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.

Flying the nest

new governance
As I’ve written before, one of the (many) selling points of WordPress is the lack of lock-in. When the time comes for a client to take greater control of a project, or if they simply feel it’s time for a change, they aren’t stuck with all their content locked in a proprietary CMS. They’re free to export their content, and take it elsewhere – to a new WordPress expert, to a new theme, to a whole new existence.
And in a further sign of the maturity of WordPress in the marketplace, I’ll be waving goodbye to a couple of my earliest WordPress projects; I’ll also be bringing in a couple of new ones from other people.
Governance of Britain has been tweaked by someone many of you will know – but since he/she hasn’t mentioned the work publicly yet, I won’t name names. It’s been rebranded as People, Power and Politics, and features a much more web-friendly design, and the sort of ‘web 2.0’ integration that simply wasn’t practical, or even possible when the site was first built 18 months ago. I really like what’s been done with it, in a remarkably short space of time – and I wish it well. For various reasons – some practical, some political – the site didn’t really work out as we hoped. I’m hoping the new manager, located closer to the heart of things, can take it further than I could.
There are also moves to breathe new life into the Our NHS, Our Future website, mothballed since the publication of last summer’s big NHS review; again, it’ll be an internal team taking greater ownership of things. It looks like the site will be more ambitious in some ways, less so in others, and with a different, more internal-NHS focus than last time. I’ve been helping the new team with the various technicalities and practicalities; launch is a little way away, but the early signs are encouraging.
Part of me is naturally sad to see them go; but since the Puffbox cause has been to encourage government to make more use of tools like WordPress, I have to put it down as a Mission Accomplished: my work there is done. And to be perfectly honest, it’s quite a relief to free up some space – albeit temporarily! – in my diary. I’ve had more offers of work lately than I could ever fulfil; and I’ve got three major projects on the go just now, which take us well beyond the straightforward ‘WordPress as CMS’ notion. I can’t wait to tell you about them.

Live video for Darzi's NHS Review

This afternoon sees the effective conclusion of Lord Darzi’s year-long (ish) review of the National Health Service, under the Our NHS Our Future banner. I did a quick reskin of the associated website back in May, and we’ve gone a few steps further to mark the big finale.
Inspired by comments from Tom Steinberg back in January, regarding the HMRC website on tax deadline day, I decided to rework the homepage to raise all the Review documentation right to the very top. A big friendly header immediately grabs your attention, and says yes, you’re in the right place. There’s a live video feed from the launch conference, embedded directly in the homepage using Flash. We’re hoping to keep the as-live video available ‘on demand’ for a few days, whilst we cut an edited highlights package. Previous homepage content isn’t lost, but gets bumped well down the page.
The live video feed came together remarkably quickly – the idea was first floated on Thursday afternoon, and here I am on Monday, watching it on my desktop. See? It can be done.

'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?’.

'Our NHS' reskinned

One of my favourite projects over the last year has been Our NHS, Our Future – the website for Lord Darzi’s review of the NHS. With the review entering its final stages, we’ve taken the opportunity to give the site a lick of paint, and reworked the homepage.
Reflecting the local focus of the review, the centrepiece of the new homepage is a great big clickable map showing England broken up into its Strategic Health Authorities. Each SHA is publishing a ‘vision document’ over the next month or so: clicking the map will generate a popup with a news story about the document, or a ‘coming soon’ message. It’s all being done with PHP and Javascript, so the site manager only has to write and publish his story: everything else is automated from there. We’re also hoping to get photos from each launch event, which will get added into the map’s popups via Flickr’s tag feeds. (Not a huge enhancement: we’ve been consuming YouTube RSS feeds since last year.)
This is the third iteration of the website in nine months: we launched initially in late August using Typepad, but moved to WordPress in November as Typepad showed its limitations. It perfectly demonstrates the value in adopting a blogging platform as your CMS: sure, the (base) content type is primitive… but it means the job of tweaking, redesigning or even migrating becomes so much easier.

Health minister now blogging, courtesy of Puffbox

Today sees the launch of version 2 of the website I designed and built for Lord Darzi’s national review of the NHS. V1 was built in double-quick time during the summer, and for reasons of cost and speed, used the Typepad blogging platform. Over the last month or so, Typepad’s limitations have become more and more apparent… so it was time to migrate to WordPress. Which, of course, is what I’d always wanted.
All the juicy new stuff hangs off the homepage. ‘Latest news’ is (as you’d expect) a listing of the top news updates, using a special ‘homepage’ category to give the authors total control. ‘Lord Darzi’s blog’ is the latest blog to be written by a government minister, but unlike some, we’re positively encouraging comments. Finally, there’s the ‘latest video’: the review team is producing quite a lot of video content, so we’re sticking it on YouTube, and using YouTube’s little-known RSS feed functionality (with a bit of string manipulation) to pump it back into the site.
The primary navigation is a mix of blog categories and static ‘pages’: hey, if you dig deep enough, there’s even an old-school image map! How long is it since I did one of those? We haven’t made any distinction between the two; I’m not sure it really matters to the punters.
As it’s WordPress, we’ve got full comment functionality if we want it. The plan is that blog posts should generally have comments enabled, but news posts won’t. However, if we fancy it, we can. To draw attention to the items where comments are ‘on’, there’s a little speech bubble icon which appears against the relevant headlines. A minor thing, but it catches the eye really well.
Overall, it’s taken less than a week to recode the templates, develop the new functionality, and import the content. Importing from Typepad was relatively painless: the initial process took seconds, but then you’ve got the hassle of setting summaries for each item, identifying and repointing all the manual inline links, etc etc. I’m glad there wasn’t too much content to worry about. DNS changes and server reconfiguration took about a day and a half, which was a real disappointment, but at least it’s done now.
I’m really pleased with it; the initial site was OK, particularly given the laughably short timeframe, but I knew we could do better. I’m afraid the exercise has put me off using Typepad, though: although it does have some pseudo-CMS functionality, my feeling was that it’s too tied to the concept of blogging.
Next steps? We’re thinking of a photo gallery, and maybe even some delegated authoring responsibility. But that’s all for another day. My next WordPress-in-government project is looming, and is likely to be even bigger. 😉