Traindomiser 2: this time, it’s multimodal

My family enjoys trains, apps and adventure. In Episode 1, this led us to a half term adventure with The Traindomiser, an app we made to help us pick a random UK destination and tell us how to get there by train. We had a good time, via Wellingborough, Ingatestone, Aldershot and Southend.

Our first Traindomiser trip had a few limitations:

  • Starting from London, we ended up spending a fair bit of time going in and out of the capital, which was fine, but less exciting than a proper cross country journey
  • Lots of places aren’t really close to stations, so we ended up ruling them out after them coming up as results
  • Setting a distance threshold is useful but what we really wanted to was to travel for a feasible length of time, regardless of how far we actually went

We’re hoping version 2 of our app, now called Triprandomiser, will help. And this ain’t no stinking bug-fixes-and-performance-improvements release either, yo.

  • Alongside setting a maximum distance to travel, you can now set a maximum time duration, powered by the Google Maps Directions API
  • The same API also offers more than just train routes: buses, ferries, trams and tubes are now in the mix for added multimodal frisson – and it can give you a summary of your journey within the app
  • And we’ve rebuilt the place finding algorithm to be directional: so if you’re down south and yearning for a bit of northern cheer, you can tell the app to take you anywhere but south

We’re going to do some pretty hardcore user testing imminently. Two hours every six weeks? Screw dat.

We’re off almost as far north as the Triprandomiser can take us, starting from the island capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, and (hopefully) finding our way home. Beyond the first night and a vague plan to play Britain’s most northerly mini golf course, we’re in the lap of the gods.

If you’re curious, you’ll be able to follow our adventures here.

How to be a Very Stable Genius

I wish this were fake news crowd

I’ve not pitched a session at UKGovcamp for a few years, but I’m hoping to pitch one this year on something that’s been troubling me for a while. How does social media and digital culture affect our state of mind, and what can we practically do about it?

A note of clarification on the title: I’m not claiming Trump-like smartness here. But in some ways, he’s emblematic of the shift I’ve seen in social media globally from the friendly club it was in the era when Govcamping was born to… well, something a bit darker and more complicated, about tribes and tweetstorms, the sharing of #blessed lives and the retreat into private accounts and spaces where h8ters, future employers and our families won’t find us.

More embarrassing to admit, I’m regularly frustrated with myself at losing useful time, sleep and positive focus winding myself up about the fun others seem to be having. And as my kids (and parents) get more addicted to their screens, I still don’t feel I have the strategies to help them get the etiquette right and protect their own state of mind. As 2018 kicks off, I’ve seen a few frustrated friends decide to take a break from social media altogether.

That’s a shame. I’m still a militant optimist, and I’ve seen the tools do good for me and the world around me. So I’d like to have a session to share challenges and solutions around:

  • how do we make social media and digital tools more generally a constructive part of a life well lived, and maintain our perspective, our generosity and our good temper?
  • how do we stay productive in a world of notifications, interruptions and feeds?
  • how have people helped their colleagues and loved ones (not that they are mutually exclusive – I won’t judge…) to build social media into their personal or professional lives in ways which help them be more cheerful, curious and kind?

If you’d like to join in, please do! And if you’re not at UKGovcamp but have a story or idea to share, please let me know.

Photo by Kayla Velasquez on Unsplash

The Traindomiser: a train adventure

We were having a family chat over breakfast one Sunday morning about the kind of holidays we enjoy:

“Somewhere interesting & exciting”
“Somewhere not too bleak”
“Go interrailing”
“Go somewhere on a beach”

As it’s a truth commonly acknowledged that a chap in possession of a weekend must be in need of a coding project, my son Arthur and I set to work to come up with something that might tick these boxes. We were aiming for something that might help us go on a train adventure this half term through the UK, exploring (non-bleak, possibly seaside) places we’ve not been to before and staying wherever Airbnb or might find for us that night.

