Archive for 'downingstreet'
The Independent's new blogging platform, Independent Minds, launched yesterday in a partnership with the now Russian-owned Livejournal. But unlike the Telegraph's MyTelegraph site, it puts the journalists' blogs on the same platform as the readers'. It's a dramatic improvement (as you'd expect) on the very clunky, and frankly half-hearted blogging efforts they were doing on Typepad; and they also promise a strategic decision to 'centre more on the writer than on the topic' as they did before. The blogging content gets some high-profile space on the Indy's homepage.
On the face of it, it's a fairly basic re-skinning of Livejournal's community features; the deeper you click, the less it feels like an Independent site, and the more it feels like plain old Livejournal. Nothing wrong with that; it makes sense to use a well-established and relatively beginner-friendly platform. It's a natural move for Livejournal as the new owners are reportedly keen to expand their relatively modest UK user base: their statistics page shows they have 315,000 UK-based users.
Hmm... the Independent? Livejournal? There wouldn't be a Downing Street connection there, would there? Former No10 web boss Jimmy Leach is now the Indy's 'editorial director for digital'; and Ben Wegg-Prosser, ex-head of the Strategic Communications Unit is Director of Corporate Development at Livejournal's Russian owners, SUP. The two also worked together for ages at the Guardian (I think).
It's another signal of blogging's steady progress into the newsroom: speaking of which, it's well worth reading BBC man Jem Stone's write-up of Robert Peston's talk to the BBC's College of Journalism yesterday. 'Central to everything that I do at the BBC,' he says.
Is it just me, or is the new Financial Times website design, being rolled out progressively this week, heavily influenced by blogs - and remarkably reminiscent of the Downing Street site?
Gawker.com shares my take, and concludes: 'the online medium continues to assert its precedence over print; even the rich love blogs; and bloggers all deserve to be paid more money'. No argument on any front there.
It's further evidence, in my mind, that the divisions between 'blogs' and 'proper websites', 'blogging tools' and 'proper CMSes' have disappeared, if they were ever there to begin with. Let's just ignore the labelling. Blogs and blogging systems evolved as a means for writers to get news items up on the web quickly and efficiently. Guess what - journalists want to get their news items up on the web quickly and efficiently. So do (should?) press officers.
In my own work, once the decision is made to use a blogging tool (ie WordPress), certain design decisions are basically inevitable. But it's very interesting to see the FT choosing to make many of those same design decisions, without any (apparent) requirement to do so.
One of the more inspiring developments at the BBC recently has been the extension of iPlayer away from the desktop PC. Back in April, they launched iPlayer on the Wii - but it wasn't the breakthrough moment it might have been. Leaving aside the fact it didn't stream especially smoothly on my machine, the interface was optimised for a screen resolution which the Wii couldn't deliver, making for a horrid user experience. Last week they made amends, with a Wii-optimised screen setup - and it's truly brilliant. Try it on your desktop PC, but to appreciate its full glory, you need to be sitting on the living room sofa, in proper telly-watching mode.
I've been a bit surprised that people haven't done more optimising of content for 'games consoles' - particularly the current generation, with their online capabilities. And with the Wii (again) selling like hot cakes (set to get even hotter too), it has tremendous potential for video-on-demand in the living room.
Inspired by the Beeb's efforts, I wondered how much effort it would take to put a Wii-friendly front end on some YouTube content. So I took a few hours last night to build a prototype - and here it is: wii10.puffbox.co.uk
I want to stress: I've done this completely off my own bat. Although we have a continuing working relationship, I wasn't asked to do this by Number10. It's purely a proof-of-concept, using publicly available (publicly funded) material. It's a bit rough round the edges: some of the link highlighting isn't too smooth on the Wii, the word wrapping isn't polished, and it doesn't seem to work properly on (desktop) Firefox for some reason - although curiously, all other browsers seem OK, even IE! But having proven the concept, to be honest, I may not bother going back to fix these issues. There's also a risk of YouTube changing their code, as has happened before: the Wii's Flash player is a bit behind the times, and YouTube's improvements have caused problems in the past.
But for now - it works, really quite nicely, and I'm dead pleased with it. You need never again say the words 'there's nothing on telly.' And with more and more government content going on YouTube, if anybody thinks this might be useful in a proper business context, please get in touch.
I'm not sure we learned a lot from this morning's Lords Communications Committee session with Michael Ellam (the Prime Minister's official spokesman) and Sir Gus O'Donnell (head of the home civil service), part of the continuing review of government communications, and reforms proposed in 2004's Phillis Review. It wasn't an intense grilling, and as you'd expect, it was deftly and professionally handled.
