CROSSROADS: 12 predictions for local government digital comms in 2013

3905842249_7dd2e55bf9_bNever make predictions, especially about the future. Wise words I feel.

With a bit of time to pass about 12 months ago I rather boldly made some 12 predictions for local government digital which is an area I work in a bit. You can read them here.

So, 12 months later I thought it maybe an interesting experiment in pointing and laughing at myself to see how accurate they were and make 12 more.

What was right? 

JFDI did die. What’s JFDI? It’s Just Flipping Do It. It’s putting something up as an experiment without having to go through layers of policy and permissions. Chucking up a Facebook page had the whiff of revolution in 2009. Now everyone is using it and there’s strategies wrapped in HR policies it’s hard to have the space to innovate.

Digital customer services are growing. Norfolk County Council have blazed a trial on Twitter that others are following.

Someone did do something really stupid and it didn’t see their operation shut down. Little did I think it would be my own organisation. A member of staff accidentally tweeted from the corporate account that they soon wished that hadn’t. It wasn’t fun. But it wasn’t fatal, thankfully.

Emergency planners are using digital channels as second nature. The gift of big-powerful-ultra-storm-but-not-quite-a-hurricane Sandy which struck New York showed how powerful real time updates, cleaning-up and myth-busting became.

The local government social media star was someone you’d never heard of in place you didn’t think was digital friendly. For me, this was @whocareswalsall who stage pop-up campaigns around social care. Their live tweeting from the home of a dementia sufferer and his carer was breathtakingly good. Why? It painted a personal story that would not have been possible without digital.

4734206265_cba1558b2d_bLinked social has grown. This is a move away from just a corporate account to a range of accounts and platforms from the same authority.

Good conferences had an unconference element. Or were unconferences. The days of £200 a ticket events have gone. The days of £100 a ticket seem dated. There was a lively online debate on the merit of unconferences but the best bits of inspiration I found came from barcamps and in the West Midlands there was an explosion of them.

Newspapers have carried on dying. Bit of a home banker of a prediction this. Although there are signs with live blogging and other tools that they are seeing the value of social media.

What was wrong?

Data journalism didn’t grow. Nationally, maybe. But locally not and bloggers were not in the main building mash-ups to hold instutions to account.

What was half right?

Comms is still fighting for control of social media and not sharing the sweets nicely, like they need to. They’ll learn eventually.

Data visualisation didn’t boom. There were isolated pockets of how it could be used well but it’s far from being an accepted part of the comms armoury.

Some amazing things happened in Scotland. There were events planned across the country on Twitter and people like Carolyne Mitchell, Leah Lockhart, David Grindlay, Kate Bond and others are doing great things but I get the feeling it’s not quite in the mainstream.

Here’s 12 rash predictions for 2013

1. Comms teams will become smaller. Always in the frontline for criticism they will become bigger targets.Which leads to…

2. Smart comms people in local government will realise that channel shift comms may be the reason they will survive. It costs money to talk to people face-t0-face. It’s cheaper on the web. But how do you tell people about the best way to get a job done? By good comms which needs to be evaluated to see how effective it has been not by a potential audience but by the number of people who stopped calling and started reporting online.

4399722909_b77b178be8_o3. Twitter defamation lawyers4u will become a reality. The wild west days of the social web will be over. The row over tweeting false allegations against Tory Ministers has changed the landscape. How soon before ambulance chasing gets replaced with tweet chasing? How soon before a local politician takes legal action over a rogue tweet?

4. Innovation will wither as as spare capacity is cut. With less people doing more things they room for ground breaking projects will shrink and ever disappear.

5. The private sector will be doing the best innovation. Up until now JFDI has taken the public sector very far. Well resourced private sector comms teams will do the best creative thinking. Seen what Gatwick Airport do with social media? You simplty must. Twitter as an engagenent channel. Pinterest to promote shops and offers. Soundcloud for audio books for children parents can play their fractious children. Brilliant.

6. Digital comms specialists are needed. Yes, we all need to be doing it. But there needs to be a hand on the tiller of any organisation just to steady the ship, see what is on the horizon and think creatively. Sorry. But there is. The evidence of Gatwick tells us this.

7. Digital box ticking needs to be guarded against. As the argument has been won it becomes mainstream. Bad social media will become more prevalent as the box marked ‘we’ve tweeted from our own special account’ is ticked.

8. People will see that social media isn’t a golden bullet. Social media has had a great run. It’s promised lots and has delivered an awful lot. But it’s one of several channels.

9. Facebook as a local government channel is over. With the change of algorithm Facebook at a stroke has reduced the number of people who see your updates to around 10 to 15 per cent. That’s like the postman keeping 90 per cent of your birthday cards. No, really it is. Matt Murray and Jim Garrow have blogged well on this subject.

10. The localgov digital project is a good  idea whose time has come. A practitioner network with support from the LGA and DCLG this has potential. Big potential if there is enough time and resources.
11. Social media is fracturing. It’s not a case of Facebook + Twitter. It’s knowing YouTube, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Soundcloud, Audioboo, Google Plus, Pinterest, Instagram and other emerging platforms in the right place and at the right time. That may be a series of small communities to service.
12. Digital projects to make a difference must be big. If we’re still here talking about Twitter Gritter as the finest use of digital in local government we’ll have all failed horribly. Small projects are great. Ones that tackle big issues are what are needed to make a difference.
Creative commons credits
Clock face http://www.flickr.com/photos/adesigna/3905842249/sizes/l/
Atari http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/4734206265/sizes/l/
Atomic http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/4399722909/sizes/o/in/set-72157622098292751/

BOW SKILLS: 37 skills, abilities and platforms for today’s comms person

Before the internets were invented life must have been so dull. Y’know, really dull.

