How to live-blog a summit

I think we got away with it. The remit for the week had been pretty straightforward: design, install, build, populate, edit and operate a website for the Progressive Governance Summit of 20-ish world leaders. So yeah, I’ve been busy.

It became an exercise in ‘web 2.0’ – open source tools, free online services, RSS feeds, and a willingness to experiment. Arguably, that’s really the only way it could have worked. And the fact that it did work says as much about the culture change brought about by the new technology, as it does about my own (questionable) skills.
On the day itself, I concentrated my efforts on the ‘live video blog’: streaming video broadcast from inside the summit itself, with my live commentary alongside. To my mind, the former is probably more important than the latter. You could see the heads of government talking (relatively) informally, even arguing once or twice, and got a feel for their individual personalities and sincere beliefs.
But this is a blog, so let’s talk blog. There wasn’t really a plan for the ‘live blog’, and the approach changed as the morning went on. It started as a straightforward ‘this is Gordon Brown, prime minister of the UK’, with any good soundbites that caught my ear (and which I had time to transcribe correctly). But as the comments came in from ‘viewers’, it became increasingly interactive. And not just through me as host. Let me give you three examples of the social dimension.
AdSense for conversationsWe got a message from one viewer (blogger Ellee Seymour as it happens), complaining of sound problems. I wasn’t having issues, but I asked the audience. A stream of responses came back: no, not me, fine here, etc etc. Ellee turned it off and on again (or something), and lo, her problem was solved. The audience was providing its own tech support.
Then somebody – Oli Barrett? – spontaneously started sending URLs relevant to some of the points made in discussions. Context-sensitive links, popping up in the middle of conversation… effectively making a reality of Google’s April Fool gag earlier in the week. Way to go, Oli. 🙂
And none of this would have been practical without the CoverItLive tool. Now I confess, I’d never heard of it until Wednesday night, when Paul Bradshaw left a comment on this here blog. But it was perfect: a single console for live commentary, private messages, moderation of user contributions, and (phew!) a toilet break facility, although they didn’t call it that. (They should.) It was a dream to use… and it was free of charge. I almost feel guilty.So what, you may ask. The dozens of people who watched the video, and followed the blog, probably learned a few things, and saw a side of global democracy that they’d never seen before. We had a few laughs, the majority from the comments we didn’t feel able to allow through moderation. (FYI, very few comments failed moderation… and I suspect the contributors generally knew it was coming.)
But most importantly, we proved it can be done – even with zero preparation, zero prior experience of the technology, and two administrators who (frankly) didn’t know much about the subject matter. People were able to share their thoughts, with us and with each other. Maybe it wasn’t like being there, but it was like being next door.
The precedent is hereby set. Next time, we’ll do better. We need a host who really knows the subject matter (and can type really fast). We need to get the admin console operating on several machines, and delegate the various tasks. We need to bring more coffee. And we need a way to get the chat into the meeting itself – to the conference table somehow, or into the ‘press conference’ after.
Me at No10All the while, our valiant photographer at the venue was pumping photos into the Downing Street Flickr account, which were then fed back into the summit website. The executive summaries of the various expert papers were opened for comments. And my colleague was sending out the odd Twitter flash.
By the summit’s conclusion, we were both tired and hungry. But every comms channel earned at least one holler of ‘bloody hell! this is fantastic!’… which, for anyone without Whitehall experience, is not common.
I’m grateful to the No10 team for letting me play with their summit. I hope we proved a few points, and learned a few lessons, which can help inform Downing Street’s future online work. Stay tuned. 😉

Summit microsite ready (phew)

It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, as you may have picked up from stories on other blogs, but we’ve finally got the Progressive Governance summit microsite ready for the start of proceedings tomorrow morning. The discussion papers are up, the comment facility is switched on, the live streams are configured and ready. And my alarm is set for 5am. 😕

Progressive Governance website, Friday night

I’m not sure if I’m excited or nervous at the prospect of the ‘live blog’. I’ve done similar things in equally high profile situations, running the live text commentary for a couple of Mr Brown’s Budgets whilst working at Sky News (1998, I think – wow, ten years ago)… but I’m effectively appointing myself the Prime Minister’s Online Spokesman for the day, which is kind of nuts now I think about it. And very trusting of them.
It’s bound to attract more than its fair share of malicious and frivolous participants. But it’s a first, certainly in UK government, and almost certainly globally (unless you know better?); and it’s another innovation to add to the list. I’m particularly looking forward to using the CoverItLive tool. Full report to follow, naturally.

