ColaLife Campaign Video

Some news from the ColaLife campaign… as part of the submission to Google for the 10^100 competition, a 30 second video has been created. And it’s lovely:

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Please visit the YouTube page and mark the video as a favourite, give it a 5 star rating and embed it in your own blogs and social networks. The more that people know about this remarkable initiative, the better.

Is your organisation an Apple or a Google?

Nice post from Steve Rubel, comparing the approach taken by two hugely innovative companies to engaging with their customers:

Google isn’t exactly known as the most transparent company in the world, but they’re light years ahead of Apple – a company that in some ways they share a kinship with when it comes to their reputation for innovation. Apple (or for that matter any big company) can learn a lot about radical transparency, customer service and PR from Google, even though they’re hardly perfect here.

The post is worth reading in full as Rubel analyses some of the good stuff that Google does (open about improvements to their products and lots of blogs) – and compares it to the lack of such activity by Apple.

I dare say that many public sector organisations are behind even Apple in this regard. Would you even want to be as open as Google about this sort of stuff? My view would be yes, but I would imagine that the idea would scare a lot of folk to death!

At last! JotSpot = Google Sites

Finally Google has finished making the JotSpot wiki service their own, and have relaunched it as Google Sites. This is great news, as a wiki solution is something that has been sorely missing from Google’s line-up of services for some time.

This is TechCrunch‘s take on it:

Google Sites looks absolutely nothing like Jotspot, other than the fact that both are hosted wikis. All of the structured data templates launched by Jotspot in July 2006 have been stripped out. Users now have a choice between just five basic templates – a standard wiki, a dashboard where google gadgets can be embedded, a blog-like template for announcements, a file cabinet for file uploads, and a page for lists of items. Instead of creating structured templates, users will now simply embed spreadsheets, presentations and word documents from Google Docs, as well as Google Calendars, YouTube Videos and Picasa Albums.

Here’s a video from Google explaining a bit about it all:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_KnC2EIS5w]

At the moment though it looks like it is only available to people who use the Google Apps service, where you can have white label versions of various Google services with your own domain and branding. So you can’t start a Google Site wiki with your standard Google account, I don’t think.

I use Google Apps to handle my email and calendar and stuff, and will be implementing a Google Site as soon as it appears on my dashboard, and will make it available for people to have a play.

That’s my weekend sorted, then.

Trust in Web 2.0

Danah Boyd writes a post about a rather worrying occurence: a friend who had their Google account taken away from them:

Earlier this week, an acquaintance of mine found himself trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare, a nightmare that should make all of us stop and think. He wants to remain anonymous so let’s call him Bob. Bob was an early adopter of all things Google. His account was linked to all sorts of Google services. Gmail was the most important thing to him – he’d been using it for four years and all of his email (a.k.a. “his life”) was there. Bob also managed a large community in Orkut, used Google’s calendaring service, and had accounts on many of of their different properties.

Earlier this week, Bob received a notice that there was a spam problem in his Orkut community. The message was in English and it looked legitimate and so he clicked on it. He didn’t realize that he’d fallen into a phisher’s net until it was too late. His account was hijacked for god-knows-what-purposes until his account was blocked and deleted. He contacted Google’s customer service and their response basically boiled down to “that sucks, we can’t restore anything, sign up for a new account.” Boom! No more email, no more calendar, no more Orkut, no more gChat history, no more Blogger, no more anything connected to his Google account.

Maybe no-one should rely on just one company to do everything for them. I really only rely on Google for my email, but even if just that disappeared, I’d be seriously pissed off. Again, this is one of the anti-web2.0 arguments: relying on these third party services is all well and good, but what happens when something goes wrong? How can we trust these people with our data, our information, our identities?

This week saw some outage on Amazon’s S3 and EC3 services. Many people might think of Amazon as just a supplier of books and CDs, and a whole lot of other stuff. But they also offer services for people who run websites, hosting and that sort of thing. It’s used by an awful lot of Web 2.0 startups, because it means they don’t have to even buy a server to start a company – let Amazon handle the headaches for a monthly fee.

But when this giant back-end, if you’ll excuse the unpleasant image, goes down, what’s left? For those of us that are trying to sell the web 2.0 and social media dream, what’s left is potentially a face covered in egg. We need to have confidence that the ideas and approaches we want people to take up are going to work 99.999999r% of the time. Especially when we are talking government, and public services, where stuff really has to work (though to be fair it often doesn’t).

My PageRank is 0!

PageRank 0Now, this is depressing news. Brace yourselves.

I downloaded and installed the Google toolbar this evening, just so I could check the PageRank of my site. Yeah, I know there are third party sites out there that do the same job, but I wanted the information from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

I wish I hadn’t bothered.

My PageRank is zero! Nought! Nil! Nothing! Nada! Zilch! You get the picture.

(For those that are unaware, PageRank is the system by which Google decides the priority of sites turning up in search results. It’s passed on by linking: getting linked to by a site with a high PageRank score can dramatically increase your own, thus netting you some serious search engine visability. As always, if you want to know more, Wikipedia is your friend.)

