Interactive Infographic: How To Handle The Media

Since 1988, Martin Banks and I have been running media skills training courses. Early on, we introduced an ‘architecture’ for the process. We drew it on flipcharts for a few years then, in 2004, we formalised it and started giving it out as part of our wallet-sized plastic business card. The model acts as an ‘aide memoire’ for all who’ve attended our training.


A few weeks ago, I was rummaging (as you do) some infographics – pictures that speak well over a thousand words – and took a shine to the interactive variety, where the graphic responds to the user’s actions.

I’d just been doing some training work with the Racepoint Group and, coincidentally, one of its US staff Kyle Austin wrote a blog post: Are Infographics the New Slide Shows?  Good point, I thought, having just taken someone through our ‘architecture’.

So I set to work to convert our flat image into something a little more lively. It’s aim is to refresh the memories of those who’ve attended our training and to give others an appreciation of how they might set about handling the media.

The first attempt was an animated .gif file with text boxes to expand on each element of the image. Horrible. Boring. Sequential. No user interaction. Didn’t lend itself to the web. Etc.

I wanted an interactive infographic that would work in more or less any browser and not depend on the presence of JavaScript, Flash or any other kind of plug-in. Just HTML and CSS. (I’d done some simple stuff before, here and here, so I was optimistic that it could be done.)

The second attempt was a graphic that the user could mouse over, highlighting image elements and showing the relevant text in a nearby box. The size was determined by my computer screen, which was a bit stupid because many of the people I’d like to share it with might have a smaller screen – an iPad for example.

So I reworked it with the iPad in mind. The hover can be achieved with a finger, even on the smallest graphical element. And while I was resizing everything, I added drop shadows and rounded corners to the text boxes.

If you’re interested, the end result is at How To Handle The Media


I hope you enjoy it.


PS If anyone wants the gory technical details of how to do this sort of thing, I’ll pen another post. Just ask.

Creating a book from a blog (unintentionally, for free)

Guy Kewney, who I’ve known for many years, kept a little-known blog from which he let rip on whatever was bugging him at the time. In the past year or so, a lot of his commentary was about the cancer – its symptoms and treatment – that claimed his life on April 8.

On March 1st, he wrote a particularly poignant entry which, in summary, showed that he’d finally given up hope. This gave me the idea of starting a tribute blog to which people could post comments and stories for Guy to enjoy while he still could. Guy read the blog comments until very close to the end.

Yesterday, his wife Mary wrote to me to say, “I could never explain to you what a positive thing it was for Guy. It was truly life changing.” Which is wonderful to hear. Thank you Mary.

After his death, the tributes poured in, many of which appeared online. These were duly listed and linked to in the blog. Eventually, things dried up and it seemed a good time to ‘freeze’ the blog.

I wanted to create a CD of the blog, but getting it out of Typepad in a way that it could be read and navigated easily without an internet connection was difficult, to put it mildly. Then I stumbled across a program called website2PDF from spidersoft in Australia. By providing a list of the pages, it created (as you may have guessed) a .pdf file of the blog.

At first it was 54 pages but, by removing the ‘recent comment’ list and tweaking the layout, it ended up as a 39-page 1MB file. The next step is to print it and bind it. The print quality looks good but the font is pretty small because the blog design doesn’t take advantage of the full width of the paper. I am still wrestling with that problem…

I had paid the publisher for a full licence, to see if I could gain more control over the pdf layout, but that’s yet to arrive. (I thought these things were automatic. And, no, it didn’t go to my spam folder.) I did the whole job with the free trial version which, I think, lasts for 15 days, but I can’t find that information anywhere.

Bottom line? It’s great that website2PDF does a good job of capturing website pages(doesn’t have to be a blog, by the way) to a pdf. You can choose to have hotlinks, automatic text and picture breaks, ActiveX, scripts and a host of different layouts. It was only $49, so it’s not a bank-breaking exercise and I felt it would have been worth it for this one job alone. But, of course, I do look forward to becoming a registered user because it’s sparked off some more ideas for easy eBook creation.


