Mobile Working in Extreme Conditions (i.e. on a train in the UK)

This is another one of my posts on working on a train. I’ve written about this before here, but the latest edition of the BBC Click programme put the issue at the front of my mind again.

The programme opens with a feature on mobile working, which incorporates an interview with the wonderful Christian Payne, known to many of us as @Documentally on Twitter. As he often does, Christian describes in the programme the kit and the methods he uses to stay connected on the move. Now, Christian does this stuff in some extreme situations, like war zones in Iraq, and remote parts of Pakistan. But, what particularly caught my attention, was his reference, towards the end of the interview, to working on trains, which is my particular bug bear. And, in many cases, I have the same problems trying to get and stay connected on a train in the UK as someone like Christian does in Iraq.

Cross Country Train at Manchester Piccadilly

The worst offender in all this is Cross Country trains, whose Voyager Trains (see picture above) have metalised windows, which prevent much of the signal from penetrating the carriage. And, it was only after I wrote my first blog post on this that I found out that Cross Country had failed to deliver on the commitment they gave, when taking over the franchise from Virgin, to install wifi on all its trains by November 2009. And, even where train companies have installed wifi, such as on the East Coast franchise, it so often fails to get a connection with the outside world that I have just about given up trying to use it.

I’m quite taken with Christian’s connectivity solution of tying a mifi to a string of helium balloons, and, if you ever see me looking around the outside of a train, trying to find an anchoring point, you will know what I am doing. I will say again, the fact that the mobile phone companies concentrated on motorways to ensure coverage for car phones in the early days of mobile network development and ignored train lines, plus the reluctance of train companies to address the issue, are severe barriers to mobile working and to getting more people out of their cars and using the trains. Getting on a train, particularly a Cross Country Voyager, often feels like cutting yourself off from the world. If mobile working is ever to become properly feasible, this issue must be addressed. I bet it would be easier for Christian Payne to get connected in some of the more remote and dangerous places on the globe, than it is on a Cross Country Voyager.

My Next Project – Social Media Test Match Special

I’ve loved cricket since I was about 9 years old. I haven’t played for a long time, and I increasingly find it difficult to find the time to watch very much, but, pretty much since I was 9, or perhaps a bit later, a continuing companion to my life has been Test Match Special. I remember having a secret earpiece in, listening in Chemistry lessons at school, having a little tranny with me everywhere I went, listening to the distant and crackly coverage from India while lying sick in bed, and buying my first DAB radio specifically to get the cricket commentaries in “crystal clear” sound without interruption by the shipping forecast.

But, I was reminded, during a prolonged rain break at the Lord’s Test yesterday, that perhaps the best bit of Test Match Special is when there is no play. I have been fascinated over the years by the conversations that go on in the commentary box when there is nothing happening on the field, and my appreciation of the game has been deepened and enhanced as a result.

That got me thinking. Is there any other field where knowledgeable people, some of whom have played the game at the highest level, just get together and ramble about their subject for hours on end, with an audience listening in?

And then my thoughts ranged further. Could we create a Social Media Test Match Special? Would anyone be up for sitting around near a microphone, rambling about the use of social media for public good? And would anyone listen?

First (exploratory) Meeting on Leeds Innovation Lab

This is just a brief reflection on this morning’s first meeting to explore the potential for a Leeds Innovation Lab, convened by the amazing Mike Chitty, and attended by a great cast of thinkers and doers. I know Mike is writing up proceedings, and there are others who actually took notes, unlike me, so this is just to throw some random things in at this stage.

I was part of a discussion group which was looking at how to change people’s mindsets so they become more innovation-focused. Amazingly, in late August (or perhaps not given how this “summer” has panned out) we were talking about the winter’s snow chaos, and how that was potentially a missed opportunity to try to do things differently. This reminded me of the blog post I wrote at the time of the snow, and, looking back at it now, I am encouraged that I still stand by what I wrote, and that I also think the ideas about how such crises might occasion different ways of working are still valid.

