Apps ‘n’ gadgets for community reporting

Summary

Some ‘not just for boys toys’ that I’ve become lately obsessed with – useful in the run up to the general election

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, so here goes.

Modern smartphones – powerful things: but do we get the best out of them?

My old eye-fone (sorry to avoid the spambots) 3S for me is still by far the most comfortable smartphone I’ve had. It was what I used to film this timelapse (with phone clipped onto this gizmo)

But that was long after I had upgraded. It’s only been in recent times that I’ve started using smartphones for recording video & audio. An example of an audio recording is Julian Huppert in a Q&A session to Transition Cambridge activists from 2014. Again, this was on the 3S attached to a lapel microphone.

Hardware – how can you make your smartphone record more stable footage?

A mini tripod. I bought this one by Manfrotto which I use with this Joby Tightgrip. Not only are both light enough to carry, they are comfortable to hold and can be set up in under 30 seconds. Furthermore, the design of the clip means you avoid the risk of recording video footage while holding the camera vertically. The clip only works if the phone is horizontal!

A smartphone with a telephoto lens?

Apparently so – though it takes a bit of time to get used to. I got hold of this one quite recently. If anything, the nicest thing about it is the case, which feels well made. In itself, that alone makes the package almost worth buying. Add the tripod & the clip, which although less pleasing on the eye & hand is more stable, means even without the lenses it’s quite a nice purchase. I can’t pretend to have gotten much out of the mini lenses. The zoom lens doesn’t allow you to zoom in & out – something that I’ve gotten used to with my camcorder. But then for the price, what do you expect? It does however give you the option of a manual focus. This can sometimes cause problems if the smartphone is in auto-focus mode.

Third party camera apps being better than the ones the phones come with?

It’s counter-intuitive, but the FiLMiC Pro app (£6.99) is one that is far more powerful than what my phone came with. The most useful aspect for me is the ability to align footage filmed using this with the settings on my camcorder. At events this means I can set up a main tripod and camera, press record & leave them running, while I film other more interesting shots from around the room. I’ve still not got the best out of the app – nowhere near in fact. I tend to compare such things to high performance motors: You’ve got to be extremely skilled in order to get the best out of them. That requires knowledgeable delicate handling.

For still photos, I have the Pro Camera App. As with the above, I am nowhere near getting the best out of it. However, the quality of some of the images I’ve taken feels better than using the normal camera app.

Field reporting – one I want to experiment with

I’ve got the lite version of the Hindenburg Field Recorder, because when it comes to recording, my quality of audio hasn’t been great. But because I’m shooting so much video (& uploading them to my Youtube channel here, or to my Vimeo page here), I’ve not really done much podcasting. Finally, I also want to experiment with the iRig setup.

All that reporting – but is anyone watching?

As it turns out, quite a few of you!

YouTube Analytics March 2015
YouTube Analytics March 2015

Given that most of the footage I have on my channel of late has been from Cambridge election debates, the above statistics are pretty good. (I think so anyway!)

I’m putting the election debate videos into event playlists – see here. Local parties can then pick from the videos and promote the ones of their candidates to their audiences, while party-neutral organisations can share the entire playlist by subject being discussed.

“Is it worth it?”

Because none of this as yet pays the bills!

A number of locals have said to me & tweeted that we’ll only really know its true value after the election – ie when we can compare who said what with what they delivered. It’s also a safe environment to learn how the various bits of kit & the apps work best together.

Finally, it’s an historical record. The local historian in me quite likes the idea of people viewing this footage in decades to come to see what the 2015 general election campaign was like.

There are also stacks more debates to come – see the list here. I’m not going to get to many of them – I’ll have to pick & choose. Alongside the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, health & housing are the two issues I feel I need to cover as far as the city is concerned. On faith group-specific, or international campaigning organisation debates, I’m happy to leave that to those who are more passionate about those issues or who are part of those communities. After all, I cannot be (nor should I be) everywhere!

Easter & Summer filming projects – community action

Following Be the change – Cambridge, I’ve had a number of conversations with various people on what might be useful for me to do between now & the autumn. One idea came up in conversation with my friends Angela & Dave. They both came up with the concept of ‘the time poor, passion rich citizen’. This concept is very very different to ‘clicktivism’. Clicking a ‘like’ button ain’t gonna save an additional life. ‘You get what you give’ and all that.

Think of it like this: You have a resident who is extremely skilled in a niche area, and who has perhaps an hour a week at home that they can devote to ‘something’ that can help make an impact on the city. How do you make it easy for such people to:

  • Identify the issues they are most passionate about?
  • Identify the functions/actions that they have the right skills sets for?
  • Identify where their input will have the greatest impact?

…and in a way that means they do not have to read through hundreds of sheets of paper? The concept I often use is the filters used to book hotel rooms. How about using the concept for:

  • Booking community rooms
  • Finding regular activities
  • Finding one-off events
  • Finding charities or local causes to support

…but instead of having to go from one website to another working separately in silos, have them co-ordinated? Hence some have come up with the concept of the ‘City Dashboard’

Films to bust myths & explain who does what

There’s only so long you can pester people & organisations before you end up having to do it yourself. Hence not long after I got my camcorder, I stuck Councillor Richard Johnson (who had just been appointed executive councillor for communities at Cambridge City Council) and asked him some very basic questions about local area committees in Cambridge.

Jeremy Paxman I am not. (As this short clip with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury shows).

The reason for my approach is I’m of the view that the general public don’t see politicians as people like them. My experience of working with politicians at a local and national level has been somewhat different: I used to work for ministers (& in one or two policy areas, meeting them quite frequently) during my civil service days. Therefore if you want to see their human side, don’t talk to them about politics (or rather policy). Hence asking Danny Alexander (along with Jo Swinson, his ministerial colleague here, and their Labour shadow opponent Lilian Greenwood here) about what got them interested in politics originally. Notice their face & body language compared to what you normally see on telly.

Other than that, between now & the election, I hope to get a couple of mythbusting videos online.

 

Trying to prioritise in the constraints of not great mental health

Summary

Wanting to do everything, but not being able to.

The past few weeks have been incredibly intense from a personal perspective. Yet had I had sound mental & physical health, all of this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. A decade ago I was managing the equivalent of all of this hours-wise on top of a full-time job.

‘Someone has to film it because ****democracy****’

I’ve uploaded at least 10 videos in the past week from a number of different events – events that would not otherwise have been recorded or scrutinised at people’s leisure. (See videos here). I don’t ‘have to’ do this. I don’t get paid to do this. I do it because something inside of me tells me this is an important function of our (local) democracy that’s not being fulfilled. This isn’t just about organised debates between candidates at elections (noting this article), but about some of the important public policy debates that take place in Cambridge too.

On the future of Cambridge – there’s lots happening, but how do we bring the conversations together?

There were over 100 people at a Q&A session with Cambridge general election candidates and with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP. (See my video playlist here). There were also over 100 people (a noticeably different audience) at a Cambridge Science Festival event on the connections & flows of future cities – see my video playlist here. Then finally there were 200 people at the Cambridge Carbon Footprint/Transition Cambridge debate on Friday. See my video playlist here.

