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.

Puffbox’s Project MyTube: hooray for APIs

A few days ago, I bought an iPod Touch; and I can finally understand the fuss. I didn’t really want it; I’m not short of portable media players, and my Android phone gave me a perfectly good touchscreen to play with. But I’m very excited about mobile-optimised web interfaces at the moment, and felt I needed an iPod/iPhone to do some proper testing (as opposed to educated guesswork).

I’ve been especially blown away by the quality of videos streamed from YouTube. For example, I’m a big ice hockey fan – and the NHL (the big league in North America) is kind enough to put full highlights of every game on YouTube. But as you can probably guess, a flying puck isn’t easy to see in a heavily pixellated non-HD video stream. It’s a completely different story on the iPod Touch – crystal clear.

But – unless I’ve missed it? – there’s no easy way in the built-in YouTube applications, either on the iPod or Android, to log into your YouTube account and see your various ‘subscriptions’. On the face of it, it’s an extraordinary omission. Subscriptions are effectively your personalised EPG, allowing you to cut through the chaos, and get to the content you want. Isn’t that exactly what you want/need? So I did it myself.

If you go to mytube.puffbox.co.uk, you’ll see an intro page with a dropdown list of various YouTube channels: these are being called in dynamically via Javascript, from the puffboxtv account on YouTube, courtesy of Google’s astonishingly comprehensive API. (I got the list of HMG YouTube channels from Steph’s digitalgovuk catalogueding!) When you choose a channel from the dropdown, it makes a further API call, drawing a list of the last 10 videos posted to that account, with upload dates and thumbnails. Click on a title, and you’ll see the clip description, plus an embedded player. On a normal browser, the clip will play on the page; on an iPhone/iPod or Android unit, it’ll play in the native YouTube app, full-screen. The ‘back’ button in the top left corner (not the browser back button!) returns you to the list of videos.

That’s pretty cool… but here’s the really clever bit. If you have made your YouTube subscriptions publicly visible, you can call your own favourite channels into the dropdown – go to http://mytube.puffbox.co.uk/?account=yourname and you should see a familiar list. I should stress, my site never holds any personal information: it’s all coming in dynamically from YouTube.

As with most of my experimental stuff, it comes with zero guarantees. There are rough edges, and it could be a little prettier. But here’s the important point: I knocked this together in 24 hours*, thanks principally to (a) Google’s wonderful API and (b) the free JQuery javascript library to process the responses.

Coincidentally, as I was putting the finishing touches to the site, I came across Charles Arthur’s piece in today’s Guardian about the Home Office crime mapping problems – which concluded thus:

The Free Our Data campaign thinks the practices outlined in the memo do not go far enough: what external developers especially are looking for is pure data feeds of events, rather than static maps… Ironically, the police’s efforts to meet the deadlines might be better aimed at producing those data feeds with time, location and crime form data which could then be used by external developers – who would be able to produce maps more quickly than in-house efforts.

I couldn’t agree more – and I hope my efforts over the last 24 hours prove the point. I’m amazed by how easy (relatively speaking) such things are becoming. The common thread across all the really successful web 2.0 properties is the availability of an API, allowing developers to work their own unique magic. As I’ve said before… Government needs to recognise this, and get in the API game. Not just as a ‘nice to have’, but as an absolute priority.

* 24 hours? Well, put it this way. It was working perfectly in Firefox, Safari (desktop and mobile), Chrome, Android… but not IE. It’s taken me the best part of a day to make it work in IE, and I still can’t really understand what I’ve done differently to finally make it work. Opera’s acting really strangely, but I’ve spent long enough playing with it for now.

Mash! Mash! Mash!

The latest move from Tom Watson’s Power Of Information Taskforce, effectively a big BBC Backstage-style government mashup competition, is a master stroke.

