Saturday, December 26, 2009

10 Things Local Authories Could Do to Reduce Costs & Improve Services in 2010

Being deeply involved with the Social, Business and Communication processes that exploit the Internet; my thinking for 2010 is influenced by my thoughts when looking back over 2009. Although no expert I put my brain waves down here and invite your views.

The 'crash of 09' have had a major impact on me personally, but it seems that in-spite of all the talk about the need for change in, Banking, Finance, State Bodies, Employment, and Education, I don't see many new strategies. Reductions in the number of employee's seems to be the only strategy, and I believe this is bad for everybody.

So here are my Ten Suggestions to Local Authorities in 2010.

1. Dump Marketing Spend:

A lot of promotion is undertaken by councils and other state bodies. Much is wrapped in talk of requirements to 'inform', 'consultant' and 'educate', when it is really only self-promotion. I don't have insights into why this happens, but I see is all the time. This money should go to genuine 'inform', 'consultant' and 'educate' campaigns. The aims must be set before the campaign, and afterwards the results must be measured and published. Get small projects to build on each other, rather than big bang ideas that never achieve the original goal.

2. Publish information 100% electronically:

After years of prevarication this should be year to set a timeline to implement paper-free processes. Every process that is planned to use paper should have a lifecycle plan to move it to a paper-free one. Given suggestion #1 these types should be the first to move. From #3 'inform', 'consultant' and 'educate' publications should use school and university resources to design and produce the material.

3. Involve the Community:

There are many keen groups in the electorate that would get involved in ways that would improve the effectiveness of 'money spent'. These groups can provide resources for consulting, design, production, and manpower for action.

4. Use social media to build links.

The Community does not need to be ‘local’ in a geographic sense. The use of social media allows like thinking and common interest groups to be formed nationwide and even worldwide. The groups should highlight best practice and new innovations that can be implemented locally, easily and quickly. Opportunities for shared services such as website provision and maintenance will come out of such groups. Social Networks also enable #2, #3 and #4

5. Use internet for referenda, polls and feedback.

Implement a much tighter loop when involving the Community, existing processes often involve a "draft, survey, final process". This does not achieve true involvement with the community as it takes too much time and the Community has on "moved on" before any results are seen. The process should move to "survey, draft, survey, draft, vote on final". Use of the Internet, Web and Mobile communications is needed to meet speed and cost requirements of such a process. Currently much information is passed to the community via third parties, modern communications will increasingly provide a direct bi-directional link. Where individuals do not have direct access to the Internet, they will need to be linked to this information stream. This could be done using 'advocates' that have mobile access and attend such get-togethers as senior coffee mornings, church meetings, PTA meetings, etc.

6. Use GPS and Geo-Location technology and data to enhance and improve service supply:

Many new phones come with built in Geo-location and Application functionality, this should utilised to provide a more automated, faster and accurate service whenever location is important to the service.

8. Use the youth to plan the future:

The youth have the availability, inclination and desire to travel, learn and experiment. Later people have more ties, less stamina and reduced desire to travel, but while many still want to learn and experiment. Many want to reap the rewards of earlier investments. State service hubs must take advantage of these differences.

9. Use the seniors to inform the Youth:

Seniors have many years of experience, have been through economic and business cycles many times, they have done things the youth wish to do, and wish to do the things the youth are doing. This knowledge needs to be passed on to the youth and the interchange of knowledge may become a two way process. Their experience can inform business processes to help reduce waste, obsolete processes, and improve their effectiveness.

10. Finally:

Resolve that in 2010 a sea change will be seen by rate payers, providing improved services at reduced cost to local tax payers and creating hi-speed and bi-directional links to the local community, and to involve the wider community in ways that can impact locally in a win-win sense.

Monday, December 21, 2009

HC Party ToDo No.1 - Climate Change ETS and how to Milk it.

At the HomeCamp Party I was talking with James (@monkchips), and a small group, discussing my experience of technology over my various work places from the past. Having been around for a while the cycles of life have travelled past me several times, a bit like Hales Comet. Themes such as the regular company re-org's which swing from Horizontal to Vertical organisation and back, Booms and Busts, and the popularity of Miniskirts, and then a backlash of Maxi ones have revealed their cyclic nature to me.

