I’ve been quite busy in the past couple of weeks looking after a small team putting the Government Digital Strategy online.
In the words of the policy professionals who actually wrote the words, it was published “as a website rather than published on a website“. This may sound like a small distinction, but it makes it easier for people to link to specific bits, and also means we get the benefit of analytics. I’m hoping that more government publications will start to be published in this way.
Jack, our front end developer, has already written up the geek-eye view of the project on the GDS blog , but the short version is that we had a properly multi-disciplinary team (policy, design, dev..) all working together using GitHub with some compile scripts which use Kramdown to turn the Markdown source files into HTML and PDF.
The best bit is that we’re not finished. As with any good online product, ‘launch’ shouldn’t mean it starts to die. We’ve continued to make small improvements (you can see them for yourself in the GitHub commit history).
We’re also refactoring to extract useful functionality into other projects. The best example so far is the code that Tim and Jack developed to create accessible jQuery bar charts from HTML tables. We’ve refactored that out to be its own open source project called Magna Charta and there are some early working examples of it in action here.
Meanwhile, I’ve been continuing to look after ERTP (demo-ing to the House of Lords recently, a task which required the rather unusual step of wearing of a suit to work).
I’ve also been picking up the product management for a management information dashboard tool, which I can’t really talk about yet but is moving into a second phase of prototype development. (No, it’s not that one.)
I’ve missed doing these weeknotes. I might try to make it a habit.
Here’s my LEGO studio.
The main desk at the front is two metres wide and has two levels; plenty of space to store things I need to have close at hand. On the left of the room are a bunch of fishing tackle boxes, drawers, trays and little boxes which I lift out and place on or under the desk as needed.
On the right of the main desk is an IKEA Vika Veine hinge desk, which allows me to store projects in progress and keep things tidy.
Inside the desk you can see a couple of cutlery trays (which I also picked up at IKEA; Rationell Variera are nice and cheap). I’ve found it’s handy to have at least two of these; one for temporarily storing handfuls of parts ready to build and another to sort dismantled parts ready to put back into their respective drawers.
This right hand desk sits on top of a three IKEA Antonius drawer frames, each of which is filled with large plastic drawers.
Each drawer is quite big, so in order to store lots of different types of LEGO part, I have filled some of the drawers with small removable storage boxes. I had some Stanley organisers, which each have 10 removable compartments. Plus, if you ever need to travel with a selection of parts they can pop back into their carry cases for easy transportation.
Different people have different techniques for storing large collections. Some even stack their bricks and plates for efficient storage, which I’m fascinated by but have never really got on with. Personally, I’m a massive fan of the lots-of-little-drawers-and-trays approach.
There’s still a bit more sorting to do and (believe it or not) still a bit of room for more storage. I’m really tempted to add some by some Draper 12015 30 drawer organiser cabinets or even LEGO’s own cabinet.
Although it just about works there are, or course, quite a few things wrong with it.
- It really doesn’t work very well on very busy pages with lots of links.
- The layout algorithm could be a bit smarter when deciding which margin to use (e.g. links on the right of the page should ideally prefer to be shown in the right margin, rather than blindly alternating).
(Oh, hello Boingboing!)
I wanted to explore whether the act of collecting might have some additional extrinsic value beyond the collection itself. It’s also a bit of a confession (spoiler: it turns out that I collect collections) so if you end up skimming through this list, do re-join it when you see the wooden toadstools near the end. There’s a point. Honestly.
This collection of spoons is probably my first collection. I collected tea spoons at every opportunity for a few years but now they’re in this box frame in my kitchen and I have not added to it for a long time. I’m not proud of the fact that quite a few of them are stolen from cafes and restaurants.
I’ve always loved LEGO, but I started collecting it seriously at university, when this Star Wars stuff was new. A few years ago I sold a few sets on eBay (including this one), and as anyone who has sold something on eBay knows, Paypal money is easier to spend than money in the bank…
I became a Lego trader for a while; buying in bulk and selling on eBay to the highest bidder. I ended up buying quite a lot of Lego.
As you can see, it all got a bit out of hand. I now have a rather ridiculous collection. These days it’s actually sorted into little trays and my spare room is now an actual Lego studio. Oh yes. A lot of people want to know if I ever actually play with it.
