0.019938% viral

As I was standing at the bus stop on a grey drizzly morning, there was a lorry parked on the opposite side of the road. It was an utterly unremarkable scene.

But the words on the side of the lorry were a bit strange. They almost, but didn’t quite, make an email address. They almost, but didn’t quite, make a twitter handle. They almost, but didn’t quite, make a URL.

So of course I took a photograph. It scores nothing for artistic merit. It’s not even a complete picture of the lorry. But with nothing better to do before the bus came, I tweeted it.

It got one or two retweets, one or two favourites, after which the minor interest it had occasioned should have drained quietly away. What happened next was a bit surprising. The numbers started shooting up, reaching 51 retweets and 6,612 ‘impressions’.1 For you, those numbers may be normal; for me they are more than a little extraordinary.

It turned out that that tweet was almost exactly my 10,000th, 1,975 days after joining twitter. So was it the one in 10,000 chance of random virality?

I can remember only one other tweet in that league, which was even more frivolous.  Trying to track down a late running flight, I spotted a plane on flightradar24 making the arduous journey from Gatwick to Heathrow.

This is, in fact, wholly unremarkable. Airlines move planes from one place to another for all sorts of reasons, and swapping planes between Heathrow and Gatwick is a matter of daily routine for BA.2 So nobody should have cared about that one either. But it got even more retweets than the lorry, and still more bizarrely Twitter has it down as having received 35,473 impressions, making a not very interesting flight about seven times more exciting than a not very interesting lorry.

I like to think that over the years some of my tweets have been interesting, a few even thoughtful. But they are as nothing. Whether I like it or not, these are my two sort-of-viral tweets. Making a career hit rate of 0.019938%.

Look upon my tweets, ye mighty, and despair.

  1. I suspect impressions to be a somewhat dodgy currency, but they are what Twitter counts and they are at least some indicator of scale. And still creeping upwards, now 6,858, 6,859…  
  2. As some replies were at pains to point out. Inevitably, there turns out to be a site which keeps track of these things, which is faintly alarming.

Interesting elsewhere – 8 October 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Digital and change: what to get excited about | Digital health
Sometimes we might still choose to be laggards of course. The internet will still happen around us anyway, changing the ways we can get things done. But I’d rather do the extra work to accelerate changes that particularly suit us, where they have the greatest potential to improve our work. That’s the real stuff to get excited about.

From the archive: Parkinson’s Law | The Economist
A is a conscientious man. Beset as he is with problems created by his colleagues for themselves and for him—created by the mere fact of these officials’ existence—he is not the man to shirk his duty. He reads through the draft with care, deletes the fussy paragraphs added by C and H and restores the thing back to the form preferred in the first instance by the able (if quarrelsome) F. He corrects the English—none of these young men can write grammatically—and finally produces the same reply he would have written if officials C to H had never been born. Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best.

Culture Stories: Introduction and Milk.
I listened to various simple, actionable, additive1 and modern sounding things we could change to the way we work. Add some tablet computers here and more video conferencing there. I worked in the digital department, and at the time I was working on our internal tools so I guess I was meant to write these things down and agree wholeheartedly. But I struggled. It felt like there was a bigger problem not being mentioned by anyone. Culture.

MOT status check: a five minute business case – honestlyreal
Shall we just reflect how far things have come that a well-intended (but clearly underinformed) blog post can pop-up – get a useful response directly from an agency CEO within a couple of hours, with not a hint of spin, snark or press officer flannel – and lead to a better informed me, and hopefully you, dear reader?

Publishing and Reading — Medium
No book need ever be out of stock, or out of print, anywhere in the world. It used to be that if you were OK with people in Podunk having inferior access to books than people in Brooklyn, you were just a realist about the difficulties of making and shipping physical stuff. Now if you’re OK with that, you’re kind of an asshole. In the twenty-first century, not being able to correctly stock or distribute a product whose main ingredient is information suggests a degree of technical and managerial incompetence indistinguishable from active malice.

The permit’s in the post

The question of whether there should be a local version of the Government Digital Service rumbles on. I wrote about it a couple of months ago, and lots of other people have too, most of them far more expert on the question than I am. That amounts to a lot of well-informed and passionate commentary, but much of it is quite abstract. This post comes at the issue from the opposite direction: if solving problems such as those described here is the question, is a local GDS the answer?

