October 2010

Hard to believe its 12 months since the last one (which focussed the attention of bloggers around the world on climate change) – but an equally compelling subject this year : Water. I’ve been reading lots of the other interesting posts from other participants in Blog Action Day – including a good one from my colleague Russell who has crafted an interesting piece around photography and water.

The theme is so central to the work we do at DFID, that I could abdicate from original thought here and simply point you to the series of blogs we have published throughout today –  thoughts from the front line of development ranging from Chronic irrigation in Afghanistan, a colleague from India who writes about water and climate change, memories of a career tackling water issues around the world from Simone, and water, health and sanitation issues in Mozambique

However, to follow up my usual theme of how the web and innovative tech can help development, I looked back over my delicious tags, as I know I’ve marked a few innovations and gadgets over the year with a watery theme (and many ingenious ideas have been discovered via Wired UK). Here are just a few:

  • Play pumps have always been a fascinating idea to me, and Chain reaction have chosen them as the subject of their post today
  • This I thought was a genius idea: the lifesaver bottle that purifies water from muddy pools and dirty streams
  • I love the drop net invention which harvests water from fog – but don’t survival experts manage with a bit of old plastic sheet?
  • And I can’t find a link, but I remember reading about an invention that meant you could collect water in a huge barrel, too big to lift, but which you then turned on its side, attached a handle and rolled it home. Not really tech – but ingenuity helping to make life easier
  • Finally, not a gadget, but an excellent visualisation from the BBC – a map showing the people at risk from water insecurity – another example where thousands of words are suddenly brought into sharp focus by a single illustration

So – support Blog Action Day go visit the site the main site – see all the fascinating and enlightening things that people have written.

I spent the day with a group of colleagues and techies enthusing about WordPress (so its quite appropriate to write about it here!).

The idea for a WordPress gathering focussing on government activity was I think started by Simon Dickson (of Puffbox) and he certainly did all the behind the scenes work to make it happen. He also introduced the first session, with a brief history of WordPress.

WordPress started on 23 January 2003 when Mike Little responded to a question from Matt Mullenweg. (I’m not going to report any details, but did find an interesting interview with the pair on WordPress TV.) Key points made by Simon are that is is open source, out of the box and gives you freedom to do what you want with it. It is built by a community, for users, made to extend and has at the moment an incredible amount of momentum.
In the public sector there are numerous examples, including 3 departmental websites on WP – Wales office, Downing St (both news focused) then DEFRA (about which more later) plus lots of smaller functional sites – Power of Information Taskforce, DFID bloggers, CARE debate, DCMS transparency data (new launch – again, more later) and numerous consultations and microsites. He quoted the statistic that 8.5 % of web run on WP ( but no idea where that stat came from!).

Simon then introduced 9 presentations – a packed day (and one featuring a few more Simons!)

1. Steph Gray & Jenny Poole (BIS)

Described the wide range of requirements from across the department, and an environment in which we can’t afford time or to pay developers to create individual sites. Instead a central multidisciplinary team, comprising specialists in digital marketing, a digital press officer,  and publishers (who trained as librarians have the aim of supporting the department achieve all their online needs. WP is the platform that underpins all their digital activity, so they needed a model which would take pain out of creation; be flexible and yet confirms to accessibility, standards and departmental styles.

Steph talked through various stages of evolution: first – commentpress (2008) – this provided evidence that there were people out there who had valid comments to add and COULD contribute to policy. Then, a WP themewas evolved,  with comment box that floated alongside sections. First used for the Power of Information repost, it was open sourced and used by many depts (including DFID, for a white paper consultation). This was all fine, but technical knowledge was still needed. The next  brief was for a WP theme as a ‘hub’ to support a range of engagement.  What was produced has been used so far for a couple of BIS  consultations, including Strategy for sustainable growth. Behind it are 3 ‘magic’ elements: WP multisite, theme options, widgets – oh yes, plus a 4th…. custom menus.
Steph has turned this into a platform that others can use – Read+Comment – a range of options for implementation are on the website.

Last messages from this session: Don’t forget – an engaging website is still just a tiny piece of the overall puzzle; cut & paste is STILL boring; ultimately it is still just WP. And other questions to be discussed: implications of GPL, scaleability [more on this later], still to be tested to destruction!! And, actually,  ease of use could become a problem – the challenge is to maintain the discipline of creating and managing a useful site, even to asking the question:  is a site what is really needed to achieve your objectives?

