Thursday, 27 May 2010

Insidious hyperlocal big society

Its now a post new condemnation dawn, the dust is settling, the fractures clear for all to see, the first signs on the walls....

Hyperlocal...means.....different things to different people and while Mr Gale makes a valid analysis on its application as it relates to the aggregation and delivery of location specific content Gary's Hyperlocal Bloggage, there is a sense that the term has achieved a level of common usage, certainly amongst certain areas of the politico-digerati, and is due a critique at a different, less technically oriented level that is less awed and self-reverential than seems to be currently the case.

To cognoscenti hyperlocal is used as a catch all term in relation to an ecosystem that embraces data and information (and opinion), collates, aggregates and in some cases analyses or comments on that information and a mechanism by which these parts are published and distributed (online but not necessarily). Critically advocates anticipate that this ecosystem stimulates interaction with and the influencing of outcomes for and by the residents and citizens that are the subject of or might be impacted or influenced by the data collated and the implications for them of putting it in one place. So, data (bus timetables, surgery opening times, 24hr pharmacies, taxi ranks/numbers, your usual yellow/white/green pages), information (automated updates of central, local government, parish news, news aggregation/feeds, blogs, tweets), events and on and on. An upmystreet for those in my street if you like. All well and good you would think with energetic extension of successful 'models' mushrooming around the country, typically on the back of one or two energised individuals.

The embodiment of volunteerism (the willingness of people to work on behalf of others without the expectation of pay or other tangible gain) or almost - more of a freemium model in which advocates and early adopters can leverage that exposure for other gain. No harm? Not to be confused with voluntarism - the use of or reliance on voluntary action to maintain an institution, carry out a policy, or achieve an end. Oh you mean the big society James, don't you? But so easily and conveniently confused.

Hyperlocal(ism) is to a degree synonymous with local activism of one kind or another and represents one way in which residents might feel more engaged, included or even represented. NIMBYism is a subset of the species, typically given over to single issues be they planning, dog poo or parking. Tribalism is another slightly more loaded subset of the species. These groups of 'concerned' or 'engaged' individuals can be very small, very vocal, very well coordinated, very aggressive, very 'right' (as in if you don't agree with me you can only be against me).

Bit like the lights in our street, happily still off for a few hours every night. Any why is that? Simply put; because the greater good takes precedence - local authority bills are reduced, carbon emissions cut (slightly!), star gazers can, noctural wildlife gets a welcome stimulus, citizens with blazing lights might turn some of them off - net social and economic welfare benefits.

Trouble is the big society subverts hyperlocalism, volunteerism and the greater good in favour of voluntarism and any number of -isms to drive down societal granularity and undermine our common frame of governance. There is a very real risk of the return of the politics of the ducking stool and the lynch mob, the accreditation of a new generation of grown up bully boys (you think those gangs of teenagers are scary, wait til small groups gerrymander local decisions and intimidate nay sayers in the name of the big society) who can and will ride roughshod over regional and national vision.

There is of course plenty wrong with an over-centralised state where every decision requires central sign-off; most sane folk recognise that a devolved hierarchical administration has to have stronger frameworks and stronger operational mandates at each level to reconnect them with the executive. Hyperlocalism as a 'movement' needs to forge an identity that truly engages with a genuine cross-section of their citizenry rather than be hijacked as an exemplar or communication tool for narrow interests. At the same time local authorities need to grasp the nettle of hyperlocalism themselves to reconnect with those same constituents.

In the meantime we might be able to better collate the relevant information from all those geotagged and other-wise location related data sources though a vernacular, dynamic sense of place means that this will never be perfect!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Hyperlocal - online/offline

Recently some scummy type swiped a camelia and pot plant off our doorstep while we were out, probably on Easter Sunday; we live a long way down a cul-de-sac, there are plenty of people around washing cars, twitching curtains etc including our neighbourhood watch fellow and at least one police officer. About the only thing this little enclave gets in terms of 'strangers' are speculative white vans looking to trim trees and sort out your driveway. Yet no one saw anything (I have asked). OK, so sometimes s**t happens.

Since around Christmas our same street has been benefitting from a local government policy (or pilot more likely) that turns out the street lamps from midnight. Fantastic! Saving energy, diminishing that bane of our lives, light pollution, opening up the sky at night, what's not to like.

I am old enough to remember when street lights did just about enough for you to see the post they were attached to and to drive down unlit motorways in an old opentop enjoying the stars. At some point someone decided that we needed to be lit up all the time; its expensive, damaging and intrusive, underpins ever greater surveillance (and don't come the "if you've got nothing to hide" paradigm, I mean, please, we're so far past that), disconnects us from our environment, makes unlit areas "dangerous", "scary", "other" etc. What happened to adventure, excitement, discovery, to lost shoes, torchlight and bramble scratches?

But, what do you know, I'm told I'm the only one who appreciates this "strange" (I kid you not, this is the term being used) unlit world that descends at midnight/1am. I fully expect these insecure, never go out types with their permanenntly on door lights and search light "security" lights (and thickly drawn curtains so they can't see the same) to assert their right to unneeded street lights. They'll be asking for cctv next.

We're not sleepwalking into a surveillance society, we eagerly seek it out as some kind of bogus reassurance of old perverted, media-pedalled paranoias. No one reads Ballard down our street obviously but the absent camelia is very much a signal.......

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

(Almost) one week on.....

...from the publishing of the government's response to the OS Consultation.

They caught us on the hop with the changes to OS Free but we still managed to have OS maps for free ready for All Fools sunrise.

Much has been made (including by me) of the hostage to fortune set by GB back in November regarding the timeframe for the outcome of the consultation, made worse by the delay of its release til 23rd December. Well, they've got away with it so to speak and the indecent haste is well papered over in the document itself, though at first glance the meat is rather lean with plenty of promised downstream engagement to flesh out the true meaning.

It is evident from the foreword by John Denham (well, signed off by him) that what some of us long suspected, i.e. the need to offer, in the form of a long overdue OS Free portfolio, an answer (or a sop?) to the nagging Free our Data campaign as well as assorted nay sayers, trolls and self-proclaimed freetards (oh, and TBL, new hero to No.10) as well as to everyone else of course, was effectively the sole focus of the consultation and that all the important related matters were a side- or even a no-show. The Executive Summary reiterates this. Aye, and there's the rub......from there on the response appears to dwell on this theme but then uses it to bring in elements that hardly featured in the consultation (or even in the responses judging by the summary provided in the response) and which one assumes have come in from a rearguard action by OS themselves.

While OS Free (not sure I want to use the term OS Op**Da**) delivers on the one hand much of what most commentators including myself had been supportive of (and lobbying for) for a number of years, the OS has arguably grabbed much of this back with positioning that is certain to cause ructions across the GI arena as the implications emerge.