The analytics tell me that over the past seven days, people have watched over eight hours of my video footage. So…there’s clearly a demand for what I’m filming – even though this doesn’t pay the bills!

Filming, editing and uploading is exhausting. But so too is travelling to and from venues

Only by taking tranquilliser medication at a frequency I’ve not had to since my 2012 crisis did I manage to stave off another breakdown this weekend. Something eventually had to give – and in both cases it was skating this and last weekend. A school governors’ strategy workshop followed a sleepless night. (Eclipse to blame?!) It was only a parental lift to/from Anglia Ruskin that got me to the Friday night debate. The funniest part of the evening was one of the student volunteers being told by the host of the evening, Dr Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute at ARU that the big cuddly creature I was carrying with me was not a llama or a kangeroo, but Puffles the Dragon Fairy.

When the dragon gets an invitation…

In 2014 it was recording a music video. In 2015 it was recording an EP

But such was Saturday’s brainfog that I could not haul myself out of bed in time for the morning recordings with Dowsing Sound Collective at Jesus College Chapel. But I managed to make it through for two of the three tracks we recorded – using some state-of-the-art kit courtesy of ARU’s music department.

The view from the back - Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective
The view from the back – Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective. Can you spot the floating grey head?

I wanted to join everyone for post-recording drinks. But I couldn’t. And not for the first time. This has been the first year I’ve really begun to notice that I cannot do things I want to do because…of my disability. While I’ve described on ‘official forms’ in years gone by as my mental health issues being a disability, 2015 is the first year where I’ve really ‘felt the disability in my heart.’ Even more so because it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it.

Trying to articulate this in a way that someone in better health could understand

Imagine that instead of 40 hours per week, you only had 14. Go over that limit and you’ll have even fewer hours the following day or week. Or ‘Spoon theory’ as articulated by Christina Miserandino here. In the case of ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ the week before last, and all of the events last week, I’ll need to recharge batteries for most of this week. Not least because I want to be in a state where I can enjoy Dowsing’s London gig at the Union Chapel.

Losing spoons at the Cambridge environment debate on Friday

The ‘Spoon theory’ link – and the idea of losing spoons (or energy/capacity) along the way also hit on Friday night after the hustings but before Saturday’s recording. The only point of fact I recall the chair, Dr Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin, challenging any of the panellists on was on who came up with the policy of all new-build homes from 2016 having to be zero carbon. The Conservative candidate for Cambridge claimed it was the Coalition, Dr Jones said it wasn’t.

For those who don’t know, I used to be a policy adviser on sustainable new homes in DCLG’s climate change & sustainable buildings division in 2007-08. In what were 10 of the most intense months of my life living & working in one of the most pressured political & policy environments I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t let that point rest. See the Storify here. (In this case I’m stating that Ms Fernando was misinformed, not lying. No frontline campaigning politician is going to know the policy detail unless they were reasonably well-read in that field).

Local government in Cambridge had definitely been informed about this policy by 2007. How do I know this? Because it I was the one who told them about it. Here are the slides from my talk at Newnham College attended by developers too. ***It’s got my name on them***

“Hang on – I thought you were only going to be the cameraman in this election campaign?”

That’s my intention, but where there is an issue of fact on a policy area I worked in, & where candidates continue to argue an incorrect point, I reserve the right to step in. On this occasion, it was a shame about the timing given the state of my health.

There are lots of debates between four of the five candidates between now & election day – helpfully collated by Cambridge Conservatives. See their calendar here – scroll down. I’ll try and get to the larger ones that cover a range of issues too.

Natalie Bennett struggles in the media again – a problem of style or substance – or both?

Summary

Thoughts on Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett’s recent interviews, and a recent piece by Liberal Democrats’ president Baroness Sal Brinton on a visit to Cambridge recently.

The detail via The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman (who in the grand scheme of things I rate quite highly as a journalist/political commentator even though she operates in a different part of the political matrix) is here. Social media has also noticed that this wasn’t the first interview she’s struggled with – the BBC’s Andrew Neil making mincemeat of the citizen’s income policy.

Some damage to their brand and the standing of the party has been done. But is it the end of their campaign and prospects? Unlikely. One of the reasons for this is that in the minds of the electorate that is aware of them, The Greens are the opposite ‘brand wise’ of UKIP. Given the lack of mainstream media coverage until of late, it’s unlikely that Bennett’s past media appearances were a major reason for people joining the party – unlike Farage’s extended & ongoing media coverage in the face of seemingly increasingly bland & anonymous politicians from the mainstream parties. As Natalie Bennett was only elected party leader a couple of years ago – succeeding Caroline Lucas MP who had served her constitutional maximum 2 terms, (See p7 here) Bennett won the leadership election succeeding Lucas who until then had been their highest profile politician as both leader and only MP.

Are the problems one of media style or policy substance? Or was it just another bad day?

There’s a mix of all. Could Natalie Bennett (given how ill she was with a cold – as you can hear in her voice) have said: “I am ill – Caroline Lucas/Jenny Jones will be available for interview instead”. I’m surprised more ministers and politicians choose to plough on than take time to recover and put a substitute spokesperson in their place.

On both style and substance, The Greens have not had to face intense policy scrutiny from the mainstream media and their political opponents. Just before their recent problems, I posted this blogpost. Since then, they have faced scrutiny over social media posts – here in Cambridge with candidate Dr Rupert Read, followed by the challenges over policy from Andrew Neil and on Newsnight just now from Evan Davis over style & on how media-savvy they are. (He was interviewing Baroness Jones, the only Green Party peer in the House of Lords – who also was elected to the London Assembly).

You can’t solve a policy problem with media training and you can’t solve a style problem by overhauling your policies 

If I were on the inside track with The Greens, I’d be investing not just in some short-term intensive media training from someone who really knows their stuff, but also in some longer term mentoring. (Ideally also from someone who has been through something similar or worse & bears the scars from the experience!) In particular, how to prepare for media interviews – both in the run up & on the day. This blogpost by Janet Murray covers the essentials if you are appearing in the media for any political party. (Or organisation for that matter).

How much policy detail should a political party know at this stage?

Former Labour Party special adviser Damian McBride is spot on here. He posted that post shortly after Ed Miliband and Ed Balls got into a bit of bother over their proposed mansion tax. No political party in the UK has the resources to give the level of policy detail being asked on some of the policies. That’s why we have a civil service in this country to do the detailed policy work for whoever gets elected. Take for example Labour’s flagship minimum wage policy. It was in their 1997 manifesto, and lots of people understandably asked: “What will the new minimum wage be?” To which their response was to set out a process for how the wage level would be set (so as not to frighten off the business lobby whose vote Blair courted heavily). Even when the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 was passed into law, the new minimum wage was not on the face of the legislation. It simply gave powers to the Secretary of State to set the minimum wage subject to the due processes set out in the legislation.

