Monthly Archives: June 2012

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Goodbye, We Love Local Government

We Love Local Government, an anonymously written group blog by a bunch of people working in the sector, has closed its doors. How sad!

It was a great resource, providing support, advice and amusement for all those working for councils during an incredibly difficult time.

Those behind it have decided to move onto other things, which is fine – they’ve done their bit!

Hopefully what they have done is to further advance the cause of blogging in the public sector in the UK. That simple act of publishing stories, ideas, experiences, views and opinions is still incredibly powerful, and yet one that still isn’t being effectively used at scale.

My hope is that some of those who followed We Love Local Government now start their own blogs, writing about what they do, why they do it and how it’s changing – developing the support network and adding to the conversation.

It’s my hope that they choose to do so publicly, under their own names too. I understand why WLLG was anonymous, but I passionately believe that being open about your identity as a blogger is best in the long term.

In the meantime, there are loads of people blogging about public service issues, and many of them are aggregated at Public Sector Blogs. Go take a look.

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ifttt – an absurdly useful little tool

If this…then that (commonly known as ifttt) is a ridiculously brilliant little thing.

It allows you to set automated tasks based on your activities online – and is as easy to use as clicking a few buttons – no complicated wrangling with the likes of Yahoo! Pipes here.

Here’s an example. You can tell ifttt that when you post a photo on your phone to Instagram, it should copy it across and post it in your Flickr stream too.

Or. you could tell ifttt that when you save a bookmark in Pinboard, it should also create a link post in your Tumblr site.

The ‘recipes’ page on the ifttt site is full of examples of how users are stitching together loads of online services to create something new.

I set something up recently that made me feel a bit better about the photos I share online. I already have my Instagram photos sent to Flickr – and Flickr remains my main online photo archive. So, I added a rule to ifttt to save any photos that appear on Flickr to my Dropbox account.

Of course, Dropbox syncs files automatically with all my computers, so this means I get a local copy of my photos saved, giving a bit more peace of mind.

Now, I’ll admit my use of ifttt is pretty boring. Anyone doing anything more exciting?

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Digital visions

I spend a fair bit of time talking to local councils and the like about taking a strategic approach to digital stuff, although usually it is mostly around engagement, and a bit of communications.

It’s important – simply to know what you want to achieve and why. As soon as you have those things figure out then it’s easy to choose the right tools and channels to help you get there.

Taking a strategic approach though doesn’t necessarily mean you need a bit of paper, with ‘strategy’ written on it. Sometimes just having thought about the issues is all you need to do. A quick look on Twitter or Facebook and it’s pretty straightforward to spot those that haven’t even done that!

However, there are times when a bit more of an in depth look at all things digital are required. After all, the bits of an organisation like a local council that are affected by the internet go way beyond just the communications team.

There’s customer services and all the transactional stuff – what commonly gets referred to as channel shift these days. There’s the democratic element, and the policy development process. The way big projects are managed and communicated can be transformed by the web. Every service delivery team could make use of digital channels to deliver that service, or part of it, or at least communications around it.

Given all of this, and the vital strategic role a council plays within a local area, having a digital vision is pretty important. There are several big agendas connected to technology which need to be considered.

What elements are required?

  • channel shift
  • digital engagement
  • mobile
  • publishing / content strategy
  • digital inclusion and broadband roll out
  • open data

I think these are probably best presented as some form of ven diagram, and there is bound to be plenty of overlap in there.

I’ve always like the phrase that ushered in the Government Digital Service – that of ‘digital by default’. The notion not that digital is the only option – but that it is always an option. Quite often when I have been called in to help out with digital side of a project or campaign, it’s been a bit of an add on. Being digital by default means building the online element from the get go – making it an integral part of a service or project.

It also means getting away from one of the flaws of the e-government era – that (necessary) rush to get government services online – which was to do the wrong thing righter. In other words, not rethinking how a service should be delivered in a networked society but just taking a process and sticking it into an online form.

We’re just taking on a project to deliver a comprehensive high level digital strategy for a county council. I’m delighted – it’s the sort of meaty, wide ranging envisioning work which is pretty scarce these days. It also offers a chance to think about what a truly digital local council might look like, and how it might work.

