I understand that startups often radically change their plans
You must indemnify AngelList against any losses, even if the startup committed fraud or lied. This includes any investment opportunities you may have missed.
I understand that AngelList isn’t responsible for losses or missed opportunities

Meanwhile Gov 2 keeps surging in the GLAM Sector

GLAM highlights

Here are some headlines marking various milestones of progress and regress in the Government 2.0 agenda.

As we recommended in the Cutler Report donations to the global commons are growing apace.

Meanwhile it’s not surprising that the Scandinavians, who are some of the most impressive governors in the world – along with us and the Canadians – are moving towards their government becoming a purchasing aggregator of digital content for their citizens. Here’s the news on Norway.

The National Library of Norway is digitizing all the books in its collection, processing the text to make it searchable, and making them available to read online.

It’s similar to the mass digitization efforts in the UK and Finland, but Norway has taken the extra step of making agreements with many publishers to allow anyone with a Norway IP address to access copyrighted material.

The library owns equipment for scanning and text structure analysis of the books. It’s also adding metadata and storing the files in a database for easy retrieval.

Librarians estimate the digitization of the entire collection, which includes materials dating back to the Middle Ages, will take 20 to 30 years. The effort started in 2006.


Meanwhile our government does something like the converse, helping the firms of the world charge our citizens higher prices than those of other countries.



Swan’s legacy, Hockey’s ally

The sight of the raw institutional dysfunction in the US government at the moment provides a useful reminder to Australians that we should both treasure and encourage the respect that Australians have for our federal government institutions.

By “government institutions”, I’m pointing not to Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten or to just the executive or Parliament, but to the whole federal structure, taking in the courts, the Reserve Bank, government departments and instrumentalities. While almost no self-respecting Aussie puts it this way, it seems to me that there is a basic belief across middle Australia that these institutions do OK, that they can be trusted to do at least a halfway competent job. Though we don’t want to actually say so …

That belief is vital to any attempts to use government to make Australia a better place.

And if you are interested in having people trust government, there are few more important institutions than the Australian Tax Office. It pays for the government while relieving many of us of a largish lump of money. People are bound to care about that.

Which is one reason why I was interested to spend a bit of time back in July with Chris Jordan, the ex-KPMG tax lawyer who Wayne Swan late last year appointed to head the ATO. I interviewed him for Public Accountant magazine, the magazine of the Institute of Public Accountants, which I edit. The interview is now up online at the Public Accountant website. It was one of my more enjoyable journalistic assignments of the past decade, because Jordan tells interesting stories while radiating an amiable charm.

Jordan’s background includes helping to found the Redfern Legal Centre in 1976. Continue reading

Guest Post by Felix Barbalet: The productivity of the citizen developer

Felix Barbalet is a data scientist and economist working in Canberra who has recently launched http://www.APSindex.com and https://www.APSjobs.info. He is a good fellow and on discussing his new websites with him, I suggested that he give us a post about the remarkable productivity that’s becoming possible on all the remarkable resources that are now available for nix.

Where is evidence based IT?

I would like to see a more formal treatment of technical debt and the cost of complexity in designing and building large (IT) systems.

There are countless examples of large IT projects failing or running well over budget. Sound policy development usually makes reference to an evidence base (and as Economists, we place a large emphasis on the quality of data behind assumptions) – but there is little in the way of evidence-backed IT forecasting.

Typical IT project costings are based on estimates of the work required and time/resources to complete the work. The fundamental problem with this approach is that it leaves the project open to significant planning fallacy (the term coined by Kahneman and Tversky in 1979); humans are inherently optimistic – we systematically underestimate the amount of work required to complete a task.

That in itself is not surprising (take a look at this list of cognitive biases, FYI) – what is surprising is that there is not a more formal treatment of this problem in large IT projects.

Frameworks that embrace iterative development (for example, Scrum) massively reduce the risk of imperfect planning because they remove the assumption of perfect foresight while encouraging a strong feedback loop (aka process improvement). While these concepts are by no means new in more mature fields like manufacturing – in IT development, we still have a long way to go. Continue reading

Change management: Which genre of literature?

I’m doing some research for a talk I’m giving in New Zealand to heads of private schools – the invitation for which came from a similar talk I gave to the Australian Heads of Independent Schools Association. I’m sruiking the wonders of education 2.0 about which I’ve waxed and waxed on this blog. Who would you trust to guide you in your adoption of such obviously sensible technologies?

Obviously the power of the web should be used, but how? What are the pitfalls and what are the things to really focus on. Well I’ve got a nerve telling anyone anything. I did do a stint as a school teacher – a kind of self-funded Teach for Australia gig before there was such a program. And I’m an enthusiast for the web, for web 2.0 etc. But that’s it. So what would I know? What real research have I done. The problem is most people are in the same position. With bits of insight, bits of experience etc. And what kind of ‘research’ would be useful here. What kind of research would have been useful for Mark Zuckerberg setting up Facebook, Steve Jobs thinking of the iPhone or the Mac or Jimmy Wales wondering if Wikipedia would work. Or any of them trying to make those products and platforms better?

So who do you go with. The TED talkers?  The consultants? Academics? Well the academics are peer reviewed after all. But then there’s a problem. What’s peer review doing in a field like that? It could add some value at least in principle. But does it? Well the academic articles that I’ve seen are more or less the same hunches marketed in the TED talks, or different ones. But they’re dealing with a massively complex subject - and no matter how many data-points one had on a topic like ‘blended learning’ (the combined use of online and ‘traditional’ learning methods) the conclusions one draws can’t really be extended beyond the circumstances of their adoption. And there are any number of ways to blend learning. As one can see from the chart.

Blended Learning

And what we end up with is empty kinds of assurances as to what conclusions one can draw which are nevertheless shoehorned into the genre of any other academic article - which is to say one can’t make a claim that the sky is blue without references. And great lengths are gone to to provide the patina of science – single things are measured and reported on with great seriousness. But the conclusions are lame generalisations just as cliched and ultimately empty as the supposedly less ‘rigorous’ consultants and TED talkers – though the latter are partly marketing their profile and reputation elsewhere – along with the charisma of their presence and presentation.

Below the fold are the substantive conclusions from a summary article introducing a whole thematic edition of Internet and Higher Education (the reference is 18 (2013) 1–3, since you ask) It’s entitled “Blended learning policy and implementation: Introduction to a special issue” of by Ron Owston. Does this add anything to your understanding of the issues?  Continue reading

Public Private Partnerships 2.0

Today’s column in the Age and SMH

Public private partnerships (PPPs) haven’t been such a happy experiment. Using private money to build arterial roads just increases their cost because private capital requires much higher returns than government borrowing.

But I’ve long wondered about a different kind of PPP that plays to the respective strengths of public and private sectors, rather than their weaknesses.

The economic textbook says governments must build public goods because private endeavour can capture only a tiny fraction of their total value to society. But Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia are all privately provided public goods. What’s going on?

Continue reading