Sunday, January 19, 2003

Easing congestion

The Congestion Charge comes to life in around a month. For those of you who drive into London, it's going to cost you an extra £1000 or more per year to come into town, at £5 a visit. I'm intrigued by the payment processes chosen. Given that building a tollbooth a few hundred yards from Tower Bridge is not too practical, the payment methods chose are all after the fact - go to a newsagent, a car park, a website or whatever and make your payment. Other tolls in the UK are collected using dashboard mounted devices from which a charge is debited as you pass through a 'gate', not dissimilar I imagine to the Florida SunPass, so I was pretty surprised not to see that implemented. But, the "new media" channels feature prominently - you will be able to pay via a website or via mobile phone text. Neither of these methods have proven too reliable to date, so it will be a good test of mainstream use (I am sure I have seen figures that say about £130 million will be collected annually - that's a lot of £5s) and, if they hold up, that will bode well. If they don't it will certainly be the end of the Congestion Charge, but maybe not the end of those methods. But given that this is an "overhead" and after the fact, if the methods available are not incredibly quick and minimally invasive, there will be a lot of chaos. The congestion charging website is at www.cclondon.com - I've tried to check it out today but keep getting a 404 - can't tell if that is a recurrence of the problems I had with my connection the other day or whether it really is down. I hope not the latter - if it's down with no load that wouldn't be good! I met some people awhile ago who were proposing a mobile commerce system that would let you pay for anything anywhere using your mobile. This makes a lot of sense (I've been a proponent of using mobiles as the equivalent of a portable digital certificate for a long time), but needs some thinking about before you do it. During the meeting, I realised these folks didn't appear to have thought it through, despite the fact that they were partnering with a very large operator. The idea was that you would run a WAP application on your phone that, when you wanted to pay, you'd fire up - it would go to a website and either take money from a stored value area or debit your card directly. Unless this app is on a hotkey (and has been preconfigured by an auto-SMS or by the operator on purchase) I just didn't see someone standing in a queue in Sainsbury's fiddling with their phone, plus so many supermarkets are huge warehouses these days that the odds of getting good reception are not good. I could see this model maybe working online, and that's where it's being used first. It will be interesting to watch the results - 70% of mobile phones in the UK are pre-pay (or pay as you go as we call them here) and given that this new process requires registration, a credit card or bank details (exactly the opposite of what someone with a prepay phone wants to use), never mind the fact that the customer will have to pay for the call and the merchant will stay pay the spread, it could be a bust before it starts. I won't name the firm, but I will watch out for how it goes.

Cracking a tablet in two

The battles with my new HP tablet continue. I sent the first one back as it kept crashing when connected to my wireless network. A new one arrived a few days later which seemed better - maybe one crash a day instead of ten. But now it's failing to boot completely - it just get a little way through and then loops endlessly. I've put it on diagnostic boot, it gets as far as checking memory and that's it. So another one bites the dust. It's strange because I've had a lot of new gadgets over the last few years, whether it's phones, ipods, laptops, desktops, cameras or whatever, and this is the first one that's broken ever. That's not to say that I haven't had frustrating times with phones (anyone for a Nokia 6210 or even the early 6310s?), but this is the first one that's plain and simple given up the ghost.

Is e-gov worth it?

