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Saturday, June 13

Gongs, Sir TBL and speeding up freeing up the data

LONDON - FEBRUARY 12:  Queen Elizabeth II meet...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The gongs have been handed out for the Queen's Birthday and, scanning through, I couldn't see one for a webbie or a tekkie. This seemed particularly odd looking at the ones locally for Cambridge - home of the 'Silicon Fen' - and the business related ones didn't include any webbies or tekkies, neither did the academic ones.

So I was wondering about all that in the context of the announcement that one webbie who actually has a gong, Sir Tim Berners Lee (TBL), was appointed to drive the freeing up of government data in the wake of Gordon Brown's near-demise, a week which also saw a large number of the unelected enter his cabinet and him appoint Sir Alan Sugar, of TV fame, to a government post.

So the first thing which struck me was 'this is another celebrity appointment'. Then it struck me that at least TBL is a webbie who is part of the establishment. Then it also struck me that with the exit of Minister Tom Watson, who is also a webbie, perhaps we do need someone with establishment clout to knock heads together at the top table.

What we don't know if whether TBL will have the skills to be effective. To actually be able to move Whitehall and the rest of government.

But the consensus from those close in is that - chaneling Princess Leia - he's our best hope.

Simon Dickson:
But what he will be able to do is intimidate persuade those people who always seem to block the initiatives which have already gone before. He may have more success saying the exact same things many of us have already been saying for some time, because of who he is.
Emma Mulqueeny:
It just makes sense – and the fact that data sets are in such a muddle in most organisations where I work, is almost testament in itself that nothing organised will come out of such chaos without serious intervention and dedication.
However Rory Cellan-Jones asked TBL himself and came away unconvinced:
But will the cry "raw data now" resound through the civil service, with Sir Tim leading a chanting crowd of bureaucrats through Whitehall? "We'll see - listen carefully!" was the web creator's advice. But I fear he may be in for a bruising few months, as he tries to convince Sir Humphrey et al to let it all hang out.
I can think of a few other people with no media profile whatsoever who would know how to do that - Tom Steinberg seems to know his political shit-stirring stuff - and with the loss of Tom Watson it's going to be seriously needed.

I won't judge Sir TBL until he's done something - but it did come off as another of GBrown's headline-lead, showbizisation bad ideas like Sir Alan.

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Friday, June 12

Yanks go for our beloved leader

Daily Show 'does' both Nick Griffin and, gulp Our Beloved Leader.

Screen grabs:

How very dare they?

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2009 - Everywhere but Here Edition
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

Mapping Iran’s Blogosphere on Election Eve

John Kelly and Bruce Etling have produced some very interesting maps.

The first one maps total mentions of the elections across the blogosphere. The second one shows the proportion of bloggers from which sector are linking to the candidates' sites.

They say:

Based on our monitoring of the Iranian blogosphere on election eve, it looks like Mousavi has broader support in the online blog community than Ahmadinejad.
This site has been covering the Iranian election online, where video has played a key role. See this post by Hamid Tehrani as well as various posts by Andrew Sullivan.

One of the, perhaps, surprise facts about the Obama victory was just how closely the online interest, such as searches, matched election results. For example, when he lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton this mirrored a search decline.

Be extremely interesting to see if this translates into a country like Iran.

HT: Michael Tomasky

Thursday, June 11

The park that's in the sky

New York's fabulous new High Line park has finally opened, well a section. It's up in the sky along an abandoned elevated railway which runs 22 blocks to the Hudson River.

Here's the blog post I did about it last year:

Here's a load of pictures of the new park.

*wallpaper's take on the High Line:

A four-minute fly-through animation of the design for Sections 1 and 2

London Benefit gig for Iraqi LGBT

Next Wednesday June the 17th there will be a benefit gig at the Grosvenor in Stockwell. It is for the Iraqi LGBT UK group who are raising much needed cash to help shelter Iraqi LGBT activists from all kinds of bigoted repression including beating, torture and murder.

Line up is:
PONYPACK (holland)

The Suicidal Birds.
Monica and the Explosion.

8pm till close. £4.00/£5.00 Wednesday June 17th
The Grosvenor
Sidney Road, Stockwell, London, SW9 OTP

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Tuesday, June 9

How to design for .gov

Like this ...

Sample Twitter reaction 'IT ROCKS!'

I am reminded of the Mac o/s interface though :] (which, woods'n'trees, apparently hadn't crossed their minds).

Immediately appealing, the just redesigned site has very strong usability - this was the central aim of the redesign. Behind the scenes it makes use of - I think unusually - a wiki as a platform for adding and maintaining new content.

