Puffbox, the Wales Office and the FOI request

Someone, somewhere is apparently interested in Puffbox’s relationship with the Wales Office. Interested enough to dig beyond the lengthy blog posts I’ve written here on the subject. Interested enough to lodge an FOI request, asking for publication of all invoices and correspondence from May to December 2012.

The result was published this week on the Wales Office website – ironically enough, on the FOI Disclosure Log I built for them. It consists of 132 pages of painstakingly redacted emails – although given that Puffbox Ltd is one person, redaction doesn’t exactly cover my tracks! – plus a single invoice, for £130 ex VAT, for a copywriting job.

Of course, I have no way of knowing who it was who lodged the request, or what he/she hoped to find. If you’re reading this, please feel free to get in touch directly: I don’t believe I have anything to hide.

Shifting sites: a new home for the Wales Office web presence

Regular readers will know the pivotal role played by the Wales Office in recent gov-web history. In 2007, they took the then-radical step of moving their corporate web presence into an open-source web publishing platform, namely WordPress. Nobody died. A point was proven. From there, to Downing Street, to Defra, to Transport, to Health… etc etc.

We started out with two completely separate ‘single site’ installs: WordPress MU didn’t seem quite stable enough. But since 2010, they’ve been running a WordPress 3.x multisite – containing both their English and Welsh language sites, archived copies of their complete pre-2010 content, and more recently, the (bilingual) Commission on Devolution in Wales site. All fairly modest in traffic terms, but punching far above their weight (and pricetag) in terms of functionality.

For some time, we’ve been trying to perusade the Wales Office team to change hosting provider. Getting any serious systems admin work done – including, I’m ashamed to admit, WordPress upgrades – was almost impossible with the legacy hosting company. The market price for hosting had crashed, but their hosting bill hadn’t. And to be quite blunt, they were getting a minimal level of service.

Our first step, early this summer, was to liberate the DNS. As with a lot of websites, the domain name info was held by the hosting company. Two eggs in the one basket. By taking the DNS to a third party, it gave us the freedom to move the sites at a time of our choosing – and the hosting company couldn’t really do anything about it. Would they have been deliberately obstructive? Probably not, no moreso than usual. But ‘usual’ was precisely why we wanted to move.

Step two was to buy some new hosting space. And courtesy of GCloud (v1), this part was unexpectedly straightforward. In CatN, we found a hosting provider offering an appropriate level of service, with the kind of access and support we expected, for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Step three was migration. Assisted by regular partner-in-crime John Blackbourn, we did a number of dry runs, zipping up the entire WordPress installation – database and uploaded files – and transferring it to its new home. Not as straightforward as it probably sounds, given the relative inaccessibility of the incumbent server… but we found a way. One or two rules may have been broken, at least in spirit, along the way. And I’m very glad I’m on an unlimited broadband contract.

Today was step four. We implemented a content freeze at 9am, migrated everything one last time…. and by lunchtime, we had everything up and running at CatN. At 2.30pm, the DNS changes began – some by us, some done on our behalf. (Thanks again to you-know-who-you-are.) With some having very low TTLs, we could see the changes starting to kick in almost immediately. With others, we had to wait an hour or two. But by 4 o’clock, it was done. And with the freeze unfrozen, there was even time for a new press release before going-home time.

No downtime, and no loss of data. Massive performance improvements, at massive cost savings. At long last, a fully up-to-date install. And best of all? If we hadn’t told them we were doing it, I doubt they’d even have noticed it happening.

Bilingual maps with a WordPress custom post type

Puffbox’s longest-standing working relationship in Whitehall is with the Wales Office; it was there, don’t forget, that the whole WordPress-in-government thing started back in late 2007. We moved them on to a multisite setup just before the 2010 general election; and we’re seeing the benefits, through sites like the one we launched in November for the Commission for Devolution in Wales.

They’re about to start a round of public engagement events, and they asked us if we could add a Google Map to the site… which, of course, is bilingual, English and Welsh. It’s not rocket science these days, but it’s probably the smoothest implementation I’ve done, and I thought it might be worth sharing.

We’ve defined ‘event’ as a custom post type, non-hierarchical (ie more like posts than pages), with a full set of fields. It gives the ‘more info’ pages a nice URL, and keeps them nicely self-contained, with benefits for both admin interface and template access.

