Event


As more than one of today’s speakers said, a good talk starts with bragging, moves on through philosophical meandering and ends with something interesting. All elements of today’s GovBlogCamp – with an emphasis on the interesting.

Organised by GDS (credit to the team, it all went really smoothly – great venue in Bermondsey) this was the first time members of the government blogging community had been brought together to share ideas and ask questions. And that community is bigger than people think “92 blogs with over 7 million visitors”.

First sessions contained a healthy dose of nostalgia, led by Giles Turnbull  of GDS, who illustrated his blogging credentials with screenshots from blog platforms of long ago. Anyone remember blogger? I  love his sentiments “blog, as though there are no rules…… because there ARE no rules” and “the web belongs to everyone, so make your bit of it reflect you”. Also the thought provoking “contradiction is OK, it shows an organisation can adapt and change. He ended with some reasons to blog, which included: thinking out loud, documentin the dull stuff, and talking to your future self. He also name checked Janet Hughes’ excellent post on boldness.

Next up was Neil Williams, head of the GOV.UK team at GDS, who is no.1 ambassador for civil servants and blogging. He described how his team are all encouraged to contribute, post about what they are working on, share learning and challenges – its a way they talk to each other, and how stakeholders talk to them. He too injected a dose of nostalgia – first by reminding us of his own credentials to speak about blogging – as the civil servant who set up the first ministerial blog.

Neil with the first ministerial blog: David Miliband at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Neil with the first ministerial blog: David Miliband at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

He moved on to show a slide which gathered some of the early pioneers of blogging in government – I’m honoured to share a screen with people who I have enjoyed reading and learned lots from.

Neil with some of the early government bloggers

Neil with some of the early government bloggers

His “reasons to blog” include that it saves you time, helps you think (‘rubber ducking‘ is a new term to me, but I recognise exactly what it means), helps build confidence and make you bolder (2nd ref to Janet’s post), and helps you do what matters. Top tips: keep it varied, talk – don’t (just) announce, embrace individuality, and lower the barrier to entry.

Next session was led by Louise Duffy of GDS, who described how she handles planning and shared some of the things that can derail even the best laid plans. These include long sign-off chains (familiar to many in the room!).

Pete Wilson of InnovateUK shared lessons from their first year of running a blog. Lots of familiar experiences:

  • Blogs are ravenous – consistency is more important than frequency, and the importance of engaging with authors
  • Process is not a dirty word – running a blog with lots of authors needs co-ordination, someone has to own it
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of images
  • Not everyone is a Hemmingway – convincing people who are used to writing academic papers or business cases about the different style needed for writing a blog post takes effort, he talked about the value of good headlines, and constructing a good story
  • Comments – see photo below
Pete Wilson with his comment categories

Pete Wilson with his comment categories

A series of sessions advertised as clinics – which turned into roundtable Q&A, was followed by Sam Spindlow from Public Health England, who asked some questions which challenged current assumptions. Lots to think about including:

  • the growth in some of the major platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google offering quick access to content
  • established wisdom around non-duplication of content (although I’ve always thought that if the mantra of placing your content where your audience already is, is true, then you will always need to place it in more than one channel – unless your audience is very small!)
  • thoughts about the statement “don’t build on a rented lot” – eg don’t put a lot of effort into something that may not exist the next day, or change the rules so your material is no longer findable.

I think a lot of people will be looking into Facebook instants! And I’d be interested to talk to anyone with experience of Medium as a blog platform – especially to share content among a specific community.

Penultimate session was led by the double act of Kirsty Edwards and Andrew Rees from the Intellectual Property Office. Introduced as “a department who doesn’t write like government” they shared some of their skill in breathing life into seemingly dry content. Part of their skill is I think in building a community of people who actually want to share stories about things they are passionate about. I’ll be reading Girl with a Curl, Discover the Force and many more on their site. They shared lots of tips on how best to exploit opportunities, including scheduling posts to match popular topics (although advised steering clear of dead celebrities!).

And final speaker was Stuart Heritage – aka Man with a Pram. Neil managed to capture his list of reasons not to blog, which followed closely on his assertion that most of the good things in his life had come to pass because of blogging…… There were lots of wry references to live blogging the Eurovision song contest (get the strong impression its not top of his list of fun things). To follow the model of a good talk described at the start of this post, he ended with some useful stuff around finding time, finding inspiration and finding your voice (in order – routine, audience, and practise).

