Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Powerpoint presentations

Rather like forms, I have developed quite a deep hatred for Powerpoint presentations. I didn't quite understand why I could find some talks incredibly inspiring and useful, while others make me really twitchy and irritable.

After spending as much time today ranting about them as I did watching them, I stumbled upon this article which might explain - scientifically like - why it is so very, very frustrating to watch people circling around bulletpoints with their voices like aimless sharks, just failing to catch my attention. It's not just me being a negative grumbler, you might actually be frying my brain.

Ur doing it rong. So stop it. Pls.

A site I shall explore further.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Stoke: many modern communities with they key to happiness

This might be the most positive story you will ever read about Cobridge in the mainstream media.

The census results, obscure though they might be (anomie? what's this, a referendum question?), pin down the reason that many of us find hard to articulate about why we love being in Stoke. We feel a sense of belonging to our community, or perhaps several different communities.

And what's so good about this is that it's so thoroughly modern. As I've tweeted in passing (hooray for this new thought trail), a morning in Burslem is not unlike one in Twitter. Conversations everywhere, news to catch up on, links to follow up. It's what makes people love Burslem and feel so sad when it is empty.

Just like the web, these communities run the risk of operating in silos (the current voguish word, I prefer to say trenches). They can chatter away and never cross paths. But that in itself is not the problem. The fact that these communities have had to compete in an ever-diminishing job market, with decreasing opportunities to mix and with limited educational opportunities, has caused divisions. As the Cobridge article shows, the community builders and connectors are plentiful in Stoke. The most invigorating meetings I go to are full of grassroots organisers, fighting their different corners and finding connections. These people have been ignored for decades, but maybe - in the new connected world where you don't have to go to London to get anything done - their time has now come. With the right support, we can become better at finding connections and building capacity without additional funding. With greater investment, we can develop enterprising communities in which everyone feels they have a part to play.

The interest shown by the government over the last few months in social enterprise has made me wonder whether they would consider putting as much investment into social enterprise centres and support as is planned for retail. I don't know whether it's too late to divert the £220 million pounds that are going to be spent clearing the Coachmakers and some piles of concrete to build yet another shopping centre, but it would be nice to think that more of our shops could be like this, instead of like this.

Does that show a lack of ambition? Maybe. But if we've already defeated "anomie", aren't simple opportunities to make a decent wage doing something we like all we need to aspire to?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Gordon Hendricks at the Victoria Hall

Burslem old-timers would have you believe Elvis appeared at the Queens Theatre in its heyday, along with *everybody* else. It’s one of those local myths, like Askey’s Giant Wartime Fish or the Revised Town Centre Masterplan. The truth doesn't really matter, no-one would be a true Boslemite if they didn’t find it perfectly credible that if Elvis had made a secret call to England during his GI days, he would have included the Mother Town in his visit.

It’s also not hard to believe that if anywhere should produce a voice to come close to matching the King’s, it should be Stoke-on-Trent. In common with certain other cities across the globe, we have a deep understanding of soul; of dispossession, anger and hope.

Having only heard of Gordon Hendricks a few days ago in the Focal Radio studios, I was nevertheless excited to be in the retro environment of the Victoria Hall, squashed into my metal seat with a proper Stoke crowd, people from across the six towns who find Hanley the best meeting ground to revive old friendships, romances and fights.

And when Gordon took to the stage, this was proper rock n roll, exploding sound systems and all. Like Elvis himself, nobody was taking this too seriously, despite the obvious talent on the stage. Gordon himself was delighted to be “back where it all started” with the people who had given him confidence to unleash what has become one of the most renowned Elvis tribute acts in the world, not least by Presley’s band and writers. Indeed, it was his familiarity with the crowd that hopefully lessened any hurt he might have felt over the unseemly stampede to the bar well before the end of the first half.

And in this unusual theatre environment, part Memphis, part Cheshire Cheese, a truly amazing show emerged. Gordon and the band’s style avoided too much basic imitation and were great performers in themselves. Gordon’s voice needs to be heard to be believed, absolutely authentic and without a hint that the most epic of Elvis’s classics were a strain to imitate. And while we can recreate moments from Vegas for generations, it was the single ‘Where Would I Be’ which really makes one dare to dream. Written by Geoff Morrows, this is unmistakably Elvis, but its freshness sparks the possibility that we could stretch even further than what we were lucky enough to get before Elvis died in 1977. Incredible, of course, in his own right, Elvis was also part of a package. A product of tumultuous times, Elvis was the individual bold enough to stand at the front of a stage and change the world. What else might be sitting in a writer’s cupboard, waiting to be recorded? How might That Voice interpret more of the greatest songs of the last three decades?

In Gordon Hendricks, Stoke has produced another great talent of whom we can be proud. We might have got more of a glimpse of his innate creativity in his home town - it is hard to keep up an American accent when you’ve got people shouting “‘iya Gordon, ‘ow’s yer dad?” - I hope he allows that spark to really flourish.

- website
- Youtube clips

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Reflections on digital exclusion and the mentoring project

I wrote these thoughts in response to the ongoing digital mentors development and in particular, this post about whether it will simply be the white middle classes that benefit from the project. I've expressed exactly these concerns myself in many different contexts, but there's always been a response at the back of my mind that where internet access is relatively easy to get to, people still don't take part.

So, what I've tried to address is a question: if people are invited to participate, why don't they?

Apologies, for the length, it is a bit of an essay but I've tried to break it up so people can skip through and anyone is welcome to extract any useful bits. Also it's a work in progress but if I don't hit publish now I could go on forever. Acknowledgments to Clay Shirky and anyone else whose ideas I might have absorbed in passing.

Looking globally, it is not the case that only the white and middle class are digitally included. In many countries still considered 'developing', groups and individuals with access have been able to collaborate basically as well as anywhere else. A number of projects have focussed on developing this with different models, meaning I could more easily communicate online with some people working in orphanages in Rwanda than in community centres in Stoke. Sure, super-fast broadband and hot gadgets make everything look nicer, but there's no fundamental difference as long as you have the two elements I'm writing about here: technology (however basic) and time. Even literacy becomes less of an issue with increasing use of video and audio tools, but it nevertheless remains the case that education is probably the main dividing factor.

Online collaboration doesn't care about anybody's point of view. In a world where we've segregated ourselves on the basis of race, class, religion, politics while becoming ever more likely to bump into each other physically, it is the fact that we can work together often without knowing these aspects about each other that contributes to the richness and power of collaborative projects and things like community campaigns. It doesn't matter if we fundamentally disagree on religious matters if we both want to fight to save the local swimming pool. However, in the real world, something like different religious views might be one of the factors that would stop us ever talking to each other.

Digital exclusion is a problem because we are still missing out on the contributions of so many talented people.

Why is being online important?
The internet is a platform for anybody to work, play, pay for things or do what they want for free. With internet access, anybody can look up information or join in conversations, for example extending the reach of broadcast media and other aspects of society that could also have been considered 'broadcast', such as politics. Without internet access, simply, they cannot. While a local library has a certain amount of information for people, it is in no way equivalent to the searchable index available at our fingertips. Meetings are a definite positive complement to online interaction, but the internet takes the cost out of all basic organisation. It avoids the need to have meetings at set times when 80% of your community might need to be elsewhere looking after kids or working. With web 2.0 sites, even the time consuming aspects of building are removed. It enables anybody to contribute to their own strengths and decentralises responsibility - as well as control.

What and where is the conversation?
While you can look and learn online, it is all about interaction. You don't just happen to open your web page and see a site, you browse into it, find it through Google or get referred to it by an advert, another website, social network or directly from a friend. You might ask someone with power for information and as soon as they show you where that information is, you become informed rather than frustrated. Because of the sheer volume of 'stuff' online, you need some sort of prompt and that is often where 'the conversation' comes in.

The trickiest part of online participation is that it is really about your capacity, not least your time, to join in conversations. There are, obviously, millions of conversations going on all over the world in different languages and in different places. Although many of these conversations are open, barriers to involvement include your ability to read and type in the right language and the time you have to get to know the context and build up trust within the community. The conversations you join, therefore, are those you want to dedicate time to.

