Monthly Archives: July 2012

Nexus 7 first thoughts

Last week I took delivery of a Nexus 7 – the new tablet made by Asus for Google to show off the new version of their mobile operating system, Android.

There was quite a lot of buzz about the device, partially because it marks a new high in terms of build quality of Android tablets, but also because of the form factor. Rather than matching the size of the iPad, the Nexus 7, with it’s 7 inch screen, takes a slightly different road.

The other, potentially killer, feature of the Nexus 7 is its price point – about £160 for the cheaper 8gb model.

Anyway, I’ve been playing with it for a few days, and here are some early thoughts:

  • The size is really interesting. Definitely feels like a massive phone, rather than a tiny computer. It’s easy to carry around the house or office with you, making it more handy than an iPad, which I feel still remains a bit heavy
  • There’s no slot for a sim card, so no built in cellular data connection. Means you need to be near a wifi connection at all times. Not a problem for me as I have a portable 3g wifi thingy, and as I already pay for three different mobile data plans, I didn’t really want another. However, this may be an issue for those without.
  • No camera on the back, just a front facing one for video calls etc. People taking photos with a tablet look like doofuses so it isn’t really an issue, although I’ve always liked the idea of the iPad as a great all-in-one social reporting device – it’ll record video and audio, let you take photos etc; then edit them and upload them. Can’t do that with a Nexus 7.
  • Google Reader on this thing rocks! I love scanning through stuff, starring the interesting bits so they post to Twitter, saving others to read in more depth later. Again, the weight and form factor makes this a comfortable experience.
  • Surprised at how bad the official Google Drive (was Docs) app is – I had to buy QuickOffice to make editing Google documents a bit easier.
  • The Nexus 7 really does look exactly like a huge Galaxy Nexus phone (which is the smallest device in the photo above). Not a problem, although I do feel like a massive twerp owning both.
  • Playing games is easier on the Nexus 7 for me than the iPad, again because of the size and weight. I’m not a big game player, having no ability to concentrate for more than a minute at a time, so the little time waster games on the Nexus work quite well for me.
  • The Android store does feature apps like the excellent iAnnotate PDF which is a blessing for those who like to go paperless into meetings – and is a potential winner for councillors and indeed officers
  • However, there are apps that won’t run on the Nexus 7, for whatever reason.

So, overall? It’s not as good as the iPad. Android isn’t as nice as iOS, the build quality isn’t up to the same standard and the range of apps on iOS is still better.

However, the form factor is interesting and there are times when using the Nexus 7 is a better experience because of the size and weight.

The other thing though is the price. This thing is seriously good value. It puts very usable, high quality tablets at a very affordable price into the marketplace. For those that baulked at paying £400 or more for an iPad, the Nexus 7 could well be a very attractive option.

GovGeek setups: Steph Gray

The first in an occasional series of posts written by prominent geeks working in and around government, talking about the tools they use to do their jobs.

Steph Gray

Who are you, and what do you do?
I run Helpful Technology, a little two-person digital engagement agency that helps mainly public sector and not-for-profit clients get good value from digital. We build websites, do training and consulting – sometimes with our good friends at Kind of Digital. Right now we’re really into the unusual mix of online consultation and social media crisis comms (thankfully, rarely together). We’re moving to a Proper Office in September, but for now I’m mainly home-based.

What hardware do you use?

I’ve been an Apple boy for 20 years, which is saying something as I’m 32 now. My main workstation in the home office is a 15″ MacBook Pro (late 2008) hand-me-down from Dave Briggs, souped up with 6GB RAM and a 128GB SSD from Crucial. It’s plugged into a Dell 22″ display with a 2048×1152 resolution, mainly so I can see Twitter better.

On the road I use both a MacBook Air 11″ – possibly the best computer Apple has ever made – and an iPad2 3G on the Three network. If the MacBook Air had a SIM card slot and I felt less like a oaf for using a laptop on a commuter train, I might retire the iPad altogether. Still, carrying the pair of them still feels lighter than lugging a big laptop around. That I’m surgically attached to an iPhone goes without saying.

