The Global Innovation Series is supported by BMW i, a new concept dedicated to providing mobility solutions for the urban environment. It delivers more than purpose-built electric vehicles — it delivers smart mobility services. Visit bmw-i.com or follow @BMWi on Twitter.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is looking to transform the way they develop applications that serve wide and diverse audiences. They are currently running Apps for the Environment, an app development challenge — with a deadline of September 16 — that is meant to encourage the public to come up with new ways of leveraging EPA data.

“The premise for a long, long time has been that the government knows what is best for folks,” says Robin Gonzalez, acting director of the Office of Information Analysis and Access within the Office of Environmental Information. “We collect data from the people we regularly work with — industry — and others and try to put it into digestible formats which usually come out as sets of reports or raw data sets. The EPA has a number of large databases, such as Envirofacts, and is looking forward to “seeing what kind of apps students and developers come up with using our data.”


The Challenge


Gonzalez says this challenge presents a different way for a government agency to operate. It lets the market dictate how years of valuable EPA data can be put to good use.

The Apps for the Environment challenge welcomes individuals, independent programmers and corporate programmers to participate in developing apps for consumers, business-to-business and even government-to-business scenarios (or vice versa). The three categories for entries are Professional, Student and People’s Choice, with one winner to be chosen in each category.

The apps submitted must address one of the Seven Priorities from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, such as taking action on climate change or building strong state and tribal partnerships. The apps should also be useful to individuals or the community at large. Developers can get ideas from webinars available on the site, which consist of audio interviews, slideshows and transcripts.

Even non-programmers can contribute to the challenge by submitting ideas for potential apps. The EPA’s challenge currently has 90 app ideas on their site, including:

  • An app that would identify nearby recycling centers for disposing household hazardous waste
  • An app that combines air toxics data from the EPA’s National Air Toxic Assessment (NATA) database with environmental public health data from the Centers for Disease Control and National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program to identify areas with high emissions that also have high incidences of disease
  • An app that identifies all available beach advisories and/or closings near a user’s current location
  • An app that allows users to compare the environmental impact of two products, such as grocery and household products

Developers are encouraged to either submit apps based on their own ideas or peruse dozens of app ideas from others. There is even a Hack-a-thon taking place on Labor Day weekend and hosted by American University that aims to bring together developers and teams from universities throughout the area, professional coders, as well as EPA data specialists. The goal will be to develop apps for the competition.


App Contests Are Going Mainstream


While app challenges aren’t new (take NYC Big Apps, the Civic Apps Challenge in Portland, Oregon and even a DC apps challenge called Apps for Democracy), what makes the EPA Apps for the Environment challenge different is that it is national in scope. The EPA challenge also encourages the use of not just EPA data sets but data from other agencies as well.

The EPA announced Apps for the Environment in June 2011 on the heels of another national app competition supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) called myHealthyPeople Challenge — a part of the Health 2.0 Developers Challenge for rapid app development. The goal of the HHS apps challenge was to develop a custom Healthy People 2020 app for professionals, advocates, funders and decision makers who are using the Healthy People initiative to improve the well-being of people across the country. Challenge winners were invited to meet with HHS leadership to demo their apps and to strategize additional development opportunities. The Healthy Communities Institute won the first place prize of $2,500 for its online dashboard that checks the status of all the HealthyPeople 2020 goals in Sonoma County to assess and improve local community health.


The Reward


On November 8, the EPA will present awards to the Apps for the Environment challenge winners in a high-profile event in Northern Virginia. At the same event, the Department of Energy (DOE) will announce details about their upcoming apps challenge. As federal agencies pass the apps challenge baton, they can learn from their predecessors and their own experiences in accelerating the development cycle through crowdsourcing. Additional federal agency apps challenges can be found on Challenge.gov.

Gonzalez acknowledges that apps challenges are a form of crowdsourcing for app development, and while their current app challenge doesn’t include a monetary award, he says the EPA is exploring several models of payment for future app development initiatives.

“We’re looking to streamline the app development process, looking at this as a model that will inform that process going forward,” says Gonzalez. “We don’t expect to get everything for free, obviously, but at the same time we want to do this in a more innovative and more competitive way than exists today.”

