Adrian Short Design, citizenship and the city Sun, 12 Feb 2012 14:39:03 +0000 en hourly 1 Argyll and Bute Council should come clean over online “spy accounts” Sun, 12 Feb 2012 10:44:18 +0000 Adrian Short Argyll and Bute Council - 'Spy' social media accounts

Did Argyll and Bute Council set up “spy accounts” under false names on social media sites to monitor local activist groups? The question has been raised after this story in The Herald reported that one delegate at a local government communications conference claimed that Argyll and Bute’s communications manager made that claim during her conference presentation.

But there is a signficant lack of clarity over what has actually happened. Until the facts are established, debating the ethical implications of a particular course of action is premature.

Three explanations of Argyll and Bute’s activities have been given by various people and the truth may be something else entirely.

1. According to an unnamed source in the Herald’s story, the council used bogus accounts to directly monitor critics and opponents:

[T]here was a sense of shock in the room when [the communications manager] described how she set up fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter to spy on people and groups who oppose the council.

From a professional public relations point of view, it is really poor behaviour. You may not like what taxpayers are saying about you online, but you can’t pretend to be one of them in order to find out what they are saying.

Other professional communicators in the room were very uncomfortable about it – not only is it unethical, it was a strange thing to tell other people about.

2. In the same Herald story, Gary McGrow of the Scottish Health Council, who also attended the conference, suggests that the purpose of the activity was to learn more about how people communicate and organise online but not directly to collect specific information about opponents’ activities:

I did ask whether this was ethical, but I don’t think it was being used for those purposes. It was being called a spy account, but what it really is is a dummy account.

A lot of public-sector organisations are struggling with the use of social media. What she was trying to do was find out how other people were using it, as a project, with a name not linked to the council. I don’t have any concerns about it now.

3. Nick Hill of the Public Sector Web Network, who organised the conference, advances a third explanation: There was no activity by the council to set up accounts under false names but the council collected information from its own staff who were already using social media personally in an informal and voluntary way. Mr Hill does not report whether the aim of this activity was to gain greater understanding of social media in general or to collect specific information about local residents’ groups.

The phrase ‘spy accounts’ was featured in the presentation in speech marks deliberately as they referred informally to individuals  referring back what they’d seen elsewhere voluntarily rather than some dastardly plot. The phrase was given deliberate context in the conference.

Argyll and Bute Council has issued a general denial of any covert activity in the Herald story without specifying precisely what it has done and why:

Argyll and Bute Council does not use and does not condone the use of covert social media accounts. The council does use social media as a valuable way to engage with communities.

Argyll and Bute Council needs to act immediately to clarify this situation. Without the full facts of their activities it is impossible to make a judgement about whether the council has acted ethically and whether any changes of policy or practice need to be made.

We need to know:

  • What was the aim of Argyll and Bute’s social media project? Was it to learn about social media processes generally, to monitor specific groups or individuals, or both? Or something else?
  • Who contributed information to this project?
  • Did the council set up social media accounts specifically for this project or related activities? If so, it should publish the names and URLs of those accounts.
  • Did the council join any online groups which cannot be read without membership? If so, which groups? During which time period did the council read those groups?
  • If the council joined any online groups, did it participate in them by writing comments? If so, when and where?
  • What information was collected by this project? Unless there is an overriding reason of privacy or data protection, that information should now be published.

It’s certainly possible that Argyll and Bute’s activities online are entirely above board and defensible. Thus far all we have is conflicting claims and a lack of substantial facts. Let’s get the full story and have a much needed discussion about ethical social media behaviour in light of it.

UPDATE at 14:34 on 12 Feb 2012:

This story in the Herald, which I hadn’t seen when I wrote the post above, gives the communications manager’s own explanation of the “spy accounts”. Jo Smith says:

It was about trying to create a separate account different from your normal one that you have holiday photographs on. ‘Spy account’ was shorthand for it being another identity, to take you into a place that you wouldn’t be comfortable using your main account. I’m sure people do this all the time.

My online activity in my private life is private. You separate the professional from the personal and keep those two things separate. That is why many people post and say ‘this isn’t my employers’ opinion’. There are no rules here.

According to the Herald, Ms Smith did not want to discuss which groups she had accessed using these accounts. It is also unclear what information was collected through this activity, how it was used, and whether it was known to her colleagues and employer.




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How to make government IT simpler Mon, 07 Nov 2011 09:16:05 +0000 Adrian Short Many people talk about simpler government IT but why doesn’t it happen? It’s because keeping things simple is one of the hardest things you can do, especially in an organisation that’s not wired for that kind of thinking. This is compounded when you’re dealing with suppliers that are also kitchen-sink thinkers. In general suppliers think that they can get more business and make more money by providing more stuff. Usually they’re right because most customers see the supposed advantages more than the costs of overblown software and systems.

