Britain seeks alpha

In the United States, government agencies like the FCC have launched open government websites in beta. In the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom is rolling back one more version and seeking alpha.

Alpha.gov 404 error page

Alpha.gov.uk is an experimental prototype of a new, single website for government in the United Kingdom that the Government Digital Service developed over the course of three months, working from the recommendations of Martha Lane-Fox’s Review. That service is located within the UK Cabinet Office. As its designers emphasize, “the site is a demonstration, and whilst it’s public it’s not permanent and is not replacing any other website.” (The hilarious 404 graphic above was designed by Matt Blease.)

There are some interesting semantics to consider here. In software development, “alpha” refers to the initial release in a software development cycle. In machine learning, alpha is “the degree to which a learning agent takes into account new information.”

In either sense, a government seeking alpha in rebooting its online presence is both taking risks and revisiting what government websites should do in the 21st century. The trial of Alpha.gov.uk offers a toolkit of simple, reusable functions that are oriented around the most common needs that citizens go online to address, like lost passports.

To date, the British plan to reinvent websites has received good press, including an excellent post what Alpha.gov gets right. One notable choice in age of austere budgets: going with an open source platform and using next generation web development tools and languages, including a mix of Ruby and Python. Says Wired UK:

This isn’t the first time that the government has experimented with creating a single site for all departments. From URL directories to public service hubs, sites like direct.gov.uk have often tried to shove the whole shebang into one, hulking site with varying degrees of success.

But Alpha.gov.uk’s daring design, 21st century architecture and expansive ambitions (the content can be easily syndicated to new internet platforms, like apps or IPTV),  could be the way forward.

The Alpha.gov team continues to share more about how Alpha.gov was developed at the project blog, encouraging citizens to play with the prototype and send feedback to Get Satisfaction or to @AlphaGov on Twitter or Facebook.

[Image Credit for Alpha.gov Error Page designed by Matt Blease: Ben Terrett]

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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