Jamie Thomson

Thoughts, words and deeds

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Charting London Borough of Hounslow expenditure

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In November 2012 my family and I moved into the London Borough of Hounslow and as I am expecting to be here for a very long time I decided to avail myself of some information pertaining to how the council spends its money. All expenditure is published on the council website at Council spending over £500. Its great that that information exists and is published however the format in which it is published isn’t particularly useful to folks like me that want to analyse and drill into the data in greater detail, what we get is a PDF file (rubbish) and a CSV file (better) per month:

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Why is PDF rubbish? Because the data is static, we can’t explore it, reshape it, drill into it. The data is presented in whatever format the person who produced the PDF decides. This is all bad bad bad. CSV on the other hand (which stands for comma-separated-values) is better because it contains only raw data and there’s no pre-determined presentation of the data. One can take the monthly CSV files and collate them into a single view that allows exploration and comparison of the data and that is exactly what I have done; I have taken all available data (from April 2012 onwards) and published it online at All London Borough of Hounslow Supplier expenditure over 500GBP since April 2012.

The publishing format is a Microsoft Excel workbook however you do not need Excel installed in order to view it, you only need a web browser. You do have the option to download the workbook to take advantage of the greater power of Excel and do your own analysis.

Putting the data into Excel enables us to provide summaries and visualisations over the data such as expenditure per month:

Top ten expenditures per external Supplier, Expense Type & Service Area:



 

All the charts are attached to objects called slicers that makes them interactive. Here’s an example of a slicer:

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Clicking on a Supplier will cause the charts to display data for only that Supplier (you can select multiple Suppliers by holding down the CTRL button).

Similar to Slicers are Timelines which enable us to show data for a particular month or groups of months:

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Importantly, i shall be adding new data to this Excel workbook as and when it becomes available so check back every month to see the data changing.

The first month for which data was available was April 2012 hence when April 2013 rolls around we can start to do year-on-year comparisons and that is when the information might start to reveal some interesting spending trends of the council.

If you’re interested in the council’s absolute total expenditure since April 2012 I show that on the first sheet:

 

Finally, having access to all this data enables to discover interesting facts such as how much the council has spent with a particular chauffeur supplier:

 

If you find any other interesting titbits hidden in this corpus do let me know!

I encourage you to take a look and if you have any feedback please leave a comment below.

@Jamiet

Written by Jamiet

March 24, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Becoming gardener

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Helen, Bonnie and I recently moved into our new House in Hanworth Park and with the new house I inherited a substantial vegetable plot (the estate agent called it an orchard but given there’s only one tree in it that’s rather grandiose) that the previous owner has clearly put lots and lots of work into as you can see:

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Check out my PhotoSynth of it here: http://bit.ly/jtveggiepatch.

When we bought the house I resolved that I would try and maintain this in the same way and hopefully we could become slightly more self-sufficient in the process; anyone who knows me knows that I am not in the slightest bit green-fingered so this is actually a rather daunting task. Undeterred I ventured down to the veggie patch this morning to make my first harvest of some beetroot that the previous owner had kindly left for us. Here is my first crop:

Beetroot crop

Not exactly a bumper crop but I am hoping I can get a good few jars of pickled beetroot outta this little lot and perhaps keep some aside to be roasted with our christmas lunch. I have a recipe for pickling beetroot from Miles Collins (see: How to Pickle Beetroot) and I ventured out today to get all the ingredients. Tomorrow is pickling day – check back later to see how I get on!

@Jamiet

Written by Jamiet

December 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm

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Testing ifttt and SkyDrive

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I have written an ifttt.com recipe to take a copy of all my blog posts and store them on SkyDrive. You can view the recipe at https://ifttt.com/recipes/62911

let’s hope it works!!

Written by Jamiet

October 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm

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Are you paying for Windows Live Hotmail Plus? Stop!

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Recently I had my subscription to Hotmail Plus auto-renewed and I started to consider what I was actually getting for my money so I visited http://billing.microsoft.com to find out. After some clicking around I stumbled across this:

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Let’s break this down. For £14.99 per year I get:

  • 10GB of storage (as far as I know normal Hotmail is to-all-intents-and-purposes unlimited)
  • No ads (Outlook.com hardly ever shows you ads now anyway and if they do they’re not the horrible banner ad type)
  • Feature tips and product info (Don’t remember ever getting feature tips and besides, I don’t think I’m in great need of them)
  • Larger attachments (I never send attachments anyway if I can help it and if I do Outlook.com’s allowance is both hefty and more than adequate)
  • Exemption from account expiration (I guess that might be useful were I ever to suffer from a near-fatal medical condition although if I did I suspect I’d have bigger worries on my plate than an expiring Hotmail account)

As such, thanks but no thanks. Cancelled. Thankfully the redesigned http://billing.microsoft.com makes that rather easy:

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Are you still using Hotmail Plus? One word for you…Stop!

