Signaling Important Document Paragraphs in WriteToReply – And a Possible Mobile Theme?

One of the strategies I use for reading long documents that I want to comment on take detailed notes from is to read through the document quickly, marking or highlighting the parts I think are important (or quotable), and then doing another pass where I dwell on the parts I marked.

With the publication via WriteToReply of a comment soliciting speech from Ed Vaizey on public libraries yesterday (Remodelling Libraries, [press release]), I started thinking again how we might support a highlighting approach in WriteToReply. In a post earlier this year ( – Like, But With Ratings Rather than Comments?), I briefly considered how we might publish documents in a paragraph atomising way (as we do using the WordPress theme) and then allow readers to add ratings (rather than comments) to the document at a paragraph level. Something like this, maybe:

favouriting paragraphs

Another factor that I think needs to be taken into account is the ability to read documents on mobile devices. A variety of mobile themes are available for WordPress, from the “run anywhere WordPress mobile edition to the iPhone/Android loving WPTouch.

So what I’ve started thinking is that maybe should be a mobile theme to complement a desktop browser theme along the lines of and the mooted, that would allow users to “favourite” or “star” paragraphs they think are important so they can return to them later, maybe on a desktop or portable computer, rather than a mobile device (hmm… desktop, portable, mobile…). For exampe, the should:

0) work on mobile devices;
1) atomise docs into paragraphs;
2) allow a user to “favorite” a paragraph;
3) allow a user to review a list of the paragraph they have favourited;
4) allow a user to optionally comment on the paragraphs they have favourited;
5) allow a user to look at the paragraphs favourited by another user;
6) allow a user to look at a list of the most favourited paragraphs across all users.

(Note that similar functionality (1+) should also be made available on the parent website via a parent theme.)

The aim of doing this is to identify quickly, and without the need to comment, those paragraphs that are deemed “important”. (I did wonder whether the “favouriting” should offer two options – “important”, and “needs challenging”?)

Unlike the 5 star ranking scheme sketched in the image above, we’d only need a single star:

More doodlings around the idea of

It might also be worth considering indicating how many other people had favourited a paragraph? For example:

ALternative views of favoriting with count

In the above example, the star/count appears at the end of the paragraph, because you ant to signal the importance of the paragraph after you have read it…

ALternatively, we might try to signal the perceived importance of the paragraph at the start of the paragraph, and then allow to the reader to make their own signal after reading it:

Your signals and my signal - doodle

The aim of the idea is to provide a way for readers to flag those sections of a document that are worthy or requiring of comment, and thus be capable of acting as a precursor to commenting on those sections. For mobile users, where time may be tight, the keyboard interface fiddly or difficult to use, the simple interaction – click to star – means that users can read a document and bookmark those parts of it that are important to them.

The ability to view the document via a filter of “most heavily favourited” provides a crowd sourced alternative to an executive summary of the document.

PS I am using the star as a way of signaling the importance of particular paragraphs. It’s not hard to extend this idea to social signaling, where for example a user clicks to tweet the link to that particular paragraph, or clicks to share the link to that paragraph on a social bookmarking service such as delicious.

Public Data Principles: RSS Autodiscovery on Government Department Websites?

Looking over the UK Gov Transparency Board’s draft Public Data Principles, one of the suggested principles (#) proposes that:

Public data underlying the Government’s own websites will be published in reusable form for others to use – anything published on Government websites should be available as data for others to reuse. Public bodies should not require people to come to their websites to obtain information.

One example of how this might work is to look at the Direct Gov Syndication API, but there are maybe some simpler alternatives…? Like RSS…

So for example, over on Mash the State, Adrian Short had a go at hassling local councils into publishing RSS feeds by the end of 2009, although not many of them took up the challenge at the time… (maybe the new principles will nudge them towards doing this?) Here, for example, are some obvious starting points:
– council news (here’s an example council news feed from Shropshire Council);
– recent planning applications (here’s an example Planning RSS feed from Lichfield District Council);
– current roadworks (here’s an example traffic/roadworks feed from Glasgow City Council);
– council jobs (here’s an example council advertised jobs feed from Sutton Council);
– current consultations (here’s an example open consultations feed from Bristol City Council).

