Saturday, December 31, 2005

2005 - PM's Milestone reached?

It's the end of 2005 and, if Santa has been kind, the PM's 2001 goal of "Getting all of government online by 2005" (most of us interpreted that as the end of 2005 but there was much debatein some corners) should have been reached. Some say that local authorities have managed as much as 97%. Central government will, I'm sure, announce a similar figure any time soon, although Ian Watmore is cool on the whole online services agenda and more focussed on creating shared back-office services for use inside government. In March 2005, 75% of services were reported to be online. Of course, as many have said, having any percentage of services online is not much good if too few people use them. There are, though, many services that haven't found their way online yet - and you could argue that these are the kind of services that would perhaps attract most usage: Here's how to claim Disability Living Allowance (you can download a form) Or Incapacity Benefit (ditto) And there still isn't any thing like a service that allows you to find out what government owes you or could owe you if your circumstances changed - the UK equivalent of the US' GovBenefits for instance. With all the problems of fraud with Tax Credits (a plain old-fashioned offline fraud made simpler and quicker to execute using the online channel in the absence of any front end authentication for the service), perhaps it's as well that some of these services aren't yet online. In the past I've argued that there needs to be a shift to paying money to people online - or creating services that save people money and significant time - rather than taking money from them. I'm not quite holding my breath for the announcements on what is and isn't online but I will bv fascinated to see what is commented on. In the meantime, I've got a bit of retrospective underway that will be out soon.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Implementing Pan Government Search

Is search the missing "killer app" that will drive usage of e-government? In May 2003, I put together a short business case for a government wide search engine that could both search all of government but be called by any site to search locally. The economics seemed obvious at the time but the head of the civil service wanted to see all of the necessary departmental customers signed up first - "shared services" were still in their infancy (there was only one at the time - the government gateway) and funding them (it) had proved enormously challenging. So, we didn't get it done. I've put extracts from the case below (I've stripped out vendor and price details): "Since work began on e-government, departments, local authorities and agencies have created more than 1,800 separate websites. Some 75% of these sites have a search capability (“a search engine”) that allows the citizen to look for items within that site alone. What we know about search engine usage in government is limited, but there are some important notes gleaned from ukonline data: - The Government Ad Server (available on ten government sites to date) which eDt put in place late last year includes a “search government” ad which is clicked on seven times more than any other ad, indicating that citizens want access to search.
AM note: the ad server was another one of eDt's projects - we wanted to drive traffic to other sites and give visibility of government campaigns on our own sites (and for no cost)
- Over 60% of ukonline visitors use the search engine (and most of those use only the search engine). - The top search terms in ukonline usually relate to departments directly: “inland revenue”, “home office”, “health”, “hse” and “dvla” were all in the top ten in April 2003 It’s apparent from this data that not only is search perhaps the most important route to finding what a citizen needs, but that departmental domain names (www.homeoffice.gov.uk, for instance) are not well understood by many citizens. A search engine has several components – a software licence, a hardware configuration for installation and then regular maintenance costs to ensure that it remains current and returns appropriate search results. A search engine that does not return the most relevant result high up the list quickly falls into disuse, making the maintenance work essential. Typically, search engines cost from £25,000 to £300,000 to install (including hardware and the one-time setup work that defines business rules and requirements) with 0.5-1 person required to keep them updated. The very smallest sites can use open source engines that, naturally, cost little to licence, but do not reduce the business work around rules and maintenance. This initial work should not be underestimated – if done well, it can take weeks and involves assessing important content, tagging it appropriately (“metadata”), defining dictionaries and taxonomies and so on. If a conservative 1,000 of the current sites have search engines, and all are at the low end of operation then the installation cost to government was as much as £25,000,000 with between 500 and 1000 people engaged in keeping them up to date (at an average cost of £20,000 per head), making £10-20 million in annual costs. It takes only a few of these sites to have large engines (at the £300,000 or more end of the market) for the cost to quickly double or triple – many departments are presently actively reviewing their search engine with a view to going to procurement for a new, more capable engine. A single search engine in the centre of government that searches all government websites and that is able to provide both single site and multiple site results would normally be licensed at perhaps £Y based on current market rates for two years – and the licence would typically restrict usage to just one site (historically, ukonline is the only search engine that spans all of government). eDt has negotiated a deal with a supplier that, subject to approval, provides all government websites with access to the central search results, with only small code changes required to each site to gain such access (the e-Delivery team will work with departments to measure their existing search engine performance, demonstrate the potential of the central engine and then jointly handle the migration). Results can be presented both for that site and other government sites, increasing the chance that the citizen will find what they need. All results can be presented in the “look and feel” of the home site – with or without reference to use of the central engine. In addition to the savings in licence costs and in people maintenance costs, people using the search engine would have an immediate benefit. The more people that use a search engine, the better the results it provides: - It can log which links people click on and move those that are clicked most frequently to the top of the list, increasing the chance of finding the right link first time. - Search results can be provided for both the local site and for sites across the rest of government (so, for instance, a citizen arriving at the wrong government site would, on typing something into the search engine, have a good chance of being directed to the right site). - Search engines can provide personalised search results based on prior usage – so if a citizen regularly searches for common terms, the results can be tailored to give more relevant results. - The engine can be tailored to also present results from commercial engines, perhaps pointing citizens to related articles on the Internet. Savings for these latter points fall into the “common good” category. Joining up government functions provides significant benefits to citizens that are difficult to put financial measures against. The search engine will also be used to drive a search function available from a persistent toolbar, driven by the Online Government Store project.
AM note: the "OGS" became direct.gov
Implementing this search engine could be achieved in a 3-4 month project, with up to one week additional for each government department that connects. Departments (websites) would pay £X per annum to make use of the central search, with the search service more than paying for itself (including hardware, set-up time and maintenance) after 25 sites connect – before the “common good” saves are factored in for citizen benefit. These fees would be recovered through eDt’s planned charging process." So, I show this not so much as an "I told you so" but so as to help make a wider point and to hopefully, as one commenter says below, put the issue of search to bed: - Good search is vital. As the comments below note, all of the biggest and best internet businesses (ebay, amazon, yahoo, google etc) centre on helping you find what you need fast, using search. - The commerce businesses - ebay and amazon - search only their own sites and have good control over how things are tagged and presented. Even then, you will find lots of irrelevant items coming up in response to your search, particularly if it's a one or two word search (and I'm sure the average word count is 1.5-1.7 but I can't remember where I saw that statistic). If, using Amazon, you type in "360" then, of course, you get lots of items related to the xbox 360, but you also get a Kodak camera. If you enter "lost" then you get the DVD and book of the TV series, but you also get books about endangered species. You're smart enough to know which it is that you want and, if you're unsure, a click or two and all will be clear. - Government search is, I think, different. If google ranks based on "authority" - i.e. you're important and if you link to someone then that makes them important too ad infinitum - then there is a large need for links to sites and articles within those sites to be clear who is the definitive authority. Government should, by definition, be the authority on the stuff that it does - but if every site owner thinks that they should try and all be all things to all people, then you end up with thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of references to "tax credits" or "disabilty living allowance". Many of these references are out of date, a little misleading or sometimes plain wrong. The right job of a search engine is to bring up the definition that has most authority in a world where authority is hard to pin down (e.g. housing benefit, whilst on the surface the same all over the UK, actually is highly locally varied - perhaps it shouldn't be, but it is). Anyway, great search is a necessary part of driving e-government adoption. I just believe that without significant consolidation of websites, it won't deliver what's needed.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Latest Gateway Stats

November's report showing Gateway transactions, direct.gov usage figures and other interesting data is available now.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Lies, damned lies and service numbers

An interesting comment below that I've pulled out because I think it needs wider viewing: Interesting that success is still being measured in the number of services online - so what was the 100th service, the Gateway web site makes not mention of it - it was last updated with "What's New" in March 05 and the list of services available on Gateway looks no way near 100 - sounds like people's definition of what a service is and what is really a useable service by the public are something different - also, you say 7.5 million people registered on Gateway - sounds a little far feteched to think that over 7m people have logged onto Gateway and registered and then the uptake of services is so poor - typical government dept thinking to use stats such as number of services and number of registered users to demonstrate some measure of success - why not publish how many people are actually enrolled for each service and how many transactions go through each service on a monthly basis - bring real visibility to the success of Gateway I agree that the metrics aren't great, but they are what they are for now. But, it's pretty harsh to say the other numbers aren't published. I've commented on them several times here (for instance). eDt's October report, which contains every number you might want I suspect - and far more than I have ever seen from any other government department - is here, on the Cabinet Office website. I suspect November's will be up any day now if it's not already. The numbers tell the story and they're presented openly and honestly - you can see transaction flow year by year since the launch in 2001. You will also see that the Inland Revenue (now HMRC) can lay claim to the most used services and that other services are far behind. You can see what's being used and what's not. Draw your conclusions and comment here - constructively or not. Adoption of services is a big issue that needs to be addressed - I'm not sure that the population is "not ready" so much as not aware, not convinced or not enthused.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Government Gateway is 100

