The Traindomiser: a train adventure

We were having a family chat over breakfast one Sunday morning about the kind of holidays we enjoy:

“Somewhere interesting & exciting”
“Somewhere not too bleak”
“Go interrailing”
“Go somewhere on a beach”

As it’s a truth commonly acknowledged that a chap in possession of a weekend must be in need of a coding project, my son Arthur and I set to work to come up with something that might tick these boxes. We were aiming for something that might help us go on a train adventure this half term through the UK, exploring (non-bleak, possibly seaside) places we’ve not been to before and staying wherever Airbnb or Booking.com might find for us that night.

The result is: The Traindomiser. We found a list of UK towns and cities, and explored the excellent Transport API which provides free access to all kinds of things, from bus routes to train fares, and – most useful for our purposes – helps map a place to a nearby station. We coded up a randomising algorithm that will take a maximum distance you want to travel, and suggest a place to suit, along with the train route to get there from a nearby station. We learned how mobile devices can request your location and pass it to a form, fiddled around with the search results URLs for Airbnb and Booking.com, and added a bit of suspense with some animation of the results. We learned to curse Javascript until a StackOverflow answer emerged, an important skill for any coder.

We’ve been preparing for our inaugural Traindomiser trip this week. We’ve got our Family & Friends railcard and a vintage map of the rail network (sadly out of print now). We’re travelling light, and seeing how things go. The goal: get to where the Traindomiser picks for us each evening of the trip, assuming we can find a place to stay while on our way. We’ll stop off at the interesting points on the journey, recognising that exciting adventures can come from unexpected places when you’re small. (Hopefully nowhere too bleak.)

We’ve built a little travel blog to track our first adventure with the app, and we’ll post updates there from our trip. And hope the Traindomiser can get us back home before school starts on Monday…

UPDATE: We made it home. 4 random destinations in 4 days. Lots of pics and a few reflections on the trip over here.

100 days later

Just over three months ago, I left a secure job (well, it was then) in the civil service for reasons I’ve never quite been able to explain coherently. So how have the first 100 days of postbureaucratic life been?

100

I left planning to take a bit of time, do bits and pieces, and wait for inspiration to strike. To be honest, it still hasn’t, really. There are so many fantastic opportunities for the public sector to use digital more efficiently and creatively and support the great work being done on the inside, it’s hard to know where to start.

For now, I’m enjoying a lifestyle that mixes a couple of days at home each week, with a couple of days contracting or meeting clients. I get to see my toddler more, go shoeless to the office on warm days, and more or less maintain the lifestyle I had before. Setting up a new firm has been exciting, and I’ve had some fabulous conversations with interesting people that I didn’t get to meet while I was still on the inside.

Frankly though, I wasn’t expecting the scale of public sector cuts, nor the severity of the recruitment and spending freezes – thoughts of establishing a bigger business operation are on ice for now, at least. I’m probably not alone in hoping that mainstream government (my wise and far-sighted clients excepted) will rediscover the space between zero and profligate spending in relation to digital, and that not every consultant offers poor value. Pro bono is great, but even in a big society people need to eat.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be revamping this blog, merging it into an expanded site for Helpful Technology Ltd, which I’m describing as a firm offering digital innovation for people with more sense than money. It:

  • offers no-nonsense advice and strategic help, based on a solid understanding of clients’ goals and the context they work in
  • builds and implements a range of tools and websites, putting these principles into practice with an eye on the user experience and building sustainable relationships with audiences and clients
  • delivers training, coaching and mentoring to people interested in doing this for themselves, helping to develop skills and confidence
  • supports a number of its own ‘ventures’ – projects we support or own ourselves, where we put our ideas to the test with our own time and money

Over the last few months, it’s been great to work with half a dozen Departments and organisations beyond government on strategy or small digital build projects. Coming up in the next month or two are some exciting collaborations in the ‘ventures’ space too, including:

