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Thursday, May 7

Life in a Wheelchair

Bit late but here's my contribution to 'blogging against disabilism'.

Wheelchair use ain't easy and one of the best ways to see this is to see life from a wheelchair users perspective. It seems to me a great use of video to show this and 'put yourself in their place' for the able-bodied, plus a great way to silence moaners about having to create ramps etc.

I hope at some point in the near future to produce a video showing this in my home town.

Here's some videos showing what I hope to show and some other talky ones.

Life on Wheels

Getting up from a Laying Down Position

Is a joke, right?

Ask me first!

One challenge after another

Also have a look at the clips from this documentary.

It definitely helps to show people. Listening to a screen reader, watching a very disabled person use the web, experiencing a wheelchair - all of this changes perspectives straight away.

It's also important to enable people to raise concerns. Life with a disability is tough and so being the 'complainer' just adds extra work. Any time you can encourage disabled people to take the lead on accessibility, take it.

Postscript: forgot to mention that this post occurred to me when I read How People with Disabilities Use the Web on the W3C website - I thought this idea could use some video.

Commentator asks 'where's the subtitles' - good point. If I find them I'll post them.

Postscript: Fear the Google, don't fear the Google

I wrote recently about what I felt are misplaced (literally) fears about Google. Particularly the fears of intrusive advertising.

Well if you want something to fear/campaign about, try this:

What RemoteMedia are doing is writing software which allows the screens to spot your gender and decide which ad might interest you more. And if this were not enough, such discrimination is soon to spread to race and age.

All you have to do is walk past the screen and it will recognise you for what you are; but being of a contrary turn of mind, I immediately have to ask how will the bearded lady fare, the pony-tailed chap? Apparently the software can cope with this sort of thing without turning a hair.

In cinemas we are moving towards foyer-based advertising and film trailers which will be selected according to the people present, big people, little people, sensed for size.

Go into a Teleflorist outlet and the software will spot your gender and play a rather mean trick: "If you are a man the ad on the screen will be for big bouquets which are probably about saying sorry and will cost a lot, the floral suggestions for women customers will be different. It's all powerful stuff," Jason says.

British American Tobacco have asked RemoteMedia to come up with software for a hidden system at point-of-sale to check whether customers are the right age to buy booze and cigarettes, the retailers themselves want the systems to protect themselves from prosecution.

The system can track you around a store and clock the way you walk, of your gait pattern, and, somehow, based on this, will be able to trigger ads around the store aimed specifically at you, a whole new take on "they saw you coming".

"It's gone way beyond generic placing on an advertising loop," Jason says. "Why not an ad that comes on as a door opens, for instance, when you are leaving an airport, it could be for a car hire company.

"You are rifle-shooting these days, the scattergun has gone."

A next version of Signagelive, will complement the existing ticker-tape facility for news and weather, breaking messages, with the addition of real-time video. And there's more in the pipeline, but as Jason says:

"We're sitting here now with our software waiting for the rest of the technology to catch up." So very Cambridge, don't you just love it.
Now that's 'intrusive'.

Wednesday, May 6

Rainforests and royalty: when 'bottom up' isn't all that

"One of the Internet's strengths is that it can help diverse communities to come together to insure that everybody's views and actions can really be made to count."
Prince of Wales
As you'd expect the Prince of Wales' online rainforest campaign attracted huge media attention. Like undoubtedly thousands of others this prompted me to visit the website Unfortunately that's where the problems start.

Yes, you can sign something, add your email address to the pile, and pass on a message to friends (which does have the facility to load your address book) but apart from that it doesn't appear to be enabled to let you do much else. You can sign up to be "able to record your own frog message with The Prince's Rainforests Project frog" ("and we will be in touch as soon as this section of the site is live!") and the sidebar says you can "grab our widget and place on your social network page or blog so you can count how many people have signed up because of you."

What the latter loads is a really over complicated widget with what appears to be either a slow host or a 'straining-to-cope' host (I suspect the former). As I've noted before, you really don't want a slow host for widgets as they will crash/slow down any web pages who chose to use them.

As it was, the click on 'grab this' did nothing, so I don't know if they were offering what should be the standard armory of virality: various sizes, various levels of complication (and code size) as well as various banners.

Other absent standard stuff are links to youtube, myspace (which was trailed in the PR) etc. There are design issues and navigation issues too.

Some press claimed that Charles' crew had hired Obama's crew to come up with this campaign. Surely not? This is way below par for them if that's truly the case.

And not just because of the website mistakes. The main thrust of the online US election campaigns (not just Obama's, Hillary's too) went beyond 'raising awareness' to connecting people so they could do stuff together, like get people onto electoral roles or to knock on doors.

I suppose it's difficult for the Prince to encourage people to lobby the powers that be but the impression left is 'support me in doing good work on your behalf' - and that's hardly "bottom up".

Britain run by philistines

The Cannes Palm, world renowned Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami has pulled out of a English National Opera production of Cosi Van Tuti, because he was "humiliated" by UK visa requirements.

The Telegraph has a source saying:

"Abbas found the visa application process unduly time-consuming and complicated. He was not treated in a respectful way by the British Embassy in Tehran. The ambassador did try to intervene at the last minute to help him, but by that stage it had all gone a bit too far. This is not him being a diva -Abbas is not that sort of person. He has worked freely in Italy and France and has never had an issue with his visa applications."
I have blogged about Jacqui Smith's new anti-culture, bowing to the tabloids and the hate-mongers regime on visas for international artists.

Here's what some d**wad at the the UK Border Agency was quoted as saying in response to Kiarostami's statement:
He denied that staff had shown Mr Kiarostami disrespect and said "tough rules" were in place for all applicants. A spokesman said: "Fingerprint visas mean we can check everyone who wants to come to the UK against immigration and crime databases. These checks are a crucial part of securing the border and they are not something we will apologise for – they have already detected at least 5,000 false identities. The system is strict but it is also speedy – we complete most visa applications within a week.

"We demand the utmost integrity and professionalism from our staff and are determined that the UK continues to stay open and attractive to visitors. That is why we have taken many steps to ensure that everyone – including foreign artists who make an important contribution to the UK – know about our tough rules, which include having a licensed sponsor."
"Not something we will apologise for", "visitors", "securing the border", "licensed sponsor" - 'Cool Britannia' is officially dead.

Tuesday, May 5

Why .gov webbies need professional status

Neil Williams published a great post: Beyond cut and paste: the professional skills every government web publisher should have.

As a man who hires webbies for government, and who deals with lots of devolved publishers, Neil's skills list comes from a truly knowledgeable source. I had one addition: marketing.

What his list shows is that to be a good government webbie, a professional government webbie, someone who knows how this stuff works within government, you need to have a wide breadth of skills. Only some of those skills could be argued as being particular to government.

The trouble is that Neil is fairly rare in recognising this wide breadth and those who actually run government appear to have no sense of the range of web skills required to do these jobs well and tend to assume that they're all government-specific and definitely not web-specific.

Last year I got into a debate with then SOCITM president Richard Steel, about this very issue.

At the PSF event in June last year he had presented 'Why we should no longer distinguish web from ICT'.

