Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Favourite Posts for 2008

In 2008 I didn't blog as much as I would have liked, but I still love blogging and will keep at it in the new year. Thankfully, my Royal Roads coursework provided some useful blog fodder. But of original blog posts, here are my favourite Glen' Farrelly Webslinger postings.

  • Academic Research Online Is a Walled Garden - my dismay at finding out the amount of useful research and information useful to the Internet community that never makes it beyond the confines of academia and expensive academic journals
  • Are Web Publishers Obsolete? - more and more of web production becomes routine and mundane I noted, so are website professionals as important?
  • Fun With Internet Memes - Weezer's video for "Pork and Beans" was an homage to famous Internet memes and helped us recall the great fun of such things as dramatic hamster and "Leave Britney alone!"
  • Canada's Cyber Celebs - in honour of Canada Day, I compiled a list of those Canadians that have made an impact to the Internet, a project that appears is direly needed but has been done by no one else
  • Pros & Cons of Managing a Website for a Small Company - as I leave my job of six years of managing a website, I wax philosophical. Good post for those considering a similar job.
  • Trumpeting Toronto Tech - blogging has opened doors for me and got me some great free tickets to events, including Toronto Tech Week. Yet despite the hype, Toronto's technology sector is lacking

  • Online TV Saves My Life - due to the inability to watch TV while at Royal Roads, I finally discovered the wealth of TV shows available online (and ashamedly, I didn't always use this new found power for good, ie. Gossip Girl)

Some of my favourite essays that I posted online are:
The next seven months will be devoted to my thesis on website accessibility. I'll definitely blog about my progress and insights along the way and hopefully anything else that crosses my virtual path in 2009...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Getting New Business from New Digital Media

With the advent of new digital forms of communication, there are new means for businesses, consultants, specialists, or freelancers, to generate new business. Some sources mention the importance of a website, but then offer tips amounting to little more than creating brochureware. Therefore, I felt it would be useful to examine how new digital media can be used to help grow a business and find clients by 1) demonstrating expertise and building credibility, 2) harnessing contacts, 3) maintaining relationships with clients.

Build credibility
For most businesses, it is important to promote their name, services, and unique value offering to existing and prospective clients. As advanced knowledge of a specific area may also be crucial, many must also strive to demonstrate expertise in their given subject. Publishing can be a leading mean to build credibility, whether it is commercial publishing or self-publishing. Commercial publishing allows the author to benefit from the reputation of the publisher, while self-publishing offers more freedom to write about one’s own topic and use this material for marketing and promotional uses. Self-publishing online content can be done through building and expanding a website, writing an eBook or online whitepaper,blogging, microblogging (e.g. Twitter posts), or podcasting. Of all these, blogging, I believe, offers the greatest technical ease of publishing and flexibility of topics, format, and timing.

Podcasting, for example, continues to grow in popularity, but while the software to capture and edit digital audio or video is becoming more affordable, the entire process does require greater technical knowledge than many be comfortable with or have time for. Microblogging has been found to offer an opportunity to showcase expertise and recruit new business but its length restrictions (with Twitter it's 140 characters) can be limiting.

Due to the ease and zero cost of blogging software (e.g. Blogger, WordPress), self-publishing through blogging is affordable and convenient. As a primarily text-based medium, blogs interfaces are similar to familiar word processing software so they are relatively easy for to use. Blogs are entirely directed by the author in that the length, topic, and style are user-chosen, thus a consultant can publish a blog as often as they like on the topic they feel are beneficial to building their reputation and business. To gain credibility and readers, bloggers can partner with other websites or blog aggregator sites (e.g. b5media, Backbone Magazine) and have their blog included in these popular sites.

Blogging can also be a highly effective way to increase your presence as they offer the ability to craft positive, relevant messages rich with keywords associated with your name or business. Blog postings with relevant targetted keywords tend to be well ranked by the major search engines. In addition, if you sprinkle your name or your business in posts you'll create applicable content that will probably rank higher than other online content with your name. As Ted Demopoulos says in his eBook, Effective Internet Presence, “Certainly people are googling you, and if they find favorable results it’s much better than if they find unfavorable results or nothing at all”.

