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.