Author Archives: Joss

WriteToReply is closing. Come get your data if you want it

An email which has just been sent out…

Hello,

We’re writing to you because at some point in the last couple of years, you’ve been a registered user on WriteToReply. We have decided to close WriteToReply and all document sites will be taken down on the 30th September 2011. This is for two reasons: The generous donation of money towards funding from Eduserv will run out on that date and, frankly, we think the site has run its course.

We think WriteToReply has served its original purpose well and since we set up the site in February 2009, the landscape has changed a bit for the better. Central Gov depts have their WPMU sites for commentable documents, there’s http://digress.it, which we secured development funding for, and it offers much the same platform as writetoreply.org. Digress.it version 3 was released a while back and is now mature code for anyone to download and set up their own commentable document. We continue to help with the development and testing of the digress.it plugin. Together with a number of people, we’ve helped show how commendable documents might be done and helped develop the software to do it. The number of incoming requests for hosting documents on WriteToReply has also significantly reduced over the last year, which has been welcome because hosting a growing WordPress network platform can get expensive.

If you have concerns about how to continue hosting your site, please contact us as soon as possible. If you don’t care, then feel free to ignore this email. We imagine that a lot of the sites served a specific purpose at a moment in time and can safely be taken down.

We know that the National Archive have archived our first hosted site for the Interim Digital Britain report.

We’re hoping that any other government sites we’ve hosted could be archived in a similar way. If you’re working in government, please consider looking into this.

You can always export your site via the WordPress Tools menu and import it into another WordPress site. However, this will not preserve the comments at the paragraph level. To do that, you’ll need the database tables, which we can provide to you if you request them. We can also export all comments to a spreadsheet so that a copy can be filed.

Thanks again for all your support and interest in WriteToReply. It’s been a lot of fun and we’ve learned a thing or two along the way, too. We’ll continue to host the WriteToReply blog at http://writetoreply.org/actually as it is a useful document of our processes over the lifetime of the site.

Cheers

Joss and Tony

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Measuring Website Usage With Google Analytics, Part I

Knowing where to get started with reporting website statistics can often provide new webmasters with something of a challenge. In this post, I’ll quickly review the guidance provided by the Central Office of Information on Measuring Website Usage which:

describes a common approach to measuring website traffic [for central government]. This enables departments to answer Parliamentary Questions and Freedom of Information Requests about website usage consistently and reliably

I’ll also start to explore how to generate reports that satisfy those guidelines using Google Analytics.

The proposed metrics “are defined according to industry standards set by the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards (JICWEBS)” and specify the following minimal level of reporting (Measuring Website Usage – Reporting requirements):

  1. The following web metrics, as defined by the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards (JICWEBS), must be measured for each and every publicly accessible website operated by an organisation:
    • Unique User/Browsers
    • Page Impressions
    • Visits
    • Visit Duration
  2. Central government departments must measure Unique User/Browsers, Page Impressions, Visits and Visit Duration starting from 1 April 2009 for every website open on 1 April 2010.
  3. Executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) must measure Unique User/Browsers, Page Impressions, Visits and Visit Duration starting from 1 April 2010 for every website open on 1 April 2011.
  4. The following information must be provided to COI at the end of each quarter:
    • Number of monthly Unique User/Browsers
    • Number of monthly Page Impressions
    • Number of monthly Visits
    • Number of Visits of at least two Page Impressions
    • Total time in seconds for all Visits of at least two Page Impressions
  5. Each report should contain figures for each of the previous three months. This information should be provided in the format shown in the reporting template in Appendix A.COI Website usage reporting template http://coi.gov.uk/guidance.php?page=237
  6. All figures should exclude internal web development activity, performance monitoring, automated broken link detection and other types of non-human activity (e.g. robots and spiders). Further details on what to exclude are found in the Page Impressions section.

So what does Google Analytics offer “out of the box”?

Headline report - Google Analytics

The Visitors Overview repeats these figures and additionally provides an indication of the number of ‘unique’ visitors:

Visitors Overview

At face value then, it would appear that the Google Analytics are providing at least some of the required stats (though we need to clarify that the numbers as recorded by Google Analytics conform to what the COI has in mind for those reports as described in their guidance on the Minimum standard for web metrics!) But what does that guidance relating to “at least two web pages” mean?

To understand the emphasis on “at least two pages”, it’s worth reflecting on the notion of bounces and the bounce rate. Bounce rate refers to the proportion of visitors to a site who only visit one page on a website before leaving that site, and as such tend to leave no meaningful analytics behind.

According to the ClickTale blog (What Google Analytics Can’t Tell You – Part 1), Google Analytics “has no way of knowing how long a bounced visitor, who only visits one page, spent on your website”. That is, it appears that the time spent looking at a page appears not to be based on the difference between the time when a page has fully loaded (and generated a trackable onload event) and its unload event; instead, it is calculated as the time between two loading one page and clicking through to and loading a second page on the sam site.

Which is why the emphasis on collecting stats from at last two pages: given the current crop of analytics tools that struggle to do anything meaningful with single page visits, specifying a two page visit means that not only visits to the site that are likely to be meaningful are reported, but also that the reports are more likely to contain meaningful data too. (There is an obvious problem here: if visitors visit two pages, and quickly click to the second from the first before exiting the site from the second page, the time spent on the second page won’t be captured? See for example Time on Site & Time on Page – Google Analytics metric mystery)

One of the nice things about Google Analytics is that it lets you create custom views, or “segments” of the data in which you can specify things such as the minimum number of pages visited when generating a particular report. In order to do this, you specify an “Advanced Segment”. Here’s what an Advanced Segment for a “minimum of two pages visited report” might look like:

GA Advancd segment - visited at last two pages

Applying this segment to the same data charted above gives these results:

Segmented goog stats

GA segmented view

So for example, in this version of the report we see that the average number of page views and the average time on site has gone up.

Something I don’t think Google Analytics report is the total time on site. Bearing in mind the lack of data regarding the time spent on exit pages, the best we can do is multiply the number of visits by the average time on site to get an estimate of the total time on site.

With just this single advanced segment, a simple calculation, and the out of the can reports from Google Analytics, I think we can deliver on the suggested stats based on a literal reading of the headings, though in a follow up post I’ll check to see if the more detailed spec on the metrics matches the way that Google ANalytics defines its metrics.

PS Unfortunately, the segmented report appears to have lost the number of absolute unique visitors (although I think the recommended report wanted the number of uniques, including bounces, to the site?) Anyway, let’s play: the number of visits gives the upper bound on the number of unique visitors, but can we also estimate the lower bound? One heuristic might be to look at the number of visits and uniques in the original report (176 uniques, 245 visits), see how many visits were lost in discounting the bounces (245-104 = 141), assume these were all unique and subtract these from the original number of uniques (176-141=35). I think this gives the lower bound on uniques as recorded by Google Analytics for non-bouncing visitors?

Eduserv funds hosting for WriteToReply

Loyal readers might recall that when we set up WriteToReply for the Digital Britain – Interim Report, in February, there was no business plan and no idea, really, about where this might take us. WriteToReply has so far cost us relatively little to run. We started off on cheap, shared hosting, quickly moved to a dedicated host and everything was fine for a while.  More recently, as we added new documents, the site was beginning to groan a bit and it became apparent that if we were to maintain a decent service and, significantly, ensure that the documents we’d already hosted didn’t disappear from the web, we’d need to find support from someone, somewhere.

In June, we set up Public Platforms Limited, a not-for-profit company, limited by guarantee, to represent our work on WriteToReply and any other related activities we might do. Public Platforms allows us to legitimately receive financial support for what we’re doing. We decided upon the following main objective for the company:

To conduct and promote research into the use and effects of information and communication technologies in the context of the publication and dissemination of electronic documents and to disseminate the useful results of such research for the benefit of the public.

So Public Platforms won’t be opening a bar near you or paying for our vacations in Hawaii, but hopefully it will sustain our side-work around public engagement with documents on the web. We continue to work full-time at our respective universities and don’t see WriteToReply becoming a full-time job for either of us. However, if you think you can create a job for yourself out of what we’ve started, let us know.

Anyway, we’d noticed that Andy Powell, Research Programme Director at Eduserv always said nice things about WriteToReply, so we thought we’d ask if his organisation would be interested in supporting our work by covering the hosting costs. Eduserv have lots of experience with web hosting, and provide services to various organisations across the public sector, including government.

