DFID's blogs feed new Guardian site

With the kind assistance of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (I think he used to be big in computing or something), the Guardian has launched a new (sub)site dedicated to global development. And quite remarkably, it features regular contributions by UK civil servants.
In fact, it’s feeding (literally) off the DFID Bloggers site, built by Puffbox nearly two years ago (!). It pulls in the latest handful of stories from the DFID site’s RSS feed, and displays them in a cute little animated box. Pretty much what the DFID homepage itself does…
… except that the DFID homepage does something a little bit cleverer. As you’ll see, it carries not only the title and description – typical of any RSS feed; but it also shows the author’s face and job title, neither of which are standard RSS elements. It also turns the blogger’s name into a link to their personal blogging archive. Cool, eh? – dead easy, actually.
We do this with the aid of a little WordPress magic. The author photo is uploaded into WP using a plugin called User Photo; but Simon Wheatley and I worked on a ‘meta plugin’ to ensure these photos would be square, and hence more predictable to work with. And before you ask, yes, the meta plugin was indeed made available at wordpress.org… and has been downloaded over 3,700 times as I write this.
(The job title is an additional field added to the user profile; at the time, we did that with a custom plugin, but now I’d probably use this code by WP guru Peter Westwood.)
We then call this extra info – where available – into the RSS feed with a custom function, using the rss_item hook. (It’s all formatted using the standard MediaRSS extension, originally by Yahoo.) And so, each time a new post is added to the DFID Bloggers site, the DFID homepage can extract all the data it needs from the RSS feed, and slot them into the appropriate box.
… which is a very roundabout way of demonstrating that, contrary to what you may have read lately, there’s plenty of life in RSS yet.

Wireframes? Specs? Ha.

I’ve added a lengthy comment to Stephen Hale’s recent blog post about preparations for a much-needed redesign of the FCO’s blogs.fco.gov.uk site. Unfortunately, the FCO’s platform did horrible things to the formatting, so even if it’s only to make it legible, I thought I’d echo one of the more controversial points I made in that comment.
Specifically: my point that, for a project like that, the days of spending weeks and months honing wireframe diagrams and/or lengthy functional specifications should be behind us.
A blog platform is no longer a start-from-scratch, blank-sheet-of-paper kind of project. Wipe away the surface layer, and there’s a very limited range of web page layouts these days. The functionality of a blog platform is even more standardised, with only a handful of serious candidates. Virtually all the functionality you’ll need will be ready, out of the box, within a matter of minutes.
Having done this very regularly for several years now, I strongly believe that if you have a fairly good idea of the functionality you want, and a fairly good idea of the platform you like, you should look to force the two together at the earliest possible opportunity, rather than spending ages and £££ refining your wireframes and technical spec to perfection. Why waste time and money dreaming of what you might like, when you can have it in front of you within minutes, and know?
It’s like when you buy a new car. Cars are a mature technology. They all feel a bit different, and come with slightly different features, but they all do broadly the same thing in the same way. If you want a new car, you don’t sit down and design your dream car. You don’t recruit your own team of engineers, designers and mechanics. You make a list of the few things that are important to you; then you go to the local showrooms and test-drive a few.
In writing my comment for the FCO site, I went out of my way to avoid using the word WordPress. But my blog, my rules. So here’s the slightly less diplomatic version of what I wanted to say.

  • In a world of instant zero-cost availability, it’s ludicrous to consider functionality and platform in complete isolation from each other. It just is.
  • WordPress’s status as the world’s leading blogging platform is now, I’d suggest, undisputed. So if you want to run a multi-author blogging arrangement, it should be on WordPress. If you don’t believe me, maybe you could ask the Telegraph: they tried a bespoke platform, then tried a commercial product, then finally saw sense.
  • DFID are already running a multi-blogger platform, based on WordPress, and have been doing so most successfully for the last 15 months. It can do everything that you’d expect any such site to do – and more. It’s unquestionably a better system than the FCO’s. It ticks all the boxes on the FCO’s future wireframes; and if there’s anything it can’t already do, it can almost certainly be grafted on: that’s the beauty of WordPress. And we’ve proven that with them numerous times.
  • The DFID code is open source. Some of the key plugins are already available to the world on wordpress.org; I’m happy to explain and share any lower-level stuff within the templates.


  • If FCO come up with a reason why they can’t use the world-leading and lowest-cost solution, in conjunction with code already proven within government and also freely available, I sincerely look forward to hearing it. And I imagine Parliament will too.

Building DFID's new consultation platform

A few months back, I helped the Department For International Development set up an online consultation site for their white paper on Eliminating World Poverty. We used WordPress (obviously), plus Steph Gray’s Commentariat theme (with a few tweaks). The site was well received, and had close to 500 reader comments, many of them lengthy. So when a new consultation came along, into DFID’s plans to spend £8.5bn on education in developing countries, I’m delighted to say they were keen to do it again.
This time, we’ve done it slightly differently – creating a reusable platform for online consultations, instead of just another one-off site build. Rather than use the Commentariat theme itself, I’ve built a generic DFID-styled theme to fit almost seamlessly into their corporate look and feel; but the defining elements – reverse-dated posts in categories, the floating comment box – are still there.
And significantly, we’ve moved from ‘normal’ WordPress to a WordPress MU (‘multi user’) installation. This brings several important benefits for DFID:

  • the ability to create new sub-sites in a matter of seconds, through the WP interface;
  • centralised management of platform / plugins / themes;
  • one sign-on for all blogs on the system: OK, it’s not ‘single sign-on’ via LDAP or anything, but it’s a start!
  • varying levels of user permission: you can give someone ‘admin’ status on a sub-site, and still keep the most dangerous options at the higher ‘site admin’ level;
  • once it’s in, you can avoid all the usual IT Department headaches – DNS being a particular problem, I’ve found;
  • and yes, it’s also cheaper for them in the long run. They no longer need to hire me to set these things up for them. (D’oh!)

Now having said all that, working with MU isn’t without its issues. Historically it didn’t get quite the same love and attention that ‘normal’ WordPress got; although to be absolutely fair, the delay between ‘normal’ releases and the matching MU releases has been cut right down. Some of its processes and language could be clearer: for example, when is an admin not an admin? When he/she’s a site admin, of course. And how do you make someone a site admin? You type their username into a text box under Options, naturally. (That took me a l-o-n-g time to figure out.)
Coincidentally, as I’m writing this, I get a tweet from COI’s Seb Crump: ‘@simond what’s the tipping point for considering WPMU? Plans for maybe up to 3 blogs eventually, but their launches spread over next 2+years
For me, it’s not particularly about the number of blogs being managed: it’s about the convenience of using the single installation. If those benefits I bullet-listed above are of interest to you, then MU is worth doing even if you’re only planning on having two blogs. Particularly in a corporate context, it means you can delegate quite a lot of responsibility to individual staff or departments, whilst still being able to wade in as and when. (And with automated upgrading now built-in, I’d say that’s a bigger issue now than it was previously.) But be warned, MU does have a learning curve. Even as a (normal) WordPress veteran of several years experience, it still beats me sometimes.
But in a 2+ year timespan, it ultimately won’t matter. It was announced in late May 2009 that ‘the thin layer of code that allows WordPress MU to host multiple WordPress blogs will be merged into WordPress’; I don’t believe there’s a confirmed timetable for it, though. That should mean that the MU elements get raised to the same level of perfection as in the ‘normal’ product: unquestionably a good thing, I’d say.
Anyway, back to the DFID project. I’m delighted with the first site to be built on the platform: and the DFID guys have done a great job dressing it up with imagery – it makes a huge difference. But the really exciting part, for me, will be seeing the next one get built. And the next one. And the next one.

Puffbox's social intranet for government

Last week, we finally completed the longest-running and most ambitious WordPress-based project in Puffbox history. Back in February, with snow on the ground, we started developing the concept of a self-contained ‘social intranet’ platform to be used by staff across government – DFID, BERR (as was), FCO and elsewhere – involved in the many facets of trade work. And with temperatures soaring at the end of June, we finally saw the site get off the ground.
Maybe I’ve just been unlucky in my career, but I’ve never seen an intranet I didn’t dislike. So the opportunity to design one, based on the experience of the 2.0 Years, was quite appealing. Inspired in particular by the work of Jenny Brown and Lloyd Davis at Justice, we based our thinking on the notion of an RSS dashboard. Since the biggest problem with most intranets is that they aren’t reliably updated, we thought, why not build an intranet that updates itself? So at its heart, the site is a huge RSS archive – pulling in news releases and media commentary from UK government, international organisations, expert analysts and humble bloggers. And since it’s all sitting on top of a WordPress MU installation, it’s easy for us to make each item commentable – on the platform itself, rather than at the originating site.
starredOf course, there’s a risk of information overload. So we’ve built a ‘collaborative editing’ function – along the lines of Google Reader’s shared items, but done as a group thing. If you read something which you think your colleagues ought to see too, you click the star icon, and it gets promoted to a ‘daily highlights’ list on the site homepage. Then, at the end of each day, there’s a Daily Email which rounds up all the ‘starred items’ – so even if you never look at the website, and we’re realistic enough to accept that some won’t, then you can still get the benefit from it.
We’ve used various WordPress plugins to add calendar functionality; to allow users to upload (non-restricted) documents; to put their faces against their contributions, making the place feel a bit more human; and even to allow senior staff to blog on the site via email. You could probably accuse us of throwing the entire 2.0 playbook at the project, and you’d be absolutely right. But apart from the core aggregation and recommendation functionality, everything else uses off-the-shelf open-source plugins, installed and configured (generally) within a few hours. So if they don’t work out, what have you lost?
This project has taken up most of my time for the past four months; working with my regular co-conspirators Simon Wheatley and Jonathan Harris, we’ve pushed the boundaries of the technology, and tested the limits of the civil service mindset. Although many of the individual elements have been tried before in government, I believe it’s the first time anyone’s tried to do all of it, all together – and crucially, all on an in-house system, which opens up some very interesting possibilities. (And yes, as ever, you might be pleasantly surprised by the price tag, too.)
So is this finally an intranet I like? I’ll offer a provisional yes for now, but maybe it’s better to ask me again in a few months. Since it’s a closed system, there’s limited scope for me to demo it… but if it’s something you might be interested in, ask me very nicely, and I’ll see what I can do.

Civil servants are people too

Nice to see Downing Street getting into the spirit of Red Nose Day… Well done to those responsible, I know who you are. 😉
I’ve never quite decided whether or not it’s appropriate for government sites to do things like putting up ‘Christmas decorations’; I think I’m OK with it, as long as it’s professionally done. Opinions, anyone?
And while we’re on the subject of Comic Relief… full marks for opportunism go to DFID blogger Emily Poskett: her post about meeting the various celebs climbing Kilimanjiro has made for record traffic levels on the site. The page in question is coming very high up the Google search rankings for several obvious queries. Is there anything wrong with using a popular culture hook for a story about government aid activity? – no, not in my book.

A couple of Commentariat launches

Low Carbon Commentariat
A key element of the (re)statement of UK government open source policy the other week was the need to ’embed an open source culture of sharing, re–use and collaborative development’. That may have seemed like a waste of ink/bandwidth to those outside government; but I can assure you, I’ve sat in too many wheel reinvention seminars in my life already.
So Puffbox is glad to do its bit to get the wheels turning, by building and launching a couple of commentable documents using Steph Gray HM Government’s Commentariat WordPress theme, as seen on the (draft) Power Of Information Taskforce report. One is for DFID, on the elimination of world poverty; the other for Neil Williams at BERR, on the Low Carbon Economy. Wow, weighty subjects or what? – WordPress saving the world?!
Both are instantly recognisable as variations on Steph’s basic theme, give or take a bit of branding. This was a deliberate choice: I felt it was important for the sites’ origins to be immediately evident, as they needed to send a clear message about re-use, and the benefits in terms of speed and cost.
The DFID site was just another WordPress installation in an existing environment – the same one we’re using for DFID Bloggers, as it happens; the total cost to them will be one day of my time, covering WP setup and tweaks to the theme. And when you look at the functionality they’re getting for just a few hundred quid, it’s a pretty good deal.
The BERR project was slightly trickier. It was a new WPMU environment, always a little trickier to set up; and because the document wasn’t as long as other Commentariat instances have been, I had to re-engineer the theme to work off pages rather than categorised posts. I finished my bit in the final hours before dashing off on a week’s holiday; seeing the finished product on my return, I’m really impressed by how well it’s come together. Massive credit to Neil and the BERR team; the use of pictures really makes a dramatic difference.

DFID's new group blog function

We rolled out a fairly modest enhancement to the DFID Bloggers website this week: probably unnoticed by most users, but one I’m quite proud of. At its heart, the DFID site is a group blog; but we do a few things to present it as a network of individual blogs by individual bloggers. Then the question came – ‘could we do a group blog?’
What we’ve done is effectively hijack WordPress’s category functionality, turning it into a grouping function. We’ve created categories corresponding to the various ‘group blogs’ we want to run; and with the help of another custom plugin, we’ve added the ability to give each category its own ‘user image’, same as we’ve done with individuals. The WordPress category archive template then becomes, effectively, a ‘group homepage’ template.
Then, with another plugin, we’ve added a function to give each individual user a ‘default category’. So when they go to write a post, the appropriate category is already ticked – or to put it another way, it’s already identified as being for the appropriate ‘group’. But as with any WordPress categorisation, you have the option to tick other categories, adding the post to multiple group blogs; or you can untick your default category, if you want to blog in an individual capacity for a change.
Finally, we’ve changed the homepage code to handle both individual and group blogs. It took a while to get the logic right – but now, you should only ever see one entry per group blog, same as you only see one entry per individual blogger; and it all gets sorted together into reverse chronological order.
The result is a remarkably flexible blogging platform, with the ability to do solo blogs, group blogs, or any combination thereof. And as with the previous DFID work, we’re releasing the plugins to the world: the Default Categories plugin should prove particularly useful for people running group blogs.
Once again, it’s been a pleasure to work with Simon Wheatley: the man who makes my WordPress dreams come true. And the DFID guys have been great again too, giving us a general steer and letting us work out the best way to do it. I love this project.

