Adventures in (less serious) data land

I’ve been wrangling data for a project.

And creating interactive data visualisations using tableau. The results are OK but, you know, a bit serious.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

(These are all interactive but this page is a bit thin for the true majesty to work, so I’m afraid you’ll have to click through to play with the data. Do come back though.)

1. Magic

Skyler Johnson shows us every spell muttered, flicked, and yelled in the Harry Potter book universe, visualised at occurrence position.
Skyler Johnson shows us every spell muttered, flicked, and yelled in the Harry Potter book universe, visualised at occurrence position.

2. Lyrics

Chris Love all of the song lyrics to the Top 100 songs
Chris Love all of the song lyrics to the Top 100 songs

3. Culture

David Newman visualised the Simpsons. Nuffsed.
David Newman visualised the Simpsons. Nuffsed.


4. Music

Will Jones and Eric Shiarla look at  history of music #1s in the United Kingdom
Will Jones and Eric Shiarla look at history of music #1s in the United Kingdom

5. Movies

 Ryan Sleeper asks do movies, like fine wines, get better with age?
Ryan Sleeper asks do movies, like fine wines, get better with age?

6. Chess

Joe Mako recreates one of the earliest recorded chess matches in Rome
Joe Mako recreates one of the earliest recorded chess matches in Rome

7. More music

Dan Lane visualised all the songs which have reached million-seller status in the UK
Dan Lane visualised all the songs which have reached million-seller status in the UK

Open source intelligence and ethics

Spy by Leonardo Veras
Spy by Leonardo Veras used under CC-BY 2.0

Evanna Hu has written a guest post on the Responsible Data Forum about Responsible Data Concerns with Open Source Intelligence. I basically agree with everything in that post, which you might think makes this post a bit superfluous but I’ve got to write something every day in November. Cos Dan Slee challenged me to.

Open Source Intelligence is intelligence based on publicly available information. Unless you work with open source intelligence (as I do for humanitarian purposes) I think it is hard to get your head around the detail and sophistication of data that it is often possible to derive from public sources.

I’ve written before of the privacy concerns that I think need to be more properly addressed by public bodies. What Evanna Hu’s post highlights is how much further this debate should go in organisations.

There is the legal framework (which is really what I was talking about in that post). I was really struck by Evanna’s statement

As with many responsible data concerns, legal compliance is just one part of a much bigger picture, and it often forms the lowest bar rather than the best practice we should strive for.

And the legal concerns I raised are really fairly specific and limited. An ethical framework would go much further. I’d be really interested to hear from any public bodies that have done work on this.

As a society, we need to go much further. We don’t really have cultural norms for the use of publicly available data by anyone. In many circumstances it may not be state actors that we should be most concerned about. We need to encourage, as well as legal frameworks, a global set of standards that we can hold all organisations to.

But maybe we can start in the UK. Is there any organisation interested in leading?

My life (so far) in tech

By Bill Bertram - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
By Bill Bertram – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

I was at a meeting today at which some people were using BlackBerrys (I know, I know). They were lamenting the fact that their IT team were about to replace them with iPhones or Androids or some such. It made me think of when, about 12 years ago I delighted managers by introducing these new fangled BlackBerry devices to my then council. And that got me reminiscing about tech in general…

My life in tech so far

Born (1971): family had a phone line. Not unheard of but still not that common (Dad worked for the Post Office and they wanted to be able to call him out in the wee small hours).

Some time in the 70s. Dad got sent a computer as part of his Open University course. It was programmed in binary. I’ve never been so disappointed.

1981. Got a ZX81. As a kit. Dad built it into a super-duper metal box with full travel keys. Typed 10 Print “Hello” 20 Goto 10. Blew mind.

1982 – 1987 Did not get a ZX Spectrum. Played WOTEF round at Jon’s on his ZX Spectrum. Played Chucky Egg round at Dave’s on his BBC Model B. Played… er… something round at Richard’s on his C-64. Played with Prestel at uncle’s house. Could not see point.

1982 – 1987 Did not get a BBC Model B or a C-64

1982- 1985 Obsessive reader of Computer and Video Games

1985 Started reading PCW obsessively

1983 Was bought a TI-994A as they were selling them off in Asda. Crushingly disappointing.

1989 Went to Cardiff University. They had a computer classroom. 40 286s running MS DOS and Windows. Blew mind. Sent first email using Coloured Book Software.

