Assessing information quality: sorting the wheat from the CRAAP

The rapid expansion of the internet has enabled users to access unprecedented amounts of information.  However, not all of this information is valid, useful or accurate. In the world of ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’, the ability to critically assess information and its source is an essential skill.  Let’s consider what this means for public policy.

Growth of evidence-based policy

The need to assess research evidence is no longer limited to academics and scientists. The shift towards evidence-based decision-making means that policy makers and decision makers at every level now need to incorporate evidence into policy and practice.

The growth of the randomised controlled trials movement in public policy also reinforces the need for decision makers to be familiar with a range of research approaches.

In the UK, the What Works Network and the Alliance for Useful Evidence both work towards encouraging and improving the use of evidence to improve public services. Similarly, the Evidence Matters campaign seeks to promote the importance of evidence in policymaking, and tackle the misuse of research findings.

Publication doesn’t guarantee quality

While most of us are aware of the risks of encountering ‘fake news’ online, relying uncritically upon Google as an information source can leave one falling foul of ‘predatory’ open access journals, which masquerade as legitimate, peer-reviewed publications.

In recent years, there has been a boom in articles being published open access. There are now a vast number of good quality, open access publications in just about every subject imaginable.  Overall, this has been a positive development – who can argue with making more research free and easily accessible?

Open access not only has an ethical dimension – in many situations, it is also an obligation.  The UK government has already committed to ensuring that all publicly funded research is made available via open access.

However, the proliferation of open access material has led to a new problem – that of predatory open access journals. These journals operate using a business model that involves charging publication fees to authors, without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals. They may even include fake editors or members of the editorial board. Librarian and researcher, Jeffry Beall, has compiled a rather impressive list of ‘potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers’.

The quality of articles published in predatory journals is therefore questionable. Recent (rather entertaining) examples of how unreliable such journals can be include the neuroscientist who managed to trick a number of scientific journals into publishing a nonsensical piece of research complete with a number of Star Wars references, including the authors Dr Lucas McGeorge and Dr Annette Kin, and the article reporting the case of a man who develops ‘uromycitisis poisoning’, inspired by a 1991 episode of Seinfeld (the actual article is still online).

Is this information CRAAP?

So how do you assess the quality of a piece of information?

One way to do this is to ask yourself – is this information CRAAP? The CRAAP test was developed by Meriam Library at California State University to help students think critically about the sources of information they had identified.  Some of the key questions to consider when evaluating information sources are:

  • Currency
    • When was the information published?
    • Has it been revised or updated?
  • Relevance
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too advanced/basic?)
    • How well does the information relate to your topic?
  • Authority
    • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
    • Is the author qualified to write on this subject?
  • Accuracy
    • Is the information supported by evidence?
    • Has the information between reviewed or refereed?
    • Are there any spelling/grammatical errors?
  • Purpose
    • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
    • Is it objective and impartial?
    • Are there any religious/political/cultural/personal biases?
    • Is it trying to sell a product?

How we can help

While the increasing availability of information via the internet and the growth of open access content has undoubtedly been a positive development, it goes hand in hand with the need for users to critically assess information sources.

Here in the Idox Information Service, we take pride in our database of high quality resources. Our Researchers select only the best quality resources from hundreds of verified sources to populate our database. Our research database has been recognised by the Alliance for Useful Evidence as a key tool within the UK.

Each week, we support policy and decision makers by providing the latest research and evidence on a range of public policy issues – both through our current awareness services, and through bespoke literature reviews. In doing so, we hope to contribute in our own small way to the wider drive to improve the use of evidence in public policy decision making.

As we have seen, the use of inaccurate or misleading information can have significant real-world consequences.  The need for authoritative, accurate and relevant research has never been greater.


Find out more about the Idox Information Service and our subscription services here.

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Are smartphones damaging young people’s mental health?

