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Local Government Digital Services 3.0 - A manifesto
- 2019-06-11, 17:41:11
"There will come a time soon when for some councils there won't be a council website any more - the website will be the council" - Tom Steinberg, founder, MySociety
This is the second time I've opened an article with this quote - the first occasion was in March 2016 at the start of A Web strategy for local government. I don't normally do pithy quotes from other people in articles, but this one seems sufficiently relevant that it bears repeating.
But what does it mean?
Go to any modern council website these days, and you'll see more or less the same layout of links on the home page - at the top, you'll see the so-called Top Tasks, links to specific services such as paying your council tax or a parking ticket or reporting a pothole or that your bins weren't collected, followed perhaps by some links to more general service areas, some links which will have been provided by the council's communications and marketing team to the latest council news stories and some marketing and information campaigns they want highlighting, and a series of other links which make perfect sense to the council but perhaps seem a little random to the website visitor.
A lot of the choices for links on the home page, particularly the Top Tasks area won't have come out of the website managers' heads, they will be data driven - if the most prominent four links at the top of your council's home page are to pay your council tax, see when the school terms dates are, report that your bins haven't been collected, and check for planning applications, that will be because the data for the website in question shows that out of all the people who are visiting the council website, they're the most numerous tasks all of those users in the aggregate are wanting to perform on the website.
Does that fit your profile?
I don't know about a lot of people reading this, but personally I pay my council tax automatically by direct debit (and my wife, who is not the bill payer, does not pay it at all), this coming September will be the first time in 30 years of living here that the school term dates will be relevant to me, only a few times since I've lived in this house have my bins not been collected, and I'm generally a live and let live sort who is quite content to let planned development, whether it's the people three doors down wanting to build an extension or a supermarket wanting to build on empty land up the road, be done without the benefit of my opinion on the matter. In short, whilst the home page of a council website might meet the individual needs of an aggregated majority of visits to it, it doesn't meet my own personal needs as an individual citizen.
And the data shows that I am not alone in this, either.
Taking the last 30 days of analytics data of a certain UK council website, there were 3,839,287 total page views. The top viewed page is the home page, clocking up 137,121 or 3.6% of those views, a pair of login-related pages occupy the two and three slots combining to 196,497 / 5.12% of the page views, and some jobs-related pages at positions 4, 5, 6, 9, and 11 account for 187,843 / 4.9% of the site. The first actual service-related pages to show up in the top 20 are a group of rubbish-related pages at 7, 8, and 15 totalling 93,652 / 2.44% of the page views. The next service-related pages are the council tax main page in number 10 at 31,489 / 0.82% of the views, then the school term dates page at 27,508 / 0.72% in position 14.
So to put it another way, on a typical council website home page, the three top service tasks on it account for 2.44%, 0.82%, and 0.72% of the total page views for the site. It would take a piece of detailed analysis outside the scope of this article to drill through the data to see how many of the pages further down the list are part of the suite of pages featured on the home page, but at a rough guess based on the data already analysed, it's reasonable to suggest that the content of the home page is not relevant to 95% of the site's actual visitors, never mind 95% of the citizens the site is supposed to serve.
Of course, we also know from our data that most people using the site don't come in by typing the web address in their browser anyway, we know that 71.6% of visitors have come via search and only 15.3% of those visitors have come directly. What we are less clear on though from a cursory glance at the data is how many of those searches are for '[council name] council tax' which would take them straight to the council tax page, and how many of them are searches for '[council name]' which indeed take them to the home page anyway. Regardless of this, the website's home page is clearly an important page - it sets the standard for all that lies within, it sets out the ethos of the organisation, and indeed it shows the ethos of the design of the digital service it's the principle representative of.
We may never get it perfect, but I contend that the current strategy as has been adopted across the local government digital sector the last 10 years is up for revision.
For the last year or so I've been keeping an eye on the monthly Govmetric channel satisfaction emails. Govmetric's methodology is based on three faces the user clicks - if the user clicks the green smiley face, that scores a 1, if the user clicks the red frowny face, that scores a -1, and if the user clicks the neutral amber face it scores a 0. The scores are added up every month and divided by the number of entries to produce a satisfaction index - so a positive score indicates users have been broadly satisfied during that month, a negative score indicating broad dissatisfaction, and a score around 0 indicates users are broadly content, considering the site to be neither brilliant nor terrible.
Over the few years I've been keeping track, satisfaction for the top three councils for the telephone and face-to-face channels - channels which in most councils have faced significant cuts, with neighbourhood offices being closed and moved to appointment-only and with telephone queue times increasing - have remained consistently high around the net 0.9 score, and indeed increasing slightly over time, with the top council's face-to-face score in April 2019 achieving the maximum possible 1. The top three council's web scores have been consistently much lower in the 0.25 to 0.3 area, and in the time I've been following there has been a slight, but consistent, drop in levels of measured satisfaction, with the top council achieving 0.4 in January 2015, and the top council in April 2019 acheiving 0.32. Council number 10 on the April 2019 list acheived a score of 0.05 from which we can make a reasonable deduction that most of the council websites using Govmetric are achieving negative levels of satisfaction.
