Google Public Data Explorer- fine as far as it goes

Currently a Google Labs project, the Public Data explorer ( “makes large datasets easy to explore, visualize and communicate. As the charts and maps animate over time, the changes in the world become easier to understand.” The example given on the home page is a chart showing data from the World Bank on fertility rates per woman by country and life expectancy at birth. At first glance you may be deterred by what appears to be limited datasets but there are options to explore by selecting countries, different data series and time options.

In the example below I looked at CO2 emissions per capita for selected countries:

Other data sets include the OECD Factbook, some Eurostat collections, and several US datasets. Details can be found at

How useful is Google’s data explorer to the serious researcher? It all depends on whether or not the dataset you require is available – and there are a limited number – and whether or not it covers the years you need. I noticed that some of the datasets had 2005 as the latest year. Although you can embed the “visualizations” in your own web pages there are currently no download options. It is worth familiarising yourself with what has been made available here and the different “visualisation options” are attractive, but you really can’t beat going direct to the original provider of the statistics. My own favourite starting point for tracking down data on a topic and/or country is still OFFSTATS – The University of Auckland Library at

Murdoch to charge for online Times and Sunday Times

News International has announced their pricing plans for two of their UK online newspapers –  The Times and the Sunday Times. The charges will start in June and users will have to pay £1 for a day’s access and £2 for a week.  The Times already charges for its 200 year archive: £4.95/day, £14.95/month or £74.95 for an annual pass but that is actually useful! New separate web sites will be launched in May and will be available free for a trial period to registered users. The subscription will give users access to both sites.You can register now for the preview at

There is no information at present as to whether Google will be allowed to crawl the site and at least give searchers links to priced content. If Murdoch wants out of Google’s News index then he is shooting himself in the foot. As far as the average user is concerned, if it isn’t in Google it doesn’t exist, and the stories in The Times and Sunday Times are rarely unique. The information can be found free of charge in other newspapers so News International is really going to have add something very special to attract paying punters.

We can’t say we weren’t forewarned. In late November and early December of 2010 Rupert Murdoch accused Google, Microsoft and others of stealing News International’s content, threatened to ban Google from his web sites, and confirmed that they were looking at charging for access. BBC’s Newsnight included a major item on the “shoot-out” in their December 2nd broadcast. Part of the broadcast and discussion can be found at ” BBC News – Newsnight – Google blinks first in battle over newspaper content”

Will people pay for the content? Both newspapers can no longer rely on their reputation for quality reporting – which some say went downhill as soon as Murdoch bought the titles- and they rarely have unique content. This morning I compared coverage of a dozen stories in the The Times, Guardian, Independent and Telegraph. In most cases The Times merely repeated verbatim syndicated content. The other three had made an effort to acquire additional information and provide more background to the stories. The Times is going to have to try a lot harder if they are to persuade people to part with cash.

News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks is reported as saying: “This is just the start. The Times and The Sunday Times are the first of our four titles in the UK to move to this new approach.” They cannot seriously be thinking of charging for online access to The Sun and News of the World can they? On second thoughts, that might work!

A Grumpy Old Woman’s view of Britain’s Digital Future

Wordle of Gordon Brown’s speech “Building Britain’s digital Future”

Gordon Brown outlined the UK government’s plans for “Building Britain’s Digital Future” this morning. (Twitter hashtag #bbdf). On re-reading the draft of my comments on the event it struck me that I have become a Grumpy Old Woman. I might been more positive had I not tried to watch the live video over a broadband that barely achieves 1 mbps at best. The stop-start-stop-stop nature of my viewing did nothing for my concentration and everything for my exasperation. At the same time I was following #bbdf on Twitter and the tweets suggested that I had missed some key points. And that is the problem with these wonderful plans to persuade us all to access and use public services online. It requires everyone to have a fast, reliable broadband connection. Without that how can I as a citizen be sure of the integrity of the information that I am receiving, that the electronic form I have just submitted has indeed been sent, or that the data held about me is correct?

Fast broadband access is central to the government’s plans: every household is to have access to broadband by 2012. Oops, sorry – that should have been nearly every household. (Definition of “nearly” please?).  Also, that only refers to existing broadband services so if you end up in the slow lane at 256 kbps you are stuck there!  But be of good cheer. There are plans to add a charge of 50 pence a month to each household’s phone line “to help fund a partnership with the private sector for a superfast broadband network right across Britain”. This is supposed to be in place by 2020 but exactly how many will have access and how it will be implemented seems to be up to the “partnership”  – no details other than the broadband tax were mentioned. Neither is “superfast” defined. I assume it is going be faster than my pathetic 1Mbps in which case there is going to have to be fibre optic in these ‘ere hills instead of copper, and that is going to cost us more than a measly 50p a month per phone line.

