Monthly Archives: August 2008

How not to get fired

Great post by Neil Williams on how civil servants can approach blogging in a way that means they will get readers but won’t lose their jobs:

Starting up your own personal blog is dead easy. Unless you’re a civil servant and want to talk about your work.

If you are, then you face this choice: play it safe and say nothing interesting ever, or do some homework to learn where the boundaries lie. As ‘Mr Newest Blogging Civil Servant UK’, I’ve been doing the latter: reading up on what I can and can’t (or should and shouldn’t) say.

Bookmarks for August 29th

Stuff I have bookmarked for August 29th:

My Building Democracy idea

I just had a request from someone asking what the best community sites are for a certain – fairly specific – group of people. A little digging, partly Google, partly ‘I know I’ve seen something like this somewhere…’, soon produced some good results. I emailed them off and my contact was a happy chappy (hopefully).

This set me off thinking, that some kind of online resource for government, both central and local, and other organisations, could use to identify where the places are that people are talking about certain topics. It could be community maintained and updated, but would need some seriously work in the first place to firstly identify key target groups that would be good places to start, and secondly do the grunt work to track down the most popular communities and forums, and then list them on the site.

A further development could then be to add other communities which aren’t necessarily online based – though if they have no web presence at all, that might be tricky.

So, some time is required to get it up and running, which if I were to do it (and why not?) I’d probably like to be paid for. Which made me think of Building Democracy, the competition to identify projects which help ‘stimulate public discussion’. I reckon this idea suits that remit pretty well. I need to do some maths around how much time it would take to scope and do the initial work, but I doubt it will use up very much of the available £150,000 at all.

Before I post it up to the site, though, I’d like some initial feedback:

  • Is it a good idea?
  • Does something like this already exist?
  • Can you see any problems at this early stage of the idea’s development?

Any thoughts welcomed! Oh, and please don’t steal my idea!

Building a new Palimpsest

Palimpsest is a site I am really rather proud of. It was my first attempt at building a really social web community, launching in April 2003, and is still going strong. It’s a forum, pure and simple, where people talk about books, mainly, but also films and music and theatre and TV and art… basically anything. What keeps it together as a community is the culture of the place, it has managed to stay polite and coherent throughout.

This has largely been the result of a reasonably strict regime of facilitation – new members are generally given time to settle in, but if their posts continue to be witless, annoying or boring, then they tend to be asked to leave or banned after a while. Occasionally this causes ruptions – it certainly did recently – but then if you can’t act like an omnipotent dictator on your own forum, where can you? I am helped out on the site by three other admin people, one who helped me begin the site in the first place, and two who were members who clearly understood what the site was all about. Having people you can trust to keep things ticking over in invaluable – I owe these guys a lot.

As all good online communities do, we have also had some real life get togethers. These meets, dubbed the ‘Big Day Out’, started in May 2005 in London, and in that month every year since. We’ve also visited Oxford, York and Cambridge and in May 2009 it will be Edinburgh’s turn. People have travelled remarkable distances to attend these days out, and getting to meet folk really does elp foter the community spirit and to build up trust between members.

Tech wise, the site currently runs on a rather ancient version of VBulletin, which I have to pay an annual sub for, and which isn’t, sadly, open source. Originally phpBB was used for a couple of years but security was an issue, as was a bug which meant that search engine bots could very rapidly fill up the sessions table in the database, bringing the whole site down. There has since been a new version of phpBB released, which I am sure has fixed a lot of these problems, but VBulletin works and I am loathe to change for the sake of it.

Still, the time has come for some changes. Largely driven by three factors:

  • the web hosting plan Palimpsest is currently on isn’t terribly cost effective for how the site has developed (it gets quite a lot of traffic and has a huge database). I can get better service cheaper elsewhere
  • the version of VBulletin running is hideously out of date and needs upgrading, as mentioned above
  • Behind the scenes, various bits of organisation of the forum have become hopelessly muddled and need sorting out, such as permissions, user groups and the files the forum runs from

So, a change of hosts means I can clean various bits up. The bit I am most nervous about is moving the forum itself. The MySQL database that drives the site is over 225mb in size, which will need downloading from the current hosts and importing into the new ones. Before I do this though, I will need to upgrade the current Palimpsest site to the latest VBulletin to ensure the import works properly on the new one! Plenty of opportunities for disaster…

I tweeted about the issues of the database download because I didn’t really trust phpMyAdmin to do it without dropping a connection – what with the size of the database in question. Most of the advice was to use terminal access to the server with the sqldump command. Sadly, my hosting arrangements don’t provide me with this service, so I had to try something else. Simon at Stratford District Council recommended CocoaMySQL, a desktop client for MySQL for the Mac. I’m currently downloading the database for testing purposes – when it’s time to actually make the switch, I’ll shut the forum down in order that no posts get missed out. CocoaMySQL is very easy to use, and assuming the download works properly, I can heartily recommend it.

