Saturday, February 06, 2010

Government reports as ebooks

One response to my talk on "Making e-Books for e-Learning on i-Pads" at BarCamp Canberra 2010 was from Senator KateLundy. She tweeted: "With so much govt information online, Tom's talk makes me wonder about the merit of publishing public info in ebook formats too". This seems an idea worth investigating.

I have long advocated providing government reports as a set of web pages, rather than as one big PDF file, as is typically done. However, government people are reluctant to do this.

One argument against web pages is that they are more difficult to make, but as I show my web design students, if you take an accessible approach to design, then this is not hard. If the document designer concentrates on making a document people can read online, where most will be read, rather than concentrating on producing a pretty printed report (which hardly anyone will see), then web format is a viable option.

Another argument is that web pages are not legal documents, which I explain to my electronic document students, is not true either. There is a commonly held, but incorrect, assumption that government reports must be in PDF format to stop them being edited. It is more difficult to edit a PDF file than a web page, but not impossible. In any case this is irrelevant to the protection of government reports.

But I suspect the real issue is that a set of web pages do not seem as real as a "book" and does not have the needed look of authority a government report demands. Collecting the web pages up into an ebook format may give them the needed gravitas. This could done with a three step process:
  1. Here is the printed report, see it looks like a proper printed document,
  2. Here is the ebook, see it looks like the printed report,
  3. Here is the web page, see it looks like a chapter from the ebook.
As government agencies are already using content management systems, it should be feasible to support commonly used ebook formats with minimal effort by authors and publishers. The CMS would simply collect up a set of web pages and package them in an ebook format (a simpler system would do the reverse, saving the e-book and unpacking it on request to separate web pages, which might better meet archiving requirements).

As discussed in my talk on "Making e-Books for e-Learning on i-Pads", the obvious e-book format to use is EPUB. This is based on XHTML and CCS as used by government web sites. It is also being popularised as a format by support on the Apple iPad. EPUB requires some extra XML files, but these supply information which agencies are required to provide anyway and should already have in their systems.

Convincing agencies to use an ebook format should be a lot easier than convincing them to use accessible web pages. Instead of having to explain why a whole lot of decorative junk is not a good idea and that instead information should be clearly and simply, it will be just a matter of saying "yest, that is a wonderful animated app, but unfortunately the ebook format does not support it".

There will be some inefficiencies, as ebooks are designed to be standalone. Therefore the CSS, logos and "about us" text which can be shared between web pages (and automatically inserted as required by a CMS) will have to be duplicated in each ebook. However, this duplication already occurs with PDF versions of reports, where fonts also contribute to the size of the resulting files.

Ebooks should also make archivists happy as they include their own metadata. In fact ebooks are conceptually similar to the archiving techniques used electronic archiving systems, which wrap up all the associated files of an e-document along with an XML encoded set of metadata.

The public could still read an individual chapter of a report as an ordinary web page. The system could also still provide automatically generated PDF, if anyone wants it. But if the web version is offered first in the list of options online, I suspect most people will be happy to download a few dozen kilobytes of the summary of a report, rather than megabytes of the full report in PDF. I might try out the idea with my students this year and see if the practice then diffuses into the Australian government.

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Paper makes ebooks real

One of my throwaway remarks at BarCamp Canberra 2010 got the attention of the Twitterarty:
  • vinhvanlam Show someone single copy of a "real book" & they'll read and trust the online version says Tom Worthington #bcc2010 moodle to mobi to kindle
  • AndrewBlanda "When you have a real book (just 1 copy), people then begin reading the online version" Tom Worthington #bcc2010
This is something I noticed when helping set up the conference publishing system for the ACS. Holding up a bound copy of conference proceedings impressed many professors more than did a view of the online papers. But having seen one "real" (paper) copy, they were then happy to use the electronic version.

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BarCamp Canberra 2010

Greetings from BarCamp Canberra 2010 at the famous Room N101 at ANU in Canberra. There are about sixty people here so far and the room is filling fast. About one third of the room seems to be from Sydney, boosting the Canberra economy. You can follow the event in Twitter: #bcc2010.

The infrastructure is well set up with video projectors, WiFi, power-boards and Senator Lundy just arrived with duct-tape to hold the cables down.

