Archive for January, 2012

Digital Daydreams, Network Nightmares and Convergent Technologies

January 30, 2012

Do you remember “convergent technologies”?

Actually, I’m sure they’ve not gone away, but I’ve heard the expression rather less often lately. I think my introduction was as a mountaineer. I had a watch, I had an altimeter. Separate. Then someone started selling watches that were also altimeters, and soon there were altimeters that were also watches. One of these saved my life once, skiing alone in a sudden white-out in a remote part of Norway. Another story.

Then we had GPS units, and wished we could have a GPS that we could use like a wristwatch. Wish granted. I now have a GPS-altimeter-watch-MP3 thingy. A bit of me loves convergent technologies like this, even if it was basically the same stuff that gave us abominable music centres in the 1970s. Remember, one bit broke and all the rest were, in effect, useless?

I suppose that smart-phones are where it’s at right now with convergent technologies, upping the game to an extent that was probably inconceivable even ten years ago, when we had PDAs, Psions, etc.

Now, despite the impression I’ve given, I am not that much of a gadget freak. I describe myself as a devout non techie too. Early adopter of good stuff at best, but I am increasingly interested in the convergence possibilities of the apps that run on our modern shinies. And that’s made me realise how much tunnel vision there is on these things in the public and voluntary sectors, where my experience lies.

For some things I am doing these days, I’d been mentally mapping out the strengths and weaknesses of some of the basic components of public and civil engagement for a while. You know, Twitter, FB, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, public meetings, webcasting, and so on, and on, and on. My reverie was halted by the elegant simplicity of something friends in Monmouthshire did recently, which was to post on YouTube something which has, I bet, in almost all local authorities, up to now been the province of public meetings – a presentation on the prospects for the forthcoming year’s budget, and the considerations behind precept setting.

Forgive me, those who have been doing this for years and keeping it a secret, but Monmouthshire’s piece nicely un-picked for me the view that some things are best at one thing, and other tools are necessary for other things. A quick test where I used to work confirmed that, say, YouTube was simply not seen as being “for” stuff like budget consultations. No, that was fodder for public meetings, where a highly polished, pre-packaged product could be launched according to script. Duty done, go home, move on. My personal cynicism extends to wondering whether there is a fear that putting something on YouTube might lead to it being seen by “the wrong type of people”.

I bet Monmouthshire have seldom found a more cost-effective way to get their budget proposals seen by more people, either. Yes, cost effective. The overheads for webcasting seem to me to be huge. The tech needed to webcast even the simplest meeting amazes me, when a couple of Flip cameras, or a few smartphones could do just as well for many events if the need is just to capture flavour, key issues and a few video-bites. Yet there is a mindset that web casting is “the way”. Like Twitter is “the way” if all you have to say will fit 140 characters, of FB is “the way” to get a young audience. You know these myths.

Now, I’m not claiming any Damascene revelations here. You and I see YouTube clips linked to tweets every day. But do we see them from government and local authorities? If not, what’s holding that back?

Unscientifically, I just did a quick search of ten local authority web site sections about Freedom of Information Act requests. Actually, it started out as more than ten local authorities, but there were several where I just got bored and gave up looking for their advice for would be FOI enquirers. All of the ten know very well that it’s legal and permissible to put in an FOI by Twitter. One of them even mentions this. However, in none of those I looked at (and it was a completely random trawl) did any give the Twitter address to be used in such cases. My conclusion? That deep down, those in charge of that content would really just prefer you didn’t use Twitter, thank you very much. It’s not “for” that sort of thing, is it?

Hardly a week goes by without me hearing from somewhere, of a local authority or voluntary organisation web site that encourages users to pick up the ‘phone to further an enquiry, rather than use e-mail to a specified address. Again, usually for the sort of stuff that those in charge deem to be best done (within their own comfort zone) by a telephone call. And so on.

I’m not saying there aren’t good people out there who are trying to get truly convergent with their communications and engagement channels, but I do think they are being held back by a rather limited tunnel view of “what works best”.