The point being that for the citizen’s income policy, Natalie Bennett did not need to go anywhere near giving away any numbers or ballpark figures. The policy itself is far too complex with too many factors & variables in it for such a small organisation to come up with a robust policy on it. What she should have said – in particular to Andrew Neil is to have argued the principle of the policy on its merit and said that the detailed policy analysis would come from the civil service assuming the Greens (or another party supporting the policy) got elected. Remember Natalie Bennett has gone on record saying what matters – in particular environment-wise, is that their policies are adopted, rather than getting ministerial seats.

Managing expectations

As I’ve mentioned before, The Greens have a significant number of published policies – click here. Ever since the Green Surge the mainstream media has been pouring over these in detail. Because there is so much there, it’s ever so easy to get caught out by an interviewer saying: “Your website says…”. No party leader is going to know that level of policy detail. This is where Bennett might have gotten away with: “Our policy spokesperson who knows far more about the detail you’re asking for, is [click here for the list of spokespeople]…I can put you in touch with them because you’re asking me about a level of policy detail that you wouldn’t expect from any other party leader.” This is a media cultural problem of wanting to go to the party leader for any and every question under the sun, rather than going to the party policy specialist.

“Isn’t the risk with ‘media style training’ that you turn ordinary political activists into political media clones so derided by so many people?”

Yes – and it’s a significant risk. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn into a political drone pre-programmed by party HQ incapable of independent thought. Whether it’s the ‘straw man’ question (“You’ve said that you want to increase green taxes on businesses to help deal with climate change, why is it that you want to put lots of hard working small business owners out of a job, with the knock-on impact on their hard-working families and…won’t someone think of the children??!?!?!”) or any other trap (there are a few here), you can see why simply repeating the ‘line to take’ becomes easy to fall back on. Funnily enough, the only person I’ve ever heard openly ‘rejecting the premise of a question’ (see last point here) posed by an interviewer on mainstream TV is Laurie Penny.

Being your own media

I’m still surprised more politicians and parties don’t do far more on this. In The Green Party’s case, one of the things they could do is create some short digital videos setting out detailed and informed responses to all of the questions put to them in the difficult media interviews of recent days. Not ‘soundbite responses’ but ones that demonstrate just how complex and difficult public policy is to develop and deliver – and how trying to reduce these to soundbites or even short political exchanges does no one any favours. Let’s take another example – but from a different political party: The Liberal Democrats.

If the Greens are taking heat now, that’s nothing compared to the 5 year roasting the Liberal Democrats have taken for choosing to go into the Coalition

Given the huge number of controversial decisions Liberal Democrat MPs, peers & ministers have taken, they have often found themselves on the back foot. At times it’s as if the mood from some sections has been: “We expect these sorts of policies from the Tories, but not from you!”

The structural & existential challenge the Liberal Democrats have is that proportional representation is in their political DNA – understandably so. Look at the difference in seats vs total votes in the 1983 & 1987 elections from their predecessor Liberal/SDP alliance (1983 here, and 1987 here). Imagine if the House of Lords took the general election results & allocated seats to members of an elected upper chamber via proportional representation & gave that chamber far stronger powers to vote down and/or delay/change legislation. History could have been very different.

How do the Liberal Democrats defend the decision to go into the Coalition given the 4+ years we’ve had since?

Lib Dem President Sal Brinton, now in the House of Lords but a former county councillor here in Cambridge gave it a go on a visit to Cambridge recently. I filmed it. It’s almost 20 minutes long but is worth a listen irrespective of your political affiliation.

The point of the above being: ‘Yes, there are difficult questions to answer, so here are my answers in my own words in my own time.’ The risk with this is that if you don’t answer those difficult questions, you run the risk of any positive content being ignored as people focus on what you refuse to answer.

Food for thought?

 

The Greens may be surging, but the next bit could be tricky for them

Summary

The challenges of rapid expansion in a short space of time

At the end of my civil service career I went through the opposite – the largescale downsizing of an organisation numbered in the thousands. The Green Party judging by recent headlines now has more members than UKIP, and at the time of writing is not far off the Liberal Democrats, all three hovering just over 40,000 members across the UK.

“Hang on a minute, how did this happen?”

The Green Party’s membership has been steadily rising over recent years, and shot up in 2014.

(Above graph via @Jim_Jepps and @steve4319).

What then followed after the European elections (where The Greens missed out narrowly on doubling their MEPs with defeats in the North West & East Anglia by small margins) was the Scottish Independence referendum. On the side of a dynamic and radical ‘Yes’ campaign (from what my Twitter friends in Scotland from across the spectrum told me), The Scottish Greens experienced a surge in membership numbers shortly after the ‘No’ victory was announced. By ‘surge’ I mean they more than doubled their membership of just over 2,000 to well over 5,000…in three days.

“In three days?!? Crikey!”

It was even more for the Scottish National Party – who now look very likely to take control of a significant number of Scottish constituencies in the Westminster Parliament in the May 2015 general election. I’ll explain why this matters later on.

“Are they or aren’t they a major party?”

In October, the TV broadcasters got together to announce the planned format of the TV debates as they had in 2010. They included UKIP but excluded The Greens. The Greens, supporters, sympathisers & those that wanted a more plural TV debate started signing a petition. In their hundreds of thousands – nearly 300,000 at the time of writing this. Combined with the argument of Caroline Lucas’s presence in the Commons, representation in a number of councils, three MEPs and two MSPs in the Holyrood Parliament in Scotland has put pressure on the broadcasters.

Cameron steps in and puts The Greens on the front pages

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 14 January, Cameron put The Green Party on the front pages of the politics news (and of the evening news because they report PMQs as ‘real’ news) when attacking Miliband & Labour. (See here, from 5m30s). This meant that Wednesday’s evening news led with Cameron and Miliband clashing over whether The Greens should take part in the TV debates. Publicity gold dust given that many outside of politics may not have known about The Greens, or saw them as a tiny party not worth the attention because the news didn’t feature them. With a greater frequency of higher profile news coverage and a general desire for ‘something new’ in politics, at the moment The Greens are benefiting.

“What’s Cameron’s game? Why is he deliberately inflating The Greens given they stand for almost everything he does not?”

Good question. Note that George Osborne repeated Conservative backing for the Greens to take part in the TV debates a day earlier in Parliament. (See here). In a nutshell, it’s tactical. UKIP are likely to take more votes off the Tories than Labour or the Lib Dems. By having The Greens on the same platform, Labour and the Lib Dems will have to watch their left flanks. With little chance of either The Greens or UKIP winning power, they can afford to be more radical with their policies. From a disgruntled voters perspective, between the Greens & UKIP there is very clear political water between the two. Cambridge will be a microcosm of this throughout 2015 as the media-friendly duo of Patrick O’Flynn & Dr Rupert Read (of UKIP and The Greens respectively) go head to head at the fringes. Although both are unlikely to win Cambridge, the question is how much of the Lib Dem and Labour vote will go to either of those two parties. Note in 2014 at the Euro elections the two of them totalled over 12,000 votes in Cambridge.

Rapid growth brings risks – as Nigel found to his cost

Despite electoral success, the rise of UKIP was plagued with media stories of ‘politically incorrect’ (to downright offensive) outbursts from various activists, candidates and even elected councillors. As Farage commented at the time, UKIP simply did not have the administrative infrastructure in place to do basic background checks on all of its new members and candidates. As a result, Farage found himself having to fight off negative headlines on a regular basis.

Could the same happen to The Greens? Quite easily. With a rising profile comes greater scrutiny. Expect to see a number of media splashes where a tweet or a Facebook post is taken ‘out of context’, or where the direct action past of someone is plastered all over the media. My advice? Get your staff trained in crisis management communications. The Media Trust are particularly good at this – see their courses here. In fact, that goes for other parties and campaign groups too.

Not all membership fees are comparable across parties

This is the other thing to consider. In the case of The Greens, their fees are based on income, starting at £5 pa for students, under 18s & those earning less than £10k per year. (See this tweet). For UKIP it’s a flat £30 per year bar special offers for armed forces & under 22s. Labour fees are also income based (see here). For the Tories, it’s more simplified (see here) and for the Lib Dems, I couldn’t find publicly available numbers. I’ve seen some social media comments about the impact of varying fees, but I’d guess for many people – especially young people, the low annual starting rates are not a huge barrier to getting involved.

“What do you do with all of these new activists?”

Keep an eye on the various party political vacancies on W4MP. The vacancies there often tell stories behind the headlines of the organisations that advertise. The challenge any rapidly-expanding organisation has is inducting new members into its culture, systems and processes. There’s also the challenge of developing trust. What do you do as a party/campaign administrator if you suddenly get over 100 membership applications from a part of the country that you’ve never been active in before? Where do you start?

In the case of Cambridge, there has been rapid growth – the local party having over 200 members and climbing still. The difference with Cambridge is that there are long-established environmentalist groups such as Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Transition Cambridge with a very solid core of long standing community activists, some of whom inevitably are members of political parties. But what if you don’t have that local activist or community base to build from? Where do you start? How do you know who to trust? What do you do if the trust breaks down?

It might sound corporate and bland, but I wonder if The Greens have done a basic risk assessment on the back of the surge in numbers. What are all the good and bad things that could happen as a result of this huge increase in numbers? What are their plans to mitigate any risks that might occur (and thus become incidents)? The same goes for Labour and the SNP – especially in a social media age where every social media molehill will be turned into a mountain by a sensationalist media. Why feature complicated policies when you can have a short “10 social media fails by [insert name of party]”?

Who will become the voices and faces of The Greens with this raised profile?

Updated to add: Funnily enough, within minutes of me posting this blogpost, The Greens updated their website with a substantive list of policy spokespersons (and their social media contacts). See the list here.

At a national level, The Greens have a number of experienced elected representatives – see here. But as with UKIP, how do/will they manage below that surface – especially at city/town/village level with local media? In Cambridge for The Greens this has been a real challenge over the past few years. What do you do if you’re in an area where none of your activists wants to be the point of contact for the local newspaper or radio station? Cambridge Greens have been fortunate with Rupert Read running a more proactive and disciplined media operation – not least reflected in his regular letters published in the Cambridge News reminding some 30,000 readers that the party is there. Whether that turns into votes or members remains to be seen.

How will the Greens cope when their opponents inevitably fire back?

Because party politics can be a very, very dirty business. The first exchanges in Cambridge between the five candidates together was on BBC Cambridgeshire with Chris Mann.

Obviously it won’t be the last.

What impact can you have in the May 2015 elections?

Summary

Some thoughts on how you can take part in this year’s elections – even if you are not a supporter/member of a political party, do not have the vote or don’t rate the candidates standing in your area

The basics

The team at Democracy Club who I met in 2014 said they wanted to help make the 2015 general election less crap than it risks becoming. Although they have their own personal political opinions and biases – don’t we all? – one of their main aims is to help as many people as possible cast an informed vote. At a very basic level, this means ensuring the electorate know:

  • That there is an election on
  • What the election is about – ie for which institutions with what powers
  • How to register
  • Who is standing
  • Where, when and how to vote

An example of this in Cambridge is here, by Chris Rand for the Queen Edith’s ward by-election.

Action: Could you create a similar poster for your local area to share online or perhaps to print out and display in a shop window, coffee shop, library or community centre?

Why this might help: At a very basic level they help remind people when voting day is. You might be interested, informed and passionate about politics, but are others?

Let the candidates know you exist – and are interested

  • You can find out who is standing for Parliament in the 2015 general election at http://yournextmp.com/
  • You can find out from your council (see https://www.gov.uk/find-your-local-council if you don’t know which council is responsible for elections in your area – it’ll be the district or borough council if you are in an area with county/district/parish councils) if there are local elections.

What I did in 2010 was to ask all candidates the same set of questions on the issues that were important to me. That way I got to frame the conversation rather than allowing the politicians to do it for me. If you have social media pages – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, tumblr or others, feel free to share the responses. Others may want to quote the responses in their follow-up questions.

Action: Could you find out who is standing in your area and share this information with your family, friends & contacts?

Why this might help: You may just catch someone at the right time who can then fire off an email about an issue on their mind. It could be a big picture international issue or it could be something very local or personal where a political advocate could help bring in proper support from a public service.

If you have a smartphone, learn how to use it to record audio and video

Websites such as http://iphonereporting.com/ have links on how to use them to record what politicians are saying. Follow the candidates on social media to find out when and where they are campaigning, and ask them questions face-to-face. You can upload the footage you capture onto Youtube or Vimeo for video, and Audioboom or Soundcloud if you are recording audio. Here is an example of where I recorded Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert at a recent event in Cambridge.

Given the huge range of issues you could ask questions about, you may want to focus either on your local area, and/or you may want to pick one or two important issues that you can research in depth so it’s harder for politicians to catch you out or bluff their way through your questions!

Action: Do you know how to use the video and audio functions of your phone? If not, how about learning how to use them for this specific purpose: local democracy

Why this might help: You are creating an evidence base that other people can then follow up in their own time. It also helps the candidates because people get to hear them in their own voices and as human beings. This sort of footage is more likely to be informal, therefore the candidates are shown as they are rather than as the polished products of central office. You can also tie down candidates to very clear commitments once it is recorded and shared.

Organise a debate or a hustings?

For those of you who are members of community groups, you can organise community gatherings to allow people to meet the candidates. It can be along the lines of a formal hustings – see the videos here for an example. Alternatively, you might want to set aside a regular gathering at a community centre for candidates and politicians to drop in and have informal conversations with people in your community.

Think about audiences that might be excluded by the political process – in particular those not allowed to vote whether by age or status. They are still part of your community, so how can you organise an event for those that might otherwise be and feel excluded?

Action: Ask your community group if there is interest in organising something that allows your community to meet and question the candidates

Why this might help: You never know, but there might be others in your community feeling similar. You might also have ideas on how to organise something more exciting than traditional hustings.

If you have children or friends who are under-18, invite them to suggest questions for the candidates.