So, while we (and HMT) wait for the tax coffers to fill from all those new economic opportunities and the (far more likely) invisible savings from socially beneficial mashups (note to self - future piece on PSI data and how it "allows everyone to see how decisions are made" = transparency? doh! Am I giving too much away?), the consultation does seem likely to impact the existing tax generating GI landscape in a more tangible way (and timeframe)....

Q7 (and Q3) in the consultation always seemed to this commentator to open the door to the kind of competitive activity that OS has always had one eye on ("moving up the value chain" as I was once told by a senior OS fellow) and it looks like I've been proven right (again - see bottom re Pollock). Much of what emerges from the text is far removed from the public task as currently 'defined' and where many will have thought the consultation was headed.

So, we have OS consultancy, OS G-cloud, OS value added products, OS INSPIRE, OS D2G (OK, I made that up but it serves as a shorthand for direct to government, superseding PGA, MSA and other collective purchase agreements on 1st April 2011), OS Services, OS INSPIRE, OS Open Sauce. And to cap it all we have (para 3.28) the positioning of OS not as the data capture and quality control organisation de nos GI jours but as a "data management and delivery focused organisation". Sure you can interpret this as OS as an out-sourcing (to private sector for data collection), customer focused (for specifications), collaborative GI engine for UK plc but that would be generous in the extreme. Have they really managed to handbag just about the whole GI (and some of the SI) value adding community?

Whether OS and CLG will be able to squeeze all these ambitions past the various regulators remains to be seen but to those who thought the consultation signalled the beginning of the end for the 'old OS', OS Free nevertheless remains a hollow 'victory' - schadenfreude indeed. Even resolution of the derived data issue is still on the long finger and some of the progress of the old revised business strategy appears to have been buried.

Picking just one example, the success of the private sector in building geo web services and platforms is seen as a competitive hill to climb rather than a resource to exploit and relationships to develop. One can hope that reason will out but with additional government funds quietly sanctioned last week (£14m - worse than Planning Portal's £2.4m pa on its hosting - see p16) maybe the hare is off and running. Although perhaps not in the original consultation purview, this is the really big missed opportunity, to drive down the cost of running OS and more importantly give it a really sharp sense of purpose around data specification, capture and quality control - that's what our customers care about, the products.

If anything the carefully constructed mandate embedded within the consultation response opens up the likelihood of a more bloated organisation with more sales and marketing activity, an organisation in competition with its channel and failing in its primary responsibility, to ever improve the quality, currency and content of its core OS MasterMap product.

What is not clear is how much of this will survive a change in administration on May 6th, if indeed there is one, and whether after the exhaustion of the consultation and the election there will be the appetite for more tinkering.

At the very least the lean bones of the consultation response will still need flesh - reference points for same: paras 2.7/3.5 (future OS direction), 3.9 (expert panel for OS Free content), 3.15 (TOID service - already available in the commercial sector), 3.17/3.20/3.21 (mapping agreements), 3.22 (expert panel for service specification), 3.23 (CLG obviously not sure they can swing this legally, using "would"), 3.24 (derived data and other licensing issues), 3.26 (redefining the public task), 3.27-3.30 (INSPIRE - lots of futurology in here, though OS does have good thematic institutional knowledge on some elements). You know where the devil is......

Not that you'll find me beefing about any of this too much......always best to have a plan I find. And now that we're in purdah don't expect OS to say anything much. Convenient - OS Consultation response ftw is likely on an internal OS memo!

Oh, yes, ftw....this wouldn't be a piece on the OS Consultation if I couldn't highlight para 3.25 and its dismissal of the assumptions of the Cambridge Study, long paraded by many as the basis for all kinds of GI futures, long held up by myself as an evidence-free piece of 'research' prepared to support a particular world view. Ha.

Footnote: if Appendix B is complete then there are some notable vocal absentees

Sunday, 28 March 2010

GMOs - whats not to like

While I tend to regard myself as generally pro-technology and pro-science I find I also have a long and deeply held anti-GMO 'position'. Glyn Moody's recent post on the subject reminded me of this and stirred me to ponder this view.

In essence you can take it as a given that I am as deeply suspicious of the corporatism so ably detailed in Glyn's (and Andrew Leonard's) post as they are. If you're not then pretty much any scientific/technical objections are going to fall a long way second.

A very good friend of mine worked for a while in a unit within the EC that amongst other things used to test for the presence of GMOs in various crops both in field trials and on the dockside. In a purely statistical sense a negative presence (even in parts per billion) does not disprove the null hypothesis regarding whether or not the sample is 'contaminated' by GMOs. This is depressing enough as we know that field trials of GMOs always leak into the surrounding environment - those field buffers are a joke.

Then consider that lab testing of the GMO prior to release focuses entirely - as is common in almost all such trails across big pharma, household products, cosmetics etc as well as agro-ind and foodstuffs - on the individual GMO molecule. Now, for sure, we can worry and lobby and campaign about the intellectual monopolies, the corporate power, the loss of power of the (mostly) poor farmers around the world but, in a world knocked sideways by the shock of the recession and riding unsuspecting into a future where the consequences of the tactics adopted in repsonding to this, in many ways that argument looks like being for the most part one of righteous indignation. The recent decision (February) by India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh to revoke a previous decision (October 2009) by India's Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) to allow GMOs into the country's aubergine industry does I would agree suggest that protest on the scale witnessed in India can acheive what I fear will ultimately be temporary and may already be fruitless closing of the legislative door to GMOs. As the 'anti' community put it - "I am no lab rat".

As Rachel Carson detailed half a century ago it is not necessarily the presence of a single 'toxin', the changing of a single part of the DNA of an organism, the release of a single aerosol that gives cause for concern. Rather it is the cocktail that it creates in the natural environment. And this is never tested, never. "It can't be", claim the corps. So, go ahead anyway? How sane does that sound? And in no time you're back to trying to disprove the null hypothesis.

In the meantime, incredibly complex issues get a bye-line which while useful for lazy journos, the gullible and others, hides that very complexity and allows much bad stuff to happen 'out of focus'. So, for example, diesel engines end up being seen as 'good' compared to petrol and taxed accordingly. It's as if no one thought to look at the chemical composition of the exhaust outputs of a normal diesel engine; the mix of SOx, NOx and other pollutants that have far greater impacts on the upper atmosphere than C02, not to mention the particulates.....

Then there's housing; the stuff that houses are made of bleed chemicals into your often hermetically sealed 'safe' environment - insulating materials, plaster, paint, varnish, PVC, concrete, man made fibres - while you add fitted carpets, double glazing, air fresheners and the full array of the supermarkets 'household' products aisle. Then personal grooming. Yuk. And we're surprised at the rise in non specific respiratory disease in children? Have a wild guess. No single element can be blamed, the cocktail most certainly can. We tested it.....here's how.

