Agile innovation in income generation for charities

How to create better confirm and reject popups

Computers often ask us to confirm our intentions. Asking ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ is a useful way to reduce input errors, but the way this question is posed is inconsistent. We could improve the user experience – and reduce errors – by making it more consistent.

Here are a couple of current inconsistencies that introduce unnecessary mental overhead, and making error prevention less effective:

Positioning of ‘confirm’ and ‘do not confirm’ options

When deleting a tweet in Hootsuite, the placement of the ‘confirm’ button is on the left; in twitter it’s on the right:

the confirm / reject delete tweet popup in hootsuite

twitter delete tweet - confirm or reject

Note that both highlight the user’s probable intended action – ‘confirm deletion’.

Use of highlighting to show the user’s probable intended action

Not everywhere uses highlighting:

vertical response confirm reject deletion message

How could we improve our popup messages to make them more consistent and useful?

Some rules for creating better confirm and reject  popups

  • Place the ‘confirm’ option on the right and the ‘do not confirm’ option on the left.
  • Make your option buttons descriptive so that it’s very clear what each option entails.
    Avoid using the generic ‘Okay’ – instead, use imperatives like ‘Delete’.
  • Highlight the action the user probably intended to take.
  • If the user is about to do something potentially dangerous, grey out the ‘confirm’ option for a couple of seconds.
    Additional popups are annoying. If you really need to make someone wait to read a message – eg if you want them to confirm running a file they downloaded from the internet – grey out the ‘confirm’ option for a couple of seconds like Firefox does:

firefox popup - confirm or reject file save or open


Filtering RSS feeds for a more useful inbound content stream

Noise is the price we pay for volume and diversity of content.
I’m hopeful that we can reap the rewards of the wealth of information around us, while minimising the price way pay having to filter through it to get to the good stuff.

I’m interested in the task of focusing on relevant, helpful material and reducing the mental overhead of filtering out irrelevant material. In this post I look at one way to bring a bit of order and clarity to your RSS feed subscriptions, so that they are more focused and useful.

To do this, we use Yahoo Pipes – an online tool that can manipulate information from around the web, and serve it to you in a range of formats.

You can make  your own pipes, and so create your own processes for gathering and manipulating information and content.

Each pipe takes an input – or a range of inputs – does stuff with it – in some sort of sequence – and then presents an output.

Data flows through pipes, gets processed appropriately at different points, and goes down to the output. You can then do stuff with this output – in our case we want to subscribe to it as an RSS feed.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of how we can use yahoo pipes to filter content:

Filtering the SEOmoz feed, so that I only see Whiteboard Fridays material

One very important area of digital change is SEO.

Watching SEOmoz’s weekly Whiteboard Friday video is a great way to keep up-to-date with best practice, and to see experts figure out the implications of any changes in the search landscape.

I’m not a dedicated SEO professional, though, so I don’t really have time to read all the posts on SEOmoz. But I do want to keep up with Whiteboard Fridays.The SEOmoz RSS feed doesn’t know this, of course, so it just serves me all the content produced on the site.

Ideally I’d be able to filter this RSS feed, so that I just get my weekly delivery of Whiteboard Friday and nothing else. This is super-easy to do with Pipes:

In the Pipe editor, click on the ‘Sources’ heading, then drag ‘Fetch Feed’ into the editing area.

This is where we specify the RSS feed we want to filter. In this case we paste in

Now it’s time to add in a filter, and set it to only let through Whiteboard Fridays posts. Under the ‘Operators’ heading, grab the ‘Filter’ module.

Connect the output of ‘Fetch Feed’ to the this module. (Connect modules by dragging from the circle at the bottom of one (its output) to the circle at the top of another (its input). This creates a pipe. Make sure that the output from your final process is linked up to the output!)

Now it’s time to specify the filter we want. This looks a little intimidating at first, but if you click on the left-hand column Yahoo Pipes makes some suggestions. In this case we want to the filter to only allow through content whose title contains ‘whiteboard friday’.

yahoo pipes being used to filter whiteboard fridays

Have a look at this pipe and make a copy of your own – or remix it!

You can add multiple rules for each filter, which can give you lots of power. You could, for example, filter the NHS Choices Behind the Headlines feed so that you see material about ‘cancer’ or ‘dementia’ but nothing else.

You can filter by more than item.title. You can also filter by item.description, which seems to be the item’s content, or at least an excerpt.