“What’s so hard about being simple?” could easy fill a book but there are a few common factors:

  • People don’t realise that when you add something you take something away. Your increase in literal functionality gets traded off against clarity, ease of use, ease of learning and user satisfaction.
  • People find it hard to make decisions. Tell your children that they can have 30 Christmas presents and they’ll happily start writing lists. Tell them that they can have only one — within reason, anything — and they’ll probably hate you forever. It’s so much easier to throw in the kitchen sink than think through what you really need.
  • You can’t predict the future. Trying to anticipate hypothetical future needs is a great way to buy a ton of junk that you don’t need now and won’t ever need. But if your procurement process is lengthy and cumbersome and you’re going to have to live with a new system for several years it’s tempting to grab everything you can because you know you won’t have a chance to do it later.

For corporate IT I’d recommend:

  • Start small. Purchase or build the minimum system you need to meet your current needs and build it up from there when necessary and not before.
  • Choose or build modular systems that can be extended when necessary rather than having to throw out the whole system and trade up.
  • Use systems that can talk to each other. Follow the Unix philosophy of systems that do one thing well and can easily be combined with other systems to produce toolchains and capabilities that are much greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Streamline procurement. Build in preferences for small systems and short-term contracts. Try to make it as cheap as possible to change your mind and to trade up when future needs change rather than forcing people to stick with systems that no longer suit them.
  • Hire some good developers (Hi!). Many useful small systems can be quickly and cheaply built in-house in far less time and for far less money than buying a commercial product. When that system needs a small change you can quickly and cheaply just make it rather than being at the mercy of an external supplier to do it. They could take months or they might not be interested in doing it at all.

This post started life as a comment at We Love Local Government.

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Vincent Tabak trial: You’re a police officer not Max Clifford Fri, 28 Oct 2011 21:59:41 +0000 Adrian Short Vincent Tabak’s trial for the murder of Joanna Yeates ended today. Tabak was convicted and given a life sentence.

As is customary, a statement was read outside court on behalf of Yeates’s parents. It contained this:

For us it is with regret that capital punishment is not a possible option for his sentence. The best we can hope for him is that he spends the rest of his life incarcerated where his life is a living hell, being the recipient of all evils, deprivations and degradations that his situation can provide.

These kinds of sentiments are common in cases like this. But it wasn’t the words themselves that perplexed me so much as the person delivering them: a police officer.

Police family liaison officers (FLOs) serve an important role. In serious, complex and high-profile cases they act as a vital link between the police and the victim or the victim’s family. FLOs ensure that victims and their relatives are given appropriate information about the progress of their case. They arrange support where necessary. They provide a humane and consistent link between the police and members of the public in the most difficult and sensitive circumstances. They are a great improvement on the times when often the first a victim’s family heard about an important development in their case was when a reporter doorstepped them to ask a question about it.

But it’s very difficult to see how FLOs making public statements to the media fits into this role. Victims and their families often find the media’s desire for access unwelcome and distressing. While it might be appropriate for the police to help victims to deal with the consequences of media attention it doesn’t follow that the police should involve themselves in the process of a private citizen wanting to speak or not speak to the media. Not only does this have the potential to disrupt what is essentially a democratic process, it also leaves the police in grave danger of compromising their role as politically-neutral servants of the state.

The Yeates family’s statement is one such case.

Public policy and the law on imprisonment says that offenders are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Offenders are punished by losing their freedom and the opportunities that they might have pursued were they at liberty. Prisons should not have luxury cells but nor should they be “living hells”. Prisoners are entitled to reasonable protection from violence and intimidation. They must be adequately housed and fed. They should be provided with medical and psychological care. They are entitled to be treated with respect and within the obvious confines of the situation they should be given reasonable autonomy. It follows from this that it would be against policy and in most cases against the law for the prison service or individual prison officers to make or allow a prisoner’s life to become a “living hell” where they suffer significant deprivation and degradation.

Like all private citizens, the Yeates family are entitled to hold and express whatever views they choose but I can see no justification for those views to be conveyed through a police mouthpiece with all the implied credibility that brings. It isn’t the job of the police to use public resources to help anyone contribute to a debate on policy, let alone to amplify a desire for treating someone with contempt for the law as it stands and in a way that’s contrary to the core values of the police and prison services. This brings the police into disrepute. Detective inspector Russ Jones might not agree with the sentiments in the words he read but the ease with which he read them entitles one to raise the question.

Police officers should not make their jobs harder by acting like Max Clifford. FLOs should be prohibited from speaking to the media on behalf of victims and their families. At the very least, the FLO in this case should have declined to read the parts of the statement about capital punishment and the Yeates’s hope for Tabak’s “degradation” in prison.