The result is: The Traindomiser. We found a list of UK towns and cities, and explored the excellent Transport API which provides free access to all kinds of things, from bus routes to train fares, and – most useful for our purposes – helps map a place to a nearby station. We coded up a randomising algorithm that will take a maximum distance you want to travel, and suggest a place to suit, along with the train route to get there from a nearby station. We learned how mobile devices can request your location and pass it to a form, fiddled around with the search results URLs for Airbnb and, and added a bit of suspense with some animation of the results. We learned to curse Javascript until a StackOverflow answer emerged, an important skill for any coder.

We’ve been preparing for our inaugural Traindomiser trip this week. We’ve got our Family & Friends railcard and a vintage map of the rail network (sadly out of print now). We’re travelling light, and seeing how things go. The goal: get to where the Traindomiser picks for us each evening of the trip, assuming we can find a place to stay while on our way. We’ll stop off at the interesting points on the journey, recognising that exciting adventures can come from unexpected places when you’re small. (Hopefully nowhere too bleak.)

We’ve built a little travel blog to track our first adventure with the app, and we’ll post updates there from our trip. And hope the Traindomiser can get us back home before school starts on Monday…

UPDATE: We made it home. 4 random destinations in 4 days. Lots of pics and a few reflections on the trip over here.

Agent O

September 2012: five years ago.

The paralympic and olympic champions were parading down the Strand. David Cameron and Nick Clegg were crowdsourcing ways to cut red tape. GOV.UK was still an alpha.

Luke Oatham quit his newly permanent civil service job to come and work with me. Like all good business decisions, neither of us had much of a plan for what we might do next, but we reckoned it would be interesting.

As I explained at the time, I hired Luke because he exemplified for me – and still does – what a digital hero is. He’s a creative user of cheap, simple technology to solve problems people actually have. He’s a natural tinkerer, explorer and geek. He’s no loudmouth but he’s chatty enough one to one, helping dig someone out of a hole or teaching them a new skill. He’s modest to a fault. His blog posts aren’t boastful case studies; they’re cathartic, useful sharing. His knowledge of the back catalogue of Kate Bush at karaoke outings is… impressive.

In our first year in our tiny office off Trafalgar Square, Luke and I built websites for the Audit Commission, Wilton Park and the Committee on Climate Change amongst others – big, complex ones that I’d never done before in WordPress. We ran UX training and crisis simulations (though trolling on fake-Twitter is more my cup of tea than his). But most importantly, we started building a brand as a small company, not just a freelancer with connections. From I to a proper We. In the years since he joined, Luke’s had a key part in some epic creations, from the British Antarctic Survey to the Grantham Research Institute.

But as a former intranet manager, when the brief came in from DCMS to re-do the departmental intranet in the style of GOV.UK, Luke was all over it. The result was a task-focussed intranet platform, GovIntranet, which tens of thousands of people use today, in organisations all over the world. Luke’s led it not just as a company product but as an open source platform which has been extended and refined by developers from charities to police departments, churches to media agencies. That makes it sound glamorous, and understates the endless forum replies, pull requests, Zendesk tickets and late nights that Luke has put in to help users get the best from it. Because intranets, and good internal comms generally, are His Thing.

And from today, they’re his business.

We’re saying goodbye, on good terms, and Luke is gradually taking the intranet work formerly part of our business off into his own, Agento Digital Ltd. On the build side of our work, we’ll be focussing on our policy and engagement website clients, alongside our digital capability work. The range of work we do and they way we do it has changed hugely since those early days, but we’re fundamentally about the same principle: giving people the confidence to use digital tools and techniques for themselves.

We’ve been breaking the news to our intranet clients over the last couple of months, which has been a more emotional experience than I was expecting. The people we’ve spoken to are full of warmth for Luke and how he’s helped them over the years. They’re buzzing with ideas for their intranets and questions for Luke. And like me, I think they’re intrigued to see what he does next now he’s able to work solely on his passion. You’ll have to stay tuned to his blog to find out more about that.

For now, farewell Agent Oatham. You’ve been the heart and conscience of Helpful these five years. Good luck.


