Culture blogging with Movable Type

I’ve only just come across the Department for Culture, Media and Sport‘s blogging server, running on Movable Type. Departmental CIO Mark O’Neill certainly kept that one quiet, when he came along to Word Up Whitehall last week. 😉

Started back in June, it consists primarily of posts by junior ministers John Penrose and Hugh Robertson – but features occasional posts by secretary of state Jeremy Hunt (who continues to blog on his constituency site), and a somewhat random collection of guest bloggers including celebrities, sports stars and officials: but these only seem to be one-off contributions.

It looks nice, and they’re making an effort with photos. But there’s no commenting, no subject tagging, no author archiving, just a single global RSS feed, and only the highest-level categorisation of posts. As a result, there’s no real sense of structure, and nothing making me want to engage with either the authors or the content.

BIS website grows up

There’s a new website for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – aka BIS – this weekend; and as I reported here back in November (sniff!), they’re waving farewell to WordPress as their core publishing platform. The new site is built on Sitecore, and is appearing bang on the published schedule.

Visually it’s really nice: a very open feel to the design, good solid navigation and a very fashionable ‘carousel’ slideshow at the top of the homepage. It still doesn’t feel like a large site, although it’s clearly much deeper than its WordPress predecessor – and that’s definitely a compliment. As you might expect, given they’ve got some of the most web- and social-media-savvy people in Whitehall, it’s a fine piece of work.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride for them though. With purdah probably only 4 weeks away, with Lord Mandelson as your minister, in the wake of the Tory technology manifesto, given controversy over the Digital Britain bill, given the possibility (likelihood?) of Machinery of Government changes in a couple of months, etc etc… well, you can imagine what headlines it might prompt. But the BIS team aren’t stupid; I’m sure they’ll have a comms plan ready.

On the WordPress front – yes of course, it’s a pity to lose a ‘trophy user’. It’s been great to quote the main corporate web presence of one of Whitehall’s highest-profile departments as a WordPress-based site. But remember why it was on WordPress in the first place: a small-scale, stop-gap website, thrown together within (literally) a couple of days. Precisely the kind of lightweight, tactical context where we’ve always said WordPress excels.

And whilst WordPress might not be right for a single department-wide site, with thousands of pages and dozens of authors, I refer you to our recent work with BIS on Science and Society, and its testing of the concept of a ‘network of blogs’ making up a larger site. This model is already starting to happen in a few places: I know of one Whitehall departmental site which is steadily hiving off various bits to stand-alone WordPress sites. And of course, BIS have quite a few WordPress-based sites which remain live, even after the parent site ‘grows up’.

Now… chances are, on 7 May, we’re going to have a few new or rejigged entities keen to get web presences up and running: certainly quickly, probably cheaply. As BIS has hopefully proven beyond all doubt, WordPress is up to the task: at least in the short term, and probably longer – ask the Wales Office, now into year 3 of operation. And for the record, it ticks a good number of the boxes on BIS team leader Neil Williams’s Fantasy CMS wishlist. We’re ready when you are.

Our modest microsite for UKTI

Monday saw a gathering of 250 leading figures from the world of business at London’s Saatchi Gallery; and organisers UK Trade & Investment asked Puffbox to put together a microsite for the event. With minimal advance publicity, few official post-conference outputs, and no particular involvement for the general public, we felt the best approach was to work up a relatively modest ‘one page site’ idea, ‘mashing up’ material from numerous external sources.

For the past few months I’ve been falling in love with javascript library jQuery; and I wanted to make use of what I’d learned – partly to enrich the user experience above that of a fairly static page, but also to simplify its management. So there’s a nice little sideways-scrolling video playlist – which uses jQuery not only for the animation effect, but also to wrap the content in the necessary HTML markup. Each set of three videos needs to be contained in an LI tag; but doing that manually would have been a nightmare, especially when it came to adding new videos midway down the list – so jQuery does it on my behalf.

When you click to play a video, it loads in the page’s main panel – and generates a few extras too. We’re offering YouTube’s little-known short URL format for easier sharing; social buttons for Twitter, Facebook and Delicious; plus a (somewhat experimental) click-to-copy button, which triggers a rather cute colour trick when you press it. None of it rocket science, but it all helps make things a little more user-friendly, and hopefully a bit more memorable.

(If you’re keen to know how any of it was done, a peek at the source code should reveal all.)

It was a little strange to find myself right back at the coalface, hand-coding HTML pages in real-time: it’s been a good few years, probably dating back to my time at the Foreign Office or Sky News since I’ve had to do that. (Yes folks, that’s right – no WordPress this time.) And inevitably, with various people producing various things in various places – all also in real time, a significant proportion of the effort went on coordination rather than pure web development.

This wasn’t a website on the scale of, say, FCO’s efforts for the London Summit last year. But given what we had, in terms of both time and material available, I’m definitely pleased with it. Looks pretty, thanks to designer Matt; with some cute interactions, thanks to jQuery; and relatively easy to maintain on the day. I’m particularly grateful to UKTI, who were an ideal client in many respects – telling us the end result they wanted, and allowing us to work out how best to do it.

Real Help Now: a national picture

Real Help Now

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working with the Downing Street team to put together Real Help Now –  a fairly modest website, for now anyway, to introduce and demonstrate the practical help available to families and businesses during the recession.

Fundamentally, in this initial build, it’s a news aggregation site – pulling together material not just from national sources, but regional and local too. The aim is to complement the citizen- and business-facing stuff, at Directgov and BusinessLink respectively, by showing what’s actually happening on the ground, well away from Whitehall and the City.

What CMS are we using? Brace yourself – for once, it’s not WordPress. Not yet.

The news content is being managed through a Delicious account. When we spot a new item of interest, we tag it with the relevant region; then, when you click a region on the map, we call the relevant RSS feed in (via Google’s excellent feed API). The feeds give us everything we need; the Delicious tagging tools are excellent; and, of course, it also means Delicious users can interact directly with the account, if they so desire. The ‘latest video’ box works off RSS feeds too: we’re aggregating YouTube feeds from several government accounts, plus relevant material from Downing Street’s Number10TV (which uses Brightcove).

I could bang on about the intricacy of the HTML layering, or the gorgeous JQuery fades on the video box; but you may as well have a look for yourselves. My only disappointment comes from the animation effects I had to ditch late on, when I couldn’t make them work satisfactorily in IE6. (The majority getting a lesser service due to the minority’s refusal to make a free upgrade? – discuss.)

We aren’t making any great claims for this site: it is what it is, a pretty front end, courtesy of regular collaborator Jonathan Harris, pointing to other people’s material, plus a (first person) message from the Prime Minister. But if it can establish itself, there’s naturally plenty of scope to extend and expand into something more communicative and interactive.