Innovation, innovation, innovation

Over at the Telegraph, Mick Fealty rightly reflects on the ‘fascinating confluence of ideas cascading into the body politic at the moment’, with both right and left suddenly making an issue of innovation, open source, and all that good stuff. The latest contribution was David Cameron’s speech at NESTA this morning:

Indeed, the odd thing about the Government’s innovation policy is how un-innovative it is. More spending, more state control, more reliance on the levers of bureaucratic intervention. The chapter on public sector innovation in Government’s “science innovation” document, has this as its centrepiece: the proposal to create a “Whitehall Hub for Innovation”. Something about that doesn’t ring true. Whitehall and innovation don’t go together, for the simple reason that innovation is the product of many heads not a few, and free thinking not state control.
We accept that innovation requires a culture of risk-taking, of trial and error, of flexibility in thinking and often of collaborative effort. So I have also asked Adam Afriyie to identify ways a Conservative government could tackle the corrosive sense of risk-aversion which holds back innovation within our society.

To be fair, it’s been an uplifting week in terms of online innovation, across the political divide(s). The sudden rush into Twitter – by No10, and (apparently) by both major parties – isn’t a big deal in terms of audience numbers, but it’s certainly symbolic: a recognition that there’s clearly something interesting going on, and a readiness to just get stuck in.
I’m hoping that the weekend’s Progressive Governance summit microsite, which I’m constructing on No10’s behalf, can take that momentum forward. We’re throwing as many 2.0 tricks into the mix as we can: some will undoubtedly work better than others. (And yes, as Guido helpfully notes, we’re cutting it fine. We know.)
But the value of the social connections fostered by blogs and Twitter is already revealing itself. Last night I talked about my search for a live blogging / chat solution. Paul Bradshaw suggested CoverItLive, a service I hadn’t seen before. I played around with it, and it looked great. But I wanted to see what others thought – so I threw out a plea for assistance on Twitter. Within a couple of minutes, I had two friends in the ‘chatroom’ with me, giving the product a proper test. It passed – and it’s looking like we’re going to use it on Saturday morning to ‘live blog’ the summit’s proceedings. This stuff works.

No10's new microsite by Puffbox

Fresh from its success with Twitter, 10 Downing Street is preparing for a weekend of social media experimentation, in association with Puffbox.
This Saturday, Gordon Brown is hosting a gathering of around 20 left-leaning world leaders under the banner of Progressive Governance, to discuss globalisation, climate change, development and international institutional reform. (It got a brief mention in yesterday’s monthly press conference, but you’d be forgiven for missing it.) With the renewed appetite for online experimentation at Number 10, I was asked to put together a microsite for the event – running on WordPress, and incorporating a few ‘web 2.0’ tools and tricks.
The site went live late this afternoon – sort of. There’s very little to see so far: the supporting materials, and our ideas of what to do with them, are still coming together. In fact, I fully expect to be coding up new templates and functions live on the day. I know rapid development has become a bit of a Puffbox trademark, but we’ve never cut it quite this fine before. 🙂
The centrepiece will be a live video stream of the proceedings, with a text commentary / discussion thread alongside. You could call it ‘live tweeting’, but we’re probably not going to use Twitter (tbc though). We’ll be posting the conference’s discussion papers for online viewing, with the opportunity for you to post your comments alongside. We’re hoping to get photos beamed into the site from the conference venue, via Downing Street’s new Flickr account; their well-established YouTube channel may also come into play. As may anything else which crosses my mind in the meantime.
It’s an ideal opportunity for innovation: a one-off, relatively low-profile event, not exactly on the scale of a G8, but still significant enough to be taken seriously. The ludicrously tight timeframe is forcing us to make rapid, almost instinctive decisions: in my book, that’s a good thing.
If you’re interested to see what we make of it, believe me – so am I. It all happens on Saturday morning, with the live proceedings due to wind up in the early afternoon. With Arsenal-Liverpool Round Two kicking off at 12.45pm, I’m relying on my fellow Gooner, David Miliband to ensure things stay on schedule.