SOCIAL ORDERS: How the British military can help you use social media

So, if the Army can use social media what exactly is your excuse?

Just lately I came across a rather magnificent link to the MOD’s digital guidelines.

As a starting point for beginners or for the more advanced they’re pretty handy. The US Army Social Media handbook has been around for a while and it’s good to get a British perspective too.

You can find the link right here. The MOD social media hub is here.

What do they offer?

Well, it’s basically a pretty robust framework that strikes the balance between common sense security and telling stories. Frontline staff are encouraged to go via the chain of command to tell their stories. 

As the introduction says:

UK Service and Ministry of Defence personnel are permitted to make full use of social media (such as social networking sites, blogs and other internet self-publishing), but must:

    • Follow the same high standards of conduct and behaviour online as would be expected elsewhere;
    • Always maintain personal, information and operational security, and be careful about the information you share online;
  • Get authorisation from your chain of command when appropriate, and seek advice from your chain of command if unsure.

There’s some interesting social media presences that have grown over the past few years.

The UK Forces Afghanistan Facebook page has more than 12,000 likes and has a social approach with shots of servicemen and women. There’s a big input from families which is interesting to see. The feel is upbeat and focussed on the safety of the soldiers, sailors and airmen. The cover shot of a soldier waving to the Afghan passing by is unmistakably hearts and minds territory.

The Royal Navy Facebook page has more than 160,000 likes and seems more focussed on recruitment with careers advice prominent. There’s galleries of PR shots and links to the newspages.

The British Army wordpress blog focusses on stories focussing on individual soldiers. There’s stories of soldiers. Such as a recruit looking back on his basic training from postman to soldier.

A rather good Flickr page Defence Images gives a feed for shots with creative commons licences for re-use.

The Ministry of Defence blog is a useful round-up of links as well as news updates. It also covers the deaths of service personnel.

There are two voices that come through the MOD social media pages. First is servicemen and women themselves. Second are their families. This is less of a forum to debate and question the rough edges and controversy of war and it feels like a deliberate decision for this. But as a means for the MOD to talk to people direct this is an interesting resource that will only grow.

Of course, the great thing for those in the public sector is that the fact that they are doing it at all is a battering ram to break down barriers. After all, if the Army are doing it sensibly and with rewards where’s the risk?


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/


GREAT WORK: 23 bright ways to use social media in the public sector

There was a brilliant update on Twitter the other day which hit the nail right on the head.

“The best social media,” it read “doesn’t happen in an office.”

That’s dead right.

For a long while now I’ve been arguing that communications people should share the sweets, relax a little and learn to let go. It’s by doing that they can really reap the rewards of good and trusted communications channels.

I’m not alone by any means in thinking this and it’s excellent to start seeing the rewards being reaped.

Here are some good examples of digital communications that caught my eye over the last few months.

What’s worth commenting on is that the majority of the good examples are not done directly by comms people. They’re done by people in the field telling their stories or they’re using content that first originated outside an office to tell a story.

Real time updates by people on the ground work brilliantly.

Back in 2008, digital innovation in the public sector – and third sector – was isolated. What this quick link collection now shows is that it’s mainstream and unstoppable.

Twitter

National Trust Dudmaston Hall, Shropshire – If only more organisations were like the National Trust. We’d all be eating better cake for one. They’re also getting good at digital communications. They’re equipping venues with social media accounts to give you updates and insights from the ground.

I’m quite partial to this stream from the Shropshire stately home which is near Bridgnorth and a personal family favourite. They talk to people and they update. More people are likely to sign-up for a venue rather than an organisation that looks after lots of venues although there is a space for that too. You can follow them on Twitter here.

Acton Scott Museum, Shropshire – An imaginative use of pictures makes this Twitter stream fly. How can you not see horse drawn ploughing and not want to go and visit? You can follow them on Twitter here. 

