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April 13 2011

12:33

Which blog platform should I use? A blog audit

When people start out blogging they often ask what blogging platform they should use – WordPress or Blogger? Tumblr or Posterous? It’s impossible to give an answer, because the first questions should be: who is going to use it, how, and what and who for?

To illustrate how the answers to those questions can help in choosing the best platform, I decided to go through the 35 or so blogs I have created, and why I chose the platforms that they use. As more and more publishing platforms have launched, and new features added, some blogs have changed platforms, while new ones have made different choices to older ones.

Bookmark blogs (Klogging) – Blogger and WordPress to Delicious and Tumblr

When I first began blogging it was essentially what’s called ‘klogging’ (knowledge blogging) – a way to keep a record of useful information. I started doing this with three blogs on Blogger, each of which was for a different class I taught: O-Journalism recorded reports in the field for online journalism students, Interactive Promotion and PR was created to inform students on a module of the same name (later exported to WordPress) and students on the Web and New Media module could follow useful material on that blog.

The blogs developed with the teaching, from being a place where I published supporting material, to a group blog where students themselves could publish their work in progress.

As a result, Web and New Media was moved to WordPress where it became a group blog maintained by students (now taught by someone else). The blog I created for the MA in Television and Interactive Content was first written by myself, then quickly handed over to that year’s students to maintain. When I started requiring students to publish their own blogs the original blogs were retired.

One-click klogging

By this time my ‘klogging’ had moved to Delicious. Webpages mentioned in a specific class were given a class-specific tag such as MMJ02 or CityOJ09. And students who wanted to dig further into a particular subject could use subject-specific tags such as ‘onlinevideo‘ or ‘datajournalism‘.

For the MA in Television and Interactive Content, then, I simply invented a new tag – ‘TVI’ – and set up a blog using Tumblr to pull anything I bookmarked on Delicious with that tag. (This was done in five minutes by clicking on ‘Customise‘ on the main Tumblr page, then clicking on Services and scrolling down to ‘Automatically import my…‘ and selecting RSS feed as Links. Then in the Feed URL box paste the RSS feed at the bottom of delicious.com/paulb/tvi).

(You can do something similar with WordPress – which I did here for all my bookmarks – but it requires more technical knowhow).

For klogging quotes for research purposes I also use Tumblr for Paul’s Literature Review. I’ve not used this as regularly or effectively as I could or should, but if I was embarking on a particularly large piece of research it would be particularly useful in keeping track of key passages in what I’m reading. Used in conjunction with a Kindle, it could be particularly powerful.

Back to the TVI bookmarks: another five minutes on Feedburner allowed me to set up a daily email newsletter of those bookmarks that students could subscribe to as well, and a further five minutes on Twitterfeed sent those bookmarks to a dedicated Twitter feed too (I could also have simply used Tumblr’s option to publish to a Twitter feed). ‘Blogging’ had moved beyond the blog.

Resource blogs – Tumblr and Posterous

For my Online Journalism module at City University London I use Tumblr to publish a curated, multimedia blog in addition to the Delicious bookmarks: Online Journalism Classes collects a limited number of videos, infographics, quotes and other resources for students. Tumblr was used because I knew most content would be instructional videos and I wanted a separate place to collect these.

The more general Paul Bradshaw’s Tumblelog (http://paulbradshaw.tumblr.com/) is where I maintain a collection of images, video, quotes and infographics that I look to whenever I need to liven up a presentation.

For resources based on notes or documents, however, Posterous is a better choice.

Python Notes and Notes on Spreadsheet Formulae and CAR, for example, both use Posterous as a simple way for me to blog my own notes on both (Python is a programming language) via a quick email (often drafted while on the move without internet access).

Posterous was chosen because it is very easy to publish and tag content, and I wanted to be able to access my notes based on tag (e.g. VLOOKUP) when I needed to remember how I’d used a particular formula or function.

Similarly, Edgbaston Election Campaign Exprenses and Hall Green Election Campaign Exprenses use Posterous as a quick way to publish and tag PDFs of election expense receipts from both constituencies (how this was done is explained here), allowing others to find expense details based on candidate, constituency, party or other details, and providing a space to post comments on findings or things to follow up.

Niche blogs – WordPress and Posterous

Although Online Journalism Blog began as ‘klogging’ it soon became something more, adding analysis, research, and contributions from other authors, and the number of users increased considerably. Blogger is not the most professional-looking of platforms, however (unless you’re prepared to do a lot of customisation), so I moved it to WordPress.com. And when I needed to install plugins for extra functionality I moved it again to a self-hosted WordPress site.

Finally, when the site was the victim of repeated hacking attempts I moved it to a WordPress MU (multi user) site hosted by Philip John’s Journal Local service, which provided technical support and a specialised suite of plugins.

If you want a powerful and professional-looking blogging platform it’s hard to beat WordPress.com, and if you want real control over how it works – such as installing plugins or customising themes – then a self-hosted WordPress site is, for me, your best option. I’d also recommend Journal Local if you want that combination of functionality and support.

If, however, you want to launch a niche blog quickly and functionality is not an issue then Posterous is an even better option, especially if there will be multiple contributors without technical skills. Council Coverage in Newspapers, for example, used Posterous to allow a group of people to publish the results of an investigation on my crowdsourced investigative journalism platform Help Me InvestigateThe Hospital Parking Charges Blog did the same for another investigation, but as it was only me publishing, I used WordPress.

Group blogs – Posterous and Tumblr

Posterous suits groups particularly well because members only need to send their post to a specific email address that you give them (such as post@yourblog.posterous.com) to be published on the blog.

It also handles multimedia and documents particularly well – when I was helping Podnosh‘s Nick Booth train a group of people with Flip cameras we used Posterous as an easy way for members of a group to instantly publish the video interviews they were doing by simply sending it to the relevant email address (Posterous will also cross-publish to YouTube and Twitter, simplifying those processes).

A few months ago Posterous launched a special ‘Groups’ service that publishes content in a slightly different way to make it easier for members to collaborate. I used this for another Help Me Investigate investigation - Recording Council Meetings – where each part of the investigation is a post/thread that users can contribute to.

Again, Posterous provides an easy way to do this – all people need to know is the email address to send their contribution to, or the web address where they can add comments to other posts.

If your contributors are more blog-literate and want to retain more control over their content, another option for group blogs is Tumblr. Brumblr, for example, is one group blog I belong to for Birmingham bloggers, set up by Jon Bounds. ‘We Love Michael Grimes‘ is another, set up by Pete Ashton, that uses Tumblr for people to post images of Birmingham’s nicest blogger.

Blogs for events – Tumblr, Posterous, CoverItLive

When I organised a Citizen Journalism conference in 2007, I used a WordPress blog to build up to it, write about related stories, and then link to reports on the event itself. Likewise, when later that year the NUJ asked me to manage a team of student members as they blogged that year’s ADM, I used WordPress for a group blog.

As the attendees of further events began to produce their own coverage, the platforms I chose evolved. For JEEcamp.com (no longer online), I used a self-hosted WordPress blog with an aggregation plugin that pulled in anything tagged ‘JEEcamp’ on blogs or Twitter. CoverItLive was also used to liveblog – and was then adopted successfully by attendees when they returned to their own news operations around the country (and also, interestingly, by Downing Street after they saw the tool being used for the event).

For the final JEEcamp I used Tumblr as an aggregator, importing the RSS feed from blog search engine Icerocket for any mention of ‘JEEcamp’.

In future I may experiment with the Posterous iPhone app’s new Events feature, which aggregates posts in the same location as you.

Aggregators – Tumblr

Sometimes you just want a blog to keep a record of instances of a particular trend or theme. For example, I got so sick of people asking “Is blogging journalism?” that I set up Is Ice Cream Strawberry?, a Tumblr blog that aggregates any articles that mention the phrases “Is blogging journalism”, “Are bloggers journalists” and “Is Twitter journalism” on Google News.

This was set up in the same way as detailed above, with the Feed URL box completed using the RSS feed from the relevant search on Google News or Google Blog Search (repeat for each feed).

Likewise, Online Journalism Jobs aggregates – you’ve got it – jobs in online journalism or that use online journalism skills. It pulls from the RSS feed for anything I bookmark on Delicious with the tag ‘ojjobs’ – but it can also be done manually with the Tumblr bookmark or email address, which is useful when you want to archive an entire job description that is longer than Delicious’s character limit.

Easy hyperlocal blogging – WordPress, Posterous and Tumblr

For a devoted individual hyperlocal blog WordPress seems the best option due to its power, flexibility and professionalism. For a hyperlocal blog where you’re inviting contributions from community members via email, Posterous may be better.

But if you want to publish a hyperlocal blog and have never had the time to do it justice, Tumblr provides a good way to make a start without committing yourself to regular, wordy updates. Boldmere High Street is my own token gesture – essentially a photoblog that I update from my mobile phone when I see something of interest – and take a photo – as I walk down the high street.

Personal blogs

As personal blogs tend to contain off-the-cuff observations, copies of correspondence or media, Posterous suits it well. Paul Bradshaw O/T (Off Topic) is mine: a place to publish things that don’t fit on any of the other blogs I publish. I use Posterous as it tends to be email-based, sometimes just keeping web-based copies of emails I’ve sent elsewhere.

