MOBILE FIRST: On augmented reality and communications

A few weeks back my son got a new Nintendo 3DS for his birthday, the lucky lad.

Excited and smiling he took it out of it’s wrapping in the living room. Light blue and shiny it was. It fitted into his hands perfectly. A while later that day after all his cards other presents were opened I found him playing with it on the settee. He was moving the device around as if chasing objects around the room.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “Shooting aliens in our living room?”

“Well, they’re not aliens,” he says. “They’re pictures of mum on my new augmented reality game.”

Leaning over his shoulder I could see what he was doing. He’d used his new Nintendo to take a picture of his mum and he’d transferred them onto bubbles which he had to shoot down as part of the game. On the screen, there was my living room as the backdrop for the game. The image came from the device’s video camera. As my son moved the device so what was on the screen moved too.

What’s augmented reality?

Rewind to earlier this year. I’d heard Mike Rawlins of Talk About Local talk about augmented reality at a Brewcamp session in Walsall. He’d spoken of the experiments him, Will Perrin and others had been doing with augmented reality by effectively placing blog posts, pictures and news updates on a map. In effect each item was given its own co-ordinates and through a platform called layar people could use their phone’s GPS system to find it. Of course, each items was on the web anyway. It’s just that they can be accessed a different way.

In short, augmented reality is adding an extra layer of information to what you are looking at. You point a phone at a building, an artwork or a landscape and you can opt to access content related to it. It also works with print too. Point a smart phone at an image and you can access extra content. You can link to a video clip or even buy the item.

To me, this is just a little bit amazing. To me as a communications person it starts to get me thinking.

A mobile first strategy

Back in 2009 I read a blog post that utterly changed the way I think about news and the future of news. Going back to it today Steve Buttry, it’s author, seems like some kind of Tomorrow’s World visionary pointing out the obvious. In short, he wrote that he spends lots of time in airport departure lounges. In the past, people had killed time by reading paper newspapers turning each page literally. Increasingly, he was seeing people killing time by reading their mobile phones. So, he suggests, isn’t it smarter to think about mobile first? In other words, he describes a mobile first strategy.

Steve suggests that newsrooms take a deep breath, stop using antiquated titles like reporter, photographer and editor and just think of themselves as journalists. They need to get used to the idea of metadata. That’s the tags of extra information that help categorise an item so it can be found again. In other words, a story about a £5m leisure centre in Brown Street, Oxdown would be tagged with Brown Street as well as Oxdown, as well as leisure, Oxdown Council, finance, the ward name and the co-ordinates of the new building. That’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just the who, what, where, when and how that’s always been the cornerstone of news.

The mobile first approach, Buttry says, also includes links to the back story. The pieces of content that have already been produced which are relevant. The approach also allows journalists to crowd-source a story or views on a story.

It’s what most national news organisations do today and what The Guardian do very well.

Yes, yes but public relations?

What’s relevant to the news landscape is also relevant to communications landscape too.

I love newspapers. I started my career on them before I moved into local government communications. But I’m long past the point that Buttry saw of seeing more people look at their phones rather than look at their local paper. Only, I’m not catching planes. I’m catching a bus or a train and I’m in the Black Country in the English Midlands.

For me, I’m less interested in shiny technology than I am with communicating with people. If shiny tech can help reach an audience then I get to be really, really interested. Where news, the media and ultimately residents are heading then I believe that’s where communications people must be there too. Or even be as one of the first so they can get to understand what’s over the horizon. Maybe it echoes Buttry’s call that newspaper titles are obsolete but I’m getting increasingly convinced that the phrase ‘press officer’ and ‘PR officer’ are getting irrelevant. What does a press officer do when there’s less or no press and we still need to communicate with people?

We’ve changed in my corner of communications to adapt to social media because that’s what people are doing. We need to start to tentatively think about augmented reality too.

Yes, yes but how?

Now, I’m, not saying for a minute that we need to change everything to add everything we do to include an augmented reality – or AR to use the buzzword – element. The communications team that ditched print for the web in 1993 may in hindsight be seen as visionary. They’d also be a bit silly too. For me, it’s just being aware of the curve and investing a little time and effort into a project that’s going to be a learning process.

That’s probably where something like The Guardian’s n0tice platform can really start to come into play. Set up earlier this year, it aims to add news to maps on its platform. It has a small but growing following. There’s a board for Walsall which I’ve very tentatively started and I’m looking to head back to soon.

There’s also plenty of mileage in creating getting to know platforms like http://www.layar.com/ or seeing if a friendly webbie can work with you.

As comms teams are looking at changing the way hey do thinks through digital press offices this is something that can add some value.

How can augmented reality be used in local government?