The simplest answer is that the conversations is actually only between the individual and the screen. This is exactly the same as the information you access - the choice to participate is an individual one. However, once you have found your area of passion, your ability to contribute is huge. To give one example, if we worry that language is a big barrier to communication, then just go and see the online community that contribute to Global Voices, translating and editing global posts to provide a more multi-layered view of the world than has ever been provided by the mainstream media. It is a project that could never be achieved on the same scale by a company alone, but the partnership between Reuters, the team they funded and the volunteers that make it happen. Taking part requires a certain level of familiarity with the community and its rules, you can't just jump in and start (although the best communities usually make it possible to do just that on some level). We see that just getting on with solving the problem, however small the initial contribution, is more powerful than merely defining, redefining and arguing over the problem. That is why, from the entirely unequal position of having paid staff on one side and voiceless community members on the other, we are now entering a time when community groups or other collaborating groups can move faster than traditional organisations and win arguments that they weren't even being invited to have before.

So what do people need to participate?
All people need is access and time. This is a big 'all'. Unpicking this, use of social media is a luxury. Access to basic equipment is enough for basic interaction, but the technology you have dictates whether you can access features like broadband. When internet access has a price, time becomes limited. Your ability to have an ambient awareness of the passing world depends if you are near a screen much of the time, for example in a job that is both computer-based and where access to social sites has not been blocked.

Joining in the many-to-many conversations online takes longer than face to face, but it is at least more possible than actually moving to the same gathering points. Twitter's strength is that it is virtually as quick to post as it is to read updates, so many-to-many conversations have become quicker and more open than email. Unless you protect your updates, you open up your interactions for anybody to follow. When Twitter becomes widely accessible by mobile phone again it will become easier for this to happen away from computer screens.

What has changed in the UK?
It goes without saying that there were plenty of active people online in the UK for the last decade. However, there has been an underdevelopment in UK communities. The active people I knew were generally part of international communities. Twitter has contributed to a change. In the blog and email era, it was just as easy to interact with people in other time zones as our own. On Twitter, the general chatter is in the same time zone as you, unless you have the time to scroll back at what happened while you were asleep. I have a fair spread of people I follow in the UK and America, but I'm much more likely to keep in regular touch with the people in the UK, including those I didn't know before Twitter. While there was an online community before Twitter, its connectivity seems to have sped up in the last few months and I think it's partly thanks to Twitter. It's also connected to the increasing professionalisation of a generation who would have got their first email addresses towards the end of high school or college and are now reaching the stage of making decisions in organisations.

There's something that is slow to change and that's the culture change that comes in an open, digital society. In a society where everyone is invited to participate, people still need to know they have the invitation. I look at Twitter or Wikinews and assume that it is fine to participate in the conversations (as long as I know a Twitterer I am following has followed me back, otherwise they won't hear me), but there are many people who will assume they are not included unless they receive the embossed invitation in the post. Part of the culture shift of the social web is the assumption that all are invited to participate and in communities that are hierachical by nature, this is a bigger shift than people from the educated classes might realise.

To illustrate further specifically to this area:- In two direct examples, a person has told me that he will not go to a meeting with a chairman because he has been made to feel unwelcome and another has said he would not go to the majority of community meetings because he is a different race and considerably younger than the people he would expect to see there. It goes the other way - I know plenty of managers who would not dream of walking into certain pubs. Hardly anybody who is white in Stoke has visited a mosque and hardly anybody who is Muslim has gone into a pub (excuse the inconsistent capitalisation, anything else looks wrong). With all these invisible walls, the internet is the best place where we could have direct conversations or, better, widen the impact of the community projects that seek to build bridges and bring people together in neutral, friendly spaces.

Particularly in the realms of politics as in corporations or any form of infrastructure, the conversation needs support to be effective. In the case of, say, an MP, a good rapport can be built up while only a few people are emailing them but as soon as all 60,000 people start taking up the opportunity you need some serious admin support to avoid unanswered emails and angry constituents. This is no longer about engaging when you need votes because scrutiny is now constant, but engaging all the time, beyond politics. This is partly a matter of making information as intuitively available as possible.

Right now in Britain (especially areas relatively new to the social web and political spheres) we're seeing the anger of exclusion bubbling up into the internet. It starts quietly and then turns into a flood. Then you get the clash of angry people. Accuse me of rewriting history if you wish, but I'd argue that America was at this stage four years ago, way back when we used to hear about hanging chads and the like. A few long, long years later and we have the incredible site of Barack Obama sending the whole world crazy.

What changed? In my view, what changed is that the people who do participate (adapting Wikipedia's statistic probably less than 1 in 100 of people who are even on participatory websites) brought their online interactions into the real world. Obama and his team have managed to bring together the traditional party system, which remains the only way you can take political power, with the collaborative power of people who couldn't care less about politics. They have completely disproved the notion that online activists can neither influence people outside their immediate circles or that they have no financial power. They have also shown that vast swathes of people who have given up, who don't think there's any point getting involved because they're always let down (but who were never, as often labelled, apathetic) can be brought in to the ballot box.

What is the role of digital mentors in the real world?
If programmers have built a world where their tools can be shared and reshaped, then it is now up to the communicators to bring that same culture into the real world. Communicating, luckily, requires fewer special skills than programming. Digital mentoring should be open to anybody with a passion for the social change that the digital sphere can bring who is willing to share that with other people, particularly with those communities that remain voiceless.

The community of digital mentors will be able to share projects and areas of practice that have worked, particularly getting over those tricky situations when you've spent ten minutes explaining the joys of Twitter only to blank stares and suggestions that perhaps it's time you stopped playing and got a proper job.

Who funds it all?
It is perhaps underappreciated, because I rarely hear it said, that the architecture of the digital revolution has, on the whole, not been provided by governments or philanthropists but by the commercial sector. The fact that community groups need not fill in a funding application to get a website built for them but can simply sign up for a blog on Blogger is perhaps why not all of them do - we have a voluntary sector that often relies on funding and assumes that the end of funding means the end of a project. It is neither necessary nor desirable for governments to build a suite of tools equivalent to those freely available from the big companies and while you can (and should) consider whether you want so much information to be held by Google and Yahoo, I think there is greater benefit than cause for concern in the fact that anybody can sign up for everything from an email address to a group wiki for free and also anonymously.

If the internet and the social web is the modern equivalent of roads, especially in an era where transport is going to become more limited, then there is a Keynesian argument for the government to be investing in people to help make those connections. The roads will be formed by people once they have had their starting points. We haven't yet got the British equivalent of Google (have we?), but there's no particular reason why that shouldn't happen if we - the public and private sector - invest in creative, collaborative people who can respond flexibly to our ever-changing global circumstances. It's a far, far better strategy for regeneration than retail parks, I'd suggest, with one eye firmly pointed at those people making decisions for North Staffordshire.

The concern that digital mentors would simply be going round telling people what to do is, hopefully, not what is going to happen if people who understand social media become the ones who take the project forward (most importantly, not just those who see it as an opportunity to "bung a few banks of PCs in community centres". Teaching is a pretty old fashioned form of broadcast. Mentoring is more about developing participation, it's the modern version of show and tell, but without the tell. When I think about the people I'd try to involve I have one friend in particular in mind, Mark. He started out by emailing a campaign via its website and quickly got immersed in the debate. Two hugely successful campaigns later and he remains a central member of the group. He has taken part in some community development training with the local university, making him almost as qualified as many of the fresh-faced consultants that parade through our communities at the start of each new tender process. As well as emails bouncing around the group, Mark now runs a one-man online attack on an array of local and national government figures, wheedling out individual contacts from big corporate departments. He's not the only one in the group and their advice has spread further, helping campign groups in other parts of the country to force council rethinks. What I like about the digital mentoring project is the fact that the DCLG must realise that they're going to create a generation of people who are going to make their lives a misery, but that ultimately we will have a more connected, empowered society.

Becoming a Mentor
What was it that first got you excited about the web? I'll guess it started with something you read or heard from someone else, possibly after hearing all sorts of things that you ignored, that got you curious. After that, it was just you and the computer screen, along with the tools and the people out there - the communities. It was when you found enough to be passionate about that you become an advocate, even an evangelist for the web. That, along with a bit of experience and enthusiasm for building or contributing to communities yourselves is really all you need to award yourself the title of Digital Mentor.