And as with all good workshops, besides what was actually said, I’ve got tons of scribbled notes on tangents and thoughts that speakers sparked off – lots of good ideas and lots to follow up.

 

Extremely busy weekend: looking at all the wonderful and diverse things going on in libraries across the country, gathering examples of where colleagues and members of the Libraries Taskforce are visiting, and doing my own library tour!

You’d think after spending all week immersed in library news I might like to take a break at the weekend (you know, watch some rugby, go out for a lazy lunch? – its OK, managed to fit that in too!) but National Libraries day is an opportunity too good to miss. I checked the website  and discovered no particular events planned for my home area, but Kent Libraries were offering activities, so we started the day by heading over to Snodland library.

Snodland

Snodland library

Snodland library

Their library is in the High Street, and besides library services there is also a space for the local borough council to offer surgeries. There was a book sale so I couldn’t resist 5 books for a pound. [note to self…. supposed to borrow books from the library, not fill up the house], but more importantly, there were also people reading, choosing and borrowing books, and a family in the children’s section having storytime. I did their “so you think you know libraries” quiz and was duly awarded my certificate.

Completed quiz and certificate

Completed quiz and certificate

Over the 20 years I’ve lived in the Medway towns, I’ve visited many of the libraries, but not all, so this year National Libraries Day was a good excuse to plan a route to fill in all my gaps.

Grain

Grain library

Grain library

While we’ve had many walks around Northwood Hills and Cliffe, we’d never ventured right to the northeastern edge of the peninsular, and Grain village is a long way from the rest of the Medway Towns. The library is in a former Bethel Congregational chapel (built 1893) and is also billed as a community and learning centre.

On a grey damp Saturday morning, behind that blue door was an explosion of colour and sound. The regular Saturday morning kids club was in full swing and every corner of the library had children making posters, colouring, playing with lego or on the computers. A couple of brave adults also brought back and chose new books.

Me, and a book, in Grian library

Me, and a book, in Grain library

Rainham

Rainham library

Rainham library

I must have driven past this library many times, but never stopped to visit. The building opened in 1961 and lots of the features are classic 60s: curved concrete entrance porch, coloured mock granite tiles, wooden shelving and crittall windows. Inside, the walls are painted vivid deep pink, and many of the shelves are dark wood, but the high ceiling and huge windows means the overall impression is of light and space.

Inside Rainham library

Inside Rainham library

There is a mezzanine floor, with comfy looking sofas – apparently popular with the many reading groups and U3A groups who meet in the library. Just as in Snodland, there was a family having storytime in the colourful childrens section, and adult readers were scattered among the armchairs. One patron was using the free wifi to carry out some research (on a table behind me, surrounded by files and papers).

Wigmore

Not far from Rainham, in another part of the Medway towns I’ve never visited before, is Wigmore library. Not an attractive looking building on the outside, but with its own carpark and woods behind, its one I’ll go back to. Inside the library lobby has a display of pictures by local artists, and the childrens section has lots of creative displays on the walls (including 2 exotic looking owls).

Inside Wigmore library

Inside Wigmore library

Like Rainham, this library also has an upper section, but here it houses the computer section, while the main space has lots of mobile bookshelves and a table with a pile of jigsaw pieces……. if I didn’t have other libraries to see, I might have been there til closing!

Thomas Aveling school and community library

Inside Thomas Aveling library

Inside Thomas Aveling library

Final destination was a library I’ve been intrigued about for a while. Thomas Aveling library is on the site of Thomas Aveling school. During school hours it is the school library – with space for classroom activities, plus a coffee bar. From the end of school time, it becomes a public library – although staff said from 3-4.30 it is often still filled with  students doing their homework and using the computers. Later and on Saturdays it is available to local residents.

The last port of call completed my visits to Medway libraries and its great to look over the full set of photos and recognise how different they are. From a 19th century chapel to a refurbishment only opened last year; partnerships with council services, adult education, and a school; 16 spaces with very different atmospheres and sense of place. And as I can take out books from, and return to, any of them, think we should make more effort to break away from force of habit (just popping into Rochester or using the ebooks option), and visit more of them, more often.

