Friday, April 22, 2005

White Noise

Sitting in an airport lounge last night I was constantly disturbed by the less than dulcet tones of an obviously senior executive conversing on his mobile. He talked loudly - so loudly I could hear him from across the room - and occasionally paced over in my direction, maintaining his vocal boom; everytime he got within 5 metres of me, I glared and he wandered away. The exec, perhaps from India, perhaps running one of the big outsource companies, or at least a big account in the uK, didn't stop talking for 40 minutes - every so often losing connection as his counterparty went into a tunnel or whatever: "hullo, hullo, hullo" he would go, quite endlessly. Sitting in a different airport today going to a different place, it's just the same. Only more people, more languages, more accents. 90% mobile penetration? I remember when it was just delboy and his big motorola!

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Marathon Day

What a stunning day! For those worrying about the important number of the day, it was just over 5,600. That’s £5,600. There’s still more to come in from folks who promised to donate in the run-up to the event, maybe even enough to get me over £6,000. As Mo observed, I’ve already broken my target twice. Absolutely amazing! The other number for the day was 4h 44 (and 14 seconds by my watch, 20 seconds by the Marathon's own monitoring - but I'm not quibbling). I’d have been a lot faster if it hadn’t been for the speed bumps early on and the constant red lights throughout London – you’d have thought they’d switch them all to green for the race. I ran the first 4 miles in about 8m 15s (each, not altogether), the first 10km in 51 minutes and the first 21km in 1h 53m – all far too fast for me. I’d stumbled into starting 4 rows from the front at the Green start, surrounded by interesting people, most of whom I didn't recognise. I got talking to “the Galloping Gourmet” who is, I imagine, unique in having run 30 London Marathons; given that this was the 25th anniversary race, that’s some achievement – on several occasions he had run one way and then back the other way to cover double the distance on the same day. A crackpot and a lovely guy – dressed as a turkey this time, instead of his usual pancake tossing costume. The downside to starting that close to the front is that all of the “real runners” – the guys who can cover the distance in 2h 45m are right behind you. As soon as the race horn sounded, they were off – and carrying me forward at the crest of the wave, unable to get to the side and slow down to my planned pace of 6 minute kilometres. Hence my 8 minute time for the first mile, 8m 15 for the second, 8m 03 for the third and 8m 30 for the fourth – it wasn’t until the 5th mile that the crowd thinned out and I settled into a slower pace (around 9 to 9 ½). I’m pretty sure that I didn’t pass anyone in the entire race, except those who stopped for a pee break (most, fortunately, using the telephone-box shaped portaloos by the side of the road rather than the Paula Radcliffe approach). The first shock came after about 6 or 7 miles when I saw a commotion up ahead. As I neared, I saw the police giving CPR to a runner who had collapsed at the side of the road. I hope he made it – things didn’t look good when I passed. The next shock was when I turned right from Tower Bridge - having comfortably cruised the first 13 miles in a time far better than I had achieved in training (and still feeling good) – and saw that the Docklands loop would mean that I’d be coming all the way back to where I was (but on the other side of the road) some 9 miles later. There were runners already streaming past on the opposite side of the road – the clock read less than 2 hours and they had only 4 miles or so to go. Quite soul destroying. The last shock was the climb – and I mean Climb – up the hill to reach Big Ben, before turning right into the home stretch. That hill was nearly the end of me. It would barely qualify as a speed bump at any other time, but after 25 miles, it was significant. The run along the river and then down to the palace was awesome. People were out in force, lined up 6 or 8 deep for the last few miles. All along the route there had been people shouting and cheering – including friends from work (they have no idea, I suspect, what a boost it provides when you see people you know); the Macmillan teams were also out – and when 20 or 30 people start shouting your name as you go past, you have no alternative but to keep running, wave and try and look the part. The atmosphere for this London race was better than anywhere else I’ve run in Europe. I’m sure the sunny day helped but I got the feeling that many people had planned to show come what may; they brought sweets and other goodies in huge bowls and freely handed them out to runners. The folks handing out water and Lucozade were enthusiastic in the extreme, taking care to place the bottle or carton exactly in my hand as I passed. Lucozade is, I think, a lifesaver in this run, except for the patches of sticky residue downstream of the pick-up points where discarded cartons have leaked onto the road – you go through patches of a couple of hundred yards where every impact and release of your foot makes a noise like ripping open Velcro studs. I followed some, but not all of James’ advice from the other day. The one thing I am most pleased that I did, against his recommendations however, was to get my name printed on my t-shirt. The roar from the Macmillan crowd as I went past their “support stations” was a hugely needed lift, as was the shouts of encouragement from people watching, who didn’t know me from Adam (or Alan even). Despite finishing 30 minutes slower than my target time, I had a blast. I’m hugely grateful to everyone who donated money. I’m sure Macmillan are going to be delighted with this contribution. It made a lot of the pain worthwhile (not all of it, mind).

