Democracy on TV

I’ve just finished watching the first series of the West Wing. I don’t have a TV but have rigged up a DVD player to a projector to watch movies. It works well, even if West Wing doesn’t really need a screen 10′ across.

It’s a great show and gives a real insight into life behind the scenes in the US equivalent of No.10. So what do we have in the UK? Spitting Image? Yes, Minister? Yes, Prime Minister? The New Statesman? All great shows but all very different from the West Wing which manages to be funny (but not in a British way if you get my meaning), sharp-witted and yet, at the same time, makes you respect even more the work that goes into running the “office of the president”. If real life is even 1/2 what this show makes it out to be, then I’m yet more impressed.

What impresses me really though is the way that the show educates me about the political process in the USA – it covers topics from campaign funding through mid-term elections and even the Ethanol tax credit. It’s a little bit of democracy on TV – a way of seeing how a country is run and the effort that goes into making what are seemingly small decisions. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a way of seeing how much jostling, manoeuvering and outright positioning has to take place for every decision, small or large, short range impact or long term impact. Something like this in the UK would be great – spotlight on Parliament, Number 10 and Number 11.

By the by, one thing that intrigues me is that almost everyone in the offices seems to use Apple powerbooks (the old style black ones).

[Government] Lights and Magic

This week I was at a conference, for the first time in a while. That’s not quite true, I did a conference the other day by accident – I showed up to watch and the keynote speaker didn’t show up at all, so I was asked to step in which I was happy to do. There was quite a contrast between the events and, drawn by a blog on getting the most out of powerpoint, I thought it would be worth outlining the reasons (from my view) here. Next time I’m doing a conference, I may just use this as my checklist to make sure that things have a chance of going okay. I didn’t enjoy this week’s session much at all and, if I’m not enjoying it, god only knows what it’s like for the audience.

1.Always do you own slides. It’s not that the slides I was using weren’t ok – they were better than that: clear, lucid and to the point with a couple of simple graphics. They just weren’t mine. When I draw up slides for a conference, as I’m working through them I’m planning what I’m going to say. I never rehearse a script (in fact, I never even write a script), but just putting the slides together seems to be enough for me to marshall my thoughts. In this case, I hadn’t done that so, before the session, I was having to think through what my key points were. And it didn’t work well.

2. Always have a roving microphone. At this conference, I was pinned to a small space between two fixed microphones attached to a lectern. A move 6 inches to the left took me out of range and the same on the right. I like to move around when I talk to people, partly because I’m probably a fidget and partly because I like to get a sense of the whole audience and whether what I’m saying is engaging them. If I can see it isn’t, then I can change it. Don’t have a lectern; they remind me of days at school with people preaching to me, I didn’t like it then and I imagine people don’t like it now.

3. Ensure that you can see the audience. When I looked out over the folks there, all I could see was the front row, where one or two guys were diligently taking notes (I’m pretty sure that they didn’t work for me, so what were they doing that for?). The rest was blocked from my view because of half a dozen intensely bright lights shining right in my eyes. Rows beyond the second were a sea of blackness. So much for figuring out what the audience think.

4. Make sure you can see your own slides. Sometimes I like to point at a slide so that what I’m saying makes sense in context of it. But, mainly, I want to know that when I’ve pressed the button to change slide, it actually has changed. Many people worry that, if the presenter has a remote mouse, they’ll go bananas and press it too many times, advancing and regressing through the deck with abandon. This is not often the case – I’ve used remote mice for years and haven’t seen that problem. But here, I was given a remote mouse that had a human interface – i.e. I pressed it and, somewhere in the back room, a light went off and a human pressed the real button. So, I thought I was pressing the button, but the slide wasn’t changing. In front of me, on the lectern was a small screen, all of about 3 inches by 2 inches. It seemed out of focus and, anyway, the print was too small. So I couldn’t see what was on the slides and, most of the time, couldn’t even tell which slide I was on. That meant I had to look over my shoulder, and when I did that, I was out of range of the microphone, so people couldn’t hear me.

5. If you’re on stage with other people, at least try and see their slides before. I was on stage with two others and didn’t see either set of slides. So much for joined up presenting let alone joined up government. This was my mistake – I probably had the chance to see them but didn’t.

6. Stick to the topic requested. When all three of us came down from our 15 minute session, the chairman remarked that none of us had actually addressed the title of the brief, which was “authentication”. That was true – we hadn’t – we’d all talked about aspects of the Government Gateway that were (I hope) interesting and useful, but not actually about the perils of authentication. I have a few ready-made slide decks on that topic, so if there’s anyone out there that still wants to know, drop me a mail (a.m@e-envoy etc) and I will ship you what I have.

Finally, for me though, the highlight of the session was a French guy, Etienne, walking the floor of the exhibition centre outside the conference hall, doing magic tricks. I love tricks and this guy was a master. Cards would appear and disappear, coins would come from nowhere, notes would transform from one currency to another. Great stuff. Now if I could just work some of that into a presentation on authentication, I think I’d really be onto something.

Space …

Came across a great quote along with the SpaceShipOne stories.

In 1908, less than 10 people knew how to fly (a plane). Now, how many tens of thousands are there?

In 2004, perhaps 400 or maybe 500 people have been in space … who wants to make a bet on how many will have done so 10 years from now, let alone 100?

A fantastic achievement. They’ve gone from a trip to space costing 100s of millions of dollars (pick any currency and add the right number of zeros) to perhaps low 10s (who knows the right number?). In a couple of years maybe it’s single digit millions, in 10 years, single digit 100s of 1000s?

Exciting stuff. And worth a break from the daily trials of e-government.

Joined up Parking?