If you are a very busy person with little time to research and find out about who is standing for what, why not mobilise the next generation? Drop an email to the candidates to say that you are going to vote based on the recommendation of your children/young friends, and that you expect the candidates to answer their questions factually and honestly. See what happens.

Action: If you can, try it – and suggest it to family friends. What would it look like if a group of parents got together and put their power of the vote into the hands of their children?

Why this might help: If more and more adults got together and told candidates their vote was going to be the direct result of recommendations from under 18s, would the issues young people and children face be taken more seriously?

And finally…

Whatever you do, follow it up! Let the candidates know whether you voted for them once the election is over, letting them know why you did or did not vote for them. The feedback for all might get some of them to change their policies, behaviours and actions over time. Keep tabs on them once the election is over. It might be that what happens in the 2015 election might inform future electorates in future elections.

Community conversations in the run up to the 2015 general election?

Summary

How can local political parties make themselves available for face-to-face conversations with voters, potential supporters and fellow activists beyond door-to-door canvassing and organised hustings?

This post stems from a number of conversations I’ve had with activists of various political colours (and those independent) locally in recent times. It comes at a time when – in Cambridge at least, all of the main political parties should be showing an increase in membership and volunteers given that we are less than six months away from a general election.

The five main parties in England – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP have all been out campaigning visibly in Cambridge in the past month or two. All of the parties here have selected their candidates:

My take remains that it’s too close to call between Julian and Daniel. There are many factors that make Cambridge a particularly volatile seat – and one more difficult when it comes to campaign tactics & messages. My analysis just after the May 2014 elections here remains broadly the same. Perhaps the only contextual change is that UKIP and The Greens have already started campaigning aggressively. Not a week goes by without a letter from Cambridge Greens being printed in the Cambridge News. UKIP are also targeting safe Labour wards where other parties in recent years have only stood paper candidates. With UKIP continuing to benefit from mainstream media amplification alongside the more quiet but steady growth of the Greens locally – membership in the city now having exceeded 200, how best could Labour go about campaigning against opponents on two opposing political fronts?

Any places to informally gather new activists & introduce them to each other?

Whether it’s the Lib Dems in Coleridge, the Greens in Queen Edith’s or the Conservatives in Abbey wards, it can’t be much fun being a lone activist for your party in your part of town. Nne thing that has struck me about all the local parties is the lack of publicity for organised informal gatherings to introduce new members or supporters to each other. I’m aware that Cambridge Greens have now started doing monthly pub gatherings (with about 12 attending this one that I popped into on the way back from filming another event).

With the canvassing & leafletting that they are already doing, where are the regular informal social gatherings from the other parties that allow potential supporters and new members to meet with seasoned activists, candidates and elected representatives? Could they be advertised on the next round of leaflets that they all distribute? Could you send personalised targeted correspondence (or a phone call) to members and supporters in your databases to come along? (Which is more likely to have an impact – a mass email/leaflet drop or a personalised invitation?)

In the conversations I’ve had regarding the above, the Greens have shown the most interest in the idea – in part because they have signed up dozens of new members locally in a very short space of time. The challenge remains for the Greens to turn these new members into trained and effective activists – ones that can sustain their campaigns long after the adrenalin of the general election has died down. For various reasons, they failed to do this post-2010, despite getting three councillors elected. In anycase, since then, two of their former elected councillors have since passed away and the third left Cambridge altogether.

Other formats for community conversations and campaigning?

I’ve always wondered what it would be like if activists from two different political parties teamed up together to go door-to-door campaigning, thus creating a three-way conversation on the doorstep. For example what would it be like if the Lib Dems and UKIP or The Greens and the Tories teamed up in pairs to go door-to-door? How would the dynamics of conversations be changed? I know it’s highly unlikely to happen – party hierarchies wouldn’t stand for it. But it’s a thought.

Another format – one we use for Be the change – Cambridge, is collective problem-solving. Rather than having a traditional ‘audience vs the panel’ set up, scatter the politicians into groups who have self-divided into groups according to the issue they would like to discuss. These gatherings are very difficult to organise – as I’ve found out. But local community groups & organisations – esp those with their own venues are in an ideal place to host such gatherings. Transition Cambridge demonstrated how to do this recently – see my videos here.

My role in the 2015 campaigns in Cambridge?

I’m not planning on standing this time around – although it remains an option if things stay quiet in South Cambridge! As far as my aim of increasing participation in local democracy is concerned, I’m probably better suited to filming & reporting from gatherings, meetings and events than participating directly. My experience from the Queen Edith’s hustings (see the videos here) and the number of plays the videos got shows that there is likely to be demand for such content in the run up to the elections.

As I’ve said to the three parties represented on Cambridge City Council, I’m happy to film ‘point and record’ pieces to the camera and upload or hand over the footage I capture free of charge. The reason being I want to use digital video to help dispel some of the negative myths around local democracy. Part of that means getting footage of local candidates introducing themselves in their own words. This is what I did in the November videos below:

My aim with these is to get people to the stage where they can relate to the candidates that are on camera and think: “Yes, I could have a reasonable conversation with them” and overcome the ‘All politicians are the same’ mindset. As far as digital video with local candidates go, that’s pretty much my limit – leaving it to the public to then ask any follow-up or policy-specific questions. I had my say by standing in the May elections – in which I learnt lots. Now it’s time for others not just to have their say, but to join in some wider conversations. Through community reporting & digital video I hope that more will be able to take part.

Community reporting in 2015 – could you give it a go?

Summary

…including new apps, new tools, and encouraging more people to try it out themselves

2014 was an eventful year for me as far as learning new things and doing things for the first time was concerned.

  • Standing for election
  • Singing on stage in a public performance
  • Submitting my first media reports
  • Carrying out my first media interviews
  • Taking part in my first studio interview
  • Creating my first digital videos and podcasts

For 2015, I’m thinking: “Can you do the above again, but better?”

Vimeo stats 22dec2014 copy

The above-stats are for video plays on my vimeo account – I also have a Youtube account here, where I’ll be putting some of the longer digital videos & final versions up at in future. Essentially my video stats are rising compared with blogpost reads, which are falling. Interestingly, despite continually rising Twitter follower numbers (hovering around 6,500), interaction has fallen. I have far fewer conversations on it these days. Hence it’s much harder to get a feel for what other people get out of the content I post.

Out, about and visible to the public

It’s been fun and eventful. It’s got me out of the house & doing something positive. I’ve also become more comfortable with a new way of learning – one that involves not getting things right first time every time. I look back at some of my early digital videos & cringe at some basic errors – whether it’s holding a smartphone portrait rather than landscape style, to really poor audio.

I took the above footage during Puffles’ election campaign – I’d just finished a stall outside The Guildhall and recorded Jack Man Friday – now Mr Shepherd. Basic error here is holding the camera portrait style. Fortunately I’m now at the stage where filming out and about feels ‘normal’, making fewer simple errors and having basic safeguards such as asking for consent to film as habitual.

Filming Dr Rupert Read of Cambridge Green Party just before Christmas 2014
Filming Dr Rupert Read of Cambridge Green Party just before Christmas 2014

“How can we get other people into community reporting like this?”

