Tuesday, December 28, 2010

MacBook Heavy

20 years ago I had one of these


You too can have one now - a prototype even - for something less than 1/3 of what my company paid in 1990.

eBay's starting bid is $1,750.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Freedom and Responsibility - Culture at Netflix

Fortune Magazine's naming of Reed Hastings as their 2010 Businessperson of the Year reminded me of a slide deck that I'd seen some years ago from NetFlix. It describes their culture and is embedded here from Slideshare:
Of the 128 slides, two particularly stood out for me:


This blog is 9 years old today

Who'd have thought?


Happy Christmas one and all

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sunday, November 28, 2010

On Direct.gov


I've been hunting for where the single web portal is in Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegory and Effects of Good Government (to be found in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy). The frescoes date to the early 1300s and there are a series of 3 panels (in the Sala della Pace, or the Hall of the Nine as it is also known). Why am I hunting in seven hundred year old frescoes for portals? Because there are no good ideas, only good implementations. And, of course, because Martha Lane Fox's report on the future of direct.gov (and perhaps more precisely on the future of the whole of online government in the UK) has been published. The recommendations are not new - indeed I had a small hand in publishing a similar report, then known as "Transformational Government" in early 2004 (tricky to find online now) which was followed by a different "Transformational Government" report in November 2005 (around a year after I had left goverment) which was, in turn, followed by the Varney Report aka "Service Transformation" in December 2006 which recommended, amongst other things:
... moving customer facing content across to two supersites www.Directgov.gov.uk for citizens and www.businesslink.gov.uk for businesses. Both sites involve substantial process re-engineering behind the scenes to produce high quality information in language targeted at the customer, not the producer.
It feels a little like the old saw of "everything that can be invented has been invented" attributed to Charles Duell of the US Patent Office (and, as far as I know, a complete misquote of what he actually said, in 1843, which was "The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end."
My views on this topic are well known. I've been writing them here for getting on for 10 years (in a few weeks, this blog will be that old), for instance:
From my own blog in October 2002
... we need to decelerate the rate at which we acquire domain names. And, as quickly as possible, slam the engine into reverse and start shedding them, merging several together and generally thinking around how the citizen might want to access data rather than how we might want to organise it. It's not tagged correctly. Most content is tagged with the basics of the "dublin core" - i.e. who edited it, when etc. But it's not tagged with anything that we might recognise as being customer focused. Our metadata standards will need to be expanded to pull this off ... in fact, we will need to accelerate the rate at which we develop the standard, so that it quickly becomes sufficient to describe client segments and sub-segments, geographic locations, age groups and so on. It's presented badly. Well, not badly as such. Presented differently every time. Every department has its own look and feel - their own style, navigation, templates and so on. As you move from site to site, you have to look for how to do things; not for what to do. That's not an easy thing to address.
A move to content management (remember, something you do, not something you buy) is overdue for the big departments - for it is they that have the biggest problems (and, I suspect) the same holds true for most government sites around the world. I don't see much evidence yet of dynamic content management, although I do see a lot of procurement requests for them coming out. These issues, as far as I can tell, apply pretty much globally - most governments have 100s if not 1000s of websites; few orient their content to "needs" and fewer still do anything more than aggregate lots of links to point to the variety of content.
And then, this slide, the first outing for which I trace to November 2002 at a conference in Northern Ireland

From The Guardian, April 2002, quoting the NAO:
Just 3% of services allow the public to conduct internet transactions, such as providing grants or benefits, even though these offer the most potential for efficiency gains. At present there is no service that allows collection of revenue online.

"The major challenge is to get services online and to encourage and enable people to use them. Otherwise the considerable potential gains in departments' efficiency will not be delivered and large amounts of public money will have been wasted."
So, to the report itself ... Broadly, I agree with the recommendations - after all I've been saying roughly this kind of thing for 10 years so how could I not agree? Well, I don't agree in toto - and, inevitably, it's about the implementation. Where is the plan for how these recommendations will be made to happen? Is Martha Lane Fox staying on or is this considered the sign-off point? There is form behind these kind of reports - they're published and then forgotten when the publisher is no longer around. It's good though for successive reports to say the same kind of thing - and for them to introduce new twists on the ideas and thinking from previous iterations so that they try and figure out why it hasn't happened so far and then solve those problems. This report really needs an implementation plan.

The recommendations from the report, along with my comments on each are:

Make Directgov the government front end for all departments' transactional online services to citizens and business, with the teeth to mandate cross government solutions, set standards and force departments to improve citizens' experience of key transactions.

This is hard to disagree with. Indeed, for me to disagree would go against everything I did in government from 2001 to 2004 (and quite a lot since then). But it isn't the whole story. Direct.gov absolutely should be place where the average citizen goes to find out what they can get from government and how to get it. Likewise, it should include all of the content that the average small business needs (i.e. a business of less than 10 people perhaps). That said, there are specialised areas of content - detailed policy on tax, information on grants for landscape conservation, specifics on how to apply for additional funds to support R&D that are best left to the experts in that area. Sure the content can be provided to direct.gov but it will be much more likely found if it is in the domain of those who own it. The specialists will look where they know where to look. If everything moves, they will be more than a little surprised and the benefits will be reduced because everyone is hunting. Just as, later, the report recommends that data be made available on a publish and subscribe model from direct.gov, the same should apply to direct.gov. It doesn't have to host everything in other words.

