UK Government ICT Strategy

I have read the Government ICT Strategy a few times now. As a user and keen advocate of free/libre open source software I hope that strategy is effective. As a local government employee I am, regrettably, sceptical.

Open Standards/Open Source

These terms are used throughout the document, including these actions:

  1. To create a level playing field for the use of innovative ICT solutions, the Government will publish a toolkit for procurers on best practice for evaluating the use of open source solutions
  2. To assist with the development of agile solutions using open source technology, the Government will establish an Open Source Implementation Group, a System Integrator Forum and an Open Source Advisory Panel. These will aim to educate, promote and facilitate the technical and cultural change needed to increase the use of open source across government
  3. To enable delivery of interoperable and open ICT solutions so that they can be shared and reused, the Government will publish a reference architecture
  4. To allow for greater interoperability, openness and reuse of ICT solutions, the Government will establish a suite of agreed and mandatory open technical standards

It sounds like good stuff, but I’ve heard it before. Back in the government published their Open Source Software Policy document. From that document:

  • UK Government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis.
  • UK Government will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments.
  • UK Government will seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services.

It seemed to have little or no impact. For example, vendor lock-in, which is also mentioned in the new strategy, paragraph 36 … The adaptation of compulsory open standards will help avoid lengthy vendor lock-in….

Microsoft is a master at vendor lock-in. A powerful example this is the Home User Programme. It allows employees to buy a cheap copy of Microsoft Office so long as their employer has an Enterprise agreement. In 2010 the NHS terminated their Enterprise agreement. The knock on effect is that employees can no longer legally use Office purchased under the HUP license, as noted on the Microsoft NHS Resource Centre page.

Microsoft claim that it’s docx, xlsx etc formats are open. Those that follow Groklaw will understand that this is not so. My understanding is that even Microsoft Office is incapable of producing documents that strictly adhere to the OOXML standards. The standard is flawed and they incorporate elements that prevent them ever becoming truly open. Read more on the Groklaw ODF/OOXML Resource page.

ICT Projects and Providers

The strategy also talks about reducing waste on ICT projects. This is supposed to happen through the application of lean and agile methodologies and promotion of a public service economy based on open ICT markets with increased participation of SMEs, the voluntary and community sector, and other diverse providers….

Well, things will have to change then. ICT departments like to buy products that are supported by the supplier. They like to be able to pass the buck back to the supplier when things don’t work. The strategy does seem to recognise this; Government has become over-reliant on external expertise from consultants, contractors and interim staff…. This is spot on. Want a new Sharepoint intranet? Better get in some consultants.

Desktops

This is the final point I want to highlight. Action points 18 to 20:

  1. To improve the flexibility and reduce the cost of desktop solutions, the Government will publish a common desktop/device strategy with detailed implementation plans.
  2. To examine the benefits of delivering standardised desktop services using a cloud-based model, the Government will develop a desktop prototype for the cloud.
  3. To detail how services will shift to cloud-based technologies, the Government will publish a Cloud Computing Strategy with implementation plans

So, a standard desktop. Will it be Windows? If the standard office product is Microsoft Office then how can it be anything other than Windows? Last time I checked Microsoft didn’t do a version of Office for Linux. So will it be a product that supports ODF? That would widen the choice of products that support the format and, for example, Libre Office is cross platform.

Cloud based services. Really? We like to keep all of our data on our own servers. We cripple machines through the use of software to lock down all useful services, like wireless, like Bluetooth, like USB. So is the government going to produce and host it’s own cloud? That wouldn’t be cheap, and government is facing big budget cuts. Would we ever us Google Docs? (I think some US government bodies do.)

To summarise then, some promising plans, and I really hope that open source and standards prevail, but I really don’t think much will change.

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Invisibility

Well, I think I’ve found my next big challenge; Making channel-e visible in Google search results. (Yeah, I know, I have lots of slow moving/stalled projects going on, whatever.)

I was on my phone just now and couldn’t be bovvered to type “channel-e.co.uk”. Instead I searched for “channel-e”.  This site might be on the list. Somewhere. But I got bored looking for it.

Time to put into practice some of that stuff I’ve heard about at Think Visibility :-)

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Email Exemplar [action]

There’s a fad at the moment of adding “[action]” to email subject lines when the sender expects the recipient to do something. It really annoys me; here’s why.

If someone sends something “To” me then there is an expectation that I will read it. I’ll consider it and if necessary  I’ll take/plan action. What the sender is actually saying is closer to “[my stuff is so important, do it now!]”.  Well no, no I won’t.

So what about those email messages that I receive that are just for information? A courtesy perhaps so that I’m aware of a situation. Well, that’s what the CC box is for. Use it wisely.

As far as I can tell this “email exemplar” crap has come from a company. Well done to them, I suppose, for finding enough idiots willing to buy training materials from them. They had a website for a bit, but it’s back to the Square Space holding page now. Perhaps the idiot pool dried up?

Email ain’t broke, so don’t try and fix it.  Use To is you want action and CC for informational messages.  (BCC when sending to large groups where recipients need to be hidden.)

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Moving to WordPress

I keep having thoughts that I want to share, or moan about, or both. A blog seems like the right way to do these things, and I’m told WordPress is really easy to use.  We will see.

The process has started then to migrate my channel-e site from plain old HTML to WordPress.  Along the way I want to learn how to make WordPress serve clean pages.  I’ve always edited my websites by hand, so I don’t really care for bloated pages.

Update: A big plus for WordPress is that it’s released under the GPL.

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More!

A recent lesson that I’ve learned is to take more photos. I say “learned”, but it’s something I already knew; I suppose that we all need reminding of things occasionally.