We’ve then added a ‘metabox’ to the ‘edit’ screen, for the various elements which define an event: basically date, time and location. When you click into the ‘Event date’ box, you should get a popup jQuery-based calendar – but if you don’t for some reason, or if you’re a keyboard wizard, you can still enter it manually. We’ve left the ‘time’ field freeform: we didn’t plan to do anything too clever with the event times, and besides, times are often rather vague.

I’m quite pleased with how we’re doing the location. We ultimately want two things: a text-based name, which should make sense to humans rather than computers; and an exact geolocation, ideally latitude and longitude, for the machines. So, looking down the page, first thing you come to is a text search box. If you know the address, particularly if you have a postcode, you can enter it here; then click ‘find on map’. This sends the query to Google, and makes a best-guess for the precise location, indicated by the crosshair hovering over the centre.

Google’s guesses are usually pretty good, as you’d expect. But you can fine-tune them by dragging the map around – even to the specific building. And every time the map moves, whether via the search or via dragging, the coordinates update automatically.

The text name and the coordinates are saved separately – which means, once you’ve pinpointed your venue, you can then go back and edit the text-based name, to make it less of a search query, and more of a human-friendly description.

That gives us enough data to put the markers on the map – with accuracy down to a few metres if you’re so inclined! – and to generate some meaningful text content too, in the form of a table and stand-alone page. And yes, we’ve got all the info in both English and Welsh – although this site predates our work on Babble, so it uses WPML. (I say ‘all': it turns out, Google Maps doesn’t do Welsh.)

Finally – and you’ll have to take my word on this, for the moment – as time passes, and events take place, they start to appear ‘greyed out’ on the map. We’re using the Google Chart API to generate the map markers, and it’s dead easy to change the base colour in the javascript. (The rows in the table get ‘greyed out’ too.)

Like I say, it’s not rocket science. But it’s always a joy when you can hand what is actually quite complex functionality over to a client, and it just works*.

Small site, big name

It feels like ages since I built a site completely from scratch; so much recently has been about invisible enhancement, or extra-large scale work taking months to reach its conclusion. So it’s been great fun to do a small and relatively quick build for the Commission on Devolution in Wales, established to review the present financial and constitutional arrangements in Wales.

In fact, it’s been a complete identity package: working with Matt Budd, we generated a handful of logo suggestions, trying our best – but ultimately failing – to get away from the use of a red dragon. The Commission team picked a favourite which we then worked up into a website, Word and PowerPoint templates, business cards, etc etc. (Note the deliberate selection of a (free) Google Web Font, by the way: how’s that for ‘digital by default’?)

The website is a child site of the Wales Office‘s existing WordPress multisite setup, which we activated just over a year ago, with precisely this kind of scenario in mind. A couple of clicks, a mapped domain, and bingo – a new and independent website in a matter of moments.

Ah yes, independent. We’re using the independent.gov.uk domain, set up to accommodate ‘arms-length bodies, independent inquiries and other suitable temporary sites’. I still feel slightly uncomfortable with caveat-ed gov.uk addresses like this: is it gov.uk, or isn’t it? But it’s an established standard now, so we’ll happily fall into line.

All of which gives us a site rejoicing in the URL:

http://commissionondevolutioninwales.independent.gov.uk/

unless you’re Welsh, in which case you get:

http://comisiwnarddatganoliyngnghymru.independent.gov.uk/

– which, if I’m not mistaken, is the joint longest root URL in UK government, matching that of the Commissioner for Public Appointments who – guess what? – is also independent of government.

It’s a single child site, running off a fairly simple but internationalised theme. The content is fully bilingual, managed – somewhat reluctantly, I must say – via the paid-for WPML plugin. As Word Up Whitehall attendees will have heard, Mr Wheatley and I are working on a multilingual plugin of our own: but it’s not quite ready yet, and anyway, the Wales Office server wouldn’t be ready for it either. (Long story.) I bear the scars of several WPML-based developments recently, but this one doesn’t push it too hard, so it’s been OK.

My thanks, as ever, to Matt for the creative work, Simon for some last-minute cake icing, and the Commission team for making this one run remarkably smoothly.

