What's yon MP gibberin' on aboot?

Those of you who don’t hail from Northern Ireland will probably be unaware of Ulster-Scots. It’s a language spoken in certain parts of the province, distinct from English, and is recognised in both the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements. It’s become increasingly visible in recent years: here’s an example of a Northern Ireland government department, Regional Development, whose logo features its name in three languages (English, Irish and Ulster-Scots) – as well as details of its Ulster-Scots helpline number. Bilingual street signs are also popping up here and there.
Now, you might suggest that its resurgence is purely a tit-for-tat response to the province’s Irish language lobby, and to the availability of EU funding. You might also argue that it’s just a phonetic transcript of broad Glaswegian – think Rab C Nesbitt or Billy Connolly. But you would of course be wrong.
Why mention it here? Because this week, apparently for the first time, Ulster-Scots was heard on the floor of the House of Commons. Step forward Jim Shannon, newly elected DUP MP for Strangford, making his maiden speech on Tuesday, who received special permission to offer the following remarks.

Thaur is monies a guid thang at A cud sae aboot tha fowk o mi Baille-Wick bot yince an firmaist A coont it a muckle oaner tae spake oot oan thair ahauf in tha Hoose O Commons. Tha Strengfird fowk ir tha satt o tha grun, an in thenkin thaim fer thair support A wud promis thaim at A’ll wrocht an dae fer thaim aa at A caun.

If that doesn’t make any sense, try reading it out loud. Thankfully for the MPs present in the Chamber who will clearly have struggled with this foreign tongue, Jim proceeds to read his remarks translated into English. (Although given that he speaks nearly as quickly as I do, the Ulster-Scots version may have been easier to understand.)
You can enjoy this groundbreaking moment at the Parliament website: wind the video forward to 18:02:45. Actually, start watching from a little bit before… and see if you can actually detect the moment he switches languages.

Puffbox site wins election award

Front left: back of my head. Front right: back of Mark Pack's head.

This morning, shortly before 11am. I’m sitting in the waiting room at the local GPs’ surgery. Nothing serious; just a routine appointment for a family member. Things are running a bit late, as usual, so I casually start looking at Twitter.
An event about the internet and the election? Ah well, another of those London events I never get to attend. A report being published? Cool, I’ll read it tonight. Some awards? Always worth a look. I wonder who’ll win. Oh look, somebody’s leaked the results. Er… it appears I’ve won. And the train I need to catch is in 15 minutes. So, dedicated family man that I am, I abandon said family member in the waiting room, and (literally) make a run for the station.
The event marked the publication of Anthony Painter‘s excellent – although perhaps too diplomatic? – analysis of the digital election, brought to you in association with Orange. Whilst much of its content will be familiar to anyone reading this, there will certainly be a few examples you won’t previously have heard of. Well worth a read.
And I’m delighted to note that Puffbox client Lynne Featherstone was the unanimous winner of the day’s big award, for Best Use of Digital Campaigning by a Candidate, ahead of Anthony Calvert’s (ultimately unsuccessful) ‘castration’ attempt, and Walthamstow’s media-savvy Labour MP, Stella Creasy.
Anthony’s report is wonderfully complimentary about our work on Lynne’s site:

On every level, Lynne Featherstone’s campaign site excelled: design, engagement, relevance, information. It featured a ‘Lifestream’, which was basically a live feed of all of Featherstone’s social media and web engagements… Her campaign secured a swing of almost 4% against Labour against a national swing of 3.5% (though in London the swing from Liberal Democrat to Labour was only 1.25% so it’s an even better performance by that measure.)

