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Tech4Labs Issue 6: Inverting the logic of government through user insights

'We organise government vertically, but people live horizontally.'

- Stephen Goldsmith, director of Innovation in Government at Harvard Kennedy School

In our last column, we looked at tools to help the public innovation lab generate ideas. But as Steve Goldsmith’s quote neatly summarises, there is an often lamented disconnect between the logic of citizens as real-life users of public services, and the logic of government with its carefully organised silos and departments. So in this month’s column we’re focusing specifically on tools that help drive ideation through user insights.

Public sector labs aim to tackle this disconnect between citizens and government head-on with their emphasis on mapping user experiences and customer journeys, identifying citizen assets, and involving citizens in the co-production of services. They turn the vertical logic of government inside out to respond to and match the horizontal lives of its citizens. The result is that services are no longer designed in a meeting room or in front of a computer, but where citizens live, in their world.

Capturing users insights is therefore at the heart of the mission to innovate public service. As another mayor, Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, noted: 'the best public transport expert is the lady that takes the bus every day to work'. Gathering user insights is a way to tap into this distributed ‘sensor network’ and develop hypotheses for change.

For instance, even the name of the Singaporean Government’s Human Experience Lab signals the importance of adopting a user-centered perspective in policy design. In Canada, the British Columbia Service Design team includes ethnography prominently in its service architecture framework. And it was thanks to feedback drawn from users through prototyping and interviews that the UK’s Policy Lab came up with a radical new design for national insurance numbers (the Lab also recently released an ethnography in policy making toolkit that provides practical advice on gathering user insights).

Likewise, it was by shadowing midwives in rural Indonesia and through field observations that the Bihar Innovation Lab and Pulse Lab Jakarta identified a lack of peer-to-peer learning opportunities as a key bottleneck in service delivery, and came up with a social media exchange platform prototype as a solution.

Shadowing a midwife as she goes through different pregnancy scenarios to identify entry points for innovation (Photo courtesy of CKS/Bihar Innovation Lab and Pulse Lab Jakarta)

Empathy machines?

Fostering empathy with the end users of a service is key to the process of identifying entry points for innovation. This can be done, for example, by inverting roles (quite literally, putting yourself in the customer’s shoes) or programmes such as the mystery shopper.

New technologies have opened up intriguing possibilities when it comes to expanding the options for generating empathy. MIT’s AgeLab, for instance, has developed a suit that when worn allows a young person to approximate the motor and visual dexterity of a person in their mid-70s. In the UK, a similar suit has been used to train hospital staff.

Apparently an oxymoron, the emerging concept of ‘empathy machines’ in a public service context indicates the different ways in which technology could approximate and augment the experience of being on the receiving end of a service. One could imagine, for example, using live streaming apps like Meerkat or Periscope (or perhaps even repurposing an app like Be My Eyes or even using GoPro cameras) to capture the experience of filling a form or approaching a frontdesk, thus generating a sense of immediacy with the ‘horizontal’ life of citizens and providing insights into opportunities for improvements. Livestreaming apps are being actively explored for the purposes of generating empathy by human rights organisations.

Services like Watch Me Think allow users to film themselves while performing a particular tasks, and can provide companies with an in-depth understanding of their context so that they can devise new products. Virtual reality tools such as Oculus Rift are also being explored for their potential to generate empathy through projects such as The Machine to be Another, while the United Nations recently launched a virtual reality documentary to help the public experience what it is like to live in a Syrian refugee camp. Wearables and haptic technologies could also be explored as a way to gather user insights - imagine the potential of The Mood Sweater to get real time insights into a citizen’s perceptions!

Data driven insights

A previous Nesta blog illustrated how customer complaints are an important source of insights that can drive innovation - and so are customer ratings (see this great example from Kopernink or the recently launched “Yelp for refugees”). The advent of big data has opened up new opportunities - although not without a good dose of controversy - to get a better picture of the horizontal lives of citizens.