With the current site, visiting http://www.palimpsest.org.uk forwards people straight to http://www.palimpsest.org.uk/forum/ – there is no ‘home page’ other than the forum itself. Also, for various reasons, there are a couple of WordPress installs where I host blogs for some forum members. The obvious thing to do seems to me to install WordPressMU which can drive the site’s homepage as well as host the couple of blogs that are already established, and maybe some new ones too if people are up for it. The homeage would then be made up of four distinct sections: some kind of header, with a big logo and a link to the forums, a column of aggregated content from the hosted blogs and the Palimpsest Flickr group, a column of aggregated book news from various sources, and a column of the latest forum activity.

While I am it, I’ll switch all the email accounts to Google Apps, too. Much more storage, and much nicer to use that most webmail interfaces.

I’m rather looking forward to all this. Let’s hope it all works…

Bookmarks for August 27th

Stuff I have bookmarked for August 27th:

  • MJ Ray – slef on WsM Forum – Parish councillor's blog
  • Supplying Decent Services – Hazel Blears announces a review of what happens when local gov doesn't deliver the goods, to be chaired by the Chief Exec of my local authority!
  • Oosah – Homepage – 1 terabyte of online storage for free – and works nicely with the iPhone! Thanks to Bill T for the link.

More cloud working stuff

I missed a couple of bits out of my recent post on stuff I am/will be using to work once I am self employed (not long to go now, folks!). Here’s a couple more:

Communications

Being at home alone more often will mean I need to have good communications links with other folk to help me keep on top of things as well as keep me sane. So, I have Skype which is as useful for instant messaging as it is calling people over the web. I’m davewbriggs on Skype, if you’d like to connect on there.

I also use Meebo, which in an in-the-browser instant messenger client which allows you to chat to people whether they use Microsoft, Google, AOL or Yahoo! instant messaging. Very useful! These days it’s also useful to keep an eye on Facebook chat, which seems to be becoming increasingly popular.

One communications medium I would like to make more is online video, both by using ‘webinar’ (ugh!) type services like DimDim and GoToMeeting and video conferencing like ooVoo. It would certainly be cool to be able to provide support or even coaching online using these sorts of methods.

Intranet

It might be a bit strange for what is effectively a one-man-band to have an intranet. I see it as another tool with which I can organise myself, though. I’m using a wiki I created with Google Sites, which makes use of several templates to create the functionality I need. Each bit of work I undertake has a page in the wiki, and an entry in a big to-do list. All the files for a project are attached to the relevant wiki page, which also lists everything I know about the project: who I am talking to about it, URLs etc so I can’t forget anything. It also means I have a record of completed projects that I can refer to easily. It seems to be working pretty well so far.

How councils can get started with social media

A sunday morning tweet from Tom Watson set my mind racing this morning:

Which is a very interesting question, not least for me as I have a considerable interest in loca government’s use of social media, as facilitator of the Social Media and Online Collaboration Community of Practice, the developer of the local government search engine and as the one-time author of a blog about using this stuff in local gov.

I actually think there are tremendous opportunities here, possibly more so than in central government, because at the local level, there is already a connection between the people and the government organisation, even if it is just through the collection of council tax, or the picking up of refuse. Local government doesn’t necessarily need to develop common ground with the people it serves, because the locality already act as a common denominator. Councils have a real opportunity to help develop the use of social media in a grographical area, to take a lead, say, in the definition and promotion of common tags to use so that locally generated content can be easily found and shared. The local authority could act as a convener, helping to draw people together online, including individual bloggers/photo sharers/etc, the local press, community groups and so on. I wrote more about this here.

There is plenty of good stuff going on already, but it is in pockets and I’m not sure how well the great work that is going on is being communicated to other authorities. Dominic Campbell is up to some terrific stuff in Barnet, and Simon Wakeman at Medway. I’ve written before about some of their stuff. Then there is Stratford, whose homepage features their Twitter feed, a flickr badge, and links to Stratford’s presence on various social networks, as well as a rather cool way to find out when your bins will be collected. Other councils are also starting to use Twitter as another channel to communicate their stuff – I’m collecting them here. Carl Haggerty at Devon has produced a plan for an externally facing onine community site for the people of Devon to use to connect, share and talk with each other, which looks great.

Lot’s of ideas were discussed at the workshop held by Simon Berry during his time at CLG earlier this year. I wrote up my thoughts in terms of using the social web to make local government a bit less boring. What was clear from the session was that there was tonnes of stuff that councils could be doing to revitalise their relationship with the people using the web.

So, after all that background, how can a Council dip their toes into social media waters?

