I confess I have wondered just what niche Instagram fills in the social media ecosystem, so I was very interested to listen to John TassPa who came to talk to us yesterday.

His enthusiasm was infectious – he outlined the evolution of the photo sharing app and shared some fascinating examples of how public sector organisations are using it.  Instagram’s aim is to enable people to “capture and share moments” and it was fueled by the wish to be able to capture and share immediately – the possibility of which was made real by the near ubiquity of smartphones.

Some key facts and milestones: over 200 million people use the app worldwide. It started off as something for iPhone users, but an android app was launched in 2012. Facebook acquired it in 2012. The audience is primarily young (or at least young at heart as John added!)

Some of the channels key values are Community first, Simplicity matters, and inspire Creativity. It was clear how these aims are delivered from the examples talked about. When instagram first launched they made a huge effort to contact photographers and offer them the opportunity to showcase their work. Thus it didn’t start as an echoing empty place, but was already filled with the sort of content they hoped others could create and add. The app itself is apparently very simple to use (I’ll have to get back to you on that….. although I did notice a twitter exchange  from @billt that raised a question that didn’t sound so simple!) and the creativity element is enhanced by the availability of a range of filters which photographers can apply to their images to lift them out of the mass of ordinary snapshots.

On to the examples – unsurprisingly, the channel has been used by tourism bodies who want to expose great images of the regions they are responsible for – the Australian Tourism body pit out a call to people to use a specific hashtag. They then contact the photographers and curate their content in a gallery. Canada copied this, as did Israel and Iceland. The US department of the interior did similar – although their specific action was to encourage their own park rangers to contribute images. The US coastguard shares control of their main channel with different regional stations, so viewers can get a sense of activity all around the States. And a final US example – and one I’ll definitely take a look at – Boston Public Library – an account to explore!

Boston Public Library on instagram

Boston Public Library on instagram

Instagram is encouraging organisations to be creative in other ways. One technique is to identify photographers on the channel who already have a number of followers, and inviting them to take part in specific events to generate new content. Examples of this include a Canadian Regional tourism board who invited a group of instagrammers from around the world on a visit to their state and curated the content they produced. A current example closer to home is the team managing the NATO summit taking place in Wales. They invited a 17 year old instagrammer to become part of the official press pack and cover the summit. Besides getting a range of different photographs, they have also gained a lot of free positive publicity for this.

NATO wales on instagram

NATO wales on instagram

My own Department DFID also scored an instagram “first” with a campaign it ran around the recent Girl Summit in London. Instagrammers were invited to upload short videos in which they described what freedom meant to them (using the hashtag #freedomis) and the team created a short video of the best clips. Again, lots of good publicity and interest in the process – plus a wide variety of actual submissions.

Girl Summit instagram video

Girl Summit instagram video

The session was wrapped up with some examples of public figures who are using instagram to show their more human side. One comment about the best accounts – its what they see, not about seeing them. People including the italian tourism minister Dario Franceschini, and the Mayor of Los Angeles.

Bottom line – instagram is an overwhelmingly positive channel – favourite of the smartphone owner who just wants to flick through lots of colourful, eyecatching content. The words/captions attached are almost incidental, and its actually quite hard, if not impossible to search for content if you are not a member of the community. I can now understand though how it is helping brands to build on trends, and to raise awareness of a topic or theme.

In conclusion, while I’m not planning to completely change my photo taking and sharing habits overnight, the talk proved again to me the mantra that you need to participate in a channel to really understand how it works. I still have lots of questions, so I may well set up an account.

Following a tweet from @lelil about the Carnegie Library Lab project in Scotland I was encouraged to go public about my own research.
For several years now I’ve been trying to track down and record all the libraries built in England and Wales with funding from Andrew Carnegie, in particular recording their current status.

My connection with these buildings started when I was a child in Kendal, where I remember the stairs to the children’s library on the first floor of the imposing red stone library on the high street.

Entrance to Kendal Carnegie Library

Entrance to Kendal Carnegie Library

Collecting postcards of libraries has also given a boost to my research, although dealers seldom have a separate section for libraries, which means hours are spent flicking through their geographic collections. Makes it even more valuable when you find something!

