Creative Conversations in DC

Philippa Hughes @ Luster art show

A shout-out to Hoogrrl, a.k.a. Philippa Hughes, a writer’s group friend of mine who has since gone on to fame as a local promoter of the arts.  While she calls herself a flaneur, she’s very dedicated in her coverage of the local arts scene and in bringing creative folks together.

I was at her event, Salon Contra at Gazuza, last night.  Billed as a “creative conversation”, it definitely was as artists, musicians, photographers, writers and others mingled in a hip environment, fueled by happy hour mojitos and appletinis.

Go Philippa!

How Accessible is Web 2.0?

powerbook on porch

Last week, I attended a seminar on the accessibility of web 2.0 technologies at the IDEAS conference.  IDEAS 2007 is the Federal government’s annual conference on Section 508, presented by the GSA.  Here are my meeting notes:

How Accessible is Web 2.0?
Web 2.0 technologies and hosted services such as wikis, podcasts, social networking, and blogs, are shaping how government does business, including how their employees communicate and collaborate and how they interact with the public. During this session, experts discussed accessibility aspects of these technologies.

Mary Mitchell (moderator from GSA)
Jared Smith (Web Accessibility in Media)
Phill Jenkins (IBM)
Lisa Pappas (AccessAbility SIG of the Society for Technical Communication)

Phil spoke on “The 3D Internet” and the challenges that this presents usability practitioners.  How do you make 3D environments, like Second Life (SL), accessible for everyone?  There are no Sec. 508 standards for the 3D Internet.  The standards were written for the 2D, left to right, top to bottom, linear world of text web pages.  Automated screen readers can cope with these pages.  However, how would a screen reader deal with a 3D world like Second Life?  There’s too much data.  How much of this world would a screen reader describe?  SL is very mouse-driven and visual, which makes it difficult also for seniors.  Deaf people would need captions for videos and sounds.  Another solution might be to have avatar guides for the blind, to help them navigate SL.

Jared spoke on “Rich Internet Applications”.  He began by describing the differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.  Web 1.0 is static content, links for more information, forms you fill out, things you click on.  Web 2.0 is dynamic content with real-time updates, things you drag, user-centric and user-generated.  Google Maps is a great example of a Web 2.0 app.  Flickr is another good example – it pushes updates from your friends onto your Flickr page.  Digg, a collaborative news service, is another good example.  In the Web 2.0 world, content is often divorced from design.  For example, if you’re reading an RSS feed from a web site in Google Reader, you don’t get that site’s look and feel.  Content is on the HTML level, then design is applied with CSS, then interactivity though Ajax.  This separation of content from design makes accessibility easier.

Lisa discussed the development of accessibility standards for “Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA)”.  ARIA standards are in the works.  These standards will provide semantic information for readers and other features, like keyboard shortcuts.  Firefox 3 will support these standards.  They’re also developing a best practices guide for developers.  In terms of accessibility, Web 2.0 applications should be evaluated as software, not web pages.

During question time, the subject of blogs and wikis came up.  The panelists were of the opinion that blogs and wikis presented no major accessibility problems, since they could be easily read by screen readers.

For more information, see the draft of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0:

Fall Foliage, Flickr and the Search for New Business Models

Flickr’s potential as a resource for photo editors everywhere has yet to be fully tapped. Though some more old school photogs may complain that Flickr has undercut the stock market, the world has changed. Cheap, easy to use DSLRs (like the Canon Digital Rebel XT that I own) have democraticized the expert culture of photography and made a universe of free photos available.  Changes like this make the stock photography business model no longer viable.

I’m certainly no expert, and I’m not sure I would even claim the title of “photographer.” I’m just someone who enjoys taking and sharing pictures. For this reason, I’m pleased whenever my Flickr photos get picked up by web sites, like the Go Blue Ridge Card Blog, which included one of my pics in their blog. I took the photo almost exactly a year ago, on the way back from a family vacation in Blowing Rock, NC. I was amazed by the colors, especially the reds, and did my best to capture what I saw from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Go Blue Ridge Card Blog is produced by Go Card USA.  What do they do?

Go Card USA produces all-inclusive attraction passes for 12 US Cities. Make the most of your vacation with a pass that gets you unlimited admission to top attractions for one low price.