You wrote a press release, you organised a photocall and once in a while TV and radio would show an interest.

A few years back the yardstick of success where I work was getting the local TV news to come host the weather live from your patch.

There’s been a change. Like a glacier edging down the mountain valley blink and not much has happened. Come back a while later and things have unstoppably changed.

Truth is, it’s a fascinating time to be a comms person. We’re standing at the intersection between old and new.

Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans once said that he loves newspapers but he’s intoxicated by the speed and possibility of the internet. That’s a quote I love.

Here’s another quote I love. Napoleon Dynamite once said that girls only like men with skills. Like nunchuck skills, bo staff skills or computer hacking skills. For a digital comms perspective Napoleon’s quote could be applied there too. What you need are social media skills, press release skills and interactive mapping skills. And a bit more.

Sitting down recently I calculated the many strings to the bow that are now needed. I counted 37 skills, abilities and platforms I’m either using on a regular basis or need to know. Some more than others. Or to use Napoleon’s parlance, bow skills.

Out of interest, and to save me time in googling their associated links, here they are:

TIMELESS SKILLS

The ability to understand the detail and write in plain English.

The ability to understand the political landscape.

The ability to communicate one-to-one and build relationships.

The ability to work to a deadline.

The ability to understand comms channels and what makes interesting content on each.

WRITTEN CONTENT

Write a press release. The ability to craft 300 words in journalese with a quote that’s likely to tickle the fancy of the journalist who you are sending it to.

Use Twitter. To shape content – - written, audio, images and video – in 140 characters that will be read and shared.

Use Facebook. To shape content – written, audio, images and video – that will be read and shared.

Use Wikipedia. To be aware of what content is being added knowing that this belongs to wikipedia.

Use LinkedIn. To shape content – written, audio, images and video – that will be read and shared.

IMAGES

Arrange a photocall. The ability to provide props and people to be photographed and to work with a photographer and those being photographed so everyone is happy.

Use Flickr. To source pics, to post pics to link to communities, to arrange Flickr meets.

Use Pinterest. To source pics and share your content. To build a board around an issue or a place.

Use Instagram. To share your pics.

AUDIO

Arrange a broadcast interview. The ability to provide an interviewee when required and give them an understanding of the questions and issues from a journalists’s perspective.

Record a sound clip to attach to a release, embed on a web page or share on social media. I like audioboo. I’m increasingly liking soundcloud too. It’s more flexible to use out and about.

VIDEO

Create and post a clip online and across social sites. Using a camera or a Flip camera. With YouTube or Vimeo.

WEB

Add content to a webpage. That’s the organisation’s website via its CMS.

Build a blog if needs be or add content to a blog. That’s a blog like this one or a microsite like this one.

To know and understand free blogging tools. Like wordpress or tumblr.

COMMUNITY BUILDING

To know when to respond to questions and criticism and how. The Citizenship Foundation’s Michael Grimes has done some good work in this field.

To know how to build an online community. Your own. And other communities.

HYPERLOCAL

To engage with bloggers. Like Wolverhampton Homes’ policy suggests.

To be search for blogs to work with. On sites like openly local.

LISTENING

To be aware of what’s being written about your organisation, issue, campaign or area. By tools like Google Alerts.

MAPPING

To build and edit a simple map. Like a Google map. And be aware of other platforms like Open Street Map.

ADVERTISING

To understand the landscape to know which audience reads which product. Like the local paper, Google Adwords and Facebook advertising.

MARKETING

To understand when print marketing may work. Like flyers or posters. Yes, even in 2012 the poster and the flyer are sometimes needed as part of the comms mix.

INFOGRAPHICS

To understand when information can be better presented visually. Through a simple piechart. Or more interestingly as a word cloud or via wordle. Or if its packets of data in spreadsheets or csv files through things like Google Fusion Tables or IBM’s exploratory Many Eyes.

OPEN DATA

To understand what it is and how it can help. It’s part of the landscape and needs to be understood. Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee’s TED talk is an essential six minutes viewing.

NEWSLETTERS

To understand what they are and how they can work. In print for a specific community like an estate or a town centre or via the free under 2,000 emails a month platform mailchimp to deliver tailored newsletters by email. There’s the paid for govdelivery that some authorities are using.

CURATION

To make sense of information overload and keep a things. With things like pinboard.in you can keep tabs on links you’ve noticed. Here’s mine you can browse through. For campaigns and useful interactions you can also use storify to curate and store a campaign or event. You can then embed the storify link onto a web page.

SOCIAL MEDIA

To know the right channels for the right comms. Social media shouldn’t just be a Twitter and Facebook tick box exercise. It should be knowing how and why each platforms works for each audience. Same goes for the smaller but important platforms like Pinterest, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and Flickr.

HORIZON SCANNING

To know what’s on the horizon and be prepared for it when it lands. Same for emerging fields like Augmented Reality. What is science fiction today will become commonplace in years to come. People like hyperlocal champions Talk About Local who are already working in this field.

