Who needs your services anyway?

When you design and promote your waste service, do you know who it is for?

Most businesses design and market their services to a specific demographic or sector. For each product they have the typical customer in mind at all times. Whether it’s a new sports car, a package holiday or an insurance product, you can be sure that right from the start the product was conceived and produced with the end customer in mind. 

Local Authorities, though, are often offering services which are simply needed by everyone. We all need to get rid of our domestic waste and all have to change our habits to improve sustainability. So councils cannot imagine a specific demographic for their new garden waste services – it must be attractive and accessible to everyone. 

Historically this has meant channel shifting in a way which uses new technology without leaving anyone behind. I’ve sat through many workshops over the years where we’ve discussed the ‘older generation’ who don’t use the internet, want a more personal touch and perhaps wouldn’t cope with a shift online. 

However, I think this does those customers a disservice. A great majority of customers now use the internet, have smart phones and manage other services such as energy bills online, no matter what their age, ethnicity, education or social group. There are of course still pockets of people who will need additional support, but by driving more traffic through automated online processes we should have more time and resources to support those that need it. 

Man at home looking at waste collection calendar on Android tablet

An online service can be very different to a telephone or in-person service. If we think about online services as an add-on to the traditional process we are likely to just computerise what we already have. For each individual process you will end up with a form which mimics the conversation you would have in person – “what is your name”, “what is your address”, “what can I help you with today”… Before you know it you have a website full of forms – does that sound familiar?

Society is changing; people expect everything to be simple to use and quick to be actioned. Amazon, for example, gives customers a ‘one click’ option to buy and it’s delivered the following day. We don’t have the patience to read through walls of text or click through multiple menus to find what we’re looking for. Many businesses offer websites and apps which are engaging, eye-catching and simple to navigate. The most successful online services solve a problem for the user with minimal fuss and maximum convenience. Amazon have never asked me to fill in a form to request a product – they show me a picture with a price and a “Buy with One Click” button that does exactly what it says it will!

Mobile phone ‘buy now’ button

There will always be some users who can’t or won’t use online services, and local authorities cannot ignore them. I would argue, however, that the tipping point where services, communications and policies should be designed “online first” was long-since passed.

Understanding the cost of assisted collections

Controlling the cost and failure rates of assisted collections is a constant challenge for councils.

It is universal now that waste and recycling is collected from the kerbside. The householder must take the bin out each week and then bring it in again once it’s been emptied.  

Lots of people need help to do this because nobody living there is able to manage the size or weight of a full bin. These households will qualify for an ‘assisted collection’ – the collection crew will come into their garden and wheel the bin out for them (and usually back again).

When a collection round has over 1,000 bins to empty it’s a challenge for the council get this right every time. It also takes time to do and that must be planned into the routes.

In this article I explore the impact of assisted collections on the waste service as whole.

How Many Assisted Collections Are There?

The number of households with assisted collections varies from council to council, but I wanted to get a feel for how this impacts on collections.  Luckily, we have a lot of data to work from so I sampled over 70 of our live customer systems on a single weekday in July 2022.

On average, 3.3% of collections were assisted but there was a very big variation. 2 councils had less than 1% and one council had 11.1% of their collections assisted! I expected to see the highest figures in our rural and coastal clients, based on their older demographic. Although this was true of the one highest council, it actually did not follow as a general trend.

Are They Expensive?

The costs of providing an assisted collection service are two-fold.

Firstly, there are the costs of the extra crew time taken to provide the service. It clearly takes longer to go into the garden of a property than to collect and return the bin when it’s at the kerbside. This adds time to the route and reduces overall productivity.

Secondly, councils must provide a process to manage the service, allow people to apply for it, review the performance of it, train crews to carry it out and communicate how the service works to their residents. Those costs may not scale proportionately to the number of assisted collections, especially if they are computerised rather than relying on manual administration.

Operating Costs

I made an assumption that an assisted collection takes an additional 30 seconds compared to a standard kerbside bin. From our data I then calculated the additional working time required on a typical day.

On that day, one of the councils in our sample group spent over 42 additional working hours on assisted collections. For an ‘average’ crew with 2 loaders on a 7-hour day that equates to 3 whole routes on that day!  

The average, across all 76 authorities, was 9.4 working hours, still almost an entire working route, every day. The additional cost, for that one day, of providing assisted collections across our sample of 70 councils was £10,683.


The cost of administering the service is more difficult to quantify. It’s unlikely that any authority is in a completely ‘start-up’ position with no service or processes already in place.  There is likely to be a considerable ‘sunk cost’ in your service already. For example,

  • there is likely to be a policy on assisted collections – that will have taken a considerable amount of officer time to produce and have approved
  • there is probably an online form to allow residents to apply for an assisted collection. That form will have been designed by officers in accordance with the policy, then coded, tested and deployed by an IT team or website supplier
  • the call centre staff will have been trained on what an assisted collection is and be able to assist residents with their enquiries. Someone has probably spent time building training materials for them.