We can make all kinds of speculation about why satisfaction has been decreasing over time; ideally we will ask our users. We can speculate that people are expressing their dissatisfaction with the council's actual service delivery rather than expressing dissatisfaction with the information and reporting platform, but that does not explain why citizens are generally well satisfied with the telephone and face-to-face channels. We can say that the warm fuzzies of human contact make people feel slightly less bad about getting a rubbish service, we can say that in an Amazon and Facebook world people have higher expectations of an online service so will be more inclined to click their dissatisfaction with ours.
But these various possible speculations are just self-serving excuses. The data clearly and unequivocally shows that our website homepages are not meeting our citizens' needs, and our sites as a whole are not meeting their expectations; at best, the work we as a sector have been doing over the last three years has failed to keep pace with citizens' expectations, at worst, we have been actively annoying them.
We may never get it perfect, but I contend that the current strategy as has been adopted across the local government digital sector the last 10 years is up for fundamental revision.
If the limit of our ambition is to get more citizens paying council tax and reporting potholes online rather than phoning up to do that, then we will be failing from the outset. We may never get it perfect, but we at least have to try.
One of the websites which consistently features high in the Govmetric satisfaction top 10 is the site for the States of Jersey; not strictly speaking UK local government, but close enough for the purpose under discussion. On hearing about Jersey's success, a friend and colleague, new to working in the local government digital sector, went to look at their website and landed on https://www.jersey.com/ . 'Wow', they said, until I pointed out that was the tourism promotion website, and Jersey's government website is https://www.gov.je/ , which looks somewhat more like any standard UK local government website.
Why is it the limit of our ambition to build websites which look like standard local government websites? Why is it not our ambition to build websites with the same vibrancy and attractiveness of tourism promotion websites? Both classes of websites have the same intrinsic goals - to attract users to the site to engage them in what the organisation (be it the city or the council) has to offer, and to pursuade them to make a quick decision to act there and then. There is no inherent reason why we have to present our top tasks - such is the importance they'll always have on our sites, however they're determined - in a boring plain white oblong on the screen, there is no reason why we cannot present our top tasks in a manner which makes the user go 'wow'. We will never make a user feel good about paying a parking fine, but if we make the experience of paying it be done a little more flair we might make them resent it less. If we make the information about parking in our districts easier to navigate, more engaging to view, and more up to the minute when they park their car, people might incur fewer parking fines in the first place. And if we put the same amount of effort into making the pages on the website containing the county's parking strategy as engaging and readable as the website editor of an online general interest magazine puts into making an article engaging and readable, then we'll have an increase in the number of active and civically engaged citizens who better understand the thinking behind the decisions we have to make and are less likely to complain to us when we have to make difficult ones based on impossible choices.
So what might a digital service fit for the next five to ten years - yes, I accept we have to still be pragmatic about the constraints we're under even though I want to raise the threshold of our ambitions - start to look like?
It should be a number of things. It should be:
- proactive, integrated, and timely,
- personal, and
This does not mean the same website looks nice on your laptop screen as well as your mobile phone screen. It means it should adapt according to all changing conditions, as automatically as possible. If a service depends on the time - such as for example if a citizen can't report a missed bin collection until after 3:30pm on the collection day (because until 3:30pm the crews are still collecting), then don't give them the option to report it before 3:30pm that day, rather than annoying them by letting them start the process and then annoying them. If it's a page about a building, service, or event with open and closed times, if the user visits when the thing is closed put a message on the page to say it's closed, and when it will be open again. If it's a page about events in the area, if it's raining or cold right now prioritise showing the indoor events, if it's sunny and warm prioritise showing the outdoor events.
Proactive, integrated, and timely
Personal digital assistants such as Alexa and Siri are proliferating in the home. I've manually set mine to tell me several times during Tuesday evening every week to do the bins. A digital service which can be integrated into a user's PDA could not just automatically be set up to do the reminder, it would know which bins need to be done on any given week. A digital service which is proactive, integrated, and timely would be tracking and displaying the route of the bin wagon in real time, so that if first thing on Wednesday morning I realise that despite Tuesday's reminders I've still forgotten to put them out, I can see if the wagon has not reached my house yet so I can quickly put my dressing gown and slippers on and catch them before they get to me, and if for whatever reason the bins end up not being collected, I can see the route the wagon took before it decided not to come down my road, and I'll get a message telling my why they didn't collect my bins and when they'll get collected instead so I don't even need to report a missed collection. If I see a pothole, broken manhole cover, or faulty traffic light during my daily walkabout and go to report it, if on the reporting page I can see it's already been reported then I don't need to waste mine and the council's time reporting it again.
Most councils are working with a plethora of line-of-business systems for managing council tax records, housing records, planning applications, committee meetings, street defect reports, etc. Most of which are mutually incompatible (even when created by the same vendor), many of which were designed and built in an earlier age. A lot of effort has to go in to making online systems talk to each other. Sometimes it can't be done at all, so either an online service involves double-handling, or it doesn't happen at all.
The work that most of these systems need to do isn't inherently complicated - most of them are just databases containing records which are created and edited according to a workflow, with various outputs and reports. There is an opportunity for local government digital service providers to clean up here looking at some of the worst examples of poorly designed line-of-business systems and creating modern alternatives. And after all, if the citizen goes to the council website to find out information about logging a planning application, why can they not log that planning application on the same website, and the planning department access and workflow that application through its whole life in the planning cycle in the same system. Planning applications will thus also show up in the local area search on the website - and of course a citizen will also be able to get proactive notifications from their online account of new planning applications related to their chosen area(s).
