Weeknotes 1: predictive vs adaptive

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).
  • Briefly getting my hands dirty with a bit of javascript in order to experiment with getting live dada data [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.

Moving on from W+K

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.

How is it that *The Government* is one I the most exciting start-ups in Britain right now? #govuk

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.

I’m writing a newsletter

Just a brief update to say I’ve started writing a newsletter. Interesting links in your inbox, every weekday.

It’s called Roo’s Letter and you can subscribe here.

Email newsletters seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence. Giles Turnbull, Leila Johnston, Robert Brook and Bobbie Johnson all got there well before me; their example is inspiring me to keep at it. I’m already up to the third installment, and as I will no doubt keep experimenting with the format any feedback is gratefully received.

Anyway, if you’re missing the regular updates here and would like to hear more from me please do sign up.

Lightspeed phone controlled i-Helicopter – hands on review

The nice people at Paramountzone were kind enough to send me a Lightspeed i-Helicoter to review.

Unboxing

It’s an iPhone / iPad / iPod / Android controlled helicopter, and (having played with a few micro-copters in the past) I can honestly say this is the best I’ve seen.

Rather than a separate remote control, the controller is your phone/tablet in conjunction with a free app and a rechargable infrared transmitter, which plugs in to your headphone socket. Assuming you’ve got one of the supported devices, this is a great setup (Currently supported: iPhone, iPod, iPad, HTC Desire S, HTC Desire HD, HTC Incredible S, HTC Wild Fire, HTC Wild Fire S, HTC Hero, HTC Sensation, Samsung 9100, Samsung i9000, Moto MB525, LG P350. With more to come, apparently). No on-board video streaming to the phone though. Not that you’d really expect it for £30.

To fly it, after an initial charge, I simply installed the free iOS app on the iPad, plugged the IR dongle into the audio jack, and I was off.

iPad app

There’s also an ‘motion control’ option; a mode which lets you control forward/back/left/right by simply tilting your device. I found this mode a tiny bit easier, though the altitude control still needs a careful thumb to control it.

20 minutes of charging (via USB) gets you about 10 minutes of flying time.

Profile

It’s bigger than I was expecting, and the metal frame means it feels satisfyingly sturdy.

Landed

At first I was a bit nervous about damaging it, but I’ve since crashed it into pretty much every surface in my house with no damage to show for it. I’ve not even had to open up the included bag of spare parts. I’m impressed at how sturdy and durable this thing is. By killing the power whenever I get in trouble, and just letting it fall out of the air, I’m now very confident about flying it around indoors.

The app includes a ‘Turbo’ button (“for when extra speed is required”) which I expect will be useful when flying in an open plan office. So far I’ve not needed it much in my house.

Cons: Unlike a regular remote control, using a glass screen means no feedback from the altitude control, which takes some time to get used to.
Pros: Fun, fast and easy to control. Gyroscopic helicopters are really good these days, but this one is remarkably strong and durable.

This is a really great toy. Highly recommended. If you’re interested in ordering one, here’s the UK/Europe (currently £29.99 with free delivery) or the USA (currently $59.99 with free worldwide shipping).

Little Big Planets

Today, I’ve mostly been making polar panoramas. They please me greatly. Thanks to Dirk Paessler for a great tutorial.

Planet London

Great balls of grass   Planet Portugal

Planet San Francisco   New York Centauri

Deloitte TV+ paper, some notes

A new paper out today from Deloitte called ‘TV+: perspectives on television in words and numbers‘ which covers some subjects close to my heart. I was particularly pleased to be invited by the Guardian to appear in some brief podcasts discussing it (along with Tess Alps from ThinkBox, George Entwistle from the BBC, Richard Welsh from Bigballs Films, Sally Quick from UKTV, James Bates & Paul Lee from Deloitte, all chaired by the brilliant Aleks Krotoski).

The PDF itself is secured, making it hard for me to copy and paste some choice quotes for you. Oh well. Here are some rough notes anyway.

Foreword

TV as “the super medium around which all others revolve”.

