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the new RICH list

The other day I drank rather a lot of coffee but had some great conversations with some very clever people. Chris (@jaggeree), Ben (@beng), Paul (@r4isstatic) and Vinay (@leashless).

By the end of the day I wanted to do about 20 things at once, but there was one idea that started to form when I was speaking with Chris and Ben and took a better form later on when talking with Paul.

We came up with or listed out loads of ideas on things that would be worth building or exploring. Things that we could learn from, maybe other elements of the community could learn from. Maybe the ideas are wrong or useless or maybe in the fluff there is the germ of a good idea.

What is needed is a space to share the idea, to ask a group of peers ‘I have this half baked idea, help’. Now you can publish your idea and link to it and hope that you garner the feedback that you want but because there is so much noise online and so many ideas you might well in a lot of cases whistle into the wind. You will not get the feedback or support you need because no one notices that in fact you need a bit of help baking your idea.

So we go back to an old construct on the internet, the mailing list. That self selected group of people who know or vaguely know each other and are willing to share and bounce ideas off each other. A group that can go ‘thats a good idea, I have a bit of code that can do that bit and…’

As long as there is no pressure on people, since the ideas and projects are all extra-curricular, then it should become a space to actually get things done. They do not have to be finished, they might be sketches but it becomes a space to try and discuss and play with ideas.

So, Paul and I came up with the concept of the ‘Reasonably Interested Community of Hackers’, Paul has done a very nice post about this already. If you think you want to be a part of this small-ish list then let us know. The interesting thing will be how it works getting things made.

Of course the rest of the day was filled with new ideas for conferences, how presentations should be made, what mischief could be performed online, especially to show up the moral vacuity of the Tory idea of Big Society and so there will be more posts on these oh so very soon.

bookleteer API – project 2 (mini atlas)

Cheating a little, as we are not yet hitting the API.

I did a small piece of work that made use of Michal Migurski‘s Walking Papers a while back, ‘A Watchful State’ is a piece about CCTV and recording their location in urban infrastructure.

A Watchful State

I used one of the Walking Papers in the left hand part of the triptych.

Now, playing with Bookleteer one of the things I want to create is small atlas’ of an area with space for notes and annotations.

For the first test, I have used the walking papers site to generate a map of an area I am interested in and then manually resized the maps to fit in the Bookleteer page. The resulting atlas has the following:

First spread has the full map of the area on the left hand page and a blank page for notes on the right, the next spread has the top left quadrant of the map and a blank. Next is the top right quadrant and so on.


The full map

It is not complete yet by any stretch. Walking Papers are far more than just a nice way to print an map for a specific area, they are designed to be scanned back in and help add more information to Open Street Map data.

The main map, whilst it retains the markers to communicate orientation and location of the map has been reduced in size, the other maps are currently just cut ups of this main map, so missing the full registration details.

That said, since Bookleteer is also designed to be taken apart and rescanned in the two should complement each other.

Next step is to create a simple web app that will automatically do the same as above to create your mini atlas.

bookleteer API – project 1 (notebook)

then

When we did the geekyoto conference, Giles Lane printed up a set of notebooks and storycubes that we had around the venue. These were from the diffusion system that they had developed.

Diffusion became Bookleteer.

now

Bookleteer is a platform from Proboscis. I first became aware of their work whilst I was at the BBC and I discovered their Urban Tapestry project. I have stayed in touch since then, Giles also being a supporter of the Geekyoto conference.

Bookleteer has had an API for a while and I have been meaning to get around to doing stuff with it, now with some time to do some experiments and small ideas I have finally gotten around to it.

It works with so many of the ideas and projects that I have been working with and thinking about over the last few years that this is I feel one of the most exciting and important pieces of experimental work that I will have done in ages.

Now, I am also going to take on board some of what Tom Armitage spoke about at the recent dConstruct conference in Brighton, specifcially when he mentioned the (amazing) work of James Bridle. The Ideas to Actual Projects ratio. I’m not aiming at finished products, these are sketches and learnings and components of ideas. From building these I intend to learn more about how some things work, how they might work together and how they might be used.

Now the first one out of the box is rather a cheat, in discussions with Giles he mentioned how he was planning on writing some code to generate blank notebooks. So I have taken that as a starting point and done just that.

The notebook app allows you to select the type of book (classic reporters notebook or book type fold), whether you want blank pages or a grid and the number of pages. You can also give your notebook a title and it will go off and get the bookleteer system to generate the PDF. You can then download, print this and create your bespoke notebook.

