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Digital by default

As I write this, I’m sitting on a stationary train. In a station. The rail app on my phone tells me it’s the train I want. But the signs on the platform are totally blank. And the guy in uniform on the train doing the uncoupling says he doesn’t know where it’s going.

So, do I believe what the app tells me? Rather than embark on an exercise in Bayesian conditional probability, it’s making me think about that phrase “digital by default”.

Because I’m still not entirely sure I know what it means. Or, even if I do, that I’m seeing it used consistently.

And this experience with the phone app right now is a good reflection of what I think it should mean: that a service has been built, first and foremost, so that its delivery in digital channels is the way that it works best.

–that information in the digital channel is “the truth”.

–that if the train is switched to another platform, the digital channel will be the first to reflect this.

–that train staff will be looking at their own digital devices for information before they look at platform signs, or paper print-outs of departures, or get on the internal intercom to the driver.

That, to me, is digital by default.

An underpinning design principle that the service is supposed to be like this. Not, as has so often been the case, with digital features as a sort of awkward bolt-on after the fact.

I pointed out to a member of station staff a few weeks ago, who tried to stop me, that I was going through the gates to platform 10 because this device in my hand was telling me my train would be there. And I trusted it, at least enough to wait there.

He looked in incomprehension at this device. It wasn’t part of the script. The situation was the very opposite of “digital by default”.

So, apart from this nice, rosy, optimistic definition, what else have I seen it used to mean?

Well – sadly, sometimes as the Mr Nasty of channel-shift enthusiasts: the reason why counter services will be closed, the hammer that will force people to abandon their Luddite ways, the only real means of forcing out cash savings in this techno-progressive world we were told so much about.

And if people don’t want to shift, then tough. They won’t have the option. Default, innit? Capisce? Ok, if they’re really incapable, because of disability or crap connectivity, there’ll be some sort of stop-gap. A bolt-on, if you like. After the fact.

Now, does that sound somewhat familiar?

Or, for a third flavour, how about Mr Nasty’s gentler cousin: the service redesign that still has the closure of non-digital channels at its heart, but attempts to do so by attraction to a better, digital alternative, rather than brute imposition?

The interpretation you hear is connected to the source you hear it from, I guess. These versions all have different political palatability, and provoke different passions in different audiences.

So which do you i) think it really means now? And ii) which one would you like it to mean?

A – a fundamental design principle from the ground up
B – channel shift by imposition and removal of choice
C – channel shift by being more attractive than non-digital

Your answers, below, if you please:

Why does Twitter unfollow people?

It’s happened to me. And to lots of people I know. It might have happened to you. (A hundred anecdotes make evidence, naturally. Here’s a live search link. See for yourself. Maybe. It’s real-time.)

You find out one day that you’re not following someone you know you used to follow. And you’re dead sure you didn’t do it yourself. Either you or they have spotted the omission on a list, or they’ve tried to send a DM and failed. They might let you know about it. They might not. The relationship gets reinstated. Or it doesn’t. Life goes on.

So is this cock-up or conspiracy? A bug in the system that lets people slip through the cracks like this?

I don’t think it’s a bug at all, but a feature. A piece of very clever social design. Here’s why.

Real relationships aren’t binary. They’re analogue. You can like someone not at all, a bit, or a lot. That can change from day to day – sometimes from hour to hour. Independently of how much you like them there are other factors involved like distance and frequency of contact. You might adore each other but only communicate once a year.

Social networks can (so far) only provide the palest echo of this rich texture. You’re either someone’s Facebook friend, or you’re not. Twitter’s a bit more subtle in its branding of the relationship, but we’re humans. We’re tempted to attach emotional significance to everything to some degree. Unfollow me? You mustn’t like me any more. I’m sad. I don’t enjoy this experience much. Best keep away from it.

And to those who do the unfollowing and reap more than they bargained for, this brings its own problems. Retaliation. Icy silence. Worse. People will interpret the same fact in countless different ways. We don’t all operate according to the same textbook of emotional responses (mercifully).

