#digicaparts: Building a Mobile App

Building Digital Capacity for the ArtsSometimes what you need to develop new ideas is to be in a briefing session with others in search of information. Because at some point you’ll pick up stuff without even realising it.

The seminar laid on by the BBC Academy and Arts Council England did just that. Although I do wonder whether it achieved that by accident.

In front of an assembled crowd of representatives from various arts organisations, Colin Savage from the BBC provided a taster of the opportunities those organisations might look to exploit in the future. YouView – a platform agnostic convergence of TV and Internet – may possibly have been too big a leap for some to enthuse about, it has to be said.

The subsequent demonstration of The Culture Network – an online collaboration between arts organisations in the North East – didn’t register with me either.

The reason might possibly have been reflected in the conversations which ensued on the table I was sat at during the resulting round table discussion. What was it that arts-focused audiences wanted from an organisation’s online presence? Who was the audience that organisation was after anyway? And, given that many organisations have their own blog, picture feed, twitter account and YouTube channel, was refocussing attention on an amalgamated online presence really the way to go after having invested a certain amount of time and effort establishing their own individual presence on the Internet anyway?

Perhaps it was just a bit too visionary. Maybe the answer was deliberately not reinventing the wheel and instead following the principles all in the room were indirectly being reminded of: your online content has the potential of enabling and encouraging audiences; make that content easier to get hold of.

On a practical level, our small group concluded that maybe on that score, that meant improving search engine optimisation for ‘the product’. And by ‘product’ that meant going down to the most granular level. So, if you’ve got a video featuring the Rambert Dance Company, the title needed to include that brand name just as much as the YouTube tags did. The blog title needed to be Ronseal. Everything had to be obvious. The content would float to the top of it’s own accord.

Inevitably, the point was then made that the act of getting more online content out there then probably fell on the shoulders of PR and marketing types. The more people talk about you, the bigger the presence you’ll have.

This in a sense, flew in the face of what was being advocated by The Culture Network of getting your own staff to produce more content to Market your brand. But it doesn’t need to. It’s not either/or for me. It’s both.

What turned out to be a revelation for me was the relative ease of creating a ‘mobile app’.

The importance of mobile was obvious from the BBC’s Mark Bamber. The increase in penetration rates for mobile have been incredible over the past few years. The figures are so obvious as to make the point almost redundant. And with more people accessing the web on mobile phones, concentrating online presence on old-school websites might make you seem like a bit of a dinosaur. Mobile apps are as a result not so much a bandwagon as a necessity, one perhaps better referred to as ‘next generation websites’. Just as websites need to go through a redesign every now and again, so the way in which your online content is served needs to go through a spot of replatforming.

When the slide appeared demonstrating the skills required to produce an app I could feel a multitude of hearts in the room sink. If arts organisations don’t necessary attract techy types, then how could they produce next generation websites? Is the technology behind mobile apps yet another thing they’re going to have to learn?

The answer wasn’t necessarily made obvious. Or perhaps not obvious enough. But in the short while between me leaving the event and going home, a bit of splashing around with apps online has yielded something which every arts organisation should feel reassured by.

Using AppMakr – an online resource to create your own iPhone apps – I produced one for my own blog and associated content.

I created a login to the site, called my app something – in this case ‘Thoroughly Good Blog’ – and uploaded a graphic (ripped from my blog). On the right hand side of the screen, I saw an updated image of what the iPhone app would like. I was, in effect doing the designer’s job and the content producer’s job from my desktop.

Next I added an RSS feed for my blog (it’s published by default, so no need for extra work there), added the same for my Flickr stream, the same for my Twitter feed before adding an audio feed (RSS from Audioboo) and one from YouTube.

I’ll admit that along the process I found it difficult to imagine an audience who would want that kind of thing. Wouldn’t it seem just a teensy weency bit egotistical if I got all my blog readers to download that?

But that’s when I saw the ‘charge’ function. Set at $0.99, might I be able to get my readers to pay a one-off charge for my ‘content’ for the relative ease of being able to push that content to their iPhone? It’s a possibility.

And if it was a goer, that might mean that I could get something back for my Internet utterances which in turn would satisfy my partner I was earning something for my toil. Setting that application download charge was as simple as selecting a charge band from a drop-down list. You don’t need to know a programming language for this one.

I’m not as you may be thinking advocating AppMakr necessarily. And anyway, there is an additional step you need to bear in mind before your hastily pulled together app can go on the Internet. You need to subscribe to Apple to become a developer (it’s $99 – a drop in the ocean even for cash strapped organisations). You’ll also need to wait for a while before Apple approves your app before it appears in the store.

That aside, the point is this. When you start experimenting with creating your app you begin to understand it’s power as a distribution method. Mobile audiences are there to reach out to and given that mobile apps push content to your audience it’s an easy and noise-free way of serving up that content. You’re not competing on the web with others, you’ll building up a platform specific mailing list if you will. Taking the common or garden newsletter to a new electronic and interactive level.

But more than that, the process of building an app demands consolidation of your already existing content. You should already be making videos like the OAE have been doing, you should already be doing ad-hoc Audioboo interviews with contributors, performers, thinkers and such like. Contrary to what Richard Morrison in this month’s BBC Music Magazine says, blogs aren’t sideline activities. Everyone should be blogging too – it’s the equivalent of magazine write-ups. So you can pull them in too. And, if you’re at the intermediate stage, you should be able to pull in an RSS feed (from Google Alerts or Delicious) of curated content that other people are writing about you on the Internet.

When you serve that lot of up to your audience, you’re giving them a rich experience (potentially). All you’re doing is taking the content in existence already and serving it up in a slightly different way.

I’m caught between thinking that my considerably more techy friends will read this and think ‘and you’ve only just realised this Jon?’ and also being painfully aware that a great many people in the room with me this afternoon see mobile apps (and almost certainly IPTV) as an unnecessarily difficult mountain to climb. It’s really not. Anyone who says its not isn’t sufficiently well-informed to offer you an accurate assessment.

What’s key to all of this isn’t technical knowledge. It’s something my previous boss – Kevin Marsh – taught me through his own years of experience. You’ve got to be prepared to splash around a bit. Dint be fearful. Don’t think that you’re stupid. And don’t want ever you do think you need to reinvent the wheel. You’ve got to be prepared to take a bit of a risk.

Which – in a rather nice way – is demonstrated in my own experience.

Today’s chair of the session – Justin Spooner – is someone who has proved key in my career at the BBC. One lunchtime I emailed him and his colleagues at BBC Radio 3 Interactive with some ideas for online video inspired by and about the BBC Proms.

An hour later I was pitching ideas to him and his team. Shortly after that – with no previous track record to back up my pitch – they’d said yes. Last year was my fourth consecutive year producing ever more ambitious online shorts for the season. And this year? Well, keep your eyes peeled. Or download the Thoroughly Good Blog app when it’s been cooked by Apple, of course.

Listen to an interview with Building Digital Capacity for the Arts chair Justin Spooner

Audio: The Next Web Hackathon on BBC Radio Five Live

You may have read the Hacks, Hacking and Journalism blog post I wrote whilst I was at The Next Web Conference last week. I wasn’t just there to blog about it, but also to put together a piece for BBC Radio Five Live.

The feature formed part of a broadcast for BBC Radio Five Live which went out on Tuesday 3 May. It’s also available as a podcast from the BBC. The Outriders Podcast is available here.

I’ll be writing soon for BBC College of Journalism about the steps involved in producing this twelve minute piece, but in the meantime, many thanks to Jamillah back in London for taking up the piece and doing the hard graft late into the night.

Many thanks as well to contributors Sam Wierema (The Next Web), Tomas Schaaf, Andrew McCallam, Lion Isis, Simon Cross (Facebook), Timan Rebel (Moby Picture) and Sanyu Kiruluta (Blackberry).

Bbc Radio 5 Live – The Next Web Hackathon 2011 by Thoroughlygood on Mixcloud

Bloody Yahoo

It’s a warning from history this news – or is it just speculation at the moment? – that Delicious is being shutdown or decommissioned or whatever the term is now amongst the great and the good on the interweb. It’s a warning about the fallout any global brand could find itself overwhelmed by if it makes a wrong move and pisses off it’s users.

I’m not a heavy user of the bookmarking service. But I do use it. I use it because I figure I know that at some point I wouldn’t mind going back over the things which have interested me and cobbling something together. It’s my aide memoire. It’s my notebook.

