Monthly Archives: September 2010

Learn WordPress.com

learnwp

WordPress is a great bit of software, and by far the easiest way to get up and running with it is to use the usually free hosted version at WordPress.com.

It’s even easier to get started than ever, with Learn WordPress.com – a cool new site taking you through all the features in 10 simple lessons.

I am sorely tempted to switch this blog over to WordPress.com myself. Currently I self hosted, meaning I downloaded the files from WordPress.org, paid for some web hosting, installed the software and then added all the plugins and themes I wanted.

I’ve done this for the last five years, but over that time WP has become more and more complicated and a bigger challenge to keep on top of. Hosting your own site is still worth it if you are desperate for a stylish custom template, or a load of cool functionality. But to be honest, DavePress is just a blog, and so could easily be hosted at WordPress.com.

I’ll let you know what I decide!

Phones, phones, phones

To probably misquote Stephen Fry: “Was there ever a smartphone that I didn’t buy?”

As I posted a little while ago, I’m pretty happy with the Nexus One. Android is a nice, feature rich, open operating system, and the hardware isn’t bad. However, the one major drawback is the keyboard, which is at times incredibly frustrating.

As well as the Nexus One, at home I have an iPhone 3gs and a Blackberry Bold 9700. Each has its ups and downs, and I thought it might be worthwhile writing them up here. It would be great to hear what others think in the comments, too!

Google/HTC Nexus One

Nexus One

Pros:

  • Integrates beautifully with both Google and third party services
  • Email application is a delight
  • Decent browser
  • Plugs straight into a computer to manage files etc – no messing about with iTunes or other software

Cons:

  • Touchscreen not always brilliant, and the keyboard can be appalling at times
  • Not as many high quality apps as the iPhone
  • Hardly any games

Apple iPhone 3gs

Pros:

  • Lovely user experience
  • Great on screen keyboard
  • Mail application is OK
  • Web browser is excellent
  • Lots of great apps

Cons:

  • Lack of sharing options – eg with photos etc
  • Reliance on iTunes
  • Not great as a phone

Blackberry Bold 9700

Pros:

  • Physical keyboard is great
  • Small and light
  • Phone is very reliable

Cons:

  • Mail application is surprisingly rubbish
  • Doesn’t really work at all well with Gmail (whether consumer or enterprise editions)
  • Terrible web browser
  • Few apps

So there we are. The iPhone is probably overall the best, but because of my reliance on Google, I’ll stick with the Nexus One for now.

Perhaps the way forward would be an Android phone with a physical Blackberry-like keyboard?

YouChoose

youchoose

In what looks like a pretty interesting collaboration between what was the LGA Group and YouGov, YouChoose is an online budget simulator that:

encourages members of the public to consider where council budget cuts should fall, where efficiencies might be made, and where income might be generated.

You can see  a working version up and running for the London Borough of Redbridge, and a PDF document describes the detail in more detail (the tool is free, but decent analysis of the data is going to cost you).

I’ve not really got a view on participatory budgeting, or whether YouChoose does it well or not. Anyone with a clue want to share their thoughts?

Technology, learning and knowledge

I had a good time up in Scotland last week, and enjoyed putting together and delivering my talk at the Learning Pool event we ran – which saw a great turnout.

My discussion focused on the use of technology in a time of immense change and budget pressures, focusing on not just the use of social media in communicating and engaging outside the organisation but also how such tools can be used internally to improve the way everyone works.

Not exactly ground breaking stuff, but I think it is certainly an area that few organisations in the public sector have right and also one where genuine benefits, cashable and otherwise could be realised.

Think about it. With talk of budget cuts of up to 40% we are going to be seeing huge amounts of change in terms of personnel, with early retirements, redundancies etc. The issues as I see them are around:

  • Knowledge and learning – how do you record and share what the people working in the organisation know? How to capture what’s in the heads of all those staff likely to leave?
  • Change – how to keep staff engaged with large scale change programmes?
  • Talent – how to make the most of the people that are left. Where are the hidden gems in your organisation, and how much money might finding them save you?
  • Innovation – how are ideas shared and assessed in the organisation?
  • Collaboration – how much duplication of effort is going on? How can communications be improved within teams, departments, the whole organisation, even multiple organisations?

Effective use of social software is no panacea and won’t see all the problems of government disappear. However, current usage is so limited I believe it could have a genuinely substantial transformative effect. I’m hoping to be writing a bit more about this in the future.