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Error Message uselessness

I've said before that I'm not much good when it comes to technology. It's probably the reason why I stay away from DIY at home - if I can mess up a wifi network, think what I could do with an RSJ. Today, I'm installing a Buffalo linkstation - a huge network storage device that gives me 100s of GB of disk space accessible from any PC. Putting in the disk and firing up the install application gives me the following message:
Firewall can be put into effect. If not being used correctly stop the firewall and preform setup again
There are no typos in that sentence (or, at least none by me). I thought Japlish manuals had gone the way of Sony's first place in media devices. The only way to beat that message - which was followed by the install app quitting - seems to be to disable Windows XP Firewall (an action which is accompanied by a variety of messages indicating it's a bad idea). Like I said, just imagine I was playing with an RSJ.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

More on ID cards

Kim Cameron does a speedy summary of the main points in a recent paper on the perils of the ID card initiative, published by the London School of Economics. Kim notes too that, whilst we are all busy, we should make time to read it. I'd encourage the same, but to give you a clue on what you'll come across when you flip through its 117 pages, here's a line from the summary
[ID cards] are too complex, tehnically unsafe, overly prescriptive [and] lack a foundation of public trust and confidence.
You can deduce, then, that they're not fans. They go on to say that the scheme is a "potential danger to the public interest." When I posted on ID cards a couple of weeks ago, I drew a couple of comments. One said that there was no reason that a new Prime Minister would want such a project on his CV. Perhaps the mystery commenter knows something that I don't, or has contacts in Birmingham who are experts in postal voting, but I wasn't expecting a change in PM this time round. The ID card bill may have been shelved for a while, but I don't suppose that the delay will be used to rework it into a new shape that might address the concerns raised in the LSE (or any other report). I know several folks working on the ID card project. I knew one more until yesterday, but they've moved on. The ones I know are at the very top end of my list of clever, practical people. They're not Tefal foreheads who will cover only the conceptual stuff, but folks filled with common sense and high competence in delivery. They are, though, only a minority in the whole team perhaps. Dan also wondered, in response to my question on how a search for any given biometric would be presented, that perhaps there'd be a PIN number to go with the card - you put the card in, type the PIN number, it scans your biometric, goes to the main system, fetches the biometric linked to that PIN number and then checks yours against the master record. Nice and simple I supposed. Of course, the PIN number is actually the ID number, so there'd be no need to type it in (assuming that there is space for 100 million plus variations, it will be a big number, and it will be printed on the card) - so inserting the card would automatically send a message to the big server in the sky to download the scan to compare yours with. Alternatively, the scan could be stored in the card and then compared with your own. Either approach would mean that the search for uniquess would have to be carried out when the card was issued - something that lengthens the issuance process but at least means that later interactions with the card would be quick. Having the scan on the card doesn't deal with the possibility of someone cracking how to produce cards, or alter the data on them. So perhaps Dan's approach is a good way of doing it? I'm still not convinced that I want to spend £5.5bn on it though.

Old tech lives on

I've been spending what seems like a lot of time on trains recently. More time, in fact, than I've spent since I used to commute to and from Paris on the Eurostar in 1999/2000. Back then, I'm pretty sure the mobile phone of choice was the Nokia 6210 which was soon after replaced by the 6310 (and then the 6310i). Nothing has changed today. I've been really surprised how many "salary men" have a 6310 sitting on the table in front of them. For every 5 men in ties there are at least 3 such phones. Some of these guys have blackberries, they have up to date laptops and ipaqs and whatever. But they have a phone that is, at best, perhaps 2-3 years old and maybe even 4 years old. Checking on the web, a new one costs £270 - hardly the price that you'd expect for old technology. The truth, then, is likely that the phone just works and that noone in the corporate hierarchy sees a need to replace them with colour screens, cameras, polyphonic warbles or any other distractions. Nokia's margins on these must be enormous - they've been producing them so long they must have figured out how to do so cheaply (just the way that Intel could probably sell you a first generation Pentium now for about 3p). There is, though, a strong chance of a big corporate upgrade cycle coming. The question for Nokia is will those folks stick with their brand or will they be swayed to some other - perhaps the blackberry phones, perhaps a treo or perhaps a cheap Asian import that, like the 6310, doesn't try to be too clever but just tries to be stable, easy to use and efficient at what it does: make and receive calls.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Marathon Update

With my fundraising for Macmillan at £3,600, I thought I'd share the advice on running the marathon that my friend James has just shared with me: 1. Eat lots of pasta the night before. 2. Drink lots of beer the night before, but real ale not fizzy lager and best not more than 8 pints. 3. Eat pasta with honey on it for breakfast at about 6.00 am. No beer though. 4. Do loads of stretches before,and if necessary during the run 5. Attempt to drink all and any liquid they offer you during the run! 6. Try and stay focused during the run... I found staying focussed on Julia Carling wearing a wonderbra was quite uplifting. 7. Don't be tempted to stop for a beer any where on the route, even if it is an interesting looking pub you've not been in before- save yourself for later. 8. Do loads of stretches afterwards (probably more important than the pre-race ones) 9. Don't bother with the free bag of stuff they give you at the end- it's full of low-calorie, low fat, low interest experimental snacks. And sachets of personal grooming products aimed at Bridget Jones. You've just expended more calories than a rutting hippopotamus and are a stone-and-a-half lighter then you were that morning- so you need low calorie snacks?!? I would suggest chips, the proper dense, greasy sort not MaccyD's "fries". 10. Don't stop moving when you reach the end- I kept going right to Charing cross tube, and was in the pub 30 minutes later. 11. Drink lots of beer when/as soon after you finish. 12. Oh- and don't write your name large on your T-shirt like the brochures/magazines suggest. Otherwise you will get loads of patronising (but probably well meaning) voyeurs (the same kinds of people who turn out in droves to see royal weddings, funerals, and public lynchings) whining "Come on Alan, you can do it!" in the last couple of Km, which I guarantee you is enough to make you want to abandon the race to spend the next hour punching well meaning voyeurs on the nose. 13.Oh, and choose good socks. Those 1000mile ones are good and seem to prevent blisters. 14. And remember, there are no losers in the marathon, the only losers are the lightweights who take the monday off work afterwards!! Sounds like an interesting plan. I had no idea Julia Carling was running. I'll have to keep an eye out for her.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Public Progress Reporting

This month, perhaps for the first time, my old team’s monthly report is available on the Internet. This is good news, whether it’s driven by a desire to share more widely the progress being made in e-government or a sign of increasing transparency in the e-government unit. Seeing the e-Delivery team’s monthly status is great. Better still, what it means for me is that some of the figures that I’d always hedged on before – both the good ones and the bad ones – are in the public domain and can be commented on. You can find the report on the Cabinet Office website, although it's not the easiest thing to find (look out for the images pasted in to the site from earlier sites too)

The report on volumes through the Government Gateway – on Page 21 – was always my main indicator of success. Are people actually using it? The figures say that more than 2.7 million Self Assessment returns have been submitted, 1.32 million Tax Credit applications and 137,000 child benefit requests. The relatively new Real Time Pension Forecasting service has attracted 82,600 users – this service, whilst perhaps hard to use, is almost a must-do: it will tell you how much pension you’re due to get when you retire and, if you’re anything like me, encourage you to set up a private pension and start stashing away the cash. However much the state are going to pay you probably isn’t enough. There are nearly 5 ½ million people registered on the Gateway (the bulk of which are set up for Self Assessment). The Local Authority services have yet to break into double digits (although those using the Gateway to process payments have routed several million pounds through it). I read something today where one of the cash machine operators, Scott Tod, revealed that around 10% of their machines had not seen a single transaction in the last month – and wondered how many online government services were perhaps in the same boat

Overall usage, of course, is a reflection of the departments that have set up services on the Gateway – and this is rightly up front in the report on Pages 4, 5, 6 and 7. What started off as a trickle early on now looks widely accepted. Ten central government departments, 3 agencies and 6 Local Authorities have 49 services live and there are a further 26 in plan for the new future (with 13 more LAs). The endless battle to explain what the Gateway is and why it’s important looks to have been won and people are starting to say “It’s there, we’ll use it. Why would we do anything else?”. That is an enormous turnaround from even a year ago when the debate was over its future, its past and why any individual business didn’t just build another one. The team back at my old base have done a great job.

On the subject of usage of the Gateway and the Gateway generally, my old friend Dennis Keeling was out with his mildly sharp knives, taking aim not only at the Inland Revenue (the usual target) but also the Gateway. Dennis runs BASDA, an organisation of software developers who have been instrumental in moving XML onto the agenda of many a company. Whilst he has done very well at that, he’s not always the best person to seek quotes from – in late 2000 he was widely quoted regarding the improbable delivery of the Gateway on time, for instance. He was wrong then. And he’s wrong in this article.

"We have warned the Revenue that the Gateway will not be able to handle the demand for online PAYE returns," said Keeling.
"We believe that there will be major problems. Companies leave filing to the last minute to make sure they do n0t make any mistakes."

He’s still wondering whether the Gateway is going to be there! All these years on. This time he's bothered about the PAYE peak season which opens in a few days – as employers rush to send in their annual returns which must be done by the middle of May. During the next 6 weeks or so, around 1.6 million companies will send data to the IR – the majority by magnetic tape or EDI. Still, eDt’s stats say that there are 418,463 companies registered to send their returns online. PAYE files can be big (10s of megabytes big) so I am not surprised Dennis is wondering if everything is going to hang together. I am confident that the Gateway will take the pain – even if other infrastructure and applications around government don’t quite handle it the same way – after all, that’s what it was built for. But I’ll let Dennis cry wolf because, eventually, he’ll be right and that will be a terrible day (and I will then be equally happy to publicly note his correctness). Of course, he might be right for other reasons - the Inland Revenue might not be ready, third party application software might not be ready, even Dennis' XML schemas might not be ready.

Still, Kathryne Jobling comes to the rescue of the Gateway

Kathryne Jobling, development director at accounting software supplier Pegasus, said, "The Government Gateway is pretty stable but the connection between it and the Inland Revenue's back-office systems is the bit that carries the risk. There are numerous servers and the submission runs the risk of failure"

She's right - there are numerous servers. But it's not the servers that will be the problem (indeed, having many might be seen by some as a good thing). It will be the software that lets us down - and not between the Gateway and the IR but at one end or the other. I've already nailed my colours and said that I think Gateway will be solid. I wish the IR luck this time round - there are far more companies involved this time than at the same time last year.

Carrying on through the monthly report, I see that Directgov, the butt of some jokes from my erstwhile friends at MySociety, had its first month with more than a million unique users in January, coupled with more than 5 million page views. Something in the ad campaign is working. February’s total was down a few thousand from there but still more than trouble the total from early last year.

Separately, some other figures I always used to track with interest show that the MS Internet Explorer figures have dipped below 90% for the first time since I started looked – hitting 87% in February. With Unix/Linux usage still at less than ½% it’s not a result of a platform shift but, I assume, more people using Firefox and Navigator (and the AOL browser – I’m not sure if that’s still IE or if they have moved).

Has e-government arrived? I think the only possible answer is “kind of”. The figures on adoption are good in places – notably the Inland Revenue’s Self Assessment and Tax Credits – but hopeless in many others. When I started in this space over 5 years ago I thought we’d be about where we are now within a couple of years. The fact that we’re not is partly because all things in government take time – the over-used supertanker analogy is still the most accurate (which is probably why it’s so over-used). But there are other reasons too, at least in my view - and here I have to move on from where Dennis is wrong to where I was wrong:

  • Government departments still haven’t joined up their services so that I can move around more easily. Benefits and tax credits are still separated – no longer by the Grand Canyon but certainly by a chasm. Benefits are complicated and the language they use even more so; but it’s different from the language used by other bits of government. Even the events post the Tower of Babel didn’t make things this hard, I’m sure.
  • Neither have they involved intermediaries more fully. I’m still puzzling over why I have to go to different places to get my car insurance and tax disc, for instance. I don’t understand why the Pension Forecasting application is not wrapped up inside my bank’s site, encouraging me to start my own saving scheme (and selling me the products that I need to use that).
  • And I believe that competition has not been fully encouraged. When the mobile phone started up, adoption was slow. Phones were big and ugly and only people who either liked gadgets enormously or who had company expense accounts used them. Competition came along and growth mounted. Super-competition arrived with pay as you go phones, Virgin mobile (and now Easymobile) and now everyone has a mobile. I realise I’m simplifying a lot. But doesn’t it feel that government on the web is still stuck in the days of the Motorala 8800? That big, brick-shaped phone with the huge rubber aerial. It feels like that to me. Software companies and web site providers have not rushed in to offer services - except for IR's Self Assessment and PAYE. Where are the creative providers who can scrape government applications together and offer new services? Is there no business model in that? Is that because one has been deliberately kept out of reach?

All of these things were on the list, all were espoused by many levels of management and all were bought into at various levels. But not much has happened on any of them. Perhaps it's too hard, perhaps the incentives weren't right or perhaps there was just no real desire to do it through leveraging other people.

There are eight months to go before the 2005/100% online target needs to be achieved. It will certainly be achieved – any services not available online will be relatively insignificant or will require changes in legislation that are inevitably difficult to bring in – at least in letter. The spirit – that the UK would be the best place for e-commerce, that would see us leap ahead in productivity as more and more people made use of online government services? Well, that’s still missing. The strange thing is that in every other aspect of online service – Amazon, eBay, Dell, etc – it’s worked just fine.