Having Carnegie as a focus has led to some interesting days out and detours while on holiday, from visiting parts of London I’m unfamiliar with, or collecting 8 in one long weekend in Yorkshire. I always photograph the buildings (click on the tag “carnegie” to filter just the Carnegie buildings) and go inside if they are open. Talking to the library staff has often gleaned useful nuggets of information about the history and boosted my collection by many leaflets, photocopies of newspaper clippings and even books.

I once tried to use the power of social media to track down information about libraries and their current status, and was contacted by a handful of librarians who filled in the gaps about some of the libraries on my list.
I also contacted the team behind volume 3 of the Cambridge University Press book: A History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland and while they generously shared their background data, I unfortunately misplaced the CDs when I moved house…… Sure they will turn up when I finally unpack all my boxes…….

Holidays have often meant stumbling across tiny parts of the Carnegie legacy in unexpected places: Barbados (now unfortunately closed as the stone building is in a poor condition) where I researched my grandad’s landing after being torpedoed during ww2; Dominica where the beautiful wooden building has wide verandas on all sides to catch the breeze, and was bustling and crowded on the morning of our visit, Rheims in Frances, where the stone built library is an Art Deco gem, and Mauritius, where the taxi driver said I was the first tourist ever to ask him to take them to the Carnegie library in Curepipe.

I read Carnegie Libraries across America – a public legacy, by Theodore Jones which gave me a list of the many thousands built there, and have been updating that status list too. I’ve also found websites about the legacy in numerous individual states, plus Canada, a book following a photo exhibition in Ireland, and thorough website listing those in Scotland, but nothing traced which collates the legacy in England and Wales bar a 1970s dissertation (which even being by an alumni of my own college and held by cilip I haven’t been able to see (to their credit, both organisations would have let me visit and consult……but unfortunately that has meant time I haven’t yet had spare)).

Hence my own research, which currently sits on my own computer in various folders and documents. The next challenge is to work out a way of sharing this information. Besides publishing my own photos on flickr, I’ve also published some on the Waymarking site, but that template does demand a wealth of information about the location, which I don’t always know. Neither of these options are suitable for postcards, especially those which may still be in copyright. I looked at wikipedia, where there are the bare bones of information, but it would take more wiki-expertise than I posses to turn that list into the sort of resource I have in mind. I attempted a database, but various glitches have meant so far it has not been entirely successful.
So, now I’ve heard about the Scotland project, perhaps there is someone out there I can pool resources with?

My favourite Carnegie? Those that are still open and in use, perhaps with sympathetic alterations or extensions to make the building suitable for modern use.
Also like those that have been put to another use, as museums, art galleries or even just as offices.
Saddest are to see those that are boarded up and falling into disrepair, becoming even more familiar with the current round of cuts and closures. Even more important to document and record them while still standing.
Finally any of the research projects, whether books or websites, are important to remember those which have been demolished. Before they fade from memory, I think it is important to document the legacy of a man who in his time was richer than Bill Gates, but determined to give away all his fortune.

Notes from a fascinating workshop hosted at the National Audit Office in April.

Nick Halliday opened the workshop by introducing the data analytics framework in NAO.
Start with understanding what you have, who owns it, are you actually in a position to publish or republish?
Does anyone really know all the data that exists around their organisation?
NAO ran an internal data hack, used examples to draw out more data sets and help people think through what might be able to be done with them.
Whole process helped generate more ideas about doing different things with their data.
Question about appetite. Transparency has generated more interest and there is a growing demand from journalists. Often people are interested in the raw data that sits behind the tables that orgs publish eg in annual reports.
Question about formats: across government there are an awful lot of PDFs, but we’re seeing a gradual move to more open formats.

Highlights:

  • what story are you trying to tell
  • what are the key messages, is the central message clear. It takes experienced journalistic approach to look at a lot of rough data and see the story tools and training
  • what do users actually want – are you publishing just because you want to share or have seen a cool tool

Other refs:
ODI blog: Five stages of data grief.
Data journalism handbook – free open source reference book

Next presenter: Nick Bryant, head of design at ONS
He shared their experiences in developing infographics. First, a definition: Self contained visual story presenting information, data or knowledge, clearly with meaning and context, without bias.