Gonzalez says he has a team in place examining how their initial apps challenge effort can lead to future challenges and future app development work at the EPA. The goal is to look for different ways than the traditional model of determining the app they want produced, writing up specs, putting out an RFP, letting vendors bid on it and then picking a winner who then builds the app. By getting the public involved, new opportunities may arise that wouldn’t have come out of the usual RFP process.

Once the winning apps are chosen, the EPA will not own any of the apps. As long as the information retrieved from the EPA’s data sets is not misused in any way, the completed apps are property of the respective developers, who can then market and sell the apps themselves. The challenge winners will be invited to present their apps at the November awards ceremony to an audience that will include representatives from the EPA and other federal agencies, the media and even venture capitalists.

And more apps challenges are on the horizon for the EPA.

“What we currently develop is what we think is best for the public. Our thinking is changing,” says Gonzalez. “We believe that there’s a whole lot of innovative ways to approach development of our applications.”

Apps challenges are the EPA’s move in a more open and inclusive direction.


Series Supported by BMW i


The Global Innovation Series is supported by BMW i, a new concept dedicated to providing mobility solutions for the urban environment. It delivers more than purpose-built electric vehicles; it delivers smart mobility services within and beyond the car. Visit bmw-i.com or follow @BMWi on Twitter.

Are you an innovative entrepreneur? Submit your pitch to BMW i Ventures, a mobility and tech venture capital company.

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About 75 developers from across the United States (and at least one from Canada) accepted New York City Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne’s invitation to spend 36 hours of last weekend envisioning a better nyc.gov.

The city’s first ever hackathon offered little incentive: There were no cash prizes, no iPad giveaways, and the city has not committed to using any of the designs to replace the website it launched in 1996 and last redesigned more than five years ago. Five of 14 teams whose designs were chosen by judges for various honors will be thanked personally by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in meetings this week.

“Really the goal was to bridge the worlds of government and technology and having a dialog,” Sterne says. “This really showed what people want.”

So what do people want? Most of the winning designs’ homepages focus on search, mirroring Bing and Google. Sterne saw: StackOverflow-like forums that encourage users to help each other, as well as gamification, location and social elements. In other words, these are the trends you’d expect from coders working with APIs from Google, Bit.ly, Foursquare and other popular web services.

New York City also introduced two new APIs at the event: one that works with 311 and another that constantly updates apps that use the city’s more than 400 open data sets with the latest changes.

Here are the five winning designs. What changes would you like to see on your city’s government website?

Best Use of Social: @NYC

Ask NYC.gov

Best Use of Local: nyc.gov Redesign

A location feature pulls in data based on the user’s zipcode.

Best Use of Location: nyc.gov Local Filtering

A feature pulls in data based on the user’s zipcode.

Best User Interface: Team Apple Seed

For comparison, here is a photo of NYC’s current website:

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nyc image

Rachel Sterne is Chief Digital Officer for the City of New York, where she focuses on the City’s digital media strategy. You can follow her on Twitter @RachelSterne or follow the City @nycgov.

Today is the last day to sign up for Reinvent NYC.GOV, the City’s first-ever hackathon. Civic-minded designers and developers who want to help improve NYC government are encouraged to apply at: reinventnycgov.com.

Why have we decided to invite the best and brightest of NYC’s tech community to help us improve NYC.gov? Here’s the backstory.


Improving Our Digital Footprint


When we asked New Yorkers for their input on New York City’s “Road Map for the Digital City,” one of the biggest topics of feedback was NYC.gov, the City government’s main digital presence.

Some New Yorkers praised the scope of information offered and ability to pay bills and look up records online. Others suggested we had room for improvement. Comments included: “NYC.gov is a little hard to navigate/search,” “NYC.gov could use a refresh” and “NYC.gov is just too unwieldy.” The refrain was clear: The site was muddy, but we had an opportunity to make NYC.gov more cohesive and user-centric while integrating it with different communication channels in social media.

Last week, New York City Government and General Assembly announced Reinvent NYC.GOV, our first-ever hackathon to help solve this challenge in an open, transparent, participatory environment.

