“Press release as blog post” drives me mad

MH at Syniadau says:

I have to admit to not being fond of the way that political parties interact with the media before a general election. Policy tends to get broken down into bite-sized chunks that will fit into a one column story or a two minute video clip on the news. There is no room for any detail.

Clywch, clywch! “Press release as blog post” drives me mad. Several times I’ve wanted to learn more and explore the detail – and been let down. By all the parties.

Boiling a complex issue down to a single press release with few or no links is too simplistic. It’s designed for newspapers, radio and TV, who have limited space. But news is, we have endless space on the web.

It also makes me think we’re stuck in familiar habits. Then just bolting on our digital media strategy.

Although I include party politics, this observation is applicable in many fields. We can do far better than this in Wales.

e.g. how about a manifesto wiki (or some kind of open collaborative platform) with deep levels of detail and relevant outbound links depending on how far you want to go down? People can ask questions, suggest improvements and help make it better and more accurate. It’s not expensive. Nobody in Wales is trying this at the moment.

(I know Hywel Williams AS tried something similar once with Wiki Deddfu, the technology was there but it lacked the investment of time and understanding of the human side. Also, it’s vanished from the web so we can’t learn the lessons and you can’t check if my analysis is correct.)

Corollary: it’s very hard to find a blog written by a PR company in Wales which is actually worth your time. Maybe it’s the curse of feeling you have to be “on message”. Comment if you know differently.

Wales Referendum 2011: I was there… kind of

I’m very pleased about the yes result in the Referendum on further powers for the National Assembly. These powers will ultimately benefit Wales. This post is only partly about that, it’s certainly not an attempt to sum up the total of my views on the subject – or give you a general picture. I think various blogs and commenters have done that very well.

I blog when I want to put a page or thought on the web that I don’t see from anywhere else. So this time I want to talk about my experience yesterday and jot down a thought about the “public space”.

As I was going through the coverage today, in particular Syniadau’s full videos from the leaders’ speeches in the Assembly building, it struck me today how removed from the event I was. Even though yesterday I was only about fifty yards away from the Assembly building.

Yesterday afternoon, before any of the counts, I made the short journey to Cardiff Bay. I already knew my chances of going in were small, my companion had official clearance and I didn’t. But I also knew that the yes campaign was the clear favourite in the opinion polls and was backed by all the main parties. Regardless of the outcome I considered it to be a historically significant event so I figured I wanted to be at the source. That’s not so much from a blogger’s point of view as just a citizen. If sneaking into the Assembly building wasn’t an option, perhaps I could be part of the fringe.

Cardiff Bay was about as busy as it ever is on any ordinary afternoon.

There was nothing unusual except the BBC and their twin portable offices. Maybe a few other journalists were roaming, but it was a small presence.

We walked up the steps, passing a police officer and assorted Assembly staff. We walked past the airport-style scanners to a desk. It was all very spacious, a lot of light through glass on every side, no bustling crowd in the reception. Staff representing the Electoral Commission were behind the desk with one greeter, wearing an orange Iaith Gwaith badge, standing in front. My companion had her name checked off one of the lists on the desk. “I think you’re on this list here.”

They turned to me: “Do you have accreditation?” and I replied no. In my peripheral vision I sensed a twitch of security staff on standby. Rather than stop to glean any insights from a hopeless situation I made plans for a reunion with my companion and I walked out. It was a pity not to be allowed in.

Plan B: now at least I could hurry home and check the online bustle. I could read some stats and binge on data rolling into multiple windows, radio and TV signals.

Except it didn’t feel like that kind of event.

Minutes later on the way home it was encouraging to bump into my old tutor on his bike, heading Bay-ward to sample the action. I did a u-turn. Soon after we absorbed a stray yes campaigner (who I’d only recently met on the streets last weekend). The three of us gathered round a transistor radio in the sun, discussing the results as they came in, watching the Bay. So much for the fringe though. We were the fringe.

It was a good afternoon. Someone mentioned that the news screen in The Hayes in the centre of town had assembled a modest number of passers-by. Where was our screen? I also thought of the people at the various counts around Wales, people at home in clusters cracking open a lager with friends, office staff gathering around monitors. We heard the cheering on the radio but I felt pretty atomised from all that.

There were other strays. Later in the Millennium Centre, waiting for the last two results, we spotted a well known Welsh historian strolling around in hiking boots, sampling the mood from passers-by, doing what historians presumably do on a historical day.

I’m trying to give you an image here of how quiet it was in the Bay. I guess events sometimes happen like that. It wasn’t a Berlin Wall moment or an Obama moment or a crowning of Hywel Dda moment.

What was public about the event was that it was broadcast in the media. The glass-walled conference with the leaders was designed for the media. But what struck me is how exclusive this conference was, when it probably didn’t need to be. I wanted a GATHERING. Political events of historical importance should be public events. You know, with speeches to the plebs, cheering, maybe a rogue boo.

What about that huge space in front of the Assembly? Or maybe inside the red Pierhead Building? Crowds are not organised as such, they appear as a congregation around the announcements – when citizens are given access. This should be the default. Of course security is an issue but if you’re a politician you should accept the small risk as you do frequently anyway. Just get out there. Stand on a platform and talk to us.

The party members gradually trickled out eventually, to pose for photos.

I should also mention that I’d arrived wearing a Yes For Wales / Ie Dros Gymru t-shirt, holding an afro wig and some oversized sunglasses. I came prepared. Thing is, you never know when a Wales political carnival will spontaneously break out and you might need to blend in with – say – fire eaters, stilt walkers and vuvuzela orchestras. This BBC photo montage captures “scenes” from the results day, including the lone figure, me. I don’t want to diminish the importance of Wales’ decision or the change but on the day there was very little that could be called a scene.

NoBonus4RBS will fly and fly

There are currently 7771 members of the Facebook group “NoBonus4RBS“, started by Billy Bragg.

Let’s watch it fly and fly.

RATM wasn’t the first successful Facebook group-based campaign (see HSBC’s student overdraft charges, for instance). But I think it is a good model to emulate.

As I said here about song-based campaigns, negative campaigns can work (by that I mean campaigns that unite against something). News is usually “negative”, it’s very often about conflict.

For campaigners it’s also about establishing the cause in different places and among different influencers – not just a Facebook group, but a conversation point, a Twitter hashtag/phrase, news stories, blog posts… Online, everybody can be an influencer, to an extent.

I think the group does act as a hub for the rest of the campaign, a backchannel of sorts. Why? Facebook is dominant, it relies on existing friend/social connections, joining a group is relatively frictionless and each action in the group (joining, posting something) results in a news item for others to see.

I’ve joined the group.

Billy Bragg is threatening to withhold his tax on 31st January in protest. Something’s got to give…

UPDATE: Oh my, there is a lot of traditional media coverage of Bragg. I wonder if he’s peaked early and in doing so bypassed the groundswell that could have happened on social media. We’ll see…

A Useful Fiction by Patrick Hannan

Sometimes I feel as if I’m always playing catch-up.

This book “A Useful Fiction“, which came out last year, has just brought me reasonably up-to-date with devolution of the United Kingdom, particularly some of the finer details which I’d missed.

It has many good insights into the idea of Britain and its democracy, or rather democracies. The cover picture is a Union Flag with some serious-looking cracks in it, so you get the general idea.

I like Patrick Hannan’s scattershot style. He doesn’t resist a few cheeky observations about Blair, Brown, other politicians, Prince Charles, etc. He has some fun with the subject, which is pretty important if you’re talking about devolution and suchlike. That said, he’s fairly even-handed and journalistic about it.

Read it before it gets out of date! It’s published by Seren.

It turned out to be Patrick Hannan’s last book. Here’s an obituary of Hannan written by Meic Stephens.

2010: year of a thousand RATM-style campaigns?

I have two predictions for 2010.

Prediction one is that we will see lots of online campaigns around songs, inspired by Rage Against The Machines’s chart success in 2009. It will be easy to be dismissive and call these “copycat” campaigns but the idea of mobilising large groups of fans via social media is a seductive one. And I think it’s more interesting than just letting the established industry and media dictate the sum total of who’ll be successful.

The first example I’ve seen is a Facebook group called “Cael band Cymraeg fewn ir TOP 40/Get a Welsh Language act into the UK TOP40” for a band called Masters In France.

Taking some cues from the RATM campaign, I think this is certainly achievable if the tune can be played on radio and the campaign can be blogged about and covered in some mainstream media. It would help if it were a band with some kind of following and a core band of independent, active supporters to act as campaigners in their own spaces, as was the case with RATM. As you’ll recall, the band got involved as a result of a “grassroots” campaign, which was well organised and had its own Twitter hashtag #ratm4xmas too. It wasn’t merely a Facebook group, but a campaign which existed in other places too.

See also: 1000 True Fans and the case against.

