Getting Birmingham Businesses online

(pic Dr Craig)

This is part crowdsourcing, part just setting my stall out.

One of the aspects of my new job that I’m wrestling with is the notion that no matter what kind of business you are you need to have an online presence. In Digital Birmingham we have a target for increasing the amount of businesses trading online but ‘trading’ needn’t necessarily imply buying or selling online. It might mean getting customers interested enough to talk to you about a contract over a rival. It might mean increasing your business contacts by using any number of social media networking tools. It might simply mean getting yourself listed in online directories enough times so that you come up high in google when a new customer is fishing around. 

But how do you develop a strategy to get Birmingham businesses online? Here’s my take on it as a series of questions that I’d welcome responses on:

What are we measuring?
Pete Ashton has a specific target in mind for Custard Factory clients. He wants 50% of them blogging by next year and at the moment 18 of them are. Anything with content that can be subscribed to counts. So Pete has a baseline to work on, it’s measurable and specific. What’s the appropriate measure for the city as a whole? There are some EU benchmarks which are worth considering and tell us lots about the national picture for e-commerce (UK is 2nd in the EU for enterprises selling goods online) but they only cover part of the story.
So my first question is really: What’s the measurable? Is it an E-commerce one or a ‘subscribable content’ one or something else? 

Why should Dean the Builder care?
Dean is knocking a hole in the wall of my living room on Friday (it’s okay, I asked him to). He comes recommended by a neighbour. But Dean is just a phone number and a cheery smile – he’s legit and everything but works alone or in a small team and picks up work based on personal contacts. He’s got tons of work so what’s being online got to do with Dean? There’s plenty of places you can see a generic rationale for getting businesses online but little tailored to specific sectors. Dean is reasonably priced, in fact I think I’m getting a bargain for the work he’s doing. He doesn’t need to advertise for more work but I wonder if there’s a place online where he could pitch for higher value work? Same effort, more reward should maybe be his goal.
So the real question here is: Do we need a sector-specific approach or a wider there’s-something-for-everyone approach?

How do we make change happen?
I like the Social Media Surgery approach. Get some keen people in a room and give away your knowledge for the greater good. Is that scaleable across the city? Seems a tough task if it is. Are there enough online experts to go around? Perhaps instead there’s a staged approach to take. Business leaders could start to use the tools themselves and hope that others follow. Perhaps identify and support a specific business on its digital media journey (no I’m not asking Dean, he’s got a hole to create). I’m unsure a ‘let’s-do-workshops’ approach will work at this scale. It’s a ‘heart-and-minds’ thing isn’t it?
So: what are the specific actions we need to take? On the ground working with businesses or a big fat PR campaign? 

Who’s on board?
Which businesses in the city are already doing this stuff? The media/creative industries ones certainly are and they should really be demonstrating to others the benefits of working online. I suspect the business sector as a whole is still very firmly of the belief that websites are brochures. At best they can show off stock. Perhaps you might sell stuff through it. But online as a way to build customer networks, social media as a tool to position yourself as the supplier of choice, as a way to continue the conversation started at the golf course – that thinking seems a way off yet. But there are useful corporate examples out there and maybe a public/private coalition could help drive this forward.
Which brings me to: Who is the ‘we’ that need to make change happen? Digital Birmingham + Chamber of Commerce? + Universities? + Tech firms? + a network of leading bloggers/social media types?

Any thoughts on all this are welcome.

Links for October 26th through October 27th

Some links for you:

  • Who Needs The Sea? – Powered by 4iP and Supported by Screen West Midlands – And this is it isn’t it? The social network for West Midlands’ Digital media folks. Built using Ning by C4 themselves.
  • Hello Digital Festival – Birmingham Mail – Digital Family – The ‘Digital Family’ go to the Hello Digital festival
  • Media Talent Bank – If they could fix their blog (you’ll know what I mean when you go look at it) this could make an interesting contribution to the general chatter around the West Midlands media scene. As it is I think you have to register to make any kind of contribution and, for me at least, the RSS doesn’t seem to work properly (lots of formatting tags in there). There’s talk of having a vacancies section on it and they are looking for guest bloggers.

A Social Media network for West Midlands Digerati

One of the things to emerge from last Friday’s launch of 4IP here in the West Midlands is that Channel 4 & Screen West Midlands intend to launch a social media network for those interested in applying to the fund. During the announcement of this I put out a tweet asking why we needed one imposed; shouldn’t the existing community build its own? The response was very much why do we need one at all?  

However, we do need something to improve connectivity in the digital sector as many of the companies in the room that day that I knew are simply not part of the existing network of bloggers and tweeters that has been building up over the last 12-18 months.

