Identity Puzzles

Someone sent me a link to a new (to me at least) identity-related website. It’s called “about me now” and is a .org site.

When I first visited the site, admittedly with IE7, I was confronted with this message

“There is a problem with this website’s security certificate.
The security certificate presented by this website was not issued by a trusted certificate authority. Security certificate problems may indicate an attempt to fool you or intercept any data you send to the server. We recommend that you close this webpage and do not continue to this website. “

Naturally, IE recommended that I close the page and not continue to the site. Ignoring IE’s recommendation, I carried on. In the FAQ section, I found this

“All details provided by you are kept on a secure VeriSign certificated server. The server is placed behind a dedicated firewall and is only accessible under specified circumstances. For reasons of security we will not give any further details.”


The site’s goals are all about (and these are quotes):

-Enabling people to look after personal information online
-Improving the accuracy of information held about citizens
-Giving people greater control over who sees personal data held electronically
-Limiting private sector access to citizen details
-Building a website to hold citizen consents

and those, it says, will give obvious benefits to us as citizens, thus:

– YOU control YOUR data so it’s more accurate,
– As council partners will share your information, you will need to notify changes of details only once,
– YOU will say which private sector subscribers see your personal details,
– And they will only see what you want them to see,
– You can withdraw or alter your private sector permissions at any time.

Apprently it’s run by 4 councils who have “won” £685,000 from a government fund on innovation. The councils have added £240,000 of their own money to help make it work

The registration button takes me to a page that allows me to pick a – you guessed it – userid and password and a magic question that (better than usual) isn’t fixed to the usual name your dog/your cat/your mother’s maiden name.

I’m still nervous based on the elemetary security error that the home page presented. But I’m bearing with it. Sadly I missed the prize draw stage. 4 lucky people won ipod nano gadgets. 10 others won free passes for 1 month to a local leisure centre (everyone else who entered won 2 months free use of the leisure centre).

Next up, I’m asked to enter:

Date/Place of Birth
Mobile/Home Phone/Email
Marital Status/Dependents/Employment Status
Contact Method/Preferred Payment Method
Council Tax Number

And, of course, my Boots Advantage Card number. I’m stunned. Boots aren’t even listed as a partner.

I’m excluding from moving any further, not perhaps because I don’t have a Boots card , but because (I think – it doesn’t actually tell me this) that I don’t live in the domain of the 4 sponsoring councils.

Can’t think of a better way of spending nearly a million quid. Well, actually, here’s a go at it:

I’d start with this aim from the FAQs

“To provide citizens with the ability to self-administer the sharing of their personal information between participating organisations according to a secure repository of consents (permissions). To enable the citizen to control who can do what, provide a record of current consents and a full audit trail of access requests. The project has established a ‘Proof of Concept’ pilot operation to:

a) prove the various technical components developed to provide management of consent

b) learn lessons for the future with regard to citizen engagement, participating organization business engagement, technical engagement, commercial model development and operational organisation.

The pilot is based around the process of notification of Change of Address”

And I’d rephrase it about the problem that they want to solve. As it reads they’re trying to solve a problem I’m not sure that I have which is who can access what data about me and then, when they do, tell me who looked at it. Then it moves quickly to a technology proof of concept before leaping to lessons about engagement and commercial models.

Is that really the problem? At the moment, dealing with government is entirely non-transparent. I have no idea what data any given government entity holds about me, even less idea about what they do with it and, so far, I’m not wondering much. The reason I’m not wondering much is that I know that government is inefficient about knowing much about me. They write to me about the same thing several times, they lose my NHS patient records (more than once), they collect tax from me based on declarations that I make and compare in the background to declarations from my bank/stockbroker/accountant/employer.

So perhaps the questions to test are:

1) What data does government say it needs from me to make its job easier (does it really want my boots card number, even if I had one)

2) If they had certain bits of data, what would they do with it? If there was a single place where my date of birth was available, what would that save? Would it reduce the costs of government operations, or reduce the time I spend doing certain things? Would paper forms arrive pre-filled? Tell me the business case that we’re trying to prove.