There is lots is does not do:

  • At the moment it just uses my access token, so, ha after all this access to it is rather limited. This is something to work out with bookleteer and myself. If you want a go then drop me an email.
  • It should really do clever stuff like put the request to the Bookleteer API into a queue and let you know when its ready, rather than just wait for it a single process at a time.Thats a scale thing, something I may do later.
  • The grid is quite large at the moment, creating backgrounds for the pages is quite easy, they are just small jpegs repeated in a div tag in the HTML that describes the page. So I need to play about with images and sizes to give you some options on grid size.
  • Potentially other backgrounds can be made.
  • At the moment all the notebooks are private, when you create a book in bookleteer you get the option to make it public into their library, I just didn’t want to clog up the library with lots of bespoke notebooks, especially when they are titled like ‘notes for this specific day/location’ :)

This is just a first experiment with the API and starting to get my rusty code skills back into shape. Visit the Proboscis site and read about their project linking notebooks and the new publishing venture The Periodical. This whole concept of being able to create bespoke notebooks that are then used in a project and then, added back into the digital system is one of the reasons this platform is so exciting.

Since each book is made of A4 pages, once you have finished writing in it, sticking in pictures, sketching, whatever, unfold the book and scan the pages back in. Its not much work to re-flow the scanned pages back into a downloadable and printable book again. You can also then send that off to be printed in short runs. (or long runs if you need).

There is a lot of power and potential in this platform as each book is not just a book. It can be the gateway to online conversations and allow online to reach out into spaces where the technology is still not easily accessible. It’s like Michal Migurski‘s Walking Papers project but reaches beyond just maps and location.

I think of it as forming a part of the whole ecology of projects like Newspaper Club and even Bergs upcoming Little Printer but unlike those projects it still has that samizdat feel, that route to be useful to people who still don’t go online or have the facility to explore the internet or even just find thinking with paper and pen more their thing.

Upcoming, mini atlases, museum trips and storytime.

The Ministry Of Stories Procurement

I volunteer as a technical advisor to the Ministry of Stories in Hoxton. If you don’t know them they are a charity that runs creative writing workshops for children. To help fund the Ministry they also run the Monster Supply Shop.

Right now they have a big project for which I need your help, as a charity they have lots of people who volunteer, donate or are just interested. Over the last year they have managed these various lists through a number of systems, some more ad hoc than others. Now though they know that they need to sort out some joined up system, we are into the world of CRM.

I have started looking at CiviCRM as a possible solution, but my experience with Drupal is rather limited. We have also been pointed to at least one commercial solution. So below I have noted our key requirements for a CRM system and was hoping that you might be able to help us work out the best route to take.

Currently
Currently we have three main sites on the net that can collect data for us, The main website, http://www.ministryofstories.org/ allows you to find out about the Ministry and sign up as a volunteer or just sign up for news.

http://www.monstersupplies.org/ is our online shop, where you can buy Tins of Fear and more to support the work of the Ministry. This is another data point, allowing you to sign up to newsletters etc.

Finally we also have a presence on http://www.justgiving.com/ministryofstories/ information from here should also get captured.

We have a database of people, mostly from signing up on the main Ministry website. These are contact details for people who want news, volunteers and donors. Volunteers have various roles, there can be volunteers who help out in the shop, or the office (or like me trying to give some domain advice) or they can be the mentors for the workshops. If they are going to work directly with the children, then they have to have CRB checks completed and references. All this needs to be recorded so that we know who is doing what, what status they are at (fully trained and checked, in progress etc).

Also people can have multiple roles, some will volunteer time as well as donate money. So when someone joins our database we need to be able to know about their multiple roles and make sure when we communicate with them we do so in the correct context and also make sure we are not spamming them.

We also have data on organisations and contacts at these organisations. Since some donations come in via such organisations we need to be able to record these as entities as well.

There is also a database of Schools and contacts there and we also keep records of the children who attend the workshops, data around allergies, dietary requirements and their progress through the workshops. This database we want to keep separate to further restrict access, but would need to get some reports from this into the general reporting in the main system.

As, yes, reporting. We need to be able to generate reports, for us to track people we have, interest, admin (ie who has CRB checks that need renewing, who has been attending the workshops, who is also signed up as an illustrator etc). We also need to be able to generate reports for various funding bodies, as they like to know information such as number of volunteers, number of volunteers from a specific area and other demographic information.

