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Parliament illustrates gov.IT malfunction by example

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Empty Parliamentary Committee Room.pngAs MPs on the Public Administration Committee opened their inquiry into government IT today, they exemplified the problem they are seeking to solve: why is government IT often such a hash?

Their attempt to expose the problem to democratic scrutiny was hobbled by their dependence on the same proprietary computer systems that made such a hash government IT in the first place.

If you tuned in to Parliament TV this morning you may have seen some of the UK's leading academics of computing shine a light on the problem. Then you may have not. Parliamentary internet broadcasts are optimised for people using Microsoft software.

This is the very sort of bind the government is trying to escape with its G-Cloud and open source strategies. Proprietary software vendors and systems integrators have been free to mop up behind the scenes of the public sector for years because they supply IT systems over which they control the rights and can therefore charge monopoly rents.

Their position looks untenable now government is relying on their software to support democratic processes.

Blue screen

So Microsoft may have been chuffed when Parliament chose its lackluster Silverlight multimedia technology to deliver live video streams of British democracy in action. It now looks like the most striking illustration of the blight such proprietary software is on society and democracy.

How can a democracy address the systematic problem of proprietary software when the only people who can hear the debate are those users and compadres of proprietary software vendors?

This became a pertinent matter for your humble correspondent this morning. He was unable report on the PASC enquiry because he wasn't using a Microsoft system. Parliament's website said it was unable to deliver its video to anyone who wasn't using Microsoft Silverlight. It asked users of competing systems to install alternative software. Only the alternative software doesn't work, at least not without maintenance beyond the means of all citizens but the ITerati.

Interoperability is a problem for web video, colonized as it is by proprietary software interests. It has not proved beyond the wit of the BBC, whose own Democracy Live website relies on the imperfect but universal, proprietary Flash technology. But the Beeb doesn't bother transmitting committee proceedings. The broadcast rights holder (of which it is a shareholder) probably asks for too much money.

Sir Tim Berners Lee.pngAt least when Parliament publishes the written transcript of the PASC inquiry tomorrow it will be available to everyone. The textual components of Parliament web site are delivered using standards defined by the World Wide World Web Consortium, an independent body which (unlike Parliament) is answerable not to self-serving software corporations, but to Britain's beloved internet champion, Sir Tim Berners Lee.

Perhaps Sir Tim will make a contribution to enquiry. Will anyone outside of Westminster's proprietary software circle get to hear about it if he does?

Parliament wants to dump Microsoft Silverlight

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Saying you can only watch Parliamentary debates on the internet if you have a computer compatible with Microsoft is like saying you can only enter the House of Lords if you shop on Savile Row.

The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office (PICT) has therefore stalled its rollout of Silverlight, Microsoft's latest multimedia technology, while it considers if there is a better way.

PICT's reports on the matter, which we are publishing here today, reveal why PICT is reviewing its relationship with Microsoft. It is seeking to increase public participation in the democratic process, and break the limitations that proprietary software and broadcast licences place on Parliament's use of its own recordings.

Broadcasting Improvements Feasibility Study.pngThe strategy is described in the Feasibility Study for PICT's BroadCast Improvement Plan, published internally last year.

<<< Read the Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office's Broadcast Improvement Plan <<<

PICT faces the mother of all standards dilemmas. It's Feasibility Study expresses a preference for digital video standards that don't lock it into a single vendor's technology.

But there may be no viable alternative. The digital video landscape has been perverted by years of domination by proprietary software vendors.

Industry-wide efforts to establish an open standard have increased a pace, but may not be resolved by PICT's self-imposed deadline of summer 2011.

Parliament is a thoroughbred Microsoft House. The Parliamentary Broadcast Unit delivers its recordings in a Microsoft format. PICT delivers them over the internet using Microsoft software. TwoFour Group, which builds PICT's media systems, is a Microsoft House. British voters can best view parliamentary proceedings if they have Microsoft software on their computers.

TwoFour told Parliament to upgrade to Microsoft, says the Feasibility Study. Parliament started preparing to do so. It started working with TwoFour on a pilot Silverlight media player called Karaoke, as described in another report Computer Weekly is publishing today, PICT's Final Options and Recommendations for Broadcast Improvement Plan.PICT BroadCast Improvement Plan - Final Options and recommendations - July 2010.png

>>> Read PICT's Final Options and Recommendations for the Broadcast Improvement Plan >>>

But PICT put the Karaoke pilot on hold while it considers its options. The Broadcast Improvement Plan had raised the prospect that being locked into Microsoft might be a disability.

