Charles Arthur On Technology

If you want to see really good uses of government information online - such as Hansard or train times - you have to turn to private individuals

The last time I went along to a public event hosted by Britain's e-Envoy, supposedly the kingpin of the Government's approach to technology, was in 2000. The occasion: the launch of a piece of software that I could see at once was doomed - a piece of software that it was claimed would make Greenwich the reference point for "internet time", just as it is for diurnal time.

The last time I went along to a public event hosted by Britain's e-Envoy, supposedly the kingpin of the Government's approach to technology, was in 2000. The occasion: the launch of a piece of software that I could see at once was doomed - a piece of software that it was claimed would make Greenwich the reference point for "internet time", just as it is for diurnal time.

Unfortunately it didn't work with Internet Explorer - which just happens to be the most dominant browser on the net. End of story for "Greenwich Electronic Time", and the beginning of my feeling that "e-Government" was being run by people whose grasp of the net's dynamic and its impact on our daily lives rivalled a chocolate teapot's grasp of hot liquids.

True, a couple of useful web sites have emerged blinking into the light from within the Government. The online version of Hansard (the official record of Parliamentary proceedings) is a triumph over the tightfistedness of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, which has the monopoly on printing it. But it's easier to point to the abject failures, such as the Inland Revenue's website - hard to use on any computer - and the absurd monopolies, like the Ordnance Survey's control of data we have paid for.

Ironically, to see really good uses of government information online one has to turn to private individuals, who have often compiled disparate pieces of useful information to create something marvellous.

Taking advantage of the openness of Hansard, for example, is the marvellous, which in effect gives Parliament a searchable front-end. It's done by the team that created (which could tell you about council tax, schools, house prices and so on any postcode area). It's clean, fast, and simple - everything that the new e-Envoy should insist on from all government websites. The only wrinkle is that if some civil servant decides to completely revamp the Hansard site, the whole theyworkforyou system could break, as it relies - like lots of these websites that make hidden information more visible - on "screen scraping". That's a programming technique that pulls down a complete web page (or pages) and extracts the useful bits for you.

The scraping is done by the useful site's server, so the speed of your connection doesn't matter. But it wastes time; the ideal would be for someone in Whitehall to create a specific function that would let theyworkforyou connect directly to Hansard. But with the memory of Greenwich Electronic Time still fresh, I'm neither holding out hope nor especially wishing for it to happen. The "improvement" would surely make everything worse.

Another example of how individuals can do it better than a large organisation is the fabulous Tubetrack, available from It's a tiny download of about 1Mb that works on anything - Windows, the old and new versions of Mac OS, and Linux.

It'll tell you when the next four or five trains are leaving from or arriving at any railway, DLR or Bakerloo line Underground station. Essentially, it's a vast destination board boiled down into a tiny bit of screen real estate. Wondering if your train's on time? Bring up Tubetrack and hook into the station. Got a 10-minute walk to the station? Find out if the next train's coming in nine or 11 minutes - the difference between a leisurely stroll and a run.

Its author, Balázs Boros, says that it took him about nine days to write the application - five days to work out how to grab the data from Transport for London's (TfL) online dot-matrix indicators and then a couple of days each for the National Rail and DLR systems. He had to resort to screen scraping to get the data, but it's wonderfully presented, and a lot easier to understand than anything you'll find on the relevant pages themselves. (I looked for the dot-matrix info on TfL's site at but gave up.)

Yet as Boros, a 25-year-old living in Australia, points out, there's far, far more that could be done with this data that could even make a difference to whether people use public transport or their car.

Here's how he put it to me: "Due to traffic, bus schedules are even more random than rail schedules, and being able to provide a dot matrix indicator would ensure would-be passengers are kept up to date. Perth has an inner-city bus system that is free to use, and each bus contains a satellite tracking system. At the stops, passengers can press a button and be told when the next bus is due to arrive. If TfL were to enable and distribute similar data on the internet, anyone with a Java/Symbian phone and a GPRS connection would be able to access the information from their mobile, as well as everyone at home with a Mac or a PC.

"Being able to dash out of your home five minutes before the bus is due to arrive, safe in the knowledge that the bus will arrive, would reduce the hassle associated with public transport and may tip the scales in favour of using a bus or the Tube instead of a car."

Smart - and you have to applaud someone who writes such a useful application for a country he doesn't even live in (although he says he is a "regular visitor").

While the idea of having trains that run on time is often equated with living in a dictatorship - which only goes to prove how democratic the UK is - getting all the train times online is completely different. True, none of these useful sites would be possible without National Rail, Transport for London and Hansard making their data available. But as theyworkforyou and Tubetrack demonstrate, what's needed to make it usable, as opposed to available, is grassroots effort - the real democratic application of the internet.

¿ Last week I was critical of Apple's iTunes Music Store for having a thin repertoire in the UK. Since then the elves have been busy: the number of songs available exploded midweek, even without the independent labels (who are "talking" again with Apple). With 450,000 songs sold in the UK in the first week - about as many as had been sold in the previous five months throughout Europe by rivals - the iTunes Music Store is now definitely the one to beat. And that'll be hard.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments