Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Australian public servants told three times - open (reusable) government data is important.

The Australian Public Service (APS) has now been told three times by three different reports in the last year about the importance of releasing much of its information openly to the community.

This began with reforms to Freedom of Information which, once passed, will encourage a pro-disclosure environment within the APS and make it easier and cheaper for people to request information from government.

Second was the Gov 2.0 Taskforce Final Report: Engage, which recommended managing public sector information as a national resource, releasing most of it for free and in ways that promoted reuse in innovative ways.

Third is the report released yesterday by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration. The report recommended that Departments should create more open government, with one of the detailed sub-recommendations being,

Greater disclosure of public sector data and mechanisms to access the data so that citizens can use the data to create helpful information for all, in line with privacy and secrecy principles;
The last two reports are yet to be responded to by the Australian Government, however I hope that Australian public servants at all levels are taking note.

Once is chance, twice is coincidence, but three times is a strategy.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Rating government performance online

Cheryl from the Victorian eGovernment Resource Centre recently brought to my attention the launch of the BrandKarma website.

The website aggregates information about top brands and allows the public to indicate whether they love, hate or want to watch them. It also allows comments and, in the best social networking style, the creation of personal profiles and 'friending' of others.

With a little more development the site will also probably support communities around brands - people who hate them and people who love them, potentially becoming a source of information and influence for others.

How is this important for government? Substitute 'brand' with 'agency' and you get a very interesting approach to rating government agencies and collecting user feedback.

It would be interesting to see how many people, for example, loved DIITR rather than hated them, and in comparison how many loved and hated DEEWR, DAFF, DHS or Defense - and why.

This type of site could make many public servants and politicians uncomfortable, just as BrandKarma is likely to make companies uncomfortable. However it also offers enormous opportunity for brands (or agencies) to engage, address their faults and, where necessary, turn community views around.

This type of internet-based public customer feedback is part of the new reality - just as PatientOpinion is now part of the UK's health landscape.

What is particularly interesting to me is whether governments will take the step of making it possible to publicly laud or complain about their agencies, or whether it will be left to the private sector - leaving government with less ability to influence.

Time will tell - but maybe not much time. It wouldn't require much modification to BrandKarma to launch GovernmentKarma.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Innovative government use of Twitter highlighted in case study

The GovTwit blog has put me on to the latest case study in Twitter 101 (where they showcase how organisations are using Twitter in innovative ways).

It's on the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), who are using Twitter to monitor earthquakes as they occur - an early detection system that is proving to be much faster than seismic instruments (at least in populated areas).

The case study, Science for a changing world, reflects some of the discussions I had with Geosciences Australia last year. Geosciences Australia were looking at how they could use social media to detect the human impact of natural disasters and perhaps even identify small earth tremors in populated areas where there are no seismic instruments nearby.

In the USGS's case they are simply listening for mentions of earthquake related words and using them to map the extent of human-felt earth tremors. They also say that,

In sparsely instrumented regions, they can be our first indication that an earthquake may have occurred.

There are many other examples out there of ways that government agencies are using social media in innovative ways to serve the public good.

I just wish I saw more examples of Australian governments putting these uses into practice rather than largely finding them used by overseas jurisdictions.

Many Australians tell me that we are early adopters of technology, highly creative and innovative. Those statements only become true if we prove them every day.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When the public controls the printing presses and corporations have more 'citizens' than countries, who holds the power?

There are now over 1.7 billion internet users in the world, sending more than 270 billion emails each day.

Over 400 million people use Facebook each month (about 50% of them daily).

Over 50 million Tweets are sent each day and over 75 million people visited Twitter's site in January 2010.

There are approximately 3 billion searches per day via Google, 280 million each day on Yahoo and 80 million each day on Bing.

There are in excess of 133 million blogs, posting over 600,000 posts per day (600,001 including this post!)

Over 24 hours of video, mostly user-generated, is uploaded to Youtube each minute (or 34,560 hours of footage - nearly 4 years of continual viewing - per day).

This is a lot of content and connections between people outside any formal governance structures.

The companies involved are very influential. The giants, Facebook and Google, anecdotally each hold more than 10% share of global internet traffic. The companies they vanquished, MySpace and Yahoo, remain major destinations with hundreds of millions of users around the world.

To-date these companies have abided by the laws of sovereign states - censoring content or complying with local regulation as required.

However what happens when these companies, or a large group of enfranchised internet using citizens, refuses to play by a government's rules?

We've seen one of the first signs of this in the recent encounter between Google and China - the world's most trafficked website versus the world's most populated country (and home of more internet users than any other nation).

In case you've not been following the story, in January this year Google publicly revealed that the company had been hacked in a highly sophisticated and co-ordinated attack who stole intellectual property and read the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. They announced that 33 other companies (including Adobe) had also been hacked (most of whom have not publicly admitted it) and that they had traced the hackers back to mainland China (even launching a counter-attack).

After the attack Google announced it was reconsidering whether to remain in China, where it held about 30% search share through www.google.com.cn. The company subsequently announced it would no longer agree to censor Google results in compliance with Chinese law.

On Monday this week Google announced it was ceasing to censor search results on behalf of the Chinese government and redirected its Chinese servers to Hong Kong (which, while part of China, is not under the same censorship provisions), but kept its sales and research functions in China - for now.

While Google users in China will now be able to search for whatever they choose (such as Tiananmen Square), their search results will still be filtered by the 'great firewall of China' - however they may now see which pages were blocked, rather than not receiving any results at all. And there may be ways they can outflank the firewall to see page contents.

A storm in a teacup? This would never happen outside China?

Maybe not.

Google has already flagged a similar position in Australia. Google officially refused a public request by Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy to self-censor YouTube to comply with the mandatory internet filter that the Government plans to introduce.

Perhaps the withdrawal of Google from China should be seen as one of the first statements that global companies are no longer bound by sovereign nations who ask more than they are willing to give up.

Groups of internet users are also beginning to challenge sovereign authorities in new ways. From the Filipino use of SMS texting in the 1990s student protests to the use of Twitter last year to organise and publish information about protests around the recent Iran Presidential election, individuals are using modern technology to protest against government positions.

Even more recently, I learnt in Hong Kong of recent protests about the route of a high-speed train to Beijing, which were partially coordinated by Twitter using the Hong Kong government's free wi-fi hotspots.

So what is the effect on sovereign nations when companies and individuals can self-organise, share and reveal information across borders in ways that governments cannot block (without turning off the internet and crippling their own operations)?

What happens to society's compact that governments can create laws and people and corporations will follow them when it is so easy to move your operation to another jurisdiction and continue operating in defiance to local laws?

Frankly I don't know - and doubt that anyone today can accurately predict the long-term outcome.

However it is becoming clear that while the world still labours under 18th century concepts of statehood and governance, but individuals and corporations use 21st century tools to communicate, collaborate and operate, there is an inherent tension between citizens and governments that will continue to grow.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

20 thoughts on government blogging

I was asked today by a representative of another agency for my thoughts, advice and observations on government blogging.

While I don't think I have any particularly unique insights, I realise that people who are new to the medium are at an earlier point on their learning journey. So here's the 20 thoughts I shared (slightly reordered, reworded and extended for flow).

  1. Post at least weekly to maintain an audience. Less than weekly tends to lose your audience as they don't develop a habit.

  2. Keep a couple of posts in hand at all times to cover busy periods. Otherwise you can easily miss a few weeks and start losing your audience.

  3. Where possible keep each post to a single concept or topic. If you have multiple topics, consider breaking them into multiple posts - even parts in a series if appropriate (people will return for Parts 2 and 3 - or seek out Part 1 if they start in the middle).
  4. Keep posts as succinct as possible. I use 250 words as a rule of thumb for length (though break this for in-depth pieces). Posting very short (50 or less word) items is fine if there is value.

  5. Create an RSS feed for your blog. This will account for potentially 50% or more of your readership. Consider using Google Feedburner or a similar tracking service to allow you to report on RSS traffic more effectively.

  6. Cross-promote the blog via your other channels. For example, in Twitter announce your posts with a link; in email announcements include a short summary and your blog and include it in email signatures.

  7. List your blog in appropriate directories and services such as Technorati. It leads to new traffic.

  8. Design your blog to look like a blog. Wordpress, Blogger or Typepad blogs are the 'norm' that everyone looks for, just like Google is what people expect in search. A blog that doesn't look like a blog won't be reacted to like a blog.

  9. First impressions count. Launch your blog with 5-10 posts already live to give people valuable content to start with and to communicate to them the scope you will be covering. This can include older information rewritten for the blog.

  10. At minimum moderate the first comment made by an individual. This reduces spam significantly. Moderating all comments is OK for risk-adverse agencies, but does stifle discussion - be aware and weigh the risks both ways.

  11. Make sure the topical scope of your blog and your moderation guidelines are visible and transparent. Review them regularly to ensure that they still cover what you need.

  12. Give people a reason to engage with you through comments. This can be done by asking questions or posing dilemmas and ideas. Avoid simply posting authoritative statements - save them for media releases.
  13. Use guest posts to add diversity of views and encourage the audiences of other writers/bloggers to 'try' your blog.

  14. Release information exclusively/early on your blog where possible. This will encourage people to visit it regularly.

  15. Keep post approval processes simple and fast. I appreciate this can be a challenge. Keep moderation approvals simpler and faster. Where possible write guidelines on what is acceptable/unacceptable and have it signed off by senior management so that you can manage the blog on a day-to-day basis with a minimum of overhead.

  16. If you post something incorrect, edit it ethically. If a spelling or grammatical mistake, or a broken link or formatting issue, correct your post. If a factual correction, add it below your post as an edit or as a comment that acknowledges the error. People will respect you for it.

  17. Blogging is a journey, not a destination. Keep your blog iteratively evolving and live. I 'play' with the design of my blog every month or so - adding new resources, links and features and removing those that didn't work.

  18. Put a name to your posts - just a first name is fine (if required for privacy). If there are multiple authors, use their different names with their posts. People blog, not organisations (organisations send announcements).

  19. Keep individual personalities (linked to names) in posts. Nothing rings more false than a sanitised and cleansed neutral tone. People have their own writing styles - used to great effect by newspaper columnists. These styles are what make the columns interesting, and make your blog interesting.

  20. Give your blog time to find its feet. It can take 6-12 months or more for a blog to find its audience. Few succeed overnight or in a 6 month pilot. However be ready to kill it if it simply doesn't work out. Not all blogs are successful.
Anyone have other blogging tips? Please share.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The future of publishing - perhaps

This video reflects some of the sentiments I hear from time to time about young people - and provides an alternate view.

Thanks to Crikey for making me aware of it:

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Vote for your favourite NSW Apps - closes 22 March

Public voting is now open for Apps4NSW, but only until Monday 22 March.

So if you wanted to check out and vote for applications submitted to the competition, go to the Apps4NSW public voting site.

EDIT: Note that it was entries that closed 22 March. Public voting remains open until 9 April.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Is internet access a human right or a privilege?

There is considerable international discussion at the moment over whether internet access should be recognised as a fundamental human right.

The ability of the internet to allow people to communicate, access education, jobs, participate in democratic processes and to create businesses makes it a powerful force for opportunity. It helps the poor to help themselves out of poverty and the disenfranchised to have a voice.

A growing number of countries around the world have recognised the internet as a fundamental human right. France did so in July 2009 and Finland followed in October, making access to a 1Mb connection a right as an interim step towards making 100Mb access (the proposed speed of the Australian National Broadband Network) a right by 2015. Estonia, known for its forays into internet voting, and Greece have also made internet access a right.

A recent BBC survey of 27,000 people across 26 countries found that 79% of people agreed that internet access should be a human right. An even higher 85% of Australian respondents believed that internet access should be a right and 87% of Chinese respondents held the same view.

The United Nations is also moving slowly towards have internet access declared a universal human right.

Australia hasn't yet made any formal declaration about internet access, but has enshrined in law phone access as a legal right, through the Universal Service Obligation. I've not yet found indications of discussions by Australian governments or courts over whether internet access should also be singled out as a legal right.

So with all these steps occurring internationally, where is the opposition to declaring internet access as a human right?

A number of states around the world are already or are considering restricting internet access through universal censorship or means such as licensing individual internet users. Some states have even shut-down access to entire internet services or arrested bloggers and online commentators in attempts to control access to information and debate.

Commercial interests in a number of countries are pushing for laws that would allow them to require ISPs to cut internet access from households they suspect of information piracy without recourse to existing legal processes.

These approaches could oppose the concept of internet access as a fundamental human right as they may lead to situations where people are denied access to some legitimate online information (mistakenly or deliberately censored) - or could be permanently denied access to the internet altogether.

Both stem from a view of the internet as being primarily a news and entertainment medium without considering the broader uses of the internet as a communications and service delivery medium.

Telephone access is considered a fundamental right in many countries and few filter or block phone conversations based on content (though they may monitor conversations as a law enforcement activity). Telecommunications providers are not generally held responsible for the conversations of their customers and are not usually required to cut access to subscribers if they discuss or conduct illegal activities by phone.

Cutting people off from internet access permanently in response to illegal activity could easily become a life sentence to poverty. These people would be unable to enjoy the same access to services, information and communication as the rest of society, potentially leading to further criminal activity or permanent underprivilege.

The challenge for countries is how to successfully walk the path between open internet access and regulation of illegal material. Making internet access some form of legal or fundamental human right, while still ensuring that copyright owners' rights are respected and illegal online activity can be addressed and contained. Punishing wrong doers, without establishing an underprivileged class.

It will be interesting to see how different nations attempt to solve this over time.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

21st Century statecraft in action

We're beginning to see the early shape of 21st Century statecraft, through how the UK and US have begun adopting social media approaches in their international relations.

Both nations have recognised the need to engage their own citizens, and the citizens of other nations, in ongoing conversations - tapping broad bases of expertise and improving the transparency of government decisions.

The UK has shown leadership through its FCO Bloggers, a group of 20 or so diplomats and ambassadors who provide insights into Britain's foreign relations and international dealings. Hosted at the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, the FCO Bloggers provide insight into Britain's overseas engagement and opportunities for local and British citizens to participate in a more open discussion of the diplomatic ties and issues that are vital to preserving global stability.

The US's Department of State has operated the DipNotes blog for some time and used an 'opinion piece' approach to introduce senior diplomats to the blogging concept (a friend of mine says that the best way to get people over the age of 45 blogging is to call them 'opinion pieces' rather than 'blog posts').

The Department also uses Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube to provide greater insights into the activities of the Department.

Most recently, the State Department has introduced crowdsourcing to its engagement mix with the introduction of Opinion Space 2.0, an intriguing data sharing and visualisation tool which clusters individual viewpoints into 'constellations'.

Opinion Space captures public views and portrays them on a 3-dimensional spectrum, providing government with a measure of what is important to its citizens and allowing the crowd to prioritise ideas and approaches.



While it's still early days, I am beginning to see some of this 21st Century statecraft bear fruit. By improving transparency and encouraging greater engagement in international relations, the different approaches of both the UK and US are helping to build their national awareness of the need for strong international ties. They also provide ways for the citizens of other nations to become involved in discussions, allowing words a greater opportunity to replace bullets in international dealings.

I hope that in the (not too distant) future, other nations also begin experimenting in this space - using social media to empower diplomatic relations and build bridges between nations. As usual, the technology is not the barrier - it's the willingness of Government Departments to adopt new ways of doing business and to permit dialogue to occur on a less controlled basis.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Report: Real (political and government) Leaders Tweet

The Digital Policy Council at Digital Daya has released a thought-provoking report on the incidence of social media use by government leadership around the world, characterised through the use of Twitter, entitled Real Leaders Tweet (PDF)

Considering the 163 countries recognised by the United Nations, the report indicates that 24 (15%) already have leaders or government-sanctioned agencies using Twitter. Of those 21 are considered amongst the most stable regimes in the world - which means their political and governance systems are highly entrenched and self-sustaining, not that they are necessarily democracies.

The report argues that

... democracy is not necessarily a pre-requisite for active use of Twitter. Many leaders heading governments labelled as "non-democratic" employ Twitter to good effect - to engage the people of their countries.

