Power of Info chairman joins Facebook

Slightly more exciting than the headline might suggest… Richard Allan, the former LibDem MP who chaired the Power Of Information Taskforce has been hired by Facebook. The Guardian reports that he left his job as Cisco’s head of European regulatory affairs ‘to lead [Facebook’s] efforts in lobbying EU governments.’ Allan hasn’t had a lot to say about the move on his own website, apart from a Twitter reference to starting a new job.

As for Facebook itself? – if you try to access the obvious vanity URL, facebook.com/richardallan, you get forwarded to /richard.allan (note the dot), which is someone else entirely. Nice touch, Facebook HR.

£10m/year for government web innovation

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Pic by a.drian, found at Flickr.com. Creative Commons licence.

I’m not going to say much here about the Power Of Information Taskforce report: the best place to do that is on the site itself. But I will pick up one point which stopped me in my tracks. The report notes that:

Successful leading high tech businesses will spend at least 10% of their budget on innovation… DirectGov, BusinessLink and NHS Choices should create an combined innovation pot of 10% of their budgets, focussed on improving the public experience of government websites, through outside-in innovation not internal requirements. Annual plans on how this £10m innovation pool is to be deployed should be published and agreed by a new Head of Digital Engagement.

Now let’s be clear: £10m is a heck of a lot of money, particularly in a world where the price of the tools is almost negligible. By my rough calculation, that’s more or less equivalent to a team of 36 consultants on a day rate of £1000 ex VAT, working full time. Even allowing a big chunk for ‘overheads’, which you’d normally look to minimise anyway, you’re still talking about maybe 20 full time people earning absolutely top-whack salaries.

(Note: I’m not saying anyone’s worth £1000 a day; just noting that many in government would consider that ‘the going rate’. It explains why people keep telling me I should put Puffbox’s rates up.)

It’s too big a sum for the Big Ugly Consultancies to ignore, and that’s what worries me. If we’re serious about getting serious innovation, we need to treat this as a venture capital fund, and start getting the cash out to dozens of small-scale, agile, hungry operations.

The big boys are getting enough cash out of the public purse already – and will continue to take the lion’s share of the remaining 90%. If they want to innovate, they already have plenty of opportunity – and arguably, have had it for long enough.

Tom Loosemore to Channel4

I’m probably the last to pick up on this news, but for the sake of completeness, I should note the announcement last week of Tom Loosemore‘s imminent move from Ofcom to Channel 4’s 4IP.

With the demise of the notion of a Public Service Publisher online, quoted by Tom as ‘one of [his] areas of focus’ in moving to Ofcom, and 4IP’s stated vision of ‘re-inventing the way public service media is developed, commissioned, funded and delivered’, it seems like a natural move. Hopefully it’ll give 4’s efforts a sense of direction; I’m really not sure what their efforts are actually aimed at, and their new media efforts rarely shake the foundations.

Tom’s an occasional commenter on the Puffbox blog, so let’s see if he rises to the bait: does this affect your involvement with Tom Watson’s Power Of Information Taskforce?

Met launches London crime maps

London’s Metropolitan Police has launched the first test of its planned ‘crime mapping’ application, and at first glance, it’s really quite nice. There’s data from borough to ‘sub-ward’ (a few streets), although at the moment it’s only carrying aggregated totals of ‘burglary, robbery and vehicle crime’.

The ‘high/average/low’ colour coding makes it easy to take in; and navigation is pretty good. The selection of statistical geography is inferred from the zoom level of the map – a method which has its ups and downs. But with a postcode search, it’s easy to go directly to ‘your patch’. (I’m a bit dubious about the accuracy of the boundaries, though.) Throw in some nice little Javascript-y UI touches, and you’ve got an excellent start – with the promise of ‘further enhancements … prior to the formal launch of the service in September.’

But what’s most striking about this? It’s done on Google Maps. Here’s a extra-high-profile government mapping application, and they’ve made a conscious – and entirely predictable – decision not to build it using the tool provided by the government’s own mapping agency.

