Author Archive

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Rise and fall of the data wall

2. October 2009 – 17:39 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

In the wake of a proposed duty for all local authorities to implement ePetitions in the UK the responsible government department has set about creating a ‘recommended data standard’.  This, the same week that Icann loosened the American grip on the internet and paved the way for a “G12 for internet governance”.   Out of interest, in terms of the European placement in a top-12, it’s Germany, France, UK, Italy and Spain on the basis of majority internet usage.

I think generating standards to help the flow of information is a good move.  In the case of petitions it should improve interoperability, the visibility of the petition itself and provide data mashing enthusiasts with a bunch of new projects.  Projects to develop an open and unified way of accessing Local Government information are hot – OpenlyLocal is a good example of what can be achieved.

Further to this it will be interesting to see if the suppliers can agree on it, and if the standard gets adopted.  Moreover if there are other areas which can be standardised such as eConsultation.  Tellthemwhatyouthink is already on this path.

Finally I want to extend my congratulations to the team at TuTech for nurturing PEP-NET and this blog.  If you haven’t “poked” Rolf or Bengt recently then now is your chance to show some appreciation for their recent efforts in keeping it alive.

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Google want you

7. August 2009 – 08:38 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

Google have taken a more aggressive stance in targeting the public sector with the launch of Google LocalGov here in the UK. While the offering is not particularly different from what anybody else can get, it certainly deserves some attention in terms of relevance. The pitch goes something like:

• Direct users to your site (enable people to find you better, position your authority as the no.1 destination)
• Manage your costs by making your website work harder (drive more traffic through the online channel to reduce print/call centre costs)
• “Monetise” (raise revenue from what you’re doing)
• Justify what you’ve done. Now more than ever data beats opinion (test, measure, optimize)

For example, Nottingham City Council has been using context sensitive ads on their site for about a year now and it returns a healthy return of around €13,500 per year in click-through revenue. In that time there have only ever been three complaints from the public and one of these related to the ‘type’ of advertisement displayed – easily rectified by the council. Arguably context sensitive advertisements on public sector pages can actually help citizens find services. So why don’t all councils do this? They also use Google Maps and Google Mini.

On the return path, the London Borough of Hillingdon (among others) pays for ‘Adwords’ on the Google search engine. They were able to target an audience within a 15 mile radius (estimated targeting accuracy 80 – 85%) to their annual Christmas market, achieving half a million impressions and a 1% click through rate. The cost per click (CPC) is a bit of a secret but reading between the lines my estimate is about 10p.

101 Rap

Click here to see the Goole top 10 tips for making websites work. Public authorities should also get wise to how Google indexes them. Done correctly and you get much better results:-

Brent google result

Then there’s Google Enterprise – which effectively replaces IT departments. Google estimate the cost of their cloud computing solution as £33 per user per year – and that the it costs the average IT department £200 per user per year just for email. Bear in mind Google gives you 25GB per user storage space!

OpenSocial, FriendConnet, Google Health, Google Optimiser, Google Analytics, Google Voice, Android, iGoogle… we need third party eParticipation software any more? There is certainly no excuse for avoiding OpenID or using insight to refine web design and ‘convert’ lurkers to participants.

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Community Empowerment and eParticipation – International evidence

10. June 2009 – 22:29 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

A research paper “Empowering communities to influence local decision making“, commissioned by the UK government and produced by De Montfort and Southampton University, was published earlier this month.

Its aim was to draw upon the international evidence base and make some conclusions about the relationship between citizen empowerment and eParticipation. The findings were that:-

· eParticipation is most successful in relation to the empowerment of individual participants. Yet, eParticipation is notably less effective in empowering the wider community and e-forums and even ePetitions, have only a very limited impact upon decision makers.

· In terms of eParticipation empowering individuals two factors are critical. First, moderation is important. Moderation can improve the quality of discussion and provide a constructive environment for participation. Second, the presence of a highly salient issue is also important. However, the official sponsorship and buy-in of eParticipation is not a crucial factor.

· Where there is community empowerment, moderation, clear links to decision-making and the discussion of highly salient issues appear to be the most significant combination of success factors required.

· In order for eParticipation to have real impact on decisions, mechanisms need to be specifically designed to incorporate a direct link to decision-making.

What practitioners said:-

· There is concern about the reach of eParticipation, there is often limited take-up of most online participation initiatives and there is the ongoing problem of the ‘digital divide’ in ensuring access.