While comparing RATM to two other online campaigns, Simon Dickson identifies these factors:

  • they were negative campaigns – in the sense that they were based around someone or something that people didn’t like: religious advertising, Simon Cowell, Kerry McCarthy; and
  • there was a specific, measurable outcome: the sight of a bus with a poster on it, the announcement of the Christmas chart, the result from Bristol East on election night. If enough of you support me, we will get ‘X’ – and we will know if/when we have won.

Despite being “food for thought” rather than an exhaustive study, it’s worth reading Dickson’s whole post, especially if you’re interested in activism in the broader and sometimes non-frivolous aspect of the term.

So what’s my second prediction?

As we become more networked, aware of trends in society, more inclined to pass comment on it all and more capable of publishing those comments, I predict… more predictions and armchair futurology than any previous year.
🙂

All Wales Convention – Closed!

Remember the recent All Wales Convention? Yesterday they sent me this message via Facebook:

Diolch am ymaelodi a’r Grwp hwn. Gan fod yr Adroddiad wedi ei gyhoeddi bellach, rydym wedi cadw cofnod o gynnwys y Grwp Gweplyfr a’i ddirwyn i ben.

Thanks for joining the Group. Since the Report has now been published, we have kept a record of the Facebook comments and closed the Group.

What?

Closing the Facebook group is probably a mistake.

Part of the reason for using social media to get people’s opinions SHOULD be open access to the original stuff. The Convention achieved that during their work – to an extent – but what now?

Where can we read the opinions that were submitted via Facebook? (I’ve replied to ask and will blog the response, if any. But I suspect they’re filed in a dusty box somewhere.)

It’s not only about reading them – but quoting them, scrutinising them and linking to them. The group now has the text: “The work of the All Wales Convention is now complete”. That’s correct, but its recommendations and conclusions will affect Wales for a long time to come.

There are lots of UNKNOWN reasons why you’d keep something live on the web, and preferably with its own unique URL. Who knows what future purpose it might serve? It’s cheap, so why not? Incidentally here’s: the URL to the blog post you’re reading.

Real time web is exciting but it doesn’t diminish the value of persistence. And if all this is undesirable for someone, they have the option of writing you a letter or email instead.

Weirdly, for some reason, there are only three members in the group now and most of the submissions have already vanished. As for the discussion forum on the All Wales Convention main site, it’s being closed for comments – but kept live for future reference. Does this mean your comments via Facebook are worth less than comments on the main website? I hope not.

For me this brings to mind major weaknesses in Facebook as a tool for political engagement. Sure, it’s fashionable right now and it does offer access to large numbers of people. I’m not saying Facebook should never be used for this sort of project. But it’s very difficult to export your data for archival purposes like this. It’s also impossible to deep link to a specific comment. Facebook itself makes no guarantees about the persistence of your data either.

UPDATE 11/12/09: The group has gone, along with everyone’s comments. I received a short reply saying they only had a paper copy and would get back to me about how it could be accessed. I hope future government projects emulate the good parts of this example (attempting to engage with people, mainly) and leave out the bad. Lots of potential blog posts there…

Thoughts for Wales’ new Cross-Party Digital Group at the National Assembly

I went to a public meeting at the Assembly buildings in Cardiff last night, which was a chance to meet Wales’ new Cross-Party Digital Group and have a discussion to answer the question:

“How can we make better use of new media and digital technology to engage with the people of Wales?”.

The members of the group are the Assembly members Alun Cairns, Peter Black, Alun Davies and Bethan Jenkins. Not all of them could actually make it but as an intro conversation with q&a it was worth attending.

Foomandoonian has blogged last night’s line-up (with representatives from Google UK, Oxfam GB, MessageSpace and chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones). He’s also blogged some of his highlights of what the guests said.

Below are some of my thoughts. I did raise my hand and ask a question about monitoring blogs and other social media. I also filled in a feedback form (on good old paper). Maybe I can explain/expand on them here. I’m offering them from my perspective and as someone who works with the web and is interested in seeing Wales do well.

Getting attendees at the meetings. I get the impression there will be more of these meetings. “Engagement” is a popular word to drop in, how can we actually do this? Well, for what it’s worth I only heard about the meeting because a friend emailed the details to me. Otherwise I would have missed it. So next time please put a page on the Assembly site about this meeting. Then it can be found by Google and we can send it around by email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and all the other various networks. Whatever existing publicity there was worked well because there were about 80 people in attendance, give or take. This was described as a good “turn-out”. It seemed that most of these people were middle-aged white men in suits. It’s just an observation, there were exceptions of course and it’s actually a good start. But not to have an open page (none that I could find anyway) on the web about a digital Wales meeting is missing a trick. Get a bigger room next time because we’ll be spreading the word!

The meeting itself needs to be more open. The meeting is already somewhat open because people are blogging about it and some people were using Twitter with the hashtag #digitalwales. Please record it next time. Just the audio will probably be fine, with a roving mic for questions. Document the whole thing. That is engagement because you can upload it somewhere and make the best use of public money. It’s a public meeting, so make it as public as possible! There’s no reason why time and space should prevent people from at least hearing meetings anymore. Someone in Pen Llŷn will thank you. I recently wrote about recording meetings on my Native blog.

Bill it as open. This is a public meeting. If people want a private discussion with the AMs involved, there are already lots of ways (email, phone, face-to-face). So just make it clear to attendees that things will be recorded and for the benefit of everyone in Wales.

Let’s have a discussion about open data in general. The USA house their open public data at data.gov and the UK are not too far behind with data.gov.uk (not launched yet but currently on a developer preview). On the feedback form I suggested mySociety as guests for a future meeting because they’re probably the UK’s leading experts on making tools that use political and other data to benefit the public. Good to see that this is what they’re planning. There are almost definitely opportunities for Wales in open public data. By that I mean business opportunities that create employment and projects which help communities – as well as ways to understand the viewpoints, hold politicians to account and run a proper democracy.

But we would like Assembly data in standardised formats please. The online transcriptions of AM speeches are a bit disorganised at the moment. If the Assembly exists to serve Wales, then one way to achieve that is to make them machine-readable. Ideally this would be XML format, but it doesn’t actually matter as long as it’s consistent all the way and the original language and translation are clearly indicated (English and Cymraeg). Then all kinds of things become possible. A good example is the volunteer project They Work For You, which has a search engine for parliamentary discussions and related functions. It has UK parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly – but it’s missing the Welsh Assembly. I’ve written about the need for They Work For You to index Welsh Assembly discussions before. It’s been discussed on a mySociety mailing list and we welcome all coders! But the main point is NOT to raise the specific issue of They Work For You because it’s a volunteer project and only one of many possible applications. The point is making it as easy as possible for citizens to use the data.

Good broadband access. There was some discussion of this last night. I don’t know much about the situation elsewhere in Wales, other than that it’s important. Broadband is infrastructure, like railways. In the past, the railways moved coal and steel. Now we also move information, at much higher speeds. As with any infrastructure, it requires good usage – there is no magical transformation. But it does increase the possible ways people can communicate, learn and work.

Let us see the political process. So much of the discussion at the Assembly and the Assembly Government is private and it doesn’t need to be. I suspect it’s private because people tend to rely too much on email and waste opportunities to “engage”. The question for ministers and staff should always be: does this NEED to be private? If yes, then use a private method like email. If no (could even be the majority of cases) then quickly upload/publish it somehow (blog or wiki or some other tool). Now email the link to people. Thanks, you just opened up the political process! Don’t spin or polish the posts. We’ll vote for you if you’re honest and you communicate.

Some quick notes on tools. Posterous is a good tool because you blog by sending it an email. It’s not the only one with this feature but it’s quick, easy and free of charge. Facebook is OK here but be careful. By default your personal profile is not open – it’s halfway between private and public. My suggestion here would be upload/publish on an open platform (blog etc.) then post a link to Facebook for your friends and supporters.

I could have emailed my thoughts here to somebody. But I blogged them instead. Now anyone can email the link to anyone – or link from anywhere. It doesn’t mean they will but it allows it. People can also find it via search. I’d like to see this model in action.

Your blog posts don’t have to be as long as mine! Preferably they would have a name and a face next to them, not a logo.

Search is key. An AM should probably monitor (or have someone monitor) mentions of their name and issues they care about. Google Alerts are OK, but RSS is probably better. It’s not “ego searching” to look for your name. It’s… that engagement we keep talking about.

Thanks for reading, comments are open.

Blogging about Welsh politics

I’m going to be writing more about politics on this blog.

My interest is how politics might relate to technology, business and “ordinary” people in the UK – with a particular emphasis on Wales.

As a personal rule I try and stay away from the various personalities and day-to-day machinations, allegiances, squabblings, who wore what clothes and so on.

More generally, I’m not even a party political blogger.

Some of those things can be important (and entertaining), but they’re not what I specialise in. If you want to read that stuff it is available online.