Perhaps surprisingly, the internet took immediate centre stage. Chairing the session in Lord (Norman) Fowler's absence, Lord (Tom) King asked about the apparent doubling of government communications staff. You can guess the response which came back: difficulties of definition, 24/7 demands, more channels, new channels. It was this final point which was picked up by Mike Ellam, who noted the growth of Downing Street's digital communications operation.
He took as an example the recent 'Ask The PM' exercises on YouTube: but it was particularly telling to note the language he and the Committee used. Members of the public asked questions 'via webcast,' said Ellam. Lord King checked what he meant - 'on film?' Well, er, technically no, but... When Ellam finally dared to refer specifically to YouTube, it seemed almost apologetic.
Asked if it had been worth doing, Ellam said he felt 'anything that improves direct communications with the public has to be a good thing'; O'Donnell agreed, saying it was 'good for society as a whole if we can increase engagement in the political process', and this was one way to reach young people in particular. And since the PM was already being briefed weekly for PMQs, it was 'not a great extra burden' for him to answer questions on camera occasionally.
And that was that; things moved swiftly on to familiar matters of the Lobby system, impartiality, the role of special advisers. (Although Ellam raised the subject Robert Peston's blog, in response to a question about off-the-record briefing, noting how Peston had quoted unnamed bankers as his sources.)
The morning's proceedings had started with two ladies from the Citizens Advice Bureau, who were asked specifically about the 'digital divide' and their experiences with government websites. They were actually very complimentary about Directgov: Fiona (didn't catch her surname) said she was 'impressed with the presentation', and praised its 'accessible language'. She took a particular interest in search results, noting that DG offered a 'meaningful list', unlike many others. But Directgov had its shortcomings: it was quite fragmented, although she acknowledged that it might be a reflection of fragmented systems in government, and it lacked detail on 'extent issues' - namely, differences between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
They talked about their 'complete dismay' at the reduction of leaflets being made available in hard copy: if you went to a library to print off a 100-page document on employment rights, for example, it was 'like buying War And Peace'; and with libraries charging per page printed, the cost could soon mount up. Interestingly, they noted that whilst 35% (ish) of people nationally didn't have broadband at home, 70% of their customers fell into that group.
But if we're going to talk about the Lords and technology... I can't resist pointing you to the apparent death threat (in jest, presumably?) made by Radio 4 Today Programme presenter John Humphrys this morning, when Lord Desai's mobile went off mid-interview. (Fast-forward to 6m30 for that familiar Nokia refrain.)
Today sees the long-awaited launch of the new Number10 website, based on WordPress and built by New Media Maze with occasional interventions by yours truly. The reaction so far has been positive, although as the team have admitted to Twitter contacts, there are numerous rough edges still to be smoothed out. (Some more serious than others: as I write this, the site's gone down.)
Although I've been contributing to this project for several months, today's public activation is the first time I've actually seen it 'for real' - and I'm struck by just how stripped-back it really is. The homepage really does feel like a blog; and it's a pleasant surprise to see quite how much prominence has been given to the Twitter, Flickr and YouTube activity. The image / video unit at the top of the homepage really is huge, and represents a brave move: keeping it fresh will be quite a challenge, but good on them for trying nonetheless.
The exciting aspect for me is the sheer potential opened up by the move to WordPress. There has been a lot of hard (and frankly unglamorous) work done by the guys from New Media Maze to migrate everything to the new platform. But now that's done, we can all start thinking about extra functionality and presentation ideas, and add them into the site with relative ease.
The 'beta' label in the header isn't just an industry in-joke, or an attempt to excuse any temporary difficulties: it's a statement of future intent.
PS: If anyone's interested in the background to today's launch, you can look back through the Puffbox.com archives. And please note the URL of that link, for another cool WordPress trick.
Thursday's Daily Mail picks up on the imminent launch of the new Downing Street website, and chooses to focus on the 'Number10TV' video element, to be powered by Brightcove. But for once, it's a story driven more by its scepticism about new technology than its dislike of the current government.
They wrongly call it 'the latest effort to boost his flagging poll ratings' (as it's a Civil Service initiative), but correct themselves later in the same piece, referring to it as 'a fresh political effort to exploit the potential of the internet to reach voters directly'. And indeed, they do quote No10's attempt to put some perspective on it: 'Downing Street last night played down the significance of the new channel, saying: 'We’re always looking at ways of improving and strengthening the website.''
