Monday, December 28, 2009

Watery Llama

Where Josiah Wedgwood, the Staffordshire Sentinel and every shopper from across Stoke-on-Trent came, so White Llama has followed. We find ourselves in Etruria, in a marina in the middle of Festival Park.

Etruria is all new-build, only appearing on the map some two centuries ago. Wedgwood named it after the influential civilisation where all the pots were made when he left Burslem to start a new factory. The air was cleaner in Etruria and it was handy for his new family home and the canal that winds along the ancient valley between Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle under Lyme. The commute to London, so swift by train, is slower by canal, with a staircase of locks between the marina and the station.

Some time later Wedgwood's factory was sinking and the smoke had caught up with Etruria, so it was off to Barlaston with Wedgwood and Etruria was left to be taken over by the fiery pools of Shelton Bar. In 1984 the site was developed for a national garden festival. This became Festival Park, a city playground with marina, pub, water park, cinema, disused Quasar, ski slope, drive-in restaurants and one giant shed for every clone store known to man. This sucks the six towns dry of shoppers, a tragic hurdle to those who wish to see Hanley become more like Birmingham. Stoke people go where the parking is free. The Sentinel did a Wapping and built its own shed on the old Wedgwood site, with giant printing presses that supply many of the daily newspapers to the north of the UK.

Not being connected with one of the old towns, Etruria's communities feel a little disjointed, but are well-established despite the upheavals of change. There are the old terraces with their last-remaining pubs across the dual carriageway, newbuild estates and then the friendly residents of the marina who seem to live in a parallel universe to the retail frenzy all around. All a little quieter since a high court order banned racing and cruising from Fezzer, ending this modern-day version of the towns' romantic monkey runs.

Inbetween all the sheds, behind Wedgwood's house and the ski slope, are hidden hilly grounds - permission to roam kindly granted by St Modwen - round every corner a faux-ancient ruin or soft green glade, totally ignored by everyone except the odd dog walker and grafitti artist. In front of Wedgwood's house a neglected relic from the Garden Festival: a thin ornamental tower of local brick and tile, two ponds, stone pillars and then a trail of water features leading the eye irresistibly, like a 1980s Taj Mahal, to Waterworld. If you tire of exploring Festival Park, there are the canals which lead in many scenic directions through Stoke's backs.

And so, despite not being a real place, Etruria has just about everything you could want.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Skypephone memory failure

I'm posting this here because the original post I found is no longer accepting responses, which affects future Googler's ability to help each other find the solution.

I had the same problem, which was that the memory was coming up as full all the time and stopping me from sending or receiving texts. After trying to move and delete everything I could, but finding it made no difference, I reset the java application settings and Bluetooth settings. I'm not sure which of those worked, but one did and I haven't had the problem since.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

First notes from the Wave

(warning: this article contains a lot of geeky jargon)

So after months of waiting, hinting, cajoling and finally the age-old medium of pleading by lolcat, I finally got onto Google Wave. It was the lolcat that swung it and my friend Riaz, whose gift of an invite finally makes up for all those years bitching about my computer preferences. And I'm sure some of you are eager to hear my first impressions on how it could be useful for the hyperlocal blogger. Still others, I know, don't want me to say another word about it. I'll get some screenshots up as soon as I can find time - and in case you were leaping to ask, I haven't been given any invitations myself yet.

Wave is is a big learning curve. The official welcome does little more than tell you how to play Sudoko and gets you started on extensions with a nice little questionnaire. There are some incredibly useful guides out there, but you need to be willing to look for them and if you're the sort of person who gets irritated when you get given a load of free tools that don't work exactly as you think they should, well you might not like Wave.

Here's the most useful thing I have learnt so far that wasn't obvious: "with:public". Once you've got on, run around excitedly, stuck a pin on a map and pinged all your contacts who pop up when you arrive, the search phrase "with:public" will counter that terrible feeling that you're waving on your own and it'll give you the best way to start learning. After the reassurance that you're not alone comes the crushing weight of chatter, but just like on Twitter you need to be selective. And also perhaps more patient: the public waves are heavy on processing power and getting rid of them can be a bit slow because Wave is still quite buggy. It has fair crushed my poor ageing Mac.

Here's the key thing: Wave is an early version of a set of tools. Nothing more or less. You learn how to use it by finding out what you can do and then working out how you do it (and all the time bearing in mind that it might not work at all just yet). I'm rethinking my visions of it as an all-purpose control centre, although hopefully it will make publishing a lot quicker and easier as more robots and gadgets are adding. I don't see yet that it is an easier way of organising information than an iGoogle page. I think its real power is going to be in rich collaboration on focussed tasks. It's going to be ideal for groups who want to work together to speed up researching, writing and editing blogs. It's a fantastic environment for peer support and learning, once you've overcome the initial barriers. Conference reporting can be done much more accurately by crowds and the potential will be there to push all the content out to other sites immediately.

The big limitation, unless the interface becomes significantly clearer to those from a non-techie/hackie/adventuring background, will be that you wouldn't want to let all your friends loose on it just yet, else you'll get howls of anger on a scale familiar to anyone who has tried to get IE6 users onto a Ning. Normally I tell newcomers not to worry, they can't break anything but actually the scope to break a wave with all the powerful tools at your fingertips is pretty wide. Lower access levels might help with this, sort of entry-level waves where people can just edit certain sections, but that would be no different from a Google Doc or Mediawiki page. This would not be Wave at its most potentially powerful but it's probably a necessary step for the full opening of Wave to work well.

A better solution is that we need to work on the underlying culture shift that others have already identified the need for. Developing confidence in exploring, hacking, fixing and searching is going to be really important if people are going to be able to use collaborative systems effectively. It will also be a test in whether we can all get along and play nicely together. It will be interesting to find out how people work around limited web connectivity. Wave is going to be as big a success or disaster as we choose to make it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009

Do It Better Yourself

The tools are at our fingertips and maybe a tiny bit of the world's frustration is beginning to ebb away as we enter the era of DIBY. Don't complain, have a go yourself. Whether that's music, newspapers, TV or institutional structures. It's "yes, we can" maybe just creeping into the edges of our society (best to do something while we wait for our Obama). Most recently, we've witnessed the storm over Birmingham City Council's website turn swiftly into citizen organising; fast and dirty reorganising of BCC's content.

It's good in many ways. First, and not necessarily foremost, councils and government are starting to realise that stuff just works better if we create it ourselves. Second, it has the potential to save them (/us) a fortune (even if they might need to pay someone a fortune to do it badly the first time round). Thirdly, the more people are involved in a service, the more they will understand it.

We can get out of the era that says one solution will work for thousands, even millions, of people. The version of the BCC website that is built by a few Birmingham hackers might only work well for them, but if that is so at least they have done it cheaply and it's just as easy for the next group to come along and do it themselves. While once we would have said "yes, but it's not my job to build that", we can now collaborate with others to spend a small amount of time building something that works for us. The time and cost of doing so is collapsing to the extent that it's easier to build a new way of finding what you want than to tortuously find it each time you need it. Much less frustrating.

It also gives people a way of proving themselves in a public arena. If the commissioners can stop taking offence when something goes down badly, if the raw material for every data-driven piece of work can be made available in an API, then it gives people a chance to build very valuable tools that can be further developed and replicated. Then the people who built them can be commissioned to do more.

Much smarter.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Empty shop count

I did a rough count of empty shops for this survey in Queen Street in Burslem last night - I had to move along quickly because we'd just read about the new Naan Bakery in Waterloo Road and had to shoot down there to try them (mini-review: they were delicious).

Before that I had tried to count by the Google map and got depressed. I'd estimate that 15 market stalls have gone since this satellite view was taken - there are none left on Queens Street. 2, sometimes 3 stalls come to St Johns Square now selling fruit, vegetables and flowers. Please support them.

View Larger Map

In Queen Street there are 25 shop units and 27 buildings if you count the Wedgwood Institute (empty) and the School of Art (full). To get it to 20 I will take out the council-owned shopfronts around the market, all but one of which has been empty for a while and currently being refurbished. Their successful tenants have tended to be web or design companies, but the majority of them have struggled to be filled and have contributed to a perception that the council is not letting non-creative shops open. While this has proven to be negotiable, greater flexibility by the council to fill the shops up at a rent that reflects the risk shopkeepers are taking would be a positive thing for the town. Having said that, a fruit and vegetable shop in St Johns Square closed again fairly soon, showing that even when the one thing opens that everyone says we need, our shopping habits may not bring us back into Burslem often enough to keep it going.

That leaves us with 14 units that are occupied and six that are empty. At one end the empty ones are the old Woolworths and the Old Wives Tale building and at the other the large Cooperative department store, most recently a Mark One. The council-owned shop units mentioned above take up about a quarter of the street, as does the Wedgwood Institue which did house the library and, once, a full centre for arts and science. The library is now a much smaller service in the School of Art, with hardly any of the space that used to make it a welcoming place for people of all ages to go and spend time reading or using the internet. Inbetween these is the 1909 Central Hotel building which has been defaced by red shutters for several years. Any local ex-land surveyers that might be knocking about providing small business support could probably make a good guess at the actual amount of empty square footage in the street.

The occupied shops overlooking Swan Square (the opposite side of which is all closed) are an estate agent, the well established Kismet and the Queens Head. Then the live-work units house 5 shops (I think) and 10 more creative businesses above - all are full, giving the town arts and crafts shops, Beslem the internet cafe and Unity, which just won a national social enterprise award. The success of this development is the model for the plans for the Mark One store and hopefully with similar management it will work just as well.

Past the School of Art there is a hairdressers, an insurers and a butchers, all long-established, locally owned businesses. Then a card shop, a Wrights Pies and a pizza chain. A sixties block has a small Boots, Dave's fabulous electrical shop, an opticians and a travel agents. Opposite those there is a large sports equipment shop, recently expanded and a pharmacy. Just after the empty Woolworths the unit is occupied by the marketing suite for the new flats being completed on the corner of St Johns Square.

An overly long response, I know - and possibly innacurate as I'm not the best counter; all corrections welcome. It's left me with a real sense of the mixed picture in Burslem. Some things have worked and can be built on, but the overall emptiness of the street gives a sense of loneliness that has a psychological effect on most people who visit, particularly those who remember when thousands of people flocked in from the surrounding factories for lunch, which was only a few years ago. This leads to generalised statements that spreads widely that Burslem has nothing to visit. The line that you can't buy groceries in Burslem, while not completely accurate (the butcher and grocery shop on Swan Square both sell some), sticks even if someone tries to change it.

The divides between traditional trades and the arts are gradually breaking down, mainly where trade links are formed between the two and the increase of creative people living in the town will help bring back regular trade for the small shops. There are businesses for very different audiences operating successfully side-by-side. There is also a great deal to be admired in the tenacity of many of the business managers who have stayed in Burslem as much of its wealth left and retain good customer bases and provide niche services promoted through word of mouth.

I haven't counted Market Place, which is actually the main street in Burslem, but that would be the subject of a whole other epic post. In case you were thinking of visiting, it has several banks, pubs, takeaways and a post office. There are also plenty of nice takeaway choices in Waterloo Road, including a traditional oatcake shop and a range of Indian food.