Just last week I was in my car giving a lift to a town planner and somehow amongst the football banter, the work gossip and the cricket talk the subject of websites for planning applications came up. Yes, yes. I know. That’s just how I roll. The discussion turned to augmented reality. At this the light bulb above my planner mate’s head really lit up. Planning applications could be accessed. Maybe artists impressions could be added too. With links to allow people to comment.

Looking at other parts of local government and the opportunities are vast. Local history. Leisure. News. Content to help explain areas of countryside, habitats and what lives there. The truth of it is, we don’t know how local government can fully use augmented reality until people start to use it more, start to innovate and to try things out.

But in the back of my head I always think of my Dad when I hear of digital innovation. The real tipping point is when it opens up for someone like him with his very old phone and his late adopter use of the web. But if you wait until then to start to look at the subject you’re already far too late.

It’s far better to know what’s on the other side of the hill so you can spend a little time innovating and making a few mistakes when there’s not many people around to see.

If my eight-year-old is already using augmented reality it’s probably time grown-up organisations started to think about it at a comfortable pace too.

Some extra reading

Steve Buttry’s blog post on how news organisations can put mobile first 

Talk About Local on hyperlocal websites and augmented reality

Augmented reality. A useful six minute YouTube starter 

Will Perrin of Talk About Local demonstrating augmented reality

Philladelphia History on using augmented reality in local history.

Creative commons credits

http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/6197150925/sizes/l/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/4659579077/sizes/l/


TRADITIONAL DIGITAL: What comms teams should look like in 2012

All the best films have a challenge at their heart.

In Dunkirk, its Johnny Mills as a British corporal steering his men to safety.

In Pulp Fiction, its Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta getting away with accidentally shooting Marvin in the face.

One if the biggest challenges facing press offices and communications teams is how to blend the old with the new to stay relevant.

There was a fascinating post by Ann Kempster who works in central government about what comms teams should look like. You can read it here. Emer Coleman from the Government Digital Service and others made some excellent comments.

A couple of years ago I blogged about what comms teams needing to adapt and have traditional and digital skills. I probably over-sold open data. We’re not there just yet but will be but the basics I still hang my hat on.

Back then I said the communications team needed to be both digital and traditional so calling something a press office these days is a bit of an anachronism. It would involve the basics:

  • 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.

But would need to have these too:

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 theblogosphere.
  • 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.

So how can we make the joint traditional and digital press office work?

There’s no question that the traditional press office and the digital press office should be under the same roof.

There’s no point in having an old school team with spiralbound notebooks and in the next room a digital team with jet packs and Apple macbook pros not communicating.

So what can help make the joint digital and trad comms team work?

Press officers won’t all head voluntarily to this bright new dawn. It’s just not going to happen overnight. Some won’t change and will be left behind.

The bright ones will adapt and are adapting to a place where a bog standard comms plan will include old media + social media + web as a matter of course. After all. We don’t all have specialists for TV or radio sat in most press offices and certainly not in local government where I work.

We all need a specialist digital comms officer to help blend the old and the new

Once I knew a man who was a mechanic. He used to repair petrol engines. At night school, he learned how electrical generators worked.

When his company changed to electrical generators he alone had the expertise for both and was invaluable in training staff.

That’s the approach we need for press officers.

In other words, what will blend old and new in the short and medium term is the dedicated social media or digital communications officer.

On Ann Kempster’s blog the anaology was made about digital cameras. We don’t refer to cameras as ‘digital’ these days. They are just cameras. That’s true and that’s where we need to go with comms teams.

But in many ways there’s more to it than that. I remember working as a newspaper when the first photographer – who was not a popular man – walked in proudly with a satchel with the paper’s first digital camera and laptop. “Schools broken up early has it?” came the dry-balloon bursting quip from the long-serving deputy chief reporter. The same quip was made every time the photographer walked in until the whole of the company’s photographers had them. Somehow, knowing the characters involved that made it funnier.

There was a cross-over period while photographers adapted to the new technology but the basic work of the photographer remained the same. Composition was unaltered. They were still building the same things through their view finders. But with digital communications it’s asking people to use a completely different set of skills. Like asking a photographer to become a sculptor overnight. But still take pictures when needed too.

From experience, the shift from the traditional to the traditional + digital takes time but it has to be coaxed and encouraged. That’s where the digital specialist in the comms team comes in so long as they share the sweets, horizon scan and work to give back-up to help others gain confidence. They also need to flag up the successes. They need to do some measuring and reporting back. We need to include digital stats along with traditional media ones so when the cabinet member in local government, or whoever, gets told what’s happening in the media they’re getting the digital picture too.

