Saturday, February 25, 2006

Burying the Welsh at sea

Dan's rambling about's new welsh version. He notes that it's 4 years since we put proper Welsh live on UKonline and it must be 2 years since we put live, during which time it's managed to live quite happily without welsh. Dan has some stats on how many people speak Welsh, I found some others: The most convenient source of statistics to hand is a survey published by the Welsh Office, Arolwg Cymdeithasol Cymru 1992: adroddiad ar y Gymraeg published about March 1995. It showed that 21.5% of the population of Wales (590800 people) speak Welsh; this divides into 32.4% of 3-15 year olds, 17.8% of 16-29s, 16.7% of 30-44s, 18.7% of 45-64s and 24.2% of over 65s. 55.3% of them (326,600, 12% of the population) are first-language speakers, meaning someone who spoke more Welsh than English as a child at home. 13.4% of the population of Wales claims to be fluent in Welsh, and 66.1% claim no knowledge of Welsh at all. The thing about Welsh, of course, is that the requirement to publish documents in it (in the public sector at least) is enshrined in law. And so, of course, is the need to ensure sites are accessible. What I've always thought odd is how poorly accessibility is handled by public sector websites (which is backed up by dozens of studies that I won't bother to link to) - and over 14% of the UK population has some kind of disability (although I suspect that individual, specific disabilities, have the kind of percentages that Welsh language speakers have). I'm all for protecting languages that are at risk of disappearing - Welsh has seen a real resurgence recently, probably in part because of the change in the law. It wouldn't me my first choice of language to translate government websites into though. It was Dan's leap to talking about Burial At Sea that most interested me. I used to joke about the problem of "100% online" and whether it included such things as this, or even exhuming your grandparents so that you could emigrate with them and rebury them where you moved to (it happens apparently, although not as often as people are buried at sea). Google helpfully tells me that there are 18,800 mentions of Burial At Sea in the domain. In typical public sector fashion, rather than have everyone link to the definitive source, everyone wants to write their own content about this "service". There's even an ad at the top of the list, to "cremainatsea", where you can be "affordably" scattered across the waves, after you've been cremated. The top link is for Bath and North East Somerset's page on burial at sea which is weird, because you can't be buried there, or at least not at sea. You can, it seems, only have that done at 3 places: * Near Newhaven, Sussex * The Needles Spoil Ground, to the west of the Isle of Wight * In the Tynemouth off the Northumberland coast They do. helpfully, give you a task list: * Register the death with the Registrar of Births, Deaths & Marriages * Prepare the correct documentation * Obtain a FEPA Licence for burial at sea * Prepare the body * Get the right coffin * Organise the burial/ceremony And, whilst you can't get the process kicked off online, there are extensive guides. And they all tell you that you really don't want to be buried at sea (because you might pop up, or be caught in fishing nets, or pollute the marine environment or whatever). By the by, there are only 973 mentions of exhumation in and Tameside has the top link. And, of course, there's the inevitable paid for ad at the side Exhumation Whatever you're looking for you can get it on eBay. You've got to wonder what eBay is doing buying up every word that shows up in a search box. I'm pretty sure that this is one thing that eBay can't help anyone with and if there are any Jeffry Dahmers out there , I imaginen they won't be looking on eBay. 244 people looked at the Welsh version of's homepage in January and 1,146 looked at the directories page. So we have 18,800 pages that talk about a service that government actively doesn't want you to take advantage of, a few hundred pages of content that has been rewritten in Welsh that will almost certainly never be looked at by more than a handful of people (most of whom will be the editorial staff checking its published properly) and several thousand public sector websites that aren't accessible at even a basic level. Is this the legacy of e-government?

Monday, February 20, 2006

eGov goodness

A couple of things impressed me this week - I couldn't find my TV licence renewal, so I figured I'd forgotten to renew. I used the online service and paid the money. They wrote to me this week to tell me that I already had one and that they'd credited the money back. Now, this is good, and bad. It's bad because you'd have thought the online service would have known that I had one, it's good because normally when you give any government money, it's pretty hard to get it back. - I needed to talk to the courts service about all things jury related. Of all the departments I'd expect to be still pen and ink based, the courts would be first on the list. But no, an email to them in the morning, a reply less than 60 minutes later, problem sorted. And then I found this, from a website in Prague (the site's in English) CESKE BUDEJOVICE, South Bohemia, Feb 18 (CTK) - Relatives of the patients who die in the local hospital learn about their family member's death through an SMS message, something that experts in ethical matters consider inadmissible, the daily Mlada fronta Dnes writes today. "Sry yr aunt is ded" ... maybe not something the NHS should consider just yet. We're still waiting for doctor/patient appointments to be confirmed by text, but I hear they're working on it. Bring it on. Next we'll see DfES talking about sending exam results by text.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Japlish Lives

New trainers arrived this weekend and with 1000km clocked up on the old ones, it's time they went. They came with a "free" pedometer which I tried out today. It clocked around 6,900 paces on a 22km run. That can't be right. The instructions offer the solution though: If "... not all your steps were detected ... mount the pedometer properly and ensure your walking method is right" - I have to walk in a certain way? They do warn that "false mounting or walking way will possibly arouse inaccurate result" - Mounting? Arouse? Where did these guys learn their English? Note though "... Precise instrument it is and be sure operated and maintained properly ... " - Yoda speak? It comes with a radio but "Due to reception environment, the station listening may be jumped off" Seems to me that they've fed the original through babelfish and back a few times.

Marathon Update

I'm getting ready to send out my email request for sponsorship. Just like last year, I'm running to support Macmillan Cancer Relief. But this year, you get 3 races for the price of 1 - I'll be running the Liverpool Half Marathon a month today, the Reading Half about 3 weeks later and then the full London Marathon on 23rd April. Progress so far is pretty good. I'm getting a couple of runs in a week, which is more than I managed last week (but way down on what the training plans recommend). Today I covered more than 20km for the 3rd time in 6 weeks. My time, 2h 6m or so, is slower than I'm targetting, but I'm getting faster each time. I'd planned to run futher today but when I got to Tower Bridge (about 11km from home), I found that it was "open" (i.e. closed), so I turned round and ran home the same way. I should have seen it was open from a couple of km away but I guess I was so busy concentrating on the run, plus the book I was listening to, Ambler Warning, that I missed it. Here are the details: Map of Tower Bridge Out and Back My Macmillan fund raising page is on JustGiving as before.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


It's been interesting to watch the fuss over Qinetiq's privatisation and whether the small investor should have been let in on it or net or whether it was sold too cheap a few years ago when the Carlyle group stepped in. There's been an almost equal amount of fuss about whether Sir John Chisholm should have been allowed to make so much money - something like £26 million I think. Something from my distant memories tells me that this is his second chance at hitting the big time. I can't be sure, but I'm reasonably certain that back when Sir John was plain John and was running CAP Scientific Limited, he was approached by IBM who wanted an operating system for their upcoming personal computer. He turned them down ... and the rest is history. So why begrudge the guy a second go at making his fortune?

Can't stop this thing we've started

Another good comment on an earlier post: So there are vast numbers of broken processes in government - processes that have been broken for years because of bad thinking, poor design, terrible IT delivery, an over-reliance on paper, overly complex legislation, too much tinkering at the edges without structural reform and so on. Why are we even entertaining throwing good money after bad with all this egov nonsense? Rather than building crap websites that front crap everything, why don't we give the budget to more needy causes and tell the geeks in suits to go dive dive in the lake? Why indeed. A good question with no simple answer. When I used to do chalk and talk sessions on e-government (before I figured out powerpoint), I'd often start by drawing a line on the whiteboard from one side to the other. I'd announce that this was the scum line - I'm not sure it was me that came up with that description, it might have been SimonF. I'd then draw government silos underneath the line, and citizens interacting through the web cloud above the line. Government thinks that it's on the clean side of the scum line and that the line is there to keep everything grubby out. Citizens think that they're all clean and shiny and the real mess is on the other side of the line, in government. The trick is to make both sides see the mess and then figure out how to clean it up - data and process, process and data, both sides of the line. My original pitch for e-government in the UK was that a few, well designed sites and services would buy the departments time to sort out their backends. There was no way to drive e-government bottom up - that is, no time to clean up the back ends and join things up sensibly and strategically. But, some artful front end services could create the illusion of a joined up government and whilst the illlusion was being maintained, departments could update their 20 year old systems, their even older processes (after all, much of the computerisation of the 80s simply automated whatever process was already in place - paving the cowpath they call it now I think), and clean up their data (and, if we were lucky, the process of registering online and using services would give us up to date information and data a piece at a time, because if people tried to use services and found they couldn't, they might make a call and sort out the data discrepancy, e.g. an old address or whatever). That was a pretty snappy plan at the beginning - in March 2000 or so when it was hatched. But it hasn't worked out that way. Funding has gone, in capital terms, to sexy new projects and maintenance costs for back ends have continued to rise. The eGU is hanging its hat now on the prospect of holding back 10% of the £14 billion spent on government IT each year and redirecting that to new services that are shared across departments. If it were me, I'd impose a legislative freeze for 2 years - no new taxes, no changes that weren't table changes, no new tax credits, no changes to benefits administration and I'd use that time to race to create new business units that were charged with running things from the ground up in a new way. Then I'd migrate people in chunks from the old world to the new world. Sounds simple, fraught with problems and risks though, and unlikely anyone would buy it. That said, I don't see a queue of other ideas that could achieve the same result.

Short Massage Service

I'm always intri by misquotes ... Hans Snook makes one in an article this week where he writes about Marshall McLuhan's famous book "The Medium Is The Message". The book's title is actually "The Medium Is The Massage". Google has 303,000 results for "message" and only 66,000 for "massage" ... does that mean getting it wrong is 5 times more popular than being correct, or perhaps that the top sites get it wrong and so the misquote perpetuates? Wikipedia (inside the top 10 for Marshall McLuhan) gets it right. But others in the top 10 don't. McLuhan's official site quite clearly lists the proper book title. So, did Hans get it wrong or did some anonymous sub-editor make the change for him?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Wetting our pants?

Now here's an interesting comment on a previous post - covering the online self assessment service - from "homer" (how is bart?) ... I'm pasting it in here in its entirety (I've found it difficult to have a debate in the comments section - all that unfolding and stuff, so it seems to make sense to bring comments up to the top every so often to help keep track of the debate). "Well before we starting wetting our pants at what could be the first evidence of a working government website, let's have a quick look at how the FT report the same story today ... ... The income tax self-assessment system is riddled with errors, with at least a quarter of PAYE tax codes incorrectly calculated by the Revenue & Customs, a Commons inquiry will warn today. An estimated one in three income tax returns are incorrect, costing the state an "enormous" £2.8bn a year in lost tax payments, says a report by the public accounts select committee into the Revenue's performance. The report attacks the Revenue's own lack of accuracy and urges it to "accept more responsibility for its mistakes". Almost 500,000 returns - 5 per cent of the total - were processed wrongly in the last tax year. Never mind, a small detail. Want to buy some consultancy on xml, search engines, passport, ... ... ?" It's a good place to start a debate. Leaving aside that I was talking about the apparent success of the online service and that this is a report on a problem with the self assessment process overall, here are my thoughts: - Let's start with breaking the taxation process down into its component parts: - Legislation (tax law) - Data requirements (defined by the law, provided by the citizen or their employer) - Form design (defined by HMRC in response to the data needed) - Form completion (up to the citizen/employer or their accountant) - Form submission (post or online, choice of the citizen/employer/accountant) - Data entry (could be manual rekeying or could be full auto through online) - Calculation of tax due (could be HMRC, could be citizen using online) - Back end processing, adjustments to tax codes etc - The FT article mixes up PAYE (which is entirely an employer process) and Self Assessment (which is entirely an individual process), although both can and do involve accountants (or payroll bureaux etc). I vaguely remember there being something like 27 million people in the working population, of whom 2/3 are PAYE and 1/3 are Self Assessment. So if a quarter of tax codes are wrong, it could be in this proportion or, more likely, it could be mostly in one or the other (and I'd take a guess that PAYE is more likely wrong then Self Assessment - more later) - There are plenty of opportunities for error in the process. For instance: - The legislation may not cover all cases, or may put people in one category that should be in another - The data provided by the citizen may be wrong, accidentally or deliberately - The form filling process may lead to mistakes - The form submission process may break and returns could be lost - Data entry may result in keying errors - Calculation could suffer if data entry is incorrect - Back end handling could lead to further errors, perhaps where there are manual steps - Tax law is necessarily complicated for two reasons 1) It has to deal with a huge range of cases, from the secretary employed at a big firm, to the builder running his own company, to the Welsh mac-using vicar who runs a business printing bibles on the side, to the company director who earns a million, has houses that he rents out and has investment income all over the place. 2) I remember at a meeting with the Paymaster General some years ago, I was told that for every page of tax law there were 49 pages of anti-avoidance law. Accountants are clever folks and they're always trying to save their clients money. Of course, if tax law were simple, you'd be able to avoid (not evade) tax yourself and you wouldn't need an accountant to keep things straight (so that would be a few thousand people out of a job) - Because things are quite involved and lots of data from multiple sources is required, I doubt that everyone gets it right - so they either skip bits of data that are important (the occasional off shore bank account perhaps), or miss things out deliberately, or lose a bit of paper (dividend forms for instance, especially in a world where more and more stock trading is done online) or just get their knickers in a twist (before or after wetting them). So much of the errors in tax codes is probably a data problem - Keying in stuff of paper is not much fun for anyone and is highly prone to error - so until we get 100% electronic from source to payment, we're going to be left with some proportion of errors - and possibly quite a big proportion. Sadly, error rates in electronic items (especially PAYE returns from employers can be high too - at one point, magnetic tape records had 60% rejection rates because software used by the employers was not producing quality data). A lot of the detail on this can be found in Patrick Carter's report on PAYE. The HMRC response to this in the 2002 budget FAQ is famously brief "Q. What has happened to Patrick Carter's recommendations on simplification? A. The Government is considering these proposals and announcements will be made as decisions are taken." - The nice thing about government all the numbers are big - and they make for great headlines. There used to be a page on the IR website that showed how much tax was collected from each of PAYE, Corporation Tax, VAT and so on. I can't find it now, but the numbers are something like £100 billion in each case, give or take. So, if £2.8 billion of tax is uncollected, and that were all from PAYE that would be about 3%, if it were across all tax takes, it could be as little as 1% or maybe less (including, say, stamp duty). An error rate of between 1% and 3% might not be too bad and, if the errors break into several categories, then no single error is a big contributor. I'm pretty sure that credit card companies end up reserving that kind of amount for fraud with their cards (and that's one of the reasons why there's a big cost differential for processing credit card transactions versus debit card transactions) - There's an interesting wrinkle with tax. £2.8 billion of consumer tax going uncollected puts the same amount into the pockets of the population. What do they do with that? They go out and spend it and that generates VAT on the transaction, tax on corporate profits and so on. Trying too hard to collect every penny of tax that is due often leads to a greater involvement by more people in the black economy, and results in even more tax being lost. - On the other side of that, if £2.8 billion is going uncollected on one side, it's just as likely that £2.8 billion too much is being collected on the other. That would balance out the benefit from the bullet above and leave some people without money that they deserve. Am I defending HMRC here? No, not at all. There are vast numbers of broken processes in government - processes that have been broken for years because of bad thinking, poor design, terrible IT delivery, an over-reliance on paper, overly complex legislation, too much tinkering at the edges without structural reform and so on. Is the problem going to be fixed by trying to get right the 5% of returns that have errors in, or chasing after the 1%-3% of money that goes uncollected. Making the whole process simpler by making the data easy to get hold of, keeping it in standard electronic formats from beginning to end and speeding up the process so that people know what's going on will likely result in better changes. HMRC do need to take more accountability for mistakes - as does all of government. Finding out what went wrong and why is often a nightmare journey (witness my recent escapades with council tax and the valuation office which took me 12 months to resolve). Until then, Homer, you keep working on the XML, search engines and whatnot because that's what lets you pay your tax. Happy to see all the above stuff countered.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Windows One Careless?

Tim reminded me about WindowsOneCare this week. I'd heard John Thompson, the CEO of Symantec, talking about Microsoft's entry into the anti-virus market last week. I have a lot of time for John and I believe he's put together an impressive strategy for Symantec over the last few years (I think the jury is still out over whether Veritas was a good decision, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt based on his track record and how little I know anyway). He was trying to move the debate away from plain and simple AV (which any number of people do now he said) to one about restoring consumer confidence in the Internet - he said people are more worried than ever now about identity theft, credit card fraud and so on. Symantec would be launching products in the spring to cover these markets. The entry of Microsoft in your space would make you move to a different market I'm sure. Still, as Marc Andreessen was quoted as saying, "everyone should compete head on with Microsoft at least once." Anyway, I checked out WindowsOneCare and having given my email address (After being assured I'd only receive "relevant updates"), this box popped up: This was followed by a second certificate error and then by a notice that I shouldn't be using Firefox anyway and that if I wanted to download the software I'd have to switch to IE. Hmmmmm. Switching to the shiny, new IE7 I paste in the URL I've been told to resume from after the last message (interestingly the URL ends with the /purchase parameter, letting me know that Msft don't plan to bundle this into the OS at this point) and then I'm told that I'm not part of the beta programme. So, back to the home page and then through the same path as I'd taken before - which kept me in the "public beta" pool. It's busy downloading now. More anon.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Vodafone hacked ... and no-one cares?

This story about mobile phones being hacked during the Athens Olympics (indeed for about 9 months of 2004 by some stories) is really weird. Details in the press are pretty consistent - up to 100 people, including the Greek PM and his wife, had their phones tapped (and presumably listened to or even recorded) by unknown perpetrators who did, however, manage to install some dodgy software on Vodafone's internal systems. Vodafone's corporate website is, however, entirely bereft of any press release on the matter - the last update to their Greek news section was on 19th December and none of the other news pages seem to have any detail. The good news, say the Greeks, is that national security wasn't at risk because all the spooks use protected phones. I don't get it. Vodafone has it's network hacked, maybe 100 important people have their phones monitored for nearly a year, and no one cares? Vodafone don't issue a press release to say "don't worry folks we've checked every system in our global network and we're quite sure that there are no other instances of this and, by the way, we've fired our network security manager for not seeing that this was going on for months, until some customers complained about not receiving messages". Does this mean that if I don't get texts (anyone noticed that text messages on the Vodafone network in the UK are slowing down and sometimes taking hours or even days to get through?), I might have my phone tapped (lord knows why anyone would want to tap mine)? But forget about me (that was easy) ... what about the 15 million odd people who are Vodafone customers? And, if you're going to worry, perhaps we should worry about this subset: The UK government signed a a £38 million deal with Vodafone in 2000 for up to 100,000 government mobile phones? As the press release said: There are real benefits to the taxpayer on this agreement as the joint arrangement with Vodafone includes process savings, tariff reductions and access to new technology. It doesn't mention that there are real benefits to foreign intelligence services or that the new technology is actually someone else's that's installed on the Vodafone network. I'm baffled by this one.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

BT's technology timeline

Not the easiest thing to use (at least not if you want a quick overview) but some provocative suggestions.

More on Self Assessment online

San Francisco has London weather today, so all the locals are telling me. It's grey, wet and a little foggy. How come that's not Seattle weather? I've been speaking at a conference for industry analysts. It's been interesting. Better still, I got to catch up with my old friend Marc Andreessen who I haven't seen for ages. I still don't think I'm smart enough to understand Ning, but the makeover it's had has got me a little close and Marc says that there's another big upgrade come in a month or so. HMRC have published the breakdown of figures for SA online: Nearly two million taxpayers filed their self assessment returns online by the 31 January deadline this year - a 38% increase on last year. The HMRC website processed 719,913 self assessment returns during January. 336,277 returns were received in the final seven days, and 216,154 in the final four days until midnight on 31 January. At the peak of the influx during the mornings of Monday 30 & Tuesday 31 January, the HMRC website was processing around 8700 returns an hour - almost 150 per minute, almost three every second. And taxpayers were still at work right up until the final hour: 2300 were received between 11pm and midnight yesterday. Many taxpayers and agents have taken to using third-party software services to file their returns. Use of these alone leapt up by 72% compared to last year. I'm not sure I've ever heard of an online service undergoing an "influx", but it's hard to argue with the numbers, they look pretty good. 3 tax returns a second. Five years ago I used to joke that I expected SA online (and other services) to alter the balance of payments for the chancellor - anyone who was owed money would get their return in on 6th April; anyone who owed money would leave until 5 minutes to midnight - and there'd be a 9 month gap between the IR (now HMRC) paying out money versus when it received money. The cashflow consequences could be interesting, especially if it shifted that way for all other taxes too (although I'm pretty sure the cases where corporations get refunds on tax are quite limited). The realisation of this idea was much delayed by all sorts of reliability problems with the online service - regularly unavailable at busy times, long delays and all sorts of other issues meant few would trust it at the last minute. This year, it looks like that has been cracked and that everything worked all the way through to the end. If anything, that's probably the biggest change.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

More on

I'd been wondering about how to test the new auto censor service and was hamstrung by not reading chinese (and by not having the character set on my PC). Brad Feld filled the hole in my thinking with this comparison, using images rather than text. Search for Tiananmen in Same search, for Tiananmen, in Any other examples?

Zero to Seven? Brand nightmares or market expansion?

Just tried my first CocaCola Zero. That's the no calorie coke. So diet coke isn't no calorie? Well, yes it is. 0 fat, 0 carbs, no calories it says on the side of the bottle. So what's the difference? It's all in the sweetener apparently - Zero has some acesulfame potassium (did I really want to know that?) as well as aspartame. Now there are several diet cokes: Diet Coke (dare I say diet coke classic?) Coke zero Diet Coke with splenda Diet Coke with lemon Diet Coke with Lime Diet Coke with Vanilla Diet Coke caffeine free If they roll out Zero with all the other combinations - zero with lemon, zero caffeine free with lemon (with splenda?) ... what do you call that many diet cokes? A brand marketing nightmare? But, looking at their brand site (you can tell it's early in the morning and I'm bored, right?), they have diet coke with citra, with orange, something called C2 (was that 1/2 the calories of normal coke?) As someone who probably keeps this company afloat single-handedly, I love this stuff. But I still only drink diet coke. And I don't own any stock or win any of their damn competitions. Ever. So what got me into this, apart from my diet coke thing, was a comparison with e-government brands, viz: - Is the market for diet coke-like drinks essentially fixed, or increading only at the rate of population growth? - If it is, does any new product just slightly adjust the settings, stealing share from other products from the same house as well as occasionally from other vendors (although if you are challenged and drink diet pepsi, would you make the switch for a drink called "zero"?) - Is the marginal cost of supporting any new drink pretty much zero - the marketing budget just gets rejigged, there's a bit of factory costs as a new logo is stamped on tins and bottles, but otherwise there's not much cost? And if that's the case: - Is the e-government market pretty much fixed, i.e. the number of people that need to visit an online government site in any one year is about the same, irrespective of how many services you have? - Does adding brands (new sites) confuse the market further and result in market share being rejigged around the main sites, but in no substantial growth? - Is the marginal cost of adding a site/brand pretty much zero - there's enough IT out there to support it, managing one site or ten sites is the same and marketing costs are near zero, or just rebalanced from other marketing budgets? I have the same thought when I look at the endless procession of razors - the latest being the vibrating blade razor (aka an electric razor where you wet shave!). Does it just stop the loss of market share rather than result in a gain? If there was a rebranded, relaunched directgov every month, say, directgovzero, directgovwithlemon, would the market grow? In this world of 100s of TV channels, 1000s of websites, do you have to keep adding products and changing brands just to grow a little or even just to stay still?