e-Gov in the Snow

Tuesday, February 3, 2009 11:03 | Filed in Public Sector, Technology

So, some white flakes come fluttering down from the sky, and Britain grinds to a halt. As Cole007 tweets, the news then seems to forget we’re having a recession, that people are losing their jobs, oh, and people are being killed in conflicts half-way around the globe. Get some perspective, yeah?

But the snow brings me to an e-Gov issue. Owing to blizzard conditions, and a visibility factor which stretched from the car windscreen to almost the end of the bonnet, my wife wasn’t able to make it into work yesterday. Not a massive issue in itself.

However, because of the snow, we’d been listening to the radio in the morning, listening for news of school closures. Some of the schools in our area were closed, yet when I checked our local authority’s website for news at around 8:45, no information was available. Now I understand that it can be quite difficult to update the information when people haven’t got into work yet — but when people can’t make it into work, this is precisely when you need to be able to update this sort of thing. It’s fair to say I wasn’t impressed.

I was even less impressed when I checked again at 1pm and discovered that my son’s school had supposedly closed at lunchtime, yet no-one had informed us. So I phoned the school, to determine that the school wasn’t closed, although they were allowing — in anticipation of further blizzard conditions — parents to pick their children up any time after lunch. So the local authority’s incorrect update sent us scurrying around checking stuff unnecessarily. Wouldn’t it have been better if the school had been in charge of putting their message out?

So I’d like to ask everyone working for a local authority who reads this site to consider introducing the following:

  • SMS text messaging subscription services relating to school closures.
  • E-mail subscription relating to school closures.
  • RSS information about school closures.

You could even look at offering something via Twitter, if people wish to subscribe to a twitter feed for a particular school, although I tend to think I’d find this the least useful, as it relies on you checking the twitter feed and spotting it, which might be difficult if you are following a lot of people. Personally, I’d prefer the SMS message.

Obviously it would be a lot more useful if each of these were on a per-school basis, rather than sending every resident with children an email/SMS just because some poky little infant school in the back of beyond is having a problem with its boiler.

These all need to be updatable by the heads (or nominated staff) of each school outside office hours. Or rather, they need to be updatable by the heads or nominated staff, irrespective of whether or not anyone can make it into that school and/or that council’s IT department.

Come on, I know you can all do it. It’s not like I’m asking you to use the most bleeding edge technologies: all this stuff is available, used and stable. I’m asking you all to — and let’s face it, this is what you are supposed to be there for — support your local residents.

And if you can start offering something now, that’s great — even a free wordpress-hosted ‘LocalAuthority Area School Closures Blog’ would be a good start (and give each head appropriate editor permissions) — see the Cheltenham flood blog for examples of how to do it. If not, then at least pledge to be able to offer it by next winter…

There really is no excuse for you not offering it now, so at least put it right.

Update: Just discovered over at her Mulqueenyness’s site that Directgov have actually taken up the challenge (not my gauntlet, but someone with bigger gauntlets casting down coincidentally the same one) and have knocked up a schoolclosures.org.uk beta site.

Great idea, well done for the quick turn around and so on, but there are some flaws. Firstly, this works centrally, which is part of the problem I experienced with my local authority yesterday — the more links in the chain, the more likely the chain will break or that the message will become corrupted (as happened in the one step between the school and authority yesterday). I think it would work better if the updates were provided direct by the schools themselves.

Secondly, it relies on me to log onto the site, type in my postcode and look for results. Given how the tax returns people seem to find their site crashing, what’s the chances of a central site of this type surviving if every parent in the country is trying out the search facility at the same time? No hits at all for fifty-one weeks, then 25 million try to access it in half an hour. Is it going to stay online? Is it buggery.

It’s simply impractical as a centralised solution.

And finally, I don’t want to have to go looking. If my child’s school is closed on a given day, I want them to inform me. Given the technology available, that’s not too much to ask.

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13 Comments to e-Gov in the Snow

  1. R.A.D. Stainforth says:

    February 3rd, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Jack, this is only news because it snowed in London.

