Google Plus Ungood

I know many people have managed to get up and running with Google+ fairly easily. The usual snags have been reported, of course, as users get used to the idiosyncrasies of the network, and as new etiquette and conventions emerge.

Today, it’s become clear that there are some deeper issues emerging, as Google enforces a “real names only” policy. Erm, good luck with that, in a hard identity sense, guys. Unless you’re going to try and peg people back to a state-issued identifier… (no, I’m not even going to go down that road of horror).

There’ve also been a few nasties creeping out of the woodwork as users realise some of the drawbacks of putting it all in the cloud. One wrong step with your service provider, and you’ll be writing a rant like this as thousands of hours of curation, not to mention thousands of irreplaceable and irretrievable content files, are briskly wiped out.

But for me, Google’s latest foray into social networking has pretty much been a non-experience. Although I was invited fairly early on, and signed up successfully for a few days, it all went belly-up pretty soon afterwards.

Why? Because of the cack-handed way in which Google identities work, that’s why. Here’s the detail.

Like most people, at some point I signed up for a Gmail account. I didn’t get a very nice address, as I wasn’t in there early enough, but it is a version of my name.

What I do have, and use instead, is a funky email address that I set up 10 years ago, and a couple of years ago moved over to Google Apps. (Bear with me.)

That email address is pretty much the way in which I’m identified for all services I use that are based on email address. In many ways it is my self-asserted identity on the Internet.

So it won’t surprise you to learn that when I came to create a Google profile, based on an email address, I used my “home” email identity.

So far so good, and for a couple of years everything worked smoothly. Google Apps did the things Google Apps did (email, calendar, contacts). And for the other Google services I used (Analytics, and probably not much more than that), I logged in with my Google profile. All was well. I had a slightly uncomfortable feeling that there may be trouble down the line though, with two identically-named identities that were logically separate.

And I was right.

A few days after I joined Google+ I got a friendly-but-firm email from Google. “We’re consolidating your accounts,” they told me. This dual use of the same email address can’t go on. Not optional. Indeed.

As I’d been invited to Google+ using the “profile version” of my email address, I feared the worst. And I was right. That was the account which was going to be stripped of my preferred email address. To be replaced by a “temporary address”–something horrible with a percentage sign in the middle of it. Great. The G+ connections dried up–nobody knows me as “the percentage sign email guy”–they know me as my ordinary, erm, email address. Bugger.

It got worse. To be able to get into G+ at all I didn’t just have to log in to Google using the temporary profile, I also had to log OUT of Apps (explicitly, even if I were already logged out of “normal” Google)–otherwise Google thought I was attempting to access G+ using a “business identity”. The horror!

The solution–according to Google–was to assign my Google profile an entirely new email address. Right. A new identity, for what could emerge as a pretty important service, should Google actually get their act together. An identity, and email address, that I didn’t need or use anywhere else. Not. Ideal.

So we have an impasse. I am hanging on, the temporary account unused and unloved, in the hope that Apps users will at some point be able to use their Apps email as a G+ identity. (It’s a rather faint hope, given the strategic direction that Google seem to be taking with identity.)

Why would I waste time now building up a social network where I, quite literally, don’t know who I am?

But it explains why I’m not part of this party, remain unconvinced of Google’s ability to handle the basics of social interaction, and am pursuing a wholesale review of my domains, addresses and identities for what now seems an inevitable clean break, sooner or later, with Google. Nice work, chaps.

Update, 25 July: a few morning-after-posting thoughts

Is there any real significance in all this? Surely this is just the moaning of yet another free-service user who didn’t read the Ts&Cs? Nothing paid, nothing to complain about.

Well, this is significant, because:

  • Identity, and cross-platform identity, are hugely important in an ever-more-connected world. Mess with those and you mess with the core of user experience: user existence.
  • Like it or not, it’s hard to see how a relationship with Google won’t form some part or other of everyone’s Internet activity at least over the next few years. This makes a Google profile (whatever neglect Google may have shown for it to date) disproportionately important.
  • The attempt to enforce “realness” is weak. Google’s requests for reference to “government-issued ID” (redacted or not)–whether to “prove” age or identity–is a troubling step. It puts a little friction in the path of being anonymous, sure, but if you want to, you can be.