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week saw the launch of Universities UK’s #stepchange campaign – a framework that aims to help universities support the mental wellbeing of their student populations. In their case for action as to why the framework was needed, the organisation noted that recent years have seen an increase in the number of student suicides in the UK and the US, as well as an increase in the number of students reporting mental health issues.

Both countries rank in the top 10 in terms of smartphone users across the world, with close to 70% of each country’s population being smartphone owners. And within that percentage, 18-24 year olds are the highest using age group.

Smartphone dependence and its impact

Earlier this year, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) released a report that looked at the impact that the ubiquity of smartphones is having on young people’s mental health, focusing on their social media activity. Some of the headline figures from the report include the fact that over 90% of the 16-24 age group use the internet for social media, primarily via their phones. It is also noted that the number of people with at least one social media profile increased from 22% to 89% between 2007 and 2016. Also on the increase? The number of people experiencing mental health issues including anxiety and depression.

Can rising anxiety and depression rates really be linked to increased internet and smartphone use? The RSPH report notes that social media use has been linked to both, alongside having a detrimental impact on sleeping patterns, due to the blue light emitted by smartphones. This point came from a study carried out at Harvard, which looked at the impact of artificial lighting on circadian rhythms. While the study focused on the link between exposure to light at night and conditions including diabetes, it also noted an impact on sleep duration and melatonin secretion – both of which are linked to inducing depressive symptoms.

So what’s the answer? Smartphones aren’t going away anytime soon, as seen in the excitement that greets every new edition of the iPhone, a decade on from its launch. With children now being as young as 10 when they receive their first smartphone, parents obviously have a role in moderating use. This inevitably becomes more difficult as children grow up, however, and factors such as peer pressure come into play. And it’s also worth acknowledging that heavy smartphone use isn’t restricted to the younger generation – their parents are just as addicted as they are.

Supporting children and young people

In February Childline released figures which stated that they carried out over 92,000 counselling sessions with children and young people about their mental health and wellbeing in 2015-16 – equivalent to one every 11 minutes. Although technology clearly has its impact – the helpline has also reported a significant increase in the number of sessions it carries out in relation to cyberbullying – the blame can’t be laid completely at its door. Although the world has gone through turbulent times in the past, it’s been well documented recently that today’s young people have it worse than their parents’ generation, particularly in terms of home ownership and job stability. Others have pointed towards a loss of community connections in society, and children spending less time outdoors than previous generations – not only due to devices that keep them indoors but also hypervigilant parents.

In fact, perhaps we hear more about mental health issues experienced by children and young people because smartphones and social media have given them an outlet to express their feelings – something previous generations didn’t have the ability to do. What we should be focusing on is how to respond to these expressions – something we’re still not getting right, despite countless reports and articles making recommendations to governments on how they can do better in this area.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on mental health.

Gigabit cities: laying the foundations for the information society

Man sitting at a desk, with stars and nebula's behind him

By Steven McGinty

According to the Foundation for Information Society Policy (FISP), an independent think tank, London’s poor broadband infrastructure will threaten the capital’s ability to compete with other global cities in the future.

David Brunnen, FISP member and an independent telecoms infrastructure expert, explains that although demand for broadband is growing rapidly, the capital still relies mostly on networks of copper wires, which Tech City have described as ‘not fit for purpose’.

The solution, the foundation advocates, is to create a new infrastructure agency, Digital for Londoners (DfL), to ensure that London becomes a ‘Gigabit City’ by 2020.

What are gigabit cities?

In simple terms, gigabit cites provide citizens, business and governments with access to gigabit internet services (1,000 megabits per second or higher). By replacing old copper cables for pure fibre infrastructure, cities can enable public services to take advantage of technology, support businesses to innovate, and improve the lives of citizens. As US President Barack Obama explains, ‘it’s like unleashing a tornado of innovation’.

In the UK, CityFibre, is the main provider of Gigabit Cities. Their network covers 40 cities, including Glasgow and Bristol, across major data centres and busy internet traffic points, and provides 260,000 businesses and 3.7 million homes with gigabit broadband.

