Operational note: sorry

On reflection, it did seem a bit quiet. I discovered yesterday that I haven’t been receiving emails from the website for about three weeks. So if anyone’s been trying to email me through the contact form, or wondering why I wasn’t approving their comments – I promise, I wasn’t ignoring you.
In fact, a bit of radio silence was probably a good thing on balance: it’s been a very busy few weeks here at Puffbox HQ. Two sites went live in the last 24 hours, I’m handing over another one tomorrow, and another (huge one) next week. Something to do with the end of the financial year, do you think? As ever, I’ll write up the details here… but with so many to do at once, it may take some time.

I want to be Brian Cox

Watching Professor Brian Cox on BBC2’s Horizon the other night, two things struck me. One was the fact that physics appears to have come quite a long way since I did my GCSE (and got an A in it, for the record). The other was a reminder that being a good communicator is actually a skill in itself.
I’ve been given a guided tour of the CERN nuclear laboratory, on the French/Swiss border: I’ve actually seen all the kit, up close. But its sheer significance didn’t hit me until I saw this video of Brian Cox, professor at the University of Manchester and CERN researcher, speaking at the TED Conference last year. If you haven’t watched it, make a cuppa and enjoy the next 15 minutes.
How can that possibly be? How can it be more affecting to watch a YouTube video of some floppy-haired bloke giving a lecture, than to actually walk the corridors where the history of the universe is being rewritten (present tense)? It’s the most tangible evidence I can think of, that communicating well about what you’re doing is just as important as what you’re doing… with lessons for all of us in this business.
Sometimes I wonder if he’s just a bit too good-looking for his own good: the ‘indie kid’ clothes, the model hair, the dazzling teeth. But there’s no getting away from his sheer talent – and his passion for the subject. You listen to him, and you come away caring about something you know is w-a-y beyond your comprehension. The Horizon programme – ‘Can We Make A Star On Earth?’, about nuclear fusion – is available on iPlayer until mid-April, and it’s well worth an hour of your time.

Delicious list of UK gov 2.0

Steph Gray‘s latest production at DIUS is a work of genius and beauty. It’s a collaboratively managed catalogue of ‘web 2.0’ innovation in UK government, central and local… powered not by a wiki, but using the bookmarking tool of general preference, Delicious. Brilliantly simple, simply brilliant.
Basically, if you ‘tag’ anything with the term ‘digitalgovuk’ (via your Delicious method of choice), it’ll show up in Steph’s collection. Add some extra tags for added granularity, and they’ll show up in the site’s tag cloud. The site is powered by Delicious’s wonderful RSS feed functionality, with bells and whistles in the form of commenting, thumbnail previews and even a Lightbox-style ‘suggestion box’ popup, powered by Uservoice. I’m in awe.
Use it, people.

Ordnance Survey ban Google Maps

If the police are infringing your copyright, I wonder who you call?
The Free Our Data blog has done some sterling work lately, highlighting Ordnance Survey’s recent warning that it was a ‘breach of Crown copyright’ to display ‘any data created using Ordnance Survey base data’ on a Google Map. Yes, they did explicitly mention Google Maps.
It’s now been confirmed by OS that the Metropolitan Police are breaking the terms of their OS licence, by plotting crime data on a Google Map. You might remember, I noted the significance of their use of Google Maps when it first launched.
As the Guardian guys noted last week, ‘the OS is perfectly within its rights – indeed, it’s asserting its rights as required by its terms of business’ to make an issue of this. But it’s a perfect illustration of why OS is fighting a losing battle; and if the rules are going to prevent the government delivering on a timeboxed promise (specifically, the end of 2008), don’t be surprised if the rules get changed as a matter of urgency.
The Pre Budget Report is on Monday, by the way. Check the small print.
PS: It’s well worth reading what Ed Parsons – ex-OS, now the Geospatial Technologist of Google – has to say on the subject.

