Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lambasting Outsourcing

A while ago I speculated on what would happen if hedge funds ran outsourcing contracts. That post attracted a worthy comment - an essay in fact. Rather than leave it buried in the comments, I thought I'd raise its profile. It's very Private Eye and whether you agree or disagree with the point of view, I expect it will raise a wry smile. I've edited it only slightly - to make it a little shorter (you can find the full post and comment at the link above): CBI.com magazine interviews several prominent business leaders and government ministers, with a lie detector, a waterboard, a pair of pliers and a blowtorch, and asks the question, "Why do you outsource?" -------------- Ivan Ornérée Surcha MP repsonds : -------------------- "Well it causes redistribution of wealth. If we outsource to a big company, we can have lots of secret deals where they open an office on the waste ground of an old ICI plant in the Middlesbrough slums, employing all the plebs who would vote us out if they were unemployed. It doesn't matter, per se, that the project ever achieves anything or even works, the only important thing is that the government isn't embarassed by the employment figures, and if the project happens to be a success it's announced before a general election, and if a failure it's announced after we've lost the general election. Speaking of elections, I must see my researcher this afternoon. As a second point, if we didn't outsource, who would employ us when we left office? Obviously, we don't explain it that way, we explain it in terms of garnering the support of the whole community, and so on, but the reality is that we can push all kinds of social responsibility onto a big company, and they're given so much money for the job, I mean just look at the Child Support Agency, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, or even outlook, did all the things they needed but for just £500 Million we can bring the Northeast forward into the 20th century, that they can afford to employ all the care in the community types we would otherwise have to find secure accomodation for. As well as this, once there's one or two big companies handing the work, if we find say, a large amount of unemployment in a particular social group, say single mothers, we can create a new law or two to ensure they get a job. This technique doesn't work for small companies. For instance, the right to jobsharing, combined with any type of box ticking legislation, say equal rights, means a big company such as EDS or someone, has to prove they don't discriminate against the uncompetitive, and thus they have to employ diversities directors, and compliance staff. What else would a woman with a social studies degree from exeter do if we didn't create a market for her to work in? She'd be working in McBurgerland, that's what, and she'd vote us out I'll tell you what, eh? This is government after all, we have to look after everybody, not just the capable. --------Sir Withington Smythe, Head of Automata Systems, replies --------- "Why do we outsource? Well it's quite simple really, we've got a whole stockmarket out there baying for instant profits, and my job depends on it. If I say to the analysts twice a year that we've setup a large IT project, everyone thinks "They've never done a big job before!!", and they panic. Before you know it, the share price is down. If however, I say, we're getting -Insert Very Famous Consultancy Here- to do the work, they think, "Well we don't know anything about IT, but at least the CEO is prepared to admit he doesn't either. I mean just look at Aunty Pat, complaining about it being difficult to deal with all those database thingies, it just goes to show you see, inability to understand goes right to the very top. Besides, noone will ever hear if PWCMPG screw it up, because they'll settle out of court with a confidentiality agreement, and give me a job when I've left this place. There's no end of people happy they've had a board room table to fall back on." "There's a second problem, these IT people cost a hell of lot of money, and whilst I've no problem giving a six figure salary to old Billy Rothschild-Devere I fagged with at Harrow, but for some kid who is just out of school and grew up in an engineering yard, well they just won't be able to return the favour will they? I mean they don't even have a Hice in Gloucester do they? After all that's how I got started on the floor, noone's going to buy stock from a coalminer are they, but if they know my dad. The additional problem with these chaps is that they don't want to move into management, they want to stay technical. As for all the people who have social skills that you'd like to promote, the problem with these chaps and chapesses is that they don't have a ruddy clue about what happens inside a computer." "The final problem is that time has passed, and you've just got so many MBAs coming out of Harvard, Insead, LBS etc, that it's not like the old days anymore. There used to be a couple of hundred MBAs, but now they're like flies at polo match - and all of them want to cut costs, so they treat the staff like commodities. This was fine until the staff worked out how they were considered, so now everyone's just trying to guard the old canal. This is compounded by the fact that every young management pup has to justify his existence by suggesting that we do something else. I mean, noone wants to say, "It works. It's pretty good." because if they do, why do we need them, eh?" "Finally, there's one good thing about outsourcing. It allows the business to change. All business needs change, it helps us cycle the staff, otherwise you get these care in the community types building up. I'm not saying they shouldn't have a job, but I'd just rather they were employed somewhere else." "Of course the actual end decision to outsource has to be supported by some genuine business reasons, like cost. There's a world of difference between cost and short term cost, just ask the Tessa or Seb, or Enron. Most businesses and most market analysts don't want the real cost of IT on their bottom line."

