Government sponsored identity APIs?

gov.uk homepage

I came across this interesting article on O'Reilly Radar yesterday about gov.uk, the new (beta-ish) upgrade to direct.gov.uk. It's mostly about how the site was built (yay for open source), comparing with traditional government IT development.

But there's a really intriguing nugget in there - hints of an "idenity services" API. Here's the full quote:

With regard to API's, our long term plan is to 'go wholesale,' by which we mean expose data and services via API's... We are at the early stages of mapping out key attributes, particularly around identity services, so to be fair it's early days yet."

I'm presuming by "identity services" they mean ways of programically identifying someone's online account as an actual person - somewhat similar to OAuth. In fact, since the development is all about open source, I wouldn't be surprised if they actually built it with OAuth.

This is a really intriguing path for government to take, and I'm pretty sure that I would be controversial... I know for a fact that many (especially in the US) distrust government getting involved in the web and would hate this idea.

On the other hand, this has potential for some really great innovation in Gov 2.0 - the concept of "Government as a platform". What if I was able to sign in to something like my bank account, or something similar with my driving license? Or my passport? This admittedly has some flaws, as there's nothing to stop the government tracking you this way. But, again, some would consider this no worse than Google or some other corporation tracking you.

I personally can't make my mind up whether I'd use something like this. What I will say is that I think that they should go right ahead and test it out, as the worse that can happen is that nobody would use it... (Actually they'd probably be torn apart for spending "X million pounds on failed IT project")

Alternatively, I could be reading way too much into a single quote and they're not considering anything like an identity API.

Is a "peer reviewed web" possible? This and many more questions about Hypothes.is

The service promises to check, verify and critique content on every web site in the world. Using a system of browser plugins, URL shorteners, a destination site and other approaches they plan to lay comments over web pages. Comments? You laugh? Well they promise to make "better quality" comments by ranking and classifying them, with sentiment analysis and a reputation system that will in effect produce community peer review.

If this works, then I agree with Marshall Kirkpatrick (fantastic journalist), and I'm very excited to see more. The ability to crowdsource credible and relevant knowledge right in line with the original content would greatly improve the quality of information on the internet, which increasingly affects the world around us.

However (you knew it was coming), I'm skeptical for a few reasons:

Firstly, it seems to depend quite a lot on the sentiment analysis which they're apparently calling "stance". The video says they can pick up on a whole list of sentiments, which will be used to filter/rank the comments. I've not yet seen sentiment analysis that can do this accurately, despite the masses of data we have out there - unless they have an incredible new breakthrough (which I guess is possible) then I'm not sure how they can properly rank comments.

Another technology that has been promised many times and mostly failed is reputation ranking systems, again one of the tent poles holding up Hypothes.is. I'm yet to be convinced that reputation ranking systems that cover the entirety of human knowledge are even possible. Without artificial intelligence (and even then) how is it possible to accurately rank every aspect of a person's knowledge?

Depending on mainly on these technologies (as the video suggests to me) leads me to think that the supposed moderation will dodgy at best. Of course, I could be wrong especially if some crowdsourcing of comments is involved.

Next, who gets to pronounce the supposed domain experts? People who Hypothes.is are "engaging" to seed the service with quality knowledge - who are they? And how can they possibly have experts on every topic on the internet? Do their partners (so far: the Internet Archive, and the founders of Slashdot) have a say? Aren't we supposed to be avoiding a "top down editorial bureaucracy"?

Now I must admit that many of these fears have been allayed because I've found out that Hypothes.is is a non-profit. Neutrality is one of their 12 principles, but the service would be massively less useful if I suspected a basis.

What are they going to do to get me to write a comment on Hypothes.is instead on in a tweet, or a blog, or a Google+ post? In fact, there's no mention of the fact that a lot of commenting on stories these days happens elsewhere, not in the comments section. I actually happen to quite like this current system quite a lot - I have the chance to expand my thoughts and opinions right here. I would like more ability to link directly to a paragraph though - just like Dave Winer's blog.

Finally, the video brings up the problem of cold launch strategies. They address this, to an extent, in their FAQ saying that all social networks have the same problem and that they'll make the service useful from the start. What actually happens remains to be seen, as I say I hope it does work.

I'm also intrigued by the "distributed" nature: is it going to try to de-centralise comments? Can I install a version on my server? If so, I'm loving this - the ability to control my content on my server is an important data perservation point. Decentralisation is a key concept of the internet, and it's high time that comments went the same way.