Filtering the Telegraph Comment feed so that it just displays editorial content

I’m a leftie Guardian reader, but I want to make sure that I’m presented with a range of different views so that my ideas aren’t just informed by one way of thinking. It’s good practice to see different sides of an argument, to judge for oneself which is better, lest we fall into sloppy thinking. (I used to be an Economist subscriber, but keeping up with the volume of content it produced was punishing.)

I don’t want to read all the Comment pieces in the Telegraph, though. I’d rather just read the editorial. The naming convention on the Telegraph’s Comment feed seems to be that editorials are written by the author ‘Telegraph View’. So I set up a filter to only let through this content:

yahoo pipes filtering the telegraph comment feed to only display editorial content


Head over to yahoo pipes to see this pipe in action.

Don’t kill the noise

A word of caution: you need noise in your life. Noise is new, unknown, challenging, thought-expanding. Processing it takes effort, and can be uncomfortable, but it has rewards. So don’t filter it out entirely. (Indeed, the whole point of the Telegraph filter is to increase the ideological noise in my life)

But sometimes you know what you want from a given RSS feed, and you don’t want to see anything beyond that. Be in control of the noise – this is the time to filter. Save you brainpower for filtering through the noise in areas where you’d like to expand your knowledge and understanding beyond what you currently think you need to know.

What is gamification and how might it be useful for charities?

Gamify This! – NFP Tweetup 18, 13 March 2013. I’ve picked 10 or so tweets to summarise the evening, and added in some of my own notes.

  1. Gamification is making an activity more like a game.

    The definition of ‘game’ used here encompasses rewards, external markers of success, and (often) competition; but it also incorporates play, fun and collaboration.

  2. Gamification defined – taking something that isn’t usually a game, but applying game principles #nfptweetup
  3. Don’t just ‘gamify’ – you need a goal and to tailor towards it. Reward the behaviours you want to encourage; don’t go half-baked #nfptweetup
  4. #nfptweetup Why do gamification? For fun. To solve problems. To reward people & take advantage of competitive behaviour
  5. A recommended book on gamification (@david_whitney, on the panel, made the original recommendation):
  6. Yes a damn fine book RT @aarora17: This is the book #nfptweetup > Gamestorming:Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers+Changemakers
  7. Some examples of gamification

  8. Cancer Research UK’s Dryathalon:

    Dryathalon – Not drinking for a month, to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

    Based on 12 months of research and preparation.

    “Men are willing to support a charity as long as it is low involvement, derives personal benefit, and facilitates banter with friends.”

  9. 41% more was raised by people who signed up for the gamification, as opposed to those who only signed up for JustGiving accounts. (Aside: how much of this difference would we expect to see through normal stewardship?)

    They used the JustGiving API to grab data each day for the overall leader board.

  10. They also used data from the API to send each dryathlete an email when they hit certain fundraising targets. Participants were sent a badge signifying the milestone. Messages thanked them for their support, and told them about the cause they were contributing to. (We don’t yet know the extent to which the cause message appealed to people, or if they were just interested in the personal/competitive milestone.) Open rates for these emails were 60%.

    Impressive results, reaching a new audience. 80% of followers of the dryathalon Facebook page do not follow Cancer Research UK on any other platform.

  11. Dryathlon- I take my hat off to you. New audience of young males; £4m raised; merging the fun competition with serious messaging #nfptweetup
  12. I wonder the extent to which this could lead to longer-run behavioral change, or sustained engagement with the charity.

  13. Citizen Science

    Crowdsourcing simpler elements of scientific work. One example of citizen science is Cell Slider, also from Cancer Research UK.

    I’ve seen similar projects with protein folding – eg fold it: solve puzzles for science – and with distributed computing (although projects like World Community Grid and SETI@home don’t have an active game element to them – they’re just about donating your computer’s processing power. You do get feedback on your contribution, though.)
  14. Can take CRUK scientists up to 18 months to classify cells – open up the data & putting in a game to analyse data stream #nfptweetup
  15. Gamification doesn’t require computers

  16. An old school charity “gamification” which occurred to me is blood donor awards. Remember my nan being chuffed she got silver! #nfptweetup
  17. Some challenges faced by gamification

    How do you keep people interested in a sustainable way? @b33god cited Foursquare’s recent traffic plateau here.
    Could competitiveness demotivate some people?
    Could gamification appear crass or insensitive for some causes?

    Breakout session – Could we communicate a short public health message through gamification?

    Some ideas:

    You could have a leader board for spreading the message, and track the number of people reached by the entire campaign for a more collaborative focus.
    You could award badges for the top participants in a given time period.
    You could crowdsource content generation and rating.

    Lifestyle change seems like a good target for gamification’s incentive structures. The ability to have emotional feedback, a system for tracking progress (and required tasks?), as well as sharing with peers for support, combine nicely.

    Adding a layer of personal, tangible reward to quitting smoking sounds like a great idea, for example:
  18. “Kickit a good way of linking goals with money saved towards treating yourself to eg an iPad” #nfptweetup
  19. The power of games, rather than gamification

Your instincts can only take you so far, so let data take the next step

Alternative title: “What ear wax taught me about being a digital communicator”.

Being creative and having lots of different ideas is fantastic. But as a digital communicator this is not the end of your job. You can relentlessly use data and evidence to improve your work and focus in on the best ideas. Or, in the case of Google Adwords, you can let an algorithm do this for you.

When writing ad copy for pay-per click adverts, it can be impossible to predict which particular variant of a message will be most effective. When writing ad copy on information on ear wax, the following adverts were all very similar, but there was a big variation in clickthrough rates. This allowed Google to hone in on the most effective ad.

Who would have known that “Tips and info on ear wax / Access our expert information / on ear wax and other conditions” (3.54% clickthroughs) would be so much more effective than “Tips on ear wax / Access our expert information /on ear wax and other conditions.” (1.72% clickthroughs)? Your instincts can set up the environment for success; analytics help you focus in and achieve it.

a selection of ppc adverts for information on ear wax

Similarly, for our marathon adverts, my main idea was to produce three main types of copy: one focusing around the challenge itself, another focusing around our organisation’s mission, and another focusing on the attraction of guaranteed places. The data triangulated the best theme and the best wording.

So it pays to be open, to experiment with a range of options, and to go with evidence of what actually works. The eventual success of the London tube map (after someone decided to actually test with users!) is testament to the importance of being humble and testing new ideas.

Creativity, breadth and instincts are important for digital communicators. Take things further by embracing the unknown and using evidence to help you understand things that your instincts can’t handle.

Do any of you have good examples of when data has taken you further than instincts alone could manage? Any good A/B testing stories? Anything counter-intuitive?

Advice on learning computer programming

I dived in to learning programming in 2012. If you’re interested in doing the same I’d like to share some of my recommendations with you.

For the last year or two there’s been a lot of buzz around efforts to introduce more people to programming. We’ve seen the launch of online platforms like Coursera, Udacity and EdX, all leading their offerings with computer science courses. The Code Academy startup offers interactive coding lessons. We’ve seen changes to the UK’s secondary ICT / Computer Science curriculum to make things more about programming and less about subservient use of MS Office. Last year saw the launch of the $25 Raspberry Pi computer to encourage young people to tinker, play and experiment.

Of course, there are lots of great resources that pre-date the last couple of years. So if you want to learn to program in 2013, there are lots of places you can go. Everything I recommend below is free.

What do you want to learn?

If you’re interested in programming, you might have a specific end goal in mind. Or you might just want to get a feel for programming and computing as a whole. My desire, starting 2012, was “to be able to get computers to do useful stuff”. Over time, I’ve been able to develop a stronger understanding of what I’m interested in specifically.

My suggestion would be to learn some basic principles, gain an appreciation of the landscape and what you might want to do, and then move in that direction when you’re ready. To do that, I’d advise you to:

Start with Stanford’s cs101

This course gives a good overview of how computers work and gives a nice introduction to computer programs.

It has a great mix between listening to an expert (Stanford’s Nick Parlante) and diving in and doing interactive programming exercises yourself. The course is bite-size, and takes you on a really useful journey through the conceptual terrain. The difficulty curve is quite gentle.

The course is divided into ‘weeks’. Each of these takes about 3-5 hours in total. I found this quite easy to fit in with my schedule. The course is currently open for self-study, so you can take it at your own pace.

I had a little go at Code Academy, but it didn’t hold my interest as strongly as this course did. This course felt more holistic and profound, whilst retaining a good degree of hands-on work.

This course might sate your appetite in itself; but if you’re hungry for more afterwards, these more difficult courses will take your understanding to the next level. So your next step might be to:

Follow-up with EdX’s Cs50x

This is Harvard’s introductory computer science course.