His argument was that web should be 'run by IT, not communications departments'. Some of what he said I liked:

What made me applaud was his line that, basically, senior managers who don't understand the basics with IT no longer have the requisite skills to do the job, they should go. He, like me, is sick of senior people who wear their ignorance 'like a badge of honour'. I also liked that he was arguing that services must take more day-to-day responsibility for what they do online and that government gains from being subject to the same forces as business.
In response to his quite inspiring (he has done some great work in Newham) talk about the future, I also pointed out that there still many things we, government, don't do:
I don't see anything suggesting that in another ten years either of these factors will change, that we will be doing the things we don't or that we will be absorbing the right influences. However we will probably be in a more competitive environment simply because many more businesses will be in our territory - people selling recycling bins, people promising to better handle your passport enquiries, people trying to make money from your health enquiry, other services like charities. When this is happening, how do customers find you and steer past the commercial providers?
That Richard could make the argument that web equals ICT comes entirely from how government websites have grown up. In other sectors they've had other drivers, editors or the sales department for example. Only recently has there been a shift within government to move control of websites away from ICT and to communications because that's, in government, where they tended to start from.

The problem is - citing Neil's skills list - neither of these parts of government tend to be run by people with any web skills (or, at best, only some of them), this leads to massive distortions in priorities.

This is why this particular skill is cited by Neil:

Negotiation, explanation and persuasion. See writing for the web, accessibility, information architecture above - all of these things need explaining to people who don’t see why they should care. And often it means persuading senior people (often in both senses) that they can’t have a PDF of a scanned letter on official headed paper on the homepage. Enthusiasm and advocacy helps too, for talking to those customers who don’t think they need to put information on the website at all.
Another problem is that skills development within egov is patchy to none existent. This also leads to distortions such as a failure to take usability seriously or the infamous 'build it and they will come' mentality. I blame this on the 'walled garden', where government people only meet and learn from other government people and don't tend to learn from and apply lessons from the rest of the web.

You could argue that webbies outside government also experience similar problems but the key difference is how they are judged by non-webby bosses - I would say the bar is both set higher and made clearer. In order to deliver, commercial webbies can't afford, or not for long, to not have that breadth of skills. Whereas within government I rarely come across people like Neil.

One solution to the myriad of problems I see in how government webbies operate and the environment in which they operate, on which I have been working, is to establish professional status through a new organisation.

My main argument with Richard Steel was that web skills are both new and unique. IT doesn't have them, Comms don't have them - only webbies do but they are unrecognised. Raising recognition must happen alongside raising standards. Simply put, a way must be found for webbies who know what they are talking about to have a real voice.

In the United States such an organisation exists. The Federal Web Managers Council has existed for some years but has achieved much prominence with its advice to the incoming administration and it's extremely sucessful conference (see the tweets) which included input from such people as Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Gerry McGovern and media guru Jeff Jarvis. It also runs a Web Manager University Training Program and serves as the steering committee for the Web Content Managers Forum, a group of nearly 1,500 government web managers across the USA.

Says Candi Harrison about the Web Managers Conference:
When web managers start thinking and acting collectively, their power – and their results – increases exponentially.

So there is a model. There's also the beginnings of a dialogue, as in conversations of mine and others with US colleagues the Americans have expressed interest in a two-way learning process.

The problem has been how to sustain such a new organisation. Volunteerism is not enough when you are dealing with busy people, it can only last so long. It can also lead to the sort of distortions in direction and activity which I pointed to as a general issue.

This is why I organised a meeting of key people earlier this year with Socitm to explore what such a organisation could do and how it could be made sustainable, and I'm pleased to say that the process begun at that meeting is bearing fruit.

If you are interested in hearing more and contributing to these plans, there will be opportunities to do so at meetings arranged at the end of the Socitm Insight web events on May 19 (in Birmingham) and 2 June (London), starting from around 4pm.

They will be open to people at any level of seniority or career stage who are employed or freelancing in the public or third sectors, or in any organisation working with them.

If you are not attending these events as a delegate you are welcome to join the meetings at the times advertised. Let Socitm know of your intention to attend by emailing (say which meeting you're coming to).

Looking back on Richard Steel's presentation for this post it's a good feeling to know that the same body is now positively encouraging egov web professionalism and our presence within its ranks. Who knows, maybe they'll live to regret letting us in!

RIP: Dom DeLuise

One of my favourite comic actors.

Here's the climactic scene from Blazing Saddles.