Simon Dickson has been blogging about online government, politics and WordPress since 2005. Some important people read it.

 
 

Archive for 'wordpress'


Thursday 7 April 2011

Cabinet Office’s new Red Tape consultation runs on WordPress

The government's latest crowdsourcing initiative launches today: the Red Tape Challenge takes a slightly more focused approach than previous efforts, naming a specific sector or industry 'every few weeks', pointing visitors at Legislation.gov.uk, and asking them what can be scrapped, merged, simplified or improved.

I really like the idea of targeting by sector, but I'm less convinced by the notion of chucking people rather randomly at various Acts of Parliament. It works OK when we're talking about very specific legislation, such as The Bunk Beds (Entrapment Hazards) (Safety) Regulations 1987. But when it's something as broad as a Criminal Justice Act, it's not much help to be dumped at the table of contents, and told to find the clauses which might be relevant to the Topic Of The Week yourself. And even then, it's the usual chaotic mess of cross-references and amendments.

The site's been built in WordPress, by the in-house team, and uses a custom theme. There are a few slightly curious things in its configuration, which I can't immediately work out; and the content (such as it is) is very formulaic, which makes me think it's been done in a hurry. But it's very nicely done, and suggests the Cabinet Office team are definitely finding their feet with WordPress.

However, whilst - of course! - I'm going to welcome further use of WordPress at the heart of government, I'm slightly bemused. When they moved their corporate site to Drupal, I assumed they'd be adopting Drupal as their corporate-wide solution... and in all likelihood, everyone else's too. It would have been perfectly feasible to build this site, and various others they've done recently, in Drupal... yet they're consistently choosing not to. I wonder why?

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Conceived in Greater Manchester

The Automattic gang have produced special t-shirts for the SXSW festival, declaring WordPress's birthplace to be the festival's host state of Texas. Which is nice, except that it's not entirely accurate.

As regular readers will know, the WordPress project was started by two people: Matt Mullenweg and our own Mike Little. And whilst Matt may have been in Texas when they first discussed starting something, Mike was in Stockport, greater Manchester, England. (In his kitchen, as far as he could recall.) In fact, since it was Mike who said:

If you’re serious about forking b2 I would be interested in contributing.

... I'm saying it was all Mike's idea. :)

Of course, as Matt says in his acknowledgement of Mike's clarification, it's all a bit meaningless anyway. But I can't help feeling it points to something deeper: the UK's - or Europe's? - inferiority complex when it comes to tech and innovation. We're pretty good at this stuff over here too, you know.

Thursday 24 February 2011

WordPress v3.1: another step forward

It's taken quite a while to get WordPress version 3.1 out the door; and at first glance, you'd be forgiven for wondering quite why. You'll run the upgrade process, then struggle to find what exactly has changed. In fact, there are a few significant - or more accurately, potentially significant - enhancements in this release; but a lot of the changes are fairly superficial or 'nice-to-have's.

First thing you'll notice is the new Admin Bar along the top edge of the screen, when you're logged in - giving instant access to the admin dashboard, an 'edit this page' button (where applicable), and so on. In fact, as Puffbox clients will testify, I've been coding something similar into all my design work for years... but I'm happy to admit, theirs is better than mine. If you haven't had the benefit of such a feature before, you'll soon grow to love it.

Then there's Post Formats, which have caused some confusion among the developer community. These allow you to classify different types of post - for example: 'status', 'image', 'gallery', 'quote' - which can then be presented slightly differently by your theme. It's really just a standardised taxonomy, meaning - in theory, and in the future - you can switch between themes, and maintain the differentiated presentation. But you'll only be given the option to choose a Format if your theme explicitly enables it, and few do at this point.

The feature with the greatest potential is multi-taxonomy queries - which, to borrow Simon Wheatley's example from UKGovCamp, would allow you to find all pictures of cats (being a type of animal) wearing hats (being a type of clothing). This has been possible to a certain extent for some time, by hacking URLs, but now it's official - and done properly.

