Friday, December 30, 2011

On a clunky 2011 and our new powers

For 2011 I wrote a list of achievements and predictions called Agile Stoke. While I would say that it has been more clunky than agile, 2011 has been noteworthy because we hit mass adoption of the web. Before reflecting on the local area, I'm going to pick out three interesting examples that show how mass behaviour can make change happen.

  • First we had Occupy. I loved the mashing together of the old and new, the rapid spread of ideas and the bravery and inventiveness of those who took considerable personal risks to further a cause which could not adequately be communicated through our older structures. Occupy is complex, messy and thought-provoking - exactly what politics needs.
  • Second the riots, subsequent clean-up and political/punitive aftermath. 
  • Third, concern over many retail chains. Was this due to unemployment, lack of confidence in the economy, people's switch to online shopping or the start of a move away from corporate chains? Probably a combination of all of these things. 

As many pointed out, outbursts like riots and occupations are not new. Nor do they exist because of web tools. This is the kind of dull argument that distracts from what is interesting about these happenings, because for most people web tools are no longer shiny, new things to be talked about as brands, they are woven into our lives. They are simply like the pavements we walk on or the houses we live in. It is no more newsworthy to say that riots were organised using BBM than it is to say that people live in tents. Both things may be of interest to those interested in technology or housing, but journalists will have to make more of an effort to keep our attention. We need more curation in 2012.

In Stoke, the Facebook ad process says that I can now reach 124,000 people over 18 within Stoke-on-Trent. Now that number needs to be treated with a pinch of salt, because some people will not have registered themselves in Stoke, others will be younger than 18, some will have more than one account and others may be living outside the city but have registered themselves with the nearest city. But bearing all that in mind, it's still a very high number. It is - if I've done the maths right - 61% of the amount of people registered to vote and 109% of the number of ballots issued in the 2010 general election. Yup, roughly speaking, more people have signed up for Facebook in Stoke-on-Trent than turned out to vote. Draw your own conclusions.

This indicator of the internet's popularity had other effects. For earlier adopters, Twitter because less like a few communities of interest and much more difficult to keep track of. Early in 2011, David Elks of the Sentinel could easily find nearly 100 people to snap up places for a Tweetup (and around half that actually turned up, which isn't bad in the web world), but finding coherence in follow-up actions proved difficult. I felt less able to stay in touch with many people I like enormously because there are just so many of you buggers. Indeed, everytime I try to weed people out I am just reminded of how interesting, nay inspiring, you all are. Add to that the awareness that there are so many more great people I have never connected with and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. It's a difficult problem for people who love the firehose because we can actually drown ourselves. I try to make sure I switch off (almost) as much as I dive in, but definitely felt that I missed a lot this year and I also lost a lot of time just trying to tune up my filtering tools, especially in light of changes they made.

What had been called the Stoke Twitter community lost some of its energy and a few hyperlocal blogs fell along the wayside. I felt at the time that this was inevitable and that bloggers should not feel under pressure to keep things going for ever. Partly in response, Facebook groups got quite busy but again those conversations seem to be waning a little. These pulses should, I think, be seen as part of the natural order of the web. People will gather and disperse again like shoals of fish and we don't need to create feeding frenzies just to get them to our ponds, we just need to make some more canals between them. Pitsnpots had a rocky year but ended it with the announcement that it is to be a pioneering project of the Journalism Foundation - well deserved recognition of the part it has played in Stoke's democratic history over the last couple of years and very promising for the future. Meanwhile the Sentinel started a digital column, great for local digital activists to reach paper readers, and 6 Towns Radio and My Tunstall both continued to thrive and develop. On my own projects, Delicious's decision to take down tag clouds took the wind out of my Social Stoke sails, but luckily this has now been reinstated and I have my tagging enthusiasm back again - with some help from the WEA volunteer Andrew we've now reached 1,548 links.

Despite all the challenges it will face, many of the advantages Stoke has make it well prepared for a good year. We have a mature sector of people working and volunteering in new media and a supportive old media. Everyone knows each other - that's always been the case but now Facebook and Linkedin makes it easier to see. We're a city of interconnected towns and villages with plentiful cheap buildings and land. Outside investors come and go - the commitment of Prince Charles' charities in particular gives hope for 2012 - while the dominance of the council in saying what can and cannot happen is being shaken up, albeit gradually. Many of our strengths were on display at the Stoke Stories conference which was ably organised by Tristram Hunt's team and the RSA. The conversations continue here.

