Why I've resigned from WPUK

WPUK adieu
Last night I resigned from WPUK, the coordinating body which emerged from the organisation of the first few UK WordCamps.
In 2008, I felt genuine excitement at the thought that the UK WordPress community had grown big enough to justify its own WordCamp; and I think it was right to focus the community’s collective efforts on a single national event through those first few years.
I put my money where my mouth was, too: initially as Puffbox Ltd, then as Code For The People, I have been a corporate sponsor of every WordCamp UK.
However, things move on. A number of city-based meetup groups were formed, and began to flourish: Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Brighton, London, Scotland, my own Whitehall-centric affair even. Any one of them could easily have ‘graduated’ to operating a WordCamp. (None did, for whatever reason, until this autumn.)
I continued to defend the ‘one national WordCamp’ position, in the face of opposition from some of my best friends in this business. It was the right thing to do, I argued, until somebody proved it was wrong – by successfully organising another UK event.
In November 2013, I was one of the group which proved it was wrong, by successfully organising WordCamp London.
It came as quite a surprise last week when, out of the blue, I received an email notification of a vote being called among the members of the WPUK ‘core group’ – a 10-strong, effectively self-selected bunch. We were asked:

Do you agree that WPUK continues as a naturally evolving organisation, and that WPUK instigates as soon as possible the organisation of the follow up to WordCamp Lancaster UK 2013, to take place on 12-13 July 2014 at a venue to be decided?

For a year or more, I’d been trying to get the group to reconsider its purpose. Numerous times I’d tried – and failed – to start a constructive debate about the group’s purpose. More often than not, the debate turned startlingly hostile and viciously personal. I couldn’t wait to get out; but I hoped the successful running of a London WordCamp would prove that WPUK had run its course.
The calling of this vote forced my hand somewhat. It wasn’t especially well worded – but it did get to the heart of the matter. Did WPUK exist to designate a single event as being the one officially sanctioned WP event for the UK in 2014? To run an Olympic-style bidding process among candidate cities, as it had done in previous years (with, to be blunt, variable levels of success)?
Calling the vote came as a surprise. The fact that the group voted 6-4 in favour, even after the success of WordCamp London, was a genuine shock.
The group has decided that a bidding process, in which one event ‘wins’ and the others – no matter how viable in their own right – ‘lose’, is still the right way to go. I could not disagree more strongly.
I believe that it’s now actively harmful to the development of sustainable ecosystems around the country. And I believe that it flies in the face of all available evidence.
So I did the only honourable thing, and resigned my position immediately.
Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 18.49.59
And as I’ve been writing this post, Siobhan McKeown has followed suit. I believe at least one other will be doing likewise, if he hasn’t already done so. Those with the closest ties to the WordPress project are leaving the group. Make of that what you will.
I really hope things don’t now turn nasty. Past evidence suggests they might.

Open source didn't exist until 2011

Puffbox emerges briefly from retirement to bring you an extract from Computer Weekly’s write-up of a somewhat confrontational appearance by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and DWP officials before the Commons Work And Pensions Committee, and a reported £40m write-off of IT work.

Universal Credit director general Howard Shiplee also revealed that the new system being developed will use open source, and he implied it will use cloud-based services.
“The digital approach is very different. It depends not on large amounts of tin. We will use open source and use mechanisms to store and access data in [an online] environment. It is much cheaper to operate and to build. We don’t have to pay such large licence fees,” he said.
When asked why that approach was not taken in the original plans for Universal Credit – where an agile development approach was adopted, then switched to waterfall when agile failed, Shiplee said, “Technology is moving ahead very rapidly. Such things were not available two-and-a-half years ago.”

Funny, that. Because…

  • The Cluetrain Manifesto was published in 2000, followed in 2001 by the Agile Manifesto for software development.
  • In 2004, the Office of Government Commerce said open source was ‘a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software’.
  • In October 2008, Amazon EC2 came out of beta after two years of successful operation.
  • In 2009 there was a UK government policy statement which, I felt, explicitly tipped the scales in favour of open source.
  • In early 2010 that policy was further beefed up, requiring suppliers to show they had given ‘fair consideration of open source solutions’ – and if they hadn’t, they faced being ‘automatically delisted from the procurement’.
  • In July 2010, following the general election, the Cabinet Office specifically acknowledged that ‘open source software offers government the opportunity of lower procurement prices, increased interoperability and easier integration’.
  • In March 2011, over two and half years ago, HMRC claimed to have ‘transformed [its] website, which as you know is one of the largest websites in the UK if not in Europe, to actually become a completely open source technology.’

