Le Twitter is front-page news

French left-of-centre newspaper Libération dedicated Monday’s entire front page to ‘le Twitter’, declaring it to be ‘politicians’ latest weapon’. With only 6,000 users in France, compared to two million on Facebook, it’s still a relatively new phenomenon – and the lead story gives a decent grounding for those who haven’t come across it. Obama gets a mention, but sadly our own @DowningStreet doesn’t.

In classic French thèse-antithèse-synthèse style, they balance up their excitable lead piece with a sceptical view from an academic, then pull it all together in an editorial comment. Dominique Wolton is the sceptic, comparing Twitter to pirate radio and community TV – which were heralded as a new critique of politics and lifestyles, but soon disappeared. He makes some very fair points in his piece; and it’s about time I dusted off my French degree, so here goes.

Politicians imagine these new tools will help them escape from journalistic tyranny, and create direct links with the public – hence the explosive growth of blogs and forums. The catch is, this type of activity is timeconsuming but doesn’t replace traditional media or face-to-face contact, let alone real action.

There is an illusion of transparency. Knowing what a politician is up to at all times isn’t the same as political action. Politicians need silence, and time. They can’t constantly maintain an interactive relationship. Rather than improving democracy, too much interactivity could accentuate «l’agitation politico-médiatico-démocratique» (ed: how French is that!!). Politics is complex and slow. We mustn’t give in to technological ideology.

Political communication is a complicated, three-sided game: politicians, media and public opinion. We need to beware an imbalance, which will ultimately benefit no-one.

In less than 5 years, the current infatuation with new, interactive modes of communication will calm down. Politicians will make more selective use of the internet. They will realise that their credibility doesn’t depend on their use of these technologies, but on their ability to act, and their conviction.

The reference to ‘less than five years‘ is significant, as that’ll coincide with the next set of French presidential elections. Elsewhere, we have the US voting this autumn, and the UK in 2010 (at the latest); my suspicion is that in the short term, even with no tangible results, the sheer kudos of being active in these new channels will still count for something. Or perhaps more accurately, it’ll reflect badly on any candidate or party which is seen not to be hip to it all.

Departmental blog platforms

When you think of ‘official’ blogging platforms inside government, the obvious example is the Foreign Office blogs site – headed of course by David Miliband, but featuring some truly remarkable contributions from various global ‘hotspots’ (Beijing, Kosovo, Zimbabwe). But it’s not the only one out there, and it’ll soon be joined by others.

One which rarely gets a mention is the Royal Navy’s Jack Speak – which, before you ask, is the Navy jargon term for Navy jargon – launched nearly a year ago, and based on WordPress. 🙂 Like the FCO’s site, it features personal contributions from an eclectic selection of ‘ordinary staff’. The content doesn’t flow as naturally as the FCO site, but then again, maybe that’s too much to expect with such subject matter. And perhaps as a result, despite prominent promotion on the Navy’s front page, it doesn’t seem to attract much in the way of comments: just three in the whole of July, for example.

There’s been an equally quiet launch for the NHS Expert Blogs pilot. So far, there are half a dozen active blogs, based around themes rather than individual bloggers: diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and so on. The site feels very impersonal, which seems at odds with the often extremely personal accounts you might read; there’s next to no detail on who the people actually are. As you might expect, given the NHS Choices tie-up with Microsoft, it’s running on Community Server.

Meanwhile, Puffbox is working on a similar blogging platform for another central government department (which I won’t name just yet). It’ll be a similar proposition: personal stories from half a dozen front-line staff in interesting situations, to give a flavour of the organisation’s work. The schedule is pretty aggressive, measured in weeks rather than months; but I’m quite excited at the chance to see what we can do.

As you might expect, it’ll be WordPress-based; but the plan is to use the ‘single user’ version rather than MU. I don’t think we need the full power of MU, there’s always the question of plugin compatibility, HQ understandably want to keep their hands on the controls – and besides, we can do a lot with the WordPress Template Hierarchy to make it feel like each writer has a separate blog.

At the same time, I’m seeing one of my longer-term projects evolving into what looks like a proper ‘project blog’ platform. Several teams have seen the existing WordPress-powered site, and want to be able to contribute to it. Whether they’ll come across as ‘blogs’ per se, I don’t know. But it’ll certainly be a step closer to what I imagine will be the end game here: ‘project blogs’, where teams write in their official capacities, and seek feedback from their stakeholders. More details to follow.

More Ministerial blogging

A few more developments over at the Foreign Office to note. Meg Munn, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State is now blogging – making a total of 3 FCO ministers, along with Messrs Miliband and Murphy.

