Thursday, 20 December 2012

Where's LocalGov Digital?

Where would you base a LocalGov Digital service or network, a practitioner group that's aligned with local government's sector-led improvement agenda?

London? Edinburgh? Manchester? Birmingham?

People often refer to Local Government but in truth they should probably say Local Governments. This is because each Local Government has a unique political make-up, voted for by the residents of the respective Parish, District or County.

Decisions about local public services and how they're delivered are made by elected representatives, locally. This means that each have a different set of services and objectives.

Local Governments also consult on thousands of issues each year, and the results can vary by area. This also affects the services that they provide and how they deliver them.

As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for digital services, given no council is alike.

I've often read things like, "I worked in Local Government for five years, I know about it.". Unless you work in a Local Government now, you don't.

Cuts to funding, redundancies and shared services have changed things radically in the past couple of years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Not a criticism, just a statement of fact.

So, getting back to the question, where's LocalGov Digital? It's in London, in Hackney and Camden, but it's also in Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, Derbyshire, Kent , Kirklees, Lichfield,  Liverpool, Monmouthshire, North Yorkshire, South Cambridgeshire, Surrey, Swansea Walsall and West Berkshire

In fact it's promoting innovation in every local authority (as someone clever than I from Derbyshire once said) because that's where the decisions on local services are made and that's where the expertise to deliver them is.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

When the grit the fan

Last Friday there was something of a gritstorm in Barnsley when local residents took to http://www.facebook.com/wearebarnsley to post their thoughts about how the council was handling the rapidly changing weather conditions.

This post isn’t in any way a criticism of the council, more a couple of observations about what all of local government can learn from this.

1) Manage unrealistic expectations.

There seemed to be a feeling from a vocal minority of residents that not only should the council grit every road (more specifically their road) and clear every pavement in the whole district.

A few claimed they “weren’t getting the service they paid for” when, from what I read, the council seemed to be delivering just that.

Perhaps councils should define services such as this in a quick and easy to read format online. I’m thinking of a few bullet points that take 30 seconds to read with a link to more information. It could prove invaluable in situations such as the one described above.

2) Engage with community sites and pages.

It’s no revelation to say that pages on Facebook and other social sites are rapidly becoming the new local media. What’s also changing is that pages such as this are also becoming a customer services for local public services.

Some of the questions asked on We Are Barnsley were along the lines  of “Is bus X running”, “Is road X gritted or open” and might usually be directed at the police, council or transport companies.

Engaging with those who run these pages would not only make sure that the information is more likely to be correct but actually could create more capacity in council customer services. We live in a time where some are having to think radically about re-shaping council services and effectively getting a partner to run digital customer services at little cost perhaps could be an option.

If you haven’t got an equivalent of We Are Barnsley yet, you will have in the next few years so now’s the time to start planning and talking to those who might be looking to run such a service.

If you’d like to discuss this then you can find me @PhilRumens

Monday, 3 December 2012

Local Gov On The Go

In October we launched the mobile version of our site. It’s really a stopgap until we kick off a proposed project to redevelop our digital services, next year.

Now we’re in December we’ve got a full month’s stats too look. Here are some of the findings:


Volume
Around 28% of users accessed our mobile site, compared to our main site. That’s much larger than I would have thought even six months ago and justifies the week or so we spend creating the mobile site. If you haven’t got a mobile or site built around responsive design, you really need to start thinking about it.


Pages
Users on the main site looked at an average of 4.34 pages, whilst those on the mobile site looked at 1.83.

There are many ways you could interpret this, but perhaps one might be that mobile users are often looking for one specific thing, whereas fixed users might be searching for a variety of information.

What backs this up is the structure and main page content of the two sites are identical, it’s just the extras and the design that are different.


Browsing Time
Main site users spent on average 15 minutes on the site, mobile users just under 7.


Top Pages
Whilst some of the usual suspects such as school term dates and vacancies appear top of the most viewed pages for the mobile site, the most notable omission is Planning Applications.

The other main difference is that information about specific locations appear much higher, for example one of our waste recycling centres is in the top 10 and our nature discovery centre is not too far behind, in November when they see their visitor numbers decrease due to the weather.

Parking appears higher up too on the mobile site.


Conclusion
There’s no major surprises here. People look at less stuff, for a shorter amount of time and it’s more likely to relate to a physical location but it’s good data to support the case for spending time getting your mobile site right.

Oh, and one more stat if you’re interested, over 65% of mobile site users used an Apple device.


If you'd like to discuss this then you can find me at https://twitter.com/PhilRumens

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Why I'm Not Making Another Google

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been experimenting, creating search functionality based on local public services. 

