The lady's not for YouTube-ing? Says who?

With the long Bank Holiday weekend behind us, Sunday’s Observer piece by Hazel Blears already seems like a distant memory. ‘YouTube if you want to,’ she wrote – somewhat provocatively, on the weekend we recall Margaret Thatcher’s ascension to Downing Street. Quite a soundbite, especially considering her reflection in that same piece that: ‘No government after 12 years in office can compete on slick presentation and clever soundbites.’
Having finally read the piece, it seems much more reasoned and balanced than the coverage would have you believe. The opening clause – ‘When Gordon Brown leads Labour into the next general election’ – wasn’t sufficient to stop ludicrous leadership speculation. Nor were the words ‘I’m not against new media’, nor indeed her previous statements on the subject, enough to prevent people seeing it as anti-YouTube per se.
Blears’s fundamental point, surely, was this: ‘Labour ministers have a collective responsibility for the government’s lamentable failure to get our message across… We need to have a relationship with the voters based on shared instincts and emotions.’ She does not say that YouTube – or any other new media/social tools – aren’t part of this. What she says, correctly, is that they are ‘no substitute’ for proper, face-to-face politics.
‘We need to plug ourselves back into people’s emotions and instincts and sound a little less ministerial and a little more human,’ she writes. I couldn’t agree more. Talking to people in the street is certainly one way to do this. Talking to them online, via a blog or Twitter, is another. Talking down a camera lens can also work. But some methods will work better with certain audiences – and for certain politicians. Not all politicians are gifted writers, or on-camera performers.
Hazel Blears is hitting the nail squarely on the head here. In a year’s time, presumably, we’ll be asked to give this government another 4-5 years in office, on top of the 13 they’ll already have had. Why should we? They need to find a good answer to that very simple question, fast – and then get it out via every channel at their disposal.

Our top story: government web video

No10 video on BBC News
It isn’t every evening that a video clip from a government website features prominently on the main evening news. Except this week.
Last night, it was the Treasury’s YouTube clip of Alastair Darling preparing for tomorrow’s Budget: nothing too spectacular, nice visual wallpaper for the story. Tonight, the PM’s announcement of changes to MPs’ expenses – presented first on the Number10 website – didn’t just pop up on the 10 O’Clock News; it was the basis of the lead package.
It’s another curious piece to camera by the PM. When he talks straight into the camera, he actually comes across as quite sincere. But then he ruins it with that unnatural smile, which isn’t convincing anyone. He actually looks like he’s going to burst out laughing when he mentions Harriet Harman. (Insert your own punchline in the comments, please.) Clearly I’ve missed the inherent humour in the words ‘detailed written statement’.
Prime Minister – please, stop putting it on. Remind me, who was it who uttered these words six months ago? ‘So I’m not going to try to be something I’m not. And if people say I’m too serious, quite honestly there’s a lot to be serious about – I’m serious about doing a serious job for all the people of this country.’ Exactly. No more forced grins, eh.
PS Is it pedantic of me to point out that Nick Robinson’s oh-very-clever line about ‘a U-turn on YouTube‘ isn’t strictly accurate? The Number10 video player is powered by Brightcove, and the clip isn’t among those uploaded to Downing Street’s YouTube account. There, I’m glad I got that off my chest.
PPS Jemima Kiss at the Guardian has a nice roundup of views from ‘the web community’ (ie the usual suspects), reaching a similar conclusion. But please, before anyone else declares it the Worst Video Ever, let’s remember the Countdown one.

Puffbox's Project MyTube: hooray for APIs

A few days ago, I bought an iPod Touch; and I can finally understand the fuss. I didn’t really want it; I’m not short of portable media players, and my Android phone gave me a perfectly good touchscreen to play with. But I’m very excited about mobile-optimised web interfaces at the moment, and felt I needed an iPod/iPhone to do some proper testing (as opposed to educated guesswork).
I’ve been especially blown away by the quality of videos streamed from YouTube. For example, I’m a big ice hockey fan – and the NHL (the big league in North America) is kind enough to put full highlights of every game on YouTube. But as you can probably guess, a flying puck isn’t easy to see in a heavily pixellated non-HD video stream. It’s a completely different story on the iPod Touch – crystal clear.
But – unless I’ve missed it? – there’s no easy way in the built-in YouTube applications, either on the iPod or Android, to log into your YouTube account and see your various ‘subscriptions’. On the face of it, it’s an extraordinary omission. Subscriptions are effectively your personalised EPG, allowing you to cut through the chaos, and get to the content you want. Isn’t that exactly what you want/need? So I did it myself.
If you go to, you’ll see an intro page with a dropdown list of various YouTube channels: these are being called in dynamically via Javascript, from the puffboxtv account on YouTube, courtesy of Google’s astonishingly comprehensive API. (I got the list of HMG YouTube channels from Steph’s digitalgovuk catalogueding!) When you choose a channel from the dropdown, it makes a further API call, drawing a list of the last 10 videos posted to that account, with upload dates and thumbnails. Click on a title, and you’ll see the clip description, plus an embedded player. On a normal browser, the clip will play on the page; on an iPhone/iPod or Android unit, it’ll play in the native YouTube app, full-screen. The ‘back’ button in the top left corner (not the browser back button!) returns you to the list of videos.
That’s pretty cool… but here’s the really clever bit. If you have made your YouTube subscriptions publicly visible, you can call your own favourite channels into the dropdown – go to and you should see a familiar list. I should stress, my site never holds any personal information: it’s all coming in dynamically from YouTube.
As with most of my experimental stuff, it comes with zero guarantees. There are rough edges, and it could be a little prettier. But here’s the important point: I knocked this together in 24 hours*, thanks principally to (a) Google’s wonderful API and (b) the free JQuery javascript library to process the responses.
Coincidentally, as I was putting the finishing touches to the site, I came across Charles Arthur’s piece in today’s Guardian about the Home Office crime mapping problems – which concluded thus:

The Free Our Data campaign thinks the practices outlined in the memo do not go far enough: what external developers especially are looking for is pure data feeds of events, rather than static maps… Ironically, the police’s efforts to meet the deadlines might be better aimed at producing those data feeds with time, location and crime form data which could then be used by external developers – who would be able to produce maps more quickly than in-house efforts.

I couldn’t agree more – and I hope my efforts over the last 24 hours prove the point. I’m amazed by how easy (relatively speaking) such things are becoming. The common thread across all the really successful web 2.0 properties is the availability of an API, allowing developers to work their own unique magic. As I’ve said before… Government needs to recognise this, and get in the API game. Not just as a ‘nice to have’, but as an absolute priority.
* 24 hours? Well, put it this way. It was working perfectly in Firefox, Safari (desktop and mobile), Chrome, Android… but not IE. It’s taken me the best part of a day to make it work in IE, and I still can’t really understand what I’ve done differently to finally make it work. Opera’s acting really strangely, but I’ve spent long enough playing with it for now.

YouTube goes widescreen, HD

A quick glance at Steph Gray’s digitalgovuk catalogue reveals the perhaps surprising number of government departments now using YouTube. (It’s almost a case of who isn’t using it.) So it’s worth paying attention to the drip-drip-drip of interface changes happening at YouTube, and ensuring your content is handled accordingly.
The biggest shift is the introduction of a widescreen video player. The page layout now expects videos to be 16:9; but it will put black blocks either side of any 4:3 content. Thankfully though, the ’embed’ code recognises the different dimensions, and adjusts the width/height of the embedded player accordingly: so you won’t get ‘letterboxing’ (either way) on embedded clips.
What you may get, though, is a nasty surprise when you hover over the upper third of the embedded player: a YouTube search box sliding down, obscuring your footage and tempting your viewers to find something more fun. It’s especially nasty if you’re embedding clips at a reduced size. By way of example, here’s a recent clip of our Prime Minister. Try hovering over his hair:
Two ways to turn it off. Either add &showsearch=0 to the end of both the embedding URLs – param value= and embed src=; or if you add &rel=0 to the URLs to switch off the ‘related clips’ at the end, that stops the search box appearing too.
If you’re producing any video clips from now on, I’d say it makes sense to do them in widescreen. And I’d advise against buying a video camera unless it can deliver widescreen… and HD. They’re currently testing HD quality video, as this clip shows: you may have to click on ‘Watch on HD’ to get the full effect. The difference is startling.

The 10 minute restriction on length is still in place – not that that should worry you, as the optimal length of a video is somewhere between 1 and 3 minutes; but for a little while now, you’ve been allowed to upload files up to 1GB. Remember, Google stores whatever you upload, and downgrades it on-the-fly as necessary when someone watches it. So use that extra capacity: it may not matter much now, but you’ll be glad you did later.
(It might also be a good time to look again at your home ISP’s monthly download limit: with all this HD video popping up, you could find yourself downloading a lot more than you realised.)

Gordon Brown on your Wii

One of the more inspiring developments at the BBC recently has been the extension of iPlayer away from the desktop PC. Back in April, they launched iPlayer on the Wii – but it wasn’t the breakthrough moment it might have been. Leaving aside the fact it didn’t stream especially smoothly on my machine, the interface was optimised for a screen resolution which the Wii couldn’t deliver, making for a horrid user experience. Last week they made amends, with a Wii-optimised screen setup – and it’s truly brilliant. Try it on your desktop PC, but to appreciate its full glory, you need to be sitting on the living room sofa, in proper telly-watching mode.
I’ve been a bit surprised that people haven’t done more optimising of content for ‘games consoles’ – particularly the current generation, with their online capabilities. And with the Wii (again) selling like hot cakes (set to get even hotter too), it has tremendous potential for video-on-demand in the living room.
Inspired by the Beeb’s efforts, I wondered how much effort it would take to put a Wii-friendly front end on some YouTube content. So I took a few hours last night to build a prototype – and here it is:

It’s basically the same concept as the BBC’s design, rebuilt from scratch using a combination of PHP, RSS and Javascript (specifically, JQuery). The code pulls in the last 10 items from Downing Street’s YouTube account, and puts them into a JQuery-driven carousel. When you click on a clip, a popup fades into view, and the embedded YouTube player autoplays. The big buttons left and right make the playlist scroll beautifully from side to side.
I want to stress: I’ve done this completely off my own bat. Although we have a continuing working relationship, I wasn’t asked to do this by Number10. It’s purely a proof-of-concept, using publicly available (publicly funded) material. It’s a bit rough round the edges: some of the link highlighting isn’t too smooth on the Wii, the word wrapping isn’t polished, and it doesn’t seem to work properly on (desktop) Firefox for some reason – although curiously, all other browsers seem OK, even IE! But having proven the concept, to be honest, I may not bother going back to fix these issues. There’s also a risk of YouTube changing their code, as has happened before: the Wii’s Flash player is a bit behind the times, and YouTube’s improvements have caused problems in the past.
But for now – it works, really quite nicely, and I’m dead pleased with it. You need never again say the words ‘there’s nothing on telly.’ 🙂 And with more and more government content going on YouTube, if anybody thinks this might be useful in a proper business context, please get in touch.

Lords Committee talks Directgov, YouTube

Mike Ellam
Mike Ellam before the Lords comms committee

I’m not sure we learned a lot from this morning’s Lords Communications Committee session with Michael Ellam (the Prime Minister’s official spokesman) and Sir Gus O’Donnell (head of the home civil service), part of the continuing review of government communications, and reforms proposed in 2004’s Phillis Review. It wasn’t an intense grilling, and as you’d expect, it was deftly and professionally handled.
Perhaps surprisingly, the internet took immediate centre stage. Chairing the session in Lord (Norman) Fowler’s absence, Lord (Tom) King asked about the apparent doubling of government communications staff. You can guess the response which came back: difficulties of definition, 24/7 demands, more channels, new channels. It was this final point which was picked up by Mike Ellam, who noted the growth of Downing Street’s digital communications operation.
He took as an example the recent ‘Ask The PM’ exercises on YouTube: but it was particularly telling to note the language he and the Committee used. Members of the public asked questions ‘via webcast,’ said Ellam. Lord King checked what he meant – ‘on film?’ Well, er, technically no, but… When Ellam finally dared to refer specifically to YouTube, it seemed almost apologetic.
Asked if it had been worth doing, Ellam said he felt ‘anything that improves direct communications with the public has to be a good thing’; O’Donnell agreed, saying it was ‘good for society as a whole if we can increase engagement in the political process’, and this was one way to reach young people in particular. And since the PM was already being briefed weekly for PMQs, it was ‘not a great extra burden’ for him to answer questions on camera occasionally.
And that was that; things moved swiftly on to familiar matters of the Lobby system, impartiality, the role of special advisers. (Although Ellam raised the subject Robert Peston’s blog, in response to a question about off-the-record briefing, noting how Peston had quoted unnamed bankers as his sources.)
The morning’s proceedings had started with two ladies from the Citizens Advice Bureau, who were asked specifically about the ‘digital divide’ and their experiences with government websites. They were actually very complimentary about Directgov: Fiona (didn’t catch her surname) said she was ‘impressed with the presentation’, and praised its ‘accessible language’. She took a particular interest in search results, noting that DG offered a ‘meaningful list’, unlike many others. But Directgov had its shortcomings: it was quite fragmented, although she acknowledged that it might be a reflection of fragmented systems in government, and it lacked detail on ‘extent issues’ – namely, differences between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
They talked about their ‘complete dismay’ at the reduction of leaflets being made available in hard copy: if you went to a library to print off a 100-page document on employment rights, for example, it was ‘like buying War And Peace’; and with libraries charging per page printed, the cost could soon mount up. Interestingly, they noted that whilst 35% (ish) of people nationally didn’t have broadband at home, 70% of their customers fell into that group.
But if we’re going to talk about the Lords and technology… I can’t resist pointing you to the apparent death threat (in jest, presumably?) made by Radio 4 Today Programme presenter John Humphrys this morning, when Lord Desai’s mobile went off mid-interview. (Fast-forward to 6m30 for that familiar Nokia refrain.)