In addition to the Blue Ridge Blog, they’re rolling out blogs for all of the cities they serve.  They also have a group on Flickr.  It’s a smart marketing strategy to use free or low-cost tools to get the word out about their product.

And, as someone who works in the web field, I’m really intrigued by these creative strategies and the possibilities of social media. I, personally, love Flickr and believe that its model of community photo-sharing is just getting started.

Comments on Government Blogs

Government agencies have been slow to embrace blogs.  The reason, IMHO, as a gov’t web site manager, is that government’s approach to content is different.  Government sites are held to a higher standard and subject to more reviews and requirements than commercial sites are.  Agencies are nervous about unmediated communication from official government sites.

For example, the site I work on, NOAA Ocean Explorer, has a YouTube channel.  On the channel we post cool videos of underwater exploration.  One early issue that came up was – what should we do about comments?  We didn’t want our videos to be swamped with comments filled with curses, links to porn sites and other inappropriate material.  However, we didn’t want to be accused of censorship (which has been an issue when it comes to science at NOAA).  Also, unfortunately, we don’t have the staff time to respond to comments.

So, we decided to turn off the comments.  This against my personal ethos of web 2.0 inclusion but in government, the rules are different.

There was an interesting article about DipNote, the State Department’s blog.  They allow comments and there’s been an interesting discussion about the role of women in Saudi Arabia.

Another leader in the field is the Library of Congress’s blog.  They have a very common-sense policy when it comes to comments from readers:

 “This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user’s privilege to post content on the Library site.”

So, government web sites are slowly coming around to the brave new world of blogging, which is really encouraging.

Eurabia Makes to Austin Second Round

My latest screenplay, EURABIA, made it to the secound round of the 2007 Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

EURABIA is a disturbing look at a possible future.  The year is 2027. America has lost the war on terror. Europe is controlled by radical Islam.  From the abandoned streets of New York to a Paris ruled by imams, we follow an unwilling hero as he’s forced into a plot to change the world.

Read the first ten pages online.

I'm Socially Conscious and Stuff

DCist used the photo above to illustrate a story on upcoming anti-war demonstrations. It’s from a couple years ago, during a previous anti-war march. I spied this fellow, and his nervous happiness, in the crowd. Funny – no one else seemed to notice what was actually on his sign. The important thing to the crowd, I guess, was that he was carrying a sign.

Ironically, if you read the comments to the DCist story, no one else saw the words on the sign either. There’s a message here somewhere. Are protests on signs like ads that we tune out?

Bike Theft – It's Personal

fall biker

A crazy story in The Washington Post about victims of bike thefts turning into vigilantes. Like the article says, people take this common type of theft very personally. I certainly did.

I wrote about my experience for the Post back in 2002. After my bike was stolen, I was pissed, and was sure that my bike was still somewhere in the neighborhood. I kept my eyes open and several months later, I spotted my bike leaning against a tree. Here’s my story.

What Do You Write With?

powerbooks at SXSW
People writing (maybe) at SXSW 2007.

This poll got me thinking about the endless debate (among writers and techies, that is) about the best word processing tool. As a writer, you think I would have a strong and absolute preference for one software program over another. After all, an easy to use writing tool is vitally important to my trade.

However, like most writers, I’ll write with whatever’s available, whether that’s a clay tablet, pen and paper, or software program outfitted with the latest features. Here’s what I’m using now:

Word 2004 for the Mac – you really can’t escape Word if you work in an office these days. Like Starbucks, it’s ubiquitous. I use it because it’s on my computer at work and I have to. I hate its constant, distracting whirr of activity, the noisy autosaves, the stupid autocompletes, the aggravating formatting issues.

TextEdit – a lovely little program, ideal for short bits of text to dump into web pages, email messages, Word docs and Scrivener (see below). It’s a perfect word processor for laptops because it’s not a resource hog. With it, I’ll write text for my novel that I then paste into Scrivener.

Google Docs – the successor to Word. Google is the company that will dominate our work lives like Microsoft once did. Deal with it. I use Google Docs for things I want access from home and work and to share with others. For example, I have a doc of furniture I want to buy, complete with links and photos.

Scrivener – a program that causes well-deserved spasms of joy among Mac novelists. Though it was created by a non-programmer, it’s a nearly perfect example of a Mac program. It keeps you organized and gets out of your way when you want to work. It’s doubled my productivity through it’s ease of use. I spend every weekend in it, working on my novel.

Pages – my next love. I took the first couple chapters out of my novel and dropped them into Pages. I quickly created a book cover and, my god, it looked like a real book! That’s inspiring.

For me at least, my workflow would go TextEdit -> Scrivener -> Pages.

However, all this debate over the perfect word-processing tool is a distraction, like discussions among photographers over lenses. In the past, I’ve written with incredibly primitive tools, like manual typewriters. What matters most is writing.

DC Shorts in September!

Mark your calendars.  DC Shorts is returning September 13-20.  Like last year, the action will take place downtown at E Street Cinema.  This year, we will present 89 films and 7 live script performances, culled from 14 countries.  I say “we” because I was one of the script judges.

Also check out Rough Cut, the City Paper’s blog covering the event.

Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement

Yesterday, I attended the Web Managers Roundtable at the Grosvener Auditorium at National Geographic.  The Roundtable is a monthly get together of web managers from around Washington, sponsored by Aquent, Omniture and other companies.  The subject of the talk was “Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement.”

Betsy Scolnik, President of National Geographic Digital Media, provided the introduction to the main speaker, Jim Sterne. had 73 million visitors last year.  They overhauled all their sites in the last two years, investing in major hardware and software upgrades.

Jim Sterne then presented on “Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement.”  Sterne has written six books on Internet advertising, marketing and customer service.  He is also is the producer of the annual Emetrics Summit  (in DC, Oct 14-17) and is the founder of the Web Analytics Association.  He’s been involved in web marketing since the beginning – I saw him speak way back in 1998.

He defined marketing optimization as measured, incremental improvement.  You examine the data, see what’s working, and adjust your site accordingly.  “If you treasure it, measure it,” in his words.  With web analytics, you can test strategy and messaging on your site.

He believes that we’re just at the beginning of the web analytics evolution.  Web sites are swimming in data on visits, page views, click-throughs, etc…  And now, with services like Omniture, Web Trends and Google Analytics, that data is easier than ever to access and present.  But the question is, what questions do we want answered?  Which numbers matter and what actions do we take based upon them?

The good thing is that this data eliminates decisions made in a smoke-filled room or by the whim of a CEO (“I want a red button.”)  Everything can be measured now.  With A/B testing, you can try two different versions of the same web page and see which performs better.  With multivariate testing, you can try multiple elements on the same web page in several different versions and examine the results.  Companies are also adjusting their offers based upon user behavior – think how Amazon changes their home page based upon what you buy or look at.
Smart companies are using this information to gain insight into consumer behavior.  There’s a marked difference between what people say they do (“I exercise regularly.”) versus what they actually do (“I never miss a happy hour.”)

Why does this matter?  Because the Internet is where people learn about your organization, it’s where you’re defined.  Consumers don’t know the different parts of your organization.  They expect messaging to be coordinated across all media – web, print, call center, etc… And they want you to speak to them in their language.

Brendan Hart and Ted McDonald from then discussed their marketing analytics efforts.  Sterne was theory; they were reality.  In their view, marketing optimization is an art and a science, since consumer behavior is constantly changing.  They’ve focused on a set of Key Performance Indicators.  Out of the wealth of data available, they suggest following the numbers that are most relevant to you – visitors, page views, time spent on site, newsletter signups, orders, etc…  To do so, they use Omniture with an Excel plugin to produce weekly traffic reports.  These reports are distributed across the organization and people are trained in how to understand the data.  Content is adjusted accordingly.  For example, they expanded a section on the “Seven Wonders of the World” that proved to be popular.

Overall, the philosophy they’ve followed is Strategize, Optimize, Monetize.  For example, they tried out a “subscribe” button on their home page and then changed the color and made it bold, because it performed better this way, and led to more subscriptions.

What was interesting was the divergence between theory and practice.  Sterne is right – web analytics are a powerful tool.  However, these tools still require humans to examine the data and take action based upon their interpretations of that information.