2. Next was Simon Collister of we are social (social media agency)

He gave an interesting  case study of influencer profiling – to identify communities that the NHS could connect with.
Their brief was to work out who were the online influencers, then create an approach for how to work with them to reach a range of audiences. First issue was that Dept of health audiences were a bit vague: ” sick & elderly” – how sick is sick…. etc. Quickly realised it was important to develop precise profiles and find key social media venues for each community, then identify influencers in earch area, ensure influencers match the target profiles, then validate influencers for reach, engagement and visibility. In order to determine influence, they came up with a robust methodology whcih took into account a range of factors, not just obvious easily measurable statistics. The end result  is a database entry with screenshot of blog, various data elements, descriptions and contact info. This maps those involved in the  social space just as traditonal media databases map traditional journalists. However, the mechanism for contacting these people is different to those emplyed by press officers.  Anyway – small steps, building up more layers of experience as to how these communities work is all useful work which should ultimately lead to good peer to peer engagement.

3. Mark O’Neill – DCMS


Mark talking about the DCMS transparency site

Mark talking about the DCMS transparency site


The DCMS site for Transparency data was launched last week. All departments have been set challenging targets, and DCMS didn’t just want to meet them, they wanted to go further and faster. They also wanted to include sponsored bodies as well as data from the central department. A platform was developed on WP, designed so that sponsored bodies could also have access and publish their own material. Put together in a week and containing lots of data published in CSV format, plus links to data.gov.uk. Focus on the data – use the main site to communicate. They did think about branding it with similar templates to main site, but ultimately concluded that site visitors are interested in the data – so decided to give it minimal branding. It is
currently used for spend data, and will be used for staff data. Still not clear yet whether it will also be used for contract data – this might all be published on the business link service, this site would then just signpost it.
Future plans might include development of a set of standard widgets to help present the data. They could produce material that could then be fed back into the main site. Might also use WP RSS feed capability to feed certain filtered sets of data into other spaces. Lots of ideas.

4. Dave Coveney – interconnectIT

Dave told an interesting anecdote: the story of Jan Britton head of transport at a local council. He wanted a blog, went to IT, who told him no. He surfed the web, found WP, signed up, and started. Virtually zero cost (apart from time) and already saved the need to print newsletters. Initially, it was a private blog, just of interest to his team but still hosted on WP.com It gradually took off. He had lots of views and comments, so  began to want more features – time to move to a hosted solution. It went went from blog layout to more like a website – more newsy. Traffic went up, more people read more pages.

Then, JB became interim chief exec of council, moved from a departmental position to the top role, and interest in what he had to say  grew hugely. It was recognised this is now a primary communication channel, and a single email which alerted people to a new post was not smart – the servers almost collapsed, so there was a need for tactics: aim to spread awareness gradually, eg send out series of mailshots – not just one to all council staff, try sending at different times of day. Popularity gave others pause for thought, they realised they could add their material to this. Communications team use it too – remaining careful to keep it as a conversation rather than a dry more formal announcement/broadcast channel – “I’m thinking about….” Widgets added for things like quick straw poll or votes on ideas. It is now external too – council staff, still look, but also but also local papers/journalists.
Total cost so far – around £8k – I call that good value for money.

5. Last before lunch was another cluster of Simons – starting with Simon Everest from Defra

The Defra website had a bit of a patchwork history – evolving from a mixture of legacy sites from different bodies: mixed technology, mixed ownership, and no CMS. Lots of ministerial interest in exploring new media though – so some experiments with WP for a ministerial blog, and consultations.  Early successes put WP on a good footing. Started to take steps to integrate arms length bodies, looked at using WP as a CMS, Press office keen to develop role online and investigated creating a media centre. Lots of useful experience, but the real opportunity was the General Election in May 2010.  The old site was frozen and archived, and an ‘interim’ site was launched on WP. Kept very simple, it just contained news, speeches and new policy. The Defra management board agreed tht whole corporate site could move to WP. The team aimed to keep it small – create new high  quality content focused around business priorities. Hosting was perhaps the biggest challenge, but they have reached a solution which to me sounds like a good model for government departments sharing service.

The new site went live Oct 4th with 2 main themes: core site and media centre. Next steps will include better management of publications, continued evolution of commentariat work for consultations, and comment based feedback (nb comments dont have to be published!). They kept structure and look and feel of old site so as not to alienate visitors – but will evolve, to leverage opportunities offered by new WP site

Simon Wheatley is a WP developer. His talk had everyone taking notes, as he covered how WP can cope with high traffic WP sites. He also made Simon D smile as he had never been in a slide sequence which went Stephen Fry > Kylie Minogue > him! Simon W started with a WP site built for Stephen Fry. Huge numbers visit when he tweets s’thing, so the site needed to be able to cope with this. Simon gave an overview of the process which makes WP work – php or was it hpphp…. c code > assembling html page – plus caching – he lost me along the way, but ultimately it makes WP very efficient at delivering pages on request.
However,  once you add interactivity – and volume – things get more complicated. Simon showed a simple (but complicated to me) diagram – which I think described a process whereby processing done on the app server, as few calls as possible to the data store – ultimately, all designed to make service of pages, plus interactivity as smooth as possible.


