Model network

August 23, 2011

A white paper is available from mlltelecom, through their sponsorship of the Guardian government computing feature. The paper is entitled ‘Building Security and Cost Savings into Shared Networks for Local Government – Transformational Network Models‘.

The most surprising thing about the paper is that I nowhere saw mention of the Public Sector Network (PSN). Since recent days have seen the joining up of networks at Kent, Hampshire and elsewhere under the banner of PSN, I am most surprised. The paper itself talks sense about the value to be gained from unifying networks but nothing different to what has been discussed at the various meetings I have attended regarding PSN. In fact the Guardian web site of 22 August goes so far as to day that PSN has reached the tipping point.

Yes, the public sector does have to look to newer technologies to ensure security on the networks to be shared, but that is obviously being done, and acknowledging a national network makes it even better and easier to get standards accepted, if longer to get them agreed.


Using the data

February 27, 2011

Having had all the fuss about getting open data out of government, which has been partially successful, I’d already been aware of OpenlyLocal keeping track of what was going on. Now there’s a new site on the block that is attempting to get work done on and with the data, it’s called ‘making a difference with data’.

Its site design is by Boilerhouse, which is the consultancy behind Vicky Sargent (well done Vicky), who plays such a part in Socitm‘s branding and PR, so it’s fairly attractive and well laid out. There’s also a good range of commentators including Michael Cross, a freelancer possibly best known (at least to me) as a long running observer on e-government and government IT in the Guardian.

I think this site is important since, as Vicky will understand,  with staff reductions in government there will be limited resources to produce anything from open data, let alone produce the data. So, it has to be seen that the production of the data is of value to the citizen, and that may only come from there nationally being tools to use on the data made available and to confirm transparency.


Brave old world

January 11, 2011

Some will consider the less idealistic view that the Great E-mancipator sometimes displays around e-government and e-democracy unfortunate for one whose role can be to employ such tools. However, I have recently found that my approach has support in other quarters. A book review by Bryan Appleyard  (and perhaps Bryan should maintain his website?) in the New Stateman of January 10, 2011 of a book by Evgeny Morozov, entitled “‘The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World“, would appear, along with the text reviewed to be in sympathy. The review in the Guardian of January 9, 2010 manages a quote by Morozov on the matter of his native Belarus, that might perhaps echo around the world: 

 “no angry tweets or text messages, no matter how eloquent, have been able to rekindle the democratic spirit of the masses, who, to a large extent, have drowned in a bottomless reservoir of spin and hedonism, created by a government that has read its Huxley”.

It is important to remember that no technology has, can, or ever will improve society as a whole, without the cooperation of those in power, or the direct action of those without. Technology is but the yeast to the bread of a better society. 

Morozov is also delivering a public lecture at LSE, London on 19 January 2011.


Freedom of misinformation

October 10, 2010

Although the title is slightly facetious, have you ever wondered what happened to all that Freedom of Information data that government bodies supply to a seemingly endless sea of requests? I sometimes do. However, it’s all becoming clear now thanks to Francis Maude’s recent insistence that it should be in machine-readable format and a little piece in the Guardian. Not being a Guardian reader these days I must thank en.europa-eu-audience for the heads-up on this one.

This tidy little piece, with lots of hints and tips, has given me a greater understanding of why newspaper reports, such as the web costs one, can appear so poor -

  • Less than 100% response rate to FoI request
  • Inconsistency across data supplied
  • Lack of clarity of FoI request
  • Misinterpretation of data supplied

In academia one is challenged if both the data and analysis are not robust enough, however journalists have always been prone to expressing conclusions based on data with dubious analysis and origins. The frightening thing now is that the graphical tools are so easy to use!

It is one thing Eric Pickles, Minister at the DCLG, demanding the data for local ‘armchair auditors’, it is another when ‘armchair’ journalists add two and two and get twenty-two.

Great tools, but make sure the rigour is there before publishing please…

In fact I’m not alone in thinking open data presents it own issues, Webmonkey has recently noted this too. However of the four proposed solutions to it, where the two of universal broadband and training will come from, I don’t know. On that basis, the promoting and formatting of the data are the least of our worries.


Council web costs

August 22, 2010

A recent “study” for the Daily Telegraph brings both the Freedom of Information Act and that newspaper into disrepute due to the lack of rigour in the quoted study. The report about council website spending with interactive maps and a table of results also appears to claim that current spending on web sites is at the cost of frontline services. A similar report, though slightly better reported, appears in The Grauniad.

However, when one looks at the data revealed in the tabes and considers the questions that were asked, the results become clearer. Despite this being in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, there are far from a complete number of responses, thus skewing the graphical representation. There is also a great deal of difference in the make-up of the numbers between councils. For example, Barnsley spend £399, whilst Blackpool claim £ 140,820 – how do we account for the difference? It has to be the questions, which I believe were -

“1. For each financial year 2007-08 and 2008-09, and as per the definition given in the above paragraph, a description of each website service arranged by your Council.
2. For each year 2007-08 and 2008-09, and for each individual item listed in question 1, the cost to your Council of each website service. Please also include a total expenditure figure on website services for each financial year.
3.  For each year 2007-08 and 2008-09, and for each individual website and/or web page included in question 1, the number of hits received for the websites and/or web pages.
4. Describe and give dates for the research you have conducted or guidelines you have followed that led you to believe that the website services outlined above were necessary.
5. Describe how your Council appoints external website support agencies or contractors, the selection process and the key criterion on which you make appointments.

The said definition is as follows - “External website services” includes, but is not limited to, services such as website design and website development. “External website services” refers to projects or ongoing contracts outsourced to third-party agencies or contractors.

As one of those on the end of such FoI requests, this does nothing but display the lack of value of FoI requests! They have become the tools of undergraduate and commercial researchers with limited skills and foresight, along with a small number of academic researchers prepared to pressurize overburdened senior council staff with additional tasks.

The questions are frequently vague, the answers resulting are thus variable and dependent upon the ease of access to the original information. The requests themselves are often ungrammatical, full of misspellings and typos and requiring a deal of thought to ascertain the intentions of the “researcher” and provide the requested “information”.

How does one truly measure the cost of a website? The cost of the Content Management System licence? The salary of any web manager or the IT staff supporting the hardware - what if support is externalized or responsibility for content spread throughout the authority? Does the cost include any metatagging resource, the speech facilities, applications delivering data to it such as planning, mapping or benefits systems? An exercise such as this is comparing apples and oranges and ending up with a load of bananas!

It becomes even more complex if one considers the goings-on with e-government for the past ten years. If councils were expected to make 100% of their services available electronically, how do they do this without maintaining a web site in the face of continual legislative and procedural changes from central government?

It becomes further complicated if one wants council web sites to be consistent nationally to plug into central government. Each one must comply with the LGSL, LGNL etc and that means 700+ services, so no out-of-the-box solutions.

I’ve held some responsibility for council web sites for over ten years now. It’s not like putting up the sh**e somecommercial companies can get away with…councils are expected to comply with disability discrimination legislation and be accessible to the majority of their potential users. We are now asked to provide data on-line and core services online, whilst continuing, largely, to maintain face-to-face and telephone services.

I’ve mentioned before the need for a universal, accessible CMS with all the necessary plug-ins, at a reasonable cost, that can be hosted, maintained and supported by the minimum of staff. I don’t believe it yet exists – one can look at Drupal and other open source solutions but they require support that may not be available  internally to the council, and so then add to the costs.

OK, there’s the odd silly mistake when developing council web services, but out of how many hundreds of web sites in the UK? In the words of the old phrase “you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t”.

(Any opinions expressed in this piece or any other on this website are purely those of the author and can bear no reflection upon his employers)


E-egg on government face?

August 8, 2010

Patrick Wintour reported in The Guardian (2 August 2010) on the “Coalition’s first crowdsourcing attempt fails to alter Whitehall line” and Chris Williams in The Register (3 August 2010) noted that “UK.gov smiles and nods at commentards”. Both these pieces pick up on the fact that nothing is apparently changing at Whitehall despite the coalitions stated aims to crowdsource ideas for savings.

The Guardian writer claims the receipt of 9,500 suggestions online and quotes the director of Involve as saying that “badly designed consultations like this are worse than no consultations at all”. Something I’ve long suggested along with the practice that if one consults, one must then make some changes in deference to the feedback, and do it pretty quickly and in direct response to the concerns. If one is unable to alter matters, it’s then necessary to say why.

In my experience there are various types of “consultation”. There are ones like this where it just asks for ideas and then apparently the questioning body picks the ones that most align with existing policy and praises them and the proposers. There are the other type where the questions are so tightly directed that the respondent can only directly support the policy being proposed to a greater or lesser extent. These are crowdsourcing in a representative democracy.

To ask open questions, gain open answers and change society one needs a truly deliberative democracy but will turkeys vote for Thanksgiving or Christmas, I don’t think so…


E-election mania

May 9, 2010

Now that all the frenzy has started to dissipate (I hope), it’s time to look back and consider the role of the Internet and social media, if there ever was one in reality. PublicTechnology.net were pretty quick off the mark saying that it hadn’t happened as expected largely because the electorate weren’t ready for it.

Personally I enjoyed a few moments on YouTube where idle cynics had made light of different politicians capacity to speak the truth by dubbing words and songs onto their videos. I’m sure many more people did this and suspect that it still had an influence. Perhaps where the difference with the US is, is that we don’t have the ability to actually broadcast this type of stuff on the TV, perhaps the result might have been different if we did?

Jon Snow in the Times seems to agree with me about the media driving the politicians and not the other way around, if we are to try and compare with the USA. One newly elected MP, Elizabeth Truss, writing in the Guardian  doesn’t fully agree and can see an opening for the Internet in politics.

Perhaps this is where the difference with the US comes in. The national media were driving it as a race for the presidency, which the local media followed to some extent. However in the UK we are supposed to be electing a local representative, who may then have an influence in creating a Prime Minister.

Who knows? With the large batch of new MP’s perhaps there will be some big changes in elections and channel usage? I even heard calls for e-voting as a result of the problems at some polling stations. I just pray they come up with something more fool-proof than the postal voting system, which can be a nightmare to manage!

Now, if we all had biometric ID cards…


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