There are very limited options to buy clothes anywhere in Burslem now and little evidence that the customers of the stores that used to be Kwik Saves, now B&M and Home Bargains, come into Burslem to shop. That might change if the road connections can be made more pedestrian-friendly. The other change the council could make is to allow short stay parking for free, as *everyone* has been asking for years. This would make it a lot easier for people to call into the town. Without wishing to make sweeping generalisations, there is a marked contrast between the success of Burslem-led initiatives and those led by national businesses or the Civic Centre. I'm not sure that much has really worked in Burslem's favour since Federation in 1910 and so conclude that the return to town centre management is the right thing to happen. As the new regeneration board establishes itself and helps broker relationships between the townspeople and the management staff, we are seeing better communications leading to good take-up of projects, perhaps most markedly the Townscape Heritage Initiative project which is returning many buildings to their original beauty.

As the Arts & Cratfs Festivals twice a year continue to show but as most of the population remembers, Queen Street thrives when it is full of people. It has all the basic businesses in place to become a lovely little shopping street again. It needs everyone's support to help it grow.

Summary: 20 shops counted, 6 empty, 15 missing market stalls.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Little Ducks appeal

Babies having basic supplies should be the least we'd expect in Britain.

Little Ducks are the kind of small, local charity run by volunteers that many people never hear about and they help parents and babies at a point of crisis. Now they are in urgent need of donations to see them through into, hopefully, a funded future.

Please think about whether you can help by donating money or equipment on the evening of August 3, or simply by spreading the word about their appeal.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Shifting sand

Sending round the creative editor freelance job role for the North Staffs Creative Economies Forum (NSCEF) today, I realised how much the landscape is transforming. When the role was first included in the forum's strategy, it was thought of as 'Creative Times Editor', someone who would put together a regular publication to share information and build the profile of the creative industries in North Staffordshire. For a long time, electronic communication by anything other than email (and that mainly to professionals) was a limited option, you simply couldn't rely on enough people spending the time online to find websites.

As we've been finalising the job spec, we've kept the 'old media' option open but it is clear the role has to be a lot more flexible to take account of the different likely media that we'll be operating with. They will have to share information and stories, but this could just as easily be through a photostream on Flickr as a tabloid paper picked up in music shops. Crucially, the audience has grown dramatically over the last 18 months, with creative workers - and those people who you simply might call creative - connecting through social websites and gatherings such as Talk to Elvis, the Talking Shop and HeadTalk, amongst others. The emphasis, you might note, being on talking. In a place where people come from so many different directions, the talking is really crucial to developing the collaborations and networks that we were lacking. If anything, our circles of conversation need to widen even further, to more diverse groups.

Stoke-on-Trent can sometimes be portrayed as a bit of a desert, culturally-speaking, with many attractive but neglected buildings and a sense of sadness. There's a bit of an ebb and flow in the city, but it's still fair to say that if you don't know about what is going on, it's just in a place you can't see. The creative networks and organisations are more accessible now as most of them have some sort of presence online and there is growing use of online tools. If anything, there's an abundance of meetings, new exhibitions, ambitious startups and mature businesses finding new niches. Hopefully, with the creative editor and the beta launch of the Creative Central web portal (hopefully in the next month; I've seen previews, it looks very beautiful), the scene will become clearer, making it easier to navigate, participate - and let us not forget, make a living, in North Staffordshire's creative industries.

Monday, June 01, 2009

A brief guide to Social Media in Stoke-on-Trent

So, I was asked to write something to sum up Stoke-on-Trent's social media 'scene'. Tempted as I was to respond "Hey! Stoke is messy! Back off with your straightjackets and your simplification agendas!", I understand that a clean link makes life easier. And since my idea for Andrew Stott is at number 7 (7!) in the ideas list, we'd better start presenting our tame, helpful side. Let us begin.

Social networks are a good way to access Stoke. Physically, the place doesn't make a lot of sense. Mentally it's a bit, well, tired and emotional. Stoke *is* messy - and by the way, when I say Stoke I might be talking about the city itself, North Staffordshire, the Potteries or just Burslem (though probably not Fenton), and I will give no explanation - but with a willingness to spend a bit of time in the conversation, Google and some good social connectors, you can find just about anything you're looking for here. It'll be an adventure.

The pioneers
When I landed back in the city four years ago, there were very few local websites, but a couple of them remain rich resources: and Creative Stoke. Although the original site doesn't seem to be up any more, Mindblogging was a great early UK (Early. In 2006. I know, what were we doing?) example of digital mentoring for specific groups. D'Log's other site,, sadly didn't survive the housing clearance, while Mike Wolfe's blog abruptly ceases in May 2005 but still remains live, an early example of consistent, engaging blogging - something that we're all now trying to persuade elected representatives to do more of.

Local Edition, now an ex-newspaper, still has many of the best pieces of writing and art you'll find online (I can say that, I edited it) about northern Stoke, while Stoke Sounds, a spin-off that took on a life of its own, is one of the best centres of writing and photography on our brilliant music scene. By the way, if you have a bit of time and some speakers, start a tour here of Stoke musicians and bands on Myspace - you won't be disappointed.

The bloggers
David Elks, the Evening Sentinel's Jo Geary, has helpfully compiled a list of blogs which I won't try to surpass and pitsnpots also has a list of a few more of the political ones.

The Tweeters

Stoke has a vibrant and growing Twitter scene and its early adopters were all involved in making sure Stoke had its own Twestival. Oh, is that me at number one? I hadn't noticed...

Digital communities
Facebook, though not big enough in Stoke user numbers to warrant having its own network or advertisements, is nevertheless keeping people from the Potteries in touch. We even have our own gifts app, a dialect group and a man paying tribute to Tunstall.

Flickr's Stoke group has been running for several years and is very active, with over 200 members, regular meetups and a collection of thousands of amazing photographs.

Though only going since late 2008, Blurb Online has amassed over 300 members and is a great showcase for the area's creative talent. It has also become a centre of organisation for Wasted Space amongst other cunning schemes and a very well-stocked events section. And because creative social websites are like buzzes, you won't want to miss Culturing Stuff, started by the evil geniuses behind Sex Up Stoke and Shop Caretakers.