So far I’ve used data from Elgin, Environment Agency, the Food Standard Agency, Job Centre Plus, NHS Direct, Ofsted and West Berkshire Council to create alpha.westberks.gov.uk

The idea is not to create another Google, that's a mistake some make when building new search functionality, but bring put together an easy way to access lots of disparate local data and link back to it. It displays text based results and where there’s geo-data against the record, displays it on a map too. 

Try searching for stuff like “doctors in newbury” or “rivers in pangbourne” and you’ll get some results back. Some of the information you get back, particularly things like live flood warning information isn't the sort of stuff you get in a Google search. 

Because I’ve used national data, it will work for anywhere in the country but there’s a long way before it’s anywhere near that stage. I still need to add much more local data like leisure centres, schools, car parks and so on. The text results need pagination too.

I’d appreciate feedback on whether this is the right direction to go, can think of other datasets to include, or any other thoughts you have on it. You can find me at https://twitter.com/PhilRumens.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Why smartphone apps aren't always the answer

It's happened for years, it happens in the private as well as the public sector and because of the move to deliver services via digital it's happening more and more.

What is it? Organisations purchasing applications and more lately smartphone apps as a quick fix, rather than a joined-up, strategic move for delivering services online.

I'm going to use fault reporting apps as an example. The type of thing you can use to tell councils about potholes, graffiti, and so on. There's a number of these around now all performing much the same task, many being sold in part as becoming really useful to people when more councils purchase them.

Whilst it seems that councils are doing right in offering more services digitally there's two main problems with this approach:


1) If you travel through the areas different councils look after, then you'll need to install apps for each location. 

There's no joined up approach to the way councils procure stuff like this, so for example if you live in Wiltshire but work in Reading and the three councils that cover the area of your journey have all bought separate apps (they haven't, by the way), then you'll need to install these three separate apps on your phone and remember to use the right one depending on where you are.

This is bound to create a negative view of digital services delivered by councils, when those that purchased them thought they were doing the opposite.


2) They're often not integrated with a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

In some cases all these apps do is send an email. It's a better formatted email, containing geo-data and a sometimes a better quality of information, but it's still an email someone needs to manually type into a CRM. 

Whilst it can make it a easier for the customer, it's actually not delivering any time or efficiency savings for the organisations who purchase them and if you're receiving more reports because you've made it easier for residents to do so, it could actually cost you more.


So that's a lot of moaning about what happens now, but how could it be improved?

Councils should be looking to improve the foundation on which these digital services are built. In the case of the fault reporting app, it's creating something like an Open 311 Service and integrating this with a their CRM. 

Obviously this is a lot more difficult than buying an off the shelf app, it's not a quick win, but providing services like this digitally shouldn't be just a box ticking exercise, councils should be thinking about how residents might actually use them.

Creating a service built to a worldwide standard like Open 311 means any app worth its salt will provide data in a format you can then plug into your CRM and create new cases automatically.  

This means that it doesn't matter which app the customer chooses to use, they can still report faults to you, and it also removes the need for manually entering the data.

When planning for new digital services, providing firm foundations will not only improve customer experience, but help to create efficiency savings for your organisation.

I'm interested to get other's views on this and you find me on Twitter @PhilRumens to discuss it.


Thursday, 11 October 2012

Digital Inclusion: You're Not Alone

Working with digital can sometimes feel like you’re trying to change the world on your own. Add to this the growing pressure some in Local Government say they experience and there’s a chance that if you do both, you might be feeling pretty alone right now.

If you are then this is for you.

I realise what I’m about to propose is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but if it helps a few people in their professional roles, why not point them in the right direction. So here’s what I suggest:

1) Use Twitter Professionally

Twitter. It’s about finding out what people like Wayne Rooney had for tea isn’t it? Well yes, but it can also be an invaluable tool in your working life.

Create yourself a Twitter account for professional use, and start following people in the same field as you. If social media is blocked at work, use it for a few minutes every day home. If you’re worried about what work might think of you using it, use a pseudonym.

Start following people like you. Start asking them questions. Start showing them what you’re doing, because they’ll probably be interested. Before you know it you’ll have your own network of peers to discuss your work with. Some of them will even help you out if you ask.

2) Attend Meet-Ups, Camps and Unconferences.

Now you’ve got an online network of fellow professionals you can discuss what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis. There’s only so much you can say in 140 characters and though we might all be digital by default, there’s nothing wrong with attending the odd event with your network of peers.

Keep your eye out events attended or perhaps even organised by those in your Twitter timeline. With any luck you’ll walk away feeling enthused about what you do with a bunch of new ideas to try.

3) Ask For Help In Person

So you’re talking to fellow practitioners online and attending events but sometimes you might need help in person, to speak to colleagues or senior management. Why not ask for help from your network?

