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Last Friday, due to a technical error with our Sat Nav (aka “pressing the wrong button”), I drove through London’s city centre congestion charge zone.

You have until the following day to pay the charge, so even though I’d only driven through it for the final 10 minutes of the day, I went online to pay the extortionate £8 charge.

The process was simple, and once I was done I opted to receive a receipt via email, as I’m sure most people would do.

The next day I received the following email:

From: customerservices@cclondon.com
Subject: London Congestion Charging System

This is a Sample Body Text. Please change this text with valid information.

Pardon? The receipt was certainly attached, but I couldn’t believe that they’d sent out all their emails with this placeholder text – they’ve been running this system for 5 years!

So I emailed back to report the issue:

To: customerservices@cclondon.com
Subject: Re: London Congestion Charging System

Dear Transport for London,

This was the first time I have paid the congestion charge but I believe it has been active since 2003.

I am astounded that in all this time you are still sending email receipts with the below placeholder text. Is it really that difficult to write a small bit of copy?


James Turnbull

At 9am the following morning I received a reply from the “Customer Services Operations Manager”:

Dear Customer,

Please open the attached file to view correspondence regarding the central London Congestion Charge.

If the attachment is in PDF format you may need Adobe Acrobat Reader to read or download this attachment. If you require Adobe Acrobat Reader this is available at no cost from the Adobe Website www.adobe.com

Thank you for contacting Transport for London.

Joanne Marsh
Customer Services Operations Manager
Central London Congestion Charging

Well, they’ve obviously managed to write that generic email copy. Attached to the email was an HTML file containing Ms. Marsh’s reply.

It said the following:

Dear Mr Turnbull,
Central London Congestion Charging – 1859908/RB

Thank you for your email received on the 28th September 2008, about your suggestion.

We always aim to give the very best Customer Service possible.

We also work hard to listen to any suggestions our customers make for how we can improve the Congestion Charging Scheme, or the level of service we provide.

Your suggestion is important to us and it may be taken into consideration when changes are made to the Scheme in the future.

If you have any questions, please call us on 0845 900 1234, (or Textphone 0207 649 9123 if you have impaired hearing), or contact us via our website www.cclondon.com.

Yours sincerely

Joanne Marsh
Customer Services Operations Manager

For starters, why on earth couldn’t this text have just been in the email? Even an HTML email would have been better than having to load a separate attachment.

But, even more annoying, it’s clearly a bunch of standard responses seemingly cobbled together by some poor AI, and totally fails to respond to my email!

Worst of all, in retrospect, I asked for such a useless reply: by complaining about a lack of copy text, I invited a response composed from other bits of copy text, as if to prove they have managed to write something! The cheek of it!

Famous Followers

September 13th, 2008

Here’s an email we received from Twitter the other day:

Hi, Google Sightseeing.

andy_murray (andy_murray) is now following your updates on Twitter.

Check out andy_murray’s profile here:



We’re proud to say that, after Andy Murray received some flak from the Guardian because he wasn’t following enough people, he has chosen to follow our Google Sightseeing Twitter Feed!

If you haven’t already got a Twitter account, you can get one by signing up for free at twitter.com, and whether you’re famous or not, we’d love it if you chose to subscribe to Google Sightseeing updates at twitter.com/gsightseeing.

Google Developer Day 2008

September 3rd, 2008

Later on this month I’ll be attending Google Developer Day 2008 in London, a free one-day conference for developers using Google’s many APIs and platforms.

Last year’s event was simultaneously held in various countries, and I sort of liveblogged the experience. It was a great day, but the “worldwide” aspect was a let-down, with the last session of the day being wasted on watching a live video stream from the states. So that’s been sorted, and this year the events are staggered out. It also looks like the London even is going to be huge – it’s being held at Wembley!

The day before I’ll also be attending the Geo Developer Meetup at Google’s London office, where there’s going to be a couple of geo-specific talks and maybe a beer or two with fellow KML fans. I’m also hoping to find an API developer who I can bend the ear off, regarding my unresolved Google maps API issue.

The Guardian today reports that Google Street View has been cleared as safe to launch in the UK.

Sightings of the conspicuous cars began last month, prompting the country’s crappest newspaper to devote the front page to scare-mongering of what they called a “burglar’s charter” of photographing EVERY door in Britain. The horror!

Street View Car in Edinburgh
The Street View car navigates roadworks in Edinburgh (picture from GazH on Flickr)

Of course, this was just silly: a burglar could discover a whole lot more about how to go about stealing your plasma by getting off the internet and actually walking down the street. The only advantage street view will add is that he won’t get lost on the way.

Luckily, the Information Commissioner’s Office were not swayed but the Daily Mail’s nonsense and ruled that:

“We are satisfied that Google is putting in place adequate safeguards to avoid any risk to the privacy or safety of individuals”.

Quite right. Google are staying quiet about exactly when the service will launch, but the camera has been spotted in major cities all over the country, including London, Cambridge and Edinburgh.

If, like me, you spend a lot of time inspecting websites with Firebug you’ll have got into the habit of clicking the little bug in your status bar, clicking “HTML” and then clicking “Inspect”.

But, in the most recent versions you can get there with just one click, all you have to do is add the toolbar button!

You can find the button in the View menu, under Toolbars > Customize…. Drag it onto your toolbar, and inspect away, with two less clicks to get there.

The icon is awful, and doesn’t blend in with the new Firefox 3 theme on the mac, but it looks slightly better when you install the GrApple theme.

Yesterday Microsoft’s Virtual Earth blog announced a whole host of new features for their Live Maps service (that’s their version of Google Maps) and Virtual Earth 3D (that’s their Google Earth competitor).

For me, the key feature of the announcement is “Neighbourhood Subscribe via GeoRSS” which provides an RSS feed of your area, aggregating geo-located content that Live Maps has scraped off the web. Sounds great!

But, when I tried to actually use Live Maps, by clicking an example link to Virtual Globetrotting sights in Spain, I found myself at the homepage of multimap.

Surely I must have clicked the wrong link? Nope, turns out any UK visitor to maps.live.com gets “helpfully” redirected to multimap. The Multimap blog explains how, since being acquired by Microsoft, they are now “the lead consumer mapping experience for Live Search in the UK”.

This would be fine if Multimap was just a re-branded live maps, but in fact it only offers just a small subset of the Live maps features! All the information in that Virtual Globetrotting link above is ignored and you end up at the useless homepage.

The Multimap blog acknowledges that “it may have been a while since you last used Multimap.com”, but there’s a reason for that – it’s rubbish. Adding a few of the Live maps features only makes it slightly less rubbish, and for UK visitors breaks every link to a specific map.

For now, you can around the redirect by going to this Live maps link or by adding “mkt=en-us” to the URL parameters, but that’s not really enough.

If the goal is to lure visitors away from Google Maps then Microsoft are going about it the right way with Live maps, and the very, very wrong way with Multimap. Hopefully they reverse this decision sooner, rather than later.

Updated: Well everyone shouted and eventually they listened: Live Maps UK has been restored.