One more question: The video also mentions videos - how will this work, especially with the dominance of Flash? Even YouTube (backed by the mighty Google) can't really do comments on videos properly. I'd quite like to see audio mentioned too...

I really hope they manage to annswer all my questions, and if they manage to pull it off then I'm extremely excited. I really like their 12 principles, especially open source, transparent and pseudonymous - all things that are "of the web".

Placement Year - Hire Me!

Ed's note: I got hired! See my update post.

This post is intended as unashamed self promotion for my placement year in the computing industry. Hopefully it'll answer some questions about what a placement year entails and what you might get from it.

So first of all, what is a placement year? Essentially it's a full year where you get an intern working for you. They should take on a role within the company, just like any other employee, and contribute to helping the business. There is a focus on developing skills so that they can become a more rounded employee in the future.

Why do a placement year? It's a great chance for starting some recruitment, and to give some training to someone who may well want to work for you in the future. It offers a lost cost way to bring new skills and lots of enthusiasm into the workplace, possibly onto projects which may have been on the backburner. Existing staff are freed up to complete more complex tasks, and it allows them to develop management skills while mentoring students. There's a more complete list available here.

Many other companies in the sector, small to large, take on placement students and have been extremely happy with them, and go on to employ them once they graduate. Here's a few examples.

What do you have to do to offer a placement? You have to satisfy the five following criteria (these are set by the university):

  • The Industrial Placement should be for a minimum period of 36 fulltime weeks (excluding holiday).
  • The type of work undertaken on the Placement should be relevant to the Student's degree/studies. For instance, a Business Information Technology Student's Placement should be Business/IT focused, - i.e. being involved in the Business and Information Technology systems within the Company
  • The Employer should treat the student as a normal member of staff, particularly in respect of induction, training and Health & Safety practices
  • The Employer should recognise the contract as an Industrial Placement, i.e. a fixed term contract for approx 12 months with no further commitment on either part beyond this.
  • The Employer should allow the Student and the Student's supervisor/line manager to be visited during the Placement by a member of academic staff (to review progress and discuss other issues that may arise).

Now down to the real question: Why offer me a placement? I'm a Web Technologies, at Portsmouth University. I am very enthusiastic about creating new applications for the web, and for mobile. The explosion of HTML5 and it's related technologies point toward a bright future of the web which I want to be part of.

In my first year of the course, which was a common year for all School of Computing students. I studied a variety of units, which cover a generalised look at the field of Computing. Web Authoring and Design, which gave me a grounding in HTML and CSS, and the basics of running a web server Introduction to Structured Programming in which I learnt the Python language; Object Orientated Programming in Java where I learned the basics of object orienatated programming through the use of Java; Computer Organisation which covered a range of subjects on the fundamental concepts of Computing; Social Aspects of Computing, where I looked at the ways computers have had an affect on ethical, economical, social, legal and political issues Developing Information Systems which gave me an introduction to project management and UML; Introduction to Data Communications in which I learnt the basics of networking and finally the Origins of Computing unit, where I looked at where computers have come from and what factors went into their development.

My first year results are shown below:

  • Web Authoring and Design: 87%
  • Introduction to Structured Programming: 86%
  • Object Orientated Programming in Java: 78%
  • Social Aspects of Computing: 91%
  • Computer Organisation: 87%
  • Origins of Computing: 85%
  • Introduction to Data Communications: 85%
  • Developing Information Systems: 74%

Overall I achieved a first class honours grade, although the first year does not count toward the final mark.

My second year (which I am currently studying) is much more focused on Web Technologies, with units based around building web sites, learning PHP and Javascript, advanced Java programming, web-based project management, databases, understand Unix and human-computer interaction. At time of writing I am in my first semester, I am working towards building an online shop for an external client, as well as designing and building a database and investigating data structures through advanced Java programs.

I love to learn more skills and technologies, and to increase my knowledge base. I think this would mean that I would be able to get quickly up to speed with projects and tasks while on my placement year. This is also one of the reasons I would like to do a placement year, I as hope that there will be many opportunities for learning new skills. I also have good organisational skills, which allow me to keep track of time, prioritise tasks and work efficiently. I have previously worked as an intern at the British Red Cross in the digital fundraising team, which gave me great experience of the office environment. I believe that I would be able to integrate easily into any office workflow. I also volunteered at Kandersteg International Scout Centre for 3 months, working as a Short Term Staff Hike Guide, which involved leading groups on hikes around the Swiss Alps. I also returned to KISC again over this summer, as a Snow & Ice Guide, which is similar but teaching mountaineering skills. I developed my leadership qualities, people skills and problem-solving abilities greatly, and was entrusted with risk management to lead groups safely over glaciers. You can see more and some of my photos on my Kandersteg blog (Ed's note: Posterous shut down on 30th April 2013, so this blog was discontinued. I may try to revive it sometime, when I'm finished tidying up this site).

I actively follow technology and web news, reading many blogs and listening to various podcasts, which I believe means I have a good idea of current theories and trends in Computing and on the web.

What else am I interested in? I do quite a few activities outside of my university work. I been involved in Scouting since I was very young, and I continue to help out with my group whenever I am at home. I am an Assistant Scout leader, which involves planning weekly meetings, running activities and assisting where needed. I have also planned out and organised the annual summer camp, which unfortunately I could not attend, because I was working at KISC.

Scouting has also allowed me to do a lot of outdoor sports, another big interest of mine. I love hiking and have been walking many times in North Wales, and other places in Britain. I completed the 3 Peaks Challenge in 23 hours and 49 minutes last year. I also enjoy climbing, and have joined the university climbing club, which run twice-weekly training sessions. I hoping to improve my abilities a lot this year.

I have played Ultimate Frisbee for several years, having joined the club while at Cardiff University. I immensely enjoy playing the sport, improving my abilities and competing against others. Do I have a CV? Certainly, my CV is available via Google Docs here: http://j.mp/alasdairsmithcv

How can I find out more? You can contact me via email, Google+ or Twitter, and you can also have a look around my blog or my main site

UPDATE (15/10/2011): Updated to include info about second year at Portsmouth, and second summer at KISC.

Heart and Sole, mapped

I'm looking forward to going to the Heart and Sole Conference next Friday :-) Apparently it's sold out, so it should be good fun...

Here's the data set on Google Docs :-)

The Web Of Distrust

A couple of things have gone into the inspiration behind this post: Dave Gorman's recent post on fake Children In Need Twitter accounts, and attitudes around Wikipedia that I've heard from academics.

Trust is a funny thing - it can be easily influenced and manipulated. I've found that people are oddly trusting of certain things, and equally strangely distrusting of others. In particular people's trust of Wikipedia is something that seems to be backwards.

The number of time's I've heard from my lecturers that Wikipedia can't be trusted (I'm sure I'd lose a hell of a lot of marks if it cited it), because of it's openness - anyone can edit it and so therefore the information on it can't be verified. Despite that fact that I've found many Wikipedia articles to be better sourced (and have actual links to peer-reviewed articles) than some of the learning resources and links we've been sent by lecturers. But my real issue is the expectation that we can really trust any article at all - the scientific method is based around the idea that no fact can be 100% provable. We're told that we should be critically analysing Wikipedia to think about how much we trust it. I see this as stunning arrogance - we should be critically analysing every article, paper and book that we come across, especially stuff that's held up to be absolute truth.

And this is where my real point comes in - I think that somehow some forms of media have managed to get a false levels of trust. I've found that just because something's on the internet people trust it less and look for more sources, which is great but I just wish they'd apply this to newspaper, TV, books etc.

This was brought home to me, to some effect, by the Children In Need fake accounts that @DaveGorman tweeted about, and subsequently blogged about (see the link above) - it seems that again trust is the issue. People assuming that a Twitter account offering to donate 50p to CiN was legit, when in fact there's no link to information about the cause. It only takes one person who needs to dig a little to expose information that's plain wrong.

So I guess what I'm saying that we should treat all information with just a bit more scepticism, and think about the biases of the authors.

PS. You can donate to Children In Need here

How To Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Internet

I've just reread this (thanks to a link from @kevinmarks), and I've probably tweeted this before but I just had to post this. Douglas Adams hits so many nails on the head

the reason we suddenly need such a word [interactivity] is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment [...] We didn't need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don't (yet) need a special word for people with only one head."

I've just spend half an hour writing up lecture notes for a class called Social Aspects of Computing, debating whether or not we live in an Information Society - it looks like some people need to catch up with reality. This was written 11 years ago!

[gallery]

(via michael_hughes)

This piece first appeared in the News Review section of The Sunday Times on August 29th 1999.

A couple of years or so ago I was a guest on Start The Week, and I was authoritatively informed by a very distinguished journalist that the whole Internet thing was just a silly fad like ham radio in the fifties, and that if I thought any different I was really a bit naïve. It is a very British trait – natural, perhaps, for a country which has lost an empire and found Mr Blobby - to be so suspicious of change.