Of course a lot of local government digital service providers won't want to get into the business of trying to enter a market for a system that another provider already has significant market share and expertise in delivering - they might want or need to just concentrate on their own particular offer. There's no shame in that. However, if all local government systems were to work with open standards and open APIs, with full two way integration that is easy to set up and configure between different systems, then that's fine. If I submit a planning application on the website, a two way integration to the separate planning management system will still make it look to me as the citizen that I'm dealing with one council digital service. With open standards and APIs there will be no need for people configuring different systems to go through the pain of trying to make the public-facing versions of those systems look the same - and then have to update them all when the main council website gets a site refresh, because the data from the LoB system can be surfaced to the website via JSON or another technology. And of course a digital service designed and built in a modular fashion able to easily recieve the data from open APIs doesn't just need to be restricted to other council systems, it could receive relevant data from central government systems, it could receive data from any other system.
Since the council knows that I already pay my council tax automatically by direct debit, there should be no need for the council website to encourage me to pay my council tax every time I go to it. Since the council can see that I look like I live outside the borough rather than in it, it doesn't need to promote so heavily all the services directed at residents, it can instead prioritise showing services directed at visitors. Since the council website is anonymously tracking my user journey behaviour anyway, why not introduce the option for it to explicitly track my personal user journey behaviour, so that over time it can learn which pages I access the most and offer them up to me in the home page top tasks area, rather than offering the top tasks everybody else apparently is interested in? And give me the option to add my own shortcuts on the home page. Why do I have to login to access some of this personalisation, if the personalisation is not personally sensitive - why can't there be an option for some of those preferences to be stored and available to me without an explicit login? And since the website can be configured to receive data from external sources via open APIs, why not enable me to configure the data I want to see myself on the home page from internal and external sources, so I can build up my own local portal?
If we make people go 'wow!' when they come to do something trivial, and make people go 'wow!' when they come to do something important, then they'll tell their friends. Their friends will tell their friends. The local media will tell its readers how good the council digital service is and how well the money is being spent. We'll achieve our channel shift and savings goals because people will not want to interact with us any other way - for those people, the council website will indeed become the council.
If we limit our ambition to getting more people to pay their council tax online, then we'll probably struggle to even achieve that. Let's raise our ambitions to create digital services which make people go 'wow!'.
#localgovdigital #localgov In group Public / Third Sector Digital
The Crumbling of Parliament
- 2019-04-05, 09:31:10
So everybody laughed yesterday at the House of Commons being suspended yesterday because of water gushing in through the ceiling. But here's the thing.
The Palace of Westminster is an historic building, part of our nation's heritage. Like all our other historic buildings it's supposed to be held in trust and protected, just like the buildings and monuments from ancient history have been by their civilised custodians.
The occupants of the Palace of Westminster have know for years that the building is literally crumbling around them - not only do all the utilities within a working building need upgrading, the masonry itself is falling apart - on a near-monthly basis a piece of the stonework will fall off and come crashing to the ground. But the elected occupants have for years prevaricated about coming to a decision on what to do about it. Everybody knows what actually needs to happen is they all need to decant to somewhere else entirely for a couple of years whilst a relatively short and relatively cheap complete repair and upgrade job is done, all in one go. But a sizeable number of MPs don't want to do that, they want to instead spend a couple of decades, and considerably more money - your money and my money, which could be spent on the NHS instead - on a bit by bit repair and upgrade programme, closing off sections of the building and re-opening them bit by bit.
So because they've been unable to agree on how the major repair works get done (hell, they only just managed to agree to start the repairs to the Elizabeth Tower in which the clock is kept, and there were plenty of them who opposed even that), they've not done anything beyond the odd urgent patch here and there. Leading to what happened yesterday.
Not only are they pissing about whilst the nation falls apart around them, they're pissing about whilst their own workplace falls apart around them; if they can't even be trusted to fix their workplace, how can they be trusted to fix the nation?
It's not just time for a General Election, it's time for a General Election in which every single sitting MP has to contest an open primary to be selected as their party's candidate. Or not be permitted to stand at all - we need a fundamental restacking of our democracy.
Brexit - what should happen next
- 2019-01-16, 09:16:41
The country and Parliament have failed to agree, and it's pretty clear they never will agree; the wheels have fallen off the Brexit train not least because the people who voted for and campaigned to leave have been unable to agree amongst themselves what 'leave' actually means. Here's what should happen next:
Revoke Article 50, make it clear to the Leave folks that the matter is not ended, spend the next two years trying to do what David Cameron failed to do at the beginning of 2016 (whilst the EU might be a bit more predisposed to grant the concessions they told him to whistle for back then, having seen that the UK actually is stupid enough to jump off a cliff if it so desires), also spend the next two years fixing some of the problems - including the UK's own botched implementations of EU directives and regulations - which led to the slender Leave victory in the first place, put the matter to The People again in a binding referendum with a properly fairly agreed franchise and a realistic enhanced majority threshold (55% / 45% seems reasonable enough), and implement any subsequent second Leave victory in an orderly manner with a National Unity Government rather than a minority leader behaving like they've got an absolute divinely-sanctioned majority.
Nobody could argue such a course would be undemocratic, because the procedure would be legally binding from the outset, and all but the minority extremists on both sides will get what they want, and the rest of the rhetorical 90% of the population who never cared one way or the other until 2.5 years ago can see the country talk about something else for a bit.
