Building mobile apps using WordPress

I’ve been wanting to test a hypothesis, but I think my time (and skill) are going to come up short.  So, I’m hoping I can use my blog here to get people to help me and shortcut some of the madness that comes when tinkering with code for hours on end.

The idea is that WordPress could be used as a mobile app publishing platform.  Ideally, people with little or no technical expertise could build, deploy and manage really good apps.  If WordPress can do that for publishing on the web, then why can’t it (or something similar) do the same for publishing in an app container?

So, what I’m trying to do is pump topical articles, images and video from the Guardian’s API into a WordPress instance that will then render everything in a nice HTML5 theme.  And then I want to package up that experience which is mostly just for the iOS web view into an app for the app store.

I’ve asked a few people about this, and after we get through the common debate, “why should it be a native app and not a web site?” the conversation about the approaches then varies quite a bit.  (I’m not convinced it should be an app and not a web site, but I want to try it nonetheless.)

To start with, there aren’t many known iPad-friendly themes for WordPress.  There’s WPTouch which is very popular (1.3M downloads).  And Mobility which looks very nice.  But there’s a lot of room for theme developers to come up with some better iPad options.

Then there’s the issue of flowing content into WordPress.  Is it better to pull the API via a plugin or to post content via XMLRPC?

We have a plugin that could be reused to accomplish what I’m after with some tweaks, but I want to simplify it to something that’s essentially invisible to an editor.  I was playing with the auto-post via XMLRPC idea the other night, and stumbled into a Simon Willison script meant to make this easier.  Is there any advantage to one solution over the other?

Now, let’s say we solve the theme and auto-posting issues…how do we package up the app for delivery via the app store?  The iOS publishing tools seem pretty incomplete, so far.  I nearly had Titanium Appcelerator setup before finding my Mac is incapable of running the iOS SDK.  I’m stuck on the deployment part of this project at the moment.

Anyhow, if you accept the premise that WordPress could be a useful delivery platform for mobile apps, then I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to do that.  Obviously, it could easily be a flawed idea in the first place, and I’d love to hear other solutions to the problem.

Making smaller things have bigger meaning

The atomization of everything digital is a wonderful direction of travel which seems to create more and more opportunity the deeper we go.

It’s only going to accelerate, really.  More and more raw data is getting published.  Short-form dialog is proliferating.  More apps are on more devices responding better to ever-smaller information signals.

The problem is that this massive growth of small things also creates some challenges when meaning gets lost in the detail.

By deconstructing and isolating everything we understand, from data in a news article to the exact position of a device on the planet, we can then assemble new views of the world and reinvent knowledge itself.  It’s heady stuff when you start seeing how time and space converge onto small points.

But globalizing small things also creates imbalances. It means that the weight of the world’s attention can crush unstable information.  It means chunky and complicated ideas have to compete with individual and often out-of-context datapoints in the same environments.  And small things can be elevated to have more meaning than they deserve.

Glenn Beck famously uses such tactics by saying things like ‘fear is up 6%.’

The atomization of everything often seems to happen at the expense of context. That isn’t good. Atomization and context should at least co-exist if not actually reinforce each other.

I was reminded of how important it is to develop context more when Joris Luyendijk, a Dutch reporter and author, visited the Guardian the other day to talk about what he’s working on.

Joris has been applying some interesting approaches to reporting, collaborating very explicitly with experts to educate himself and therefore his readers on big themes.  He’s asking the question, “Is the electric car a good idea?”  The collaborative process he’s using is fueling a community of shared interest that includes among its members thought leaders, scientists, officials and challengers in addition to an increasingly engaged community of more peripheral readers.

He needed to step out of the news cycle in order to do the work properly.  Joris said that competing at the pace of news means that reporting must focus on the changes happening in the world, the abnormalities.  The variance becomes more important than the purpose of reporting something. The result is a news popularity contest.

We saw this with the US midterm elections. The witchcraft variant squeezed out the slower-paced topics such as repealing healthcare law.

News should be more than an expression of normality variance.  News is not a changelog

Computers are complicit here. They are brilliant at finding variance in streams of data. The Google News algorithm is a great example of how effective machines can be at discovering and amplifying new information. But when a machine-driven system becomes successful at amplifying small things, new machines will find small things to create in order to get amplified.

For example, 70 Holdings is an SEO business that targets Google News through a sort of network of blogs.  They simply produce content that will attract attention. The company elicits “clicks and ad impressions on content simply because it ranks among the highest–and supposedly most trustworthy–results on Google News,” according to CNET. And this is not much different from what Demand Media is up to, too.

That kind of ecosystem fools itself into thinking that it informs people or that it understands intent, but all it really does is direct click traffic patterns, casting a huge net hoping to catch a few fish.

What it fails to understand is that the signals they are using to interpret intent, variances in data flow, lack any awareness of the context of the activity observed by the machines.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee suggests journalists need to surface the stories in the data:

“Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times.

But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.”

Experts, inside sources, stories, commenters, readers and even data are all going to benefit from the existence of each other and the new knowledge each contributes when they are connected via context, a theme, an idea. And if the human inputs to an idea all benefit from the existence of eachother then the story will find itself at the center of a new kind of network effect.

Consequently, the business models around network effects can be incredibly powerful.

News then becomes connective tissue for people who share an interest in an idea.

Some view linked data as the connective tissue and news as a transport vehicle for ideas to spread.  Zemanta and Storify both tackle the problem this way.  Zemanta finds related context when you write a blog post from around the web through linked data.  Storify helps you connect things you write with things people are posting on twitter and youtube.