This is a classic example of the way in which proprietary standards lock customers in. Parliament has been using Microsoft Windows Media Software. Microsoft is switching to a new platform called Silverlight. It has to bring all its customers along. Microsoft suppliers like TwoFour chivvy them along. Customers like Parliament decide its not in their interest. But they have little choice.

PICT's Feasibility Study considered that Silverlight fell short as a proprietary standard because its user base was too small. That was on top of the fact that it had the proprietary features inherent Windows Media, its predecessor, that PICT considered a distinct disadvantage. But without a viable alternative, even Parliament may not find reason enough to abandon the costs it has sunk into Microsoft's proprietary technology.

The wild card is the democratic interest. What is lost by building the gateways to Parliament with technologies that place limitations on who can pass?

See also:

Banned in Parliament: the technology that offends democracy


Parliament mulls Hansard for YouTube


Hansard's Cloud Plan

Parliament mulls Hansard for YouTube

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Proposed Hansard YouTube System Diagram.png

Techies in the Houses of Parliament are considering plans that would see parliamentary debates posted on YouTube.

The proposal is one of three options being considered by the Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office (Pict) to distribute video recordings of Parliamentary debates to a wider audience.

The Broadcast Improvement Plan, which is under review until the summer, will seek to widen the audience reach of Parliamentary videos by breaking technical restrictions imposed by the proprietary video software of vendors such as Microsoft, which supplies the software Parliament currently uses to distribute its video on the web.

The plans, obtained by Computer Weekly, describe YouTube as by far the cheapest option, and was modeled on Prime Minister David Cameron's relationship with FaceBook.

"This approach could be seen [as] wise stewardship of financial resources and in line with Number 10's recent partnership with FaceBook," said Pict in its outline of the proposal.

Putting parliamentary debates on YouTube would take 18-22 man days for IT developers. The alternative of pursuing Pict's objectives using its current Microsoft system would take about four times as long, at 81 days. Pict's preferred plan, developing a dedicated application interface and moving to open standards, would take 111 days.

<View Full-size system diagram of the YouTube plan>

ID v2.0 - the ConDem Pitch

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Want to know how the Identity Scheme will look under the ConDems?

Mydex, the company providing the technology for the government pilots* spelled out the vision for ConDem ID v2.0 at Socitm 2010.

We recorded the pitch. You can hear it using the podomatic player below.


The Cabinet Office tells us it dusted off the Crosby report for the occasion. Crosby said in 2008 that if the government wanted a sensible ID scheme it should leave it for citizens to sort it out themselves with the private sector. Be done with this big brother database, said Crosby between the lines. So the government kicked his report into the long grass. And it seemed like we'd never hear of it again... 

Until the  28 August, when the coalition government certified its commitment to a liberal identity scheme in the Official Journal of the European Journal.

It called for companies who can furnish people with a proof of identity the government can use to deliver them services. It wanted ideas for the...

"...establishment of the provenance of identity, verification of a person against an identity, verification of the authority to conduct the transaction, validation of personal data related to the identity, fraud prevention, malware prevention, and assurance of appropriate security when accessing a public service through all channel types including but not limited to online and telephony."

The DWP's Tell Us Once is taking the lead on this. The idea is after all to allow people to look after their own personal data, instead of having the government do it for you, or to you. Just as Crosby recommended. How extraordinary it now seems that it may have been any other way.

Jerry Fishenden, the LSE fellow and Cameronean think-tank compadre, says these plans are so old they go back to the December 2000 plan for an E-government Authentication Framework.

The US has since leapt ahead with the same ideas. They'll probably be doing our ID systems for us before long.

Fishenden's written a paper about what the yanks are doing and why we're now doing it too: it's called The Obama Effect, apparently.

* being run the the DWP, HMRC and Brent, Croydon and Windsor & Maidenhead Councils

Priorities for Government CIOs in 2010 and beyond - Gartner

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Andrea Di Maio, vice president at Gartner, says that by 2012 "one in five government processes will rely on "crowdsourced" data".

Council websites not good enough - with some exceptions

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Socitm, the local government association for IT managers, says there has been little improvement in council websites in the last 12 months.


Ten top technologies for boosting profits

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1)  Service-oriented architecture

2)  Rich Web applications

3)  Unified comms

4)  Smart phones and mobile clients

5)  Ajax

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