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Saturday, September 19

US health 'debate': the dangers of rhetoric and the need for responsibility

This week I posted about how the Daily Mail appears to be supporting - and making money off - the right-wing America 'Tea Party' movement.

As I added to my post, since then President Jimmy Carter has sparked debate with his comments that much of this movement is driven by racism. But there is another aspect to what's happening and that's the increasingly open threats of violence.

The USA has a long history of political violence, assassinations and home-grown terrorism. The environment is which the 'Tea Parties' and the heathcare 'debate' are happening is one where President Barack Obama is the target of more than 30 potential death threats a day and is being protected by an increasingly over-stretched and under-resourced Secret Service, according to a new book.

On 17 September, Rachel Maddow discussed on her show the rather rare emotional statement warning of violence and call for a responsible debate by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi referenced the late seventies assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Her guest to discuss this was Cleve Jones, a colleague of Milk and the man who found his body.

In the course of the segment, Maddow discussed not only Speaker Pelosi’s view of the violence as being not unlike that of the time surrounding the assassination of Moscone and Milk, but also the incredibly irresponsible response out of Republican Minority Leader John Boehner.

There has been some legitimate debate over Carter's comments - see this for example by David Brooks in the New York Times, and the Mail carried a sensible piece by Gavin Esler - but the rhetorical tone, the toleration of protesters with guns and the inclusion (rather than exclusion) of people who are not only openly racist but also people saying that violence is legitimate?

As Maddow points out, where are the voices of the right trying to deescalate? And where is the Daily Mail?

Politicians have a choice. They can use their influence and the megaphone of their stature to further escalate the rhetoric, to try to stoke it further, to just see what might happen. Or they can use that influence, that megaphone, to try to deescalate. To get the threats of force out of our political debates. To use leadership, to ask everyone to take a deep breath before someone gets hurt. Whose doing that right now on the American right?

Introducing 'lifestream': UK MP's website breaks new ground

LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone is the party's lead on web stuff and so she should be - she's had a blog since 2003 and has fed it practically everyday since. Lynne even credits her election victory to her strong online presence and use of it as an organising tool.

When she came to updating her website she chose Simon Dickson of Puffbox, the man responsible for many website transformations including Number Ten's.

For her site Dickson has done something entirely new and - I think - brilliant. Called a 'lifestream' it brings together all the flotsum and jetsum of Lynne's online life in one place - her site.

Says Dickson:

So the grand concept of the site is the use of a tabbed 'lifestream' as the homepage. The initial view lists her last 10 actions, no matter where they happened - including Early Day Motion signatures, which required me to write my own scraper. Then, if you want to see her activity on one of those specific areas, you just click the appropriate tab. It's all driven by RSS; the tabs are powered by ajax; the lists are generated by a cron for obvious reasons.

It includes content from:
  • Her blog
  • Hornsey & Wood Green LibDem press releases
  • Her tweets
  • Her pictures on Flickr
  • Her in Hansard
  • Early Day Motion signatures
  • Her videos on YouTube
  • Media cuttings about her
So rather than a whole lot of icons you click through to find content this brings it all together. As I said, brilliant. And just maybe a first?

(Just not sure about the name 'lifestream', only I can't think of anything better).

Google UK offers free webinar to council webbies on 'conversions'

As part of Google UK's increasing local engagement it is running the first in a series of Webinar's next week.

This one is about 'conversions', getting users through a process on your website and sucessfully out the other end. This process may start from them clicking on an ad or being directed from the homepage or entering the process from an organic search result.

All websites lose people as they drive them towards a goal - which can be paying for a book or ordering a new rubbish bin.

When I presented at the Google local government event I mentioned that even top websites like Amazon - for whom this means lost revenue, lost profits - lose significant numbers of people along the way despite testing and testing and testing again. From memory this was anything up to 20% but, as I was with folks who know way, way more about this stuff than me I double checked. 'Yes' the Googlers nodded ...

For local government I suspect that a lot more than 20% of transactions are lost and this means a number of things:

  • ' Service transformation' is in large part about encouraging self-service which is in large part about getting people to do stuff online - if the process doesn't work for many or even most of them 'transformation' simply isn't going to happen.
  • If people have a bad experience with a process it will be that much harder to improve it and get them back. Plus they will tell people about their failure.
  • If the numbers of people successfully completing online transactions are below expectations then this undermines those promoting and developing them - including budget allocation.
  • Conversely, if expectations are too low - as I believe they usually are - bad processes become tolerated and it is that much harder to argue for money to be spent on improving them, for example of user testing
The webinar marketing is aimed at commercial organisations, it talks about "converting into paying customers". But for users a process is a process online, so for local government every single point made will be applicable and this is why Google's UK local government people want council webbies to watch.

Here's what it will cover:
A. Understanding Your Visitors
B. Maximising Your Traffic
C. Traffic Sources
D. The Homepage
E. Landing Pages
F. Bouncing Visitors
G. Visitor Journey Steps
H. Exits
I. Site Search
J. Go
It will be conducted by one of Google UK's certified Conversion Experts and the first one takes place 24 September at 3pm.

Wednesday, September 16

Daily Mail has joined the American lunatic fringe

It's Wednesday and the Daily Mail is still carrying a factually inaccurate story published the previous Sunday morning.

And it's not like they haven't been told it's inaccurate, comment after comment in the 279 thus far point out exactly why they are wrong.

What's interesting is exactly how come they are wrong.

Inaccuracies often come about because one newspaper is mugged or fed a line, believes it and then, like lemmings, everyone else falls off the cliff. This is often the case with crowd numbers, someone will carry an organisers claim and that gets reproduced.

Respected statistician Nate Silver (the one who got the US presidential election most right) found this out when he tried to estimate the numbers at the US right's 'tea-bagger' parties in April from mainstream media reports.

Often they were wrong, sometimes laughably so - but there are limits. Silver found that "exaggerations were contained within some reasonable bounds". Doubling for example.

The Mail's headline is out by a factor of 33.

Media Matters has been tracking the circulation of this meme. Here's the origins:

Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, took to the rally stage and unfurled a massive lie. He told the crowd ABC News had reported that between 1 million to 1.5 million people had gathered to protest Obama's policies.
[FreedomWorks, by the way, are the healthcare industry funding lobbyists 'astroturfing' the protests.]

This flat-out lie was then tweeted, exaggerated upwards to 'two million' and then carried by prominent right-wing blogs who, much later, published a correction as ABC hadn't said it and the actual 'official' estimate by the DC Fire Department was 70,000. It was also very obviously wrong because two million was the official estimate for the numbers at the Obama inauguration and that shut down the city for several days. Saturday's 'tea bagger' rally had no associated reports of a DC shutdown.

As Media Matters notes, despite the corrections, on the lunatic fringe the meme continues to circulate.

What this leads me to ask with the Mail's story is exactly where was it sourced from? The story itself gives no source but, as has been tracked, it could only have come from a right-wing blog, most likely Michelle Malkin. Not even Fox News mentioned 'two million'.

So why is the Daily Mail reproducing stories hot from the American right-wing blogosphere?

Surely the reason why is money? Specifically, the American traffic to which they can sell ads that such stories generate is huge. Plus there's reason to think it's money because they have form.

In January another unsourced Mail story which said that Obama's inauguration had cost $110m was linked to from the King of the right-wing online, Matt Drudge. That story is also still live and still inaccurate.

The Daily Mail is seen by Americans not as we see it but as a British newspaper which behaves like a normal, mainstream newspaper. It may slant stories or omit facts but make them up? Source them from a blog? Fail to correct inaccuracy? Not do a basic fact-check? 'Respectable' newspapers don't do that.

Referring to a story in the Mail on the right in America is back-up for lies: if they're saying it there must be some truth to it?

As they make their money from joining the US right-wing blogosphere what is the Mail buying into?

Many commentators have noticed that the anger of the far-right has a strongly racist streak, which is almost daily becoming less 'readable' and more self-evident.

A couple of days ago there was one of those made-for-repetition-on-cable-TV stories generated from CCTV footage, this time of a bullying incident on a school bus in Illinois.

Yesterday the leader of the far-right lunatic fringe, radio host Rush Limbaugh said of the incident:
In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, 'Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on.

I wonder if Obama's going to come to come to the defense of the assailants the way he did his friend Skip Gates up there at Harvard.

Somehow I doubt it.
This is classic race-baiting and goes further than even he has gone so far.

