The problem with ID cards?

For all the critiques I’ve ever read of ID cards (or more accurately, an identity database), I always find myself asking one question at the end. Are you against them because:

  1. it simply can never be done securely?
  2. the technology isn’t there yet?
  3. you just don’t trust the current government?
  4. you just don’t trust any government?
  5. you just don’t trust anyone?

I don’t pretend to know enough about the ugly back-end technology (as described in this Dizzy Thinks post) to form much of an opinion on points 1 and 2. But I wonder if the majority of opposition doesn’t come down to options 3, 4 or 5.
Better service in the modern world comes down to the exchange of electronic data. Think of that every time you don’t spend 5 minutes waiting at the checkout while someone writes a cheque. Or every time you order from Amazon. I can’t believe it isn’t possible to do this properly in the public sector too.

Standard behaviour

I used to get really excited about the release of new versions of the big web browsers. These days the overwhelming emotion is worry, bordering on panic. What is it going to do with the HTML I lovingly crafted to work with its predecessor?
I held my breath this morning as I fired up the first beta version of Internet Explorer v8 for the first time. And whilst there’s nothing catastrophic to report, I’m surprised how may things are ‘a few pixels out’, even things you never thought could be risky. If you’re reading this on the puffbox.com site in IE8, for example, you’ll see the ‘find’ button is out of line with the search box, and there’s an unexpected gap between the header and navigation strip. The Wales Office site adds a few (inactive?) horizontal scrollbars to various DIVs.
There’s been a lot of talk about Microsoft’s Damascene conversion to web standards: effectively they’re saying ‘no really, this time we mean it.’ And Ray Ozzie appears to be thinking and talking long-term:

On one hand, there are literally billions of Web pages designed to render on previous browser versions, including many sites that are no longer actively managed. On the other hand, there is a concrete benefit to Web designers if all vendors give priority to interoperability around commonly accepted standards as they evolve. After weighing these very legitimate concerns, we have decided to give top priority to support for these new Web standards.

In other words, standards-compliance over legacy support. That’s the message web designers want to hear. As I’ve written before, I’m convinced the bulk of HTML coding effort is spent making the same design work identically across all browsers. An across-the-board commitment to universal standards would end that waste of our time, and clients’ money.
So why am I looking at pages which are fine in Firefox, fine in Opera, fine in Safari, fine in Konqueror… but a bit off in the new standards-compliant, ACID2-passing IE8? (No browser hacks, before anyone asks.) Please, please, let this just be ‘a beta thing’.

Whitehall, WordPress, where?

We love WordPress round here, and our passion is infectious. I’m currently talking to a handful of new people about possible WordPress-based projects: some small, some huge. The ‘yes we can’ message goes a long way.
But the unknown in the equation is always: where to host it? You don’t have to look too hard to find ridiculously cheap hosting deals in the marketplace: £30/year will buy you enough disk space, bandwidth and support/monitoring for most modest projects, often including automated installation of WordPress and other ‘open source’ software. But in government, in the midst of ‘web rationalisation’, it’s inevitably a bit more complicated than that.
So here’s my problem. At the moment I’m producing (on average) a new WordPress site every month – that’s just me alone. And I’ve got a steady stream of people wanting to do others. These sites have to be hosted somewhere. The normal consultant thing to do would be to buy some cheap hosting in the marketplace, then apply a massive markup. Government ends up paying over the odds, and we end up with countless disparate WordPress installations. Nobody’s happy, except greedy consultants.
But we can nip this in the bud. A central server somewhere, offered free of charge to any departments who want to run a WordPress project. It would only cost a few grand a year; put two sites on the same server, and you’re probably already saving money. It’s not as if we don’t already have centralised hosting deals. And most importantly, you’ve ‘rationalised’ from day one. (Well, day two anyway.)
This would make my life easier as a supplier. It makes ‘the centre’s life easier, cos they know where everything is and can ensure it’s properly maintained (security patches etc). It’s a single migration strategy, if ‘the central solution’ ever provides equivalent functionality. In every respect, it works out cheaper overall. Everyone wins.
So here’s my plea to the Powers That Be. Stop me before I proliferate again. Make me an offer I can’t sensibly refuse. And save us all money and effort, now and later.

Ordnance Survey reinvents Google Maps

‘Following a successful closed launch’, apparently involving no fewer than 12 developers, Ordnance Survey has opened the doors to OpenSpace. It describes itself as ‘a JavaScript® Application Programming Interface (API) that uses ‘slippy map’ technology, letting you dynamically pan the map by grabbing and sliding the image in any direction you like.’ Just like Google Maps, then. But there’s more.
‘OS OpenSpace allows you to build Web 2.0 applications using Ordnance Survey data’ – just like Google. You can ‘add markers, lines and polygons on top of Ordnance Survey maps, and also search for place names’ – just like, er, you know. Oh, except that it’s ‘non-commercial use only’. According to their FAQ: ‘There can be no advertising, paid promotional content or other revenue generating activities associate (sic) with any part of your website.’ Which doesn’t leave much.
There’s a page listing various usage examples: but guess what? The examples are all non-interactive GIFs… which kind of defeats the object. Duh.
I’d love to get excited by this. OS is finally speaking the right language: API, web 2.0, mashup, etc. But they have to give developers a better reason to use this than their claim of having ‘the best mapping data available’. They’re already way, way behind.
Quick update: see comments from Ed Parsons – ex-OS, now ‘the Geospatial Technologist of Google’: ‘not quite what I had opened Openspace would be, but given the constraints … a great first step and will hopefully lead to the much needed rethink.’

Labourspace: great idea, awful execution

Relaunched* (presumably?) at the weekend’s Spring Conference, LabourSpace.com is the Labour Party’s campaign-based social network. Ed Miliband’s welcome message calls it ‘the place where those of us who share Labour’s values come to discuss how we want to make Britain a better place to live.’ There’s much to like about it, but they get some things stunningly wrong.
As the name suggests, MySpace is the role model. You’ve got pictorial lists of friends campaign supporters, and a campaign blog (with comments, but without RSS). There’s a simple one-click process to support or oppose the campaign in question, as well as a curious ‘revoke’ option (?). But it’s the addition of the pro-active viral aspects which make it interesting. The campaign’s ‘top recruiter’ gets their picture on the campaign profile, and there’s a competitive element to the site, based on the number of supporters recruited each monthly (?) ’round’. There’s a big button to ’email a newspaper about this campaign’. And there’s an ’email a friend’ option too.
But, er, hang on. The ’email a friend’ option wants me to supply the username and password for my personal email account? Are they serious? I imagine they want to scour my address book for people I might want to spam about my campaign… but come on guys, did you miss the recent news stories about data security?
That’s far from the only downside. There’s very little explanation of how the site actually works, apart from a Flash movie on the homepage (which nobody will sit through)… not even an ‘About’ page. The registration process is very intrusive, with address and postcode mandatory. You need to be a registered member to do almost anything, including comment on the blogs. They’ve given zero thought to SEO, judging by the lack of sensible page titles or URLs – and frankly, it looks a bit ugly.
Plus, I don’t believe ‘bringing your campaign to the attention of senior Labour politicians’ constitutes an adequate ‘prize’. If Labourspace is going to get any kind of traction, senior Labour politicians will have to take notice of it regardless. (See ConservativeHome, for example.) Offering attention as a prize doesn’t bode well.
This site could have been absolutely fantastic: e-petitions taken to the next level. But they’ve gone out of their way to make it difficult to engage with. With David Cameron talking today about making it easier and less onerous for people to connect with his party, this seems completely the wrong approach.
The Spring Conference date was known well in advance. So, what would I do with it?

  • Lose the ‘hand over your email password’ thing immediately. Unforgiveable.
  • Write a few pages telling me what the hell is going on. Dump the Flash intro.
  • Lose the Labour brand. Make me want to engage with the site, its community, its campaigns. Then let me be pleasantly surprised that it’s a Labour-backed initiative.
  • Don’t make everything ‘registered users only’. Encourage outsiders to participate.
  • Improve the design, and give campaign owners some freedom to design their own space.
  • If you’re going to do blogs, do them properly. RSS feeds would be a start.
  • Consider adding a spellcheck. It doesn’t give me great confidence in Labour’s education efforts if site members can’t spell.
  • Where’s the ability to take campaigns outside – to my own blog? my own Facebook profile?
  • Think about SEO. Start with proper page titles.
  • And clean up the source code: what’s with all the commented-out ‘lorem ipsum’ on the homepage?

Someone is eventually going to build the ultimate political campaigning platform. This could have been it. It isn’t.
*Update: sorry, just after I first posted this, I discovered it’s been around for a while. It looks like this is a relaunch rather than an initial launch, rebuilt on a new platform.

Eee redefines mobile working

Asus Eee vs Acer 'laptop'I didn’t go into London this afternoon expecting to buy a new laptop; but confronted by a shop which actually had the Asus Eee in stock – and at RRP too – I couldn’t resist. I’m now the very proud owner of an A5-sized Linux-based ultra-mobile PC… and the initial reaction is very positive indeed.
It’s undeniably cool, and feels much more solid than you’re entitled to expect for £219. The little keyboard takes a little getting used to; but the screen is fantastic, and the sound is better than I expected. The machine itself is remarkably lightweight, and the compact (mobile phone style) AC adapter is a pleasant surprise.
Inevitably you’re going to find yourself using Firefox most of the time, so it’s an immediately familiar user experience. The custom front-end is simplistic but perfectly functional; and it’s (apparently) dead easy to enable a more conventional Linux desktop if that’s what you want.
I can’t immediately see a catch. Smaller and lighter than a conventional laptop, with all the functionality you need, and a rock-bottom price tag. It redefines mobile working, simple as that.
If you fancy one yourself – good luck. There’s a great website which checks online retailers for availability: but be warned, they tend to sell out in minutes, unless you’re prepared to pay a hefty premium.

BBC internet chief promises to learn web

Nick Reynolds is the ‘editor’ of the BBC internet blog. I must admit, I was glad to see he’d written a post to explain what the ‘editor’ of the blog did, since it almost seems like a contradiction in terms. Nick says:

‘The man who persuades important people in BBC Future Media and Technology to write blog posts’ is more accurate but a bit of a mouthful. But as well as persuading people to write, Alan Connor and I do the actual work of putting what they write into the blogging software, checking it, sometimes adding extra links and photos, and then pushing the button to publish.

The post (currently) features a fairly small number of comments – ‘typical BBC’… ‘waste of resources’… ‘public money’… etc etc. Sadly though, I note the comment I tried to submit – but apparently failed – hasn’t come through.
What shocked me most wasn’t the fact that the blog has a full-time staffer, although that’s certainly curious. It was more the suggestion that people in the BBC’s Future Media & Technology department aren’t capable of typing or pasting words into a web-based authoring form. This includes people in extremely senior and highly paid positions – Ashley Highfield reportedly earns £359,000 a year (including benefits). I’d like to think he’s capable of basic computing skills. I’m afraid a promise that he’ll try to stop emailing in his posts just doesn’t cut it. Movable Type v3.2 isn’t state-of-the-art any more, but it’s hardly rocket science.
My attempt at commenting fell foul – not for the first time, it must be said – of the BBC’s creaking blogging platform. I know they know it isn’t up to the job. Why the delay in replacing it?

Government in competition

Two articles in what looks like a special edition of the The Economist this week, which sum up exactly where e-government falls down. In ‘Government offline‘, they write (rightly):

Governments have few direct rivals. Amazon.com must outdo other online booksellers to win readers’ money. Google must beat Yahoo!. Unless every inch of such companies’ websites offers stellar clarity and convenience, customers go elsewhere. But if your country’s tax-collection online offering is slow, clunky or just plain dull, then tough.

Indeed. But in the same edition, ‘The electronic bureaucrat‘ notes, just as correctly:

In the online world, government is competing for users’ time and attention with beautifully designed sites that are fun to use. The government’s offering, says Mr Markellos (of PA Consulting), “has to be massively attractive”.

In other words: government is in competition, but (generally) only indirectly. So consumers steadily develop an understanding of how great things can be; then come up against government services with no particular incentive to be great. And since they’re fundamentally stuck with the government (or perhaps more accurately, the civil service) they’ve got, their only available response is to disengage. All of which leads the Economist to a depressing conclusion:

The examples of good e-government in our special report have a common factor: a tough-minded leader at the top, willing to push change through against the protests of corrupt or incompetent vested interests. It would be nice to think that democracy would do that, concentrating voters’ preferences for good government and creating an electoral ratchet in favour of modern, efficient public services. It hasn’t happened yet.

Enjoy your Friday, folks.

Cracking calendars

When you think about it, the progress in online calendaring (if there is such a word?) has been one of the web’s bigger disappointments. It’s not for a lack of ideas, services (Google, 30Boxes) or standards (iCal)… maybe it just isn’t sexy enough compared to Flash-ier functionality. But things are finally moving, it seems.
I’m starting to see sites waking up to the potential of offering date-based information in date-based formats. This morning, for example, I added the next few televised Arsenal games into my calendar, thanks to the Arsenal fixture list‘s one-click links to .ics files. And I added details of the train I’m catching shortly, thanks to the new iCalendar links on the fantastic traintimes.org.uk site. Very simple, very straightforward, but a huge step forward in terms of convenience.
And hurrah! – it looks like decent calendaring is finally coming to WordPress. An already pretty good plugin by Kieran O’Shea is set for a major update, with all sorts of powerful new features.
I’m also working with a (very!) high-profile client on a closed-community website, and it’s looking like date-based information could be the site’s ‘killer app’. We’re exploring the possibilities of tying a personalised ‘to-do list’ into a calendar presentation of key dates, so (for example) each task’s deadline appears automatically in your calendar (until it’s completed).
For added convenience, we’re talking about offering a downloadable AIR-based desktop widget / client / thing, which could also include the latest news items from the site (via RSS). An already interesting project is now getting very exciting indeed.

Deezer's music by permalink

I’ve written before about Deezer.com, the French ‘so good it can’t be legal’ jukebox website. Search for a song, click on the play button and er, that’s it. The music is encoded and uploaded by users, and streamed via Flash by the site… so you can’t download (er, exactly). Sound quality can be variable, but the reality is astonishing.
The v2 site has another great addition: web-based permalinks. So if you ever wanted to point someone to a specific recording of a specific song, now you can. Click the link, the song plays, the advertisers pay. By way of example: here’s Page & Plant’s live, unplugged version of Kashmir, which compares more than favourably with the Led Zep original… and comes with an extra 50% free.