In a brief chat afterwards, I couldn’t resist reminding Lynne that, at one of our first meetings, I’d promised we would deliver a website which would win awards. I’d said that because I’d meant it: an all-too-characteristic moment of wild optimism on my part. We’d actually had our eye on the then-annual BCS Awards for MPs’ websites; but they were cancelled last year… so this news comes as quite a relief, actually!
Lynne was very complimentary about me in her remarks; compliments I’m happy to return (and more). The site was designed entirely around her – her activities, her personality, her narrative, for want of a better word. I’ve since had a good number of enquiries from people asking ‘could we have a website just like Lynne’s’ – and I’ve said ‘no’ every time. (We’ve generally then gone on to design something equally attractive, but more appropriate.)
Once again, I must thank Jonathan Harris, who worked with me on the concept and design; and Mark Pack, who looked after a lot of the technical stuff at the constituency end – not to mention Helen Duffett and others on Lynne’s team. They’re a genuinely great bunch, and all deserve a slice of the recognition.
I can’t tell you how chuffed I am about this. And if I’d promised to do something for you today: sorry.

Minister (not) warned for (not) tweeting at 1am

For the last week or two, I’ve been trying to draw together some thoughts on Ministers and blogging / tweeting, particularly as regards former Opposition figures now finding themselves in government, and a coalition government at that. Truth be told, I still don’t have a great conclusion to share, only that it’s a bit complicated.
One MP who hasn’t let the transition to Ministerial office stop her blogging is Lynne Featherstone. She’s been as prolific as ever, with posts on constituency matters, party affairs and her new Home Office equalities portfolio. This caught the attention of the Daily Mail, who published a story at the weekend entitled: ‘Minister warned over 1am tweets‘.
There were only two problems with that headline:

  • The tweets weren’t at 1am. As Mark Pack explained at Lib Dem Voice, the default timezone when you look at Twitter.com is San Francisco: so those ‘1am tweets’ would actually have been 9am UK time… if that even matters.
  • I’ve been in touch with Lynne directly, and she confirms to me: ‘no [Home Office] mandarins have told me off at all!’ And the next bit won’t come as any surprise: ‘Nor did the Mail check any details with me.’

The extent of the warning appears to have been a proactive call to the Home Office press office, with a ‘spokesman’ being quoted: ‘The Minister is well aware of her responsibilities under the Ministerial Code.’ You could call that a warning; I’d call it a statement of fact.
It’s a pathetic character assassination piece, with so many holes in it that I can’t face picking it to pieces. Even a blog post highly complimentary of her ‘boss’ at the Home Office, Conservative minister Theresa May was depicted as a controversial expression of her doubts. So it’s not a bit of wonder that the ensuing comments react with horror at how someone so divisive and clearly deranged should be a government minister. Even if the Mail were to correct or withdraw the piece – which, so far, it shows no sign of doing – it’s too late; the damage, such as it is, is done.
But at least the ‘proper’ newspapers wouldn’t print something so shameful, would they? Sadly, they did. Later the same day, the Telegraph basically re-wrote and re-published the Mail piece, minus (to give them a tiny amount of credit) the embarrassing timezone thing. The Sun did pretty much the same thing, the next day.
You know, you’d almost think they’re more interested in inventing controversy than reporting facts.

BNP switches to Drupal

I’ve written here before about the British National Party’s website, and its impressive use of WordPress – and more recently BuddyPress, the add-on which turns it into Facebook. So it’s only fair that I note how things have changed in the past few weeks: the site now appears to be running on Drupal, and has – for now at least – abandoned most of the social features which made it so interesting.
The circumstances of the migration seem somewhat, well, chaotic. Webmaster Simon Bennett reportedly pulled the website down a couple of days before polling day – why? It very much depends which account you read. Intellectual property infringement, personal vendettas, a jar of Marmite, commission payments, far-leftist collaboration, a South West Conspiracy… make of it what you will. I’m staying well out of it.

