Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What we want, what we really want ...

The single best thing for the British economy this year would, in my view, be a long hot summer, starting in May and finishing in late September. Such a summer would encourage us to stay at home and spend our pounds at home. We need 150 days of temperatures in the high 20s. Temperatures that encourage people to stay home and spend pounds in the UK - pounds that are going to be in short supply, of course, but nonetheless, pounds that we want kept here.

Another summer like that of 2008 - rain, rain and more rain - would have the opposite effect. No matter how strong the euro, we'd all go abroad - desperately searching some respite from the gloom of the UK - and spend our weedy pounds (wait for the £100 and £200 pound note coming soon to a place near you), further negatively impacting the UK economy.

Better still would be a great UK summer and a poor European summer. The Europeans would come here and spend their Euros - more than they have even in the last month. The shift in spend would further bolster the pound and bring yet more money into the UK - and we have to be grateful already for those Europeans and Americans who have come to the UK in the last to months.

A decade ago I ran the operations of Citibank France. On New Year's Eve back then, we were bringing in the Euro - the banking incarnation of it at least (it wouldn't reach the hands of consumers for three years - and then I was in Austria ready to take fresh euros out of the ATM just after midnight on the first night).

I found this graph earlier showing the life of the euro versus the pound since its incarnation. It's 2 months of data short, so I've added a line that approximates how the pound has fallen apart since the end of October:


What a stunning change in fortunes for the venerable pound sterling. Something needs to change very soon. As I sit in Switzerland, watching a foot of fresh snow fall, pondering a Swiss Franc exchange rate that has moved from 2.4 to 1.5 in the last 4 years - or even from just under 2 to 1.5 in the last 9 months, I can only wonder what 2009 will bring.

Here's to a Happy New Year to everyone that I know, that knows me, that reads this blog and to those who have yet to read it who might yet still, one day.

Thursday, December 25, 2008



What is quality? Ah, indeed, one of those great unanswered questions of our times. This comes from MatthewT who was very keen for me to post it here and so here it is.

There's room for a whole separate blog here - send me your wanted and unwanted whiteboard shots and i'll see if i can find a good domain name for them - suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Things You Didn't Think You'd Hear in 2008 - part 2

Somewhere out there, someone working in a store like Snow and Rock or Blacks Leisure is running a sale under the tag line

"Now is the winter of our discount tents"

Things You Didn't Think You'd Hear in 2008

Apart from "Barack Obama elected" and "Lehman collapses" ... Lyocs lives?

The FT carried a story yesterday where they noted that Apple's performance in the holiday season was looking strong ...


200812231352.jpgWho even knew that Lycos was still around? I'm sure you'll remember their catchy tagline "meet you there" along with the dog logo. I didn't. Do you think they put a press release out saying "hey, we're still here and did you know that both of our users searched for ipods in december?"

According to its own top 50 list, the top 10 didn't include Apple or iPod or anything similar. Few of the top ten (and not even many in the top 50 made any connection with me - I guess I don't know my Clay from my Holly, let alone my Ivy). Apple did make it in at Number 30 though.

200812231358.jpgOne of the odd things about the Internet is still seeing domain names high up in the list of searched items - in this case YouTube and Facebook. Many zillions of people must have google or, who'd have thought, Lycos (!) set as their home page and so navigate to every other page through the search bar.

Barack Obama made it in at No 26, ahead of Apple of course and way behind both Angelina Jolie and Sarah Palin (wouldn't have thought you'd have had both of those in the same sentence either). John McCain was in at 43 - who said search engines can't predict election results.

Monday, December 22, 2008

More flipchart signz

From Dan, comes this brilliant example of a flipchart that means nothing to you unless you were in the room at the time (and I'm not even sure it would have meant much even then)


Not Box Office but "Box office" ... light and shade ... not shock and awe (or sock and awe as it's become known ... and then ... the one that throws all vaguely possible sensible interpretations away "too much information"

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Nobody Reads My Blog?

JohnW, a chap with more of a sense of humour than one might suspect, bought me this t-shirt recently.


I figure, truth or not, it deserved a wider audience. So now 3 people can see it.

Tracking Progress - London Marathon 2009

I've had a poor couple of weeks for running. A return of my 2005 bugbear, shin splints, stopped me in my tracks for the last 2 weeks of November and only this weekend have I been able to put in a couple of proper runs (one of 6.25km and one of 12.25km). I think I may have beaten the shin splints this time thanks to some intensive self-administered massage (following a technique taught via the site).

I took a look at my progress so far, measured against the last few marathons I've run. The graph below shows training distance in blocks of 30 days counting backwards from the marathon day itself (and including the 43km run on that day):


So far, so good is, I think, the conclusion. I'm tracking some way ahead of the distances I covered in previous training regimes. This isn't part of some kind of grand plan to do more mileage, just a reflection of getting two good runs in each weekend - one of 12km and often another of 16-20km. I've dismally failed to get any mid-week runs in for most of the last 4 months and will have to correct that once I get to January.

You can see from the Paris 1999 chart how little training I did (I ran 4:13) - 6 years and 30lbs later, I struggled through London (4:44) and then in 2006 I ran London in 3:51, after a much more disciplined (and less injury-inflicted) training routine; NY was 3:58, despite the apparently higher mileage in the last 4 months.

I have set myself a few goals for the run-up to London at the end of April, all aimed at getting to my 3:45 target. They are:

1. Find time for more than 2 runs over 30km. In both of the last two marathons, that's all I managed and I think there is room to do at least two more than that this time. I'm planning to get one per month during January, February, March and April. I'm hoping that this will give me better stamina in the second half of the run. For instance, this graph from London 2006 shows how I slow down from km 33 onwards. I don't think I'm going to deliver a negative split, but I'm sure there's more I can do to reduce the time I lose in the second half.


2. Run fewer distances under 7km. Time being what it is, I often end up getting a quick run in after hours - and all I have time for is 6.25km (that's an easy loop over two bridges and home). I plan to make my shorter runs longer - at least 12km. I know I'll still do the 6.25km loop, but I plan to run it faster, using it less as an easy run and more as a speed training distance. The fastest I've ever run it is 29m 30s, but I tend to average around 32m.

3. Actually follow some kind of varied training plan. My style so far has been "go out and run". I've seen all the fast/slow, hill, wind-sprint and whatever plans laid out, but I've never really tracked against one. Sure, I've tried to run faster each time than I did the time before, but that can't be done every day. So whilst I'm not going to get along with any of the plans I've seen on the web - they all require me to run pretty much double what I run as it is - I am going to vary my routine a little to see if it helps me get closer to my target of 3:45.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Government Does Things Beta

Old news I know ... but new to me (the orange loop is mine - just in case the fish fans are still confused)


No.10 takes a leaf out of Google's book and puts a beta site live. It's good.

From that same Autumn Leaf deck:


Viral Distribution

News yesterday that several London hospitals had been shutdown because of the outbreak of a virus would perhaps make you pause briefly and think of MRSA or some new anti-biotic resistant strain of Staph. So far, so not news - although, thankfully, far less common recently because of, I imagine, Herculean efforts by hospital staff. To hear that it was actually a computer virus makes you pause longer.

The mytob virus, apparently responsible for the shutdown, is more than 3 years old. It's easy to protect against and well understood. Symantec describe it's threat level as:


When was the last time you heard of a computer network being shut down by a virus? Well, not that long ago. Along with the hospitals, we have this news today


It seems we're approaching the annual peak for computer virus infection

Computer users have been warned to take extra special care next Monday as it has been predicted to be the worst day of the year for computer viruses. Security experts PC Tools has forecast the bleak outlook for computer fans on November 24th, as figures from 2007 show that it was the peak for malicious software last year.

But seriously ... an entire network shutdown now? In late 2008?

Shortly after I started work in UK government, a series of departments were shutdown for 2 or 3 days, some longer, because the Melissa virus infected their email system. Chaos reined as all email servers were shutdown and nothing could be sent or received. How quickly we had come to be reliant on email. In a hospital where it wasn't just email but seemingly everything, it must be much worse.

Not long after that, the OGC piloted an anti-virus solution that was hosted "in the cloud" - i.e. was not on local PCs but that filtered every incoming (and later outgoing) email from any government email address that was set up. We took that pilot on, probably mid-2002, and extended it to every single government email address that wanted to use. It wasn't cheap - but measure that cheapness against the cost of an infection, whether in clean-up time, risk to the operation or any other metric you care to use. Since then, as far as I know, there hasn't been a single virus infection in a government department using the service. The company, MessageLabs, at the time a tiny company, has since gone on to be a world-leader in anti-virus (and was then bought by Symantec for some $700 million)

What's my point? I guess it's the frustration that these lessons have been learned already - and the solution is available at a relatively nominal fee. It's been well tested and well used for 5 or even 6 years. And hundreds of thousands of email accounts across government are already protected.

For a hospital to be exposed to this kind of risk, with everything else that they have to deal with on a day to day basis, is just shocking.

And, as for the Pentagon, they should already know better - but they should also be reading my blog. Ban USB sticks now.

Seasonal Milestones

When I first joined UK government, in February 2001, I did a short presentation - to the top 200 or so people in the department where I was working - covering the impact of the Internet on government services, the expectations of customers, how things might evolve and what new pressures online services would bring.

Somewhere along the way, I mentioned that I was more than a little surprised - having come from a banking background where milestones and achievements were measured in how many days they were from now - to have heard conversations about perhaps delivering a paper or some sort of thinking by the Autumn:


So just a few weeks ago, when I received a letter from another department that reminded me of how I started out in Government, I thought I'd post an extract here:

200811210833.jpg /

Sunday, November 09, 2008


200811091450.jpgThe Office of the President Elect ... domain name (the US being, unusually, silent).

Complete with blog,

and Mission Statement provides resources to better understand the transition process and the decisions being made as part of it. It also offers an opportunity to be heard about the challenges our country faces and your ideas for tackling them

Good start ... going to be fascinating to watch.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

In The Eye Of The Storm

I changed the title of this blog (from e-Government @ large) about 9 months ago. It seemed like it was time. Whilst I still maintain a good interest in e-government, I am not actually involved day to day - I left the Office of the e-Envoy / e-Government Unit at the end of 2004 and since then have been in and around government (or government-like businesses) for the most part, but working on programmes with only small online components at best.


I chose "In The Eye of The Storm" for two reasons, neither of which I really explained at the time. There have been a few comments posted and more than a few emails to me that made me think I should perhaps explain. It probably won't make any more sense, but here's why:

Reason 1

5-odd years ago I started posting about the coming "50 year storm" in government:

the 50 year storm that looms is the set of events that will take place this year and early next that will warrant the catalyst. Some senior figures are moving on (perm secs in at least three departments), one or two cross-government figures too. Issues like we have seen over tax credits where technology and business issues conspired to cause enormous pain mean that we will have to rethink delivery controls. Spending will tighten as we enter another financial review round. The potential for central infrastructure, like our own Government Gateway, will be fully realised and people will commit resource to exploiting it rather than exploiting ways to get out of it

Of course it's peculiar to write about the potential of central infrastructure on the very day that a chunk of data that could only be found in a central location escapes captivity but my point remains. Back in 2003 it felt like we, in UK government, were reaching the point of mass adoption of a few key iniitatives that would lead to a change in approach.

Looking back, the storm was perhaps not of the 50 year variety that I had envisaged. Sure, plenty of things happened - some great things and some not so great things - but the sea change in expectation, in behaviour and in approach to delivery that I was hoping for did not come.

So I changed the title of the blog to "In The Eye Of The Storm" to reflect that we were perhaps in the eye of that storm - we'd been through the first part of the storm and now there was a period of calm before the next wave was to happen. After all, 2005 had come and gone, pretty much 100% of government was online (depending on how you measure it and I've seen people justify measures of 10% or 90% - but most things that you want to do online, you now can do online), transformational government was in the ascendancy (and is perhaps now in the trough of disillusionment), the Gershon review had come and gone (as had Sir Peter) and it felt like there was a holding period whilst we waited for a change at the top level of government, before the next set of changes would be unleashed. That feels kind of like an eye of the storm to me.

