Friday, July 27, 2012

Do agencies unfairly assume that households have working printers?

While chatting with government folk in Victoria yesterday, the topic of printable PDFs in websites came up. Many agencies have them - large documents designed to be read on paper, rather than screen, and designed accordingly.

It made me ask the question: How many households actually have working printers and are able (and willing) to print large documents or forms?

The folks in the meeting couldn't answer, although one admitted that he didn't actually have a printer at home (despite working in an online capacity for the government).

This has now begun to intrigue me. is there an assumption in government agencies that every household that owns a computer must own a working printer as well?

Is there any evidence to justify this?

I've done a bit of looking today for statistics that might answer this question.

What have I found? Nothing that really answered it.

We have plenty of statistics from the ABS, Finance and other agencies and corporate entities on the number of households with computers and with internet access.

However none provides information on the number of printers in a household, whether they work or whether (given the cost of ink and supplies) people are prepared to print out those large documents with beautiful glossy full-colour images.

The most recent information I could find was from an e-waste brochure from Manly council, quoting the ABS as saying that in 2011, between households and businesses, Australians had around 5 million printers.

Given there's over 1 million businesses and around 9 million households in Australia, that means that as many as 5 million households, over 50%, may not have printers and be unable to print out those lovely documents on government sites.

How realistic is that figure? When I consider my wife and I as a sample of two, it actually appears plausible (and I understand how statistically unreliable that is).  While we are both professionals and knowledge workers, using computers and the internet as our primary tools - neither of us need to print often.

In fact my wife hadn't had a printer for years before we married, she either did things online or printed individual forms at work on the unusual occasion where this was required (and it was usually a form for work anyway).

I have a working printer now as I need it for work purposes. However until February this year I had also lived for several years quite happily without a working printer.

I had, however had a non-working printer. Why non-working? Because supplies were expensive and scarse. Printer manufacturers changed their cartridges when they changed their printers - making older printers harder to buy for. Why did I keep it? Because I might need a printer (although I never did until the supplies for it became impossible to buy).

So should agencies provide big documents on their sites under the belief that people will print them out at home?

Should they expect people to fill in forms online, and then print and sign them?

Perhaps - perhaps not. However it would be nice to see agencies making this decision based on evidence, rather than based on the assumption that every household with a computer has a working printer.

Trevor Clarke has just let me know that his employer, IDC, tracks the movement of printers into Australia every month and quarter and reports on the number of households with printers. He tells me via Twitter that:
"IDC research shows 76% have 1 printer, 18% have 2. Only 7% don't use. Survey of 2000 Australian households in 2012"

So there's is some evidence that most Aussie households have printers. Good to know!

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sharing policies, patterns, recipes & code across government

This morning at the Drupal Downunder event I learnt about the New Zealand Features site which shares recipes for re-usable Drupal code and patterns across NZ government.

To me this is representative of one of the significant opportunities I've seen for government in Australia emerging out of Gov 2.0 thinking and tools is the ability to share between agencies.

Sharing, as a concept, has allowed humans to move from the savannahs of Africa to our current position as the dominant species on earth. We taught each other how to create tools, how to farm, how to build and how to aspire.

While competition is often seen as the key driver of progress, under every competition is sharing - shared concepts, shared goals and, often, shared resources and knowledge. So even in the midst of the most ferocious competitions sharing is going on behind the scenes.

For organisations, sharing is also essential for survival and success. Organisations that configure themselves or act to successfully limit sharing will, by default, be slower to learn lessons, adapt to changing environments, cost more to operate and deliver less in the way of outcomes.

Unfortunately, through siloisation, this sits at the basis of the organisational structures that became popular following the success of the US railway corporations in the 19th Century.

This hierarchical approach for organising unskilled labour to deliver enormous achievements was very effective for managing large numbers of semi-skilled and semi-literate workers performing simple repetitive tasks, such as building a railway or operating a basis production line. Higher level managers, with greater education levels, provided the brains, innovation and held the broader view of the goals.

This hierarchical structure has become less and less valuable as an approach as populations have become highly educated and moved from performing repetitive physical activity to complex and multi-faceted knowledge work. 'Shifts' and 'gangs' became 'teams' and 'branches', where individuals were expected to perform a diverse range of tasks well - and to swap in for a colleague where necessary with limited time to train.

As modern organisations remain a hybrid of 19th century railway hierarchies and self-managed teams and networks, they have struggled to balance the needs of activity segmentation - leading to siloing - with the needs to share knowledge.

As the internet has done for many other activities it has taken sharing and put it on steroids. Suddenly you can source knowledge and expertise from anywhere in the world, sharing experiences, skills, lessons and outcomes.

This should likewise have a profound effect on government agencies, who seek to draw on the experiences of other jurisdictions and the knowledge of experts to inform their policy recommendations.

Also important is the ability to share within government between agencies. While a percentage of every agency's activities differ from those of other agencies, another percentage - frequently the larger number - involve repeating similar activities - HR, procurement, IT management, finance - as well as patterns of activities such as policy development processes, website development processes, internal communications processes.

This is all well and good - and clearly as the internet exists by default people can and will share.

The problem, of course, is that often public officers (like other people) need more motivation to share than the joy of giving. They need time and support, a framework in which to share and guidance on how to do it.

The US government has set about solving some of these underlying needs for a framework in which to share through the GovForge and MilForge initiatives. These sites support the sharing of code between agencies by providing a framework and mechanism whereby code can be provided, categorised, make available and the owners of the code reimbursed - through recognition.

I learnt this morning about the New Zealand site, where public officials have taken steps in the same direction, with the Features site sharing recipes for re-usable Drupal code and patterns.

In Australia we're a little further behind. While sharing definitely goes on, with some agencies, such as DEEWR, happy to share their web code and patterns with other agencies. I'm aware of code and pattern sharing for tenders, for research and for other activities where agencies go through the same processes, though often for different ends.

However we've not yet seen a central site within government for sharing these things. A place where agencies can store their staff policies, communications plan templates, business planning processes, emergency management frameworks, tender documents, research surveys, website code and patterns and more, so others across government can learn from, build on, modify and/or repurpose them - then submit their improvements back into the system.

Effectively this would provide a best practice repository that goes far beyond 'case studies' to support government agencies in standing on the shoulders of each other, improving their capability to serve government and improving policy and service deliver outcomes

Gov 2.0 makes this possible, and I hope that, with the example of the New Zealand Features site, these things are not too far away.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Selecting the right tool for the job of online citizen engagement

This report was brought to my attention by Sandy Heierbacher in the Online Engagement Group at LinkedIn, and I thought it well worth sharing more widely.

Also blogged about by Sandy at the US National Coalition for Deliberation and Democracy (NCDD), in the post The Promise and Problems of Online Deliberation, the report provides a look at how online tools can be used in citizen deliberation, with recommendations on which tools to use when.

The report is available from:

There's even a supporting infographic as below:

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Friday, July 20, 2012

When does organised action turn into 'gaming the system' in online engagements?

It can be difficult to define the line at which organised responses to an online consultation or engagement change from being legitimate activity by an interest group to 'gaming' the system to influence the outcome.

For that matter it can be just as difficult in a paper-based or face-to-face process. Just who does a lobby group with the Minister's ear really represent, who is funding that thinktank releasing white papers, and who is organising and transporting people to a public protest of function (such as an anti-carbon tax rally or to a Olympic Torch relay)?

Should the line be drawn between personal self interest and financial interest?
How about when a financial interest is often just as personal, such as an impact on wages or jobs?

Should the line be drawn between organisations who fund activities versus those who involve volunteers only?
Even though this might marginalise people who can't afford a day off without compensation - making protests a well-off person's tool.

In this context, I've been watching the progress of Hangout with the Prime Minister. This initiative hosted by OurSay, an independent and non-partisan organisation that supporting democratic engagement between public figures and the public, Deakin University and Fairfax Media (who have promoted it through their newspapers) involves selecting three user submitted questions to ask the Prime Minister, based on an online vote.

The actual event occurs tomorrow (Saturday 21 July). It involves the Prime Minister meeting with the three top questioners to ask their questions on a live webcast - and hopefully have them answered.

The real interest for me is in how questions were submitted, promoted and voted up through the process.

OurSay has been doing this for awhile and has a fairly robust system. Anyone with internet access can register to the site (directly or via services like Facebook and Twitter) to ask questions and to vote for existing questions.

People may ask as many questions as they like, but may only vote seven times, dividing these between questions however they like (or blowing all their votes on a single question if they want).

There's different ways to view questions - by most recent, oldest, highest number of votes or comments - and generally the process is run simultaneously. People can ask questions and vote all the way through the process (though this does bias questions asked earlier as they have more time to gather votes).

For the Hangout with the PM, voting closed on Thursday 19 July with almost 2,000 questions asked and 109,000 votes cast (according to Fairfax). Assuming people spent all their seven votes, this means at least 15,500 people took part.

The top three questions were on same-sex marriage, on defense pensions and on school chaplains (submitted by the President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia). The top question was submitted three weeks ago, and rose to the top slowly. The next two were submitted only four days ago, and rose very quickly.

So, leaving aside the potential for people to register multiple times and vote (which OurSay has a policy and some mechanisms to manage), where does gaming the system come in?

I've watched two particular incident associated with this HangOut which could be considered gaming - but may not be.

The first involved Andrew Bolt, a newspaper and TV commentator with a large following amongst politically conservative Australians.

On Tuesday 10 July Bolt blogged in support of a question at OurSay about the impact of Australia's carbon price on global warming "By how much, measured in thousandths of degrees Celsius, will the Earth's temperature be reduced through the carbon tax?”

Within four hours this had become the top question on the site, driven by Bolt's supporters flocking to support the question.

Bolt bolstered this with a post the next day, Vote for an answer at last, where he commented that thanks to the support of his readers they'd gotten two questions into the top three.

Bolt's involvement was proclaimed by OurSay as a success, as covered in Crikey, OurSay gets a boost via a Bolt from the blue.

The second incident involves Get-Up who, six hours before the Hangout closed, sent an email to supporters prompting them to vote for an asylum seeker question:
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, when will our government stop placing asylum seeker children in detention? We could hear an answer from the PM on Saturday - but there's only a few hours of voting on questions to go. Can you place your vote for this question?
The question in question asked “Dear Prime Minister, when will your government stop placing asylum seeker children in detention?”

This time I was quick enough to grab a couple of screenshots of the question as its votes increased.

The first screenshot, about 30 minutes after Get Up's email was sent, showed the question with 3,178 votes.

The second, taken two hours later, placed the question with 6,467 votes. That's an increase of nearly 3,300 votes (or between 470 and 3,300 people voting).

Now how did the questions supported by Bolt and Get Up do in the final analysis?

The tally is in the image below, however Bolt's two supported questions came 5th and 6th with 8,308 and 6,919 votes respectively.

The question supported by Get Up came in at 7th spot with 6,467 votes (which would have made Andrew Bolt happy).

The top three questions received 12,749, 10.933 and 10,756 votes respectively.

You can see the tally below.

So were the efforts by Bolt and Get Up attempts to game the system, or legitimate uses of organisational power? Were other efforts at gaming going on that we're unaware of?

Both are hard to answer and, ultimately, it is impossible to prove a negative (that no gaming has occurred).

However we do need to keep thinking about what defines 'gaming' and similar activities such as 'atroturfing' and consider whether the actions of interest groups unfairly distorts the outcomes of engagements.

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Next Canberra Gov 2.0 event, 14 August - take a walk on the web side with two fantastic speakers

Pia Waugh is organising the next Gov 2.0 event in Canberra, which will be hosted by DEEWR in their Theatre at 50 Marcus Clarke Rd from 12:30-1:30pm on Tuesday 14 August.

This time the event features two fantastic speakers, and has a much larger limit due to the large size of the venue.

The speakers are:
  • Michael (Mick) Chisnall (@michaelchisnall), the Director of the Australian Capital Territory’s Government Information Office, who will be talking about the ACT's efforts in the open government space, and
  • Keren Flavell (@KerenFlavell), a founding partner of Wholesome Media and co-founder of Bushfire Connect - a community driven crisis alert tool for sending fire warnings between communities. She'll be talking about the social engagement strategy and TownHall Facebook application developed by Wholesome Media for the Parliament of Victoria
Both have done awesome work in the Gov 2.0 space and have many practical tips and experiences to share.

Alongside the speakers there will be an open mike for people to talk about their latest online initiatives and plenty of engaged attendees to share stories with.

Note that this is a food-free event, however this also means it is free to attend! For anyone seeking food,  there's a cafe next door and plenty of other options nearby.

So if you're looking for some good Gov 2.0 tips and insights, learn more about the event and register at:

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Should government agencies or Ministers supply content to newspapers if it will end up paywalled?

Thirty years ago if you wanted to read the news, you bought a newspaper. A paper newspaper, with real money.

As a result all of a government's announcements - media releases, Ministerial statements, advertising and other content had a price tag by default.

You didn't get to see them if you didn't pay the paper's price (except if you browsed in-store - a practice news agents discouraged).

Over the last twenty years however, news has become freely available online. Go to any print publisher's masthead, online-only news service or agency website and you can read the releases, statements and even see the ads without paying a cent.

Clearly this has been good for governments, who can reach a wider audience with their content due to the lack of a 'paywall' barrier to consumption.

However with the major newspapers now considering paywalls, should government agencies be prepared to go back to the days of allowing commercial providers to charge money for the content they provide to newspaper proprietors for free?

This is a thorny question. On the surface it looks easy - it was OK before, it should be OK now. However we have a new generation of citizens who grew up with free news, who are less inclined to pay for news and therefore government is likely to struggle to reach them.

At the same time we have a phlethora of news sites, some will be paywalled but others won't. Agencies can now distribute releases, statements and even advertisements via their own websites, email lists, and social media channels.

So does government need to rely on traditional media to carry straight news? It is still appropriate for agencies to allow newsprint publishers to 'clip the ticket' for the content they release for free?

Should there be a requirement that Ministerial and agency content isn't hidden behind the paywall and remains part of the free content provided by news services? A traffic generator, but not a profit centre?

I don't have a ready answer to this.

I would expect the news publishers would be quite happy commercialising government content, as they have done in the past, as it gives them cheap content to boost their profits (which can, of course, be taxed).

I also expect that older public servants and politicians wouldn't even question the right of publishers to make money from government content, as it was done before.

However for younger people the situation may not be so black-and-white.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How Facebook has become a risk for public servants, and what you can do about it

If you are one of the majority of public servants with a Facebook account, then it may be time to reconsider how you use the service.

As discussed in ZDNet's post, Is Facebook damaging your reputation with sneaky political posts?, Facebook is now posting messages in your timeline and saying you 'Like' the messages simply because you once 'Liked' the Facebook Page that posted them.

So what does this mean, and how is it a risk to public servants?  Here's how it works.

When you 'Like' a Page in Facebook, Facebook assumes this means you also like all the content, status updates, images and other material, that may be posted on that Page by its administrators.

To be 'helpful' Facebook will automatically place some of the Page's content in the newsfeeds of your Facebook friends, with a notice that you 'Like' the content.

Facebook calls this a feature, as quoted in the ZDNet article,

To help people find new Pages, events, and other interesting information, people may now see posts from a Page a friend likes. These posts will include the social context from your friends who like the Page and will respect all existing settings.

This may sound innocent enough, but what it means in practice is that if you ever 'Liked' a Facebook Page for any reason, any new content posted in that Page may now appear to your friends as explicitly 'Liked' by you.

As Pages can change administrator, content and focus, that innocuous Facebook Page on pet rabbits you liked two years ago may now start spewing controversial, obnoxious or otherwise inappropriate content into your Facebook friends' newsfeeds - with each piece of content indicating that you 'Liked' it.

This could merely be embarassing, or it could put your career at risk.

Say you 'Liked' a Facebook Page for a charity you support that works in a policy area covered by your agency. Due to a change in government policy, that charity loses funding and, as a result, begins posting messages on its Facebook Page which are strongly critical of the government's new policy to galvanise their supporters to write to the Minister. Even worse, one of the Page's administrators has been radicalised and frames some of these messages in very strong, almost abusive, language.

These messages begin appearing in the newsfeeds of your friends, complete with a notice that YOU 'Liked' them. Incidentally, you don't see them yourself because Facebook doesn't notify you that they're doing this and these messages don't appear in your own newsfeed.

One of your friends (a colleague at your agency) is horrified that you'd act so unprofessionally and sends screenshots of the messages with your 'Like' to HR, notifying them that you've broken the public service code of conduct by publicly criticising your agency and the government.

You get called in for a discussion with your manager and a HR representative, who shows you the screenshot and asks you to explain your conduct...

Will they believe you when you claim ignorance?

Now compound this issue by thinking about every single Facebook Page that you've every Liked.

Any of them could begin posting messages which could embarrass you, or threaten your job and, thanks to this Facebook feature, indicate automatically that you 'Liked' each message.

Even worse you don't even know when they're doing it because you don't see these messages in your own newsfeed.

So what should you do to deal with this?

Assuming that you're not prepared to close down your Facebook page or, at least, unLike all pages that you have liked, I recommend that public servants look at their 'Likes' page (accessible from their Favourites page) and cast an eye over the pages they've Liked to see if any are likely to post content that will get them in trouble in their friends' newsfeed.

Then make this a regular habit - check all your pages every month to see what they're saying.

Finally, bring this issue with Facebook to your agency's attention, so you'll not be accused of 'Liking' content you didn't.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mapping social media channels to engagement levels (based on IAP2 spectrum)

I developed the Online Engagement Spectrum around three three years ago, based on the IAP2 Spectrum  of Public Participation (PDF) and some complementary work by Bang The Table (no longer at the original web address).

As Gadi Ben-Yedah over at his IBM's Business of Government blog has begun a series of posts considering how social media can be used by government to engage online based on the IAP2 Spectrum, I thought it was timely to repost my Spectrum for people to consider.

Online Engagement Spectrum 1.2

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Are Australia's web developers failing to deliver accessible websites?

In a recent story in ITNews, Accessibility checker surfaces errors, John Hibbert claimed that a new Mental Health website,, operated by the National Health Call Centre Network and funded by the Department of Health and Ageing, didn't meet the Australian Government's minimum web standards.

Based on a review using the ACheck tool for the minimum WCAG 2.0 'A' level of compliance, John reported that the checker:
highlighted two known problems, 245 "potential problems", 20 HTML validation errors and 115 cascading style sheet problems on the site.
I tend to always take the results of these tools with a grain of salt. Many of the reported validation errors and style sheet issues are often repeats of one single issue, or are not really issues at all, and the two known problems would take a couple of minutes to fix and do not pose direct accessibility risks at all.

However this article does highlight a concern I've had for several years - whether Web Developers, contracted to produce these sites for government, always have the appropriate skills and knowledge to develop accessible websites.

I've seen this type of issue repeated a number of times. A policy or program area, possibly with support from a central communication or IT area, goes out to tender for a website. Web Developers respond, get assessed and the successful tenderer goes about creating the site.

A few months later the site is complete with days to spare before the Ministerial launch - but fails accessibility testing by the agency.

"We didn't understand how important accessibility was to you" says the Web Developer. Note that I was in the room when these exact words were said to an agency by a reputable web developer regarding a website which was developed iteratively and we'd been giving them feedback about accessibility for a number of weeks.

So what happens next?

If accessibility was not explicit mentioned in the contract, the Web Developer asks for more cash to meet the requirement, even though it is a baseline requirement for all government websites across Australia, and says it won't be ready for launch.

If an accessibility level was explicitly agreed to in the contract, the Web Developer grudgingly assigns a junior developer to 'sort it out' - with a vague promise that it will be done in a few weeks or months.

The agency is left having to launch a website which doesn't meet the minimum and fix it as soon as possible afterwards - all because the Web Developer didn't recognise and act on the legal requirement for accessibility.

Of course there's many examples where Web Developers have done exceptional accessibility work for agencies, however I have seen and heard too many issues where professional Web Developers didn't understand the accessibility requirements of governments.

Delivering an inaccessible website to a government agency will cause that agency to break the law and expose it to enormous risks of legal damages. No vendor should ever put their client in this type of position knowingly, particularly where it is so easily avoidable.

My view is that any Web Developer that doesn't deliver a government website to at least the minimum accessible standards (unless otherwise explicitly agreed to by the agency in question) should not receive any payment until they have addressed all accessibility issues.

They should also lose their right to bid for other government business until they can prove they have fully trained their staff on accessible web design.

These may be harsh and strong measures, and I doubt they will be considered due to contractual and practical issues.

However if a vendor contracted to sell a government agency a car that turned out to not be street legal or rent them a building that turned out to not meet the building code, government would walk away without paying and ask for damages, plus be very cautious about working with that vendor again.

Why should it be any different with illegal websites?

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Australian government Twitter list expanded to 553 accounts

I've been working away in my (copious) spare time to update the list of Australian government Twitter accounts - representing all levels of government.

It has now reached 553 accounts - which has also forced me to start a new Twitter list due to their 500 follower limit.

You can view the spreadsheet embedded below, or access it at:

You can subscribe to the listed australian government accounts using my Twitter lists:
Australian-gov-tweets (500 accounts)
Australian-gov-tweets2 (my new 'overflow' list)

I haven't yet created by level or by state lists yet - but will do so when I have time.

If you're aware of any Australian government Twitter accounts I've missed, or if your agency starts a new account, please update the list directly, or let me know so I can update it (my main issue in maintaining the list's currency is that government agencies are poor at telling people about their new social media accounts).

Please look at the Stats and By population tabs in the spreadsheet for the list to see how many accounts there are by category, state and government level, how long the average Twitter account name is, when accounts were started and the most popular months for starting accounts, plus the ratio of Twitter accounts to population at state and national levels.

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What should agencies do when social media channels close down?

Last week I received the following email:

Dear Hashable Users,

We regret to inform you that the Hashable mobile apps and will be shutting down on July 25th. The service will be unavailable after this date.

While we are still very passionate about making better connections and meeting new people, the time has come for us to focus our energy elsewhere.  

Some of you have stored valuable information in Hashable, and we want to give you the opportunity to save that data for your own records.  If you’d like to receive a file with your complete history, please log onto, navigate to the "Profile" tab, then to the “Your History” section on that page. You can download the file by clicking “Export full history to .csv” and accepting the dialog that pops up.

We are incredibly grateful for all the people we have met through Hashable.   Thank you for all your support, and we hope to connect with you again in the future. 

All the best,
The Hashable Team

It made me think about the situation that faces organisations when the social media tools they use close down.

How does the organisation tell people interacting with them via the service? Where will they move the community to? Can they extract and reuse any data they or their community have entered into the service? Who else will be able to access and reuse this data?

