A 6-hour diary, Friday 25th September.
So, it’s Friday afternoon, and as part of my social media MA course at BCU (now in day 2), the group have enjoyed a networking, idea development and ‘meet the local folk’ session over at the Birmingham Social Media Cafe. The coffee was all paid for by Birmingham City University, so thank you to them all for that. Some more good people were met, and contacts details were exchanged.
Now though, we’ve journeyed across Birmingham to Moseley, and I’m writing this from inside the Moseley Exchange
Why Moseley Exchange you may ask…… well, it’s all because of the new Birmingham City Council website- http://www.birmingham.gov.uk , which at the time of writing is completely borked (sorry, technical term for broken, not working, unavailable).
The figure of £2.8million has reportedly been spent to build the official BCC website, which by anyone’s standards is a simply staggering figure of money for a website (even if it does include hosting and staff training etc).
This story originally started with a question raised on Help Me Investigate, where the progress and cost were brought under public scrutiny. The investigation kicked off, and following a Freedom of Information request, some rather awkward and embarrassing questions were reluctantly answered by those holding positions in ‘officialdom’. The new official website launched on September 7th, and later that night, Twitter came alight with local (to Birmingham) users expressing various criticisms, observations and highlights of failures in the website’s functionality. News soon spread nationally and internationally within minutes- such is the power of Birmingham’s social media networks.
Speaking of Help Me Investigate- a delivery of 10/12 pizzas has just arrived, sorted by Paul Bradshaw and all paid for by the HMI team. Thank you folks- a great idea to keep this army of volunteers marching on They don’t last long!
Soon after the launch of the official website, various blog posts started to appear:
There’s plenty of other information, views, opinions and material available on the interwebs all over the place (Google is your friend here).
Later that week, I attended the 4iP event, Recasting The Net. Councillor Paul Tilsley was on the panel, and in addition to some mighty fine presentations, it proved to be a rather revealing session, with some excellent and probing questions giving answers of variable depth, detail and information.
Here’s the video I recorded at the event- please forgive the quality- bandwidth was non-existent at the venue. Thank you to Aquila TV for hosting this for me.
Then, on September 22nd, @stef headed in a new direction- he had an idea to pull together a more usable, relevant and open website, at a much reduced cost, developed using Web 2.0 tools and techniques. Not intended to compete with, but more to compliment the original, here’s the brief for the plan and Stef composed his own thoughts on how the new idea (called http://bccdiy.com ) could take shape.
Earlier today, I had put in a telephone call to Paul Tilsley’s office, inviting him to come over to Moseley Exchange. His (very helpful) PA said she would pass on the message, and if he could make some time available, he would drop in to see everybody, and join in the activity taking place. This was good news I thought- a real opportunity for Birmingham’s community to link in with Birmingham’s leaders, and I was encouraged to hear that the idea had been embraced with a positive attitude, and not one of immediate rejection (as I wrongly suspected may be the case). Then a colleague (who must remain nameless) told me that Cllr Tilsley would not be able to attend, but Glyn Evans would possibly put an appearance in on behalf of BCC. This was encouraging news, and I had high hopes that something really positive was about to happen.
So, here at Moseley Exchange (a fabulous community facility & co-working space by the way, brand new) there’s a gang of about 25 local people, many of whom have experience in writing content, image generation, design, script, writing code, blogging, tweeting- just about anything to do with web 2.0 in fact. Plus, some of the students on the BCU MA Social Media and Online Journalism courses have made the journey also.
Now, I’m not professing to be any sort of skilled cameraman, and I don’t have any video editing software either. Jon Bounds was a star as ever, and he transferred the material from the camera onto my memory stick for me (thanks JB), so what you are about to view is completely raw material, which is kind of in the spirit of the #bccdiy project too, so here goes …
I pulled my video camera out of my bag, and started recording on our way into the venue- after a quick chat with Rob Adams and Lex, I arrived just in time for Stef to give us an introduction to the project idea. Here’s part 1:
So, then it was down to work for everyone. Ideas were swapped and the real work started. I was set the task of finding out information about when domestic refuse bins were collected, on what day in what area. I followed links on the official website (none of which worked), and ended up making a telephone call to the central department, who were very helpful, but unable to provide any immediate information about the collection services I wanted. They were able to tell me what day collections were for a specific one-off postcode based on a data entry on their internal system, but could not provide any overall info about the entire service delivery. I suppose that this is kind of okay for an individual who is looking for info relevant to his/her home, but you still need to make a call to get the most basic of questions answered. What I was trying to achieve was simply type in your postcode, and click to see the appointed day- simple, no? Apparently not it seems. There is no database that exists, each search requires manual entry by a BCC telephone operator onto their system, and all of this costs both time and money- something that could be much better spent in other areas.
Also, to get the information to build the database, it would involve a physical visit to all 4 depots, copying the route maps run by the transport managers and the diary system run in tandem.
All in all, a lengthy operation, which would involve much red tape and negotiation, permissions, negotiations, telephone calls, and at least 5 meetings in total.
So what’s the answer to getting the information then? Social Media of course. How?
One tweet to all followers, re-tweeted across the many networks working on the project, asking the simple question: “Tell us what day your bins are collected, and your full postcode please.”
Within 2 hours, we had collected the relevant information from over 200 postcodes, fed them into a user-generated database, and made it a searchable function on the bccdiy website. The answers are still coming in, and the database is growing. All in all, it’s only taking a couple of hours to collate the information, no meetings, telephone calls or negotiations involved in the process at all.
This is just one example of a good use of social media for common good… there’s plenty more examples that have come out of today, all of which have influenced the shape of the website.
Function Before Form- a simple matter of getting the website to work before designing how it looks.
Well done team- a cracking job so far.
The centre carries on being busy, with more people coming in for a few hours, dedicating some time to coding and shaping the website, having coffee, chats and discussions as it all grows.
My task now moves on to trying a new approach to generate some funds to keep the server running.
Right now, we are thinking of using the itagg system to bring in micropayments to pay for the server costs that provide hosting of bccdiy. Think of an automated sms/text service that reminds you to put your bins out, vote, pay your council tax, when to move your car so the streetsweeping truck can clean etc- a quick acceptable reminder service, at minimal cost to you, but lots of them mounting up to keep the server running. I’m sure you get the picture.
Time for a breath of fresh air- Stef calls us all outside for a break and chat about progress updates, and plans for things that need putting right, models taking shape, and what contributions the remote-working army of volunteers are doing behind the scenes.
Here’s video part 2. Before the team chat, I go grab a short interview with a local chap outsid the bar next door, just to get his views on what he would find useful, and the sort of information he would want from a council website. Interestingly, he raises an issue about connectivity and access, which directly points the debate to Reboot Britain and the Digital Britain report- but that’s another discussion for another time…
Such a lot has happened, so many people have dropped in and contributed “stuff”- we’ve even had cakes delivered (thanks Emily).
The online activity has been frantic now that people have finished their proper day jobs- lots of photos have been uploaded remotely, and folks are editing pages from home or offices after work, uploading and editing the wiki, twitter has gone wild with the #bccdiy pushing updates through at by-the-minute intervals. The effort going into this project is truly staggering to see- so much information, design, coding, and general good wishes, some of which is now being picked up by regional, national and international bloggers.
I’m now going to shoot off to collect my son.
On the bus into Brum to grab a train, I manage to grab a quick Audioboo with @alncl who has made the journey from Newcastle upon Tyne. He’s contributing and learning at the same time, but I’ll let him explain it in the boo:
Now I’m back in Moseley. There are more people that have arrived, there’s a lot of faces I can’t put names to. Looks like @cybrum has been busy- the letters on my laptop keyboard have all been worn away! I return to find @catnip getting into the creative writing and copy for the bccdiy homepage. Stef is busy writing code for embedded links to work, and @citizensheep and @djsoup are pulling together the homepage functions whilst @catnip tries to keep up without setting her fingers on fire!
There’s bound to be lots and lots of people that have contributed that I have not mentioned, and that’s completely my fault entirely, and something I can only sincerely apologise for. Twitter went crazy towards the closing stages, and I was struggling to keep tabs on the work tasks people were performing, especially as time moved towards our 8pm deadline.
Everybody is totally cooked, having done a tremendous amount of work in such a short number of hours. Eyes are starting to hurt from screen glare, the cakes and coffee have all gone, so before we all head off, Stef pulls us all together on the comfy sofas for a quick summary and round up of the day, and to briefly discuss work to be completed after the weekend.
However, without wishing to be critical or negative about BCC officials, I really do wish that at least one representative could have come down to Moseley, if for nothing else than to meet the people involved, and just try to understand the work that is happening here. Then, maybe, just maybe, a level of understanding could have been gained, simply to show that what everyone is trying to do is just build something usable for the local community, a facility that compliments, not competes with, or works against the official website. Hopefully this physical and technical link/engagement process will come a little later once the minor bugs have been fixed and the red tape and bureaucracy can be put to one side (crosses fingers).
Time to go to the pub. Thanks for reading/watching.
I have to say a huge CONGRATULATIONS to absolutely everyone that took part in this #bccdiy hack day.
You have all been total stars.
Somehow, I think this is just the start…
Oh, and just in case you’ve read though all this, and missed the link, it is: http://bccdiy.com/