In simple terms, this lets you run WordPress more like a database than a blog - you might be a car dealer listing cars for sale, with drop-down menus to let people search by manufacturer, fuel type, size of engine, colour, number of doors, number of seats, etc etc - or any combination thereof.

But to make use of this functionality, you'll need to be a serious developer: no plugin is going to be able to lay this on a plate for you. So it's continuing the trend I observed at v3.0's release:

But the addition of that extra power, underneath the surface, effectively creates a new higher echelon of 'WordPress guy'. It becomes a platform on which you can do some very serious development, if you know what you're doing. Graphic designers calling themselves WordPress experts might want to re-evaluate.

There are a few things to look out for, particularly if you're running a multi-site setup: there's now a whole new 'network admin' view, replacing the 'Super Admin' menu box from 3.0 - you'll find it by clicking the 'Network Admin' link in the top right corner. It's definitely prettier and slicker once you're into it; but I bet it's going to confuse a lot of Super Admin users initially.

There's a new behaviour to adding links within your own site: you're now presented with an ajax-powered search facility, meaning (in theory) an end to copying-and-pasting URLs from another browser tab. Quite nice I suppose, but it still just results in a hard-coded URL within the text: no DOIs or anything.

And it's good to see further refinement of custom post types and taxonomies. For example, prior to v3.1, there was no built-in way to present an archive list of custom post types - a curious omission, but it's resolved now, and should encourage more developers to make use of this functionality.

But as you'll see from the detailed list of changes at wordpress.org, most of the changes fall under the heading of general housekeeping: a cosmetic tweak here, an update to an included software package there.

Matt Mullenweg declares this release 'more of a CMS than ever before' - and of course, he's right. We're definitely edging further and further into 'proper' CMS territory; but, I think, still clinging on to the 'I just want to write something' mentality from WordPress's early days as a humble blogging platform.

It's another step forward. Not perhaps the great leap forward that v3.0 represented, but that's absolutely fine. The best just keeps getting a little better.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Another Cabinet Office WP consultation

Has somebody at the Cabinet Office just discovered WordPress, or something? I see they've also just launched a WP-based site to consult on the proposed Public Data Corporation. This time, the site is running in the most vanilla, out-of-the-box configuration imaginable - using the TwentyTen theme, and without even tinkering with the sidebar widgets (albeit with the addition of Disqus for comments). It's hosted at MediaTemple... despite the fact that the Office has its own hosting capability at Amazon, as demonstrated by today's Public Bill Stage pilot.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Can Cabinet Office’s WordPress-based commentable bills make a difference?

The Protection of Freedoms Bill, published last week, has become the first piece of proposed legislation to go through a 'public reading stage', as promised in the Coalition Agreement. The No10 website says it's 'the first step towards meeting the Coalition’s commitment to introduce a public reading stage for all Bills, allowing the Government to test the technology and ensure the system works well.' And the technology in question is WordPress.

It's a fairly straightforward presentation, using a custom WordPress theme bearing the catchy name 'Cabinet Office Commentable Document (non-core)', produced by the Cabinet Office's in-house digital team - in double-quick time, so I'm hearing. The government branding is very understated indeed, with only an HM Government logo, in the bottom right corner. It looks like it's all based on pages, as opposed to posts, with a jQuery-based expand/collapse menu (which I suspect has been hard-coded) in the left margin. It's sitting on the same Amazon account as the main Cabinet Office site.

Can it work as an idea? I'm not convinced. The commenting technology's certainly up to it, as we've proven time and again. But legislation isn't exactly written to be read; you don't have to dig too deeply into the site to find unintelligible passages, with every other sentence cross-referencing another subsection of another chapter of another Act... and no hyperlinking (even though all the source material should presumably be available in legislation.gov.uk). I just can't imagine how an ordinary member of the public could be expected to make sense of it.

