Think of a website

The Internet is getting on now – it’s about ten years since significant numbers of people started getting access from home. I meet students who’ve had access to search engines through all their teenage years. My own childhood looks like a drought of information in retrospect. I remember sucking in monthly magazines and books, writing to university friends of my brothers to get vital data. Now they can just Google.

In all that time the Internet has got pretty good at commerce, and not at all bad at entertainment. The missing thing, the thing that we’ve only just begun to see the benefits of, is how the Internet will alter society, local communities, democracy. The charity mySociety that I work for builds simple, tangible websites with that goal.

Two and a half years ago we had a call for proposals, from which we got ideas like Pledge Bank and HearFromYourMP. This year we’re looking for more of the same with a new call for proposals. Follow that link and have a read of what has been proposed so far (not much yet!) and add your own suggestions.

If you please, I’m getting a bit bored of politics ideas. Particularly I’m involved in far too many websites about MPs, so if you must post up political ideas, make it about central or local government. What I really want is a new idea as good as PledgeBank, something which isn’t either left or right wing, which surprises people, which leaps with agility ahead improving all sorts of things in unexpected ways. But I’ll settle for something local, social, civic.

Save what?

This is an impossibly hard subject to introduce. It’s easy enough to explain why you want to save whales or children, even if it is very hard to actually save them. But why would anybody want to save “Parliament”? A talking shop for corrupt politicians, no?

Unfortunately, if you don’t save it, then you’re left with something even worse. Government, and ministers. Watch a few episodes of The Thick of It to convince yourself how bad that would be.

But Parliament, our mother of Parliaments, surely that doesn’t need saving? Unfortunately, almost unbelievably, it does. It’s difficult to describe why the government is passing an act of Parliament which abolishes Parliament, or why the turkeys are voting for Christmas. But they are.

Head on over Save Parliament – it’s explained there better than I ever could. And make sure you sign up to take action.

Surrounded by miracles

On Christmas day I broke my collarbone (clavicule). Inattention on some ice in the street in Switzerland, and I fell before realising I was falling. I don’t know how I landed, as my body instinctively leapt up and sat against a shop window away from the street for safety. Clever thing, the human body.

A Frenchman came and asked me if I wanted a doctor (luckily basic French doesn’t disappear with injury). I thought I was just winded, but then realised I couldn’t lift up my arm. He kindly gave me a lift to the surgery and an efficient medical system filled me with morphine and gave me a sling. (Paid for later via the European Health Insurance Card which luckily Rosemary had told me to get earlier in the year. Apply for yours online).

After about six weeks, with no substantive further treatment, I had full movement of my arm back. I’ve got a pointy spike sticking out of the top of the shoulder, which I still feel every day because it is so weird (see photo right, which is a scan of the X-ray of my shoulder taken in Switzerland). There’s a lump of new growth bone just below it. That lump binds it to the other half of the collar bone, on into my shoulder blade. There are two amazing things about this.

Firstly, bone just heals like skin, binding itself together. It’s a living, breathing thing, not just a structure that can last buried in the earth for thousands, millions of years. Secondly, that the shoulder still works in full, despite now containing a bone of much distorted shape from the original. Imagine taking a complex machine made by man, such as a car, and randomly sawing one of the metal rods in half, then welding it back together haphazardly, and the machine still functioning.

I’m reminded of this because an old friend just rang up with bad news. His father has died of cancer of the pancreas. Not young, but not as old as we are lucky enough to expect to live in Britain these days. We both cried on the phone, and because we used to do an A-level in it together, talked about biology.

Cancers are in some ways very natural. It’s not an external evil, like BSE prions or HIV virus, but our own systems that fail. Cells naturally grow and reproduce, and cancers are mutant ones that fail to do that in a controlled manner. The body has several layers of protection which detect most cancers – my friend said particularly good at doing so in growing small children – and stops them before we even notice. But sometimes this fails, and the cell sucks materials from the rest of the body, and divides uncontrollably.

This year I feel like a miracle has returned me full use of my arm. However much we understand the process, it is simply incredible that the body can heal itself so well. I fell like a regenerating troll from Dungeons & Dragons. And yet also the same force for good can turn to destruction. And one day I too will die, this healing power not enough. A cancer out of control, a bus I didn’t notice, a heart stopping, taking our last unbelievable breath in this beautiful world.

Thrown out of Freedom of Expression seminar

(Actually, I wasn’t thrown out, but that made the best title, read on)

So, I’m alone at a book industry trade fair in the colossal ExCel centre in London’s docklands, wearing a suit on top of a Campaign Against the Arms (CAAT) T-shirt, and carrying a bag of subversive anti-Reed Elsevier literature. (See previous post for why).

