Find a problem, and fix it

There are a lot of problems out there that need fixing. Some are big, and complicated. Others are quite small, and simple.

Why not try picking one of the small and simple ones, and fix it?

Back in 2007, I started a new job in local government. I was a risk manager! I hadn’t been one of those before.

I needed to write a risk management strategy. So, in the best traditions of local government, I hit Google to find someone else’s that I could, er, take inspiration from.

Only, I couldn’t find anything useful. All my results were cluttered with non public sector stuff. What a pain.

So, I decided to fix this small, simple problem. I set up a customised search engine in Google, effectively feeding it a whitelist of sites to restrict the search to. My list was of all the URLs of UK local authorities.

Now, when I searched, I only got results back from organisations like mine. Lovely!

I put the search box on a website, where it resides to this day as LGSearch. You can give it a go yourself, if you like.

I do not claim that, even in 2007, this was a technological breakthrough of any particular sort. It was however a quick and dirty solution to an annoying problem, and it worked.

No need to build a new search index. No need to seek funding. No requirements for a programme board or any such thing.

What problem could you fix today?

Add LGSearch to your browser

LGSearch

LGSearch is a search engine for the UK public sector that I developed quite a while ago. It’s built on Google Custom Search, and isn’t particularly clever, but is rather useful.

Anyway, inspired by Simon’s recent efforts on behalf of DirectGov, I thought I would make it easy for Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 users to add LGSearch to the list of search engines they can access from within their browsers.

Simply click here to install LGSearch, or visit this page to find out more about it.

LGSearch update

LGSearch is something of an anomaly in my ‘portfolio’ of stuff I’ve made in that is actually works and is useful. I built it a couple of years ago while working as Risk Management Officer at a County Council. Essentially, I found it a pain in the neck to find relevant material online using traditional search engines, so I put my own together.

It’s based on Google’s Customised Search service, which requires you to provide a list of sites you want the search to be limited to. What I did originally was find an online list of all local authority sites and plug that in. This way, searching for a term generated results only from local government.

Later I developed things a bit further, adding in a variety of other public sector sites, such as those in central government, police, fire and health authorities and some of the organisations in and around government. Google helps here too: by categorising sites under the headings mentioned, users can then drill down into results by clicking a link to produce results from just, say, central government. Nice one.

The site has been pretty popular, with usage increasing as word gets around. Some councils have even embedded it in their own sites. There is a Google Group set up to manage requests for change, etc, which if you visit it, will show how terrible I am at keeping on top of it. Now I have some more time for this stuff, that will improve. There is also the list of sites searched, which could well be out of date. If you need changes made, email the list or just me.

Anyway, after all that introduction, I have today made a significant change to the site, long overdue, which has included various bits of social media to the search, including a load of blogs. These have all been added under the category of ‘social media’ so if you just want to search these sites, you can. The blogs added are (just pasting URLs as I am lazy):

Any heinous ommissions, let me know.

Every community needs a killer app

One of the key challenges to establishing a community is attracting engagement – not just getting the numbers in of people signing up, but getting them to actively take part. One step to achieve this is through gradual culture change, helped by active and properly targeted facilitation. Another is to create a reason for people to come to the site on a regular basis, in fact to make them come.

What do the following have in common?

  • Lotus 1–2–3 and the PC
  • Email and the internet
  • Google search and the world wide web

Easy, of course, the former in each bullet being the ‘killer app’ of the latter item. Lotus was such a good spreadsheet that people bought PCs just to run it. Email was a key reason for the growth of home web connections through the ‘90s. Google has made the web accessible for the masses.

So, to provide that reason for people to visit your community, you need to find it a killer app – something that your site does better than anyone else’s. Preferably, to extol the virtues of social media and online knowledge sharing (generally the raison d’être of online communities), this killer app should be open and possible to manage through the community.

So, what sort of things could we have as our killer app? I can think of two, both of which I have developed myself for the local government sector but which I didn’t tie to a wider community. I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t.

Firstly, customised search. Every sector under the sun is screaming out for one of these. Google and the other search engines are great at finding specific terms, but they have little understanding of context. LGSearch has had a tremendous impact in local government circles, especially when one considers the lack of promotion it received (a couple of blogs posts, the odd forum entry).

One of the first things you should do when building a community is to create the search engine. Just use Google Coop to start with, it’s easy but powerful (and free) and you can always sort out something else in time if it isn’t up to the job. Make sure the search is both embedded in your community’s home page and available at (say) a sub-domain so it can exist in its own right. Include plenty of cross referenced content between the search page and the community, to make it easy to explore.

Make the list of sites searched open to suggestion (possibly through a wiki) from community members – in other words, give people a reason to engage.

The second killer app is the wiki glossary. Every sector has its own jargon, acronyms, abbreviations, terminology and no one understands it all. This was the reason for the creation of localgovglossary between myself and Steve Dale, inspired by David Wilcox’s social media wiki glossary. These are great, because they are easy to understand, perfect for the wiki medium and are instantly useful.

Here’s an example of why wiki glossaries just work in terms of online knowledge sharing. One of the more regular contributors to localgovglossary is a chap called Duncan Ford, and the material he is posting are culled from notes he has been making for himself for years, whether on paper or in word documents. He’s seen several attempts to create an online glossary in the past, but the wiki format is the first to make it a viable enterprise.

Make the glossary wiki a publicly accessible key part of your community site. Being able to add to the wiki is a good reason for people to sign up, and once they’re, and used to the idea of knowledge sharing online, they will be more likely to engage in other areas of the site.

So, create a reason why people can’t not join your community. They don’t have to be either of the tools I mention above, but they are a couple of things that can be got off the ground very quickly and have instant rewards.