Reason 2

The second reason was that because I was no longer in and around e-government, I thought I'd write less and less about e-government and more about things that were interesting for me. So, for a while, I switched to writing a lot about my running, about moving to Mac, about getting Entourage to work (three things that now drive the bulk of traffic to the site according to the Lijit widget at the top right of the blog - and you can see that sorted by country on the little map just below the widget, which is drawn from the same data).

So that was a little bit of soft humour - certainly not Jonathan Ross humour - that said I was in a calm period away from e-government and so didn't feel the need to write about it so much. Will I breach the wall of the eye and get back into e-government? That seems unlikely. After all, what is e-government now? When I started the blog in December 2001 (pretty sure that I was the first UK public sector blogger, albeit that I wasn't a civil servant), e-government was everywhere - it's still important, there are over 8 million links to "e-government" from google. That isn't the case now. Although there are still plenty of innovations coming along, whether they be web 2.0 based mash-ups or collaboration ventures, mysociety trying to drag everyone else into a more thoughtful and capable way of interacting with government and so on.


So generally, there'll be less and less e-government here (as if there could be any less than there is now), more and more about running and other things that catch my eye - gadgets and gripes about gadgets and so on. It will become more of a personal blog, if you ever thought it was anything other than that.

If in Doubt, Run


Gateway In The News


It's been a long time since the Government Gateway was in the news. Today there are 259 related items in Google News. And, of course, it has gone international with mutliple languages evident in even the first page of news. And most of them aren't good news stories, rather retelling of what must be a form news story now

"Memory stick containing details of millions of customers/patients/armed forces members/taxpayers/benefit recipients/credit card holders lost. Fears over identity theft/terrorist action/confidentiality breaches reach fever pitch"

Of course it hurts all the more so when it's something that I was intimately involved in, albeit I haven't been near it organisationally for 4 years, but the relentless and unending series of data loss fiascos is taking a huge toll on public confidence. It isn't just government organisations that lose data (see my post, 25 million green bottles, from almost exactly a year ago and the follow up about 3 months ago) but when governments do it (and, again, it isn't just the UK government) the potential impact and the surrounding noise are orders of magnitude larger.

What someone was doing with a memory stick containing customer login details I have no idea. Why would anyone need such a thing? And why would he or she be in a pub carpark? On second thoughts, don't answer that last question.

I suspect that there are elements of truth and untruth in the Mail on Sunday's front page story - oh the times we used to hope for headline news for e-government, but not this kind of headlines - and that the real story is perhaps quite different. But it doesn't matter; the damage is done. It' s another incompetence of IT story to add to the seemingly infinite list.

It seems, to me at least, that the actions I put forward a year ago are just as valid:

1. Lock down data exchange now. People come to the data, not the data to the people. Until better processes are in place, this should stop the problem from getting worse.

2. All staff should be taught the "green cross code" of using computers. The very basics need to be re-taught. For that matter, the code should be taught at schools, colleges and libraries.

3. The spooks should lead a review of deploying encryption technology to departments holding individual data so that all correspondence is encrypted automatically in transit using appropriate levels of protection for the job. This will be expensive. The alternative though is to make encryption optional - but because you can choose, sometimes people will choose not to (because it's too slow or something) and the problem will recur.

4. Systems being architected now and those to be architected in the future will look at what data they really need to hold and for how long and will, wherever possible, make transient use of data held elsewhere. The mother of all ID databases would be a good place to start.

Where I work, memory sticks don't work. Plug one in and it just doesn't work (and we're using Windows XP rather than anything fancier). So perhaps the next actions are:

5. Any contractor or third party working with or alongside government agencies must deploy a standard desktop and server build that disables memory sticks when they are inserted into a USB slot. For good measure, they should perhaps ensure that if a memory stick is even inserted, it is securely and irrevocably wiped. Such third parties would have 90 days to implement this capability across their entire organisation or would be banned from working on government contracts - existing and new - until they had completed the task

6. Any member of such an organisation found to be carrying a memory stick during the period from now until the redeployment of USB countermeasures was complete would be prevented from entering any government building or using any government IT. This would be enforced through random searches, x-raying of bags on entry into buildings and so on.

Extreme? Possibly. But it seems that all measures apart from this are not working and that short of opening up all of the firewalls and setting server passwords to default, any public or private sector organisation - and I mean that in the widest sense as whilst we in the UK see our own examples more frequently, everyone else has the same problem too - couldn't do a worse job of securing data.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Who's Who


For the avoidance of doubt and to allay the fears of those reading my earlier post, The Road To 3:45, that wasn't me doing a Paula Radcliffe impression. This is me.

Training has gone well since the Royal Parks Half on 12th October 2008. That day the temperature was somewhere between 21C and 23C and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Almost every run since has been done in the dark, in the cold and, mostly, in the rain. Winter is here.

There'll be no more running in shorts for a while.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When Did Lights Start To Need Instructions?

Do you remember, back in the day, when lights just had switches and it was all as simple as "on" and "off"?


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Running Sore

It's a week since the half marathon - the Royal Parks. Already the weather has taken a turn for the worse today's grey skies and occasional rain contrasting heavily with the bright sunshine and 22C of just 7 days ago. Whilst the weather is different, my legs are still sore or more sore than I thought that they would be by now. I went for a run yesterday and laboured through 15.5km in just over 90 mins.

Last week's run felt great though. I'd run 20k a couple of times in the build up the race but not in any particularly special time - 2h 8m or so. So when I started last weekend I was readying myself for a tough run at about 2h pace. With 200 days to go before the London Marathon I wasn't ready for anything faster and nor did I need to prove I could go quicker. There's plenty of time, and pain, for that.

When I looked at my watch and saw that I was through the first km in around 4:30 I was more than surprised. Bizarrely it wasn't until the 10km mark that I ran a km over 5 minute pace. In all of the training I've done since I recovered from the knee operations, I hadn't managed a sustained burst at better than 5 min/km for any distance longer than a km. The graph below shows my time per kilometre throughout the race (exported from SportTracks and captured by my Forerunner 305)

Royal Parks Half Marathon 12-10-2008, Pace.jpg

Most of my training runs in the last 3 months have concentrated on distances between 10 and 12.5km - and my lack of readiness to carry on running at pace for the rest of the face is evident as I got slower and slower. Of course, the weather was getting hotter and hotter too, which wasn't helping.

I ran the British 10km at the end of August in 53 minutes or so. The first 10km in this race went by in 47:24. That's pretty fast for me - in fact, I think it's the fastest 10k time I've run in the last 10 years. The second 10km was a lot slower at 54 something.

I'd recommend the Royal Parks to anyone. If you're looking for a late season race next year, this is the one to pick. It's a better route than you'll find anywhere else - running out of the main gates of Hyde Park, through the Wellington Arch and straight up to Westminster Bridge is difficult to beat. Once you're at the finish the support team - who had been brilliant throughout - were handing out bananas, mars bars, ice cream, powerade and all sorts of goodies. There were a couple of forlorn looking store holders trying to sell hot food who were not getting any trade at all, such was the volume of free stuff being handed out.

Those who read the tales of my running exploits or who know me, also know that I'm a data nut. So I've pulled out the last two town centre half marathons I did, both a few weeks before the London Marathon in 2006. The first is the Liverpool Half from March 19th 2006:

Running Liverpool Half Marathon 19-03-2006, Pace.jpg

Finish time was around 1:49 too - although you'll see a pretty even pace throughout the run, despite there being an absolutely brutal hill around the midway point (down on the way out and then back up a short while later - it's pretty clear where it went up from the point at km13 when I slow down above 5min/km for pretty much the first time (the first km I was stuck in a huge crowd).

The second is the Reading Half (from the 9th April 2006):

Running Reading Half Marathon 09-04-2006, Pace.jpg

The speed pattern for this run doesn't look nearly as neat, although it's consistently much faster and it looks like I ran a negative split (a faster time in the second half than the first half), which is something I've always wanted to do in a marathon but never managed to.

For interest, there are the first 10k and second 10k times for me from each of these races:

Liverpool 1st: 49:50 2nd: 49:36

Reading 1st: 48:28 2nd: 47:49

Royal Parks 1st: 47:24 2nd: 54:39

I don't know if there's a story in this data yet - time will tell - but it's interesting that, with just a couple of hundred km of running behind me after 2 1/2 years of recovery, I can run faster than I managed in the run up to one of my fastest marathons ever (3:51:00 was my finish time in the London Marathon 2006)

For those after the route map for the Royal Parks Half Marathon - you can find it at MotionBased from the picture below.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Road to 3:45


Tomorrow is race day. It's the Royal Parks Half Marathon. The last time I ran that distance was in Windsor Great Park in the run up to the New York Marathon in late 2006. I finished the Windsor run in a relatively poor time for me - 1:58 I think - and went on to run NY in 3:58, which felt pretty good. I didn't run the Great North last week, although I'd half intended to - a friend had some spare tickets but in the end he didn't go and so I didn't either.

I'd be happy with 1:58 for the run tomorrow, or even 2:08. I haven't yet got back into full training and recent pressures mean that there just hasn't been the time to get more than 1 or sometimes 2 runs a week in.

I'm going to go out optimistically though and will even wear my 1:50 pace bracelet. Race days bring out the best in most of us perhaps, so I might as well shoot for a quicker time, knowing that getting round will be pretty good given that I've barely run in the last 2 years.

I'm certainly hoping not to look like the guy at left, who plainly could have done with a little Paula Radcliffe decorum - at least she stopped and went by the side of the road.

The real point of the run tomorrow though is as part of the preparation for the London Marathon on April 24th 2009. That's a good 200 days away so I have plenty of time to get fit, get damaged or get good. Hopefully fit and good.

It will be 10 years next year since I ran my first marathon and I'm hoping to get back to the kind of time I could run then when whilst obviously 10 years younger I was a good few pounds lighter too. 3:45 would be great. I'm hankering after 3:30 but will see how that looks the nearer I get.

In the run up to previous marathons, time pressures have meant that I've run lots of 6.25km loops - 25 or 30 even - and very few long runs, maybe twice over 30km. To get to 3:45 or better, I've resolved I'm going to have to get some longer runs in more regularly - so plenty of 12km and 15km loops and then at least 3, maybe 4 runs over 3 hours. Pressures of work mean that this looks too optimistic right now, but we'll see how things go - if I can get a couple of early morning runs in and then a long one most weekends, that might make the difference.

I'll post here how I get on - a few commenters have expressed interest in how I'm getting on, so apologies for being silent on that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

All Quiet in e-Gov Land

There have been a bunch of comments (ok, a couple - maybe even from the same person) and more than a few emails asking what's going on in e-Gov land. Why ask me I wonder but then I remember that this was originally in an e-government blog even if it is has more recently morphed into tales (tails?) of fish, running fun and religion to name but a few recent topics. Others have mailed me with things I should write about, and it seems churlish not to oblige.

First, something that fair warmed the cockles of my heart. I needed a .gov domain name the other day and I was pretty keen on having a top level one all of my own to match the name of a shiny project. Let's say I wanted "". "Oh no!" said the domain name registrars, "can't be letting you have one of those". Instead they insisted that I have That is a good sign. A sign that domain names are not being given out like candy now and maybe even that new websites aren't being set up every week with stinking great content management systems proliferating. I haven't seen the total domain count for a long time, nor much information on progress on killing off .gov websites, but I hope that the latter is succeeding and the former is falling fast. As to CMS proliferation, I expect money is too tight to allow such fun.

Second, there's a new kind of consultation in town. A bit of history first:

Back in 2001 we used to do online consultations within - we'd post the documents and, I think, even allow comments to be made on the site - certainly via email. We dropped the idea not long after (as we did with discussion forums) because of lack of traffic (although in the case of the forums it was because the moderation job just became too great with endless homophobic, anti-semitic, anti-pretty much anyone that wasn't the person commenting points). Others took on the commentary job. CommentOnThis is certainly the best although it took seems to suffer from traffic problems - few people want to comment on the documents that they're allowed to comment on perhaps.


Alongside this were various efforts: which the Department of Health tried in 2001. And I'm pretty sure the Labour Party had something along those lines not all that long ago - maybe even with the same domain name, or a similar one? Hard to tell - the website is now closed. And maybe my memory is faulty anyway. More recently some politicians tried, which seems to be defunct now.

And now, there's an X-Prize for government - ShowMeTheMoney. No, - when I first saw the domain name I read it as ShowUSABetterWay and wondered if it was something from McCain or Obama. Instead, it's a really neat idea - drawn from Tom Steinberg's Power of Information report for the Cabinet Office. You submit an idea for how to aggregate (mash up in the vernacular) government content to create a useful service and you stand a chance of winning £20,000 - which you'd then use to refine and maybe even develop your idea. Oddly (when read alongside my point above about reducing domain names), if you want to fill in an entry form, you have to go to a completely different domain name - - that's just weird. Using or .com doesn't stop it being a gov website!.

In a brilliant example of joined up government - the Cabinet Office runs the competition and the Ministry of Justice is putting up the money. That's great - and rare, even if it didn't involve money. Kudos. Alongside the BetterWay, MoJ are asking for ideas on how to build democracy - also using a domain name ( - It can't be just me that finds that weird, surely? And, if you're quick, you can have one of ten shots at up to £15k in that competition. Reminds me that about 7 or 8 years ago we wanted to incent people to file their tax forms online and suggested that we buy every one who did a lottery ticket - imagine the PR if someone who won the filed their tax online actually won a few million on the lottery! No one liked it and it didn't happen.

To give you some ideas on what you might propose, they give some examples (and a pile of links to places to look for coding ideas too). For instance:


My idea - in fact, an idea that I at least partly purloined, was this (posted here in February 2003)

Matt alerted me back then to something he'd heard about a plan to create an 888 number - just like 999 but for those things that weren't emergencies. That might mean everything from a cat in a tree to a pothole in a road to a zebra crossing light being broken. Nothing has emerged on such a number and, try as I might, I haven't found anything that relates to it. Now, imagine if the 888 service was web, phone, SMS text, DTV and kiosk integrated - so that no matter what level of income you had or what devices you had access to, there would be a way to get to it. People would report issues to the 888 service, all of which would be logged. The output would be a colour coded map of your postcode, your street, your borough, your town or your county, showing the issues being raised in your area. So if a particular road had holes in it and the local people were suitably mad, they'd get together, contact 888 and the map would glow flashing red. The local council seeing that they had a community of interest that was on their case would despatch the road fixers. Take this a little further forward and say there's a 777 service (or maybe still the 888 one) that lets you express concern about fox hunting, people who wear furs, drink driving or whatever ... interest groups could drive their members and supporters to log their point of view via this service and rapidly drive up support (or ant-support) for any given issue. The 777 service could be restricted to topics du jour, it could require authentication (using an anonymous token, as used in voting) to make sure that no-one voted more than once on any issue, for instance.

Oddly, the paragraph above was wrapped in a wider article about consultation around ID cards and whether there was a better way to get more engagement on that topic.

So ... it isn't at all "all quiet in e-Gov land" - there are some busy people, with some good ideas. A trawl through the ideas already posted on BetterWay is worth the few minutes it will take. There are plainly some from the loony end of the idea range (building perhaps on Jeremy Clarkson for PM), but there are plenty that make you go "yeah, that would be good to have". And with the iPhone app store flying along, maybe an interesting platform to provide them on too.

Monday, September 01, 2008

British Summer Time


I rained the Nike+ 10k Human Steeplechase last night. Did I say "rained" ... I meant swam - the puddles were that deep in places - and ran. If they'd given me a bike at 5km they could have called it a triathlon. It's a testament to British hardiness that so many people showed up, despite the weather forecast - I would say pretty near the full complement of 30,000 were there.

At a guess, 50% of the people there hated the concert stuff - they were there to run after all, and the other 50% loved it and stayed near the front of the stage. How often do you get to be 10' from Moby or Pendulum (who?).

But I suspect everyone thought it all dragged on for too long - most people where there well before 6pm and the first runners left the stadium around 7.15pm or even 7.30pm - the last runners probably didn't get out for at least another hour. During the music, the weather was clear. Just as the klaxon to start went off, the heavens opened and the rain fell pretty much non-stop for the rest of the race.

Photo: from the Nike+ website

Monday, August 25, 2008

Outlook, Exchange & Entourage - Moving from PC to Mac

File this in the "I can't believe I haven't done this before" box. I've done it now though. Finally. I've moved my email to a hosted exchange provider. It was simple; far simpler than I'd have imagined.

I set up the service - I use Sherweb - in about 20 minutes across 3 Macs and an iPhone. That didn't include the time to install Office 2008 on one of the Macs - so add 30 minutes or so for doing that if you haven't already done it.

Moving my email from the hard drive of my MacBook Air was as simple as selecting a huge set of it, dragging it and dropping it into my server-based inbox. I had my calendar in iCal so I synced it to the Exchange server and that was done. Contents, from Address Book, ditto.

So if I move Macs later, or even move back to a PC, I guess I'll never have to go through the whole conversion process again, unless I manage to find something that doesn't support exchange - and I really can't see myself doing that anytime soon.

What are the flaws? I haven't found any so far. It just works. That has to be a good sign given if anyone could have found a way to break it, it would have been me.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ego Sum Ostium

westminster cathedral

I know that I often link into posts here by the strangest route. I think this hook will qualify as the most unlikely one so far - stranger than wine, Whole Foods Market, poker, Parisian bicycles and so on.

I used to work in Victoria and, most days, walked past Westminster Cathedral. I had never been in. A few weeks ago, walking between offices, I walked past it and thought, "I really should go in." I had fifteen minutes before my next meeting and so went through the door. As you can see from the photo, it's quite unlike your "average" cathedral - this is no St Paul's. St Paul's is one of my favourite buildings in London; one of the things that makes it particularly special is that it was the only cathedral of its era that was designed and built through to completion by the original architect. Strangely, the architect and builder of Wesminster Cathedral died the year before the first service was held, continuing the rarity of seeing it through.

There are three reasons why Westminster Cathedral was built in this Byzantine style (as opposed to the more usual Gothic style):

1. To be completely different from the Gothic style of Protestant cathedrals and, particularly, to contrast with Westminster Abbey which is at the top of the road

2. The structure is based on domes not arches and so allows for relatively open and spacious areas (the nave is 34m high by 18m wide, the largest in the country) within the church - up to 2,000 people, seated, have unobstructed views of the sanctuary

3. Because it can be built more quickly. In effect, the frame goes up quickly and the decoration is left to those who follow.

There's a fourth interesting point for me which may be related to the building style or may not - it's running cost is £1,000,000 a year. That covers all operational costs (not the occasional capital costs for major structural repairs). This church is just over 100 years old and it's going through a small capital repair project now - new electricity, roofing replacement and so on - and they're after about £3,000,000 to do that work.

Putting aside the fact that the UK's Catholic Church is run from this cathedral - a whole religion for a million quid a year! - what got me was two fold: that the operational costs are so low and that they had the foresight, a 100 years ago, to say "We'll build it and let other people add and modify and decorate it later, incrementally". Without major modification, it's stood the test of a 100 years. Show me an IT project that you could say that about even for 5 years.

So I'll pause at this point and ask that anyone reading puts the religious intro to one side - it really was only a lead in, not a point for debate about the merits of any particular religion (or absence of one) - and concentrates on the IT and e-government thread that I continue with:

£1 million doesn't sound a lot. Is it just that once you're in government for a while you start thinking in multiples of £5 million or £10 million? Is it only the true believers - those, say, in MySociety, who can both conceive of, deliver and operate a service for less than £50,000? Is it that a government doesn't take something seriously if it isn't priced in the tens of millions? Or is there some weird risk factor that gets added to cater for inevitable delays, requirement adjustments and re-thinking of specifications?

Why I'm on this point is that over the last few years I've been brought into several projects - and not just in UK government but other governments around the world and in private sector organisations - or seen projects from a moderate distance, that shared a few characteristics:

  1. Capital spend was largely complete versus the original budget (and, in a few cases, spend was in excess of budget)
  2. Actual scope delivered was some way (often quite some way) from the original expectation - meaning that more money would have to be found to deliver the full scope, or a commercial dispute with the supplier(s) would be needed
  3. Benefits case was starting to look decidedly flaky (and the business units were suffering because of the shortfall in scope, either needing more people or doing less for their customers than they expected)
  4. Ongoing operational costs were being calculated as the live date loomed and they were looking very much higher than had been forecast (putting pressure on future budgets). Sometimes this was because the builder was not the same as the operator - times had changed, contracts had been let separately and so on.
  5. Cost of future upgrades had not been factored, usually on the assumption that such upgrades would each have their own business case, even where the upgrade was necessary just to stay within the support of the various packages

I have no statistics to bring here but it would seem, based on my experience, that projects too often match those characteristics. So, to provoke a debate:

Knowing the cost of change

What if you developed a system / application / solution with a known cost to operate? This would be a set of calculations covering a range of things, such as: cost to add a new customer, cost to add a new user, cost to add 100 product pages, cost to connect to a 3rd party system, cost to add a new tax credit / benefit, cost to add a new taxation profile, cost to delete 100 pages etc. You'd have to come up with the list at the beginning but the idea would be to cover two bases - the first would give you a known operational cost assuming you knew roughly what your business was going to do (note, I'm not saying here that you would set some modelled combination of these as your actual operating base, I'm saying that you would be able to forecast the cost of future change based on these numbers).

Is that even possible?

Some people solve this by allocating a fixed cost for post-live enhancement - a pot of £1 million or £10 million into which all changes go until some future point when a major business case is prepared for a big upgrade. The pot pays for a fixed set of developers who work their way through a hopper of proposed code changes, getting as many done as possible. This approach is as often used in the private sector as the public sector. You need more changes? Add more people and the hopper gets [somewhat] bigger - Fred Brooks' rules still apply.

What do other people do? What are the approaches?

25 Million Green Bottles Redux

Uhoh. More data has been lost. When it happened the first time (the first BIG time anyway) I suggested the following:200808241944.jpg

1. All of the processes around access to patient, customer, taxpayer, citizen etc data in every department, agency, non-departmental public body and local authority are going to go through a rapid review. New standards will be enforced: senior management sign-off, dual control (keys round the neck and everything), IT supplier held accountable for where data is put and so on. This will take time and still things will be missed and it will happen again - let's not hope that it's on this scale, but it will happen again.

* Lock down data exchange now. People come to the data, not the data to the people. Until better processes are in place, this should stop the problem from getting worse.

2. All staff should be taught the "green cross code" of using computers. The very basics need to be re-taught. For that matter, the code should be taught at schools, colleges and libraries.

3. The spooks should lead a review of deploying encryption technology to departments holding individual data so that all correspondence is encrypted automatically in transit using appropriate levels of protection for the job. This will be expensive. The alternative though is to make encryption optional - but because you can choose, sometimes people will choose not to (because it's too slow or something) and the problem will recur.

4. Systems being architected now and those to be architected in the future will look at what data they really need to hold and for how long and will, wherever possible, make transient use of data held elsewhere. The mother of all ID databases would be a good place to start.

They still seem like good suggestions, especially the one highlighted in bold. This isn't done yet. Not in the UK and not anywhere else. It may be that the UK is getting the news stories now, but that's because we rarely hear about those events in other countries.

This site,,Privacy Rights, chronicles more data losses than any other site I've yet seen, including those in the USA, the UK and somtimes other countries. It's not pretty - over 230,000,000 individual records, in the USA alone, lost, stolen, fraudulently obtained or otherwise maladministered since January 2005.

As if to reinforce the "It will happen again, to governments and companies alike" refrain, today's newspapers bring the story of Best Western Hotels and their IT systems being hacked - with the loss of 8 million guest records. If you've stayed in such a hotel in the last 12 months, you're vulnerable. The press are saying "The details, which included home addresses, phone numbers, place of employment and credit card details, were sold on through an underground network controlled by the Russian Mafia." Intriguingly, most of the press claim that the person at the heart of this heist was an Indian hacker, I can already hear those against off-shoring re-rehearsing their arguments.

Information Week has correspondence from Best Western refuting the more sensational claims in the press. I wouldn't take these protestations as a sign that you shouldn't worry

It's 1981 All Over Again


Andrew Glaister, Matthew Smith, Malcolm Evans, David Braben, Ian Bell, Chris & Tim Stamper, Jeff Minter, Eugene Jarvis ... all names from the early 80s, all famous to varying extents for single/double-handedly writing video games that were the stuff of legend. 1k Space Invaders, Manic Minder, 3d Monster Maze, Elite, Jetpac, Attack of the Mutant Camels, Defender. These were people that I recognised and even hung out with when I had my ZX81 and handcoded, in Z80, my first programmes. 200808241932.jpg

Later, new names came to the fore: Jez San (Starglider), Will Wright (The Sims), Warren Spector (Deus Ex) and, of course, Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario). Try, though, to name the names behind current mega-hit video games - Halo (1,2 or 3), Gears of War, Killzone, Guitar Hero and I'm pretty sure - unless you're really, really into it - that you'll draw a blank. And even if you can name one person, you probably know that there are dozens or even hundreds of people working alongside them. Game development - or, for that matter, any development programme, has long been a team sport. A big team sport. As I moved from ZX81 to Spectrum to BBC Micro to Atari ST and then to consoles, many of these names stayed relevant and equally famous; but the solo coders gradually disappeared and became far, far rarer. Production values got sharper, costs rose - but software didn't necessarily get any better. 1981 seemed like a long way away.

When I was writing code back then, it was common to meet up with people who were single-handedly specifying, developing and distributing their own software - be it games, sports applications or business systems. They'd be working with 16kb or perhaps 32kb of memory and shipping their products on tapes - oh the expectation as you waited for the tape to load, with that peculiar ZX81 interference-like loading screen (when Manic Miner first debuted on the Spectrum, and had a loading screen that didn't just show seemingly random lines, it was a big deal). Games in 1981 cost a few pounds, perhaps £5 or £10. Games now generally cost £40 or even £50. The consoles, for the most part, shut down the ability for individuals to produce games. The barriers to entry were too high.

And now we have two, independent, but maybe highly related vehicles where individuals can develop, publish and distribute their wares without leaving their arm chairs at home. Xbox's Live Arcade and Apple's iPhone. Both of these platforms now allow single people [relatively] easy access to huge markets - in the millions or tens of millions. Xbox is a little harder with all of the certification processes but those barriers look like they're being lowered as the SDK gets out. The iPhone Applications store looks to have very few barriers, as long as you aren't trying to break the conditions that you accepted when you signed up to buy an iPhone. Certainly the latter is already populated by dozens or even hundreds of games written by solo coders. And these games and software titles cost from nothing to a few pounds. It's 1981 all over again; except this time, Apple and Microsoft bring the market to you, handle the distribution, the money and everything else. All you've got to do is write the code and deliver the quality - no easy task.

Perhaps the first star of Xbox Live Arcade is Jonathan Blow, author of Braid; Author doesn't sound too strong a word - there's a whole story behind the game and the production values are incredible for a solo game. It could so easily have been Jeff Minter - he of Mutant Camels, Gridrunner, Hovver Bovver and numerous others from the 80s - with his awesome but difficult to follow (for non-hardcore gamers) Space Giraffe. It might even have been Chris Cakebread with Geometry Wars although he arguably had the backing of a big studio in developing his game, even if he did all the heavy lifting of coding.

braid.jpg 200808241047.jpg

Who will the first star of iPhone games be? It could already be Nate True with his Guitar Hero-styled "Tap Tap" - reportedly over a million people have already downloaded this game already. Other games are already in the hundreds of thousands - Spinner Prologue for instance. Perhaps a surprise title is consistently at Number 1 for paid downloads, where "paid" means it costs you 59p or about $1 - Koi Pond (by Brandon Bogle apparently, but who knows). Just as back then, there are any number of poorly designed, poorly written, buggy bits of code - but feedback, on the iTunes Store at least, is merciless. And the "big team" developers have been no better historically- think of any game derived from a movie tie-in!

Just a couple of things for those people writing software (ok, ok, games), particularly for the iPhone but these thoughts perhaps apply just as much to Xbox Live Arcade, that would make them leagues better in my eyes:

1) I'm mobile, I have little time. I want the software to start quickly and be playable, if it's a game, very, very quickly. I don't much care about your logos, your branding, your studio names and whatever. Maybe you can display that the first time, but please don't doing it every time. Aurora Feint? 30 seconds to start? I'm already on the tube and off again before you've even started. If you must do something in the background, have a loading bar so that I know what's going on. But better still, load only what you need.

2) Autosave whenever I exit. If a call comes in, or I need to switch out to do a text or just need to hop off the tube, I want the last thing you do to be to save status just as I press the home button. I don't want to be at the end of a level, at a particular place or whatever, I just want it to save so that I can carry on when I restart.

But these are early days and the potential is enormous; new platforms can take years or more to come into their own - let's hope with the horsepower being applied to the iPhone and now to Xbox, that time period is massively compressed. In the background I'm downloading the 1.2GB Apple SDK. I haven't the faintest idea what Objective C is and I probably haven't got the time to figure it all out, but I wanted to get a sense of how it is, nearly 20 years on, now that PEEK and POKE are relics of the past. Don't hold your breath for my first code since probably 1983.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Unlucky Fish?

I got more than few emails and one or two comments asking what on earth I was talking about with the previous post on "unlucky fish." So here's a closer look:


Does that help? Like I said, not photoshopped (apart from the red ring and the "look here" of course) or edited in any way.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

British 10k

Two weeks ago I managed my first real run since March 2007 when I trashed the meniscus cartilage in my left knee. It felt good to be lined up in what I was counting as a race. I arrived a little late (who'd have thought the roads would be closed even to bicycles!) and so crossed the start line pretty much dead last. It was by no means a fast run at 52m 56s, but that was a good 7 minutes faster than I'd managed 10k in a training run the week before.


The organisation was strong as it has been when I've run this race before. One small improvement that I'd like them to make is to publish a proper map of the course before you run it. Despite checking the pamphlet they sent and all sorts of websites, all I could find was a curious isometric perspective map that didn't really allow you to trace the route. With my GPS tracking 10.35km at the end (and I can't remember taking a wrong turn) I wasn't absolutely sure when the finish line was going to show up - there are a couple of double-backs (westminster bridge, parliament square and whitehall in the last couple of km). It would be nice to see it marked clearly on a map.

Is this the start of the Road To 3:30?

I am ... I want to be ...

Sometime in early 2003 I gave a presentation to the DWP where I talked a lot about my usual topic of too many government websites. I'd taken a look at DWP sites in the run up to the conference and become very confused by all the different sites (all with different branding, different layouts, over-lapping information and so on) - this wasn't an uncommon problem then, either in the UK or globally, and, whilst I don't look too often, I suspect it's still pretty common.

This is one of the slides I put up:


I played around with the "I am a" and "I want to be a" concept - maybe people come to websites as unemployed and want to be employed, maybe they come as young unmarried folks and want to know what happens when you get married, maybe they come as employed and want to know what happens when they're retired. I pictured it as a set of dropdown lists that you could select from. There would have been all sorts of problems implementing it that way, but the essence of the point was that people come to a site wearing one hat but want to know about something else - and the path from one to the other might be what they're interested in - and we'd need to think hard about how to present that in a simple way, and it might need some data (that we'd need to keep hold of to improve the experience next time)

I hadn't seen any implementation of this at any level, until today when I happened on this:


It's on the Civil Service's own website and it makes perfect sense. You may visit because you're a civil servant and you want the latest news, or you may want a job - in which case, sadly, they send you to a new site built with a different engine, with a different layout, a different search engine etc.

Plainly they weren't thinking what I was thinking, but nonetheless, it raised a wry smile this morning amidst the gloom.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

O Day


Zero day exploits are written about all of the time - there are 2.93 million hits on google for "zero day" and 314,000 for zero+day+exploit. Saturday of this weekend was the UK's first O day (and the ones exploited were early iPhone adopters):

- O2's servers fell over under the load of iPhone 3G activation. An eminently predictable event - one that should have seen months of planning - resulted in a Black Swan day for O2. The probability of high take up of the new iPhone was known, but the consequences were not well predicted. Nassim Nicholas Taleb can add this case study to his next book. O2 can perhaps be known just as "O" for the next few days.

- Oyster cards across London fell into disuse as the central unit that operates them fell over. I had no idea these were run by some central server - I always figured that the card only talked to the local reader during the transaction and that perhaps there was some kind of bulk upload of transactions periodically or even once a day. Every system has a bad day - and Oyster's seem few and far between - but for a multi-hour outage to occur? (Don't worry folks, David Frost would have been unaffected - Freedom passes are still paper-based)

Olympics organisers had better watch out. These are good examples of how not to demonstrate the capability of our infrastructure to respond to high load events.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

More on trending e-government

There were a couple of comments on the last post asking about the google trends data I presented (one asked if it was fair to compare with and perhaps i should have used a state portal; the other asked what the 180k visitors might actually be doing on the site). Here's some more data to perhaps cloud the picture showing average daily traffic over the last year for and


This graph comes from, who - to help answer the "what are the people doing when they visit" question - also say that these are the keywords that get visitors to the site:


Some definitions: share is the percentage of the total, engagement is the ratio of time spent on the site having used that keyword (so the word that generates the most stickiness is 100, in this case that's "access to work") and effectiveness is a kind of visitors * time spent combination so that you can determine the most effective keyword.

There's a BIG caveat with this data as far as I can tell. And it comes from this text on the site "Compete ranks the top one million websites in the U.S. based on the number of People the domain attracts each month" - now I don't see why anyone from the USA would be visiting these sites (ok, some folks might, if they were considering visiting the UK or moving here perhaps with their employer, hence "access to work"). And in the FAQs, this is said

Compete estimates site traffic and engagement metrics based on the daily browsing activity of over 2,000,000 U.S. Internet users. Compete applies a rigorous normalization methodology, leveraging scientific multi-dimensional scaling (by age, income, gender and geography) to ensure metrics are representative of the U.S. Internet population. Compete members are recruited through multiple sources, including ISPs, the Compete Toolbar and additional opt-in panels to ensure a diverse distribution of user types and to facilitate de-biasing across the data sources.

So maybe there are a bunch of UK people who have installed the compete toolbar widget? The idea that Americans might be searching a UK site for "disability living allowance" seems far fetched.

As another angle, here's some data from Alexa - I don't know that this helps or hinders (it measures "reach" which is apparently a combined view of page views and unique users, again using a toolbar that you download and that collects data on sites you visit - they don't say how many people have downloaded said toolbar). This appears pretty consistent with the Google Trends data in the last post.


On the "Is it a fair comparison?", I don't know - I'm game to try other ones. suggest a few sites that I should compare and I'll post the results here.
And, to help answer "What are they doing" ... this is what google says are the top few search terms for - none of them are "access to work" you'll see. The plain conclusion from these google results is that Road Tax is by far the most attractive offer for

200807021808.jpg Some other stats that I have - from a very short sample period in January 2008 - show the following as the top 20 terms that people used to get to from external search terms. The sample period is only a few days so the numbers aren't very relevant ... but they do show that "Road Tax" isn't the biggest thing, although there's no question it's a big driver (ha!). The sum of these visits is just over 100,000 and about 20% of those are car related (including theory test etc). What is interesting is that people use google to search for "direct gov" and "" (and there are appearances lower down the list of and even - and I suspect that this somewhat discredits the view of another commenter that the "e" in e-government stands for elitist! There are also plenty of people who searched for and found themselves at

200807021822.jpg 200807021834.jpg

Finally, to help the "What are they doing?" point,next to the external search engine figures I've put the top 20 search results from the internal search engine - i.e. what people searched for once they arrived at the site (from the same period as the figures above). Again, car related topics feature often.

Does any of that help?


I went to a new building the other day ... the meeting room where we sat was called "John Lennon" ... Afterwards I went looking for Paul, Ringo or George ... and found only Heathrow, Gatwick and City. Not even a JFK or Da Vinci.

There wasn't even a seance in the dark.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Trending e-government

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

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


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


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


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


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