20 things I learned at CommsCamp 2017

I’ve been at the annual summer CommsCamp unconference event in Birmingham today organised by the awesome Dan Slee, Emma Rogers and volunteer team.

The 20-things-I-learned format is a good one, so here goes again:

  1. The General Data Protection Regulation kicks in from May 2018 and we should all learn more about it: not least because we’ll need to rewrite those wordy T&Cs pages into something people can realistically consent to
  2. I found this handy summary of the other lawful reasons why an organisation might hold or process personal data where consent isn’t obtained
  3. The Scottish Government have a nice Individual, Social, Material model for looking at behaviour change, including the barriers which hold people within the organisation back from engaging online
  4. The Film Cafe team know their video onions, and are generous with their knowledge. You should probably book yourself onto one of their workshops with Comms2Point0
  5. A classic ‘cutaway’ in film editing is 6 seconds, as that’s apparently the conventional wisdom on how long it takes a viewer to tune into something. (In other news, six second video service Vine is no longer with us…)
  6. The optimum film length for Facebook is 21 seconds; Instagram 15 seconds; YouTube 3.5 minutes. Bear in mind though that 80% of your viewers will have tuned out/scrolled past after 30 seconds of your film, so put the key info up front rather than building up to it dramatically.
  7. 360 video and VR is pretty cool (it was fun seeing people experience it for the firs time) and you can make your own with a £150 camera. But it’s not really about gadgetry: it’s about really immersive and powerful experiences, in a world of flicking through feeds. Big implications for charity fundraising, media and public sector comms.
  8. Check out Purple Planet for royalty-free music for your film soundtracks
  9. Use lapel mics, rather than directional mics for good video sound. There are options from Rode and Tonor on Amazon for sub £10
  10. Maybe we’re returning to a new era of silent movies: so many videos on social media are viewed with subtitles on/sound off
  11. Facebook can auto-subtitle live video now (and lets you correct errors, thankfully)
  12. One organisation changed all its departments’ Twitter passwords to force them to get in touch with central Comms about purdah… and to identify which accounts which nobody was taking responsibility for in the organisation. Brutal but effective.
  13. You can be overwhelmed not just with hostility but also with supportive messages during a crisis: during the recent Manchester attack, the Fire Service had to work hard to sift through and subsequently acknowledge the sheer volume of positive feedback and encouragement (we’ll bank that idea for future simulations)
  14. Encouragingly, the multi-agency Tier 1 flooding exercise we helped support last year in Greater Manchester helped at least one organisation feel better-equipped to handle a real crisis when it hit. That unprompted feedback is great to hear.
  15. Politicians and political advisors are a growing challenge for emergency comms. The last few months have turned up the pressure on them to respond quickly, show emotion, and make the right strategic decisions. Right now, managing their information requests can be distraction for emergency responders.
  16. All is not what it seems on Twitter. I’ve followed Kate Starbird’s work on fake accounts for a while, and Andy’s example of copy/pasted statuses is intriguing (and another reason to be sceptical about numbers and automated monitoring)
  17. Sainsbury’s allegedly shot a fox near one of its stores (there’s a story that begs some questions by itself) and didn’t handle the online backlash well
  18. Facebook Groups are a challenge for digital engagement: critical to working with local/subject matter groups, don’t get picked up by monitoring tools, but hard to participate in as a professional without overwhelming your personal feed or seriously blurring the boundary between work and home. For ref, here’s the golden oldie case study I mentioned from Al Smith on turning a hostile Facebook group into a positive crowd
  19. Christian from the Scottish Govt bakes a mean brownie.
  20. And on that topic: you can eat your bodyweight in cake from the bake sale stall (thanks Kate Bentham!) and still walk away empty handed in terms of the charity shop tat raffle. Next year… *shakes fist at sky*

I had an exchange with Esko from Satori Lab about to what extent public sector comms people can really be expected to start adopting networked behaviours when so much of the world around them, from unions, to leadership, to the press office model, is so hierarchical and naturally adversarial.

But on reflection I think I was wrong – or at least, not ambitious enough.

It’s clearly good to do classic corporate comms better with more engaging video, faster crisis comms and better co-ordination of Twitter accounts. But there’s a bigger opportunity for the individuals working in organisations to properly work with each other and with citizens through digital tools. It’s the kind of community engagement I’ve been blogging about here for almost a decade, that takes courage and passion. Depressingly, that kind of digital comms is still rare and some are still being burnt as heretics in their organisations.

CommsCamp, OneTeamGov, UKGovcamp and events like it are about reinforcing the network and building our collective confidence to agitate for change, not simply to accept the status quo and our place in it.

Because if not us, then who?

Digital Hero: Stephen Hale

The thing about digital engagement is, followed to its logical conclusion, it drives a rational person to despair.

To do online consultation well, you really need to fix consultation itself, which involves rethinking the roles of Civil Servant and minister, and finding precious pockets of political will and bureaucratic opportunity, rare as hens’ teeth. Focussing on key policy priorities means walking headlong into controversial subjects and entrenched opinions, where innovation is rarely welcome. And in a world of shrinking budgets and limited patience, it almost certainly costs time and money and doesn’t deliver a saving for months or years. The best engagement truly transforms but doesn’t even deliver a shiny new URL.

Stephen Hale – who leaves government this week – seems to have managed to keep his reason and yet never give up on the dream.

I can’t believe I’ve not written about him here before, because he’s the true hero of digital engagement in central government over last decade. At the Cabinet Office, then the FCO and finally the Department of Health, he’s been the pre-eminent thinker, do-er and champion of creative, courageous, purposeful digital communication in central Government. If this were a test match, there’d be a standing ovation all around the ground.

His creativity was evident when he pioneered engagement around the London Summit in 2009 involving bloggers when the rest of the world simply feared or dismissed them. He was instrumental (along with pioneers like Shane Dillon) in some of the finest years of FCO blogging, and set up social media listening dashboards before you could even buy such things.

At the Department of Health, he’s showed stamina and strategic cunning. Before GDS won the war, he advanced the digital front by miles through a well-planned ambush on the incumbent systems integrator, recruiting lieutenants like Francis Babayemi, Sara Wood and me to help. Where other folks would have given up, Stephen sat through hours of meetings persistently asking why the department’s domain couldn’t resolve with or without the www.

In later years, Stephen’s been bold enough to wonder out loud not just about tactics, but strategy too. He set KPIs for the team’s work and introduced a digital capability programme across the Department. With smart colleagues like Susy Wootton he’s explored not just which online consultation tool to buy, but what the user needs around consultation really are. And more recently, with the Department facing stiff headcount reductions and turbulent times comms-wise, he’s ranged beyond digital to think about the shape of the wider team and ask what the role of a digital communications team should be.

I’ve never been in his team, but I’ve always admired his calm, quiet style coupled with a permanent – I reckon mischievous – glint in his eye. I’ve wished I could tune out social media like he does and enjoy reflective podcasts while walking around Westminster. And on my desert island, he’d be the bass player in my four piece fantasy digital jazz band (as long as he could keep the cheese reviewing under control, that could grate after a while). And whereas my kids have been healthy and straightforward from the off, Stephen’s been a service user of his own department’s services through some tough times, making his achievement all the more impressive.

So, farewell Stephen. Good luck with what comes next, and thanks for being a friend and inspiration over the years.

P.S. You’re still wrong about experts though.

Photo credit: Rob Pearson, by kind permission

In 2016, I…

Taking a cue from Matt Jukes and others, here’s some of my abiding memories of 2016, in pictures:

Took a bit more time to think and let things percolate on my daily commute into London. Tried looking for answers to Why (which I struggle with), as well as How (which is where I’m more comfortable). Found a few.

Dawn over the City is still pretty special

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Bowie died and Mrs G had a milestone birthday so February was pretty space-themed. I made a scary cake.

Got up early a few mornings and had Cromer Beach and Three Cliffs Bay to myself.