Mr Shiplee is the director general of a project designated as one of the government’s 25 exemplars of digital transformation. His background, though, is in development of a more concrete kind: he was director of construction for the London Olympics. It’s unfair to expect him to be an expert in government technology policy. But one is left wondering how he was briefed.
No matter what you may have been encouraged to believe, there was life before the creation of the Government Digital Service.

US develops shared, centrally-managed WP platform for government

Can’t help but mention the sites.usa.gov project being run by the US General Services Administration, offering ‘a shared service to help agencies focus on creating great content rather than on building systems to deliver that content’. No charge initially, but looks likely in due course. And yes, of course it’s running on WordPress.

By providing agencies with a content management tool that is up-to-date, supports open content, is secure, compliant and hosted, we can help government agencies meet the goals of the Digital Strategy: to enable the American people to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device. You concentrate on carrying-out your mission and engaging with citizens, we do the infrastructure lift.

Can’t argue with that. Nor would you expect me to, having advocated precisely such an approach for at least four years.

Facetious: CFTP's Advanced Search plugin for WordPress

Out of the box: a Facetious widget in Twenty Ten

We’re proud to announce that Facetious, a plugin we’ve been working on for quite some time, has now been released in the official WordPress repository. And we’d like to thank the UK taxpayer for his/her assistance in writing it.
We do a lot of work for government departments, and on several recent projects, there’s been a requirement for an ‘advanced’ or ‘faceted’ search form. This allows you to search by post type, by keyword, by taxonomy, and by month – all together. You can see it on the Government Olympic Communication site, for example, where we let you search its video library (post type) by keyword, and/or theme, department, nation/region, video quality, or month of upload.
We did something similar for the Commission on Devolution in Wales; and it’s a key feature of another site due to go live in the next month or so.
We’re in good company, by the way: you’ll see a very similar search form on GovUK’s Inside Government pages, for example.
It became immediately obvious that we could write the code as a plugin, for instant reuse on any WordPress site. We called it Facetious, because it had the word ‘facet’ in it. And in keeping with our open source principles – not to mention the fact that the development work had been funded by government departments – we decided we would release it publicly in the official WordPress plugin repository.
Out of the box, it provides an enhanced ‘search form’ widget, which you can drop into any WordPress sidebar. If you want to add a customised form into your own post templates, we’ve made that easy too: it’s all detailed in the plugin’s readme file.
Facetious isn’t a ‘search engine’ per se: it’s just a simple way to construct complex multi-dimensional queries. The results are gathered using WordPress’s built-in search function, which doesn’t try to be anything too clever. If you’re looking for smarter search results, you’ll need a different plugin. (Maybe Relevanssi or something.)
Oh, there’s one more thing.
Search URLs in WordPress are the platform’s last unpretty ‘permalink’. Nobody wants to see ?s=keyword in their address bar; and it isn’t possible to cache query-string URLs using something like WP Super Cache. So we’ve created a new permalink structure for searches as part of Facetious, and your search URL now looks like /search/keyword/ – or /search/month/201302/keyword/whatever/category/uncategorized/. This will be applied to any search: not just those submitted via a Facetious form.
If you want to give it a try on your own WordPress site, just go to Plugins in the admin area, and search for it. If you’re a developer, and you’d like to help us improve Facetious, it’s also on Github. Pull requests welcome. 😉
My thanks to Nick H, Nick S and Sara P for letting us experiment on their sites over the past few months: and to John Blackbourn, for doing such a fantastic job turning my hacky code into a plugin to be proud of.

Failing to warm to the Kindle Fire

Pic from amazon.co.uk

There can be few more blatant symbols of internet-powered globalisation than the appearance of ‘Black Friday’ sales in the UK. Personally, I’ve never let concerns about cultural sustainability stop me saving a few quid. Two years ago I bought my first-generation iPad on Black Friday, saving £30 if I remember rightly: Apple are rarely generous with discounts, and it wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to miss.
I’ve had a reluctant eye on Amazon’s Kindle Fire for some time. I played with one in our local Tesco a while back, but wasn’t immediately sold on its user interface. As time has gone on, it’s become obvious that Amazon’s market power would ensure it was a success. We’re also starting to see it listed as a ‘must work on’ device in project briefs. But with Silk, its ‘revolutionary cloud-accelerated web browser’, it’s yet another potential point of failure for your web design.

