e-democ / e-gov

Am I who you think I am? Identity and passports

Ella got her first passport yesterday – a British one with new-fangled biometric data and RFID chip to boot. Some observations:

* The new process involves printing a scan of the holder’s photo directly onto the page. The resulting quality is rather poor.

* The whole information page is now like a giant inflexible smart card due to the ultra-heavy-duty lamination and chip. Which begs the question, why not just use proven smart card technology which is more secure than RFID?

* The chip and aerial are visible and look vulnerable. I wonder what happens if they break? Does the passport fail to be valid in places like the USA?

* There doesn’t appear to be any shielding in the cover to prevent skimming of the RFID chip. I’m not going to count on some unspecified encryption so I’m definitely in the market for some kind of shielding passport holder. Probably more than one as the Home Office lost both my wife’s and my passport so we’ll end up chipped soon enough.

Passport RFID chip

I was in the bank the other day when a women in front of me went up to the counter and asked to take out £2,500 from her account. She couldn’t have her money though as she hadn’t brought her driving license or passport. We’ve heard this one before but it gets better… Her passport had expired a year ago and she only had an old driving license at home (without photo etc). This perplexed the rather rude young lady behind the counter who had to speak to a supervisor who called a manager.

I never saw the conclusion to this little saga though I was offered a savings account at an abominably poor interest rate because I paid a few hundred quid into my account. Harrumph.

I love the fact that, for now, identity is distributed so that you can use a wide variety of documents to prove yourself. I’m sure the bank would have gone back to the actual rules and accepted something other than a passport or driving license because of course nobody has to have either of those. In fact you should probably get a tax break for being without both as you must be a particularly environmentally friendly soul.

We are all doomed to go to hell in a handbasket when the new national ID programme comes into force. Thankfully our civil service is doing their best to undermine the programme before it gets going – excellent work chaps.

These uber-passport and ID card projects remind me ever so much of electronic voting. The basic chronology is something like:

1. Politician hears about some new-fangled technology and decides it’s a good idea.
2. Raises idea with colleagues who all think technology is “good” and tell him to go for it.
3. Politician tells civil servants to get cracking on it.
4. Civil servants have no knowledge or expertise about this technology but do their best.
5. Either the project never gets completed because it’s not feasible or something is made at huge expense which is insecure and a white elephant.
6. Politician quietly moves on to another pet project.

For the sake of my taxes I sincerely hope ID cards croak before we get much further.

e-democ / e-gov

A quick trip to Canada

Canadian High Commission, London

The lovely people at the Home Office managed to lose my passport, my wife's passport, our marriage certificate and a whole lot of financial paperwork. Enough for a really comprehensive identity theft I'd say.

The package was sent to the wrong address and somebody signed for them. You can see their signature (and hence proof of delivery) on the Royal Mail website. But e-government is not a concept well understood in our wonderful Home Office. They wouldn't accept the Royal Mail website as proof. No, I had to write to Royal Mail and procure written proof. On receipt of this proof (which took weeks to arrive) I now have to forward it to the Home Office in Croydon who will stew on it before hopefully getting somebody to do something about it all.

Being Polish my wife at least has her ID card that she can travel with (not that I'm advocating ID cards, oh no) but not I. Thankfully I'm also Canadian but my passport is about to expire. So I zipped up to Trafalgar Square to visit the Canadian High Commission. Goodness they were so friendly and efficient – and the forms were so clear and easy to complete. How wonderful… I love visiting Canada.

Everything I hear on the grapevine from current and former people involved in Home Office activities is that we are only beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to the trouble the department is in. It is very seriously dysfunctional and its ever expanding remit only makes matters worse. How on earth will they ever deliver ID cards?

e-democ / e-gov

InMyArea – has it got wings?

Last year I was feeling very frustrated with the lack of ultra-simple location-based search in the UK (or anywhere that I know of). Loads of organisations have been throwing together very specific but useful search tools that give you bits of data based on your postcode. Using your postcode you can find your nearest schools, Salvation Army centre etc. Many people know their postcode, it's a gloriously simple location search tool.

Local Directgov takes the approach that you visit Directgov and then choose a task such as paying tax. You then identify your local authority using postcode or other details. If they have a link for your authority they then pass you on. But this is very traditional gov and task-centric.

Last year I whipped together It's a very simple search system which uses your postcode to provide a list of services available locally. So if you enter BN1 1AL you'll see the Brighton libraries link because I told the system to show that to all BN postcodes.

But more interestingly there are services like LearnDirect or Neighbourhood Statistics which plug the postcode you supplied into their own searches giving you a shortcut into their data. I took this approach because I realised that getting all these folks to standardise on some XMLish search discovery standard was a tall order for the moment. Ideally I could use RSS type technology to parse their search results right into the InMyArea results page but getting today isn't likely. Hence my simple click-through mechanism for plugging into 3rd party searches.

Some other notes: * I put in a sponsored column because I could. I have no idea if it's a good idea or not, but I thought it was worth playing with. * The database is just populated with a few examples, please do submit some more… * I added the Flickr photo feed for colour based on sterling advice from Tom Steinberg

So…InMyArea is quick and simple. There's no genius code there but I think it provides a quick source of localised data for everyday use. What do you, dear readers, think? Is it an idea worth developing? Should I pitch it to somebody (I've run it past the DirectGov folks already) or do something with it?


UPDATE: Looks like it's not a goer so I've archived the site. Thanks for your input folks.

e-democ / e-gov

Election Alarm Clock

Election Alarm Clock

It's a simple, wonderful idea which is well overdue. Election Alarm Clock is a simple, nice site to email or SMS you when an election is coming up. 'Nuff said.

via egovmonitor

e-democ / e-gov

On Russian Rocks and the PM’s use of Cutting Edge Technology

It's clear to me that the Russian establishment is coming loose from its moorings. Whether delusions of grandeur, stupidity or cunning are behind their ill-advised gas interventions in the Ukraine and now Georgia – the spy rock debacle is just plain bizarre. Of course the British are spying on Russia, we never stopped. What's odd is why the Russians are bringing it up now… to distract from their gas shenanigans perhaps?

Russia is what it is – a total and utter mess.

But I really panicked when I read this from our dear PM, Tony Blair, when asked about the spy-rock:

Mr Blair said: “I only saw myself on Teletext this morning the business about Russia. I'm afraid you are going to get the old stock-in-trade 'We never comment on security matters' … except when we want to, obviously. I think the less said about that, the better.”


TELETEXT!?! We're screwed if the PM still uses that knackered old medium to stay in touch with the world. Is teletext better than anything the Number 10 boffins can whip up or do they just not know what's out there these days? Either way I'm depressed.

(Though campaigners take note, to get noticed make sure you copy your press releases to Teletext HQ).

e-democ / e-gov

Watmore moves on – and up

I find it remarkable but Ian Watmore, erstwhile UK Government CIO and e-Government Unit head has gone and applied for another job and got it. From sometime in January he will be head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit and notionally still managerially repsonsible for the e-Government Unit.

He only started his job in September 2004, and it was a new role. To spend barely a year, and much of it finding his feet, is surprising and troubling.


  • Why was he applying for other jobs so early?
  • Why was he accepted for the position when there's so much left to be done? He's only just launched the new government IT strategy.
  • Is something going wrong which he wants to step back from?

Effectively, after having been a triumphant private sector IT manager hired into government he's moved himself out of IT into broader management. Interesting.

Kable Report

e-democ / e-gov

Transport Direct followup…

Following on from my LinuxUser column bemoaning the terrible Transport Direct website I received an email from Peter White, Director of xephos the people I mentioned who’ve made a Linux-served alternative to Transport Direct on a shoestring.

Peter wrote:
For abour £500k per annum we could provide about 85% of the functionailty of Transport Defunct (the remaining 15% being pointless anyway) as far as journey planning. Plus the xephos site also delivers timetables and “search for nearest” enquiries neither of which are available on TD

To add the silly extras and the fine detail would take the cost up to about £1,000,000 p.a. Our problem is that we cannot generate revenue when there are services “out there” however feeble which are free-to-user. Govt will only fund its own project at huge expense. Individual local authorities would LOVE to use xephos but cannot because of strongarm tactics by govt.

As far as I know Transport Direct cost the government £40-50 million. I’ve heard of local authorities being given spurious reasons for not being allowed to use services like Peter’s xephos. If Transport Direct was any good that might be understandable but it’s rubbish so we shouldn’t be forcing local services to be hobbled too.