DFID redesigned

DFID redesign, Dec 08
This week saw the next phase in the incremental redesign of the Department For International Development‘s website. It’s a much airier, brighter look than before, and with a YouTube video front and centre, plus all those drop shadows, rounded corners and various JQuery effects, it feels bang up to date. There’s a new ‘top layer’ of public-friendly information, Fighting Poverty, which is very easy on the eye, without getting in the way of the more mundane operational stuff. They’ve struck an excellent balance, I think.
The changes to the parent site meant we had to revisit certain elements of the DFID Bloggers site, built and launched by Puffbox just a couple of months back; partly for visual consistency, but also because we’re feeding off the same CSS stylesheet. Everything’s more or less where it was before, but the colours have been brightened up a bit, and taking a lead from the parent site, we’re now optimised for 1024px-wide screens. We’ve also tweaked a few other things, but I doubt you’ll notice them.
(The parent site has repaid the compliment by giving front-page space to the Bloggers site – but before anyone mentions it: no, it isn’t automatically taking the latest item via RSS, they’re choosing which items they want to promote.)
On the Bloggers site at least, the switch on the night was remarkably pain-free: just a simple matter of changing from one WordPress theme to another, literally a single click and it’s done. I’ve always seen this as one of WordPress’s hidden strengths – and I’ve talked to one or two clients about making deliberate use of it. You can imagine a scenario where there are several versions of the same basic design, all stored as separate WP themes, for different situations and circumstances – as a crude example, a black-tinged ‘national mourning’ version. Deploying it would take seconds. Hey, can your big ugly CMS do that, I wonder?
The DFID team are taking an incremental approach to their web development – and good on them for it. There are further ‘structural changes and technical improvements’ planned for 2009, plus – all being well – some cool new functionality in the Bloggers site. Stay tuned.

DFID Bloggers: tales from the front line

The latest Puffbox project gets a soft launch today, ahead of a formal (and hopefully high-profile) announcement next week. DFID Bloggers is a satellite site off the main Department for International Development website, and follows in the FCO’s footsteps of giving front-line staff a blog on which to talk about their work and experiences.
In some respects, it was an obvious thing for DFID to do. Their work isn’t generally seen by the UK taxpayers who fund it. By definition, they operate in exotic and/or difficult locations, and have powerful stories to tell. They saw the value in putting some human faces on it all; and in opening lines of communication with anyone worldwide with something to contribute. The Foreign Office had already set a helpful precedent: my brief was effectively ‘can we have what they’ve got, please?’
Using WordPress was, of course, a given; but perhaps surprisingly, I took the decision early on to use the standard version, rather than MU (Multi User). Everyone is effectively writing to the same ‘group blog’, allowing us to aggregate and consolidate the presentation (eg on the homepage, and in the main RSS feed). But the WordPress approach to output templates allows us to give each blogger a personal homepage, with a fuller biography, a filtered RSS feed and an archive of posts. The best of both worlds, if you like – with fewer concerns about the speed of updates and the compatibility of plugins.
All the standard blog functionality is in there, plus a few things you won’t have seen. The homepage shows the latest post for each ‘active’ blogger; when they haven’t written something for a fixed number of days, they’ll automatically drop down into an ‘archive’ list. There’s some customisation of the standard WordPress user profile, adding a new ‘job title’ (ie short biography) field, and incorporating Google Map functionality, for the bloggers to pinpoint their location. This geo-data gets aggregated into a Bloggers Map page, with the popup ‘speech bubbles’ showing a summary user profile, including a link to their latest blog entry.
I can’t say how pleased I am with the results. I’ve been collaborating with a couple of new contacts – my near-neighbour Tony Parsons on the design side, and Simon Wheatley (who I met at WordCamp) on the technical stuff that was beyond me. Both have been truly brilliant. And I have to say, the DFID guys have been fabulous too – giving me all the freedom I could ask for. It’s been a perfect combination, and I think it shows in the site.
In the spirit of open source, Simon W has released the custom WordPress plugins to the world via wordpress.org. In reality, you’ll only be interested in them if you’re wanting to build a carbon-copy site; but they are now ‘out there’, and you’re welcome to them.
I’ve also been working with Shane McCracken and his Gallomanor team (including Dave Briggs and Griff Wigley), who have been tasked with training the DFID volunteers in the art of blogging. Judging by the initial posts I’ve been reading, they’ve done a great job. I’m sure they will tell their own stories in due course.
Quite honestly, I think it’s the best thing Puffbox has yet produced. Great design, great functionality on front and back end, and a client committed to doing it right. With so many great stories and pictures out there, I hope it can have a big impact.
And by the way… it’s no coincidence that the site is launching just ahead of Blog Action Day next Wednesday (15 October), when bloggers have been asked to write something about poverty and development issues.