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Archive for March, 2010

Please note, this post is written from my personal perspective and does not seek to represent the views of any individuals or organisations I am associated with.

I followed the National Digital Inclusion Conference over the last two days via their (excellent) live stream and found it quite thought provoking.

Whilst I was involved from ‘afar’, it did appear that there were a number of people who were very good speakers, but didn’t really know how to tackle the issue of those members of society who are very much on the periphery of such things, the so-called – Excluded.

Maybe we should be looking  more closelyat the reasons why there are members of our society who are excluded. Beware, some of those reasons may prove unpalatable to some! Ok, the older age group (and I’m one), that’s easy, we weren’t around all this technology stuff until late in life, we have had to learn it from scratch and it doesn’t come naturally to us, that is until we get it – and then, we really don’t stop and, given the chance, will encourage others to get online. The committment by Stephen Burns, Community Services Director, Peabody, to take the tools to connect those in care homes is great, I’m sure it could also connect the generations if the families were encouraged to be part of this learning process.

It was interesting that Tom Wright from AgeUK was worried that the ‘Geeks will rule’. Well, maybe they will, and maybe we need to pay attention to people whose agenda is not necessarily political, who share stuff and create stuff and continually question whats ‘useful’, rather than take the time trodden path of ‘doing what we always did’, because you know how the rest of that one goes.

Jobcentre+ took the opportunity to launch its app for iphone, yes, great, I tried installing it (I am lucky enough to have an iphone), and I couldn’t because you need to new 3.0 software which I cannot afford to upgrade to. How many people who are unemployed have iphones? How many unemployed people did JC+ talk to before doing this? Most of the people I know without jobs use pay-as-you-go mobiles since its easier to manage their money that way – they cannot afford monthly bills. Have you seen the price of an iphone on PAYG? About £300! I rest my case.

Tom Loosemore, Head of 4ip, told us how he spoke to some people outside a Jobcentre about the new iphone app, apparently they weren’t impressed!

There was much talk about how businesses, and DirectGov could supply essential services online, all of which could no-doubt streamline and simplify some application processes. Interestingly, the figures Jeremy Hunt, Shadow Minister for Digital Britan, supplied for the numbers of forms, questions and duplication that one person he’d met had to fill in to claim the 8 benefits he was entitled to, was surely a strong case for supporting a ‘single stream’ application process for things like benefits and maybe pensions.

However, a prediction! Remember when businesses discovered the much reviled telephone systems that mean we now have such difficulty speaking to a ‘real’ person? (I had to go through 7 number selections recently to speak to someone at Royal Mail, and don’t get me onto BT or British Gas), we must be very careful about processing everything online. The systems should have good facilities for those who will need to speak to someone. Providing online services should not be an excuse to cut frontline services. If you need to ask a question, there should be someone there to answer it, also not forgetting those with difficulties which may not allow them to complete online applications. And, of course, all this can only work if everyone has access to online facilities.

Back in the ’80s, my employers decided that I should have a car phone installed. At the time, I couldn’t see the point, I had a phone in the office, was I really going to want to speak to people as I drove around all day? I remember my son, a teenager at the time, saying what a great idea it was. I wasn’t convinced. Then, said phone was installed, and it was terrific, I didn’t have to spend hours at the office in an evening returning calls when I could just take them as I was travelling, it saved me so much time. I could also keep in touch with my office (I was a lone worker) so my safety was improved too. The point I’m making is, I needed to have it’s benefits demonstrated to me before I could see how it was useful to me. It’s the same with people getting online. There has to be a reason, and that reason could be anything.

The unpalatable bit is, those in our society who are excluded, is because they are excluded.  No job, no prospects, can’t afford interests or hobbies, society has let them down, they feel abandoned, left out and hopeless. They will need a better reason than being able to fill in benefit claims and jobseek  for non-existant or poorly paid vacancies to get them online.