National Trust Central Fells – Using the principle if you do good things tell people the @ntcentralfells Twitter do a good job of updating people on the work they do. Most of the time it’s witnessed by two walkers and some sheep. They updated progress on building a bridge in a remote spot of Easedale in with pictures of them at work and reaped the benefit of feedback from people stuck in offices. You can follow them on Twitter here. 

Supt Keith Fraser – A Superintendant in Walsall who keeps people up to speed with events and crime in the town. Personable. Informative and willing to engage on the platform. You can follow him here.

Swedish Tourist Board – It’s rather marvellous is this. Technically, it’s run by the Swedish Tourist Board but this isn’t a collation of picture book shots and platitudes. They give the @sweden Twitter to a new Swede every week. More than 20,000 people follow it. You can follow them here.

Walsall Council Countryside Officers – I’m a bit biased in that I know Morgan Bowers the countryside ranger but I absolutely love what she has done with social media. A digital native she uses her iphone to update Twitter with what she is doing, what newt survey results are and pictures of the sky over Barr Beacon. This is brilliant.  You can follow her on Twitter here. Her manager Kevin Clements has also picked up the baton on Twitter with regular updates. You can follow him here and it’s good to see the burden shared.

Walsall Council Environmental Health Officer David Matthews – Britain’s first tweeting environmental health officer David Matthews was a big part in why Walsall 24 worked as an event. He was able to spot snippets of interest that he passed through for others to tweet. Afterwards, he didn’t need much persuasion to take up an account in his own name. The @ehodavid was puts out the normal updates and warnings but with added humour. Much of the frontline updates is anonymised. Pictures taken of dreadful takeaways need a health warning to look at during lunchtime. You can follow him here.

Blogs

Pc Rich Stanley blog – Walsall has a stong claim to be a digital outpost. One of the big reasons for this is the way West Midlands Police have picked up the baton – or should that be truncheon? – and embraced social media. Pc Rich Stanley uses Twitter well but also blogs excellently on various day-to-day aspects of the job. Here he talks about policing the Aston Villa v Chelse football game. 

Walsall Council Social Care – People in social care do a brilliant job. They’re good at saving lives. Literally. But all too often they don’t do a good jo of telling their story. As a sector they shelter behind big stone walls and hope a high profile case like Baby P NEVER happens to them. Tina Faulkner and Becky Robinson are comms people who both understand old and new media and have blogged stories from the frontline. You can read them here.

Audioboo

Walsall Leather Museum Audioboo – Francesca Cox eyes lit up when she heard of Audioboo. A couple of days later she posted this chat with a demonstrator about her first day at work. What the clip does is open up all sorts of possibilities with oral history and when embedded on another website brings a different aspect to this.

Pinterest

US Army – Like geeks with an interest in sub-machine guns the people behind the US Army social media presence are blending both interests well. Pinterest is a way to collect pictures in the one place. If pictures tell 1,000 words this collection speaks a great deal on what messages the military would like to get across. It’s split into themes. You can find it here.

Facebook

Can We Make Walsall A More Creative Place? – Walsal Council’s regeneration scrutiny committee wanted to look at the creative industries. We launched a Facebook page to begin to connect. Fifty people have liked it so far to allow the start of feedback. Face-to-face meetings are now planned. You can like it here.

NASA Facebook timeline – One of the many things I really love about this page is the way NASA have embraced timeline. Scroll back to 1965 and you can look at content they’ve updated from that year featuring the first NASA spacewalk. For any organisation with a long history this approach is a must. You can like it here.

Northycote Park and Country Park on Facebook – Wolverhampton Council’s parks team do a really good job of innovating using social media. They’ve been experimenting with creating Facebook pages for venues. This is Northycote Park and Country Park and has 200 likes a few weeks after it was launched. It has pictures of new born lambs and updates on events. You can like it here.

Monmouthshire Council Youth Service on Facebook – Hel Reynolds has flagged up this page. A youth worker updates it. Not a comms person. This means that it has a tone that suits the people it is aimed at and doesn’t come over as trendy uncle Monmouth breakdancing at a wedding. You can like it here. 