Scottish Sec Murphy to keep 'blogging'

Well, here’s a first. Government press officers haven’t been the most enthused by new media. I’m told that’s changing, slowly but surely. But it’s quite startling to see a press office announcing a blog which hasn’t even been launched yet – and even better, syndicating the content via press release!
Clearly the Scotland Office are pretty excited. They sent out new secretary of state Jim Murphy’s first post from his new blog, without mentioning that the blog didn’t exist yet, or even the address it would occupy when it did finally launch. Ian Cuddy managed to glean that: ‘It will be going on the Scotland office website in a more conventional blog format … once we’ve got one or two technical things ironed out.’ Which came as some relief to those of us who feared this might be an attempt to blog by press release alone. What a concept.
The ‘blog’ is now live on the Scotland Office site: but ominously, it looks like a standard web page. No RSS feeds, no comments, no tags, nothing that would fit the de facto definition of a blog. But it’s a start, I suppose. To their great credit, they’ve got it into WordPress relatively quickly. Comments, feeds, the whole lot are now available, and it slots seamlessly into the existing corporate site. Makes you wonder why they didn’t just do that in the first place.
It’s been very interesting to watch how Jim Murphy has warmed to blogging. He started in September 2007, as the Foreign Office launched their ambitious multi-author approach. My understanding at the time was that he had to be persuaded to do it: with the EU Constitution/Treaty argument at its height, a blog was seen as a good thing to do. The FCO project is generally recognised as a success, with Murphy’s own blog being singled out for particular attention: an impressive following, and at least one instance where a reader comment affected subsequent policy. Shortly afterwards (I think), Murphy started blogging on his own personal website.
Had he wanted one, the move up to Cabinet level would have been an excuse to stop. Greater responsibility, no existing platform, etc. So it’s good to see his desire to continue – and you have to assume, it was high on his priority list when he arrived. He tells us (via that press release):

When I was Minister for Europe I had a regular blog. I found it a useful way of letting people know what was going on in Europe, and I got a lot of good feedback. Now I’m Secretary of State for Scotland I’m going to carry on blogging and I look forward to having a dialogue about the really important issues that face our country.

It’s very much the same challenge: emotional discussions about matters of national sovereignty. And by vowing to keep blogging, it’s probably the best signal we’ll get that it was felt to have been a valuable use of his time. There are, of course, quite a few parallels here with David Miliband who kept up his blogging through two reshuffles (ODPM to Defra to FCO), all the way to the Cabinet table.
And while we’re on the subject of people with multiple blogs… I note that James Barbour, press secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow, and an occasional visitor to these parts, now has an official blog on the Foreign Office platform, to go alongside his personal blog outside. I asked him via Twitter how he was planning to juggle the two: his honest reply comes on a post on his personal blog: ‘I’m not entirely sure myself, Simon, but I’m going to try.’ You can’t ask any more. Good luck sir.

Too cheap to repair

I think I need a new printer. The Canon colour A3 inkjet I’ve had for the last year and a little bit gave up this morning. First it was the paper jams, then the print head refused to budge, now it makes a rather aggressive clicking sound. I spoke to two Canon helplines: they were very courteous, and quick to tell me the answer I needed. But it wasn’t really the answer I wanted – ‘chuck it away’.
Something’s clearly wrong with it. It’s more than I can fix myself, but I’m sure someone competent could sort it out. But when did you last see a repair shop in your local High Street? And whilst Canon very kindly offered to send someone out, there’s a £100 call-out fee, with spares on top. For a printer worth maybe £150? It just isn’t worth it. The harsh economic reality is that my printer is going to the local dump. My conscience is only barely soothed by the fact that it’ll be WEEE recycled.
There’s always been a threshold at which things become too cheap to repair. But I’m a bit taken aback by the level we’ve now reached.
A quick bit of web research leads me to a Dell colour laser printer, for under £120. That’s an amazing price, for something which cost £thousands not so long ago. I’ve never had a problem with Dell peripherals, so that’s looking like the most likely option. Unless anyone can advise me of (a) somewhere in Berkshire where I can get a printer fixed; or (b) a better printer deal out there.

