Friday, 26 March 2010

Just do it!

I was talking to a friend and work colleague recently about cycling to work. We had already ridden to work together earlier that week- after much procrastination and more excuses than you could shake a stick from him! I'm sure he won't mind me saying any of this, as it was his suggestion for me to write this blog about the subject!

On the day in question, it was a lovely and bright sunny morning, and so there was no reason NOT to cycle into work. When I asked him when he would be cycling in to work again, and why he had not ridden in that morning, he was all set to give me his reasons, or more precisely, his excuses! I explained that my own simple philosophy on such matters is this – just do it!

When I find myself deliberating over whether to do something or not, I find it is far better to just get on and do it. If the task in question looks difficult, or takes me out of my comfort zone, then these are just not valid reasons for not doing something. I would much rather try and fail, than not try at all. How many times have we all kicked ourselves for not giving something a try, and regretted the decision later on.

As I have said in a previous article, failure is not when you do not complete the task. Failure is when you do not complete the task, and then learn nothing from the experience. As long as you learn something from the experience, then it has been a positive one.

Sometimes we all need to do something that takes us outside of our normal comfort zones. To feel that nervous energy that comes from the heady mixture of excitement and nervousness. When faced with the opportunity to do something that you are not totally comfortable with, to go outside your comfort zone, you should always accept the challenge. No matter what happens, you will have learnt something that you didn’t know before the experience. And you never know, you may even enjoy it!

There is no shame in attempting something and failing. I am sure that every mountaineer who ever contemplated climbing Everest was nervous. I am sure that every astronaut who was pulled away from the safety of their planet felt nervous. There is never any guarantee of success in life.

But that is never a reason to stop trying.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

What makes a good local government web site?

There are many benchmarks which describe what factors constitute a good government web site. Perhaps one of the most widely known and respected is the Better Connected report from the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM).

The structure of this report follows the criteria for high-quality local authority websites that develop the ideas that websites should be 'useful, usable and used'.

There are many third party services which will routinely crawl over a web site and benchmark it accordingly. Within local government, one of the better know of these is Sitemorse, who provide quality, compliance and availability monitoring services.

SOCITM and Sitemorse are the most widely adopted benchmarks used within local government.
The following is a summary of some of the key factors that make up a good local government web site. This is by no means an exhaustive or definitive list, but instead highlights just some of the key areas

Useful content – Does the website have the information that people are looking for?

A website must conform with all these criteria to ensure that the content is useful.

  • Information - Do people find answers to their questions?
  • Currency - Can people rely on the site being up to date?
  • Links elsewhere - Are people referred to another organisation if the council does not have the information
  • News value - Does the content capture people’s newsworthiness?
  • E-mail - Can people do business by email with the council
  • Transactions - Can people transact business with the council
  • Participation - Do people have the opportunity to influence council policies and decisions?
Usability – How useful is the information to find and use on the website?

A website must conform with all these criteria to ensure that it is easy to use.
  • Ease of finding - Can people find the site easily?
  • Use of A-Z - Can people find their way easily to a specific topic?
    Use of search engine - Does a specific word or phrase generally point people to what they want?
    Use of location - Can people find information easily by using a map or postcode (or other similar)?
  • Navigation - Can people rely on a clear and consistent style in finding their way around?
  • Design of transactions? - Can people use online forms and other transactions easily?
  • Accessibility - Can people use the site if they have a disability?
  • Readability - Can people understand what the site says?
  • Resilience - Can people rely on the site to be available and working properly

Used – How well used is the website?

It is recommended that each organisation pursues policies that encourage the take-up of their websites under these broad headings.

  • Access - Do people have easy free access to the Internet (not forgetting access through intermediaries)?
  • Measurement - Are visitor numbers and interactions increasing?
  • Feedback - What do visitors think about their experience in using the website?
  • Marketing - Are websites being fully marketed to key audiences

These are just some of the many factors that need to be taken into consideration when developing a local government web site. A far more comprehensive list of benchmarks and considerations can be obtained from the Better Connected report produced by SOCITM.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Using technology to create a fairer, safer and more caring society

During the last 3 decades, technological advancements have transformed our lives. New technologies have made it quicker and cheaper to communicate over increasingly longer distances, creating many opportunities that simply did not exist previously.

In 2006 over £130 billion of business was conducted over the Internet in the UK. 7 out of 10 UK businesses communicate with customers directly through their website. Investment in ICT is linked to higher productivity growth. 17 million adults in the UK now choose to manage their finances with online banking. In Britain over 50% of 16 – 24 year olds use social networking websites. 20.4 million UK homes have a digital TV service. Britons send 1 billion text messages every week.

