Google Street View plus Fixmystreet – a winning combination

For too long now the houses in the street next to where my Mom lives (in Alum Rock, East Birmingham) have been boarded up ready for demolition. Some have gone but others remain. In fact they’ve remained that way for several years now. I don’t actually know what the plans for them are but I seem to recall that subsidence issues meant most of the street had to go.

I’ve been cross about this situation for a long time. These are the streets I grew up in after all – a proud working class neighbourhood, once predominantly Irish, now largely Asian. The gradually neglect of these streets is a disgrace and I wrote a letter to my Mom’s councillors about it a few months ago to little effect (a response from one of them promising to look into it). I pointed out that if this was a more middle-class area the situation simply wouldn’t be tolerated.

I had been meaning to bring my camera along to take some pics but with the beauty of Street View I don’t have to. There’s the whole street in its neglected glory set out for anyone to see. Have a look around. Go to Farndon road as well, that’s the same. Admire the boarded up house that confronts my Mom every time she goes to the shops.

So having grabbed a few stills from Street View I’ve now used them to make a submission to Fix My Street (or rather, Fix My Mom’s Street, that’s a website waiting to happen isn’t it?)

To give my Mom some credit she doesn’t seem too bothered about it. I’m not sure she knows how to cause a fuss but even if she knew I doubt she would. Clearly I’ve developed some kind of middle-class angst about it but if this was your Mom’s street wouldn’t you try to do something? She’s lived in this house since 1967 and she’ll probably stay in it for many years to come so the bottom line is it isn’t something she should have to tolerate. I’ll report back on progress; should there be any…..

Digital Strategy for the West Midlands

I gave a presentation at the LUCID dissemination event today in which I proposed that the region needs to think afresh about setting a strategy for identifying opportunities in the digital economy. I know, sounds grand doesn’t it. The bottom line is that I have to write a short paper for Advantage West Midlands to influence their agenda in this area.

I’ll be writing that paper on a blog platform over at

The theme I’m using (the same one they are using for the Digital Britain consultation) allows for comments on each paragraph which I’m hoping will get populated sufficiently so that I can work them into the paper I send back. I’d welcome co-authors as well as commentators although I’ll appreciate it if the thought of writing strategy fills you with dread. The site is looking a bit bare at the moment but I’ll be setting out the sections of the paper very soon so do subscribe to the RSS feed. In the meantime I’ve posted up the presentation that kicks it off both here and on the consultation site.

Hanging about on the wrong side of the curve

Just thought I’d get this down as it’s an issue raised in the meeting I’m sitting in as I type this now:

“Are the city’s creative industries too far on the other side of the social media curve that they’ve forgotten how to engage with everybody else?”

The meeting is generally made up of representatives from businesses (big and small), support agencies, funding agencies and the like. I gave a brief presentation on social media and how the wider business sector might make more use of it (much like the one I gave at Aston Science Park in January).

One of the points made after my bit was that although the Creative sector is well ahead of the game, and ahead of the curve, in taking up social media technologies they’re in danger of cutting themselves off. Specifically, cut off to those seeking to enter the sector. The argument being that creatives have become harder to find and communicate with, particularly to those who lack developed digital literacy skills or indeed access to the internet. It was clear behind the query there was concern about the diversity of the creative sector.

Does this ring true? Or is it actually easier now in that once you’ve found the way in you get opened up to a very wide range of contacts much quicker than previously? Thoughts welcome.

Forever summer on google street view

Google Street View went live today and is tremendous fun. Perhaps the most fun is to be had by zooming in on people in the street and to see the moments that will now be with us until Google decide the time has come to send the camera car out again.

Jon Bounds is asking if there is any ‘odd stuff’ going on but I’m more enamoured by the whole summery feel of the photos and how even in the streets close to my place there are some lovely fleeting moments that will be with us every time someone wants to take a look at Bournville.

Below is a greeting between a couple and a woman that gradually builds to a hug as the google car passses.

And here’s shirtless proof that it really was a hot summer day:

The best park in Birmingham – maybe

It occurs to me that I rarely write about local stuff. Which is a shame really as I live in a fairly pleasant part of Brum – not many people get to live within sniffing distance of a chocolate factory. But as nice as Bournville is, the best park in the area is Cotteridge Park. It has something that Bournville’s other open spaces lack – community.