Taking place July 30 to 31 at entrepreneurship-focused community learning space General Assembly, it’s an important step in our our Road Map to realize NYC’s digital potential. Here are a few reasons why we’re doing it:


Why NYC Is Hosting a Hackathon


  • 1. It will bridge sectors and connect the government and technology communities around a shared challenge.
  • 2. It will encourage collaborative problem-solving and a more open government. We’ve invited developers to share their ideas for improving a major digital “public space.” NYC.gov has almost as many visitors each year as Central Park and should be similarly cared for.
  • 3. It will create a mechanism for the public to share feedback and ideas for a website that exists to serve them.
  • 4. It can serve as a model for other governments, helping to affect national and international change.
  • 5. It will introduce creative and innovative concepts that could help to evolve NYC.gov to be more efficient and effective in serving and empowering New Yorkers.
  • 6. It will provide both individuals and teams with face-to-face access to the City’s decision makers.
  • 7. It creates a precedent and platform for evolving government through open innovation and participation.
  • 8. It will serve as the first step in a transparent design process. We want to gather as much input as possible. This is a way to move quickly to achieve our goals.
  • 9. It helps remove subjectivity from the design process by clearly showing what the public wants and needs.
  • 10. It equips developers with the internal data they need to make user experience decisions, such as analytics, as well as support from our tech partners, including DonorsChoose, ExpertLabs, Facebook, Foursquare, Google, Meetup and YouTube.

We think this model is an important part of New York City’s digital Road Map and feel that it can be an effective piece for other cities, as well. What are your ideas for the future of NYC.gov? Tell us in the comments below or tweet using the hashtag #reinventnycgov.


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This post reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Mashable as a publication.

Steve Bratt is the CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web. The mission of the organization is to empower people through transformative programs that leverage the web as a medium for positive change.

In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama pledged support for open government initiatives, including the creation of websites that provide access to valuable but not sensitive government data. This initiative promoted transparency, accountability, collaboration and citizen participation by putting government data online. Data.gov was launched in May 2009 as a result, and this incredible site provides nearly 300,000 data sets and almost 1,000 applications developed by government and private enterprise. Government has embraced the web as a platform to provide data to the public and to other entities inside and outside the government sector. Open Government Data (OGD), or government data that can be accessed online and used by others, is a pioneer idea that empowers people and enhances government accountability.

We recently learned that Data.gov and similar websites will receive significantly decreased funding from the U.S. government. Without continued financial support, some government websites will go dark. That’s unfortunate, considering the two years of work spent to create and launch them. The latest offering from the House Appropriations Committee included only $8 million for the Office of Management and Budget’s open government program, which funds the development and maintenance of sites such as data.gov. This offering is significantly less than the requested $35 million.

If we fail to fund open government projects, not only does the United States lose, but so does the rest of the world, which looks to the United States and United Kingdom as the leaders in modern government transparency initiatives. To date, we have witnessed an impressive adoption of open government initiatives globally. Some 15 nations plan to model their open government platforms using data.gov as an example.

Recently, OGD feasibility assessments conducted by my organization in Chile and Ghana have revealed the need and desire to establish open government initiatives in those countries. Improving government transparency and accountability in these markets enhances public confidence in systems of government and attracts foreign investment in local businesses. In addition, innovative commercial opportunities are made possible based on the availability typically-hidden government data. And for all who are interested in cost-effective governance (who isn’t?), OGD initiatives have produced savings on U.S. government expenditures. According to U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, the IT dashboard provides an estimated $3 billion in savings per year to the American taxpayer. Such projects also help government agencies identify water quality changes, bad roads and areas with high crime rates.

Let’s not lose the significant benefit of open government data work after so much effort, time and money has gone into building these resources that are already proving to more than pay for themselves. I urge you to contact your local representatives, and ask them to fully fund U.S. open government initiatives or sign the Sunlight Foundation’s “Save the Data” petition that is urging congressional representatives protect funding for open government projects.


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Code for America, the non-profit organization that creates government-changing apps for communities around the U.S., has received applications from 19 U.S. city, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of State.

Each of these government entities will compete to be one of the three to five communities that gets Code for America fellows to create a customized, open-source app to solve a pervasive problem in public service or government administration.