Occasionally, someone in the organisation will request a review of the policy. If anything changes, then it’s likely that all the costs above recur to some extent.

The Price of Failure

We’ve considered the cost of creating and operating the assisted collection service. Unfortunately, sometimes councils will get the service wrong. No matter how good the processes and people are, with thousands of jobs daily there are going to be failures. When a council misses an assisted collection they need to put it right quickly.

I know first hand that assisted collections are a major cause of ‘missed bins’, and anecdotally the cost of rectifying collection mistakes is reckoned at anywhere between £25 and £75 per bin. If, each day, our ‘average’ council makes a mistake with 1 in 1,000 assisted collections then it will spend £7,300 per annum (using the lower £25 per bin cost) on correcting assisted collection failures, but the highest end of our range indicates one council could be spending almost £40,000 per annum on assisted collection failures. 

I estimate the total cost, on that one Thursday in July, of correcting mistakes in the assisted collections service across 70 councils may have been £557,036!

The cost of returning to missed bins is heavily linked to costs of fuel, vehicles and staff time. All those costs are rising year on year, more so now than at any time in the last 30 years. The only effective way to reduce the cost of missed bins is to reduce the number of bins we miss!

So What To Do About It?

Nobody wants to remove or diminish this crucial service from residents. Councils are rightly keen to provide assistance to their residents where needed. 

Clearly though, there is much to gain from making it easier to apply, less prone to human error, free from administrative burden and focussed on those who need it.  The good news is that all the necessary tools are readily available once we step back and look at the whole service.

Simplified Administration

The simpler councils make their policy, the less administration it is likely to take. Whilst some councils require extensive evidence of need to support an application, many others simply accept the request at face-value. This removes barriers for those who really need the service, with the associated risk that some people who do not need it may be included. 

This approach makes the policy simpler and with lower training and enforcement requirements. Webforms are simpler and therefore cheaper, both to create and maintain and less likely to be dependent on integration with other systems. It’s also pretty obvious that a process that always says ‘yes’ is unlikely to generate many complaints and appeals, which further reduces the administrative burden.

Better Routes

A good waste management system will collect all the data about assisted collections alongside bin records and collection schedules.

Having all this information in one place allows the system to allow appropriate time for each collection when designing and optimising routes. It can also optimise for the right number of loaders on each route.

Better Communication

Crews do not want to miss collections and do work hard to get every bin. Frequent changes to routes make this more difficult and it’s important that crews have clear and precise instructions available to them as they work. A note in a briefing pack or update a paper round sheet will not suffice – it is simply not possible for crews to read paperwork for each street or premises they attend.

In-cab and mobile systems can be used to alert crews to changes in their route as they work. Crews need to be able to see summary information for the jobs they are closest to, with audible and visible prompts for things that have changed recently, including new assisted collections.

We should not ignore the daily briefing and driver’s information pack either. Even the most robust technology needs fallbacks for times when a spot-hire vehicle is deployed without a device fitted, an untrained agency driver is in place or times when the system is out of use. The ‘crew papers’ are a vital safety net and should be updated regularly to ensure they have the same information as the live system.

Finally, supervisors may need a way to enforce additional attention to specific premises. If a household is newly-added to the assisted service or has recently had service problems such as missed collections then it is desirable to flag that and require that the crew specifically acknowledge it. In-cab computers can enforce this and ensure new or problem collections are not overlooked.

Dealing With Mistakes

The measures above should reduce the number of assisted collections which are missed and particularly improve the reliability of new assisted collections.  Mistakes will still happen of course, so how can councils respond and learn from them?

The first priority for a missed assisted collection should be to rectify the error. Wherever possible I would advocate for this being done by the original crew. Returning for the missed collection is a strong means to embed the knowledge of that particular collection and reinforces ownership with the crew. 

Secondly, try to understand why the collection was missed. People do make mistakes but there may be an underlying cause. Is the premises easily visible from the road? Was the gate locked or were the bins inaccessible? Was it the usual crew or were there agency staff or inexperienced loaders on the crew?

Onboard cameras can replay the collection directly into the waste management system. Team leaders can use this to work with crews to really understand the root cause of the problem and prevent a recurrence.

All this helps you to understand if changes to the design of the round could reduce the risk of mistakes in the future or whether crew training or monitoring could help. It may simply be that an additional reminder or alert would be appropriate.

Regardless of this, the crew should receive specific instructions to pay special attention to that premises in future weeks to ensure that the mistake is not immediately repeated!


There are many factors here beyond the control of councils. The ageing population and increasing labour and fuel costs guarantee that the number of assisted collections and the costs of providing them will keep going up. 

