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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Video: Convergence and technology - Did You Know

The latest version of the "Shift happens" videos updated for autumn 2009, developed by XPLANE in partnership with The Economist. This 'Did You Know' video focuses on the changing media landscape, including convergence and technology.

There are a lot of these videos out there which throw stats at you, this is the best one I've seen yet.

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Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Eight Stages of Genocide

Crossposted from my new outlet, Cosmodaddy

How can we predict and prevent genocides? Greg Stanton outlines his groundbreaking theory on the eight stages of genocide: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination and denial.

Genocide in Darfur, he argues, has proceeded through these stages before our eyes. Genocide could have been prevented by means of intervention at any one of a number of critical points in the past, but the international response has amounted to too little, too late.

This has always been the case and I don't see this changing anytime soon, despite the best efforts of fantastic groups like Avaaz though groups like them remain our best hope, as does the work of people like Stanton who help people understand that - yes - things can be done and that genocide is not some 'natural, unstoppable force' like an earthquake or a tornado.

One starting point would be for those responsible for doing nothing to be seen to learn lessons and admit their errors. For 'never again!' to mean anything, it's essential. This is why the campaign around Belgium, for example, to own up to its horrific history in the Congo is so important, as important as for Serbia to own up to its role in the Balkan's genocides in the 90s.

It's also close - very close - to home. This is from a post of mine last year about Hillary Clinton's claim that she tried to stop the Rwandan genocide.

Rewriting history over Rwanda
The Americans weren't alone. The British, the French, the Belgians and much of the rest of Africa all either didn't do anything or actively stopped aid. They all looked for their own interests and none had any interest in stopping genocide.

It was Britain's ambassador to the UN, Sir David Hannay, who proposed that the UN reduce its force. A year after the slaughter, the Foreign Office sent a letter to an international inquiry saying that it still did not accept the term genocide, seeing discussion on whether the massacres constituted genocide as "sterile". Then Ministers John Major, Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind and Lynda Chalker have never even been asked about their role.

Virtually no-one emerges heroically (Canadian peacekeeper Roméo Dallaire is one and his view on Clinton's claims would be interesting to hear). In fact I would urge anyone to make themselves read the harrowing background as an object lesson in international power politics and its victims - a million of them in Rwanda. There's a blog which covers the 100 days before and during the slaughter in detail. 'A People Betrayed' by Linda Melvern is very good.

For Hillary to now try to adopt that heroic mantle is, as commentators have noted, worse than 'monstrous'.
Almost - almost - as monstrous as this comment from Gordon Brown:
"You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken."
Where is Twitter on the genocides happening right now in the DR of Congo? Or the slaughter of indigenous people in Peru? Where is Brown? Where is Sarah Brown!?

Here is a list of the genocides taking place now in the world.

The media doesn't give a damn and, unfortunate but true, neither do most Twitter users.

HT: Domino

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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Why they are screaming 'socialism'

A commentator to Andrew Sullivan's blog gives some background on the right-wing American 'tea baggers' which is essential information for anyone wanting to understand WTF is going on.

It's worth quoting in full:
Of course they are screaming 'socialism'. They've been doing that since the 50s at least. They're not talking about economic redistribution of wealth - they never have been. They've been talking about redistribution of privilege this whole time. They called MLK a communist because he wanted blacks to have the same rights as whites, and to them that was a redistribution of the privilege that whites had 'earned'.

In their view, white, Christian, heterosexuals have earned something that gays, non-Christians, and non-heteros have failed to work hard enough at. It's been a class war from the outset, just not one based around income or net worth - mostly because the whites in the south were economically pretty bad off and blacks in the north were catching up to them.

This picture shows they were pushing the same buttons half a century ago that they are today. Anti-christ, communism - it's all the same as it is today and is well known code. It's why the protesters will decry socialism today but wouldn't have under Bush - it's all tied to race and other social objectives and has nothing really to do with taxation, deficits, and big government. You probably missed it when you came to the US, but this is pretty old game - particularly to guys like Carter that grew up around it.

Past posts: 


Friday, 25 September 2009

Seduced by huge c*ck..

So.....what if you were restricted in the real world to only 140 Characters?

New Firefox add-ons

Mozilla FirefoxImage via Wikipedia
It's a while since I've done one of these and my add-ons have actually changed quite a bit.

With the last Firefox major upgrade a number of them failed to update and others took ages to update. This now seems to have settled down but I have had to find replacements for a few that remain incompatible and for some I haven't found an easy replacement.

Gone are

TinyUrl Creator · ScrapBook · ReminderFox · Menu Editor · Advanced Dork · Text/Plain and one which I would like the functionality of but I haven't found a simple compatible replacement LinkChecker.

New are preview
With the Preview Plugin for Firefox, whenever you hover over a URL on any web page, we display a tooltip showing the Page Title, Long URL, and any Click Data we have about the page the URL links to.
Extended Copy Menu
Provides the option to copy selection as plain text or html.
Fasterfox Lite
Performance and network tweaks for Firefox, without the Enhanced Prefetching.
A full-featured blog editor that integrates with your browser and lets you easily post to your blog. I may drop this and I hardly ever use it.
Shareaholic is the ultimate tool for sharing stuff with 60+ destination services including Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Delicious, MySpace, Wordpress, and more!
Shorten URL
Shorten long URL from context menu or toolbar button with your selected URL shortener and display the result in location bar.
View Dependencies
Adds a tab listing dependencies and their sizes in the Page Info window.
Contextually relevant suggestions of links, pictures, related content and tags will make your blogging fun again.

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Thursday, 24 September 2009

Bad user testing beats no user testing

Jakob Nielsen has noted that it's now twenty years since he started what he calls the 'discount usability movement'.

This might be egging it a wee bit, I'm not sure there is such a 'movement' apart from that which Nielsen promotes.

It's true that major companies use discount usability tactics - I noted before how used it when their site went through major changes. But 'movement'?

Moving on ...

Nielsen presented a paper entitled "Usability Engineering at a Discount" at the 3rd International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction in 1989.

It was born out necessity, he says, as he simply didn't have the budget of the IBM User Interface Institute where he'd previously worked.

The paper advocated three main components of discount usability:
  • Simplified user testing, which includes a handful of participants, a focus on qualitative studies, and use of the thinking-aloud method. Although thinking aloud had been around for years before I turned it into a discount method, the idea that testing 5 users was "good enough" went against human factors orthodoxy at the time.
  • Narrowed-down prototypes — usually paper prototypes — that support a single path through the user interface. It's much faster to design paper prototypes than something that embodies the full user experience. You can thus test very early and iterate through many rounds of design.
  • Heuristic evaluation in which you evaluate user interface designs by inspecting them relative to established usability guidelines.
Nielsen says he was stoned in the market square as a heretic and I can well believe it.

I had a similar experience when, discussing issues with LocalDirectgov's usability offering, I proposed that council web teams should use discount testing methods. This provoked nigh on outrage and a swipe at Nielsen by the usability company Nomensa. I like to think I moved them on from their initial horror to grudging agreement but you can make your own mind up in the debate, as it spilled over several posts and onto a Nomensa worker's blog.
Nielsen even has the nerve, to some people's delicate sensibilities, to say:
Discount usability often gives better results than deluxe usability because its methods drive an emphasis on early and rapid iteration with frequent usability input.
As well as, the horror:
Discount usability methods are robust enough to offer decent results even when you don't use perfect research methodology.

In other words: Bad user testing beats no user testing, every time.

He cites a team that ran a usability study of MacPaint 1.7 (an early drawing program) in 1989 who each tested three users.
Better usability methodology does lead to better results, at least on average. But the very best performance was recorded for a team that only scored 56% on compliance with best-practice usability methodology. And even teams with a 20–30% methodology (i.e., people who ran lousy studies) still found 1/4 of the product's serious usability problems.
Nielsen claims that "my 20 years of campaigning for discount usability have certainly not been in vain, [but] I can't yet declare a win" — and nowhere is this more evident than in government, where cheap-but-effective methods of finding website errors would, you would think, have most resonance.

Both the US ( and UK ( official government usability advice contain no reference to discount methods.


Here's a presentation I gave on discount user testing called Cheap'n'easy usability first in 2006.

View more presentations from Paul Canning.
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Wednesday, 23 September 2009

PayPal still thinks Africa is the 'dark continent'

PayPal Inc.Image via Wikipedia

I just got an email from a friend in Austria. Inspired by a post on LGBT Asylum News he wanted to make a donation to the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) in Nairobi.
The people there are wonderful, and intelligent, and courageous and open-minded people indeed, and they deserve our help and solidarity. Tears are forming in my eyes when thinking of the women and men with HIV infection and AIDS living in poverty there.

But my friend found out that whilst sending money via PayPal is possible for people in Kenya receiving money is not.

When he contacted PayPal customer services by email they claimed that receiving money is not allowed by the legislation of Kenya. Yet he was able to send the money to Kenya via Western Union — for the transmission of Euro 100 he had to pay a fee of Euro 17,50 which is far higher than PayPal's charges.

Jonathan Gosier, a software developer, writer and social entrepreneur, explains on appafrica how:
PayPal, intentional or not, are sending a very strong message to the rest of the world about Africa.
Prior to moving to Uganda, Gosier had used PayPal for four years and estimates that he's transferred over $100,000 during that time

Bu this counted for nothing once he'd moved to 'the dark continent'.
Apparently PayPal’s way of ‘policing’ their service is to simply flag various IP addresses as being ’suspect’ . hrmm. I have a few Iranian and Indian friends who could tell you a bit about what it’s like to get profiled based on where you appear to be from. (And if they won’t suffice as anecdotal evidence, I’ve got a few million mexican and black american friends who’d double down on the sentiment.)

So Africa remains a high-risk zone as the sheer number of comments like these from paypal users indicates:

I am in the process of trying to sell a laptop. i have posted ads on comtrader and ebay. So far the item has been bought off ebay by a mother who wants its for a present for her daughter in AFRICA. Two people have expressed interest through comtrader, one wishes to buy it for a business associate in AFRICA, and the other wants it for himself, and guess where he lives….. AFRICA. Sorry for all the capitals, but am i missing something here. I’ve replied to the ebay purchaser who is going to pay through Paypal, which i know is covered by ebay so i feel safest. Just wondering if this obsession with me posting it to AFRICA is anything i should be sketchy about.

Or this person’s thoughtful reply:

Anything from africa is a scam so stay well clear. Re-list the item if you have too.

Wow. Anything from Africa is a scam. I better take back this computer I just bought from GAME!

The unintentional effect here is that by blanketing the whole region as suspect, it reduces the number of viable alternatives for legitimate businesses and professionals who want to use services like PayPal for trade. I use PayPal for some of my payroll now (for people who don’t live near me). However, whenever I do, PayPal flags my account and shuts it down temporarily ‘because I accessed it from a suspicious location’. To unlock it I have to call them, from Uganda and do a bunch of other stuff that’s inconvenient. I suppose this is the price of admission for using the service in country it wasn’t intended to be used in. So no complaint here either.

But what it does mean, is that from every angle legitimate African businesses are smacked in the face by measures put in place to police the one’s that are indeed abusing the system. But this affects even expatriates and NGOs that might want to use the service. If it’s accessed from a certain IP there’s a red flag, especially if that IP is not where you registered to use the service.
Once again, the message perpetuated here is to be cautious when dealing with Africans, Africa or anything you suspect of being related to the aformentioned. This is nothing new. Most people here have been dealing with such mentality their whole lives, why would it stop now that the medium has changed? To be fair, there’s truth to this stereotype. There is indeed a huge problem of scams here. There is some truth to most stereotypes, the word itself simply implies that those truths are applied where they don’t necessarily belong.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people here who are just like consumers everywhere else in the world. They want to buy things, they want the conveniences of online shopping, they want to do business…and they want their neighbors to stop scamming you so they can have those things.
I realize that the problem can’t be solved entirely by Paypal alone but I would appreciate at least an option to flag my account in advance for what might be mistaken for ’suspicious activity’. I’d be happy to leave this to PayPal’s discretion but my problem is they aren’t using any. African transaction? Banned! Banks will allow customers to indicate that they will be abroad for a certain period so that they don’t shutdown accounts by mistake. Why doesn’t PayPal? You’d be surprised at how damaging these blanket policies can be to an organization like mine that simply just wants to pay employees and be paid by clients.

I suppose the complaint is that PayPal doesn’t give me an option to avoid my account getting bricked. It costs me money everytime they do it. they give me no alternative to prevent it from happening and when I talk to them, somehow it’s my fault for existing ‘in that country where The Last King of Scotland took place‘.
My Austrian friend says:
To me this is a kind of discrimination, and neo-colonialism, and racism towards African people, and it reminds me of the inhuman politics of the pharmaceutical industries not to reduce their prices for medicaments for HIV and AIDS in poor countries, but to accept the death of lots of people who could not afford these high prices. If you are living in a rich country of the European Union you survive, if you are a poor woman and a poor man in Africa you die. We must not accept it!
I thought of his experience and Gosier's whilst reading about the coming of broadband to East Africa (which includes Uganda) via the BBC's excellent series of reports.

This did warn of and catalogue the whole raft of other challenges to Africans other than the lack of broadband, which puts its arrival in context, but they missed this one.

Theresa Carpenter Sondjo notes that there are alternatives for African entrepeneurs to PayPal, however they are all more "more expensive and less flexible". That seems to be a running theme for Africa - lots of stuff to build a business is way more expensive, Africans have a stack of hurdles to jump over.

Maybe Oxfam, Mr Bono and Mr Geldof should get onto this one and start shaming PayPal?

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When Twitter is *dangerous*

17% of Twitter users vs. 12% of non-Twitter social media users had accessed social media from a washroom or toilet
New Crowd Science survey

And how many are male and missing their aim?

11% of Twitter users admitted to accessing social media while driving in the preceding 30 days, compared to only 5% of other social media users (my emphasis)

To be reminded of the consequences of this very bad behaviour see my past post Texting + driving = death.
Twice as many Twitter users as non-Twitter social media users (8% to 4%) had accessed any social media from a theater during a movie or live performance (during the preceding 30 days).

Nearly three times as many Twitter users as other social media users have accessed social media from restaurants (31% vs. 12%)

Can I say 'potential violent reaction'?
41% of Twitter users prefer to contact friends via social media rather than telephone, compared with 25% of non-Twitter social media users, and 11% (vs. only 6% of those not using Twitter) actually prefer social media over face-to-face contacts.

Dying a lonely death?
14% of Twitter users said they have revealed things about themselves in social media that they wouldn't under any other circumstances. Then again, 8% admitted to "frequently stretching" the truth about themselves online.

Nearly twice as many Twitter users than non-Twitter social media users say they update Twitter during work hours.

Putting your job/career/marriage in jeopardy?

What are we doing to ourselves people!?! 

HT: WebPro News

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Flashmob as political satire

Chancellor Angela Merkel may well have a new enemy to worry about when she is making her campaign speeches: irony.
Der Spiegel

On 18 September as Merkel gave a campaign stump speech in Hamburg she must have at least blinked as every so often the air was punctuated by loud 'YEAH's!'

Der Spiegel reports that a Flickr user posted a picture of the placard announcing Merkel’s rally online on September 11 and sent the link to friends on Twitter. Placard said, “The Chancellor is coming,” and underneath, the user wrote: “Yeah.” Ironically.

Soon after, the invitation went viral on Twitter and sites like Nerdcore and Spreeblick and the flashmob was on.

The people who went did it apparently as a joke and Merkel soon cottoned on.
In Mainz the flash mobbers held up yellow and black signs with "Hurrah" written on them (yellow and black are the colors that symbolize a coalition between the CDU and the FDP) and they too called out "yeah" after Merkel finished every sentence. However, at Monday night's meeting the chancellor did address the hecklers. "It can't hurt to yell something else other than yeah after every sentence," she said. The group then repeated Merkel's words, saying nonsensical things like "growth", "back door" and "five" after the Chancellor did.

The phenomenon could have unintended consquences. A German Twitter user said after the Hamburg flashmob, "Wouldn't it be funny if the international audience got the wrong impression?" Maybe, she worried, they would think it was some sort of "alarming German political euphoria."

There has been some German un-ironic talk of 'banning' and although I can imagine how delicious something like this might be during the 2010 UK election campaign I can also imagine the reaction of the British bobbies vs the German polizei — which is kindof ironic ...

Monday, 21 September 2009

Council homepages: what's wrong with 'interesting development'?

There's been a great flurry of interest in local government webbie circles because a few councils have gone down the Google route of deliberately reducing homepage content and pushing search as the way to find what you're looking for, what you want to do, what your task is.

Lancashire's Kevin Rainsbury told the lively thread on the Communities of Practice (CoP) website that:
We're at a relatively early stage in development but felt it was worthwhile launching in its current state as it was able to provide customers with something better than what they had previously. We did a fair bit of customer research which led us down this path. We're also aware that the new site might "ruffle a few feathers" given it's such an unorthodox approach for a local authority. The Socitm Better Connected review will be of particular interest this year!
(I asked, via Socitm, for more information on any research or prior-to-launch testing within development by Lancashire and Westminster but as of the time of writing this hasn't appeared.)

Webbies divided

On the rest of the thread and in blog post comments council webbies were divided on the sites. Some cheered the innovative approach - 'It is good to know Lancashire is one of the councils thinking out of the box' - whilst others found fault (eg failed search results) or questioned the usability. .

Feeding back from experience, one webbie said:
When I’ve carried out user testing I’ve often found that participants are fairly evenly split between ‘expert’ users who like to search for information using a search engine and ‘novice’ users, who are less confident and like to browse and click on links. Some people just happen to feel more comfortable when they have some hints about what to click on. Even better if the links they can click on are relevant to their goals. In comparison to Lancashire’s site, the Westminster site does place popular tasks under the search box.
This experience reflects not just use of council websites but longstanding experience of websites in general: it's also common sense that users would be split between novices and experts (and a mass in between). However one comment made clear that this understanding hasn't got through to all council webbies:
Search is something that has to be pushed at people more. I get tired of reading complaints from the public saying “I tried to find X on your site, but I HAD to use the search” – like the search on a website is some sort of last resort form of torture.

Forcing rather than following users

Another reviewer noted that Westminster's design included navigation options 'below-the-fold' (meaning that users have to scoll down). This, and other comments, stood out for me as part of an unfortunately common mentality in the public sector, that a design is fine simply because the 'option' is provided - somewhere on the page or via a link. But a lot of users simply won't scroll, or see something 'obvious' to you.

For example, Jakob Nielsen’s study on how much users scroll (in Prioritizing Web Usability) revealed that only 23% of visitors scroll on their first visit to a website. This means that 77% of visitors won’t scroll.

So Westminster and Lancashire are actually doing what the commentator above wants them to do - effectively 'pushing search at people more'.

Hearing from an expert

I spoke with web design authority Gerry McGovern about Lancashire and Westminster.

There are 'rules' which come and have evolved from best practice which comes from experts over many years now observing how users actually behave. There are 'heuristics' which are established principles for user interface design (web pages).

I said:
My understanding of feedback from user studies is that 'search is the user's lifeline when navigation fails', and also from what you have written and said that navigation should be improved. Therefore it is a mistake to hide it on a homepage.

[You] need to look at who the homepage specific audience is and that most users actually arrive elsewhere so a homepage focus can be a distraction from addressing user's main needs, such as being able to complete tasks from wherever they arrive and ensuring that search and referral traffic is sending them to their goals. As well, that reliance on search means a lot of working on tweaking and refining results and results presentation.
Gerry replied:
I think it’s an interesting experiment, particularly what Lancashire is doing, but I basically agree with your points. Search and navigation should go together. Often what happens is people search to get roughly in the right direction and then navigate the rest of the way. But many will, as you point out, navigate once they’re presented with good logical links.

I think Westminster has got more of a balance; they have brought the top tasks onto the homepage as well as the big search area.

The fact that the search will have to be tweaked is a good thing. Really managing search is very important so to have a big focus on quality search is great.

You’re also right about the decline in homepage importance. Because a great many are starting at Google it means that they will often end up on a deeper page.

Why does this keep happening?

The apparent absence of user-testing within an iterative design process - what I would describe as standard industry best practice - happens in the case of council website design as a result of, as Carl Haggerty:explained in his blog post about the Lancashire and Westminster developments, "a wide range of influencing factors that will impact on the local webteam to make particular choices."

He identified those factors as:
  • political pressure
  • resources
  • role of communications in website
  • role of ICT in website
  • role of customer services in website
  • location of webteam in organisation
  • external influences such as Socitm Better Connected, Gerry McGovernp plus many, many others
  • which conferences members of the webteam have attended (web, social media etc)
  • and yes last but not least our customers needs – all the above shouldn’t matter but they do.
I don't think it's chance that Carl happens to put customers as the last bullet point but I think council webbies are scoring an own goal in their desire for website improvement if they don't prioritise customer feedback, especially through user testing.

For example, and this is one I have cited before. When I conducted guerilla testing for a new design it became immediately obvious that the main link through to online services was simply not being seen by users. All of them were missing it, it might as well not have been there. This was because of a common, known usability issue but one on which I'd found myself over-ruled as I wasn't 'the decider'.

Because I had gone and done some cheap'n'easy testing and got a unanimous result I was able to get that design redone - because what would the counter-argument be? 'I know better than the users'?

The customers are the biggest weapon in a council webbies armory against those factors that Carl cites but how often are they used?

Is design consistency a bad thing?

Carl asks:
Why are we all taking a separate view, if we all have the same goals in mind, why haven’t we all developed identical looking sites with just a logo or some colour change as the main difference?

Shouldn’t we all agree to a consistent approach, purpose and some principles for local government websites (including the homepage) that we can at sign up to?
I wonder about this too.

Many governments, such as in Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore, have adopted common look'n'feel policies, which dictate design boundaries. Others, such as the American government and various Australian states, have provided for some years now both policy and guidance as aides for government webbies.

The UK doesn't have any of this.

The new COI usability guidance isn't meant for local government sites - and doesn't mention guerrilla testing. Socitm's Better Connected has radically improved from being a lengthy tick-box list to honing its message but still has some way to go.

Exercises such as my friend Dave Briggs' 'crowd-sourced' What makes for a decent Council website? have serious problems in my opinion with introducing bias, their usability and not necessarily being customer-led. I also remain unconvinced by Idea's developing 'Knowledge Hub', for similar reasons.

To answer Carl's question - "why are we all taking a separate view, if we all have the same goals in mind?" - I would look at:
  • how webbies are being and have been led (hello DCLG)
  • what resources they have (why they are so disparate or non-existent, why so many 'best practice' experiments keep getting funded and keep failing) and 
  • why, a decade into very well-funded national egov/transformation policy, council webbies still remain all over the place on the basics of designing successful, customer-driven websites
You have to ask these sort of hard questions (and others, such as I'm not at all sure if "we all have the same goals in mind") to truly answer Carl's.

Simply put: I would question, with I think good cause, a rush for 'innovation' whilst some extremely basic yet to me obviously un/der-recognised problems still exist.


Addendum: Following a Twitter exchange with local gov web manager Julian Scarlett, a point occured to me with both common look'n'feel and better information provision and general support for local government web development.