Online publishing, such as blogs or podcasts, can also be used to extend one’s reputation beyond the geographic confines of where one lives. Depending on the degree of specialization of one's business,it is likely that those who are interested in this content will seek it out. Therefore, it is important to not focus on the audience numbers, but rather how online efforts can increase one’s sphere of influence within their niche and attract desirable clients.

Harness contacts
Online efforts can help build a consultant’s credibility, but referrals and networking tend to bring in the bulk of business. Contacts are useful not only as a direct source of new business but also for referrals, insider information about prospective business, and testimonials. Social networking sites (SNS), particularly those geared towards professional networking, such as LinkedIn and Xing, offer unique benefits. For one, there is tremendous value for consultants in maintaining a large contact base. Yet studies have shown that the number of contacts one can maintain offline is quite limited whereas online users have been found to be able to maintain a significantly larger numbers of contacts. This may be due to the ability of SNS to facilitate the ongoing sharing of information, whether blog posts, pictures, links, status updates, or threaded discussions.

SNS also allow one to showcase their past clients and prominently display testimonials. Another benefit of SNS is that a user’s contacts are by default available for other contacts to see, thus if one is looking for an in with a company, whether for a cold call or for refining a proposal, an existing relationship with the company may be easily revealed. SNS allow consultants present credentials and testimonials, share information, and harness the power of direct and indirect contacts.

Maintain relationships with clients
Personal contacts are a primary source of business, yet these relationships must be maintained. Most successful business strive to have a large percentage of repeat business, but it can be a challenge to remain top of mind with former clients when new work arises. Offline ways to stay in touch such as sending articles and telephoning are traditional, online efforts can be perceived as less intrusive and scale more effectively. Blogs, microblogs, podcasts, and email newsletters enable an active and direct relationship between businesses and clients. They are less intrusive for clients than a telephone call or a surprise in-person visit as clients decide for themselves when they will view the content. They are also more direct than conventional websites, as the subscription features engenders a more active relationship than merely posting content and hoping users will come. Through the use of RSS and free feed reader applications (such as iGoogle, myYahoo, Netvibes, etc.) and similar applications for podcasts users can opt to receive content on their customized homepage.

Providing one posts content regularly, these media offer businesses the ability to continuously keep their names and current expertise front and center with clients. In addition, both blogging and microblogging allow the client, if they chose, to engage in the content by sharing or bookmarking it, or by commenting upon a posting, thus facilitating the ability to engage clients in ongoing conversations that builds and maintains relationships.

New forms of digital media whether blogging, microblogging, podcasting, or social networking sites offer new options for businesses to consider. This is not to say that these methods are appropriate for all businesses in all circumstances or that traditional techniques should be abandoned, as there are certainly additional factors to consider in determining the suitability of these methods. However, new digital media has already been proven to allow businesses to tap into new clients and grow business.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Social Media Addiction

I'm supposed to be researching for an essay, but instead I did this dorky survey. I think this fact alone reveals my addiction level.


This quiz was provided by - Search & Social - Media Experts

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Twitter During a Crisis

A friend sent me the article by Shel Holz about the role Twitter played during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. I've read other postings in response to the request by the Indian government people to stop twittering information that the terrorists could use.

I read pieces about the role Twitter and other digital media played in the Mumbai events. I think Twitter's role was greatly exaggerated . The terrorists had cellphones and apparently collaborators outside feeding them news. They also had access to cable television which would have provided much better info than Twitter could.

I can remember during the first Gulf War that the info CNN covered would have been great for the other side. I kept thinking that we viewers did not need to know the info so fast, particularly if it puts soldiers' lives at risk. So reporters have clearly been stupid and careless in what they covered. Now citizen journalism, such as via Twitter, extends the range of stupidity. I think the solution is that if there is a crisis or police/military action - the authorities need to create a wide berth where no one can enter. They also probably need to have someone there continuously telling people to stop reporting events. But professional and citizen journalists also need to accept responsibility - and have some brains - to not report info that can be used against an innocent victim.