The primacy of TV is defended in terms of hours of consumption, but I think there may be more to it than that. Would would it take for the internet to become the primary medium? Hours of consumption? Reach? Share of total advertising spend? We know that the share of advertising revenue spent on TV, press and internet are now about equal (26-27% / £4B each) with internet spend just slightly below the other two. TV has been stable, press has been falling and internet has been rising. What happens next year, if internet overtakes TV spend? There’s an argument that we could be very close to the moment when the Internet becomes the primary medium for advertising. That doesn’t necessarily make it the primary medium for culture, but I’d argue we’re moving towards that too. [According to Ofcom, the percentage of 8-11 year olds who would rather give up TV than internet is 15%, and rising. Even more striking, "children aged 12-15 are now as likely to miss the internet (24%) and mobiles (26%) as they are to miss TV (24%)". Interesting times ahead.]

1.) TV+ proliferating portable screens

Increased opportunity to watch TV thanks to increase in access to mobile devices, apparently. Hmm. My view is that just because someone can watch TV on a small screen doesn’t mean they will always want to. I’d expect mobiles devices to be largely used for clip-snacking rather than people watching 30 minutes of TV on the move (though no doubt there will be some more of that too).

Colour e-ink capable of fast refresh rates. (Imagine something like a Kindle, but in colour and capable of video.) This will indeed be amazing. I’m still not sure we’re going to be watching whole episodes of X Factor in the park though. Personally, I think the power of mobiles will not be in watching TV, but as a second screen allowing you do browse, chat, buy etc simultaneously and individually, without cluttering up the big shared living room screen. Million Pound Drop had an online game (by Monterosa for Channel 4) allowing you to play at home. With good on air calls to action they had 12.4% of the TV audience simultaneously playing on their second screen. For advertising, things like the Honda Jazz app and the Heineken ‘Star Player‘ game are just the start.

2.) TV+ social networks

“Social networks and television complement each other” Couldn’t agree more. Both for TV makers and advertisers, the opportunities here are massive.

Popular programmes are what drive social chatter. – I can certainly confirm that producers and commissioners are very interested to know “did we trend on Twitter last night?” But some interesting ones are thinking about how to make sure their programmes work well online too. Seven Days was deeply flawed in many ways, but a format that tried (and arguably succeeded) to ensure people would talk about it and share it online. The BBC, too, puts a lot of effort into helping people know where the online conversations are happening online (whether it’s linking to the buzz about each programme from its official web page (like this), or putting a hashtag on screen at the start of certain programmes).

35x more time spent watching TV than using using social networks. (more people are watching TV, and for longer, than using social networks). This is probably the fact with which TV execs in Edinburgh will be reassuring themselves in Edinburgh this week. I’m not sure this helps us understand the underlying patterns though, for two reasons. First, because TV viewing figures measure “presence rather than attention” (to quote the brilliant Matt Locke), and time spent watching TV is very different from time spent conversing, sharing, creating, etc. And second, because the average time spent online is not a particularly useful measurement. I’ve been re-reading Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody recently. He writes “the most active [in social systems such as Wikipedia and Flickr] tend to be much more active that the median participant, so active in fact that any measure of ‘average’ participation becomes meaningless. There is a steep decline from a few wildly active participants to a large group of barely active participants, and though the average is easy to calculate, it doesn’t tell you much about any given participant.”.

Conclusion: “Television and social networks could each exist independently of each other” … but “the two media are strongest when working in parallel”. Yes.

3.) TV+ technology

PVRs: people think they’re watching fewer adverts but actually, they’re watching more. (As with ‘TV is not going away’, this is actually something people have known for a while.) It’s a good fact though.

47% of 16-24 year old PVR owners always, frequently or occasionally stop fast forwarding through ads if they see an advert or trailer that interests them. – Interesting to think of opportunities to develop advertising that works well on PVRs. A three minute spot, with 18 seconds of film played out at 1/10th normal speed, would be really annoying unless you were fast forwarding it. Let’s not make one of those.

I dispute that claim that YouTube is now “focused on professionally produced content, with television programmes featuring prominently”. I’d suggest that the vast majority of YouTube’s content is still people “broadcasting themselves”, despite the (very sensible) moves to showcase professional content too.

4.) TV+ advertising

TV advertising remains strong.

“This is why the most successful campaigns tend to run across multiple media – each complementing the other, each reaching the target audience in a different context, but all conveying the core message.” – Spot on. At work, we call this an integrated campaign.

5.) TV+ shopping

TV is about as important as recommendation by a friend, while ‘I came across it on FB/twitter’ are very low. Interesting, but I think there could be a bias in that survey against recommendations made online, especially as social networking becomes mainstream and not something people think about as a specific activity (just how they stay in touch with some friends).