We need to find a balance between giving people adequate reward for their time (particularly where we see priority areas, to ensure digital mentoring is something adequate numbers of people have the time to do rather than assuming they will all be those that can afford to do in their spare time) and opening our knowledge and experience up to ensure that anybody with online experience who wants to share that for community benefit can find the role and take it on voluntarily (along with the other titles that have struck a chord with people such as blogger and social reporter, and no doubt there will be many more to come). We need transparency in recruitment for the paid positions and the possibility of being trained into the paid roles, or other paid work using the skills.

I think alongside a large organisation taking the lead on the proposal, we will need some of the leaders identified in this exercise, and those who emerge in the future, to be national connectors who have the ability to roam the country making sure small organisations know about each other's work (as we know, however good we might be are at online networking and getting better all the time, you do still miss a lot when you can't have real conversations with people). Clearly this needs to be matched with connectors on the ground and this is where it becomes less likely that the government-led scheme alone can afford to.

I see it shaping up into a type of open source collegiate community which needs enough resources to bring people together and enable people to work in communities (perhaps on lead, 'model' projects), while also drawing in people all the time to make a contribution to the project and to digital engagement, therefore deepening the core work and unlocking further resources, both people/volunteers and further grant funding, for example small community grants for computer centres that could be equipped with a free suite of key social sites and then that centre can be added to the Online Centres network.

Perhaps, since this does have the government angle, this sort of connecting role is also something that MPs could be encouraged to take part in. (don't look so surprised!) Furthermore, we need to spread the idea that digital communication is something that more workers are given time for within their jobs.

There will always be those people who feel they have missed out once something is up and running without them, but one of the unwritten rules of the social web is that it is better to build a structure and then see what happens than to wait until you have everybody on board and absolute agreement. Failure as a possibility is acceptable but if you don't have a defined outcome then all outcomes can be a success. As long as the Digital Mentor project has an open and welcoming community and aims to collaborate with anybody who wants to throughout its lifetime, then it will have more success in joining up the circles of online and offline conversation than all of the traditional, top-down, expensive projects that so often land upon us.

We move into a more constructive social media community when we realise that spending your precious typing time arguing and complaining about being excluded is really not as good as just doing it. Doing what? It's entirely up to you.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Action for Congo

Since I'm full of concern but not many original ideas on the situation in the DRC, I'm reposting this blog post by Fred Robarts, for more information please visit http://www.ir2p.org

The last time eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had this much media attention, it was full of refugees from Rwanda who had arrived intermingled with the extremist officials and militia groups that had orchestrated the 1994 genocide. (People who are armed or have committed crimes against humanity aren’t eligible for refugee status under international law, but neither the Congolese authorities nor the UN prevented the genocidaires from keeping their weapons and running the camps.) There were stories of cholera outbreaks and a massive relief operation, but then the news moved on. There was very little coverage or outcry when the same exiled genocidaires staged gruesome raids on Rwanda, or when in 1996 the new Rwandan army crossed the border and carried out massacres of its own, hunting down Rwandan Hutu rebels and refugees alike before sending some 600,000 back to Rwanda.

That was the opening act of two really nasty wars, followed by a power-sharing agreement and a transition to democracy. But these achievements were built on flimsy foundations, and were not shored up by meaningful reforms and effective nationally-led efforts to improve security, end impunity and improve living conditions. All manner of foreign and home-grown armed groups flourished in the security vacuum and profited by selling Congo’s fantastic mineral and timber wealth to the highest bidders.

Now the international press is back in Goma in numbers that seem remarkable, given stiff competition from the financial markets and the US elections. So there is much more material than usual to draw on for the background material and news articles below. But some humanitarian workers are also uniquely-placed to report on the consequences of the violence, as Helen O’Neill of MSF does here (audio):

“One week there is a bustling village and the next week our mobile medical teams return to discover it’s completely empty - a ghost town. Thousands are on the move - a constant stream of humanity on the road. Who knows where all these people will end up? The families settle in inhospitable areas, many of them in the bush, where there is no chance of accessing healthcare… Malaria is endemic in the country, as is cholera, which increases whenever people are on the move like this or crowded into unsanitary camps… The people I met are also hungry, as they can’t go to their fields to harvest. It’s just too dangerous. If you are out alone trying to get to your land you can be shot or raped.”

Policy recommendations

The following 10 steps have been taken from a variety of sources (listed below) and consistent with ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine:

1. Apply sustained, coherent and even-handed international pressure to ensure dialogue between the protagonists to work on acceptable problem-solving mechanisms instead of seeking to profit through dangerous alliances with proxy forces.
2. Strengthen the UN mandate and answer UN requests for more, better-equipped troops (preferably including Special Forces) for MONUC, including through rapid deployment of a UN-mandated European Force.
3. Maximise efforts to help impartial specialist agencies like MSF and the ICRC get humanitarian assistance to those who need it.
4. Regroup the Congolese army (FARDC) and bring it under firm control and new leadership as a matter of urgency. Senior officers must be vetted; no national army can succeed if it is led by war criminals and racketeers. The troops need better training and discipline, but also better conditions.
5. Through political, economic and military pressure, isolate, diminish, disarm and disband all foreign and local militia groups.
6. Enable more inclusive dialogue in DRC and Rwanda to address deeper problems including citizenship, property rights, management of natural resources and the return of refugees. In the process, listen to and inform the rural population and multiple minorities of the Kivus.
7. Examine and control the mineral trade, including through more intrusive sanctions monitoring (e.g. flight inspections) and instruments such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Global Compact.
8. Investigate and prosecute human rights abuses and war crimes through the DRC courts and the International Criminal Court.
9. Monitor, challenge and prosecute hate speech from politicians and the media in DRC, the Great Lakes region and the Diaspora
10. Review development assistance programmes to ensure that they abide by Do No Harm and OECD principles for engagement in fragile states while helping to build democracy and uphold the Rule of Law in DRC (and Rwanda).

Sources of policy recommendations, with sample quotes:

* Council on Foreign Relations: “The problem in eastern Congo is analogous to the problem Sierra Leone faced in 2000, when a British intervention stabilized the country.” (With audio)
* The Economist: “Plainly, the peacekeepers need reinforcing fast, with the right sort of troops. Instead of wringing its hands, the UN Security Council must resolve to send a robust force of extra troops forthwith.”
* Human Rights Watch: “It’s up to the Congolese government, not Nkunda, to protect its Tutsi citizens.”
* Minority Rights Group: “The grievances of the Tutsi cannot justify the abuses committed by the CNDP.”
* UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes: “We should not return to the status quo. This crisis should be the occasion to redefine the international commitment to the Congo so that there can be a more effective effort to address the causes of the conflict. If we leave the fundamental problems to fester under the surface, all our other efforts – and the UK’s laudable investment in helping the Congo – will be built on sand.”
* Amnesty International: “Deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and peacekeepers carrying out their duty of protecting civilians is a war crime, punishable under international law.”
* Enough: “All sides must be held to account for the crimes committed, and the International Criminal Court must work with MONUC to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity by all sides”
* The Guardian (Comment Is Free): “Unless sufficient determination can be mustered to follow up with more inclusive dialogue to address deeper problems including citizenship, management of natural resources, government legitimacy and return of refugees, violent instability will continue to plague eastern Congo and unsettle the entire region.”

Further action

If you agree, the following are some actions you could take. (No doubt you can think of other ideas, perhaps inspired by other campaigns - please let us know.)

* Write to your elected representative. Better still, ask to meet them. Bring a persuasive friend. (For those in the UK, there is likely to be a special parliamentary debate this Thursday. Refer to They Work For You to get your MP’s contact info.) Ask them what they think about these proposals, and ask if they have any links with the Congolese Assembly or the Rwandan Parliament. Find out if your country is currently a member of the UN Security Council. Ask how your government is responding to the humanitarian emergency, and whether this is proportionate to the needs.
* Most news sites, blogs and radio shows encourage you to comment on the big stories. Add your voice, and draw on the material on this page and the links (please send us a link to your comment as well).
* Media coverage will slip during the US Elections. Why not write to the editors (and your MP again) to let them know you want to know what happens next?
* Find out which humanitarian and human rights organisations are doing valuable work in the Congo. Join one of them.
* If you are already a member of a club or organisation, consider how events in the Congo may be relevant to them. Discuss it.
* Find and get to know any Congolese people in your school, college, workplace or neighbourhood. They may be surprised to know you care about what is happening there.
* If you have a blog or website, link to this page and use the resources to write your post.
* Email the link to this page to friends and colleagues, with a personal message from you to introduce it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

October 23 2008: Plodding to the polls

The only feeling that I can take from today’s referendum process in Stoke is that nothing much has changed for our "damaged" system of governance.

