Friday, December 24, 2004

Usability and Accessibility

Yesterday I made the mistake of going to the post office around lunchtime. I needed to get a few things shipped, including important stuff like a present for my god-daughter and a confirmation of my place in the London Marathon in April. The queue snaked around the office. There must have been 30 people in front of me. 10 of them were actually in the queue to buy envelopes or stamps, rather than the queue for the counter - but that wasn't easy to spot. Usability problem one - don't put the stamp counter in the middle of the office, right next to the place where everyone queues for other stuff. Borders in Oxford Street just learnt this and have remodelled their ground floor completely. But the real reason that the queue was so large wasn't down to it being lunchtime or it being near Xmas. It was the introduction of "chip and pin" readers. No-one ahead of me appeared to have a clue how they worked. And why should they? The Post Office, with infinite wisdom, requires that you insert the card in the slot upside down - i.e. with the magnetic stripe facing upwards. Every ATM in the country works the other way, so why are we doing it differently here? When I lived in Vienna, the ATMs worked with the mag stripe upwards and there were always queues of tourists trying to figure out why their cards wouldn't go in the machines. How would they know that Austria had a different standard from the rest of the world? Is it only the Post Office that has done it this time round? So much for consistency. What got me on to this was reading a piece on the Reg where a group called Knexus - apparently an exclusive club (in the Groucho Marx sense perhaps) for execs in Fortune 100 companies - was raising issues about the problems with accessibility design. The clubsters are worried that it's not obvious what accessible design really means. One went so far as to say that it's all a bit "over the top". Heavens above. Naturally the DRC laments this point of view and said that it isn't about "doing the minimum" but about doing it all. They're going to be at "considerable legal risk" apparently if they don't get it right. Tom Adams, at eGU, speaking at a recenty Parliamentary Internet Group (and quoted in this Reg article) took (what I think is) a better line - he said that there needed to be some reference to standards. The DRC doesn't agree. So companies and public sector bodies are left to do what they think is right, whether it's A, AA, AAA, LocalGov LAWS standards, RNIB, RNID, Bobby, DDA, DRC guidelines or whatever. Plainly that's daft. Meanwhile, there are greater than 200 disability rights groups watching to see what happens. I spoke at a Public Sector Forums conference on Accessibility back in July at my almer mata, City University. I too was worried about the lack of clarity on which standard to follow and that if we wanted real "Universal Accessibility" then a single widely-endorsed standard was required along with accredited test tools and a full awareness campaign. In my list, that doesn't include the threat of legal action unless someone persistently shows a lack of attention - but that could only be once the other pieces were in place. My own view is that accessibility follows usability - if you get the design right it will be accessible, but few start with a good design. Instead they layer complexity upon complexity making the web experience frustrating for their customers. Public or private, no different. Here's an example: Should you allow inline links (as I liberally scatter throughout this blog) or insist that all links are outside the main body of text (as directgov insists on for its authors)? Most folks want inline links because they think it makes things easier. I disagree. If you lose a link, you have to edit the text; if a link changes content, you have to edit text. So that scores -2 in ease of management. Screen readers hate inline links - and so do the users of screen readers. So that's another -2. That's -4 out of 4. Not much good. But there are no standards on this and, worse, no agreement. No agreement means standards could be a long way away. And that means a greater legal risk for some companies who might do what they think is right but still be in the wrong. And the folks that are hurt the most in this are those who want a good web experience, whether they are part of the 14.3% of the population with some disability that affects their ability to use the web, or the 85.7% that don't have such a claim. Let me tell you though - if you get the design right for the 85-odd%, it will be pretty close to right for everyone else too. When legal threats start flying it's worrying. Trying to sue a corporate for not having an accessible site may turn out to be as hard as suing a restaurant for not cooking a steak the way you like it. One man's rare is another's medium. There are no clear standards for what "rare" means for a steak. I tend to seek out restaurants that I know cook it the way I like it; and avoid others. I don't consult lawyers. In practice, sites will need to adhere to some basic standards - most likely the AA - and then common good sense will enhance that slightly (to include some of the additional checks that, say, RNIB want). But that's not the end of the problem - the wide range of disabilities and varying levels of them coupled with the disparate monitoring groups will mean that, at any one time, most sites are not fully accessible to one group or another. So, good design will matter most; and accessibility will follow that.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Passing Time

Last week I was sampling the delights of New York. I've probably been there 30 or 40 times over the last few years but not since 1989 have I spent "time" there, that is, time for me rather than for a company or a project. It's not the same place as it was then. The WTC is gone of course, there are more, taller, buildings - the Time Warner centre at the SW corner of Central Park for instance, taxi drivers even seem to know the city better than I remember from before. But some things don't change: New Yorkers (the few that you can discern inbetween all of the European tourists) are the same, and Central Park is as beautiful an oasis as ever. One thing that let me enjoy the city more like a local though was Vindigo, installed on my Treo (still a 600 but soon to be a 650). This is a proverbial killer app. Tell it your location and it will tell you about restaurants, stores, movie theatres, bars and music clubs within a defined radius of where you are. Vindigo is how I ended up on Friday lunch time listening to Jazz in the restaurant in the church hall of St Barts, it's how I sampled the best breakfast in the entire world at Norma's and how I knew which days the Met Museum of Art was closed (Monday) and then the new exhibitions started. It's also how I managed to get between the pre-dinner bar, the restaurant for dinner and the post-dinner bar. All it needs now, to be perfect, is GPS built into the phone so that it can take your location with no input. Vindigo has data on London as its only European city but it covers the USA far more widely. I have NYC, London and Miami stored in the phone right now. Vindigo coupled with Robert Parker's entire wine database are the two apps that make the Treo absolutely indispensable. This latter app has saved me more than a few times from pitching into an over-priced and under-rated bottle of wine in restaurants that should know better. Of course, you have to agree with Parker's ratings and like his numeric rating system - Jancis doesn't and nor does Clive Coates - which is fine by me. We could use a similar rating system for government websites; that would sort a few things out. I could do with the Blackberry code on the Treo to get email as the present app is pretty clunky, but I wouldn't swap the Treo for a Crackberry. Besides, the 'berry doesn't have Mazera which is an excellent way to waste time when you have nothing else to do - I'm pretty sure it will take you at least 7 or 8 solid hours to get through the game and given that you'll only ever put 5 minutes at a go into it, that should last a fair few weeks. And if you're nowhere near Halo 2 it's not an unreasonable substitute.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Am I back?

Sort of I guess. More yes than no at least. Blogger tells me that this is my 627th post but that I've posted only 4 times since the end of July. There are good reasons for that, perhaps I'll go into them another time. Meanwhile my PC problems have taken over from where Simon Moores' left off. I'm writing this on the Mac, with Firefox of course. My Tosh Tablet PC whilst working fine for most things seems unable to open a "create post" page in Blogger. No idea why - it's been like that for a couple of months (and that's a bit of an excuse for why there have been so few posts, but is far from the main reason). I've tried a bunch of things to fix it including cleaning up the registry and fiddling with this and that but no joy so far. Most of the time it refuses to go very far with any secure pages - banking, stock trading and whatnot. Odd. I've been in New York for the last few days taking advantage of the incredibly weak dollar. It's the first trip I've made there since May 2001 so the first time I've seen the empty hole where the WTC once stood. I saw that, and the rest of Manhattan, from the window of a helicopter. The best way to see it and only a $100 or so. If you're there, be sure to visit BLT - the best steak I have ever had (ever as in anywhere in the world, ever). I've got a few things coming up that will take some time over the next week or two and then I'll be properly back. I started this blog in Xmas 2001 so it will be 3 years old in a couple of weeks - and I'll have been working in government nearly 5 years. More on that soon.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

In an ideal world

Whilst I love talking about authentication devices and other such widgets, there's something going on over at "ideal government" that is worth a look and, better still, a quick post. How often do you get the chance to post what you think it would all look like if you were in charge and actually have people read it? The folks at Kablenet and, specifically, William Heath are behind it. Get over there and post!