38 minutes

My guess at the thinking in C4’s head is that they would build something similar to, a site for Scottish/Northern Irish digital creatives to come together and discuss 4IP. Go take a look – it already has 300+ individual members and 45 groups/companies. It looks superb to me at first glance and the discussions have high level input from C4. In fact it’s further proof that although the West Mids were announced as the first 4IP region the Scots/Irish seem ahead of the game. That’s due in no small part to the energy and talents of their new 4IP commissioner Ewan McIntosh (go read his thinking behind 38 minutes). We do have more cash to spend apparently in the West Midlands (£10m) so perhaps there’s some consolation there but we really need to get going with connecting and collaborating.

Which brings me back to: should the digital sector just go ahead and build its own digital social media network? Is that a difficult thing to do? Would A DIY solution better demonstrate to C4 that we’re well up for 4IP and raring to go?

Birmingham Half Marathon race report

So that was the first ever Birmingham Half Marathon. All told it was pretty good. Here’s a brief report on the day:

It was of course a horrible night weather-wise (not as bad as up in the Lake District of course but thank goodness all the runners there are safe). By the time a group of eight of us got into a shared taxi at 7.40am it was just down to light drizzle and had stopped by the time the race started. I have no doubt that any complaints about the race will be based around the traffic at the start (big queues to park) and the loos (big queues to wee). Neither affected me much but I suspect the former was responsible for the 15 minute delay at the start. The pen system at the start worked well with runners starting according to their predicted finishing time.

The race was off by 9.45am and I have to say that it felt great to run on such wide roads. There was no runner congestion and generally good support all around. The underpasses and flyovers of Perry Barr were on the undulating side and running through the centre of town was fun but the really tricky hills were in Edgbaston. Every corner you turned seemed to be another uphill. The support on these roads was great and the water stations were well placed. Big thanks to Helen Foot who acted as my support crew by having a sickly orange energy gel ready for me at about mile 6.

The last two miles of this course are great. Given how tired my legs were after yesterday’s cross-country efforts I probably didn’t make the most of the two mile ever-so-slightly-downhill section but I gathered a little speed as I came past the large crowds lining Broad Street. An attempted sprint finish didn’t quite come off but I finished 96th in 1hr 27 min 11 sec. That’s a second best time for me at this distance. 

Overall there were about 40 Bournville Harriers running. Four of them were ahead of me with a couple of personal bests being achieved. Full results are online now. Well done to all.

I think the race was a triumph but I’ve no doubt there’ll gripes, especially from runners themselves (not flat enough, not scenic enough, no chocolate in the goody bag – runners can be a miserable bunch). But anyone who got themselves organised enough to arrive early, took in the atmosphere (lots of music along the way as well) and had the right attitude will have come away with a smile on their face as well as a medal around their necks.

By way of an aside yesterday’s cross-country was great as usual, and of course, muddy:

(pics Paul Foot although it must have been his wife Helen as Paul was one of the people stuck up a mountain in the Lake District)

Big weekend for running in Birmingham

Just to remind you that it’s a big running weekend in Birmingham. Tomorrow of course is the inaugural Birmingham Half Marathon. 9000 runners taking in Perry Barr, Newtown, City Centre, Edgbaston, Bearwood (presumably right up to the Sandwell border) and then back to Centenary Square. Given it’s a ‘Race Against Climate Change’ there could have been a few more options other than car to get people to the start. Apparently 75% of the 9000 are from the West Midlands so putting on some early local trains to Perry Barr as well as the shuttle buses from town would help persuade runners to leave their cars behind. As it is I’m car-sharing with some fellow runners. For a top example of running geekiness then check out Oliver from local design firm, ie design, who is using his iphone to allow others to track him though the race. Oh and I just noticed the link to the prize money – look at what I won’t be winning. Forecast is for early rain but clearing – ideal.

Later today is the Birmingham and District Invitation & Midland Women’s Cross Country League. I know, sounds exciting doesn’t it. But it’s about 6 miles of running through muddy fields and muddy streams in Senneley’s Park, south Birmingham. I run in this one for my running club and although I should just focus on one race this weekend I can’t resist a bit of cross-country as a pre-cursor to the longer run on Sunday. 

I’ll do a report on each over the weekend.

Birmingham’s place in Second Life


This is in direct response to a couple of blog posts (Bounder & star-one) about today’s launch of b-scape by the Digital Birmingham partnership, for which I now work. In fact, as from next week I’m tasked with taking forward the stuff we’ve done on Second Life to the next stage so I’m just laying out my position now on why Second Life matters for the Second City.

