Archive for April, 2008

All kudos to the Number 10 webbies

When Jimmy Leach left Downing Street last Autumn, after the changing of the guard, many people thought that the raft of innovation he had overseen (including the introduction of online petitions and webchats) would come to an end. I have to admit that I was one of those people.

But in recent weeks, coinciding with the arrival of Jimmy’s replacement – Mark Flanagan – the web team at Number 10 has been on a bit of a roll.

First, a neat little wordpress microsite build to support the Progressive Governance summit at the beginning of April. The project included a live video stream of the event and online chat between officials and viewers. Considering the event took place on a Saturday, and the subject matter, it got a pretty good audience.

Second, an even cleverer wordpress microsite to support the prime minister’s recent visit to the United States. As well as the goodies above, this project incorporated Google maps to track the progress of the visit across the country.

Third, the launch of a Downing Street Twitter feed a few weeks back. Initial suspicion that this would simply tweet links to official announcements on the Downing Street website were allayed as the team found their voice, using the tool to support announcements, events (such as the two described above) and engage in dialogue and banter with the geek ‘twitterarti’.

All this activity has attracted attention elsewhere. Last Friday, the Guardian published an article on their homepage, sorry frontpage, about Downing Street’s use of Twitter. Now that is some coverage and encouragement.

Downing Street’s innovation has always been of help to other government webbies to justify investing time and effort in using new tools and applications for communication and engagement.

This isn’t playing with technology for the sake of technology. Its about piloting new methods of engagement, at little or no cost, in an attempt to improve transparency and dialogue.

Please guys, keep it up for all our sakes.

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Back – not quite with a vengeance

Apologies for the radio silence around here but I’ve been away on holiday for the last week or so.

I promised myself that I would make up for my recent lack of decent posting while I was away. But instead I actually enjoyed the break and kept away from the web as much as possible (not entirely of course as my family kept reminding me to ‘put that computer down’….).

Anyway, thought I should update you about what happened at the Social Innovation Camp a few weeks back.

For reasons I shan’t go into here I wasn’t able to get to London for day two of the weekend. So without me as a distraction the prison visits team managed to come second in the competition at the end of the two days.

This is great news. It means we have won a small sum of money (£1000) to try and develop the project further. It also means that the project has a bit more momentum behind it so hopefully we can make some good come of the idea.

To recap, the initial identified problem was that peoples’ experience of visiting an inmate in prison can vary greatly from establishment to establishment. The challenge was to try and make it better.

The solution we came up with is to provide a method of allowing visitors to share their visit experience. Thereby letting other visitors know what to expect and also to feedback to the prison authorities – hopefully so that they can take comments into account to improve future visits (kind of like Patient Opinion for prison visitors).

Since the camp. members of the team have been working together to identify ways of taking the project to the next stage. Some of us are due to present our work at London Minibar next Friday (25th) to see if we can raise any interest and/or funding to develop the project further.

I’ll keep you posted how it goes.

Social innovation camp – day one

I’ve been at the Young Foundation in London all day today (barring the disaster that is South West Trains this weekend) participating in the Social Innovation Camp.

Social innovation camp is an unconference (and competition) exploring how technology can assist in solving societal problems or making life easier in sometimes small, but significant, ways. The participants are a mix of geeks, designers, coders, and thinkers (and then me – who is none of these things, but wishes he was). A real gathering of minds, ideas and energy.

I’m part of a team looking at how we can improve the experience of prison visits for all concerned – the prisoners, their visitors (relatives, friends, supporters etc), the authorities, support groups etc.

I should point out that, though I am employed by the government department responsible for the Prison Service, I have neither no operational relationship with that agency, nor am I attending the camp in any official capacity. I just sounded interesting.

So what have we been up to so far? Well, we’ve tried to unpick and map the process of visiting a prison from start (incarceration) through to the actual visit and beyond.

Then, we’ve looked at how technology might make the experiences gathered through that journey better. Could an internet enabled booking system, accessible via the web, handsets, kiosks etc help? (probably).
How can visitors feedback their experiences of the event – both to help other users of the system and to enable the prisons to improve the processes. Is there a way of harnessing the collective knowledge of prison visitors for the benefit of others?

The pot is still melting on this and other ideas and we have until 2pm tomorrow to try and make something of all the good ideas.

Its not often that I get a chance to spend time with people who possess such a wide variety of backgrounds, skills and experience in one place to work on problem solving. The team I worked with today includes freelance designers, web coders, the publisher / editor of an ethical magazine, the production director of a digital agency, and two members of PACT (a charity that helps families of prisoners) amongst others.


Equally, the mind boggles at all the variables involved in prison visits – different visiting times, methods of requesting visits etc etc (some times for good reasons – like levels of security).

Its a seriously daunting challenge. We have a short period of time to try and come up with a solution to ease these problems in some way. We are competing with the other five teams (you can find out more about the other projects here) for modest cash prizes to take the ideas to the next stage.

If you’re interested in finding out how we get on, why not come along to Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood tomorrow afternoon at 2.30pm where each team will be presenting their idea to a panel of judges.

Where do government webbies fit into e-government?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the group, or community, of people within government who manage websites, intranets, blogs, wikis and other digital communications channels.

There aren’t that many of us around considering what we actually do.

We’re also not very good at organising ourselves so consequently we don’t have the representation we need – we and our work are often overshadowed by other groups who have louder voices and / or are better organised.

Its one of the reasons why I set up the barcamp and, subsequently am trying to make the afternoon tea gatherings regular events (described by David today as ‘Teacamp’ – I quite like that) – so that we could get to know each other better and start to interact as a group of similar interests. Not just civil servants, but the people on the periphary or outside who can assist us in making what we do better.

This problem of relative obscurity has been highlighted to me over the last few days. Downing Street launched a twitter feed, a great idea and a good example of low cost piloting to test the value of an emerging digital channel.

But coverage has focused on the fact that ‘Gordon Brown is now on Twitter’ – he’s not its Downing Street that runs the feed, not the Prime Minister (in fact, he is sort of, but that is by the by).

This illustrates for me the problem of our role and profile in egovernment and the challenges that face us both day to day and in the longer term.

We’re not IT, we’re not e-democracy, and we’re not politics online. Each of these groups are important to us, and we need to work with them, but them we ain’t.

But some people do think that one or more of these are what we do – hence the confusion over the ownership of the Downing Street twitter feed.

The IT profession in government is a powerful group – they provide both the infrastructure and the applications that help us deliver procurement big contracts. They’re well organised (they did invent Prince 2 after all) and have senior representation in most government departments.

The e-democracy crowd are also quite a well self-organised group – academics, social hackers etc who have an important role in challenging government to do better in its interactions with citizens.

Then there’s politics online – the parties, representatives and the bloggers. They obviously make a lot of noise, and gain exposure for what they do.

We are none of them – not partisan or political, not technical, not edemocracy.

It strikes me we need a voice to represent us and plug us into these other groups somewhere closer to the top of the pyramid. Perhaps COI’s Digital People will draw us together. Perhaps Tom is that person?

Somehow we need to draw ourselves together – the people around government who are really passionate about improving the way government conducts itself online – and speak as a group.

Govweb afternoon tea Thursday 3rd April 2-4

I’ve been remiss in not publicising this event, partly because the last one fell away due to Maundy Thursday which put me out my ‘rhythm’.  But anyway, is anybody up for  a geeky cup of tea or coffee tomorrow afternoon?
I will be tiied in the quarterly Whitehall heads of ecommunications group from 2 (reporting back on the barcamp as it happens), so will be on a little later, but I will be there  but will pop along a little later. Hope to see some of you there (more details here)