Monthly Archives: February 2009

“Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan” Now on WriteToReply

Earlier this week, a Government Action Plan was published on the Chief Information Officer Council’s Transformational Government (Open Source) website regarding the use of open source software in Government: Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan.

Public comments – identified in part via tracking use of the recommended ukgovoss tag, can be viewed here: Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan Official [ Official Public Dashboard ]

You can now also find a version of the Action Plan – in commentable upon form – here: Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan on WriteToReply [ ]

As with other WriteToReply republished documents, URI’s are available for each paragraph of the Action Plan and can be linked to from comments made on other sites, providing another way of tracking the conversation.

We’ve also posted our own trial Netvibes dashboard view here: ukgovOSS Action Plan [ WriteToReply Comments Dashboard ]

Experiments for the iPhone and eBook Readers

Yesterday morning, @stef had a wish…

So, we’ve added support for the iPhone. Now, when you navigate to on your iPhone or iPod Touch, you’ll see a very different rendering of the report. Feedback so far has been positive, but there are two caveats.

First, you can’t comment on each paragraph 😦  We’d love to develop this in the future, but it’s not something we could whip up on a Sunday morning. Sorry. You can still comment on each section or switch over to the default site design (there’s a link at the bottom of each section) and comment by paragraph from there.

Secondly, the report sections are rendered in reverse order. This is because the main site design (which uses the CommentPress WordPress theme), works that way. It takes the first post/section and places it first in the Table of Contents. This make sense when publishing sections of text, but in the world of blogs, first comes last and so the iPhone rendering assumes that the first post/section is ‘old news’. Again, it’s something we’d like to work on for the future.

That aside, please do give it a try and let us know what you think. We’re pretty sure you’ll find it’s a really enjoyable way to read the report. ((We’ve also been looking for ways to reformat the report for any mobile device, but have not found any that are really up to the job. If you know of a WordPress plugin that will work, please leave a comment. We’ve tried WordPress Mobile Edition, but it needs some work to suit reading a report published in this way.))

And that’s not all! If you use an iPhone or iPod Touch, you’ll probably know about Stanza, the eBook reader. Stanza integrates with Feedbooks, a platform for uploading and downloading books and other forms of text. Feedbooks has a great feature that allows you to take an RSS feed and convert the content into several different eBook formats for Stanza, Amazon’s Kindle or the Sony Reader.

Since we have an RSS feed of the Digital Britain – Interim Report already available, it was trivial to turn it into an ‘eBook’ for these devices. To get around the report sections being held in reversed order, we pushed it through Yahoo! Pipes and reversed the contents of the feed so that the first section would appear first in the eBook. Here’s the link to the pipe. But more importantly, here’s the link to the eBook version of the Digital Britain – Interim Report.

Again, a couple of things should be noted: The tables and diagrams from the report are not included in the eBook version. They are in the original feed as five images, but unfortunately Feedbooks ignores them when creating the eBook version. We’re not entirely comfortable with this but feel that on balance, to have an eBook version of the report which you can read offline is worth the omissions ((The following tables and diagrams are not displayed in the Feedbooks eBook version of the report: Section 2, Paragraph 13; Section Section 2.2 Paragraph 23; Section 2.4, Paragraph 16; Section 4.1, Paragraph 29; Section 4.1, Paragraph 30)). To alert readers of the eBook to this, we’ve fed this post by RSS into the eBook, so it will appear as a final ‘appendum’ to the report.

The second thing to note is that there’s no hyperlinking either. So there’s no direct connection to the report on WriteToReply 😦 We assume that by providing more ways for people to read the report, more people will feel compelled to comment, and there’s no better way than to use WriteToReply 😉

So there you are. Let us know what you think. Do you think that the government should be taking similar steps to make their reports more widely readable than simply through a PDF or .doc?

Clouds of Comments

A couple of days ago, we noticed that the Digital Britain report had received over 100 comments. So to celebrate I created a Wordle word cloud from the RSS feed of comments. The feed currently provides up to 200 comments, so I was able to pull everything into Wordle. We mentioned it on Twitter, linking to the image on WriteToReply’s Flickr account and that made some people happy.

I know what you’re thinking: Wordle’s yesterday’s toy. You can’t turn around without seeing a bloody Wordle these days. And you’re right. In the back of my mind, I knew we could do more to celebrate passing ‘the centenary’. So did Tony…

So duty-bound, I looked around and found FeedVis. It’s free software and a really slick way of getting an overview of the comment trends, browsing the comments and navigating through to the full comments on the report. Don’t tell me it’s yesterday’s toy. Please.