3) What risks am I facing? If government sent me pre-filled in forms and they were intercepted, would that make me more or less susceptible to identity theft? If the data were shared with certain partners (Boots?) what would additional risks would I be exposed to?

4) If the proposed list of data were secured behind the firewall and a valid certificate (whatever that means to the average person), what would I need to access it and what risks would I run with each method? Userid/password versus token versus digital certificate versus through-routing from my bank

5) What would happen if, having set all this data up, I didn’t update it at some point in the future? What decisions would be taken incorrectly? What would happen then?

I think the balance of questions is not about technology or engagement, it’s about what the case is for doing something different from the way it’s done now, without reverting to the standard “it will be more efficient” – well, tell me how, tell me what will change. If I switched and everyone I know switched to this new method, would my council tax go down? Would the street lights be on more? Would there be less dog crap on the streets?

If you want to solve the engagement problem, now that we’re beyond the early adopters, you’re going to need to do more to tell me what the plan is. And I’d rather you didn’t start with the technology – I’m pretty sure that there is more than enough out there to do whatever is needed; what isn’t out there is what you want to do, how you want to do it and what risks will be run (for me and you). Convince me you’ve solved these issues.

Government Gateway is Six

The Gateway is 6 today. The last stats I saw, from October last year, show:
– Over 14 million transactions submitted
– Over 9.8 million individually registered users
– 30.72 million logons via the SOAP interface (as opposed to the Gateway’s own UI)
– 516,000 debit card transactions
– 10 departments, 13 agencies and 36 local authorities connected
– 110 separate services
HMRC (and specifically the “R” part) still contribute the vast bulk of the transactions and users but other services are picking up slowly.
I hear that January’s Self Assessment figures are somewhere near double those for last year which would make for perhaps 2.5 million online submissions, peaking at a couple of hundred thousand a day.

DotP’s Demise; e-government lessons learned

Less than ninety days before it’s 4th birthday, as Dan pointed out, DotP is on its way out. Unlike Dan, I declined to mark the occasion by wearing a t-shirt, but I do think the moment is worth some reflection.

You may not be able to tell the difference between the old directgov and the new one. Here they are, if not side by side, then one above the other.

The one at the bottom is the new site, with a snapshot taken today, the old version is from 10th January. The change of platform, whilst neither here nor there in terms of design, marks the near culmination of a change of strategy agreed 30 months ago when it was decided not to invest further in DotP, the multi-site content management platform. Rather than harp on about the merits or otherwise of this decision, I thought I’d share a couple of fond memories from DotP’s early days.

Lesson 1: Always be clear about your requirements lest they be misunderstood

During the development stage, I was wandering through the offices of the lead delivery company, Sapient, and glanced over the shoulder of one of the developers. He was checking out some screen designs he’d just built. I noticed that the URL had a series of “║” embedded in the text. I asked him what they were doing there and he explained that they were “pipes”. I knew that, but I wanted to know what they’re doing there – I suspect they’re the rarest character in terms of usage on the keyboard of the average user. I told him that was no good, no one would be able to figure out how to type them. I wandered away.

Probably 6 months later, I was looking at the pre-launch version of (it wasn’t yet directgov) and I looked at the URLs again. They were practically 3 lines long – once you got past the home page. I don’t remember the exact comment but I imagine it was a string of expletives followed by a “get rid of those”. I was told that I’d asked for them to be that way “as I didn’t like pipes”. Not quite the way it happened but it seems that the conscientious developer had taken my advice not to use pipes and come up with a different way of handling URLs, but the result was 180 characters of URL per page.

I never again looked over the shoulder of a developer and made an arbitrary comment.

