Nov 16

Moving on

In February it will be six years since a small group of us gathered in a scruffy room in Lambeth to work on what we called alpha.gov.uk. Matt had introduced me to Tom Loosemore who, over coffee at the Book Club, had persuaded me to put the company and products James and I were developing on hold and take a leap into government.

Over three months, the various forces that had been pushing for a new approach to digital government began to coalesce into what we now call GDS, and a public prototype of how government could be presented online. I was the first developer in and had the privilege of laying the groundwork for much of what was to come.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be celebrating the fifth birthday of that thing really coming to life as a team in the Cabinet Office with a broad remit to lead the digital transformation of the UK government.

I’ll be around for those fifth birthday celebrations, but not for the informal sixth. I’ve decided it’s time for me to leave GDS and figure out what comes next. I’m not leaving immediately, but will step away at the end of January.

I don’t know what will come next, but I’m excited to see.

These six years have been an incredible experience. My role has evolved rapidly from being a very hands-on technology lead; through hiring, building and guiding an incredible team of technologists as GDS’ community lead and Chief Architect; to working widely across government, most recently as deputy to Andy Beale in his role as Government CTO.

What do you want to do? Image from the alpha.gov.uk days

It’s really hard to pick out highlights from the past few years. I’m expecting to be reflecting on what I’ve learned and done for a long time to come, but a few things that really stand out:

  • The deeply collaborative work conceiving, designing, building and launching GOV.UK will always be lodged deeply in my mind. From sitting with our first content designers making hourly improvements to the initial publishing tools, through iterating our work in public, the long night when we switched off DirectGov and BusinessLink and all the change that has come beyond. On one level GOV.UK is “just a website” but it was and is also the starting point for everything else, a way to shape and communicate government that is of the internet.

  • I’ve written and spoken recently about our journey with open source and “Coding in the Open“. Open source was already present in government in quiet ways before we started, but by deciding to do our work in public we were able to bring it to the fore and make the use and creation of open code the norm. That’s reverberated around the globe with initiatives like code.gov, and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

  • Listening to a Public Accounts Committee hearing from last week, it was great to hear positive words about the way that digital service delivery and security have come together and the way that we’re now able to help international partners with that. Those partnerships across security, design, technology and delivery are absolutely vital for building trust. I will always be very proud of the way I’ve been able to support and develop that. That’s been particularly evident this year as I’ve spent a lot of time helping shape the new National Cyber Security Centre.

  • Spending countless hours in interviews can quickly get tiring, but the opportunity to help recruit and build teams right across government was a real pleasure. The time I’ve been able to spend with the team in Ministry of Justice over the years, particularly early on as we kicked off the exemplars, is particularly satisfying. They’re now a really strong team developing fantastic services and thinking with a genuine enthusiasm to work across (and challenge) boundaries.

  • It’s also been a real pleasure to work with other governments, sharing what we’ve learned and learning from them. Most recently that was an exhausting yet fascinating trip to India, but it’s probably the work with the US that will stick in my memory the most. Sitting in the White House several years ago plotting with Haley for what would become the United States Digital Service, numerous phone calls and emails, detailed conversations to help inform what would become the Federal Open Source policy, and seeing the many impacts that the teams then are making. I hope to find opportunities to continue to support the growing international movement for digital government.

  • Spend controls are always going to be a controversial topic, but they’re absolutely vital. I’m proud to have been deeply involved in them for several years. They’ve done a huge amount to save money and reduce self-harm, but more than that, time and again, we’ve seen the challenge (with teeth) they bring unlocking far better approaches to problems. They’ve created opportunities for individuals and teams in many departments to try something different. It’s great to see so much praise in the industry for the team that rolled out the new MOT system. Through spend controls, we had spotted a problem there, we were able to support new leadership and a shift in direction, lived through a tense few days of close monitoring and ministerial briefing as they migrated hosting, but a really successful service resulted.

  • My last few months have been mainly about work with tech leaders across government building and refreshing the Technology Leaders Network. We’ve been doing that as openly as possible, with quite a few blog posts resulting. I’ve spent the past few years building informal networks and joining the dots between people and tools, making sure expertise is shared and that systems like spend controls support people pioneering new approaches. It’s been good to start bringing that together more formally.

  • Through all of those things it’s been the recurring reality that “the unit of delivery is the team” that’s kept me going. Nothing’s given me more pleasure than creating space for truly multi-disciplinary teams for whom the overall outcome is far more important than any specific skill set, but who can dig deep into their specialisms to get that outcome right. GDS is full of them, and our leadership has supported many more right across the system.

The challenges and opportunities that the culture, practices and technologies of the internet bring for society are starker than ever, and GDS’ role leading transformation of the whole of government has never been more vital.

GDS is entering a new phase. It’s time for me to move on and try something new.

