Puffbox develops new web platform for the Co-operative Party

It takes a special kind of political anorak to even know that the Co-operative Party exists; so you might be surprised to learn that it’s actually the fourth largest political party in Westminster.

Formed in 1917, it has been in a permanent electoral pact with Labour since 1927. In the current Parliament, 29 of Labour’s 250-odd MPs were actually elected as Labour & Co-operative candidates – including one Ed Balls. A good number of other Labour MPs are paid-up members of the Party, but aren’t actually sponsored by it. It depends on the Co-operative Group – yes, as in corner shops, banking, funerals, etc – for a large part of its funding.

And since I have a ‘loyalty card’ for my local corner shop, I suppose I should formally declare an interest: I am a part-owner of the Co-operative Group. A very, very, very small part indeed. But technically, still an owner.

For the past few months, Puffbox has been working alongside left-leaning digital specialist Jon Worth to help the Party up its game online. And in doing so, we had to up our own game too: it’s unquestionably the most intricate WordPress build I’ve ever done – with a multisite-based strategy, (double) wildcard DNS, four custom post types, two automated custom taxonomies, and a parent/child theme arrangement, both offering full visual customisation. See what I mean?

To give you some idea of how it all stitches together: each of the Party’s Parliamentarians has a ‘person page’. You can click on ‘People‘ in the navigation bar to see them all, or hover for various filtered views. Say, for example, Members of Parliament. Oh look, there’s Ed Balls.

Click on his name, and you’ll see a ‘person page’. At the top of it are links to his Twitter account, and his personal website. Then there’s a concise biography. And towards the bottom, a ‘snapshot box’ for his latest activity on Twitter, in Hansard, on Flickr, and on his personal website, plus any content on the site itself which mentions him… all populated and updated automatically.

For those interested in the technical side: ‘person’ is a custom post type, with an extra metabox for the various external content sources. There’s a custom taxonomy called ‘role’, which is how we know Ed Balls is an MP. (And of course, each person can have multiple roles: here’s an example.) We pull the tweets in via JSON, to avoid API limiting; the other external data comes via RSS feeds. And of course, there’s a custom display template to stitch it all together. Meanwhile, invisibly, there’s also a people taxonomy on posts, which syncs with any changes to the person record.

And, uh, there’s something similar for areas of policy. But you’ll just have to work that out for yourselves. 🙂

The ‘main’ site will be complemented by a handful of distinct subsites, within the same WordPress multi-site install. There’s still some fleshing-out to be done, but you can see sites for the party in Scotland and Wales starting to come together. They use the same core theme, with the ability to change the background and header images; but will be managed on a day-to-day basis by the Party’s regional operations. Regular readers will recognise the influence of our work with Defra

Visually, it’s not the richest design I’ve ever done, but that’s entirely in keeping with the ethos of a party which doesn’t actually have a logo per se. We’ve kept things nice and simple, concentrating on clarity and ease of navigation. But as it’s turned out, there’s been a lot of very positive feedback about the look and feel, so we’re confident we got it ‘right’ for the client and their audience.

Thanks go to my own co-operators on this project: Simon Wheatley, for his technical assistance and inspiration. Jon Worth, for putting the project together. Martin at the Co-op Party (see his person page), who’s been an absolute star – and is already on his way to becoming a WordPress expert. And finally, to WordPress 3.x, without which none of this would have even been conceivable.

Our new site for London mayoral candidate Mike Tuffrey

Today saw the launch of Liberal Democrat member of the London assembly, Mike Tuffrey‘s campaign to secure the party’s nomination for 2012’s Mayoral contest. Puffbox has been working with Mike for the last couple of weeks to put together a digital package that’s fairly modest for now, but with scope for expansion depending on how the party membership votes in August.

There isn’t much to say about the technical side of the new website: it’s a fairly straightforward WordPress custom theme, with posts for timely content, pages for background, and a custom homepage template. There’s an automated photo gallery, where you can access the full-size versions of any images uploaded to the site, but that’s about as clever as it gets. But it does everything it should, and all hangs together nicely.

