What my Eee says about Mee

Asus Eee vs Acer 'laptop'The Asus Eee mini-laptop is the new Wii: the ultra-cool white gadget that clearly surpassed its manufacturer’s best sales projections. I was lucky enough to find one on sale in Tottenham Court Road a few weeks back, at list price too, and it was the guy’s easiest sale of the day.

What makes the Eee special? Its portability: as you can see, it’s much smaller than a conventional laptop, and much lighter too. Its cost: just £219 for the most popular model, but it’s still fully-spec’ed. But most importantly for me… its boot-up time. You’re up and running in 15 seconds, online in about 30.

And interestingly, it’s a conversation starter. Total strangers on the train ask me about it. I whip it out in meetings to take notes, and the conversation inevitably deviates for a minute or two. As Hugh MacLeod might say, it’s a ‘social object‘.

When you’re living the freelance/consultancy life, things like this matter. The Eee allows me to quietly communicate a few things about my view of life and business, without having to say a word. It’s quick. It’s not unnecessarily expensive or extravagant. It’s adaptable. It challenges the norm. I’ve yet to say the words ‘very much like myself, actually’ – but I think the message gets through.

Meanwhile, my former Big Ugly Laptop is gathering dust in the corner. Vista is a distant memory. Result all round, I’d say.

Civil Serf: Simon’s video for BBC

I got an email from the team behind BBC News 24’s Your News show during the week, asking if I’d record a contribution as part of a piece they’re planning about – guess what – Civil Serf. So here it is, as a Puffbox first-play exclusive.

Nothing you probably don’t know already, but hey – a bit of TV exposure, for the first time in ages. Eagle-eyed viewers may recognise the location for the filming, a deliberate choice obviously. (I say filming: more a case of propping my mobile phone up against the wall of the Foreign Office building.)

PoliticsHome: like onepolitics, but with cash

onepolitics has competition. The Dizzy Thinks blog revealed at the end of January that Stefan Shakespeare (who previously brought you 18 Doughty Street and YouGov) is set to launch PoliticsHome.com, promising to be the ‘definitive portal to the ongoing political debate, edited by some of the UK’s leading political journalists and pollsters’. Then Guido published a screenshot a couple of weeks back (although his footnote that PoliticsHome ‘is not going to be the final name’ looks a bit shaky given the company’s later use of the URL).

First there was a job advert for ‘well paid part-time shifts‘ on the Work for an MP site, withdrawn early due to a high number of applicants. Now there’s an ad on the Guardian site, offering a salary of around £40k for a ‘Daily Editor to manage the newsroom and head up its website coverage’. But crucially, the ad notes, the site ‘does not produce its own content.’

Promises of a February launch look a bit optimistic now. But there’s clearly a lot of money going into this – and it had better be good, very good. Because in a matter of a couple of days, and using fairly straightforward technology, I produced a website which (if you don’t mind me saying) does a more than reasonable job of providing a ‘portal to the ongoing political debate’. Granted, onepolitics makes no attempt to offer a qualitative commentary on individual posts… but it could, if anyone fancies helping me construct a business model?

onepolitics, the new Puffbox site

onepoliticsIt wasn’t originally intended for public consumption, but today I’m unveiling a new website produced by Puffbox. onepolitics is an at-a-glance view of the latest posts on the growing number of political blogs being written by ‘proper’ reporters. You can wait until tomorrow to see what they say in print, or in tonight’s bulletin; or you can get advance warning from what they’re writing on their blogs.

In essence, it’s an RSS aggregator for people who don’t get RSS. I realised I’d written too many posts looking forward to the day when RSS would go mainstream – and it still shows very little sign of happening imminently. And all the while, I’m talking to public sector people for whom RSS is several evolutionary steps away. I’ve written quite lengthy explainers, covering the concept and the technicals, on the new site itself… so I won’t duplicate my efforts here. Suffice to say, it’s WordPress. But you all knew that already.

onepolitics is the first fruit of my promise to give myself some Google-style ’20 per cent time’; a project with a loose connection to my work, but no direct commercial application. But I’m starting to wonder if it might be of interest to clients. Press offices or stakeholder managers, maybe, who don’t yet have any kind of blog monitoring strategy. We could be pulling in any kind of RSS feed; and could be indexing them, or just listing them (as with the ‘meanwhile in the blogosphere’ box on the homepage). Even better, it’s almost entirely automated, updating in the background as often as you like.

It’s also making me wonder if there’s a need for a bridge between casual web surfing, with zero commitment to the site or subject; and the ‘need to know’ hunger for RSS subscriptions. I’m finding myself looking at onepolitics during quiet moments through the day, purely to see what’s popping up. I’m kind of interested in this sort of content generally, but not enough to want to be disturbed by every new item popping up in my RSS reader.

I’m making no promises about onepolitics. It is what it is, for now anyway. Please have a play with it, and tell me what you think. There are a couple of glitches I know about, and can’t really justify fixing, so don’t get too pedantic please.

I thought it didn’t have to be taxing?