Well, we’re really pleased to announce that Eduserv have offered to support the hosting of WriteToReply for the next two-years (10/2009-09/2011). Initially, Eduserv will pay for a six-month upgrade to the hosting we currently have, doubling the server resources available to us. By April 2010, we’ll see where we are and maybe move to Eduserv’s infrastructure or continue with our current hosting arrangement. We regard this as fantastic news. Not only does it help ensure that WriteToReply remains a reliable service to you, but it also ensures the availability of hosted documents, and your comments, for the next two years.

Our own interests in WriteToReply are largely in the area of Research and Development. Most notably, we’ve been working on the JISC-funded JISCPress project, which will be completed at the end of this month and demonstrate further ways in which the platform can be used.

Remember that WriteToReply was always intended to be a community platform for anyone that wanted to re-publish a report, consultation or think-piece for comment and discussion. If you want to see more documents on WriteToReply, contact us and we’ll be happy to help you publish them yourself. Additionally, all the software we use and have developed, is open source and freely available for you to use. We encourage it and we’ll help you set up a WriteToReply-like service if that’s what you want to do. We’re not looking to become the next leading consultation platform, although we’d like to help you create it! We’re interested in thinking about (research) and testing (development) how public engagement with online documents might be improved. It’s an exciting area to be working in and as well as those before us, there have been a few significant developments since we launched the Digital Britain – Interim Report, too.

Now, thanks to Eduserv, we can continue to contribute to this area of public service for at least another two years.

Testing new site features with the Amazon Kindle License Agreement

We’re really pleased to help promote the launch of digress.it, the evolution of CommentPress which WriteToReply uses to allow you to comment on document paragraphs.

We’ve been in touch with Eddie Tejeda, the original developer of CommentPress, since March, and have been working with him to find funding for a complete rewrite and re-release of the original CommentPress project. You can read more about digress.it on the community website, but here’s a run down of the new features, a bit of a roadmap for forthcoming features and a shout out to anyone that wants to get involved in the project.

New Features

The original features of CommentPress can be summarised as follows:

  • A Table of Contents
  • Paragraph-level URIs
  • Paragraph-level commenting
  • A scrolling comment box
  • Page filters that allow you to read comments by document section or by commenter

CommentPress was a WordPress theme. digress.it is a WordPress plugin and a complete rewrite of the original CommentPress code. It adds the following features:

Floating comment box. You can now resize and position the comment box anywhere on the page.

Threaded comments. Real discussion.

Highly configurable and accepts different stylesheets

RSS feeds for comment authors. Feeds for individual comment authors is a first for WordPress.

Paragraph embedding. You can embed a paragraph on your own site. Paragraphs content is available as HTML, JSON or TXT

Real-time onsite notifications. If someone else comments on a section you are reading, the comment box will ‘pulse’ to alert you.

There still be bugs. We’re still working on browser compatibility issues with the comment box, for example. This is a first release  using the version 2 codebase and we’d really appreciate your feedback from testing it by considering Amazon’s Kindle License Agreement. 🙂

RoadMap

To achieve the objectives of the JISCPress project, we’ll be continuing to fund the refinement of digress.it until November.  The features we’re currently considering can be seen on our UserVoice page (please add more as you think of them). Here are some highlights, specific to digress.it:

  • Compatibility with IntenseDebate. This would provide a number of multimedia and reputational features.
  • Compatibility with PollDaddy. The ability to include polls in a document would be useful for consultations.
  • Paragraph and ‘comment here’ links in the RSS feed. Convenient if you read the document in your news reader or embed a feed elsewhere.
  • WCAG Accessibility. Required for use by the Public Sector.
  • Compatibility with XML-RPC clients for remote document authoring. Convenient for document authors to publish from MS Word, etc.

JISCPress: A document discussion platform for the Higher Education Community

We’re very pleased to announce that JISC have agreed to fund JISCPress, a six-month, £32,500 project led by the University of Lincoln, in partnership with the Open University and based on WriteToReply. JISCPress will provide a scalable community platform for publishing and discussing project calls and final reports, in order to support the grant bidding and project dissemination processes.