The design is a bit of a departure, though: bigger, bolder and more vertical than usual, influenced to a significant extent by iPad apps. I’ve been particularly keen to experiment with presenting the text in columns, using a custom plugin which reclaims the WordPress ‘more’ button (which nobody ever uses). With the initial tranche of content, there aren’t too many examples of this, but you’ll have to trust me; it’s there.

Of course there are issues with columns on the web: they only really work when there’s ‘the right amount’ of text per page, with the column height fitting the (likely) screen resolution. Of course, this is where the iPad, and indeed the Kindle, benefit: you know exactly what screen size you’ll be dealing with. On the web, there’s no such luxury, so we can only base it on assumptions. But my instinct is that the benefit to readability makes it worth the risk.

Supporting the website, we’ve sorted out Google Apps accounts for the campaign team; and there’s a Mailchimp-based mailing list, only doing RSS-powered alerts for now, but with scope for specially-written mailshots in due course. Thinking ahead, we’re asking people to indicate where they live in London, which will allow us to run geo-targeted campaigns further down the line.

Now… thus far, Puffbox has a 100% record with political candidates: everyone we’ve built a site for has been successful in the electoral campaign they were fighting. Mike faces competition for the LibDem candidacy from Lembit Opik, with rumours of one or two others throwing their hats into the ring before nominations close at the end of the week. Of course, if Mike wins this initial contest, you wouldn’t perhaps be too confident about us preserving our perfect record against both Boris and Ken. But Mike’s keen to make full use of online in his campaigning; and his position as the inevitable underdog might give us scope to have some fun with it.

The result of the candidate selection is (currently) due to be announced on 12 August. Will it be glorious?

Getting down to business

A couple of potentially interesting launches today.

First came Start Up Britain, which offers an unusual proposition: ‘helping Britain’s future entrepreneurial talent by providing links to the web’s best business resources, along with offers from some of the biggest brands in the country’. You’re greeted at the top of the homepage, somewhat surprisingly, by a photo of David Cameron – looking quite sinister, or is it just me? (No, it’s not.)

The site claims to have ‘the full backing of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and HM Government’, and the big photo of Cameron – which may or may not be connected to the adjacent proposition? – lends credibility to a one-page site which might otherwise come across as yet another attempt to make money from startups: of its four ‘top tips’, two are explicit adverts, and one expects the other two will lead to some monetisation further down the line.

Dig beneath the javascript, and there’s little more to it – for now at least – than a bunch of links and money-off vouchers: so in effect, it’s an online equivalent of the goodie bag you’d get at the door of any one of the many startup exhibitions. Steph said it was hammering nails into BusinessLink’s coffin: that seems premature. But it certainly poses some challenging questions of it.

Then this afternoon, we see the launch of Innovation Launch Pad, a Cabinet Office initiative powered by Spigit – whose recently appointed ‘general manager’ is James Gardner, who joined them from DWP at the start of the year.

Until 22 April, the Cabinet Office is inviting SMEs to ‘pitch business ideas on how you can help to provide better value for money in the delivery of Government’s business… The best ideas will be handpicked by a community of civil servants and, after intensive mentoring from some of Britain’s foremost entrepreneurs, those that demonstrate the highest impact will be invited to present their ideas at a Product Surgery in the summer.  This will stimulate new, open competitions in Government markets in which these suppliers will be able to participate.’ None of which seems to guarantee any business, but anyway.

Coming on the same day, these two initiatives – both sitting somewhere between the public and private sector – certainly point to a different way of doing things, and (I suppose) make tangible Cameron’s notion of an enterprise-led recovery. Both are backed by names with good track records in this sort of thing, so certainly worth keeping an eye on. But do either of them fill me with inspiration? To be honest… no, not yet.

Can Cabinet Office’s WordPress-based commentable bills make a difference?

