living in dystopia, so you don’t have to

I read a lot of SF as a kid, then for some reason slowed down a lot. Reading text books and factual books took up more of my reading time. I have though gotten back into reading SF. Some new, some old. Of the old works, it has been a pleasure to return to some stories I have read before but also to explore many that I have never gotten around to reading.

At school I won the prize for ‘Control technology’ twice. A book token was the prize, the bookshop in Tavistock was a wonderful little place, the person who owned it friendly. I spent many a saturday in town with an hour or so just looking at the books in there, it was a small section marked Science Fiction & fantasy but so many books came from there.

The two books I picked as prizes, one was J.G. Ballards ‘The Day of Creation’, the other was ‘Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction’ by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove. Both books I loved and still have with me today. Reading a Trillion Year Spree, though, was always an adventure as I knew there was so much out there that I was yet to read.

Now, excitingly Gollancz has the SF Gateway. They are publishing the long tail of science fiction, as eBook editions. So many stories that would normally be out of print are now accessible again.

Next year, in 2014, the WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention is back in the UK, being held in London. This year they are holding the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, again, the last time I attended either of these was back last century when they were last held in the UK.

Its exciting to go back to spending time with Science Fiction.


noisy city

“Smart Cities’ is the thing right now. Conferences and investment all over the place. Its been a long time coming as well, there is no shortage of academic thinking about cities and digital.

As of right now I have a small problem with the whole discussion as it currently has a very singular direction. It is being championed by large corporations, Philips etc and like the Big Data movement can be very dehumanising.

In Big Data, everyone pays lip service to the idea of Big Brother, but then its right on as we were, there is a lack of critical dialogue on what is happening in this space. Lots of people are doing good and clever things in examining this information but equally many of the externalities are not yet examined, let alone mitigated.

The same is true of the Smart City movement, as really this is the process of turning an environment into a repository and producer of realtime big data. How are we doing this? Sensors strewn across the city scape, all interconnected all bleating their piece of information and sponsorship.

As of right now there is a strong DIY and grass roots movement in place, the Internet of Things is not yet owned by the technocrats in power. Those that already own and barter the existing public service networks from the last centuries do not yet fully own the sensor and data networks that make up the instrumented city.

But events are being held that already appear less edgy and critical than they appeared to be last year. It could be that because of potential government investment the organisers and participants are already self censoring their ideas. A pot of initial investment in an idea is a valuable thing.

These ideas are going to make life different in the city and hopefully they will make them better but this will only happen if there is also the critical element in place, the ability to question the data, check the provenance, recalibrate and review.

James Lovelock wrote about building his own instruments for his science experiments that produced the data that enabled him to build the model of Gaia. How it helped to prove the damage we were wreaking on the ozone layer. He writes about how important it is to both build (and therefore fully understand how it works) your own tools and instruments and also the importance of actually going out and viewing the environment and collecting ‘actual’ data rather than relying on models.

Not everyone is going to be able to build their own sensors, not everyone is going to set up their own rig of data capture and broadcast around their homes, places of work etc. Yet, just as we need to make aure people understand how the digital is impacting their lives already, we need to make sure that the instrumentation that is collecting and sharing the data that will shape our interactions with the city fabric are true and unbiased.

Until then, we just risk building the noisy city, with the data of no real social worth to anyone except the corporates and power structures already in place.


emergAgency how the hackathon could evolve, step 0

I have used that name before but we have been starting to give it some focus. In recent weeks I have been speaking with Hub Westminster. They have an idea to create a go-to entity for companies, government departments, charities whomever to approach when they have a problem and they want to get some different thinking on it.

Of course, they could approach existing agencies, open up rounds of pitches or any number of other avenues to get new ideas and thinking into their patterns. Recently though there has been a vogue for the Hack Day or Hackathon.

The hack day though is already a possibly flawed and damaged product. What had started as way to get together a group of coders and work together on a problem for a short, time boxed period. Now, you can find hackathons or similar most weekends, across the world and for all kinds of ‘problems’. Whilst great fun us had at many of them and I am sure individuals get benefits from attending, new connections in their network etc. Overall they do not appear to contribute back into the community.

This is not the fault of anyone, just an observation of the structure as it is now.

What does come next? To examine this we need to understand what outcome we want because maybe there isn’t a next at all. Maybe the few of us who are frustrated by Hack events should just avoid them.

So, what do I want to see happen?

1. Attendance of other disciplines. Extend the reach and participation of these events, get product designers, industrial designer along as well, for example.

2. More focused problem definition. What is the goal of the event? To develop a block of code, to create a flow of information?

3. Document! Write everything up, share it so that it can be built upon.

and that leads to

4. Build on code.

Now this does change the whole dynamic, its not an event where you turn up, get some free food and some company where you can knock together something to show at the end of the time.

What we have here is more of a process, starting with a vague problem, honing this down into something more defined or maybe a set of more defined problems to be examined and then setting some people at those problems, within a support infrastructure of facilitation and documentation.

This is closer to what Hub Westminster want, to be able to take to these entities that have problems a new path to generating possible solutions.

So where does emergAgency fit into all of this? Well my pitch was to hold regular monthly events where the theme was plucked from the news, what was interesting, big that month. The actual theme would only be set a week before the day/evening of the event.

It isn’t a hackday, it is what I have described as a ‘pop-up think tank’ where an issue can be examined that the outcomes from that event, they are the next steps that feed into the later ‘hack/development/prototyping’ events.

Beyond that back when I was last using the moniker emergAgency I was thinking more around a pop-up agency to examine a problem. Take the problem space you have been approached with, put together a pool of talent to examine it and prepare possible solutions.

Which leads me onto another thing, there are lots of groups of people who get together to work on ideas, chat, network, create and learn from each other. This vast resource is something that can (and often is) put to good use in approaching problems.

What would be interesting would be some kind of point of contact, some assigned and recognised group/board who can bring in these larger, vague problems and help direct them to the groups, people who might be best placed to help solve them.

They would act as custodians of an ever growing repository of problems and directions for solutions.

It could act as a route for innovation, new ideas that would hopefully come out of this ‘process’ that could become self sustainable, new companies, new products or services. Some owned by exisiting organisations, others new start-ups.

Some of the ideas may just linger in the repository until the right people and team come along and can see how to take that initial idea to the next stage.

By being open, yes clear on attribution then this can become a route for the creation of new ideas as well as new opportunities.

All groups and people who sign up to the ‘foundation’ would get to vote for the panel who work at the top of the filter, the ones getting in and distributing the problems. The foundation should also support the events, discussions and hacks. A continuity of repository, supplying facilitation and documentation support.

It is this infrastructure that stops the current model of hackathons from being an ongoing source of new innovation, of contributing to knowledge.

So, this is just a set of vague ideas. Sign up at the emergAgency mailing list and lets shape these ideas into something that new.

Slightly academic

This is a short post to introduce something that I am currently up to. I have taken a part time role at Central St. Martins as part of the Socially Responsive Design / Design Against Crime research centre.

I have worked with them before on a few projects over the years and known Adam Thorpe since I visited the first Vexed Generation shop/installation, oh so many years ago.

Its an exciting opportunity to both help on the digital dissemination of current projects within the team but also to do my own work.

The current role is as Digital Communication and Engagement Designer but hope to apply for a research fellowship later in the year.

It is part time, so if you need any consultancy, technical project management or development on any projects, do get in touch :)

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)


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.


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


  • 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
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.

design for everyday life