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Cambridge Corn Exchange: new theatre website launched

Cambridge Corn Exchange: new theatre website launched

 If you build it, he will come.

That famous line from the Hollywood film Field of Dreams summarises the digital strategy for the new Cambridge Corn Exchange website: to design and build a clear and effective website that appeals to both the general public and to the seasoned theatre-goer. 

The new website is sponsored by the City Council and forms an integral part of our contract to design and build new Internet sites and a new corporate Intranet site for the Council. All sites are built within the Drupal development framework and like all the sites the Corn Exchange website includes a fully integrated CMS allowing theatre staff to update the website easily and quickly. [more]

Of particular importance to the administrators was the ability to quickly and efficiently publicise content about new confirmed acts, new dates and additional performances and to publish that content simultaneously across a number of web channels including the website and various social media networks 

This integrated approach to content management ensures that unique features of the website such as the calendar, the ‘Just confirmed’ and ‘Latest News’ section, the ‘What’s On’ page and each show’s unique landing page are easy to maintain and are easy to access and navigate by the visitor to the website.

Alongside the Council’s corporate website the Corn Exchange’s new website is hosted on our servers as part of an expanding hub of Council websites designed, built and customised within the Drupal development framework. Both the Council’s web team and our own development team can directly access the CMS that supports the websites in the hub allowing us to provide a high quality, responsive and efficient maintenance and support service.

In addition the terms of our Software as a Service model also gives the Council direct and inclusive access to any updates and improvements we make to the Drupal development hub, ensuring that the Council’s in-house web team is keeping pace with how to implement great new user experiences coming out of the Drupal development community. 

South Cambs DC: A corporate website that saves time and money

South Cambs DC: A corporate website that saves time and money

Before Christmas 2012 we completed the first phase of a 3 year contract to redesign, build, support and help to maintain South Cambridgeshire District Council’s corporate Internet and Intranet sites.

The new corporate website (click here or the image to visit the website) was launched on 17th December 2012 and marks a key stage in our use and development of Drupal, the open source content management and web development platform. [more]

One of the key features of the new website is a design and layout to encourage residents and businesses to use the ‘self service’ facilities that are available online and to undertake transactions over the web rather than over the telephone or face-to-face in Council offices around the district. The new online facilities accessed via the website are expected to save the Council thousands of pounds per year with estimates showing that a transaction carried out online costs an average of 15p per transaction while an equivalent transaction costs £8 if the customer needs to visit a Council office.

The new Home page for the Council website provides a focal point for the thinking behind how the website has been designed and built with priority given to user engagement and guided interaction as highlighted by the key phrases: Pay For It, Apply For It and Report It. The website forms an integral part of a series of improvements being made by the Council to enhance its award-winning customer care services.

Customer care is at the heart of how we are providing our services under the 3 year contract. The contract is based on the same model we use for our Software as a Service that covers a range of web-based software we have developed over the years. The South Cambs web team have been an integral part of the project team from day one. In addition to regular on-site meetings their direct input is managed via our ticketing system that allows them to view, report and assess on how the project is progressing and comment on individual features and functions of the website as they are developed and tested.

We will be providing full on-site training to the Council’s web team in the website’s CMS and will continue to provide ongoing support and maintenance over the course of the contract as the corporate website and its CMS reside on our servers.

The next phase of the project, to build the new corporate Intranet site, is already well under way and is also being built using Drupal. We’ll let you know more about that project on the Portal so keep coming back!

On Your Bike!: New mobile app for mountain biking launched

On Your Bike!: New mobile app for mountain biking launched

Last Saturday we launched our first iPhone app on behalf of Denbighshire County Council. It’s part of the suite of web and mobile applications we’ve developed for the Ride North Wales brand (click here for the main website) that promote North Wales as an exciting hub for on and off-road cyclists of all levels of ability. The hub covers routes and amenities through the Conwy Valley, Hiraethog and the Clwydian Range.