The Protection of Freedoms Bill, published last week, has become the first piece of proposed legislation to go through a ‘public reading stage‘, as promised in the Coalition Agreement. The No10 website says it’s ‘the first step towards meeting the Coalition’s commitment to introduce a public reading stage for all Bills, allowing the Government to test the technology and ensure the system works well.’ And the technology in question is WordPress.

It’s a fairly straightforward presentation, using a custom WordPress theme bearing the catchy name ‘Cabinet Office Commentable Document (non-core)’, produced by the Cabinet Office’s in-house digital team – in double-quick time, so I’m hearing. The government branding is very understated indeed, with only an HM Government logo, in the bottom right corner. It looks like it’s all based on pages, as opposed to posts, with a jQuery-based expand/collapse menu (which I suspect has been hard-coded) in the left margin. It’s sitting on the same Amazon account as the main Cabinet Office site.

Can it work as an idea? I’m not convinced. The commenting technology’s certainly up to it, as we’ve proven time and again. But legislation isn’t exactly written to be read; you don’t have to dig too deeply into the site to find unintelligible passages, with every other sentence cross-referencing another subsection of another chapter of another Act… and no hyperlinking (even though all the source material should presumably be available in legislation.gov.uk). I just can’t imagine how an ordinary member of the public could be expected to make sense of it.

A starting point would be a ‘diff’ tool, similar to a programmer’s code editor – showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’, with changes highlighted. If you’ve never seen one, they look something like this:

One example: the open source tool, Meld

… instantly allowing you to see where text has been added and/or changed, and how. Wikipedia offers something similar: if you click on ‘View history’ for any page, you’re able to compare various past versions of the page, and see the changes highlighted (albeit in a less-than-friendly fashion). And indeed, back in 2007 MySociety proposed a diff tool (of sorts) as part of their Free Our Bills campaign.

Without this, I can’t imagine many ordinary people going to the trouble of decoding what’s actually being proposed… meaning I can’t see it doing anything to widen participation, if that’s the intention. So whilst it’ll be useful as a pilot exercise, I fear it’ll only prove the difference between green/white papers, which are text documents intended to be read; and bills, which just aren’t.

Tories’ new packaged website service

I see the Conservatives have followed in the footsteps of both Labour and the LibDems, in offering a ‘website in a box’ service to local constituencies. Known as Bluetreenot to be confused with website developers bluetree.co.uk* – it’s based on Drupal (plus multi-site management add-on Aegir) and was developed by the UK’s self-proclaimed Drupal specialists, ComputerMinds. It promises ‘state-of-the-art technology … at a cost well below market rate’ – although there’s no (publicly visible) indication of precisely what that cost is.

It’s taking a little while to find its feet, judging by the first few examples I’ve come across – including WitneyConservatives.com, the constituency of one David Cameron. But the basic structure is obvious: about, events, news, people. Everything’s on brand, naturally, with promo boxes for the (national) party’s Twitter and Facebook accounts; and there’s a nice little arrangement, presumably RSS-based, to pull national news in from conservatives.com. The design is clear, if a little lacking in warmth.

It’s a reasonable idea, but they need to be careful not to fall into the same traps as the Labour and LibDem party offerings: both of which have had widespread takeup, driven primarily by rock-bottom pricing, without winning the hearts and minds of party members and activists. Remember this tirade against Labour’s retained agency, Tangent? And I’m told there’s disappointment among LibDems at Prater Raines’s last relaunch, although it hasn’t seeped into the public domain.

In case you’re wondering, the Tories’ last grand Drupal project, myconservatives.com, has been displaying an ‘under construction’ message for at least the past few weeks.

* I did get in touch with bluetree.co.uk to ask if they were aware of this; but didn’t get a reply in time to include it here.

Puffbox launches site for Djibouti presidential candidate

A month or two ago, to be perfectly honest, I would have struggled to find Djibouti on a map. But for the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a project to launch one man’s campaign to become its President: and the site went live this week.

