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 theyworkforyou.com, which in effect gives Parliament a searchable front-end. It's done by the team that created upmystreet.com (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 http://homepage.mac.com/balazsboros/tubetrack/. 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 www.tfl.gov.uk 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.

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