On the frequency of my postings

Maybe you’ve noticed that I seem to have been posting more often than my usual once a fortnight recently.

It’s taken me quite by surprise and I have no idea how it has happened (could be sunstroke?).

Anyway, apologies if this state of affairs has alarmed you and I assure you normal service will be resumed shortly (though I do seem to have a lot I want to write about at the moment. We’ll see…).

Two tools I really like

Don’t normally do tech tips or gear I generally like here, goodness knows there are enough places on the web to find that kind of stuff. But I’ve recently come across two online resources that I think are absolutely fantastic so I’ll share them here for anyone who is interested.

First up is up is Addictomatic (hat tip to Oli Barrett via David Wilcox). A fantastic tool that pulls content from across the web based on a keyword or phrase.

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently with departmental colleagues to set up dashboards to allow them to view content based on their professional interests. Addictomatic works like that, though of course its limited by only being able to return information based on one keyword / phrase at a time and filtering is not available (as far as I can see). Nevertheless its a great way to get a snapshot on a particular issue (or person) very quickly.

I heartily recommend it, if only to demonstrate the potential value of making better use of RSS readers and web aggregators like Pageflakes or Netvibes.

Second is the AgencyTool web design dashboard. Can’t remember where I first saw this but its an absolute goldmine of information and advice about all aspects of web tech, design, build and marketing.

I’ve spent a fair few hours wading through the resources. Some are better than others but I bet you find something there that will be of use to you in your work.

Don’t like truncated feeds or partial emails

In my real life away from work (as if there is one nowadays) I read feeds and receive emails about interests not connected with government. One thing that gets my goat is reading a partial feed or an email with teaser text followed by a link so that I have to click through to read the rest of the article.

Today I got a response to a petition from the Number 10 website (its really nice that they have created a response mechanism for petitions that get a decent audience. It shows that they are listening and I think its a great service altogether).

This is what the email said:

You signed a petition asking the Prime Minister to xxxxxxxxxxxx

The Prime Minister’s Office has responded to that petition and you can view
it here:

http://www.number10.gov.uk/xxxxxxxxxx

Prime Minister’s Office

Petition information – http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/xxxxxxxxx

If you would like to opt out of receiving further mail on this or any other
petitions you signed, please email optout@petitions.pm.gov.uk

Question: why do I have to click through to find out the government’s response? Its a small thing, I’ve no idea what usability experts find out from thousands of depth interviews of internet users (perhaps I should) but it doesn’t feel right to me. Personally its one click through I could do without. Any chance it could be fixed?

Debating the civil servants online engagement guidelines

Yesterday I was invited to a round table discussion at the Cabinet Office. The purpose was to talk about the recently published principles for participation online for civil servants – what’s good, what’s bad, what’s missing and how they can be applied in practice.

Around the table was a good mix of web strategists, practitioners, enthusiasts and those just interested to find out more. As we went round the table introducing ourselves and our particular interests it struck me that there is an awful lot of good stuff going on around me. There are plenty of implementations of social web tools happening – collaborative tools, using blogs for stakeholder engagement, social networks etc etc so plenty of shared learning developing that we somehow need to plug into and harness.

We were lucky that we managed to avoid falling into the trap of concentrating on blogs and bloggers, as I understand the first of these sessions last week spent much of the time discussing (Dave Briggs has a good round up of that session). But there was still, unsurprisingly, a focus on how organisations can deploy tools, rather than the simpler (but in my mind more powerful) opportunity of civil servants participating in exsiting online environments. As Justin put it succinctly in a tweet, “all I hear are broadcast models

There was a recognition that, if we are to embed these skills and techniques in government organisatinos, then we need to invest in both training/ongoing support and in capacity. Simply mandating people to include online engagement in their already busy day jobs will not work. If we are going to take this stuff seriously its going to have to be resourced properly. We also need to be realistic about the potential scale the resource will require, particularly if we use online tools to debate a high profile or contentious issue (remember the road pricing petition?).

I think I heardpeople were asking how to translate the principles into more operational / organisational guidance. In other words, how they’d actually do this stuff. But its also clear that we are still in the very early days of experimenting with the technologies and tools. There is no correct way to do things or optimum tool or technology. This is not the time for mandated solutions but for encouraging innovation.

All in all a useful conversation. But like a lot of conversations about social web that I have nowadays, I can’t help thinking that there is still an awful lot of actual work to do to support and encourage the use of social web tools to support better policy engagement. Guess that comes next…

Show us a better way – not just for real people

I’ve been following the show us a better way competition – asking people to come up with ideas about making better use of public data – with great interest over the last few weeks. The scale of ideas has been seriously impressive, in fact its so much so that its seriously messed up my RSS reader.

One thing that has bothered me though is that the competition isn’t really being promoted around Whitehall, partly because civil servants are not eligible for the prize for the winning entry (£20,000 if you’re interested, and why wouldn’t you be?).

Earlier today I was at a workshop to discuss the recently published principles for civil servants participating online (I’ll post something about it separately soon) when it was mentioned that a separate prize has been put up for the best suggestion from a civil servant, a Macbook Air. That’s right a Macbook Air.

That’s not a shabby prize by anyone’s standards. We should be shouting this from across the rooftops of Whitehall because there are a lot of ‘owners’ of data sets in government and I bet a fair few of them have ideas about how they could make better use of them. Now they have a pretty good incentive to do so.

Now, how about mashing up blue flag beaches with bus routes, GPS coordinates for buses and health inspected ice cream parlours? Might be able to fit another tutti-frutti in before the last lift home. Mmm ice cream…….

Enabling staff conversations online

Last Wednesday we ran our first online staff webchat, allowing anyone in the organisation to put questions to representatives from the senior management team (including our permanent secretary).