Djibouti is a former French colony, located on the Horn of Africa, slightly larger than Wales, population well under a million. It’s a key port for the region. It also shares a border with Somalia, sits across the water from Yemen, and is home to large French and American military bases. And it’s having a Presidential election next year. The current incumbent won a second term in 2005, with a mere 100% majority; and this year, they changed the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term.

Djiboutian businessman Abdourahman Boreh has now declared himself an opposition candidate for next April’s election; he is being represented by a London-based PR consultancy, MHP Communications, who brought me in to build a website for the campaign: not voter-facing as such, more as a resource to help establish his credentials internationally.

The site is built on WordPress: primarily pages rather than posts, at this early stage anyway. But significantly, it’s in two languages – English and French, with a long-term possibility of adding Arabic. It soon became clear that fudging the multilingual functionality wouldn’t work: so it’s the first time I’ve used WPML, the leading WordPress plugin for content in more than one language.

To be perfectly frank, WPML has been a bit hit-and-miss. When it works, it’s absolutely brilliant: but some things just haven’t worked at all. I’ve had to deploy various workarounds, sometimes going as far as coding whole new plugins or widgets. And some features, even relatively run-of-the-mill things, I’ve simply had to drop. It’s a great solution for multilingual content; but be prepared for some unpleasant side-effects.

The feature I’m most proud of is also language-related; but is something I’ve coded myself. We’re inviting people to leave comments on most pages; and we’re using a WPML meta-plugin to merge the comment threads between translations. In other words, if you leave a comment on the English version, it’ll also appear at the bottom of the French version. But what if you don’t speak the other language?

Thanks to Google’s translation API, and a bit of jQuery, you can click on a link under each comment to translate it – instantly, and in place – into English or French. Oh, and Arabic if you fancy that too. Try it on this page… but don’t use up my entire API usage limit, please. Obviously we’re in Google’s hands as regards the translations’ quality: the French is certainly pretty accurate, and the Arabic… well, it looks about right anyway.

I’m also quite pleased with the ‘world time’ thing in the top corner: not only is it useful as a clock – but by placing dots on the map, it’s a subtle way of reminding people where Djibouti actually is; and it underlines the strategic connections with France and the US (plus, by extension, the UN). The times are generated based on proper timezone data, and hence should remain accurate all year.

This time round, I’ve done all the design and coding myself. But I’ve had help with the configuration of the WordPress platform, from none other than Mike Little, the man who co-founded WordPress. Mike knows far more about server setups than I (hopefully!) ever will; he’s done a great job tweaking things just that little bit more than normal: so whilst it’s hardly military-level secure, it’s certainly more robust than your average WordPress site – with very little compromising on usability.

It’s been a challenging project, taking me into new territory in several respects, and all the more enjoyable for it. It’s only by doing projects like these, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, that you really improve as a designer / developer / producer.

So far, Puffbox has a 100% record with political candidates: every one we’ve ever worked for has been successful. We’ll see if this hot streak is maintained next April.

LibDems’ underwhelming web revamp

When is a fixed-width page not fixed-width?

The world of Liberal Democrat websites is dominated, almost monopolised, by one company – Prater Raines, based in Folkestone. They offer local LibDem parties a corporate website template, plus mailing list facility, plus a shared photo library, plus hosting, plus email, plus DNS, etc etc, for a staggeringly low ÂŁ250 (ish) a year. When a local party’s key concerns are typically ‘can it do what we need?’ and ‘can we afford it?’, their success is understandable: they host something like 600 sites in the extended LibDem family.

The catch is that every site on the Foci platform, as it’s known, looked more or less identical – which might be fine if that shared look-and-feel was any good. Unfortunately, to be frank, it wasn’t. Being charitable, the sites had begun to look very, very dated: tabular, text-heavy, and lacking in finesse. A clear case of technology first, design a distant second: laudable in some respects, but just not how the game works.