I am forced to believe that it’s much harder than I ever imagined to get this kind of web stuff done right otherwise we’d be seeing much more brilliant stuff coming from our government.

> For abour £500k per annum we could provide about 85% of the functionailty of
Transport Defunct (the remaining 15% being pointless anyway) as far as journey
planning.  Plus the [xephos site][3] also delivers timetables and “search for nearest” enquiries neither of which are available on TD
>To add the silly extras and the fine detail would take the cost up to about £1,000,000 p.a.  Our problem is that we cannot generate revenue when
there are services “out there” however feeble which are free-to-user.  Govt will
only fund its own project at huge expense.  Individual local authorities would
LOVE to use xephos but cannot because of strongarm tactics by govt.
As far as I know Transport Direct cost the government £40-50 million. I’ve heard of local authorities being given spurious reasons for not being allowed to use services like Peter’s xephos. If Transport Direct was any good that *might* be understandable but it’s rubbish so we shouldn’t be forcing local services to be hobbled too.
I am forced to believe that it’s much harder than I ever imagined to get this kind of web stuff done right otherwise we’d be seeing much  more brilliant stuff coming from our government.
e-democ / e-gov

Being Heard Being a Disaster

BeingHeard Blue BeingHeard Pink BeingHeard Orange

I'm afraid there's no way around it, the new youth participation site Being Heard is disastrously bad. It's a terrible shame as creators the Hansard Society are brilliant, switched on people who get it – they're just not technology implementers. (Which could lead me on a long conversation about why delivering web site projects is hard, but I've said it all before). The ever interesting David Wilcox mentions that the site is supported by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which I guess means they paid for the competition which created it (see end of entry for more on this as its very confusing).

So what's so bad with the site? Where to start: It's difficult to use, half-filled with inane content, re-invents the wheel poorly and is destined for failure.

Let's work through some of the problems…. Firstly I tried to register as that seemed to be the thing to do, I dutifully filled out the short form and here's what I got back:

BeingHeard Registration

Looks like the registration form, no? It is with a small bit of additional text saying I'd be sent an email. Unfortunately I never received an email and I couldn't login so I imagine some sort of verification has to be done before everything works. Which is a shame because I can't see all of their pointless Contact Your MP feature.

BeingHeard Contact MP

Surely, but surely Mr Steinberg of MySociety has been to enough Hansard sponsored events by now that they would all have WriteToThem in their bookmarks? Instead of linking to or partnering with this cracker of a service for contacting MPs, MEPs, councillors etc they've gone and built themselves a 'find your MP by constituency or name' system. What the flipping point is that? How on earth is the youth of today supposed to know their constituency let alone MP's name when most adults don't?!? I'm truly depressed that a Hansard Society built site does this.

Let's move swiftly on. You may notice in the above screenshot that the site also offers the opportunity to contact the Royal Family. “Crikey, this could be good” I thought. It's also promoted in their sidebar so my expectations were raised to the heady heights of perhaps an email form…

BeingHeard Colour Royals

In the name of all that is sweet and good… All they had was a link to the site which tells you to write a letter to the listed addresses as email correspondence is not yet available. Onwards and upwards I say. Or not. The sidebar also offers the exciting opportunity to change the colour scheme to something truly retina scalding – see the samples at the top of this post. How 'fun for the kids' I thought aimlessly clicking on the Explanation of the colour links, which presented me with the following geek-speak:

BeingHeard Colour Explain

Why? Sounds like a proud geek showing off his latest copy-and-paste skills. Completely un-called for.

I steeled myself to delve deeper and whilst trying to ignore the interface. The forums were a desert interspersed with the odd post about the cheeky girls and posts by grown ups. I nearly cracked up when I saw a 'Did you know?' about Michael Howard, poor chap:

BeingHeard Howard

I had a look at the content in the 'InfoBase' only to be depressed further. It's poorly written, with no byline and questionable sources. It's very, very difficult producing lots of consistent, quality content and there's no need for a site such as this to attempt it when there's so much to link to. I include a snippet from the awful article on P2P, the only item in the Internet articles section.

BeingHeard P2P Article

Being Heard should be firmly smothered now. We desperately need to engage young people (all people in fact) and draw them into the democratic process. But there's loads of popular sites, excellent content and busy forums out there. Instead of empty, bland money wasters like the Being Heard site politicians and activists should engage through the channels already available. It would be so difficult and expensive for the authorities to create a meaningful, long-lasting youth site I just don't believe they should try. I bet most people visit Being Heard are e-democracy types like me, not young folks salivating over the Xbox 360. Being Heard does nothing new and most importantly shows no more likelihood of voices expressed there actually being heard by those in power than any other participation modes out there.

Made by kids in a competition – or not?

It's not clear entirely but according to this government page the Being Heard site was made as the result of a young people's web design competition. The Microsoft sponsored competition homepage is in hibernation mode but implies that Being Head was the winning entry. Yet the government page implies that the brief of making a site called 'Being Heard' was defined and the kids just made the design. Ok, so they made the design – but who decided on the content, functionality and usability. If it was the kids then I think the entire site should be appropriately marked out as such. The Being Heard site's introduction claims it was design only, sort of:

Being Heard is a brand new website from The Hansard Society that was designed by young people for young people. Supported by Culture Online, part of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the three Year 8 winners of the national Web Design Challenge have created a meeting place where you can talk to others, learn about the things that interest you, and tell the world what you think.

I'm confused and partly feeling like I've been too hard on them and yet feel like the site isn't well explained and has deeply flawed functionality and content. The Hansard and DCMS links give the site authority – does it deserve it?

Comments most welcome.

Comments from the previous version of this blog:

Being Heard


The Hansard Society always welcomes constructive criticism of its projects.

Being Heard was the result of a national competition in which hundreds of entries from secondary schools was received. In the interest of youth participation the website as you see it is an exact replica of the design and content that was produced by the competition winners (13 year olds). Young people were asked to design a website (with budgetary constraints) that was targeted at 11-14 year olds on the theme of ‘Being Heard’ and that would enable young people’s voices to be heard in the citizenship and political arena. The competition winners carried out research with hundreds of young people their age, the Hansard Society did not in any way alter the design or content of the site as we wanted the site to truly be designed by young people for young people, rather than what adults think young people want to see. Finalists had to deliver a pitch and show that they had researched content with their peers.

Being Heard is a new site and we are constantly looking at ways of improving it. We take all opinions into consideration including yours and the young people and teachers who have emailed us, but with over 100 registrations a week we feel we have made a decent start.

Fiona Booth
Director Citizenship Education Programme
12:03:40 GMT 15-12-2005 Fiona Booth

Fiona – thanks for your response

I really appreciate you clarifying the source of the Being Heard website. I think this is the key point – for students of that age it’s an excellent website.

For a professional, commercially produced site it’s not so great. Perhaps this needs to be made clearer especially as the competition website is just a holding page now.
00:03:02 GMT 18-12-2005 Jason Kitcat

e-democ / e-gov

Is the Internet Bad for Democracy?

Professor Eli Noam has a very short, very challenging article in the October issue of Communications of the ACM. Titled Why the Internet Is Bad for Democracy Prof Noam argues that those who are positive about the Internet's role on democracy are making errors of 'composition' and 'inference'.

By 'error of composition' he means that to observe micro behaviour (the Internet helps a small group of activists) and then propose a macro conclusion (the Internet is helpful for society) is erroneous. I think it's a powerful argument and certainly an important one to hear in what is, at the moment, a primarily technologically deterministic culture. The media seems to portray technology shaping humanity and enabling new things to happen – rarely do we get mainstream portrayals of a social constructivist approach of our societal needs and biases creating the technologies – no, they're happening to us is the implicit message of modern reportage.

The second error, the 'error of inference' is a weaker argument in my view. Noam argues that it is false to argue that if the Internet is good for democracy in North Korea or Iran it doesn't follow that it is also good for developed countries such as Canada, UK or US. In social sciences we need these kinds of comparisons but of course they are fraught with difficulties and no doubt the Internet's impact on an established democracy will be different to it's impact on an oppressive regime.

I won't rehash the rest of the article, it's very much worth the read. I'd say the key theme behind Noam's thinking is that more isn't better – more participation just makes it harder to be heard, more information makes misinformation harder to spot.. and so on.

But it's not all doom and gloom for the e-democracy supporter – if all the Internet can do is reignite interest in Democratic values then, Noam writes, there is hope. I flipping hope so!

e-democ / e-gov

Post Conference thoughts: Mobiles are where it’s at

Having had a few days to chew on last week's conferences the theme inclusion or its evil cousin the digital divide keeps bubbling up in nearly every presentation.

Those of us in this webby e-democracy aware world are getting a little better at realising that we're unusually connected and ahead of the curve. So presenters are looking over their shoulders – looking at those barely or not connected. We realise how empowering much of the Internet can be and we want everyone to be invited to the party, whether out of altruism or because it means more potential customers!

Inclusiveness is difficult to argue against, but we do need to remember that some people just don't want to use the Internet. But perhaps they want to use a phone? Tom Hume's presentation at d.construct [PDF] re-aligned my thinking when he reminded us just how pervasive mobile phones are by starting his presentation with:

“There are twice as many mobile phones, than there are internet users of any kind. There are three times as many mobile phones than there are personal computers. There are more mobile phones than credit cards, more mobile phones than automobiles, more mobile phones than TV sets, and more mobile phones than fixed/wireline phones… 30% of the global population carries a mobile phone… Over 30 countries have achieved over 100% cellphone penetration rates…”

Many of us are ignoring the mobile medium – but Tom reminded us that the massive lack of standardisation in software and form factor along with the necessary role of the network operators does make developing for phones extremely tricky. Yet there's a huge market there – SMS gateways ahoy!

So whilst mobiles are getting people connected to a network of sorts, until we see improved standardisation we're going to need to be very creative in providing simple usable, inclusive services through mobile phones.

One e-voting nugget, from e-democracy '05, was Stephen Coleman's hilarious and spot-on comment that to see improved turnout government money would be better spent putting kettles and buns in polling stations rather than lining technology vendor's pockets!

Comments from the previous version of this blog:

Kettles or mobiles?

Hi Jason,
I would fund the kettles. Did you know kettles have a remarkable level of penetration in UK households – more even than mobile phones.

People bang on and on about mobiles for e-democracy access, but if you are motivated anough to want to interact somehow with government, you almost certainly can access a computer somewhere (eg a library).

What on earth do people think users will actually do with their mobiles? How much deliberation or debate can you get on a mobile phone screen? I think the ‘mobiles as solution to access’ idea is overstated.
17:16:01 GMT 17-11-2005 Lee Bryant


I don’t know how far some are going with mobile rhetoric but I don’t see massive textual deliberation through phones.

But I do see lots of simple services being deliverable via SMS and/or WAP which aren’t now.

Within the context of the conferences I attended last week mobiles just weren’t on the agenda at all – it was so web-browser centric that I thought discussing mobiles was a useful reality check.

Hurrah for the kettles I say!
12:34:30 GMT 19-11-2005 Jason Kitcat

Democracy and SMS

Jason: +1

Why don’t my utility providers text me when a bill goes overdue? It’s cheaper for them than sending stamps, and quicker. Why can’t I report in electricity meter readings over text? Why can I get my bank balance whenever I want? Or find out when the bins in my street will be emptied? Or report vandalism to the council? Get alerts of local building plans which affect me? And so on.

There are a million beautifully mundane uses for even the most basic connectivity that SMS provides. I’m not sure I’d be in favour of voting-by-text if it were possible… but it looks to me like participation in a democratic society involves way more than just popping into a polling centre every 4 years to scrawl your X.
19:27:46 GMT 21-11-2005 Tom Hume

Tom – spot on!

I agree absolutely…

Out of interest LloydsTSB do offer a weekly balance SMS which is fairly useful when out of reach of the Internet banking. But as you point out, there are so many useful, simple services that could be run through SMS.

The one I love is from somewhere in Scandinavia (Sweden or Denmark I think). Every year you get an SMS saying how much income tax the gov believes you owe. If it looks totally wrong then you can log on, visit the tax office etc and sort it out before the deadline is too close. Most of us know roughly how much tax we should pay but in the UK we have to pro-actively go onto the Inland Revenue site to get any sort of calculations done.

Tom – there’s loads of work for you Future Platforms lot there if only people could see it!
22:37:27 GMT 22-11-2005 Jason Kitcat