A starting point would be a 'diff' tool, similar to a programmer's code editor - showing the 'before' and 'after', with changes highlighted. If you've never seen one, they look something like this:

One example: the open source tool, Meld

... instantly allowing you to see where text has been added and/or changed, and how. Wikipedia offers something similar: if you click on 'View history' for any page, you're able to compare various past versions of the page, and see the changes highlighted (albeit in a less-than-friendly fashion). And indeed, back in 2007 MySociety proposed a diff tool (of sorts) as part of their Free Our Bills campaign.

Without this, I can't imagine many ordinary people going to the trouble of decoding what's actually being proposed... meaning I can't see it doing anything to widen participation, if that's the intention. So whilst it'll be useful as a pilot exercise, I fear it'll only prove the difference between green/white papers, which are text documents intended to be read; and bills, which just aren't.

Friday 4 February 2011

DECC launches staff blogs on WordPress

Congratulations to the Department of Energy and Climate Change on the launch of their new staff blogs platform; and particular congratulations for choosing the right software to power them. :)

Like other Whitehall blogging initiatives such as those at DFID and FCO (both of whom already have their own group blogs on climate change - here and here respectively), the DECC site sets out to give readers an insight on staff's day-to-day activity. Four bloggers kick things off: one Minister, Conservative Gregory Barker; and three (relatively senior) staff members.

On a technical level, it's not dissimilar to the work I did for DFID, in that although the four contributors' entries are presented as independent, stand-alone blogs, they're actually just multiple users writing into a single group blog.

The work has been done by DECC's existing digital agency, the Swansea-based S8080. Like their main corporate site, it's running on a Microsoft IIS server, which may explain the lack of 'pretty permalinks' (although it doesn't have to be like that). There are a few rough edges, and I hope they won't mind me saying, they've done a few things in not very WordPress-y ways: entirely understandable, since they're primarily a Microsoft-based company. But hey, it's early days, and I'm sure it'll all be ironed out soon enough.

It's quite a brave initiative on one level: you only have to look at the number of comments typically received by climate-sceptic Telegraph writer James Delingpole - always in the hundreds per post, and often well into the thousands! - to see what they could be letting themselves in for. There's no explicit comment policy showing on the blog: I only hope they've given some thought to how they'll handle the more confrontational comments they're likely to receive. DFID's is a great example to follow, if they need one.

I know both FCO and DFID feel they've got a lot out of their blogging platforms: and I sincerely hope DECC have a similarly positive experience. But it may be a bumpy ride.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

WordPress at Dept of Health

Just a brief post to highlight Stephen Hale's write-up about WordPress usage at the Department of Health, answering the question I posed in a tweet last week:

Just how many WordPress based sites is @hmshale running over at @dhgovuk?

... to which the answer is, one or two more than I had spotted.

It's all Steph Gray's handiwork, commissioned through Steria, with a child theme of the default Twenty Ten. I'm sure Steph would agree that it isn't pushing the technology's boundaries too hard; but it doesn't need to. Stephen's team's needs have been met, allowing them to spin off high-quality subsites, quickly and efficiently, when requirements land on his desk - and indeed, Stephen observes: 'I think the theme will exceed our expectations for it.' I look forward to Steph's write-up of the work; it's highly unusual for him not to have posted something by now.

There's a very interesting sign-off to the piece, too:

I don’t need to tell you that using a straightforward publishing tool like WordPress is fairly pleasing. Having dipped a toe in, it’s tempting to go a bit further than we originally planned.

Whatever could he mean? ;)

Wednesday 12 January 2011

My GovCamp wishlist (and yours)

A week and a half to go until this year's UK GovCamp, bringing together 150 (ish) people prepared to sacrifice a Saturday to drop by Microsoft's London offices, and talk about the web, government, and what happens when you force the two together. Messrs Gray and Briggs promise it'll be 'so awesome it's untrue' - for which I'd love to hold them to account, but I'm not sure how.

So, anyway, it's probably time to start thinking about what I can contribute to the event - and what I want to get from it. Let's tackle those in reverse order.