A revamp has been in the works for many months – since long before the general election, in fact – and finally this week, it’s been rolled out across the network: see the examples of Tim Farron, Don Foster, Sarah Teather or the specially souped-up site for Vince Cable. And in a word, it’s underwhelming.

The boxy, full-width layout is gone, replaced by a centred, 1024px-optimised format, sometimes single-column, sometimes two, sometimes three – so far, so good. There’s a hint of gloss in some of the screen furniture, some rounded cornering, even a bit of text-shadowing on the occasional headline. But there’s a definite feeling that they’ve bolted these ‘cool’ elements on top, without really buying into them.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is the aggregated list of site updates, which they’re calling homepage ‘lifestreams’. Hang on… homepage lifestream? Yes, they’ve clearly been inspired by my invention for Lynne Featherstone… except they’ve totally missed the point of it.

Left: not really a lifestream. Right: now that's what I call a lifestream.

Lynne’s lifestream pulls together her activity from multiple third-party sources: it helps readers see what she’s done lately, wherever she might have done it, and at a glance shows her to be very active across multiple social networks. But theirs seem to do no more than aggregate the different content types within the same site: and the token effort to distinguish the different content types fails, because the icons just aren’t strong enough. It’s just a list.

Ah – but then there’s the jQuery-based hover-to-slide thing. As you hover over each headline in the ‘lifestream’ (ahem), it quickly expands downwards to show the ‘excerpt’, and the previous one closes up. If you’re mousing over the list to get to a specific headline, it can be quite nauseating. But more importantly – it actually makes it harder to click on the link you’re interested in. Sometimes you’ll mouse-over your chosen link, only to find it gets moved by the animation, and you’re now clicking on something else… and the headline you wanted may well have disappeared off the bottom of the screen.

Prater Raines deserve a huge amount of respect for their success in this field. Their tremendous economies of scale have allowed them to put together an offering which is, to all intents and purposes, unbeatable. They clearly know their technology. But this was the opportunity to make up for their offering’s presentational shortcomings, at precisely the moment when LibDems, locally and nationally, need a presentational boost… and they haven’t taken it.

Situations vacated

I’m aware that other news stories have rather dominated the agenda this morning; so you may have missed the news that:

  • government CIO John Suffolk has resigned, although so far he has neglected to mention it on either his blog or Twitter account, neither of which has been updated since 30 July (when he declared it was ‘good to be back online after the election break’). Quite a turnaround since August, when he told Computer Weekly he had no such intention. I had assumed this would happen a lot sooner, to be honest. Kable has a rather bland statement from him.
  • David Cameron’s ‘vanity staffers’, Andrew Parsons and Nicky Woodhouse are switching payrolls, from the civil service to Conservative central office (according to the Standard). It’s unfortunate timing for Tom Watson, whose letter to Gus O’Donnell had just received confirmation that the positions were not advertised because they were ‘short term appointments of up to two years to meet short term needs’. Crown copyright was to have applied to any photos taken by Mr Parsons; what happens now, I wonder? Can/should government use party-funded publicity material? You’d have to say ‘no’, surely.

Paul Waugh takes his audience with him to PoliticsHome

Evening Standard deputy political editor Paul Waugh starts his new job this morning, as editor of (increasingly paywalled) website PoliticsHome.com. Mildly interesting in itself, as evidence of the still-growing influence of online in the political space, although far from the first time a ‘proper’ journalist has gone over to the blogs’ side.

What’s quite interesting is the mechanics of the move itself. His final post on the Standard’s (Typepad-powered) blog gave full details of his new job, and where you’d be able to follow him – including direct links to his new home page. I find it very hard to imagine any other media outlet being so relaxed about a star reporter or columnist ‘taking his readers / audience with him’.

