Simon Dickson has been blogging about online government, politics and WordPress since 2005. Some important people read it.

 
 
Tuesday 3 February 2009

Such warmth in the snow

snowycoi

Pic by Andrew Lewin - flickr.com/photos/draml (Creative Commons)

If there's one lesson to draw from the unveiling of Directgov's experimental School Closures site, it's the sheer goodwill of the community towards them.

Quick précis for those who missed any of it: at 11.50pm on Sunday night, Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson publicly throws down a gauntlet. With the country facing snowy armageddon, could Directgov change their homepage to the only information people would care about - namely, 'a host of travel info feeds and up to date advice'? A domain gets purchased before dawn, and within 24 (ish) hours, a School Closures mashup site is live. Happy Minister.

The site is, in effect, a dump of Directgov's own Schools Finder data, uploaded into a Drupal CMS, with each school getting its own page; users are invited to find their local school(s) via a postcode or town name search, and then comment (blog-style) on whether the schools are open or not. It's been put online using a uk.to domain, obtained from the FreeDNS service - presumably to get round the procurement process (and, one has to assume, the Web Rationalisation people). The precedents are duly noted. ;)

It's really only a 'proof of concept' build. As commenters on the new Directgov blog have noted, we're several significant steps - and a lot of public interaction - away from having a breakthrough service here. But just look around the web at the excitement and encouragement generated by the move. Harry Metcalfe, for example, recognises the same weaknesses I do, and yet still concludes:

It’s pretty rough around the edges: there doesn’t seem to be much RSS support, and there’s no access to the underlying data, and — well — it doesn’t tell you whether your school is closed… but it is still useful, and it’s very impressive that it appeared so quickly, and with such little prompting. Kudos to all involved — this is a fantastic and very encouraging start.

I don't see this site ever being (properly) finished, certainly not in its current form. I'll be pleasantly surprised if it can (ever) tell me whether my local schools are actually open or not. But that wasn't the point: as Brian Hoadley puts it in the blog post's comments - 'This prototype was the first in a series of efforts to create a process around which we can develop rapid ideas.' (Followed up later by Paul Clarke: 'its existence demonstrates an attitude, not a magic solution to a very difficult information challenge.')

It was a concrete fulfilment of the principles Paul Clarke described at the weekend's Barcamp, proof that it wasn't just talk. Proof - to itself - that government can actually do this sort of thing. And just as importantly, it has proven how much we, the wider web community, have been longing to see this happen.

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