A quiet post in the comments sections below tells me that the Government Gateway enabled its 100th service yesterday. That's a big deal. Big because 100 is a nice round number in our counting system (Dan will doubtless comment) and big because it's been far harder than anyone ever thought it could be. Growth in 2005 has largely been down to enabling local authority transactional services - payments as well as form filling. It's taken a lot of hard work by people from all over government and the private sector to make this happen - whether it was vendors (Microsoft, Sun, Software AG, EDS, CapGemini, Atos, Cable and Wireless, Vizuri, Nfocus and a dozen others), contractors (you know who you are), Cabinet Office civil servants (you certainly know who you are) and then the departments and LAs that have plugged in, often with their own vendors, partners and contractors alongside them. Volumes are still not where I thought they would be - despite their being over 7.5 million registered users, the bulk are accessing self assessment, PAYE and so on (I'll let someone else say and "defrauding the tax credits system" - but that's not an internet issue as far as I can see). As another comment - and a particularly erudite one - says, "egov is missing a trick, the vast majority are not yet ready for services". I'm not sure I agree with that, but plainly the trick has been missed because people are not using them. I think it's because the services are not bundled in a way that makes them attractive to use. Making a congestion charge payment via text is an attractive option because it beats all the other ways. And, as to building a search engine instead of the gateway. We did "build" a search engine - a couple of times. But searching 3,500 government sites that are architected differently, don't use the same names for the same things, frequently duplicate data, have out of date data and so on, made it hard to find the right answers. That is, I think, why direct.gov got out of the pan-government search business. Google does it so much better. Anyway, happy 100th service. My congratulations to all of eDt, then and now.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The government is a different country ...

... They do things differently there. Interesting comment on my post below about integration: "The challenge you have not tackled is how to spend the money wisely - given the government's dismal track record of successful IT delivery, especially in the eGov space, how do you think they can successfully spend that amount of money and still deliver benefit/value? If you think it is possible, just look at the mess over in the Dept of Health - give them £10bn and they still can't get GPs to use the technology!" You're right, I didn't tackle it. It's not an easy topic to tackle in a few lines, but that's no reason to duck it. Here's a few points to provoke a debate: - IT projects on a large scale are fraught with difficulty and risk, whether public or private. For instance, Sainsbury's supply chain system (half a billion wasted?), the FBI's Virtual Case File project ($200 million wasted?) and so on. I could list a few dozen. If I tried to list the most successful IT projects over £100 million in cost, I think I would struggle to find more than a handful. So perhaps lesson one is, don't try to do anything that huge - you will get it wrong, it will cost more than you thought and it will be ugly. But how then do you build systems that cater for 60 million customers. That's lesson two: - If you are going to build something huge, then put the very best people you have on it and run a portfolio that only has a couple of these at any one time - because you can't resource more than that effectively. Departments in government don't have the kind of people in the numbers needed to pull this off, which argues strongly for departments actually not having any of them. Delivery of complex IT is a specialist skill and should be seen that way. An in-house government IT SWAT team (it's been argued for before, more than a few times) may be the answer although no entry from such a team is likely to be silent, surgical or short-term. - Whatever you are delivering, make it incremental rather than all out. This has been one of the central tenets of IT delivery in government since the SPRITE report by Ian McCartney, is listed as one of the 7 (8?) reasons why projects fail by the NAO and is assessed whenever an OGC gate review is being carried out. Easier said than done - if you're bringing in a new tax credits regime for the very first time, how do you roll it out incrementally? Well, perhaps for one thing, you don't turn off all of the old systems overnight. Legislation is a difficult thing to bring in a piece at a time, but the risk of no fallback needs to be included if there's going to be an all out approach. - Do things together, not apart. By having a portfolio of projects across government or an organisation, aligned to business process and overall goals, you can see where you're doubling up or where you're not putting in any effort. This would show up, say, just how many portals are being built or how many CRM efforts are underway. Aligning business processes across an organisation - even a small one - is challenging, doing it across multiple organisations (i.e. government departments) is enormously hard. But if you don't start, you're never going to show it can be done. So a Department for Receiving Money would be an obvious place to start as would a Department for Paying Money. HR, Finance, Payroll type systems are usually the first place to start with shared services - they're identified as low risk but, actually, are probably harder to do than external systems. The internal blocking is likely to be much greater with,e.g. an expenses system - believe it or not there are people who believe having the name of the person claiming in the top left instead of the top right is a meaningful differentiator between systems and deployments (just like where the search bar goes on a website - people get very wedded to it). - Finally, the stakeholders need to be right there. The assertion that the DoH have spent £10 billion and haven't even got the GPs to use it perhaps illustrates that. The NHS is absolutely huge - no organisation touches its scale in a single geography. People talk about Walmart (geographically spread, local systems), the Red Army (no longer with us) or the Indian Railway (look at their safety record) as being equivlent and, of the 3, Walmart is probably the only comparator - but it has a CEO, a board and a line of control. The NHS has none of these. Whilst I think the NHS IT programme could be singled out for many failings, coming up with a trite "I'd have done it this way and it would have been fine" is not easy. The level of integration is enormous - of process and technology, but particuarly the process change that comes with the new technology. Maybe GPs are not fans of change nor of technology. The NHS is littered with pilot after pilot that has never been rolled out - arguing that incremental delivery has been tried 1001 times but has never been shown to work. So an approach similar to big bang was adopted ... and, so far, is hasn't worked (at least as far as the press is concerned - I suspect that there have been many victories along the way). Like I said - all to provoke a debate. Responses welcome, agreeing or disagreeing, as long as they're accompanied by proposed approaches that could be tried.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Hello? Ja, bitte? Si, Pronto? Allo?

A lovely quote from Chuck Prince, CEO at Citigroup, in one of the many FT's I leafed through on the to Paris this weekend. Talking about squeezing more money out of the bank's (or should that be "Financial Super Group"?) cost base, he said We have lots of great technology and none of it talks to each other I worked for Citi for 7 years from 1992 to 1999, helping formulate the 5 year vision covering 1995 to 2000. One of the things advocated was a consolidation of legal vehicles - first in the FX business, then derivatives and, in parallel, across European Consumer and Corporate banks. The plan was that this would allow Citi to reduce the number of general ledgers from 18 to 1, stop dealers betting against each other in currencies or interest rate products and allow the consumer bank to be serviced from a single platform. When I left, the plan was well underway - certainly the FX piece was done and the consumer bank part was just kicking off. Chuck is plainly now looking at the next step which, I imagine, is the thankless task of integrating or consolidating all of the other systems - securities settlement, credit cards, dealing accounts, private bank etc. The year 2000 programme cost Citibank something like $600 million, the preparation for the Euro perhaps $400 million. Big numbers for sure - representing the spend to keep a huge technology base in check. Citi's latest quarterly revenue (to October 2005) came in at $21.5 billion. Corporates spend about 2-4% of their revenue on IT, so Citi's annual overall spend on technology could be somewhere between $1.6 billion and $3.5 billion. That's a lot of spend to harness (HMRC, as a comparison, spends about £300 million to maybe £400 million, based on the figures when the CapGemini contract was let). It needs a pile of investment to integrate though - which means that spend has to be redirected away from, say, replacement/replatforming, new products or maintenance, and towards making things talk to each other. That is both good and bad - it forces a focus on the business case of integration measured against the business case for a silo product launch - but, let's face it, the integration case has not often worked in the past as it brings complexity, dependency and higher risk of failure. Of course, we know that most corporates have too much technology ... here's something that I wrote around this time of year 3 years ago. And something a bit similar from mid-2003 on the lack of channel integration. The parallel with e-government or government generally is that the recent Transformation strategy talked about redirecting some 10% of the annual spend on technology (in the UK's case around £14 billion, or $22 billion - perhaps 10x Citibank's) towards shared services and greater integration. It's an interesting strategy: - The money has to be freed up ahead of time (you have to know you're going to have it to spend) so that you can launch procurements and sign contracts - You have to put joint governance over it (every department involved has a stake and will want a say) - Someone needs to be in charge (accountability needs to be clear and the head of the department running the specific project will be the one that stands in front of the PAC to defend or praise the project later) Contrast that with Citi where the CEO can put the right executives in place to make this happen, can direct spend where it needs to go to create most impact and can drive co-operation across the board through rewards, punishments, death and glory. I spoke at a conference about 3 weeks ago, in San Francisco, to the top 250 managers of a major tech company. They'd asked me to give them a customer view on how they were doing. My major theme was that systems by themselves rust and that too few vendors remember what the customer was actually going to do with the purchase - service card holders, let people make calls, manage leakage in water systems, sell books etc. Instead, for the last 10 years or more, it had been a game of how much hardware, software and maintenance could be sold. Deals got better every quarter or year end, encouraging customers to wait for the right moment (if they could) and to see the products as commodities rather than as fundamental components of the business. Future growth would come less from the commoditisation of products, but from innovation and delivery that helped the real customer get what they wanted, in turn choosing the provider of that product who, in turn, would choose the partners that they needed to deliver.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

King Kong Can

Watching King Kong on Thursday night it was easy to see where all the money had gone. Peter Jackson had urged us to go to the bathroom, if we wanted to, during his intro speech rather than during the film - "you certainly don't want to go in the last couple of hours" he advised. The last couple of hours? He was almost apologetic at the length of the film. No need. You won't notice that it's long. There are elements of nearly all the big films in this one - a bit of Titanic, a small homage to Alien, a lot of Jurassic Park, some Indiana Jones, even a little Bambi and, of course, a whole lot of the 1933 King Kong. It would be no surprise if this becomes the biggest film of all time - in box office take terms - and I will guess that it will certainly outgross the highest grossing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I can't imagine what new stuff a director's cut version could bring - another 40 minutes more footage, like the LotR versions? I loved it. Go and see it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