For example, in the last Code for America cycle, five cities were picked for projects such as an Open311-type project and an application that allows citizens to monitor and give feedback on city hall proposals.

The 19 applicants will compete for a spot in the next Code for America cycle. Applications will be judged based on the government’s commitment to the partnership, funding to support the project, and the openness, efficiency, and reusability of the proposed application or project. The selection process will be guided by a committee, which will announce the winning applicants in June 2011.

Once three to five candidates are selected, the custom apps will be developed by Code for America fellows, a team of 20 crack web and mobile developers hand-selected by an all-star committee that includes Irene Au of Google, Paul Buchheit of Facebook, Anil Dash of Expert Labs and many more.

Code for America’s Government Relations Director Alissa Black said in a release, “It’s great to see not only this much interest in Code for America, but also enthusiasm from public officials in using technology to change the way government works.

The response we’re seeing proves that government is thinking creatively about ways to innovate in response to our fiscal crises, and that the open government movement is really taking hold within government itself.”

Here’s the full list of applicants:

  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • Austin, Texas
  • Balboa Park – San Diego, California
  • California Department of Economic Development
  • California Department of Energy
  • Columbus, Ohio
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Hartford County, Maryland
  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • New York City
  • Omaha, Nebraska
  • Palm Bay, Florida
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Raleigh, North Carolina
  • San Francisco, California
  • Santa Clarita, California
  • Santa Cruz, California
  • U.S. Department of State

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Major city governments across North America are looking for ways to share civic data — which normally resides behind secure firewalls — with private developers who can leverage it to serve city residents via web and mobile apps. Cities can spend on average between $20,000 and $50,000 — even as much as $100,000 — to cover the costs of opening data, but that’s a small price to pay when you consider how much is needed to develop a custom application that might not be nearly as useful.

Here are a few examples of initiatives that are striving to make city governments more efficient and transparent through open data.


1. Apps4Ottawa – Ottawa, Quebec


Careful to adhere to security and privacy regulations for their open data program, the City of Ottawa started sharing data in several areas: geo-spatial (roadways, parks, runways, rivers, and ward boundaries); recreation facilities; event planning; civic elections data; and transit, including schedules. Other data the city is pursuing includes tree inventory, collections schedules for garbage, recycling and compost, and bike and foot paths.

Ottawa aligned their first open data contest, Apps4Ottawa, with the school year (September 2010 to January 2011 ) to involve colleges and universities as well as residents and local industry. Categories for the contest included “Having Fun in Ottawa,” “Getting Around,” “Green Environment/Sustainability,” “Community Building,” and “Economic Development.” The winner is scheduled to be announced later this evening.

Guy Michaud, chief information officer for the City of Ottawa, said their open data efforts have already spurred economic development and is meant to be good for local entrepreneurs. The city receives no revenue through the apps, and the developers can sell what they create. In turn, Ottawa residents get improved services from applications that are created, with better access to city data and more user-friendly formats and platforms.


2. CivicApps.org – Portland, Oregon


After tracking Vivek Kundra’s efforts at the federal level with data.gov, Portland, Oregon launched CivicApps.org, a project initiated out of the mayor’s office to bring a more localized approach to the open data movement. Skip Newberry, economic policy advisor to the mayor, say that the project’s main objective is to improve connections and the flow of information between local government and its constituents, as well as between city bureaus. To call attention to the release of public data, they also launched an app design contest, highlighting the tech talent in Portland’s software community.

According to Rick Nixon, program manager for the Bureau of Technology’s Open Data Initiative for the city of Portland, CivicApps.org took a more regional approach to cover the multiple layers of local government: County, Metro, TriMet, and the City of Portland, all of which collect and maintain various kinds of public data. Data sets released include regional crime, transit, infrastructure (i.e. public works), and economic development programs. Additional projects, such as the PDX API, have been launched in order to make the raw data from CivicApps more useful to developers.

In addition to developer-specific apps, a number of transit related apps — bike, train, bus, mixed modes — were also developed. A very popular and established transit app, PDXBus, was re-released as open source under the rules of the CivicApps contest. Other popular apps helped provide residents greater awareness of their surroundings such as where to find heritage trees, where to find urban edibles, and where to locate each other during disaster relief efforts.


