How to watch the Salmond/Darling debate outside Scotland

If you really want to watch the Alex Salmond vs Alastair Darling TV debate on Scottish independence this evening, and you’re outside Scotland, and you’re determined to watch it on a large screen, but your broadband isn’t up to watching it online, and you have a Sky Digital or Freesat satellite box… still with me? Then I have good news.

Your satellite set-top box knows where you live, and uses this to show you ‘your’ local BBC and ITV region. All the regional signals are available to your box; but it just decides which ones to offer you up-front. You can, however, add other regions manually.

Look around your setup menu for an ‘Add Channel’ option. (You may need to manually enable non-Freesat channels on a Freesat box.)

You’ll end up on a screen asking you for some technical details of what signal frequency to search on. Enter the following:

  • Frequency: 10906
  • Polarisation: Vertical
  • Symbol rate: 22000
  • FEC: 5/6

You should now see a handful of channels, including (when I did it just now) several STV options. Select one of these, then save your changes. Now look for an ‘Other channels’ option: and you should now see STV listed.

If you want it in HD, you’ll need different settings – which, I believe, are:

  • Frequency: 10994
  • Polarisation: Horizontal
  • Symbol rate: 22000
  • FEC: 5/6

Frequency data courtesy of a516digital and Wikipedia.

Buzzfeed listicles have no place on GOVUK. Do I really need to write that?

Her Majesty’s Government has made occasional forays into the world of Buzzfeed. I thought the Foreign Office’s use of the platform to rebut claims by Russia Today was quite amusing, and entirely appropriate. A very serious message presented in an ultra digestible format.

Earlier this week, someone in UK central government (the Treasury?) put together a list of 12 things you could buy with the £1,400 that Scottish people are better off per capita by remaining in the UK… and posted it on Buzzfeed. Complete with photos of Lego scenes.

Now I have to say, I don’t feel at all comfortable with Whitehall, the Civil Service, the organs of state taking a position on the Scottish referendum like this.

I agree entirely with the assertion (posted on a gov.uk explanatory page) that ‘there is a demand for the provision of information which will enable voters to come to an informed decision’. If the conclusion arising from unbiased consideration is clearly in one direction rather than the other, they should say that.

But they should do so whilst standing clearly outside the fray. If the Yes campaign wins, Whitehall needs to negotiate a smooth exit from the Union, having been an active combatant on the opposite side. It means they would enter any such negotiations at an immediate and irretrievable disadvantage.

If they are going to take a stance, and campaign actively in its favour, they might as well articulate their conclusions in a digestible format (listicle), and post it in an appropriate place (Buzzfeed). Yes, it might create a few ripples in the Scottish media – and indeed it has: they probably wanted that anyway. But it’s easy to shrug off. Sure, it’s Buzzfeed. What do you expect?

But I think it’s a huge mistake to bring that into the universally acclaimed gov.uk site, as they have now done. Steph Gray describes it beautifully in a post on his Postbureaucrat blog.

Library content answers questions… It has credibility, and a certain longevity, if maintained appropriately. These days, GOV.UK is the natural home for most library content in central government.

Café content is what you create to get people talking. (It) needs to exist in the context of a solid strategy, and often will point people to your library content where they can find out more, sign up for something, join a campaign or give you their feedback.

Keep the library and the cafe distinct spaces, and find out how best to make them work together.

He also points to the deeply troubling ‘imaginable situation’ of the civil service being instructed to campaign for exit from the EU. And I now wish he hadn’t.

Syndicated sidebars

Rumours of the demise of RSS seem to come in waves. We’re in the midst of another one just now, with moves by Twitter and Google (in the form of Feedburner) seemingly calling its future into question.

Before I began to bore everyone with the wonders of WordPress, I used to bore people with the wonders of RSS. In fact, it was WordPress’s handling of RSS feeds which initially won my heart. Feeds are now so ingrained in my daily life, I don’t even think about it any more. But the reality is, RSS reading (per se) didn’t catch on.