So when I saw it in a Black Friday sale for £99 as opposed to £129, I gave in and bought one on the company account. For testing purposes you understand. It arrived at the weekend.
The first thing to strike you isn’t the size; it’s the weight. Because it’s that bit smaller than an iPad, you’re expecting it to weigh a good bit less. But it doesn’t. I haven’t got the scales out, but it feels like it weighs the same as my iPad – and yet you’re meant to hold it in one hand, not two. It’s good and solid, though, and doesn’t feel as plasticky as you fear it might, for (in my case) the sub-£100 price tag.
Instantly you’re struck by the quality of the screen. It isn’t jaw-dropping; but you can’t help noticing that Amazon have chosen particularly lightweight fonts for the interface, showing off its increased resolution. The use of white-on-black doesn’t do any harm there, either.
One of the Kindle’s selling points is the fact that Amazon will configure it for you, before it arrives. I opted not to do that; I was intrigued to see the registration process, step by step. And it was a bit of a shock to be hit instantly by a screen demanding credit card details. Yes, it was possible to skip this step; but only until I went to the device’s on-board App Store, and tried to download a (free) app. No go, until I signed up for one-click purchasing: which, of course, requires me to register a credit card. It felt aggressively commercial, probably too aggressive.
The App Store itself is a real disappointment. As an Android veteran, I knew the apps I wanted… and I found about half of them. I’ve managed to find the ones I really need: Twitter, Flipboard, TuneIn Radio, iPlayer, a couple of news apps. The remainder can probably be covered by the mobile interfaces of certain websites: but it’s deeply frustrating when you know that Android-compatible apps are available, but you aren’t permitted to have them.
And then there’s Silk. All we ask from a web browser is that it renders HTML as you’d expect. Basics first, please, innovations later. But Silk has one glaring problem: web fonts. We’ve waited literally years for web browsers to catch up with font-face delivery of custom fonts; and just when you think it’s safe to start using them, along comes the Kindle Fire.
It doesn’t not handle web fonts: but it definitely seems to have a problem with fonts delivered from third-party sites such as Google Web Fonts or Typekit (confirmed in a tweet I received from the Typekit guys at the weekend). And whilst it might seem like a small thing, it can be enough to completely ruin a design you’ve painstakingly put together.
I think I expected something very different from the Kindle Fire. I thought I was buying an Android tablet, which happened to include an e-reader function. In fact, it’s an e-reader which happens to run some tablet apps as a fortunate bi-product.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the main user interface. Turn on your Kindle Fire, and you’re confronted not by an Android ‘desktop’, but an iTunes-esque coverflow interface which treats apps in the same way it treats books. As a usage metaphor, it’s entirely reasonable for (the products formerly known as) albums or books, where in the offline world, you’d run your thumb along items on a shelf to find the one you want. But apps just don’t work like that, never have, and never will.
It also lacks certain things that we’d probably expect a ‘proper’ tablet to include, such as a camera (or two). But the Kindle Fire just isn’t a proper tablet… and it seems to go out of its way not to be. I’ve tried to use it as a ‘proper’ tablet like I’ve used my iPad for the past two years, and it’s an unsatisfying experience. But maybe that’s my mistake.
The Kindle Fire will succeed. For roughly a third the price of an iPad, you get a device that’s maybe half as good, so it’s not a bad deal. But it isn’t great as a tablet; and although I’m no expert, I think I’d probably prefer to consume e-books on a ‘proper’ e-ink device, like a standard Kindle.
Someone close to me has asked for a tablet to call her own, as a Christmas present. It was nearly going to be a Kindle Fire. It won’t be now.

GDS climbdown on 'F#@! IE6' stance

In a post on the (then) Alphagov blog in April last year about design principles:

Given it has 3.5% UK market share and Microsoft are trying to persuade everyone to shift off it, we assumed IE6 is dead (actually, we were a tad ruder than that).

The blog post was illustrated by a photograph showing design principles scribbled on cards, and stuck around the room (which was in the old COI headquarters of Hercules House). See that ‘IE6’ one disappearing off the top? There’s a very good reason why the photo is cropped precisely there. Clue: four letters, begins with F.