Part of the project will involve running a crowdsourcing exercise on good practice and what the future may hold for local government digital – rather like the effort I made back in 2009 which focused on websites. That’ll launch in a few weeks. In the meantime I’d love to hear from anyone who has been having digital visions in the comments, or by email.

Living on a cloud

While despatched on a mission of digital mercy a few weeks ago Mr Briggs (of this parish) and I fell to comparing our computers. Or rather he fell to ridiculing my rather ancient Samsung laptop (seven years old I think, it doesn’t like to process video, original power supply fell apart and it now boasts a rather lovely Maplin back up device). Apple fans do tend to look upon me with fear tinged with pity when I unpack the machine.

I explained to Dave that all I really need is an OS to show me a browser because I live in the cloud. He’s become slightly cloud obsessed lately with visions of Chromebooks floating before his eyes. When he challenged me to write a blog post about my online working I realised that that I’m still not quite there.

The Basics

I do rely heavily on those lovely people at Google. They handle my mail for a start. A huge variety of email addresses are sent into my email account (or collected by GMail from mailboxes) and the system handles them smoothly. I virtually never see any spam and it is rare (though not unheard of) for real mail to get caught in the spam filter. I have a couple of Android devices that sync happily with the big G’s servers and lo: mail wherever I need it.

And I make a lot of use of Google Docs. Or Google Drive as we must now call it (what are they going to call the self-directed cars then?). The word processor meets my day to day needs.

Google Spreadsheets meet my fairly simple requirements perfectly well. There was a time when I demanded much of my spreadsheets but those days are mostly behind me. And for the days when they aren’t I have Google Fusion Tables.

Paying for stuff

Mountain View doesn’t seem to be able to deliver a decent task manager. For this I must turn to the excellent Remember The Milk. It’s idiosyncratic but it is fast, in the cloud and it has a cow logo which is nice.

For presentations I am inexorably drawn to SlideRocket. This is NOT cheap but it does make slideshows look good and its library system is easy to understand and flexible. If, like me, you create a lot of slideshows and then embed them all over the place it is probably worth the money. I guess it must be worth the money or I wouldn’t pay. I wish it cost less money though.

I use Hootsuite to help me manage my extensive social media real estate. I even pay them a little.

Other toys

I do use Dropbox but I haven’t fallen in love with it.

I’m more enthusiastic about Evernote. Especially since its Android app has got so good.

Google Reader is quite annoying but I haven’t found anything better for subscribing to blogs and other sites via their RSS feeds. And it handles my podcasts quite well.

What I still don’t do in the cloud.

Serious document prep. When I have a big report to prepare I will do the grunt work in Google Drive but I’ll apply the final formatting offline in Libre Office because it packs a lot more formatting oomph. And Scribus and InkScape are still my go-to guys for what we used to call DTP.

Stills and video editing. Actually simple edits are now pretty easy to do on things like Picnik (now integrated into Google+ of course). For stills there’s the GIMP for video there’s Kdenlive and for sound Audacity, natch.

When the rain comes

There are two big risks with leaving your stuff lying on random servers scattered around the world:

  • other people might see the data without my permission
  • the data might vanish or be locked away from me

So I fret a quite a bit about security. Google has good tools and I try to keep an eye on account activity, change passwords and use 2-factor authentication and so on. As to people being allowed in without my knowledge. I try not to think about that. This does make moving between machines less than frictionless but it seems to be sensible.

And I regularly take copies of my data and documents out of the internet and hide them in a lovely little Buffalo Terastation where they nestle quietly on a RAID. Google’s Data Liberation Front is a bit marvellous in this regard.

Luckily no-one asks me to do any heavy coding, design or other things that require a sooper-dooper machine. I suppose I could do that on a virtual box but that’s hardly the same.

But the crucial question is, when the old laptop finally gives up the ghost should I buy a shiny Chromebook or just shove Linux on a passing laptop?