First, start listening. Stop relying on Google Alerts and start using RSS. Maybe iGoogle, Pageflakes or Netvibes to start with. Subscribe to searches, but also to feeds for Flickr tags and groups related to your area, to delicious bookmarks that are appropriately tagged, likewise YouTube and other video sites. Start checking the local forums and noting where the Council comes in for criticism or even praise. Look on Facebook to see if there are any groups or pages formed around the area – if they are public then you can see what’s being said without having to join at this stage. Identify the people with an obvious love for the area, with genuine enthusiasm and commitment.

Next, start acknowledging and responding. Respond where appropriate in blog comments and in forums. Make sure that the Council’s message is being heard where people want to hear it, don’t rely on them checking your website for press releases or news items, or reading the local paper cover-to-cover. Make use of creative commons licenced images on flickr on your own website, and make sure you include a crediting link. Link from your site to those containing some good news, related to the local area.

Thirdly, start to engage yourself. Start public blogs for big council projects, so that people can be kept in the know – if they want to be – and can leave comments or ask questions, and then make sure someone responds to them. Maybe senior managers should blog too, to help get messages out that people can read without them first going through the filter of the local press. How about creating a blog to publicise the services that the council provides, by having a different team blog every couple of weeks about what they do. Create video content and make it shareable on YouTube, etc, encouraging others to display council content on their sites. Make the copyright on council content as relaxed as possible so that others can use it however they choose. Put meetings online, even if it isn’t live streamed, make them available as podcasts, put any slides on services like SlideShare.

Where should this all be done? Try and use existing services where you can. Don’t try and recreate existing networks where they are already working. If people are happy uploading to a flickr group, let them, don’t try and force them to use an online photo gallery you have just developed. In fact, rather than developing it, spend the money showing folk who don’t know about flickr how to use it. Likewise with blogs – you need a really good argument, in my opinion, not to just use WordPress.com. It’s just so quick and easy – and free.

Who should be doing this? In terms of listening, everyone in the Council. If that’s unrealistic, then at least someone in each team should be monitoring what’s going on, not just communications departments. In terms of acknowledging and responding, then officers with responsibility for what is being discussed should feel empowered to state the council’s position on relevant issues online – again they shouldn’t feel the need to leave it to the communications officer. As for enagaging, then anyone with an enthusiasm for connecting locally online should be provided with the tools to do so. Nobody should be forced into it, but those with a passion to spread the word about the good work they, and other council officers, do should be empowered to do so.

Another important point to make is that social media doesn’t take the place of other forms of communication and enagagement, and really ought to be considered an “as well as”. You’ll still need to do your newsletters and stuff, bu you might be able to integrate the two – maybe by putting links to your online content in your newsletters, for instance. It also mean that you still need to use face to face means of consulting – whilst online social methods can bring great results, it is vital to blend in the offline too, so as to ensure that you are not excluding anyone, and so that as many different voices can be heard.*

What is clear is that this stuff is not the responsibility of the web team, nor the comms team. It should be in service teams that the ideas should be produced and the comms and web folk should just provide the means for that idea to flourish. You do need to have the boss onside though, which is where notes from Cabinet Office ministers come into play.

* This bit added thanks to Lloyd’s comment below. Thanks Lloyd!

Levels of social web engagement

I have been reading Li and Bernhoff’s Groundswell just recently, and I came across an interesting division of levels of interaction with the social web. I’ll type it out here for your edification.

  • Creators
    • Publish a blog
    • Publish your own web pages
    • Upload video you created
    • Upload audio/music you created
    • Write articles or stories and publish them
  • Critics
    • Post ratings/reviews of products or services
    • Comment on someone else’s blog
    • Contribute to online forums
    • Contribute to/edit articles in a wiki
  • Collectors
    • Use RSS feeds
    • Add tags to websites or photos
    • ‘Vote’ for websites online
  • Joiners
    • Maintain profile on a social networking site
    • Visit social networking sites
  • Spectators
    • Read blogs
    • Watch video from other users
    • Listen to podcasts
    • Read online forums
    • Read consumer ratings/reviews
  • Inactives
    • None of these activities

Whilst we may want to pick away at the odd thing on the list, I think it is broadly right in terms of the degrees of participation. The key thing is to understand both what it is that these groups want out of their web ‘experience’ and making sure the tools you use can meet that need. The other thing to consider might be how, if at all, you can encourage people to move up into the next category: to try and get some inactives spectating; and some critics creating.

I suppose it goes without saying, really, but if you were to visualise the list above in terms of the numbers within each group, it would be a pyramid, with lots of inactives and spectators but very few creators at the top. Perhaps this is how it should be, else we really would get drowned in the resultant noise.

What do you make of these levels of participation, and how could they be used in planning a social media project?