Digital Guyana

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The first part of this specialism on good content focused on writing skills. I came up with four exercises which were designed to get the participants thinking about best practice in terms of writing for the web.

Exercise 1. Titles and taglines.

I split the group up into pairs and gave them three website scenarios (see below). I then asked the pairs to come up with titles and taglines for the websites. As previously explained in my workshop on content skills, a website’s title should be relevant and descriptive – and hopefully memorable too – and a tagline is important because it helps further explain what your website is all about. So the purpose of this exercise was to hammer home these points while getting the participants to think creatively about websites.

1. A friend of yours is starting a blog on nightlife and music in Georgetown. Can you help him come up with a title and tagline for his new site?

2. Adventure junkies, a new Guyanese tour company offering treks to Kaieteur Falls and more has just launched. It aims to attract a younger clientele with the promise of adventure and bargain prices. Can you come up with a catchy tagline for its new website?

3. The ministry of education wants to develop a new website which will help foster web development skills among young people in Guyana. The site will offer free tutorials on HTML, blogging, content skills, picture editing and plenty of links to free open source software. Can you help them come up with a name and tagline for the website?

The pairs then reported back to the group and me and together we critiqued their titles and taglines.

Exercise 2. Shortening paragraphs.

Because it’s physically harder to read online and people scan web pages more quickly than they would printed material (scannability), in general shorter paragraphs work better online. So to get the participants more used to the process of editing down and cutting out words I asked them to shorten these opening paragraphs from the following news stories by five to ten words:

Bald penguin given wetsuit to prevent sunburn
When Ralph the penguin lost his feathers it looked like he wouldn’t be able to swim with his friends at Marwell Wildlife – until he was fitted for a mini wetsuit to stop him getting sunburn.

Chinese women confuse immigration officers after cosmetic surgery
A group of Chinese women who travelled to South Korea for cosmetic surgery baffled immigration officers on their return home when their new looks did not match their passport photos.

Michael Jackson fans flock to see Egyptian model ‘lookalike’
Michael Jackson fans are flocking to a Chicago museum to see a 3,000 year old Egyptian model which looks remarkably like the late king of pop.

Exercise 3. Headline writing.

I then asked the participants to come up with headlines for these news stories. I stressed the importance of brevity, descriptiveness and relevance – clever and cryptic headlines don’t work so well online due to search engine optimisation and scannability.

I asked the participants to show me the headlines they came up with and we had a quick chat about them. I then revealed what the actual headlines were and explained why they were worked well as online headlines.

Exercise 4. Splitting up paragraphs.

Because readers are put off by long paragraphs – even more so online due to scannability and the fact that it’s harder to read on a computer screen – I came up with an exercise that would get the participants thinking about splitting up paragraphs.

I provided them with a travel feature on Guyana which I had removed all the paragraph breaks from and asked the participants to insert thir own paragraph breaks. We then went through the feature together discussing why the writer had put paragraph breaks in at certain points and seeing if they coaleasced with where they had put their paragraph breaks in.

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After finishing the course with our final workshop last Friday and saying goodbye to Chris, who had an early morning flight on Saturday, Matt and me hit the road for our longest trip away from Georgetown yet: a four day excursion to the far south of the country.

Surama eco lodge

The Rupununi – or, the much cooler sounding Region 9 – is where Guyana’s rainforests suddenly stop, replaced by vast open plain savannas. Our first destination was Surama, an Amerindian village containing around 250 inhabitants dotted among a few square miles of open savannas which are encircled by the rainforest covered Pakaraima Mountains.

We stayed at their eco lodge – you can’t really stay anywhere else. The set-up was a bit like Arrowpoint, which I blogged about in a previous post, but more community friendly and homespun. It’s run by locals and the cost of staying there covers board, guides, food – which is locally sourced – and the bumpy 20 minute motorbike ride from the Georgetown to Lethem road (which by the time you’ve reached Iwokrama rainforest, which Surama is just south of, is a wide brown heavily potholed track – guaranteed to rock you to sleep in the wee hours of a twelve hour overnight bus journey).

The setting (see above) was pretty spectacular. And on a hike up Surama Mountain and canoe trip along the nearby Burro Burro River with our guide Milner we spotted spider monkeys, macaws and toucans. Best of all, a capuchin monkey crossed the river above our boat using the forest canopy, pausing at one point as if to say hello.

After two days at Surama we then hit the savanna proper at Annai, a 45-minute bike ride south. To save cash we slung hammocks (they don’t really do camping in Guyana due to the insects) and ate our meals at the Oasis truckstop by the main road. Due to the proximity to the border it felt much more Brazilian here, even if the local Amerinidians speak English with a Caribbean twang. As two white guys who’d chosen to stay here rather than the nearby ecotourism resort Rock View we were very much the local curiosity. But it was still a fun place to hang out and snack on Brazilian food as reggae blared out of the speakers.

Unlike Surama we didn’t need a guide to climb the nearby mountain and the views of the vast savanna landscape, with vultures circling overhead, were unforgettable. Though not quite as good as those from the 12-seater plane which flew us back to Georgetown.

Waiting to board by the Annai airstrip I got chatting about tourism with a chap called Eli who runs the nearby Rewa eco lodge, which like others in the region, models itself on Surama. As I mentioned in my Arrowpoint post, tourism in Guyana is very much in its infancy, not helped by the price of internal flights, the lack of travel options to neighbouring South American countries and the tendency to peg prices to the Caribbean. But Eli said things are definitely getting better – ten years ago you simply didn’t get travellers in this part of the country. The recently completed Takutu River Bridge which links Lethem and Bonfim in Brazil should also improve things.

Whether the eco lodge tourism model can support larger numbers of tourists is another matter. It will be interesting to see what happens in years to come. In the meantime I’m just going to enjoy that slightly selfish buzz you get when you visit an amazing place you know that few other travellers have been to before.

View from the hills near Rock View, Annai

I’m back in the UK now, getting over the jetlag. Matt is in Mexico, extending his trip away a little while longer. When he returns in September we will all meet up to evaluate the project. I’m looking forward to that and I’m sure we’ll do more posts on the subject, but right now I’m having a nap…

steelband

It struck me this week that I’ve not really tried to properly describe Georgetown on this blog since I’ve been here.

It’s a hard place to pin down. It’s on the Caribbean coast but the sea is brown and the beach litter strewn. We’re in South America but the two main ethnic groups, Indo and Afro-Guyanese, both speak a Creolese flavoured English. It feels like an old colonial capital, yet with the myriad wooden houses on stilts and long wide streets there’s a real whiff of the Deep South about the place.

There are no shades of grey, however, in one aspect of Georgetown – the noise. It is an incredibly noisy city. In a good way.

From the constant beeping of minibuses and taxis, the thud of chutney and soca music, locals bantering in the street – and occasionally shouting ‘white man’ at me – there is rarely, nay never, a pause for calm. I love it. And when the sun goes down the clamour of the city doesn’t let up – the hum of crickets and yelping of stray dogs your sleeping soundtrack.

So, partly inspired by Chris’s guest blog on the Sounds of Guyana on the My Place Or Yours site and my love of sound clips (I also recently discovered a sound recording function on my camera) I decided to try to record a few memorable sounds and things that caught my ear. What follows is a six minute hotchpotch I’ve quickly spliced together in Audacity featuring, among other things, local radio in minibuses, Creole chatter, wildlife – i.e. stray dogs and kiskadees – and a quick introduction to dominoes.

Apologies for the odd sound pop – my recorder isn’t great – and Chris’s drunken musings during Haddaway (remember that one?!)… too good not to include.

Georgetown sounds mp3 (click to play / right to click save as).

This morning workshop was split into two parts. The first part looked at finding and downloading images; the second editing and improving the images with the open source image editing programme GIMP.

We started with a quick exercise using a Google Image search to illustrate how easy it is to search and download all kinds of images from the web. I then explained that it’s not really sensible to take images from other people’s websites willy nilly. This is still a bit of a legal grey area but it is technically a civil infringement to take someone’s images from their website without asking their permission. (Useful links on the subject: http://forums.digitalpoint.com and http://answers.yahoo.com)

So, the only way to be sure you’re not being naughty is to A) use your own images or B) downloads images from a free image library – of which there are many. I then asked the students to search and download an image of their choice from one of these libraries.

In the second part of the workshop we looked at image editing. Photoshop is the obvious brand leader in this field but because we wanted to foster skill sharing in the most sustainable way possible we choose to go for a free alternative to Photoshop, of which there are many. We chose GIMP because it has a similar interface to Photoshop, is quick and easy to download and is relatively easy to use.

To save time we had already downloaded it but shared the link for downloading GIMP in case our groups wanted to download it onto their own computers. We also directed their attention to the GIMP user manual, explaining that, although it is very long, it contains simple instructions to all aspects of the programme.

After opening up the programme we demonstrated the two main windows: the toolbox and the image window. We then opened an image up in GIMP and demonstrated tools including the move tool, crop tool, scale image and zoom.

We then underlined the importance of Undo (Ctrl+Z) in using such a programme and explained how pixels work before getting our groups to resize their images to a specific size using two methods. The first method used the crop tool (remembering to adjust the ratio of the crop by clicking on fixed aspect ratio and entering the required pixel dimensions). The second way saw us creating a new window of the required pixel size and copying and pasting the image into it before resizing it with the scale tool, not forgetting to select ‘Keep aspect’ – or hold ctrl – to keep the dimensions of the image.

We then asked our groups to insert their resized images into their HTML CVs and their WordPress blogs as a new picture post.

After demonstrating how to flip and rotate images we looked at enhacing pictures using the Colour Tools.

After teaching the groups how to make websites using HTML and the blogging platform WordPress.com we focused on best practice in terms of design and content in the afternoon session of week three.

I chatted about various aspects of good design and content under several headings and demonstrated some good and bad examples. We then asked the groups to write a blog post on their WordPress sites which mentioned three of the points I raised.

(Before starting I stressed that the following were not ‘rules’ per say, more ‘things to bear in mind’ when setting up and adding content to a website).

Thanks to Adrienne Grubb for the use of a few slides from a previous PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the fold, page hot spots and the Poynter Institute stat on images.

Part 1. Good design

Keep it simple

  • It’s no coincidence that many of the most popular websites, Google, Facebook, Wikipedia etc, are really easy to navigate.
  • On the other hand, if a web user is confused by your site they will just click away.
  • Good: WWF / Bad: The five worst website designs in the world

The Fold

  • A similar concept to a newspaper’s fold, the fold on a web page is the bottom of your web browser when the home page has loaded.
  • But some say the fold is dead. And it will be different in different browsers depending on screen resolutions.
  • However, it’s useful to bear in mind. So it should obviously be clear what your website’s purpose is from what is above the fold.
  • Good: The Guardian / Bad (this website is just bad for a whole lot of reasons): www.belladesoto.us

Page hot spots

  • Various bits of worryingly detailed research into where people look first on web pages has shown slightly different things… rocketface.com / textgoeshere.org.uk / blog.eyetools.net
  • …but all agree that the top left is key.
  • Like the fold, it’s something to bear in mind, so it makes sense to have the title of the website and links to important pages near the top left.
  • Good: Most blogs, including this one, not to blow our own trumpet…

Scannability

  • People scan web pages much more than they would a newspaper or magazine because they can click away in an instant. Useful resource on the topic.
  • This is linked to the 10-second rule. Web users often spend as little as 10 seconds scanning a web page to see if it has anything of interest for them.
  • But you can slow down web users eyes or increase your website’s ‘scannability’ through bold tags, headings, links, bullet points, images.
  • Good: Zopa