Following Mike Cross' piece in the Guardian nearly 2 weeks ago, there was a bit of a flurry of press this week on usage (or lack of it) of government websites. We've been here before of course, and I was pleased to see Bill Thompson over at Voxpolitics say (in a sentiment that I can wholeheartedly agree with): "It would be a tragedy if the growing pile of negative reports led to a loss of faith in the project as a whole - rather than just prompting people to try to do it better, learn from their mistakes and provide services that people want and will use" What caused the flurry was yet another survey, by Portfolio Communications (I'm guessing that that's their website as I can't find the research report on it), and reported by Netimperative and ZDnet at least, says that (in a sample of 1,000) only 7% of people access local government services online during 2002, but that "over 40 percent of 18 to 34 year-olds would prefer to use the Web to access information", and therefore "Public take-up of local government online services will remain low for at least the next 10 years". Portfolio's director, Mark Westaby, said: "Fast pay-back is a key driver of public sector services, but this research suggests that the trend towards use of online local government services is unlikely to increase dramatically until today's younger generation gets significantly older. Clearly, this is not going to happen for some considerable time, possibly a decade or longer. As a result it will be vital for government not only to ensure that online services are available, but also that local communities are educated about the benefits of using them and are fully incentivised to do so." What's interesting for me is that people are not saying "I tried it and it was crap, so I didn't go back", they're saying that they haven't even looked yet to see if there is anything worthwhile. Given that we have more than 50% of people online, there's still a big part of the population that have the wherewithall to access services, but have not been persuaded to make the jump ... so is that a marketing problem? We're talking about local government services in this case, where finding your local council website is usually pretty easy (mine is www.southwark.gov.uk), so there's no trying to figure out which bit of government you need to talk to. A while ago I put a slide up at a conference (and this was before Mike's leap of faith point), wondering whether we were finally "leaping ahead" in e-government - having broken down the initial barriers. The slide looked like this: I did have a bunch of leaping frogs in there, but everytime I pasted it into my blog, they came up with white backgrounds (instead of blue) and made the slide too hard to read. You'll have to ask me to show you that slide, in its full animated glory, at a conference sometime. You'll see the quote from Gartner (which I think was a May 2002 quote) saying that the benefits of e-government will be delayed past 2010, that many projects will fail and, separately, that we'll spend a lot of money and that silos are still the biggest barrier. Not a lot has changed since then, except that there might just be a recognition that two of the key planks of the strategy will be marketing and education. It's difficult if not impossible to market 1800 websites, so there's an argument in there for rationalisation or at the very least cross-linking (if you visit many government websites now, you'll see ad banners for other government sites - something that my team introduced a month ago or so on the basis that we can advertise on our own sites for free and on a hunch that cross-traffic might be easy to generate. Results aren't in yet, but I'm expecting it to work well). Education is a bit harder - the 6,000+ ukonline centres are part of it, as will be the campaign in the Spring that the PM talked about at the e-summit, but I don't see us waiting 10 years to get mainstream usage. By then, all the investment we have put in to date may be redundant and I'd hate to think that we wouldn't get some kind of return! But the real deal, if this survey is to be believed, is that people aren't bothered to look for government services - which might mean that they have few interactions and so don't go out of their way when they do have them, or it might mean that, as I believe, we've failed the neighbour test, i.e. that noone has ever said to someone else "I just looked on that blahblah.gov.uk site and got myself a £100 extra tax credit a month" ... which is a shame, because you just might if you look. And if you do, will you promise to tell your neighbour? I wonder whether we should put a mail form at the end of that site that says "tell 2 friends about this by putting their e-mail addresses here"? Might work. Incidentally, you folks at Voxpolitics have been very quiet recently, hope everything is ok or is just that not much happens in democracy in January?

Rumbled ... RIP

I mentioned the folks at Stand the other day (which of course is better than not mentioning them), but also noted that I didn't think I'd come across them when the RIP bill was being publicly dismembered. I am reminded today that I should have done because, as news stories at the time point out, it 'was them wot done it'. Still, praise and credit where it's due (obviously I don't get out much) ... just try and keep your website up when it's in demand ;) I've written about ID cards and ID numbers in the past though (and favourably about the concept, but not so encouragingly about the implementation risks), so although I can follow Stand's arguments, I don't agree. But like I said, the nice thing about my job is that I get to stay a long, long way from policy. I wait for that to be done and then deliver against the specification.

Not e-government at all

Occasionally I stray from the path of e-government. Today I've been posting some new photos on my 'other website' (actually the same one as this one, but one where I try not to talk about e-government). I'm not much good with cameras, anything beyond point and click is usually a step too far for me, but today's photos look pretty good I think ... until I visit someone like Noah Grey's site. Then I realise just how far I have to go. Take a look at the link, his stuff is just amazing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Time is too short

There's a lot on my mind these days. Lots of ideas I want to try out and lots of postings I want to comment on or ask questions about. The Blog world expands daily at ever increasing rates - faster than I can keep up with. I really admire the folks that keep their sites uptodate continuously, contributing insight, wit and wisdom all the time. My day job is getting more intense - we have a new project going out in about 6 weeks which is taking up a lot of time; the end of the financial year is approaching a lot faster than I'd like and we have a couple of big procurements out. Plus, I've got a couple of conferences out of town over the next 2-3 weeks which will keep me from posting (and probably give me a bunch more ideas that I'll want to post). So, expect things to be a bit sparse for a while with most posts happening at the weekend. But don't stay away!

Monday, January 13, 2003

Coding

John Gotze is doing stuff that I can only imagine ... some serious coding going on there.

Can I see your ID?

John Lettice's article on the Home Office's consultation documents for ID cards takes you the "Stand.Org" pages - not people I'd heard of before. Linking to it a few minutes ago, I got this error: "A Cynic's Guide To Entitlement (*cough* ID *cough*) Cards ... Warning: Can't connect to local MySQL server through socket '/tmp/mysql.sock' (2) in /data2/vhost/www.stand.org.uk/docs/sql.php3 on line 115" I wonder if they've been slashdotted? I posted some comments on the Environment Agency's post flood problems the other day, which were picked up (on steroids) by a writer who clearly knows a thing or two that I don't. Bill De Hora (and there's an accent there which I can't figure out how to get here), which I'll come back to another time, is worth a read. Stand, it turns out, are "a group of volunteers who originally came together in 1998 in a vain attempt to fix the worst aspects of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act. Backed up by a list of over 3000 supporters, we disseminate information and motivate the interested about issues around privacy and censorship, particularly with respect to the Internet." I didn't come across them during the RIP hoo-ha. John and I have talked about ID cards before and pondered the theory of perhaps linking a smart card to the travel cards that are soon to become common on the London Underground (and presumably in the rest of the country) - after all, how many more cards do you have room for in your wallet/purse/pocket? I'm not close to the consultation process so far, but now that it's drawing to a close it must be time for me to read up and figure out what will happen next.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Digital dark age

Just as a marker for now ... this piece, also from today's Guardian, is worth a read. I'll come back to it over the weekend I hope.

A leap of faith, to make e-government worthwhile

I was as surprised as anyone (and, believe me, there were a lot of surprised anyones and even one or two surprised someones) to see me mentioned in Mike Cross' article in the Online section of today's Guardian. Mike was pondering whethere e-government is worthwhile. Mike gets to the nub of the problem - that pretty much every country is seeing - which is that today (at least) e-government is just another channel (squashed on top of many others - phone, mail, fax, face to face, intermediary etc). This has resulted in some hefty expenditures and difficulty translating those into saves. Oddly, Mike singles out Singapore and the US as being particularly good at e-government - the former very probably, the latter not so (some states have made awesome progress, but at a total level not so good I think). As Mike says, when it's the right service - flood warnings online as opposed to VAT it seems - people want it and they want it when they want it (which leads to sudden peaks, which are hard to deal with as we know the Environment Agency found). He wraps up using the motto that I have at the left of this page and wonders whether you have to justify e-government as a leap of faith. I'd planned to change that motto this weekend, so you won't see it much longer (it stays on the pages in the archive), but this is what Mike said "In the end, the sensible justification for e-government must be a combination of [improvements in efficiency, convenience and quality of these public services]. Or, like Alan Mather, head of delivery at the Office of the e-Envoy, you can justify it as an act of faith. In his personal blog site www.diverdiver.com/egovblog.html (cult reading for e-government enthusiasts) Mather says: "E-government isn't any different from government. It just might make it better, sooner." and closes with "Whether that's worth £1 billion remains to be seen". Oh, and he also describes this page as "cult reading for e-government enthusiasts" - I appreciate that, but would add that it only makes for cult reading when combined with the pages of the luminaries that I link to. If you're a regular reader or if you browse my archives you'll see that I often return to the "better, cheaper, faster" logic of online services and talk about the things we have to do to get there, whether it's better content delivery, more logical navigation, streamlined transactions or partnerships with intermediaries to deliver value-added services. At pretty much every conference I have presented at the question of "return on investment" comes up pretty quickly - whichever country you are in (so far, the ones to ask fastest are the smaller countries who have less to spend initially). It came up at the first conference I did in June 2000 and it's come up every time since then. My answer to how you get to the point where you have a return hasn't varied much. I scare people by talking about the hump costs they're going to see - and there are many humps to be seen. I use the evolution graph below to illustrate my point. As you progress through each stage, you bump up against new costs (for technology, system replacement, change management, business education etc). When I put the graph up, I expected us to hit a new stage roughly annually until 2005, by which time we'd have enough experience, infrastructure and services online to start really transforming government. That means that true benefits probably don't occur until after that. If you look at the names of the companies that I added to some stages, you get a sense of who has already done some great things and that they are already getting saves - Dell, as the perfect example, has taken a physical delivery model and used technology to an enormous degree to drive costs down to levels at which other players cannot compete, and hence has landed at the top of the tree. A while ago I had dinner with Michael Dell (there I go, name dropping again) and I asked him about how the move to the web had gone. He said that with the first website there were no cost saves - people used the site to find out the basics and then asked ever more detailed questions to the telephone operators, meaning that more operators were needed and so costs went up. That was 1997. Other companies are doing siilar things - Ebay could not exist without the web, ditto Egg. Amazon hasn't been able to do what Dell did yet, different control factors and so on (ditto Tesco I think). Given that it does cost money to do all this though, there are ways for it to cost less - My "seven stops" for e-government speech based on what I said in Romania is one way. If we don't expect every bit of government to solve the same problems, build the same widgets, suffer the same pains, then we can save money through collective learning. So, the saves come in perhaps the third section, or more likely the fourth. Until then, there probably isn't enough mass to generate meaningful saves. With 60% of the UK using the web now, there's a lot of clients you can impact directly. The 40% who don't use the web can still go through intermediaries who do use the web - so they don't necessarily have to be web users to get web benefits. But this all takes time, focus, energy and above all, for now, a pretty substantial leap of faith. For me, it's faith that I can make a difference. For some it might be faith that investment here will produce a long term return that improves GDP. The hard numbers, the proof, just aren't there yet. You don't, after all, get two chances to leap a chasm. I just hope that I'm not right over the middle of that chasm now.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

e-mail an official?

