Harry Metcalfe

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Number 10′s e-petitions can be better

We all know and love the Number 10 petitions site. The technology works and the experience is well thought through, as one would expect given that it’s a mySociety project.

It’s not perfect, though, and as usual, it’s the human element that’s problematic. It’s the responses to petitions that don’t hit the mark, and don’t give any opportunity for people to engage further. It’s the top-down, message-driven, one-way broadcasting at people, instead of the collaborative, mutually respectful conversation that we should be having with Government.

Having real, two-way conversations is hard. It requires time, patience, money, and a wholesale change in attitude — but Government say they’re up for it. Digital Engagement is the mantra du jour. And things are definitely moving in the right direction.

So — given this background of steady and positive change — why are Number 10 still stuck in the mud? Why do we get responses to petitions that range from the dishonest to the obtuse, and only the occasional gem, when it really should be the other way around?

And why, when someone makes an extremely sensible suggestion for a way to make this a bit better, does it get dismissed out of hand?

All who are currently procuring e-petition software should beware: it’ll be an expensive waste of time unless you use it to substantively engage with citizens.

The last thing the Web needs is another place for people to shout into a hole.

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Amusing graph fail from the Government’s draft IT Strategy

The Government’s leaked draft of their new IT strategy is now online, and among its delights is this graph:

Online Sophistication

Wondering what on earth it could possibly mean, I tweeted for some ideas:

Delightful graph fail from gov IT strat. What, I wonder, is 90% sophistication!?

And, well — people had some excellent ideas:

90% of Brits wear smoking jackets while they browse the web. Exmosis

It’s when your little finger sticks out while typing :-) LilianBarton

Whatever it was, it seems to have stopped in 2007, so maybe we can relax. Or assume we must now be at at least 106.74%. pubstrat

Doesn’t matter – we’re kicking Europe’s ass by a whole 14%!! Yay us!! simond

All my answers are just too smutty to tweet paul_clarke

Got a good one? Add it in the comments…


Cripplingly, apallingly stupid

Council bans parents from play areas because they don’t have CRB checks.

The mind boggles. I think Henry Porter summed it up nicely:

“This is a fundamental breach of rights, but almost as serious is the offence to common sense”

Who are the people who make this kind of decision, and why are they so paranoid? Wouldn’t it be better if people with these responsibilities assessed the risks that we all face reasonably and rationally?

This kind of petty officiousness deserves no mercy. Mass civil disobedience is called for. I hope that these adventure playgrounds are inundated with an unstoppable horde of parents and grandparents, bearing picnics, toys, and healthy bullshit detectors.

Someone’s got to make sure the kids know that we’re really screwing these things up.

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Ernest Marples: the first month

Well, it’s nearly been a month since Richard Pope and I launched ErnestMarples.com at OpenTech 2009.

The site offers a free API to convert postcodes into latitude and longitude coordinates. This is an important thing to be able to do: the postcode is a de facto standard for specifying locations on the web. Any site that needs to know your location will ask for your postcode — from mapping, to political engagement, to useful local services.

Unfortunately, the Royal Mail owns the postcode database, and maintains a stranglehold on it. They won’t let you use it for a website unless you pay them exorbitant fees (£1000+). This might be ok if you’re a big company, but lots of the most useful services aren’t. Those people have no choice but to use whatever data they can find on the web — something which, among other things, is very inconvenient. We decided to make it easier, and take that step out of the process. We do the tricky bit — sniffing the data out from the corners of the web — and pass it back to as structured information that developers can use to create sites that make people’s lives easier and better.

The site’s been up for nearly a month, and it’s been busy. Already, three libraries have been donated by volunteers — with no prompting — that make it much easier to submit requests using PHP, Perl or Ruby.  Scores of people have sent us messages of support. I’ve even been hugged. We’ve been written about by Guardian Tech and FreeOurData. The site has served lots and lots of requests to people doing useful things.

We’re delighted that it’s going so well, but we have big ambitions — so please help spread the word. We’d love to see lots of useful services using the site. The more people who do, the more irrefutable our argument will be when it comes time to persuade Government and the Royal Mail that the status quo just won’t do.

So please, blog about ErnestMarples.com. Tell your friends, colleagues, cats and dogs. Send tweets pinging round the world. We need all the help we can get.


Mobile phone companies are crap

After posting about the iPhone yesterday, I thought I should mention that figuring out what service was best for me was a real pain. It should have been easy, but it wasn’t.

Because I had unusual plans — buying a Pay & Go phone and then switching to a 1-month rolling contract — I rang O2 twice before buying anything. I wanted to make sure that Visual Voicemail, unlimited wifi and tethering would work on a non-iPhone contract, and was assured that they would be.

After getting the phone, I found that Visual Voicemail didn’t work, and called O2, assuming it was a configuration problem… but no. They said Visual Voicemail and tethering are unavailable on anything other than an iPhone contract, which is not what they said before. I suggested some possible solutions to this:

Could you turn on these features without using an iPhone contract? Answer: No. Apparently it’s “technically impossible”.

Could you put me on an iPhone contract with an appropriate discount and no minimum term (since I already have the phone) Answer: No. “The system won’t let me do that.” — “Can I speak to someone who can authorise it?” — “No one could authorise that” — “What!?”

I had a bit of a go at the guy and was called back by a manager, who offered me a month’s free line rental to make up for it, but still. I felt pretty messed around, especially since i had taken so much care to ensure that everything would be ok. Ho hum.

In any case, I do now have the new iPhone, and it’s lovely (despite O2′s crummy 3G coverage), and I’m terribly happy with it. It is an awesome piece of kit: so awesome, it turns out, that it can even balance out the monumental crapness of mobile phone companies.

If only it was available to Orange customers…

Edited to add:

I forgot to mention that O2 were pretty rubbish even before I got my hands on the phone. I ordered it online on the Friday morning when it was released. The website asked me when I wanted when I wanted it to be delivered, so I picked a free slot on Monday morning. It didn’t arrive. My card was billed — all, I thought, was good. I rang O2, and they said it would arrive in the next couple of days.

On Tuesday, perhaps over-enthusiastically, I rang O2 again to ask when it would come, only to be told that they’d run out of stock and cancelled the order.

Beyond the initial confirmation email, I didn’t hear from them at all. They didn’t tell me a thing. #Fail.


Do we need identity cards, and soon?

We need to be able to authenticate ourselves online. The Government’s Identity Card scheme is in part an attempt to do this, and it’s really bad, but we do need some sort of system that offers more than traditional proofs of identity.