I said that I had hoped to tweet a bit from Scotweb2. I am terrible at multitasking though so I only managed a miserly two, hurriedly posted during lunch. So instead I will write a report of what went on.
First off there was a great talk by James Munro who works on an interesting website, Patient Opinion. The site offers people a platform to make comments — positive or negative — about their experiences of the NHS.
It’s a great website demonstrating the idea that perhaps governments should not be making websites — they should be publishing data and APIs for other people to build upon. This is very much in the Mysociety mould. You might expect this sort of website to be provided by the government. Indeed, since Patient Opinion was founded the NHS has started a similar project on its NHS Choices site. Cleverly, Patient Opinion has created a mashup of their content at the NHS’s.
But there are potential problems with such a site receiving government backing. During the presentation it was pointed out by some that on an NHS-run or government-backed website, people might be tempted to rant or let off steam. But in the more neutral arena of an independent site like Patient Opinion, people are more likely to post more thoughtful comments.
Another point about Patient Opinion is that all of the comments that appear there are pre-moderated. If I remember correctly, James Munro said that 95% of all comments are approved on Patient Opinion while only around 75% of comments are approved on NHS Choices. There might be a suspicion that the NHS may suppress negative comments. People are more likely to trust an independent website.
It struck me afterwards (long after there was the opportunity to mention it) that this phenomenon could apply not just to government websites but to all websites. I have written about the poor standard of comments on mainstream media websites a number of times in the past. I have argued that newspaper websites might be better off putting some kind of Technorati-style widget at the bottom of each article rather than appending a comment thread where the poor standard of debate can sometimes be quite off-putting.
Then there are the implications for business websites. It was noted that web 2.0 is all about transparency. Another theme of Scotweb2 was the implications / challenges / opportunities of web 2.0 for small businesses (and, indeed, large businesses). What if a business decides to have a feedback section on its website? It will face the same issues that a government website will face — users will be reluctant to trust it and may be tempted to simply let off steam.
Perhaps the concept of Patient Opinion could be applied to all kinds of different areas. It seems to me that if it works in the realm of healthcare, there is no reason why it wouldn’t make sense in other areas like the voluntary / third sector, pressure groups, the media or even business?
Following James Munro, Simon Dickson made an engaging presentation evangelising about the potential of open source solutions such as Linux, PHP and particularly WordPress. I think I had read this on Simon Dickson’s blog before, but the cost of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website still has your jaw hitting the floor. £19.2m over five years — for one website. And that was it on target. Millions sunk before a single page is made, including £1.47m on the content management system alone.
Simon Dickson’s point is that you don’t need to use proprietary systems built by the likes of Microsoft. Why spend millions on a CMS when you can use the highly flexible WordPress platform which is free? The new-ish 10 Downing Street website is run on WordPress. And the Wales Office website is also now run on WordPress, and it cost a significantly lower amount of money. I’ve forgotten exactly what it was, but it was certainly not £19.2m.
Something that came up a number of times was that the cause of many of the problems leading to inadequate or ridiculously expensive government websites is to do with mindset. WordPress is seen as a risk; Microsoft is a trusted brand. Thankfully that seems to be changing in a lot of areas.
I got the sense that a lot of people were very impressed by the idea of WordPress. If you’ve been using it for a while it is easy to take it for granted. But the fact remains that it is a remarkable achievement for a community to have created such a powerful open-source, freely available and fully tweakable application.
After Simon Dickson’s initial presentation, we split up into two groups. Already being a convert to WordPress, I opted to skip Simon Dickson’s workshop about WordPress and instead I stuck around for Stewart Kirkpatrick‘s talk about content. The presentation basically highlighted interesting websites that have become successful because of the careful choice of content. For instance, YouTube beat Google Video because it gives you plenty of toys to play with (e.g. it’s dead easy to share videos on Facebook, embed them on your blog, etc) and relevant videos to tempt you further. Common sense stuff really.
I think it was at this point of the afternoon that we got talking about some startling instances of data unavailability. Apparently the Royal Mail doesn’t have a database of locations of all of its postboxes, while another person said he knew of a company that couldn’t even produce a database of its employees. if I recall correctly, James Munro mentioned the difficulty Patient Opinion had in simply getting a database of Scottish hospitals and their postcodes.
After lunch there was a talk about BT Tradespace. Then I hung around for Mark Ballard’s workshop about web 2.0 and civic society. The thing that struck me most during this discussion was the idea that some voluntary organisations are seemingly quite worried about web 2.0 efforts swiping the rug from under their feet.
All the while I had a good chit-chat with Stephen Glenn. I would have loved to have been able to join the others in the pub, but unfortunately I had to rush back home to work.
All-in-all it was a great day with many fascinating presentations. Hats off to Alex Stobart for organising the event. By the sounds of it there are going to be more events like this in the future. It would be great for the web 2.0 ball to get rolling a bit faster in Scotland.