Flickr

US government’s EPA Documerica project on Flickr – In the early 1970s the Documerica project sent photographers to capture environmental issues across the country. They captured car jams, low flying planes, people meeting up in public spaces and other things. They’ve posted many of the images onto Flickr and they’re a time capsule of how the US was. You can see them here. To update them they have a blog to encourage a 2012 version here and a Flickr group here.

Torfaen Council on Flickr – Here’s a council that is posting images to Flickr routinely. They show a good range of images that residents can see. You can see them here.

Covering meetings

WV11 on PACT meetings – The wv11 blog have worked with West Midlands Police to cover public meetings – known as PACT meetings – to allow residents to pose questions and see what is happening in their patch. It’s great work and shows how you can connect to people who want to be civic minded but struggle to reach meetings. You can read a blog of a meeting here and a storify here.

Oldham Council – It’s an excellent idea to make interactive council meetings. This Guardian pieces captures why.

Birmingham City Council – Comms officer Geoff Coleman has done some excellent work with live streaming council meetings. It opens up democracy and promotes transparency. It’s netted 10,000 views. You can read about it here.

Crowd sourcing

Birmingham City Council’s election plans – This year plans to be a big year in Birmingham. There’s a chance of a change of administration and there will be great attention on the council and most importantly, how they communicate the changes in real time. What better way than crowd source what people want?  You can read it here.

YouTube

Caerphilly Council – Digital video clips are easy to consume but notoriously difficult to do effectively. Many have tried in local government but few have been as effective as Caerphilly Council with their nationally sigificant use of YouTube clips. One clip both pokes gentle fun at themselves and features a sheep with social media logos roaming the borough. It makes you smile. It keeps you informed. It’s fleecey brilliance.

Creative commons credits: 

Road at Rifle, Ohio in 1972 http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3815027813/

Documerica Photographer, David Hiser, at Dead Horse Point, 05/1972 http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3814966348/


DO, SHARE: Why I blog (and you should too.)

Just recently I hit an unexpected milestone. 

This blog has clocked-up more than 50,000 page views in the past 21 months.

Considering it was only ever written for two men and a dog that’s something I’m falling off my chair at.

Mind, that figure is skewed by a single crowd sourced blog post on what I should tell colleagues sceptical about Twitter. That got RT’d by @twitter itself and pinged to its 5.4 million followers.

But what it did do was make me think of why I started blogging in the first place. What has resulted and why I think others should too.

There are 98 million words a day posted to WordPress blogs, 53 per cent of bloggers are aged 25 to 35, according to Mashable.

Why did I start blogging?

Because I was getting a fund of information from them myself and wanted to add to that stream.

Because I saw blogs that I admired from colleagues. Like Alastair Smith, Dave Briggs, Carl Haggerty and Sarah Lay.

Because I similarly felt I had something to say and share.

Because something on Liz Azyan’s excellent blog prompted me to take the plunge.

Because – most importantly – I bet @jaynehowarth who was similarly dithering that if I didn’t I’d send her cake.

Some of my blogs have been absolute stinkers. Some I’m proud of. One I even wrote in a car park in Solihull. All have been written in my spare time.

What’s been the benefit?

Valuable thinking time.  An online notebook to refer back to. Having a voice. Shouting about some of things we’ve done or others have done well.

There’s been the unexpected spin-offs too. A chance to speak on interesting subjects to interesting people at interesting places. I’ve a vague feeling this may be a help to my career at some point down the track.

Why YOU should blog

For all the above reasons. But mostly because we’re all learning. All of us. There are no experts. There’s just shared knowledge. Your view is a just as important.  There’s not a blog post I’ve read by someone in local government I’ve not learned something from.

Because with platforms like WordPress it’s pretty straightforward.

Because it’ll give you skills for the future. Whether you write about local government things or, like Kate Goodall, a blog on parks you take your dog for a walk in.

Because ‘do stuff then share it’ is a good thing to aspire to.

Because none of us are experts on everything. But we do know about our tiny corner of the allotment and by sharing it we get a sense of the bigger picture.

Creative commons credits

Tomato http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2178363927/sizes/o/in/photostream/

Sky writing http://www.flickr.com/photos/floridamemory/3328074451/sizes/m/in/faves-danieldslee/

Red tulip Erica Marshall of muddyboots.org

http://www.flickr.com/photos/erica_marshall/469245453/sizes/l/in/photostream/


BETTER CONNECTED: Case study: How a community festival used social media – with 4 extra ideas for next year

Get out of the social media bubble, talk to real people and you may be surprised.

Digital skills may be valuable online but offline they’re part of a mix of things needed to make an event work.

One blogger has argued that its such a part of her life she didn’t think of ‘social media’ as such anymore. It’s part of life.

That’s fine for digital natives. But that’s not the case for people like Walsall artist Alan Cheeseman.

Together with a team of like-minded volunteers he helped stage a festival in the Caldmore in Walsall in the West Midlands.

Walsall Council chipped in with funding and support. So did social housing provider whg, the National Lottery and one or two other places.

Where’s Caldmore? First, it’s pronounced karma. Narrow Victorian terraced streets crowd around a small green hardly big enough to host a cricket square. Legend has it that Boy George lived there in his Walsall days.

Sari shops, balti houses, pubs and shops that sell cheap calls to the Indian sub-continent dominate the shopping area.

It’s a place where migrant workers settled amongst the indiginous English to take low-paid jobs in factories. The communities have remained while the factories they came to have gone to the wall.

It’s a place a mile square of three churches, a mosque and a Sikh temple.

It suffers from deprivation, crime and suffers the stigma of a prostitution problem that has eased.

But as the Caldmore Village Festival shows, the place has a powerful resilience and a creative and community-minded people.

In part its scores of micro-communities around the mosque, the church, the pub or the temple.

For this event they came together.

More than 11,000 came to 15 venues across three days for the festival.

Kibadi, Bollywood dancing, live music and dance brought people in. So did the Pakistani sport of stone lifting. An amazing sight where men lift carved stone.

Ask Alan what made it worth while and its not the numbers that excite him. It’s the little stories. It’s getting the tearaway kid to put a volunteer’s orange bib on and give him what could be the first piece of responsibility he’s ever known.

But what role did social media have in all this?

“Things like the internet. That’s for educated people really, isn’t it?” says Alan.

“I’m not sure how much of what we did actually helped.”

It’s a fair point and you have to admire Alan’s honesty.

In Walsall,the percentage of people online every day is below the national average of 60 per cent.

Caldmore is the place the Talk About Local project was invented for.

An initiative to bridge the digital divide and equip communities with an online voice the initiative trained Alan and set him up on a blog.

Sessions open to all backgrounds were run at a neighbourhood resource called Firstbase by community worker Stuart Ashmore where the basics of WordPress were explained.

As a tool for communities this blogging platform is as powerful as a printing press in the 19th century.

Easy to use and simple to master it gives an online presence to anyone with an internet connection.

Alan explained: “We used the blog. We’d update it maybe once a month and we had links to it coming from around 50 other sites.”

Alan was quietly impressed at the digital waves he did make: “I was quite suprised to see 1,000 hits in the week before the festival started.”

But as Alan says the main lesson is to see digital as just one part of the jigsaw. That’s something some forget. It may reach some people. It won’t reach everyone. So what does?

“Networking helps,” says Alan. “A piece in the local paper helps. So do leaflets.

“We made contact with several organisations and we found that their agenda was similar to ours in many places.

“But face to face is really helpful too. It is like a jigsaw. By doing several things you’ll reach a lot of people.”

In effect, Alan was doing the things that work on the web in the real world.

The message to the online community? Online is part of the answer. It’s not the answer on its own.

