Liveblogging the budget

It was described earlier as the biggest moment in modern political history that wasn’t an election: probably a bit much, I’d have said. But it’s no surprise to see so many websites ‘liveblogging’ today’s Pre-Budget Report: the TUC, the Spectator, Liberal Conspiracy, Iain Dale, among many others. Sky News is doing something especially interesting, with its ‘Unplugged’ online broadcast offering live commentary and analysis: effectively a live video-blog, I suppose.

Which rather begs the question, what should the Treasury themselves be doing? The Chancellor standing up in the Commons chamber, and (sorry) droning on for an hour or so, throwing numbers around like confetti, then BANG! a huge wad of paper lands on your newsdesk as he sits down – it’s simply not an effective way to communicate. There’s too much to take in, too many big numbers, too much jargon, in too short a space of time.

I’m wondering if the Treasury shouldn’t be running an enhanced live video stream, with bullet points appearing as the Chancellor makes his announcement; and graphs / charts / etc in a second window. I’ve worked in the TV channel gallery on Budget day; it’s chaotic, as a hapless producer tries to make sense of it all, picking out the headlines in real time. Meanwhile, of course, the Treasury staff are sitting on copies of the full text of the speech, with all the advance notice they need to make a really good job of it. It’s not as if they aren’t doing the production work already, with a consumer-friendly leaflet being a regular output each time.

Cameron goes direct

The Tories‘ latest engagement initiative, Cameron Direct takes its ‘town hall meeting’ roadshow to a Plymouth primary school tonight. The event will be broadcast live, and then ‘on demand’, in video via the UK-based SelfCast.com. It also looks like they’ll be liveblogging the event through, guess what, CoverItLive. I’m not entirely sure it’s worth doing both, unless they’re planning on involving the liveblog-watchers in the proceedings somehow..? Proceedings start at 6.30pm, and should be done in time for kick-off in tonight’s football.

Here’s the recording of last week’s event in Truro. Whether you like Cameron or not, you have to admit he’s very good at this sort of thing.

CoverItLive adds branding options

Hosted live-blogging service CoverItLive, by far the best way to liveblog, always came with a catch. You could set it up, and drop it into your website, in minutes… but it was very obviously a rather crude embedding of ‘someone else’s service’. Their logo, their font, not yours. But not any more.

Effective today, there’s an option on the CoverItLive admin interface for ‘My Viewer Window’, allowing you to create your own presentation style by uploading your own logos, resizing the window to fit your design, and selecting one of the web’s ‘usual suspects’ fonts. The images must be a specific pixel size, which isn’t actually a bad thing in my book… and must be GIF, JPG, PNG or (intriguingly!) Flash. There’s still a small ‘powered by CoverItLive’ message in the corner, but hey – give them a break!

The ‘main image’ is effectively a ‘splash screen’, for when the liveblogging isn’t ‘on’ – so you probably don’t need to worry too much about it, frankly. (Maybe do a cute ‘please wait’ message or something?) The ‘secondary image’ appears at the bottom of the iframe, and sits on top of a grey strip with a background image applied. To make it look most natural, I’d suggest you use a transparent 24-bit PNG: that should sit beautifully and seamlessly on top.

I’m talking to a couple of clients who are excited by the possibilities of live-blogging. I wholeheartedly recommended CoverItLive as the solution, but with a (single) caveat about the lack of visual integration with the client site. That problem has gone away overnight. The CoverItLive guys are doing everything you could ask of them, and they entirely deserve their top spot in this emerging field.

Liveblogging alternatives

With Twitter continuing to struggle with the basics, web-based liveblogging continues to march ahead, with news of several new apps out there. But whether they will rival the current (clear) leader, CoverItLive, remains to be seen.

ScribbleLive is interesting from the very start: yes, you have to log in… but using existing logins from services like Facebook, Windows Live / Hotmail or (apparently) OpenID. Makes a huge amount of sense for a tiny startup to outsource one of the major annoyances to these big players: top marks already.

But whereas CoverItLive feels like a hosted broadcast event, ScribbleLive feels more like a conventional blog with instant commenting enabled (and yes, I mean ‘instant’). There’s no sense of ownership; it looks like everyone can edit/delete anyone’s entries. You can upload images into the comment stream, and even reference YouTube clips (with URLs automatically converted to embedded video… nice). You can email comments and pictures in, which is cool. he catch? – it all takes place on ScribbleLive’s site, with no easy ‘embedding’ options as yet.

