Archive for February, 2008

What gov webbies can do to improve awareness of their published consultations

I had the good fortune to meet Harry Metcalfe recently. Harry told me that he was building a web service that would aggregating information about all government consultations published online. By pulling the information into his site, he was going to be able to generate email alerts and RSS feeds for either user defined search phrases or individual organisations.

“Why are you doing this?”, I asked. ‘Because I can,” he replied, “and because its not always easy for people to find government consultations online.” I took a look at the early iteration of his site and immediately subscribed to a feed for consultations published by my employer. It worked very nicely.

I’d love for us to publish our own RSS feed for consultations we release. I know its not that hard, its just that other things always get in the way of feature development and they inevitably take a back seat when the pressure is on.

Now Harry’s pride and joy is live in beta and working rather nicely. You should take a look around, its really good.

I bumped into Harry again a few weeks after our first encounter. He said to me, “If you made a few small changes to the way you present information about consultations on your site, it will make it much easier for me to extract the data for mine.” So he came in and talked to my editorial and technical colleagues about making this happen.

Why are we doing this? Not to make Harry’s site better. At least not only for that reason. We’re improving the way we create the pages – tagging relevant items of data like the consultation name, opening and closing dates, contact details etc – for a number of really good reasons that we hadn’t thought of before Harry suggested it:

  • It will make it easier for anyone to screen scrape the data if they so wish and republish it elsewhere
  • It makes the content on, and behind, the page more appetising for search engines, thus increasing the visibility of the consultations in search results
  • We can learn from this small in itself exercise and apply the same rigour to other classes of content published on our site
  • When we are in a position to implement more syndication tools on the site (e.g. fixed and user-defined RSS feeds) the content will already be in a format that makes the process work easier.

Why is this all important? Because we cannot rely on people coming to our websites to find out what we are doing. By making the content more attractive for syndication, we can increase our potential reach substantially and automatically update interested parties when consultations relevant to them are published. The Power of Information review touched on this, and its regularly a subject of conversation around Whitehall.

TellThemWhatYouThink is in its early days. But its already received plenty of coverage inside and outside Whitehall. It doesn’t (yet?) apply itself to the more difficult issue of making participation in online consultation easier. But maybe that’s not far away.

When we’ve finished improving our own consultation pages, I’ll let you know. I’m also hoping that Harry can come along to the next Whitehall heads of e-communications meeting so that we can sell the benefit of our approach. Its a small thing in itself to implement, but if we all do it the consequences could be much bigger.

Talking to energetic volunteers like Harry can produce all sorts of unexpected results. I never realised that by making a few tweaks to our page templates we could really improve how people can use and re-broadcast important government information. The barcamp and subsequent events are really starting to bear fruit…


Web 2.0 and social media – what’s the difference?

Dave Briggs posted some thoughts over the weekend trying to explain what the terms web 2.0 and social media actually mean, and how they complement each other. He also published a neat little diagram supporting his ideas:

Dave Brigg's brilliant social media / web2.0 diagram

I must confess I’ve been using that diagram for quite a few months, and without attribution because I forgot where I’d picked it up from. Meeting up with Dave last week I quickly realised my mistake! In the meantime I’ve found it really useful giving presentations and in conversation as it rather neatly delineates the technology developments driving changes online, and the user-generated content that together drive ‘social media’.

My take is that social media, web 2.0 and related labels are just well devised media inventions created to generate momentum for an industry that was reeling from the dot com meltdown of the early millennium. The underlying programming languages and technology, functionality, aspirations etc haven’t really changed.

Sure, they’ve matured and developed, but that would be expected in any industry – especially a tech industry. What the the basket of things that come under the umbrella of ‘social media’ do do though is bring us closer to the original vision of the web as described by Tim Berners-Lee in the early 90’s – a ‘read-write’ web where it is as easy for users to contribute and participate as it was to consume.

Its becoming progressively easier for users to create, publish and or share content. That is one of the two key defining characteristics and in Dave’s diagram that is the social media bit.

So creating and sharing content are crucial – that’s the essence of social media. But something equally important is the methods that allow that content to be published, shared, and consumed. These are the enablers that Dave describes as web 2.0.

These definitions are really for me what it is about – the development of technologies that allow people to share and be active online, allowing them to be creators and collaborators as well as consumers.

But there are some developments in the market that have hastened the adoption of social media. Here are the four that spring to mind:

  1. The technology in our homes, on our desktops, on our laps and now in our hands has improved dramatically. This makes it much easier for users to crop photos, edit video, mix music etc.
  2. Improved speed of connection – we’ve gone from slow dial-up, through ISDN and early fixed broadband, to the point where wifi is so ubiquitous that not only is it installed in many homes but increasingly in a large number of towns and cities(sometimes at a cost, sometimes free). Free municipal public wifi is probably not that far ahead.
  3. The scale of connectivity in the home and the workplace – many businesses and public spaces like libraries have broadband connectivity. In the UK, latest figures show almost 15 million households in the country had a home internet connection – that’s 61% of households. Of those 84% have a broadband connection. Although overall home connections are slowing, the percentage that are broadband is increasing fast.
  4. Generational change – the rise of the so-called digital native. These people have grown up around the internet, its for them they are growing up and will have expectations about interacting with business and the public sector based on their experience.