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Writing an effective tweet

Writing a tweet is easy – after all, what can you get wrong when you only have 140 characters to play with?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Recently Ben and I did some training at a local authority up in the North-East, and part of it was a quick workshop on writing for the web and for social media. We spent a fair bit of time looking at Twitter as a medium.

We ran an exercise where everyone had a story for which they had to write a tweet to promote it. We went through the process a couple of times, with people rewriting their tweets to improve them, save characters, and that sort of thing.

Here’s some of the learning that emerged:

  1. Make sure it begins with an impactful, information carrying word or two. Tweets may be short, but they still need to grab the attention. Tweets beginning with ‘News’ or ‘Announcement’ are wasting space – we know it;s an announcement, else it wouldn’t be on Twitter!
  2. Use  a URL shortener to save characters – but customise it to make it human readable too, as this adds meaning and can save characters elsewhere
  3. Leave some space for old school retweeters and those who like to add a short comment to a retweet
  4. Formatting on Twitter is limited. Make use of capital letters to add emphasis – but sparingly
  5. Draft tweets and work on them – don’t publish your first go. Instead, go through it a couple of times trimming characters and improving the language
  6. Time your tweets – those posted in the morning tend to get more active attention than later in the day. Also don’t post on the hour – lots of automated systems are set up to do that and you might get drowned out
  7. Don’t be afraid of repeating a tweet so people can pick it up at another time or day – but don’t do it too often
  8. You need to work hard to appear authoritative in a social space so people feel they can trust the information you are providing. Ensure you include concrete facts to reinforce this
  9. A key thing for people getting information from social networks is the idea they are getting something special – use language that enforces the uniqueness of the content they are seeing
  10. Whatever you do, don’t automate this process! There’s nothing worse than those press releases pumped out onto Twitter, with half the tweet filled with “PRESS RELEASE” and then half the title missing on the end… just taking five minutes to think about what you are writing can make a real difference!

If a workshop on best use of social media in your organisation would be helpful – just get in touch! We’d be happy to chat about your requirements and design something that meets your needs.

New Chromebooks – worth the bother?

Google have announced a new model of their Chromebook – the web only laptop that runs their Chrome operating system, which essentially consists of a browser and not much else.

As well as the laptop, there’s now a desktop machine too – which is rather reminiscent of the Mac Mini.

Both look like nice bits of hardware – but just how useful is a computer that only runs web based apps? ReadWriteWeb featured two contrasting views recently – one for, one against.

I’ve never actually seen a Chromebook, and am pretty sure I don’t know anybody that owns one (this in itself is probably telling). I do however have a bit of experience with something similar.

A while ago I blogged about my investment in a Lenovo S205 netbook. After a little while I got bored with it, and decided to replace Windows 7 with Ubuntu as the machine’s operating system. I probably should have been mowing the lawn or something at the time.

Anyway, as part of setting up the machine, I made it boot up Chromium (the open source cousin of Chrome that ships on Linux based systems) automatically, and so I pretty much just use the machine within the web – I don’t run any native programs at all.

The truth is, it’s pretty handy and I reckon I can get 80% of my work done on there. Thanks to Gmail, Google Docs, Evernote, Xero, Basecamp, Google Reader, Tweetdeck, WordPress and so on, I can get an awful lot done within the browser.

The downside comes when I need to do something with an actual file – such as using FTP to get a file online, or formatting a document in Word (Google Docs is fine for bashing in text and sharing notes, but not so good for well presented documents, I find). Editing images is another example of a common activity that right now isn’t fun to do within the browser.

(The other downside of using the Lenovo as a Chromebook-like device is the slow boot time – unlike the official ones, it doesn’t feature a solid state drive, which enables the Chromebook’s to boot in less than 10 seconds. I have, however, ordered an SSD for the S205, so we’ll see if it makes a difference!)

However, when I think about it, there could well be a role for Chromebook style devices, not necessarily for person use, but maybe within an organisational context. I could imagine a company’s sales team, or a group of field workers, having access to all the apps they need through a browser: email, docs, CRM etc, without any of the clutter of a traditional machine that in their roles they just wouldn’t need.

I’d probably prefer to have an iPad though. What do you think?