Second city, second class – the data

So folk in my network keep tweeting this article from The Economist which is about Birmingham’s economic woes. Us Brummies love to agonise about our city’s failings so it’s had wide retweetage with one person (I won’t link) even laboriously tweeting sections from it.

I immediately took a dislike to the article due to the way the journalist starts by gazing of the train window and using the dereliction they witness to shape the reader’s view of the city. Of course one can’t blame the journalist for that; the fault is journalism itself. But that’s for another post.

Anyway, I love an excuse to go find the evidence on which claims about our great city are made so I went hunting for the documents and spreadsheets that are the basis for the article’s claims.

As you might expect from The Economist, almost every claim made in the article can be backed up (though I’m pleased that I could pull them up on the nerdy train facts). I’ve tried to confine myself to instances where statistics are cited.

So here’s the evidence for The Economist article in case you ever need it (as embedded google doc below or on a separate page).

I hope you find this useful. When I start on these things I can’t help but carry on digging for the facts. I guess now the question is, given the City is in a relatively poor state, what are we going to do about it?


Finding Phyllis Nicklin

Nicklin pictureEvery now and again over the past three years someone in my social media network ‘discovers’ the amazing Phyllis Nicklin archive of images of Birmingham from the 1950s and 60s. It feels like coming across some lost treasure, yet these images were never lost in a physical sense but in digital terms they seem to drift in and out of view. The story about why that happens might tell us something about digital archiving, funding and the social web.

Back story: Nicklin was a geography tutor at the University of Birmingham Department of Extra Mural Studies during the 1950s and 60s. She died in post in 1969 but took hundreds of slides of the city as part of her teaching. The images belong to the University of Birmingham and the physical slides are stored there (or at least they were in 2004 when they were digitised).

Digitisation: In 2003 a project (called Chrysalis) wangled some funding (link to PDF of bid) to “establish a repository that will be used to provide resources and materials to support Learning, skills development, information literacy and provide some access to wide ranging resources relevant to the local history and cultural identity of the West Midlands.”

That resulted in a selection of Nicklin’s slides being digitised. That work was done by ‘Digital Capture Solutions‘ which are in fact a branch of my own university‘s Library Services which received funding (from the Higher Education Funding Council) in 2001 to acquire digital imaging equipment. The images were stored in a ‘digital asset management system’, called Media Vault, hosted at what was then the Technological Innovation Centre, again part of Birmingham City University.

Project Chrysalis: Nicklin’s digitised slides sat quite happily on the website for Project Chrysalis from about April 2004 until 24th June, 2007. The project was part-funded by the (gone-by-March-2012) Advantage West Midlands and the (gone-by-March-2012) Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The application for funding was to the ‘Advantage West Midlands Challenge Fund’ and was submitted in the name of West Midlands Higher Education Association Libraries Group.

Clearly the project failed to meet one of its aims to “secure the future of the repository and the service” and the site went down in June 2007. You can still view the site on the internet archive but the images aren’t accessible.

Keith Berry: The June 2007 date is gleaned from the blurb written by amateur photographer Keith Berry who downloaded some of Nicklin’s images before the Chrysalis site went down and then re-published 291 of them on his web photo storage space of choice, PBase.

D’Log and Created in Birmingham: My ‘discovery’ point of the slides came from a post on D’Log’s site who drew attention to Berry’s storage of the files. A further post on the CiB site involved some useful digging around in the comments where some of us seemed to find our way into the above-mentioned ‘Media Vault’ (or ‘ebank’ as it seemed to be called, am sure it was the same thing though) and were able to access the hi-res versions of the images. At some point though, this backdoor was firmly shut.

Epapers: On the Birmingham History forum in January 2010 there is this post: “I’ve just had a very interesting email […] from Edward Craft, the Digital Library Systems Specialist at the University of Birmingham who is developing a web site to make the 446 Phyllis Nicklin photos available to all. The photos are the *unretouched* scans of the original slides from the 2004 Chrysalis Project. The site is part of the ePapers project.”

The epapers website seems a bit of a curious space. A place for the University of Birmingham to store stuff that academics produce that sometimes falls out of being pure research. There are discussion papers and commissioned researched as well as some digital images from their archives.

And this is where the Nicklin archive is now stored. 446 images. All geo-tagged, properly referenced and in high resolution. Epapers is a frequently updated internal resource rather than a project reliant on external funds from relatively short-lived organisations so there’s some hope that the images will be accessible here for quite a while.