As for companies learning from this, they should - but most probably won't. All companies should pay for professional media monitoring. If they can't afford it, there are a lot of tools for free that make it easy to track all this. I'm constantly surprised at how companies can only wrap their heads around traditional media and miss the firestorms occurring online to the great detriment of their company. Foolish businessmen that claim to be motivated by profit, but are often scaredy-cats afraid to admit they don't know something and will let their company suffer as a result.

I actually found out about the terrorist attacks via Twitter at least an hour or two before conventional media covered the story. In fact, I think it is standard now that for breaking news items, digital media, particularly as covered by citizen journalists, gets the story much faster. As one who was getting ready to leave for Mumbai that day, I really appreciated the advanced notice - it let me assess the situation and adjust plans accordingly. There are clearly advantages to such speedy news coverage, but there are also considerations for businesses, police, conventional media, users, and citizen journalists to all learn, adapt and behave responsibly in this new real-time reality.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Practical Considerations for Online Accessibility Raised at IGF Hyderabad

The Internet Governance Forum session in Hyderabad India on Internet accessibility, “Including Accessibility and Human Factors in the Universalization of the Internet - How to reach persons with disabilities, the 10% of the next billion”, raised practical consideration for the issues of Internet accessibility.

To begin with there was a bit of a debacle in that the lack of an Internet connection at the conference centre that stays up for longer than five minutes meant that the captioner online in Canada could not get the webcasts of the sessions in order to caption it for those attending with hearing impairments. It also meant that I have been unable to live blog or microblog the sessions as originally planned.

This session opened up with background information on various organizations’ work in establishing accessibility standards, their importance, and their gradual global spread.

What I did find particularly interesting is that Shadi Abou-Zahra from the W3C addressed a critique I have heard a few times about how they determined their accessibility goals. The W3C has a formal process that strives to seek user participation throughout the process from working group development, public working drafts, and implementation testing. They firmly believe in including users in standardization. Not only are their recommendations available for public review and comment, but they also push out their drafts to applicable disability organizations for their input.

Shadi also outlined the three guidelines to website accessibility and how they work together. There is WCAG, website content accessibility guidelines, which includes recommendations for online text, imaged, audio, multimedia, and video. UAAG is the user agent accessibility guidelines for browsers, media player, and assistive technology. UAAG is crucial as they must provide the functionality to enable accessible content, for example captioning if they don’t support it, there’s no point for content producer to do captioning of their content. Finally, there is authoring tool accessibility for website editing software, CMS, wikis, etc. to not only facilitate online content being made accessible, but these software in themselves must be accessible so that people with disabilities are able to be active contributors to the Web not just be passive recipients

Jorge Plano, from the Argentina chapter of ISOC, pointed out some of the implementation challenges of accessibility, particularly in developing nations where the issue is “invisible”. Jorge pointed out that more support for this issue globally is needed from governments IT agencies, ISP associations, and telcos. A good starting point in many countries is for government and related organizations, such as such as public administration, private public utilities, NGOs funded by gov, companies/NGOs funded by gov, companies offering services to general public (banks, health insurance, hospitals, etc. – in Europe this is mandatory for these types of company), and government providers/suppliers.

A dimension of the accessibility issue that I had not heard before was raised by speaker, Fernando Botelho. Fernando pointed out that what is needed is an accessibility solution that will scale up sufficiently for large scale deployments, both in developed and developing nations. The need for a scalable solution is seen by looking at blind children worldwide, 90% of whom receive no access to education. Even those who receive education, Fernando added, may not necessarily receive quality education. A further problem is that some disabled individuals are trained on commercial assistive technology that is expensive. This creates a path dependency to this technology that becomes difficult when they no longer get access to this technology from the training organization. They may not be able to afford it themselves or prospective employers are often unwilling to pay for it. Thus the importance for finding open source solutions that work with commonly-accepted standards, such as the W3C accessibility standards, is crucial.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Discussing Online Accessibility on International Day of the Disabled Person

Today is the international Day of the Disabled Person, so it’s fitting that the United Nations and Internet professionals and experts worldwide have gathered at the Internet Governance Forum in Hyderabad to address the issue of improving website accessibility for the disabled.

The session, my first of the conference, was called “Information Accessibility: Equal Access & Equal Opportunity to People with Disabilities”. Overall, there was a lot of focus on the role of standards for website accessibility, but it was rather short on actual plans for its widespread adoption.

For those new to the field of website accessibility there was good background information provided on the issue’s history, scope, and its importance. While my personal research has focused on website accessibility for the visually impaired, the issue also covers various disabilities such as hearing, cognitive, and physical.
The presentations repeated the key messages that 1) the Internet is an increasingly important resource in many aspects of life, e.g. education, government services, business, recreation so disabled people should not be shut out 2) All people should have equal access and equal opportunity to resources online or otherwise 3) Internet can be particularly able to help the disabled more actively participate in society. Representatives from China and India both stated their countries commitment to this issue and it was pointed out that 26 countries have enacted policy or law on the issue of Internet accessibility.

The first speaker opened with some sobering statistics: 600 million people around the world have a disability (I suspect that number would be much higher if you count people with low to diminished vision, which is particularly relevant for online readers). 186 million children with disabilities haven’t completed primary school. There are clearly opportunities for an accessible Internet to improve people lives, as the first speaker said “these are not just figures they are real people – and we simply cannot afford to say it’s your problem go fend for yourself”. All the speakers were in agreement that while there has been progress in devising what needs to be done, significant barriers still remain and accessibility is still not widespread.

An interesting point made by Cynthia Waddell that the notion of disability is evolving. We need to acknowledge that if there were not societal and physical barriers the concept of disability might not even exist. Bringing disabled people into the mainstream is a way to help end marginalization and in some cases poverty. As more and more of life moves online, the issue of website accessibility becomes important.

Both Cynthia and an accessibility expert from the W3C, Shadi Abou-Zahra, pointed out the issue has various spheres that must be addressed. These spheres would be web authoring software, web developers, browsing software, and assistive technology. Web design historically has not included accessible design for persons with disabilities. Web developers tend to not educated sufficiently on this issue. Even web authoring software didn’t help and often hindered. Assistive technology is making strides but it isn’t enough on its own. Browsers are getting more standard compliant, but this has only recently been the case.

I must admit that while I completely agree with the speakers that assert that accessibility is a human right for all and that more policy is needed, I don’t believe this issue will resonate or convince businesses and organizations around the world to make their website accessible. So I felt a crucial point was made by Shadi when he listed the auxiliary benefits of accessibility.

Shadi pointed out that accessible sites are more compatible with mobile technologies, addresses the needs of our ageing demographics, and can open up new markets. I have found that when I state to business people not only the social benefits of accessibility but also the business benefits this helps give the issue more priority than it would otherwise have. As Shadi pointed out accessibility features can improve experience for all users: “Think of it like an elevator. I need an elevator to access a building, but an elevator benefits everyone”.

Overall, the session was a good backgrounder on the issue, but I was disappointed that the focus on standards and policy leaves behind the web developers in the field whom may have heard of this issue but then must struggle with limited (or no) resources or budget to adopt this. So I raised this point to the speakers.

My question was (yes there was a long preamble) as one who has worked as a web developer and producer for the past ten years and is now researching Internet accessibility, that while I applaud the efforts at creating accessibility standards, they are not enough. The standards are complicated to follow, there are not specifics of how to do it, and the existing educational material is not much help. For example, it’s easy to say don’t use tables for layout but it is difficult to actually make that happen even when building a website from scratch, let alone retrofitting one. It’s also easy to say beware of colour blindness when designing web navigation, but there are many different types of colour blindness and the tools to help demonstrate the issue are insufficient. Among the web developer community I believe awareness is fairly common – most developers know about the issue and some of the remedies – but using alt text is not enough. As the speakers acknowledge, the authoring tools must do more to support this, but also educational material needs to be more comprehensive and simpler. Training needs to be more widespread – and I would add most crucially it needs to be free too.