But of course, I never paid for it. None of us did. It was free to us. We all revelled in it. We used it fully. We loved it. But have we taken advantage of it? Or worse, have we taken it for granted?

It’s not the first service Yahoo has shut down. The last I immersed myself in – Yahoo 360 – (a sort of Facebook predecessor centred on a blog function) also seemed to provoke a strong reaction when the company announced it was going to kill it off. It was one of two reasons I moved on to WordPress.

But, just like Yahoo 360’s demise, Delicious’ possible closing is an illustration of something we’re all potentially going to have get to used to in the future.

Cars break down. Pets have to go see the vet. Sometimes the cars need repairing. Sometimes they worth nothing more than reducing to scrap metal. Pets? Well, you finish the analogy off yourself.

If we get something for free, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if the service gets withdrawn when things get a bit tough for the company who acquired the service in the past. After all globals are just as susceptible to dodgy thinking as small-scale businesses. Someone who’s not really in touch probably looks on Delicious and thinks “what possible use is that? We could get away with killing that. Go on let’s kill it. It’s free. It’s not making us any money.”

And because we’ve got quite it and quite a lot of other things for free maybe we might as well use this as a trial run for the horrors ahead. Maybe that means I’m going to have to finally set up my own blogging system on my own server (something I was intending to do anyway next year) to insure against WordPress killing their free service. Maybe it means – horror of horrors – that I need to embrace the possibility that Flickr may at some point in the future shut down despite the fact I pay for that.

The point is, we may shout and scream about poor service or low levels of respect, but this was bound to happen somewhere at some point. Can you imagine what will happen when Facebook faces ruin? God help us.

No, we might as well get used to this. That’s the sensible thing to do.

Actually, no. I suggest we protest. In the strongest terms. Don’t axe Delicious. It’s an innocent thing. A good thing. A brilliant thing. Don’t be dweebs. Don’t be arses. Don’t be stupid management types totally divorced from your userbase. If you want us to browse to your homepage then reinvent yourself. Present us with a reason to come to your site. Do something different. Don’t axe something which works and gives pleasure because you can’t think of a better way to reposition yourself in the market.

Christmas: Simon’s Cat Santa Claws

God bless Simon’s Cat who – just in time for Christmas – is doing what all cats can be relied upon to do when the tree is being decorated.

Our tree goes up tomorrow and with two cats fascinated by tinsel and baubles I know we’ll have some difficulty taming the beasts and stopping our precious decorative art from being decimated. It’s part of our annual Christmas tradition.

Now, there seems to be a new tradition emerging: a reliably charming uttering from Simon’s utterly and charmingly sweet cat. Gorgeous stuff.


PS Geeky anoraks may possibly be able to help me here. Is this the first time we hear Simon actually speak words?

Blogging: Write, write and write some more

Every now and again – usually when I’ve missed out on desperately rejurgitating something on this blog – I’m reminded of some of the fundamentals. They are the bite-size chunks those of us who need a stroke from time to time need in order to keep ploughing on.

This latest bite-size chunk comes from Kristen Lamb‘s who emphasises the importance of regular writing and social media. Timely stuff. It’s just as relevant to self-sufficient journos, would-be and wannabee journos too.

We must blog. Blogging creates good habits, and it is in the job description of the 21st century author. We can gripe and moan all we want, but that doesn’t change reality. Reality is that writers with a platform are going to be more successful than writers who expect NY to do everything for them. If you want to become a professional writer then you should love writing anyway so this shouldn’t be as big of a deal as most writers make it. Suck it up and put on Big Girl/Big Boy Pants. In the coming weeks I will be teaching you guys on Wednesdays what to blog about. This is usually the biggest stumbling block, but now I am here so no more excuses. I am going to make this FUN!

We need to spend time on social media. This is like the watching movies and reading thing. Yes, being on social media is work. Now if we are just goofing off and sending people farm animals then yes we are goofing off. But if we are blogging and spending time on Twitter and FB networking with other writers and published authors and people in the publishing industry, that is called marketing.

Additionally, I have found some of the best articles and blogs on the craft via Twitter and other bloggers. Social media gives us countless tools to improve our skills daily.