Firstly, my colleague Phil, who presented at today’s launch event, had the misfortune to experience enough glitches to drive a man to an early grave. The next presentation suffered as well with the Skype connection continually cutting out. One for the organisers to address at our first ever Digital conference.

Making the case for Second Life isn’t easy I realise. It is glitchy if you’re not on the quickest of computers. I tried it a couple of years ago but gave up when I realised my laptop couldn’t take it. But just as we didn’t give up on the slowness of the internet during the dial-up years we shouldn’t give up on Second Life either. Indeed we shouldn’t give up on Virtual Birmingham yet because what we’ve done with b-scape is fundamentally different to how Second Life has been used to date. Our approach, working with Moseley-based Daden, has been to rethink how virtual worlds can work in the city context. We’ve asked ourselves who would use it and why and realised that simply putting recreations of the city centre in there wasn’t the answer. Building them is costly, takes too long and is often little more than an exercise in vanity (it’s what Manchester and London have done – in fact Manchester is populated by fake residents sliding around the place).

The point of getting Birmingham in there is part of keeping us ahead of the game on the digital front. But it’s not keeping ahead for the sake of it. It’s innovating in the same way we’ve always innovated around new technologies – and it’s being recognised as such. Leading self-confessed geeks around the world are excited:

“hats off to Birmingham, a city that is taking more of a chance than any other I can think of. Certainly, Boston has a ways to go before it adopts virtual (let alone digital) technologies with such enthusiasm” (Place Of Social Media blog)

I think you need to give this one time. Realise that the curve of interest in virtual worlds is settling down to real interest from transport planners, developers, architects and regeneration experts. Libraries, hospitals and universities are getting on board because they see in Virtual Worlds a way of working that either more closely replicates how they work in the real world or enables new way of consultation on real-world infrastructure projects. 

I hate to wheel the next example out because I generally hate ‘kids know best’ arguments but a group of teenagers being accompanied by the council’s youth offending team were at Hello Digital today and were introduced to both the virtual Millennium Point and the Virtual Birmingham space and seemed genuinely excited by both. For them it more closely replicated the visual experience of computer games. So, at least for a short while, it engaged them. It made them stop and ask questions. I’m kind of glad that Birmingham’s online community are doing the same as well since my job is to build partnerships and see where we want to go with this thing. If you want me to come and ‘re-launch’ Virtual Birmingham to you I’ll do that.

So I’m at the reins of this one for the meantime and I’m hear to listen, albeit in my pants:

Link for Virtual Birmingham in Second Life

Links for October 20th through October 22nd

Some links for you:

  • What's the nuts and bolts of 4iP? – 38minutes – This is where the real chat about 4ip is happening, not on the 'official' 4ip site but on a social networking site for Northern Irish and Scottish creatives. Comments on this particular post from top C4 people. Where's the West Midlands chatter taking place?
  • Stanford Institute of Design | – A manifesto on how to create a design school – on a napkin. Hat tip ie design
  • 4IP fund opens for business | 72 dots – Blog – "I don’t think Channel 4 has the guts to follow it through. The organisation is under pressure — ad budgets are dramatically shrinking — and when it’s under pressure an organisation resorts to old habits. So expect to see pressure on the fund for big hits, for brand awareness, for reach among its target demographics."
  • Pew Internet: Networked families – "The internet and cell phones have become central components of modern family life. Among all household types, the traditional nuclear family has the highest rate of technology usage and ownership". American report that does an amful lot of stating the bleeding obvious….

Links for October 17th through October 20th

Some links for you:

Steve Bell – The Birmingham Years

Steve Bell (left)

I have a tiny connection to Steve Bell (on the left above at this year’s Tory Conference in Birmingham, pic Star-one). I used to do some work with Jewellery Quarter based designer Brian Homer who has for many years pulled together the If… compilation books. I have a brief credit at the start of Chairman Blair’s Little Red Book (a Bell book co-authored with Brian) for some imaging work I did on it. I was setting the levels on some scanned artwork and Steve showed me the best settings. That’s it really, hardly a great Dave-meets-celeb story.

Steve is coming back to Brum next month, not to carry on my photoshop tutorial but for a talk at the Plus Design Expo. His time working in Birmingham in the 1970s is usually passed over (“taught art for a short time in Birmingham, but soon left” and see his wikipedia entry) but although I can’t pin down the exact dates he was actually here, he certainly left a decent footprint. Actually a bit of research not only fills in some gaps about Steve but also reminds us that Birmingham in the dank days of the 1970s and 80s had a really vibrant radical publishing scene which has some interesting lessons for the city’s emerging blogging culture.