The format is pretty much: “We videod all our lectures, and have made the specifications for problem sets available online. There’s an online discussion forum to discuss problem sets and other ideas about and beyond the course.” So the organisation of the course is a bit old-school: you’ll watch a couple of hours of video lectures each ‘week’, and then do a lengthy problem set for homework, which will take around 15-20 hours.

The difficulty curve is pretty tough, and if you went into this with no prior experience you’d have a hard time.

The course dives deeper into programming specifically, using the C language, and does a really good job of starting you off as a programmer. The course gets you thinking in algorithms and introduces the comcept of computational efficiency. “Topics include abstraction, algorithms, data structures, encapsulation, resource management, security, software engineering, and web development.”

The course has you use the CS50 appliance – a virtual machine running on your computer, using the fedora linux distro. It’s also very good for simply increasing your confidence and literacy in using software and operating systems.

I’m over half way through this course and having a great time so far. I’ve got three problems sets, my final project, and final exam to do before April 15.

The current run-through of the course finishes on April 15. I imagine that course material will still be available after this data. If this isn’t the case, you could download all the materials in advance of this date.

Or follow-up with Udacity’s CS101

Udacity’s CS101 takes a more bite-size approach. This course is designed for online consumption. It’s all delivered in-browser, with short videos intersected with interactive questions or small programming assignments. Each topic is rounded off with a series of homework questions.

The course has no time limit, so can be taken entirely at your own pace.

This course is much more approachable than EdX’s CS50, and feels a little more abstracted, as it’s using the Python language rather than C, but you still very much get your hands dirty with coding. Over the 7 units, you create a working search engine, which is very cool. You might not feel much ownership over it, however, as you have to do as you’re told.

To make sure that you use your powers for good rather than evil, take a Human Computer Interaction Course

An HCI course will get you thinking about how to design products that are easy to use and make the world better. Coursera’s excellent HCI course is just the ticket. You can watch the videos and take the interactive quizzes, or do a version of the course that requires you to do a design project. This is a serious undertaking – I spent about 25 hours a week on this course – but is a great way to learn.

Tips for making your learning effective

    • Make sure you plan enough time to fit in the learning
      Think about your learning will fit in your schedule, and make honest commitments. Let friends and family know what you’re up to.
      If you’re a commuter, I’ve found watching lectures on the train to and from work to be a great way to frame the working day.


    • Pace yourself
      There’s so much out there to learn and do, so many people to connect with, and so many experiences to have that it’s easy to overstretch and try and do too much and feel disheartened when you can’t do it all. Focus in on the things you enjoy best.


    • Follow what interests and excites you
      There are lots of ways to learn, and lots of different topics to learn. The internet is awash with free courses and resources. Your investment and risk in sampling each is minimal, so don’t be afraid to try and few and stick with the ones you like best.


    • Learning with others can help
      It can be quite lonely doing these courses, particularly if you get stuck. 
      Online forums can be very helpful for answering specific questions. There are some excellent people in there who will generously help you with your questions. But for all of these programming courses, I’ve found the forums too noisy to spend much time in. (Maybe I haven’t invested enough time in them?)I’ve found that forging closer connections with other learners is a powerful and motivating, way to learn. I’ve managed this in some of my online learning (eg MOOCMOOC), but not in any of these computer science courses. I’ve relied on personal friends to chat over the course in a more informal way, and to trade war stories about a challenging bit of code.


    • A mentor might be very helpful
      I’ve done all of these courses pretty much on my own. When things get tough, and when you’re not feeling confident, it can be hard to keep going. In the wilds of the internet, it’s very easy to be just an another anonymous consumer, and just as easy to drop off the radar. No one else is responsible for your learning, or for encouraging you along. The majority of people who sign up for a ‘massive open online courses’ drop out.It might help to find someone knowledgeable to support you in your learning. Just knowing that you can call on them to ask questions, or to help point you in the right direction might help.


    • Build something
      Your new skills will help you create things you wouldn’t have been able to before, and expand your mental and creative horizons. Don’t be scared to take your skills for a spin and to make something awesome!


Does anyone else have any advice to share about learning to programme? Are any of you planning to do so this year? If so, what are you going to start with, and what do you hope to learn?

