I should have known this event would be a little puzzling when Google’s idea of a great freebie for local government people was a USB stick. A few of us even joked about the irony of getting a free gift you aren’t technically allowed to use, but what the heck, it was nice of them to give us something and besides, it’s a Google USB stick, so it’s obviously made of magic.
Flag number two came when the first thing anyone said was ‘to be clear this isn’t a barcamp event, it’s for google to talk to you about its offer’. Not that I was expecting a barcamp (the rows of chairs with desk arms was my clue there) but more that I was hoping for a bit of a two-way conversation. That plus the ban on photos (oops) just felt, well, a little un-Google.
A few people muttered that I was a bit harsh on Twitter during the day (check out the hashtag) so I’ll try to keep it balanced here – it was an interesting day, which was generously offered for free at Google’s offices, with great hospitality from the super-fast broadband to the great food.
It was a pretty intense day of presentations by various Googlers about their products, much of which was interesting and applicable to local government, though there wasn’t much talk about local government until the end of the session.
First up was Hamish Nicklin [Update 19/8/09: Link removed, see note at the end of the post], Head of Google’s UK Public Sector and Government team (he could do with some more followers on Twitter if you’re so inclined) [Update 19/8/09: See note at the end], who gave some useful stats on web use:
- 44m people are online in the UK
- 90% of people said they must have broadband within a month of moving into a new house
- 17p in every pound is spent online
- 80% of internet users compare prices and options
- 1 in 3 consumers post a comment online a week
- 15 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute
- British people spend 1.2 billion minutes watching videos and movies online in a month
- An average user spends 43 mins per week streaming video vs 14.2 hours per week watching TV (so online video is around 5% of the total time people spend on video)
- 12% of UK housefulds now rely on mobiles rather than landline
- 490m mobile internet users in 2008 globally (1b by 2011)
- There were 74.2 billion searches in June 2008. That’s 11 per person for every person in one month
- iphone users search the web 50 times more than those on traditional movible devices.
Jon Cross [Update 19/8/09: Link removed, see note at end], a Google Pulic Sector Senior Account Manager (also in need of some followers) [Update 19/8/09: see note at end] was next, talking about advertising. Google would like councils to advertise on Google, ensuring that they appear at the top of all search results (AdWords). It was agreed that some of this wouldn’t be relevant to local government (the presentation was tailored for businesses with no repurposing for the local government audience) but there’s a useful case study of how Hillingdon council have used AdWords to publicise their ice rink and Christmas market using geographical targetting – Google, rather freakily, can tell where in the country you are using your IP address (a reference number that every computer has, which sort of acts like your address on the internet) and information from your internet service provider (whoever you get your broadband connection from – Virgin Media, BT, whoever).
The idea is that making a specific service more ‘findable’ in Google increases the chances that someone will find the information they need online, rather than having to call or write to the council, which is more expensive to deal with. As with much of the content of the session, I can’t help thinking that Google are rather behind the times when it comes to the public sector, which was a big surprise to me. I think of Google as a forward-thinking bleeding-edge organisation, but somehow they just haven’t grasped the local government agenda. Maybe it’s because their public sector unit was only set up at the start of 2009, and it’s only been concentrating on central government until now.
Local government is a different kettle, though, and while it might be in the business of advertising ice rinks and tourist attractions at the moment, the financial crunch of 2010 is looming large. Local government can’t carry on as a direct service provider, and the days of leisure and culture provision are numbered. The new local authority role will be as a service enabler – the glue that holds a locality together and supports other organisations to provide services that residents need, as well as helping to create the conditions in which residents can meet their own needs – from neighbourhoods getting together to share the cost of green energy through to social startups and local businesses. It’s a new model for local government and a radical adjustment that I just don’t think Google have got their heads around. It feels like the ‘credit crunch’ has hit their business accounts so they’re looking to the steady income of the public sector to make up the difference.
