Is social media becoming less sociable and more about broadcasting?


A welcome reality check from a fellow social media trainer – and comparing my own experience of the past year or so with what might be happening generally

Suzy Ashworth is local to me and was one of Puffles’ earliest followers. One thing I’ve found with my fellow social media trainers is that most of us specialise in its application in a given field. For me it started off in public policy before morphing into community action. Looking at my blogstats, the number of Twitter followers for Puffles seems to be inversely proportional to the hits my blogposts are getting. Perhaps a reflection of the fewer party-political/current affairs posts and a greater number of Cambridge-based posts? Perhaps.

Separating Puffles from me

I’m now using @ACarpenDigital for conversations around work-related things. Furthermore, I’m also co-running @BeTheChangeCam for the big event on 13th September. I’ve now rebranded Puffles’ feed as a policy and politics newsfeed. This has allowed a number of users that found Puffles’ retweets overwhelming (understandably so) to stay in touch with me on an account that otherwise posts only a handful of tweets on any one day. Deliberately so. What was nice to hear from Suzy was genuine positive feedback about Puffles’ achievements from someone in a similar field. What I also found interesting was how we were coming to similar conclusions about how social media is evolving and maturing (if you can call it that) from what it was say a couple of years ago.

A torrent of hatreds

In recent months I’ve noticed a sharp rise in the number of aggressive posts being retweeted into my social media feeds. In what has been quite an exciting summer inside Cambridge for me compared to all of the ones since my return from London, news from beyond the city’s borders has been a depressing backdrop. It’s been one that has polarised opinions on a number of conflicts across a swathe of the planet – a firestorm that all the water in the Pacific Ocean cannot quell.

I can understand the sense of anger and powerlessness more than a few of us feel. During my university days, I was that angry emotional firework of a person – my issue being the IMF & World Bank and the global debt crisis that was often in the news in 2000/2001. I wasn’t the easiest person to have a conversation with when in angry mode (who is?), and so shy away from conversations that get too heated. Perhaps I see in such exchanges a side of me that I don’t like. At the same time, are more people shying away because things are getting too noisy?

Fewer shared experiences and observations beyond Cambridge?

Fewer shared observations given that I’m not commenting as much on national/international politics and public policy. On the former, I feel either I’ve said everything I want to in previous blogposts or feel completely powerless to stop bad things happening so refrain from commenting lest I find myself in a social media argument. As the saying goes, if you get into an argument with a fool…exactly. My other feeling is that if all the world’s diplomats can’t sort out these problems, then what impact is little ol’ me and my dragon fairy gonna have? Hence going for my current approach of thinking global but acting local. Aim for a positive impact where I’m most likely to achieve it. At the same time though, why would anyone outside Cambridge who has no link with the place be that interested in the detailed goings on here?

Me, me, me.

Now that I think about it, there’s a growing theme of ‘this is what I have done/seen/been to’ rather than ‘this is my analysis of something happening today that might not have been picked up by the media’ blogposts. At the same time, this feels like a natural evolution of the direction I’m sailing in. I’ve been out of the civil service for more than three years and feel far less qualified to talk about what’s going on in public policy circles than say two years ago.

The fact is I’m not in London nearly regularly enough to have my ear to the ground on what the mood is. There is only so much you can do training and giving advice without refreshing your learning and going back to being a practitioner/do-er in something. I took this away from the Sookio Masterclasses in Cambridge – where Sue Keogh has developed a talent for sourcing social media practitioners (rather than trainers) to share their learning. I.e. the people that run corporate social media accounts. Hence insights from the commercial world have been fascinating.

More diverse content of interest to fewer people?

For example the people at or who would like to have gone to community workshops or to simply see/hear what happened, have given very positive feedback on all things audio and video. With that in mind, it’s less about me and more about whoever is in front of the camera – such as the brilliant Rachael Johnson who I saw earlier this evening.

As you can see, my vintage camcorder was really showing its limitations despite Simon’s best efforts with the lighting! I tried playing around with the audio on some more advanced software to reduce the background chatter and to amplify the bass. Have a listen on SoundCloud to see if it made much difference. Again, I’m still a complete beginner on filming and editing, but with every filming session I go to, I’m always learning something new. (Today it was ‘OMGz – this new tripod is ***wonderful!!!*** – much lighter, more compact, more flexible and can extend further than old one). Normally it’s something very small, but it’s a practical way of learning that I’ve not really been used to: self-learning through unguided experiments. There’s something liberating about that. But at the same time, I’m still an unwilling lone ranger producing content for broadcast rather than conversation.

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Looking deeper into the findings by Relate that one in ten of us do not have a close friend

The headline in The Guardian is here. The full report by Relate is here. (Note it’s good practice when blogging in response to a newspaper headline to provide links to the original source the article is based on – as newspapers often overlook this). There’s also an interesting thread on loneliness in The Guardian here. I’ve blogged about loneliness as a public policy issue here (in late 2013 – subsequently picked up by Labour MP Tom Watson who wrote about the issue in The Sunday Mirror newspaper) and my personal experiences soon after leaving the civil service three years ago (see here).

How we live and where we live

A recurring theme from the comments I’ve seen posted online is about shared experiences and regular contact with people who you have positive things in common. All of these seem to be common factors in reducing feelings of loneliness. When I compare them to my own life experiences, I can see where the gaps are. I may have had regular contact with people at work, but we didn’t have shared experiences. I may have had shared experiences with some people, but didn’t see them regularly. Where I had both of the first two, I didn’t have many things in common beyond one or two hobbies – such as dancing.

Combine that with the sort of housing that is being built. Rabbit-hutch Britain. Gated developments. The closing down of public buildings and community centres. Furthermore, combine this with increased instability in the workplace. The rise of zero-hour contracts – fine for bosses but how can you plan ahead if you don’t know how much you’ll be earning next week? House prices and rent costs completely out of sync with salaries and wages – what would society look like if both were much lower? What would society look like if you could meet your essential expenses with a little bit to spare working a four day rather than a five day week? What about the increasing distances (and time taken) to commute to work?

