When WordPress gets boring, things get interesting

[Thanks to @JonAkwue for suggesting a vastly improved headline for this piece…]
The big moment of this year’s Word Up Whitehall came in the second presentation of the day: Gavin Dispain from the Department for Transport, telling the story of their hasty migration to WordPress.
It was already clear that we were in very different territory from last year’s inaugural event: Stephen and Francis from Health had opened with a presentation featuring the kind of technical architecture diagrams you just don’t see at WordCamps. We weren’t just talking about the potential for government departments to use WordPress, or sharing examples of little microsites they’d built: no, this was real corporate-sized heavy-duty stuff. And there, at the heart of it, increasingly so in fact, was WordPress.
Then came Gavin, and that slide. He didn’t really make a big deal of it. I think we all knew about the potential to generate massive savings. But there it was, in black and white: hundreds of thousands of real pounds, not notional pounds, saved at a stroke. With further savings to come, as more arms-length agencies come on-board. (Defra are a bit further down that track already, as David Pearson related later in the day.)

Technical architecture diagrams. PowerPoint slides with incomprehensibly large numbers on them. Weren’t these precisely the things which drove me out of ‘proper’ IT, and into the world of WordPress? What the hell were these doing at a WordPress event? For a moment I could feel myself switching off, as I’d done in countless meetings over the years.
And that’s when it all suddenly fell into place.
I’d reacted against such things in the past, because they were visions of the future – and for the most part, futures that never quite arrived. But something was different here. People weren’t talking about how they could or would do it. They were demonstrating how they had done it. Health had built that structure, and it was working. Transport had left behind one set of contracts costing £X, and were now in a new arrangement costing £Y.
To be frank, systems admin and accountancy can be a bit boring. But it’s a mark of the success of the WordPress mission1, and the potential it has unlocked, that we’re now into that business-as-usual territory. When you’re getting stuck into the ‘boring’ bits, that’s when change is really happening.
And it turns out, I don’t actually hate technical architecture diagrams and budget forecasts after all.
1 When I first drafted this, I wasn’t sure about using the word ‘mission’. But then, by sheer coincidence, Seth Godin posts a few lines on his blog, and I feel a whole lot better about it.

Transport website relaunched on WordPress (not by us)

There’s a new website at the Department of Transport; and it’s running on WordPress. Sadly, it’s not one we’ve been involved with; we weren’t even approached, in fact. (I wonder why.) However, there are definite similarities with the work we’ve done for Defra; so we’ll console ourselves with the knowledge that we’ve at least been influential.
Transport issued a tender document in March, with an explicit requirement for open source-based solutions, specifically either WordPress or Drupal. The target launch date was 20 June, making for an aggressive schedule; and to their great credit, and that of developers Bang Communications, they made it with more than a week to spare.
I haven’t yet seen a total cost quoted for the work; that will come in due course, of course. But I’ve been told what the budget was, as quoted in the tender document – and I have to say, it was pretty generous. I’ll be keeping a close eye out for the next departmental spending data (as it’ll be well above the threshold); or if any MPs fancy drafting a PQ, that’ll make life even easier.
The site bears all the hallmarks of a WordPress v3.x build. Multiple subsites being stitched together, as we did for Defra, with liberal use of custom post types and taxonomies. The design is fairly low-key, based on the YUI grid system, with a bit of jQuery front-end gloss, but not too much. It declares itself to be coded in HTML5, but doesn’t make much use of 5’s new features, so there are no rendering problems in older versions of IE (that I’ve spotted myself).
But there’s one major problem with the site: performance.
Each page’s source code includes, at the bottom, a statement of how many database queries were required to gather up the information, and how long it took. Naturally, for better user experience, and to keep your server from falling over, you’d be looking to minimise both of these.
If you look at the homepage, for example, you’ll see it requires over 1,000 queries, and seems to take between 3 and 5 seconds to generate. The News homepage quotes 300-odd queries, and 4-6 seconds. If you then try to filter news items by Minister or topic, you’re looking at as many as 1,800 queries; and I’ve seen times as long as 15 seconds. To put it bluntly, that’s just too much. (By way of comparison: the Defra news page also includes this data at the bottom of its source code: 87 queries, 0.6 seconds.)
It might be OK if you were then caching the pages, and delivering static copies for a defined period afterwards, hence only taking the hit once per hour (or whatever); but we can see no evidence of that. Each time you refresh a page, you’ll see a different generation time at the bottom. There may be some caching going on that we can’t see from outside; but even then, those high numbers and the often slow response times are ominous.
You’re looking at a server which is in real danger of falling over as soon as there’s a significant spike in traffic. It doesn’t have to be like that; any WordPress veteran reading this will be thinking of the same couple of plugins, which would help instantly. And you’ll find them with one Google search.
But that’s enough criticism for now. It is of course great news to see another major government department moving to WordPress. Some may question the timing, given Alphagov’s stated intent of eliminating departmental websites within a year. But if there’s a net saving to the taxpayer, that’s reason enough to go ahead… and a challenge to other departments to do likewise, too.
Welcome to the world of WordPress, guys. Just sort out the caching, please, before you live to regret it.

Transport closes Code of Everand

You may remember my little exclusive from the start of the year, about the £2.7 million spent by the Department for Transport on its online role playing game, Code of Everand. My FOI request also revealed that usage had basically flatlined since April 2010.
So it doesn’t come as a huge surprise to learn that Code of Everand was closed earlier this week:

Users trying to access the site – if there still are any? – will simply find their browser timing out; there’s been no attempt to bow out gracefully, by redirecting the URL to (for example) its Facebook page.
And for the record, nobody from Transport ever got in touch with me about it.

+++ EXCLUSIVE +++: Transport's £2.7m spend on online game

In late November 2009, I noted the launch of Code of Everand, a multi-player online game commissioned by the Department for Transport, aimed at teaching kids road safety in an innovative way. I found it ‘a bit tedious and mechanical’, but I acknowledged that I wasn’t exactly its target demographic.
But all sorts of alarm bells were ringing. A site like this couldn’t possibly have come cheap – but that was only the start of my concerns. It had apparently taken more than two years to build. It was built by a US-based agency. It had apparently ‘been on the brink of cancellation twice.’ And by the time it finally launched, none of the Transport staff who had originally commissioned it were still in post.
I signed off with the words ‘I imagine an opposition PQ is already in draft.’ – but as if to demonstrate just how influential this blog really is, no such PQ was ever forthcoming.
When the site’s first birthday came and went without fanfare, I could no longer suppress my curiosity… and drafted a FOI request via MySociety’s What Do They Know service. Whether the site was a success or a failure, cheap or costly, it was going to be an interesting response.
I got the response yesterday. So here we go.

That’s a grand total of £2,785,695 from project inception until the end of the current financial year. By any standards, that’s a staggering amount of money to spend on a single campaign website. Was it money well spent?
I also asked for data on user registrations and site traffic. This is a chart of new user registrations per month:

That’s a dramatic drop from a peak of 54,500 new registrations in March, to just 6,500 in April; and it’s basically been flat-lining since June. A total of 170,000 registered users, 91.8% of whom were signed up before the end of the last financial year – and the spending of a further £700k.
There’s a similar pattern to the numbers of monthly Absolute Unique Visitors, as measured by Google Analytics – although it’s curious to note the differing extents of the peaks.

The Google data regarding average time spent on the site is worth noting:

From an understandably low base, as the site built its following, the average has hovered around the 10 minute mark. That’s much more than most websites could boast, and stayed remarkably constant even as the monthly visitor numbers crashed – before suddenly jumping to nearly 18 minutes in November. Similarly, in terms of page views, it has typically recorded around 16 per visit, already very high in comparison with most sites – before shooting up to 28 in November.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that the project has social media presences in all the obvious places. And as I’m writing this, in January 2011, Code of Everand has 568 friends on Facebook – and 82 (let me confirm that: eighty-two) followers on Twitter. It’s even worse on the more child-friendly networks, where you might expect it to perform better with its notional target audience: Habbo (18 friends) and Bebo (10 – yes, ten).
Whatever interest it might have generated in those first few months, and however well it has engaged its hardcore following, it’s surely impossible to say the site has been a sustained success. Since April, its audience has all but disappeared. And yet believe it or not, just as I was writing this, there was an update on its Facebook account:

So it’s an outrageously expensive failure, right? Believe it or not, I’m still withholding judgment. Yes of course, it’s a huge amount of money: £16.33 per registered user. But it’s conceivable, just about, that it’s had its desired effect in terms of educating the youngsters it’s aimed at.
We’ll find out in due course. Transport confirmed in their response to me that:

A contract to evaluate the game was let to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in March 2010. The evaluation team consists of TRL, the Serious Games Institute based in Coventry University, and Simon Christmas Ltd, an independent social researcher. We are currently in the planning stage and do not yet have a date for publishing the work and final report.

Given the collapse in visitor numbers, and the continued spending of public money on a project which would seem to have had its day – if it ever had it at all, they might want to get a move on.
Data on road casualties during 2010 are scheduled to be published in June 2011.

Transport's web design spending

A PQ from Lib Dem MP Jennifer Willott:

To ask the Minister of State, Department for Transport how much his Department spent on external website design consultants in each of the last three years; and if he will make a statement.

To which Parliamentary Under-Secretary Chris Mole responded on 30 March 2010:

Tables have been placed in the Libraries of the House showing websites operated over the last three years and how much has been spent on external website design consultants for website design work. Costs provided are total external costs and do not include internal staff costs.