Many will say that the graph above (and many subsequent blog posts) suggest that I believe that there should only be ONE government website. I don't and never have done. In the same way that I believed strongly in announcing a target to have 100% of government services online, I believe that the stark message of a single aspirational site sets the right tone. If, in OeE days, we had said we want 75% of services online, we might have ended up with 30% (see this post from October 2002 or this one from April 2003 ). If we'd said we want 100 sites, we might have ended up with 1,000

Back in 2001 I used to introduce the 100% target by noting that we had figured out that there would be a few services we were pretty sure we wouldn't be putting online. One was burial at sea (see this post from February 2006 for instance and the same one from October 2002 I refer to above). I vaguely remember that something like 8 people a year choose to be buried off the shores of the UK. The return on investment for putting that online didn't seem great - and it might be that had we made it more widely available, more people would have been encouraged to think about it, leading to a booming industry of sea burials (imagine my surprise to read in the FT this weekend that burial at sea is up 10% in Shanghai because of the shortage of burial sites - let's hope they don't put that online)

I was surprised to see a suggestion in the report that there might be other choices for the single domain name for accessing government content - hmg.gov.uk is suggested. We looked at a lot of those in 2002. We registered (it seems to be gone now), www.gov.uk for instance. But we also tested all of the other possibles you could come up with along with a thousand you wouldn't. Direct.gov won the day - and, notwithstanding it being a reminder of John Major's Direct Access Government of 1994, it still does, for me and for millions of others.

The question then, for me, is not really about the content - I think that battle is done with. Direct.gov has, Martha says, 28 million visitors a month (we used to publish the stats every month on the cabinet office website for how many visitors, how many page views, what was searched for and so on - I haven't seen that data for a while, except in the COI reports which don't appear too regularly). The question is about transactions. As my graph above shows, the focus on transactions only comes when the focus has shifted away from content proliferation. The bulk of the transactions served by direct.gov, possibly even all of them including car tax, are handled by departmental systems, but front ended by direct.gov with a simple style sheet. This was our plan at the outset anyway; I assume it is still the case. There isn't any way that direct.gov should provide all transactions - it needs a way to display them and make them easier to find. And, above all else, it needs to find a way to make the Holy Grail of online government happen, joined up government. For some years I have had a blog post in draft that paraphrases Martin Luther King, Jr. and starts "I have a dream that one day this loose confederation of departments which operate inside government will rise up and join up". I suspect I'm right never to have finished it.

Back in 2001 we looked at what Canada was doing with its "stripe" across every website, we looked at the BBC in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 and we looked at every organisation grappling with large scale content management problems. Many were using bespoke tools - we too had been down the path of Vignette, Stellent and others and found them wanting - and just as many were trying with combinations of static and managed tools. Things have moved on since but I don't think the problem has gone away. Much as I admire what Simon Dickson at Puffbox can do in his wizardly ways with Wordpress, actually the entire technology toolset doesn't yet seem to be mature enough to pull this off.

We are falling foul of each of the 3 great lies of technology (as told by Jean-Louise Gassee) still, (1) it's compatible, (2) we'll be in RTM tomorrow, (3) you can do it (out of the box). Direct.gov is, and should remain, the front end for all text interactions with government. But that doesn't mean it's the only place you can go. If you want to know information, you should go to direct.gov - or to a place where direct.gov has seeded the content (as the report says). If you want to transact, you should also go to direct.gov, but only because it has amalgamated all of the services that you will need to access and has sorted them in a way that you can easily find them. The joy of transactions is, though, deeply embedded in the very next recommendation.<<

Make Directgov a wholesaler as well as the retail shop front for government services & content by mandating the development and opening up of Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) to third parties.
I believe it was John Yard, then Director of IT (in the days before CIOs) at the Inland Revenue, who first coined the "wholesale / retail" model in government terms. There is a little confusion in here in the example that is used in the report, of HMRC. HMRC doesn't actually open up APIs - you don't get direct access to its systems (which is how I understand an API to work, as technically incompetent as I am). When I was at the IR in 2000, I worked with many very smart people, drawn from inside the Revenue and across the IT industry, to look at the various schemas that would need to be put in place to allow 3rd parties to submit Self Assessment, PAYE and Corporation Tax online. The IR was the first to do this - we went live with the SA schema somewhere in late 2000, and PAYE was not far behind. The rules for validating the forms were published, although perhaps not all of the rules. All of the Revenue's forms (not initially, but eventually) were then submitted via the Government Gateway with, hopefully, the right level of authentication (at least one chose entirely the wrong level of authentication and has never recovered from the consequences).

But yes, I agree completely with the idea that every form available from government should be made available at a schema and rules level to the outside world. Sadly, though, that pre-supposes that what we have offline will then be made available offline. I believe that only government can provide the joined up services that need to be made available to truly simplify goverment - because only government can establish the rules that run across and through departments and take the steps to resolve the differences.