‘What is there for those of us in our 30s-50s in Cambridge who have no children or who are not part of Cambridge University?’

I was asked this question by a couple of people earlier this summer. It got me thinking because before I moved to London, I had a very vibrant social life in Cambridge. In my mid 20s I never felt out of place at student events – it was only a couple of years previously that I was a postgraduate myself. Fast-forward a decade or so and having attended a recent talk, I remembered feeling distinctly…’out of place’. In the discussion, we noted that there were people trying to self-organise – eg this Meetup group (and note the numbers). Yet as this comment in response to my last blog states, rising land values in Cambridge are making things very difficult for community groups to find decent premises.

What can local institutions do?

This tweet caught my attention recently

It got me thinking about what I did and didn’t do in my late teens. I still assumed that adults – and more importantly local institutions either didn’t get things wrong or could not be influenced. It’s easy to look back and say I should have switched subjects, classes, teachers or even institutions – but not when you put yourself in the context of that mindset at the time.

For those not aware, I’ve been snapping at the heels of various institutions for quite some time – Be the change – Cambridge being the culmination of a lot of this work. My view is that local institutions in Cambridge can have an indirect yet significant impact on reducing loneliness and isolation. This was something that was picked up in a workshop I went to for adult education tutors run by Cambridgeshire County Council. As me and Ceri Jones are running a 10 week course called An introduction to social media for social action at Parkside in Cambridge we were invited to what was an enlightening workshop with other tutors. Visualising the collective impact of all of us was what I took away from that workshop – as well as thinking how we could increase that impact.

Roots not chains. Wings to fly with strong branches to land on

The above song by folk group Show of Hands is one I stumbled across a few years ago. They wrote this in response to Labour minister Kim Howells’ comments from 2001 (see here). That plus the group were at the forefront of stopping political extremists from hijacking folk music for their own ends (see here).

In my case, I was never able to settle in either Brighton or London after leaving Cambridge. In the nearly two months I spend in Vienna in 2006, I asked myself if it was a city I could imagine myself living or working in, in what was the future. Again the answer was ‘no’. In those days I always pictured myself of moving out of Cambridge permanently. Today, I can’t see that happening. Hence going back to some of my childhood roots to shape my own future – and that of my home town. And at the same time, confronting my own demons whether they be mental health ones or loneliness & isolation ones.

The principle of the subheading ‘roots not chains, wings to fly and strong branches to land on’ is about a balance between having a place called home with a supportive community, and the ability to move as and when you feel you need to. In my case, too many local institutions were chains, not roots. At the same time, while I was able to metaphorically fly to Brighton and London, I couldn’t find strong enough branches to land on. I wonder how many new arrivals to Cambridge experience some of the feelings I felt when moving to Brighton and London? Hence for me the importance of strengthening community groups.

And finally…?

Back to the Relate report, the scale of the findings indicates a possible public policy response. What I don’t know is what that response should be, and which people or institutions could lead on that response.

Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Mental health | Leave a comment

Romsey Rollerbillies Rock – and they need our support


A pulsating afternoon of sport on eight wheels with one of Cambridge’s best-kept sporting secrets – a women’s sports club we in Cambridge could be giving far greater support to

I’d never been to a roller derby match before – despite having childhood friends being passionate skaters. I’ve still got a pair of rollerblades in my room gathering dust somewhere. Watching the Romsey Rollerbillies (they are here) and their opponents gliding round the room made me want to get my skates on again. (Problem is where to go in Cambridge – something I’ll come back to). Have a look at this short clip I filmed.

The skater to keep an eye on is Suffolk’s No22 wearing pink and white, with the nom de sport ‘Miss Behave’. Each of the participants in the sport adopts such a persona with the name emblazoned on the back of their shirts. If you’re wondering what the rules are, they are here.

‘We’re playful, but don’t mess with us!’

That was a theme that resonated throughout the afternoon. These women are hard as steel. Given the bumps and bruises you get from this sport – and the ease and speed they got up soon after falling over had me in awe. Not least because when I’ve fallen over on rollerblades, it has hurt. Badly! This is not a sport for premier league footballers. Also, everything at the end was good-natured, despite the very physical nature of the competition.

What struck me about the matches was how the skaters could move with the ease and grace of a ballerina across the floor, then instantaneously switch into a different mindset and crash through a wall of opponents trying to impede them. The much-needed padding on wrists, elbows and knees, along with the accessorising of clothing and sporting war-paint made you take notice.


It took time for me to get a feel for what was going on, but once I had picked up the individual on each side their opponents were trying to stop, it began to make sense. With the more experienced teams playing second, the difference in organisation and co-ordination was marked. The officiating was done as with other sports through whistles and sign language – the latter being much more clear and explicit than what you see in football. Something to learn from?

Game 1: Cambridge Rollerbillies vs Granite City Roller Girls (Aberdeen)

All of the women were competent on their skates. The similarity I found with dancing is that body shape and physique didn’t seem to be a determining factor as to how good an individual was.  As this was my first match watching, I didn’t really know what to look out for, so the 398-89 win for Cambridge didn’t feel to me as a new viewer to be one that I could easily say: ‘Yeah – they played their opponents off the park’. The other thing I struggled to spot were the judgement calls on sin-bin penalties. One minute a skater would be gliding around the hall, the next they’d be in the sin bin. Hence homework for my next match is to learn the referees’ signals. (There are several referees – all on wheels). Here’s a clip from the match.

Game 2: Cambridge Blockabillies vs Suffolk Roller Derby

Suffolk came out for the warm up on a mission. Their outfits, their body language, their warm ups and facial expressions demonstrated this. But then so did Cambridge. You got the sense that this was going to be a clash between two well-drilled sides. And it was. When skaters were inevitably sent to the sin bin, the side with the numerical advantage were ruthless in exploiting it. When you have over half your team in the sin bin, two vs five – even for 30 seconds feels like much much longer.