As is often the case, effective communication is essential. Give residents simple ways to access their service and much of the administrative cost can be removed as people naturally shift to the easiest channel for them. Good technology for crews makes them less likely to make mistakes and makes it easier for managers to listen to their advice and experiences.

With the right systems in place, councils can provide a better assisted collection service at a much lower cost. 

How to work flexibly without actually snapping

I’ve long been an advocate of flexible working. Our business lends itself quite well to it and we’ve been doing it for a long time, so it’s become normal and the default. We have a culture of flexibility. Need to pick the kids up at 3pm? OK. Want to start at 6am so you can look after the kids when your partner works an afternoon shift? Sure. Put in a load of extra hours in the last few weeks and want to skip Monday to take a breath? Entirely reasonable.

It’s not totally open-season of course. Like most businesses, we have some functions which require us to be in a certain place at a certain time. We promise our customers that our helpdesk will be staffed from 7:30am. Collaborative work, meetings and work with clients generally has to happen in ‘normal’ office hours. So we have to communicate and figure things out so everyone knows what’s going on. Fundamentally though, we have each other’s backs when it comes to making work fit in with ‘life’.

We’ve recently created a ‘wellbeing’ group in the business. This employee-led group is there to promote the general health, safety and wellbeing of everyone in the company, no matter what their role. One of the first issues to be raised is the impact of various people in the company sending e-mails and messages ‘out of hours’. I’m probably one of the people who does this the most – I work weird hours and long hours. I’m far from alone though – it’s very common for me to receive stuff all around the clock.

I understand the problem this can create for the recipient. When I get up at 6:30 there will be a handful of things on automated emails – newly released tenders, newsletters and wotnot. In the days when I was working more with our US subsidiary there would be emails from the end of the previous day. Increasingly there will be things from local colleagues who are working very early or very late. When I go to bed at 11pm they will still be coming in, along with interesting chatter on Twitter and LinkedIn. It literally never stops.

The result can be a creeping and relentless erosion of your personal identity as work is always there. So much of our home life is built around technology – chatting to friends, surfing Facebook, doing the shopping or booking a cinema ticket all takes you to your phone and iPad. When work emails, Teams messages or even corporate social media live on those same devices, separation of work and home becomes almost impossible. Gradually you come to realise that technology has dismantled whatever boundaries you had and the day is an interwoven thread of doing work, organising tonight’s meal, replying to a customer email, booking cinema tickets for the weekend, preparing a sales presentation, doing an online shop and running some software tests.

What can we do? One suggestion is that we ask people not to email their colleagues ‘out of hours’. As soon as I send a message I am putting the recipient under pressure to reply immediately. That’s especially true when a senior manager is asking more junior colleagues for something. If ‘the boss’ is working at 8pm then it’s natural to infer that I should be too. Wouldn’t it be best if people just didn’t send messages “out of hours”.

The rather obvious drawback to this is that it’s a first step in undoing flexible working. When we say “out of hours”, whose hours are we talking about? Such an approach nudges everyone back towards working 9-5, or at least marginalises those who work outside those hours as doing something undesirable or anti-social. It also puts the onus on the sender to know what hours the recipient (or recipients) want to work.

I think the primary responsibility actually lies with each of us to determine when we are available for work. Additionally, as a manager it’s on me to empower everyone else to do the same.

I have recently struggled with this issue myself. My working hours have stretched at both ends of the day, almost to the point of meeting in the darkest hours of the night. It culminated in a mini-burn out. Fortunately, physical exhaustion acted as a fuse, switching me off just before I failed emotionally. At the last minute I dropped out of our annual user group meeting – the event I enjoy most each year and one which so many of my colleagues put so much work into.

Having heard the warning shot loud and clear I took a few actions.

Firstly, I took a day off (and dumped my colleagues in the mire in doing so). I switched everything off, filled a flask of tea and took a walk with my dogs. I got wet. I chatted to other wet dog walkers. I drank tea and felt bad about letting colleagues down. And vowed never to ignore so many red flags again.

When I got home I removed all the personal stuff from my work laptop. And all the personal stuff from my work phone. I got a personal phone with a new number and gave that number to family and friends. For the first time in 25 years I can “turn off” work an still be reachable by my kids, family and friends.

So now I am in control of when I get work-related messages and have a clear line between work and personal space. I can’t get distracted by Twitter when I’m working because it’s on a different device. I can have my phone with me when I’m walking my dogs because work isn’t on it.

I have all the flexibility I need and it’s totally in my control, not dependent on anyone else knowing when I may or may not want to be ‘at work’. It’s guilt-free and stress-free too because I know that I’m still available to people who might really need me.