The question resembles a camel with two legs: curious looking and, well, not very mobile. It has been put together by too many people with an eye on electoral law who forgot that democracy starts with clear language that actually makes sense. To be fair, of course, the council have already been through this process in two ways, getting two different answers.

So it has been left to the campaign groups - two different groups who chose the same name - and the local media to translate the question for the general public. Try as I might to feign an interest, my eyes went glassy the very second the No campaigners started talking of councillors trying to take away my right to choose who I wanted to lead the city.

Meanwhile, the Yes campaigners, apparently submitting to the commonly-held view that to interest people, you have to terrify them, have come up with a mock-up of The Sun showing the rioting and flames that would result should we keep our mayor. Their message is that the BNP are going to put up someone very charismatic and sexy to woo us all before May. Who this charmer is, is not clear, but if it seems a good enough reason to you to scrap the entire mayoral system, then be sure to vote Yes today.

What this has to do with unpicking the merits of governance systems before us is anyone’s guess, but the Sentinel have taken the same tack for a different result, with a confusing story based on an anonymous poll of councillors that informs us that if we vote Yes we will also get the BNP leading us next May. For BNP politicians and supporters, all that’s needed is to stay quiet and take the free publicity while all around them politicians sink under their own spin and squabbling.

The only thing that can give a convincing way forward is a large turnout today, and that's assuming we think everyone understands the question. My impression from conversations with those people who don’t take an active interest in city politics - the majority, and who can blame them - is that people neither understand nor care. People are widely referring to it as an election, meaning they will be confused when they find out they're not voting for people, but for a system. Translating the question outside the ballot box for people is fairly easy, but whether or not any of us will remember what the question means once we’re inside is unclear. You’re voting No if you want to have a mayor; Yes, if you want the councillors to choose a leader or you just want rid of the mayor. If you’re in the considerable camps of people who (a) think councillors should have more power or (b) would rather the councillors were all gone tomorrow, well then there are no options for you. I could go into the wider plans of the governance commission, which have been agreed but not acted upon by the council, but I suspect you lost interest a few lines ago.

The only reason to vote today is to contribute to the turnout, because we must use our votes when we get them. My own view hasn’t changed over the last six months: the system we have doesn’t particularly matter as long as we can have a city in which everybody can contribute and have their voices heard through different avenues of representation. In the last few weeks, far away from the political arena but sometimes involving the same people, I’ve seen some very encouraging signs that the grassroots organisations of Stoke could be enjoying something of a renaissance, inspired perhaps by the visit of Desmond Tutu back in July. Online, there are more Stoke people blogging than ever before – even if large swathes of our city are still without free internet access this is a sign that we could be entering a more healthy era of discussion and debate in which the people’s voices cannot be ignored. The day when even poor ignored Tunstall has a Facebook group dedicated to its charms is a good day for our city.

The campaigners for Trentham High School, who have been bravely standing up and dragging attention back to themselves even when all seemed lost, have in my view won the battle and should be given the prize they want. If walking to London to deliver a petition wasn’t convincing enough, the achievement of the students, teachers and parents in making their school the most improved in the city deserves our respect and more importantly that of the Building Schools for the Future architects. People are more important than buildings and our reliance on demolition and displacement needs to be put behind us. Our appearance on Question Time last week was a clear message to national government that the people of Stoke have, through bitter experience, learnt to articulate issues of deprivation, fear and unfairness as they affect our communities.

As Stoke-on-Trent creeps closer to its centenary year as a federated city of six proud towns, we could be about to enter very interesting times indeed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Beyond poverty

Wherever you are in the world, a lot of the work around poverty tends to be focussed on funding and policy. Not funding for those in poverty, naturally, but funding for the bureaucracy that seeks to alleviate poverty. This means that those who develop most success, whether working on a very wide or very local level, tend to be those who learn to play the game of government targets around deprivation.

I was interested to hear a comment today by a very inspiring woman who complained about the short-termism of funding for a women's project she ran. It struck me that we have no choice but to move beyond our reliance on funding. Otherwise, the groups have no choice but to keep emphasising their problems in order to get the funding they need to continue. The development of social enterprise as an encouraged option moves on from that, but still puts organisations under pressure to grow and develop.

For me, the present climate makes either of these avenues increasingly difficult to sustain. The global problems are going to mean there are simply too many problems for governments to adequately fund. In addition, trading is going to become harder and those companies that made funding available for community projects are likely to have less to share. To put it simply, there is less money out there now to solve our problems. We need to rely more on our own creativity and what can be done for free.

So that makes it timely that, as is outlined well in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and by others, we're in an era where our costs of organising has collapsed. For all the uncertainty about what the Digital Mentor idea could look like, its greatest strength is the recognition that, by teaching people in deprived communities about digital access and use of free tools, you effectively plug them in to much wider opportunities. It could lead to two outcomes: first giving people the tools to organise whatever disruptive things they want to (and I like the fact that the government seem to be going down this route when they clearly aren't in control of the outcomes); and second transcending the basic modern reality that to be successful, you have to be willing to travel anywhere in the world: get educated, get mobile. We could start tapping in to the under-utilised resources of people who are in deprived areas, hearing their voices, hearing about their skills and making links to markets anywhere in the world. Again, the government could take the lead on this by supporting remote hubs to connect people to higher quality jobs even if they aren't in the major cities.

By building up the self-sufficiency of localised deprived areas, we can build confidence in those communities and people can actually take power, instead of waiting to be given handouts.

I think we need to start cherishing the small contributions that can lead to transformative change. One activist in a community can have a significant impact. Online, that impact is magnified. In Stoke alone, we've seen some examples of decisions being overturned because resistance could not be ignored as it would have been in the past. Indeed, even at the end of major battles, we've seen a development of greater respect for groups that would previously have been ignored. People will different skills can work together, so literacy is not necessarily a barrier to participation (although it is an issue). Through greater online dialogue adding to personal meetings, we can start to move beyond the anger and divisionism that has been fuelled by decades, if not centuries, of deprivation in our communities. People can participate in more creative ways than the standard hierarchies like resident's committees and they can be asked to volunteer more easily.

To break it down into a trite, but Twitterable soundbite:
Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day
Give him broadband and he'll be able to download instructions on a wide range of fishing methods.
(and perhaps the location of a nearby community group offering a fish-supper or the ability to form one himself...)

Saturday, October 11, 2008


2005 was probably the year when I turned from blogger to connected global citizen.

In June, I was in Rwanda on a rollercoaster of a week. Meeting with wonderful friends made by email as we developed a discussion on how journalists could play a part in preventing genocide. Enjoying stimulating conversations on topics that still provoke my thoughts today. We ran a conference on how the global youth could ensure ‘Never Again’, it happened to coincide with the visit of the president of the World Bank to Africa and, Rwanda being quite a closely connected place, we got him to come to our conference. After his address, I shot up to the nearest computer lab and reported the speech on Wikinews (http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/World_Bank_president_addresses_global_youth_forum_on_genocide), which, in turn got a mention in the Financial Times.

Less than a month later, I heard the sound of a bomb close to my office in Tavistock Square. We didn’t know what it was, but I was already communicating with a fellow ‘wikinewsie’, Dan Grey, about explosions on the underground. At 9.56am (the log says 8.56) I immediately posted a report heard from my editor and work experience student who had run out to see what was happening. I then deleted it again, worried that it might not be true, but it was and Dan was already weaving it in to the developing Wikinews story. He later wrote (http://osdir.com/ml/org.wikimedia.foundation/2005-07/msg00060.html) that we were the first people to report the incident online. In 2008 I imagine it would have been quicker still, posted on Twitter via mobile phone from the scene itself, but in 2005 nine minutes was considered pretty fast.

Everybody brushes with news stories from time to time in their lives. The difference between then and now is that then the public’s contribution to a story was merely their answer to the bland question ‘how do you feel’. Now, we can shape the story, write it, respond to it, comment on it.

