Thursday, July 31, 2003

Incredible stories about content

I spent some time this week with someone from a big government department who has been working on sorting out the mass (or is it mess?) of content on his Intranet. There aren't many case studies in government on this kind of thing so I was delighted to compare notes. I thought I'd seen some big content numbers, but these are just incredible. The team started a year or so ago with a total content base of 640,000 pages of content. After one full year of work they had deleted 680,000 pages (not a typo) because of duplication, redundancy or whatever .... and they still had 550,000! How's that work you wonder? A growth rate of close to 100% a year is how. A few months later they now have 800,000 pages. It's easy to see why there's duplication in a world like that - the odds of you finding what you want are so low that you'd likely create it again just to help the next person along. I admire the team tremendously for sticking with the programme as they watched content spring up all around them. Getting control of something like that is an awesome job. Is it under control now? I think the jury is probably out, but at least there's been progress (after all ... there'd be 1.5 million pages if they hadn't started the clean up!). It reminds me a little of a guy I met a while ago who told me about his job which was to rewrite some old laws into plain English. He had a small team and every morning they'd come in, take a page and rewrite it. Then they'd rewrite all of the pages that were affected by the changes to that first page. And then start on the next page, often iterating back over the pages previously changed. They were 5 years into the project with maybe another 5 years to go. When I asked how he knew that there were 5 years left, he admitted that he wasn't sure, but that felt about the right amount of time ... a 10 year project to rewrite laws ... that you know will change under your feet pretty regularly. I couldn't get up in the morning to do that job, but these guys were going at it every single day and had been doing so for the previous 1,000 working days!

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Terrorist futures market scrapped, thank god

Stunning story on Yahoo. Just incredible. And I can so see why someone would think of it and why it has the mark of a good idea ... but for it get through enough approvals to apparently go live? Good lord.

Catching up

Today was a bit of a blast through some things on my mind ... I'll get some more time over the next few days and couple of weeks and update a bit more fully. And hopefully catch up on my reading.

Domain name envy ... or is envyofbigdomainnameswhereverused.gov.uk

I did a conference with Dan Jellinek of Headstar last week. It was all a bit of a rush with a slide deck done at the crack of dawn just before I went on ... fortunately, the venue was about 50 feet from my front door. I must get more people to book conferences there, it's a much easier journey. Anyone who wants to book me and is planning on using Shakespeare's Globe- you have much better odds of getting me. One of the slides I put up followed on from my point the other day about equal and opposite practices to policies - accidental ones mostly I am sure. The policy concerns the requirement not to have two letter domain names. There are exceptions to that ... www.pm.gov.uk for instance. But then you don't have www.dh.gov.uk, but www.doh.gov.uk and by contrast not dowp.gov.uk, but dwp.gov.uk. Anyway, the equal and opposite practice is pretty obvious ... So I've come up with what may have to be a new policy, in response to seeing that one of these domain names would score 58 at scrabble (I am, of course, indebted to Dan for that useful bit of information), and it is that no government domain name should score more than 14 (gets rid of www.x.gov.uk - which doesn't exist before you check). My point of course is (still!) that few people use domain names, fewer still when looking for government - because the names relate to government,not the individual. Search engines find things that people want. So the domain name is irrelevant. I honestly believe we could go back 50 years and give every department numbers and letters and get rid of names altogether and probably get more traffic.

Citizen value versus .gov pain

I've updated one of my old slides showing the relative maturity of e-government. This can be applied to any country I think. If you want a proper (animated) powerpoint slide version of this, write to me at the usual address.