I try to set my working plan in advance – either in my head or written down somewhere. I have to know if I am “at work” or not. If I don’t, nobody else can! For example today I know I am going to finish this blog post (part work and part personal) and I’m going to do about an hour of prep this afternoon for tomorrow’s meetings. Apart from that, my work laptop and phone are switched off. I feel more in control and I know that during that hour later I will be more focussed and productive, with a set goal and a set time frame to work to.

I’m also taking breaks. I’m reluctantly accepting I am human, not to mention the wrong side of 50, and I need them. For me a break means I step away from my phone and my desk and think about something else. 10 minutes with a coffee and a dog usually does the trick.

I’m reminded of an analogy I heard recently. When an aeroplane has an emergency and the masks come down we are told to put our mask on first before helping anyone else. In management and teamwork the same applies – we must all look after ourselves to be able to help anyone else. So when I feel an urge to skip a break or reply to an email late at night I must be honest about my abilities and energy reserves. If I don’t then once again the fuses will trip and the lights will go out.

Where are all the gritters?

I was recently tagged in a LinkedIn post about gritter tracking data from Traffic Scotland. You can see the data in question here.

It’s becoming more common for local authorities and government agencies such as Traffic Scotland and Highways England to show their gritter locations online. This has often, as in this case, been accompanied by a public poll for funny names for the gritters.  It’s interesting and it’s certainly good PR, although I do now roll my eyes at the ‘funny’ names as they are as original as most of my Dad jokes.

The post reminded me that I’d spoken about this subject before, at a Highways technology seminar no less. It seems my comments at the time are still true today -tracking gritters and sharing it with the public is fun, technically easy and yet pointless and perhaps even unwise.

What’s On Offer?

There’s a very responsive map with the locations of all Traffic Scotland’s gritters and a snail trail of where they have been. It’s quite a ‘busy’ map but it becomes clearer when you home in on smaller area.

Alongside is a disclaimer.

The Trunk Road Gritter Tracker page provides live tracking of gritters on the trunk road network.  It displays the current location of gritters and a trail with an age range for where gritters have previously passed along the trunk routes across Scotland.  The Gritter Tracker does not provide road treatment or gritting information.

That disclaimer shows the three big limitations of this service.

  • It’s limited to trunk roads and doesn’t cover the local roads most of us live and work on.
  • It doesn’t show whether the gritters have treated the roads or simply driven along them
  • Refresh rates are low so the trails are actually a collection of dots that don’t really join up

I don’t think this has much practical use. At a push you could deduce that a trunk road had not been gritted from lack of dots, but that’s about all.

It may seem that I’m being sniffy about all this rather than constructive. That isn’t my intention – I’d simply like to see this data turned into more useful information. I’m happy to acknowledge that there are other services already offering a little more..

Stoke, for example, have a similar service and have embedded it in their comprehensive citizen app. This goes further than the Traffic Scotland system by also showing the standard gritting routes and also bringing grit bins, their locations and requests for refills into the picture. This does make the whole thing more relevant to a resident looking out of their window at the snow.

I still don’t think this is very useful. In fact, putting a dot on a road which says ‘a gritter was here in the last two hours’ could actually give a false impression that the road is free of ice and safe to drive on.

There is also the question of how close to ‘live’ this data should be. Those who provide the service may have very justifiable concerns about sharing live location data for their workers, even if it is not directly personally-identifiable. However, if the data is not real-time or is somehow reduced in precision to obscure it then it’s hard to see how it could be used to provide useful services.

I suggest there are three major things citizens might want to know.

  • When do you grit the roads, and where?
  • What’s the status of the roads I need to use for my journey?
  • Is the council or highways agency providing me with a good service for my taxes?

Raw data, however nicely presented on a map, doesn’t seem to answer any of these questions.

The routes that are gritted, usually graded into 2 or 3 levels of priority, can be fairly easily presented via maps or address-based information. Simply knowing whether your street, or a street you use often, is designated for gritting is useful information that helps to set expectations.

Gritting is, by its very nature, partly guesswork based on the weather forecast so sometimes the wrong decisions are taken about whether to grit or not. Sometimes the forecast will suggest gritting roads above a certain elevation, but not lower ground. It’s not unusual for gritters to go out expecting a cold snap that never materialises, or worse, the opposite. This can lead the public to wonder why on earth gritters were / were not out!

Service managers can and do tell residents what they are doing on social media etc and I think ‘working in the open’ is a useful way to demystify the process. It can certainly help people to understand why the gritters were or were not sent out. If the gritters are sent out then it’s logical that as a motorist I would welcome that news too, via some form of alert service so I know to take extra care in my local area.

To address the second question I can envisage that third-party services, commercial or otherwise, could aggregate and interpret data to put it into a more useable context.

“Alexa, what’s my drive to work looking like?”

That requires a service to know

  • what is your route to work?
  • what have the road temperatures been for the past few hours?
  • have all the roads on the route been treated (combining data from local, county and national services)?
  • does travel information suggest there are delays?
  • would public transport be a faster or safer alternative?

