There are 4,695 digital businesses in Birmingham

Now you know me, always interested in stats. Particularly creative/digital economy stats about Birmingham. Being interested in such stats isn’t as much part of my job as it used to be, but I think anyone teaching the media and preparing students for a life in ‘the industry’ should have a fair grasp of the size and scope of said ‘industry’.

Mapping the UK’s Digital Economy
A new report is out. It argues that the way the UK usually counts digital businesses (using SIC codes) may not give us the whole picture. Using a model called ‘Growth Intelligence’  it says there are 270,000 digital companies in the UK rather than the 167,000 previously thought. They are responsible for 11% of jobs in the UK. ‘Growth Intelligence’ is a ‘big data’ approach that uses Companies House info along with other sources to create a more nuanced set of classification for companies and thereby seems better able to identify which are or aren’t digital. It results in a list of 1.868m companies but that will still be an underestimate (20% of companies fail to put themselves against any SIC code).

What’s a Digital Company?
One whose outputs, the product or service they offer, are digital. So if you use a computer system to help you sell bananas, that doesn’t make you digital: “we restrict ‘digital content’ to sectors where the only or principal outputs are digital products or services. For example, we exclude large parts of the architecture sector, but include firms specialising in CAD and technical drawing. By the same token, we exclude supermarkets, but include retailers whose principle offering is digital (such as digital music stores)” (p: 9)

What about Birmingham?
I’ll cut to the chase. Via the SIC code system, Birmingham had 3,116 companies regarded as digital. This new method says there are 4,695 companies. These companies are actually located in the wider Birmingham TTWA (Travel to Work Area) which goes up to Tamworth and down to Redditch. In this area are about 600,000 people of employment age. By contrast, Manchester’s TTWA has about 700,000 in it and has more digital firms in it also (7,324).

Is this good news?
Yes. There’s a section in the report that says that other areas have more ‘clustering’ of digital firms but a city like Birmingham has too diverse an economy for digital to show up as a distinct cluster (though there are clearly significant local clusters in areas like Eastside and Jewellery Quarter).

What the report does and doesn’t tell us.
The report doesn’t tell us much at a local level other than the number of firms. However the information about a typical  UK digital firm is interesting.  Digital firms are slightly younger than other firms (about 9 years old rather than 10). There’s the same number of start-ups as in any other sector. They tend to employ more people on average. They tend to have lower revenues.

Will the number of digital companies grow?
Yes, says the report. Largely because of the number of firms ‘inflowing’. That is, more existing firms are becoming digital firms – moving from analogue to digital as such. However, data suggests that digital firms are as susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy as any other sector.

Not just London.
What’s really useful about the report is that it goes some way to correct the view that ‘digital’ is just something cool firms in East London do. It’s clearly not. Although there’s definitely a concentration in the South East,  Birmingham and other regional cities are very much playing their part.

The Digital Divide – some new data

There’s some interesting new data about the ‘digital divide’ in the guise of the ‘Living Costs and Food Survey 2011’ which is published by the Office for National Statistics as ‘Family Spending‘, published annually.

So here’s their headline statement regarding family spending on Internet access:

“Differences by income were also evident for internet access, with 41 per cent of households in the lowest income group having access to the internet at home, compared with 99 per cent of the highest income households.”

It’s quite startling put like that. I’m happy to take that at face value given that the survey is fairly robust (based on 5,531 households). When I tweeted that data a local BBC journalist tweeted back:

Wow – so councils build apps because they think it’s a better way to access poor people? My immediate reaction was to consider this nonsense but maybe there’s something in it? So let’s dig a bit deeper at the reasons why poor people don’t spend their money on ‘Internet access’.

Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2012 tells us something about this. They actually have a whole chapter called ‘Smartphones are an important means of accessing the internet‘ which tells us in 2012 42% of people surveyed agreed that ‘my phone is more important to me for accessing the internet than any other device’.

Dig deeper into the same report, a chapter on ‘Telecoms and Networks‘ and we find this headline: ‘Lower-income groups more likely to subscribe to mobile broadband only’. That must be what those councils that David Gregory, above, refers to when they give him their excuses for wasting spending money on apps.

But let’s go beyond that statement and look for more stats that might enhance our understanding of why the poorer you are the less likely you are to have broadband into the home. One reason might be that if you are in the lowest socio-economic group (a ‘DE’) then 25% of you live in household that don’t have a fixed telephone line (usually the main way broadband comes into the home).

Ofcom explain this by saying:

“This is possibly a result of lower-income households not wanting to commit to lengthy minimum-term fixed-line contracts, having trouble passing the credit checks that some providers require, or seeking to control their telephony spend by using prepay mobiles as an alternative to fixed telephony.”