Yesterday I took part in a library crawl – a walk around all of Lambeth’s libraries as they were transformed for the day into Fun Palaces. I wasn’t alone – I walked with the author Stella Duffy, who is one quarter of the team behind the whole Fun Palaces extravaganza (over 140 places this weekend, in England Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and New York). Her notes about the walk (much more poetic than mine…..) are what inspired the title of this – my attempt to transform my notes into something that reflects the sights, sounds, colours, smells and experiences packed into 8 hours.

Entrance to Carnegie Library

Entrance to Carnegie Library

Our starting point was the beautiful Carnegie Library by Ruskin Park in Herne Hill. I arrived as people were just setting up, and could see already the Fun Palace theme being brought to life: Everyone’s an artist, Everyone’s a scientist – bringing together all  the diverse groups that make up a community. A football club next to an aromatherapist next to a pasta maker, kickboxing in one corner, a 10 metre cartoon being created in another – and all against a backdrop of books and noise.

Four of us set off towards Minet – walking through lovely parks and quiet, house-lined streets. The Fun Palace was buzzing: cup painting, urban-myth writing, 3D printer in action*, plus the most intricate and gorgeous pop up books I’ve ever seen (and an artist helping children to create their own).

*inspiration for my favourite line from Stella’s record of the day: “A 3-d printer that printed more libraries because libraries are where stories live and stories are what people breathe”

The Little Mermaid - intricate pop-up book

The Little Mermaid – intricate pop-up book

Next stop Durning – and on the way we were joined by another walker. This library is the perfect venue for a Fun Palace – decorated with gargoyles and gothic arches, we sang songs of crocodiles and were joined by former MP Michael English and author Sarah Waters.

Durning Library

Durning Library

No time to linger, we headed to Waterloo. No more leafy sidestreets, this was deep into the heart of built up Lambeth – busy streets and modern ugliness. Waterloo library was a haven of colour. We arrived before the Fun Palace crowds, and helped scatter golden stars ready for the space scientist to do her thing.

Waterloo library - calm before the Fun Palace

Waterloo library – calm before the Fun Palace

Walked along the Thames – past 2 other Palaces (Westminster and Lambeth) – no fun in evidence, maybe one day? Then we reached the second library funded by a victorian philanthropist – but this one made his money from sugar, not steel. Henry Tate gave his name to the Tate Gallery, and Tate South Lambeth Library.

Inside Tate South Lambeth Library

Inside Tate South Lambeth Library

Inside was a riot of colour, noise and smells. Lots of delicious food – including a tray of fried chicken and some wonderful portugese cake. I saw people with plates of indian food, and was invited to try african coffee. There were people playing chess, and indian head massage offered in another corner.

Next stop Clapham Library. From the front, a wall of glass, and no hint that inside is the first spiral library I’ve ever seen.

Clapham Library

Clapham Library

We saw zine making, balloon hats, chinese writing and heard about the intriguing serendipity strategy.

Falling behind schedule – 4 more Palaces to find before the end of the trail, and next stop was Brixton Library. The second Tate funded, and probably the noisiest and most colourful Fun Palace. Missed the group collecting Brixton memories and the lion hunters, but saw guitar lessons, jewellery made from natural ingredients, and skeleton body paint.

Hand painting

Hand painting at Brixton Library

Onwards to Streatham – the Fun Palace taking place in a community room alongside the library (yet another Tate-funded).  I saw a preserved sliver of human brain tissue through a microscope, heard storytelling, watched a huge group learning woolcraft and another making crazy animals out of vegetables. Then went exploring the library, and found their garden. Cicero would like Streatham.

Quote on the wall of Streatham Library

Quote on the wall of Streatham Library

Penultimate stop, and cutting it fine with our timing, we arrived in West Norwood to find science had combined with art to create architecture: a geodesic dome (plus enthusiastic children who modelled their masks and robots.).

Dome and robot

Geodesic dome and robot in West Norwood Library

(photo credit Toby Litt: twitter.com/tobylitt/status/650339157064159232 )

Final call, 10 minutes before closing, was Upper Norwood Library. The last group of children testing out their paper planes, but we heard tales of serious games (Dungeons and dragons), clay models and dancing.

Upper Norwood Library

Last Fun Palace of the day: Stella and I at Upper Norwood Library

(Photo credit: saveUNlibrary/status/650349316675141633 )

Feet aching, head buzzing, I was hugely grateful for a lift back to the station – and love the ‘completing the loop’ sight of the sign at Herne Hill station: to the Carnegie Library

Carnegie Library sign

Carnegie Library sign

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.

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.

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.

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