Flickr: The copyright notice on the images states: “The photographic image is available to download and redistribute for non-commercial purposes.” So it makes sense then that some of Nicklin’s images are on Flickr. Some have been repurposed and others have left the ‘All Rights Reserved’ setting at default, effectively asserting their own copyright on the images.

That aside, I think these images being out there on a platform like Flickr can only be a positive – certainly a better alternative to building a platform like Project Chrysalis. But that was 2003, coincidentally the same time I began a secondment with Advantage West Midlands when you couldn’t move for people saying we need a portal for this or that. Put ‘portal’ on a funding application and it was a shoo-in and Chrysalis feels like a result of that hit-and-hope era of the web compared with the social internet we inhabit now.

There’s more to the Nicklin archive as I understand it. The scanned images were a selection. It’d be great to see the rest getting digitised and I’d like to suggest the funding application read something like this:

“There’s these great images, they blow people away when they find them. We’d like to scan every single last slide we can find and then let them roam free over the internet. Honestly, it’ll be fine.”

I’ve been as accurate as I can in researching for this post but if you have further details or points of clarification do post in the comments.


Birmingham’s Creative Industries – the ‘business case’

Whilst admiring the yellow courgettes growing on my allotment yesterday I thought to myself: “someone should really write a blog post about Birmingham’s Creative Industries and the whole Local Economic Partnerships thing. Hey, that’s something I could write about”. Fortunately, Chris Unitt on the Created in Birmingham blog got there before me and has got some good discussion going. This therefore is the ‘further reading’ to that blog post: some stats to help set the context and a modicum of opinion.

‘Punch Above Their Weight’
We could do with a restatement of the national picture of the size and scope of Creative Industries (CI) and their contribution to the economy. That’s the ‘Creative Industries’ sub-sectors as measured by government since the late 90s. The last economic estimates for CI in the UK puts them growing at 2% above the rest of the economy, accounting for 6.2% of Gross Value Added (GVA) in the economy and responsible for 4.5% of exports. That GVA figure is worth pausing on. In general CIs are a bunch of sectors that are ‘high value’, the goods and services they create are bought at a high price compared to the cost of producing them. So although in scale CI aren’t vast, they tend, in jargon heavy policy documents at least, to be described as ‘punching above their weight’.

Birmingham’s CIs
So what about locally? Back in 2007 there was a report called ‘Making The Business Case’ (not available online), funded by the City Council, commissioned by the Creative Birmingham board, which articulated Birmingham’s case for continuing to recognise the importance of the CIs: “Birmingham’s creative industries are important to its economy. They generate real jobs and income and respectable amounts of GVA.” They reckoned the sector was worth £1bn or 8.7% of the city’s GVA (Manchester has a figure of 10.9%).

An updated report was commissioned in 2009 which used a slightly different methodology so the two reports aren’t comparable. For example, its GVA figure for 2007 is £663m (see below) but is calculated in a different way and, if I recall correctly, the researchers were very sceptical about the accuracy of calculating GVA at city level. Much of this updated report is summarised in a report in the Birmingham Post from October 2009 but the report itself remains unpublished. It’s a good read though, if only you were able to read it.

Here are some tables from it. Stats only go up to 2007 and even if revised again now would only go to 2008:

So in summary, Birmingham’s Creative Industries do just about ‘punch above their weight’ and remain an important part of our economy. But other smaller cities seem to do a bit better than us – we’ve got less creatives than Leeds and less as a proportion of overall employment than Bristol. We have a growing number of employees in micro firms but a decline in overall creative employment since 2003/4. That’s evidence perhaps that policy that focuses purely on start-ups needs to be supplemented with support for growth of larger firms along with a focus on inward investment.

Not a Charity Case
It’s inevitable that whatever LEPs form in and around Birmingham, the ‘Creative’ sector will be articulated within them. But how they articulate them is really quite important. There is established methodology about what the CI are and despite its flaws at least it’s there and established. I worry whenever I see those definitions rejected. Jerry Blackett, current chair of the Creative Birmingham board is arguing for just such a rejection of established definitions and even for a shift in focus towards philanthropy. That feels wrong. Birmingham’s Creative Industries need a business case, not handouts.

I think this position comes from the confusion of thinking that the subsidised Arts sector has much to do with the Creative Industries sector. There’s overlap of course but in Birmingham the two most significant contributors to Creative Industries value have been Architecture (32% of GVA in 2004) and Software (35% of GVA in 2004). Music and Performing Arts are low-value sectors in economic terms (1.1% of GVA in 2004).