And these characteristics (inflexibility, heavy-handedness, dependence) are all indicators of things that we’ll need to worry much more about in the future.


Google account administration functions really are up the spout. Here’s a good piece by Dan Harrison on Google administration in general, and another on Google Apps deficiencies in particular. I’ve said it before: if a profit-focused, cash-rich organisation like Google finds identity so difficult, do we really hold out much hope for government?


Google Wave also revealed some of these flaws. I actually thought, briefly at the time, that the whole Wave concept was actually a Trojan Horse to get people to sign up for a Google profile (or to take one more seriously if they already had). And what did they force me to have as my Wave ID, despite me already having a friendly Apps address, and a slightly less friendly Gmail address? Something like paulclarke0001@gmail.com (I actually forget how many zeroes.) Face hits palm.

On the shifting of control of personal data

If you’ve been locked in a cupboard for the last five (or more) years, you’re excused from observing this thematic shift:

In the longer term, data about people is more likely to be owned and controlled by them. Rather than having many instances of personal information scattered around organisations and agencies, to be confused, duplicated, corrupted and left on buses, simpler technologies have emerged to put the data owner, you, back in control.

We see this theme emerging with several different labels: from vendor relationship management, to volunteered personal information, to personal datastores, to a “control shift” in the concept of personal data.

I agree that this shift is inevitable, to a greater or lesser extent. Everyone wants it. What’s not to like? Less cost of processing, greater security, reinforcement of personal rights etc. etc.

We start to make the ideologically satisfying separation of identification and authentication/entitlement more of a reality. More of this in other posts.

I just have two snagging issues which I’d love to hear a response on from those who want to get us moving on this now:

The first is a transitional one, but an important one. As the group of “personal data holders” grows, the infrastructure and operations required to support the other group won’t change. There’ll be a double running of systems. Although this is inevitable with any system change, it puts an immediate disincentive on any service provider to explore this route. (But this is not my point here.)

My point is that strange things will start to happen in terms of operational continuity and completeness. There will be “gaps” in databases, where the personal data holders used to be. Instead of their information, there will be links and interfaces to the data they control for themselves. Will this create all sorts of headaches and risks just by itself? Enough to seriously dampen any service provider’s enthusiasm for adopting volunteered personal information?

The second will persist, and is perhaps more problematic. Because your personal information (whether it’s about your identity, other descriptive information about you, or about your authorisation to a particular service) is going to have to be assured by someone. This may not, and indeed should not–in the case of identity–be the exclusive province of government agencies, but someone is going to have to do it.

Some will do it well: banks, for example, are rather more incentivised (and skilled as a result) to be damn sure you are who you claim to be. But some won’t. And when we get down to the level of a patchwork of assurers, in any system, we start to get some problems. When things go wrong (and they will)–have a vision of a functional world by all means, but build for the real, dysfunctional one–the untangling of liability may consume more resource than was ever achieved by enabling the shift of control in the first place?

Thoughts? I’d love to be convinced. I really would. But I’m a healthy skeptic at the moment.

Sit down and be counted?

Online interactions between people and government fascinate me. Which is just as well, given I’ve spent a long time working on innovation and programmes that attempt to do this sort of thing.

I’ve written before about some of the challenges behind the “government account” concept: online tools that would help citizens to transact with government in smarter ways. They represent a wicked problem – in that you can describe what such an account does in a single, simple line but nobody’s actually managed to produce one in practice, for all the money that’s been spent trying.

This is because as soon as you endow them with any sort of real usefulness you also need to build in so many safeguards to a) protect privacy, b) be proportionate in what information is shared for what purpose, and c) to guard against misuse (fraud, impersonation etc.) that you quickly render them unusable by real people, and unimplementable by government machinery. Yet the “vast savings in the future” business case sits there, taunting us to try and try again to find a way. And it’s human nature to want to believe (sometimes in the face of very strong evidence) that simple conceptual challenges must have simple solutions. Truly, a wicked problem.

Proposed solutions inevitably gravitate towards two poles: the absolute identity model (beloved by the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” brigade) where everything is pegged back to a single (probably biometrically-founded) master record. Or non-personal, “opt-in” models. (“Non-personal” in the sense that although you can create your account to look like it’s about you, it’s not evidentially reliable for any form of ‘strong’ transaction. The sort you might later conceivably have a court case about, for instance.)