Get a job by text ... Or is that get a date by text

Delighted to see that Job Centres will be sending out text messages alerting people to job matches pretty soon, as reported by Kable (and also by the National Press) today. Last March when I first floated using mobiles for notifications/alerts and whatnot, there was a flurry of coverage around the idea (my primary points then were blood donors and exam results by text, not necessarily at the same time). When I was doing presentations on mobile government late last year and earlier this year ... this was one of the slides that I put up. I'm really pleased to see someone getting to the same place independently (after all, I can only imagine that this has been worked on for a while).# But I wonder whether anyone is looking at the what next of that? By what next I mean, literally, "ok, so you've got a job, what next?". Maybe that affects your employment benefits, maybe it affects tax credits or some other allowances. It might even put you into a whole new world of tax, like Self Assessment or who knows what. The follow up for those services should also be electronic - via a kiosk or a PC - so that everything gets setup right away, reducing the risk of delay, making sure payments are adjusted (up or down) and taking the pain away. It can all be confirmed by text of course. Progress on wider government text services is slower than I would like. A few folks are putting their toes in the water - including the people we are working with at a hospital in Norwich where they're trying to reduce "did not attends". There is huge scope here, but also risk - government spam, trusted numbers and so on. Needs more work, but looks like it's breaking new ground and that's always worth some points. One of the other issues that this begs is at what point do you pay for a government service. If you get a text that says "here's a job for you" (and then describes the job in 168 characters or less, books the interview and tells you the time of the appointment), you must, at some point, reply and say "ok ... I want that job" or "that time's ok" or "no, i want a different time" or similar. And you do, in most cases, have to pay for that - only a small amount still (I don't think we're going for premium numbers yet, but government may do that one day for certain services). Is the trade fair enough? I think it is. I'll be very interested in seeing how it pans out.

Wireless

Weirder and weirder stuff goes on. So now my other PCs aren't working properly on my local Wifi network. Rather than spend hours like I did this weekend, I took the smarter decision to back out recent changes. The changes? Microsoft patches! I used the system restore function on one of the other PCs to roll back 2 days worth of system updates and, lo and behold, everything works fine. My guess is one particular path that relates to corporate network security (made available late last week i think). I use Dell laptops and a Dell desktop with a Belkin WiFi access point. The symptoms are an apparently fully functional WiFi network that seems to be connected, but that doesn't actually work. If you get that and you know you've updated your system recently, go back a couple of days (or longer, until it works) - use the system restore function off the accessories/system tools menu. For someone who counts himself as utterly not technical, I'm proud that I cracked that! So far, it's affected two laptops and one desktop, so it might hit you .... I wasted so much time on this. Enough to make me consider a Mac. Not quite Linux, but a Mac at least.

Films

Talking of films, if you're looking to see a wildly improbable film in the next few days, you have two clear choices: The Hulk or Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Out of the two, go see the latter - vastly funnier, more elegant, better fast cars, better stunts and altogether utterly and completely more improbably than the former. Although, the opening credits for Hulk are the best I've seen in a long time.

emailing the Top of the House

Via VoxP comes this piece in the NYtimes 10 days ago or so. It notes that the Whitehouse has changed its email process so that instead of being able to send a mail to an address, you have to go through a filter - some 9 pages or so - before you get to actually send anything. The first question is, effectively, are you pro or con the Administration? In the Times ... "Over all, it's a very cumbersome process," said Jakob Nielsen, an authority on Web design who helps run a consulting group, Nielsen Norman Group, in Fremont, Calif. "It's probably designed deliberately to cut down on their e-mail." Which, of course, you have to agree with on all counts. I have no idea how much paper mail the Whitehouse gets, but they quote 15,000 email a day before this process. Maybe the Prime Minister here gets 1/2 million paper letters a year. You can multiply that up and guess that the PM could be heading for 5,000 email a day minimum. So the choice is pretty simple I guess: Pay for 1000 people to sift, filter, process, respond to or delete millions of mail a year, or make the process difficult enough so that spam mail can't be sent, nor can vast email campaigns be co-ordinated to inundate the mail system, nor mail overloads be used to fill the boxes up. As a taxpayer, I know which one I want. The idea of paying thousands of people to process mail that will mostly be repetitive, abusive and downright ugly is not in my list of things to do in transforming government. You should see the mail I get (my mail address is listed on the OeE website). I get incredible things sent to me - words that I don't even use myself (and I'm wont to use a few). If that's were to happen to the PM mailbox, then it would either be taken away or just used as a dumping ground with few mails actually getting a response. That wouldn't be democracy. So, I hope that if and when the PM puts a mail service online, he goes the way of the Whitehouse, because any other approach would be folly. And, as the US Admin Official responsible says ... "When it comes to a Web site, it's a bit like a movie," Mr. Orr said. "Some will say it's a tour de force; some will say it fell flat." Most of the time, you lose when you do something like this. But it gets my vote.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Why no posts?

