Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gov 2.0 Canberra lunch with Alison Michalk on Community management - 13 April 2011

At the next Gov 2.0 Canberra lunch we're taking a look at a topic rapidly growing in importance for government agencies - managing and moderating online communities.

Quiip Director and Community Manager, Alison Michalk, will provide her insights into online community management, user-generated-content moderation and risk mitigation within the Web 2.0 space.

The presentation will draw on Alison’s experience with a range of private & public sector clients; demonstrating the various roles within community management along with strategies to enhance peer-to-peer dialogue and foster campaign support.

Alison Michalk is a respected practitioner in the online community management field. Based in Sydney, Alison has been working with online communities for over eight years. Her specific areas of interest include community governance and engagement, user behaviour and user-generated content moderation. Her experience building and managing online communities extends from start-ups through to large corporations, where she has managed a team of 30 moderators on Australia’s largest parenting website, Essential Baby (Fairfax Digital).

Alison has been featured in the ReadWriteWeb Guide to Community Management and Communities of Purpose white paper, and is a respected blogger on community management issues. Alison Michalk and Vanessa Paech (Lonely Planet/BBC Community Strategist) co-convene the Australian Community Management Roundtables, founded in 2008.

In mid-2010 Alison launched Quiip, an Australian-based community management and moderation business where she works with private and public sector clients including the Department of FaHCSIA’s youth initiative ‘The Line’.

When is the Gov 2.0 Canberra lunch?
13 April from 11.45 to 2pm.

Where is it being held?
The Gov 2.0 Canberra lunch in April is back at the Members' and Guests Dining room at (new) Parliament House hosted by Minister Gary Gray, Australia's Special Minister of State. Please note the special instructions in the event page.

How to register: Go to the Eventbrite page and request a ticket.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

A cartoon history of social media (via PeopleBrowsr)

Many people I encounter consider social media as Twitter & Facebook - which is pretty much all that gets reported on via traditional media.

However the scope and history of social media is much richer and deeper than this.

PeopleBrowsr recently commissioned a cartoon history of social media, which starts with the first robot messageboard - in 1930.

Even this cartoon merely skims the surface and doesn't go further back to pre-digital social media channels that existed before the 'big three' traditional medias grew up during the 20th century (newspapers, radio and television).

However it does go deeper than the Twitter/Facebook view of the social media universe.

For a commentary on the cartoons, visit the PeopleBrowsr blog

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Is it practical for government agencies to block web-based mail?

The Australian National Audit Office has just released a report 'The Protection and Security of Electronic Information Held by Australian Government Agencies' based on a review of the approaches to information security by four agencies, the Office of Financial Management, ComSuper, Medicare Australia, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Amongst other recommendations was one which has been much discussed on Twitter this morning, "emails using public Web-based email services should be blocked on agency ICT systems, as these can provide an easily accessible point of entry for an external attack and subject the agency to the potential for intended or unintended information disclosure."

This reflects the recommendation in the Defense Signal Directorate's Information Security Manual, the 'bible' for Australian Government agencies when it comes to ICT security, which states on page 100 that:
Agencies should not allow personnel to send and receive emails using public web-based email services.

The concerns are very clear and relevant - web-based email systems can easily be used, inadvertently or deliberately, to distribute large quantities of citizen's personal information, or an agency's In Confidence or other classified information rapidly and to large numbers of people, making it impossible to contain the spread of the information.

Web-based email is also a potential source of attacks against an agency, through viruses, worms and trojans in email attachments (which may not be able to be scanned at the same level as Departmental email can be) and through web-links in emails to compromised websites.

I don't dispute these real concerns. They are concerns for corporations as well.

However, I do ask - what is 'web-based email'?

Most people are aware of the classic web-based email services, Windows Live Hotmail, Yahoo mail and Gmail amongst many, many, many similar services (here's a list of 18 web-based email services - and that's just a start!)

These services follow a standard email model - an inbox, outbox, capability to send and receive email, with attachments and some ability to organise and file emails into folders. Most have automated spam-checkers too, some exceptionally good.

However while they LOOK like email software, they aren't really email software. They are simply web pages providing access to text, links, file upload/download and some buttons.

Any webpage can be designed the same way. In fact it would be hard to find any webpage without at least two of the same features.

In other words, while they look like email and act like email, they're really no different from going to any website which allows people to click on a link or download a file.

Regarding the risk of downloading or clicking on a link with a malicious payload (virus, trojan, etc), web-based email web pages provide no additional risk to standard web pages except, perhaps, that they have content targeted to an individual with a government email address.

There may actually be less risk in using popular and widespread web-based email services as they do employ sophisticated scanning techniques to limit spam and malicious payloads. It is in their interest to not allow their users to become infected with viruses as their business would suffer as a result.

In fact, in some cases the large web-based email providers may offer more security in preventing spam and viruses than a corporation or government agency can offer to its staff using official email accounts. The large web-based email providers have hundreds of millions of users and their business is providing web-based email, meaning they hire the best talent, employ leading edge solutions and invest far more into their email security than most corporations or government agencies can afford.

I've only talked about the identifiable web-based email systems so far, there's also several broader considerations.

More and more online services are implementing systems like web-based email for sending and receiving messages within a web browser.

This includes services like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Slideshare, Ning, Amazon, all forum systems and micro-blogging services like Twitter (allowing direct messages). Most ISPs offer web-based access to home email accounts. Even your bank probably does it.

In all cases these services provide you with the ability to send and receive messages, including links and sometimes also attachments.

They effectively act like web-based email services, without having the same name.

To block web-based email systems can be tricky without blocking access to the provider's other services, such as Google's analytics and webmaster systems. However it is (mostly) possible.

To block these other pseudo-web-based email services without blocking their service is most probably impossible in most cases. That would mean blocking staff from being able to monitor or interact (officially) over social media services, or even from accessing their bank accounts from work.

Another consideration is the vast array of services that could not remotely be described as having web-based email qualities but still allow people to share information online.

These services, like YouSendIt, DropBox, Scribd and a host of others (including web-based FTP services provided by ISPs and others) allow people to upload a file, or often many files, and share them widely. There are also services for making comments - every newspaper has one - and many services for anonymising where the data is coming from to prevent detection.

Now all of this may still be manageable if it were only defined organisations who provided all these services. However the barrier to setting up a new service that looks and performs like web-based mail, or allow files to be transferred is almost invisible.

Open source software exists to allow any person to create their own service in a matter of hours. Web-based systems allow you to create a web-based email facsimile in a matter of minutes. These services are widespread, easily discoverable and cheap.

People can set one up from home, or any public access computer and then access it at work. That's if they are not amongst the nearly 40% of Australians with personal smartphones, or the millions of others with laptops, netbooks and tablets and 3G connections to the internet. Personal internet connections at the office, every day.

I don't envy the job of ICT Security Advisors.

If an agency wished to prevent staff from sending files and information online to unauthorised recipients, or prevent the possibility of staff clicking on links or downloading files from the web that may carry viruses, there are only three solutions.
  • Whitelist a bare minimum number of sites that staff can access,
  • turn off internet access completely, or
  • establish effective policy guidance and education for staff, have managers monitor use and ICT Security advisers provide support and training.
While it may be easier for organisations to pick one of the first two options, they will experience staff backlashes, have difficulty recruiting younger people (now including people in their 40s) and be unable to effectively engage and respond to changing global and national events.

These approaches won't necessarily limit the use of personal internet-connected devices at work, many more staff might bring them in to get around the security settings (so they can do their banking and respond to critical personal events). These approaches may even increase the incident of information leakage as disgruntled staff use the fax or photocopy and walk out the door.

The third option, which requires extensive senior leadership and support, is more effective in the long-run, however a harder sell due to the time and ongoing education commitment. However it is, in my view, the only approach to managing the use of web-based email and all similar services - in effect the entire internet - which serves the long-term interests of governments, agencies and staff.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Attorney-General's Department supports research into social media use during disasters

As reported in Mumbrella, the Attorney-General's Department is supporting research by the University of Western Sydney into how the public seeks and shares information via social media during natural disasters.

To complete the survey go here.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Why don't advertising budgets match audience behaviour?

For a very, very long time (more than ten years) I've been asking marketers and communicators in commercial and public sectors why they invest so heavily in producing and showing advertisements for channels which fewer and fewer people are watching and invest so little in the newer channels emerging.

In most advertising budgets there's still a massive amount for free-to-air television, moderate for radio and newspapers, a comparative small amount for online, cable or mobile advertising and virtually nothing for social media engagement.

Of course there's price differences - the cost of producing and screening a single television advertisement is far greater than that to produce and screen a web video for a month.

There's also a difference in how advertisements are developed. Television and radio are one-way mediums, with the focus on gaining attention and communicating a simple message in 1 minute or less - whereas cable advertising can be more interactive and online even more so (except for display advertising online, which doesn't have a good record of success in Australia).

The last few years of research on Australians have demonstrated that the internet is our number one medium, particularly for under 35s, however advertisers are still focusing their efforts on television - perhaps because that's what the older decision-makers watch.

This discrepancy has been brought home to me again by the Mumbrella piece, Natalie Tran: Bigger than free TV, on Natalie Tran, a 24 year old student on YouTube who, in the second week of March, received 876,106 views.

As Mumbrella pointed out,

If she’d been on free TV, she’d have been the 42nd biggest show of that week, based on OzTam’s data.

She had more viewers than Nine’s Customs (876,000), Sunday’s edition of ABC News (872,000), RPA (868,000), The Mentalist (863,000), RBT (856,000). And indeed Top Gear (818,000).

A couple more interesting figures comparing Top Gear's channel on YouTube with Natalie's Community Channel:
Top Gear’s YouTube channel uploads have delivered 193m views. Natalie Tran’s Community Channel channel 357m.

To Gear’s direct channel views – 15m; Community Channel, 47m.

Top Gear’s channel’s most viewed clip – 5.9m; Community Channel’s 34m. And no, I haven’t got the decimal point in the wrong place.
Surely it is time to begin shifting the budget a little further, and trialing out more interactive initiatives than Simply. More. Display. Advertising.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

BarCamp lineup (at 10am)

Here's the current line-up for BarCamp Canberra presentations today.

LT1 - Big Theatre
9.30 How to deliver a kick ass presentation
9.50 Make Hack Void Community Update
10.10 Interact, robotics, wearable computing
10.30 Minecraft
10.50 Communication Science and Skepticism
11.10 E-Dialogue
11.30 Possible Skeptitechnical Improv
11.50 Enabling Digital Society - the gov part
12.10 Web apps enabling social inclusion
13.30 Web typograph or Jeckyl
13.50 Agile business management
14.10 Tweeting for your country
14.30 ABS, Open Standards, Metadata and how to win an iPad
14.50 Open Transit in the ACT
15.10 Zombie preparation for Disastro

TR06 - Tute room
9.30 Architecture for collaboration
9.50 Designing big complex things
10.10 Finding better ways to develop standards
10.30 Startups
10.50 Convergence TransMedia and the whole shebang
11.10 what do you do with a hole in the ground?
11.30 Video accessibility and HTML with JavaScript
12.10 Drupal - what would you like to know
13.30 Legal liability of open wireless for users and providers
13.50 SigInt
14.10 Open data - discussion of
14.50 Mapping a datavis
15.10 Gov 2.0 - where are we heading?

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Friday, March 18, 2011

The coming open data battle - government versus commercial interests

I'm a big fan of opening up as much public sector information as possible in easily discoverable and reusable ways (taking into account privacy, security and commercial-in-confidence considerations).

The data allows citizens and organisations to build a more informed view of their government's activities, a good accountability measure.

It also allows the development of useful applications and services at low cost and even lower (frequently free) prices. Sure they may not be as polished as multi-million dollar services developed by governments or big business, however they allow citizens to choose the tools that work best for them. Government or big business can always use these learnings to build on.

Open data also allows government agencies to see what data other agencies have, and lets them use it to improve their models, understanding and policy. While often overlooked in the rush to provide data to citizens, often agencies have as much trouble discovering and accessing data from other agencies as citizens do.

However as more public sector data gets released, losers are also emerging, some with deep pockets and effective lobbyists.

Who loses when government data is released for free? Several groups spring to mind.

First are companies that make their living from licensing public information and selling it on (often with value-adds) at a mark-up. These companies allow agencies to extract a market price for their data without having to contend with the complexities of the open market. They often have a monopoly position, controlling access to a source of public data, and can be very resistant to losing their monopoly or seeing the data 'devalued' through free release.

Second are companies that rely on getting data first to build their edge. This includes stock market traders, where having information a few hours earlier than the market may be worth millions. It can also include the media, who thrive on 'exclusives'. Where data is released to specific journalists under Freedom of Information or through other channels ahead of others they have an informational edge over their rivals.

Next are organisations who prefer to obscure the true cost of goods and services in favour of complexity. Where customers can't compare prices effectively they can't make the best price decision, therefore they may choose expensive services based on brand and never realise they are paying more than they should. Sound like any industry you know?

Finally there's groups within government who prefer to keep citizens at arms length. Those who do not want too much scrutiny of their decisions or who believe the public won't understand the broad context under which they were made. This group believes in only telling the public what they think the public needs to know.

We're starting to see some of these groups flex their muscles in jurisdictions that are releasing a great deal of public sector information, or who are legislating for organisations to become more transparent.

One group currently resisting openness in the US are airlines. In the New York Times article, This Data Isn’t Dull. It Improves Lives, the journalist reports that,

...the Department of Transportation is considering a new rule requiring airlines to make all of their prices public and immediately available online. The postings would include both ticket prices and the fees for “extras” like baggage, movies, food and beverages. The data would then be accessible to travel Web sites, and thus to all shoppers.

The airlines would retain the right to decide how and where to sell their products and services. ...
The approach would make markets more transparent and efficient - allowing consumers to make a decision on flights based on complete knowledge.

So do airlines support this approach? Well, not completely. They wish the right to choose when and how they display their fees - choosing to control the flow of information and force consumers to continue to make sub-optimal decisions on partial information.

This reflects the situation in Australia with the Rudd Government's attempt to launch Fuelwatch and GroceryWatch websites. Petrol and grocery companies weren't particularly supportive of having the true cost of their products visible to consumers before they were at the service station or in the store. Once consumers were there it was far less likely they'd leave and shop elsewhere because of price. Of course the reason given was the complexity of exposing the prices publicly, although they don't seem to have this issue at the checkout.

Another example I have been watching is in Canada, where there's been an active discussion of the decision of BC Ferries to release FOI requests online at the same time they are released to the requester (where the request doesn't involve personal information).

Journalists have complained that the approach means they won't get an exclusive, removing their financial incentive for requesting government information in the first place. One journalist in particular, Chad Skelton, has written a series of pieces detailing why it is so important that governments allow media to profit off FOI requests, as otherwise they are unlikely to ask for this information and it won't be exposed for the public good. One of his articles worth reading is Why David Eaves is wrong about BC Ferries' Freedom of Info policies.

It is an interesting point, however I tend to sympathise with David's view - government information laws should not be designed to support the financial goals of media outlets, or any other organisations, over the goals of public openness and transparency. These laws should be designed to ensure that public information gains public scrutiny, not so that journalists can 'make' their careers with exclusives.

As we see more public sector information released by governments I expect we'll see more battles over its release. Some forms of opposition will be passive, providing information in the least usable formats possible or hidden away in websites; other forms will be active, direct refusals to release information (because it is incomplete, the context wouldn't be understood, or it isn't useful), court cases from commercial interests asking for information to be suppressed, or even active information sabotage where data is destroyed rather than published.

Reputations and fortunes can be made and lost over access to information. It is unlikely that entrenched interests will support changes to the playing field without putting up an ongoing fight.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Is the world obsessed with Facebook?

Facebook's active membership now exceeds 500 million users - that's 1 in 13 humans. If it were a country it would be the third largest on earth.

Its usage in Australia accounts for roughly 29% of the time spent online. Based on the average Australian internet user spending around 18.8 hours online each month (as discussed at Social Rabbit), that means, on average, we're spending just under 5.5 hours per month using Facebook, slightly over an hour per week.

With around 10 million Facebook users in Australia that equates to 54,520,000 hours per month, or 2,271,667 days or 6,223.7 people years.

Below are a couple of interesting videos providing more on the Facebook phenomenon.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Do governments have effective frameworks for allowing online protests?

I remember the great demonstration of November 1997. A plea went out asking citizens to gather outside their leader's home to protest about major problems with the system. They were requested to be peaceful and law-abiding, to simply chant slogans, drink beer and remove their clothes.

This demonstration was to be in Ultima Online, a massive multiplayer online game which, when launched, had a number of bugs and issues which frustrated gamers. One gamer decided that a protest in the game would be an effective way to bring the issues to the game developer's attention.

The protest was cancelled (the developers got the message), however it was my first exposure to an online protest movement - a gathering of people in a virtual space to protest a real concern (albeit in this case a game-specific issue).

Since that time, almost fourteen years ago, there's been many other online demonstrations on a range of topics. Some of the most notable include the candlelit vigils held in Everquest and Anarchy Online following the 9/11 attacks, and the 'Dead in Iraq' protest in 2006, recognising US deaths in the war (see video below).

As the world has digitalised and more people spend more time online it is logical that the internet becomes a significant channel for demonstrations and protests, as the internet has become for entertainment, social interaction, shopping and self-actualisation. As far back as 2007 the Washington Post was reporting Where Have All the Protests Gone? Online

Today Facebook and Twitter are central channels for organising and carrying out protests. Users are regularly asked by their friends to change their profile pictures, add a 'Twibbon', join a cause or take other steps to build awareness of or indicate their support for a given cause or issue.

Online petitions are also widespread and, in some cases supported and facilitated by governments, such as the UK ePetition website.