Where we have that data we need to be able to create these reports, they will help us to apply and maintain funding from various organisations. This data is also useful in quantifying the impact the Ministry is having, in terms of engagement etc.

So our new system needs to be able to do all this, but whereas at the moment this is all spread across a number of databases (wordpress users, filemaker, mailchimp, various spreadsheets) we would like to be able to have one system, or at least one core system that can push out relevant information to the other systems (so, when you sign up at the website we record your information in the main database, it can then update the wordpress system to create your account on there).

Also:

  • We would like to be able to attach paperwork to records, ie a scan of references, or CRB document.
  • Create contact reports when calling organisations / individuals about funding / donations.
  • Possibly integrate with ticketing systems, we run some events, some free some paid.

Finally, we hope that over the next year other Ministries will appear across the country and we would like to be able to say ‘Here is the CRM system for you, here are the reports you need, here is a shared contact database for funding groups. etc’

So we now need to find the solution that ticks as many boxes as possible, is something we can work with (on a day to day usage basis) but will also grow as our requirements possibly change.

It needs to:

  • Be cost effective, we are a charity with a very limited budget.
  • Integrate with our existing websites as much as possible. Though of course we can work on them to get them to work with the new system, I do want it all to join up as much as possible so we are not duplicating data or adding points where mistakes can be made.
  • Integrate with MailChimp. We currently use mailchimp for sending out our emails but we are getting close to the free limit, something that allows us to work closely with mailchimp to efficiently send emails, to make the best use of the free account would be great (yes, I intend to start talking to MailChimp about possibly helping us further).
  • Support a number of users working with the data. A volunteer co-ordinator and a fundraising volunteer could well be accessing records on the system at the same time.

So, as I said I have started looking at CiviCRm as a possible solution and we have had http://www.tessituranetwork.com/en/Products/Software.aspx
suggested as a possible solution. What I would like to know is if you have any experience with either of these, would they deliver what we need and what would it take to make them do what we want.

Also do you have any other suggested solutions?

If you have any further questions, then please leave a comment or find me on twitter @marksimpkins.

new news foundation two

so far some very interesting comments, i especially want to thank @newsmary, @hemmysphere and @davidwilcox who have already come back with some good questions and things to think about.

Primarily, what is the ‘foundation’ to actually do? When I first started thinking about it a year ago it was to be a small fund to give to developers to get an idea off the ground, move something from a sketch to something to show people and grow. Much like the awesome foundation does but with a domain focus on well, news. I had written a post about wanting to re-imagine what I wanted my news to be and thought that one possible way to get there was to get new code written, outside the big news organisations.

But, something @newsmary said via twitter made me think today. It was about the cost, I had put in a figure based on the awesome foundation again, meaning each month there was £1000 for a worthy project. If that was cheaper though and more people took part and they could direct the funding as they ‘needed’ would that produce something more interesting?

That is what I wanted in the first place, something to help realise my vision on what news was, would in fact a new news foundation in fact be a facilitation route for people to get the news how they wanted?

For example, some people may feel perfectly well served by the mainstream media for most of their news, but the local news is just not reported. What is happening with the local council. The only story they get is the quarterly paper from the council itself. They may feel a use in a subscription to create more local news.

Someone else may prefer the more long form investigative pieces of work, maybe they want briefings on world events?

Then others are quite happy to fund what is, in essence a news organisation that is not owned by any single individual?

Both @newsmary, @hemmysphere and @davidwilcox have rightly pointed out that some discussion on what is needed or wanted is the right next step, should we get a group of people together to start working out what such a foundation would do, before we commit to people putting money into the pot (thanks @hemmysphere), we should connect with the work that @davidwilcox has been doing and @newsmary is also right, that the price has to be right for the people who need this kind of thing, those not already happy and served by the existing media structures.

So, my next step is to get that discussion going. If you want to take part then leave a comment or find me on twitter @marksimpkins.

a new news foundation

An idea that has been about a year in the noodling, you may have noticed some of my thoughts on re-inventing news or at least trying to approach the subject from some different starting points, outside of the existing, large news rooms.

To this end, I want to launch in March 2012 a ‘new news foundation’ along the lines of the Awesome Foundation, so I was thinking of putting this on pledgebank:

‘I pledge to contribute £100 per month for 10 months to the New News Fund if 9 other people also agree to do this. This fund will be used to support and help new ideas in news, journalism and communications.

The projects supported will be decided upon by the fund contributors, and the contributors will be able to vote for an ‘advisory panel’ made up of people we believe will be able to help us find and support the important and interesting new ideas in the continual evolution of the news industry.’