The Power of Information Taskforce want to hear your ideas on how to reuse, represent, mashup or combine the information the government holds to make it useful. … We will take the best ideas from the community commenting on the website and put them to a judging panel selected by the Taskforce. … We are offering up to £20,000 to take your ideas forward with a development team. … winners by the end of the second week in October.’

Having worked with several of the data suppliers listed, I’m delighted they managed to get agreement to expose their data – although I guess the backing of a Minister who actually understands it all can’t have done any harm. It’s especially inspiring to see the Office for National Statistics joining the effort, with the release of an API for its disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. Here’s hoping the Community can do a better job on interface design and results presentation.

The site has been built in Typepad – so it’s a very high-profile example of a ‘blog which isn’t a blog’. We like that. Users’ ideas are submitted via an entry form (hosted on a hastily-registered third-party domain), and if accepted, appear as blog posts with comments enabled. A great way to manage the discussion.

Plus, although there’s little reflection on it, the title of the initiative – Show Us A Better Way – implies an acceptance that government doesn’t know best. Having dealt with enough data managers and statisticians in my time, I can tell you, that would be a huge step forward.

Tom Loosemore‘s fingerprints are all over this. Great work, Tom.

Guido-Tom Watson consensus on gov jobs?

One senses there’s not a lot of love between Guido Fawkes and Tom Watson. So it’s all the more remarkable that, within a few days, they’ve effectively reached an identical conclusion on the need for a better approach to public sector job advertising.

A week ago, Tom wrote a blog post noting the lack of a consistent approach on publishing job vacancies. I was one of several people to respond by noting that (in theory at least) there is actually a central website for all job vacancies already. Mind you, if only us insiders know, then it may as well not exist. Questions like this don’t get asked without a reason, so hopefully it’s the start of something significant.

Now this morning, Guido Fawkes has published details of his plan to bankrupt the Guardian, part of which is this:

One of the first thing the Tories should do in power is set up www.jobs.gov.uk. All available public sector positions would be listed there free of charge, this would save hundreds of millions in advertising costs for the taxpayer and deprive the Guardian of a critical revenue stream.

Aw, isn’t it sweet? Next thing you know, they’ll be playing football between the trenches. 🙂

The central website has been around since 2003 (at least), and in 2004 I was talking to them about the idea of ‘saved searches’ as RSS feeds. Departments could enter their results into the central database, then power a ‘current vacancies’ list on their own corporate website using the RSS feed. At the time, I only knew of one website offering such a service (Wired): it would have been cutting-edge. Now it’s a feature of many websites – TheyWorkForYou, BBC – and the RSS-processing part is almost embarrassingly easy. That’s before we get on to things like plotting vacancies on Google Maps…

Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has finally come. With the existing site basically unchanged in 5 years, it’s easy to justify a refresh. There are plenty of recruitment sites out there, from which to draw inspiration. There will be benefits in terms of customer service, staff efficiency, and defining best practice. We need concrete examples to show Whitehall that yes, it can be done.

Tom Watson’s ‘mashed up’ speech

OK, I’m an idiot. The lengthy and fair-minded piece I wrote this morning about a speech by Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne at the RSA was a year late.

Osborne made some interesting points about the need ‘to recast the political settlement for the digital age.’ And now today, there’s an email doing the rounds (see Nick Booth’s piece) pointing out similarities between this 2007 speech and the one made by Tom Watson on Monday. Amusingly, it condemns the Watson speech as a ‘mashup’. But hold on. Surely it’s entirely in keeping with the whole ethos of open source, to take good ideas and build on them? Didn’t you say mass collaboration was a good thing? 🙂

OK, I’m being churlish. But this points to the biggest single hurdle in ‘politics 2.0’, or whatever we’re calling it. Inevitably, roughly once every four years, every politician’s worst instincts will come out as they fight for power or survival. You can’t blame them. That’s the adversarial, winner-takes-all political system we’re currently stuck with.

And that’s ironically why we need the apolitical Civil Service to take a lead on use of these collaborative technologies.