#politics #eu #brexit
Brexit, omelettes, and eggs
- 2018-10-17, 07:44:06
This, by or via Facebook user Jane Cody, is currently being widely shared around Facebook; reproduced here as fair use to allow people to see it without having to login to Facebook.
LEAVER: I want an omelette.
REMAINER: Right. It’s just we haven’t got any eggs.
LEAVER: Yes, we have. There they are. [HE POINTS AT A CAKE]
REMAINER: They’re in the cake.
LEAVER: Yes, get them out of the cake, please.
REMAINER: But we voted in 1974 to put them into a cake.
LEAVER: Yes, but that cake has got icing on it. Nobody said there was going to be icing on it.
REMAINER: Icing is good.
LEAVER: And there are raisins in it. I don’t like raisins. Nobody mentioned raisins. I demand another vote.
DAVID CAMERON ENTERS.
DAVID CAMERON: OK.
DAVID CAMERON SCARPERS.
LEAVER: Right, where’s my omelette?
REMAINER: I told you, the eggs are in the cake.
LEAVER: Well, get them out.
EU: It’s our cake.
JEREMY CORBYN: Yes, get them out now.
REMAINER: I have absolutely no idea how to get them out. Don’t you know how to get them out?
LEAVER: Yes! You just get them out and then you make an omelette.
REMAINER: But how?! Didn’t you give this any thought?
LEAVER: Saboteur! You’re talking eggs down. We could make omelettes before the eggs went into the cake, so there’s no reason why we can’t make them now.
THERESA MAY: It’s OK, I can do it.
THERESA MAY: There was a vote to remove the eggs from the cake, and so the eggs will be removed from the cake.
REMAINER: Yeah, but…
LEAVER: Hang on, if we take the eggs out of the cake, does that mean we don’t have any cake? I didn’t say I didn’t want the cake, just the bits I don’t like.
EU: It’s our cake.
REMAINER: But you can’t take the eggs out of the cake and then still have a cake.
LEAVER: You can. I saw the latest Bake Off and you can definitely make cakes without eggs in them. It’s just that they’re horrible.
REMAINER: Fine. Take the eggs out. See what happens.
LEAVER: It’s not my responsibility to take the eggs out. Get on with it.
REMAINER: Why should I have to come up with some long-winded incredibly difficult chemical process to extract eggs that have bonded at the molecular level to the cake, while somehow still having the cake?
LEAVER: You lost, get over it.
THERESA MAY: By the way, I’ve started the clock on this.
REMAINER: So I assume you have a plan?
THERESA MAY: Actually, back in a bit. Just having another election.
REMAINER: Jeremy, are you going to sort this out?
JEREMY CORBYN: Yes. No. Maybe.
EU: It’s our cake.
LEAVER: Where’s my omelette? I voted for an omelette.
REMAINER: This is ridiculous. This is never going to work. We should have another vote, or at least stop what we’re doing until we know how to get the eggs out of the cake while keeping the bits of the cake that we all like.
LEAVER/MAY/CORBYN: WE HAD A VOTE. STOP SABOTAGING THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE. EGGSIT MEANS EGGSIT.
REMAINER: Fine, I’m moving to France. The cakes are nicer there.
LEAVER: You can’t. We’ve taken your freedom of movement.
Have the police lost control of the city centre streets of Birmingham?
- 2018-10-03, 14:20:57
A couple of weeks ago when I was walking from work to the railway station along Dale End / High Street in Birmingham I commented that just about every evening when I walk that way there's some kind of blue light incident going on in the area.
Last night as I was walking along the road I saw that the blue light incident had been levelled up considerably by the entire area being sealed off.
It turned out what had occurred this time was a mass brawl of about 100 youths resulting in three people being stabbed. From eye-witness reports of the lead-up to the incident, it seems that to a certain extent some kind of rumble was already pre-planned:
"I was on the bus going into town and everyone started making weird noises as it started pulling up at the bus stand near the McDonald's.
There was a massive group of kids, I'd say they were probably aged around 16.
They all went after this one guy who looked the same age and grabbed him - he nearly went under a taxi.
There were probably about 30 of them. Then about 10 or 12 guys started stamping on him. I was on the phone to my mum when it happened and I told her I wouldn't be surprised if he was dead. They were stamping on his head and legs, everywhere. They kept doing it".
But it also turns out that my anecdotal perception of there being some kind of incident in the area every evening is borne out by the data - it turns out that on average, 48 crimes a month are reported just on that 20 yard section of road - you know, like at least one every day.
Hundreds of schoolchildren are causing “chaos” to businesses and shops around Dale End, with one shop owner revealing how youths “just steal things and run off”.
The “free-for-all” around Dale End and Bull Street is hitting shopkeepers hard, none more so than at Pound Palace near the ever-busy McDonald’s.
The shop owner, who didn’t want to be named, said: “It’s happening all the time after 3pm.
“The children come and then there’s around 200 people blocking the door and customers can’t get in.
“You try asking them to move and they just steal things and run off. The police are nowhere to be seen.”
But bearing in mind there is currently an enhanced police presence in the city centre just the other side of town right now because of the Conservative Party conference taking place, you've got to wonder, a mass gang brawl by a bunch of yobboes that looks like it was planned in advance? And they expected to get away with it because they know they get away with the disorder that is a constant feature of the area? There's only one conclusion - that the police have lost control of the streets.