It’s not a million miles away from the vision put forward by the Power of Information taskforce; Tom Loosemore calls it ‘a decent first effort’, but laments the ‘lack of proper profile for your local coppers’.

An idea whose time has come

Crime mapping is front-page news today (in the Telegraph anyway). Most of the stories follow a predictable pattern: Ministers say it will inform the public, and make the police more accountable, but it’ll lead to house price chaos. Etcetera.

But I’m finding myself infuriated by the Telegraph leader column which proclaims:

The Conservative Party has appeared a little paranoid over the past year or two with its reluctance to set out detailed policies for fear of them being plagiarised by Labour. […] The latest was yesterday’s commitment from Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, to publish crime maps for England and Wales by the end of this year. This is based on the Conservative Party policy document Giving the Public a Crime Map (PDF), which was published in April and which formed a key plank of Boris Johnson’s successful campaign for the mayoralty of London.

So.. did Boris Johnson cook up the idea, all by himself? Hardly.

The project which first brought the idea to prominence was pioneering geek-journalist Adrian Holovaty’s ChicagoCrime.org, launched back in May 2005. It received global media coverage, on the web and in print; and was specifically mentioned as a case study in this government’s Power Of Information review, published in April 2007. (The project has since evolved into Everyblock.)

Further, two UK pilot studies are being quoted in news coverage today. DNS records show that MyNeighbourhood.Info, run by West Midlands Police, was conceived as far back as 10 May 2006; the site itself was launched in September 2007. The West Yorkshire site, beatcrime.info, traces back as far as April 2004, with a launch in February 2005. (Incidentally… do those dates provide a clue as to the lead time needed to produce these sites?)

So by all means, we can have pointless arguments about which UK political party first stole the idea from Adrian Holovaty if you like. It won’t get us anywhere. The point is, this is an idea whose time has come.

The luxury of opposition is that you can throw ideas around, without having to actually implementing them. The burden of government is that you have to overcome the technical, legal and procedural hurdles to get the things out the door. And we’ve got ample evidence that this is happening already.

Crime maps by Christmas

A Home Office press release this morning makes the explicit pledge: ‘Every neighbourhood in England and Wales will have access to the latest local crime information through new interactive crime maps. […] By the end of the year every police force area will produce crime maps which will allow the public to see where and when crime has happened, down to street level for some crimes; make comparisons with other areas; and learn how crime is being tackled by their local neighbourhood policing team.’

On the face of it, that’s brilliant news. But five months to do this? That’s brave – especially when we’re looking at some pretty fundamental legislative questions, as highlighted on the Power of Information blog last week. The Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign blog has a few recent items along similar lines.

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.

The power of postcodes

LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone has an idea. She tells Liberal Conspiracy the one IT project she’d like to see from government would be (if I can paraphrase) an email-bouncing facility, where you’d send an email (for example) to yourpostcode@police.gov.uk (sic), and it would automatically get forwarded to the relevant coppers. She rightly notes that sites such as WriteToThem go most of the way towards this concept… and indeed, it’s surely the sort of project that’s right up MySociety‘s street (sorry).

Personally, I think Lynne has the right idea, but takes it to the wrong conclusion. As IT projects go, what she describes is relatively straightforward. The headaches would come in terms of (a) requiring the email recipients to keep it all up to date; and (b) the extra work generated. Reading and writing emails takes time. It would be much more efficient, in most cases, to encourage self-service via the web.

The bit Lynne gets 100% right is the power of the postcode. The UK has one of the planet’s more granular postcoding systems, with each of the nation’s 1.8m individual postcodes covering on average 15 houses. In IT terms, that’s a remarkably accurate piece of geocoding data – which virtually every adult in the country knows off by heart. You can stop people in the street, ask them, and they know it. That’s a truly awesome asset. (Which is why Ireland is now adopting a similar system, despite Post Office claims they don’t need it.)

But ask any statistician about postcodes, and they’ll glare at you – citing two problems.

  • Postcode boundaries were originally designed for postal use, and don’t match the boundaries of other statistical or political geographies. I can vouch for this: they don’t even differentiate neatly between England and Wales. But as the introduction of Royal Mail’s Mailsort demonstrates, the postal purpose of postcodes isn’t what it once was.
  • Postcodes change. True, but… Royal Mail issues a ‘postcode update‘ every six months. Their website explains that there’s only been one significant change, affecting only Cambridge, in the last 3 years – a lifetime in IT terms. Hey, it’s not as if they’re recoding the entire nation every other week.

I’ve never seen either of these problems as insurmountable. And I’d argue that the amazing potential stemming from universal awareness of postcodes outweighs the hassle factors.

Postcodes are the country’s greatest example of the Power Of Information. I believe we would unlock significant power if we enshrined postcodes as our key national geography, asking Royal Mail to bequeath them to the nation. All statistical and political geography should be aligned with postcodes, with a commitment not to change them for 10 years, perhaps coinciding with the Census cycle. I don’t care if there are marginally more meaningful statistical boundaries; a flawed system we all understand beats a perfect system nobody understands. Oh, and it’s cheaper too.

With improved accessibility to meaningful local data would come improved accountability. A single online search would reveal who is responsible for what in your local area; and would link to appropriate data showing whether or not they were meeting their responsibilities.

The data is all out there, free of charge in almost all cases – but the chaos of conflicting geographies makes it almost impossible to work with. I don’t believe that’s a defensible position. Power to the postcodes!

Update, 8 July: There’s now a Commons Early Day Motion on freeing postcodes, attracting decent levels of support from Labour MPs. See this post for details…

Power Taskforce’s ideas on crime maps

The Home Office is confirming that it’ll press ahead with online crime mapping, as recommended by today’s Casey Report on Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime.

Even better, the Power Of Information taskforce – specifically Will Perrin and Tom Loosemore, in apparent association with designers Schulze and Webb – have posted a few concepts showing not only the mapping of crime data, aggregated to postcode sector; not only an overlaid layer of data showing public facilities such as schools, pubs and cash machines; but also the ability to actually do something as a follow-on. I’m especially intrigued by the RSS icon: blogging bobbies, perhaps?

Judging by the mockups anyway, we’re looking at some serious interaction potential: polling on local priorities, emailing the local policing team or your local elected representatives. (Never mind the possibility of interacting with the data.)

It’s not the first time some/most of this has been proposed: whilst working at National Statistics, I was involved in the concept work which ultimately led to the disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. It’s not as if we didn’t have some of these same ideas… but mashing-up has come a long way since then, thanks particularly to Google Maps. I note the ‘presumption’ that Google’s technology would underpin these maps… another nail in Ordnance Survey’s coffin?

Power of Information taskforce blog

It’s a relief that the Power of Information taskforce, announced by Tom Watson a couple of months back, has launched a blog. Although apparently running since April, it’s only had a handful of postings… and its about page still lacks some basic information, like who exactly is in it. The initial posts include many references to ‘we’, without ever naming anyone other than the taskforce’s press officer. It also feels a bit strange that we didn’t know about the blog’s existence sooner: I’m grateful to Dave for the tip-off, without which…

On the bright side, it’s running on WordPress :), and it looks like the posts are being written by chairman Richard Allan himself (although you’d only find that out by scouring the RSS code). Comments are open, but moderated: and whilst none are yet showing, I’ve added a couple of thoughts which might stir things up a bit.

I was particularly stirred by an item on Information Architectures, which opens:

Models for presenting information over the internet have often been driven by their ’shiny front ends’. The user-facing website is all important and the supporting data is somehow squeezed into this. Thinking has moved on over recent years…

Maybe I’m reading it wrongly, but that reads like criticism to me. Am I the only one who thinks (a) a ‘front end first’ approach, you might call it ‘user-centric’, is actually a very good thing; and (b) more often than not, the front end is the last element to get any serious consideration in big government projects?