For this I have prepared "Making e-Books for e-Learning on i-Pads":
Simple web pages and free open source software
to create an accompanying e-book for a university level e-learning
course. Educational materials can be provided for Netbooks, Amazon
Kindle, Google Android, Apple iPhone. This technique should also work
for the recently announced Apple iPad.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Making e-Books for e-Learning on i-Pads

For the BarCamp Canberra 2010, tomorrow I have prepared "Making e-Books for e-Learning on i-Pads". This is about how I used simple web pages and free open source software to create a university level e-learning course and accompanying e-book. Educational materials can be provided for the Netbooks, Amazon Kindle, Google Android, Apple iPhone. This technique should also work for the recently announced Apple iPad for education.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

BarCamp Canberra 2010 on e-Gov 2.0

A BarCamp Canberra 2010 around the topic of e-Government and Web 2.0, will be Saturday, 6 February 2010 from 9:00 am in the famous Room N101 of the School of Computer Science, Australian National University. This a free event where anyone can turn up and offer to speak. I attended Bar Camp Canberra 2 last year and this year have volunteered to speak on:
e-Books for e-Learning

Tom Worthington shows how he used simple web pages and free open source software to create a university level e-learning course and accompanying e-book for the Amazon Kindle, Google Android, Apple iPhone, i-Slate and Netbooks.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Final thoughts on Our Broadband Future

Roger Clarke wrote some "Final Thoughts about the Broadband Future Event" in Sydney last week. For me the event ended on a positive note with Genevieve Bell, on e-Community. It was refreshing to hear ideas about broadband for people to use,
rather than as something done to them.

I started to suffer from conference fatigue on the last day, to the
point that in a moment of inattention I plugged the wrong power supply into my wireless modem and destroyed it.

George Bray wrote in the Link List: "I was able to participate remotely from my beachside cabin ...". In a way he got better access to the event than I did, sitting in the venue (just behind the PM, Minister and assorted dignitaries).

There were power boards and WiFi supplied for the Twiterarty in the fist and last few rows of seats. However, sitting cramped over a 10 inch netbook screen in your lap for hours is not very comfortable. Given that much of the time I was not looking at the live speaker, but instead at my netbook or at the projected image on the big screen in the auditorium, I might as well have been somewhere more comfortable.

There were some advantages being there live, such as the spectacle of Senator Lundy operate a laptop with one hand while Twittering on a smart phone with the other. The coffee and lunch breaks were very high bandwidth networking events. A node of ACS people formed in the centre of the room, grabbing anyone important who wandered past and lobbying them on assorted issues (It was useful to be able to meet the new ACS CEO and President Elect).

It was a little unsettling to wander into a conversation and find the Minister for Communications, the head of the ABC, or the PM part of the discussion.

One frustration I had was that the media were never in the media room, they were wandering around taking part in the discussions. The speakers preparation room was more open that I have seen it at commercial events, with non-speakers allowed to wander in.

Another frustration was the large number of the Link mailing list members present. As everyone else was furiously trying to plug their product or policy proposal, I tried this myself, but people kept saying: "Yes Tom, I read you posting about that on Link".

In retrospect, perhaps I would have been better off sitting in the media or speaker's room at a comfortable desk during the sessions, watching them on screen. Then I could have come out to mingle during the breaks.

The stream sessions did not work so well. The problem was that most of the time was taken up with talks by the panellists. While mostly excellent people and speakers, this was a waste of the limited time. It would have been better to provide the talks online in advance and then go straight to discussions. Also I could not get the Wiki to work at all, despite (or because of) all the user-ids and passwords I had been issued with. As a result I felt I had less ability to communicate by being in the room.

This was an excellent experiment in an Internet enhanced event (not quite as good as the Internet Global Summit).

But perhaps more of the bar camp format could be adopted. There was too much spent on glitz and stage managing. As an example we could have done without the glossy colour program (so glossy you could not scribble notes on it). A sheet of monochrome paper printed at the last minute (so it was up to date) would have done. The expensive looking neoprene
conference satchel was so large it was an encumbrance and does someone at the Department have a rubber fetish? ;-)

Perhaps what is needed is an official event with the important speeches and "fringe" events with the less formal bar camp style discussions.

ps: Technology does have its limits. After the forum I took a 370 bus to King Street to go to a performance of "Cabret" at the New Theatre. In the street I bumped into Chris
Chesher, who mentioned there is a Fibreculture event on Wednesday, about "Freedom and control in the Australian Internet".

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Startups in Sydney

Greetings from "Startup BarCamp Sydney" at the Australian Technology Park as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week 2009. I volunteered to talk on "Innovating to lower costs and carbon emissions with ICT" at 12:30pm. But I broadened this to talk about the process Innovation ACT uses to teach entrepreneurship to students at the Australian National University and University of Canberra and ended up with "Entrepreneurs for climate change mitigation".

The BarCamp is being held in the Innovation Centre at the ATP. For me this is a bit like coming home. In 1998 I used the ATP as an example of how technology innovation should be done in Australia. This was meant to be just an example, but the government appeared to take this advice literally and set up the National ICT Centre of Excellence (NICTA) in the building. I was last here for the CSIRO ICT Centre conference two weeks ago. What I didn't realise is that the ATP is home to ATP Innovations, which is part owned by the ANU.