Kablenet covered our recent OJEC notice - we're tendering for a "secure email system" to extend functionality presently in pilot mode in the Government Gateway. This pilot has been running for a little more than a year and has worked pretty well. Now other departments want to use it and they want us to add some functionality. Kable are not quite right with their title. The service will be all about to and fro correspondence with government departments - whether it's about tax affairs, benefits or whatever. We'll provide a secure area for the mail to reside - and the Gateway will authenticate the sender (the member of the public) and ensure that we send tax information only to the right people. It will also allow download (either to the browser or to an application using SOAP) of items like tax statements (the pilot today delivers P6 and P9 statements from the IR to small businesses). I'm expecting a big response.

Broadband blues

I'm having a big problem with my Internet connection. 3 pages out of 4 fail to load - with a 404-type error and it seems random which pages fail. BT say just to power off the router for 3 mins and then everything is fine. Except it's not. Sometimes reloading the page (F5) works fine, sometimes it doesn't. Weird problem. But it's not unlike the problem I was having with my tablet PC a couple of weeks ago where it would randomly freeze. That got so bad that I sent the thing back - having tried fiddling around with memory and whatnot to make it work without success. So many of my favourite weblogs appear to be offline today (and yesterday too for that matter), even though they're not. So, much as I'd like to refer to them, I can't. It will have to wait until the weekend.

All websites are created equally bad?

A survey came out today, from some people that looked at government websites a few weeks ago. This time they were looking at FTSE100 sites and noting pretty similar conclusions - not well designed, information buried or not even there and so on. In fact, the quality of many sites had deteriorated since last year despite some rebuilds. The Register notes that these sites are "wallowing in mediocrity". Either that means we're not good at website design in the UK (public or private sector), the standards being set are too high, the reviewers aren't using the right criteria or, most likely, everyone has a view (and it's always different depending on what your agenda is). Still, even though it feels like us in government are getting hit all the time, sometimes its nice to see others taking a hit too - whether it's right, wrong, true or false. It's just someone else's turn.

Out with the old, in with the nearly new (maybe)

This weekend we changed email systems in the office. Out went a rather old version of Outlook (97 I think) and it came some untraceable version of Lotus (now IBM I suppose) Notes. I've been using Outlook for longer than I can remember and using MS Mail for even longer than that (I have vague memories of MS Mail 3.0 sometime around 1989 on an early Mac). Needless to say, there are some differences. Things that I used to do one way I have to do a whole different way. Some things I don't seem to be able to do at all. This change got me thinking about what we're about to introduce to some government departments - a brand new content management system, otherwise known as a "structured writing tool". This is change in a big way. As far as I know, most content is written in Word (or similar), passed to the "techie" team who look after the website who then massage it a little and then upload it somewhere into the departmental website. This is good for the folks writing the content - the tool they use is perfectly structured for writing; it's good for the techies who have complete control over their environment. Now we're going to turn that on its head and give the writers a tool that constrains them a little (but provides other benefits, like giving them control over the page), introduces a workflow that means that there is more discipline over the compilation and publication process and gives the techies a new role in things like designing information architecture. Pretty much everyone wins with this, but they also lose a bit - much the same in every "change". While I was thinking about that, I came across an article on CMSwatch (which is a good site for finding out what people are doing with content systems), that talks about exactly this issue. What's needed is some understanding, on both sides of course - those implementing as well as those being "implemented on" ... and a lot of thinking about how to get the adoption strategy right. This is a pretty big change for government content owners - those people that write policy and guidance for the public. If we get it right though, it leads to a dramatic improvement in those websites that everyone says are horrible.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

