Friday, 27 August 2010

My 100th blog!

This is my 100th blog, so please join me in celebrating this fantastic milestone in my blogging pilgrimage. I published my first blog on March 31st 2009. I have covered many topics during that period including technology, social media, vegetarianism, atheism, current affairs, politics, science and some personal topics too.

Having a blog is a wonderful way of expressing yourself and giving your opinions a platform from which they can be read by others. I also welcome the opinions and feedback from those reading my blog. Unlike some people, I am happy to be challenged on a topic, and will happily change my opinion if I read a persuasive argument that I may not have considered previously. This is the ideal of the scientific mind - to be able to change it when presented with opposing evidence.

I welcome disagreement as much as I welcome agreement, as long as the view is expressed in a constructive manner.

I have used my blog as a learning tool, where I have written blogs about subjects on which I was previously unfamiliar. When you force yourself to write a blog on that subject, you are forced to study and research the subject in order to write about it. I have used this technique to learn many new topics, and will continue to do so.

I have used my blog to express my opinions and views on things I believe, including giving in-depth explanations for why I am a vegetarian and an atheist. When asked why I hold these views, I cannot always elegantly express my reasons in 5 minutes flat. I want to be able to give a full and considered explanation. When I made these choices for myself, I gave them full consideration, and I want to be able to do the same when someone else is interested enough to ask me about these views. With a blog, I have the time to write down in detail what my reasons are, and give those reasons the consideration they deserve.

I have used my blog to champion causes and campaigns I believe in, such as my support for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). I make no apologies for this. If I wish to support a charity, cause or campaign then I shall use my blog as a legitimate platform for doing so.

I have learnt the benefits that come with writing with a co-author. I co-authored two blogs with Vicky Perry recently, and found the experience to be both productive and positive. It was a great experience to be able to discuss blog topics and bounce ideas around with another author. We worked jointly on everything from generating the topic of the blog itself to the writing of the blog. In fact, the process of working with Vicky was so successful, that we have now since created our own joint blog called Green Eyes.

I have really enjoyed writing these blogs, and hope you have enjoyed reading them. I hope I will be writing a similar blog when I reach my 200th blog!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Opening up government data

The concept behind open data is that information should be in the public domain, and it should be easily accessible and transparent. The drive to open up data was first started by the Labour government, with the baton now in the hands of the coalition government. This would give the British public a clear picture of what information is stored at both central and local government levels, and promises to give transparency of its services to the tax payers, who fund these services. Certain questions remain though in how we achieve this utopian vision of opening up data to the public, such as what are the issues and benefits to achieving it.

It all started back in December 2009 when the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to open up UK government data, including public services performance data, transport data and geospatial data. Who could be better placed to head up this initiative than Sir Tim Berners Lee. Together with Professor Nigel Shadbolt they produced a beta version of the web site. As of January 2010 there are now over 3,500 government data sets.

Under Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative, a clear message has been made that there will be continued support for opening up government data to encourage citizens and communities to use this data to empower themselves. The new Public Sector Transparency Board has appointed both Sir Tim Berners Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt as board members. It has recently set out its draft principles including that public data will be published in reusable, machine readable form using open standards, and following recommendations from the World Wide Web Consortium.

Thanks to Sir Tim Berners Lee we’re now aware of the Semantic Web, and more recently the need for Linked Data.

“I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analysing all the data on the Web – the content, links and transactions between people and computers. A ‘semantic web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy, and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ that people have touted will finally materialise”.

To create these intelligent agents though, we need intelligent data, and with that, Linked Data has emerged.

In January 2010 Sir Tim Berners Lee told BBC News:

“It’s such an untapped resource….government data is something we have already spent the money on…..and when it is sitting there on a disk in somebody’s office it is wasted”.

So over two decades after the Web came into being, we may just be in a position to harness it in a way that can truly benefit everyone. The question is how do we achieve this utopian vision?