That thought was promoted by going through a new digital service offered by my local authority. I was delighted to find that it existed (it replaces queueing up in an office half way across the borough). It seemed to work (though at the time I wasn’t entirely sure since fulfilment remains firmly undigital and took a long time to happen). Some of it felt quite liberating (not needing to provide the same evidence of identity for the umpteenth time as for the first). And some of it seemed designed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This starts as a story about a website, but it turns out to be much less about that than it might first appear.

So first a few reflection on being a user of the service. And then a few more general thoughts on what that might point to for doing digital better.

The story

I want to buy some parking permits. Not for my own car, because I don’t have one, but so that occasional visitors can park in residents’ spaces.

At first blush, the new modern looking service might have come out of the GDS stable. But on closer inspection – or actually using it – it’s riddled with small details (and one or two very big ones) which make clear that it’s actually a very different kind of beast.

Lambeth parking permit landing page

Let’s begin at the beginning. “Do it online” the landing page exhorts, followed mysteriously by “(external site)”.1 A couple of screens later, you get to choose what kind of permit you want, in a two-dimensional menu, the like of which I have never seen before. Clicking on “Visitors vouchers”2 has the unexpected effect of making the page scroll down, to prompt either logging on or continuing without an account. The chosen option is in fact highlighted – but on my reasonably large screen, the scrolling goes far enough to make that invisible, introducing another sense of uncertainty about what might actually be going on. Moving on, they want to establish that I am entitled to buy permits in the first place. This is genuinely a big improvement: instead of scrabbling around to find old gas bills, they just do a credit reference search.3

Lambeth parking permit selection

Then it gets really strange. The next screen allows me to select the number of parking vouchers I want. Or does it? It’s the same two-dimensional tiled menu as before, but this time clicking on any of the options has no apparent effect whatsoever. There is a basket on the right of the screen which remains resolutely empty with an amount due of £0.00 as I try to choose ever larger quantities of permits. Nothing happens. In the end, since there is nothing else to do, I click on ‘Continue to terms and conditions’. Two things happen on the screen which follows. The first is that the basket now shows the number of vouchers and the price. But since I was randomly clicking around trying to get some kind – any kind – of reaction on the previous screen, the number in the basket is much larger than the number I actually want to buy.

The second thing which becomes apparent is that there is no way back. None. Not then, not at any subsequent point in the process. Having made an invisible choice for an invisible basket, the only way of correcting that choice is to abandon the process and start all over again. But if you try that, there is a further sting in the tail. I kept going with the wrong amount as far as I possibly could, in the expectation that at some point there just had to be a a way of updating the quantity. I was wrong. But it then turned out I was worse than wrong. These permits are rationed – 50 per household per year. This new system keeps a running total of how many I have bought and thus of how many I am still entitled to buy. And it has deducted from my total the permits I didn’t buy, as well as those I subsequently did.4

But eventually I did get to the end, ready to buy the permits I wanted, though with my confidence a little shaken by the effort it had taken to get there. The payment process did not offer quite the reassurance I had been hoping for – “Redirecting to Payoffshore……” it proclaimed, flourishing a name which could have been invented by a Nigerian spammer on a particularly unimaginative day.5

Lambeth parking permit selection

But that’s finally the end of the process. Or rather it’s just the beginning. I have asked for – and paid for – some permits. But I don’t yet have the permits and there is some back office work to be done. Now as it happens I know roughly how long that takes, because in the old system I used to queue up in an office and watch somebody do the work on the spot. Five minutes is plenty. Ten minutes would be generous. Fifteen minutes would be absurd.6 Apparently, though, it may take them up to ten working days to find the five minutes needed.

And remarkably it turned out that they needed every one of those ten working days. Counting actual days and time in the post, which is what matters to me, it took 17 days for those permits to get to me. It’s rather a good thing I wasn’t in a hurry.7

The moral

I have told that story not because the details are important but because it’s a really good illustration of lessons at three different levels. Only one of them is ostensibly about the web service, which is a good reminder that ‘fixing the website’ is rarely a good way of framing the problem.

Detail matters

At the first level, though, even if fixing the website isn’t sufficient, it’s certainly necessary. User confidence is a product of complex cues and responses to them which are not always conscious. No one of the problems I have described – or of the several more I could have described – breaks the process and any one of them is surmountable. But cumulatively they do a lot to undermine confidence. I have no idea what the completion rate is, but I am willing to bet it could be a great deal higher.

This is also a good illustration of the principle that if you are going to use non-standard interaction design, you need to be really confident that it works, which includes making absolutely sure that it offers the right affordance.

Fulfilment matters

One level up from that, it’s pretty clear that polishing the website will not address the problem that it is a veneer over a broken process. A process time of five minutes should not go with an elapsed time of 17 days, particularly when the old, slow inefficient manual process has an elapsed time of about 90 minutes, including travelling and waiting. It looks as though somebody has designed a web transaction. It doesn’t look as though anybody has designed a service. 

Imagination  matters

But we shouldn’t stop there. I am not really buying small cardboard rectangles, which need to be physically delivered. I am buying the right to park in certain circumstances, which doesn’t. Tax discs are in the same category and it seems auspicious that this post is being published on the day they are being abolished. Long before there was any prospect of that happening, but when it was first possible to renew the tax disc online, William Heath was pithy and precise:

Hurrah for the car tax disc renewal process. It used to be both inconvenient and pointless. Now it’s just pointless.

It’s always a bad sign when a piece of information held by government is converted into physical form in order to allow the same or another part of government to convert it back to digital. Why have a shiny new service to issue parking permits when it would be so much better to have a shiny new service to not issue parking permits?

The moral of the moral

This has been a pretty limited story. It is one person’s experience of one service offered by one local authority. But that service is newly redesigned and newly automated, and I am pretty sure that it’s not yet as good as it could be or as it needs to be. More specifically, I doubt that it would meet the GDS digital by default service standard. That’s not to say that this is a job for GDS, still less one that only GDS could do. But as local authority services go, this is at the simple end of the spectrum, and it looks as though something better is needed to get things right.

Is a local GDS the solution? I made slightly heavy weather of the general answer to that question in my earlier post. Coming at it afresh from this slightly different perspective feels easier in some ways – but only in some. It is much harder to do this stuff well than to write blog posts criticising the doing of it. Concentrating and amplifying that expertise has much to commend it. But the other thing which GDS critically has is a licence to operate. It has renewed and extended that licence over time, but it did not create it – the initial spark has to come from elsewhere.

On balance, the story told here makes me more inclined to the idea of a local GDS. It would have to find ways of being local. It would have to find ways of not being GDS. It would have to be as concerned about back office processes as about visible interactions. But if it could be all those things, there is no shortage of great work waiting to be done.

  1. Clicking the link does indeed take you to a separate subdomain, but not in the normal “if you click this link, you’re on your own and we wash our hands of the consequences” sense. So the only thing those words can do is generate a little pointless FUD.
  2. No, no apostrophe.
  3. But strangely, having gone through the process once and created an account, on subsequent visits name and phone number are retained, address is retained but deselected, and date of birth is thrown away and has to be re-entered. The overall effect is bizarrely random.
  4. Even if this bit of record keeping was not broken, which it clearly is, it would carry a more subtle problem: the limit is now, it seems, hard coded, and leeway is therefore abolished. The limit of 50 existed in the old world too, but I strongly suspect that there it meant ‘we reserve the right to stop selling you more if you are clearly abusing the system’. Now it probably means ’50’.
  5. And when the payment appeared on my bank statement, the description was  “WWW.E-PAYCO , BALT.COM , INTERNET GB” which doesn’t sound a great deal better.
  6. And that’s for the old process, which was necessarily more labour intensive than the new.
  7. Of course, if I had actually been in a hurry, I wouldn’t have used the new online service at all – I would have got a bus to the council office, spent twenty minutes in a queue and left with the permits in my hand.  That process certainly isn’t perfect, but it is spectacularly faster.

Interesting elsewhere – 9 September 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away… — Medium
The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.

You Are Not Late — The Message — Medium
Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet. There has never been a better time in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute. This is the time that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet — although this new greatness will not be more of the same-same that exists today. It will not be merely “better,” it will different, beyond, and other.

The spirit of the age | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
It’s not just funerals and retirements that change attitudes. The process by which whole societies change their minds about things is much more interesting than that. Generational attitudes waver and people move with the times. The word zeitgeist translates as spirit of the age. That spirit moves in mysterious ways.