If you search google, you get over 20 million results. There are a lot out there, which could indicate appetite, but also possible saturation.
To make yours stand out, you need to work hard and look at using different channels to disseminate them.
The story for ONS started in 2011 (back when a search only returned half a million results).
Article in the independent Hot Data: the art of the infographic – mentioned some of the pioneers: David McCandless – Information is beautiful, Guardian data team etc.
Need to trust your design instincts.
There was an element possibly of distrust – have to make sure data is reliable, the graphic won’t hide or mislead.
They tested the water in 2012 with a couple of simple ones, starting to think about a house style and consistency, while still experimenting with different models.
By 2013 starting to take off. Raised visibility across the office, which led to questions about differentiation between infographics and other info products. Do they add value? Better not just to duplicate. Find a new angle where the infographic is the best way to tell the story.

Looked outwards. BBC global experience language was a good pointer, evidence that having clear guidance that people follow means outputs will look more professional. Consistency is key.
ONS published their Infographics guidelines.
Included all parts of the process, including getting the right people involved in the team from the start, getting the story clear, and agreeing sign off routes. Reinforced the need to be consistent with design elements: accessible colours, consistent use of fonts.

Ref Design Council publication: Leading business by design.

Martin Nicholls (@martyandbells) heads up editorial team in digital publishing at ONS.
First point: content is king. If the data doesn’t contain the story, don’t try and force it.
Collaboration is queen. Editorial and designers can only produce material when working closely with statisticians and data experts. Need them to make sure the data is not being misinterpreted.

Golden rules
Everything created has to be for people: they want people to engage with it, understand it. How? Use the vocabulary real people use. Recognise that content has to be crafted, can’t simply be harvested. Don’t just cut and paste text others have produced.
Aim to be interesting, but sensation free.
Add human elements, and look for the international context.
Apply news value – what is being reported at the time.
Agree objectives and target audience with the business areas before you start to create.

Correlation doesn’t imply causation (ref chart with numbers of storks and babies being born in Oldenburg!) don’t always aim for the biggest number. [since then, have seen the fascinating site Spurious Correlations which provides many illustrations of this]

Take care with headlines. Basic stats publications tend to have dry factual titles. Be alert to how infographics can highlight slightly odd angles.

How to measure success?
Syndication is a good marker. If others use your infographic, that is seen as a success.
Social engagement, how are people reacting on twitter. Either love or hate, people who are indifferent don’t tend to comment.
Internally, if people want to work with you again that is a good measure. Especially among statisticians who tend to be divas! (Think their data is already cool.)

Recognise different needs of different audiences. Those who engage with statistical releases are very different to public with a passing interest.

Recognise there is no silver bullet. It is impossible to have a short checklist which will guarantee great content every time.

Next presenter was Will Moy from FullFact.org
Recognise they are on a journey. Stories that aren’t good enough don’t get retold. Brevity is key. Don’t waste people’s time.
Shared the example where they were asked to live fact check the debates between Farrage and Clegg.
Pressure helps you develop skills in clarity when people have an agenda to push. Often their [Full Fact’s] role is to explain that things aren’t quite as simple as people may want you to believe. Not contrasting right and wrong, more about showing shades of grey.
The debate gave them the chance to test new toy. As the video of the debate runs, each fact check explanation pops up.

New tech means they can be much more engaging. But they also tend to keep it extremely basic, illustrate a single fact or definition. They draw out full picture. Things that make headlines are dramatic changes, which if you then look more closely, it’s explained by seasonal peaks. Tells you that you should always look at trends rather than individual steps. Good idea to add keys and notes to charts.

Key point: infographics don’t have to be hugely complex things. Can be just the right data presented in the right way to get the right message across to the right people.

Reinforced point made by earlier speakers about using the vocabulary that the audience is using. Retail price index or cost of living?

Ref book: The tiger that isn’t: seeing through a world of numbers. by Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland.