The app is free and can be downloaded from the iTunes website if you click here. The app builds on the data and content in the central database and CMS that supports the main website and features routes shown on the native mapping of the iPhone and on Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping.  

The OS route maps have been optimised for use in conjunction with the iPhone’s GPS which means that even if cyclists can’t connect to the Internet to see routes on Apple maps they will be able to use the GPS in conjunction with the bundled OS route maps. In addition there are route cards that can be downloaded as further back-up.

The app also features places to eat and stay, local hire shops and bike facilities as well as location points for tourist information, first aid and public transport. 

Plans are already in place for version 2.0 but with the launch of verion 1.0 we’re hoping to get some user feedback to help us refine and prioritise some of our ideas and technical solutions. [more]

There are also plans to extend the Ride North Wales hub to include graded road cycling routes in addition to the Easy, Moderate, Hard and Very Hard mountain biking routes already mapped. The development team are also looking at improving how the interactive maps can carry more information via waymarkers on the route maps and a function to help cyclists and app users identify what amenities are in their proximity while on or near the route.

This is an exciting development for us at the Portal so we’d welcome any feedback either via the blog or the iTunes store!

Managing Petitions and Pro-Forma Representations during Consultations

Managing Petitions and Pro-Forma Representations during Consultations

Talking to our Local Authority customers one of the most time-consuming submissions they receive and administer during a public consultation is a petition.

Typically a petition will fall into two types:

  • A true petition: i.e. one document or letter containing multiple signatories 
  • A pro-forma representation: i.e. multiple copies of the same document or letter containing individual signatories on each copy 

As part of our e-Consultation service we’ve developed a system that makes administering submissions, representations and responses in these two formats more efficient and less time-consuming. [more]

The true petition is simpler to administer. If the petition is a single document all the signatories can be assigned in the e-Con system to this document as part of a single submission. The petition is assigned in the e-Con system to one person or to one agent who acts as the representative for all the signatories listed in the petition document. Consequently any responses made by the Council to the representations made within the submitted petition need only to be addressed directly to the lead representative/agent logged in the contact database within the administration system.

Even if the petition has been submitted on behalf of an organisation (such as a school, a Parish Council or a charity) an individual within that organisation must be identified in the administration system as the point of contact for ongoing communication with the Council. Our system allows you to identify how many signatories there are on the original petition and you can scan and store the original document in the system if the petition needs to be evidenced at any stage in the engagement/planning process.

The pro-forma representation is more problematic (and often more contentious!). Each copy of the letter is a unique submission and therefore each signatory is a unique point of contact to which a response by the Council must be addressed. As part of our ongoing support services we can help you to administer pro-forma representations and our advice for how to optimise the use of the administration system is as follows:

  1. Establish that all the letters submitted are identical (people could have added extra comments or changed them in some other way). Any that are different must be separated out and entered individually. 
  2. For all those submissions which are identical, for every person who has sent one in each one must be entered on to the contact database (there’s no way round this) so: 
  • Create a new Person Category for the pro-forma;
  • Add all the people to the database if they’re not already there; 
  • Assign all the people to this new Person Category. 

3. Create a new submission for one of the people and add however many representations are required. (Note that the pro-forma may contain many individual representations but they must all be entered under one submission)

4. Remove that person from the Person Category (to avoid duplication in the system)

5. Tell us the Person Category name and the ID of the first representation entered. 

At stage 5 we will clone the submission and all its representations to all the other people in that Person Category and create a blank Response record for each original representation which will be linked to all identical representations. Therefore each group of identical reps gets one blank response which is completed once by you and then automatically assigned to the relevant representation.

There is no additional charge for this service; it forms part of your annual support and maintenance agreement. But please take advantage of this service as it will save you time and money and reduce the risk of errors being entered or duplicated in the system.

Remember: if each signatory of the pro-forma representation has identified how they wish to be notified of the Council’s response the administration system can format the response for each Person Category as a response on the website, as an email or as a letter.