I'd planned to spend a good chunk of time this weekend just gone catching up on a few posts that I'd wanted to put up plus reading some of the far more prolific web writers to see what had been going on (you can see their names at left - I have no idea how they publish so much so often). In the event, I powered on my laptop on Saturday (having hit the sack on Friday at 8pm, after 3 nights with close to no sleep) ... and the WiFi was gone. Hours later, after fiddling, twiddling and fidgetting with everything I could think of, I reinstalled Windows. And only then did it work again. How can that be? Nothing was changed, nothing at all - yet it stopped working. I wonder whether a patch from Msft for XP stopped it all. Just in case, I didn't install the last couple of patches that it went through once I'd reinstalled Windows (more than an hour of download at ADSL speeds once I'd installed the OS!). So, updates will have to wait. Meanwhile, go read those people who as posting ... John Gotze, Joel, Scott and Simon. I'll be back.

Bearings, delays and whatnot

Some news on my "deal done", from Kable, The Register, and Silicon.com. All of them figuring the facts reasonably well, less Kablenet's small-minded attempts at humour. Doubtless more will come out as the story unfolds.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Deal Done

This week, joined up e-government is born. Up until now there has been no vehicle to facilitate the joining up that needs to be done. Now there is. The beginning of the realisation of a 2 year old plan. More soon.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Where am I

Sorry ... not posting right ... trying to tie down an important deal. Will hopefully be resurfacing in the next few days. Lots I want to say and just no time to say it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

And from that same Yahoo story

And, surely the all time greatest way to get e-government take-up moving: Setting the pace for CEOs and ministers is Romania, where the government has made it a crime not to buy supplies for state services online -- from papers and pens to bricks and mortar. Minister Nica, who I've met several times and consider to be a very shrewd operator followed up with "We saved enough in building 172 sports centers that we had money left to build 47 more," said Dan Nica, Romania's minister for Communications and Information Technology. That's a kind of buy 4 online, get one free ... or go to jail ... deal. Raucous applause for Romania who may well be the country to watch - other measures include tax holidays for IT professionals, exploiting the work of other countries fastest to learn the lessons and pressing ahead with an aggressive implementation regime - and all this from the country where until not that long ago Ceacescu held sway.

Vendors fight to make Europe better

Great quote ... from a Yahoo story on e-government In a sign of the fight brewing for business, Livermore told Reuters she expected HP to be Europe's number two in technology services -- overtaking EDS -- by year-end. EDS's Jordan quickly retorted: "I don't know what Europe they're talking about." That'll be this Europe and whether Livermore is right or wrong, it sounds like there's going to be some good and healthy competition in the services business. Great!

Curious things

I've always wondered why ... Department of Health is www.doh.gov.uk and not www.dh.gov.uk (doh!) Department of Work and Pensions is www.dwp.gov.uk and not www.dowp.gov.uk Department for Transport is www.dft.gov.uk and not www.dot.gov.uk (dotdotdotgovdotuk!) and then, in the non-government curious world ... try typing "http://www.hm" in your browser, as I just did (trying to get to hmcustoms and getting ahead of myself).

The killer applications for online government

One, the pensions planning tool that Kablenet talk about and that is in the early stages of development by the DWP folks; two, a single place to go where you can see any and all benefits that you might be able to claim from government, such as tax credits, disability allowances and financial planning tools that help you figure out ISAs, tax bills and other liabilities (so this is a sort of current account for government, but covering what you don't yet claim but might be entitled to based on a profile that you input) and; three, a single place where you type your post code and everything you need to know about anything that concerns you and the area is displayed - this is a combination of what upmystreet did so well, the ONS Neighbourhood statistics site I talked about the other day, your local authority site (for information on when rubbish is collected, what your local schools are up to) and other sites (like Hometrack or the Environment Agency's flood warning site).

GPS software revision needed

So, driving back from a long weekend away in the hills this evening and after nearly 7 hours in the car (yes, via Birmingham) it occurred to me that my in-car GPS needs a new filter. It can already steer me via the shortest route, or only on motorways, or always away from motorways. But what I really need is a filter that avoids "insalubrious areas". I thought I'd been around London and seen most of it, but with the top down, late at night, there are definitely some parts you don't want to be in. I figure a voice that yells "You don't wanna take that turn in this car" at appropriate moments would be helpful.