I was excited to learn that the next generation of W3C material on website accessibility is going to be addressing the implementation challenges. Their website was my primary source for information on this issue, and while it provided a good framework, there needed to be more practical information and feasible plans.

The discussion after the session was also interesting. We discussed the need for a central, prominent repository of templates to use for this. I pointed out how I could not find any, let alone “proper” code for how to make an accessible table, when one genuinely needs to use a table, that is for presenting tabular data like statistics. I struggled through the standards and came up with a code snippet that I added to my web team’s code snippets in Dreamweaver and then posted on my blog - but we sure need more widespread and prominent sharing of this type of work.

Impressions of India

It's probably due to the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai that I'm getting lots of people asking me how I'm doing. Never had so much Facebook activity before. I've been getting back to people individually or via Facebook Wall posts, but even though this doesn't have anything to do with the Internet per se (other than I am here for an Internet conference) I figured it was easier to give some of my impressions of India via a blog post. I'll be blogging about conference specifics later today (if jet lag doesn't get the best of me).

The 35 hour door-to-door journey to get here was rather hellish. I couldn't sleep on the plane and I had 3 transfers (Amsterdam, Kuwait, and Muscat in Oman). This was probably the best available flight too as any other flights to Hyderabad involve hellish transfers into either Delhi or Mumbai (hellish in that they all seem to arrive in the middle of the night; involve getting on a local bus - and all that means - to transfer from international to domestic airports; and about 6-8 hour wait). At least Amsterdam's Schipol airport has comfy chairs, delicious European pastries and a miniture Riksmuseum on site - so I managed to gaze at Rembrandt paintings during my layover. Oman airport was so shabby it dispelled the notion I had that all Middle East countries are oil-rich. Hyderabad airport is modern and incredible - the second best airport I have been to anywhere in the world (Hong Kong is the best definitely).

The hotel we are staying at, Ista Hyderabad, is nice. It's down the street from Microsoft's Indian campus. My biggest complaint about the hotel is that it is trying to hard to be an international 5 star hotel and as a result it is generic (too much blond wood, chocolate-brown leather chairs, and marble floors) - it also has the price of these hotels, so much so that the prices seem more fitting of Switzerland or London rather than India (eg. $3 for a Coke).

What I love about the hotel (other than their incredible infinity style and toasty warm swimming pool) is the incredible food. Breakfast is included here and it combines traditional Western breakfast foods with much more delicious Indian food. Yesterday the waiter asked me if I wanted a traditional Indian breakfast. It was potato curry dish and a sweet stewed spiced pumpkin dish. The pumpkin dish was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. In general, the food here is AMAZING. The western food is mediocre, but the Indian food is way better than the best Indian food I've ever had in Toronto - plus there is such an incredible variety of dishes.

Unfortunately, the hotel and conference centre are about a 40 minute drive apart and the free shuttles only go once in the morning and once in the evening. Taxis are expensive here (at least the ones for westerners) about the same rate as home. Both the hotel and conference centre are in the midst of tech building sprawl and far away from the city proper, so there's nowhere to walk either. Not that walking is safe here as there are no sidewalks or traffic rules it seems. Plus one would have to pass by the cattle in the street and the poor living in tents by the roadside everywhere. So we all feel trapped either in the hotel or in the conference centre, which is a shame as I do like to explore cities when I travel.

I did get four free hours where I hired a driver to drive me around the sites of Hyderabad. The main sites were incredible; the temples, palaces, government building and fortresses are so different architectually from anything I'd ever seen before and centuries old. But I think I enjoyed seeing the slices of normal Indian life while driving about town. The open-air markets with stunningly beautiful textiles, the chaos in the streets, the vibrant street life, and the unbelievable poverty intermixed with it all. I was also struck at how there seemed to be a much greater committment to architectually beauty - even more modest buildings all have unique details or arrangements.