It’s difficult to prescribe a platform for personal blogs as they are so… personal. If you talk best about your life through snatches of images and quotes, Tumblr will work well. I have a family Tumblr, for example, that pulls images and video from a family Flickr account, tweets from a family Twitter feed, video from a family YouTube account, and also allows me to publish snatches of audio or quotes.

You could use this to, for instance, create an approved-members-only Facebook page for the family so other family members can ‘follow’ their grandchildren, and publish updates from the Tumblr blog via RSS Graffiti. Facebook is, ultimately, the most popular personal blogging platform.

If it is hard to separate your personal life from your professional life, or your personal hobby involves playing with technology, WordPress may be a better choice.

And Blogger may be an easy way to bring together material from Google properties such as Picasa and Orkut.

Company blogs

Likewise, although Help Me Investigate’s blog started as two separate blogs on WordPress (one for company updates, the other for investigation tips), it now uses Posterous for both as it’s an easier way for multiple people to contribute.

This is because ease of publishing is more important than power – but for many companies WordPress is going to be the most professional and flexible option.

For some, Tumblr will best communicate their highly visual and creative nature. And for others, Posterous may provide a good place to easily publish documents and video.

Blogs – flexible enough for anything

What emerges from all the above is that blogs are just a publishing platform. There was a time when you had to customise WordPress, Typepad or Blogger to do what you wanted – from linkblogging and photoblogging to group blogs and aggregation. But those problems have since been solved by an increasing range of bespoke platforms.

Social bookmarking platforms and Twitter made it easier to linkblog; Tumblr made it easier to photoblog or aggregate RSS feeds. Posterous lowered the barrier to make group blogging as easy as sending an email. CoverItLive piggybacked on Twitter to aggregate live event coverage. And Facebook made bloggers of everyone without them realising.

A blog can now syndicate itself across multiple networks: Tumblr and Posterous make it easy to automatically cross-publish links and media to Twitter, YouTube and any other media-specific platform. RSS feeds can be pulled from Flickr, Delicious, YouTube or any of dozens of other services into a Facebook page or a WordPress widget.

What is important is not to be distracted by the technology, but focus on the people who will have to use it, and what they want to use it for.

To give a concrete example: I was once advising an organisation who wanted to publish their work online and help young people get their work out there. The young people used mobile phones (Blackberrys) and were on Facebook, but the organisation also wanted the content created by those young people to be seen by potential funders, in a professional context.

I advised them to:

  • Set up a moderated Posterous so that it would cross-publish to individuals’ Facebook pages (so there would be instant feedback for those users rather than it be published in an isolated space online that their friends had to go off and find);
  • Give the Posterous blog email address to the young people so they could use it to send in their work (making it easy to use on a device they were comfortable with);
  • Then to set up a separate ‘official’ WordPress site that pulled in the Posterous feed into a side-widget alongside the more professional, centrally placed, content (meeting the objectives of the organisation).

This sounds more technically complex than it is in practice, and the key thing is that it makes publishing as easy as possible: for the young users of the service, they only had to send images and comments to an email address. For members of the organisation they only had to write blog posts. Everything else, once set up, was automated. And free.

Many people hesitate before blogging, thinking that their effort has to be right first time. It doesn’t. Going through these blogs I counted around 35 that I’ve either created or been involved in. Many of those were retired when they ceased to be useful; some were transferred to new platforms. Some changed their names, some were deleted. Increasingly, they are intended from the start to have a limited shelf life. But every one has taught me something.

And those are just my experiences – how have you used blogs in different ways? And how has it changed?

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July 27 2010

11:15

Reflections on the Birmingham Hacks & Hackers Hackday (#hhhbrum)

map of GP surgeries - first thousand results

Last week I spent a thoroughly fascinating day at a hackday for journalists and web developers organised by Scraperwiki. It’s an experience that every journalist should have, for reasons I’ll explore below but which can be summed up thus: it will challenge the way you approach information as a journalist.

Disappointingly, the mainstream press and broadcast media were represented by only one professional journalist. This may be due to the time of year, but then that didn’t prevent journalists attending last week’s Liverpool event in droves. Senior buy-in is clearly key here – and I fear the Birmingham media are going to left behind if this continues.

Because on the more positive side there was a strong attendance from local bloggers such as Michael Grimes, Andy Brightwell (Podnosh), Clare White (Talk About Local) and Nicola Hughes (Your Local Scientist) – plus Martin Moore from the Media Standards Trust and some journalism students.

How it worked

After some brief scene-setting presentations, and individual expressions of areas of interest, the attendees split into 5 topic-based groups. They were:

  • The data behind the cancellation of Building for Schools projects
  • Leisure facilities in the Midlands.
  • Issues around cervical smear testing
  • Political donations
  • And our group, which decided to take on the broad topic of ‘health’, within the particular context of plans to give spending power to GP consortia.