Here’s what some brief research on Steve found – much of it sourced from the Derek Bishton papers archived on the brilliant Connecting Histories website:

  • Circa 1977 Contributed to Streetcomix produced at the Arts Lab in Gosta Green (along with Hunt Emerson and others)
  • Contributor to Birmingham Broadside 1977-79. A listings magazine that “had a more overtly political agenda, covering local union affairs, local politics, and the activities of the law, police, media….. [it] aimed to cover every area where ‘The Birmingham Post’ and the ‘Birmingham Evening Mail’ already provided an establishment viewpoint”. Steve produced a strip called ‘Maxwell the Mutuant:
  • Contributor to pilot edition of the Birmingham Equirer: “Pilot issue of newspaper launched by a co-operative of journalists as an alternative to the domination of newspapers in Birmingham by one company”
  • Worked with a co-operative of designers called ‘Sidelines’. The Bisthon archive mentions that he produced illustrations for a report into ‘The Problems of Owner-Occupation in Inner Birmingham’ for the Birmingham Community Development Project.
  • And of course since the early 1980s Brian Homer has been designing Steve’s book here in Birmingham: “We have been designing Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s books for 25 years, including two co-authored by Brian Homer. We work closely with Steve to realise each book – helping with editing, pagination and back board copy as well as making sure that we design the book to present the material in the best possible way.”

I suspect this is just a small part of the work Steve has done in Birmingham but if you’re seeing him at Plus then it’s worth keeping in mind that he’s part of what was an interesting time in Brum. A particularly interesting history is that of the deign agency Sidelines. It was organised as a co-operative that designed: “Newsletters; bulletins; annual reports; information leaflets; promotional material and occasional publications in the form of pamphlets and booklets designed and produced for community groups”. In its function it reminds me of the work at the recent Social Media Surgery in Birmingham. Here’s a fuller discussion, again from the Bisthon archive about Sidelines:

“The Sidelines design and publishing agency was conceived by Brian Homer as a ‘sideline’ to his editing work on the local paper ‘Birmingham Broadside’ in around 1977. Homer had become involved with producing design work for the Community Development Project in Birmingham, and for the Handsworth Law Centre, All Faiths for One Race (AFFOR) and other organisations, and when community groups began making requests to him to carry out design and production work for their publications, he went freelance from ‘Birmingham Broadside’. He separated himself from the magazine in 1978, having seen the potential for more work, and was joined on many of Sidelines original work projects by an informal network of artists, photographers and journalists, some of whom had previously worked on ‘Grapevine’ and ‘Birmingham Broadside’. They transferred the knowledge and expertise gained through this work to set up Sidelines as an alternative design and publishing agency that specialised in working for community groups, offering a professional service at affordable rates. In addition to community organisations, work was commissioned by trade union groups and produced material for May Day demonstrations, and also designed ‘Searchlight’, the international anti-fascist magazine. It began by designing for print publications, but later became involved with bigger projects.” 

It strikes me that there’s potential to reproduce a ‘Sidelines’ for the digital world. Don’t you think?

Doctors stays!

I should read press releases properly before I add them to my links. In the ‘Beyond the M25’ BBC announcement there was in fact some half-decent news for Birmingham. It had been rumoured around these parts for a while that Selly Oak produced daytime drama Doctors was either for the chop or would go to Manchester.

Why do I care about this? Well there’s the general prinicple of Birmingham having a bouyant BBC outpost with plenty of work to be getting on with and therefore jobs for local creatives. Indeed there are many former students from my time as a lecturer that still work on Doctors. Also, local film director type Justin Edgar has worked on it, as has BAFTA winner Natasha Carlish. It’s good bread and butter work that can persuade talented people to stay put in Brum.

But the real reason is that Doctors never strays more than a couple of miles from its base in the grounds of Birmingham University for its location filming. After a leaflet came through our front door 18 months ago looking to use homes to film in, we leapt at the chance. They filmed twice and almost came a third time with a storyline line involving a local lothario with a mistress stashed away in the houses on either side. I think the neighbours said no to that one. Of course they do pay a modest fee, which is what I’m getting at. They’re bound to come back again – another three years of Doctors in Brum will do me nicely.

The other news for BBC Birmingham is linked to my other interest, gardening:

“Birmingham will now take on production of the Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows, thus becoming the centre for horticulture programming, as well as Factual and Drama – recent titles include Coast and Trawler Men, as well as the long-running daytime drama Doctors, which has been re-commissioned for a further three years.”