I’m now reading, simultaneously (because I’m *that* hyperconnected), Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, and CrowdWired by Tom Watson. The first is a good example of how you can carve out your niche and make money: seeing the book recommended on a few sites I trusted I marched in to Waterstones and demanded a copy, even paying extra so I could read it on the train. The second has been sent as a review copy, thanks to a connection with Tom Watson on Twitter, so I can make my own sprinklings of recommendations through my own networks so that in a few months someone else will shell out real cash for the fruits of Tom’s labour instead of just reading his blog for free.

Both books are fascinating and very readable. They represent the maturity of a movement, the time when academics can take a step back from the fast-moving events and start writing a history. 2005 is an important year in both these histories, with the 7/7 bombings and the New Orleans floods representing a step further on from the connectivity that could already be seen on 9/11 and the 2004 Tsunami. Both books are really useful as guides to those who are still waiting for the spark. I’ve already read the criticism somewhere that Shirky’s book doesn’t say anything new. Although that criticism is untrue, in my view, I can see why the online ‘natives’ may be unmoved by the story of a lost/stolen phone that could be found again by the power of the crowd.

One of the many interesting insights for me is that in the connected world, we can be very relaxed about failure. Indeed, we can afford to fail because the investment in organising is now zero. For a long time I was a little downhearted about the amount of ideas I’d started that hadn’t really got anywhere, the tools I’d built that hadn’t been picked up and used by as many people as I’d hoped. My view now, which has been backed up by the evidence in this book, is that putting ideas out that may or may not be picked up is simply part of a new process that is now done in public where it once would have been private.

Free digital revolushun. Ur doin it rong.

The sudden closure of Burslem Library last week left me feeling really disappointed.

Sited inside the city's finest building, the Wedgwood Institute, the library is one of those places whose value often goes unnoticed. When I first moved to Burslem, two rooms of the crumbling listed building were being used and through the window you could see some fairly dusty-looking bookshelves. By the time I found myself in Burslem during the day, the library had shrunk into one room, with the rest of this fine building taped off to all those without hard hats.

Despite its very obvious neglect, the library was a haven for me and many others. Inside I could spend the odd hour for free, discovering long-gone voices of Burslem shoppers, child miners and characters. There was the internet.

A long time ago, as can be seen on Stoke council's website, millions of pounds were granted to refurbish the building. Expanded library space would have been shared with business units and the lecture theatre would have been restored. See and regret that the completion date should have been August this year.

Instead, the project got dragged into the very complex and expensive business of reshuffling North Staffs agencies and 'put on hold' while a coherent vision for everything could be developed. It is still on hold. While it is fair that money should be spent carefully, this was funding granted to restore a specific building of great significance to the city. Nobody would have argued that the building needed to be restored, so it would have been better to get on with it than have it eventually shut down altogether after becoming a danger to the public. That a fine building with such an illustrious history should have been allowed to degenerate is not the fault of any individual but of systematic failure going back generations. It's a far cry from the original vision, built by public subscription to widen out access to education.

Today, because no plans could be put into place for the library, it has shut without any warning. This is, hopefully, temporary, but this is a very stretchable word in Stoke. The closure means that between the A500 and the Haywood Learning Centre (virtually the whole of the Burslem South ward), there is no free internet access available to the public (if there are any exceptions to this please let me know).

With all the government efforts towards digital engagement, the fact that this could happen in one of the most deprived wards in the country should be a cause of concern to politicians nationally. Not least because we have two important processes going on right now: the Slater Street Public Inquiry and the masterplanning process for Middleport. Those on broadband can follow these processes online and can have our say by email, blogs or on discussion boards should we so wish; we can read updates on websites. In a library, even the web-averse could read about this matter of public interest in the Sentinel for free. If you can't afford a computer and broadband, or you can't get through the credit check to have broadband then you go back to being as disconnected as you ever have been.

Like so much, people will point to alternatives. All that is in Tunstall, they will say, or Hanley. Haven't got a car? Just get a bus. Walk, it's good for you! All of which is of little use to those with limited mobility, no money, those feeling a little isolated or frightened to take to the streets or to gamble with the public transport system. There's a certain time and feeling in Burslem, after about 3 when most of the shops have usually closed for the day, when you don't have quite enough money even for a lemonade in the Leopard. It's a time when your heart can really sink as you look over the empty buildings and the closed shops. The antidote to this feeling was the library, not in Tunstall or Hanley or up any hill, but in Burslem.

The closure also came in the same week as twinkly-eyed minister for culture Andy Burnham launched a debate on the future of libraries. To which our only answer can be "yes, we'd like one of those please".

So, as is right and proper in these circumstances, I've set up a Facebook group to retain a virtual community in support of, first, having a library at all and secondly, to have a fully developed and fabulous library in the place that our forefathers built for us. So, if you can get online and feel so inclined, please join and show your support with a little gentle badgering of your elected representatives.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Lessons from a former newspaper editor

Back in July, at the end of a very difficult week, I started to accept that my dream, the newspaper Local Edition, was not going to continue in paper any more. On the same day, I was lucky enough to see Desmond Tutu speaking in Stoke. Of all the miraculous coincidences, nothing could have inspired me more than his speech that focussed on the small things and reflected back on a path that took Josiah Wedgwood from Burslem to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, free from prison after a centuries-long struggle against racist oppression.

Next week, I start a brand new role, on which I will undoubtedly be saying much more. So it's a good time to reflect on what I learnt.

I still don't believe that newspapers are dead. But their business model cannot work in the current climate. The weight of commercial funding needed is dragging newspapers - and more importantly, print journalists - down. Exciting as the new era may be for those working on the new business model, there are generations of reporters still being crushed in newsrooms across the country by groups seeking to hang on to their 30% profits. Much as the mainstream is getting on board with the internet, I still think there is a major point they're not getting. I don't believe Google is hugely profitable because it does everything it can to chase money. Rather, their vast profits have allowed them the freedom to experiment and develop tools that are as good as they can be and improving all the time. Lucky Google. Lucky us.

More and more of us are now finding ourselves in a period of exploration. Whether you grew up thinking you'd be a miner or a banker, there are no safe job routes any more. Those of us who are lucky will be able to find avenues we are passionate about, but there is no reason any more to give your life to any organisation in the hope of future rewards. At the point when I was ready to stop the newspaper, I realised I'd be happier labouring for a living than trying to sell another advertising space to a reluctant shop that hadn't made any money for a week. I was even more sick of trying to sell 'community benefit' to a millionnaire business-owner who wasn't about to start giving something back with my paper. The weight of the cost of paper was simply too much to sustain, I was risking my own reputation trying to fulfil too many roles and I wasn't making any money from it.

However, running Local Edition for as long as I could still created incredible benefits. My faith that there was more out there that people like to believe paid off and the paper pulled together contributions from fantastic writers, photographers and artists, all with the most generous spirits. Enough organisations and businesses put their money into the paper, an unproven concept, to keep it going at a break-even point. I had endless, dizzying conversations with people whose voices never seem to be reflected in centres of power. Our stories were followed up, amplifying the voices of ordinary people. I could start to imagine what these networks could look like if they were listened to and resourced. I had to grapple with a spectrum of political views far removed from the safe spaces we create for ourselves. We had to react to events, rumours and different truths that put me in mind of terrifying scenarios and possibilities. We showed it was possible to run a newspaper full of constructive news and that it would be popular.

These are some things I would tell people thinking about going down the same path:

- don't burn yourself out chasing the money you need to follow your dream. Get the money to sustain your food, essentials and a broadband connection and then carve out the time for your passion. Even a few minutes a day spent on a collaborative project makes an impact.

- the people who tell you not to get into debt are right, unless that debt is with the Princes Trust who will be one of your most steadfast friends (assuming you are in Britain, that is). There are many more organisations who will be just as wonderful and I haven't got time to list them right now, so seek them out rather than the ones that make things difficult while saying they're helping you.

- if your project is unusual, asking people who operate with a different vision for money to do it won't work. Again, use free tools to make your impact so that you're not relying on anybody else. If you prove your point, then risk-averse organisations will support you, but probably well after you need them. Be ready to know when to stop waiting.

The project has led to some great work for me and many of the people who have been involved in the paper (many of whom didn't need any help but it's still nice that Local Edition has been part of their journey). www.localedition.org.uk continues as one of the richest archives of Northern Stoke life on the internet and a communication forum that anybody can use. www.stokesounds.co.uk is without doubt the best music website in North Staffordshire. The company, Social Media CIC, will continue simply to provide a structure for ideas, without the burden of cashflow forecasts that demand endless growth to feed the machinery of business. It will instead create social capital and connect with other small organisations all over the world that are doing the same. Exciting times ahead...

PS If you're reading this thinking "but she's still got to send me that receipt/letter/form/cheque/etc/etc", I will tie up all the loose ends in the end, promise, things have just been a bit hectic recently... :)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Is this helpful?

Time is valuable. Whenever we undertake something, we have to make a brief calculation in our head about whether the time it will take is worthwhile. This is even more the case if you're working freelance or running a business.

That's why quick activities so often get far more people to participate.

The one thing I hate more than anything else at all is bureaucracy. (hopefully you understand that I'm not comparing forms to torture or genocide, I am merely being dramatic). Forms send me spitting feathers all over the place and whining like a teenager as I scrawl half-heartedly on the stupid boxes and ratings. It's only slightly better if somebody fills in the form with me.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, how dehumanised does this form make you feel?"

That's a question you rarely see.

I'm not dyslexic, but I am left-handed, so there are parts of forms that I tend to miss out because I didn't see them. I find filling them in genuinely stressful and very time-consuming. I tend to get suspicious of the usefulness of the form the longer it goes on. I start to think evil thoughts about the people who created the form. I wonder at the expense of entering data that I know for a fact is already in their overstuffed servers and wandering memory sticks. Very often, I give up, unless given another biscuit or told I can't leave the room till it's done.

More than anything, I resent the fact that part of my interactions with government bureaucracy are because I'm someone in need of 'help'. The only reason I sign or fill in the bloody things at all is because I have been part of various government schemes that have really helped me and normally there is a wonderful person on the end of the form saying "Sorry about this, but it's for the funders". Because I have been through different schemes with differing levels of bureaucracy, I know that evaluation is applied differently.

I obviously see the value of evaluation and the necessity for monitoring. A bit of reflection on your work by an impartial observer is also often very useful. Even the need to demonstrate value for money, except that I think this very often destroys actual value in the process of spreading your money as thin as it can go. I don't like the fact that because I don't have my own money to do whatever I like, I have to trade personal details for help. I would rather spend that time doing something of value instead.

I'm becoming convinced that nearly all the time-consuming evaluation could be replaced by one simple question:

"Was this helpful?"

Yes or no.

If this question was applied at the end of every interaction by a publicly-funded person, or added to the end of every web page funded by a government scheme, then we would very quickly have a body of evidence to say what is helping people most and what isn't. In other words, what works. Suggestions and refinements can always come later, with the time freed up by not having to fill in stupid forms.

Two examples:

You spend four days supplying excessive amounts of information for a branding grant that, ultimately, you were rejected for because you were the wrong sort of business (even though you had checked beforehand and your intermediary had been given the wrong information).

Was this helpful?


(now, isn't that quicker than composing endless vitriolic letters and complaining to everyone you meet?)

You had a conversation with someone you know at the council who told you you would probably be eligible for a refurbishment grant on your house that you hadn't heard about before and then asked the person running the scheme to call you. You were eligible, so you got the grant.

Was this helpful?


One of these examples wasted stupid amounts of unpaid time and contributed absolutely nothing to government outputs. The other contributed to outputs and ensured that someone in need got something they were entitled to. The difference is in the time people are allowed to have conversations with people.

Particularly in areas where online access is low, you can forget connecting with people if you're not released from your desk to speak to people. Conversations are extremely valuable. Information can be passed on and put into context. Conversations layer on each other. Most people are more likely to take action because of a conversation, or even several conversations, than they are from websites, mailshots or even newspapers. Certainly, these add to the mix and are vital to ensure you are getting accurate information and have something to refer to, but that is combined with the spark that made you look at them in the first place.

Call conversations, if you like, the Twitter feeds of real life and you might appreciate the importance of conversations once again. Journalists, take note.

I've gone off on a bit of a tangent, but when they release the next competition to do something clever to make government work better, this will be my suggestion. Wipe out every form with more than two fields and replace it with the name of the project/person/odd new computer system in a waiting room/paper-based information given to people, a name (if you must) and a yes or no answer.

Feed it into a central space and...

We might suddenly find out what's working.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


It is quite often the case that people feel isolated when they have a problem with a company or organisation.

Many people may not be aware of the powerful search tools that can help them find out more about an organisation's reputation than you will get from their official websites or the often PR-led mainstream media.

Google blog search
and Twitter search, which recently incorporated Summize, are both becoming increasingly stronger tools as more people express their views online. Because you can skim through snippets, you can get a quick overall picture of positive or negative comments and also delve deeper into stories that might show national trends. It adds greatly to our ability to hold organisations accountable as they increasingly try to build big walls around themselves.

It adds to the usefulness of main Google which, as I've blogged before, will often get you to answers that are missing from corporate websites. This week I tried to visit Stikipad and just got a holding page, suggesting it would be up and running soon. Later, a Google search took me along the same track as many more people to a blog post that revealed the site had actually been down for several months and showed no signs of revival. What started out as one person's frustrated blogspost became a focal point and the link rose further up Google as more people linked to it. The post became a bubbling, collaborative space to the extent that once personal phone numbers and details went up the original author asked everyone to leave when the party looked like turning nasty (or rather, libellous).

It highlights two important points. First of all, if you're having a frustrating time with a company it is worth documenting your experience online somewhere, if you feel ready to, because it should get picked up by others, possibly including a quick-witted person from the organisation. Second, it is a reminder that most forums, and Twitter, are public and if you're working for clients you might think twice before slagging them off online in any place that can be traced back to you. You don't know whose desktop it might pop up on...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The social reporter

I like David Wilcox’s definition of the social reporter. It sounds friendlier than the two rather ugly words citizen journalist, although that name might be too far developed (in good ways) to change now.
It defines very nicely the work I’ve been doing over the last 18 months. It wasn’t until I had to take stock for a funding application that I realised that my team would have had around 35,000 exchanges on the streets of Northern Stoke in a year. None of us were working in the area before, so that is 35,000 connections that would not have happened otherwise. I always felt that the conversations were as important as the newspaper, both reinforcing networks and provoking action. We supported networks and new projects, we passed on information and we countered rumours if we were able to.
Before call-centre journalism became normal, journalists were community-based (at least in the realms of power) and conversation-based. How would journalists operate if it went back to that, with the addition of technology? Less of the smash-and-grab vox pop to get some bland quotes from different ‘sides’ and perhaps a recognition that the reporter, as the person who is speaking to both those in power and those without, can support a dialogue between them instead of exacerbating a conflict.
Perhaps they would give a bit more thought to the other bits of information people tend to tell you as you’re gathering a story (that is if you give them enough time). Someone got a broken fence? Why not give them the number of someone to report it to instead of filing it away until all the fences in the street have been broken by a serial vandal, the point at which it might actually become a story in the eyes of your news editor. If some people have specific questions that they want asked, let them know about the freedom of information act. Find small, quick ways (Twitter) to report small things that might be of interest to other people and encourage the people you meet to use email and Twitter to let you know anything they want to, you don’t know what might lead to a story.
I know this approach doesn’t necessarily lead to the productivity that the current mainstream media is looking for. But the way things are going, more journalists are going to struggle to find work anyway. Perhaps while we are looking for other ways of making a living, we can use our skills and instinct to report for the good of our communities?
On the other hand, I remain sure that the only way to stem the decline of the newspaper industry is for the big powers to stop centralising everything and put the same investment into community-based reporters whose remit would be to produce rich, stimulating content that is vital to its audience. All the investment in technology will be for nothing if you lose the connection with people altogether - an important point, I think, for both the media and government.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The new business diet

This week marks one year since I started my own business. A year since the last pay-cheque dropped into my bank account and I feasted every weekday on a Krispy Kreme donut for breakfast and a healthy, balanced, two course meal in a subsidised work restaurant for lunch. Oh, happy days.

But I have to admit looking over my Facebook albums, I was putting on a little weight in those last few weeks in London. Since then, I’m getting towards a second dress-size down from when I left. How do I know this? Well, obviously, I haven’t been able to afford new jeans since.