As you may know, WriteToReply is run in our spare time – lots of late nights and busy lunchtimes. Since launching the re-publication of the Digital Britain – Interim Report, we’ve been looking for ways to bring benefits from our work on WriteToReply, into the Higher Education community where we work. JISC fund much of the UK development and innovation in the use of ICT in teaching and research and in March, announced their Rapid Innovations funding call.

We quickly re-published the call on WriteToReply to demonstrate the benefits of publishing funding calls in this way and then went on to submit a bid which proposed a community platform for the JISC funding call process, based on our experience of setting up and running WriteToReply. As with WriteToReply, this will be an open, public project and all documentation and code will be available under open licenses.

JISCPress is a platform aimed at people working in UK Higher Education, but the platform itself could be easily adapted for other uses, just as WriteToReply is primarily focused on government consultation documents. The final platform will be available as an Amazon Machine Image so anyone will be able to host their own multi-document discussion platform with all the benefits you see on WriteToReply plus the additional features we’ll be developing throughout this project. We’re already advocating the use the platform in our own universities for the open (and closed) discussion of institutional strategies, for the critique of texts by students and for peer-review of research papers. What might you use it for?

Over on the JISCPress project blog, you’ll find links to a mailing listwiki and code repository. Feel free to join us if this WriteToReply spin-off appeals to you. If you know anyone that might be interested, please do let them know.

You’re probably already aware that WriteToReply uses WordPress Multi-User and CommentPressEddie Tejeda, the developer of CommentPress will be working with us on the project and this will result in significant further development of CommentPress 2. So, if you’re interested in WPMU and CommentPress (as many people are), please consider following, contributing to and testing JISCPress.

We should also note that while the project is a spin-off of our work on WriteToReply, neither Tony or Joss are personally receiving any funds from JISC.  The contributions from JISC to cover our time on this project are paid directly to our employers and does not result in any financial benefit to us or WriteToReply (which is in the process of being formalised as a non-profit business).  In other words, while WriteToReply is a personal project, JISCPress is part of our normal work as employees of our universities (both Tony and I are expected to routinely bid and win project funds – you get used to it after a while!). Money has been allocated to fund dedicated developer time to the project, which will pay Eddie and Alex, a student at the University of Lincoln, for their work as freelancers.

Anyway, on with the project! Here’s the outline from our original bid document:

This project will deliver a demonstrator prototype publishing platform for the JISC funding call and dissemination process. It will seek to show how WordPress Multi-User (WPMU) can be used as an effective document authoring, publishing, discussion and syndication platform for JISC’s funding calls and final project reports, and demonstrate how the cumulative effect of publishing this way will lead to an improved platform for the discovery and dissemination of grant-related information and project outputs. In so doing, we hope to provide a means by which JISC project investigators can more effectively discover, and hence build on, related JISC projects. In general, the project will seek to promote openness and collaboration from the point of bid announcements onwards.

The proposed platform is inspired and informed by WriteToReply, a service developed by the principle project staff (Joss Winn and Tony Hirst) in Spring 2009 which re-publishes consultation documents for public comment and allows anyone to re-publish a document for comment by their target community. In our view, this model of publishing meets many of the intended benefits and deliverables of the Rapid Innovation call and Information Environment Programme. The project will exploit well understood and popular open source technologies to implement an alternative infrastructure that enables new processes of funding-related content creation, improves communication around funding calls and enables web-centric methods of dissemination and content re-use. The platform will be extensible and could therefore be the object of further future development by the HE developer community through the creation of plugins that provide desired functionality in the future.

Subject to user requirements, our planned project deliverables are:

  • A WordPress Multi-User based platform for authoring and publishing JISC funding calls in a form that allows paragraph-level comment and discussion either locally or remotely.
  • A meta-site that aggregates all document data into a single site for search, navigation by categories and tags and can syndicate searches, tags and categories.
  • Develop CommentPress to meet WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines, meeting public sector requirements.
  • Evaluation and integration of “related content” utilities to dynamically link related project calls and reports based on content and/or semantic analysis.
  • Evaluation and possible integration of remote, realtime messaging services such as Twitter and XMPP integration.
  • Evaluation and possible integration of enterprise authentication services such as LDAP and Shibboleth.
  • Evaluation and possible integration of OpenCalais, a semantic tagging service.
  • Documentation on how to exploit the benefits of AWS and clone the project instance for other uses.
  • A documented suggested workflow for document authors
  • Documented examples of how to fully exploit the platform for data extraction and syndication.
  • Documented ‘user stories’ for the JISC funding call process.