One other thing I covered in the presentation is around the development of technology from mainframes to today’s smartphones. Two things are apparent:

  1. Technology is getting smaller and more personal
  2. As it does so, the ability for a central authority to control it diminishes.

How does this affect what I was talking about, in terms of organisations using social tools to work better? I think the key is to focus on the personal aspect of this. Don’t try to force people into using specific workflows to achieve what are generally pretty personal tasks. The way people like to record their learning and knowledge differs, so don’t assume the same tool will work the same for everyone.

Rather, be as flexible as you can, and ensure that as an organisation you can loosely join the small pieces of your employees’ shared knowledge and learning.

Here are the slides – ignore the title on the first slide, I moved on pretty quickly from that.

Getting crowdsourcing right

Steph has a great post about crowdsourcing in government:

It’s human nature to want to work on your own projects, rather than those imposed upon you. It’s human nature to want to earn recognition, intellectual satisfaction and a good living from your work. So instead of asking civil servants to sift thousands of ideas and assign half a dozen to people around Whitehall to ‘take forward’, why not put proper money behind a few big challenges, and support civil servants, frontline staff and whoever-the-hell-wants-to to band together to spend time and money solving them?

Go and read it – it’s good!

Wisdom of Crowds

I’ve been working on this post – the one you’re reading now – for literally months. Steph has inspired me to get the damn thing finally published. One book I have found really useful is James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which is well worth a read.

There have been a couple of high profile attempts to crowdsource ideas and opinion recently by central government in the UK, which comes on the back of similar activities in other countries. Neither worked particularly well, and having had the time to ruminate on why that might be, I thought I’d put some ideas out there.

Getting this right is important, not least for those of us that what to see open government progress in this country; participation being one of the three major strands of what open government is.

So what can we learn from Your Freedom and Spending Challenge?

1. Are you asking people to do the right things?

Crowdsourcing in government is used for a number of purposes, but quite often it’s down to getting people to suggest ideas. One of the problems is of course that coming up with ideas is the easy bit – it’s implementing them that’s hard.

But some of the best examples of crowdsourcing on the internet just aren’t this open ended. Indeed, the success of these initiatives tend to be in providing people with small, defined tasks such as:

These can be seen as being ‘mechanical turk’ type activities and as per the quote from Steph above they are examples of not just people being asked their opinions in a one-off fashion, but groups of people working towards a common goal, contributing when and how they feel able.

2. Don’t keep rebuilding the same community

It strikes me, thinking about it, that building a new website, promoting it and getting people to engage with it, every time government wants to ask people stuff isn’t a very efficient way of going about things.

I remember reading Stephen Coleman’s The Internet and Democratic Citizenship and not really agreeing with one of its central premises, that we need an online ‘civic commons’ – a central space for all the internet enabled participation in democracy and government to happen. It just struck me as the sort of thing that government could well be very bad at – some sort of DirectGov for engagement and consultation.

But, then, maybe it does make sense to have the one place where as much of this stuff happens as possible sits. It means people only have to sign up for one site, could get notified of new exercises that might interest them, and so on. It might also provide the scale to enable a full time community manager or two to be appointed, which would help massively with some of the moderation issues that these sites sometimes run into.

3. The role of expertise

One of the big questions around crowdsourcing is the issue of expertise. It’s fine asking Joe Public what he thinks about something, but quite another to expect him to have considered views on what might be esoteric and complicated subjects.

Perhaps this is where making use of existing communities could really come into play. When you are looking to get the views of people who really know what they are talking about, perhaps the best thing to do is to go to where those people are already hanging out and talking about this stuff. For those interested in this approach, the Meet the Communities event should be well worth attending.

4. Quick returns

The Cathedral & the BazaarGoing back to open source software development, one key thing Linus Torvalds, who led the Linux project, did to encourage participation was to ensure there were quick returns from contributors. Eric Raymond, in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, noted that Linux gave contributors the stimulation of being involved in something cool and important and gave fast feedback and results, sometimes more than daily.

It strikes me that  number of attempts at crowdsourcing in government don’t have anywhere near a short enough timescale for feedback. Throwing ideas and contributions into a black hole that a civil servant at some undefined point in the future might take a look at, and might get in touch with you about, isn’t to me a particularly thrilling proposition.

Any more?

So there are my four takeaways for people wanting to run government crowdsourcing exercises. Anyone got any others?

(Before I go, do visit Catherine Howe’s blog, which is full on ruminations on this stuff, as well as hundreds more great book recommendations!)