What people need now to break through the gloom that is so pervasive is knowledge about the opportunities that mass adoption of the internet creates. Nearly all of us, including nonliners, are now connected to people who can reach each other with the click of a button. The exception is truly isolated individuals, for whom special attention - ie funding, not cuts - is needed. Our personal networks are excellent jumping off points to find forms of power that in many cases aren't new, but are more accessible to those who were previously disconnected from them. The other new thing about them is that they're made possible not by the web itself, but by the fact that we have these networks that can amplify and share what we do. Returning to the first three examples I quoted, they all showed how change can happen because we can now be more aware of each other's thoughts and feelings. The consequences of this can be good or bad and we can all play a role as influencers.

One of the reasons I highlighted the rise of online buying is that while it may well threaten retail jobs, there is an opportunity for people to start selling directly to customers around the world. We need policies and bold politicians that support people within an economic landscape that is likely to move very rapidly and unpredictably. We need to be able to seek and capitalise upon the good times, as well as support people through the bad. While the council's Mandate for Change vision is quite good on the former, no longer just putting all its eggs into one poorly-spelt retail basket, as a Labour controlled council they should, in my view, be fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain and even improve core services and community spaces.

So I've made another list: ten powers that we have now that more of us are online. All of them involve some learning and none of them should be seen as easy, but they are all things that I have seen other people achieve using the web. Many of you reading this will know how to get started so if you do, please help someone who doesn't. And if you know someone doing one of these things, take a second to retweet or share.

Now that we are (nearly) all online, we - you! - can do all this: 

More ideas, and examples of the above in action, are very welcome. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2011

A list for Boxing Day

Historians are divided on the true meaning of Boxing Day. It could be the day when maidservants took boxes of gifts back to their families, released for a day from the toil of service. Or it could be the day when relatives unleashed the frustrations of each other's company with some bouts over the leftover turkey.

Since Downton Abbey gave us few answers on this point, I decided to go for the first interpretation and made a list of virtual boxes for you to give to family members that you might see today. Remember nonliners don't know what you're doing while you read this on your smartphone, they don't think you're being sociable, they think you're just tapping away on that small machine. So why not tempt them into the world of the web with one of these 26:
  • Recipes for cocktails and cake
  • Celebrities
  • TV shows
  • How-to videos
  • Protest movements
  • Songs
  • Family history
  • Kittens
  • Your friends and family
  • Space (as in stars and stuff, not decluttering)
  • Courses
  • Videos of people trying to park
  • The whole world's knowledge (and when they spot a mistake in Wikipedia, show them how to edit)
  • Free software
  • Maps
  • News and comment
  • Banks, services, comparison sites 
  • Health information 
  • Games
  • Museums
  • Your house on Streetview
  • Learn about different cultures
  • Start your own business advice
  • Dogs dressed in Christmas outfits
  • DIY forums - actually, forums about anything
  • Pictures of places where they used to live. 
Remember: don't mention Twitter or Facebook and don't get your uncle signed up to any racist communities. If he ends up in jail by next Christmas, you'll get the blame. 

Happy Boxing Day!

Monday, November 07, 2011

“I don't buy barbed wire, I just dig wells”

I am on the verge of packing up my bookmarks and taking them to Pinboard. I have a really heavy heart about this. My love for delicious has been expressed in a lot of blog posts over the years. It was the frontend of a service I have been quietly nurturing with some other volunteers for several years to make Stoke-on-Trent's websphere more comprehensible, to make a visual cloud of Stoke links. It felt like it was just on the verge of being very useful, then Avos switched it off. The reason I'm on the verge of leaving is not because they've discontinued the tag cloud. The people of the internet will fix this in time. It's more a deap-seated irritation at the business-model that drives this kind of decision. The decision to take out the tagcloud is inexplicable, but it has been replaced by some development that is trying to make the service more like a channel, a platform that you stay on. A walled garden. They haven't switched off RSS, the birds that power the free web, the channels that enable free sharing, but by killing the tag cloud they took out one of the features that made delicious so useful and powerful. It's hard to keep faith in owners that so fundamentally misunderstand the way their community were using the service. He giants of the internet did an amazing thing by showing how content, platforms and software want to be free. That people can build sustainable businesses around sharing and cooperating. What they need to remember is that users, too, want to be free.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

On the peacock-feather sellers of London

I wanted to flood the peacock-feather sellers (4 for £2) in Trafalgar Square and Brick Lane with questions. Where have they come from (peacocks and sellers)? Do they sell enough feathers on the streets of London to make a living? Are they ethical feathers, gathered from behind peacocks with acres to roam, or plucked from within a cramped farm?