'Interesting development' requires resources and - with a few exceptional exceptions - this is not found in smaller population districts. This is another reason why there is such a huge disparity with the quality of local government websites.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Postscript two: Lessons from the great 2009 Birmingham City Council website disaster

Following the almost universally badly received launch of the new Birmingham City Council website local developer Mark Steadman posted a challenge on his blog:
Why don’t those who are busy complaining and building independent fixes to problems that only concern people who know or care what hashtags are*, get together and build an alternative Council website? Something that’s a real resource for its users, and doesn’t suffer from the dearth of features the official site does.
In particular he singled out another local developer who had joined the negativity, Stef Lewandowski who describes himself as 'Creative entrepreneur and maker of social network toolbox for dads - Webby winner, Clore Fellow, ideas guy, jack of all trades but master of none!', for criticism and his challenge.

Well Lewandowski has risen to it and in a matter of days has built what's been labeled #bccdiy (screengrab above).

He describes it as:
An unofficial website, aimed at providing a useful service to people in Birmingham based on the contents of the Birmingham City Council website, combined with other tools and services.
It comes from the input of people to the bccdiy wiki I mentioned in my last postcript (the wiki was set up by @jonbounds)

Thus far, I'm not aware of any reaction to this rather incredible and groundbreaking development (which you can follow on Twitter) by anyone from the council but if they don't do anything but welcome it - and it has already been suggested that they may not - then it really is time for local people to start haranguing councillors.

They could start with the Deputy Leader, Tory Paul Tilsley, who virtually came out swinging at a local event full of Birmingham's 'digerati' (or 'twitterati').

Open mouth, insert foot

#recasting was chaired by Charlie Beckett, who introduced Tilsley by praising the council's "magnificent online presence". This drew a response from Tilsley asking Beckett, "could you repeat that for the benefit of Marc Reeves" (the editor of the Birmingham Post, who have printed several articles critical of the website). Tilsley then laughed - but no-one joined in.

(Alison Smith commented on her blog post about the event "we were all too polite to heckle and I wish I had.")

Tilsey said that the council - and bear in mind the venue for his comments - was engaged in 'innovative activity' and said that the website was part of their business transformation (actually, all council's are doing this as Whitehall has instructed them to) "embracing the whole of the digital agenda over a ten year program. If you take a snaphot you have will negative comments but you need to see the whole picture."

“We’ve come in for a degree of criticism because we did spend a bit of money on it,” he said, my emphasis. “It was completely revamped and you can’t create 87,000 pages without cost.

“That was the size of the agenda that we were tackling to get a product that was responsive.


The number that's been quoted by Glyn Evans, Birmingham City Council's Corporate Director of Business Change, thus far has been 17,000, which a lot of people have questioned (it's suggested this includes every council minute or other documents).

But it gets worse. Lewandowski says:
@stef of the 87,000 pages that were quoted I've got a functional site out of the 685 uniques I can actually find to index. #bccwebsite
Tilsley also seems to be either unaware, or actively misled, as council staff transferred the content rather than the contractor - thus adding to the £2.8m they've been forced (via FOI) to state as the website's cost.

The Deputy Leader has invited anyone with questions about the website to email him at Perhaps a first question could be where he got the 87,000 figure from?

Another local councilor Robert Wright, a LibDem so part of the coalition which runs the council, has addressed - in a manner of speaking - the controversy on his blog. So there's another avenue for giving feedback to local politicians.

What may help speed things up is the arrival (albeit very late) of the Taxpayer's Alliance, who are infamous at getting themselves quoted in the media and provoking politicians into reactions.
Hang on, a £2.8m website that has taken literally years to construct isn’t world class? How much does a world class one cost then? Billions?! And if we’re to believe all the boastful publicity we’ve paid to have papered around this city, and the protestations of Cllr Mike Whitby, isn’t Birmingham a world class city? "A Global City with a Local Heart"?

Well if it is, according to this feedback, it’s a global city with a pretty crummy website…
In other feedback ...

Paul Robert Lloyd, Visual Designer at Clearleft, has pointed out that the council next door, Walsall, is doing a far, far better job (others have cited nearby Lichfield).

Ross Riley, technical director of Birmingham digital agency One Black Bear, comments on "another catastrophic disaster in a long line of public sector web projects".
The running theme throughout the site is the complete lack of even a hint of quality. There's the amateur feel of the graphics in the header, the massively bloated size of the pages, the search facility being left open to Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attacks, the painfully slow load times and the lack of any design input or consistency throughout the entire site.

There's only two possible reasons as to why this project has ended up as such an expensive disaster. Either the team running it had no expertise in online projects and failed to see that they were being overcharged for sub-standard work or someone on the project team is plotting an escape to Panama with a couple of million in notes.
On Reddit programmers find a whole stack of issues with the website.

Someone has noticed that Birmingham's Respect councillor is the only one who does not have a webpage.

Past posts:

Why peeing in your pants may not be such a good idea

David Sedaris is just about my favourite author, I'm enjoying his new book of short stories 'When You Are Engulfed in Flames' at the moment.

His autobiographical stories are fantastically observant and gently hysterical. They make you smile and very often laugh out loud.

Here he reads one of them on Letterman. If you are drinking whilst watching prepare to splutter.

If you liked that you'll like this, David reading from his new book.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

US health 'debate': the dangers of rhetoric and the need for responsibility

This week I posted about how the Daily Mail appears to be supporting - and making money off - the right-wing America 'Tea Party' movement.

As I added to my post, since then President Jimmy Carter has sparked debate with his comments that much of this movement is driven by racism. But there is another aspect to what's happening and that's the increasingly open threats of violence.

The USA has a long history of political violence, assassinations and home-grown terrorism. The environment is which the 'Tea Parties' and the heathcare 'debate' are happening is one where President Barack Obama is the target of more than 30 potential death threats a day and is being protected by an increasingly over-stretched and under-resourced Secret Service, according to a new book.

On 17 September, Rachel Maddow discussed on her show the rather rare emotional statement warning of violence and call for a responsible debate by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi referenced the late seventies assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Her guest to discuss this was Cleve Jones, a colleague of Milk and the man who found his body.

In the course of the segment, Maddow discussed not only Speaker Pelosi’s view of the violence as being not unlike that of the time surrounding the assassination of Moscone and Milk, but also the incredibly irresponsible response out of Republican Minority Leader John Boehner.

There has been some legitimate debate over Carter's comments - see this for example by David Brooks in the New York Times, and the Mail carried a sensible piece by Gavin Esler - but the rhetorical tone, the toleration of protesters with guns and the inclusion (rather than exclusion) of people who are not only openly racist but also people saying that violence is legitimate?

As Maddow points out, where are the voices of the right trying to deescalate? And where is the Daily Mail?
Politicians have a choice. They can use their influence and the megaphone of their stature to further escalate the rhetoric, to try to stoke it further, to just see what might happen. Or they can use that influence, that megaphone, to try to deescalate. To get the threats of force out of our political debates. To use leadership, to ask everyone to take a deep breath before someone gets hurt. Whose doing that right now on the American right?

Introducing 'lifestream': UK MP's website breaks new ground

LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone is the party's lead on web stuff and so she should be - she's had a blog since 2003 and has fed it practically everyday since. Lynne even credits her election victory to her strong online presence and use of it as an organising tool.

When she came to updating her website she chose Simon Dickson of Puffbox, the man responsible for many website transformations including Number Ten's.

For her site Dickson has done something entirely new and - I think - brilliant. Called a 'lifestream' it brings together all the flotsum and jetsum of Lynne's online life in one place - her site.

Says Dickson:
So the grand concept of the site is the use of a tabbed 'lifestream' as the homepage. The initial view lists her last 10 actions, no matter where they happened - including Early Day Motion signatures, which required me to write my own scraper. Then, if you want to see her activity on one of those specific areas, you just click the appropriate tab. It's all driven by RSS; the tabs are powered by ajax; the lists are generated by a cron for obvious reasons.

It includes content from:
  • Her blog
  • Hornsey & Wood Green LibDem press releases
  • Her tweets
  • Her pictures on Flickr
  • Her in Hansard
  • Early Day Motion signatures
  • Her videos on YouTube
  • Media cuttings about her
So rather than a whole lot of icons you click through to find content this brings it all together. As I said, brilliant. And just maybe a first?

(Just not sure about the name 'lifestream', only I can't think of anything better).

Google UK offers free webinar to council webbies on 'conversions'

As part of Google UK's increasing local engagement it is running the first in a series of Webinar's next week.

This one is about 'conversions', getting users through a process on your website and sucessfully out the other end. This process may start from them clicking on an ad or being directed from the homepage or entering the process from an organic search result.

All websites lose people as they drive them towards a goal - which can be paying for a book or ordering a new rubbish bin.

When I presented at the Google local government event I mentioned that even top websites like Amazon - for whom this means lost revenue, lost profits - lose significant numbers of people along the way despite testing and testing and testing again. From memory this was anything up to 20% but, as I was with folks who know way, way more about this stuff than me I double checked. 'Yes' the Googlers nodded ...

For local government I suspect that a lot more than 20% of transactions are lost and this means a number of things:
  • ' Service transformation' is in large part about encouraging self-service which is in large part about getting people to do stuff online - if the process doesn't work for many or even most of them 'transformation' simply isn't going to happen.
  • If people have a bad experience with a process it will be that much harder to improve it and get them back. Plus they will tell people about their failure.
  • If the numbers of people successfully completing online transactions are below expectations then this undermines those promoting and developing them - including budget allocation.
  • Conversely, if expectations are too low - as I believe they usually are - bad processes become tolerated and it is that much harder to argue for money to be spent on improving them, for example of user testing
The webinar marketing is aimed at commercial organisations, it talks about "converting into paying customers". But for users a process is a process online, so for local government every single point made will be applicable and this is why Google's UK local government people want council webbies to watch.

Here's what it will cover:
A. Understanding Your Visitors
B. Maximising Your Traffic
C. Traffic Sources
D. The Homepage
E. Landing Pages
F. Bouncing Visitors
G. Visitor Journey Steps
H. Exits
I. Site Search
J. Go
It will be conducted by one of Google UK's certified Conversion Experts and the first one takes place 24 September at 3pm.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Daily Mail has joined the American lunatic fringe

It's Wednesday and the Daily Mail is still carrying a factually inaccurate story published the previous Sunday morning.

And it's not like they haven't been told it's inaccurate, comment after comment in the 279 thus far point out exactly why they are wrong.

What's interesting is exactly how come they are wrong.

Inaccuracies often come about because one newspaper is mugged or fed a line, believes it and then, like lemmings, everyone else falls off the cliff. This is often the case with crowd numbers, someone will carry an organisers claim and that gets reproduced.

Respected statistician Nate Silver (the one who got the US presidential election most right) found this out when he tried to estimate the numbers at the US right's 'tea-bagger' parties in April from mainstream media reports.

Often they were wrong, sometimes laughably so - but there are limits. Silver found that "exaggerations were contained within some reasonable bounds". Doubling for example.

The Mail's headline is out by a factor of 33.

Media Matters has been tracking the circulation of this meme. Here's the origins:
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, took to the rally stage and unfurled a massive lie. He told the crowd ABC News had reported that between 1 million to 1.5 million people had gathered to protest Obama's policies.
[FreedomWorks, by the way, are the healthcare industry funding lobbyists 'astroturfing' the protests.]

This flat-out lie was then tweeted, exaggerated upwards to 'two million' and then carried by prominent right-wing blogs who, much later, published a correction as ABC hadn't said it and the actual 'official' estimate by the DC Fire Department was 70,000. It was also very obviously wrong because two million was the official estimate for the numbers at the Obama inauguration and that shut down the city for several days. Saturday's 'tea bagger' rally had no associated reports of a DC shutdown.

As Media Matters notes, despite the corrections, on the lunatic fringe the meme continues to circulate.

What this leads me to ask with the Mail's story is exactly where was it sourced from? The story itself gives no source but, as has been tracked, it could only have come from a right-wing blog, most likely Michelle Malkin. Not even Fox News mentioned 'two million'.

So why is the Daily Mail reproducing stories hot from the American right-wing blogosphere?

Surely the reason why is money? Specifically, the American traffic to which they can sell ads that such stories generate is huge. Plus there's reason to think it's money because they have form.

In January another unsourced Mail story which said that Obama's inauguration had cost $110m was linked to from the King of the right-wing online, Matt Drudge. That story is also still live and still inaccurate.

The Daily Mail is seen by Americans not as we see it but as a British newspaper which behaves like a normal, mainstream newspaper. It may slant stories or omit facts but make them up? Source them from a blog? Fail to correct inaccuracy? Not do a basic fact-check? 'Respectable' newspapers don't do that.

Referring to a story in the Mail on the right in America is back-up for lies: if they're saying it there must be some truth to it?

As they make their money from joining the US right-wing blogosphere what is the Mail buying into?

Many commentators have noticed that the anger of the far-right has a strongly racist streak, which is almost daily becoming less 'readable' and more self-evident.

A couple of days ago there was one of those made-for-repetition-on-cable-TV stories generated from CCTV footage, this time of a bullying incident on a school bus in Illinois.

Yesterday the leader of the far-right lunatic fringe, radio host Rush Limbaugh said of the incident:
In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, 'Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on.

I wonder if Obama's going to come to come to the defense of the assailants the way he did his friend Skip Gates up there at Harvard.

Somehow I doubt it.
This is classic race-baiting and goes further than even he has gone so far.

Andrew Sullivan said of Limbaugh's comments in a post titled 'They Don't Even Disguise The Race-Baiting Any More':

I'm sorry but this is outrageous. The story was a classic schoolbus bully incident; it could happen anywhere any time and has happened everywhere at all times with kids of all races, backgrounds and religions. To infer both that it was racially motivated and that this is somehow connected to having a black president is repulsive. I know that is almost de trop with Limbaugh, but sometimes you have to regain a little shock. This man is spewing incendiary racial hatred. He is conjuring up images of lonely whites being besieged by angry violent blacks ... based on an incident that had nothing to do with race at all. And why, by the way, does someone immediately go to the racial angle when looking at such a tape?

These people are going off the deep end entirely: open panic at a black president is morphing into the conscious fanning of racial polarization, via Gates or ACORN or Van Jones or a schoolbus in Saint Louis. What we're seeing is the Jeremiah Wright moment repeated and repeated. The far right is seizing any racial story to fan white fears of black power in order to destroy Obama. And the far right now controls the entire right.

Do they understand how irresponsible this is? How recklessly dangerous to a society's cohesion and calm? Or is that what they need and thrive on?

Since I first published this post the comments by President Jimmy Carter have put the issue of race at the centre of debate about the protests. This is how the Mail covered Carter - and again it repeats 'up to a million'.

Which beggars the question: does the Daily Mail have any conscience about the monster it is feeding on - and off?

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Monday, 14 September 2009

Web stats for egov: a starter

After I posted in March about Issues with Better Connected's webstats use, Better Connected (BC) author, Socitm, kindly invited me to present at an event in London in May (a presentation partly repeated at #googlelocalgov). Following a conversation with BC's Martin Greenwood I've been invited to contribute more to their development of BC's web stats use section and how council's are judged on the subject in the annual report.

(Better Connected is the annual review and report on UK local government websites).

The Central Office of Information (COI) published guidance on web stats earlier this year.

The following are some initial notes and so I would welcome comment and input on them. There are issues with how the BC review team is practically able to judge councils on their stats use but first I think we need some idea of what best practice is on how they should be using them.


The use of web stats for web development is best tied to goals, and through defining those key goals and associated metrics at all levels of a council: business, web team, other teams (such as comms), and then individual services.

Unfortunately internal politics often means that reporting (upwards) usually takes priority. So how a council better allocates stats resources (mainly time) is entirely consistent with BC's prime task of improving council websites.

Business/ marketing
  • Customer–driven, which usually means tied to online service delivery through processes but could be information-delivery as well as process.
  • Linked to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) — unclear (to me) as to whether there are standardised (apples vs apples) measurement?
  • CTR (Click-throughs) — actions, exits, abandonment rates; sources being email, direct/search, shortcut, ads, referrer, drill-down, onsite cross-promotion
  • Keywords — search referral, SEO, content relevance
  • Content strength — time on page, pageviews
  • Benchmarking — against call volume, against other councils (NB, apples vs. apples issues, note city profiles), goal valuation (ROI)
Use of Google Analytics by many if not most councils provides an opportunity for benchmarking.
  • Is view access shared?

Web Team/marketing/comms
  • Trends — pageview, keywords
  • Finding problem pages — drop out rates, low/high time on page, click backs to indexes, broken funnels (CTR, with follow ups eg surveys, customer services data, focus groups, usability testing application)
  • Other council comparisons — eg Google Analytics view share comparative page drop out rates, low/high time on page, click backs to indexes, broken funnels
  • Establishing goal use practice/policy to measure funnels
  • Testing different designs
  • Goal measurement tied to marketing — landing pages, funnels
  • Keywords — search referral, SEO, content relevance (primarily relationship to Google search but audience segment)
  • Marketing — external link tagging for CTR (click through) measurement

  • Linked to business needs
  • Reporting needs
  • Work/resource allocation — cost/time benefit measurement
General issues
  • Is the stats package correctly set up? — are secure sites (forms, payments), other sites, email links, downloads tagged
  • Is there integration with CRM?
  • Is internal/ other use segmented?
  • Planning timelines for reporting — also automating
  • Training — is this resourced, is there buy-in/ comprehension
  • Benchmarking – how to set, what to compare to (should be apples vs. apples)
  • Segmenting — sourcing demographic audience data
  • Use of more than one stats provider
  • When to hire expert guidance and for what purposes

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Follow LGBT Asylum News on Twitter

LGBT Asylum News (formally Save Mehdi Kazemi), which I manage, is now on Twitter. Follow to get notified of all new posts.

Postscript: Lessons from the great 2009 Birmingham City Council website disaster

The fallout from the relaunch of Birmingham City council's website (#bccwebsite) has continued, not just online but in the local press as well thanks to the strong interest of Birmingham Post Editor Marc Reeves.

It's not a coincidence that the Post has a 'web 2.0' site and in its reporting about #bccwebsite has even included comments left on its news stories as well as comment sourced from online feedback - including mine.

But by far the most interesting developing is the first step in the concretisation of webbie attempts to influence the council's web development in the shape of a wiki (capture above).

This echoes some of the major developments bringing together webbie citizens and government around the world, such as the just launched Code For America who say "we believe there is a wealth of talent in the web industry eager to contribute to the rebuilding of America."

It seems there's also a wealth of talent wanting to contribute in Birmingham as well. Whether they will be heard depends as much on their own abilities at lobbying as creating useful stuff online, alongside the council's abilities at listening of course. Let's not start off being cynical!

Socitm's Helen Williams noted on the Communities of Practice public sector social network my main point, that - from this disaster (and acknowledging it as a disaster) - Things Must Change:
I think there are some specific reasons for the level of interest (reaction to the high cost, perceptions of the third party contractor, the size of the council / city and the fact that it has many digitally active citizens). However, I also believe we have entered an era where councils can expect their websites and any re-launches to receive a whole new level of public scrutiny and comment (and not just in the Web Improvement and Usage Community!)

Let down by Comms, and politicians?

As I noted before, part of the disaster has been a PR one.

In private conversation I have expressed my sorrow for the staff member forced to step up to be the fallguy. Glyn Evans, Birmingham City Council's Corporate Director of Business Change, responses have been unfortunate but betray a lack of help from the Council's PR department.

Even more unfortunately why is he the fallguy and not a local politician? Doesn't it say something for the political leadership's attitude to their website - and possibly explaining why they got in this mess in the first place - that they can watch it be trashed in the press and online and say nothing?

Birmingham Post Editor Marc Reeves agrees with this analysis in a comment on my blog post:
I don’t know Glyn Evans very well, but I do know he’s an effective and passionate public servant who cares deeply about doing the best for the city of Birmingham and its citizens. Much of the opprobrium has centred on him, which I think is a little unfair, although no-one should shirk from holding him up to the ‘cabinet responsibility’ principle.

However, he has been let down by the absence of a cohesive, proactive strategic comms process which – if it existed – would have spared the council some devastating reputational damage, and Glyn this undeserved personal and professional embarrassment.

A well thought-out public affairs / public relations approach to this simply wouldn’t have let the website ‘launch’ proceed. The simple expedient of quietly announcing that the first ‘below the line’ phase of the web overhaul was complete, with functionality to follow, would have avoided this mess. If, as Glyn says, there are major improvements on the way, then simply wait for them to be up ad running, then unveil all in a hail of publicity.

The website scandal just illustrates a much larger problem at the heart of BCC, I fear.
The non-reaction from local politicians (bar Sion Simon MP's retweet of my post) shows why the effects of the Birmingham digerati (aka 'twitterati') need to be as much political as they are digital.

Amongst other developments
  • It has been suggested that the task of transferring content fell to council staff rather than the contractor. Also that the statement '17,000 pages' actually means 17,000 content items.

  • An old post by Charles Arthur in The Guardian has surfaced which contains the claim that the project was "essentially trying to knit 35 sites operating under the council's umbrella into a single one. "

  • Reviewers have noted that the forms system, at the heart of any possible cost-savings and 'service transformation, is extremely outdated with "a bewildering array of options?" and has bits which simply don't work.

  • Reviewers have also noted that there are payment forms with no encryption.

  • Questions have been asked about whether there was any public consultation as well as pre-launch testing/breaking and fixing (including usability testing), partly as comments by Evans have suggested this is happening post-launch - "there is little point in assessing our residents' perspective – the view we value most – at this stage".

  • The exact role of the council's web team in the exercise remains a mystery.
  • The CMS wasn't built by Capita, it was a commercial java-based CMS called FatWire (source: Stef Lewandowski).

Going over the top (in another sense)

In a great post about the website, local web business owner Jake Grimley has bravely nailed his colours to the mast (more people with potential business to lose will have to follow Jake if efforts like that started by the Wiki are to succeed) and made concrete suggestions from his own experience of developing large and mission-critical websites. He also goes with my guess on what £2.8m actually bought.

He says:
For me, it’s not really the lack of RSS Feeds (inexplicable as that is) or the failure of the CSS to validate, or the difficulties keeping the site up on its launch day that really bother me. It’s the complete lack of attention to detail or quality in the content, design and information architecture that I find astounding. For those that need examples, there is a log of snarky highlights, but you just need to spend five minutes clicking around the site to see what I mean. It’s the equivalent of re-launching the Town Hall with bits of plaster falling off, missing roof-tiles, and sign-posts to facilities that never got built.
Another great follow-up post by Pesky People details the accessibility issues and comes out fighting:
At the moment they are saying Disabled residents in Birmingham are not important enough as Gly Evans was quoted in the Birmingham Post
All the signs are that this one will not go away, for the reasons Helen Williams outlines. But it remains to be seen if the 'Lessons from the great 2009 Birmingham City Council website disaster' will actually be learned any time soon. That's down to all of us, including you, the reader of this blog post.


One other consequence

As I endeavored to make clear in my previous post, none of this should be taken as a criticism of the City Council's Web Team. It is unfortunate that it appears that this may not be the case. It would be more than good to hear from them as developments continue - it would be invaluable.

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