Saturday, September 25, 2004

AOL and Key Fobs

AOL announced last week that they would allow their users to protect their accounts with an additional layer of security through using an RSA Device. The widget is probably the size of a matchbox and has an LCD that shows a multi-digit number that changes every minute or so. When you access AOL, you'll need (I think) both your usual password and whatever the display shows as its current code. This is a neat extra layer of security designed to protect phishing or key logging attempts. If someone is watching your key strokes, the passcode is valid for only 60 seconds after use - pretty difficult to take advantage of. There are a few flaws here though, which is a shame because (for the most part) we really need something like this to become widely available: - You have to pay extra for the security - pricing looks to be $10 for the fob and then $1.95 or so a month extra. I've not seen many people want to pay extra for security - we've got too used to accepting what is there and dealing with it. Not enough people pay extra for firewalls, anti-virus software, anti-spyware software etc, so why will this be different? - It doesn't work on all devices. For sure it won't work on Mac (I am pretty sure that RSA doesn't yet support OS X) and it almost certainly won't work on linux. - I had one of these RSA widgets (I'm pretty sure it was called a "DES Gold" key at the time) at Citibank and, every so often, it would get out of sync with the main servers at the centre and I'd need to call tech support to sort it out. I can't see that thrilling AOL (who, given they still have millions of users will find that, if it ever takes off, a surprisingly large number of people per day get out of sync - the law of averages and all that) - Eventually the battery will go. Maybe it will take 3 years, maybe less. But it will go. - There's another flaw I think, which probably doesn't apply to AOL, but does if, say, government were to want to use this. The key is not sufficient to digitally sign an XML document - a tax return or benefit claim perhaps - so as to secure it in transmission and provide non-repudiation and a guarantee that it wasn't changed in flight. I am, though, pleased that AOL are giving it a try. It might make the technology a little more mainstream and that, in turn, might drive innovation that addresses the flaws. I've not heard that AOL are going to offer to federate the identity - i.e. offer the service to third parties - e.g. banks - but that will be needed if it's going to take off properly. $1.95 to protect your AOL account is one thing, but that much to protect your three online banks, your broker and perhaps even Amazon is probably a better proposition. And, that way, perhaps the banks would even pay for it as a service to customers and to reduce their exposure to fraud losses.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

It's been quiet a long time

Over the summer I've been moving house, sorting out a bunch of business issues and trying to get a troublesome problem with my car resolved. And having got successfully through all of that, I had to wait for broadband at the new place - only a 7 day wait, but that was 7 days more than I was interested in at the time. Finally it's installed and I am back online. That probably doesn't mean that I'll be posting more often. Whilst I've missed posting and I've missed the interaction with people who send me mails on my posts, I've still got a few things that I need to sort. So e-Government@large will stay quiet for a little longer. Meanwhile, I encourage you to visit the sites that I link to on the left. I'm still keeping up to date with them, you should too. And, if that isn't enough. Here's a great site with a game where you get to throw waste paper into a rubbish bin. Or, if you're anything like me, you get to throw paper on the floor, entirely missing the bin. It's a popular site so you might have to wait in a virtual line for a bit.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Tom Peters Blogging

Tom Peters, perennial management hero of mine that he is, has turned his home page into a blog. It makes the home page longer than you might expect of course, but it's full of commentary from the great guru himself.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Political Blogging

Sean Dodson at the Guardian has a nice story out today, "Falling through the net" that looks at MPs who blog.  The list is short but includes Tom Watson (of course) and some new folks following his lead.    The article also highlights Tim Yeo's blog - except that it's not his, it's put together by Tim Ireland.  Apparently even George W Bush has a blog.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

CEO Bloggers

Jonathan Schwarz, Scott's number two at Sun Microsystems, has a blog. I've met Jonathan and, each time, come away impressed. He has a different idea about where to take Sun now and whilst there are people who will challenge that, he has thought through the angles and can debate impressively the pros and cons.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Pigs in Baskets?

I've heard of pigs in blankets and even devils on horseback, but I wasn't ready for this picture when I made my daily pilgrimage to Simon Moores' site.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

XP SP 2

I've resolved the problem with my intermittent lack of connectivity after a restart from standby. I've turned off ZoneAlarm and left the MS firewall on. I can't say I'm happy about that, as ZoneAlarm has served me well for ages and it does more than the MS one. I will wait for the production candidate SP 2 and then see if I can get ZoneAlarm working with that. Beware those of you who try RC2.

More on being only one

A couple of interesting comments were posted recently on my theory of one, I thought I'd promote their points to the main blog to make it easier to cover them. I'm delighted, though, that people are taking the time to comment - it helps me think through the issues and figure out the right things to do next. Paul Miller suggests "Create [info] on cold weather payments, say, once, display it n times; on DirectGov, on my local authority's site, and on yours, on the Citizen's Advice site, etc." and Ben says "the energy put into trying to stop the proliferation of brochure websites would be better spent on reaching the goal of 1 in another way - by making it possible for me to bring all my transactions with the Government into a single place" To Paul's point first, this is a kind of "super syndication" model where definitive content is clearly marked (wherever it is, and that need not be in a government domain) and then "borrowed" by a site when it needs it. I've been on this page for a while, in November 2002 for instance, I wrote: "I want to know if I can use RSS to pull up "definitive" content from another site - say I want to find out exactly what "Disability Living Allowance" is, could I use RSS with some parameter or other to a "definitions site" to get the right words? Could I also extend that to delivering personalised content, based on a few keywords, from sites around government in a single consistent thread - i.e. not just links or teasers but the whole text presented in a seamless way? I still don't know that it's practical. I don't know how anything would be labelled as definitive and, for that matter, what would stop 2, 20 or 2000 people claiming to be "definitive". I don't know how you look up content based on Metadata and how you ensure that it's consistent in voice and tone with the text the surrounds it. In short, I think it sounds great, but I don't for a second think it will work with this level of technology. RSS is about the last 10 posts, the last 10 newsfeeds or the last 10 things I think the world should know about. A while ago we conjured up the idea of an XML database that would return content to the query source based on tags, but we couldn't find a way to make it work - not least because everyone out there would have to subscribe to our standards, unless someone else conjured up the standards first (and government is the last place that should be writing content sharing standards for the web). If I've got this all wrong and it is, in fact, very do-able, I'd love to know about it. To Ben's point, I think directgov will ultimately be the place to get all your transactions into a single place; not this month, not even this year but one day. It won't necessarily mean that there is no Inland Revenue tax site anymore or that DVLA's driving test site disappears from view, but it will mean that transactions are easier to find, less onerous to complete (relying instead on historical data, shared data or stored data) and perhaps that they're more proactive (i.e. government comes and finds you with a service rather than waiting for you to find it). But bringing the transactions together is probably harder than bringing the content together, so don't hold your breath.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Moving Home ... the wired and wireless world built in

I'll be moving house shortly. Actually, it's been "shortly" for 6 months or so now. The builders are making progress but they are quite possibly the most incompetent planners I have ever seen. No need to criticize government IT when there are builders around. The latest date I have is the 7th, or maybe 8th, "handover" date yet - and it's in a week. But, this last weekend, I tried to have somem furniture delivered a bit early and they wouldn't allow it. So maybe it's shortly and a bit. One of the things I've had done is a wired network in every room - full ethernet - along with sound capability in every room (control point and speakers). I haven't bought the sound setup yet so I've been polling around for what might work nicely. Before I make a major purchase, one of the wireless gadgets might be interesting though. I came across Squeezebox via Dave Winer and then Scott Rosenberg. I've seen Roku before (thanks to my friend Felix who has one) and this looks to be an interesting alternative. Of course, they can only be bought in the states. Given how much spare bandwidth there is in the average wireless network, it would be a shame not to fill it up by beaming music all over the place. On a related point, while I was in the States the other day, I came across a company that's sort of in the streaming music/video business - BravoBrava. These guys are worth a look - the pitch is that wherever your music and video is (even your Tivo), you can access it via any broadband connection, without having to worry about leaving your system at home open to the outside world. It was pretty neat to take a photo with my camera phone and then have it on my PC 30 seconds later, available for viewing on my Ipaq that was Wifi to the 'net separately. Any device, any location; very impressive. I hope it works out for them.

Friday, July 02, 2004

There Can Be Only One

Ian D over at PSF was creative enough to pick up on a post here from earlier in June that noted that the battle was over for whether there would be only one government site or not, but that people hadn't figured that out yet. He did am ad hoc survey of the regular visitors to his site who filled it up with great comments, coming out roughly 50/50 I think in either total support or strict opposition to the idea.

 I've been meaning to take the debate a stage further for a couple of weeks but time has just not been there to do it. I thought I'd do it a stage at a time and respond to a few of the more provocative and interesting comments that were made. First up though, the thing that gets me the most is we seem to have an acceptance of either 1 site or 3000+ sites.

 I've always thought that aspirationally "one" was the right answer, but I'd settle for 100 or even 500 on the basis it would reduce the problem of information fragmentation. Noone else seemed to want a different number, from the posts that Ian summarised.

 One post notes that "The portal partners can't even agree what should be in the A to Z which, I guess, just shows the absurdity of letting government design websites. A while ago there was an A to Z on a central government site. Where do you think the "Treasury" were filed? T? Ha! It was under "H", for "HM Treasury". People don't think in alphabets and, if they do, they don't think in government alphabets. Besides, with hundreds of services, each set of topics under one letter will cover 3 pages.

An interesting idea was this one "One site implies one entity, one controlling force, no local democracy. How about 4 sites - My Country, My Region, My County, My Local Council !". Whilst I disagree that one site implies one entity (when you read a newspaper, apart from the Daily Mail, do you expect to get only one point of view from it?) as authorship can and would be spread across the entire constituency, I do like the idea of this kind of disaggregation. There's probably a "My Community" site as well - people in or near my area with my interests. I wonder though how many people care what happens in their region versus their county, unless they're local councillors? Or how about this one "The practicalities of a central organisation doing this for the country make this idea a joke" - this is back to another comment that communism was as good an idea as the Sinclair C5 or the millenium dome.

 One site doesn't mean one controlling entity - it might mean one "voice" in terms of style of writing though. We have 5,000,000 pages of content in government across 3,300 sites. How many of those pages are written in any kind of consistent, understandable, accessible style?