Taking Slugger O'Toole to the next level

If you have any interest in Northern Ireland politics, you’ll be familiar with Slugger O’Toole. It’s by far the best known blog in the province, and manages to pull off the impressive feat of appealing to both sides of the sectarian divide – even to the point of winning awards at ceremonies in both the UK and the Republic. And as an Ulster exile myself, it’s a site I’ve followed for a long, long time.
Late last year, Slugger received investment from Channel 4’s 4iP fund, to take things to the next level. In practice, that meant an update to a design that was really showing its age; and a move from Expression Engine to WordPress. But things didn’t work out with their initial Belfast-based designer; and a few weeks ago, they got in touch to see if Puffbox could help. The no1 website from my part of the planet, wanting to move to WordPress? How could I possibly refuse?
The brief was to reflect the rough and robust nature of the site’s conversations; and pretty quickly,we found a visual style which seemed to strike the right note. But when it came to wireframing, we hit an interesting question: did Slugger want to be more of a blog or a news site?
Our initial templates were definitely more bloggy in nature, but they just didn’t feel right. Like a lot of sites, Slugger’s traffic has always been driven by news events. And as I think I’d always suspected deep down, we eventually concluded it had to be more newsy – and started again.
Most of the effort went into the homepage – and specifically the opening frame (or two), which could well be from a newspaper site, if it weren’t for the ‘torn edges’ effect. And therein lies the aspect of the project I’m most proud of: the self-managing ‘front page’.
If it was a newspaper, it would have an editor (or probably several) tasked with choosing the right order for the stories, tweaking the headlines, crafting snappy summaries, selecting suitable imagery, and so on. But Slugger is run by a loose bunch of volunteer contributors, and couldn’t commit to that kind of management overhead. So instead, we’ve programmed WordPress to select the stories, and sort them, based on a number of predefined rules.
It selects stories based on their date of posting, the editor’s manual identification of ‘important’ stories, whether or not it’s got pictures, and most interestingly, the volume of comments. So a story will almost always get some top-of-page exposure when it’s first published, but will soon drop ‘below the fold’. However, if it generates a good number of comments, it will jump back up to the top – and in all likelihood, even higher than before.
Sure, it’s not quite Digg or Google; but I think it’s interesting that the site’s readership can influence the homepage almost as much as the editor. And it seems entirely in keeping with the ethos of a site whose true strength is in its sense of community.
On the technical side, it’s been really pretty tricky. Thousands of already-registered users, tens of thousands of posts, hundreds of thousands of comments – and the server procured by our predecessors on the project just wasn’t up to the task. Things were agonisingly slow on launch day, no matter how many magic tricks Simon Wheatley performed: so we had to make hasty plans to move it somewhere beefier (and as it turned out, cheaper). Thankfully though, we seem to be in calmer waters now.
Knowing the Slugger readership as I did, I feared the worst when it came to reader feedback. In fact, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. People seem to like the visual approach, and appreciate what we’re trying to achieve with it. We’re fixing the (relatively few) bugs which have arisen, and the contributors are getting used to the new interface and the new functions at their disposal. And of course, this is really only the start: having moved everything over into WordPress, all sorts of possibilities now open up.
Several gold stars go to Simon Wheatley, for going far beyond the call of duty on this one; and thanks to Matt at Dunston Graphics, for getting the design just right, and coping admirably with my outrageously late change of strategic direction.

Lynne Featherstone making a splash

When we launched the new Lynne Featherstone website back in September, our plan was always to add some new functionality once the campaign finally began (properly). One such feature went live tonight: ‘splash pages’, managed purely within WordPress.
I’ve developed a new custom page template, which – as you can see – expects to be used with a (very) large uploaded image, a paragraph or two of text, and a signup form (powered by Contact Form 7). To activate it, you simply change the ‘front page’ setting on the WordPress back-end.
When you view the page, it drops a cookie to ensure you won’t see that splash page again; but the cookie is specific to the page ID number, so it won’t stop you seeing the next one we do.
The template’s first appearance is to warn potential voters of the upcoming deadline for registration; so we’ve had to go abstract with the choice of imagery. Most of the time, I’d expect it to be a photograph – not least given Lynne’s recent recognition as the country’s most fanciable MP. WordPress has allowed us to make the page creation process remarkably quick and easy; so I’m hoping the team will be able to create a couple each week of the campaign, depending on events and available imagery.
By definition, splash pages are an annoyance – an unrequested interruption to your online journey. I’m not a fan of injudicious use of them. But based on this template, Lynne’s should be more substantial and useful than most; and we’re doing our best to minimise the inconvenience with persistent cookies. We’ll be watching to see how they are received.