Google announces 2 changes to Google Grants for 28 January 2013

I received an email from Google announcing a couple of changes to the Google Grants programme:

“We are writing to let you know about a few changes to the Google Grants programme.

As part of our ongoing efforts to grow our advertising programme for nonprofits, we are making two changes to the Grants programme.

First, as of January 28, 2013, Google Grantees may bid up to $2.00 USD on keywords. This is an increase from the previous CPC bid cap of $1.00 USD and may allow your ads to enter auctions previously unavailable at the $1.00 bid cap.

Second, to balance the interests of businesses who pay to advertise on Google search, your ads will now appear below the ads of traditional AdWords advertisers.”

The second point here is by far the more important. As I understand it, this means that Google Grant adverts will now appear below all paid adverts.

When operating a business, money talks. But when your business is running a search engine, quality results should talk louder. This quality is the ultimate source of advertising revenue.

I had thought that the way that Google’s AdWord bidding operates – boosting the power of high-quality adverts, so that placement isn’t just determined by the money bid – was a decent compromise. Under the $1 Google Grant cap, some areas were out of reach – particularly for fundraising – but with good quality adverts and content, your $1 could go a long way in some cases.

I’ll be interested to see what impact this change has on the effectiveness of the Google Grant for charities.

10 interview questions to ask a digital communications manager

Lots of organisations are recruiting digital communications managers right now. This role requires a wide range of skills: strategic thinking, creativity, flair and instinct for written and oral communications, combined with sharp technical skills, an enquiring mind and an enthusiasm to dive deep into intricate problems and emerge with practical results.

But if you’re not a digital specialist yourself, it can be hard to know what questions to ask your candidate. And if you’re not confident in technical matters the power balance can be the wrong way round.

The following list of questions is designed to help you probe someone’s digital communication competencies. You’re looking for confidence, specific examples of achievements and knowledge rather than floating buzz words.

1) Tell me about something in the world of digital communications that has impressed you recently.

Do they care about their field? Are they excited by it and its possibilities? Hopefully you’ll sense some in their eyes as they answer this question.

This question also probes whether they have their ear to the ground. As a follow-up question you could ask: What makes for good content or a good digital campaign?

2) What’s your diagnosis of this organisation’s digital presence, and what 2 key changes would be your initial priorities?

Hopefully you’ll have some idea about what could be improved with your digital presence before the interview. If you don’t have any expertise in house, I’d recommend jumping on to a platform like Sparked and asking the volunteers there for their opinion before the interview. The community there is very helpful with challenges like this, and will give you some good ammunition.

There are lots of things that could be wrong with your digital presence. Perhaps the website displays horribly on tablets, maybe the twitter presence is more marketing spam than useful, engaging material. Perhaps the branding is sloppy, the accessibility is imperfect, or the tone is all wrong. Maybe the digital communications are focusing on the wrong things.

Whilst the substance of the answer to this question is important, also evaluate how it is articulated. Is this someone who will be able to diplomatically deal with stakeholders across the organisation?
Does it feel like they’d focus on the core issues, or get lost in vanity projects or sideshows?

3) Are you afraid of penguins or pandas?

This is a slightly mean but actually very manageable question about search engine optimisation (SEO), designed to trip up charlatans. If knowledge of SEO is on the job description, don’t be satisfied with waffle about keywords and page rank.

This question refers to two big changes to the workings of the Google search algorithm in the last year or so. These are the ‘Panda’ and ‘Penguin’ updates. So this question will tease out whether they keep up-to-date with search engine optimisation (SEO).

In short, Panda aimed to reward sites with quality content, and to punish sites with low quality and duplicate content. The Penguin update aimed to tackle sites that manipulate search engines to rank more highly than they deserve to be ranked. This includes tactics like stuffing pages with keywords, or obtaining links from disreputable websites in an attempt to pretend that a website is seen as useful.

4) What’s your favourite CMS and why?

If you’re doing digital communications, you’ll probably be involved with content and content management systems. Hopefully your candidate will have used a few and have been paying sufficient attention to prefer some over others, and have intelligent reasons for doing so.

Do their points suggest an awareness of the strategic issues at play in choosing a CMS? Issues like security, updating, the availability of developers to work on a particular platform, data liberation, and open source will hopefully be raised.

5) In what specific ways are you more skilled and better able to do your job than this time last year?

Things are changing fast, so if you can’t say how you’ve bettered yourself in the last year you’re pretty much moving backwards. Hopefully you’ve learned from your own experience, and from changes in the wider world of digital communications.

