Tuesday, 18 February 2014

How Flooding Reversed The Flow Of News

You might have seen in the media, it's been a bit soggy in Berkshire over the past couple of weeks. They say necessity is the mother of invention and because of the flooding we bought forward the launch of our new news page by a few months.

The page is still a bit rough round the edges in its design, doesn't yet do all it will, but we took the same line as the Government Digital Service, and release something that's certainly a Minimum Viable Product.

It'll eventually show a summary of latest blogs, events listings and most recent consultations, but for now it just provides the additional functionality of a feed of news.

What's so special about that? Don't most council sites have a list of press releases?

As well as our news content, including the service status of over 100 schools, libraries, car parks, children's centres and more (something we introduced during the snow of 2010) it gives us the ability to import tweets into the news feed.

The LocalGov Digital Content Standards ask "Is the content original?" and being able to import tweets from other organisations means we don't have to repeat their messages; we just republish them and link to their content.

Take a look at the feed and you'll see messages from partners like Thames Valley Police, the Environment Agency and Public Health England, but you might notice something else.

Right at the top is a tweet from the council.

Many organisations publish news on their site and then tweet about it, or use something like Twitterfeed to automatically tweet it.

Our news feed gives us the ability to reverse this so that we tweet stuff, then import it into our site. Effectively we've reversed the flow of news, instead of flowing from our site to Twitter, and it's running from Twitter to our site.

The import isn't automated. The page editor can pick and choose which tweets from whom they decide to include. This means that something that shouldn't be on the site is far less likely to appear, although it's not impossible for this to happen occur due to human error.

Of course we'll still need to publish some news content on our site first, but for quick 140 character updates we'll be able to put them on Twitter then add them to our site.

In content strategy terms, this isn't anything new. I've often read that content should be published not all in one place, but in the best place for the each specific type of content and this also fits in with what I wrote in 2012 about Twitter just being a big database of content.

So that's how the floods helped us reverse the flow of news.

I'd be interested to know if anyone else in local government and beyond has take this approach. We've only been doing it week, so I'm keen to hear the experience of anyone who's been doing it longer.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Content Together

This week the Department for Education (DfT) changed twenty or so pages on their site, so I thought I'd write about it.

Seriously, that's what this piece is about.

So you're probably thinking, why does it matter, it's the department's site they can do what they like, and you'd be right. You're probably thinking, twenty pages, we've published more in one go before, it's not a big deal, and you'd be right.

So why on earth am I writing about it?

When it comes to digital, Central Government and local governments need to work closer together. The LocalGov Digital Content Standards promote this idea, and there's a whole section called "Is the content original" which basically says, if it already exists, link to it.

I've seen whole parts of local governments' websites that have been lifted from others' including those of Central Government. In almost all cases, this is a complete waste of time. Why reproduce what a credible source has published, potentially four hundred plus times across the country?

But there is another side to this, and it's the biggest argument for maintaining the wasteful practice I described above.

On Monday morning twenty emails from our Content Management System were sitting in my team's inbox telling us we had broken links to the DfT site. This means, that we had to try to find the new pages and replace the links. This isn't a huge amount of work, but sites change regularly so this happens reasonably often.

Not every organisation has a method of checking links like this, so they'd have to wait until someone came across them to find and replace them.

What would have really helped is to be told in advance when they were changing, and what they were changing to. This isn't a criticism, just an idea to make things better. There are technical solutions to solve this problem like persistent URLs that Legislation.Gov already use, but I suspect we might be a little way off this being enabled for all Central Government sites.

So here's a proposition. If LocalGov Digital continue to promote not recreating, but linking to Central Government content through our Standards, slimming down local governments' sites and only publishing what really needs to be there, perhaps the Government Digital Service might promote better communication with local governments.

I realise this only one minor part of how Central and local governments could work better together, but it could be another piece in the jigsaw.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.