I’ve run a number of pretty big web sites in my time, often maintaining large customer databases and, of course, log files. We kept those log files indefinitely but rarely consulted them. When we did it was always at the request of law enforcement and always in the presence of a warrant. At another.com, which was a free webmail service, it was usually a Russian cracker caching passwords or credit card numbers and on one occasion it was child porn. I dealt with maybe eight or ten such cases in four years or so.
We kept those logs because we wanted to be able to do the right thing in the event of an alleged crime. We didn’t keep them so that witless media giants could build cases against us or compromise the most basic rights of our users. I don’t usually come out on occasions like this but I think that Viacom’s shocking and ignorant raid on YouTube’s user data demands a response. This is legal and moral vandalism on a global scale (national boundaries don’t apply here).
It’s a kind of legalistic ‘fuck you’ from a doomed media monolith, showing the kind of disregard for natural justice, morality and public opinion that leaves people (millions of Viacom’s customers included) open-mouthed in amazement. And I say ‘doomed’ because this is the kind of comically stupid misstep that often marks the beginning of the end for even powerful and profitable businesses like Viacom. What were they thinking? Let’s hope a wiser judge in another court quickly sets this piratical tactic aside.
Before I get my teeth into the BBC Trust’s service review (I feel obliged to sooner or later) I enjoyed the collision of cultures (or contrast of cultures I guess) evident in two announcements made last week. In the first one Google announced that the company’s personal health platform thingie Google Health now works with medical records systems at various US hospitals (they started in Cleveland).
Obviously this is just another step in the advancing Googlification of Everything but it’s also interesting because of the way it contrasts with the second announcement, which was from mega-government IT contractor Fujitsu (which used to be ICL) that they’ve got into a terrible pickle and have finally had enough of the vast and (by the sound of it) out-of-control government IT disaster-in-the-making that is the NHS medical records system.
The former (Google and the hospitals) says: use light-weight, consumer-grade tools, put control in the hands of users and not administrators and concentrate on incremental methods, standards and interoperability. The latter (the £12 Billion NHS system) says: build grim, centralised and monolothic systems on a military-industrial scale, exclude open, incremental or agile methods because of your 1950s risk model and hope for the best.
So the big question is: how many of these epic, national-scale contracting disasters do we need to see before we change our approach and try building important national systems by assembling existing code and services in a smart, non-dogmatic way? My guess: at least another ten years. Contractors (BT In particular) are queuing up to replace Fujitsu in the NHS job because the money is just vast. A real web 2.0 type approach to the project would cost 10% of the bid price for the whole thing and would get dozens of executives fired.
In the meantime, I think everyone involved (at the NHS and Fujitsu at least) should read this fascinating presentation about the re-engineering of the BBC’s online identity system from Brendan Quinn and Ben Smith (thanks to Jem Stone for the link). To quote:
1. Each project must have a clear customer and a real benefit
2. Don’t repeat yourself
3. Be as simple as possible
4. Be as open as possible
5. Start simple, then iterate
6. Don’t optimise prematurely…
7. …but build to scale
8. Test often
10. Let it die
If the BBC, which is a pretty big institution—although I’ll acknowledge it’s an order of magnitude smaller than the NHS—can build like this then the NHS could too. I wonder if there is any radical thinking of this sort going on there or is it life in the bunker for all concerned?
Azeem explains Google’s acquisition of a search tech business called Applied Semantics. He also seems to think I should understand this well enough to provide some kind of commentary. Sadly he is wrong. Anyway, Applied Semantics sounds like something from a William Gibson novel.
I think Google Hacks is an important book. It’s important because our lives are increasingly dependent on the Internet and because the fabric of our networked lives – from the web to wi-fi to mobile phones – is getting richer, more meaningful and more tightly woven. Content, applications and communities are more interconnected than ever and a new layer of interconnection is emerging on top of the infrastructure we’ve taken for granted for most of a decade.
As the usefulness and accessibility of the network climbs, its value to us all is necessarily always at risk – from growing complexity, from the opacity produced by proprietary dead ends and from old-fashioned corporate and political short-sightedness. Google Hacks is a tool. It reminds me of The Whole Earth Catalog, a hippy resource book subtitled ‘Access to Tools’ and inspired by the legendary Buckminster Fuller. The Catalog, first published in 1968 (and edited by Stewart Brand), was all about taking control, making interventions – hacking real life. It was stuffed with the most practical of tools, from composting toilets to the early personal computers; from personal aeroplanes in kit form to really useful pen knives you could build a house with. Google Hacks is a tool for hacking the new, networked reality.
The book contains 100 specific, clearly worked examples of ways to take advantage of Google’s openness (the Google API) to achieve concrete results – some projects are useful, some intriguing and some just playful. I’m no techie (You’ll certainly find better technical reviews elsewhere) and most of these hacks are entirely beyond me but the book has loads of insights into the way Google works for non-techies and plenty of low-tech projects I could try for myself.
Since I can’t pretend to be reviewing this book properly and since you’ll be reading about it everywhere, here’s O’Reilly’s press release for some background information (click ‘more…’)