August 11, 2012
I had reason to pay a visit to a large branch of the HSBC bank recently. I’m not a customer of theirs but needed to pay a cheque in for someone else to a bank that they supply a service for. The sliding doors revealed a dimly lit interior full of machines that one is expected to carry out ones transactions through – if you can see which one is the appropriate one in the plush surroundings more reminiscent of a 70’s night club. After wandering about looking for the correct paying-in slip or a service counter I found a lift that indicated there was a service desk on the ground floor but the only one I found was for business customers. I stopped a young assistant, obviously the modern day equivalent of the department store floor walker who directed me to the first floor – I informed her that the lift claimed one was on the ground floor but only received a look that indicated that I was wrong.
Making my way up the stairs (I didn’t trust the lift!) I found a service desk hidden in a far corner with two staff behind glass and a short queue. This journey was quite a long one from the front door, so entirely designed to discourage face-to-face custom. Patiently waiting my turn I was eventually seen to be told that I couldn’t pay the cheque in without a pre-printed paying-in slip – something I had actually managed to do at a smaller rural branch in the past, but times had obviously changed and HSBC were intent on making life hard for customers unwilling to adapt to their systems.
Having got rid of a load of staff in April and now finding itself caught-out laundering money for gangsters and drug cartels, HSBC is obviously reinventing itself for a new market, but it’s not after ordinary customers who just want reasonable service. This was so unlike the Cooperative Bank branch I had just been into, where a cheery “Good Afternoon” had greeted me before I’d even put pen to paying-in slip.
I pray that in its attempts to be efficient government, including local government, avoid the HSBC model and focus on delivering service through systems that work.
August 3, 2012
The UK Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) met earlier this year and its report on “Implementing the Transparency Agenda” has just been published. The report has the usual somewhat confused outputs that one expects from a PAC report i.e. that little is likely to be changed as a result! Part of this is due to the blurring across strands of government such as ‘Departments’ and local authorities.
The responsible ‘Department’ for Communities & Local Government (CLG) demanded certain information from local government some time ago and although all but one council supplied this, despite the vagueness of the request, more is desirable. However, without some clarity as to format, fields and level i.e. standards, this will remain only of value to a the more advanced ‘armchair auditor’. The report appears to realise the difficulty without being able to make any difference.
The conclusions ask for “price and performance information for adult care”, but with outsourcing of so many arms of service I’m not even sure this could be made available. Similarly for “spending per pupil in individual academy schools” which is surely locked away in the ‘academy’ accounts? As the report states, and has probably been stated before by them, auditors and others that “the government does not understand the costs and benefits of its transparency agenda” – so what will this report change? There is a resounding cry for evidence-based policy but since when do politicians do that?
The report states that “The Cabinet Office recognises problems with the functionality and usability of its data.gov.uk portal”, so what will be done? It then goes on to state that “four out of five” visitors to the site leave immediately! Should we be surprised?
Finally, the report acknowledges that with eight million people without Internet access, they won’t gain any benefits from the data – well actually they might, with ‘armchair auditors’ and journalists doing it for them, especially since those eight million are unlikely to have the analytical skills to play with the data in the first place, and we are relying on the media to report it. We need the data in open, standard formats so that true comparisons can be done as to what happens when policy is led by political agenda rather than any hard evidence. In summary – Is there any open data about open data?
June 24, 2012
There is a new report from Consumer Focus entitled “All that’s digital isn’t gold – The challenges and risks of the digital age” (PDF, 40 pages, 732 Kb). It is written by Lucy Fowler but based on research by Ctrl-Shift. The Ctrl-Shift report is “Defining and defending consumer interests in the digital age” – PDF, 54 pages, 802 Kb and was written by Claire Hopkins, Alan Mitchell and Paul Smith. I have to admit being privy to an early draft of the Ctrl-Shift in January 2012 and providing some feedback upon it at the time (amongst many others).
It’s a nice change to see a report reporting the drawbacks to going digital when we have had government for the last fifteen years screaming for ‘digital by default’ and it may be useful for those involved to consider this work whenever compiling a risk register for future projects.
Although starting from a precept that the Internet is a ‘good thing’ for consumers, the report then considers some of the drawbacks such as data ownership and data loss, along with the “mixed-blessing” of the likes of Google frigging your search results. Page 11 importantly states “Control of personal data is therefore set to become one of the major consumer issues of the current decade and of the digital economy”, which the consumers at large will be completely unaware of, and as page 13 relates with the growing using of smart mobiles “We are seeing very little scrutiny or regulation of these new geo-location data streams, and very little understanding of the unintended consequences of their collection, analysis or use by corporations or parties with malicious intent”, which is definitely a case of ‘buyer be aware’!
Whilst this report couldn’t cover all the issues raised in the Ctrl-Shift one, and that had to sideline some of the issues raised, it does warn of many of the dangers involved in dragging consumers into being ‘digital by default’ when a host of social and legal problems have yet to be resolved. I suspect the UK legal system will never catch up with the rapid advance of technology, but consumers need to be trained to protect their backs as was suggested by Jessie Daniels regarding US school IT education (see Digital entitlement).
June 21, 2012
A hat tip to John F Moore for pointing out a posting on cityethics.org entitled “A Government Ethics Approach to Open Records“. However, as someone with a view from both sides of the fence or barricade (depending upon one’s opinion), I believe the author Robert Wechsler, Director of Research at City Ethics, is getting a little overheated and might find more tax-payer dollar savings from adopting a more federal approach, which may not come easy to citizen of the USA.
Mr Wechlser’s gripe is the charging of amounts like 25 cents per page for Freedom of Information request responses. First of all, the charge is not just for the copy – it’s for someone to dig out and then manually copy the information, which isn’t always an easy task especially if it has to be edited for any personal information. I don’t think anyone is being obstructive, that is the way to conspiracy theory mania. I agree that it would be better online – but in what data format or structure? I’ve no idea how many local authorities or jurisdictions there are in the USA but if all those different sets of data are to be published and offered up to an API, one structure and an easily tweakable API might save an awful lot of time and effort?
In a recent post I reported that the NAO revealed UK local government had around 1300 functions to deal with from schools to car parks, from town planning to pest control. Someone needs to decide which are the most important to be published first and get on with it – there will be some variation from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Even better if software application suppliers could squeeze out the data from their applications in an open format – many of the apps are widely used and the avoidance of having to do it oneself would encourage sales. However, as with photocopies, pushing out the data still has human intervention and costs at some stages and admittedly this may reduce as others extract and reformat, but there will be a capital investment required.
Government does need to be open and transparent, but there’s an awful lot of data in there to get out, along with an awful lot of personal data to keep behind the firewalls. Paranoia about the data controllers is easy to come by, but in most cases they are just trying to do a job in difficult circumstances and having to please many masters (including the citizen). I extract information all the time – academic, historical and other – it all has a cost to compile, host and store and someone has to pay for it sometime.
June 19, 2012
A blog piece from the MIT Technology Review dated 31 May 2012 entitled ‘There is No Digital Divide’ may generate some thinking. Mims exemplifies a lack of iPad or broadband being a block on social mobility as current examples of being on the wrong side of the current ‘digital divide’. He picks up on a piece in the New York Times by Gawker – “Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era” purporting that the lower social orders waste their time on the Internet, along with a response by Jessie Daniels that claimed he’d missed the point.
Daniels argues that the term ‘digital divide’ hasn’t what the social sciences describe as suitable current ‘frame’ or set of references or definition. Once upon a time it meant no desktop computer but these days we have mobile phones capable of much more. We’re using ‘affluent white men’ as a standard, whilst other communities, which may be seen as poor or different in racial or sexuality terms employ technology but in a different manner. These communities still need ‘digital fluency’ or ‘digital entitlement’ but it shouldn’t necessarily be approached in the same angle as a ‘affluent white man’ would employ the medium.
A key example is that adolescents need assistance in discerning ‘cloaked’ sites from reliable ones, and good information sources from bad ones, and Daniels believes this is quite easy to teach, but is different from the skill set a more affluent grouping might require. She then goes on to promote Howard Rheingold’s new book ‘Net Smart’, and suggests it should be included in training plans for schools.
I suspect there is some truth here but a lack of broadband in some areas is still creating a massive separation when it comes to potential economic development or even people just doing their homework. Framing is necessary, but so is infrastructure.