UK e-government in the Top 10

And, sadly, this isn’t a good top ten to be in. November’s PC Pro magazine claims that the PM’s announcement in 1999 that “all government services will be online by 2005” was one of the worst IT predictions ever. Being a historian of this kind of thing, I know that in November 1999, the PM actually announced that things would all be online by the end of 2008 but that he revised that statement in March 2000, bringing it forward 3 years. I believe it may have had something to do with the French or the Canadians announcing an end of 2005 target.

The folks at PC Pro believe it sounded like “groundless bluster” then and now. Their primary source for this is the “Better Connected 2006” report where just 13% of local government sites are cited as being transactional (where that is defined as “adding more than one type of online interation”). They also note that even the Cabinet Office has reported that 97% of official sites are unusable by disabled people.

So, after £10 billion (their figure), apparently the government admits that only 12% of adults have visited a local authority website (as opposed to zero % children I wonder?).

Perhaps the PM should have stayed with the first prediction. He’d have a good chance of being right if (and ony if) there were now a consolidated and well-led effort to kill off poorly visited sites, aggregate citizen-focused content in key sites (and those stand out – the Revenue, DVLA,, department of health etc), drive the online identity debate with the government gateway at the centre (not ID cards, but then I’m biased) and leverage off third party platforms and operations, e.g the citizen’s advice bureau, accountants and payroll providers, the post office etc.

No simple task but I’m absolutely sure there is more appetite for this now than there ever was before.

The 60% Problem

The big story this morning, at least in this part of the world (NW England), was that the local police are being issued with fingerprint checking devices. Reporters and civil libertarians alike reported breathlessly about the police’s new ability to carry out roadside checks to check identities. Some seemingly conflicting assertions and figures were bandied around on TV and on the web:

– 60% of people stopped by the police give false identity information

– The automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) teams, who already cross check vehicle number plates against databases, will be able to verify a person’s identity within five minutes without having to take them to a police station

– More than 6.5 million fingerprints are cross-referenced

– The device has an accuracy of 94-95% and will be used for identification purposes only, say police, and there are electronic safeguards to prevent misuse

– The encounter can be 15 minutes on the roadside rather than three hours in the police station

– Fingerprints will only be stored onto a mobile device until it is full, which is at around 100 fingerprints.

– Inspector Steve Rawlings said it takes two sets of fingerprints and the fingerprints are not retained

– The device could save police forces £2.2m a year in resources wasted pursuing false identities

So let’s get this right:

The police stop someone driving a car, perhaps acting suspiciously. They run the number plate and find out who the person driving it should be, based on insurance or registration information (or both).

If the car doesn’t have insurance, they arrest them and take them to the police station for driving without cover. They can find out who they are later I imagine.

They ask the person who they are; if the details provided don’t match the owner listed on their system, or the person isn’t able to name that person and explain why they’re driving the car, their fingerprints are taken.

The fingerprints are checked against a database that contains about 10% of the UK population’s records. There are something like 38 million drivers so we could be generous and say that if everyone who has committed an offence is also a driver, then something like 15% of the population is in the fingerprint database.

If they’re not in the fingerprint database, we have to trust they are who they say they are and either take them to the police station to find out more or let them go.

But 60% of people who are stopped apparently provide false information. That’s a stunning figure. The assumption must be, I suppose, that 6 out 10 are guilty of something and so tell lies about who they are, risking the police taking further steps.

The next assumption must be that if you’re prepared to tell a lie to the police, you’re more than likely to have committed an offence for which you were fingerprinted and so you have your record on file and it will show up.

The missing figure is perhaps how many people are stopped per year so that I could compare the 60% false identity giving with the 6.5 million records in the national fingerprint database and the £2.2 million cost of followup.

Further, rather than delete records right away, the police want to hang on to “100” (or until the machine is full – must be ZX81 style memory), hoping that they’ll catch you again and fingerprint you with the same machine.

I can see these statistics being trotted out again, pretty soon I suspect, to justify ID cards and fingerprints being stored upon verification for later checking. All for £2.2 million in follow up costs by the police forces? I think I’m more interested in what the 60% are up to giving false identity data and whether more bad folks will be put away.

New York Marathon 2006

The NY marathon is safely behind me and normal life has resumed for a little while at least. I finished in a little under 4 hours, slower than I’d hoped for but with the way my training had gone in the month before the race, better than I expected. The logistics were masterfully organised. Over 30,000 people are bussed to the start between about 5am and 7am – the start (see the picture on the left) at the Verrazzano bridge is over 16 miles from Manhattan and there’s no easy way to get between the two unless you’re into double marathons. But the consequence of this early start and a kickoff time of 10.10am is that a good 3 hours is spent hanging around. The weather, at least, played its part – the skies were clear, the sun shone and the wind took took the day off.

The race itself is tough. The start is slow and it felt like I was running at half pace as I dodged in and out of runners all around me, many of whom were busy kicking off sweat pants or jerseys as they ran, leaving piles of clothing on the floor for the unwary to get tangled in. I was on the top of the bridge so avoided the oft-told (apocryphal?) story of golden rain from above. It took a while to get into stride and my pace, even then, was a lot slower than London through the first half, but then it didn’t slow as much in the second half. I ran the first 21k in about 1h 55m, the second in about 2h 3m.

The main difference between London and NY was my pace at the start. I was on the white start line for London and was able to hare off at a speed that I probably shouldn’t have done, spurred on by the 10,000 or so people who overtook me in the first 20 mins. In NY I started in 16,646th place (assuming that the numbers on the front correspond to starting position) and finished 11,786th.

With the two graphs side by side like this, it’s really quite startling how much I slowed in the second half of London. The average pace times aren’t that different – around 5:20/km in London and 5:31/km in NY, but the volatility is very different.

Justgiving tell me that I’ve raised over £12,000 online in the last 18 months and I know there’s a further £3,000 or so from offline donations. £15,000 to a great cause for running a couple of great courses. Seems a fair deal to me.

Best moment of NY? Coming off the dreaded Queensboro Bridge – a mile and half of uphill slog, mostly in the dark, eyes fixed on the guy in front looking out for any change in pace to avoid smashing into him or tripping over his legs, hoping that whoever was behind was doing the same – and seeing Macmillan supporters, friends and family lining the street cheering and waving, before making the turn onto 1st Avenue where the crowd was easily 10 deep on both sides of the street for several miles. If you see my time for km 27 on the graph, you’ll see how much faster good support can make you run. The support throughout the whole race was awesome – they say 2 million people turn out to watch it.

Worst moment? Coming down any flight of stairs the day after the race. Oh, and that sodding hill running alongside Central Park from about mile 22 to mile 25.

A big thank you to all those who supported me through the training, made generous donations to Macmillan and who encouraged me on race day, whether I knew you or not.

Your turn next year folks?


I had dinner on Monday night with a newly minted senior chap at a major US-based technology company that you would instantly know. Sadly, it being the run up to the New York Marathon ‘n’ all, I wasn’t drinking. The name of the wine chosen for the rest of the table was, however, particularly apt.