I don’t doubt that this kind of service could be made. We’ve already seen apps springing up to consume data about bin collections (see Leeds Bins or one if its cousins for example) and present useful functionality to the public. I have no doubt that if agencies were to publish their gritting data in a way that allowed aggregation and timely access then similar services would emerge for gritting.

Parkrun Photo and Video Policy

I’ve been a Parkrun regular for almost 18 months now. Since May 2015 I’ve been to 7 different venues with my son, daughter, two nieces and my sister and brother in law. 2 weeks ago my 13 year old daughter completed her 50th Junior park run for her ‘Ultra’ band, to add to the 34 5km runs she has done. Her times are down by about 20% in that period and she’s been inspired to take up cross-country club running.

My 9 year old niece is a talented young athlete and from her first Park Run is now a keen club runner on the track and is giving my sister a run for her money over 5km every week. My 4 year old niece has just picked up her 11 run Junior band, although she ran a few ‘unofficially’ without a barcode before she was old enough to be eligible.

Even I, wrong side of 20 stone, have run a couple as I’ve shed nearly 3 stone and started a fitness program throughout 2016. As a family we have completed not far off 250 Parkruns.

Believe me, I get it. Parkrun is a fantastic thing and I recommend it to everyone.

On at least 30 of those visits I’ve taken my camera, photographed the runners as they pass and often shared a little banter. I always stay to the very end – the person coming in with the tail-runner is every bit as worthy of my attention as the semi-elite athlete who came home in 16 minutes something. Then, after several hours downloading, cropping and uploading I post a link on the relevant Parkrun facebook page. 

On a good weekend I can easily take 1000 photographs, which I will edit down to a couple of hundred. My Flickr account tells me how many people view the images, and it quickly gets into hundreds of times for each one. I’ve had lots of positive comments from people who like to see themselves, friends and family running and to have a photo to share.  

I read today that Parkrun is working on a photography policy because “from time to time, things have to change”. It’s not clear why they have to change, or what great calamity is to be averted, but coming soon is a new ‘photo and video policy’.

Here is a sneak preview of the policy… (you can find the full thing at http://www.parkrun.org.uk/news/2016/09/08/smile-and-say-cheese/)

1. No names. Ideally, no full names would be attached to images of individuals. If the story/ communication would benefit from names being included, only use first names. As with all things parkrun, please let common sense prevail: if you have permission to attach someone’s name to a photo/ someone has been pleading with you to use their photo then of course it’s OK.

This seems to be about publishing and ‘stories’, not photography. If people don’t wish to be tagged in social media then they can set their profile accordingly. I observe, however, that Parkrun’s own website doesn’t offer such privacy – the full name of every runner and their placing is published every week, along with a full history of their previous runs. 

2. No ID. Avoid the inclusion of detailed information that could make individuals easy to trace, e.g. no pictures of children in a specific school uniform.

I don’t recall seeing anyone running in school uniform and if someone is keen to avoid being traced I’d suggest doing Parkrun in school uniform (and getting their name published in your results list) is a poor strategy. As a photographer I am in no position to assess the clothing or ‘personal details’ of every person who sprints past me.

3. Appropriate clothing. Only use images of people in suitable dress to reduce the risk of inappropriate use, e.g. no pictures of people in swimwear. 

Again, I don’t recall seeing people run in swimwear but if they choose to do so then I’d suggest they might expect to draw attention to themselves. As a photographer I am not going to attempt to judge what is appropriate and certainly not try to guess what you might think is appropriate. If someone wants to run through the park in a mankini then good luck to them.

4. Think positive. Images that are published or shared should positively reflect people’s involvement in parkrun, e.g. smiling and laughing parkrunners, not anxious or unhappy ones.

Seriously? When Parkrun takes off in North Korea then this may be acceptable. Until then I’ll photograph the real spectrum of emotion I see each week – the challenge, the discomfort and sometimes outright pain that makes completing a run so worthwhile and satisfying. 

5. Be inclusive. Wherever possible, photographs should include groups, not individuals, and should represent the broad range of people participating, e.g. boys and girls, people with disabilities, members of all communities. Again, let common sense prevail: if the purpose of a photo is to illustrate a story about an individual’s achievement then of course it is ok to be of just that individual.

It gets even better. No pictures of people running alone, only contrived groups of grinning, multiracial, mixed-gender runners from a cross section of social classes. What are you trying to achieve with this nonsense – images which truly representative of Parkrun or a pastiche of a yoghurt advert?

6. Delete if asked. If an individual, a parent or a carer asks for any photo to be removed or deleted, it should be done without question at the earliest opportunity.

This is common sense, good practice and above all else ‘being a nice person’. It really shouldn’t need a policy. 

