Conference Venues and Connectivity

Image by Paul Clarke

I’ve been prompted to write this post by my experience live streaming Commscamp yesterday in Birmingham. It was an illustration of my frustrations with the inability of many conference venues to offer decent connectivity. I know it is a frustration shared by many others. A lot of venues have simply not caught up with the requirements of the modern world.

Image by Paul Clarke

I do a lot of live video streaming. I do it relatively cheaply, using low cost equipment and free web-based tools. I pride myself in being able to broadcast a video stream from most places. I’ve live broadcasted an event from the top of a windy hill in Lancashire, another from a pub basement in Barnsley, and, of course, there was some cricket match or other (for which I had a lot of technical help from some wonderful people). I use a number of different means of getting the live stream to the world. I find that, in very many cases, the connectivity offered by venues, particularly if it’s via wifi, is inadequate for the purposes of live streaming. But then, live video does require a fair amount of bandwidth, perhaps not as much as you might believe, but a fair amount, nevertheless. So, I very rarely find a venue wifi system that can handle me doing a live stream from it. And it’s even more problematic if if there are going to lots of delegates there using their own internet-connected devices. This is why I usually stream over 3G using my WiBE or mifi.

Image by Paul Clarke

Live streaming is one thing, but it is that point about lots of people using their own tech at events which is the real crux of the matter. These days, I think at even non-technology related conferences and seminars, lots of people turn up at events with their own laptops, tablets and smartphones, which they expect to be able to connect to the internet. A case in point is yesterday’s venue. I won’t name it, because it is one of many that hasn’t woken up to the modern world, but it won’t be difficult to find out which it is. When I arrived there yesterday, I did something I often do on such occasions, I tested the speed of the in-house wifi to see if it would support live streaming. It came in at around 6Mbps download and 0.5Mbps upload. This is about one-tenth of the speed of my home broadband connection. And this was in a venue which was about to welcome 135 delegates to an event where most would have their own connected devices. I then further found out that the 3G connectivity was pretty poor there, and was scratching my head about how to support a live stream when the wonderful Paul Clarke arrived waving his 4G smartphone in my direction. Paul saved my life and I was able to use his device (which offered a 6Mbps symmetrical connection) to live stream for most of the day. And the fact that I had exclusive use of it meant there was no interference.

But, in order to keep the 4G connection free from interference, I connected my laptop and  smartphone to the venue wifi. After a while, the connection kept dropping, and several other people reported the same experience. I suspect this was because the venue was using “domestic” routers which limit the number of devices that can be connected at any one time. If that number is exceeded, they simply start chucking people off who were previously connected.

Image by Paul Clarke

So, conference and event venues need to wake up to the implications of 100s of people turning up equipped with internet-connected devices. Yesterday’s venue was in central Birmingham, not in a rural outpost. I am sure it is perfectly feasible to secure an internet connection there which offers better than 6Mbps down / 0.5Meg up. And, note, it is the upload speed which is important when people are posting content to the outside world. And the wifi needs to be robust, stable, and capable of handling large numbers of devices all connected at the same time.

It’s not rocket science, is it?

All images by Paul Clarke used under CC BY 2.0

Communicating the pace of technological change

Returning to my theme of that murky world I inhabit a lot of the time between the uber-geeks and the digitally excluded, I want to focus in how people view the pace of technological change.

Our Digital Planet in Glasgow

A couple of things have happened recently that have given me cause to think about this theme. One was a discussion with someone who would not accept that his 8 year-old computer was in any way obsolete. He complained about it being slow, but blamed most of the problems on his poor internet connection. This, indeed, was an issue, but the computer itself compounded the problem by being painfully slow. He insisted that he machine was “state of the art” when he bought it. Which may have been true, in 2005.

Then there was the group being consulted with over improvements to their very poor broadband service in a rural area. This was one of the more difficult consultations I have done on this subject, largely because it was in an area where public money was spent on installing a wireless network solution a number of years ago. That solution has never really worked as it should, has failed to find sufficient customers, and it now offers only marginal improvements over fixed line connections in the area, although it does provide connectivity to a few people who can’t get any kind of service at all over their fixed line. But, of course, when the wireless network was installed, all sorts of promises were made about how it would transform the lives of the people connecting to it. Most of these have not been fulfilled. But it has shaped residents’s views about people coming into their area and making promises about connectivity and makes it difficult to get through to them that technology has moved on and better solutions are available.


These were just two incidents among many, but the issue of person being convinced his 8 year-old computer is still state-of-the-art, and the community’s dissatisfaction with its years-old wireless network, crystallised some thoughts for me. I spend a lot of time working with people who have never used new technologies in a consistent manner in their lives. Their frames of reference are with other things that are important to them. And, in most other spheres of life, things don’t change as rapidly as they do in the worlds of computing and the internet. Thus, the man with the 8 year-old computer had a car that was more than 8 years old, and was still perfectly serviceable. The community with the obsolete wireless network lived in centuries-old stone-built houses that will provide homes for more centuries into the future. Computers and internet connections can be expensive, and, for many people, having made that outlay, they expect it to work for them for a very long time. The fact that it doesn’t is another factor in turning people off from using new technologies, it can be confusing to them, and it can prevent them from becoming familiar with new applications and more efficient ways of doing things.

So, as part of our digital inclusion efforts, we need to work harder to communicate the pace of technological change to people. And, and this may seem counter-intuitive, but we need to make this change less scary to people. And we need to ameliorate the pace of change by finding new ways of people extending the life of their old technology.  These are key digital inclusion challenges.

Leeds Snowcial Media Surgery

Missed opportunities for Co-creation

On of the changing facets of modern life which encourages me is the tendency for more people to become creators rather than consumers. New technologies and social media have been important tools in this new environment. More young people are watching and commenting on YouTube videos than are watching TV, and substantial numbers of these are creating their own videos. Facebook, twitter and blogging platforms all encourage people to create their own content. In many spheres, the advent of social media has served primarily to highlight trends that have been going on for years, not always in the public eye.

Music is one of these spheres. People have always made their own music, but various events have given stimulus and encouraged widening of participation. Many people would point to the arrival of punk rock in the late 1970’s as “democratising” music creation, but I think it goes back further than that, with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s being perhaps the first global music phenomenon, which was followed by the fame of The Beatles, which was important in encouraging musicians to form groups and this gave them collective power to bargain with the moguls of the industry and take a degree of control over their careers. Punk gave a new stimulus to these trends when they were flagging, and the digital age has created new ways of people making a living out of music without being beholden to big companies; and of connecting with their audiences.

But there are still a lot of people who don’t get how the world has changed. And I’ll cite the opening of the new Leeds Arena as an example. Leaving aside the arguments about whether so much money should be invested in a massive venue in an age of austerity (and let’s face it, they’re pretty big arguments), there is the question of how the facility should be launched. A lot of Leeds council tax payers’ money is going into this. Originally, it was announced that the opening night would feature the Kaiser Chiefs, pretty big stars, yes, but they come from Leeds, and this seemed to be a fairly good choice. But then, another announcement came, saying the launch would feature Bruce Springsteen, much to the public annoyance of the Kaiser Chiefs, who seemed to think some promises had been broken.

Now the problem with all this, I think, is what it says about how those who make big decisions like this view the world. OK, to justify such a big outlay and investment, you probably need to attract massive stars like Springsteen, and Elton John (another big name on the list to play the Arena), but, this suggests we are still in consumer mode here. Music is something to be consumed and the big stars deign to play in the venues that can bid the highest fee. But, in reality, music is the ultimate co-creation industry. Leeds, like most cities, has a thriving local music scene, populated by people who make music as well as consume it. The Arena might take some of that audience away from local events. Wouldn’t it be better to invite the musical co-creators in to see how they might use the venue themselves, rather than setting up in opposition to them?

So, I think the opening event at the Leeds Arena should have been a day-long festival of local acts, headlined, probably, by the Kaiser Chiefs, with main support, obviously, the doyens of the local music scene, the awesome, Hope and Social. That would have been a showcase for the crossover between the creation and consumption of music, and the fact that it is not happening is a massive missed opportunity.

I’ll sign off with a bit of Hope and Social

Let’s tell a story

3 mandolins

Three Mandolins – by Ken Ratcliff, owner and builder of Silver Angel Mandolins

I’ve been working in Lincoln quite a bit recently. A couple of weeks ago, I walked past a branch of Cash Converters in the city and noticed 2 mandolins in the window. I thought this was a bit unusual, so I tweeted about it, which elicited a number of replies, several of which speculated that there may be a sad story about how they got there.

And then, a few days ago, I walked past the same shop again and the 2 mandolins had been joined by a third.  The story gets even sadder.

So, help me tell that story. How did 3 mandolins come to be in the Lincoln branch of Cash Converters?

Our Digital Planet – Phase 2

Our Digital Planet Phase 2 is now in the planning stage. We are looking for cities, towns, neighbourhoods and organisations to come forward to host the Our Digital Planet 2013 tour. We can offer the opportunity to be part of one of the highest profile digital inclusion initiatives, reaching people who have so far missed out on the digital revolution, including many of those in danger of losing out by the move of services and welfare benefits online. You’ll also have a facility which is a major enhancement to the local environment, as well as a prime showcase for any technology or digital inclusion products or services you may wish to promote.


Some history. In the Autumn of 2012, Our Digital Planet toured several cities in the UK, taking Digital Inclusion to places of greatest footfall. As the project moved from city to city it gathered momentum and profile, culminating in a fortnight in Glasgow which saw record numbers of people through the doors and some very interesting barriers to digital inclusion tackled head on.

Now, the planning is beginning for Our Digital Planet – Phase 2. The first phase was very much organised and directed by Nominet Trust as their project, with the technical aspects delivered by wecommunic8, and the management of the Internet Station carried out by myself, in three locations, and by Lloyd Davis in two other places, under contract to Nick Booth‘s company Podnosh. The next phase will go forward as an independent project managed in partnership by myself and wecommunic8, with some support from Nominet Trust.

To make it happen we are going to need lots of support from the community out there. So, for those who have not been following the story so far, what is Our Digital Planet? Well, it’s a touring exhibition which showcases the power of the internet and offers direct, personal support to those whose interest is stimulated. It consists of a display of annotated photographs showcasing the power of the internet (you can see some of them here), arranged around a portacabin (the Internet Station), whose external walls are clad with similar photographs, and, within which, are 5 computer stations, some comfortable seating and tables, and a plasma display screen. Internet access from the Internet Station is provided by a 3G router.

Here’s what it all looks like insitu:

photos 1

Part of the photographic display

Photos 2

More photographs

Internet Station

The Internet Station


The computer stations in use inside the Internet Station

At the bottom of this post, I have posted links to previous posts of mine which detail some of the results that came out of Phase 1. If it’s stats you need, then, by the end of the Phase 1, we were recording more than 100 concrete, recorded, cases of people helped with digital inclusion and digital literacy issues per two-and-a-half weeks in each town, thousands of people were seeing the display materials and hundreds were spoken to and given a non-recorded instance of advice. It also provided opportunities for a considerable number of local projects and agencies, including libraries, regeneration agencies, UK Online Centres,  and digital inclusion projects, to meet potential new clients and showcase their services in a new location, where high footfall was more or less guaranteed.

So, what do we need?

In the first instance, we need expressions of interest from cities, towns, neighbourhoods, and agencies who would be interested in hosting Our Digital Planet for at least a fortnight (or longer) in your area. Please email your expression of interest to me at with “EOI – Our Digital Planet” in the subject line. An EOI commits you to nothing at this stage, it simply helps us to have some measure of the likely level of demand. I should stress that we are still developing the model for Phase 2, and it may be that we will need each locality to make a financial contribution to hosting the project. But, don’t let this put you off, it might not come to that, and, if it does, we will work with all local partners to identify funds.

We are also looking for sponsors. As well as financial contributions, we are looking for anyone who can provide with materials and services in exchange for a high profile marketing opportunity. We need organisations who can supply laptops, tablets, internet connectivity, display screens, volunteer support, as well as cash.

We also need expressions of interest from agencies interested in partnering with Our Digital Planet. The project works best when we have a group of people helping out and engaging with people. Agencies such as libraries, regeneration agencies, UK Online Centres, local digital inclusion projects, private companies and others have all sent volunteers down to help staff the internet station and attract new clients.

I believe Our Digital Planet filled a gap in the Digital Inclusion landscape.  There is no one else consistently taking digital inclusion to where people are, and gently coaxing them along a route to inclusion based on their interests with no hidden agenda. The needs that the project have met have included:

  • an independent source of advice with no selling agenda for those (particularly older people) bewildered by the array of modern technology options;
  • a non-judgemental introduction to IT and the internet for the digitally-excluded;
  • a resource that recognises that there are multiple barriers in people’s lives which prevent them from using the internet and listens to their concerns before dispelling advice;
  • a high profile hub, which demonstrates to the non-internet user that internet use is a normal part of most people’s everyday life;
  • an enhancement to the local environment, and a new destination.

In most of the locations where Our Digital Planet has operated, there has been someone who has expressed regret that it is leaving as the run has come to an end. There is no doubt that a major presence in key locations is a draw, has an impact on both the environment and people’s consciousness, and contributes to the “normalisation” of internet use. These are the benefits of continuing with a high profile touring exhibition as a hook to bring people to the keyboard, or, more likely, tablet.

And it is extremely important that we re-double efforts to bring the reluctant and disengaged online at this time. The Government’s moves to a Digital by Default strategy as well as the forthcoming introduction of Universal Credit, which will be managed primarily online, threaten to leave many digitally excluded people disadvantaged. It may well be that these events provide the Tipping Point which forces them online. They will do so reluctantly, and it may feel like a punishment. This could well be counter-productive. I think we have a very short window (possibly as short as 12 months) when we need to pull out all the stops to get people to see the benefits of being online to all aspects of their lives, and, in particular, that it can be real fun, like it is for most of the rest of the population. I think lots of people have a responsibility in this respect, including older people who have already embraced technology, charities and support organisations, employers, social housing providers, care homes, and health authorities.

This is why I think Our Digital Planet is such an important project at this moment in time. Please get in touch to help us make Phase 2 happen.

Previous posts about Our Digital Planet