Information Visualization ‘L’ plater on the loose

30 07 2012

For the last few years, I have been fascinated with the many and creative uses of data visualization. This was sparked by seeing more and more creative and innovate ways of presenting data, especially at events like THATcamp and GovHack. For example, local Canberra impresarios Mitchell Whitelaw, Tim Sherratt and Paul Hagon  have all done very interesting things with a range of national collections.

Of course, Paul Brown has been experimenting with data since the 1970s and is considered one of the pioneers of generative art. I like to add Paul because he is a legend and he included me in one of my first digital art shows in 1999 – SciArt’99 at the Queensland Sciencentre 🙂

For my purposes, I am keen to learn how I can play with SNA and maps, as I am intrigued by the possibilities of creating tools that respond to location and audiences in different ways. Anyway, I am not sure exactly what I want to create – I guess I will find out. I know a little – tools like Processing and Gephi are popular, but at the moment I have little working knowledge of these tools.

In September 2012, I will be taking an online course in Social Networking Analysis,  with Lada Adamic at Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. I am really excited and hope to learn some neat stuff. The course outline says:

In this course you will learn about the structure and evolution of networks, drawing on knowledge from disciplines as diverse as sociology, mathematics, computer science, economics, and physics. Online interactive demonstrations and hands-on analysis of real-world data sets will focus on a range of tasks: from identifying important nodes in the network, to detecting communities, to tracing information diffusion and opinion formation.

Sounds fabulous eh! I hope that soon I will have something for show and tell – can’t wait!!

Here are some links to some groovy info vis sites:

How can government innovate with Drupal?

28 07 2012

Earlier this week, I braved the cold, foggy Canberra weather to attend an industry breakfast focused on the open-source content Management System, Drupal, which was hosted by PreviousNext and Acquia. For readers unfamiliar with Drupal – it is a free, open-source content management system (CMS) and content management framework (CMF) written in PHP and distributed under the GNU General Public License. It is used as a back-end system for  many websites ranging from personal blogs to corporate, political, and government sites including and, as well as numerous Australian government sites – see here for complete list. It is also used for knowledge management and business collaboration.

One of Acquia’s founders, Kieran Lal, along with Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) developer Daniel Nitsche, gave an introduction to Drupal to explain how the Australian Government can “Do More With Drupal” at the seminar. A glance around the room was enough to determine that there is a massive amount of interest from government agencies in Drupal, presumably for its possibilities for streamlining both financial and development costs .

I found Daniel’s talk very useful in terms of a practical implementation of Drupal in a large government agency. Some of his comments came as no surprise though – especially regarding accessibility. For example, it is common knowledge that Drupal is more accessible  ‘out of the box’ than SharePoint. What I thought very interesting was the set-up of web developers  in his department (esp as I worked in what was the precursor agency to DEEWR). Apparently in the communications branch, there are 10 Drupal developers doing the entire end-to-end process of development, design and publication. I think this is excellent, but I do think there was an essential element missing in this discussion – the role of content and stakeholders.

There was something quite ‘de ja vu’ about the breakfast, as it conjured memories of going to similar industry events around 7 years ago, promoting MySource Matrix as the great new open source CMS for gov websites. At this event , poor old MySource Matrix was held up as a CMS which is not really ‘open source’ and with limited developer and vendor support, as opposed to Drupal where it was cited that there is about 17,000 tools out there and 19,000 developers. Yup – I am impressed, there is a huge community of people out there who are passionate about Drupal.

Unfortunately, I was less impressed with the talk from Kieran Lal. I appreciate that he has been a key driver in the exponential rise of Drupal but his talk seemed to be pitched at senior managers and CEOs, rather than a room full of  IT and Web savvy people (my assumption). For example, I thought it was a long stretch to talk about different aspects of the Information Architecture featured on the website for Harvard University as a Drupal solution. In fact I found most of the presentation lacking in terms of accessiblity of content and user perspective. Also his discussion about ‘Risk’ was vague and didn’t address what the risks actually were for government agencies considering moving to Drupal. From my perspective, a bit more specific detail would have been very useful as this kind of information could save agencies a lot of time.

I think it is great we have all of this cool online technology, which is flexible, interoperable and not to mention cheap – fantastic!! What is missing from this discussion are the issues around content, audiences and strategy. This is not an observation that is directed only at Keiran, but to many people working in the web space.

At times I find the disconnect between technology and audience needs highly problematic. Yes, government agencies do need to make websites, quicker, more flexible and cheaply, plus comply with the Web Transition Strategy, but audiences also need to understand the content and to find it accessible. This form of accessibility is not about getting 100% on the HTML Validator, it is about ensuring written content is understood by the audience.

IT News published an article about the breakfast which offers more detail about the DEEWR implementation.

