Friday, June 27, 2008

Trending e-government

The new google trends service shows some interesting data on usage of e-government sites. When I last looked at this a couple of weeks ago there was no scale on the y-axis, but they've fixed that now. There are a few caveats about the data - it involves some estimations and normalising, but it looks pretty close to what I think are the right numbers based on my experience of the UK sites.

Here are a few graphs. This first one shows 4 of the main sites in the UK. Direct.gov attracts the most traffic - at something like 170-180,000 people a day. The inevitable huge drop at Christmas and then a bounceback much higher - expected for hmrc.gov.uk with tax return time at the end of January but less expected for direct.gov.uk (which keeps the traffic unlike HMRC)

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And here's direct.gov compared with its US equivalent (usa.gov, which used to be first.gov) and also the IRS site. Practically no one visits usa.gov - less than 20,000 a day (in a country of 300 million). The IRS site peaks in the run up to tax time in April as you'd expect but the figures aren't as high as i'd expect.


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And another showing some other national portals - not a lot of traffic really, in the scheme of things (and perhaps versus the total cost of service provision)

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And, to feed the e-government is dead argument, here's one showing how often it's searched for over time. Not dead but definitely decaying.

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And another one for "self assessment" - showing how search traffic has multiplied each year but only in January with a minor (and declining) peak in September as you'd expect.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Transformational Government

200806121114.jpg I was at GC2008 yesterday, to meet a few people and to catch Sir David Frost's closing speech, "Behind the hype: how far has the public sector come." The pitch on their website was:

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What we got was 30 glorious minutes of stories about people he'd met, people other people had met and stories that they'd told him, and probably a few stories about people he'd never met with stories that had never happened. He was very, very funny. At the same time, he would get to the end of the story, start to make a summary point and then give up and tell another story. Plainly, at his age, he's more comfortable with the anecdote than the insight. None of it was anything to do with his brief, but I didn't mind at all and most in the audience didn't seem to mind - although a few left at various times (somewhere else go go folks?)

When it got to Q&A someone decided to get him back to the point and asked "What do you think of transformational government?" The questioner had a slight accent - I'm guessing Persian but maybe I'm wrong and, anyway, he was perfectly clear.

The exchange that followed was:

Q: "what do you think of transformational government?"

SDF: "what is my position on government?"

Q: "no, what do you think of transformational government?"

SDF: "positional government?"

Q: "no, transformational government"

SDF: "informational government?"

Q: [louder] "transformational"

SDF: "informational?"

Q: [much louder] "transformational!"

SDF: "informational?"

Before we descended further into a Monty Python-esque script, someone at the front of the audience rescued us by saying "transformational." His answer was interesting. He felt that:

- There was a need for less spin (he was clear that he didn't think this was an invention of New Labour, but actually of Sir Bernard Ingham who, I think, was Margaret Thatcher's Alistair Campbell, or press secretary)

- That Parliament had to matter more

- That people had to want to be engaged

It was interesting that after 50 years of meeting world leaders, inspirational people, sportsmen and women, celebrities and non-celebrities alike, his first thought on transformational government is that Parliament has to matter more.

As a wrap up, asked who he wished he'd interviewed that he hadn't, he said "Dennis Thatcher". And then told two very funny stories about him. The first story was:

SDF was at a dinner to honour Margaret Thatcher after she'd received the [Presidential] Medal of Freedom (just after Gulf War I)

George Bush Senior made a speech and then Mrs T made a speech. Barbara Bush stood and and made another speech and, in turn, introduced Dennis Thatcher. Apparently Dennis T had never made a speech in public before, preferring to keep a low profile. He stood and said "As Julius Caesar said on entering Cleopatra's tent for the first time, 'I didn't come here to talk.'" And then he sat down.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Turn left. Do a legal U-turn. Turn left. Repeat until false.

Last month I rented 3 cars in 3 countries on 2 continents. I've learned more than I ever wanted to about car rental companies. My top 4 lessons200806101812.jpg

1. Satnav is satnav is satnav. No matter the location, no matter the language, it's the same; they're all mad devices. Turn left now. Do a u-turn. Turn half left. Turn left then stay left then bear left. Attention: time variable traffic ahead (?!?!). At 70mph on a Swiss motorway by the time the sat nav has said "turn left in 200 metres" and then "turn left now", I was already well past the turn - and I knew that, as I was travelling to Geneva and the motorway led straight to the town centre, I would have no need to come off the motorway and add an hour to my journey (why did I have satnav on? good question, seemed sensible en route out of Lucerne). Why did every satnav try and take me away from the obvious signs saying "airport" and take me a different route - do city planners decide to route you along the least optimum route when sending you home, hoping to catch a few dollars/euros/francs more on the way out? and somehow satnav devices know better? I ended up using maps.

2. You can have any car you want, except the one you want. Not quite Henry Ford, but little seems to have changed since. Whilst companies such as Easy have made a virtue of offering you just one kind of car, the others all aim to offer a wide range. Understanding the myriad categories, vehicle types, features and functions of each is no easy job. They'll tell you about category A or even B and options all the way to H or J or even K. And once you've decided on the car you want, you'll arrive at the rental station and they'll spring the old "you qualify for an upgrade and so you can have this other car" gag. When you've specifically rented a convertible (because it's 30C outside), getting an Audi A4 with a hard top is not an upgrade. Whether this means they never had a convertible, sold it to someone else who paid more before you got there, or just don't quite get customer requirement matching, I don't know. And I don't think I'll ever know - that's their point.

3. Hide what you can, reveal only when necessary. On top of the "upgrade" gag there seem to be plenty of other adjustments. If you don't return the tank full, a full tank will cost 300 euros (that's some premium for the effort of popping to the local garage); if you want another driver, it will cost extra; you can decline various parts of insurance but not all of them, no matter how hard you try; if you drop the car off at a different place from where you picked it up, that costs extra. In Central London, picking up a car in the heart of Victoria, you're liable to pay the congestion charge, even though there's no way out of the car rental place without triggering the need to pay it - yet it's not included (and you risk forgetting to pay it and so being penalised). You only find out all of this stuff as you're asked for your signature on the rental agreement. Once you're at the desk, your ability to do competitive analysis is long gone. And the car companies know this. And even when you've done everything right, a month later you get your credit card statement and find that there are additional, unexplained charges.

4.Pick your destination based on gas prices if you want cheap. Competition has driven down the cost of renting a car - and here I don't just mean that there are more and more firms, but that immediate online comparison lets you find the cheapest option for your needs (subject to 3 above). But if you want cheap, worry about the cost of fuel; that was more expensive than the rental. When you fill up a tank and it costs you £100, it's hard not to do a double take. Perhaps Dubai is the place to go?

Keep On Running

I'm back in the game for the London Marathon 2009. I'm an optimist of course and it's far from certain I'll make it (I do, though, have a place). But my recovery strategy seems to be paying off. I've been recovering from twice-tearing my meniscus cartilage in my left knee. It's been a painful and frustrating process that has dragged on 16 months now. As of 5 or 6 weeks ago I hadn't managed to run for a bus let alone string together a few kilometres for all of that time. But things seem to have changed.

Somewhere between more vitamin pills (Arthrolactin, FastFlex and CissusRX), Powerplate training and, my latest attempt, the WiiFit, I'm able to run. Not fast and not far. But I can get round my simple 6.25km loop and even push as far as 10k. The time is terrible - 25-30% slower than I ran before, but versus walking it's a whole lot quicker.

The optimist in me would start to push hard now and see what I can do. The realist is going to take it easy and slowly build up. I have 10 months to see if I can get marathon fit and I'm going to take as much of that time as I need. No point in re-injuring my knee or, worse, injuring something else.

Now, about this WiiFit thing. I've been using it for a few weeks now, since the end of April. At the beginning I was barely able to stand on my left leg, let alone do all of the one leg balance exercises you're supposed to do. 200806091850.jpg After a few days of pretty religious practice, I could hold it together long enough to do the exercises although being told that you're next to useless by some pasty-faced trainer wasn't quite the motivation I was looking for.

But the real advantage is two fold:

1) It forces you to use first one leg than the other. It knows if you don't. And pretty much every exercise, at least on the early ones, involves shifting some weight from one leg to the other

2) It shows you, both as you're doing the exercise and then right after you're done, how well you're performing. It traces your movement - and if you're like me that will be ungainly - and scores you out of 50 on each side (for those exercises that have you using one leg then the other). My left leg scored roughly half my right leg at the beginning. I'm up to about 80% now. It's this instant feedback that makes the difference - right away you know if your leg is weaker or struggling. If you cheat - and put your leg down or quit early - it knows. So as long as you follow the instructions and assuming you're just a little bit competitive - got to beat the last score, got to learn how to do this right - you're onto something.

A few weeks on and I'm out running. Was this just the WiiFit? Not entirely I'm sure, but I think there's a strong connection between the exercise programme and me being able to run. And, I suspect there will be an even stronger connection between this and not injuring myself in the future - balancing the muscles on both sides of the body is important for injury protection.

I think there's a real, serious case here for giving anyone who is undertaking physio for a knee injury/broken ankle etc a WiiFit and a custom programme - that the NHS would design in partnership with Nintendo - for rehabilitation and injury recovery.

Why do this? There are 100,000 knee arthroscopies and 50,000 knee replacements annually in the UK. 1 skier in 2,000 hurts their ACL each year. Factor in squash, tennis, climbing and just walking injuries and the number of people getting physio each year must surely be in the low millions. This is a market that is served only by actual visits to physios - where you have to walk, hobble or stumble somewhere to see someone to get treatment and where there is absolutely zero feedback about whether you're doing your exercises properly between visits - and no way for the physio to tell exactly how much you have done. So this isn't about replacing physio visits, but about making them more productive.

There'd need to be a modification where the results of the programme could be uploaded to the Internet or saved to a memory stick and then reviewed by the physio charged with looking after the patient. There's also plenty I'd change I'd make the whole thing less "Nintendo-y." For instance, I'd introduce custom exercise programmes and the ability to download new ones (set up by your physio perhaps, who has reviewed your results). I'd also have an "advanced user" option that stripped out the menus and the need to keep pressing buttons to get between. I'd build in some logic that cross-compares how you perform on certain exercises - so if you're weak on a certain type, it will work harder on those types and related exercises. I'd look for more variety and subtlety. I'd also have better quality demonstrations of what you need to do coupled with more detailed close-ups for certain exercises.

But, right now, I could see this making a real difference to anyone recovering from a minor injury or operation on their knee, ankle or leg. And even if you're not recovering, the potential to prevent injury by better aligning the muscles on both sides of your body is also there.

Monday, June 09, 2008

3G iPhone

Turns out this isn't the 3G iPhone

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TUAW has the detail on what it actually will look like - and the features it will have including the ability to open Office documents (but not perhaps integration with SharePoint)

Non, je ne regrette rien?

I rarely regret making the move to Mac. In fact, apart from some travails with Entourage shortly after I upgraded to Office 2008, I haven't given going back to Windows a second thought. It's not that I had a problem with Vista - arguably my Vaio ran better with it than it had without it. It's not that I didn't like Office 2007 - quite the contrary. It's just that things were more agreeable on the Mac.

And then there was a meeting last Friday.

I was with Microsoft taking a look at SharePoint. This isn't the first time I've seen SharePoint. I guess that was sometime in 2005? I've even sponsored the install for a couple of clients and used it at others. It was, though, hard work. Lots of to-ing and fro-ing between the browser and the applications.200806091744.jpg

Somehow, the changes in the latest version had just passed me by. I'm not sure if I'd seen it working and ignored it or just not seen it. But my eyes were opened last Friday.

The tight integration between SharePoint and Office 2007 makes for a very interesting offer. It makes you start to wonder about running an instance of Office inside Parallels or VMware on your Mac. You start wondering about how easy that would be. And whether it would make authoring harder or easier. You even start thinking about Bootcamp. I didn't though, whatever you might be thinking, start wondering about pulling out my old Vaio.

For all that I babble on about the need to guard your Corporate Memory (or your .gov one for that matter), the available tools have often struck me as too hard to use - having to remember where to tag, how to tag, what to tag and so on, moving in and out of the browser window and the applications and so on.

The new SharePoint, paired with Office 2007, and perhaps Groove (a Windows only application) gets round all of this and adds a pile more features to make it easier still to publish, manage, find and interact with content, to mass or select audiences.

There are some who would turn this into an anti-Microsoft rant. It doesn't need to be and it isn't. If I ran a platform - and that would be IE7 in this case as nothing in the new SharePoint or Office depends on Vista - I'd look to exploit it too. And if I had an application suite, I'd want it to do things that other suites couldn't do - maybe even if i had two competing suites within my own company.

And there's the rub ... Office 2008 for Mac is a Microsoft product of course ... as is Office 2007 for Windows. Two competing teams, one leapfrogging the other.

For now, if you want to really use SharePoint as it was designed to be used, you'll need to be using Windows.

And, I have to tell you, I'm thinking hard about how best to do that in this case.

StepToe and Son dot gov

200806091721.jpg Not long ago I had a few million quids worth of "surplus to requirements" computers. I say a few million. Actually about £50,000. But once upon a time, as little as 4 or 5 years ago, they'd been worth £3 million or more. But now they were, near as nothing, scrap.

The idea of scrapping that much hardware didn't appeal to me. Selling them to a broker for £50k would have brought about £50k of cleansing cost (scrapping them would still have cost some money but not as much - it's way cheaper to wipe a computer you don't intend to use than it is one that you're planning to reuse).

So what's a guy in government to do with a big pile of servers and no use for them?

There isn't, it turns out, a steptoeandson.gov or even an ebay.gov for reselling (or even donating) hardware.

After a few calls I found another department that wanted to put together a long term proof of concept environment. They were willing to plunk down nearly a cool million quid for this. Instead of spending that much, they got to spend less than £50k on some data cleansing and probably a bit for A Man With A Van. And they got all the stuff. They got what they wanted, I didn't pay for cleansing - and better still, the taxpayer didn't have to pay out for some new stuff.

I wonder how often that occurs in governments in any given country and whether a local ebay.gov.xx for your country makes sense?

Does everyone leave the disposal problem to their outsourced suppliers or is there room for a service here, brokered perhaps amongst those outsourced suppliers?