On 22nd September 2016, Northampton became the latest UK gigabit city. In an agreement between CityFibre and dbfb, a Northampton-based business internet service provider, businesses will now receive internet speeds of up to 100 times faster than the UK’s average. Paul Griffiths, from Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce, highlights that this investment will play an important role for start-up businesses competing globally.

The initiative will also help Northampton County Council achieve their target of making gigabit broadband available, countywide, by the end of 2017.

Chattanooga

In 2010, Chattanooga, Tennessee, became one of the first cities to make gigabit connectivity widely available. Its mayor, Andy Berke, has described its introduction as a significant source of the city’s economic renewal.

Gigabit broadband has allowed a tech industry to emerge from a city more commonly associated with heavy manufacturing. Tech companies and investment have been drawn by the ‘The Gig’ – the local name for the network – resulting in the conversion of former factory buildings into flats, open-space offices, restaurants and shops. In the past three years, the city’s unemployment rate has dropped from 7.8% to 4.1%. The mayor has also linked the city’s wage growth to jobs in the technology sector.

‘The Gig’ was funded by a combination of public and private investment. EPB, the city-owned utility company, borrowed $219 million and received a $111 million grant from the US Government. This government-led approach has given Chattanooga broadband speeds greater than Google Fibre, a major gigabit broadband provider. Wired magazine suggests that government involvement raises expectations, and encourages commercial providers to improve their infrastructure.

Stokab, Stockholm

The Stockholm city government have one of the oldest gigabit strategies, founding the private company, Stokab, to deploy and manage their city-wide fibre network in 1994. Stokab was created to help the city benefit from the new digital era by limiting multiple network deployments, and by stimulating the technology sector.  The end-to-end fibre broadband network serves 700 service provider businesses and connects 90% of residential premises.

The gigabit network has provided a wide variety of economic benefits, including:

  • becoming a catalyst for the technology sector (The Kista Science Park has over 1000 technology businesses, with 24,000 employees)
  • creating growth and jobs valued at €900 million
  • providing low cost broadband services to business – through increased competition – has resulted in an estimated €8.5 million worth of savings
  • increasing housing values by €200 million and rental values by €3.5 million per year

Digital inclusion

Although gigabit broadband could create limitless opportunities, it also has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities. Citizens, and even small businesses, could lose out if they don’t have the skills or technologies to access the internet.

Salford Council realises the important role technology plays in creating vibrant communities. As part of their rollout of gigabit broadband services across social housing, the council are introducing a digital skills campaign to encourage more residents online. Volunteers are being recruited to assist neighbours who are less digitally savvy. As encouragement, they are being offered a free IPad and a free broadband service, if they train more than 20 people a year.

Final thoughts

To compete globally, cities will be looking to introduce gigabit broadband infrastructure. London, as a global technology hub and a key driver for growth across the UK, will need to invest in order to support businesses and meet the expectations of citizens. Government may have to provide greater leadership in order to incentivise private sector involvement. Equally, digital exclusion will need to be tackled, to ensure that everyone can participate in the information society.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles. 

Digital Agenda Norway (DAN): international digital leader but still pushing forward

Split Norwegian flag flying in the wind

Image courtesy of Pixabay via Creative Commons.

By Steven McGinty

Continuing my series on digital government best practice, I will be looking at the success of Norway and what they hope to achieve through their Digital Agenda for Norway (DAN) strategy.

Norway is already a leader in “digital government”, ranking second only behind Singapore in a study carried out by Accenture on implementation progress and citizen satisfaction. The Norwegian State Secretary, Paul Chaffey, suggests that this success has been built on a foundation of a population of tech savvy Norwegians, with a history of being at the forefront of cutting edge technology.

For instance, in 1973 Norway became the first country to connect to the US’ ARPANET, which was the military predecessor to the Internet. And more recently, maritime and off-shore technology developments in Norway have become of global importance. In particular, the use of Big Data modelling plays a significant role in finding new oil fields.

Egovernment policy development

In 2000, the government presented the eNorway action plan, a set of ICT initiatives designed to support the development of the ‘knowledge society’ and improve the lives of the people of Norway. The plan consisted of descriptions of the individual ICT initiatives of ministries, as well as common frameworks to support joint initiatives.

This soon evolved into eNorway 2005, which had the main goal of developing a set of principles for ICT initiatives. From this, the government set out three primary targets for its ICT policy:

  • Creating value in industry;
  • Efficiency and quality in the public sector;
  • Involvement and identity.

Then, the government introduced eNorway2009, a strategy that would take Norway a ‘digital leap’ forward. It argued that the public sector had to be viewed as one unit, if digital progress was to be made. Therefore, the new strategy focused on the use of multi-disciplinary initiatives and projects. There was also a recognition of the need for cooperation between all sectors and levels of the public sector, as well as the private sector.

In 2012, the government also published a report on the digitisation of the public sector. It outlined the government’s key policy objectives for their digitisation programme – keeping Norway at the forefront internationally in terms of providing digital public services to its citizens
and businesses.

Major successes

  •  ID-Porten

A major development has been the implementation of the hub, ID-Porten, which verifies citizens via electronic IDs (eID).  It allows citizens to securely login to government digital services via a single login portal. There is also a common technical platform (ID Gateway), which allows citizens to login to services using four different eIDs: MiniID; BankID; Buypass; and Comfides.

BankID, Buypass, and Comfides all provide access to a high level of security (level 4). These IDs are required when accessing personal data and only issued to individuals who appear in person. However, MiniID provides only a medium-high security level (level 3) and pins codes can be sent via mail or through SMS. This is the most common eID (used by almost 2.7 million citizens) and provides access to digital services provided by the tax services and the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund.

  • Altinn.no

In 2003, Altinn was launched to provide a single web portal for public reporting. This was driven by the amount of time Norwegian businesses were spending on statutory reporting. To resolve this problem, the three large public agencies in Norway – the Norwegian Tax Administration, Statistics Norway and the Bronnoysund Register Centre – started Altinn.

However, the project has now moved beyond that of public reporting. Now it’s responsible for providing an array of electronic forms (over 700) and digital services, as well as providing information for businesses.

The most used service by citizens is the completion of tax returns online. In 2009, more than 440,000 businesses chose to do their statutory reporting through Altinn.

  • Regjeringen.no

This is the main information portal for the Norwegian government. It has a user friendly design and in many ways is similar to the UK Government’s website GOV.UK.

Digital Agenda for Norway (DAN)

In 2013, the Norwegian government published the white paper on the Digital Agenda for Norway (DAN).  The strategy is linked to the Digital Agenda for Europe, and is also related to the Europe 2020 strategy.

The DAN explains that the government’s primary goal is that:

Norwegian society take full advantage of the value creation and innovation opportunities that ICT and the internet offer.”

This has been the philosophy from the early stages of Norway’s digital development.

The DAN highlights that greater digitisation is inevitable but notes that it will be important to identify areas with the greatest potential for development.

In terms of the public sector, the DAN identifies a number of areas for development:

  • Public sector information – increasing the accessibility and reuse of public sector information.
  • Digital services for citizens – improving digital registration for property rights and creating a paperless justice sector.
  • Commons technical solutions – the development of digital mailboxes for citizens and businesses, the use of digital document exchange, and the creation of common registers to support the public sector.
  • Organising and coordinating for more efficient use of resources.
  • Adapting laws and regulations to a digital public sector – requiring digital communication to be the standard method of communication for the public sector.

Looking to the future?

Norway has earned their reputation as a ‘digital leader’. Over the years, the government has set out a series of clear policies to support the transition to the digital age. Although not perfect, significant improvements have been made. For instance, 93% of Norwegian households now have access to the internet; this figure was only 55% in 2003.