So if you’re a savvy social designer, you want to design out the sadness and badness where you can. You want to keep your community happy. You want to keep your community there. So you need loopholes. Get-outs. And you quietly introduce a random unfollow ‘bug’. Just a small one. Perhaps 0.1% of relationships ‘accidentally’ broken in a month. Not enough to reduce confidence in the integrity of the system.

But enough to offer a face-saver to the unfollower. And a hope-giver to the unfollowed.

Genius.

As with social networks, it’s all about the feelings. Black and white? Bad. Fuzzy? Much better.

(Actually, the real reason is because they’ve blocked and unblocked you. The social equivalent of an untraceable poison–now take the hint and piss off out of their life.)

Central or decentral?

Yes, nice easy question. Should be a short post.

One of the debates that stuck in my mind at the UK GovCamp 10 came from a session hosted by Alastair Smith. Ostensibly about the ‘UK snow’* and what that had meant for the likes of local authorities in delivering services and information. At least that’s what I think it was about. One can never quite tell with unconferences.

The difficult issue of managing information in disrupted conditions. One of my favourite subjects, be it weather, strikes, train disruptions or pandemics.

“How to tell people about school closures” is an excellent example.

Why’s it so difficult? Here’s a little list:

It’s a highly localised decision. It’s taken by the headteacher of a school, often at short notice. What if they’re stuck in snow, or can’t communicate their decision to anyone? We’re talking about disruption here, remember?

It’s highly time critical: if the information is to be useful it has to be delivered in the very tight window between decision and parents’ departure for school (or rearrangement of childcare, or whatever) and almost by definition this will be outside normal working hours.

There are no obligations or penalties associated with how well it’s done. (There may be a motivating issue about OFSTED reporting of absence, but I consider that secondary to the actual information process, so am discounting it from this analysis.)

There is no consistent, expected place to find the information. In some areas schools brief local authorities, in others local authorities brief local radio, there are numerous instances of online information, but little in the way of standardised approach.

Kids are involved. Kids who may just have a conflict of interest were there to be any opportunity to game the information. Just possibly.

A variety of tools are used to try and get the message out: from notifications that are actively sent to parents (by SMS, email or phone) – so-called information ‘push’; to information made available for consumption (by web, radio or pinned to the school gates) – the ‘pull’ side. Some parents and schools have developed cascade networks, formal or informal, to pass on the message. Others haven’t.

Do we have any plus sides? Well, the only one of note is that snow closure is usually predicted, to a greater or lesser extent. Something I suspect that fuels even more ire when information management fails. Surely, we cry, they must have know this might happen? Why weren’t they prepared?

Accustomed behaviours are highly personal. Parents have become used to a particular information channel, be it the radio or the web, and any changes to that will cause even more confusion, at least at first.

All complex stuff – did someone say that public service information management was easy?

But where the GovCamp discussion got most interesting was when we tackled the nub of the problem – the overarching philosophy of whether it was worth trying to centralise information at all in such circumstances. Even at the highest level, opinion is divided between attempting to centralise so that information can all be consumed in one place, and ensuring that it is maintained as locally as possible to guarantee its speed and accuracy.

For there are classic trade-offs in this decision. There is no unequivocal ‘right’ answer.

Get it to a central point of consumption (or data feed that can be consumed elsewhere) by whatever communications protocols and brute force pressures you can: advantage – easy to find; disadvantage – very difficult to make foolproof, prone to error.

Or keep it distributed, and make it easier for people to get closer to the source of the decision to get the most accurate picture: advantage – saves money, fast-when-it-works, accurate; disadvantage – hit-and-miss, accessibility, findability.

The list of challenges above should make it clear why this is far from the trivial information management problem that some might assume. One chap in the GovCamp session maintained that all it would take would be a firm hand of authority to be laid on headteachers to comply (“or else their school would be assumed to be open”). I fear that view represents a hopelessly outdated approach to getting things done that actually work.

