Friday, February 15, 2008

Free software and data

Guestr despatch by Tom Chance

My fringe session on free software and data went well last night, we discussed the issues, possible policy and campaigns on what is a pretty niche subject. My cause was helped by the organisers using OpenStreetMap's coverage in the conference pack to show people how to get around - a nice treat for me since I helped map this area!

I started out by describing why Greens should care about "intellectual property", touching on the potential for free information to empower communities, taking control from centralising corporations to promote small and medium-scale social enterprise and exploring/defending/deepening alternative property forms such as the commons; also classical environmental concerns like the availability of data and research on climate change, e-waste created by Microsoft Vista's upgrade cycle, and so on.

I then introduced some context, namely:

Participants fleshed out various ways of looking at the problems, including: open access scientific journals, and the comparative cost of open access versus paid access models; the quality of data available; the formats and standards in which data is made available; legal and technical restrictions on data; working cultures that lead to these problems and a general culture of excessive centralisation & restriction. So quite comprehensive!

Two nice practical ideas came out, which was a relief...

First, access to electoral data including boundaries (wards, constituencies, etc.), election results (that vary in format and quality across council web sites) and the postcode database. In Brighton, Jason Kitkat wanted to set-up a "who is your councillor" web page but couldn't because of the post codeissue. We could talk to people like ORG, mySociety, the British Computer Society, OKFN and others to represent this issue to the Electoral Commission. A bit dorky, perhaps, but maybe an easy win?

The second is to see if we can convince someone in a council that we have some political power in - i.e. Brighton, Lewisham, Norwich or Oxford - to assist OpenStreetMap more directly. For example they could notify OSM volunteers when streets, amenities etc. are created or change.

I'm hoping to turn a list of email addresses into a working group, with a view to submitting a policy motion in the Autumn conference and developing those campaigns in the meantime. Fingers crossed, stay posted.

My day out in Reading...

I feel like a bit of a dilletante at this Spring Conference - I've already been and gone, despite only living in Oxford! A lot was crammed into one short Friday, however - and what struck me most was the importance of the casual, short conversations in corridors and in between workshops. Increasingly, such 'catch up' meetings between Greens who otherwise work at seperate ends of the country seem to be the most important of Conference for me. For example, through such quickfire conversations I learnt what was going on in Norwich, Brighton, Lewisham, York and Swansea amongst other places - not to mention all the gossip on what had happened on Thursday!

Of course, I did also manage to do some of the 'official' conference business. Despite being a lazy sod, I managed to arrive in time for the keynote speeches by Sian Berry and Caroline Lucas. As has already been pointed out on this blog, there is no doubt that the campaign trail has honed Sian's speaking skills to an impressive level - and Caroline is always excellent. For me, the most intriguing part of Caroline's speech was her repeated condemnation of 'modern consumer capitalism'...but perhaps that is because my mind was already on the debate on anti-capitalism that I was scheduled to be taking part in later on...

After the keynote speeches, Conference got down to what it does best - arguing over policy in (often excruciating) detail. I wouldn't swap the extraordinarily impressive internal democracy of the Party for anything, but there were occasions during the more irrelevant contributions in plenary that I would have loved to be in control of the mike.....

Despite all that, though, we got through an impressive amount in one day - among other things, we passed a progressive policy on abortion, supported the boycott on Israel, passed an entirely new and updated energy policy, and even managed to improve all of these things through reasoned debate - something that is a dim and distant memory at the other Party conferences. I was particularly glad to be able to contribute to the shelving of a proposal for the Party to support the proposal for a massive solar power 'farm' in North Africa - something that I think needs to be MUCH better defined if we are to avoid it becoming simply another large, colonial grab of resources.

In between all of this plenary action, I managed to get to a detailed talk by the Electoral Commmission 'Enforcement Manager' (oo err) about donations and financial reporting for elections....mostly full of Party members coming up with increasingly bizarre examples of what might happen and how it might be reported ('what do we do if a Russian billionaire donates to us?' and 'when exactly does an underwriting guarantee become a loan for the purposes of reporting' were amongst the more thrilling discussions). And then, after some quick refreshment I went along to the fringe on 'Is the Green Party Anti-Capitalist?' organised by Jim Jepps, who also organised this blog. Busy man.