Not as much as I’d like, but I do sometimes make things. You’ll hopefully recognise the WOPR from War Games, the Usual Suspects and Chris Tarrant saying ‘we don’t want to give you that’ on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
But really, other people make all the best stuff.
This is bliss for the serious collector; a public group like this is very passive way to build a public collection. Over the past few years I mostly go in a couple of times each month to do some gardening. The group now holds 8,000 photos from 1,700 users.
Let’s see. What else?
A few years ago, I saw this photo from kaptainkobold (another adult fan of Lego), which he took inside the fridge with the door closed, using a self-timer and a flash.
I thought “That looks fun” and quickly took my own, adding notes to annotate what each thing is. You can tell quite a lot about a person by the inside of their fridge.
At dinner parties I would ask friends if I could take a photo of the inside of their fridge. They would open the door for me, at which point I’d have to explain that I was going to need them to shut it again and would they bear with me while the flash warmed up.
Of course I created another Flickr group called In the fridge to collect them. The rules are quite specific.
Constraints are important.
A few years ago I became mildly obsessed with finding examples of things being described as being the new something else.
Grey is the new black, 30 is the new 40, and so on. So I started finding and collecting examples of them.
Some people collect butterflies. I collected examples of the phrase ‘x is the new y’ and I was regularly going hunting, collecting them quite intentionally, in order to make directed graphs like this one.
I’d look at the graph and spot interesting leads; gaps that needed filling. Tea is the new coffee and coffee is the new tea, Glorious. Friendster is the new Livejournal? What’s Livejournal the new one of? As I continued to collect them over a few weeks it grew into quite a big collection. I was quite surprised when The Boston Globe asked me if I’d extend it into something they could publish in their ‘Ideas’ supplement.
They took my SVG files and employed actual graphic artists to make it prettier. My first front page. Of a supplement, but still.
[Update: I've just noticed this lovely new tool Built by Bloom using Twitter's streaming API to show what people on Twitter are saying is the new something else.]
I’ve always loved this joke and for a while collected variations on it, writing them down in a list. I went on holiday recently to Poole. In Dorset? Yes, I’d recommend it to anyone. You get the idea.
And because each one is on a map, you can find jokes for a specific place. It continues to attract new additions, and has expanded my pencil-and-paper list of a dozen ‘Jamaica’ jokes up to about 800 jokes over the past four years.
The Internet fridge has long been the default example of what we can expect in the near future. Imagine a fridge which knows when you need more milk… I can surf the net, cook and keep an eye on my children at the same time… Urgh.
So, I started collecting Internet Fridges. Or more accurately, pictures and mentions of Internet Fridges. Every time there’s a new Consumer Electronics show, people send me lots of links.
Pretty much every tech company makes one, but very few people seem interested in buying them.
More recently, I’ve started another ridiculous collection: photos and videos of things riding on the back of other things.
YouTube appears to be literally full of videos of things riding on the back of other things. I go digging for them, but people suggest a couple of new ones every week.
I also maintain this grid of things riding on the back of other things. Want a photo of a monkey riding on a pig? Just find the right row and column. The more examples there are in that category, the bigger the dot.
I collect interesting links and send them out in a weekly email newsletter. As a side effect, it gives me something else (beyond the links and the subscribers) to collect; the number of Out Of Office emails I receive for each email sent.
Unsurprisingly, it spiked a couple of times during the summer. What will happen in at Christmas? I can’t wait to see.
I didn’t mention this one during the presentation, but I’ve since remembered that I used to take photographs of all the books I read every month, and write a quick review/summary of each month’s reading.
I’d forgotten that one.
There are some amazing collections on the web and, unsurprisingly, many of the best ones are not maintained by me…
- kimjongillookingatthings.tumblr.com (a collection which continues to grow despite the death of our dear leader) is maintained by an Art Director at Y&R Lison.
- kempfolds.blogspot.co.uk is a blog which collects photos of Ross Kemp’s face, folded. Running since 2008, and recently it’s been updated nearly every day. Why Ross Kemp? Who knows. Perhaps he’s just got a very foldable face.