Depositing something in the library makes it a little more difficult to trace online; but not impossible. A little-known area of the Parliament website listed such Deposited Papers: and lo and behold, here’s the Word document in question: a simple table, over just two pages, which could surely have been reformatted for Hansard relatively easily? It includes:

  • over £160k spent on design of Transport Direct
  • £178k on the Think! road safety microsite…
  • … plus a further £100k on the Think! drug-driving micro-microsite
  • … plus a few quid short of £88k on the Think! early years and primary micro-microsite
  • £138k on the Flash-y, child-focused Tales Of The Road microsite (which prompted this most amusing Lords PQ last year)
  • and a whopping £343,207 on the heavily-promoted Act On CO2 site – which, in its defence, has claimed 1.1 million unique visitors between Sept 08 and Dec 09. Mind you, with an advertising budget in excess of £10m over 3 years, so it should.

The total of the various sums quoted: £1.2 million, over the three years from April 2006 to April 2009. And I note, for the record, there’s no mention of Code of Everand.
Please let’s be clear. All I’m doing is quoting the numbers from a document placed on the public record. It’s headed ‘DfT Websites and design consultant costs’, but there’s no clear definition of what constitutes ‘design’. In some cases, I’d assume ‘design’ covers the complete creative and technical process, from Photoshop to build to launch; in others, that’s quite definitely not the case.

Government gets into games business

The Department for Transport launched an online multiplayer fantasy roleplaying game last week, with the apparent aim of teaching kids to look left and right before crossing the road. Or at least, having played Code of Everand for a little while today, that’s about the only road safety message I’ve been able to find in it.
Basically, it’s a familiar tale of wandering around, building up experience points and currency. Except that to get around the world, you need to cross over the ‘spirit channels’ – requiring you to look left and right, and deploy magical weaponry to defeat the scary monsters which zoom past you. Once you’ve zapped the monsters, you can only cross the road channel when you’ve looked left and right again.
The press release quotes evidence that ‘computer games can help children develop essential skills such as logical thinking, planning ahead and cooperation’. And according to road safety minister Paul Clark, ‘by communicating with children through a medium they already enjoy using we hope to improve their understanding of the importance of safe road behaviour.’
Now I accept, I’m not the target audience here. I don’t enjoy these kinds of games; and since the campaign seems to be aimed at 10-12 year olds, I’m a bit outside the target age range. So whilst it seems a bit tedious and mechanical to me, I’m sure there’s more to it if you’re into that sort of thing.
However… Edge Online reveals a few extra details which the press release doesn’t:

Code Of Everand is the result of over two years of work with the Department For Transport by [US-based] Area/Code principals and designers Frank Lantz and Kevin Slavin, not only because of its size and ambition, but also because of the complexities of developing it for a government body. The project, after all, has gone through several incarnations and has been on the brink of cancellation twice.

And Simon Williams of DfT’s media agency Carat admits:

Kevin and myself are pretty much the only constants on this project – I don’t think any of the original clients are left. It’s been difficult – and nearly cancelled twice – because of logistics, budgets and stuff. … I guess we don’t really know what to expect, and I suppose we’re not really sure how to measure it, so we’ve been doing a merry tour around the academic institutions in the country to find a consortium to evaluate it.

Inevitably, you’re left wondering how much it has all cost, and how they’re going to measure its success. Williams says ‘certainly less than they would spend on a normal decent sized TV campaign’, but there’s no figure quoted.
I imagine an opposition PQ is already in draft.

Irony of rail rover Adonis's ministerial blog

I’d completely missed the fact that transport minister Lord Adonis, on his recent fact-finding trip round the UK rail network, had written a ‘blog’ of sorts for The Times’s website. Helpfully, the Department for Transport has reproduced the articles in full, albeit shoe-horned into the Speeches section.
It’s well-written, down to earth… everything a blog should be, to be honest. His week-long mission was ‘to experience rail travel from the perspective of an ordinary fare paying passenger’, and judging by his writing at least, he’s done a reasonable job of it. As a regular rail traveller myself, a lot of the anecdotes ring all too true. It’s really, really good stuff – and you’re left with the image of a Minister who now knows, if he didn’t before, what it’s really like out there.
And then you get to the conclusion of his final piece:

I’m told blogging can become an addiction; one it’s probably best for me not to acquire while in government, so it’s now goodbye from me.

‘Best not to while in government’? – and there, of course, is the irony of it all. I can’t help thinking back to the recent Hansard Society event on MPs’ blogging, at which Tom Harris wasn’t shy about his (supposed) sacking from Ministerial office due to his blogging.  And which specific Ministerial position did he get sacked from?
Oh that’s right. Railways minister. Ouch.
(Spotted on Labourhome courtesy of Onepolitics.)