Thursday, December 17, 2009

VAT is Changing

200912170537.jpg

As well as going up from 15% to 17.5% and who knows maybe higher still in 2010, VAT is also moving permanently online. The short and simple 9 box paper form that many traders know and, indeed perhaps, love is being retired (for all companies with turnovers greater than £100,000 - those companies get another couple of years).

In 2000 and 2001, working at the Inland Revenue and then the Office of the e-Envoy, we talked a lot about compulsion to carry out government transactions online, about incentivising people to do so (both by charging for the paper version or by offering "discounts" for using online services). The Inland Revenue were the first to try this with the 2001 Self Assessment form - offering £10 to all those who sent their return in online. It wasn't a great success. The world wasn't read for SA online and, truth be told, SA online wasn't ready for the world.

Since then, the Carter report was published, where he said:

The Government has invested over £500 million in HM Revenue and Customs online services. The return on this investment takes the form of improved services for its customers, lower operating costs and greater service delivery flexibility. To maximise the benefits the services need to be robust and customer orientated, HMRC is planning to spend around £170 million in systems designed to deliver these proposals between now and 2012. The investment will be focussed on improving the existing services so that they are resilient and tailored to users’ needs.

Over one third of Income Tax Self Assessment returns are now received online and this has grown year on year since the service was introduced in 2000-01. Almost 2.9 million people filed their 2006-07 return online by 31 January 2007, with the system coping with a peak demand of 14,500 returns per hour. This was a major test of the robustness of the HMRC online service, and the upgraded systems performed very well.

However, take up of the online services for the main business tax returns has been slower to date.

A corporation tax (CT) online filing service was introduced in 2003, and HMRC received over 25,000 company tax returns through this service in 2005-06.

An electronic VAT return was first introduced in 2001 and 10% of VAT traders have signed up to make returns online since an improved online VAT service was launched in 2004.

And went on to say

This shows that slow but steady progress in increasing levels of take-up of online services can be achieved through voluntary adoption. However, the Government has concluded that more pro-active measures will be needed if the benefits are to be fully realised within a reasonable timescale. Following Patrick Carter’s Review of Payroll Services in 2001, the Government announced a three-stage move to universal online filing of employers’ end of year returns. The first stage, for large employers, was implemented in Spring 2005 and there has been a dramatic increase in the use of the PAYE service. These measures included financial incentives for smaller employers to move to online filing ahead of the planned requirement for them to do so - 65% of small employers took advantage of this in 2005/06.

And, specifically for VAT:

- Online filing of VAT returns, and electronic VAT payments required for traders with an annual turnover of more than £100,000 for accounting periods starting after 31 March 2010.
- Online filing of VAT returns, and electronic payment of VAT, required for traders newly registering for VAT after 31 March 2010;
- Traders with an annual turnover below £100,000 will be encouraged, but not required to file online. The continuing need for this exemption will be reviewed in the run up to 2012, in line with Lord Carter’s recommendation that HMRC should aim for universal electronic delivery of the main business tax returns by 2012.

It's interesting to see how this has played out.

Back in 2000, some of us put together this vision for how things would evolve with online services in the Inland Revenue. We didn't know how things would turn out and, honestly, thought the move online would be much quicker than it has been ...


200912170550.jpg

We also put this slide up


200912170556.jpg

It feels like the IR (now HMRC) are still in that middle box - getting a meaningful usage percentage for online VAT is one of the last challenges (the last is probably online corporation tax using standard messaging]. I'm no longer close to the strategic thinking in that department. I wonder if they have plans for the right hand box? I wonder also if that's even relevant anymore.

What we were thinking about back then was

1) start a company with companies house, online, but via your bank who have pre-checked your identity

2) get your IR details (PAYE, VAT, CT etc) tied to your company details tied to your bank details - so one reference number shared across them, one userid .. perhaps multiple passwords (to allow for different roles)

3) solely online communication with government regarding your company

The same could be reasonably true for a person as opposed to a company - the hook from the bank might be even easier

All that said, I'm not sure I'd have gone with the reminder stickers seen at the top of this post.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

If Nokia loses ...

An interesting article from the Times Online:

Nokia is to shut the doors on its high-tech store in London’s Regent Street after failing to tempt consumers out of the bustling Apple store across the road with interactive translucent walls and a glitzy lounge area.

The contrasting fortunes of the rival stores reflects the current standing of the two parent companies in the consumer market. The closure of the flagship store is a symbolic defeat for Nokia which has lost ground on its Californian rival in the race to sell smart-phones in the UK as handsets such as N97 have failed to match the success of the iPhone.

...

It is the second time that Nokia has surrendered its position in the rejuvenated Regent Street shopping district after closing a smaller store some years ago. It follows the recent closure of Sony Ericsson’s flagship store in Kensington High Street.

An interesting codicil to my recent post speculating that Nokia would be losing market share soon.

And an update (12/12/09) from the Wall Street Journal

Nokia Corp. said Thursday that it will close two flagship stores in the U.S., the latest sign of a change in strategy for the world's largest cellphone maker as it struggled in the North American market.

Nokia also will close one of two stores in London. The U.S. flagship stores are located in New York and Chicago. Nokia currently has 12 flagship stores world-wide after the first store was opened in Moscow in 2005.

The company said the store closings are part of its global retail strategy and a realignment to focus more on cooperation with operators and other retailers.

Uhoh ... Where next?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

New Business Opportunity

Very soon MPs will no longer be able to hire members of their immediate family as part of their support team. So, within months, a couple of hundred people intimately familiar with the workings of parliament, &politics at a local and national level will be looking for work.

So the new business opportunity is to create an agency that supplies support staff for MPs - the first 100 hires will be the wives, daughters, sons and close relatives of MPs ... they go back to work in Parliament, but not for their relatives.

The agency takes a spread and manages all the invoicing, time record checking and so on. Sounds simple. Someone is bound to do it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Driving Miss Daisy

I have but one contribution to make to the debate about driving the economy forward with appropriate fiscal stimulation:200910282235.jpg

Everyone who drives should have to retake their driving test every 5 years

I took a StreetCar out a couple of weeks ago - the first time I've driven a car in the UK for about a year - and was shocked about how terrible most people are. Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre seems to have disappeared from the lexicon. And let's not even talk about how people drive on motorways.

So my proposal is simple. Everyone retakes their test, every 5 years.

The benefits would be simple, directly quantifiable and good for everyone

- Fewer accidents on the road

- Lower healthcare costs because of fewer accidents

- Reduced disruption to traffic because of accidents and so improved productivity

- Higher employment for driving instructors and so a new career opportunity for many

- Lower insurance premiums because of fewer accidents

Plainly this isn't a simple thing to introduce - we'd need, first, to build capacity in the driving school and test centres and come up with a way to prioritise those who needed to take a test first. Those with a recent conviction for driving offences (but no loss of licence) could perhaps go first along with those who last took a test when the speed limit was still 2mph ... or those who last took a test 20 years ago or more.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Full Speed Is One Third Speed Ahead

What do BT mean with this?

200910262209.jpg

I'm already upgraded to "the faster up to 20mb service" ... and what does that mean in practice?

200910262211.jpg

7mb ... very nearly 20mb

Mobile Winners

To make a small fortune in the mobile industry, start with a large one (Motorola, Palm)

To make a big splash in the small device operating system market, start with a completely different business that throws off billions that you can throwaway invest (Apple, Google, Microsoft)

Is there another RIMM out there to counter these thoughts?

If Nokia Loses ... Who Wins? Android Literally Exploding

Funny ... I write something about Nokia losing market share to Apple, Google and then everyone writes it. Must be the Zeitgeist. Would that I could claim to have been the opinion leader here. Robert Scoble (who posted about exactly the same kind of lockin I mused on a few days after me) I am not. These articles each make Apple versus Google the key competition (by inference, Nokia has already lost and has been consigned to history or at least to the mobile wastebasket).

The FT says:

Android-based phones – handsets that use the open source Google mobile operating system – are on the march as non-iPhone carriers look for a rival to Apple’s device.

According to Eric Schmidt this month, “Android adoption is literally about to explode.” [literally!]

Gartner, the research group, sees Android eating into Nokia’s leading market share and featuring on 18 per cent of smartphones by 2012, up from 1.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2009. That would put it ahead of RIM on 13.9 per cent and Apple on 13.6 per cent.

Android will inevitably beat the iPhone, according to Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst, if only because it will feature on many more handset models. Apple has only the iPhone and does not license its operating system or technology.

The NY Times says:

Twelve Android handsets have been announced this year, with dozens more expected next year. Motorola has dropped Windows Mobile from its line entirely in a switch to Android. HTC, a major cellphone maker, expects half its phones sold this year to run Android. Dell is using Android for its entry into the cellphone market.

One part of the appeal is that, unlike other operating systems, Android is open source software, so anyone can use or change it. “We have access to the source code,” said Sanjay Jha, the co-chief executive of Motorola. “To do that on any other platform would be very difficult.

Android is on only 1.8 percent of smartphones worldwide, according to Gartner, and Windows Mobile software still dwarfs Android. But Microsoft is slipping. The percentage of smartphones using the Windows Mobile system has plummeted to 9.3 percent, from 12 percent in the second quarter of 2008. Microsoft fell behind Apple, which shot up to 13.3 percent, from 2.8 percent.

Android’s supporters say that in contrast, Google’s software and the devices that run it are evolving very quickly.

“They started with the base layer of capabilities,” Kevin Packingham, senior vice president for product and technology development at Sprint. “What was missing from the first generation was the user interface that really gets to consumers.”

There's some caution needed here before everyone rushes on raving about the speed of evolution of Android software. If everyone takes hold of a copy of Android and changes it, adding features and capabilities, pretty soon it's not Android and the consumer will be confused about which apps run on which phone. You're then in a world where you have to look at the "minimum specifications" before you can download an app.
Rapid innovation of the operating system is also risky in a multi-version proliferation. Each manufacturer will have to take the new build and modify it to work with their phones, delaying release to their existing customers - or saving a new release for a new phone (which is pretty much where Microsoft is now - if you want the new version, you have to wait until you can upgrade within your existing contract).
I would have thought some control would be necessary to ensure that the market doesn't fragment down too many subversions of Android - not as much control, perhaps, as Apple has with a single release, but control nonetheless.
It is, though, interesting to hear the increasing clamour regarding every mobile phone manufacturer except Nokia. Who would have thought that even 24 months ago? It seems most think Nokia is gone, going or soon to go.
Alas poor Nokia ... I knew him, Horatio!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A New Kind Of Lock In - Is This The End Of Nokia?

Six and a half years ago I wrote this letter to Nokia and posted it here on my blog. I received no reply from Nokia and, not long after, stopped using their phones. I've re-posted an edited version of the letter here:

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Fone Frustrations

Dear Nokia

I've been a long-time customer of yours, but it's getting harder and harder to buy your phones now. Back in 1989 I had a Motorola 8800X, then an NEC-P9 but then I found Nokia. I started with the 2110, from there to 6150s, 6190s, 8800, 6210, 8850, 8890, 6310, 6310i, 8910, 7650 and, finally, the 6610. I'm a bit of a phone junky, I think that's obvious. From the first Nokia to today, I've only had one non-Nokia phone, the Ericsson T68i - because I wanted a triband phone and had lost my 8890. Today, nothing would make me buy another Motorola or an Ericsson.

This weekend I spent a good two hours trying to take the settings from my 7650 (a Symbian phone) to the 6610 (not a Symbian phone). Why would I do that? Well, the 7650 is a great phone, with some useful and well-designed features. But, it has a terrible battery life. It rarely lasts a day, usually perhaps only until about 5pm - and that's after fully draining and re-charging. So, despite the fact that I think it's Nokia's best phone yet, it had to go.

So, dear Nokia people, here are some things for to consider for your next few versions:

- Make better sync software and keep it the same so that every phone can use it

- Figure out a way to make the T9 dictionary portable between phones

- Let me move contacts with assigned ringtones and photos between phones

- If you come up with a good idea, like programmable function keys on the front panel, keep them in future phones

- A joystiq works better than a 4 way button set

- People need to move contacts between devices more than anything; make that incredibly simple and make it compatible with e.g. Outlook

- Fix your bugs, regularly

The sad news is that I'll have to stick to this phone for a while. The battery life looks good, it's triband, 300 contacts is enough for now (although I'm sitting at 289 right now), the polyphonic tunes are reasonable (but not as good as the 7650) and it's small and lightweight. But my Nokia friends, if anyone ever figures out how to do a phone at least as good as yours, I'll be gone in a flash. Just because Motorola and Ericsson aren't doing what you're doing, don't get complacent. Others will soon figure it out.

Given that the UK market looks pretty saturated, the odds are that most people are either going through or are about to go through their first upgrade - colour screens, polyphonics, cameras etc are all beckoning. I imagine that few of them will have stored all of their contacts on the SIM (which is no use if you store more than one phone number per person), many will have figured out predictive text and so filled up their T9 dictionaries and they'll want to move phones easily and quickly. Good luck to all those who try.

That was a long letter and a long time ago. My essential complaint, in a sentence, was that Nokia made moving from one phone in their range to another in the range very, very hard. Essentially they relied on you liking the interface of a Nokia phone as reason enough to switch to a new phone - and, for a time, that worked; lots of people I knew loved that the interface was consistent. But I was telling them, in that last paragraph, that this wouldn't last. They failed to lock you into Nokia both emotionally and technically by not delivering on a simple method to move data between phones.

Not so Apple.

I observed to a colleague at work today that Apple had pretty much secured me as a phone customer for life. I see no way of ever switching to a phone other than an iPhone. This is a whole new kind of lock in. why?

  1. Apple have ensured, probably accidentally, that there's an application for everything. For instance, I control the music systems in my house using a free application, Sonos. If I didn't use my phone, I'd have to pay £270 for a controller and perhaps one in every room. Is there another phone with this app? No, not yet. And if there was, I'd move to a list of other apps that I seem to use and need more and more - ones that aren't available elsewhere.
  2. For a long time, the only way to get bugs fixed on a phone was to change phones. The Treo managed occasional software upgrades but they seemed to bring new bugs as well as fixing old ones. Phone software wasn't ever tested, it was just released. Witness the first Microsoft phones, the SPV released by Orange in the UK, which crashed whenever a text was received and you were on the phone at the same time. Apple fixes bugs and releases new capability several times a year - FOR NOTHING
  3. The iPhone just works. By itself. I have no idea how or why, I know that it does. I read about people having trouble with their iPhones - exploding screens, rapidly draining batteries and so on. I don't have those problems - I have had each of the new iPhones as have many people I know, and no one has reported such problems. Well, ok, the battery drain seems a bit of a problem but if you must play games for the entire tube journey to work, what do you expect?
  4. My contacts, my email, my calendar, everything syncs between the Macs I have at home, the laptop I carry, the phone and the web. I can't seem to lose anything because it's always in multiple places. I imagine a bulk delete would soon replicate, but that's what time machine is for.
  5. I could go on

This didn't start off as a pro-Apple post, it started off as a warning for Nokia so let me return to that theme.

I think Nokia is in trouble. Back at the end of August I said, via Twitter:

Will nokia be the next Chrysler? Acquired, sold to Private Equity, bankrupt, competitively acquired? How long until that?

I think that process is accelerating. Nokia isn't going away, at least no time soon - after all, look at the numbers

  • Last year, Nokia sold 472 million phones
  • Its global market share in 2008 was 38.6%
  • In 2007, it had 49.4% share of the global smartphone market; that fell to 43.7% in 2008 and is falling further; in Q1 2009, it's share in this important (read high margin) market was only 41.2%
  • In 2008, Nokia's revenue was $70 billion
  • 2008 profits were $7 billion
  • It is the 88th largest company in the world by revenue
  • 1.1 billion people use or have used Nokia products
  • Nokia's next 3 competitors together account for only 32% market share
  • Their latest phones are getting poor reviews - Wired scored the new N97 only 6 out of 10 (the iPhone was 8 out of 10 and the Samsung i8910 also scored 8)

Nokia has so far engaged in a me-too battle. Apple brought out a market-changing product and everyone is playing catchup. Whilst me-too products will capture some of the market, they won't break the hold of genuine innovative players who will gain increasing share. My own experience, anecdotal as it is, says that once you're an iPhone owner you may very well stay one forever - so every customer Apple gains is one that Nokia will never get back.

Nokia's market share will decline precipitously in smartphones and, to replace that lost market share, they will increasingly chase higher volumes of lower margin phones in emerging economies. Those emerging economies won't be satisfied for long with low end phones and they too will chase more capability.

As the volume of smartphones grows Nokia will find its overall market share shrinks. Revenues will fall, but not as fast as profits. Lower and lower margin phones will reduce how much Nokia can spend on research and development, so curbing their potential to bring out new, mould breaking, phones.

How long will this take? A couple of years perhaps. It's a long way down from $70 billion in revenue, but stranger things have happened. The rot is already setting in. Barrons published this story online in mid-October:

Yesterday’s nasty Q3 financial reportfrom Nokia(NOK)continues to have ripple effects, and the stock remains under pressure.

  • Nokia has made some management changes. CFO Rick Simonsonbecomes head of the Mobile Phones segment of the company’s Devices unit, as well as head of strategic sourcing for all of Devices, which includes both Mobile Phones and Smart Phones. Timo Ihamuotila, now head of sales, becomes CFO.
  • Moody’stoday downgraded Nokia’s senior debtto A2 from A1 to reflect the rating agency’s view that the mobile phone market will become more challenging for Nokia due to more modest long-term growth and more formidable competition. Moody’s says that Nokia “is unlikely to return near-term to the superior credit metrics that have marked the company’s credit profile for many years.” The agency also said that it believes the mobile phone market is “nearing saturation.” And it asserts that the Nokia Siemens venture may require more restructuring.
  • Bloomberg notesthat Nokia yesterday took a $1.35 billion writedown of its stake in Nokia Siemens, and that that partnership may be “unraveling.” Just what would happen is unclear; neither side seems eager to buy out the stake of the other, and an IPO would seem problematic given the troubles in the business.

It is not just Apple who are eating Nokia's lunch of course. Apple with one phone physically upgraded only once per year may never take a significant market share - but it may be that they continue to take the slice of the market with the highest margins and the largest wow factor for a time.

Other providers are working hard to take share off Nokia - and it is likely these other players who will do the most damage

  • Microsoft has committed billions to their mobile platform and recent conversations with Steve Balmer suggest that they will continue to do the same. The old joke was that it took Microsoft three versions to get it right; they are way past that now at v6.5 but it could be that they've finally made it, especially with the customised interfaces that some providers lay on top of windows to mask some of its inadequacies.
  • RIMM is mainly battling with Microsoft for share of the corporate email marketplace (and many will rightly argue that RIMM won by a knockout long ago), but RIMM is extending more and more into consumer phones. The new storm, v2, looks like it has corrected many of the faults of the first version and could sell well, albeit mainly a me too phone with its main selling point being a haptic touch screen (probably proving the point that anything that has to be explained won't prove to be a selling point - one of the defining moments of Apple's iPhone launch has to be the cry of "you had me at scrolling")
  • HTC is aggressively providing phones for network providers that they can rebadge whilst also creating its own, well positioned, brand. They've come a long way, in a very short time, from their first smartphone, the HTC touch
  • Other vendors, certainly Samsung and perhaps even a resurgent Motorola are going to be working hard to take share away and, for a new customer looking for their first mobile phone, what would tie them to Nokia?
  • Google is the wildcard for me. They have the money and the proven innovation capability coupled with a huge box of tools (gmail, gearth, gcal etc) to create some stunning products. Android v1 didn't wow too many people but v2 is looking quite different. Given that google isn't particularly trying to make money off the operating system, but is relying on increased traffic and therefore ads, anyone building to the Android spec may have a lower cost advantage. Whilst the ad business is growing so well, the shareholders will indulge google in the mobile space, but at some point they might start demanding specific returns - that point is some way off, if it ever comes.
There is, though, one fact that so far plays into Apple's and perhaps Google's hands. When you write an app for their phones you instantly know how many people could potentially download it. Every phone is not quite the same - compass and video were all introduced in the most recent phone as was a bump in processing capability - but broadly, an app will work on any iPhone and perhaps any Android phone (although I'm a little less clear there). Other vendors will battle that: touch screen or not, keyboard or not, wide screen or not, small screen versus large screen, joystiq or buttons etc. Every variant increases the development cost and reduces the potential market share. The sheer variety of models might be what kills off Nokia - after all, car manufacturers learned a decade ago that you want as few variants at the base level as possible. It's the software that should handle the complexity. l

Ten years ago, one reason for having a Nokia phone was that everyone around you had one - and you could, in theory at least, beam information between the phones using infrared. As Nokia's market share falls, new customers looking at what their friends have will increasingly not see Nokia phones in their hands and so will choose another brand. That will accelerate Nokia's decline.

Two years from now, is it possible that Nokia's market share will be less than 20% of the global total with a single digit percentage share in smartphones? It sounds far fetched, but it's possible. Were that to happen, it strikes me that acquirers would move in - and Nokia's response would be to close down failing businesses and make significant cost reductions to fend them off. Would the Finnish government allow a foreign company to acquire all or large parts of Nokia? We will, perhaps, see. Place your bets - are you long or short Nokia?

Separately, Apple increasingly looks like it is becoming the new gold. Even in tough economic times, Apple is selling more and more product, magnifying the halo effect that sees iPhone buyers trade in their PCs for Macs. Amazing to watch. Apple is the new gold. I can see a new logo coming; the Golden Apple.

You might be short Apple now but I bet you're not short Apple for the long term.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Citi Never Sleeps

I was surprised to get a letter this week from HMRC letting me know that they've moved their banking to new "suppliers." Apparently they're moving to:

and to

I'm sure this was all carried out through open competition but am I the only one who finds it odd that HMRC would use an American bank, and incur unrecoverable banking costs with no equity upside, when HMG owns so much of the UK banking industry?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

When More Than Is Less Than?

200910101825.jpg

Has Yo! sushi (as opposed to Yosushi! which would be sushi by Yahoo) done the right thing by adding the tag line "more than sushi"? They're coming on 12 years old now and maybe have hit the wall in growth terms ... but do those extra words pull in additional passing traffic? People looking for sushi and pizza? Folks with partners who don't do raw fish and are hoping for a bit of steak?

Next up, "Apple ... more than fruit", "McDonalds ... more than burgers", "Pizza Hut ... what is says on the tin"?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The MacPherson Paradox

The plan is deliverable

As long as appropriate steps are taken to make it deliverable

That said, the very taking of those steps may render the plan undeliverable

Solutions gratefully received to this new paradox

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

After Adoption Hyde Park 10km

There's a new 10km race in town on Sunday 15th November in Hyde Park200909162221.jpg

Sunday 15 November 2009 sees After Adoption launch its inaugural Hyde Park 10k Run.

Hyde Park is one of the largest green spaces in Central London and provides a fantastic place to run in the heart of the capital. It has also been selected as one of the venues for London 2012, where thousands of spectators will witness the world’s elite athletes cross the finish line.

For experienced and novice runners alike, After Adoption’s charity run gives you the opportunity to improve your fitness levels, beat your personal best, or just have a fun day out in London’s finest parkland with friends and family.

Last year we helped over 8,200 people deal with the difference adoption can bring to their lives. We provided expertise to over 1,000 adoptive families, allowing them to continue to provide a stable home environment to their adopted children. We worked with nearly 2,800 birth parents, allowing them to understand their loss and help to turn their lives around. We supported over 2,500 adopted people, helping them to understand their past. We ran youth forums and engaged nearly 200 young people in our direct youth work. We worked with over 50 potential adopters, assessing and preparing them for the challenges and rewards adoption can bring.

The likely chilly winter weather we'll have by then should give everyone an opportunity to run a good time. It will be a small race, for a good cause, and so deserves the support.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hackers steal £1m in online tax scam

The Mail on Sunday reports that

Police are investigating how criminals managed to steal £1million from the taxman by accessing a Government computer system and granting themselves rebates ... The system penetrated by the thieves, the Government Gateway, was set up at a cost of £18million as part of Tony Blair’s vision for services to be administered electronically. It allows users to fill in forms online for anything from paying parking tickets to claiming child tax credit. Scotland Yard’s specialist e-crime unit ... is investigating whether the fraudsters used sophisticated software to find a weakness in Gateway or whether they targeted the computers of the people whose identities they stole.

The report goes on

Last November, The Mail on Sunday revealed how Ministers were forced to order an emergency shutdown of Gateway after a computer memory stick was found in a pub car park. Officers are investigating whether this could have played a part in the latest breach, as the computer stick contained passcodes to the system.

This is, I believe, the second time that the Government Gateway has been associated with a fraud. The last came at the end of 2005 and related to how tax credits were fraudulently diverted.

I don't know anything about this case beyond what's in the Mail. So I don't know if it's true; and I haven't spoken to anyone in the Gateway team. It's some 5 years since I ran the team that built and operated the Gateway so much of what I know is far from current. But I thought it was worth looking at what would have needed to be done if it is true as pulling off a fraud like this requires effort at multiple levels.


200909131514.jpg

For every fraudulent rebate claimed, the fraudster would need to know the userid and password of the victim. It's highly unlikely that these would have been on the memory stick that the Mail reminds us about - and even if the userids were, the passwords certainly weren't (like most systems, the Gateway stores passwords in a hashed format so even those with complete access to the system wouldn't know what they were). Likewise, if the memory stick somehow contained a list of system access userids and passwords in plain text, they wouldn't be able to get at the passwords for citizens sending tax returns. Indeed, I doubt that someone with the right access would be able to find out very much at all unless they were connected via a Government network and had rights not only over the production system but also various test systems. So the idea that the Gateway was actually compromised is, from what little data I have in front of me, remote.

So we're left with a more old-fashioned fraud. One perhaps of fake registrations and mail redirection or interception. To register on the Gateway for Self Assessment, you need a set of individual-specific information - tax reference numbers and UTR. You don't need to enter your address - the Gateway uses the one that HRMC has. So someone wanting to fraudulently register needs to know the necessary information, enter it into the Gateway and then intercept the userid that is sent through the post. The latter is a tricky job unless you work in the Post Office or manage to pick targets who all live in a shared house where the post is left on the table downstairs - and you still need access.

If the person has already registered, then you need to access their account - which means you need to know the userid (which was mailed to the individual) and the password (which they will have come up with at the point of registration). It's hard to imagine how anyone could get such details for multiple people. It would be like robbing several different people of their handbags and finding that all of them had a post-it note next to their ATM card with the PIN number scribbled on it. It's possible, but highly unlikely.

Even though this is all unlikely, let's suppose that somehow the fraudsters had indeed managed to acquire the userids and passwords of several different people - maybe they phished them off the web having installed spyware on enough PCs to land a catch. They then needed to get themselves in the queue for a rebate. That would mean that they'd have to enter tax details on the self assessment form that showed that they had either overpaid tax to date or had some other circumstance that would allow a rebate - perhaps an investment in an Enterprise scheme. I imagine that the details of salaries paid to the individuals would need to match the details stored in HMRC's separate payroll tax systems - a further complication. The fraudster would then have submitted the tax returns, presumably having made each of them slightly different.

It is possible that instead of intercepting multiple individual userids and passwords, the fraudsters instead got access to a far smaller number of logon details for accountants. If that were the case it's possible to imagine an inside job - someone from an accountancy firm having left perhaps under a cloud and having taken the logon details with him or her uses those details from home. They'd still need to have sent fraudulent tax returns for dozens of people. And those tax returns would have to be for people who hadn't already submitted their own tax return.

So far so fraudulent and so difficult. The Mail goes on:

The thieves are understood to have diverted the money to bank accounts set up fraudulently using the names of the password holders. One accountant, who had 52 of his 110 clients targeted by the tax fraudsters, said he was told by HM Revenue & Customs of rebates totalling more than £150,000. None of them received a penny, however. Instead, the payouts – of up to £7,500 each – were sent to fake bank accounts set up in his clients’ names.

So accountants were definitely involved at some point, but not, apparently, in all cases. But let's assume that the crook had managed to get hold of all of the userids and all of the passwords that he or she needed. That would leave two more challenges

1) Having to open bank accounts in the name of the holders but at different banks from the ones where they already had bank accounts. Opening a bank account takes some time and needs various identity documents. Of course it can be done - and is done all the time - but it takes planning.

2) Changing the bank account details stored by HMRC to that of the fraudulently opened bank account. I'm not aware that you can do that online. I just looked to see if I could do it but parts of the HMRC website are disabled - certainly the Self Assessment Account view - so it was hard to find out if it had been made possible recently. I'm reasonably sure, though, that you can't do it online and need to carry that task out via the HelpLine or on paper.

It strikes me, then, that this is either a fraud carried out by former employees of an accountancy firm - it seems unlikely to be just one firm given how many people appear to have been hit or an old-fashioned identity fraud where details were stolen from individuals and then used to set up accounts on the Gateway, change addresses at HMRC, open bank accounts and then - perhaps the cleverest bit - figure out how to generate a fraudulent tax return where the numbers were plausible and passed whatever checks HMRC do on tax returns and so created repayments.

The Mail's conclusion - linking this fraud to both the Government Gateway and to yet another Government IT failure - seems, therefore, likely to be wrong:

The Labour Government trumpeted the Government Gateway as a prime part of its drive to deliver public services efficiently. But this scam is just the latest in a long line of Government computer blunders. Last October, the Information Commissioner revealed there had been 277 data breaches since the loss of 25million child benefit records was disclosed in November 2007. HMRC has taken the attack on its system so seriously that it has provided a template for a letter accountants can send to clients to apologise and reassure them that their tax affairs will not be affected.

200909131515.jpgThe last line of the Mail's report says:

A 32-year-old man was arrested on September 3 and bailed to return to Bethnal Green police station in East London on December 3.

I'll be fascinated to see how this turns out - and to find out whether it was a new kind of fraud or just a reworking of identify fraud that happened to use the Gateway.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Clouds

Not cloud computing but the latest word cloud for this blog from Wordle

200909081935.jpg

I'm quite pleased to see government there in at least a reasonably sized font.

Provoking (e)government

With his new found freedom, Jerry Fishenden seems to be getting out his harshly provocative pen more often. Actually, that's not fair or right - Jerry has always put across his points fully, fairly and rationally and these posts are no different- maybe I'm just reading more into the NFF (new found freedom) more than I should.

His latest post contains some points that should make anyone in government, let alone e-government, sit up and pay attention:

For example, just 340,000 out of 145 million DWP customer contacts took place online in 2008. Despite up to 21bn GBP being expended annually on UK public sector ICT at present, little headway seems to have been made. Indeed, in many cases it seems that digital fulfilment channels have become another overhead alongside all the existing channels.

If Jerry's numbers are right (and I have no better ones although I fear that denominator in this instance could well be more than 145m), then that's a slim 0.2% online takeup. In a world where the mission was "2005 / 100% online" then the takeup ball is plainly in pieces on the floor having been well and truly dropped.

It gets worse perhaps:

The United Nations e-Government Readiness Index shows that between 2005 and 2008 the UK slipped from 4th to 10th place. And this slide came during a time of unprecedented levels of ICT and public sector investment, with the UK possibly spending more as a percentage of GDP than any other country [see John Suffolk's recent blog post for other views on that]. Using a slightly different methodology, the Economist Intelligence Unit e-Readiness Ranking for 2009 paints an even blacker picture, with the UK resting at just 13th in their particular table.

So far, just the facts ... then the provocation

I'm not convinced that classifying, for example, HMRC's self-assessment services as an e-government or online transaction is correct, given how much of it actually results in large amounts of paper and non-internet based communication. The much-praised DVLA tax disc service is similarly a fairly trivial interaction which could also be entirely digital

Ouch.

Nottingham Half Marathon Elevation and Course Map

I last ran the Nottingham Half in the run up to the New York Marathon in 2006. Here is the elevation profile.

200909081647.jpg

The bars are the gradient, the line is the elevation (for reasons that are beyond me Rubitrack wants to make them both pretty much the same colour). There's a pretty steep hill early on and then a much longer slower climb from 5km to 9km. The one that will probably hurt most is the one from 10km to just before 13km - that takes you up the hill to the University. It's a great run - and the finish along the river is a welcome relief after the hills.

200909081651.jpg

To all those running on September 13th 2009, good luck. The weather forecast for that day is saying pretty warm, around 20C, but perhaps some rain. In 2006, I ran it 1h 46m.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Socially Doing Nothing

I joined a new social network today - a government-y thing. This is the screen that greeted me after I'd registered:

200909022112.jpg

So right in so many ways.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Gateway 9 Years On

Looking for something entirely unrelated, I came across these two slides from July 2000. When I used these, they were printed on transparencies and displayed using an Overheard Projector. From there to pico-projectors!

200908301703.jpg


200908301704.jpg

Looking at that second slide, not one of the departments named still exists:

IR and C&E became HMRC, DSS became DWP, DTI iterated a few times and is now DBIS, MAFF is now defra (and DECC).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Counting .Gov Pages

I've been fascinated by the government website page count for the last couple of weeks. The numbers just seem so extraordinary.

On August 5th 2009 I wrote that there were 112,000,000.

Today, there are 114,000,000. That would appear to mean 2,000,000 were freshly created in the last 15 days or so. I'm suspicious because the numbers are so round. It's not 112,123,456 and 114,654,321 ... but maybe Google rounds up at numbers that large rather than count exactly.

In a later post I showed the timeline that, at first glance, showed pages dated from the 1450s - but Google's timeline function seems to look for instances of a date in a document. Dan and I have debated why that might be and whilst he leans towards the view that it has some use, I'm a bit more sceptical.

But what you can do is look at pages modified in the last 24 hours, last week and last year (which I think it does by looking for dates within those ranges in the document, rather than looking at the upload date). For government this is:

Last 24 hours: 35,300

Last Week: 1,540,000

Last month: 2,080,000

Last year: 5,390,000

Again, those numbers don't seem to work ... 7 * 35,000 isn't 1.5m ... 52 * 1.5m isn't 5m. Checking every month through 2009, there's a reasonably consistent number of between 1.9m and 2.1m pages.

It's likely that edit frequency varies but it's been a busy week for UK government if 1.5m pages have been updated - if it cost just 1p to update a page, that would be £15,000 of effort ... if it costs £5, that would be £7.5m! But at the annual end, fi it's 5.3m pages at 1p then we're at £530k ... that's about 10 people at fully loaded costs. If it were £5 ... then we have armies of people updating pages.

In July 2001, google says only 20,900 pages were updated. In July 2009 it was 2,120,000. That's over 100 times as many pages.

I feel a table of analysis coming on to see if there's any sense in this. In the meantime, any clues what is going on? Is Google doing something that I haven't accounted for?

Exams

In May 2002 I spoke at a conference about the prospect of government making more use of text messaging - I was specifically thinking about exam results at the time (although there was a separate thread about "your benefit cheque has been deposited"). The idea was written up by Computing and then picked up by some daily newspapers (a slow news day I imagine). The Independent, for instance, said:

Children could receive their exam results in the form of text messages sent to their mobile phones next year, as part of government plans to expand "online" services. Similar systems are being considered for benefits claimants, to tell them when their money is being paid, and to inform people of the progress of their passport applications.

The plans were revealed by Alan Mather, of the Office of the e-Envoy, who said that the necessary security could be in place within a year. He also added that banks could join in, using software developed and tested by the Government.

"There are organisations that want to issue notification of important things through SMS text messages, such as exam results or benefits information," he said. "This can be done in a 12-month timeframe. And if we get this up and running there's no reason why the banks couldn't do the same – we could extend the model to any commercial provider."

However, a stumbling block could be that the proposed services would not work on "pay-as-you-go" phones, because they can be bought by anyone without further checks. At the moment some government services can be accessed via PCs with a password sent through the post.


Looking at it now, 7 years on, I have no idea what I was talking about with some of it. I remember being concerned that given 70% of phones (at the time, probably the same now I suspect) were pay as you go and so had no address information, we wouldn't be able to use it as an authentication token or as something to send semi-secure information to. I can't remember what I was talking about with the banking reference although at the time we were wondering if we could get banks to do authentication checks for us and then pass the confirmed check to us so maybe it was that.

There were some odd reactions from some people, such as:

Exam company, Edexcel thinks it would be difficult to co-ordinate all the phones numbers for 4 million students who take exams each year.

and

John Lettice noted: We do however doubt the examining bodies' and/or schools' willingness and capability to collate and distribute results in secure SMS form. Or indeed as email, or posted on a secure web site. Reality check: just yesterday The Register supplied sprog one's school with a single first class stamp, GCSE result delivery for the use of. Under the circumstances we do not expect them to be asking us to stump up for our share of an SMS server in the foreseeable future.

When someone at work mentioned yesterday that her daughter had checked her results online and had to login to a website to do it, I wondered how far people had got with exam results by text. I found only a couple of references - and, as far as the UK goes, it's Scotland leading the way.

From the BBC:

Nearly 160,000 school pupils across Scotland have received their examination results. Almost 30,000 students received their grades by e-mail or text message.

From Australia:

Interactive communications services supplier Legion Interactive has been chosen by the New South Wales Board of Studies to deliver exam results to students via text message. Up to 63,000 students will now receive the results of their HSC exams [by text]

From Tanzania:

Tanzania`s university students will from May this year access their examination results through mobile phone text messages (SMS), according to a local Information Technology (IT) expert. The executive director of Easy Life Group (T) Limited, Benjamin Sitta, said yesterday in Dar es Salaam that the use of mobile phone has widely expanded and starting this year, students will access their exam results through their mobile phones

What, I wonder, is stopping more exam authorities doing it? Back in 2002 I was told that youngsters receiving exam results might need others around them to counsel them ... so how does sending them in the post address that?

HMRC has been texting me for perhaps 5 years to tell me that my Self Assessment form has been received, the refund is on the way or that I need to pay them more money.

John Lettice was certainly more right than I was ... I just can't see why it isn't more common.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Charles Cox - An Update

A kind friend forwarded this news today, which I'd missed ... from the LBC website:

Manslaughter In Soho

Police have charged a man with manslaughter after an incident in Soho.

Charles Cox was attacked in Wardour Street in November 2007 - he died at the beginning of this month.

35 year old Jeremy Mark Aylmer is due to appear before magistrates later.

According to the FSA website, he's a trader presumably in the oil business:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

It's older than you think

Back when Gutenberg was inventing his first printing press and the Renaissance was just beginning, google tells me government was already beginning to post pages on the web ... with volume steadily increasing all the way into the Industrial Revolution before peaking recently during the Information Revolution.

200908190808.jpg

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

While We're Talking Rationalisation

Here's a site that seems to be no longer relevant

200908052239.jpg

In case you were wondering ... this is to be found at HMG.gov.uk.

Delete this page and right away we'll be at 112,999,999 pages ... it's going to be slow!

SportTracks, Rubitrack, Ascent - All For Mac?

If you're a regular runner you've probably already bought a GPS tracking device - perhaps a Forerunner (maybe a 305, 405 or the new 310XT) or some other device. You've probably also concluded that whatever software came with it is no good and looked for a replacement.

If you're using a PC then the only software that I came across that was worth having was SportTracks by ZoneFiveSoftware. It's technically free - but they ask, and I'd urge you to make, a donation. SportTracks is really very, very good. But it's PC only and whilst it does work inside software like Fusion or Parallels, it can be difficult to get working and when I was using it I ended up keeping a PC on my desk, next to my Mac.

There are rumours about a version of SportTracks for the Mac, but they seem to still be just that, rumours.

For Mac users, I'd always thought that the choice was more limited but there are at least two great options: Rubitrack and Ascent. Both of these are nearly perfect options to use instead of SportTracks not just whilst we're waiting for SportTracks to come out on the Mac, but for good.

I've written before about using Ascent so won't repeat any of that here. Rubitrack is very similar and it has, just, the edge for me. Trying to boil it down to the biggest differences, Ascent is slightly more technical in its capability - it has greater graphing and reviewing options - but Rubitrack, for me at least, has better presentation and sifting and sorting. Both of them auto-label your runs based on prior runs, but Rubitrack makes equivalent runs easier to find - allowing you to sort by location, by timetable and by distance with selections from the left hand menu bar. I also like the way Rubitrack can present the runs as icons - like the picture below.

200909061648.jpg

Neither Ascent nor Rubitrack include one feature that I used a lot with SportTracks - the ability to tag runs with a piece of equipment and then keep a count of how far you'd run with that gear - for instance, you could note when you started using a particular pair of shoes and it would keep track of the mileage you'd got to, allowing you to figure out when to replace them (or at least to get ready to - given it's all about how far and hard you run I suppose).

Two very good choices then, with Rubitrack having the edge for me. The good news is that both are available as free trials allowing you to put a limited number of runs in without making a big commitment. Try them out and then pick the one that suits. And when SportTracks comes along for Mac, if it ever does, you may stay just where you are ...

Spezify on e-Government

This both impressed me and disappointed me ... it's from a kind of search engine called Spezify. I wanted to be able to click on some of the results and find out where they were from.

200908051324.jpg

For instance, there was this tweet "The UK e-Government agenda has been delivered on tactical infrastructure that will leave an unsustainable legacy for public sector services" ... which I could only find by going to twitter and typing in some of the key words. It turns out to be from David Gale (who, based on his other tweets, you wouldn't expect to be ruminating on government IT but what he says resonates with what I used to warn public sector conferences about 5 years ago).

But there's something very clever about what Spezify does ... I can't think of why I'd want to use it often, but it's impressive nonetheless.

Just How Many Webpages Does Government Have?

After yesterday's post, Dan suggested that we count the number of instances of "gov" in domain names within the "gov.uk" universe. That seems pretty smart - there will doubtless be a few sites with "gov" in the main part of the URL but he doubts there are too many of those.

Doing that gives the following astonishing result:

200908051210.jpg 200908051210.jpg

Meaning, it would seem, that there are around 112,000,000 (112 million!) web pages within the .gov.uk domain.

If you do the same for .gov.us (or just .gov since the US is, unlike in every other area, silent on the web), you get 236,000,000

If you switch to French and use ".gouv" you get only 29,700,000 pages

Amazon, by the by, appears to have only 13,500,00 in the UK

Anyone care to contest the figures or have a better way of estimating page count?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

One Government Website

I've been catching up on posts from Emma Mulqueeny (who, amongst many responsibilities, is at the sharp end of moving content to the core handful of websites that will be government's public face) and Jeremy Gould (who noted in a post about transforming government that it wasn't about closing down websites, which, of course, it isn't - but one sign that you've grasped the fundamental point about joining up government, thinking like a citizen and making life easier for them is that you, inevitably, reduce the number of places someone has to go to get whatever they need done).

[This was the team goal back in 2001]

200908042212.jpg

I've been writing [ranting?] about the need for website rationalisation for a long time, nearly as long as I've been blogging here (about 7 1/2 years I think). I remembered a post I'd written - in July 2004 it turns out - called "There Can Be Only One." It pretty much says everything that I would say now - but I've made a couple of updates, pulled out inside [ ] and added some new charts and slides.

[This slide made its first appearance as far as I can tell in November 2002]


200908042206.jpg

So, this is the post with the edits:

Ian Dunmore [picked up] on a post here from earlier in June that noted that the battle was over for whether there would be only one government site or not, but that people hadn't figured that out yet. He did am ad hoc survey of the regular visitors to his site who filled it up with great comments, coming out roughly 50/50 I think in either total support or strict opposition to the idea.

First up though, the thing that gets me the most is we seem to have an acceptance of either 1 site or 3000+ sites. I've always thought that aspirationally one was the right answer, but I'd settle for 100 or even 500 on the basis it would reduce the problem of information fragmentation. One post notes that "The portal partners can't even agree what should be in the A to Z which, I guess, just shows the absurdity of letting government design websites". A while ago there was an A to Z on a central government site. Where do you think the "Treasury" were filed? T? Ha! It was under "H", for "HM Treasury". People don't think in alphabets and, if they do, they don't think in government alphabets. Besides, with hundreds of services, each set of topics under one letter will cover 3 pages.

An interesting idea was this one "One site implies one entity, one controlling force, no local democracy. How about 4 sites - My Country, My Region, My County, My Local Council !". Whilst I disagree that one site implies one entity (when you read a newspaper, apart from the Daily Mail, do you expect to get only one point of view from it?) as authorship can and would be spread across the entire constituency, I do like the idea of this kind of disaggregation. There's probably a "My Community" site as well - people in or near my area with my interests.

Or how about this one "The practicalities of a central organisation doing this for the country make this idea a joke." One site doesn't mean one controlling entity - it might mean one "voice" in terms of style of writing though. We have 5,000,000 pages of content in government across 3,300 sites. How many of those pages are written in any kind of consistent, understandable, accessible style?

[Out of interest I searched for the number of times "accessibility" is mentioned on gov.uk websites and was more than a bit surprised to see a count of nearly 1.5 million come back. I wondered how many sites have figured out A or even AA accessibility now - not long ago it was single digits percentage for even just a single A. Sitemorse's survey says things have changed ... bravo!]


200908042151.jpg

One person, obviously well connected, said "like Andrew Pinder, I grew to realise that Departments will just not allow themselves to be joined up". Tell that to the Inland Revenue and HM Customs (Filed under "R" for revenue and "H" for HM in the A to Z). The Government Gateway joins up a dozen departments today, the Knowledge Network over 40. The days of Fortress Government or Super Silos are declining.

200908042154.jpg

"Most people look for something via Google or some search engine or other" - go type in "disability living allowance" in google and restrict it to .gov.uk and count the occurrences (16,900 today, up from 9,900 a year ago). Tell you what, type in "I'm a new parent, what can government do for me?" and see if it works. Search engines are great when you know what you want, but they don't find what you don't know nor do they intuit what you might want.

[I used to track this kind of statistic out of mild interest but long ago stopped. I just ran "disability living allowance site:gov.uk" through google and the answer astounded me: 156,000. Wow! 93,000 of those are in the last year. The good news is a large chunk of page one's results were on direct.gov, but not a large chunk of the ones from the last year. Google also has a new thing called a "wonder wheel", which looks like this for DLA]

200908042141.jpg

But, actually, "The more there are the more competition there is, the better sites become". I'd missed that - I hadn't realised that government entities were supposed to compete against each other. I thought we were in the business of serving the public and making it easy for them to find things. Besides, the more money we spend competing, the better, right? We must spend north of £1/2 billion a year on websites right now - another couple of hundred million widely spread would get us what exactly?

[I don't have details on the current web spend and I'd like to think it's a lot less now, but I wonder with all of the effort going into twitter, social networks and so on whether we have slimmed the technology cost but massively increased the human spend. That might be no bad thing perhaps]

I'm delighted that so many took the time to respond and I have, in turn, responded largely in the spirit of the posts that were made. My contention is: - 3,000 sites is too many; the right answer is closer to 1 than 3,000 - 5,000,000 pages is too many; too many are out of date; too many are never looked at; the cost of maintaining a page that's never used is infinite as a ratio against usage.

[I was wondering how to count how many web pages government has now. Dan came up with a way once - I think he searched for a specific word that we thought might be in the footer of every page. I just tried with ' home - "home office" ' and got 21,600,000. If you have a better idea, I'd be interested]

[Google also has a timeline graph - this is all new to me, I haven't noticed it before so call me an idiot if it's been there for ages. This is the timeline for DLA again. The first reference is to a document published in 1991. I don't know for sure, but I am pretty sure, that DLA guidance changes every year and so much of this historical data is irrelevant. Why no one made any updates in 2005, I don't know. Data doesn't necessarily cost anything to keep online of course - but it will cost something when it gets looked at just as someone decides whether or not to migrate it to a central site; and it certainly cost something, both in human and technical spend to get online in the first place]

200908042144.jpg

A central site doesn't have to do all things for all people, it just has to get most of it right and hand over to specialist sites for things it can't do - just like the tiers of operation in a call centre, e.g. 80% of calls by first line, 15% by second line, 5% by third line. If the third line sites were specialist ones for specific local scenarios, wouldn't that make more sense?

[And a slide from a May 2002 deck

200908042205.jpg

Duplicating content tens of thousands of times increases the risk that it's wrong, increases confusion for the customer and reduces the chance of landing in the right place first time, wasting time (for the customer), money (for government) and bandwidth (for everyone) There can be only one, but I'd settle for 50 or a 100 to start with. I'd like there to be another round of comments on this, that would be fun.

[And just to finish, here's a slide from the business case for direct.gov that was written in 2002

200908042200.jpg

Anyway, to my mind, how many websites a [central] government should have is a tired old debate - the answer is one(ish). And, just to be clear, I'm zeroing in here on how the citizen (you and me) finds out information about government - what it can do for us. I'm not going for the "we need one place where all of our data is and then we can just hand the keys of our lives to government." That's a different topic, and one for another day.

More from the Opposable Thumbnail

This stuff is great

200908041945.jpg

There is a whole new series of management and motivation posters in this blog, waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Seen better days

200908022144.jpg

Offline Tax - Doing It The Hard Way but, for some, The Only Way

200908021910.jpgI've just spent an afternoon doing a paper Self Assessment Tax Return for someone who is partially sighted. He can't read the forms and certainly can't do it online.

The so-called "Short Form" - only 4 pages long with page 1 being "name and address" and page 4 being "bank account details" - comes with a 25 page guide for how to fill it in (ok, 24 pages, one is left, apparently intentionally, blank.

The guide is littered with advice like this gem at left. I guess the good news is that anyone educated in the 1940s and 50s is probably more capable than those being educated today to do the maths - BODMAS rules ok. But, double brackets in a tax guide? And don't get me started on mixing W8 and 5.3.

But, surely it's time to get real:

1) The bulk of the information required in this case was already available to the government; and, in any case, the amounts involved are so small as to be negligible to the government, even with its current restrictions

Surely, in this age of "tell me once", if a government has the data, they should ask for what they don't have - it all feels a little bit like we're trying to be caught out now, some kind of hide and seek game where if a government says nothing, we may somehow trip up and provide new data

2) Paper-based forms are going to need to be around for a long time. For many years ahead, there will be people who aren't online, who are partially sighted or who can't handle complex online transactions. Make it easier. Big fonts, clearer text, balanced colour schemes designed to enhance readability. But, more importantly, drive the need down through comprehensive reviews of what data the government already has and how it can make better user of it.

3) There needs to be a massive redesign. I appreciate that the short form is already a big deal and much better than the old Self Assessment (which I have to do) which is a couple of dozen pages. But the short form still mixes pensioners, employees and self-employed all in one form. That would, on the basis of this single anecdotal example, appear somewhat like trying to fit too many non-correlated categories into one form for the convenience of the government, not of the citizen. I am the last person to say that the plural of anecdote is data but, nonetheless, I somehow think I'm on strong ground here.

It's 2009. Getting on for 2010. Five years after 100% online as a mission statement, we should be doing better than this.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Completion Obfuscation

I heard, on Radio 4, this morning that the Olympic site is "about 37%" complete ... not over a third, not getting on for 40%, but "about 37%." I was surprised not to hear that to two decimai places. And the good news is that the contingency budget still has 67% of its funds left, not about two thirds, nor have we spent only a third ... precision where precision isn't available is always dangerous.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

From The Opposable Thumbnail

200907262124.jpg

Find more here.

Moving to Mac - Thunderbird, Outlook, Entourage

Every week I get a dozen or so people arriving at this blog looking for how to transfer from Outlook to Entourage. I did that about 18 months ago (was it only then?) and wrote it up here. Apart from the occasional comments left by people to say thank you, it's hard to know whether those who try it get a good result. Anyway, I thought I'd check the instructions I left to see if they're still valid - and there were some changes necessary, so here they are.

I tried Thunderbird on the Mac as well as Apple's own mail application but settled on Entourage for lots of reasons. Initially I was very frustrated by Entourage's stability but several updates and service packs have made it rock solid and I haven't had any problems in ages.

How to import or transfer from Outlook (on a PC) to Entourage (on a Mac) via Thunderbird (on a PC)

1. Install thunderbird on your PC.

2. When you start Thunderbird it will helpfully bring up an import menu with only one option which is "don't import anything." Don't worry about this and let it carry on.

3. Configure your email box if you must, but set it so that it doesn't fetch new mail. This will stop mail building up in Thunderbird after you've exported it (otherwise you could end up doing several exports)

3. On the file menu, you'll find that you can import from outlook. This function fetches everything - all the subfolders and so on - but it takes a while. I have about 3gb of email and it must have taken a good hour or so.

4. Now you'll have all of your email in Thunderbird. Well done.

5. Visit this site (the entourage help page on mvps.org), follow the instructions, and download the script (or you can run it in your script editor)

6. You'll end up with a series of folders that are in the right format and with the right attributes to import into entourage

7. Copy those folders to your Mac.

8. Select each file that you want to import to Entourage and make sure you have done the rename - they'll need to be ".mbx" not ".mbox" (sometimes they have no extensions, so just add the .mbx)

9. Go to the Entourage file menu and select "import". Pick "contacts or messages from a text file" and then "import messages from an MBOX-format text file" (note that whilst this says MBOX it means .mbx)

10. Choose the file - this time you have to do it one by one.

11. Entourage will go quiet for a while. You won't be able to press anything but there will be no spinning beachball. You just have to wait.

12. Eventually - depending on how big your files are - it will say "finish". Click that and you'll have to wait again, but you will get a beachball this time. This seems to be a shorter wait, but a wait nonetheless.

13. The folder you have just imported will appear on the left hand side of the screen under the "on my computer" menu. You can then decide what to do with it. I copied all of the inbox file straight into the inbox, one for one, but moved the sub-folders under it. This actually copies all of the folders rather than moves them so, once you're done, you have to delete the old ones.

If this works for you, leave a comment ... Better still, if it doesn't, definitely leave a comment so that I can have another look and see what further changes I need to make to these steps.

Great North Run Hills - 2

I just found another view of the profile of the Great North Run - this one came from Garmin Connect rather than Rubitrack.

200907261318.jpg

Thursday, July 23, 2009

O2 MMS Settings Part 2

A while ago I posted some settings for MMS on O2 in the UK. They worked fine on the OS3 beta and I've seen plenty of searches to the blog for them. There look to have been some changes now - I'm running 3.1 beta 2. So, just in case, here are the new settings:

Data

APN: idata.o2.co.uk

username: vertigo

Password: password

MMS

APN: idata.o2.co.uk

username/password as above

MMSC:http: //mmsc.mms.o2.co.uk:8002

MMS Proxy: 193.113.200.195:8080

Hope that helps if you'd reset them or somehow lost track of them.

Great North Run Hills

I've seen a few searches land at this blog in the last couple of weeks looking for an elevation profile of the Great North Run (often with the search string "Great North Run Hills", or "Great North Run elevation"). So here it is:

200907232240.jpg

The line shows the elevation (on the outer axis), the bars show the gradient (on the inner axis). So you get a nice downhill run at the start which doesn't feel so bad as it's along the motorway - as you near the end around km 18 and 19, there's what seems like a much steeper decline before you come into the final mile along the shore - the best bit of the race (once you get down the hill).

And, for good measure, here's a course map for the Great North Run:


200907232243.jpg

Hope this is useful.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

5 years ago this month

40 years ago this month, they put a man on the moon ... 5 years ago this month, the Government Gateway had the following services

200907212212.jpg

Dexterity

200907211857.jpgSeeing someone on the tube furiously tapping away on a keyboard next to me today, I expected to see them playing some game or sending some email or text ... I was more than a little surprised to see them doing an equivalent finger workout on a calculator.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Be civil, be beta

200907151938.jpg

With the new Facebook-style Civil Pages in the news this week, I stopped by the civil service website and was somewhat taken aback to see the logo above - it's a website in beta. Funny perhaps - but also good. Why launch a fully working version when you can get something out and see how people react to it and then iterate it. I said something similar back in May 2000 when I first joined government:

200907151943.jpg

I was actually looking, though, for the Civil Pages service ... I couldn't access it from inside the department where I was today so was hoping to find and internet-facing entry point (on the basis that not everyone is on one of the internal government networks and so it was probably set up with 'net access too).

The Telegraph had this to say

The social networking site was launched days after personal details and photographs of Sir John Sawers, the new MI6 chief, were posted on Facebook by his wife.

The new site, called the Civil Pages, is set to cost taxpayers £1 million and has been dubbed 'the Facebook of the Civil Service... without the man in the Speedos' by Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell.

The service is said to include a Wikipedia-type Civil Wiki application, a Civil Blog to let public servants share their thoughts and a Twitter-like feed known as Civil Talk.

Which reminded me of this post from December 2007

  • What if government took facebook into the inside? What if we ditched every intranet there ever was in every government department and allowed everyone to create, instead, a facebook page for themselves? The same tools and applications would be available; groups joined would be centered on areas of expertise & experience (desired or actual) and room to play would be allowed to - no point in making it all business, there needs to be some kind of trade. Straight away, links would form between people doing similar jobs in different parts of the government (or different parts of the same department but spread around the same country); experience would be shared; job-postings would be easy to find and could be matched by a talent inventory that could draw on all 4-5 million public sector employees (that number could be anywhere from 250,000 to 7 million depending on how you cut things).
  • What if government took a licence for wikipedia and built an internal version? What if that site became the place where all reports from every consultancy that's ever worked for government was published? Where people edited topics that they were interested in and added statistics, links and sources that were verified by the armies of others that were also interested in those topics? What if this became the hub of knowledge were people found out how to do their job, what they could do to develop in their job, where they would find information from others doing the same job, where they could see what consultancies and others had recommended could be done to a given process, function or organisation in another, related part of government. Or even a completely unrelated part of government. Many of those reports, the many hundreds every week, month or year, end up gathering dust in a cupboard somewhere. The very best are 50% implemented with the remaining actions getting swamped by the pressure of time or money, or the clean sweep of a new broom coming in with different ideas. That leaves perhaps a billion and a half worth of ideas left unimplemented every year. That's a lot of intellectual property left on the shelf. And let's not wonder aloud, at least not here, how much of those reports are repeats of what has already been bought and paid for by a government department somewhere else.
  • Next, what if we took every FoI request - and its response - and published it online with a simple search application, driven by google or windows live or any other engine- so that before you asked your question you could see what else had been asked that was similar; you'd then either just use that information and not bother to ask your own question or you'd refine yours to get a better take. Smart journalists would use the search tool to bring together previously unrelated questions and draw even more conspiratorial conclusions. Smarter ones would phrase their next question to take advantage of the freely obtained knowledge that they already have to find something new. Government would respond, one would hope, by getting smarter about its operations and processes and would use this leverage to drive greater change and efficiency. [update July 2009: This is largely handled by what do they know dot com]
  • And lastly, maybe all of this would be turned inside out and put online, not just FoI requests, but reports and consultancy work that government had paid for, so as to act as the single greatest source of pressure for change and, dare I say that ugly word, transformation (the single best example of which continues to be Optimus Prime in Michael Bay's recent Transformers film). The deluge of information would be enormous. The fragments of data would require an entire army to stitch it together into meaningful conclusions. But, let's be honest, government itself is never going to have a big enough internal army to do this stitching but, the outside world, those who want to be part of an open-source government, now maybe they'd have the willing, the time, the intellect and the energy to sort, distill and publish the very best pieces - and government, of course, would pay for such pieces once and once only. Sadly, the name YouGov is already taken by a very clever chap called Nadhim Zahawi, but maybe he'd be open to offers. Failing that, we could always go back to me.gov, the vision of access to government coined in 2000 following the [necessary] demise of open.gov.uk.

And I thought, not bad ... that's potentially quite a lot of that list done. I hope Civil Pages works, i.e. that it lets people within and across government find each other and harness what has already been done elsewhere rather than doing it over and over again. If it does that then a million quid (or even 50 million quid) would be a cheap deal. Maybe the powers that be do read this blog.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The British 10k - The Wrongs and the Rights

200907132008.jpgI've run the British 10k several times. It's a great opportunity to test how my training post the London Marathon is going. But it has a lot of flaws. Some 27,000 people run this race. That's bigger than every race in London other than the Marathon itself. They say it's the largest non-televised 10k in the UK. The organisers need to learn that with great size comes great responsibility:

1) I applaud anyone who enters any kind of race, whether it's 5k, 10k or longer. Everyone deserves a chance. I think they also deserve the chance to run it at their pace. I started about 2,000 people back from the start line. There were, therefore, 25,000 people or more behind me. It took me 13 minutes to get to the start line. When I finished (about 49 mins later) there were still people running - not walking - at the 1-2km mark, meaning that they'd probably had to wait an hour to cross the start line. That's just crazy. You can see from the photo at left how far back the start stretched - it goes from the top of the roundabout at Hyde Park Corner all the way back to the Ritz Hotel.

It's time to rework where the race starts. Either use both sides of the road and have people run down by St James' Park and along to Parliament Square, have people line up along the length of Park Lane (and route the traffic to the other side - it's Sunday morning after all) or have the start in Hyde Park itself and set people off and running through multiple routes on to Piccadilly.

2) I'm not the fastest runner and I'm not the slowest. I ran the first 3k in 4:15, 4:30 and 4:45. But within yards of the start I was dodging people who were already walking. Like I said above, everyone should get their chance, but there needs to be some kind of banding. If there were multiple routes to the start, then different speeds could line up in different places; or those with slow times could line up to the left and the runners on the right. I was talking to a lady next to me at the start who was hoping to finish in 2 hours - her doctor had told her not to run as she had a heart condition! Someone like that needs a gentle start - not one surrounded by thousands of people jostling to get going.

So, some pace banding, some room to one side for charity walkers, some different start points or something to ease the crush and confusion at the start.

3) The Mayor of Westminster made a lovely speech, we had God Save The Queen (the long version if I'm not mistaken) and then a minute's silence in memory of someone (I really don't know who) who had recently died. And this was all before the gun. The race started late.

Runners with itchy feet don't like to be kept waiting. It was hot on Sunday and getting hotter the longer we stood around. For those expecting to finish in 90 mins or more and starting way back anyway, it must have been extra torture. Keep the start quick and to the point. Do the speeches when everyone is milling around the baggage area.

4) You made the cardinal mistake of running out of water. At the 7km mark, you'd closed up shop. Water bottles littered the road and you'd folded up the tables. And I was at that point probably 60 minutes after the gun (5min/km * 7 plus 13 mins to cross the start line). That wasn't a good moment for a lot of people, especially with the next water on Westminster Bridge. When I got to the bridge, the marshalls moved me to the right hand side of the lane, away from the water - so that was closed off to me too. But I was up front, relatively, what was going on for the 25,000 people behind me?

Forecast how much water you need and add some more. Then add some more the week before if it's going to be a hot day. Then add some more again. I'm sure you can get a sale or return deal.

5) The course, in its 10km length, has three doublebacks - three points where you have to do a 180 degree turn from one side of the road to the other. Inevitably, people slow down, bunch up, trip over each other and then have to speed up again. This isn't good. It also routes you through the road tunnel at Southwark Bridge both on the way out and on the way back. On a good day it's sticky and ugly in there, on a hot day it's a lot worse.   

I'd love to work with you to design a different course. We could take in Marble Arch, Admiralty Arch, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, cross the river, a couple of km on the south side, back via Westminster or even Lambeth and along to the finish line in Whitehall. The worst turn you'd make would be 90 degrees How much more fun would that be?

6) The official map in the race brochure is impossible to follow. I mean completely impossible. Each time I've run the race, the route has been different. The big change this time was a run down Victoria Street with a 180 turn and then back to Parliament. The last thing I want to do as a runner is have to figure out where I'm going and when I need to speed up. The km markers are hard enough to see as it is - I missed 8km and 9km - so it's important that the route is clearly marked in the brochure. I ran the last km in 3m 40s - I had plenty of gas left that I was saving for the last couple of km but ended up using it all in the last km and then, for the first time, finished without feeling like I'd given it everything I had.

This is the map they provide of the course

200907132037.jpg

From this you might think you'd see Tower Bridge, maybe even cross a few bridges (why make them red?) and that you'd cross Westminster Bridge twice and then go down Embankment again before turning left (New Scotland Yard or thereabouts) and going up Whitehall (away from Trafalgar Square) to the finish - which you'd say was somewhere around where Westminster Bridge is or, at least, at the Parliament Square end. And you'd see all those TV markers and wonder what that was about given it's a non-televised race.

Here's the actual 2009 British 10k Race Route (or race map if you prefer)

200907132040.jpg

If you want a bigger copy of this to look at, let me know and I'll send it to you - leave me details in the comments section.

Why not do a proper map in the race book that comes out with the numbers and the t-shirt? Make it clear where the km markers are and let people think about where they'll be making turns.

7) The finish is just weird. You cross the line - actually, not always, a chap just ahead of me collapsed yards before the line and, as far as I could tell, didn't make it up again based on what the paramedics were doing - and then what? To get your medal, you have to go all the way back to the bag checkin. I didn't have any bags - what I wanted to do was go and cheer the people still going. But last time I did that, you'd run out of medals by the time I got back to the bag check (I eventually found one thanks to a kind marshall).

Make the finish clean and simple - hand out the water, check the chips, give everyone a medal and a photo. Every race does it that way.

Wrap Up

So that's my list. They'll probably never let me run it again, but I'd love to do it if some of these were fixed. I'll even volunteer my time with the organisers to help sort it out - and to poll wider running forums for their ideas of what to change too.

If anyone's interested, here's my race profile


200907132042.jpg

I know I could have run this one faster. I've never really trained for 10k races so I have a lot to learn about when to cut loose. I think that last km proves I could have run faster.