1992 Did sandwich year with National Rivers Authority. Used Lotus 123. Finally saw the point of statistics.

1993 Became obsessed with statistics and computer modelling. Discovered Internet. Discovered usenet. Starting telling all of my friends that this Internet thing was going to change everything. Saw less of friends.

1994 – 1996 Postgrad research. ArcView on a DEC Alpha. Saw Unix for first time: fell in love. Built first website. Built more websites.

Sometime between 1998 and 2001 Got ADSL. Blew mind.

Sometime in early 2000s. Got first mobile phone. Blew mind. Installed WiFi at work. Spend weeks gazing at laptop on table connected to Internet WITH NO WIRES.

2002 Was running an information service for community groups across UK. Noticed I had largely stopped using the phone for research and switched to using the World Wide Web.

2005 Was put in charge of a local authority website. Mixed success. Brought in BlackBerrys. General delight.

2008 Got Twitter account. Couldn’t quite get head around it. Later in 2008 Twitter obsessive. Thought: this social media is going to be big in emergencies.

2009 Stopped reading PCW. But only because they stopped publishing. Why? WHY?

2010 First unconference (GovCamp of Yorkshire and the Humber). BLEW MIND. Around this time first smart phone. Wow.

2011 Learned about Open Data (from Hadley Beeman). Blew Mind.

2012 Put in charge of a local authority website again. Quite pleased with results. Considered buying Mac. Bought ChromeBook Pixel. Bad decision

2016 Finally decided to embrace Mac at exactly moment Apple lost it and Microsoft became OK. Still on Twitter. Excited enough by new web browser (Vivaldi) to keep banging on about it. Slack!









How we use Skype (and Slack) in the Standby Task Force

Chit chat by Dano used under CC BY 2.0
Chit chat by Dano used under CC BY 2.0

The Standby Task Force is a digital humanitarian group. Our mission is to hep to improve the understanding of the situation on the ground following significant disasters. We have hundreds of members in the network and an individual deployment can involve anywhere between 60-400 of them.

Using Skype

SBTF was launched in 2010 and from the very start it used Skype chatrooms. This wasn’t, I’m fairly sure, based on a detailed review of the the available platforms. It was based on the fact that the founders used Skype. Indeed Skype is still a vital communications tool in international humanitarian work. It’s flexible. It’s reasonably open and works across platform.

When you signed up for the Standby Task Force you were added to the General chatroom. This was a fairly low traffic room but allowed for announcements to be made.

When the SBTF deployed we would create a new chat room just for that deployment. When volunteers signed up for a deployment they would need to be added to the chatroom. This created a degree of friction in the process: you needed to be connected to someone already in the chat room to be added in. Which meant you had to shout in the general chat, accept a connection request and then be added in. Given timezone differences this could lead to significant delays.

We also, though this wasn’t transparent to everyone, had a chat room for volunteers playing a coordinator role.

The deployment chatroom was designed to encourage volunteers working on a deployment somewhere to ask for assistance “Does anyone here read French?” “I’ve just found this photo, what should i do with it?” “What are the priorities right now?”.

It also forged a sense of team and shared mission.

The actual work was done on individual’s PCs and recorded on Google Documents (it’s amazing what you can achieve with Skype and Google Docs).

In big deployments a single chatroom would become unwieldy and we would then break out into smaller chatrooms focused on particular tasks.

In any deployment we have volunteers undertaking coordinator and deployment lead roles. These are team leader type roles, encouraging and supporting volunteers but also answering technical questions and (in the case of leads) liasing with other groups and agencies in on the ground.

Good things/bad things

Chatrooms can be surprisingly satisfactory ways of interacting and the record of discussions really helped get a sense of the work that had been going on.

They didn’t work for anyone. In fact in my first deployment I did nothing because I was unsure of what to do and, as a Brit, was too diffident to speak (type) up and ask for help. I know I’m not alone in this. Some of this is personal, some cultural and some is familiarity and comfort with the technology.