I really don’t understand how this can be. I mean, I am not expecting anything too dramatic, but a solid 4 surely wouldn’t have been out of the question? I even have the Google Sitemaps plugin installed, and everything!

It’s not like I don’t appear in Google at all anyway – as this search shows. So maybe there’s an argument that who cares?

The trouble is that I do.

Google: not just search

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to most people reading this blog that Google provides a number of services other than their traditional business area of web search. Many of the tools can be used as part of an online community environment, indeed it’s possibly to build an entire platform – albeit one spread amongst disparate, if partially integrated, services – using these tools, all for free (or at least very cheap). In this post I will cover some of these and discuss how they can be used to communicate and collaborate online.

Google Reader

Reader is Google’s RSS aggregator. These are really useful services which enable you to monitor your favourite websites without having to visit each one individually. This video shows how uber-blogger Robert Scoble uses Reader to get through an astonishing number of site feeds.

Reader is the best service of its type. Good community use of it includes the ability to share items you find particularly interesting. This produces a web page of content you have picked out which others can use, and there is an RSS feed for this too. Interesting blog posts or other website content can therefore be easily shared with others. Further social networking functionality is being built into it all the time, so it could become a great place to track what’s hot on the web.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Bloglines, Newsgator

Google Groups

Google Groups is a system of creating communities which communicate through email or a web based interface. It’s effectively a souped up mailing list arrangement, but works pretty well. The web section allows documents to be uploaded and shared, and web pages to be created for further pooling of information.

To be honest, services like Groups are somewhat unsophisticated in today’s world of Facebook, Bebo et al. But they are quick, free and easy to set up and could provide the basis for a community, certainly at the early stages. The ability to contribute just through email is pretty useful too. Using Groups as a mailing list server for barcampukgovweb worked brilliantly.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Yahoo! Groups

Google Docs and Spreadsheets

Docs and Spreadsheets is Google’s answer to ‘Office 2.0’ – the use of office suites of applications within the browser. In this case it’s a word processor, presentations and a spreadsheet app. The benefits of this type of approach are as follows:

  • Zero cost of software
  • No upgrade worries
  • Access and edit your documents from any computer with a decent internet connection
  • Share and collaborate on documents from anywhere in the world without having multiple emailed versions flying around

In terms of online collaboration, these tools are astonishingly good. There are some risk considerations: you need to be online to use them, your data is stored on a third party server and the functionality isn’t up to the standard of desktop applications. But overall, the good stuff outweighs the bad considerably.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Zoho, ThinkFree

Blogger

Blogger is Google’s blogging service. It’s incredibly popular, largely because it was first out of the blocks. Personally, I hate it, but it’s pretty easy to use for beginners, allows total control of how your blog appears, lets you have adverts to make some money and there is a certain level of integration with other Google services.

However, it’s almost impossible to get the address you want for your blog as so many people are already using it, as a network it’s full of spam blogs, and is nowehere near as feature rich as the likes of my personal favourite in the field, WordPress.com.

Blogs should be an integral part of any online community platform though – they make publishing content so easy.

Cost: Free
Rivals: WordPress.com, TypePad, LiveJournal

Customised Search

Google’s customised search service (CSE) is extremely powerful, easy to set up and stuffed full of benefits for service providers and users alike. This technology effectively provides an alternative to products which cost a serious amount of money.

CSE answers the problem of searching the web and getting loads of irrelevant or spam-filled results. Here’s how it works: you provide Google with a whitelist of sites which you know to be relevant to want people want to search and when people use your customised search, they only get results from those pages, thus increasingly significantly the likelihood that they will be relevant. You can also label sites, which provides clickable filters for the user to further drill down into the results.

Google provides you with a homepage to direct users to, or you can embed the engine within another website, or even set up a bespoke homepage. Examples of uses of this technology include my efforts LGSearch, KMSearch and BookZilla. I have produced a slideshow demonstrating just how easy this is to do on Slideshare.

Cost: Free (you will probably make some money on adverts!)
Rivals: Rollyo, Swicki

Google Maps

Lots of people use Google Maps to find their way from A to B, and it works very well in this regard. It’s also very simple to insert a map into another web page, to show the location of your offices, for example. But the Maps API (application programming interface) means it can be much more powerful than that.

For example, you can create a map and display it on your site with a wide variety of information on it. Such mashups are an incredibly powerful element of the technology base of Web 2.0 and Google Maps is a great example of a company being open with its information for the benefit of the community. The potential application of this technology has limitless benefits for online communities and collaborative partnerships.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Virtual Earth, Yahoo! Maps

Gmail

Gmail (or Googlemail as it’s known in some parts of the world) is a web based email service that is probably the best one available at the moment. Here’s a list of some of the cool features:

  • Threaded conversations – replies are all kept together in context
  • Over 6 gigabytes of storage space – no need to delete anything
  • Excellent spam filtering – publicise your email address with confidence
  • Handle other email accounts through GMail – you can even send mail from a different address
  • Add labels to emails rather than putting them in folders – so you can have an email with more than one label
  • Use Google Talk instant messaging without having to leave the Gmail screen
  • Find your emails with the powerful search tool
  • The adverts are text only and unobtrusive

Gmail is great to use as an email system for online communities, whether as a contact address for the community as a whole or for use by individual members. There are a number of innovative ways it can be used as a productivity tool as well – soon making it an indispensable service.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail

Calendar

Google’s calendar offering is another one which, like Gmail, blew the opposition apart. It’s a great little service, with sharing information with others at the heart of much of what is cool about it.