PFI + IT = gone

Kablenet pick up on today's report from HM Treasury on the use of PFI for IT projects. Interesting stuff, with some clear and bang on points about why it's hard to make such deals work: - The "fast pace of change" in IT, requirements often shift making flexible contracts and renegotiation necessary - It is often difficult to clearly define areas of responsibility between client and contractor as IT is increasingly integrated with other business systems. - There is a lack of third party finance in the PFI IT market, making it difficult to achieve any value for money; - IT costs are more often dominated by ongoing demands rather than up front investment I've often puzzled over PFI for IT. PFI is all about knowing the risk, pricing for it and then charging for it. With IT, especially in government, the risk is hard to know, harder to keep constant and therefore harder to price and charge for. So, a smart supplier assumes the risk will be enormous and charges correspondingly, but will be underbid by a sharper operator who believes the risk will be smaller.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Internet goes Public North West

While I am plugging things (a la blogs in da house), check the next event Public Sector Forums have organised for next week. Ian Dunmore, presently laid up with badbackitis, has excelled himself again. I've heard that Carrie Armitage is speaking - she alone will be worth the price of admission, train ticket and whatever else it costs you (and given admission is free, you really have no excuse here). But there are others too, like Chris Haynes (Socitm, ODPM and various past lives in local authorities) and yet more. Go book.

What next with e-government

For a while I've been kicking around with a few people, both in the office and outside, the notion that there is a great confluence of events approaching - a 50 year storm, or it's nearest equivalent in our mixed online/offline world. I raised this first at a breakfast conference hosted by VoxPolitics a few weeks ago and since then I've been refining the idea. The essence is that, mid-way through our efforts to put government online, we have done much but not as much as we would like. It's easy to point, poke fun or make a living as a commentator on what we've done so far (as so many do), but much harder to see what next. My thinking is that realisation is dawning that online government is just as much about government as it is about online. That one is not different from the other (many of you will have seen that tagline on my site for a while now). So where online services fail to get the boost that we expect, it is not necessarily a failing of implementation but just as much the fact that we have metaversed the status quo - see my post a few days ago. The realisation that as long as online government reflects offline government, takeup will be low will, I think (hope/believe) drive a different set of changes. In two years, maybe three, we'll have an election. So anything we start now will have time to make an impact for that election. Starting something early next year or later will probably mean that there isn't enough time for it to make a difference. Some things, even though they are running now, will not make an impact in time - I am thinking here about the huge initiatives that are underway in NHS; despite the awesome work going on there led by Richard Granger, it's going to be hard for more than just a few people to see the difference. So, if the election is the target, the 50 year storm that looms is the set of events that will take place this year and early next that will warrant the catalyst. Some senior figures are moving on (perm secs in at least three departments), one or two cross-government figures too. Issues like we have seen over tax credits where technology and business issues conspired to cause enormous pain mean that we will have to rethink delivery controls. Spending will tighten as we enter another financial review round. The potential for central infrastructure, like our own Government Gateway, will be fully realised and people will commit resource to exploiting it rather than exploiting ways to get out of it. There are other things in this storm too - some that I can see, some that I can feel and some that I can't talk about. All of them together create a one time, once in a generation chance, to make some changes come through the system - to undo hierarchies, convoluted processes, business rigidities and long time resistance. As we break down and through all of those barriers, new things will happen. The great thing is that it will be possible to see this storm unfold in real time and see what actions are put in place that might lead to the new metaverse, one that is not a reflection of the status quo. One that is genuinely new. One that places what can be done online at the heart of delivery and looks to find ways to wholesale the online service to a variety of retail channels - government people, intermediaries and the citizen or business themself. And once are past the stigma of "e-government" and we have real services working effectively and widely used, the potential for further change will become apparent. Because, as the storm is unfolding, people will be conjuring up new things that rely on new business structures and processes - things that expect walls between silos not to be there rather than assuming that they will be there and hobbling the service because of it. We'll really be able to see the joined up services that could not exist without the Internet - the government equivalents of eBay, FriendsReunited, Dell.com and others like them. I can't wait. I think that before us is an enormous opportunity. One that gives the UK the chance to take the lead again.