It is easy to think, in these days of info everywhere, all digitised and archived, that everything that was known in the past is still known, and those that have come along since have that knowledge already. What came out of the chat we were having is that this is just not the case.

A particularly interesting job that I had early in my career was working for the Milk Marketing Board in their main milk testing laboratory.

While I was describing my work a feeling of deja-vu wafted around us.

James’ eyes lit up *** Milk is just like Energy *** he exclaimed, and he asked me to write a post on the subject and so here it is. I use Farmer and Milk Producer interchangeably in this post.

So how did this revelation coalesce?

Milk is a commodity that is 'sort of natural' like energy, and like many natural things it must be harvested and processed before being available to the consumer.
Milk is a necessity of life and the only choice the consumer has is how much and what brand to use. Even then, brand availability may be restricted in particular markets.

The processor of milk is a separate business from the producer, and a supply chain links the producer and the consumer.

The price that the producer gets for their product is determined by the processors along the chain, it is also influenced by market price and market ‘adjustments’.

Milk Producers were paid a price per litre that was applied to the bulk tank supply of the milk, the price was modified by factors of Fat, Protein and Sugar content. The Milk Producers were not provided with information about the component content of the aggregate product until payment time.

Consumers pay a fixed price rate for their energy, the cost to the supplier is modified by factors of Source (wind, gas, coal, nuclear, wave, solar). Consumers are not provided with information about the component content of the aggregate product even at payment time.

What changes distorted the market for milk?

The Milk Marketing Board (MMB) was a pseudo state agency funded in part by milk processors and producers.

The role of the MMB was to manage the supply of milk for the good of the UK consumer, and to do this they managed the market between Milk Producer and the Milk Processor. Supply security was an important element of the management given the experiences of the UK during the 2nd World War.

Over this time the Producer end moved from milk into churns taken to creamery daily, to chilled, wheeled tanks taken every 3 days, to larger wheeled tank for 10 days production and then to bulk tanks collected from the farm. These moves were prompted by, and in turn caused, the consolidation and increased herd numbers per farm, more automation and new technology.

The MMB service I worked with was providing data about Fat, Protein and Sugar content on a per cow per day basis to the milk producer. This ‘added value’ data allowed the farmer to manage the milk resource (i.e. the cow) within the Milk Production business.

Why do this?

Fresh milk is difficult to store, it can be processed into dried and UHT forms, but this is expensive and was un-popular in the UK.
Fat content is important to the Creamery (Processor), Gold Top milk was high in fat (~4%), Silver Top was lower in fat (~2%) and for cheese, double cream etc, fat is removed, leaving low fat milk (ironically sold at a premium compared to Silver) and the Fat for additional products (also sold at a premium).

The constituent parts of milk depend on three variable factors, the cow, the grass & the feed. The grass depends on location, season, fertilizer, weeds, etc. The cows output depends on breed, health, feed, age, etc.

If Daisy produces 10x the milk quantity at 3.1% Fat, while Ermintrude’s milk is 4.2% is it better to exclude or include Daisy’s milk in the bulk tank?

The answer is, of course “it depends”. Being a geek, even then, I had to work on a matrix arithmetic programme (using a Commodore PET BASIC) to get the answer In fact, it is the same problem faced by food oil processors, to use palm oil or peanut oil, etc, etc? But that is another story.

Back to Milk…..

Around the same time that milk supply management moved to EU level, the MMB was dissolved, maybe pressure from the commercial market was a major factor or maybe it was mostly political, I do not know which was most significant.

Because milk production was subsided by the EU, the market distortions this introduced had to be managed by the EU. The EU sets overall rules, but the application of these rules is left to each EU State.
As milk was considered a ‘staple’ and a minimum supply was always to be available, the EU introduced a subsidy to producers. Milk production subsidies are not unique to the EU, I understand that Switzerland set the subsidy to give milk producers the same income as a factory worker, and then had to introduce punitive import restrictions, which limited a person to importing less than a litre per day, very difficult for a country with so many EU borders. The USA, Australia and New Zealand offer similar support schemes too.

In the EU milk Quotas were introduced to control supply when the world market price fell too low. Together with import restrictions, this would control the minimum price. Quota was given, free of charge, to the milk producers at the time of introduction, the size was based on the size of herd. I believe the calculation period varied between EU States, but was based on previous number of years returns giving the number of cows per farm. There was a notice period before the introduction that allowed milk producers to ‘prepare’ for the Quota system. This notice period inevitably created an uneven calculation system that enabled ‘planning’ or even gaming to occur.

To deal with the milk producers retiring, transferring of farms to siblings, the sale of farms, etc, the quotas were made transferable, and thus a market in Quota trading was created and where there is a market there is a broker.

This led to Quota leasing, sales and purchasing, not only from retiring farmers, but from those who were attracted by a high market price for Quota compared to their milk price, some to leave and some to enter the milk production business.

Because different milk producers get a price determined by their buyer not the market, the price is often lower for the small producer, the producer in a remote location, and producers in an area where there is only one buyer.

Well, that is as far I have got, I hope this post stimulates the comparisons to the energy trading systems that were brought to James’ mind in such a flash. I will be interested to see your comments.

(Disclaimer: These are 'facts' purely from my experience, the reader should verify the truth of anything I have said for themselves before reusing them)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Full Disclosure On Twitter

Two twitter themes in one day!

A subject that came up recently in discussions on Twitter, and related to another FIR show, was how to do disclosure of potential "conflicts of interest" in Tweets.

The trigger for the discussion was the legal changes that came into force in the US on 1st Dec 2009 and, as I have heard it reported, require bloggers in the US to declare any payments from and in connection with companies and products mentioned in blog posts.

I am sure there a many ideas on the 'best way' to do this flagging, but this is mine. I haven't seen any other suggestion, but I will be looking further into this later.

My suggestion is to use the Tag #D and to ensure your profile URL points to a web page with the usual Contact info, T&C's, Privacy Policy, and a Declaration of Interests. It could also be extended to #D1 etc to reference a particular subsection of the DOI.

Don't Just Send That Tweet

After listening to Neville Hobson & Shel Holtz discussing the problems that tweeting without pre-thinking on their show FIR, a song by Artisan came into my mind but with the wrong lyrics.

Here are the lyrics I came up with, They are voiced by Vicky MacApple in a recording I have put up on

Maybe someone musical could come up with an open replacement for the tune I was thinking of, or someone with a voice could give a human voice. If you do then please let me know.

Lyrics by MikeTheBee

To the tune of Tom Paxton's "Don't Slay That Potato"

Ooooh noo, dont just send that tweet,
think on before you press go.

is it a nice one, is it just sweet,
is it just nasty, or sent in the heat.

does it enlighten, does it inspire,
or will it depress, or just add to the fire.

Will it inform, and win you some friends,
or will just anger and send round the bends.

Ooooh noo, dont just send that tweet,
think on before you press go.

letters are slow, but twitter is quick,
don't let that speed, lessen your wit.

packing your tweets with soft,sloppy slush,
isn't the answer to tweet in a rush.

think and consider, as you would if mailed it,
that is that last chance, to know that you've nailed it.

Ooooh noo, dont just send that tweet,
think on before you press go,
after you press it it is just to late,
now is the last time to have the debate.

Ooooh noo, dont just send that tweet,,

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More to it than Metering

I was just listening to @tomraftery on GreenMonk TV, he referenced a story about PG&E in the US and seriously failings in the Smart-meter roll-out.

It revolves around the excessive consumer bills that arose in the summer months due to HVAC units running in peak hours, as of course they would, we cannot store "coolness" very easily yet.

Tom pointed out that Utilities have never been good at communication, which is true, some marketing stuff, but nothing about tariffing or technology.

So I am adding this post to alert the need for Smart-meter roll-out to have a comms element, comms to the user, not just to the computer. Lots of opportunities here. Should be a good topic for a HomeCamp workshop.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

UK Smart Meter Target Annouced

Having been pre-announced several times, the official announcement seems to have now been made, although I haven't found it the Government statement yet, the press is full of the details.

It is interesting that it will cover gas and electricity and will require the inclusion of an indoor monitor unit.

As I mentioned in my last post I hope that the opportunity will be taken to make this a positive experience for household energy services in the UK rather than all the focus being on the cost and lack of real benefits to the householder.

The last major change on this scale was the change from "town gas" to "natural gas" that required new meters, cooker burners and fires because of the higher delivery pressure. Although I was young and it was so many years ago, I remember it as a time of disruption throughout the country, with yellow pipes everywhere for years. No direct householder benefits came from all the expense, but the loss of use of portable equipment and months of disruption, was felt by my family.

Even at that time the industry was aware that adding a remote sender would be a good addition, but indecision and opportunity ownership problems prevented the sensors being included.

I am hoping that this time such a loss will not happen. I am not yet convinced, but will be watching for any chance I get to spread the HomeCamp Message.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Are Modular Meters the Answer

With a lot of discussions in the news around the SmartGrid and Solar PV it got me thinking about the installation of the new electric and gas meters that is happening in the UK. It is the first time that the meters have really changed in 40 years.

But I think the new designs are not looking far enough into the future. If the meters were modular they could help address the high cost of the control systems that are needed for Solar PV panels.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

When computers were less personal.

conor Conor O'neill from Ireland @conoro brought back some sweet memories with this video of personal computers from a while back.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Your very own 'Limited Edition'

So I heard about the actuality of an idea that has been discussed for so many years it is on a par with 'space travel'. What is the idea? well 'printing books'! 

Books! you may say, "what about the printing press, described as the Internet of its time?". Well this time the printing press has been moved into the bookshop. On Demand Book Printing.

I saw a clip of the machine on a recent UK TV News feature and it caught my eye. It looked a bit Heath-Robinson in its mechanics, but I recall is was described as being able to print, collate and bind a book in about 20 minutes, the time that a cup of coffee and a Danish takes to enjoy in the bookshop cafe.

So I looked for a bit more info via du'Web and found a useful 'executive summary' of the 'Expresso Book Machine aka the EBM' at that enlightened the information that Blackwell's bookshop in London had installed the machine. 

So a trip over to the Blackwell's website provided all the details. It isn't 20 mins wait, it's only 5, so there goes my coffee thoughts, they must have come from the name of the machine (with a copyright symbol I note).  The first machine is in the Charing Cross branch in London, the machine has a local store of 400,000 publications, can access rare and out of print books at the 'Wayback Machine' (aka, accepts customer files from CD or flash drive, boasts about "being green", and they say "Book prices on the EBM will be the same as those currently instore", it is based around a Xerox 4112 printer and has a "constant positive retention" accumulator. Soon books be ordered 'online' as well as in-store.

An impressive list of features and that is just my summary of the Blackwell's article. 

A couple of questions came to my mind that I didn't find the answers to though.

Can I have a custom cover to the book, maybe personalised to match the theme of the occasion if the book is a gift, or coloured to match the decor of the book room, or maybe even digitally signed by the author?

The BBC Radio 5 Book Review Show with Simon Mayo has a panel who are always fascinated by discussing the cover of each book which emphasises the importance of the cover in my mind.

And I trust it will be more reliable than the last "high speed" photocopier I used, but at least someone will be 'minding' this one, rather than letting the customer loose on it.

It sounds like a great innovation, although a long time coming it must be the time for such ideas to become real, and it shows that there is life in the old bookshop yet!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Deep Depth of Data to be Mined - Smart Meters

Recently I've been involved in a lot of discussions around the subject of energy saving, sustainability, green power, high power bills and the like. Picking the bones out of these discussions would leave me with pile on bones, but to break down all the ideas I need to get my brain around them.

To start with tackling that challenge, and to start this Blog off in a way that may help others, I will be listing the 'Smart Meters' as I find them.

Another part of this 'Wave' is the linking of devices via the Internet, the collecting of data without pre-defined goals, data mining of this and existing data. As well as the usual interests undertaking this work, we have the amateurs, the home hacker, the DIY'er with an interest.

PacHube are building such a linking function. Their site links data source input, display
via Google mapping and output feeds using XML, JSON and CSV.

In the UK there is a group, with a mix of parties, working together in a social way to build on this 'Wave' are getting together on-line, in 2nd world SIM's and in 1st life get togethers.

These are the fisrt two links that come to my mind, follow me for more. Any that you know of, and wish to note in the comments, will be welcomed, let us know any USP and any experience you have with the device or service.