I want to hear from the new CEO for Digital. If widely-circulating rumours prove to be correct, the Cabinet Office has just appointed a new Director for Directgov and Digital Engagement. The timing couldn't be more fortuitous. You couldn't ask for a better opportunity to introduce yourself, explain your philosophy, and meet the gang. It would seem rather odd not to take it. Sold out or not, I'm sure a ticket could be found.

I want the Cabinet Office to tell us about Drupal. At the very least, their move to a multisite Drupal environment will make for an interesting case study. But my instinct is that the commitment to Drupal goes deeper than that. I'm expecting Downing Street to cross over to the same platform soon (although I have no inside knowledge on that); and if we're serious about Martha Lane Fox's proposals, you have to assume Drupal will be the platform on which the future super-supersite is built. I doubt we'll get an answer to that specific question, but I'll be listening out for clues. (Note: 9 people on the guest list from CO.)

I want to see the meat on the bones. Since the election, there's been a lot of tech jargon flying around, but not a lot of visible progress. There's going to be a skunkworks, and an app store, and everything's going to be in the cloud. Apart from a full house in Buzzword Bingo, what the heck does it all amount to - in real life? Can someone please tell me what a government App Store actually is - specifically, what's 'on sale'? who does the selling? and who does the buying? Who are the skunks, and what will they be working on?

I want to feel reassured. Frankly, the last six months have been a bit slow, with the biggest developments being the departures of senior people - John Suffolk, Jayne Nickalls, Andrew Stott, Matt Tee. We're all feeling the chill of the spending freeze; there is understandable anxiety at talk of centralisation; and nasty tactics by the Big Consultancies to protect their positions in the long term. This doesn't feel like an exciting or indeed a safe place to be right now. I hope I'm wrong. Inspire me, gang, please.

I want our generous hosts, Microsoft to announce that they will use a third-party, open-source HTML rendering engine in future releases of Internet Explorer. Yeah, well. If you don't ask, you don't get.

As for what I can contribute...

Advanced features in WordPress v3.0 / 3.1. Six months ago, I wrote a post about the significance of the new functions in WordPress v3.0:

The most significant aspects ... only become available to those prepared to get their hands dirty in the PHP code. You won't see them, or perhaps even know they exist, until you start hacking. ... And as such, that feels like a subtle departure from the previous scenario, where a 'power user' could accomplish almost everything via the WordPress interface and a few plugins.

In other words, WordPress is now able to do a lot of things that many people won't ever have heard about, or seen in practice: multisite setups, custom post types, custom taxonomies. And in v3.1, which shouldn't be more than a few days away, we'll have complex multi-taxonomy queries and post formats. So I'm wondering if there might be interest in a hands-on demo of some of these concepts - using sites I/we've already built, or taking a vanilla WP install, and wreaking some havoc with it.

Project Defra. I know Simons E & W talked about this at the Word Up Whitehall event, but I know there's been quite a bit of subsequent interest in it. If there's interest in a reprise, or perhaps a more detailed hands-on run-through, I'm sure we can oblige.

Something else. If there's something you'd like me to lead (or contribute to) a session on, please do let me know.

Monday 3 January 2011

Army blogs at WordPress.com, Navy to follow?

A mere ten months late, I bring you news that the Army has started running a group blog at wordpress.com. It's quite a busy site, with 39 posts during November alone, although 10 to 20 per month is a more normal figure. There's a steady trickle of comments on each post; and most posts - but not all - are commentable. The theme is fairly run-of-the-mill; a standard wordpress.com free site with the 'custom CSS' upgrade, costing roughly £10 per year.

I'm also told that the Navy's JackSpeak blog, which disappeared offline when the Navy's site got hacked in early November, may be making a return at some point, possibly also at wordpress.com. The Navy's site was initially taken completely offline, with visitors being sheepishly redirected to the most recent National Archives copy of its careers information for a good couple of weeks or more; it's now back more-or-less as-was, minus the JackSpeak site.

The Romanian hacker responsible for the attack quoted his method as 'SQL injection', and published details of usernames and (encrypted) passwords for three databases on the server: one of which was the WordPress-based JackSpeak. However, it seems as though the globalops area of the site, which shows monthly updates of Navy fleet deployments, had an admin account with the password 'ppp' - making you wonder quite how tightly that particular section of the site had been secured.