I’ll come off the fence. I think the answer to a problem like this doesn’t lie in ever more sophisticated linking and aggregation. Building big central solutions, even with a grass-roots crowdsourcing component, probably isn’t going to work.

Instead, my experience and my gut are combining to suggest that local is the place for this information. Ubiquitously local – on school sites, via SMS, on the radio, via local authorities. Keeping them in step is the challenge: but a challenge that’s more worthy of effort than building elaborate information pipelines and monumental repositories.

*if you’re wondering why this phrasing is used, there’s some background here – which might also show why I’m so interested in it.

Feelings, form and function

I was wrapped up in the UK Government Barcamp on Saturday (and the prospect of having to smuggle my SLR past the Googleguards twice more than I had to filled me with no joy) so I didn’t get to the “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist” gathering in Trafalgar Square. Gathering? Well, it wasn’t a flashmob, given its several-week notice, and it all seemed far too polite to be a demonstration :)

I had been much moved by Simon Pollock’s piece before the PHNAT event on why he wasn’t going. [Precis: if we all behaved with more civility, there would be far less tension between police and public, including photographers].

Though I think there are numerous illustrations, including “Sus law” histories, which show that maybe politeness isn’t always enough, it did make me think more about information gathering and the purpose behind it. Which in a way relates back to some of the things we touched on at the Barcamp.

Example – there’s a certain government department (which shall remain nameless) that has a different reception desk policy from most of the others. It routinely asks visitors to show some ID. Now, given I am: a) a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad; b) Inquisitive about What Will Happen If…?; c) a zealous activist for privacy rights (take your pick), my answer to this question is: Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I don’t seem to have anything on me at the moment. Bank card? No, sorry, not even that.

To which the automated response is: ok, in you go, but next time… (This ritual has been enacted on my last nine visits there, by the way.)

For it is a ritual. There is no function to the data request. It is a matter of form. A matter of belief, if you like: we do this to make each other believe that we’ve noted a process, and that diligence has been done. In short, this type of information (non-)exchange is really about feelings, more than form. And very likely nothing to do with function. And because the receptionist has reached an acceptable level of feeling – they asked, and then gave a suitable admonition – and because I have as well – I think the data request is meaningless and toothless – we go on our separate ways, content that honour has been satisfied.

It’s the same when the PCSO grabs the art student. This is a human exchange, first and foremost (and perhaps entirely). Do we really believe he’s going to get that data into a findable format so that a sensible risk assessment can be carried out based on the collated movements of that student? No, of course not. He wants to feel he’s done his job. Or that he’s in control. Or in the worst excess, that he’s been shown the right ‘attitude’. It is what Mr Patrick might refer to as a “weak tell”.

Eyewitnesses (including current and former police) often speak of situations escalating because ‘attitude’ was being shown. Of course I don’t dismiss the value of ‘feelings’ – good and bad – in genuine security decisions; it’s these weaker senses of it that I’m targeting here.

So, something to think about perhaps, the next time you are asked for any personal information, no matter how trivial it may seem. What function is really being served?

Is it all really about feelings?

ps. It’s b) by the way. Experiment to learn, always… Hell, I refused to give any personal details (other than necessary for payment) when buying a sofa last week; it worries me that through the routine gathering of marketing information we have largely eroded the general public’s concept of sensible privacy practice, but that’s for another post…

Hardwired State

It’s easy to see why projects fail.

Why ‘open goals’ are so often missed trying to improve public services with new technologies.

Or is it?

What’s been happening in recent months?

Rewired State: generated 30+ ideas in one day for better use of public information to transform public services, many backed up by working prototypes.

Young Rewired State: yet more ideas, and real code, from 15-18 year olds.

Barcamps, Reboot Britain, Show Us A Better Way and many other initiatives: creativity, inspiration, passion, and even solutions.

The daily activities of hundreds of developers, policy enthusiasts, data specialists, lobbyists and real service users to make things better.