Gordon, or rather his speech writers,were keen to make us aware that he knows all the jargon, although “semantic web” and “linked data” have more sinister connotations when uttered by a member of the government. We are also going to be treated to an iPhone app. I thought that he said this was to be free but it has been spotted for sale with a price tag of £1.99. I checked the transcript of Gordon’s speech and what he actually said was “we are launching a brand new Number 10 iPhone application that will bring news, video and audio from the downing street website to potentially millions of users completely free of charge.” So the information is free but the application isn’t?  We seem to have a new definition of the phrase “completely free”.

Directgov is to be replaced by a “more interactive second generation form of digital engagement” called MyGov. This will be how UK citizens will be expected to “interact” with government and access public services. I honestly cannot see this working given the current track record of government web sites. Directgov’s search engine is so appalling that in desperation the bods at created a far superior Google custom search engine called Directionlessgov (  Try a search on “Building Britain’s Digital Future” in Directionlessgov and compare the results from DirectGov with those from the Google CSE.

Even if you do find the department you need to “engage with” you have to embark on a quest to achieve your goal. You want a pension forecast? You are told you are using an unsupported browser if you log in with anything other than IE 6 or FireFox 2 (“later versions have not been fully security tested”): GAME OVER – GAME OVER. I try and fill in my VAT return online using Firefox: the login pages are full of runic script. I concede defeat, the rebellion is quashed, and I use Internet Explorer rather than face the wrath of HMRC.

One good thing that may come out of this is that public sector employees will need to engage more with citizens (I assume that Gordon means electronically!).  Does this mean that at long last central and local government departments will be ditching IE6 and antique operating systems? If they don’t, how can they “engage” with citizens in the new personalised, social media driven government world?  And who is going to pay for upgrades to the  hardware so that they can then upgrade the software so that they can then use social media to “engage” with us, the citizens?

But  there is some really good news in Gordon’s speech. He referred to the launch of saying that  “this initiative has attracted – globally – has been very striking.”  But there’s more.  “The Department for Transport and the transport industry are today making available the core reference datasets that contain the precise names and co-ordinates of all 350 thousand bus stops, railway stations and airports in Britain.” In addition, public transport timetables and real-time running information, which is currently owned by the operating companies, will have to be made freely available as a condition of future franchises. Note, though,  that this applies to future and not existing franchises 🙁

Even better news (possibly) for those of us lobbying for Ordnance Survey data to be made freely available:

“Following the strong support in our recent consultation, I can confirm that from 1st April, we will be making a substantial package of information held by ordnance survey freely available to the public, without restrictions on re-use.”

Again, there is room for manoeuvre on this: what will be included in the “substantial package” and “further details on the package and government’s response to the consultation will be published by the end of March.

To research, support and realise this grand vision of Digital Britain we are to have a new Institute of Web Science. It will be “based here in Britain and working with government and British business to realise the social and economic benefits of advances in the web“. This sounds ominously like another money wasting quango, but it will be headed by Sir Tim Berners Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt. If those two are given free rein we should be spared ludicrous reports such as those generated by Consumer Focus (“Mandy quango says Apple, Amazon are too obscure”  The Register In addition Martha Lane Fox is to become the UK’s digital champion and help establish a new digital public services unit.

At the end of the presentation I was left wondering about those who will not able to participate in this great vision of the future, either because they are the ones who are not included in the “nearly every household connected to broadband” or because they may not want to. It also assumes that the interconnections between the different government departments will really work and that the data they have on us is accurate. In his speech Gordon Brown spoke of doctors holding video consultations from their surgeries with patients at home. For that to happen the doctor has to have accurate and up to date medical records for the patient. As I know only too well medical records may not only be wrong but may also have disappeared altogether. (See You haven’t been ill enough so we assumed you were dead  I now wonder what other personal data about me is wrong or has gone missing.

There will have to be an election soon and there will be many opportunities for all of this to be forgotten. Even if Labour are re-elected the wording of this speech is such that there is a plethora of escape routes. As the saying goes I shall believe it when I see it!

The transcript of Gordon Brown’s speech is available at  Building Britain’s Digital Future (

You haven’t been ill enough so we assumed you were dead

According to this morning’s news too many of us in the UK are bothering GPs with minor ailments such as coughs and colds (BBC News – Too many visit GPs with minor ailments, campaigners say A report by the  “Self-Care Campaign” says common ailments account for nearly one fifth of GPs’ workload.

I was feeling rather pleased with myself for not having bothered my doctor for about 12-15 years but then remembered the slip that has just been returned by my GP surgery with my NHS summary Care Record opt-out form:

“Please find enclosed your ‘opt-out’ form which I am returning as I cannot find a current registration for you at our surgery, so assume this was sent to us in error.”