Another crisis that might add to this mix is the public spending cuts, which will be hitting our northern communities harder than most. This could be another opportunity, and, could be coupled with some elements of the Big Society policy. Public agencies have to date been suspicious of flexible working, often tied to a culture of needing to see people at their desks to believe they are doing anything productive. Flexible working would enable them not only to cut costs, but also, perhaps, provide more support to local community initiatives. If workers were encouraged to hot desk in their local library, UK Online Centre, or Community Centre, they would be a visible point of presence in the community, and available to give advice to local community initiatives or entrepreneurs.

Is this idea really too far-fetched?

Another topic we discussed was about institutions, and how they all-too-often become focused on defending and protecting their own interests and structures, rather than being innovative, risk-taking and outward-looking. Is this inevitable? or is it possible to create institutions which can foster creativity and innovation, or to change existing institutions to face in that direction?

Why I Hate X-Factor (and lots of stuff like that)

It’s that time of year again, when Twitter becomes unusable, for me, on a Saturday evening, because it is full of people tweeting about X-Factor. And these are, largely, people I otherwise consider to be rationale human beings with some sense of judgement. They inexplicably appear to lose all that judgement when X-Factor is on.

Call me a cultural snob if you like, but I think I am the opposite. I’m going to write more fully about this elsewhere, but I feel compelled to set out at least the basics of what gets me so riled about this kind of reality television.

I believe everyone needs to find a way to explore their potential to find their place in the world. And, with a VERY few exceptions, X-Factor is not the environment to do this. Yes, we can all point to people who have made a personal success out of being catapulted to instant celebrity by reality TV shows. But, I would contend, the true success stories in this field are very isolated cases, and, very often, instant fame is a short-lived thing, with disastrous long-term consequences. And this is not to deal at all with the distasteful sight of people with serious delusions being exposed to public ridicule.

X-Factor and its ilk is one of the components of the modern “opium of the masses”. It is there to give people a false hope that anyone can find a short-cut to success, it sets up 99% of the people who enter for failure, and sends a message out to its audience that the way to go is to crash and burn.

There are a very few people who make a lot of money out of this kind of charade, and, in the main, they are not the people standing on the stage singing.

X-Factor makes me sad about human nature; sad about the deluded people who think they can find stardom; sad about the voyeurs who take pleasure in their delusions being exposed; and sad about those who make a living exploiting these delusions.

There, rant over. I don’t expect you to understand, but I’ve got it off my chest at least.

Brave New World

John Popham at Thinking Digital 2010

I spend a lot of time encouraging people to embrace change, forget fear of the future, and see everything that comes along as a challenge. I believe in that proverb “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Now, not for the first time, I am practising what I preach.

As from late September, I will be back out in the scary world of freelancing. I’ve done it before, so it doesn’t scare me in that respect. I’ve spent the last two and a half years working for my good friends at Sero Consulting, and I will continue to do so in the future, but I will be free to do other things too.

There is a big difference between the last time I was a freelance and now, That is the rise of Social Media. Looking back at the early part of 2008, the last time I was touting myself as a freelancer, it seems like a different world. I had only recently joined Twitter, I had only penned a few blog posts, and I reckon no more than a handful of people thought Facebook had any serious uses.

Now, we all know people who constantly spam social networks trying to sell you something, or endlessly going on about how good they are. I fervently hope that I can avoid being one of those people, and, if you ever see me doing it, please tell me about it. But, I DO have to make a living, so I will be dusting off my CV, tweaking my Linkedin profile (I really must work out properly how Linkedin works), and, and…. Well, that’s just it, can I really bring myself to use social media as a marketing channel? We’ll just have to see about that.

Well, I suppose this is the start of it, if you’ve read this, you’ve been marketed at, I hope it was a gentle experience, and hasn’t left you feeling too soiled. I’ve made some really lovely friends through social media over the past few years, and the last thing I want to do is to alienate any of you.

John Popham at Big Society in the North Launch

I’ll get round to putting the Linkedin links, etc into my profile on the “About” page of this blog at some point. But, in the meantime, if you know me, or have heard of me, and think I might be someone who you could bear to work with, feel free to tweet me at @johnpopham

Big Society Community Noticeboards – Part 4

Just a quick post to update anyone interested on where the Big Society in the North has got with the Big Society Community Noticeboard.

Thanks to Paul Webster, we’ve taken another big step towards the Big Society Community Noticeboard, which is intended to collect information from offline groups, collate it via the web, and output it to places where offline people can see it.

We have some way to go before we can make a reality of this, but we’ve made a start, and it works like this.

You can call iPadio from any phone on 0203 384 2144 & enter the PIN code 4455. You can then record a message which will be uploaded onto the web, and, after moderation by me, appear here

Paul has done a bit of RSS trickery which means that the iPadio recordings are pulled through to appear on a Big Society in the North Noticeboard here

iPadio uses Spinvox automatically to transcribe the first minute of all recordings, and this provides the text that appears on the Noticeboard. The transcription is not that good unless you speak very clearly.

As I say, this is a very early prototype, and the really big challenge is going to be to output the information onto local community noticeboards. That is going to need displays in communities, and a way of localising information to appear on particular screens.

It would be useful, however, if we could start to put the word out and try to get some offline groups using it.. We will need to re-think if it really takes off, because I am currently having to moderate each individual recording.

Since writing this original post, I have been fortunate enough to visit the village of Wray and get a real-life demonstration of the Community Noticeboard in the village post office, delivered to me by no less than @cyberdoyle herself. It’s in the video below. I think this is definitely an idea worth replicating.

Twenty-First Century Domesday Book

I don’t really have time to watch much TV, for a long time, the only TV I have really seen is late night repeats of “QI”, “Have I Got News for You”, and “Mock The Week” on Dave. Those are the kinds of programmes I like, and it is good that they are on when I’m around, but I’m not sure they bear 15 or 20 repeat watchings each. That is why the BBC iPlayer is so good, I am firmly of the opinion that 99% of the decent TV programmes made in the UK are made by the BBC, and so I could happily live with only the iPlayer for company and no other TV channels available.

The iPlayer means I can find quality TV programmes and watch them when is convenient to me. I am fascinated by history, and it has been a pleasure this week to catch up with the first two episodes of the BBC series “The Normans”. Watching episode 2 this evening, I was struck by the description of William the Conqueror sending out “men with weapons accompanied by men with quills and parchment” to collect the information that went into the Domesday Book. A thought was sparked in me by the mention of the last question which was asked by the Domesday Book inquisitors, namely: “Can more be had than is had?”, which was about the potential for extracting more taxes from the people.

This led me to thinking about the work we are doing on the Big Society in the North, and in particular, in seeking to develop Big Society Community Noticeboards.  It’s probably a bit grandiose to think of it like this, but this endeavour is a bit like a 21st Century Domesday Book. We don’t have any resources at all for this work at the moment, and we certainly don’t have people to send out to collect information, whether or not they are armed with weapons or parchment. So, we are forced at the moment to use free technologies and social media, seeking to plug in the offline communities at one end, and output information to the offline at the other end. In-between, we are piecing together bits of technology like an iPadio channel (here), which means that people can phone in community information, and a Tumblr noticeboard here (thanks to Paul Webster for this) which outputs the information in a readable format.

These are our modern day equivalents of men with weapons and parchment.  And, in the context of the Big Society, we are again asking the question “can more be had than is had”, but we are not talking about taxes here, we are talking about community activity. Can we encourage more people to get involved in community activities. Our 21st Century Domesday Book is an audit of community capacity.

Leeds 2030 Vision and the Big Society

Last night I attended a workshop on the “Vision for Leeds in 2030”. I’m sure we’ve all been to things like this, lots of men in suits sitting around talking about USPs (unique selling points) and landmark buildings, etc., etc, Well, this one was different. Firstly, about a third of the group were women (not good enough, though!), secondly, only one man was wearing a suit (and he apologised for it), and thirdly, there was hardly any of the usual “visioning twaddle”. Instead, a theme emerged from the evening which was that successful cities (and successful communities of any kind) are about human relationships. We talked about needing to create spaces, physical and virtual, where people can interact in informal ways without agendas, and how that can lead to the long-term evolution of places where people want to be, primarily because they know their neighbours and fellow citizens, want to interact with them, and want to build collective spirit and understanding. I found this immensely encouraging, and I hope it is taken account of more widely. I believe it is especially important in a city like Leeds which is such a place of contradictions, with one of the most vibrant and thriving enterprise economies in the north of England existing alongside some of the poorest communities anywhere in the country. This kind of approach could lead to the creation of conditions where the people of Leeds can put their collective brain power to the task of solving the city’s problems and building on its strengths.

I also thought the event was important in demonstrating how the “Big Society” philosophy is starting to influence the way people think. There was a lot of talk about how we need to stop planning, strategising and theorising, and just get on and do stuff.

Two examples in particular came up. One was about the Leeds Mayor’s Show, which used to be the biggest Mayoral parade in the country outside London, with communities and groups from all over the city vying to produce the best float, and the whole city turning out to cheer them on. This was effectively killed off when the policy of the police charging for their services at events was introduced, and policing costs made it unviable. This policy makes all sorts of communal events difficult to stage, and, if the Big Society is to be made a reality, we need to find a way to go back to how it used to be.

The other issue that was raised was the fact that Leeds Bradford Airport is not connected to the railway network, despite being separated by three fields from the Leeds – Harrogate railway line. Surely, the obstacles that have prevented this connection can be overcome in the spirit of the Big Society.

Empty Spaces in Railway Stations

As I travel the country I see increasing evidence of empty spaces in stations which are not being filled. I believe these could be put to community use, and help to turn stations into more thriving entities as well as making rail travel a more pleasant experience.

I have created a Flickr group to collect evidence about these empty spaces. Please take a photo of the empty space and upload it here with the name of the station. If possible, please photograph any “to let” boards with information on how we might contact the agent.

Big Society Community Noticeboards – Part 3

I think we are moving towards some sort of proposal on Big Society Community Noticeboards. My original post here elicited some fantastic comments which have taken the idea on several stages. It also, thanks to Kevin Campbell-Wright, resulted in a major supermarket chain expressing interest. I won’t say who they are at this stage, because that’s at a very early juncture, but it’s a very encouraging development.

Community Noticeboard

Community Noticeboard by Pip Wilson

There are two proposals here, but I think it makes sense to bring them together as two sides of the same coin. The original proposal is about getting information from offline organisations and making it available online in order that it can be brought to the attention of the wider world, can attract new users and members, and, from a Big Society in the North perspective,  we can find out who is doing Big Society stuff without the resources to go out and physically connect with them.

The second proposal is about getting information out to people who are not online, by displaying information from the web on public displays. Thus, proposal one collects the information from people who are not online, and proposal two displays it, also to people who are not online, but not necessarily to the same people.

So, we now need to work out how to make all this happen. And, initially at least, we’ll need to do it with few or no resources.

So, here’s some thinking that I’d welcome some feedback on.

Stage 1 – collecting the information – We get someone (which may be a supermarket employee) to photograph the notices on the Community Noticeboards and upload them to the internet. This needs to be by a process that is as easy and cost-free as possible. My current thinking is to create a special Flickr account, and encourage people to use the “upload by email” option. We may need to find other ways of uploading if the person doing the uploading is not sufficiently confident to set up email on their phone or able to connect their phone to a computer. I am also looking at Shozu which may be a simpler way of uploading photos, but it will need to be downloaded, installed to a phone, and configured for the Flickr account. This may not be that easy if no one is available locally with the requisite technical knowledge. And, whichever method we use, we need to be mindful that data charges are likely to be incurred if people are uploading directly from phones.

Stage 2 – Collating and distributing the information We need to work out if this could ever be automated, but, I suspect, for the foreseeable future, that is not going to be possible. So, it would need to involve people looking at the uploaded photos, transcribing the information, and entering it into a system which can make use of it. I was originally thinking this might be achieved by something like a Google Calendar, but it would need, eventually at least, to output information which could be shown on public displays.

Stage 3 – Displaying the Information The ideal would be something like the community displays in Wray, or even a Community Info Point. I suspect that we will have to start this at least by looking at sticking old, recycled computers in shops and pointing the screen at a shop window. This probably means that we need a revolving slide show, rather than stuff which can be operated on touch screens. And, crucially, we will need the data collection scheme to spit out information relevant to the locality.

Oh, this might all be complicated, but, if we pool our cognitive surplus, I am sure we can make it happen.