Reflecting on 2009

December 20, 2009 | 1 comment

The Christmas period is traditionally when I take a step back and consider what I’m going to do over the next year. For me, it’s a time for family, for quiet reflection and for evaluation. What have I done well? What will I do better next year?

During 2009, I left Elgg, the project I’d been developing for five years, and concentrated on real-world contracts and projects. I spoke at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and met some very interesting people who are going to provide a new model for news reporting in America. I’ve been working with them for the rest of the year, and look forward to writing some more about that project soon.

I’ve also been working with a local publisher in Oxford, creating GeoRSS feeds for their content and paving the way for a mashup with the official University of Oxford mobile site. Imagine walking around your hometown, seeing rooms and apartments for rent displayed on an augmented reality browser, superimposed on the streets themselves. It’s just one way that the web is meeting simple, real-world needs with innovative approaches that are quickly beginning to resemble science fiction. Data is being mashed up and made available in increasingly sophisticated ways.

I expect mobile to come into its own in 2010, particularly now that the mobile Internet market is projected to be twice the size of its desktop cousin. Augmented reality and applications like RedLaser are the more obvious manifestations of this, but I expect the nature of web publishing as a whole to subtly morph. Platforms like WordPress are beginning to recognize this in small ways, such as adding native support for the Twitter API, but expectations are being set far higher than this.

Hardware like the iPhone, the assorted Android handsets and smartphones like the Palm Pre are very affordable multimedia all-rounders which have turned ubiquitous connectivity into a mass-market feature. People are going to expect to be able to save any digital content from anywhere, and share it with anyone. In 2010, I intend to help them.

Collecting and cultivating

December 7, 2009 | Leave a comment

As research for a new project I intend to launch, I’ve been using a variety of sharing and bookmarking services to keep track of web resources I’ve found interesting. I think the parallel processes of bookmarking, sharing and publishing can all be improved upon, and the new tool has a simple elevator pitch: share anything, from anywhere.

In the meantime, I’ve started a Tumblr to collect all these links in one place. You can find it at http://benwerd.tumblr.com/, and while most of the content is web-related, I make no apologies for including articles on other subjects that I find fascinating. Of course, a next generation sharing tool would understand how to break my resources up into categories based on their content, perhaps using simple rules I’d set out, and would be highly customizable, extensible, decentralized and secure. It would also be agnostic to my choice of identity provider.

Public IT project hell: let’s make government work for us

December 3, 2009 | 1 comment

Why does it cost $235 million to integrate a few IT systems?

Johannes Ernst contrasts the Yahoo/Facebook deep integration announcement with the US government’s announcement that they will spend $235 million on integrating incompatible healthcare IT systems, and asks some pertinent questions:

I assume we all agree that an environment in which leading-edge companies innovate on their own to the benefit of their customers is better than one in which the government has to spend large amounts of money to drag along kicking and screaming “participants” — as it is so common in health IT. How do we turn US healthcare IT from the latter to the former?

One might equally substitute education, or local councils, or law enforcement. It’s a widely-accepted truth that public IT endeavors suck, and that enforcing data standards across disparate public bodies is like herding confused, angry cats into a very wet bag. It’s also true that commercial web services have been very good at integrating for the good of their customers, often without any money (let alone $235 million) changing hands.

I do think there’s a false distinction that’s been made here: public bodies and government departments tend to be swamped in a sea of bureaucracy that prevents them from moving or changing as nimbly as many commercial companies. (Of course, as companies begin to become institutionalized through age and size, they also become less nimble: take Microsoft and IBM.) Many of these restrictions are necessary for the simple reason that they’re using our money, and some regulation is required to ensure tax funds are being spent wisely and benefit the wider public good. We don’t want people to just walk off with it.

Our tax dollars at play

It’s also widely-accepted that our tax dollars are not spent wisely, and often don’t benefit the wider public good. Public bodies are full of inefficiencies, in part because of the bureaucracy involved. I’ve certainly worked within university environments where entire departments of people could reasonably be described as incompetent, but had integrated themselves so well into the system that they had become a required port of call in the bureaucratic workflow. I’ve also seen fully private companies formed using university money and resources earmarked for public research, and government grants essentially spent on beer and travel. These are the kinds of inefficiencies and sanctioned fraud that must be stamped out.

Public bodies and private companies are different in one major respect: their stakeholders. It is a legal requirement for shareholders in a company to have access to the company returns, board minutes and so on (although a wider cloak of privacy is often necessary). In a public body, the stakeholders are the public, yet we often don’t have access to details like financial statements, minutes and decision-making rationale. In Britain, an attempt to get government departments to work like commercial companies has resulted in a ridiculous system where departments must pay each other and the British taxpayer often doesn’t have a legal right to the information they produce.

The public is the board

Ultimately, in a democracy, the public should be the board of directors. Genuine public oversight hasn’t been possible before, but transparency and accountability are now possible via the Internet. We don’t need political parties and administrations to be our eyes and ears any more; we need them to be our hands, and act on our behalf. We need to be able to see the inner workings of public bodies: not just the numbers, but the actual internals and decisions. With genuine public oversight in a way that ensures the bodies know they’re being watched, and governments obligated to maintain these bodies for direct public benefit in a way that’s responsive to the public, costs should go down. It’s not perfect – and Switzerland has recently shown us the dangers of having frequent public referendums – but given the spending, inefficiency and fraud inherent in the system, we can no longer trust the government to do this on our behalf.