Telling stories is telling lies

The satellite lamps show the behaviour of the GPS network. Each lamp shows how certain the network is of its position by changing the brightness; the brighter the lamp the more certain the position. That means interacting with a system of 32 satellites orbiting just under 16,000 miles above our heads.

In my understanding of the objects there’s no translation into metaphor. They tell no stories and, presumably, tell no lies. They make visible a thing I cannot see, even if I traveled to a satellite to take a look.

07 September 2013

After seeing these at the Immaterials opening in Brighton on Wednesday night I spent a good few days by the beach thinking about the legibility of pervasive, invisible, essential networks. A well-placed reference to the Eames Office by Timo at Improving Reality meant I spent the rest of the weekend thinking in narrative terms about the things we could do at GDS to describe the infrastructure we’re linked to.

(I’m not convinced that it’s work that should be of GDS, but we’ve got access to some of the best people in the world at making things on-, with-, and of-the-web, so we should ask them how they’d describe it.)

To do that probably means abstraction though. It probably means metaphor. And that’s a troubling place to have to go because these things are so important. Whose metaphor? Whose abstraction?

(That was another big theme of Improving Reality; the systems we’ve built are the product of choices, choices borne by those in positions of knowledge and power and privilege.)

Objects like the lamps avoid some of those problems. As with any good visualisation of data, they don’t need the functions of story to make a reality evident. They simply are.

I hope there’s a model for talking about this stuff tucked into the GOV.UK style guide: “Always avoid metaphors… you can generally get rid of them by breaking the term into what you are actually doing.” That’s hard when we already describe the network by borrowing terms from systems developed over thousands of years, but it’s not impossible.

A brilliant thing I didn’t do

Inside Inside Gov is the clunkily-named tumblr run by one of the teams at GDS. Of the many important things done at GDS that I have had nothing to do with, it’s the one I’m most impressed by.

If you don’t work with me you’ll almost certainly have zero interest in it or why I like it.

‘Inside Government’ was the name given to the section of GOV.UK which plays host to the corporate publishing of government departments. It recently moved the 24th ministerial department over the platform, and has made some headway into moving more than 300 others over.

To get a scale of what that means, the work done now has involved publishing 50,000 documents, closing 222 sub-domains, and rewriting 223 policies in clear, human-readable language.

Doing that is an epic undertaking; communicating with that many stakeholders moreso.

Neil and the team started the Tumblr account as a means of publishing updates about progress, answering questions and describing new features and research instead of emailing that stuff on an ad-hoc basis to thousands of people. It was a very sensible decision. ‘Publish, don’t send’ – have one canonical place to point people at and say ‘Look! Here are the answers to all of your questions! Here is the one true thing, until it is replaced with the next true thing!’ Saying a thing well once has much more power than saying it quickly a hundred times.

What has impressed me, for a few months now, is (basically) Neil. His tone of voice has always been pitch-perfect, and it’s set a standard the rest of the team have done brilliantly to match. This post, published when the last of the ministerial departments moved over, had every right to be valedictory and tubthumping. But it wasn’t. It was humble, to the point, and honest about the challenges his team face. So too this one, a post telling people off.

I don’t know if Neil writes or clears everything that gets published. I haven’t asked him (he told me recently our conversations never take long to ‘get silly’, something I take as a compliment but probably shouldn’t). But it never appears like he does. It just seems like a flow of valuable information, published in a pretty regular and timely way, in terms clear to users and non-users alike. It’s exactly the model we’re going to need services to follow if they want to meet the Digital by Default Service Standard. It’s everything I wish Last.HQ could have made of their blog. It’s brilliant.

I wrote a while back about how a blog ‘should be a lot of work for a lot of people’. What I mean is that distributing publishing authority is the best way to stop bottlenecks. But the best way to stop bottlenecks on a blog, of course, is to publish blog posts. Keep them good, and keep them coming. 

I watch myself worry about publishing the ‘right’ thing an awful lot, but too often I don’t consider that not publishing anything is almost certainly wrong. I just need to write well and often.

Weeks 50 and 51

I was sick for most of last week – a bone-chilling flu that kept me wrapped up while GOV.UK was busy winning awards – keeping my blogging arm at bay for a few sickly days. On the plus side I got a lot of sleep.

Haar/We Are Words and Pictures

Haar is a lovely word. However, as anyone who’s bought me a whisky in the last year knows, it is a useless word. While one-person companies are basically just games of Pretend Office, names still mean something. Names you have to spell each time you say them don’t mean quite as much though.

So, I made the changes necessary to do what I should have done right when I started out – register the name We Are Words and Pictures. It’s kept evolving as a project for almost five years now, long may that continue.

However, this hasn’t been entirely without problems. The registration happened much faster than anticipated, delaying my contract extension at GDS and leading to all kinds of unnecessary hassle. I fully expect that state to continue for the rest of April, after which I’ll start thinking about how to do things like sort out the WAWAP website, get Sandsmark moving, etc.

GDS

Contractual wrangling aside, the GDS team had a great couple of weeks. The service manual I mentioned a month ago launched Version 1 while I was down with flu, on top of which they won the Design of the Year award. Russell’s written about that, and it’s a neat summation of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of GDS right now.

SMEE

Flat-planning a newspaper for Anne stirred all kinds of muscle memory from the Paper Science days. Very good fun, and lovely work from the designer too. I’m looking forward to seeing that in print.

Week 46

With a tiny exception for a bit of consultancy, last week was all about…

GDS

…specifically, preparing the Digital by Default Service Standard and Government Service Design Manual for release.

Government Service Design Manual homepage

Andrew’s blog post explains more about them. For my part, I’ve been editing mountains of guidance and working on several iterations of the navigation and introduction since New Year. It’s been a big challenge, helping to get the lessons learned from dozens of staff members out of their heads and into a markdown document, but it’s been very satisfying. The reaction has been fabulous: lots of praise, lots of constructive feedback, lots of debate among people interested in the nitty gritty of it.

For the team involved, there’s a lot of work to get it updated, polished and refined in time for the formal release in April. I’ll be swooping in at the end to help out with that, but first I’m taking a couple of weeks break.

Onwards!

Week 45

Peaks

A lovely end to the week, spending a couple of days looking at pretty places with Ellen and Toby. Much needed too, as the week to come proves to be crazy-busy…

GDS

Final few days of work on the Service Manual before it goes out on a public beta. Lots of writing, lots of skirmish lists, lots of prioritisation. The feeling within the team is generally one of relief; soon it’ll be in front of people, and real work can begin to make it work for users.

1000 Words

Mikey and I had our first chat about running another day of talks for Thought Bubble this November. We also ran a quick retrospective of the last one, resolving to ask fewer people to speak and to start a little later in the day (I didn’t eat until 5pm last time, which nearly drove me mad). Next up we need to chat to the Thought Bubble team about how best to start wrangling speakers.

Haar

Started checking the boxes I need to get through to change the company’s name this week. Existing contracts mean I might not be able to do that for a while, but hopefully that’s something I can get to in a couple of months time. I also absolutely failed to finish off last quarter’s accounts, so that’s something I carry into Week 46.

Week 44

I like trains…

GDS

I’m jotting this down on the train back from Sheffield, where I’ve spent a morning chatting to DWP staff about digital capability. It was brilliant; super useful feedback, and a good way of snapping out of the perspective of the ‘home ground’. It’s also a massive contrast to the card sort exercise I went through with Alex on Friday to make sense of the guidance we’re coralling for services throughout government.

Such massive differences in task made for a very good week, actually, though I was knackered by the end of it. February was a lot of hard work, after the ‘infinite Monday’ that was January, so I’m looking forward to a holiday at the end of March.

SMEE

As retribution for last week declaring that work on the SMEE films had finished, I found myself playing runner for a day of filming on Sunday. Shoots in Brighton and St. Albans made for a long day of train journeys, but the interviewees made it well worth it. Lovely people.

Haar

A tiny bit of work left to wrap up my quarterly accounts, and then it’s time to do a bit of a review of the last near-year. The way I currently keep my books means I don’t have especially good oversight about how much money has been spent on different projects, so I need to find a way of adapting my current process to keep track of that. Shoudn’t be too hard, but a bit of a bugger to backdate. Later, I will find ways of graphing such things.

Anything else…

First theatre trip in ages, a miserable encounter with one of those vile people from Foxtons, a bit of poker (I left a little ahead, for a change), a gig, many booze. A good week, all told.