  2. Darren Taylor says:

    February 3rd, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Jack this is exactly the type of social networking that Gov should be making good use of but there’s one thing stopping most civil servants and thats fear (well apart from lack of interest and probably surfcontrol which blocks all social networking sites!). Fear because if Gov interacts with the citizen they might say something nasty back and then where would we be?! It’s absolute madness, this interaction happens in every day life, over the phone, face to face etc but when it comes to the web Gov seems to be terrified. We have to get bogged down in policies and all sorts of red tape, I’m sure Jeremy Gould could safely enlighten us now he’s left.

  3. Seb Crump says:

    February 3rd, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Good new Darren – it’s exactly the type of social networking Directgov are considering how to use to do this. My main concern is not ‘nasty comments’ back – moderation can easily deal with that – the reliability of information. What’s to stop a few school kids using the facility to spread the rumours about a school being closed because they fancy the day off and then half the students not showing up in the confusion. Safeguards and process are necessary. Anyhow, join the discussion and test out the ‘beta’ at Directgov innovate

  4. JackP says:

    February 3rd, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Seb – I’d noticed this actually, over at Emma’s site – and I’m just about to mention it in an updatey bit tagged on the end.

  5. Chris Clelland says:

    February 4th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    With snow being a slightly more commonplace occurence up in these parts (Aberdeenshire) we’ve had a school closures system up and running for a number of years. The information is updated directly by the schools and is therefore generally very accurate. No email alerts as yet but there is an RSS feed:


    One problem with SMS might be cost but perhaps there are ways of sending out bulk SMS for free these days? If not, the volumes and frequency of school closures up here would potentially be prohibitive.

  6. JackP says:

    February 4th, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Chris (ha! you confused me too – I replied to the wrong post first as well!),

    I was led to believe that there is a minimum SMS charge levied by the carriers – but I had thought it was something like 1p per message. For a primary school that’s (say) 210 children = £2.10 — yes, it will quickly add up, but in comparison to the hassle of having to listen to the radio etc – e.g. in my view it’s certainly worth 5p of my council tax money!

    But I accept that the SMS method may in the end be cost-prohibitive.

  7. Rob Warner says:

    February 5th, 2009 at 9:14 am


    Disclaimer: I am biased and have a vested interest here, however I try to be fair and rational with my comments.

    We provide a text service to schools for this and many other reasons. We tried late last year to tempt councils with a fixed price all inclusive offer but had no takers. The approach it seems is to push back the responsibility to schools. The problem we see though is that purchasing a text system for a school is a big decision affected by a lot of factors, of which emergency closures is only one. If we rely on schools to reach their decisions individually to the level where the approach is consistent across a county, it will be a long time.

    Our message volume was as high in the first 3 days of this month as the whole of last month and the feedback from the schools and Children’s Centres was brilliant.

    There is certainly a lot of text envy where I live between the schools that have a text system and those who are frustrated listening to the radio. The web isn’t the answer as many low income households don’t have internet access at home.

    I appreciate the comment on cost. Even buying huge volumes from the networks the cost of messages to us doesn’t change much, and we’ve certainly not got it anywhere near 1p. That said, if used properly text messaging saves a whole load of other costs and we find pays for itself overall.

  8. JackP says:

    February 11th, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    cheers for that. It may be difficult to tell how effective it is unless schools in my area are actually closed, however. Currently it just redirects me to my local authority’s home page — and given that I knew who they were in the first place, it doesn’t leave me any better off. However, it’s a bit unfair to judge them on that, as I don’t think there are actually any schools closed in my local area at the moment!

    I still feel it would work better as a local rather than a central service (as I believe the more ‘local’ it is, the more likely it will be accurate), but any service of this nature is better than the ‘none’ we had a few weeks ago, and it would certainly be of benefit to people who didn’t necessarily know which was the appropriate local authority.

  9. Rob says:

    December 23rd, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    An update on this situation 10 months on from Lincolnshire County Council:


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