The single health record conundrum

I'm delighted to see that Phil Windley is continuing to post now that he's moving on (or even moved on already) from his post as CIO in Utah. One of his recent post poses the question "why isn't there a single health record", to help avoid adverse drug reactions (in his case, his mother-in-law is allergic to ibuprofen, something which I imagine is relatively common). He notes that there are 2.1 million adverse reactions annually in the US (I've seen figures for the UK suggesting that our equivalent is in the upper single digit hundred thousands). So, given the solution is "all IT and nothing to do with health", couldn't there be one "medical record could be kept in a single location and accessed and updated via the Internet by each doctor, hospital, emergency room, EMT, and pharmacy you use.". This is one of the holy grails of patient care. Not only would it reduce things like adverse drug reactions but it would mean that doctor's would have access to the latest test from the hospital, the same questions wouldn't be asked over and over, patients wouldn't have to carry x-rays or MRI scans around with them and so on. The productivty savings are enormous once its done. In the UK we have a specification for such a single record out for consultation at the moment - I will be following with great interest how this progresses, as the first consultation ended with a need to do more work. There are two big issues stopping it today (in the UK certainly but I fully suspect that the same is true in the USA): - Rationalisation of identities. Use of a single number is inconsistent, even though everyone has an NHS number. This is getting better today, with all GPs using it and from around March this year it will be mandatory across the board. But the history is not going to be easy to reconcile - and things like Ibuprofen allergies may last have been written down 10 years ago or more. - History is on paper or on many systems. To get to that single record, you have to make an early choice about whether you are going to store it all in one big central place or link up a variety of databases to create a virtual record. Either one is feasible - with the former you have to move all the data to the middle rationalising it in flight; with the latter you have to link a lot of old-style systems, maintain the links and probably put some serious bandwidth in to make sure that images can fly around. But both involve similar problems - you still have to rationalise the identifiers, you have to figure out how to get the data out of where is (and whether to transpose it if its on paper), put bandwidth in to link the systems (or to ensure that doctors can download the data). My vote is for the central database, but with cached copies locally (things like X-rays don't change a lot) so that there is not a huge waste of bandwidth moving things around (there could be a need for 100MB/s to do some of this). Of these, the former is relatively trivial - it's a rule and people have to follow it. Data gets better the longer you wait before doing the second action. When I was in San Francisco in December I met with a great company, Zmedix, that have a "patient questionnaire" application (called CLEOS) that could create a one-time patient record. Picture the scene of a doctor's surgery with WiFi and tablets installed - the patient goes through the questionnaire which covers pretty much everything that has gone on with their medical history and all recent things with a structured set of questions (potentially collecting up to 35,000 datapoints, for someone who had a lot of history!). A report is then spit out which the doctor can use to evaluate what to do next (and doctor's need some help here - they don't have the time to spend with every patient, the situation is often complicated by some symptons masking others and a patient desire not to always tell the truth) ... and a detailed electronic record is created which could be uploaded and stored centrally. All you have to then is map images, correspondence and so on to that central record. It feels to me that the solution is in sight, but it's going to take some creative steps to get there along with some dramatic changes in working practices. Whether it is CLEOS or some other equivalent, doesn't matter. The benefits are so obvious, why would you not do it.

e-government, contrary to popular opinion, may not be dead ...

KPMG just published a survey which gives some at least upward trending results for potential use of e-government, although they stop very far short of explosive growth predictions. The main statistics in the report, over the next 3 years 19% of people want to use the 'net as a channel (up from approx 10% today). But 57% people thought that they would deal with their local council electronically and "just over a third claimed that they would vote in a local council or general election (38%); apply for/renew a passport (37%); book an appointment with a GP (37%);get health information via NHS Direct (37%); renew their car tax (36%); notify their council of a fault (35%); or renew their TV licence (34%). But "less encouragingly, a third (31%) stated that they would not expect to interact electronically at all" I couldn't quite box the 19% to the 57% number, but am assuming that the timeframes are different. Anyway, the market is there for the taking - the services just have to be delivered now that match up to those expectations. And something good needs to be done to persuade the 31% of Luddites that there is something worth doing online (I'm assuming that these 31% won't be interacting electronically at all, not just not using e-goverment services).

Switching Context

I've been following Jon Udell's postings about bookmarklets, libraries and ISBN numbers - not because I particularly understood the technology or what he was up to but because I thought he might be onto something that will help me out with plans for delivering personalised government content using a web service. I haven't cracked it yet, but I'm getting closer. In Jon's latest article for Infoworld he makes a little leap from one place to another for why he decided to build this app, " ... but [the] information [I wanted] didn't appear in the right context. To switch from Amazon or All Consuming to the library's site for a requery doesn't take much effort. Once we establish a context, though, we are loath to abandon it. The question became how to avoid that context switch." (italics mine). Here in a couple of sentences is the essence of the argument for reducing the website count in government - why make people discover other sites if they can get what they need from one; why force them to learn new user interfaces, deal with new designs, new editorial styles and new departmental vocabularies if they don't have to. Learning one context is hard enough, learning tens or hundreds to deal with government shouldn't even be on the agenda.

