Thursday, December 30, 2010

Maybe it's not Facebook's fault

Like many people, I have mixed feelings about Facebook. When I say mixed, I mean mostly negative. The only good things on Facebook are all the people I like(™) there. Because of them, I spend a lot of time there. I'm happy to accept too, that there's some good things about the way it automatically makes links of cats and photos of my boat easy to share. It helps me keep connected with people in ways that don't require too much thought or physical movement, which is great when you're (1) far away from many of the people you've made friends with in your life and (2) lazy. Little warms my heart as much than designing a virtual cupcake for a friend on her birthday, or steaming in with a little fertiliser for my mum's enormous Farmville ranch.

Beyond that, I harbour lots of resentment.The way they tinker with stuff for no good reason. How you have to go through no end of dilemmas about friend requests from people you can't remember, didn't like much or who you don't particularly feel comfortable knowing in *that* way. The privacy stuff-oh-my-god-yes: you have to watch your privacy settings like a hawk, because Zuckerburg has just flicked the switch that allows your neighbour's cat to tell the local burglar that you are out. I dislike its blue borders and the sense it's got me, whether I like it or not.

Unlike Twitter, I can't choose the method I use to speak to my friends beyond web or mobile (both of which look pretty much the same), and I can't stop using it because many of my friends don't use anything else online. It's like having a flatmate who gets on your nerves but nevertheless you have to see every f-ing day and who insists on showing you their sunny holiday photos despite your clear, silent, disinterest. And who, while they're at it, rearranges the furniture while you're out.

What annoys many most of all about Facebook is the sense that it is becoming a separate internet of its own. A private island, locked away from the open web, with more users in the UK than any other site except

But in a sudden seasonal turn, I thought – what if we're being unfair on Facebook? It's not Facebook that's closed off Facebook. It's us. We, the collective we, have decided that if Twitter and Linkedin are public, Facebook is private. In theory (although I've never seen it work in practice), Facebook has the same capability for RSS feeds as anything else. People who don't change their privacy settings can have all their stuff broadcast as easily as if they'd tweeted it. Equally, of course, private tweeting is just as acceptable. There are no rules except those we create ourselves.

I don't intend to change the way I use Facebook. It's the place where I go to say things that are way too dull to unleash on the open web. I like checking in on what old friends are having for tea, or who had a baby this week. Although I'm too paranoid to put much up that is genuinely private, it's still got photos of things that I don't want to share with everyone by default. But, having made that choice myself, it's not very fair to pin the blame on Facebook for holding closed data about me. The other choice would be to open it up completely. I could connect with everyone I've ever known for any length of time in a mission to create a complete, open social web of my life. But I don't really feel like doing that. If I do anything to reconcile my use of Facebook with the desire for a complete, open web, it'll just be to nudge some of my friends who are posting up Facebook content that really deserves a wider audience into blogging, or tweeting.

One of the things I have hazy memories of from history study was the concept of private and public spheres. This was a dividing line between men and women that, we learned, emerged in the Victorian era. Women spent most of the twentieth century trying to hop over the fence back into the public sphere. As a(n) historian, I now ask, how do we make these collective decisions? Looking back, will we find that Twitter = Public sphere & Facebook = Private sphere was a permanent decision, or will it shift once again?

Only time will tell. But in the meantime, I open up it up for the last few hours of your holiday entertainment – are we being unfair on Facebook? Discuss.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Coproducing our future

November's coprodnet conference in Manchester left my head full of stimulating ideas and renewed excitement about what can be done through collective action.

There was a lot to take in and digest. It was also clear that the word itself is open to wide debate and interpretation. I'll leave that to other people and just share one of the stories I learnt a lot from.

A story from Harare

"We realised that we cannot just sit and wait and hope... You are planning to build a house for me and it's not a house that I will like... the people who can get the paperwork will get the house and then they will just sell it"

Five years ago Zimbabwe embarked on a clearance programme. This was not clearance in the English sense, with bland notices, tense discussions, placards and compulsory purchase orders. This was just bulldozers with the label 'Drive out rubbish'.

"There are different circumstances in different countries, but being poor is being poor".

The story from Zimbabwe was one of hope and great achievement in circumstances that don't get much worse. We heard that the Zimbabwe Homeless People's Federation were doing some amazing things:
- built a membership of over 40,000 people
- supported neighbourhood savings and credit schemes
- negotiated for land and built houses

Their story is just one of many members around the world of Slum Dwellers International and they were able to get support from this and other NGOs and universities to make a difference.

How did they do it? How did they get so many people involved? The first step they described came as a surprise to me, but then I may not have been thinking about the real problem.

