Can someone explain to me what an eMagazine is, please

An item on the local TV new bulletin alerted me to Cambridgeshire County Council’s effort at citizen engagement on transport issues, as part of the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission. They’ve got a website and everything:

Well, I think it’s a website, only it describes itself as an “An environmentally friendly e-magazine”. If anyone can tell me what that actually means please send me a postcard, or at least leave a comment.

Though nothing like as bad as the other example I covered recently, there are stacks of missed opportunities here. There’s a lot of text on the site, which could so easily be augmented with some short video clips explaining what the whole thing is about. The participation element is slightly better done than just providing an email address, with a survey asking for views on a range of different issues.

This is fine, as far as it goes, but where is the conversation? One off responses are all well and good, but surely greater value will be achieved by bringing people together and letting them discuss the issues that are important to them with others that may or may not share there concerns. More could be done too, perhaps along the lines that Barnet have done, in taking vox pops by actually proactively asking residents for their views and recording them on video for others to see, and comment on.

This isn’t the first e-magazine Cambridgeshire have produced though – Paul Canning recently exposed me to something called Weather the Storm – a website to “help Cambridgeshire through the economic downturn”. Have a look round and see what you make of it – I found it full of useful information but seriously, seriously lacking in any kind of interaction. What helps people through difficult times is a sense of community, working together – but this website doesn’t help to do that at all, and it so easily could have.

Take this example – on the front page, those who heat their homes using oil are advised to organise themselves into fuel clubs – effectively getting discounts on oil by buying in larger amounts. Sounds simple. The website’s guide on how to do this features this as the first tip:

  1. Find other people locally who would be interested in joining a fuel club.  Ask friends and neighbours, speak to community groups or contact your Parish Clerk.

Erm… how hard would it be to have some kind of social functionality here, to help people create and join fuel groups online? The answer is, of course, ‘not very’ but obviously such useful features don’t come with e-magazines. A shame.

So Councils could be doing this sort of thing much better. Whether they should be doing it at all is another matter. Perhaps the possibilities that the web create in terms of self organising mean that, actually, it would be better if civically-minded folk were enabled to do this stuff themselves.

Big City Talk has shown that active, enthusiastic residents can make Council consultations more fun. Perhaps this model could also be applied to Cambridgeshire’s traffic engagement activity. So what if their site doesn’t let us upload videos? – let’s do it ourselves.

Likewise, people sharing stories and guidance about how they get through difficult financial times might better be done by themselves, bringing content together from all over the county from those that wish to submit it. After all, nobody knows all the answers, and the more voices we have, the closer we might get to have a really useful collection of material.

Both these websites could have been done so much better if more appropriate technology has been used. I’m really interested in how much this stuff cost, so I have put in a freedom of information request via WhatDoTheyKnow.

8 thoughts on “Can someone explain to me what an eMagazine is, please”

  1. There’s a partial “answer” on the site of TaylorFitch, the agency that built this:

    “Fully interactive and professional looking, eMagazines have proven to be an exciting way to engage with staff, partners, stakeholders, members and residents.

    They are budget and environmentally friendly with a clever back-end system which allows you to publish new editions yourself- quickly and easily.

    Viewable also on PDAs and mobile phones, readers can interact via online polls, surveys and links, giving valuable feedback.”

    Sounds like an agency has found a neat way to monetise the befuddlement of local gov comms people – sure sounds like an email to me 🙂 It would be very interesting to find out how much this kind of rubbish costs…

  2. There’s a lot of text on the site, which could so easily be augmented with some short video clips explaining what the whole thing is about

    Yes, but… I can’t be the only one who hates most video content on websites. The thing about it is that you have to sit through however long it is to find out what it’s telling you, whereas with text it can be scanned through as quickly as you like. I’d go so far as to say that video should never be used without available text at least to summarise what it’s about – particularly on the likes of the BBC news site. Web developers may like putting video in as part of their attempt to “be less boring,” but it should only ever be a supplement to rather than a replacement for instantaneously available content.

  3. Oh, absolutely. Yous still need to have the text, and any video shouldn’t be any longer than 3 minutes at the very most. But it would just break up the tedium of reading through all that stuff to have something a bit different to look at.

    It also might be said, John, that given your profession and prodigious reading habits, you are more comfortable with with text than most people? 😉

    Another simple way of adding some quick – perhaps superficial – involvement from the public would be to publish photos that people could upload of traffic problems that they spot – ‘Snap a jam’ or something. Fine, it wouldn’t actually add a huge amount to the debate, but it might be a useful way of bringing attention to the consultation.

  4. In this case it seems to mean: whereby a council or members of a committee can pretend to “engage with the public” without taking any responsibility for securing or managing the personal data users submit.

    (viz: the irresponsible lack of use of https:// to encrypt the personal information demanded on the form)

    Futhermore, the usual domain specific usability and accessibility rules do not apply, so they wash their hands any problems.

    Anywhere near?

  5. Or upload photos of cars parked badly – straddling bays in the car park, too near a junction or a crossing – with the ten worst offenders each day – to be decided by me – having their vehicle crushed. Now we’re talking!

    (Sorry, just one of my many driving-related hobby horses… Next week: on-the-spot penalties for people who drive into parking spaces instead of reversing into them.)

  6. The fact that they use that awful word, stakeholder, says it all as far as I’m concerned. I’m surprised they aren’t

    leveraging their e-magazine to deverticalize the core competencies of the multifarious stakeholders and providing a broad incentivization driven virtual economy…

    or some other such b’lox.

  7. To answer this question, Tim’s actually right. The idea of “professional looking” being pretty central.

    But also to answer your question, the history of ‘e-magazine’ is in early attempts to monetise the web by Vanity Fair etc. way back magazines produced versions which literally attempted to replicate themselves online, same look’n’feel. A fetishisation of magazine design which came out of the 90s revolution in magazine design.

    This local thing is as Tim says aimed at a – let’s be kind’ – rather limited understanding of what the web is by fund sources. I guess this speaks to the need for ‘us’ to find simpler models to explain to such people what the web is if such companies can get away with ‘e-magazine’ …

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