Statistics online

A great application, put online recently by the Office of National Statistics, lets you get details of your neighbourhood, drawn from the most recent Census. This is the first time this has ever been done. Sadly, despite it being great, I wonder whether it's a use once and forget application. People will be curious to use it once and see what's what, but then the next time they use it will be 6 years later (the average person moves house every 6-7 years). This kind of application though is what e-government is all about - you just couldn't do it without the web ... and yet too few people will likely find it and too few will reuse it. For direct marketers, statisticians and curious people though it will be a boon. I'm sure that the ONS folks are working on ever more clever uses of this data - imagine being able to trend the data from census to census, or over a 100 years and see how a neighbourhood has changed. Then think of what you could do with colour maps overlaid showing densities of different criteria. Clever stuff, nicely designed and bonus points for putting this online. Of course, because it wasn't available before the web, they won't get a tick in the box towards 100% online ... but you can't have everything.

Blogs in da house

I have been way too slow to post on this ... and proved at the same time that it didn't matter as the event is already full up. Those lovely people at VoxPolitics, noted in last week's Sunday Times as the best political blog (obviously they have a better class of readers than I do), have organised a blogging in politics event to be held in The House itself - no better place if you're going to get people wondering whether blogs can change politics (and, indeed, vice versa). Doubtless there will be a few people who will go just to see inside the place, which is definitely worth doing. Every time I go in there it reminds me of St. Paul's. This looks to be an event worth going to - MPs to be present, clever people like Steven Clift and Stephen Pollard (and even Tim Ireland, I've heard), a one-time only WiFi network to allow live coverage (first time in the house - can't even get one of those legitimately in my own office!). You should add your name to the list right now ... and be prepared to be disappointed when they tell you it's full. I'm sure the enthusiasm will encourage more events ... and maybe even some more blogs from MPs, taking their lead from Tom Watson's exploits.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Rollerblading

I bought myself some rollerblades at the weekend. After what must be years of saying I'll learn how to do it, the bug bit this weekend, driven on by another sunny day no doubt. It's worse than learning to walk all over again I'm sure. At least when you learn to ski it's hard to fall over whilst just standing still, but it seems real easy on these. I've had three goes now and I think I'm past the bit where you careen randomly across the road, hurtling through the gaps between passing pedestrians. Of course, they know I'm coming and I'm no good (the flailing arms give it away I guess). I'm up to the bit where there's a wall looming up ahead and I know (absolutely cast iron know) that if I use the brake-thing, I'll end up flat on my arse. If I don't, then that wall looks awful solid. So there's a choice: arse or face first into a wall. Sound familiar? Done any projects like that recently?

Indispensable

I spent some time with a company the other day who introduced me to the word "indispensable" as applied to online services. The folks at AKQA (sadly, pronounced letter by letter rather than as 'aqua') say that sustainable services can only be built on feasible technology that is designed to be useable and has the goal of being indispensable to the customer. I liked this short-hand "mission" a lot. It seems to me that using feasible technology and designing a useable service are the easy bits. Making it sustainable (as a business model) and indispensable (so the customer wouldn't think of doing without it) is a whole different path. I don't think many of us have wandered down that path yet, but it seems to me that it is time we did. I'll be giving some more thought to this over the coming weeks - particularly what is it that sets a service out as indispensable and how might we build that into some of the things that we want to put online here in the UK

Spam again

I've given up on spam detectors. Although Cloudmark was hitting 90-95% accuracy, the sheer volume of spam it missed (with 200 mails a day, 125 spam and therefore 12-15 spam) was causing me pain coupled with the fact that it was slow to sort through the incoming mail. Rather than change my mail address which looked to the be obvious thing to do (but probably only useful in the short term), I've switched outlook to bounce anything but "trusted" senders - so if you don't get mail from me after you've sent me one, you're probably sitting in my spam box waiting for me to trawl through occasionally and sift out people I really should write to. Sorry.