Talks about clusters, which can always be found if you look, but don’t necessarily lead to facts.

Mentioned the danger in averages: The average person only has one testicle………

The challenge is in finding the stories that people want to tell their friends.
Key though is trustworthiness. Challenge is for example when a fact is provided, and it says ‘source ONS’ and doesn’t send you directly to the specific fact or data set.

Ref balance between time spent on publication and time spent on conversation. Eg spending a lot of time on preparing the perfect infographic compared to thinking time around answering the questions people are actually asking when you publish something.

Alan Smith (@theboysmithy) ONS Data visualisation centre.
Together with Rob Fry, talked about interactive infographics.

Started with quote from Simon Rogers, formerly guardian data blog: “ONS has incredibly useful data on its website, but also has world’s worst website…..”

Andrew Dilmott talks a lot about citizen users. They are different from traditional users, as people like the Treasury and banks would work out what they needed and work out how to get it.
Visualisation not really aimed at specialists, they are for the more casual visitors. Eg the best visualisations cause you to see something you weren’t expecting.
Shared the example of recent New York Times interactive infographic around dialect and vocabulary which resulted in a map.
It was the most popular NYT item that year, even though only released 21 December.
Why? It was visual, personal, and social. Immediately you got a response to your actions, you could share it.

Talked through some interactives that they produced, the first of which was around 2011 census data. It allowed comparisons between cities and ways of comparing the data by overlaying or showing scale.
Similarly, the team used the data to tell their own story, and added value by including context.

Another interactive was on the annual survey of hours and earnings The statistical release looks at overall trends, gaps between male and female etc. But what about other stories? For the team, there were geographic examples, where plotting the numbers on a map showed some obvious pockets. But much more dramatic when you skew the map to show where jobs actually are. However, much harder then to understand what you are looking at. Their solution was to show both maps side by side.

Question of skills – how do you learn them?
Team in Hampshire are hosting a conference on the graphical web, supported by W3C. August 27-30th. Theme is visual storytelling.

Tom Smith (@_datasmith) Oxford consultants for social inclusion.
Talked about data for social good

Concept of open data: Government publishes increasing amounts of open data which is available for reuse. There is a common belief that this is a one way street, lots of publishing with no sense that it might deliver benefits, and a reliance on an army of armchair hackers who may or may not actually make something of it.
BUT there are already some really good examples of good things being done with data.
UK probably leading the world in open data (or at least up among the leaders) Open Data Institute, and open data user group doing good work. ODUG recently published set of case studies.

Shared the case study of Community insight – a tool based on open data for housing associations to start basing service decisions on data. OCSI worked with the housing associations to find out what their needs were.

Had to be simple, to be used by housing officers. Contained lots of maps. Not sticking to govt boundaries, eg need their own definitions. Needed to be able to generate reports.

Then he talked about closed data.
Sometimes this is for legitimate reasons, but there are issues around how the data is used, perhaps about allowing limited access. Its not necessarily always about publishing the data. Departments who hold the data could use it to answer questions, without giving out the actual data itself. An example might be the percentage of people whose circumstances changed after a particular intervention.

Referenced the ONS virtual microdata lab. Controlled access allowed to academics and other authenticated users to the raw data that ONS holds.
There are conditions of use: has to be lawful, support public benefit and what you pull out has to be non-sensitive.

Ministry of Justice did something similar to allow access to data on re-offending. The potential of closed data is a good counter balance to the power of open.

Dan Collins (@dpcollins101) from GDS
Data, information and the user.

Dan is one of two data scientists at GDS, and introduced the main work areas of GDS: GOV.UK, transformation exemplars, assisted digital, user research, IT reform, performance and delivery.

He sits in the latter, focusing on measurement and analytics.
So what does a data scientist do?
Estimate probabilities, statistical learning theory, data visualisation and task automation.
In reality, most of the job is data collection and cleaning.

Introduced the performance platform. Aim is to give simple and clear access to the performance of services. Gives real time info to service owners, but also transparent and available to all.
Aim is to combine data sources, from back office systems, from call centres, from web stats and social media.