Friends of Cotteridge Park are the very active group that look after the interests of the park. They were set up to stop the planned de-commissioning of the park for housing in the late 90s. There’s a bit of history on their website (including the fact that apparently during the war the park was used to store barrage balloons) but to give you a flavour of the work they’ve done:

  • Redeveloped some derelict land into an orchard
  • Organise a Christmas tree recycling point
  • Built a fantastic natural amphitheatre in the park for open air concerts
  • Lobbied for and got a skate park, new playground equipment and re-surfacing of the dilapidated tennis and basketball courts
  • Run a toy bank and volleyball games during the summer
  • Do tons of traditional fund-raising with quiz nights etc., 

And of course they won the battle to save the park in the first place. Their most recent plans are for a funky shelter building.

The park is next to the cross-city rail line between Bournville and Kings Norton and has a good mix of open land and wooded areas, as well as the orchard of course. It’s on a decent slope which, for a runner, makes it good for short hill sprints along the paths but there is a flat area which I think may have been a bowls green at one point but which is now ideal for impromptu five-a-side. The play area is great for most ages and the skate park attracts a good selection of motley teens – all of them unnervingly polite when faced with a six year old trying to do wheelies on her scooter.

It’s a great park – am chuffed to live in walking distance of it.

View Larger Map

Pic: Pete Asthon

Created in Birmingham – time to move on

Is it just me or is Created in Birmingham in danger of slipping into nothing more than one of a series of moderately useful listings websites for Birmingham. That is of course maybe all it’s meant to be but didn’t it used to be so much more? Didn’t it used to have more of an edge?

Didn’t it once hold to account those charged with funding the arts and challenge those who seemed to be ripping off artists? There’s a bit of back-slapping creeping into the comments that makes Brum seem a bit too cosy; as if we have an arts scene that’s not really worth getting worked up about.

I reckon a period of guest editing might spring it back into life. Give it to Pogus Caesar for a week and see what he says about Brum’s cultural scene. Rhonda Wilson would really kick some life into it as would Mohammed Ali. Whichever way, some thought into its editorial stance is certainly needed.

There’s an existing mini-discussion about my views on CIB needing to take more of a position over at Pete Ashton’s blog:

“[CIB should be] an agitator for, rather than simply advocator of, the arts. As it looks around at what’s happening in Brum perhaps it should be brave enough to point out what’s lacking, or at least be up for critiquing that which doesn’t make the grade. We’re keen for this sector to have a voice but until that voice is prepared to step outside the comfort zone it all feels a bit well, safe.”

In posting up my thoughts here I’m really saying that that time has come. Time to move on CIB – let’s start getting edgy.

Another walk through Birmingham

This might develop into an occasional series as and when I take it upon myself to use my legs to get me from meeting to meeting rather than use the car or public transport.

This walk is from Jewellery Quarter to Fazeley Studios, Digbeth: 1.9 miles, allow 30 – 40 mins.

View Larger Map

You can track the walk on the map which has some pics I took along the way attached. Here are some additional observations:

  • I actually started the walk from my workplace, B1 building but as it’s opposite the lovely Spring Hill library. I’d recommend the casual walker to begin there. It’s on the number 8 circular route or numbers 82, 87, 88 from the city centre.
  • Be careful where Legge Lane meets Frederick street. There’s no traffic lights and the road is quite busy to cross. Note the blue plaque to Joseph Gillott, pen maker, on the building on the left after you’ve crossed.
  • Don’t go stopping at some city centre Starbucks for a break, try Pickwick’s cafe on Newhall street. Good value sandwiches, soup, jacket potatoes etc. Tell ’em Dave sent you. They won’t have a clue what you’re on about but if enough of you do it it’ll get them thinking.
  • After you go through St Philip’s Cathedral you’ll find yourself on Upper Bull street. Pop into Tempest records. Take time to browse and purchase a record or two. Are they and Swordfish Records on Upper Temple street the only independent record shops left in Birmingham city centre? Are there any other ‘Upper’ streets left in Birmingham on which one could open another?
  • After the scruffy area behind the shops it opens out to the under-development Masshouse area but look to your right to see St Michael’s Church. Services in Polish every Sunday.
  • As I’ve said to many people, Fazeley street is a far more preferable way to get to Digbeth. I like it in its current under-developed state. I’m not sure that the Warwick Bar proposals will ever see the light of day now will they?
  • Even if Fazeley studios isn’t your final destination do peek inside – they won’t mind (tell ’em Dave sent you….). It’s a lovely reception area and even better when you’re there to meet Pete Ashton who’s already got the kettle on.

My journey ended here but for the return route you could get on to the canal or return via Digbeth High street and the city centre. I’ll keep the routes coming as and when I have reason to walk them.

Come walk the city with me

walking map

I love walking. So does my Mom, even at 78 years old. I recall once walking with her and my siblings from home in Alum Rock to the city centre some time in the mid 1970s (was there a bus strike? more likely she just thought it would be good for us). My clear memory is getting to Masshouse Circus and instead of using the underpasses she made us go over the huge traffic island there. There was my mom and us three kids avoiding the busy traffic at each exit to the island until we made safe ground at Tescos (now Argos). We’d do longer walks around the city as we grew up but none stick in the mind like this one.

The city’s a tad easier to walk nowadays and I love walking it. Today I walked 4.16 miles around the city from New street station to a meeting in Aston Science Park, to the Custard Factory, back to the City centre and then on to the arse end of the Jewellery Quarter where my workplace is. I finished a bit annoyed at how it’s too often the simple things we’re getting wrong in the city, things that stop this walk being one for the tourist brochures despite the obvious historic interest along the way. I started at 8.45am and was back at work by 2.45pm. Here’s what I found:

  • From New st. to Science Park is a great straight mile that has benefited from the removal of underpasses at Bull street and Old Square. A lovely walk past the law courts and Aston Uni campus. Easy-peasy.
  • Who would think to use the canal from Science Park to Digbeth? A lovely towpath route but the entrance on the Science Park is obscured and poorly signposted. It is easily the simplest route. I passed only one other person.
  • The canal there is a bit intimidating due to poor tunnel lighting and the ongoing presence of loitering single men around Curzon street tunnel. Maybe a bit of a cottaging scene going on there? Of course it also lacks other people, maybe because no-one knows it’s there.
  • The new Yumm deli at the Custard Factory is a welcome addition. reasonably priced, cheery staff. Still love Rooty’s though but the love has spread now.
  • From Custard Factory to the city centre is NOT a pleasant walk. Was it lunchtime at the college? Does that explain the slightly intimidating youths? The ones who decided to do that come-right-up-in-your-face thing to me that youths sometime do? I’ve never liked it, still don’t. Too many side-roads including one where the traffic can come from the other side of the dual carriageway unexpectedly, and that fucking bus stop outside Digbeth Cold Storage where the path narrows. Why does this area need a dual carriageway? Why do we still love roads so much after all this time. Give us space on the pavement, please.

  • From Bull Ring shopping centre to the library is great, I like the second half of New street as it rises into the impressive Victoria Square and then to the library. The mall bit in the middle of the library still seems like an oddity though, to say the least.
  • But to get to Summer Row and to work from here – would you know how to do it? The weird exit to the right just after Nandos? Past the stagnant pool, down a red staircase (where do wheelchair users go?) and through the only underpass on the walk or across busy roads to avoid the underpass and onto another dual carriageway (although passing the very fine Birmingham Orthodox Cathedral),

Actually, in hindsight this is a great walk, spoilt only by poor signposting, a lack of thought about what make safe spaces and a continuing desire to prioritise the car. Above all, there seems a determination to keep the canals, the Custard Factory and Summer Row disconnected from the city centre experience. I’m not convinced that changing the road layout to prioritise pedestrians, stopping bus passengers being herded to the margins and installing better lighting on some canal tunnels need a Big City Plan to make them happen. It just needs those who make the decisions to come walk with us. To understand how good these routes are but understand the fine detail of what prevents them being great routes that we can promote with pride.

This is an open invite to all: in power, at the fringes of it or with a desire to influence it. Come walk with me, any time you like, I’ll show you the city I think you never take the time to see. And if she’s free, I’ll ask my mom along as well.

#bigcityplan mid-term event Jan 20th 2009

Today I attended a one-day conference about Birmingham’s Big City Plan at the ICC. It was invite only although I didn’t get my invite until yesterday when it was clear that the group due to discuss the Connectivity theme valued having some expert input. Luckily my more expert colleague was there to do that and I could bluff my way through as usual. The view from the podium was that the day shouldn’t be live-blogged in case colleagues felt they couldn’t be open, so unfortunately there was little tweeting during the event itself.

There was no delegate list (or pack even) for the event but a quick glance round the room suggested that it was a mix of representatives from trade organisations, developers, community groups, universities, architects, planners and probably a lot more. Seemed to be fairly high-level, circa 300 in total. The introductions talked up the success of ‘Big City Plan’ as a brand in itself – that it had attracted attention for its ambition and was being widely discussed. Kelvin Campbell from Urban Initiatives (the consultants tasked with co-ordinating the plan) gave quite an uplifting presentation that included some interesting thinking about making some of the inner ring road into a kind of Birmingham La Rambla (so tempted to link to Las Ramblas then instead).

The day centred around a series of 16 break-out groups looking at different areas of the plan so I can only really talk about the chat in the Connectivity (cycling/walking/digital) group. The group had a fairly passionate discussion on walking (we lamented the lack of clear sign-posting and the blockages out from the centre to key areas such as the Jewellery Quarter and Highgate) and on cycling (the major arteries into the city are treacherous and the centre is difficult for bikes). 

But when we got onto ‘Digital’ the passion kind of disappeared to be replaced initially by a kind of ‘so what’? It was partly (in my view at least) that as described by the plan ‘digital’ is seen as a utility service. Nothing wrong with that, surely the council has a duty to treat it that way and ensure citizens get the access they deserve. The only point of debate was, almost inevitably, that we need city centre free wi-fi. But then our friend Kelvin dropped in on our discussion and pointed out how the lack of free wi-fi had created a number of ad-hoc social media spaces around particular cafes. Kelvin’s question was is that a good thing (he thought yes) and if so, how do we institutionalise it? Could we create a equivalent of a Section 106 so that new developments were obliged to create Social Media Spaces as part of new builds. Then the discussion was suddenly fired up about social media and the connectivity it creates between individuals and businesses and the creative potential therein. I made mention of the Big City Plan translation (news to all I think) and the ability of ‘digital’ to harness expertise and make connections directly to citizens was suddenly made real.

Further, there was recognition by Kelvin that the consultation to date hadn’t had the full engagement with the social media community that it could have had and that this group could recommend a change in tack in that respect. And that’s what we did – one of the group’s actions was for the Big City Plan team to utilise social media, and thereby engage with those leading in that area, to widen the debate. So we ended up having a very positive discussion after a flat start. 

A lunchtime appointment meant I actually managed to miss most of the summing up bar the one for this group. In the final slide was the bullet point ‘Twittering is Good’. As it was the last slide of the day it stayed up for quite a while during the closing speeches – point made.

Birmingham vs everywhere – Fight!

Birmingham Map

Or to put it another way – I’ve just discovered how easy it is to compare Birmingham to other cities using the nomis service from the Office of National Statistics. These are figures from the industry labor law charts that relate to the labour market. That is, who is or isn’t working, what people earn, what benefits they claim, how much of the population is ‘economically inactive‘. You can pull out stats for regions or local authority areas, or even better, make comparisons between two or three areas.

Pulling up the stats for Brum on their own are interesting enough. Here’s some things I didn’t know before:

  • Average weekly pay for a man in Birmingham is exactly £100 more than women get (£473 compared to £373)
  • The average wage of Birmingham-based jobs is £36 more (£470) than the average Brummie earns.
  • 18.9% of working age people have no qualifications at all (13% is the national figure)
  • 85% of Birmingham jobs are in the service sector
  • We have over half the national average of self-employed females (2.4% to 5.2%).
  • We’ve got over twice the national average rate of Job Seeker’s Allowance Claimants (6% to 2.8%)
  • 2490 businesses started trading in 2007, 2230 stopped trading in the same year. That’s a higher churn rate than the national picture.

You can query many of the data sources as well if you really need to know that in 2008 there were three times as many under 25 men (1540) than women (560) claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Selly Oak constituency. Actually that’s an improvement as it used to be four times as many back in 2000.

But the really interesting stuff comes when you compare Birmingham to other regions. Inevitably I pulled down Manchester from the menu. You can go read the stats yourself and try out other cities. Whatever you do don’t compare us to any other London boroughs – in a fight they win flat out on just about everything.