All in all, a really interesting piece. Well worth a read.

GX Buggy micro RC car – hands on review

The Tomy GX Buggy is a micro remote controlled car from Tomy, the people who bought you the Q-steer and, before that, the Char-G. I reckon they’ve managed to come up with something even more fun here, and was very pleased when I was offered a sample to review.

GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy controller GX Buggy GX Buggy

To get the obvious stuff out the way, the car is tiny and it’s fast. At 10 cm long, it easily sits in the palm of your hand and at a mere 42g weighs next to nothing. Tomy claims it will do up to 22km/h. I was sceptical at first, but having seen it in action I can believe it. It’s certainly more than fast enough for bombing around indoors. It takes about 20 minutes to charge using the portably charging unit (which takes 4 x AA batteries, not included). From that, you get about 10 minutes driving time.

For comparison, it’s about half the price of the Losi Micro T (though of course you lose a few features including proportional steering, full suspension and rubber tyres).

The GX Buggy remote control (which takes 2 x AAA batteries, not included) offers proportional acceleration, plus braking and reverse as well as (non-proportional, i.e. just left/straight/right) steering. I’d quite like proportional steering, obviously, but even without it the car is an awful lot of fun to drive.

The foam rubber tyres are perfect for indoor use, with good grip on both lino and carpet.

Since it’s so small and light, you’d expect it to flip over when it hits things and spend a lot of time upside down. It cleverly self-rights though thanks to a plastic ring, the ‘roll wing’, which (usually) puts it back on its tyres very pleasingly.

And, being so small and light, and with such good acceleration, it can jump really high even with quite a short run up.

I have not tried it outside yet, but while I think it’ll run ok on tarmac I would be a little nervous about how long the foam tyres would last. I would love to take it to a concrete skate park and see how it performs there though. Should be lot of fun in a half pipe.

GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy GX Buggy

Greenpeace + VW – an integrated rebellion

A fascinating new campaign from Greenpeace launched this morning, subverting the popular (and award winning) VW The Force ad. Never a dull moment around Silicon Roundabout...also stormtro... on Twitpic

I first noticed it because Twitter was abuzz this morning with news of Greenpeace’s hijack of a poster at Old Street’s ‘Silicon’ roundabout.

Some people on the ground, including some friends, initially seemed to think the Stormtroopers on the ground were a stunt for a new VW poster. At least until they noticed what was really going on. (Talking to some creative friends, there’s a consensus that the line on the poster could have been a lot clearer. Confusion, where it happens, seems to me to be mainly from people who glimpsed the poster in person.)

What’s actually happening is that Greenpeace are highlighting this report (download the PDF here). But doing so in a creative, and impressively integrated way.

“Develop your skills as a Jedi to help further the rebellion.”

Even more interesting than the poster takeover is the VW Dark Side web site. An impressive and slick site which rewards people for campaigning. Users start as a ‘Youngling’, campaigners can progress to be ‘Baby Ewok’ and work their way towards Jedi hood, earning points for spreading the campaign message. There’s a FAQ in Yoda speak and lots more nice touches to discover too.

And even more interesting than that is the way Greenpeace have subverted VW’s now famous brand association with Star Wars and come up with an integrated campaign. It feels big, significant, and well orchestrated. I’m sure they get a lot of services donated, but the production values are sky high; it feels expensive.

Greenpeace are co-optings the David vs Goliath / Jedi vs Empire story (overlooked by VW in their own use of the cute Darth Vader), casting VW as the evil empire and calling for people to join a rebellion. I think it’s enormously clever and I wonder how long before VW responds.

Read more: Marketing Week, Campaign magazine, Londonist, TNT Magazine.

Interesting 2011

Interesting 2011 was, as promised, more about activities than talks.

After the traditional Final Countdown singalong and introductions from Russell, we were all very much in the mood for an interesting day.

Conway Hall, set up for Interesting 2011 Russell

Stanley James Press provided all the equipment, instructions and patient help required for us to bind our own notebooks.

Next up, Leila Johnston introduced her Hack Circus:

After the Hack Circus, there followed a short period of making and doing, including Words and Pictures who helped us make a comic, and Oli Shaw and Lynda Lorraine who set up a plasticine creature creation workshop / stall [here are the results while Matthew Solle + friends allowed people tro try out their collection of circuit bent toys and other musical instruments.