This Bar Camp has a wider range of participant than BarCamp Canberra, which was focused on web and government. At this event there is one delegate is selling coconuts (for eating and drinking) and another solar thermal power stations.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Startup BarCamp Sydney

"Startup BarCamp Sydney" is being held 21 November 2009 at the Australian Technology Park for Global Entrepreneurship Week 2009. I have volinteered to talk on "Innovating to lower costs and carbon emissions with ICT", which I talked to Innovation ACT about a few monts ago . For those not familiar with the BarCamp format, it can be a bit bewildering. In addition to the celibrity speakers, anyone can present. The rohbust audince participation can also be a bit confronting. The event is free, funded by the sponsors. To participate you edit the home page to add your details and proposed topic. This can see a bit like the Merry Pranksters meet the Calfornian Business Assocation.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Redesigning the Australian Government Online

On Saturday, March 28, 2009 I attended Bar Camp Canberra 2 in the famous Room N101 at ANU. This event was broadly about Internet, web and open source software, but being in Canberra, the theme evolved into using the technology to improve government processes. This free event was far better run and useful than most of the professionally run conferences I attend.

BarCamp is a series of user generated conferences, also described as "un-conferences". The venue and broad theme is set by the organisers, but the speakers and topics are volunteered by the attendees on the day. After getting a name tag, which you adorn with your blog or twitter tags, you can write a proposed topic on a post it note and stick it in a slot on the timetable on the wall. The early slots tend to fill up first, so a tip seems to be to get in early. There were two streams in two rooms and the primary room (N101) filled up first.

The organisers provide a minimum of structure to keep things moving, cutting off discussion to keep to time and making some rearrangements to the timetable. The audience is encouraged to interrupt the speaker at any point and there is a lively discussion at the end of most presentations.

About a quarter of the people seems to have a laptop or some sort of hand held device and be engaged in some sort of discussion of the presentations. There is a twitter tag for the event (#bcc2) and the list of these comments was put up on screen between speaker presentations. Also several people seemed to be preparing or modifying there presentations during the day. I only decided to speak after I got to the event and then prepared my talk in the next hour or so.

The quality of the presentations was mostly very high, with good slides. At some points I had difficulty understanding some of the twiteresq jargon used. One presentation from another ANU lecturer on Internet marketing was so full of unfamiliar terminology I had no idea what the presentation was about. Perhaps I will need to purchase their forthcoming book on the subject to find out what it was about. ;-)

I had a feeling of déjà vu when several speakers discussed how to get the Australian Government to adopt new ways of working using Internet based technology. This was very much the geeks saying: "this is so obvious why don't they get it, do it or get out of our way and let us do it". I recall taking part in such discussions about introducing Internet, email and the web to government, starting about 13 years ago. What was a little disappointing is that this batch of young Turks have not learnt from history and have not looked at how we managed to get Internet, email and the web into government a decade ago. A more subtle strategy is needed than just telling people to do something.

In 1995 at the AUUG Sixth Annual Canberra Conference in a presentation of Internet in Government I proposed a strategy for introducing the Internet into the Australian Government. This was essentially that we implement it at the working level and then, once proven successful, allow our executive and Ministers to take credit for it retrospectively. This strategy proved so successful that few realised what happened.

The "Internet conspiracy" was not exactly a secret, with a loose coalition of public servants, company employees and academics discussing the issue online and at computer conferences. Some later phases got more controversial, such as resistance to the regulation of the Internet. However even here the cabal was reasonably open, as document by Peter Chen in his PHD thesis "Australia's online censorship regime : the advocacy coalition framework and governance compared". Also I talked about it on ABC radio in "Filtering Porn on the Internet: Imperfect by Necessity".

While I was worried about speaking at BarCamp on as serious a topic as web for bushfire emergencies, I found I was not the first such speaker. One of the Google staff talked about the mapping system they provided for the Victorian fires. It would appear there is sufficient interest, expertise and resources to build a coordinated Internet based emergency system for Australia. This could be done be the web community, with the government needing to provide little more than endorsement of the finished product.

My advocacy of the use of email, mailing lists and Web 1.0 in government probably seems very quaint and old fashioned to the twitter users a decade later. I look forward to attending more BarCamps and learning new ways to do old things, if not new ways to do new things. ;-)

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Saturday, March 28, 2009


Greetings from Bar Camp Canberra 2 at ANU. This is an "un-conference". All welcome (it is in the famous Room N101). I am proposing to talk about web for bushfire emergencies at 11:40am. You can follow the event on Twitter at: #bcc2

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