Saturday, 26 May 2012

Tweetdeck ideas

I'm fairly new to Tweetdeck but still thought I'd put down a couple of quick ideas I came up with on Friday.

It struck me while Ian was demonstrating Tweetdeck that it is only really effective as long as you can fit all the columns onto the same screen. There was a comment from the floor about having four computers and screens lined up next to one another so that all the required columns could be monitored in real time.
I saw that the fifth or sixth column requires a click to the side and that it can only really be monitored if the option is ticked to pop-up an alert if that column changes.  This is good but I thought about an alternative solution.

Master updates column

How about the option for a new 'column type' called 'master updates'.  This column would aggregate updates from 2, 3 6 or all of the other columns.  Depending on the volume of columns and how busy the streams are, this may not work as the updates could flow too quickly to keep up but as Ian demonstrated, doing a column based on the search term 'London' already suffers that problem.  A 'master updates' column wouldn't fix all scenarios but in certain situations I think it would work.  I'm thinking of a situation where there are a lot of search term columns but ones which are not expected to turn up many results.  You could end up with 30 or 40 columns (one for each term) but that would be virtually impossible to track.  The po-up alerts would do the trick but they only show one-tweet-at-a-time.  Putting them in a 'master updates' column means you can see at least 6 previous updates as well as the most recent one.

Linking columns

This comes as a follow-on from the master updates column.  It may become so useful that you may like to dedicate two columns to this task. This could be achieved if there were an option to make a column cover two or even three column widths. Tweets in column 1 would flow down the column to the end and rather than disappear, they would continue down column 2. My current tweetdeck view shows only 4 columns but linking those 4 together affords a visual display of at least 20 tweets.  All the source columns can be 'off screen' but there would be little need to flick over to view these as everything would be consolidated into the main view across the visible columns.

Lock column to the left

This is simply a way to ensure that a particular column is locked to the left regardless of how many other columns are scrolled left to right.  This would be particularly useful for my proposed 'master column' but could equally be useful for any column which is especially important above the others.

Archive column

This again is mainly with the 'master column' in mind but could be used universally.  Simply, a column ticked as 'archive' ensures the contents of that column are archived so that the column can be saved for offline use. This would be especially useful for the use we put Tweetdeck to.  Invariably, there is a need to return to the views experienced in real time at a later date. The archive could saved be direct to a local file which is viewable in an 'archive' column type.

Large screen view

There are a few twitter apps I've come across which reformat tweets so they show up well on a huge screen. They generally just keep the text size large which ensures they can be seen from a fair distance if displayed on a large screen or projected. This would be idea for the 'master updates' column because it could be displayed in this 'large screen' format for the benefit of a conference room, control room or press office where everyone needs to see the latest tweets as they come in. This option would allow the total number of tweets to be displayed at once - this could be one-at-a-time (which would be huge), or as many as 6 or 7.  It would also be really good if it works with displays that rotate to portrait mode. Most computers these days can handle dual displays so perhaps the main display would be the traditional tweetdeck setup and the second display could the large screen view.

police hack day ideas

Just finished a G+ Hangout with a few police peeps and we strayed onto the idea of a hack day. This came from a conversation where the advantages of free and open source sites, apps and software was being compared to the commercially developed products sold into the market to do a specific job.

My experience

My comment on this (from experience) is that it is more dangerous for a government organisation to venture into the world of free, open source products than it is to stick to the tried and tested model of writing very complicated specification documents, three-way tender processes, months of shortlisting, more scrutinisation, fine tuning, financial checks and finally a procurement contract. My rather cynical view of this process is that we've over-engineered the process to the point where the more a project costs to deliver, the more interest it generates internally and along with that, a label of importance.  A lone internal developer using open source software could easily create a killer app which would be largely ignored internally because no actual money appeared to have been spent on it.  My argument is that this should be reversed; if someone creates a killer app for nothing, it is a double win and should be regarded as such.

Hack Day

First comes a set of requirements for what WE want to do, not what the company is trying to sell us.  My experience with Microsoft Word is that 95% of users tend to only use 5% of the product's potential (glorified typewriter).  This suggests that we'd be better off in the main with a free equivalent for 95% of users and only pay the expensive software licenses for the 5% or power users who actually needs those advanced facilities.
So we determine what we want.  Then we share it with others to see which features are common to all.  At this stage we should not expect 100% of what we feel we need.  We should be aiming to be happy if the proposed solution does at least 70% - 80% of what we want.  Once this is off the ground, the rest will follow very quickly.
Next, we bring in the techies/geeks/coders/hackers who are usually less interested in ideas and more interested in making stuff.  We let them soak for a while and then the fun starts.  The ideas people and the techies start working together to develop the protypes.  We need people to comment on the functionality, others to keep usability in mind, others who can design lovely buttons, graphics and banners and the coders to pull it all together.
I'd say this could easily be a 2 or 3 day event.  It could be a Thurs/Fri worksday followed by an optional Saturday or it could start at the weekend and continue into a Mon/Tues. If it is kept to a single day event, I'd say it would need to be preceded by a few weeks of online conversation with proposals and votes to determine up-front what people want to 'hack'.  This could be done in two stages with a public policecamp/copcamp to tease out the ideas and crystalise the requirements followed by a period of online discussion and culminating in the hack day where something is actually built.