Spherising tomato passataTo get us in the mood for lunch, Chris Heathcote led us in an amazing hands on session of molecular gastronomy. First, to see if we were 'supertasters' we all tried sodium benzoate (which I couldn't really taste), phenylthiocarbamide (which tasted bitter and unpleasant. I think that means I tend towards liking sweet flavours. Which is true). Next we sampled dried tomato powder, pop rocks and monosodium glutamate before making tomato caviar (spherised tomato passata) and lastly trying miracle fruit (active ingredient: miraculin!) which confuses the taste buds normally receptive to sweet flavours to also be excited by sour ones. Lemons taste amazingly sweet, but the flavours in grapefruit and lime are what it's really all about. If you've never tried it you really must. [More info and links for further reading via Chris here]

Mouse traps Mouse traps #1000mousetraps Mouse traps Primed Getting there

After lunch, Alby Reid (possibly the best science teacher in the world) used 1000 Mousetraps and 2000 ping pong balls to demonstrate nuclear fission. Serious fun.

[Alternatively, a much more lovely mouse-eye-view video from Paul Downey here.]

And finally, Stuart Bannocks provided some briefs to be address by putting stickers on boxes. Delightful, even having done it at Papercamp last year.

A massive, massive thank you to Russell and everyone involved in making it such a brilliant day.

Previous years: 2007, 2008, 2009.

Fortnotes 14

[Being the fourteenth in a fortnightly series of brain dumps: what I'm working on, wondering and worrying about.]

A busy fortnight. As usual.

Now that the Kaiser Chiefs album has been released, I continue to be excited about the analysis the Rev Dan Catt is doing with it. Keeping half an eye on things, but the team on this one doesn’t need too much input from me.

Met with Tess from Thinkbox, who was kind enough to share their ‘Tellyporting’ research with me in person in advance of me speaking at a Thinkbox event soon.

Gave a talk to some friendly students from a University in Texas. Andy, our ICD, talked about our approach to digital and interactive work and I shared a case study. Then Jon and I get them thinking about a specific project and gave them an hour or two to work on a brief we set. Genuinely impressed at the ideas they come back with.

Presented at a conference organised by PRmoment and held at Ketchum (conveniently about 30 seconds walk from my office) for people from the PR industry. Despite possibly the only advertising person in the room, everyone was very welcoming and put up with my nonsense (at one point I actually said “and that’s why they pay us the big bucks”, which even in the context of trying to be disarming and witty should probably have been a capital offence). I shared Cravendale as an example of an integrated digital project. Lots of appreciative smiling and some good questions in the panel session. Sometimes I realise how proud I am to be working at W+K. Thanks to Ben

Sitting in on a couple of creative briefings for some work for Three. Interesting stuff.

My first ‘chemistry meeting’ with a potential new client. This gives them a chance to get to know us (and us a chance to get to know them), so we can all see if we’ll be able to work together one day. Enjoyed this very much.

Starting to hear about a pitch coming up for some new business. Reading the brief, chatting with the planner and starting to understand the background and what the client is looking for. Everyone is excited about the client and the potential for working with them if we win their business. Fingers crossed for the big pitch.

An unusual bit of in-progress work that I can talk about properly; Remember Dot, the world’s smallest stop-motion animation filmed on a Nokia N8 + Cellscope microscope we did with Aardman for Nokia? Well, it’s time for the sequel, and rather than go even smaller we’re turning the idea on its head and hoping to make the worlds largest animation, filmed on a beach in Wales over a week. Having seen the storyboards and animatics, I reckon the film is going to be brilliant. We suggested opening up the production process by sharing footage from the beach, using the Nokia Nseries blog to collect material as a sort of production blog while the film is being made. This is unusual for most projects, where secrecy until the moment of release is very much the norm. Nokia and Aardman were very happy with the idea though, and we worked with Nokia’s word of mouth agency 1000 Heads to make it happen. The shoot itself was slightly hampered by bad weather, (one day and one night of filming have been postponed), but the brave souls on the beach, including some invited guests, got some great footage of the process.

Enjoying:

Powered by WordPress with GimpStyle Theme design by Horacio Bella.
The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent my employer's positions, strategies or opinions.