In adopting this approach the Council can ensure that the petition or pro-forma representation is treated objectively as a valid submission in the consultation process and not subjectively as a document that is perhaps intended to lobby or influence the Council in how it determines its policy or response to the issue being consulted upon.

DrupalCon Munich August 20-24th 2012

DrupalCon Munich August 20-24th 2012

DrupalCon is an international event that brings together the people who use, develop, design and support the Drupal platform. Drupal is an open source software package that allows us to organize, manage and publish content with its CMS capabilities but also to customise and develop user interfaces and applications with its development framework capabilities.

Tom and Jason attended DrupalCon Munich last month and between them attended 26 curated sessions and panels that covered a wide range of issues within both the Drupal7 core and the contributed portfolio of modules. The event was timely as at JDi Solutions we are currently building corporate-level Internet AND Intranet sites for two Local Authorities. [more]

One of the key themes to emerge from the various sessions was how Drupal supports Web Experience Management. Web Experience Management is the buzz phrase for how the content and structure of websites is increasingly focused on creating and enhancing the user experience, both for site visitors and for site administrators. As more Local Authorities look to provide more services over the web so expectations rise from visitors that they can access these services from any device with an internet connection. Cisco predicts that by 2016 over half of data downloads will be from mobile devices with further predictions that PCs will account for only 18% of consumer internet traffic in the same year. (Source)

Against this backdrop of more sophisticated mobile devices, platforms and channels there is a need for external and internal web platforms to be more robust and sustainable to support such a dynamic portfolio of web-based services and communication channels and to ensure that the user experience is consistently of a high quality across any device or platform. One of the key reasons why we chose Drupal over other open source software is its level of customisation which allows us to tailor websites and user interfaces to the unique requirements of both the site visitor and the site administrator.

We’ll be posting more on our Drupal projects and R&D over the coming weeks and months and explaining more about how we are combining Web Experience Management with our core hosted services and software products.

PRESS RELEASE: Planning Consultations – Keeping it local but sharing the load

PRESS RELEASE: Planning Consultations – Keeping it local but sharing the load

JDi Solutions has won a contract to provide two West Suffolk Councils with their e-Consultation system and interactive mapping system under a unique joint collaboration licence. For the next 3 years St. Edmundsbury and Forest Heath Councils’ Planning Policy teams will be able to operate the systems both independently and collaboratively in support of their planning policy consultation programmes.

JDi Solutions provides its e-Consultation and mapping systems via a hosted Software As A Service (SaaS) licensing model which means that planning officers and technicians from either Council can access the systems 24/7 from any computer in any location through a standard web browser with Internet access.

More details about the contract are available in the attached press release (PDF file)

WestSuffolkpressrelease.pdf (102.22 kb)

Virtual Teams: Collaborating over the web

Virtual Teams: Collaborating over the web

One of the key benefits our clients enjoy from using our hosted software services has been their ability to access our software – and therefore their data and projects – from any computer in any location 24/7. This level of access has meant that individuals can now work in teams that are not necessarily all located in the same office or even in the same town or Local Authority! 
Web-enabled technologies such as our e-Consultation, interactive mapping and content management systems all lend themselves to Local Authorities looking to increase IT efficiencies and cost savings by sharing software and the workloads associated with using that software.

However, working in ‘Virtual Teams’ presents new challenges to how people meet the demands of their workflows and workload particularly when other team members are not in the same room or building as them. Not all of these challenges can be met by technology alone.
Ian Fleming, author of The Virtual Teams Pocketbook, provides an overview at The Web Publishing Portal of what makes a good virtual team. Ian has spent his career working in organisations helping teams and individuals develop their potential and cope with change. The result is a wealth of practical knowledge and experience that he shares with others who may face similar situations. [more]

Virtually – the way forward

Whilst the benefits of team working have been known for many years, a new type of team is evolving. A team often put together using the best skills available, across a variety of locations, organisations or continents – yet one that may never meet.

