Interesting series of posts over on the Code for America blog about ‘fixing procurement‘. Some of the terminology might be different but I think anyone working in the UK public sector will recognise the issues discussed. Related just this week the G-Cloud, the UKs own attempt to solve some of the procurement problems, won an award for ‘Public Cloud Project of the Year‘. [that said even though the new version seems much improved I still find it difficult to find anything specific using the search tools.]
A very civilised four day week this week so this is going to be a short update for a short week.
This week was very meeting heavy – even compared to previous weeks. Time spent at my desk was a rare and wonderful treat but for the most part the meetings continue to add useful insights to the organisation and are helping me make important connections.
I gave an internal presentation along with our Head of Design on Tuesday to give people a bit of idea of my thinking and proposed direction of travel – plus an opportunity for the team to show off some of the good work already underway. If I’m honest the presentation wasn’t a roaring success – technical difficulties meant starting minus my slide-ware, considerably more people attended than I expected and I clearly pitched the presentation at the wrong level for a lot of people who came. I was trying to keep it quite light without too much geek but clearly I didn’t achieve that. Thankfully the show and tell elements after I sat down were well received.
We had some great news about some taxonomy and IA work that has been going on and that seemed to really lift the team and will kick off a spate of pretty intense user testing over the few weeks. Genuinely exciting stuff.
Its clear that we need to do some more internal comms – I encountered a couple of major misconceptions about the scope of the team this week which will need addressing. Part of it just seems to be people lacking a clear understanding of the amount of work that goes in to doing some of these digital outputs.
Recruitment is hotting up. Three posts have reached the external publicity stage of Civil Service recruitment – these are vital roles for the team so fingers crossed.
Video & Audio production role in sunny Newport bit.ly/14SgvPK – come join new team. Pls RT
— Matt Jukes (@jukesie) May 23, 2013
— Matt Jukes (@jukesie) May 23, 2013
I didn’t manage to take the blog any further this week but am going to spend a bit of time on it this weekend and see if I can get it ready for the world. I’ve also been wondering about trying to set up some kind of monthly ‘brown bag lunch’ talk series with external speakers from the digital world.
It is Her Majesty’s birthday next week so Monday and Tuesday off so I’m going to settle in and enjoy this long weekend now
My life is basically a series of trips on public transport punctuated by occasional other activity (work, social life etc). My current job is responsible for a minimum of 13 hours a week of commuting – the vast majority of that on a train route that has no wifi, minimal 3G connectivity and worst of all no power sockets.
I’m still trying to find a solution to the 3G issue but the power problem has been resolved thanks to a random blogpost from author and internet fiend Warren Ellis. This post introduced me to the Anker Astro2. The Anker has been a god send these last three weeks – happily holding enough charge to completely resuscitate my empty Nexus4 and have enough juice left to charge my iPod Nano. It also comfortably refuelled my iPad3 on a trip back from Titchfield.
It is not lightweight but justifies the extra strain in my shoulder when carried and Amazon have been selling them half price recently (I think there is be a new model).
It is recharged itself via a standard mini USB wall charger so is pretty low maintenance and while I haven’t ‘crash tested’ it it certainly looks like it could take a beating (though the connectors it comes with look a little flimsy so I swapped them for stuff I had laying about.)
For anyone who has a lot of commuting in their life I’d definitely recommend it. It will have a permanent spot in my commuting bag going forward (now just need to get a new bag – but thats another post!)
Yesterday I attended #opentech (well some of it) for I think the third time. It is something of a unique event these days I think – on paper it looks like a pretty normal tech event but when you look a bit closer you see just how special it is. In some ways it feels like it is from another time – a more techno-hippy version of the wider world of the web.
It is determinedly old school in its organisation – I love the fact that is a fiver on the door There are dozens of high quality speakers throughout the day which many a £1000 entry conference would kill for though despite this at least for me a lot of the joy of the event is the conversations in the bar and corridors.
I was actually early for a change so I managed to find a seat in the Main Hall and settled in for a morning of talks.
The day kicked off with a bit of a ‘what I did last summer’ talk from @russs (is that enough S’s?) and the geek festival in a field he and friends organisation – Electromagnetic Fields.
All in all it was a very impressive undertaking, though the guys are clearly not going to become location scouts anytime soon – choosing a field next to a motorway, a sewage plant and in danger of flooding maybe not the wisest – thankfully the wind was blowing the sewage smell away from the camp! They supplied power AND high speed wifi to 300 people in tents for a weekend of hacking and beer (with a bar under the M1!). In fact the wifi provided by the 30 metre microwave mast they installed and the network routers hidden in portaloos was so good they were upset that the bandwidth didn’t get worked harder!
They are going to give it another go in 2014 (September-ish) though at a different location and aiming for more like 900 people!! Check the project out on Twitter at @emfcamp
[as an aside it sounded a lot like a scaled up version of that Big Bathcamp Mike arranged a few years ago at Rutland and I seem to remember him having an idea for a Geek festival so another one to cross off the to-do list mate!]
The second talk was something of a love letter to the NHS though to be honest it took a bit of a while to get to any kind of point. The speaker clearly had something of a reputation as a bit of a showman but I found his style a bit difficult to engage with even if when he got to the point I found the core of the presentation really interesting – using open data to identify spending patterns in the NHS and in particular spotting where the NHS trusts aren’t taking advantage of the saving offered by generic drugs and are instead still in the pocket of big pharma. He showed some genuinely interesting maps (I especially liked that they had been filtered so as not to just follow local populations)
which really illustrated his points nicely and were a fine example of simple but effective visualising of data – something I am clearly interested in these days.
After a short break it was time for a GOV.UK double header. Tom Loosemore was first up giving a whistle stop tour of the work of GDS which was an impressive mix of light hearted, politic and making some serious points.
I’ve followed the work of GDS closely since before it was actually GDS (I was lucky enough to see the Alpha before it launched and even did the original ‘alphagov’ Wikipedia page ) and I know a few people involved so it wasn’t exactly new ground for me but there some new nuggets amongst it. The fact GDS can veto appointments at some level (I missed what) is huge – forcing the Civil Service to put digitally savvy people in to senior roles not just moving people in because they are the right grade.
The scale of the work fixing transactions was also an interesting insight as its the area I know least about – also always funny to see that picture of Daffydd at Number 10 again! Also when talking about the more to open source and the culture change that invoked he linked to the best tweet ever for those of us in this corner of the web by world (for context CESG are the cyber-spooks at Cheltenham)
Tom does give great presentation. He handled some quite difficult questions later on with aplomb and kept the crowd onside throughout – he also gave very honest answers right up to (but not beyond) crossing some kind of Civil Service line. Skillful in of its self.
Early on he also spoke about how his role (since he was banned from coding 8 years ago!) was about ‘creating space for others’ to do their work. This is very much my aspiration as a manager but I wonder how well I manage it.
Next up with Jordan Hatch talking about how GDS avoided ‘breaking the web’. I really enjoyed this slightly more technical talk – some elements of it were above my head (NGINX could be a Star Trek: Voyager character for all I know!) but I am a big believer in this particular goal of “no link left behind” and believe it is something too often ignored or at the very least shortchanged. GDS built custom tools (now available on Github) to manage the migration mapping (the Migratorator) and also a gamified tool with scoreboards that then allowed people to check old page v new page and decide if it looked like a correct mapping (the Review-o-matic). The redirect engine (if thats the right term) is currently managing 180,000 redirects from what was Directgov, Businesslink and the 26 department (and No10 and the DPM) websites.
After a bit of a liquid lunch (Staropramen for less than 3 quid a pint in London – good times!) I settled in for Bill Thompsons talk. This is the second time I have heard Bill speak and the experience was identical to the first. I was swept along during the talk and felt smarter just for following along but at the end I realised it was some kind of illusion and I didn’t really understand anything! Thankfully he has had to good grace to post his text on his blog so at least I can link to it (and reread it a few times.)
The was about it for any formal session attendance from me – I did catch a bit of Richard Popes ‘Tiny Data’ session which I enjoyed – he also wrote the tweet that summed the whole event up for me as well:
#opentech was lovely. No reason at all, that other conferences should not be that good, cost £5, and be community led.
— Richard Pope (@richardjpope) May 18, 2013
I was sad to miss Paul Clarke give his session but I mistimed it and the nature of the room layout meant arriving late would have meant crashing in right at the from of the room when Paul was in full flow.
As always I had loads of brilliant conversations – I caught up with Zoe and her tales of Stockholm and launch parties with Labrinth, chatted to Phil for the first time in ages, shared a beer or two with Tony discussing open data, MOOCs, hacking and who knows what else. Met Harry for the first time in person and had a good chat about a little ebook project we find ourselves coming at from different, but complimentary, directions. Had a great insightful chat with Nick about some shared challenges and his idea for an ‘exceptions club’ and randomly met Dan Wilson who was a co-founder of Timetric one of the big third party users of ONS data – that was also very helpful.
I ran out of steam a bit early though (that liquid lunch probably didn’t help!) and heading home to Bristol in time for Dr Who and a much needed Chinese takeaway.
Huge thanks to the team who put it together;
— The ODI (@UKODI) May 18, 2013
My 3rd week showed no sign of letting up with the learning curve – though there was less travel this week as I skipped my trip to Titchfield and am working from home today (even if that proved to be a challenge – the problem is always the last thing you check and I was pretty sweaty and throwy before I discovered the ethernet cable was a dud!).
This week I really started to get me head around the task ahead and started to at least get a rough roadmap of what steps are needed to get us there.
I had some great chats with people in my team and am quickly coming to the conclusion that the solutions are close at hand and it is more of a case of harnessing the existing knowledge and talent than starting anything from scratch.
Some of the prototypes being worked up before I came into the role are brilliant. The team is looking in to a Datawrapper-esque tool I am referring to as ‘graphic-o-matic’ (much to the amusement of others) which I believe has huge potential internally and some of the more bespoke work they have been doing is of the highest quality.
There was a bit of an ‘open data’ theme running throughout the week – the release of the ‘Shakespeare Review‘ and some meetings about internal open data initiatives meant the topic was never far from my mind. It is funny really how despite my best efforts these open data projects keep following me around and just how much I have learned out things by accident.
I gave an intro presentation to as many of my team as possible on Wednesday – as is my way it was pretty informal and lighthearted but I hope I got across the idea that I know what I am doing and I am passionate about this stuff (and more interesting in the work than in the bureaucracy and hierarchies.)
Despite the fact I have spent so many years in and around the public sector I am still finding aspects of life a challenging transition. Internet access is locked down to a terrifying extent – even for someone in my role and it is slow going just getting access to the sites and software I need to work. The admin overhead for line management is pretty significant – certainly more than anywhere else I have worked. Recruitment is also a hard slog. The team has a great deal of unfilled spots at the moment – some in really key areas which makes things extra tough.
At the moment I am researching a paper about fixed vs responsive web design – I thought it would be a no brainer to be honest as I have been pretty all-in with responsive over the last 18 months or so but a couple of things I have read have made it less straightforward. The ‘Go Cardless‘ blog post in particular made for interesting reading.
Looking forward to OpenTech tomorrow and sleeping all day Sunday probably.
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
It is safe to say I have mainly been on the ‘comment’ side of that equation as far as how it relates to the web (particularly when you consider the Guardians own use of the term) but increasingly I find myself in the grip of a data driven world.
I have, I think, a pretty complicated relationship with ‘data’ on a professional level. I was a major supporter of the early ‘Free Our Data‘ campaign – I even once hired Mike Cross as a freelancer off the back of some writing he had done on the topic. Later though I got soured by what I felt at the time was the hijacking of the entire topic by the Semantic Web/Linked Data crowd – a subject still known to bring me out in hives to this day Talk of RDF,SPARQL or ‘triples’ is one of the best ways to get me to leave a room for any of you who are ever bored of my company.
What I found refreshing about this book, and about the whole of ‘data journalism’ really, is how little any of that is mentioned. The tools of the trade seem to be Excel, a suite of free or cheap web tools and a lot of hard work and patience. I can appreciate that.
Probably not surprisingly the book is heavy on the Guardian influences. Despite being a regular reader I was still surprised at how much I had already engaged with to a pretty decent extent; Wikileaks, MP expenses, the Olympics and the Riots (as well as the Dr Who stuff) were all stories I knew well and had experienced the advantages of the data crunching (and had also followed those stories through to the background on the Datablog at the time.) I guess what is impressive is how mainstream and normal all this seemed in such a short period of time.
I enjoyed reading about some of the history of pre-computing data journalism – the mentions of Florence Nightingale, the Detroit riots in ’67 and the data based story in the first ever Guardian give the whole thing a nice grounding in the past.
There were a lot of nuggets of interest to my current job – one of my favourites was this one early on;
“Data journalism is not graphics and visualisations. It’s about telling the story in the best way possible.”
This is something I am keen to reinforce – not every number needs an infographic.
My favourite section of the book is actually not written by Rogers but by Jonathan Gray of the Open Knowledge Foundation. His chapter, 9, is titled ‘The new punk’ (though I’m not sure about that title.) Gray puts data work in a wider context and makes clear that getting the data is just the beginning and that a lot of work is needed to add the value.
***an update from Jonathan himself 16/05/2013 “Just to clarify, only the section titled “What data can and cannot do” is mine, the rest of “The new punk” section (including the title) is not mine.”**
“Open information about government is not the same as open government, participatory government or good government”.
He also expands in more detail the point that data journalism isn’t be default graphics. In a section too long to type out here Gray makes it clear that data “[..is] the ultimate in flexible formats.” He also goes on to make the point that “simplicity and brevity are huge strengths in visual communication.”
I found the book a genuinely interesting read and a really useful grounding in the realities of data journalism at the moment and with a great deal of practical insights, snippets and leads that are going to make my education in this space.
I’ll finish with a quote from the final chapter about my current employers;
“It should be pointed out that the ONS has incredible information on [it's] site – but it is also the world’s worst website.”
I’d hate to be the guy who has to…oh. Right. Oh well