Leveraging Yahoo’s UI Library to Speed Development

Often, government agencies suffer from “not built here” syndrome. It’s
similar to “not an enterprise vendor” disease. Not built here syndrome
significantly slows web development as it forces developers and
designers to recreate the wheel every time they want to release a new
feature. There are plenty of reasons why government has this attitude,
but it’d serve us well to remember that the outside world and the
relatively open developer community on the web has probably solved 99%
of the problems before you encountered them.

So it disappoints but doesn’t surprise me that no big government agencies are featured as users of Yahoo’s User Interface Library
(YUI). It’s good enough for LinkedIn, JetBlue, and Marketwatch, but
it’s “not built here,” so developers spend mountains of time solving
problems that have free, open-source solutions that are compatibility-tested by one of the world’s premier internet companies.

provides CSS frameworks to speed design, javascript libraries for rapid
interaction development, and examples/best practices to create
compatible, open websites. I tell government web departments all the
time to let YUI do the easy stuff so you can focus on the interesting

And, to prove that I eat my own dogfood, all of my sites are build using the YUI Grids stylesheet.

it a try – I think even the most experienced front-end developer will
be surprised at how much it speeds development. Finally, am I missing
anyone in government who is actually using this?

The Social Digital Divide and Engaging Constituents Online

I’ve been a fan of danah boyd’s work for years now, but I’d never seen her speak at a conference. She managed to make the Personal Democracy Forum audience really think and pay attention, which isn’t the easiest thing to do with the tweeting, laptop/iPhone-toting crowd.

danah opened her presentation by asking the PDF crowd – are you on Facebook? (everyone raises hand), then – are you on MySpace? (two hands stay up). This was a great way to illustrate how neatly real-world social divisions are mapping onto digital spaces. It’s also counter-intuitive – Facebook and MySpace are hailed as social bridges and places to connect.

But the reality doesn’t match the hype. Users on social services tend to recreate their physical social networks and don’t leave mental room for new people or perspectives. The network then acts as a key reinforcer of existing values, rather than an agnostic space to create new social value.

As danah put it, the migration of white, more affluent users from MySpace to Facebook may well represent a new “white flight.” It’s worth reading danah’s various papers on the sociology of online networks.

For government, not engaging on both MySpace and Facebook means abandoning entire segments of the population. This social schism is as much a piece of the digital divide as broadband access and affordability. So what can government do?

First, acknowledge that connecting with constituents may mean engaging in online spaces where you’re not completely comfortable. Many social media staffers are young, well-educated, and exist within the “Facebook bubble.” But knowing that you have to make this effort may be half the battle.

Second, find out where key influencers in your community are online. Go to your community, don’t expect them to come to you. Are they on Facebook? MySpace? Twitter? a local site? Wherever they’ve gathered online, that network possesses key sociological value for that particular constituency. Yes, there’s the digital “white flight” problem, but if MySpace fills key sociological needs for its users in ways that are different than Facebook. So get on there and figure out what those constituents value.

Finally, take it seriously. The segregation of online networks is troubling, but taken seriously in the short term, it can provide you with key insights into constituencies that you may not hear from on other communications channels. You can learn and adapt to serve your constituents better.

Reluctant Governments: First Steps to Engaging on Social Media

Social media is a valuable way to engage constituents in an ongoing dialog and build support for legislative/agency initiatives. So why’s everyone so afraid of it? For years, government didn’t have to engage constituents on an everyday basis – they could rely on communications efficiencies (the lack of social media) to effectively limit discussion. 
Today that’s no longer the case, but lots of government managers and directors are afraid to hop online and engage with constituents via social media. This guide is for those of you with reluctant bosses who know you need to get your agency/cause/boss online. 

Limit your topic

First, pick a small topic. It’ll be tough to prove that your agency should have a general blog, Facebook page, or Twitter account, but it will be fairly easy to prove that those things could help a specific and current initiative. If my experience is any guide, they’ll be worried about public comments and discussion. There are two great points to counter this:

  • First, that discussion is going to happen anyway. It’s better to take it seriously and play an active role in hosting it than it is to ignore it.
  • Second, by creating a limited scope of discussion around a relatively non-controversial topic, you’ll show that it’s not the end of the world to host a discussion and that it won’t sabotage the larger goals of your agency.

At the Department of Education, I created “Going Green in NYC Public Schools” because we’ve got some great green initiatives going on and it’s a topic that I think the public can rally around without getting mixed up in the larger world of City politics. It was also a way for me to create content outside of the normal bureaucratic world, hopefully setting an example for more personable future engagements with the public.

Finally, I got approval to start using our dormant Facebook and Twitter accounts (though I’m now thinking we should be on MySpace) to promote the blog.
Promote the heck out of it
Once you have some initial content up, start promoting it within your agency and community. Internally, leverage the heck out of your Intranet, employee newsletters, Facebook networks, etc. You want your employees to be your best and most fervent evangelists. Chances are they’ve been wondering why you *haven’t* been on social networks, so they’ll jump at the chance!
With very little promotion, our blog posts were getting a few thousand hits a day, our Facebook page was hopping, and we had 800 followers on Twitter. 
Curate and Participate
Authoring content is one role of managing social media, but your primary role is to curate and participate as an official representative of your agency, both internally and externally. I found that there was *a lot* of pent up energy in our community – as soon as I opened the door, people were excited to talk to me and know that there was a person on the other end. So even though my primary role was in product management, I quickly became the de facto “spokesblogger” for the DOE. 
The majority of my time spent on social media is watching and learning what conversations people are having and trying to add some value to those conversations. For instance, some of our schools use biodegradable sugar cane cafeteria trays, and parents were rightly asking why all 1,500 schools don’t use those trays. The answer was simple – we give schools the choice to pay for the more expensive biodegradable trays if they choose to do so – but it was an answer the public never would have gotten. I think it even convinced some additional schools to begin using sugar cane trays.
Participating isn’t the only aspect of this – you’ll need to curate the comments and audience contributions. My advice is to try to be liberal with your curation policy; respectful discussion and a diversity of views is valuable. Part of this is picking a topic that you think will self-limit the scope of discussion, but you’ll have to gently guide the discussion in order to keep your community on topic. If worse comes to worse (and it sometimes does) you’ll need to delete a few comments and remind the the community to keep things on-topic and above-board.
Measure your success
You can talk all you want about social media, but your bosses will want to see some measurements of success. I measure the classic metrics – traffic, “joins,” etc, but I also try to provide some measure of engagement, which is a lot tougher.
If a blog post gets 5,000 views and no comments, I don’t consider that a successful effort. But if a blog post gets 1,000 hits and 20 comments, that’s a big success. I don’t use numbers to measure engagement, but I like to see the following:

  • Citizens engaging with each other. I shouldn’t have to keep the discussion going; people should do that amongst themselves. I represent one perspective.
  • A dynamic discussion with varying points of view. I don’t just want people to agree with us – I want to know the real opinion of our constituents and hopefully convince internal stakeholders to pay attention and possibly adjust policy as a result. 
  • Lots of signal and little to no noise. “DRILL BABY DRILL” and those sorts of things should be kept to a minimum. I started by not deleting any comments, but eventually got rid of the useless stuff. 

These are subjective measurements, but that’s ok – you’ll know when you’re building Whuffie.

Prove it to your bosses
Your bosses were probably skeptical at first, so once you’ve built some Whuffie online (social capital), it’s important to prepare some materials to prove to your boss and their bosses that your work is having a positive impact on the agency’s operations and public image. I prepare a one-page summary of our web operations every month to remind everyone that we’re so gigantic (18+ million page views per month) and can have a huge impact. Now, I include our interaction rating on Facebook, number of Twitter interactions, followers, etc. 
Expand and Repeat
Once your non-controversial pilot project is proven a success, it’s time to start looking at expansion plans. What other topics will generate public interest in your agency’s work? Who should author those efforts? How can you leverage your initial work to create more successes?

What was your first step engaging on social media? How did you prove to your bosses it was worth it?

Crisis Communications: H1N1 in New York City’s Public Schools

What Happened

In mid-May, New York City’s Department of Health (DOH) realized that the H1N1 (swine) flu was spreading in distinct pockets throughout the City, particularly through children, the afflicted, and the elderly. At the Department of Education, we knew that our 1,500+ schools could be a key transmission point for the flu, and we were already seeing higher-than-normal absence rates at selected schools whose geography correlated with DOH’s data.

On the advice of DOH, it became clear that we’d have to close select schools in order to prevent the spread of disease. As importantly, we had to be clear about why were closing particular schools, why others would stay open, and we had to reassure parents and the public that we were taking the right course of action. It’s easy for situations that affect the public health, like H1N1, to quickly spiral into panic.

There aren’t many templates for this sort of thing – public health crises don’t happen that much anymore in the United States. We’ve got a decent public health system that keeps the transmission of communicable diseases and the ill effects of them to a minimum. New York City itself is larger than all but the most populous 12 states, and our public school system alone is larger than the 8 least populous states with 1.1 million students.

