Still Walking

On the first day of April Danny Smith and I delivered a walking tour of the ‘back end’ of Birmingham city centre as part of the Still Walking festival. Ben Waddington the genius behind the festival asked for something that played with the city’s memes and myths, so that’s what we tried to do.

(photo by Simon Brettell)

As a result perhaps of the date not everyone was sure how true all of it was, but I can assure you the nuclear comms bunker with a billiard room is really there.

Web Q+As as a way for politicians to engage

I’ve been advising on Siôn Simon‘s campaigning for an (and to be) elected mayor of Birmingham for more than a year, but with the referendum on whether the city should have one coming up fast the pace of engagement has got to speed up. To go along with a launch of a ten point plan for Birmingham, I facilitated an ‘#AskSion’ video web chat for people to hopefully get information. We were pleasantly surprised with the number of questions and the intelligence of the debate. I was also really pleased that the web-streaming facilities provided by Civico (another organisation I work with) went without a hitch.

My favourite part of the Civco platform is the ability to share not just the whole video, but any sub-section or clip that you select. It’s a facility that I really believe can help people make sense of the vast amount of content that is often in civic meetings, and can really help spread the messages.

Here for example  is an answer to a Twitter question about graffiti from yesterday’s session:
Continue reading Web Q+As as a way for politicians to engage

My appearance on the Today programme

While revamping this site a touch I was struck by how many of the sites and projects I’d linked to had just disappeared, so I’m going to try to make more of an effort to keep the records myself.

So, here’s me on Radio 4’s Today programme on 9/1/12, talking about Birmingham’s regeneration and how it “‘beats space’ as tourist destination”:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

O2 New Street Birmingham Insurance Rip-Off

Boring post this, it’s just for Google to in case any other people are looking to see what’s happened.

I popped and got an iPhone 4 the other day, it’s nice (and it won’t cost me much once I recycle the old 3G – and the battery was dying).

I decided to stay with O2, I’ve not had problems with them and changing providers is fraught with hassle. The guys in the shop made it quite easy — except that I’ve discovered that the salesman lied to me to sell an insurance policy. This is a proper O2 shop (the receipt says Telefonica O2 UK Ltd and everything).

The salesman told me that insurance was compulsory on iPhone4 upgrades. That sounded fishy and I said I did not want it, only to be told a that it was free for 14 days and that I could cancel without being charged. I asked how, just to confirm, and they said by phone.

Then received my bill via email this am and that charged me for insurance at £15. The customer service rep on the telephone has refunded that and cancelled the insurance — confirming that there’s no such thing as compulsory insurance. But as it is credited in the next month’s bill,  how many £15s are O2 receiving and getting interest on for one month? How many people don’t check or cancel. How much commission is the liar (fraudster?) making.

Watch yourselves.

Birmingham Music Map

I’m a great supporter of the Birmingham Music Archive, and have long been discussing types of social media and other work that could contribute to their archiving of Birmingham based music and related culture. One idea I came up with was to map people’s music emotional attachments. Not just musicians or venues or bands, but mangers, personalities, shops, companies, collectives and hang-outs. We opened a public Google Map and asked people to contribute. That map is still open for contributions, but the first result of it is now produced — an A1 poster of memories:

Birmingham Music Map

It contains over 200 records, placed on the map by contributors. Zoom in, or see a detail:

It’s available to buy on my Zazzle store, with my other map-based artworks.

Hyperlocal News Wire

Here’s a pipe I’ve created that attempts to marshal the content from hyperlocal blogging in Birmingham and allow people only to subscribe to feeds that interest them. This is a piece of investigation and experimentation that I’ve been able to find the time to do thanks to Will Perrin and his hyperlocal blogging initiative Talk About Local. Will also helped define the reason why it would be useful to do — for what he called “lazy journalists”.

Lazy here is used in the same way that it might be used — in praise — of a computer programmer; that is, lazy means you’ll work hard at setting yourself up right to make sure you get everything you need easily later on. Will got to the crux of the argument by saying that journalists interested in a subject — let’s say noise abatement issues — could easily find examples of those at a local level outside the areas they physically know.

So this is a run through of the decisions made in building it (and what other options could work), it’s no more than a prototype at this stage so comments and improvements are very welcome. However if you would rather just get stuck into the pipe itself, head on over.

Continue reading Hyperlocal News Wire

Open data may need to change the way data is collected and stored

Like Nick Booth, I was pretty excited to hear of the results of this FOI request for data about parking fines from Birmingham City Council. Not so much as because I care about parking fines, but because of the opportunity to see some of the huge chucks of data that we’re all pressing for release automatically rather than only on request. This request (check out the wording for a great example of how to phrase these requests so you get everything you ask for) was put in by Heather Brooke as part of an investigation on the new Help Me Investigate site (disclaimer: I’m part of the community management team on this).

Plotting the data on a map (alongside other data) could show all manner of things — but more importantly raise questions that are worth investigation: are regulations enforced more in certain areas, does enforcement contribute to lowering numbers of accidents on those roads, whatever anyone cares enough about.

But, not easily. Yet. The spreadsheets reveal that the location data in there is just shy of being able to be plotted on Google Maps (or similar) without altering:


The locations aren’t detailed enough for plotting by the tools we might use quickly, for use internally in Birmingham City Council they’re fine. As things readable by humans they’re fine. But to quickly pop something on a map there’s no tool I know of that will let you say “all these roads are in Birmingham, UK” — so the mapping software can’t plot.

Of course you can write a script to add “, Birmingham, UK” to each (or do it by hand) but that’s not simple — it becomes the work of coders rather than “the public”, will enough people be interested?

Yes data in public is better than private, yes get any data out there so some people can use it; but to really unleash the power then that data will need to be collected and stored with “free” use in mind. Are organisations ready for that?

Not interviewing Lord Carter

For a brief moment this morning I was going to be interviewing Lord Stephen Carter while he taxied between the Digital Britian Report Launch at the ICC and the Unconference at Fazeley Studios for Rhubarb Radio.

In the end it didn’t happen, the Minister wanted a break — that’s fair, and to be honest his speech was great in answering a lot of what I might have asked. But there were a few questions I’d lined up that he didn’t cover. Would you like to answer them:

Will digital conversation fundamentally change democracy, how will this report give us the tools to do that?

What will drive uptake by the digitally excluded — access to services or conversation. What’s in the report to drive conversational spaces rather than broadcasting or industry?

Reliance on DAB seems odd given than many businesses are pulling out — why not skip a failing generation of radio infrastructure?

In your speech you seemed disappointed in media coverage. What did you hope that they would cover?

What mechanisms do you think need to ensure impartial news from smaller organisations –    where does regulation come from with so many interests in consortia?

Life in Lozells, another good local blog

I spent an enjoyable hour with Kate Foley late last week, Kate is Neighbourhood Manager in Lozells Birmingham and runs the Life in Lozells blog. The site has been running since March 2007, and is an invaluable resource for local info — but Kate is interested in building more of a community around it, generating and hosting conversation as well as collecting information.

> life in lozells: true stories from lozells neighbourhood, birmingham, england
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

I suggested that an injection of opinion in to the blog might help that, which is something that it’s difficult for Kate to do in her official capacity — two possible solutions came to mind:

  • invite some other people to contribute, either on subjects that they are “expert” on (they may only be tangentially related to the area), or
  • make use of links, so that Kate is flagging up and pointing to opinion rather than directly offering it herself.

The first relies on use of Kate’s real-world network, pulling voices in to contribute, the second can be done in a more online way but will rely on Kate becoming confident in using search and RSS and building her online connectivity.

Those of you with local blogs, how do you work to build up the conversation?

Freedom Town

Freedom Town is in Sierra Leone, but it’s also the name of an art project connecting schools in Birmingham (UK) with schools in Freedom Town. It’s being run by the education department of Birmingham’s Town Hall & Symphony Hall, along with a local artist and will feature the associate musicians of the organisation. The aim is to eventually enable the schools to collaborate — and a website is the ideal tool to achieve that.

I’ve really enjoyed building it, and working with the team to make sure they understand how best to use it.

The website is just starting to be used by the children this week, and they seem to be having fun already — as well as blogging for themselves (moderated by their teachers)  they are being encouraged to comment on the posts of others and also write about how they are finding the project.

Some of the first work they’re doing is to make sure their School’s homepage on the site is up-to-date, and they’re also thinking about how the site should look (it has been purposely left very plain, so they can change it to suit themselves).

Technically the site is a instalaltion of WordPress, with plugins and tweaks to handle the expected use of video and audio later in the project and also the moderation issues of having hundreds of young people posting.  So far it seems to be working well, and the children have found blogging quite easy. I’ll post a link to the site when it really gets going — looking forward to reading and hearing the results.