It’s interesting to compare the Wordle word cloud with the word cloud produced by FeedVis. ‘Music’ and ‘Industry’ feature heavily in the first cloud, but less so in the second, where ‘access’, ‘content’, ‘digital’, industry’ and ‘technological’ are all favoured pretty equally in terms of how often they’re repeated. By default, Wordle looks for a maximum of the most popular 150 words and shows their relative popularity by increasing or decreasing the size of the word. FeedVis is more sophisticated. It uses stemming (where Wordle doesn’t), so words like ‘fast’ and ‘faster’ (<cough> broadband <cough>) are mapped for the purpose of counting their frequency. There’s a couple of other important features, too:

  • The first is frequency. Frequency says how many times a word is used per 1000 words. If you hover over a word, you’ll see its frequency to the left of the frequency change value.
  • The second is frequency change. Often, a word will be more (or less) popular than usual in a certain time period (for instance, “election” in early November). Frequency change measures that difference as a percentage: greener words are unusually popular; redder words are the opposite.

Here’s a screenshot from earlier today. Click on the image to visit the FeedVis of the Digital Britain – Interim Report itself. Hopefully, we can find more tools like this to add to the WriteToReply suite of ways which comments can be read, viewed and interpreted by us all, including the authors of the reports. If you know of any, please leave a comment. Thanks.

An Example Netvibes Dashboard for the Digital Britain Interim Report on WriteToReply

One of the powerful features of the WordPress platform we’re using to host WriteToReply is the RSS feed publishing engine that produces all manner of RSS feeds out-of-the-box.

Feeds are a Good Thing, because they let you syndicate content and view it elsewhere. So called “web desktops” are one way in which you can construct your own dashboards containing widgets that can display content from different RSS feed sources and help you keep an eye on activity surrounding on any particular part of the report.

(For a mini-tutorial on how to use services like Netvibes, see the Click On: Web 2.0 Workshop on

So for example, here’s a Netvibes tab that show’s how to view the original content from one of the sections of the Digital Britain Interim Report, along with the comments made on that section. The tab also tracks media references to Digital Britain via Google News, blog post references using Google blogsearch, and up to the minute references on Twitter – WriteToReply dashboard demo (Netvibes): Digital Britain – The Interim Report, section 5:

Writetoreply Dashboard -

Click on one of the section tabs in the far left hand column, and you can read the text from that subsection of the report:

Here’s an example of the RSS feed to pull in this subsection content:

If you click on one of the comment links (middle columns) you can view the comments made by each individual on the relevant subsection:

Here’s and example of the feed URL you need to view comments by subsection:

The blogsearch pulls in the first few words from the start of relevant blog posts:

Digital Britain blogsearch

Here’s the feed:

Searching for Twitter responses to the report allows us to track some of the real time discussion going on around the report:

Twitter responses to Digital Britain

Here’s the feed:

Obtaining RSS feeds from Google News search, Google blog search and Twitter search is easy – the search pages all contain RSS feeds for the current search.

At the moment, feeds aren’t necessarily exposed on the page for each different WriteToReply view (although we are working on it). However, the RSS feed URL patterns described above should help you work out how to create an RSS feed URL from most of the pages that appear on WriteToReply.

If you do create you own public WriteToReply dashboard(s), please post a link to them in a comment to this post.

Guidelines for re-publishers (scraped from the wiki)

Keen readers may have noticed that we recently moved the WriteToReply wiki over from third-party hosting. One of the reasons for this is that content on the wiki can now be scraped and embedded ((In case you’re wondering, we use the WordPress wiki-inc plugin.)) into WriteToReply, benefitting from the additional functionality of a blog, such as commenting (which is what we’re all about, write? err, right?). Also, you no longer have to login to contribute to the wiki, making it even easier for people to get involved.

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Digital Britain: First week analytics

In the interests of transparency and fun, here’s an overview of the Google Analytics from the first week of Write to Reply’s re-publication of the Digital Britain – Interim Report. Note that GA has certain limitations that can make the reports a little misleading, but heck, they’re the best we have.

As we explained here, Tony and I threw the site together over a couple of evenings and launched it over Twitter. We’ve continued to watch Twitter as the main source of feedback about Write to Reply. A running Twitter search (via TweetDeck in my case) for ‘digitalbritain OR “Digital Britain” OR writetoreply OR “Write to Reply”‘ quickly alerts us to any possible reference on Twitter to either the site or the report. (This coverage extends somewhat to the blogosphere, also, which we’re also tracking in terms of things like incoming links to the site.)

When we see someone referring to the Digital Britain report, we might contact them (@ them on Twitter, or post a comment to a blog post) and mention Write To Reply, where the report is commentable upon.  Every response I’ve had to this approach has been appreciative.

Many people have blogged about Write to Reply’s re-publication of the Digital Britain report but two posts have generated a significant amount of traffic. One by Jack Schofield on the Guardian Tech blog and another by Cory Doctorow on boingboing. Both writers urged their readers to use Write to Reply to comment on the report.  Thanks!

So first up, here’s a graph produced by the Akismet spam filter used on Write to Reply. It’s not entirely accurate for some reason (!?) but we can confirm there’s been three spam comments and 87 genuine comments received.  Thank you!

Given what I’ve said above about our use of Twitter, the first of the GA reports is not too surprising (click on the images to see them full-size and legible):

This shows that overwhelmingly, our traffic is via Twitter and, most likely, shortened URLs used on Twitter (which accounts for the ‘direct’ traffic). Thanks Tweeple, for about half of the traffic to the report!

The Guardian and boingboing are, respectively, the second and third largest referers and as they are busy news sites, we’ve probably seen most of the traffic they will generate as people turn on to the latest news. Maybe I’m wrong there. We’ll see next week.

When people visit the report, they’re mostly landing on the front page, as we would expect. Second on the list (with a much lower landing rate) is Section 5.1 Education and Skills (a section that was linked to directly with a request for comments in a message that got retweeted several times on Twitter).

48.15% of people are clicking through to at least one more page (actually, the average page views is 2.56/visit) and the top of these exit pages is, again, Section 5.1 Education and Skills.

Want to know about aggregated page views? As of 9pm last night, there had been 5683 views of 54 pages in the last week.

As you can see, besides the front pages of the report, people seem to like looking at the list of comments by section and the list of comment by user.  This suggests that that specific functionality provided by the CommentPress theme for WordPress is of interest to people. Excellent! 🙂

Most visitors have visited just once, but 19% are returning visitors (and we commend your dedication!).

So, where are all these people from? Mostly the UK (81%) but also from the USA (8%) and 40 other countries.

People across the UK are visiting the Digital Britain report, though almost half (48%) of visitors are from London (does anyone know exactly how Google locates people? Is it locating actual people at computers or just their ISPs?)

Interestingly, 46 visitors are from Lambeth, which is just minutes away from Westminster. We can only hope that these visitors are a concentration of people working in government 😉

Finally, here’s the big picture. The site peaked on the first day (Wednesday 4th Feb), dropped rapidly but slowed slightly due to the Guardian tech blog post (Thursday 5th Feb), continued dropping over the weekend until Monday 9th when it picked up again and then rose again suddenly, thanks to boingboing’s post on Tuesday 10th.

If anyone wants view access to the full analytics, send us your GMail address and we’ll add you to the user list. We’ll post more on this subject on March 13th, after the consultation period ends or if anything interesting happens before then. If you’ve got ideas about how this data can be creatively and productively used, please get in touch. We have some ideas on the burner, but welcome yours too. Thanks.

What’s Consulting Now?

One of the things we want to try to achieve with WriteToReply is a sense of “real-time” commenting on public reports that are (allegedly, at least) posted with public consultation in mind.

So how can you find out what’s consulting now?

One way is to visit the the DirectGov: Public Consultations site, which identifies a set of “headline” consultation exercises:

At the moment, there doesn’t appear to be an RSS feed detailing these “front page” consultations, so we’ll try to maintain one… Here’s a first attempt: current UK gov “headline” consultations (via Directgov) [RSS] (or via an embeddable widget).

A full list of current consultations is, however, available as an RSS feed from Tell Them What You Think: current UK government consultations [RSS].

WriteToReply Recommendation to DirectGov: provide an RSS feed of consultation exercises that are linked to from the DirectGov “Public Consultations” web page.

Why do we care so much about web feeds? Because they’re connecting the web and providing ways to access, analyse and distribute information between web sites and web applications. Feed syndication and aggregation is now central to both disseminating and discovering information on the web. Web feeds extract information in a form that is convenient for readers, publishers and web developers.

The DirectGov site also provides a page containing links to pages that itemise the current consultations being run by each government department: DirectGov: List of government consultation websites.

Again, there doesn’t appear to be an RSS version of this list, which makes it a painful exercise to embed such a list in your own web pages. So once again, as a stopgap, here’s just such a feed: Government department consultation web pages [RSS] (via an embeddable widget).

Ideally, each of these individual departmental pages would publish feeds of the current open consultations being run by the corresponding department (a list of the current auto-discoverable departmental consultation feeds can be found here: autodiscovered consultation feeds), but this means of publishing appears to be the exception rather than the norm.

WriteToReply Recommendation to Government Departments: provide an auto-discoverable RSS feed of current consultation exercises from the departmental consultations web page.