Our new site for LibDems' Chris Huhne

With the election now well and truly underway, it’s high time I blogged about the latest website Puffbox has built for a high-profile Liberal Democrat – this time it’s home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne, as he looks to defend a wafer-thin majority in Eastleigh.
We were approached by Huhne’s team late last year: they’d seen what we’d done for Lynne Featherstone, and wanted us to do something similar for them. We soon ruled out a ‘carbon copy’ site: Lynne’s use of social media is exceptional, and the approach we took with her wasn’t going to be appropriate for Chris. Instead, we’ve shaped the site around Chris’s rather more conventional media output, but with plenty of scope to expand later, if or when required.
We’ve gone for a high-impact homepage, with a large image carousel highlighting a number of key local issues: and as with Lynne Featherstone’s site, each issue has its own explanatory page which can act as a hub for related posts. Unlike Lynne though, a large proportion of Chris’s work is at national level – so we’ve gone for a tabbed approach, allowing you to switch between national and local issues. (And using cookies, we’ll remember your preference for your next visit.)
Since his election in 2005, Chris had been running a website based on the Prater Raines platform used by the vast majority of Liberal Democrat people and local parties. (It’s actually an excellent technical solution; but it won’t win any design awards.) We’ve managed to bring across the vast majority of the previous site’s content, close to 1,000 pages, by screen-scraping: and whilst the new page addresses aren’t exact matches, they do all work seamlessly.
The site was built on WordPress, with just a little behind-the-scenes help from Simon Wheatley; it was designed in collaboration with Matt Budd of Dunston Graphics. I think he’s done a magnificent job with the LibDems’ somewhat troublesome preference for aqua and yellow.
There are a few areas, in both technical and editorial terms, where I wish we’d had just a little more time; but the declaration of the election forced our hand somewhat. So whilst I’m more than happy with what we’ve already delivered, I think we can make it even better in the months to come. Assuming the voters of Eastleigh give us the chance…

An MP for the blogosphere?

Tom Watson, soon-to-be former Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East, has been the greatest advocate for, and representative of the ‘digital industry’ in the past few years: not just in his time as Cabinet Office minister, but just as much (and arguably moreso) in the period afterwards. I’ve no idea if he has been a good representative of the good people of West Bromwich; but I do know that he raised more issues of direct relevance to me, my work and my areas of interest than the MP who notionally represents me, solely on the basis of where I live.
So I’m intrigued by Tom’s move today, to ask the online community to help him draft a one-man manifesto on technology. He explains:

I want to stand on a platform that is avowedly supportive of the generation that seek to use the Internet to make the world a better place. To do this I have to be able to draw authority from an electoral mandate from electors in West Bromwich East. So Iā€™d like to produce a leaflet that sets out what I stand for. It will be delivered to as many homes in West Bromwich as my campaign team can manage.

There’s a fascinating subtext to that plea: Tom clearly sees the representation of the digital community as one of his key purposes in public life, but he needs the electorate of a geographically-defined area to back him first. The message to the constituency is effectively that the country needs him, and they need to do their duty, whether or not they really understand why.
This is an idea I’ve been quietly contemplating for some time: the notion that a political system based on geographic location is increasingly anachronistic. The World Wide Web has reduced, if not eliminated the need to define oneself on the basis of place. If you’re supposed to judge me by the company I keep, that company exists – for the most part – ‘in the cloud’, not in the immediate vicinity of my house.
Which brings me to the concept of ‘functional constituencies’ – a term I came across in relation to Hong Kong, when working at the Foreign Office in the mid-1990s. Half of Hong Kong’s 60-seat Legislative Council is elected on the basis of geographical constituencies; the other half is elected by ‘functional constituencies’, defined by people’s professions or interests. So for example, there’s a ‘representative for accountancy’, voted in by 22,000-odd individuals registered as working in accountancy; and there’s a ‘representative for Information Technology’, voted by a combination of 364 institutions and 5,000-odd individuals. Wikipedia has the full breakdown.
There’s a not dissimilar situation much closer to home, in Ireland. The Irish Senate (or Seanad) consists of 60 people, 43 of whom were chosen by five panels representing – very broadly defined – vocational interests, and a further 6 by the graduates of two particular universities. (See Wikipedia for details.)
Neither system is perfect, with democracy campaigners seeking changes to, if not the complete abolition of the arrangements. And I’m claiming no expertise whatsoever in the design of democratic systems. But there’s certainly something appealing about a system that recognises – or can be made to recognise – that the nature of community and representation is evolving.
When the manifestos are published this week, we’re almost certain to see all three main UK parties offering proposals for an elected (or ‘mainly elected’) House of Lords. But a second chamber consisting of more members of the same old political class, no matter how proportionally elected, is not particularly enticing. I actually quite like the idea that the House of Lords includes appointees who have demonstrated excellence in their professional field; but I can appreciate that any system based on party nominations doesn’t exactly pass the democratic test.
So why not a system where professionals democratically select those from their own ranks, who best represent their community’s expertise, experience, knowledge and concerns? On the face of it, it has the potential to take representative democracy in a whole new direction, and make it more immediately relevant to all parts of society. Defining the right ‘functional constituencies’, and the eligibility criteria to become an elector for each, would be a hell of a job. But it couldn’t fail to end the notion of ‘them and us’.
Hey, we could even call them ‘peers’. šŸ™‚