WordUp participants networking after lunch

WordUp participants networking after lunch


6. Shane McCracken talked about the I’m a scientist project. Its built in WP – but looks very different to others shown during the day. Its the front end for a process – school science meets X factor, which has the aim of enthusing young people about science. During the event students talk to panel of scientists – ask them questions, learn – and ultimately vote on who gets a cash prize.
100 scientists, 5,000 students, split into zones. Its – built on WP MU – in effect 20 different ‘blogs’. Each scientist has a home profile page. The same model was used for “I’m a councillor…” – for a local borough council, and its easy to imagine how it could be extended into other sectors – anyone up for “I’m an aid worker…….”?  Main thing is that is demonstrates a fundamental shift in what WP can be – its NOT about blogging (well, not just about it…) its a platform for interaction.

7. John Adams & Martin Young formed team DFID.

Martin gave a swift overview of DFID’s experiences with WP, ending with a quick demo of a proof of concept mobile version of the DFID site that he put together in a couple of hours. It takes the RSS feeds from existing episerver site and brings them into a mobile screen-friendly frame. Thus news, blogs, and case studies are served, plus a page with ‘contact us’ details. It uses free plug ins and potentially could be managed in house. John covered experiments using WP internally to provide a mechanism for staff feedback, discussions, to be consulted about stuff, and for a member of the senior management team to blog.
These have all been experimental – but have helped create momentum – others have seen them, and now want one for their projects.
There are many challenges – not least the level of that type of developer skills. We have an evolving architecture and are now working on a roadmap for the future – seeing how it could sit alongside other corporate systems.  One idea is to look at ‘pop-up’ sites which would exist for a specified but limited time. We also need to investigate questions of archiving a discussion and storing it as a corporate record.
Finally, a couple of words about openaid.org.uk This was a proof of concept that John was involved in at the recent WordCamp. He and a small team took an xml data feed of project information and created a site which consisted of individual entries – one for each project – on which visitors could be invited to comment. This could potentially become a model whereby an NGO or other organisation could take a feed of the basic data about projects and set up a site which they could promote in their country and get people to feed in comments, photos etc.

8. Harry Metcalfe talked about using WP for formal consultation.
He has worked on 2: the Independent Parliamentary Standards Committee (IPSA), plus Department of Health’s GP choices consultation.
IPSA’s was around MPs expenses. The project took 3 weeks from enquiry > live. Rather than try and be all things, they focused on doing one or two very well, BUT over 230,000 words of text submitted – and a small team was hard pressed to process them. This project gave valuable lessons about the different benefits of quantitative and qualitative data collection via this sort of tool.
DH GP choices consultation lasted longer: 5 weeks – but was more complicated content and a more complex client. The site was more visually appealing than IPSA, but essentially works the same way. One big issue was around storing visitor responses – c-forms didn’t work to aggregate responses from around the different sections of site, so Harry developed his own system/plugin – involving cookies and a table I think (confess I didn’t completely understand the explanation – but the end result clearly worked!) The consultation itself offered interesting mix of open text boxes, combined with offering a selection of check boxes. Only once you have finished are you shown a form which displays all your answers, and then you fill in your details and submit. Both these projects have taught valuable lessons, not least that in carrying out formal consultation the tech is only a tiny piece of the puzzle, and better solutions are needed for  dealing with the  data collected.

9. Last and by no means least: Mike Little – yes, one of the co-founders.


Mike Little

Mike Little at WordUp Whitehall


Mike gave a quick tour of the Number 10 website, focusing on new features and tweaks – all done to make life easier for the team. Theme headers are a nice touch, the default black header with the familiar white number 10 can be replaced with others which illustrate special days, or issues – like red nose day, or breast cancer – a bit like a google doodle.
The last part of his talk outlined the architecture – but I’ll leave those more technical than I to digest what he described. Main thing I understood was that with the old set up, there were regular calls for tech support, since the new model started, there have been none! Also, the team now have a development alongside a live environment – another innovation which many of my colleagues across government leaned forward and took notes about.

So there you have it – the first UK government wordpress meetup – a packed day. In the words of one participant (@neillyneil) : ‘@simond should be very proud of how#wordupwhitehall has gone – should I say “first #wordupwhitehall”? Think it’s got legs.’ < I certainly hope so!

ps – This was written up from my notes taken during the day, but if I have misrepresented anyone’s project or presentation please feel free to leave a comment – I’m happy to correct the report!