If the Yeates family or anyone else has a written statement that they want to give to the media they can send it directly to the Press Association. Then there will be no possibility of it tainting the police or it being given undue credibility by them.

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Time to opt out of web censorship Tue, 11 Oct 2011 11:34:56 +0000 Adrian Short Four major UK internet service providers will be limiting customers’ access to the internet under a new scheme proposed by the Mothers’ Union and supported by the government.

Under the new scheme, customers of BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media will have to “opt-in” to retain the full internet access that they enjoy at present.

The Guardian writes:

Customers who do not opt in to adult content will be unable to access pornographic websites.

But this characterisation of the system is wrong. This isn’t about pornography or “adult content”, whatever that may be.

The ISPs are setting up a filtering system that will give customers a choice between access to the whole internet and access to an arbitrary subset of the internet. Now choice sounds like a fine thing. People usually like choices. But what’s the choice on offer here?

It’s not a choice between “internet with porn” and “internet without porn”.

It’s a choice between the whole internet and only the sites that the ISP decides aren’t “adult content” at any point in time. Which sites exactly? They won’t say. Site blocking lists and content filtering algorithms are always kept secret and they can and will change at any time without notice.

So if you choose to opt out of the whole internet you literally won’t know what you’re missing. That might be a choice but it’s not an informed one.

Regardless of the opaqueness of the process and the misrepresentation of the actual choice on offer, some people will be happy to take the partial internet option. Why shouldn’t ISPs offer it?

Here’s why.

I do two main things on the internet.

As a freelance consultant I use the internet to earn a living. Not only do I design and write software for the internet, most of my business comes through the internet too. It’s my workshop and my shop window rolled into one.

I’m also an activist. I use the internet to advance the causes in which I believe. The internet is an essential tool for me to participate in the democratic process of debating and disputing ideas.

What the ISPs supporting web blocking are saying is that they can arbitrarily, at any time and without notifying their customers, block access to the parts of the internet on which I do business and advance my causes. The customers that have opted for web blocking (or not opted out of it) might not care hugely but I certainly do. It’s a restraint on my freedom of speech and freedom to trade. Web blocking undermines the default assumption of the internet: that anyone can post material, anyone can link to that material and anyone can follow the link and read it.

Even as someone who isn’t in the pornography or “adult content” business, this is a huge problem.

Recently I wrote about how Facebook and other major social networks threaten the open and independent web. This article wasn’t pornographic. It was a discussion of a technology policy issue.

Several websites picked up the discussion and wrote their own views on the issue. One was Eros Blog, a site that by its own description is about “sex blogging, gratuitous nudity, kinky sex [and] sundry sensuality”.

Eros Blog’s discussion of the social media issue isn’t pornographic. Yet it’s framed on a page that includes two nude paintings and several links to sites that are either pornography or discussing adult sexual issues.

The ISPs web blocking filters will almost certainly block access to Eros Blog and take the post about my social media views with it. There will be one less place on the web where people can encounter my ideas and other people’s perspectives on them. Not my porn ideas. Not my adult content ideas. My ideas about technology and how to run the web.

The idea that you can build a “porn” blocking system without this kind of collateral damage is fanciful. Once you start switching off the lights on whole sections of the web there’s no way of knowing which words and ideas will disappear, not least for the customers who will never be given the option to find out what’s been removed.

My message to the Mothers’ Union is very simple. If you don’t want to see porn or “adult content” on the internet, don’t look at it. If you don’t want your children to see it, bring them up to share your values. You already do? Then you’ve already got the most sophisticated and effective system possible. Not only does it give you and your children freedom from seeing things you don’t want to see, it also preserves my freedom to speak to anyone who might want to hear what I’ve got to say.

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In praise of slow computing Mon, 03 Oct 2011 21:39:20 +0000 Adrian Short Usually I work on a big, fast, smooth iMac. It can handle pretty much whatever I throw at it. Dozens of apps open. 50 browser tabs. 30 editor tabs. Half a dozen tiled windows. It’s got oceans of crisp screen space. It barely breaks a sweat even when I do.

But lately I’ve been working on a 10-inch netbook. It’s got a paltry 1GB RAM, a screen that’s 70% smaller than the Mac’s and a crummy hard drive that wheezes along if you have the temerity to open more than three apps and five browser tabs at once. By any objective standard it’s junk.

Yet since switching to the netbook I’ve never been so productive.

I was going to get rid of the netbook. I’ve hardly used it in years. The battery packs up after little more than an hour. The screen is horribly fuzzy compared with the sharp Apple kit by which I’ve been spoiled. The machine gets really hot on the bottom and the heat comes up through the keyboard making typing for any length of time quite uncomfortable. The pre-installed OS is Windows XP — not really my cup of tea. Occasionally I used it for trying out Linux distros but mostly it just sat in a drawer.