If you try and get clever, and design hybrid solutions that mix-up trusted and non-trusted areas of information, then you can solve more of the implementation challenges on paper, but you magnify the usability (and security) problems exponentially. And so we go on – that’s another story.

But let’s set aside conceptual discussion for a moment and focus on just one very topical instance of interaction with government: voting.

The scenes of chaos last night at polling stations were quickly followed by cries for a better way. Our Victorian processes and infrastructure can’t cope, say the people – and now we have teh shiny internetz – surely A Way Must Be Found.

(What tickled me a little is that some of those cries for A Better Way came from people who would probably have serious reservations about the unintended consequences of this sort of thing.)

Bear in mind that for any electronic voting solution there are a few core concepts that need to be considered – notably the need to have a referencing method, and a proof process.

A referencing method might be a list of National Insurance numbers, for example – a common index by which people and government agree that they’re talking about the same person. In traditional voting, this is the electoral roll – a list assembled for the specific purpose of enfranchisement. Although it’s shared (and sold) for other purposes, this isn’t generally used to enable other business with government. It’s not (that I know of) connected to your tax or benefit records, for example (other than having ancillary involvement in identity verification, credit-reference-style).

It’s worth bearing this in mind when you consider the referencing method that online voting might use. You want to connect your voting record to other things you do with the state? You’re sure you don’t want to think about that a little more, liberally-inclined Twitter-folk? So, your referencing solution might instead be merely the migration of electoral rolls to an online register, but one that’s not connected to other government interactions. Sensible precaution, or massive missed efficiency opportunity? That’s the sort of real-world difficulty we face with these decisions.

The proof bit is where the voter makes a claim (to an acceptable level of proof) that they are that person. That could be as simple as replying to a letter sent to your house, showing online (or by phone) that you know something about other account records that only the account holder would be likely to know, or as complex as turning up at a government office bearing original birth certificates.

But bear in mind that if the proof bit isn’t done online, there’s an extra level of complexity in sending you whatever you need to then use online to demonstrate you’ve done the proving. Even if you just want it emailed, that means someone has to be responsible for the email addresses, not letting them be used by spammers or left on a disk on a bus (etc. etc.).

Even the simple gets complex. It’s the nature of this territory. It’s all ultimately based on what level of risk, whether of error or malefaction, is acceptable.

You’ll spot at this stage that the relative level of proof required for traditional voting is absurdly small. You need a card in your hand (which you can pick up from anyone’s doorstep or shared mailbox) or, failing that, some identity that can be checked against paper records at the polling station. Can it be fiddled? Of course it can.

An acquaintance of mine received two polling cards in 1992, one at his parents’ address, and one at his student address. Both were in marginal constituencies which changed hands. He happened to be travelling between the two areas that day… And that wasn’t even ‘intentional’ fiddling – just sloppy record-keeping.

There is something – I think of it as channel friction – which comes into play here. It’s relatively burdensome to blag your way into a polling station; to extend a trembling hand full of someone else’s utility bills or to queue for half an hour. It’s a lesser pain to do things on the phone: it might cost you money, it takes time, you need to work harder to cover your tracks. But online, you have a very well-greased channel – register another 50 voters at a time? Sure. *click* Scan the registers for names that can be more easily spoofed? *click* Do all of this on a massive scale without leaving your bedroom? *click* Not to mention all the other service disruption and denial tactics at hand.

And while you’re thinking about the information flows as you design your solution, have a think about the potential impact of e-voting on political volatility. I may be strapping on the tin-foil hat here, but isn’t it conceivable that if we make the tools very easily available then their use might be demanded (by both sides) more and more frequently? For that budget decision, to go into that war, to execute that prisoner? I’m not saying that this level of ‘open’ government is necessarily bad – just that it’s different. And there are serious societal implications, from digital inclusion to softer issues of how online channels can lead to selective participation and extremity of view, to be borne in mind.

Be careful what you wish for; perhaps there are very rational, if unstated, reasons not to modernise some things?

Honestly, I’d love someone to crack this one. I really would. If you believe there’s a potential solution to this one, do please sketch it out below. Let’s have the discussion.