Fortunately, the Tell Them What You Think website provides a list of feeds generated by screenscraping the departmental consultation web pages: Tell Them What You Think: Browse Consultations.

To Whom It May Concern – An Open Letter to Lord Carter and the ‘Digital Britain – Interim Report’ Team

Dear Lord Carter,

Drawing on inspiration from the Power of Information Taskforce Report (beta) [ ], in which members of the public can comment on individual sections of that report, and in response to your statement in Digital Britain – The Interim Report that you “welcome feedback and comments on this interim report, before 12th March 2009”, we have republished “Digital Britain – The Interim Report” in a way that supports commenting on the report at the paragraph level at

Within a few hours of becoming publicly accessible on February 4th, 2008, comments started appearing on the site, with the site itself receiving several hundred visitors within just the first two days of availability.

We hereby invite you to consider comments made on Write To Reply’s Digital Britain site as comments made to you in response to Digital Britain – The Interim Report.

There are several ways in which you can view the comments made to the report on the WriteToReply website, as well as “trackbacks” from people who have linked to items within the report from elsewhere on the web:

  • by visiting the website itself: we split the report up into separate pages at the level of numbered subsections. Comments can be viewed at the section/subsection level, (for example: all comments on section 3.1); at the paragraph level, (for example, comments at the paragraph level); and by the name of the commenter, allowing you to consider individual responses to the report (for example, comments by user);
  • by subscribing to comments via an RSS/feed reader: an RSS feed is available for all recent comments (for example, recent comments feed) or on a per (sub)section basis (for example, comments on Section 2);
  • as a WordPress XML export file: we are happy to provide you, on request, with an XML file in the WordPress export format containing a full set of comments received on the site.

We are also happy to provide you, again on request, with access to the Google Analytics reports for the website.

We hope that you find the comments using this initiative useful and we are more than happy to discuss with you any questions you may have regarding the operation of the site and how it may benefit your work on the Digital Britain report.

— Tony Hirst
— Joss Winn

Contact: (email) or @writetoreply (Twitter).

Dated: February 6th, 2009.

Note: This letter was also sent to Lord Carter using Write to Them on February 6th, 2009.

What’s it all about?

And so, from such tiny tweets do multi-user websites grow…

So what’s it all about? Well, over a couple of evenings hurriedly spent getting the Digital Britain – Interim Report online in a commentable upon form using a special theme for the WordPress blog (Commentpress), we realised something… If we could do this for one report on a single WordPress site, we could do the same thing for tens, hundreds, thousands (even hundred of thousands!) of public reports by using the multi-user version of WordPress (WPMU), which just happens to be the same blogging platform that runs and the radical syndication platform that is UMW Blogs.

So here’s what we think (in no particular order) are some of the things that we might be able to do with Write to Reply:

  • Provide a convenient and innovative site for members of the public to re-publish public documents for detailed, structured comment.
  • Provide a convenient and innovative site for authors of public documents to re-publish their work for detailed, structured comment.
  • Provide a variety of methods for comments to be syndicated to the authors of the documents with reference to the section and paragraph that the comment refers to.
  • Provide a variety of methods for comments to be syndicated to anyone with reference to the section and paragraph that the comment refers to. Feed comments into your newsreader, your web site or your very own mashup.
  • Allow ‘re-publishers’ and authors to analyse how their report is being accessed on the site (i.e. we can provide Google Analytics reports for each document).
  • Provide a version of the report that allows other people to use unique URIs to “deep-link” to individual sections, figures, tables and paragraphs within the report.
  • Provide a way of seeing who’s linking to each section, figure, table or paragraph within the report from other websites.
  • Help promote the public scrutiny of and commentary on public documents.
  • Run a site built around the freely available WordPress platform, one of the most popular and extensible open source web publishing platforms around. (With over 4000 plugins, WordPress actively follows the cutting edge of web publishing). For anyone who wants to host their own version of Write to Reply, we’ll be able to show you how…

Those are our initial ideas, but what about yours? Join us on the Write to Reply wiki where we’re starting to pull our ideas together. We’re keen to discuss (with whoever’s interested!) what you think the potential of the service might be. We also hope this project grows too big for just the two of us to manage in our spare time, which means there could well be opportunities for volunteering your own time on the project 😉

Finally, if you’re interested in some of the web analytics for our Digital Britain – Interim Report launch, hop over to Flickr, where we’ll be posting screenshots of some of the stats until commenting drops off. (We’ll also look at ways of publishing the stats as raw data with interactive charting tools that anyone can use).

If Lord Carter and his team want access to the full site analytics, they’re very welcome to them.