Beyond belief – towards a new methodology of change | Matthew Taylor’s blog
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the beyond policy paradigm is that it requires fundamental changes not just in the way we do policy, but in how we think about politics, accountability and social responsibility. The solidity of traditional policy making is contained within a wider system which cannot easily contend with the much more fluid material of ‘beyond policy’. When, for example, I tell politicians there their most constructive power may lie not in passing laws, imposing regulations or even spending money but on convening new types of conversation, they react like body builders who have asked to train using only cuddly toys.

Already Here: the importance of ordinary innovation | Native
I’ve grown to learn that the greatest innovations are not always with the new ways to tell stories, or the new ways to make a noise. Instead, the truly revolutionary are often somewhat banal. They’re the innovation that disappears as soon as it happens, that arrives and makes us immediately forget what it was like to live without it. Not showy, but subtle and just-so.

How to Harness the Wisdom of Crowds in Public Services
Polls, referenda and consultations request individuals’ views on a subject. They ask citizens to express the level of their support for a particular measure, or to state their preference from a list of pre-set options. Gathering such qualitative responses may be helpful in revealing the strength of public opinion on a specific issue. But the pressing need for good policymaking is having ideas and information. A more interesting and potentially fruitful approach would therefore be to ask citizens to provide facts or answers to specific questions; to provide knowledge that government alone could not find for itself.

Not just the government’s playbook – O’Reilly Radar
Whenever I hear someone say that “government should be run like a business,” my first reaction is “do you know how badly most businesses are run?” Seriously. I do not want my government to run like a business — whether it’s like the local restaurants that pop up and die like wildflowers, or megacorporations that sell broken products, whether financial, automotive, or otherwise.

Net present value

The train now approaching platform 2 has been delayed for 155 years.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on the Cornish Riviera, the fastest train from Cornwall to London, stopping only at Plymouth, Exeter and Reading between the Tamar and Paddington, and timetabled to go from Penzance to London in exactly five hours.

Splendid. Except that the distance is a shade over 300 miles, so the average speed is a less than dizzy 61mph. And even that average covers some interesting variation. Looked at section by section, the speeds tell a powerful story.

Distance (miles) Time Speed (mph)
Penzance to Plymouth 79½ 2h 40
Plymouth to Exeter 52 57m 55
Exeter to Reading 137¾ 1h 38 81
Reading to London 36 25m 86
Penzance to London 305¼ 5h 61

Some of that variation is explained by the fact that the train stops eight times between Penzance and Plymouth and not at all between the other pairs of stations, but on any basis, a supposed express taking two hours to cover eighty miles is hardly impressive.

This isn’t about the trains. They may be forty years old, but they are still capable of reaching 125mph and they certainly don’t get close to that anywhere west of Exeter.  So it comes down to the track and, more specifically, to a set of design decisions made in the 1840s.  The terrain was not easy, with lots of steep valleys perpendicular to the line of route, money was short, and construction costs were minimised. Apart from the curves, other obvious signs of those constraints remain today – the splendid Royal Albert bridge across the Tamar is an engineering masterpiece, but it is only single track, as was the entire line in Cornwall when first built.

In making those design decisions, did the promoters of the line give any thought to the fact that they were investing for the next two centuries or more? Of course they didn’t – what, after all, had posterity ever done for them? With the benefit of those two centuries of hindsight, would it have been rational to have invested more at the outset in order to secure a long stream of higher benefits? Almost certainly, and if the capital markets were not capable of doing that, we can now see that it would have made good sense for the government of the time to have borrowed to make more effective investment possible. Leaving aside the fact that that’s not what governments in the 1840s saw their job as being (we are already well into the realm of fantasy here), the very long range value of some kinds of investment decisions, combined with the very long term constraints some of those decisions bring means that the there is a long-term skew to sub-optimal levels of public investment.

Meanwhile, Daniel Davies has written a beautiful essay, summarising Switzerland in 18 vignettes. The whole thing is a delight and well worth reading, but a couple of sentences prompted me to think again about my Cornish experience:

The SBB, great though it is, is not the real miracle of Switzerland compared to the dozens of little cantonal and sub-regional railways that serve even the smallest little towns on rails carved into the roads or running alongside them. This sort of infrastructure asset doesn’t depreciate if maintained properly, and it keeps providing the services for which it was intended in all economic climates. It’s a classic illustration of a point that John Quiggin has regularly made – that classic “risk-adjusted” discounted cash flow analysis will always overstate the risks of government spending and result in underprovision of infrastructure.

