Monthly Archives: August 2010

Yay for Kindle

Amazon have just relaunched the Kindle e-reading device in the UK, with a new model, which looks rather spiffy.

Kindle

Mine is one of the old, white ones – but I still love it. The new one features a new layout which makes the device smaller overall but keeping the same sized screen. The Kindle now supports wifi, which is cool – mine can only use 3G networks.

As John Naughton writes in his Observer column on the subject:

In the end, however, it’s not hardware that matters, but the effectiveness of the overall system in which the device is embedded. That was the great lesson of the Apple iPod: although the hardware was lovely from the outset, it would never have had the impact it had without the link to iTunes software on the PC/Mac and thence to the iTunes store. Other companies had made nice MP3 players, but none had put together a seamless system for getting music from CDs or online retailers on to them. Apple did and the rest is history.

The evolution of the ebook business reveals the same kind of pattern. First up, in 2006, was Sony, with a beautifully crafted device that had one crippling drawback: the difficulty of getting stuff on to it. A year later, Amazon launched the first-generation Kindle, a device inferior to the Sony product in every respect save one: it had wireless connectivity to the Amazon online store, which meant that purchasing and downloading books on to the device was a breeze. After that, it was game over for Sony and, indeed, for all the other companies that had piled into the e-reader market.

There are a number of cool things about the Kindle, some of which are unique to it, some that aren’t. Here are my top three.

1. Instant books

As John points out in his article, the iTunes-like ability to buy books right away is remarkably powerful. It’s like the difference between ordering a CD online or downloading an MP3 – why wait a day for it to be delivered when you can have it now?

2. Social reading

One thing the Kindle allows you to do is to set bookmarks in your e-books, and also to annotate them with notes. In addition to this, you can also highlight passages to make sure you remember them.

A social layer has now been added to this, in that you can now see what other people who have that book on their Kindles have highlighted. It’s a bit like seeing how many other people have saved a web page in Delicious, and is very cool.

3. Syncing

As well as the Kindle e-reader device, Amazon make applications available for other hardware to read books on, including Mac, Windows, Android and iPhone. This enables you to download books to other devices and keep reading even when you don’t have your Kindle on you.

Most obviously useful for phones, the really great thing with the Kindle is the way that when you open a book in one of the apps, it opens on the last page you read on your Kindle. Likewise, when you then open the book on your Kindle, it catches up to where you got up to on the other device.

Holiday

deckchair

I’m officially on holiday now, so don’t expect to see much here over the next 7 days. I was hoping to get some posts written up and scheduled to publish over the week I’m away, but in the end found better things to do.

We’re off to the Suffolk coast – the weather looks dreadful so I doubt we’ll be doing much sunbathing. Fingers’ crossed though that the Met Office have got it wrong!

If anything interesting happens while I’m away, be a dear and leave a link in the comments to this post so I don’t miss it. Ta!

See you on the other side…

Android thoughts

So, I was lucky enough to be given a Nexus One by my wonderful employers a few weeks ago, to have a play with and possibly replace my iPhone (3gs) if I liked it. I thought perhaps folk reading this blog would be interested to hear how I’m getting on with it.

Nexus One

Well, the short answer is that I really like it.

Here’s the longer answer:

The Nexus One uses the Android operating system, which is developed by Google, and is a competitor to the iOS of the iPhone and the Blackberry OS, which appears on, yes, Blackberries. Instead of being limited to one company’s hardware, though, Android is open and can be used by any manufacturer.

Here’s a video about the latest version of Android:

This has led to Android being described as a more open system that, say, iOS and this is backed up by the open source nature of Android, based as it is on Linux. The Nexus One is a bit different though, as it is made by HTC, but is to Google’s specification. This has a number of advantages: you get operating system upgrades before anyone else, and the phone is free of any of the crud often automatically installed by carriers and manufacturers. It also means you can stick any sim card you like into it and it should work fine.

Android is therefore often compared with Windows in the 90s, on desktop computers. Apple’s MacOS was only available Apple computers and was tied to the hardware, resulting is a very high user experience but limited sales. Microsoft’s Windows, on the other hand, could be installed on any computer running on an Intel processor, and so was significantly more popular as a result of its portability.

This openness has a number of effects, some good, some not so good. One is that the Android app store doesn’t have the same rigorous checking regime that exists for the iPhone, which means it is easier to get apps listed in the store, but that inevitably brings down the quality somewhat. Indeed, Google are so keen for people to develop for the Android platform that they are making available the Android App Inventor – a drag and drop authoring tool for mobile apps (this reminds me a great deal of the Shoot ‘Em Up Construction Kit on the Commodore 64, but I digress).

Another form of openness is the way the phone integrates with other services. On an iPhone, when you choose to share a photo, you can usually just email it somewhere, or upload it to Apple’s MobileMe service. Choose the share option on the Nexus One, though, and you can email it, or send it to a service like Twitter or Facebook. It also knows if you have installed apps, so on my setup the options to share to Evernote and WordPress are also available. This is in addition to Google’s own services like Picasa and Goggles.

In a similar vein, external service are integrated to your contacts – so I can, if I choose to, add all my Facebook contacts to my phone, where they are added to existing contacts where possible. This is a nice touch, so for instance all my contacts with whom I am also Facebook friends have their Facebook profile picture added to their listing. I can also access people’s Twitter and Facebook pages straight from their contact listing, which is handy.

The camera is a 5 megapixel one, with a flash, and it seems to take excellent photos, as I found on my recent trip to Ireland:

Ireland photo

As someone who uses a lot of Google services, not least email, one thing that works as brilliantly as you would imagine it would is the integration with Google stuff. The native email application is a joy to use, and various other Google services have their own apps, or just work extremely well in the browser.

Battery life is pretty good, slightly better than my iPhone 3gs but with things like wifi, 3g and gps turned on all the time.

The downside is mainly the touchscreen, which simply isn’t up to the standard I have come to expect with the iPhone. It’s not as responsive, and typing on it can be tricky. I’ve no doubt I’ll get used to it in time, but for switchers it’s an obvious thing.

So for now I’m sticking with the Nexus One. I’ve had a quick play with an iPhone 4 and didn’t see enough in it to make me want to switch. The Android platform may not be as polished at iOS, but it appeals to my tinkering nature and I’ll forgive some of the user experience let downs for having better control over my phone.

Learning Pool on tour in September

LP events

September is promising to be a busy month already, with Learning Pool having scheduled in some exciting events for you to come along to.

Firstly, Elaine from our Modern Governor service is hosting a breakfast meeting in Birmingham. Find out what the latest good practice is in supporting school governors and with e-learning:

Second are a pair of breakfast briefings in Scotland. The details are:

At these events you’ll be able to hear all about how learning technology can help your organisation improve and innovative in a climate of budget cuts. Carol Woolley from Worcestershire County Council will be telling her story of how she has used Learning Pool’s services to make her life easier and her colleagues’ lives better; and I’ll be wittering on about something or other too.

Last, but undoubtably not least, is Learning Pool’s fourth birthday party in London. It promises to be a rip-roaring afternoon of networking and interesting presentations, followed by an evening of getting mullered by the Thames. You know you want to!

It’ll be great to see some DavePress readers there!

Boring system announcement

If you can see this, it means I have managed to successfully rehost DavePress!

Do me a favour and leave me a ‘hurrah!’ in the comments. It will a) make me feel better and b) help me to know everything is working ok.

Also, various bits might be broken. If you spot something, do let me know.

Thanks!

Bookmarks for August 11th through August 18th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Hackers for government (and a dollop of open source)

A hacker

A lovely story of sharing, reusing and creative hacking in government today. There’s a whole post to be written on hacker culture and why government needs people who are able to program computers on the payroll. You just can’t outsource this stuff. The first chapter of this book explains it far better than I ever could, as Andrea DiMaio explains:

Innovative and courageous developers are what is needed to turn open government from theory to reality, freeing it from the slavery of external consultants, activists and lobbyists. People who work for government, share its mission, comply with its code of conduct, and yet bring a fresh viewpoint to make information alive, to effectively connect with colleagues in non-government organizations, to create a sense of community and transform government from the inside.

Anyway, whilst he was still at BIS, Steph Gray produce a nice little script to publicly publish various stats and metrics for the department’s website. A great example of having someone around who has both ideas and the ability to hack something together that puts them into action.

This was picked up during an exchange on Twitter by Stuart Harrison – webmaster at large for Lichfield District Council and another member of the league of extraordinary government hackers. Stuart asked nicely and was granted permission by Steph to take the code and improve it – never really an issue because the code was published under an open licence that encouraged re-use.

So Stuart did exactly that, and produced a page for his council that report live web statistics. Even better, he then shared his code with everyone using a service called GitHub.

Two things come out of this very nice story.

Firstly, the importance as mentioned above of having people able to code working within government. Say if Steph had this idea but had neither the skills himself nor access to them within his team to implement it. He would have had to write a business case, and a formal specification, and then tendered for the work… it would never have happened, frankly.

Leading on from that, the second point is around the efficacy of sharing code under open source licenses. Steph would probably admit to not being the world’s most proficient hacker, but the important thing is that he was good enough to get the thing working. By then sharing his code, it was available for others to come in and improve it.

The focus on open source software and its use in government is often based around cost. In actual fact open source solutions can be every bit as expensive as proprietary ones, because the cost is not just in the licensing but in the hosting, the support and all the rest of it.

The real advantage in open source is access to the code, so people can understand and improve the software. But this advantage can only be realised if there are people within government who can do the understanding and improving.

After all, what’s the point of encouraging the use of open source software if the real benefit of open source is inaccessible? Having access to the code is pointless if you have to hire a consultant to do stuff with it for you every time.

So three cheers to Steph and Stuart for this little collaboration and lovely story of the benefits of sharing and hacking. Let’s make sure there can be more of them in the future by encouraging the art of computer programming, and of being open with the results.

Photo credit: Joshua Delaughter

Bookmarks for August 5th through August 11th

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I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Making learning work for you

Great post from IBM’s Luis Suarez on personal knowledge management:

Well, indeed, it’s impossible to manage knowledge, even your own knowledge. However, knowledge workers can have a good chance to self manage some of that knowledge so that they can re-find and reuse it effectively and efficiently at a later time. There are a whole bunch of processes and traditional technologies that have been helping people try to figure out how they can have their own PKM strategy. And, lately, over the last few years, with the emergence of social software tools, that job of managing one’s own knowledge seems to have become much easier. Although perhaps still with plenty of room for improvement.

Wikipedia explains Personal Knowledge Management to be:

a collection of processes that an individual carries out to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve, and share knowledge in his/her daily activities and how these processes support work activities.

Luis’ post points to some resources from the excellent Harold Jarche about PKM, including some slides and an audio presentation that are well worth taking the time to look through.

Cheesey stock photo image of someone learning something

Picking up on James Gardner’s point, that I blogged about a while ago, knowledge management – and therefore our own learning – isn’t perhaps the job of our employers but is something we must take care of ourselves. What employers do have to do, though, is to provide access to the tools that work for people to actually get this done.

I’m constantly battling to find the right toolkit that works for me. This blog is where I record a lot of the stuff I think about and where I try to tease out some of the stuff I have learnt from elsewhere and to put it into the context that I, and the readers of the blog, operate in.

I save links that are of interest to me in Delicious and that provides a great method of keeping track of resources around the web. I also share items in Google Reader which are of passing interest but not necessarily worth the bother of bookmarking, and I keep a record of interesting videos on another blog.

This sounds like a lot of activity, but actually it fits in well with the way I work, through familiarity and the tech solution of good integration with my web browser.

Evernote

A tool that is becoming increasingly important to me though is Evernote, which I blogged about here. With Evernote, I can just throw stuff into it without really even thinking about it. So, if I spot an interesting quote, I can just copy and paste it into a note, add the URL where I spotted it, if it was on the web, and maybe tag the note with some keywords so it appears in searches later on.

Or if there is a whole article that interests me, like Luis’ blog post above, I can with a click of a button drag the whole thing into Evernote for later reading and reflection, adding notes and annotations as necessary.

Increasingly, everything I produce starts out in Evernote. Blog posts are drafted there, project ideas are dumped in there, even emails start life as snippets I jot down before putting them together into a more coherent form.

Even better, Evernote exists as an application on my laptop and desktop computers, and on my phone, other devices like the iPad, and of course the website too, so I can access my stuff from any connected machine. Everything is synchronised and it means I can get at it anywhere, anytime.

What about everyone else?

Anyway, enough about Evernote. The point is that I am lucky enough to work in an environment where I can be responsible for the tools I use to do my job, including my own learning activity.

Cheesey stock photo that is supposed to mean research or somethingA lot of people who work in government do not have that luxury. Many probably don’t have any easy to use tools to help them record knowledge and learning – and those that do probably don’t have the flexibility to customise them to their needs.

So what can they do? If internet access policies are reasonably enlightened at their place of work, people can try using web based tools, such as Delicious and, yes, Evernote (though I should perhaps point out that the web version of Evernote is not as fully-featured as the native applications). Indeed there are advantages to this approach as by using public sites the opportunity is there for people to connect across organisational boundaries and to share information, resources and learning increasing the likelihood of serendipitous discovery.

It may well be that your organisation does offer tools that could help you in your personal knowledge management, though – you just don’t know about them! One example is Learning Pool’s dynamic learning environment (DLE), which is used by well over a hundred public sector organisations in the UK. As well as being the place to access e-learning content, our DLE features a whole host of social learning technologies – forums, wikis, blogs, chat etc – which could be utilised as part of someone’s personal knowledge management approach.

Knowledge Hub

It’s difficult to write any post that includes the word ‘knowledge’ without mentioning the KHub. As I described in this post, the KHub promises to be the flexible, open publishing platform that can make the recording and sharing of knowledge and learning as easy as it needs to be.

The open API approach that the KHub will take should also make it easier for organisations to pull knowledge and learning back into the workplace. Workers could use the KHub as their main knowledge management platform, sharing what they find with the rest of the sector, and then also have that stuff automatically republished on their organisation’s intranet, say, meaning that even people who don’t use the KHub can still make use of the content within it.

Summing up

This has been a bit of a rambly wander around personal knowledge management and some of the issues it raises. What’s clear though is that:

  • It’s down to individuals to progress their own learning and to ensure it is recorded in a useful way
  • Systems and tools available at a consumer level are more often than not more sophisticated and easy to use than those made available by organisations
  • Organisations can ensure staff make the most of the benefits of PKM by ensuring they have access to the tools that work for them, and that benefit can be fed back into the rest of the organisation
  • The Knowledge Hub presents an interesting potential outsourcing of PKM for the public sector – if organisations and individuals are awake to the benefits

I’d be interested in others’ views. How do you manage your own learning and knowledge – is this supported by your organisation?

Government and mobile apps

A really thorough and thought-provoking post from Public Strategist on the whole ‘should government develop iPhone apps?’ debate:

If government is in the business of service at all, it should be efficient, up to date, and sensitive to the needs and preferences of the users of the services. That doens’t mean chasing every technological fad, but it does mean it was right for government to have web sites well before web access was anything close to ubiquitous, and exactly the same arguments now apply to the next generation of devices. It also doesn’t mean that because government communication is good, all government communications are good – and similarly, the argument that it may be good for government to create apps, does not at all mean that every app is a good one, still less that it is good only because it was created by government.

In the comments to that post, Steph Gray makes some equally astute points:

Of course Government should be developing smartphone apps (though probably not iPhone exclusively) as part of communication strategies to reach mobile audiences, and building on the ‘start simple’ approaches above. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to still be spending such large sums on direct mail to businesses, for example.

But government shouldn’t be a monopoly provider, crowding out commercial or voluntary alternatives, and it should probably focus on the areas with strong social benefit but limited commercial opportunity.

My view on this comes in two main flavours:

  1. It’s probably best to concentrate activity on making sure existing web properties render nicely on a decent range of mobile platforms than focus on native apps
  2. It’s also very difficult to justify the development of (still) currently pretty niche native applications on smartphone that have the reputation (perhaps undeserved) for being the playthings of tech-obsessed media types

That doesn’t mean to say that there is no place for the native mobile application in government, just that government probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Another problem, taking local government as an example. If we’re honest, that’s where most of the services are based that would be of use to most people in a mobile application. If every council were to create an application, whether on iPhone, Android, Blackberry or whatever, this could lead to considerable fragmentation and irritation to the user. Quite a few of us are in the boat of using services in different areas, whether transport, education, waste etc, and having a different app for each of those could get irritating.

The answer is I suspect in open data. In fact, mobile apps is one of the areas that the whole open data thing really makes sense to me (as explained here, I’m no data buff).

Here’s how it could work. Some people sit down and think about the services that would really benefit from having a mobile interface. Then the bits of government that want to be involved make sure they publish the relevant up-to-date data in a usable format.

It would then be up to the commercial sector to do something with that data. The obvious solution would be for someone to produce a platform that pulls in all the data, then spits it out as per user preference within one application – so I can have waste collection dates for Cambridge and bus timetables for Peterborough (say) all in the same app. The supplier then makes their money by selling the application, advertising, or some service arrangement. The important thing though is that government isn’t spending money on the development of, or having to sell, the thing.

Am sure there’s a lot of holes in this – not least in terms of how the app developer is ever going to make any money out of it – with your average app developer making just a few hundred pounds a year. However, if it is something citizens feel they want, or need, then perhaps the market will help decide how information is best delivered to people.