We’ll have more multilingual shenanigans to come in the next couple of months… but on a completely different scale. ;)

On government organograms and RDF files (includes free WordPress plugin!)

There was an initial buzz of excitement yesterday, at the launch of the new data.gov.uk interactive organograms… and then, by teatime, a bit of a backlash. I can see both sides myself. Yes, it’s a very cool rendering of potentially quite dull data, and it’s nice to see it done in javascript (jQuery) rather than Flash… but it’s actually a bit fiddly to navigate through. That isn’t to understate the significance of the achievement, though: such a coordinated leap forward, in both technical and bureaucratic terms, is no small task. And there’s so much to it, most of which is beyond me, that I can’t begin to explain it in depth. Hopefully someone else will oblige.

As part of the initiative, departments have been instructed to upload raw RDF files to their websites, from which the organograms can be generated… which caused a bit of a problem for one of our clients. But it’s a problem we’re happily able to solve.

The Wales Office was the first Ministerial department to move everything over to WordPress, back in early 2008; and they’ve been running very happily on it ever since. About a year ago, we helped them build a new Transparency section, which acts as a download area for (mostly) Word and CSV files. It’s all rendered via a custom page template, and managed via the standard WordPress ‘media library’ functionality. Unspectacular perhaps, but quick and easy for all concerned.

However – when they tried to upload an RDF file, they couldn’t. WordPress has a surprisingly long list of file types it’s prepared to let you upload (look for get_allowed_mime_types() in wp-includes/functions.php): but RDF isn’t on it. So it throws up an error message like this:

We could upload it as a zip file, which would have the added benefit of reducing the file size by 90-odd per cent… but then the orgchart generator wouldn’t be able to process it. Dilemma.

But as ever with WordPress, there’s a happy ending to the story. We – by which I specifically mean my technical partner, Mr Wheatley – were able to write a quick plugin to ‘hook’ on to approved filetype list, and stick RDF on the end. Problem solved, file uploaded, everyone happy. You can see the successfully uploaded file here.

And given that there are a good number of government departments running WordPress sites, including at least one other using WordPress specifically for its transparency information, we thought we’d do the decent thing, and offer it up for others to download. Here you go. There’s no configuration interface needed; just upload it, activate it, and start chucking up RDF files to your heart’s content.

Wales Office gets a WordPress refresh

The Wales Office was where the whole WordPress-in-Whitehall thing started, back in late 2007. As a relatively tiny department whose communications were almost exclusively news-based, a blog-style website was ideal for them. But I still remember nervously going into our first meeting, conscious that we were proposing something quite radical.

It all went remarkably well; ongoing support amounted to barely one phone call every 3-6 months, seeking advice or a quick template tweak. And of course, it sparked interest in WordPress as a platform which government could build on: you can draw a line from the Wales Office, to 10 Downing Street, to BIS, to Defra, to… well, who knows.

Two and a half years on, the list of Things We Really Ought To Do At Some Point was beginning to grow. And with the election leading to a change of government, it was high time we made some of those changes. We pushed the rebuilt sites live yesterday, for Puffbox’s second Whitehall department ‘relaunch’ in two days (after this one). Surely some kind of record?

The templates, originally designed to fit 800×600 screens, have been rebuilt from scratch – but hopefully, very few people will even notice. Once again, the brief has been to keep it looking almost exactly as-was… understandably, in the current conditions.

The main new function is an automated Photo Library, exploiting WordPress 3.0’s image handling. The Wales Office team have always been very good at adding photos to their press notices; but thus far, they were manually resizing them for on-page display. Now they can upload the highest resolution available, and let WordPress resize accordingly. And we can present a set of paginated search results listing all uploaded images, linking to those high-res versions, for media to re-use if they so desire.

It all lives in a WordPress 3.0 multisite (and multi-language) setup, including my first step into theme and plugin internationalisation: the same theme creates both the Welsh and English sites, with WordPress dropping in any Welsh translations from a .PO file. We’re using the somewhat outdated Welsh language pack available from automattic.com; late in the day, I discovered a new translation based on WP3.0, but integrating it (and undo’ing my workarounds) was too much to take on by that point.

And because we’re in multisite mode, it’s an easy job to move all the material from the previous government into an explicit archive site – keeping it all searchable, unlike the National Archives copy.

It’s been interesting to revisit what was my first major WordPress project: a milestone by which to measure both my own development, and WordPress’s. Some of my more, ahem, ingenious workarounds can now hand over to proper, core WP functions; but with features like the Photo Library, I feel we’ve pushed things just a little further again.

A hearty ‘diolch’ to Dean at Eduserv for the server-side stuff; and to the Wales Office team, who keep letting me play with their material.

New Wales Office websites by Puffbox

Swyddfa CymruWe’re exceptionally proud to unveil the latest Puffbox site: a new corporate website – or indeed, two – for the Wales Office. And as you’d probably expect from us, it’s not just another government website.

In late 2007, I was invited over to the Wales Office’s Whitehall HQ. I hope they don’t mind me saying, their website was probably the ugliest in government, and people were starting to take notice. They had no hands-on control of their own content, and no site usage data. Could Puffbox help? Yes, yes we could.

The new site, which we’re launching today, was designed, built and populated in a timescale (and for a budget) which would put many suppliers to shame, and gives them functionality which many of their Whitehall neighbours will envy. I also believe it could spark a culture change in how government communicates.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear it’s built on the WordPress ‘blogging’ platform, and continues our series of ‘blogs which aren’t blogs’. News releases, speeches, publications and FOI disclosures are all entered as ‘blog posts’, distinguished using categories. All the more static, corporate stuff is done as ‘pages’.

For the readers, there are immediate benefits. Obviously, it’s prettier. It’s been coded with better accessibility in mind. Every page is automatically printer-friendly, using CSS. The blogging mechanism gives reliable, automated archiving by category and month. Not to mention the various RSS feeds. And as you’re legally entitled to expect, there’s a fully-functional Welsh-language version too.

And for the Wales Office themselves, it’s a quantum leap. Previously they’ve been emailing pages out for someone to hand-code: yes folks, even in 2008. (Not the only ones, either.) They now have direct access into their publishing back-end, with all the benefits thereof. And because it’s WordPress, page authoring and management is a breeze. That’s before we get on to things like Google rankings, site usage statistics, multi-site and mobile working…

Why do I see it as a culture-changer? The site is being run by the Press Office, a small team in a small department (60 staff). They have the authority, and now the ability, to publish new communications at a moment’s notice. If they want to operate by ‘bloggers’ rules’, they can. And as I recall Tom Steinberg once saying, it’s the tools which are transformational. Let’s see what happens… and if they make a success of it, expect others to follow.

Cabinet Minister for digital inclusion?

A timely piece from the BBC’s Ashley Highfield on the ‘digital divide’. It’s timely, because as of this week, Britain has a Cabinet-level minister with responsibility for digital inclusion – Wales secretary Paul Murphy. This news appeared to come as a surprise to BBC Wales’s David Cornock when it emerged at PMQs this lunchtime. Mr Brown announced:

The new Secretary of State for Wales has responsibilities in addition to his responsibilities for Wales. He is overseeing the British-Irish Council, he is responsible for the joint ministerial committees on devolution, he is the Minister responsible for digital inclusion, and he is responsible for data security and information assurance. Those responsibilities are in addition to his responsibilities as Secretary of State for Wales.

All of which is very timely, for reasons I’ll reveal here tomorrow. (Although if you attended my session at Barcamp, you know already.)

Panic over

Well, that’s a relief. With Peter Hain resigning at lunchtime, there was a rush of quite rational speculation that the Wales Office might be folded into a new ‘department for the devolved bits’, covering Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I’ve been doing a bit of work for the Wales Office over the last month or so, which I’ll (hopefully?) be unveiling at Saturday’s government BarCamp. I’m exceptionally proud of it, and I think it’s a potentially groundbreaking piece of work for e-government. But if Downing Street had announced the end of the Wales Office as a department in its own right, the whole point of my project would have disappeared. And for a moment this afternoon, it looked like my masterpiece might never see the light of day.

Paul Murphy, I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear of your appointment. I note he’ll also be chairing a ‘new cross-departmental committee on IT and information security – although the grammar of the No10 announcement doesn’t make clear if it means IT generally, or IT security specifically.