Just because an organisation has given the green light to social media doesn’t always mean the influential people in an organisation get it. One of the big complaints is that digital is tacked onto the busy day job. Well, if the day job means press releases churned out to dwindling newspapers maybe that work needs re-calibrating. But you need to convince the powers that be that it’s not 1985 anymore and digital and traditional is the way forward.

Why do comms need to share the sweets?

That’s something I’ve been banging on about for a long time. Comms needs to train, give advice, shape policy where needed but most importantly hold the door open for others to go through.

Across the country these either formally titled or informally tasked digital comms people can be seen doing good things. Look at Helen Reynolds in Monmouthshire County Council, Geoff Coleman at Birmingham City Council and what Al Smith did at Newcastle City Council and elsewhere as a couple of examples.

It’s the path that Walsall Council’s comms team has taken too thanks to bright leadership. As a result we now have press officers like Tina Faulkner and Becky Robinson who by no means are digital natives putting together inspiring campaigns like this one which saw a morning with a carer and her husband who suffers Alzheimers. They found magic in this approach which told a human story beautifully.

The challenge is to find the innovator in every comms team and gently give others room and confidence to grow if they need it.

Creative commons credits

Posters http://www.flickr.com/photos/brocco_lee/6055430502/sizes/l/in/pool-778206@N20/

Facebook http://www.flickr.com/photos/westm/4690323994/sizes/l/in/set-72157624125586003/

Newspaper http://www.flickr.com/photos/judybaxter/2828795347/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Flowers http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5576302231/sizes/l/in/photostream/


SOCIAL SURGERY: Building the Art of Good Listening

“Oh, so it wasn’t actually local government that won a prize for Social Media Surgeries?

“That’s a shame isn’t it?”

That’s more or less what someone from a local government organisation said to me. They weren’t really listening and it got me thinking.

What’s a social media surgery? It’s volunteers with digital know how being put together in a room with voluntary groups and charities who would like to know.

It’s about giving a voice to groups who really need a voice.

It’s an idea that emerged three or four years ago from the vibrant community of Birmingham bloggers.

Nick Booth of Podnosh has turned that idea into something truly remarkable that has outgrown the West Midlands (disclaimer: I just think Nick is great.)

Podnosh won a Big Society award for the project hence the conversation I start this blog with.

I’ve helped out at a handful social media surgeries. Not as many as I would have liked. But enough to know why people do it and enough to be applauding wildly those who truly deserve the award.

Is it sad local government didnt win this?

Not at all. Because this isn’t a local government idea. It’s a community one.

But it also got me thinking about local government’s role.

A lot of the early volunteers come from local government. Birmingham City Council’s Digital Birmingham arm recognised it’s worth quite early on and helped get volunteers, for example.

At the last Walsall Social Media surgeries, which is one of more than 80 registered, the majority of surgeons happened to be from local government too.

That’s more a yardstick of there being decent people at councils rather than some strategic thing.

But social media surgeries, from what I see, are built on far more than volunteers from local government and I wouldn’t want to overstate their role.

Social media is transforming council communications. Gritting updates now come via Twitter. Libraries have Facebook pages.

But local government is founded in Victorian Britain and can still act like it at times. Even the best Twitter stream unplugged into officers who don’t want to listen will ultimately fail.

Just recently, I’ve helped start a Facebook page to help regeneration officers understand how they can make Walsall a town where creative people will live and work.

It’s called ‘Can We Make Walsall A More Creative Place?’

It won’t change the world, but I’m gobsmacked at how if you plug into networks and listen they’ll crackle with electricity and they’ll tell you things. I’m a bit excited at how its playing out.

Just recently I spent a really inspiring hour or so at Shropshire Council with Nigel Bishop, Jon King and others. Part of what they are doing is looking at how to embed social media in every corner of the council and at every step of the way. Not just as the end stuck on as a megaphone to tell people. Jon writes about it here. In short, they’re after better listening as well as communicating. That’s quietly brilliant.

So, what can local government really get out of what’s built at social media surgeries?

They can be places to help build good listening.

That strikes me as being very important.

LINKS:

Andy Mabbett on Social Media Surgeries

Social Media Surgery Plus

10 Downing Street: The Social Media Surgery is the latest Big Society award winner

CREATIVE COMMONS CREDIT:

Chris and Mary http://www.flickr.com/photos/podnosh/3529022026/

Laughing at Dudley Social Media Surgery http://www.flickr.com/photos/gavinwray/5921616904/sizes/l/in/photostream/


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/


MY DIGITAL TIMELINE: Learning by stealth from a pocket calculator

“When you grow up and leave school,” my headteacher Mr Stanley told me as a nine-year-old, “you’ll be using computers and you’ll have to learn how to write code.”