Upgrading e-Government. The PR story.

It seems to to be the season for upgrades. I've just installed Office 12 on my laptop and very nice it is too, even if Outlook whilst looking much better runs much more slowly; I tried to install Vista on the same, Vista-Capable, laptop but failed dismally with a long hex-code only error message indicating it would go no further than the first stage of file copying; I've added a GPS gadget to my bike ready for the Summer; and, very soon, I might have to upgrade my left knee. I also upgraded the software on my Sonos with their new software, V2.2, the main feature being to allow wireless connection to the various online music services. The nice people at Sonos kindly let me have the software a little earlier than most to beta test it. I like Sonos a lot, as I've said here before, and the new features add some great stuff, especially if you already subscribe to one of the services; but the best sites - Rhapsody and Pandora - are USA only at the moment which is a shame. For me, the addition of Classic FM as a radio station available for streaming was a big plus (and I appreciate it sounds weird to use such an awesome device to play stuff that was wireless before wireless meant something entirely different). Finally, it was the season of movie upgrades. I want 3 hours of my life back having, last Friday, sat through Pirates III: Utter Rubbish. Years ago we joked about Microsoft needing 3 versions to get it right, now the studios need 3 versions to get it horribly wrong; reviews for Pirates III, Spiderman 3, X-Men 3 and Shrek 3 have all been awful. So what has this to do with e-government - something you probably say every time you wade through the first few paragraphs of my posts? Well, it occurred to me, that all of these new things - whether they be movies, GPS devices, new software versions and so on, were brought to my attention either through advertising or, most commonly, through email. Only today, Amazon sent me an email highlighting its Askville service - a service that I'm not sure that I'll ever use but at least I know it's there (there's a question outstanding asking for views on a national ID card if you want to try it out). But in 7 years of developing, launching and using e-government services, I can't recall ever getting an email that said: Hey Alan, as a regular/occasional/one-time user of salt.gov.uk/hedgehogs.gov.uk/darwin.gov.uk, we thought you'd be pleased to know that you can now calculate your predicted death day based on your personal salt intake/learn how to cross the road more safely/see the list of people who have died for stupid reasons, proving darwin's survival of the fittest theory I certainly blame myself for this - as it says above, I helped develop and launch various services but don't recall ever sending out emails to people; but I haven't received any from services that I didn't launch either. I often get emails from commercial services that say Dear Alan, we notice it's been a while since you last used our site and wondered why that was. To help entice you back here's a gift voucher/offer of enormous wealth/picture of Pamela Anderson that you can redeem/take a chance on/view and vicariously live through on our site. Lots of people have forever told me that search is the killer application for e-government (and, for that matter, that government is rubbish at search and should leave it to google - like they need more areas to be dominant in). But once someone has found a service and used it, or even flamed out trying to use it, surely the best way to retain them as a user/customer is to stay in touch with them. I'm sure I've heard that it's 7x more expensive to get a new customer than it is to retain an existing one. And what about the potential for cross-selling: Dear Alan, as a regular user of salt.gov.uk we wanted to tell you about our partnership with 5 a day.gov.uk. If you use both sites, you'll quickly realise a healthier diet and reduce your chances of heart disease/eating food full of flavour/getting caught taking white powder. You might even meet Jamie Oliver if you win our competition. Government regularly refreshes its offline services - probably at least once a year. Tax rates change, allowances move, policies shift (left and right I imagine). In the race to 2005/100% online new services were launched regularly and catalogued on direct.gov.uk . But they were never marketed to existing users or to users of related services. And as new features have, inevitably I'd like to think, been added, I haven't heard a peep from anyone about what they might be. With direct.gov joining government up, at least via it's orange paint job, it's the logical place to get updates from, although individual departments would likely want to retain ownership of the customer. The key will be who owns the email address and what the privacy rules were on sharing this - something I know we've fallen foul of in the past inside government. But surely an occasional bulletin to let existing users know of current services, updates, enhancements and pending launches would not be difficult? Since the government ad engine that we launched in 2002/3 was killed off a couple of years ago, there's been almost no cross-selling. Time to start. P.S. Rumour has it that there will be a directgov blog soon, perhaps that will dish the dirt on upcoming plans for new services?

When Aggregation Doesn't Work

I just saw this headline on Google News Child found hanging but still alive MSNBC - 54 minutes ago May 29: Three of the four people found dead in a Texas mobile home were children. MSNBC's Chris Jansing reports. Swinging through spring, Mideast medical care, fountain fun and more. The third sentence appears to be taken from a sidebar that says, in full, "The Week in Pictures Mideast medical care, fountain fun and more." Where the distinctly tasteless addition of "swinging through spring" came from isn't clear. That's why human oversight of final text is often a good thing I guess.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Beta Blockers

What is it about government IT projects that make them fail so spectacularly and so regularly? Only this week Joe Harley, the CIO at DWP, was lamenting that the failure rate is 70%. Speaking at the Government IT summit, he said"For the government's IT spend of £14bn, "7,000 primary schools every year could be constructed", about 600,000 nurses could be employed or more than three million state pensions paid." I love that the number is still £14 billion - I calculated it at £13 billion or so some 4 years ago and wondered how much it would climb to once the NHS IT and the Home Office ID cards got going. Still I digress. I love the other numbers too - 600,000 nurses at £23,333 a year, 7,000 primary schools at £2,000,000 or 3,000,000 pensions at £4,666 per year. Eye catching numbers, if disturbingly round. Joe notes that the £14 billion isn't all project-related of course, there is a bundle spent on desktops - with a spend of anywhere from £700/unit to £2,400/unit (and, I imagine, far higher costs depending on who loads what into each unit price - one of the problems of comparing such numbers, like the "cost of a website" is different departments see costs in different ways". On the project front, Joe isn't entirely clear what "failure" actually means but he did add: Projects fail for a variety of reasons but sometimes have predictable weaknesses such as inadequate requirements. Even if a project or programme is three months late it's doubtful "you could call this a success". The "inadequate requirements" point is interesting. With OGC Gate Reviews either about to be or now made public, I'm sure we're going to see a lot more on that. OGC are already facing criticism for passing too many projects with status "green" that turn out later to be outright failures (otherwise known as the "how could you not spot that the horse they were putting together had 3 humps?" attack) and senior civil service management will likely take flak for ignoring too many "red" reports (known as the "what do they know about horses? ours needs those 3 humps for exta ballast" defence). On the current trackrecord, I think most of us would be pleased if some thing was only 3 months late, depending on what occurred because of the lateness. Obviously, a missile intercepting an incoming nuclear warhead being fired 3 months late wouldn't be much use; and an IT system designed to ship patient data around wouldn't do much good for the patients that passed away during the 3 months that it wasn't around - but, in general, a 3 month delay wouldn't be terrible. I'm intrigued by the 30% success rate figure. If success takes just 3 dimensions - meets requirements, is on time and on budget, then I'd venture that no government or business entity in the world has a hit rate of much greater than this figure. Filtering out the very short-term projects - the ones that are changes to existing code bases or the ones where time isn't costed to the project, so establishing say a minimum spend of £10 million (small by government standards, moderate by corporate standards), how many companies would stand up and present a success rate much greater? Of course, the deck is loaded here. The Chaos Chronicles, published by the Standish Group, tell us the real story: These numbers are a significant improvement over the previous survey conducted in 1995. That survey indicated that 80% of IT project failed. In 2003 this number shrank to 66%. Although fewer projects fail nowadays, the general trend is that more projects are delivered late; statistically this is at 82%, up from 62% in 1995. However, there is also good news: the average cost overrun is currently at 43%, down from 180% in 1995 The true genius lies in the solution The most effective way to avoid cost and schedule overruns is to get better at making software cost estimates. Software has become more complex and increased in size, which makes estimation more challenging, however, several studies (e.g. Standish Group, Capers Jones) have shown that by using software cost estimation techniques alone, the probability of completing a project successfully doubles. Estimating the schedule, cost, and resources needed for the project is paramount for project success. That is to say that if you doubled your estimate of time to complete, increased your budget by 75% and cut your requirements in half (all at the same time), you'd be absolutely certain to be successful. Sadly, more current data than 2003 doesn't seem to be available on the web (indeed, the Standish Group website lists data only from 1994 and they want $5,000 for membership or $500 for just one quarterly report). I've done more than a few presentations on the same topic, usually involving a story about wheels falling off wagons and using whatever was current from the press at the time, whether it was problems at Sainsbury, Nike, Cigna, the Inland Revenue the Department of Work and Pensions or wherever. Sometimes I ended with this quote, from, I think, an anonymous source: "A carelessly planned project takes three times longer to complete than expected A carefully planned project takes only twice as long" This week I've been playing* Microsoft's new Xbox 360 game, Halo 3. The whole game isn't out until the end of September but Microsoft's developer, Bungie, have thoughtfully releases a beta version. I have no idea how many people in total are accessing this beta but earlier this evening over 50,000 were online playing at the same time as me (not, fortunately, all in the same game universe as me). One way into the beta was to buy a specially flagged copy of another game, Crackdown, for about £40. Some people treated this as buying the game and getting the beta for nothing, others complained about having to pay £40 for a ticket to the beta (which only lasts three weeks or so) and planned to throw away what turned out, not surprisingly as the game was written by the author of the original Grand Theft Auto, to be a very good game. When the beta kicked off, last Wednesday, those who had bought Crackdown anxiously awaited for it to begin at 1pm on the dot. Come that time, no one could access it. For hours afterwards, access was denied, and the Interweb forums filled with vitriol, bile and every known variety of swearwords, all helpfully, on bungie.net at least, replaced by -blam-. The user population was not happy. Bungie acknowledged that there was a problem after an hour or so and then stayed quiet for ten more hours or more. In fact, all of the companies involved stayed quiet. Only when it was fixed did they announce the problem had gone away and, gracefully, extended the beta for 4 days to make up for the 1/2 day or so lost. A good recovery (and isn't the recovery from a problem so much more important than the actual problem itself?). There are a few points here 1) Betas are meant to be buggy. That's why there's a beta, to iron out the problems. There aren't, usually as far as I know anyway, problems actually starting the beta, but you'd certainly expect the game to be buggy (And so far, it seems pretty stable but there are certainly bugs) 2) Staying quiet once you know there are problems, perhaps known as the "Gordon Brown on Raiding Pensions" defence, isn't a good tactic. It angers people more. 3) When you do find problems, addressing them in the right way is critical. Just like when you go to a restaurant and they make you wait 60 mins or more for the main course, if they bring you a glass of fine red wine, you wait patiently; if they don't, you fume quietly in the corner and don't leave any service charge. SO what would happen if government ran beta tests of its major programmes? After all, we're seeing them with the cashless society (being beta tested in September in Canary Wharf) and the Downing Street petitions website continues to be in beta, despite long since proving its mettle with the road pricing petition. In the corporate world, half of the things you can do with Google seem to have been in beta for months or years (hasn't gmail only recently come out of beta after all?). But, we haven't ever seen one start or be proposed for, say, tax credits, or business taxation policies, or, shall we say, ID cards? So how about we run some beta tests on government programmes, using these steps: - Carry out limited beta tests, backed by sufficient but not too much IT to prove that the theory and practice worked. It doesn't have to do everything on day one. - Try out 2, 3 or even 5 different versions of the beta - i.e. different policies. One would have to be a control group - just like in medical tests, you need to be able to test against something that you understand and that isn't moving. - Invite a limited population - somewhere from 0.1% to 5% of the total target market (with 30 million employees in the UK, so a PAYE betea with 0.1% would be 30,000 people - plenty of a challenge). - Make the aims of the beta, the kind of people involved in it, and the details of how it's going including the final conclusions, entirely public - Carry out the beta test for long enough to see how it worked through a full cycle. If that was PAYE, i.e. employee taxation through the payroll, that could be as much as a year. - Start development of the wider programme only when all the tests had been evaluated against the original aims. This works for drug tests, it works for peer reviews of scientific papers, so it should work for government IT I know, however, that the moment the first one of these was started, the business and technology press would erupt. The opposition parties would also have a field day, whichever set they were. The obstacles raised would include: - What a waste of time. If you're not sure of your policy, why not get sure in the first place and then start the work - How dare you give these other people competitive advantage. Some of these new tax beta tests would doubtles involve companies paying less tax so that the impact on their profits, investment profile, employee count and so on could be assessed. Instead, all of these kinds of tests are carried out on complex models of the economoy built, doubtless, in Excel - What about those people who are suffering without access to the beta? This is a variant of the "how dare you give the people in Ward A the drug that might cure them of their cancer, but not the folks in Ward B" - at the outset, of course, you don't know which is going to work best. - What about if the beta fails? How do you get people off the new process and back onto the old process without disadvantaging them? I could go on for ten more pages about the list of objections that would be raised. You'll note also that I am proposing beta testing both policy and IT systems - addressing the "inadequate requirements" point in the beta test is surely essential - and so opening myself up to double criticism. The Halo 3 guys are only testing their IT - and they know that Halo 3 is just Halo 3, they don't have to test out if they need to make it more like Half Life 2 or more like Gran Turismo or whatever. Nope, there would be many who would block the idea of beta testings, let's call them the beta blockers (predictably, a group of drugs that slows down your heart rate - and therefore, doubtless, your speed of delivery). And that's probably a shame. If the success rate really is only 30% then savaging the costs by 20% and working on "inadequate requirements" at a purely technical level isn't going to solve the problem. Not for UK government, not for foreign governments and not for corporations around the world who appear to suffer from exactly the same problem. * Yes, I play video games. I've been playing since Space Invaders in, what, 1978. Then all the way through a 256 byte (yes, byte) Mk14 through the Apple II, the ZX81 and on to the Atari ST, the BBC Micro, the Xbox and now the Xbox 360.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fixing FOI

In this world of web 2.0 the delivery of the Freedom of Information act is still very much government 1.0, i.e. one step above stone tablets. Whilst the information that comes from requests gets much attention, whether it is the Independent pursuing its latest lead on whatever happened to Humphrey or the Telegraph lamenting bonus payments to civil servants it is also sometimes the lack of information that gets focus, as with the proposals to exempt members of parliament from the act (to avoid driving "a coach and horses through the relationship that we have with constituents" says Jack Straw) or through the claim of a necessary exemption. Some departments appear to have more exceptions than successes, as with the Foreign Office which has claimed exemptions for 70 per cent of all requests it has received. In total, of the 62,852 requests made to central government since 1 January 2005, 26,083 have not been granted. Those figures, from the Independent, don't quite seem to add up (26k is not 70% of 62k) but the general point stands. Since the act was put in place, attempts to use it have fallen:

Figures released by the Department for Constitutional Affairs reveal requests to central government fell to a low of 7,641 between July and September, compared with 13,603 in the first three months after the law came into force. Freedom of information campaigners warn that this might be evidence that the public have become frustrated with their failure to get answers. Overall, the success rate for requests across all departments has fallen by 2 per cent to 60 per cent in the past six months.

The very thought of exposing information to the wider population makes some public servants quiver with fear - after all, developing legislation is a process, like making sausages, that even the most ardent fans of the output probably don't want to be exposed to. Perhaps the barriers to entry - i.e. how you ask for information to be disclosed, what you can ask for and what the limits on cost of discovery are - are deliberately set high so as to make it difficult to get some information so that only the most determined or those with the most time on their hands see it through. That may mean that some relatively simple requests get caught in the net because it's too hard to get the information or perhaps even because the question, as phrased, doesn't get quite to the nub of what the person asking is really looking for - after all, a 2 word google search turns up millions or hundreds of millions of answers and adding words, whilst reducing the number of items returned, doesn't necessarily get you nearer what you actually want especially where the words you choose don't match the exact syntax in the original document. These are all signs that the process is broken - usage is falling, exemptions are high, frustration with those asking is higher still - and therefore, if the desire was there - the desire to make it a true "freedom of information" act - it could be fixed. With the government 1.0 process that we have, there may be lots of ways to fix it. After all, a process that goes "compose request", "send", "wait for time to expire", "wait for extended time to expire", "get answer but maybe not the one you were looking for" hardly engenders customer loyalty. If I were technical I'd name this an asynchronous and error-filled process. If the desire really is to create an open interface to government, a way where anyone and everyone can see what is happening inside the bowels of the machine then a properly thought through migration to a new model is needed. First some assumptions on scope 1. Only final versions of documents, be they legislation, policy, white papers, green papers etc should be made available to the public. I wouldn't like people to see the drafts of these blog postings as I edit and shift words around and nor, I believe, would those working inside government. Proposals are often put up, shot down, revised and put up again whilst issues on capability, capacity and do-ability are reviewed. There will be many who want to see every last version so that they can try and see who rejected and I understand that, but it doesn't help create a model to work on - it will increase the resistance to opening things up and result in additional controls and checkpoints. It might even encourage more document generation "off the air" so that only final versions are saved on the network. 2. Minutes of meetings, notes of actions, risk and issues registers for programmes, gate reviews, independent reviews and so on should all be available, again in their final form. Generally there is a tendency in the civil service to record the flow of conversation in many meetings and, unlike in corporations, not just the actions. Allowing access to these minutes will, I'm sure, over time result in briefer and briefer minutes and a greater focus on just the actions. 3. Financial information is fair game. Costs per line item - salaries, software, hardware - etc are all allowed; sub-line items are also allowed, e.g. cost for HP hardware or Oracle software. Likwise travel costs - aggregate hotel bills, transport bills etc are all allowed. What isn't fair game is costs that would allow identification of any individual at any level of the civil service organisation. How much any one person is paid in the government is, in truth, neither here nor there as it can't skew the figures more than a tiny amount. I think this applies throughout the civil service but there is perhaps a different rule for our own MPs, where we seem to have a particular interest in the level of expenses they claim. Now, if those scope assumptions are correct, all we need is a mechanism to get the information that isn't time consuming, isn't costly and, as far as possible, is automated. (1) and (2) are, I think, far easier than (3). Encouraging the use of keyword flagging, whether in MS-Word or one of the open equivalents, ought to be easy; mandating it would be harder but is not a huge step. Keywords required would relate to the policy area, the stakeholders, the minister involved and so on. One last flag would say "final" or "public" or "FOI" or something similar so that it was known that it could be made available - any document that didn't have that last flag would be exempt. Every document would be saved to a network area and, once a day or once a week or whatever, those documents would be trawled, indexed and appropriately stored - in a parallel file store to the one that the author put in place. The new store would have a web facing front end with a search engine - let's call it govgle - that could speedily look through all the documents, picking up both the flags and the content. I'd honestly expect far more of the documents that made if this far to be pdf files simply because it would reduce the chance of seeing historic edits laid bare. (3) is far more problematic. Whilst I'm pretty sure that every major and the vast majority of minor departments use Word, Excel, Powerpoint or their nearest equivalents, I'm absolutely sure that standards in the financial area are a long way behind that. It's not simply a case of differences in the systems but differences in accounting lines, cost codes, classification of funds, dates for booking, month end closure periods, accrual processes and so on. Disentangling those is a huge job - and, very possibly, an impossible one. Perhaps the easiest way forward in the short term would be to create a standard "summary account" that ran monthly that posted cost and revenue lines into a short, say 100 or 200 line, report. The job then would only be for each department to group their costs and revenues (mostly costs I'm sure) into those lines and create the report. This report would then be made available in the same way as the earlier items. Is this better than what we have now? Certainly - what we have now is either whatever is published on the web across 100s or 1000s of websites or whatever is turned up via individual requests to individual departments. Neither is e-government 1.0 let alone anything more advanced than that. This process does a few things: - It opens up the process of FOI allowing for more trial and error. Different questions can be asked quickly and easily with close to instant results. This will allow "skimming" for potentially interesting topics and may even expose a few of the inevitable absurdities that come with multiple large organisations acting out of alignment, but that shouldn't be a bad thing, the inevitable Daily Mail headlines notwithstanding - It shifts the burden of consolidating the information from the government to the inquisitor - i.e. the search engine will return lots of results and pulling those together is the job of the person asking, just as it is now whenever we use a search engine. If the engine is good - and Google or Autonomy or similar would be a sensible choice - it will quickly see what the most important items are based on document criteria as well as usage (link volume will, I think, not matter so much here) - It allows whoever is asking the question to aggregate responses from multiple sources within government quickly; that aggregation may well expose a lack of joined up thinking in government, but that would hardly be news - It will allow the creation of some commercial models where information providers or indexers, lawyers, accountants, lobbyists etc, will be incented to pull together packages of information that might be useful to their clients - It will make follow up questions more incisive. The day to day information that is available will sate the appetite of most but those pursuing more specific or comprehensive information can go through the offline process. This process can be set up knowing that the bulk of questions are going to be difficult - and appropriate charges can be put in place for it; after all, there's no reason why it can't be a profit centre. You want to ask a difficult and time-consuming question, well, take a number and pay the fee. There are only then two questions to ask: 1) Does anyone actually want to make it easier to get such information? and 2) Is FOI important enough for there to be a business case to do this?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Technology advances

Whilst I'm being critiqued for wanting an extra dinkle on my dongle (see comments in earlier posts), I have to say I'm amazed by these two "over the air" services: The first, PowerCast, promises to deliver power without wires the same way that we get the internet across a wireless network. 100s of companies are, it seems, ready to ship compatible products. The potential seems huge - trains with transmitters installed in a carriage that allow laptops to charge whilst being used (must be cheaper than installing plugs in every seat); hotel rooms where you can work anywhere, no longer tethered to that usually uncomfortable chair by the desk that is the only one in reach of the power cord; an end to cables trailing all over the place at home; and no need to carry a mobile phone charger wherever you go, as long as you know you're going somewhere with powercast. Will it work? Who knows. The track record of these kind of changes - ones that require an infrastructure to be set up so that you can reliably get power wherever you need it - isn't that great. This could be the "Rabbit" phone of its time, or it could be the new "WiFi". The second, Slacker, plans to deliver music over the air to any device - be it a mobile phone or an MP3 player. Sensibly realising that Apple has pretty much locked down the hard-drive based, upload your music and occasionally buy a track model, and seeing (I assume) services like last.fm, pandora and others, they've gone for something different. Slacker will see you a device, like an ipod, with a subscription or funded by banner ads, that allows music to be wirelessly shiped to your device. Just like the online equivalents you get to say "like it" or "hate it" to tunes and either keep them or reject them. If you're paying, you keep them for good (or as long as you carry on paying the subscription). Like Rhapsody and other similar services, you get to hear a potentially infinite range of music whenever you want - no hassles with uploading CDs, correcting track notes, organising the collection and so on; but, at the same time, you have to consciously rate the songs as you listen to them to ensure that the rating algorithms keep track with your taste and that stuff that you don't like listening to is never seen again. The potential upside is that a service like NetFlix evolves, the downside is that Apple just keeps marching ahead with better design and features that appeal to those of us who don't spend hours ordering our CDs alphabetically or our DVDs by genre and by lead actor. Apple has brand presence, the Slacker folks don't (yet). Microsoft had brand presence (some would say the wrong presence, I'm not one of those), but still hasn't cracked it with Zune. I think we'll be getting our power wirelessly before we get our music from Slacker. Whether the power will come from Powercast or not, I'm not so sure, but I'd like to see them make progress - it takes someone to open up the market after all.

Odd Signz 3

I saw this sign too late. The door had already hit me.

Odd Signz 2

Walking out of my apartment the other day I was more than a little surprised to see this sign. As if "definately", "your" (in place of "you're", as in "your welcome") and all of the usual textual shortcuts ("hope ur well" and so on) weren't bad enough, we've now got this terrible mix of words. I can see the sign in the local library now - "please be strenuously quiet" or perhaps at the football stadium "please sit down vigorously". I'll leave entirely alone the idea that the space under my apartment is an "undercroft" which, until seeing this sign, I'd always associated only with churches.

Rage Against Phones II

Mobile phones should be perfect candidates for darwinian evolution (as opposed to any other kind). A manufacturer surveys the market, sees what works and incorporates it into their phone. Phones cross-breed from manufacturer A to manufacturer B. Good ideas get stolen from one phone and implemented readily in others. Phones improve from generation to generation. Software gets more and more stable as the base its built on improve. Difficult user interfaces are eliminated and refinements serve only to make things easier. Phones change rapidly enough - new manufacturers emerge, new technologies etc - that the Marc Andreessen "interfaces freeze early" problem shouldn't apply. In just a few generations of phone we've gone from one number per key to one letter per key to two letters per key, from cursor keys to scroll wheels to "pearls", from black and white screens to colour screens to colour touch-sensitive screens. Good evolution. I understand that evolution doesn't worry so much about patents as today's technology companies do. And, just like evolution, sometimes phones are so ugly or impossible to use that they don't sell and such phones are never included in the gene pool again - evolutionary dead-ends, the sponges of the mobile world. The more you think about this, the more you realise that it's either a rare occurrence or a non-existent one: Windows 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 phones were awful, but in the Microsoft tradition, they evolved. The RAZR's initial incarnation (the V3 - taking a lesson from Microsoft and starting at V3 to make everyone think it was ok) was horrible to use, but evolved into the V3x which was bearable at least. So perhaps we're left with brands here - anyone for a Panasonic mobile phone, or a BenQ? There really aren't many three-headed trilobites in the mobile world. You'd have thought there'd be more. It is, I imagine, a function of the size of the market now as well as the future opportunity that means that few people give up. Sometimes manufacturers hit a winner and those phones spawn a millon/zillion offspring and dominate like never before, for a while at least (dinosaurs in the nicest sense of the word). Any kind of flip-phone would perhaps work as an example. Occasionally, something comes completely out of left field without any evident predecessors (the compound eye mobile phone) and really sets the world on fire. It's so good and so elite that everyone is too afraid to breed with it and so it's forced to evolve down the slowpath, relying on mutation within rather than cross-breeding. Whilst being an awesome phone it eventually dies out. Motorola have scored twice, at least on looks, with the StarTac and the RAZR (the less said about many of their other phones, the better) None of these groupings are perfect. Impossible to use phones often sell by the truckload. The RAZR/V3 whilst looking fantastic was near impossible to use; the Nokia 8800 was, for a while, the slimmest, sleekest phone - but battery life was so poor it came with two batteries, each lasting perhaps one call; the Treo 600 and 650 were amongst the best smart gadgets I'd ever used, but sound quality on every call was awful and they crashed more than once a day; the Sony Ericsson P800 (the one shaped like a bar of soap) was, briefly, awesome until tapping away with that little stick got too much (about an hour after you'd first picked it up) and you tired of rebooting it 4, 5 or 6 times a day... and so on. It's easy to rant about a phone - after all, how many electronic things do you carry about your person and use for several hours a day? There's loads of opportunity for trouble and frustration. One man's gadgetary genius is another man's worst ever nomination. But what gets to me is that very nearly 20 years after I first used a mobile phone and where the iteration rate in both software and hardware is far, far faster than it is for the PC or Mac, we're still in a terrible place. Ipods improve (as in get better rather than just change) faster than phones - making subtle, incremental changes with each hardware release and occasionally more exciting updates with each software release. This is the reason, for me at least, why people are excited about the iphone - the idea of a (probably) initially stable phone that gets software updates regularly (to fix inevitable problems) is somehow very attractive. Is it too much to ask that a phone: - Has a battery that lasts at least a long weekend (treo 750 need not apply) - Has a keyboard that registers your touch simply and effectively (samsung sgh600i need not apply) - Doesn't crash more than once a week (and, if it does crash regularly, that the reboot time is minimal - proving that the engineers have thought about minimising your pain. Reboot on the sgh600i is 2 1/2 minutes) - Works consistently. If it has a back button, that should work the same way all the time. Copy and paste should work in every application for instance. - Adheres to standards (sending a business card by SMS ought to be easy by now) - even the Palm Treo phones don't support that (in Palm or Windows o/s) - Allows me to synchronise text messages, ring tones, speed dials to the PC (can we really be on Windows Mobile V6 and ActiveSync v4.5 and not be able to do those still?) - Let's me install software that replaces the default software - maybe I don't like the Windows Mobile standard SMS application and want to use another; well, let me associate text to another application (Palm has done this since at least the 600 if not earlier) - And has good versions of the best features so far seen. Top software features for me: (1) threaded text (2) single click access to create a text and select a recipient. Samsung's inbuilt app is 8 clicks before you can start typing your message! (3) contacts that let you phone or text someone right from the screen, a lookup that lets you start typing a number and brings up the contacts that match as you type (as opposed to typing in a name and bringing up the number) - Spinvox users will know what I mean. (4) Freecell, not solitaire Of course, Darwin works for the users too, as this post on "worst phone ever" evidences with the line "the touch screen is very hard to use as a phone keyboard – you WILL kill yourself if you ever try to dial a number whilst driving the car." Hmmm...dialling a number whilst I'm driving? Now why wouldn't that kill me?