· There is also concern about the capacity of local authorities to ‘keep up’ with technological developments and to provide opportunities in a way that interests citizens.

The most controversial point for me is about official sponsorship and buy-in for eParticipation exercises. Can it really be true that it doesn’t make a difference if your online dialogue is officially supported or branded?

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Keep live events real?

26. May 2009 – 09:44 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

Just as the web is improving the ability to self-organise it is also pushing down the cost of event management. For a start there is EventBrite, an event registration service which facilitates ticket sales and promotion.

Tools such as eNetworker manage delegates and exhibitors – both prior and post event. Couple this with a free video streaming service such as Ustream and you can also provide live video and real-time chat.

Finally, all good events have some sort of twitter tag: Twitterfall allows you to display and monitor on-line threads as they emerge.

Despite the benefits of digital participation in ‘normally’ controlled environments there is a downside –too often delegates are distracted by their mobile information devices and have less ‘real-world’ interaction with the event and people that they came to witness.

In creating an on-line conversation alongside an event are we distilling the quality of real debate? I am often surprised by the number of people who use laptops during meeting and events – would they revolt if there was no WiFi or mobile access?

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Unsocial Networks

12. April 2009 – 10:49 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

Freddi Fraudster FrogWe all know about the benefits of social networking but what about the pitfalls? The obvious one is distraction – it is estimated that social networks cost UK businesses £6.5 billion a year in lost productivity. That doesn’t mean I’m in favour of blacklisting such sites; instead I would encourage corporations and public bodies to update their IT ‘acceptable use’ policies accordingly.

However, there are more sinister forces at work. The idea of being ‘friends’ with somebody you haven’t met might be good for kudos but can you be confident of their identity? Trust is an old online problem with worryingly few checks and balances in the social networking field.

I’ve observed that people are generally less alert in these environments too – for example, more likely to click a link in a Twitter feed than in an email. I don’t think people realise that social networking accounts are increasingly attractive to scammers and hackers. For example, when Obama’s Twitter account was hacked at the start of the year it offered the perfect springboard for spam.

The nature of the beast is also the problem. Twitter is a prime example – it has an upper character limit so people tend to use short URL generators like TinyURL. This makes it easier to cloak your final destination. Facebook, on the other hand, allows ‘non-certified’ applications to be installed and as a result many have fallen foul to malicious widgets. [Firefox users’ note: there is an excellent add-on called LongURL mobile expander which can be used to reveal the final destination of web redirectors].

An experiment by IT security firm Sophos tested the integrity of Facebook users back in 2007. After setting up a profile in the name of “Freddi Staur” (an anagram of ‘Fraudster’, pictured here), they sent out 200 friend requests and waited to see what would happen. A total of 87 people responded and of these 82 leaked ‘personal’ information such as full dates of birth.

In addition to these findings, Sophos ‘poked’ a further 100 random Facebook users to see if this form of communication would elicit the same response and encourage people to let Freddi access their details. However, just eight people responded, with only five revealing personal information.

With increasing scope for security lapses in eParticipation land, PEP-NET should take note.

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Worlds’ first eParticipation training course?

12. March 2009 – 17:51 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

Those of you at the recent EC eParticipation day will know that Jeremy Millard from the Danish Technological Institute gave the opening overview. This contained a number of interesting points.

Firstly, he recognised the void in terms of a common European public space – later demonstrating that the ‘buzz’ was at the local level and that links between local, regional, national and European eParticipation are weak.

Going forward, more effort around the digitization of public data and mash-ups’ were encouraged – the ‘innovation jam’ approach was commended, even with the suggestion of small prizes. Lastly was the call for more support aimed at politicians and civil servants, particularly training.

Well, in what I think is a ‘first’, a new course on eParticipation is being run by The Consultation Institute, a UK organisation designed to help all those engage in public or stakeholder consultation absorb best practice.

Aimed at public bodies, the course is held over one day and includes the following modules:-

  • The digital landscape
  • The interactive tool set
  • Platforms, tools and technologies
  • Effective eConsultation
  • Effective ePetitioning
  • Operational issues
  • Marketing in the digital domain
  • ePB and GIS tools
  • Evaluation and Investment

There are currently three dates over the next couple of months (London, Manchester and Birmingham) . On 21st May this will culminate with the third “Technologies for Participation” conference (London, UK). Click here for more details.

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Royality Web 2.0

20. February 2009 – 16:17 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

crestEarlier this month, Queen Elizabeth II witnessed the third re-launch of the British Monarchy Website ( The Queen is apparently keen to keep the younger generation tuned-in to the monarchy, hence the web site facelift.