What We Did

From the online communications perspective, the first thing we did was decide to make clear that our website should be considered the most reliable source of information.
It’s easy for the media to twist a story and we knew it was critical
for the public to know that the Departments of Health and Education,
along with Mayor Bloomberg’s office, were the *only* official sources
of information.

I placed a key line at the top of our website
that doesn’t sound important, but is – “This page will always contain
the most updated information available.” Citizens are used to the government moving a bit slow,
and they rely heavily on the media. I wanted to set the expectation
from the first moment that our website was a canonical source of

Second, we began listing the “last updated” time on
both our homepage (which gets 9+ million page views per month) and our
H1N1 “canonical information” page. There were points where we were
updating these pages several times a day and when school closing
decisions were happening on a rolling basis, so it was important for
everyone to realize that we were updating very frequently.

We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel – we didn’t have the time, expertise, or desire to be the Health Department
– so we asked them to keep their URLs stable and we linked out to their
key FAQs about public and personal health related to H1N1.

Finally, I dedicated a large portion of my time to fielding online
inquiries from concerned parents and citizens. These came in through
our Twitter account and especially our Facebook page
– parents wanted to know why particular schools were not closing, why
others were, and how to protect their families. I did my best to get
them information specific to their local community; with over 1,500
schools, the answers could be vastly different for each parent.

I also used Twitter and Facebook to “correct the record” anytime
discussions veered away from the facts. Realistically, that’s one of
the biggest fears of government leaders when engaging online, so the
value of active engagement and participation cannot be overstated.

What We Learned

So what did we learn about government communications in a crisis? A few key things:

  • People rely on the web. Traffic to our H1N1 pages spiked
    and rose each day as we were dealing with H1N1. People were visiting
    multiple times a day and wanted the latest information.
  • Keep it simple and set expectations.
    Once people knew to expect the most up-to-date information from
    official NYC.gov sites, it was clear that the sensationalist feedback
    loop the media uses was damaged.
  • Engage, don’t just release.
    When people have questions, provide answers. It’s not just about press
    releases and blanket statements; people can draw lessons from specific
    information you provide. For instance, if I explained to one parent why
    we didn’t close a particular school, other parents understood better
    the broad criteria that had already been explained.
  • Your community reinforces itself.
    If you’re not there, someone else takes control. If we had not engaged
    on H1N1, I suspect that the public’s reaction would have been more
    severe. Clearly we would have done *something*, but it was about taking
    measured but meaningful steps – doing the *right* something – that
    helped everyone keep their wits about them and kept a limited physical
    outbreak from becoming a psychological crisis.

What about you? Have you been in the middle of a public crisis where online communications played a key role?

Palmer is the former Director of Web Communications for the New York
City Department of Education.

Why Pete Cashmore is Wrong on Privacy

Internet superstar Pete Cashmore wrote an article on CNN about ten big trends for 2010. As usual, Pete’s on the mark, but his last point strikes me as not fully on target.

“We’re seeing the ongoing voluntary erosion of privacy through public sharing on Facebook and Twitter, the rise of location-based services and the inclusion of video cameras in a growing array of devices,” writes Cashmore.

Saying there’s a “voluntary erosion of privacy” is taking a stand on one side of a multi-faceted issue, and it obscures the benefits of sharing and personal information distribution. An erosion of privacy implies that people are giving less thought to their personal public/private sphere, but in fact the opposite is true.

Because of online social services and geo-location, the barriers are lower than ever to determine your personal line between public and private. Lower barriers to entry naturally encourage people to explore sharing opportunities that they didn’t have before.

So people are actually being more thoughtful (not less!) about their privacy, its limits, and where they want to sit on the privacy spectrum. Cashmore’s proposed erosion of privacy is actually an individual testing of limits using forms of communication that weren’t previously available.

So do people make mistakes? Sure, but it’s because they’re testing their own limits and exploring their place in the world around them. Sometimes ignorance leads to accidental disclosure of previously private information, but that’s a problem technology can solve. What technology has enabled is far greater – the ability to share your life with others, meet new people, and gain from their knowledge, experiences, etc.

And what has enabled that explosion of humanity is the idea that you have more granular control over your privacy. If you didn’t have that granular control (think back to pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, etc), you would by default assume all of your life was private, even among people with whom who may now be willing to make it more public.

So you can share particular pieces of your life and maybe even consciously make the decision that those pieces are the ones you think will be most valuable to others. And you can keep others closed off from the rest. And that’s not an erosion of privacy at all, but instead an expansion of the limits of humanity, and and exploration of how sharing our own knowledge can contribute to the common good.