The other core elements of my kit are a 3G Mifi device (again, on the Three network) and a WiBE, a bizarre-looking tub-like device which amplifies 3G signal in weak spot areas and is like a mobile wifi network hub when you need several machines online together. It’s a lifesaver for training or social media crisis exercises on client sites.

Maybe the favourite thing on my desk though is an Anglepoise 75 lamp – it’s beautiful and has lovely movement.

And what software?

Given the range of things I do, it’s a real mix. Most days I’ll have EchofonTransmitTextwrangler, Terminal, Spotify, Chrome, Photoshop, Powerpoint, Mail and Evernote open. Evernote in particular is the beating heart of my setup, linking up todo lists, notes, URLs and draft texts like this one, across two Macs, an iPhone and an iPad. Dropbox is pretty core to the setup too, as a shared drive and extranet that never puts a foot wrong. I’ve never quite got into IDEs like Coda, though one day I might. For occasional screencast recording, I use ScreenFlow.

Adobe Fireworks is a relatively new addition to the setup, but an amazing design tool for everything from wireframes to full-on design. Sequel Pro is my tool of choice to handling MySQL – it’s a lovely UI to MySQL and makes import/export and building new database structures a breeze. I’m getting slowly into version control, using Tower as the acceptable face of Git. For cross-browser testing, I’ve got four – FOUR – virtual machines set up in Parallels running Internet Explorers 6-9.

Web apps are a big part of my setup: WordPress of course, but also FreeAgent for accounts, Pingdom for server monitoring, Pinboard for bookmarks and plenty more.

What would your dream setup look like?

When I went freelance, I went from a PC-only Internet Explorer 6, Windows XP, Outlook world to Firefox/Safari, Mail and Mac/iOS world overnight – that’s the lovely thing about working for yourself (along with taking client calls in pyjamas). So it’s fair to say the dream setup is pretty much what I have now. I’m hoping the next few years bring iPhones that can actually make voice calls; rock-solid, always-on mobile broadband connections; the death of old web browsers; and web app experiences even closer to desktop apps – but for now, I’m not really complaining. I’m just happy to be living in one of those early 90s Apple commercials.

If you would like to feature in a GovGeek setups post, drop me a line!

LocalGovCamp 2012 review

Phew.

LocalGovCamp passed without a hitch, and indeed it went pretty well. I’m sure it’s the best one so far. In the style pioneered by Dan Slee, here’s my list of takeaways:

  1. New people! Every time we run the event, there’s a churn in attendees. New people means new ideas and perspectives. It’s great.
  2. For some reason running this year’s event was the most stressful yet. Even on Saturday morning I was panicking that something disastrous would happen. Maybe nobody would turn up! But they did, and it was fine, like it always is.
  3. I still believe strongly in LocalGovCamp’s lack of objectives. People need an opportunity to get in a room and talk without the burden of some predefined higher cause. Outcomes do come, of course, but the fact this isn’t a requirement frees people up I think.
  4. The conversation has definitely moved on now. Nobody talked about how great Instragram is, for instance. It was all about delivery, and transformation, not tools.
  5. As well as new people attending, newer people are coming to the fore too. Some of those leading sessions this year were hanging around at the back last time. Again, this is good.
  6. Haggerty, Griggs, Mabbett, BeemanPopham, O’DeaCampbell-Wright, Kidney and co were much missed. But it’s a strength of the movement that this wasn’t terminal.
  7. Nobody makes me laugh as much as Nick Hill does
  8. Dan Slee purchases terrible post it notes, but he is a great facilitator of group conversations. Asks the right questions, prods the right people at the right time. Excellent!
  9. I still think more could be made of the fact that we have (often small) suppliers and local government types together in a room talking about problems and solutions. Space for some creative collaboration? I should think so.
  10. I can’t think of anyone better than Jon Foster to be your taxi driver around Birmingham. Book him now. Dom’s got himself a star there, I think.
  11. All councils should be making more use of open space and networky conversations in their processes. Dom Chessum started it the other week with the #digitalday at Breckland Council. Serious meetings don’t need to be boring.
  12. We need to find a free venue for next year, or at least a significantly cheaper one.
  13. One day, I’d really like to work in local government again.