The new DAN presents Norway with an opportunity to continue the success of recent policy initiatives. And on recent evidence, this is a clear possibility.

However, with other countries looking to improve their performance in digital government, it will be interesting to see if they will overtake Norway in international comparisons or if Norway’s sustained focus will pay off and enable them to be the world’s number one in terms of using digital services to increase citizen engagement and improve service delivery.


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IDOX specialises in election services, with Idox Elections offering end-to-end solutions for electoral management systems. Idox was awarded a number of contracts to support the Norwegian municipal and county elections held in September 2015. This follows Idox’s success in delivering similar election services during the Norwegian General Election of 2013.

The Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group: showing us how we can tackle digital exclusion

By Steven McGinty

As the government pushes towards ‘digital by default’, a policy which envisions most public services being delivered online, it’s worth remembering that 20% of the UK population still lack basic internet skills. Groups such as Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have raised concerns that ‘digital by default’ could significantly impact on vulnerable and marginalised communities, particularly those claiming welfare benefits. However, if every citizen had basic digital skills and could use online government services, it could save the public purse between £1.7 and £1.8 billion annually.

So, which groups are the most digitally excluded?

According to the UK Government’s digital inclusion strategy, digital exclusion occurs among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. These include:

  • those living in social housing (approximately 37% of those digitally-excluded live in social housing);
  • those on low incomes (44% of people without basic digital skills are either on low wages or are unemployed);
  • those with disabilities (54% of people who have never been online have disabilities);
  • older people (69% of over 55’s are without basic digital skills);
  • young people (only 27% of young people who don’t have access to the internet are in full-time employment).

What are the main barriers to using online services?

In 2013, the Carnegie Trust carried out research into internet access in Glasgow. The findings suggest that there are three common reasons why people never go online:

  • the comfort of doing things offline (34% of people cited their preference for speaking to people on the telephone, or in person, as the reason they don’t go online);
  • a fear of digital technology and the internet ( 28% were worried about issues such as using technology and staying safe online);
  • the costs involved (20% of people highlighted pressures on incomes and the cost of internet connections).

What are the main drivers for people going online?

More recently, the Carnegie Trust carried out a new piece of research, replicating their Glasgow study in two new locations: Dumfries and Kirkcaldy. The study investigated the main reasons people choose to go online. The findings show that:

  • 56% of people went online to find information of interest to them;
  • 48% went online to keep in touch with friends and family;
  • 44% thought it would be an interesting thing to do;
  • 44% had to go online as part of their work.

 How can we encourage people to go online?

Both Carnegie Trust studies show that each individual’s journey to digital inclusion is different and that a ‘personal hook’ or motivation, such as the opportunity to communicate with family members abroad, is an important tool for encouraging digital participation.

Additionally, they also show that friends and family are an important source of help when people are taking their first steps online. For instance, the case studies in Dumfries and Kirkcaldy highlight that people would appreciate help from ‘trusted intermediaries’ or local groups.  Therefore, it’s important that digital participation initiatives make use of existing communities’ networks and tap into the support available from friends and families.

Wheatley Group

The Wheatley Group, which includes Scotland’s largest social landlord, the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), has been heavily involved in addressing digital exclusion. They have developed a digital strategy to help social tenants access the internet and are committed to proving free or low cost internet access (maximum of £5 per month).

The Group has also been involved in two pilot projects: one which provides technology to 12 low-rise homes, and the Digital Demonstrator project, which tests the feasibility of low-cost broadband in multi-storey blocks. The pilot projects highlighted two important lessons:

  1. the role of the local Housing Officer was key for engaging with tenants
  2. it was important that communities and neighbours learned together.

In an ideal world, every citizen would be digitally literate, and be able to interact with government online. However, this is not the reality. The work carried out by the Carnegie Trust and the Wheatley Group provides a solid basis for developing digital initiatives and ensuring that citizens and communities are not left out.


Further reading: