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Wednesday, August 26

RSS vs Twitter in local government: a serious imbalance?

The Tortoise and the Hare, illustrated by Milo...Image via Wikipedia

eGovernment Register reports today on 'social media' use in local councils (LAs), noting that work by Liz Azyan published on her blog at shows it at:

% of LAs
Web dev blogs/feeds

Now I would argue that RSS is a bit misclassified here as 'social media'. That's one interpretation of it but another is as a data feed. That's what the Mash The State campaign is about, having feeds which can be 'auto-discovered' and are machine readable.

What shocked me in these numbers is that Twitter has in a few months been adopted by more councils than RSS over many years. You have to ask as well what 'RSS' use is being reported. Is it merely a feed of press releases extolling the greatness of the council as opposed to, say, planning applications or sports events? Mash The State's campaign is actually about the incredibly modest goal of all councils have a PR RSS feed by the end of this year. The bar has been set low by a campaign group: this speaks volumes.

So why is Mash The State modestly and quietly plodding along but Twitter shooting off and quickly overtaking? Fashion, what else could it be?

Local government webbies have spotted this trend and worked on that because it's easier and, frankly, because Twitter is in the news and can be thus more easily portrayed as a 'must-have'. It's 'low-hanging fruit', an 'easy win'.

It's not just Twitter. Web development blogs can be incredibly useful for webbie teams to get feedback on site development - that's why companies from Google to run them. But they require that bit extra of time and resources, and planning and arguing (and understanding) for their usefulness. So why are they so rare and why is there no research or group arguing for them or people demonstrating their ROI and giving them momentum?

Same goes for Facebook and YouTube (and the absent Myspace and Bebo): their collective use far outweighs Twitter so why are they much less prominent?

There's another danger here which is that which being prey to fashion has for the longer-term embedding of web in local government.

For councilors and many council staff (plus service users), who want to see and experience clear benefit, the potential for (open source) applications such as those being developed by #rewired state and #youngrewiredstate is far greater to my mind than it is from Twitter. But in the political and PR battle for the attention of Lgov webbies, especially its movers and shakers, are they losing attention and therefore potentially funding and other resources, like developer time?

These numbers should make Lgov people stop and think hard about what we're doing and where the priorities are. Yes Twitter is great and I love it but let's not just cheer what they say about the progress of social media and quote the Twitter number, let's look at the laggards and ask what we can do to get those numbers up to where they should be.
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When Aussie TV beats British TV

Marketing is one of the biggest influencers on our world, yet when did you last see a TV show devoted to it?

Australia's ABC (the equivalent of the BBC or PBS) has the Gruen Transfer, a fantastic show which is a 101 on how to do two things: make the subject extremely entertaining and also make US stop and think about how this huge industry works and affects our lives.

Where does the title come from?

In shopping mall design, 'the Gruen transfer' refers to the moment when consumers respond to 'scripted disorientation' cues in the environment. It is named for Austrian architect Victor Gruen (who disavowed such manipulative techniques). Recently, the Gruen transfer has been popularised by Douglas Rushkoff.

The show is hosted by comedian Wil Anderson with a panel of advertising industry experts. The two regular panelists are Russel Howcroft of George Patterson Y&R and Todd Sampson of Leo Burnett. Apparently the concept has been sold to TV production companies in the UK, Denmark, France, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, and Spain.

Here's an example of how they combine entertainment with stuff to make you think. Each week they ask two agencies to 'sell the unsellable'.

During last season's penultimate show one agency took the pitch of 'fat pride' one step too far for the ABC's lawyers and produced an ad which didn't get shown. It also didn't win the panelists over - and I agree with them. Here's the ad along with a panel discussion which was only made available online.

It's interesting that the professionals get that the in-your-face abuse of other groups represented in the ad's content, in order to say discrimination-is-discrimination, smothers the overall point. As straight non-Jewish blokes they didn't viscerally feel this but knew it was there. The poofter joke does smack me in the face and totally downgrades what the ad-maker is trying to achieve.

In the best traditions of publicly funded broadcasters failing to police their distributed content, both series can be found on YouTube.

Postscript: I spoke too soon, this has been removed for 'copyright violations'. The spot where the pitch and the discussion was supposed to be hosted - - is down. The pitch's existence seems to have been removed from the ABC entirely. The pitch itself is still on YouTube, but the debate has been removed.

Now I know Aussie TV and it has some crapolistic shows which make the worst of UK TV look Shakespearean. But it also has a whole terrestrial channel, SBS, devoted to largely 'foreign' programming.

The only non-English speaking UK (non-cable) TV programming we see is out-of-the-park brilliant Wallander and the occasional French film on BBC4. The former is only being shown here three years after Swedish broadcast because we deigned to make an English version of it. We have a shrunken world view as a result of bad programming.

Another thing Aussie TV has is lots of US imports which our rather Little-Englander viewpoint keeps away from primetime. This means that all Aussies know one of the best comedies of all time - Seinfeld - well and - because of the BBC's antics - Brits only know of it through word-of-mouth.

Another thing many a Brit has commented on is how bad UK TV comedy has got over the past few years and in one area this has got politically serious: satire. Yes, there are plenty of Radio Four series which take the piss in a sharp, upset-the-government way, but apart from the (rather weak) Bremner, Bird and Fortune what have we got which stacks up?

By contrast Australia has The Chasers War On Everything (which comes out of a preceding rich satirical TV tradition). This show is so sharp it has landed its stars in serious legal trouble on numerous occasions.

Can you imagine any current UK comedy show doing this?

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Tuesday, August 25

Obama's 'Cash-for-clunkers' has a major form usability #fail

COLMA, CA - JULY 31:  A sign advertising the '...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Jakob Nielsen points me to an astonishing statistic from the cash-for-clunkers programme currently being hailed as a great success by the White House.

The multi-billion $ scheme where old car models can be turned in for new and get a rebate is designed primarily to boost auto sales rather than green America's roads

From the New York Times:
The government is tripling the size of the work force assigned to handle the applications.

In many cases, the administration says incomplete forms or errors in the information submitted by dealers are slowing the process. Workers have reviewed about 40 percent of the applications filed, and many have been rejected and then returned to the dealer for possible resubmission.

Laura Sodano, a sales manager at Curry Chevrolet in Scarsdale, N.Y., said dealers were not told why their applications had not been approved and were having to review the entire form to determine what went wrong.
The New York Times doesn't say it so Jakob has to:
The 13-page form(!) is too complicated and many people fill it in wrong, leading to double work in both car dealerships and the government agency processing the applications.

Think of how much hassle and work they could have saved if they had spent a few days on usability and iterative design before inflicting this form on the public. The same user-testing methods can be used for paper forms as for online forms, and the error rate could have been cut to half of the current numbers by a day's worth of iterative design and testing. (It's often possible to cut errors to one-fifth through a few weeks' work.)
Jakob also points to another New York Times piece which reminds about one of the oft-forgotten basics for usable forms, plain English.

John Aloysius Cogan Jr, the executive counsel for the Rhode Island Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner, talks about the need for forms (and policy documents) to match an eight-grade reading level.

He says:
The health care reform bill now under consideration in the House of Representatives includes a proposal that certain disclosures in insurance policies be made in “plain language.” Another piece of legislation now being considered by both houses of Congress would likewise require uniform and simplified coverage information, much like what’s required on nutritional labels. These are excellent proposals, but they do not go far enough. Plain-language disclosures of some policy information and consumer-friendly labels are no substitutes for making an entire policy readable.
Cogan Jr. says that the state of Rhode Island now requires health insurance documents to be written at the 8th-grade reading level:

Says Nielsen:
We have long recommended writing Web content at this level for sites that target a broad consumer audience:


Some designers complain about this guideline, claiming that it leads to overly simplistic sites. But check out the before/after writing samples in the RI article: you'll probably agree that the 8th-grade writing represents the material just fine and is much easier to understand (even if you personally have the skills to read university-level content).

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Monday, August 24

Cute animals: Watch the birdie

This thrush (I think that's what it is, feel free to correct me! A mate thinks it may be a female blackbird) is completely unfazed by my camera. I've had it hopping around friends legs as we sit out in the backyard, not a care in its world. It's even hopped right onto the plants around me on the bench.

It's after the insects which, apparently, are encouraged by my backyard being slightly 'wild' and having different kinds of plants in it.

I like him/her and always say hello!

Rewired State goes teen and scores

Work for peanuts team by Julia Chandler

Public Strategy has a great and comprehensive post on Young Rewired State- Dame Emma Mulqueeny's baby held over the weekend at UK Google HQ.