Devon and Cornwall provide a different example of that point with the closure of the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot earlier this year when a stretch of track was washed away. There was once some redundancy in the system which could have routed round the damage – but that has long since been removed, leaving rail access to Plymouth and beyond vulnerable to a single point of failure. Again, we can only speculate about the long term return there would have been on keeping the line across Dartmoor open.

This isn’t a post mourning a pre-Beeching world, where trains puffed across sunny rural landscapes, pausing from time to time to pick up a few milk churns. Seeing how the past might be valued differently is not the same as valuing everything that is past. Trying to understand the long-term value of infrastructure is not the same as saying that all infrastructure has long-term value.

Indeed, this isn’t really a post about the past at all. The railway line across Cornwall, curves, gradients and all, is what it is, and nobody is going to build another one. So this is a post about the future: can we find ways of being smarter about the long term value (and costs and risks) of our investment choices?

 

 

 

Interesting elsewhere – 6 August 2014

Things which caught my eye elsewhere on the web

War – the mother of the tech sector | Flip Chart Fairy Tales
War, then, is good for technological development. Of course, it’s not the killing and destruction itself that leads to innovation. You can do a lot of that with relatively primitive technology. What drives the scale and speed of technological innovation is a massive concentration of investment. It’s just nothing seems to promote quite that level of investment quite like armed conflict, or the fear of it.

The UX problem with Agile | mmitII
One element that can help is for the providers of systems to try to hold onto empathy for their users – and to understand fundamentally that sometimes what we see as “making things better” might not be perceived in the same way by the people using a service. For most of us the status quo, no matter how buggy or badly designed, is initially favoured to the new because, whilst it might be crappy, we know its limitations and have built coping mechanisms to work around. Every improvement runs the risk of initially removing a level of self determination from the people who are using the system.

FutureGov | Play time is over
We can’t just sleepwalk into this stuff, we must think about the impact of decisions we make and the values we want to design into the public services we build. Technology and open data is not neutral anymore than anything else we do. We need to think carefully about whether and how we want to design with people. To give them access to their data – or not. To support participation in public services – or not.

Why I Tweet | Sharon O’Dea
I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?

I tweet because I’m a selfish, vain and lazy person who wants to change the world. And so are you.

Let citizens spend tax revenues rather than the technocrats at the top : RSA blogs
In these creative times, when people have so much more confidence in their capacity to think for themselves, develop ideas and change theirs and others’ worlds, a relationship built around the notion that citizens should simply hand over cash in return for top-down provision is bound to cause annoyance and confusion. It also encourages the very abdication of personal responsibility which politicians now tell us we need to revive to meet the challenge of long-term austerity.

The Quiet Movement to Make Government Fail Less Often – NYTimes.com
The United States government has historically been good at the big stuff, from fighting wars to breaking new scientific ground. It’s everything else that tends to present a problem.

Government should be joined up and grown up | LabourList
Mature and competent ministers can work very successfully with officials. Politicians should provide a sense of direction. Civil servants should carry out the work that ensues. It may not always be easy, but it must be doable.

more work required: on ‘big govt IT’, ‘transactions’ and the future of public service design | new tech observations from the UK (ntouk)
Many current government ‘transactions’ are merely automated versions from the old paper world, moving electronic versions of forms from one place to another — either literally, or by mimicking the form online in a series of interminable web pages that ape the paper world. We can throw all the tin and software we like at these ‘digital forms’, but it’s not going to do much to improve the quality, efficiency, or relevance of the services involved.

Why big IT projects always go wrong | Technology | The Observer
The message is clear: if you run a big company or a government department and are contemplating a big IT product, ask yourself this question: can your company or your ministerial career survive if the project goes over budget by 40% or more, or if only 25-50% of the projected benefits are realised? If the answer is “no” go back to square one.

10 Lessons from 4 Years Working Remotely at Automattic | When I Have Time by Sara Rosso
When you work with a distributed team, the only way you measure if they are working is on their output. Did they do what they said they would do? Where is the result of that work? Did they even say they would do anything, or have they gone dark? It’s frightening easy to notice when a distributed coworker checks out or becomes disinterested in what they’re doing…they stop communicating, they stop creating. There’s no output.

Don’t blame the mandarins | Freethinking Economist
From time to time you will read columns revealing how some great idea has been being thwarted by Mandarins.   This is usually the clearest sign than an incompetent spad has been on manoeuvres.  It isn’t a coup.