On the GDS blog today:

I think this is a well-intentioned mistake. Gov.uk is a clean slate, a rare opportunity to force people to upgrade, for their own good. GDS is a future-oriented operation, charged with leading a revolution in the delivery of public services. Oh – and cutting costs, too. Ask any web developer about the cost, in terms of both person hours and opportunity cost, of supporting IE6.
This effective endorsement of the continued use of an 11 year old browser is entirely contradictory to that mission. Sure, they’d take some flak for it. But it would be an opportunity to promote the message of ‘Government’s preferred online security advice channel’, GetSafeOnline, which states quite categorically: ‘Always ensure that you are running the latest version of your chosen browser.’

Should we have another WordUp Whitehall?

Over the last couple of months, numerous people have got in touch to ask if there’s going to be another WordUp Whitehall this year. And although I didn’t initially think it was a good idea, I think I’ve been persuaded.
For the past two years, I’ve organised WordUp Whitehall as a kind of ‘WordCamp’ for civil servants who are already using WordPress (or are seriously considering it), and the developers/agencies they’re working with. It’s mostly a series of ‘show and tell’ sessions, aimed at sharing experiences, stimulating ideas and spreading good practice. I also try to persuade a special guest or two to come along.
Recognising that it’s a workday event, and that departments have been generous enough to offer conference facilities at no charge, we’ve enforced fairly strict rules of engagement. UK central government only, with limited numbers from each department. Outsiders by invitation only. Guaranteed confidentiality where requested. And no sales pitches. They’ve been beautifully observed, for which I’ve been most grateful.
Both previous years, we’ve had about 50 places… and both times, we’ve ‘sold out’ within 24 hours. Various senior and influential people have gone on to explicitly credit the events with helping them rethink or rewrite their digital strategies, leading in many cases to major new projects being done on WordPress. (It’s also been, ahem, flattering to see other countries and CMS communities subsequently starting to run very similar events.)
But I wasn’t sure about doing it again this year. Previously, we’ve had a handful of obvious flagship projects for people to come along and present: Health, Transport, No10, GCN, etc. But the past year or more has been dominated by the development of GOVUK, and its imminent consumption of all departmental sites. We simply haven’t had any ‘big bang’ WordPress launches post-GDS. And that made me wonder if we had enough to talk about.
I’ve subsequently been persuaded that there’s definitely an appetite for another event… but perhaps a slightly different one.
We’ve already been offered a much larger venue than in previous years: so it’s probably the perfect time to extend the event beyond Whitehall – local government, arms-length bodies, perhaps friends overseas.
And if we’re short of ‘flagship’ projects to present, maybe it’s time for a slightly different agenda. Perhaps a greater number of shorter presentations, focusing on specific (little) things we’ve all done. I’m not sure the beautiful chaos of a multi-track, self-organising BarCamp / GovCamp style event is quite right, but perhaps it does.
Some things won’t change, though. It’ll still be free to attend. It’ll still take place in mid to late Autumn. Most of the ‘rules of engagement’ will still apply. And yes, there will be donuts.
So… it’s over to you lot.
I’d love to hear what you, the potential attendees, think.

  • What level of interest is there beyond Whitehall?
  • Are there any ‘flagship’ projects I’ve missed somehow? Perhaps beyond Whitehall?
  • Does everyone have a ‘little thing’ they could present?
  • Do we prefer structured or chaotic?

Please leave a comment below, and let’s see where the consensus lies.

Two projects make State Of The Word

Saturday saw the annual State Of The Word address by WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, as part of WordCamp San Francisco. Worth taking an hour out to watch it, if you’ve got any interest in the WordPress project.
And I’m delighted to note that not one, but two Code For The People projects got a mention during the talk: our work for the Rolling Stones, and Oxford University’s Free Speech Debate (although the latter was a bit blink-and-you’ll-miss-it). We’d have been delighted to see one project among Matt’s hand-picked highlights of the year; having two is a bit of a shock.
The other important point to note is that WordPress 3.5 will be released on 5 December (‘I 100% believe it’s gonna happen’), even if it means dropping certain features. We’re already starting to see signs of what’s in store, including the Twenty Twelve theme, and changes to Media uploading.