Two projects leapt out for me:

'Blab to Betty - confidential unpatronising sexual health advice'

Something like this is sorely needed as sex ed is rather notoriously bad in the UK - it's one of the reasons we have such high teenage pregnancy rates. But also for young lesbians and gays sourcing advice and education online isn't good enough because censorware often blocks access via schools and libraries and if you're monitored at home you don't want to be surfing advice, community or sex ed websites. So a text (? post doesn't give details) service could help fill a gap in provision.

Blog-o-tics taking Bills plus blog search searched for emotive terms to create overall attitude score'

This rang bells for me and then I remembered I'd seen something which sounded similar in the 2008 US Election: Virtual Vantage Points monitoring of blog reaction.

These split the blogosphere into conservatives and liberals and picked up on text mentions in each. The idea from Young Rewired State sounds like taking this further.

I'd pulled out Text clouds from them for March 17 to see reaction to Obama's big speech on race.

Another group it reminded me of was what 6 Consulting (formerly from Cambridge) do in social media monitoring.

Neither of these ideas won anything but I can definitely see a space for both.

Sunday, August 23

Music: Paul Morley goes disco - and sets me off on a nostalgia trip

Previous readers may have noticed my predilection for a spot or hour-upon-hour of disco.

So I was please, nay amazed, to see writer Paul Morley conduct an interesting round-table for Guardian Online with Vince Aletti, the very first writer to cover New York's emerging disco scene in the 70s, DJ and author Bill Brewster, and Luke Howard, DJ at London's Horse Meat Disco.

Being Paul Morley it's hyper-intellectual but all three of his panelists pick up on one DJ trick which I recall being the mark of a great DJ - finding that obscure, forgotten track which you made your own.

I was too young for disco in the 70s except on the radio but by the time I'd started DJing in 1987 in Sydney I'd also started rummaging through Sydney's great second-hand record shops for obscure disco classics to play first on my Saturday night radio show 'Move On Up' and then later in parties, bars and clubs.

Raw Silk: Just in time and space
From New York's consistently brilliant West End Records. The best version of this is the trip-out dub, which I found on YouTube. Yay! :]

That's exactly the sort of track which would find a home at Paradise Garage, the legendary New York club which the best of my contemporaries in Sydney had been blown away at and then started Sydney's dance party scene in homage to, especially the incredible Black Party which ran for years and only ended when two of its three founders died. (It was named after the notoriously sleazy party held at NYC's Saint club but in Sydney people came mainly for the dancefloor not any sleaze).

Paradise Garage

DJ/producers like Francois Kevorkian (who is still around), Larry Levan and Shep Pettibone as well as Frankie Knuckles (of course) were the heroes of Black Party DJs and are my musical heroes too.

Kervorkian produced many left-field dancefloor hits like his remix of U2's New Years Day that my favorite Sydney DJ the brilliant, technically and creatively, Stephen Allkins would drop in a set because on a dancefloor they worked, especially late late when everyone was well mashed.

The last session was always the one where experimental DJs like Allkins came alive - not only were you not playing to a crowd which just wanted what was then in the charts but you could also throw in the left-field, slower and funkier tracks. The highlight of my DJing career was the 5-9am at a New Year's Eve Rat Party held at the RAS Showgrounds (now Fox Studios) where the decks were directly on the floor so on my favorite long, funky mid-tempo tracks I could nip out and boogie around with mates and several thousand others.

This was the sort of track you could play during the 'last shift', if you were Allkins or Black Party's late, great Ron Oram.

Taana Gardner: Heartbeat (Larry Levan mix)

That's on West End Records. Salsoul is another label from which you'd buy a track just 'cos it was on it and you knew it'd be good.

There is a Larry Levan mix of this Salsoul track but I couldn't find it on YouTube.

Skyy: First Time Around

You'd buy records on the Sleeping Bag label and be guaranteed a great track too.

Dinosaur L: Go Bang! #5 (François Kevorkian Mix)

More Salsoul and a Shep Pettibone mix (there's also a Frankie Knuckles one). This is a classic (classy) gay club track 'cos it's got fantastic female vocals and listen out for some of the most used samples ever.

First Choice: Let No Man Put Asunder

Last - must stop before the page download grinds to a halt - one of the all-time best dancefloor fillers and another track from which a zillion samples have been taken.

Hamilton Bohannon: Let's Start To Dance

Check out my music tagged posts for a heck of a lot more Dissssssssscoooooooooooo ...

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