Images

  • Images are obviously very important to help you break up text.
  • More scientific proof: a Poynter Institute study in 2004 found that 78% of users will look first at the words on your page first but 22% of users look at the pictures or graphics first. So, you need to cater for both kinds of people.
  • Human faces are good. They gives a site warmth, people can identify with them, they’re instantly recognizable.
  • But images need to be good, eye-catching and complementary to what you’re writing about. A rubbish image will make your website look, er, rubbish.
  • Good: Action Aid/ Bad: A boring web page

Typography

  • The difference between Serif and Sans Serif fonts.
  • It’s generally easier to read Sans Serif (Arial/ Helvetica etc) online than Serif (Times New Roman) – and vice versa for print.
  • Sans Serif fonts include Helvetica, Arial, Tahoma and Verdana.
  • Useful bit of info, including advice on font size.
  • Good: BBC / Bad: New York Times
  • Also, the colour of text should be easily readable. Don’t use yellow text on white, for example, or blue on purple – you won’t be able to see clicked on links.
  • Also avoid using loads of uppercase / exclamation marks. IT’S LIKE SHOUTING!!!

Part 2. Good content

Title and tagline

  • If you want your site to be found it needs to be something relevant to what your site is about.
  • You might also want to try for something catchy and original to mark yourself out from the crowd.
  • Think about using a tagline. A great way to explain what your website is all about.
  • Good (tagline): Save The Children / Bad: Great blog but unless you’re familiar with the phrase you wouldn’t immediately know it was about cool stuff happening in Birmingham.
  • And watch out for.

Headings

  • In newspapers headlines can be clever and cryptic, but online they need to be more relevant and descriptive due to scannability (so users know what your post is about) and Search Engine Optimisation (so your website can be found).
  • Also see.
  • Good: The Guardian/ Bad: Blog post on great tabloid headlines (because they don’t won’t work so well online).

Paragraphs

  • Unless you’re doing a thoughtful blog post you really need to make your point in your first paragraph. Otherwise, users will get bored or confused and click away.
  • People are put off by long paragraphs so try to break up them up into shorter ones.

Links

  • Follow web conventions (different colours, change colour when clicked), otherwise you’ll confuse people.
  • Don’t put click here – this looks bad and doesn’t help Search Engine Optimisation.
  • Links in text are good but don’t overdo it.
  • Many external links will increase traffic to your site due to trackbacks and pingbacks. They will also enhance the credibility of a site.
  • But they need to be relevant – and hopefully good. Otherwise they’ll make you look a bit foolish.
  • Good: Pontus’s blog/ Bad (but because they overdo it): teacherxpress.com

Importance of spelling and grammar

  • If your site has spelling errors and grammatical mistakes it will look very unprofessional and people will click away.
  • It doesn’t take long to check over your work. If you can it’s worth printing to check for mistakes – you’ll spot more errors than on screen. Or get someone else to check your work – a fresh pair of eyes spots more mistakes.
  • Use a spelling and grammar check in Word / Open Office. But make sure you don’t paste straight into a blogging / Content Management System software – put in in Notepad first.

Informal

  • Writing for the web is in general more informal and often more fun than many newspapers, magazines and books. Even on sites focusing on more serious issues.
  • People use the web for entertainment as well as information. And the best sites and blogs are entertaining as well as informative.

Shorter is better

  • Remember scannability and that it’s actually harder to read on a computer screen. People read around 25% slower online compared to books, magazines and newspapers.
  • So shorter is better.

Engage

  • It’s well worth thinking about how users can interact with your site. This will give them more ownership of the site and give them more reasons to come back.
  • Blogs are great at this because they allow people to comment. And if you link to other blogs they will get trackbacks – and vice versa – so more traffic.
  • Other ways you could do this include creating a mailing list or a forum or getting visitors to vote on something using a poll.

More useful links:

Matt and me bought a guitar in downtown Georgetown a few weeks ago.

Kitty the guitar

As you can see, it’s a peculiar, rustic looking thing. We were informed by the seller that it was locally made but that the guy who crafted it is now dead. Whether that makes it cursed we’re not sure – though Matt does like to describe it as the evil twin of the resonator guitar from the cover of Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms album.

Despite this, it plays pretty nicely – even if the action (the distance from the fretboard to the strings) is way too high further up the fretboard – and it’s been great having it in the flat. We can’t get the TV and DVD player to work and Matt and myself both play in bands (although I play the bass) so the practice time has been handy.

Matt’s off to Mexico after Guyana and plans to take ‘Kitty’ with him. I hope it survives the trip there and the subsequent flight back to London. Matt loves his flamenco so he’s going to put nylon strings on it and see how that sounds. If it’s not as good as his classical guitar back in London (which he suspects it won’t be) then I get to keep it. Fingers crossed. I’m getting quite attached to it.

Tonight Matt’s going to play a couple of tunes at an open mic / performance poetry night. Expect a blog post about that in the next couple of days. In the meantime, in the spirit of making lists for no good reason other than it’s sometimes fun to, here’s the five tunes you’re most likely to hear if you drop by Lot 6D Station Street in Kitty…

1. Hey Hey, My My
It feels like loads of my friends have suddenly really got into Neil Young in the last couple of years. I’m not complaining – the guy is a genius. Different versions of this tune bookend his ace live album Rust Never Sleeps and is one of my – and Matt and Pontus’s – faves.

2. Waterfall
I endlessly played this technicoloured baggy ballad by the Stone Roses during my teenage years so I guess it was inevitable it would pop back into my head during my time here. Guyana means The Land of Many Waters after all. Once I’d worked it out again I taught Pontus, and in return he taught me Hey Hey, My My.

3. Don’t You Forget About Me / Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam
Glasgow band Simple Minds’ breakthrough single – which memorably soundtracks the bratpack classic The Breakfast Club – happens to have the same chords (we think) as this tune by the much more obscure Glaswegian indie band The Vaselines (you might know Nirvana’s cover from their Unplugged  in New York album), so a rendition of one inevitably turns into the other – and back again.

4. Folsom Prison Blues
He may look like a malnourished Mexican bandito but Matt’s voice is unexpectedly full-bodied. Part Johnny Cash part Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode, it’s no surprise he can pull off this blues stomper from the Man In Black with aplomb.

5. The Needle And The Damage Done
What can I say, we’re big Neil Young fans.

We sadly had to say goodbye to one our team members on Friday. Pontus, who was only able to participate in the project for two weeks, is now back in London and his job with Futurebuilders.

Before he caught a bit of a kip on Friday night (his taxi pickup to the airport was at 2.30am) we had a few drinks and an unfeasibly large amount of food at a Brazilian restaurant in downtown Georgetown. At said eaterie (we’re not sure if the Brazilian restaurant is its actual name but that’s what everyone calls it) you can either pay 2,500 Guyanese Dollars (about £7.50) for an all you can eat barbeque buffet or pay by the weight. Unsurprisingly, the place is a hit with local volunteers looking to stock up on cheap (and light) veg. The caipirinhas ain’t bad either.

On Saturday, Chris, Matt and me and a dozen or so VSO volunteers travelled to the frontier town of Bartica on the Essequibo River for VSO-er Derek’s 60th birthday party. Derek and his wife Trudie, who also works for the charity in Bartica, had rented out a huge house owned by a logging company on the banks of the river. We shared the building with a nice mix of friendly local volunteers, colourful Barticans and eccentric ex pats, and, all greased by Carib lager and Five Year Eldorado rum, lazed by the pool and the river before dancing into the wee hours.

Swimming pool at large house in Bartica

A memorably fun time was had by all – even if it did feel slightly wrong partying in a former slave house on Emancipation Day with a group of mostly white people. And on the speedboat leg of the journey there and back we passed Eddy Grant’s pallacial residence on his private island – a highlight of the whole trip so far for me!

Teaching as a threesome on Monday felt a little bit strange. But with two of us leading and one of us floating between the two school groups things went really well. Sadly, the local IT technician we’d lined up to help support the last two weeks of workshops now has other work commitments, but if today is anything to go by we should be absolutely fine.

Expect to see this week’s course outlines (Further Blogging and Content and Design Skills) posted in the coming days by Chris and me.