Lib Dem leaflet is memorably Marvellous

Only my most dedicated stalkers will remember my rant a year ago, regarding a by-election in Thatcham South and Crookham, the council ward where I live. I was complaining about the lack of information on the contest, which was eventually won by a lady rejoicing in the name Marvellous Ford. I wrote at the time:

A name you won’t forget, although not ideal for search engine optimisation.

… and right enough, I didn’t forget the name. Which is why it came as quite a surprise to see this in the first Lib Dem leaflet of the Campaign Proper:

A selection of typical local people voicing their support for former MP David Rendel, standing in – gulp! – his sixth successive general election (plus the legendary 1993 by-election). But just a minute, who’s that typical local person second from the left? Marvellous from Thatcham? Really?
Now it’s not as if there are many people called Marvellous in the country, never mind in a small – and for the record, not very ethnically diverse – town like Thatcham. But if you felt the need for total confirmation, a quick check on the local council’s website will instantly confirm that our ‘typical local person’ is indeed the Liberal Democrat councillor for Thatcham South and Crookham.
Every election brings its own fair share of crimes against design. But seriously, if you’re going to pad out your leaflet with senior members of the local party pretending to be The Average Voter In The Street – I’d probably suggest you choose people who are a bit less Google-able.

Tories' commentable Budget

Following the apparent success, back in December, of presenting a leaked draft of the government’s IT strategy for reader comments, the Conservatives have repeated the trick by laboriously scanning every page of the Budget book, and presenting them on commentable WordPress pages.
They aren’t asking for email addresses on comments, and aren’t posting the comments when they’re submitted – citing a desire to protect the ‘anonymity [of] those who have sensitive insights’. It turns WordPress into an inbox filtering application, in effect: recording people’s submissions against the page to which they related, but not really doing anything more than that. Nothing wrong with that approach, just a little curious.
Again, I applaud the Tory team’s ingenuity here. But… writing on the Conservatives’ Blue Blog yesterday, Jeremy Hunt said:

We will be publishing it online in an easy-to-read format (not like the enormous PDF documents so beloved of the Treasury) as soon as possible after its release.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with publishing stuff purely in PDF files – and there’s a lot right about doing this site in WordPress. But PDFs have several huge benefits which this image-based site can’t match. Copy-and-paste, search, screen-reading, search engine indexing… etc. Plus, without wishing to be too pedantic: if ‘enormous’ is a reference to file sizes, the Treasury’s 3.5MB PDF file equates to significantly less than 230 JPG images of roughly 150kB each.
Leaving aside the technicals, this is a very interesting initiative on several levels. There’s the ‘crowdsourcing’ aspect, of course; but there’s also an underlying message – that Labour will be trying to sneak the nasty things through in small print on page 186. They do, after all, have a certain amount of form on this.
So is this a declaration that under the Conservatives, they’ll tell it to us straight – good and bad? I sincerely hope so.