Thursday, October 30, 2003

Things about the Mac

There are two great reasons to buy a Mac right now this minute - if you could get one to the spec that you want (which you probably won't be able to. Since Steve J came back to town, Apple has delivered the most consistently innovative products but has underestimated demand for everything except the transparent cube version which noone wanted at all). The first reason is the beautiful screen saver that lets you put your favourite photos in a folder and have the Mac skip through them, panning across and zooming in and out . It's just relaxing beyond belief and it's the first time I've used a screen saver since After Dark and the flying toasters. The second reason is the easy integration of wireless and bluetooth. Anyone who wants to know what bluetooth is for should go and get the "Salling Clicker", as long as you've got a T610 phone from Ericsson. Phil Windley talked about this months and months ago and although I got it then - I really get it now. But if those are two great, instant reasons, there are hordes of reasons to hold off. Browser inconsistency for instance. I haven't found one browser that works for all sites yet. I also haven't found one that remembers cookies properly or that handles windows correctly. I would have thought that this would be the first thing that would have got sorted. It could be me. But I now have 5 (bet you didn't know that there were that many!) installed on the Mac. Good job it comes with an 80gb hard drive.

ican and they will

This is a bit of a week for online democracy. The Beeb have launched ican, a pitch to get people to contribute more to the issues of the day and help shape coverage in the media. More than a week after it launched it's still pretty empty, but it's slowly filling up. Will it get used? Well, it's not really live yet (not for another week or so I think) and there's been little coverage so far. There's also little track record of much use being made of such sites, but maybe this is the first one that will work. Such a usage trend would be dramatically accelerated if there was a clear example of weight of opinion shifting coverage markedly. I don't know what that would be, but will be watching out. I was debating the other day the issue of TV licences and why we pay an annual fee for something over which we have so little control. I say "we", I don't include me - I haven't had a TV for years. But in these days of increased focus on corporate governance and a focus from such shareholders as Fidelity on who is in charge of what and why, I think there's an interesting chance here to make a similar change to media coverage. Corporate governance though is limited to a small number of people with "access". This could be a lot of people with no such access. On TV licences more generally, I wondered if we should maybe have a model closer to the software licence model. Today there is little or no incentive to upgrade your TV. You buy it, it works and it stays working for 20 years maybe. Little hope of course of a PC doing the same thing. But PCs add features every few months - wireless, bluetooth, more memory, faster processors etc and software arrives to take advantage of that. What if TVs were the same - if they added features regularly and broadcasters took advantage of that to offer better programmes - ones with digital sound, high definition pictures etc. Would that drive a change in the upgrade cycle? Could it also give a different model for TV licences where the fee is based on buying a TV? Programme makers would have to introduce new innovative features to get revenue for the next set of programmes. They'd have to put things out that people wanted. Who knows, such a change might even encourage more TVs to be made in the UK because there was a more regular upgrade market. Or it might encourage add ons. Or, it could just be another daft idea because TVs are fine right now and we shouldn't mess with them. Another bit of democracy is Tom Steinberg's MySociety. Tom's been busy with this for a couple of months or so, aided and abetted by James (no intro needed) Crabtree. I've read two or three iterations of the business case during that time, adding little value I imagine. Tom and James are onto something with this. What they need is to narrow down the vast number of ideas that they're bound to receive into a couple that will really fly, raise the funding to get them done and then show the world that such a "civic approach" can, indeed, work. I think it's touch and go, but it deserves to work - services like FaxyourMP and upmystreet don't happen by themselves, they take serious passion and commitment and can only be done by people operating outside the usual processes. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out and hopefully putting my support and energy in too. You can also check out Tom's own weblog. And, bizarrely, having done just that to make sure I had the link right, I see Tom has been writing about the licence fee too although I suspect his thinking is clearer and more relevant than mine. The ican thing made me think back to the "888" number idea I floated back in March or so of this year. Finding the issues that on people's minds - given enough minds in one place - is difficult and there is an absence of tools to help. ican might be it, the 888 idea might be it too. ican is there though and 888 is not. I thought I'd have a go at lifting that idea again to see if it could gain traction - perhaps in the context of mysociety, or maybe as part of the evolution of ukonline. On the flip of online democracy has been all the noise about Diebold and how secure (or not) their e-voting tools are. In a slightly related way, Louise Ferguson pointed me at one of her recent posts, putting out the idea of "verified voting".

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Fat Pipes and Connected People

The iSociety folks (principally James Crabtree of VoxPolitics) have published their latest think-piece, Fat Pipes and Connected People (it could perhaps be "Fat People and Connected Pipes" given the weight of the UK population these days). The report's focus is how we cross the "broadband chasm", i.e. move from a world of early adopters to a mainstream market. Every product goes through this stage or dies in infancy - and the big thing about the Internet so far, as everyone knows, has been how fast it has got to mass penetration. The UK has accelerated in broadband usage from a slowstart thanks, I think, to a lot of focus from government in opening up the market - but there are still steps to be taken. Nearly three years ago when I first got ADSL I used to joke at conferences that its main use was keeping me up to date with operating system patches but now I couldn't imagine going back to a slow connection - coupled with the wireless network at home (which is now stable and working very well), it's a huge boost to productivity. The authors have coined a new word "microbarriers" to reflect the impediments to getting mass penetration, as opposed to the macrobarriers that have been worked so far (availability, understanding, cost and customer service). I like this concept - it's not dissimilar to the work that we've done on central infrastructure where the initial reasons for non-adoption are at a very high level and then as those are resolved the issues get smaller and smaller and along pareto lines, harder to dislodge. With today's news from Oftel that 50% of the UK is online (12.5 million households), 750,000 households connecting in the last three months and a forecast of 1 million new broadband users in the next 12 months, this is a timely report. Go read.

