Shoot for the moon, collaboratively

I’ve wondered for ages what the meaning of the graph is in this shot of a whiteboard, taken some months ago. I’m guessing “collab” is short for “collaboration” and is not actually C.O.L. Lab or somesuch acronym. The natural assumption is that the x-axis is time (inception, project, BAU run left to right in time). The y-axis baffles me. Productivity? Cost? A lapse in concentration by whoever drew it? Running into a wall?


Suggestions appreciated.

Google Earth – Timewatch Version

I’m a real history buff. Not so much Kings & Queens, battles and treaties, but the more local kind – wandering down a street and knowing that the building to your left used to be Thomas More’s and was known as Crosby Hall when it was in Bishopsgate and that sometime around 1910 it was moved, brick by brick, to where it is now (by the river in Chelsea); or that the name “Flood Street” which, although by the river, in fact derives from Thomas Flood. Or that Christopher Wren might have lived in a house on Cardinal Cap Alley, next to where the Tate Modern is now, but probably didn’t. And don’t get me started on St Paul’s Cathedral; I’d be posting all night (although this layout that Wren planned for post Great Fire is worth looking at). When you work in government, you get to see some amazing stuff, quite by chance, like the inside of the Cabinet Office (which still has original walls from Henry VIII’s “Whitehall Palace”), or the inside of the Houses of Parliament – you can all go and see it but how many Londoner’s have walked in through the St Stephen’s chapel entrance and realised that the short room immediately before you – about 50′ long – was the actual site of Parliament when the Palace itself was used for other things (you’ll see it as St Stephen’s Hall if you click the previous link)?

So, as a history geek, I’d really like to see a version of Google/Windows Earth – or even Google Maps – that stitched together as many old maps as possible from earlier times and allowed you to layer them on to a view. Alongside that, instead of the little blue dots linking to photos uploaded by users, they’d link to copies of pictures drawn, sketched, photographed or painted at the time that the map was done. Better still would be same 3d models of old buildings, based on the data available.

As I walk the streets of London and see yet another building being demolished or, more often, a hole in the ground where a building once stood, I wonder what used to be there. It’s difficult for me to remember what was there even 5 years ago unless I visit the area regularly, let alone what was there 20 years ago. Piecing together the history of what was there before the 2nd World War, before the Victorian era, or at the time of Henry VIII would be truly fascinating, educational and, quite probably, inspirational. We don’t have satellite imagery of course, but we do have an impressive collection of documentation and maps that you can find rendered all over the Internet, albeit you will struggle to bring together a comprehensive view.

Maps like this one can bring so much to life. The London Embankments (orchestrated by Bazalgette in the late 1850s, are yet to be seen), buildings run right down to the river, there’s no Southwark Bridge, no Cannon Street station. When was all this? 1801. Want an earlier one – then here’s a copy done in the 1850s of one from the 1520s or 1530s. Or to bring a bit of perspective, a panorama from the 1845.


Imagine seeing this all stitched together, segment by segment, laid over an up to date map, scaled properly and easily navigable with just a mouse and the occasional click!

A while ago, 2001 or so, before they had much online presence, I talked to the British Library about what their plans were for digitising their archive. This was one of the ideas that I wanted to explore with them but it would have been tough to achieve in the dial-up dats. With Google Earth/Maps, the Microsoft equivalents and plenty of other tools, it seems like it is actually achievable and maybe even relatively simple, at least for the big towns, now.

Dan has since added two ideas to the mix:

(1) rolling the mouse wheel should zoom you back and forward in time

(2) why not start now? there must be a huge archive of satellite material for at least some areas, so why not add the ability to see how things looked just a few years ago? In an age of increasing worrying about climate change, the ability to see how, say, Lake Mead’s area covered has changed over the last decade would surely interest many

Google Error

I’ve been getting these all evening when posting to my blog (and trying to view it). It’s hosted by Google. What gives?


Server Error

The server encountered a temporary error and could not complete your request.

Please try again in 30 seconds.

What Do They

The FOI aggregation and publication service I referred to in my post, FOI – Army of One, a few days ago is now known as “” That makes sense and is in line with previous MySociety names, such as I worry that it might beg the answer, notasmuchasyou’dlike, but we’ll see.

Browsing through the list of questions asked – and the responses from the departments that have had a chance to put their data together – there’s a fair level of consistency and, in fact, uncertainty in the responses. This is in no way a big enough sample to draw proper conclusions from, but anyway:

There are at least two of these:

You should redirect your request to the Central Office of Information who will be best-placed to assist you

Two of these similar requests for more information

The department reasonably requires further information in order to identify and locate the information that you have asked for

It is not at all clear to the possible information holders what it is you are actually seeking

And just one of these (that I could see)

I have some material to send to you in relation to your request. However, it is not appropriate for this to be automatically republished on your website.

And so, the early conclusions are, perhaps unsurprisingly, that

a) Government is quite hard to navigate even by those who we might consider reasonably government-savvy (I have a sense early users of this are generally gov-aware)

b) Responses are mostly helpful but often struggle to figure out exactly what is being asked – I think it’s likely that many that are “awaiting response” are in the internal loop with lots of people scratching their head and asking what’s wanted. It would be useful to have some guidance on the WDTK site that says “hey, when you request something how about you

1. Ensure you’ve got the right department. If it’s about a service, then check who runs the service now and use them as the start point rather than who used to run the service at the time relating to the question you ask

2. Be pretty specific about what you want. The broader the question, the harder it will be to answer

3. Most importantly, give the department a clue about why you want it. If you really want all the source code that PICT has, then say you want to see all of the code where they own the IPR and can do give you so that you can check the efficiency of the code against standard benchmarks (or whatever you do with that sort of thing). If what you wanted was a list of software licences held by a department or its IT supplier so that you can see what the most popular software held by a department is, then say that. If, instead, you want to know how much has been spent on a system or series of systems so that you can send it to a journalist and wildly wonder about the wild world of government IT, say that – it shouldn’t make a difference, but it will at least allow the person answering the question to figure out the nub of what you want and so better respond.

What should emerge from this site after perhaps a few months or maybe a year of operation is an almost perfect template of how to ask a question and get the answer you are looking for. At the same time, there will be facts and figures about response rates, success rates, clarification requirements and so on.

So far, so good. Be fascinating to see how this develops.