+++ EXCLUSIVE +++: Transport's £2.7m spend on online game

In late November 2009, I noted the launch of Code of Everand, a multi-player online game commissioned by the Department for Transport, aimed at teaching kids road safety in an innovative way. I found it ‘a bit tedious and mechanical’, but I acknowledged that I wasn’t exactly its target demographic.
But all sorts of alarm bells were ringing. A site like this couldn’t possibly have come cheap – but that was only the start of my concerns. It had apparently taken more than two years to build. It was built by a US-based agency. It had apparently ‘been on the brink of cancellation twice.’ And by the time it finally launched, none of the Transport staff who had originally commissioned it were still in post.
I signed off with the words ‘I imagine an opposition PQ is already in draft.’ – but as if to demonstrate just how influential this blog really is, no such PQ was ever forthcoming.
When the site’s first birthday came and went without fanfare, I could no longer suppress my curiosity… and drafted a FOI request via MySociety’s What Do They Know service. Whether the site was a success or a failure, cheap or costly, it was going to be an interesting response.
I got the response yesterday. So here we go.

That’s a grand total of £2,785,695 from project inception until the end of the current financial year. By any standards, that’s a staggering amount of money to spend on a single campaign website. Was it money well spent?
I also asked for data on user registrations and site traffic. This is a chart of new user registrations per month:

That’s a dramatic drop from a peak of 54,500 new registrations in March, to just 6,500 in April; and it’s basically been flat-lining since June. A total of 170,000 registered users, 91.8% of whom were signed up before the end of the last financial year – and the spending of a further £700k.
There’s a similar pattern to the numbers of monthly Absolute Unique Visitors, as measured by Google Analytics – although it’s curious to note the differing extents of the peaks.

The Google data regarding average time spent on the site is worth noting:

From an understandably low base, as the site built its following, the average has hovered around the 10 minute mark. That’s much more than most websites could boast, and stayed remarkably constant even as the monthly visitor numbers crashed – before suddenly jumping to nearly 18 minutes in November. Similarly, in terms of page views, it has typically recorded around 16 per visit, already very high in comparison with most sites – before shooting up to 28 in November.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that the project has social media presences in all the obvious places. And as I’m writing this, in January 2011, Code of Everand has 568 friends on Facebook – and 82 (let me confirm that: eighty-two) followers on Twitter. It’s even worse on the more child-friendly networks, where you might expect it to perform better with its notional target audience: Habbo (18 friends) and Bebo (10 – yes, ten).
Whatever interest it might have generated in those first few months, and however well it has engaged its hardcore following, it’s surely impossible to say the site has been a sustained success. Since April, its audience has all but disappeared. And yet believe it or not, just as I was writing this, there was an update on its Facebook account:

So it’s an outrageously expensive failure, right? Believe it or not, I’m still withholding judgment. Yes of course, it’s a huge amount of money: £16.33 per registered user. But it’s conceivable, just about, that it’s had its desired effect in terms of educating the youngsters it’s aimed at.
We’ll find out in due course. Transport confirmed in their response to me that:

A contract to evaluate the game was let to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in March 2010. The evaluation team consists of TRL, the Serious Games Institute based in Coventry University, and Simon Christmas Ltd, an independent social researcher. We are currently in the planning stage and do not yet have a date for publishing the work and final report.

Given the collapse in visitor numbers, and the continued spending of public money on a project which would seem to have had its day – if it ever had it at all, they might want to get a move on.
Data on road casualties during 2010 are scheduled to be published in June 2011.

Birmingham's new website: how late? how much?

I don’t usually cover local government issues here – I leave that to other people. But I’ll make an exception for the news that Birmingham City Council is poised to launch a new website.
It was originally scheduled to launch in March 2006, at a cost of £580,000. It is now set to launch in August 2009 – so a mere three and a half years late?! – at a cost of, wait for it… £2.8 million.
The truth came out in an FOI request lodged by Heather Brooke, the ‘unsung hero‘ of the MPs’ expenses row, using MySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow website. (And if you’re ever asking for similar information, you could do worse than copy and paste her letter to Birmingham.) The council’s reply, embedded below, reveals that the original £580k project was intended to last 7 months; its scope was then formally ‘modified’, moving the date back by two and a half years (!). Subsequent revisions and delays bring us to August 2009.
And here, this’ll make you laugh. Even after all that time, even after all that money, the Birmingham Post reported last month that the latest delay was because ‘officials discovered the software did not recognise pound or euro signs, apostrophes and quotation marks’.
For the sake of the good people of Birmingham, and I speak as a former resident… I sincerely hope it proves to have been worth the wait. And the money.

