What I’ve been reading

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

Bookmarks for April 28th through May 18th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for July 28th through August 5th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for April 19th through April 23rd

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • Open innovation, why bother? – 100% Open – "…if open innovation is to deliver sustainable business advantage then we need a better understanding of what motivates contributors to these initiatives, else there is a risk of a backlash against them…"
  • Docs.com – MS Office + Facebook beats Google Docs? Am not convinced!
  • TALKI – The easiest way to embed a forum – Embed a forum on your website – just like that! Users can sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts.
  • Government 2.0 Can and Must Save Money – "I think that the current shortage of resources and a sometimes dramatic budgetary situation can be a powerful incentive to make this change happen, to tap into the creativity of employees as well as external resources." YES!!!
  • Red Sweater Blog – Apple Downloads – VERY interesting – is Apple going to go down the App Store route for vetting Mac software now, too?
  • HTML5 presentation – "Slideshow-style presentation on HTML5 made using HTML5."
  • CDC Provides a Great Example of What Social Media Is About – "CDC’s strategy puts them in a better position to identify patterns where trust may be shifting elsewhere early enough to take action: many other agencies worldwide, which just care about publishing data and creating their Facebook pages, will be taken by surprise."
  • data.lincoln.gov.uk (beta) – Lincoln City Council start publishing data publicly – great work, and props to Andrew Beeken who must have driven this through.
  • Simplifying the social web with XAuth – "We think that XAuth can simplify and improve the social web, while keeping your private information safe. This is just one of many steps that Google is taking, along with others in the industry, to make the social web easier and more personalized."
  • Open Government and the Future of Public Sector IT – Great talk from Microsoft's Dave Coplin.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Great blogging on #localgovweb

Two great blog posts recently on the ever thorny issue of local government websites.

Firstly, Al Smith recounts his experience managing the refresh of Newcastle City Council‘s site. A remarkably honest and open appraisal of how it all went, and Al’s own role, it’s a great read and one for any local gov web manager to take a look at.

Secondly, Carl Haggerty – who is on blogging fire at the moment – has written a really thought provoking post on web strategy. He says:

What i think we need is a strategy for the web channel that actually talks about “Exploiting” the channel for business benefit and value creation and not a strategy that focuses on how we will build it, what technology we will use and what level of security we will apply. These are of course very important things but in my view should actually be contained within your organisations ICT Technical Strategies and not within the web strategy.

Great examples of blogging being used to share experience, knowledge and ideas. More of this, please.

2009’s top tech

Here’s a quick roundup of some things I’ve really started to get some use out of in 2009. Not necessarily services that were new to the last 12 months, but ones which became a vital part of my toolkit.

You’ll notice Google Wave isn’t on the list – for me, it’s still a great bit of tech in search of a problem to solve. The idea posited here, that it’s real value will be in the enterprise, is interesting.

Key things that come out of this list for me are:

  • For me to really love a service or application, it has to run nicely – preferably using a dedicated app – on the iPhone. It also needs to have a web interface, so I can access it using different computers.
  • I also prefer tools which interface nicely with the other things I use – silos for my information and content don’t really interest me.

1. Basecamp

Despite the fact that there are a lot of things about Huddle that I like more than Basecamp, I’ve found myself using the latter more and more in 2009. I think it is partially the email integration I like so much – the fact that people can take part in online discussions without having to leave their email client.

In 2010, though, I suspect that Huddle will break through into the government space, and that I’ll start using it a lot more. One reason for that will be the integration with Microsoft Office, which could be a real game changer.

Both Basecamp (unofficially) and Huddle now have iPhone apps, making them accessible in a usable format on the move.

2. Evernote

I have mentioned Evernote in a few posts before – it’s a very useful and clever little service. You create notebooks which contain note pages within them. All are synced in the cloud, so whether you access them via the desktop app, the iPhone app or the website, you can read and edit them wherever you are.

Great for storing quick notes, links to look up later, or even photos and audio notes. I use it a lot to jot down and develop ideas for blog posts.

3. Posterous and Tumblr

I’m going to cover these two in a dedicated post on ‘easy blogging’ soon. Both make it stupidly quick and easy to record content online. Both work brilliantly on mobile devices with apps (Tumblr) or excellent email integration (Posterous). Both seamlessly interact with other online services, like Flickr, Twitter and Facebook.

4. Mailchimp

If there is one technology that government really ought to be making better use o, then it’s email. Fine, lots of people moan about having too much of it, but given the option between getting an email or having to check a webpage, they’ll go for the addition to their inbox every time.

Email works on mobiles, is accessible and pretty much everyone knows what to do with it. Services like MailChimp – and there are others, like Campaign Monitor – make it easy to collect lists of email addresses and send messages out, tracking what people click on and how many people open the addresses.

I have a bigger post on email in the pipeline.