Back to school

OUI’ve just registered to do some proper studying – for the first time since I left university in 2001.

It’s through the Open University, and the qualification is a BSc (Honours) Technology. I’m entirely self taught when it comes to anything computer related, and while that’s fine, I’ve felt for a while that something a little more structured and formal would be useful. I chose this particular course because I know I am no computer scientist, nor anything other than a hobbyist when it comes to actual programming. Hopefully this course will let me focus on strategy and understanding some of the big issues.

I’m also quite interested in how the Open University uses e-learning and the web to support the community of learners on a course.

My first module starts in February next year, so plenty of time to regret my decision – or possibly prepare – and it’s called Networked living: exploring information and communication technologies. Hopefully it will be a fairly gentle start!

Once my work on the course starts, I’ll be sure to share things I learn here on the blog!

My setup

One of my favourite bits of technology porn is Shawn Blanc’s series on sweet Mac setups. It basically just gives dorks like me an opportunity to drool over other people’s kit.

But there’s another purpose to this, which is that it makes you think about the technology you use, and how it might be improved, in terms of fitting it in around the way you work.

Here’s my setup.

At home:

24″ iMac with another 24″ monitor (a Samsung SyncMaster P2450) on dual screen. Wired Apple keyboard and a Magic Mouse.

This is the beast which sits on my desk in my office at home and is where I spend most of the working day, when I am not on the road. It’s super fast and has plenty of storage (1TB hard drive) so it’s where all the electronic media the family owns lies – ie music, photos, video etc.

Having two screens is great productivity wise, though I do find myself wasting it at times, by having just Twitter on the second screen, for example. I often find myself wishing I had three screens, which is absurd.

Even just having the one big screen is a massive bonus though, just being able to easily have two documents open next to each other to work from is a revelation – especially compared to what I had to work with when I worked in government.

I also have a Kodak ESP 9 all-in-one printer and scanner thing, but I hate it like I do all printers. Frankly it only really gets used for printing boarding passes these days.

On the move:

My portable machine is a MacBook Air, with 2gb RAM and 120gb solid state storage. It’s isn’t particularly quick or grunty but is spectacularly light and small. I try to keep the number of applications and files stored on it to a minimum, and the Air does tend to slow down quite badly at times – especially when playing video for example.

As a travelling machine, though, it’s fabulous. Previously I had a 15″ MacBook Pro which could handle pretty much anything thrown at it, but was just too big and heavy to lug around all the time (maybe I’m just lazy).

The solid state drive is awesome too. No moving parts like a traditional hard drive, it’s quick and silent – and robust too. I should think every laptop I buy from now on will have this.

Other stuff:

Phone is currently a Nexus One, as described here. I also have a Dell laptop running Windows 7 and a desktop PC which dual-boots into either Windows 7 or whatever the latest version of Ubuntu is – this machine rarely gets turned on though.

Backup:

I backup both the iMac and Air using Time Machine on a 1TB Apple Time Capsule, which also acts as a wireless router at home. I’m not actually convinced this is working terribly well, however, but am too scared to fiddle with it in case it breaks completely.

I also backup the iMac to the cloud, using Carbonite, and of course important stuff sits on Dropbox too.

Software:

Here’s a list of the bits I am using most often at the moment.

  • iWork – Pages is a lovely word processor and Keynote a delightful way of throwing presentations together. I don’t do spreadsheets.
  • Chrome – My browser of choice since it became stable on the Mac – so much quicker than Firefox.
  • Evernote – I’ve written about this enough, I think.
  • Dropbox – a vital tool for anyone who regularly uses more than one machine, it’s also an awesome tool for sharing large files with anyone
  • Parallels – great bit of software for running virtual machines on a Mac. I use it rarely, mostly for running Windows XP for testing stuff in IE6
  • MarsEdit – A blog post editor that lets you compose posts offline before publishing them online. Nice keyboard shortcuts makes editing in source code view quick and easy.
  • NetNewsWire – I flip flop between this and Google Reader all the time. NNW is currently winning because of the lovely user interface.
  • iTunes – sucks, to be honest, but it’s where all my music and podcasts sit
  • iPhoto – sucks, to be honest, but it’s where all my photos sit
  • Transmit – an FTP client that works just fine
  • Pixelmator – I have Photoshop (Express) but find this cheaper alternative does what I want it to and quicker, too
  • TextWrangler – serves all my text editing needs. Would love to have an excuse to buy TextMate, but haven’t found it yet
  • Skype – invaluable for keeping in touch with colleagues, and I use it for most of my landline calling too, nowadays.
  • Skitch – screengrabs made easy
  • Screenflow – screencasting tool. Need to use this more often.
  • MindNodePro – mindmapping, simple and easy.
  • Tweetie – prefer this to the Adobe Air based apps.
  • Safari – find myself needing another browser open a fair bit, usually just to be able to use two Google accounts at once
  • MS Office – I do my best not to. But sadly, so many other people do that it’s almost imposible to avoid it entirely. Word in particular on a Mac is a total dog.