Real-life gathering points

Bitjam has been running since 2006 and is always drawing in new people to get involved in its mixture of music, art and creative expression which is quite unlike anything you'd expect to find at the Rigger.

Talking Shop and Head Talk are regular gatherings for artists and other creatives - both are very welcoming and friendly.

We have a fledgling Ruby on Rails School meeting on Tuesdays at Beslem in Queen Street, when people can make it, it also has an email list for remote participation.

Some Fridays at 11 we have a social media cafe (OK, we call it that because we don't want to be left out, but it's just coffee on a Friday). Sometimes lots of us show up, sometimes nobody. Indeed, much like the remains of Burslem market (please buy your fruit and flowers there if you can). This article suggests we really should do a proper one.

Plenty of artists are now use blogs to add value to their work, such as Tomorrow Longton and Big Red Studio.

Though not directly digital, the Burslem Arts & Crafts Festival has a lot of creative workshops, photographers and musicians about and is well worth a visit.

And as this post was going to screen, I heard Keele University are having a Tweetup!

The campaigners
Online comment and blogging about local politics - the Sentinel and pitsnpots, I'm lookin' at you - have a passing resemblance to the boxing ring or bullfights of old, but that is not dissimilar to our real life arenas. Both sites have people working hard to maintain spaces where people can have their voices heard and enter into debates. Online networking and the connections made through discussion sites have, in my view (and it has been challenged) been instrumental in increasing the sense of empowerment and community expertise amongst those people who are active online. HAVOC and a string of Save our Schools websites (such as Save Trentham High) got the ball rolling and the Coachmakers Arms is gathering quite large numbers of signatures on its Number 10 petition.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the very best story about a social media campaign in Stoke (I await your challenges) is of Steve from Goldenhill whose friends whipped up a campaign to save his house.

What have I missed? Please leave a comment, Tweet using #followstoke or, you know, speak to me...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Many reasons why the Director of Digital Inclusion should have a base in Stoke-on-Trent

1. High speed rail links - less than 90 minutes from London and within easy distance of most other cities and the world.
2. We've picked out a nice empty building for you right by the station.
3. The best place to deliver digital inclusion is from somewhere with real issues of exclusion
4. We *get* social networking: Stoke-on-Trent has the lowest levels of 'anomie' in the country. Where we need investment is in the interconnections and the links outward. You'll be able to help with that.
5. You'll have an amazing array of creative talent, two universities, a flexible workforce and a fledgling developer/social media community on the doorstep who can help build the engaging little apps you'll need.
6. We were at the forefront of an earlier round of globalisation, connecting ideas about science, trade, religion and evolution and developing efficient infrastructure. We also created wealth while still campaigning for human rights.
7. Stoke station is five minutes from Longport station, a ten minute walk from Burslem, the best town in the world, where you'll want to have your lunch most days and take your visitors for dinner and drinks. With a government department around, we expect the train frequency will improve immensely, connecting this Pathfinder area to other cities much more effectively than is currently the case and improving the prospects of the regeneration plans for the area.
8. We're very friendly and very passionate, but we'll also keep you on your toes - no cosy consensuses here.
9. Many other cities have thriving social media movements, but try and choose the best and it'll all kick off. Stoke is unassuming, but quietly confident, and everyone can get there relatively easily.
10. Here's how cool the building used to look (and it's pretty similar now, but with cars)

And if you agree, please vote!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Plucky Focal needs our help!

Focal Radio, based in Stoke on Trent, started broadcasting to the area at the beginning of November and was saved from administration in February by businessman Mo Chaudry.

Now the multi-millionaire has made the decision to shut Focal with the loss of 23 jobs.

Station Manager, Verity Hilton said “I told the staff about Mo’s decision on May 8th. They have worked relentlessly through this difficult time to sell advertising and obtain investment. Although the station has 23 members of staff, the majority of them are freelance and once again they face the possibility of not being paid for the work that they have done. This is a fantastic station with a growing listenership and it would be a tragedy if it had to close. Focal Radio has received interest from listeners who would like to own a share in “their” radio station – but we need to ensure that there is enough in the pot to buy the equipment off Waterworld Holdings and re-pay Mo for his investment.”

Focal Radio was partly the brainchild of Potteries broadcasting legend Sam Plank and he has personally paid the staff since May 13th in an attempt to keep the station broadcasting while an investor was found. “ I am saddened over the way the situation has developed,” said Sam. “However, there is now a golden opportunity for the listeners of this area to invest in a radio station that is truly theirs and looks positively at what happens in their patch! I would love to hear from anyone that feels they can help us move forward at this moment in time! We are now shouting “Broken Arrow!”

Broken Arrow was a call sign used in Vietnam to alert available troops to support quickly and that is exactly what the team at Focal Radio hope will happen over the next 24 hours.

Anyone who feels they can support this venture - from as little as £10 - should contact Focal Radio on 01782 574580 or 07888 730061.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"I'm on it"

I have an old friend, Nick, who is somewhere close to finishing his first degree despite being only 16 (or something). We met on Wikinews where, with a whole lot of others, we would occasionally write big stories and otherwise quietly work on discussing and revolutionising how news was put together. Wikinews is still a great project with potential that has never been quite unleashed.

Nick had a nice little phrase that I remembered in passing the other day. When you asked the wikisphere for help with something he'd post "I'm on it". And off he would go to sort something out, or build a new thing.

In real life I try, and usually fail, to respond as swiftly when I'm asked to do something. After all, it's not the quizzical look or the discussion about whether that's the right thing to do that's useful, it's the doing it. Online, the thinkers and the doers have a more equal power relationship than has been the case in the last few decades of organisations and that's possibly what makes the collaborative web so effective.

It's even easier to help each other out now than it was in 2005, with little calls for help being swiftly answered on Twitter. I don't even think Nick is on Twitter, but I hope he'll be pursuaded one day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How to organise a web 2.0 event in real life

I've seen a few of these work well and not so well, and here are my tips:

To hold a successful event, you will need:

- a vision
And keep it under 100 characters for easy retweeting. Put it out there and see if it flies. If it doesn't, you've only wasted five seconds. If it does, you and your prospective volunteers will need to make a commitment to make it happen, otherwise it won't.

- a structure
A website which will lead you, intuitively, through all the key decisions once you've entered your location. Twestival had images, videos and copy that could be easily re-used for pretty posters and posted onto social websites. That saved a lot of time for local organisers. The Big Lunch has gone a step better, with very cute tick-boxes to indicate whether you will have music, home-grown food or limbo-dancing.

- not too much structure
You will need people to take the lead in their own locality and you won't have complete control over what they do. If you don't like the sound of that, better to stop now.

- ...but just enough
If you don't have a strong core vision, people will have trouble communicating it onwards. Participants will express irritation that you didn't give them enough direction (I know, only above we learnt that they don't like being told what to do, but people are like that).

- nice pictures
See Twitter, I Can Haz Cheezburger, Twestival and the Big Lunch. Pretty pictures (preferably of animals) make us warm to your furry inner heart rather than just seeing you as a cold screen. Why? I don't know. But Obama knows people are much more likely to rush to read about his new puppy than his economic policy and then trust that his economics will be OK because he kept his promise over the puppy.

- a very, very simple website that doesn't rely too much on people signing up
Because they don't. If you've got a small core of organisers and volunteers who can capture content in the run-up then you can avoid that awkward feeling that nobody is involved.

- ...launched not too early... and not too late
I know, this sounds like the three bears. But it's true. A holding page when people are following links to you is really bad. You need to capture people while they are interested and then send them compelling emails (not too often) to make sure they come back to your site. Some people will get involved at the early planning stage, others only when it's time to go knocking on doors, but you need all of them on your database or Twitter follow list.

- the right amount of real life people
One person can create a brilliant event on their own, but they will work incredibly hard at it and most likely get a bit annoyed that they did it on their own. Two people can collaborate on a website, but it won't necessarily go anywhere in the local area. From experience of volunteer organisations, I reckon you need at least six committed volunteers working offline to make something great happen. If those six are on Twitter, things can happen quicker and more often than they would have done when you were just a committee.

- a few borrowed ideas to sprinkle over the top
Steal ideas from the Americans. Especially if you're doing a video. I don't know why American videos are so much cooler than British ones, except that I know that the word awesome sounds awkward from a Stokie but cool from a Californian. If you can work it out, you're probably on the path to being as sexy and web 2.0ish as they are.

Get to it! Be awesome!

Monday, March 30, 2009

The places inbetween

Chain Reaction discussion feedback for Stronger Communities, Stronger Economy

"People are starting to say 'I need something'"
"I'd like to affect some kind of change"
"Maybe we need to introduce flexibility into systems"

A small group gathered at Staffordshire University in response to the open invitation by the Council on Social Action. We were not there to represent any organisation or community but we could draw on links to many different communities and experience in other places. Our group's work included education, enterprise, health and the arts and we all live or work in the midst of communities highlighted as having high levels of multiple deprivation in 2007.

Stoke-on-Trent has been hit hard by the recession with jobs in all sectors being affected. People with insecure housing or high levels of debt are vulnerable and there are unhealthy lifestyle factors related in different ways to a sense of hopelessness and lack of opportunity, as well as a legacy of a harmful environment. Having said that, many of us feel part of a "very exciting atmosphere". The desire to collaborate, connect and share is increasing. Divisions remain where there is lack of information or misinformation. "It isn't people's fault that they have skewed information". Where people have information, they have more understanding of each other. Although there are negative perceptions of other communities (from different ethnic groups to the jobless/well paid), conversation often uncovers empathy and sympathy and where people have a clearly communicated request to help with something, they do not hesitate. One of the benefits of connection is "hope". Perhaps those who have hope, as much as those who have money, can afford to be generous in drawing people they know who have lost both into new connections and opportunities.

The pottery industry had a major presence in our discussion, as indeed it retains a place in the local economy despite some perceptions. We discussed striking examples of innovation at Ainsley, Wade and Moorcroft, which are repositioning their place in the market in different ways. Once rivals, potteries are cooperating rather than lose out to outsourced companies. Most other successful potteries are cottage or studio-size and we noted that Staffs University are reviving many of the skills and developing very commercial, high-end work. They are working on a mentoring programme and employ people from the potteries, but recruitment can be challenging because of the bitterness left by large-scale redundancy rounds in potteries as recently as at Wedgwood. This damage, stemming from redundancies as well as a culture that often didn't value workers, needs to be recognised - "A lot of the creativity was knocked out of people". People and businesses are becoming creative out of necessity and media coverage has helped to raise the profile of the positive contribution creative industries can make on a place.

We avoided much of the 'official' language of community engagement. In some cases this was deliberate, a sign that some of it lacks credibility. However, many of our ideas overlapped with those in the CoSA propositions and the conversations we could see online. Our discussion also focussed on Common Space, which we defined as being where communities overlapped and something new could emerge through the energy of people supporting one another. Two of our group even had a word for it - spoinging - the places inbetween, the magic, the fairy dust. Examples of where this happens is in a pub, the Old Corner Cupboard in Shelton, which has been able to attract many different ages and races from its locality, and a community house in Blurton started by three women that had an impact on lowering street crime. We strongly believed that there is a great deal of knowledge, skills and value here - "people here are resourceful and have the answers". We believed in our ability to influence at any level, particularly through the consumer choices we make and thought that where people make decisions that are not obviously beneficial to the local economy (eg buying goods whose production has been outsourced), this may be due to a feeling of "gratitude that anyone at all opened here".