Lesson 2: When you’re right, you’re right, even when no-one agrees with you

One of the things that we decided to day with DotP, right from day one, was not to support inline links (e.g. click here). I don’t remember who made that decision, I do know it wasn’t me; when it was explained to me, I got it right away. We didn’t want inline links for a couple of main reasons

1) It creates a sight that is fundamentally difficult for a screen reader to navigate and we wanted to have the most accessible sites possible. I know that I use embedded links in this blog, but then again, this isn’t designed to be accessible.

2) When links break and need to be removed, whole chunks of text need to be rewritten. In fact, we created a tool that ensured that links internally within DotP (e.g. from directgov to department of health) never broke – if a page was deleted, we killed the link. If a page changed a chunk of content, we flagged up that it needed to be looked at in case the link no longer made sense. Links break all the time and we wanted to make the maintenance job as simple as possible, or even simpler. As it was, external links, surveyed by our external link checker often broke at the rate of a few dozen a day.

When we tried to explain this to other government departments, ie potential customers of our shiny new shared service, no-0ne got it. They didn’t want links to be at the bottom of a paragraph of text, they wanted them embedded in the text because they’d got used to doing it that way.

When we talked about accessibility, few were interested. When we talked about the page maintenance/broken link story, few seemed to get it. We tried all sorts of angles and, every single time that I remember, the final request was always whether we could change the system so that it would support inline links.

We tried this with businesslink, with HM customs, with Cabinet Office, with every department and the answer was always the same. The only exceptions were the folks in the Department of Health and those charged with launching the Child Trust Fund (although there’s another story about a giraffe there that should perhaps remain a dark secret for now).

We were right then, we’re right now. And I expect not everyone gets it still. But I do see that some have adopted the discipline, e.g., but not HMRC.

Anyway, good luck to the new platform for You’ve spent 30 months creating a site that is the same as the old one; I’m looking forward to seeing what new things can be done with the new service that couldn’t be done with the old one.

Phone Tech, iphones and the Treo 750v from Vodafone

The new iphone/Applephone looks like a must have. Reviews have been mixed, many drawing on its lack of “business features”, primarily the absence of a full physical keyboard, as a reason why it won’t hit the sales targets. I’d be surprised if that were the case – after all, as someone said to me once, who’d have thought that an MP3 player with no off button would ever be top of the charts? What intrigues me most about the new gadget is when will Apple unbundle the phone features to create a pure ipod with touch screen etc? Numerous reports on the pricing strategy have all disagreed about whether it will be profitable without a kickback from Cingular so perhaps they think Apple will have to ship a good number before they can unbundle. I’d have thought they’d reach a lower unit cost by selling as an ipod without phone features – after all, you don’t need to sign up to a contract, don’t need to cancel an existing contract, don’t have to worry about GSM if you’re not in a GSM area and don’t have to worry about unpredictable data bills from your web surfing or abundant spam email (it still gets to me that spam costs ME money to receive on the usual data package).

For three months I’ve been using the Treo 750v, available on contract only from Vodafone. I guess it was the end of my old contract or something because I didn’t pay for it and I got a better deal on mins/month plus 1000 free texts. I have three (4 if you’re fussy) words to review it: “don’t use it”. It seems amazing to me to take something with so much potential and then just mess it up.

Some context first. For the last two and a half years or so I’ve been a Treo fan, first with the 600 (I know, I was late to the party) and then the 650. Both of these had their flaws – sound quality was poor, crashes were frequent (especially with the 600) – but they also had outstanding features (threaded text messages, awesome speed, great response from the keyboard and, because of the Palm OS, they ran Robert Parker’s Wine Guide – it’s true, I don’t know anything about wine, I get it all from RP). When the 700p launched I wanted that but it didn’t surface in the UK; then the 700w launched and that didn’t appear either. So I was pretty keen to try the 750, figuring it was at least version 2 of a Palm-branded Windows phone and so should have fixed any basic issues and be on its way to being solid. Instead, despite this being Windows Mobile 5, it’s more the Windows Me of mobile phones than the Windows XP.

