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.

Approval for agile projects becoming more agile?

Unless you work in a particular corner of Government digital/IT then this won’t be very exciting but if, like me, you are toiling away in that specific corner then Friday was a ‘red-letter day’!

The new guidance from Treasury (with a major dollop of GDS influence) about the process & procedures for getting approval and funding for ‘major projects’ in the digital world is a major, major improvement and has the potential to be as influential as any changes that have been made since the ‘Revolution Not Evolution‘ report was published and started us all down this latest digital government path.


The new guidance empowers organisations to follow the Service Manual and get on with the Discovery and Alpha stages (with a pretty generous spending ceiling for this activity) without having to produce a business case for Treasury approval and then agreement to move to Beta and beyond will be dependent on a lightweight case backed up with a working Alpha.

Like Mike Bracken said on Twitter;

“no working software = no more money past Alpha.”



I have only been involved around the edges of producing our business case but the process has clearly been at odds with the other best practice that has been coming out of the Cabinet Office/GDS and this is a great step forward. It also completely endorses the approach we are taking with the work we are starting at the moment and that is always reassuring.

While the guidance is aimed at big send, major projects I hope that it is used wherever appropriate as it says in the GDS blogpost; is good practice for government organisations to also follow the same principles internally when dealing with smaller spend.

The other big blockers I see in delivering on the promise of the approach the Service Manual demonstrates continues to be, the related issues, procurement and recruitment. A lot of work is going on in both areas but both are still difficult to navigate. Fingers crossed though because if this can be done I am starting to believe in miracles!

Bristol: A City of Service?

I spotted a job ad a couple of weeks ago for a ‘Chief Service Officer‘ for Bristol City Council. It wasn’t a job title I had come across before so I followed the link to the Nesta page about the Cities of Service programme and read with interest about its roots as an initiative from former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg which has grown across the US thanks to support from his charitable foundation and has now made its way to this side of the pond with a little help from Nesta.

The aim of the programme is to;

“..mobilise the talents and energy of volunteers to meet city wide challenges.”

Now there is always a bit of an issue with transferring activities that used to be provided by local government to volunteers and the whole ‘Big Society‘ thing didn’t really come to much in the UK but this does seem to be taking a bit more of a systematic approach and is interesting for a city like Bristol I think – somewhere that despite its size still has a sense of community in a lot of areas and a genuine affection and pride in the city from many residents.

Personally I’d be interested in seeing how something like this could really help get things like GoodGym, Casserole Club or even LandShare to be really successful in the city. Also to get more involved with the Go-On initiative (I just read this article about the cost of a digitally capable citizenship). What I’d be disappointed to see would be the creation of new local initiatives – just because other existing things ‘were not invented here’.

These services that already exist (and I am sure there are many, many more – these are just the ones that sprang to mind) already have tools and support in place but to really work they need the access and publicity that the Council is in a unique position to provide (plus funding..always funding!).

I love Bristol but am not under illusion that we have a unique set of challenges so why not work to make the best of things that are already out there – especially when it has a finite lifespan.

Geeks in Government

There was an interesting piece in the Financial Times on Friday. Titled “Let’s get geeks into government” it tells the story of Brett Goldstein, formerly the IT Director of OpenTable, who in recent years has become well known in digital government circles for his work with the City of Chicago on various data driven projects- in particular the WindyGrid tool.

The piece pushes the idea that there is a generation of “entrepreneurial whizz-kids” who could bring their considerable technical skills to help ‘save’ Government IT as a way of ‘giving something back’ apparently in the manner of hugely successful US bankers who move into the public sector later in their careers once their fortunes have been made (really by the way?).

A big problem I have with the article is that it seems to correlate becoming “fabulously wealthy” with talent. It seems to me, as someone who has watched this world with interest for years, that the big winner startups often have no more talent or skills than those that implode spectacularly.

There are though things I agree with here. Clearly there is a great deal of talent tied up in start-ups and the web giants and encouraging some of them to move into public service would be hugely helpful. And yes the reasons why they don’t want to are plentiful. Salaries. Bureaucracy. Legacy systems. Procurement.

But to suggest Goldstein is a lone voice does the community a disservice. The piece I linked to earlier about the ‘trauma team‘ and the willingness of high profile, successful ‘geeks’ to give up their time, leave their careers and families and go and do something they felt was important is an example. As is the work of Code for America all over the United States.

In the UK the Government Digital Service is filled to the brim with staff who could earn more at agencies, start-ups or in the City. They do it because they believe it is important.

Late last year James Darling, who himself took a role at the Ministry of Justice despite a successful career in the private sector, gave a talk at the Serpetine Gallery that became a successful post on Medium. In his talk he explained why he felt it was important for technologists to take up the challenge that the public sector offered if they really wanted to make an impact on society and not just make venture capitalists richer.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg I know. It remains difficult to recruit digital talent in to the public sector, especially outside of London, and there is hardly a flood of people abandoning their exciting startup jobs or well paid roles in Financial Services. The change though is that people are no longer dismissing it out of hand and every new convert brings us closer to the goal of ‘digital by default’ public services.

A healthier

I remain fascinated with all the Healthcare.Gov stuff from the US. I am not sure the failure of a web project has ever been higher profile and the speed of recovery from IT disaster to success story was/is simply remarkable.

This article about the ‘trauma team’ of geek volunteers brought in to save the day makes for really interesting reading (and not just because I recognise so many elements of the problems – albeit on a much smaller scale).

The idea that a relatively small team of experts from Google, Twitter and other big web companies were able to come in and take over running things and sort it out within six weeks is pretty amazing. My favourite quote in the story comes from Mike Dickerson, the Google engineer who (essentially) volunteered his time to lead this team;

“It’s just a website. We’re not going to the moon.”

I think it is important to remember that. Especially as in Government circles we sometimes seem to spend Apollo levels of money on websites and probably have more reporting and governance than NASA at the height of the space race :)

One of the interesting side effects of the whole problems seems to have been the birth of 18F – which styles itself as;

“..a digital services agency built on the lean startup model based within the United States federal government.

There is no doubt that this new initiative owes a great deal to our own Government Digital Service but also builds on the Presidential Innovation Fellows as well as the ideals of Code for America. It will be interesting to see how much influence a relatively small ‘in-house’ agency can have on digital across the Federal government but the willingness to at least try something different surely bodes well.