Andrew Sullivan said of Limbaugh's comments in a post titled 'They Don't Even Disguise The Race-Baiting Any More':

I'm sorry but this is outrageous. The story was a classic schoolbus bully incident; it could happen anywhere any time and has happened everywhere at all times with kids of all races, backgrounds and religions. To infer both that it was racially motivated and that this is somehow connected to having a black president is repulsive. I know that is almost de trop with Limbaugh, but sometimes you have to regain a little shock. This man is spewing incendiary racial hatred. He is conjuring up images of lonely whites being besieged by angry violent blacks ... based on an incident that had nothing to do with race at all. And why, by the way, does someone immediately go to the racial angle when looking at such a tape?

These people are going off the deep end entirely: open panic at a black president is morphing into the conscious fanning of racial polarization, via Gates or ACORN or Van Jones or a schoolbus in Saint Louis. What we're seeing is the Jeremiah Wright moment repeated and repeated. The far right is seizing any racial story to fan white fears of black power in order to destroy Obama. And the far right now controls the entire right.

Do they understand how irresponsible this is? How recklessly dangerous to a society's cohesion and calm? Or is that what they need and thrive on?

Since I first published this post the comments by President Jimmy Carter have put the issue of race at the centre of debate about the protests. This is how the Mail covered Carter - and again it repeats 'up to a million'.

Which beggars the question: does the Daily Mail have any conscience about the monster it is feeding on - and off?

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Monday, September 14

Web stats for egov: a starter

After I posted in March about Issues with Better Connected's webstats use, Better Connected (BC) author, Socitm, kindly invited me to present at an event in London in May (a presentation partly repeated at #googlelocalgov). Following a conversation with BC's Martin Greenwood I've been invited to contribute more to their development of BC's web stats use section and how council's are judged on the subject in the annual report.

(Better Connected is the annual review and report on UK local government websites).

The Central Office of Information (COI) published guidance on web stats earlier this year.

The following are some initial notes and so I would welcome comment and input on them. There are issues with how the BC review team is practically able to judge councils on their stats use but first I think we need some idea of what best practice is on how they should be using them.


The use of web stats for web development is best tied to goals, and through defining those key goals and associated metrics at all levels of a council: business, web team, other teams (such as comms), and then individual services.

Unfortunately internal politics often means that reporting (upwards) usually takes priority. So how a council better allocates stats resources (mainly time) is entirely consistent with BC's prime task of improving council websites.

Business/ marketing

  • Customer–driven, which usually means tied to online service delivery through processes but could be information-delivery as well as process.
  • Linked to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) — unclear (to me) as to whether there are standardised (apples vs apples) measurement?
  • CTR (Click-throughs) — actions, exits, abandonment rates; sources being email, direct/search, shortcut, ads, referrer, drill-down, onsite cross-promotion
  • Keywords — search referral, SEO, content relevance
  • Content strength — time on page, pageviews
  • Benchmarking — against call volume, against other councils (NB, apples vs. apples issues, note city profiles), goal valuation (ROI)
Use of Google Analytics by many if not most councils provides an opportunity for benchmarking.
  • Is view access shared?

Web Team/marketing/comms
  • Trends — pageview, keywords
  • Finding problem pages — drop out rates, low/high time on page, click backs to indexes, broken funnels (CTR, with follow ups eg surveys, customer services data, focus groups, usability testing application)
  • Other council comparisons — eg Google Analytics view share comparative page drop out rates, low/high time on page, click backs to indexes, broken funnels
  • Establishing goal use practice/policy to measure funnels
  • Testing different designs
  • Goal measurement tied to marketing — landing pages, funnels
  • Keywords — search referral, SEO, content relevance (primarily relationship to Google search but audience segment)
  • Marketing — external link tagging for CTR (click through) measurement

  • Linked to business needs
  • Reporting needs
  • Work/resource allocation — cost/time benefit measurement
General issues
  • Is the stats package correctly set up? — are secure sites (forms, payments), other sites, email links, downloads tagged
  • Is there integration with CRM?
  • Is internal/ other use segmented?
  • Planning timelines for reporting — also automating
  • Training — is this resourced, is there buy-in/ comprehension
  • Benchmarking – how to set, what to compare to (should be apples vs. apples)
  • Segmenting — sourcing demographic audience data
  • Use of more than one stats provider
  • When to hire expert guidance and for what purposes

Sunday, September 13