I was at #thinkvis, a day ahead of the event, to capture the pre-party. Dom (@theHodge) had put together a stunning pick ‘n’ mix for attendees. He wanted photos of it, so that’s what I did.

I took plenty. From different angles, with and without flash. Then I had an idea. I could take a whole series and stitch them together to make a panorama! So I set about that, creeping along the floor on my knees, taking a shot every few “steps”. How I wish I’d taken more!

Stitching them together took hours. The perspective change between images was such that I had to correct each of them three times (three sections in each). It would have been easier if I’d taken a few steps back and used my 20mm. It would have resulted in less work, and the image would have been cleaner, but it would have been much smaller too.

So, don’t hold back, you can always delete the images you don’t want, just make sure you capture them when you have the opportunity.

Pick 'n' Mix

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Whiter than white

AlienSomething that all digital cameras struggle with is white balance.

In order to judge “white” the camera needs:

  • a white object in frame
  • white light

Humans do a pretty good job of interpreting white. We have knowledge that cameras don’t. We recognise the objects for what they are and this gives us hints about the colour we expect them to be. But even we struggle sometimes; the colour of cars under sodium street lighting for example.

I’ve found that it’s often best to set white balance manually, though this needs care too. I have on occasion set the camera to daylight when I should have chosen cloudy, resulting in a blue cast across images. Auto generally seems to work well when flash is being used.

The PRE setting

The D300 has an excellent tool in helping set white balance. By setting white balance to PRE and then d0 you can take a measurement of “white”. Upto 5 white balance measurements can be stored and named. This is a really handy feature. I have measurements for rooms around the house so that they can be quickly recalled.

The K setting

Sometimes you won’t have a white object to measure off. By setting the camera to “K” you can force the white balance to anything you like. The default value is 5000k, which is sunlight. I used this setting to take the photo above. I wanted to capture the true colour of the light without the camera trying to correct it.

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Check your settings!

FM3aOne of the first lessons that I learnt!

For many, myself included, the road to digital SLR is paved with point and shoot cameras. These default to auto everything; aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance are all set by the camera.

The default for SLRs is the opposite; the photographer sets everything. I soon found that the photographer also needs to reset everything. The one that frequently catches me out is white balance.

The D300 has many menu options but also a neat feature called “My Menu”. This menu is made up of other menu options that the photographer uses often. My menu includes:

  • Set Picture Control – which would normally be set to Standard
  • White balance – usually Auto
  • Non-CPU lens data – ’cause I still use AIS lenses
  • Flash cntrl for built-in flash – I can never remember where it is otherwise
  • Dynamic AF area – sometimes useful

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Hello

In February 2009 I bought a Nikon D300. A beautiful digital SLR camera. I thought long and hard before choosing it. As I already had an FM2a and a few lenses I stuck with Nikon. I’m so pleased I did.

Digital is different to film. It allows you to take lots of photos at zero cost. Plus you get to see the photo right away. I used the camera more than I ever used my film camera and it has become a main hobby.

Towards the end of 2009 I stumbled across Project365. The aim of the project is to take a photo every day. In doing so you:

  • learn about the features of your camera
  • have a visual record of the year
  • hopefully improve you technique and produce better photographs

I have to say it’s hard work. I often get to the end of the day (occasionally a little before midnight) and find myself scrabbling around for something to photograph. (Perhaps not the aim of the project, but it happens.) That said, if you have a camera that isn’t getting the attention it deserves then I highly recommend giving it a go.

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GParted

I upgraded Elliot’s PC to Windows XP today. The drive was partitioned as a 2Gb C: drive (system) and a 14Gb D: drive (data). The version of XP was old, but there wasn’t enough space to install SP2. Time to reach for GParted!

I found that I’d left half the disc empty (don’t know why) so I first moved (extended partition) D: up to use all the space. I then resized the partition to leave 6Gb unallocated above primary 1.

Next I tried to resize the primary partition to 8Gb. I got bad sector errors that chkdsk wouldn’t fix. Seems that they were phantom errors that are widely noted on the internet.

Finally I used fdisk to delete then recreate primary 1, then ntfsresize on the command line to force the resize.

At reboot XP wanted to run chkdsk but it booted fine and seems good. Happy!

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Nokia Music Store #FAIL

I recently got a Nokia 5800 and, in a moment of boredom, decided to try out the Nokia Music store. The phone, after all, is tagged XpressMusic so I thought the process would be easy.

Creating an account was straight forward, I logged in and selected a track and paid for it. I actually paid £8 for eight tracks. I set it downloading and carried on my journey home.

Now coverage around us is not brilliant and by the time I got home the track still seemed to be downloading. I left it for some time but it seemed to make no progress. Eventually I stopped it and connected via our wireless LAN at home – that would be quicker.

No it wasn’t. The phone then complained that it was out of memory and I should close other applications. I didn’t have any other applications running. I checked the internal memory and had around 70Mb available. A quick Google revealed this to be a common problem.

No matter I thought, I’ll get it on my PC and USB it to the phone.

This wasn’t easy either. Nokia Music store front page is all Flash and only displayed a blank page on my old Fedora 6 machine. On my Fedora 10 laptop I got a page telling me that my operating system isn’t supported.

Not a terribly streamlined, Xpress experience.

But it gets worse. This morning I wanted to play the start of the track so that my daughter could identify it. It started playing fine but then popped up a modal dialog box saying that it was checking the licence. Because the dialog was modal I then couldn’t stop it from playing or quit the music player. In the end I turned the phone off.

I’ve deleted the track now, I’ll get stuff from Amazon in future.
KTHXBAI Nokia Music Store

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