ANALYTICS

To know how to measure and when to measure. The measurement for traditional comms have been around. Potential readership of newspapers. Opportunities to view. Opportunities to see. The new digital landscape doesn’t quite fit this and new ways are being worked out. There isn’t an industry standard means just yet. But the gap has been filled by those who claim to be. The very wise Dr Farida Vis, who took part in the Guardian’s acclaimed research into the English riots of 2011,  pointed out that sentiment analysis wasn’t more than 60 per cent accurate. There’s snake oil salesmen who will tell you otherwise but I’ve not come across anything that will be both shiny and also impress the chief executive. Tweetreach is a useful tool to measure how effective a hashtag or a tweet has been. Google Alerts we’ve mentioned. Hashsearch is another useful search tool from government digital wizards Dave Briggs and Steph Gray.

CONNECT

To connect with colleagues to learn, do and share. Twitter is an invaluable tool for sharing ideas and information. It’s bursting with the stuff. Follow like minded people in your field. But also those things you are interested in. Go to unconferences. Go to events. Blog about what you’ve learned and what you’ve done.

WEB GEEKNESS

To truly understand how the web works you need to use and be part of it. That way you’ll know how platforms work and you can horizon scan for new innovation and ideas. It won’t be waking up at 2am worrying about the unknown. You’ll be embracing it and getting excited about it’s possibilities.

Good comms has always been the art of good story telling using different platforms. No matter how it seems that’s not fundamentally changed. It’s just the means to tell those stories have. That’s hugely exciting.

This blog was also posted on comms2point0

Creative commons credits 

Who are you talking to most? http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/6810200488/sizes/l/

Reading a newspaper upside down http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/2542840362/sizes/l/in/set-72157623462791647/

Photographer http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/2744338675/sizes/l/in/set-72157605653216105/

Reading http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/2477046614/sizes/l/in/set-72157614042974707/

Eternally texting http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/4473276230/sizes/l/in/set-72157614042974707/

Toshiba http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/4711564626/sizes/l/in/set-72157614042974707/

Smile http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/5542156093/sizes/l/in/set-72157614042974707/


EPIC CHANGE: 12 predictions in digital in local government for 2012

“Inventions reached their limit long ago,” one important person once said, “And I see no hope for further development.”

Roman Emporer Julius Frontius made this bold comment in the 1st century. And he didn’t even have Google Plus to contend with. Bet he feels a bit silly now.

Tempting as it is to apply it to today you’d be similarly way off the money. Robot butlers and jet packs may top my own wish list but in practical terms what is likely to change?

If 2011 was a year of rapid change in local government then 2012 may see more of the same. Most of it is just a continuation of themes that started in the previous 12 months.

Here are 12 predictions for the year ahead from my perspective as a local government comms person. (Disclaimer: much of this probably won’t ever happen).

1. Comms will have a fight for control of social media. They’ll lose in the long term if they want to keep it all for themselves. They’ll win if the create an environment for others to innovate.

2. Data visualisation will boom. With the web prompting comms people to search for new platforms to tell a story data visualisation will expand. With free tools being available there will be innovation.

3. JFDI dies. As the mainstreaming of digital continues JFDI – or Just Flipping Do It – as a way of getting things done in an organisation will end. You can’t fly under the radar on Facebook if 29 million people in the UK are on it.

4. Digital customer services will expand. Just as calls centres emerged as the telephone matured as a way you can talk to people so too will a social presence for customer services people.

5. Someone will do summat reely stoopid and it won’t matter. In 2008, a rogue tweet could have closed down a council’s social media output. As it gets more embedded it’ll be more bullet proof.

6. Emergency planners will use Twitter as second nature. There’ll be more big incidents played out on social media. But best practice will be shared.

7. The local government social media star of 2012 will be someone doing a routine task in a place you’ve never visited. Step forward the local government worker who talks about his day job. There will be more like  @orkneylibrary and @ehodavid.

8. Linked social will grow. Linked social is different voices on different platforms growing across an organisation or across the public sector. It will be especially interesting to see how this develops in Scotland and the West Midlands.

9. Good conferences will have an unconference element. Or they’ll actually be unconferences. Some people don’t get unconferences. But they generally want to leave on the stroke of five o’clock and don’t do anything outside their JD. Bright ones do but will be happier if they’re wrapped up and presented like a ‘proper’ conference. But unconferences will be more diverse and targeted.

10. Newspapers will carry on dying. Bright comms people will carry on developing web 2.0 skills and use them in tandem with old media. Good Journalism will carry on adapting to the web. But this may take time to filter through to local newspapers who have been the bread and butter of local government press offices.    

11. Data journalism will grow. But not in local newspapers. Bloggers will uncover big stories that a print journalist doing the work of three doesn’t have time to look for.

12. Amazing things will happen in Scotland. Some of the brightest people in the public sector who are innocavating aren’t in London. They’re north of the border serving as police officers as well as in local government. It’ll be fascinating to see how this develops.

Creative commons credits

Geeks http://www.flickr.com/photos/duvalguillaume/2494520518/

Computer for the space shuttle programme http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/6521818485/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Twitter stream http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5897611358/sizes/l/in/photostream/


GOOD IDEAS: What is a hack day? And why you should be bothered

A hack day? That’s breaking into the Pentagon computer, right?

Why would normal people go to something like that?

Why stare at banks of geeks staring at laptops coding?

As a spectator sport it fails. Utterly.

But the potential of it is immense.

Why?

Because getting several talented people in the same room means better ideas surface.

But you simply MUST make it open for everyone. By that, I mean they must be space for non-tecky people too and I’m not sure that always happens.

A room full of geeks will come up with geek ideas.