Equally intriguing is the fact that his (personal) Twitter account has just kept going as it always did.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/paulwaugh/status/593819410112512″]

Despite the on-page linking and the background wallpaper – Standard last week, PolHome this morning – Waugh ‘owns’ this particular channel of communication… and its almost 10,000 followers. He isn’t dependent on his employer’s infrastructure, or brand, to talk to his audience.

Former BBC man James Cridland, now a ‘radio futurologist’ (?), wrote an excellent piece about this issue 18 months ago, in the context of radio presenters moving jobs. His rather draconian-sounding conclusion was this – although it’s worth noting the dissent, some from known names in the industry, in the ensuing comments:

Give your presenters official Twitter feeds for your station, and make it clear that they can only promote these. XFM is doing the right thing here, since it has a set of them – @daveberry_xfm is Dave Berry, for example – but this is clearly part of the station’s output. Ensure that -you- retain the password, and ensure that you actively monitor what they say (just like you monitor what they say on-air.) That way, when you part company with that presenter, you can communicate this fact to their followers your way – and, crucially, you stay in control.

[Over the next couple of days, James also offered opinions on promoting personal websites (in short: no) and email addresses (likewise), stirring similar levels of controversy.]

So whether he realises it or not, Paul is offering an interesting case study in what constitutes ‘brand’ in the world of third-party online services. When communications infrastructure was difficult, employers could keep control. When we’re all just a few seconds away from creating our own Twitter / Facebook accounts, the employer is left with little more than guidelines. And perhaps a rather weak argument about using company resources for personal purposes.

I really enjoy Paul’s stuff: and I’d happily be subscribing to his new blog right now… except that somehow, the website – running on a bespoke platform which happily ‘ingests’ other people’s RSS feeds –  can’t offer an RSS feed of its own, although one is promised ‘soon’. (FYI: it’s two months since prominent blogger Waugh’s move was announced.)

Oh, and by the way, PoliticsHome – disabling the ability to right-click on your pages… really?

Constituency maps in under a minute

Opening up geographic data is beginning to bear fruit. MySociety’s Matthew Somerville has just unveiled MaPit, ‘our database and web service that maps postcodes and points to current or past administrative area information and polygons for all the United Kingdom.’ What that means in practice is, postcode lookups and boundary data are now just a URL away.

(Quick update: actually, not for all the United Kingdom as it turns out – the following method doesn’t work for N Ireland. See Matthew’s comment below.)

Here’s a quick example, as much for my own future reference as anyone else’s. Let’s say you wanted to generate a map of a given MP’s constituency – say Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey & Wood Green:

  • You need to find the appropriate reference number for the constituency: either by browsing the list of all constituencies, or searching for places whose names begin with Hornsey. Note – these will produce nasty-looking data files, rather than pretty HTML lists. Hunt through the code, and you’ll find:
    “65883”: {“codes”: {“unit_id”: “25044”}, “name”: “Hornsey and Wood Green”, “country”: “E”, “type_name”: “UK Parliament constituency”, “parent_area”: null, “generation_high”: 13, “generation_low”: 13, “country_name”: “England”, “type”: “WMC”, “id”: 65883}
  • The ‘id’ is the number you need – in this case, 65883. The MySociety API now lets you call the geometry of that area, in – among others – Google Earth’s KML format, using the following URL. (Don’t worry about the ‘4326’ here: it’s a reference to the coordinate system being used, and won’t change in this context.)
    http://mapit.mysociety.org/area/4326/65883.kml
  • Conveniently, Google Maps lets you enter a KML file’s URL as a search query, and it will draw it on a map. Even more conveniently, if you add ‘output=embed’ as a search parameter, it strips away everything but the map itself. So here’s an embedded map of Lynne’s constituency, pulled into an <iframe>. Look at the source code, to see how easy it is.

Boundary data generated by MaPit.mysociety.org which contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2010; Royal Mail data © Royal Mail copyright and database right 2010 (Code-Point Open); National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2010 (NSPD Open).

And thankfully, it bears a close resemblance to this map on Lynne’s own website, which took me considerably longer to churn out.