Technology has become so central to our society that our government considers ICT to be the third skill for life after literacy and numeracy (21st century Skills UK education department). Technology use is seen as a key determinant of social inclusion.

But not everyone in the UK is benefitting from the opportunities provided by new technologies. For example:

· 11% of adults do not use a mobile phone
· 20% of adults do not have digital TV
· 33% of households do not have a PC
· 800,000 school children cannot go online at home
· 10% of 16 – 24 year olds do not use the Internet
· 27% of adults have never used the Internet

So why aren’t these people taking advantage of new technologies?

· Some people chose not to
· Some people have no access or lack the skills
· Some people have more pressing challenges in their lives

Often they are disadvantaged, suffering from “social exclusion”, having 3 or more big problems in their lives, including:

· No job
· No home
· No money
· Poor health
· Victim of crime
· No public services
· Poor education and skills

Technology use rises with wealth and socio-economic status, and falls with age and disadvantage. 75% of people do not use the Internet. That’s 7 million adults. 35% of disadvantaged people do not use mobile phones. That’s 3 million adults.

Why is “social exclusion” our problem? Because we want a fair society. Because we want a caring society. Because we want a safe society. Because social exclusion creates a cost for us all. Tackling problems associated with our 1.3 million most disadvantaged people costs an average of £44,538 per person – for the UK that’s £57.9 billion each year.

As a growing number of people in the UK enjoy the benefits of technology in their daily lives, disadvantaged people without these opportunities are being left behind. Now that UK Government is shifting services online, people already struggling in life may find it harder to access the services they need. Social exclusion is a barrier to closing the digital divide. Digital exclusion limits the lives and life chances of the disadvantaged.

We need to shift efforts from “treatment” to “prevention” and break the cycle of disadvantage. We can take the opportunity to use technology as a tool for improving lives and life chances, or face the risk of increasing economic and social costs. This will require the co-operation of central government, local government, social care practitioners, voluntary sector, community groups, private sector and the ICT industry.


Sheffield SafetyNET is a bold attempt to prevent important information getting lost. It aims to improve communication between teachers, social workers, nurses and doctors. It encourages professionals to work together.

Barnet Council’s Children’s Service Mobile Solution is a project which enables social workers to access their diaries and email without having to come to the office. This mobile solution has saved Barnet Council’s Children’s Service £380,000.

Telecare enables older and vulnerable people to live safely in their own home and community. Electronic sensors around the user’s home can provide regular reminders or alert carers if a problem arises. Telecare has saved Northamptonshire council £1,504,773 in 21 months.

The Gorbals REAL Learning Centre provides technology training in an area of Glasgow with low skill levels and high unemployment. 9 out of 10 residents joined the learning centre. Over half have attended IT classes. 105 people have been helped into work.

Technology offers endless opportunities for innovating social care. It can deliver social inclusion outcomes.

“An open, inclusive information society that benefits all people will not emerge without sustained commitment and investment” – Kofi Annan.

Monday, 8 March 2010

My first year as a blogger

On 31 March 2009 I posted my first blog. Throughout that time, I have posted regularly on many subjects including technology, social media, atheism, politics, current affairs and animal welfare to name a few.

Before setting up my own blog I used to write and comment on forums, web sites and other people's blogs, but never thought of actually setting up my own blog where I could write in more detail on specific subjects that interested me. After some encouragement from a friend, I came to the conclusion that setting up my own blog was a good idea.

I didn't want to spend time and expense setting up my own blog, but wanted to use one of the freely available blogging tools. After some research, I decided to use Blogger.

Why I chose Blogger as my blogging tool
  • It is a very popular blogging tool, so must be doing something right
  • Developed by Google it would have good search capability
  • Easy to use, configure and maintain
  • Free with no running costs

Once I had set up my blog, it was then a matter of thinking of what to write. Thankfully, this is rarely a problem. I get ideas for my blog from all matter of different sources.

Inspiration for my blogs

  • Traditional news media including newspapers and the TV
  • IT media including forums and magazines
  • Blogs, forums, social media and various web sites
  • Conversations with people

Basically, an idea for a blog can come from almost anywhere. I don't have any need to go looking for ideas, as they usually come to me. What I will do though is write an idea down. I keep a list of blog ideas saved on my computer, so that a good idea does not get forgotten about.

My reasons for blogging

I enjoy it when someone has read one of my blogs and leaves a comment, either agreeing or disagreeing with what I have written. I enjoy being challenged over an opinion I have expressed in a blog, as I see this as an opportunity for me to have a discussion over the subject.

I hope to continue blogging, as it is something that gives me pleasure and I enjoy. Hopefully, it gives my readers pleasure when they read my posts!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A word of caution using third party social media tools

Third party social media tools can be a double edged sword. On the one hand they get you up and running quickly, with little or zero up front expenses, and little if any technical knowledge. On the other hand, you are placing your content in the hands of a third party supplier without the benefit of a contract to safe guard yourself.