Writing in 2006, Calvin Taylor noted that it was:

“significant that the arts lobby mostly uses the creative industry tag. Very few other sector bodies, representing other components of what are taken to be the creative industries, use the tag in their sectors promotion work.”

He went on to warn that in the regions, advocacy for the creative industries must rise to

“the challenge of developing a credible evidence base, without allowing judgements of the attempts made so far to be circumscribed by the pressure to deliver yet more advocacy.”

But this can’t be all about stats. People matter, and how we feel about creativity in the city matters also. There’s a really useful research paper (PDF) that looks at regional creative clusters in Birmingham Newcastle/Gateshead. In their conclusions the authors point out that:

“the city-region is a place for cooperation, not just competition […] personal and emotive dimensions are key factors in the decision of creative practitioners to be located in both city-regions. This personal dimension is often underplayed in the development of creative industries…”

[A version of this, without the fancy tables, will probably make it to my column in next week’s Birmingham Post]

Walking in the Creative City

View Walking in the Creative City in a larger map

Today (Friday 2nd July 2010) was a great day to be out and about in Birmingham, a quite wonderful creative and vibrant city in case you weren’t aware. Here’s who I met today and who I talked to.

Every morning I face a critical decision. After dropping my son off at his nursery I can either turn right onto the Bristol Road and drive to work in Perry Barr or I go left, park in the station and catch the train. Invariably I go left because I like trains, even rush hour ones, and I have a train pass. Going right means facing traffic usually but actually would get me to work quicker (I have to change trains in Birmingham).

I had a meeting in Birmingham Science Park today so not having the car today meant I had to walk across the city to get from there to where I wanted to end the day, in Birmingham’s best coffee shop, Urban Coffee Co., making use of their wifi and catching up on some tennis. Here’s a list of the great people I talked to today:

At Birmingham Science Park:

  • Met with the good folk at Digital Birmingham about forthcoming events and bored Simon Whitehouse with my masterful mail merge knowledge
  • Loitered in the cafe (free wifi!) and had tutorials (via skype and via phone) with Leland and Simona. Couple of interesting MA projects to come from them.
  • Bumped into Dan. He’s building a business around a great service called civico. He does about a million other things as well.
  • Popped in to see Daden who do a lot of really interesting stuff in virtual worlds.
  • Met two guys from AWM. Both cheerier than you might imagine.
Near Aston Uni:
  • Met with Raj from Digital Birmingham lots to download in a short amount of time. Someone passes and says ‘Hi Dave’ – I haven’t a clue who it is and then feel ashamed when Raj reminds me and I should have known her.
At Old Square
  • I tweet Lee Kemp to say sorry I forgot to chat to him at a conference the other week and thanks for a followfriday.
Near the Cathedral
  • Blimey, if it isn’t Lee Kemp, in person, who needs directions to somewhere. Later, he tweets a really nice thank you for introducing him to someone at said conference where I forgot to chat to him.
Church St.
  • It’s Paul Hadley. A student of mine, a great guy. He’s wearing a suit.
Urban Coffee Co.
Not on the map: I had a nice bacon sarnie at work and had a good phone call with Roy Peters in the morning.

Overall, a great day meeting and bumping into great people in a great City.

Deidre and me – an election special

deidre aldenI was lucky enough to get a press pass to the Birmingham General election count (kind of via the Grounds people). I can only say that it was quite simply a fantastic experience, combining my three favourite things:

– People being passionate about politics.
– Journalists being tired and pressured.
– People having different political views from myself suffering embarrassing defeats.

I went along partly to do a report on the Selly Oak constituency results for the Bournville blog I edit. After it took me a while to realise where in the hall the Selly Oak count was happening I got some okay coverage including a nice piece of audio with the rather dejected sounding Tory candidate, Nigel Dawkins. That he sounded dejected a full two hours before his result was declared was no doubt due to him seeing the amount of ballot papers already stacking up in the Labour candidate’s favour (it was a safe enough Labour seat but within Tory reach if they achieved a 9+% swing).

Trying to second guess where the result is heading by watching the ballots being counted was where Edgbaston Conservative candidate Deidre Alden went wrong. After the initial count was finished she was grinning like a Cheshire cat at the prospect of taking the seat from Labour’s Gisela Stewart (although some people who know her better tweeted me to say that Deidre kind of smiles like that if things are going badly as well). As her team of eager, and very well dressed, party workers watched the counting they’d called it for her. So when it emerged that in fact Gisela had won the seat by 1300 votes Deidre was livid, wagging her finger at the election official unfortunate to tell her the bad news.