But the change is real. I don't think anybody would argue now that the Internet isn't becoming a major factor in our lives. However, it's very new to us. Newsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people "over the Internet". They don't bother to mention when criminals use the telephone or the M4, or discuss their dastardly plans "over a cup of tea," though each of these was new and controversial in their day.

Then there's the peculiar way in which certain BBC presenters and journalists (yes, Humphrys Snr., I'm looking at you) pronounce internet addresses. It goes "www DOT ... bbc DOT ... co DOT ... uk SLASH ... today SLASH ..." etc., and carries the implication that they have no idea what any of this new-fangled stuff is about, but that you lot out there will probably know what it means.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you're born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

This subjective view plays odd tricks on us, of course. For instance, "interactivity" is one of those neologisms that Mr Humphrys likes to dangle between a pair of verbal tweezers, but the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport - the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn't need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don't (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

I expect that history will show "normal" mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this. "Please, miss, you mean they could only just sit there and watch? They couldn't do anything? Didn't everybody feel terribly isolated or alienated or ignored?"

"Yes, child, that's why they all went mad. Before the Restoration."

"What was the Restoration again, please, miss?"

"The end of the twentieth century, child. When we started to get interactivity back."

Because the Internet is so new we still don't really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that's what we're used to. So people complain that there's a lot of rubbish online, or that it's dominated by Americans, or that you can't necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can't "trust" what people tell you on the web anymore than you can "trust" what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can't easily answer back - like newspapers, television or granite. Hence "carved in stone". What should concern us is not that we can't take what we read on the internet on trust - of course you can't, it's just people talking - but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV - a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no "them" out there. It's just an awful lot of "us".

Of course, there's a great deal wrong with the Internet. For one thing, only a minute proportion of the world's population is so far connected. I recently heard some pundit on the radio arguing that the internet would always be just another unbridgeable gulf between the rich and the poor for the following reasons - that computers would always be expensive in themselves, that you had to buy lots of extras like modems, and you had to keep upgrading your software. The list sounds impressive but doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny. The cost of powerful computers, which used to be around the level of jet aircraft, is now down amongst the colour television sets and still dropping like a stone. Modems these days are mostly built-in, and standalone models have become such cheap commodities that companies, like Hayes, whose sole business was manufacturing them are beginning to go bust.. Internet software from Microsoft or Netscape is famously free. Phone charges in the UK are still high but dropping. In the US local calls are free. In other words the cost of connection is rapidly approaching zero, and for a very simple reason: the value of the web increases with every single additional person who joins it. It's in everybody's interest for costs to keep dropping closer and closer to nothing until every last person on the planet is connected.

Another problem with the net is that it's still "technology", and "technology", as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is "stuff that doesn't work yet". We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn't worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often "crash" when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things. In fact I'm sure we will look back on this last decade and wonder how we could ever have mistaken what we were doing with them for "productivity".

But the biggest problem is that we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don't really get it. In "The Language Instinct", Stephen Pinker explains the generational difference between pidgin and creole languages. A pidgin language is what you get when you put together a bunch of people - typically slaves - who have already grown up with their own language but don't know each others'. They manage to cobble together a rough and ready lingo made up of bits of each. It lets them get on with things, but has almost no grammatical structure at all.

However, the first generation of children born to the community takes these fractured lumps of language and transforms them into something new, with a rich and organic grammar and vocabulary, which is what we call a Creole. Grammar is just a natural function of children's brains, and they apply it to whatever they find.

The same thing is happening in communication technology. Most of us are stumbling along in a kind of pidgin version of it, squinting myopically at things the size of fridges on our desks, not quite understanding where email goes, and cursing at the beeps of mobile phones. Our children, however, are doing something completely different. Risto Linturi, research fellow of the Helsinki Telephone Corporation, quoted in Wired magazine, describes the extraordinary behaviour kids in the streets of Helsinki, all carrying cellphones with messaging capabilities. They are not exchanging important business information, they're just chattering, staying in touch. "We are herd animals," he says. "These kids are connected to their herd - they always know where it's moving." Pervasive wireless communication, he believes will "bring us back to behaviour patterns that were natural to us and destroy behaviour patterns that were brought about by the limitations of technology."

We are natural villagers. For most of mankind's history we have lived in very small communities in which we knew everybody and everybody knew us. But gradually there grew to be far too many of us, and our communities became too large and disparate for us to be able to feel a part of them, and our technologies were unequal to the task of drawing us together. But that is changing.

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn't even know to have names for them.

(via douglasadams.com)