Scott Loftesness (who I met a few weeks ago at a meeting in San Francisco, albeit too briefly) has picked up on a patent filed almost a year ago by Amazon. It covers personalisation, of all things. When I talk about personalisation, I nearly always use the ‘Amazon’ quote – people who bought this book also bought this one; not because it works well all the time, but because I figure most people know about it. But the idea that I now, in theory, wouldn’t be able to implement that in a website is bizarre. But, on the upside (for us in the UK), I don’t think patents for what is, essentially, a business process are valid in the UK – such a patent would never be granted which means as long as I don’t launch a takeover of the US e-government initiative (not something I’m planning right now), we should be ok.
For UK government personalisation, we ought to be able to get a lot closer than “people who wear clothes often buy …” (which seems to be the line Amazon is taking with its recommendations for apparel). Given we already have a population of 60 million people we ought to be able to establish a rough model that links related benefits (some of these are easy – if you have a child less than 18, then you get child benefit; that means you might be due child tax credit, depending on your income – and I don’t have to know the latter to suggest that it’s worth looking). It might be possible to map it by postcode, but I doubt that there’s enough data there to do something truly personal. Over on Slashdot there are a lot of comments about this patent application, most of which say Amazon’s recommendations aren’t all that great. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t – it may all be a question of data. If I knew which of the 1800 government websites you looked at, maybe I could build up something that was useful – but perhaps I couldn’t because no matter how many you look at, you never find the one that has what you need? Maybe if I tracked the things you searched for on ukonline? The real deal here will be how much of this data will you want me to use, how much will you give me voluntarily if it gives you a better service and how much will you let me extract from the backends to really give you what you need. The answer to those is probably not much, a little and none for now – but if the intial “not much” and “a little” start to make a difference to what you see on government sites, then maybe you’d be persuaded to volunteer a little more?