The variety of moves the jammers (the one player on each side that tries to score points by passing their opponents) used was noticeably greater than in the previous game. The same went for the defences/blockers too. I’ve never seen so many people so nimble on pairs of rollerskates. You anticipate a jammer who has built up speed will plough into a wall of blockers, but just as they are about to, they turn 90 degrees ‘Cruyff-turn-style’ and completely outwit four opponents before heading on their way – with four points in the bag.

Learning to be ‘as one’ with the camcorder

This was probably the most enjoyable filming session I’ve ever had with this camcorder – one where I’ve got some footage that is the result of conscious continuous decisions I was taking as I filmed rather than relying on the technology to do the leg work. In the first videoclip above, the part between 0m30s and 0m40s is the bit where I tracked the subject (i.e. ‘Miss Behave’) moving the camera while zooming in and out as she skated towards then away from the camera.

The view from the scoreboard end

The view from the scoreboard end


This was where I did most of my filming from during the two matches. This is a panorama taken from my cameraphone. The crowd are to the right, the scoreboard, commentators and first aiders are on my side. The track is denoted by the yellow-and-black tape you can just make out in the foreground. That said, we were rightly warned to stay out of the way lest we got clobbered. Fortunately none of us did – we heeded their advice.

Romsey Rollerbillies need our help

August 2010: the Rollerbillies become the first league in the UK to have their own venue, a beautiful warehouse nicknamed The Spandex Palace. In 2012 the warehouse was demolished, and the Rollerbillies now use practice venues in and around Cambridge

What is it with Cambridge demolishing, leaving vacant or underusing buildings that could be used by so many community groups?

The announcers made appeals for sponsorship and support. Cambridge Womens Football Club have made the same. The ground they used to play at is no longer available, so they are having to play in Ely – over 10 miles up the road and on the other side of a completely different city. Women of Cambridge deserve so much better. If you are interested in joining or sponsoring either of the above teams, see Romsey Rollerbillies here, and Cambridge Women’s Football Club here.

And if you’re interested in improving the choice of sports and activities in Cambridge, and the sustainability of clubs that offer them…

Join us at Anglia Ruskin University for Be the change – Cambridge on Saturday 13 September – see for more details

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Public administration & policy, Social media, Sport | 2 Comments

Community learning as an alternative to expensive courses


Some thoughts on how to make learning opportunities available to more people at a time when fees are rising.

I’ve been looking around for some training courses on all things digital media of late. It’s that time of year with the new academic calendar looming. Yet this year seems to be the first where I’ve really felt my age (mid-30s) when looking around for daytime courses. That plus the cost of retraining is becoming increasingly prohibitive in these constrained times.

Price, timing and accessibility

For the corporate market, you are looking at paying over £400 for a one day course on digital media. Despite the wide selection in this case, the prices are prohibitive. We don’t have the equivalent of a ‘CityLit’ that they have in London. Or a Birkbeck for that matter – they have an excellent selection of short courses. Ditto the Media Trust here. All of these require a journey down to London on my part.

Cambridge ‘as is’ simply isn’t united or big enough at the moment to sustain the sort of programs I’ve linked above. But given improved public transport links along with the housing growth that is happening and projected over the next decade, I can’t see that remaining the case. I’ve also commented on the fragmented nature of publicising things in Cambridge – whether learning courses, entertainment or public consultations.

Community learning

I hosted a workshop at UKGovCamp 2014 about this in a digital skills context – see my blogpost and screenshots here. The diversity in our working group meant that I came away learning far more than I had anticipated. I also became aware of problems that I didn’t even know existed – such as some people being unwilling to take part in workshops or courses because they were being hosted in schools – bringing back bad memories.

“Build a massive community centre instead to integrate all the estates”

Pauline Pearce talking about gentrification in London here. I’d love to see the building below in Cambridge turned into something like this – one where town and gown can mix & interact.

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

One of the things I hope will emerge from Be the change – Cambridge (plug-plug-plug!) is a group of people who will push for this to be brought back into use – one that is as diverse as it is active. In particular, one that can put pressure on the colleges and Cambridge University. From what I’ve seen across a number of fields, there is hidden demand for affordable informal community learning. From Sookio’s excellent social media master classes to Transition Cambridge’s buzzing practical gatherings, there is a desire for people to come together, socialise and make our lives just that little bit easier & more interesting.

Are there some things you become too old to do by your mid-30s?

I think there was only one player in England’s 2014 World Cup squad older than me. The sort of commentary I grew up with is summarised by this lovely compilation put together by The Lightning Seeds with the now defunct ‘Goal Magazine’ in autumn 1995 – subsequently released as a B-side to ‘What If?’. Recently, walking back through Coleridge Rec there were some kids playing football. As is always the case, the ball went far out of bounds of their pitch, flying through the air in my direction. One touch, controlling the ball in mid-air with the outside of my right foot, sending it back towards one of them who ran to collect the ball. Yep. Still. Got. It. Fitness may be temporary, but the instinct is permanent when it comes to the beautiful game I guess. I said similar with ballroom dancing: dance technique may be temporary, but floorcraft is permanent ;-)

It’s one thing having a kick-about, something I’d still love to do, but quite another where you are being properly trained and coached. Think about swimming lessons for adults. Even though from a certain age we go past our physical peak, isn’t there room for learning a new skill that involves physical movement long after our physical peak? If there is – and I think there is having seen older dancers go from being beginners to being competent dancers, are we providing the opportunities? Personally I’d love to get back into football where I’m learning new things, but being in my mid-30s…exactly.

But then…learning doesn’t have to involve a course or a qualification

Puffles in a Basement Jaxx video. You read that correctly.

Everything I’ve done with the Dowsing Sound Collective has been as far removed from rigid syllabuses as I can think in a musical context. It’s why I challenged a number of music teachers to do what Andrea’s doing with DSC for musical instruments generally. The Duxford Workshop already does this outside of Cambridge – see here. It’s always useful to have examples to point towards. The problem I’ve had is with wider audiences. There are lots of wonderful examples of small to medium scale groups and societies doing wonderful things. The bit Cambridge historically has struggled with in my experience is scaling up.

Why does scaling up matter?

The first is sustainability. The second is inspiration. The third is the future of Cambridge


Can we increase the financial sustainability of community groups (at a time when council grants are being cut)? I think we can – certainly in and around Cambridge. In a ‘steady state’ Cambridge, many groups and organisations could probably cope as they are. The problem is that Cambridge is growing and costs of living/operating are rising. So how can they adapt?


For me it’s very easy to relate to the opposite of this. In my case, secondary school and church almost killed any passion for music during my teens. This is why everything I’ve done in 2014 with the Dowsing Sound Collective has been … just … ***Wow***

It doesn’t mean everything has to be scaled up. Cambridge Carbon Footprint’s projects work at a ‘friends in a living room’ level with sustainable living. It’s the ‘think global, act local’ mindset – but knowing you’re part of something greater than the sum of your parts. Not everything has to be on stage in front of hundreds. But can we combine a sense of excitement and dynamism that keeps us going through the more mundane but essential activities that need doing? Because with past volunteering activities, it was the energy from the exciting things (eg the grand balls) that made cycling across town in the cold windy rain for a late night committee meetings worthwhile.

The future of Cambridge

This brings me back to the points I made at the start of this blogpost. Cambridge is growing – whether we like it or not. This means that larger community activities previously too big for the city are now no longer so. My challenge to the institutions is whether they are prepared for the demands a growing population will put on them. Given the number of local politicians that’ll be in listening mode at Be the change Cambridge, (they have a code of conduct we’ve drafted for them!) it’ll be interesting to see what follow-up actions from the institutions will come from it.

‘Why is it that children get all the fun?’

This was a question put to me by a couple of acquaintances. Why don’t we have the equivalent of Duke of Edinburgh or National Citizen Service? Good question. In Cambridge our universities put on summer schools for international students with wealthy parents (along with much-welcomed Sutton Trust schemes), but why don’t we have well-publicised equivalents for adults? What would a 2-4 week ‘transformational summer school’ look like? ie one where you could learn new work skills, life skills and have a physical work out at the same time? Why be stuck in a 9-5 rut?

A classroom isn’t always the best space for learning

I’ve got an old pair of rollerblades in my room. I want to go skating again. I want to learn how to stop on them. Is a small cluttered classroom a suitable environment to learn how to do this? No. In Cambridge, we have the spaces. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. Can we open them up to the people who make this great city?

No one can accuse me of not trying




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What should the relationship be between local community reporters & trained journalists?


Some thoughts following some bedtime reading and a radio interview with Cambridge 105 – in the context of a new law passed on reporting on council meetings

The announcement of the new regulations is here – Parliament having approved these. Earlier this week, Julian Clover of community radio station Cambridge 105FM invited me into the studios primarily to talk about Be The Change – Cambridge. That was prior to the announcement being made about the change in the law. Given that I’m one of the people directly affected by the law due to live-tweeting and now filming meetings, we had a discussion about the new regulations as well. Still being a novice with digital video, I chose to film the discussion on my phone – mainly for my own learning but also to raise awareness that people can film council meetings if there was any doubt before.

The Twitter exchanges in this link show there was some uncertainty about live tweeting from meetings. Either way, this has now been cleared up by the new regulations, and situations such as the one Richard Taylor found himself in in the clip below, will become things of the past.

The rise of the community reporter

One of the things Julian Clover and I discussed off-air was the link between the media and community reporters. In the case of Cambridge 105FM, they are a not-for-profit organisation relying heavily on volunteers, membership fees and donations. (See here). As a station that serves Cambridge and not much further on the FM frequency (due to the conditions of their radio licence), having close community links is essential – as is their subscription to IRN’s national news feed.

In Cambridge 105FM’s case, Julian said having residents/community reporters summarising what happened at council meetings through podcasts or voice memos, or even interviewing individual councillors for short 30 second soundbites would be a great help to the station and the wider community. In principle I agree. After all, I’m experimenting with this very thing myself as this audioclip shows.

Community reporting and local democracy

As far as local democracy goes, there are a handful of us that attend Cambridge council meetings fairly regularly who also have enough technical and/or specialist knowledge, the confidence and time to carry out this role. I dare say that many people with smartphones have the technical knowledge to record, edit, publish and publicise what happens in council meetings. Whether they have the desire to attend such meetings or the specialist knowledge of some of the more arcane procedures or difficult areas of local government (such as planning law) is up for debate. Despite having worked a short while in planning casework in my early civil service days (Yeah! – we ***owned*** those tree preservation order appeal files!)

I tended not to stick around for the bits of meetings that involved planning applications – even though the decisions were essential. One which I stuck around for last year involved a local council committee ordering a local resident to demolish an extension he had built in breach of planning laws. But someone building in a conservation area without permission, or cutting down trees protected by law can raise local tensions. A committee of councillors, a couple of committee staff, a planning officer, the resident concerned and their representative and an audience of…six locals and a dragon fairy…it’s not the most glamorous night out. But these are the grass roots of democracy, and they happen all too often under-reported in communities across the country.

Community reporting and impartiality

The broadcast media has to report politics impartially – not showing any favour to any political party. Going by this judgement, it also extends to adverts. Both Cambridge 105FM and Shape Your Place – Cambridge are currently appealing for more people to become community reporters. In principle I don’t have a problem with this. The bit that concerns me is the availability of accessible training for those that want to take on this role. The last thing a community radio station wants is to lose its licence because clips submitted by community reporters were unwittingly breaching regulations on impartiality. Being a community reporter is not the same as being a journalist. I also don’t see them as necessarily being in competition with each other.

Community reporting and local news journalists

In the case of the latter – in my case lets take Elodie Harper of ITV Anglia and Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News because I know them both, they need to know that their news sources are credible, trustworthy and authoritative. A couple of months ago, I was walking past Cambridge railway station and spotted a recently-skewered car – the driver of which having ignored the rising bollard signs. A couple of Twitter exchanges between me and Chris, and a short news story was on the Cambridge News website soon after – with Puffles getting a photo credit. That for me is an example of how some of the more routine news stories can be sourced. As the trained journalist, Chris asked a series of specific questions that I, as an untrained community reporter wouldn’t have thought of.