That isn’t so say that it’s a dead technology though, far from it. Five years ago, I suggested Facebook ‘might actually be the app which brings RSS to the masses’. Not too far off, as it turned out. I wonder how many people receive Facebook updates, or automated tweets, or email newsletters, which are really just renderings of an RSS feed?

And so to a little project I’ve been working on, in conjunction with leading Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack.

Mark wanted to recreate an application he used to manage whilst a full-time party employee: a javascript ‘widget’ to display political campaign buttons on other people’s web pages. A simple ‘ad server’, if you will. Nothing too clever technically, but a nice idea well implemented. Sadly though, since Mark had moved on, it had ‘fallen out of favour‘.

Its successor is the new Lib Dem Widget, a curated collection of current political content and links, which – like its predecessor – can be added to any website with a single line of code.

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://libdemwidget.markpack.org.uk/"></script>

We pull in details of the latest party news item, the latest YouTube video, plus a collection of other interesting bits from around the web, and render it in a nicely style-guide-compliant ‘skyscraper’, which should drop seamlessly into any website sidebar. And yes, of course, it’s (mostly) driven by RSS feeds.

You won’t be surprised to learn we built it with WordPress: but it’s a rather unusual use case. The widget runs as a theme, giving us easy access to:

  • WP’s built-in feed-fetching;
  • its various caching options – including, but not limited to WP Super Cache; and
  • its oEmbed calls, for easy inclusion of the YouTube clip.

In effect, it’s the ‘homepage’ of a one-page site… but a site with no actual content of its own.

To give things a visual lift, we also ‘code scrape’ the various linked pages, looking for details of thumbnail images. Facebook’s OpenGraph meta tags are now in fairly widespread use, so there’s a healthy chance that we’ll see an og:image in the HTML header – and if so, we’ll use that.

Writing code which will work on any website – regardless of sidebar width, existing CSS styles etc – has been quite a challenge. The markup ends up pretty ugly, with everything included ‘inline’, just to be sure. And even then, I’m not sure we’ve sorted out every possible use case… but that’s what beta testing is there for.

Boris is back

Just to close off the story from a couple of weeks ago… as you’ll almost certainly know already, Boris Johnson won the London mayoral election. And as pledged, he has now returned to tweeting as @MayorOfLondon – an account which, we have now confirmed, belongs to the Office of Mayor, and not Boris personally.

The large corporation and the government consultation – no, not that one

In the week that the big news story is about a large corporation well used to allegations of monopolistic behaviour (like this one), and its attempts to build relationships with those formulating government policy, in areas where a certain decision could be to its distinct commercial advantage…

I draw your attention to a post on the GDS blog, describing itself as an ‘important update’, written this evening by Liam Maxwell.

On 4th April 2012, Dr Andy Hopkirk facilitated a roundtable on behalf of ICT Futures on Competition and European Interaction. […] At the time he was engaged to facilitate the Open Standards roundtable, while we were aware that he represented the National Computing Centre on the Microsoft Interoperability Executive Customer Council [..] he did not declare the fact that he was advising Microsoft directly on the Open Standards consultation.

This all appears to have been sparked by Mark Ballard’s report, declaring the event to have been a ‘triumph’ for the ‘proprietary lobby’, and some pretty heated debate in the ensuing comments. Ballard himself adds in the comment thread:

Hopkirk is himself a cohort of MutKoski, Parker, and Brown. They are all members of the OASIS Transformational Government Framework Technical Committee, an unusual policy lobby unit that is sponsored by Microsoft. All have been critical of either UK government policy or its objectives and have specifically opposed defining elements of the coalition government’s open standards policy.

Dr Hopkirk was given a right to reply, in which he declares:

I do have a longstanding relationship with Microsoft purely on the basis of my consistently neutral, pragmatic, end-user oriented and supplier-agnostic perspective. I have supported, and continue to support, open markets, open standards and free/open source software for their contributions to furthering interoperability and IT market competition. I have not been asked to publicly or privately support any client brief or position in the government consultation.

Regardless, Maxwell has done the right thing, by declaring that ‘any outcomes from the original roundtable discussion will be discounted in the consultation responses’. The session is to be re-run, and the consultation deadline extended.

Didn’t I tell you this stuff was dynamite?

[Disclosure: I have worked for both BSkyB and Microsoft in my past. I do not do so currently. I cancelled my Sky Sports subscription a year ago. My main computer these days is a Mac. I’m writing this on a Linux machine. My belief in open standards is well documented.]

When is an ‘official’ Twitter account not an official Twitter account?

Much consternation in certain political circles this afternoon, as Boris Johnson renames his Twitter account… and takes a quarter of a million people’s details over to his election campaign HQ.

Johnson was elected on 4 May 2008. His first tweet came on 8 May 2008 (‘Setting up social marketing accounts!’) – although it’s not entirely clear what username the account used when it was created. In January 2009, though, he changed that username to MayorOfLondon. And the account has been quoted since at least May 2009 in official City Hall press releases, as his official account. Or in the case of that May 2009 press release, ‘the Mayor’s Twitter site’.

Before today’s change, the URL associated with the account was http://www.london.gov.uk/ – and the biography read:

City Government for Greater London under the auspices of the Mayor of London

Could it have sounded more official?

(Something similar has happened to his Facebook account too; facebook.com/borisjohnson is now adorned with BackBoris2012 logos, and contains no history prior to 17 March 2012. And yes, that Facebook URL has similarly been promoted in the past as his official presence.)

In response, there’s a statement on the BackBoris website:

As some of you may have noticed, earlier today Boris changed the name of his Twitter account from @MayorofLondon to @BorisJohnson. While the name of the account may have changed, rest assured that the account is still – and has always been – controlled by Boris.

No City Hall resources will be used to update or maintain the account – that would be against the rules. Given we’re now in the official election period, this change is being made so there can be no question of Boris using official resources to campaign.

Of course, those who no longer wish to follow the account are welcome to “unfollow” at any time.

Of course, it’s not the fact that future City Hall resources will be used; it’s that past City Hall resources have already been used to build up a significant following. And the last line is somewhat ill-advised, in my opinion.

I’d be very interested to find out from people at City Hall – or indeed, from HM Government’s Deputy Director of Digital Engagement, Emer Coleman who used to be City Hall’s head of digital projects – as to whether City Hall thought it ‘owned’ the account on behalf of the office of Mayor.

If the account was always personal, Boris should have used his personal name. By using the name of his elected office, the natural assumption is unquestionably that you are following the individual in his/her elected capacity – as was the case with the Prime Ministerial Twitter account.

Here’s a tip. If you’re working in a government web team, I strongly advise you get something in writing to confirm who exactly owns any Ministerial accounts – rapidly.

Update: a climbdown of sorts. Boris has tweeted:

To be clear- @borisjohnson will only be used for discussing mayoral duties. To follow me on the campaign trail, follow @backboris2012

And in a post on the BackBoris2012 website:

‘As he entered the campaign he was determined to ensure there was no confusion between him as Mayor and him as a candidate and therefore changed the name of his Twitter account.

‘He did not expect this openness and honesty to have created such hysteria.

‘So in case there is even one Londoner who has a problem with what he did, he will not use that account for the campaign and instead can be followed from the political front on @BackBoris2012.’

Has he reverted back to being @MayorOfLondon? No. But the username hasn’t been abandoned – someone, and you have to hope it’s someone close to Boris and/or City Hall, has bagged it. Hopefully for safe keeping. We don’t want this happening again, do we.

Updated update: Somewhat inevitably, Boris has – pardon the pun – backed down. He’s now reverted to using @MayorOfLondon as his account name, and the BorisJohnson account has gone blank again.

Free Speech Debate: our most ambitious project ever

Since last spring, Mr Wheatley and I have been working with Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash, in his role as Professor of European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford on a project called Free Speech Debate. It’s been the main focus of my attention for the last six months or more – which explains why the blog has been rather quiet of late.

As the name suggests, it’s a site for editorially-led discussions on issues of freedom of speech, in today’s socially-networked world. And as you might expect from someone so well-known and well-connected, the Professor has managed to secure contributions from a host of famous names in the field, from around the world – from Jimmy Wales to Max Moseley, not to mention numerous writers, and the odd Nobel Prize winner.

We’ve done similar ‘editorially-led discussion sites’ for numerous clients in the past, but never anything on this scale. You see, one of the site’s ‘ten draft principles’ includes the right to speak in your own language. So we had little choice but to publish in multiple languages. And yes, that includes the difficult ones too.

The site went live initially in English-only. But in the last week, we’ve rolled out German, Turkish, Spanish and Chinese… with Arabic, Farsi/Persian, French, Hindi, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Urdu to follow shortly.

Our original plan was to use the WPML plugin for WordPress: we knew it had weaknesses, but it was the best of a disappointing bunch. However, for reasons I won’t go into here, we subsequently decided to write our own plugin, based on modern WordPress features such as custom post types and taxonomies. It’s called Babble; and I’m delighted to say, as soon as we’ve tidied it up a bit, we’ll be open-sourcing it.

Babble's create/switch menu

The way we’ve implemented Babble on FSD, you enter each post (etc) in the site’s default language first, then – using a menu added to the Admin Bar – you can ‘create’ a translation in any of the languages you’ve enabled on your site. All the metadata – taxonomies, comments on/off, and so on – are inherited from the default language; so all you need to do is translate the text, and hit Publish. You’ll even see the WordPress admin interface in the appropriate language as you’re translating.

Comments are merged across translations: which means you’ll potentially have a discussion thread made up of comments in different languages. Problem? No. We’ve implemented Google Sectional Translate, to let you translate each comment instantly into the language of the page currently being displayed (via ajax).

English comments on a German page, with "Übersetzen" option

The entire site, in every language, is being generated by the same WordPress theme, be it a left-to-right language like English, or a right-to-left like Arabic. Building bi-directional code has left my head spinning on numerous occasions, I can tell you – and prompted me to write, in effect, my own direction-agnostic CSS framework. If you think that sounds easy enough…. go ahead and try it. Then think about the implications of showing – in some circumstances – content in both right-to-left and left-to-right languages simultaneously on the same page.

Farsi, aka Persian, ie Iranian: note the flipped logo

So much for the translation of page content: what about the stuff that’s inevitably hard-coded into the theme? For that, we’ve used GlotPress – the translation management web app, as seen at translate.wordpress.org. To be completely honest, it doesn’t yet feel like a finished product: one bug in particular derailed us for a day or more, and I consider myself very lucky to have found a solution. But when it works, it’s excellent.

There’s a dedicated section for audio/video content, powered by a custom post type. In fact, this is probably the code which gives me the most pleasure: to post a video, all the editor needs to do is paste in the URL of its YouTube page, and we do (nearly) everything else automatically – even going as far as pulling the video’s preview image into WordPress, and attaching it as the post’s Featured Image. For audio clips, we’re doing a combination of HTML5 and Flash embedding of MP3 files, to cover as many browsers as possible.

That’s not to mention the seamless MailChimp integration on the WordPress register page. Or the voting mechanism. Or the multi-server configuration, in preparation for some anticipated traffic peaks. Or the live webcasting. Or the connections into Sina Weibo, LiveJournal and Mixi, as well as Twitter and Facebook. Or… To be honest, we’ve been working on it so long, there are probably a few custom features in there that I’ve completely forgotten.