You can see what content others have been producing about the day here on the coverage page of the LocalGovCamp site.

Photo credit: Pete McClymont

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

LocalGovCamp next weekend!

Next Saturday (14th July) sees LocalGovCamp coming back to Birmingham!

It’s a great opportunity for innovators across local government to get together, share problems and come up with solutions. It’s also an honour (and occasional inducer of panic) to be able to put the event together.

I was ably assisted this year by those titans of the local government web world, Si Whitehouse and Dan Slee, who were my eyes and ears in the West Midlands – thanks guys.

With over 100 people signed up, we’re up to capacity now, but there’s a waiting list on the Eventbrite page if you fancy sneaking in last minute if others have to drop out.

Also props to Vicky Sargent at Boilerhouse for designing and organising the printing of the t-shirts.

Many thanks to the excellent sponsors who are helping to make this event happen:

FutureGov

Talk About Local

UKGovCamp

…and of course, Kind of Digital have chucked a few quid into the pot as well.

Am looking forward to seeing everyone next Saturday (and Friday night too – news of curry to come soon…) and those that cannot make it can follow the action on the hashtag #localgovcamp.

Go off grid but not offline

That nice Mr Briggs has been encouraging me to post some stuff about hardware.

As it happens I’ve been trying out a new piece of ultra-modern hi-tech digital equipment.

No it’s not a MacBook Air, ChromeBook or even one of them new Google tablets.

It is… drum roll… The PowerMonkey Extreme.

Which is basically a back-up battery.

Photo of a Power Monkey battery charging

Bear with me.

The use case for this bit of kit is for situations when you find yourself some distance from a power supply and need to charge your device.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: how often does that happen in this modern age? And the answer is: surprisingly often. For example on a train journey from Hereford to Sunderland (it happens) you will be six hours without an onboard power supply and because of the patchy mobile signals your tablet and mobile phone will be exhausting themselves screaming at non-existent cell stations. Even a day in London can be frustrating when every Starbucks you pop into is full of Apple-heads sucking lattes and hogging the 240volts.

Of course other backup power supplies are available. The Power Monkey was attractive because it is capable of delivering the 5v 2.1 Amps necessary to charge an iPad or Galaxy Tab. The Extreme bit seems to refer to its general resilience, waterproofness and separate solar panels.

The battery itself is pleasingly compact. It can be charged from the mains. This takes a reassuringly long time. It seems to hold two & a bit charges for my tablet and a large number of charges for my LG mobile. It can charge both devices simultaneously. It charges around as fast as the mains.

I’ve tested the device completely off grid (a week in a sailing boat and camping in the rain).

A stream leads to a misty estuary

The solar panels are slow to charge in the rain and I did have to ration my device use to conserve battery. That said it beats all other options and will now join my short list of never travel without items.

I’ve also used it on a variety of day trips. Such as a 13hr visit to London yesterday. When I start a meeting I can pop my devices on charge and use them with confidence in the gaps. The solar panels are less useful while travelling on the underground of course.

It seems to me that it would also be a useful piece of resilience kit for public information officers and other people who might want to keep their mobile devices working in a power failure or while temporarily off-grid.

We need to talk about the Knowledge Hub

Or at least, about where people in public service can go to share ideas, ask questions and promote good practice.

Back in the summer of 2006, when I was working as a lowly Risk Management Officer (yes, you read that right) at a county council, I joined the nascent Communities of Practice platform, which was being developed by Steve Dale at the then Improvement and Development Agency.