 One person, obviously well connected, said "like Andrew Pinder, I grew to realise that Departments will just not allow themselves to be joined up". Tell that to the Inland Revenue and HM Customs (Filed under "R" for revenue and "H" for HM in the A to Z). The Government Gateway joins up a dozen departments today, the Knowledge Network over 40.

The days of Fortress Government or Super Silos are declining. The Roman Empire eventually fell (all because of the lack of a zero in their number system some people say, it won't be anything so quaint for silos).

And, of course, I'm wrong because "Most people look for something via Google or some search engine or other" - go type in "disability living allowance" in google and restrict it to .gov.uk and count the occurrences (16,900 today, up from 9,900 a year ago). Tell you what, type in "I'm a new parent, what can government do for me?" and see if it works. Search engines are great when you know what you want, but they don't find what you don't know nor do they intuit what you might want. But, actually, "The more there are the more competition there is, the better sites become". I'd missed that - I hadn't realised that government entities were supposed to compete against each other. I thought we were in the business of serving the public and making it easy for them to find things. Besides, the more money we spend competing, the better, right? We must spend north of £1/2 billion a year on websites right now - another couple of hundred million widely spread would get us what exactly?

 I'm delighted that so many took the time to respond and I have, in turn, responded largely in the spirit of the posts that were made. My contention is: - 3,000 sites is too many; the right answer is closer to 1 than 3,000.

5,000,000 pages is too many; too many are out of date; too many are never looked at; the cost of maintaining a page that's never used is infinite as a ratio against usage.

A central site doesn't have to do all things for all people, it just has to get most of it right and hand over to specialist sites for things it can't do - just like the tiers of operation in a call centre, e.g. 80% of calls by first line, 15% by second line, 5% by third line. If the third line sites were specialist ones for specific local scenarios, wouldn't that make more sense?

Duplicating content tens of thousands of times increases the risk that it's wrong, increases confusion for the customer and reduces the chance of landing in the right place first time, wasting time (for the customer), money (for government) and bandwidth (for everyone).

There can be only one, but I'd settle for 50 or a 100 to start with. I'd like there to be another round of comments on this, that would be fun.

Poly-hierarchical Navigation

After what has been a tough week, perhaps even a tough couple of weeks (for reasons which many of you will be aware), it was good to sit in a meeting today thinking a little further ahead than 60 minutes. The directgov website is starting to look pretty good - apart from the neat MC Escher arrows in the orange bar at the top - and the folks who put the content together are highly capable and committed people. Their efforts may be going a little in vain though - I sat in another meeting today with a variety of suppliers who would tell me that they hold the torch of e-government close to their hearts but none of them could tell me what colour the top bar was in directgov, i.e. they hadn't bothered to visit the site. Directgov's navigation is divided up into topics (e.g. Money in Government) and Audiences (e.g. Parents) and the idea is that you can navigate to content that you need through any of those devices - so being in Parents means you can access content that is technically owned by Money, such as benefit payments. Sounds simple so far - after all, that's what links were designed for. The editorial team want to go a bit further though: they want any content to be accessible from any place in the site and have that content branded and located as if it were owned by the part that you are in. At a simple level, say "parents" content is coloured green and "disabled people" is red - if you were in parents and looking at content that was technically owned by the disabled people's team, the content would still show up in green so that you didn't lose track of where you are and so that the experience remained the same. Sounds easy, until you start thinking about what happens if a small part of the content needs to be changed to better fit the context of where it is (e.g. a title change, or a change in a few words)? Who would approve that change and how? Who owns the content and what happens if the owner changes it so that it no longer fits properly in some other sections? How would you know that? What would a search engine see? One instance of the content or many? Where would it point you to? What would you do with related links? Would they point back to the original location of the content or to new content in the new audience section? How does something like this scale? It seems fine for a few bits of content to appear in several places in the site (after all, news articles appear in various sections in the BBC - but they do appear exactly as they are without any changes), but what if we're talking about the whole site being accessible from any one audience type or topic type? Does that make a mockery of the navigation? If you do this, something that I think is called "poly-hierarchical navigation" does it mean that, actually, you haven't got any navigation principles left at all? Some of these issues arise because we've built directgov with tabbed navigation on the top and then further, specific, navigation on the left hand side. Was that a wrong decision that has complicated things now? Or are we trying to solve the wrong problem? During the meeting I pulled up Google and checked how many references there were to "Cold Weather Payment", which was the example content we were using to work it through. There were 248. My theory was that we actually only wanted one, so rather than surface content in multiple places in directgov, we should first concentrate on getting it right in one place and then kill off the other references so that it was clear where the definitive content was. 248 is not a bad number. "Disability Living Allowance" has 16,900. That's an awful lot of duplicated content. This whole thing needs some thinking about - and sometimes, when you're close to a project, you're the last person that should be thinking about how to solve it. After all, if you came up with the design in the first place (I didn't in this case, but the other folks in the room did), you're likely to focus only on what's good about what you've done and you may miss some of the flaws. So you need to do research and perhaps bring in some new thinking to see what to do next. If you're doing that, you might as well take the opportunity to think through a whole bunch of other points about the design and inform your next set of deliverables so that you can see how to roadmap the next releases. It was, in many ways, a relaxing end to a challenging week. I've got to get my thinking cap on to see what the right way forward is for this kind of navigation. I don't know that anyone else is trying to solve it, and hopefully I've explained it clearly enough so that people will understand what I'm getting at.

Murphy's Law

This lovely site, found via John Gotze's blog, deserves a read.

Comments Sections

I had a lovely email today from a lady at a local council who had wandered across this blog somehow. The message said that, "if I was wondering why not too many people in LAs have commented" it's likely to be because there is little penetration of desktop Internet in local authorities and, where it does exist, things like posting comments on sites is strictly against the security policy. Nice to know it's being read and making an impression - after all, why take the time to write if it wasn't? I hope that she'll be a "sticky reader" from now on!

SP 2

I just installed RC2 of Windows XP SP 2 on my tablet PC. So far so good. Well, I say that, but I am having some intermittent problems with connectivity to my wifi network after putting my laptop in standby and bringing it back to life. It's also a little strange to be nagged by your own PC every few minutes about it not quite understanding the state of your firewall (someone told me today that being married is much the same, but how would I know?), but the sentiment is well intentioned and therefore tolerable. It knows that ZoneAlarm is installed but doesn't seem able to detect whether it's doing its job, which is strange - so I've told it not to worry about firewalls (I trust ZoneAlarm as it's worked for me for years; it's also able to manage incoming and outgoing traffic unlike the MS one which, I think, only worries about incoming). There are new icons for wireless network connections and new dialogue boxes for setting up the networks. It looks good so far, I hope that it makes a difference in the world of the "Internet Green Cross Code" and slows down viruses at least. If you want it, you can find it on MS' preview page.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Democracy on TV

I've just finished watching the first series of the West Wing. I don't have a TV but have rigged up a DVD player to a projector to watch movies. It works well, even if West Wing doesn't really need a screen 10' across. It's a great show and gives a real insight into life behind the scenes in the US equivalent of No.10. So what do we have in the UK? Spitting Image? Yes, Minister? Yes, Prime Minister? The New Statesman? All great shows but all very different from the West Wing which manages to be funny (but not in a British way if you get my meaning), sharp-witted and yet, at the same time, makes you respect even more the work that goes into running the "office of the president". If real life is even 1/2 what this show makes it out to be, then I'm yet more impressed. What impresses me really though is the way that the show educates me about the political process in the USA - it covers topics from campaign funding through mid-term elections and even the Ethanol tax credit. It's a little bit of democracy on TV - a way of seeing how a country is run and the effort that goes into making what are seemingly small decisions. Perhaps most importantly, it's a way of seeing how much jostling, manoeuvering and outright positioning has to take place for every decision, small or large, short range impact or long term impact. Something like this in the UK would be great - spotlight on Parliament, Number 10 and Number 11. By the by, one thing that intrigues me is that almost everyone in the offices seems to use Apple powerbooks (the old style black ones).