With the advances in technology, the globalisation of business and the need to create products in shorter time pressures, new ways of working started to develop. Virtual Teams (VTs) started to appear in the language of organisations during the 1990’s. They weren’t planned; they simply evolved.

Now the best brains plus skilled people and companies with complimentary interests and experiences are finding creative ways to respond to business challenges and market opportunities.

Whilst the case for Virtual Team working is well made – i.e. costs, time, sharing knowledge etc – it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that:

Virtual Teams are like normal teams with people based in different places

Whilst this has some truth, much of what we know about teams is based on learning gained in face-to-face situations. Virtual Teams demand a different range of skills.

All teams need leaders and a worthwhile goal to aim for, plus an effective way of working, but in addition VTs face the task of building unity within a group of people who may rarely – if ever – meet and work across time zones. So, don’t make the mistake of simply transferring what you know about teams to new virtual situations.

Virtual Teams are all about technology

Wrong. Whilst technology plays a major part on how teams operate, success comes from applying inspirational leadership, developing trust, blending the skills available and encouraging both participation and accountability. It’s the human side of getting people to co-operate and work together that is key. Don’t fall into the trap of getting obsessed with technology – people make teams successful and not machines.

Virtual Teams will always work if they have the best people.

No team is guaranteed success. Even picking the best players doesn’t ensure you’ll be successful – as we see with national sports teams.

Teams fall short of their potential for many reasons from setting unrealistic goals and expectations to a failure of the leader to inspire their followers.

Many VTs have people from different countries and cultures (in simple terms culture being ‘the way people behave’). If the challenges this presents aren’t recognised and allowed for, then the team is likely to hit problems.

Remember that your contact with each other may be remote, but that you are dealing with human beings. You each have feelings; needs, hopes and aspirations that you want met.

So instead of emailing, pick up the phone and talk to people.

Also don’t undervalue the impact of saying thanks to people – not only when things go well but especially in difficult times. It’s easy to feel isolated and your efforts ignored.

Finally, enjoy it – virtual working is here to stay.

(If you want to know more about VTs and how to make them successful, then post your questions on line. Should you have your own experiences – good or bad – then please share them.)


Why SEO your website?

Why SEO your website?

I remember reading a quote around 8 years ago, sadly I cannot remember where but it went something like this;

“Submission prior to Optimization is much like entering a motorcycle race with a bicycle.”

It was a neat way to sum up why any website needs to be optimised for search engine performance and considering that the number of sites now available on the Internet has grown a hundredfold since this quote, it becomes more relevant today.

Imagine if you opened a shop. Your shop is not on the main drag of the high street and so won’t have high incidental footfall. Therefore would your shop survive without finding a way of telling people it is there? Probably not.

Having a website is exactly the same. Simply to build a fancy website with all your information clearly displayed is not enough to get traffic to pass through it. Submitting that site to a search engine without any optimisation will leave it flagging on page forty, along with the clumps of tumbleweed whistling down the list. Nobody goes there, nobody cares what’s on page forty. Indeed no-one really cares what’s on page four of the results pages – if it isn’t in the first three pages of listings it may as well not be there at all. [more]

You have to provide a way for your website to hold its hand up in the air and shout; “I have what you are looking for”. You must give the search engines a way to spot your website in a vast crowd, as one that offers the very thing that their customer has just typed into its search box. And the only way to do that is by SEO. Search Engine Optimisation – by someone who understands how it works.

Having said that, SEO is not rocket science and there is no need to be intimidated by People Who Know – because there are optimisation companies out there who make outrageous promises in the hopes of taking advantage of people who don’t really know. Here are some of my ‘favourites’;

We can get you to the top of the listings in Google. 

We guarantee thousands of hits for your website.

We will ensure hundreds of links coming into your site.