360 Launch

Today is launch day, in Europe, at least for the Xbox 360. I managed to blag an invite to the party tonight (thank you MB!) but I can't go - I should have known better, but was hoping the party would be yesterday or tomorrow. Other things have priority this evening. I got some play time in on Perfect Dark Zero this time last week though and had a blast. 4 players on one system with 10 bots. Live wasn't available in the UK, I guess because the system hadn't formally launched. The graphics and effects will blow you away with PDZ and the single player looks pretty inspired, but the multi-player looks and feels a little too Timesplitters for me. It didn't seem to have the balance of Halo 2. I probably need to play it a little more and explore some of the other maps and see if there are maps that provoke the tactics that are so resplendent in H2. My box should arrive in a few days so I'll have to wait before making a full call on PDZ. I knew the Stamper brothers, who own Rare (and before that Ultimate Play The Game) from the early 80s. Looking forward to a bit more game time.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Google complexity

I liked this, from Gerry McGovern this weekend: What do you see on the Google homepage? A very big search box. And is this all that Google offers? Of course not. Here's what else Google offers: Alerts, Local, Answers, Maps, Blog Search, Mobile, Book Search, News, Catalogs, Scholar, Directory, SMS, Froogle, Special Searches, Groups, University Search, Images, Labs, Web Search Features, Blogger, Picasa, Code, Talk, Desktop, Toolbar, Earth, Translate, Gmail. I'm not sure if it's apocryphal or not, but I heard a story where someone sent email to Sergey or maybe Larry every day with just a number in the subject - "33" say. I can't remember where I heard it, maybe I heard it at Google itself. Every day they'd get the same message and had no idea why. Then one day they changed the website, added some text perhaps, and the mail changed "34" or "35" or "36". Someone was keeping an eye out and saying "less is more". True? Maybe, maybe not. But simplicity wins. Oddly, I have no idea how to find that story via google and see how true it might be,

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Parking payments offline

My first parking ticket - ever - in the lovely village of Westminster. Returning to my car 4 minutes after my ticket expired, I was greeted by the warden taking photos of the car and posting a ticket under the windscreen wiper. Ho hum. I imagine one of the busiest times to pay fines is Saturday after a day shopping in town and, judging by how many tickets the guy was handing out in the street I was in, I'd be right. So when would you schedule a significant upgrade of your online payment service? Not Saturday afternoon surely? From westminster.gov.uk: This service allows you to pay Westminster City Council parking tickets online. Online payments is currently unavailable (Saturday 26/11/05). This is to allow a system upgrade to be put into place. This upgrade is schedule to take place between 16:00 and 21:00. Whilst this system is unavailable, please telephone our Parking Contact Centre on 020 7823 4567, who will be happy to assist you in paying your parking ticket. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused. Great. It's a shame that they can't even get the English right in the notice.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Directionless.gov rides again

Tom had the nerve to post that directionlessgov.com produces the correct answer when given the word "think" (as in road safety - see below) to hunt for. The "less" site (which is not to say the other is the "more" site) shows both direct.gov's search output as well as google's (which it rebadges and rebrands very nicely). I hadn't planned to defend direct.gov here, but it will look like I am. The google output is 9 links to the thinkroadsafety site and one to the hedgehog site (likely winner of the award for most unusual .gov website ... www.hedgehogs.gov.uk. If you care to visit, you'll find you have to "hog in" - I'm sure the bad jokes don't stop there but I didn't dare go any further). Direct.gov demotes road safety to number 7 as I posted before, but it does at least give 10 different sites, just in case when you typed "think" you really did want to visit rethink or RU thinking about it or whatever. Google probably don't mind if you hook into their site for the odd search, maybe even a few hundred (although they'd probably be a bit upset if they looked and found that directionless.gov strips out the ads which drive their revenues). But, there were 589,039 searches on direct.gov in October 2005 (from the EDT report) and I can't imagine google being too happy about that amount of freeloading on their servers. Indeed, when we talked to google (in my old job) about using them directly for government search (we even registered www.search.gov.uk I think), they wouldn't allow a direct hook into them but, instead, wanted to sell a google black box for close to $1mm. Not the best spend of taxpayer money I think - when most users are going to try google first anyway. Interestingly, if you use google and don't restrict the search to just .gov sites (which is what directionless does), and you search for "think" - where does the road safety campaign site come out? 7th. The other point, reinforced by Jason's comment below, is that there are still just too many domain names. There are probably at least 5,000 maybe 5,500 which reduce down to perhaps 3,500 individual websites (allowing for, say, www.ir.gov.uk pointing to hmrc.gov.uk - maybe that's a plan, we can just rationalise government departments to reduce the domain count?). I think that's 3,250 too many and if I'm really nasty, it's probably 3,490 too many. I've often stood at conferences and said that the average person has 10 bookmarks for key sites. The odds of one of them being government are pretty low which is perhaps why direct.gov whilst doing well with 1,500,000 visitors isn't getting anything like the 20% of the population visiting that it probably should get. Not an easy set of problems to solve - but it needs more than strategy, it needs action.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Think? Again?

Watching TV in the hotel last night - ok, I was bored - there was an anti-drink driving ad. At the end, I could have sworn I saw the tag "www.think.dtlr.gov.uk" on the screen. I thought dtlr went the way of the dodo 3 or 4 years ago. But, if you use that URL, you do indeed get to the right place which is actually, www.thinkroadsafety.gov.uk. If there's a redirect, why not put the right URL in place given that you're paying for brand time as much as the campaign? Why use an address that died a long time ago for a brand that no-one remembers or cares about? Why use a double parameter address rather than just the simpler "www.think.gov.uk" - which is a pure 404? Why not, dare I ask, use www.direct.gov.uk/think? Oddly, that last address provides the message:
We are currently experiencing technical difficulties on the Directgov website but expect normal service to be restored very shortly. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused and try again later.
The rest of directgov is fine, so this must be just a 404-type problem. I went to directgov and, out of interest, put "think" into the search box. It's a topical campaign, in the run up the Christmas period so you'd imagine it would get attention now. The top items are: 1) Rethink - for an organisation dealing with mental illness 2) RU thinking about IT - which is not about IT, but about safe sex (!) 3) Think u Know - about Internet safety for children 4) Viewing a property you are thinking about buying 5) Benefit cheats told to "think twice" No. 7 is a link to a newsroom story about the Think! campaign which carries a link to the main site.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Highway 101 - more potholes than Camden Town

Just arrived in San Francisco to find the weather is just like back home. Blue skies, bright sunshine and everyone wearing shorts. Just like London. I wish. I drove south from the airport, down route 101. I've driven better roads in India - and they have fewer cows on the roads there. There are still empty buildings either side of the highway, but it looks busier than it did when I was last here, a year ago or so. My hotel is right opposite Yahoo, Sun, EMC and a roller-coaster park. Just right for this part of the world. Virgin looked after me well on the way over. After nearly 15 years of regular travel - and 21 years of Virgin Atlantic - this is the first time I've flown with them. They were great. Limo pickup, check in taken care of while I'm sitting in the car, a brisk walk to the lounge through the fast track - and it's a great lounge. And then the marvellous invention: they have 50 films that you can watch and you can even press the pause button whilst you get a massage, go to the toilet or chat with the stewardess. What an incredible leap forward. After maybe 100 flights across the pond, I've finally got on a plane that lets me watch films the way I do at home - stop/start/stop/start. BA - your days are numbered for me. I just need to use up those air miles. If you're on a 'plane soon, I recommend wholeheartedly watching "Crash" (not the David Cronenberg version, although that had its moments).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Comments on Xform

Interesting comment after the last post 'So does that nett out to say do not expect too much of anything too soon? There is no burning platform to make these public sector folk change their behaviour or methods. "Transformational Government" to be filed under "Oxymorons of our Time" ' That would be a pessimistic view. Making things move in government is hard - for all of Archimedes' talk of a lever and a place to stand, he wasn't dealing with the public sector. Don't expect too much too soon - that would just set us all up for disappointment, but do watch for the signs of movement. If those green shoots start to appear then it's likely that enough energy could get behind it to do something. Take OGC's gateway reviews for instance - they started small and are now embedded everywhere, but it took 3-4 years and that was just peer review where no-one got to see the output by the head of OGC and the SRO for the programme. "Transformational Government" might be like "World Cup winning England Football team" - something that's right only once in a generation or two. Maybe it's our turn this time, for both.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Transformational Government