Consider, for example, comparing the active reporting of complaints through customer feedback hotlines (typically organised ‘vertically’ by public service departments) with the ‘passive’ social media listening of citizens’ complaints (that tend to reflect their horizontal daily life experience). Transportbuzz, a platform that pulls together real time public transport related tweets and the Live Adviceboard, which displays real time searches on the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, are examples of these two approaches in action.

Advanced analytics capabilities, from sentiment analysis to predictive analytics, can also turn user complaints into a powerful source of innovation - think about Yelp restaurant reviews being used to track food poisoning outbreaks or tweets being used to anticipate emergency room rush hour. By the same token, projects such as MIT Streetpulse have used citizen-generated ratings of the perceived safety of streets as a tool for urban planners that predicts how safe a street looks to a human observer.

It is no surprise, therefore, that data innovation labs are being set up by governments all over the world, from Malaysia to Uganda. Bloomberg Philanthropies has recently announced a global 'What Works' Cities initiative to promote local level data innovation in the public sector.

'There are 28 million people in Jakarta, over 50% of whom have more than one mobile phone – that’s a lot of potential sensors'

- T. Holderness, Peta Jakarta

The most promising approaches, however, are the ones that use data analytics as a way to augment (rather than ‘mine’) citizens’ insights and harness their in-depth knowledge of their local context (think smart citizens, not smart cities!). Citizens, seen in this context, are proactive human sensors that can drive the transition towards people-powered public services.

Cognicity, for example, is an open source framework for geosocial intelligence designed to harness citizen social media reports for the purposes of empowering them to address urgent urban infrastructure issues (such as floods in Jakarta). Tools like Sensemaker allow for the collection and analysis of micro-narratives that can highlight patterns of belief in a particular community and support their process of self-awareness. And by harnessing the local knowledge of surveyors and enhancing it with machine learning (‘human-directed and machine-refined’) a platform like Premise has demonstrated that it can dramatically reduce the time to gather data points even in the most remote locations - thus opening up possibilities to drive innovation in crises.

Bridging the gap

Ultimately, the goal of all of these technologies is to build understanding and empathy for citizens. Too often the distance between citizens and those in government designing policies and services impacts on their effectiveness. The trick is to increase proximity between the two, and this means getting out of the office and into the world. The global explosion of data has given us new opportunities to identify behaviour shifts and uncover new trends, but at the core we still need to understand why people do what they do to develop appropriate, effective responses. By placing user experiences and insights at the heart of how services and policies are developed, labs can better address this empathy deficit and bridge the gap between government and citizens.


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​About the Authors:

Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio is a Senior Programme Manager in the Nesta Innovation Skills team, responsible for advising international development and public sector organisations on the implementation of their innovation strategies. Prior to joining Nesta, Giulio managed the Jakarta Lab of the UN Global Pulse, a flagship innovation initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General on big data for public policy. He also set up UNDP's first innovation practice with a focus on Eurasia.

Isobel Roberts

Isobel works in the Innovation Skills team as a Content Editor, helping to build Nesta's learning and development offering. Prior to Nesta, Isobel worked as a journalist for six years covering innovation and creativity in the advertising industry.

Innovation Skills

The Nesta Innovation Skills team helps people and organisations become better innovators for the common good. Underpinned by a belief that everybody has the capacity to innovate, the Skills team’s aim is to improve skills and build innovation capacity in the public sector by encouraging the take up of design and innovation methods. This is achieved by providing content, learning experiences and strategic support to develop skills and to embed innovation methods in everyday practice.


Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Senior Programme Manager in Innovation Skills

Giulio was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Skills team, responsible for advising international development and public sector organisations on the implementation of their i…

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Isobel Roberts

Isobel Roberts

Isobel Roberts

Content and Communications Manager, Innovation Skills

Isobel worked in the Innovation Skills team as Content and Communications Manager, helping to build Nesta's learning and development offering.

View profile