You can share your appointments with other people, create group calendars which aggregate lots of people’s appointments into one, and make calendars public and readable by anybody.

This flexibility makes Calendar a great time management tool for any collaborative enterprise.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Kiko, 30 Boxes

iGoogle

iGoogle is the name given to what was the personalised home page. It’s basically a Google search page with lots of different content on it, which you can choose. It could be made up of RSS feeds, mini versions of Gmail or Calendar, an interactive file list of your Docs and Spreadsheets and a whole gamut of other widgets and services.

iGoogle actually falls behind some of the competition in this area, in that it’s difficult to share a personalised page with others, so its use as a community tool is limited. However, with a little organisation, it should be possible to work out a common set up between members of a community to help foster information sharing and reuse.

The real value of iGoogle, though, is its role within the Google Apps for your Domain platform.

Cost: Free
Rivals: Netvibes, Protopage, Pageflakes

Google Apps for your Domain

Google Apps, as the service is known for short, is a customisable version of the following Google services:

• Gmail
• Calendar
• Docs and Spreadsheets
• iGoogle
• Google Talk
• Web Page Creator

Essentially, you register a new domain, or configure an existing one, with Google and they provide these services for free up to 200 users. You can change colour schemes and add logos to give it all a corporate feel. Effectively, this is a enterprise standard groupware solution. For free.

iGoogle becomes more useful because you can control what the left hand column contains, so that a certain element of the page is similar for everyone, ensuring that specific information is distributed to everyone on the network.

The only lame part of the package is Web Page Creator, which is a service I haven’t mentioned before because it isn’t great and isn’t terribly important. Unless you are a DNS wizard, it’s tricky to get your URL displaying anything other than the pages you create in this very simplistic application. See the Change2 homepage for the sort of thing that’s possible (ie not a lot).

There are a couple of services that really ought to be integrated too, like Blogger and Reader for example. But Google Apps is still an amazing deal.

Cost: Price of a domain
Rivals: None that I can think of

What’s missing?

In terms of the Google spread of services, not a lot. Using the free stuff Google offers, you could clearly create a useful network, with a little work and using the Google Apps service as a hub to control the rest obviously has its benefits.

But there are a couple of things missing. One is a decent wiki service. Google has Notebook, a simple note taking and sharing tool, but it is nowhere near the power of, say, Wikispaces. This should be sorted out soon, however, as Google bought JotSpot not so long ago, which is an established and fully featured wiki platform. I would hope to see this made part of the Google Apps suite pretty quickly, too.

The other is a decent photo sharing service to rival Yahoo!’s Flickr. Google has Picasa Web Albums, which ties in with their free desktop photo manager (which is actually quite good) but there isn’t anywhere near the same power, flexibility or community elements that Flickr has.

Conclusion

Google provide a huge array of free tools to help you communicate and collaborate with others online. For many community groups and collaborative endeavours, this will be sufficient. The real gem is the Google Apps package, which for the price of a domain name will enable you to tie together a number of the services and provide a more tightly integrated experience for users.

But Blogger for me is too weak a blogging tool to be of much use to anyone but a real beginner, and I would recommend using WordPress.com instead as a free option. Also, until JotSpot is re-released, any wiki pages will have to be hosted on a non-Google site like Wikispaces. These are two areas that will need to be addressed before Google can be considered a one-stop community shop.

Further reading:

Google launches UK politics site

googleukpolitics Completely unrelated to the Google UK-hosted barcampukgovweb, I’m sure, but Google have launched a dedicated UK politics site, with lots of UK politics related widgets for your iGoogle page, and a YouTube channel. One of the widgets available is based on TheyWorkForYou, MySociety’s service to keep you up to date with what your MP is up to. Tom Steinberg mentions it on the MySociety blog:

There’s no doubt that this sort of modular re-purposing of our information is going to happen a lot more in the future, and it’s great to start out with the best of possible partners.

Good work all round.

The University of Wikipedia

Mike Butcher at Techcrunch UK reports on a University tutor banning her students from researching essays on the web:

The education world has pursued new technology with an almost evangelical zeal and it is time to take a step back and give proper consideration of how we use it.

Too many students don’t use their own brains enough. We need to bring back the important values of research and analysis.

Too right. Now, I’m a fan of Wikipedia and believe that, as a tool for getting a quick overview on the subject, it’s invaluable. I look stuff up on, and link to, Wikipedia time and time again. That doesn’t mean, however, that I would use it as a part of academic study. That’s no different from using Britannica as a basis for an essay or thesis, and surely nobody would do that?

The issue here isn’t Wikipedia, or Google, but the fact that the students in question are idiots.

Universities make incredible resources available to students through web catalogues in libraries, etc. However, maybe there is a lesson to be learned in terms of the ease of use of these systems – is that why students are turning to less academic sources? Or are they just being lazy?