I had dinner with some folks tonight – great fun, great food, great company – and we got to talking about joined up government (as anyone who has dinner with me usually does, except for my mother). It was prompted by a guy who had parked one night and come back to find his car not there. Or, I suppose, not find his car. First question – has it been stolen? How would you know? Has it been towed? How would you know? In fact it was the latter, but he only found out a day later after struggling through the website of the local authority concerned and, eventually, using Google. He found a 24 hour number, which he called. They said “this is the housing line, not the 24 hour line” … despite it being on the website as the 24 hour line. Eventually, he got to the place where they put cars that have been towed. The borough where it was taken from was in the North of London, the pound was in the South (isn’t outsourcing great). He paid the money (2 days worth by then as it had taken him so long to find the car) and left.

Joined up government? A single site to help the citizen? To all those who laugh at the idea of one site, why wouldn’t you have one (government) site where you type in your number plate and it tells you the status of your car, e.g. “insured, taxed, MOTed and presently impounded at blahblah”? Or “insured, taxed, MOTed, last saw a parking ticket at blahblah”? Or, maybe if we got really clever, “insured and now at co-ordinates X,Y,Z which is X street in Y Borough” so you would know if it was on the move and being drive by someone else?

Are those government services? Probably not. But where else would you go? Tell me how you would find these out if you parked your car on the border of Westminster and Camden and didn’t actually know which it was when your car was towed?

Good luck. Joined up parking fines. That’s a start!

The first mobile phone virus

ITV says that there’s a new virus in town, one that spreads across Symbian operating systems via Bluetooth, perhaps leveraging the approach discovered a few weeks ago of hacking phone address books. So far (unlike my thinking in July 2003) it doesn’t send texts to everyone in your address book, but who knows how long that will take? Apparently this one’s main threat is that it could drain your battery by keeping bluetooth on (what were the writers thinking?). Sadly, most of the news feeds fail to mention that you have to install the software on your mobile phone first (which means going to fetch a SIS file, having your mobile connected to your PC, saying yes to the install etc). The Register nailed that point, as you’d expect, along with the fact that the virus was actually mailed to someone with a “look what we’ve done” statement, acknowledging it as a proof of concept. Still, this won’t be the last and the next ones will be worse I’m sure.

But, here’s a more interesting mobile phone virus story in honour of today being Bloomsday.

Conjuring a wireless scenario

Earlier this week, thanks to some stunning organisation by Bernie, I spent some time with a bundle of new companies. Some operating out of bedrooms (garages are, it seems, out of fashion these days), some in small office blocks and some just starting the path to profit and looking like proper companies. A few of them have products that make sense right now. So, first off, here are a couple of technologies, out of the couple of dozen I saw this week:

Two years ago or so I met Oqo. Back then they had what looked to be the coolest PC of all time. Small, handheld, with a sliding (touch) screen that revealed a keyboard, running full Windows XP, wireless, bluetooth and a 1MHz Transmeta process, it would have revolutionised the market. Two years on, it could still do the same but there is more competition on the scene and the window of opportunity looks smaller. The guys there could still pull it off. I played with one for an hour or so – it looks great and has some amazing engineering in it. For instance, if you drop it, an accelerometer inside detects that its falling and parks the head on the hard drive. It may still not survive, but that’s incredible attention to detail. The screen slides on tiny cogs that are visible in the edge of the case, making sure that it stays true as you pop out the keyboard. Sadly, it still has the same Transmeta processor in it that was on the speclist two years ago, which I think is a risk for Oqo. It’s slow – too slow for me (I ran a Compaq Tablet for a while with the same chip and it drove me mad). It’s not, though, a tablet pc – it runs full Windows but you can write on the screen with a pen. That’s an intriguing decision but I suspect it’s something to do with the tablet market not moving perhaps as much as many had hoped, certainly not as much as BillG had hoped.

But, picture a mobile worker equipped with an Oqo, always connected to the systems back at base across a Wifi network. The device is small enough to go into a jacket pocket, has enough battery life to last the working day and runs all the apps that you could want. Customer records can be looked up, updated and compared; orders can be placed; benefits can be assessed. There’s some serious potential there. Oqo will launch in October – they promise for real this time – and the first reviews should be in the Wall Street Journal in September. Initially shipments will be in the US only. We’ll have to wait a while to see them in the UK.

Separately, I spent some time with Vocera. These guys have a “StarTrek” like device – a phone that operates over the Wifi network. A touch of a button and the “genie” inside asks what you need. You say “get me Alan” or “call Alan” and the system places a call over the wifi network direct to me. If I want to take the call I tell the genie “ok” and we’re connected – if not, I say “no” or “I’m busy” or similar and the caller gets to leave a message. It’s impressive in operation and is already being used in several dozen hospitals, where nurses and doctors can keep their hands free, don’t have to hunt around for a ‘phone and don’t have to remember extension numbers. It’s impressive in operation and looks to have huge potential – both in terms of improving communication and also driving costs down. This is one device that I’m hoping to see become wildly more prevalent because I really think it has potential to be great. Doubtless there are other companies that have something similar, but there’s something about the user experience on this one that makes me think it could establish a powerful lead.

I hear that Westminster Council in London are setting up a wireless network to cover the whole borough. So far, I believe it’s only for council employees rather than for providing laptop users with high bandwidth ‘net connections. With a pervasive wireless network, employees can be fully untethered.

With the technology from these two companies the council folks could have a wifi laptop and a wifi phone. They’ll be in contact with colleagues online and through the phone network. They will be truly untethered and able to be far more productive – sitting with people who need their help to navigate their way throughout government. It’s not strictly e-government, but it makes a lot of sense to me.