Code For The People among only nine agencies with WordPress VIP accreditation

Big news today, if you’re into this sort of thing: Automattic have just announced an extension of their WordPress.com VIP Featured Partner program(me). It used to be only for other technology platforms; but they’ve now opened it to interactive agencies.
There are only nine in the initial group of agencies vetted ‘to ensure the agency’s capabilities fit the needs and scale of VIP customers’. And we’re among them.
It’s an elite bunch we find ourselves in: exclusively English-speaking, majority US-based, with a smattering of famous names (well, in certain circles). To be quite honest, we’ve no idea where it might lead. But with a client list like ours, we feel we’re already playing in that VIP league already, and we’re excited at the possibilities coming from wider exposure.
To mark the occasion, we’ve (finally!) got a Code For The People website up – and we’re really quite proud of it. It’s in the ‘one page’ style – partly because we didn’t have time to write loads of editorial, but also because you don’t have time to read it either.
Although the content is hardcoded, it’s been built as a barebones WordPress theme, giving us easy access to extra functionality – there’s an embedded contact form, for example, and an embedded version of Simon’s Twitter Tracker widget. I’m sure we’ll migrate more stuff into it over time. But then again, I bet we’ve all said that, and then… well, you know.
It’s been a(nother) fantastic piece of work by Laura Kalbag, who led on the visuals, and took charge of the coding duties in the latter stages. Thanks, Laura.

Cutting down on cookies: practical tips

The Government Digital Service’s Implementer Guide for the new cookie rules recommended that site owners should audit their sites, and look to reduce ‘unnecessary and redundant cookies’. With or without the new rules, it’s still sound advice. So I thought I’d share a couple of things we’ve done for clients, which might be helpful to other people.
It’s easy enough to look at the cookies being dropped by your own site, but life becomes a lot more difficult when it comes to third party services. You might not realise it, but every time you embed a YouTube video on a page, you’re exposing your users to YouTube cookies. And if you’ve included Twitter’s excellent profile widget on your site, guess what? – it’s dropping cookies too.
Both services would probably argue that any user tracking is ultimately for users’ benefit: and in fact, unlike many in the web industry, I have some sympathy for that argument. But I’m not entirely comfortable with government websites acting as (unwitting?) conduits between users’ personal web histories and third-party services.
YouTube offers a seamless solution: a parallel domain, youtube-nocookie.com which gives you the exact same YouTube playback function, but tighter controls over cookies. If you’re ever embedding a clip manually from youtube.com, you’ll see an option to ‘Enable privacy-enhanced mode’: tick this, and you’ll see the embed code’s reference to youtube.com change to youtube-nocookie.com. Easy as that.
(The name is slightly deceptive: it doesn’t completely eliminate the use of cookies. YouTube’s help pages indicate: ‘YouTube may still set cookies on the user’s computer once the visitor clicks on the YouTube video player, but YouTube will not store personally-identifiable cookie information for playbacks of embedded videos using the privacy-enhanced mode.’)
On a couple of client sites with large quantities of videos, FreeSpeechDebate and the Government Olympic Communication site, we use a WordPress custom post type to simplify the process of adding YouTube content. All they need to do is paste the URL of the clip’s page into a WP editing screen, and we extrapolate all the rest: embed code, thumbnail image, dimensions and so on. The videos are then included automatically at the top of the appropriate page.

As seen at goc2012.culture.gov.uk

We’ve now altered that functionality to serve all videos from the youtube-nocookie.com domain; and also to include the youtube-nocookie.com domain in the embed code we offer. A fairly simple case of find-and-replace, initially in the page template’s PHP, and subsequently also in javascript if users want to customise the dimensions.
Avoiding Twitter’s cookies has been slightly trickier. Our solution has been to move clients away from the official Twitter widget, instead deploying my colleague Simon Wheatley’s well-established Twitter Tracker plugin (downloaded well over 10,000 times), which we’ve adapted to permit cookie-free usage.
Twitter Tracker adds two new WordPress widgets: one showing Twitter search results for your chosen term or hashtag, the other displaying all tweets by a given user. It includes local caching of the data, minimising traffic to Twitter and (in all likelihood) rendering the pages much faster – for the loss, admittedly, of a ‘real time’ view, which may or may not be important to you.
However, because the widgets call users’ profile images live from twitter.com, cookies were still being dropped. So there’s now a ‘partner plugin’, called Twitter Tracker Avatar Cache, which – as the name suggests – downloads any Twitter profile images and saves them locally within WordPress. No need to call them in from twitter.com, and hence no cookies. (For those who don’t want this extra functionality, the base plugin will continue to work as it always has.) It’s available now from the WordPress plugin repository: find it via the ‘Add New’ screen in your WordPress admin interface.
For most people, this will probably seem like overkill – and in fairness, it probably is. But for quite a few of our clients, it’s been a helpful way to avoid some of the more sensitive issues around cookies and usage tracking, without compromising on site functionality.