1. The group had to develop recognition. The urban poor weren't seen by anybody, their settlements were given different names by the authorities and they were told (forcibly) that if there wasn't work for them, they should return to the rural areas. Before they could do anything else, they had to organise in order to establish their right to exist.

2. They then gathered and recorded information to support their case for recognition. Things like how many people lived in their settlements, its history, the names they were using, what the community wanted and needed. This meant they had their own resources to take to the table: knowledge and information.

3. They built up local savings networks. 80% of their members are women and the clubs are based on very small networks. Once the banks collapsed, they stopped taking their money to them. Now they can save a little bit of money each day and make use of a revolving fund for crisis loans and income generation ideas. Most importantly, the tiny resources of the individual can be matched with the larger fund and in turn contributions from other organisations. As well as their savings, people can contribute sweat equity and their own skills to buildings.

4. With knowledge, money, information and the pooled resources of their community, teams identify land and begin negotiating with whoever owns it. They are now coing from a different position. They stopped saying yes to any offer ("bad land" far away from from the city centre) and made the point that the urban poor had a right to live close to the business district because they didn't have cars.

5. They draw on expertise and training as and when it is needed for legal services and building design. Sometimes they pay for this themselves, in other cases it is funded by the NGOs. This means the housing they build will be what they want.

6. A fundamental consideration is health. The networks share information, teach each other and "give each other the courage" to get tested for HIV.

The network is made up of small circles who save and learn, forming a community that in turn draws on the knowledge of other places around the world.

It was a joy to talk to Davious and Catherine from the Zimbabwean People's Federation. I'm sure there's a lot more to the story, many more hurdles and problems than we had time to talk about, but it was inspiring to hear their story and see their determination to build better homes for their communities.

Monday, October 04, 2010

"You know what - after nearly a year of searching the official sites regarding [this] and calling all the proper people - this one Facebook post has been the most helpful thing by far. "

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mysteries of Sneyd Green

"AUCTION" it says in pink printer-ink on a poster taped to the door of the exceptionally well-priced off-license that lies within the snaky roads off Milton Road.

No more details except the time and location - which, apologies, I forgot to Twitpic - and "Vendor's arrive at 2pm".

An auction for what? Would the reckless bidder be raising his hand for fine art, cast-off Doulton figures or repossessed homes? Cars?

Meat strikes me as a distinct possibility.

In Burslem some years ago, the meat van was one of the Friday fixtures, with a man attached to a loudspeaker whipping the ladies up into a frenzy to buy his shrink-wrapped cuts covered in all manner of sauces. This was replaced later by a meat lottery at a local pub, apparently equally crowd-pulling.

I wonder but dare not ask. Does anyone know?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Web apps for healthcare

At the moment I'm trying to gather some communities stories about health and other aspects of wellbeing as part of a WEA Stoke community involvement project. Later in the year we hope to bring together some willing developers to help build these tools.
Here are a few ideas that I noted down from discussions at the first hack/hacker/hacky coffee in Birmingham:
  • A sort of Mapumental for choosing GPs, where GP data can be visualised on a map and information highlighted depending on what is important to the user, for example by satisfaction ratings, language, whether particular languages are spoken, how appointments can be booked etc.
  • A text service where you send your postcode and the phone numbers of the nearest 5 GPs who are taking on patients are sent back.
  • A map of hospitals showing waiting times, ideally in real time or by trend.
If anyone knows of these tools already being developed, knows data sources or would like to have a go, please speak up.

One more useful pointer for anyone developing content-rich website was this: the vast majority of people finding your website through a search are looking for the most basic information, such as opening times. So keep it simple.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A social media strategy in brief

1. Get accounts where the people you want to reach are*
2. Start joining conversations. Always link back to a clear 'About' page
3. Share stuff.

* If your IT department blocks the sites you think will be useful, add these steps:
0.1 Get a laptop
0.2 Get a mobile broadband account
0.3 Proceed to step 1.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Social Stoke nears 1000 links

At the time of writing, Social Stoke is only three away from reaching its 1,000th bookmark. What will it be?

The aim of Social Stoke is to build open, reusable lists of all the websites in Stoke-on-Trent, plus a useful resource bank for people in the city with ideas, products, resources and services from outside the city. It has been created using Delicious, a free 'social bookmarking' tool owned by Yahoo. Since then many alternative bookmarking tools have been suggested, but Delicious has become a habit. It was born, as so many things are, out of irritation. Every time I tried to find a business in the city on Google, I got some reputable business listing website which failed to link to the website itself. Many businesses, it turns out, spell their website name wrong on their vans, leading only to frustration for those (like me) who note them down to look up later. So this site has become an archive of some of the obscure local services we have here, at least those that have got online so far. The site also has a spin-off blog with links to such useful stuff as what people are saying about Stoke-on-Trent on Twitter.