By the end of the day all groups had results – which I’ll outline at the end of the post – but more interesting to me was the process of developers and journalists working together, and how it changed both camp’s working practices.

The work process

This is a genuinely collaborative process – not the linear editorial-and-production divide that so many journalists are used to.

Developers and journalists are continually asking each other for direction as the project develops: while the developers are shaping data into a format suitable for interpretation, the journalist might be gathering related data to layer on top of it or information that would illuminate or contextualise it.

This made for a lot of hard journalistic work – finding datasets, understanding them, and thinking of the stories within them, particularly with regard to how they connected with other sets of data and how they might be useful for users to interrogate themselves.

It struck me as a different skill to that normally practised by journalists – we were looking not for stories but for ‘nodes’: links between information such as local authority or area codes, school identifiers, and so on. Finding a story in data is relatively easy when compared to a project like this, and it did remind me more of the investigative process than the way a traditional newsroom works.

Team roles

Afterwards I wondered what an effective hackday team might consist of, organisationally. Typically hackdays split people into journalists and coders, but in practice the skillsets are more subtle than that. Being a journalist, for example, doesn’t guarantee that you can find datasets; likewise the range of data we came across made it necessary for someone to keep track of it all (social bookmarking helps) and ensure we avoided distraction – but also were able to adapt and change if a more interesting discovery became possible.

So here is an initial attempt to outline the sort of roles a hackday team might work best with:

  • Coders, obviously – some knowledge of datasets is advantage; having pre-cleaned a dataset even better. For this reason it may be worth using a wiki to lead up to the hackday to identify questions and datasets of interest so that work might be done in advance.
  • A project manager of sorts. Someone to keep track of the focus of the project and the datasets involved or needed (and the progress with those). Again, a wiki might suit this well – or a Posterous blog so that those outside the hackday can more easily comment.
  • Someone with computer assisted reporting (CAR) skills to find datasets.
  • A journalist, blogger or expert who understands the data, e.g. codes, context, etc. – and/or who to speak to to get more data or context
  • Someone to do visualisation. If no one is able, then an alternative might be to assign someone the role of creating the visualisation and as part of that, researching visualisation tools [LINK] and examples.

I’m probably missing roles – particularly within the subtleties of coding – so please post a comment if you can think of others.

What we did

Broadly we had gathered because of a shared interest in health. In discussion we decided that the key topical element was the plan to hand spending power to GP consortia. I’m not sure whether this was too broad a topic or whether that actually made for a longer-term project that we will return to. The initial thought was that we would create a resource that would become increasingly useful as the handover took place.

The first thing we needed was a clean list of all GP practices in GB. By midday Rob Styles had compiled such a list in RDF format, including location, their relationship to the Primary Care Trust (PCT), and their LSOA (Lower Layer Super Output Area) Code. In addition this had a unique URI for each practice code and a URI for each PCT code. These things are important in linking this data to other datasets.

Clare White, meanwhile, was identifying indicators & data to add on, such as life expectancy, income, etc.

Keith Alexander was turning life expectancy into another RDF with area codes as unique URIs, with a view to match to codes from other area using geocoding.

Martin Moore was also tracking down data; Mark Bentley tracked down PCT and SHA populations; and I used my Twitter network to find other sources, while using advanced search techniques to track down a range of NHS data websites (there are, it appears, a lot), including earnings data and translations of industry jargon. Andrew Mackenzie actually used a telephone, calling people at West Midlands Observatory, getting contextual information and leads for NHS data, and working out ONS subgroup area codes & ONS group areas.

If that paragraph has not completely geeked you out, you’re doing well.

I bookmarked most of the data sources I found at http://delicious.com/paulb/data+health. Here are just a selection:

The results

By the end of the day we had a national map of all 8,000 GP practices (the first 1,000 shown in the image above) – quite an achievement in itself, but not headline-grabbing yet. To give us an editorial angle for the end-of-day presentations, Rob searched for a spreadsheet of mental health prevalence and came up with the headlines that Manchester was the most ‘phobic’ place in Britain, and the Isle of Wight the least.

The next step would be to add GP population information (taken from an FOI response on What Do They Know) and Quality and Outcomes Framework data (scraped from the GP practice results database). There may be ways to match results from the GMC database of medical practitioners to practices too, while FOI requests could add more specific information, and I’ve since been sent links to other potentially interesting datasets.

The Scraperwiki blog gives more detail on what the other projects produced – all of them were hugely impressive. Andy Brightwell blogged about their leisure data project – which “hoped to find out more about the relationship between population density, deprivation and the provision of leisure facilities” here.

Both links provide further insight into the possibilities of data journalism in just one day.

Thankfully, it’s not going to be just one day. Podnosh have already organised a Speed Data event, and there are further hack days planned for Birmingham – specifically around health – by Talis and NHSlocal.

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