Still, we're not entirely without measures to be kept safe in town - the entire of the city centre is encircled by a Ring of Steel of tank traps as a now permanent fixture since Christmas 2017.
So that's OK, if the yobboes causing 48 crimes a month wanted to storm the area in their stolen hothatches they'd be prevented from doing so.
Perhaps the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner might like to reconsider the effectiveness of these measures to prevent a hypothetical crime and instead consider re-prioritising the resources that are currently allocated to them into preventing the actual crime which is going on under their noses?
Given that this is a known crime blackspot during a known time of day, why isn't there a permanent police presence in the area to deter it - and ready to follow it around should it move from Dale End to, say, Pigeon Park?
Of course police budgets are stretched and getting more stretched with more cuts almost certainly on the way - this too needs addressing. But come on, what is it about our society that is now evidently so broken that this kind of behaviour is occurring anyway, regardless of whether there are police officers on hand to deter it? What kind of parents do these 100 children have that have clearly raised 100 yobboes who are quite prepared to kick the shit out of and stab - potentially fatally - one of their number in a mass attack in broad daylight in the city centre anyway?
#birmingham #society #crimeIn group Birmingham
Gmail - no longer considered secure enough for business or consumer use
- 2018-07-06, 09:59:03
So yeah, I've been generally working on reducing my reliance on Google services, not least because of Google's habit of withdrawal mission critical services that people are even paying for at the drop of a hat. Looks like Gmail is the next thing to replace, since currently all mail to star-one dot org dot uk actually gets read by us through Gmail.
I wonder what businesses - especially tech businesses tt- who are using Gmail Pro think of the possibility all their confidential business emails may have been read by developers at other tech businesses?
#technology #business #security
What laptop should I buy?
- 2018-06-15, 13:52:04
Roughly once a month or so I see requests from friends asking the world for general advice on buying laptops. Since it's quite burdensome to type out the advice I always give on my phone, here's a handy guide on the internet.
First of all, for most people's uses, pretty much any Windows, Linux, or Mac laptop you can buy these days will be sufficiently powerful for your needs. The only areas which will need extra power will be computationally-heavy tasks such as real-time audio (for example if you're making music with your computer), video editing and rendering (to be fair, a less-powered computer will still be able to do it, it'll just take a lot longer), or gaming. If you're doing any of these tasks, you'll need to go for the fastest computer you can afford; if you're doing real-time audio a Windows laptop will be OK, but if you've got the budget for a Mac then go for one of those instead, because Macs' audio handling tends to be much more efficient than Windows'.
If literally all you're wanting to do is a bit of Word, a bit of web and email, and a bit of streaming video from Netflix, then indeed the cheapest new computer you can get will see you right.
So on that basis, how do you choose?
First of all, you'll need to balance drive size, processor speed, and RAM.
If it's going to be your only computer, then you'll almost certainly need at least 500GB of drive space on which to store everything; this probably means you'll be needing one of the bulkier laptops rather than one of the modern ultra light ultra slim laptops, though laptops with larger faster Solid State Drives rather than slower Hard Drives are getting cheaper all the time. Yeah, you can use cloud storage, but the last thing you want is when you actually need it the file you need now to be in the cloud needing you to download it rather than right there on your computer. Alternatively, if you've got another computer as your main computer and you're looking for a laptop for handy out-and-about use then that increases your options, as you can get ultra-thin laptops with smaller hard drives for reasonably cheap, though I wouldn't recommend getting anything smaller than 128GB if your budget can stretch to it, and definitely don't get anything smaller than 64GB (I don't know if there are any ultrabooks smaller than 64GB, though).
You of course want the fastest processor and largest RAM your budget can stretch to - but if the selection you see in front of you all have the same processor speeds, go for the ones with more RAM, ideally at least 8GB, definitely not less than 4GB. In fact, for the most part if you see two computers for the same price, one with 8GB RAM and a slower processor, the other with 4GB RAM and a faster processor, then go for the 8GB/slow option, because your experience of using the computer will almost certainly be faster with more RAM than with faster processing - faster processors are better for single computationally heavy tasks (such as rendering video that you've been editing), whereas more RAM is better for allowing the computer to do multiple tasks at once. OK, you might be only doing one task at once, but your computer is always doing many things simultaneously!
We have not yet covered the most important things to bear in mind when choosing a laptop, though - and for that reason, you're best not choosing a laptop by looking at specifications on the internet, your best bet for choosing a laptop is to go into an actual real shop.
Having decided on your budget, go to the laptop shop and go to the section of the shop which has them in your budget range. Look at them. Pick them up. If they're not too tightly tethered to the counter, try resting them on your lap. Type a bit on them.
Because for the most part most cheap consumer laptops are pretty much evenly matched in terms of power, and as discussed above, for most consumer applications the least powerful laptop you can buy will serve most people's needs anyway, the differentiators between laptops isn't the power, but the product design and build quality.