More info about the event:

Rescoping Mediakult

27 07 2012

I have been considering the role of the Mediakult blog  a lot over the past year. The blog started out as a teaching resource for students enrolled in ‘Media Cultures’ units at the Australian National University in 2007. From this starting point I have used the blog to broadly discuss topics that relate to ‘media cultures’, to look at media art, review conferences and events and comment on media ‘trends’.

But what exactly is ‘media cultures?’ Is it just a discussion around online communities and their various nuanced personae – e.g. FOSS, Gov 2.0, etc? Or is it about the exponential rise in online careers – online marketing, SEO, content strategy, analysis, strategic communications and the like? The answer is yes, to both questions.  But one of the intentions of Mediakult after it morphed from being a student resource, was to explore all kinds of creative and communications media to determine how they are dependent on each other to achieve successful outcomes. By focusing on the inter-connecting media channels and the relationship between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ (online), I was provided with the opportunity to  continue my 17+ years research into the social,cultural and creative implications of  being ‘cross connected’ , best realised in my PhD thesis.

One observation I have made over recent years is the incredible diversity of terminology that gets thrown around when we talk about online engagement – the semantics change according to the skills/role of the person who is communicating.  A simple example of this is the recent article on Motherboard titled The Web is not the Internet (You’re probably getting that wrong. I guess that is why it is so important that techies need to work with communicators – not just to get the message out, but also to make sure the client understands what they want. Perhaps the topic of terminology should be explored in a later post?

Anyway, dear reader, I would like to offer you the opportunity to be more actively involved in Mediakult going forward. For example,  you can email me suggestions for future blog topics, book reviews, new APIs, TV show, hardware, software, interviews, art and film reviews.  Also, is anyone interested in being a guest blogger for a month? Are there some projects you would like to promote on Mediakult? What would you like me to write about?

I have a lot of ideas about how I would like this blog to evolve, but ultimately it is up to you, the reader, to determine what you would like to see from Mediakult.

Hope to hear from you soon 🙂

Strategic communications

4 07 2012

Recently I attended the joint Australian Government and Australian National University workshop focused on ‘Strategic Communications and National Security’ at the National Security College, ANU 13-14 June 2012. The workshop participants came from a broad range of government agencies that work with matters of national security.

There was a solid introduction into the definition of strategic communications (strat comms), which stressed the following principles:

  • Integrity and Truth
  • Persistent and consistent
  • Independent of media and electoral cycles

From here, participants were walked through the key components of strategic communications. These included:

  • Determine communication objectives
  • Environment Scan
  • Audience and Influencers
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Key messages
  • Delivery
  • Timetable
  • Evaluation

What was very interesting to note from this presentation, was the strong preference for using an environment scan rather than a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses/Limitations, Opportunities, and Threats). The argument for using this approach was that often a SWOT analysis is too ‘mechanical’ in nature and valuable information slips through because of the need to categorise the information. Some of the benefits of environment scans are:

  • Taking stock of what the rest of the world is doing
  • May influence objectives and actions
  • Opportunity to improve communications
  • Chance to forecast issues
  • Can feature a SWOT as part of the overall assessment

It was also noted that to effectively deliver strat comms objectives is often resource heavy, and that past evaluation processes have often focused on the outputs, rather than the outcomes. It was also highlighted that strategic communications is not the same thing as media liaison. In other words – strat comms is proactive, media relations is often reactive. Also, it was very interesting to see that the work of Doug McKenzie Mohr (behaviour change expert) was discussed as an excellent source of information for agencies interested in fostering behaviour change as part of strat comms.

Many of my colleagues have attended Mohr’s workshops in the past, so it is very good to know that some of us have already had exposure to his proactive thinking and strategic approach to fostering behaviour change. One of Mohr’s key approaches is to use ‘influencers’ or community leaders as a means of instigating change.  The rationale behind this strategy is that more people pay attention to and will follow influencers. Though care must be taken when selecting ‘influencers’ to support strat comms agendas – the backlash against Cate Blanchett  in the  ‘Say Yes’ campaign was a very relevant case study presented at the workshop.

A number of other very useful case studies demonstrated the power of being strategic with communications agendas.  Jim Cannon spoke about the ADFA Reputation Retrieval exercise; Michael Player from NZ Police discussed managing international media during the Christchurch Earthquake Crisis and Kym Charlton from Qld Police discussed how they have very successfully used social media during the SE Qld floods and Cyclone Yasi. We were also very fortunate to have former ABC journalist and media expert, Prakash Mirchandani as one of the facilitators. He gave the group some great take home messages – ‘you can never start too low when thinking about strategic communications’, an encouraging thought and one, if followed, allows for many perspectives on an issue, not just a top down or media reactive approach. The other take home was ‘you can’t sell a dud policy’ or more crudely put – ‘you can’t polish a t@rd!’.