5. Yammer

Since joining the Learning Pool team, the problem of keeping communications working in a distributed workforce have become really apparent to me. But since we started using Yammer in a serious way across the company, those problems seem to have disappeared.

Yammer, for those that don’t know, is a Twitter-like service that is private for organisations. Authentication is based on your email address, so everyone on the same email domain can access that organisation’s Yammer stream.

It works really well, and the service is used for a true mixture of ‘what I’m doing today’ type updates, office banter, general messages and discussion. Kent County Council are also using Yammer to great effect – anyone else?

6. Skype

I’ve been using Skype for years, but never more than now. Part of that is for the same reason as for the use of Yammer – chatting to the Learning Pool guys, who are all heavy Skype users – but I’m now using it a lot to talk to family as well.

I’d put quite a bit of this down to hardware – all the computers in our house now have webcams built into them, which makes using services like Skype much easier and more effective.

7. Adium

Adium is a great little multi-protocol instant messaging client – which means that within the one application, I can chat to people using Google Talk, MSN, AIM, Yahoo! and Facebook.

Instant messaging is now something I use much more than before, and Adium makes that easy. IM is often seen as being a bit old hat these days, what with it being a fairly closed and usually one to one medium. But sometimes you need the immediacy, and, yes, the one to one-ness. These days more time seems to be spent communicating, which affects every medium.

8. Dropbox

I came to Dropbox late, but it is an awesome tool and probably the best cloud-based file storage solution. It adds a drive to your desktop computer, or your laptop, to which you can save files, which can then be retrieved on other machines via the web interface, or the iPhone app, or indeed the drive application if you have that installed elsewhere too.

Dropbox makes it a doddle for me to be able to access the files I am working on whether I am using my laptop or my desktop.

9. Delicious

I’ve been using it for years, but I’m starting to find more and more value in Delicious. Part of the reason is the huge number of links I now have in there, which I can access and search easily using the Firefox plugin, also the way it interfaces with other services, like the occasional blog post that pops up automatically here, to cross posting links to Twitter.

I’m also finding myself subscribing more and more to individual users’ accounts in Delicious, to see what they are bookmarking. It may seem rather old hat these days, but if you are interested in using the web as a learning tool, then social bookmarking is a vital part of the toolkit.

10. Wikipedia

There probably hasn’t been an hour that went by, when I was awake, during 2009 in which I didn’t refer to Wikipedia at some point. I’d never used it as a single source, or for any serious research (other than to follow up the links it references, perhaps) but to get the lowdown on a topic fast, it’s an astonishingly good resource.

I often mock it for its focus on tech and pop culture when I mention it in talks, but that is probably where I get most of my use out of it. Oracle want to buy Sun? What do Oracle actually do, anyway? Wikipedia make it dead easy to find out.

The decent council website – top 5 so far

There has been a great response to the What makes for a decent council website? experiment.

Here’s the top 5 at the end of the first day:

  1. Plain english – Jargon and acronyms should be kept to the absolute minimum, or if they must exist, they should be metatagged with common english counterparts eg. Penalty Charge Notice should be crossindexed with parking fine and parking ticket.
  2. Services not portals – Services that poke you when something of interest happens and help you sort something out when you are annoyed. Council websites should not be destinations/portals.
  3. A home page that gets you to where you want to go quickly – The home page should have a list of links that cover the main user tasks, as well as allowing the user to search by keyword, subject area, and offer predictive results as they type.
  4. Test the site before launch – This should be a no-brainer, but sadly it appears not to be. Yes there will always be problems no matter how much testing is done, but NEVER launch a site without ensuring that the majority of links work and that most of the pages contain content.
  5. Have people that respond to users’ suggestions – Use http://getsatisfaction.com to collect problems and suggestions in one place. Then have people employed to answer them, and engage in a conversation about the most interesting ones.

So, some good stuff, and there are even more ideas on the site. Keep them coming!

I’ll keep the site open til the 20th September, after which I will cobble all the thoughts together, along with comments and votes into a document everyone can share.

What makes for a decent Council website?

After the kerfuffle over the Birmingham City Council website, as expertly documented by Paul Canning, there has been a considerable amount of discussion about what a Council website should look like, and what it should actually do.

This isn’t just an academic debate, as some local authorities have been making some really innovative steps in redesigning their sites, such as the search dominated Westminster and Lancashire sites – which I quite like; and the personalised Redbridge and Nottingham sites – which I am less keen on.

There are, it seems to me, three main groups which have a view on council websites, in particular order: citizens in the area who use the site, internal staff, and the wider world of interested folk (I hesitate to say ‘experts’).

So I wondered how the third group might go about putting a wishlist together of features that a Council website really ought to have, and perhaps of deciding which are the most important. These could then be documented somewhere so that Councils have a free point of reference of some good quality advice on where they should go with their website.

