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Wednesday 26 August 2009

RSS vs Twitter in local government: a serious imbalance?

The Tortoise and the Hare, illustrated by Milo...Image via Wikipedia

eGovernment Register reports today on 'social media' use in local councils (LAs), noting that work by Liz Azyan published on her blog at shows it at:

% of LAs
Web dev blogs/feeds

Now I would argue that RSS is a bit misclassified here as 'social media'. That's one interpretation of it but another is as a data feed. That's what the Mash The State campaign is about, having feeds which can be 'auto-discovered' and are machine readable.

What shocked me in these numbers is that Twitter has in a few months been adopted by more councils than RSS over many years. You have to ask as well what 'RSS' use is being reported. Is it merely a feed of press releases extolling the greatness of the council as opposed to, say, planning applications or sports events? Mash The State's campaign is actually about the incredibly modest goal of all councils have a PR RSS feed by the end of this year. The bar has been set low by a campaign group: this speaks volumes.

So why is Mash The State modestly and quietly plodding along but Twitter shooting off and quickly overtaking? Fashion, what else could it be?

Local government webbies have spotted this trend and worked on that because it's easier and, frankly, because Twitter is in the news and can be thus more easily portrayed as a 'must-have'. It's 'low-hanging fruit', an 'easy win'.

It's not just Twitter. Web development blogs can be incredibly useful for webbie teams to get feedback on site development - that's why companies from Google to run them. But they require that bit extra of time and resources, and planning and arguing (and understanding) for their usefulness. So why are they so rare and why is there no research or group arguing for them or people demonstrating their ROI and giving them momentum?

Same goes for Facebook and YouTube (and the absent Myspace and Bebo): their collective use far outweighs Twitter so why are they much less prominent?

There's another danger here which is that which being prey to fashion has for the longer-term embedding of web in local government.

For councilors and many council staff (plus service users), who want to see and experience clear benefit, the potential for (open source) applications such as those being developed by #rewired state and #youngrewiredstate is far greater to my mind than it is from Twitter. But in the political and PR battle for the attention of Lgov webbies, especially its movers and shakers, are they losing attention and therefore potentially funding and other resources, like developer time?

These numbers should make Lgov people stop and think hard about what we're doing and where the priorities are. Yes Twitter is great and I love it but let's not just cheer what they say about the progress of social media and quote the Twitter number, let's look at the laggards and ask what we can do to get those numbers up to where they should be.
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When Aussie TV beats British TV

Marketing is one of the biggest influencers on our world, yet when did you last see a TV show devoted to it?

Australia's ABC (the equivalent of the BBC or PBS) has the Gruen Transfer, a fantastic show which is a 101 on how to do two things: make the subject extremely entertaining and also make US stop and think about how this huge industry works and affects our lives.

Where does the title come from?

In shopping mall design, 'the Gruen transfer' refers to the moment when consumers respond to 'scripted disorientation' cues in the environment. It is named for Austrian architect Victor Gruen (who disavowed such manipulative techniques). Recently, the Gruen transfer has been popularised by Douglas Rushkoff.

The show is hosted by comedian Wil Anderson with a panel of advertising industry experts. The two regular panelists are Russel Howcroft of George Patterson Y&R and Todd Sampson of Leo Burnett. Apparently the concept has been sold to TV production companies in the UK, Denmark, France, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, and Spain.

Here's an example of how they combine entertainment with stuff to make you think. Each week they ask two agencies to 'sell the unsellable'.

During last season's penultimate show one agency took the pitch of 'fat pride' one step too far for the ABC's lawyers and produced an ad which didn't get shown. It also didn't win the panelists over - and I agree with them. Here's the ad along with a panel discussion which was only made available online.

It's interesting that the professionals get that the in-your-face abuse of other groups represented in the ad's content, in order to say discrimination-is-discrimination, smothers the overall point. As straight non-Jewish blokes they didn't viscerally feel this but knew it was there. The poofter joke does smack me in the face and totally downgrades what the ad-maker is trying to achieve.

In the best traditions of publicly funded broadcasters failing to police their distributed content, both series can be found on YouTube.

Postscript: I spoke too soon, this has been removed for 'copyright violations'. The spot where the pitch and the discussion was supposed to be hosted - - is down. The pitch's existence seems to have been removed from the ABC entirely. The pitch itself is still on YouTube, but the debate has been removed.

Now I know Aussie TV and it has some crapolistic shows which make the worst of UK TV look Shakespearean. But it also has a whole terrestrial channel, SBS, devoted to largely 'foreign' programming.

The only non-English speaking UK (non-cable) TV programming we see is out-of-the-park brilliant Wallander and the occasional French film on BBC4. The former is only being shown here three years after Swedish broadcast because we deigned to make an English version of it. We have a shrunken world view as a result of bad programming.