7. Permission. Due to parkrun events taking place in public settings, it is not possible for individuals to opt in or out of being photographed/ filmed at an event. For this reason, it’s important that all event-specific websites state that photographing or filming is likely to take place. If you know in advance that specific/ out of the ordinary photography is going to take place on a specific week, e.g. parkrun are sending someone to take a video to be used for a specific promotional purpose, alert people to this beforehand via social media and your website, and include it in your pre-run briefing.

You’ve stumbled on the key point here. Parkrun takes place in public and it doesn’t matter what policies you write. People have no reasonable expectation of privacy (you might like to Google that phrase) and therefore there is no need (or point) in trying to alert people to it. 

Unless, of course, you want to give everyone the opportunity to get their hair done, like they do in the yoghurt ads?

Your policy does overlook one point. Many Parkruns take place on National Trust premises. Whilst these grounds are public places they may have additional rights to enforce a policy on photography. Your Run Directors should probably be aware of any restrictions and communicate them to ‘official photographers’. 

8. Volunteer photographers. At times, parkrun events will have a volunteer photographer in attendance. This is someone who is taking photographs/ videos for inclusion in parkrun UK communication and social media channels. Photographers must:
• register as an official volunteer
• make themselves known to the Run Director
• wear a high-vis vest at all times during the event

Must? Parkrun is in a public place, remember? I don’t have to register, wear bright yellow or make myself known to anyone. If I did any of those things people might reasonably assume that I was working on your North Korean yoghurt commercial, and that’s really not for me.


I take a lot of photographs, quite a few videos and also try to keep MP3 copies of all my CD’s.  In addition I have guitar tabs, emails and all sorts of other data which I really need to keep.  Although a good deal of my stuff is now ‘in the cloud’ I like to know that I personally have all the data and don’t depend on any single cloud provider continuing to exist.

However, I’m also lazy, disorganised and generally half-arsed in my approach to administration.  Backing up is never at the top of my list, so when I came to tackle it properly I knew I needed a completely automatic solution that would work with zero intervention.

This was my checklist

  • must back up EVERYTHING – all my photos, music etc.  At the time it looked like probably 100Gb plus, currently it’s 500Gb and by the end of this year I have no doubt I’ll be double that again
  • at least one copy of my data must be ‘off site’ (i.e. not in or near my house)
  • at least one copy must be ‘on site’ otherwise it won’t be quickly or reliably accessible
  • must not require any physical media – swapping tapes, DVD’s etc means I have to remember to do something

As this is all ‘personal use’ I also needed it be relatively cheap….

Here’s how it works.

In my living room I have a small Buffalo network attached storage drive wired into my network router.  It cost me about £150 about 2 years ago.  It has 2 1Tb hard drives in it, configured as a RAID mirror.  In simple terms the same data is written to both drives and if

 when a drive fails I can put a new one in and it will rebuild the data from the other drive.  I have a spare drive waiting for the fateful day, and I’ve tested it (that cost another £60).

Over wi-fi this drive is just about fast enough to work with directly, but for working with photographs in Lightroom etc I work on my PC and then ‘publish’ the files I want to keep to my NAS drive.  At that instant I have a copy of the files on the SD card, on the PC hard drive and mirrored copies on the NAS, so I’m fairly safe.

The instant the files hit my NAS drive, stage 2 kicks in.  I have an old MacMini which is too old to do anything useful with, but it sits next to the NAS and runs Crashplan.  This constantly backs up everything on the NAS to the Crashplan cloud servers using my broadband.  It’s bandwidth limited so it doesn’t kill my connection, but ensures that all my data gets ‘off site’ within a day or two of being written at worst.  The more upload bandwidth your broadband has the faster it will go, and I’m lucky to be on cable and get a reasonably good upload rate.

Additionally, the Crashplan software also copies the same data to a USB attached drive on the PC in my office (which is upstairs and at the other side of the house to the living room.  That takes a matter of minutes.

The best bit about Crashplan is that I can selectively restore via a web-browser, at my full download speed. So if my entire house were to disappear I can get the scanned copies of my insurance documents on my mobile phone or any other PC in an instant.  

Because the MacMini does nothing else, it just sits quietly (it has no fan) in the living room without mouse, keyboard or monitor doing what it does all day long.  I can VNC to it if I feel the need to check up on it, but I don’t because Crashplan emails me every day to tell me how up to date my backups are (usually very close to 100%).

Friends and Family

One downside of being an IT geek is that I am the family computer consultant, fixing Dad’s laptop in return for a Sunday lunch.  The Crashplan software is brilliant – all my family’s computers automatically back up to my living room over the internet, absolutely free of charge.  When it all goes horribly wrong I know I have copies of Mum’s holiday snaps safely in my living room and my office.

