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Brislen on Tech this week

Paul Brislen, Editor. 05 August 2016, 2:00 pm

Tender is the night

I subscribed to the government tender document website several years ago in the hopes of landing some work out of it.

One tender document completely changed my mind on that score.

It ran to about 20 pages and was for a communications project. To this day I have no idea what the department wanted because of the 20-odd pages, 19 of them were devoted to telling tendees how to write their proposals. Double spacing was required on all documents. A margin no less than this but no larger than that would be necessary. Three hard copies were to be provided of all documents and three USB sticks of at least 8GB each were necessary (even though any proposal would, at most, weigh in at about 30MB I estimate).

Yet when it came to the actual project there were very few words to consider. Review current channels, devise new channels, consider social media trends. No indication of what the department's goals were, no explanation as to what the department wanted to achieve or why the current platform or process or strategy wasn't working. Nothing of value whatsoever.

There wasn't enough information in that scant page to enable me to determine whether they wanted a writer or a web designer. The other 19 pages convinced me it wasn't worth bothering with because any client who can't articulate what they want and who falls back on telling you how to present your proposal really needs to be taken for a long walk off a short pier.

Kiwi companies find it notoriously difficult to win New Zealand government tenders and it's only partly because of this kind of nonsense. All too often tenders are won by large international companies and I think it happens for a combination of reasons. Firstly, who's got the time to wade through this kind of procedural garbage? Only large companies with a dedicated team, that's who. Secondly, those writing the tenders tend to be risk averse - so much so that they increase the risk.

Take my example above. If this was a tender for a website it would have been much cheaper and quicker just to say so and get on with it. If they wanted help with a comms strategy, just put that out there. Making it into a full-blown RFP process adds cost and delays and means most of those agile, capable respondents simply won't bother because of the red tape.

But the main reason, I believe, is because government agencies are averse to hiring anyone who might be perceived to carry risk or to be seen favouring one player over another. Much better to hire IBM or SAP or Oracle than to hire Catalyst or AMS or any of the local providers.

There is good news on this score. This week I attended a briefing on the Department of Internal Affairs new ICT Marketplace which is designed to help alleviate some of this nonsense.

The Marketplace puts cloud-based services squarely at the forefront of departmental buying in order to help drive a degree of speed previously unseen in government circles. It's designed as a super-panel of sorts where every provider can list their capabilities in one place and be available to all departments at one price. Government will be treated as one single buyer rather than a number of smaller departmental buyers.

That seems a bit keen to me - I'll give you a price for 1,000 users but that's going to be quite different to 300,000, yet that's the potential user base on offer here. However, I like the idea of increasing competition  while reducing duplication of effort so here's hoping it gains some traction.

The Marketplace will launch properly next year. Currently it's in trial with two proof of concept projects. Here's hoping project owner Ron Stuart can steer the government away from the monolithic oil tanker model more towards the speedboat end of the market.

Techblog - Why don't New Zealand companies win government tenders?


Courting disaster?

I once tried to cover a court case for Computerworld. Court reporting is one of those beats that attracts a certain type of journalist - a surly, sarcastic, hard-bitten type who will sell your kidney for a story while you're buying them a round. So it was I cheerfully volunteered because if you can't get posted to a war zone, this was a good second best choice.

The court system, it turns out, is not designed for scrutiny.

First, I had to find the right court room. This was the High Court in Auckland so off I went, expecting to find some kind of noticeboard or list of what hearings were going on in what courtroom. Fat chance. Instead, I wandered around opening doors at random and getting shouted at for a bit.

Eventually I joined a queue and snaked my way to an information booth where a woman smirked at me and said that information wasn't available. But this is supposed to be a public hearing that anyone can attend, I suggested, to which she actually laughed out loud (I didn't know people really did that) and walked away.

I suspect she eventually went to work for the UK Passport Office which has a similar level of customer service and regard for fellow travellers on this road through life.