Another thing Aussie TV has is lots of US imports which our rather Little-Englander viewpoint keeps away from primetime. This means that all Aussies know one of the best comedies of all time - Seinfeld - well and - because of the BBC's antics - Brits only know of it through word-of-mouth.

Another thing many a Brit has commented on is how bad UK TV comedy has got over the past few years and in one area this has got politically serious: satire. Yes, there are plenty of Radio Four series which take the piss in a sharp, upset-the-government way, but apart from the (rather weak) Bremner, Bird and Fortune what have we got which stacks up?

By contrast Australia has The Chasers War On Everything (which comes out of a preceding rich satirical TV tradition). This show is so sharp it has landed its stars in serious legal trouble on numerous occasions.

Can you imagine any current UK comedy show doing this?

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Tuesday 25 August 2009

Obama's 'Cash-for-clunkers' has a major form usability #fail

COLMA, CA - JULY 31:  A sign advertising the '...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Jakob Nielsen points me to an astonishing statistic from the cash-for-clunkers programme currently being hailed as a great success by the White House.

The multi-billion $ scheme where old car models can be turned in for new and get a rebate is designed primarily to boost auto sales rather than green America's roads

From the New York Times:
The government is tripling the size of the work force assigned to handle the applications.

In many cases, the administration says incomplete forms or errors in the information submitted by dealers are slowing the process. Workers have reviewed about 40 percent of the applications filed, and many have been rejected and then returned to the dealer for possible resubmission.

Laura Sodano, a sales manager at Curry Chevrolet in Scarsdale, N.Y., said dealers were not told why their applications had not been approved and were having to review the entire form to determine what went wrong.
The New York Times doesn't say it so Jakob has to:
The 13-page form(!) is too complicated and many people fill it in wrong, leading to double work in both car dealerships and the government agency processing the applications.

Think of how much hassle and work they could have saved if they had spent a few days on usability and iterative design before inflicting this form on the public. The same user-testing methods can be used for paper forms as for online forms, and the error rate could have been cut to half of the current numbers by a day's worth of iterative design and testing. (It's often possible to cut errors to one-fifth through a few weeks' work.)
Jakob also points to another New York Times piece which reminds about one of the oft-forgotten basics for usable forms, plain English.

John Aloysius Cogan Jr, the executive counsel for the Rhode Island Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner, talks about the need for forms (and policy documents) to match an eight-grade reading level.

He says:
The health care reform bill now under consideration in the House of Representatives includes a proposal that certain disclosures in insurance policies be made in “plain language.” Another piece of legislation now being considered by both houses of Congress would likewise require uniform and simplified coverage information, much like what’s required on nutritional labels. These are excellent proposals, but they do not go far enough. Plain-language disclosures of some policy information and consumer-friendly labels are no substitutes for making an entire policy readable.
Cogan Jr. says that the state of Rhode Island now requires health insurance documents to be written at the 8th-grade reading level:

Says Nielsen:
We have long recommended writing Web content at this level for sites that target a broad consumer audience:


Some designers complain about this guideline, claiming that it leads to overly simplistic sites. But check out the before/after writing samples in the RI article: you'll probably agree that the 8th-grade writing represents the material just fine and is much easier to understand (even if you personally have the skills to read university-level content).

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Monday 24 August 2009

Cute animals: Watch the birdie

This thrush (I think that's what it is, feel free to correct me! A mate thinks it may be a female blackbird) is completely unfazed by my camera. I've had it hopping around friends legs as we sit out in the backyard, not a care in its world. It's even hopped right onto the plants around me on the bench.

It's after the insects which, apparently, are encouraged by my backyard being slightly 'wild' and having different kinds of plants in it.

I like him/her and always say hello!

Rewired State goes teen and scores

Work for peanuts team by Julia Chandler

Public Strategy has a great and comprehensive post on Young Rewired State- Dame Emma Mulqueeny's baby held over the weekend at UK Google HQ.

Two projects leapt out for me:

'Blab to Betty - confidential unpatronising sexual health advice'

Something like this is sorely needed as sex ed is rather notoriously bad in the UK - it's one of the reasons we have such high teenage pregnancy rates. But also for young lesbians and gays sourcing advice and education online isn't good enough because censorware often blocks access via schools and libraries and if you're monitored at home you don't want to be surfing advice, community or sex ed websites. So a text (? post doesn't give details) service could help fill a gap in provision.

Blog-o-tics taking Bills plus blog search searched for emotive terms to create overall attitude score'

This rang bells for me and then I remembered I'd seen something which sounded similar in the 2008 US Election: Virtual Vantage Points monitoring of blog reaction.