Raised question around whether data needed a narrator? Subject matter experts know their data, but not necessarily best people to talk about it to others.

He is currently working on DCLG data – not just on the data specifically, but looking at what skills are needed in the dept to do this sort of thing, and what technical blockers there are.
He shared an example which allowed for a lot of filtering and displaying London Fire Brigade data. This would otherwise just be a massive spreadsheet and it would be virtually impossible to spot patterns.

Nick Smith (@geckoboard and @nickwsmith)

Was originally going to talk about building better dashboards, but evolved to how to use dashboards more effectively. (Focus is on using the geckoboard products.)

Geckoboard is a startup which aims to bring data from different systems together into a dashboard. Their dashboards pull together data sources and display data in real time. Must be simple to use.

Shared five insights:

  • First, need to understand why. Eg what are you trying to achieve by using data to tell a story. Maybe it’s an issue about accessing up to date information, or data is lost in lots of different places.
  • Second, decide what matters. Don’t just communicate “because I can” Need to gather and share metrics that contribute to overall objectives. All else is vanity metrics.
  • Third, try to kill vanity metrics, they are not actionable.
  • Fourth, good stories evolve, as do good dashboards. Organisations don’t stand still, people come and go, objectives evolve.
  • Finally, ignore him! Sometimes it’s right to trust gut instincts, work out what is valid and valuable for your own organisation.

Martin Stabe (@martinstabe) Interaction team at Financial Times
Martin closed the session with a highly engaging talk – introducing this topic as a weird new sub genre of journalism.
Described FT as a typical news organisation not famous for depth of statistical knowledge.
A data journalism team needs three types of people: computer assisted reporter, data visualisation specialist, eg graphic designer who works with numbers, and web person, who probably works elsewhere not in the news room. The aim is to bring those people together and get them working on specific projects.
Not a new thing – journalists do dig into statistics to find stories. This has been going on for longer in the US and Scandinavia, as tradition of access to public data has longer history there.
Early example shown from pre computer days, was a story illustrating racial distribution in Atlanta, compared with banks lending data. In that story, map was a tiny part of the story. Data journalism about rigorous reporting based on data.
Pretty pictures not necessarily the aim. Best reporting using statistical analysis may just include a couple of clear charts to illustrate the story that has been discovered.

So, what is new?
In the UK in particular, it’s access to data. Since 2000 FOI act, start of acceleration. Also, the evolution of the web – being able to publish content that is truly useful to readers. This has supported a range of new ways of telling the story.
Traditionally the choice was either explanatory or exploratory. Now both can be offered. Martini glass narrative structure: Big picture, then we walk you through a narrow channel, they we turn the whole database over to you.
Can do both near and far views, national and local.
Opportunity for personal relevance – eg extracting your school from the national stats.
Integration with social media – story can be shared with friends.
Again, different from traditional view that news is tomorrow’s fish wrapper. Digital products are reusable and have longer lifespan.

Shared a slightly more light hearted example, which used mortality data to calculate the likelihood you might live to see King George VII.

Another example was a calculation to work out the value of twitter just before it launched in stock exchange. Hid most of the tricky stuff, but gave people a couple of variables to tweak. And a similar exercise to work out what your personal data was worth.

In order to do their job, they need high quality open public data, that is free to use. They have to be able to access it fast, and it needs to be analysable, openable and reusable.

Note, data journalists are weird. They don’t want tidy tables, they don’t want to read the stuff you release, they want raw data that they can load into a tool to manipulate it. Eg they prefer CSV Nb they also need the look up files which help understand the data.

What next?
UK data explorer, set of tools for exploring UK public data. Mass produced interactives, scripts written once, so any new versions of the data can simply be uploaded.

If you are just updating a time series, could have automated stories (which would leave journalist free to do proper analysis.) Example shown of Washington Post and job statistics every month. Los Angeles Times has a similar scraper which takes data from USGS earthquake notification service, and writes a basic story on data. Can produce something virtually immediately after the data is available.