Some of the problems are hardware related, some are Windows related and some are doubtless a combination of trying to tailor Windows to be more like Palm on a new hardware base. The main flaws are:

– Every 2 or 3 days it switches off the ringer and the buzzer and so when you get a call or a text, there’s no ring. I run my phone in silent about 99% of the time so rely on the vibration to alert me that there’s a call. Irrespective of whether the hard switch on the top is in mute or noisy, sometimes it just doesn’t make a noise or a buzz. In the last week this has got me in a pile of trouble as I’ve missed an important call (and the second one and the third one and the fourth one). I can’t find this mentioned online. The only way to correct this is to take the battery out, wait a bit, and then put the battery in so that it can reboot – the neat little button for rebooting that the 650 had is gone.

– I don’t take pictures with my phone very often but when I do, I usually want to snap something funny that’s right in front of me. One time in two, all I get is a black screen where the camera image should be. Only a reboot solves it. It appears that if the buzzer has stopped working, the camera has stopped too.

– Battery life is always, always less than a day. I’ve set the brightness down, turned off buzzes and beeps for lots of things (including its annoying habit of buzzing to let you know that you’ve missed a call). I use Spinvox direct to my blackberry so don’t get voicemail calls. I’ve taken to carrying a car charger and a USB charger so that I can keep it charged. The phone spends more time connected to a power source than it does dealing with calls.

– Most phones have a set vibration for alerting you when there’s a text. The 750 has a vibration rate that ties into the ringtone you’ve chosen. So if you have a long ring tone, the vibration is long (and you want to see what that does to battery life). There’s no way to set a short buzz with any given ring tone. I’m baffled why these are tied to each other.

– Performance is sloooowwww. I set the “spare” button on the left hand side of the phone to activate the tasks function (there is only one spare button on the 750v – the 650 had several). You have to hold the button in (count 1,2) and then wait (count 3,4,5) before your task list comes up. If you miss a lot of dates in your task list, you’ll find the edit process more cumbersome – select the task, select edit, change the date versus select the date, pick a new one on the 650.

– The 750v has a new memory card – the microSD or something. These are like normal SD cards but about 25% of the size. The good news is that they can fit inside a normal SD card shell and then work in an SD card slot. The bad news is they’re a new format and they’re not cheap. On the upside, they’ve fixed the problem with the 650 where you could accidentally eject the SD card and then lose it.

– Vodafone ships the 750v with its own Vodafone Business email service. This is supposed to emulate (replicate? copy?) the Blackberry service by fetching email from your server without you needing to tell it too, not even on a schedule but when you have new email. It can go 12 hours without clearing email that you’ve already downloaded on your PC or without fetching new email, can lose connection and not gain it again (for no apparent reason) and so not send any mail you send and has, a few times, completely lost email. When it works, it’s great, it’s not Blackberry but it is far better than Versamail which ships with the 650 (and all other Palm-based Treo phones). The software has an update available, which I’ve downloaded, but every time I try and install it, I get a message that it’s an invalid file type.

– One of the single best things about the old Treos was, if you replaced your phone or upgraded to a new one, it would sync everything to the new phone – contacts, addresses, applications and, especially, text messages. Moving from Palm to Windows you lose this and, as far as I can tell, Activesync doesn’t back up text messages either.

– Lastly, and this might be just me, when I first got the phone it had a digital clock on the menu bar at the top of the screen. One day this switched to an analogue clock – which is about 0.4cm across. It’s completely unreadable. I would have thought that by clicking the clock (click clock?) you could change it back. Nope. Or by going to the control panel and fiddling with the Time application? Nope. I cannot find any way, despite having gone through every option, of resetting it. I’ve tried google – you just try and phrase a search term that tells you how to switch from analogue to digital! So if someone knows how to do that, I’d be pleased to know.