Firebird

The browser mystery is resolved. The nice people at Blogger pointed me at Firebird last night. It looks good so far and comes with the strong recommendations of luminaries such as Jon Udell and Joel Spolsky, so it must be ok.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Mac Mysteries

As I struggle to get used to a whole new interface design, I'm finding some odd things - not perhaps "Mac" problems but problems with "Mac". For instance, blogger.com no longer provides me a "make link" button so I can't link to any other sites when I post from the Mac. There must be a radio button somehow somewhere that fixes this but until I find it, there's not a lot of point in posting. There're a bunch of things I want to point to, including some things on open source in the USA from Dan Bricklin, some other open source stuff from the EU, the new ican release on the BBC website ... but I can't!

Bloggers of the UK, come have a drink

Dan Gillmor, he of Silicon Valley, is over this week and arranging a few drinks in the Red Lion, Westminster, for 6.30pm on Friday. I've met Dan just once, during a Cisco catchup with John Chambers, a couple of years ago. If you're not familiar with his blog, take a look - you'll quickly grasp his personal credo.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Oysters everywhere

From this weekend, anyone getting a new monthly or longer travelcard in London will get an Oystercard. There should be an awful lot of them around soon which should mean speedier passage through the gates and less fiddling around with and for tickets. I have to say, first impressions, I like it. It's sitting in a card holder with my other smartcards for access now and works fine. The downside is I now have an oystercard, a card for getting into the front door of the office, a card for getting in any other door in the office, a card for logging onto the office PC .... so many cards. So, what I need is a "universal smart card" - one that intelligently receives the config of any one smart card and does what it does. I've been looking at those intelligent remote controls recently - the ones that subsume any other remote that you have in the household and let you do it from one box only. That's what I want for smartcards. I just point any card at my uni-smart and it copies its function directly. I don't know if that's hard or not - I'm guessing that remote controls don't have standards yet, so it must be a similar kind of problem. I'm going to go and see how hard it is - there's a killer app working there that could resolve all the conflicts that we are *bound* to have in the next 3-5 years as more and more cards are issued.

Mac redawns

First post using my new Mac powerbook G4. It's been over 10 years since I last used a Mac as my primary computer. At Mercury Comms in 1992 we had over 4,000 Macs in the organisation - II fx or II gx I think, although there were some classics floating around too. Things have changed and things have stayed the same, just as you'd expect. We'll see how it goes.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Project Reviews

The only good project is a red project. If it's not red early on, then you're not pushing the envelope.

Government as a bits business

Government everywhere is an ideal bits business. Think downloading music, getting your video by wire (or wireless), getting your books online. Pretty much everything a government does, except for delivering meals on wheels, can be done through bits. The problem is, governments are in too many bits right now to be of full use.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

More on Oyster (cards that is)

Now that I've ordered my Oystercard I've been wondering about why it is the way it is. After all, here is a whizzy bit of technology that lets you flip out your wallet and touch it on the yellow pad, opening the gates and letting you go through. No more bits of cardboard that get all twisted and unreadable. But what the card is, is a ticket. Nothing more, nothing less. Why would you design something new to replace the old thing and not make any real changes? The card is tied to me, as a person. It knows who I am, where I live (after all, I ordered it online and it will be delivered to my home) and it knows my credit card (because I charged it up online). Yet there's still a requirement to carry a photocard. Why would I need one of those - surely I just need any piece of ID identifying me as me. A driving licence for instance? Oh wait, that's not ID. Except it is really, and it's as good as a photocard and one less thing to carry. Second, why oh why have we stuck to the "pay £16.50 and get a week's travel in zone 1" business model. Now that tfl know who I am and where I live and my credit card number, surely they could treat the oyster more as a sort of nectar card or airmiles card. The more I travel the less I pay, or maybe I get free tickets. And let it be a stored value card if I need it to be so.And, if I ever stray out of the usual zones of travel, just debit my account for a bit more money - and sum all the debits to be weekly or monthly and take them out just once. That way, you don't need to employ all those people in the "excess fares" windows or the people who check to see if you've strayed out of your zone. With stored value, I'd almost never have to queue up again or use a machine if I wanted to go to a new station - perhaps for the odd trip to Heathrow, say. It could just take the money. Think of the manpower reductions. Give every tourist arriving at Heathrow an empty Oyster and tell them to charge it up at the station before they get on the train. No more "1 day travel cards" at the booths. Next up for tfl I'm sure is ad hoc gates at interchanges to catch people who cross zone 1 on their way between two zone 2 stations or similar. That would be an obvious thing for an oyster card to stop ... but if they stick with the oyster=ticket rather than passport to travel idea, then nothing will have advanced. It would be like us putting a form online that was structured just the same way as the paper one and putting "turn to page 2" at the bottom of the first page. It would be online, but it wouldn't have advanced anything for the customer.

More search strings

I love going through the search strings entered on my home page. I guess many people end up there and look for this blog - the most common search is "e-government". But earlier this month someone used "government is too large". I wasn't sure whether that was a corruption of this blog's title, "e-government@large" (perhaps that person had misheard the title somewhere?) or whether it was an opinion and they wanted to know whether I supported it. So, if they search again, they'll get this post I guess. Another odd one, "ken kutaragi michael jackson" ... how weird is that? I wrote something nearly a year ago about the playstation guru, Ken Kutaragi, and in there was the line "Kutaragi is billed by one senior manager as the 'Michael Jackson' of the business". And all this time later someone's looking for it? Very odd. One thing though, for sure, the search engine that's part of the site is horrible. I wish I knew how to put a google-API into the site so that people would get a decent search.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Apple Mac delays

My Mac has shipped finally. But only after lengthy intervention by Brian, "The Fixer", in my office. It's been a battle it seems. My guess is that Apple have run out of aluminium. I did suggest that we ship a crateload of diet coke cans to Taiwan so that they could just build mine (might have an interesting case depending on how they melted them down). They offered me/Brian a 17" one instead of the 15" I ordered but after using a strategic measurement tool (an outline drawn on a piece of A3) we realised it wouldn't fit in my bag so that was a non-starter. I'm hoping that they'll at least ship me the new o/s for no money. But honestly, ordering something off the web from a major firm that quotes 1-2 weeks delivery shouldn't result in daily interference from a talented fixer. Surely it should just come when they say it will, just like Amazon stuff or Dell stuff does?

Raw Oyster

Just ordered online my "oystercard" to get me around London's tubes without the need for a scrawny cardboard ticket. One of the mandatory fields in the registration process is your photocard number ... why is that I wonder? I don't think TFL have digitised mine and doubtless the photo is somewhere in the station where I orginally got the card (in 1989 - same photo, same me, worse clothes). More worryingly, it doesn't matter what number you enter there? How do I know? Because I made one up to see what it did, and it carried on fine. So why ask for it? Still, happy to have a card although I'm sure I'll miss looking at the cardboard one and seeing when it expires. Sometimes there's no substitute for simplicity. Now I'll have to check my email for a reminder that TFL send me to say it needs renewing. The real killer is what else can I do with one, once I've got it? Could I use it as my chip and pin card for purchases? Could pay as you go mobile users use it as a top up card? Could it be the ID card that so many people are expecting to loom large soon? Could it be my library card? Could it be my online government token? Enormous potential ... would you want TFL knowing all that stuff though and what assurances would you want that they didn't really know and that even if they did, they wouldn't misuse it?

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

ePublic Guardian section

I was in the office all of about five minutes today when someone thrust a copy of the Guardian's ePublic section into my hand. Ever since Mike Cross (remember he's Michael Cross online) started writing a column every Wednesday deep in the innards, I've become a regular reader (although I tend to read the FT on other days). Today though there's more than a column, there's a whole section. And, on top of that, for some reason, I'm quoted in there in two articles. That's quite gratifying - both of the articles quote me pretty much on the button and the tone of the whole section is supportive and aimed at moving the game forward. It's great to see some good coverage around what is happening with online services as well as some prodding as to what needs to be done. I love the picture at the top of SA Mathieson's article - it's a "roadsign" showing people what a route around government websites might look like. If I get time over the weekend, I'll scan it in and post it here (I guess I'm allowed to do that). I especially liked the "no entry" sign! SA was apparently at a conference I did a couple of months ago and took note of my comments about killing off the relic websites and consolidating around a few great ones. He also quotes Fred Perkins, formerly of TSO, who (luckily? strangely?) seems to be thinking mostly along the same lines as me. Although, I have to say that the time when visits to a website to go down might be some time away. Still, I'm prepared to wait it out. Dan Jellinek, in a separate piece, talks about the potential for mobile phone services and quotes me in one of my occasional rambles about the complexities and things we've got to sort out before we get too far (else we'll have 2,643 online text services). It's been 2 years since I first started talking about mobile government services, later than some, earlier than others, and we're just starting to see some good ones come together. I hope that the news on those will get more coverage - there's big potential there. If you don't have a copy of today's paper and you're in the business (I guess you must be, you're reading this), then stop off at your newsagent first thing and pick up one before they send them back (assuming of course that the news of a right-thinking section on online government has not caused a rush and forced them to sell every copy). A rare thing. Balanced coverage with good messages. And I'm not just saying that because I'm in there.

That man in France

The other day I was wondering if Kablenet had a new man in France checking out the online activities. Today, I'm told (by a man in France in fact) that it's almost certainly not a man per se, but a website run by the European eGovernment Observatory. Francois-Xavier Chevallerau notes that, unlike many "journals" that John Gotze and I joked about earlier, this one is up and running and publishing information on a daily basis. If you're looking for an unbiased (as far as I can tell) source on who is doing what in each country, the main players involved and progress to date along with news available by topic, date or country - then that's the place to go. All in all, worth checking out and, as of today, available from my link list on the right. On top of that, Francois-Xavier's note compelled me to check the site (not for the first time I must add) ... where I found a piece of news on Romania's efforts on online government. Long time readers will remember that I attended a conference there some time ago and came away impressed with a few things, not least the palace in which the conference was held (if not the bloodshed that was caused by the builder). Poking around their main portal, I came across this. It should be obvious to anyone in the UK online government business what it is, yet when I posted a similar link to the Czech version, no-one (not a soul!) was drawn by it. Efforts to date in Romania look impressive and, although I speak not a word, there looks to be a wide range of transactional services available on the site.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Jon Udell on reuse

For a long time, I've thought that what I call the components-and-glue pattern is the ultimate recipe for effective reuse. In this pattern, relatively few systems programmers (who create kernels, libraries, and components in "hard" languages) support relatively many application developers (who use these kernels, libraries, and components from "soft" languages). I've also assumed that pattern would iterate one level up: relatively few application developers packaging idioms ("solutions") for relatively many power users to customize and apply. The progression shown here could be interpreted as suggesting that reuse thrives best on the forest floor, not up in the canopy.

Why you can't [always?] believe what you read in the press

A much delayed Computing magazine arrived today, last week's edition. The bold headline screams out that Government is going to pay out over £16 billion to outsourcers (or oursourcers as it says in the online version), triple what's been spent since the election in 1997 and all in the next 2 years. I don't know the details of all of these deals and even if I did I wouldn't want to comment on them all - but that's the point. The flaws in the story are there without knowing the details. Computing gets to £16bn by taking a string of deals signed since 1997 and adding the Inland Revenue's upcoming £4bn, the MOD's £5bn, NHS' £2.3bn etc ... huh? Outsource deals are signed to cover many years. The Inland Revenue's existing deal was signed 10 years ago ... and the new one will doubtless last as long; I'm sure that NHS IT deals will be spread over several years - so the in-year spend is some fraction of the sum outstanding at any one time. So, the right comparison would be that from 1992 to 2002 "x" in deals was signed, versus a forecast of "y" from 2002 to 2012. Would that be triple? Quite possibly - more deals for more things with more to manage. You'd expect an IT budget between 1992 and 2002 to change, just as much as you'd expect it to change from 2002 to 2012. So, what's the story? The story is that the maths is wrong and there's no other story. Just weird. Front page news. No story. "Freddy Starr ate my hamster" would have been more interesting and more factual.

Resistance is futile, hopeless and not worth it

Apparently, the major challenges facing online government are: The need for agencies to lessen federal managers’ resistance to change The need to hire talented federal workers The need to prioritize cybersecurity and privacy The need to promote intergovernmental coordination concerns That first point is interesting, if: - The recording industry has Napster, Kazaa etc - The big airlines have Easyjet, Expedia etc - The TV networks have DVRs (Like Tivo) - The City of London has Docklands - The housing market has interest rates, stamp duty and increasing uncertainty - Oracle has salesforce.com - Microsoft has Linux (or patent infringements if you look narrowly at Internet Explorer) and the EU What is the single biggest thing that will drive change, or eliminate the resistance to change in the public sector anywhere in the world?

Nothing fixed, nothing clear

Intrigued by the idea of an "indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity" contract as awarded recently in the USA. Maybe there's a quirk of federal language here, but surely that means, "we don't know when we want it and we're not sure how many we want so we can't tell you what it is or how much it will cost"?

The (get rid of) 90% challenge

Today's FT reports on plans at Sony to slash the total number of parts that they use by 90% and eliminate a similar number of their suppliers from the delivery chain. I love the idea of a target like this - it's a man in the moon one, just like our "get 100% online by 2005". It's man in the moon because you'll know when it's done, near enough, but you will still have all kinds of people before, during and after arguing about what was reallly meant, whether it's done and what things were skipped over or fudged. Imagine: - Eliminate 90% of the steps in any given business process (though efficiency) - Eliminate 90% of organisations involved in delivery to the citizen (through rationalisation) - Eliminate 90% of government websites (through plain old elimination tactics) - Eliminate 90% of a citizen's pain in touching government You could have some real fun with such aspirational goals. And the point would be that it wouldn't matter if you only made 40, 50 or 70% of the total, you'd still be making giant strides towards better service to the end customer - and that would result in visible changes that would be felt by real people. The pundits and swingometer crowd could be left to argue about the detail, but the people for whom it mattered would see something fundamental had happened. So, congratulations to Sony for articulating a visionary and aspirational objective. Most of us will never know if you have really done it as, after all, only you can count the widgets in your gadgets. But, we (as consumers) will expect to see smaller, cheaper, more reliable things coming to market quicker. And that will mean something. I'll be watching the stock price as well as the new product channel to see if it pays off. Now ... how does a public sector organisation respond to a challenge like this, the 90% challenge?

Monday, October 06, 2003

Let's not invent that round thing again

I realised while I was out tonight that I was rambling in my earlier post, commenting on Joel's very valid comments about when you'd buy and when you'd build. What I wanted to say and now that I've had a bit of time to think it through is: - If you're in a business where you can steal a march on competitors through a bit of sharp innovation in technology, you'd bespoke your code. Good examples in the UK would be Easyjet or Firstdirect; in the USA, I doubt that there was a platform to do what Amazon did before they built it. If you were in a bank selling investment products and you came up with some clever derivative, or a range of such products you'd probably have to build a system to support them. I know banks that ran their warrants businesses (close to the "options" business that the US banks run) on Excel spreadsheets with lots of custom macros because there were no other systems. Again, clear that this is "build" space. - If you're a follower, or you're not in a position where customers come to you because of technological innovations - perhaps where customers have to come to you or where that area is invisible to customers, why on earth would you want to build something that someone else has already taken care of. I'd be thinking here about HR systems, payments handling systems, forms processing, data capture, even your corporate web hosting system. And that's where Joel's point about "core competence" is strongest. This is all "buy" territory. - Now, where I think it gets more interesting is the decision on whether you "buy and leave" or "buy and fiddle". Too many organisations are in the latter camp - taking a supposedly off the shelf package and fiddling with it endlessly to make it confirm to the business process rather than wondering about why the business process is the way it is and perhaps changing it to match the software. The "buy and fiddle" option allows many to claim that they are using off the shelf items when, in reality, they are saddling themselves with longterm problems - maintenance costs, issues when the new version comes out, incompatible standards and lockin to a product. That's just plain ugly territory. I hope that's a bit clearer.