Eventually I found a volunteer helper who did indeed help me, by which time the hearing had long since finished. Could I get a copy of the ruling, I wondered aloud. No, was the short answer. Apparently I would have to write a letter (not an email - this was made very clear to me) to the judge politely asking if I could be informed of his decision. I never received a response.

Rarely have I spent a more frustrating day.

Thankfully, I'm not the only one who has found such nonsense to be, well, nonsense.

Former District Court Judge David Harvey, who has retired from the bench after many years' service, has long been seen as the go-to judge for all matters relating to the digital world. I'm not sure how it works behind closed doors at the court system but he seemed to be the name on the ballot whenever a digital, technical issue came before the courts and so over the years his name has cropped up in association with a wide range of cases.

He's also been teaching ICT-related law at the University of Auckland and has now gone one step further to become the founding Director of the ICT Law Centre at the University of Auckland.

The Centre will have three roles - the first, to teach lawyers about this new digital world. This is important because if you've ever seen a lawyer on the way in to court, they generally have one of those wheely briefcases stacked high with boxes and binders and papers of all manner. I know, right?

Secondly, the Centre will conduct research and policy development. The new Harmful Digital Communications Act, for example, will be scrutinised to see whether it's working as intended and what changes can be made to improve it further. Other laws will likewise be reviewed and hopefully we can stop making laws that fail in the digital world since that's the world we live in now.

But the third leg of the Centre's stool, as it were, is to help build a test lab for technologies that could in future be deployed in a courtroom.

You may remember the Ministry of Justice's ill-fated E-Bench project, which saw lawyers revolt when faced with a new system that was incompatible with almost everything else in use. One $7 million spend later all we had to show for it was egg all over the tax payers' face.

Hopefully the Centre's lab will help avoid that in future. As new technologies are developed and gain currency, the Centre will be able to incorporate them, try them on for size and discard those that don't make the grade.

Who knows, the next time I venture into the court system I might not only be able to find the right room but be able to receive a copy of the decision in my inbox there and then.

TechBlog - The New Zealand Centre for ICT Law goes live

Ministry of Justice - Judicial Systems Online

DominionPost - Digital court system E-Bench's failure leads to near $7 million write-off

Computerworld - Legal proceedings slowly move online (The distant future - the year 2000)


Game On

Plenty of activity in New Zealand on the game development front with news that Marker Metro has been bought by UK-based digital agency The Marketing Group which promises it will keep people employed in New Zealand, closely followed by a survey of the Game Developers Association which found revenues up, and almost all the income is from offshore.

This is great news. Game development is absolutely ripe for Kiwi talent to get stuck into. The barriers to entry are relatively low and New Zealand's low cost of wages and office space (Auckland house prices notwithstanding) mean we can undercut the competition and still have enough left for our lattes.

"Entertainment software and apps continue to be one of New Zealand's fastest growing hi-tech creative exports," says New Zealand Game Developers Association Chairperson Stephen Knightly.

"The successful New Zealand studios have consistently grown their audiences and attracted fans around the world. They've become sustainable independent publishers and proven that they are not one-hit wonders but are smart digital exporters."

While the number employed in the sector is down on last year's survey, the biggest problem facing game development in New Zealand is the lack of skilled workers. Nearly half (47%) of all game companies have problems hiring staff trained in this sector.

You just have to look at the phenomenon that is Pokemon Go, or go back to Flappy Bird, Angry Birds (basically, any of the Bird games) to see how one success can pay for itself over and again.

To encourage new development, the Game Developers Association has launched a $20,000 business start-up competition, the Kiwi Game Starter.

In conjunction with Callaghan Innovation, the NZGDA will select four finalists to pitch their prototypes and business plans to a panel of judges during the New Zealand Game Developers Conference at AUT University on 8-9 September. Entries are due by August 15 so if you're interested, follow the link below.

NZ Herald - Kiwi games industry keeps surging - up 13pc

NBR - Game industry revenue up 13% despite loss of 93 jobs

TechBlog - Marker Metro sold to UK group

NZGDA - Kiwi Game Starter 2016

NZCER - Playing, making, discussing, gamifying: Many ways to use games for learning


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