Saturday, January 04, 2003

More saying it the way it is

This week's Economist has a page on e-government, drawing mostly on the quote that my colleague Steve Marsh made a couple of weeks ago about us needing a miracle to hit the 2005 target. Naturally the Economist takes a few potshots at the story so far, including an old one on the Self Assessment service (which is referred to as poorly designed and buggy - methinks the author last tried more than 18 months ago because the feedback on the present version is that it's slick and easy), but also makes some good points on what should be done, which is rare. The first suggestion is to centre websites around (what I'll call) life events or things going on in people's lives - buying a car, buying a house and so on. UKonline tried that on day one but, at the time, all that was possible was a collection of links which didn't do the job although a huge amount of thinking and effort went into them. The Econo people say that this can only be done properly by reorganising government behind the scenes so that these services are all joined up - after all, "a thin electronic veneer" is not enough. I disagree with this point - a veneer is there for the taking today and can camoflauge much of the complexity and at least give the appearance of a joined up service. The structural change to really achieve it will take dedicated focus for the next 3 parliaments at least - so 12-15 more year. Lastly the article says that people will only use services that are "better and faster" (which is true) or have an "incentive, like the £10 to send in a tax form" (which was something tried 3 years ago that has not been repeated - it wasn't successful then and everything I've seen so far says it won't be now). Better and faster is good - the "cheaper" argument is interesting because everything on the web that has succeeded has done because it's cheaper - books on Amazon are cheaper (better still if you have the free shipping option), electronics are cheaper, DVDs are cheaper and so on. But the Wall Street Journal and the Economist charge you extra for the online service (which is why I haven't linked to it today) even if you are a print subscriber. So I'm not sure that £10 off your tax bill makes a difference. A refund in 4 days instead of 4 weeks might be something (and that's what you get with the online version today), calculating your tax liability accurately might be something (and that's what you get today), and maybe providing some suggestions on how to reduce your tax bill next time (after all it's too late now for last year), perhaps including things like ISA suggestions? That last one will be hard for the Revenue to do, but maybe in partnership with others it's possible.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

Oqo

No.4 on Wired's list of vapourware for 2002 is the oqo personal computer. I went to see these guys a month ago at their place in San Francisco. Let me tell you that this thing is not vapourware - I've seen it, touched it, fiddled with it and know that it works fine. Conjure up a view in your mind of a full-fledged PC shrunk down to the size of an Ipaq, running Windows XP with firewire, bluetooth and WiFi all built in. With a touch screen and a little Blackberry-style keyboard. I hear that they'll be shipping in April - maybe they'll be late (what technology product ships on time?), maybe they'll be very late (but the amount of new technology squeezed into this package is awesome so I can see why they'd be working hard to get it just right) - but they'll ship. The folks doing this are the folks that brought you the Apple Titanium powerbook amongst other things. They have track record. And once it's out, mobile computing will have a completely different future.

More on WiFi

My tablet's working fine now. I've moved on to a new toy, a new Ipaq (with built in Wifi, bluetooth and a fingerprint reader - great stuff!). I came across this piece on a new (to me) Blog that David Fletcher edits. It's part of the Utah family and covers, amongst other things, Voice and Data Networks in Government. David notes that WEP does not go far enough for security and I know that he's right - I guess I wondered (given he notes how much security has slowed down his own initiative) how much we could get done with only that. If the risk is that people ride your bandwidth or steal some of the traffic, then what is the split of applications that you'd allow to run? If you encrypted what was running, what would the new split be? If all the servers were locked down and apps could only be run from known Ipaqs/tablets with known IP addresses, what would the split be then? Is there some set of things that you would just kick off with just WEP, so that people could see the benefit - and then, in the background, work out all the security stuff? David is clearly way ahead of anything that we're doing in the UK that I'm aware of - 100 hotspots on the network already (99 more than I have in my network at home!). And yes, I think government should support public WiFi networks as part of the drive to get the economy wired.