If I could have my time again…

Whilst this setup works pretty well, in terms of having processing grunt on the desktop and lightness on the move, it isn’t perfect.

The main problem is keeping software and files up to date across the two machines. Tools like Evernote and Dropbox help massively with this – in fact I think I probably would have gone mad by now if I didn’t have them.

For instance, having to buy two copies of every bit of software I use is a pain and an expense I could do without. Likewise, knowing there are some files on another machine – and not saved to Dropbox – that I need can be a real pain if I can’t access them.

So what would I do if I had some money to recreate my office IT? I think I would go for a one machine solution. Probably a high spec 13″ MacBook Pro which is still fairly small and relatively light, but which packs a bigger punch than the Air.

When at home, I would plug it into my Samsung screen and use it with a wireless keyboard and mouse thus giving me the solidity of a desktop type experience. I’d probably get some sort of stand or riser for the MacBook so I could use it as a secondary screen without breaking my neck.

What’s your setup (Mac or otherwise!)? How would you improve it?

Sharing and flexibility

Nice post from BIS’ Neil Williams on deciding up on a commenting system for the department’s website.

Go read the whole thing, but he summarises:

So what have we learned?

  • People blogging about what they are up to is dead handy. Stephen and Jimmy writing their posts, me reading them, has saved you thousands of pounds. Direct cause and effect.
  • Having the flexibility to embed stuff is awesome. Insist on it next time you buy a CMS. Hats off to the guys at Eduserv for really coming through for us on this one. We couldn’t put pages together like this and this and this without it.
  • The growing availability of embeddable stuff is way cool. I’m excited about what else we might be able to achieve without dev work – like page ratings using Bazaarvoice and forums using Talki.
  • We all need to think differently now. Few things we might want our website to do are going to be unique to us. Gov webbies, and suppliers of government web services, need to adapt and thoroughly check out 3rd party plugins before embarking on any kind of jiggery-bespokery. Why pay for our own learning curve when others have already been through it?

My take (which pretty much repeats what Neil has said:

  1. People sharing stuff via blogs is good and has measurable impact.
  2. In whatever you do, being flexible and open means you can make the most of developments in technology, or whatever.

Careers 2.0

Two strangely related things happened last week. The second one was Dominic Campbell‘s post, “Exciting times” in which he describes the progress he has made over the last few years, and how odd – and amazing – the whole thing is.

Suddenly I am attending Chief Executive only gigs to talk about how technology and the web can help local government both understand and deliver on the needs of the people it is there to support. Suddently I am invited to sit on the Practitioners Advisory Board of INLOGOV to help support their research and thinking around the future shape of local government (in the building next door to my old school in a weird twist of fate!). Suddenly we have the opportunity to put on CityCamp London (thanks to our amazing supporters) to bring together some amazing brains to consider the future of London and what role technology can play in reshaping both society and state in making it an ever better world class city to live and work in.

Dominic has done – and is doing – some amazing things. He’s built himself a huge reputation, not just here in the UK but also in the States, for innovative thinking about public services and where technology fits in.

I could never claim to have the same influence or impact that Dom has. But our careers over the last few years have some parallels – we both built reputations using online tools and by being committed to sharing what we know, as both a means to help practitioners get things done, and as a means of building business relationships.

This leads in nicely to the first thing I wanted to mention, which was at the beginning of last week, when Luke Harvey at the DWP invited me to talk to a bunch of technology in business fast streamers about my career, and some of my views on technology in government.

It must have been a weird careers talk. The profound oddness, just as Dominic describes in his post, of being pretty much nobody, but by writing a blog and slavishly updating Twitter, building a reputation and a career where people respect and act upon what you say. Sometimes they even give you money!

Here’s the slides from my talk. They are the usual mixture of well-worn jokes and ephemera. My honest advice for anyone working in and around government who wants to give their career a kick start would be to start blogging and to get networking on Twitter. Be helpful. Give stuff away. Always be positive. Make things happen. You never know where you’ll end up.