Sounds good doesn’t it? Over the years many of my clients have nearly fallen for such glowing promises of these agencies, but all it takes is to point out what’s not being said. The top of Google for what search term and for how long? Hits are okay but what about actual visitors? Will those links be reciprocal and/or produced via software (neither of which are taken into consideration by Google)? Suddenly the holes start to appear and you begin to feel as if this company is trying to hoodwink you – and they are! Do not spend your money with them.

However, there are many very good Search Engine Optimisers out there, just be sure you employ a reputable one. Look for recommendations and reasonable goals for your site. Finding a company that uses what is becoming known as White Hat tactics – tactics that fall within the rules and are honest ways of promoting your website – and you’ll be fine. 

Better still learn to do it yourself. There is no-one who knows your business and website better than you, and you are in the best position to research and learn what your potential customers are typing into Google, for example, to look for a company like yours. There is no mystery to optimizing your pages, there is a lot of free direction and support on the Internet, and a little effort into your SEO will pay dividends in terms of your website’s visibility once you have released it into the ether.

If you would like an article on the basics of SEO then let us know and we’ll get one online for you on the Web Publishing Portal.

Google Maps: Where next for the online mapping revolution?

Google Maps: Where next for the online mapping revolution?

The arrival of Google Maps in 2004 heralded a new era in mapping and in particular how people and organisations thought about the way mapping could be used on the web. Static, pixellated tiles of maps in raster formats were no longer good enough, people wanted interaction and more control over what their maps displayed and how they related to other important media such as documents, databases and imagery. Organisations had been there before offering interactive mapping but no-one had done it so boldly and so ubiquitously as Google.

It’s possible to be both supportive and critical of Google Maps, sometimes in the same breath.  One of the main benefits from Google entering the world of mapping has been the exponential rise in user demand for interactive maps and in the expectations of organisations in how they use maps to communicate and inform online. On the B2B scale small businesses like ourselves have been able to tap into that user demand by offering organisations either a map solution built with the Google Map API or an alternative solution based on open source technologies, implementing comparable features and functions but using alternative map sources such as Ordnance Survey mapping. [more]

You could say that we have a foot in both camps – non-proprietary and proprietary – but that was driven largely by customer demand. We love open source technologies and our own mapping software but we’re not slaves to it. As a small business we have to be pragmatic: it’s what our customers demand when they have a limited budget coupled with high expectations.  In certain quarters Google Maps is seen as a rogue; a corporate monopoliser less interested in mapping but more interested in the banner space above the map and the flow of traffic to its other products and services.

And therein lies a problem. The flip-side to the mass appeal of online interactive consumer mapping has been a perception that Google Maps unfairly dominates the market place. This threatened to come to some kind of a head in the UK when in 2010 the Ordnance Survey trailed (and then released in April 2011) its Public Sector Mapping Agreement (PSMA). There was confusion – particularly voiced by Local Authorities – about whether or not organisations could show data derived from an Ordnance Survey (OS) map over a Google Map. Perhaps fresh in some minds was the copyright infringement claim made by OS against the AA for using OS maps as source material in certain AA road atlases. That case was eventually settled out of court to the tune of £20M in 2001 but was this latest spat between OS and Google threatening to grow to a similar level of acrimony?

Despite some public discussion on the issue neither side appears to have come to a common understanding of what it means to put OS-derived data on a Google Map nor do they seem to have been willing to give a clear and definitive answer that draws a line under the issue. Informally and publically each party has claimed that their own interpretation of the “legalese” is correct and a stalemate is now in place which seems to suit both parties.

Interestingly Google’s recently revised Terms of Service may provide some kind of possible closure with the phrasing of the words “When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services..”as using the Google Map API doesn’t require data being “uploaded” or “submit[ted]” to Google. On the other side of the fence the advent of the Ordnance Survey’s OpenData products may have helped to push the issue further down the agenda with OS able to direct Local Authorities and other interested parties to a Plan B with its own range of ‘free to use’ map data rather than into a cul-de-sac with open-ended answers in response to closed questions about Google Maps.