These split the blogosphere into conservatives and liberals and picked up on text mentions in each. The idea from Young Rewired State sounds like taking this further.

I'd pulled out Text clouds from them for March 17 to see reaction to Obama's big speech on race.

Another group it reminded me of was what 6 Consulting (formerly from Cambridge) do in social media monitoring.

Neither of these ideas won anything but I can definitely see a space for both.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Music: Paul Morley goes disco - and sets me off on a nostalgia trip

Previous readers may have noticed my predilection for a spot or hour-upon-hour of disco.

So I was please, nay amazed, to see writer Paul Morley conduct an interesting round-table for Guardian Online with Vince Aletti, the very first writer to cover New York's emerging disco scene in the 70s, DJ and author Bill Brewster, and Luke Howard, DJ at London's Horse Meat Disco.

Being Paul Morley it's hyper-intellectual but all three of his panelists pick up on one DJ trick which I recall being the mark of a great DJ - finding that obscure, forgotten track which you made your own.

I was too young for disco in the 70s except on the radio but by the time I'd started DJing in 1987 in Sydney I'd also started rummaging through Sydney's great second-hand record shops for obscure disco classics to play first on my Saturday night radio show 'Move On Up' and then later in parties, bars and clubs.

Raw Silk: Just in time and space
From New York's consistently brilliant West End Records. The best version of this is the trip-out dub, which I found on YouTube. Yay! :]

That's exactly the sort of track which would find a home at Paradise Garage, the legendary New York club which the best of my contemporaries in Sydney had been blown away at and then started Sydney's dance party scene in homage to, especially the incredible Black Party which ran for years and only ended when two of its three founders died. (It was named after the notoriously sleazy party held at NYC's Saint club but in Sydney people came mainly for the dancefloor not any sleaze).

Paradise Garage

DJ/producers like Francois Kevorkian (who is still around), Larry Levan and Shep Pettibone as well as Frankie Knuckles (of course) were the heroes of Black Party DJs and are my musical heroes too.

Kervorkian produced many left-field dancefloor hits like his remix of U2's New Years Day that my favorite Sydney DJ the brilliant, technically and creatively, Stephen Allkins would drop in a set because on a dancefloor they worked, especially late late when everyone was well mashed.

The last session was always the one where experimental DJs like Allkins came alive - not only were you not playing to a crowd which just wanted what was then in the charts but you could also throw in the left-field, slower and funkier tracks. The highlight of my DJing career was the 5-9am at a New Year's Eve Rat Party held at the RAS Showgrounds (now Fox Studios) where the decks were directly on the floor so on my favorite long, funky mid-tempo tracks I could nip out and boogie around with mates and several thousand others.

This was the sort of track you could play during the 'last shift', if you were Allkins or Black Party's late, great Ron Oram.

Taana Gardner: Heartbeat (Larry Levan mix)

That's on West End Records. Salsoul is another label from which you'd buy a track just 'cos it was on it and you knew it'd be good.

There is a Larry Levan mix of this Salsoul track but I couldn't find it on YouTube.

Skyy: First Time Around

You'd buy records on the Sleeping Bag label and be guaranteed a great track too.

Dinosaur L: Go Bang! #5 (François Kevorkian Mix)

More Salsoul and a Shep Pettibone mix (there's also a Frankie Knuckles one). This is a classic (classy) gay club track 'cos it's got fantastic female vocals and listen out for some of the most used samples ever.

First Choice: Let No Man Put Asunder

Last - must stop before the page download grinds to a halt - one of the all-time best dancefloor fillers and another track from which a zillion samples have been taken.

Hamilton Bohannon: Let's Start To Dance

Check out my music tagged posts for a heck of a lot more Dissssssssscoooooooooooo ...

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Saturday 22 August 2009

Texting + driving = death

This video, produced by Brynmawr filmmaker Peter Watkins-Hughes in conjunction with Gwent Police and Tredegar Comprehensive School, has quickly become an international viral hit. Featuring young women from the school it has very little dialogue so has featured on blogs all over the world because the visual message is extremely impactful (literally).

'Cow' tells the tale of Cassie Cowen, ‘Cow’ to her friends, whose life is changed forever after an horrific crash.

Since the film had its premiere in June, it has attracted attention from the BBC and it is hope the film will become part of the core schools programme across Wales and the UK.

This is the viral hit but it's only one part of a 30' short film which covers the crash itself and its emotional aftermath.

Texting while driving makes you more than five times as likely to end up in an accident.

I understand that some car manufacturers are developing vehicles which will automatically disable mobile phones.

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Council blogging policy and self-censorship

chilledImage by zachstern via Flickr

Jack Pickard has a great post about policy on council staff blogging, which is sparked by Cambridgeshire making their Social Network and Blogging Policy (below) publicly available.

He notes that it is mercifully brief and written in plain English but points out that the bit which relates back to the council's general policy on how staff behaviour: it is full of hazy statements about 'bring us into disrepute' and 'being libelous'.

There’s a slight difference in implication here. Some [definitions] seem to suggest that any negative statement may be defamation, but it would only become slander or libel under other circumstances (for example, it not being true). I would assume that the Council would be using the term ‘defamation’ meaning ‘untrue and negative remarks’, but this isn’t entirely clear.

After all, if they were simply using it in the ‘negative’ sense only, this would mean that if I was a resident and an employee of a local authority, then I would have less rights to complain about something the Council was doing badly than some other resident would have. And surely that can’t be right.

I agree, it's not right. Council staff do appear to have less rights to voice their opinion of the council than other residents.

As a former journo I well understand that libel can indeed be read many ways and in practice it is the decisions of courts which set precedents.

There was a famous case in Australia where a fat rugby player successfully sued because being called fat would affect his income. I don't know if this precedent was overturned by another Australian court decision (and Australian law has its basis in English law) but we've all seen the rich use 'libel tourism' in English courts to slap the bothersome down.

I also know from my own experience that the vagueness and lack of clear examples of where exactly the council draws the line has a chilling effect - as libel law can - and in practice can mean that council staff become expected to be a-political in their own time, much like civil servants, despite this not being part of the contract they sign up for.

I first became aware of this problem at my previous council job when a manager spoke negatively about my posting comments on a local bulletin board. I was told this had been ‘noticed’ and I ‘had to be careful’. Then I was referred to the ‘code of conduct’ – after I asked what ‘careful’ meant.

This appeared to relate entirely to whether you could complain about the council in a letter to the local newspaper - like most councils I expect they had a neurotic co-dependent relationship with the local newspaper - and could easily be read as saying you couldn’t complain about the state of the flowerbeds.

This had a chilling effect on me because I could see how a manager could use it to threaten anyone who lived in the town as I did and took an interest in local affairs which they didn’t approve of.

In practice a couple of staff I knew were in fact involved in ‘political’ areas locally where clashes with the council happened and their manager’s were OK with it.

I’m certain - I know - that others weren’t either because the policy was so vague, or because it was assumed they shouldn’t get involved. And as almost any civic activity relates to the council in some way I’m sure it would put people off.

I'm sure staff thought of themselves as being policed and regarded in the same way that civil servants are when in fact that's not what the contract is between a council and its workers. I know I did. I simply stopped posting comments on local issues on the bulletin board.

I did point out the problem with managers, the union and even a councilor but none of them understood it as a problem (It probably didn’t help that most staff didn’t actually live in the city) so as far as I know this vague ‘code of conduct’ still exists.

Council staff can potentially have all sorts of comments they make online used against them due to the vagueness not of blogging policy but the age-old and undoubtedly identical contractual 'conduct' policies which they refer to.

As Jack says, yes, having a blogging policy is a great step forward but unless a lot more work is done most council staff simply won't feel free to express themselves online let alone talk freely about their work lives.

Cambridge Shire County Council social media policy

Postscript: In comments on Jack's post two useful additional points.

Richard Taylor notes that the blogging policy applies to staff and councilors and says "I would be very worried if councils tried to stop elected members from criticising their councils."

Karl Limpert comments on my cross-post (my highlight) to the Wardman Wire that:

Unfortunately for employees, disciplinary procedures are & always will be deliberately vague - it’s absolutely impossible to even imagine some of the incidents that do arise as a disciplinary matter.

The ACAS Code of Practice (employers are expected to take this into account when forming & going through a disciplinary process) makes clear that policies should give an idea of the types of conduct that may be minor, serious, or gross misconduct. The final assessment will always rest with managers, but if the employee could not reasonably recognise that their conduct was inappropriate, a warning & necessary training should follow.

“…unless a lot more work is done most council staff simply won’t feel free to express themselves online let alone talk freely about their work lives.” Unfortunately, this work will be in the form of disciplinary action - the policy will evolve as it is called upon, but until the first few cases arise & set precedent on what the treatment is (employers need to act consistently in these processes) the employees will have to venture into blogging unclear about the rules.

Matt Wardman suggests that the Civil Service Code of Practice, which he has written by Tom Watson but I'd tag Jeremy Gould more as author, be used as a model.

