When they say ‘innovate’ they really mean it

3 February 2009

At the weekend,  Directgov launched a new innovation site

to inform the greater developer community about available resources, to provide a platform to connect with one another, and to showcase new ideas with the aim of supporting and encouraging innovation.

It's tastefully purple and green (have they been spending too much time in jobcentres?) with not a trace of orange, supporting some strong messages that this is not a production site.

Having launched on Saturday, they detected a problem on Monday – getting reliable information about whether schools are opening or not when there's been a bit of snow.  Now it's Tuesday, so they have launched the solution : a new site called School Closures.

That's a pretty impressive time to market by anybody's standards.  Not surprisingly, it's more a demonstrator than an usable service, but that makes it no less interesting.  What it's got is a database of schools and provision to tag any school with a note.  What's missing is any information on school closures.

That's not a criticism, because in some ways the really interesting bit of this is the mash up of the thing government happens to have anyway – the schools database – with information which nobody has on any systematic basis – whether any particular school is open or not – and which can best be provided and shared locally.  That makes it a bootstrapping problem:  getting enough people to put stuff in to make it useful enough to be worth going there to get stuff out.  Crowd-sourcing school opening arrangements could provide some temptingly powerful ways for bored teenagers to give themselves a long weekend.  So this may turn out not to be a very useful approach, at least as an end user service  - most of us are only interested in one or two schools and are probably familiar with where to find them online.  But as a status widget on the school's home page, easily triggered remotely rather than by whoever does site maintenance having to turn up to school to hand knit a new page, it could have a great future.

All of that's a bit beside the point.  It doesn't matter in the slightest that this is not (yet) a robust and customer-focused service.  What matters is beginning to break the cycle of long slow planning and development.

As for the innovation site itself, there are a couple of obvious ways in which it could almost instantaneously be improved:  the site is clearly built on wordpress, but wordpress with all the interesting bits turned off.   The voice of innovation is a fairly portentous 'we' without the slightest indication who 'we' might be.  The combination of blog format and approach with a depersonalised royal we jars a bit.  UPDATE:  names have suddenly appeared on the posts, so this point is already redundant.

Much more importantly, there is no way of talking back:  the post introducing the school closures site asks

Would it meet the need? Try it out for yourself.

Well I have tried it for myself, and I would be happy to give an answer to the question.  But no comments, no (visible) trackbacking, no way of joining the conversation.  UDATE:  Simon Dickson helpfully points out in his comment below that I have missed the comments, so half a retraction is due – but I did try looking without success.

And in a further oddity, the back end of the school closure site seems to run off a domain name from Tonga, with a whois service providing no useful information whatsoever about who is actually behind it.  Even on a limited and experimental scale, that seems an odd way of doing things.

But, but, but…  This is day 3.  I am already looking forward to what they will do next week.


They’re using a service called FreeDNS, which offers uk.to as its UK-centric free domain. Why use a free one? Because it avoids the procurement people, of course. (Implications for the non-proliferation of domains under web rationalisation, though!)
And there is a comment function in the innovate.direct.gov.uk site – it’s just that you can’t actually get to it until you click through to the actual post page, and the design doesn’t help you distinguish which one that is. (I’ve already mentioned that to them; no response as yet. Five seconds to fix, but they’re clearly focussing elsewhere.) Example:

by Simon Dickson on 3 February 2009 at 3:30 pm. #

Thanks for putting me straight – I have made a couple of corrections to the post (though I am pretty sure the names have appeared since this morning).
I am slightly more hesitant about uk.to. Not getting stuck in procurement is clearly essential for anybody with aspirations to a 24 hour delivery cycle, the difference between an innovation space and a production service is a crucial one (which Paul & co are right to emphasise), but there is something important about avoiding even the appearance of flakiness in government and quasi-governmetn services, the more so in a world where playing games with domain names is what makes phishing work. I am genuinely unsure how to strike the balance there – but eventually we are going to have to be careful to get some of these details right.

by Public Strategist on 3 February 2009 at 4:57 pm. #