DLVA still a .gov

The Register has a piece on an arbitration case where our own DVLA (Drive Vehicle Licensing Authority) wanted to take the DVLA.com domain name from its present owners, DVL Automation. I don't have a clue about this case, why it came up nor do I know any of the background so I won't comment on the merits of the case itself. But, it did make me think about URLs for government. Government, of course, owns the ".gov" domain (in our case the ".gov.uk" domain) so we can pretty much put whatever we want in there (check the site www.hedgehogs.gov.uk) if you want proof. There are some rules, but given that we have more than 2,300 domain names it doesn't seem likely that they are too stringent. So, if you're a government department, you take your name, append ".gov.uk" and there you have it. So we have "dwp.gov.uk", "cabinet-office.gov.uk" and so on. But that, as I've said (once or twice) before is government speak. Even making it "dwp.com", if we could do such a thing doesn't make it any less government speak. It may be a few keystrokes shorter, but if someone is looking for "child benefit" (and I know I keep using that example, I could just as easily talk about fuel allowances or oil taxation or where you go when you want to export a collectible flint-lock rifle) would they know or care that it's at "dwp.com" or "dwp.gov.uk"? I guess they might if they were either Internet-savvy or government savvy. Don't people find what they are looking for using a search engine? Do they even know the domain name of the site that they arrive at? It may be that you check the domain name when dealing with government because you trust the ".gov.uk" tag as a sign that it's real, but I'm not even sure about that (the fact that people check as well as, perhaps, the fact that it must be real if it's in the browser bar). If you type "child benefit" into google, the first entry is a page deep in the DWP website, so that works fine. Funnily enough, the first link on ukonline from that search is about "child tax credits" - I've written before about how confusing that must be for people; the third is child benefit. The other way people find the stuff that they are looking for is probably by looking at whatever piece of paper they've got in their hands from the department. I know when I pay my British Gas bill it sends me to "house.co.uk" - nothing to do with Gas at all. So, a piece of paper from DVLA could have "dvla.gov.uk" or even "motoring.gov.uk" or something similar printed on it (and I imagine it would make sense to put it on every page so that people didn't hunt for it). Once they were there, they'd bookmark it if it was good. And if it wasn't, well they'd find it the next time using the same bit of paper or the search engine again. So, either you need a great search engine, a marketing strategy that stamps your domain name on every single bit of paper that leaves your office, or maybe just a single domain name that gets you everywhere you want quickly and easily. The folks in Dubai have gone for the latter, so far we in the UK have gone for a mix of everything (without success as so many surveys and press reports tell me regularly - there's a message there for the UK) - but there is still the matter have 1800 sites to navigate around. So, in the end, I don't know what DVLA were trying to do when they had all the other tools at their disposal - but, as I said, I wasn't close to the case (and I know the square root of nothing about domain name politics - I'll stick to e-government if that's ok).

Google quote

I'm indebted to John again for finding a great quote from one of the founders of Google. "Look, putting angle brackets around things is not a technology, by itself. I’d rather make progress by having computers understand what humans write, than by forcing humans to write in ways computers can understand". And therein lies the morale for government. Ask not that your people learn the language of government ... ask only that they visit your sites once you learn to communicate with them the way that they will understand. Or something like that.

Web services - Amazon and Google lead the way

I can't say this any better than Mark O'Neill already has, plus he's linked to a couple of things I said after my Romania trip so we'll get in a loop if I paraphrase what he's said. But in essence ... it's about exposing your "website" so that others can build a better one, about opening up using web services. It's got to be the right thing to do, for the commercial players as well as us in government (because we know that other commercial players will offer up our services far more effectively than we will). Mark goes on with "I guess that tax submission Web Services are the "getStockQuote" of the e-Government world, but wouldn't it be useful if applications like Peachtree Accounting or Sage Instant Accounts could file tax information using Web Services. The government then concentrates on the provision of services. This would mean - no searching through a government website, no ALT-tabbing [i've forgotten what the Mac equivalent is!] between an accounting package and a government portal, and less hassle all round" ... and he's right (except on the Mac bit, for the most part we haven't figured out how to support those, which is not good). Some third party packages already handle tax preparation, but with varying degrees of success. I don't have the figures for the paper world but something like 10% of online tax returns come in from sites that are not the Inland Revenue - but those people have had to go and build the entire application process from scratch. Wouldn't it be better if the Revenue posted the rules as a web service which could be called up by anyone with an appropriate site. That would mean the 3rd party puts some effort into the design for capturing the data, but it gets validated using a single government-issued rulebook (online), saving a lot of effort all round. Would it be more than 10% if that were the case? Maybe. But, that said, target #1 is to get vast numbers of people wanting to send their tax in via the Internet, because unless that happens not many people will think it worthwhile to do the hard work on the interface.

A year of e-government blogging

I've been doing this a year ... it took a posting from John Gotze to remind me of that, so thank you John (I think it feels like it's been 12 years). I started with a whole set of different ideas about how this would end up and have only recently, maybe since about september or october, really figured out what I should be posting on this site. It's about the ideas that are out there, with the ideas that I have mixed together to try and figure out how to take e-government forward. Hopefully I'm getting a bit closer. The stats for the site tell me that more and more people are reading, so something is at least interesting enough to look at. I'm going to keep at it, spurred on by John and by all the others out there who are smarter than me in their own fields. All I have to do is figure out how to take all those smart ideas and apply them to government.