Child 2 shortly after birth was diagnosed as requiring a ventilator thingy. We were astonished. But then we lived in a late 1980s 'box' backing onto the M3 with a distinct shortage of greenery, fitted carpets, double glazing etc. Then we moved - surrounded by trees, cul de sac, wooden floors, draughty doors (yes yes the heating bills - simple - no heating, wear a jumper). And you know what, child 2 stopped the ventilin on the day we moved in. We are getting sick from and should be sick of this random atmospheric cocktail that is our everyday lung filler.

Which brings me back to GMOs. You can't put the genie back in the bottle once its out there (rather like option 2 of the OS consultation) and (again like the OS options) in the interests of a powerful lobby (CBI, big pharma et al) (or in the case of OS, GB's awe of TBL) the interests of the many are sacrificed on the back of some phony economic orthodoxy. We're all cycnical and informed enough to buy Andrew Leonard's line yet still they 'get away with it'.

Governments are and will be responding to the recession in quasi-Friedmanesque ways with regulation being slashed (red tape must be bad right!), public spending likewise (quangos are useless and expensive right!) and asset sales (OS anyone?). A throwback to the ways of that mad scientist 'Thatch'. No right thinking chemist would carry on randomly adding one complex substance to another and not be expected to observe and measure the consequences. Yet we blithely sit by and let big business do this in the 'interests', in the case of GMOs, of the worlds poor farmers. We know their first duty is to their shareholders so those of the farmers are bogus in the first place.

I like a good simple cocktail, a margharita or a caparinha perhaps, but any time spent following one of these with a variety of others is generally felt the next day. The trouble with GMOs is, its not the next day, the cocktail if felt forever. Ouch.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Outing the OS "policy options" 'consultation'

Apologies for so much grammar in the title but those of you who have been following this since November 17th will know exactly whence the implied skepticism comes.

In the intervening months you may have observed (as I have not been 'anon') various comments I have made to various posts and other blogs (I can't remember them all now so no links!) correcting factual errors and establishing a soap box of sorts from which to contrast and/or challenge in a "you can't prove that your emperor has any clothes" kind of way some of the statements, demands and assumptions of the 'georati' (?).

Now of course you may argue that I, on behalf of emapsite, have an agenda of my own, what with being an OS Premium Partner (that's value adding reseller) and all. You may be right and I am not going to be sharing corporate information here so you'll just have to speculate but on the whole you won't find me hiding behind some smoke-screen of nobility and social good. Actually, on the one hand I am 100% behind the release of data sets under some kind of OS Free in support of these kind of activities, mashups etc, unhindered by the derived data nonsense. On the other hand I give short shrift to a number of things:

- that data (in this context OS data) is 'expensive'
- that large scale geographic data has a high price elasticity of demand
- that there are businesses going out of business or not come into business because data is so 'expensive'

After all we're a commercial concern, employ people, pay tax etc in delivering services to our customers.

But in the wake of the ludicrously quick announcement on Monday, by the PM no less (in amongst the big stuff on the digital and information economies), to assorted digerati that a policy option had been worked out and that it included a "substantial package" of data under the OS Free banner, the 'community' (that is neo and paleo - the alleged will to stop this squabble in a tea cup expounded at fora such as AGI apparently forgotten in the rush to claim the leadership of this not so new zeitgeist) have been quick to cheer, deride and second guess various aspects of the forthcoming announcement.

Whoops, that is a long sentence......feel a rant coming on.....

Sage voices, false prophets, various trolls and those who you might think would know better have saddled their various donkeys. It's all so undignified! But then again dignity is hardly what you would ascribe to the decision (presumably taken by December 23rd when the consultation was released) to announce a preferred policy option just three, yes 3, days after the consultation closed, with barely time to download the PDFs, rip open the envelopes and digest the contents, let alone assimilate, evaluate, reflect, ponder, revisit etc the wisdom of the community (from end users to software sellers, integrators and resellers, competitors and contractors, fans and detractors, old business and new et al) and convey that in measured form up the chain of command in line with the standard consultation protocol, upto 87 additional days later. Yep, take it as read that industry submissions have received short, if any, shrift. Indecent cry some, stitch up others, foregone conclusion? Why did we all bother? Why indeed?

It was evident from fairly early on (and arguably from the way in which the 3 options were positioned) that CLG, Cabinet Office, LEK et al were 'hedging', looking at option 3 as a stepping stone to option 2 within an unspoken timeframe. It was also evident that the consultation would count for nothing given the hostage to fortune of the original announcement, unencumbered as it was (and is) by recognition of the legal OS operational framework.

You would think that such a well respected consultancy as LEK would diligently dissect the various strands available to them and the limited material in support of a given direction. Not the case here as any decent assessment of the available literature on the economics of geographic information reveals. Prof Nigel Shadbolt of this parish was quick to acknowledge in January in the wake of criticism of the assumptions of the so-called Cambridge Study that there was a need for greater research on this subject. The reason: Pollock and friends are entirely unchallenged on the evidence-free assumption that the demand for large scale data (i.e. OS MasterMap) is highly elastic and their numbers are repeated ad infinitum without question. I would not argue that such products are perfectly price inelastic but, as one of the few businesses with a decade of evidence to hand, I can with confidence say that those who 'need' large scale data need large scale data, not perhaps at any price but at just about any price short of going and collecting it themselves. That is one measure of the value of large scale data.

Picture the use cases:

- house extension requires planning application requires 'plan' - cost of plan from about £12.99 depending on supplier and area; cost of extension from about £15,000; benefit of extension from about £25,000. Mmmm, %age cost of essential, useful 'plan' - paltry.

- decent size urban regeneration (few 10s or even 100s of hectares) - cost of detailed digital mapping for use across the multiple companies involved? Maybe upto £3,000 or so; cost of development in the millions; benefit of redevelopment - economic and social - massive. Mmmm, %age cost of vital, core data - paltry again.

And now we have the claim that 'markups' are 'wrong'; watch out for 'profit is evil' or 'do no profit' branding on a search engine near you soon. First duty to shareholders and all that.....can't see costs to customers falling and of course out of profit do UK taxes come (if UK domiciled of course!).

And yet there are those claiming, even this week, that the private sector finds this data too 'expensive'. Our customers don't - they know the cost and risks of the alternatives and the benefit of instant availability. Have there been errors? Of course! Are transactional charges for B2C websites (those that want to use OS data) too high? Yes. Should the third sector have specific use rights and charging waivers - if the distinction of non-profits, charities etc was not so blurred, of course.

But all these bleeding hearts....get yourself a business case, really. And please don't say LBS or even LBMS or 'ad revenues' or 'donations', it don't wash. If the target ain't paying your bills, by whatever means, you're going to blame the one thing you knew the cost of? Tell that to your Board, sell the Maserati, whatever....too difficult, scapegoat required, doh. Different of course if costs were put up without warning or rationale.