And that was it – a fascinating afternoon with a wide range of interesting speakers. Data and visualisation is a topic that is really causing a buzz at the moment – and these speakers combined to show that doing it right rather than doing it for the sake of it is key. And its not as easy as perhaps the simple output might indicate.

If you are interested to see any of the slidesets, ONS have published them.

 

Buzzfeed has generated a lot of interest since it launched quietly in the UK in March 2013.
Luke Lewis, UK editor, shared his thoughts on what makes a good story, and how the site works.

Almost feel I should try to write the rest of this post in Buzzfeed style……. 13 tips to change your life…… or something. Bit contrived though – so key points follow, plus some tips.

Their aim is to create content that people want to share.
Majority of views come via sharing, majority of those come from Facebook
UK reported audience of around 16 million. This is between 10-20% of global audience
Popular content tends to the slightly bizarre, quirky. Tend to have a number in the headline, and be highly visual.
They don’t have online galleries that you have to click through – images all displayed at once.
N0 display advertising, page is clean and images take centre stage.

Make content shareable

  • Eg set of photos from Russia: add some context, which brings the story to an audience previously not interested or engaged.
  • In many cases, authors can just let the images do the work.
  • The Buzzfeed CMS was built to facilitate making lists.
  • Central team does commission content from mainstream journalists, eg Daniel Knowles who writes for the Economist. It was interesting to compare his usual style with a list format – in this case on house prices. Leads to a different sort of engagement.
  • Shareable means mobile friendly. That’s a big element of things going viral.
  • Also – remember the Buzzfeed community. Anyone can create a profile and contribute content. Note: its very easy to get it wrong. Don’t try too hard to be “buzzfeedy”. It is possible to cover serious topics in a different way. Not everything has to have a cat gif.

Be alert to hoaxes
Luke shared the recent example of a photo which claimed to be of a snake that had swallowed a person – turned out not to be true. Plus photos of snow in Egypt. Debunking viral things can actually be quite viral.

Use humour
Always be alert to the humorous angle. But as already said, you can use the Buzzfeed format to shed a different perspective on serious topics.

Use data
Look at the tools people use, look at how stuff gets shared. Buzzfeed monitor where readers are coming from, what they do once on the site. The vast majority of their views come via Facebook.

Care about the headlines
Headlines are the bait to draw readers in. The Buzzfeed CMS has option of testing two or three headlines to see which works best. Some sort of early testing is always worth doing even informally among colleagues.

Think visually
Echoes comments made above – look for new ways of shedding a different perspective on a topic.

NOTE: Some things never change. Some of their stories come about through traditional reporting, those skills don’t change.

Haven’t published a blog for ages, which is definitely not a reflection of lack of activity. I’ve attended some thought provoking events, read some inspiring stories of progress in the digital world, and have made some not unsubstantial steps in my own work.
However, all of the notes, thoughts and experiences have never made it here – which has actually become a minor source of annoyance (for me!) Hadn’t realised how much I use my own blog as a diary and aide memoire for people and things, until I stopped producing it…… so here goes, back with renewed intent, I plan to publish a short series of notes and write ups – some long overdue, covering:

  • digital in government (definitions, progress of others)
  • digital in DFID (digital panel, digital event, thoughts on capability building)
  • networks (Whitehall and Industry Group, More Tea Vicar)
  • events (visit to vodafone campus)
  • and the odd noteworthy presentation I’d like to store up to refer to again (Buzzfeed).

And this post serves as an aide memoire to that intention!

Feeling the sense of relief when something you have worked towards for a long time reaches a significant milestone. Tuesday saw the first meeting of DFID’s digital advisory panel. First mentioned as an idea when we went through the process of drafting our first digital strategy, it has taken a while to canvas nominations, appoint a chair, and start thinking through a programme of work. But this week, I’m just pleased we met. It wasn’t the whole group unfortunately, trying to find a date that all 9 could make proved impossible, but we did have five in the room, one via video link, plus myself and the chair.

Following introductions (and it honestly is appropriate to use the word ‘awesome’ when you hear their CVs and experience), Tim Robinson, the chair set out his aspirations and I gave an overview of how we got here, and where our current activities are focused.
Next followed an hour of interesting questions and debate over the scope of their remit, medium vs short term goals, definitions/scope of digital and technology, … And agreement as to how the group will work together.