All the data is encrypted so I can’t see it, but I can tell whether it’s up to date.  Right now Dad’s laptop is 100% backed up, but next week they’ll be downloading all the memory cards from their fortnight abroad and it will take a week or so to transfer it all.

The Costs

NAS drive – about £150

Spare disk – about £60

USB3 hard drive – about £80

Crashplan subscription – $5 per month

Links and Disclaimers

I don’t work for Crashplan in any capacity, I’m just a very satisfied customer and recommend them wholeheartedly.  Even if you don’t sign up, get their software and use it to back up to a USB drive or to another PC.  It’s fully automatic and means you just can’t forget to do it, and if something goes wrong it will email to tell you.


My NAS drive is a Buffalo LinkStation Duo, 2 x 1Tb.  It’s not perfect but it’s worked pretty well – the user interface is a bit clunky and it’s awfully slow to rebuild the mirror when swapping the drive.  The newer versions have much bigger capacity options.


Why the coalition has got it wrong on ‘bin tax’

In the early days of office the coalition government, as represented by Eric Pickles (Secretary of State for communities and local government) and Caroline Spelman (Secretary of State for Environment) have set out their policies for waste collection. Setting aside the question of whether we need a national ruling for a service which is delivered and measured locally, I believe that the new policy is a wasted opportunity which owes more to party politics and the whims of the Daily Mail than to any kind of reasoned argument.

The main points of the recent speeches are as follows

a) a firm ‘No’ to variable charging (or bin tax as the tabloids have dubbed it)
b) hearty support for schemes which reward and otherwise promote recycling
c) a restatement of the Conservative manifesto pledge to reinstate weekly collections

The public response appears to be generally quite positive. On the face of it Council Tax payers will receive more frequent collections and will get vouchers and other rewards for putting out recycling. We are told that this will increase recycling, improve public health and reduce the local authorities costs of landfill.

The benefits of recycling are clear. Every kilogram of waste placed in a recycle bin is a kilogram of waste not sent to landfill. The economics are set to improve long-term, with the cost of landfill continually rising due to capacity shortage and escalating landfill tax. Recycling revenues may have taken a hit during the economic downturn, but long term the value of the recycled resources will rise as virgin products (especially oil based ones such as plastics) become more expensive to derive and transport.

So what’s to complain about? Why do I say that this is a missed opportunity? The policy forgets the simple, but effective mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle”, where recycling is the last (and least) option.

The waste hierarchy, accepted the world over, is a simple pyramid which puts waste into an order of social and environmental menace. Landfill, not surprisingly, tops the pile. It pollutes the local landscape, emits significant methane (a greenhouse gas many times more effective than carbon dioxide) and captures none of the valuable resources contained within the waste. Energy recovery (crudely put, burning waste to release the energy within) is the next worst option.

But look at the next level, third-worst, and what do we find? Good heavens, it’s recycling; the very thing that Pickles and Spelman want more of. Recycling is better than landfill, but it still represents consumption of a resource (usually a virgin material), shipment of a material across the country (if not the globe), gallons of diesel consumed by refuse trucks collecting it and considerable energy and effort consumed in converting back to another material. A material which is then shipped around the country again.

A closeup of unwanted toys in a dustbin

This is a huge poverty of ambition. Why are we settling for the next worst option rather than really educating the public about what waste and recycling really is and the environmental costs it carries. The new government could have made serious steps to eliminate household waste at source, which for the most part means tackling our retail packaging culture. As it stands we can just keep reusing our carrier bags and fool ourselves that this is a major contribution to making our consumption culture sustainable. The real message is that recycling may be better than landfill, but it still represents a huge use of resources which we need to avoid.

Still, on the plus side we’ve seen the back of those beastly bin taxes, right? Well actually they never existed in the first place. DEFRAs own documents on the subject support the then-government’s statements that variable charging schemes were to be revenue-neutral; that is to say that they could not increase total householder costs. What would have happened is that people who produced less landfill waste would have seen their costs reduced and those who produced more would have paid more. This ‘metering’ of waste is fundamentally no different to metering of all our other utilities. If we were to announce a flat rate cost for electricity, regardless of use, there would be outcry about the unfairness and there would be no incentive to use less. Yet this is exactly the system the popular press tell us the public are keen to keep.

Of course, establishing metering systems in which every bin is weighed and electronically identified with a tag would be expensive to implement. A certified weighing system costs around £20,000 per bin wagon, not to mention the costs of the back office systems to process all that data. A typical Borough council with 20 bin trucks would need to find around £500,000 to establish a robust and legal weighing system. This is a lot of money, particularly at a time when public services are being cut.

It is, however, interesting to put it into context. Over its 10 year life, such a system (across the whole fleet) actually equates to only around 20% of the fuel costs of the truck it’s fitted to (at today’s fuel prices). I think many householders would be amazed to hear that a waste truck costs in the region of £20,000 per annum for fuel alone. Reverting to weekly collections from fortnightly would presumably lead to a doubling of these fuel costs.

