Code your own BBC News homepage

The BBC has announced plans to switch off its low-graphic websites:

The low graphics version of the site was designed as a low bandwidth alternative to the full website at a time when most users of the site were using slow dial-up connections. Now, most of our users are on much faster broadband connections and as a result, the percentage of users of this service has steadily declined to a current level around 2%.

Fair enough I suppose. Except that I was one of those 2% of users. Why? – because I had it set to load in a Firefox sidebar. With one click of a browser button, I got my instant news fix. I use it constantly throughout the day.
For obvious reasons, the full-size homepage doesn’t render especially well in a 200px-wide space; but the low-graphics version did pretty well. Not perfect, but pretty good.
For a few days now, I’ve tried following the BBC’s advice, by switching to the mobile interface. But it just didn’t do it for me. So I’ve taken matters into my own hands, and spent the last half hour ‘coding my own’. (And most of that time was just making look a little prettier.)
It’s a fairly simple PHP/RSS thing, with a dash of jQuery thrown in. I fetch the BBC’s homepage RSS feed via SimplePie, dress it up all pretty, then run a very quick jQuery routine to ‘zebra stripe’ the stories for easier reading. For each story, I give myself the headline, timestamp, summary – and the thumbnail image, something the low-graphic version couldn’t give (beyond the top three items).
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a perfect case study for the ‘raw data now’ concept. The BBC supplies the data, I bang out a hasty rendering routine based on free code… and I’ve got the service I want, regardless of what they want to do themselves.
It’s running in my development web space; I’ve got no intention of making it public. But if you really think it would be useful for you, let me know, and I’ll maybe share the address details.

Search tools for Directgov: Puffbox vs Microsoft

Directgov has announced a ‘partnership’ with Microsoft, promising to make it ‘easier than ever to find government information and services online’. In practice, this means they’re using the new ‘accelerator’ feature in Internet Explorer v8: you can select some text on any web page, then right-click to access a ‘search Directgov’ link which fires that word directly into the Directgov search engine as a search query. I don’t think it’ll be life-changing for anyone, and my suspicion is that there’s more in it for Microsoft than Directgov – but hey, it’s not a bad thing.
dgsearchBut how many people are using IE8? What about the much greater number of people using, say, IE7… or Firefox? Puffbox to the rescue! I’ve thrown together a quick search plugin for Directgov, which will allow you to search Directgov directly from the browser interface. You will have to do the copying and pasting manually though, so apologies for the lack of acceleration.
And if you’re using Firefox, and you happen to have Directgov selected as your browser-bar search engine at the time – behold! you’ll have the same ‘search Directgov’ option in your right-click menu! (Thx to Stuart in the comments.)
Visit this page on the MozDev website to find Puffbox’s brand new Directgov search plugin. Click on the word Directgov, and it’ll ask you if you want to install – say yes. If you then consult the list of search engines available from your browser’s built-in search box, you should now see a Directgov option. Enter a word, and it’ll take you straight to a search query for that word.
Puffbox principal consultant Simon Dickson said: ‘Directgov is taking advantage of long-established capabilities within Internet Explorer 7, and better alternatives such as Firefox, to make it easier for members of the public to find information on the Directgov website – whether they realise it or not. Directgov is among the forward-thinking organisations using modern technologies to benefit their target audience, and we are delighted to be helping them.’
I’ll link to the Directgov newsroom article as soon as it’s been posted.

I thought it didn't have to be taxing?

HMRC in FirefoxOK, so it’s not on the scale of the lost CDs exactly, but… this morning I got a letter from HMRC telling me that I’ll have to fill in an annual tax return. The thing is, it’s not the first letter I’ve had from them recently on such a subject.
They initially wrote to me before Christmas to tell me I no longer needed to submit a tax return. Then they wrote again to say I did. Then they wrote again to say I didn’t. Now this morning, they’ve written to me again to say I do. The thing is, I’m a company director. They know this, and Companies House knows it. And that’s one of the criteria which requires you to submit an annual tax return, no matter what.
HMRC has a real credibility problem as it is, and this sort of trivial stupidity isn’t helping. Nor is the fact that a large chunk of their website – basically anything from the VAT / Customs & Excise side, by the look of it – still doesn’t display properly in Firefox. Is it any wonder, as reported by Westmonster, that a majority of the British public doesn’t want inter-departmental data sharing?

Google Docs not there yet

I haven’t played with Google Docs for a while, but news of a form designer to ease spreadsheet input intrigued me. A lot of spreadsheets, especially in an office environment, are actually pseudo-databases. So why not treat spreadsheet data entry like a database?
It’s a great idea, but the initial execution is a bit disappointing. The form designer is pretty limited: some nice Ajax-y touches, but a restricted number of field types, and no easy way to enter dates (pre-population? popup calendar?). I have a couple of work-related spreadsheets which I update on a rolling basis, and which I’d happily move over to this kind of form-based approach… but sorry, not yet. Wufoo still seems to be the leader in online forms… and with the addition of payment processing, it opens up all sorts of possibilities.
But the whole Google Docs experience is definitely improving. I tried using the Prism browser, which is basically Firefox stripped bare: and it made for a more natural ‘Office-y’ experience. It was actually surprising how much the lack of familiar browser screen furniture helped. But I think it really needs to be offline-enabled (via Google Gears or Firefox v3?) to make its breakthrough. That may not be far away, as it happens: offline Google Docs access has been spotted in testing.