Google's blogging tool Blogger (used by me on this very blog) recently closed down several music sites without warning, and thus not giving the user any time to backup their blog. All the blogs that Google closed were operating legitimately under Blogger's own Terms and Conditions.

Google is not alone in closing down sites in this way. Yahoo closed down its photo hosting service back in July 2007, giving its users only three months to claim their photos before Yahoo purged the site.

While these sorts of actions may be rare, they still cause a great deal of frustration and inconvenience when they do. So it is worth asking yourself the question "How would I recreate my online social media presence if my social media supplier withdrew its services?"

Whether you host your own social media applications or not, your social media content should be backed up. In the event of a disaster, you should be able to recover your content back to its previous state, whether you do this using the original social media tool or not.

If you are using the Google Blogger tool (like I do), then you can export your blog directly from within the blog editor (once logged in, go to Settings and the option for exporting your blog is at the top). Most blog editors will have a similar feature.

Also, you can save the raw XML feed from your blog. To save the latest 1000 feeds for my own blog I would need to enter into my browser.

So it's worth investigating what facilities your social media tool has for allowing you to backup your content.

And don't delay, do it today!

Monday, 1 March 2010


Having now seen the film Avatar, my impression of it is that it is a stunning film. It is one of the most visually aesthetic films I have seen. Reportedly it cost some $300 million in the making, with the original concept having been thought of a decade ago. It is only now that James Cameron has brought that concept to life.

The story centres around a character called Jake, a wheelchair bound Marine who comes in to replace his brother on a research project. The project involves studying the Na’vi tribe, who live on a planet called Pandora. They are ten feet tall, have blue skin and live in harmony with their environment. In order to study the Na’vi tribe up close, human scientists inhabit genetically created representations of the Na’vi tribe called avatars.

In an early research venture to Pandora, Jake becomes separated from the rest of the team and meets the Na’vi tribe for himself, and befriends a female Na’vi called Neytiri. She shows him the ways of the Na’vi. Their customs, culture and spirituality. Their affinity with their planet, and how it interconnects like a web of nature. The Na’vi have a close relationship with their environment, and have a deep respect for all living creatures. After making a kill during a hunt for example, they mark their respect for the dead animal. These are just some of the similarities between Native Americans and the Na’vi.

However, the laboratory that is undertaking this research is located on a military base, and is owned by a corporation who want to remove the Na’vi from Pandora because their planet is home to a rich seam of a very rare (and extremely expensive) substance called Unobtanium (yes, I know). Jake’s commander is pleased that he has become accepted by the Na’vi, and wants to use him to find a weakness in the Na’vi so that they can start mining for Unobtanium. The corporation that is funding the research are really only interested in getting their hands on Unobtanium and making a huge profit from its sale. In another parallel with Native Americans, the human species want to take the land of the Na’vi by force.

Jake comes to embrace the simple and spiritual life of the Na’vi, and their close bond with nature. He also falls in love with Neytiri. He turns his back on the greedy corporation who want to steal the land from the Na’vi, and indeed, of the human species altogether. Instead, he stands and fights with the Na’vi to regain control of their planet. The ending of the film has a showdown between the soldiers fighting on behalf of the corporation, and the Na’vi, which also includes Jake and the other research scientists who take part in the battle using their avatars. There then unfolds a struggle between the great and the greedy , the underdog and the mighty.

After the battle, where Jake nearly loses his life, but is saved by Neytiri, he decides to remain in his avatar forever. He turns his back on the human species for good, preferring instead to remain as a Na’vi. This message is perhaps one of the film’s boldest statements – that the hero of the film would rather belong to a different race, than to remain human. Especially when that race are gentler, kinder and more compassionate.

The film is breathtaking in its cinematography, with its huge sweeping landscapes, floating mountains and rich forests. A whole ecosystem has been created before your very eyes, including trees, plants and animals. Running through much of this ecosystem is a whole series of interconnected tendrils, which the Na’vi can tap into. This forms the basis for their close relationship with their environment, which is both physical and spiritual.

There are many messages conveyed throughout the film. The closeness of the relationship between the Na’vi and their environment has echoes of Native Americans and other tribes. Their deep respect for their planet is surely a call to arms for our own species to stop harming our own fragile planet. The way in which the Na’vi physically connect with their environment through their tendrils reminded me of Gaia, the idea that all parts of an ecosystem work together in harmony for its own survival.

The bottom line to the film is that I was entertained throughout. If you haven’t seen the film already, then you really need to go and see it in 3D at the cinema. Watching this film on a DVD will not give you the full wonder and beauty of the film.