I suppose that now, I need to put this out on YouTube or tar myself with the same brush.

Digital Daydreams and Network Nightmares?

January 23, 2012

That good chappie Dan Slee was really on to something when he suggested folks should reflect on their experiences at the recent UKGovCamp in the form of a list of their top 20 points. Several others have since done this brilliantly, and left me in awe. However, I needed an incentive to start blogging from time to time on stuff other than my running and training, and I think Dan has given me that.

I’ve been to a number of unconference events now, and was at UKGovCamp last year too. This was, however, the first one I’ve been to since choosing to step off the local government (not so)merry-go-round last August. That meant I saw things through slightly different eyes to previously.

1. Has anyone done the sums yet? I got the impression that overall, people actually working in government (central and local) only amounted for about 50% of the attendees, and that local government was really quite a minor presence. I make this point because it’s an ongoing sadness with me that much of local government is so far behind the beat on this sort of stuff and these sorts of events.

2. Memo to self for next time: don’t expect to find much time for sitting chatting with people. I had a small list of people and issues we had said we’d discuss. We never did. Too many competing demands, lots of new friends to make, plus the inevitable temptation to simply crash from time to time.

3. Putting names and faces to Twitter identities is great. I used to think it a good week if I met one person I followed, and had not actually met them in person before. I reckon I met more than 50 over the two days of UKGovCamp.

4. Take care when you pitch for a session. I slapped my Post-It on the board early on, and thought I’d selected Friday’s slot 4, giving me plenty of time to prepare and talk the session up. With two minutes to go, I discovered I’d actually put it in Room 4 for the first session of the day. Sorry to those who came, if it looked like I was winging it. I was.

5. Don’t ever take for granted who might come to your session. I’d anticipated a certain range of participants, but 50% of those who came were actually opponents of the theme, in one way or another. They were, of course, polite and sustained a good case, but it still threw me, and might have frustrated a few participants.

6. Individually and collaboratively, Catherine Howe and Anthony Zacharzewski are a formidable pair. They also have that huge skill of being able to get the best out of everyone when facilitating a session, couples with the ability to make one forget coffee breaks and (nearly) lunch too. They’re that good.

7. Networks are seldom, if ever, two dimensional, no matter how well you draw them.

8. By a similar token “government” and “governance” is seldom single stratum. What seems right in a London Borough or a Unitary authority is just going to have to be done a different way where there are parishes, districts and counties all contributing to the process. That is a Universal Law.

9. I don’t mind if people like Mike Bracken come to speak at UKGovCamp. I have no real idea what connection they have to what I am doing day to day. They seldom leave me any wiser. That’s as much my fault as anything, but I don’t do squee.

10. I have never seen two conference promoters looking as relaxed during the event as Dave Briggs and Steph Gray. That can only be down to hard work at the times it really mattered, in preparation etc. I am envious of their skills in that respect, because you can never just hope “it’ll be all right on the night”.

11. Talking to Shirley Ayres made me realise how much our networks intersect and overlap. I suspect that is true for anyone who lives in more than one world. This makes for some delightful serendipity and coincidence. The world can be a small place at times, but I’d still not want to have to dust it.

12. I covet one single photo taken at UKGovCamp this year. It is this, by @ashroplad   Am I jealous? The sin of covetousness will suffice!

13. What I am jealous of is the ability of London based people to sustain something like #teacamp and do the necessary face to face stuff regularly and often. So, YES, to those who say local government needs a regular unconference of its own. Count me in as a participant, and  as a willing pair of hands in the preparation.

14. The jury must be out on the two day experiment for UKGovCamp. Steph has posted here about it, and I have added my two penn’orth to the debate. But even if it turns out to be a one off, we’d not have known without trying.

15. I see more and more geeks getting excited about QR codes, and Terence Eden ran a brilliant session about them, stripping bare many of the myths. However, I still don’t see their use catching on in some simple, basic local government uses.

16. It is far too long since I commuted to and from London. Travelling home on Friday evening was an unfortunate necessity made awful by a broken down train and a one hour trip taking two and a half. To the fellow travellers who said it was the third time that week, I can only say, “Surely to God, your physical presence in London is not THAT vital every day, is it?”

17. Steph’s blog points up the need to spend more time on setting each day’s agenda. I’m also wondering whether the introductions stuff can’t learn something from the world of speed dating?

18. A lot of “open data” sessions just seemed to me to be variations on a theme, and didn’t sell themselves to me at all. I am therefore worried that some of those discussions are either very esoteric, or insufficiently informed by people who understand the issues rather than the tech.

19. Can someone please point me at stuff about Reflective Practice that I can read up on, please? Missing the sessions on this is a great regret, which Carl Haggerty’s blog has impressed on me very much.

Like the lovely, relaxed Sarah Lay, with whom I did manage a few moments to chat, I’m leaving it at 19. In my case it’s because, as in real life in relation to keys, wallet, coat, etc, there will usually be something I’ve forgotten and need to go back for. It’s my age, you know.

(Oh, and if you’ve still not seen them, my photos from the event are here.

The Blues Ru(i)n The Game

January 13, 2012

I added and extra “i” to the title of this blog, of course, but the original Jackson C Frank song, best known for Sandy Denny’s rendition of it, would have made a really good title for the recent BBC TV programme hosted by cricketer Freddie Flintoff, which looked at the difficult issue of depression in sport.

It should go without saying that depression is a difficult issue wherever it arises, but the premise of the documentary was that in sport, and particularly at the high level, megabucks, celebrity end of sport, depression gets neither recognition nor sympathy. Best summed up by the media pundit interviewed, whose view was basically “What have you got to be depressed about? Half the country would give an arm and a leg to be standing where you stand”.

I found the programme both challenging and heartening at the same time. It’s almost exactly two years now since I realised that the combination of physical and emotional symptoms I was getting from sport were not just “ a bad patch”, the result of over-training, or something like that. I was still three months away from my GP diagnosing severe depression as the cause. To hear the likes of England cricketer Steve Harmison, or snooker star Graeme Dott describing exactly what I was going through myself at that time brought on some dreadful flashbacks. After all, sport is macho, full of tough, resilient superheroes, isn’t it? And besides, if it all gets too bad, you can just walk away, can’t you? Not as if it’s real life or anything. As if, eh?

My sport isn’t at the stratospheric levels of the likes of Freddie Flintoff, Vinnie Jones, or Barry McGuigan, who all took part in the TV programme. Or maybe to me, at my own scale, actually, it is – just without the money, the media and the public recognition! I know what it’s like to line up in a World Championship final, and what it took me to get there. I also know what it’s like to stand on the podium and receive a medal, and also what it’s like to find that not all fairytales have happy endings.

I’d not before heard the statistics on depression in sport (one person in ten at any one time) expressed as “one depressed person in every cricket or soccer team”. That hit home. Or put another way, for every three sprint relay squads, one depressed athlete. Ouch.

I don’t want this to be a morose blog, though. I can now describe myself as an athlete coping with depression and getting better one day at a time. That’s down to being around friends and competitors who understand, and whose support, good humour and advice are things I treasure.

On that very note, I’ve been waiting many months for a new book. “The Chimp Paradox”, by my Great Britain Masters sprint team-mate Dr Steve Peters has now come out (ISBN 978-0-09193-558-0). I’ve attended several of the “mind management” courses Steve has laid on for athletes and others in recent years, and I’m itching to get to grips with the book. I’m only about six pages in at the moment, so perhaps a future blog will carry more of a review. This is a book about life, relationships and being human, by the way, not about depression. Don’t let the context of me mentioning it put you off getting a copy. One hopes the royalties will keep Steve in running spikes for the rest of his illustrious track career.

More next time!