I’ll carry on writing about the stuff I otherwise write about. Quixotic Quisling is deliberately an “anti-brand” which can contain anything I want for the next x years. Sometimes things converge into sense as you go along, if you know what I mean.

Don’t hold me to ANY of these things either. Any or all of them might change at some point. It’s my blog.

Now I’ve got the disclaimers out the way, on with the next post!

Welsh Assembly Government bundles of RSS feeds

The Welsh Assembly Government generates a lot of its own news.

The news is available as separate RSS feeds for 22 different topics, which is good. Actually, double that because there are 22 in English and the same 22 in Cymraeg.

This week I wanted to subscribe to a complete feed of everything, but I couldn’t find one listed on the site, in either language – which is not so good. So I made two feeds myself with Yahoo Pipes.

Welsh Assembly Government RSS feed, every topic (English)

Llywodraeth Cynulliad Cymru porthiant RSS, pob pwnc (Cymraeg)

Let me know if you do anything with these feeds. Anything at all. Even if it’s just a word cloud or something.

Unfortunately, on that note, they’re not complete feeds just headlines with a one-line description. (That’s all I’m getting from the 22 original feeds.) That’s fine for subscribing in your feed reader, it’s just an extra click per item to reach the full web page. But if you want to do anything else it’s restrictive.

You could probably make a more advanced pair of feeds which included the full page data from the site. Clone and modify my English pipe source and Cymraeg pipe source if you want.

Do you care about Wales? Can you code? Fancy helping TheyWorkForYou then?

Below is some full background to this, but in summary TheyWorkForYou are looking for volunteer coders interested in working on Welsh Assembly data. If that’s you, please join the new discussion list and let’s figure out how to do it.

If you don’t know TheyWorkForYou then take some time to familiarise yourself. It’s a well established site taking parliamentary data and presenting it in a queryable form. It’s free, loaded with information and very useful indeed.

The whole thing is maintained by mySociety who are world class at this sort of thing.

Have a play and see what you can glean about your MP or issue of choice. The search function allows you to subscribe by email (or better still, RSS feed) to notify you immediately whenever something you care about is discussed.

This is all very well for the UK parliament but the Wales section of TheyWorkForYou is currently looking very bare, containing only the following text.

We need you!
It’d be fantastic if TheyWorkForYou also covered the Welsh Assembly, as we do with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but we don’t currently have the time or resources ourselves — in fact, both those assemblies were mainly done by volunteers.

If you’re interested in volunteering to help out, please get in touch!

So yes, Wales is the only constituent part of the UK which doesn’t have its parliamentary data available on TheyWorkForYou.

There is nothing preventing us, it’s purely because nobody’s stepped up and done it.

As a quick explanation of the work that needs to be done: Welsh Assembly proceedings and transcripts are already available on the web from the official site. But they’re effectively raw dumps – of speeches and other data. It’s almost impossible to get useful insights about members’ voting records. It provides no option to subscribe to notifications that a phrase was used. Apart from a very basic and clunky site search function, all the insights are locked in. You could do a human-powered research trawl through the records, but that starts to get a bit unwieldy for normal people. It feels like the preserve of experts and not really like proper democracy.

Most of TheyWorkForYou’s engine is already built. In the words of Matthew Somerville at mySociety, the work now is to “parse the official report of the Assembly into structured machine-readable data to feed into TheyWorkForYou, along with member information for the Assembly. This will need programming skills, I’m afraid.”

So if you know anything about data structures or programming, why not apply that knowledge for the good of everyone? Join the discussion list for now as we’ll be figuring out how to tackle it.

Any given Assembly Member who does his or her job properly would surely encourage the kind of scrutiny that TheyWorkForYou could bring. You might be wondering why nobody at the Welsh Assembly has added the necessary features to allow their data to be queried. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt this time. Maybe they don’t always intend to obfuscate and hide this stuff. It’s just they’re not up to speed with any better ways of doing it. You might be able to help them! And the people of Wales!

I’m not naive enough to think that all problems can immediately be solved by opening up this information. Neither will it be enough to get every voter running to the polls once the information is available. All manner of things can go wrong in the democratic process. But if your thing is data, there is a clear problem there and maybe that’s the part of the scene you can help with.

In Wales we have a good selection of knowledgable, principled and often witty political bloggers. I’m not one. But I can help resource the conversation in the party political domain by opening up the possibility of insights from the data. It will be a step towards better accountability among our representatives. Let’s hope it does clear a pathway to some possible solutions.

If you’re not a coder, you could make a donation to mySociety or spread the word.