3. CityWide Data Warehouse – Washington, DC


For years, the District of Columbia provided public access to city operational data via the Internet. In keeping with the mayor’s promise to be transparent, the program CityWide Data Warehouse was launched, and provides citizens with access to over 450 datasets from multiple agencies. The first two datasets released were service requests from the mayor’s call center, including trash pickup, pot hole repair, street light repair, snow removal, parking meter issues and crime data.

According to David Stirgel, program manager for Citywide Data Warehouse, the project looks for data that be of interest to the widest possible audience and which will remain reusable over time. Some of the applications that have come out of the program include Track DC, which tracks the performance of individual District agencies, and summary reports that provide public access to city operational data. Some of the applications built by companies and individuals using the data include Crime Reports and Every Block.

In 2008, the District Mayor’s office, the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and digital agency iStrategyLabs launched Apps for Democracy, an open code app development contest tapping into District data that cost $50,000 and generated 47 apps. The contest was repeated in 2009. Over 200 ideas and applications were submitted, and the winner was an iPhone and Facebook app called Social DC 311. It could be used to submit service requests, such as reporting potholes and trash problems. An honorable mention was given to FixMyCityDC. Unfortunately, neither app is maintained today.


4. NYC Data Mine – New York, NY


NYC BigApps 2.0 is part of an initiative to improve the accessibility, transparency, and accountability of city government. According to Brandon Kessler, CEO of ChallengePost, the company and technology powering the NYC BigApps 2.0 Software Challenge, Mayor Bloomberg challenged software developers to use city data from the NYC.gov Data Mine to create apps to improve NYC, offering a $20,000 in cash awards to the winners.

The second annual challenge closed its call for submissions at the end of January 2011 and opened the vote to the public. Voting ends on March 9. Requirements included that the software applications be original and solely owned by the entrants, that they use at least one of the datasets from the NYC.gov Data Mine, and be free to the public throughout the competition and for at least one year after the challenge. The panel of judges reads like a “who’s who” of New York tech luminaries, and includes Esther Dyson of EDVenture, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Jack Dorsey of Square and Twitter, and Kara Swisher of All Things Digital. One of the first year’s winning apps was WayFinder, an augmented reality Android app which allows users to point their phone in a direction and see which subways and Path trains are in front of them.


5. DataSF – San Francisco, California


Like other city governments, San Francisco’s goal for their DataSF program was to improve transparency and community engagement as well as accountability. Ron Vinson, director of media for the city’s Department of Technology also stated potential for innovation in how residents interact with government and their community. With an emphasis on adhering to privacy and security policies, the city can stimulate the creation of useful civic tools at no cost to the government.

Before launching, they reached out to Washington, DC to identify the most popular datasets, and learned that 20% of the datasets represented over 80% of the downloads. With this information, they went out first with crime, 311, and GIS data. They also allowed the public to request data through a submissions mechanism on the website where others could vote on their suggestions. This input is now required reading for the city administrator thanks to an executive directive and open data legislation.

Since launching in August 2009, DataSF has accumulated over 60 applications in its showcase. According to Vinson, the city stays engaged with their tech community by participating in local unconferences and meetups.


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415-google-censorship-map

Did you know that between January and June 2010, the US government made 4,287 requests for data disclosure from Google? During the same period, it asked for 678 items to be removed. Similarly, Brazil made 2,435 data requests and asked for 19,806 items to be removed.

The “Big Brother” statistics are available from Google’s Transparency Report. The figures have been collated from the search engine and other services such as YouTube. Google states:

Like other technology and communications companies, we regularly receive requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from our services. We also receive requests for information about the users of our services and products from government agencies like local and federal police. The map shows the number of requests that we received in six-month blocks with certain limitations.

Google admit the figures are not wholly accurate. Fewer than 10 requests are not shown and 2 requests for the same item could be counted twice. You can click any map marker for details such as how many requests Google complied with.

The figures include removal demands for alleged defamation, hate speech, and impersonation. However, the numbers do not include:

  • Illegal pornography — Google identifies and removes it when they become aware of the issue. This occurs regardless of government involvement.
  • Removal of copyrighted content — this tends to originate from the private sector and government demands are negligible.
  • Numbers for China — the Chinese government consider censorship requests to be state secrets in themselves.