With the thousands of social media tools that now exist it is inevitable that a proportion of them will close down. In fact I've been surprised at how few have done so - largely because of the low cost of keeping them running.

Where agencies are using these services, what is their recourse? It's hard to hold a company to a service level, or sue, if you're paying next to nothing for access and the service is domiciled in another country with no local presence.

The key is to prepare and risk-manage before beginning to use these types of services.

Define why and how you'll use a social media service, what data you will be providing into the service and what data you wish to collect (and in what timeframes and formats).

Ensure you've carefully scrutinised the privacy policy and terms of use, both for your sake and for your audience - you may have an obligation to point out differences between your privacy policy and the policy of the service.

Check that the service allows you to extract your data if necessary and, if required, also confirm whether you can delete your account and purge all data.

Devise written exit plans for likely future scenarios. These should, at minimum, include:

  • The social media service closing down in an orderly fashion,
  • the social media service closing down suddenly and unexpectedly (for a short time or permanently),
  • the social media service being bought and integrated into the offering of another company, or
  • your program ending and needing to be closed down, even when the social media services you are using are still going strong.

These plans provide a framework to help you, your management and your successors to manage any shut-down in a measured way. They also form part of your governance and risk-mitigation strategy.

It's also important to put in place a regular back-up and review strategy. Back-up data from your account by downloading it every month (or if the service doesn't support this, reconsider if you're happy using it).

Also periodically review whether your stated purpose for using the service still reflects how you, and your audience are using it, and whether you need to adjust your approach or your data management policies. This review should include checking whether the service's privacy policy or terms of use have changed - avoiding the risk of the 'slippery slope' where you create your agency's account under a strict privacy policy, but find that your rights have eroded over time.

Together with the above, keep an eye on emerging services that might build on the tools you already use. I don't recommend switching horses regularly, however if a social media service important to you and your stakeholders is closing, knowing where you can move the community to maintain the conversation is important to have at hand.

As is often quoted, failing to plan means you're planning to fail.

This is as true for social media as for any other channel or project. So prepare yourself for the future by planning and keep a watchful eye on the services you use and how and why you're using them.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Transforming public engagement though social media (almost live from Singapore)

This morning I presented at the Reading Room Digital Conversations forum to a group of Singaporean government officials on the topic of Transforming public engagement through social media.

I talked through how connected Australia had become, and pointed out that the goals of public engagement have not really changed (using the IAP2 model to illustrate), only our tools.

My presentation then went through a range of different engagement examples across the IAP2 spectrum, from Inform to Empower, and then pointed out that governments weren't necessarily the driving force behind Gov 2.0 - illustrating several Gov 2.0 initiatives created outside of government.

I concluded with Zombies (as all good presentations do) - demonstrating how governments can be more playful without being unprofessional, using popular culture and memes to stimulate public engagement with hard to reach audiences.

I've embedded my presentation below - enjoy!

View more presentations from Craig Thomler.

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Guest post: Public engagement: more customer service than comms

Today I'm featuring a guest post from Pia Waugh, former IT Advisor to Senator Lundy, convenor of the recent Canberra GovCamp and GovHack and one of the luminaries of the Australian Gov 2.0 scene.

As she plans to continue to update this post, for the latest version visit her blog at

Public engagement: more customer service than comms

I’ve been involved in online communities for many years. I’ve seen and been in projects that span every possible traditional barrier to collaboration (location, culture, language, politics, religion, gender, etc, etc). This experience combined with my time in government has given me some useful insights about the key elements that make for a constructive online community.

What I came to learn was the art and craft of community development and management. This skill is common in the technology world, particularly in large successful open source projects where projects either evolve to have good social infrastructure or they fail. There are of course a few exceptions to the rule where bad behaviour is part of the culture of a project, but by and large, a project that is socially inclusive and that empowers individuals to contribute meaningfully will do better than one that is not.

It turns out these skills are not as widespread as I expected. This is problematic as we are now seeing a horde of “social media experts” who often give shallow and unsustainable advice to government and companies alike, advice that is not rooted in the principles of community engagement.

The fact is that social media tools are part of a broader story. A story that sees “traditional” communications turned upside down. The skills to best navigate this space and have a meaningful outcome are not based in the outdated premise that a media office is the single source of communications due to the media being the primary mechanism to get information out to the general public. There will continue to be, I believe, a part for the media to play (we could all use professional analysis and unbiased news coverage, please). However, as governments in particular, we will have a far more meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship with citizens where we genuinely and directly engage with them on matters of policy, service delivery, democratic participation and ways that government can facilitate public and private innovation.

You might be lucky and have some media people who have adapted well to the new world order, but any social media strategy limited to the media office will have limitations in delivery that starts to chafe after a while.

It is when you get your customer service and policy people engaged online that you will start to see genuine engagement, genuine community building and the possibility to leverage crowdsourcing. It is when you start to get people skilled in community engagement involved to work alongside your media people and in collaboration with the broader organisation that you will be able to best identify sustainable and constructive ways your organisation can apply social media, or indeed, whatever comes next.

Below are some vital skills I would recommend you identify, hire or upskill in your organisation. Outsourcing can be useful but ideally, to do this stuff well, you need the skills within your organisation. Your own people who know the domain space and can engage with imprimatur on behalf of your organisation.

I’ll continue to build this post up as I have time, and would love your feedback :)

Herding Cats

In my time in online communities I came to understand the subtleties in what we in the geek world refer to as “herding cats”. That is, working with a large number of individuals who have each their own itch to scratch, skills, interests and indeed, vices. Individuals who have a lot to contribute and are motivated for myriad reasons to get involved.

I learnt how to get the best out of people by creating a compelling narrative, having a meaningful goal, uniting people over what we have in common rather than squabbling over what is different.

Herding cats is about genuinely wanting people to get involved, recognising you can’t “control” the conversation or outcomes, but you can encourage a constructive dialogue. Herding cats ends up being about leadership, building respect, being an active part of a live conversation, setting and encouraging a constructive tone, managing community expectations and being a constant presence that people can turn to and rely upon. Cat herding is about building community.

Finally, herding cats is about managing trolls in a constructive way. Sometimes trolls are just passionate people who have been burnt and feel frustrated. They can sometimes become your greatest contributors because they often care about the topic. If you always engage with trolls in a helpful and constructive way, you won’t miss the opportunities to connect with those who genuinely have something meaningful to contribute.

Community and Topic Research

You need to know the communities of interest. The thought leaders, where they are having their discussions, what one-to-many points (technical, social, events) can you tap into to encourage participation and to get your finger on the pulse of what the community really thinks. Community research is about knowing a little about the history and context of the communities involved, about the right (and wrong) language, about if and how they have engaged before and getting the information you need to build a community of interest.

Topic research means your community engagement person needs to know enough about the domain area to be able to engage intelligently with communities of interest. Your organisation is effectively represented by these people so you need them to be smart, informed, genuine, socially and emotionally intelligent, “customer service” oriented and able to say when they don’t know, but be able to follow it up.

Collaboration & Co-design

This skillset is about intuitively trying to include others in a process. Trying to connect the dots on communities, perspectives, skills and interests to draw people from industry, academia and any other relevant groups into the co-design of your project. By getting knowledgable, clever and connected people in the tent, you achieve both a better plan and a community of (possible influential) people who will hopefully want to see your initiative succeed. Co-design isn’t just about creating something and asking people’s opinion, but engaging them in the process of developing the idea in the first place.

A little thanks goes a long way. By publicly recognising the efforts of contributors you also encourage them to continue to contribute but whatever you are engaging on needs to be meaningful, and have tangible outcomes people can see and get behind.

Real outcomes of your online engagement are key in managing public expectations.

Monitoring, Analysis & Feedback Mechanisms

It is vital that you have internally the skills to monitor what is happening online, analyse both the content generated and the context around the content created (the community, individuals, location, related news, basically all the metadata that helps you understand what the data means).

By constantly monitoring and analysing, you should be able to identify iterative improvements to your online engagement strategy, your project, policy or “product”. Most people focus on one of these three (usually the latest toy with pretty but meaningless graphs spruiked by some slick salesperson), but it is by turning the data into knowledge and finally into actions or iterative improvements that you will be able to respond in a timely and appropriate manner to new opportunities and challenges.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In government in Tassie? Come along to the IPAA Forum on Transforming public engagement through social media

I'm headed to Tassie in early August and whilst there will be presenting at an IPAA forum on the topic of Transforming public engagement through social media.

If you're in a Tassie state agency or local government and interested in Gov 2.0, social media or community engagement, I'd like to invite you to consider coming along.

Details are available at the IPAA Tasmania website:

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Monday, July 09, 2012

Mapping government policies online - Govmonitor, a great new aussie site

For all the attention on government policies, the various announcements and documentation on political party sites, it can be very difficult to compare and contrast where different parties sit on different issues and, for governments, difficult to keep track of whether they are sticking to their election policies or amending them for pragmatic, political or other reasons.

While the capacity to provide quick and easy insights and access to party policy statements online is technically possible, it isn't often done. Even traditional media outlets tend to turn it into a shopping list or a tool for punishing parties rather than a tool for informing the public and improving policy discussions within and outside parties.

That's why prior to last election I participated in a Google doc project to map the policies of various parties, which prompted some very interesting conversations, but has not been maintained.

I suspect it is also part of the motive behind the latest attempt to 'crowdmap' the policies of political parties at

The Govmonitor site (
This, however is a far more visual, accessible and interactive approach than the prior collaborative document idea, providing for easier searching and visual identification of what policies and positions parties support, don't support and haven't made a decision on yet.

The site offers a range of ways to view content, by party, by issue and by topic, with a full text search as well.

It also provides an easy way for people to contribute, adding party policies or positions on issues complete with evidential links and references supporting the party positions.

This is an excellent example of Gov 2.0 in action, providing information and education through evidence-backed crowd-sourcing to support people to identify the parties their views most correlate with.

It is also a great first step as a site, with the potential to expand to support robust issue-based discussions and allowing individuals to state their positions and connect them to like minded people. There's also quite broad international potential as the same approach can be applied to any level of politics anywhere in the world where citizens have a role in selecting their leaders.

Chris Doble has done a great job with this site and I hope it gains increasing attention and traction as we move closer to the next federal election.

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Friday, July 06, 2012

If citizens can help explore galaxies, unfold proteins, track birds and transcribe texts, why can't they help analyse government data?

One area of Gov 2.0 I really think hasn't been thoroughly considered or adopted by many governments, including in Australia, is the process of having citizens help in the creation, exploration and analysis of data.

Is it due to a lack of time, money, imagination or courage?

I don't know, but I would dearly love to see more government agencies consider how they could engage citizens in crowdsourcing initiatives that could help society.

Let me give a few examples of what I mean.

Galaxy Zoo is a collaborative effort from a range of universities and astronomers to classify galaxies in our universe. The site launched in 2007 with a paltry one million galaxies visualised.

The site worked by allowing people to register to classify galaxies (as either spiral or elliptical), with multiple classifications used to verify that each classification was correct.

The team behind the site thought it might take two years to classify all million galaxies, however within 24 hours of launch, the site was receiving 70,000 classifications an hour.

In total more than 50 million classifications were received by the project during its first year, from almost 150,000 people.

This effort was so successful that the team took a selection of 250,000 galaxies and asked people to analyse them for more detailed information, calling this Galaxy Zoo 2. Over 14 months users helped the team make over 60,000,000 classifications.

This work has led into a number of lines of research and supported scientists in understanding more about how our universe works.