On GovLoop its editor says:
I think it can be scary for many to have employees participate online but there is an even bigger risk of us not being part of the conversation. And as the military analogy goes if they train and trust us with rockets and jets, can't they trust us to blog.
Michael Walsh reckons that:
The key here is that the individual cannot represent the organization or disclose legally protected information.
I agree and added that:
What I perhaps am not making clear here is the policy has a problem with what's written. It veers off into legalese to cover this area. The policy should provide here some encouragement and it should be possible to give some examples which 'set the stage'. One could be 'yes, you can link back to our website' or another 'yes, you can comment about services as a resident but don't discuss your job'.

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Tuesday 18 August 2009

Cute animals: Hey Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan...

Another BBC animals viral video. Not surprising since it's from the utterly hysterical new Walk on the Wild Side series. Watch the show for the appearance of 'natural treasure' Stephen Fry, as a panda.

Iraqi LGBT welcome Human Rights Watch report on pogrom, urges practical aid

The Iraqi LGBT group today welcomed the release by Human Rights Watch of its report 'They want us exterminated' which documents the killing of LGBT people in Iraq, in particular the extensive media coverage it has generated. Much of the information in the report is sourced from Iraqi LGBT members.

"This report underlines what we have been saying since our group's formation in 2006," said Iraqi LGBT spokesperson, Ali Hili. "We have information on over 700 killings including honour killings."

However Hili says that the group, which has 100 members inside Iraq (as well as refugees in neighboring countries) and supports LGBT people through safe houses, offers practical support (food etc.), psychological and educational support, is chronically underfunded.

"We are the only people offering support to our fellow Iraqi LGBT inside Iraq but because we do not have the funds we have had to turn people away," he said.

The group recently published its annual report, available on its website, which showed how the money it receives is spent.

The report explains how it has developed methods of operating clandestinely which are essential for such an operation in the Middle East. Hili is the only visible member of the group and as a result has attracted death threats in his exile in London. He is under police protection.

Recently it received a second substantial donation from a Dutch group. However due to low funding it has had to close safe houses and slow its development plans.

At the same time it has seen very large amounts of money raised in the United States go to a Lebanese group which is supposed to be supporting Iraqi LGBT refugees. Ali says that the refugees, delivered to Lebanon by Human Rights Watch, have in fact been abandoned and some have returned to Iraq because they had no practical support.

"We have been trying to support one refugee who returned to Iraq from Lebanon because his medical needs were not being supported and who is now in danger. Through the United Nations, he has actually been accepted as a refugee by Sweden however it costs $2000 just for him to get back to Lebanon and then there are his travel costs to Sweden on top of that plus organising support in Sweden."

"This is an example of a case where we have great difficulty helping. It also shows something of the real costs involved in actually supporting people. Another example of that would be the bribes we have had to pay to save peoples lives."

"Our group represents Iraqi LGBT - they are our members - and, despite immense difficulties, our group has gained a lot of experience since we were established. Please support us if you want to help save LGBT people in Iraq."

Donations to Iraqi LGBT can be made to the PayPal Account .

Or make cheques payable to (IRAQI LGBT) and send them to:

Iraqi LGBT
22 Notting Hill Gate
Unit 111London,
W11 3JE
United Kingdom

For further information please call ++44 (0) 79-819 59453 or email or see

Ali said that the group also welcomed those who could donate their skills.

The Safe Houses Project

IRAQ: Emergency Shelter, Human Services and Protection for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People:

IRAQI LGBT started to establish a network of safe houses inside Iraq in March 2006.

As of today, we have only two safe houses open and running funded by HIVOS a Dutch based human rights organization.

The members of our group inside Iraq urgently need funds to open at least four safe houses. These funds will allow us to keep the four safe houses open and running, and provide safety, shelter, food and many other needs for our LGBT friends inside Iraq. Any funds we receive that go beyond what we need for these four safe houses could be used to open more safe houses in the near future. We desperately need to add more because we have so many urgent cases in other cities. We receive requests for shelter every day, but we are not able to help yet.

Every safe house has around 200 square meters of living space, but harbors 10 to 12 people, so is very overcrowded. The residents are struggling badly because of the shortages of almost all the basic necessities in Iraq.

Rent: We have paid three months rent in advance. The most recent payments were in August. The average rent per safe house per month is $ 600 US Dollar.

Security: We paid the salaries of two guards per house, at $ 200 US Dollar per guard per month.

Other expenses of each house: We have paid $ 600 a month for each house approximately for natural gas and kerosene for cooking, and for food, fuel for generators which provide the electricity supply.

Urgent priority needs: Our priorities at this stage are: natural gas or kerosene for cooking and heating; fuel for generating electricity; food; mobile phones and calling cards; money for transportation to allow residents some freedom of movement; beds, mattresses, blankets, sheets and pillows; cameras; printers; two computers; house supplies, such as cooking pans, dishes, and flatware; some furniture; clean water for drinking and bathing; soap for washing and bathing, tooth paste, razors and of course housing, guards etc.