It’s late in the afternoon, and everyone on the stands is much more chilled out than they were earlier. They have lots of little tables you can go and sit at, and chat casually about how many of next week’s bestseller you want to order, or get quotes for printing your books in India. They don’t have many customers now, the stall holders are mainly sitting and nattering to each other.

To each I go and sit down, say hello with a smile. They’re always friendly. Then I say “Has anybody talked to you about the arms trade yet today?”. They’re always baffled, and I always furtively reach into my bag and give each person a copy of the CAAT leaflet. And explain that a few months ago in the same place, people were selling tanks, guns and torture equipment. Quite a few have heard of the campaign in the press. Some are nervous, and say they’re not political and don’t want to be involved. Most are cautiously sympathetic, a few outrightly so. All are dubious about quite what they can do – but so am I. But hey, it’s time for tactics (getting rid of my leaflets) rather than strategy!

After doing about 20 stalls, I get a text message. Someone from CAAT who was thrown out earlier has got back into the fair, and is in the Freedom of Expression seminar. A bunch of right-on journalists, talking about the Mohammed cartoons row, and the Sikh play that had to be abandoned in Birmingham. I head on over there, it sounds too appropriate not to. I sit for an hour listening to their speeches, distracted, working out my question about how people were thrown out of the fair earlier for freeing their expression, and what does the panel think about corporate control of public space and censorship?

I’ve no idea who in the audience is the other person from CAAT. To my relief, he gets up quicker than me and asks the question, with more microphone and pizzazz than I would have done. The story is too complicated for the panel to get what is going on, although Jonathan Freedland (from the Guardian) says something tangential about the anti-protest zone round parliament, and terrorism law used against hecklers at the Labour party conference.

I stand up, and start handing out leaflets, to everyone as they leave. It’s great, I get rid of them at the fastest rate I can imagine. Someone comes up and tells me how super CAAT is, and how he gives money to them. I feel odd getting this praise when this is the first thing I’ve ever done for them – but my corporate identity as part of the NGO is stuck.

Then, a security guard comes in, and asks me to stop handing out the leaflets. I’m quite shocked, angry, but I immediately and intuitively know that he can’t stop me. It was like this with the infringement of parliamentary copyright required to make the first version of TheyWorkForYou (we now have a license). Sometimes you just know you are in the space where you have the power, the support of popular opinion. It’s nothing to do with you being right, and much more to do with how the story would look in brief summary form in the headlines of a newspaper. “Parliament tries to stop people copying the speeches made by their own MPs” is never going to look good. Nor “Thrown out of Freedom of Expression seminar for handing out leaflets”.

I raise my voice, and step towards the remenants of the panel chatting to people from the audience. “I’m in a Freedom of Expression seminar. You can’t stop me handing out leaflets.” I refuse to leave, he knows I could make more fuss than he could deal with in such a sympathetic crowd, and he leaves. The last leaflet goes to the last person and the job is done. Now I’m friends with Tim from CAAT, and we leave together.

There are at least eight security guards waiting for us, wanting to escort us out en masse. Tim knows this isn’t on, and insists that only one go with us. He knows he could make enough trouble for this deal to be worth their while, and we leave quietly with one guard. Strange now, feeling rebellious, on a high, someone tried to throw me out of a freedom of expression seminar! And I’m suddenly bonded to this stranger, simply by cause and the moment. We go to the pub.

The feeling of corporate control of speech is quite scary. Living in this society, I naturally respect property rights. I wouldn’t expect to be able to hand out leaflets in your house. But somehow a space as large as ExCel feels different. It’s owned by a corporation, which may be “a person” in law, but doesn’t feel like one to me. And even though the land is private, it is being used as a public space, the corporation is profiting from it having the qualities of a public space. So why should they be able to throw me out for the most minor piece of dissent? What do we do when all space is corporate (not such a hard thing to imagine on the Internet, where censorship by website owners can be perfect), there’s no crack for change of any sort?

Selling books and guns

It’s a bit of a strange campaign, but luckily nobody seems to notice.

If you knew someone who ran a bookshop, and later you discovered that he also owned a gunshop down the road, what would you do? Stop using the bookshop? And what if you knew the gunshop was used lots by local criminals, and not just for gun sports? And would you try to get your friends to boycott the bookshop as well?

This isn’t quite what is going on, but it’s near enough. The book store is the London Book Fair, the arms shop is the Defence Systems & Equipment International Exhibition (known affectionately as “dicey” or DSEi). Both are at the ExCeL centre, an obese metal brick in London’s docklands, the book fair last Sunday, the arms fair every other September. You and your militant friends are the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). And the owner of the two shops? That’s the massive publishing corporation Reed Elsevier, or more specifically its subsidiary Reed Exhibitions. (The BBC has more details about all this.)