Update: After failing to extract a response from the author (4 emails) I raised a dispute ticket with PayPal. This prompted an instant response from the author. Apparently, the automated licence system had failed.

Financial and environmental savings with GoToTraining

Just over a year ago, a major IT company cancelled a training visit on environmental grounds. We’d done the event before. I (one of the trainers) had flown to the US West coast to conduct a module with 75 delegates who’d flown in from all over the world. It was madness really; I was only on stage for two hours.

But I was looking forward to doing it again, partly for the opportunity to mix with some immensely knowledgeable and bright people, partly for the opportunity to meet up with friends and partly, of course, for the hefty fee.

This was just the start of a wholesale reassessment of the way this particular company worked. Wherever possible, it started to replace travel with online communication of various kinds.

As the recession has bitten and budgets have come under pressure, companies are even more keen to cut the time and expense of travel, quite regardless of their environmental leanings. All of this was a great prelude to the launch of Citrix Online’s GoToTraining service. People still need to learn and a switch to online training can increase their exposure at a much lower cost, environmental or financial.

Of course, the trainers themselves need to feel comfortable with the facilities, even if they don’t feel comfortable with their loss of travel perks. Thinking that this might be the way some of my own training might go, I signed up for a trial of GoToTraining. (I was already familiar with several of the company’s other products and was quite well disposed to them.)

Professional e-Learning people might turn their noses up at this sort of thing. But Citrix Online’s solution is ‘good enough’ for many training encounters. It offers a repository for training materials – slide decks, images, videos, tests and evaluations, for example. It enables a trainer to put together an ‘event’ with invitations, reminder letters, dial in numbers (a free VoIP option works well on an appropriate connection), dates, reminder letters and suchlike. It took me less than ten minutes to set up a trial session using some existing slides, tests and appraisals.

Once into the training, the delegates are able to speak (or mute themselves), raise their hands, chat, use drawing tools and pointers (with permission) and even be handed control of the keyboard and mouse or even the session as a whole. The trainer can seize back control, of course. This all opens the possibility of a multi-way dialogue, if that’s what the session demands. It’s up to the trainer how interactive the sessions should become.

The delegates can be shown whatever’s on the trainer’s screen or what is in a particular window. In theory, this means that any application can be run but some, like video, might be better for the students to download and play locally, raising their digital hands, perhaps, when they’ve finished.

It’s easy to give delegates tests or polls during the training. The trainer can see when all the responses are in and could even call a timed break while they examine the responses and spot any misunderstandings which can then be dealt with after the break. The entire session can be recorded (it allows pauses) and uploaded to the website for others to view later; perhaps delegates who weren’t able to get to the session.

David Terrar (a SaaS/cloud specialist) kindly offered to be my ‘student’ for a test run and, although the interface was a bit clunky at the edges, he concluded, “None of that would put me off using it though. In general, the experience has been good.”

What’s clunky? Well, switching from a PowerPoint playback to the regular screen wasn’t mirrored without a stop/restart of the screen display. The handing over control didn’t work first time, but it did after handing over drawing control. Drawing control was theoretically stopped but it didn’t happen until after a screen refresh. These are little things that were easy to sort out between friends but could have proved embarrassing in ‘real life.

All this just goes to show how important dry runs are for the trainers. It’s also important to realise that online training is very different to face to face and course materials, timings and trainer behaviour need to be adapted to the new environment. John Carver has posted a useful three-part blog on the Citrix community site for those embarking on this type of training.

GoToTraining is not going to turn you into a trainer, any more than a word processor will turn you into a writer. But, if you or your colleagues are trying to cut down on travel and accommodation expenses, or simply reach out to more trainees, you may well find this worth a look.

GoToTraining starts at $129/month for up to 25 trainees and as many sessions as you like. Full pricing details are here.

Obviously, if you’re only doing the occasional ad hoc bit of training or if you need eye contact, this isn’t for you. But if you’re doing anything remotely regular that doesn’t demand a physical presence then this is not at all a high price to pay when you consider all the other savings you’ll be making. And, of course, you can even add it to your green credentials.