That’s what good training does – you instinctively click into work mode when something comes up. In this case, Chris’s training taught him to ask a series of basic but essential questions of me – the source, in response to what I had posted. It’s similar when I end up having political discussions with local political activists & their ideas. My old civil service training kicks in and I throw basic, essential and sometimes tricky public policy-related questions at them. (How are you funding it? What are the top three risks? How are you managing those risks? What are the alternatives to your policy and why have you discounted them – and on what evidence base?)

In the case of Elodie being on TV, she’s faced with a greater geographical area so inevitably covers fewer but ‘bigger’ news items. While Chris can be out and about alone, Elodie often has to work with at least one other person – eg camera operator. Also, Elodie has the additional role of being a news anchor as she has been on Anglia News this week. The challenge for both Elodie and Chris in this new digital media era is working out who their eyes and ears on the ground are in places where they cannot be. In Chris’s case when two council meetings are scheduled at the same time in different venues, having a familiar face live-tweeting from the meeting he otherwise misses can be a great help.

A challenge for Cambridge?

I think it’s worth exploring this further with local print and broadcast media collectively: what should the relationship between them and community reporters be? What basic training opportunities should be made available to the latter – and at whose cost? What opportunities are there for more formal arrangements with colleges, universities and with adult & continuing education providers? After all, students at Cambridge Regional College have already demonstrated they can produce a broadcast-quality local version of Question Time.

(See my comments on the above programme in this blogpost)

Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Law and legal issues, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

Choice and cameras


I want to upgrade some of my digital video kit, but the seemingly endless choice of models and advice out there has left me in a daze

Like a stuck record, I come back to an issue I blogged about in 2013 here, and in 2012 here. The difference here is that I’m going to be applying ‘my choice’ in a market where it feels the products on offer (and the advice that goes with it) are seemingly infinite.

“If people are faced with a limited amount of information, limited time and a limited ability to learn how to scrutinise what little information they have in front of them, the choices that they make may not be the same if given increasing amounts of all of those variables.”

My words in Do you have time to think? My point being that information, ability to scrutinise that information and the time you have to scrutinise it (along with the ability to make a choice – eg finance-wise) all have an impact on decisions you make.

An incredible journey with digital media in 2014

I’ve been making and uploading my own short video and audioclips on a regular basis of late. (See here for videos, and here for audio). The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive – not so much for the quality but that because someone happens to be filming, publishing and publicising from meetings, community events and small performances where previously there might have been no one. In the process of doing all of this, I’ve noticed the limitations of the kit that I have. Hence being able to ask slightly more informed questions. Yet at the same time, I don’t feel nearly as informed as I would like to be before parting with several hundred quid on a new gadget.

Where do I want to get to with all of this?

I want to become an informed practitioner of digital media. I’m not aiming to be a professional film maker or anything like that, but I want to do more than turn up, set up kit and press ‘record’. Ditto with editing – I want to do more than turning down the background noise, turning up the voice or music enhance options, or tweaking the anti-shake toggle. I want to get to the stage where the video and audio are as they are because of conscious decisions I have taken with the kit, rather than relying on the auto-options.

The context for me will remain community action and local democracy for quite some time. I think there’s altruistic and historical merit in capturing this sort of footage for generations to come. Career-wise, whatever I end up doing (assuming my health recovers) I hope the knowledge I acquire will enable me to ask informed questions of those I will work with.

So…back to the cameras. The problem is…?

So many brands, makes, versions and models to choose from. What direction is the industry going in? What sort of price should I be aiming at? What sort of kit will be too expensive for the sort of thing I want to do? Camcorder vs DSLR? Which ones are ‘the best’? (That last one being a bit of a silly question because it ultimately depends on what the user wants to do!)

The other thing is personal principles with electronic waste. I’m tempted to go for a second hand model. I don’t feel particularly compelled to break the bank for a brand new one when a higher spec second hand model for the same (or lower) price will do just as well. I like the idea of a camcorder because it fits into my shoulderbag easily and discretely. I’m not so keen on the bulky shape of DSLRs – even though several people who do digital filming professionally all seem to be using DSLRs today.

Accessorise, accessorise, accessorise!

The squeakiness of my existing cheapo tripod messed up some recordings despite my various attempts to resolve this. So on looking at a new one, the young me is all ***Wow!*** at the thought of upgrading to this… until you look at the price tag. The only thing I have of that brand is this mini tripod that can also be a mini camera holder out and about. It significantly reduces camera shake. While filming Malka Kovalenko & Bity Booker at Hotnumbers Coffee recently (See here), I lent the gadget plus phone-holder to one of Malka’s friends who was also filming but with a smartphone. She said the attachments made a huge difference. I’m also learning about the benefits of remote controls – it’s awkward starting and stopping recording having to press the gadget that’s doing the filming. Yes, you can solve it in editing by clipping the ends, but it just doesn’t ‘feel’ right.

Which brings me to the next issue of ensuring that whatever I buy has the right adaptors/sockets/ports to link up with existing kit. This is where standardisation makes sense. This for me is an EU-wide issue: It’s a ‘You have got to make your stuff compatible with stuff made by your competitors’. Were it not for an ink cartridge refill place in my neighbourhood, this would be a bit of an issue for me as my printer doesn’t like generic print cartridges. It makes sense for a firm (not naming names) to lock people into their brands. Whether it’s printer and cartridges, hardware and software to even washing machines and washing powder, it reduces competition and raises prices without the guaranteed increase in quality.

Thinking ahead with future purchases

I have in my mind the type of shots/clips I want to film – and just as importantly the effects I want to achieve. The clip below was something as a complete beginner I was (and still am) incredibly pleased with.

The speed of the train combined with the still water and the flat countryside followed by the slow but majestic appearance of the large wind turbine for me is quite something. But filming while in motion is not easy. Browsing through a book that I ended up purchasing today, the authors made a point about the risks of trying to film while in control of, or on the back of a moving vehicle. The point they made about motorbikes is well made: Both camera operators and riders train hard to become skilled and safe in this. It’s not a case of jumping on the back of someone’s wheels.