There have been two key phases to this process. The first was to get the data online in whatever format was available. So data that was held in Word, PDF and HTML formats needed to be converted into linked, machine readable formats.

The second phase is where we now currently find ourselves, and requires the adoption of a series of standards when publishing data to the Web using recommended linked data formats such as Resource Description Framework (RDF).

It we want true transparency then we need the data to be structured in such a way as to be open and interoperable. The Stationery Office (TSO) is working with organisations such as the Cabinet Office and The National Archives to bring this together, and to establish the principles for publishing government linked data.

If all this goes as planned, then the government will have generated something for the greater good of society. Something that will help make our lives better informed and to help us become more responsible citizens. We should all expect open data, and now we are getting nearer having the right to demand it. If the current plans go ahead without problems, we can also deliver it!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Be careful what you write on your social media channels!

A recent case in the UK has highlighted the need to be careful what you write on your social media channels, or indeed those of others. Whether you use Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or any of the others, you need to exercise caution. The written word is subject to libel laws, and you could face criminal prosecution if found guilty

Jeremiah Barber branded his former friend a paedophile on Facebook. The post was intended to be a joke, but the friend did not see the funny side, and neither did the courts. The post itself read

"Ray, you like kids and are gay so I bet you love this picture. Haha".

The courts fined Barber £1000 in libel damages.

This should be taken as a warning to anyone before they post a potentially libellous statement. Every word you write on public social media channels are subject to libel laws. What may begin as a joke at the expense of your intended target may backfire, and they could be laughing all the way to the bank!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

What a good manager should know

Before starting this blog I would like to make it perfectly clear that it is not aimed at any individual or any organisation that I have worked with. It is intended to make a general point with no specific reference to any specific individual(s).
I’ve had this discussion several times with friends and colleagues in the past, and it came up again recently with a work colleague. The discussion revolves around the issue of how much knowledge should a manager need to know about what his team does, in order to be an effective manager. In most cases, a manager will have progressed up the career ladder in the line of work in which they subsequently find themselves as a manager. So taking my own line of work within software development, a typical career path may be:

· Trainee software developer
· Software developer
· Senior software developer / Team leader
· Software manager

So it’s fair to say that by the time a person becomes a software manager, they should have a pretty good understanding of what their team does, the roles and responsibilities of the team members, and the key skills and knowledge that are required.

However, I have come across several managers who lack this essential knowledge. They are managers pure and simple. They do their team’s appraisals, manage the team’s budgets and Performance Indicators, but lack the knowledge specific to their team. They are to all intents and purposes, general purpose managers, with no real knowledge of the specialist skills and expertise of their team. They could be placed into any team, anywhere, and manage that team – without ever knowing exactly what the team actually does, or how it does it.

I’m not saying that you necessarily need to have an in depth understanding of what every team member does, that would be wholly impractical. That is why you have team members who have those specialist skills. It is their responsibility to understand the area in which they work in as much detail as is necessary to perform that role. Equally though, this does not imply that the manager can delegate that knowledge entirely to the team either. While the team members may perform their allotted roles, using whatever specialist knowledge they need to do so, the manager at the very least needs a basic understanding of those roles and responsibilities.

One of the roles of a manager is to provide direction and make decisions. How can you make decisions without understanding what your team does? How can you know what is achievable and realistic, or what is even possible?

While not every software developer will make a good software manager, or even aspire to be one, the best software managers in my experience have been those that have progressed up their chosen career path. One obvious advantage of this route to management is that you also have the respect of your team. They know you have done the same or similar job to them in the past, and can talk from experience. They know you understand their daily challenges, and can sympathise with their problems. They know you understand their role and what it entails, as you have done it in the past. So while you may have forgotten some of the detail of how to perform that role, you understand what it involves from a high level perspective. Never underestimate the value of respect within a team, particularly if you’re the one who is trying to win it!

In my opinion, to be an effective manager, you need to understand the various roles and responsibilities of your team, preferably from hard won experience. This will ensure you can make informed decisions, and that you have gained the respect of your team.