The opportunity for scoop on this paper, published recently by the Cabinet Office, has long since passed. The Idealgovernment folks, for instance, have been posting regularly, even garnering Jim Murphy the CO Minister on their list of authors. Mike Cross has also taken a look, worrying about the vendor side of the deal. Mike is a shrewd operator and will be worrying about more than that I suspect - and has probably been looking at drafts of this strategy as long as I have. I spent five years at e-Envoy, now eGU or even OCIO if you prefer, so have more than a few views on this document. It would be easy, perhaps, to be bitter and twisted about the whole thing, but it would hardly be productive. So overall, I think praise is in order - for now - for getting together CIOs from across government and having them endorse a cohesive articulation of what their jobs should be over the next 5 years. Previous strategy documents have come from the centre and been inflicted on the departments. This one has the feel of one that has been worked and reworked across government - with the commitment from senior civil service and ministerial level plain. That gives it a headstart over previous strategies, but it doesn't make it deliverable (to use an apparently over-used word, per Mike Cross). There aren't any new words here: - Citizen centred ambitions have been around a long time (the first UKonline, launched around a series of life events, showed up in 2001). The original vision of the e-government effort was that we would join up government at the front end, masking the wide mix of disparate services below the "scum line" (anyone who saw me present from 2001 onwards will remember that description), whilst buying time to re-engineer the backend systems and business processes to create real change. Indeed, direct.gov gets a one line mention in the strategy, but it's not entirely clear if the action plan is going to centre on driving greater use of that. Is that too sensitive a topic? - Shared services likewise (the government gateway is the pioneer of that, dotp a second wedge, and there were at least 1/2 a dozen attempts at joining up finance or HR systems in my time). Oddly, the fact that the gateway or dotp exist and could be leveraged isn't mentioned. On second thoughts, perhaps that isn't odd before. - Taking £1.4 billion away from departments - via, I assume, some kind of top slice process - is an idea that was put up 10 times (I have the notes to the Chief Secretary) but was never seen as viable. Has it changed now? It's a very big deal if it has and I'd applaud the CO if they've managed it. Caution will need to be exercised from here on - I can see a whole lot of excuses for why things haven't been delivered elsewhere landing on their doorstep from here on. - The problem before has never been a lack of strategy but a lack of will to "do" - to execute, to make things happen, to change the way things were done in the past. My worries then are: - The plan, it says, is to provide "technology leadership". We know that won't be enough. The technology, whilst challenging and fraught with difficult issues, can be put in place relatively quickly - but harnessing all of the requirements and needs of individual departments (centrally and locally) will be two orders of magnitude harder. Where is the equivalent business leadership coming from? - How is the commercial leverage going to come about? Vendors will follow the money, they have to, it's how they get returns. If there's a choice between a department that is waiting 3 years for a central system versus one that wants to get moving right now, which one is the vendor going to put time and resource against? - Is this a forward plan or a backward plan? That is, does the plan say that from now on, all things will be done this way and any new projects started have to conform, or is it going to reach back into projects that are already underway or have long since been completed and say "thanks very much for doing that, but it's no longer relevant - you'll have to adopt this thing over here". If the former, then the timeframe is probably optimistic - change will not be irreversible by 2011; if the latter, than there's a chance to do it sooner, albeit with more pain. Remember, many departments have been operating their main back end systems since 1981 and all those who want SAP or Peoplesoft will have put it in by now, or be saying that they can't wait 2-5 years for a central system. - The vision says that "government is enabled by technology - policy is inspired by it". Something in the pit of my stomach turns when I hear this. I can see a bright, young policy wonk creating something that turns on the presence of 3g phone networks in everyone's hand. I say this as the guy who came up with the strapline for his team, in mid 2001, of "Delivering the technology to transform government" - I believed it then and I believe it now. But I don't see it happening yet. - There's almost a throwaway remark about "systems were designed as islands, with their own data". That's true - and it reflects the IT governance practice of the 1980s and early 1990s: every system is a kingdom and whoever is king of that dom gets it the way they want it, without risk of interference from others. Turning that over has been tried in the recent past - with the CIP initiative that was explored by Lord Carter (Patrick Carter at the time). If ID cards are going to reach down into individual systems, that work is going to need a serious going over to get everyone signed up to it and, probably, everything else will need to be put on hold while such a significant change is made to everything. If you think capacity is stretched now, it could be worse. Alternatively, the front end government gateway approach that was proposed could be adopted and it could happen in the background. - Bullet 20 of the vision talks about not just doing "IT better" but doing "IT differently", something which looks to be a redux of the original brief I put into the Mission Critical IT projects brief of using Gate reviews to not just see if "we were doing things right" but if "we were doing the right things". Services that are more joined up and more personalised is an old saw. There's plenty of support for the former and unclear definitions abound for the latter. - I worry about the unsaid "GDP business case" argument. There's much talk about efficiency and about "customer satisfaction not being the only goal" but the real money is not on the inside of government. The Inland Revenue spent £2 billion to collect its £200 billion in tax. I suspect HMRC spends £3 bn to get £300 bn. Neither are ratios that would worry you if you were a business - indeed you'd be at the top of the tree. So if HMRC halves its costs (feasible I think), the ratio goes from outstanding to simply stunning. But if HMRC allows savings of £1000 in costs per year from 3 million small businesses, or £100 from 9 million self assessment tax payers, I'd like to think the numbers would stack up better in pure GDP terms. The tax take may go up a little, but the economy would be goosed with more money. Neither goal is mutually exclusive, but there is little that I can see explicitly about the GDP business case. In 2001, we thought that e-government could be worth, by 2011, 2% on GDP. - The less I say about website consolidation at this point the better. I wish it were only 2,500 websites. I guess that's pure central government ones. There were certainly over 4,000 on the domain name list I saw recently. Dan had a good idea - we need to declare a half life on these things. - I love the idea of Customer Directors and am intrigued about the first candidates being for parents and for small business (what then, I wonder, has the Small Business Service being doing for the last 5 years - and what role does business.gov have in this?). I'm intrigued how it's going to work with a minister leading the charge - and how they will steer a cross-government budget across department lines. Such issues over funding, control, risk management, implementation, vendor contracts etc will be faced at every step of the way with this strategy. They are not new issues, but they were never comprehensively dealt with, despite some very fine attempts. Early sight of how this is going to happen will, in my mind, give the strategy enormous credibility both inside government and with those cognescenti from the outside that worry about those sorts of things. - The kind of people that are suggested for taking this forward - customer directors, "customer group teams" and so on are probably pretty rare in government. Finding the right ones with direct.gov was difficult - but it was done (and done well - 1,500,000 visitors in September can't be wrong after all). Finding them from outside will increase the risk of failure - the antibodies in government will quickly find and exploit their weaknesses. And the last place we should spend the £1.4bn freed up from the budgets is on new people. There's a tricky shift to get right here. - Para 33, part 7, drops in, pretty much from nowhere, that citizens should be able to access and manage the data held about them. This is a version of the "data in the cloud" strategy that has been kicked around before. This could be the single killer app - real time pension forecasting has been a bit of a sleeper hit precisely because it allowed people to see something that was barely, if at all, visible before. It's a huge challenge and has to be accompanied by joining up data identifiers (so a change of address in one replicates across the others) and it's fraught with complexity (not least identity and security), but what a goal to bury 2/3 of the way through a strategy. I have a 101 detailed comments on the text and a pile more questions. If I get time, I plan to send them to the powers that be as formal feedback. Overall though: - Bonus points for pulling it all together; and if you have all the CIOs together as one on this, double bonus points - Well done for getting the PM to endorse it and do a webcast (You might need someone else to do one soon though, at this rate) - The timetable looks crap - nothing happens next year because you're too busy doing that you already promised to do (and the artful departments will suddenly launch a bunch of initiatives next year which get too far down the track to change). But maybe you're being realistic and following the once bitten, twice shy rule. - It all rests on the action plan now. Some specific deliverables and visible items that we can see and touch (and throw sticks and stones at of course). I'm going to be watching this with great interest. It could be a new beginning where lots gets done or one where we're left at the end of the film thinking about how clever they were to position themselves for a sequel.

Netnation 2.0, not quite web 2.0

A couple of weeks ago, the nice people at netnation (who host this site) did a big upgrade of all of their servers and software. Everything changed - directory names, passwords, URLs, management tools, etc. Since then I haven't been able to get anything to work and have been forlornly trekking through their help files and FAQs, corresponding with their technical support people and generally holding my head in my hands trying to get it all to work. I think I've cracked it now, although it did involve deleting my entire set of archive blog files (a bold decision if only because I may be the only one who likes to know what I've written about before). The previous post, on the Internet Listing Scam, has been in limbo for a fortnight now and that seems to have made it through the gates.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Internet Listing Scam

"Annual website search engine listing ... £47.50" ... what a steal! Internet Listing Service Corp wrote to me today asking me to send them a cheque or credit card details for their service. It looks like an invoice (it talks about money after all) and it even looks like a domain name registration invoice. They even ask for the money within 15 days to "ensure all listings are final". But it's just some scam where they post my domain name plus some tags to "20 major search engines". On page 2 it finally says "this is not a bill, this is a solicitation." Well that's clear then. Their website, ilscorpc.co.uk (I'm not linking to them deliberately), tells me:
1. Why should I go with Internet Listing Services Corporation? Over 80% of referrals come from search engines. To be successful, your site must be listed in many search engines. Search engine referrals are by far the most inexpensive way to drive traffic to your site. Many times, search engines do not list you or drop your site after a period of time, without informing you. Search engine submission does not just mean going to the top several web sites and submitting your URL. URL submission is a critical part of any site maintenance plan. You must submit and resubmit to search engines to ensure that you will get listed and maintain your listing. With so many search engines out there, this is a process that should be automated.
Ummm, nope, that's a reason I should make sure I'm represented on search engines, not a reason why I should use ilscorp to do it. Plainly people do accept this deal, otherwise they wouldn't send the stuff out. But why, oh why? They didn't even include a reply paid envelope. One more for the shredder.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

ID, ID, ID ...