[Government] Lights and Magic

This week I was at a conference, for the first time in a while. That’s not quite true, I did a conference the other day by accident – I showed up to watch and the keynote speaker didn’t show up at all, so I was asked to step in which I was happy to do. There was quite a contrast between the events and, drawn by a blog on getting the most out of powerpoint, I thought it would be worth outlining the reasons (from my view) here. Next time I’m doing a conference, I may just use this as my checklist to make sure that things have a chance of going okay. I didn’t enjoy this week’s session much at all and, if I’m not enjoying it, god only knows what it’s like for the audience. 1.Always do you own slides. It’s not that the slides I was using weren’t ok – they were better than that: clear, lucid and to the point with a couple of simple graphics. They just weren’t mine. When I draw up slides for a conference, as I’m working through them I’m planning what I’m going to say. I never rehearse a script (in fact, I never even write a script), but just putting the slides together seems to be enough for me to marshall my thoughts. In this case, I hadn’t done that so, before the session, I was having to think through what my key points were. And it didn’t work well. 2. Always have a roving microphone. At this conference, I was pinned to a small space between two fixed microphones attached to a lectern. A move 6 inches to the left took me out of range and the same on the right. I like to move around when I talk to people, partly because I’m probably a fidget and partly because I like to get a sense of the whole audience and whether what I’m saying is engaging them. If I can see it isn’t, then I can change it. Don’t have a lectern; they remind me of days at school with people preaching to me, I didn’t like it then and I imagine people don’t like it now. 3. Ensure that you can see the audience. When I looked out over the folks there, all I could see was the front row, where one or two guys were diligently taking notes (I’m pretty sure that they didn’t work for me, so what were they doing that for?). The rest was blocked from my view because of half a dozen intensely bright lights shining right in my eyes. Rows beyond the second were a sea of blackness. So much for figuring out what the audience think. 4. Make sure you can see your own slides. Sometimes I like to point at a slide so that what I’m saying makes sense in context of it. But, mainly, I want to know that when I’ve pressed the button to change slide, it actually has changed. Many people worry that, if the presenter has a remote mouse, they’ll go bananas and press it too many times, advancing and regressing through the deck with abandon. This is not often the case – I’ve used remote mice for years and haven’t seen that problem. But here, I was given a remote mouse that had a human interface – i.e. I pressed it and, somewhere in the back room, a light went off and a human pressed the real button. So, I thought I was pressing the button, but the slide wasn’t changing. In front of me, on the lectern was a small screen, all of about 3 inches by 2 inches. It seemed out of focus and, anyway, the print was too small. So I couldn’t see what was on the slides and, most of the time, couldn’t even tell which slide I was on. That meant I had to look over my shoulder, and when I did that, I was out of range of the microphone, so people couldn’t hear me. 5. If you’re on stage with other people, at least try and see their slides before. I was on stage with two others and didn’t see either set of slides. So much for joined up presenting let alone joined up government. This was my mistake – I probably had the chance to see them but didn’t. 6. Stick to the topic requested. When all three of us came down from our 15 minute session, the chairman remarked that none of us had actually addressed the title of the brief, which was “authentication”. That was true – we hadn’t – we’d all talked about aspects of the Government Gateway that were (I hope) interesting and useful, but not actually about the perils of authentication. I have a few ready-made slide decks on that topic, so if there’s anyone out there that still wants to know, drop me a mail (a.m@e-envoy etc) and I will ship you what I have. Finally, for me though, the highlight of the session was a French guy, Etienne, walking the floor of the exhibition centre outside the conference hall, doing magic tricks. I love tricks and this guy was a master. Cards would appear and disappear, coins would come from nowhere, notes would transform from one currency to another. Great stuff. Now if I could just work some of that into a presentation on authentication, I think I’d really be onto something.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Italics

This whole blog has gone italics....it wasn't me, honest. I'll try and fix.

Space ...

Came across a great quote along with the SpaceShipOne stories. In 1908, less than 10 people knew how to fly (a plane). Now, how many tens of thousands are there? In 2004, perhaps 400 or maybe 500 people have been in space ... who wants to make a bet on how many will have done so 10 years from now, let alone 100? A fantastic achievement. They've gone from a trip to space costing 100s of millions of dollars (pick any currency and add the right number of zeros) to perhaps low 10s (who knows the right number?). In a couple of years maybe it's single digit millions, in 10 years, single digit 100s of 1000s? Exciting stuff. And worth a break from the daily trials of e-government.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Joined up Parking?

I had dinner with some folks tonight - great fun, great food, great company - and we got to talking about joined up government (as anyone who has dinner with me usually does, except for my mother). It was prompted by a guy who had parked one night and come back to find his car not there. Or, I suppose, not find his car. First question - has it been stolen? How would you know? Has it been towed? How would you know? In fact it was the latter, but he only found out a day later after struggling through the website of the local authority concerned and, eventually, using Google. He found a 24 hour number, which he called. They said "this is the housing line, not the 24 hour line" ... despite it being on the website as the 24 hour line. Eventually, he got to the place where they put cars that have been towed. The borough where it was taken from was in the North of London, the pound was in the South (isn't outsourcing great). He paid the money (2 days worth by then as it had taken him so long to find the car) and left. Joined up government? A single site to help the citizen? To all those who laugh at the idea of one site, why wouldn't you have one (government) site where you type in your number plate and it tells you the status of your car, e.g. "insured, taxed, MOTed and presently impounded at blahblah"? Or "insured, taxed, MOTed, last saw a parking ticket at blahblah"? Or, maybe if we got really clever, "insured and now at co-ordinates X,Y,Z which is X street in Y Borough" so you would know if it was on the move and being drive by someone else? Are those government services? Probably not. But where else would you go? Tell me how you would find these out if you parked your car on the border of Westminster and Camden and didn't actually know which it was when your car was towed? Good luck. Joined up parking fines. That's a start!

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The first mobile phone virus

ITV says that there's a new virus in town, one that spreads across Symbian operating systems via Bluetooth, perhaps leveraging the approach discovered a few weeks ago of hacking phone address books. So far (unlike my thinking in July 2003) it doesn't send texts to everyone in your address book, but who knows how long that will take? Apparently this one's main threat is that it could drain your battery by keeping bluetooth on (what were the writers thinking?). Sadly, most of the news feeds fail to mention that you have to install the software on your mobile phone first (which means going to fetch a SIS file, having your mobile connected to your PC, saying yes to the install etc). The Register nailed that point, as you'd expect, along with the fact that the virus was actually mailed to someone with a "look what we've done" statement, acknowledging it as a proof of concept. Still, this won't be the last and the next ones will be worse I'm sure. But, here's a more interesting mobile phone virus story in honour of today being Bloomsday.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Conjuring a wireless scenario

Earlier this week, thanks to some stunning organisation by Bernie, I spent some time with a bundle of new companies. Some operating out of bedrooms (garages are, it seems, out of fashion these days), some in small office blocks and some just starting the path to profit and looking like proper companies. A few of them have products that make sense right now. So, first off, here are a couple of technologies, out of the couple of dozen I saw this week: Two years ago or so I met Oqo. Back then they had what looked to be the coolest PC of all time. Small, handheld, with a sliding (touch) screen that revealed a keyboard, running full Windows XP, wireless, bluetooth and a 1MHz Transmeta process, it would have revolutionised the market. Two years on, it could still do the same but there is more competition on the scene and the window of opportunity looks smaller. The guys there could still pull it off. I played with one for an hour or so - it looks great and has some amazing engineering in it. For instance, if you drop it, an accelerometer inside detects that its falling and parks the head on the hard drive. It may still not survive, but that's incredible attention to detail. The screen slides on tiny cogs that are visible in the edge of the case, making sure that it stays true as you pop out the keyboard. Sadly, it still has the same Transmeta processor in it that was on the speclist two years ago, which I think is a risk for Oqo. It's slow - too slow for me (I ran a Compaq Tablet for a while with the same chip and it drove me mad). It's not, though, a tablet pc - it runs full Windows but you can write on the screen with a pen. That's an intriguing decision but I suspect it's something to do with the tablet market not moving perhaps as much as many had hoped, certainly not as much as BillG had hoped. But, picture a mobile worker equipped with an Oqo, always connected to the systems back at base across a Wifi network. The device is small enough to go into a jacket pocket, has enough battery life to last the working day and runs all the apps that you could want. Customer records can be looked up, updated and compared; orders can be placed; benefits can be assessed. There's some serious potential there. Oqo will launch in October - they promise for real this time - and the first reviews should be in the Wall Street Journal in September. Initially shipments will be in the US only. We'll have to wait a while to see them in the UK. Separately, I spent some time with Vocera. These guys have a "StarTrek" like device - a phone that operates over the Wifi network. A touch of a button and the "genie" inside asks what you need. You say "get me Alan" or "call Alan" and the system places a call over the wifi network direct to me. If I want to take the call I tell the genie "ok" and we're connected - if not, I say "no" or "I'm busy" or similar and the caller gets to leave a message. It's impressive in operation and is already being used in several dozen hospitals, where nurses and doctors can keep their hands free, don't have to hunt around for a 'phone and don't have to remember extension numbers. It's impressive in operation and looks to have huge potential - both in terms of improving communication and also driving costs down. This is one device that I'm hoping to see become wildly more prevalent because I really think it has potential to be great. Doubtless there are other companies that have something similar, but there's something about the user experience on this one that makes me think it could establish a powerful lead. I hear that Westminster Council in London are setting up a wireless network to cover the whole borough. So far, I believe it's only for council employees rather than for providing laptop users with high bandwidth 'net connections. With a pervasive wireless network, employees can be fully untethered. With the technology from these two companies the council folks could have a wifi laptop and a wifi phone. They'll be in contact with colleagues online and through the phone network. They will be truly untethered and able to be far more productive – sitting with people who need their help to navigate their way throughout government. It’s not strictly e-government, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

We Work For You

Or, in fact, they work for you. I've got some downtime this morning in between conference calls and was just catching up on VoxPolitics (Where James rightly observes that has not been posting frequently enough). TheyWorkForYou.com is a new site from the folks that brought us/you faxyourmp, the publicwhip and so on. I have to say that I am gobsmacked by what they've put together. Hansard has always been incomprehensible to me. I've never figured out how to find what I need and have always ended up asking someone more capable than me - and all of those people, I suspect, work inside government. With this site, you can put in your postcode to get details on your MP (and how many know what they even look like? so there's a photo to help out), their voting record, questions asked and so on. Type in a topic (I used, of course, "e-government" - be sure to use the quotes) and was rewarded with 481 entries, each of which contains much of the to and fro of debates. This is stuff that you will never get to see anywhere else. I am pretty confident that nothing like this exists anywhere else in the world. A magnificent job. E-democracy just got a leg to stand on.