There's a delightful exchange of comments on Slashdot on the subject:

The RAF, meanwhile, has its own blogging initiative of sorts: but it's a baffling attempt to force (very) occasional 'blog' content into its main ColdFusion CMS. Meanwhile, back at HQ, the MOD runs a few blogs in a Typepad account: its Defence News and Afghanistan blogs are very active, with multiple posts daily, but are really just press briefing and news aggregation channels.

It's a rather chaotic picture in terms of technology platforms, which isn't great as a matter of principle - but given the rock-bottom costs involved in, say, a Typepad account, it can't be high on the priority list for rationalisation. And if it works, it works.

PS: Please don't be shy about sending me tip-offs, if you're doing something - or indeed, anything! - with WordPress in government.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Puffbox launches site for Djibouti presidential candidate

A month or two ago, to be perfectly honest, I would have struggled to find Djibouti on a map. But for the last few weeks, I've been working on a project to launch one man's campaign to become its President: and the site went live this week.

Djibouti is a former French colony, located on the Horn of Africa, slightly larger than Wales, population well under a million. It's a key port for the region. It also shares a border with Somalia, sits across the water from Yemen, and is home to large French and American military bases. And it's having a Presidential election next year. The current incumbent won a second term in 2005, with a mere 100% majority; and this year, they changed the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term.

Djiboutian businessman Abdourahman Boreh has now declared himself an opposition candidate for next April's election; he is being represented by a London-based PR consultancy, MHP Communications, who brought me in to build a website for the campaign: not voter-facing as such, more as a resource to help establish his credentials internationally.

The site is built on WordPress: primarily pages rather than posts, at this early stage anyway. But significantly, it's in two languages - English and French, with a long-term possibility of adding Arabic. It soon became clear that fudging the multilingual functionality wouldn't work: so it's the first time I've used WPML, the leading WordPress plugin for content in more than one language.

To be perfectly frank, WPML has been a bit hit-and-miss. When it works, it's absolutely brilliant: but some things just haven't worked at all. I've had to deploy various workarounds, sometimes going as far as coding whole new plugins or widgets. And some features, even relatively run-of-the-mill things, I've simply had to drop. It's a great solution for multilingual content; but be prepared for some unpleasant side-effects.

The feature I'm most proud of is also language-related; but is something I've coded myself. We're inviting people to leave comments on most pages; and we're using a WPML meta-plugin to merge the comment threads between translations. In other words, if you leave a comment on the English version, it'll also appear at the bottom of the French version. But what if you don't speak the other language?

Thanks to Google's translation API, and a bit of jQuery, you can click on a link under each comment to translate it - instantly, and in place - into English or French. Oh, and Arabic if you fancy that too. Try it on this page... but don't use up my entire API usage limit, please. Obviously we're in Google's hands as regards the translations' quality: the French is certainly pretty accurate, and the Arabic... well, it looks about right anyway.

I'm also quite pleased with the 'world time' thing in the top corner: not only is it useful as a clock - but by placing dots on the map, it's a subtle way of reminding people where Djibouti actually is; and it underlines the strategic connections with France and the US (plus, by extension, the UN). The times are generated based on proper timezone data, and hence should remain accurate all year.

This time round, I've done all the design and coding myself. But I've had help with the configuration of the WordPress platform, from none other than Mike Little, the man who co-founded WordPress. Mike knows far more about server setups than I (hopefully!) ever will; he's done a great job tweaking things just that little bit more than normal: so whilst it's hardly military-level secure, it's certainly more robust than your average WordPress site - with very little compromising on usability.

It's been a challenging project, taking me into new territory in several respects, and all the more enjoyable for it. It's only by doing projects like these, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, that you really improve as a designer / developer / producer.

So far, Puffbox has a 100% record with political candidates: every one we've ever worked for has been successful. We'll see if this hot streak is maintained next April.