An idea as an example

My starter for 10 would be a very simple police application which is designed to enable multiple members of staff to contribute to a single Twitter page.  The idea being to moderate posts where necessary and also to add or remove functionality like posting tweets, links or images.  Another key requirement is for the system to store who tweeted what so that any post, reply, mention or direct message can be attributed to a specific member of staff if disputed at a later stage. Other ideas for Twitter-based functionality is the monitoring of search terms (like Tweetdeck), sentiment detection, pre-crime predictions and analysis tools for retweets and reach.

And another one

Another approach could be solving the problem of reducing time posting updates to multiple channels.  The list of potential places to post updates is growing fast - Website, email, SMS texts, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Flickr, YouTube, AudioBoo, Pinterest, Storyfy, Google+,, Bambuser, Cover it Live, Ustream . . . the list gets every longer. When you break these down, there are some areas where duplication could be streamlined - headline, short text (140 characters), long text, links, photos, caption, video, metadata, tags.  If we could build an application where each of these fields can be filled in only once depending on the content available, it could save a lot of time. The same approach could be applied to the engagement messages posted back.  If someone asks a question about a post via Twitter but not Facebook, we could build in the ability to re-post the Twitter question to Facebook and then use the same answer on both Twitter and Facebook.

This isn't a new idea

To finish, I'll revisit my long-term aim which was to consolidate the hosting of police websites and the Content Management Systems used. I think there is little chance of achieving a single solution for anything but perhaps it would be reasonable to strive for 4 or 5 main systems shared between all 43 forces rather than 43 separate systems?  For hosting we could look at one ASP solution for internal police server hosting (which one force has already offered), an open source alternative and the same for external hosting.  That is four basic hosting solutions to suit most forces.  The same combination of internal/external, commercial/opensource CMS would also offer flexibility but also reduce costs significantly.  The final frontier is then to get force experts to share their knowledge of these systems which would save significant external support contract costs.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Mobiles, broadband and deals

I've spent the weekend organising our home phone and broadband, my own contract phone and my daughter's SIM only contract. Here's the story.

At first, the plan was as follows:

Change from TalkTalk home broadband + phone at £27.27 per month to BT at £24.95 per month

Change from Three mobile at £17 per month to Tesco Phone Shop on O2 at £21.50 per month

Change from Virgin Mobile SIM only £10 per month to Three mobile £10 per month

Home Phone and Broadband

This was a move from a 4Mb/sec broadband with anytime calls to a 34Mb/sec deal with anytime deals with a £2.32 per month reduction in cost. BT seemed to finally be a bit cheaper than TalkTalk so despite their very annoying habit of sending me letters about how fed up I must be with my current provider (which I wasn't) and how much cheaper it would be to come back to BT (which it isn't) I was up for it.

My phone

I had an HTC Desire with Three on a 24 month deal which cost me £17 per month for 100 minutes/text combo plus 500Mb data. I also got £38 cashback via Quidco. At the time, this was a too-good-to-be-true deal because at £370 for the duration of the contract, the actual phone was selling on Amazon at well over £400.
At the end of this contract, I was determined not to spend too much more money per month although I did want to get a new phone. Three called me to offer an 'early upgrade' deal.  This was not so much of an upgrade - more of a downgrade.  The phones they offered were all inferior to the HTC Desire in all respects but they wanted between £29 and £33 per month - a huge increase of between £12 and £16 per MORE than I was currently paying.  I declined this and continued to look for a better deal.
I always factor in any cashback opportunities via Quidco when calculating like-for-like deals but even with a £100+ cashback on some Three plans, the saving still came nowhere near my current deal so I ended up thinking about keeping the Desire going on a monthly SIM only contract while the deals improved.  The best option here seemed to be the £10 SIM from Three - 100 mins/3000txts/1Gb.
Then I found the Tesco Phone Shop had the new HTC OneX for free on a £21.50 tariff with O2 for 100 mins/unlimited txts/500Mb. This along with a £50 cashback from Quidco equals £19 per month (£456 over 24 months).  The phone is selling on Amazon for £449.99.  This is almost as good as my original deal with Three so I decided this was the one for me.

