National Assembly for Wales announces digital engagement plans

Cardiff Bay

PierheadSpeaking tonight at The Royal Television Society lecture in the Pierhead building in Cardiff Bay, the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales, Rosemary Butler, announced a series of actions that the Assembly plans to take in order to address the Democratic Deficit, including some significant plans to develop the way that the Assembly engages with digital publishers and communities.

‘Democratic deficit’ is the term that Mrs Butler applied to the problem of many UK and Welsh media organisations failing to properly cover the work of the Assembly and the public policy differences in Wales as a result of devolution.

For example, viewers of television news in Wales regularly find themselves watching stories involving the English Education Minister Michael Gove, when it is in fact Huw Lewis, the Minister for Education in Wales, who makes policies affecting the education system in Wales.

In her speech, Mrs Butler announced a set of specific measures the National Assembly will take to improve how the Assembly communicates its work with the people of Wales including,

  • work with digital and hyperlocal media and partner organisations to create a journalism hub in the Senedd that could provide content to these new digital channels;
  • make it easier to report the Assembly’s work by providing better communications facilities on the Senedd estate;
  • make the Assembly’s data more open and accessible;
  • ensure that Assembly Members are fully informed about how best to use the communication tools now available in this digital age;
  • work more closely with media organisations to take the Assembly out to the communities they represent with a series of regional Assembly press days; and
  • also work with those organisations to provide induction sessions for trainee journalists to ensure a better understanding of the work of the institution.

NativeHQ welcomes these announcements. They will make a significant contribution to the way that the work of the Assembly is communicated to the people of Wales. We have been involved in the discussions the Assembly has held about these issues over recent months – you can view a video of Carl Morris contributing to the discussions on our blog.

The key to the success of these initiatives will lie in the way that they are implemented. Some of this is already underway. The flagship Pierhead building in Cardiff Bay, where the Presiding officer made her remarks, has finally been given internet connectivity, which the public can use via wifi, and it is good to hear there will be better communications facilities across the Senedd estate.

NativeHQ will itself be involved in the effort to inform Assembly Members about the best ways to use digital communications tools as one of the organisations chosen to deliver training in digital and social media to AMs and their political staff. We’d welcome comments from our blog visitors if you have any thoughts about the key skills that Assembly Members need to know in order to become more effective using digital tools. What do Welsh politicans need to know about the social web?

The proposal to ‘make the Assembly’s data more open and accessible; opens up the exciting possibility of allowing journalists and citizens to analyse the data in new and innovative ways that could provide fresh insights to help the Assembly to do the important work of representing the interests of Wales and its people, making laws for Wales, and holding the Welsh Government to account. It will be important for the Assembly to work with industry leaders in the field of digital democratic engagement such as MySociety as well as local Welsh technology companies who understand the specific nature of the Welsh political landscape.

The idea of creating a journalism hub within the Senedd for niche digital publishers to engage with the work of the political community is a promising one, though not without its challenges for the Assembly. We would suggest that the Assembly guards against over-reliance on the idea of ‘hyperlocal’, as not all niches are geographic. While hyperlocal sites are an increasing feature of the digital landscape in Wales, many digital publishers focus not on an area of the map, but on an area of policy. For example YnniCymru is a blog which looks at the specific topic of renewable energy, right across Wales.

These topic and hyperlocal specialists are savvy digital users, so we’d suggest that the Assembly looks to create an information resource with smart filtering and notification systems that they can use to ensure that any Assembly activity relating to the area of  information that they focus on – be that geographical or topic based – gets to them quickly.

Image by Capt Gorgeous (Creative Commons BY licence)

The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning – using the internet with theatre

During April 2012, National Theatre Wales produced an important new play about Bradley Manning, the alleged Wikileaker who spent some of his early teenage years living in Haverfordwest in West Wales. NativeHQ designed and ran the multiplatform element of the production, in which we produced a global live stream of the play during every one of the live performances.

NTW’s Artistic Director, John McGrath, got NativeHQ involved very early in the development of the production, as writer Tim Price was developing his early drafts. We had a chance to think through the various options for placing the play into online spaces and settled on the live streaming concept, using surveillance cameras built into the set.

Tim wanted whatever we did to point to Bradley Manning, so we conceived of a web page which would go beyond simple live streaming to include live chat among virtual audience members and links that connected what was happening on the live stream with source material such as new stories, weblogs, interviews and even an archive of the website that Bradley created during his time in Wales.

Being integrated into the creative team provided us with an important opportunity to work with the very talented team putting together the show. Kudos should go to Producer Lucy Davies, Production Manager David Evans and Assistant Producer Michael Salmon , designer Chloe Lamford, Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers, sound guys Mike Beer and Matt Gibson, techie Jacob Gough, Stage Managers Fiona Curtis and Gemma Thomas, Costume supervisor Jo Nichols and AV designer Dan Trenchard. And of course Hoffi, who co-ordinated the website build, and Kinura who managed the live streaming infrastructure. Wales is lucky to have an impressive theatre community and tradition emerging here under John’s guidance.

Learning about theatre and multiplatform

There was a huge amount of learning about the process of theatre co-creation and how multiplatform production can find a place within this process. The big lessons are around time, budget and working closely with all those who are affected by the multiplatform work – it’s often new to theatre practitioners and going through the implications for their work can often take time and careful explanation.

The live streaming wasn’t without its technical problems – the last performances in Connah’s Quay, which were run by Carl, faced the challenge of a complete shut down of internet accessibility by the council, which seemed to have closed for the weekend. Carl and Michael Salmon stepped up to this by livestreaming the show to the world via a 3G connection through  Mike’s smartphone – impressive stuff, that hopefully none of the audience noticed.

In total, about 9000 people from over 70 countries around the world accessed the livestream, and it got wide coverage – it was tweeted by Wikileaks as well as the Bradley Manning Campaign, and a couple of theatre reviewers took the time to review the online experience, as distinct from the corporeal show. Dylan Moore from the ArtsDesk called it the ‘cutting edge of theatre’, while Daniel B Yates for Exeunt magazine used the opportunity to discuss the use of the internet in theatre and the nature of ‘Liveness’. Both reviewed gave the online experience four stars.

Reflections on live streaming theatre and immersion in web storytelling

Unlike physically live theatre, the use of live stream displaces the viewed by physical location and interaction. We become voyeurs. We played on this, and the themes of the story, by using the aesthetics of surveillance cameras. We also wanted to deepen the viewers immersion in Bradley’s story by offering them places to go through the links that were put onto the site during the show.

This was also important as it gave the viewed some measure of control over their own experience while keeping them in Bradley’s story – the web is a user centric, active medium, with that google search bar sitting at the top of the web page, making it easy to leave if the viewer is bored or distracted. In a theatre space, they are physically constrained, making it easier to hold attention. Adapting the story effectively to the web meant thinking carefully about the nature of the web medium and working to take advantage of its character in the multiplatform design.

The web offers new interactive possibilities to theatre makers, and we chose to take full advantage of the liveness in time that streaming offers, while thinking carefully about the way context collapses – viewers encountered it in offices, cafes, living rooms, kitchens or bedrooms. It was important to enable people to not only follow along, but share, comment, speak back, write and create themselves.

NTW18 was the latest in our journey of experimentation with multiplatform technology and John McGrath’s National Theatre Wales. It’s a journey that has taught everyone involved invaluable lessons on what is possible, what is involved in creating virtual spaces that work together with physical spaces, and the potential of the internet as a vehicle for storytelling and live multiplatform experiences.

Event: #senedd2011 in the Pierhead, Cardiff

We’re co-organising this event with the National Assembly. Entry is free but don’t forget your RSVP: Geraint.Huxtable@Wales.gov.uk

The limitations of Boris Johnson’s comment strategy

In The Telegraph today, Boris Johnson opines on the double-edged sword that is comments on blogs:

In the past few days there have been plenty of people wondering whether the blogosphere, with its seething irascibility, is actually coarsening political discourse. Could all this aggressive language actually encourage aggressive behaviour – or even violence? There are some people who wonder whether we need to tame the blogs, to sandpaper them, moderate them – perhaps even to censor them. And as soon as you put it like that you can see what twaddle it is. What we are seeing on our websites, for all its exuberant roughness, is a uniquely healthy and democratic process.

I’m inclined to agree with Boris, at least on this point.

But for the rest of us, in people’s minds blogs and blogging and discussion around them can tend to be dominated by newspapers. Therefore it would also be useful to remember the following points.

A blog is just a set of posts organised by time
On the web, blogs are all around. To assume every blog post is an opinion piece is wrong. To assume a blog is a diary is wrong too. Not all of what gets discussed on blogs is party political, nor is all of it political. I have no idea of Boris Johnson’s total experience of the web, but I can hazard a guess that he reads a lot of political opinion. For those of us working on digital media projects in industry, in the third sector, in arts and so forth, our experience of comments can be very different, particularly the kind of toxic comments you often find on newspapers. In other words, don’t let blogging experiences by the likes of The Telegraph guide your preconceptions of blogging or comments because this is a big world. You can use your blog to explore your service offerings, to discuss your professional interests, to post video from conferences, to invite comment on your organisation, to think out loud, to share notes and many other things. Hardly any of these things resemble the poisonous blogosphere so demonised – and beloved – by the press.

Your strategy and software are important
The example set by the newspaper industry is frequently poor and unreliable as a model for people in entirely different fields. For instance, the newspaper’s objective is often to maximum ad revenue and one way to do that is to find strategies to boost page view counts. This doesn’t necessarily align with the objective of sensible, polite discussion. I would argue it rarely does. Therefore the way the software is configured encourages this. In the case of The Telegraph, their nested comment threads allow people to go off on tangents, taking them off-topic. That’s possibly OK for page views and controversy (if you’re fine for every comment conversation to descend into “yo loser, we saved your ass in WW2” that is). It is not fine if you want to be the owner of your blog and set the topics and tone. In practice we have found the linear column of comments to be much more conducive to on-topic conversation in many cases. The comments amplify, correct and improve the original post. The general point is that you should invest time in figuring out why your blog exists, why you’re allowing comments and how the software is going to guide your visitors and provide incentives for the right behaviour. Sometimes anonymity can be an advantage, often it isn’t. Often like and recommend buttons can incentivise cheap sloganeering, turning the comments into a game of abuse. At other times, you might want to try that.