But then I thought it might be fun to have a spare machine for casual use. I installed the latest Ubuntu Linux and gave it a spin. Not bad compared with previous efforts but not a patch on the Mac for photos, videos, music and web browsing. On this old machine it was really sluggish too. Moreover, the netbook’s 80GB hard drive wouldn’t hold very much of my media collection.

Yet I still wanted to keep separate machines for work and play. Jack Cheng’s article on habit fields argues that digital devices make it very hard to make a psychological separation of things and tasks. Before mass-market computing each object typically performed one task: we made calls on the telephone, took photos with our cameras, read books and watched the TV. Now we can do all those things with the smartphones in our pockets. Likewise our computers are multifunction devices. For many of us, the computer we work with during the day is the same one we relax with in the evening. We end up not being able to concentrate as well as we could when we’re working and not really being able to switch off when the work’s over. The activity may be different but the physical context is the same.

So if the netbook is useless for entertainment, how about using it for work?

I write software. The only desktop apps I need are a browser, a text editor and a terminal. The rest of my tools run in the command shell. The netbook can handle that fine.

The netbook is still slow but it’s a good kind of slow. The text editor is just fast enough to keep up with my typing. There isn’t space to open more than five editor tabs but that’s enough. Any more than that and I’d spend too much time hunting through them for the file I wanted.

It’s the same with the browser. It gets really slow once you go over five or six tabs. But that pain of knowing that popping open an extra tab has a real cost keeps my browsing very focussed. Find what you want, close the tab and get back to coding. Sometimes I just fire up a text-only browser in my terminal and use that instead of my graphical browser. It’s faster and you can only have one “tab” at once. It’s good enough for most jobs.

I make one concession to comfort: I use a full-size Apple aluminium keyboard plugged into the USB rather than the netbook’s cramped built-in keyboard. Ubuntu has a keyboard profile for it that saves any messing around with custom key bindings.

It’s too early to say whether the quality of my code has improved but I know this: hasty code is crappy code. Writing good software needs a considered and contemplative approach. It’s not about bashing out code as quickly as possible. It’s about doing things right. A computer that forces you to slow down and think before you write is a definite advantage. If you’re looking for a tightly-focussed work computer that keeps you on track, your dream machine could be that old laptop tucked away in a cupboard that you haven’t quite got around to selling. Give it a go. You might find that less haste really is more speed.

The setup:

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It’s the end of the web as we know it Sun, 25 Sep 2011 15:19:00 +0000 Adrian Short When you own a domain you’re a first class citizen of the web. A householder and landowner. What you can do on your own website is only very broadly constrained by law and convention. You can post the content you like. You can run the software you want, including software you’ve written or customised yourself. And you can design it to look the way you want. If you’re paying for a web hosting service and you don’t like it (or they don’t like you) you can pack up your site and move it to another host. Your URLs will stay the same and so your visitors won’t notice. You get a great deal of freedom in return for the cost of running your own site. Your site could still be there in a decade’s time, possibly even in a century.

If you use a paid-for web service at someone else’s domain you’re a tenant. A second class citizen. You don’t have much control. You’ll probably have to live with your landlord’s furniture and decoration and a restrictive set of rules. Your content will only exist at these URLs for as long as you keep paying the same people that monthly fee and for as long as your provider stays in business. Experience tells me that this isn’t very long. As a paying customer you’ll have a few rights under your contract but they probably won’t amount to very much. When you leave you’ll probably be able to get your data back in a useful format but when you put it back on the web somewhere else you’ll lose all your inbound links, search engine rankings and many of your visitors. This kind of service seems like a good deal until the day you need to move.

When you use a free web service you’re the underclass. At best you’re a guest. At worst you’re a beggar, couchsurfing the web and scavenging for crumbs. It’s a cliche but it’s worth repeating: if you’re not paying for it you’re the product not the customer. Your individual account is probably worth very little to the service provider, so they’ll have no qualms whatsoever with tinkering with the service or even making radical changes in their interests rather than yours. If you don’t like it you’re welcome to leave. You may well not be able to take your content and data with you and even if you can, all your URLs are broken.

The conclusion here should be obvious: if you really care about your site you need to run it on your own domain. You need to own your URLs. You’ll have total control and no-one can take it away from you. You don’t need anyone else. If you put the effort in up front it’ll pay off in the long run.

But it’s no longer that simple.

Anyone who’s ever run a website knows that building the site is one thing, getting people to use it is quite another. The smaller your real-world presence the harder it is. If you’re a national newspaper or a Hollywood star you probably won’t have much trouble getting people to visit your website. If you’re a self-employed plumber or an unknown blogger writing in your spare time it’s considerably harder.