Journalists aren’t allowed into the counting area so a little gaggle of us could only watch from afar until a counting Agent from one of the parties (he refused to say, but presumably Labour) came over to tell us the result and the lady from Sky triumphantly fed the news back to base. However, it would be another three hours before the result was official as poor old Deidre demanded two recounts of the collated votes. You could see election officials flicking through the piles in front of Conservative party workers to check that a pile marked ‘Labour’ was in fact Labour and not some mislabeled Tory votes. Needless to say that the result came back the same each time. A Labour win. It’s a shame the City Council video only includes the winner’s speech as Deidre was gracious enough in defeat by the end.

So instead of Birmingham getting a result in for Edgbaston by 12.30am as it had hoped, it was closer to 5am. As I loitered throughout the night I had some interesting chats with journalists from the nationals on twitter etiquette. The guy from The Telegraph (the single most poshest chap I’ve ever met in my life) can neither tweet conjecture or call results ahead of time. Given the slow pace of results he was most worried about having anything at all to report from Birmingham before his 4.30am copy deadline. In contrast, the Sky journalist revealed she could tweet whatever the hell she liked; any old rumours from the count welcome at Sky. The chap with the nice trainers – from The Guardian I think – seemed constantly tense, clutching a notepad but rarely writing in it.

Unlike these eager young hacks I had no pressure at all. I had most fun sidling up to party workers and asking them for a view on how their count was going. On that basis I was up for tweeting rumours with no fear of consequence. Overhearing a Labour guy confidently assert Hall Green was going their way I duly tweeted the news an hour before the result confirmed it. It didn’t always work though, I tweeted Deidre to win Edgbaston at one point purely based on the mood of her team and the broadness of her smile.

My night settled down to a pattern of either ear-wigging on or chatting to party workers to get some gossip. In doing so I got a taste of the sheer enthusiasm of those people who give their time for their candidate and party. Labour’s Khalid Mahmood, Liam Byrne and Shabana Mahmood were all supported by smiling groups of young and old Asian men. One of Liam Byrne’s team was more than happy to feed me information when I played the ‘I’m from Alum Rock’ card – turns out he lives down the road from my Mom. Of the minor parties some respect has to go to The Christian Party who were by far the best dressed people there and always gave the most upbeat thank you speeches depsite only ever getting a few hundred votes at most. I only heard one BNP candidate speak, right in front of a crowd of Labour-supporting Asian men. He was booed and laughed at by them and me.

It was a great night overall, one it’s hard to be cynical about. All the council staff work their socks off under immense pressure and I always admire anyone with a passion for politics, mainly because being indifferent and sarcastic is a doddle. I may gloat about Deidre’s defeat (she is a Tory after all) but her team were extremely focused and committed. However, I think she was let down by one of them. After seeing a particular team member check the ballots in the second re-count I asked him what he thought the result was. He confessed he was half-blind and didn’t have a clue what was in front of his face, never mind on the ballot sheet.

Given the overall outcome of the election I’m looking forward to doing it all again in six months time.

I want monorail NOW

I’m in Kuala Lumpur (KL) in Malaysia for a few days with work and in between work stuff I’ve gone out of my way, as I often do in cities, to experience as many different forms of rail-based public transport as possible. KL has three different types: light rail, heavy rail and monorail. And of those, monorail is the one I want to bring back with me to Birmingam. I want monorail and I want it now.

It’s irrational of course. In fact, ever since that episode of the Simpsons no city in its right mind would ever seek to buy monorail. But gosh it’s a thrill. Towering over busy streets it makes your city seem both futuristic and hopelessly outdated at the same time. Monorails seem to embody a 1930s notion of the future, a future without cars where everybody would be sleekly transported from their living quarters, to work, to shops in air-conditioned, cigar-shaped monorail carriages.

KL’s monorail is a bit like that. It takes you between air-conditioned shopping malls, of which there are many, and seperates you out from the traffic-choked streets, of which there are also many. In fact given how cheap the public transport is here (we paid about 40 pence for a 6 mile journey) one wonders what it would take to get city-dwellers out of their cars. The thinking here seems to favour the idea that in general, more transport overall is a good thing. More cars, more buses, more trains – it’s all good, let’s build infrastructure for them all until we’ve got nothing left to build on. It’s a JFDI culture gone mad.