It aggregates 27 blogs, over 100 Twitter accounts (separately, they are building a Twitter aggregator), a Flickr group and more than 120 online videos. It has a successful 24/7 chat feature which was launched last year and this success has already resulted in the closure of state offices on Friday due to web redundancy.

The state of 2.7m inhabitants outsources it's web work. is managed and operated without tax funds through a public-private partnership between the state and Utah Interactive, the Salt Lake City-based official eGovernment partner for the state of Utah. Utah Interactive is a subsidiary of eGovernment firm NIC, Inc.

The new site has a full tool set, including, I was very pleased to see, widgets such as ones for the latest sales available online from the State Surplus Property Program and air quality measurements. The widgets are built using the Sprout tool. tools

See — and for the data resources they make available and, a transparency portal which aims to be "the most detailed transparency site around". The latter has massively grown as legislators add more and more legal requirements for information to be made available online.

About the data portal, they say "by allowing public access to this raw data, is encouraging citizens to utilize and merge it in new and innovative ways – giving citizens the ability to participate in making government services more effective, accessible, and transparent."

It also has integration of emerging geographical detection technology to estimate the location of the user and display relevant location-specific information, including local meetings, local government Web sites, local school and library information, local park information, and available local online services. The site is optimised for mobile - see this presentation by Rashmi Sinha for more about that.

After tweeting about it a question came in to me about accessibility, so I asked their Chief Technology Architect Bob Woolley and he told me that apart from a few minor browser issues, "the site is engineered for low speed connections, and non-flash users, many accessible choices." Here's their policy on accessibility.

It makes great use of Flash - the State looks stunning from the animated photo choices - which followed from the finding that 97% of users had it installed. Looking at tweets about the flash banner it has succeeded in branding Utah as both a beautiful place to live and as a tech leader.

The site has enormous legislator buy-in and engagement (but, nevertheless, technology investment has suffered budget cuts).

David Fletcher, Utah CTO, has been measuring and says "the impacts of Utah's egovernment efforts .. amount to at least tens of millions of dollars in savings to the state, its businesses, and its citizens. It has also had a large impact in lowering unemployment, improving the business climate, and promoting entrepreneurship."

"There are some challenges in quantifying this impact, but even for some individual online services, the numbers are surprising." They have some services being provided nearly 100% online.

On doing all they have despite budget cuts he says (something UK egov could perhaps identify with) "like always, we [had] to get more creative and find ways to get what we need done for less." is like every egov person's dream come true and, very interestingly, the site has been noted as way in advance of other US states — perhaps in part because, as Fletcher notes, some of the ideas driving it have come from the UK!

Here's their video about the new site:

HT: Ari Herzog

Monday, June 8

Elie Wiesel's moving remarks at Buchenwald

This made me weep.

"Has the world learnt, I'm not so sure ..."

"Although we had the right to give up on humanity ... we rejected that possibility, we must continue to believe in a future"

"Memory must bring people together rather than set them apart"

"Memory is here not to sow anger in our hearts but on the contrary, a sense of solidarity with all those who need us"

Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq ...

Here is the Buchenwald Gay Memorial

Past posts:

Music: Change - Paradise

Change are a fabulous studio band. One of the best, but also one of the most underrated in the soul, disco and R&B genres during the late 70s / first half of the 80s. They created a catchy, smooth and polished disco - very much inspired by Chic - and later R&B and pop funk sound, with a touch of heaven.

They were the creation of Italian producers Jacques Fred Petrus (1949-1986) and Mauro Malavasi and included both Luther Vandross and Jocelyn Brown over the years.

This is my favourite, with vocals by James Robinson and Deborah Cooper and the bassline of death.

Veuillez installer Flash Player pour lire la vidéo

Another way to look at lawnmowing

The great Michael Pollan interviewed by Bill Maher about the new documentary Food Inc.

Here he explains a plant's-eye view in a fantastic TED talk.

"I'm a dupe of the lawns, whose goal in life is to out compete the trees"

"Looking at the world from another species point of view is a cure for the disease of human self-importance"

Incidentally, WTF can't Oxbridge do something like TED online?

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Socially responsible outsourcing

15 million Africans ready for work. Got tasks?

I posted recently about mobile developments in Africa and how they are being used in a number of imaginative ways - many of which which we're yet to see in the 'West'!