I’d love, as always, to hear a view from the VRM crowd – the self-assertion of the data you want to share is a useful concept when you’re buying things or services, but I’m baffled as to how it would solve either the “who am I saying I am” test, or the “who I am” test.

Personally, I vote postally. Because it makes more sense to me. It strikes an acceptable balance between my time spent, electoral administrators’ time spent, security and emotion. I’d like to have a go at improving the actual design, mind you – those multiple envelopes were bonkers – but it works.

Sure, I don’t get to smell the plyboard booths, and finger the grubby, stubby pencil but it does the job. And I don’t have to avoid eye-contact with rosette-wearers outside (really, why do they do that?) or risk a late-night lock-in with the police and an angry mob.

So, over to you.

If you think there’s a way to improve this electronically, pitch it… And if reading this has been useful, and opened up a few more areas of thought around this, do share it with others.

It’s all about me

I don’t know where this story ends. I know where it starts though.

At various times since the dawn of technology-enabled government – since information about some of the big things in your life was held on computers – the cry goes out: “Why can’t we join all this up?” “Why do I have to keep telling government the same information time and time again?” “Why can’t I get at all the things that are important to me – all about ME – in one place?”

And other such variants. But you get the point – simple, obvious questions.

And as the years have ticked by, the progress made towards answering these questions has been…well, shabby, to say the least. Especially in proportion to the money that’s been spent in this area.

We’ve had talk of passports, of portals, of “Tell Us Once”, of Citizen Accounts. Of Gateways, single identifiers, and now, MyGov.

None of them, with the exception of the last one – for whom it’s too early to tell – have done very well. (Online, anyway. Tell Us Once has apparently being doing quite well in face-to-face service pilots.)

Isn’t that interesting? Simple questions. Obvious goals. But never any progress. Ah – the wise will say – that’s just because nobody in government wants to change. There are all these vested interests. We’d have to rewire the way everything worked. And – say the privacy campaigners – do you realise what you’re also doing here? Creating an environment where a future totalitarian government can control everything you do from that one place – and where the loss of that single picture of you would make your life completely unmanageable until it got sorted out again.

I’ll argue that there’s an even more obvious reason why progress falters and eventually stalls. Time after time.


The temptation to believe that such easy questions must have simple answers, and to keep on searching for them in the same way over and over again. Usually by starting with a simple model, getting frustrated by how quickly it gets complicated, then abandoning the work and starting with another simple model. Rather than the harder task.

Which is to ask: what’s the actual goal of this ‘personalisation’? For it’s really not as obvious as it may seem.

Some of you may stop reading at this point. Or find yourselves wanting to dodge the difficult questions. “Why make this more complicated than it needs to be?” you may think. Why, indeed? “Surely the goal is to make things simpler for the citizen, and less expensive for government? Like, durrr…”

The White Knight of Personalisation (and I’ve met a few over the years) generally says one of several stock things at this point. Here are a few of them: “All your data can be cross-referenced in any case by government: why the hang-up? Just accept this and build everything around one identifier, hey how about the National Insurance number?” “Let’s just do an account that doesn’t hold personal data, then we don’t need to make it too complicated.” “Ok, let’s start from scratch – let people just choose their own identifier, maybe their email address, and use that to log in”. Or the delightful line: “but I have accounts with my bank, and to buy things online – why does government have to be so different?” Believe me, I’ve heard them all. The “why is government different?” question needs a whole post to itself.

White Knights either wear suits and get paid a lot to try and crack the problem afresh, or step forward from the lower orders to show how simple it all is, and try to stick it to these greybeards in government who “just don’t get it”. Isn’t it a bit odd though how the Knights never actually demonstrate a workable solution, no matter where they come from? Shouldn’t that tell us something?

(I owe an honourable mention here to The Tall Knight of Vendor Relationship Management – Google it when you have a moment – who may surface at some point and tell you the whole model is upside down, and people should be choosing what information they share with government, because that makes everything much cheaper and safer to manage. But I’m definitely not taking on that one in this piece.)

I can’t address every twist in this topic in one post by the way. It would become a very long, dreary read indeed, and perhaps detract from my main point. But here are just two of the many simple models of “a personal relationship with government” that you can use to illustrate the point about how it all complicates rather faster than you’d expect.