This was 1981. This was Leasowes Junior School, Stafford. Not Palo Alto, California. Of course he was half right but he did show me for the first time the amazing possibility computers have.

How did he do it? He showed me how to make my name march across a TV screen by writing a computer programme. My mate Nigel Adams was in the same class (he’s extreme right in the back row of this picture. I’m two to his left). He has gone onto do great things with computers in Queensland. I never wrote code again. But Mr Stanley was bang on about using computers every day at work.

A while back I heard this inspirational teacher still teaches at the school as a volunteer. Remembering his prophetic words I found myself idly tracing my life’s digital timeline. I found I could largely measure my life not in coffee spoons but the technology and the computer games and the people I played them with. That surprised me. I’m not a geek. I know them but I’m not really one.

Looking back pretty much every year I could recall something that caught my imagination. Looking at the list I’m struck by two things. The amount of games I played and the people I played them with.

My son is seven and has a laptop. I was 33 before this happens.

My learning curve started with a pocket calculator. It’s still going on.

Why is messing about important?

Because looking back the things I’ve played at and messed about with helped me learn. And what other way are Carlisle Utd going to win back-to-back European Cups?

‘Playing is learning by stealth’ is a line from the Media Snackers book ‘Zen At The Heart of Social Media.’  I rather like that.

Here’s how I learned by stealth.

16 dates from my digital timeline

1980 – Learn how to write SHELL OIL on a pocket calculator.

1981 Nigel Adams gets a ZX 81. Mr Stanley tells us we’ll all need computers and we’ll all need to code.

1983 – Start Walton High School in Stafford. We have 10 computers amongst 900 pupils.

1986 – Play lots of Gauntlet on the BBC Micro with Mark Alden, David Bell and Ali MacCulloch.

1990 – Start University. Play lots of Kick Off 2 on the Amiga.

1994 – Play LOTS of Sega golf against Steven Pink.

1996 – Use a computer at my first journalism job.

1997 – Get a mobile phone free with something.

1999 – E-mail arrives at the Express & Star. At one screen out of 14.

2001 – Get the internet at work. Discover the Oatcake messageboard. A forum for Stoke City supporters.

2004 – Get my first computer. And the internet.

2005 – Goodbye wife. I’m playing Champ Manager for three months to lead Carlisle United to back-to-back European Cups.

2008 – Discover the social web. Join Twitter. 

2009 – Go to localgovcamp in Birmingham. It changes how I think and do. Start blogging.

2010 – Help arrange a digital unconference. Do interesting things using the internet to communicate with people to explain, listen and learn.

2011 – Do interesting things to make local government communicate better using the web. Buy my son a laptop. Son beats me at Skylanders battle mode on the Wii. Feel a bit proud.

Creative commons

Pocket calculator http://www.flickr.com/photos/boazarad/5417411624/sizes/l/in/photostream/


PHOTO SHOP: How Flickr made a difference to an empty shop

Sometimes good things come to those who wait.

Worth waiting for has been an informal project between the Walsall Flickr group and Walsall Council.

Faced with an empty Tesco supermarket in the centre of town a debate was started on how to fill it.

A chance comment from a Flickr member Lee Jordan made some time ago came to the fore. He is @reelgonekid on Twitter.

Wouldn’t it be great, he said, some time before if shots of Walsall taken and posted to Flickr were displayed in an empty shop window?

Wouldn’t that be better than having an empty shop?

So, that’s just what we did.

Walsall Council’s regeneration town centre team have Jon Burnett working to improvce the town centre. He came up with the funding and picked up the ball. The landlord was agreeable. Jon helps run @walsalltown on Twitter, by the way.

I helped Jon ask the wider Walsall Flickr group if they’d like to take part and were pleasantly surprised at the response. You can see the original conversation thread here.

More than half  a dozen members submitted more than 30 shots and our print and design team who then pulled together a design with some town centre information.

We added a picture credit and a link back to the photographer’s Flickr stream. That was important.

There’s plans to redevelop the site and Primark and The Co-Operative are lined up to move in some months down the track.

When that happens the vinyl images will be taken down. But until then bright, creative people of Walsall have a chance to celebrate their work and their town.

According to a Local Data Company report there are more than 28,000 empty shops. That’s about 14 per cent of all the 202,000 shops in England, Scotland and Wales.

This isn’t an answer to all any town centre’s problems. It’s just a good thing to do to ask local people to display their work and brighten up empty shops.

LINKS

A slide show of the Walsall town centre Flickr window by Stuart Williams can be seen here.

Lee Jordan, whose inital idea it was, took a set of pics including this one.