The first incarnation was launched back in 1997. The site was visited over 100 million times in its first year, and recorded an astounding 35 million hits in the week after Princess Diana’s death.

eParticipation is not a particularly new interest, however. Royals have often been the first of the masses to use new technology; The Queen became the first Monarch to send an email during a visit to an army base in 1976. In 2002 3,521 journalists from over 60 countries are accredited via an Internet-based virtual press office to cover events to mark The Queen’s Golden Jubilee. In 2006 the ‘Christmas Broadcast’ or ‘Queen’s speech’ was podcast for the first time. In 2008 the Queen even uploaded a YouTube video while visiting Google offices in central London.

The new website has a more user-friendly and accessible design and utilises a number of new technological features, such as Google maps integration with the Royal Diary of Engagements. Users will also be able to follow the Royals’ movements on a daily basis on Google Maps, with icons to show where they are in the country on any given day.

There is also integration with the Royal Channel on YouTube (launched 2007), a password protected Media Centre, a new Personnel module to allow job applicants to apply on-line, and a new search function. The site will make greater use of video and has a number of ‘virtual room’ tours (using flash technology).

While the Queen has yet to start a blog, or tweet, it will be interesting to see if the extended royal family (particularly the younger members) make similar advances. I would be interested to hear national comparisons (the Dutch royal house perhaps?).

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Get with the bug

30. January 2009 – 23:21 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

logoWith over three quarters of Europeans unaware of the forthcoming EU parliamentary elections, an innovative viral marketing campaign has been devised to help spread the word.  The aim is to improve the low voting and engagement figures and achieve a turnout of more than 25% in each of the key member states.

While responsible governments would normally vaccinate against any sort of outbreak, in this instance they are actively encouraging citizens to ‘catch the bug’.  And this bug is every bit as infectious as the real thing – yet it’s completely harmless.

In-fact, it’s probably the opposite of a ‘bad bug’, if there is such as thing.  The idea is to encourage email users to append a simple strap-line to their email signatures.  The traditional email footer is occupied by variants of the corporate disclaimer blended with increasingly conscious notions, such as environmental pleas.

The code, available in a number of languages, has already been integrated into the email signature of 17,000 email users’.  However, the project has an ambitious target of 20 million users.  This simple yet effective measure is another example of the understated power of one of the most basic yet fundamental participation tools, email.   Get your bug today and support this important campaign.

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Web gets skinny

16. January 2009 – 14:58 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

Google has recently announced the suspension of a number of its services, notably Google Video, in a recent move to de-clutter and streamline during the current economic crisis.  Included among the upcoming closures are: Google Notebooks, Google Catalogs, Dodgeball, Google Mashup Editor, and future development of Jaiku.

Will this start a new trend?  Is your third party service at risk of disappearing in 2009?  More seriously though, can you imagine the wreckage if a mainstream application like Google Maps or Facebook closed overnight?

image from jetty videoThe real world has is turning ‘unreal’ to save money too.  The ‘Skinningrove’ community in Northern England is refurbishing their local jetty – but only in the virtual world.   The replica will be placed in SecondLife, complete with unveiling by MP Ashok Kumar, or at least his avatar.  Boat trips will commence shortly afterwards.

The idea is not as crazy as it sounds; ultimately it is hoped that this will promote the real refurbishment of the jetty and highlight the new opportunities that regeneration might bring.  Visit the project wiki to find out more.

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Community Empowerment Evidence

26. November 2008 – 16:03 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

The Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort University together with the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (University of Southampton) are in the process of undertaking a systematic review of the international evidence based around “community empowerment”.

This comprehensive piece of work, Commissioned by the DCLG, already has some early findings.  Based on the popular U.K. definition for empowerment as an “increasing feeling of being able to influence decisions”, an abstract of the interim report relating to eParticipation is given below:-

  • The links between eParticipation and community empowerment are surprisingly weak
  • eParticipation is most successful in relation to the empowerment of individual participants
  • eParticipation is notably less effective in empowering the wider community
  • In order for eParticipation mechanisms to have any empowerment impact, the mechanism needs to be concerned with a highly salient issue
  • Official sponsorship of eParticipation does not appear to play an important role in affecting empowerment outcomes

While many of the points are not news for experienced practitioners, the aforementioned process of mapping and defining empowerment success in the report is both competent and intriguing.  I find the last point particularly troublesome and duly welcome thoughts on this from others in the PEP-NET community.