They’ve also been bringing in a few other Embassy staff – including the High Commissioners to Nigeria and Malta, both of whom have been running ‘blogs’ (of one form or another) on their own posts’ website until now. It’s clearly an official policy to bring these on to one central platform; one wonders what to make of comments by Our Man in Malta about ”negotiating’ (haa) their takeover’.

Speaking of which, we’re starting to see the new centralised British Embassy websites emerging. Here’s a few examples I’ve found by guessing the URLs: Malta, France, China, Belgium, Canada, Korea (S), Iran. Intriguing to note that whilst most countries are set up with password-protected ‘UKinWherever’ URLs, there’s no ‘UKinIreland’. Political sensitivity about that notion, I guess.

And while we’re in King Charles Street… I missed the recent experiment with Twitter: a dozen entries over a week, following the Projecting British Islam trip to Egypt. I wasn’t the only one to miss it, though: it only attracted a dozen ‘followers’. And I’m pretty sure one of them was not David Miliband (in-joke – sorry).

‘Linking here’ lists with Google feed API

Time for some tech talk. A few weeks back, I wrote about Google’s new AJAX Feed API. Having played with it last week on behalf of a client, and having liked what I saw, I decided to implement it myself.

If you’re reading this on the puffbox.com website itself, you might see a list in the sidebar headed ‘Who’s linking here?’. (If not, see here for an example.) It’s something I introduced a while back, powered by feeds from Google’s Blogsearch engine, and processed using the excellent SimplePie. But I’ve now switched over to doing it client-side, through the Google API.

Once the blog post finishes loading, the Javascript calls in the RSS feed (actually, it’s Atom format) from Google. If it finds any blogs linking to that specific post, it writes a title into one previously empty DIV, and a disclaimer into another. In between, it generates up to 10 <LI> list items, each active as a link to the linking blog.

If you want to see how it’s done, and copy the idea for yourself, a quick glance at the page’s source code will reveal how straightforward it was. (You’ll need your own API key, obviously.)

Why go client-side? It’s less effort for the server to process; and it doesn’t build up a mass of cached feeds. It should also be marginally more secure on paper, which is important to some clients. And whilst the function is dependent on Javascript being available, it’s dead easy to offer a ‘noscript’ alternative – a link to a pre-formatted Google search query. It’s nowhere near as slick, but it ensures the information is still available to those without Javascript, so it passes accessibility requirements (W3C guidelines, checkpoints 6.3 and 11.4).

Here are your winners

It took a couple of days, but the list of winners from this week’s New Statesman awards has finally emerged. As predicted, MySociety didn’t go home empty-handed, with recognition for their FOI site, What Do They Know? And it’s good to see Patient Opinion getting recognition in the Community Activism category – their approach to patient feedback, and how it can help improve NHS services, is not going unnoticed.

But it’s a shock to see the BBC taking home the Democracy In Action trophy for a campaign around Radio 4’s You and Yours, which (frankly) really isn’t that great, and doesn’t demonstrate any obvious connection with democracy. Quite simply, that award should have gone to Unlock Democracy for their magnificent Vote Match site, based round the London mayoral election. You was robbed, guys.

Next up in awards season are the UK Catalyst Awards, which have now posted their shortlist. There’s an immediately obvious resemblance in the lists of nominees, but a few you probably won’t have seen before, which are worth a look at least.

DWP’s ‘what’s new’ policy

It’s coming to something when the editorial policy of a single page on a government department’s website is the subject of a parliamentary question.

Naturally, the Tories’ shadow secretary of state for Work & Pensions has a particularly keen interest in new additions to the DWP site’s What’s New page. The top of said page says it ‘lists all the latest additions to the site.’

Except that’s not quite the case, as the answer to Grayling’s PQ reveals: ‘The Department does not include every new addition to the website as this would make the “What’s new” section too long and unusable.’ So it’s not all the latest additions, then.

It’s a perfectly good idea to apply some kind of editorial criteria to what does or doesn’t get included on the list. But don’t then say ‘all’ at the top of the page. Call it a ‘highlights’ list or something.

But in fact, is there an audience for a page – or more likely, a feed – of all new content? In the last few days, marketing guru Seth Godin referenced a Robert Scoble point about the pointlessness of popularity, noting: “how many” is not nearly as valuable as “who”.

So sure, only a total pensions geek might be interested in knowing everything added to your site. But if you can find a way to automate it, isn’t that pensions geek precisely who you should be talking to? Or indeed, concentrating on?

Mash! Mash! Mash!

The latest move from Tom Watson’s Power Of Information Taskforce, effectively a big BBC Backstage-style government mashup competition, is a master stroke.

The Power of Information Taskforce want to hear your ideas on how to reuse, represent, mashup or combine the information the government holds to make it useful. … We will take the best ideas from the community commenting on the website and put them to a judging panel selected by the Taskforce. … We are offering up to £20,000 to take your ideas forward with a development team. … winners by the end of the second week in October.’