More on domains, pages and the meaning of it all

I've had the last couple of days off. Well sort of. At home at least but working none the less. I've used the time to put to bed some stuff that was long outstanding and to pursue a few new things. A while ago I posted some figures on the page count (and here too) in .gov.uk websites and, since then, there's been a bit more work done which I thought was worth talking about. The original list of 800 domain names was, it turns out, a subset of the domain name totals. I have two new totals for you: 2,643 and 3,705. Why the difference? The 2,643 strips out the duplicates (sites that are pointed to by more than one domain name). So, there are 2,643 .gov.uk domain names - pretty much guarantees a hit no matter what you type as a prefix I guess. One site for every 23,000 people, give or take a bit. I suspect that the UK is not at all out of whack versus other countries with this kind of count. Anecdotal evidence puts other countries that I have talked to at between one site per 25,000 and one per 100,000. That's not a particularly helpful ratio of course - it would be more useful, I imagine, to quote it per government department/entity/body (in which case we're running at about 1:3.5 - I don't have enough data to measure that against global norms). Somewhat frighteningly, the total page count for those 2,643 sites is over 5 million (5,029,855 to be precise, but that was a couple of weeks ago). So that would be one page for every twelve people in the country, near enough. As before we did some Pareto analysis which shows that about 15% of the total site count owns 80% of the page count. I am sure that there are some remarkably useful niche sites in the remaining 85% of sites, but it does make me wonder what the cost/page or cost/visit they run to might be. I'm going to try and do some work with other government departments both here in the UK and elsewhere to get a meaingful cost/page number, both in technical terms (bits, bytes and operations staff) and also in business terms (editorial staff, approval process time, marketing etc). If I can get that kind of data I think we can have a serious conversation about the value of the content that exists on the web. Once the cost data is there, tying it up with the visitor count ought to give a metric on the value of any given site - a site with a low cost per page and a high visitor count will rank higher than a site with high visitors and high costs. I can see a league table forming. The goal of all this ought to be to figure out ways to force the cost per page down - both in business process and technology terms - and drive usage by identifying what it is that makes certain sites more valuable than others. I would say this of course, but for me it should also drive consolidation - fewer sites, fewer brands, fewer navigation styles and so on. And, in turn, that will make it all the more useable. And then once we've got that cracked we might well have some sites that are indispensable (I'll come to that later tonight).

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Feeddemon

No sooner did I say that FeedDemon was ok and it isn't. Every time I run it, I get a long winded error screen. Ho Hummm. Back to scanning web pages.

More on the RSS that we need

I've caught up on all the reading around RSS now and am roundly confused. But that's ok, that's normal for me. A good place to start to those new to it is with Echo and then onto John Gotze who will get you everywhere else you need to go, pot or no pot. Sometime last year, November or so, I was working hard on trying to figure out what RSS would really do. I wanted a couple of things: - To pull definitive content from a site. Suppose I issue a query to a site and say "tell me what 'disability living allowance' really is", could RSS or some variant of it do that? - To pull more than just a teaser from a site. Suppose I wanted all the content that was tagged for small businesses in the north east (the great thing about that term 'north east' is, of course, that no matter where you are in the world, north east always means something), could I pull that from one site? Or even more than one site? - To get personalised content based on a profile from a range of sites. Suppose I'd let government know a few words that were interesting to me (maybe I'm doing research or something) and, every so often, government's techie stuff scans the sites that it owns and alerts me to what is new on those words and sends me a well structured article containing what I need. Can RSS do that? I still am no nearer figuring that out. But, I'm hoping that with a few more people debating the standard, I can plug some of my clever folks into the conversation (the wiki, whatever that is) to figure out how we might do something along the lines that I want.

And Phil Windley on blogging

You can't handle the truth says Phil. Or can you?

An MP on blogging

Direct views from Tom Watson MP on what it's like to blog.

After broadband?

Now that we've cruised past 2 million broadband connections, I'm wondering what the speed demons will need next. Online gaming already needs more than 512Kbits/s to host a game, wireless LANs are operating at faster and faster speeds (keeping the pressure on the tethered connection to the network), media use online (whether legitimate a la iTunes or otherwise) will continue to increase (and we still haven't really sorted video). And let's not even talk about what needs to happen to upload speeds (I get 100Kbits/s on my connection at home, on a good day). Copper wires are going to take us so far. Large numbers of exchanges have been upgraded to take ADSL, some rural communities are using satellite (take a look at what they're up to in Wedmore) but, pretty soon, the early adopters will be demanding the next level. I wonder if the telcos in the UK are provisioning for that now so that they don't get caught on the hop when the next wave of capacity requirement comes in.