Hardly revolutionary you may say, after all webchats aren’t exactly new and in the current ‘social media’ excitement in government, where everyone is trying to be the first to do something cutting edge, webchats look decidely old hat.

But there were very good business reasons why we did what we did and didn’t get diverted by something more vogueish.

Depending how you count them, we have between 80,000 and 100,000 staff, making us the third largest government department.

Reaching out to the them is difficult. We are a mish-mash of organisations that have come together, all with different cultures, different ways of working, different ways of communicating, and – crucially in this case – different IT systems.

Attempting to use web engagement tools across our intranets couldn’t be guaranteed to work. So we took a gamble and ran the webchat on the public internet. Unsurprisingly some people were very nervous about this, but you know what? People behaved themselves and the discussion went well without any technological or conversational difficulties.

Because of the variability of kit on people’s desks we went for a lowest common demoninator solution that performed nicely on older browsers and without any need for plug-ins or cool ajax-y functionality.

This wasn’t about the tools, it was about the need to communicate and the opportunity to use technology to attempt to solve the problem.

Its difficult from an initial look at the stats to know exactly how many staff participated in the webchat, partly because of the way our IT firewalls tend to use a small number of IP addresses for each physical location. But we know it was well over 1000 people, and maybe significantly more (we’re still working on digging into the data). That might sound like a small number but many of our staff across the country don’t have ready access to PCs and internet access

We had over 40 pre-submitted questions and 130+ asked during the one hour chat. 52 got answered on the day (not bad going in one hour!), with the rest being published on the intranet shortly.

All in all, a good first crack at reaching staff online. Proof of the pudding – we’ve been asked to run one each month from now on.

helping policy bods to use social web tools

Emma is asking for help to develop a social media ‘toolkit’ The word toolkit always makes me feel rather queasy, I keep tripping over ‘toolkits’ in government and they are banded around as if they are the panacea to all our problems, which they’re not.

But she’s got a serious point. Which creating resources to help civil servants take advantage of the opportunities that social web tools and applications offer them in their work.

So, the cause is worthwhile. Please help her if you’ve got anything to add.

Teacamp tomorrow afternoon

Quick reminder that its the regular teacamp get-together tomorrow afternoon from 2pm to 4pm in Cafe Zest (which is on the top floor of House of Fraser in Victoria Street, London) for government web type people.

I missed the last one, and only floated around the last few due to pressure of work, but I am conscious that we are almost at the beginning of the summer holiday season, so it would be great to see as many of you there tomorrow as possible.

I know that some are coming along to have a natter about how we can turn Digital People from a name and an idea into something real and worthwhile. But whatever is on your mind, come along for a cup of tea or coffee and a chat with like minded souls.

Governance of Britain – an update

There is so much going on at the moment that I completely forgot to point you to the fact that we have updated the Governance of Britain campaign site that we launched last December. I say we, but I have personally had very little to do with it this time round.

Luckily Simon Dickson is still involved and the refreshed site looks much more like the kind of thing we envisioned first time round (when we only had a few days to lash it together). Well done Simon for making it happen.

We’ve now got two new elements on the site designed to engage users – prominent use of video and a deliberative discussion area. The idea is that both will be updated regularly and will feed off each other, video representing the real world conversations and events, the site for online. Be interesting to see how it works out.

It’s data, not documents, dummy

There’s been so much interesting, stimulating stuff going on recently that sometimes its difficult to know what to make of it all.

In the last few months I’ve been to a number of events such as GeeKyoto, Interesting08, and 2gether. All great in their own way and all have generated lots of thoughts in my head about innovating around my day job stuff.

The key message from all this for me has been: stop prevaricating, stop strategising. Just do something, lots of small things, and know that some of them will pay off (though not necessarily the ones you expect).

The Power of Information taskforce has also been busy, launching a competition to generate ideas about making better use of public information (wish my department had thought of that..). Now OPSI has created an ‘unlocking’ service for people to request the availability of government data in usable formats.

All this stuff, all these ideas, are great. Its not all ‘sexy’ social media (thank goodness), some of it is more fundamental than that.

I’ve been deliberating for a while about how we publish information online. On a daily basis we produce a fair number of documents in pdf format, not ideal but given the limited time (and various commitments that have been made) we have its often all we can do to get the information up on the website.

On Saturday I went along to Opentech08. Another inspiring event, but for very different reasons. Instead of being evangelist in approach it was very techie (I was well out of my depth there, chairing a session on openID – about which I know nothing). But there was a lot of talk about data feeds, mash ups etc. Luckily John Sheridan from OPSI gave me a quick five minute noddy guide to the whole area over lunch (I still don’t understand it, but I did smile a lot).

Anyway, from all that, and conversations I’ve been having with all sorts of people, its become clear to me that we could do better in how we make the information available – making it available as usable data rather than a document.

Changing what we already do is not easy, there are all sorts of constraints and barriers. But lets take the regular publication of statistical releases. We produce quite a few of these and, although we have started to make some data available in excel format to support the actual documents, its not ideal.

So I’m wondering, is there anyone who could help me do two things?:

  • First, how can we turn excel documents into useful and usable data feeds (RDF was mentioned to me, whatever that means…). Are there tools that can do this easily? What would I need? Can anyone set this up for me?
  • Second, how do I sell this to the powers that be? I understand conceptually that we should be doing it, but I don’t know how to articulate it well enough. It can’t just be about goodwill or the right thing to do – what is the ‘business’ benefit (remember it still costs us to do this stuff, so it needs to involve almost no extra work)?

Unlike the Power of Information taskforce, I don’t have big bags of money to dish out as a reward. But if you can help me, I promise you at least a pie and a pint, maybe more if I can get some money for development.

If you know how to explain it, or can help me do it, please let me know (email address is on the about me page if you don’t want to leave a comment here).