LinuxUser Column 2

What includes 27 million domestic addresses, 3 million post codes, 2,000 train stations, 330,000 bus stops, coach routes, thousands of points of information and live traffic information? If you’re the Department for Transport (DfT) then it’s their successful fully integrated travel information portal, Transport Direct. If you’re a citizen then it’s another astonishing waste of tax-payer’s money. How so?

Let’s step back and see how this all started. Back in January 2003 Atos Origin was appointed to build the site which was only released for public use after serious delays. The site was supposed to go live around June 2004 but in fact it was only since 2005 that public use has been allowed. Trumpeted for coming in £10 million under the £50 million budget allowed so far, specialist publication Government IT heralded Transport Direct as ‘a procurement and development success story.’ While it’s a world first… we shouldn’t be proud.

Firstly, it’s just a plain terrible website. It’s ugly even by government standards and it doesn’t work properly. For example enter Brighton when searching for a map and hit Enter. The same page reloads and no search has begun, you have to click the ‘Next’ button. While we’re on the maps, they’re astonishingly bad – very hard to use, poorly rendered and slow. Car routes are virtually impossible to see and when you choose to zoom in you end up somewhere totally arbitrary which you aren’t even scheduled to drive through. All over the site they’ve replaced standard widgets such as radio buttons and drop-down menus with non-standard graphics which don’t behave as you would expect. The usability on this site is appalling.

I found several bugs in the display whilst quickly testing different browsers. This isn’t much of a surprise as the pages don’t validate in the W3C’s free validation tools. So a stunning procurement and development success story can’t even meet the most basic web standards. Who would expect it to when it was built with Microsoft’s .NET. Yes, and you don’t need to just take my word for it, every page’s code proudly proclaims it was built with Microsoft Visual Studio 7.0 with C#. Oh boy.

This is a dire site, it’s slow and hard to use and doesn’t even do the job it’s designed to do. A simple train journey’s directions told me that once I had arrived at London Victoria I should walk 2 minutes to London Victoria. Odd, that. A quick trip from Brighton to Shoreham which takes 12-15 minutes by car turned into an epic journey on Transport Direct. According to its directions I should have taken a train then walked a way, taken a bus for 1 minute and then walked another 15 minutes. Even by car I was going to be enjoying a leisurely 24 minute drive against 48 minutes by bus/train/walk. Despite a goal of the site being to discourage car use it is car journeys which often come out rather well.

40 million quid well spent then. Once again we’ve seen the Government spend piles of good cash on not just average or bad but terrible ‘solutions’. Transport Direct is a slow, unusable, non-standards compliant site with unreliable data if you can figure out how to get to it. When such wonderful easy to use systems as Google Maps, WriteToThem.com and BaseCamp exist how can we keep pumping out such plain awful government sites? It’s time for it to stop.

Instead of building huge monolithic expensive projects such as Transport Direct we need Government projects to get much more flexible. It’s what I call tactical e-government, small developments which are easy to incrementally improve, just like in the world of FLOSS.

Transport Direct could have been trialled on a few Linux boxes with Apache, PHP and MySQL for less than £1 million including staff costs. Once the system had been proven it would happily scale to clusters of Linux servers. Or they could have gone and talked to the folks at Xephos Internet who’ve already built the right kind of system on a shoe-string with low-cost Mandrake Linux servers running Apache. Instead we have lovely .NET systems purring over a slow site which churns crufty pages out to its unsuspecting users.

In a letter responding to extensive criticism in The Guardian (headlines included “Farcical advice of Labour’s £50m travel website” and “By bus from A to B – via X, Y and Z”) Minister for Transport Charlotte Atkins MP stated that “You are unfair to Transport Direct. The website is a world first: a free service that pulls together [a large number of different sources of data] … Given this huge amount of information, there are inevitably going to be errors. Improvements are constantly being made as user feedback comes in. The vast majority of users are finding the information useful and accurate” (The Guardian, January 19 2005). How can the Minister possibly know that the majority of users find the information useful and accurate – how can the users even know until they’ve made the journey? The site is terrible Minster, off with its head.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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