My only other comment was the success of the practical exercise in demonstrating the effectiveness using the key components to come up with the messaging and communications channels for addressing a matter of national security. We were given a scenario, split into three groups, with each having a number of components to cover. For example, group one was responsible for the first thee components – determining communication objectives, undertaking an environment scan and identifying the audience. Each group had 1.5 hours to address the issues. When we came back each group went through the findings in order. What was revealing was the similarities and linkages between the issues and how they should be addressed. The practical exercise demonstrated that it is possible in a short amount of time to come up with a plan that is interconnected and pragmatic.

Personally, I think the big benefit is that this method could be useful in  situations outside of crisis situations and matters of national security. In many ways it is an agile approach, designed to quickly get to the issue and how to resolve it.

New social bookmarking obsessions

3 07 2012

For some time, I have been curious about pinterest as I love the idea of collecting resources online and love images even more! Last night I took the plunge and activated my account, and then spent the next three hours building 10 boards – loved every minute of it!

For a number of years, I was an avid social bookmarker with Delicious, until I discovered on twitter. Since then I have used twitter as a way of both sharing links I like as well as saving them for later. Although I know I already have them in twitter, the thought of them stockpiling in delicious is strangely comforting, though the task of reorganising tags and stacks after two years is daunting.

Anyway, one of the things I like about pinterest, aside from being able to share images easily (irrespective of  copyright concerns), is that you are visually bookmarking, much in the same way you would with delicious but with images. I don’t know why copyright owners would be upset about this tool as pinterest drives the traffic back to the original website where the image was located.


my pinterest boards

This is a complete contrast to Facebook, who actually own every photo on the website – even if you thought you owned the copyright. Annabel Crabb sums it up nicely in her recent article You might not like it, but you and Facebook are worst friends forever.

In recent times it looked like linkedin was on the rise, but now the twitter feed function has been removed, it will be interesting to see how that impacts on the site’s popularity. It is also worth noting that pinterest has a much higher proportion of women users, check out this infographic about gender preferences and spocial media platforms.

Social Media commentators Mashable had this to say in a recent article:

Pinterest is social media’s rising star — and now has the traffic stats to prove it.

The darling network of brides-to-be, fashionistas and budding bakers now beats YouTube, Reddit, Google+, LinkedIn and MySpace for percentage of total referral traffic in January, according to a Shareaholic study.

Well, there you go  – sounds like the place to be if you are interested in building interest in your brand and driving traffic to your website.

Anyway, for now I am content to just pinterest the things I like looking at, and thinking about.

Growing a local social media presence

1 07 2012

Ideas about how to best engage with communities have been central to a number of my ongoing projects over the years. For example, the geokult collaboration focuses on notion of social and cultural mapping, another project Remote connections which explores technology uptake in remote Indigenous communities, and of course in my work with

Recently, I have been considering how social media impacts on the concept of local, specially within the context of a postcode for example. Linda Carroli’s Placing project resonates for me – particularly as Aspley is a place I know intimately. I spent a number of formative years living in the Brisbane suburb and a range of creative work has been based on my experiences and perceptions of this suburban space – see Scalpland.

So what is happening in my local community? There are community noticeboards at the library and child care and family centre, but there appears to be little social media presence that has currency on the ground. We have the tools but not the engagement it would seem. Gumtree classifieds has reasonable listings for my suburb, and local Canberra online news website The RiotACT did have some recent stories. Some of these were a bit disturbing with a number of recent reports about shops and people being threatened with knifes. It wasn’t all bad news, there were also stories of developments that benefits families with a new childcare centre and new playgrounds being built.

The online factiods about my suburb do little to really give a sense of a place, excepting the obvious need to provide safe and creative places for children and young people. Over the time we have lived here we have seen many signs of growth in the west Belconnen area. New suburbs, much more traffic (though less public transport), and the local shopping centre is becoming busier and busier. Last week Coffee Club opened at Kippax and signs a McDonalds will be opening on the now vacant block indicate that there is much more  development to come. More people are moving to the area, but I still don’t know my neighbours that well after four years. Is it Canberra, or suburbia or just modern life?

Many ‘community’ building websites offer empty promises of being connected at the local level. For example, urban farming and sustainability facebook group LocalBlu sounds like an amazing initiative, although when I go to the website there is nothing for my community or any of the other 6 Australian postcodes I submitted (including city centre of Sydney and Melbourne).

Facebook has three pages that could be starting point for local conversations – Kippax Fair, Woolworths Kippax and a page for suburb of Holt.

Community Engine is another community building website that uses Facebook to promote its message about growing your local community. When I went to the Community Engine website and plugged in my postcode, there were a lot of returns in the search, so it would be worth learning more about this tool.

At geokult we are developing a series of workshops and a ‘toolbox’ of tools for exploring and mapping communities. The aim is to promote and facilitate a more connected community. What we realise is that social media will not promote the project alone, it is important to remember the old school ways of raising community awareness – leafleting, letterbox drops and local stalls are highly effective ways to get to know people F2F. Over the coming months, I will be monitoring how my local community is engaging online, and experimenting with a range of techniques, with a purpose of developing a strategy for other community engagement projects.