Taking a breather..



I’ve decided to take the rest of this year off from blogging here – I’ll write the occasional thing over on Medium and on our work blog but I’m thinking I’m going to turn the lights off here as the fun has gone out of it a bit (lot).

Innovation ain’t easy




The New York Times is one of the worlds great newspapers. It has also had some great successes in the digital ages (the ‘Snowfall‘ concept was hugely influential for better or worse) but the internal ‘innovation’ report that was leaked to Buzzfeed this week shows just how difficult the shift to a ‘digital by default’ organisation is – even when there is commitment and investment.

I don’t know much about the inner workings of the newspaper game – I probably learned all I know watching ‘Press Gang‘ but this report should be read by anyone involved in digital ‘transformation’ programmes – especially at larger, bureaucratic organisations. Basically the kinds of places I so often find myself employed.

If you don’t have time to read the full report I recommend the eConsultancy summary of key points and the really useful Nielsen Journalism Labs post about it all where they pick out key text. Also Martin Belam has written a post specifically on the issue of homepage traffic that a lot of commentators are fixated on.

Personally I was taken by how many of their challenges mirrored our own (albeit at a much different scale!)

Things like the obsession with the homepage, the need to repackage and recycle content past its release date, getting more expert staff engaging on social media as advocates of the content, developing reusable tools rather than one-off interactives, closer collaboration between internal teams with a focus on ensuring that outputs are promoted in the right way are all things we are wrestling with.

Plus the old perennial problem of a need to get the organisation to look forward rather than rest on the (well earned) laurels of the past.

They say admitting the problem is the first step and it is safe to say that they have done that and in doing so I think they have given us all something to judge the scale of our own transformation challenges.

Trivial tech vs Civic Tech

I used to love reading blogs like Techcrunch,Mashable and the Next Web. Anything really that was covering the next big web startup. I was fascinated with tales of tech entrepreneurs starting world changing ideas in garages and dorm rooms.

I don’t really know when that changed but it did. I started to find the things that were covered trivial and uninteresting. Another photo-sharing app you say? An iPhone game that will capture the imagination of hipsters for 48 hours? How about another startup aimed at other startups? Oh and you are launching another incubator you say? Yes I’m sure it will be different from the other dozen that launched last month.

Over the years my attention has been drawn to the idea of ‘civic tech’ – not surprising given my career choices but also these civic startups are about as far from my working life as those garages in Silicon Valley :)

The Government Digital Service was called “the best startup in Europe we can’t invest in” by venture capitalist Saul Klein and they have had great success but they are still the exception and not the rule in the civil service.

Outside of GDS it is these civic startups where interesting things seem to be happening. Whether that is using the open data the Government is freeing up to build new tools for citizens or using modern technology and user focused design principles to offer new solutions to old problems.

Companies like MySociety, Delib, Futuregov and others have been carving out sustainable businesses in this space for a while now but recently it has started to seem like they are getting more of the attention they deserve.

I had been seriously considering changing the focus of this blog to a kind of Civic Tech(crunch) but then earlier this week I stumbled across the launch of Civic Exchange from Nesta.

With the strap line – ‘technology for better government’- it is a site that seeks to showcase the best civic tech products from around Europe (and beyond?) including case studies to make it easier for practitioners in Government and citizens to find and reuse the best solutions out there. At the moment it is early days but already has some good examples in there (though despite their ubiquitousness I am not sure you can claim WordPress and Drupal as specifically civic technologies :) )

I’m hoping Civic Exchange will evolve in to something that replaces that startup news fix that those other blogs used to provide me on my morning commute but focused on things that don’t make me grimace and grind my teeth.Time will tell I guess.

Rules of Engagement

I’m working on a pretty big project at the moment – it is still relatively early days but I can already see it has the capacity to become pretty all consuming.

This is a draft of some ideas I have for some ‘principles’ for the project – I don’t think there is anything controversial or unusual here – they are published here as a reminder to me to keep them in mind always.

  1. User focused – the foundation of the entire project will be user research. We will work with user stories and will test at every step possible with real users. We will not ignore our internal users though – the Publishing team will have as much influence on the design of our publishing tools as external users do on the front-end.
  2. Data Driven – this is more than just using analytics data to support the decisions we make regarding the site – though that is key. The site itself needs to be ‘data driven’ from the ground up. We will continue to work closely with the ODI to build on top the research they have already undertaken for us.
  3. Google is our homepage – 80% of our traffic already comes from Google and that is despite our current anti-SEO strategy. This needs to be at a minimum a two fold issue. Develop an IA that works for users who enter the site from search queries and add technical SEO features from day one (Persistent, hackable URIs. Schema.org.)
  4. IE7 is dead / IE8 is on life support – the Alpha will be designed for IE9 onwards as well as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari etc. Every effort will be made to ensure it at least works in IE8 but with an expectation that some features will fail (gracefully).
  5. Do not reinvent the wheel – wherever possible we will use open source tools and technologies and build on top of the great work that already exists. We will not fall in to the trap of ‘not invented here’ and we will accept that sometimes good enough is good enough.
  6. Build for sustainability – when we select these open source technologies and tools we need to consider existing communities, support and the ability to recruit people with the required skills as well as the ability to train staff in that knowledge.
  7. Bake in accessibility from day one – we won’t fall in to the trap of being forced to retrofit good accessibility practices in later in the project. We will start with it as a core requirement. We will publish an accessibility policy at the start of development.
  8. agile not AGILE – we won’t get hung up on Scrum vs Kanban vs DSDM. We will work with the principles of the Agile Manifesto front and centre in our approach but we will, as a team, decide on an approach that works for us.
  9. Machines have needs too – the Data API is important here but whatever we do we must make it simple and straightforward to access ‘machine readable data’ from the site. Persistent URIs and using open standards for statistical releases (i.e. http://dataprotocols.org/tabular-data-package/) are a minimum target.
  10. WWGDSD * – above all else we will follow the GDS Manual and work towards the requirements of the Service Standard.
  • what would GDS do

Javascript journalism

At the Data Storytelling event that I helped organise last week (the presentations are available if you missed it) the closing speaker, Martin Stable who is head of the Financial Times interactive news team, used the term ‘javascript journalism’ to describe the kind of outputs that combine journalistic storytelling and web applications (including data visualisations). It was immediately one of those terms I knew would stick with me and inevitably lead to me overusing it! You can view the slides from the talk over on Github and it is well worth a look.

This ‘javascript journalism’ creates ‘news applications’ that often follow the Martini Glass structure, another concept the the talk introduced me to;

“The stem of the glass represents the single-path author-driven narrative. If the author’s intended narrative is conveyed, the widening mouth of the glass represents the multiple-narrative paths the user can freely explore on its own. As soon as the user enters the mouth of the glass, it can choose-his-own-adventure. “



Once I was exposed to this it is amazing how often you start to see this approach in these ‘news applications’.

I really find all these attempts to create genuinely web native story formats fascinating and if I had my time over I’d want to follow this path I think. The mix of writing and digital products is pretty much my dream mix but unfortunately I fear I fall in to the ‘old dogs’ category.

Which is why it was especially interesting to see Cardiff University launch their new MSc in Computational Journalism this very week. The course is a really ambitious mix of journalism and developer skills and I was lucky enough to meet Glynn and Martin who are a big part of the team behind it to hear about their impressive plans for the first year.


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