New gov.uk website hits beta

The GDS project to build a ‘single government domain’ website passed from alpha to beta phase in the final few hours of January 2012. And as with the alpha, it’s all open to the public – you’ll find it at http://www.gov.uk, which still looks rather odd, and feels very strange to type. I guess I’ll get used to it.

Writing on the GDS blog, Tom Loosemore describes it as ‘ the next step on the journey’, but of course, that’s a bit of an understatement. An ‘alpha’ build, such as was unveiled last year, makes no promises. By definition, a beta is much closer to what its creators consider to be their eventual vision. The stakes are higher, much higher this time.

Thankfully, it’s looking great. It’s no surprise to see the defining characteristics of the alpha still in place – notably the placing of emphasis on tools rather than text, and search rather than navigation. And it’s in these that you find the platform’s real strengths.

‘Quick answers’, such as this Student Finance Calculator perfectly illustrate the revolution that this ushers in. For too long, government websites have sought to provide inch-thick documents instead of single-sentence (or even better, one word) answers to the user’s specific question.

(Remind me to blog about the ‘do I need a visa?’ questionnaire I built in 1999, whilst at the Foreign Office – and still visible, hurrah!, via web.archive.org. And a dozen years later, presumably after serious reconstructive surgery, it’s still going strong albeit in a new home.)

And it goes without saying – the predictive search mechanism is excellent. But then again, it has to be. Once you’re beyond the homepage, there’s next to no clickable navigation. This is the ‘Google is the homepage‘ credo gone fundamentalist.

For those of a technical mind, James Stewart has listed the technology it uses; and I’m grateful to Harry Metcalfe for the tip-off that interesting things happen if you stick .json on the end of a URL.

I for one welcome our new online overlord. 😉

(Plus, it gave me an excuse to play around with the excellent Bootstrap web framework, open-sourced by Twitter last year. I love it, although it’s highly likely to make your website look a lot like Twitter.)

GDS’s visions of the future

Master of ceremonies, Mike Bracken

I must admit, I was a bit surprised to receive an invite to what was billed as the launch of the Government Digital Service – but was, more accurately, the housewarming party for its new offices at Holborn. I consider myself a ‘critical friend’ of the project, but it’s clear that some people focus on the ‘critical’ part. I had visions of one of those American police sting operations, where they tell all the local fugitives they’ve won the Lottery.

Looking back at the tweets afterwards – from people who were there, and those watching from afar – I was surprised at quite how big a deal people were making of it. I observe these matters more closely than most, I admit; but I didn’t hear a lot I hadn’t already heard before. Some of it several years ago.

What was more important, by far, was who said it. And where.

Francis Maude in casual mode

Leading off the sequence of rapid-fire speeches and presentations (slides now on the GDS blog) was Cabinet minister Francis Maude: note the open-neck shirt, the relaxed saloon-bar lean against the side of the podium. This was not your typical Address By The Minister. Citing his pride that this was happening on his watch, Maude made a somewhat unexpected statement: ‘where a service can be delivered digitally, it should be, and only digitally.’ That sounded like a step beyond the notion of ‘digital by default’. Had I taken that down correctly? Yes I had; helpfully he said it again. And again. Fair enough…

The honour of following the Minister fell, perhaps unexpectedly, to Ryan Battles from Directgov. In fact, this was a recurring theme throughout the morning: it felt like every opportunity was taken to credit Directgov, how much it had achieved, how strong its satisfaction ratings had been.

Tom Loosemore

Tom Loosemore’s slot was probably the most eagerly anticipated: a first public sight of screens from the Single Domain ‘beta’ build. He opened with a tribute to Directgov, and said he now appreciated how difficult it was to get things done in government. And via an extended jigsaw metaphor, he demonstrated some of the new site’s key principles – most notably the use of ‘smart answers’ javascript-based forms which asked specific questions, and gave specific answers. (I’ve got a story of my own to tell about such approaches… another time.)

But for me, Chris Chant’s comments may prove the most significant of all. He described how the GDS’s IT had been set up, using the kind of instant-access, low-cost tools you’d expect of a technology startup. Mac laptops, Google Apps, the open-source Libre Office software suite, and no fixed telephony. (OK, so maybe the Mac laptops wouldn’t be low-cost to buy initially; but they’re more developer-friendly, and almost certainly lower-cost to support.)

I think that’s when it all fell into place for me. The day wasn’t about demo’ing the current work-in-progress on the websites. It was about presenting GDS itself as a vision of the future. It’s an office space which looks and feels like no government office I’ve ever been in: and for many, it’ll come as quite a shock to the system. (Not least the ceiling-height photos of Francis and Martha.)

It’s taking a pragmatic, rather than the usual paranoid and overbearing view of IT security; and a modern approach to ‘desktop’ computing. Which of course is the only sensible thing to be doing in this day and age… although that hasn’t been enough to encourage government to do so in the past.