Scenery worth getting up early for #wales #nofilter

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Watched Gray Jr get really into coding, trying not to look excessively pleased about it.

Went to the seaside a few times to reflect and catch up with old friends (both of which I should do more).

Away day at the Friends Meeting House in Brighton, including 15 min silent reflection at the beach

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Worked as part of a genuinely nice team, doing interesting and varied work for clients who care. It’s hard to go from freelancer to leading a small business and I’ve had ups and downs this year, trying to shape a business that I’m proud of and work out my role in it. Got surprisingly into meetings, development plans, pensions and IT security.

Wandered around Venice Beach and Beverly Hills (after a passport near-miss). Hummingbirds, live gig at The Troubadour, Ubers everywhere.

Out and about in Beverly Hills

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Flew Business to Dubai in Ramadan and got a glimpse of expat life.

Had a day of chuckles and ice cream (but no booze) in Milan thanks to a drinks brand.

Without getting all #blessed about it, this week ends well…

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Mourned Brexit and Trump but more in a saying-bollocks-rather-than-crying-my-eyes-out way, if you know what I mean.

Got quite into the Euros with some back garden footy (Gray Jr still coding).

Did less blogging and tweeting, mainly because I don’t stay up late like I used to and have drifted away from the government IT scene a bit. It’s harder to blog if you do it less frequently though, and I miss the time spent reflecting on work as well as doing it.

Got quite excited as our new family office in the loft took shape and most of the remaining grungy areas of our house got sorted (eight years after moving in).

New family office taking shape nicely

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Had my share of late nights and early mornings simulating things from plane crashes and marauding gunmen to battery leaks and celebrity walkouts. First foreign language exercises in Arabic and German. Learned Cameroonian geography and slang words. Photoshopped a lot of weird shit.

Went to places you hardly ever go for work. Here’s St John’s, Newfoundland.


A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

Sat in Midtown boardrooms and coworking spaces planning the incorporation of a new US business in 2017. Went from pipedream to Gantt chart pretty quickly.

Made madeleines with my team at our Christmas outing (we identified cake, karaoke and quizzes as the things that bring Helpful HQ together).

Hung out with my best mates, now more fun than ever.

Weekend picnic at Daddy's office

A photo posted by Steph Gray (@lesteph) on

On experts and amateurs

When Stephen Hale blogs about something, I usually stroke my chin and nod approvingly. But there’s something in his latest post – about favouring expert skill over gifted amateurs, the troubles me quite a lot.

In practice, if we need graphic design, we either need an in house graphic designer to do it or we need to pay a supplier to provide those skills; if we need data science, we either need an in house data scientist or we need to pay a supplier who has those skills; if we need content, we either need an in house content designer or we need to pay a supplier to do it for us.

What we don’t want (in my opinion) is enthusiastic amateurs having a go at graphic design, data science or content design, because that’s when we’re at our least expert and our least effective.

That’s why, as we reshape our department, I’ve been making the case to continue our drive to bring experts into the department, alongside our drive to mainstream new skills in all staff. Because I think we’re at our best when we’re at our most expert.

I understand the point: digital is mainstream, expectations have rightly risen since I was doing this stuff in government, and people who tinker with free online tools or small-scale projects don’t help overcome the damaging perception that digital engagement in particular is a bit of a waste of time compared to proper things like media relations and policy analysis. The civil service has historically had a culture of favouring generalists and something of a glass ceiling for specialists, and that’s what the Minister was taking a swipe at as he moved sideways into his next generalist job. (Yay for PPE!)

I worry that making content design, or user research or community management something specialist which requires ‘experts’ makes digital skills feel less core, less attainable and ultimately less impactful than if we encouraged a bit more enthusiastic amateurism.

Stephen’s at the leading edge of developing digital capability in the wider organisation, so I don’t want to put up a straw man: clearly, there are particular skills and sometimes formal training needed to practise some digital disciplines really well; and other things which it’s easier to do from a standing start. The best writers and researchers and developers have been at it for years and don’t stop learning. But there’s satisfaction, understanding and achievement to be had in having a go, in appreciating why things are as they are, in knowing enough to scratch your head while you explain a problem to someone more knowledgeable than you.