But it's the sniffy tone regarding everything from Webcameron to the @DowningStreet Twitter account which is most striking. A lot has happened on Webcameron since the initial clip of Dave doing the dishes, although it's gone a bit quiet lately; and I'd have to disagree with the assertion (relatively speaking, anyway) that the Twitter activity 'has so far failed to arouse great enthusiasm'.
Despite their Damascene conversion to the web, driven principally by celebrity drivel, it seems the Mail's heart really isn't in this modern stuff after all. (There's a remarkably similar story in the FT, by the way, but with slightly less cynicism.)
Fresh from stealing the online show at the recent G8 summit, the 10 Downing Street digital comms team have given the Prime Minister's new website its first public outing, with a few sneaky screengrabs popping up on their Flickr account. It's quite a significant departure from the existing site, although if you've been following the travel-blog work I've been doing with them recently, you'll instantly recognise its evolution.
The most striking element is the prominent use of video, with a large playback window - not YouTube, FYI - occupying pride of place on the homepage. (It'll be hard to avoid comparisons with Obama's website in that respect - but with initiatives like TelegraphTV, we're all heading towards the same thing.) The team's activity on third-party sites, like Flickr and Twitter, is also brought to the fore - driven by RSS feeds from the originating sites, as I've done on the travel-blogs.
You'll note a much more streamlined navigation on the new designs - primarily because the new site has been stripped right back to its core functions, allowing the team to concentrate on the day-to-day work. The historic information remains popular, and keeps its place; but otherwise, it's a sharp focus on news and communication.
If it feels a bit bloggy, there are a couple of good reasons for that. In part, it's a recognition of the role now played by blogs in national political life. The political anoraks who are likely to visit a Downing Street site are probably spending the rest of their time on the political blogs, so it makes sense to adopt the same presentation methods. And yes, as you've probably guessed, the underlying technology is WordPress.
The new site has been designed and produced by New Media Maze, with occasional contributions from Puffbox. And of course, being WordPress-based, there's plenty of scope to take the site forward in the coming months. We're already floating ideas for new features.
The team haven't quoted a 'go live' date, but my understanding is that it's in its very final stages of development, and they aren't afraid of a 'public beta' approach. Watch that space.
Whether or not you like the answers he gives, the presentation of the 'Ask The PM' questions and answers on the Downing Street YouTube channel is really nice. The 'split-screen' treatment gives equal prominence to punter and premier; and one plays when the other finishes. Nothing too clever, but I really like it.
The second round of questions has already opened: this time, on the specific topic of health. Worth noting a tightening of the editorial criteria: nothing party political, nothing over a minute.
Meanwhile, over at the Governance of Britain site I developed with the Ministry of Justice, we've got the first of (what should hopefully be) a regular series of video messages, introducing debates around the constitutional renewal programme. Minister Michael Wills is great on camera: then again, he has a background in TV, and has plenty of practice.
At 11:30 this morning, Hazel Blears burst onto the Twitter scene. Six hours later, and we're already up to her tenth tweet on the microblogging service. I feel as if my entire afternoon has been punctuated by the latest update on what Hazel is doing. Or indeed, not doing.
I'm all for departments experimenting with Twitter... especially the department whose specific remit includes 'communities'. But there are a few fundamental problems with their assault on Twitter, which we need to rectify sharp-ish.
For starters, who 'is' CommunitiesUK? It reads like it's Blears's PA: all 'Hazel is this', 'Hazel is that'. First person stuff, all personal and a bit touchy-feely, but written in the third person. As others have also noted, it feels really weird. And it doesn't sit too well with the account's 'Bio': 'The official 7 day empowerment twitter channel for Communities and Local Government.' Does the capitalisation imply that it's the Department's channel? (What exactly is '7-day empowerment' anyway?)
And frankly, there's just too much of it. Ten tweets in an afternoon, all one-way, even on a big day for the Department, is a lot. I don't need a before, during and after tweet about every public engagement. I don't want to know if 'Hazel is excited about writing her first blog post'. Just tell me when she's published it.
Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm not against experimental use of new channels like this. I'm just keen to see it get off on the right footing.
I get the feeling they're consciously following the example of @DowningStreet. But their third-person approach - 'The PM is...' - works because 10 Downing Street is the Prime Minister. The relationship between DCLG (with its 5000+ staff) and Hazel Blears is completely different. This has to be either Hazel's personal channel; or the department's corporate channel. Unlike @DowningStreet, it can't be both.
PS: In case you missed it... some very positive words from the Washington Post this week about No10's G8 efforts. 'Gordon Brown is stealing the G-8 show online,' they wrote. '[@Downingstreet] has more than 3,000 followers, and is part of the prime minister's ongoing Web-savvy operation.'