Case 1: the simple ‘account’. I just want somewhere I can bring together basic information relevant to me. My bin collection dates perhaps. And school terms. Local services for my area, not just generic national information. And reminders about stuff like my next MOT date. No personal data though. I don’t want it to be so secure that it’s hard to access, and I don’t want it holding information about me that will matter if it gets mislaid on a memory stick.

Case 2: the single place to do business online. This is more advanced: it’s an online service that I can log into and then do really useful things. See my tax and benefit account information in one place. Make payments. Change where my benefits are paid into. Find out about eligibility for things I didn’t know I was entitled to, based on what I am already. Correct my address details if they’re wrong. Upload my photo and allow it to be used for several purposes. Notify my change of circumstances. And so on…

Can you see why these two examples are very different? And why it would be next to impossible to morph a Case 1 solution into one for Case 2? Get a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and try that for yourself as an exercise. (Focus on who knows what about whom at all stages.)

Here’s how Case 1 can get complicated: quite quickly we realise that any meaningful personalisation of services actually requires more than just bookmarking things nominally “about us”. We can use personalised portals (netvibes.com, for example) or even just browser ‘favourites’ to bookmark things like that. We don’t actually need government to provide this. So, either our Case 1 solution is a publicly developed version of something we can get elsewhere, or it’s something more. “It’s something more”, we cry – it does the pulling together of the relevant bits based on who we are or where we live. “Who we are?” I respond – but remember we said this wouldn’t deal with personal data? Ok, ok then – how about “where I live” (comes an arbitrary counter). My postcode sits in the account and then my view of services gets ‘localised’ in some way. So it’s not really a personalised service any more, it’s a service about my house. And I haven’t even started on what sort of ‘identity’ you then assert in this account. Do I pick my own (in which case it can never be used for anything secure or confidential) or is it given to me (in which case we have to deal with distribution, record-keeping, level of asserted trust and so on)? We realise soon enough that what we really wanted was stuff to be suggested to us based on who we were, not as a result of us finding it and then bookmarking it. See, it’s really complicating already, isn’t it? We didn’t really understand what we were asking for by a non-personal, personalising service.

Case 2: the other extreme to which solutions usually gravitate – the one strong identifier that lets you prove yourself, be suggested to, self-serve and all the other good stuff. How are you going to get that identifier? In the post? At a face-to-face interview? Sent online in response to a passport number? You get my drift. And if all my data is then linked up around it, will I be able to control who in government sees what? Yeah, sure – you can have this 22 page e-form to fill in allowing for various combinations of permission and restriction. But I only wanted to know when my bins were being collected, isn’t that a bit of overkill? Etc. etc. The problem here being that the usability of the service rapidly complicates at a faster rate than its usefulness.

There are lots more nuances to all this – and many more types of solution. But this post is already longer than I’d have liked for easy readability. I wish I could wrap all this up in 500 words. I really do. It could save millions. But I can’t, and I accept that. This is difficult territory.

I even think one particular type of solution may actually be achievable. But you’ll have to get in touch with me to talk about that one. Clue: it’s neither of the cases sketched out above, nor indeed VRM.

If you bump into a White Knight of Personalisation, here are a few posers to try, just on the topic of the identifier (the equivalent of your account number for online banking, or your Driver Number on your driving license, perhaps).
– Will you have to have one?
– Can you have more than one if you choose?
– Can you end up with more than one by mistake, and if so, what happens?
– What’s the worst case if it’s lost or falls into someone else’s hands?
– Will it be possible to connect it to any service that I might use, or will there be limitations, and if so, what?
– Will I be able to stop it being used to connect up any services to each other if I choose?
– Will it be held in a big database (and who would look after that database)?
– Will it be connected to a register that’s also used for ID cards?
(I did actually ask the Prime Minister that last one at the MyGov launch. Just sayin’. The answer, via Jim Knight, wasn’t terribly clear.)

You’ll probably find your White Knight will go a little whiter when you do ask. And then either charge you another couple of million for another ‘scoping’ study, or turn smugly away saying: it’s so easy, surely we can work this out, stop being so negative…

This is very complicated stuff. But it always looks so simple to begin with.