One of the key findings of the report is that "Good Leaders Twitter". This means that in stable societies social media use by government to engage, listen and respond to their citizenry is a positive way to reinforce their state's integrity and ongoing success.

The report also commented that 'fragile' nations - those with a high degree of political instability - are likely to consider social media as a threat to the continued survival of the regimes in question. In these situations social media can become a destabilising force for groups in power as it allows opponents to self-organise and have a greater public voice (for example during the recent Iran election).

From these findings Digital Daya has concluded that social media is a significant means of change for nations, but not a significant means of control. Stable governments of all types that adopt social media will find that their use helps reinforce their legitimacy and improve citizen engagement, whereas fragile states will often discover that the opposite is true.

While it could be debatable whether Twitter is the appropriate social media tool to use for this type of analysis, the report still raises intriguing questions for government decision-makers across the globe.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why not make your department's public presentations public?

Every years there are many conferences, forums and other publicly orientated events where public servants speak - providing views on their activities, successes and learnings across a wide-range of professional disciples.

The conference I have been at the last two days, FutureGov Hong Kong, is one example of these - where three Australian public servants spoke about our experiences and our presentations were distributed to delegates from approximately 10 countries.

Given that these events are public - anyone who registers (and pays a fee if one is charged) can attend, I have often wondered why more government departments do not make presentations given publicly by their staff - which do not contain sensitive or in confidence material - available online for the benefit of broader audiences.

Recently I found the State of Utah slideshare site, which does exactly this.

This is a great example of how to leverage government knowledge, sharing it across a department, a government, different governments and with the community.

Spreading this knowledge across the public sector increases its impact and value (and reduces the potential economic tax placed on its distribution by private sector conference organisers).

Are any Australian governments or departments doing this already?

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

FutureGov Hong Kong - Day 2 LiveBlog

We've just started day 2 of FutureGov Hong Kong

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

FutureGov Hong Kong - Day 1 LiveBlog

I'm attending FutureGov Hong Kong over the next two days and will be liveblogging and tweeting from the event as possible.

The event features speakers and attendees from countries across Asia-Pac, including Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China and should provide insights into Government IT and Gov 2.0 initiatives across the region.

We're just kicking off for the morning so I am opening up my liveblog below...

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Heading to Hong Kong

I'm leaving for Hong Kong today (in fact I'm scheduled to board the plane 3 minutes after this post is scheduled to go live) to attend and speak at the FutureGov Hong Kong conference on behalf of my department.

Depending on the availability of internet connectivity I will either liveblog and tweet parts of the event or post about it later.

The rest of the week I am taking as a holiday - so don't expect me to post (though I still might as ideas strike me).

This is my first trip to the province, and I am looking forward to the food, the culture and the custom-made suits.

I am also looking forward to 10 uninterrupted hours with the Gov 2.0 Taskforce project reports on the plane....

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Friday, March 05, 2010

There's an online social network for everyone

The next time you or your colleagues dismiss the idea of attempting to develop a social networking strategy for a niche audience, consider that the internet is big enough (with over a billion users) for there to be many niche communities for unusual passions.

Network World recently published an article, Ten of the World's Strangest Social Networks, looking at ten of these niche online communities, including for lovers of exotic moustaches, for people who discuss their (sleeping) dreams, for karaoke fans and best of all a social network where everyone - and everything - is your friend (well ok, this last one is a spoof).

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

LinkedIn reaches a million Australian members

Most people have heard that Facebook has around 8 million active Australian accounts, and MySpace has around 2.9 million, but yesterday I was sent an email that took me a little by surprise.

Apparently LinkedIn, a professional social network, has just reached a million Australian members.

Now I can't verify the truth of this, however it does interest me as I've been a member since mid 2005 (almost five years!) and have found it an increasingly useful way to ask questions of peers, connect with colleagues, research new staff and point people to my own experience.

Like any network, the value grows as the membership grows and I'd be interested in hearing from people who don't have a LinkedIn account yet why they haven't set one up. Time, privacy, lack of interest?

