Thursday, 29 January 2015

Accuracy and meaning

My eye was caught this morning by two unrelated news items but which have in common the ideas of accuracy and meaning. How can a seemingly small change be significant?

In some ways my first isn't a small change: the BBC Arabic Service have said they will not describe an act as terrorism or a person as a terrorist. Instead the terminology will be more specific, such as bomber or attacker or gunman. There's an interesting analysis of this by Memphis Barker in the Independent. Apparently this stance is already reflected in the BBC's editorial guidelines which say that the BBC "does not ban the use of the word. However, we do ask that careful thought is given to its use by a BBC voice."

The word itself is interesting in that it derives from the French terrorisme which specifically referred to the then French government's reign of terror.

That said, use of the word, and by extension any emotive word, needs to be carefully considered, especially if it has connotations beyond its literal meaning. Such risk can be exacerbated when working out pithy and attractive headings for web pages (and stories in newspapers), and avoidance of such problems is part of the skill of the newspaper sub-editor. If you're writing for a blog or web site then you will also be taking on that role. If you're an organisation like the BBC then communicating with 'your voice' is also a factor. Are your clients big enough to think this way too?

My second example is something to strike fear into the hearts of anyone running databases: can a small error be catastrophic?

In recording data about companies that had been wound up, the UK companies registrar, Companies House, accidentally failed to notice a letter 'S' in a company name that should not have been there. Taylor & Sons Ltd had not gone into liquidation, it was Taylor & Son Ltd. As this Guardian piece explains, that single letter cost Taylor & Sons dear ... it really did go out of business ... and now, even though they corrected the mistake after three days, Companies House have to carry the can to the tune of what is likely to be several million pounds.

This kind of error can be caused during data prep, when the data is input, or during processing or data retrieval. From your company point of view, it would probably be covered by professional indemnity insurance, should there be a financial liability. Sometimes, however, it might just be embarrassing. In the BBC Domesday Project, an inadvertent error made the UK seem to be highly radioactive. Fortunately it was noticed before publication and fixed by a software engineer doing the data equivalent of a high wire act to correct a single byte of data.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Children and social media sites

This is a bit of a nightmare for parents and has been for several years. Are you a parent? Do you know what sites your children are using? What data are they sharing? Does it include data about you? Are the sites offering inappropriate content – sexual, self-harm, bullying or violent among others? Did you know that the number of children receiving hurtful cyber-bullying messages rose from 8 to 12% in the last 4 years.

This issue is so sensitive that parents feel vulnerable. It is hard to find out about privacy settings, safety information, where and what to report. It’s all very well, you might say, we’re not dealing directly with this issue. It’s another side of ‘tech’. Well, have you considered advising your clients (where parents might shop/seek information etc.) that they might include a ‘parent’s social media guide’ or the equivalent on their sites? This wins on all fronts – moral, social responsibility, ethical, good branding association, positive thinking and the rest. Yes, you might have to research the topic to do it justice and make sure the information is updated regularly on the client’s site by whatever means agreed, but, worth considering, don’t you think?

With all this in mind, here are a few links to get you started.
It’s not all bad news though so maybe we can point out the positive side of social media as well.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Back to basics: controlling your digital projects

Moan, moan, moan. Yes, it’s the January blues time and the last thing you and your team may want to hear is ‘back to basics’! It’s a nasty fact though that a festive break allows time not just for you and your team to recharge your think-tanks but for your clients and stakeholders to recharge theirs also. We know what that means – lots of new ideas and changes suggested to the project! Changes mean disruption to time, cost and quality. Panic is allowed – quietly. You have put in the controls, haven’t you? It’s time to remind all that changes and even improvements are possible but at a new schedule and cost.

Estimating any time implications and therefore costs of changes is always problematic. But Ben Aston gives a really good tip about ‘question when questioning’, meaning that when your team members come back to you with an estimate about what the changes will cost, you question them as to how they reached that figure. Together you’ll find that you revise the figure to be more accurate by recognising where some gaps in thinking have occurred. This is good training for your team member and yourself because both of you will work in the refining process and learn along the way from each other. You’ll find Ben’s other tips useful too.

See Ben Aston’s, Creating timing plans: a summary (December 12 2014)

Paul Spencer has a down-to-earth approach to project management. His tips may not be specific to digital projects but common sense is common sense. The tip I like best is a reminder that defining the scope of a project is not just about what you will achieve but also what you will not do. That’s equally important to define or your clients will push the boundaries quite happily at your expense. If you want a humourous motivator for an individual team member, or, just yourself, take a look at his animation at the Digital Doctorate for Bristol Graduate school. It’s about moving a vision or an idea to fruition which is like taking a digital project through its cycle.

And, in the spirit of New Year and being positive, what about championing yourself and your fellow digital project managers. It is true that few appreciate the difference you really make to projects. You do have skills and expertise that set you apart from the others in the team. Many of them really wouldn’t want your role even though they might moan about you – openly or not!

If you feel your role isn’t appreciated spread a little of Paul Boag’s Be proud of your digital project managers’ around. Do you agree that there should be a Digital Project Manager of the Year award as an incentive for people to recognise your value? What else would you suggest?

Happy New Year.