If this sounds interesting, please do take a look at the full project proposal and join us on the mailing list.

Vote for the next consultation and translation

For a while now, we’ve been watching the good work that Corinne has been doing over on Simply Understand:

Simply Understand is a unique translation service. If you are fed up with gobblydegook and jargon, and frustrated by endless sentences and hundred-page documents then we are here to help. When everything is simply readable, you can simply understand.

Likewise, WriteToReply is also trying to change the way we look at consultations by breaking them down into paragraphs with unique web links that can be the focus of comment, critique and discussion, both on WriteToReply and elsewhere on the web. We turn public consultations into locatable data that can be scrutinised in context but also exploded to elsewhere on the web.

So if Simply Understand ‘translates’ a consultation into a form that you and I might actually want to read, WriteToReply, provides you with a way to then dig into the original consultation and respond to the parts that are of interest to you. Wouldn’t it be nice if Simply Understand’s translations linked to WriteToReply’s ‘atomised’ version of the original document? Corinne does the commendable but onerous work of making sense of the document, and when you find something that makes you itch, you could go scratch that itch over on WriteToReply by commenting on the original document, knowing that your comments will reach the consulting government department.

So that’s the plan for our next consultation. We don’t know what the document will be yet because you need to vote for it over on Simply Understand. There’s a choice of three consultations:

and you can also suggest a different consultation if you’ve got one in mind.

We’re still not sure how we’ll bring the two versions of the consultation together. There’ll probably be Corinne’s usual PDF of her translation but also an HTML version hosted on WriteToReply which will link to relevant paragraphs in the atomised version. We’re excited to see how this will work out so hop over to Simply Understand and vote now!

Why is Cornerhouse interested in We-think?

A guest post from Dave Moutrey, Director and CEO of Cornerhouse, Manchester.

How should a contemporary arts organisation work with audiences, artists and curators in this early part of the 21st Century at a time when;

  • the boundaries between consumer and producer are becoming increasingly blurred, in a world of infinite communication possibilities,
  • where people are increasingly collaborating to create and innovate,
  • where many artists are working with the grain of these changes,
  • where new business models are developing with these approaches and embedded within them.

This is a question that Cornerhouse is investigating over the next few years because it is our view that as a contemporary arts centre, Cornerhouse cannot sit outside of such dynamic changes but must embrace and work with them. Our view is that we need to transform the organisation into a place that brings together artists and audiences to exchange ideas and help make sense of the world through ‘open’ systems, innovation and business models. In short ‘We-think’.

Taking an open approach to developing a programme for a contemporary arts centre we believe is untried. Cornerhouse is changing to an approach which involves significant dialogue between the curator, artists and audiences. Can high quality exhibitions, film seasons and cross art form events be created using wikis? How does this affect curatorial practice? What does this do to existing business models? What does a Web 2.0 arts centre look like? Is it all just ‘emperor’s new clothes’. We will find out.

We have embarked on a research programme to understand more about what we mean by ‘open’. Charles Leadbeater was commissioned to write a think piece on ‘open’ and the contemporary arts which we now want to use as a provocation for further thinking, writing and debate. His excellence thought provoking essay, The Art of With, is an important starting point for the next part of the debate. In particular we are interested in understanding more about the challenges and opportunities we face in developing new practice rooted in this thinking.

This is only the beginning. We need to take our programme to a new place, which is a really scary part as if we are being open, it is hard to say exactly what it will look like. Where we end up on a scale that has ‘curated’ at one end and ‘democratic’ at the other will have a major impact on how we shape our programme and the nature of the dialogue with audiences and artists. How do we preserve our brand as we go move in the direction of we think?

Given our commitment to developing an open approach it would be perverse if this happened behind closed doors with a few industry ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ so we are not doing that. We are asking for views and opinions from anyone who wants to engage with the ideas and we will share them with people who are interested in being part of the conversation. We already know that other arts organisations are interested in what we are trying to do. We hope our audiences will also be interested to engage with the debate. Please engage and share with The Art of With.