Ian Watmore

Ian Watmore’s comments confirmed this: one of the first things Mike Bracken had asked for upon his appointment was ‘a building’ – and this was it. Perhaps appropriately, Watmore observed, it’s a former church. As might be expected of a Permanent Secretary, his remarks seemed the best-prepared – although, as he freely admitted, the previous night’s football results must have been quite a distraction for an avid Arsenal fan.

Some visionary remarks from Martha Lane Fox, about technology providing a route out of poverty, brought the procession of Big Names to a close. It’s hard to imagine a more illustrious lineup of speakers for such an event; (almost) all of them speaking without notes, and with conviction. These were the people at the highest levels of the department in overall charge of public services, all speaking as converts to the benefits – to the user, to the civil servant, to the taxpayer – of the new tech-led approach. There’s absolutely no questioning the backing for it.

And by their very mode of operation, GDS is setting precedent after precedent, about what is allowed, and can be done in a Civil Service environment. Others can point to it as an example, and ask difficult questions of their own IT and facilities managers. If they can do it, and apparently save something like 82% by doing so – why can’t we? Or more to the point, how the hell can we justify not doing so?

Things are changing.

Cabinet Office finally confirms Alphagov transition to beta

If you’ve been following the whole Alphagov thing – and if you’re reading this, we can probably assume you have – then today’s Cabinet Office ‘announcement’ that the Single Government Domain project has now ‘progressed to the next stage’ won’t have come as any kind of surprise. I make it seven weeks since the team declared via Twitter:

We’ve moved on from developing the “Alpha” (prototype), so we’re no longer called @alphagov on Twitter. “Beta” now in development.

… followed soon after by Neil Williams’s revelation on his personal blog that he was now working half-time on ‘Betagov’.

Tom Loosemore’s blog post adds some detail, promising three things for ‘early 2012’:

  1. Public beta test of the site delivering the mainstream, citizen-facing aspects of gov.uk.
  2. Private beta test of a shared gov.uk ‘corporate’ publishing platform, aimed at replacing most of the activity currently hosted on numerous departmental publishing environments (see alpha.gov.uk/government for a flavour)
  3. A first draft of a gov.uk ‘Global Experience Language’, to provide clear, consistent design, user-experience and brand clarity for those developing sites for the single gov.uk domain. (see BBC.co.uk/gel for an example).

There will be a certain amount of dual running of ‘the beta’ and Directgov – ‘it will be constantly updated in order to trial the essential behind-the-scenes administrator tools & processes’ – indicating, at the very least, how serious they’re now taking it. Constant updating means, in effect, a ‘proper’ staff – and that’s probably the most difficult thing to arrange in Whitehall terms.

I’m glad to see Tom’s apparent acknowledgement that the ‘single domain’ approach only goes so far, and doesn’t perhaps sit too neatly with departmental representation. He writes: ‘the audience for such content tends to be more specialist and already engaged with the work of government than most mainstream users.’ Would departmental subdomains still count as being within a ‘single domain’, I wonder?

Of course, given my own experience with departmental publishing, it’s this aspect which I’m most interested in – even though it’s not the most important from the citizen perspective. And, to be frank, it’s the area where I feel Puffbox can be of most help. Throughout the past year (ish) working with Defra, we’ve kept in mind the possibility – increasingly, the likelihood – that departments would start to share a platform, and ultimately, share code within it.

We’ve shown how WordPress can be configured to bear the load, whilst still maintaining an efficient balance between centralised control and devolved publishing responsibility. And if you’re wondering why the Puffbox name doesn’t appear in Defra’s spending data on the No10 transparency site: that’s because we came in (well!) below the £25,000 threshold for publication.

Meanwhile, as highlighted earlier this week, we’re now up to four Whitehall departments (plus No10) using WordPress as their primary web platform. Thus far it’s been somewhat opportunistic; now it’s time to get a bit more strategic.

Update: The Register’s piece on the subject refers to a ‘Betagov’ budget of £1.6m: author Kelly Fiveash tweets to tell me it’s ‘an accurate figure the Cabinet Office gave [her] this morning’. Subsequently confirmed by Tom Loosemore: ‘yup, that’s the overall programme budget for single domain‘.

Ten things Alphagov gets right

Late on Tuesday night, the password protection was lifted from http://alpha.gov.uk – and the most eagerly anticipated web project ever produced by government, arguably the only eagerly anticipated web project ever produced by government, was finally revealed. And it’s… well, it’s quite a shock to the system. Or rather, ‘The System’?