On the upside, I love that it kept threaded text – that by itself is a good reason to own a Treo (but not a Windows Treo). I like the keyboard, although I don’t think it’s as good as the new Treo 680 (which is Palm based). Sound quality is better than the 650 (which had an annoying hiss) and that’s a good enough reason to change from the 650 if everything else was equal (which it isn’t).

It’s time for a new phone and, with the iphone at least 6 months away, I just might have to go with a Treo 680. And then I can put my Parker Wine Guide back on it.

Recycling Ethics

A leaflet arrived today from the local council full of advice on recycling (“a smarter local guide to reducing rubbish” they say). I want to throw it away. I imagine that’s against the guidelines and I’ll need to put it in an orange sack before doing so.

Inflation blues

Things are gettin’ worse in the city
Things are gettin’ tough
And I got those mean inflation blues

The world of e-government marches on, albeit perhaps not in step, and a new service is launched. The brave folks at the Office of National Statistics have launched a personal inflation calculator. Not something that honestly tells you how much weight you’ve gained on the short highway to obesity, but a widget that compares your personal spend rate against the national spend rate.

Always game to try something new, off I went to the “PIC” site to be confronted by the imperative:

“If you have sn SVG viewer, download the online Personal Inflation Calculator Or download the zip version for offline use”

I have no idea if I have or don’t have an SVG viewer. In fact, I have no idea at this point what an SVG viewer might be. Given the site I’m on perhaps it’s some kind of Statistics Viewing Grid. I gamely clicked on the online version.

The screen – on my Mac – fills with boxes (all empty), no text, a graph and some very artistic blobs in all different colours. Perhaps I don’t have an SVG viewer?

The offline version deposits a file called “prerelease 3 correct” on my desktop which, when unzipped and opened, contains exactly the same screen. Perhaps I really don’t have an SVG viewer and I misunderstood the meaning of the “or” on the first screen.

Back to screen 1 where on following the SVG viewer link I learn, from Adobe, that it is for looking at Scalable Vector Graphics. There’s a helpful picture of a phone with a graphic on it implying somehow that I also need a mobile phone to use this thing. Still, good news, it’s royalty-free, vendor-neutral open standard developed under the W3C Process. And it provides high-quality graphics on resource-limited handheld devices (hyphens all theirs). I also learn that the product will be end-of-lifed (hyphens mine) in two years – I hope someone’s watching out for that – what a market opportunity awaits someone who can develop a better one.

This thing is available in 20 languages. And at least 4 operating systems. If only government websites met those standards.

But, I still can’t make the PIC work, despite downloading the SVG viewer. Maybe it’s because I’m using a Mac?

Switching to my PC and going through the same download palaver (and using IE, not Firefox), I make it work.

Before I even get to the mortgage, the calculator has my inflation rate at 5% versus a national rate of 4%. With the house and related spend in (council tax, furnishings and so on), I’m quickly up to a 7.2% inflation rate versus a national rate of 3.9%.

What’s interesting is the sensitivity and the default values. For instance

– The default value for outstanding mortgage is £17,630. Changing this to a more reasonable number (the average London house price is, say, £300,000 and lucky people borrow perhaps 80% of that ). Just making that one change pushes the inflation rate to 6.9%

– The monthly spend on food is just £200 (seems unlikely to me). Putting in a wild number – £1000 – brings my personl inflation (with all other numbers left to default) to 3.8% instead of 3.9%

There’s hours of fun to be had here I’m sure. Like I said, the ONS folks are brave for putting this up because it will, when there’s a slow day in the news, invite a few stories about the horrendous inaccuracies in the inflation rate for most people. If the stories are balanced, they’ll quickly see how some families are likely to have done rather better than the national average, but inthis land of big mortgages, most people are going to be suffering more and more with interest rate rises pushing their outgoings up and salary caps being held firm.

I haven’t the faintest idea what posessed ONS to decide to use some offbeat software tool, this SVG thing, as the basis for their new calculator though.