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Where's the payoff? Convincing citizens to engage with government

Governments regularly hold consultations with their public - asking them for their views on matters as widespread as tax reform, copyright, health, culture and city planning.

Whether these consultations are held through public events, print notices, online via email or social media engagement there's one constant that governments rely on - that people are willing to provide their views freely to government.

In some ways this might seem a no-brainer. A government is making a decision that will affect you - therefore you have an interest in responding.

However it is never as simple as that. It takes time (our scarcest resource) to respond to a Government consultation. Often, when there are specific forms to complete, processes to follow and events to attend, it can take a LOT of time.

Also the audience needs to feel that they will be listened to. One of the more interesting consultations I participated in last year was by the ACT government who asked a question around how they consulted. A frequently expressed view was that many people felt no incentive to participate in government consultations because their views would be ignored. Why waste time responding if you don't feel your views will make any difference.

Even harder to justify are peoples' participation in engagements where the public is providing a service to government (or other organisations) for no direct payment. An example is the National Library's Historic Newspaper Archive, where people are able to make corrections to the text of newspapers where the scanning process didn't capture the words correctly.

Another example would be Wikipedia. While it is not government, it would not exist without the dedication of tens of thousands of volunteers.


So what's the secret to encouraging greater engagement by citizens in consultations and similar 'you tell us' initiatives by government?

The answer is simple. Value given for value received.

Most people want feedback to tell them that they have been heard. This doesn't need to be (and preferably isn't) a form letter from a Minister's office or Department - or even a personal note. It can simply be notifying them when their input is published and giving them the tools to watch their contribution travel through set stages during a consultation process - received, moderated, published, considered - just as they can now watch their parcels travel from a foreign country to their doorstep.

What could also be done is to provide public recognition (a leader board) for top contributors - people who consistently provide good input on multiple consultations, or spend the time to do the work in services like the National Library's Historic Newspaper Archive does.

Finally, a consideration that is worthwhile considering when a community is providing a substitute for a valuable service (such as the design of a website, development of a mash-up application or the translation of a document) is dollars. Cold hard cash in compensation for someone's hours of hard work. This can be hard to organise in government due to procurement procedures and other practices designed to promote transparency and consistency but not designed to provide flexibility around crowd sourcing goods or services.

As governments move to implement more digitally managed consultations and engagements it is increasingly easy to support front-end consultation sites with end-to-end consultation tracking and contribution leader boards. It even becomes possible to have departmental or cross-government leader boards, which would also provide interesting insights regarding which individuals and organisations respond to many consultations.

However to cost-effectively put these mechanisms in place organisations need to look beyond the immediate needs of a single consultation and consider their overall consultation and engagement needs over three years or more.

When we begin to see governments taking this step we'll be on the verge of seeing some very innovative Gov 2.0 processes for community engagement - and increasing engagement levels as the community feels more heard, valued and in control of their own contributions.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Social media nightmares

Inventorspot has compiled a list of ten of the top branded social media nightmares.

These are situations where organisations or their staff have been caught behaving badly, where social media campaigns went past the line of good taste or where organisations failed to get onto social media and were not able to become part of the discussion (to their detriment}.

It is an interesting list and shows some of the risks involved in social media - including the risk of not becoming involved.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Australian Government endorses WCAG 2.0 - stipulates compliance by 2015

Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner and Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities Bill Shorten issued a joint media release last Tuesday 23 February confirming that the Australian Government had endorsed the W3C's latest accessibility standard, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (or WCAG 2.0).

The media release also indicated that the Minister and Parliamentary Secretary are stipulating that all (Australian) government websites adhere to these new standards by 2015. Given it took

The Government is preparing a National Transition Strategy for the move, however there's plenty of resources already available on the web about how to switch to WCAG 2.0 - as the new standard has been out for about 14 months.

I am hopeful that government professionals responsible for the design, technical and content changes and strategies will work together across agencies to build their knowledge and expertise on the topic - we are all in this together and there are a number of highly experienced accessibility experts dotted across the public sector.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for AGIMO to expand its Web Publishing Guide Blog to encourage cross-government professional discussion on the topic of accessibility and implementing WCAG 2.0.

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