Daughter's phone

Lauren, my daughter has a rather old Nokia touch screen phone which is slowly but surely failing. I had promised her my HTC Desire if I did end up getting a new phone. So this one was easy - either stick with Virgin and make my phone SIM free to accommodate her SIM card or buy a Three SIM. I decided to go with a Three SIM rather than tackling what I thought would be tricky task to unlock the Desire.

The weekend of change

Set up with a free weekend to sort this out I had my plan set.
I had already ordered the BT broadband online which went very well; loads of emails explaining everything plus a swift confirmation of the installation. Likewise, the phone from Tesco Phone Shop was ordered in the week and arrived safely on the Friday. It came with the wrong sized SIM card but a quick call sent me off to the O2 shop in town to collect a Micro-SIM.
On Saturday the SIM hadn't connected so I called TPS again.  They had already realised their mistake and had sent out a new SIM card to arrive on Monday. I was happy with this as I'd already got the phone connected to WiFi and had plenty of things to play with.
I then called TalkTalk to cancel the broadband and phone. They said they could offer a better deal and promptly did!  TalkTalk Plus with 24Mb/sec + anytime calls. £114 up-front line rental, £7.25 for first 6 months and £14.50 for the remaining 12 months which worked out at £18.41 per month - over £6 per month cheaper than BT. I had to call BT to cancel that and then called TalkTalk back later to initiate the change.  One down, two to go . .
Next up was Lauren's SIM.  I order the £12 deal from Three with £24 cashback via Quidco which offered 300 minutes, unlimited txts and 500Mb.  Then the call to Virgin to cancel.  A wonderful call handler then suggested I may like to consider a £5.32 per month SIM upgrade for 500 minutes, unlimited texts and 1Gb data which was usually £15.32 per month.  I took it like a shot and cancelled the Three SIM. She even credited the account with £7.50 to contribute to the unlocking cost and also refunded the current month's payment of about £8.  Spot on Virgin :-)
Finally, I needed to call Three. I needed to (1) arrange to unlock the Desire for the Virgin SIM, (2) get the PAC code ready to transfer my number to the Tesco/O2 contract and (3) cancel the contract.

Attempt 1

The Three operator would not do anything until I called O2 to confirm their tariff of £21.50 was genuine because they insisted that third-party resellers (Tesco Phone Shop) concealed hidden cashback charges and that I should also read their T's&C's very carefully. We also had a bizarre argument. He insisted the offer from TPS/O2 was 'too-good-to-be-true' because the total cost of the contract was the same as the value of the phone.  I had to point out that the contract and phone they sold me 2 years ago was even more 'too-good-to-be-true' and it wasn't any of their business to doubt other company's deals just because they couldn't match it. I was also told that the 500Mb of data being offered by TPS/O2 wouldn't be enough for the 'high powered' Android smartphone I had bought and that I would certainly go beyond my limit and incur large charges. I think they may have failed to notice that I already own a fairly powerful Android smartphone which has been perfectly OK on the 500Mb they have been offering me for the last 2 years! Not only that but ICS now offers some built-in tools to monitor data and call activity specifically to manage this kind of issue. Even without that, I've been running 3G Watchdog free which does a really good job of watching your limits throughout the month.

Attempt 2

I tried Three again and this time a female operator decided to tell me that Tesco Phone Shop were under investigation by OFCOM for offering misleading deals. She said that anyone who Googled 'Tesco + OFCOM' would see what she was talking about. At this point I Googled as instructed and turned up nothing of note. I then called TPS and shared some of this with the senior manager there who was clearly shocked that Three should have said any of this and told me she would pass the information on to her Manager. From this point on I recorded the rest of my calls with Three.

Attempt 3

I tried a different approach this time. I went straight for the unlocking of the Desire which I managed to get done.  However, although I paid about £15 for the code they generated for me, I'm convinced that it was already unlocked as I didn't need to use it when I slotted in the Virgin SIM card.

Attempt 4

I tried Three again. This time I had to insist that I didn't need to hear any more about cashback, OFCOM and that this was the fourth call this weekend. Eventually I managed to get the PAC code out of them and cancel the account.


The O2 SIM arrived as promised and it was placed in the HTC OneX when I got home from work. It didn't do anything so I called Tesco Phone Shop and they sorted it out promptly and I was on the O2 network within 20 minutes. Throughout the day and evening my wife took several calls from Three trying to get in touch to offer a 'lifetime deal'.


