Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Spins

Got a voicemail today, converted to text by SpinVox, from an Australian friend. Apparently, according to the text, he's in the "middle ages." Or maybe it meant the "middle east".

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Less Power To The People

News headlines today are saying that Australia will introduce legislation to phase out incandescent lightbulbs within 3 years. They'll be replaced by Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs), sometimes called "swirls". Generally, one CFL eliminates the need for 7 to 8 normal bulbs - they last 5 to 10 times longer and use 20-25% of the energy. The downside? They're more expensive, as much as 5-6 times more today and the light they emit is a colder, bluer tinge than most of us are used to. But, a $3 bulb pays for itself in about 5 months through reduced energy usage.
After reading an article in Fast Company a couple of months ago, I've been on the hunt for these bulbs. This article persuaded me that if every American used just one bulb in their home, the USA would be able to turn off two power stations (or not build two new ones), saving enough to power a city of 1.5 million people. Apparently a typical US home, says Fast Company, has 50-100 bulbs. Take the low estimate - replace 50 bulbs in a house and, if the maths is right, turn off 100 power stations.
As volumes grow, retail prices will fall. In 3 years or less, a swirl could cost the same as a standard bulb today. Last year, the US bought 2 billion lightbulbs. Perhaps they last 12 months. Over the next three years, suppose they switched to swirls, as conventional bulbs fail - production of 2 billion is a pretty good way to drive down costs (ask memory chip makers). Come in Governor Schwarzenegger, your time has come - an ideal place to start would be California.
FC quote Walmart as wanting to be at the forefront of this move, selling 100 million CFLs over the coming 12 months. All of a sudden, the shelf space allocated to bulbs reduces (people are buying 7x-8x fewer bulbs) and the space can be devoted to higher margin products; power consumption goes down; prices come down and everyone feels good about themselves. Maybe we even save the world.
There's plenty to solve though. In my hunting around over the last few weeks, I haven't seen a single retail store selling this new variety - plenty sell, in very limited quantities which I don't believe are as efficient. New designs will have to be worked out that fit lampshades better - I don't think we want everyone buying new lampshades just for the new bulbs. With bigger sales will come more research, more thinking about disposal (CFLs contain traces of mercury), better designs, longer lives and so more environmental benefits. The only place to find these bulbs seems to be online. It hardly seems to be the point to ship them if I can walk to the local store and get them instead (although, granted, they had to be shipped there in the first place). But if they're going to enter mainstream consciousness, they need presence in stores - pride of place even.
There are some good sites that have already cottoned on to this of course. BanTheBulb is one of the British ones, with this set of goals
- Increase the cost of incandescent light bulbs
- Reduce the sales tax (VAT) on CFLs from 17.5% to 5%
- Ban the sale of incandescents by a specific date Help the poor to replace their incandescents
- Help the poor to save money on their bills Encourage the responsible recycling of CFLs - Include light bulbs in the EU's Eco Directive Explain the benefits of greater energy efficiency - Accelerate the uptake of available technologies
Government policy appears to have already moved this way: Energy Efficiency Commitment 2002 – 2005: consultation proposals, have been set out by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and will come into being in April 2002. Measures proposed include some 26 million CFLs provided to customers with supplier contributions to their cost.
HM Treasury are also in on the act: A reduced rate of VAT on efficient (A rated) bulbs and dedicated fittings could help transform the market to efficient CFLs and other efficient lighting. It would send a strong price signal to consumers, retailers and manufacturers, reducing the price gap between efficient and inefficient lighting
I must be way behind on this. My house is all halogen bulbs (which I believe are about 10-15% more efficient than standard bulbs, but that's nowhere near as good as CFL). So I'm having a look around to see if I can make a shift somehow.
Maybe what we need is a petition? The Downing Street has 2 petitions that contain CFL, one relating to import duties on chinese bulbs (that could be protectionism or a way to improve the price differential of CFL) and one about traffic lights. Neither have much traction.
Looking wider, there appear to be a couple of dozen petitions suggesting VAT be reduced on energy saving bulbs (known on the site as the "no VAT on green" petition), or banning the use of "non-energy efficient lightbulbs) or, similarly, banning the sale of fitments that can't be used with low-energy bulbs (that's that lampshade point again) and so on.
So very fragmented. The guys at MySociety have a tough job stripping out dupes by the looks of it - there are just too many long-winded titles (I know, like this post) to work through.
Doubtless people don't search to see what's there before they add their own and so nothing is taking hold. There must be strong media management lessons learned from the Road Pricing petition - and I'd bet that the 58 million odd people that didn't vote for that one have a view that energy efficiency is a good thing, especially if it's a no cost option to them. After all, if a bulb is a bulb and there's one that cuts your downstream bills and one that doesn't, it should be an easy cost. You can see the sign at Tesco: "Buy this bulk and by the time it breaks it will have cost you about £24 in electricity whereas this other one will have cost you £6." One might cost 50p to start with and the other might cost £2.50 but I think most people will get it.
So maybe it's not about the VAT. It's maybe about Tesco, Sainsbury and the others following Walmart and making it happen. First they change every light in their own stores as bulbs fail and then they promote CFLs using the maths above (ok, so a better version). Then the design folks swing in with a better range, enhanced colours and so on. And then government sweeps in to mop up the outliers - maybe an incentive on new builds? Sounds easy, so I've plainly missed something.

Road Pricing Dilemma

The campaign against road pricing, driven by almost daily mentions in most of the mainstream press, has ticked up to 1.71 million signatures. I now face a dilemma. I want to know what happens next - what do they say on the e-mail response, how do they send it and, most importantly, whether my spam filter bins it - but I'd have to sign up to the petition. And I'm probably for road pricing, not against it. "Probably" because I just don't know. The folks at Number 10 have gone out of their way to publicise their response to the anti-ID cards petition. Twenty seven thousand people signed that one. The site now has, pluckily perhaps, a 9 page slide deck on ID cards (apparently delivered by the PM himself although I'm not sure to who). It all goes quite well until the end when there's a glib "benefits will outweigh the costs". I'm sure people will want more than that. There are also links to the Identity and Passport Service's FAQ and Myths page (those could do with more work) and a webchat with the new head of the IPS, James Hall. There are some good thoughts there. For instance, on costs, Mr. Hall says "You can see that our current view is that the ID Card has an incremental cost of less than £30 - £3 per year over the ten year life of the passport and ID card" - who knew that we were going to be allowed to pay by instalments? It's very good to see a more open debate about pros and cons and, better still, candid recognition that there's still much work to be done before it's all clear. So I may be pro, but I'm not, however, pro in the sense that the petition writer says on the No 10 site (i.e. I'm not for sinister and wrong things generally or even specifically in this case): "The idea of tracking every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong. Road pricing is already here with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel - the more tax you pay. It will be an unfair tax on those who live apart from families and poorer people who will not be able to afford the high monthly costs. Please Mr Blair - forget about road pricing and concentrate on improving our roads to reduce congestion." Fuel tax is a crude way of road pricing. It doesn't matter what time you travel or which roads you travel on, it doesn't help if a haulage firm buys its fuel abroad and then travels untaxed on UK roads. As I understand it, road pricing is aimed at (a) reducing travel by making public transport look better value or through encouraging more home working (even cheaper), (b) forcing people to travel at off-peak times (as is already routine with train and tube travel, with discounts available for travelling in certain hours) and (c). Beyond all that, fewer cars on the road should have a financial consequence on GDP by making travel times quicker for most people (assuming that their is consequent investment in public transport) and should have environmental benefits (which, for many, will be the winning argument) by taking cars off the road. The more you travel, the more tax you pay may still be true; it may also make for high monthly costs. As for it making it unfair on families who live apart, that's partly what public transport is for and partly about what time of the day you travel. But the truth is, we just don't yet know. We haven't yet seen the counter-proposal to these concerns. Will fuel duty remain the same? Will hybrid cars be charged at the same rate? Will bigger cars be charged more (aligning with Ken Livingstone's plan to charge £25 for big cars in the congestion zone)? Will discounts be availble for some road users, e.g. the elderly? How will commercial vehicles be dealt with? Will there be options to reduce the charge if you're car sharing? Will car sharing lanes be introduced to futher speed travel? Will the cost be predictable before I set out, i.e. can I figure out (quickly) that if I wait 30 mins before I leave for a trip to Norwich, it will be £10 cheaper? Will it conflict with my pay as you drive insurance scheme (which, as far as I can tell, pushes me towards not driving at night because it's more dangerous, yet the road pricing angle would be to charge less for that period) And, finally, just as in ID cards, how much will it cost to set up, what are the delivery risks and how much of the cost do I, as a tax payer or motorist, have to shoulder - both for overall set up and for ongoing costs? Without a balanced case, it hardly seems the right time to have a petition - and having the debate after 1.7 million people have signed a petition and formed a view is also a little slow. As always in government, timing is everything. So now, 1.7 million emails have to be sent out explaining the story so far and reacting to a problem that may perhaps not be such a problem. But right now, we just don't know. Other objections raised, some in comments here, have related to the idea of being tracked all the time by government, or being tested relentlessly for speeding and other such Big Brother thoughts. Those all seem unlikely today. But 10 years from now who knows? The information may be out there. The DfT website has pages and pages of stuff on road pricing, but there is no succinct summary. The pages are written by government for government, not for the citizen. I did look for something as a useful counter-argument, but couldn't find it. I'd like to see blogs attached to the petition pages where serious policy-related petitions are accompanied by a pro and con debate. Government has shown it wants to enter the debate - viz James Hall's online chat - and so how about it happens in real time, day to day. The top 4 or 5 petitions are given their own blogs where the arguments are set forth by a nominated owner of the petition (presumably whoever raises it first) and a respondee from government who provides the counter argument (assuming that all petitions are anti-government policy; some will, inevitably, be pro-policy and so the opposite would apply). There'd have to be a bit of control to ensure that whoever was leading the petition didn't hand their access over to everyone or anyone (perhaps that brings me neatly back to ID cards?).