Amount needed and how it would be spent (per month):
  • Natural gas or kerosene for cooking and heating - 50 GBP
  • Fuel for generating electricity – $ 300
  • Food - $ 600
  • Mobile phones, calling cards, and internet café charges - $ 450 etc.
  • Transportation – $ 250
  • Beds, mattresses, blankets, sheets and pillows – $ 1,300 – onetime payment
  • Cameras – $ 100 – onetime payment
  • Printers – $ 100 - onetime payment
  • Two computers – $ 1,200 - onetime payment
  • Kitchen supplies, such as cooking pans, dishes, and flatware – $ 400 – onetime payment
  • Some furniture – $ 500– onetime payment
  • Clean water for drinking and bathing; $ 250
  • Toiletries (soap for washing and bathing, tooth paste, razors etc.) – $ 150
We also need to pay for medicines for the members of our group, doctors will come and have a home visit monthly for all members their cost is $ 400 US Dollar each month.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Music: Woodstock 1969

40 years on from the seminal festival and here's two of my faves.

Santana - Soul Sacrifice

Sly & the Family Stone - I want to take you higher

The Guardian has a fantastic interview with Woodstock organiser Michael Lang. Santana has had a career comeback. Unfortunately Sly Stone is now living on social security.

Friday 14 August 2009

A challenger to the Webbies?

Arianna HuffingtonImage by jdlasica via Flickr

The immensely influential Arianna Huffington has decided to launch her own version of the 12 year old Webbys Awards (which are kindof like the web's answer to the Oscars, complete with star-studded red carpet).
The HuffPost Game Changers awards [are] to honor and celebrate 100 people who are using new media to reshape their fields and change the world.
Note the use of 'world'. Unfortunately and predictably it's extremely likely that, like the Webby awards, they're unlikely to feature many non-Americans in the eventual nominations.

But at least they're free to enter, you just add a comment to her post. So these are the ones which sprung off the top of my head (I know I've forgotten some) and I'd encourage readers to go there, add some more and get some US attention (and possible support) for some amazing non-American 'game-changers'.
  • The Iranian blog/twit-osphere - it seems a bit churlish to single out one person, although this may make it harder to pick.
  • MySociety - the UK geeks who, before anyone else in the world (yep!), have been liberating data from government, mashing it up and making it available to the public. Their work has inspired gov geeks around the world, including the US.
  • Ushahidi - an amazing African work, set up to monitor Kenyan post-election violence and now monitoring elections around the world (more).
  • Global Voices - an amazing site which brings together bloggers from every corner of the globe.
  • Committee Addiopizzo - young Sicilians using the web to fight the paying of 'pizzo' (extortion) to the mafia (more)
And some Americans:
  • Samasource - who team with tekkies in the third world doing socially responsible outsourcing using the rapidly expanding cell phone networks (more on this here)
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Thursday 13 August 2009

Marriage equality: Australia stumbles out of the Jurassic

Marriage equality has become a major issue in Australia. As it should.

Despite the Sydney Mardi Gras and all that legally Australia has until, er, now been in the Jurassic era vs LGBT equality.

Prior to the annual conference of the governing Australian Labor Party (ALP) rallies and protests were held and they produced the most odd compromise of"removing the explicit definition of marriage being between a man and a woman from its national platform" but still remaining opposed to marriage equality and promising national civil partnerships.

The antagonistic attitude of religious PM Kevin Rudd to marriage equality reminds one of the attitude of religious PM Tony Blair: 'separate but equal = good enough'.

Advocates of marriage equality produced some of the best adverts for it (in a great Aussie stylee) which I think I've ever seen. Take a look (and learn, Californians):

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Gordon Brown: Wiring a web for global good

There's been some follow-up from Rafael Behr's piece in the Observer saying 'The Tories think the internet favours them. They're wrong' which repeats the meme that Gordon Brown is a web luddite whilst 'webcameron' gets it.

This is just wrong and the following talk by Brown at TedGlobal last month shows why.

Yes, Labour has a crap web operation. Yes, Gordon should stop jigging around in Downing Street videos.

But this presentation off the Westminster bubble circuit is seemingly effortless and masterful and demonstrates that he 'gets it' web-wise.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Google moves into local government

Google UK launched it's local government division on Friday August 8 with a day-long event held at their London offices and attended by around 65 people.

As I have been talking and writing about their stuff (aka promoting!) for a few years now this day was pretty exciting for me.

I wondered how many actual local government webbies would be there, given how many not .gov people (consultants) I knew were going but there turned out to be lots.

As predicted, there was a certain magic to being @google with very funky offices, pretty funky people, a nice meet-up room (though the seats with little tables reminded me of old school desks and were a bit too easily tripped over), a smattering of 'Google gifts' ('Google goo'?) - including £300 of AdWords - and the most fantastic food I have ever had at a meeting/conference in my life.

As the day progressed it was very clear that they were new to this local government lark (they only opened shop in January). Given that the sponsors and the people they have been talking to thus far are Whitehall ones, and local government's needs and issues are very different, it's hardly surprising that many of the pitches needed refining.

But they were completely open about not knowing, about having lots to learn, and given that so much of their offering is free some of the slight bitching I picked up on the way the day was pitched seemed a bit rich.

My only thought with this is to wonder why - it appears - they didn't try to hire someone/some people with local government experience when they started? There's enough commonality of experience in the sector for anyone who has worked in it to be able to steer them better towards what's likely to be of most interest to most local government people. I would imagine that one outcome of the day will be talking to and maybe partnering with groups like Socitm and IDEA.

Producing better websites

The sessions about their products worked best for this audience when there was a self-evident cross-over from commercial to public sector experience, as what they generally did was simply present the pitch which they would make to any company about their products.

For example, the one about producing better websites, which boiled this down to ten things they'd learned, was spot on as to a very great extent a website is a website is a website from a user's perspective. This is the exact same message which people like Gerry McGovern are sending to local government via Socitm's 'Better Connected' work.

As well, the OpenSocial and Enterprise Solutions sessions demonstrated that these Google products have self-evident potential local government uses and they chimed with existing use by individuals present and existing discussion within the 'local government community' such as, for example, around open-source/'free' and nationally with 'cloud computing'. (Following the event they set up LocalGovCloud, 'a place for local government folk in the UK to have a play with some of Google's enterprise tools' - this needs pitching at IT bods in lgov)

Video for visual explanation

Less successful were the YouTube, Adsense and Adwords sessions because they weren't tailored for the audience. I understand that the Google Maps session didn't address in the presentation it's issues for local government (to do with Ordnance Survey copyright), despite this being a major discussion is local government circles (though I'd left by then).

I wasn't impressed that the YouTube presenter felt that 150 hits was quite a lot. Though he did mention the use of video for visual explanation unfortunately he hit on a recycling example.

I've presented on YouTube use and written previously highlighting one video on littering which honestly seemed like a few council officers having fun rather than a well thought through online marketing exercise. To do both littering or recycling needs thinking through (i.e. 'what's our views target?' 'who are we targeting?') and is probably best done by professionals and either nationally or with a group of councils chipping in.

It appears to me that, at the moment, the most likely growth area for YouTube use is with politicians and maybe senior council officers using it.

This has enormous potential to go wrong, as I showed with a hilarious and viral mash-up of Gordon Brown's now infamous twitch-to-camera video. As well, the clout of those making use of it has the potential to waste budget/officer's time better employed elsewhere.

Yes, video can be a excellent medium for communication but only if it makes use of being a visual medium. As the Google guy did say, anything which needs to be shown, to be demonstrated, has this potential.

For example, in my presentation I picked a video of a council officer teaching students in a college about local building regulations. That's a obvious case where the benefit is self-evident and the entry/skill level for production is low. But in order to be sustainable and embedded in local government practice it does need a business case, it needs to be watched, which means marketed, and my presentation gave some ideas on how to do this. This example doesn't appear to have been promoted properly as it's only had 50 views - there must be more than that number of local apprentices, architects, joiners and builders for whom it would be useful?

Allerdale Borough Council's Building Control officers visited Lakes College West Cumbria

Most if not all of the people there were webbies rather than marketeers or communications people and the YouTube product - as well as, as Ingrid Koeler pointed out, tools like Google Reader and Google Alerts - could perhaps be best demonstrated to a separate audience of those council officers who can get best use of them.


It is also the case with AdWords and AdSense that Google needs to be talking to people other than webbies in local councils, tapping into other networks of officers.

I have written about advertising on local government websites, expanding on the issues for local government.

The presentation by Nottingham on their implementation was by a webbie and ended, after some discussion of whether the number should be revealed, with the income being stated as around £15k a year, which I don't think is a lot.

It was said that this money was used for website development but a missed danger here is that budgets will simply be reduced by that amount in a time of squeezed budgets and backed by arguments that other spending, such as on social services, is 'more deserving'. If website budgets become expected to be partly raised through advertising what happens when there's a recession and income drops?

This area needs much more serious work by Google, primarily I'd argue with the more commercial arms of councils. I would bet that most of these operations in councils - tourism, events, sport - are sorely lacking in any knowledge of how to maximise revenue from their web operations, so Google would be pushing at an open door.