More calls to the home phone during the day (my old SIM is still in a box at this point so they couldn't text or phone me directly). Eventually, they got me at about 7.30pm to offer me their 'deal'.
For £8 per month they would give me 500 minutes/txts combo + 500Mb data and - wait for it - either a Nokia C201 or a refurbished Samsung Galaxy Europa.  Both of these are rubbish and are currently worth between £30 - £50 second hand. I didn't bite so they went on with £11 for 900 minutes/txts combo and 1Gb data. I thanked them nicely and said no. The first offer (assuming I bought an HTC OneX from Amazon) worked up at £26.66 per month and the second offer worked out at £29.66 per month. Neither compared with the £19 per month deal with Tesco Phone Shop and O2.
Although they may think zillions of call minutes and texts should be very attractive, if they just looked at my call and texting history over the previous 24 months, they'd see I hardly ever call and rarely text.  I need the facility but my main requirement is data.

More on Three

I think Three have got their price plans all wrong.  They come in three tiers - Essential Internet, Ultimate Internet and the One Plan. There is a theme here and it is 'Internet'. Three pride itself in offering a good data network and the names of these packages promise that but scratch under the skin and it is disappointing.
Essential Internet is 'essentially' 250Mb of data which these days isn't much to write home about. It doesn't really compete with the other major companies who are offering 500Mb as the 'standard' data plan. Considering my £17 per month plan from over 2 years ago was 500Mb, it seems this is a backwards step for Three. It also isn't very impressive to read in the small print that only the 'One Plan' can be tethered (used as a WiFi hotspot). Surely a contract with a capped data limit should allow the user to use that allowance in any way they wish?  Once it's gone, it's gone - so-to-speak.
The 'Ultimate Internet' package seems good with it's 'All-you-Can-Eat- data allowance except this also disallows tethering. This effectively means you can watch YouTube videos all day but you cannot use the advanced WiFi hotspot features of the modern phones.  My feedback is to cap the offer to perhaps 2Gb per month but include tethering. I should point out that you can 'bolt-on' tethering but it costs extra and it also restricts you to 1Gb of tethering. not very useful.
The 'One Plan' is the only price plan from Three which includes true unlimited data but it costs far too much. The only way this would be cost effective is if you intended to use the phone to connect multiple people to the web virtually all the time or perhaps wanted to stream a video 24/7 in a remote location. For these applications, there are other data-only mobile broadband deals available.
Here is my tip for Three on how they could improve their data plans.

The penny plan

You charge a fixed rate monthly charge.  This could work on an inclusive phone 12/18/24 or SIM only plan so it could be 'the only plan you need'.

  • 1 text costs 1p
  • 1 minute of call time costs 1p
  • 1Mb of data cost 1p

So for my HTC OneX, they can charge £20 per month. This credits my account with 2,000 pennies to spend on the data I actually use - not on an impressive volume I could use but never will.  Each month the actual usage is totalled up and at the end of the contract the difference if in credit is refunded against a new contract as cashback.  If the usage is higher than 2000 pennies per month, the cost increases at quarterly reviews much like the utility companies adjust the payments to cope with seasonal changes in fuel requirements or a change due to a newer, more efficient boiler or loft insulation. Although the payments are monthly, the usage is averaged over the term which gives much more flexibility to the user and ensures nothing is wasted.  A heavy month using the phone at Christmas will be averaged out throughout the year or perhaps a need for lots of data one month will also average out. Tethering would be allowed but if it is used excessively, the plan would be adjusted to cost more so there would be a natural reason to monitor it carefully.

Month 1
20 texts, 120 minutes of calls, 756Mb data = 896 'pennies' - 1,004 credit carried over.

Month 2
150 texts, 400 minutes, 543Mb data = 1,004+2,000 = 3,004 'pennies' minus 1,093 = 1,011 credit carried over

Month 3
21 texts, 42 mins, 4Gb data = 1,001 +2,000 = 3,001 minus 4,063 = 1,062 debit

Month 4
199 texts, 120 mins, 343Mb data = -1,062+2,000 = 938 minus 662 = 276 credit carried over

A £25 per month charge equals 2,500 pennies per month
A £30 per month charge equals 3,000 pennies per month

For those on a budget . . .
A £15 per month charge for 1,500 pennies per month
A £10 per month charge for 1,000 pennies per month
A £5 per month charge for 500 pennies per month

The key principle is that the fixed price per month can start at any cost and can be adjusted up but never back down again.  However, the reassurance that any credit left at the end of the contract will be accessible if you choose to continue into a new contract will tempt people into taking out a similar new contract.
I like the idea of starting on £5 per month and seeing how it goes.  You go up if you need to but not if you don't.  It's fair and it's simple to understand and it could genuinely be the 'One Plan' that Three really needs rather than the one it's got at the moment.