You should note that demands are relatively higher in Brazil and India owing to the popularity of Orkut, Google’s own social networking site. Germany also bans Nazi memorabilia and some content while Korea requests removal of RRN social security numbers.

Criminal investigations account for many of the requests. These have increased annually as Google’s products, services and user base has grown.

There are few details about the other demands, but it’s clear Google isn’t afraid to report government censorship:

At a time when increasing numbers of governments are trying to regulate the free flow of information on the Internet, we hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests to censor information or obtain user data around the globe — and we welcome external debates about these issues that we grapple with internally on a daily basis.

The Transparency Report raises an interesting debate. On the plus side, the web is enabling a global democracy where governments are increasingly unable to hide information from the people they serve. On the flip side, is this a sign that Google has become too powerful? Can it threaten regulatory authorities, rise above the laws of the countries it operates in and enforce it’s own moral charter?

376-uk-ie6-petition

In February 2010, I reported that UK citizens could sign an online petition which demanded Internet Explorer 6 updates across all Government departments. The 6 June deadline has now passed and the Government has posted their response. You won’t be happy — they’re keeping IE6.

It’s a shame but we shouldn’t be surprised. The petition attracted just 6,223 signatures so it was hardly a mandate from the British people. That’s a reasonable number of web designers and developers but, since we’re the main beneficiaries, no one could say it was unbiased.

The petition’s biggest mistake was to cite security as the main concern:

IE6 has some security flaws that leave users vulnerable. These two governments (France and Germany) have let their populations know that an upgrade will keep them safer online. We should follow them.

The issue was too vague and could be accused of scaremongering. The Government’s response:

Complex software will always have vulnerabilities and motivated adversaries will always work to discover and take advantage of them. There is no evidence that upgrading away from the latest fully patched versions of Internet Explorer to other browsers will make users more secure. Regular software patching and updating will help defend against the latest threats. The Government continues to work with Microsoft and other internet browser suppliers to understand the security of the products used by HMG, including Internet Explorer and we welcome the work that Microsoft are continuing do on delivering security solutions which are deployed as quickly as possible to all Internet Explorer users.

Each Department is responsible for managing the risks to its IT systems based on Government Information Assurance policy and technical advice from CESG, the National Technical Authority for Information Assurance. Part of this advice is that regular software patching and updating will help defend against the latest threats. It is for individual departments to make the decision on how best to manage the risk based on this clear guidance.

IE6 has had more it’s fair share of vulnerabilities, but it’s also received a decade’s worth of security patches. In Europe, the browser’s market share has fallen below 3.5% so it’s no longer a high-priority target for hackers. Finally, Government departments have stringent security systems in place: it’s not easy for a user to become infected when they can’t access the outside web.

Perhaps the petition would have had a better chance during less challenging economic times. The final part of the Government response highlights the complexity and cost to the taxpayer:

It is not straightforward for HMG departments to upgrade IE versions on their systems. Upgrading these systems to IE8 can be a very large operation, taking weeks to test and roll out to all users. To test all the web applications currently used by HMG departments can take months at significant potential cost to the taxpayer. It is therefore more cost effective in many cases to continue to use IE6 and rely on other measures, such as firewalls and malware scanning software, to further protect public sector internet users.

The new UK Government has embarked on a massive cost-cutting exercise. Citizens are unlikely to be receptive toward millions spent on IT upgrades of negligible benefit when that cost can be directly compared against job losses, nurses salaries, education and defense budgets.

The problem for us is that 12 months is a long time in Internet years and browser upgrading is easy. Yet most Government IT projects have a minimum timescale of 5 to 10 years and the technologies they adopt are reliable (they’re already old). Even those departments undergoing an upgrade are only just moving to IE7. It’s frustrating but, even if they implemented Firefox 3.6 or Chrome 5 today, we’d be demanding further upgrades within a few months.

Ultimately, you have an easy choice. If you don’t want to develop for IE6, don’t undertake jobs where it’s a requirement.

Read the full UK Government IE6 petition response…