I’ve attended two interesting sessions this week with senior people from some of todays leading digital organisations: Peter Barron from Google, and Richard Allen from Facebook.

The first was a more informal session where Peter shared some of the many tools that Google makes available, and talked about some of the fascinating projects the organisation has supported. He also then participated in a lively question and answer session which I hope I have captured the flavour of.

The second was a more structured meeting, where Richard talked about how government can use facebook, and his colleague then gave a more detailed presentation on specific, practical issues. This was followed by fascinating presentations by Ally Hook, a representative of Coventry Council, one from David Bailey from Staffordshire police, and finally my own colleague Simon Davis.  I’ll blog notes from those sessions very soon.

Back to Google. The first tool we took a look around was insights for search  – something I faintly remember playing with a while ago, but not something we have used in earnest. It makes available all search traffic anonymously in a form you can interrogate – fascinating to see trends over time, or to compare two terms. Could provide really useful evidence to schedule timings around publishing material, or even to support search engine optimisation. If the majority are searching using particular terms, we should at least ensure they appear in our content, even if development professionals prefer to caption items with their own preferred terminology. Nb we have been using the Google adwords tool to gain similar insights recently, but I was impressed with the flexibility of insights.

Next up was Ngram viewer which arose out of Google’s massive book digitisation programme. It simply would not have been possible in the past to check the frequency with which certain terms appear in printed literature, but the vast amount of text now available via this programme, and the Ngram interface mans you can carry out quick searches for example which illustrate that the term ‘feminism’ started to appear in the 1920s and while ‘chivalry’ is not dead, it has certainly decreased significantly in popular usage.

Another tool which uses Google’s access to huge volumes of search data looks at which terms are being searched for around the world is Global Market Finder (and this one is linked to the adwords tool, giving an indication of what it would cost to purchase adwords in different countries).

On to more familiar ground, we had a quick tour of Gapminder – which I remember seeing a fascinating TED talk about a while ago – and is perhaps a sign of what might emerge from our own efforts across government to release masses of raw data. There was also mention in this context of Google Refine – a tool which helps clean up inconsistencies in datasets (eg when fields may contain UK, United Kingdom, and a number of other variations. I remember this being enthused about by several of the speakers at this years OpenTech event – so it certainly has its fans in the developer community.

Next up was Earth Engine – another tool which illustrates a key Google philosophy which is to make masses of information available to all. In this case it is satellite data, and the link above includes links to videos on YouTube which show how this can for example bring into sharp focus the real changes in forest cover around the world. You could imagine it could also be useful in disaster response situations.

One of the projects which raised a ripple of interest around the room – and a follow up link to a Guardian article about the project was ‘Life in a Day’ . A showcase for the functionality offered by YouTube to enable people to share films – which were then edited into a feature film which documents life around the world on one particular day.

As mentioned above, there was a lively question and answer session, during which many other tools were discussed.

A question about whether the oft quoted fact that Google employees are allowed 20% of their time to work on projects that interest them was confirmed as true (although this is not a mandatory activity – proposals do have to be discussed with managers and progress is monitored). One project that has resulted from this encouragement is the Art project http://www.googleartproject.com/

Another question was around reputation management – as a company gets bigger and more successful, do the criticisms get louder? Familiar to all of us, the answer was that a lot of effort is put into fixing problems as they arise, and being public about how they are fixed and progress of the issues.

Hard to believe, but all this was covered in a session lasting less than an hour – an excellent way to spend a lunch hour!

Note : A lot of the tools mentioned are also listed on google itself : http://www.google.com/publicsector/

Next post – the Facebook event.

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