A room full of the digitally unconnected won’t know where to start.

It’s when you put them both you are beginning to be on the road to a winner.

Although not strictly a hack day, for me this pro-am blend is why something like Local by Social works as an idea. Or CityCamp. Getting real people in the same room as techy people to come up with solutions to problems.

After attending a couple of hack days and being out of my usual comfort zone and contributing little other than cups of coffee and a few – often bad – ideas here’s a few things that struck me.

WHAT’S NEEDED FOR A HACK DAY?

Some space. Some volunteers. Some time. The internet. Some people who know about stuff. Plug sockets. Coffee. Pizza is optional.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT?

It means people actively re-using using data – or information – to produce a web application or an interesting new website. There are some that say local government shouldn’t be doing this themselves. It should be people in the open data community. I don’t buy that one. Outside the pockets of open data innovation in the country, there’s a role for local government to produce things using open data. If there are no coders in a small town or if the market hasn’t moved there, then why not?

Similarly, if there is a need to present information in a more interesting way than just a static website.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR PR?

Yet again, it’s more evidence that Comms 3.0 is upon us. That’s a subject I’ve blogged about before which you can read here. It’s more evidence that the old school press officer is not the gatekeeper to the message. But the forward thinking comms person doesn’t need to write script and eat pizza. They just need an appreciation of what’s going on. They can also contribute with ideas and inspiration.

 WHAT CAN BE BUILT AT A HACK DAY?

On Twitter, Digital Birmingham’s Si Whitehouse made the point that a hack day doesn’t always need to have something working at the end of it to be a success. It’s a fair point. Sometimes it’s enough to try out a concept or a new approach that could be expanded and invested in at a later date. Or just make connections. Or create the data itself.

WHAT AREA WORKS BEST FOR A HACK DAY?

As far as I’m concerned, an area that is sitting on piles of data and is quite keen on people to come and build things with it. It’s as simple as that.

Here’s a few examples of things produced at hack days.

GO FISH: Something that makes you explore a museum archive and tell a story.

At the WAG Hack Day in West Bromwich staged by Black Country Museums the excellent Ben Proctor and others built this something useful that demonstrates it. It’s a way of pulling nine items from the collection and you building your own story about them. It’s creative. It also gets you to explore the museum’s stores.

WHO WANTS TO NOT GET STABBED? A way of comparing how safe you are in rural and city locations.

An excellent game that uses crime and Google street view data. You can play it here. You get certain scenarios put in front of you and you get to choose which is safer. You’d be quite surprised at what the actual safe places are.

LOOQUEST: A game that directs you to nearby public toilets.

With a retro look, this hack by Neontribe is really quite wonderful and makes you smile, is a help and raises the problem of a lack of public lavs. I kept getting eaten by the toilet. You can play it here.

EDINBURGH PLANNING APP MAP: Takes planning applications and puts them on a map.

At the Scraperwiki event in Glasgow, this map which updates daily with planning applications to a map is worth looking at. This blog tells you how its done.

WARD MAPPER: A tool to compare and contrast vital ward data.

At Hackitude in Birmingham, this rather fine model to demonstrate how data from data.gov.uk can be turned from something dusty emerged. You can read the blog from Stuart Harrison here.

SO, WHAT TOOLS CAN NON-CODERS USE AS A PLATFORM FOR SOMETHING INTERESTING?

There are scores of web tools you don’t have to be a coder at. You can be like me. Someone who dabbles and explores a bit.

Here’s a list I drew-up at the Black Country Museum hack day at The Public in West Bromwich. They had history data in mind but could as well apply to other areas of local government data and as a way to engage with residents.

Flickr.com – as a place to post images from museum stores and encourage people to submit new shots.

History Pin – a brilliant interactive site that you can literally pin old pictures onto contemporary Google Streetview images.

Google Fusion Tables – A way to visually present downloaded datasets.

A WordPress blog – A place to post text, images, stories, sound files and embed old footage.

Vimeo – The full and frank exchange of views that blights YouTube comments means that Vimeo could be a better route. Especially, for oral history.

A council website – In local government, your website shouldn’t just be a static place. It can be used as an interactive thing too.

Useful links:

An idiots guide to open data Simple explanation of what open data is.

What is Open Data? A brilliant short film from the Open Knowledge Foundation as a primer for open data.

What is a hack day?  An explanation of what a hack day does from Rewired State.

Scraperwiki A site of resources for people who know how to code.

What we’ve done. A further list of things built by Rewired State.

Hat-tip for pointing out links for this to Harry Harold of Neontribe, Janet Hughes of the London Assembly, Julia Higginbottom of Aquila and 10ml.com.

Creative commons credits:

Hacker with computer http://www.techshownetwork.com credit: Jochen Siegle/TechShowNetwork original image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/techshownetwork/2946209857/

Other images from my Flickr stream.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


SUITS YOU: How to use grey accountants to argue for cool open data

Sometimes you need to stop listening to geeks. Sometimes you need to start listening to people in pinstripe suits.

When it comes to open data there’s a gem of a report by Deloitte Canada. ’Understanding government‘ is a belter. It’s an assessment by suits for suits of what open data can achieve. It’s worth downloading.

Think of this post as a review. It’s worth reading the whole thing but here are some bullet points. The sub-headings are mine rather than from the report.

How social media helps open data…

“The social media culture in particular is driving governments to open up while offering the imagination and expertise necessary to improve public services.