The tag cloud has become a reflection of the state of digital use in our city. Many more of our towns and villages have a presence than was the case even a year ago. Longton, for example, has a blossoming range of sites for its residents associations and others who love it. The tag cloud shows that we still have numerous potteries - and there will be still more to add. Hopefully by looking at what others in the city are doing, it will be easier for groups and small businesses to start their own sites. It's exciting to see how many more local people and organisations are using Twitter, and well.

There is, however, a lot missing because the cloud follows the interests and whims of its volunteers. If you have a mildly compulsive streak and would like to add to the tag cloud, you can do so by signing up to delicious and adding bookmarks, including the tag 'for:socialstoke' and any tags you feel should also be included, for example place and topic.

You are welcome to use the lists as well as add to them. Perhaps you would find it useful to have a list of other residents associations on your own site, for example, or different businesses. If you have a site that allows it, just take the RSS feed (intro to this here) of the list you're interested in and it can be added to your own site, or you can follow new links using feed readers.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A nostalgic tea towel for my generation

We were the kids who listened to
Together in Electric Dreams
And dreamed.

We copied pages and pages of code
and if we were lucky, got a BASIC ping pong game.
Our life's work was stored on a 32kb floppy disk
We waited, thrilled, around a dot matrix printer
and got our Ataris to speak to us.

Campaigns for gadgets and colour TVs took years
We accumulated boxes and boxes of videos, cassettes and defunct machinery
(that we can't bring ourselves to throw away)

We read about email in magazines,
but in our schools
internet access was barred.
We messed about with
wires and bits
of grey hardware.
And one day we heard the
screams and high notes
of a dial-up connection

And we waited.

And one day,
we were connected.

It makes me wonder:
What do the young
dream of

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Favourite places

There is one car park in Stoke-on-Trent that I don't shudder at the thought of parking within. Just one where I happily put my pound in the machine for the sheer joy of just throwing the car into a space and leaving it for two hours.

When I sweep in, I can look around at a vista that takes in Tunstall's epic Catholic church, the orange and brown rooftops of Chell, Stanfields and Acreswood, Port Vale and the Hamil Road flats, Burslem's mixture of new and old buildings, Wolstanton a world away beyond the lakes and forests and finally back to Tunstall market and old high street. In the foreground the metal-shard-ceramics structure makes a nice centrepiece to the new retail development upon which the jury is still out but is certainly popular with our city's shopping multitudes. The carpark is an empty oasis of calm before one negotiates the familiar crowds of Tunstall Market and its kind traders.

I will not tell you where it is, you will have to find it yourself.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

UK Local Gov Camp 2010

As the far-right descended on our city for a spot of light rioting, it was a joy to get away from it all for the day at Google's Headquarters and listen to some very clever people at the Local Government Barcamp. Huge amounts of content is available via the Twitter feeds (hopefully this, and the videos from the day, will be captured and edited). These are some pretty raw notes and thoughts to which I'll add more when I'm on a better broadband connection and have had more time to read through everything else. I've started gathering links on delicious to add to any others with the same tag here:

The first session I went to was a chance to learn where people are from and how they are tackling the challenges of the modern world. “I'm not here officially, that's how well we're doing”. It is clear that interest in online communication is growing throughout councils and the case that they should be talking to people out there is clear enough, the challenge is how. Much of the conversation is moving beyond barriers and towards solutions. The barriers are going to take a long time to break down, but here are a few ideas from the councils here today:

don't ask for permission: workers within councils have made great links by using social media and then demonstrating the positive outcomes. This may be easier said than done and it is sad to note that a culture of fear is pervasive for many.
you have to start somewhere: using social media is harder if you are not familiar with the space and conventions. You can't get good at it without starting.
there is always risk, but take care to explain what you are doing and why. Most organisations see the benefit of engaging with the public and well-meaning, thought-through engagement has demonstrable benefits. Things can and will go wrong, but in order to innovate we have to be able to fail.
think about using social media for internal collaboration as well as external communication – a closed space may be a good way of developing trust and social media skills. There are plenty of free platforms that don't have to be public.
find hard figures – councils are probably most interested in cost savings, so make comparisons with other areas of spending. For example, if you are piloting a Twitter account (which costs nothing), track the number of tweets and the number of followers, plus examples of engagement like replies and retweets and compare it to the cost of a mailout or leaflet drop.
Use external tools and systems instead of waiting for the IT blocks to come down. By working with your social networks, you can get a lot of help. Mobile internet is making most social websites accessible wherever you are, so you don't need to be disconnected. “Once you start a hub, people join and help”.

“If you've got the passion, use it and ask the rest of the network questions when you need help”.

A number of resources are already available and a resource point is currently under development by iDEA, so if you need examples of strategies or evaluations, have a look round and you might find an example to work from. These might include acceptable use policies and acceptable behaviour guidelines that might already exist, but may need updating to enable council workers and councillors to more effectively engage in conversations in their community whether offline or online.

Some quick suggestions for councils from the session on local content:
Don't publish newspapers – think about how you might stimulate the creation of websites and give people the skills – embrace the people talking about you and treat them equally to the press – open up your data so people can build useful things with it.

I then got a little insight into some of the development platforms that people are using to build those tools, including the site which is built in Drupal. While this is completely not in my area of knowledge, it was an exciting learning experience. There is clearly masses of choice for the home developer to learn about and the communities building the tools are collaborating on new modules all the time. Hopefully someone has uploaded an photo of the platform comparison the group discussed.

Afterwards I asked Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation if he could make some suggestions of access points for the curious beginner. He said that Python is a fairly easy programming language and that if people just want to make a start with data they could help collaborate on wheredoesmymoneygo, which doesn't involve programming skills, just the time to delve around council websites finding information and adding it to spreadsheets.

Back into my comfort zone, we had a session on how conversations – especially a mass of messy conversations – can be turned into action. This was introduced from the point of view of the private sector, for whom Promised Community undertake consultation processes. We heard a positive vision from Harry Metcalfe, creator of tellthemwhatyouthink, of a “friendly and collegiate” atmosphere of constant consultation. We started to unpick the difficult dilemmas like whether we ask people at the right time and whether we genuinely want 'everyone' involved in decision making.

A few good suggestions emerged, including:
Good outcomes are more likely if all relevant communities are involved at every stage. They are more likely to be content with the decisions and feel that there is transparency in the decision-making. This is difficult, particularly in tense political climates, and heavy on resources. Leaders and political representatives should be encouraged to write or communicate through video regularly.
Feedback mechanisms can solve smaller problems. For example, users of Patient Opinion can highlight problems that can then be fixed, or if health workers have permission to give a direct explanation this can allay anger

We are moving from a time when our only communication channels were the media, meetings and one-to-one contact, to individualised information feeds, opportunities to publish everywhere and the wide availability of free tools that make virtual collaboration not just possible but easy. Could greater self-expression, reflection and dialogue lead to healthier communities?

Finally, a stimulating discussion about data got us thinking about the future. Which datasets still haven't been turned into tools? What would be the dataset that the government really regrets releasing? Which future data-driven tools will have massive public impact and which will make their makers rich? Is data the new oil?

This final metaphor bought forward some interesting points. The service economy around information is easy to see and won't be threatened by the free availability of information, which lowers entry barriers for those who want to develop services. Data's value is not necessarily in its raw form, but in the connections people make between them and the more open source datasets that are developed – for example filling in the gaps in compatability and tagging - the more advanced our tools can become. As well as data, demand will rise for content, particularly government-produced content that can be presented in more effective tailored ways if it is available to reproduce.

It was a fascinating day with a strong mix of different actors. The most encouraging thing to see is the rise of collaboration and a widespread development of confidence. While last year, many of the conversations at gatherings like these were about the problems, this year was much more about the work that has to be done. As well as meeting many of the lovely people who I already know through Twitter, I came away with lots of new contacts and new leads for local skills development. This is how we can build bridges between the areas where this stuff is still either totally unknown or vaguely known and terrifying, to the collaborative organisations and individuals who are keen to get their hands dirty and start building useful things. It's a massive learning curve, but one we will have to face for the rest of our lives.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Ruby on Clay - what are your digital dreams for 2010?

Inspired by Socialmediageek, here are the things I would love to see happen in digital Stoke this year...

... the establishment of many social media cafes, where people can supplement in real life the connections they make online
... joining in the Global Twestival again
... that some big digital players come to Stoke and experiment with our empty spaces, our talented people full of potential, our blossoming enthusiasm for digital technology and our natural understanding of creative industry and community. The Director of Digital Engagement & his office (you know you want to!)? Google? Any West Coasters out there looking for adventures in a new UK base?
... that we can build on the knowledge of a few to spread understanding and innovation in online literacy, web applications, programming and development through peer-to-peer learning.
... that we hold more unconferences in Stoke and support more national and local conversations, giving people space to explore ideas and collaborate. Particularly for Stoke itself, I hope we can have some more time and space to think about how information and the web can be used more effectively for delivering public services, community empowerment, engagement in politics, employment and economic development
... that we make greater use of what is on our doorstep. I've been thinking I should develop and promote Social Stoke more - it's building into quite a nice little resource but could be much more powerful with more links and more proactive socialness (things like volunteers roaming blogs and sites linking people and things to other people and things
... maybe we'll finally find the use for Google Wave some of us dream of :)

What else?