It’s unquestionably the most ambitious project I’ve ever taken on: and seeing it launch this week has prompted feelings of pride, anxiety and relief in almost equal measure. I now know more about quotation marks, soft hyphens and non-Latin typography than I probably ever wanted to know.

Thanks go to Timothy, Maryam, Judith and the entire team at Oxford; Matt and Gemma for design assistance at various stages; Jools for his customary server wizardry; and Simon W, without whom…

Oh. Next week, we have our first scoping meeting for Phase Two. Gulp.

Bang goes our 100% record

It’s with some regret that we note the end of Puffbox’s winning streak, as regards web work for political candidates.

Thus far, every client who has stood for election to a political office of some kind has been successful. But our run came to an end on Friday night, with the announcement that Mike Tuffrey had fallen just short in his bid to win the Lib Dems’ nomination for London Mayor. Brian Paddick came top on first preferences by just 57 votes; in the head-to-head second round, after transfers, Paddick took it by 91. (In case you’re wondering, Lembit Opik finished bottom of the poll, with just 8% of first preference votes.)

It’s a bit of a shame, as we had some really nice enhancements ready to go on Mike’s website tomorrow morning: think MailChimp plus Gravity Forms plus a custom post type and taxonomy, with a bit of ajax magic on top. Some nice design work from my regular collaborator, Matt Budd. (Oh, there was also talk of a weather-sensitive homepage; but we ran out of time.) But whilst they won’t ever go live as we envisaged last week, I’m sure they will appear online in some form or other, in projects to come.

Well, maybe not the weather-sensitive homepage.

It’s been a fun project to work on, and has taken me into areas I hadn’t previously explored in much depth. Many thanks to Mike for having us on board; and for giving us so much creative freedom throughout.

Now… I wonder what technology brianpaddick.com is running on? 😉

LibDems’ tech policy paper backs open source, mobile-friendly websites and sarcastic tweets

One area where the LibDems were conspicuously – and perhaps surprisingly – lacking at the last election was technology policy. In fact, it hadn’t (formally) updated its thinking on the subject since 2003. But a working group was set up soon after the election, chaired by newly elected Cambridge MP Julian Huppert. A consultation paper was published a year ago; and as per the advertised schedule, a full-on policy paper (pdf) is being put to their annual conference next month. (Thanks to Richard Parsons for the tip-off.)

Under the rather curious title of ‘Preparing the Ground’, and bearing the somewhat ominous reference number 101, it sets out ideas ‘to put IT at the heart of government, to create a liberal and open environment for business, and to secure a better deal for citizens.’ And it’s well worth reading through its 20-odd pages: there’s some genuinely good stuff in there.

The first half concentrates on copyright and intellectual property issues: and as you might expect from a conference paper, there’s regular reference to the party’s liberal values. The paper restates a general preference in favour of free speech and self-policing, as well as a desire to ‘avoid well-intentioned but badly drafted rules’ around policing the internet  – quite timely, amid talk from their Coalition partners of switching off social networks for a few hours, when we all need to calm down.

There are a few specific proposals, such as the suspension of IR35, repealing large chunks of the Digital Economy Act, and an in-context defence for Twitter Joke Trial scenarios. But it’s the underlying tone of the commentary which is most encouraging. Huppert and co clearly get this stuff.

The second half is much more natural territory for this here blog: ‘filling in the gaps’, particularly as regards the public sector’s use of technology. It starts with a rather bold statement:

It is essential that decision-makers and their advisers have a deep understanding of the impact of IT across society and a vision for what it can provide.

The proposal is that ‘a specific government office be established, encompassing the work of the current UK Government Chief Information Officer and staffed with experts in the IT field. This new government office would advise all other departments of ways in which IT can improve efficiency and quality of service to the public, and engender a culture of online engagement with the public.’ Civil service and local government managers, it suggests, should ‘undergo a serious period of initial training in the impact and current implications of IT, [to] be refreshed annually.’

Noting the high levels of mobile phone ownership among the lower social classes, there’s a specific recommendation that ‘the government make all appropriate public services available online and accessible by an average retail mobile phone. This may mean, in some cases, trimmed down versions of websites with richer content.’

And there’s endorsement – as you’d expect from the LibDems – for petitioning at all levels of the political process, ‘from parish council to European Parliament’. But whilst there’s a broad welcome for the new e-petitions framework, they want to go further:

We believe that the system should also encourage the formation of communities around both supporters and opponents of the proposition. Petitioning should be more than just a signature; it has the potential to foster more genuine involvement in the political process, making it easier for people to express their views effectively.

They go on to suggest:

The government should establish an e-Democracy centre to initiate and encourage the use of tools by individuals, communities and government at all levels, funded by central government on a permanent basis.

There’s also an explicit, indeed a ringing endorsement for government use of open source… and more.

It is our considered view that open source development is desirable and should be promoted… The government should ensure that it owns the code that it has paid for, and then share it for free within the public sector in order to avoid different parties paying external firms to develop the same software. We would like to see the public sector embrace collaborative development along the lines of websites such as Github.

One way of promoting open source would be for the government officially to support the use of those open source community websites which perform public services to a similar or better standard than official publicly-funded websites. The government could also consider providing resources to the creators responsible. Formerly it has been known for the government to attempt to replicate the work of such websites.

Nice… but I’d be against a separate ‘Github for government’, if that’s what it’s suggesting. Now that we’ve (more or less) won the argument for using open source for core government business, the next step in the evolutionary process is for government to systematically start sharing its insight, and the fruits of its labours, with everyone. (Or perhaps that’s what they meant by ‘support’ and ‘providing resources’ for third-party websites.)

There’s plenty more commentary over at Richard’s edemocracyblog. He summarises it as ‘a step forward for eDemocracy’, and I’m inclined to agree.

I’ve long been amazed that the LibDems haven’t been more vocal in this space – courting the geek vote, for want of a better description. It should be such natural territory for them. But there’s so much good sense in here, that it might be the start of something very interesting.

No10 proposal to replace press offices with a blog

The FT is getting all excited by apparent ‘proposals’ by Downing Street’s shaven-headed, shoeless strategy director Steve Hilton to abolish maternity leave and suspend consumer protection laws, in the interests of kick-starting the economy. Personally, I can’t believe either was suggested seriously: sounds more like the start of a brainstorming session.

But I can’t help smiling at one of his other reported ideas: ‘replacing hundreds of government press officers with a single person in each department who would convey all necessary information via a blog.’ – an idea which Guido Fawkes calls ‘half decent‘. I’d go further.

The fact is, it’s the logical conclusion to a process which is kinda happening already – and which started three and a half years ago. We already have Downing Street plus three Cabinet-level departments running their websites, their main public-facing presence, on (what used to be) a blogging platform, namely WordPress.

And frankly, any department which isn’t already running its News section using a blogging platform is missing a trick. I guarantee it would be easier to use, and would provide a much better service to the customer, than whatever Big Ugly Corporate CMS they’re using.

I’ve argued for a decade plus that the web would ultimately destroy press office work as we have known it: specifically, the day-to-day mechanical stuff, and most of the mundane telephone enquiries. I don’t think that means sacking every press officer: but it would certainly redefine the role of those press officers who remained, to become ‘press relations’ people. (Or is that the role fulfilled primarily – and arguably, correctly – by Special Advisors?)

Take a look at the website for COI’s News Distribution Service – and tell me why this shouldn’t be a WordPress multisite. With COI’s demise imminent, now would be the perfect time to rebuild it. And if it needs to do stuff that isn’t available ‘out of the box’ – that’s where people like Puffbox come in. The answer is almost certainly, yes it can. And yes, we’d be delighted.

If it’s true that ‘three-quarters of [Hilton’s] ideas fail to get off the drawing board’, this is one which – in some shape or form – definitely will. In fact, it already has.