They asked, Gordon answered

Whether or not you like the answers he gives, the presentation of the ‘Ask The PM’ questions and answers on the Downing Street YouTube channel is really nice. The ‘split-screen’ treatment gives equal prominence to punter and premier; and one plays when the other finishes. Nothing too clever, but I really like it.
The second round of questions has already opened: this time, on the specific topic of health. Worth noting a tightening of the editorial criteria: nothing party political, nothing over a minute.
Meanwhile, over at the Governance of Britain site I developed with the Ministry of Justice, we’ve got the first of (what should hopefully be) a regular series of video messages, introducing debates around the constitutional renewal programme. Minister Michael Wills is great on camera: then again, he has a background in TV, and has plenty of practice.

Why Parliament doesn't like YouTube

LibDem MP Jo Swinson raised the subject of parliamentary video clips going on YouTube, during questions to the Leader of the House last week. You can see it below.
Helen Goodman’s response is enlightening: video material isn’t allowed to be hosted on a site where it can be searched or downloaded ‘to ensure that it is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes’. In this day and age, it’s ridiculous…
…as is proven, of course, by the very fact that I can post the above video clip courtesy of TheyWorkForYou‘s new ‘mechanical Turk‘-style manual markup initiative, and BBC Parliament’s recordings.
It’s another MySociety project where my overwhelming feeling is disappointment: it’s sad that it has to come to this. And unfortunately, where Amazon can offer cash, MySociety can only offer warm feelings. But they seem to be making startling progress.
By the way… the list of signatories to Jo Swinson’s early day motion is interesting, with quite a bit of Northern Irish interest, and almost nothing from WebCameron’s Tories.

On the political parties' sites…

I’ve been looking at the various political party websites today, planning a possible enhancement to my onepolitics website. A few nuggets you might be interested in…

  • Plaid Cymru are on Twitter. Only a token effort, and only 9 mates. But it’s a start. (And its bilingual.) To their credit, they’ve also got presences on YouTube, Facebook and Flickr (details here).
  • The SNP don’t seem to have a YouTube presence. Seems odd, when they were among the first to get into it. (Anyone know of it?)
  • One thing the SNP do have, and it makes me a little uncomfortable, is a News Aggregator on their main party site. Why uncomfortable? Because it’s effectively just republishing an RSS feed from (using Drupal’s built-in aggregation tool, by the look of it). Yet another blurring of the line between government and politics… and very awkward, where independence is an important characteristic (eg National Statistics stuff).
  • and most worrying of all… if you look for the site of Ian Paisley Peter Robinson’s DUP, and you happen to be running Google’s Desktop search app, you get presented with this.

Visiting this site may harm your computer!

Questions to the Prime Minister!

Downing Street’s journey ever deeper into new media continues… as Sky’s Joey Jones observes, ‘cyberspace probably seems the safest place for Gordon Brown right now.’
And on the day he addresses Google’s Zeitgeist Europe conference, apparently to announce ‘a number of areas (plural? hmm…) where the UK Government and technology giant Google are planning to work together’, he also becomes the latest politician to invite questions from YouTubers. See their London Mayoral efforts, or the US-based YouChoose for other examples… or indeed, the Rolling Stones.
I’m not entirely sure about these ‘ping-pong’ video interviews… they’re certainly better than the mock-TV studio efforts which Labour have tried before, but I worry about a channel where the questions are often longer than the answers.
You’ve got until 21 June to record and submit your question, with responses to follow ‘at the end of June’… although they’re describing it as ‘regular’, so there should be further chances later.