An Exciting Week for Social Media in Yorkshire

Central Birmingham Social Media Surgery -1st Anniversary

At the end of my presentation at last year’s National Digital Inclusion Conference I said that we were aiming to make Yorkshire & the Humber the “Social Media Region”. I think quite a few in the audience realised that I hadn’t really thought through the path to this objective at the time. However, I think we may now be well on the road, as this week sees Social Media Surgeries in three of our major conurbations on consecutive nights.

Huddersfield Social Media Surgery is on Monday 1st February, Leeds SMS on Tuesday 2nd, and Sheffield on Wednesday 3rd. With the second York SMS imminent, and plans in train for surgeries in Hull, Grimsby, Barnsley and Hebden Bridge, the idea spawned in Birmingham by the amazing Nick Booth and Pete Ashton is taking root around Yorkshire & the Humber.

It promises to be an exhausting week for those of use involved in all three of this week’s Surgeries, but the cumulative satisfied glow that always follows a successful event will make it all well worthwhile.

An Open Letter to the Managing Director of Cross Country Trains

Dear Mr. Cooper

Internet Connectivity and Mobile Phone Signals on Voyager Trains

Cross Country Voyager Train

A Cross Country Voyager Train - Image courtesy John Grey Turner http://www.flickr.com/photos/johngreyturner/

I am writing to you to ask if you can please do something about Internet connectivity and mobile phone signals on your Voyager Trains. I write following two particularly frustrating journeys; from Leeds to Bristol Temple Meads on 25th January, and Bristol Temple Meads to Manchester on 26th January, when neither of the devices I normally carry with me for Internet connectivity on the move, a Vodafone dongle and a Mifi mobile wifi unit on the Three network, could get anything more than fleeting signals. I am a regular user of Cross Country trains, most frequently between Leeds / Wakefield and my office in Sheffield, but also on longer journeys too.

I travel a lot in my job, and, partly because I live within walking distance of Huddersfield station, partly because I believe in keeping driving to a minimum in the interests of saving the planet, but mainly because I can work on the move rather than treating travel as “dead time”, I nearly always travel by train. I firmly believe that efforts need to be made to attract more people out of their cars and on to the train, and that making the travel experience more like a mobile office could be a key factor in this.

I travel regularly on East Coast Trains between Leeds and London, and find the free wifi offered on those services to be a great help, even though actual connectivity to the Internet can be patchy. I also note Virgin Trains’ introduction of wifi on its West Coast services, although I believe that the fact that there is a charge for this is a powerful disincentive for most people. Personally, I think free wifi on trains has to be the way forward and is the main way to create the mobile office on rails.

The Cross Country Voyagers are the trains I have the most problems with connectivity on. And I know it is the Voyagers which are the issue, because there are no such problems when using your refurbished HSTs on my usual route between Leeds and Sheffield. Now, I realise that Voyagers are designed to be very safe trains, and, I of course, welcome that, but it is evident that, with safety also comes the inability of mobile phone signals to penetrate into the carriage. Virgin had the same issue on its West Coast Pendolinos and has addressed this by placing signal boosters in the carriages. I now find that I often get an near unbroken 3G signal when traveling from Manchester to London on Virgin services, which means I have an alternative to using the (paid for) wifi.

So, my request to you is, can you please consider introducing signal boosters into Voyager carriages. Free wifi would be great, and if you would consider it, that would be an extra incentive to the mobile office worker. But, if wifi is a step too far at this stage, please look at 3G signal boosters similar to those adopted by Virgin, I am convinced that this would be an important tool in driving up business use of your services and would pay for itself over not too long a period.

No signal on Mifi on Voyager Train

No signal on Mifi on Voyager Train

I know there are lots of people who feel the same as me, as is evidenced by replies to my blog post on the issue (http://johnpopham.wordpress.com/2009/11/05/campaign-for-better-connectivity-on-trains/) by the many comments of people who use the #uktrain hashtag on Twitter (http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23uktrain) and other people I come across in my travels. In the modern age, people need to stay connected to their networks to operate efficiently, and it is immensely frustrating to lose this connectivity for long periods while traveling on your train services.