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Million Minds Against

The anti-Road Pricing petition crossed a million virtual signatures today. I wonder how many petitions in the past, offline or online, have reached that many signatures? The phrase "one million signatures" has over 50,000 results on Google but trackig down petitions that have achieved that level isn't so easy. The "General Babaginda: The One Million Signatures Internet Petition Drive" hasn't done so well. So far it looks to have signed up 434 people. Another, “One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws”, has achieved 1360 sign-ups. Perhaps the first clue in marketing your aim is to avoid putting "one million" in the title, Alex Tew's million dollar home page notwithstanding. But it has happened. In April 2006, after one year of work, over a million signatures on a petition - known as the "Big Noise Petition" - asking to "make trade fair" were handed over in Indonesia. The absence of many, more obvious petitions, says that this is, however, a big deal. Whether signing a petition is made easier by the Internet or not, 1 million people saying they're pro or con a specific issue and doing so on the Downing Street website is a "big noise". Similar petitions, for instance Scrap all existing and planned tolls, "road pricing" and so called "congestion charging" reached only 2,500 odd signatures. Another has only 942 signatures. Someone understands marketing better than some others it seems. The link from the Number 10 homepage to the petition site says "Use our popular online petition system to make your views heard". When you click through, it goes on to say "Petitions have long been sent to the Prime Minister by post or delivered to the Number 10 door in person. You can now both create and sign petitions on this website too, giving you the opportunity to reach a potentially wider audience and to deliver your petition directly to Downing Street." I wonder if Downing Street knew what they were getting into when they launched this service. The FAQs for the site say "Once your petition has closed ... it will usually be passed to officials who work for the Prime Minister in Downing Street, or sent to the relevant Government department. Every person who signs such a petition will receive an email detailing the Government's response to the issues raised." Interesting use of the word "usually." This will probably be the first time a government department sends out over 1 million emails in one go (HMRC will perhaps have sent out over a million throughout all of January acknowledging receipt of self assessment forms). I'm intrigued about a few things though. For instance, why has no one countered with a high-volume "Implement road pricing faster" petition (the nearest I could find has so far attracted only 261 signatures; another with 182 signatures wants to do the same but increase fuel tax)? Surely there are environmental benefits to be obtained by restricting the number of cars on the road through tolls? There ought to be more directly financial benefits too - enough to make more people pro? The DfT website says "1. A well designed local road pricing scheme has the potential to reduce congestion significantly ... reduced journey times, improved journey time reliability and significant improvements in public transport provision. 