@Jamiet

Written by Jamiet

October 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm

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Use case for a new SkyDrive/DropBox feature

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I was reading Ed Bott’s article “With Windows 8, just what does “no compromises” mean?” when something occurred to me about the various file sharing services that are out there such as SkyDrive and DropBox. Specifically it was this sentence:

“I’m returning from the IFA 2012 tradeshow in Berlin, where I came away with the usual selection of press materials on USB flash drives.”

that caught my attention. It seems to me that handing out USB drives in this day and age is rather antiquated.  Nevertheless if PR folks are handing them out then it must mean there isn’t a better alternative.

Seems to me services like SkyDrive/DropBox could help out here. Rather than hand out USB drives to Ed a PR person (let’s call him Dave) could instead distribute a URL to a folder on SkyDrive/DropBox that contains all of the PR materials. Problem with that is that that it would still live on Dave’s SkyDrive/DropBox, it wouldn’t be part of Ed’s SkyDrive/DropBox. What if there were a button on that folder labelled (e.g.) “Add to my files” which Ed could click and then that folder automatically becomes part of his SkyDrive/DropBox (viewable on the web, synced to Ed’s laptop etc…). Any changes that Dave makes automatically turn up in Ed’s collection; moreover Dave still maintains full control over the folder.

Better still, rather than using a button the URL that Dave distributes could (if Dave desired it) automatically add it to the collection of the person clicking the URL.

Would be useful, no?
Jamiet

Written by Jamiet

September 4, 2012 at 3:26 pm

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A warning about WeAreElectricals.com

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Do not, under any circumstances, ever buy anything from WeAreElectricals.com. Here’s a communique that I have just sent them via their Contact Us page which should explain why:

From above: “Your order was placed on the 2nd of May 2012 (after 3:00pm) using the ’3-5 Working Days’ delivery option. Your order was due to arrive between the 8th of May 2012 and the 10th of May 2012.”

Given that it is now 11th June I want to cancel this order. Some time last week I sent you an email via the very same mechanism that I am using to send this one now. In that email I requested the order be cancelled – I’ve heard diddly squat from you since then and on visiting this site just now it seems the order has not been cancelled.

I also tried to telephone you just a few minutes ago and was told that no-one is available to take my call.

Let’s review. Failure to fulfill an order over a month after placing it. Failure to respond to a request to cancel that order. Failure to even pick up the phone. I’m stunned that the quality of your customer service could be this bad.

Do me a favour, cancel the goddamn order. Its not hard. Then do the world another favour, shut down your abysmal company.

Regards
Jamie Thomson

Update: Apparently I’m not the only one annoyed by this shower of *****: http://www.reviewcentre.com/reviews260382.html (hat-tip @fatherjack)

Written by Jamiet

June 11, 2012 at 9:06 am

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Thoughts on Windows 8 Release Preview

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One week on from the Windows 8 Release Preview came out I figured I’d do my usual and post some initial thoughts. This is the first Windows 8 release that I have installed on both my Samsung Slate and (for the first time) my main day-in, day-out machine so I really have dived headlong into this thing.

  • The Start screen. Its the biggest change to Windows since 1995…and I love it. How anyone can prefer a bland windows desktop to a screen that is alive with rich information and one’s own personal digital memorabilia is beyond me. I am an especially big fan of simply being able to start typing and getting instant search results; I am constantly using the search functionality in the Windows 7 desktop anyway so to have that one less keypress away is, as far as I’m concerned, a good thing.
  • The productivity apps (Mail, Calendar, People, Messaging) are much better than they were in the Consumer Preview. Send/Receive (or sync as its termed here) is much more reliable, the interface is much smoother (if I worked for Microsoft I would no doubt be spouting the word “fluid”) and they give me an altogether warmer and fuzzier feeling. One notable aspect (and this is true of virtually all Metro apps that I have used so far) is that simply by virtue of being Metro apps they have capabilities over and above their Windows 7 counterparts (e.g. live tiles, notifications, sharing contracts, a consistent app bar, search and settings experience) but this is tempered by the fact that they simply have less features. For example, in Windows Live Mail in Windows Live Essentials I could specify that a calendar entry could reoccur, say, on the first Monday of a month (believe it or not I use this feature *a lot*) but in the Metro Calendar app I can only specify that something reoccurs on, say, the first of the month. Another example, there is no way to edit or remove the signature on on a new email (they all have the infuriating “Sent from my Windows 8 PC” tagged onto them). Another, the messaging app doesn’t show me which of my friends are online, apparently I have to go to the People app for that and even then its hidden away somewhat – give me a keyboard shortcut to show me all of my online friends and make that shortcut work in both the Messaging and People apps. Want to flag an email in the Mail app? No can do! You get the idea – the apps do the basics but the advanced features generally are not there.
  • Notifications are not on by default in the Mail app so I recommend going into settings (Win+i) and correcting that; I find notifications to be very useful.
  • Multi-monitor support in Windows 8 is better than ever before but as far as I can discern I can still only run Metro apps on one screen. I want more than that – I want to move Metro apps onto the other monitor as well. For example, I want Mail and a snapped Music app on my second monitor while I use a web browser and a snapped Twitter client on my first monitor. Too much to ask? Apparently so.
  • I took time to familiarise myself with the keyboard shortcuts (I have a note from the Quicknote app containing all of the useful ones pinned to my start screen) and I’m glad I did as I am loving the ease at which I can navigate around the OS without resorting to my mouse. Here are the ones that I’ve found to be invaluable:
Shortcut Description
Win key switch between start screen and currently active app (or apps if you have one snapped)
Win + Page Up/Down Move screens between different monitors
Win + . Snap an app to the right of the screen
Win + Shift + . Snap an app to the left of the screen
Win + h Share
Win + i Show Settings
Win + q Search
Alt +Tab works just like it always has done, thankfully
Win + x  Old-style shortcut menu for power users
  • Unfortunately the apps themselves aren’t overflowing with keyboard shortcuts – the worst offenders being the Bing apps (F5 to refresh, anyone???). I reckon Microsoft could go some way to alleviating this by promoting the use of keyboard shortcuts – mentioning of keyboard shortcuts on the Windows 8 developer blog is currently conspicuous by its absence and I doubt that updated templates will significantly improve the situation.
  • I’m using Rowi as my Twitter client and find it very useful as a snapped app. Its not a bad effort but there are still lots of gaps; to their credit they have already knocked out a new version in the last week so I’m hopeful they can achieve feature parity with existing windows clients before RTM. I haven’t resorted to installing Metrotwit, yet.
  • I am a rabid document scanner – whenever a letter comes through the post the first place it goes is through the scanner on my HP Photosmart C7280. My preference is to scan as PDF but Windows’ Fax and Scan support doesn’t support saving to PDF and HP’s supporting software (which does allow me to save as PDF) won’t yet install on Windows 8 so I’ve had to resort to using the wife’s macbook which natively supports scanning to PDF. Not happy! I presume that HP will have a version of their software out by RTM – I’m hoping so.
  • I haven’t installed Office yet as I simply haven’t need it. If I’ve needed to edit an Office document (of which I have many) then I just visit http://skydrive.live.com and edit it there.
  • I am a big user of Lastpass and thus the inability to install add-ins to Metro IE is a big downside for me. If the metro versions of Chrome or Firefox support add-ins and Lastpass provide such an add-in then I’ll drop IE in a heartbeat  (which I did a long time ago on Windows 7 in favour of Chrome).
  • The Music app doesn’t support auto-playlists which I am a big fan of in the Zune desktop app – another example of a metro app having less features than its desktop counterpart.
  • I haven’t yet discovered any apps that are taking advantage of the ability to connect to a user’s Microsoft account to leverage single sign-on (this is discussed at Extending “Windows 8″ apps to the cloud with SkyDrive) and I find that disappointing because I believe this is one of the most compelling features of Windows 8.

That’s all for now. When I encounter anything else worth adding here then I will do so.

@Jamiet

Written by Jamiet

June 8, 2012 at 10:17 pm

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Do you wantonly use “Reply All” on mailing lists?

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This.

Written by Jamiet

May 25, 2012 at 2:19 pm

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Thoughts on the new SkyDrive app

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Two days ago an app was released by Microsoft that allows you to sync files from your computer to your online storage vault at http://www.skydrive.com, read Microsoft’s announcement at Making personal cloud storage for Windows available anywhere, with the new SkyDrive. To describe this release as overdue is an understatement, I personally have been after a decent sync client for SkyDrive since I first started using the service back in 2007, indeed in my first blog post on the subject in August 2007 I said:

The most requested feature so far is the ability to sync this cloud storage service with conventional storage on our own hardware and I would put that top of my list too. … This should enable seamless dragging and dropping between local folders and live folders using the tools we are all familiar with (e.g. Windows Explorer).