MySociety completes crowd-sourced video markup

Congratulations (hardly for the first time, of course) to the MySociety crew: in less than two months, it looks like their community of volunteers has completed the work to timestamp the 42,019 video clips supplied to They Work For You by BBC Parliament, covering the entire 2007-8 parliamentary session. Hero status is rightly accorded to Abi Broom, responsible herself for more than 20% of the effort (!)… but it’s interesting to see a few familiar names in the list of ‘top timestampers’.
Of course, the time is ticking down to the start of the new Parliamentary Session, when the work starts all over again. Tom Steinberg tells me they get ‘only’ 3-400 new clips per day, so keeping up to date shouldn’t be too hard. Unless Abi gets sick, obviously. 🙂
Quite seriously, this is a fantastic achievement. The goodwill of a community of people, coupled with a trivially simple tagging tool, achieved something which – realistically – neither speech recognition technology, nor the IT budgets of Hansard and BBC Parliament (combined?) ever could. And it goes without saying, it’s largely down to the MySociety ‘brand’ of charitable activism: if Parliament had asked people to do this, do you think many would? (Not that there should be much anguish in Millbank about this invasion of ‘their’ territory; I bet Parliamentary people will be the ones most grateful for the service.)
About 13% of the video clips were tagged anonymously; my guess is that, like me, many of those were people who were searching for something on TheyWorkForYou, came across an as-yet untagged video clip, and decided to ‘leave a tip’. For me, the magic of the tool was the fact that it made this bit so easy. But that means 87% were tagged by people who went to the trouble of registering – much more than I would have guessed, although admittedly, 7 people were responsible for over 50% of the tagging.

Tom Loosemore to Channel4

I’m probably the last to pick up on this news, but for the sake of completeness, I should note the announcement last week of Tom Loosemore‘s imminent move from Ofcom to Channel 4’s 4IP.
With the demise of the notion of a Public Service Publisher online, quoted by Tom as ‘one of [his] areas of focus’ in moving to Ofcom, and 4IP’s stated vision of ‘re-inventing the way public service media is developed, commissioned, funded and delivered’, it seems like a natural move. Hopefully it’ll give 4’s efforts a sense of direction; I’m really not sure what their efforts are actually aimed at, and their new media efforts rarely shake the foundations.
Tom’s an occasional commenter on the Puffbox blog, so let’s see if he rises to the bait: does this affect your involvement with Tom Watson’s Power Of Information Taskforce?

Met launches London crime maps

London’s Metropolitan Police has launched the first test of its planned ‘crime mapping’ application, and at first glance, it’s really quite nice. There’s data from borough to ‘sub-ward’ (a few streets), although at the moment it’s only carrying aggregated totals of ‘burglary, robbery and vehicle crime’.
The ‘high/average/low’ colour coding makes it easy to take in; and navigation is pretty good. The selection of statistical geography is inferred from the zoom level of the map – a method which has its ups and downs. But with a postcode search, it’s easy to go directly to ‘your patch’. (I’m a bit dubious about the accuracy of the boundaries, though.) Throw in some nice little Javascript-y UI touches, and you’ve got an excellent start – with the promise of ‘further enhancements … prior to the formal launch of the service in September.’
But what’s most striking about this? It’s done on Google Maps. Here’s a extra-high-profile government mapping application, and they’ve made a conscious – and entirely predictable – decision not to build it using the tool provided by the government’s own mapping agency.
It’s not a million miles away from the vision put forward by the Power of Information taskforce; Tom Loosemore calls it ‘a decent first effort’, but laments the ‘lack of proper profile for your local coppers’.

Ofcom's commentable documents

Ofcom’s Tom Loosemore shows there’s still plenty that can be done with Typepad; an ‘interactive’ version of their Communications Market Review has just gone up on the same account used to host their Public Service Broadcasting review blog. It’s actually the second time they’ve done this; there was a similar trial earlier this year, with the PSB Review itself.
It works very much along the same lines as CommentOnThis; or the CommentPress theme for WordPress, as used by Steph at DIUS. But it’s one of the more innovative uses of Typepad you’ll see.
I must admit, I’ve gone off Typepad as a platform: I was finding it too restrictive, too tied to the concept of blogging (where WordPress was open to being used as a lightweight CMS). However, the single biggest thing in its favour remains the ease of setup: £75.90 per year, giving you full design control (unlike, say WordPress.com), generous disk space and bandwidth allocations, a custom domain, and the IT department need never know. News of a next generation platform is intriguing, with the promise of new features in time… but it’ll take a lot to wean me off WordPress now.
Given Typepad’s restrictions, Tom’s interactive approach is quite an achievement. Each paragraph in the document is its own blog ‘post’, with its own comment stream. It looks as if Tom may have spent a few hours last Friday, painstakingly creating each post in reverse order, to ensure they appeared in numerical order on the site’s (reverse chronological) homepage. Not something you’d want to do regularly… and WordPress ‘pages’ would have made it much easier. But hey, full marks for inventiveness!
(Thanks to Ross Ferguson.)