If ‘semantic web’ annoys you, read on…

Say "semantic web" to a lot of people and the shutters on their brains come down. They may have lived through the disappointments of the AI or expert systems eras. Or they may simply know how impossibly tedious it would be to retrofit their web pages with semantic data.

Say "linked data" to them and they might ask "what's that?" with a reasonably open mind. At some point during the explanation, it will dawn on them that the terms are identical to those used in the semantic web. By then, of course, it's too late, they're hooked.

The basic idea is that web pages, html or otherwise, contain some information that links them to other web pages in a meaningful way. Nothing particularly new in that, you might say. But the meaningful bit in this context is not what the human reads – a bit of clickable text that takes you to another web page – but what a computer application can read and make sense of.

An example might be understood as: 'The prime minister is Gordon Brown'. This might be expressed as prime minister:Gordon Brown. And these elements, in turn might point to well-defined explanations of the two concepts elsewhere on the web. In the links would be Prime_minister and Gordon_Brown, respectively. Other authentic sources include Freebase, the Guardian or the New York Times. The application might drill into these pages plucking out useful information and following other links, which would have been defined in a similar fashion.

Of course, because this page has been published, it becomes a potential resource for others to link to. It rather depends what the page was about. The Gordon Brown entry, in this case, was just one element. It might have been 'The British Cabinet in March 2010', for example. And others might have found that information useful.

(If you want to experiment a bit, go to <sameAs> where you can whack in terms and read their definitions in plain text.)

Many public and not-so-public bodies have been making their resource or link information openly available. Friend of a Friend (or FOAF) provides a means of defining yourself. The National Library of Congress has published its Subject Headings – a list of standard names which everyone may as well use to ensure consistency. But it's not essential, you (or someone else) can always declare equivalence using a SameAs or exactMatch type of relationship. e.g. 'Brown, Gordon' can be equated to 'Gordon Brown'.

As you rummage, you'll come across terms such as RDF, URI, graphs, triples and so on. These exist to clarify rather than confuse. The resource description framework (RDF) defines how information should be expressed. Fundamentally each item is a triple comprising: subject; predicate (or property); object, as in Gordon Brown; is a; politician. A uniform resource identifier (URI) might define each of those elements. And the collection of triples is referred to as an RDF graph. Of course, you'll get exceptions, and finer nuances, but that's the basic idea.

The point of all this is that, as with the rest of the web, it must be allowed to flourish in a decentralised and scalable way, which means without central control, although open standards are very important and make life easier for all participants.

With this general introduction, it's possible to see how data sets can be joined together without the explicit permission or participation of the providers. You could find a URI and, from that, find all the other datasets that reference it, if you wanted to. Because of the common interest, you (or your application, more like) would be able to collect further information about the subject.

Talis is a UK company that's deep into this stuff. It's been going for around 40 years and was originally a library services provider. It has spread its wings somewhat and now divides its attention between education, library and platform services. The platform element is the part that's deeply into linked data. It recently set up a demonstration for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to show some of the potential of this stuff. It takes RDF information from three sources – the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) – and produces a heat map of activity in mainland Britain. You can see how much investment is going in, how many patents are being applied for and so on. You can zoom into to ever finer-grained detail and use a slider to see how the map changes over time. You can play with the Research Funding Explorer yourself or follow the links in this piece by Richard Wallis to see a movie.

For you, the question in your mind must be, "All very well, but what's in it for me?" For a start, you can get hold of a lot of data which might be useful in your business – information about customers, sources of supply or geographic locations, for example. So, you may find value purely as a consumer. However, you may be able to give value by sharing data sets or taxonomies that your company has developed. This might sound like madness, but we've already seen in the social web that people who give stuff away become magnets for inbound links and reputational gains. In this case, you could become the authoritative source for certain definitions and types of information. It all depends what sort of organisation you are and how you want to be seen by others.