“In response, government organisations are embracing the idea that public data should be broadly available in a re-usable format and that governing should be a collaborative enterprise between government and its citizens.

Open data can help…

“The good news is that open government initiatives can help engage the public in making the difficult budgetary choices governments are grappling with.

“It will place governments under an unprecedented level of scrutiny and accountability while offering the potential to improve public services.

Open data is not a threat…

“Rather than view the changing relationship between government and its stakeholders as a threat or an inconvenience ncreasingly see it as an opportunity to engage citizens, non-governmental organisations, businesses and other entities in the design of new services and the resolution of old problems.”

Open data may even have stopped the MP’s expenses scandal…

“If the UK had put its database of members’ expense re-mbursements in the public domain in the first place could the scandal have been avoided? Politicians who know that constituents are watching their activities are much more likely to be careful about how they spend public funds.”

The four benefits of open data…

  1. Better inform the public;
  2. Enhance accountability;
  3. Strengthen communities;
  4. Facilitate markets.

Make a noise about open data…

“Agencies should not quietly put data online. Rather, they should tell the public what they are doing and why, while seeking their participation and engagement. Data that sits in a file are not worth much. Information becomes powerful only as its consumers start to apply it in ways that create value.”

Let people build things…

“Let the users design.

“This form of user-driven application development, also known as crowd sourcing, user innovation or open sourcing provides governments with an unprecedented opportunity to engage citizens in unlocking the power of public data.”

What to do with user-generated content…

“Encourage users to create applications. Incorporate or adapt user-designed applications into publicly hosted sites. Seek and maintain a dialogue with apps developers. Create methods and channels for listening and responding to user demands for data.”

Don’t just let citizens analyse data. Government needs to be better at it…

“Government leaders recognise that in addition to leveraging community resources to analyse public data they must get better at analysing vast stores of public data – in addition to online resources.

“Leading governments are investing in building a core competency in data analytics.

“This involves acquiring the software tools to manipulate vast stores of public data – often provided by more than one agency – and investing in the people and processes to drive analysis and take action.”

Isn’t data a bit vast? Where do you start to look at data as government?

“Focus analytics on your core mission. Approach data analytics as a new core competency not a new tool set. Enlist key partners inside your agency. Leverage the online community.”

Closing thoughts…

“In an information-driven age, the ability of governments to seize the opportunity may ultimately determine whether a government fails or succeed.”

This post was first published on the Open Data Blog. 

Creative commons credits:

Accountant with a computer: LSE Library http://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/4072387390/

Geek tech  http://www.flickr.com/photos/modul/4703887615/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Geek in t-shirt http://www.flickr.com/photos/zakwitnij/140788331/


TRUE GRIT: A localgov winter social media case study

Every mile is two in winter, the Elizabethan poet George Herbert wisely said.

True words then and true today and he never had to drive a Vauxhall Astra on the M6 in minus five degree weather.

In local government its worth going the extra mile in wintry weather.

Get things right in sub zero weather and you’re laughing.

Get it wrong and you’re not. Just ask the Scottish transport minister who resigned after scathing criticism.

For the past two weeks Walsall Council - the council I work for –  has been using social media as a key way to keep people updated on wintry weather.

It’s not the first time. Last year, we were one of a small number to use social media. We used Twitter to flag up gritting and service disruption.

This time, we expanded a touch. During the icy period of November 26 to December 11 2010 we used the council website, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

What did we do this year?

Staff were primed to email the communications unit, members of the team by 8am every day as well as individuals. When the gritters went out the engineers e-mailed and even called to flag up what they were up to.

Council website www.walsall.gov.uk

With new digital channels taking all the attention you’d be forgiven for overlooking your website. Don’t. It’s where a lot of your content can go.

We used one page on the website as a links directory to more than half a dozen potential service areas so people didn’t have to search around the website.

It’s where most people will go first.

Twitter @walsallcouncil

Stats: 2,200 followers (a five per cent rise in two weeks)

261 tweets at almost 19 a day.

Content: Updates on gritting, school closures, service disruption.
Links to council gritting pages, school closure page organised by education provider Serco.

Links to winter shots taken by residents and posted on Twitpic and Flickr.

Links to BBC weather.

Link to the @mappamercia grit map.

Did we RT?: Of course. Social media is supposed to be social. We retweeted the Met Office weather forecasts, neighbouring authority grit updates and advice on

Facebook: Our Walsall fan page

Stats: 345 likes (up 10 per cent in two weeks)

Daily post views up 3,105 or 82 per cent.

Updates: 27

Each status update received between 159 and 783 page impressions.

Content: Three to four updates a day with links to a general page.

Flickr and Twitpic

Stats: 6 pics posted on Flickr and 12 pics crowdsourced and retweeted on Twitter to provide content from residents themselves. Shots varied from the amateur twitpic to the almost professional here.

A set of pics were posted of the gritters in action at a training event in late autumn designed to test out the routes. These were posted to Flickr but the best pics came from residents themselves. In the spirit of web 2.0 we posted links to good shots.

One pic was crowdsourced for the council website header shot.

Content: snowy scenes taken by residents as well as shots of gritters posted by the press office.

Open data

It’s one of the great jobs of this winter to see a mapping project really take off in Walsall. The Mappa Mercia group are people I’ce blogged about previously. Last winter they drew-up a grit map on open street map for Birmingham. You can take a look here. They spotted the grit routes for Walsall and Solihull too and quietly added them. So, when winter came we were quite happy to link to their map. It shows residents spotting a need and doing it themselves.

Content: grit routes.

EIGHT things we’d suggest:

  • Get service areas to tell you what they are doing.
  • Communicate to residents in good time.
  • Monitor, respond and communicate every four hours. Have a rota to do this.
  • Put the same message across different channels. But in the language of the platform. Don’t RSS it across everything. It won’t work.
  • You can crowdsource good picture content.
  • Have an idea what the frequently asked questions are and think about the answers before you are asked.
  • Take a screen shot of the positive and negative comments from Facebook and Twitter. It gives the service areas an idea of what is being said if you email it to them. The positive stuff will go down very well and make them more supportive of what you are doing.
  • You can reply to negative comments. But if people swear or are sarcastic think twice. You may not have a constructive conversation.

OPEN FLOODGATES: What publishing Whitehall data means for local government

As one wag said: “A Prime Minister addressing a room full of geeks about open data? I’ve waited years for this.”

At the Wellcome Trust in London more than 200 people gathered for the International Open Data conference.

David Cameron delivered a recorded message and Minister Francis Maude was there in person. So was uber-geek Tim Berners-Lee.

Arranged by the Open Knowledge Foundation This was a chance to launch the UK Government’s data set of its department’s spend over £25,000.

That’s 194,000 lines of text and £80 billion of spending. The link to it is here.

What’s the point in that? The aim is to open the Government’s books to allow residents, journalists and business a chance to have a look.

Pithily one newspaper commentator posed the question: ‘A great leap forward or masochistic folly?’

It is madness isn’t it?

Tim Berners-Lee.

Tim Berners-Lee.

Actually, no. It’s a movement supported by left and right alike which has the aim of cutting waste, allowing entrepreneurs to flourish and a fairer society.

The event may have been Whitehall focussed but there are powerful golden strands that run through all government. Local and national.

Local government has already been asked to publish items of spend over £500 under the label ‘spending transparency.’

They have until January 1 to do it and as Cameron and Maude 100 of more than 300 odd councils had published.

There is a feeling within Whitehall that some will quietly choose not to publish calculating the flak they get for not completing a slightly arcane process is less than the grief a particular financial skeleton may pose.

It’s unlikely Whitehall will allow this to pass without prompting closer inspection.

Walsall Council House.

It’s also unlikely local government will not be asked to publish more as open data. There is more to come. Much more.

Here are some broad messages from the day for local government:

SO, WHAT’S THE BIG PICTURE?

Open data won’t be an easy ride for people in authority. As Francis Maude said: “It’s going to be very uncomfortable for government and local government. Media outlets will find things that will cause embarrassment.”

It’s not going to go away. It’s easy to like open data in opposition, says Maude. You can shine a light at others’ decisions. However, he pledged there were two key advocates – him and the Prime Minister.

The aim is to move influence away from the traditional centres – “information is power. This is a power shift,” says Maude, “to move the decision making away from Westminister.

Expect better decision making on spending – “Once you know you are being scrutinised you’ll be more careful. MP knows this all to well,” Maude says.

It’s FOI turbo charged – It would have taken journalists years of submitting FOI requests to build up the picture revealed in the £25k data sets, the Guardian say.

HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE PRIVATE SECTOR?

Contracts should allow for open data to be released – The presumption for contracts is transparency, says Maude.

It’ll create wealth – Open government data will create a £6 billion industry, says the Minister.

A website to point the spotlight on the private sector too – Chris Taggart has built opencorporates to shine the light at which big companies are doing well from public sector contracts.

HOW WILL ALL THIS BENEFIT GOVERNMENT – CENTRAL AND LOCAL?

Waste detection – By spotting where the waste is money will be spent better, Francis Maude says.

Procurement needs to get its act together – know what is in the contract before you sign a deal since the detail what it will purchase will be closely monitored, the Minister says.

WHAT IS NEXT?

Historical data will be released – There will be open data from previous administrations. This will help to compare and contrast with the current era.

More public agencies will follow – There are 100,000 public bodies. There’s no timescale for these just yet.

There will be a right to data – David Cameron has pledged that people will ask and receive data for a personal and business use. This is massive for local democracy.

Open data will move from spending into crime – Expect interactive crime maps in the New Year, Maude says.

SO, WHO WILL BE LOOKING THROUGH THIS DATA?

Journalists – the media needs to be data savvy. Data journalism will become more and more important, says Tim Berners-Lee.

“Chatting people up in pubs was one part of your job,” he told journalists in the room. “Poring over data and equiping yourself with the tools to look for the juicy bits will be important.

“Data journalism will be part of the future.”

Right now, local newspapers haven’t grasped what data journalism is. Don’t hold your breath just yet either.

Traditional news is emergency services calls, court and council agendas. It’s not data mining with csv files.

What may put it on the agenda are national stories re-written with a local.

Hyperlocal bloggers – many bloggers have geek tendancies that will happily work with online tools. Stories from all this will be broken by an 18-year-old rather than a laptop. That’s quite exciting. Tools such as timetric.com where graphs can be built using data and embedded in blogs can help with this.

Geeks – an inexhaustable army of geeks will pore over the data – “what happens when the flashflood of geeks go away?” mused Tim Berners-Lee. “It’s perennial.”

Industry – Data company Spikes Cavell have released spotlightonspend.org to interpret local government data. This hasn’t been without criticism from the opendata community who argue against councils dealing solely with the company and not releasing open data too.

Social entrepreneurs – Chris Taggart has built openlylocal.com as a platform for local government data and has been a pioneer in the field.

Real people – Fascinatingly, The Guardian had a team of four working for four days on the data before it was published. They didn’t think they could glean everything themselves. What they did do was make it possible for the public to use the tools to search for stories. This is the wisdom of the crowd as an extra pair of hands in the newsroom. You can download their app here.

BUT IT’S NOT ALL GOOD NEWS….

There’s no funding for people to cross check the data - As one questioner pointed out the tools that held government to account – journalists – have historically been cross subsidised by other sources such as small ads.

There’s no funding for these resources. There’s a question mark against the sustainability and effectiveness of tools.

Creative commons credits:

Tim Berners-Lee: Paul Clarke via wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee

Hand: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davedugdale/5099605109/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Parliament: http://www.flickr.com/photos/olastuen/3784184031/sizes/o/in/photostream/


OPEN DATA: A warning from history

Was this the first data visualisation? Florence Nightingale uses statistical data to argue for healthcare reform for soldiers in the Crimean War.

Open data cutting edge? Like top hats, Christmas trees and giant factories the Victorians got there first.

They may not have built a chimney sweep Google death map.  But their approach was similar. Collect the data. Publish it. Draw conclusions. Argue for change.

Don’t believe me?

Look at Florence Nightingale in her funny lace bonnet. Historian Dr Stephen Holliday in BBC History Magazine August 2010 writes about how she used statistics to

Florence Nightingale - 'funny lace bonnet.'

revolutionise the care of soldiers in the Crimean War.

By using statistics – data  - she painted a picture to show a revolution in care was needed.

“When she reached Scutari the base for casualties from the Crimea,” Halliday writes, “Florence calculated that deaths from disease were seven times those arising in battle and used the campaign to campaign for better food, hygeine and clothing for the troops.”

Battered by the force of Florence’s figures and cutting edge reporting that forged the reputation of The Times the British government was forced into changes.

After the war Nightingale used her Royal connections coupled with arguments based on charts and tables to press for better standards for soldiers who even in peacetime had death rates double that of civilians.

The result? Death rates fell by 75 per cent.

Florence herself said that statistics were “the cipher by way we may read the hand of God.”

We may have lost that religious zeal but it’s an argument Tim Berners-Lee would recognise as a modern-day Florence Nightingale with a passion for data.

Tim Berners-Lee - 'a modern Florence Nightingale'.

Tim Berners-Lee - 'a modern Florence Nightingale'.

Did she get it right all the time?

No. Here’s the warning from history.

By misreading available data Florence Nightingale later helped kill thousands of people.

How?

She used statistics to wrongly argue cholera was an airborne disease.  It wasn’t.

It took London GP Dr John Snow to collect his own data on death rates in his patch to argue they were caused by a contaminated water supplies.

So what’s the message to today’s open data pioneers?

That first data visualisation you have in front of you may not be the whole picture.

The map that Dr John Snow drew to discover that cholera was a waterborne disease.

There may be more to it.

Remember the phrase ‘lies, damn lies and official statistics?’

Statistics were once hailed as the magic cure-all that revealed a hidden truth.

It’s been said that all data in some form or other is political. Let’s not see open data similarly tainted.

LINKS

Florence Nightingale -http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/cms/

BBC History Magazine August2010 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/issue/august-2010

Creative Commons:

Crimean War data visualisation: Wikipedia.

Cholera map: Wikipedia

Tim Berners-Lee: Paul Clarke via Wikipedia


LOCAL BY SOCIAL: What should Comms 2011 look like?

Back in the olden days all a press officer had to do was a write a press release and book a photo call.

Boy, how things have changed and more to the point are changing rapidly.

How web 2.0 and web 3.0 will affect the communications unit – or press office in old money – is something that I’ve spent a great deal of time mulling over. Why? Because it’s my job.

I’m a senior press officer at Walsall Council. The job I walked into in 2005 is almost unrecognisable to the one I do now. Yes, it now includes, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media – or web 2.0 if you are a bit of a geek. But it’s also open data and the challenges of web 3.0.

The nice people from Local Government Improvement and Delivery have asked me to lead a session at their Local by Social online conference on November 3 2010 at 3pm. Looking at the speaker line up it’s something of an honour. There’s plenty for people to get their teeth into on a whole range of subjects.

I’d very much like to hear what your thoughts are. Take part ion the session. Chip in. Listen. It’s all fine. 

Firstly, here is a presentation designed as a starting point and to get the ball rolling…

Secondly, here are a few thoughts I blogged a month or two back. You can read the full version here.

In the days before the web the press office needs to:

Have basic journalism skills.

Know how the machinery of local government works.

Write a press release.

Work under speed to deadline.

Understand basic photography.

Understand sub-editing and page layouts.

For web 1.0 the press office also needed to:

Add and edit web content

For web 2.0 the press office also needs to:

Create podcasts

Create and add content to a Facebook page.

Create and add content to a Twitter stream.

Create and add content to Flickr.

Create and add content to a blog.

Monitor and keep abreast of news in all the form it takes from print to TV, radio and the blogosphere.

Develop relationships with bloggers.

Go where the conversation is whether that be online or in print.

Be ready to respond out-of-hours because the internet does not recognise a print deadline.

For web 3.0 the press office will also need to:

Create and edit geotagged data such as a Google map.

Create a data set.

Use an app and a mash-up.

Use basic html.

Blog to challenge the mis-interpretation of data.

But with web 3.0 upon us and the pace of change growing faster to stay relevant the comms team has to change.


ICE INNOVATION: Ten case studies and ideas to innovate in the winter

Oh, the weather outside is frightful but the idea of doing cool things is always delightful.

Last year, the idea of tweeting when your gritters was going out was revolutionary.

Around half a dozen councils were leftfield enough to do it and the idea spread.

Public sector web standards organisation SOCITM picked up on it making it mainstream with their report for subscribers.

Is that enough?

Can we stand still now?

The fact is local government needs to innovate like never before.

Someone famous once said when you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts.

So, where’s the innovation this year? Here’s some ideas and pointers on how straight forward they are…

1. MAP YOUR GRIT ROUTES

In the West Midlands, there’s some amazing innovation from mapping geeks.

Bright people from Mappa Mercia including the excellent Andy Mabbett last year built a grit map on Open Street Map to show grit routes in Birmingham. They dug out the routes from pdfs on the council website.

Now, they’re adding Solihull and Walsall too ready for the winter onslaught.


Birmingham City Council have linked to it from their transport pages and we at Walsall Council are tweeting it when the weather gets bad.

That’s a good example of working with a talented and community-minded online community.

Advantage: Community engagement.

Disadvantage: You need mapping geeks to be grit geeks too.

2. TWITTER GRITTER

Everytime you go out you tweet the fact. If you’re not doing it you should. It’s not enough to provide a service at 2am. You need to tell people. Why? Because they won’t know your council tax is being spent in such a way and they may well ring your harrassed staff at a time when they are thinly stretched.

It’s something I blogged about last year with a case study mapping more than 70 tweets.

Advantage: Community engagement. Cuts down unneccesary contact.

Disadvantage: You’ll need some kind of rota or it’ll all fall on one person’s shoulders.

3. YOUTUBE

A short clip to explain what the gritting service is all about. Shot on a Flip video It’s a good way of communicating what is being done.

Embedding the video in the service’s pages should be straight forward. Linking to YouTube and posting via Twitter and Facebook is easy. Tweet the link when you’re team are hitting the road

Advantage: Creates blog-friendly web 2.0 video content.

Disadvantage: You need a Flip video. The process isn’t instant.

4. MAP GRIT BIN LOCATIONS

Publish grit routes as open data? Why not.

But beware the perils of derived data that quicksand argument that means anything based on Ordnance Survey is mired in dispute.

Advantage: Publishing open data increases transparency

Disadvantages: It can’t be based on OS maps.

5 FACEBOOK

As local government Facebook sites mature and grow there’s more reason to post grit updates there too.

Drawbacks? Not all phones will allow you to post to fan pages and you may have to log on at a PC or a laptop.

Advantage: You reach the massive Facebook demographic.

Disadvantage: Your Facebook fanpage is harder to update than a profile.

6. LIVE TWEET

A trip around the borough in a gritter with a camera phone geo-tagging your tweets. It works as a one off and builds a direct connection.

At Walsall, we tweeted the testing of the gritters in a dry-run for winter including geotagged shots from the cab itself as it trundled around the streets.

Advantage: A service from a different perspective.

Disadvantage: Labour and time intensive.

7. TEXT AND EMAIL ALERTS

Sometimes we can be so struck by new gadgets that we can forget the platforms your Dad and mother-in-law have.

Simply speaking, there are more mobile phones in the UK than people.

Many councils are charged around 8p a text to issue an SMS. That’s a cost that has to be picked up from somewhere. But using the standard costs per enquiry of around £7 face-to-face and £5 over the phone the 8p charge starts to look viable.

Advantage: You can reach large numbers of people and cut down potentially on unavoidable contact.

Disadvantage: It costs.

8. BIG SOCIETY TWITTER GRITTER

Not every council has the resources to tweet its gritting. In Cumbria, the community of Alsthom high in the dales regularly gets cut off in the snow. Fed-up with the council response the town clubbed together to buy their own gritter.

Community and digital innovator John Popham floated the interesting idea of the community stepping in to tweet gritting activity. In effect, a Big Society Twitter Gritter It’s a fascinating idea, would share the burden and may fill the gap where a council doesn’t have the digital skills or the staff.

Advantage: If there are residents willing it’s a good partnership potentially.

Disadvantage: It’s dependent on volunteer power.

9. QR CODES

What are they? Funny square things that your mobile phone can identify and can download some information about. I don’t pretend to fully understand them and I’m not sure if they’ve reached a tipping point in society just yet. However, Sarah Lay of Derbyshire County Council is looking at adding QR codes to grit bins to allow people to report problems. It’s a fascinating idea that needs looking at.

Advantages: Tech-savvy citizens can use them to pinpoint problems.

Disadvantages: A format that is still finding traction amongst the rest of the population.

10. OPEN DATA

What can you publish as open data? Wrack your brains and consult the winter service plan. There’s grit routes themselves. There’s the amount of grit stockpiled. There’s the amount of grit spread day-by-day.

Advantage: Open data is good for transparency.

Disadvantages: Day-by-day updating could be tricky as engineers are snowed under. If you’ll forgive the pun.

Links:

Creative commons:

Walsall grit pile Dan Slee http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5087392858/

Four Seasons bridge http://www.flickr.com/photos/fourseasonsgarden/2340923499/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Twitter gritter Dan Slee http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5115786276/

Road m4tik http://www.flickr.com/photos/m4tik/4259599913/sizes/o/in/photostream/


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