To give you one example, when I needed someone to speak to our CEO and Council Members about what another local authority was doing with social media, Dan Slee sat on a train for two hours and came to talk to them about the great stuff they’ve been doing at Walsall for years.

It’s important to remember one of the great things about working in the public sector is local authorities aren’t in competition with each other and there are people out there who will take time out to help you and ask for little in return.

Perhaps one day this will become standard practice not just for those working in digital but beyond too, but until then be proactive and help change things yourself.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Perhaps you’d like to blog a response, write 4 to 6 and we could compile them on a website with advice and ideas for local government digital practitioners.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Torch Tweets - Community Content

Photograph: York City Council
On the 11th July we're trying something a bit different. Residents, people from local businesses and organisations standing in the streets of West Berkshire will be publishing content live on our website.

In the past I've described how Twitter is basically a content management tool used by 140 million users worldwide. When the Olympic Torch Relay comes through West Berkshire this theory will be put to the test.

The contributors or Torch Tweeters as we're calling them will be describing the Relay in their own words and will hopefully convey the experience of viewing a once in a lifetime event to those who can't be there.  It's similar to what Citizen Relay did in Scotland, but live and in real time on a website.

Why do I think this a good thing? Well firstly those like me who work in Comms and extol the virtues of social media occasionally need to remind themselves that not everyone gets it. Sure you could obtain the same information from Twitter but publishing it as content on one's website opens it up to those those don't understand or simply don't want to use it Twitter.

Secondly, it means they'll be a network of people reporting on this event.  Hopefully this will result in coverage on the day that is more extensive than we could have managed without them.

Thirdly, and probably the most exciting and at the same time daunting, it's allowing our website to become a forum for local views, albeit in this example on a specific day, on a specific subject, from specific people. 

So what's the next move if this is successful? Well potentially coverage of other events by those attending them for sure, but perhaps even a Virtual Operations Support Team however this is entirely dependent on people willing to come forward at take part for each event or emergency.

Whatever happens, on July 12th we'll know whether this works as a concept or not. What do you think of this approach? I'd be interested to know and you can find me at @PhilRumens.

A big thank you to , and everyone else taking part. This wouldn't be happening without you.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Torch Tweets - Hashtags

For the past week I've been following the London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay around the country through the text, pictures and video posted on Twitter by local authorities, the Police and other agencies. This page displays a timeline of live content and you can use it to follow the Relay as it progresses.

Initially I did this to prepare for when the Relay reaches Berkshire, as then the live page will display content from local organisations and residents, or Torch Tweeters as we're calling them; you can read more about this here. It has however given me an invaluable insight into how social media is being used to cover this event.

Over the next few weeks I'll post my observations and my first is on hashtags.

Despite being a national event (international if you include Dublin) I couldn't find any attempt to join everything up on Twitter. Some counties have sensibly used a common hashtag, #GlosTorchRelay for instance was used to tie together all the tweets from the Police, district and county councils in Gloucestershire but there seems to be no one hashtag throughout all the areas the Relay visits.

This might have something to do with the main hashtag used by @London2012 being so long, #London2012TorchRelay takes up a lot of characters so some have shortened it to #TorchRelay or have used #OlympicTorch or #OlympicTorchRelay.

Those who are using other hastags are generally adopting phrases suggested by LOCOG such as #linethestreets and #momenttoshine and the former has been also used by @London2012. These are great for traditional press releases but can create confusion when used as hashtags.

Some councils used one hashtag in one tweet, another in a subsequent tweet and yet another in a following tweet. People often follow an event by searching for one specific hashtag rather than following all the accounts that might be tweeting about it so if you're using #London2012TorchRelay in some, and #linethestreets or #TorchRelay in others it's likely that some of your audience will miss quite a bit of your content.

So what have I learned? If you're creating an event, pick one reasonably short hashtag, stick with it and publicise what it is. If you're narrating someone else's event and they haven't or won't specify one, talk to others covering it and agree a common hashtag.

What are do you think of ths and the Olympic Torch Relay coverage in general on Twitter so far? I'd be interested to know and you can find me at @PhilRumens.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

What Is Twitter?



Twitter. It’s for keeping in touch with friends, say some, it’s for sharing ideas say others, it’s for promoting your organisation and getting your message out to the world, say more.

This is not what Twitter is; this is what you can do with Twitter.

Twitter at a basic level is an online database of information that can be read and written to by much of the world’s population who own a computer or other device capable of connecting to the Internet.

It’s not until you look at it like this that you can realise its full potential. What’s more the nice people at Twitter provide an API to make it easy to query and extract the data. You can select tweets by user, list, hashtag, phrases or words in the tweet and more.

