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The Central Office of Information is developing a media briefings service to inform government about major online debates.

The COI's Media Monitoring Unit (MMU) is working on an online monitoring product to track public debates from blogs.

It aims to highlight those that generate significant debate on government policy and send them out in the form of an MMU online campaigns briefing to government departments.

The move reflects concerns within departments that government is largely ignorant of much of the debate taking place online.

MMU director Clarence Mitchell said: "Clients have told us that campaigning and debating are taking place online to such a degree that there's a whole new medium out there. They don't want to be blindsided by material appearing from the web out of the blue in the external media, so the online monitoring product we've been working on over the last year is really going to help."

It has been working with internet intelligence company 23 Ltd, which uses software to trawl the web electronically searching for blogs that are generating significant public debate. Blogs that generate a significant number of threads and posts register on the system. Human analysis then takes place to consider issues such as how many positive and negative comments have been posted.

Mitchell told GC News: "What we're trying to do is provide a service on a more organised and widespread basis.

"If we get five or six departments to contribute via their regular subscriptions to the MMU service, then we'll be able to launch it."

About 100 blogs could be monitored in the first phase, and these will largely be specified by individual departments. Mitchell said he hoped the briefings would eventually become a daily alerts service.

Several trials have already taken place, including one directed at the "silver surfer" community, and another at debate generated from counter terrorism measures.

"We looked at an online debate among pensioners in a recent budget. The debate looked at how the budget impinged on pensioners, their council tax payments, winter fuel allowances, and so on," said Mitchell.

The MMU is also digitising its equipment to capture incoming media. This will allow it to replace a lot of VHS and DVD recording and enable faster searching and distribution of media to government officials.

It is also at an early stage in developing an electronic cuttings service to complement its regional newspaper monitoring service. This, however, has some way to go, said Mitchell, as the COI's Government News Network regional managers are concerned that such a service could jeopardise the income they gain from print cuttings.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

Kablenet's GC weekly is a free email newsletter covering the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. To register click here.

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