Or to put it simply, the equation is this:

Face-to-face + networking + leaflets + digital + newspaper support + community groups + public sector + council staff + ward councillors = a successful community event

The Caldmore Village Festival’s digital footprint…

Blogging – A WordPress blog with monthly updates.

Flickr – Walsall’s Flickr group members were invited along to the event too  were made welcome. Some amazing pictures came out of it. A group was created as a repository for images.

Plug into the blogging eco-system – Walsall news aggregator The Yam Yam – named after the way Walsall people are supposed to speak – plugged the event through its website, it’s Twitter and Facebook streams.

Twitter support – Walsall Council Twitter stream @walsallcouncil linked to new blog posts.

Link support – Links to the blog ended up on around 50 sites.

YouTube – A short film of the stone lifting attraction helped raise the profile.

Ideas for future online activity…

1. Twitter — A face to the organisation on the @hotelalpha9 would work brilliantly. Or simply a festival stream.

2. Facebook — In Walsall, Facebook is the platform of choice with 197,000 people registered in a 10 mile radius. A fan page for the festival will capture that support.

3. Flickr — Use the images from year one to promote year two. Bring the Flickr group back for a second year.

4. Foursquare — Add the venues to the geo-location game. Leave tips for things to do.

Creative commons pics:

Swissrolli: Police officer: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swissrolli/4673534659/in/pool-caldmorefestival

Stuart Williams: Wigs: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swilliams2001/4656475393/sizes/s/in/pool-1470631@N22/

Stuart Williams: Parade: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swilliams2001/4656478577/in/pool-caldmorefestival

Stuart Williams: Drummer: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swilliams2001/4656478577/in/pool-caldmorefestival


CAKE TAPE: What cake and mixtapes can offer local government

'Mmmmmm, cake.'

Birthdays are natures way of telling you to eat more cake.

Marvellous, but what exactly does a slice of carrot cake have to say about local government?

Actually, quite a lot. So do mixtapes as a session heard at the excellent Localgovcamp Yorkshire and Humberside revealed.

Why? Two things. First, because it’s all about messing about on a project in your own time so you can learn by your mistakes.

Second, it’s about doing something in a fun, interesting, creative way.

Why Cake? As a wheeze I built a cake blog based on a rash of pictures of cake tweeted by friends from Twitter. It taught me how to crowdsource, how to use WordPress and where a decent piece of carrot cake can be found in the charming Shropshire village of Ludlow (At the Green Cafe since you were wondering. The review is here.) Stuart Harrison (@pezholio on Twitter) then raised the bar with a beer blog.

The excellent Sarah Lay picked up the baton and created a cake map. She got to know about Googlemaps as a result.

Mixtapes? Same principle. A tweet by Sarah sparked a series of blogs, a Flickr group and a Tumblr site. Why? Because mixtapes even in a digital world spark happy memories of taping the top 40 and crafting a tape to say ‘thank you!’ or even ‘actually, I quite fancy you.’

There was even a mixtape built by song contributions at the barcamp built with the help of Janet Davis (@janetedavis).

So what do cakes and tapes teach? In short, go away and experiment in your own time. You can learn. You can do fun things. Then you can transfer some of those ideas to your day job.

Amongst web developers, there is a useful saying: ‘fail forward.’ If you are going to fail, make sure you learn something about it so you can take things just that bit further next time. Messing about on a scheme allows you to do just that, risk free.

Links: Nice ideas that have emerged by messing around…


WEB: So, what makes a good council website?

Jason Santa Maria / Flickr

This was drawn-up after the ‘What makes an ace local government website?’ session at #ukgc10 by Liz Azyan from Camden Council and also the #ukgc10 WordPress session. Some extra thoughts were inserted after…

You’re in a rush. You’re going swimming. You’ve three minutes to find out when the nearest leisure centre closes… and you’re face with a council website.
 
This could be a pleasant experience and for many it is. But if you’re unlucky  you’ll be faced with a sprawling brick wall behemoth of a website written in a funny language riddled with jargon.
 