So my first question is does this make sense? In what form should the fund exist, should it be an semi-informal thing, or should it be set up as a proper organisation (which I would prefer to do, but we have to be careful about time available to run something more formal, also we have to make sure that costs to run the fund do not come from the fund).

In doing this project I am interested in being able to support new projects and ideas, but should the fund be able to ‘invest’ in ideas, in the aim of getting a return on the investment and thus able to make more money for the fund? This idea, which I think would be very interesting also has a lot of issues around legislation, since the fund would then be a financial service.

March is the month of launch, so that we can do a 10 month run for 2012. We should be able to produce a report on the projects supported over this period of time. This is both serious but also an opportunity to allow some more playful and esoteric ideas to maybe get more of a foothold than they would otherwise.

Also, any ideas for a better name?

dispatches from the digital revolution – part one

In 1999 I wrote this for Mute Magazine, its not very good but I am posting it here because I feel that I can now progress and hopefully tell part of a tale that is more complex and mature. This is just a simple thing, early in my career thinking about what the internet means to us, as a place to be and as a contested space. That issue was about Tactical Media.

ICBM vs PING
Mark simpkins

The current war in the Balkans is being called the first Internet war. Previously, the Gulf war was hailed as the first information war. That is, information war in the terms set out by Bruce Sterling, Alvin Toffler, Jean Baudrillard et al – fought by a war machine using the latest information technology to strike at the enemy accurately, quickly and, notionally, ‘without risk to human life’.

Of course, the main front in this information conflict was back at home, packaging and selling the war to the general public. The information war was fought in our living rooms – by each side against it’s own populace. In information conflict, missiles and bombs go on destroying; civilians and soldiers go on being killed, but politicians require at least the illusion of a public mandate to sanction military attacks.

Now, eight years later, we have a similar situation, although this time part of the conflict is taking place online: both war machines involved in the conflict are using websites and newsgroups to spin their media hype.

At the same time, the NATO website was supposedly hit by a denial of service attack, a flood of pings requesting a response from the server and reducing it’s response time to a crawl. In America at least one person took it upon himself to do the same to a pro-Serbian website, using an off-the-shelf spam package.

All of these actions fit wonderfully into the new-speak of military action: ‘SYN Flooding’, ‘Denial of Service Attack’, etc – technical terms that generals would love to be able to use to describe aspects of their bombing campaigns.

Information war has to be constructive, not destructive. Instead of flooding the Net with SYN packets, we should be listening to it’s flood of voices. Away from the electronic toys of crackers and wannabe hackers, the information war is being fought with dialogue, conversation and the broadcast of ideas.
In media terms, the Internet is not quite up there with the televisions, but it’s getting closer to the living room corner. When it does, will we visit the site of consent, as we did before, or will we search out genuinely alternative sources of information? Instead of listening to the news about government sites being brought down by hackers, will we instead find sites built and emails sent by those on both sides of the conflict?

April 1999

This was a time spent reading Sterlings ‘The Hacker Crackdown‘ as well as the work of Toffler, Baudrillard and Virillio. It was also more importantly the time when Radio B92 broadcast online as it was continually silenced over the airwaves. This was thanks to XS4ALL. This ISP’s name appears in at least two recent books, Heather Brooke’s ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitised‘ and Becky Hogge’s ‘Barefoot in Cyberspace‘.

Both these books cover some similar ground, as at there core is the rise of Wikileaks but both also start to examine two areas of contest in our digital space. Heather speaks to the Cypherpunks, the people that broke encryption free from the bounds of being proscribed munitions. What is important here is the realisation from these very same people that they won a battle but ‘lost the war.’ Whilst we can all use encryption, design wise it is not baked into our software and systems. The default has not been to design in privacy but instead allow an open transfer of personal information.

Becky touches on the fact that most digital spaces are now, (arguably were they ever), commons type places. They are owned by corporations, they are beholden to the rules of capitalism. Google has shareholders, whilst for now they may not ‘Do evil’ in the future who is to say that whomever is put in charge by the shareholder decides to do what they want with the information that Google (and many, many other companies) has collected on you.

Information that has been transferred and given up without privacy designed in.

Both of these takes are about control, Adam Curtis touched on this in his recent documentaries ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.’ I wrote briefly about the first episode and mentioned that this was discussed by the work of Lawrence Lessig in his book Code, and also in the recent work of Douglas Rushkoff.

And I am going to write more about control, of the media, your space online and in the real world next time…