In accord with another of the draft Public Data principles (#),

Public data will be timely and fine grained – Data will be released as quickly as possible after its collection and in as fine a detail as is possible. Speed may mean that the first release may have inaccuracies; more accurate versions will be released when available.
Release data quickly, and then re-publish it in linked data form – Linked data standards allow the most powerful and easiest re-use of data. However most existing internal public sector data is not in linked data form. Rather than delay any release of the data, our recommendation is to release it ‘as is’ as soon as possible, and then work to convert it to a better format.

even if the published feeds could be better (e.g. planning feeds might benefit from geo-data that allow planning notices to be displayed at an appropriate location on a map), there’s no reason not to start opening up this “data” now in a way that supports syndication.

At a government departmental level, one of the things I’ve been interested in tracking previously has been government consultation announcements. It’s possible to search for these, and generate email alerts and RSS subscriptions, via Tell Them What You Think. A list of government department consultation websites can also be found on Direct Gov: list of Government consultation websites. (To make that list a little more portable, I popped it onto my doodlings area of WriteToReply; WTR: Government consultation websites; and courtesy of the magic of the theme we run there, it’s easy enough to get an RSS feed out with each department listed as a separate item (although rather than resolving to the consultation web page URLs, the feed links point back to the corresponding paragraph on Doodlings): some sort of feed of Government consultation websites.)

If each of those consultation websites published an autodiscoverable RSS feed containing the currently open consultations (and maybe even made that data available as a calendar feed as well, with consultation opening and closing dates specified), it would be simple for aggregating services like Tell Them What You Think, or announcement services like a Direct Gov “New Consultations” feature, to consume and re-present this information in an alternative context.

(Note that consultation websites should also be making consultation information available on consultation web pages in a machine readable way using RDFa. E.g. see @lesteph’s Adding RDFa to a consultation.)

Any changes to website design – changes that break the screenscraping routines used by many services like Tell Them What You Think – would be able to continue operating as long as the RSS feed URLs remained unchanged. (Of course, it might be that aggregating services parse the content of RSS feeds in particular ways to extract structured information from them, essentially scraping the feed contents, so in those cases, if the way feed content was presented were to change, the services would still break…)

Anyway, to return to the draft Public Data Principle I opened this post with, RSS (and related protocols such as Atom) can go a long way towards helping achieve the aim that “[p]ublic bodies should not require people to come to their websites to obtain information”.

Using WriteToReply Documents as the Basis for Discussion in a Meeting Room Setting

One of the things I experimented with a long time ago was the ability to use an RSS feed to power a presentation (e.g. Feedshow Link Presenter – Testing Audience Synch). The idea was that that you should be able to bookmark a set of webpages using a social bookmarking tool, and then take the RSS feed of those bookmarked links and use it to drive a presentation; the presentation itself would be a walkthrough of the bookmarked pages.

Anyway, not so long ago, the Delicious social bookmarking service started to offer a similar service: Browse These Bookmarks, so that’s all well and good..:-)

One of the things that I had on the Feedshow Presenter to do list (and I’m not sure whether I ever coded this up or not) was to be able to display any description text saved with a bookmark before showing the contents of the bookmarked page. This in turn suggests another way of using a feed powered presentation tool – as a vehicle simply for displaying text elements from an RSS feed in a presentation like format.

Now I know that death by Powerpoint is often brought on by text heavy slides, but sometimes you may need to chat around text; and sometimes, splashing the text you want to talk around on a screen might be a handy thing to do…

Enter Google Reader Play, a tool that does exactly that – give it an RSS feed, and it will let you present one feed item at a time. Like this:

Google reader play

So what I’m thinking is, if you want to talk around a document, then maybe talking around the document at a paragraph level is a handy thing to be able to do.