We have, though, been at this for very nearly 10 years. The dictums proposed in 2001 that would have allowed online services to catch up and then overtake offline services by now have yet to be applied. As a result, we live in a world designed, for the most part, to be completed on paper - at a trivial level, try applying for a shotgun licence for instance. But what I really mean is that the world of government is still the world of forms: name, address, reference number, details and so on. Few transactions are truly transformational - the shining example is perhaps applying for your tax disc which truly links up different worlds and makes them seamless. I wonder, still, why we have a tax disc at all given that the police can rapidly check whether you do or don't, but I do marvel at the change in the process.

What the report is asking for, though, is for transactions to be hosted anywhere. Again, the much-maligned Inland Revenue did this first - they put SA on various sites and within various programmes and did the same for PAYE. Few other government services have achieved the same level - despite our plans in 2001/2 to do the same for, amongst other things, pension calculations (so that you could compare public and private options side by side). We imagined, back then, that banks would do the authentication for you - after all, if your bank trusted you and government trusted the bank, then government should trust you. In 2002 that made sense. Perhaps in 2010 it makes a little less sense, but it is still something to go on.

Transactions must be made available in pieces that can be combined in different ways by different sites in ways that paper forms would never be able to manage. Perhaps one for the folks thinking about cloud-based services to resolved - circumstances engines, data owned by the citizen and so on. It's a big task. It's also not a self-funding task. There will need to be seed money and there will need to be a recognition that many government systems just aren't up to this - that the very best that can hoped for is a veneer on top of a decades old IT system that really needs to be replaced, yet can't be because the risks are just too great for now - especially in funding-constrained times

Change the model of government online publishing, by putting a new central team in Cabinet Office in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.

Tom Loosemore has already clarified what he says was meant by this. He says that "The *last* thing that needs to happen is for all online publishing to be centralised into one humungous, inflexible, inefficient central team doing everything from nots to bolts from a bunker somewhere deep in Cabinet Office". That's good. The direct.gov team should commission the content that they need for their own site; they shouldn't go anywhere near what HMRC are publishing for accountants on the implications of the latest change in tax policy, or what defra are describing in detail on trends in Environmental Land Stewardship. Tom said it all really so I will leave this one be

Appoint a new CEO for Digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APIs) and the power to direct all government online spending.

Big call. "Absolute authority ... across government". Well, there isn't anyone with that in any other function right now, not that I know of. I like the idea though, but what would the controls be? A BBC-like trust? A board (oh wait, we tried that with direct.gov)?

This appears to be going the whole centralisation hog, consolidating power in a single individual yet where the true power will lie at the far end, within the departmental organisations. What sanctions would apply if, in a department, you went your own way? What would the true definition of "user experience" be and how would the remit be governed? what would the strict rules around "all government online spending" be - all new spending, all old spending, all capital, all opex? Very, very big topic. And a very interesting one that needs something thinking about.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Average Auto Suggestion

Google auto-suggests the following when typing the word "average"


I wonder what "I'm feeling lucky" means in this context?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Combat Stress


I'm enjoying working with Combat Stress although not able to give nearly as much time as I had expected (In April I promised them 100 hours ... they're still collecting). A couple of weeks ago they had a visit from the PM himself:

Mr Cameron said: “It is a priority to do more to help the mental health issues that veterans in our country have.

“The fact is, for many people the mental scars that they have from the time they have served can be as serious or sometimes even worse than the physical scars and we need to take it much more seriously as a country.”

Touring the centre, which cares for 30 patients at any one time, Mr Cameron spoke to those still suffering flashbacks and depression resulting from their time fighting in places such as Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

Experts are forecasting that the instances of PTSD among veterans are set to get worse because of the numbers of soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far 180,000 British troops have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. General Dannatt, the former Chief of the General Staff, has warned that as many as 8,500 former servicemen of these will develop mental health problems.  

Dr Chai Patel, chairman of the appeal, said: “Combat Stress knows that it is vital for Government and military charities to work together to ensure veterans can access services effectively and engage with the treatment provided.

“We know that veterans wait on average 14 years before seeking Combat Stress’s help.

"That’s why we launched The Enemy Within Appeal earlier this year, which I hope will continue to be supported both by the public and politicians alike in order to ensure that Veterans get the support that they need, when and where they need it.”

Sourced from the Daily Telegraph

It's that forecast that the instances of PTSD will get worse that hooked me on their cause. If it takes 14 years post-demob, on average, before a veteran seeks help and perhaps only 5% seek help ... then what happens if the 14 years compresses to, say, 7 years (because the stresses are greater, the combat more intense, injury rates are going up, we're making use of a higher number of reservists than previously and because PTSD's profile is higher) and what happens if the 5% becomes 10%? That requires taking care of double the number of veterans in half the current time that they approach anyone for help... it would mean there's a big shock coming within a very short numbers of years.

For instance:

1) PTSD in National Guard Soldiers shows higher instances in reservistsr

The researchers assessed 18,305 soldiers from four Active Component and two National Guard infantry brigade combat teams, all of whom had combat exposure. The soldiers completed mental health surveys between 2004 and 2007, at three and 12 months following their deployment. Overall, the researchers found that rates of PTSD and depression ranged from 9% to 31%, depending on the level of functional impairment reported. Generally, National Guard soldiers had significant increases in depression and PTSD symptoms between the three and 12-month time points, while depression symptoms remained stable for Active Component soldiers. This group also had increases in PTSD symptoms, but not as great as those among the National Guard members. “Symptoms of PTSD increased significantly in both groups but with much larger increases observed in National Guard participants,” they wrote. For instance, the DSM-IV-diagnosed rates of PTSD with serious functional impairment in the Active Component was 7.7% at three months and 8.9% after a year. For the National Guard, those numbers were 6.7% and 12.4%, respectively.

2) A Study from 1988 already showing potentially higher instances

The relationship between combat stress, DSM-III-defined post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a variety of behavioral factors was examined in a large nonclinical population. A total of 2858 randomly selected American Legion members who had served in Southeast Asia completed a questionnaire which elicited information on military service, personal health, and a variety of mental health outcomes. The data confirm the utility of the PTSD diagnosis as a distinct clinical entity. The frequency of PTSD and the extent of symptoms developed varied with the severity of criteria used for determining the extent of traumatic exposure. The PTSD rate ranged from 1.8 to 15.0% of the total sample, depending on whether "exposure" to combat was defined relatively narrowly or broadly. A distinct linear dose-response relationship between combat stress and a quantitative measure of PTSD intensity was observed. The frequency of PTSD diagnosis was not affected by the presence of either physical or mental health problems which predated military service. A strong, stable relationship was found between combat stress and PTSD intensity for cohorts with differing intervals since the experience of combat trauma, which persisted up to 20 years after discharge from the military. The data thus support a broader approach to defining traumatic events which recognizes individual differences in response to combat, as well as the existence of other behavioral outcomes as residual effects of combat. Implications of these findings and the importance of treating veterans with varying presentations of PTSD are discussed.

3) Worryingly high instances in young soliders (and oddly, those who have stable, romantic relationships)

Since the beginning of war on terror, over 5,000 US troops have lost their lives and many more wounded or injured. Nearly one-third of US troops develop serious mental health problems such as PTSD within 3 to 4 months of returning home from Iraq. Using data from the latest wave of Add Health, we examine how diverse experiences lead to differential risks for PTSD among young people who are serving or have served in the military. We found that that men and women who served in the combat units, such as the Army and the Marines, are more likely to develop PTSD. On the other hand, respondents with college education or enlisted high school friends are less likely to suffer from PTSD. Using measurements developed by Elder and Clipp (1988), this study investigated the influence of exposure to combat on the likelihood of acquiring PTSD. Similar to previous findings, both the amount of time spent in a combat zone and the frequency of engaging the enemy in a firefight dramatically increase the risk of PTSD among the respondents. However, the effect of combat on young people’s mental health is largely mediated through their being wounded/injuried and exposure to death, both triple the odds of respondents being diagnosed with PTSD. In addition, this study found that respondents who have stable romantic relationships are more likely to experience PTSD. Finally, respondents with higher agreeableness, characterized by a positive view of human nature, are less likely to develop PTSD.

Much of the data collected, and the detail of the conclusions is hidden away behind academic firewalls ... It would be good to get at the data and do a meta-survey so that we could see what was really happening.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dejected of Fulham


I ran the Treeathlon 5km race today in a new personal best of 21m 27s. That's a full 75 seconds faster than my previous best. I put it down to the fast, flat course in Battersea Park (and figured had I not had the week I'd just had, I could have run even faster).

After the race, I looked at my Garmin GPS watch more closely to find that it had recorded the distance as 4.7km. I've also been trying out the new Nike+ iPhone GPS app and had set that off at the start, and it too recorded 4.7km. Two different devices, same distance recorded, makes it likely that they're right, and the race distance was wrong. I ran home the long way and the devices agreed again, on a distance that I know having run it dozens of times.

Sadly, then, there's no new PB. Had the course covered the full distance, I think I would have needed all of those extra 75 seconds, and probably a few more, to make it home.

The question, though, is why wasn't it a 5km course? Did they measure it incorrectly? Did all of the runners in front of me take a wrong turn and miss out 300 metres of course? Was this an effort at a feel-good conspiracy? Will this be a new trend ahead of the Olympics designed to make all Brit runners feel like they're getting faster?

Crowd Sourcing Running Photos

The Internet is a wonderful thing. 18 months ago I wondered why there wasn't a service where you could upload photos that you'd taken whilst watching a marathon or some other race. Turns out there is, and it's 3 years old today, much predating my musings.

You can find them at 42run.com. All you need, if you're a runner, is your bib number - you can then search against all races they've covered.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When Upgrading Can Break Your Business Model

At a government department where I work, the drinks machine, known affectionately as R2 (it is quite the most wonderfully complicated drinks dispenser ever invented), has received an upgrade, of sorts. The old R2 charged £1 for a bottle of diet coke (or any other soft drink). In a dozen simple steps it found the right bottle, took it from the shelf, arrives back at the dispensing slot and lets go.

If you put a £2 coin into R2, you'd have thought it would dispense a single £1 coin as change. No, it returned: 50p, 20p, 20p, 10p. With everything priced at a pound and most people paying £1 (I imagine, R2 rarely ran out of change.

Presumably as part of the cost saves, or as part of a revenue driving initiative, the price has now gone up to £1.10. Now what happens with change? Few people will likely carry the extra 10p so I can imagine routine payments being £1.20, £1.50 or £2. R2 will have to dispense more change and so will run out of change - and thus cease to function at all more often than it has to date. Only Dan could work out the likely frequency of this so I will leave to him.

That would all be fine, to some degree at least, but all the fiddling around to change the prices on each drink seems to have disturbed R2. Since the price upgrade, R2 has been in all of a dither. You put your money in, he goes to the right drink slot, grabs the drink with his robot arm, levers the drink out of the slot ... and then drops it. He's no fool so he knows he's dropped it ... or maybe he's not sure that he ever had it, so he asks you again what you want. This goes on - fetch, drop, fetch drop - until you get bored and ask for your money back.

For the sake of 10p a drink, the daily average revenue from R2 has dropped to zero.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On barrels

The difference between french-style oak and Piedmont-style oak ... 225 litres versus 10,600 litres. The former are usually new every year, the latter are 50 years old in this case. Both are used to make Barolo.

That's not a barrel:


This is a barrel:


By the by, for French oak, the trees have to be around 150 years old. That was the legal minimum until a few years ago, when the age was lowered slightly, sometimes to around 120 or 130 years old. And for one majestic 150 year old oak tree, you will be lucky to get three oak barrels - more usually two. Of course the off-cuts go into making furniture and other wood products, but that still means a lot of tree for a little barrel.

Question 4 - Trends in Digital Delivery

I missed the cut-off for responses on the directgov review website so am posting my thoughts here and will email them separately to the directgov team. The comments on this question share many similarities, suggesting only open source be used (others say mostly open source), most support open standards, one says "give all unemployed people a smartphone and some free credit for accessing certain gov websites", one more says essentially that not every service can be digital so don't try for 100% and those that you do put online you should put in the right place. One more says:

Government must understand, study and perhaps consider how it might support the trend towards an active, contributing citizenry online, especially in relation to improving public services. It remains an open question, however, whether and in what settings government itself should aim to be the author of such online initiatives.

A real spread of responses then, from the thought-provoking don't force everything into a digital model, to the consultant-like blockquote pulled out above, to the banal mantra of open source software roolz. There was though, in the 26 comments left, two common thoughts: mobile, open standards / APIs.

Here, for what they're worth, are my thoughts on the trends that directgov should latch on to:

- Increasingly content is being rebadged and reused (not only through retweets and other social links but through white label websites and RSS pulling as evidence by the recent launch of the directgov content API). I've said before (probably 1,001 times) that I see no point in government authoring the same content hundreds, or thousands of times and hence am an ardent supporter of a single central government website that holds the definitive citzen-facing version of any given content (recognising that super-specialist content to do with e.g. accountants is best left to HMRC). The 309,000 instances of "disability living allowance" that google throws up today shows many in e.g. surrey county council, edinburgh, renfrewshire, hounslow and others. Sadly the number of instances is up from just 9,000 in 2003 and 122.000 in 2007. One definitive source, then, who makes their content available to others if they need it - with the accent on "if they really need it"; just borrowing content so you can boost the pages on your .gov website is hardly worthwhile (I really have no desire to comparison shop government content - no one is going to look for the best version of "disability living allowance"

- Content will increasingly need to be made available in multiple formats and styles. The proliferation of screen sizes and browser styles will mean an ever increasing number of style sheets that ally with the content to ensure that whoever is looking at the content gets the best experience.

- With content increasingly being made available, raw data has now followed and this trend shows no sign of slowing down. Plainly, people will have to use the data to warrant it continuing to be made available given that there is an inevitable cost of opening up the data and then keeping it available but so far, so good. This data will be made available in accordance with published standards, open ones whereever one exists.

- Content through apps. The debate over whether government should be in the app game or not continues elsewhere on the web (most eloquently by Stefan Cz at Public Strategist). My own take, as written before, is that government should be in the app game. At the same time, government isn't the only player in the app market and 3rd parties can often do better jobs (my current favourite is FIPlab's "London Cycle" - with something as good as this is, I see no point in anyone, let alone government, trying to do another version until or if FIPlab drop the ball).

- Transparency is an increasing part of the modus operandi of this government and there will be an increasing push for information to be made available that wasn't previously made available. The round robin PQ on the cost of government websites that has now turned into an annual review by the COI shows how this can happen. Government should get out ahead of this and publish what a site costs, what pages are being visited, how many people are visiting, where they're from, how did they get to the site (direct, via google/bing, etc) as well as stats on operating systems, browsers and mobile or desktop. Couple this with what the team looks like that runs each website, how many authors there are, how many editors and so on and quite soon the anomalies of government on the web will show up, helping drive an increasing focus on the cost of delivery and, specifically, where government is finding itself outflanked by other sites or providers who are doing what government should do only better.

- A long time ago, we ran open forums on ukonline.gov.uk. We ran them first without moderation, then with post moderation, then pre moderation and then we closed them down. The problem was that Godwin's law, or variants of it, was universally followed. That is, within a few iterations of a post and its comments, everything would descend into increasing acrimony, and racist or other -ist comments would follow soon after. In restarting ukonline and then developing the model for directgov, we did a fair amount of research into bringing those forums back - because we thought that people who had been through complex processes (one of the models we looked at in detail was that for statementing a child - a 6 month process - as we had people on the team who had been through it) would be better able to guide others through it than government people would and that no amount of text on a website was a substitute for one to one guidance from skilled practitioners or people who cared. I'd like to see this thinking resurrected harnessing the social network trends. The forums need not be on a government website, indeed perhaps they should be anywhere but on such a site. They could be on facebook or on some or all of the more specialist social network sites; they'd be supported by government staff who would have the goal of getting people through the process and who would be measured based on feedback left by those they'd helped. But, in reality, it is likely to be the people who've been through it that prove the best at helping others.

I don't, though, believe that open source is an emerging trend or one that government needs to slavishly adopt. It should do what it's always done and use it where it makes sense, just as we did in building ukonline and directgov in 2001/2/3/4 and just as we didn't when building the government gateway in 2001 (for which we got no end of vitriole).

After Adoption 10k

The 2nd After Adoption 10k is in a few weeks, on 24/10/10. Sign up here. Feedback on the race last year was very positive so definitely worth a go this time.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Two Months In Nokia's Life

Back in June I questioned whether Nokia might be a new entrant in the f*dcompany,com hall of fame. Until this week that looked a distinct possibility. Nokia shares are down 60% since the iPhone was introduced 3 years ago and until 7 days ago the downtrend looked to be continuing, as the graph of 2 months worth of daily stock prices shows (data from bigcharts.com)


Yesterday's announcement of a new chief executive (preceded, naturally, by the sacking of the old one) is seen as the catalyst the company needs to change. Stephen Elop, the new chief, is ex-Microsoft (but also ex-CEO of Macromedia, the original developer of Flash). His record is of turnaround and growth.

Symbian is not having a good time. App development is low (no users means no customers means no apps) and the o/s doesn't seem to have adapted to the touch screen / image rich / socially networked world. Perhaps the N8 due out soon will change that (my take on the N8, purely drawn from online reviews, is that they've thrown hardware at the problem so as to hide the lack of progress in the software; it has a great camera, great video etc but that's about it).

Developing a new o/s or even enhancing a current one will be a big job - and so there will be plenty of questions about whether to adopt Android or even Win Mobile 7 given Mr Elop's doubtless flawless contacts in that space. Or perhaps a multi-o/s strategy - why back one horse from the get go? Build on several o/s and upgrade Symbian in the background might work. It will take more than that to sort out Nokia though.

Mr Elop, despite Nokia's strong performance everywhere other than the USA and Europe, probably doesn't have the luxury of time. He'll need to describe and start executing on his plan very quickly. But the man at the top can make a difference - when Steve Jobs returned to Apple it was worth barely $2bn; it's now worth more than 100x that. Is Mr Elop going to do a Jobs on Nokia? His track record - the lack of experience in consumer product - suggests not. But he'll get the benefit of the doubt for now I think and rightly so.

It will be interesting to watch. I hope he returns Nokia to its former status as one of the innovators in the world, even if not to the kind of market share they enjoyed for so many years.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Boris Bike Robbery


Or did someone not get the supply/demand forecast right for each location and now they have to swing more bikes than expected between racks across town?

Took my first Boris bike ride today - two rides in fact - and came away hugely impressed. Easy to dock and undock, good quality bikes, no mechanical issues. Brilliant job.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Question 3 - Sharing the Platform

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

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

Here's what I said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Slug's Taking Grass


The Real iPhone Antenna Problem?


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

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

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

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

Or is it just me?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Gadget Debris


Clairvoyant Juxtaposition

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


I've added the red loop to draw your eye


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

No Clue On This Flipchart at all


Hard Times?

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


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

Stop Press: First Kiosk User Seen In The Wild

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


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

Blog Posting

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

Bordeaux 2009 - Do the Chinese really buy En Primeur?

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


And what's with these Moroccan wine lovers?


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

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

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


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

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Great North Run Elevation

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

First for those who run in km:


And then in miles:


The official course elevation profile looks like this:


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

Saturday, August 07, 2010

BeBox Ubiquity

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

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Subtracting Addthis

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


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

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

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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Apple's Time Machines Goes Wrong

Saw this event advertised at the White City store (aka Westfield - something wrong with the Westfield brand?):


Maybe they've missed the launch of the iPhone 4 out west?

Hard Coded Boris Bike Pricing


Wondering (very much) why the prices for Boris' Bikes are printed alongside each rack. Surely a brilliant opportunity missed for demand-based pricing (not to mention that if they do want to change the prices they'll have to visit each and every rack)? Cheaper in the day time (to encourage tourists?), more expensive in the morning (to discourage commuters?) or entirely the other way round depending on the usage model and how things work out over the coming weeks and months.


Meanwhile the one I looked at was looping this message over and over again, despite there being no customer anywhere near.

I wonder if they're using the StreetCar supply/demand forecasting engine to figure out where new bikes will be needed and where bikes will have to be transferred between during the day?

Still a huge fan of the idea and hoping that these are just teething troubles.

Electric Parking Tickets

£90,000 on a car ... no congestion charge ... but attracts parking tickets like iron filings to a magnet


Diet Running


A full day of fly fishing yesterday ... caught some fish ... ate the same fish that evening (surely as fresh as they come) ... accompanied with fine Burgundy ... ran 5km this morning

Not typically good preparation for a run you'd imagine

But I took 30 seconds off last week's 5km race at Parkrun.

There must be something to the wine and fish diet - I even took the long way home and ran another 15km.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Art of the Possible

I've passed this building several times in the last few weeks


I'm keen to go in and find out what they do. And, especially, to ask why this kind of study wasn't around when I was at school.

Meeting Output

Why is a whiteboard something like this so common in meeting rooms?


It seems to me that all meetings start off with good intentions - people want structure and note-taking and discipline. Quickly, that all falls away. And what's left is like the imprint in rock of a long dead animal - evidence that something was there, some flash of inspiration, the remnants of a desire for that structure. Not, though, enough to see the DNA of the meeting and determine actually what went on.

This text was still on the whiteboard 3 days later when I was back in the same meeting room. I hope someone will use it soon.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Facilitators Unite

Another photo from Matthew ...


No non-participative, argumentive, unfunny mobile phone calls then. And, apparently, you can't agree.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Apple On Twitter

As long as "on" means no more than present. This is the twitter page of one Scott Forstall, an SVP responsible for iOS at Apple:


Oh to have 25,000 followers - and not even made one tweet. If you're wondering who the one person he's following is, it's Conan O'Brien.

What No Nokia?

From Silicon Alley Insider:


RIM is tanking, Motorola is slipping and Palm is dead? Them's fighting words ...

The .GovApp Goldrush

Last May I looked at iPhone apps delivered by governments. Almost inevitably, Utah had been first but there was already an "open.gov.alike." I challenged direct.gov to do the same (at launch in 2002 it rendered a version with cutdown content to fit any mobile screen and we'd enhanced that over the years to deal with newer phones, using CSS that detected which browser was accessing it, but an App, well, that's a whole new thing.

At the time, though, I missed the obvious point which was to define that moment as the starting gun for the goldrush. Just as departments had rushed to put websites live in the years from 2000 onwards, it should have been obvious that the same would happen for apps.

Now, a year on, the BBC published this story:

BBC News has learnt that the Government has spent tens of thousands of pounds developing iPhone applications. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed that development costs ranged from £10,000 - £40,000.

The most expensive application was a proposed Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) app that provides "a masterclass for changing your wheel".

Documents seen by the BBC reveal that the DVLA Motoring Masterclass app would cost £40,000 and would also work out fuel mileage, act as a hazard light and track RAC patrols.

By the end of May there were over 53,000 downloads of the Jobcentre Plus app, although critics have asked why someone who can afford both an iPhone and the expensive running costs would need a Jobcentre Plus app.

But very quickly the guillotine has come down on this line of spending - and many departments have said that they have no plans to even start:

However, a number of government departments said they had no plans to develop iPhone applications, including the Department for Culture. Media and Sport, HM Treasury, Northern Ireland Office, Scotland Office, Government Equalities Office, Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Development.

"Future spend on iPhone development will be subject to strict controls: only essential activity, approved by the Efficiency and Reform Group, which is chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will be allowed".

One department was unable to provide information:
But the Home Office declined the FOI request for information on its iPhone apps, saying security concerns "prevent us from supplying information".
Earlier this year I wrote a couple of posts about what gov should do with mobile apps:
1) Can gov do beta? On how .gov might deal with negative feedback over its apps on iTunes2) Apps on the move - suggestions for other apps

I find myself, therefore, torn when I read the BBC's article. Surely we want:
Our government to be where the people are. My dear, late, friend Angela Vivian talked often of putting her JobCentrePlus kiosk in the local pub- because that's where the unemployed people are (a very John Dillinger-styled quote).
Services that are easy to use, that require no thinking, that don't tether people to a PC at their desk (remembering that we have more phone penetration than PCs in the UKs and that whilst the bulk of those phones are not smart phones, they will be
Innovation at many levels in government, including in the way services are offered, the way data is opened up, the joining up of services and so on
Migration from call centre operations to self service, whether on a desktop or mobile phone so as to reduce costs
But we certainly don't want a wildly diverse ecosystem of departments writing mobile phone apps, learning the lessons over and over again. Which leaves us with two options
All mobile apps are written by the direct.gov team and so consistency of brand, presentation and capability is maintained. Spend can be tightly managed and audited, code will be reused and lessons learned each time, making the next one slicker. But direct.gov doesn't own the integration with the back ends of [m]any government departments, so will be reliant on those departments opening up their systems for access. Direct.gov is also not the likely route for local government applications (which formed the bulk of the apps in my "apps on the move" post above)

Government writes no apps and continues the policy of making its data available by making its APIs available. If opening data is hard, opening APIs is even harder - imagine the risk you take if you allow a 3rd party app developer to access you tax information. Imagine also the flak that government will come under if services developed are shoddy, lack features, are unstable or insecure and so on.

Neither solution is ideal but, on balance, I favour the former. At the same time, I favour controls over what gets built and why, to ensure that there are no vanity projects - ie that each app fits a real need that is backed up by strategy and underpinning data.

The remaining problem then is which phones to support? From the sounds of it everyone has so far gone for iPhone presumably because that's where the customers are (although I remember seeing announcements that directgov would be supporting Android).

When we put Self Assessment online, all those years ago, we started with the most common tax forms (the ones that 7 million of the 8 million odd taxpayers needed). We didn't put the complicated ones in - those that dealt with foreign income, multiple homes and so on. We also only supported Windows. We had plans to support everything eventually of course.

But not long after launch we received a formal complaint from a Welsh Mac-using vicar. It turns out the clergy have a special tax form, just for them. And, of course, we hadn't got as far as Macs or the Welsh language (in contravention of the 1995 Welsh Language Act of course)

Inevitably, the mobile app teams started somewhere. And all those who weren't at the same start point naturally complained. They will have to broaden their offer but I am sure that was the original plan. With the new controls on app development, it may be some time before we see further innovation (or even expansion of the range of platforms supported). Personally I think that will be a shame.

Having cautioned government to think hard about venturing into mobile services in 2003 because of a range of difficulties, I was proud to see directgov step into the fray with their initial offer.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Indian Infrastructure By The Numbers

It's a while since I've been to Delhi but when I was last there it was crying out for infrastructure investment - power, roads, communications and, especially, at the airport. in the next few weeks a new terminal opens with

48 gates

78 aerobridges

97 automated walkways

168 check in counters

4,300 parking spaces

12,800 bags per hour capacity

15,000 volunteers doing the testing (let's hope they read the T5 lessons learned review)

30,000 workers involved

170,000 square metres of carpet

215,000 square feet of retail space

500,000 square metres of granite floors

1,000,000 trees (in and around)

5,500,000 square feet built up area

34,000,000 passengers per annum capacity

2,000,000,000 GBP in investment (up about 30% on the original budget)

To put that in perspective, in 2007 the entire airport handled only 23 million passengers. They're forecasting a need for 100 million by 2030. Climate change notwithstanding.

This will be an air terminal to rival, say, Hong Kong's. It will be the 3rd largest passenger terminal (after those in Dubai and Beijing of course). Yes, it's bigger than T5 at Heathrow and T4 in Madrid.

Delays have hit the project recently, perhaps inevitably given its enormous scale.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A different Alan Mather

May he Rest In Peace

For the last 3 years an employee of Natural England (an NDPB that I worked with whilst at defra some years ago), has spent a week each summer volunteering as part of a Great War archaeology group called No Man’s Land that has been undertaking an archaeological dig in Belgium. The multi-national group has been following the fate of the 33rd Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division of the Australian Army, who trained on Salisbury Plain and were then deployed at the Battle of Messines in 1917.

In 2008 the group recovered the remains of an Australian soldier from an excavation in a flax field, the soldier has now been identified as Private Alan Mather. Private Mather will be buried with full military honours this month with members of his family in attendance.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

British 10k Tips

I've written before about the British 10k. Great race though it is, it has some problems that you might want to know about before you run, especially if the weather is as hot as the current forecast.

If you've got the race t-shirt, you're probably none the wiser what the actual race route is. This is the route that we ran last year, I think it will be the same this time round (although in previous years it has changed a little each time). First the whole course and then a slightly zoomed in version:



Watch for the 3 double backs

1) Just by Southwark Bridge

2) On Westminster Bridge (on the South Side)

3) On Victoria Street (a 1/2 km past Parliament Square)

If you're running, have a great day.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cornering The Highlighter Market

A highlighter alert from an occasional contributor, Matthew:


Presumably all yellow highlighters from the lower floors have already been collected and sold on eBay to contribute to the cost save target?

And a chart from the same source


What's different times 2 indeed ...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Spending Challenge


HMT are going to be working hard over the next few weeks ... they say they're up to 18,000 suggestions for the Spending Challenge.

Whilst reluctant to suggest a Downing Street Petitions type site (much as I loved it), fearing too many votes for "Abolish tax", "Pay Ministers Nothing" or "Scrap the Department of X" ... But ...

This kind of idea volume could be dealt with through the over-used crowd sourcing with the best couple of hundred ideas being worked up by whoever wants to work on them, aided by government insiders (who would know the data that would be needed), leading to ideas that were implementation-ready far sooner than they might otherwise be. And, perhaps, a ready and able gang of volunteers who could help manage and monitor them through the delivery process.

Anyway, I submitted that idea under the label of "not really a cost save ..."