Cynical, I know, but the fact that none of the presentations we heard were tailored to a local government audience in any way seemed borderline rude. It would have been so easy to have a 15 minute discussion at the start of the session to draw out the problems facing local government, find out where the good bits are and then tailor the whole session to the sectoral landscape. What I still don’t know is how a local council can work with Google to make everything about a local area ‘discoverable’ online – maybe the local council isn’t the direct client of Google, but maybe it has an intermediary role to play, making sure that businesses, startups and local groups have well-structured and findable sites that make them perfect Google customers – of course Google would need to share a cut of the income with the council for that service
We’ll never know if Google is up for that kind of conversation because we never found out what their intentions are towards the local government market – are they just happy if a few councils sign up for AdWords, or do they want a long-lasting and sustainable business relationship with a changing sector facing serious challenges?
Anyway, if you’re interested in paying for a sponsored link on Google there’s this handy rap to explain how it works. Fo’ Shizzle.
After Jon (and some much-needed coffee) we heard from Alex Nurnberg, a Google Account Strategist who talked us through Google Analytics and how to make the most of your site to ‘convert’ users. The presentation was completely made for businesses, so the entire thing was about reducing abandoned shopping carts and ecommerce transactions – we’re all intelligent (*ahem*) so we can see how it can be translated to councils’ online transactions like parking and tax payments, but it would have been nice not to have made the mental leap and to feel like Google understood the relevance of its own products to the market they’re trying to enter. Anyway, it was all useful stuff that every web manager should pay attention to, and I posted Google’s top 10 tips for a good website over on the FutureGov Network.
A slightly poorly Paul Canning gave us a SOCITM view of Google Analytics and then Dominic Miller, Corporate Marketing Manager at Nottingham City Council talked to us about the council’s decision to make money off their website (irritatingly referred to as ‘monetizing’ – yuck) by allowing advertising on the site. Poor Nottingham got slated a bit on Twitter for a) thinking people would be remotely interested in a personalisable council home page and b) thinking it’s a good idea to advertise on a council website. I’m in agreement on the former – I really don’t see the point in an igoogle style interface for a council home page, but on the latter I think it’s a decision each council will make for its own reasons. If bringing in money from the web is a way to fund other innovative web development in a council then I’m all for it. Alas in Nottingham’s case I think it might just be used as a way to justify a bigger headcount – they reckon they’ve made £15,000 from advertising on their site in the last 12 months.
There were lots of audience concerns about inappropriate adverts appearing on a site (e.g. an advert for fast food on a page about local sports facilities) and the answer is that you can block certain adverts by keyword and by category, and you can pick which pages have advertising on them and which don’t. The bottom line is, though, that if an inappropriate advert appears, you can only block it after it’s appeared, by which time the ‘damage’ will already have been done. I do think there’s a bit of an over-reaction to exactly how much ‘damage’ could actually be done – web managers are flattering themselves if they think enough people view council websites to cause borough-wide outrage. Plus stuff like that is par for the course for the web – it’s how you deal with it that matters. Curiously that’s not something that Dominic Miller grasped when he later asked why Google wouldn’t ban a comment criticising one of Nottingham City’s Surestart facilities, which appears on a Google Maps search.
Crashing on, the exotically named Xen Lategan [Update 19/8/09: Link removed, see note at end] talked us through Google Enterprise – the ability to use things like Gmail and Google Docs in your organisation instead of Microsoft Outlook and Word/Excel. It’s pretty nifty and you can do all sorts of cool collaborative things like having a video call in the same screen as the document you’re collaboratively editing so you can all see the changes as they happen. Alas, no amount of nifty is going to convince the head of IT that the whole council (or even part of it) should ditch Microsoft overnight – the talk would have been much better if we could have had a group discussion about some of the barriers to adopting Google Enterprise technology and how we can overcome them in the long term. Just on the off-chance that you happen to be an enlightened IT manager, you should check out Google Enterprise – there are no Data Protection Act issues as all the data stays within the EU and we’re told it even works in Internet Explorer 6.
