One Month To Go

Just 28 days before the London Marathon. I wrapped a 3h 40min run today, albeit a slow run. I climbed and descended every flight of stairs on every bridge from Wandsworth to Tower Bridge along the way – I make that 13 bridges but, after a few, I wasn’t really counting. The Garmin says just under 34km.

The MarathonFoto people took some shots at the Liverpool Marathon and here’s tbe best one (it was an easy choice, at least I was looking vaguely at the camera for this one).

When I’m running I make it a habit to smile at, say hello to or at least nod to other runners as I pass them. With the marathon looming, there are ever more people out on the streets. In London, on average, about 40% of people return the greeting. On a rainy day, it moves up to about 50% and, on a holiday (my favourite days to run are Xmas Day and New Year’s Day) it might hit 60% (only real nuts are out on these days so there must be some kind of shared bond). For the most part, those who don’t respond either immediately look away or perhaps they weren’t looking in the first place.

In Las Vegas 2 or 3 weeks ago, the response rate was 95% and nearly everyone called out a greeting rather than just nodding. In Paris, when I was last running long runs about 7 years ago, the famously uninterested Parisian people were more friendly than Londoners, likewise the Viennese a couple of years before that.

It bothers me that runners don’t greet each other – after all, we’re sharing a similar experience, no matter the level of runner. With London 2012 coming in just a few short years, there is, I think, a need for Londoners to learn to embrace each other if not physically then with greetings. We are going to play host to the world’s largest sporting event with visitors and athletes coming from every country we’ve ever heard of and many we haven’t. If we treat them as we treat ourselves, the experience will be less than great for them all. And that will hurt our international reputation.

In over 550km run since September 1st 2005, I’ve said hello to a lot of people. Here’s my graph of weekly km run (bit anal I know, but how else are you to figure out whether you’re in shape to run a marathon?):

It would be naive to expect everyone to say “hello” to everyone else – after all, when was the last time anyone spoke to you on a tube (nuts excluded)? Or in a lift? But runners saying “hi” to other runners? Doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.

3G not so peegy

Those who know my history with gadgets (or who have read of my trials and tribulations with wifi networks) will draw a sharp intake of breath at the news that I bought a 3G data card this weekend. Naturally, having carefully followed the instructions, installing the software before I plugged the card, it didn’t work. Not a flicker. Well, the blue light flickered (which, apparently it was supposed to do). But the software reported that there was no network to be found. Hmmm, maybe I don’t have 3G 5km from the centre of London? Switching it to GPRS, there was still no network – and my vodafone phone, sitting right next to my laptop was connected just fine. De-install, re-install, reboot, re-check. No change, no joy.

After an hour or so with Vodafone support – de-install, re-install ad nauseam – it still didn’t work. The help desk kindly informed me that there was, in fact, a network fault and that I should try again later when it would certainly work. I was unconvinced and said so. The local store tried their card in my laptop which didn’t work either – and they too said that there was a network fault (oddly, they couldn’t try it in their own laptop to see if the fault persisted, they didn’t have one).

Checking with others who have them, I found that there was no sign of trouble anywhere else in London, just in my localised corner of Fulham. Maybe someone had blown up the local tower? I was certainly thinking of it.

So I went where I should have gone in the first place and checked the web for “vodafone 3g datacard problem sony vaio” – if in doubt, blame the PC hardware. As I was doing that, I was installing the software in parallel on an old Dell PC. Everything was fine on the Dell so null points for the network fault story.

It turns out that there’s a known and repeated fault with Sony Vaios and these cards. They default to COM7 which is no good (who knows why?). The fix is to manually change to COM2 from the device manager and reboot. Ta Da. Everything works fine. Except that the card disconnects from my wifi network everytime it starts up (because it’s not a vodafone network). Fortunately you can turn off it’s wifi searching.

So, £50 a month sees me with unlimited 3G data access – a much more reasonable tariff than the old ones that I’m sure were something like £2 a MB.