Lucky I went along to the fringe really, cos I was helping to 'frame the debate' along with Cllr Darren Johnson AM from Lewisham. And very interesting it was too, though rather frustrating for me, as ten minutes isn't really enough time to explain capitalism, why it is unsustainable, what anti-capitalism might look like, and how we might get there. In the best tradition of the Green Party though, what might in other organisations (particularly the far-left) have turned into a massive bunfight, was actually interesting, respectful and thought-provoking. Everyone in the room (probably about forty or fifty people, I guess) ended up reaffirming just how much unites us - a desire to restrain and ultimately break the power of multinational corporations, an agreement that a 'mixed economy' in which the private sector serves the people and not the other way around is important (though some of us would like to use that as a staging point for more radical change) and a complete opposition to the dogma of neoliberal economics. We also all agree, I think that the terms 'capitalism' and 'anti-capitalism' are alienating for the general public, and that we want to present a positive, forward looking agenda for change.

While I believe that change needs to go further than Darren does, I really enjoy being in a Party where a radical social democrat and near anarcho-communist can have a respectful discussion and end up having a drink in the bar!

It's certainly made me determined to write something in time for next Conference, going into more detail about just why I believe that capitalism needs to be abolished, not just restrained....


P.S. Those interested in further exploring capitalism and alternatives could do much worse than to visit - in particular, a good short rant on capitalism here:

Deputy Young Mayor of Lewisham visits Green Party Conference

Aargh! I said I would blog conference, but if you sit down and blog you miss something and it looks terribly anti-social to do as I'm currently doing and sit with a laptop in the bar. So I'll be very brief. Got to conference much later than intended, as I had a load of Council stuff to finish off, so missed most of Thursday. Busy day today though - excellent speeches from Caroline and Sian, as already posted by Jim.

This afternoon I attended a fringe with Naz Ramadan, the current Deputy Young Mayor of Lewisham, Luziane Tchiegue-Nouta, the former Deputy Young Mayor of Lewisham, Jean Lambert (Green MEP for London), and Darren Johnson (Lewisham Councillor and London Assembly member). Lewisham was the first Council to set up a Young Mayor scheme - the post is fiercely contested, anyone under the age of 18 in the borough can vote in the election and this year had a higher turnout than in the local elections. The Young Mayor has a team of young advisers and they also have a budget to spend each year. The scheme is since being rolled out elsewhere in the country. Really pleased that they came along to Green Party Conference to discuss their role, having been to the other party conferences in the Autumn. More details here.

This evening I spoke at a Young Greens fringe on 'Young Greens Engagement with local parties'. This is something we're still working at in Lewisham, but after a number of abortive attempts, we do have a functioning Young Greens group at Goldsmiths College, and the current president of Goldsmiths College Students' Union is a Green Party member.
Now I'm off for a meal with the Association of Green Councillors. Will try to post something more coherent tomorrow.

End Of Day One

First off, if you haven't read it today, read this.

[...] the disorientation that comes from passing through the biggest political rupture in living memory - a matter not just of the disastrous invasion, but the deceit that surrounded it - and beholding a political elite that still wants to keep the public's sustained disquiet at arm's length
That out of the way, Reading (I like a good city wall) and Reading Town Hall is a great venue for conference. I've fallen in love with the Main Hall (powder blue-and-white walls, with seven chandeliers and a heckuva-big pipe organ), and I can recommend the veggie korma in the cafe.

The first day of conference for me was:

- arriving late during the abortion debate (thankfully passed -- how can man after man stand up and speak against this part of the motion or that part, when the motion won't affect them, and it affects 1 in 3 women in Britain during their lifetime?);
- the fringe meeting with Martin Bell on integrity in public life (I didn't know he had been a media advisor to Reg Keys in Sedgefield in 2005);
- a panel of speakers from the Niger Delta, Palestine, and Venezuela;
- an interesting debate on concentrated solar power (should it be used for Europe's benefit -- undersea cabling -- or African development explicitly coming first) as part of the Energy Voting Paper;
- a fringe on how to encourage Young Greens into the party; and to finish off,
- Jim's fringe on "Is The Green Party Anti-Capitalist?"

I always come away from conference thinking I've been a bit too quiet, and with more questions than answers:

- On Young Greens (how do we encourage all the folks who don't go on to university, but are 22, 24, 26, into the party, if we focus on setting up university chapters?)

- On the Energy Voting Paper debate (if nigh on half of the country's local councillors are Tory, and we have the 3rd lowest level of installed renewables in the EU, how is David Cameron credible on the environment -- all his local mates are blocking renewables at the planning stage!)