2. On a more national level the recent Eddington Transport Study gave strong backing to congestion-targeted road pricing ... well designed pricing schemes stand out above all other transport interventions. Analysis of one road pricing scenario - a national scheme - suggested congestion could be some 50% below what it would otherwise be in 2025 and annual benefits were estimated at £28 billion by 2025 ... The costs of implementing such a scheme would of course need to be accounted for, nonetheless there is clear potential for significant net benefits Given David Davies' recent letter to vendors planning to pitch for ID cards business, can we expect to see a similar letter to those who try and get involved in this? After all, I believe the No2ID petition reached only 30,000 signatures. Will the Conservatives seize the opportunity to launch a policy on the back of this petition? Or will the 59 million people who haven't signed it rise up and demand that it go ahead (the absence of a strong counter-petition makes this, sadly, more than a little unlikely) The Road Pricing petition closes on the 20th February (a week on Tuesday), so what happens then? A change in policy? A Conservative airwaves grab? Or "no noise" (would that be static?)? Lots of people will be watching and, perhaps, waiting for their e-mail. There's an opportunity not to be lost here. An email of political double speak or, worse, "thank you for taking the time to sign up to this petition, your views are important to us" would be a great shame. Perhaps the most likely response will be a heavily edited chunk of the DfT business case outlining the pros and cons. Now if there was a voting button showing "convinced" or "not convinced" at the bottom of that mail, maybe we'd be into an interesting dialogue.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Was I Right When I Was Right?

After saying I was right on our decision in dotp not to use inline links and especially after saying it in such a provocative way, I expected to get some comments. And indeed I did, all sensible and informed: "And anyway, why are inline links so inaccessible? Surely they provide user with important context whether using a screen reader or not? and Surely the problem lies with inadequate link text, rather than with inline links? " Saying "it's a philosophical thing" plainly won't get me very far in this company so I resolved to try and explain myself better. I've touched on this very topic before - 2 years ago and more. Broadly I agree with the latter point - one of the manifestations of poor thinking on links is recurrences of "click here to visit the page on benefits" or similar. Whilst thinking about this post and doing some reading I came across this very nice rebuttal to the "click here is ok" theory. But I also see too many links inside a paragraph of text as being confusing, I find myself asking "do I have to follow these links to understand the point that is being made?" If I were using a screen reader, the constant interruptions of links - and the uncertainty of whether I should follow them right then and there (and if not how to get back to them) - would probably drive me mad. Wikepedia is clear on its recommendations:
  1. Do not overlink. Screen readers put each link on its own line.
  2. Create good link descriptions, especially for external links. (avoid "click here!" or "this" kinds of links)
  3. Avoid putting links in section headings, unless the link text is the only text in the title. Screen readers will stop reading the heading title when they encounter a link, and if the link is the first part of the heading title, they will only read the link text. For example, a heading title of "The Simpsons" will be read as "The", and a heading title of "hackers in popular culture" will be read as "hackers".

We're talking here about creating a site that is going to be heavily used - and I hereI mean "used" in the sense of many dozens of authors rather than millions of users reading the pages. Here's my logic for no inline links as a flat statement:

- I believe the more of the editorial policy you can fit into the system logic rather than relying on common sense or documented procedures, the better. As you spread your authors around the country (for governments) or the world (for corporates), in the same way that you want the default style sheet to be chosen centrally, you want some of the editorial policies to be enforced centrally - and simply, without human interference.

- Approving editors are busy people and whilst I imagine that they try and read everything, they can't be expected to - if they did, you wouldn't see so many errors in even mainstream press. So the more they can concentrate on "house style" and "does it address the brief" and the less they worry about spelling, grammar, link standards and so on, the better.

- I think text should be standalone and self-explanatory. Generally I link to another site to provide source context rather than to add further to what I'm saying (although I have to say my own editorial policy is a little vague on this and could certainly do with tightening up). Links at the end of a paragraph reinforce this - those links give you a chance to provide places where further information can be found or where the transaction itself can be carried out, or to address obvious questions that may result.

- Broken links occur all the time, even inside the same site, without much warning. A big site could see dozens of broken links every day, internally and externally. As a result, they need to be fixed with as little human intervention as possible. The only time someone needs to look is if the link is intact but the text on the page has changed materially (i.e. may no longer be relevant). The DWP is a good example of both poor standards and inconsistent application - links are both inline and in lists, page templates vary as you navigate through a site, titles are often links, PDFs are used throughout (don't get me started). Here is an example of bad practice from the DWP's site - it's a single line in the middle of a page: "Find out what has been included in previous editions of the Journal." If this breaks, and the link in the word "journal" is removed, what are we left with? A hanging sentence that makes no sense; is it an exhortation? A test? As Helen commented in her response to my previous post, this can be covered by better editing, but I just don't see those standards applied across government sites, let alone the web generally.

- Following on from the point above, the ability to remove a link entirely with no consequence on checking the text is a winner for me. The goal must surely be autonomous removal of links - if one is removed, no one should ever know that it was there in the first place. That means that breaking links out and keeping them in lists to the side of the page or below the appropriate paragraph of text keeps everything simple.

- Finally, a clean standard that is simple to navigate for all users - disabled or not - and follows a consistent set of design and editorial policies is likely to get more users and, importantly, more return visitors. The dti site is perhaps a good example. It looks to me like they've followed the example of the BBC site. Their page setups are clean and simple - the main body of the text is in the middle of the screen and on the right hand side you can see all the related links, background material and so on. The BBC is a news site, the dti is a government site. Is there a difference? Probably not.

Does that help clear up my position?

Petition Position

In response to my last post on "websites down" Tom Steinberg posted a comment - in a John Kerry kind of way, i.e.first I did then I didn't. He's going to post again when he gets some new numbers but his essential point was that the Express was wrong (shock! horror! call the PCC) and that the Downing Street Petition site didn't go down at all, least of all when the piffling petition against inheritance tax was flooded by 15,000 signatures. I'd wondered whether it was, in fact, the far bigger campaign against road pricing that had caused the problem. Apparently it was a code bug. More from Tom soon. Checking the road pricing petition again, they're up to 693,000 signatures (versus 650,000 on Feb 4th). Inheritance tax is up to 25,000 a bigger relative increase for sure, but dwarfed in absolute terms. What's intriguing me is the organisation behind this anti-road pricing campaign. I'd have thought that nearly 700,000 signatures is a pretty impressive total for a petition, online or otherwise. The Mail on Sunday is backing it and seems to be showing more muscle than the Express. When the MoS published its story on January 27th, the petition had 590,682 votes - so they've added 100,000 since the first mention there. The Mail had this to say "Yet one Minister has dismissed the petition as 'nonsense', while Downing Street said the Prime Minister had no intention of abandoning plans to tax drivers by the mile. The Mail on Sunday has learned that the petition posted on the No10 website has recorded an extraordinary level of support. No petition in recent times has come close to gathering a similar number of signatures. The campaign by TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve the standard of school dinners managed only 270,000 names - yet it prompted a U-turn in Government policy." But there are 877 results in Google for the exact title of the petition. That's no mean performance. When the Telegraph wrote about it on 12th January there were "only" 250,000 names on the list and the DfT's thoughts were "No decision has been taken on whether to implement a national road pricing scheme," a spokesman said. "We are working with local authorities to investigate the potential of local schemes in tackling congestion." The Express' petition on inheritance tax has, however, only 11 results in google So is it that road pricing is more emotive than inheritance tax and is likely to affect both more people and perhaps crucialls, more people sooner? Or is it better orchestration of a campaign? I suspect it's both of those coupled with better press coverage - only the Express has led on inheritance tax whereas every motoring magazine, including Top Gear, and a good few nationals has had a go at road pricing. What would be interesting is whether people arrive at the petitions site, leave their signature behind and depart, or whether they stop and see what else is there? Tom - any chance of telling us how many people have signed up to more than one petition and how many people have both signed up to more than one and also created a petition? That might be an interesting way of seeing if we're witnessing a tool that has staying power. What about also tracking inbound links to the petitions to see which ones are getting more coverage?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Websites down

Not a good week for the e-government revolution, at least as far as websites go - a shame in the week that record-breaking income tax returns were filed online. First, the Downing Street petitions website fell over apparently as the Express launched a campaign to ban the "Death Tax", aka inheritance tax. This was a smart move, revisiting the decades old rebranding of "death insurance" to "life insurance." Oddly, the "Scrap vehicle tracking and road pricing" petition has nearly 650,000 signatures but the "Scrap inheritance tax in this year's budget" (referred to as the ihtcrusade in the website's own URL) has only 15,099, slightly fewer than the petition to ban ID cards. Perhaps it was vehicle pricing that caused the shutdown rather than IHT? The road pricing campaign is by far and away the largest petition (No 2 on the list has only 22,000 signatures and is seeking to repeal the Hunting Act). By the by, I believe the petitions sub-site was setup by the folks at MySociety.com. It's a nice job. The Valuations Office site collapsed under load as newspapers published stories about potential re-banding (and therefore refunds) of council tax. Homeowners hoping to reclaim thousands of pounds in council tax have caused a Government website to grind to a near halt. Online traffic to the Valuation Office Agency's website increased almost 20-fold after a consumer campaigner claimed that households could be set for a windfall due to "ad hoc" home evaluations. Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said more than a million people could have been overpaying for as long as 14 years. The VOA problem attracted lots of forum posts in the money world. Downing Street naturally got better press with the "get Blair out no matter what" newspapers, notably the Express, making it front page news, even if it wasn't perhaps their petition that caused the shutdown. Still, if HMRC and the government gateway can handle tens of thousands of complex online tax forms in the space of a few hours, you'd imagine that a website could handle a few lookups of council tax banding or a few thousand signatures.

Going Postal

Today's post brought two items, the first, a renewal form for postal voting, the second a letter from The Electoral Commission, suggesting that "when [I] moved home, the chance are [I forgot] to take something with [me] ... [my] right to vote." Odd to get those both at the same time. The difference? One is addressed to A Mather, the other to Mr Alan Mather. Is it not possible to run an even slightly fuzzy check to guess that those are the same person? Incidentally, the postal voting renewal notes that the law has changed to make postal voting more secure, what with all the scandals last time round. The new measures? They want my signature and my date of birth. Accompanying that form was a survey, question 2 is "do you believe that these measures will make postal voting more secure". With yes, no and don't know available I was left wishing for a box that said "of course not, are you completely inept?"