HMRC in FirefoxOK, so it’s not on the scale of the lost CDs exactly, but… this morning I got a letter from HMRC telling me that I’ll have to fill in an annual tax return. The thing is, it’s not the first letter I’ve had from them recently on such a subject.

They initially wrote to me before Christmas to tell me I no longer needed to submit a tax return. Then they wrote again to say I did. Then they wrote again to say I didn’t. Now this morning, they’ve written to me again to say I do. The thing is, I’m a company director. They know this, and Companies House knows it. And that’s one of the criteria which requires you to submit an annual tax return, no matter what.

HMRC has a real credibility problem as it is, and this sort of trivial stupidity isn’t helping. Nor is the fact that a large chunk of their website – basically anything from the VAT / Customs & Excise side, by the look of it – still doesn’t display properly in Firefox. Is it any wonder, as reported by Westmonster, that a majority of the British public doesn’t want inter-departmental data sharing?

New Wales Office websites by Puffbox

Swyddfa CymruWe’re exceptionally proud to unveil the latest Puffbox site: a new corporate website – or indeed, two – for the Wales Office. And as you’d probably expect from us, it’s not just another government website.

In late 2007, I was invited over to the Wales Office’s Whitehall HQ. I hope they don’t mind me saying, their website was probably the ugliest in government, and people were starting to take notice. They had no hands-on control of their own content, and no site usage data. Could Puffbox help? Yes, yes we could.

The new site, which we’re launching today, was designed, built and populated in a timescale (and for a budget) which would put many suppliers to shame, and gives them functionality which many of their Whitehall neighbours will envy. I also believe it could spark a culture change in how government communicates.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear it’s built on the WordPress ‘blogging’ platform, and continues our series of ‘blogs which aren’t blogs’. News releases, speeches, publications and FOI disclosures are all entered as ‘blog posts’, distinguished using categories. All the more static, corporate stuff is done as ‘pages’.

For the readers, there are immediate benefits. Obviously, it’s prettier. It’s been coded with better accessibility in mind. Every page is automatically printer-friendly, using CSS. The blogging mechanism gives reliable, automated archiving by category and month. Not to mention the various RSS feeds. And as you’re legally entitled to expect, there’s a fully-functional Welsh-language version too.

And for the Wales Office themselves, it’s a quantum leap. Previously they’ve been emailing pages out for someone to hand-code: yes folks, even in 2008. (Not the only ones, either.) They now have direct access into their publishing back-end, with all the benefits thereof. And because it’s WordPress, page authoring and management is a breeze. That’s before we get on to things like Google rankings, site usage statistics, multi-site and mobile working…

Why do I see it as a culture-changer? The site is being run by the Press Office, a small team in a small department (60 staff). They have the authority, and now the ability, to publish new communications at a moment’s notice. If they want to operate by ‘bloggers’ rules’, they can. And as I recall Tom Steinberg once saying, it’s the tools which are transformational. Let’s see what happens… and if they make a success of it, expect others to follow.

Meet the new Puffbox site

Everything seems to have rolled over successfully, so I think I’m now safe to talk about the new Puffbox.com site.

The majority of Puffbox’s work since launching in April 2007 has been based around WordPress. I make no secret of my feelings for the product; so it was only natural that, at some point, I’d want to take control of my own affairs and build a self-hosted WordPress site from scratch.

I found plenty of excuses not to abandon my long-established WordPress.com blog, but in the end, two milestones forced my hand: passing 50,000 page views, and Jeremy Gould‘s announcement of tomorrow’s UK Government Barcamp. As ever, a fixed date in the calendar soon focused the mind.

An immediate question arose: which was more important, the blog or the company background? In the end, the blog won on points. For me anyway, the blog’s (almost) daily stream of news and opinions is the best indication of what I’m about. But the site still needed a solid corporate side, otherwise it was going to look like an amateur blogger in search of pocket money. Hence the split homepage, with a clear colour distinction between ‘company’ (white) and ‘personal’ (green).

I designed it in collaboration with Jonathan Harris, a former colleague at National Statistics, now working freelance; he’s also done another piece of work with me, which we’ll unveil next week. All the templates were coded from scratch, although I took some inspiration from the Hemingway WordPress theme(s): particularly as regards the very vertical presentation, with the sidebar becoming a footer. Icons come from the Milk and Green set. The homepage ‘grid’ layout of recent posts is done using multiple WordPress loops, a technique I’ve had to perfect for several recent client projects.

I’ve learned a few lessons in building the site, but most important of all is that you should always redirect your main RSS feed through Feedburner from day one. What a relief it was to flick the switch from old site to new, and see the subscriber base carry over (almost) seamlessly. The Feedburner stats are nice to have, but they are nothing compared to the convenience of having a perma-URL for your feed. Now it’s all free, there’s no excuse not to.

And by public demand, there’s now also a link for the comments feed. Of course, being WordPress, the feed was already there if you knew where to look. But in honour of Alan in Belfast, first to comment on the new site, I added an explicit link – and named it after him. 🙂

‘Governance of Britain’: Puffbox helps rewrite the UK’s constitution

Puffbox‘s latest project was unleashed today; working alongside Jeremy Gould at the Ministry of Justice, we’ve built a WordPress-based website in support of the Whitehall-wide programme of UK constitutional reform, going under the banner Governance of Britain.

As regular readers will know, I’ve started specialising in blog-powered websites which aren’t actually blogs. And this one is probably the least bloggy of the lot, so far. (For now, anyway; the functionality’s there when they want it.) At its heart is a ‘what’s new’ function, keeping track of the various announcements and consultations happening across Government. And as you’d expect, there are a few supplementary, ‘static’ pages explaining what’s going on.

There are a couple of ‘innovations’ (using the term rather loosely, I admit) worthy of note. One is the use of categorisation in the blog posts news updates. We’ve used WordPress’s notion of parent/child categories to build a list of subjects, and a list of departments. So if you want to see any announcements related to Parliament, let’s say, or announcements by HM Treasury, then there’s a page for that. And because it’s WordPress, you can access this ‘page’ as an RSS feed. (Which explains something I wrote a couple of weeks back…)

I’ve been trying to do something like this for a while; the implications for cross-government working are huge. You, in your Whitehall department, can write stuff into the Governance site; and we can pump it back to you in RSS format, for your own site to republish (if you want). In other words, it’s the ability to get the best of both worlds: a page on your own corporate site, and inclusion within the unified web presence. A real-world example of joined-up working… if your corporate site is able to process basic RSS. We do the hard part at our end; we can’t make it any easier for you. But I fear very few will be able to receive it. (Please prove me wrong, folks.)

The other ‘innovation’ is the page of ‘What others are saying‘, powered by del.icio.us. Technically, it’s just a republished RSS feed (um, see above). But I think it’s an important step for a government website to go out of its way to point to relevant stuff elsewhere – newspapers, magazines, blogs, anywhere online.

We’re using del.icio.us for a couple of reasons. One, because it’s a really nice way to save web links; and it delivers an easy-to-process RSS feed which we can integrate directly into our pages. (Yes, even our homepage.) But equally of course, this means we’re in the del.icio.us community – so if people want to tell us about pages we might want to read, they can do this via del.icio.us. Just tag it ‘for:governanceofbritain’, and we’ll see it in our ‘links for you’ inbox.

We’ve also hijacked some other blog functionality: for example, the list of ‘recent documents’ on the homepage is actually managed by the WordPress ‘blogroll’. Nothing particularly special or clever in that, but it provides an easy-to-use interface for non-technical people to keep that list up-to-date.

It all came together very quickly, almost too quickly; and it’s far from the prettiest site I’ve ever done. But again, it’s proof that you really can get from nought to a full-featured, multi-authored, two-way communicating, CMS-driven site in a couple of weeks. It’s a site which makes real efforts to engage with the rest of the web. And it tries a few things which might come off, and might not. We’ll all learn something as a result.

Health minister now blogging, courtesy of Puffbox

Today sees the launch of version 2 of the website I designed and built for Lord Darzi’s national review of the NHS. V1 was built in double-quick time during the summer, and for reasons of cost and speed, used the Typepad blogging platform. Over the last month or so, Typepad’s limitations have become more and more apparent… so it was time to migrate to WordPress. Which, of course, is what I’d always wanted.

All the juicy new stuff hangs off the homepage. ‘Latest news’ is (as you’d expect) a listing of the top news updates, using a special ‘homepage’ category to give the authors total control. ‘Lord Darzi’s blog’ is the latest blog to be written by a government minister, but unlike some, we’re positively encouraging comments. Finally, there’s the ‘latest video’: the review team is producing quite a lot of video content, so we’re sticking it on YouTube, and using YouTube’s little-known RSS feed functionality (with a bit of string manipulation) to pump it back into the site.

The primary navigation is a mix of blog categories and static ‘pages’: hey, if you dig deep enough, there’s even an old-school image map! How long is it since I did one of those? We haven’t made any distinction between the two; I’m not sure it really matters to the punters.

As it’s WordPress, we’ve got full comment functionality if we want it. The plan is that blog posts should generally have comments enabled, but news posts won’t. However, if we fancy it, we can. To draw attention to the items where comments are ‘on’, there’s a little speech bubble icon which appears against the relevant headlines. A minor thing, but it catches the eye really well.

Overall, it’s taken less than a week to recode the templates, develop the new functionality, and import the content. Importing from Typepad was relatively painless: the initial process took seconds, but then you’ve got the hassle of setting summaries for each item, identifying and repointing all the manual inline links, etc etc. I’m glad there wasn’t too much content to worry about. DNS changes and server reconfiguration took about a day and a half, which was a real disappointment, but at least it’s done now.

I’m really pleased with it; the initial site was OK, particularly given the laughably short timeframe, but I knew we could do better. I’m afraid the exercise has put me off using Typepad, though: although it does have some pseudo-CMS functionality, my feeling was that it’s too tied to the concept of blogging.

Next steps? We’re thinking of a photo gallery, and maybe even some delegated authoring responsibility. But that’s all for another day. My next WordPress-in-government project is looming, and is likely to be even bigger. 😉