- On the Greens being anti-capitalist (well, we'd say that we prefer a mixed economy, but then we talk about nationalising public transport, and since we have a more red-blooded form of capitalism in Britain -- where New Labour brings in PPP-a-go-go and even a minimum wage is trumpeted as a grand achievement -- nationalisation will be viewed as anti-capitalist by the man in the street). I always think of the Green Party as having its policies centred on ecology, on endless consumption of finite resources being the problem, as opposed to linked in the final moment to capitalism (Tories, Labour, Lib Dems) or socialism (Respect, the Socialist Party, the IWCA).

Caroline Lucas: key note speech

Caroline Lucas made her key note speech this morning in her capacity as Female Principal Speaker. Once again she made a real barnstormer (My thoughts on Caroline's key note speech in 2006) - she even received a standing ovation, which is by no means usual, Green Party members being agreeably grumpy most of the time.

Caroline spoke directly after Sian Berry (the Green London Mayoral candidate) who gave an excellent, short speech about her campaign. I've noticed she's become much sharper over the couple of years since I first came across her. Her speaking voice is more confident and her manner has become more refined, obviously the campaign trail has done her good. I'm hoping to catch a few moments with her over the next couple of days so there may be an interview in the offing.

Caroline started her speech on the topic of non-violent direct action and the willingness of those in the movement to throw themselves into the gears risking physical harm and arrest for what they believe in. She of course has a bit of a history in this area herself, although her focus was on examples from round the country of those who'd been willing to come into (non-violent) confrontation with the law.

She denounced the idea of "politics without purpose", the politics of the three mainstream parties whose goals and principles simply revolve around keeping power. This self perpetuating governing class who can change their "core policies" simply according to how they think they need to appear.

Obviously she talked about the environment, nuclear power and nuclear weapons. she also referenced the great anti-war march whose fifth anniversary is coming up where it was demonstrated just how unable the people of this country are to influence the direction of government.

After discussing the need for a "green energy revolution" she asked who was capable of carrying this through. The so called opposition parties, whose policies change with the political winds? Everywhere there have been Greens elected to political position we have been able to affect real change - and if the "opposition" parties wont do it - then they should get out of the way and let the alternatives get on with the job!

How are any of the main three "grey" parties going to deal with the triple threat of climate change, peak oil and global economic recession? Free trade, the free market simply will not cut it when dealing with thresre fundamental issues that we will all have to face.

When raising bio-fuels she said that "it's an obscenity to prioritise food to feed our cars over food to feed the hungry." We need to begin to "live lightly" organising society and our personal lives in such a way that we can eliminate the need for the heavy load of carbon emisions we currently produce.

The grey politicians are out of their depth and it's only wth a real, radical alternative can we begin to tackle these global problems that cannot be simply focus grouped and PR'ed away.

Leading from the rear

I have to start this post by explaining that I am not actually in Reading. In fact I am only going to conference for one day this year. The crazy thing is that this is because I am too busy on my computer ('the brain' - as my partner calls it) to spare the time. But then if I were there I wouldn't be blogging. I'd be catching up with my mates - the best thing about conference.

The best thing about the Green Party, well actually the best thing about the Green Party is that we don't believe in a whipping system. Our Manifesto for a Sustainable Society says that what you do in the privacy of your own bedroom is your own business. It is your conscience that should decide the rights or wrong of it - and we apply the same thinking to our approach to policy. What you say and how you vote if you are elected remains your decision. This does not lead to anarchic chaos - as predicted by defenders of the bastion of the party political, but rather a party whose members are expected to act honestly and with integrity, rather than this being the kiss of death to their political careers.

Sorry - I strayed off in a 'Spanish Inquisition' moment there - because what I meant to say is that the best thing about the Green Party is that we have two mutually reinforcing (synergistic even?) basic aims: to devise policies for a peaceful, contented and happy future for all the species alive on the planet and the planet herself, and to use all means, electoral and non-electoral, to put these into effect.

That is why we see Caroline Lucas being carried away from Faslane - because we recognise that elected chambers are only one place, and an increasingly marginalised one, where power resides. If the power is really in the nuclear power-station or the submarine base, that is where we should be. And often the most powerful move is being in the right place at the right time just to tell your truth: Speaking Truth to Power, as the Quakers call it.

So we are all balancing our various activities to try to judge which is the best place to apply pressure at each time and how to do it. For me, this week, that has meant attending a European Elections hustings, aiding a journalist with a story about chickens and knickers, visiting a wood recycling project, and exploring greener routes to work. How much of this is for the green party, part of my paid employment, for my own personal satisfaction is hard to say, just as it is hard for me to say why I'll being going to Reading tomorrow - and harder still to say why I'll be driving.

No: it's not hard. It's about my mates of course! See you soon guys!