There will be a more formal post on the main/official DFID blog platform, with information on the members and their wide ranging and diverse careers [I’ll add the link once it is published].
Each member was chosen to represent different sectors, including academia, NGOs, entrepreneurship, private sector and philanthropic organisations, and judging by the level of questions and debate today, I’m expecting lively future meetings.
This panel is unique among government departments although the GDS/Cabinet Office did convene their own advisory group to inform the overarching strategy and GDS work.
The agenda and remit for ours will evolve and solidify, but in essence their role is to advise and challenge us, on both in house and external activities/commitments as set down in our digital strategy. Their collective voice will have the weight to request answers, and to commission more work, and I look forward to working with them all.

Have been in a bit of a blogging hiatus for a while, with lots of half complete drafts, some not able to be published yet, some simply overtaken by other events, but I’m hoping that this milestone and the meetings that follow will give new drive and momentum to both my own work and wider digital programmes at DFID. All positive in view of the challenge from our Secretary of State: “Since taking charge of my Department, I have been clear that technology and innovation will be a constant theme in my work at DFID, and that I expect to see the department making the most of the latest advances in technology and research. “

 

Update: Since I published this post, I have blogged on the main DFID platform to introduce the panelists.

At tea camp last week, we re-visited the topic of a digital press office.

Stephen Hale has published an excellent overview of the session with his thoughts in a bit more detail, but for those who want the flavour of what others said – read on. The session consisted of six planned lightning talks, and one which was added at the last minute!

Fist up, Lloyd Davis, first digital press officer in government – who reminded us about just how far things have evolved in a short time. He worked in Ministry of Justice in 2008, on a short project to explore what might be possible. Back then Number 10 had just launched their site on WordPress, and people were questioning use of twitter and YouTube. Obama visited and Lloyd live streamed from mobile phone. Lots of people saw all this as bizarre, but, gradually, started to look at how these tools could be used to build better relationships, in particular with journalists. He devised template for social media release, which it was thought might replace press releases. Main issues then were around press officers wanting to retain anonymity. They didn’t like the disruption of the relationship between individuals and journalists. There were fears about copyright. And other fears this was just a fad, why learn? it wasn’t going to stay around and wasn’t the kind of thing professional press officers should be doing.

Next on was Anthony Simon, head of digital at Number 10, who was accompanied by Alan Ross: a press officer. They have worked to break down barriers between traditional worlds of digital and press.
Alan started on this path back in 2010 in Home Office. He soon realised it wasn’t about a few tools, but about a change of attitude and approach . Press teams needed to be aware of immediacy, of opportunities for two way conversation social media offered. He introduced the idea of every comms plan having a digital element. Cuts meeting had a slot to cover what was going on online. He did a weekly report with stats to show range of coverage. Experimented with rebuttals, where initially people said don’t worry, no one is talking about this…… meaning nothing was appearing in mainstream press. Not realising that the story was out there, and actually there was a whole lot of blog and twitter traffic about it, none of which had the HO line.
At No 10, besides the main account, they also set up No 10 press, to engage directly with the media. They live tweet events, and PMQs. Current plans include encouraging press colleagues to be more creative about visits, making most of opportunities rich media offers. They use
Use twitter alongside traditional channels, but as amplifier, eg when contacting a broadcaster or journalist, besides direct sharing of lines and content, ask they retweet.
Anthony emphasised that the main thing is to look at capabilities: explore what are you trying to do, and then it’s up to departments as to how they configure themselves to reach those goals. Some separate teams work well, sometimes having a digital enthusiast embedded is needed to change the approach. Need both skill sets, they should complement each other.