Our Survey Says ...

An interesting survey of a few US e-government initiatives says: Only 11 percent of those surveyed said they had visited Recreation.gov; 12 percent had used GovBenefits.gov, and just 22 percent were aware of Free File and most Americans say they find the information on government Web sites useful — once they find them. According to the survey, more than half of all respondents said they would visit GovBenefits.gov now that they know it allows people to find out if they are eligible for certain government benefits, including mortgage loans and health coverage and With 60 percent of Americans unable to name a Cabinet-level agency of the federal government, Web sites such as FirstGov must be easy for the public to navigate without knowing which agency or level of government offers a particular service It seems those that do find the sites find them via Google. That's no surprise. What about all the folks who don't find them though? Or the ones that find the wrong site? With thousands of government websites (pick any country, divide the population count by 20,000 and that's how many government sites they'll have), finding the right one with the up to date information that you want is a challenge. More to the point perhaps, finding the wrong one with out of date information is less of a challenge and more of a problem - as someone at Macromedia said to me yesterday "the fact that I can google meeting notes that I wrote 10 years ago as a legalislative aide is scary. that information has long since been updated and superceded" This story in FCW coincided with me reading a piece in the Wall Street Journal, "Web Banks Pay More to Stay Cheap" (available via the WSJ site if you have a subscription). The main points raised there are: HSBC spent 7 times more per customer on marketing for its First Direct Internet operation than for its regular retail business Egg, which didn't give numbers, says not having a branch network from which to launch campaigns makes things more costly. They did, however, say that the cost of acquiring one customer is £33, about 40% below the UK average. Cahoot says it costs 90% less to open a retail account online versus at a branch and about 50% less to manage the account. Governments have a branch network, but I wonder whether they use it as the marketing base to drive customers to the website? And, if they don't, how many spend 7 times their offline marketing budget to drive citizens online? As an aside, one of the things I find frustrating here is writing the word "citizen". I don't see myself as a citizen and so the word just doesn't fit. Every article I've read whilst over here in the USA continuely refers to the population as "Americans", as in "My fellow Americans". That, though, doesn't seem to work in the UK ... Brits, Europeans, English, Scots, Welsh, Irish or just plain "people"? You cannot, I think, effectively market dozens of sites. You can just about market just one. The battle for one site versus 3,000+ is only just starting; I think though that the war is won, but people on the inside just don't know it yet - there will be many skirmishes and much resistance but, ultimately, common sense will prevail and there will be just one. After all, there can be only one.

Californ.ia

San Francisco. Still the same, yet very different. The hills are steeper than I remember. Or I'm a little slower. The police cars still fly over the hills, just like in "the streets of". The crazies seem more abundant. It's the only city in the state that doesn't like Arnold; maybe they all want to marry him and he doesn't want to. Broadband is $9.95 a day in the hotel through a cable; yet there are half a dozen wireless networks within reach, as long as you're high up it seems. Some of the buildings are so empty there is tumbleweed in the car park: Excite@home, Manugistics. The 280 is calmer and easier, until there's an accident and then it's like it used to be. Yet there's more vibrancy than the last time which was a couple of years ago or so. And, despite the flags flying at half mast to commemorate Ronald Reagan, the California Republic flag is still flying strong. I'm over here for a few days visiting friends and near family. Following up on a few things, a few companies and a few people. I was struck today by a comment at Google. When we buy companies we're doing it for the people there - what they've built so far just comes along as part of their CV. They've not bought much so far, although blogger comes to mind. Last night at dinner a VC told me that it was all about the people; VCs back management teams, not ideas - because every idea will fail in some way and it's the managers that can pull it back on the tracks and make it work. So the vibrancy is in the people and the people seem more positive, more upbeat and more excited. Maybe it's the upcoming Google capitalisation which many say will usher in a new era of exit strategies for those who have been tied up for 3 or 4 years. It's an exciting place. It might be 10 or 15 degrees colder than London but it's always been over air-conditioned here. This is a country that has a 2 second delay on live TV now so that the "Janet Jackson" thing doesn't happen again, a country that will fine a TV company that Janets up to $500,000, yet someone who takes bolt cutters onto a plane is probably fined 100th of that. But it's a country where, for me, the action is. Startups come and go as quickly as restaurants on the main streets, but the spirit is strong here for me. It's still as exciting as it's always been. Very much the same, but very much different.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Googling with Googlers

An afternoon spent imbibing the culture of Google. What used to be SGI's space age campus now houses perhaps 1000 or maybe 1500 Googlers. I guess those that go to the font to worship become Googlytes. It's an impressive space. The canteen alone is impressive. A huge open area serving lunch and dinner for the whole company. Outside it's barbecue time. Sergei is even getting some volley ball in. People have talked before about the screen that displays a scrolling list of searches going on at that second. It's only a sample, maybe 1-2 a second, versus the 100x or 1000x that actually going on. The results are filtered, in English at least. In foreign languages, who knows what is being looked for. But more than 50% are non-US searches. The coolest screen though is a map of the globe - clouds and all - showing pulses of light for every google search at every node. Huge concentrations in English in the USA, streams of dots in French in France and the French colonies, acres of darkness in Africa, India and elsewhere, Spanish and Portugese in South America. Every language represented by a different colour, one pulse for every search, all moving in a 3D space to show concentration. A slip of the mouse zooms in to let you see individual countries and nodes within. Another changes the view, removes the clouds and shows the map in full relief. Another shows the traffic, hopping from country to country, data centre to data centre. Fabulous example of the power of the Internet, the reach of Google and the art of presenting data. Google is a proxy of the 'net and this screen shows how far the net has reached, in which languages and, also of course, where it hasn't reached. How many servers does Google have? Who knows. They won't talk about it. But they have a lot, built from off the shelf components goes the myth (and, in reception, is a rack of kit showing that to be the case, with corkboard spacers between the servers to provide some heat reduction. 22 units high, 4 servers per slot). How do they manage the configuration, deploy the units and keep track? Custom tools by the sounds of it. The feeling there is that the data centre business is inefficient and wasteful, so they keep their technology in house (end to end) so that, at every step, they can eliminate waste. And I believe it. The parking lot is full of humdrum cars, although in one far corner is a beautifully polished early 60s Porsche 911. That will all change soon I guess. The lot will fill with some faster, sleeker, cooler cars perhaps. I'm told that some early Googlers are already surfing, knowing that they've gone full on for the last 5 years and now they can take a break. But staring across the canteen, you don't get the impression that too many are going to opt out at this stage. The 20% projects keep them in - the urge to spend one day a week on a new project, related or not, whether it's an AI system to play Texas Hold 'em Poker, or a new optimisation engine to filter out spam linkers.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Six months into 2004

Ian prompted me to take another look at this post - my thinking about what would happen in 2004. I thought I'd repost it first (I've stripped out much of the excess text) and then later in the week or possibly next week (depending on how the next few days go) I'd revisit it. Reposting it whilst probably a sin in the blog world also allows me to see if anyone has any comments on it before I go ahead and write my own thinking. So, here it is, from December 31st 2003 (if you want the full post, it's here): 1. Citizen at the centre Since the beginning, e-government has been about putting the citizen at the focal point for service delivery. I don’t for a second think that people go out and deliver things without that maxim in sharp focus, but they have been constrained by a variety of things – natural inertia, lack of system capability, old style business process and so on. This year, things change and the citizen will be squarely in the middle. That will mean: - Dramatically fewer websites (maybe not fewer in number, but certainly fewer that have to be visited to get the task done); More focused content that is written in people speak, not government speak; More transactions grouped together in logical ways (so Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit will next to each other, ditto Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit); Central and local services will start to be aggregated – with the local government people probably leading the way (many already see themselves as a kind of one stop shop for government), but probably not until close to year end 2004; Consistent navigation and controls so that there is no relearning necessary. People know how traffic lights work – and we don’t change that from town to town, so why on earth would we keep changing look and feel?; Consistent multi-channel delivery will show up, again near the end of the year, where trying to get at something via the ‘phone will feel similar to the web. The folks at the call centre will be using the same interface as you would use if you were online, so consistency will increase … and the website will be updated if your question isn’t fully covered by what is already online. 2. The Rationalisation of Brands This won’t fully happen in 2004 but during the year we’ll see, I think, a shift to service delivery from a relatively generic thing. It won’t be about the department of this or the department of that, it will be about “you’re the citizen, what do you need”. Departments will still exist – maybe a couple fewer – but there’ll be aligning themselves much more closely, to back up the trend identified in (1) above. Once you start rationalising the brand, all kinds of interesting things probably happen. Who owns the end to end service? Where do you go when it goes wrong? How do you track something that is being dealt with through multiple back office units, all with different processes? These issues and others like them will force more co-location of resource, more interworking of systems and a greater ability to join up in the future (after all, once the wave hits, why get in the way of the next one?). This will mean things like syndication going mainstream – to the point that any content will be available anywhere and so you won’t necessarily even know the source brand. Once you start doing this – you can get definitive information about, say, child care from three government entities, Mothercare and Boots – you probably spend less time looking and more time using the information, and you probably get it from brands that you trust on an every day basis rather than having to think about where the definitive source would be. If you’re shopping on Waitrose.com (Ocado) and you happen to buy nappies for the first time, it’s probably logical that they pop up some screens about what government services you’re eligible for as a recent parent. Maybe you even save money on your shopping because they can process the claim in real time, using services and data sourced from government but presented in a non-government branded way. 3. A Shift From Silo To Enterprise Allied to (1) and (2) then is a change in the way that things are designed and constructed – to remove the issues about end to end ownership, support and delivery. As long as things are built inside fortresses, bashing down the walls and linking a couple will be hard (impossible?) and relatively pointless. I’m guessing our would-be CIO will focus first on how we shift from the silo to the enterprise or, at least, from talking about the enterprise to doing it. Central infrastructure is part of this (but I would say that, wouldn’t I), but it’s not all of it. A base of solid standards for, say, web services security and interoperability would be fundamental – after all, usage of MMS (whilst still low) was pretty non-existent until you could guarantee that sending from Vodafone to O2 would work. A decision on, say, what a trusted government mobile phone number for SMS messages would be is important. Then some components are built a few times, in a sufficiently generic way, and deployed many times (adhering to the standards identified) and plugged (through a set of bespoke adapters) into the multitude of systems in place. Once we’re through that battle, maybe we can attack the multitude of systems and see what can be rationalised and componentised there – reducing the amount of infrastructure and the complexity of delivery. Ideally, this speeds up introduction of new services and reduces the risk of failure – if it doesn’t do that, we shouldn’t do it. 4. Business Leadership to the Fore For (3) to happen though, technology needs to be seen as the servant to the business and the business owners have to take ownership of the widest possible agenda. I’m guessing that, today, most governments commissioning a new service build a new IT system to support it. That might have made sense before (it certainly made things simpler through reducing interdependence in projects and delivery), but it doesn’t make any sense now. If (1) – (3) are to happen then, increasingly, business processes will be designed from the citizen into government rather than government outwards. That will mean a greater degree of cross-business alignment and rationalisation. Perhaps certain departments will own key processes for all of government, perhaps a department will not only own how it works but also actually run it for everyone else (one way for money to get in to government, say). This is the hardest thing to see how it works. It requires fundamental changes at a base organisational level in any government that undertakes it. That will mean new structures, new incentives, new controls and disciplines. I didn’t say it would be easy, but the emergence of a trend like this will show a true appetite in a government for tackling the very hardest problems. For a long time (since almost the first week I got involved in e-government), I’ve said that the web allows us to put a veneer over the complexity of government, hiding it from our citizens and buying time to allow us to engineer the really complicated changes beneath. That’s still true and we’ve all bought some time – but it’s time to start tackling the hard stuff for real now. 5. Success stories will be common, and will become a non-event By the end of 2004 a handful of services will be mainstream, i.e. they will have significant usage when compared with, say, buying books online or banking online. Perhaps 40-50% of people will use an online channel for just a few services, finding that it’s quicker, easier and a richer experience than trying to use the ‘phone. Incidentally, as more private sector businesses outsource their call centres abroad, I wonder whether web usage of things like banking will increase – if you can do self service, why make the call? If that’s right, then government benefits too – the more people who are online and who are comfortable transacting online, the more people will feel comfortable using the services available from government. What are these services? Some are already there – the congestion charge claims 70% of payments are made online or through SMS. I think they got there by making the offline (in this case telephone) process so ridiculously painful that pretty much everyone found the path of least resistance (the absolute path of least resistance is, of course, not to drive into London and many people it seems chose that one). The online driving test service is already doing well, so the papers say and is a natural start point (kind of a “my first government transaction online”) for a generation that already expects the Internet to do pretty much everything that they need. This will be closely followed, I imagine, by Student Loans. So, fast forwarding a few years on in your life cycle, the next place where usage ought to be significant this year is in the area of benefits and tax credits. The latter already had a banner year in more ways than one and with renewals due in April, online has surely to be the way to go. On top of those, I think there will likely be another sleeper hit or two. Something that will catch most of us by surprise, like the 1901 Census or the Flood Warning site – perhaps something like Diana’s Inquest, or the publication of the Hutton report or maybe news that London will host the 2012 Olympics (followed by publication of the plans for development to meet that need). Events like these will drive traffic to the web from both existing and new users who can then move on to other government services. Beyond that, I think the services that really catch on will be invisible government services – the things that government does that aren’t really associated with government. The 1901 Census was one such thing – I wonder how many people really connected that with government? Booking a squash court at your local leisure centre might be another – after all, many such centres are run by local authorities. But what really interests me are the spontaneous things that we might get people to sign up for as a lead in to other things. Let’s say that when you send in your (paper) tax return, we take your mobile phone number – and text you when the processing is complete and ask you to visit a website to confirm payment details for the refund; or perhaps we arrange to text you when the cheque for your child support money is in your bank; or we make a deal where we’ll email you when we have something to send you, rather than adding to your mail pile at home and you can visit a secure area to check what it is and decide whether you want a hard copy (printed right where you are or sent via snail mail, but your choice). These services won’t be obvious “tick in the box” services – i.e. they don’t exist offline and so when they go online it’s hard to know how to count them (after all, 100% online makes sense at a certain point in time, but at some point, the baseline has moved and you might be putting 50% online of what you had then and another 25% of services that didn’t exist before).

Taking the "e" out

At a conference the other day one of my fellow presenters put forward the argument that it was time to take the "e" out of e-government. After all, he said, it's not about e anymore, e-government is just government. In many ways, that's a fair point. Government, whether delivered online, through the 'phone or via snail mail is still government. I disagree with his argument though for two main reasons, (1) e-government isn't done yet and still needs separate focus and management and (2) I doubt that anyone would consciously care if we took the e out unless we put something else in its place. Funding in government is usually controlled along project streams or initiative streams. Money made available for e-government is expected to be spent on e-government initiatives - and there are various tracking measures to see what the output is for the money that went in. Deleting "e" would lead to a bigger pot being applied to generic government projects and less clarity over output. Another reason for keeping "e" in is that, for it all to succeed, the online aspect of government must become the default position. That is, any project starting must assume as its base case that all input will come through online channels, whether that is through pure Internet access from the consumer home, through an intermediary such as the Citizen Advice Bureau or through a call centre operated by government. Just no paper. If you assume paper, and provide a route in for paper, then that's what you will get. And we have done, in spades (as in, we need spades to dig ourselves out from the piles that have accumulated). Taking the e off the front of e-government won't make this happen any quicker because the need will quickly drop off the radar as it gets buried in amongst other initiatives. Besides, it seems to me that "e" is still part of the mainstream vocabulary. The Econcomist published a 12 page feature on e-commerce two weeks ago, e-mail is still in every day use (although many tech folks in my team having long since given up on snail mail just refer to it as mail) and so it's not just government that uses it. On a trip to Japan a couple of years ago, I learnt that the character "e" is very similar as the character for the word "good". So maybe e-government is really all about good government. No-one would argue about that - although clearly they will spend the next 16 years arguing about what it means, who gets to measure it and how we'll know we're there. But that's another story for another time.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Angela Vivian Memorial Service

Tomorrow I'll be in Wells - where a large part of my family come from - for Angela Vivian's Memorial Service. If you're not busy at 2.30pm or so, cast your eyes skywards for me. Be sure that, if there is a God, right now Angela is hassling him to spare her 1800 seconds so that she can talk about improving social inclusion up there. Maybe she'll realise that she now has all the time she'll ever need and there's no need to rush - 1800 seconds will last a very long time. I'm sure that there will be a lot of people there but just spare the time for a little thought in her direction for me.

I spy anti-spy with Yahoo

I've just installed Yahoo's new toolbar, complete with anti-spy software capability. It scanned the PC I'm using - my sexy new toshiba m200 tablet - and found it clean. I like the new toolbar a lot. I've customised the buttons just the way I want them. Next task is to read the privacy policy properly and find out exactly which rights I've signed away.

Oqo finally shipping

At last it looks like the Oqo device that I saw nearly 2 years ago in San Francisco is getting ready to ship. Plainly they are going to be short of supplies for a while once people see these things. Once they sort supply out, I would expect them to quickly move to doing them in colour versions - gold, lilac etc - taking a leaf out of the ipod book to further drive up demand ;)

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The CIO ....

The announcement the head of the e-government unit in the UK was made today, aka the UK's CIO. Ian Watmore, presently the top bod in Accenture UK, will take over in September.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Not enough oil?

I don't get it. Oil futures vault over $40. America plays nice with Venezuela so as not to disrupt supplies there, despite the madness that seems to be going on. The Saudis say that they can pump another 2 million barrels a day (taking their output up from 9 million odd to 11 million odd), even though the last time they did that was nearly 15 years ago. The oil stocks are moving higher preparing for an era when oil costs are going to be far higher than previously for far longer. But somewhere, someone must be adding up end to end process capacity - the pipelines, the tankers, the ports, the refinerys - and coming up short. I don't know that you can just pump oil and have it shipped and taken care of just like that. This stuff must be planned like the Queen's diary - months or years in advance. The shippers presumably don't have idle boats. And then there's the question of whether the extra oil is "the right oil"? Will it help reduce the price of gasoline (petrol for us Brits) at the pump? I'm not sure that it will. I think it's too complex for that. The only chance is if the "promise" of more suppliers psychologically boosts the market, driving down the futures price and so making things more affordable. Until the Chinese buy another 90 million cars on top of the 10 million they have now and really hit supplies hard!

