The Modern Policy Wonk Workstation

Friday, February 18, 2011
The web is integral to my work. Here's a mockup of my workstation on a typical workday (Note that dual monitors are integral to this set up)(click to enlarge):

Tweetdeck (for Twitter)

Tweetdeck is open almost all day, and I am constantly paying partial attention to it. I have a it broken down into multiple streams (from left to right):

1. All (everyone I follow on Twitter, approximately 1600 people

2. Tier 1 (approximately 600 people)

  • people I have met in real life;people whom I have a significant online relationship with or respect for;
  • local media/pundits who cover the Hill; and
  • people who link a lot to relevant articles.
3. My @ replies My direct messages

4. Approximately 8 search columns based on:
  • hashtags (metadata)
  • inclusion of a link

What I find incredibly interesting (and some others find overwhelming) is how I can quickly process information flowing in multiple streams from Twitter via Tweetdeck. When I look at Tweetdeck I don't see 12 vertical columns but rather a single image map that is constantly updating. I have learned (through exposure) to scan the entire map for things that stand out:
  • Quotation marks (which denote an article title)
  • Hashtag (which denotes context)
  • Underlined portion (which denotes a hyperlink to an article)
  • Avatar (upon which I make an instantaneous judgement about the value you bring to my twitter experience)

These four things blend together to determine whether or not I am going to read something that comes through my stream. I'm not entirely sure if others are doing the same thing as I am, but my hunch is that as your Twitter usage grows and you spend more time with a client like Tweetdeck the more likely you are to develop strategies for coping with content. Thus there are a number of implications around how people can package their twitter content to make it more likely to be seen by others:
  • Use quotation marks around your title
  • Include a hashtag for instant context
  • Always include a hyperlink to the relevant site
  • Avoid changing your avatar frequently as others need to re-familiarize themselves with you or be forced to re-evaluate the strengths of your contributions to their experience

Streaming Video (from the House of Commons)

Awareness networks are incredibly important, if you can stream relevant committee proceedings to your desktop (via ParlVu) there is no reason you shouldn't be doing it. You can learn a lot about the direction your files are heading in, and thus can create a better product, one that better anticipates questions in the future. This is something I learned early in my career, and became some of the core tenants of Scheming Virtuously.

Web Browser

I don't want to talk about which browser to use (for the record I'm a Firefox guy) in so much as how I read content on the web. There are 3 main sources of web content that come through my browser:
  • Search (and by search I mean Google)
  • RSS Feeds (via Google Reader)
  • Twitter (via Tweetdeck as outlined above)
When I land on a page via one of the methods above I immediately scan the entire page. This may sound odd, but much like with Tweetdeck, I see the web page as an image map, not as a document to be read. I quickly scan for:
  • Subtitles (to get a sense of the argument)
  • Hyperlinks (to see who informs that argument)
  • Images / info graphics / audio / video (to get an emotional “feel” for the argument)
  • Tables / tabular data (to see the “facts”)
Furthermore the inclusion of all of the above makes me more likely to do a deep dive into the contents on the page. For me a deep dive includes (in chronological order):
  • Reading the introduction;
  • Reading the conclusion;
  • Reading the body;
  • Running a search on the author (if I don't already know them);
  • Opening all the links in the article in new tabs; and
  • Repeating the entire process with every new tab I open.
I must also say that I am incredibly ruthless in my determination of the value of a particular article. I have already articulated how I make that judgement via Twitter and have elaborated on how to do it with RSS Readers in the past. Content is being created at such a rapid pace that knowledge is no longer the scarce resource, time is. Anyone who lives on the web as I do understands that a moment you dedicate to one bit of information is time you cannot allot to another.

PDF (or Doc or PPT) I'm Reading

Allotting a tab in a web browser to content is one thing, breaking it out into a dedicated window that takes up permanent real estate is another. The latter denotes a more serious investment of attention. Truthfully I don't spend too much time reading longer documents off the screen at my workstation, my preference is to send the document to my tablet as I feel it is a more conducive environment for longer haul reading (and annotation).

Document I'm Writing (Output)

A big part of my job is to write documents (briefing notes, project plans, communications plans, strategic reviews, etc). I can do short bursts of writing at my work terminal but for long haul writing my preference is my personal computer at home, only because I can create an environment around it that is more conducive to my writing style (low light, loud industrial music with no vocal tracks, coffee, chocolate and large chunks of uninterrupted time). To be honest, I am often less effective at my workstation than I am at home (at least with respect to long form writing).

Email Client

Notice how I didn't even include the email client on the diagram? That's because I keep my email minimized pretty much all day long; and I don't get a pop up notifying me of new email upon receipt. Seldom does the core intelligence I need to do my job come to me via email. Email is usually an administrative burden and unless I am expecting something important (input or action) I relegate all email interactions to my blackberry (even while at my desk); and I apply the rules of Inbox Zero with extreme prejudice.


Technically speaking my whiteboard isn't on the internet but I take a lot of what I come across above and move it onto my whiteboard (or my iPad whiteboard app). Anything I whiteboard ends up digitized in either a photograph or a sketch in my iPad.

I'm not trying to prove anything

I just wanted to share with you some of how I see and interact with the web. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you interact with it. If like me you have started to ingest large quantities of fast flowing data as a dynamic image; if you have developed strategies to help navigate the online world of fast flowing information.

That being said, if you look at what I've outlined above, it is apparent that the web is an integral part of how I work. It is a point I drove home to a group of grad students a couple weeks ago with a liberal use of expletives which I will reiterate here:

As a public servant, if you aren’t aware of what’s going on you’re ineffective. If you are blocked from accessing the web at work you’re ineffective. If your internet connection at work can’t handle streaming video you’re ineffective. If your management regime thinks that social media is nothing more than a productivity sink hole you're ineffective. We need a new approach that embraces the web and new ways of thinking and working, and that is what I am trying to work towards.