Saturday, September 04, 2004

Culturenet: not quite right

As our first entry on this website we have an interview with the ex-IT Manager of Culturenet Cymru. He has a few things to say about how the 100 Welsh Heroes poll was rigged and chats more about the sorry state of publicly funded websites in Wales.

WotW – What were Culturenet Cymru's websites like when you started work with them?

DJ – there was only the one website, 'Gathering the Jewels' (GTJ), which they'd inherited from an earlier project funded by NOF. It was appallingly bad but to be fair to Culturenet, that was understood.

WotW – What was wrong with this 'GTJ' site?

DJ – It basically wasn't a website. The HTML didn't validate, the CSS didn't validate, it was terribly difficult to navigate around, it didn't take on board any accessibility criteria and although it was supposed to have been designed to be usable in Netscape 4, it looked appallingly bad. The site was getting about 5,000 page requests per month

The original 'Gathering the Jewels'

WotW – So what did you do about it?

DJ – I abandoned the cumbersome Java-based front end, reverse-engineered the database (we had no support from the developers for that), created a few stored procedures and slapped on a very simple PHP-based interface. It wasn't pretty but it was quick.

WotW – What was the result?

DJ – We increased page requests from 5,000 to 460,000; we managed to hit accessibility requirements (W3C level AA); and we were able to ditch the previous reliance on the website developers.

WotW – Did you get any money back from the developers?

DJ – No, that's one of my bugbears. The website, as it stood, was godawful but I was told that I should not try to claw any money back from the contracted developers.

WotW – Why was that, if the site was so bad?

DJ– I think there are two reasons. The company seemed to have a difficulty working in a commercial environment with proper contract management and I think some people responsible for the project in the past felt they might be blamed and didn't want to make it too obvious that there'd been a bit of a blunder.

I found that suprising because there'd been a clear acceptance to begin with that the web delivery aspect of the project hadn't been particularly well-managed.

Project review is a part of the project management cycle but if you're used to working in a commercial environment I think you very quickly understand that it's more important to work out what's gone wrong and to control costs than it is to apportion blame.

WotW – Moving on to 100 Welsh Heroes: was the poll rigged?

DJ – Well of course it was. It was a marketing-led project from the start and I'm afraid marketing often has little to do with either Culture or truth. It was a project to establish the name of Culturenet Cymru.

To my mind it always seemed a very expensive way of doing that. We had about a half a million from the Welsh Assembly and around half of that half of was spent on the wage bill so a project costing, it's reported, £150,000 needed extraordinary justification. I think that's why the defence of it has been so vitriolic, personal and beside the point.

WotW – Culturenet Cymru seems to have told the Culture Minister, Alan Pugh, that the poll wasn't rigged.

DJ – Yes, I'm suprised by that. I can see the point of trying to keep it a secret but once the truth is out I can't understand defending the original position.

WotW – That it was a legitimate poll with everything above board?

DJ – Precisely.

Alan Pugh, Minister for Culture

Alan Pugh says the Welsh Heroes poll was Ok.

WotW – So what actually happened?

DJ – Voting went on throughout the week but the figures on the website were normally updated only once a week - usually on Monday afternoons. Obviously, that schedule was created so that we could spend each Monday morning fiddling the figures before publication.

I was asked to sort out a way of fixing the votes so I wrote a program to adjust the week's pending votes by a percentage or an amount agreed with other staff. So that we wouldn't arouse too much suspicion, the program could add imaginary votes across the board to the 100 nominees and then we could adjust up or down selected nominations.

For example, if legitimate votes over a week for Phil Campbell of Motorhead had pushed him into a leading position then instead of discounting too many of the votes and alerting his fans to our fiddle we could discount some and increase everyone else's by a sufficient amount to keep him in a lower position.

When we were content with the numbers - and that would be a Marketing call - we'd update the website.

WotW – Did it ever go wrong?

DJ– One Monday, yes. I was on holiday, we'd agreed the vote-fiddling beforehand and I'd written a routine to update automatically using the rigged figures we'd agreed upon. I didn't test it thoroughly before I disappeared to Venice and the site went down.

WotW – Were the final published figures very different from the real votes?

DJ – Yes, very different. If I remember rightly, Tom Jones was the real winner and that Motorhead guitarist was in with a shout. Mike Peters, the Alarm frontman, was there too.

WotW – So why did you adjust the figures?

DJ – Oh, a number of reasons, largely to do with marketing the project as a sensible use of public funds.

We were told that Cayo Evans would go down badly with the Welsh Assembly so we made sure he didn't figure in the top 20. To make the poll seem less low-brow we dropped the positions of entertainers. And in the last week of voting someone at the National Museum of Wales got into trouble for lobbying for Owain Glyndwr so the Nye Bevan / Owain Glyndwr positions were keenly examined.

WotW – And how could this vote rigging be demonstrated?

DJ – Two simple SQL queries. One to report on the votes table to show that a large number of votes had been discounted. Another to show the number of votes all mysteriously posted with the same spurious email address at the same time on a Monday morning.

It would be an easy thing to demonstrate but the Culture Minister, Alan Pugh, seems confident nothing untoward has happened. I don't know how he's comfortable with that position.

WotW – And what about now? What are you up to now?

– Following the Assembly Online website and the mentions in Wired Magazine and from Jeff Zeldman, I'm picking up lots of work in accessibility and usability.