I would be grateful for a reply indicating whether this is something you are prepared to look into.

With best regards

Why are we not making more use of the Internet to cope with Snow disruptions?

St. George's Square, Huddersfield, Christmas Eve 2009

As I write this we are well into the “Big Freeze” of the UK winter of 2009/10. With a brief respite of about 2 days, there has been snow on the ground where I live for just about 3 weeks now, and we are forecast more. We are told, by those who know about these things that this is the most snow we have had in the UK since 1981.

As my kids have now been off school for 4 consecutive days due to the weather, and I am hearing countless tales of people not being able to work, my thoughts have turned to the question of why, in 2010, we are not making more use of the Internet to cope with these conditions. As in many areas of British life, you will probably tell me that the UK has such extreme weather conditions so infrequently that it is not worth the cost of preparing for them, but, as this is now the second consecutive winter where we have had significant snow fall, and it appears likely that climate change may well make this a regular event, surely we should seriously think about how we prepare for such occasions. And, in this context, as we are supposed to be moving increasingly towards both delivering more education online, and adopting more flexible working practices, surely these should come into their own at these times, shouldn’t they?

Huddersfield, 20th December 2009

I have been quite annoyed by some of the accounts of “heroic” struggles to get to work through the snow, because, it seemed to me, that some of them just weren’t necessary. Driving in snow is a dangerous thing to do, especially if you don’t know how to modify your driving style to take account of the conditions, as many of the drivers I have witnessed obviously don’t. And, because so many people don’t know how to do it, additional congestion, jams, and accidents are caused at such times, potentially holding up people whose journeys ARE essential. How many times have I heard that gritting lorries can’t do their job because they are blocked by congested traffic?

OK, so, I say to all employers whose work could as easily be done by people working from home with a computer, an internet connection, and a phone, now is definitely the time to get over your hang up about having to see all your employees sat at their desks under your watchful gaze. Ultimately, you’ll probably get a lot more done if you encourage people to stay at home and do something productive, rather than spend much of their time in snowbound traffic jams worrying about whether they’ll ever get home again.

And, I have been astounded at how my kids’ school has no plans in place at all to ensure they are able to do any work when kept away by the snow.

So, I have a number of proposals to put forward on how we should be using the internet and technology to deal with the chaos caused by the snow.

  • firstly, I think all schools, working with their local education authority, should be required to put in place plans to set and supervise work remotely when school in closed, and that these plans should be operational by December 2010, in advance of next winter;
  • secondly, local authorities and other public agencies should work with initiatives such as Project NOMAD to ensure they have flexible working policies in place;
  • thirdly, plans should be drawn up for local resources such as community centres, libraries, uk online centres, etc. to operate as local flexible working and learning centres on “snow days”.
  • This last plan would see local centres being open on such days for those who do not have the facility to work from home to drop in and use computers, the internet and other resources to continue their work or education.

    On the work front, it would be interesting to see what people who come together to work in such centres might produce while interacting with a different set of “colleagues” to those they are usually with. And many people might prefer to the sociability of such an environment rather than working at home in isolation, even if they might have the facilities in the house.

    Huddersfield University in the snow

    And, there are lots of teachers who can’t get to their schools in bad weather, but might be able to get to their local flexible working / learning centre to supervise local young people while they work. I know there are child protection and other issues to be overcome here, but I reckon a policy like this can be made to work if there is a will, can’t it? And, if this DOES work, it would help to overcome another problem at times like these, that of people who COULD get to work, having to stay at home to look after their kids who can’t get to school.

    I think these are potential practices which could not only help us to cope with travel disruption in bad weather, but might have applications at other times as well. I would welcome views.