Follow up: How do you keep up-to-date with changing practice?

They may well use a mixture of twitter, in person meetups and RSS feeds. Ask them to name a couple of favourite sources of information – they can be people or organisations or websites.

6) What’s the scariest technical error you’ve ever encountered and how did you fix it?

We’re looking for technical skills, strategic direction, problem solving, stakeholder management, expectation management, and a drive to learn from problems and improve processes. Don’t hesitate to ask them to frame their answer differently if it’s not making sense.

7) What do you think about the ICO’s interpretation of the EU cookie directive?

Earlier this year the ICO formally began enforcing an EU privacy directive from 2009 that covers cookies. This is why you now see so many popups on websites asking you to consent for cookies.

The ICO’s guidance on consent, in the run up to the enforcement deadline, was a source of heated discussion. Shortly before enforcement began, the concept of ‘implied consent’ was introduced. Whether your candidate thinks this was sensible pragmatism from an organisation tasked with enforcing an impossible EU directive, or a frustrating last-minute change of tack that has abandoned consumers to continued electronic surveillance and marketing, the main thing is that they can give you an answer. You certainly don’t want to see a glazed expression .

8) What are the most important performance indicators for digital communications?

Hopefully their response will go beyond measuring statistics like ‘time on site’ and ‘number of pages per visit’ and talk about measuring the achievement of the organisation’s aims using digital.

Ask them how they’d measure the achievement of the organisation’s aims online, and what experience they have in doing this. Of course, once you’re able to measure how well an organisation’s digital presence is helping it achieve its objectives, you can try to improve thi, in an evidence-led way.

They might also hit on the thornier question of social media measurement. They’ll hopefully talk about engagement. Perhaps they’re even reading Beth Kanter’s new book ‘Measuring the Networked Nonprofit’. Ask them how they’ve increased this, how they’ve measured their successes, and what returned has come from this.

9) Talk me through the main user group on your website and their user journey and what you’ve done to make it more effective.

Do they know who the main user group is? How do they know this? What sort of testing have they done to find out? What sort of data have they used? Have they made assumptions?

10) Have analytics ever shown you something difficult or strange or surprising? What did you do next?

This question isn’t coming from a particular angle, but should hopefully see how they combine problem solving, instincts, data, initiative and creativity, as well as their ability to deal with uncertainty.


Hopefully by using some of these questions you’ll be in a better position to pick a great digital communications manager. I’d say that the main attributes are enthusiasm and ravenous desire to learn, understand and improve. If they’ve been doing this long enough to be a manager, they should have good evidence of these things.

If you can think of any other questions to add, please leave a comment!

Why it’s important to backup your content database(s)

I went to share an exciting hearing research story on twitter this evening and found that the link wasn’t working properly. Rather than a short blog post on an impressive piece of research, however, I arrived at the following screen:

could not complete the search - error message

This isn’t the type of message any digital communications manager wants to see on their website shortly before 11pm, and certainly not the state I’d left the site in at 5:45pm. Thankfully I’d planned for problems like this.

I remembered seeing this error message near the top of a php template (line 16):

could not complete the search - the php code that led to this error message

So I suspected that our main content database had become corrupted somehow. I started by attempting to view the control panel login page. That was working fine, which confirmed that the server itself was up and running happily. (Indeed, if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have been able to see the error message in the first place).

My next step was to try the content management system login page. This page loaded, which was a good start. There could potentially be a useful diagnostic message inside. Unfortunately the login functionality had stopped working. All this suggested that there was something wrong with the database.

Thankfully we keep daily backups of our content databases, (I’ll write a future blog about our backup strategy at Deafness Research UK) so I just jumped on to Dropbox and downloaded the latest backup of the main content database, from 6 hours ago. Just to be safe, I backed up a copy of the databases currently on the server – even though one of them seemed to be broken.

My next step was to put on some chilled prog rock (Camel’s Mystic Queen). So far the diagnostic process had taken a couple of minutes. I was pretty confident that I was on the right track and wanted a relaxed mood for the rest of the operation.

I jumped in to cPanel, Backup Wizard > Restore > MySQL Databases, and then uploaded the main content database:

restoring database

I had the problem sorted before the song had finished.

How can I improve my response to this problem in future?

My response was speedy and effective, but the I was fortunate to have noticed that there was a problem. Had I not been checking that link, this problem could have just as easily been waiting for me  tomorrow morning.

What’s the best way to know if something’s wrong with your website?

I have automated systems to check server uptime, and to contact me in the case of hosting downtime and log any gap in service, but not to check if the website is actually operating properly. As we saw above, the server itself was responding happily to requests, but the database on the server had broken a bit.

I’ll have a look tomorrow to see if there are any good tools to use here. If there aren’t any, I might have a final project idea for my CS50x course… You’d need to know the different potential error messages, and periodically iterate through the front page searching for these. A ‘successful’ search would then need to trigger an action of some kind, such as an email being sent to my personal address.

Towards digital service provision by charities

Charities are still working out how best to harness digital communications for fundraising. (See Public Zone’s Digital Handbook, for example).

But digital’s untapped potential extends far beyond fundraising. I’m most interested in seeing how we can use digital technology to improve service provision and to directly change the world for the better. In this post I outline two ways of achieving this.

1) Providing static information online

Providing information is a common charitable objective, and can be carried out very effectively online.

Creating useful web pages, visible to search engines and for the queries users are likely to enter in to them, is a good start. The SEOmoz guide to SEO is helpful here.

At Deafness Research UK we’ve been working to improve our provision of static information. Most visitors to our website are looking for information. Most of our visitors arrive through organic search, and the search terms they use show that they are looking for a solution to a specific problem, rather than being interested in our charity, or knowing in advance that we can help them. Many more people come into contact with us through this route than come to our dedicated Advisory Service.

Providing information and support is one of our charitable objectives, so we’ve worked to improve how well we use digital channels to achieve this. We use data on what people arriving at our site are searching for and produce content accordingly. So we extended our tinnitus and glue ear information, for example. We also look at what people are searching for on the internet as a whole, so that we can pick up gaps in our provision.

We’ve started taking this objective seriously by building it more strongly in to our reporting. Rather than focusing our website reporting on slightly arbitrary statistics – bounce rates, dwell time, overall pageviews – we’ve set up a series of goals in Google Analytics to track downloads of our resources, as well as tracking pageviews of our information content.

We’ve made our factsheets more visible and easy to download. From September to November 2012, these changes, along with the implementation of a Google Grant, led to a 103% increase in website goal completions. And because these goals are driven by our corporate objectives, they actually mean something.

Providing static content more effectively is great. For a lot of people this will be all the help they need. But we can take things at least one step further than this.

2) Using social media to provide interactive services online

  • We can proactively address people’s problems and concerns in a range of online spaces.

    At Deafness Research UK we’ve made some forays into proactively answering people’s questions on Yahoo Answers, and through twitter. By setting up twitter searches (see point 2 here) and Google Alerts, with a little bit of filtering you can keep an eye out for anyone talking about terms you might be able to help with.This is useful because lots of people who might want help don’t know about the support we can provide. And people experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss often don’t know that they need to seek urgent medical attention if there’s to be any chance of regaining their hearing.Ideally I’d like for us to commit to get in touch with anyone talking online who sounds like they might be affected by this type of sudden hearing loss. This would allow us to make more of a difference than simply providing a reactive service.By going beyond the online spaces we know, own and control – our facebook pages, websites and email inboxes –  into streams of activity on social media and online forums, we can help a lot more people.There are a few issues to consider when thinking about providing interactive advice and support online:- Can we ensure the provision of quality interactions and information through interactive channels? I think we can. If we’re relying on trained officers to deliver support on our helplines, I suspect that similar safeguards will help us provide quality information online.- Where do our beneficiaries stop? Should a UK organisation only provide support to people in the UK – and potential UK donors?

    – Private, longer-form, potentially more personal channels – such as email and telephone – are essential for any service providing advice and support. The ability to directly speak to an immediately responsive, warm, human with a voice is important, and for the next few years at least that will mean telephone helplines are essential.

  • Making connections online can directly help us achieve other charitable objectives.

    The Dogs’ Trust uses twitter to rehouse dogs, for example. I learnt at the November 2012 NFP Tweetup that it took them seven months of work to house the first dog, with another ten being housed in the next six months, with numbers growing from there. Switching to digital service provision can take time, but if your objectives align, there may be significant gains to be realised.

Providing interactive services online is a great way to publicly achieve your charitable objectives. But this is only part of the story. In my next post I want to go further, and propose how charities can use digital to encourage profound social change.