Hey Mr. Prime Minister
All your parliamentarians, too
You got me frustrated
And I don’t know what to do
I’m trying to make a living
I can’t save a cent
It takes all of my money
Just to eat and pay my rent
I got the bluesGot those inflation blues

iTunes Flaws

I’ve slowly been digitising my classical music collection using itunes. It’s no simple task but once it’s done, there’s no substitute for flicking through the composer list on my Sonos and hearing the music blast out throughout the house. Right now I have Vladimir Ashkenazy flooding the house with his incredible rendition of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos.

Or should that be “Rachmaninov, Sergei” or “Sergei Rachmaninov” or “S. Rachmaninov” or “Rachmaninov (1873-1943)”, “Rachmaninov, Serge” or even a combination of perhaps Japanese characters that I can’t quite decipher?

So here are my top 3 itunes flaws

1. Labelling inconsistency. Whilst having the gracenotes CDDB service beats having to type in every album, composer, artist and track name item for every CD, the inconsistency of labels is frustrating, particularly it seems for classical music. After all, Madonna is Madonna and every one of her albums has her as the “artist” (I haven’t yet seen a label of “M. Ciccone” or “Madonna, Ciccone”). Yet I have 3 variants of Ravel (“Ravel”, “Ravel, Maurice” and “Ravel, Maurice (1875-1937)) and 3 of Schubert, 4 of Prokofiev (with various counts of “v” and “f” at the end) and 6 different Mozarts. Why is this important? I often search by composer rather than album and frequently want to play a range of different pieces by one composer. Is there a way out of this? Sometimes itunes offers you a choice of labels for a track but the window it presents them in isn’t big enough to see what it is actually going to use, so that’s no help. I thought perhaps some filters might make sense – the same way that you can filter emails in Outlook so that they route to a specific folder – so that any Mozart pieces would go to the “Mozart” folder rather than the “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” folder. Or perhaps it could learn from the first disc I put in by any single composer and use that as a template?

  • P.S. There’s an e-government hook here, especially given all this talk of joined up data sharing. Departments don’t call anything the same as each other – not even items that you might consider simple, such as the definition of “child”. With complicated identifiers like national insurance number, tax reference number, NHS number and so on, bringing the records together will be lots of fun. More on that another time.

2. Using multiple computers doesn’t work. I store all of my music on a big fat hard drive attached to the network. Two Macs and two PCs are attached to the network and, to speed the digitising process, I sometimes have two of three of them uploading CDs at once. Sonos handles this just fine, updating its records either when prompted or at a specific time. But itunes doesn’t have a clue that there is more than one update going on. So I end up with each PC or Mac having a different sense of what is on the disc – for music, album art and gapless playback information (whatever that is). The only way to sort this out seems to be to clear down the itunes library on each machine (without deleting the files – been there, done that) and then add the folder back in. Each time you do that, of course, it goes and finds the album art and the gpi again, taking hours (20 plus gb of music over an 802.11g connection).

3. Audiobooks don’t always find their way into the audiobooks folder. When I run I listen to books – it’s more interesting than listening to music all the time and it doesn’t seem to slow me down (and yes folks, I can run and listen to a book at the same time as well as walk and chew gum). Uploading an audiobook via itunes (as opposed to downloading one from the store) doesn’t put the book in the right folder. Even changing the file extension to .m4b doesn’t work. You have to run a script to move them so that you get them in the right folder and, especially, so that the bookmark functionality works. The script you need is called “Make Bookmarkable” (and, as far as I know, is only for Mac)

There are other flaws – CoverFlow for all its vaunting when Jobs launched the iphone seems to have less than 10% of the covers that match my albums but then perhaps its designed for those who download everything (but I do love the CoverFlow interface). Itunes is also prone to hanging up on my Mac (which is a shiny new Intel-based machine), but it’s occasional and not crippling.

All this has to be put in the perspective of course that itunes is still the best at what it does and that, coupled with the ipod, it’s proved unbeatable so far.