Penny Fox and Verity Hanbrook from Defra followed. Penny is deputy head of news and digital, Verity is senior media officer – in a merged team. Don’t have either a press office or digital team, or marketing team etc.
Change has been about who is actually spoken to, press used to be extremely precious, only spoke to journalists. But gradually started to use tools, published own press content, eg news and speeches. Opened twitter account. Biggest step change was around badger cull. Did realise what the chatter was going to be, so got three cleared lines which they punted out all day on all channels. Got mixed reactions, but showed ministers and colleagues that level of engagement was possible, and had more benefits than risks.
All communications team have digital as part of core objectives. No longer have strategic comms team or marketing, so now have to work with a very mixed team. Planning always done with expert advice. Verity often involved as a supporter, encourage people to think of wide range of ways of reaching audiences, and first step is to think through who those audiences are!
Individuals encouraged to take a human approach, if one of the biggest detractors gets on a hobby horse, reason with them directly, has been shown to work.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and then evaluate. Once something does work well, create a process, or how to note, because then people feel more comfortable and confident.

Christine from Food Standards Agency talked about how they managed to kill, or at least tame the press release.
Digital and press have always worked closely together, but process was a bit crazy. Press would draft press release, editors would write news, press release cleared, web story not. So, as they worked together, the content and story was the same – potential confusion for recipients, definite duplication of effort. What is now produced is hosted as a news story, but shared in the same way a press release would have been, and also in many more channels. People are encouraged to think beyond the format, sometimes experts do YouTube or podcast interviews. Team work out how to share content that would traditionally just have been packaged for journalists and making it clear to all those interested in the topic.

Lizzie Bell from DfE was originally a press officer, moved to digital role around three years ago. She sits next to press office, but not integrated. One challenge is time, getting press officers off busy press desk even to do training is a challenge. Churn is a problem, have trained many who have left. Don’t always recognise the specialist skills that individuals have. People who can film and edit can’t always write, people who can write great speech can’t boil it down to 140 characters.
Why is this feeling such a big challenge? Lots of digital change happening across other bits of the dept, so why so different in news?
Press office is essentially about a private relationship with journalists, then about broadcast. Digital is about conversations, public, responding, continuous and sustained interaction.
She echoed Allan Ross. Need to stop just tacking social on to the end of news. Lots of examples in traditional media where news teams are gaining new skills to produce YouTube ready content and produce content specifically for digital news, recognising it is different from print proposition.
Better not to make digitising press offices sound like a massive shopping list of additional things for them to do, need to start thinking differently.

Stephen Hale from Department of Health has, as mentioned above, blogged his points eloquently – he both agreed and disagreed with Lizzie.
For me, the key paragraphs were:
“Press offices do need to get digital. Some press offices may need to accelerate the process of digitising while others have already transformed. But I don’t think the digital community need to take full responsibility for this process. We should own the overall strategy, offer advice, coach, cajole, run workshops and provide guidance. But, with a little bit of help, press officers – like other groups of our colleagues – will digitise themselves, because they will have to in order to do their jobs effectively.

Digital people should have confidence in the things that they do to provide real value to their organisation beyond the news agenda, which might mean running sustained digital engagement, developing policy engagement campaigns, product development and channel management, and all the other things that good digital people do.”

As also mentioned above, there was a late arrival tagged onto the end of the planned speakers: Betony Kelly, now at BIS, but spoke at teacamp a while ago when she was in her previous digital role, at a Bank. She was invited to share her thoughts now she is inside the civil service.
Her final thoughts on the press/digital question were that press officers really need to be left to get on with it, they will find their level and way of being effective. Just as you don’t put all your senior people in front of broadcasters, some people you just shouldn’t force.
Best to keep exploring: keep investigating what works, showcase and celebrate and evaluate it.

The first question was about the relationship between policy people and press: what about a specialist niche blogger with large followers, do press engage, or leave it to policy specialists?
I recognised lots of the responses that followed, as they are familiar in relation to the work I’m now doing around DFID’s digital strategy, as a lot of the work we grandly label as capability building, is really just supporting people to investigate their own digital environments, sharing the tools used to monitor, evaluate, and curate information. They will get to know their stakeholders, build networks – and possibly even other parts of the business will be able to use those networks to communicate too. Their skills will include knowing when you can respond to an expert in your field, and when to ask others to advise or support.

And PS, I haven’t forgotten my promise to report on the open data session from activate….. that will follow.

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