Is it a nice weight to carry in your bag? Indeed, is it big enough to be able to use, and small and light enough to fit in your handbag rather than needing to be carried in a rucksack or laptop bag? Does it balance nicely on your lap? Is it easy and comfortable to type on (and rest your hands on when you pause to think)? Does it feel nice to hold? Is the screen sharp and easy to read, and reflection and glare free? (Though note that sharper screens tend to be more prone to reflection and glare, so consider what kind of environment you're most likely to be using it in) Is the pointing device - either a nipple in the middle of the keyboard or a trackpad below it - easy to use, accurate, and not prone to accidental clicking when your palm shifts? Does the actual whole thing look good on the desk?
These are the things which are most important to think about when choosing a cheaper end laptop - does it look and feel like a nice, comfortable, quality product?
One last thing - don't, under any circumstances, get a Chromebook.
Landing pages - October
- 2017-11-17, 13:22:20
Just for fun, as Peter Snow always used to say, the proportional landing page accesses to www.birmingham.gov.uk during October 2017.
#localgovdigitalIn group Public / Third Sector Digital
Council digital teams - have we stopped innovating?
- 2017-10-05, 16:15:41
Way back in November 2013, as part of the project to improve Birmingham City Council's website I was leading on, I wrote a blog post speculating on a few ideas which might be coming up in the Local Government digital sector in the coming year; at the time of writing I didn't expect I'd be likely to be implementing any of the ideas myself, because at that point my project was principally an information architecture and content strategy project, we weren't at that point expecting to be in a position to improve the underlying technology behind the site. So these things which I predicted somebody else might do were:
- Open data,
- ‘The Internet of Things’,
- Responsive Design,
- Crowdsourced content, and
- Real time information
So when recently I was copying the old blog posts from the site for that project into this site, that original post caught my eye – in the sense that I was moderately surprised that nearly four years on, actually not much has changed.
Let's examine those predictions and what's transpired over the last four years:
Open data in local government is still a niche area; yes, many councils now have their data portals with a handful of datasets on them, but they tend to just be token efforts so the councils can say they're doing something with Open Data, rather than the rich datasets that are being exploited by enthusiasts, activists, and third party agencies to do something useful with. I think it's still a vicious circle – councils are reluctant to put in the extra effort required to publish more datasets in an open format without any indication of the value of doing so, and third parties aren't coming up with ideas of what can be done with that data because they don't think councils are going to give it to them anyway. There's not a lot of interesting work which can be done with a dataset containing the list of chief officers' salaries published as a .csv on an open data portal that can't be done just with the text of that information on a web page, and indeed the idea that was expressed in 2013 about presenting the website as XML as well as HTML so somebody else can easily scrape the content to produce a microsite from it was an idea which seemed good in the meeting it came up in, but I guess now, yeah, why? I still want to see my idea of a mash-up of housing allocations data with school places data so that people affected by the bedroom tax can find a new house in a place where there's room to send their children to school. Councils and the Open Data Community still need to do more work together to build mutual trust to come up with some really useful innovative work in this regard.
Back in 2014, mobile access was seen as a done deal for council websites. I think it's fair to say that pretty much most major council websites, even if they had good mobile usability in 2013 have improved their mobile usability by 2017; mobile-first as a strategy is fairly firmly embedded into most local government website designs. What I've still not seen yet is anything acknowledging that some tasks might well be best started in the mobile domain but completed in a desktop environment, so users can hand off a process part way through from one device to another. And we're still not really seeing anything which actively takes advantage of a mobile platform – mobile on a council website is basically still just putting the council website on a small screen, with (hopefully) bigger text so people can still read it.
The Internet of Things
To be fair on this, over the last four years IoT has become a bit of a dirty word; Just because Tim Berners-Lee had it as thing he wanted to push, that doesn't mean it's automatically a good idea. No, there's really no point at all in putting your kettle or your toaster on the internet, and I still don't quite see the point of central heating being on the internet myself, although I have friends who swear by it. Lichfield District Council's project to put QR codes on their street assets to aid reporting has been all but abandoned, partly because the person who was leading on it moved on to another job. Self-reporting broken street lights? There actually has been quite a bit of work done on these, although right now the technology is still a bit flaky.
Responsive design is still overwhelmingly limited to fitting the website into a smaller screen, but I still don't see any layouts which change to accommodate bigger screens. Again, to be fair on this for most council websites there's probably not that much more which can be usefully done to change the layout to take advantage of a bigger window; websites have largely settled into a two or three column layout mainly I think because there's not much content or navigation chrome which can usefully be shuffled into a fourth, fifth, or sixth column should one become available. But I still think there's scope for the other kinds of responsiveness – content which changes according to time of day, or according to the user's location, or according to the weather.
The Amazon Kindle is still pretty much the number one platform for eBook delivery, whether that's on a dedicated Kindle device or using the Kindle app on a mobile phone; this is one of the few areas in which Apple's attempt to barge in to an existing market and claim to be innovating hasn't washed with the general consumer.
The pilot I did back then was just a simple compilation of a section of the website's content (the history of Birmingham's canals) into .mobi and .epub formats for all eBook readers – but what I was most interested in at that time was the possibility of making use of the specific feature of the Kindle format, whereby publishers can update a book's content and those updates will be pushed out automatically to people who've bought the book. At the time I didn't have any clear ideas in my head about what this could be used for, but subsequently the obvious areas could be news and blog content, very much a mainstream area of local government communications now, which has Amazon now has a specific Kindle Periodical format for, and, say, automatically updating minutes of meetings for the civic-minded section of the population. And there's almost certainly more fertile ground to explore in this area.
There's still not much being done in this area, mainly limited to comments on blog posts. With the passage of time, I'd put this as being one of those 'nice to have' things – but as well as being limited by the web CMS technology in use, it's a thing which is going to be more limited by available staff time to moderate contributions by members of the public. And available staff time is unlikely to increase in local government during the forseeable future...
We do see webcams showing the queue to the council tip on a few websites now! Car park RTI is probably going to be limited by the infrastructure investment which may be needed to connect the car park available spaces sign to an API to feed into the website, coupled with questions about the value of presenting that information on the website (and how would a driver access that information in real time whilst driving around looking for a parking space anyway?). Is there any other RTI which could be easily and cheaply presented which would have real value to the user?
So, have we stopped innovating?
It was with my review of that old article in mind that at #localgovcamp 2017 in Bristol, I initiated a session with the provocation: Has the local government digital sector stopped innovating?
A fairly provocative accusation to put before my #localgovdigital peers, so when the session started I was simultaneously pleased (because it meant I wasn't going to get lynched) and disheartened that the response in the room was 'yes, we've stopped innovating'. So we then went on to consider some of the reasons for that:
Innovation could have stopped simply because we actually did all the easy stuff years ago - we've now got harder stuff to do, which might be costlier and take longer to deliver,
Because of budgetary constraints we're much more risk-averse - and innovation is inherently a risk. Everything you do has to be justified in advance with predicted costs and predicted ROIs,
In many organisations, people who are doing the innovating are engaged on a task-and-finish basis for a specific project, so they get seen as completing a job and then being moved somewhere else entirely - they don't get to stay on to carry on doing more work,
'What do we actually mean by being innovative anyway?',
We're still hampered by rubbish procurement contracts which tie us in to sub-standard vendor-supplied products where making changes are at best prohibitively expensive and at worst impossible,
The increasing attitude in the sector that we aim to buy off-the-shelf with no scope for customisation anyway regardless of whether or not the products on the shelf actually fully meet our requirements,
Even before contract stage, the procurement selection process is stacked against small-scale companies who are delivering innovative products - one company built a system to do bin lorry tracking at a total cost of £50k using cheap, modern, ubiquitous hardware such as phones and tablets, competing against large companies charging £500k for an inferior product using older, clunkier hardware - they're still having difficulty breaking into the market because of being seen as too cheap or too small,
We've taken 'delight' out of the user experience,
OK, it might be easy to make Adoption and Fostering or Leisure content delightful to use - how do you make paying your parking fine delightful? Maybe if finding information about parking in the first place was more delightful, maybe people would have fewer parking fines! How do you make reporting a pothole delightful? Many councils have PFI contracts for road repairs requiring users to give more details about the size and depth of a pothole, usually in relation to pound coins and various sports balls. Ideally we'd negotiate these arbitrary questions out of the contracts (since the experience of a number of councils with these contracts is the contractors ignore them anyway), but if we must have them, graphical representations of the size and locations on the form are at least more engaging than just the words – especially if those graphical representations allow the user to place the pothole accurately on a graphical representation of the part of the road it's located,
And when your digital team – and all the service delivery teams it interacts with - is half the size it was five years ago, you've just about got time to deliver basic functionality, never mind delivering enhanced and refined delightful versions of that basic functionality,
Many councils now operate Internal Recruitment First policies, where in order to mitigate against compulsory redundancies all effort has to be made to fill vacancies internally, even if an applicant is less suited to a job. It's good that councils continue to try to mitigate against compulsory redundancy, but if councils can only re-employ their own existing staff it does somewhat stifle the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Even if IRF policies were broadened to allow vacancies to be filled by people working for different councils that would be a massive improvement,
Where are the successes and innovations celebrated and publicised? There doesn't seem to be a central repository where we can share what we've done to inspire each other. This is something which the Local Government Digital Steering Group could help with,
With success comes scrutiny and other pressure – one council's website improvement plan started off as a skunkworks, where they had free reign to do what they wanted - but then when they started having their successes as they were releasing, they then started to get noticed by senior management and then expected to deliver to targets and deliver according to other priorities rather than what made sense to them to deliver next according to their own plan.
As were coming to the end of the session, one participant posed a couple of further provocations:
Have we actually done any real innovation in the first place yet at all?
Why would people with cool crazy ideas of great things we could do want to work in a command and control environment where the overriding culture is one of fear and backstabbing anyway?
And a possible solution was offered:
What next for innovation?
With all that aside, what might be just around the corner (ie, still not ubiquitous after another four years...) in the local government digital sector? Aside from the areas on my original list which I still think have possibilities for investigation, there are a few more things which currently interest me outside the council world which I think offer possibilities for us:
Webcasting council meetings is now commonplace; whilst people don't exactly watch a council meeting as an alternative to watching The One Show, there's general agreement that this has been a good thing overall, especially with the weakening of the local mainstream news media sector over the last five years to keep us under proper public scrutiny and hold us to account, and viewing figures for many meeting webcasts are reasonably respectable.
A step further than a simple webcast could be the casting of a select few council meetings in virtual reality – cameras to film and stream virtual reality are inexpensive, a couple of hundred pounds at most, and virtual reality footage doesn't need an expensive Oculus Rift or HTC Vive to be viewed, it can work just as well in a Google Cardboard headset costing just a few pounds, or a slightly more luxury experience such as Google Daydream View for a price which isn't bank-breaking; and you can still watch VR content on an ordinary phone or computer without a headset for the full immersive experience.