The Google USB Stick Man pressie

Lincolnshire pioneered advertising on their council website but moved from using a big national operator with no experience in local government to one which specialised in council advertising (partly because the revenues were so low). The company they chose had the specific experience selling ads in council print and billboard but no experience in online so will take time to learn how to maximise revenue - there is an example of a gap where Google could move in but it needs to be talking to a different group than council webbies.

Usability and analytics

I did a session on Google Analytics at short notice (slides below). This followed on from the Site Conversion and optimisation bit, which had the excellent ten things they'd learned which ended on a #1 thing to do being usability testing. This meant that despite not being a pre-arranged tag-team with the Google presenter it ended up as a tag-team as we were both essentially talking about the same thing; the basics of producing a good website experience for users.

Both usability and analytics are something deprioritised and deskilled (usually explained as due to a lack of resources) in local government and this is reflected in most of the reviews of the day published thus far (links below). Yet both are vital to users and also to the aim of driving more users through online services. They need way more attention.

Sales funnel

As I said on the day, my impression is that local government has low expectations of service use - the bar is somehow lower. Socitm and others are trying to do something about this, through benchmarking for example, but this is an unsexy area yet an essential one politically because it explains to those making the decisions why budgets need to be maintained and the worth of investing in web.

The frankly laughable move by an individual through FOI requests to benchmark the value of council websites as well as the expose of the cost of Birmingham City Council's website and the hostility of media like the Daily Mail should serve as a warning of what's down the road.

As Charles Arthur argues in his piece about Birmingham's website, yes, moving away from exorbitantly priced monoliths like Serco and Microsoft to open source should be happening but it:
  1. won't mean in the real world of local government just lower development budgets but staff cuts as well;
  2. will still produce unoptimised sites and less successful 'funnels' to services if usability and understanding of web stats isn't similarly prioritised;
if the political case for the value of websites isn't made and backed up with facts and examples.

The answer here is education, with both a surface exercise and a deeper one as well available to people online skills development and through face-to-face training. Sorting out how to do both usability and analytics often leads to a haze where the amount of information, options and ideas confuses. The required skill level for entry is perceived wrongly far too often as high. For example, doing simple 'guerrilla' user testing is not hard.

I think people need plans and business cases in order to be able to get the resources they need to get the most out of usability and analytics and to know when they need them as well as online education resources to show them what they can do themselves.

Here Google can play an enormously useful role I think. As they have a huge and diverse customer base, they have developed excellent, usable learning tools which have both simple, grounded take-aways and great detail. The Public Sector Web Professionals group has skills development as one of its main aims, so a collaboration seems like an obvious road to go down.

Here's my slides from the analytics presentation.

Others on #googlelocalgov:
  • Sarah Lay had written up her extensive notes from the sessions
    "Every conversation has to start somewhere and I think the relevance of yesterday will be best judged on what happens next."
  • Ingrid Koehler picks up on similar themes to mine
    "Google knows there’s money in the public sector (maybe less than there has been, but still a lot), they know we’d make good customers, they know they have products that we can use to achieve what we need to, but they didn’t quite know how to make the sale. And the key to this one was helping the people in the room make the sale to internal stakeholders."
  • Al Smith
    "The day was not very well tailored to the audience. But it's best not to dwell on the negatives"
  • Sharon O'Dea
    "This was only a first date; we’ve got a lot of flirting to go before local government will even consider going to bed with Google. Local Government just isn’t that kind of girl, you see."
  • Carrie Bishop
    "The new local authority role will be as a service enabler – the glue that holds a locality together and supports other organisations to provide services that residents need, as well as helping to create the conditions in which residents can meet their own needs – from neighbourhoods getting together to share the cost of green energy through to social startups and local businesses. It’s a new model for local government and a radical adjustment that I just don’t think Google have got their heads around."

Sunday 9 August 2009

International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

Bushmen in Deception Valley, Botswana demonstr...Image via Wikipedia

Today is the UN's International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.

Here's something useful to read / pass along:

Survival International has named three destinations holidaymakers should avoid:
Barefoot India has established a tourist resort near the edge of the reserve created to protect the Jarawa tribe. The resort puts one of the world’s most recently-contacted tribes at risk from swine flu and other diseases to which they are likely to have little immunity.The Botswana government is promoting the Central Kalahari Game Reserve as a tourist destination, and is allowing a safari company to build a lodge that will use large amounts of water. But it refuses to allow the Bushmen to use a single water borehole inside the reserve.Treks to meet isolated tribes in West Papua, Indonesia – including one offered by American ‘adventurer’ Kelly Woolford to an area where tribes supposedly ‘have had no contact with the outside world’ – could, if true, have catastrophic consequences.

Survival have produced a tourism advice leaflet with more info.

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