If this all sounds a bit nerdy that’s because it is, so here’s a practical example of what can be achieved. This page here displays Tweets from everyone who’s in this list and have used the hashtag #geotagtest. It displays the four most recent images attached toTweets that fit this criteria and it will also display the 100 latest Tweets on a map where the user has added a location to their Tweet.

This approach means that Twitter becomes a very simple to use but amazingly powerful management tool for small pieces of website content. Users could be sitting in an office, or standing in a field and (so long as they have an internet connection) can contribute to this page.

Not only does this have potential for covering events, it would also be useful in an Emergency Operation situation where information needs to be contributed and distributed to and from various locations and the public.

So next time you’re asked “What is Twitter”, tell them it’s an online database with 140 million users; what they choose to do with this data is entirely up to them.

Do you have any new ideas for using Twitter for micro content management? Would you like to know more? You can discuss this with me on Twitter @PhilRumens.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Should Every Page On Your Website Have A Facebook Page?

If like me you're a fan of Dan Slee's blog you've no doubt read his excellent article on creating lots of little Facebook pages. As usual he's spot on, and in this piece I'll look at going one further and putting every page of interest on your website, on Facebook.

By adding Open Graph tags (code containing meta-data about the page) in the Head each of your pages you can tell Facebook (and other sites that can read Open Graph tags) a lot more about what each page is. I blogged about defining your website pages a objects so I won't bore you again with this. Add a Like button to every page too, and when a user clicks on it, they create a new page in Facebook. I realise this is a bit techy but if your site uses a content management system, this is easy for a web designer or developer to do.

Doesn't this create a huge overhead in having to administer potentially thousands of Facebook pages? The simple answer is no. A page is only created when someone clicks Like which means pages on your site with no Likes don't have a Facebook page, after all what would be the point in creating a Facebook page if no one is interested in the page on your website. You can also define if you do or don't want a Facebook page to be created when someone clicks Like in the Open Graph tags, so you can exclude sections or individual pages from this process. 

Assigning specific user permissions to pages can also ease the administrative burden and have other benefits. For example, allowing the staff at this childrens centre to post to the people that Like their page's Timeline would mean quicker updates as they wouldn't have to be added via a central Comms Team or Customer Services, though of course the central team could add updates if they wished.

Dan already highlighted the benefits of having lots of little Facebook pages, you can target very specific audiences and with the Open Graph approach you don't have to create the pages themselves, your website users are creating them.

There are other advantages of this approach too, you can social plug-ins like a Comments Box to each page and moderate all comments through one Facebook application. The Like button also acts as a barometer of how popular each piece of content on your site is. You might find that a page you hadn't thought would be popular becomes so, and of course you can then publish to the users that Like this page's Timeline. 

If you've done all this can then start looking at custom Open Graph types and aggregating them in users' Timelines, however that's an article for the future.

I'd value any feedback and if you'd like to know more of have any comments you can find me on Twitter.


Monday, 23 January 2012

Community cohesion through social content?

Last year we launched a pilot page for local news. As well as showing the news we publish it takes content from Twitter and display the latest tweet from a selection of over 25 organisations local to West Berkshire. We chose our initial group based on local, primarily not-for-profit organisations that tweet and you can see the full criteria here.

The pilot was to test whether the page worked technically, whether it updated all the time, every time and whether what it displayed looked as it should. The page passed these tests with flying colours  but it also produced some unexpected but positive results. 

For example towards the end of the week the page often becomes a what's on at local art venues and Saturday afternoons the page often displays live local football and rugby scores and if there's a fixture, racing results. These are both things we didn’t expect to happen but are a great ways to promote local cultural and sporting activities.

So where do we go from here? A possible plan of action could be split into two stages. The first, to take the template used for the pilot and create more pages for specific subject areas. An art and leisure page for promoting activities in the area, a page promoting the work of the Police and community safety groups, a page displaying information from local town and parish councils, and so on.

The second stage might be engaging with local organisations, helping those that don't use social media and talking to those that do, assisting both groups to promote what they do to citizens and providing advice through social media surgeries. As well as talking we'd listen, as it's likely the more experienced users of social media might have advice for us to improve what we offer.

Whilst these two stages would enhance our website by including an increased amount of community based content, because the content is taken from social media the added benefit is that district as a whole might profit from organisations not only engaging with us but with each other and the people who use or have an interest in their services.

Ultimately, through the desire bring community content to our website we may be able to create a more vibrant and engaged community not just digitally, but beyond. Perhaps this is too idealistic and as a result unachievable, whatever you think I'd value your feedback and if you'd like to know more of have any comments you can find me on Twitter.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.