Traffic used to come from three places: the real world (print advertising, business cards, word of mouth, etc.), search engines and inbound links. Whichever field you were in and at whichever level, you were competing against other similar sites on a fairly level playing field.

Social networks have changed all that. Facebook and Twitter now wield enormous power over the web by giving their members ways to find and share information using tools that work in a social context. There’s no obvious way to replicate this power out on the open web of independent websites tied together loosely by links and search engine results.

Not so long ago you had to be on MySpace if you were an up-and-coming band. Now it’s probably Facebook. Either way, your social network presence is more important than your own website.

If you’re an independent photographer looking to get established you probably need to get your pictures on photo sharing sites like Flickr where they can be easily found by millions.

Many of the most valuable conversations around technology and many other fields happen on Twitter. If you’re not there you don’t really exist, especially if you’re just getting started in your field.

You can turn your back on the social networks that matter in your field and be free and independent running your own site on your own domain. But increasingly that freedom is just the freedom to be ignored, the freedom to starve. We need to use social networks to get heard and this forces us into digital serfdom. We give more power to Big Web companies with every tweet and page we post to their networks while hoping to get a bit of traffic and attention back for ourselves. The open web of free and independent websites has never looked so weak.

Perhaps none of this would matter very much if the biggest player of them all — Facebook — wasn’t such a grotesque abuser of its position. Even before announcing Open Graph this week it was pretty clear that Facebook wanted to own everything everyone does online. Facebook currently has 750 million members. If it were a country it’d be the third most populous country in the world, bigger than everyone except China and India. The United States has a mere 312 million people — not even half the size of Facebook.

Facebook’s Open Graph technology allows third-party websites to tell Facebook what people are doing. It extends Facebook’s Like button to include any action that the site owners think might be interesting to Facebook. Play a song and your music streaming site tells Facebook what you’ve played. Read a newspaper article and Facebook knows what you’ve read. LOL at a lolcat and your LOL gets logged for all time on your indelible activity record. Facebook calls this “frictionless sharing”, which is their euphemism for silent total surveillance. Once you’ve signed up for this (and it is optional, at least for now) you don’t need to do anything else to “share” your activity with Facebook. It’s completely automatic.

Site owners and developers are lapping it up. Hosting company Heroku posted this incredible tweet the day after Open Graph was announced:

Huge Open Graph momentum with social devs, we’ve seen more than 33,800 new Facebook apps in last 24 hours #f8

Yes, that’s nearly 34,000 new Facebook apps created in one day by customers of just one hosting company. Astonishing numbers.

At least Facebook is up front about Social Graph. Facebook’s abuse of its Like button to invade people’s privacy is much less publicised. We all think we know how it works. We’re on a website reading an interesting page and we click the Like button. A link to the page gets posted to our wall for our friends to see and Facebook keeps this data and data about who clicks on it to help it to sell advertising. So much so predictable.

What most people don’t know is that the Like button tracks your browsing history. Every time you visit a web page that displays the Like button Facebook logs that data in your account. It doesn’t put anything on your wall but it knows where you’ve been. This even happens if you log out of Facebook. Like buttons are pretty much ubiquitous on mainstream websites so every time you visit one you’re doing some frictionless sharing. Did you opt in to this? Only by registering your Facebook account in the first place. Can you turn it off? Only by deleting your account.

This is where I draw the line. I’m well aware that everything we do online and many of the things we do in the real world creates a data shadow — a digital record of our actions. If you carry a mobile phone your location is continually recorded by your phone company. If you’re suspected of a crime or go missing then this data will be handed to the police. Most of us know this and choose to use mobile phones anyway. We know that when we buy things that transaction is recored by our bank and the shop unless we’re using cash. We know that our computers and our broadband providers record what we do online. But all these things are predictable and at least arguably necessary to provide the services we use. We might not like these intrusions into our privacy but we like the law enforcement, fraud protection and service quality that they buy us. It’s a compromise that most of us are willing to make.

What Facebook is doing is very different. When it records our activity away from the Facebook site it’s a third party to the deal. It doesn’t need this data to run its own services. Moreover, Facebook’s aggregation and centralisation of data across all our disparate fields of activity is a very different thing from our phone company having our phone data and our bank having our finances. Worst of all, the way Facebook collects and uses our data is both unpredictable and opaque. Its technology and policies move so quickly you’d need to be a technical and legal specialist and spend an inordinate amount of time researching Facebook’s activities on an ongoing basis to have any hope of understanding what they’re doing with your data.