Not a great retail or support service experience. Contrasted by my other exciting purchase of the day, an ice cream maker. Sadly, it doesn’t fetch the fruit and chop it up for you but, once you’ve done all that, it uncomplainingly and unfailingly makes a grat tub of ice cream in about a half hour. If only IT hardware could make ice cream.

Get paid for your calls / get paid for your .gov?

Three, Hutchison’s money losing 3G mobile network, has launched a new marketing scheme – get a call or receive a text from another 3 customer and you’ll get credits back on your own usage. Receive a 5 min call and get 2 texts free runs the buzz. It only works if you get a call from another 3 customer and if you’re a Pay as You Go customer.

It’s a fascinating model. The model for the USA was, for years (maybe even still is?), that you paid if you received a call let alone made one. When 1-2-1 (now T-Mobile) launched in the UK (1992/3?) the day one deal was that you could call anyone in the next dialcode area for nothing (so someone who had an 071 number could call an 081 number for free for as long as they wanted – this was before 0171 and 0181). I remember that Lord Young, then Chairman of C&W, announced that it would be an offer for ever, but it wasn’t too long before he had to bring it to a close – people were using pairs of phones as baby monitors, leaving calls open for hours.

In the .gov world, the Inland Revenue tried this in their first year of online Self Assessment – file online and get £10 off your bill. It didn’t seem to drive traffic, although it wasn’t the money that was the problem, but issues with the service. HM Customs offered VAT payers an extra week’s grace before payment was due. Changes like this often require updates to primary legislation – never the simplest thing to get through and heavily dependent on the timetables for other changes. Since the Carter report, HMRC have had another go at paying businesses to file online – a few hundred pounds is available if you do VAT and PAYE, for instance. This seems to be driving traffic – although isolating out (as Dan comments on a previous post) what is natural growth, advertising growth or people after the money is likely to be a challenge.

There ought, you’d think, to be more room for this kind of deal. If government saves billions, perhaps you’d want some of it back? I don’t think it’s likely – whilst HMRC have been creative in their campaigns and attempts to entice people online, other departments don’t seem to have the same desire. Paying money back doesn’t seem to be the first thing on the list. And whilst government continues to spend zillions on too many inaccessible websites, it’s unlikely that the equation will change. E-government is probably still running at a loss on an aggregate basis across government. Those doing will and driving traffic (driving test appointments online, online car tax, etc) are covering the costs – at an aggregate rather than direct level – the costs of those not doing well. For me, this is why the model is crucial. There are still those who say that most people search for the service that they want and so effort should be expended on making government sites hit the top of the list, but what happens if you search and find content that is old or inaccurate – how would you know?

I often read articles that, in passing, note the number of government websites (usually with a disclaimer that no one really knows how many there are. There is, of course, only one way to register and so numbers are kept but perhaps they’re not kept well?). 3,500 maybe 4,000 or maybe even 4,500 exist – too many millions chasing too few visitors.

News on the e-government front in the UK is lacking – the unit’s own website shows that it was last updated in mid-December 2005, with the move of Ian Watmore to head the PMDU. Has nothing newsworthy happened in the last 3 months? Michel Cross put together some good stats in December, following parliamentary questions from Sarah Teather:

But the number of websites in use was not known

At the last count, the Cabinet Office e-Government Unit, which is responsible for the domain, had approved 3,419 names. But not all are in use. Jim Murphy, the minister responsible for e-government, told parliament earlier this year that the Cabinet Office does not hold figures on the number of .gov websites, nor on the number of civil servants employed to run them.

And then this gem:

Early next year, a £5m advertising campaign under the slogan “Lose the queues” will try to persuade people across the country to go online to contact government. But the Cabinet Office may find it difficult to turn the tide. Over the past decade, hardly a month has gone by without some new government-run or sponsored site appearing. Last month, Defra added to the list by announcing the Central Point on Expertise on Timber Procurement at Its worthy purpose is to guide public bodies to buy timber only from sustainable resources.

Countered by

Helen Margetts, professor of e-government at Oxford university, says that diversity is part of the web’s culture – and in the Google age, users don’t need central government portals to show them where to go. “You can’t tidy up the internet like a child’s bedroom,” she says.

Ms Margetts is wrong though. I get my news from Google News or from the BBC, I don’t surf dozens of websites looking for the headlines; I get my stock portfolio information from a single site, not from one for each company. I know what is authoritative and that’s where I go. Most people are the same. We keep ten or a dozen favourite sites, why wouldn’t be one of those (ok, maybe it’s the 11th or 13th)? Where services are commonly looked for, it would bring the content together and create a simple way through the complexity of governmnet. Where no one asked for a service it would simply point to an external (usually but not always governmental) authoritative source. There is still a hidden demand for joined up information – no one that I’ve ever spoken to, including government workers, knows how government works across the board and only, I suspect, government people can bring it together in a way that will make sense. is doing a good job of that so far – and it’s funding would best come from closing down other sites that it is making obsolete.

Marathon Training Update – Liverpool Half Marathon

The grim North turned in a near perfect day for a brisk 13 mile run. The sun was out as we were all standing in the mud of Sefton Park, somewhere in Liverpool, and it was only masked by cloud as we got off to a good, organised start. Drinks were provided along the way by eager youngsters who seemed to be having more fun than I was.

Doing this race was a much better bet than Silverstone as I suspected it would be. There were people dotted along the way providing encouragement, there was stuff to look at (although Liverpool seems to have more than its fair share of near-ruined churches) and a good half of the race was in or around parkland.

I was figuring on a time of 1h 55m based on how my training had been going, but there’s nothing like the thrill of chasing people to make you run faster. My slowest km was 5m 13s and only 8 of the 21km were over 5 mins (and most by 1-2 seconds); the fastest was 4m 04s as I came into the home straight, which took me a little by surprise. My Garmin 305 recorded the distance as 21.43km, which looks to be inside the error range you’d expect (and also allowing for me not running in a straight line along the perfect course length).

I’d forgotten that these races only post markers at mile points so I was busy calculating the km equivalents in my head and making sure I was on track. At the halfway point, I thought I had a good shot at 1h 45m but I couldn’t get enough pace on to make that time – partly, I suspect, driven by a particularly unpleasant hill (ok, so what hill isn’t unpleasant when you’re running) from about mile 7 to 8. The watch had me hitting 10km at 49m 51s which is about the fastest I’ve done since the Nike 10k back in November – and that means I was only a small amount slower in the second half than I was in the first, blowing up completely my thinking around my slowdown rates. I’ll need to redraw my pace curves.

The important thing for me, apart from finishing, is that I kept my pace measured – the spread for most km splits was +/- 5 seconds from the 5 min mark with a couple hitting 4m 45s and a couple around 5m 13s. I know that I couldn’t have kept that pace up for another 21km, but it gives me hope that I’m getting closer to a roughly 4h time.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be running the Reading Half – April 9th – so I’ll have had a chance to put in another long run, maybe 35-36km and some more speed training. Who knows, maybe I’ll surprise myself and pull a sub 4h Marathon out of the bag. That would be a good boost.

Marathon Training Update

This weekend is all about Liverpool and the Flora Half Marathon. Last year I ran Silverstone – expecting it to be quite exciting to run the track and cover the same ground that F1 drivers cover in 2 minutes, albeit in 2 hours. The reality was a staggeringly cold trot that seemed to involve more time traipsing across dirt paths than it did on the tarmac. It wasn’t fun. So I’ve signed up for a city run where at least there’ll be stuff to look at, maybe even interesting stuff. I’m no expert on Liverpool – the last time I spent any serious time there I was probably 2 years old. But the route map looks good – it’s a simple out and back with a slope down on the way out and therefore a tough climb on the way back, but it can’t be as bad as the Great North Run (only the Snowdon Marathon could be that bad I suspect).