I am mostly interested in large scale data (as is OS as it provides 80% of their revenues); in all the 'noise' it seems to have been overlooked that Free Our Data and almost everyone else concurs that this should not be in OS Free (they don't want option 2 either). In the clamour for 'free' the point has been lost - how is an inefficient organisation with an outdated mandate to be recreated for the 21st century as a streamlined entity with a tightly constrained public task that will deliver long term geoinformation integrity at a declining cost to users in real terms?

And another thing....next some will be claiming that other infrastructure should be run as a government asset and thus be free at the point of consumption. It was never thus, government always got receipts from nationalised industries, now utilities, charging to cover for delivery of the next unit and the one tomorrow and also for the unit in 30-50 years time, the maintenance, update, investment bearing considerable parallels, albeit at a much smaller scale, with databases. I worked in Mongolia and saw and benefited from (when working) the centralised free hot air heating systems - they're great - but are we to truly anticipate and relish a return to nationalised this and that?

btw, anyone can be an OS 'partner', there being no protection per se and the costs, like 'em or not, are transparent, making a cost base and business model 'easy'.

Of course OS has done stuff it would have been wiser not to down the years (we've been quick to tell them, they're no angels) and could have moved more quickly in a number of areas - sorting out derived data, consolidated consumer licensing and pricing, OS Free, click use licensing, cutting costs, not competing with the private sector being notable - but have you tried dealing with the others? And as I say it isn't that hard to change the cost structure and mandate and resolve these issues. This consultation is the opportunity to do just that but has signally failed to identify, let alone drill down into and resolve, these fundamental issues. Opportunity missed #FAIL.

On competing with its channel.....OS has continually moved up the value chain over the last decade and there are signals already that concerns over short term revenue 'hits' on the back of this consultation are contributing to more of the same, and at significant cost (£10m), at a time when OS should be looking at slashing its cost structure.

I've always been for the broader social good and OS Boundary Line (everything from parishes and wards to euro zones), Code Point (that's postcodes, a right royal (ha) pain), addressing and various gazetteers should be unleashed on the third sector, charity, mashup, academic, bedroom hacker and any other kind of user to produce stuff and present stuff (that be Gary's secret sauce) to people that wish to 'consume' it and the benefits it confers. emapsite would benefit too. These are the framework geographies by which most public data (data.gov.uk and all that) can be assembled, aggregated, analysed and visualised. And what is used for that visualisation? Well, it ain't OS mapping (that's the 1:25 000 scale Explorer and 1:50 000 scale Landranger equivalents) - too dense and rich cartographically to provide a useful contextual backdrop for most applications (as the low take up of OS's own OpenSpace service kind of demonstrates) - most are using OpenStreetMap (OSM) (and should be eternally grateful to SteveC and all the 'VGIers') for its clean visual style, flexibility (if you have the inclination), spherical global projection (another issue for another time!) and licensing or GYM.

And please please, mashup some social and economic value and not the high profile kind of guff that has been first out the traps - ASBOrometer anyone, has anyone actually looked at that and been prepared to make a genuine decision about anything and I mean anything at all; safer cycling anyone, you'll know where I am on that already; potholes, ditto. Me? There be value in them thar data hills.....

Did I mention the third sector? I did? Diversion? OK! Unrehearsed argument this.....Bit like PPP and PFI only with a nobler defence, they've become a critical part of the service delivery fabric in our transformed nation state, sucking taxes directly from government and indirectly from the public at large (charity and donations as indirect broadly regressive taxation anyone - you know about the U-shaped charitable giving profile of course - for another time perhaps), providing fertile ground for parallel commercial and lobbying activity and duplicating existing institutional infrastructures. On the latter, I worked in 'development' through the late 80s and most of the 90s and have first hand experience both of the awesome, wonderful work of the likes of SCF, MSF, WaterAid et al on the one hand and the staggering costs of administering both these and especially the supra-agencies such as the UN (where anything up to 84% of receipts go on admin) on the other. BandAid set out to demonstrate among other things, and by most measures successfully, that it needn't be so but they remain the exception rather than the rule at that scale though more of a model at the micro voluntary and community scale. Those that come in their wake are these days more adroit at leveraging the 'third sector' appellation in different ways - an exemplar of 'freemium' for some and a Trojan horse to others. I have witnessed at first hand the credibility from that association, annointed by piety, used as a tool to convey entirely inaccurate 'facts' to duped credulous high level audiences. Chatham House rules preclude further revelations but for want of a good soundbite it pays to do your research.

For some reason the city of Tempe (AZ) just popped into my head as an exemplar (if I recall correctly) of what goes wrong and what costs there are to the dilution of quality (and hence, as night follows day, trust) in large scale mapping. I believe there are now 10 or more large scale vertical market or use case specific data sets for this one small city, most of which contain the same data but none of whoch have been collected to a common standard. It may look good in GDP terms with lots of declared economic activity but it sure as hell ain't efficient or re-usable or linked (or even accessible). Rumour has it that there are those in the crowd at WhereCampEU last week (sorry, had to duck out but Justin, Ian and Richard all put in appearances) who have suddenly woken up to the idea that you can't have two definitive large scale maps.....

Which in a very roundabout way brings me to what happens next....there are plenty of factors that could inform the outcome.....

- the idea that the public sector should pay more (a small part of option 3) is naturally laughable; as is giving away large scale data or nothing changing (options 2 and 1 respectively).

- the fact that prices have gone down more than 30% in real terms in recent years (with no significant increase in uptake) has for no apparent reason been ignored, though it disproves the case for option 2.

- that the thriving community of businesses in the sector (that employ upwards of 10,000 people (yes, employ, that's taxes folks, at both ends) according to the AGI) has received scant attention - why is that when the information economy is our future?

- the fact that beneficiaries of collective purchase agreements are saddled with unworkable derived data regulations is as sorely overlooked as the fact that so little is done with the data these organisations actually pay for (all options).

- the myth that LGA members contribute data to the OS for free that is then licensed back to them for a fee; the CODES process has been quietly dropped owing to the need, following field trials, for OS to go and resurvey the as-built real world features for which LAs provide pre-built/planned information.

- the fact that the public task for OS and the parallel opportunity to re-cast OS in a different mould while retaining its self-financing integrity in difficult economic times (when the alleged benefit to the Treasury through increased tax take from start ups and non-dom companies is as comical as it is scary) received little or no attention except from respondents (most of whom made this point in some form, all of whom are set to be ignored).

...but they (and others) won't - if I were a gambling man I would even bet that most of these are news to CLG.

So, having ruled out large scale data and raster backdrops and ruled in all that reference data, where exactly is the squabble? Is there even one! We'll know soon enough as the various models are run, fiefdoms are fought over, sacrifices and accommodations made, budgets re-run in time for All Fools Day.

