Puffbox site wins election award

Front left: back of my head. Front right: back of Mark Pack's head.

This morning, shortly before 11am. I’m sitting in the waiting room at the local GPs’ surgery. Nothing serious; just a routine appointment for a family member. Things are running a bit late, as usual, so I casually start looking at Twitter.
An event about the internet and the election? Ah well, another of those London events I never get to attend. A report being published? Cool, I’ll read it tonight. Some awards? Always worth a look. I wonder who’ll win. Oh look, somebody’s leaked the results. Er… it appears I’ve won. And the train I need to catch is in 15 minutes. So, dedicated family man that I am, I abandon said family member in the waiting room, and (literally) make a run for the station.
The event marked the publication of Anthony Painter‘s excellent – although perhaps too diplomatic? – analysis of the digital election, brought to you in association with Orange. Whilst much of its content will be familiar to anyone reading this, there will certainly be a few examples you won’t previously have heard of. Well worth a read.
And I’m delighted to note that Puffbox client Lynne Featherstone was the unanimous winner of the day’s big award, for Best Use of Digital Campaigning by a Candidate, ahead of Anthony Calvert’s (ultimately unsuccessful) ‘castration’ attempt, and Walthamstow’s media-savvy Labour MP, Stella Creasy.
Anthony’s report is wonderfully complimentary about our work on Lynne’s site:

On every level, Lynne Featherstone’s campaign site excelled: design, engagement, relevance, information. It featured a ‘Lifestream’, which was basically a live feed of all of Featherstone’s social media and web engagements… Her campaign secured a swing of almost 4% against Labour against a national swing of 3.5% (though in London the swing from Liberal Democrat to Labour was only 1.25% so it’s an even better performance by that measure.)

In a brief chat afterwards, I couldn’t resist reminding Lynne that, at one of our first meetings, I’d promised we would deliver a website which would win awards. I’d said that because I’d meant it: an all-too-characteristic moment of wild optimism on my part. We’d actually had our eye on the then-annual BCS Awards for MPs’ websites; but they were cancelled last year… so this news comes as quite a relief, actually!
Lynne was very complimentary about me in her remarks; compliments I’m happy to return (and more). The site was designed entirely around her – her activities, her personality, her narrative, for want of a better word. I’ve since had a good number of enquiries from people asking ‘could we have a website just like Lynne’s’ – and I’ve said ‘no’ every time. (We’ve generally then gone on to design something equally attractive, but more appropriate.)
Once again, I must thank Jonathan Harris, who worked with me on the concept and design; and Mark Pack, who looked after a lot of the technical stuff at the constituency end – not to mention Helen Duffett and others on Lynne’s team. They’re a genuinely great bunch, and all deserve a slice of the recognition.
I can’t tell you how chuffed I am about this. And if I’d promised to do something for you today: sorry.

Minister (not) warned for (not) tweeting at 1am

For the last week or two, I’ve been trying to draw together some thoughts on Ministers and blogging / tweeting, particularly as regards former Opposition figures now finding themselves in government, and a coalition government at that. Truth be told, I still don’t have a great conclusion to share, only that it’s a bit complicated.
One MP who hasn’t let the transition to Ministerial office stop her blogging is Lynne Featherstone. She’s been as prolific as ever, with posts on constituency matters, party affairs and her new Home Office equalities portfolio. This caught the attention of the Daily Mail, who published a story at the weekend entitled: ‘Minister warned over 1am tweets‘.
There were only two problems with that headline:

  • The tweets weren’t at 1am. As Mark Pack explained at Lib Dem Voice, the default timezone when you look at Twitter.com is San Francisco: so those ‘1am tweets’ would actually have been 9am UK time… if that even matters.
  • I’ve been in touch with Lynne directly, and she confirms to me: ‘no [Home Office] mandarins have told me off at all!’ And the next bit won’t come as any surprise: ‘Nor did the Mail check any details with me.’