And through things like the proposal for a Rewired State-type event within government, we’ll no doubt see that the public sector already has many committed people with the skills to do amazing things with technology, processes and information.

Ideas and talent aren’t the issue, evidently.

Yet how many of these ideas are actually crossing the seemingly vast divide to become ‘production’ public services?

We have a few ideas about why this might be the case: not enough will to change; would it scale?; procurement never works like that in practice; sure, you can design smart new services but can you sustain them?… And so on…

And perhaps we’re right. We’re probably on the right track with some of these. But we don’t really know. And until we do know, we’re poorly armed to take on the systemic issues that really stand in the way of public service innovation. Only by having a well-structured agenda can the things that really need to change, be changed.

What we experience might be the consequences of perfectly rational decisions. Rational decisions that at a detailed level make perfect sense. But when combined into complex systems, such as those that procure and operate public services, can have very irrational consequences. It might be. But we don’t really know.

So how do we get to know?

Here’s a proposal.

Hardwired State?*

What it is

A small number of great ideas are taken on by a panel. Over a few weeks the panel meet regularly, virtually if necessary, and agree a series of steps which would, in theory, bring these ideas to life as real public services.

A small team follow this direction, and simulate the progress of this idea as it becomes a service. Any actual actions or financial commitments are simulations, but the decisions, and decision-makers involved, along the way are all real.

All progress is documented. As, perhaps more interestingly, are any blockages.

That’s it.

Who’s on the panel?

A minister, a senior civil servant, a journalist, an executive from a public services supplier, a developer, a community worker and an independent information management professional.

Facilitated very carefully, and with some clear rules.

Rules

Money is no barrier to progress. This is a simulation exercise. But it all gets counted along the way.

(Realistically, there will be some real costs involved even as a simulation. Questions of suppliers in particular will sometimes need funding to get an answer. This funding needs to be available, and recorded.)

Decisions are real: if something is agreed to, it’s agreed to as it if were actually going to be implemented, at a level of authority which would be required to do so, for real.

Behaviours: this is a potentially hard-hitting exercise. But it is intended to show systemic issues, not to show up individuals. Respect for the skills, talents and experience of all involved in designing and delivering public services will be upheld throughout.

This is “fantasy project management”, if you will. A one-off exercise to really demonstrate the art of the possible. And to inform an agenda for change that will unlock so much of the potential shown in the initiatives already mentioned.

What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, early 2010 probably isn’t the time to do something like this. Other priorities may occupy the attention of the movers and shakers who’d have to get behind this.

But it’s an illustration of one way in which we could get away from generating innovative ideas that don’t actually go anywhere. And take a whole-life look at the real implementation issues that have to be tackled to make a difference in the real world.

    What do you think? Should we try it?

*The question mark is intentional, and fair. The outcomes of this exercise are not prejudged. The title is inspired by the paradox of unchangeable URLs (that serves as an excellent metaphor for making technology change happen in government). It’s almost as if the state has hardwired itself.

Why #fixtweetie is important

Firstly, it’s not about fixing one iPhone app. Sure, Tweetie was my favourite iPhone Twitter client. But there are others. And that’s the point of the apps ecosystem: if you don’t like one any more, you go and find another one. I’d paid for it, but it’s not the three quid either that makes it important.

This is why.

Go back to an original, pure concept of Twitter. A great big cloud of 140 character tweets. You can do anything you like with those characters. And those tweets; using a range of Twitter clients (note: all, apart from Twitter’s own web client at Twitter.com, are independent products). The clients help you filter down the bits of the cloud that you want to see.

Add some conventions: that a word preceded by @ is a user name, and a word preceded by # is a way of labelling content that can then be easily linked together. Importantly, these conventions could have been generated from the user community. Other conventions, like the use of the slash ‘/’ (as in /via) – are in their infancy. “Slashtags”. Love that. With a little ingenuity, other character-based syntax conventions could emerge: ^zipcode, to make up an example.