Ian Austin, MP is Minister of State for OS at CLG and a very close ally of the PMs. With the latter in thrall to TBL (to the tune of £30m - wonder where that Institute will be - in one of those closed down University departments or MIT perhaps?) the (rest of the) money has to be on an OS Free that satisfies a small coterie of vocal technocrats while leaving a far larger swathe of often innovative, risk taking, entrepeneurial anything-but-Cnuts with proven markets and business models to re-think their propositions. It's one thing to fail to invest in tools and technologies to more effectively meet new challenges, it's another to have your business model overturned by a competitor but that is not the case with government edict.

Hey, life ain't fair, geddoverit, this is a slow train that has been a long time coming (and may take a while to pass)....best be on the side of the angels (and not Harry Angel - you may have to look up the reference and decide who is who too) and may it be profitable and popular...

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Sport Relief 3 Mile boy

Well, technically, boy 2 (aged 9) and my better half. Rather a last minute decision (last week) saw the rapid creation of a team (of 2) - http://www.mysportrelief.com/jedstars?SID=118239
and a modest fund raising target. Delighted and grateful for the immediate response.

And today was the day, at 1030am allegedly - I say allegedly....the school car park was home to what appeared to be an amateur motorcycle display team; happilty we did have the right day, just the letter and original website time had been wrong and the whole thing was scheduled for 3pm.
Not content with running 3 miles later boy 2 then played football and tennis for over an hour. Back at the school and self consciousness took over during the 'warm up'. But come the off and boy 2 was running 4th of some 200 souls after the first 400m as they left tarmac for grass and mud. Each circuit a mile with many finishing after one circuit boy 2 strode on, revivified after 2 miles, as the picture shows,


to finish the 3 miles just inside 26 minutes and in the top 10. A fantastic effort you'll agree (obviously doesn't burn it all up in defence on a saturday!).

And the reason I tell you this? You will most likely have got here from the link in the email seeking further sponsors - so a short tale of the day a a quid pro quo. And a reminder of the link...
http://www.mysportrelief.com/jedstars?SID=118239

Anything you can give greatly appreciated....

Did I mention...the better half came in on 30 minutes - bravo!

Friday, 12 March 2010

What the kids do with your iphone

Had the iphone a month now and am a total convert - how can anything else be so difficult and lacking in intuition!? Still not done much in the way of Apps for myself - SnowReport, WindGuru, TideApp, GPSLite, Ship Finder, Eurosport, Palringo, Twitterific, Skype, Trainline, TubeMap, Tube Status and mashup ASBOromoter demonstrating a combonation of interests if nothing else. On that note, what is the excitement with the ASBO thingy? As with the bike mashup it begs the asking of more, serious questions than it can hope to answer. Perhaps that is the point, go and look at it yourself, examine the metadata (its not s**t by the way, it is just worthy and dull and, per a discussion of the use of digital signatures, vital to provenance, confidence, trust, re-use etc). All for that but in the meantime it certainly doesn't provide social value or as the contrarians might have it, create/perpetuate ghettoes.

Anyway, back to the iphone.....yes, I have a password, no the boys don't know it but they do ask me to enter it for anything they find of interest. Compared to the inanities of YouTube and the like (not to mention the language in the comments) and the hassle of multiple logins (roll on a laptop/netbook for each of us) vs. appropriate cross-user content filters the App Store offers a veritable treasure trove of 'safe' little, well, "apps".

With exactly no tuition they have installed all manner of mostly smile making stuff....starting with a local radio station and including:
Paper Toss
Imbecile Test
Bubble Wrap
Impossible
iMarioLite
JellyCar
You vs Wall
BigRedBtnFree
kinetic
iPint
Toobz-Free
Mood Pad
Glow Hockey
Dots
Bump
Red Ball
Traffic Rush
Waterslide
Shrek Kart
Shotgun Free
Finger Sprint
Aqua Moto
Labyrinthe
SKiJump Lite
Shaker
Jurasic
Angry Birds
CatchTheEgg
Sling Cowboy
SpotDiffFree
Lego Photo
Soosiz Lite
Icy Escort
Cluck It! Lite
Fish Frenzy
SnowBalls
Drum Kit Lite
Foghorn!
MyGuitar
Harmonica
Dog Piano Jr
JellyfishJam
Glow STick Free
Buzzer!
Framed Lite
Cat Piano Jr
Bouncedown
TableTennis
Spikey Lite
Hamburgers
Electroracer
Maze
Mazes
SnailMail Lite

Blimey. Go on, you know you want to...

Monday, 22 February 2010

A decade on.....

You regular readers will know that I don't put much public relations related material on this blog; however, I do think you will be interested to know that our mapshop now has a plug-in free map interface for the first time.

Back in 2000, yes 10 years old this week too, so we see it as a kind of celebration, ERMapper's Image Web Server and the underlying ecw format and its accompanying protocol (ecwp://) opened up the possibilities of an e-commerce data delivery platform. Yes, it required an ActiveX plugin but boy did it change the way in which geographic data, particularly mapping and imagery, could be viewed and obtained. Then 5 years or so ago we launched a Java based solution for viewing large scale (notably OS MasterMap) data online and for completing planning applications and similar things for PDF output. More developments here shortly too.

Although IE remains the de facto browser across the vast majority of users in the enterprise space this is changing, fast in some cases, and the need to provide a solution to the growing legions of Firefox, Safari and Chrome users as well leveraging our OGC compliant data stack could wait no longer. The OpenLayers framework (you were going to ask I know, and if I didn't tell you a quick look under the hood would provide the answer anyway) has proven a powerful, flexible friend in this continuing evolution and you can expect more in the coming weeks....

Did I say, we're 10 years old this week....

Friday, 12 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 3, enough already)

Statistics was compulsory when I studied geography, maybe it still is, but it is dull, worthy, grey and complicated which means that few labour over the minutiae of sampling methods, aggregation units, timelines, confidence intervals, error and so on. Too many shades of grey for politicos, lobbyists, media and the hobbyist too.

So what happens in the mashup, in the creation and consumption of information, the thirst for knowledge and some degree of certainty? Both producer and consumer can define and divine intelligence in their mashup and the chosen analytical methodology (though few would think in those terms). And so we have it, a few producers, a myriad consumers, a willing public, a na├»ve one, ripe for gulling. It is an interesting area….

We are in the arena of filters, choice architecting, framing effects and the tools of cyber balkanisation - data through a lens, information of the providers making, online. The often self-referential, self-reinforcing nature of this information and its blogosphere, contributes to a kind of tribalism or ghettoism and narrow world view, wittingly or otherwise; we use recommender systems, profiles/preferences and other tools to make sense of the volume of information available to us online. We have to, to slow it down to an intelligible level. As one of my colleagues put it, the consequence is that we sometimes appear to be on the threshold of a return to medieval mores and customs in the descent to the lowest common denominator/maximum attention.

Once I started trying to frame some of this stuff for myself, and having read Anderson, Shirky and others, I stumbled across Sunstein who has had plenty to say over the last decade on these subjects, though not the medieval part!

And, while I am writing this a piece appears on similar themes only in the context of religious extremism. But right there is a similar argument about the frictions that mediation creates; it seems that without friction we couldn’t function – historically we were limited to the number of relationships we could sustain around the parish pump and would filter those through common interests and now, while the opportunities are limitless, it is impractical to endeavour to exploit them without filters of some kind. My own blogroll and my usage of Twitter and the delivery of that via Twitter Times are indicative of the issue and the paradoxical challenges it throws up.

Am I living in my own cultural cul-de-sac while believing that that through my apparently unmediated interaction with it I am participating in the ‘global’ (well, as the 1 in 4 who is) village? This narrative of individualism disintegrates on the anvil of community solidarity as a mechanism for giving purpose and creating cohesion for otherwise fragmented causes and those who would espouse them. Some of the traditional boundaries of community may have dissolved but they are being re-created in cyberspace in part to restore the friction we need to make sense of our individual environment.

And into that space step the ‘internet commentators’. But not just ‘people like me’ even if you believe who I am! Surveillance, overt (you did agree to tell everyone where you are didn’t you, what planes you’re catching, hotels you’re staying in, when your house will be empty etc) and covert is ubiquitous. Personalised adverts, recommender systems, blogrolls, Twitter lists, forums, ANPR, CCTV (did I tell you we have 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras in the UK!), loyalty cards, cell-ID, memberships to name but a few – you (and your community of interest, worn clearly) are ‘out there’ so let the trolling begin, let loose the dogs of doubt.

‘Guiding opinion’ online whether through social networking tools, ‘formal’ information exchange or publishing for or against a given community of interest is the (not so) new spin and engenders a corrosive form of ‘followtics’, witness political soundbites, mainstream media’s publicising of the climate change denial agenda and the vaunting of the particular at the expense of its milieu.

The natural direction of this is stoning, hanging and the ducking stool, a descent to medievalism, the dilution of all that a liberal multi-cultural society aspires to. A corresponding paralysis in decision making and law giving will spawn a new era of plunder of the worlds natural and human resources. That’s a dim analysis that I don’t share.

The world is too inter-connected to allow this to happen but is also dependent on often distant institutions to ensure that it remains so. Our new ‘hyper’local virtual communities, whether narrowly identified or with broad allegiances, represent the opportunity to hold the wider networked world to account.

To do so requires two (at least) things:

First, a fundamental shift in the interventionist nature of the political landscape to one that is more responsive, in the national and global context, to and supportive of, in terms of reframing the relationship between individual, third sector, business, families, interest groups and wider community affiliations, multi-agent solutions (where the agent is not an 'agency' but rather a (human) instrument for effecting change). That is I accept a bit of a rambling mouthful - key words - responsive, supportive government. However, no government should respond to, support or galvanise such solutions on the back of narrow agendas, however presented.

So, second, back to PSI….it is essential that the agents of change and the solutions they develop understand the context in which a particular issue is invoked. This is where hyperlocality and the virtual community of the internet helps in reframing the relationships that can power that change. Potholes or pensioners, social housing or cycle lanes - limited budgets, resource constraints, hard choices - context, analysis, action, communication.

So, and here is the really big but…….once we get past the easy sniping and the shallow agendas that will be the low hanging fruit of the vexed and the vicious, what are we into…..essentially we are into a world of comparisons, greener grasses and fences, difficult decisions, conflicting agendas and the yah boo politics that follows. Oh yes, and statistics. The question is, are we big enough to get past the one and chew on and make sense of the latter…..

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 2, middle bit maybe)

At a recent presentation a slide was put up using PSI made available through the MPDP initiative that ranked local authorities according to the %age of potholes (again, I know) repaired.

So Torfaen, with 3 reported holes, all fixed, came out 'top' and then the slide changed. Does that make Torfaen the best council in Britain? Does it mean they have fixed all the potholes? Does it mean the repair will last? Did we know where Torfaen ranks in the passenger kilometre travelled per day charts (I made that one up but you get the idea)? Flipping that table around does it make whoever is at the bottom the worst? Of course not.

Where does our money go indeed, and on what justification? What are the underlying statistics, the hard facts, that drive decisions, be they central, local or further devolved? Are there any (think WMD here!)? What process has been used to say yes to potholes and no to something else? What problems are we trying to solve? How do we measure the relative values of those choices? How do we influence those choices (other than at the ballot box if we have one, or if that makes a difference)? How do we reward or stigmatise the decision makers?

Policies, or projects of policies if you get me, such as the New Deal for Communities, Invest to Save Budgets and the like as well as the rise in citizen and hyperlocal news (some of it 'journalism', some not), location centric applications, the interest in maps and mapping (cf the decline in geography?), the reinvigoration of parish and town councils in some areas and the increase in local advertising expenditure, all point to other ways in which influence on these choices can be voiced.

Nevertheless identifying the problems, their causes and the options for their solution are hard enough and take time, energy, commitment and money; this is hard enough to sustain in a wealthy liberal society, however much we may decry existing mechanisms for delivery (typically 'centralised' or imposed by will of local and central government and related actors in the third sector). This is already muddied by lobbyists and pedallers of mystery but could become infinitely harder (or not) when the PSI-empowered citizen or vested interest wields their 'investigative power'.

The idea that the the public is able i.e. qualified to "root out wasteful spending and poorly negotiated contracts" is as appealing as it is absurd. It is one thing to 'track' a PFI programme but altogether another to identify 'wasteful' essential service contracts such as hospital cleaning or pothole filling or anti-aircraft missile design. BATNEEC was a widely ridiculed approach to acheiving a similar thing but did so almost exclusively in exchange for a loss of quality. RMSA and recurring potholes are a manifestation of the same 'Walmart' mentality, in an attempt to commoditise services to 'free'. Pay peanuts.......

Of course we don't want wasteful contracts and an extension of PPP/PFI without greater transparency and validation of the approach or contract. And of course it is ludicrous that £6.5m be spent on 80 people to provide such services to track expenses for IPSA. We bemoan regulation and red tape as either being too intrusive or not strong enough (its never suitably 'light touch', responsive, symapthetic or concilatory - maybe it is but we don't get good news stories!). Every time we try to cut it away we require (unconsciously it seems) that someone somewhere takes responsibility but they won't, don't or can't usually for fear of liability and litigation.

Into this fray comes the contrasting memes of political self-protection and manufactured doubt.

The former gives us knee jerk reaction to good and bad ‘news’ – the something must be done/it's risky/isn't it terrible/here is our solution type tirades are the stuff of the daily political media flow. Unfettered by the real world challenges of the impacts, social, economic, environmental, humanitarian, whatever, of imposing ‘solutions’ into whatever inevitably far more complex subject happens to newsworthy today, such pervasive flow is increasingly tarnished and seen as nowt more than a cynical ploy.

The latter foments (and liberally funds) controversy in areas where the broader public is ill-equipped to differentiate the implications of complex models, data sets and the requisite analysis. FUD – fear, uncertainty, doubt – generated billions for the tobacco industry over a 50 year plus period (oh yes and for governments as they kept increasing the tax take). Think tanks, research units, "independent" 'institutes' and 'respected' academics combine to create the type of uncertainty into which politicians, hacks and citizens can either exploit or fall for. Climate change being the most recent example.

This stuff (establishing a solid basis for decision making, as well as monitoring and evaluation of outcomes) is hard and pedalling narrow agendas is easier than ever. If it needs to be better understood it needs also to be made more interesting and accessible and the consequences, impacts and arguments credible.

Part 3 will try to look at that.....

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 1, probably)

This may end up being a multi-part piece as various strands come and go in the struggle to create a coherent thought piece on a topic that has been nagging away at me for some time. Yes, it has relevance to geography and location and even to free data and mapping but the underlying motivation derives from a wider philosophical question on the use and impact of data in a hyperlocally enabled globally interconnected world…..bear with me!

So, where to start without being glib or contrarian or wading in the soup of euphemism, the pejorative and the broad brush……

Whether we like it or not, and personally I do, in Britain we live in an incredibly diverse and broadly tolerant society. And yet, and yet…..the manufactured doubt brigade (typically in a ghetto of some kind, whether of the mind, the middle class or the migrant), the furious ignorati and their cohorts in the media, willing and otherwise, chip away at this diversity and tolerance.

We also live in an inter-connected and inter-dependent world where isolationism (or ‘islandationism’?) is denial.

The rallying cries are for political ‘democracy’, transparency, accountability and increasingly for ever more devolved powers. To a huge extent I am in accord with this and I think that the liberation of public sector information has the potential to support the reframing of the state-citizen-third sector relationship (that at one level appears to be emerging) in a positive manner and in a way that accords with these broad ambitions.

I support the idea that 'governments (local and central and their agencies) should establish the principle that the public services should publish in reusable form all the objective, factual, non-personal data on which the public services are run and assessed and on which policy decisions are based or which is collected or generated in the course of public service delivery' (Prof Nigel Shadbolt at the launch of the government's data portal www.data.gov.uk). There is of course dispute about the bounds of such a broad demand and about what mechanisms could be deployed to bring this about, how much it would cost (to government and to commercial enterprise that has to date interceded in such provision), what the benefits would be and how the impacts might be felt and delivered. A discussion for another piece.

I guess the concern or issue that I am trying to give voice to relates to the questions “what do people want this data for”, “how are they going to use this data” and similar. It is easy to concur as I do with “we don’t know, let a thousand mashups bloom, our society and the economy will benefit in ways we can’t even guess at” though this was not quite how Sir Tim, Nigel Shadbolt and others have more eloquently expressed it!

The most quoted recent example, but there are many others at www.data.gov.uk, is that of bike accidents in London. The data was released and in short order a mashup of accident blackspots was available that allowed cyclists to change their routes. All well and good and no doubt reducing cycle related injuries and deaths, related NHS costs, lost working hours, emissions, police time and so on, in theory.

However, as a cyclist I wonder whether this isn’t a cheap anti-cycling gag....as a cyclist what do I ‘know’ (or think I know)?:

Cycling is or can be ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’
I get hot and sweaty just getting on a bike
Cyclists almost always come off worse in collisions with any other road user
Risk/danger increases with traffic density
Urban roads have a ‘typical’ set of dangers
Rural roads have a different set of dangers
Riding without suitable identifying gear increases danger (lights etc)
Riding on pavements pi**es people off and gives all cyclists a bad name
Jumping/not stopping at lights does the same
As does riding across zebra crossings and down footpaths
Road edges have glass, nails, cans
Road edges crumble
Roads deteriorate with cracks and potholes at random
Pedestrians often don’t look
Cycle lanes and bus lanes are blocked
Cycle lanes are not contiguous
Cycle lanes rarely go all the way to my destination anyway
Drivers don’t look, don’t think or don’t care
Diesel fumes are worse than petrol fumes
I know my route
I prefer to take the shortest route
I take the same route
Most accidents/risk areas are at junctions

So, this mashup does what for me?

Makes me go further
Increases my time to destination
Adds more junctions and stop/starts

So I have to leave earlier to get sweatier to be exposed to more risks? Yeah, right. This is no fault of the mashup nor am I taking pot shots at this example. I do get uncomfortable with the idea that such sites could, owing to their prominence, inform policy and decision making and the investment that flows from that.

This mashup and the ‘solution’ it offers is analogous to claims about football hooliganism having decreased at grounds when in fact all the added deterrents had done was push those who wanted some ‘action’ to take it to places where those deterrents had yet to be put in place, outside the grounds. The moves didn’t seek to change behaviour at all and it was only a wide ranging shift in tactics (plus of course more surveillance) that has brought about welcome longer term change.

The blackspots will follow the cycle flows; cycling will not be inherently safer - arguably fewer motorists will see cyclists and become ever more oblivious to them.

It would be interesting to get all RTA information involving bikes and cyclist admissions to casualty departments for the same area since records began and start to look at that in the context of frequency of bike use (rising), cause of accident/injury (a relation broke both shoulders when a pothole sheared her front forks – not reported as an RTA or accident blackspot), increase in pro-cycle measures such as cycle lanes, introduction of the Congestion Charge and so on. What makes cycling safer is behavioural change in other road users and by those responsible for the roads.

Of course we want to reduce bike accident rates, of course PSI should be used to help achieve that and hopefully this example is the beginning of a shift in the use of such data to inform policy and investment. However, the broader themes of this now definitely mult-part thesis are only really hinted at...more coming in Part 2.

Monday, 4 January 2010

A tale of two mother in laws, Part 2

Meanwhile out in rural Berkshire at Gran #2, my own mother's Fiesta sits abandoned. And, apparently there are similar Fiestas in the same situation all over the UK with some 20+ in one dealership in the Borders if sources are correct. The problem? An "EAC fail" message is the electronic accelerator control system fault warning but it can often flag a code in the main engine management self-diagnosis system too.

Once you work out what to type into Google you get loads of results (for example, honest john #1, honest john #2, ford_fiesta_common_problems_and_solutions, askabout #1, SA Ford Owners, another one, just answer #1, just answer #2,
just answer #3, just answer #4).

It is possible to deduce from this jumble that Ford or at least Ford dealers appear not to have a clue about this issue and its impacts on owners; where information may have been circulated to attempt to deal with it they appear incompetent in either finding that information or working through the logic. Anything from cleaning the contacts below the pedal to full ECU replacement and worse. To the extent that Parkers publicise the fact on their on-line vehicle guide).