So while the life of a startup entrepreneur may be hard, it has its upsides. With these tips I explain how you too can lose weight in the quest to gain pounds. Or, er, dollars.

Network to eat
In the world of new business, you should find yourself invited to all sorts of free networking events designed to help you learn the mysteries of making your first million. And what’s the best thing about these? The buffets, of course. Be sure to exercise a bit of subtlety. While standing by the buffet table don't just wolf down your plate like some orphan waif, it'll make people suspicious about the viability of your business.

Assume an ‘open networking’ position and make connections as people join you to get food with some smalltalk about how there’s never enough wine at these things, haha. Talking more means eating less so be sure to ask the person standing with you lots of questions. While he’ll think you’re fascinated by what he’s doing and like you more, you’ll can eat enough to keep you going all day.

Location, location, location
In the modern world, most businesses can operate anywhere with a broadband connection. So why spend all your money on an office in a swish city when you can find some pre-regeneration area where the rent is cheap and the people interesting? It you pick the right sort of town where coffee culture hasn’t quite taken off yet, you can save money and lose weight merely by skipping lunch – by the time you get hungry at 3, all the cafes will be closed. If you're missing the high life, just watch an episode of The Apprentice and you'll soon be reminded of why you wanted to get out of corporate life in the first place.

Shop smart
If there’s one thing that will make you appreciate the life of a small trader, it’s being one yourself. No more casual handing over of the plastic in an impersonal supermarket, if you’ve got a few pounds in your pocket, be sure to make sure they benefit the people who might end up giving you some business in turn. And since you’re not sure when the next payday will be, it makes a lot of sense to eat all the food in your house before buying anything else.

Pound those streets
Cashflow forecast says you’ll have a sales manager by month three? Yah, right. Once you’ve found that the only person willing to work on commission is yourself and that sending emails all day results in no response, you’ll be doing the sales calls before you know it. While you’re at it, maybe you don’t really need to plough your cash into a car anyway, you can get by perfectly well on foot. All great for the waistline!

Clare-Marie White runs a social enterprise in Stoke-on-Trent, UK. All approaches by investors or people willing to buy her a cake are most welcome.
This article was originally published on Knewsroom in May and I was a bit slow getting it onto here...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Response to the Governance Commission report

Yesterday was a very important day for Stoke-on-Trent. The Governance Commission reflected back a picture of Stoke politics that everybody will recognise. You can read the full report here.

Given how many people who had given evidence were in the room, it was surprising how quick people were to distance themselves from its findings. Unfortunately, the same habits of divisionism and negativity that have turned off most of the people of city were all evident. The cabinet were accusing the Independents and BNP of causing all the problems while simultaneously claiming they wanted to move away from negative politics. The main campaign group was asking for an entirely different option that the ones we are able to choose. The vast majority of people in the chamber were white and over 40. In the press conference afterwards, the cabinet, who were quite clearly in the firing line, seemed to be denying that their leadership style had in any way contributed to the report. Meanwhile the national Guardian newspaper have been to Bentillee and gave the world a three-page view on the rise of the BNP in Stoke. Brilliant.

So, what choice do people in the city have? Nothing, except to get involved right now. Unless you want the same people who have caused this demise to create the solution, you need to find a way to be a part of it. I've been discussing the report with a few people so far and everybody has some view on what should be done. 'Leaders' may decry apathy but people are far from apathetic. I believe where they are missing the point is by failing to realise that where there is a lack of trust it's no good asking people to be involved in the sky-high policy, it is the issues on the ground that they care about and the short term. Just take parking as an issue. If the people of Burslem have been able to have absolutely no dialogue with anybody on an issue that they almost universally agree adversely affects the town, how can you say they are being engaged?

Little things have a massive effect on people's lives and the council need to accept that if they're in a huge fight over them, that's not good leadership. Dialogue can prevent issues and build trust. Of course it's hard to get people involved, but that's your job. Why did the closure of Dimensions need to turn into a petition issue instead of being discussed with Residents Associations and, dare I say, the users of Dimensions? Who has ever been asked about whether parts of Hanley should be rebranded, wiping its name entirely from roadsigns? Not the communities of Hanley, I'll suggest.

The report is well thought-through, leaving options open for discussion where possible and clarifying the areas where choices are more limited. Reporting it simply as a row over whether we have a referendum for a mayor rather misses the point: that our system is so damaged that the system doesn't really matter. If we accept the Commission's view of the problem - and there is no reason why we shouldn't because it echoes all of the views expressed every day in the City, at least the parts I see - we need to accept their solutions. The council need to take immediate action to fix the breakdown in engagement and start to show people it is worth getting involved again.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The World is watching

“When I climbed to the boat pier, I saw a corpse of a young child, wearing a rubber band on his wrist. Thousands of lives, thousands of innocent people, lost in the water, lost on the land.”
- Nyi Lynn Seck

If May 2008 will be remembered for the massive tragedies in Burma and China, it could also be credited for being the month when the global community stepped up and became a real force for action.

In years gone by, the aid response to Cyclone Nargis might have remained an issue for governments and aid agencies to fight over in the corridors of the UN. Now, the immediate direct reports of victims via blogs and Twitter feeds mean that few people in the world can say they didn’t know.

Few governments will openly say they want to kill off their people and would normally rely on the darkness of media blackouts. However, the ongoing work by organisations like Reuters-backed Global Voices, and web users themselves, to encourage blogging in countries where self-expression has always been dangerous now means that we have direct reports from countries whose people have had no voice. On Sunday, Myat Thura translated a report by Nyi Lynn Seck, quoted above. With the honesty of the citizen journalist, Myat Thura writes: “When I read Nyi Lynn Seck's article, I really wanted to cry” and the article ended with links to pages where people could donate.

While bloggers could bring individual human experiences to world attention, Google Earth swung into action immediately to support aid agencies and the UN agency UNOSAT in using maps and satellites to view the area affected. Even if visa restrictions mean that the vast majority of them have not been able to get into the area yet, they can be better prepared for when they do and any of the 200 million users who have reportedly downloaded Google Earth can see the extent of the devastation and relief work.

In China, Google were also able to provide services for people to find lost relatives and track relief efforts, which may give critics some assurance that they have been able to have a positive impact even while they have played to the Chinese government’s rules. In addition, Google is matching donations to relief efforts in both China and Burma.

At the time of writing, over 8,000 people had signed a petition calling on the UN to apply the new doctrine ‘Responsibility to Protect’ to enforce international aid. Few governments have endorsed the idea of taking on Burma’s military regime but the public response has given weight to diplomatic efforts by the UN and governments.

While in the Olympic year the Chinese government were unlikely to leave the victims of the earthquake, there’s no doubt that they will have seen the advantage of their fast reaction: hundreds of rescue pictures being beamed around the world, perhaps helping to fade memories of the protests about Tibet and associated web coverage that doggedly pursued the Olympic torch.

Governments, no matter how bad, will rarely declare that they are out to let all their people die and so rely on international ignorance and apathy to let crimes against humanity pass by. The fact that the Cyclone aftermath has been so high profile will certainly have had an impact on the Burmese government’s willingness to engage. The fact that there are more voices than just those in the West also means that they are not being backed into a corner by British and American governments waving aid. On Sunday the British diplomat Lord Malloch-Brown explained to the BBC that although they would like to see aid moving in faster, they were reassured by the fact that Association of East Asian Nation countries were able to broker a link that the "Burmese can work with".

The events of the past two weeks have shown that while ‘responsibility to protect’ has some way to go before becoming a fast-track to prevent mass deaths, the global community are willing to react and have a sense of common humanity. The next challenge for global activists will be to find out how the same power can be harnessed to prevent the ‘slow burning’ crises such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As pressure continues to let aid through in Burma, the world will continue to watch and wait, and pray, for the survivors of May’s natural disasters.

First published on Knewsroom

Why you can no longer buy the media

First published on Knewsroom
(with thanks to the kommuknity for the incredibly ego-boosting 41,860 watts :) )

Social Media Marketing is increasingly popping up all over the web as the bandwagon of choice for communications strategists. While there will be plenty of helpful contributions like this article, I fear that there will be some very tedious and expensive attempts to hijack the internet for commercial or political use, which will fail. In the meantime, the risk is that advertising revenue will decline, putting at risk the very model that much of the social media depends on while companies try to market themselves on the cheap.