Jet lag is fairly bad. I was dead tired at 6pm last night. Many of the other ambassadors went shopping at a mall last night but I went for a swim and was asleep for the second night in a row by 7pm. Skipped supper even. I woke up at midnight but watched a Bollywood film. There are about 30 channels that show nothing but Bollywood so I'm enjoying discovering the many permutations of this genre.

The weather today is hot, sunny and humid. Other days it was just perfect. There is a lot of pollution here - particularly in the city proper. My photos are hazy because of the pollution. I'm not kidding - it's not poor focus it's layers of smog!

Security is tight both at the hotel and at the conference centre. So tight I couldn't go out to get my morning coffee, without having to go through the thorough security check and frisking (okay maybe I don't mind the frisking). I am impressed
with the degree of security at the conference centre and at the hotel, so that goes a long way to making me feel more at ease. Although last night there was a huge noise in the middle of the night and on another occasion the power went out at the hotel for about 3 minutes - both times my mind instantly wen to the worst.

So I'm staying safe and eating very well. Everyone at the Internet Society is super friendly and the even though I've only had a half day of conference sessions, I've already learned a lot (definitely some thesis fodder). So no regrets for coming here, but I'm definitely dreading that 30+ hour return trip.

Why I Decided to Come to India After All

I’m in the conference centre in Hyderabad, India for the 3rd Internet Governance Forum. A few days ago, I was certain I would not be here. Several people told me I was crazy to come considering recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. I did cancel my travel plans that would have had me spending a day in Mumbai only a couple days after the initial terrorist attacks (and as it turns out while some terrorists were still holding out in the hotels).

So why did I decide to come to India? Good question – I had pretty much decided not to come but then my wife was extra supportive and encouraging me to go, even though she’s probably more worried than I am. Even though I hate it when terrorists’ tactics are proven effective by people canceling plans or avoiding places, I personally do not feel that I need to wade into these volatile environments. But this was an opportunity of a lifetime.

Earlier this year, the Internet Society held a competition for people around the world to attend as honourary ambassadors. I was one of thirteen people from around the world who were chosen to attend and were sponsored. This was a significant honour for me so I really didn’t want to pass it up. It’s not every day one gets invited to attend a United Nations conference after all.

One incentive to come was a chance to visit India. As one who loves history, culture, and architecture it sure was an excellent chance to travel to a place that I probably wouldn’t be able to swing on my budget and with my young daughter in toe. The 35+ hours to get here, door to door, was so painful that this alone makes it almost not worth it. My daughter would have lasted about 5 hours of this trip. I did get a few hours to check out Hyderabad and like everyone always says it is indeed a land of contrasts – the tech headquarters here (Microsoft, Google) are huge, impressive modern buildings (as is the hotel, Ista, that I’m staying at) but the poverty is front and center as seen by the many roadside tents where families live.

The main reason I wanted to come here is that I really believe in not only the goals of the Internet Governance Forum. The main themes of the conference (and which I’ll be elaborating in ensuing blog posts) are how to help reach the next billion people to help them come online (this encompasses bridging digital divide, a multilingual Net issues, and accessibility), promoting cyber security and trust, managing critical internet resources (Net neutrality figures prominently here), and emerging issues.

Website accessibility, the topic of my upcoming master’s thesis, is a topic of many of the workshops and seminars here. I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing from experts in this field and hopefully gaining some insight for my research.

Another big reason I decided to come is that I really wanted the opportunity to meet others who feel passionately about the Internet in general and these issues in specific. This conference brings people from all around the world; 1500 – 2000 people are anticipated. Toronto has a thriving web community, but most of the events center around the Net as a marketing tool, and I find events dealing with the social value of the Net to be lacking. Upon my return to Canada, I’m hoping to help revive the Canadian chapter of the Internet Society – so if you’re interested please let me know.