You could never sell four peacock-feathers for £2 in Stoke-on-Trent. Only the other day I got five peacock-feathers for free from my friend Helen, who rehomed a peacock from the Bucknall City Farm. We would all know a source of cheaper peacock-feathers and would use this information to mercilessly drive the peacock-feather seller away from profit. That is, unless peacock-feathers became part of some advertising and word-of-mouth boom, or if they became part of a social custom. In those cases, we would flock to join moody queues and battle old ladies for the last bunch of feathers, which would mysteriously have increased in price to £1.50 each, or 4 for £4.

The amateur economist can draw several lessons from the fact that peacock-feathers are sold to the tourists of Brick Lane and Trafalgar Square.

Packed Brick Lane market seemed to be teasing recession-hit Stoke with its tables of mismatched Wedgwood being picked up and turned over by enthusiastic hunters. But then you'd think of their overheads. And of how hard it probably was to get a spot in this teeming market. It is bad form to begrudge anyone a living, but as soon as I stepped off the train back in Stoke, I felt the familiar rising feeling of anger at missed opportunities, silence and passive barriers; envy for Burslem and its quiet streets. At the same time knowing gloom, blame and helplessness is a bad habit, preventing us from just getting on and working towards the city we want to see.

The many successful traders of Stoke are like the peacock-feather sellers. They find or make something simple and beautiful and take it to where the crowds are. The global pottery industry developed in a way that was untainted - relatively if not completely - by slavery and exploitation. We can learn much inside and outside of the Potteries.

Maybe next time I'm in London I should ask those questions.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Dare we hope?

Are we witnessing the start of a crumbling News International media empire in Britain? Only sales figures will tell.

Thinking back on the decades since Murdoch owned the Sun, his influence has been significant. It was the flight to Wapping and subsequent strikes that are in my consciousness as the equivalent of the miners' strikes, showing how unions could be broken and working conditions gradually stripped back, not because of a lack of rights but because workers willingly entered into jobs or continued them in an industry they felt passionate about. I moved away from that industry, as I've stayed out of party politics, under the assumption that I could never change the things that made me feel uncomfortable, even fearful at times.

And yet things are changing.

I have renewed respect for the Guardian, whose relatively quiet work on this story has underpinned all that we now tweet and retweet. The patience that the editor has had in commissioning journalists goes against the belief I had developed that all newspapers only chase the fast story, the easy conflict. There are other journalists with stories that will be equally, if not more important, whose time could still come. The unpredictable thing about online mobs is that, like a swarm of bees, they can land anywhere.

There is the possibility that buyers of newspapers will look again at what they're reading and look around, try one of the different, very good newspapers that are still being produced. That they might think a little more about the sources of the stories that are so compelling and wonder whose privacy has been invaded, whose door has been knocked upon, to get it. They might, as they did this week, think "What if that was my family?" Newspaper sales may have declined, but there is still a market there of millions, and the potential to grow many more with investment in news that people want to read. Newspapers, after all, have been running on the web model of micropayments and advertising for centuries and most of the infrastructure is still there. Time may be up for newspapers that simply rewrite what we can already find online, that don't allow their journalists to do the job that we need: curate, reflect, dig deeper, ask questions.

As Nick Davies said in much more detail in Flat Earth News, phonehacking was a part of the churnalism culture. It's cheap and easy to do from your desk. You don't even need to send an agency hack round for the deathknock. There were no ethical considerations before it was made illegal because they were just responding to the market. Why would millions of people buy a product or advertise within it when the means of making it would, apparently from this week, disgust them? We can only assume that they didn't know, or they hadn't thought about it. And that, in itself, has a lot to do with an addictive, fast-moving culture that wasn't a Murdoch invention, it was being written about in the 50s and probably before that. Stuff that drives the emotions, gives people a sense of belonging, provides enjoyment.

