Island Life by David Slack


John Key: ambitious enough for web designers?

John Key tells you “This year Sparc will spend $5.5 million on its website.” What is your response? Do you harden in your resolve to vote out those wastrels? Do you say to yourself “How can I get me some of that gravy”? Do you think: “They do good research work at Crosby Textor”? Perhaps you say to yourself. “Can you give me a little more information please, Mr Key”?

I’m ambitious for New Zealand too, and just like John I hate to see my hard earned tax dollars wasted. But I don’t have access to expensive consultants. I have to rely on the public service to give me my research material. I got on the phone to SPARC and said to them: “Can you give me a little more information please?”

What did I learn? I learned that SPARC are not spending 5.5 million this year on their website. They are, however, planning to spend almost as much as that on two website projects, both to do with their Mission-On programme.

What is Mission-On, then, and how much are they spending on these two projects?

The hope is that they can do something about all the kids who are eating the wrong food and not getting enough - or any - exercise. Precisely what John Key was lamenting in his speech. Can a website make such things happen? Surely not. Next you’ll be telling me people will use it to buy a house and get a job and hook up for sex and change their career and learn how to make a pipe bomb.

Let’s just assume for the moment that it might work. How much might it cost? SPARC has costed two projects for two age projects. Next slide please.

5-12 year olds 
The amount budgeted for 2008/09 for this initiative to maintain the website and constantly update the content is $1.6m.

13-24 year olds (concepts still in development)
We are currently researching and developing technology/popular media concepts which look at the best ways to encourage this age group to increase physical activity and make healthy nutrition choices.
The amount budgeted for implementing this initiative in 2008/09 is $3.5m.

This would be the point where you say sarcastically, oh well if it’s just 1.5 and 3.5 mill for two websites, then that’s alright. Humour me, though, for a moment as we consider the question How long is a piece of string?

If you want to make a website that gathers together the names of all your friends and your favourite bands, you can do that for the cost of precisely nothing, and Rupert Murdoch will happily take your registration.

If you want to make a website that makes you money, well now we’re getting into rarer air. It may cost you nothing more than the value of your own personal toil, and I speak from personal experience when I say that that figure can quickly grow quite large. Various commentators have averred this week that TradeMe grew to the impressive scale it did with the labour of no more than a couple of dozen savvy young men and women and surely cost nothing like 5 million.

I have the greatest admiration for anyone who can parlay a website into a three quarters of a billion dollar success story, but it has to be said that TradeMe also sits on the shoulders of the inspired thinking of others. The concept was not new. The reason New Zealanders use TradeMe rather than E-Bay is that a killer idea was refined adapted and implemented in a superior way to meet the needs of the local market.

Mission-On doesn’t have that head start. Of all the things you had to achieve using a website, getting kids active would surely be one of the tougher gigs. However it does stand to reason that with kids spending so much time in front of screens that would be the smart place to go looking for them. But what to do when you get their attention? There’s really no familiar territory to cover, no proven formula to emulate. There’s a lot of thinking to be done.

That calls for time and money and expertise. And to the chagrin of the hapless web designer who takes on this very public project there is the sure prospect that in the same way that people will stand in an art gallery and declare “My 4 year old could do that” there will be an army of weekend html coders who will stand ready to declare that they could do the job by Sunday night for two dozen Steinlagers.

What might burn the dollars? Here’s a stab, working on some back of the envelope guesses with people who do this kind of work.

Research: Before you actually make the site, you’ll need to find out what you’re dealing with. You’ll need to talk to the kids. Ka-ching.

Development: Once you’ve done your research, you’re going to have to work up the killer ideas. Much talking, much thinking, much brainstorming. Can’t be avoided. Ka- ching. Ka-ching. The result in this case could be described as a site that’s a combination of social networking and personal banking for kids, with interactive games that encourage them out the door and down to the park by sharing ideas and challenging one another to get active.

Set up some focus groups: Once you’ve worked out what you’re going to do you’ll need to try out the ideas on the kids and see if you’ve got it right.Ka-ching Ka-ching.

The grunt work: Then you get to the actual work of making this stuff, and it’s not just a few pages of bog-standard coding.The Mission-On site is your typical modern elaborate site, and that tends to be the work of not just one hard working coder but the output of a whole team of designers and programmers. Ka-ching ka-ching and whose turn is it to order the pizza and V?

Keeping order: The whole thing runs as a membership site, with extensive moderation as befits a government site that has kids talking to each other - which means you need moderators, and of course backend database support for the membership system. Ka-ching ka-ching and that language is not acceptable in here, MatthewH.

Tuning it: You’ll need to do user testing to make sure it’s working right. Ask the people at Xero how much effort they continue to put into that aspect of their operation. Xero is a useful point of comparison. On one level, it’s just a website too, but they would say it’s also much more than that, and rightly so. They could also say they’re a listed company running a service that stands to change the way many small business owners run their enterprise. You might not go so far as to say that it’s life-changing, but it’s certainly habit-changing and I would happily call it a joy to use. I would also say they seem to be doing a highly competent job of applying the 15 million they raised from their float, but if you wanted to be hard on them you might simply say that’s a hell of a lot of money to spend on a website.

In that context, 1.5 million for what’s been done so far might still look on the high side, but if it can actually get the kids of that age group into healthy activities, then the payback could be substantial. Let’s say you save 100 kids from diabetes. That would probably put us taxpayers ahead on the deal, on a crude arithmetic calculation. In reality, you might hope for something substantially better in payback. Sitting next in the ledger is the 3.5 million still to be spent on a project for the older age group. It sounds like a hell of a lot more, but why don’t we wait and see what they actually make before we discard it out of hand? If it were 5.5 million for a simple website that said Welcome to SPARC and click here for our news releases, then you would have an honest-to goodness rort outrage on your hands, but what if this should turn out to be a device that ultimately reduces the burden on the long-suffering taxpayer? Is it still a waste then, even if the people who produced it have been paid handsomely?

Wherever you look, you can see waste at first blush. Take, for example, the more than 3 million dollars the taxpayer spends each year funding the staff of the Leader of the Opposition. For 3-plus million, all we’ve got so far is 15 policies and most of them warmed-over platitudes, light on detail. I understand, if Winston Peters' information is reliable, that there might even be a website designer on the staff list. Who knows what they do all day?

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