And a good place to find paragraph level feeds is from something like WriteToReply…

So for example, if you look at the Digital Economy Act on WriteToReply, and go to a particular page such as, you can get an RSS feed from that page by constructing a URL of the form

(Note there’s a minor glitch at the moment – the title of the feed itself is incorrect…)

So to discuss each paragraph in turn from that page, all we need to so is view the feed in Google Reader Play.

To make things easier, I’ve created a couple of bookmarks (bootstrapped from my “Get Current URL” pattern bookmarklet generator).

Firstly, given any RSS feed, here’s a bookmarklet for viewing it in Google Reader Play:

javascript:(function(){ window.location=''+encodeURIComponent('/'+window.location.href);})()

Secondly, given a page from a document hosted on WriteToReply, (not the RSS feed – the actual page; such as this one) this bookmarklet will construct the paragraph level page feed and pass it to Google Reader Play:

javascript:(function(){ u=window.location.href.replace(/(.*\/[^\/]*)\/(.*)/,"$1/feed/paragraphlevel/$2"); window.location=''+encodeURIComponent('/'+u);})()

So there you have it, another way of supporting discussion around documents hosted on WriteToReply :-) – Like, But With Ratings Rather than Comments?

A couple of weeks ago, whilst dozing to the ITConversations podcast channel, I started daydreaming around the conversation that was going on in the Mitch Ratcliffe / episode of Phil Windley’s Technometria podcast.

The discussion was on the topic of the future of the book, particularly with respect to annotating books and ebooks (in a manner similar to the way we support paragraph level comments in WriteToReply).

Annotating text with text (such as comments) requires quite a lot of effort on the part of the reader/annotator, and is perhaps one reason why it can be quite hard getting folk to engage with commenting static documents (I’m sure there are lots of other factors, too! ;-)

So if we think of things like the Community Engagement Pyramid:

Yahoo Engagement pyramid

or the Social Technographics Ladder of Participation:

Social Technographics Ladder

then we see that there are various levels of engagement by – and participatory effort required from – visitors to a web site.

If we consider documents published on WriteToReply, one of the things we hope to facilitate is discussion around particular areas of the document. Lively discussions – lots of comments on a particular paragraph, or section – is one way of generating a signal that highlights “interesting” areas of a document. Web traffic analytics showing large amounts of traffic to, and reasonable dwell times on, particular pages provides another source of “interestingness” information; and so on.

But are we missing a trick?

Way back in the days when I used to print out lots of reading material, I used to skim read documents (even then!) and mark paragraphs that were somehow important with a vertical line in the margin so that I could easily return to them, or fold a page corner to “bookmark” a particular page or section. Occasionally, I would also scrawl notes in the margin, or underline particular paragraphs. But the turned page corners and the lines in the margin were the most efficient ways (for me) of marking the important parts of a text so that I could then refer to them in detail at a later time.

The commenting came later…

So what might a corollary be in WriteToReply? Each paragraph has a unique URI, so it would be possible to bookmark interesting paragraphs either within the browser, or using a social bookmarking tool such as delicious. Hovering over the linked paragraph number raises a pop up containing the text of the paragraph and a link to it (Note to self: clicking in the link box should automatically select all the text???)

Clicking through on a bookmarked link takes you to the page the paragraph exists on with the bookmarked paragrah highlighted:

If single item RSS/JSON feeds for each uniquely identified paragraph are enabled, it is straightforward (in Javascript at least) to render a page containing just the content from a list of the bookmarked paragraphs.

But what other low effort routes to engagement are there that might help an individual keep track of areas of a document they may want to return to, or that might allow the crowd sourced discovery of “interesting” areas of a document? How about ratings? How about a complement to the paragraph level commenting that the WordPress theme we use on WriteToReply offers that offers paragraph level ratings?

And in the same way that is capable of generating comment streams for each commenter, how about a similar facility that would allow me to look at all the paragraphs, sections or pages that I have commented, sorted either in the order they appear in the document, or additionally by the number of stars I have rated them?

When I read long documents, I do it in an iterative fashion. At the moment, we don’t necessarily make that very easy to do – or obvious how to do it. Maybe a ratings based approach would help?

PS the source code for the theme is available from the WordPress plugins page under a GPL version 2 license. If you fancy creating a complementary “” theme using ratings rather that comments, post a comment here ;-)

Amplification Tracking – Stats

As I find less and less people linking to and more and more traffic coming from twitter, it struck me that I needed another source of ego boost juice. So here’s one… how many people click through on links I share on Twitter?

One easy way of tracking this is to use If you get yourself a account, you’ll find it also comes with an API key (you can find it on your account page). This can be used in some Twitter clients (I use Tweetdeck) to generate a short URL that can be tied back to your account. (Configure Tweetdeck by going to Settings, and then looking for the Services tab, where you’ll find a slot to enter your API key.)

So what sorts of stats do you get back? Summary ones like these:

and these:

and more useful conversation tracking stats at the link level, like this:

You’ll notice for this link that several URIs have been minted for the same web page (the total number of clicks exceeds the number of clicks from my link). So I can track the extent to which the link I generated drove traffic, either directly from my tweet or other folk retweeting the link (or sharing it on without referencing @psychemedia back), or from other folk who generated a shortened link to the same post.

Let’s see who those people might be, in the context of the conversations surrounding this shortened link (and other variants that resolve to the same page):

So what’s all this good for? A couple of things spring to mind:

1) tracking conversation around posts that are reference the post via a short link;

2) monitoring the extent to which I have managed to amplify a post, by virtue of the number of people who have clicked on it;

3) monitoring the extent to which other people have in turn amplified the link I minted;

4) identifying other conversations around the same linked to web page via other URIs that resolve to the same web page.

I can’t think why I didn’t sign up to sooner?

PS note to self – how might we make use of this in a WriteToReply context?

PPS could this info be used as part of a “link community” tracker, cf. hashtag communities?

Comment on “Wanted: consultation platform, £1m reward”

[What follows is a republished comment I made to Simon Dickson’s Puffbox post Wanted: consultation platform, £1m reward about the recently announced competition that the Consrvative Party might run to source a citizen’s platform if they win the forthcoming, and as yet unannounced, election.]

I’d noticed the call when it came out too via some of the press coverage it raised, but being offline over the holiday couldn’t dig much further.

A full copy of the original press release appears to have been posted but a more detailed brief is still lacking (maybe they should have posted a wiki to let the crowds develop the brief? ;-) – it seems like we’ll have to wait till after the election – and presumably a Tory victory? – before that appears, if this quote is anything to go by: “the specifications that we will be publishing alongside the official opening of the competition following the election”

As to the vague mention of “an online platform that enables large scale collaboration”, I’m not sure what that means either, in several different senses?

Technically, would a WordPress extension or WordPress/Mediawiki configuration count, that could be deployed across departments, local councils and/or initiatives, maybe automatically generating related links between then? Or “to win” would a hosted 1-click WPMU installation that could launch a pre-extended/pre-configured site be the sort of submission that’s required?

Benefits wise, what would a successful community collaboration result in? A popular idea floating to the top of a voting pile (but how would that feed into the policy development or consultation process?) A flexible data powered platform (like Geocommons or Many Eyes) that provided people with access to data that could inform, support or deny the ideas that are put forward on a suggestions part of the platform? (An loosely coupled system of independent apps might suit that approach better? In which case, might a particular orchestration of independent systems/APIs qualify as a prizewinning entry, (though it would probably require a shiny interface to win!;-)

One of the things we tried (albeit largely unsuccessfully) around the Digital Britain Interim Report was the Fake Report on a wiki Wikipedia has shown that it is possible to collaboratively author documents, with each wiki content page showing a consensus NPOV view (sometimes!) and the related Talk page capturing elements of the discussion and rationale for why the content page is as it is. It may be that for developing policy documents, this diptych/dual view approach would capture a an argument in a more convenient way than a list of comments?

(One thing I’d like to explore is whether a Commentpress style theme could be used to pull wiki talk elements in to a wiki page as comments/discussion at a section level. As well as working for policy document formulation, a similar approach might also be useful as an authoring tool for closed communities, such as standards authoring (e.g. BSI Drafts ) or drafting Government bills.)

Votes are another way of compressing opinion, as is sentiment analysis, in order to summarise a large body of comment in order for it to be usable by the poor sod charged with the task of taking on board the opinions of the masses!

Or maybe you need a platform that can offer something to, and draw from, a wide range of visitor types: folk who might cast a vote but not comment, or comment but engage in discussion?

PS This reminds me of an essay I never did gt round to writing about the structure and role of state sponsored grand challenges and prize challenges in driving innovation in a particular direction (notes)

PPS in the short term, how about a comment platform for party manifestos as and when they appear, maybe on, I dunno, WriteToReply? ;-)

Thoughts on JISCPress

As we come to the final month of the JISCPress project, we had some great news over on WriteToReply last week where we were able to announce that Eduserv would be covering our hosting costs for the immediate future (Eduserv funds hosting for WriteToReply, eFoundations: Write To Reply).

So what exactly does the platform we’ve been working on have to offer? Here’s one of the ways I think of it…

A document publishing platform that automatically atomises documents to the paragraph level, allows aggregated commenting at the paragraph and ‘user’ level, and supports the republication and re-presentation of documents in a variety of standard formats at the document level.

The first part of the process is the (manual assisted) ingress stage, in which documents are imported into the WordPress environment such that each substantive document section ideally maps onto a single WordPress “blog post”:

An RSS for the document as a whole, with one item per section, is generated automatically by the WordPress platform. A single item RSS feed is also generated for each page (so the content of each page can be easily transported around the web).

The second part of the process is the atomisation of each post, carried out automatically by the Digress.It theme, in which each paragraph in the document is given its own unique URI, derived from the URI of the web page (“blog post”) the paragraph appears on:

Potentially, an RSS feed can also be produced for each page in which each paragraph is a separate feed item, thus allowing a page/section to be transported around the web via a single feed, but in atomised form.

The paragraph level chunks produced by the atomistation process can be transcluded as independent elements in independent web documents in other documents by a variety of means (as an embeddable object, via XML, txt, JSON, etc):

The default nature of the WordPress platform allows comments to be made at the level of each web page, with an RSS feed of comments for each page being published ‘for free’. JISCPress extends this functionality by allowing comments to be associated with discrete paragraphs. Views over the comments are also available at the user level, (that is, grouped according to the user who made the comments, wheresoever they are made in the document). An additional RSS fed of comments by user is also available, which means that a document on the platform can actually be used as a scaffold for a critical response to the document by a particular user.

A further level of innovation is based on the automated generation of ‘semantic tags’ at the page level. Once generated, tag based collections of posts can be syndicated in the normal way via WordPress generated tag based RSS feeds:

JISCPress also benefits from the Trackback mechanism implemented by WordPress. When a page or paragraph URI is linked to from a third party web page, a trackback to the originating page may be captured, which we interpret as the automated capture of links remote annotations or comments about the document.

When considered in these terms, the JISCPress/WriteToReply platform is seen to provide a powerful means of publishing documents in which individual sections may carry their own unique URI, and individual paragraphs within a section also contain their own unique URI (which in many situations may be rooted on the section URI).

The platform can also be regarded as republishing – or re-presenting – each section (i.e. page) and each paragraph as an independent entity. That is, whenever a document is published via the platform, each separate paragraph may also be thought of as being independently published “for free”, in the sense that:

– each paragraph is independently addressable,
– each paragraph is independently commentable, and
– each paragraph is independently republishable/syndicatable.

So, given that, can you think of any ways in which the JISCPress/WriteToReply platform can support your document publishing and comment gathering strategy?