Interestingly, there was very little reference to inward regeneration investment, except to define successful places where an investment centre has had a positive effect on surrounding communities (given as Manchester as opposed to than Canary Wharf). Rather, we had much discussion on the value of things where money does not change hands: the negative value of empty, degrading buildings, wasted space and energy as opposed to the positive value that can be brought by people occupying those spaces: security, labour for refurbishment etc. People having the opportunity to trade in a shared, cooperative space shares the risk and is more likely to bring in customers. These could become centres for goods, food and services, trading cooperatively rather than competitively, creating teams where large opportunities for work come and diversifying their income streams in line with their best skills.

More than investment, we called for flexibility. Trading points and the streets are important points of overlap between communities and therefore major opportunities to stimulate connectivity and prosperity. Freedom to gather and perform makes places more festive (Durham was given as an example). Generating positive value within a building should be recognised for its value. The absentee landlord makes little positive value to a town, but could perhaps be persuaded if there was a clear, measurable value and they could be a positive connection to a richer area. Towns should have a 'sinking fund' to facilitate flexibility in times of crisis. Evidence was reported that the empty property rate relief abolition has had a positive impact in this respect as landlords cut rent or negotiate deals with people in local communities in order to fill their properties. This has been assisted in Burslem by the Bizfizz coach, who has been able to create links between people moving towards trade and property agents. It may not be the case in areas where no such personal links can be brokered.

We recognised our own responsibility to reach out to those people we feel suspicious of. While we wanted to see well-paid regeneration executives coming into our communities and speaking to local people every day, we all knew this was difficult without somebody who could welcome them and help to make them feel comfortable. A town like Burslem looks very different when you just 'land' there, rather than when someone is willing to show you round and highlight what makes them passionate about it. We share a love of Stoke-on-Trent and its diverse communities and thought that the name 'Stoke-on-Trent: City of Six Towns' could make explaining our distinctivement much easier and work in harmony with celebrations of our identity as part of smaller and larger geographical communities. Actions we committed to included helping to develop some shared 'brands' that could convey love for the city; working on an alert system to connect visitors to welcoming people and 'flashmarkets' for people to trade whenever tourists visit or there is a warm day; finding ways of creating band spaces or busking spots.

Would our regeneration strategy be taking a different course if communities were in control? In many cases, they would be the same - there are many overlapping ideas. In other cases, decisions would have been made differently, for example clearance would have been quickly followed by more suitable housing or spaces that the community needed rather than being an early stage in very slow masterplanning processes. The best way for a developer or officer to find out what would be effective or profitable in a place, we felt, would be to ask the community. This is not with reference to a piece of paper, official board or survey, but by searching conversations where people are genuinely open about the outcome. Our culture has relatively low levels of written literacy, but the communities we know are curious and articulate, with a thirst for information and debate. The much-reported friendliness of Stoke people is genuine and goes alongside a frank honesty that forces comfortable professionals to hone their ideas more carefully. Strategies have virtually no meaning in the consultation phase. This is not unique to a community like ours, participation in consultation processes is low at the best universities. Come and talk to us about your ideas. The use of well-written strategies that synthesise ideas and experience is as a tool: to steer the work of those working on its delivery, to articulate a clear routemap with which others can collaborate and to hold those delivering it to account.

In a reshaping economy, the government has much to learn from communities like those in Stoke-on-Trent. We have retained traditional cultures, industries and ways of living. Many people have lower costs of living and more time for creative thinking than in other cities. Our talents are under-used, self-esteem can be low and so a volunteer talent bank that included a focus on confidence-building could be very successful here. We have strong social networks that are becoming increasingly interconnected through technology. As people contemplate a return to human values and to flexible, shifting careers instead of a 'job for life', they will find much experience in our city and we are ready to share.

Present: Mark Brereton, Carolyn Powell, Clare-Marie White, Lou Reynolds, Lisa Wilding, Chris Litherland, Carl Plant participated online

Our discussion in Stoke was helpfully informed by the starting point in the Coffee Lounge in Birmingham with Michael Grimes and Claire from Frankley, where we discussd overlapping communities and the added value to workers created by social networks (offline as well as online).

Further content:
More points, but more concise, on the Twitter stream:
Blog post by Carl Plant:
Ideas for SexUpStoke:

Friday, March 13, 2009

Chain Reaction conversations

What if anybody who wanted to participate, could?

The tools to enable people to collaborate more easily have been around and freely available for many years, but it's interesting to see how significant the jump in usage has been in the UK. It's not their existence that matters, it's the sense that people have that they are invited to be involved which prompts them to have a look at the tools, interact and share them. When the use of those tools reaches a tipping point, the people using them become unstoppable. If you're an optimist like me, this is a good thing.

The Council of Social Action, whose Chain Reaction conference took place in November and was ace, is now inviting people to become involved in a chain of conversations linked to the development of a new report. Agreed, "Stronger Communities, Stronger Economy" will make many of your eyes roll, but don't throw sticks at me yet.

The idea is to have a purposeful conversation, without too much organisation, that anybody can join in with. Meetings will have around 20 people each and then be linked by a variety of electronic means, with the opportunity to send feedback to the council. If demand for places goes way above 20 people, then people can organise their own meetings.

The meetings also link in with the We20 initiative as they take place shortly before the G20 Summit in London, when world leaders from the most powerful countries will be gathering to discuss stimulating our economy in various imaginative and strangely worded ways. The effects of these meetings are far-reaching and people in places like Stoke are often on the sharp end. Can thousands of ideas in hundreds of global conversations make a difference to the views of a few (mostly) men in suits? Some ways of feeding in to this should be announced over the next few weeks, doubtless involving all sorts of websites with funny names and friendly graphics.

More importantly perhaps than the chance to ask governments to send more money our way, the meetings are a chance to create change in our own communities. The key question at the end of these meetings will be "What will you do next?"

I was asked yesterday whether this is a new organisation to get bogged down in, by someone with that look of someone who has had too many emails from me (I am trying to give them up).

It isn't. It's just a meeting, a good chance to get a group of people from different backgrounds together at a signficant time for our societies. You can register for the Stoke or London meetings (other cities are in the pipeline, I just think they haven't got round to adding them yet - but you're very welcome to come to Stoke of course!) or find information about holding your own here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dangerous ideas and change through a recession

There's quite a lot of us plugged in now in Stoke, talking about what's going on round here. And so, a new idea has been born. Feel free to repost, refine and adapt.

The Recession Rapid Reaction Force (Stoke)

What is it?

The Recession Rapid Reaction Force (Stoke) - #rrrfstoke - is an open network seeking to share ideas on how to combat the recession and for people to benefit from the opportunities that additional investment bring.

Using a Twitter stream, tags and any other tools that seem useful (as basic as a note pinned to a wall) as well as meetings, members will share ideas and connect initiatives to ensure that people are making the most of projects that are already running, as well as speeding up the development of ideas that need little or no funding.

How can I be involved?

Just join in. The network will work on the principle of trust so share everything you are allowed to share, ask questions and tell people about what you see. Help others and you will find a community of people ready and willing to help you if you need it.

Is this a long-term solution to the economic crisis?

No. Nor does it seek to be. That’s for the strategists to deal with, though many of us will be in those roles. This network is about capitalising on the opportunities that are available right now to get extra training for people and to think about the economy in a new way. So from something as simple as a skills-swap or a short training course, people might start to think differently about their prospects for employment.

What about people who aren’t online?

We take digital disconnection seriously. The stuff that can be shared online is only useful if it can also be shared offline in community centres, homes, pubs and the street. This can be done through screens pointed outward that can show Twitter channels (like an electronic noticeboard), printouts of information you think might be useful and by keeping an open mind with people you are speaking to so that you can tell them about things you have picked up from the network if it is relevant and you can also share useful things if they ask you to. Conversations are the only way to bridge any divide.

What the hell is ‘#rrrfstoke’

That’s called a hashtag. It’s an easy way of creating a ‘feed’ that anybody can contribute to, share and follow. It can be used on Twitter and as a tag on (which can in turn be automatically fed into Twitter and other websites) It’s easier and quicker to type rrrfstoke than Recession Rapid Reaction Force Stoke and quite fun, too. Try it!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Goodbye to our friend Rose

This week many of us attended the funeral of Rose Peacock, a community leader in Middleport whose death was a great shock. She chose to have Jerusalem as one of the hymns:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green
And was the holy lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills

Bring me my bow of burning gold
Bring me my arrows of desire
Bring me my spears o'clouds unfold
Bring me my chariot of fire

I will not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
'Til we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land
'Til we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land

Words written by William Blake

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Social reporting at events: a brief guide

In 2008, Social Reporters (and others without names) took conferences out of closed rooms and into the wider world.

This is a short guide to show what a flock of social reporters can do for you.

What are they?
Social Reporters can be professionals - coming from fields like journalism, consultancy, web development - or volunteers. They bring various skills which all help increase quality, but anybody with a willingness to chip in and help can find a role in social reporting for your organisation, event or meeting.

What do they need?
Social Reporters are friendly creatures and fairly easy to please. They definitely need a table, plug points, laptops are useful if you can supply a few spares and a wifi connection. Ideally, they like coffee and food. If you need social reporters with a definite role who you can rely on then you'll need to give them free tickets and most likely even payment, but you should ask all delegates if they'd like to take a role, at the very least through Twittering with a chosen hashtag.

What do they do?

Blog, Twitter, film and report in ways as various as you can think of. It is well worth you or your social reporting team thinking this through in advance and ensuring that common reporting methods are in place:
- a blog feed on the main event website
- a well-promoted Twitter hashtag (which doesn't necessarily need the hash) so people can follow and contribute during and after the event. An example to illustrate.
- plenty of ways to comment and contribute from outside as well as social networking tools so that participants can connect.
- flexibility on your website to add RSS feeds so you can add tagged photos, videos and other content from different services.

Whatever you do, keep it as simple as possible and use mainstream tools. Few people will have time to edit a wiki during a conference (unless this is a specific project you have decided to embark on) and people are less likely to register for a whole new service than one they are already on. Remember too that the best laid plans, or wifi connections, are frequently prone to be less reliable than you might have hoped for and people will be using different computers, so you need to keep everything accessible and simple.

But will anyone be watching?
More than likely, yes. Social reporting is a very good way of ensuring that all those who couldn't make your event due to time or money constraints can still join in the discussions if they want to. Don't kill yourself making everything too neat and slick, it's better to get some 'stuff' on than nothing. The tidying up and editing can come later. As well as helping people take part during the event, a good stock of content will help people refer back and follow up afterwards. Plus, of course, you don't know who will stumble upon you via Google or other sources.

So where do I start?
Find some of the established digital networks in your field and contact people within them about whether they would like to be involved. This will also pay dividends in promoting your event in advance. The best places to look are the social sites themselves: Twitter, Flickr, even Facebook. Of course, this approach will be more likely to succeed if you are already in some way engaged in the right communities, so if you haven't been so far now is a good time to start.

What are the benefits?
Social reporting adds value to your event by ensuring many of the good ideas and content don't just disappear when everyone goes home. Social reporting adds many more levels to a conference: instead of just all sitting there watching a bunch of slides, people can connect, collaborate and add content to your speakers' words even while they are on the stage.

What are the risks?
Undoubtedly, opening up your conference to social reporting has the same risks as any other engagement with the social web. Basically, you have no control. There is nothing to stop people using your tags to criticise your event and its speakers. Social reporters are very unlikely to toe your line, because you're probably not paying them enough. Some very cynical people are on Twitter. That said, the willingness to open up your event or your organisation to those risks at least suggests that you are genuine about building engagement - and while the conversation may be difficult, it is likely to be rewarding in the long run.

The other issue to be aware of is that if you are going to encourage social reporting, you might get blamed if somebody is quoted or photographed without their permission. Social reporting makes a conference space truly public and that might need to be explained to delegates.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Blame them (again)

We're all a little bit addicted to pointless outrage these days. If there's one thing that always gets me spitting feathers, it's the sight of well-paid journalists desperately clinging onto their jobs and ever-declining readerships by inciting a bit of racial hatred. Shocking though it might be that there are millions of people who still get up every single morning and decide there's nothing else they'd like to spend 30p on than a grey and red newspaper filled with lazy press release rewrites and rabid opinion, it is a habit that even on its current trend will take many years to dissipate.

This week the government handed the media a nice little story about how immigrants are to blame for the poor's feelings of discontent. I don't know if that was the spin the government chose to put on it, but it gave enough scope for reports about how the voiceless poor are feeling overwhelmed by the waves of immigrants and are too strangled by political correctness to say anything about it.

Where do I start? Well, I'll skip over the voicelessness bit because regular White Llama readers will have seen it all before, but I will pick up on the ghost of political correctness. Everyone knows someone who has seen it, but that doesn't mean there's any strong evidence that it actually exists. Political correctness is just another weapon in the armoury of politicians, bishops and journalists who can drag it out of the cupboard whenever they have a point to prove. Its manifestations are merely signs of unhealthy management and leadership. Policies that are being wielded like weapons when they are supposed to be upholding equality deserve to be challenged - anybody who tells you that you can't have a Christmas tree on your desk deserves a slap, not the honour of a bitter story in your local newspaper. People self-censor because they feel they should around people they don't know and especially around people with clipboards. Therefore instead of telling researchers what they really think, they will tell them what they think they want to hear.

None of this means that immigration is the problem, despite what our friendly national media might tell us. The Jews weren't the problem in the German recession of the 1920s, but that didn't stop them becoming a target. The fact that we have immigration simply means that there is opportunity here for people from other countries, just as there is the opportunity of sunshine in Spain for Brits. Global migration is something that isn't likely to change and neither would it be in anybody's interest to change it, especially not the British to whom the doors to virtually every country in the world are open. The fact that there are opportunities for foreigners means that there are opportunities for us too, niches that can be filled. If people felt as strongly about immigration as the media suggest, the market for take-aways and corner shops would soon dry up.

So what is the problem? Voicelessness and powerless, as well as poverty, is at its core. In that the survey has perhaps bought something important to the government's attention (again). Disconnection from opportunity, even very basic opportunities like a house, causes resentment. The house price rises of our 'booming' economy over the last fifteen years means it only takes a very basic grasp of maths to know that the housing ladder is out of reach to anybody on a low income, therefore the council house queue grows. It's never nice being in a queue and it never takes much to start a fight. Nice as it is of the Express to give credibility to local rumours, unfairness most likely runs a lot deeper than houses being given to some Poles. There is a wider unfairness in the fact of hundreds of thousands of empty properties, of cash buyers being able to jump in and profit from the current downturn instead of first time buyers who are being denied mortgages for amounts that would have been considered a pittance a few months ago. There is unfairness in the banks being bailed out with billions but failing to pass on that generosity to businesses, who are now going bust leaving thousands more jobless, and borrowers from whom they have done very nicely during the good times. It is unfair that banks deny thousands of people banking services, pushing them out of the mainstream economy.

And what could the government do about it? I see one of the causes of resentment as being increasing decentralising of government (local and national) services. Communities are built and maintained through conversations and it is much more difficult to have conversations with someone on the other side of a glass window in a huge processing centre. In many disconnected communities, the only remaining businesses are betting chains. On a better note, I've been impressed to notice that the Cooperative have been quietly investing in numerous food shops and pharmacies in Stoke over the last few months. As well as the services here and the fact that as a member organisations they won't take out excessive profits, most of the stores have cash machines. The absence of cash machines in poor areas has an obvious link to the lack of money being spent there - if people have to go to another town to get money, or to the supermarket that takes cards, they will do their shopping there too. This applies to the people who have bank accounts at all and there is another bright spot on the horizon with the imminent opening of the Staffordshire Credit Union. Stoke is the worst place for access to financial services, so far from just being a place for people to borrow money from, this could introduce thousands of people to mainstream banking for the first time. This has knock-on effects that don't even occur to most people who live comfortably on a salary: with a bank account you can get on to a payroll and after saving for a few weeks (once the Union has built up its reserves) members will be able to borrow small, short term loans with interest rates far below those charged by loan sharks and the high street lenders that would have said yes to these groups before.

The government could go to every street that has a Coral or a Coop and invest in small centres that will provide training, services and computers. They can hire local people to run them, constantly developing their staff to open up new opportunities for them and so draw in new people as others go on to other places. They can host other organisations, social enterprises and projects, charging rents appropriate to the local economy. They can make sure there is at least one person in the centre who is well connected to all the other projects and services and can provide a signposting service that genuinely responds to what people wants rather than any targets (which, within an atmosphere of trust, would stand a much better chance of being met for the other projects). With the community relationships that will build up after around 18 months of operation (6 if you're lucky), the government will have an immediate barometer of feeling in communities that they currently lack any meaningful connections with. This will bridge the disconnection that is at the heart of community anger. The business plan is on a 'spend to save' model with the return on invesment coming from greater income tax receipts and less benefit expenditure.

This approach is simple enough to not need any strategy papers at all to be written and it gives the government to put their money where their mouth is and invest in communities at a time when it is likely many others will pull out. It would be nice to think they could cooperate with local councils, who have the same problem of having lost touch with the people in most need of safety nets.

Deal with the real, underlying problems and the fears over immigration will pass, as they have so many times before.