The web as a conversation
“Conversation” is a popular metaphor for what happens online. But it applies beyond the confines of any particular blog. It might be worthwhile to consider having a blog for what you do, just as it might be worth opening up comments. But this isn’t the only place the conversation is happening. For example, this blog post is a kind of long-form response to Boris Johnson but it’s not taking place on The Telegraph website. Frequently people will be discussing your subject in their own spaces and own channels in their own formats and media. The move is not only from one-way to two-way communications, it’s towards multi-way. If what people are saying is important to you, then you might need to spend time monitoring it and responding accordingly.

In summary, Johnson is right to emphasise taking the positive with the negative. There is frequently a good argument for taking ownership of the good and bad. If someone wants to emphasise a negative, shouldn’t you be the first to offer them an opportunity to fix it? And be seen to do so?

Often I meet people who would like to shut down the negative comments by not allowing them in the first place. But the fact is, just because you don’t have discussion on your own site, doesn’t mean it isn’t taking place elsewhere on the web.

Many organisations are only just beginning to open up to published comments by third parties. Often people are tempted to offer an email address and receive comments privately, but that won’t win them any kudos for openness and engaging people in public. Such organisations might be advised to offer comments and start the learning process. It has the potential to change their work – for the better.

David Cameron speaks the perfect tweet?

Opposition leader David Cameron appeared on radio this morning and took a cheap shot at Twitter, saying “the trouble with Twitter, the instantness (sic) of it – too many twits might make a twat.”.

We only get the glib soundbite from Cameron – crude language and all – and it adds nothing to the topic of discussion. So ironically, Cameron is guilty of being as trivial, whether by accident or by planning, as the Twitter users he presumes to criticise!

But there is a grain of truth in the point he was apparently trying to make. Yes, anyone using a communication medium – especially one so relatively new – should be aware of its limitations and be careful to avoid being misunderstood. But that’s self-evident isn’t it? That goes for blogs, television, the press, Facebook, YouTube and any of the other media “outlets” you might speak through. Radio too.

With Twitter and other social media platforms, politicians and the public sector can communicate directly with people, without the filtering or editing that takes place in traditional mainstream media. His language is unfortunate and misses the point. But I guess it’s good to hear Cameron speaking with passion and an authentic human voice. He could have posted it on Twitter.

Meanwhile Simon Dickson has some insights into Whitehall and a recent Twitter strategy document for civil servants:

Yes, Neil’s document is lengthy; and he admitted from the off that it would seem ‘a bit over the top’. But if exciting new tools like Twitter are to make it through the middle-management swamp of the Civil Service, they need to be wrapped in boring documentation like this. Whether or not it ever gets read, mandarins need to feel that your Twitter proposal has received the same proper consideration as the other (weightier?) items on their to-do list. ‘Dude! This is so cooool! We should so be doing this!’ will not get you very far.

First Impressions of Alastair Campbell’s New Blog

Alastair Campbell Website

[ UPDATE 06/02/09: Comments have been enabled on Alastair Campbell’s site, albeit in an unusual place. At the moment it’s unclear whether they apply to the whole site or each individual post. Nevertheless, you can disregard some of my criticism below as Campbell is also responding personally. He explains that the original lack of comments was down to “first day teething troubles”. ]

Alastair Campbell has somewhat belatedly launched his own text blog and video blog.

For someone so strongly linked with political communications in the UK, he’s a little late to the game. But I for one am a little intrigued about how he will choose to use it.

He’s also on Twitter now as @campbellclaret – presumably a reference to his chosen football team, Burnley.

First impressions? He talks about having discussions, but there is no comment facility on the blog. Why do high profile bloggers shy from this? People will talk about you, so you might as well encourage and “own” some of the discussion. A busy comments area brings people back, especially if there’s controversy. And Campbell is not unfamiliar with that.

He’d even retain the power to moderate comments, which is again something at which he’s had plenty of practice.

Otherwise they’ll use a system like Diigo to maintain annotations about your site elsewhere, as we saw with Whitehouse.gov recently.

Incidentally, call me picky but the convention is that the whole thing is referred to as a “blog” and one article is referred to as a “blog post”.

There’s also a video blog and the first entry (I mean post) is a very slickly-edited piece with some footage from the glory years with Tony Blair and the upbeat sounds of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” on the soundtrack (I wonder if they sought permission for this).

It’s entertaining.

I generally think people’s expectations of online video have lowered these days. Just shoot a quick and frank piece to camera from your living room – it’s cheap, it’s immediate and it feels more open and honest. With such high production values from the outset, I’ll be surprised if he can sustain this regularly.