Many of these online protest approaches are peaceful and unobtrusive, although some are a little more direct - such as the GreenPeace organised protest against Nestle via Nestle's Facebook page.

Australia, and many nations around the world, have long supported the right of citizens to stage peaceful marches and demonstrations to call attention to issues or highlight disagreements with public policy.

In some cases these protests have stepped from peaceful into legally grey areas - acts that constrain the ability of authorities or organisations to take certain actions. For example, people forming picket lines to keep out 'scabs', laying in front of bulldozers, chaining themselves to trees, placing a ship between a whaler and a whale, blockading the entrance of abortion clinics, striking, throwing shoes and custard pies or even 'fax-spamming' organisations to stop them receiving or sending business faxes.

For the most part these activities don't result in the participants receiving major legal penalties, either significant fines or gaol time.

However Australia, like most nations, doesn't always have the same tolerance for the online equivalent of these types of protest activities.

Online protests involving blockades of websites are termed 'denial of service attacks'. The goal is to restrict access to an organisation's website - slowing it down or causing it to crash and become unavailable for a period of time.

While it is in many respects similar to a picket line or 'fax-spamming', denial of service attacks on websites are illegal in Australia and many other countries.

This is for good reasons, as these attacks can be carried out by criminal organisations as part of blackmail operations, as acts of wars by foreign powers or even to break down a server's defenses in order to steal confidential information and personal details.
In fact the Australian Attorney-General's office has said that attacks such as this should not be seen as "legitimate forms of protest activity but rather are public nuisance akin to vandalism" (in the SMH article Action stations as cyber attacks on Australia soar).

(It is also worth noting that the same activity is not always illegal - Sometimes 'denial of service' is not an attack - such as when thousands flooded to government sites to find information on Victoria's fires in 2009 or the load on the Bureau of Meteorology's site during the Queensland floods.)

This leave citizens in an interesting position. Acts that are accepted as legitimate expression of freedom of speech in physical environments, and may occur incidentally online, are not always considered legitimate ways of expressing oneself on the internet.

I'm not advocating that denial of service attacks should be legal, however governments and citizens in Australia do need to continue to consider the legitimate and acceptable boundaries for protest activities online.

When does digital activism become unacceptable and illegal?

And do citizens recognise or share the same line in the sand as authorities?

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Australian Government launches

Joining the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand and a host of other jurisdictions already leading the way around the world, the Australian Government has now launched its official government data sharing website,

Announced by Special Minister of State, Gary Gray, in the post Release of on AGIMO's blog, Minister Gray said that,
...The release of public sector information in the form of datasets allows the commercial, research and community sectors to add value to government data in new, innovative and exciting ways. plays a crucial role in realising the Australian Government’s commitment to informing, engaging and participating with the public, as expressed in its Declaration of Open Government and Freedom of Information (FoI) reforms.

The new site currently lists around 200 datasets and links to other Government data catalogues such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Spatial Data Directory and the Queensland Government Information Service plus many other government data sites.

It includes tools to allow the public to suggest datasets they'd like released, to rate and comment on all datasets within the site, provide feedback and improvement suggestions and submit mashups or other data-based initiatives.

There's also a showcase of mashups and prominent Australian Government data-based initiatives.

Government agencies may submit datasets online and AGIMO has provided support for hosting datasets in a cloud-based storage solution if they're unable to host them effectively in their own sites.

It is quite an impressive site. AGIMO has clearly been listening to the community and building on the experiences of other government data sites around the world.

It will be interesting to see how rapidly the number of datasets grows and the innovative uses people put them to, developing services and new insights to support citizens, create value and drive public policy initiatives.

Below is a list of other government data sites around the world sourced from Govloop (built using Socrata) as a comparison.

Powered by Socrata

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What's your government agency's social media exit strategy?

While diamonds may be forever, Department and agency names, communications campaigns and government programs are not.

This poses an interesting challenge when planning social media strategies - how do you effectively exit from a channel when a campaign ends (as the money stops and people go), or reframe a social media presence when your agency is restructured, renamed and repurposed.

I have seen very few examples of effective channel closure or transition. In many cases the Twitter feed or Facebook page just continues to 'hang around' after it is abandoned - or an agency continues to engage through its name from two years ago.

The classic website solution is the forward, whereby agencies forward visitors to an old website (or campaign microsite) to their main or new website. However this approach doesn't work in most social media channels where forwards do not exist.

I have seen some use of generic terms, to allow Departments to change staff, structure and name but retain their social media identities. I've also seen examples where agencies have a manual forward in place - such as "This Facebook page is no longer active, please visit our new page at ... " or where people are invited to friend or follow a replacement account. However none of these approaches work in all cases.

So what is the solution for morphing your social media identity to match your changing agency identity?

Do we need the owners of social media services to allow name changes or automated redirects?

Is there a more effective strategy for Departments to retain their social media presence, as they retain their phone numbers, when names change and campaigns end?

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Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Doing good while improving security with ReCAPTCHA

There's still many government online forms and consultation systems that don't make use of 'human recognition' tools such as CAPTCHA to help verify that the people filling in the forms are humans and reduce the attractiveness of online government forms to large-scale automated attacks by bot-armies.

However, even where government has added CAPTCHA security, I've yet to see an instance where this has been used for good, as well as security.

CAPTCHA, for those unfamiliar, is a technology whereby, when completing an online form, the user is asked to type in one or more words or calculate the product of a sum before submitting their response. The words or sum are presented in an image with 'background static' designed to make it hard for a computer to read.

In most cases, humans are able to decipher and type in the correct response whereas automated form completion systems, often used for spamming, are not.

Many CAPTCHA systems are also enhanced with audio CAPTCHA (where words are read out, amidst static and background noises), supporting vision-impaired people.

These systems are not perfect, however they do increase the barriers to hackers, reducing the prospect for spam submissions or attacks.

They also add a little time to each submission attempt - possibly ten seconds. This is negligible to an individual (in most circumstances), however as millions of people complete CAPTCHA forms each day, this adds up to a lot of time overall.

Initially CAPTCHA tools just presented random words, however a system supported by Google is supporting organisations to 'do good' as well as improve their security.

Named ReCAPTCHA, the system has integrated the work being done to digitalise books and documents. Rather than using random words, users are presented with words that computers could not understand during the document digitalisation process.

Each time a user completes a ReCAPTCHA, they are helping to decipher and digitalise the world's literature and records - preserving it into the digital age.

Assuming an average of two words per ReCAPTCHA, and each being repeated many times in order to validate the entry, there's a miniscule contribution by any particular individual.

However if, for example, 50 million people each verify themselves using ReCAPTCHA each day, with each set of two words presented ten times on average, a total of 10 million words in old documents and books that have been deciphered and correctly digitalised. Each day. That's 3.6 billion words per year.

So if your organisation isn't using CAPTCHA security on forms, or even if you are using a custom CAPTCHA technology, you might wish to consider exploring the use of ReCAPTCHA - which is free to reuse from Google.

Alternatively, of course, Australian institutions could develop their own type of CAPTCHA approach (for old newspapers, for example - or archival records). It would be a meaningful extension to the work the National Library of Australia is already doing.

Below is a video on the work being done with ReCAPTCHA.

Learn more about ReCAPTCHA.

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Monday, March 07, 2011

Organisations should really, really stop using Internet Explorer 6 (says Microsoft)

Microsoft has launched a website specifically designed to get organisations to stop using Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) and upgrade to newer browsers.

The Internet Explorer 6 Countdown website has the stated goal of watching global use of IE6 drop below one percent, stating that,

10 years ago a browser was born.
Its name was Internet Explorer 6. Now that we’re in 2011, in an era of modern web standards, it’s time to say goodbye.

The site indicates that only 3.2 percent of Australia's internet users still use IE6 while global usage remains about twelve percent.

Finland and Norway are highlighted as leading nations, with only 0.7 and 0.8 percent usage respectively.

Some nations are still heavy users of IE6, including China where a massive 34.5 percent of internet users are still on the web browser, and in South Korea where usage is at 24.8 percent.

Internet Explorer 6 usage around the world from the Internet Explorer 6 Countdown website

I've spoken to many web developers who estimate that developing for IE6 adds around 20 percent to the development time and cost of websites - so there are sound productivity and cost reasons for upgrading, besides the security and access benefits. In fact organisations still using IE6 are already unable to fully use many popular and important websites.

If your agency remains on Internet Explorer 6, this website might be worth bringing to the attention of your senior management.

After all, as Microsoft states in this site, "Friends don't let friends use IE6".

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

What is muting Australian public servants online?

Over the last two years we've seen a concerted effort by governments across Australia to increase the level of online engagement, debate and discussion involving public agencies.

In 2009 the Government 2.0 Taskforce, commissioned by then Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner and chaired by Dr Nicholas Gruen, conducted a six month process of engaging public servants via online channels, pioneering the use of blogs, Twitter and Facebook to demonstrate how it was possible for the public service to effectively communicate, engage, consult and be consulted online.

Late in the same year the Australian Public Service Commission replaced its Interim Protocols for Online Media Engagement (originally released in late 2008, with the updated Circular 2009/6: Protocols for online media participation.

Early in 2010 the Australian Government released its response to the Government 2.0 Taskforce's final report, agreeing with all except one of its recommendations (and simply deferring the remaining recommendation to after another related review was completed).

Since then we've seen the MAC innovation report, Empowering change: Fostering innovation in the Australian Public and the Ahead of the Game report from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, outlining steps to reform the public service.

There's been the Declaration of Open Government, the initiation of the Government 2.0 Steering Committee, the launch of GovSpace (a blogging platform operated by the Government and open to all agencies to use).

We've seen more than 260 government agencies and councils join Twitter, wide ranging activity on Facebook and a proliferation of social media policies at local, state and Commonwealth level.

Agencies in Australia are using social media in ways that would have been unacceptable and unachievable even two years ago, some demonstrating world class engagement online. Some states have comprehensive action plans in place and official usage of social media by agencies in some places is approaching one hundred percent.

I don't have the same level of information about Commonwealth agencies (there is no central register of activity or survey results, as there are for some states), however most have established some form of social media beachhead in support of campaign or corporate needs.

With all this official usage you might expect to see vibrant and active online communities of public servants discussing shared issues and best practice, or to see public servants listening to and contributing actively to online policy discussions.

Many groups set up for public servants seem to have reasonable memberships - several hundred people at least - however most of these members are silent, with at most 10% carrying on a halting conversation.

Blogs and forums established to discuss public issues are dominated by the same regular contributors, providing valid and thoughtful views for the most part, however still representing a fraction of the more than 100,000-strong Australian public service.

So what is going on? If over 75% of the Australian online public are actively using social media (as Neilsen has reported), what makes public servants different, what is muting Australian public servants from participating online?

There are a large number of public servants who keep their personal lives very separate from their work lives. They happily connect to their families and friends via social media channels, but don't perceive them as professional development or business tools.

I also still encounter public servants unaware of the Australian Government's Government 2.0 program. They either have never learnt about it through their usual newsgathering channels, dismiss it as an IT initiative, or are simply uninterested as they don't perceive Government 2.0 as having any direct relevance to their work or career.

There's also a number of institutional barrier in place. Despite the growing official adoption of social media in government, the 2009-2010 State of the Service report indicated that only 31 percent of APS staff and 28 percent of service delivery employees have access to social media and networking tools in the workplace.

Where there was access to social media and networking tools, the report indicated that the tools are being under-utilised for various reasons, including lack of staff awareness or interest (similar to my point above), or there was a lack of resources and agency policy restrictions.

In addition, only 10% of agencies reported that they had technical guidance available to employees on how to use social media and networking tools. Staff may not always feel they have the permission or the education required to use social media in a professional manner at work.

This is compounded by the use of adaptive filtering tools which do a fantastic job of blocking inappropriate websites, however may also block appropriate and important websites and social media channels used actively in agency business. As these tools work on the basis of blocking categories rather than individual sites, a simple misclassification by a vendor can limit a department's access to key sites for days or weeks. Social media channels - with a wide range of fast changing material - are often prone to being blocked.

There's also pressure on staff due to workload. There's limited time to innovate, experiment or improve work practices via social media and Government 2.0 approaches when staff are flat-out getting their jobs done the 'old' way.

So where does this leave Government 2.0 and social media adoption?

We have a strong and growing core of activity, with a small number of engaged participants and a wider group adopting these tools as their agencies recognise that the changes in Australian society preclude them continuing to use old approaches.

In many cases public servants engaged in communications and consultation activities simply have to include social media in their mix to generate effective outcomes.

Cost pressures are also taking their toll. As budgets tighten, public servants look for more cost-effective means to engage. I've often seem the most enthusiastic adoption of social media channels when budgets have been cut or in crisis situations where traditional media channels aren't responsive. Albeit this is sometimes constrained by a lack of expertise or shortages in manpower.

However many public servants still haven't made the link between social media and their jobs. They haven't had the time to reflect or consider - nor been presented with compelling cases of why they should adopt new tools - particularly where old ones continue to work reasonably well.

We haven't yet reached a tipping point, where the argument for and knowledge of the new approaches now available has overcome the resistance and systems geared towards more traditional approaches.

So in my view it is simply a matter of education, example, clear political and senior will and time - but how much time? No-one can really say.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

It's time to register for BarCamp Canberra - coming on 19 March

On Saturday 19 March Canberra is hosting the 4th BarCamp Canberra, a free one-day user-generated not-for-profit 'unconference' covering topics ranging from social innovation, Gov 2.0, web, technical development, science communication, critical thinking, sustainability and the environment.

If you've attended previous BarCamps you'll know how exciting and fun they can be, packed full of interesting and unique presentations and sessions and a great opportunity to network. It's well worth giving up a day of your weekend to attend.

New to BarCamps?
If you've not been to a BarCamp before and are a little concerned about the lack of an agenda, free attendance, or the expectations that attendees all participate - don't be.

There have been over 800 BarCamps run in more than 350 cities around the world over the last five years. The format is well-tested and delivers consistent outcomes - good speakers on interesting topics and a very engaged group of attendees who benefit from each others' knowledge.

BarCamp Canberra is now in its 4th year and regularly attracts 100-150 attendees.

This year will be even more exciting as the event is being held in the ANU's brand new College of Business and Economics, which allows for more attendees and more simultaneous presentations.

How are speakers 'selected'?
As an unconference, BarCamp Canberra doesn't have set speakers or an agenda. On the morning of the event attendees nominate to speak and, usually, write their presentation and name on notes and stick them to a schedule on butcher's paper.

Others attendees can choose which presentations they attend.

This bottom-up approach is what makes BarCamps unique, as anyone can speak on any topic, allowing for wide-ranging discussions and unique presentations.

You don't have to speak and you don't have to come all day - and both attendance and lunch is free.

To learn more about BarCamp Canberra, visit and

To register, go to

To learn more about the global BarCamp movement visit

Note: I am one of the 'unorganisers' for BarCamp Canberra.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Should an employer ever require your social media passwords as an employment condition?

At least one state agency in the US, Maryland Division of Correction, recently started requiring employees to provide their personal Facebook password and allow their employer to scrutinise their account as a condition of continued employment.

Apparently this request wasn't illegal - although it breaches Facebook's usage policy (which could mean the employee loses their account).

The rationale given by the employer was that they needed to review the contents of the account as part of the employment contract.

A video of one staff member asked to provide his personal Facebook password is below.

Now this isn't the first time an employer has required their employees to provide personal passwords as a condition of employment. The city of Bozeman, Montana might live in history as the first government to ask all of its staff to provide all their social media passwords - although they quickly dropped the policy when media scrutiny became too high, on the basis that the community "wasn't ready yet".

A number of law enforcement agencies have also apparently begun requesting this information as part of their recruitment process, as reported by USANow in the article, Police recruits screened for digital dirt on Facebook, etc.

There are also stories of financial services companies and other organisations similarly requesting access to personal social media accounts before hiring new staff.

Should employers be allowed to request your passwords?
So are there situations where an employer should be able to access their employee's private social media accounts?

Is this a breach of privacy, or an appropriate step forward for background checks, given how much background people today store in their social media accounts?

Often, for security clearances or in highly sensitive roles, staff in both public and private sector organisations are asked for all kinds of personal information as a requirement of employment. Are requiring your social media accounts details - and passwords - much of a stretch?

Here's some articles discussing the topic:

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Presentation from Friday's Seamless conference

Last Friday I presented on a personal basis at the Seamless CMS Government Conference in Melbourne to a collection of Councils from around Australia and New Zealand about the state of Government 2.0 in Australia.

I've included my presentation below.

It was an interesting conference. Councils are struggling with the same issues regarding Government 2.0 as their larger cousins at state and federal level, limited resources, management buy-in and mitigating the risks of engaging online.

As the 'front-line' of government, service-focused but smaller and often very agile, local councils have some unique advantages in the practical implementation of Government 2.0. In many cases their smaller constituencies can allow for deeper engagement simply as there are less relationships to maintain at any one time.

However they may suffer as well, having insufficient constituent mass on some issues to maintain an effective conversation and their individual lack of resourcing can make it difficult to add new capability.

One topic I spoke about was how councils can work together to leverage their resources. As they generally don't compete (except over attracting population or tourists) and perform almost identical functions - garbage, roads, community services - they have many opportunities to co-design solutions across council boundaries.

I also suggested that as the first government mash-up competition was run by a local council, the District of Columbia, they have a similar capacity to run events which attract best practice ideas and solutions from around the world - not simply their own constituents.

Over time I'm expecting significant Government 2.0 innovation to come out of councils - as we've already seen from places such as Mosman Council.

Also speaking at the conference was Ben Peacock, a founder of Republic of Everyone. He laid down five guidelines for social media that I felt were worth repeating:
  1. Involve people,
  2. Show respect,
  3. Share the wisdom,
  4. Don't be boring,
  5. Be prepared to lose control

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