UPDATE 18 December: MyGov died with the change of government, I think. It was a short-lived initiative (perhaps not even that) to reposition the mythical “single place online where you can do everything”. But it will be back. It always comes back. Google “unsinkable rubber ducks” (Randi) when you have a moment…

On risk

On Monday 22 February I attended the Post-Bureaucratic Age event. Some very interesting content, and a highly eclectic audience. One detail from one of the presentations has been nagging away at me though.

Professor Mark McGurk of Guy’s & St Thomas’ talked eloquently of a number of ways in which changing practices and technologies affected his business: medicine. Tucked away at the end of his presentation, almost as an afterthought, was a plea about Health and Safety. “Save us from it”, he said (I paraphrase). There wasn’t quite a cheer from the audience, but there was a distinct susurration of approval.

Because we all hate it, don’t we? That nanny state: ripping up those dangerous playgrounds, banning conkers, stopping kids wearing goggles at the swimming pool… A legion of scarebloid articles generated by one ‘excess’ after another. The ‘Elf n Safety culture has gripped us, hasn’t it? It just came from nowhere, and all of a sudden we weren’t allowed to do loads of things that had always been ‘traditional’. Like driving without seatbelts, cycling with headphones, sitting on beds (see picture), caring for a quadriplegic child for the rest of their life with no external support.

Ok, I tucked in a spurious example there which has little to with health or safety, and a lot to do with keeping shop goods clean. But the last one is very interesting. Remember the bouncy castle case a couple of years back? Parents litigating against parents over a tragic accident at a child’s party? Massive damages. Safety experts and insurers bemoaning. A general sense of society losing the plot.

But these were just people, behaving like people. Make the choice yourself: do the noble thing, say it was just an accident – “these things happen” – and prepare for the rest of your life to focus entirely on work, care and worry? Or use a pre-existing set of remedies to share the burden across a very large body of strangers, through their insurance premiums? Perhaps the decision looks a little different?

These remedies were put there for very good reasons: to hold negligent employers and authorities to account. No more would a misaligned machine take off your hand and leave you with nothing but a stump and a change of career. Yes, of course, there are abuses. I remember the (serious) concerns that a wonderful application like FixMyStreet might be misused to find or report potholes which could then be ‘fallen into’, triggering a claim. And ambulance-chasing lawyers are pretty easy to spot.

There’s no easy fix for these (other than vigilance for the most blatant); we sign up for them at the same time as we remove our own personal risk of a lifetime suffering as a result of something which wasn’t our fault. And we wouldn’t want our judgement about the legitimacy of a case to become an ad hominem judgement on the character of a claimant, now would we?

So when Professor McGurk (and all right-thinkers) asks to be left in H&S peace, what precisely is he asking to be removed? Clearly not all the ‘good’ stuff. Just the ‘excesses’, no? And that boundary between good and excessive – care to define it? It gets rather blurry. The swimming goggles ban is particularly interesting. Those advising will have weighed up what they thought were the benefits of wearing goggles (minimal relief from water splash, in some cases medically indicated) and the problems (splintering, constriction, band snapping) and come to a conclusion that the latter outweighed the former. They probably missed out that kids have more fun wearing goggles, can get up to more tricks wearing them, and that everyone finds mild chlorine splashes a little bothersome, just not medically so.

But above all of this, what takes these cases into the realm of the absurd is an utter disconnection with popular perception of risk. Potholes and bacon slicers are risky. Conkers and goggles aren’t. Period. And even more than this, some risks are supposed to be taken. Learning to ride bicycles. Learning basic common sense when sawing a plank of wood.

Net result: it may be possible for rational calculations to look technically correct, but without the addition of broader perspectives, emerge absurd.

As a principle, risk analysis still seems essentially sound. It’s the practice that may be at fault; and in particular this soft set of issues about “what makes something relevant enough to advise on”. A mechanical response to this would be to spend lots of time (and money) publicising dreadful goggle injuries so as to put the dread swimgear firmly in the “you’ll have an eye out” category. A perverse way to deal with it. We don’t seriously want that, do we?

So when the good professor calls for the removal of a health and safety culture, I hope he’s just suggesting it’s done properly.

I’m often troubled about the apparent disconnection between personal responsibility and societal effect. And how readily an audience can nod along to broad statements which neglect the real complexities in this area, with seemingly little pause for thought.

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.