Jerry the Fish, Microsoft's UK National Technology Officer, published a good piece in the Scotsman the other day - I've linked to Kim Cameron's quote of it. Lord knows why Jerry chose that newspaper; maybe the majors south of the border wouldn't touch it? Circulation figures are listed as 67,000 in Sep 2005 (with a readership just over 200,000) - You can do better Jerry (and yes, I know that's 199,999 more people than read this blog) It's a good, strong piece that says, essentially, caveat emptor to the government, e.g.
The ID card itself also needs to be carefully designed to ensure it doesn't add to identity fraud problems by carelessly "broadcasting" personal information every time it's used. Using the same identifiers wherever we present the ID card is a highly risky technical design. Would you be happy if online auction sites, casinos or car rental company employees are given the same identity information that provides you with access to your medical records? It's unnecessary: we can already design systems that ensure the disclosure of personal information is restricted only to the minimum information required (a pub landlord, for example, needs only to know that you are over 18). Keeping identity information relevant to the context in which it is used is both good privacy and good security practice.
I've long worried about the card issuance process - after all, I see only flaws with the one banks use for credit cards (and, whilst they can create a reserve for credit losses, it's hard to see government adopting the same for ID losses) - but few seem to talk about the process for approving who can access data on the card. The checkout girl in the supermarket that checks your age presumably needs to have a card that says she's allowed to look at your age (i.e. I'd like to know that someone's checked out who she is and made sure that she can only look at my age when she's at the till, not when she's out at a bar); the doctor in the practice needs to look at more data, but again, I'd like to know that she's got a clear process for doing that and that the nurse in the practice surgery can't randomly look up data. This needs a lot of thought - and there are many on the web who are contributing to that debate. The crucial test is are they being listened to? After all, Jerry says:
if someone were proposing to build the most ambitious bridge the world had ever seen and engineers could see that it would fail, and suggest ways in which it could be improved, we would expect their views to be taken into account.
We know that Norman (Lord) Foster, for all his skills, still screwed up the Millenium Bridge across the Thames. It can happen to the very best. Funnily enough, today saw Ian Watmore talk openly about the potential for problems with the ID card in the Independent. There's a great photo of him, that you won't see in the online edition (there you have it - a reason to stay with the dead tree press), looking skywards. I think he's after salvation and divine aid rather but it may be that he was rolling his eyes at the thought that he might carry responsibility if the ID card programme doesn't go right. There are a couple of odd lines, like this one
The former managing director of the consultancy firm Accenture made some big changes on taking charge - like deciding to audit how much the public-sector spends on IT.
First, I'm not sure that's a "big change" and, second, it's not a change at all - it's been done before. Perhaps Ian has got a scientific way of doing it now by getting everyone to tell him how much they're spending on both capital and operational IT across all of government (I can see the paper forms required now). We always struggled in the past to get at "day to day" budget money (i.e. costs that a department or LA could incur without specific outside approval) versus programme money (that was separately itemised to the Treasury). Interestingly, the spend quoted, at £14bn, is around a £1bn more than I quoted when I used to spend time trying to add the numbers up. Remember, a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money. The estimates were made every couple of years though, based on spending review requests, capital budget allocation and review of deals signed through outsourcers. So not perhaps the first attempt but perhaps the latest and hopefully more accurate. And there's this too
"I can't say anything like I know anything is going to happen." Will it be delayed in the tradition of all great government IT projects? "I don't think anyone is naive enough to believe this is an easy project."
Given there's not really a start date yet (let alone a contract let) and he's talking about a pretty broad set of potential pilots, that sounds like a good answer. Let's hope no one is naive enough. I'm not sure government has built too many bridges recently so maybe we should find some folks who have.

Running With Gadgets

Every run has become a bit of a gadget fest these days. On my wrist is my new Garmin Forerunner 301 GPS tracker and in my pocket is my ipod nano. If I'm running for time, I'll listen to some up tempo music, if I'm just running for distance, I'll do a book. The current book is Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything - a great book that I have two copies of at home, one in hardback and one in paperback, neither of which I've ever got round to reading. Two weeks ago I ran the Nike 10k in London. There were 3 or 4 races going on in various places, I ran the Battersea Park loop. Last time I ran with a marked course with the Forerunner, it was the Great North Run. It had me finishing the race a good 1/2 mile before I actually finished. This run was no different. The watch had me down as running 10.4km and me finishing after 47 minutes - I crossed the line at 48m 34s. Motionbased - the website that hosts the graphic I've put just above - had the distance at 10.08km - far closer. These differences bother me just a little - not a lot, it's about a 4% difference versus distance on the ground so it's not terrible. After all, who'd have thought a GPS device could fit on your wrist let alone deal with the constant up and down motion of a runner? But, I've been trying to figure out the discrepancies, partly so that I know if it's telling me I'm running faster than I am and partly so that I can understand the distance discrepancies and plan that finishing burst with a little more accuracy. I figure if it was just GPS errors, they'd cancel out (because I assume that they're +/- errors so would make one km a bit longer and perhaps the next a bit shorter, evening out over a 10km run). But every run seems a little longer and, consistently, 10km runs seem to come out as 10.4km meaning that I stop running a good 90-120 seconds before I'm supposed to. After a bit of research, it turns out that there are a few reasons for this: - Lost signal - where you run under tree cover or between tall buildings - Elevation - Motionbased looks to map in 3D and measure distance more precisely - Observations - the watch parses more data as I'm running than it exports to MB - Algorithms - different, apparently spurious, numbers are thrown away by each Garmin have just bought Motionbased so perhaps we'll see some of this sorted out in a new version of the software (the watch plugs in via USB so I'm hoping that I can just download and go). That said, MB works with various devices and I guess they use the same algorithm, so Garmin making it work better doesn't mean that it would be any better for other devices. Meanwhile, I need to run the same course a few times and see if the errors are consistent and then I can just add the 1/2km to the distance and adjust for the error in the target speed. Believe me, it's quite disheartening to know you're on a 10km loop and think you're done 90 seconds before you are. On a marathon course, that would have me marked as done around 1km before the end.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

London, err, 2013

Given our wonderful track record on project delivery in the UK (Portsmouth's millennium Spinnaker Tower anyone?), I thought this graphic from SimonF was worth a wider showing:

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The next next thing, happening

Marc Andreessen has a new project up and running .... ning. Just trying to figure it out myself.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Blog templates

Every so often I play with the template on the blog, partly for a change and partly because I want to see if there's anything new blogger can do. I'm always jealous of blogs like John Gotze's or Phil Windley's as they're both cleverer than me with all things technical and seem to have better gadgets to play with in their blogs. This time, though, I've changed the template because I was having problems rendering the site in IE. It worked fine in Firefox, my default browser, but checking it in both Mac and Windows IE, the right hand side-bar appeared beneath all the posts. I think I've fixed it now, but I've had to change the template. And, no, there are no new gagdets in blogger that I could find to make things more interesting.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Payment on Demand

I've tried the web page, I've tried e-mail. I've gone back to paper and a typewriter. Having got nowhere in nearly 12 months with paying my council tax, I've bitten the bullet and written to the Chief Executive of my local council. I'll let you know what the response is. Here's the letter: Dear Mr. Alltimes Over the last few months I have exchanged several emails with your team regarding the payment of council tax. Having moved into a newly-constructed property, I used your website to alert you to my desire to pay the necessary tax. I was initially advised that it wouldn’t be possible as there was no such property where I claimed to live:
“It would appear that we have flats 1-9 but NOT 11 on our data base … I apologise for any inconvenience caused but we are unable to register you until the valuation office contact us and advise that your property exists.”
I checked and rechecked the details and assured your officers that there was indeed a property at the address I claimed to live at – after all, I was standing in it at the time. I was then advised that an inspection was needed to ensure that the property existed or perhaps to give it a reference number – I was never clear which:
“I made a report on this property on 22.11.04 as I recall I contacted the developer direct Your property number is 00018660110041”
Meanwhile, I had successfully added myself to the electoral roll and was even receiving deliveries via the Post Office, increasing my confidence that my address did indeed exist. Eventually, I was advised that it should all be ok:
“I write to confirm that you have now been registered for the payment of council tax. Your new council tax account number is 64583982 and a demand will be issued once the valuation office have contacted us to confirm the banding of this property.
You should receive a letter from the valuation office confirming which council tax band your property is listed as”
Later, I was told that I needed to get my property valued – this despite the fact that it had only recently been built and I was the first occupant. I’ve since tried to get it valued, writing to another part of government, but have yet to receive a response. Perhaps they don’t believe I live here either?
“If you wish to chase up the matter of the banding on your property, you will can do this by contacting the Valuation Office”
Whilst I make little use of council services, as far as I’m aware, I would prefer to pay council tax as I believe I am obliged to. I have no desire, however, to navigate further the bureaucracy of local and central government to do so, given that I have failed to make much of a route map so far. Perhaps you could send a bill based on your estimate of the value of the property and arrange for a valuation to be conducted at a later date that suits, whether by the Valuation Office or by someone who can look at my mortgage statement which clearly states how much I paid. I would be delighted to begin making payments as soon as you are ready to issue a demand.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Great North Run