  • Read+Comment: a low-cost, hosted platform for online commentable documents, as used last week for the Directgov Review, and which I’m looking to put on a sounder footing in terms of support
  • Postbureaucrat: a news source and weekly email rounding up the best writing online about digitally-enabled change in the public sector (and a great opportunity to reach forward-thinking public servants, hint hint)
  • Meet The Communities: a networking event for leaders of online communities, government clients and the agencies who work for them to explore how sustained, two-way partnerships with online communities can help government and citizens communicate better, more openly, and more cheaply (just finalising the venue)
  • Government Jobs Direct: a major revamp to the site offering links to vacancies information in the wider public sector

That said, I have capacity for new projects so if you could use some extra resource, whether on strategy or small project builds, please drop me a line. And if you can help solve my inspiration problem, I’ll be eternally grateful!

Blog Action Day: No cry, no fly

Arthur on the train

It’s Blog Action Day, and the theme this year is climate change.

I’m moderately tree-huggy at home: loft insulation from recycled plastic bottles, a super-efficient wood-burning stove, and kitchen worktops made from ground-up Corona bottles collected from Soho’s bars. But maybe most significantly – while I still drive a car and leave lights on and have the house too warm sometimes – I haven’t flown in nearly three years, and I’m really not missing it.

I’ve written before about the wonders of international rail travel aided by the phenomenal Seat61.com. If you didn’t check it out before, go now. What Mark Smith has put together there is quite incredible – down to an annotated guide on how to get the best ticket price on the Spanish-language railway site. He also describes the environmental benefits of train travel over plane travel – and on the holiday I’m going on shortly, taking the overnight train to the south of Spain rather than flying, it looks like I’ll be reducing my CO2 emissions from around 300kg to more like 50kg. But for me, that’s not really the clincher. As he says at the end of the article:

I didn’t start seat61.com to avoid flying, either for environmental reasons or otherwise. I started it because overland travel by train can be so much more enjoyable and fulfilling than today’s commercialised air travel experience. In an increasingly globalised world, where every flight is the same stressful non-experience, trains and ships show you more of the country you’re visiting and its culture.

All of that is true, and more so, if you’ve got a young child. To be fair, I’ve not tried flying with him, but I know that he likes to make friends, run around, eat good food and see interesting things, and travelling by Trenhotel, Palatino or Caledonian Sleeper for example are great for small people who like to do those kinds of things.

If you’re a big flyer and haven’t tried overnight rail travel, think about giving it a go sometime. It’s awesome.

Trainspotting

Forgive me a slight deviation from the usual fare here: I’m just back from my summer holiday to Italy and wanted to share a couple of tips on travelling by train to Europe:

Tip #1: Seat61.com

The truly revolutionary thing about the internet isn’t that it enables millions of people to crowdsource information, but that it enables truly passionate, expert oddballs such as the amazing Mark Smith to publish resources like the The Man in Seat Sixty One. A former station manager and civil servant, Mark has travelled the railways of the world, documenting not only how they work but the timetables and minutiae of the experience on each train service. He gave us the idea of getting from Bromley to Umbria via Paris and Rome using a combination of five trains. Take a look at the site, and dream of 3-week treks across Asia on the Trans-Siberian railway, or getting to Botswana by train.

Tip #2: Eurostar Leisure Select

Sometimes, it’s nice not being a student any more. For an extra twenty quid on the ticket price, I really recommend upgrading to Eurostar’s Leisure Select service. You get better-than-airplane food, a lot more space, peace and quiet, and if travelling with young children, help from the steward to move you to a table by yourself, if there’s space available: Arthur loved crawling around the Eurostar cabin.

Tip #3: Travelling by train is really rather fun
You don’t have to be the rail minister to enjoy travelling by train. I’m no trainspotter, but I really loved exploring Japan via Shinkansen a couple of years ago (which reminds me: another tip) – the smoothness, reliability and buttock-clenching speed were, well, buttock-clenching. Coming back from Italy this time, we got on a sleeper train in Florence at 9pm after a day of ice creams and sightseeing, woke up to croissants and coffee as we arrived in Paris at 9am the next morning, and were home by 3pm after a leisurely return journey – it really made it part of the holiday. And in our two-berth compartment, I got to sleep in the top bunk I never had (as a only child). Bliss.