Having worked with several of the data suppliers listed, I’m delighted they managed to get agreement to expose their data – although I guess the backing of a Minister who actually understands it all can’t have done any harm. It’s especially inspiring to see the Office for National Statistics joining the effort, with the release of an API for its disappointing Neighbourhood Statistics. Here’s hoping the Community can do a better job on interface design and results presentation.

The site has been built in Typepad – so it’s a very high-profile example of a ‘blog which isn’t a blog’. We like that. Users’ ideas are submitted via an entry form (hosted on a hastily-registered third-party domain), and if accepted, appear as blog posts with comments enabled. A great way to manage the discussion.

Plus, although there’s little reflection on it, the title of the initiative – Show Us A Better Way – implies an acceptance that government doesn’t know best. Having dealt with enough data managers and statisticians in my time, I can tell you, that would be a huge step forward.

Tom Loosemore‘s fingerprints are all over this. Great work, Tom.

Lammy’s lessons from Obama

Labour MP David Lammy’s speech to the Fabian Society on Monday wasn’t the first to say ‘we need to learn lessons from the Obama campaign’, and it won’t be the last. But it’s a well-constructued speech, and well worth a read.

He notes the eventual success of two ‘outsider’ candidates, prepared to take risks – on policy, on debate, and in campaigning. And there’s some interesting reflection on the online element:

It has put together a web strategy premised on connecting activists and supporters to one another, not just pushing out tightly controlled messages from campaign HQ. Suddenly in the US the web is being used to connect people with politics again – at a time when people are using it to circumvent politics in the UK. And the huge lesson for us is that the technology is neither particularly complicated, nor especially expensive or labour-intensive to run.

Timely remarks, of course, given the supposedly perilous state of Labour finances. But he’s absolutely right: the tools are cheap, often free, and easy. It’s not whether you can do it, it’s what you do with it. It’s also quite interesting to see him talking in terms of a ‘fightback’. It’s often said that campaigning is easier when you’re in opposition: by pre-emptively accepting defeat, could that kickstart Labour’s online efforts?

Big things at Sky News

The new Sky News website is open for public beta viewing, and there are some significant developments.

The use of actual moving video in the homepage’s ‘top stories’ carousel area is a genuine surprise, and I think it works, although there must be significant implications on the content production and technical sides. Personally, I don’t think I’d have moved the ‘left hand margin’ to be a thick horizontal bar across the top, particularly since it pushes the page’s defining element (at least partially) ‘below the fold’.

There’s a registration-only ‘story tracker’ function, allowing you to subscribe to a (seemingly very limited) selection of major story threads, with updates appearing in a sidebar. And there’s a much-needed rationalisation of their chaotic blogs, although slightly disappointingly, they’ve pulled the blogs into the same un-blog-like presentation as the main site. Instinctively, that feels like the wrong way to do it. I’m seeing more and more people wanting to make their big, ugly CMSes more like blog platforms.

But is it a better experience overall? I’m not convinced. There’s little improvement in look or feel: it’s all (still) a bit blocky, and I’m not fond of the huge Arial headlines.

My view of Sky remains that they should be accepting they can’t come close to matching the BBC, and should instead make a virtue of their smaller, more agile setup. The Sky brand is all about ‘breaking news’, and nobody is better placed to become ‘the site you go to as soon as news breaks’. This is not that site.

How much can a website cost?

There’s been a sudden flurry of Parliamentary Questions (PQs) landing on the Foreign Office‘s doorstep in the last couple of months, on the subject of their departmental website. When it launched in late March, I noted that the purchase of the Morello content management system alone had cost them £1.47m, to some incredulity from commenters. I now learn that figure barely scratched the surface.

The total initial cost, first mentioned in a Meg Munn written answer in January 2008 and confirmed by Jim Murphy in response to a round-robin PQ in April was (brace yourself) £9.7 million. ‘The project is on target to cost £19.2 million over five years. This includes running costs, for example hosting and support, and some staff salaries.’

This understandably attracted front-bench attention, and was followed up by William Hague. A clutch of PQs in mid-May brought a breakdown of the £9.2m spend to date:

  • consultancy (procurement, legal and business change advice): £1.631 million;
  • project management and support: £1.065 million;
  • software, development and implementation (including design and roll-out): £6.115 million; and
  • other (including training costs): £0.389 million.

Granted, it’s a big endeavour – providing a single platform for all embassies (etc) to host their websites, in all sorts of languages. And some of the content has been nothing short of sensational – I’m thinking especially of the blogging from Zimbabwe just now. But those numbers seem sky high.

And yet they aren’t the worst. As I’ve blogged previously, I know of one site with an eight-figure budget… which still isn’t live.