Two Sundays ago I was up in Newcastle taking part in the Great North Run. I say "taking part" as, whilst I did my best, the time I put in doesn't quite do for the verb "ran". It's not the most visually stunning route, but 50,000-odd people and 25 years of history say far more than the view from the road. Running from roundabout to roundabout before, finally, descending to the beach isn't energising, but then nor was being overtaken by everyone and their dog/banana/sunflower costume for the first 8 miles. It was as the 8 mile point came up that I thought about quitting - that idea never even crossed my mind in the London Marathon, not even at the 18 mile point, but then London is pretty flat. The GNR, on the other hand, climbs 2000' and then loses about the same distance over its length. You really feel those hills, every last bloody yard of them. Finally, after 8 miles, I started to overtake people, even though I was running more slowly than I had in the first part. Maybe everyone else was feeling it more than I was. I'd set myself a goal of 1h 50m and was hoping, really, to do 1h 44m or so. I ran the first 5k in 24 mins, perhaps a little fast; 10k came up in 51m (that was 10k according to my GPS watch - the road marker came up about 30 seconds later). From then on, it was downhill - for my running, but not for the course. The back 11k took 1h 8m - slower than my slowest ever, marathons notwithstanding. I just couldn't make it happen. The stats (from my watch, see below) say it's 37% climbing, 37% descending and the rest on the flat. The bulk of the descent comes right near the end when you think you're done, but you find there's a mile to go still. They make that bit worse by letting you know, when you feel like you've run most of it, that there's still 800m to go, then 400m and then, just as you see the end, they make you turn right and go to a different end (the first one is for the elite runners I guess). As I jogged that last bit, there were many people by the side of the road, clearly suffering - some with O2 masks, some in the recovery position and, possibly, one or two not moving (after the race I heard that at least 4 people didn't make it). Organising 50,000 people is an incredible feat, but there were perhaps some mistakes made - the first water stop was, I think, between 4 and 5 miles. If you were at the back of the line, spent 2 hours waiting to start, 40 mins shuffling forward to get over the start line and then still had to run 5 miles, you were going to suffer, no matter the weather. Given it was 20 degrees, almost no wind and no clouds by 30 mins before the start, it was going to be ugly. Could the organisers have seen that? Probably, but it's a tough call - after all, the Americans didn't see a 400 mile hurricane coming towards New Orleans until it was too late. I think the organisers did a great job herding that many people through a 13 mile course, next year, I imagine they'll take some more steps towards making sure everyone is ok. Odds are, perhaps, that in any crowd of 50,000 people, some will die and if they have to run 13 miles too, then the odds head rapidly towards the reaper winning. Moral, if you're going to go, probably don't do it when you're running, there are far better ways to go. I've been using a new gadget to help with my training - a Garmin Forerunner 301. I've linked it with MotionBased, thanks to an idea from Brad Feld (who founded/worked at the Feld Group with Charlie Feld, who I've met once). Brad's comment below explains how to paste in the run picture and the elevation - Thanks Brad - I've put a photo version in here, but it could just as easily be a street or satellite map. Pretty cool. If you're a runner (or even a cyclist), the 301 is much better than the previous gadget I used, from Timex. Why? Well, the Timex comes in two units (a watch and a GPS tracker - great if you just want to wear the watch sometimes, but I have enough watches and I hated strapping the other thing to my arm and if I put it in a pouch it seemed to lose connection more often); the Garmin unit allows you to load up workouts (e.g. alternate fast/slow or different out and back times), set target pace and heart rate zones and, best of all, use a virtual assistant to track your pace and see how far ahead or behind (in my case in the GNR) you are. MotionBased then lets you port your data into its site so that you can easily compare all runs, get splits by mile or km and even take a look at your run in Google Earth and Google Maps. I haven't beaten the shin splints as 7 days of pain since the GNR have told me, but there must be a way through those if only I can find it. I have a foot doctor appointment in 10 days or so and I'm hoping for some serious illumination. There's no way I'm going to get in shape for a 3h 45m marathon if I can't train more than once every couple of weeks. I've been studying up on shin splints. There's lots of theory but not much solid data. I can't find any studies. In the 70s, if you hurt between the ankle and the hip, you had shin splints. Now, at least, they have compartmentalised the problem and I can see exactly the problem I have described in several books (notably the Lore of Running, which is a great book). There are, it seems, many causes - including that I'm going through the menopause and suffering from low calcium, that I'm wearing the wrong shoes, that I have stiff calves, that I haven't developed my front calves enough, that I've started training too hard without enough build up etc. Whilst there are many causes, there aren't many fixes. I haven't been able to run since the GNR - 8 days now; I've tried ice, pain killers, massage, MBT shoes and pretty much everything else. I'm visiting the foot doctor next week to see if I can get it all fixed. The Lore says that 75-95% of running problems can be fixed with orthotics. For once, I hope I'm in the majority.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Olympic Sailing

Last Tuesday I spent the day in a boat with one or other of the 3 gold medal winners from Athens at the 2004 Olympics. Sarah, Sarah and Shirley (a 2 time gold medal winner - once as a solo racer) taught me how to sail again. Last time I sailed with any degree of seriousness I was around 9 and I'm sure it was a lot easier then - I'm convinced that someone else always hauled the sails up and down so that I didn't have to. This time, we put everything up ourselves - pretty easy on a boat that's no more than 14 feet long I guess. Sailing with people who really know how to do it is a completely different thing - an obvious statement, but until you're up close with professionals, you just don't realise the degree of additional knowledge that they have over you. These three girls are enormously competitive - as you'd expect; you don't win gold without that aspect to your character - and although we were only racing around a couple of markers off the coast at Cowes, we were really flying, with every available tactic put into use. I learnt a huge amount about watching for the wind ahead, using tell-tales, making tiny adjustments to the jib and the main sail, via little ropes that I'd seen on boats before but never touched. The focus and discipline that experts bring means you can get going from scratch with zero knowledge. Around 9 or 10 months ago, I met the two Sarahs - at a big event - and got talking to them about how they were going to go about fund raising for the next couple of Olympics and, for that matter, other competitions. I thought I could help out and so made an offer to get some funding together in return for a day on the water. Seemed a fair exchange - I'd pay better than market rate, they'd teach me and a few others to sail and we'd all have a bit of fun. It turns out that it's tough to get something like this together - multiple diaries, one company or another making a promise and then stepping back from it, but in the end it came together. Over the following months, I put together a programme with Pete Rhodes at the British Olympic Association, for a day out on some boats. It's pretty much a template now that can be used with any set of Olympians from any sport - and the BOA will be happy to talk to you about such an event. It happens that I was sailing, but if you fancied some rowing with Steve Redgrave or curling with Rhona Martin (not my sport, but there are folks who would enjoy it), then the BOA can now put together a package for you, whether it's a personal thing, a corporate marketing event with clients in tow or a team building session with your own folks. I can put you in touch with the right people, so let me know if you're interested. Nine of us went out for the day - 3 boats, each with 3 non-sailors and one Olympian in charge of tuition and important things like avoiding other boats (especially the enormous container ships that move through the channel). The weather moved from a bit grey, cold and cloudy first thing to 25 degrees and no clouds before lunch. Wind was pretty light, but plenty enough for us beginners to get used to tactics in a race. It was a blast. There'll be some photos coming soon and I'll post them here as soon as I have them. Thanks to Microsoft, EMC and Vertex for making it happen and thanks to the BOA, especially Pete and, of course, Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Shirley Robertson for providing so much entertainment and education on the day.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Convergence, standards and crumby thinking