Could we imagine a market for regional and even local newspapers, working with the web, the millions of voices that can be so easily found now, to provide newspapers that are enjoyable as well as useful, where they can say "nobody was hurt in the making of this newspaper (except in the public interest)".

Dare we hope for more diversity in mainstream journalism in the future; a change in the industry that, maybe without intending to, produces the same homogeneity we see in politics? That communications officers might be hired to share messages, not 'manage' them? And that the Labour party might stop blaming everyone else for a second and talk about why they spent so many years inflating the power of people who, at the end of the day, just run some newspapers? And rather than calling for new laws (which will be completely unenforceable now we can publish from anywhere), look at why our existing laws weren't applied?

Twitter is an intense place to be at the moment and emotions are running high. It has, after all, been an amazing week for news. I guess I'm writing this blog as a reminder to myself to step back, to take a bit of time to think, and to encourage more of the careful, thoughtful work that we have seen so much of this week, from powerless people as well as the big names. Let's not get too addicted to the thrilling rush of the next twist. Let's not, as newspapers might, overplay the power of 'social media' which is as meaningless as saying it was the News of the World that hacked those phones.

Luckily for us - on the whole, we are lucky to live in a country like Britain - our version of the Arab Spring won't see us overthrowing a brutal dictator. But there are parallels, especially for those in my generation and younger who have never known a world without Page 3 (for any overseas readers who might stumble upon this: topless women seen as soon as we open a number of tabloid newspapers). And there are also serious questions to be raised about some of the things that have been ignored over the years. I hope politicians and grassroots activists will feel emboldened to tell their stories and speak out about things they have been frightened about in the past. None of this will be easy. It requires exchange, education and probably all sorts of other things I haven't even thought about yet but I'm sure others have.

Because if there's one thing I know which makes me hopeful, it's that there is an amazing world of good people making rapid new connections and, maybe, shifting old power structures, even just a fraction.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

If Twitter was a nation state... would be Sparta.

Disciplined, it makes its members perfectly concise, not like those verbose chatterers of Facebook and Google+. The harsh isolation of Unfollows for those who transgress against unwritten rules. A stern framework with boundaries. Full of strange rituals, games that appear on the surface so pointless. There be wolves and other dangers and tests which all young tweeters must face.

But it's so frikkin' cool! The ladies so tough and sexy, its citizens standing up and fighting for what they believe in!

Twitter looks like a mess at first. But suddenly the enemy realises there are hundreds, maybe thousands of tribes, all standing together with one voice when they have to,

Shouting: this is Twitter!

(admitted: I learnt everything I recall about Roman history from the film 300)

Monday, July 04, 2011

It's time for an entente cordiale

As anyone who bothers reading my updates on Twitter or Facebook knows, I got very excited indeed about Google+, finally got in and have been enjoying playing with it for a few days now. First impressions are very positive, with the usual reservations of any beta Google product and the excitement that us early-adopting geeks always have when we get to link to the same people in exciting new ways.

Google+'s engineering is very snazzy indeed - although it doesn't have as many features as many of us imagined, we have faith that they will come and with a very few glitches what it has built works very well indeed. An exciting sign is that Google's generally fairly antisocial founders are using Google+ to share and an interesting one is that Mark Zuckerberg is lurking there, not sharing in public but making some circles. It's intriguing enough that he has already been ranked as Google+'s most popular user. Yep, geek gossip heaven, this stuff.

My biggest request now is not new features, but a friendly agreement. The big three - Google, Twitter and Facebook - are so ingrained in our lives now that it's hard to imagine us drifting away from any of them, but so it was with Myspace. I don't doubt that everyone expects to see a massive battle to the death with one winner, but I'd prefer another path.

For someone like me, Google Circles is already an interface that I really like using. I want to make my public updates broadcast straight to Twitter. I would prefer however, to continue to read most updates on the Twitter interface because the updates there are snappier. The only reason anyone can follow more than 1,000 people on Twitter is that we say very little on there. Perfect.

I would love to have a circle called Facebook, where me and people who were happy to authorise the link could communicate, with me on Google+ and them on Facebook. Then, while they play on Farmville, I can be reading and +1ing the latest geeky discussions in my stream. Or Reader articles; Reader needs to become incorporated into Google+ forthwith, they could simply merge it into Sparks. Oh yeh, and I want this blog post to automatically go into my Circles stream - *obviously*.