I don’t want to jump into anything full-time and long-term straight away but after six years doing this I’m very open to new ideas. I’m available at james@jystewart.net if you want to talk.

Mar 13

Government Service Design Manual

In an effort to talk a little more about what we’re up to at work it seems only right to mention the new Government Service Design Manual (and accompanying Digital by Default Service Standard). Their release is the next step in the Government Digital Strategy, providing a guide to what “digital services so good that people prefer to use them” look like and a framework to assess whether new services are ready to launch.

DbD kitemark

We’ve released the Manual as a public beta because we want to get as much input as we can from our colleagues within government and around the wider community that builds services for the modern world. Like many others at GDS, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months writing up what I’ve learned about building for the web and making things within government, and it’s great to see that content getting better thanks to all the feedback we’re getting.

So please let us know what you think. We accept Github Pull Requests or feedback through a few other routes. There are also more words about the whole thing in Richard’s piece about where this came from, Andrew’s piece on beta testing the standard, and Gareth’s piece on the ‘devops’ flavoured content.

Jan 13

Selling a laptop, mac minis and monitor

After making three house moves in the past year or so and clearing out a few remaining items from my pre-GDS office, I have all my gadgets and devices in one place for the first time in a while. It’s now very clear that I need to get rid of a few things.

First up is a 2009 model 15″ MacBook Pro. I bought it in June of that year and served me well till the 11″ air won me over. It’s got 4GB RAM, a 500GB hard drive and a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor. It’s running OS X 10.6.8 but could be upgraded. It’s in great shape, but in the midst of all the moving I’ve lost track of the box and install discs. I’m looking for around £700-750 for it.

There’s an original series Mac Mini. That one’s got 1GB RAM, a 40GB hard drive and a 1.25GHz PowerPC G4 processor. And a modem. It’s not been used for a couple of years but is in good working order. The box is long gone and I’ve not found the install discs. I’m looking for £100 or so for it. It’s now listed on ebay.

The other Mac Mini’s more recent. It’s a 2GHz Core 2 Duo, with 2.5GB RAM and a 120GB hard drive. I’ve lost the install discs and box for this one too, but it’s running OS X 10.6.8. I’m looking for £200 for this one. (now taken)

Finally for now, there’s a Dell 2005FPW 20″ monitor. It’s served me well but is redundant now there’s a shiny apple display in the house. It runs 1680 x 1050 at 60Hz and takes VGA, DVI or S-Video input. Offers in the region of £65 please. (taken)

(We’re also selling a door, but that seems less relevant for this blog.)

I’d prefer to sell these to someone who can collect them, but I’d consider posting the computers within the UK. All prices are flexible but based on some ebay research these seem reasonable. Any enquiries? Email me at jys@ketlai.co.uk

Feb 12

Backing up flickr

It’s taken me a little while to get to Aaron Straup Cope’s write up of his Personal Digital Archiving conference talk, but I’m rather glad I have.

The talk is an exploration of what we might do if flickr disappeared tomorrow; it’s a topic many of us have been pondering at least since the news broke of yahoo’s decision to “sunset” delicious. Two elements of the talk really grabbed my attention.

The first was the detailed exploration of how difficult it is to back up or transfer the “social” aspect of a social website. Copying my files and some related metadata is relatively easy. Preserving experiences and relationships is a lot harder:

“Privacy is genuinely important no matter what people are passing off as industry best practices. It is doubly important for anything that archives Flickr because a respect for privacy remains core to what the site is about and the ways that people use it.”

“This is the actual hard part of the personal archiving problem: How to deal with authentication and authorization controls defined by a third-party site that may or not exist anymore.”

“This problem is also why parallel-flickr is not the mythical archiving of all of Flickr. Because you can’t back up Flickr. Or rather: The only way to back up Flickr with any kind of credibility or ethics is to swallow the thing, whole.”

But in the middle of the piece there’s also a little something about a past event to backup flickr which involved building out complex metadata and wrapping them in lots of “standards”: “all the best practices around XML, the Semantic Web and static, linkable resources”.

It is incomprehensible gibberish.

Worse, it’s hard to do anything with. Not only are the data models overly-complex but all the stricter-than-strict, standards-compliant tools that grew up around them are hard to use.

This is a really important point, especially if we’re going to talk about personal archiving.

If I can’t stand to look at this stuff seven years later then what hope is there that someone who does not live and breathe the technical details will?

For those of us living in a world where there’s a lot of excitement around ideas of “linked data” and associated standards, experiences like this one are very important to hear.

Feb 12

The beta of GOV.UK

It’s been about ten days and it feels a lot longer, but recently we unveiled a rather important beta: GOV.UK. That beta is a “live operational test” of a new single-domain for government. It’s a radically simplified way for people needing UK government information and services, built in-house with a set of publishing tools that lay the groundwork for a broader platform.

This beta came out of the work a team of us did to build alpha.gov.uk, itself a deeply unusual creation for a government website: built by an in house team, ruthless in scope and relentless in user focus, and above all a prototype designed to trigger conversations. The alpha worked: it triggered good, constructive conversations, it helped us identify things that worked and others that didn’t. It paved the way for the creation of the Government Digital Service and to the beta of GOV.UK.

Around the release I’ve been writing quite a bit on the GovUK blog: an explanation of our hosting choices (AWS/EC2), there’s a colophon to list our key tools, a high level overview of how we’re using puppet and provisioning servers, a status update on the APIs we’re building. I also did a little interview for wired.co.uk, answered a few questions for O’Reilly Radar and found myself on stage (at the end of the day, having only had 3 hours’ sleep) at monkigras.

Which is really all to say that there’s not a huge amount more to say here other than to signpost all that content and to say “watch this space” cause we’re far from done!

Oh, and we’re hiring (not just ruby devs)

May 11

Alpha.gov.uk is GO!

Late last night I commented out the HTTP authentication settings, and Alpha.gov.uk was live.

I’ve not slept much since then, but so far everything seems to be running smoothly. Apart from my email and twitter clients which are swimming in a deluge of feedback.

There’s a quick post from me on the Alphagov blog exploring the way we’re handling geographic information and place names. A longer post is coming later in the week with an outline of the technical architecture of the site, and a few more will follow exploring more nitty gritty details.

For now, please take a look, and let us know what you think!

Mar 11

And so we’re revealed… AlphaGov

Last time I got round to writing weeknotes I mentioned an exciting new project. I wasn’t meant to say much about it, which is part of the reason that was the last time I got round to writing weeknotes. But today a post on the Cabinet Office digital engagement blog took the wrappers off and we can begin to talk about what we’re up to.

For the past few weeks we’ve been hard at work on an alpha version of a new “single domain” website for the UK government. From the first time I chatted with Tom about the project it was clear it was going to be something special, and an opportunity not to miss. And so far it’s certainly that. We’ve got a great team working flat out to produce something very special–though I should heavily emphasise that it will be an alpha release–for release early in May.

Hopefully the schedule will allow me to talk a bit more about what we’re working on, or at least about my contributions as Tech Lead. But that schedule’s tight, so I’m not promising anything!

In the meantime you might like to check out Jemima Kiss’ piece on the Guardian PDA blog or Simon Dickson’s piece.

You might also like to follow @alphagov on twitter, check out our team twitter list and/or follow me.

Jan 11

News Sauce

One of the projects that occupied the latter half of my 2010 was the build and launch of News Sauce. It’s an aggregator product that we’ve built on drupal and initially launched to pull together news coming out of the UK government.

It’s been ticking along very nicely for a couple of months now and has been very well received. Which is nice. Over the weekend there was a little surge of attention as a result of UK Gov Camp and that prompted me to write a blog entry I’ve been promising for a couple of months. So if you want to know a little more about the tech behind the site you can now find my first notes over on the News Sauce blog.

There are all manner of new features planned, and a few more “editions” to launch. I’ll try to be a little better about posting updates here.

Sep 10

Rails 3 Theme Support

A few months back I set out to port theme_support (my rails plugin to allow one app to serve different views under various conditions) to Rails 3. I got some basics working, but realised along the way that it was well overdue for a complete rewrite. And then I got busy with projects that didn’t use theme_support and the rewrite was left lingering.

With Rails 3’s official release a few weeks back I began getting a few requests for an updated version. Without time to do the plugin justice, I suggested people fork the project and submit patches. I’m very pleased to say that Lucas Florio took that and ran with it. The result is a new gem: themes_for_rails.

If you’re wanting theme support in a Rails 3 app, that’s the place to go.

May 10

has_many_polymorphs and Rails 3

I’m gradually porting a number of my older Rails apps over to Rails 3. The main motivation is a chance to really put the new version through its paces, get a better sense of how it’s working, where plugins are at, etc; but it’s also rather nice to get some of the performance improvements and cleaner code along the way.

Catapult relies on Evan Weaver’s has_many_polymorphs plugin quite extensively so it was important to be have a Rails 3 compatible version. I couldn’t find any evidence that anyone else was working on it, so I’ve forked the github project and made a few alterations. I’ve set it up to work as a gem (so I can pull in the latest version using bundler) and adjusted to fit the new rails initialization process. It’s rather hacky, but it’s working for me so far.

Evan informs me that he has no plans to work on compatibility, so I’m going to see what time I can find to tidy it up a bit more, make sure the tests are passing, etc. If anyone else is so inclined, I’d love some help with that. You can find my fork on github.