For Birmingham though I think monorail can transform our city. I’ve already started planning Line One of the route which goes from Castle Vale, through Hodge Hill and takes in Alum Rock as that’s easily one of the most conjested roads in the city and I reckon would look fab from 30 feet up in the air (also making it easier for my Mom to get across to us for babysitting duties). It finishes next to the new High Speed Rail terminal in Fazeley street. Consider this a feasibility study. I offer it up to Centro free of charge.

View Birmingham Monorail Phase One in a larger map

Oh and as I’m always telling people, the Birmingham to Wolverhampton tram commissioned a ‘tram song’ for its launch that was then quietly shelved before the event. Presumably someone had heard the ‘Monorail Song’ from the Simpsons and thought better of it:

Dear local councillors, fix my mom’s street

Date: 18 August 2009
From: Dave Harte

Subject: demolition/regeneration of houses on Naseby road, Alum Rock

Dear all,
I am a former resident of Hazelbeach Road in Ward End (B8 3HL) and am writing on behalf of my mother, still a resident there, about our increasing concern regarding the condition of properties and land on Naseby Road. For quite some time now, a number of years as I recall, the houses on the south side of the street have gradually been vacated and demolished due to subsidence. However, a couple of the houses still remain occupied and therefore adjoining houses remain undemolished. The street is falling into significant disrepair with fenced off patches of land between the undemolished houses becoming overgrown, vandalism on the houses themselves and graffiti appearing on walls.

My writing to you now was prompted by the relatively recent vacation and boarding up of the corner house on Naseby/Hazelbeach with the result that graffiti has now appeared on the wall facing Hazelbeach. Having watched my mother, now 78, tolerate this for many years now I feel the situation must be brought to some kind of resolution.

I spent all of my childhood, up to the age of 19, on Hazelbeach road and it is an area that I remain extremely proud of. My mother continues to live there because she too is proud of the area and feels safe in a neighbourhood and house she has lived in since 1967. Yet the appearance of her immediate surroundings are being allowed to deteriorate and I find it simply unacceptable. Ward End and the area around Ward End Park are, I’m sure you would agree, hard-working working class neighbourhoods where people like my mother have spent their working lives trying to improve. Yet here we are with the City planners content to let this situation on Naseby Road drag on for years and let a proud area descend into decay.

I implore you to do all you can to intervene and help support the residents of Hazelbeach and Naseby roads to once again feel proud of their streets.

Date: 27 September 2009
From: Dave Harte
Subject: Re: demolition/regeneration of houses on Naseby road, Alum Rock

I still haven’t had acknowledgment of this. Can you update me on progress of this query?

That cinematic backwater thing – maybe I just need to chill

I thought I’d leave a week until I blogged about last Monday’s ‘Cinematic Backwater‘ debate which kicked off the excellent Fazeley Digital Festival. I thought maybe I’d calm down in the interim, that the underlying issue of ‘does it matter that Norwich get cool films before Birmingham?’ would vex me less.

Suffice to say I’m still vexed. And I’m even a bit more vexed because having now aired the topic in public I could see that I wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated at the current state of film exhibition in the city. For those new to me moaning about this take a read of the original post that resulted in this event being created. I was joined by a fantastic panel: Roger Shannon – Film Producer & academic; Ian Francis – film festival curator; Rachel Carter, Film Producer and co-founder of Fullrange Media.

All agreed that yes, it did matter that some films tend to only get to Birmingham on their second-run. Not all in the audience agreed but in general the discussion covered:

  • the dominance of film programming by the few to the detriment of the many;
  • questioned whose role audience development is in the region;
  • pondered the cultural priorities of a city where Digbeth can have three modern art galleries but no cinemas;
  • debated the link between a thriving culture of exhibiting the weird/leftfield/arty/independent and the impact that might have on the films that we produce out of the region.

Roger brought with him a whole bag full of consultants’ reports from the past 20 years that in one way or another touched on the issue of whether Birmingham needs a new arts cinema. He drew our attention in particular to a recent report by Tom Fleming ‘Mixed Art-form and Media Venues in the Digital Age’ (link to PDF).

There was some reference to the Arts Lab/Triangle era and there was much nodding at the suggestion that what we need now is perhaps the best of that (its radical edge for a start) combined with the dynamic and vibrant social media scene that’s currently setting the city apart. That’s perhaps where this discussion should go next.

For me though it still comes back to competitiveness. Those in the city with access to resources and the power to influence decisions need to understand that when Norwich are getting interesting films ahead of us then the time for action is now.