It’s important to recognise what Alphagov is, and what it isn’t. It is an illustration of how the ‘experts’ think government should present itself online. It is a pre-pre-release product: they aren’t just saying ‘you might find problems’, they’re more or less guaranteeing it. It is not a finished product – in terms of information content, browser compatibility, accessibility, etc etc. It isn’t a live site: much of the content is a snapshot in time. And it’s not a definitive blueprint of how things will be: it’s a challenge to the status quo. Some of it won’t be workable; some of it won’t be palatable. But it’s time to ask some difficult questions.

Rather than pronounce one way or the other, here’s my list of the ten things Alphagov – as a product, and as a project – has got right. (That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a complementary list of 10 mistakes, by the way.)

  1. The fact that it happened at all.
    Don’t lose sight of the achievement it’s been to get this going in the first place. Those involved haven’t been working for free: my guess is, the project will have cost several hundred thousand quid (update: pricetag of £261k ex VAT confirmed via Twitter), at a time when jobs and services are being cut (although of course, there’s a view to long term savings). It’s been shielded from the Civil Service: more of a skunkworks, probably, than the ‘official’ skunkworks. It’s been staffed by a phalanx of individuals and small operations, working with open source tools and technologies, and hosted ‘in the cloud’. This is not how ‘we’ do things.
  2. Delivery 1, Perfectionism 0.
    The team were brave enough to publicise a go-live date in the mainstream media. And to within a day or so, they made it. Sure, it was rough round the edges, probably rougher than they actually intended. But they were absolutely right to get it out the door, and worry about the fine detail later. That’s the luxury of being an alpha, I suppose: the opportunity to concentrate on what really matters.
  3. It challenges the norm (while it can).
    You know what they say about the ‘first 100 days’? That’s roughly how long Alphagov had – and they’ve used it to good effect. They’ve shown healthy disrespect for ‘the way we do things’, as they should. They’ve pushed boundaries, broken rules, and thought the unthinkable. But that grace period can only last so long: in fact, this public release probably marks the end of it.
  4. Focus on search.
    For many people, Google is the internet. Alphagov recognises this on two levels. One, it presents itself primarily as a search engine – with the sophisticated ‘auto suggest’ function being a particularly welcome addition. Two, it’s very search engine friendly, with very clean HTML markup, and meaningful and keyword-loaded URLs. It’s also nice to see them indexing other government sites in their own search, although the results are frankly a bit patchy.
  5. Tools not text
    Perhaps the greatest leap forward demonstrated by Alphagov is its preference for online interactions, as opposed to text documents. So for example, instead of a maths textbook explanation on calculating holiday pay, you get a web page which asks a couple of questions, and gives the answer. The page listing bank holidays doesn’t just give you a written list of dates – it gives you a link to a .ics file, which can be imported into your calendar (Outlook, Google, iCal, etc).
  6. Location based services
    On similar lines, it’s fantastic to have a geographic lookup function built in. So for example, instead of telling you to contact your local police station, then chucking you at a list of every police station in the country, it points you to the only one you’re actually interested in. (Well, near enough: the data for where I am seems to be a bit off.)
  7. Jettisons the old, embraces the new.
    Alphagov is surely the first government project to revel in its (very strongly-worded) disregard for government browser guidelines. Whereas ‘proper’ projects are effectively obliged to spend time ensuring things look and work OK in Internet Explorer v6, they’ve used that time more profitably – demonstrating how the use of more modern features, such as geolocation, could really be beneficial. How many times, I wonder, have great ideas for on-screen interaction been killed by the Lowest Common Denominator?
  8. Single government view.
    From a user perspective this one’s a no-brainer, but it still remains the most potentially explosive: absorbing each departmental web presence, and putting a common identity across them. They’ve handled this beautifully, albeit rather cynically. The departmental ‘sites’ retain a certain individuality, if only through the use of a defining colour – red for the Treasury, blue for BIS, and so on. And the Ministers, whose vanity could kill the whole idea, get great big pictures. But for most people, these departmental presences simply won’t be there, until you go looking for them. And that’s how it should be… as long as we can trust the team and the technology at the centre, to be responsive to departments’ needs and desires. (Sadly, the ‘alpha’ won’t tell us that.)
  9. Straight talk.
    I love this page: Does my child need a car seat? You get your answer at the very top of the page, in extra-large bold letters. The sentences are short, decisive and jargon-free. And there’s no missing the safety advice at the bottom, with its mock highlighter-pen effect.
  10. Transparency throughout.
    From the very start, Alphagov has been active on Twitter, picking up well over a thousand followers. They’ve given cute little insights into the team’s activity, they’ve answered questions, they’ve generated a bit of excitement. Shortly before launch, they launched a blog (with our help), pro-actively announcing and explaining some of their more radical approaches, and posting in their own names – not to mention direct links to their personal Twitter accounts. They’ve had (more or less) an open-door policy for people inside government wanting to visit, and see what was brewing. And now it’s live, they’re taking feedback via public routes: comments on the blog, Twitter / Facebook responses, and a Get Satisfaction account… and acting on it, too. Truly exemplary.

So what happens next? It’ll be fascinating to watch. The geeks have thrown down their gauntlets. It’s time for the civil servants to consider how their information and services could fit into the new mould. And for the public to compare the Alphagov approach with the established Directgov/departmental model. Which is better? There’s only one way to find out.

Loosemore leads Lane Fox vision work

Confirmation on the Cabinet Office’s blog of something that’s been known within the Whitehall webby world for a little while now: Tom Loosemore (ex BBC, Channel 4, Ofcom, Show Us A Better Way, etc etc) has been ‘asked’ to put together an ‘alpha’ version of what a Single Government Domain website, as proposed by Martha Lane Fox, might look like.

My feeling was that, although Martha’s principle was sound, I feared for its execution. With the ‘right people’ involved, it could be made to happen; with the usual people involved, however, it would almost certainly go the same way as previous attempts.

Tom Watson MP took a very similar view of things. Writing at Labour Uncut last November, he said:

As Martha rightly points out, to achieve the changes required to make engaging with HMG online a simple, pleasurable experience requires a massive change in culture and technical expertise. And Francis [Maude] is also humble enough to know that he’s going to need the flair and talent of Britain’s best web people. He needs the A-team.

… and indeed, one of the names Tom (W) went on to list was Tom Loosemore. It was a suggestion I entirely agreed with: indeed, I’d mentioned Tom as an ideal candidate for the CEO Digital position (although he himself didn’t agree!).

Tom and his team – which also includes FCO’s Jimmy Leach as the designated Editorial Lead, and has called on various ‘usual suspects’ from the gov/web field (including yours truly, briefly thus far) – have been working out of a deserted floor of COI’s Hercules House offices for a couple of months now, starting with a thorough analysis of traffic and search data from various sources, to identify exactly what the public wants from its government.

Subsequently, there’s been quite a lot of activity over at ScraperWiki, showing a combination of political material, consultations and general public information. There’s an alphagov account at Github. And intriguingly, there have been a couple of FOI requests made via What Do They Know, in Tom’s name, to get JobCentrePlus-related information out of DWP.

Some early visuals – rather bold, post web-2.0 you might call them – have been shown to senior Whitehall webbies, but it’s far too early to offer a judgement on them. The Cabinet Office blog includes a pledge that the team ‘will be making public their progress as they go’, and ‘will report when the first iterations are public’: which, I believe, should be in a matter of weeks rather than months. Meanwhile, you’ll probably want to start following @alphagov on Twitter:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/alphagov/status/52762689625268225″]

Whether or not you like the thought of this initiative, or its hush-hush approach (thus far), there’s no escaping the fact that Francis Maude had given his provisional approval to the notion of unification; and to get us all to a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’, we need exercises like this to test out what it will/would actually mean. And you’d struggle to put together a team with better experience, skills and insight to do so.

PS Don’t forget, Francis Maude and Ian Watmore are in front of the Public Administration Select Committee tomorrow morning (Wednesday). I suspect this may come up. Follow the action live at parliamentlive.tv from 09:45.

PPS I couldn’t resist a cryptic tweet this morning: ‘Tempted to register betagov.co.uk – it’s still available, and might come in, you know, handy.’ Amusing to note that it’s since been claimed by Richard Pope (aka memespring).

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’.

Ofcom’s commentable documents

Ofcom’s Tom Loosemore shows there’s still plenty that can be done with Typepad; an ‘interactive’ version of their Communications Market Review has just gone up on the same account used to host their Public Service Broadcasting review blog. It’s actually the second time they’ve done this; there was a similar trial earlier this year, with the PSB Review itself.

It works very much along the same lines as CommentOnThis; or the CommentPress theme for WordPress, as used by Steph at DIUS. But it’s one of the more innovative uses of Typepad you’ll see.

I must admit, I’ve gone off Typepad as a platform: I was finding it too restrictive, too tied to the concept of blogging (where WordPress was open to being used as a lightweight CMS). However, the single biggest thing in its favour remains the ease of setup: £75.90 per year, giving you full design control (unlike, say WordPress.com), generous disk space and bandwidth allocations, a custom domain, and the IT department need never know. News of a next generation platform is intriguing, with the promise of new features in time… but it’ll take a lot to wean me off WordPress now.

Given Typepad’s restrictions, Tom’s interactive approach is quite an achievement. Each paragraph in the document is its own blog ‘post’, with its own comment stream. It looks as if Tom may have spent a few hours last Friday, painstakingly creating each post in reverse order, to ensure they appeared in numerical order on the site’s (reverse chronological) homepage. Not something you’d want to do regularly… and WordPress ‘pages’ would have made it much easier. But hey, full marks for inventiveness!

(Thanks to Ross Ferguson.)

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.

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?