I've had my PSP for 6 weeks or so now, so watching all the excitement in the UK over its launch has been fun. Most stores sold out of the hardware purely through pre-orders, but there were games all over the place. Perhaps a reflection of the poor set of launch titles, despite it having been in the USA for 6 months. It was with some trepidation that I picked up an extra game - I'd bought Lumines and Mercury on day one - as, although I'd been told that games were not region locked, I wasn't sure whether it was going to be true. I bought Wipeout - something I'd never played, even in PS 1 days. I thought back to my first DVD player, bought in 1999 in Paris. I'd picked up a multi-region player from FNAC (there isn't really an English equivalent - they sell books, CDs, DVDs, hardware, software and cameras - usually in huge stores that are elegantly designed with lots of space to move around. Perhaps a Dixons crossed with Virgin with the space of John Lewis) - a multi-region player direct from a store! Imagine that - encouraging breach of licence laws! It was the arrival of Saving Private Ryan on Region 1 disc that persuaded me to make the purchase. For a couple of years I bought nearly all of my discs in Paris, mostly Region 1, because stocks in the UK were poor (I remember HMV in Oxford Street having maybe one shelf row of DVDs - now look at it, there's one row of videos instead). With my latest UK-bought player, I had to stand on one leg, point the remote backwards at the ceiling and type a button combination with the disc try open but sliding back home before I could make it play US discs). That's progress for you - we moved from having to open the box and fiddle with chips (doing god knows what to the warranty) to a strange series of gestures that needed no expertise and no fiddling inside. Given that the video game industry has shipped region locked discs or cartridges (just as the film business has) since the beginning of time (my memory says that would be about 1981 in video game systems), I think I was right to be sceptical. But, it turned out I was wrong, as on so many things (some of you will say). The "region 2" UMD (it's clearly marked as such) worked fine, even offering me the choice of a 1/2 dozen languages; how very European (the US games that I have don't offer that choice) The PSP has landed and it works fine for games - the screen is amazing, the speakers tinny (that's what headphones are for) and it has all the right buttons. It even plays cut-down DVDs. It will be interesting to see Sony's strategy with films. If they release some films on UMD a couple of weeks or a month earlier than the DVD version, I'm pretty sure they could make some interesting waves in the film business (and, given they own a studio, this ought not to be hard). Getting the type of film right seems key - more Hellboy than Pride and Prejudice, more Jennifer Garner than Orson Welles. Fanboys and girls could start to pick up a lot of films and the opportunity for film/movie tie-ins with both one one disc could be huge, if there's space for both. What I don't see, and maybe it's just me, is the whole wider convergence thing. Maybe convergence should just mean it does one thing really well and one thing quite well. Playing games to the highest standard and being ok as a portable film player, for instance? But I'm not going to go through the pain of figuring out how to get an existing video ripped to it, or shifting 1GB of music via USB. And I'm certainly not going to surf the web. Even direct.gov which is supposed to render well on all screens using style sheets, doesn't handle this shaped screen. The wifi connection works fine for downloading software updates, but I don't want to use a mobile phone-style keyboard to enter web addresses thank you. I have enough fun doing that with my Treo - and that's just as crap at rendering most sites, unless they have a specific mobile version (thank you Google, Amazon.com and the Beeb) It's not going to fit in my pocket when I jog. Its battery isn't going to last the duration of a trans-atlantic flight. Or even, probably, a Eurostar trip. Two things good, four things bad, perhaps? My phone can handle MP3 too - but I don't use it for that (when I'm out running, I don't want anyone phoning me - I can barely talk, let alone actually hold a conversation of any importance). Sony will say that it's the future, that this is the way devices are going. They've even called it the PSP 1000, to give room for at least 8 more versions (2000,3000 .... 9000) - doubtless there's a lot more innovation and, god help me, convergence to come. I'll say, for the record, that it reflects crumby thinking. It does convergence because it can. It has a great screen so it plays films and displays photos, it has additional memory (although Sony's own standard and excessively priced) so it can handle MP3s (at least they've moved away from ATRAC), it has wifi so it can surf the web (even if you have to scroll left and right to read the whole text - and you have to manually configure the IP address for each network you use, rather than use DHCP - or, I do anyway). It's primary function - games - it does spectacularly well; it does films pretty well (it's no DVD player and I have no desire to populate two libraries); it does music ok (but it's no ipod); and it does the web not at all (someone's going to point me to a specially formatted for PSP site now, but I bet you it's a site that talks about the PSP, not one that I'd actually want to visit). Games is all I wanted when I anted up, films are an occasional extra. Everything else, they can keep for now. Next up, the ipod phone. Oh.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Katrina and her waves

Holidaying, hanging out and living in and around Florida and the islands in 97/98/99 I lived through a few hurricanes, sometimes 5 in a year. I watched Floyd, probably the largest since Andrew arrive at the shores of Fort Lauderdale before veering sharp right, avoiding Florida and smacking into the Carolinas and other states further North. On that day, they closed the parks in Orlando for the first time in history, everyone in th city moved West to escape the storm and, the next day, before anyone came back, the parks opened and I was able to tour each of them in less than half a day, riding every rollercoaster ten times or more. In the Keys, storms were marked by a few days without power, a lot of boats lost under the waves forever and beer parties, making use of what little ice remained in the fridges until it melted. In the islands - the Bahamas - hurricanes flooded the hotels, ripped the roofs off apartments, sped off with anything that wasn't tied down and caused general havoc. The season runs from July to about November and, if you're there when there's no storm during that period, you'll have great weather just like any other time of the year. And that, I imagine, is why people stick it out. Most of the time, the weather is great, the sunshine radiant and life relaxed. A storm comes along every so often, sometimes it hits you, sometimes it doesn't - but it moves on and everything gets back to normal in a few short hours or a few days. They're so practiced at it, it's like the first snow falls in Vienna - the sweepers come out, the path clearers do their thing and everyone gets on with it. This one feels pretty different though - more like Andrew in 1992 than anything since. One that's going to take time to recover from. Despite the practiced approach, the regular evacuation procedures and the far in advance warning systems available, people die in the storms - indeed 50+ are already dead and I wouldn't be surprised if the final total is 5 times that or more - especially in the more exposed areas with less shelter and less infrastructure (or poorly constructed homes, such as caravan-style houses in the lowlands). They shouldn't be underestimated - when I watched Floyd come in, I had no idea what I was doing, standing on the beach with 12' waves heading my way; In the Keys most people don't evacuate when a storm comes, they figure they'll be lucky - they've seen it before, sometimes for decades and made it through. Katrina teaches the lesson that, every so often, we'll be unlucky - it's all a question of how unlucky and how often. If you're holidaying in Florida in the back half of the year, take your rain gear. There's still at least 2 months, maybe 3, of the season left. Three to five majors were predicted this season - and I haven't counted more than a couple so far (two to three is normal, so this is around double the average). And, Katrina is not done yet, it will head on North East and throw a lot of strong winds and rain at whatever is in the way. For those who lost loved ones, my condolences. You can get RSS feeds with storm updates at the National Hurricane Centre site. And a pile of great links here.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Running On Full

Posts have been a bit scarce for the last few months. I've been working double time on two jobs at once. I thought I'd worked hard before, but doing 2 full time roles at once has proved a challenge. I'm not complaining though, they're both fun but with long hours coupled with a distance location and a lack of net access after hours, it's been difficult to get posts together. On top of that I've been trying to get in shape for a bit of running that's coming up. This week, I signed up for the Great North Run (September 18th), thanks to a friend who is far better connected than I am. Also, I have the RunLondon 10k and also a Clapham Common 10k in October. This is all designed to get me in better shape for next April's London Marathon when I'm targetting 3h 45 or so - about an hour faster than I ran this year. Nothing like setting a difficult target, but what's the fun if I don't make it interesting. Since my shin splint problems I've been putting in mostly 5k runs, trying to get round them and I think I've sorted that now. Last week I put my first 10k in, this week I put a 15k in. Next week I plan 20k and then some lighter runs before I do the Great North Run - apparently it's the biggest half marathon in the world with something like 47,000 runners (that's not a typo). I do have two long posts in preparation though, the first (and nearest to ready) is a 10 year look back on e-government, the second is something entitled "The Real Windows Tax." I'm determined to get at least one of those out this bank holiday weekend.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Diligently seeking online insurance

Morethan.com is still not working, despite a couple of emails suggesting that they might want to take a look and figure out why. After all, why plaster an ad on the back of every bus exhorting me to visit the site and then not make it operable? Their emails tell me that I'd be much better off phoning, but I don't want to phone, I want to do it online. I want to do everything online, that's the point. Another site tells me that I can have insurance as long as I don't work in any of the following professions:
entertainment industry, nightclub, fairground or gaming industries; professional sports, modelling or photography; antique or art dealer, jeweller; market or street trader, general dealer, hawker, scrap or second hand dealer; moneylender, debt collector, pawnbroker, private investigator, farmer or student
Nightclub? Peter Stringfellow need not apply? Moneylender? Does that include bankers? Professional sports? Does that mean Kelly Holmes need not apply (until she retires)? Farmers? Because they're more prone to losses? Students? Because they can't be trusted? Such an odd list. Still, a lost cause again, despite a promising start. Another request to phone them up to get a quote.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Waving the flag, it not flying it

Today, for, I think, the first time in 15 years I took a US carrier to fly across the pond. Not BA this time but AA. It was like going back in time, maybe about 8 years or so. Ugly, wide seats, no flat beds, dodgy TV screens and a limited choice of films. Normally I love to fly and the time passes in a whirl but today's 10 hour flight seemed to last a week - every time I moved in the seat, it reclined, whether I wanted it to or not; the headrest was in exactly the right position to cause neck ache. Listen to me complaining about flying, let alone flying in business class! How easy it is to get used to the good things in life. I kept looking out the window to see if I could see Simon Moores towing a banner, but no luck. There are plainly a few reasons why BA is the most profitable airline in the world - some of that will be to do with laying off vast numbers of staff - but one of them must be that they've invested enough in the business class cabin to make people want to fly with them. It's funny how quickly you get used to such upgrades in seats, service and performance. Those upgrades aren't really different to, say, the change from dial-up to broadband - once you have the latter, why go back? I consciously avoid places that don't have fast connections in the hotel doing everything I can not to use dial-up. The last time I used dial-up was early 2000. I'd rather not surf than mess around with dial-up. Like I said, how quickly do you get used to that - when I first used Compuserve it was at 1200 baud, then 9600 ... I remember when 28.8k modems came along how fast that seemed. Now I complain if my BT ADSL line runs at less than 2Mb/s. I'm over here for dinner, back overnight tomorrow. Can't wait for an overnight flight in those seats, am sure it will be a blast. Look for me red-eyed with a crick in my neck on Friday.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

10 years on

It's 10 years since Amazon went public, there are over 700 million Internet users in the world, yet every time I use morethan.com, I get this
Sorry - our system's busy
We were hoping you wouldn't see this screen but if it's appeared, it means that our system is busy, busy, busy.
Now, to be fair, this is better than what I got for the whole of June and most of July - which was an error page saying that the "Home Insurance" website wasn't working at all. But it's not exactly much better is it. Surely it knows it's busy when I get there - I shouldn't have to fill in a whole page of personal information about the quote I want (with no options to save it for later) before it tells me this?
You'd have thought that after the opportunity for up to 10 years practice and with an ad campaign that relentlessly pushes the website as a channel, they'd have figured out how to make it work now. Busy, busy, busy they say ... Is that 1,2,3 users? LessThan 10 or MoreThan 5?