Oh, Lord.
It’s not gritting information, for example. It’s a winter service plan.   
Your opinion of your council suddenly plummets and you hurl abuse at the screen.
 
But ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t have to be this way.
 
Liz Azyan’s session at the UK Government Bar Camp ’10 at Google was a thought provoking session with some cracking points.
 
Cards on the table at this stage. I don’t work in a web team. I work with them and more to the point I’m a council taxpayer who uses one.
 
Here are some points that emerged from the session — sprinkled with some that struck me afterwards.
 
What do people want?
 
They want to find the information they are after. Simple.
 
 

What do they often find? 
A website written in council speak with difficult to find pages presented poorly. In short a frustrating experience.
 

Tech frustration by CCB Images / Flickr

Tech frustration by CCB Images / Flickr

So, why bother with a council website?
 
It’s an argument that – surprisingly – seems still to exist in some quarters. Isn’t it just a big waste of money? Actually, no. Quite the reverse. After getting attacked for wasting money by TPA Lincolnshire Council responded with a cool, calm and brilliantly argued piece that argued that the cost of web was staggeringly lower than employing people to help face-to-face or over the telephone. It’s worth taking a look at.
 
What’s the average cost of contact via a council website?
 
For contact, read an occasion a member of the public needs to contact the council.
 
            Face to face              £7.81
            Telephone                  £4.00
            Online                         £0.17

 
Which does make you think. Vast resources get put – rightly – into a help desk or a one stop information shop. Often, web is seen as a poor relation.
 
There is also a theory that telephone numbers should be hard to find. If you have cost savings in mind pushing people towards the £4 option may not make good sense.
 

 

Do Local Government websites pay enough attention to design and appearance?
 
The hell they do. Some of them look utterly dreadful. There’s an organisation called SOCITM who seek to raise standards in government. Every year they survey Local Government sites on a checklist. Accessibility is key. So is usability. But nothing seems to get assessed on design.
 
One point that Devon’s Carl Haggerty made very strongly – which I totally agree with – is the need for this to change. Design and look IS important. If the website looks poor people won’t even get as far as starting a search.
 
As someone who has worked on newspapers and has put together magazines the look of something is fundamental. Look across the news stands. From the unscientific straw poll in the session colour seemed to be important.
 
Why should we bother to make websites better?
 
We need to improve because people’s expectations are higher.
 
We need to improve because at a time of tighter budgets web is a cost effective solution.
 
We also need to improve because while once council websites had a virtual monopoly on local information those days are changing.
 
As barriers are lowered – by things like WordPress and by the surge in hyperlocal blogs – others can do the job themselves. The case of the tech-savvy Birmingham residents who knocked up their own council website – bcc.diy.co.uk should send wake-up calls throughout local government. If you don’t do it, they are basically saying, someone else will.
 
As more and more data gets released web developers will find their own uses for it. Leisure centres? There’s an app for that. The days of the council website being a monopoly are ending. Smart people are just starting to wake up to that.
 
Yes, but it’s all about the home page, isn’t it?
 
The figures can vary widely. Around 15 per cent of people came onto the site through the home page from one council. That’s not much more than one in ten. A piddling figure. Especially when you take account the time and effort that goes into it. But in another council researched after the session was around 90 per cent.

Brent Council's opt in less busy webpage.

Brent Council's opt in less busy webpage.

The moral of the story to local government webbies  is to research your web stats before changes are made.
 
 
Can you make your homepage less busy?
 
Yes. Brent council offers the option of the traditional busy page and a more simple one. That quite appeals to me.
 
So how do people navigate around your site if they do do that?

 
There’s your website search box. Which often isn’t that great. Even if it’s a google one, apparently. From the experience of several councils much time and effoft is wasted bu users here.
 
There’s your A-Z of services too.
 
There’s also the postcode search which to me seems rather attractive and far more relevant. If I lived in Baswich in Stafford, wouldn’t it be better to tell me what was on offer for me there?
 
There’s also the novel idea of a pictorial map. You point at it. You hover over the bits you want and you click through there. Directgov have a rather attractive planning map that does that.
 