When Michael Gove recently and notoriously said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, I don’t think he was simply being anti-intellectual. I wonder if he was arguing that too many ‘experts’ overstate their true power out of hubris and ego – and there’s been plenty of that in government IT before and since GDS. Even genuinely skilled folk can come across as condescending and tribal, and that’s not a good way to improve things at scale.

At my kids’ school, the focus is on ‘mastery’ of maths concepts – the ability to do something creatively, fluently and to a high standard. For me, I think achieving that kind of mastery or professional growth in the workplace needs opportunity, encouragement and feedback.

Effective feedback in particular is what big organisations like the civil service find hard. I’ve frequently avoided tackling poor performance around me as a manager and it’s easy to do that in larger teams. With some help, it’s something we’ve been focussing on as a small team over the last six months, both to help in the short term with how we feel about work and clients, but in the longer term as a way for us all to grow professionally. As a boss, I certainly don’t want things to be done badly, but I often find expertise and passion in unexpected places around the team and in our clients. We need to use the term expert carefully, to avoid missing out on some of that potential.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 23.35.04

And yes, it is the Helpful business model I suppose, as a place business and public sector organisations turn to for help with digital. But our big focus now – and how we’re swimming against the tide in a way – is on helping clients to do digital for themselves: demystifying what seems complex, building confidence amongst those far behind the cutting edge, trying to answer every ‘Please could you…’ Zendesk ticket we get with a ‘Sure, and here’s how to do it next time…’

So I suppose I’m saying I don’t have a problem with government of gifted amateurs, so much as with amateurs who don’t know it, don’t seek help and don’t get better. Organisations need specialists, and there’s plenty of specialist skills in digital. Let’s not build a wall around them.

A better website brief


As someone who runs an agency offering WordPress website development, I get quite a lot of website development briefs in my inbox. Some are excellent: they give me and the team a clear sense of what’s required. Typically, they’re documents under 20 pages long which talk quite a lot about users and goals and priorities, about what’s good and bad about the current site, what’s known and unknown, what needs to change and why. They ask for our ideas and suggestions about how the digital platform and they way we develop it together can help solve strategic questions for the organisation.

Other briefs are less helpful. They’re invariably longer, start with the procurement process, talk little about users or content but in great detail about must-have features (which frequently aren’t really features). They ask us to explain – and these are genuine examples, I promise – how we’ll foster improved race relations through the CMS build process or the margin we apply to subcontractors’ day rates or to confirm we’ll run Gateway meetings at the end of each ‘AGILE’ sprint. I’m not sure what kind of suppliers happily fill in those templates and earnestly tailor their response to the weighted percentage scoring system described, but I suspect they aren’t the ones who build the best websites. If you require those things as a client, you’re just asking to be lied to.

I understand that it’s hard to go shopping for a new website, especially if you’ve not worked in that field. Procurement colleagues frequently don’t help, with their convoluted templates and inhuman portals. I don’t blame the clients who issue bad briefs, but I would like to help them write better ones, based on 15 years’ experience both dishing out briefs and trying to respond to them.

So here’s a template – a set of questions we look for answers to as suppliers of this kind of thing, to help us cost a job. Briefs that give us this information will get a more useful, precise proposal from us, and almost certainly a more competitive price since there’s so much less risk involved for us to cost in.

I’d really appreciate thoughts and comments from others on the Google Doc.

Direct link:

The bottom line is that you don’t have to know exactly what you need, but you should be able to talk about what’s important to you and why. The best briefs are up-front about this: they say what’s known and what isn’t, and give us the opportunity to recommend a proper discovery phase to scope out the user needs, content, constraints and technology so that together we can focus the budget on what’s most likely to work.

Photo Credit: Hegemony77 clothes for dolls and 1/6 figures via Compfight cc