As well as being used to organise day labour they're also used by people to do small jobs such as translations. In Kenya, with its many languages, this is how help resources for mobile companies' customer services are being built - word-by-word

Nokia being used for translation job

Samasource is a fantastic new San Francisco non-profit that partners with small, talented, tech companies and nonprofit training centers in poor and rural communities (currently Kenya, Cameroon, Uganda, rural India, and Nepal) to find them clients.

It derives its name from the word sama, Sanskrit for “equal”.

Their partners must meet stringent social impact criteria - fewer than 20% of applicant firms are selected - and they specialize in services ranging from data entry to advanced software and website development.

It's about giving work, not aid to people in the world's poorest countries.

Here's a profile of Ann Wangui, a graduate with honors from Nairobi's Methodist University. She is an example of the sort of person who is struggling to find a job in Nairobi despite her qualifications and who Samasource aims to help.

This is certainly a much better approach than the one being adopted by the world's large tech companies. Erik Hersman recently posted Microsoft vs the Open Source Community in Africa.

If Microsoft developer communities do emerge in Africa, Erik writes, even with the massive hurdle of paying for expensive access to developer tools, "we’re still left with what one person wrote: …they will be formed from programmers who are completely dependent on American software for the livelihood: it’s neo-colonialism, pure and simple."
In Africa organizations have a lot of hurdles to overcome, not least of which is the straight cost of doing business. Where it might be simple for some organizations in the US and Europe to wave off a couple thousand dollars worth of licensing fees, the same is not true in Africa. The margins are lower, so every cent counts.

In a region where cost is so important, it’s amazing then that the most lucrative deals go to the Western organizations that have high costs for ownership and maintenance. These outside organizations use backdoor methods to gain contracts where in-country options are available, usually with less expense and with greater local support.
Hersman also reports that Microsoft are trying to muscle in on the African-developed Ushahidi crisis reporting social software with a new product called Vine. He says "if they really are about creating emergency and disaster software for use by normal people, then I would encourage them to not charge for it and to make it as open as possible for others to work with it."

Fat chance, I suspect.

HT: Owen Barder
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Sunday, June 7

Betty Bowers Explains Traditional Marriage to Everyone Else

A respectful disagreement with Ben Goldacre (and Jack Pickard)

Abacavir - a nucleoside analog reverse transcr...Image via Wikipedia

A post by my friend Jack Pickard calling alternative therapies mere placebos, echoing Ben Goldacre's arguments, has prompted me to write about a painful part of my past.

I should say first that I admire Goldacre, author of Bad Science, for his work on nailing down tricksters who sell stuff which doesn't do anything and has no science to back it up. In particular his posts about the media-driven hysteria around MMR.

Back in the 90s I worked with a therapist friend on testing whether any alternative therapies would help relieve AIDS symptoms. I could see that some of them did help and this makes sense as much conventional medicine is derived from nature: this is why drug companies send people out to indigenous peoples to find new therapies from amongst their traditional medicines, a process known as bioprospecting.

My generation of gay men, until the first effective medicine started to appear in the mid 90s, faced multiple funerals and would look at anything which might help.

When the efficacious medicines started to appear I witnessed something close to the sort of desperation I could imagine occurring in an Ethiopian refuge camp as the emaciated fight for the last scraps of food and water.

Two things in particular stick in my memory and my throat.

I had friends who literally were making choices between medicine, rent and food - they were poor. They did not have boyfriends or family to support them, they were isolated. Some were literally growing their own food. The largely middle-class and highly educated people living with HIV/AIDS who ran the decision making bodies and sat on government advisory panels only cared about drug trials, they refused to see that before those breakthroughs they were waiting for others would die from such situations and the stress they engendered.

When the drug trials really took a turn towards what would eventually become the therapies which keep people alive today the drug companies decided who lived and who died. Amongst those who couldn't get on them were women, 'because they might become pregnant'. It didn't matter if they were lesbian, as a friend of mine was, to protect themselves and maybe for scientific reasons, women had to be turned down.

The biggest problem myself and my friend faced in trying to produce science on alternative therapy was the impossibility of getting funding or any support to test them.

The system for 'proving' the efficacy of a substance is radically bent against the ability of alternative therapies to do that as it is so expensive, even simple blood tests - we had to do this by cheating or with the help of a few sympathetic doctors.

Unfortunately the experiment came to an end with the premature death of my friend. But I know others around the world at this time who were trying similar experiments and - much as the use of marijuana has been shown to be effective against glaucoma - despite all the odds there is scientific proof that some alternative therapies do work to relieve AIDS symptoms.

So it is a plain fact that alternative therapies are not all placebos.

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