So the poorer you are then you the more likely you are to stick to mobile. However, and here’s the rub, that doesn’t mean you use mobile broadband more than well off people. You use it less. 50% of the highest economic group (‘AB’) use their mobile to access the internet, 27% of DEs.

All of this is quite hard to unravel but perhaps the key figure, simple to understand, is: 43% of of those in DE homes said that they did not have a broadband connection of any kind compared to the UK average of 24%.

It remains that the poorer you are the less likely you are to use the internet. The ONS provide further evidence. Their quarterly internet access data reports show that the less you earn the less likely you have ever used the internet (93% <£200/week compared to 99.6% >£700/week).

As an aside, it also shows that if you live in Walsall/Wolverhampton then 28.1% of you have never accessed the internet. Ever. The highest figure in the UK. Scary.

So there’s some data for you. The digital divide seems, in the main, to be a reflection of the economic divide. Improving access may be key (libraries? ‘surgeries‘?) but surely there are underlying issues of equality that need addressing.

How to borrow an ebook from a library

Here’a a post about my experience of interacting with the ebook loan system in my local library. I do some reflection on the value or otherwise of such systems in a column published in the Birmingham Post newspaper. There I summarised the experience as:

“After a fiddle and a couple of emails to the helpdesk, it actually worked”

Well that’s kind of true but the fiddling was prolonged at points and although it works it strikes me that lending books out in this way is hardly going to change the world of libraries forever. For the most part I’ll focus on practicalities since the copyright stuff is a bit bonkers to be honest.

So here’s what you need to do to get an ebook (audio books use a separate system) from Birmingham Library Services in the UK. I’ll mention what happens on a computer and on a mobile device such as an iPhone or iPad. I didn’t have a compatible e-reader to test it on. I’ve put all the screen grabs at the bottom of this post, there are links to them against specific step:

STAGE ONE – prep

  1. Join the library.
  2. Decide if you want to read books on a computer screen or a mobile device.
  3. Check if your mobile device is compatible on the overdrive website. Put away your Kindle – those are compatible for US libraries only.
  4. So you want to read ebooks on a computer? Download Adobe Digital Editions and sign up for an account with
  5. Still on your computer? Okay, open up Adobe Digital Editions (pic) and authorise it with your Adobe account details.
  6. Want to read a book on your iPhone or iPad? Download the ‘Overdrive’ app from the app store (pic)
  7. Authorise the app with your Adobe account details.

STAGE TWO – getting a book

  1. On your computer or on your mobile device (ignore that app for now) point your browser to
  2. Click on ‘My Account’ and from there enter your library card number (pic). Unusually, your library PIN number is not required.
  3. It didn’t work did it. I forgot to tell you, and they forgot to tell you, that you need to omit the last two digits (I’ve raised the issue so hopefully this will change. Now go repeat the above step.
  4. Take a look through the available ebooks (pic).
  5. Choose a book as long as it is available. Mostly there is only one available copy of each book. If another user has taken it our, it’s out. You can add it to a wish list and you’ll get it when it comes back in. That’s right, it’s just like a normal book (pic)
  6. ‘Add to basket’ and ‘Proceed to checkout’.
  7. At the ‘Confirm Check Out’ page you will notice that you can only have 3 ebooks out at one time and that the lending period is 21 days (you can return it early but it will auto-return/auto-delete from your device at that end of 21 days).
STAGE THREE – reading the book
  1. At this stage the process is slightly different whether you are on a computer or mobile device
  2. On a computer, clicking ‘download’ results in a small .acsm file being downloaded that will open in Adobe Digital Editions, prompting the download of the whole book. You can now enjoy your book.
  3. On the iPhone/iPad, clicking ‘download’ (pic) opens the Overdrive app and the book is downloaded to it.
  4. Navigation on the mobile device is easy to manage (pic and pic).
STAGE FOUR – returning the book
  1. See what I said in Stage two point number 7 above. On the mobile returning is pretty easy (pic).
  1. The reason I’ve navigated you via the web browser even if you are using a mobile is that all the Overdrive app does is send you there anyway to browse and get the books.
  2. The search function is flaky in the app. A search via postcode doesn’t work and browsing through the regions results in the alarming discovery that the West Midlands isn’t listed at all and that Birmingham is listed in the South West section. A search for ‘Birmingham’ lists all the US Birminghams as well.
  3. Once you have gone through Stage Two above using your mobile the app will then have a shortcut for Birmingham Library on it (pic). So you can then begin your journey using the app or of course just have a shortcut in your browser

And that’s it. Are you still with me? Did you enjoy your ebook? It’s complex, too complex perhaps and having to ‘authorise’ devices might put people off even before they’ve left Stage one. There are niggles to sort (the one about the library digits and the location of Birmingham on the app) but eventually, the book does get to your device and you can read it.

I’ll let others debate the restrictive practices of publishers but for the meantime it seems we’re stuck with the one copy, one lender restrictions (and get this, some publishers make the library re-buy the book after 26 loans).


Screen shot Digital Editions

Library ebook screen grabs

library sign in screen

Screen shot main page

Screen shot choose book

Screen shot download

Library ebook screen grabs

Library ebook screen grabs

Library ebook screen grabs

Library ebook screen grabs

Digital jobs up north – get one now

At my workplace, Birmingham City University, we had a very illuminating talk to students last week from John Denton who is Managing Editor, TV Platforms, BBC Future Media and Technology. He sometimes contributes to the BBC Internet blog.

The talk is below and a lot of it was about the integration or otherwise of social media platforms into TV viewing. There’s still a core belief in scheduling though – “the power of the schedule should drive what’s on all devices”.

Appended to John’s presentation is one from his colleague Andrew Bowden who is the ‘Product manager’ for the iPlayer.

At the end of these two presentations came a plug for the BBC’s planned move to Salford next year. BBC Future Media and Technology are making the move as well as other departments and John made it clear that there were opportunities for the people in the room. In fact he cited a potential 70+ new roles being created in his area. ‘Come to Salford‘, was the message – the students salivated, my heart sank a little.

Ah well, maybe we just lobbied the wrong broadcaster in the hope of creating digital jobs here in the West Midlands. Or perhaps we’ve got 70+ new roles ourselves but they’re not in a single institution.

The talk came courtesy of the BSEEN enterprise programme.

BBC John Denton

Paper on Advantage West Midlands’ Digital Media Cluster

awmDuring the summer the Business Cluster Opportunity Group that represents the Digital Media industry in the West Midlands asked me to produce a kind of positioning paper whilst the discussions were ongoing about the formation of Local Economic Partnerships (LEP).

The group was formed in 2003 so the paper is kind of saying: ‘don’t dump that knowledge, it might be useful’. It’s probably not a group that too many people have a wider awareness of but it actually did a lot of the strategic positioning work around placing ‘digital’ as a key focus in the region’s economic strategy.

It’s had a wide distribution via email to the various business/public sector bods who were doing the LEP lobbying but I suspect it’ll never get formally published anywhere so I thought I’d dump it on here.

An excerpt from the executive summary:
“In the current climate where business support policy is being reshaped and support mechanisms rethought, this paper strongly makes the case for those groups forming new partnerships to draw on the existing expertise of the West Midlands Digital Media Cluster Opportunity Group”

Digital Media Sector Cluster Paper 2010 Final

Paper in full

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.

Social Media ‘Seminar for Success’

I did a presentation at one of Aston Science Park’s ‘Seminars for Success’ this week – I don’t do many 7.30am starts so that’s almost worth a post in itself. All I want to do here is say thanks to those that sent me positive feedback afterwards and a general hello to some new followers on Twitter and LinkedIn. All the speakers’ presentations are posted up on the Science Park website and for reference mine is below also. It looks a bit brief without the arm-waving and additional anecdotes but you get the general point. Any questions please get in touch (in the comments or dave [at]

Writing about worms & business

I’ll avoid cross-posting in future but my first posting at the Digital Birmingham blog is about a useful example of how social media can be used by small businesses:

I’m always looking for examples of how social media can support small businesses. I’ve raised the question before using the local builder as an example. Why on earth would the bloke who knocked a hole in my wall have a reason to use any kind of social media tool?

Well I found a partial answer to that in a video from Herefordshire firm, Wiggly Wigglers (amongst other things they sell worms for composting). Founder Heather Gorringe explains how a shift to social media over tradititional media helped cut her advertising costs without cutting her customer base.

What’s clear is that Heather knows her customer extremely well: “we sell stuff that gardeners may not know they want”. Of course Heather’s firm have had an e-commerce presence for quite a while but they’ve embraced social media in a big way.

She has a blog, a facebook group, uses podcasts and is all over Youtube. I can’t help wonder why Wiggly Wigglers aren’t on twitter (there’s certainly plently of chat about them). Social Media is ideal for building a community around your products, for ensuring customers value the advice you give them and the knowledge-sharing that comes from connecting to each other. Increasing value-added rather than cutting prices sounds like a good strategy in an economic downturn. Previously Wiggly Wigglers had bought in customer lists, now in effect they create their own customer lists for free through word-of-mouth on social media.

For her efforts Heather has won a global award for Small Business Excellence – that’s right, a worm seller from Hereford beat off international competition. Well done to her. We need more local and regional social media champions from the wider business community. Here in Birmingham I think we’re certainly adept at knowing how to make a buck by playing the local card – but maybe we could take tip or two from a rural worm-grower about how to build a global community who care enough to come back again and again.