In France it’s been a different story. Earlier this year a French cartographic company successfully sued Google Maps for its “unfair dominance” of the market place, convincing the commercial tribunal that Google’s strategy is to drive out domestic competition. Google says it will appeal but it raises the spectre of cartographic companies in other EC countries also following suit.

Possibly the real winner in the UK and elsewhere in the last couple of years has been Open Street Map (OSM)which is turning heads with the richness of its content and the growing impression that its own business model is sustainable in the long-term. More and more applications and software – predominantly open source – are being developed to work with OSM data and the upswing in moves to cloud computing means that OSM is able to position itself in such a way that people can deliver products and services online with comparatively low start-up costs. Then of course there is Bing Maps from Microsoft – a long-standing commercial operator in mapping and cartography – which is arguably a superior digital cartographic product with a better update cycle in the UK to that of Google.

The majority of multi-platform media – of which mapping is now a commodity with unique leverage – struggle to find a successful business model that delivers content and features users want but which will also generate revenue and even – shock, horror – the ultimate prize: a self-sustainable and non-subsidised profit. The Ordnance Survey has made arguments to this effect for not releasing products like MasterMap as part of its OpenData portfolio. If MasterMap, its mapping crown jewel, is made freely available the OS claims it will need to be subsidised by £30M per annum to cover the shortfall in economic benefits it provides the organisation.

Google Maps is going the other way, changing its business model with the instigation in October 2011 of charging for use of its API once a certain number of map loads have been reached. It’s something that many commentators had been anticipating for years and is indicative of a key trend in organisations offering online software services: start “free”, build up a user base, make those users dependent, then start to charge.

Somewhere along this spectrum of licensing and monetising mapping is a sweet spot that both supplier and consumer will be happy with, but where is it?

Google Maps and its API  has undoubtedly shaped the way we now view not only mapping but also technology itself. Mobile phones, for example, go so well with interactive maps. We need never be lost ever again. The interesting conundrum for Google is that with the range of alternative commercial and open source mapping products now available, often providing  clearer and less contentious licensing agreements for their use, it means that developers and organisations are no longer dependent upon using Google Maps or its API to provide either a local or a global picture or service online.

Google has been a commercial trailblazer, instigating unprecedented demand for online mapping and acting as a  catalyst in creating and shaping a global market for consumer mapping that provides real choices to the buyer both in terms of what map data to use and what technology is best suited to delivering that data. In the UK the monopoly of the OS has been broken if not the dependency for large-scale accurate ‘definitive mapping’.

Whilst Google has not been alone in driving mapping demand over the past decade their shake-up of the market place has made mapping an integral part of the way our understanding of the real and virtual world have been shaped. Google has changed our perceptions of mapping in a way that could only really have emerged alongside the explosion of the Internet. The key for businesses like ours is to harness those perceptions with a successful business model that delivers online products and services people want.


London Borough chooses Opus3 for LDF

London Borough chooses Opus3 for LDF

The London Borough of Barking & Dagenham has gone live with its LDF website, built using the Opus3 web publishing system for interactive maps and documents. To save money the Council opted to publish only the policy sections of its 5 LDF documents: Core Strategy, Joint Waste DPD, Borough wide DPP, Barking TC AAP and the Site Specific Allocations DPD. This concise publishing option for their documents hasn’t reduced the interactivity of the website with users able to link from the map to policies and vice-versa as well as link through to the complete documents in PDF format. The interactive proposals map includes address searching and both the Borough-wide Proposals Map and the Town Centre Area Action Plan are accessed within the same map interface so users can easily identify what policies are covered by what LDF Policy document. As part of the service package we’ll be providing updates to the map data from the Council’s GIS – via the Opus3 integrated CMS – as and when required over the next 3 years.

To view the website just click the image below: