A clever illustration of the difference between then and now.

I’m aware there’s lots of naffness around at Christmas. It’s one of the things I hate most about the season but I’ve succumbed.  If you want an illustration of just how things were back then – and I don’t mean 2010 years ago, try  10 years – and how they are today take a look at this witty video on You-tube showing what a digital nativity would be like.

I particularly like the car rental and the available rooms on Google. Made me smile.

Have a good Christmas.
Peter Barton
Publisher

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This may be old news but what are you doing about the £501 question?

Way back in May 2010 in an open letter (you can see it  here ), the Prime Minister, David Cameron, laid out his requirement for Central and Local Government to become more transparent by publishing their data on expenditure. In the case of Local government, everything over £500 must be shown.

Francis Maude will be heading up the Public Sector Transparency Board overseeing the Salome like removal of the veils covering the mysteries of public sector procurement. Added to this is the “responsibility for setting open data standards across the public sector, publishing further datasets on the basis of public demand, and – in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice – will further develop the Right to Data and advise on its implementation”. So the right to this data will become enshrined in law it seems. All very laudable. And to be specific this is what Cameron expects from Local Government in his drive towards transparency:

  • “New items of local government spending over £500 to be published on a council-by-council basis from January 2011.
  • New local government contracts and tender documents for expenditure over £500 to be published in full from January 2011”.

And how does that translate into what Councils should be providing? The Government web site data.gov.uk made these recommendations back in June 2010

“… our immediate advice to local authorities is:

  • Users will be interested in the core information held in the accounts system – such as expenditure code, amount paid, transaction date, beneficiary, and payment reference number. The expenditure code has to be explained and steps taken to help users identify the beneficiary
  • As a first stage, publish the raw data and any lookup table needed to interpret it in a spreadsheet as a CSV or XML file as soon as possible. This should be put on the council’s website as a document for anyone to download. Or even published in a service such as Google Docs
  • There is not yet a national approach for publishing local authority expenditure data. This should not stop publication of data in its raw, machine-readable form. Observing such raw data being used is the only route to a national approach, should one be required
  • Publishing raw data will allow the panel and others to assess how that data could/should be presented to users. Sight of the data is worth a hundred meetings. Members of the panel will study the data, take part in the discussion and revise this advice.
  • As a second stage, informed by the discussion, the panel and users can then give feedback about publishing data (RDF, CSV, etc) in a way that can be consistent across all local authorities involving structured, regularly updated data published on the Web using open standards”.

You can read the full article  here. And the original comments from Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s paper, ‘Putting Government Data Online’ which seemed to kick all of this off, is here.

From this can be seen at worst its suggested, nay required, to place all information about expenditure over £500 on line in something as simple as a CSV file from January 2011.

In saying “…our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account” Cameron’s intention is clear. It’s about the accountability of Councils for their spending to the public they serve.

It’s long been the case that politicians hide their doings using a chamber full of excuses like it’s too difficult, too complicated, too expensive or the public won’t understand etc. And even now, despite this forced openness, some are obfuscating by merely uploading a spreadsheet or even a pdf, neither of which is very helpful and does not meet the sprit of the request from central Government.

And yet, despite the lack of a clear instruction from the government on just how the data should be produced – come on Francis spell it out – some are turning searchlights on the birds nest of data they hold simplifying it and  bringing it into sharp focus for the ordinary man in the street.

One such is Lichfield District Council  which has produced a really useful system of its own in order to put a more friendly face on the otherwise confusing data produced in their ( or anybody else’s)  CSV.

Lichfield’s web manager, Stuart Harrison, takes the CSV produced by the internal accounting systems and uploads it to his own purpose built application which he wrote for the task in PHP.

Talking of the data produced he said “the intention of the CX and myself was to make it easier for people to understand” .

The CSV files are still there for anyone wishing to download the full fat version but from what I’ve seen Harrison’s purpose built simplifier does an excellent job.

Harrison says he is prepared to share the code, which he is going to make available in the near future. Contact him for details on:- Stuart.Harrison  at  lichfielddc.gov.uk

As I write this, Lichfield’s figures are not currently up – taken down for some tweaking – but they will return here. In the near future.

As an aside – it will be interesting to see how Socitm view any lack of these figures during their upcoming annual “better Connected” review of local government web sites.

The deadline to get this all out there seems to be the 1st January folks so, if you haven’t sorted this out yet, best get your skates on.

Birmingham DIY web site was free wasn’t it?

Iron man statue

Gormley's Iron Man, Victoria Square, Birmingham

I declare an interest here. I’m a Brummie and proud of it. Imagine then my feelings about the furore over the cost of the web site and the setting up of the FREE! DIY site by a bunch of web coves eager to prove a point.

I was disappointed of course; the largest authority in Europe spent the largest amount of cash on it’s web site and some said it wasn’t very good either. As a Brummie my shoulders sagged.

Having ran a large local government web site for the past – too many years – I am fully aware of the problems besetting every web architect / manager/ content editor etc from out of date data to “I’m just too busy darling to bother with YOUR web site” (your web site?) type attitudes of the care-less folks across the organisations. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. They have their jobs to do too.  Nevertheless content is a pain and the churn rate is so high that… well it fair makes your head spin.

I’m guessing what Birmingham achieved is a good scaffold on which to build further services and data repositories and that costs money. But I’m not here to defend the eye watering figures mentioned.

What I am here to argue is that it’s really easy to pick. Pick, pick, pick, “Oh I wouldn’t have done this or that” or the ” I could do that for nothing” – as appears the case with the DIY site for Birmingham.

Also these DIY or cheap and cheerful sites don’t have the imposed standards hanging around their metaphoric necks. They can simply ignore them. Up-time being just one of those and from what I have heard here the DIY site for Brum wasn’t exactly stable, to say the least.

In a nutshell it’s pretty easy to to talk of the impossible but doing it is another thing altogether. And it’s even easier to whine from the sidelines without having any responsibilities for the finished product whatsoever.

Certainly my experience has shown that internal critics of a site, when sat down and asked what they would do to resolve the set of problems facing web managers, suddenly find the current ( though criticised) solution amazingly competent.

I have similar views about the so called “Free” open source software. What’s free about software that requires an unspecified amount of “techies” – and they are not free – within the council to build it so it works? It’s not free at all. I heard recently of one council that used  open source CMS software and then had 4 techies developing, running and managing it + those who actually ran the site and chased the content.

So all this “free” glistery stuff is not savings gold is it?

Flack jacket and helmet on at the ready. I sense incoming.

The worldly wise know the truth…

picture of Selfridges Birmingham

Selfridges

No matter what the economic climate – and in Local Government it’s witheringly bleak ( like the weather here tonight at minus 9degC) – there is always opportunity.

In this case the opportunity is to improve your web offerings even when budgets are being butchered by the politicos occupying the upper branches of the Government/Local Government forests.

However, you are going to have to be brave; turn your current thinking on it’s head, measure results, prove your effectiveness and above all hold your nerve.

Collective Responsibility is running a session in Birmingham ( the centre of the universe for us Brummies ) designed to offer advice, support and illustrations of just how others are doing it. Well worth a look.

The event is scheduled for January the 25th 2011 It’s called…

Council Websites: Creating & Finding Opportunities in an Arduous Market.

You can read all about it here

You have to attend to help  you and yours survive the next few years and of course to see this amazing building.