Live text commentary in WordPress

I don’t usually blog about projects until after they’ve happened; but I’m going to make an exception for something that’s going to happen later today.
For just about a year, we’ve been looking after the website for The Big Care Debate, the government’s large-scale consultation on the funding of long-term social care. We’ve had a great relationship with the team at the Department of Health, and we’ve done some fun, innovative and highly effective things: commentable documents, Facebook activity, online questionnaires, even user-submitted photo galleries.
The consultation process is reaching its conclusion, with the publication of the government White Paper on the subject. (For those who don’t know the jargon: a ‘green paper’ presents options or starts a debate, often leading to a ‘white paper’, which is a declaration of government policy.) Oh, and as you might have noticed, there’s an election on the cards, and we’ve already had a few skirmishes on this very subject.
When we first met to discuss plans for the White Paper publication, one idea was to ‘live tweet’ the launch event on Twitter; but I’ve never been a fan of sudden, frantic bursts of tweeting by one of the hundred-odd accounts I follow. (And indeed, I’ve ‘unfollowed’ certain people for doing precisely that.) So we reworked the plan, taking as our inspiration the undoubted success of the BBC’s ‘live text commentaries’ – seen at its best on the sports site on a Saturday afternoon, but used with increasing frequency on the news site, for set-piece events like PMQs.
So over lunchtime, we’ll be supplementing our live video stream with a live text commentary – using ajax and some custom WordPress wizardry. It’s a very simple concept at heart. A live commentary is just a chronologically-presented series of short text chunks… just like a list of comments on a post. So that’s what we’re going to use.
The site editor will be entering his comments via a hidden, ajax-powered comment form: and, as with any WordPress comment, he’ll benefit from features like automatic text formatting, including conversion of URLs into clickable links. Meanwhile, users will see each new comment appended to the bottom of the list, with a cute colour highlight, but without the need for a full page refresh.
Naturally, this means a much increased workload for the web server, particularly if – as we expect – we attract a sizable audience for what looks like being front-page news. WordPress and its plugin collection can do a lot to help; but we’ve taken a few additional server-level steps to ensure all runs smoothly. All the credit for this goes to my regular collaborator Simon Wheatley, who knows a thing or two about these things, thanks in part to his work for Stephen Fry.
There are plenty of options for running live text commentaries like this, such as the excellent CoverItLive. But there are a number of benefits to running it within WordPress: not least the fact that afterwards, you’ll instantly have a bullet-point summary of the key points at your disposal. And as we’ve been building the functionality, we’ve been getting quite excited at other ways we could use it.
If you’re at a keyboard at lunchtime, please drop by, and let me know how you find it.

Photo-sharing function for Health consultation

One of my longest-running projects has been the consultation around Care and Support, and the creation of a National Care Service. It’s been a huge engagement process on many fronts, moving through numerous phases – and the website has reflected that, with frequent changes, additions and updates.
The latest enhancement went live last week – and effectively grafts Flickr-like photo functionality on top of WordPress. We’re asking people to submit photos which illustrate the issue from their perspective, with the prospect of including the best ones in the White Paper due later this year.
Now I’ll confess, I wasn’t too convinced by the idea initially. Would we get any response at all? Would the photos be any good? Would people take the issues seriously? But I’m happy to admit my instincts were wrong this time: yes, people are sending in their photos, and yes, some of them are fantastic.
The upload function is based around the TDO Mini Forms plugin: not always the easiest to work with, but it opens up all sorts of possibilities. In a perfect world we’d maybe have tried to do a really slick upload form: TDOMF relies on an iframe, with some downside in terms of usability. But it’s good enough, and it was up and running in next to no time. All submissions are moderated prior to publication: and thankfully, TDOMF makes this as easy as normal WP comments.
If you know Flickr, you’ll immediately see echoes of its design in the custom templates I’ve done – and yes, that’s entirely deliberate. Since it’s fulfilling the same basic purpose, it made sense to use the same basic presentation. We considered using Flickr itself, but didn’t feel too comfortable with its rules on ‘commercial’ groups: maybe we could have pleaded non-profit status, but it wasn’t worth spending time on. (Comment functionality is of course present on the site; but it was decided not to open comments on these pages.)
I doubt there’s a place for this in many consultations; but I’m glad we’ve been able to prove it can be done – and that there are people out there, willing to get involved. A soft engagement success story in the making, I hope.

We care a lot

One of my bigger projects this year has been the website for the Care And Support green paper, aka The Big Care Debate. Basically, the country is in desperate need of a new funding model for long-term care of the elderly and disabled: and in July, three funding options were put forward for consideration. And we’ve been trying various things, online and offline, to engage people in the debate.
When the green paper was published, we did a Commentariat-style ‘commentable document’; there’s also an interactive on-screen questionnaire, with or without a ‘face morphing’ app which shows what you might look like when you’re old. (I can’t claim any credit for that last element btw.) Meanwhile, in the real world, there have been a series of ‘roadshows’ for public and stakeholders – as shown on the clickable homepage map. You’ll also note, if you click on places like Peterborough, Derby or Coventry, that the team have taken a digital camera with them, and are posting snaps on Flickr. Then there’s the Campaign Monitor email list, the Twitter account, the Facebook activity (official and unofficial)…
The response has been huge, and often angry. The site has received more than 3,500 user comments, the majority of which have been to a single page of the commentable document: there’s clearly been a concerted campaign among interest groups to make their opposition known. There’s also been a healthy volume of comments on the campaign’s blog, written – you’ll note – in the name of the lead official, rather than a politician (although that hasn’t stopped people constantly raising the issue of politicians’ expenses claims).
In truth, on occasions, it’s been too much. At one point, we feared the site had been hacked: in fact, we’d just hit the limit imposed by our hosting company on outgoing emails. (Turned out, it was too many people asking to receive email notification of follow-up comments.) If you don’t count Downing Street petitions, it must rank as one of the highest volumes of responses to a government consultation exercise.
Now let’s be honest: most of the feedback has not been complimentary. There are a lot of people who think the changes are designed to cut their current benefits; and anything the Government tries to do at the moment is being met with disillusionment, cynicism and antipathy. So is it a bad thing to have received so many defensive, angry, confrontational comments? Personally, I don’t think so. Negative feedback is still valid feedback. It highlights the areas where there have been problems, if only communication problems. And it gives you a mailing list of people you need to contact, to make your case.
We’re now into the final month of the consultation, which – for some people, I dare say – is a relief. By any volume metric, I’m confident the process will be counted a success. But of course, the only meaningful measure of success is whether or not it yields a workable proposal with general public approval. In the current political climate, I fear that may be too much to ask. Still, I hope the web element has done its bit.

Our new site for Social Care green paper

CSI homepage
Puffbox’s latest project in the health sector is Care Support Independence, a WordPress-based website in support of the forthcoming green paper on funding and delivering social care. Sadly though, I can’t present it as another victory for WordPress, as it’s a rebuild of a site that already ran on WP.
The original CareAndSupport website was launched last summer; but truth be told, it had fallen off the rails a bit since. I was asked to rework the site, following the very successful model of the Our NHS Our Future site built for Lord Darzi’s NHS review – and, perhaps crucially, giving hands-on control to the team’s experienced in-house writer.
At least to begin with, we’ve consciously kept the design very close to what went before: bold blocks of colour, rounded corners, fairly plain text on a white background. This should make people feel more comfortable in the transition from old site to new; and it has allowed us to concentrate on the mechanics of the move. The new WordPress theme – built from scratch, as usual – is a wonder of minimalism, with all pages (bar the homepage) being rendered using the same index.php template: it should make it much easier to step up a gear when the green paper is published.
It’s the first time I’ve built pages using Yahoo’s YUI Grids CSS – and it certainly won’t be the last. It made laying out the page as easy, and as reliable cross-browser, as old-skool table markup. Have a play with this excellent ajax-powered grid builder to see how it all works; if you like it, I highly recommend this one-page cheat sheet. It’s a pretty good story in terms of HTML validation, too: the only error picked up by the W3C validator is the use of aria-required in the default WordPress comment template.
Having moved the site successfully, we can start thinking more ambitiously about future functionality, design and content. There’s a clue as to the direction of our thinking in the link to the team’s Facebook group.