I thought it was fantastic, and joined in with some gusto – so much so in fact that I did attract a little criticism from colleagues who thought – probably quite rightly – that I ought to have been concentrating on the day job.

One of the first things I did was to launch the Social Media and Online Collaboration community, which I ran until my circumstances changed and Ingrid took over. Under Ingrid’s watchful eye, the community grew into one of the biggest and most popular on the platform.

Over time though it became clear that the CoP platform wasn’t keeping up with the technological times: the interface was a little clunky and a few things didn’t really make sense in an age of hyper-sharing on Facebook and Twitter.

So the Knowledge Hub was born, to take things forward. Only, I’m not sure it has.

I’m not wanting to bash the hard work that people have put in. All I will do is describe my experience – that people aren’t using the Knowledge Hub, and activity appears to be way down compared to the CoPs.

On the rare occasions I log in, I find the site incredibly, almost unusably, slow – and the interface hard to find my way around. I mean, I spend my life on the internet, and I just don’t really know what I am meant to do on the Knowledge Hub.

I’ve been wanting to raise this topic for a while, but what made me do it was receiving a request for information on Twitter by a local government person.

I don’t mind it when this happens. In fact it’s rather nice, as it means people remember who I am, and I get a chance to be helpful. As the owner of a small business, I get that this sort of thing can be a useful marketing tool.

But I do think to myself that there really ought to be a place where good practice, case studies, stories, examples, discussions and helpful chat can take place.

Surely that should be the Knowledge Hub? But as I mention, it isn’t: hardly anyone is on there and people are using tools like Twitter to try and track down the information they need.

So what’s the answer? Given the investment so far, and the organisational backing of the Knowledge Hub, that platform ought to be the future of knowledge sharing and collaboration in the sector.

I’m sure there are a few tweaks on the technology, user interface and community engagement side that could push things forward massively on there, before the goodwill earned by the previous system is used up.

The other option is for something else to emerge to take its place. With a little time and energy, I’ve no doubt someone – maybe even me – could put the tech in place to make it happen. But the time and resources needed to engage an entire sector are huge – and if the LGA are struggling I dread to think what sort of a hash someone like me would make of it.

What are your views? Do you use the Knowledge Hub? How does it compare to the CoPs? Where do you go for your innovation knowledge, stories and chat?

Where do we go next?

Digital democracy: some quick and easy ideas

Following up on my earlier post on tweeting meetings, here are a bunch of quick, easy – and probably free – ideas for getting started with digital engagement.

I put them together for a conference talk today on how local councils – parishes and towns – can use digital communications, along with more traditional approaches, to reach and engage with more people. The conference was a joint effort by the Norfolk Association of Local Councils and the Society for Local Council Clerks.

The point I was trying to get across is that there are some small actions you can try with minimal risk, need for knowledge, cost and so on – but which could have a really positive impact on participation levels.

The list includes:

  1. Tweet a meeting
  2. Start an email newsletter
  3. Map your parish
  4. Ask for ideas
  5. Verify a decision
  6. Run a web chat
  7. Hold a Skype surgery
  8. Become your local area’s online hub

The slides are embedded below, or you can download a PDF if you’d rather.

Digital democracy: tweeting meetings

I’m giving a talk today at a conference in Norwich for parish and town councils and one of the things I want to do is just to share some really simple ideas on how councils could get some online interactivity going.

One of those ideas was to tweet meetings. I asked my network on Twitter for examples, and was deluged!

I’ve used Storify to collect them all together, and have embedded it at the bottom of this post. Storify seems a great way of dragging tweets (and other media) together – ideal indeed for covering meetings!

It seems like there are different approaches being taken, mainly around who does the actual tweeting. Is it council officers? Councillors themselves? Journalists? Citizens?

Have a read through and see what you think.

http://storify.com/davebriggs/tweeting-meetings