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

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.