If it Wasn't Invented Here, I don't want to know

Very funny piece over on JoelOnSoftware covering the merits of DIY coding versus buying/borrowing/stealing someone else's package. The essence: if it's your core competence, do it yourself; if it isn't, give it to someone else. Joel cites the issues of different understandings of what the customer needs, flexibility of imported code and the speed potential of hand-crafted code. It's hard to argue with such compelling logic. After all, if you're in the software game and you are after differentiation, you should start from scratch, otherwise you will just be a me-too clone (how many clones of Half-Life are there? of Quake?). If you're developing new financial products (say for a bank or an investment house), you should do the work yourself because, chances are, if you can get it done fast then you will have a lead on the market. As I said, hard to argue with. But not impossible. The mantra is "If it's a core business function -- do it yourself, no matter what. Pick your core business competencies and goals, and do those in house. If you're a software company, writing excellent code is how you're going to succeed. Go ahead and outsource the company cafeteria and the CD-ROM duplication. If you're a pharmaceutical company, write software for drug research, but don't write your own accounting package. If you're a web accounting service, write your own accounting package, but don't try to create your own magazine ads. If you have customers, never outsource customer service." The key clause in Joel's piece is (and he says it is, so it must be, and he even saves it until the end): "The only exception to this rule, I suspect, is if your own people are more incompetent than everyone else, so whenever you try to do anything in house, it's botched up" So, how might that apply to government? Government has customers, so it should keep customer service; it produces brochures and leaflets, so it should do that inhouse. So many core competencies, so few people to do them? Really? I think Government's core (and only) competency is the handling of the rules by which we lead our lives - and I mean this in the broadest possible sense. The ones that say how much tax you pay, how much benefit you claim, what even-handedness means, what kind of service you should get when you go to a hospital and so on. Anyone department may see all kinds of things as its core competencies, including developing code in house, commissioning bespoke code from software houses or managing and running its own website. But that's a fallacy. Those are not core competencies. They're peripheral to running the rules. Joel is absolutely right. In-house you can write faster, better, cheaper, cleverer code and you can deliver it in no time flat. If that's what you do for a living. But who cares? That's not the point of government. So, for government, re-use is great, reinventing the wheel is terrible. A waste. Even a travesty. The Excel folks may have written their own C compiler as Joel says. That doesn't mean government needs its own version of Excel. But I bet you that there are a few out there. Or mail systems. Or databases. Or CRM systems. And none of them came out of a shiny box.

What do you mean "no WMD"?

I've just read David Kay's (lengthy) brief on his work in Iraq looking for WMD, prompted by a piece in OpinionJournal and also by Andrew Sullivan. It's worth reading all the way through - none of the press stories I have seen even got close to reporting the facts from the report - which are helpfully bullet pointed so that you couldn't miss them. For instance: 1. Saddam, at least as judged by those scientists and other insiders who worked in his military-industrial programs, had not given up his aspirations and intentions to continue to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Even those senior officials we have interviewed who claim no direct knowledge of any on-going prohibited activities readily acknowledge that Saddam intended to resume these programs whenever the external restrictions were removed. Several of these officials acknowledge receiving inquiries since 2000 from Saddam or his sons about how long it would take to either restart CW production or make available chemical weapons. 2. In the delivery systems area there were already well advanced, but undeclared, on-going activities that, if OIF had not intervened, would have resulted in the production of missiles with ranges at least up to 1000 km, well in excess of the UN permitted range of 150 km. These missile activities were supported by a serious clandestine procurement program about which we have much still to learn. 3. In the chemical and biological weapons area we have confidence that there were at a minimum clandestine on-going research and development activities that were embedded in the Iraqi Intelligence Service. While we have much yet to learn about the exact work programs and capabilities of these activities, it is already apparent that these undeclared activities would have at a minimum facilitated chemical and biological weapons activities and provided a technically trained cadre. Or, perhaps this is easier: A clandestine network of laboratories and safehouses within the Iraqi Intelligence Service that contained equipment subject to UN monitoring and suitable for continuing CBW research. A prison laboratory complex, possibly used in human testing of BW agents, that Iraqi officials working to prepare for UN inspections were explicitly ordered not to declare to the UN. Reference strains of biological organisms concealed in a scientist's home, one of which can be used to produce biological weapons. New research on BW-applicable agents, Brucella and Congo Crimean Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF), and continuing work on ricin and aflatoxin were not declared to the UN. Documents and equipment, hidden in scientists' homes, that would have been useful in resuming uranium enrichment by centrifuge and electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS). A line of UAVs not fully declared at an undeclared production facility and an admission that they had tested one of their declared UAVs out to a range of 500 km, 350 km beyond the permissible limit. Continuing covert capability to manufacture fuel propellant useful only for prohibited SCUD variant missiles, a capability that was maintained at least until the end of 2001 and that cooperating Iraqi scientists have said they were told to conceal from the UN. Plans and advanced design work for new long-range missiles with ranges up to at least 1000 km - well beyond the 150 km range limit imposed by the UN. Missiles of a 1000 km range would have allowed Iraq to threaten targets through out the Middle East, including Ankara, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi. Clandestine attempts between late-1999 and 2002 to obtain from North Korea technology related to 1,300 km range ballistic missiles --probably the No Dong -- 300 km range anti-ship cruise missiles, and other prohibited military equipment. Or how about this one, just to get a sense of the size of the job the team are working on: There are approximately 130 known Iraqi Ammunition Storage Points (ASP), many of which exceed 50 square miles in size and hold an estimated 600,000 tons of artillery shells, rockets, aviation bombs and other ordinance. Of these 130 ASPs, approximately 120 still remain unexamined. As Iraqi practice was not to mark much of their chemical ordinance and to store it at the same ASPs that held conventional rounds, the size of the required search effort is enormous. Certainly worth some time to get a different perspective. And it remains an "interim report".

Exciting journals?

John G, another writer far more prolific than me (and one who I am going to shamelessly crib in my upcoming paper on enterprise architecture), notes a few e-government journals and asks whether he should be reading them. A few quotes, cut and pasted from the text tells all ... "The rationale for research in this area is to investigate, evaluate and disseminate theoretically grounded and valid empirical approaches for information-exploitation in these complex environments, including industry, commerce, government and health informatics" Ah ... well that's all clear then. They're going to publish what people are doing. "An exciting new forum for policymakers, practitioners, and technology industry leaders" ... exciting? e-government? really? "The journal will be launched for public distribution in early 2005" ... Some serious research underway I imagine. What should I do with the problems I have today? Wait until then, or solve them now and submit them for publication? All that sarcasm aside, a couple of them actually look good. The worry is that "research" is rarely terribly practical and almost never grounded in reality. Otherwise it wouldn't be research, right? But, I'm speaking out of turn as I haven't read any of them. I will try and dig one or two out and see what they have to say - I'm up for finding a few shortcuts right now.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

You're going to hate them ... and then it gets good. Web services, that is.

"Web services comes along and it's changing all the rules," he said. "The good organizations move on it. Jump in feet first. You're going to get wet. You're going to make mistakes. It's going to be rough. You're going to hate it. And then it will become good. It was tough, and we got through it. The payoff has been astronomical, and it has been worth every minute of stress." So says Bill Kannberg, Hillsborough county's CTO in an article in GovTech magazine ... is it me or do we just not have magazines like this in the UK? Another quotee mentions the joys of integrating with some "god-awful legacy VAX thing" ... for a while I ran the largest VAX cluster outside of DEC's own campuses, but I don't remember them being god-awful and, of course, legacy in hindsight but state of the art at the time. The article covers several projects across the USA where new services are being built by integrating disparate systems - from identity management to allow remote login, to reports on who has registered for a certain school to the big one: Web services carry the load behind the scenes, allowing GeorgiaNet staff to expose the functionality of legacy systems to public Web sites as a SOAP service, said Jan Sorensen, principal software developer for GeorgiaNet. For instance, the state's online driver's license renewal application communicates with the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety (DMVS) mainframe via SOAP. A connector toolkit was used to expose functions performed by the DMVS mainframe as a Web Service. So when citizens renew a driver's license, the DMVS mainframe is queried to make sure those citizens are allowed to renew their licenses online. The state also uses SOAP to authorize credit card payments submitted to the state's payment engine, Sorensen said. Exposing credit card authorization as a Web Service will allow the state to centralize payment processing. But, beware: "We brought down a mainframe," Sorensen said, noting that legacy systems usually must undergo some preparation to handle the additional queries. "That's definitely a problem because those systems aren't designed to have that kind of load. Instead of batch processes, we have citizens hitting the same processes or same services."

Saturday, October 04, 2003

The hardships of identity checking

From Cryptome.org Our work leads us to three basic conclusions: (1) government officials and others generally did not recognize that the documents we presented were counterfeit; (2) many government officials were not alert to the possibility of identity fraud and some failed to follow security procedures and (3) identity verification procedures are inadequate. While some of the problems revealed in our tests have been addressed by the responsible agencies, much remains to be done. A driver’s license is the most commonly accepted document used for identifications. The weaknesses we found during this investigation clearly show that border inspectors, motor vehicle departments, and firearms dealers need to have the means to verify the identity and authenticity of the driver’s licenses that are presented to them. In addition, government officials who review identification need additional training in recognizing counterfeit documents. Further, these officials also need to be more vigilant when searching for identification fraud.

Anti Spam

Although Cloudmark has done a great job for me, I was getting irritated by the delay inherent in using it. It's not the product's fault, it's just that it works client side - so all the mail has to be downloaded to your PC before it works. That might be fine if your PC is connected all the time, but I generally only connect a couple of times a day and downloading 200 messages of which only 20 were really for me isn't my idea of being productive. Plus, I've been toying with the idea of getting a blackberry now that you don't need server-side software and paying by the megabyte for spam seems daft. So, I've moved my mail to runbox (anyone who emails me might therefore get mail back from me at runbox, although the old mail address works - runbox collects from it regularly). Runbox has a built in spam filter that stopped 187 messages from hitting inbox in the last 72 hours and it seems to be rarely fallible (for now at least). Worth looking at it if you are tired of spam - it's about $30/year for peace of (parts of your) mind.

Poetry as distraction

Something else that's distracted me today, a poem by my goddaughter's brother (aged 11) ... quite magnificent for someone so young and showing a linguistic capability far beyond his years: A stranger called this morning Dressed all in black and grey Put every sound into a bag And carried them away The scratching of a pen The turning of the pages The dropping of the book The nagging of the teacher, as it takes ages The squeaking of the chair The drumming of the feet The shriek of the whistle The creaking of the seat The stranger came this morning He didn't leave his name Left us only silence Life will never be the same

Enterprise Architecture

I'm so late with delivering my paper on Enterprise Architecture. It's not that I haven't progressed it since the last draft, it's just that said progress hasn't actually involved putting pen to paper. I've just been thinking hard. One of the constraints of "Enterprise Architecture" thinking and writing is that the moment you say "architecture", everyone thinks you're about to waffle a load of techie. So I've taken to using the words "business blueprint" to try and convey what I'm thinking. Another word that causes confusion is "interface". Another techie word that conveys vast meaning to those in the know, but little to those not. My thinking is that, if anything, the enterprise architecture that I'm writing about is less about "in" and more about "out" - i.e. it's about breaking open the enterprise and making the way that it works clear and accessible to and from the outside. So, less about "interfaces" and more about "outerfaces". I think that's a critical point - you need many hundreds of interfaces on the inside of government, but you need only one "outerface" if you are going to make it transparent. Outsiders don't want to know about insiders; the outside world doesn't want to learn government vocabulary; outsiders need a front door, a single way in, a single "outerface". The job then is for the internal workings to take care of everything else. I'm also trying to get the "unplug and replace" analogy into our vocabulary. I want to be able to fragment the components that go into any system so that we new and better ones emerge over time, I can just rip them out and put the latest/greatest in. I want each module to be walled off from the others so that the touch point is absolutely clear and so that the amount of testing that needs to be done is kept to a minimum. I don't want 3 weeks of regression for every new module, unless that's a virtual 3 weeks using a fully automated tool that actually gets the job done in 7 minutes or less, saving me the cost of 3 weeks of resource. If I can "unplug and replace", then I can progress faster - and, better still, anyone who is developing projects now doesn't have to stop what they're doing, they just have to align along the same principles - and then, when a given modules, proves to be the best one, everyone can make use to it and stop having to support their own custom one. This, I think, will give us the chance to make the right things happen without causing planning blight wherever I look. Next up is the whole "web service" thing. Get any technologist in a room for 3 minutes and say "next steps" and pause. The (one-way) conversation will be about and only about web services, as if they alone are the answer to everything. Three years ago I used to stand on stage and note that "XML" had become the global saviour of IT - it was going to ensure that we could do anything that we want anytime. Now web services have that mantle, although the "service oriented architecture" has probably fought and won the most recent battle - and remains a concept that few can understand or communicate. Whatever it is, we need one. Just like we need grid computing and all that other good stuff - after all, if we don't, how will we rescue the technology industry from its mire. I do, actually (although it may not be completely clear), see that web services are a vital part of what we need to get things done. But, please, don't get religious about it. The final puzzle I'm grappling with, other than the organisation necessary to complete (or maybe even start) the work, is how to fund it without hump costs. The argument about "spend to save" or "economies of scale" long ago became redundant. Technology investment in any public sector economy anywhere in the world has not demonstrated saves, it has merely allowed things to keep pace or appear at least a little less inefficient. There's some kind of strategy around "save to spend" - i.e. what can you stop, cutback or reduce to create the headroom needed or perhaps which projects can you redirect so that the output is nearer where you want to be than otherwise. But, then we're back to the game again.

Staying Ahead of The Game

A few weeks from now I've been asked to a conference themed on "staying ahead". I think that's an apt state now - for too long, progress on e-government has been roundly criticised pretty much all over, either in overt attacks or indirectly in thinly veiled pieces. Most people will see from my posts that I'm broadly optimistic about where we've got to but ever hopeful that realisation will dawn that we can make significantly more progress and much faster than we have done to date. "The Game" could loosely be defined as the competition - the other countries who are constantly working on their own projects to realise their own, subtly different, vision of what an online government might deliver. That competition only exists, today at least, in the surveys that consultants delight in. If anything, the reason that those surveys are useful is that they either help form new ideas or let you rapidly steal and reuse someone else's ideas to use in your own project. The "game" could be about beating ourselves at our own game. About making fewer errors and certainly not making the same ones twice. About finding ways to deliver faster and better. A game where the rules aren't always clear, where the next inevitable surprise can cause more damage than the last, where a mistake can overturn months of progress and haunt you in the press for a year or longer. There are many players in this game, all looking to race ahead of where they were when they last took stock. The saddest thing though is that few of the players look left or right to see what their fellow players are up to, or worse, assume that they're not up to anything useful and so plainly ignore them. Joining up any government is hard to do for that reason. It's hard to do because it hasn't been done before. It's hard to do because noone yet knows what it looks like, what "success" is or what steps to take. Creating the organisation that delivers in such a harsh place is perhaps the one challenge to resolve. Failing to do that condemns us to playing the same old game endlessly, without ever really knowing the rules and certainly without winning. If that organisation could be got right ...

Timetravel as a way to get distracted

Here I am supposed to be writing some slides for an internal presentation I'm doing in Northern Ireland next week. I'm cruising some of the usual sites looking for some new ideas to build into the pitch. And then I'm distracted, this time by a post on Matt Jones' site, linking to johntitor.com. I can't begin to explain it, but I've spent (wasted? no, probably not) a good chunk of time going through the texts. If you're a fan of T1/T2/T3, you'll feel at home there. Believe it or disbelieve it as you wish.

Religion

Simon Moores, who has been writing prolifically of late, notes how the debate about open source has become too emotional. My sense is that it's always been that way - whether it is Mac vs PC, Technologists vs Luddites or Linux vs. Everyone else. Everyone loves a cause and there are those who like a cause that is supported by few others, at least initially. That makes it "theirs" and there is nothing better than absolute ownership to get the heart racing. Once it becomes mainstream, then many will move on - to the next cause into which they can put all of their emotions. In 1993/4 when I used to trade on the stockmarket pretty actively, there was a company called "Iomega" - some people will remember them, they made the Zip and Jazz drive. Iomega's supporters, called (naturally enough), Iomegans, were fervent, passionate and prone to emotional responses. The stock responded similarly, often doubling and tripling in the space of days or weeks, and then crashing down again (the chart below, on a monthly basis [taken from bigcharts.com] shows you the heights that emotional arguments can scale - from $1 to $135 and back). Anyone who dared doubt that the Zip drive would not replace the floppy drive as the universal way of exchanging data was ridiculed, loudly and emotionally, in the various bulletin boards. It wasn't about being rational - it was about being passionate about your cause and about being a zealot. I'm right and you are wrong. In that space, there isn't room to two rights, two nearly rights or even two things that could both turn out to be right - there is only black and white. In the end, Iomega missed out and, if anything, it was the CD that replaced the floppy drive. Who would have predicted that in 1994? I got used to it being like this, got used to the fact that there are many with whom you can't have a rational discussion, got used to each side belittling the other at every opportunity whilst the neutral ones watched, hoping for some calm. It wasn't different then and it won't be different in the future. But if floppy=windows and Zip=linux, what does CD=?

Maltese joined up government and intermediaries too

One of the things that's always struck me as odd is the number of references you get from a google on e-government to Malta and Dubai. There's usually a few entries for each in the first 20-30 items. This one, though, looks to be one of the more relevant and even advanced: an online vehicle registration service that hooks into insurance companies too. Surely one of the killer apps of e-government>

French ID card, or CDI no doubt

Kablenet must have a man on duty in France as they're reporting a lot of what's going on there these days. Latest story is on the plan to introduce an ID card. The card will use that long disillusioned technology "PKI" and will be available for central and local government use. When I lived in France, you had to carry an ID card already - a laminated plastic or even just a plain paper one - that you obtained from the local council offices and had to keep up to date every time you moved. The French also have something that we don't, which is a single identifier number that hooks into almost everything - their equivalent of a social security number. That's a big help in joining up. And, for years now they've been using smart cards almost every day for buying things in stores - the "chip and pin" cards that we're just getting round to doing in the UK and that will be everywhere by the end of 2005 (such a common target date that). So, an "ID card" for the French probably isn't a big deal, and the idea of sliding a card into a slot and identifying yourself (with a pin or even a thumbprint) probably isn't a big deal either ... but there will be those who will suspect the state of ulterior motives. Believe me, I'm sure that there are those in the Administration there who would love to be able to carry out anything that involved ulterior motives. I just doubt that they will, at least not anytime soon.

Who's holding the reins? Is it you?

I had dinner with a very funny and startlingly bright guy the other night - a former CIO deep inside the US government who I probably shouldn't name or say any more about. He told me a great story: A few years ago he was over in the UK watching a military review - one of those things where the might of the army is put on display in an exercise. The main focus was on the ability of the gunners to load shells and fire rapidly, repeatedly. It sounded like a lot of fun, as long as you weren't too close to the target I guess. Just before the gun was fired, a member of the crew would sprint back (away from the direction of fire) about 30 yards and turn around sharply to face the gun. Every time. This guy wondered what that was all about and asked all the senior people around what it was for. Everyone nodded sagely and noted that it was part of the tradition, but noone could quite explain why exactly it was done. A couple of days later, the truth was discovered. Long ago (well, I guess not that long ago), guns were brought to the battlefield by horses. The horses would, naturally, remain close by so that the gun position could be moved if needed. Of course, horses get startled by loud noises, so the reason that one of the crew ran back in those days was to hold the reins of the horse, to prevent it from bolting. And they still do it today. So, if you're doing anything today that you probably don't need to do any longer, you're probably holding the reins of a long since dead horse. Time to change perhaps? On a similar note, another of the evening's stories followed the development of an ERP package for a particular part of the business - and by ERP here I mean the SAP/Peoplesoft/Oracle type of application that many businesses use to integrate their entire operation. One part of the organisation was perplexed as to how to implement the tool for adding a new employee. Every employee had to fill in a form that covered their life history and that stretched to around 18 pages. But the new application only provided 3 "tabs" for entering data for a new person. The business wanted to change that so that the app had all 18 pages represented as individual tabs. After all, that would mean that the people doing data entry could flip tabs every time they flipped a page - keeping everything nice and simple. Of course, the cost of making such a change is pretty large, and the cost of maintaining the change in successive releases of the core application is even larger. I imagine that Peoplesoft et al design their apps a certain way for a reason - something simple like they've found it works better the way that they do it. So, why not change the paper form to match the tabs available ... or, better still, why not make the form available online as a series of tabs and get the new employee to fill it in online themselves and dispense with the data entry part? Easy stuff, but how many people do you know in your organisation who are still holding the reins, or paving the cowpath if you prefer?