The great development of the internet is how far individuals are in control of what they view. People decide what to open themselves up to based on trust. The links are between individuals grouped into communities. Best of all, people recommend things to each other because they want to, not because they are paid to. Attempts to cut into those relationships with marketing messages are binned as the spam that they are.

The public relations industry has been able to take advantage of the mainstream media's refusal to invest in journalism (see: churnalism) but the internet gives us the chance to bypass media pointlessness and go straight to the source. If journalists stop worrying about the effect of all this on their own jobs, they could do what they were always meant to do - report what's new in a way that is clear and simple to the reader who wants to find out what happened this hour/yesterday/this week. They could signpost to what's online and add healthy amounts of real-life questioning and investigation. Novel, no?

Where does it leave the PR workers? Well, since so many of them turned from journalism to PR out of necessity, there's nothing to stop them using their talents to feed more information onto the web and stopping the obsessive drive for control that makes it so difficult to find out anything about what is happening in our institutions. If you were asking me how Stoke's extensive public relations budget should be spent, for example (and I don't suppose for a minute that anybody will), I'd suggest one PR officer for each of the six towns (yes, even Fenton), whose role would be to channel information between councillors, council workers and the community in whatever ways were most appropriate, whether that means talking (yes, talking) to people on the street (bejeezus!), writing articles for their own web presences or sending information to the local media.

If politicians and businesses really want to take advantage of the potential of the social web, they need to relax and realise that what people are really interested in is authenticity and the chance to build trust. I've been quite impressed by Gordon Brown's Twitter feed in the last couple of weeks. There's very little spin you can fit into a 140 character tweet, so the unnamed tweeter (tweeterer?) just posts updates about what Gordon is up to. He also follows all his own followers, meaning that you can get into a direct dialogue - again, there's no room for long boring discussions but you can give instant feedback or ask short questions. Undoubtedly, some media pundit will try to say how very cringe-worthy it all is, but since we've all stopped finding the time to read what they say, it doesn't really matter.

And because of that Twitter feed, what did I, an avid hater of the Labour party, find myself doing yesterday? Posting Gordon's comments from the press release and the BBC report onto Knewsroom in a story that subsequently got 'invested' onto the front page. Free PR in the old-fashioned sense, and purely because Gordon said something that I thought was useful and would be of interest to the Knewsroom audience. I would be very happy to follow any of my political representative's Twitter feeds if they started them, because it cuts out the party political rubbish and simply lets me know what they're doing.

Moving on to businesses, it is a similar lesson. People need to think of the way they do business or make buying choices. Increasingly for me, it is about personal connection. We all know and accept that everyone has to make a living, but we'd be more likely to work with people we have come to trust through some form of collaboration. It's about giving as much of yourself as you want to, but being clear about what it is you are selling. I am about to change all my business bank accounts to a new bank in Burslem, firstly because they were recommended to me and secondly, when I went in to open a separate account they were kind over my chronic inability to fill in forms. Thirdly, I was reminded in the branch of the advertising that I liked on TV and I thought "Oh yes, I like them". Amazing what a pretty cartoon and song can do for a business's reputation.

This combination marks several brands that I like and I'd name Apple and Honda as good examples. Their advertising is well-made and sticks in the mind, making their products more desirable. Advertising reinforces personal recommendation and gives me specific calls to action. Targeted advertising is often useful to me. Sites have enough of my personal information and even the words I am using to mean that the ads alongside my web use can be complementary, while still separate from my surfing.

So to conclude this terribly long article, it's the combination of advertising and people-resources that will set apart successful marketing strategies. By investing in advertising, businesses are much more likely to get themselves close to the audiences they want to reach than by indulging in passing fads like viral marketing, which are much more risky, or by producing old-style PR which will increasingly be ignored. If they want to use networking as a method, they need to invest in people to spend time establishing themselves in communities and building trust by making a useful contribution to the internet. Those people will need to believe in what they are doing and have the freedom to tell the truth and use their own initiative to add value to their company's work. The new wave of big websites have got it sussed out, it remains to be seen whether the old regimes can change as effectively.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

..."like herding cats"

This is one of my favourite phrases. It gave me a moment of delight during a particularly tiresome few days spent in Brussels with a group of multi-national, multi-age Quakers. Delightful though they were, trying to manouvre round a city with them was as frustrating as the time I had a go at walking an ill tabby:

Let's go here...

No... let's look here ...

RUN!!!!!!!!!!! .... and stop ... & escape ... and ...

let's look here.


And so on.

So anyway, this post by David Parrish reflects on the similarities between creatives and cats, centring on one company's difficulty in 'leading' these high and mighty pests. It's a good article and he asks if anybody has any further thoughts...

My view's this. It's not just creatives, cats are the best personality type for anybody to take on. Any talk of herding suggests that what you really want is sheep. Human beings, I would argue, were never meant to be herded. Signs that they are being herded suggests something unhealthy, dehumanising in society. And I don't include armies in that (except the most unhealthy armies). Good armies are disciplined teams.

What David doesn't mention is the reason why cats and humans became so vital to each other in the first place. People may have worked out how to harness nature and create fields of delightful foodstuffs, but without the cat, rats and mice would have eaten the whole harvest before man got it anywhere near his bread-grinder. Cats played an essential role in the development of society. Nobody drew up a contract with the cat, they just formed a happy partnership based on their skills.

The same people who tend to be compared to cats have a tendency to be highly effective in the right circumstances: they are self-motivated, they work out what they need to do and they do it well and they're not afraid to take the initiative when they see an opportunity scuttling by. Partnered with the right organisations who will provide them shelter and let them be themselves, they can be transformational. Many web 2.0 companies have this sussed. Provide free board, nice snazzy bedding and a toy or two and your cats will create the likes of Wikipedia or Facebook. The most advanced companies have trusted their users with their code and have found that, far from stealing the baby's breath, they've changed society again and again. For providing the infrastructure, they are very well rewarded.

I worry a little every time I see mention of 'leaders' anywhere near consultants (not counting David as I've heard very nice things about him). It tends to go alongside an assumption that you have, or need, a compliant population and that with the right leadership everything will be better. Your people are your problem and we, the well-paid consultants, can show you how to change them. Personal empowerment doesn't really come into it. Recent developments in the business support model are following other government trends by creating structures that are overly paternal and creating deep mistrust amongst the people they are supposed to be trying to help. And no matter how good your intentions are, if a cat doesn't like what you're trying to do it will opt out of your system and find some other way to be happy.

This is important in the context of the creative sector because in our area, creatives are being feted as the potential catalysts for growth. If we do well, we will need coffee shops, food shops and the rest. It is the case in Burslem that because we have a very low cost base and from that many remarkable collaborations have sprung up. This week, we're putting together the Arts & Crafts Festival that will hopefully fill the streets with fun. Why are we doing it? Because it's good for business and we want to. But creatives aren't different from anyone else. Britain's future, I have heard a senior minister say, is not in the jobs where you need to be a gentle cow, the jobs for life where no imagination was required. Where that leaves the mass service industry is anybody's guess. But looking at it positively, it requires a population of people who work hard for their own means, in small partnerships, following their passions, whether that means running a cafe, a newspaper, gardening company or an IT company. The owners of small businesses work harder than anybody else, increasing productivity (if undercutting the minimum wage). The only effective way to deliver this change is to give people the confidence to find their own niche, to become the cat.

The difference in approach is one of trust and having faith that people's actions are for good intentions and will have good effects, even if the outcomes are not the ones you have on your stupid bloody outcome ticksheet. Let people off the lead, but provide a supportive atmosphere and we could really change things.

OK, I've probably taken the analogy far enough now, someone else should have a go :)

Sunday, February 10, 2008


You can get the answer to (almost) any problem on Google. I was so impressed with the last example of this, I had to share.

Gmail stopped loading on my laptop. Firefox had just updated but it was still working on my main computer. It was just flickering and reloading and frustratingly blank, though I could see the message headers on RSS feeds. It was also working on Safari but I didn't want to have to start switching to that, thank you very much.

The solution? Clear all your cookies and page history. You don't need to clear passwords.

It worked.

So if it happens to you, you'll know what to do.

And that's why we all rely on Google...