As individuals we can opt out. It’s still possible to live a full life in the developed world and not use social networks. Some people may find it harder than others — missing out on event invitations that are only sent on Facebook, for example. Not being able to see your friends’ photos because they’re only posted to Facebook. Not being able to join conversations on Twitter. But for now there are sufficient alternatives for most of us. As with smoking, it’s easier to not start using the social web than to stop. Once you’ve signed up the cost of leaving increases with every “friend” you make, every photo you post, every tweet you send. That’s why I’m holding out against Google+ for now.

For organisations and business it’s very different. We’re already past the point where social networks can be ignored. If you don’t have a social networking presence your businesses is at a significant disadvantage compared with those that do. It’s where the attention, the traffic and the conversations are. Even public and government services are finding their social networking activities increasingly important. How long before they’re essential?

The promise of the open web looks increasingly uncertain. The technology will continue to exist and improve. It looks like you’ll be able to run your own web server on your own domain for the foreseeable future. But all the things that matter will be controlled and owned by a very small number of Big Web companies. Your identity will be your accounts at Facebook, Google and Twitter, not the domain name you own. You don’t pay Big Web a single penny so it can take away your identity and all your data at any time. The things you can say and do that are likely to be seen and used by any significant number of people will be the things that Facebook, Google and Twitter are happy for you to say and do. You can do what you like on your own website but you’ll probably be shouting into the void.

If I find any answers I’ll post them but right now things are looking bleak. It’s the end of the web as we know it and I feel pretty far from fine.


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How to fix council news Fri, 16 Sep 2011 09:02:27 +0000 Adrian Short Too long, too dull and far too pleased with itself. Little more than an exercise in vanity publishing. Irrelevant to the vast majority of people.

The complaints are numerous but at least you come here to read my blog not to find out when it’s bin day.

What about council news?

Followers of the gospel of top tasks don’t have much time for it. People rarely visit their council’s website to read the news. They’ve got something much more specific in mind, whether it’s applying for a school place or renewing their library books. News probably doesn’t make it into the top 100 tasks on a council website let alone the top 20. Why not drop it?

While there are a few exceptions like Brent, it’s hard to deny that the average council news page is a complete snorefest.

What’s this? 400 words on a benefit fraud case that didn’t even result in a prison sentence, complete with lengthy quotations from the magistrate and the lead councillor.

Now here’s 700 words on an upgrade to the council’s IT system that won’t be noticed by a single resident.

And how about a story about the trade price of recycled paper that almost wholly comprises quotations from councillors?

This is all worthy stuff and doubtless of interest to someone but it’s nothing that the average resident can do anything about. It’s never going to be the talk of the town or even get a mention at the dinner table.

But mixed in among these anaesthetic reports are things that residents care about and might even need to know: local events, major planning projects that will cause disruption, changes to bin day.

Sadly this useful information is presented, like the rest, in a turgid press release style. Residents are asked to plough through a huge slab of words that’s hard to scan for the essential details. The text is laden with contrived quotations from people no-one knows that rarely do anything more than state the obvious. It finishes without a call to action. It’s a wonder that anyone bothers at all.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Council news matters but it needs to be given to the right people at the right time and in a way that makes sense to them.

I reject the idea that council websites should focus on premeditated customer journeys to the exclusion of everything else. While there’s often too little focus on the customer’s intended task at the moment and far too much clutter and distraction on the average council website, we don’t want to swing too far the other way. There’s room for a few tips and nuggets of info that the customer didn’t come for as long as it’s not overdone.

So how do we fix it?

Social media is an important part of the mix. People might not go to their council website to read news but they’re happy to sign up in their thousands to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that bring the news to them. Councils that take the trouble to understand the strengths and limitations of each social site and adapt their style accordingly do best. Recycling your RSS news headlines through Twitterfeed is so 2010.

Where they need to exist at all, news pages should be written in a friendly and accessible style. Drop the passive voice. Talk directly to your readers using “we” and “you”. If you want people to do something then prompt them with a call to action, don’t just make them aware of the opportunity. Pull all the vital details clear of the body text. Dates, places and contact details should stand alone at the top of the page. Above all keep it short.

Now put links to individual news pages everywhere they’re relevant. If you’re going to automate this, make sure your CMS will remove a link when it’s no longer needed. Don’t clutter your pages with links to closed consultations and events that have finished. Don’t bother at all with stories that residents can’t do anything about like personnel changes and aren’t-we-doing-great pieces. Keep it practical — news you can use.

Got an event for children? Link to it in the schools section. Business news should be on your business pages. Green news should be on your environment pages. An event in a park should be on the page for that park, among others. Far too many councils keep news in its own section and away from all the parts of the site that people actually read.

Save the press releases for journalists. Keep them in their own section. Don’t link to individual press releases from your home page. Don’t call them “News”.

If you write in an accessible style, focus on things that matter most to residents and mix links to news pages into relevant sections of your website your news will be read and heeded. Carry on as most councils do today and you might as well scrap it entirely.

See also:

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Open data for everyday life Thu, 08 Sep 2011 11:16:23 +0000 Adrian Short TfL Countdown board at bus stop

I’ve noticed two main motivations in the campaign for government open data.

Some people want to change the world. They want to reform government and create a new era of accountability through transparent public bodies.

And some people just want to find out when the next bus is due.

The two of these aren’t mutually exclusive and there’s a point at which they meet, but today I’m going to look at how open data can improve people’s everyday lives.

My interest in local government stems from my core motivations as a designer. We can put people on the Moon and build complex and elegant skyscrapers but why do so many people struggle through their daily lives? To paraphrase William Gibson, at what point does the future become evenly distributed? When do the rest of us Earthbound ground dwellers get a slice of the techno-pie?

Local councils touch so many aspects of our everyday activities. We can go for months without having any direct contact with a central government department. We can avoid pretty much any company we don’t like, though perhaps not all of them at once. But we can barely go a day without using a service provided by our local councils.

Councils collect our bins. They maintain our streets. They educate our children. They run our parks and public libraries and leisure centres. And once a month they send us the bill. Whatever you think about your own council or local government in general, they’re unavoidable. Making councils work better directly and immediately makes people’s lives better. Designers and technologists should be all over them.

But in as much as I think that councils should always be striving to provide better services and to provide better information and access to those services, I know that they can’t do it all by themselves. People’s needs are too diverse. Technology changes too quickly. Aspirations always outstrip the ability of councils to meet them. Try their very best with the budgets and resources available and it’s impossible to keep up let alone get ahead.

Open data offers councils the opportunity to tackle one part of the problem.

So when’s the next bus due?

If you live in London this is now a much easier question to answer.

TfL have just launched their Countdown website where you can look up bus arrival times. It’s the same data that appears on the red screens at some bus stops.

TfL Countdown mobile website screenshot

In fact, there are three Countdown websites. One for computers with “normal sized” screens, your typical PC or laptop. One for smartphones and other mobile devices. And one “accessible” site for people who have difficulty using conventional screens.

These three websites tell a story in themselves. A story of diverse needs and aspirations. About wanting to provide for everyone in every context and on every device while still trying to deliver the best user experience possible in each situation.

And these sites are good. TfL has put the effort in and succeeded.

But better still, TfL has built its websites in a smart way. All three sites draw data from the same source so there’s no need to access the underlying database directly in every app. Just build an API and pull the data from there.

That API is available for anyone to use (unofficially, at least). Just request the current bus arrivals data for any stop and you get the answer in a format you can use in your own apps.

So I built something that TfL probably never considered and would almost certainly never have got approved had they thought of it: a Unix command line utility for Countdown.

Why? Because I’m in a niche group. My aspirations (if not exactly my needs) are well outside the mainstream. Like a few hundred people in London but unlike just about everyone else, I spend nearly all day every day sitting at a computer with a Unix terminal window open.

So rather than visiting a website and clicking my way around, it’s much easier for me to type:


and get a response like this:

Stonecot Hill outside Metalcraft (50799)

93    Putney Bridge        5 min
413   Morden               12 min

Ash Road (50823)

93    North Cheam          3 min
413   Sutton Garage        9 min

A staggering 33 people have downloaded this software since I published it four days ago. That’s nearly nine people a day.

This vanishingly small audience represents a technological and organisational triumph. This isn’t one size fits all. It’s one size fits one if it needs to. It’s what Clay Shirky calls situated software — extreme customisation for the most niche tastes. It’s the information you need, when you need it, in the way that suits you best. It’s a tiny public service in a place where government wouldn’t dream to reach.

If the Unix command line is your thing you’re welcome to become the 34th user.

So those three websites that TfL created for their Countdown service aren’t overkill. They aren’t even covering all the bases. There are hundreds of different ways in which this data could be used in every conceivable context and through any imaginable technology, past, present or future. You could build it into other websites and apps. Put it on screens in shops or hospital waiting rooms. Print it out on till receipts. Run a flag up a flagpole when a bus is around the corner. Whether it’s a labour of love, a business opportunity or a way to improve something that already exists, you can make it. TfL has built the API and the mainstream web apps. The rest is up to you.

So that’s London buses. Some other UK towns and cities have got similar websites though I’m not sure whether they’ve got APIs yet. They need them.

What’s next?

Socitm has recently published its plans for its annual survey of council websites, Better Connected.

Better Connected 2012 will focus on top tasks, the most common things that people visit their council websites to do.

Socitm suggests that the top tasks are:

  • Apply for a council job
  • Comment on a planning application
  • Find winter gritting routes
  • Find rubbish collection day
  • Pay a parking fine
  • Pay council tax
  • Renew a library book
  • Find out about getting help at home
  • Find out school term dates
  • Find opening times for local swimming pool
  • Find records office opening hours

Socitm will be looking to see how well councils provide this information and these services on their own websites.

Councils should work to make all these things as easy as possible to do on their own websites.

But you shouldn’t need to visit your council’s website to do any of them if something else would suit you better.

An iPhone app. An app for a tablet computer that got withdrawn after two months on sale. A nicely formatted table on a leaflet.  A desktop or web widget. A little light flashing on your bin on the day it needs to be taken out. And not forgetting the Unix command line for the three dozen people that might use it.

As councils polish up the top tasks on their websites they should be building APIs for those services too, starting with the most popular and working their way down.

There’s more than one way to do it and there’s nothing better than doing it your own way. We need open data and APIs for everyday life. Councils have the ability to make it happen.

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Why you can get four years jail for inciting disorder on Facebook Tue, 16 Aug 2011 18:25:13 +0000 Adrian Short The jailing of two men for four years each for inciting disorder using Facebook has drawn some surprise and criticism online.

Jordan Blackshaw, 20, from Marston near Northwich, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, from Warrington, were convicted at Chester Crown Court.

It’s not clear at present whether the sentences were for encouraging riot or violent disorder but the sentences, while harsh, are easily explained.

I presume that the pair pled guilty. Either way, the court found as a matter of fact that the defendants intended for their encouragement to be followed. Had that happened, numerous offences would have been committed in the course of the ensuing disorder including burglaries, thefts, robberies and violent crimes such as assault, grievous bodily harm or even murder.

It is of no credit to the defendants that their encouragement wasn’t followed.

The courts sentence encouragement to an offence in the same way as the substantive offence itself. Encouragement to riot is sentenced in the same way as riot. Encouragement to murder is sentenced in the same way as murder.

The maximum sentence for violent disorder is five years. The maximum for riot is ten years.

While these sentences are heavy, they take into account the actual consequences had the defendants’ intentions succeeded, with all the injuries, economic loss and anxiety that would have followed. The people of Cheshire can be thankful that Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan didn’t succeed and a very clear message has been sent to anyone considering a similar course of action.

Update 17 Aug: Both defendants pleaded guilty. The charges were encouraging riot, for which the maximum sentence is ten years.

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Croydon Reeves Corner fire — what did you see? Thu, 11 Aug 2011 08:34:20 +0000 Adrian Short I’m trying to put together a clearer picture of events around the fire that burned down the House of Reeves furniture shop in Croydon on Monday evening. This isn’t part of a police investigation nor am I a journalist. I’m just a Londoner who wants to understand the situation better and help to tell the story.

If you were near Reeves Corner and you saw the fire at any stage or if you were in Croydon town centre on Monday evening you may be able to help.

Please leave a comment below (which will be public) or email me privately at if you don’t want to leave a public comment. I’m also on Twitter as @adrianshort.

You don’t need to use your real name but if you’re happy to do that it’ll help.

Any email address you use in the comments below will not be published but I may use it to get in touch with you to follow up.

Please can you tell me:

  • Where were you and what did you see?
  • What time was that?
  • Did you phone 999 about a fire or anything else? At what time? What did they say? Use your phone’s outgoing call log to get the times of your calls.
  • Did you take any photos or videos? Are they online? Where and at what time were they taken?
  • Did you send or receive any text messages with other people who were in the area? What did they say and at what time?
  • Did you post to Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites about the situation in Croydon? What did you say and at what time? Please post any web links that you have.
  • Did you see any fire engines or other fire vehicles or staff in Croydon on Monday afternoon or evening? Where were they? How many vehicles were there? What were they doing? What time was that?
  • Did you see any police officers and vehicles in Croydon on Monday afternoon or evening? Where were they? How many vehicles were there? What were they doing? What time was that?
  • Where were the lines of police blocking off streets? At what time did you see those lines? Roughly how many officers were there on the line?
  • If you work in a shop or business in Croydon, what time did you close on Monday? What time do you normally close on Mondays? If you closed early, why did you decide to do that? How many staff were working with you on Monday?
  • Were there any problems using public transport such as services cancelled or stations/routes closed? Where and at what time?

Any help or information you can give is really appreciated. Together we should be able to build a clear picture of exactly what happened in Croydon on Monday and help to prevent a similar situation happening again.

Please post this page to your social networks so that others can contribute.

If you have any specific information about a crime or criminals connected to the Croydon riots please phone the police on 101.

Thank you for your help and for getting the word out.



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