I had not bothered my GP and thus, it seemed, my GP was not bothered about me!

This is not the first major faux pas that the NHS has made regarding my medical records. When we moved to Caversham in 1982 I registered at the local surgery. My new NHS card arrived – in those days we had nice little buff cards with a coat of arms in the top left hand corner  – and I tucked it away in a file marked “Medical/NHS”. I should have checked it there and then because 8 months later when I needed to go to the doctor for some vaccinations I discovered a serious problem. The address on the card was correct but the name and NHS number belonged to someone else. I finally received a correct card from the local Family Practitioner Committee but in the meantime my records had been lost.

I should at this point explain to those of a younger generation that aeons ago doctors scribbled your symptoms,diagnosis and treatment in illegible handwriting onto cards. Computers were not even a twinkle in the Practice Manager’s eye.

Fast forward 28 years and my husband, as well as many of my friends, recently received letters from their GPs about the NHS Summary Care Record together with a form enabling you to opt out. Mine never arrived but the post is sometimes unreliable in this neck of the woods so I assumed it was “lost in the post”. Not to worry. I simply downloaded the form from the web site, filled it in and delivered it by hand to the surgery. Then it was returned.

So today I tried to find out what had happened to my records.

I must say that the surgery building and facilities have much improved since I last had to use them. They even have computers now. The receptionist tried to be helpful and tapped away at the keyboard searching by various criteria but each time she hit enter I could see her thinking “Computer says no”. There was no record of me at all on their system. Was I sure I had registered with them? Yes – and waved my NHS card with the doctor’s name and surgery on it as proof. Had I registered somewhere else as temporary resident? No. And so the questions went on. She gave up and went to refer to someone “in admin”. Had I actually seen a doctor at the surgery? Yes, about 12-15 years ago. It will be on my records…..but of course you don’t have my records any more! Off she went again.

It transpires that because I haven’t visited the surgery for so long my records may have been sent back “to base”

“Which is where?”

“Where the records are stored”

“Which is where?”

“Back at base”

“Which is …. oh forget it”

But they were confused that there wasn’t a single trace of me on “the system”. What now? They might possibly be able to track down my records “at base” but I have had to register with them from scratch. This was no simple one page form. I had to work may way through six pages of questions, most of which where not applicable and the rest impossible to fill in because I could not remember dates or even years of vaccinations and childhood illnesses. Don’t worry, I was told, we’ll find it on your records. BUT YOU DON’T HAVE MY RECORDS!!

I have filled in the forms to the best of my ability and await the results with interest. I confess that I find it worrying that I am a “non-person” as far as the NHS is concerned. What happens if I have an accident, am rushed to hospital and they try and contact my GP? I apparently don’t have one, nor do I have a medical history of any sort.I was hoping that other official and government bodies no longer knew of me but alas Inland Revenue and the VAT office remain firmly convinced of my existence.

During the search process, one of the staff made an interesting comment: “If you haven’t been ill enough to visit us in the last few years then we assume that you’ve moved away or died”. So forget about the “Self-Care Campaign”, make sure you pester your GP with every little ache, cough and blister. Otherwise you’re dead.

Workshop: Statistics and Market Research

If you need to track down statistics and market research via the web I am running a hands-on workshop under the UKeiG banner in Newcastle on Wednesday 21st April. The venue is the Netskills Training Suite, University of Newcastle. Further details of the workshop and a booking form are available on the UKeiG web site at

Google SearchWiki replaced with starred results

Google’s SearchWiki is no more, and I am celebrating. Searchwiki required you to be signed in to a Google account and enabled you to to re-sort, remove, and comment on search results. Your preferences  were remembered from one search to the next and once started it was not easy to turn off. For my personal views on it see Begone Searchwiki and Google lets you turn off SearchWiki

Instead of Searchwiki we now have stars or starred results. Sign in to your Google account, run a search and you will see outlines of stars next to the search results. Click on a star to “bookmark” it and the star turns yellow:

Google Starred

Next time you run the same or similar search your starred results will appear at the top of the results page:

Google Starred in Results

Starred results work across different Google types of search or “properties”, so if you star a result in Google News it may also appear in a standard web search.

I like this feature as it does not interfere with Google’s ranking of your search results. It merely highlights pages and sites that you have found useful in the past.

Google Street View covers most of UK

Google Street View now covers most of the UK. When I last looked at Caversham and Reading on March 9th they were not covered. Today they are! Looking at various pieces of evidence – for-sale signs, new buildings or lack of them, and the progress of exterior refurbishment – the photos in my part of Caversham were taken about 15 months ago.