What I'm trying to say is we all want something different: we want to concoct our own unique mix, a little bit of Twitter here and a little bit of Facebook there, a few of Google magical interfaces pulled together into one page. For that to happen, we need the big three to give us the ability to push and pull our data very easily, to link up our contacts rather than duplicate groups and to manage our communication in whichever ways work for us, not the way websites lay on for us. Each site will always have features that you have to visit the site to use but we should not have to feel like we're dumping old friends by spending more time in new communities just because we like a new interface more (or just because we're super-twitchy early adopting geeks). Twitter, Google and Facebook all have an interest in making 'their' site the universal website, but equal interest in defending an open, social web and making it easy for us to connect communities. I mean genuinely easy too, not just 'we'll make it really easy for you as long as you come over to us' easy.

Facebook has everyone I love (at least all of them who have joined Facebook), therefore I have a lot of affection for it. Twitter and Google have my trust because they work so well I barely notice them and they connect me with information and people I like and respect. Love and trust are very emotional ways to talk about websites, but this illustrates how much these tools have become part of our lives and the way people interact. There are billions of unique individuals using the web and website developers do not need to seek universal use. By improving on the different strengths of their sites and their communities as they evolve, they will create stronger loyalty amongst their users and this in turn makes it more likely that we'll build up more detailed profiles and be served more useful, efficient advertising. And while all of you enjoy your riches, the rest of us can enjoy the rich variety of the ecosystem.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Royal Wedding - the webfan view

As the dresses, the cake, the trees and everything else will be picked over in fine detail, I thought I'd write about what I know and praise the social media yesterday.

For all our reservations in the run-up to the wedding (some involving fine Staffordshire mugs), the day itself was an opportunity for millions to indulge in the fairy-tale romance of it all and wish the happy couple well.

Clarence House has been tweeting with great confidence throughout the engagement and yesterday's wedding did not disappoint: a nice mixture of the formal facts, ceremony PDF, the stuff *everyone* wanted to know about, retweets and rooftop views of the flyover.

All their channels were just as slick. The Royal Wedding website is credited to Google Apps and Accenture and had the common touch of a blog with embeds and links to Twitter, Flickr, Youtube and Facebook. Take note: you can recreate them all for free if you want your own multimedia wedding, though it was also a good advert for different premium services.

There was a good call to action for those swept away enough by it all to send a gift. Metric-watchers will be interested to know how much the world's attention converted into donations. It will be a small fraction, of course, but should still make a significant amount for the couple's chosen causes.

Finally I noted that Clarence House staff swiftly swept through the site to ensure that William and Kate's new titles are fully reflected in their biographies and even the URLs. (Yes, I have been reading it all)

What Clarence House didn't get into was comments and moderation, except for a curated message page. I think this was wise. After all, we were were on Twitter to see what the worldwide congregation was saying. The main hashtags were #rw11 and #royalwedding. Don't think you can bury your bad news (much) any more though, other topics like #stokescroft and the NHS were being interspersed and retweeted. A reminder to the media that our little heads can take in more than one story at once. Sniggering at the back from the US dormboys came from #QILF - I'm not saying what that stands for but suffice to say there were a lot of queens and future queens jostling for attention in the Abbey.

As well as tweeting for the rest of us who had finally succumbed to romance, Fashion Critic was quick to post photos of the dresses and her thoughts on them.

There should also be plenty of hyperlocal street party action being posted over the next few days and if anyone out there wants to help gather them, I'd suggest the tag 'rw11hyperlocal'

While this was definitely a day when you want to be glued to a largescreen TV when you're not sipping Pimms in the street, having the web around enriched an historic day no end - with more pictures, wittier commentary, a host of extras and the voices of the crowds. Loved it.

My favourite picture of the day, via Popsugar & Getty

All pictures are screengrabs for illustration only, follow the links for originals and full source information.

Friday, April 22, 2011

We are energy

This post is part observation of what communities (particularly, but not exclusively, digital communities) are doing, and part manifesto: me thinking that if we did even more of the things listed below we would overcome a lot of the city's challenges.

North Staffordshire is a complicated place of villages, towns and a city. Our area was one of the heartlands of the industrial revolution. Our ideas and products spread across the world and we retain easy links to the rest of Britain and further afield. We are surrounded by resources but for many people it can also be a very challenging place to live. For example, in Stoke-on-Trent many people live in substandard housing and experience poor health. Opportunities can be difficult to find and access. The city itself can be difficult to navigate. On the flipside, it's a low cost place to live and when the sun comes out and at least one of the football clubs is doing well, the spirit of the city is lifted.

People coming together in groups help to keep communities healthy by raising wellbeing from simply spending time in each other's company, spending money together, making decisions collectively and exchanging information.

Together, we have more energy and more power.

These are some ways to access what's positive and do something about what's negative by building up people's skills, confidence and ability to:
+ find and navigate everything around us such as opportunities, events, spaces, resources
- challenge decisions, navigate and improve systems, overcome challenges and live more sustainably
  • take part in opportunities to learn
  • share our own knowledge and skills with others
  • help to make links between people and organisations
  • curate and collate information to make it accessible to more people
  • share information about opportunities, spaces and services
  • listen out for the positive and negative in the conversations around us and online.
As I said at the beginning of this post there are a lot of people already doing this. On Social Stoke I collect links to some of the good stuff that I've spotted.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A note for sharing

In my day, you were lucky if someone knew what you were talking about when you said "telephone". In the next few days, magical digital events are going to be coming faster than tweets during a student demonstration.

There are two major festivals, DATfest and Stoke Your Fires, with packed programmes involving pixels and bytes, about which more information is below.

If you'd like to share your super social media skills with people who've never had the opportunity, please come along to help at any point of the Social Media Cafes in Hanley library, details below on the DATfest website. You'll be very much thanked and rewarded with cake.

And on Wednesday 2nd, one of the ideas from the last Tweetup is going to be planned in more depth at a mini-tweetup meeting. Stoke Twestival is just over three weeks away and we've missed all the deadlines so nearly everything has yet to be organised. If you'd like to come and watch the world's fastest moving fundraising party take shape before your very eyes, leave a comment to this post with "Yes I'm free on Wednesday night" and I'll email you final details.

Over the next few days please can you do your bit as a digital citizen to talk about DATfest to all the people you know who aren't online. There are lots of great opportunities to get hands-on and learn all about technology in ways that aren't scary at all and the organisers have worked really hard to put together a pioneering digital programme right here in the Potteries, so please support it as much as you can.


Stoke-on-Trent’s first ever digital arts and social media festival takes over venues and streets across the city centre for a weekend of events. Almost all of it will be free, with some events being ticketed and many drop-in.

The festival kicks off on Friday night with a multi-media electro-acoustic concert event at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery performed by musicians from Keele University Music Technology Group.

On Saturday we take to the streets with B Arts’ 100 Stories – a unique walking tour around the city centre looking at Stoke’s hidden histories that blends live performance, projection and digital soundscapes.

On Sunday we end with a special bITjAM performance #mediafail. The digital discards we all have cluttering up our hard drives – out of focus photos, phone messages and video of the sky – will be transformed live into magical sounds and images.

As well as performance events there’s a full workshop programme that encourages all ages to join in and get creative. At the Central Library there’s social media surgeries for the over-fifties that will have you Flickering and Facebooking in no time; Lego animation workshops that will create brickfilms from your minifigure collection; and Mediafail workshops that provide a final resting place for your digital mistakes.

If you’ve got a suggestion for an event or would like to know more do get in touch at

Keep up with all the DATFEST news at

NOW TO MARCH 4th: Stoke your Fires

Stoke Your Fires festival aims to be the creative heart of the West Midlands region for film and digital media in the eyes of artists, designers, producers and other industry professionals, critics, and of course the public.

Stoke Your Fires is a place to celebrate, innovate and stimulate exciting new work and creativity through these dynamic media but also provides a forum for the exchange of ideas, founding of new partnerships across commercial & public productions and a nurturing catalyst for career development.

The festival started in 2008, and has rapidly built an internationally recognised programme in animation and hopes to continue this across all genres of the moving image.

If you have any questions or would like to get involved please email

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Agile Stoke 2011

I wanted to revisit the predictions and hopes that Carl and I made last year, before 2011 got too far in. It was an exciting year, so busy that I feel like I've had very little time to write about it all, but there's something I'll try to change as a New Year's Resolution...