So last Sunday a bunch of us made the trip along the Docklands Light Railway, dressed in suits. The aim? To explain to the book industry that they’re tied (if indirectly) up with the arms industry, to put some pressure on Reed and get some attention. Sunday was public day, so it was relatively easily get into the show. Inside, like any other trade fair; a huge soulless space, and remarkably too few places to buy food or drink. I spent the morning and early afternoon learning about Nielsen Bookdata, and failing to get into the overcrowded Google Book Search presentations. Then started to feel bad, I ought to do some campaiging against the arms trade.

Everyone else was by the Reed Elsevier stand. They’d been in stealth mode all day disseminating information, and now were being bolder so they’d get chucked out of the fair by security guards and could go to the pub. It went like this – a bunch of people unfurl the large banner. The heavies come and stop them, and escort them out. Meanwhile other CAAT campaigners appear as if from nowhere, handing out leaflets, and talking to people on the Reed stand. Much the same happened earlier in the day, only with more Margaret Atwood.

Some more security guards come and evict the leafleteers. I talk to some people at Oxford University Press, who are too scared to even take a leaflet from me. Like I’m trying to overthrow the state, rather than simply point out that people are selling illegal torture equipment. I lurk around wondering what to do, too nervous to reveal my cover, until I’m the only one left. Except for one strangely immune guy who brazenly hands out leaflets, chatting to people for ages. Soon he realises his luck is bound to run out. He stops and covers his CAAT t-shirt over with a jacket again, dissolving into the crowd.

Feeling really useless that I still have all my leaflets except for two, I instigate a radical plan to get rid of them. (To be continued).

Checking up on your goals

Julian and I made an entertaining list of goals, and now I’m going to check back on how we did. We made them in mid-2003, just after discovering that Public Whip was an idea that might just take off. Amazingly, we’ve actually accomplished some of them, although many are left still to do.

  1. Visit the House of Commons, have a tour by a clerk. Success. We’ve got a few contacts in Parliament now (although see below), and I’ve even had high tea in the famous members tea room.
  2. Appear on the Today programme. Success. Well OK, not quite. It was Today in Parliament, but probably a more substantial and useful discussion than could be had on the Today programme.
  3. Have Public Whip information make a significant contribution to an NGO’s campaign (for example, provide a lead to a particular story or angle which gets lots of publicity, or causes serious embarressment to an MP or the government). Failure. Disappointing one this, although the goal was a bit optimistic. I know that lots of NGOs use our websites, and they benefit from them, just not in as concrete a way as the goal would like. I also know that our sites could be a lot more useful to NGOs, something we need to work on.
  4. Have at least one MP in fear that our parsing and analysing will soon reveal something that they would not like the public to know. Success. Although we haven’t specifically done this, MPs have changed their behaviour (see the leader article also) because of our websites. That is fear; fear that their political opponents will use our measures of apparent laziness against them. Whether it’s a good thing to encourage MPs to intervene once in each a debate is another question. We need to work on how to highlight metrics we care about, and get MPs to really feel they are being watched by the public.
  5. Cause (either by being hired, or by provoking them to do it) the House of Commons to provide structured data in a machine-readable format on their website. Failure. However, we’ve made lots of progress. We’ve talked to people in parliaments (from Scotland to Africa) about structured data, and the idea is inescapably out there. The UK parliament is working on it, although any change like this will take a long time in such a complicated organisation. Help and encourage them if you can!
  6. Be courted by a lobbying services company, and refuse to work for them unless all newly produced work continues to be open source, with no special dual licensing. Success. At first they agreed to work with us, and pay to improve the parser for everyone, and which they would also use internally. In the end they bottled out, and went for a proprietary solution. This was partly because of fear of contributing to an open system, but also because the proprietary solution was lighter, less powerful, cheaper, and more suited to their needs. In other words, our stuff was too high quality, and not customised enough.
  7. Get a contract from the Guardian to integrate Public Whip into their website. Success. Not quite the Guardian, but instead Channel 4.
  8. By 2005 General Election have the facility on the website for reports by subject, people tick their issues, tells them how their MP voted on them. Tells them how each political party voted on these issues. Success. We made an election quiz which did almost exactly that, and was mildly popular. Although it’s probably broken now (old postcode databases, it gets exhausting).
  9. Over the next 5 years, create a noticeably higher rebellion rate, that we can graph. Failed. We could plot a graph now, and it would show an increased rebellion rate. Unfortunately though, we have to give credit to the quality of the policies the government is proposing, rather than to a powerful Public Whip flexing its muscles.
  10. Go on field trip to National Informatics Centre in India. Any offers?

So, 6/10. Good, but must try harder!