The fact that the Internet makes it possible to connect to people around the world so easily should mean that it’s easier to engage with things that matter to us, but it often feels like the opposite is happening.

The noise makes us numb.

We need to amplify meaning when it matters. We need to value the small things in some sort of understandable scale.

Without these dynamics, we will lose the forest through the trees and find the flood of media in the world overwhelming and increasingly useless to us. That’s already happening to many.

While social filters are helping with this problem, they are also atomizing relationships and creating even more noise.

In a recent blog post “The False Question Of Attention Economics“, Stowe Boyd wrote about the need to innovate around our relationship to information rather than give up and drown it:

“I suggest we just haven’t experimented enough with ways to render information in more usable ways, and once we start to do so, it will like take 10 years (the 10,000 hour rule again) before anyone demonstrates real mastery of the techniques involved.

Instead, I suggest we continue experimenting, cooking up new ways to represent and experience the flow of information, our friends’ thoughts, recommendations, and whims, and the mess that is boiling in the huge cauldron we call the web.”

Our world would be much worse off if the flow of information slowed down or reversed.  There’s so much to be gained still.

I think the solution, rather, is to fuel meaning and understanding by directing atomization toward a purpose, giving it context, and framing it in a space that makes it matter to people.

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My new role at the Guardian

Today I start a new job, Director of Digital Strategy at Guardian Media Group.  The change is part of a wider move happening here at the company (see below).

The job will probably have a few different aspects to it, but the overall intent is for me to work very closely with GMG CEO Andrew Miller (my new boss) and Editor Alan Rusbridger and everyone in the business to align what we’re good at with where the market is going.

I’ve learned a few things about that already.  The question I get asked more than any other when people want to learn about the Guardian’s Open Platform is, “How did you convince the business to back it?

To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that. There was a lot of powerpointing to define a view of the market we wanted to play in. We benefited from establishing some important vision statements like “weaving the Guardian into the fabric of the Internet”. I had tireless support from Mike Bracken and an engineering team that already knew what to build.

But nobody needed to be convinced.  The hard part really was figuring out how to get from idea to launch. And then I just acted as shepherd.

To me, the more interesting question isn’t about selling an idea but rather one of culture, “What is it about the Guardian that makes it possible to be so bold digitally?

There are some obvious reasons like the ownership structure, the people, the tradition of openness, etc.  Editor Alan Rusbridger expanded on our operating philosophy here in an article titled “Openness, Collaboration Key to New Information Ecosystem” which was published by Poynter in the September report “Brave New Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape (pdf)”:

“To us it seems fairly evident there are two features of this new information ecosystem which it would be foolish to ignore, whichever camp you’re in: openness and collaboration. …I don’t see that as particularly Utopian. I think of it as a basic necessity for survival.”

If we dive deeper into the strengths of the culture here and embrace (and occasionally influence) the changes happening across the digital world then we could create some real magic.

For example, the Guardian brand resonates naturally in the US, but we know it can mean a lot more there. The Guardian has done some very pioneering work with crowdsourcing and data journalism, but making those efforts more systemic like we’ve already done with community and blogging is going to require more people to get involved and to iterate on the ideas more rapidly. We have a very strong advertising business and some solid revenues from several digital products, but the social marketplace has created commercial opportunities we’ve only just begun to demonstrate.

My new job is going to be about those kinds of issues. I won’t be answering all those questions as much as trying to define what the right questions are and creating the space for the answers to happen.

The stuff I’ve been involved with so far like the Open Platform and Activate Summit are going to keep growing, too. We have filled some jobs and opened some others related to the Open Platform. In particular, we’re now hiring a Product Manager for the Content API (apply here). And Activate event producer Robin Hough is building momentum for a big 2011 which will include events in both London and New York City.

Anyhow, lots of exciting stuff for me personally and for the Guardian. And hopefully this will mean more blogging, too.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Miller announces GMG reorganisation” was written by Dan Sabbagh, for theguardian.com on Monday 15th November 2010 09.46 UTC

Andrew Miller, the new chief executive of Guardian Media Group, is planning an internal reorganisation aimed at aligning the company more closely with its flagship newspapers and websites.

The simplification comes as the company divides itself into a “core business” – the Guardian and Observer titles and the guardian.co.uk website network, which includes MediaGuardian.co.uk – from its “investments” – its other media interests, ranging from local radio through to shares in the Auto Trader and Emap joint ventures.

Miller, who was appointed in July, said in an internal memo that he believed that the chief executive of GMG “must be closely involved in our core business” and added that he believed that the newspapers would be his “primary focus” in the job.

He will chair a new company committee that combines the old executive commitee of GMG with the board of Guardian News & Media, the division that publishes the two national newspapers and guardian.co.uk.

However, Miller told GNM journalists that were no imminent plans to sell any of GMG’s investments, despite recent speculation that a flotation of Auto Trader will be announced soon. GMG owns 50.1% of Auto Trader parent company Trader Media Group in a joint venture with the venture capital group Apax Partners.

Speaking at a staff briefing, Miller indicated that operating losses at the Guardian and the Observer would be in line with last year’s deficit, as the downturn in public sector advertising offset cost savings made from a voluntary redundancy programme. A year ago, the newspapers lost £37.8m before exceptional items.

In the 12 months to the end of March, just over 200 staff left GNM, reducing the total workforce to about 1,500.

GMG had about £260m of cash and short term investments at the end of March 2010. Auto Trader, meanwhile, has been valued at £1.5bn, although the used car website is loaded with debt.

Guardian Media Group is owned by the Scott Trust, which exists to safeguard the future of the Guardian in “perpetuity”.

• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email editor@mediaguardian.co.uk or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000.

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