Sunday, August 29, 2010

Question 3 - Sharing the Platform

I posted my thoughts on Question 3 of the 4 asked by the directgov review. The question is:

To what extent should Central Government provide a platform for the delivery of digital services by other parts of the public or voluntary sector – for example, local authorities, councils, voluntary and community sector organisations?

Here's what I said:

Let me start by declaring my bias. In 2001 I ran the team that either built or operated (sometimes both) UK gov’s central infrastructure (the government gateway, ukonline.gov.uk, knowledge network and the GSI; later we built other capability – direc.gov.uk, secure email, the criminal justice exchange and so on.

Almost a decade later I still believe that any government needs a core of central infrastructure. That doesn’t mean that there’s only one of everything or indeed only one of anything. But it does mean that there are enormous economies of scale (for government) in having only a very small number of things and enormous efficiencies (for the population at large) in being able to access definitive, joined up, secure content and services provided by government.

A good example of how a platform can be developed in central government are the various tax services offered by HMRC. Sure, they come in for lots of flak from those who will happily throw rocks from the doors of their rickety greenhouses, but they work and work well. HMRC provides self assessment as a service (SAaaS?) yet publishes the schema and the rules so that other providers can do the same; likewise with PAYE – you can fill the forms in online at HMRC if you want, but there is a vast market in providers of integrated accounting systems that provide far better PAYE than HMRC could (or would want to).   We’ve come a long way since the debacle of the online fishing licence.

It’s 5 years since I stopped running central infrastructure and, whilst I believe I left it in a pretty good state, those who followed have made enormous strides that I only wish I could have done. That must be allowed to continue, with direct.gov.uk at the centre of it.

When I started in UK government, the website count was already over 1,000. It climbed soon after to over 3,000. Only recently has that trend been arrested and the count, whilst still too high, is being managed down.

As a consumer of UK government information, I want to be sure that I am accessing the most up to date, most relevant content. I don’t want to learn how government works and be forced to remember which department operates what services or how I need to access them. Likewise, I only want one password to access government services (via the gateway) although I understand why some would want more.

Direct.gov should certainly act as a platform and extend what it already does – it should aggressively aggregate and distil content so that the chasms between government organisations are largely hidden from my view (this was always the point of direct.gov of course). It should make that content available to those who want to reuse it (as it does now through its syndication engine) and it should continue to close down non-specialist government websites. All that remain should be specific departmental policy sites such as those for accountants where arcane policy advice needs to be made available but where usage is low.

Direct.gov should then re-open its search engine, taking it back to the original instance where search was pan-government. Any government website should be able to use that engine to search its site but also to provide links to direct.gov’s content (as sponsored links or “ads” down the side) so that any one on any government site can find content on any other site all through one managed engine.

Direct.gov should provide (and perhaps already does) mini-campaign sites for every department that wants to launch an online initiative, and provide a centralised ad engine that allows ads for those campaigns to be displayed on other sites (by provide in this instance I don’t mean some monolithic central capability but access to tools and services that can do this quickly and cheaply).

I applaud those who have navigated around central bureaucracy and used tools such as WordPress to create, often within hours or a few days, sites that meet specific needs or that handle sudden reorganisations of the government machine. But, that said, I innately believe that fragmentation of government content is a bad thing – I don’t want to figure out which of the 310,000 instances of the phrase “disability living allowance” is the right one. I want to be taken to the right one by direct.gov. And I don’t want different government departments spending money trying to keep each of those 310,000 instances up to date as the rules change.

The last part of being a platform is transactional. Should direct.gov move into directly providing transactional services into government? We always imagined it should and would. It hasn’t so far (short of providing skins for those who do provide such services). Increasingly I think this is a step too far and that it is better for departments to be required to open up the rules for their transactions and to provide white label forms that can be used by others alongside their own branded ones. The trouble here is that when sending information to government, I think I’d want to be sure that it was definitely going to government and that there was a near-zero risk of someone else seeing it (the napster version of Self Assessment where you could briefly share tax forms caused some chaos for a while). So there needs to be some kind of kitemark or audit process but, at the same time, people have to recognise the need for their own diligence as evidence by the recent iTunes problems where compromised accounts were used to boost the chart ranking of books and applications.

This Slug's Taking Grass

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The Real iPhone Antenna Problem?

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The so-called death grip hasn't caught up with me on my iPhone 4 (I'm running 4.1 beta 3 which helpfully fixes the proximity sensor problem that I had from day one with the phone but that doesn't fix the reported antenna problem - maybe it's all in the wrist?). But I have noticed significant delays with receiving texts. In a low signal area, I seem to have enough juice to send a text, but not too little to receive the reply.

Emerging from a building earlier this week I was surprised to receive a dozen texts in quick succession - despite my having sent perhaps the same number whilst in the building. It wasn't the first time this had happened.

Is this iPhone 4 antenna related? A problem with the O2 network?

Or something else entirely - that perhaps using email or browsing the web somehow affects the ability to receive texts and so delays them?

Or is it just me?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Gadget Debris

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Clairvoyant Juxtaposition

Every Saturday on my way to Park Run, I pass these two posters, which Paul pointed out to me first

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I've added the red loop to draw your eye


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He obviously didn't see that coming, our intrepid clairvoyant Mr Hewitt

No Clue On This Flipchart at all

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Hard Times?

This isn't a great photo - I couldn't get everything in to the shot

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But I did wonder if the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology had fallen somewhat on hard times and was so forced to rent out its rooms to "Slimming World" (the catchphrase they run with is "because you're amazing"; that for the IMEST is "manage marine resources for the benefit of humanity" - that is, if people eat less fish and get slim, they'll be more to go round).

Stop Press: First Kiosk User Seen In The Wild

I've seen these kiosks. I've even wandered up close to see what they were. But I've never touched one. And I've never seen anyone else touch one either. Until this week.

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In a world of location-aware smartphones, how come these have not yet gone the way of the dodo? International data roaming rates is probably the answer.

Blog Posting

It's nearly September 2010 and my blog post tally in the year to date is 79. I'm already ahead of my total in all of 2008 (77) and creeping up on both 2006 (94) and 2007 (87). I am, though, a long way down from my early years (2002 at 208 and 2003 at 312). This post will be the 1,164th on the blog since it launched in December 2001. Ten years and 1,000 posts.

Bordeaux 2009 - Do the Chinese really buy En Primeur?

Or do the chinese not use google, chinese wine buyers not use google or does google search insights not include data from china (did that whole routing via Hong Kong thing really mess things up or what?)?

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And what's with these Moroccan wine lovers?


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And who were all the prescient folks in early 2008 looking up 2009 wine futures already?

Bordeaux 2010 is already getting traffic too - France at 100, Morocco at 16, Belgium at 5 ... maybe all the Chinese buyers route through Moroccan proxies?

By contrast with Bordeaux, if I look at Burgundy and then narrow to Food and Drink, the Chinese top the list (at least the HK Chinese do):


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Maybe the smart money should be buying Burgundy now ahead of what looks like another good vintage in Bordeaux?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Great North Run Elevation

The Great North Run is coming soon. Many people looking for the "Great North Run Elevation Profile" arrive at this page. Here's the profile with the distance in both km and miles. The 2010 Great North Run is in one month, on 19th September 2010

First for those who run in km:

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And then in miles:


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The official course elevation profile looks like this:


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I'd encourage you to expect the peaks and troughs to look as they do in the versions from my own records - that will give you a better sense of the steepness.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

BeBox Ubiquity

A while ago I used to connect to a WiFi network called "BeBox". On the way to and from work, my iPhone will flash a pop up box inviting me to connect to BeBox - all I need to do is enter the password. These BeBoxes aren't, of course, the BeBox I used to connect to (hence the need to enter the password). I had no idea that BeBox was a product name and even less idea that people set up WiFi networks with the same generic name, although I guess I shouldn't be surprised by that anymore - why configure something if it works out of the box? What I am surprised about is that the iPhone doesn't know it isn't the same BeBox and that, so far, I can't find a way to make it forget it ever heard the name BeBox so that it won't try and mate with every other BeBox out there.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Subtracting Addthis

Dan alerted me to a google warning page that came up when he visited this blog:

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There is a consistent story on the web regarding why this message came up, e.g. Watchingthewatchers.org quotes clearspring as saying

We noticed early this morning via Twitter that a large number of folks using Chrome were being warned of malware when visiting sites with Clearspring Launchpad widgets. To summarize the event, our portion of the Content Delivery Network (CDN), the service we use to efficiently host all Clearspring widget internals, was compromised with files that redirected users to a certain malware domain (which we won’t link here). We quickly fixed the issue and are now back to normal operation as far as the CDN is concerned. Because of Google's aggressive malware prevention policy, users may continue to see warnings until Google completes its re-review process.

The thing is, I don't have the "addthis" widget on my blog although I do have "add to any" and "share this" - I can't find any link between them all. So I'm leaving it as it is for now until I can figure out if there's another problem. I'll update this post if I find it.