If the convention is picked up and adopted, great. That’s evolution. Everyone’s happy. In time those client applications can be tweaked to get greater value out of the convention (just as most now automatically return search results based on clicking a hashtag).

Twitter does of course do more than just host a big cloud of tweets. They save you the bother of creating a register in your own client application of the users from whom you are interested in seeing tweets. Though this is theoretically possible, it would be a pain each time you changed client (or switched from PC to mobile device) having to synchronise those lists.

So Twitter helps you, by running some basic user registration functions, including the ability to create a record of those you follow. Because these registered user identities live within Twitter’s domain, they can also support some other functions, like direct messaging, blocking and so on.

And lately, they can be assembled into ‘lists’, which also live alongside your profile, in Twitterland.

And the last thing that Twitter do is make pretty much all of the above information freely available to be sucked out and interpreted by these aforementioned client applications, through an API (a way of easily getting information out of Twitterland to do clever things with it).

The last big rumble in the Twungle was when Twitter tweaked the API so that instead of being able to see all tweets emanating from a user, you’d only see their @replies if you were also following the user they were @replying to. Although this definitely makes for a neater way of seeing content, there were some benefits to occasionally viewing an entirely unfiltered stream of information (such as a serendipitous comment from someone you followed to someone you’d never heard of, which might prompt a conversation with them). Yada yada yada.

Some, like me, argued that this was a violation of the ‘purity’ of the information; it would be perfectly easy for your client application to make that @reply filtering choice for you, assuming it could be supplied with the “whole picture”; but Twitter decided to take away that choice. The whole argument was captured on the hashtag #fixreplies.

Taking away choice = bad, IMHO.

But never before did Twitter cross the line into specifying what format those 140 characters might take (other than some forays into metadata – already used in any case for datestamps, client application identifiers, and so on – and latterly for geocoding). But the way the core 140 characters worked? No, that was up to you. If you wanted to put RT… at the start of your tweets, good on ya.

That’s changed with the new RT feature. Read the Twitter line here: (as reposted by @atebits – Tweetie’s makers).

Interesting. Yes, another play on cleaning up your stream – as with #fixreplies. But what’s all this stuff about ‘dictating’ etiquette? What happened to the evolutionary adoption of things that worked? Surely if a long stream of identical tweets was annoying, client applications would evolve that could suppress these at the client. Even I could code that… And if they weren’t identical? Well, that would be because people put in little personal comments along the way with their RTs. So you’d lose those, obviously. (Or have to throw them away depending on how you tuned your duplicate tweet suppression on the client.)

So perhaps this is all a bit of misdirection. Instead of focusing on just how helpful the new RT format is, try working out for yourself what’s really behind new RTs. It shouldn’t take long.

And the fact that hooey like that post from @ev gets bandied about, instead of the honest answer about Twitter’s move into content shaping (and it won’t be the last one), is why I felt strongly about #fixtweetie*, and why this has become a blog post.

So, did you get there? Hear the jingling dollars? And as Dan Moon wisely points out – we can’t overlook that Twitter is a business. Of course they can impose content parameters and design controls if they want. If we don’t like it we can all go back to, erm, Facebook and MSN. Or the Next Big Thing (am working on that…he he).

I’d just ask for a little more transparency about all this – saying “it’s a nicer experience” doesn’t really cut it for me. What do you think?

*a hashtag I began in order to argue that client apps should allow the user as much choice as possible in the formatting of their tweets, so that etiquette could continue to evolve, rather than be imposed.

The end of the affair

Promised much, delivered a bit of it…. Where did it go wrong, Mistress Mac? Was it your huge screen that wasn’t really, pin-sharp graphics that seemed to blur the more I looked at them, ever-so-unexpected crashes when you promised you wouldn’t, wilful absence of a delete key or my shock at realising just how much the rest of the world hated you as well?

You were gorgeous though, even if far, far heavier than you should be. It’s been a while (over 15 years) since I flirted with your sort. I’d expected the operating system to have changed. But not always for the better, huh? The dock is clever, but how am I really supposed to use stacks? Why do some applications produce a lurking icon that’s-sort-of-like-a-disc that I have to ‘eject’ (but others don’t)? You Macfans are grinning here, thinking, Windowsdinosaurboy, you have to accept some things Are. Just. Different.

Of course I do, but I had such high expectations… Expectations like the not-crashing thing. Oh dear. Three on day one, two on day two, the most spectacular finishing with a jump-jet take-off noise and the fan hitting a coloratura E flat before I strangled the power off.

I’m not a jealous man, far from it; in fact your failure to talk to other devices when I actually wanted you to was just plain embarrassing. The one feature that would have meant I could live (sort of) within a native Mac environment would have been PDA synchronisation. Business critical this one. Can it be done? No.

This was the surreal bit where I picked below the gloss and found myself back in 1987 groping around for bits of shareware and half-baked garage apps from A Bloke In Wisconsin who swears he’s finally cracked how to get Lynx or Lion or whatever to speak in code to Windows Mobile. But not Leopard, yet, oh no, we haven’t got the, erm, sorted, the, er, we’re waiting for more info from Apple, mutter… shuffle… refund.

One bit of freeware actually managed to get my PDA contacts into the Mac address book – all but one of them, anyway. Unfortunately it was supposed to do iCal as well, but could only cope with going in one direction (and that wasn’t the device-to-Mac route which might even have satisfied me as a back-up).

Apple themselves. Flawed Geniuses. That shop/zoo/theme-park in Regent St. ‘Nuff said. Having beaten a way through the spotty backpackers to find similar-breed-but-in-black-T-shirt, I asked what seemed to me simple questions. “This is what I need…” “Will this work with this?” “And this software I think too, and it all has to work together or I’ll bring it back: how wonderful that you give me 14 days to get it right, at no risk.”

“What do you mean, not the software? It’s the whole set-up I need to check out. Oh, ok, yeah, sure I understand, you trust me, but not completely. Yeah, that’s fine. Tell you what I’ll buy the software then, get free trial versions if I can to test it all out, but if it’s good then I’ll open my shrink wraps and I won’t have to come back to the zoo again.”

At which point I asked for some pornography.

Well, you’d think I had judging by the look on the face of my Genius. What I’d actually said was “Ok, so can I also buy a copy of Windows then so I can install that if Parallels seems to be working out?”. No. I cannot get that here. I cannot buy porn here, I cannot buy narcotics Class A, B nor C here, I cannot buy an Olympic-size swimming pool here, and I most certainly cannot buy a copy of the most popular operating system in the world from here. It’s a computer shop for heaven’s sake. What was I thinking?

C’mon guys – the war is over. You have your market, Bill has his. You’re fashionable, he’s functional. You Aren’t Really In Competition With Each Other. Move on. Sell his software. Take a margin on it. Don’t be so proud. Perhaps even think about licensing some of your own stuff? Sell those little white apple stickers as well and let your wannabee designer/musician/artist types use it to cover up the letters “IBM” on their £400 laptop that is just as quick, just as useful, oh and about half the weight… (ranting aside, I’m rational, I know PCs are cheaper and just as quick, but I still came into your shop. Repeat: you are not in competition).

And some other little tips for Apple if they’re remotely serious about having anything called customer-centric strategy. Sticking a little plug-in to Safari to play the most common embedded media files wouldn’t really be that hard would it? I’m even prepared to wait for a ported iPlayer if that’s a better way overall for the BBC to spend my licence fee. But to get “Game Over” when trying to watch a tiny video clip on the BBC News site? Purrrr-lease.

Put the delete key in. Just above backspace, where that rather less useful Eject button lives at the moment. Just there.

Buy Missing Sync or PocketMac Pro. Make one of them work. Make a fortune out of a robust PDA-to-Mac product. Or just put it into the operating system.

(I’ll probably get another one before very long though. Let’s see if there’s anything behind this new MacBook Pro launch rumour first…)

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