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!

Now, this is nice

Steph has posted about the work he has been doing getting the Power of Information Taskforce report online for interested folk to comment on it before it gets published. It’s a lovely piece of work:

It is in fact a new theme, not the usual CommentPress which has been lying dormant for quite a while. As Steph says:

I think this is a small step forward from CommentPress and CoComment in terms of accessibility, Javascript independence and browser compatibility. It’s also marginally less laborious and slightly more purpose-built than the approach Ofcom took to their commentable consultations. And hopefully its muted style is slightly more pleasing to aesthetes than tools like CommentOnThis.

Best of all, the theme has been made available for other people to use – you can grab it from here.

This post is clearly about medium rather than message, so I’ll comment on the report itself some other time 😉


Steph has released some details of his short survey of the blocking of useful websites within the public sector. The following figures show the percentages of organisations which allow access to each type of site:

Google 100%
LinkedIn 100%
NetMums 100%
Wikipedia 97%
Digg 97%
Google Reader 91% 89%
Yahoo account 86%
Flickr 83%
Twitter 83%
Bebo 69%
YouTube (able to see well) 63%
Gmail 60%
Facebook 54%

The worst offending organisations seem to be:

  • DWP
  • Directgov (DWP)
  • Surrey County Council
  • ‘A north east council’
  • Environment Agency
  • MOD
  • FCO
  • Home Office

And Steph concludes by saying:

Does DIUS or Cabinet Office have staff any more or less likely to waste time than the Home Office or DWP? Is ’security’ more important in Surrey than Devon? Might the good burghers of Directgov benefit from a bit more exposure to the social web? Would people at FCO tasked with engaging around the world be helped by being able to view more of the World Wide Web?

You decide. Or you could always pop your CV on LinkedIn to find an opening somewhere that actually lets you do your job?

I have spoken to a number of people about this issue. The reasons giving for blocking that are given by IT departments are quite often laughable: network overload? Increased risk of viruses? The truth is that the reason why these tools are blocked is because organisations don’t trust their staff not to abuse them. It sucks.

More DIUS innovation

Another bit of top notch, innovative digital participation work has come out of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and again it is WordPress magic. This time though, there are all sorts of different bits built into it.

Steph Gray, the main social media man at DIUS explains more:

Some consultations are basically dull. Some are politically-charged. Some are hurried. So when the Science and Society consultation came sauntering along, it was clear this was an opportunity too good to miss. It’s a genuine call for ideas, casting the net wide to improve the way that science is communicated, understood, taught, and recruited for. What can we do to improve trust and confidence in scientists? How can we get more high quality science broadcasting and more intelligent media coverage of science issues? How can science be taught in school in more engaging ways? Interesting stuff.

The main difference between this site and the Innovation Nation one, it seems to me, is that in the latter’s case, the white paper had been written and the consultation done, so the online exercise was more about fine tuning and maybe developing some ideas on how things might be progressed. What Science and Society offers, though, is the chance to have your say before the document is written.

As Simon Dickson notes, one of the key bits of new media funkiness on show is the ability for folk to widgetise the consultation for their own websites. DIUS is asking a whole range of different questions about the way science is taught in schools and elsewhere and provides the platform for others to republish the questions they are interested in so their readers can feed back into the process. It’s a great idea, and fits in totally with my thoughts on trying to improve participation by making government a bit more interesting.

Simon says:

It’ll be fascinating to see what kinds of responses this move produces. I’m still a bit wary of the whole Big Questions approach to consultation: my own feeling is that the constant, small-scale exchanges around a well-managed blog will build something more valuable. But if Big Questions are the way you’re going, this is a very clever way to drive them further.

Other cool bits include a Twitter account, for a bit more responsive interaction, and an embedded Google Calendar so people can find when related events are happening.

Tim Davies also picked up on the site, and noted approvingly:

This approach of enabling citizens to easily take, remix and re-publish government consultations to their networks is worth exploring in many more contexts – not least in promoting positive activities, enabling young people to take, remix and share information about positive activities in their areas with their networks.

DIUS are clearly leading the game in government when it comes to digital participation. The reason they can do this, as Steph has noted elsewhere is because they have the resources to do so. The tech stuff is free or at least damn cheap, but you need the man-power to get it approved and embedded. There is plenty for everyone to learn from DIUS’ example.