Widgets. Redbridge Council have use this. It’s a similar theory to the igoogle approach where you compose the page that you want from the information that you want. The idea is great but feedback suggests that only small numbers of people have embraced this
 
The message from Liz’s session was that as far as search is concerned you need to pick one way and stick to it. Sites that try and do absolutely everything in the way of search look cluttered, busy and turn people off.

How about open source (and what the hell does that mean?)

At the WordPress #ukgc10 session the idea of WordPress as a web content managament system was talked about. There is much going for it. It’s open source. Which for non-geeks means that you don’t have to pay someone a lorry load of cash to buy it and maintain it. It’s free. You can download it from www.wordpress.com and web developers who know what they are doing can build you widgets so you can customise things to suit your ends.

The downloadable version of WordPress is from WordPress.org while WordPress.com is where you get your hosted versions.

There are plenty of examples of Government using open source. The 10 Downing Street web site relies on it in parts for it’s press operation. So do almost half UK government departments in one shape or another. It’s great if you need an emergency website knocked up at short notice.

However, the feedback was that there was  a 500-page limit on WordPress. That’s probably more than enough for some sites but bigger projects may be hampered by that limitation.  

But how about the Birmingham City Council experience? (insert clap of thunder here.)

There has been plenty written about the Birmingham experience. But if you haven’t come across it it’s a tale to strike fear into local government web managers up and down the land.

In short, Birmingham City Council appointed consultants to build their website. The final bill was more than many expected and wasn’t as good as people were expecting. It led to Press criticism.

The Birmingham bloggers build a DIY site when they were less than impressed with the council version.

The Birmingham bloggers build a DIY site when they were less than impressed with the council version.

There is a thriving community of bloggers and the digitally-connected in Birmingham. They decided to build their own DIY council site by taking the data that was publicly available and constructin their own website.

Based on open source and while it may look rough at the edges, it is a site born of social media and built by community-spirited people eager to do their own thing. That it cooked a snook at authority to boot was for some a bonus.

They came up with something based on a postcode search and using stunning Flickr imagery of their home city.  

It’s legacy will be more than a website. It’s legacy is a warning shot that internet users have a powerful voice and if you don’t provide them with something they’luse and be impressed by, they may well build their own. As a warning shot to council it’s there to be heeded.

So, how about asking people what they think of your site?

I’m impressed with the Camden Council Facebook group set up to see what people thought of their site. An impressive use of social media. Bold, imaginative and connecting directly to the online community. Magnificent. And a template to follow.
 
 
In a nutshell: So what would NINE really good things to do be?
 

 
1 Use pictures better. Pictures tell a 1,000 words and are a brilliant way of showcasing your organisation. Not just the arty commissioned ones. The Flickr ones too.
 
2 Choose a way for people to navigate about the site. And stick to it.
 
3 Don’t make your site busy. It looks awful. Simplicity works.
 
4 Don’t get too hung up on the homepage. Remember that few people can get onto your site that way.
 
5 Speak to the people in the calls centre. What subjects come up most often?
Shouldn’t that play some role in what appears on the homepage? And be well designed and put together?
 
6 In an A-Z of services think Yellow Pages. Put links in several places. For example, people could be looking at household waste in several places. Waste, rubbish or even trash
 
7 And finally, wouldn’t it be good if SOCITM took more account of design and look? That way we may all have better websites.

8 Use social media to see what people think. Use Twitter and Facebook. If social media is about a two way conversation then what better way of connecting with web-savvy citizens? 

9 Don’t rule out open source. It’s free. And one day someone with vision will come up with something that government can use.
 
Input for the #ukgc10 ‘What makes an ace website?’session included points from Dan Harris, Ally Hook, Liz Azyan, Sarah Lay, Martin Black, Stephen Cross and Andrew Beeken.

Flickr pics used with creative commons licence laptop (Jason Santa Maria) and frustration (CCB Images).


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