McBride: a scandal for the internet age

So Damian McBride appears to have been taken down by the blogger he was considering trying to emulate.
It’s being reported that McBride’s emails were sent from his official Downing Street email account. If so, that’s a naive error to have made: partly because it leaves him open to (valid) accusations of misusing public resources, and partly because it exposes him to the risk of exposure via FOI. Guido republished an email he had sent to McBride requesting ‘copies of all emails referring to either myself or my publication, “the Guido Fawkes Blog”… under the provisions of the Data Protection Act (1998).’ (Mind you, Derek Draper told Sky News tonight that his private email had been ‘hacked into’.)
It would have been an ugly and unpleasant story if he’d been a Labour Party employee discussing such tactics; or even if McBride had sent the emails in his own time, from his own email account. But it wouldn’t have been quite so explosive. And let’s face it, it probably wouldn’t have come to light. (Frankly, I assume such conversations happen all the time inside most political parties.)
So let’s clear up the technicalities. Someone created a new blog at wordpress.com, under the ID ‘aredrag’ at 4:24pm GMT on Tuesday 4 November – a free service with a minimally intrusive registration form. On the same day, before or after, someone using the pseudonym Ollie Cromwell registered the domain name ‘theredrag.co.uk’ – a tenner for two years through easily.co.uk. They then paid wordpress.com the $15/year fee to run a wordpress.com-hosted site under a different domain name. The site itself consists of a standard Kubrick template, with only the default ‘Hello world!’ post visible. It has a (very rough) custom header graphic, but beyond that, it’s as ‘out of the box’ as it could be. To me, it suggests someone who knows what they’re doing online; and in the right hands, it could have taken only a few minutes. It doesn’t necessarily imply a coordinated, organised, resourced smear campaign.
At its heart, this is a story about the thin line between politics and government – a subject often mused upon in these pages. Now of course, it’s not a new riddle. But it’s the fact that any individual, with no great financing or technical skill, can become a journalist and publisher in minutes that adds a new dimension. It allows McBride and/or Draper to contemplate setting up such a scurrilous website in the first place. And equally, it has brought mavericks like Guido Fawkes into the mix: independent, and with nothing to lose.
Numerous times, we’ve tried to draw lines separating party politics and public duties – MPs’ communications allowances, civil servants in quite obviously politically-focussed positions, Ministers blogging their political views, whatever. In this culture of constant communication, I’m wondering if that’s still possible.

  • Does the Prime Minister have to be the ‘leader’ of his/her party? On reflection, Blair and Prescott did a fairly good double-act, with one being the head of government, the other being the party chief.
  • And does the PM’s spokesman actually have to be a civil servant? Should we accept that Downing Street is a special case, exempt from the same neutrality requirement of front-line, service-delivery Whitehall departments? We can’t play out our West Wing fantasies with politically neutral civil servants.

There’s a long way to go on this one. A very long way.

The Obama memoranda

It’s well worth reading the two memoranda issued by President Obama yesterday, on – ironically, given yesterday’s events – FOI and transparency. There’s nothing about them on the White House website (???), so I’m grateful to this Washington Post blog.
On Freedom of Information:

In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike. The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.
The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.

It’s almost impossible to pick out highlights from the memo on ‘Transparency and Open Government’: it’s all good. But if I really had to pin it down:

My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.
Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information… Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

The choice of language is deliberate and forceful. Well worth bookmarking these documents, and quoting them whenever possible.

Let freedom of information ring

It would appear that the plan to exempt MPs and Lords from Freedom Of Information provisions has been ditched. The Mail’s Benedict Brogan is trying to unpick what just happened:

Gordon Brown claims that Tories have pulled out of a cross-party deal to introduce the change. The suggestion from No10 is that up until yesterday the Tory and Labour Chief Whips were agreed that the Tories would vote with Labour in favour of the scheme. In effect the accusation is that David Cameron took fright when he realised what that would mean for his stand on transparency. The Tories are expressing mystification, suggesting that there was no deal. So either it’s embarrassment for Dave because Brown has revealed that the Tories were ready to back the exemption. Or it embarrassment for the PM because the Tories have forced him to back down.

Arguably, it doesn’t matter. A bad thing has been averted, and we – the citizens of the Internet – should take some credit, and pride in that. ‘Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way.‘ Not Obama’s inauguration address, as I initially assumed; that’s from Tom Steinberg’s blog post on the subject. 🙂
But it’s been a depressing couple of days, watching this come to a head. The potential implications, if such stories are true, aren’t pleasant to contemplate, if (like me) you believe it’s inherently a good thing for the country to know what its leaders are doing, and why. The two parties conspiring, behind the scenes, to get the measure through, undermining any claims they’ve ever made about transparency – and, while we’re at it, any claims of affinity to the Obama message:

As president, Obama will restore the American people’s trust in their government by making government more open and transparent and by giving regular Americans unprecedented new tools to keep track of government officials, who they are meeting with, who is giving them money and how they are spending taxpayer dollars.

It would have been sheer hypocrisy. As a small business owner, I have to be able to present receipts for every sum I try to claim back from the public purse (in the form of the Tax Man) as expenses incurred in the course of my work. I’m not allowed to deliver a top-level summary under either 9 or 26 headings. And quite simply then, MPs should have to do likewise – and be seen to do so.
And let’s give due credit to the Liberal Democrats here. It was Jo Swinson who tabled the (relatively poorly supported) EDM on Monday; and Nick Clegg had imposed a three-line whip on his MPs to oppose the move. Their credentials are reinforced today.
UPDATE: The story is evolving. ‘Tory HQ are desperate to claim that there was no deal or collusion between their backbenchers and Labour over the issue,’ says Sam Coates at The Times.  ‘The decision, apparently made in the 45 minutes between the mid-morning lobby briefing and the beginning of PMQs, looks shambolic at best – but the Conservatives’ ire has been fuelled by what was said (and left unsaid) at PMQs,’ says Niall Paterson at Sky News.