A wet Wednesday in Hartlepool

An article in the Guardian Organ Grinder blog, titled “Local newspaper industry needs radical action now if it is to survive” laments the incipient passing of much of the country’s local newspaper industry. I don’t disagree with the article’s analysis of the issues, but it ends with a question that I think deserves an answer:

Bloggers will have their part to play, but the fundamental question remains: who will cover Hartlepool magistrates court on a wet Wednesday afternoon? It will not be a well-meaning amateur and has to be a professional journalist – the issue is how will it be paid for?

Hartlepool Magistrates Court
Hartlepool Magistrates Court

I think there’s a flawed assumption in the question. Namely, the belief that Hartlepool magistrates court needs to be covered on a wet Wednesday afternoon, because otherwise nobody will know what happened and what verdicts were handed down.

In the past, that would have been the case, simply because there was no easy way of disseminating that information other than via the press. But it isn’t the case any more. Now, court decisions don’t need to be restricted to dusty tomes in a legal library, they can be published on the Internet and made available for everyone to see. For example, here’s a case from Hartlepool magistrates court. That’s on the web here because it happens to concern a celebrity, but the basic information exists for every case.

There is no technical reason why every court in the land should not, as a matter of routine, publish all its decisions on the web. At the top, the Supreme Court already does. Most other higher courts, including the High Court of England and Wales, make their judgments available to the third-party website operated by the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII). But it’s still a piecemeal approach, and it doesn’t extend to lower courts such as the crown courts, county courts and magistrates courts – the places where the vast majority of cases are heard.

In the past, this didn’t matter so much, because the majority of courts are attended by the media and anything interesting does get reported. But we can’t rely on that in the future, as the Guardian article makes clear. That’s why it’s all the more important now to start taking steps towards a consistent and universal system of judgment publication.

I’ve blogged in the past about how the court system seems to go out of its way to avoid open publication of things like court listings. I still think it’s bordering on the scandalous that the court service has no in-house publication department which can maintain a web-based database. Give that the department already has a website which could carry the data, I don’t believe that the marginal cost of doing so would significantly exceed the amount paid by the Ministry of Justice to BAILII to publish judgments on the MoJ’s behalf. But the benefits to the public interest would be immense. Apart from nothing else, it would mean we’d no longer need to rely on journalists to tell us how much a pop star was fined by a magistrate for speeding on the M6. Instead, they could do more useful things, like attend local council meetings….

Bad municipal web design

One of the things about coming to parenthood relatively late is that I’m also late to experience something that all my contemporaries are already only too aware of: Schools are absolutely terrible when it comes to handling payments made by parents for the various non-free things that their children participate in, such a school trips, school dinners, after-school clubs, etc. Most schools, it seems, still have no alternative to cash or cheque handed over to the teacher by the pupil. In an age of credit cards, debit cards, PayPal, online banking, telephone banking, Google Checkout, etc a reliance on cash and cheques is not so much a throwback to the 20th century as positively Dickensian. And yet that’s still the case in the majority of our educational system.

I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to discover that my daughter’s school does actually have an online payment facility, provided by Worcestershire County Council. At least, I was pleasantly surprised, until I tried to use it.

The URL to the payment facility, along with my daughter’s PIN (that’s “Pupil Identification Number”, in this context) and a list of instructions on how to use the system was provided on a couple of photocopied sheets of paper. Disregarding the fact that a well-written online payment system shouldn’t really need printed instructions, the basic idea of a PIN plus payment details seems reasonable. So, on to the site itself. According to the letter, I can find it at http://www.worcestershire.gov.uk/payments4schools – so off we go.

First impressions are that it’s a bit basic. Apart from the Favicon, there’s no Worcestershire branding at all – just the name of, presumably, the operator, Civica, and a rather strange phrase in the logo: “Authority Icon”. OK, it’s a functional site and there’s no real need to jazz it up too much, but a little more attention to visual design wouldn’t go amiss.

So, to make a payment. The instruction sheet tells me to select the child’s school from the drop-down menu, which also happens to be pretty obvious. So I do. The next step, according to the instructions, is to select the item I want to pay for from the next drop-down. But hey – it doesn’t work. There are no options in the second drop-down at all. None. Nada. Zilch. It doesn’t matter what school I select, nothing appears there.

OK, let’s skip that. I enter my daughter’s PIN and name, and then the amount I want to pay. In this case, I want to pay for her next three weeks of dinner money, at £2 per day. So that’s £30 in total. I enter “30” into the box.

Next, there’s a checkbox for Gift Aid. I have no idea why that’s there. I know what Gift Aid is for, and how it works, but I don’t see how it relates to a dinner money payment. Ah, the instruction sheet tells me that I should tick this if the school has asked me to. Well, fair enough, but it wouldn’t hurt to put that on the website as well.