So I have set up a page on IdeaScale, which is a bit like UserVoice only it has a few more collaborative features. You can find it at:

http://localgovweb.ideascale.com/

It is straightforward enough to submit an idea and then vote on it and others, you can comment on ideas and even edit them collaboratively, using wiki like features.

So do come and join in, leave your ideas and let people know what you make of theirs, and let’s build a really useful wishlist for what makes for a decent Council website.

What I use

Sometimes it’s nice to hear what tech people use on a day to day basis. It’s useful to pick up hints and tips, and to pick up on cool tools you might not have heard of before.

Here’s my day-to-day kit:

1. Hardware

I have a 15 inch MacBookPro for travelling with, a 24 inch iMac for when I am in the office, and a Samsung NC10 for when I need two machines at the same time (for instance when I am out social reporting).

The iMac has a second screen, the main use of which I will come onto later.

I have a Kodak all in one printer, a Nikon D40 DSLR, a couple of Flip Ultras, a couple of GorillaPods, a MicroTrack II which I never use and an iPhone.

2. Software

In terms of desktop software, those that I use the most are:

  • Firefox – with all the plugins available for it, still the best browser by miles. Maybe when Chrome is out on the Mac I might reconsider, but until then…
  • Tweetdeck – I used to be a Twhirl man, but Tweetdeck has won me over recently, despite the large amount of screen real estate it takes up.
  • Yammer – Yammer is Twitter within an organisation – it’s limited to people on the same email domain. The Learning Pool team use it to keep one another up to date and as the official banter and abuse channel. The desktop app makes it easy to keep on top of it all.
  • Parallels – this makes running virtual machines on the Mac a doddle. Means I can run Windows XP virtually, which is handy for testing in Internet Explorer and other things which have to be done in Windows. On my iMac, it’s Windows that runs in full screen on my second monitor. Sweet.
  • Transmit – an FTP client that rocks.
  • Coda – a great code editor with built in FTP goodness.
  • MarsEdit – a blog post editor. For some reason it just makes writing posts quicker.
  • Photoshop Elements – for image and photo editing. This cut down version seems to do everything I need. Still not cheap, so I only have this on the iMac.
  • Pixelmator – a cheaper image editor than Photoshop, which I have on the MBP.
  • iCal – default Mac calendar app. Does the job for me.
  • Skitch – A simply awesome screenshot programme. So simple and a joy to use.
  • Skype – keeps the telephone costs down. There are more open VOIP systems out there, but the people I need to talk to are all on Skype, so…
  • Microsoft Office – sadly it’s still a must have.
  • MAMP – turns a mac into a web server with a couple of mouse clicks. Great for developing sites locally.
  • Omnigraffle – brilliant diagramming application. Like Visio, but good.
  • iTunes – manages all my music and backs up my iPhone. I use it because I have to, but it’s ok.
  • Internet Explorer versions 6-8 – under Parallels in XP, I use this application to run multiple versions of IE for website testing.

3. Sites and Services

My web based activity is mainly spent using:

  • Gmail – the best email interface, like, ever. I have loads of different email addresses feeding into the one account and managing them all is a dream. I use the Apps version, tethered to my domain.
  • Google Docs – great for quickly typing up ideas and sharing them with people – though I still prefer a desktop word processor for big documents.
  • Twitter – still visit the website now and again, mainly to find and follow new people.
  • Google Reader – at the last count, I follow about 700 feeds. Reader makes it possible, without going mad.
  • WordPress – the online publishing platform of the gods.
  • Ning – even with some of the accessibility issues, it’s still the easiest way to build a community online.
  • Delicious – the biggest social bookmarking community and that makes it the best, in my view.
  • MobileMe – an Apple service that keeps my calendar and contacts synched across all my computers, the web, and my iphone, without me having to do anything. Nice one!
  • Flickr – the only photo sharing site worth using? Possibly. It;s the one I have been using for 4 years or so now, so I am not going to change any time soon!
  • YouTube, Blip.tv and Vimeo – unlike with photos or bookmarks, choosing a video host isn’t quite a no brainer, depending on the length of your clips, the levels of privacy you need or the quality you require.
  • Facebook – despite Twitter’s ascendancy, I still use Facebook most days. It’s mainly my non-geek friends that are there, and it’s important to remember that not everyone is on the bleeding edge…
  • LinkedIn – my network here is growing day by day – but I’m still not sure what value I get out of it. Worth keeping up with though, just in case.
  • Google Groups – a dead simple way of getting an email list together. It isn’t hip, but it does work.
  • Huddle – online project management. Great for keeping groups of people up to date with activity.
  • Basecamp – sometimes Huddle is just too good, and a less feature rich service is needed. Hence Basecamp, which can annoy as much as it delights, but it’s email integration is excellent.

So that’s what I use on regular basis. It would be good to know what other people are up to, to see if I can steal some ideas!