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May 2007 Archives

May 7, 2007

Elegant Economy

As it approaches its third birthday, TheyWorkForYou.com goes from strength to strength, reaching hundreds of thousands of users every month with traffic well-nigh doubling year on year. The site is now firmly established, and thrives thanks to continued diligence and early-morning parser-tweaking by Matthew, Francis and other MySociety volunteers. Those running any site reliant upon web-scraping can never sleep easy - you're always once template change away from disaster.

That said, to my harsh eye, the site is looking a bit tired design-wise. It has understandably accreted its fair share of additional features over the years, pushing the original site architecture close to its limits. Plus, I'm a bit bored of the green and red thing.

So, where to start with a TWFY redesign?

Well, my favourite sites do one useful thing, brilliantly. NeighbourhoodFixIt.com is the latest MySociety site to slip quietly into beta. It is a work of irrefutable reductionist genius. I adore it,

Take one postcode search, add an ultra-local map from the Ordinance Survey and a couple of clicks later your local council will know about a problem you'd like them to fix - be that a pothole, a broken streetlamp or an abandoned car.

I used it in anger when some graffiti appeared on the fence opposite our front door. It only works.

Another site I am liking ver' much is PlanningAlerts.com, another not-for-profit endeavour from the margins of MySociety. Type your email and your postcode, add in your radius of interest and you'll get an email every time within that radius submits a request for planning permission to the local council. Again, I've used it. Again, it only works.

I particularly like the visual design of both the above sites. They possess an elegance and an economy which is all too rare. MySociety's other sites notwithstanding, SendUIt.com is about the only other 'elegant & economic' site which springs readily to mind.

The problem with any TheyWorkForYou.com redesign is that two different facets of the site have been equally successful. One of which we expected, the other we didn't. We pretty much knew that making parliamentary debates and written answers accessible, addressable and commentable was going to work well. Much of the original thinking and design of the site hinged on this user need.

The success of individual MP pages took us more by surprise. These are now the most popular pages on the site, with most traffic coming direct from Google, where the pages rank highly for MP and constituency names.

Any redesign will need to keep routes to these successful facets utterly unencumbered, while still making space for other Houses (Lords: tick), Parliaments (New Zealand: tick) and Assemblies (Northern Ireland: tick), as well as those Westminster proceedings we've not yet managed to gather into the fold, such as committees. And then there's moving pictures...

Keeping all that lot 'elegant and economic' is a proper meaty challenge. Just enough is more.

May 8, 2007

"Democracy Requires The Consistent Disruption Of Silences"

Last week Mick Fealty (aka Slugger O'Toole) wrote an interesting Comment Is Free piece on the internet's impact on democracy.

He ends with a wonderful quotation from US-based Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko:

"I left Poland in search of democracy and found it was more like a phantom always shifting and constantly lingering on the horizon. Once it is given to someone, it changes. In fact, it needs to be remade every day. It requires the consistent disruption of silences and the [utterance] of things that people do not want to hear."

In the past I've used phrases such as 'poking the pig' to describe this consistent disruption. Henceforth, I'm with Wodiczko.

May 10, 2007

Telegraph blogs

The Telegraph launched their user blogs today, rather like Le Monde. Good, brave, bold stuff - well executed and integrated. I've no idea if they'll work, but at least they're trying something a bit different.

Best of all from their perspective is their speed of execution. 17 working days. That's a very healthy sign, and makes me profoundly jealous.

That said, I've been waiting to see some details of exactly how they'd execute them for more selfish reasons...

The blogs are hosted on the my.telegraph.co.uk domain, meaning I should in theory be able to blag a slice of 13 years worth of telegraph.co.uk googlejuice for any links I make on my new telegraph blog.

Thanks Shane!

It'll be interesting to see how long

<meta name="robots" content="index,follow" /> remains in the headers of my.telegraph.co.uk pages.

May 15, 2007

Seven Tips on How to Run a Successful Community

Hot on the heels of Cory's "troll whisperers" insight comes a fantastic list of Seven tips to help run a successful community, courtesy of Matt Haughey's tasty-looking fortuito.us blog (duly rss'd - thanks Lloyd).

My fave is tip No.2:

2. Talk like a human, not a robot If you elect to take your own personal emotions out of major moderation decisions, you of course run the risk of going too far. No one wants to follow a community run by a passionless robot.

Cory makes a plea for developers of community software to observe the softer skills of the troll whisperer before turning their hand to new code. Matt duly supplies some of said subtle soft stuff. All good.

Matt's tip chimes well with BBC Web Principle No.6: Adopt a relaxed, conversational tone.

There's a fine 'I trump your weasly web principle No.6 with my pithy top tip No.2' gag in there somewhere, but I'm tired, and being rained on in Hungary, so no joy.

May 17, 2007

NeighbourhoodFixIt.com: A barometer for civic society

I am a profound admirer of NeighbourhoodFixIt.com, the latest MySociety opus.

As usual, they launched a nicely pared-down version of the site with precisely zero fanfare. Since then, Matthew Sommervilleet al have been tweaking, and adding only those features which are clearly essential, having observed how people actually use the site.

For example, you now get an email questionnaire a couple of weeks after you've reported the problem, just to nudge you to have a look and see if it's been fixed.

Over the past couple of days they've also opened up a little. Previously, you could only see reports of things needing fixing by entering a postcode or placename. Now they're publishing real-time reports for every council, which will have the side effect of making every reported problem indexable by Google et al.

Reading through all the problems people have reported (try Edinburgh's) is an odd sensation. It's a difficult read. Aggregated anger and irritation. A nationwide meta-moan it may be, but you get a sense that people still have hope, and no little faith, in local councils.

Periodically, you'll find genuine surprise and delight from someone whose problem has been fixed.

A better barometer for the health of civic society I've yet to encounter.

May 18, 2007

Given I've been emailing this to everyone...

...I should probably just embed it here.

It's a talk by Sir Ken Robinson at 2006 TED conference, making a funny, erudite and moving case that schools kill creativity.

Found on Dadblog

The cutting edge of citizen journalism, 1996 style


I just found this photo I took of the Nat West Tower going up in smoke on 16th January 1996. Nobody got hurt, thankfully.

It was taken from the fire escape at Wired magazine's offices near London Bridge, using a very early digital camera I'd managed to blag off Canon.

Phil then dashed back into the office to stick it on his website, whereupon we emailed all our friends and declared ourselves authentically modern and digital, if not quite bona-fide WiReD.

May 30, 2007

What business are we in, again?

"They want to move from a content company to an audience company, giving the audiences control and learning..."

Martin Stiksel, one of the Last.fm founders, explaining why CBS just bought his company.

Now that is really putting the audience at the heart of everything you do!

However wonderful broadcasters think they are at Making Great Content, this content's success in reaching big audiences came in a world of very constrained live-only distribution, where scarcity of spectrum resulted in incredibly limited choice.

As Bob Eggington, the mercurial BBC lifer who launched bbc.co.uk/news, puts it:

"Broadcasters often think their popularity stems from their own merit, when in truth much of it is down to the control they exert. That control is being lost, due to the internet."

CBS has clocked the existential nature of the threat, and is busy reinventing itself, and its relationship with the people it used to call an audience.

Murdoch has a couple of years head start, following his MySpace coup.

Others are still deluding themselves that their uniquely wonderful content will see them through.

Monks and bibles, my friends, monks and bibles...

About May 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Tomski.com - Tom Loosemore's Blog in May 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

April 2007 is the previous archive.

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Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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