Then there’s a drop-down menu for my address. Except that I don’t have any options there, either. So I enter the details manually.

Finally, there are three buttons at the bottom: “Add to List”, “Cancel” and “Back to Top”. It doesn’t say so, but I assume that the first is what I need to press. Oh yes, it mentions that on the printed instructions as well. So why not make it more intuitive to begin with?

I click it. And get two error messages.

The first error tells me that I haven’t selected anything from the second drop-down, so I haven’t said what the payment is for. Well, no, but that’s because I couldn’t. But, mysteriously, I do now have a set of options. OK, I’ll select it now. But… I can’t. There isn’t an option for dinner money. Why not? The letter from the school implies, but doesn’t explicitly state, that I can pay dinner money that way.

The second error tells me that “30” isn’t a valid amount. Apparently, I have to enter it as “30.00”. Although that’s moot, now, as I can’t make the payment I want to make. It would have been nice to know that before I started.

Ah, a bit of experimentation shows that I can get the list of payment options either by clicking on the “select” button next to the school list, or clicking on what looks like a menu choice on the left, the words “School Account”. That’s not exactly intuitive, and it shouldn’t be necessary – simply selecting the school should fire off the onSelect() trigger which populates the next drop-down list. This is just lazy, or incompetent, programming.

Anyway, I do have another payment to make – a pantomime visit – so I select that. Fill in the correct amount, add to list, and there it is at the bottom of the page. So, what next?

The “Pay” button is the obvious choice here, and, fortunately, it works. The rest of the payment process isn’t too bad, although it’s still poorly laid out visually. And when I got to the “3D Secure” page, it timed out. I’m no great lover of 3DS anyway, but it can work OK when cleverly integrated. Here, it isn’t. However, I manage to persuade it to load, and complete the payment. I wonder how many people would have given up at this point, though.

OK, so it does work, eventually. And it’s easier to use once I’d worked out how to use it. But, as an example of web design, both visual and functional, it’s very poor. As a web author, I’d be embarrassed to inflict that on paying customers. But, presumably, Worcestershire County Council paid someone to create that system. I’d be interested to know how much they spent. Because if it was any more than a fiver, they’ve been ripped off.

Update:

Having done a little more investigation into this software, and swapped notes with other people who have had similar bad experiences with it, I’ve also discovered that it has a horrendous security weakness. If you know how to do it (and no, I’m not going to give instructions here), it’s possible to obtain the names and addresses of other people using the same system to make their payments. Fortunately, it doesn’t leak credit card numbers, but even a name and address is bad enough. Consider how valuable that information might be to potential (or actual) stalkers, or aggressive ex-partners, etc.

For that reason, I refuse to use the software. And I have told my daughter’s school why I refuse to use it. I’ve gone back to the old-fashioned method of sending a cheque or cash. I would strongly recommend that everyone else avoids using it as well, if at all possible.

Happy birthday, World Wide Web

Today, 6th August 2011, is the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web (not the Internet, as has wrongly been reported by far too many media sources already, but that’s another story).  The first public website went live on this day in 1991, on a page hosted at http://info.cern.ch/. The original web page itself is no longer around, but there’s a cached copy of an early version of it here.

The rest, as they say, is history. Although the Internet itself had been around a while before the web, it was the web which was the trigger for the transformation of the Internet from a military and academic speciality to a mainstream communication system. From Amazon to Zopa, eBay to the Pirate Bay, international news to personal views, it’s hard now to imagine life without it.

All this, though, only exists because of the remarkable foresight of Tim Berners-Lee and his employers at CERN. Not just in their vision to create the world-wide-web (to use the hyphenated form preferred in the early days), but also to release it. As TBL (to use the common in-crowd abbreviation) put it in his announcement to the alt.hypertext newsgroup,

It’s copyright CERN but free distribution and use is not normally a problem.

Those few words were crucial to the success of the web. By not attempting to use copyright as a means of asserting control over the nascent web community, and by choosing not to patent any aspect of it, CERN ensured that intellectual property wasn’t a barrier to innovation.

We take the web for granted these days. But it could easily have been very different. If CERN had taken the approach later attempted by BT then every ISP and every website operator would need to pay CERN for the right to use it. Those costs would certainly have slowed development, and quite possibly strangled it. If CERN had retained the right to decide who was authorised to use their code and their technology, and pursued unauthorised users in the same way that some rights holders now pursue those who use their content in a way they disapprove of, then the web would be a fraction of the size it is now.

The web isn’t just a technological success story, it’s also a social and legal one. And it illustrates one principle which should be paramount in the minds of any legislator trying to grapple with how to make our Intellectual Property laws fit for the 21st century: There are times when the public benefit of not enforcing copyright massively outweighs any possible justification for retaining control. And if major rights holders will not reach that conclusion themselves, then the law must make it for them.