Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

This Friday I’m off to the Scottish Web 2.0 Unconference in Edinburgh – “an informal, bar camp style event allowing participants to listen, network and share experiences with those who have designed and are managing Web 2 services”.

To prepare for this I thought I’d have a quick recap of what Web 2.0 means to me.

Wikipedia describes Web 2.0 thus:

Web 2.0 is a term describing changing trends in the use of World Wide Web technology and web design that aims to enhance creativity, secure information sharing, collaboration and functionality of the web.

What qualifies as Web 2.0 can sometimes be in debate, and Tim Berners-Lee himself has questioned the value of the term, but for me the above keywords ‘sharing, collaboration and functionality‘ strike at the heart of the matter. We’re talking about a concept in which previously passive users become contributors, where content can be pulled apart and seamlessly put back together again, and where new ideas and innovations can more easily be built upon existing platforms.

So what does this mean for the local gov web developer? The public sector is traditionally very slow at responding to trends and change, so many of us are currently in a situation where we’re locked out of the playground whilst the rest of the world has fun playing this new game. Why? Because of risk.

The perils of public opinion

The risks to which I’m referring are fairly obvious. Post a Youtube video and you may get negative comments; set up a MySpace profile and you don’t know who you’ll be making friends with; start a blog and people might find out you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about (*cough*). In essence, Web 2.0 is about giving power to the people – the Information Superhighway is no longer a one-way street (actually, it hasn’t been a one-way street for a long time, it’s just that continuing developments are making it easier, quicker and cheaper than ever to get involved).

Is this something that local government has the confidence to open itself up to? More often than not, regrettably, no. Once something is out there, there’s no bringing it back in. The lack of control is something that I’ve found to be a major sticking point. But the obvious rebuttal to this is that conversations are going on out there, whether we’re involved or not. Surely it’s far better to be playing the game badly than not playing at all?

Getting it wrong

Well, not always. There have been some good examples of why dipping your toes in the Web 2.0 waters can often lead to losing a pinkie. And although the biggest mistake would be to ignore Web 2.0 completely, there’s plenty of reasons to pause for thought. Bad examples we’ve seen recently include Youtube videos withdrawn because of inappropriate messages (someone forgot to dis-allow commenting) and social networking accounts shut down through lack of interest (very embarrassing to learn you have no friends).

So how can we avoid the pitfalls? Stephen Dale, in his excellent article on Utilising Web 2.0 in local government, gives the following tips:

Simple guidelines for Web 2.0 deployment

  • Don’t think about Web 2.0 or e-government as being just about technology. It is about saving time and making life easier and more efficient for citizens.
  • Make sure you are resourced to cope. No point setting up a blog that encourages comments if you can’t respond to each comment.
  • Carefully plan your strategy if using blogs. If it’s a council blog, make sure it’s part of a wider communications strategy and not the domain of one or two keen individuals.
  • Consider the reputational risks of publishing un-moderated citizen comments in online forums or blogs. Don’t assume comments represent universal opinion.
  • Identify the audience you are trying to reach and use the appropriate channel. Not everyone has an account on Facebook, Myspace or Bebo, and not everyone has broadband. Know who you are excluding and plan for this.
  • Ensure there is a staff policy for using social media sites during working hours.
  • Most Web 2.0 solutions are relatively cheap to deploy. If you are planning to spend more than £100k on an enterprise solution you’re doing something wrong – or you have particularly complex requirements.

From Stephen Dale’s Utilising Web 2.0 in local government

I’ll post more thoughts after Friday’s conference, but one thing is certain – it’s going to be a long and winding road.

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