Because I can’t cover the city alone! Also, far better to have a number of people covering things and bringing their different perspectives.

For people in Cambridgeshire, the offer of support & training is with Shape Your Place. Also, this website iphonereporting came recommended by Cambridge 105.

In spring 2014, Cambridge Regional College produced a BBC Question-Time-style programme where students cross-examined a panel of Cambridgeshire County Council councillors – see here for the 1 hour episode. For me, the next step is to make this programme an annual event (if not more frequent), and so something around building community reporting into either extra-curricular programs or the curricula of media studies and politics courses for post-16 students.

The ‘soft’ learning in what can be a solitary activity

Being a lone ranger means having to cover everything yourself. You’re not this outside broadcast machine that BBC Question Time is, where you have multiple people on cameras and microphones alone. Far more thought goes into creating solid digital content than the detractors of media studies might care to acknowledge. At the same time, operating some of the kit requires an incredibly sensitive touch – something that takes a huge amount of time to perfect. Think of operating your piece of kit to that of playing a musical instrument. It’s a little bit like that. You can’t give someone a text book & expect them to take to it. It takes time to get used to the piece of equipment and become ‘as one’ with it.

For me, some of the soft learning has included:

  • Getting used to the zoom controls on a camcorder
  • Getting used to the controls on a tripod
  • Becoming sensitive to the natural light and sounds around me – in particular prior to and during filming
  • Becoming aware of what might make good pieces of digital video – and setting up quickly my kit to record.

Making it easy to record with smartphones

For videos, I often carry a small smartphone clip and a mini tripod with me just in case I happen to be somewhere where there’s something that’s worth filming. The advantage of these two attachments is you can have the phone standing on something solid, avoiding the dreaded camera-shake! The clip also works for normal tripods too – which I used when filming for the Cambridge Buskers Festival.

Most recently-made smartphones do a reasonable job recording face-to-face spoken-word video and audio. My own footage has been used by local radio this year. Audio for music is much harder – especially trying to get a decent bassline and/or if the music and vocals are not amplified.

Creating that safe space for people to learn together

This is what I want to explore in 2015 – perhaps in the form of a few evening workshops in a community venue somewhere. In two sessions you could take people through the basics, put in people’s diaries who would be filming what events, and have a second session reviewing what people had filmed. Ideally I’d like to get something like this done before the election campaigns really kick off – that way there might be a few more people around to cover what happens.

A united arts and culture offer for the people of Cambridge

Summary

In the face of austerity, the Cambridge Arts Network is bringing together the diverse & somewhat fragmented arts and culture scenes in Cambridge to try and unite us all in the face of a very uncertain future

The Cambridge Arts Network (convened by Cambridge City Council) had their annual conference at Cambridge University’s ‘CRASSH’ building today. I went along with a series of indirect multiple interests & connections, even though I don’t consider myself an ‘arty-painty’ sort of person that my Mum knows. But then perhaps it’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily have to be good at making something to appreciate it, or to communicate it. A useful comparison can be made between people who are great football players but who never succeed as managers – and vice-versa.

One of the strands that emerged from the Be the change – Cambridge Conversation Cafe was the vision for a single arts and culture offer for Cambridge. Driven by Jane Wilson of Cambridge City Council, she and her team have brought along a large number of people (there were nearly 100 of us today) and organisations to a point where we’re in striking distance of something quite significant.

Bringing the schools on board

Rachel Snape, the headteacher of the Spinney Primary School led a workshop on getting young people engaged – in particular through schools. At the same time, she also highlighted again and again (with good reason) the power of local networking. Good reason because Cambridge is full of stubborn silos that for whatever reason are difficult to break. Longer term readers of this blog will be aware of some of the battles I’ve fought on this over the years. One of the ideas that has evolved in our discussion spaces (whether through BTCC or other forums) is that of bringing the schools together with arts and culture providers in Cambridge in the post-exams summers of each year to ensure teachers and heads are aware of what is on offer ***prior to planning their annual schemes of work*** for the following academic year. It was at this workshop that we got the go-ahead to make the first event of this type happen.

We’re still struggling with this digital thing

The Sidgwick site seems to have been designed as a mobile ‘not spot’ – and I have no clue why. All it does is inconvenience those of us that are not members of Cambridge University. The only person consistently live-tweeting through the event was me through Puffles. The other couple or so that posted were there as co-organisers (mainly Anne Bailey and Alessandra Caggiano, both of whom are part of the core BTCC group too – small world). Yet out of the dozens of people that were there it was left to Puffles to keep open a link to the outside world – thus enabling a few people unable to attend to submit questions to the room. We’re still yet to get to the stage of UKGovCamp’s buzzing social media presence. Cambridge tweeple – next ticket releases are on 11 & 18 December at 1pm ***sharp*** – & they will go like hotcakes on a cold day. Come along & experience it!

We need to talk about community reporting

A few people have raised the issue of me filming putting them & others of from asking questions at events or even from turning up at all. At the same time, I filmed various parts of today’s event because several people unable to attend had asked me to. How do you balance the two? Responding with “The world is going digital: deal with it!” aggressive response isn’t really my style anymore. It may have its time and place in a limited situations, but not this one.

The reason is that the conversations are becoming much more nuanced – and more interesting. It’s also one that brings out the skill of editing digital video footage. Filming in the grand scheme of things is relatively straight forward. Selecting the best five minutes of footage from five hours of film is a hard-earned skill. Selecting a decent sound track and then getting the footage – visuals & audio to synchronise with the music is another skill. Creating a product that is both informative, inspiring and purposeful is another. But that level of editing & production is incredibly time-consuming. Most of what I do – film, download, adjust volume, upload & publicise…well that’s relatively straight forward. Producing a five-minute medley with a separate sound-track takes a great deal longer. But people don’t see that editing process or the thought that goes into it.

“I thought you said you weren’t an artist!”

This sort of links to breaking the cultural inertia in Cambridge. There are generations of parents & grandparents in Cambridge brought up to believe that Cambridge University & its events are not for people like them. That’s because until the 2000s, that was the message that came from the institution & its member colleges & institutes. (During my teens, Cambridge admin staff and academics said it to my face or down the phone on more than one occasion, so you can understand why Cambridge University needs to take ownership of bad decisions & bad behaviour of its members in the past, & make that extra effort today).

That’s not to say there aren’t people inside Cambridge University already working their socks off. There are – I’ve met & worked with lots of them. The problem is changing the culture of an institution – and at the same time changing how that institution’s culture is perceived by the communities around it. If you do one without the other, it’ll fail. This is why for me at a personal level, influencing the institutions were the more interesting discussion points during the day. What is it about their cultures, systems & processes that isn’t currently working for the people of our city? What needs to change? Who can make that change, and how?

“Take me to your leader!”

I don’t know how many people are aware of the Cambridge Art and Culture Leaders Group – I’ve heard positive things, (eg ‘good to see them finally coming together with a united purpose’) to areas of concern (eg ‘how are you accountable to the people of the city for the decisions you take?’). With broad partnerships (count the member institutions here) you inevitably have the problem of co-ordination. Combine that with the fragmented state of local government still reeling from austerity (and there’s even more to come – £20billion by 2020 according to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude MP) and you begin to realise that the context of this single art & culture offer is not one where there are lots of grants to be had. Not from local government anyway.

This explains why I believe the single art and culture offer for Cambridge cannot be seen as a standalone project or objective. Its success depends on things like a sound restructure of local government. (You can’t have huge cuts to an institutions budget and hit it with a communications revolution & then expect it to have the same structures, systems & processes).

One of the challenges that people expressed frustration over was institutional leadership. With the current structure of institutions in Cambridge, no one institution has the competency to provide that leadership. By that I mean legal, financial and influencing. Cambridge City Council has planning & development control, with some community & leisure funding. Cambridgeshire County Council has control of transport & education. Cambridge University & its member colleges have lots of money, own lots of land and has a significant influence over what happens in our city. What would it look like if Cambridge University behaved in a manner where it believed itself to be responsible for and accountable to all of the people that make up the city of Cambridge rather than just its members?

So…what’s stopping all of this then?

Again, one of my big bugbears is the culture within administrative departments of institutions. Having worked in or for a few of them over the years – even outside the civil service, sentiments from the Whose University? campaign set up recently by Cambridge students is one I empathise with. In whose interests are our institutions acting in? Because if students are feeling that Cambridge University is not acting in their interests, combine that with the town-gown divide, we have a real challenge. It might be that the solution involves a level of transparency and accountability that makes Cambridge University and its colleges feel, in the short term at least, very uncomfortable.

One of my basic campaigning points for Cambridge – one that was a major part of my election manifesto in May 2014’s Cambridge City Council elections – was making basic digital skills and data analysis skills mandatory competencies for all newly advertised management posts in the public sector in Cambridge. (See here). You can imagine how that went down in some quarters. You never know – I could bring the dragon back for the 2015 Cambridge City Council elections and try it again.

It’s not just digital though, is it?

Not at all – and a number of other solutions were raised. Some very familiar ones. A single city-wide events portal that is user-friendly and is acknowledged as the single port of call – such as http://events.onthewight.com/ on the Isle of Wight, came up. Another one was information overload – particularly with schools. How does the Cambridge arts & culture community ensure schools are not bombarded with marketing materials to the extent that the latter simply shut up shop?

The same is true but from a different perspective for potential donors and sponsors. How do we make it dead easy for people & organisations that have very limited time to make quick decisions on who to support? The same goes for employers wanting to engage with schools and provide things like workshops & work experience. At workshops with the Cambridgeshire/Peterborough Local Economic Partnership employers have regularly spoken of their frustration at not being able to get past the school receptionists at state schools, while private schools have trained outreach officers that make the job of organising work experience from the employers’ perspective a doddle.

“This all looks incredibly complicated – I just came along because I agreed with the aims & wanted to help out!”

Let me introduce you to the delights of local government finance policy! Then again. Actually, one of the biggest barriers I noticed was on information (in terms of data sets & evidence bases), and communications.

Information – qualitative & quantitative

Again, I put this in Puffles’ manifesto back in May, calling for us to do a mapping exercise for the city to give us a baseline from which to work with. On community venues for example, I wanted to know the following:

  • How many venues there are
  • The distribution of those venues across the city
  • Accessibility – especially by public transport to the venue but also wheelchair access inside the venue
  • Who owns/runs those venues
  • The capacity & facilities available at those venues
  • When they are available
  • Cost of hiring
  • % of the total available days they are booked
  • Quick-wins investment-wise – what new facilities would venue owners like to add, at what cost and what additional income would they bring in?
  • Audience segmentation – who are the users? Who is conspicuous by their presence/absence?

On the numbers side, it might be things like:

  • How many community engagement officers (FTE and number) have we got in Cambridge irrespective of the institution that they work for?
  • Total spending on community outreach across the city, irrespective of institutions (note we’d need to be careful on definitions)
  • Distances travelled by users to get to venues
  • Can we get some data on our audiences – generic data that can influence & inform decision-making?

Communications

Me and Richard Taylor gatecrashed the November meeting of the Cambridge City Deal Shadow Board at The Guildhall. Hashtag #GuildhallGroupies. Hence being able to influence their discussions on communications just by being there. With camcorders. And smartphones. All the more surprising that their official record of that meeting doesn’t include a record of the public questions I put to them.

…even though we have it on video! #Facepalm

Actually, the wider issue is with their communications strategy (which is here). As a city, we need to come to a collective agreement about how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. What’s the point in saying you’ll use social media if people cannot access it? What’s the point of using print publications if they are struggling to shift copies? The word ‘feedback’ is only mentioned once in the entire document. Mother Nature gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth in those proportions for a reason. How does that feedback get analysed & influence decision-making?

So…lots of food for thought at an event where…I got a sense that we’re really getting somewhere with a very important part of city life. So ***well done*** everyone who organised & participated.

Now…after all that, have a panto song!!!

 

Filming a theatrical performance – a big step up

Summary

Some thoughts on filming a theatrical stage performance

First of all a big ***Thank you*** to Alex and Laura, the co-producers of CUADC’s production of The Emperor’s New Clothes at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge.

The above is a teaser-medley I put together, as most of my weekly allowance of file space was used up for a Transition Cambridge event with Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert. Videos of Julian’s speech, and the feedback presentations are here. I also recorded the audio of the Q&A session Julian hosted – avoiding filming so as not to put off people from asking questions. Click here for the audio – which I recorded on an old smartphone that I’ve kept old of, attaching it to a standard lapel mic clipped onto Julian’s shirt. Note to self, adjust the mic volume before recording!

Going beyond ‘setup and record’

This is the next step for me – going beyond being the static cameraman. Many of my previous recordings have involved little more than setting up the camera and letting the hardware do the work. With a theatrical performance, you cannot do that. If you capture the whole stage, you don’t get any detail of the actors’ face expressions. A lot of the nuance and communication is lost. You run the risk of ‘stick figures moving to audio’ with that approach.

The optical zoom on my camera was powerful enough to zoom in close enough for a decent head-and-shoulders shot. The problem with that is you have to be aware of what the rest of the case is doing outside of your view-finder. When you have multiple characters in dialogue, this is a huge challenge. Even more so if the characters are spread across the stage – as they often are in plays. It takes a huge amount of practice to learn what level of zoom corresponds with what levels of camera movement. The slightest touch of the camera when zoomed in on a distant performer will knock the performer out of shot.

Comparing actors moving across a stage with a single pianist in one place

The above is one of my favourite performances by one of my favourite young musicians, Grace Sarah – filmed at The Junction in Cambridge just after she had completed her GCSEs. This was filmed from the same distance on my old camcorder that only had a digital zoom. In the grand scheme of things, that 2010-era consumer model camcorder did a reasonable job. But it struggled with other performers that evening. It would have had no chance with a theatre performance. The movement and changing light patterns would have been too much for it. Ditto with trying to pick up the music from a relatively large theatre band. Interestingly, there were a number of occasions when even my upgraded camcorder really struggled with trying to auto-focus in on some of the actors – particularly when the light contrasts were large, eg with spotlights.

Improving on the audio

In the grand scheme of things, audio counts for at least 50% of your videos. People can tolerate slightly shaky visuals. Screw up the audio and they switch off – as I found out with a very early digital video project a couple of years ago.

Take this performance below by the Cambridge-based octet Makossa.

You can hear the bass, but you can’t feel it – if that makes sense. The same is the case with this performance by Fred’s House from earlier this summer at a pack Alex Pub. (Dowsing Sound Collective friends may recognise Paul on the drums). Again, you can hear but not feel some of the various musical instruments.

As a single operator, I’m faced with the constant challenge of the trying to find a decent place to film from as well as a decent place to get audio from. In the case of the Fred’s House performance, there was neither as the garden was jam packed. In both these cases, the amps were linked up to a professional standard sound mixer. In the case of Makossa, there wasn’t anyone operating the sound mixer during the performance. In an ideal world you’d have someone who knew reasonably well what they were doing & were passionate about it on the sound mixer, with your camcorder plugged in. (I don’t have the kit to plug into such kit, hence relying on an external mic – which I suppose makes me ‘look the part’!)

Rehearsing

On theatre performances where you have people moving across the stage, & multiple voices appearing in different places, I can see how rehearsing can make a huge difference. Furthermore, I can see how having a ‘camera script’ of who to focus on and when, being really useful too. The better clips – in particular the face expressions that I filmed from the ADC Theatre earlier were down to luck with anticipation and bloody hard concentration. The last time I concentrated so hard on a screen for an extended period of time was during second reading of a bill going through Parliament that me and my team were supporting ministers for. That was a good seven hours concentrating on every single word uttered by every MP.

In 2015 I’d like to try out filming another show – not a serious play but a light-hearted one, with rehearsal & preparation time. Hard work, but I imagine damn good fun!

Cambridge Hub turning ideas into actions

Summary

Taking a ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ problem to Cambridge student activists…and watching them run with it

Some of you may be aware of the Volunteer Cambridge event that the Cambridge Hub is organising for Cambridge City Council on 28 February 2015 at The Guildhall. In previous blogposts I cited this as an example of an idea I had which is now coming to fruition. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that the Hub was organising an open space gathering for Cambridge’s many environmental groups and campaigns. Almost a year ago to the day, I posted this blogpost. Despite a persistent cold, I went along.

I’d say there was a 60-40 split of students-town activists, starting off with a couple of ice-breakers before going into open-space pitching.

HubGreenSpace

The above is a pano-photo I took during one of the ice-breakers.

The sessions pitched ranged from hyper-local (encouraging students to get involved in growing on community allotments) to the mega-global (campaign preparations for the Paris 2015 Climate Talks). The session I pitched was on mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism. One of the challenges we face for Be the change – Cambridge is getting young people involved in a way that interests them and also has them influencing the decisions made by the city’s institutions. One of the pieces of advice I’ve had from community youth workers was to work with people closer to their age range to to bridge the age and credibility gaps. I’m in my 30s now – when I was in my mid-teens the current generation of mid-teens were not even born. Mine was the large generation of ‘the ignorant’ – ie one where we didn’t have the internet and thus all this information at our fingertips. Thus I will have my blind spots – or my ‘unknown unknowns’.

Mobilising Cambridge’s 16-19 year olds through environmental activism

My approach as a facilitator was one where I asked questions about the problem – focusing on specifics and how participants might go about dealing with them. Quite rightly, we had a steer of not making the sessions about pet projects or existing schemes – hence not mentioning BTCC until invited to by the organisers. My premise being that this was their space, not mine, and that those interested in taking forward the ideas we came up with also needed to take ownership of it – with me and others in support.

‘What does success look like to you?’

This was one of the first things I put to our breakout group. While I have a vision for what success looks like, I wanted to find out based on their experiences what it would look like. Hence these notes.

HubGreenSpaceSlide1

The most interesting part of the discussion for me was about the safe space to make mistakes and to learn by doing. It’s easy for someone like me to say: “Oh well we tried that a few years ago and it didn’t work” in response to someone’s idea. Such a comment reduces the influence and control that young people have on their projects. Hence far better to either let them get on with it or say: “Have you thought about the risks with your approach? What could go wrong and how could you prevent this?” Rather than defining the solution for them, allow them to figure it out themselves – because that way they might come up with something you’re completely unaware of.

Strong support and confidence in young activists

Within that same context came the above – the back up young activists want or need from older people. In particular making clear that things might not go to plan, things might fail and that this is OK. This is especially the case when time and money is involved. In terms of learning basic transferrable skills, the top three I came up with included:

  • Working as a team to achieve a greater goal
  • Communicating in different contexts
  • Managing a budget

In terms of visible changes, diversity within existing city campaign groups is one of the most important ones for me. I’ve been to gatherings of too many community groups that are not fully reflective of the communities that they are within. In many of the cases that I have seen, young people are conspicuous by their absence. From the Cambridge Cycling Campaign to the Cambridgeshire Local History Group, I have often been one of the youngest people there, and often the only non-White person there. When you consider the number of young cyclists, or the number of young people doing local history projects, you can see the opportunities our city is missing out on.

“So…who’s going to do what then?”

HubGreenSpaceSlide2

Apologies for the stupendously blurred picture above. The Cambridge Hub have the originals.

In terms of actions, the two most important were:

  • Mapping the community – finding out what is already happening
  • Planning your approach for each institution or group – in particular being crystal clear about what you want from them and what your offer to them is

The two big risks the students identified were:

  • Sustainability and continuity with the annual turnover of students & young people on both sides
  • Groups and institutions being deluged with lots of ideas, and being overwhelmed to the extent that nothing happens because they don’t know how to respond

On the first one, the students came up with suggestions on having permanent teacher contacts with each school, and ‘desk instructions’ for newly-elected reps – such as school council reps on what they need to do as soon as they take on their responsibilities

On the second one, they suggested the Cambridge Hub could come up with criteria that projects/proposals could be assessed against, ensuring that a limited number of developed proposals can be put to outside organisations rather than an uncoordinated wave of requests/invitations to get involved.

Everyone’s camera shy!

I wanted to film some short interview clips about the event, but everyone was camera-shy, despite encouragement from organisers. This is coming up as an issue time and again. People seem to be very nervous about being filmed in an interview. It’s got me thinking about whether as a city we need to do something about very basic interview training, to whether I need to overhaul both my own image and how I go about my work. For example setting up myself as my own media network to make it sound more professional? I’m thinking along the lines of Novara Media.

Next steps?

It sounds like this is something that students are interested in running with, so I’ll be keeping in touch to see what comes out of this after the Winterval break.😛 #PCCorrectMassiv

It also sounds like Cambridge Hub will be running a similar open space gathering in early 2015. If interested, they are on Facebook here, and on Twitter at @CambridgeHub.