Still, even though the cost of weighing may not be as outrageous as it first appears, anything that avoids that cost has to be a good thing. Which brings us back to schemes to reward recycling which now seem to be fundamental to the government’s waste policy.

The pilots in Halton and in Windsor & Maidenhead use exactly the same weighing and bin chipping systems that the variable charging schemes require. So the capital investment in the equipment and systems is still required. The question then is “who is paying for it”? If there is a sustainable and scaleable model under which we can chip and weigh recycling and reduce landfill (and the associated costs) then I am all in favour. If the ongoing incentives to householders can only be achieved by Council Tax payers stumping up £500,000 per council to get the scheme started then I would much prefer to see the nation bite the bullet and target landfill with mandatory pay-by-weight schemes.

Deal or No Deal

I should imagine that many Liberal Democrats have spent today agonising over what should now be done. To the injury of a dreadful election result we may now be about to add the insult of a Lib-Con coalition. Many have recoiled in horror at that thought, myself included.

Labour and Conservative politicians alike scoff at our party. We have no experience. We are naive. We are simply a mish-mash of disaffected socialists, wet conservatives and bearded weirdos with no real driving principle. Even if all that is true, we are now standing at a major decision point and the stakes are rather high. The next few days are not just about policy. They are not even just about politics. This is a three-sided chess game with no written rules.

Despite the myriad permutations, I see three options for the Liberal Democrats. The first is that we simply remove ourselves from the melee and declare that we will take each vote as a matter of pure policy and support the ones we agree with. No coalitions, no deals. This is not a credible position. For a party to campaign for proportional representation and ‘balanced parliaments’ and then be unable to work with other groups would be absurd.

The second possibility is a Lib-Lab pact of some form. This is undoubtedly a much more comfortable position for a great many of the Liberal Democrat membership. Senior figures in both parties have pointed out that there are areas of common ground, including the Labour party’s new found commitment to electoral reform. Forgotten for 13 years, this became a key priority for Harriet Harman at approximately five past ten on Thursday evening. Indeed, the sickening parade of Labour hopefuls queuing up to convert to the cause of vote reform might serve as a reminder to those who feel more comfortable with a Labour deal that all that glitters is not gold.

Ideology aside, the maths for a Lib-Dem / Labour coalition barely stack up. The ‘finishing line’ for an overall majority is 323 (assuming Sinn Fein continue to absent themselves). Labour plus Liberal Democrats amounts to only 315. Even 100% support from Plaid Cymru and the SNP leaves only a majority of one seat. So the coalition would have four members, and only then if the parties had 100% discipline. This would not be a strong government in anyone’s eyes and would struggle to provide the radical platform for economic change that is required, even with a new Labour leader as Prime Minister.

The final option is the unholy alliance with the Conservatives. A great part of their Queen’s Speech would be utterly unacceptable to the majority of Lib Dems, myself included. As hard as it is to accept, the Conservatives have 5 times the seats of the Liberal Democrats and have an unimpeachable argument for keeping much of their program. With a combined total of 363 seats the programme could certainly be delivered, even with some disaffected rebels voting against key bills. Negotiations may falter however, simply on the basis of electoral reform. Cameron’s current offer is of no value at all and the Liberal Democrats can and should accept nothing short of a serious commitment to reform in this parliament. For 23% of the vote to carry less than 10% of the seats is indefensible.

Nick Clegg may be in an impossible position. Walk away from the Conservative deal and the Lib Dems can be blamed for ‘letting them in’ as a minority government by splitting the progressive vote. At the next election, perhaps as soon as the autumn, the old two-party system will be stronger than ever as people vote against Tory cuts and injustice and the failure of a hung parliament. Proportional representation will be as distant a dream as ever and the lurch from ‘tax and spend’ to ‘slash and burn’ and back again will continue for at least another generation.

The alternative is that Nick Clegg should wring the very best deal possible out of the Conservatives and perhaps dilute some of their most damaging policies. It will take great courage to lead the party into such a coalition. Liberal Democrats will have to support some truly awful policies in order to win some of the changes our country needs so much. If we can deliver some real improvements in the structure and funding of education along with fairer taxation for the poorest it may be the best option available.

Some Liberal Democrats will find this utterly unacceptable. I would remind them that this is politics, and furthermore it is the politics of the balanced parliament we all wanted. We can’t have all the policies we want because we didn’t win outright. Neither can anyone else. Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for a breakdown of right-left politics and a move to representative leadership. The time for that is now. Let’s not pretend that we are all going to play nice and share our toys. We should fight tooth and nail to deliver the fairness agenda that was the cornerstone of the campaign. Whether we are working with the Conservatives or Labour should be a matter of who can best deliver those key reforms. At the top of that list must be electoral reform.