Now, there's limited value in VR-casting a council meeting from the democratic accountability perspective, to be sure, but from a public engagement and education point of view, what better way to give the public a feel for how a council meeting works and what the councillors in meetings do than placing the viewer right in the middle as a participant in the meeting rather than an observer from the gallery? Better engaged citizens means citizens who are better informed at election time – and better engaged citizens means better candidates putting themselves up for election.
But if the democratic potential of VR doesn't convince you, how about the commercial potential?
Many of our council buildings these days also operate as traded services – wedding venues, banqueting halls, conference centres, and the like. If you're looking for a venue to hire for your special event, then a key consideration in your choice is what's the venue actually like inside? And flat photos rarely do a good room justice, whilst clever cropping of a flat photo can easily make a mediocre space look better than it really is. As more and more people are becoming accustomed to looking up a place on Google Street View before making a decision to visit in person to size it up properly, the venues which have decent VR pictures inside and out, on Google and on their own websites, will have the competitive edge over the venues which don't. And virtual reality footage of a past event is a great way to give a flavour of what a future event may be like.
Personal Digital Assistants
'OK Google, when is my next bin day?' - 'Alexa, remind me to put the bins out at 7pm the night before each bin day' - 'Hey Siri, report that my bins haven't been collected this week'.
I have to admit the rise of voice-control has left me a bit non-plussed; I don't understand why anybody in a public place would want to broadcast their business to the world on the train in this way, and it's surely easier to type on a phone than it is to speak sufficiently clearly for the assistant to hear exactly what I'm dictating? But apparently a lot of people swear by these things nowadays, which is borne out by the fact that more and more of the dedicated devices are being brought out to be stuck on the kitchen table.
As internet-connected devices, at their most basic level they just go and do web searches when a user gives them a command. But content providers can also develop for these devices, in order to give users a better quality of result and interaction. Aylesbury Vale Council claims to be the first local authority to make use of Alexa 'skills' in this way, and some initial investigation I've done indicates, for basics at least, it's reasonably easy.
Why do our council home pages all look the same to every visitor? We look at our access statistics to see that most people are coming to the website to report potholes, request housing repairs, find school term dates, pay our council tax, and check the library opening times, and we design our home pages and main pages accordingly. But why would the childless be interested in school term dates? Why would a visitor to the borough want to know how to pay their council tax? Why would somebody who owns their own home require a quick link to a form to request a repair to a council flat? Etc.
About 10 years ago personalisation became a bit of a thing on the web, with the BBC, Google, and indeed a couple of councils doing work with it. Pretty much every implementation was clunky – it required you to login to create an account just for the purposes of personalising it yourself, and the personalisation options available to users didn't amount to much, and mainly involved the user themselves dragging boxes around the screen and ticking tickboxes to say what they were and weren't interested in, so few people actually bothered with it, and after a year or so most websites which were offering it quietly dropped it.
Fast forward 10 years, and most council websites offer some kind of online account functionality, so the concept of logging in to the council website isn't such a novelty nowadays. But with that login, combined with the online newsletter preferences many of us set, the council website knows quite a lot about us already in order to make intelligent predictions about what we're interested in – if a user is logged in the site will know whether or not they are a council tax payer and if so whether they are indeed paying their council tax already so whether it's worth sticking the council tax payment link front and centre of the home page to them. Even if a user isn't logged in and doesn't have an account, there's a reasonable amount of information the site can automatically infer and react to (see Responsive Design above!) - it can detect whether the user is a local or located in another city, so it can guess whether to prioritise content related to living here or content related to visiting here; for leisure content, there's no reason why the website couldn't take a feed from a weather forecasting API, and prioritise indoor activities on the list if it's raining, and outdoor activities on the list if it's warm and sunny. It could keep a log with a cookie or HTML5 local storage (on the user's own computer, without sending that information back to the council) of the pages the user visits the most, and offer those as the top tasks on the home page rather than offering the tasks that everybody else in the aggregate has visited the most even though the individual user has no interest in them.
Jadu and Spacecraft have been exploring this area, and in my own workstream to investigate the possibilities myself I've named it 'frictionless personalisation' - so-called because the user doesn't have to do anything themselves in order to receive the personalised experience more relevant to their own needs.
Getting the basics right
Of course, all this innovation malarky is all very well, but playing around with the cool things shouldn't be done at the expense of getting the basics right - but at the same time, delivering high quality forward thinking and engaging digital services shouldn't be an either/or proposition. It should be possible to develop an online form to quickly and easily report a pothole and develop a system which can make use of the accelerometer data in users' mobile phones to build up a crowdsourced map of possible pothole locations as they drive over them.
#localgovdigital #localgov In group Public / Third Sector Digital
Cheese filled portabello mushrooms
- 2017-09-24, 13:09:14
- Portabello mushrooms (or other large flat mushrooms)
- Chopped garlic
- Bouillon powder
- Truffle oil
- Hard goats cheese
Sprinkle a small amount of bouillon powder into each mushroom, then dribble a small amount of the truffle oil over them. Spread the chopped garlic around them, and then spread large amounts of butter in. Place broken off pieces of the cheese around the stem, and then bake for about 10 minutes at 220c