If you see Bill, tell him

Two weekends ago it was barely noon on Saturday and I was already on my ninth glass of champagne. Thanks to my friend Ronan I was in the exalted company of a dozen sommelier tasting the full range of Gosset champagnes, from the current NV all the way to vintage 1985, via 1996, 1993 and 1990 with some rose mixed in as well. This Saturday, I was buried in a heap of spyware going through a PC belonging to a relative. There were 114 separate bits of vermin and, for good measure, a persistent backdoor trojan. This despite three separate anti-spyware tools and Norton anti-virus being installed. Or, at least, apparently installed. I spent a good 6 hours cleaning all of that stuff off, hunting through the system for other bits of junk, getting all of the necessary auto-updates installed and, most importantly, getting rid of the anti-spyware software. It hadn't done much good of course - the infections were running riot. There were even XXX diallers in the dial-up zone and lord knows what else. I replaced all of the paid for (and free trial) anti-spyware software with Microsoft's own beta release. It cleaned everything up in the first pass and promises to innoculate it for good. If you see Bill, tell him he did ok - that's what I needed: a simple, free tool that took care of the problem and that I could trust. Much of the anti-spyware stuff out there is as pushy as realplayer about getting you to sign up for one thing or another. I don't need any of that. There are those who blame Microsoft and even Bill personally for the spyware that's out there. Every time I hear that I'm reminded of Willy Sutton's response to the question "Why do you rob banks?" - which was, of course, "Because that's where the money is." Likewise, people write spyware for Windows PCs because that's where the users are and they'll keep looking for ways to exploit every opportunity. In 2003 there were 593 million PCs in the world. Sounds like that's where the money is to me. Macs, whilst growing, seem still to be around 2-3% of that number. although it's unclear how many are on the 'net (figures I look at from government show that the percentage of people visiting government sites and using Macs rarely breaks 1% but that might not be representative). The natural question to ask then is, if there were 500 million Macs out there, would there be just as much spyware attacking those, or are they somehow better protected or even immune? That's hard to say but I doubt they're better protected - since upgrading to Mac OS 10.4, I've had 2 major updates (to 10.4.2 now) and one set of security patches. I'm not, though, aware of any spyware that hits the browser; there might be something in saying that Macs are better protected there - but maybe it's all down the law of large numbers still? My main frustration though is that the ISPs aren't, I think, being responsible enough in protecting either their own consumer customers or those of other ISPs through ensuring that PCs connecting to the network are safe and secure. If I'm paying £10, £20 or £30 or whatever to an ISP for the privilege of a network connection and some email, I'd like them to take care of my security configuration too. At the very least, I'd expect them to do three things: 1) Ensure that when I connect for the first time each day, I'm up to date with all necessary patches and have the right products installed - from a recommended list that they maintain. I'd go as far as letting the ISP insist that I could have access only to walled garden sites until I'd installed the right software. This would be appropriate contraception. Until I prove I'm safe, I'm not allowed out of the house. It may be that this will increase the cost of the subscription - but if all ISPs provided the software, then the cost would be the same (or close to it) across all providers, neutralising any market inefficiency. Indeed, the bigger ISPs could negotiate cheaper prices from software suppliers and improve their deals, as is the case with all other markets. 2) Provide basic virus protection using heuristic scanners that check both for known viruses and possible viruses so that new messages that arrive whilst I'm connected cannot infect me and ruin things for everyone else. This should not need to be client side. If viruses are checked on the way in and the way out by the ISP (who, after all, sees all POP3 email) and are checked in the same way by e.g. Hotmail and gmail (as they are), then email viruses would be a near-dead business overnight. 3) Block known dodgy numbers - porn diallers, spam diallers, whatever, from being dialled from my PC. That might deny the ISP from collecting revenue (mainly though it will reduce BT's revenue - but BT aren't, I suspect, keen to get revenue from such sources and probably pay a fortune to investigate bills that are challenged - indeed, I'm sure I heard BT had a product that checked for these things, but I can't find it off their main site). My relatives have seen many things in their lives and lived through enormous change in the world, technically, politically and socially. They are not, however, equipped to deal with the kind of change that brings spam, viruses and spyware to their PC. They want to surf the web, chat to friends overseas, exchange pictures, write books and stay up to date. That social retards, crooks and spammers can make that a terrible experience should no longer be tolerated ... and the process for that can start with the ISPs and extend from there. I know I've harped on about a Green Cross Code for the internet before but after this weekend's experience, I only see a greater case for it.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Enduring Images In My Mind

On Thursday, speeding back from Wigan to the office in Warrington, the gantries above the road were lit up. Trouble ahead is always the message. Usually it's traffic or an accident. This time the message read: "Avoid London. Area Closed. Turn on Radio" Never have those stark yellow lights above the road conveyed a more serious message. Avoid London. Seeing the sign jolted us into action and we put Radio 4 on to hear what the news was. Never had London seemed so far away. The second enduring image is the picture of the bus, with its roof sheared off like some kind of ballsed up attempt to use a tin opener on a can of beans. There's an ad on the side of the bus, it says: "Outright terror ... bold and brilliant" It is, I think, an ad for the Amityville Horror, re-released this year. But in this context, its presence was surreal. Outright terror indeed, bold for sure. Brilliant? hardly. I can't find either of these photos on the web. Perhaps that's just as well. My mind has them in sharp focus just fine right now.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Never

Never has the North West seemed so far away from London. I'd stepped out of a planned all day strategy meeting in a hotel not far from Wigan and checked my voice mail. It was running very slowly - 3-4 seconds between messages, the same pause after deleting a message. Something was up. The last time that had happened, bad things were afoot in the world. Midway through checking, I got a text from the MD of a software company who said something like "I know you're incommunicado today, so you're probably not aware of the bombs in London." The bombs? What bombs? I called Mo who was wandering the streets of London, somewhere near the Strand. He'd only heard that there'd been a power surge at Liverpool Street and that the entire tube network was shut. A power surge? All tubes shut down? That didn't seem likely. I called the office and eventually got hold of someone. Check the news sites. The BBC site wouldn't load. I knew it was bad then. I tried to reach Mo over and over again but the network was bouncing my calls. More texts started to appear on my phone, plainly the network was suffering - texts were coming through but they were delayed. Back in the hotel, I found a TV, in the leisure centre of all places, and tuned to the news channel. It didn't matter, all the channels were showing the same pictures. Bombs in London. Never had the North West seemed so far away. Another text followed from my MD friend, letting me know that it was worse than he thought. I got hold of Mo, then Chris who updated me with what they knew. Lots of texts followed for the next few hours - first from the middle East, then from Europe and then from the East coast of the USA, gradually moving to the West coast; all the while interspersed with London friends and family, checking on who was where. I was sending as many texts as I was receiving and everyone checked in. The networks made a mint I suspect; doubtless those who demanded Live8 texts be profit-free for the networks will be silent this week. I'd been enormously proud of London the previous day as I watched the 2012 announcement on the TV. I'd been prouder still because I'd backed London at 7-1 on betfair.com and had picked up nearly £300 in winnings. On Thurday, 7/7, I was prouder still of London. The speed of response, the resoluteness of the Londoners impacted and those nearby, the rate at which near normality was returned. It wasn't until Friday night that I made it back to London. You'd almost never know that there had been an incident. Euston was maybe quieter than usual, but was that just me thinking that? The journey home was about the same time as usual. Today, Saturday, London is pretty much the same. I drove past Kings Cross, diverted from my planned destination because of several road closures, and saw the media circus outside it. Apart from that, London looks to have recovered. I wish I could say the same for those that were in the immediate radius of the bombs - that's going to take a lot longer, and will be never for some. Several friends were "near misses" - on the bus just in front, on the street just opposite, or on the tube train just behind. I'm as delighted that they're ok as I am saddened for those who did not make it, and for their families and friends. Now we have to catch the people that did it. No easy task I'm sure. London will be on edge for some time, but people will get on with it. Were there to be another attack, I'm not so sure. Catch them we must. There will be others after these for sure, maybe not in London, but somewhere. It's not about Iraq, or it doesn't appear to be so to me. The family of the Egyptian diplomat murdered this week will think differently, but that was Arabs killing Arabs, just as was the case in London. Random, malevolent violence targetted at the innocent and the involved, it makes no difference. How many of the London victims marched against the war? Did it matter? Not this time, wrong place, wrong time.