Google Maps has yet to tell UK users to get on their bike, though. We currently have directions for travelling between two locations on foot and by car but in the United States there are now cycling directions for 150 cities. Those of us in the UK do not have “public transit” directions on Google Maps either but we do have, which I notice now has a cycle planner for selected areas. This is the first version of the planner produced in conjunction with Cycling England, Ordnance Survey and relevant local authorities. Transport Direct is looking for feedback from users so if you regularly cycle, and your area is covered, give it a go at

Another workshop – another Top 10 Search Tips

The participants at the latest advanced search workshop were all from the public sector and had very strong views on some of the new developments in search. They were definitely not impressed by Google automatically enabling web history with a view to “personalizing” search results. (See Your Google results are about to get weirder (The workshop participants  are switching off Web History as soon as they get back to the office!) There were several sites and search features, though, that did impress them. This is their list of Top 10 Search Tips.

1. The Google Wonderwheel was the clear winner of the day with this group. When your results page appear on screen, click on “Show options” just above the results and to the left of the screen. Then select Wonderwheel from the list on the left of the page. (For further details see Google new search and display options

2. Google’s Timeline was a close second in the popularity stakes. This is also under Show options in Google when you do a default web search and is also available in Google News. It shows the distribution of your articles over time and gives you an idea of when something started to become a “hot topic” and how a story has developed over time. It is not 100% accurate but is good enough to give you an overall picture of how interest in a subject has waxed and waned.

3. LGSearch They liked this one a lot! This a Google Custom Search Engine (CSE) set up by Dave Briggs ( that searches UK public sector web sites in one go. On the results page you can, if you wish, narrow down your search further to Local Government, Central Government, Health, Police & Fire, LG Related or Social Media.

4. Slideshare A site used by many people and organisations to provide access to PowerPoint presentations. Search for presentations on any topic or by a specific person then view online or download the original if the author permits. Once you have selected a relevant presentation Slideshare also shows you a list of other presentations containing similar content. No registration required if you just want to search.

5. Try something else other than Google. As well as giving Yahoo or Bing a go, try and think about the type of information you are looking for: news, video, statistics, what people are talking about. Then use the appropriate search tool for that type of information.

6. Twitter search You may not want to indulge in Twitter yourself but it can give you an idea of what people are saying about a topic. It is also an essential part of reputation monitoring and competitive intelligence: what are people saying about you or your products and services? You do not have to have a Twitter account to search Twitter, just go to

7. Google Blogsearch ( and Blogpulse ( Blogs are another useful source of views and opinions on every topic imaginable. Blogpulse has a “trend this” option on the results page that displays a graph showing you how many blog posts mention your search terms over time.

8. ( for quick and easy access to a wide range of search tools covering different types of information. Enter your search once, click on the tab for the type of resource (video, images, reference, news), and then work your way through the list of search engines.

9. Google Custom Search Engines (CSE). We looked at several Google CSEs, and Directionlessgov ( being just two of them. You can, though, set up your own CSE at Useful if you search the same web sites day after day. You will need a Google account or Gmail account to set up a CSE but you can host your CSE on your own web site or on Google. CSEs can be made public or kept private.

10. University of Auckland Official Statistics (OFFSTATS) This set of web pages provides information on Official Statistics on the Web and is an excellent starting point for official statistics by country and subject/industry.

Event: CASH – a Current Awareness Service for Health

CILIP in the Thames Valley evening event

Date: Tuesday 6 April 2010

Time: 18.00 for 18.30

Venue: Great Expectations, 33 London Street, Reading, Berkshire RG1 4PS

Chrissy Allott: CASH, a Current Awareness Service for Health

From a local to a national current awareness and alerting service; from primary care to mental health and secondary care, the aim of CASH is to provide a nationally managed and coordinated current awareness service to ensure that all health care staff are kept up-to-date.

This is a free event followed by refreshments and a chance to network with your colleagues from the local area. An invitation is extended to anyone with a professional interest in the topic.

Please advise Norman Briggs, Events Co-Ordinator, Tel: 0118 987 1115 or or Chrissy Allott, Chairperson if you plan to attend.

Date for your diaries

Tuesday 4 May: CILIP in the Thames Valley & South East Branch Joint AGM 2010

The South East branch will hold a joint AGM with the CILIP in Thames Valley sub-branch on Tuesday 4 May at the Town Hall, Reading, from 1.00pm. Further details of speakers and events will be announced soon.

CLSIG Debate: Web 2.0 – the truth behind the hype

The presentation that I am giving at this evening’s CLSIG meeting in Birmingham is now available:

PowerPoint (download from this site – 3.2 MB)

I have given the presentation a Creative Commons 3 non-commercial by attribution license, which means you are free to download and re-use it as long you cite me as the author and you don’t sell it for a heap of cash!

The other speaker in the debate is Phil Duffy, Information Services Manager at Hammonds LLP.