So, to recap, I don’t think the underlying technologies of the internet have really changed, merely matured. What is different is the ease in which users can participate and collaborate, as well as the developments in creation and delivery technology.

And why are these distinctions important? In my day to day dealings with people, there is still a mystique about all this ‘social media’ stuff. Dave’s diagram brings some clarity to explaining how technology + users (content creators) = community and collaboration.

Welcome new visitors and blogroll entries

Completely unexpectedly, the Economist referenced this ‘ere blog in a special report about e-government in this week’s edition (last sentence of fifth paragraph down in this article if you’re really interested. But when I say referenced, I mean just about referred to).

Consequently, visits to the site have rocketed. Sunday is usually a low double figures day (not that I check them obsessively you understand…) but the last two days have seen visits well into the two hundreds. I’m astounded and shocked (but not so secretly chuffed).

So welcome all, hope some of you stick around. Let me know if there is anything of particular interest to you and I’ll let you know if I can talk about it.

Also, way overdue, added a couple of new links to the blogroll. Dave Briggs, he of the Information Authority, and seemingly boundless capacity to blog; and Jenny Brown, recently arrived at the Department for Health and a part-time social media goddess. Met them both at the Barcamp and they are great colleagues to know. Hope we can work on something great soon.

at the social media cafe last Friday

Kudos to Lloyd for organising these events. I went along to my second social media cafe meet up on Friday at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, Soho.

A fantastic mix of people were there all really interesting and interested. Don’t have all the business cards in front of me right now so can’t name check everybody but made so great new contacts.

Good conversations too about:

* how we can reach very senior decision makers in government who likely don’t participate in social media at the moment
* How to create, present and sustain social media press releases in organisations
* Creating different kinds of networking events and opportunities for government web people.

I encourage you to come along to the next one if you are at all interested in this stuff.

More post-barcamp thoughts

At a few weeks distance, and after several caffeine fuelled conversations, the real benefits of the recent barcamp are becoming clearer to me.

First, it was really great that such a wide group of people came together for the day. That in itself was a good thing. Somebody said to me that evening that it would have taken them a year to meet all the people that they had wanted to meet if the event hadn’t taken place. So now we all know each other just a little better and that is starting to generate value of its own.

Second, there were some great conversations on the day, and subsequently, about the potential for collaborating between us inside government, and those round and about. Some great ideas, small on their own but with the potential to deliver real improvements to the way government transacts online, have been mooted – like having a consistent approach to publishing information about consultations.

These two things in themselves are fantastic outcomes – relationship building and idea generation / sharing.

But its equally important that we can somehow sustain and ramp up the momentum created by all this. There is still a great deal to do.

We’ve already had one afternoon coffee meet up (last Thursday) which in itself was a great event. Around 20 people turned up just to chat, chew the cud, bounce ideas off each others etc. I think its worth continuing these opportunities to catch-up and create other kinds of fora. Equally there is a rich social network of different types of events in the wider internet community in London (sorry if this sounds a little London-centric but that’s where I’m based). Encouraging government web people to participate in those events would plug us in to what else is happening in our area of specialism. Nobody knows everything and in this game things change so quickly, so its important to meet other people with different experiences and perspectives.

But many (most?) people working inside government on online stuff didn’t know about the barcamp as much as we tried to get the word around.  So we need to get the word around that these kind of networking / sharing opportunities exist and encourage them to come along.

But we’ve all got day jobs and bills to pay so lets be realistic about what we can create and, most importantly, sustain as a small but hopefully growing group of people that want to improve the way we do things.

With all that in mind, I reckon we should try to make the afternoon coffee meet-up a more regular occurrence (but we are talking about government online after all so perhaps it should be afternoon tea? 🙂   ) . We were lucky with the venue last time, CafeZest in House of Fraser along Victoria Street in that it was reasonably quiet and it has free wifi. So unless anyone can think of a better venue, how about every first and third Thursday of the month from 2 til 4?

Anyone can come – civil servants, contractors, consultants, freelancers etc. Basically if you’ve got an interest in improving government online then pop in. Think of it as a drop in centre, you don’t need to come along for the whole time, or indeed every time. But if you want to catch up or try and find someone to help you with a problem then pop in.

I’ll be there next Thursday 21st Feb, hope to meet you there. It would be useful (but not essential) if you are thinking of coming if you could add your name to the wiki page thats been set up, and let us know in advance if there is anything taxing you or that you want to share. That way somebody out there who can help you might make the effort to turn up too.

Why I’ve been a bit of a twit(terer) recently

One of the reasons I’ve been quieter than usual here (apart from organising, and then getting over, the barcamp) is my reappraisal of Twitter.

Twitter, for the initiated, is a micro-blogging tool that allows you to send short messages, about the length of an SMS. These messages are almost immediately received by others who subscribe to your updates. You, in turn, can follow others’ updates an instantly connected community.

So what’s so good about that? After all, on first glance it just looks like the status update tool in Facebook. When it first launched a year or so ago it didn’t seem to have much to it.

When Facebook added status updates to user profiles and the ability to update via mobile, it seemed to me like Twitter was becoming just a little bit superfluous.

Now though things are different. Facebook seems to me to be much quieter than before and most of my interaction there is via private messaging rather than status updates or writing on pe and public messaging. And Twitter is proving to be much more than just letting people knowing what you are doing at a particular time.

Its beauty is its simplicity. Twitter’s proposition is that you have just 140 characters to answer the question. ‘What are you doing?’. So far, so Facebook. But if you observe tweets from other users, you notice a marked difference to Facebook updates. What you are doing doesn’t just mean your current status, but also what you might be thinking, planning, debating, or questioning.

That’s where its value starts to shine through – quick updates, testing ideas, advising friends and colleagues what’s happening.

I’m increasingly advising people that blogging is hard work and labour intensive as a discipline. it needs careful thought, and commitment. Because of this its generally not instantaneous.

Twitter on the other hand is immediate – a short message delivered and received either  via a webpage, an rss feed, an SMS on a phone, blackberry, iphone, instant messenger… Hell, you can even update your Facebook status using Twitter

I’ve tried various ways of using Twitter. At the moment I recommend the Twitbin plug-in for Firefox, though I’m tiring of it because its not comprehensive enough.

Bloggers I have followed for a long time, like Jeremiah Owyang and Steve Rubel, make great use of Twitter, almost to the detriment of their blog posting in terms of frequency and depth. With Twitter, they can throw out an idea and get a very fast response from their readership.

So, what does this mean for the public sector. How could we make use of tools like Twitter? Well, the key is in its convenience. As I said above, I’m increasingly advising people not to blog because of the time and effort commitment. Twitter gets around that problem by lowering those barriers. That in itself is a bonus.

But Jenny Brown put the case for Twitter much better than I ever could in her presentation at the Barcamp. Its well worth a view.

POSTSCRIPT: Since I wrote a rough version of this piece a few weeks ago (thus proving my point above that blogging can have a huge lag from draft to publish) I’ve noticed a raft of articles around the subjects of ‘why twitter is still relevant’ or ‘how business can use  twitter’. Which proves one thing, when people are talking about it, it can’t all be hot air.

How appropriate or helpful are anonymous comments?

Amongst other things recently, I’ve been involved in developing some moderation guidelines for a project. A vexing issue is what do with anonymous comments in an online conversation. When are they appropriate and how do we handle them in the context of public sector debate?

I don’t know the answer. Clearly there are online communities where anonymity is one of the central planks they are built on. But what about debates where the other participants are identified? Is it appropriate for unknown individuals to join in?

My personal feeling is I prefer people to identify themselves, at least to the moderator, to establish their genuineness. Otherwise I wonder why they won’t declare themselves – are they agitators? Do they want cause trouble? What is their agenda?

I was thinking about this last week when I came across a new blog by a civil servant who chooses not declare their identity. Its entertaining and a pretty accurate description of life inside a Whitehall department. But two problems come to mind:

  1. It will be too easy to say something inappropriate on the basis that no one knows who you are, and
  2. If the blog gains traction you can bet your bottom dollar that people will do their best to work out who it is – and eventually they will, causing problems for the author.

Most of the good corporate blogging policies that exist are pretty flexible and forgiving, provided the author doesn’t contravene rules around inappropriate comments about the company or other people. ‘Inappropriate’ of course is interpreted differently by different organisations, and I’m not suggesting that the civil service would be the most liberal.

But if you identify yourself as working in a particular place, but don’t reveal your own identity, the clock is probably ticking. Or am I just being too cautious?

I’ve got an unmoderated comment sitting to be approved for my blog about the recent barcamp at the moment. It raises some good points and is a useful part of the debate. Its not controversial but constructively critical.

But for some reason the commenter has chosen to anonymise their response. Can’t for the life of me think why, unless they are embarrased to say what they’re saying in public. Don’t know what to do with it. Will chew it over. My instinct is, no anonymous comments, but does that unintentionally censor the debate? After all, stuff written here is hardly life or death.

Wales Office – WordPress-ive

Yesterday finally saw the launch of another project I’ve been working on a long time, a new website for the Wales Office.

The Wales Office is part of my department’s ‘family’ for pay and rations purposes and I don’t think anyone would be offended there if I said that their previous online presence was showing its age. I talked with them early last summer about the need to create a new site for them. But at the time I’d just finished developing our new corporate website and didn’t have the appetite or the resource to help them.

But I did know someone who did – Simon Dickson. He’d been grumbling about some proof of concept work he’d done for another government department using WordPress as the content management system that hadn’t been picked up. I didn’t want it to all go to waste so we talked about taking what he’d done and using it for the Wales Office.

It didn’t quite work out that way as Simon produced something infinitely better than his earlier attempt. I can’t take any credit for the way the project was realised – Simon got the bit between his teeth and delivered a fantastic site with all the rich functionality and general goodness that WordPress offers.

Its a testament to the trust of the Wales Office that they bought into the concept and as a consequence now have a fantastic corporate site that should be the envy of other Whitehall departments. Simon tells more here.