The extent of the warning appears to have been a proactive call to the Home Office press office, with a ‘spokesman’ being quoted: ‘The Minister is well aware of her responsibilities under the Ministerial Code.’ You could call that a warning; I’d call it a statement of fact.
It’s a pathetic character assassination piece, with so many holes in it that I can’t face picking it to pieces. Even a blog post highly complimentary of her ‘boss’ at the Home Office, Conservative minister Theresa May was depicted as a controversial expression of her doubts. So it’s not a bit of wonder that the ensuing comments react with horror at how someone so divisive and clearly deranged should be a government minister. Even if the Mail were to correct or withdraw the piece – which, so far, it shows no sign of doing – it’s too late; the damage, such as it is, is done.
But at least the ‘proper’ newspapers wouldn’t print something so shameful, would they? Sadly, they did. Later the same day, the Telegraph basically re-wrote and re-published the Mail piece, minus (to give them a tiny amount of credit) the embarrassing timezone thing. The Sun did pretty much the same thing, the next day.
You know, you’d almost think they’re more interested in inventing controversy than reporting facts.

Lynne Featherstone making a splash

When we launched the new Lynne Featherstone website back in September, our plan was always to add some new functionality once the campaign finally began (properly). One such feature went live tonight: ‘splash pages’, managed purely within WordPress.
I’ve developed a new custom page template, which – as you can see – expects to be used with a (very) large uploaded image, a paragraph or two of text, and a signup form (powered by Contact Form 7). To activate it, you simply change the ‘front page’ setting on the WordPress back-end.
When you view the page, it drops a cookie to ensure you won’t see that splash page again; but the cookie is specific to the page ID number, so it won’t stop you seeing the next one we do.
The template’s first appearance is to warn potential voters of the upcoming deadline for registration; so we’ve had to go abstract with the choice of imagery. Most of the time, I’d expect it to be a photograph – not least given Lynne’s recent recognition as the country’s most fanciable MP. WordPress has allowed us to make the page creation process remarkably quick and easy; so I’m hoping the team will be able to create a couple each week of the campaign, depending on events and available imagery.
By definition, splash pages are an annoyance – an unrequested interruption to your online journey. I’m not a fan of injudicious use of them. But based on this template, Lynne’s should be more substantial and useful than most; and we’re doing our best to minimise the inconvenience with persistent cookies. We’ll be watching to see how they are received.

Our new site for LibDems' Chris Huhne

With the election now well and truly underway, it’s high time I blogged about the latest website Puffbox has built for a high-profile Liberal Democrat – this time it’s home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne, as he looks to defend a wafer-thin majority in Eastleigh.
We were approached by Huhne’s team late last year: they’d seen what we’d done for Lynne Featherstone, and wanted us to do something similar for them. We soon ruled out a ‘carbon copy’ site: Lynne’s use of social media is exceptional, and the approach we took with her wasn’t going to be appropriate for Chris. Instead, we’ve shaped the site around Chris’s rather more conventional media output, but with plenty of scope to expand later, if or when required.
We’ve gone for a high-impact homepage, with a large image carousel highlighting a number of key local issues: and as with Lynne Featherstone’s site, each issue has its own explanatory page which can act as a hub for related posts. Unlike Lynne though, a large proportion of Chris’s work is at national level – so we’ve gone for a tabbed approach, allowing you to switch between national and local issues. (And using cookies, we’ll remember your preference for your next visit.)
Since his election in 2005, Chris had been running a website based on the Prater Raines platform used by the vast majority of Liberal Democrat people and local parties. (It’s actually an excellent technical solution; but it won’t win any design awards.) We’ve managed to bring across the vast majority of the previous site’s content, close to 1,000 pages, by screen-scraping: and whilst the new page addresses aren’t exact matches, they do all work seamlessly.
The site was built on WordPress, with just a little behind-the-scenes help from Simon Wheatley; it was designed in collaboration with Matt Budd of Dunston Graphics. I think he’s done a magnificent job with the LibDems’ somewhat troublesome preference for aqua and yellow.
There are a few areas, in both technical and editorial terms, where I wish we’d had just a little more time; but the declaration of the election forced our hand somewhat. So whilst I’m more than happy with what we’ve already delivered, I think we can make it even better in the months to come. Assuming the voters of Eastleigh give us the chance…

SEO as a political campaigning tool

I’ve mentioned this before, but it still brings a smile to my face.
One consequence of the rebuild of Lynne Featherstone MP’s website, which we launched last September, has been a marked improvement in Google performance. And it’s arguably my greatest personal triumph that if you search Google for ‘haringey council’ – the top suggested search query if you just type in ‘hari’ – here‘s what you (currently) get:

So the first five results on a standard Google results page are: two pages from the council itself – the council’s own homepage and one of its most popular individual pages (as you’d normally expect for such a targeted query); a page from Wikipedia; a page from Directgov; and at slot number 5, LibDem MP Lynne’s automated page detailing everything that’s wrong with the Labour-run council… with a particularly arresting excerpt.
SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, isn’t something I typically find myself paying much (conscious) attention to. In my experience, it’s usually enough to have followed the basics of web page construction: and I’ve been coding HTML for 15 years now, so it’s all fairly instinctive. WordPress helps by encouraging you to use significant elements such as the page title – presumably including significant keywords – in both the HTML <title> and the page URL; plus there are a couple of plugins I tend to activate for all clients which help Google ranking, install instantly, and never trouble you again.
But because it’s baked into the process, albeit subconsciously, the results are there to be seen: and will come to the fore over the next few weeks.
Naturally, with an election imminent, MPs and candidates are looking for every possible opportunity to get their messages in front of voters and journalists. For zero extra effort, and at zero cost, we’re getting one of Lynne’s core messages in front of the tens of thousands of people searching for ‘haringey council’ each month. (According to Google’s Adwords keyword tool, 22,200 people searched for ‘haringey council’ in February 2010… far more than the 1,300 who searched for ‘lynne featherstone’ specifically.)
Lynne is defending a relatively modest majority of 2,395 – notionally putting her in Labour’s no39 target seat. We’ve had plenty of favourable feedback regarding her website already: Iain Dale, I’m reliably informed, called it one of the best political websites he’d ever seen. But it won’t surprise you to learn that we’re looking at a couple of possible enhancements for the election campaign period. Stay tuned.

LibDem tech chief backs free postcodes

Delighted to see LibDem MP (and client) Lynne Featherstone write the following:

As Chair of the Liberal Democrat Technology Board – and an MP who believes that the internet should be used to strengthen democracy – I want to declare my support for the Free our Data campaign. We need postcodes to be owned by the public – not sold to the public. Postcodes are the basic pre-requisite for allowing services to be developed that support democratic accountability. This is an issue that cuts across parties […] and so it should, because it’s about how the data about us can help us all.

I wonder where she got the idea originally? Can’t have been this, surely.

Lynne Featherstone redesign pays off

My friend / colleague / client Mark Pack gave a presentation at last week’s Social Media 09 conference on ‘Liberal Democrats and social media’: in fact, it was a case study on the work we did to relaunch Lynne Featherstone’s website. Although they don’t make much sense in isolation (nor should they), here they are for the record:
(I wasn’t present to hear Iain Dale declare the site ‘one of the best political websites [he’d] ever seen’, but I am assured it’s an accurate transcription – from his opening remarks at a LibDem Conference fringe meeting, I’m told.)
Mark’s analysis yields one interesting result for anyone in political social media: despite being exactly the same mechanism, and often identical content, there’s a marked preference for ‘blog’ content as opposed to the more conventional ‘news releases’. Mark has crunched the numbers, but actually, it’s obvious from even the briefest glance: the blog posts get comments, the news releases (almost) never do.
But here’s my favourite fact about the relaunch. One of Lynne’s core campaigning messages is how she stands up to the Labour-dominated Haringey council. And if you search Google for ‘haringey council’, Lynne’s automated ‘issue page’ (with its far-from-flattering meta description) is result no5 behind the council itself (twice), Directgov and Wikipedia. I’m quite pleased with that; they probably aren’t.

Presenting the new website for Lynne Featherstone MP

We’re proud to unveil our latest creation: a new website/blog for Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone (or try this link if the DNS hasn’t rolled over for you yet). It’s taken a good few months, and has thrown up challenges on a scale I haven’t had to tackle before. But equally, it presented several opportunities for cheeky innovation, and as you’ll know by now, I can’t say ‘no’ to those.
A bit of background. Lynne started blogging in October 2003, making her one of the first MPs to do so – although she wasn’t an MP at the time. And in fact, she specifically credits her website as a factor in her winning the Hornsey and Wood Green seat in 2005 (on a 14% swing). She was also the first MP to use Twitter, more or less. And she’s in charge of the LibDems’ online campaigning strategy. No pressure then.
We had five and a half years’ worth of blog posts in Blogger, with over 2,000 user comments, to be migrated to WordPress. Oh, and 2,000 hand-coded press releases from the local party branch, to be integrated too please. Plus accounts on Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. And what about her contributions to other websites? Not to mention her activity in Parliament?
LF lifestream
So the grand concept of the site is the use of a tabbed ‘lifestream‘ as the homepage. The initial view lists her last 10 actions, no matter where they happened – including Early Day Motion signatures, which required me to write my own scraper. Then, if you want to see her activity on one of those specific areas, you just click the appropriate tab. It’s all driven by RSS; the tabs are powered by ajax; the lists are generated by a cron for obvious reasons.
We’ve also made some first steps into Facebook integration. If you’re going to comment on the site, you can sign in with your Facebook credentials: this will pull your name and profile photo into the comment, and give you the option of adding an entry to your Facebook news-stream. I’ve used the official WordPress plugin, but it needed more tweaking than I probably expected, and didn’t always work reliably on all browsers. Let’s just say I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.
lf-osI’ve also used Ordnance Survey’s OpenSpace API to create a clickable map of the wards which make up Lynne’s constituency, with the precise boundaries marked, and map detail down to individual building outlines. I shouldn’t need to explain why this might prove to have been an – ahem – interesting move. It’s ready, but we won’t be activating it immediately.
The effort that’s gone into the issue and ward pages probably won’t be evident on the front end: you get a short summary, plus the latest posts tagged accordingly, plus any ‘blogroll’ links, plus – where relevant/available – the latest posts from other related sites or blogs, again pulled in via RSS. But crucially, all of this is done using standard WordPress functionality, in such a way that Lynne and her team can create new pages instantly. No (deep) tech knowledge required.
Naturally, it’s got all the sorts of functions you’d expect from a WordPress blog: sidebar widgets, paged comments, RSS feeds, decent SEO, etc etc. We’ve done pretty well in maintaining addresses from the old site: 50 to 60% of the URLs, at a guess, accounting for the vast majority of site traffic. And if you ignore the issues with Facebook’s custom markup language, everything (I think) passes HTML validation. Hooray!
There’s so, so many people to thank on this one. Jonathan Harris, who happens to be a constituent of Lynne’s, for the design work. Matthew Somerville for tweaking something for me within TheyWorkForYou, plus a couple of people within Parliament who tried to help me with EDM RSS through the proper channels, but ultimately couldn’t. Ex-LibDem tech supremo Mark Pack. Lynne’s staff and councillor colleagues for their early feedback. And Lynne herself for trusting me in the early stages, and encouraging me in the later stages when I didn’t necessarily trust myself.
Every site I do, I always try to do something innovative. This time, there are just so many things that I’ve never done before myself, or that I’ve never seen on a website in the same field. It’s been exhausting, occasionally terrifying, but great fun to do. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Creative Commons: 3 MPs on blogging

A shock conclusion emerges from the Hansard Society’s latest research into MPs’ use of new-fangled technology: they are normal people. Well, ‘kind of normal-ish’, Labour’s Tom Harris clarifies. We’re here at Microsoft’s relatively new London offices to hear from three MPs, one from each of the main parties, on what they put in, and what they get out of blogging.
As things kick off, I’m feeling mildly subversive. Partly because I’m using a Linux laptop on Microsoft’s patch. But mainly because I’m the only person in a room of 50, here to talk about technological matters, with a laptop in front of them.
Tory MP Douglas Carswell is first up: he’s in a rush off. He makes, on the face of it, some provocative statements. Technology is ‘having a transformative effect on the disadvantaged’, he says, citing a specific example of local parents of special needs kids, who got information from similar support groups around the country, and used it to take him and the local authority to task. Westminster will need to adopt open source politics, he says, or new entrants will take market share; and it will ultimately lead, he suggests, to more grown-up politics. And with that, he makes the dash up Victoria Street to obey a three line whip. To be fair though, he did blog it up before I did.
Next it’s LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone: a blogger since 2003, but – she insists – she’s so not a geek. For her, it’s a way to prove she isn’t ‘lazy’ like ‘all the rest’; she extols the blog’s value in local campaigning. ‘I pay no mind to the dangers of blogging,’ she says – although, she admits, she does have someone check her stuff for anything ‘politically suicidal’.
Finally, at the top table anyway, it’s Tom Harris – who, he reminds us (to my own surprise), has been blogging less than a year. Straight away, he confronts the ‘received wisdom’ that he lost his ministerial job because of his blog: he genuinely doesn’t know if that’s true, and he hopes it isn’t a signal that ministers shouldn’t blog (or at least, shouldn’t be worth reading). He rejects suggestions that he’s some kind of maverick – in fact, he says, he takes ‘the party line’ very seriously, and assures us you won’t find much in his archives that deviates from it.
He started blogging as an outlet for the opinions which didn’t otherwise get a platform; and as a conscious effort to balance out the right-leaning dominance of the ‘blogscape’. As a former journalist, he finds the writing very easy: but interestingly, he reveals that he spends more time moderating comments than writing posts. (Andy Williamson tells us the majority of MPs’ ‘blogs’ don’t accept comments, incidentally. Hmm.)
Several times, particularly in the concluding Q&A, Tom speaks in favour of a liberal, almost anarchic position. It’s probably inevitable, he says, that every candidate at a forthcoming election will have a blog; it’ll be impossible for the parties to control centrally – ‘and that’s great’. He has a bit of a dig at ‘an unnamed individual’ displaying control-freak tendencies – but doesn’t name him. Whoever could he have meant?
I’m struck by Tom’s and Lynne’s differing routes into blogging. Lynne isn’t being too self-deprecating when she talks down her technical skills; but she’s astute enough to see the value in it all, and is surrounding herself with people whose skills complement hers. It makes her such an interesting appointment to head up the LibDems’ online efforts: she’s a campaigner at heart, and she’ll ensure that the party doesn’t get carried away with tech for tech’s sake.
Tom meanwhile comes across as ‘one of us’. Over a glass of wine afterwards, he expands a bit on the control freakery, naming a couple of names which I won’t repeat here. He isn’t too bothered how many of his blog’s readers are local constituents. Even if his blog cost him his ministerial job, I don’t hear any regret in his voice when he talks about it. He’s blogging for exactly the same reasons I do.
I leave feeling we’re in quite a happy position just now. Those MPs who are blogging (properly) are doing it because they want to, and/or because they want to get something constructive from it. We haven’t yet reached the point where all candidates need to be seen to do it – as, say, with tedious printed constituency newsletters. But there were signs tonight that it’s starting to happen… and that, fundamentally, is a bad thing.

LibDems' Featherstone on tech & politics

I mentioned the other day that MP Lynne Featherstone, a long-established blogger and the Commons’s first Twitterer had been announced as chair of the Liberal Democrats’ new Technology Board. In an article to be published by the New Statesman, she talks a bit more about her (considerable) experience with technology in politics. It’s a balanced, pragmatic and insightful piece.

First, you don’t have to know how to do the technology – you can get other people to help with that – but understanding what you want out of it and the new opportunities it offers is vital. Second, it helps bring political success – I wouldn’t have got elected an MP without it. And third, as much of the technology has got easier and easier to do, getting the technical details right is – while still important – becoming less important compared with getting your mindset right.

I couldn’t agree more… particularly with that final point. For all I bang on about good technical execution here, the fact remains that substance beats style. You could have the ugliest, most ancient-looking blog in the world – but if you’re filling it consistently with good stuff, all such functional and aesthetic sins can be forgiven.
Even so, it’s great to hear that Lynne is preparing to move off Blogger, in favour of – well, guess… 🙂 (To be fair, WordPress has been the LibDems’ platform of choice for some time, with their various subject-specific blogs running on WP MU, and Nick Clegg’s personal site on WP solo.)
So what’s this Technology Board all about then? Lynne explains…

There is work that needs to be done to continue improving and expanding the party’s use of technology, and in particular the internet, which falls into the category of getting more and better tools. There is a key job of work in tapping into the pool of expertise amongst our members and supporters in writing, improving and supporting our tools. But above all, it is a matter of changing the way we think and act, so that we more fully embrace the more open, more collaborative, more sharing outlook that is about engaging – not lecturing – and is, for an increasing number of people, an instinctive part of the way they lead their lives, and they expect others to also.

I’m watching with great interest.