Flooding the flood warning

First demand-driven problem of the year hits government websites. And it's only January the 2nd and it's not even noon. The heavy rain over the last few days has meant that the Environment Agency's website that gives details on which areas are likely to be flooded has been overwhelmed with demand and is presently down. I can't find this on any of the news channels, but most stories are carrying both the phone number and the web address - so use the phone. In my "things we'll learn" year end wrap-up, I thought that we'd have a few more of these kind of things. For me, it reinforces 3 of my points: e-government is hard; demand is there if the service is good and offers value; the government lacks intelligent customers who can manage their suppliers to ensure that this kind of thing is covered. This is a bit of a "leaves on the line" story - every year something happens, every year it's a bit different from the previous year, but there are enough similarities for us to draw conclusions and put the right protective measures in place. The lessons are there to be learnt and, although it's not easy, we need to learn them faster and more conclusively. This time last year, the PRO's 1901 Census site was the poster child for website failure as it buckled under demand. You could argue whether that was predictable or not - I was told a few months before that it would be huge but didn't really get it. With the Environment Agency's site it's a little harder to argue - there's been rain for a few days now; flood warnings are in place; pretty much every news story online is pointing to their site. Looks like it was predictable. There are (and even were) three ways out of this situation, any of which would have resulted in the site being up and their reputation being intact: 1. Robust Design If you know this kind of thing is going to happen, you design your site to take that into account. For years now busy sites have incorporate resilient design; sites that manage heavy downloads built mirror services in, edge caching and so on. When the BBC site expects heavy traffic the team there strip out graphics and extraneous content to make the download performant; MSN stores its entire site in the front end web servers so that there is no dynamic content generation (so when the site looks to be filling up, they can rapidly deploy new servers and copy the site to them). So people know how to do this. It is not, however, cheap. And if you only expect one of these events very few months, there's not much ROI there. But for a major site to fail with a 404 error when it's at its most needed moment is close to unforgiveable, so you'd have good reason to expect some or all of these kind of measures were in place. 2. Centralisation If the economics at a local level or departmental level don't justify the kind of spend on resilience that's required, then you move the content and the applications somewhere that does. Giving up control is hard in government. Giving up control of your IT is even harder - but this is just another kind of outsourcing, but one where you get a bigger say in how things get done and probably better oversight. A central service is more likely to be able to deal with peaks, because they will occur more regularly, so the site will be tested more frequently at high loads and the people that run it will know how it responds. Of course, there is always the 50 year storm peak - the end of the tax year, war in Iraq, floods in the UK and a Ministerial scandal, say, that might cause an exceptional load - but it's still cheaper to handle this kind of thing centrally. 3. Syndication The science of syndication is not well understood for things like this, but it's certainly feasible that the main pieces of content could be offered up to a variety of major sites so that no single site is hit heavily. If the agency ran its model for floods on all the main areas of the UK and then offered news sites a summary of the content generated then I'm sure most sites could build it into their system. This method requires more work in advance, more work certainly for the content recipients but it's not dissimilar to the plan adopted for the Iraq Dossier when sites all over government and in the commercial sector were given access to the document a few minutes ahead of schedule. I imagine that the flood warning app is more complicated than this but, nonetheless, it must be achievable. So any of these 3 or maybe all of them are worth pursuing. And if e-government's reputation is going to grow rather than remain tarnished, these measures must be taken for the major services. It seems to me that, given this situation is going to rotate around government fairly regularly for the next couple of years or so, there's a need for a kind of "Mutual Reliance" plan. Last year was PRO and IR, this year is Environment - it could just as easily be the courts' site if there is a major trial or Customs at the end of a busy VAT quarter or a local authority that introduces an innovative new service. It might even be the congestion charging website. But it's going to be someone and probably several someones. I doubt that e-government can take many more hits before it loses what little chance it still has and people revert to phone lines, paper channels and commercial websites. So, we need a combination of those 3 options put in place: - A team that reviews sites for capacity limits, recommends upgrades as necessary. Each upgrade will need to be rated against its cost/benefit. There will also need to be a failure recovery plan, so that if a site does go down it fails gracefully (not with a 404, but with a message that tells people where else they can check for information for instance). - A move to put critical services in a more robust environment, managed by the centre but with close co-operation from all of the departments involved and their IT suppliers - A programme to map out the route to achieve proper syndication around commercial sites of key content and applications (or the output of those applications). We don't do that and there's little chance I think. I'm going to be doing a presentation on "mobile government" later in the month and I'd been pondering the flood warning system as a killer-app for the mobile alerts service that government so badly needs. I talked about this in March 2002 at another conference and Steve Ranger from Computing picked it up in May - there are a bunch of time-critical or time-driven services that government offered that would benefit from alerts issued to peoples' mobile phones. I have some worries about how this might work and the potential for cockup that we expose ourselves too - today's example only reinforces my worries. If people are relying on receiving a text before taking action but the service is down, how much more exposed are they?

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Happy New Year

Here's to a great 2003. Look after yourself and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way.