I’m looking for a time of about 1h 55 or so – not too fast, but just to get used to the pace of things again. I expect to be dodging back and forth between people which doesn’t make for fast running. I also expect to be cold, it being grim up north, and that doesn’t make running fast any easier. I’ve just been out for this run in London – it was 3 degrees C here.

This is a quick run – two loops of about 6.1 – 6.2 km. I’m using it to test out how much I slow down lap to lap. It’s dull running the same loop over and over, but I’ve just finished listening to the “Camel Club” by David Baldacci and have started “The Broker” by John Grisham. I’ll be listening to that during the Liverpool run I suspect.

Does government need to advertise?

Hurtling down Whitehall the other day in a rather battered, flea-bitten London taxi cab, I was surprised to see a bright orange bus, plastered with the logo and web address. This must mean the website is finally official. Two years on, it can be launched.

Later, listening to Classic FM, I heard two quick ads in quick succession, one about parenting and one, I think, about being a student. My mind was elsewhere to be honest – I listen to Classic FM for the music, not the ads. But this going mainstream after all this time.

Today, parliamentarians, according to the Independent, are huffing and puffing about the idea that the model/tv presenter/race car driver Jodie Kidd might have been paid a sum in the “low six figures” to advertise DVLA’s new service to apply for your car tax online. This was announced back in January. Supermodels don’t come cheap and low six figures (which I assume is anything from £100,000 to £149,999) would seem a bargain for the press coverage, plus they get extra free during this, doubtless short-lived, scandal over how much Ms Kidd was paid. Hey, even Vogue ran the story about the new service – surely the first time e-government has made it into the pages of the fashion press?

Does government actually need to advertise it’s online services? In the past, I’ve calculated that something like £1 billion of the Post Office’s annual revenue comes from government – and I’m not including the old benefits over the counter payments or the sub-post office subsidies. A big department, like HMRC or DWP, will send over 200 million items through the post each year (I know, you get most of them, heard it before). Admittedly, not all of those items hit the right person in the right address, but let’s say that 70% do (a 30% error rate in government address databases would probably be about right, but it could be a little more or a little less). So something like £700 million is spent on sending forms and information to and from the people. If each and every one of them were stamped with a single web address – – would there be any need for additional advertising? But, instead, every bit of paper from every different department has different addresses – departments even cross-advertise. I saw an ad for the blood donor website with my self assessment form once. That’s good – it means that government isn’t paying to insert ads in other people’s mail and it’s bad, it was yet another website address.

I guess there would be occasional campaigns – not everything is launched with a mailshot. So Talk to Frankm, a “non government, government” service would be a good thing to advertise.

I suppose it also depends on what the point of the campaign is. Does it try to get people who are offline online and using government services? Or is it about getting people who are already online to make use of them? You’d have thought orange buses (and, I hear, orange milk or, at least, orange milk boxes in Tesco) would be about the offline folks being persuaded to go online – but it would be a brave government policy that thought availability of e-government services would be the trigger to get people to go online.

If it’s about getting people to switch to e-government and they’re already online, then perhaps online ads are a better way of doing it? Government used to have an ad server that displayed ads on various government websites for other government sites (I know it did, I put it up), but it has long since been discontinued (since about the time of funnily enough). Harnessing those who already use one service and getting them to use another ought to be a good and cheap way of driving traffic.

Informal analysis of traffic to shows that unique visitors are up 7-15% over the period since the campaign started (compared to February 2006 average traffic). That doesn’t sound too bad – unless, of course, the sums involved were multiples of low six figures.

Personally, I’d rather see pictures of Jodie kidd on orange buses given the choice, but I’m not sure even that would encourage me to make the switch if I wasn’t already using online government services. Just so you know what I mean, here’s a picture of her not wearing orange:

Now that we’re seeing such a splash launch, it makes sense that welsh was recently introduced to Rumour has it that the platform on which sits, dotp, will soon be pushed out to pasture. I wonder about the thinking behind a major translation effort (welsh), a major media launch (orange buses) and a platform switch all in short succession. Doing a platform change is no trivial task, it would be a shame if the good work done so far was undermined by instability during the transition.