Public sector / Private sector comparison day

For one reason or another, it's been a while since I used my car (actually, just over three months). This weekend, with the temperature nudging 25 degrees (that's about 80 in old money for you Americans), I took it out for a ride. It started first time without even a glitch. I remember when I used to leave my cars at airports while making trips for 2 or 3 weeks and always having to call out the car park's inhouse battery resuscitators before I get going. Things have got better. This weekend, I also needed to renew my car insurance. I shopped around and found a good quote online. After a few attempts at filling in the forms, it was clear I wasn't going to get far. The online form (from a major, reputable, direct insurance company) would't take either my address or my car registration plate. So I phoned up and, no, there was no channel integration so I had to give all the details again (at least five times - there seemed to be an accent understanding problem). Eventually I got there (with a quick pit stop for me to go and get the chassis number of the car as they couldn't get the registration to take either) and the car's now insured. It seems to me that this channel integration problem is going to run and run. You only have to look at how sites encourage you to use any or all of them now (my attention was drawn today to NHSdirect, which lists the phone number very prominently on every page) interchangeably. But that inevitably leads to a conversation that includes "I sent you an email yesterday ... The message I left on your answerphone ... On your mobile ... The form on the website says ... I don't have that form ...". We're not ready for channel hopping and few of us are ready to force anyone down a single channel. That's going to create some ugly clashes over the coming year or two as we race to catchup. A few local authorities seem to have successfully integrated a CRM system - I hope that whatever they have done can be leveraged because I am sure that there are valuable lessons to be learned. But until we crack the channel hopping, expect some of the online experiences to be disjointed. You'll send in a claim form, but won't be able to follow-up. You'll be able to pay online, but not get an email confirmation that you've paid. You'll be able to call for help, but not get a text message to confirm that your payment is on its way to your bank account. That's pretty hard stuff that's going to take some time to crack.

Every spam is sacred

I sat in a meeting with the CEO of Brightmail yesterday. They handle the anti-spam algorithms for several of the largest ISPs including BT, MSN and so on. They also do corporate deals, although I couldn't tell you for who. Some of the numbers here are astonishing. Enrique mentioned 63 billion emails across the Internet a month and more than 30 billion of those are spam. He mentioned a client who a year ago processed 1 billion mails total/month and now sees more than 1 billion spam a month. That's frightening growth. One of the things that stops me using a mobile device to access my email (apart from the fact that I think I spend enough time on email) is the volume of spam that I get on my private mail address. I'm going to close it down soon and start up a new one - I'll count how long it takes before it gets unusable. As more Internet usage switches back to the pay as you go model (funny really, we went from paying per minute to paying a fixed fee to paying per minute again as we moved from dial-up to one price and then on to GPRS/Wifi hotspots/3G etc). With an anti-spam success rate of between 90% and 94%, there's still far too much scope for spam to get through and clog up my mailbox. Cloudmark does a similar job and already says its saved me more than 10 hours in scan/delete time since I installed it shortly after launch. The US plan to do "opt out" is just plain insane. Europe, for once, understands and wants "opt in". But, all too rapidly, these measures will become redundant as tracing the abusers of any legal framework will be too hard. Ditto the ideas I've heard of charging people 1p/1c to send email - who will you charge? How will you track the money? What If I hack into some network and use that as my base? Never going to work. And, the plain truth is, some people must respond to this spam. I've heard 1 per million. If we reduce that to 1 per 20 million then the spammers up their volumes and send more and more, causing more pain. This is going to be a hugely difficult problem to resolve that is going to need co-ordinated global effort to sort. The track record of that kind of effort is not good so it's pleasing to see yesterday's All Party IT Group taking an interest, debates in the Lords, Stephen Timms speaking on it etc. Once the debates have been had though, the action needs to follow fast. Companies like Brightmail and tools like Cloudmark are going to have to work hard to stay ahead of the threat with ever more clever filters. Otherwise, pretty soon people get turned off email ... and then the response rates to spam drop ... and then it gets less economic. Is that how it works? No, I don't think so. Email is too embedded now. People will put up with it just as have done for a while, so productivity drops and technology's reputation doesn't improve. From email spam, the next trend will be increased text spam to mobile phones as more people figure out how to send this at no cost or at very low cost. I'm just dreading picture spam once the hackers crack how to send those for nothing. It's a short step from there to the mobile phone virus, the one that texts all of your contacts at your expense ... and shuts down the mobile text network with a proliferation of spam in a 24 hour period (after all, the mobile network is not built with the same resilience as the Internet and that has already shown how it can suffer). I've had an email account since about 1986 and, for the first time, I'm starting to dread logging on. That can't be a good sign.