Writing in the comments on TechCrunch, co-founder Michael Monte describes it in terms of chat amongst friends. ‘You go to a concert or a conference, and you want to invite your colleges to contribute to the event or the last episode of Lost is on and you and your friends what to discuss as the plot unfolds.’ And whilst that’s fair enough, it doesn’t (currently) amount to much more than Instant Messaging on the web.

Backnoise has even fewer strings attached. There’s no sign-in whatsoever: you just need to know the name of the ‘chat’, and you’re there. All updates are posted anonymously, with input windows refreshing on a timer: no Ajax here yet. There’s a basic ‘embed’ option, using IFRAMEs. But most remarkably, there’s a ‘wipe it and start afresh’ button (labelled ‘buzzkill’) available to every user?! One for the anarchists, I’d say.

And yes, inevitably, there’s talk of a WordPress-based solution. Currently in development, wpliveblog promises a ‘similar feature set to ScribbleLive': and on reflection, it’s easy to see how that might work. WordPress has several levels of user rights, allowing one person (or several) to be designated as the lead blogger and/or comment moderator, with a few selected ‘guest panellists’ given lower-level rights to bypass moderation. I guess you’d use a similar technique to a plugin like Official Comments to apply a different presentational (CSS) style to ‘hosts’ comments’ and ‘contributions from the floor’. The normal WordPress admin interface might be slick enough to manage it already.

If I was liveblogging something in the near future, I see no reason not to use CoverItLive. But the competition is heating up, and there’s unquestionable appeal in a WordPress plugin. I’m looking forward to seeing it in action.

More Gov live blogging

There’s no doubt what the hot trend in blogging is: real time, thanks largely (or perhaps solely?) to the superb CoverItLive application/service. And following the apparent success of the Progressive Governance Summit last month, we’ll be seeing another e-government example today.

More than 80 MDs, CEOs, chairmen and Presidents from big-name global companies, plus a few heads of government (including our own) and various other dignitaries are attending ‘Business Call To Action’ – a London conference, backed by the UK government and UN Development Programme, to talk about what business can do to reduce poverty in the developing world, and get the Millennium Development Goals back on track. It’s quite an illustrious guest list, even if it’s only published in PDF.

The web component isn’t Downing Street-branded, but it’s being managed by the Downing Street team, with some Puffbox assistance (although most of the work has been handled by someone else). The plan is to run another liveblog of the proceedings, again using CoverItLive… plus a bit of video, and Flickr/Twitter mashing if schedules allow.

On my last post on the subject, Paul Canning queried the value of liveblogging, in the context of election coverage… and I take his point, in that context. But for something like this, it can provide an excellent channel for colour commentary, or even ‘context sensitive links': when we did the ProGov event, people were contributing URLs providing additional background on the points being raised, for people who didn’t know the subjects. (Like, for example, me.)

Liveblogging the election results

Interesting to note some of the attempts to ‘live blog’ the election results last week – with Guido Fawkes, Slugger O’Toole and ConservativeHome all using CoverItLive‘s fantastic liveblogging ‘app’. Needless to say, there’s significant variation in the tone of each site’s usage.

Of course, it’s ironic to note both having a pop at Gordon Brown’s leadership when, dare I mention it, it was a Downing Street website – produced by yours truly – which first brought this technology to the attention of the UK political scene.

Now Iain Dale’s gone a bit CoverItLive-crazy, using it as an ad-hoc chatroom facility. It’s not really what it was intended for, and it’s probably quite hard work for Iain and colleague Shane Greer to moderate, but it does the job I suppose. They’re making good use of the popup polling mechanism, it must be said.

Correction: It took a heck of a lot of digging to find it, but I discover that ConservativeHome did use the CoverItLive tool back in January. My apologies; a straightforward Google search didn’t reveal it. I’m grateful to Guido for the advice to the contrary.

PoliticsHome: overwhelming and soulless

‘Staying on top of modern politics has become a full time job,’ declares the long-awaited PoliticsHome on its About page. ‘Things move too fast: it is too much for any single person to track.’ Unfortunately, the same can be said about the site itself: load up the homepage, and a torrent of headlines hits you head-on.  It’s overwhelming, and it leaves me dazed. I complained that the new Foreign Office site didn’t guide the eye: I take it all back.

There’s no doubt that, if a political story is out there, PoliticsHome has it in here, somewhere. Most of it is well-intentioned: the whole ‘live reporting’ aspect, a few ‘ticker’ areas, a nice grouping of the various sources’ coverage of the day’s big stories, a diary, a bit of story categorisation. A couple of ideas look familiar – the ‘newspaper front pages’ is a direct lift from my work at Sky News, for example.

But it looks like an ugly big database, more like a stock market terminal than a ‘super blog’, or an online magazine / newspaper. It’s hard to imagine a less engaging design; maybe they don’t consider that a priority. But having brought some famous faces on board, such as Andrew Rawnsley and former BBC man Nick Assinder, I’m surprised not to see them making more of the faces and their original material.

The idea of scrolling 100 items horizontally, in the window at the top of each page, is ludicrous; it’s utterly unusable. I’ve got a few issues with the technicals too: some page elements seem to refresh randomly, then there’s a brutal full-page refresh if you leave it five minutes. Quite simply, there are better ways these days.

I fear PoliticsHome has miscalculated. Politics is increasingly about personality, warmth and engagement. That’s why the blogs’ visitor numbers are growing (regardless of the accuracy of the specific figures). But PoliticsHome feels cold, functional and soulless. I don’t expect to use it.

How to live-blog a summit

I think we got away with it. The remit for the week had been pretty straightforward: design, install, build, populate, edit and operate a website for the Progressive Governance Summit of 20-ish world leaders. So yeah, I’ve been busy.

It became an exercise in ‘web 2.0′ – open source tools, free online services, RSS feeds, and a willingness to experiment. Arguably, that’s really the only way it could have worked. And the fact that it did work says as much about the culture change brought about by the new technology, as it does about my own (questionable) skills.

On the day itself, I concentrated my efforts on the ‘live video blog': streaming video broadcast from inside the summit itself, with my live commentary alongside. To my mind, the former is probably more important than the latter. You could see the heads of government talking (relatively) informally, even arguing once or twice, and got a feel for their individual personalities and sincere beliefs.

But this is a blog, so let’s talk blog. There wasn’t really a plan for the ‘live blog’, and the approach changed as the morning went on. It started as a straightforward ‘this is Gordon Brown, prime minister of the UK’, with any good soundbites that caught my ear (and which I had time to transcribe correctly). But as the comments came in from ‘viewers’, it became increasingly interactive. And not just through me as host. Let me give you three examples of the social dimension.

AdSense for conversationsWe got a message from one viewer (blogger Ellee Seymour as it happens), complaining of sound problems. I wasn’t having issues, but I asked the audience. A stream of responses came back: no, not me, fine here, etc etc. Ellee turned it off and on again (or something), and lo, her problem was solved. The audience was providing its own tech support.

Then somebody – Oli Barrett? – spontaneously started sending URLs relevant to some of the points made in discussions. Context-sensitive links, popping up in the middle of conversation… effectively making a reality of Google’s April Fool gag earlier in the week. Way to go, Oli. :)

And none of this would have been practical without the CoverItLive tool. Now I confess, I’d never heard of it until Wednesday night, when Paul Bradshaw left a comment on this here blog. But it was perfect: a single console for live commentary, private messages, moderation of user contributions, and (phew!) a toilet break facility, although they didn’t call it that. (They should.) It was a dream to use… and it was free of charge. I almost feel guilty.So what, you may ask. The dozens of people who watched the video, and followed the blog, probably learned a few things, and saw a side of global democracy that they’d never seen before. We had a few laughs, the majority from the comments we didn’t feel able to allow through moderation. (FYI, very few comments failed moderation… and I suspect the contributors generally knew it was coming.)

But most importantly, we proved it can be done – even with zero preparation, zero prior experience of the technology, and two administrators who (frankly) didn’t know much about the subject matter. People were able to share their thoughts, with us and with each other. Maybe it wasn’t like being there, but it was like being next door.

The precedent is hereby set. Next time, we’ll do better. We need a host who really knows the subject matter (and can type really fast). We need to get the admin console operating on several machines, and delegate the various tasks. We need to bring more coffee. And we need a way to get the chat into the meeting itself – to the conference table somehow, or into the ‘press conference’ after.

Me at No10All the while, our valiant photographer at the venue was pumping photos into the Downing Street Flickr account, which were then fed back into the summit website. The executive summaries of the various expert papers were opened for comments. And my colleague was sending out the odd Twitter flash.

By the summit’s conclusion, we were both tired and hungry. But every comms channel earned at least one holler of ‘bloody hell! this is fantastic!’… which, for anyone without Whitehall experience, is not common.

I’m grateful to the No10 team for letting me play with their summit. I hope we proved a few points, and learned a few lessons, which can help inform Downing Street’s future online work. Stay tuned. ;)