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Better news

The latest news from Bangladesh is that Anwar is out of trouble and recovering nicely. That's great news. Meanwhile, rumour has it that the police have arrested anywhere from 3 to 9 people in connection with this terrorist act.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

VOIP, Webcams and Voyeurs?

One of the elite technical folks that I work with mentioned, almost casually, to me the other day that he thought someone had found out how to turn on cameras attached to PCs without the user being aware. It doesn't take more than 1/2 a second to think of the damage that such a hack could cause if it's true. I guess there's some vulnerability in instant messenger software or similar that lets you remotely activate the camera - and spy in on whoever is doing whatever they're doing. I don't have a webcam on my PC. I guess I won't be getting one. That got me wondering about the new trend for Voice over IP telephony, or VOIP. This is becoming a big deal in the USA now with major carriers offering it. When I first used it, the software was available from a little company called Camelot (I think there were 2 or 3 others) with a Nasdaq ticker that I remember flying through the roof regularly (just checking now, it's trading at $0.006). The sound quality was crap, but it felt weird to talk to someone in Seattle through your PC microphone. That was 1993 or 1994 - when my Compuserve ID was a couple of numbers in square brackets and my email address was the same and, I think, 28.8k modems were as fast as they got. Later, maybe 1999 I tried it with a camera and spoke to the same person in Seattle with a 1 frame per second update rate over a 56k modem. Today, the technology actually works. The flaw in broadband for me so far has been that I need to pay for a phone line in the first place - so the real cost of broadband is not the £30-50 a month that the telcos quote, but that plus the phone line rental. Since about 1995 I have been totally reliant on mobile phones and haven't needed a land line - just like I haven't needed a television. But, with VOIP you need, technically, never see another phone bill beyond the line rental ever again, depending on how the carrier bills you. If BT get their bluephone off the ground, then you'll have a mobile phone that goes Wifi/VOIP in the house and GSM out of the house or, for that matter, Wifi/VOIP whenever it can connect to a Wifi network even if it isn't yours (which makes me wonder about SSIDs, WPA, WEP and all that and how it will work on a phone, let alone how they'll make battery life long enough - after all, 3g phones still seem to run out of batteries just after you turn them on). With emerging VOIP, I wonder how long it will be before hackers are exploiting weaknesses in "phone security" to tap into calls people are making - maybe even re-routing them in flight and crossing over calls from one person to another so that, say, they hear their own voice or their call is passed to someone else. The security services are going to want to do that so that they can continue to use Echelon or whatever to tap calls, so the hackers will certainly find ways. If they can suck data off your mobile using bluetooth without you even knowing, how hard will it be to hack the VOIP network? Or to use backdoors in VOIP to get at your PC? Ugh.

Friday, May 21, 2004

WAD files in Government

I've spent a lot of time coming up with analogies for what I think we're trying to do: Ways to make it easier for people to comprehend where we are and where we're trying to get to. If you've followed my postings here (the new version of blogger says that this is number 590) then you'll have seen many - the recent ones about fruit machines in Las Vegas and the older ones where I've probably talked about Kennedy's "go to the moon" speech in the sixties or the Microsoft Office hook. Last night, I came up with another one; one that I think makes it a lot clearer for me. It stemmed from me wandering around the subject of sim games as I was writing about the Copenhagen Consensus. I remembered that I'd bought a book the other day, Masters of Doom, that I hadn't started. Doom. You remember that - the world's greatest first person shooter at the time. The one where if we hadn't had it, we wouldn't have Halo or Half Life or any other related title. When Doom first came out, it wasn't long before "mod files" appeared - files that allowed you to change the shape of the game, the graphics, the sounds, the locations, pretty much whatever you wanted. To use a car analogy, you had a chassis and an engine, but everything else (if you were smart enough) was up to you: you could add different doors, change the seats, put a sun roof in, whatever. I want the central infrastructure in government to be the equivalent of the Doom engine. You get the core pieces that drive things, and you get to make up the scenery - you get to install the WAD files, using some helpful tool sets that we've designed for you, or some others that different people have designed. I think we're quite some distance from this, but I think it's a useful analogy - for those who are video-game literate anyway (I've got another analogy coming about Burgundy wine, but I'll leave that for another time). The thing that I think is the blocker - the thing that is different - is that Doom knew what it was up to; it knew that it just had to worry about the graphics files and the sound files; it knew where they were and it knew their format. Noone tried to change the rendering engine in Doom so that it had to use one piece of code for walls and another for doors. Everything was data driven. In the world of government IT, we haven't abstracted the data from the engine and we have several engines. There's something here that I believe would be useful to explore. How many engines do you need? One to make payments, one to receive payments? One to print content to the screen and another to print content to paper? One to process eligibility and one to grant entitlement? How many really? Do you need two to make payments or three? Or 12? or 120? Doom has sold however many million copes (and I expect I'll find that when I read the book, but I'm guessing all the versions together have probably hit 100 million or so). We need our Doom engine equivalents. Things that are so obviously good at what they do that other people strive to copy them (e.g. Half Life) but adding their own features and capability - but that not too many people copy them (i.e. enough for healthy competition, enough so that everyone makes a margin but not so many that your decision process takes longer than it took to create the engines). But, most importantly, people can take their data (in the correct format) and add it to the engine and get what they need. They can't change the engine (they can't make it put doors where walls are supposed to be or vice versa), but they can capitalise on everything the engine does simply by customising the wad file. If we could take website design forward this way I think we could all solve the accessibility, download speed, metadata standards and other issues that we have. And focus on what the gamers really show up for - the content.

My kingdom for a ...

Gmail account? Really. People want to swap stuff for gmail invitations or so says Wired. What stunned me is how many people want to make a trade - I was three pages in and still on offers made today. Everything from mini-ipods to 20 minute netmeeting slots (anything goes apparently)! If you're buying or selling, go to gmail swap. Why do it? I guess you want to play with a new toy, or you want to get your name reserved before anyone else does. All seem reasonable to me.

Things get grimmer

My good friend and former colleague at this office, Anwar Choudhury, recently moved to be the High Commissioner of Bangladesh. This was an amazing move for all sorts of good reasons. He's been out there just a couple of weeks. I learnt a couple of hours ago that he was the target of a bomb attack - reports are scarce but he looks to have sustained some injuries, but not too serious. Other people surrounding him were apparently killed. Anwar's a tough guy and I hope that he recovers speedily. My thoughts are with him and the families of the people killed and injured.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Training to be the PM

How do you train to be the Prime Minister? Where does the skill set come from? How do you practice? And, if you believe the Tom Peters school of training, how do you get the chance to make mistakes and learn from them? Perhaps one of the top 5 hardest jobs in the world, requiring mastery of a multitude of subjects, the deepest understanding of Politics and politics, people and populations. A new initiative, the Copenhagen Consensus (from those Danes again!), strikes me as an intriguing way for the average bod to see how difficult it might be.
Copenhagen Consensus is based on the aim to improve prioritization of limited means. The world is faced with a countless number of challenges such as diseases, environmental degradation, armed conflicts and financial instability. Copenhagen Consensus takes a new and critical-analytical approach to assessing the effects of international opportunities for solving the challenges.
Ten challenges faced by the world, and a bunch of very smart people trying to prioritise them. They're not day to day issues but they do encompass things that have a day to day impact on millions/hundreds of millions of people. This is a sort of God game without the graphics, and without the ability to call up a solution with a quick mouseclick. This has a lot of potential. There are just 10 challenges, but they're important ones: education, governance and corruption, sanitation and water, communicable diseases. And nine experts - all econmoists. The thinking is that economists can be independent of their emotions, they can just analyse the facts and, here, the return on investment. Would a billion into one of these have demonstrably greater results than a billion in one of the others. That's truly God territory. Millions of pounds of funding may be moved from one to another of these challenges based on the outcome - some things (those at the bottom) will lose funding until they become more of a crisis when perhaps they get another chance. These 9 folks are going to be big influencers if this is successful, and it could enormously inform public debate - and take out the "positional statements" that individual supporters of any one of the 10 challenges will always be forced to revert to: the "pick me", "pick me" approach. What's missing from the site, as far as I can see anyway, is an "ask the audience". I think it would be interesting to test crowd psychology and see if the masses come to the same conclusions as the experts and for the same reasons. A league table of 10 challenges confronting us all sounds flip, but it's a way to concentrate the mind and understand at least these 10 issues - if not the 100s of others that impact us too. Next step, surely is a "god game" where you get to be the Prime Minister and run a country - where the issues hit from left and right, some sign posted and some not. Your decisions affect your population and what they think about you. Stories hit the newspapers and influence opinion. There's a lot of history in these games - the Sims, Populous, Black and White, even running football teams. But not running a country? What better way of training for the top job would there be?

John Gotze on Tour

If you're reading this then you probably also read John Gotze's blog. But just in case, he's doing a tour and will be in London next week and again in mid-June. I will be bringing some groupies along to see him in June and will certainly be having dinner in a good restaurant with him. You can find details on his blog in this post.

Google's Green Cross Code

The Google team are worried by the increasing trend in spyware and other dodgy software. They've published some principles that they believe the software industry should stand by. Difficult to argue with any of them I think, unless (of course) you are a publisher of said dodgy software when doubtless you will be shrieking "restraint of trade", e.g.
When an application is installed or enabled, it should inform you of its principal and significant functions. And if the application makes money by showing you advertising, it should clearly and conspicuously explain this. Applications that affect or change your user experience should make clear they are the reason for those changes. For example, if an application opens a window, that window should identify the application responsible for it. It should be easy for you to figure out how to disable or delete an application.
I'm all for this (and more in fact). But the rogue elements will continue to flout these and any other guidelines as long as the consequence of flouting leaves them unexposed. I use Zonealarm to make sure that anything that is connecting to the 'net is doing so only when I say it can - and you'd be amazed what does try and reach out. Zonealarm by itself isn't enough, but the google folks helpfully list some other apps that are worth trying, see the end of their guiding principles.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Doing a Cassani

I'll be intrigued if "doing a Cassani" becomes a popular turn of phrase after this very smart lady's decision to turn over London's Olympic bid leadership to Seb Coe. I don't mean "very smart" in a derogatory way - her track record at Go and her willingness to stand up and be counted in venting her frustrations at what happened there show that she is a contender. What I think is both difficult to understand and, at the same time, laudatory is that she seems to know that London can't win with her in the chair. Maybe because she's from the good old US of A (indeed, from California), maybe because Seb Coe is a better leader at this stage (knowing the whole process top to bottom - a Ramsay type of experience) or maybe (in the worst case) because the Olympic Association is a relic of the early part of the last century and is a men-only club. Maybe because the only real win was getting to the last five and she thinks it won't go further - although that would be counter to her track record. Whatever the reason, it's brave to step down now and hand over the top job, whilst maintaining a role in the bid from here on in. Doing a Cassani should be a compliment - for those who truly deserve it only.

Browser Standards - the n**2 problem of old

Someone's let me know (via this natty comments functionality that blogger now has) that my blog doesn't display well on mozilla (and therefore, I imagine, a whole bunch of other browsers). That will be one of those "browser standards" problems that I have talked about before I guess - that despite everyone saying that they adhere to the standards, they do it in different ways. I'll mail blogger and see if they have plans to take care of a wider range of browsers - I would have thought that they would do that (most of the folks I've mailed there before seem to be firebird users). And if that doesn't work I'll have to find a simpler template! Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate you taking the time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Democracy offline and awol

The world's biggest democracy is in a state of chaos. India recently elected another of the Gandhi dynasty to run the country, in the position of Prime Minister. But she doesn't want the job because her (soundly) defeated opponents have run a campaign since the election declaring that, because of her Italian birth, she should step down. Exciting and crazy things are happening over there:
Her withdrawal, and the prospect of Singh leading Asia's third-largest economy, spurred markets, helping stocks on the Bombay exchange post their second-biggest daily rally just a day after the worst plunge in the exchange's 129-year history.
Bizarre protests are occurring:
Scattered protests were reported across the country. One Congress worker in the northern city of Kanpur doused himself with kerosene and tried to burn himself alive, but was stopped. Another tried to jump from a building.
The person who might take the job instead?
Angry and upset, Congress lawmakers mobbed Gandhi and begged her to change her decision, which paves the way for the architect of India's modern economic reforms, Manmohan Singh, to possibly take over the world's largest democracy.
Until it's decided though, noone is in charge. Millions upon millions of people voted for Mrs Gandhi and yet now, the democractically defeated can lobby sufficiently loudly that she be forced to turn down the job - despite that she comes from a long line of leaders (I believe that she'd be the fourth from the same family). And all because she was born in Italy? That's hardly an unknown piece of data - it was central to her opponents' campaigns in the runup to the election. But they lost. In the USA she would never have been able to stand just as Arnold Schwarzenegger (now the Governator) could not stand for election as President because he is Austrian born. 1.1 billion people in a country; a democratic election that, as far as I can tell, was untainted by scandal/vote-rigging/allegations of fraud; it even included technology to speed the process (and noone seems to be saying that this was compromised) - nearly 1 million electronic voting machines were deployed; turnover was 56% (which, in a huge country with enormously varying levels of infrastructure and education is no mean feat - one voting station is 26km from the nearest road and sits at an altitude of over 5000m) - 56% of the electorate is 360 million odd people (from a registered base of about 675 million). It's an incredible turn of events that sees a democratically-elected leader opt not to take on the role because of vociferous allegations about her credibility as a leader as a result of place of birth. I was in India during the run up to the elections in February. I watched the national fervour build over a period of a few days. Mass rallys were held along the highways in Delhi. Thousands of people turned out every few kilometres along the road, with flags, banners, music and podiums for speeches. The candidates dashed along the roads in their SUVs, stopped briefly to give a rousing speech and then moved to the next spot. Mrs Gandhi, it's said, covered 60,000km in her election campaign. Was she right for the job? I have no idea. But I do know that she won a full scale election that few other countries could credibly have pulled off. And following this news? The stock market has a big rally. They'd better be careful what they wish for. India has a long way to go - I will write more about this in the context of off-shoring of jobs soon.

Monday, May 17, 2004

DIS and dat, but mostly DIS

Software AG (and SUN Microsystems) put live their site on their Government Gateway DIS offering today. It even tells you what a DIS is (for those who, like many, have no idea)- although if you don't know what a Government Gateway is then you'll be hard pressed to figure the DIS bit out.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

You heard it here first - The smart money votes

The new CIO for the UK, advertised just a few weeks ago, needs the following key capabilities - A passion for seeing things from the customer view - A solid understanding of the issus of dealing with multiple stovepipes - A grasp of the metrics of cost versus benefit - A real belief in the ability of a team to work together - A capability to be blunt and to the point in providing feedback Who is the candidate? Gordon Ramsay as seen on Channel 4 - Kitchen Nightmares. Stovepipes/stoves ... pretty close. Who wants to take bets?

Monday, May 10, 2004

New blogger version

Blogger looks really different today - there's a whole new version with lots of new features. It looks like it's been redesigned completely. I guess that's what you can do when Google owns you. Just because I thought I could, I've changed the template used today - it's not quite what I wanted but it will do for a bit. You'll also see that Blogger now supports comments, and I've enabled those for "anyone" (as opposed to registered users only). If they turn out to be useful, I'll leave them on, otherwise I'll go back to unidirectional posting. It will be an interesting experiment.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Stats To Compare With

Stats on website availability, apparently from www.parallel.ltd.uk (where I couldn't find them), but eventually found on waller.co.uk: Site Availability - The mean availability of all sites was only 98.72%, equating to over 111.13 hours or nearly five days of downtime per website, per year - Only a third of the organisations monitored achieved 99.9% availability or above, which equates to one full working day of downtime per year - City councils had the lowest availability over the monitoring period at 97.80%, or over eight days of downtime per year - Services were available for 99.1% of the monitoring period, or over three days of downtime per year - Political parties had the highest availability at an average of 99.24%, being down for just over two and a half days per year Download Times - For customers connecting to the Internet via a modem (56kbps), download times would exceed eight seconds for 95.7% of the websites in the study - The average download time for public sector websites when accessing via a modem (56kbps) was 21.8 seconds - All but one of the websites monitored downloaded in under eight seconds with a broadband connection (512kbps) Go figure! Political parties with the highest web availability!

The 24hour web myth

It's time to research car insurance again. This time I'm trying the AA which, overall, I think has a great website. One foible and one very strange feature though. The foible is that, early on, it says "type your email address in if you DO wish" to hear from AA and related companies about products and services. So - easy decision - type your email if you want spam, don't if you don't. A bit later, under data protection it says "the AA may want to contact you blah blah", tick this box if you "DO NOT" want to be contacted by the AA or related companies. Trying to catch me out? Poor design? Inconsistent use? Or legislative wording in the latter and customer friendly in the former? I'm not sure. But the very strange feature really got me. I spent a good 20 mins going through their online form, answering all kinds of questions, e.g. what do you do? (Interestingly, the first possible response is an abbatoir worker - the joys of an alphabetic sort!). At the end, it gives me a long and complicated reference number which I wrote down and then advanced a page. I then realised I wanted to check something, so I used the back button, but the page had cleared. no problem, I'll just retrieve the quote using my quote number. Uhoh: "The Retrieve My Quote service is available between the following hours:- Monday 07:30 am - 09:30 pm Tuesday 07:30 am - 09:30 pm Wednesday 07:30 am - 09:30 pm Thursday 07:30 am - 09:30 pm Friday 07:30 am - 09:30 pm Saturday 08:00 am - 06:30 pm Sunday 08:00 am - 05:30 pm During these hours you can retrieve your saved Car Insurance Quote on-line, amend the details and when you are completely satisfied pay for your policy on-line." Why on earth would it not be possible to check a quote on a Sunday evening? Do the disk drives allow write-only after 5.30? The 24hour web is a myth for many businesses.