Companies with unusual structures

Here are some companies which are large and successful, but have either a non-hierarchical management structure, or an unusual pattern of ownership. Not everything profitable is stock market listed with an all-powerful CEO.

Any more?

Moving house

The main disadvantage of renting property is that you can’t control things if your landlord decides to sell it. In the long term, I feel like there should be something clever halfway between renting and leasehold which gives you more rights over the freeholder. But until somebody works out what that is, I suggest getting a landlord who lets you move with him!

Today is completion day, although at what time it completes I’m not quite sure. House buying is much more ephemeral than I thought, with solicitors talking by telephone. I always imagined exchanging contracts would be round a table in a smoke-filled room. As you can see from the photo, I’m sitting on the floor of the large new living room, which is filled with all my and Mark’s worldly possessions.

I’ve moved barely a mile, to in many ways an area even more central. It is less on the tourist track and the university; instead nearer the station, and nearer where most people that I know live. It’s a characterful place known as the Kite. Built in the early C19, when it was mainly full of criminals and vagrants, half of it was controverisally knocked down to build a shopping centre in the 70s. Now, of course, it is incredibly gentrified, and still right next to Midsummer Common, my favourite meadow in the world.

I’m no longer sleeping in a basement which is lovely. Pop round for tea while you’re shopping.

Good customer service story of the day: For the new flat, I ordered NTL broadband internet about 10 days ago. I was amazed this morning when not only did the NTL engineer arrive on the dot of 12 noon (when the time slot booked extended until 6pm), but he rang 15 minutes before hand to remind me. He didn’t bat an eyelid that I use Linux, and everything was working perfectly within minutes. I’m going to have to set up ntl:heaven to tell people about it! It was extra amusing that when the engineer arrived and I booted up my laptop, it unintentionally connected to an open wireless access point nearby. Replete with internet.

School without rules

Imagine a school with a set of complicated rules. It’s an old school, very old. About 1000 years. Numerous head teachers have modified the rules over time – banning running in corridors, or creating tort for pencil poking. Occasionally the deputy head of timetabling thinks they are getting a bit complicated, and simplifies them a little. But this doesn’t keep up at all with advances in technology – new rules about smart whiteboards, PFI and computer hacking. So it gets harder and harder to understand all the rules as time goes on.

Even though the rules are quite complicated, they’re by and large pretty good, and the kids agree with them. However, sometimes, accidentally or deliberately they break one, and end up in detention. The kids try as hard as they can to obey the rules, but they still get it wrong. Why? Because the staff won’t let them see the rules.

There’s a copy of the rules in the staffroom, but the kids aren’t allowed in there. They put up parts of recent rules on the school website, but these are meaningless without the older rules that they modify. There are several private publishing companies which sell the rules. The publishing companies are so old they have their own copies of the rules, and they have lots of staff to maintain them. But not all the kids have rich enough parents to afford to buy those rules.

Sounds crazy? It’s worse than that. The school’s a country, and it’s called the United Kingdom. And the rules are “statute law”; that is the law “as amended” by acts. i.e. The law in force today that we have to obey.

Just recently, I’ve tried requesting the database of statute law under the new Freedom of Information act. Unfortunately, the request has been denied on grounds of cost. The Department of Constitutional Affairs claim that making an SQL Server database dump takes more than three and a half days.

Usability errors in Google

By and large, all of Google’s services are astonishingly usable. That is, both people who are comfortable with computers, and those who are new to them, find the interface clean, fast, and understand how to use it. Recently I’ve become aware of two major flaws, which are both enlightening.

  • You can drag Google maps to scroll the map around. i.e. Press and hold the mouse down on the map, and then move the mouse around, and the map moves, as if you were sliding it about on a table. Everyone talked about this in blog posts when Google first came out, so all the techy people and Google watchers know that it is the main advance above older internet mapping services. But it isn’t obvious the first time you go to Google maps that you can do this. Solution: They need to add arrows on the edge of the map. Much as it will ruin the clean design, at the moment most users probably find it worse than multimap. I can’t think of a way to help people discover that they can drag the map, except putting some text below it, which hardly anyone will read.
  • What does Froogle mean? On the front page of Google, with a prominent “new!” flash next to it, is a button saying “Froogle”. It isn’t at all obvious that this is a price comparison service. It’s the most brilliant pun ever (the only other common word that rhymes with Google is “bugel”, apart from “frugal”). So when I first read about it on some technology website, I remembered it because of this cleverness. Solution: Rename it to Google Shopping, or Google Prices. Their traffic will immediately jump, as at the moment it is impossible to discover Google have a price comparison service.

OK, now can I have my cut of the millions of dollars in advertising revenue the above two suggestions are worth, please?