The other thing that made me go ***Oooh!*** was this piece of kit. The footage in the review below (as well as the author’s comments in the piece) speak for themselves

Now, everything doesn’t have to be expensive. For example rather than spending lots of money on a proper camera track, you could do this:

Just think of the fun you could have with those accessories applied to something like…a council meeting! There are a number of movie tricks that can be applied to such meetings that can make an individual councillor look like a superhero or the head of an evil organisation. We covered this at film skool. It’s probably why the cameras for BBC Parliament are dead still – you don’t see filmed footage where the camera is moving or zooming in or out. For obvious reasons, the TV footage has to be as ‘neutral’ as possible.

Now, in the grand scheme of things I won’t be forking out huge amounts of money on all of that expensive kit. I don’t have the money and couldn’t really justify the purchases at this stage even if I did. I’m not going to jump in at the deep end because finance aside, technically and knowledge-wise I’m not ready for it yet.

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Be the change – Cambridge: It’s over to you


As tickets go on sale for Cambridge’s first big community action ‘unConference’, some thoughts on how an idea from 2011 turned into something real

What’s ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ on Sat 13 September about? Click here. Where do you get tickets? Click here. Want to volunteer on the day and get a free hoodie? Email me at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com.

Bringing together over 200 people from across Cambridge’s diverse range of communities and getting them to agree on what our city’s big problems are is one thing. Encouraging them to come up with ideas that they can put into action is quite another. But we’re giving it a go. We’ve been very fortunate with sponsors that have stepped forward to meet the event costs. See who has stepped forward already on our sponsors page here. Some of you might be surprised at who is stepping forward to support a community action event such as this.

Strength in diversity

Although this has been something I’ve been pondering and planning in my mind for nearly three years, it was Dr David Cleevely and Anne Bailey who challenged me to turn these thoughts into something concrete. Ceri Jones joined us recently as the creative brains behind our website and brochure. We’re all from different backgrounds in more ways than one. The big benefit of this is being able to bring different insights to the challenges we face in putting on an event such as this. I’ve probably learnt more from/as a result of the aforementioned trio in the past couple of months than I probably think.

At the same time, all four of us (and more besides) seem to be coming across similar problems with the way our city functions. By this I’m talking about systems and processes rather than individuals. Only recently we saw (in my opinion) another failure of local systems and processes – see here. What in the systems and processes of the partnership allowed for Cambridge City Council not to be represented on the board of a Greater Cambridge partnership? What also allowed for the lack of diversity on the board? (Only one of the 13 seats being held by a woman).

What do you do when someone puts their trust in you?

That’s probably been one of the biggest emotional burdens to deal with on my side: Other people putting their time, effort and resources into a vision or an idea that I have had in with the belief both in the idea and my ability to deliver it. This is very different from the world of public policy where in the grand scheme of things you are either playing with ideas or scrutinising the mistakes made by others but not yourself. Having worked in public policy as well as having run an audit function in the civil service, I’ve seen where things have gone wrong and looked into why in projects and programmes across the country.

It’s a very different emotional sensation when responsibility for delivery primarily falls on you – even more so when you are carrying some of the financial risk. I remember feeling the latter when first commissioning my original digital video guides for social media (see here). Spending public money on an investment is one thing. Spending your own money on an investment is quite another.

Turning growing interest into ticket sales, and attendance into actions

I’m really pleased that a number of councillors across Cambridge have stated publicly they are going to attend – including the Leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert. One of the reasons is the event is going to be different to the traditional area committees we have in Cambridge – the community forums where people can raise issues with councillors for the latter to solve. Our event on 13 September is where everyone takes part in scoping the problems, identifying solutions and ideas, and then taking action to make things happen.

The conversations the four of us have had (me, Anne, David and Ceri) have indicated strong interest from a variety of fields. The common theme that is coming up is how people feel Cambridge needs an event of this type:

  • Something different – and that will challenge existing ways of doing things
  • Something that is big – on a large scale
  • Something that unleashes the talents from across the different communities
  • Something open to those at the top of large institutions to the resident who feels that no one is interested in them
  • Something that won’t be forgotten about after the event is over

On turning attendance into actions, I’ve taken inspiration from Walthamstowe MP Stella Creasy. Her way of working on community issues is to invite whoever raises the issue to be part of the solution rather than expecting the MP/MP’s staff to deal with the issue alone. Similar principles apply with our event. Area committees (see here) and our local MP’s surgeries (in our case Julian Huppert’s – see here) already exist where people want local or central government to take action on their behalf.

A natural worrier organising an event

I probably won’t sleep for the first fortnight in September! But dealing with that is part of the planning process. Hence bringing together experienced and talented facilitators from a range of backgrounds to help the workshops run smoothly. For events as large as this, and to ensure we get as much information and as many ideas out of the workshops, one person cannot micromanage. Knowing that the workshops will be in good hands is a big weight off of my mind. It’s also part of the learning process having not organised a big event like this before. Being the main organiser means learning how to delegate, allocate tasks and ensure things are done rather than doing everything yourself.

Managing expectations

I’ve come away from many an unConference buzzing with excitement in recent years – although less so over the past 12 months. The reason for this is I didn’t see the exciting things from those unConferences transferring into life in Cambridge. I remember a few people a couple of years ago telling me that Cambridge wasn’t ready for an unConference for public services along the lines of UKGovCamp. Hence having to adapt the unConference model to make it fit Cambridge’s unique circumstances. In this case, it means spending the morning in sessions where we collectively identify the problems to solve, and go into more detailed problem-scoping in the workshops before lunch.

Cambridge as a city is full of ideas. Over 2 years ago I went to one such event where people were pitching lots of interesting ideas. I was one of the pitchers:

I have no idea what actually happened to the idea though. Hence I believe we need to get agreement and community consent on what our city’s problems are before looking at what our roles are as individuals and groups in solving them. If the idea fits, or can be adapted to solve an agreed problem, the greater its chances of becoming an action.

Next steps?

There are still lots more things to do on the essentials side. One of the things I’d like to have for the 2 weeks before the event are a series of short digital video clips/vox pops with people from across Cambridge submitting their suggestions for issues they would like to discuss, and potential solutions to problems.

Be the change – Cambridge: It’s happening!


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Learning by doing


Continual learning by doing – in particular from lots of little mistakes, errors and oversights that I’d normally beat myself up over (metaphorically, not literally)

I’m in the process of adding content to the Be The Change – Cambridge website – which  Ceri Jones designed for our joint long term project.  In fact, we’ve added ***loads*** since many of you last saw it. It’s evolved from all things Puffles towards this big event of ours on 13 September 2014. (If you want tickets and are reading this after 04 August 2014, click here). On updating content, I had to remind myself that there was little different between adding content on here and adding content on that website – both use WordPress. The challenge I’m having is filling in some basic gaps. My learning in this field (making websites) hasn’t been in sync with my preferred style of learning – in a group with a logical progression.

What’s been the most interesting bit for me is doing things using technology that when I first started in the civil service were technological niceties rather than essential parts of a planning process. How many of you now take Skype calls and/or conference calling for granted? I remember the days when senior managers were intimidated by the technology or frustrated by intermittent connections that it never reached the full potential with them. This in part is where Cllr Dave Briggs’ post on digital transformation becomes important. How can people like me make all things digital ‘easy, relevant and accessible in a manner that helps people overcome their fears’? I have fears about it too.

Not conforming – and being seen as a little different in the process

The above-song by Australian musician Bity Booker who was at Hot Numbers Coffee off Mill Road covers Malvina Reynolds lampooning post-war conformity in the US. The thing I’ve been trying to break out from – with some success in 2014, is conforming. Once the institutional reins are no longer there, you have greater freedom to try out new things. The Be the change – Cambridge project is one such thing. At the same time, I’m meeting a number of people separately who are also experimenting with or pioneering digital in their fields in a manner that is bringing about greater learning and culture change.

In my case, going out and doing the filming has been the hardest initial barrier to overcome. The next one is moving from beyond some of the basic standard tools to the more advanced ones that I have access to but have not really made work to their full potential. One thing I’m also mindful of is consent – in this case public consent with filming. It was something I mentioned in a previous blogpost and the more I ponder over it, the more systematic I need to be with it. i.e. Having printed consent forms to hand and business cards stating specific links to where I’m uploading footage to and for what purposes. The question community reporters and citizen journalists have to repeatedly ask themselves is ‘How can I make it easier for the public to understand what I am doing in order to give informed consent?’

Learn a little but often

That’s the journey. I tried the one-day immersion with digital video and it didn’t work for me. If anything, it was the lack of a follow-up with the group and the tasks. For me, one-day courses/workshops work when you’ve learnt the basics and reached a barrier that is insurmountable without expert focused help. There are still gaps I need to fill with the ‘little and often’ process, but I feel I’m getting towards the stage where I can ask informed questions about the content I’m publishing.

Taking the above video, which is of 16-year-old Malka Kovalenko who played support to Bity Booker that evening (in the first video embedded in this post), I positioned the camera on the other side of the room deliberately. Natural light from behind was the reason. It killed the video footage of a band I’d filmed in the room previously. That said, the light quality (despite Simon Fraser’s best efforts mid-film (he’s the proprietor of Hot Numbers Cafe)) isn’t great. In this case, I sought & received consent from Simon, Malka and Bity to film that evening. One of the things I might look at should I get improved kit is how to plug that into any sound systems that venues have. In Malka’s case her performances were rudely overshadowed by people talking loudly.

A curious mind with some end goals in sight

Another digital video clip I took recently was this one from Cambridge City Council’s East Area Committee.

From a Cambridge Cycling Campaign perspective, it’s fairly straight forward – that’s who the speaker (Martin) is addressing the committee on behalf of. From the campaign’s perspective, it’s great to have this on film. It’s much easier to hold councillors to account on specific commitments. From my perspective, I filmed and published this to show others how straight forward this sort of filming is. When it came to my questions, I mentioned to people in the room (and also at a workshop that same week) in a Shape Your Place website context that many of us have the equipment to film council meetings & upload footage.

At the same time, I’m also putting myself in a ‘work in progress’ context. Managing my own expectations are just as important as managing other people’s. This is where feedback loops are ever so important. Carrying multiple camera batteries or a mains plug along with a couple of larger memory cards are today’s learning points. At the same time, I’ve got a choice to make on balancing mobility with quality of footage I want to take. The greater the latter, the more kit you have to acquire and carry with you. What I like about what I currently do is that I’m using a device that many others have, along with cheap accessories. I don’t want to get to the stage where I’m permanently carrying a tripod and lots of kit.





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Not even all the waters in the Pacific Ocean can put out these fires


On the failure of international politics

I was going to write a blogpost about the failure of international politics in the face of fires so big not even all of the water in the Pacific Ocean can put them out.

…but then it got consumed by the flames.

International politics and international institutions – including media institutions – are all on public trial. And with every violent death of innocent civilians and children (irrespective of nationality, creed or ethnicity) that results from their failings, they are damned even more.

Humanity: you’re better than this.

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‘Mayor of Cambridge gets soaked opening mini-water park’ – Thoughts on community reporting


Want to see a short video of Cllr Gerri Bird getting soaked? Of course you do! But what is the role of a community reporter that the likes of Shape Your Place are encouraging? And how do you manage the risks?

Here’s Cllr Gerri Bird, the Mayor of Cambridge getting a drenching from one of the new water features recently installed at Coleridge Rec.

(Note the schoolboy error of forgetting to turn the phone horizontally!)

I picked up a reminder on my phone that this was happening while I was having a coffee around the corner at Balzano’s. (No, I don’t get a free coffee for that link). Hence wandering up to see what was going on. Despite the clouds and then the rain, there were dozens of people there. I also recorded this short interview with The Mayor in the pouring rain.

Jeremy Paxman I am not

Should I be? What is the role of a community reporter? Should I be asking the difficult searching questions that you’d expect from a local government reporter such as Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News? What should the relationship be between local bloggers/tweeters that follow local democracy in a small geographical area and elected politicians – or even public officials such as council officers?

As you can hear from the interview, I’m not asking difficult questions. For me, context matters. If it is a community event, then councillors are at the event to meet people in the community they otherwise seldom meet. As I turn up to council meetings fairly regularly, I don’t think it’s right for me to monopolise their time on council business. Rather, I think it’s better for councillors and the community to run short interviews that get councillors to explain what brings them to a given event and to comment on what they observe. And that’s it.

“Why is that it?”

Because the moment someone with a reputation (good or bad) starts asking about contentious issues at a community event, the instinct for councillors is to get all defensive. That doesn’t help anyone. If there is something that needs raising – and a couple of families spoke to me about commuter parking by the park (Cambridge railway station is in walking distance) then I tip off councillors that I’ll be raising it at a future area committee meeting.

“That’s making it easy for them, isn’t it?”

Yes and no. Yes because it means they have time to prepare a full answer, no because they can’t get away with a ‘holding reply’ if the issue is otherwise in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile. Having put awkward questions to councillors without notice at area committee meetings in the past, I’ve found you don’t get substantive responses. They’ve had no notice to do any research. The more notice you give them, the more substantive the response tends to be.

At the same time, councils & councillors know that if I want to ‘get on my high horse’, I’m more than capable of doing that. (Though to what impact is debatable!) In one sense, standing for election involves standing up on and for something – not that I want to stand for election again in the near future. The general feeling not just in myself but with others is that I made lots of good points well – so let’s start working on them. Hence preparations for Be the change – Cambridge – of which we’ll have some exciting news formally announced early next week (including tickets).

Safeguards – especially at events with young children attending

Today was a textbook case – the opening of a mini waterpark in a residential park in Cambridge. As a child we’d sometimes go paddling in what was effectively a paddling pool with a few boulders thrown in. Although the pool is now half the size, the other half has a host of water features and fountains making it much easier for the little ones to cool off in the hot sun.

Although there was an official photographer there taking photos of everyone (see the Council’s official photo on Facebook here) I was more than a little uncomfortable taking photographs in that environment. Hence I restricted my photos and videoclips to that of The Mayor getting soaked and the official ribbon-cutting.

Ask nicely first – the responsibility I have

In the case of young musical performers – such as Grace Sarah and the young musicians here, or with buskers such as Tom Korni at the end of this blogpost, the responsibility is on me as the person filming to ask for consent to film rather than assume consent has been given unless someone comes up to me telling me otherwise. Even with adults it’s at least polite to ask first, & not go off in a huff if consent is not given.

It’s also made me think about having some copies of consent forms with me at all times just in case. Over-cautious? What are your views? The difference between me as a sort of ‘digital community reporter’ versus a national news journalist is that I live in the neighbourhoods that I’m reporting on. Hence it makes sense for me to proceed with caution. I don’t want to get the wrong side of everyone in my childhood neighbourhood. On the other side, I don’t have to be responsible for a national news brand.

‘I’m not a natural for journalism, so why do this?’

For those of you that like the term ‘comfort zone’, I’m way outside of mine doing all of this. The problem for Shape Your Place in Cambridge is that so few people are doing this sort of digital journalism. Despite backing from local councils, the SYP team simply do not have the funding to run the sorts of training courses that could get people going. I’ve taken the ‘Be the change you want to see’ viewpoint and started doing this sort of filming and reporting to show to other local people what can be done with technology more than a few of them already have.

The past few years have taught me that calling on other people to do things you are not already doing yourself can only go so far. It seems to count for a lot more when you go out and do the thing yourself, then return having the experience (and footage) from which to speak from. It reminds me of the second half of this blogpost – posted the night before polling day 2014 with Puffles on the ballot paper. The now deputy leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Carina O’Reilly challenged me to do some street canvassing. In the week before the election, me and Ceri Jones did exactly this. Hence the above-linked blogpost talking about the learning from that. Afterwards I felt I could look the other councillors in the eye. I also noticed that current and past councillors commented positively on standing and campaigning publicly vis-a-vis those with strong opinions but who don’t stand themselves.

Separating the role of community activist and community reporting

Publicly in my view it’s essential to separate the two. About 15 years ago, The Independent Newspaper when it was a broadsheet tried to do this. It had one section for news and a separate section for comment and analysis. Today its detractors will argue it is anything but. That said, with newspapers generally what they do not cover is just as important as what they do cover (and in what tone).

With the out-and-about reporting, my aim is to report rather than ‘preach.’ Listening to one of the residents talking to me about problems of commuter parking and the risks to children, there was a little bit of me that wanted to explain some of the constitutional niceties of two-tier councils and its relation with national government. But I held back because at the end of the day people just want the problem solved, rather than be given a complex explanation as to why their problem hasn’t been solved.

“How does community reporting help?”

Familiarity with ‘local civic people’ for want of another term. Digital audio means people can hear the voices of people being interviewed, and digital video means you get to see and hear them. With cuts to mainstream journalism and news reporting over the years, there are fewer opportunities for people to get themselves into mainstream local news. At the same time, with more people using social and digital media more regularly, it’s easier to share digital content that you might otherwise miss if you didn’t buy the paper that day or came home late from work and missed the local news show. In that sense, it generates a level of familiarity.

By showing what can be done, I’m hoping that others will be thinking: “Well…we can do that too!” (And better!) At the same time, and in particular at community events I hope it will also show a more ‘human’ side of councillors. Because with news you generally tend to see councillors in a party-political or campaigning context. You don’t get to see some of the complex casework they have to deal with, or the input they have in helping organise community events. If through community reporting more local residents feel they can have a reasonable conversation with their councillors, hopefully more will get in touch – not just to have problems solved but also to see what they can do to improve their local area.

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment