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The Arts UnCouncil

The board in front of you is empty, a grid. Rooms and times around the edges. How are you going to create something from this?

We have had unconferences for a while now, take the existing format and then blow it apart, allow the participants to create the content, to share, discuss and learn. It does work and once most people get past the initial shock of that schedule grid being blank to start with they soon learn that its there for them.

We need to find new ways to fund arts and culture. We can not rely on what has been there before, institutions do crumble over time, things do change and whilst I, personally do not agree with a policy being discussed or enacted by the current government and that we should fight, question and argue each and every one of them, I also believe that this is an opportunity to try other things.

Crowdfunding is a way to go, in fact on the, now many, crowdfunding sites you can find a number of art projects, short films, gallery shows etc. WeDidThis is dedicated to crowdfunding art.

Before I have proposed ideas around how we could look at funding journalism if we wanted to avoid the possible agendas of media moguls. Now, lets think about the cultural space around us.

We are already crowdfunding art works:

In Oxford, the city council have started running Create, a project where, once a month artists submit proposals, from which 6 are selected to pitch at an event. The event is open to the public, attendees are asked for a suggested donation of £10 (a minimum of £5) which goes into the event pot. The council match the donations in the pot.
At the event, the artists pitch and everyone votes for who gets the money.

The People Speak also run a similar event called Who Wants to Be…?, the audience created a fund and then spent the event deciding what to do with the money. Designed as much around a game show and audience participation event, this is also a performance in itself.

The Oxford model has been run twice now and seems to be working, and is something that could be used elsewhere.

You could also use the model similar to the one I suggested for the news foundation, ‘I agree to pay X amount once a month into a fund.’ As a contributor to the foundation I get to vote for the board that will be in charge of the dispersal of grants from the fund. In this model I would have less say over what specific art, events etc. would get funded, instead I devolve that to a curatorial board.

This could be seen as similar to the Awesome Foundation.

Now the Arts UnCouncil, we look at the board showing the balance available to fund the arts and at first glance it is bare.

Then we notice in the corner Oxford City Council’s Create is there. Other projects, such as the Nesta backed National Funding Scheme are currently on trial (disclosure: there is some of my code and technical architecture in the NFS project) also fall into our field of view but there are still a lot of blank spaces.

These are the spaces that we can fill, The Arts UnCouncil is the collective effort of us all to take part in the cultural landscape of our society. It is not a replacement for the Arts Council but as well as. We are not looking to close the funding gap but to participate in the creation of culture and art.

Very quickly the spaces on the grid fill up. You read some of the titles, some really catch your interest, others you glance over but thats ok. An idea springs into your mind, how you want to talk about something that has been on your mind for a while, an idea or project you have been working on over time recently. You want to share and listen. So you grab a pen and fill in one of the spaces.

This is just a note to ask us to start talking about how we might all actively contribute to our cultural landscape, how we might allow for challenging work to be developed and produced, how we can feel a part of the landscape.

The Arts Uncouncil might become a thing, run in trust for us all or maybe it is just an idea around which we can think and talk and do.

Help start the discussion.

The Arts Uncouncil.

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.