Emoji use is massive in SBTF chats. I think this is really important. We have people from across the world many of whom are communicating in their second (or third or fifth) language. We’re working under pressure in a heightened environment. The risk of misunderstanding is high. Emoji really help to emphasise the intent behind the words. It took a bit of getting used to for me but now I couldn’t be without them. Indeed I work with a client on emergency exercises and we use Skype chat for exercise control. Emoji are banned in that chat room and it feels like I’m communicating under water.

Advanced uses

Early on in the evolution of SBTF we recognised the real risk of stress for our volunteers and counsellors and an “empathy team” have always deployed with us. Coordinators work hard to spot signs of stress and to encourage volunteers to take breaks. It is amazing how you can get to know someone just through their typing and notice their mood change.

I think it was in the Nepal deployment when the empathy team set up a new chatroom badged as a cafe bar. It was inspired. People would spend time in that chatroom at the end of a shift. If you came across someone who seemed to be getting down in the deployment chat you could say “Let’s get a coffee (or a beer)” and start talking in the cafe chatroom. The mood would change instantly. I strongly recommend this approach to any groups working in similar circumstances.

Using Slack

We’ve moved to Slack. Slack is better for our purposes. It removes much of the friction that we encountered creating chatrooms and adding people (because our members can just join the channel). It also makes it easier to have chatrooms that persist between deployments (for specialist teams like GIS). We have a permanent cafe bar now. Slack works well because web are a defined team (thanks Slack for letting us use the full version for free).

We haven’t cracked the problem of dropping into a deployment chat being a bit like being dropped into a huge room of people shouting at each other (with emoji) but we’re working on it.

It’s not the perfect solution (there is no perfect solution). For people who don’t use Slack for anything else it is, in many ways, no different to the old Skype days: they have to remember their login details for Slack and then remember to check what’s happening. Because we deploy infrequently many of our volunteers don’t spend much time in our Slack team between deployments.

We can’t ditch Skype completely. Skype is still widely used in humanitarian assistance and so liaison with other groups still happens largely in that environment. Skype chatrooms remain very useful for more diffuse communities where people may need to drop in and out of conversations and projects.

We often work with local communities affected by disasters. Typically they will use whatever platform they were already using for discussion. Facebook is very common along with WhatsApp and Telegram.

Lessons for others

I was prompted to write this because of a discussion on Twitter about using Slack for multi-agency comms in emergencies in the UK. I definitely agree that using a text chat platform is a good idea (I wrote about this yesterday). Personally I’m not totally persuaded that Slack is the right solution for that use case. Because it is not so much a permanent team as a lose network, some of whom may work together in a particular emergency. If I were in that situation, I’d look at Skype first. It’s become easier to join chatrooms without being invited and you can access Skype via a web browser (which can be very helpful in a public sector IT environment).

Can we use slack for civil contingencies chat?

Phil Rumens was looking for examples of using Slack for cross-agency team chat.

Its sparked a nice discussion including examples of the use of WhatsApp and Microsoft Lync  I’m also familiar with the use of Skype by VOST teams and Skype (and more recently Slack) by The Standby Task Force.

Why do we need anything?


First. Let’s talk about the problem.

There is a beautifully simple and flexible framework across the UK for dealing with emergencies (everything from floods to terrorism to zombie-apocalypse). Essentially all the bits of the public sector are required to work together in a series of interlocking committees. It works really very well.

And for many people it means spending a lot of an emergency on a phone or glued to email.

As a comms professional in local government (not right now, but often) I have been one of those people. And as a geek I have always felt that there must be a better way.

Illustrate through analogy

Let’s take a hypothetical emergency: there’s a massive fire in a factory in a big city.

Clearly there will be a lot of firefighters at the scene, fighting the fire. There will also be some police officers. They’ll be setting up a cordon to make sure people don’t come into the factory. A crime may have been committed so the police will also want to make sure no-one walks off with crucial evidence. People may be injured so there will be paramedics and ambulances. They may have to evacuate surrounding areas in which case the local authority will be looking for places for people to stay temporarily. The Environment Agency will be there to help minimise pollution from the event. Other local authority staff might be called in to provide specialist advice on things like the structural integrity of the building.

You get the idea.

And that’s just the start. There’s the health service making sure people get treated and that the health of the general public is protected, what if a care home is affected, what about a school and so on…

This quickly involves a lot of people and a lot of organisations.

And from a comms point of view there’s a lot to keep on top of. The public need good, fast, information on what’s going on (and advice on what they should do). Journalists will have questions about what’s going on. Staff within organisations will want (and probably need) to know what’s going on.

And the managers of the people at the scene will be talking. They’ll be trying to work out what might happen next. What if the fire spreads? What if the wind shifts? Do we have enough fire tenders? Will we have to close roads to traffic and so on. And those people also need communications input.

Coordinate those cats

The good news is that, even in these straitened times, there should be quite a lot of comms people (or at least some) able to help between all the organisations involved. The bad news is that they will be in different parts of the country, probably dealing with lots of other things as well and they will have specialist knowledge of their organisations.

So as the situation evolves different people need to be consulted, need to be brought up to speed or to hand over their thoughts to people coming on shift.

And typically this involves emailing ever changing lists of people and sitting on telephone conferences. It typically leaves out organisations that have less direct involvement (even if that organisation might have valuable insight) and makes it very easy to lose track of where the situation has got to and where the comms messages stand.

If only there were a better way.

Well there is.

The situation I’ve just described is exactly the one faced by digital humanitarian groups like The Standby Task Force or VOST and they use Skype and Slack. Really successfully.


Text chat systems like this have some real advantages. When you come on shift you can read up the chat and quickly get updated not just on what’s happened but why some choices have been made. You can also leave links to latest documents and more structured updates in chatrooms for people to refer to. And you can talk in real time to the people who are online right then. Different chat rooms can focus on different aspects of the task to avoid overwhelming the main discussion. But people who are less involved in that area but are interested or might have things to contribute can monitor and chip in when necessary. In The Standby Task Force we can coordinate the work of hundreds of people in all timezones using Skype (or Slack) and Google Docs.

It’s not for us though

So why don’t we use these in civil contingencies in the UK?

Well (as the WhatsApp example shows, sometimes we do). I think there are several reasons:

  • insufficient clarity on security. In fact on Twitter my instant reaction was that Slack would be unsuitable for this use because of operational security, Matt Hogan (who frankly knows an awful lot more about this sort of thing than me) thought this probably isn’t a barrier. Someone must know for sure…
  • operational friction. Email and phone conferences are extremely flexible and use extremely widely understood protocols. You can ask for a phone number and an email address with absolute confidence that everyone will have one. Ask for a Skype handle and you may be disappointed. And even if people use Skype, will it get through the Firewall? Exercise Watermark in 2010 highlighted that technical issues like Agency A not being able to use the WiFi in Agency B’s headquarters were a significant problem. I am aware this continue to be a problem in 2016. How many agencies not being able to take part in the chatroom would it take before the whole thing falls over.
  • innate conservatism. Emergency planning isn’t an area that encourages risk taking. When I was trained in emergency control centre operation (a few years ago I confess) we were shown how to run a control centre on pens and paper. That’s sensible because pens and paper work in power cuts and don’t suffer from WiFi incompatibility. But most of the time there isn’t a power cut and there are much better tools.
  • the LRF problem. Planning for emergencies is tasked to a partnership at police force level called the Local Resilience Forum. Each LRF is different but it can be hard to get new ideas adopted by the partnership bodies and, even if they are, to get each partner to implement them. No-one is in charge. This leads to flexibility in emergency response and, often, inaction outside of the response phase.

Slack may not be the best solution. I mean I love it but really it is designed for teams, it is not so good, to my mind, in the more ad-hoc situation of an emerging multiagency response. Skype probably would be my favourite solution. I can see why people might use WhatsApp (and I have used it myself in an event management role) but it’s a bit to mobile device -specific for me.

What do we need?

What we could do with is:

  • some nice clear guidance on what you can and can’t do in terms of emergency management on, let’s say, Skype, Slack and WhatsApp
  • some nice clear advice on how to make it work “we suggest you set up a chat room for the comms team” type stuff. There’s plenty of experience out there. Maybe I’ll write up how it works for us at the Standby Task Force.
  • a couple of LRFs to pilot it to reassure everyone else it’s a good plan
Any volunteers?


Time by Daniel Waters, Co. Sligo, Irelandused under CC-BY-2.0
Time by Daniel Waters, Co. Sligo, Ireland used under CC-BY-2.0
I have a blogging challenge going with Dan Slee. It’s fairly straightforward. We each have to blog every day. Or there is a forfeit.
I may have hit the forfeit on day four. Because I am staying in a delightful holiday cottage in West Wales. It has no internet connection and the mobile signal advertises itself tantalisingly as GPRS. Which feels like it should provide a connection but actually doesn’t.
So last night I wrote a blogpost and stumbled around a benighted garden waving my mobile phone in a caricature of the metropolitan visitors that are the butt of many jokes in this part of the country. But I couldn’t send it.
And this morning I couldn’t check Twitter, or read the news, or find out what my friends had been up to on Friday night.
Which is, of course, kind of liberating. And the digital detox is an established part of the chattering classes solution to the stresses and strains of modern life.
It’s also frustrating. Clearly there is stuff going on in the country and I’m not on top of it. Has the government taking a strong stand to support the role of independent judges? Maybe the Prime Minister has replaced “Brexit means Brexit” with “We don’t agree with the decision but we respect the people who make it. It is wrong to attack judges for simply doing their job because you don’t like the decision.” And America. Are they foolish enough to elect Trump (in a world where Boris Johnson is my country’s top diplomat that doesn’t seem so unlikely)?
Then again. What do I gain, as a citizen, from being tapped in to this discourse? I cannot, in any meaningful sense, influence it. I am a gawping spectator to a motorway pile up. Fascinated, concerned, terrified but removed and disconnected.
And nothing can be properly understood from the instant reaction. If we want our leaders to exercise their judgement. If we want to exercise our judgement we need to think about things. Reactive states reveal a great deal about what you feel but very little about what you think. High Court Judges are clearly not enemies of the people, though some people clearly are very cross about their decision in this case.
Digital communication technologies are great. But the ability to respond and track significant developments in real time doesn’t equate to that being helpful, desirable or useful.
I’m very much not recommending digital de-tox. But I am recommending taking time for reflection.

The London problem (a #ukgc16 post)

Photo of house by river with the house and the plants on the bank reflected in the water

Tech city?


London’s great right?

It is.

Obviously I wouldn’t want to live there but I love visiting.

Which is good because I have to visit it a lot.

Because London is where everything happens. Or, if not everything, a massive proportion of everything.

Take the explosion of interest in and recruitment of digital talent in government.

That’s great too. But it seems to be heavily focused on London. If you want to be part of making it all happen, you’ve got to be in the capital.

And this seems, to me, to be a problem.

A problem

It’s a problem in a couple of ways:

  • I think it will be hard for people based in London to build tech that meets the needs of people living in places very different to London*
  • I think it will suck talent out of the rest of the country

But what do I know?

Govcampers will know

So I pitched a session on this at UKCG16. It was merged with a session Jessica Figueras had pitched about creating sustainable and stable digital teams. This was a very good thing. Without it it would probably have been a bunch of us from the sticks talking about how crap London was.

There is agreement that there is a problem in this general though different people see different aspects of the problem.

The things people think are problems

A presenting problem at the moment is recruitment and retention of digital/tech staff. At least with some skills. At least in some areas.

The reasons for this are complex and intertwined but they seem to include:

  • shortage of some key skills
  • competition within the London market (fishing in the same pool as many private sector organisations and, increasingly, other government departments)
  • internal civil service recruitment and development processes may not be attractive to tech workers

There are also system inertia or resistance problems which include:

  • government as a whole is London-focused so it isn’t surprising that tech in government would have the same bias and, in some cases, it may be deliberate since tech is about transformation it must be visible to senior decision makers
  • tech in government is about delivering things now. So pragmatic decisions are taken to live with problems (like fishing in the same pool) because the sort of changes that would tackle them would delay delivery (or require several years to pay off)
  • since so many organisations are fishing in the London pool, London is an attractive place to base yourself as a potential employee or contractor so there are, in fact, many skilled staff available in London
  • working practices are (often) configured based on physical co-location. A tour round Aviation House reveals a cornucopia of post-it notes on walls. Attempting to bolt distributed working onto this culture will be hard. In contrast it is possible to deliver real projects via completely distributed teams, assuming that is the way the process is designed. Shifting from one to the other would be non-trivial.

It’s also worth highlighting (and it was highlighted) that some departments already have significant numbers of staff based outside London and DWP and HMRC (for example) are developing “digital hubs” in Leeds, Newcastle and other places.

London goggles

One other aspect I picked-up from the discussion was a certain sense of how people who live and work in London frame this sort of issue. This was not explicit in the discussion and, accordingly, might be entirely me projecting my own prejudices but these were some of the implicit assumptions that seemed to run through the discussion:

  • ambitious, talented people will seek the opportunities presented in London, ergo outside London people lack talent and ambition
  • a normal career path is to move to London and work hard when young and then to move to rural areas (though within easy access of London) to raise a family: ergo rural areas serve and are dependent on urban areas: they aren’t economies of their own
  • the value of being in London is so high that no solutions that would involve significant change to London focus are worth considering (you might as well discuss moving to the moon)

We didn’t really explore the question of whether London bias would lead to less appropriate solutions for other parts of the country. Though there was a general sense that this could be a problem.


I wasn’t too worried about exploring solutions. I was really keen to see if we could define what (if any) problems there might be. But you can’t stop digital folk trying to fix things.

It was highlighted that there are things in the system trying to address at least some of these problems.

  • Work on recruitment and retention is trying to make a civil service career more attractive to tech-types
  • As I mentioned, digital hubs are being developed outside the capital (and we heard a nice example of where DWP in Leeds is working with other employers to demonstrate to undergrads that there are high quality opportunities if they stay in Yorkshire)
  • Developments like the Digital Services Framework are intended to make it easier for government to buy specialist services from SMEs and, we were told, these suppliers are widely geographically spread
  • Flexible working (hot-desking etc) initiatives are spreading through the civil service

It would be great if we could shift working practices to entirely virtual working. Though this discussion was about digital there is no reason, in principle, why the whole civil service should not operate virtually.

This was UKGovCamp and so we were focused on the public sector but any solution would have to see the whole economy rebalancing to spread skills across the UK. The much vaunted Northern Powerhouse is probably the right sort of idea.

Success metric

I live in Herefordshire (gold star if you have *any* idea where that is). A brand new university is planned to open in the county in 2017. It will focus on STEM subjects. My dream is that someone graduating from there in 2020 could join the civil service and pursue their career to become, in due course, Permanent Secretary while still being based in Herefordshire. Contributing to our economy, being part of our society, making sure the government has a fuller sense of the country it governs.

Is that realistic?

About UKGovCamp

UKGovCamp is an extraordinary thing really. You can find out more about it here

An edited version of the session Jessica and I pitched appears on the UKGovGamp special natteron podcast People collaborated on notetaking during the session.

Photo credit

Autumn River Wye Reflections #Hereford #dailyshoot by Les Haines used under CC BY 2.0.

*by way of example, while at Herefordshire Council we were constantly trying to improve our public transport information. We looked at some simple integrations to a suitable looking API: like the “give me the time of the next bus on this service” request. Unfortunately if there was no bus within 24hrs it returned “no bus”. If you don’t understand why this is a problem have a go at moving around the Welsh borders by bus.

What happens next and who decides?

Middle-aged man in corduroy jacket sits with arms folded on a stage with a black backdrop
Photo by Chris Boland /

If you read the Guardian you probably won’t have been able to miss the fact that Paul Mason (from Channel Four News) has a new book out. It’s called PostCapitalism.

You should read it.

It’s a good book, well argued and interesting. And, you know, book-length. I mention this because the temptation is to try and explain in a blog post what Paul Mason has taken chapters to explain. I’ll try to resist this temptation.

Broadly he explains how the information revolution is threatening market-based capitalism. Then he suggests a way we could organise our economy better and proposes some ways to get there (my resistance didn’t last long).

Not everyone is going to agree with his vision for a future economy (he’s a bit of a lefty) but his arguments about how the information revolution are challenging market capitalism are interesting and fairly urgent.

One of his arguments is that the action of free markets will tend to reduce the price of information goods to close to zero. This is bad for people trying to make money out of information goods. The strong temptation for these people might therefore be to reduce the freedom of markets (like demanding more protection for intellectual property). Or to go bust.

This seems like a pressing problem for people trying to make money out of information goods (which is most businesses) and for society as a whole.

Paul Mason’s solution may not be the only or even the best solution but we do really need a solution.

Or we’ll sleep-walk into a very different future decided by people who do not have our best interests at heart.

Anyway I strongly recommend you read and argue about this book with immediate effect.

Why my next laptop will be a MacBook

A couple of years ago my ancient Dell laptop finally gave up the ghost and I went looking for a replacement. I wanted something lightweight, fast and capable of running Linux.

(I know, I know: you’re shouting “MacBook”)

I rejected MacBooks out of hand based on, frankly, bare prejudice.

I wanted to buy the Dell XPS DE which is an ultrabook with Ubuntu pre-installed but I couldn’t find a way to get them to sell it to me.

I’m a bit of a Google fanboi so I was interested in the immensely cool looking but scarily expensive ChromeBook Pixel. When I learned that through the Crouton package I could run full fat Linux packages on the Pixel I jumped and invested £1K of my own, hard-earned money.

And I loved it, still do. It’s beautifully made, starts in seconds and attracts admiring glances wherever it goes. Increasingly I just use the ChromeOS as I live in the Google ecosystem much of the time anyway.

So why will my next laptop be an Apple?

Because there’s more to selling laptops than delivering cool kit.

It started early on. The insulation on the charger started to fray. I contacted Google support and they leapt into action.

“The way this is going to work”

they explained

“Is we’re going to place a £1K charge on your credit card and send you a new ChromeBook and charger. Assuming you return the old machine to us within the correct timescale, we won;t take the money from your card”

“Well that’s not going to work for me”

I said

“Leaving aside the fact I don’t want you to muck around with my credit card, it’s just the charger that’s broken. I’ve customised my machine and I’d rather not have to go through all that again”

Obviously they disagreed that I *had* customised my machine or that such a thing was possible (it is). But through dogged persistence my query was escalated through various layers until it reached someone who decided the simplest thing would be just to send me a new charging unit.

At no point did I ever feel anyone was trying to resolve my problem. They were perfectly polite but they weren’t, in any meaningful way, helpful.

In a while the insulation began to fray again and this time there was a smoother process to exchange my broken kit for a shiny new item (which seemed much improved in the insulation stakes suggesting I had not been alone).

And now I have managed to lose my charging unit. It’s annoying and it may be returned to me but there’s no guarantee. I need something to power the machine.

Google no longer offer a suitable charging unit in their store. So I spent a fruitless and frustrating period on a text chat with a very polite support person who totally failed to solve my problem and, in fact, repeatedly gave me the incorrect advice that the Universal Charger in the Google Store would work with my device (it really won’t).

Eventually they escalated my request elsewhere and I have just received an email confirming that Google don’t supply this charger. They have no arrangements with third parties to supply chargers. They did suggest a search term I could use to hunt for third party kit.

It’s not the end of the world because a trip to Maplin will enable me to procure a properly universal charger.

Just as soon as Google confirm the specification for the DC power supply, which they have only partly managed so far…

It’s absolutely clear now that the 2013 ChromeBook Pixel was a Beta product. The current model of the Pixel looks awesome, is more sensibly priced and has a much longer battery life. I can’t recommend that you buy it though.

I’m down with the Beta testing. But I probably wouldn’t have forked out a grand if I’d known I was taking part in a testing programme.

So when the time finally comes to buy a new laptop, I’ll be nipping to the iStore. Because I trust Apple to look after me more than I trust Google. And that’s brand value.

It’s all about the podcast

For several months now I’ve been recording a podcast with Helen Reynolds from Social for the People. We talk about things that have been in the news that interest us: a bit of social media, government, housing, data, emergencies and PR generally. Sometimes we have a guest.

It has been and continues to be an interesting learning curve. In fact Helen has just posted some tips for new podcasters.

The feedback so far has been pretty positive and so we’ve gone so far to set up a proper home for the podcast online: The Natteron Podcast. We really appreciate the fact that people listen and that they go to the trouble to get in touch about the show.

If you’ve got a suggestion, comment or question please do drop me a line or comment below.

Oh, and the latest podcast, Sixth (non)sense, is up. Have a listen, it includes:

  • Mike Bracken’s dramatic departure from Government Digital Service
  • The company that banned emails and managers
  • Hacking cars
  • Festival of Code winners
  • The value of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations
  • some stuff about analytics