Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

Microsoft Offices at Waverley Gate

Microsoft Offices, Edinburgh

At 5pm last Friday, dozens of like-minded web enthusiasts gathered at the Microsoft offices at Waverley Gate, Edinburgh, for a Scottish Public Sector Barcamp meetup. On the agenda was everything from Web 2.0 and social media to the credit crunch and website rationalisation, and we only had two hours to put the world to rights.

The four sessions took place two at a time, which meant I was only able to take part in two. The ones I missed were about freeing our data (shame to miss that one, and I had some interesting conversations afterwards on that very subject) as well as WordPress (again, shame to miss as it’s a definite area of interest).

However, the discussions I did attend provided plenty of food for thought:

Social Networking

In a discussion led by Pete Martin of The Gate Worldwide, we explored issues around the changing landscape of media consumption, the various business models that are emerging, and what this all means for the public sector.

Points to consider:

  • use of the web is far from ubiquitous – Pete tells us that only 60% of households in Scotland have broadband, and that only 11% of the population are based in an office. For most of us in the room, we’re used to having access to the web pretty much all day. For the vast majority, this simply isn’t the case (although Paul from Falkirk rightly observed that the emergence of mobile browsing goes some way to blur the boundaries). Nevertheless, there is an inherent risk of social exclusion.
  • This is compounded by the fact that many business models are shifting towards a two-class system of access, where you can get the basic stuff for free but have to pay for the good stuff. There are already many examples of this.
  • And what about cost benefit? I spoke with Pete after the discussion about this, and he pointed out that the cost benefits can be huge in certain cases, with massive profits to be made. But in terms of social media, where we invite our citizens to interact with us, the cost savings in using these channels of communication can be quickly eaten up by the resources needed to train people to use them correctly.

Also, Pete observed that ‘engaging with the disgruntled’ can be costly and often, ultimately, pointless. The truly malcontented will never be satisfied, and will gladly suck up all of your available resources.

Nevertheless, providing a platform is often important in its own right. A good example is the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website, where users can directly engage in conversation around articles and editorials. It was suggested that the users got the most value out of such an exercise, and we assume that the writer of the article does not usually bother to read the hundreds of comments generated. Therefore, is the ability to engage in conversation more important than the outcomes of those conversations? (Edit: see Peter Ashe’s post about the event for an interesting analogy of hosting a party – frustrating for the host, who can barely hold a decent conversation with anyone, but hopefully great for your guests)

Finally, there was a brief discussion around the need for a multi-disciplinary approach to any involvement in social media. It’s not just a ‘techie’ project, but nor is it a purely comms one. Getting the right people on board is essential if any voyage into Web 2.0 waters is to be successful.

Online videos

The next discussion was around online video, led by Christian Storstein from the Scottish Government. This was of particular interest as I’m currently looking at how my organisation could use this medium to present information online.

Youtube was, unsurprisingly, the main focus, and Christian presented a comprehensive list of reasons why it was the best option for him. These included:

  • The excellent community built up around Youtube
  • The Related Videos function, which can drive more traffic your way
  • The ability to add Closed Captioning and automatically translate them to a variety of languages
  • A good analytics package, including the ability to identify your videos’ hotspots (allowing you to see which parts of your video people are interested in, and at which point they might be losing interest)
  • The ability to add collaborative functions, including peer annotation
  • A great API which allows easy integration into your own site

I’ve had my concerns about using Youtube, and I put these to Christian in the pub afterwards:

Firstly, monetisation – Youtube is owned by Google, and it’s unlikely that they’re fully satisfied by the site’s revenue streams. In theory, Youtube could start inserting adverts into the videos whenever it wants, with a potentially serious impact on the videos hosted there. Christian optimistically dismisses this, though. He points out that we, the user, make Youtube what it is. We provide the videos, and we have the power to withdraw them if we’re not happy. A good point, but I wonder if it is enough to convince senior management?

My other concern was around the ability to comment on videos. We’ve seen disasters in the past with organisations putting videos online and getting a torrent of abuse in the Comments section. You can of course turn Commenting off, as Christian points out, but I wonder if doing so might send out the wrong messages about openness and our desire to listen to our citizens. Such one-way conversations seem to fly in the face of Web 2.0, although the risks of allowing unmoderated comments probably make such an approach unavoidable.

Other issues discussed in the session included mention of sites such as VodPod and Vimeo, as well as the practicalities of making a decent video on a tiny budget. There are some pretty good guidelines out there, it was suggested, and with a low to mid-range digital video recorder you should get decent results.

Chris Holme of the Scottish Government reminded us that there is already plenty of great video out there, and that organisations have been doing this for decades. As such, the medium is not new, and the business cases are long-established. Finally, third parties such as news agencies are desperate for video content, and will actively seek out your content without the need for too much promotion. This makes it potentially a very effective and cost-efficient medium.

Some people I met

  • Great to see Alex Stobart (@alexstobart) again – hope we can work together on some things.
  • Nice to chat to Baxter Tocher (@btocher) – and thanks for the dabr tip!
  • Interesting chat with Tony Purcell of W00tonomy – I definitely share your vision for improving our web content!
  • Useful chat with Pete Martin (@smuji) and thanks for sharing your notes with me!
  • The post-event pub discussions went late into the evening with Alex and Christian, Duncan Stephen (@doctorvee), Chris Holme, Katie Cooke, Ross Lyon (@ly0nsd3n) and others.
  • Sorry if I’ve missed anyone out – hope to see you all next time! (next ScotWeb2 event is on June 19th)

Related links

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5 Responses to Report from Scottish Public Sector Barcamp 27th March

  1. Nice report, James. Sorry I couldn’t join you for the post-BarCamp discussion, but I had a prior commitment.

    I found the evening very worthwhile, though I feel we could have done with a little longer to really get under the skin of some of the issues. But hopefully there’ll be another.

  2. Gary Miller says:

    “…only 60% of households in Scotland have broadband…”

    Try living in the rural areas – we may have it, but it’s bl**dy diabolically slow! The local library is usually the best bet – if you live somewhere like the Stirling district.

    But places like Milton of Buchanan, Rowardennan, Balmaha, etc. Forget it! You need satellite broadband and the cost is too prohibitive.

    Nice report though James!

    Cheers, Gary

  3. James says:

    Thanks Gary, some good geographical examples and a reminder that it’s not just economic factors that limit people’s access to the web.

  4. Gary Miller says:

    James, Funnily enough I’ve just read an article in our local community magazine about providing satellite broadband to users in Rowardennan. It’s been carried out as part of the Scottish Government’s ‘The Reach Project’. It’s free of charge to qualifying areas – not me, unfortunately!

    If it’s something that you’re interested in I could write up the article and make it available to you.


  5. James says:

    Ah yes I’ve heard of that Gary – there’s more info and news about it on the Scottish Gov website.

    Shame you can’t get it for free where you are, but any additional info you have would be interesting to see (maybe post to your own blog and I’ll cross link?).

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