Public image

I use Flickr quite a lot – but almost exclusively for family stuff. The main attraction was the ability to send automated email notifications to family members who spend more reasonable amounts of time than myself in front of computer monitors. And since Flickr connectivity is built into any self-respecting mobile device nowadays (including some cameras), there’s no real reason to try and put something together myself in WordPress – although I do occasionally muse on how I might do it. (I’ve already come pretty close to it on a recent project for the Dept of Health.)
Anyway – one of the very few non-personal photos on my account is this one: a hastily-snapped shot of a news-stand outside Russell Square tube station, captured on nothing more advanced than a Nokia E65 phone. The Evening Standard’s report of a declaration of war seemed laughably over-the-top; and I was delighted to have captured the news-seller on his mobile phone, thus completing the trinity of media past, present and (not too distant) future.
Bill Gates War On Google
Anyway (again) – I discovered at the weekend that it had been lifted by a journalist at the Economist to illustrate an insightful piece on old media’s woes. No qualms there: I’d put a CC Attribution license on it, so I was more than happy for them to use it. And on some level, the story behind the picture makes it even more appropriate.

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.

'It's getting easier, isn't it?'

There was a sudden chill in the air when I uttered those words in a client meeting this week.
We’re planning another high-profile WordPress-based website, with ‘mashing’ of RSS feeds from third-party sites like YouTube and Flickr a prominent ingredient. In practice, that means the site’s photo galleries and video streaming have been ‘contracted out’ to the companies recognising as the best in the world. And courtesy of their RSS feeds, we’ll be able to display the latest additions on the site, more or less seamlessly. The main site will be updated automatically, as soon as you upload your image or clip, give or take a slight delay for feed cacheing. And the media items will be available to members of those sites’ communities worldwide, making it easier to find and (theoretically) share.
My mind inevitably drifted back to the Bad Old Days, and the weeks I spent discussing, writing and reviewing Functional Specifications. I can imagine how long it would have taken, a couple of years back, to get anything like the functionality which Flickr and YouTube offer me, free of charge, in a matter of moments. And for all the risks of using a third-party service, with no formal SLA per se, I’ve yet to see things go any more wrong than any equivalent function you might have commissioned from one of the Big Ugly Consultancies. (If at all.)
Case in point: It took a couple of hours last week – from a standing start – to decide to use Flickr for photos from the regional launches of NHS future visions, as chronicled by the Our NHS Our Future website, and work out how we might do it. The images are now featuring (automatically, courtesy of Flickr’s tag feeds) in the popups on the homepage map. It makes the whole thing much more personal and human… which is entirely in keeping with the exercise itself. And it’s basically Flickr plus an RSS parser doing all the work.
Fact is, it’s now outrageously easy to integrate best-of-breed video and photo functionality in any website. The technology is straightforward, and the (lack of a) pricetag means the bulk of the bureaucracy can be avoided. It used to be a case of ‘how would we do it?’. Now it’s more like ‘why aren’t we doing it?’.

Video on Flickr: what impact on YouTube?

At long last, Flickr does video. And true to form, they just get it absolutely spot-on.
The ’90 second limit’ thing initially feels restrictive, but it’s a perfect fit for their ‘photo sharing’ ethos. What impact on YouTube?, I wonder.
Personally, Flickr feels like a more natural place for me to share my occasional personal videos; and of course, it’s attracting its fair share of corporate users, not least in HM Government (FCO, No10). But with a more generous time limit (10 mins), YouTube remains the logical place for ‘corporate’ video; and paradoxically, I don’t see too many of its core ‘kids with mobile phones’ audience migrating to Flickr, especially if video remains ‘pro users only’.
By the way… this is my first post since upgrading to WordPress v2.5. And you won’t be surprised when I say, it’s fantastic. Looks gorgeous, and they seem to have refined the few annoyances of the last version (particularly Flash embedding).

Microsoft-Yahoo: I'm past caring

I’ve been extensively quoted in a technology story on the Sky News website this morning, in which I describe Microsoft’s proposed purchase of Yahoo as ‘a deal for the accountants and advertisers, not the users’. I’ll tell you why.
I like to keep a lid on my RSS consumption: anything over 100 feeds feels like too much. I had one of my occasional clearouts at the weekend, and I was actually surprised to find myself removing the final feed in my Microsoft folder. But it’s been a long, long time since Microsoft launched or announced anything which excited or inspired me. It’s not just the disappointment of Vista. There have been too many underwhelming ‘me too’ launches lately: the Zune and Silverlight spring immediately to mind.
Over at Yahoo, it’s more like a succession of false dawns. The 2005 purchases of Flickr and Delicious suggested they really ‘got it’, and I still use both daily; but they don’t seem to have moved on much since the purchase. Whatever happened to Flickr’s promised video? Delicious has promised ‘big things coming soon‘, but the definition of ‘soon’ is stretching all the time. And just as significantly, neither seems to have influenced Yahoo’s core service much. (I’ve used Pipes a few times, but it’s for RSS-obsessed geeks only… like me.)
The unpleasant truth is that a Yahoo news story these days is unlikely to solicit more than a disinterested grunt from me, and Microsoft is rapidly going down the same road. From a user’s perspective, all this deal would/will do is reduce the field from ‘Google plus two also-rans’ to ‘Google plus one’. I sense more dread out there than enthusiasm.
And those following the Puffbox philosophy won’t be surprised to read my quote: ‘Being successful online isn’t about being big – if anything, it’s a hindrance rather than a help.’ Discuss.