Planet Hunter takes a more focused approach, looking for planets around other stars. A collaboration between the group behind Galaxy Zoo and Yale University, it works on a similar basis whereby users register to look for signs of planets based on data from radio telescopes.

Users mark likely targets and, over time, when sufficient users have marked a star as a likely target, the professional astronomers analyse that star in depth.

The site is an experiment, and there's no indication of how many planets have been found using the process, however as the human eye is particularly good at detecting patterns or aberrations, while computers can struggle, it has a good shot at success. The classifications by humans may also help in improving the computer algorithms and therefore make computers better at detecting patterns in data which may indicate planets, or could be used for detecting patterns in all kinds of other data as well.

eBird is an initiative from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society launched in 2002. What it does is aggregate bird sightings by location from professionals and amateurs to better match the range, migration patterns and changing distribution of bird species.

The system is the largest database of its kind in the world and in March 2012 alone participants reported more than 3.1 million bird observations across North America - data that is valuable to educators, land managers, ornithologists, and conservation biologists amongst other groups.

The data can be viewed on maps by species or as bar and line charts to explore when in the year particular birds are in a particular region. The site also supports gamification elements, listing the top 100 eBirders and tracking each user's personal record of sightings. is a site where users can solve scientific math problems through playing games. The site is most famous for the speed at which gamers solved an AIDS protein puzzle that had stumped traditional scientific approaches. Gamers solved the puzzle in less than three weeks while scientists had been struggling with it for thirty years.

Supported by both universities and corporate interests, the site is exploring many biological puzzles related to protein folding that offer hope for solving many of the worse diseases and conditions afflicting humans and our domesticated animals and plants.

Again the site includes a ranked ladder of the most successful players and offers ways to socialise and share information. is a great site for whale lovers as it's a place where people can listen to whale songs from Killer and Pilot whales in order to match their patterns. Supported by Scientific America, the site contains thousands of samples of whale songs.

Users can listen to snatches of song and listen for patterns, providing data that help marine researchers answer questions such as how large is the call repertoire of pilot whales and do the long and short finned pilot whales have different call repertoires (or ‘dialects’)?

Teamsurv also has a watery focus, involving mariners to help create better charts of coastal waters, by logging depth and position data whilst they are at sea, and uploading the data to the web for processing and display.

The information collected by the site helps improve nautical maps and thereby reduces risks at sea, helping sailors and reducing rescue costs.

While still in early stages and very european focused, this crowdsourcing site has great promise. I'd like to see a similar concept extended onto land, using cars with GPS as the collection point of atmospheric and traffic data that can be used to map microclimates and plan traffic measures.

BlueServo, on the other hand, focuses on collecting land-based data on the movements of illegal immigrants across the Mexican-US border. Using a range of web cameras, users are asked to watch for movement and report people crossing the border to the Texas Border Sheriff.

Called the Virtual Border Watch, the approach currently involves twelve cameras and sensors at high risk locations, though the site doesn't actually list how successful the project has been (though why would it).

reCAPTCHA is the crowdsourcing tool that people don't notice they're participating in. In fact you've probably participated in it yourself.

The system, now owned by Google, uses snippets of digitalised books and documents as 'CAPTCHA codes' - those images of letters and numbers used to help stop spambots, programs designed to break into systems to send spam messages.

Whenever you verify you are human by retyping the letters in a reCAPTCHA image you are contributing to the preservation of millions of vintage books through digitalisation, with a 99.5% accuracy rate. In fact, the accuracy of reCAPTCHA matches that of human "key and verify" transcription techniques in which two professional human transcribers independently type the data and discrepancies are corrected.

Trove is last crowdsourcing project I'll mention, but definitely not the least, the project by the National Library of Australia to digitalise old newspapers, using people to correct errors in digital scanning. I've discussed Trove before and it continues to go from strength to strength, judging from the Hall of Fame of content correctors.

Tens of millions of lines in newspapers have been corrected, improving the accuracy of Australia's historic record (the Trove site even lists my blog in its archive.

If you're interested in finding more examples of crowdsourcing, a good first stop is the Wikipedia page listing crowdsourcing projects.

Can't governments, with all that data sitting in archives, find uses for crowdsourcing too?

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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Great new site - The Digital Engagement Guide

Over in the UK, Helpful Technology has released 'The Digital Engagement Guide', which aims to become one of the best sources of useful examples, tools and practical advice about how UK public sector organisations can engage online.

The site touts itself as "Part bookmark collection, part reference manual, part Q&A site, it’s a place to get inspiration, shortcuts and answers."

Whether you're after online engagement techniques, strategies, examples or want the answer to questions, The Digital Engagement Guide has it.

Most of the content is as useful for Australian, US, Canadian and other governments as it is for the UK - heck it's useful to anyone seeking to engage people online.

The site also features an awesome collection of examples of online engagement and Government 2.0 initiatives from around the world.

How awesome? See the image to the right, which is a screen capture of the examples page listing every example in the site right now. Yes, it is extremely long, so long that I'm having to write extra words simply to make this blog post long enough to match the image!

Don't get daunted by this however, you can select subsets of the examples, strategies and techniques by keyword, location and topic.

And if you can't find your own online initiative in the site, you can submit it using the Contribution page.

Dang - that image was still longer than my words... so many examples!

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Automating online activities without IT intervention - using web tools to make jobs easier

There's often lots of small - and not so small - activities that communications teams want to carry out online that would make their jobs easier, but aren't really tasks to give to IT teams.

For example, you may wish to update your agency's Facebook and Twitter profile pictures when your logo changes, automatically post your blog posts to LinkedIn and Facebook, be sent an email whenever someone tweets at you or receive an alert whenever your Minister is mentioned in a breaking news story.

This is where it is useful to get familiar with services like IFTTT and Yahoo Pipes.

IFTTT, or "IF This Then That" is a simple logic engine that allow you to string together a trigger  and an action to create a 'recipe' using the format IF [trigger] then [action].

For example, below is a recipe used to automatically tweet new posts on this blog:
A recipe in IFTTT
A recipe in IFTTT

This sounds very simple, but it can be a very powerful labour saving tool. Each trigger and action can be from different online services, or even physical devices.

A recipe in IFTTT
A recipe in IFTTT (click to enlarge)
Recipes can be more complex, with various parameters and settings you can configure (for example the recipe above has been configured to append #gov2au to the tweets).

For example, at right is the full page for a recipe that archives your Tweets to a text file in your Dropbox.

Besides connecting the trigger (a new tweet from you) with the action (posting your tweet in Dropbox),  you can choose whether to include retweets and @replies.

You can set the file name where your tweets will be stored and the file path in Dropbox, plus you can set the content that is saved and how it will be formated.

In this case the recipe is set to keep the text of the tweet (the 'Text' in a blue box), followed on a new line by the date it was tweeted ('CreatedAt') and then, on another new line, a permanent link to the tweet ('LinkToTweet'), followed by a line break to separate it from following tweets.

You can add additional 'ingredients' such as Tweet name and User Name - essentially whatever information that Twitter shares for each tweet.

Rather than having to invent and test your own recipes, IFTTT allows people to share their recipes with others, meaning you can often find a useful recipe, rather than having to create one from scratch.

In fact I didn't create either of the recipes I've illustrated, they were already listed.

There's currently over 36,000 recipes to choose from, for the 47 services supported - from calendars, to RSS feeds, to email, to social networks, to blogs and video services, from SMS to physical devices.

All the online services that can be 'triggers' for IFTTT
All the online services that can be 'triggers' for IFTTT
It is even possible to string together recipes in sequence.

For example, if I wanted to update my profile image in Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and LinkedIn, I can set up a series of recipes such as,
  • If [My Facebook profile picture updates] Then [Update my Twitter profile picture to match]
  • If [My Twitter profile picture updates] Then [Update my Blogger profile picture to match]
  • If [My Blogger profile picture updates] Then [Update my LinkedIn profile picture to match]
  • If [My LinkedIn profile picture updates] Then [Update my Facebook profile picture to match]
Using these four recipes, whenever I update one profile picture, they will all update.

Also it's easy to turn recipes on and off - meaning that you can stop them working when necessary (such as if you want to use different profile pictures).

However there's limits to an IF THEN system, which is where a tool like Yahoo Pipes gets interesting.

Yahoo Pipes is a service used to take inputs, such as an RSS or data feed, webpage, spreadsheet or data from a database, manipulate, filter and combine them with other data and then provide an output with no programming knowledge.

This sounds a bit vague, so here's a basic example - say you wanted to aggregate all news related to Victoria released by Australian Government agencies in media releases.

To do this in Yahoo Pipes you'd fetch RSS feeds from the agencies you were interested in, 'sploosh' them together as a single file, filter out any releases that don't mention 'Victoria', then output what is left as an RSS feed.

Building a Yahoo Pipe
Building a Yahoo Pipe (click to enlarge)
But that's getting ahead of ourselves a little... To the right is an image depicting how I did this with Yahoo Pipes.

Here's how it works...

First you'll need to go to and log in with a Yahoo account.

First I created a set of tools to fetch RSS from Australian Government agencies. These are the top five blue boxes. To create each I simply dragged the Fetch feed from the 'sources' section of the left-hand menu onto the main part of the screen and then pasted in each RSS feed URL into the text fields provided (drawing from the RSS list in

Next, to combine these feeds, I used one of the 'operator' function from the left menu named Union. What this does is it allows you to combine separate functions into a single output file. To combine the Fetch feed RSS feeds all I needed to do was click on the bottom circle under each (their output circle) and drag the blue line to a top circle on the Union box (the input circle).

Then I created a Filter, also an 'operator' function and defined the three conditions I wanted to include in my final output - news items with 'Victoria', 'Victorian' or 'Melbourne'. All others get filtered out.  I linked the Filter's input circle to the Union's output circle, then linked the output from the Filter to the Pipe Output.

Then I tested the system worked by clicking on the blue header for each box and viewing their output in the Debugger window at bottom.

When satisfied it worked (and I did have to remove the filter condition 'Vic' as it picked up parts of words such as "service"), I saved my pipe using the top right save button, giving it the name 'Victoria RSS', then ran the pipe and published it at

Note that pipes don't have to be published, you can keep them private. You can also publish their outputs as RSS feeds or as a web service (using JSON) for input into a different system. You can even get the results as a web badge for your site, by email, phone or as PHP for websites.

An IFTTT recipe built from the Yahoo Pipe above
An IFTTT recipe built from the Yahoo Pipe above
(click to enlarge)
Alternatively you can even combine them with IFTTT - for example creating a recipe that sends you an email every time an Australian Government agency mentions Victoria in an media release.

In fact I created this recipe (in about 30 seconds) to demonstrate how easy it was. You can see it to the right, or go and access it at IFTTT at the recipe link:

So that's how easy it now is to automate actions, or activities, online - with no IT skills, in a short time.

There's lots of simple, and complex, tasks that can be automated easily and quickly with a little creativity and imagination.

You can also go back and modify or turn your recipes and pipes on and off when needed, you can share them with others in your team or across agencies quickly and easily.

Have you a task you'd like to automate? 
  • Finding mentions of your Department on Twitter or Facebok
  • Tracking mentions of your program in the media releases of other agencies
  • Archiving all your Tweets and Facebook statuses
  • Receiving an SMS alert when the weather forecast is for rain (so you take your umbrella)
  • Posting your Facebook updates, Blog posts and media releases automatically on Twitter spread throughout the day (using Buffer)
The sky's the limit!

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