So with thanks to all the fab folk of the different communities on Twitter and elsewhere, and apologies for all the things I've missed, here goes:

Best was the tangible sense of a tipping point, as use of social media spread beyond the early adopters and started to become firmly embedded into many (not all yet) areas of Stoke life. There was the fantastic Teachmeet event at the new Sixth Form College, a really invigorating series of short presentations. Councillors and officers in the council are using Twitter with real confidence and we saw some firsts, like live tweeting from a council meeting and councillors tweeting each other inside them. Businesses and charities from what I think of as the mainstream establishment of Stoke life have adopted social media as well, which has a knock-on effect in raising the profile of the internet across the city and widening market access for the companies themselves. Jellifish and Boomerang PR are just two examples of local companies building up super success without having to plough millions into big city bases. A number of us enjoyed a trip down to Stafford with Talk About Local and had proper cross-county talks, leading to the establishment of local Race Online activities.

The maturing social media scene gave Stoke some great stories. Building on the platform of a mention in parliament right at the beginning of the year, Pitsnpots has grown up into a fully fledged Community Interest Company, Potteries Media CIC with the addition of 6 Towns Radio. Both of these are brilliant in their own right, but also vitally important for improving plurality in our local media. From the world of old media, the Sentinel is finding its digital feet, being able to amplify the stories that people are publishing through social media. If it could be bold enough to put more investment into combining old-fashioned journalism roles with this new wealth of local information feeds, it has a fantastic opportunity to build on its large and loyal readerships.

Four out of six of the towns now have their own well-established blogs. Just to pick on one, My Tunstall really shows what can happen when a man with the power to develop Drupal sites puts something together for residents with bees in their bonnet. Roads were adopted, huge amounts of money raised, stuff got cleaned and cleared up - it's the Big Society!. Tunstall has a lot of problems but is still one of my favourite towns and My Tunstall is a much-needed platform. I'd love to see every town and village in the city getting its own, which of course just depends on the people with the kind of passion these sites take being connected with the skills.

Last year we were dabbling in Ruby on Rails (which, like most of my pursuits in programming I didn't find the time to make much progress on) and this year's blog title picks up one of my current interests. Agile is a philosophy in programming that values (quote from Wikipedia):
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
I know, too many syllables. But squint your eyes a bit and substitute some key words and there's some good stuff in here.

2011 is going to be a difficult year for Stoke. We had a lot of plans - I'm one of the few people who makes a hobby of reading them (squinting my eyes and looking for the good stuff) - which now may or may not be abandoned altogether. Here, this doesn't just mean plans, it means land. From a low base Stoke has been hit hard by recession and cuts for a while but it's really biting now. Threat or opportunity looms, depending entirely on your perspective, knowledge and the various skills you might have had the fortune to pick up in your life. It will be a tough year for many people.

There's a lot we can learn from the culture of digital innovation, but more importantly this goes more with the grain of Stoke than many of the ideas that have been airdropped onto us in the last few decades. Generalising wildly as usual, we tend to value people and interactions over processes, things that work over endless documents and responding to change over following a plan.

“In sport, agility is often defined in terms of.. an integration of many components each used differently”. (Wikipedia)

To stretch the analogy a little further, if the Agile priority is working software, and Tom Berners-Lee's working code, then perhaps ours is a working city. You can interpret that as you want. For me, it's a city full of opportunity, flourishing in every aspect, freer from life-limited illnesses and early deaths. Every town, village and community valued as part of a diverse, sustainable city. Utopian, maybe, and certainly complex, but the web and our own history both show us that revolutions are possible in a very short time.

It's easy to get bogged down in Stoke's problems (yah, no kidding, says my weary reader), but I hope we becoming known for playing to our strengths, not arguing over our weaknesses.

We made pretty good progress in these things:
... the establishment of many social media cafes, where people can supplement in real life the connections they make online [here's the link - Mike has sketched out a monthly schedule for this in 2011 and the more volunteers involved the better]
... joining in the Global Twestival again [we did! This year?]
... 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 [much to link to here].
... 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 [1,162 links and counting]

Still on the to-do list:
... 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 [now her] office? Google? [Twitter?]
... maybe we'll finally find the use for Google Wave some of us dream of [?]

What new ones shall we add?
Hopefully a few of us will be getting our voices together on 6 Towns Radio so if you have any predictions or hopes, tweet them or leave them here...