Did I mention, my mother's oh yes 75, an independent, trusting 75 mind, strong enough in spirit to demand, and eventually get, a courtesy car, at least initially, and now every second week a discounted hire care despite initial unwillingness on account of her age. “The part is on back order from Germany” is I think the latest variation of a solution to this problem. Date for next attempt to fix it is we think this month. Cry “bull**it” I say.

The car (1.4 Zetec for those interested in that kind of thing) came from the same main dealer as is offering the “advice” and “solution” and despite the fact that she has had it 5 years it has been carefully maintained on its very low mileage, always garaged and serviced by the same main dealer. Someone, somewhere - take responsibility, take ownership!

My own view is that they should ideally fix it immediately and for free using one or more of the known solutions and warranty to continue fixing it immediately and for free in the event that it goes wrong again (as so many of the websites document) or, failing that, replace it with similar make/model at their own expense. In addition they should refund all costs incurred so far, republish on as many sites and to all past and present dealers and independents as possible the unfindable bulletin that was allegedly issued on the EAC failure and give a huge donation to Help the Aged.

Oh yes, and fix the myriad of EAC failures piling up around the country.....for free.

We know that the elderly can sometimes be less willing or able to find the words or mechanisms to fight their corners and I will confess to being slow on picking this up – as they say first impressions were actually quite good, putting all parties on the back foot.

Obviously, this position should be reversed and the suppliers (as well as their shareholders most of whom remain ignorant of their shareholding via unit trusts and the like even when treated so abominably as customers themselves) ought themselves to proactively take the lead; they are not generally accustomed to standing up and being counted though and trying to make contact with senior personnel is fruitless. Traditionally the 'little man' could do little and perhaps that still is the case.....direct action and viral comms, who knows.....

As per Pt 1 I am already planning on changing insurers at policy renewal time - much of this is little more than gesture I know......and I did own a Ford once (Cortina Mk III GXL rather like the one in Life on Mars actually) and the other half had a great Focus too but frankly my 20 year affair with Alfas continues (the electronics have been far less of a problem!).

Smaller businesses listen, they have to; question is, will the big ones?

If you read this do feel free to tweet, blog, moan, link to, tell your story, change your policy, talk to your broker.....

A tale of two mother in laws, Part 1

When these things happen to you or those you hold dear you somehow hope that they will turn out differently and that the anonynous powers that be that hold the health, security, wealth and happiness of your nearest and dearest in the palm of their hands will turn out not to be as in so many conspiracy theories, consumer magazines, fellow blogs et al. You hope, with no great confidence it must be said, that the reassurance offered by these global brands will deliver your relatives from the frustration, undated and anonymous letters, obfuscation, contact ping-pong and other quasi bureaucratic devices deployed to delay, depress and deter those who are actually their customers. The architect of Sears-Roebuck's rise to become a great retailer was Julius Rosenwald, who once remarked, "My ambition is to stand on both sides of the counter at once." We strive for that; would that these others would do the same.

The overlapping stories of the mother-in-laws begin aorund the same time in the late summer of last year, 2009. For one, their car, a Ford Fiesta (the model that has just been replaced so hardly aged) stuttered to a halt on the A4. For the other they returned home in outer south east London to find their door literally smashed in and home ransacked for, or so the police reckoned (yes, they at least did show up and record the crime), the keys belonging to a smart new car (believed to have been an Audi) that had been parked outside.

Both are 75, both have worked hard all their lives, paid their appropriate insurances, taxes etc etc and had relatively little contact with officialdom of any kind owing to their more or less blameless and in the eyes of their suppliers (be they state or commercial) and uneventful lives (they might argue with my interpretation of those very lives as they have of course been full of momentous events!). Both collect small pensions, watch their expenditure, look forward to seeing their children and grandchildren, wish they could get out more and so on, poster grans for the grey generation.

So, how do you think the respective suppliers have performed? Well, of course you know the answer to that because few are those who would write about a satisfactory interaction with major corporates, it just doesn't happen. Yes, sadly, Halifax Insurance and their Crawford - the world’s largest claims and risk management company - loss adjusters have behaved with abject disregard for anything regarding the circumstances of the break-in, robbery and subsequent claim. Recently insurers have taken to making utteraces in the press to the effect that the financial crisis has resulted in so many fraudulent claims that many more claims are being rejected. That smacks to me of PK Dick's 'Minority Report' with actuaries beavering away in place of the pre-cogs to predict pre-insurance-crime and eliminate such claims. OK, a bit of a stretch perhaps but evidently the hand off from Halifax to Crawford provides adequate distance for the former to wash their hands and the latter to do the former's bidding.

Gran #1, upset and likely a tad confused (she was after all on a life support machine barely 9 months previously) makes a police report, contacts the insurers and submits a modest claim, for the door, a watch, a laptop and some jewellery. You would think that the primary priority of the insurance company would be make their customer secure once again in their house. Not a bit of it. It is not unreasonable at all for the loss adjuster to request details and where sensible/practical etc proof (of existence certainly and if possible purchase and even receipt) for very recent items. Despite the genuinely understated nature of the claim the loss adjuster was despatched. Their sole objective seemed to be to dismiss the claim by seeking discrepancies, however minor, between police report and claim. For a 76 year old with a temporary fibre-board door there was no attempt whatsoever to deal with the security of the property – the door and the contents were part of the same claim and with the loss adjuster demanding ever higher burdens of proof regarding the jewellery the door and the associated security was ignored.

When my wife lost her engagment ring (for the first time – don't ask) down a sewer in Portsmouth (again, bets not to ask) we were lucky enough to have the receipt then only 2 or 3 years old. My mother in law was born in Mumbai and grew up there and in Pune until the late 1950s when together with her twin brother she embarked for England and for her husband to be leaving behind various siblings and extended family. Many will be aware that family and nuptial wealth as well as heirlooms and subsequent gifts frequently take the form of high carat gold – necklaces, ear-rings, rings, pendants, brooches, more necklaces. It may not appeal to everyone, with its high gloss yellow gold apearance and often overly ornate form but there is no doubting the inherent value. But receipts? RECEIPTS? Are you mad. Photos? As if! In fact , pretty sure she's never had a camera.

I can be absolutely and abjectly certain that my mother in law under-declared what it is that was lost to those random transgressors in search of car keys but Halifax and their Crawfords nay sayers will not countenance a claim without every last receipted detail for every item thereon.

Gran #1 is now on the threshold of calling it quits and getting the door paid for. Score 1 to the insurer - tragic, wrong, scandalous? You decide. Me, I'm changing insurers. And, if you're reading this Insurance people you know how to get hold of me and rectify your shortcomings....if you do I will blog and commend you accordingly.....