Mind-mapping with MindJet and MindGenius

Ever since Tony Buzan started popularising mind-mapping in 1974, it's had a bit of an uphill struggle to reach the mainstream. Over sixty commercial applications are available for the PC, the Mac and the web. A sprinkling of others are available for the Pocket PC, iPhone and BlackBerry. And you'll even find open source and freeware versions.

So mind-mapping is an industry, albeit a bit of a niche one. And the products/services keep on coming. October saw announcements from two well-known players, MindJet and MindGenius, which suggested that the mind-mapping world has yet to run out of puff.

MindJet has blended communications and mind-mapping into a single web-based collaboration service with Catalyst. Its premise is that most so-called collaboration tools are actually communication tools, completely lacking an application at their heart with which participants can engage. It feels, with some justification, that a mind-mapping application is exactly the right thing for this. It's useful, easy to understand and the nodes can activate files inside their own applications.

The counter to this might be that a generalised voice-video-IM-screen-sharing communication service allows you to run whatever applications you like at the desktop. Either a scribe can do updates or, more clunkily, control can be passed between participants.

The second announcement of the month fits the latter category. It is a desktop application. MindGenius claims that, with an addressable market of 400 to 500 million English-speaking users, it can focus uncompromisingly on improving the mind-mapping experience for this particular market. And it does a good job. Information entry is slick, navigation can be through the graphical image or through a separate 'outliner' pane (called Map Explorer) and any notes attached to the selected entry are visible in another pane. It offers smooth two-way integration with Office applications such as Word, Excel and Project.

Mind-mapping started out as a very personal thing. The aim was to enable you to take notes effectively, learn quickly and plan easily. When personal computers came along, outliners grabbed our attention first, then the more graphical mind-mappers came along. As screens got bigger and resolution improved, so the visual mappers came into their own. But most people were either ignorant of the technique or they saw nothing wrong with sticking with paper and coloured pens.

Once the vendors twigged that they could be used for project work and for effective communication, the brakes came off and MindJet, MindGenius and others offer some good tools for facilitating projects from inception to completion. They also offer varying degrees of data exchange with other applications.

The thing to watch out for is how many brain cycles are consumed with actually operating the application as opposed to getting something done with it. Ideally, you want the program to more or less fade into the background while information is quickly transferred to the screen, moved around, navigated and absorbed.

Bearing this in mind, of the two applications mentioned, I must confess to a slight leaning towards MindGenius.

Am I qualified to comment? Well, I started using mind-maps in the mid-70s and wrote a mind-mapping program in 1981 which, incidentally, is still being published today from somewhere deep in Colorado. I've been using my own program habitually for 28 years and others as and when they find their way into my computer. If you'd prefer to follow a couple of subject experts, then I'd recommend Chuck Frey and Vic Gee.

Collaboration and Control

Once upon a time, the boundaries of IT management were fairly straightforward. All your customers were inside the company and exchanging digital information with the outside world was highly controlled, if it happened at all. Not only that, but you sat down and figured out the business needs and then bought or developed the appropriate software which you then ran in-house. The users were obliged to take what they were given. Not quite easy peasy, but close.

Nowadays, users have their own views. They want to collaborate electronically with each other and with the outside worlds of business partners, suppliers and customers. They want to hold webinars, share screens, instant message each other, maybe even work on wikis together and comment on each others' blogs. You have to decide whether to allow these things to happen formally or informally. If formal, at least you have some control over what holes you allow in the firewall. If informal, you've probably given them web access and told them to behave themselves. Although the social media brigade will say, "Trust everyone," only you will know if that's going to work in your organisation.

If you do try to restrict what users can do, you'll be surprised at how inventively they'll sidestep your controls. Research suggests that if they can, they will. You are driven by the need to keep the enterprise system secure. They are driven, usually, by achieving results in the most effective way. These two drivers are not usually compatible.

Knowing that 'collaboration without travel' is at the heart of their needs, you start looking around at what's available. Broadly speaking, the bottom line is a choice between an externally hosted service and one you look after yourself. The externally hosted approach is a bit nerve-wracking because all your company's digital collaborations will be stored on someone else's servers. What if something goes wrong? The service provider could fold or you could simply fall out with it. Can you get all your records back? Will they be in a usable form? This is the stuff nightmares are made of. Some very major vendors are beginning to offer such hosted services. Perhaps you'd feel more comfortable entrusting your data to an IBM, a Citrix Online or a Microsoft, for example.

But the alternative, hosting it all yourself, brings its own problems. Scaling is one, but that's probably fairly easy to address. What about your own users, who are now merrily collaborating with each other, being able to collaborate with external partners of various kinds? Your lock down could end up as a lock-out. And, in these days of close collaboration between organisations, this could be greatly to your detriment.

If partners, suppliers or customers are running different collaboration systems to you (as many will), be wary of the glib salesperson who assures you that interoperability is a piece of cake. Ask to talk to real users with similar needs to your own. Find out if your licence terms allow you to extend membership of your collaboration systems beyond the firewall. Ask a few of your business partners if they would be happy to work in this way. After all, they may be just as nervous about engaging beyond their own firewall.

It's so easy to find private systems that satisfy internal collaboration and security needs. The danger lies in forgetting that, over time, the constituency you serve is increasingly likely to involve ever larger numbers of outsiders.

The truth behind the Google/Microsoft/NHS rumours

Before Monday July 6th, did you know that Google and Microsoft had services for storing health records? Thanks to an article in the Times and some related hysteria in other media, just about the whole country discovered that, "David Cameron was going to replace the bloated and expensive NHS computer system with a free one from Google. Or maybe Microsoft."

Except, of course, someone got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Let's face it, whatever we think of the NHS and its evolving computer system, it's not going to be replaced by a packaged service from anyone. Never mind that Google and Microsoft (and maybe BUPA) are supposedly the front runners.

No-one likes overspends on computer projects. And the NHS one due for delivery in 2014 – four years late and at a cost of £12.4bn – presents a wonderful target for the Tories. This seems to have been what caused all the excitement. From £14.2bn to 'free' at the stroke of a pen. Wow!

Who on earth thinks that commercial organisations like Google, Microsoft or BUPA will do anything for free? And who but the most naive will think that moving shedloads of detailed health records from one system to another is going to happen without horrendous cost and risk?

Still, it was a great headline and it, rather unexpectedly, put 'Google Health' in the frame. Whether involved or not, Rachel Whetstone, Google's Vice President, Public Policy and Communications, must be feeling jolly pleased with the outcome. (Incidentally, she's married to Steve Hilton, one of David Cameron's closest advisors. She dropped out of politics after a spell as Michael Howard's chief of staff during his failed election campaign. Oops, wrong horse.)

So what's the reality? The Google (Health) and Microsoft (HealthVault) systems both manage personal health records, or PHRs. They provide somewhere to create, store and share your personal health information and allow you to find related infomation, engage with health professionals and manage your medications. Both put the user in control of content and both are free to the user. This has little to do with the £14.2bn NHS system. At best it would take care of one element of it, the so-called 'Spine' Care Record Service (CRS) but with less information and more restricted access. Medical professionals need access to all manner of detailed information if they're to do their jobs properly and they're simply not going to get that from the personally-filtered subset of a person's medical information that the PHRs represent.

What's on offer smacks of a, "let's get to know your medical issues so we can fire appropriate ads at you". If not, one has to ask what the commercial motivations of Microsoft and Google are. Maybe it's to flog extra services: "Monitor your blood pressure, madam?" or "Remind you to take your pills, sir?"

With the baby boomers reaching retirement age, the market for health-related products and services is exploding. An increasing proportion are computer literate and have their own PCs and internet connections. And nothing is on their minds more than their health. (Okay, maybe their grandchildren and their pets.)

But let's not get carried away by recent newspaper reports. This is not David Cameron single-handedly demolishing the NHS IT budget. Sure, we'd love to enter what the Tories call a "post bureaucratic age", but let's start by getting rid of all the deeply intrusive information that the government already stores about us first.