- sneezecount.joyfeed.com is perhaps my favourite. Peter Fletcher has been counting his sneezes since the 12th of July, 2007. Each sneeze gets its own entry, including the time and date, location, a comment, and a subjective measure of strength. Peter says…
“Think of each sneeze as a single frame in the time-lapse animation of your life. The film might depict a disproportionate amount of time spent suffering from colds, or scrambling about at the back of dusty cupboards, but the pseudo-random unpredictability of the sneeze makes it a curiously representative filter on a life.”
“Once I had been counting sneezes for a short time, I became disturbed when I saw someone sneeze, and then not look closely at their watch or mobile phone and take out and write something … in a notebook”
(I once interviewed Peter about this sneeze count blog, and more. I suppose the guests on the Shift Run Stop podcast, and the episodes themselves, are another sort of collection.)
So. Is there a point to all of this?
I hope so.
Putting this presentation together gave me ample opportunity for self-reflection, and I sort of want to justify myself. But:
- I’m not going to tell you that constraints foster creativity.
- I’m not going to tell you that curation of a public collection is an especially interesting form of co-creation in which issues of shared ownership are explored.
- I’m not even going to tell you that by sharing a collection publicly it holds you accountable (to others and ultimately to yourself) which encourages you to keep at it.
All of those things are true, but I think it’s actually simpler than that. It’s a hobby.
My dad has a stressful job, and he sometimes makes wooden toadstools to unwind. It gives his hands something interesting but unimportant to do, and helps him relax.
Now, I know what you might be thinking; this is classic procrastination.
But my collections (and my Dad’s wooden toadstools) are not about intentional procrastination. ‘Sharpening pencils’ when you should be writing or drawing is risky because it’s too easy to confuse it with what you should be doing. If someone walks in on you sharpening your pencil you can claim to be just getting ready to start. If you’re collecting pictures of Colonel Gaddafi shaking hands with world leaders though (oh yes, that’s another one), then it’s pretty hard to convince anyone – let alone yourself – that you’re doing anything useful with your time.
And that’s the point. It isn’t about making something useful. Making or collecting something is not always about getting your day job done directly. Yes, it might help develop your taste, and it might even be beautiful in its own right, but the real benefit is letting your subconscious mind unwind. Not with something too taxing (or the stress returns), and not something too easy (otherwise your mind will wander). The perfect hobby is something that requires just enough attention for your conscious mind to become occupied with something interesting but unimportant, freeing your subconscious to wander around solving problems.
Think of Lester Freamon in ‘The Wire’, quietly making his dollhouse miniature furniture. It’s a perfectly absorbing activity. Other people prefer to knit (someone at W+K used to knit in meetings, which might stop working when you get too good at it). Some people write Haiku. We shouldn’t be surprised that people who spend a lot of time online have online hobbies too.
For me, my preferred way to relax is collecting things and putting them on the internet.
Thank you to everyone who heard this presentation and didn’t ask where do you find the time?
For the past month or so, I’ve been trying to make at least one thing every week. This week, while digging through my list of someday/maybe projects, I was delighted to find this little beauty: “website idea: a collection of things riding on other things. Videos of kittens riding on tortoises, etc”.
I had originally been expecting to build a whole thing from scratch; a gallery, a submissions engine, the lot. Crazy. Tumblr is custom built for things like this. So, may I humbly present Things Riding on Things, ‘a comprehensive collection’.
A consistent tagging structure was required, so I’ve gone for a simple system where all entries are tagged with
rider:ridee. Therefore, if you want to find entries in which a monkey is riding on a deer, you need thingsridingonthings.tumblr.com/tagged/monkey:deer. Easy.
Building further on that, I hacked together a quick script to generate a matrix of all the things riding on all the other things, to help visualise the various relationships between rider and ridee.
Contributions are already coming in thick and fast. Feel free to suggest your own.
Things happen fast in London. I wondered what it would look like if it could all be slowed down.
I made a video.
Would The Voice UK judges have turned around for themselves?
My second week in the new job and I’m still getting to know people and projects. One thing I do know already is that I’m very happy to be here.
One thing I love about GDS is the scale of some of the projects we get to be involved in. On Monday I was introduced to the ERTP (Electoral Registration Transformation Programme), a project which will let people apply online to register to vote. That’s pretty important. Mat Wall (previously of the Guardian) is the technical architect on the project. His team had already completed their first sprint by the time I joined, but they’d been coping without a product owner. On Tuesday, I picked up that role. Much of the rest of the week was spent getting familiar with the product backlog (expressed as user stories of course) and making sure they were prioritised ready for the start of the next sprint.
On Friday we had our second weekly show and tell, showing various project stakeholders the progress so far. We got good feedback and they were especially impressed to see the choices we’ve been talking about in the past few days delivered already in working code. This is where the power of working iteratively and using agile methods really shows its worth. Lots more iterations to come of course, but we already have an end-to-end product working, and have made a good start on the user experience.
Speaking of which, it’s been really good to work closely with Paul Annett this week, and we have some big decisions to make about the online form. For example, should it be “First name” or “Given name”? Is it “Surname”, “Last name” or “Family name”? Various online (and paper) forms already exist of course, but it’s incredibly inconsistent. While there are some agreed standards for how to pass data around, there is no equivalent for how to describe these things to users. That’s something we should get to fix and define as part of the Global Experience Language that will be used for lots of other government products.
Things I’ve been doing this week:
- Picking up the product manager role for ERTP. Working with the various stakeholders and requirements wranglers for that project
- Making sure the important user stories are captured, and starting to get them prioritised.
- Drafting a plan for bringing in a few developers to work on innovation projects. Lots of re-drafts, and it’s still not done.
- Agreeing next steps for another big project and starting to line up workshops to capture user needs. I look forward to the world being awash with index cards.
- Meeting various departments. I turned down one potential project on the grounds that two weeks wasn’t long enough to do a good job of it. We’ll stay in touch and hopefully work on something for the same team later in the year. More of this sort of thing.
- Lots more bits and pieces with the innovation team, mainly focusing on ensuring user stories are captured and priorities are understood. Everyone loves learning a new thing, so helping people learn agile + scrum stuff is fun.
- Passing on a not-as-tongue-in-cheek-as-it-sounds pet theory: good techies are lazy. Being a lazy developer means you’re more efficient and don’t waste time on things you don’t need to do. I was delighted when I overheard someone subsequently encouraging someone else in the team to be lazy and do the simplest thing that would work, rather than over-develop something.
- Continuing to send my newsletter every week day. It’s up to 270 subscribers now, and I’m enjoying having to find a handful of interesting things to share.
- Setting up some time with Leila to record some more Shift Run Stop.
The first week since I joined GDS has been the predictable whirl of meeting people and trying to start to understand what’s going on. It’s a whole new place, with its own ways of working to understand, and a very different environment.
I must say though, like Paul, I was impressed. I received a security pass on my first day (before lunch, even). I was given a choice of laptop, and picked up a shiny new 13″ MacBook Air a few days before the job had even officially started. The attention to detail here, and the thoughtfulness involved in giving techies the appropriate tools with which to be comfortable and productive, is quite impressive.
So, first impressions: brilliant people, lovely office, lots to do.
I’m the brand new product manager for the Innovation team, and I’m quickly improving my understanding of what we do, and why. I’m hoping to start working with the team to define how a bit better in the next couple of weeks.
The very first thing that struck me about the innovation team is that it’s quite small and has a huge pipeline of work. The team are using Trello to track an impressively long list of potential projects from initial leads through to things being actively worked on and finally to completion. That first ‘leads’ column contains a fairly wide range of different sorts of projects. Some are a couple of weeks work for one or two developers. Some are more like 3+ months effort for a small team. Others involve no coding at all, but things like feeding words in to papers and policy decisions. It’s a great team, and I’m delighted to be part of it. Very exciting times ahead.
In my first five days, I’ve…
- Spent most of my time getting to know the team, as well as meeting people from across the whole department.
- Understanding the work that’s already in progress, how we work now, what’s working well and what we could do differently/better.
- Started lining up a delivery team (we need more developers and hopefully a few developers who can work on innovation projects too).
dadadata [thanks Paul] into a dashboard (including some inspiration courtesy of Bill French’s rather nifty Google docs approach.
- Had my first meeting with an external vendor. Although GDS has a good and growing multidisciplinary team, we definitely can’t (and shouldn’t, and won’t) be building everything in house. I predict some more meetings like this.
- Had my first meeting with another government department to start exploring how we could work together (I predict plenty more of these too.)
At the end of an exciting and busy week, the biggest and most in-progress question at the front of my mind, is this: How will we marry government procurement processes with 21st century approach to product delivery?
Using agile methods means being able to influence iterations of product. Seeing working software as soon as possible and prioritising what goes in to subsequent iterations improves the changes of ending up with something useful, largely thanks to being able to handle (gasp!) changing requirements. Martin Fowler wrote a brilliant essay on ‘The New Methodology’ way back in 2005, in which he talks about predictive vs adaptive approaches, the unpredictability of requirements, and many other implications of (and reasons to use) agile methods.
Meanwhile, here in 2012, it seems the government’s procurement practices may still need to catch up quickly. Contracts usually rely on defining a list of requirements and using these to form a very specific contract with a supplier. This has the theoretical advantage of nailing down the cost, the delivery date and (theoretically) the scope, but the predicted requirements had better be right. They’d also better be right before the project even begins, in enough detail to describe what is needed and when it will be delivered. That’s really not an easy thing to do without the people who will be doing the making, the actual developers, being involved. And if a rigid contract makes it hard to iterate meaningfully on a working approach, what happens if we were wrong about the predicted scope? Not such a big deal for a week project, but for a bigger contract it could be seriously wasteful. You don’t need to look very hard to find examples of where this has happened in the past. A lot.
The good news for me is that lots of people in GDS are already aware of the tensions here and I’m far from the first person to think about the issues surrounding the predictive vs adaptive approach. It seems that several people in the building have already been discussing this for some time. Hurrah. I’ve also just been re-reading Harry Metcalfe’s ideas about “How government’s SME relationship should smell” which he shared at the end of last year.
“… the process needs to recognise that in digital projects (and probably other ones too) success far more often emanates from the close and effective personal relationships of people acting in good faith than it does in detailed specification of process, requirements or outcomes.”
Insightful stuff, and I find myself agreeing with Harry very much. Now to see if there’s something that can be done about it.
I’m looking forward to next week, when I hope to get properly involved in some more discussions about all of this stuff, and a lot more besides. Wish me luck.
Today is my last day at W+K London.
Starting next week, I join the Government Digital Service. You might already have heard of GDS and the single government domain (GOV.UK beta) project, which is rather exciting. If not, here’s Danny O’Brien writing about poacher turned gamekeeper, Tom Loosemore, which should set the scene nicely.
I’m joining a brilliant department. They’ve been bringing in some seriously good developers and building an exciting multi-disciplinary team. Most recently, Ben Terrett (also ex W+K) joined as Head of Design, and Russell Davies is now lending a hand too. Exciting times.
What will I be doing? Well, I’ll be product manager for the Innovation team. Last year they launched the e-petitions site, which in its first 100 days received an impressive 18 signatures per minute. I hope to work on some similarly interesting problems and make some interesting and useful things. There’s a lot to do, and having fun with government services is an opportunity too good to miss.
Leaving W+K was a difficult decision though. Especially because I know that I’ll miss it, and the people there, very much. Leaving after 14 months, just when things are finally falling in to place and I feel at home, feels like a very strange thing to do. On the other hand, it’s good to be leaving on a high. Things have never been better. It’s been a privilege to work with such amazing people on such a wide range of projects, from the Kaiser Chiefs album launch to Cravendale’s ‘cats with thumbs’ and everything in between. There are some seriously good things coming up later this year too.
I’ve learned a lot in the past year-and-a-bit, and I learned more from my mistakes than the things I got right. Perhaps the thing that stuck with me most was some advice for new joiners that I read on my first day, which said, if you are wondering whose job it is, it’s probably yours.
When Ben left W+K, he wrote about what makes W+K great. Like the BBC and IBM before that, it’s a place I’ll remember fondly, full of people I’ll miss seeing around.
Goodbye, W+K. Hello, GDS.