A welcome boost of energy came in a human form – Matthew ‘Chewy’ Trewhella [Update 19/8/09: Link removed, see note at end], a Google Customer Solutions Engineer (whatever that means) talked about all the cool, creative things you can do with YouTube, and even though a lot of it was business-based, there were some examples of some public sector creativity – check out this video made by the police where you get to pick the direction of the story at various intervals.
There are plenty of local authorities using YouTube (Westminster, Hillingdon, and Barnet to name a few) but the take-home message from this talk was ‘it’s the content, stupid’. If you make a boring, over-produced, corporate-looking video, no one will want to watch it and if you don’t link to it and make it easy for people to find it then they definitely won’t watch it. I.e. if you just embed a video on your homepage you’re not really getting it out there. If you’re making a video to post online then ask yourself if you would actually watch the same thing from your own council. If the answer’s a big fat no, then press delete and go back to the drawing board.
We had a whistle-stop look at Google’s mobile platform, Android (I turned out to be the only one in the room with a Google G1 phone, apart from the Googlers), which has the second-largest number of users of all mobile platforms. Sounds impressive until you realise that the iphone has the largest number at 65% and that Android has only 8% – still the second-largest but somehow that seems like less of an achievement when you see the numbers.
Since few people were really familiar with Android attention started to drift until Open Social and Friend Connect came up. The former lets you access your contacts and friends data across different social networks. As Adriana Lukas has pointed out in the past there are limitations – Open Social still doesn’t allow me to export that data and own it myself, it just opens doors between my various social networks. Friend Connect is an application that works with Open Social that lets you see your friends’ comments when you are on other websites, for example you could see what your friends think of a particular council service while they are on the web page of that service. It doesn’t sound immediately relevant to local government but I could see an example in which some environmental services pages use Open Social and Friend Connect to let you see your friends’ ‘carbon footprint’ and compare it to your own.
A final talk on Google Maps was where the disconnect with the local government audience really started to show outside of the Tweet stream. There was no mention of the role of Geographic Information System teams or tools (presumably due to a lack of research into local government) and the elephant in the room was the relationship with Ordnance Survey or lack thereof. When probed, it turned out that yes, it is in fact illegal for councils to use Google Maps as their mapping software due to a clause in Google’s terms and conditions that the Ordnance Survey takes issue with. I don’t know the details so I’m not going to try to reproduce them here, but there’s a very long discussion on the Google Maps API forum if you’re geeky enough to read through it all. It turns out you can use the paid-for Google Maps ‘Premier’ API, which is intended for companies that use maps as a core part of their business or use them on their intranet. Westminster Council uses the Premier version and they reckon it costs them £7700 per year, which is a tiered licence fee, base on predicted traffic.
Heads weary and batteries running low (metaphorically and practically speaking) the session ended and we were invited to hang around for some much-needed pizza and beer. There was lots of good chat and plenty of connecting and Dave Briggs is doing a good job of rounding-up the post-event write-ups (writes-up?)
In summary (!) the session with Google was a mixture of delight and puzzlement – they were kind enough to invite a bunch of local government geeks to their offices and give us a great insight into some excellent tools and technologies, but a little bit of research or more of a two-way conversation would have made it a constructive session that benefitted both Google and the local government sector. I understand there’s an intention to strike up more of a conversation in the wake of this session, which I hope I’ll be able to join once more details are known.
For those who are interested, Google have made a specific website for local government with summaries of content from the session. There was also plenty of back-channel commentary if you’re interested, and you can follow the Google Public Sector team in the UK on Twitter.
Phew – a whopper of a post, which will hopefully make up for my lack of blogging during July!
Jon Cross from the Google Public Sector UK team has contacted me and asked if I would remove the link to Google staff Twitter accounts as they are ‘personal and not intended for business use’. I’ve deleted the links (although I see that Hamish Nicklin has deleted his Twitter account altogether). I wasn’t asked to remove any other links (e.g. to Xen Lategan’s LinkedIn profile), but I’ve done so for consistency. Jon would prefer people to link to the Google Public Sector UK team’s Twitter account, which you can find above.