Live Folders cometh!

Here we are, nearly five years later, and the ability to sync with the cloud has finally arrived. So how does it measure up? I’ve been using it for a couple of days so herein I’ll share my experiences so far:

  • As a user that already had over 4GB worth of data stored on SkyDrive I automatically received the 25GB free storage limit. That’s 25GB of free syncable storage space. Yum.
  • I have been using NAS (in the form of Windows Home Server) to backup all of my music and photos for a couple of years now but I’ve never been completely happy with it because
    • hard drives can still go pop and redundancy doesn’t make them failsafe
    • it still takes maintenance from time-to-time
    • there is no ability to sync that storage, certainly not seamlessly built-in anyway
    • it is only available to me at home (Home Server does provide access via a web portal but I’ve never found it to be particularly usable)
    • it is expensive (both for the hardware and the cost of running the server)

This new SkyDrive app coupled with syncable cloud storage either alleviates or reduces all of those problems so I purchased 100GB of extra storage on SkyDrive for £32 per year (less than the cost of running my Home Server for the same length of time). Here was the first negative though – when I went to purchase the extra storage I was only offered payment in US dollars and hence when asked to fill in my credit card details I was required to enter a US address which I do not have (I live in the UK). This required a call to SkyDrive support where I was informed by the very helpful Jennifer Crispo that SkyDrive had incorrectly identified me as being in the US and that I could purchase storage from the UK by visiting https://skydrive.live.com/managestorage?accountid=0&ctpmkt=en-GB. This worked fine thankfully (thanks Jennifer).

  • I loaded my 50+GB worth of media from my Home Server into my local SkyDrive folder and waited to see how long it would take to sync to the cloud. That was approximately 30 hours ago and so far it has loaded up ~15GB. I’ll leave you to decide whether you consider that fast or slow (its worth remembering that the SkyDrive app works as a background, low priority, process), I tell you this so that you have some sort of yardstick as to how long it might take you to sync all of your stuff to SkyDrive should you choose to do so.
  • When I heard about the “Fetch” feature (i.e. the ability to access a file from a PC that is running the SkyDrive app elsewhere) I wasn’t too enamoured as I didn’t think I would be using it too much. Turns out I was wrong, it proved invaluable on the first day of use in order to access a file on my home PC that had not yet synced up to SkyDrive.com. Moreover, I was blown away at how quick it was – clicking through the folders from my Home PC was as quick as doing the same on my local hard drive – seriously. Colour me impressed with the new Fetch feature.

There are still many features that I would like to see added to SkyDrive (many of which I alluded to in my post Thoughts on latest SkyDrive news from two months ago):

  • There is no access from my XBox and if XBox is intended to be a media hub that has to change [UPDATE: Uncanny that just 90minutes or so after I wrote this that an article has appeared on The Verge revealing plans for a new music service coming to XBox. No word on whether it integrates with SkyDrive or not tho.]
  • Currently I cannot play any of my uploaded music online – there needs to be an online music player/experience integrated into SkyDrive.com
  • I cannot choose to sync a subset of my SkyDrive to a particular device. This is a big problem as I do have at least two devices (my phone and a tablet PC) that have less storage available than the 125Gb that I now have available on SkyDrive.
  • I would like to share all of my media with my wife so that she can access it all on her laptop without logging on as me. Unfortunately that is not possible because the SkyDrive app only syncs folders that belong to you, not those that have been shared with you.
  • I don’t understand why storage tops out at 125GB. Why can one not simply pay for however much one wants on a price-per-GB basis?
  • It would be really nice of Microsoft to bundle extra storage along with every license of Windows. Say, “buy a copy of Windows and get an extra 2GB of free storage on SkyDrive for life”; I’m not an expert on the economics here but with the cost of storage plummeting all the time I can’t imagine that such an offer would be much of an encumbrance  for Microsoft to provide. It would be an incentive to upgrade, an incentive to choose Windows over a rival OS and moreover would introduce SkyDrive to new customers too.

That’s a quick recounting of my experiences so far with the SkyDrive app, I hope this is useful to some of you. If I discover anything significant in the future I shall come back here and update.

@Jamiet

Written by Jamiet

April 25, 2012 at 10:49 am

Posted in SkyDrive, Uncategorized

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A Rich Snippets Infographic

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Written by Jamiet

March 14, 2012 at 10:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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