I love the internet, but we should remember that until the content has a use it is just information. Until we can discover what might inspire someone to become interested in getting online, then we might as well not waste time and money. This is where the wonderful Talk About Local (@talkaboutlocal) project has been able to create such an interest, and is building communities and inspiring a new passion in people. It’s demonstrating how people can use the online tools to make their communities better, that, in turn, is creating interest and renewed vigour in community activism. It’s a wonderful model of one way of creating this inspiration.

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That is a question I am sometimes asked, and I am not going to answer it quite yet. To those of you reading this who thought you knew what I did, read on – you may be surprised.

When I began this project three and a half years ago, even though I’d worked in and around Stoke-on-Trent for over 20 years, I needed to make new connections to add to my existing ones.  As the project does no marketing (except when it’s about clients), to spread the word through word of mouth meant doing just that, meeting as many people as I could who could help and support the clients and, gathering as much information as possible about ‘who does what’  in the City in order that clients could benefit from quick and accessible links to information/resources/help that they needed for their businesses/projects. Bearing in mind that the Bizfizz project in an area (in this case centered in Burslem, but Stoke-on-Trent really), comprises just one person, in this case – me, no support staff, admin assistants etc;. it is down to the project facilitator/coach to ‘build’ the project and deliver it; creating a huge amount of new contacts could prove daunting, yet it wasn’t. I found that, whilst I ‘needed them’ for future clients support, they also found a benefit in me – namely that I could inform, connect and spread information that was ‘useful’.

What I found interesting, if rather shocking, was that there were so many people in organisations and projects that I met who had little or no knowledge about each other, even when there was a clear link between what each was doing. There was no means within their organisations which enabled them to meet people outside of it (unless those people were service users/clients of theirs). I began to find myself connecting  people who previously were unconnected, raiding my growing list of phone numbers and email lists to give away. (For the pedants – no Data Protection was breached during this process)

Whilst Bizfizz sets up support networks for clients (see the About Bizfizz page for more), this must not in any way be confused by networking, that’s a whole different animal. The networks Bizfizz forms are quite organic, unstructured and free to evolve, it is this which makes them so effective. They can change shape and re- form to meet whatever particular need arises. Some people think that networking is connecting -it’s not. It’s networking. Sometimes it’s selling, sometimes it’s giving information, but it’s not connecting.

In a City of around 240,000 people with some of the highest areas of multiple deprivation in the country, it should come as no surprise that communications throughout the entire community were limited, and yet, it is this disconnection which I believe is the real key to the regeneration process if it is to succeed and reach those most in need. Often, mainstream organisations produce ‘magazines’ and other written material to be posted through the letterboxes of  residents. Mostly these only serve to further divide the population because there is no clear link between those featured and those recieving them, and sometimes they are just blatant PR for the organisation (aren’t we clever/this is how we spend your money etc.) and the public clearly sees that. It might have been better if someone from that organisation attended the local car boot or market and chatted to people passing on information in a direct way. Anyway, that’s for another blog entirely.

Getting back to connections, I was interested to read what Clay Shirky said about Connecting the Excluded . In his book, ‘Here Comes Everybody’ he says;

What we end up with are small groups of people who are very similar, and there are only a handful of individuals in any given society who brigdge those gaps .
If I wanted to set up a programme to address social exclusion I would not try to address the bulk of the group because most of those resources would go to waste, because most of the people that people know are other people like them.
I would fund the people who are bridging the structural – I would find the people who knows someone in in council housing and someone who is living over in Belgravia. I wouldn’t fund the people in Belgravia or the people in council housing to just get together and talk to one other. I would find the people who are naturally bridging that gap somehow. I would give them the tools specifically designed for the connection or social bridging function that’s different from just what that everyday user might have.
What we found in every social system we looked at is that the imbalance of participation means that a few people are responsible for most of the social systemic connectivity, and concentrating on those people, on the outliers rather than on the average actually can improve the system as a whole
I think you could move more information, awareness, empathy, sympathy or what have you across those otherwise relatively unbridged gaps by funding the natural bridgers and strengthening them rather than trying to build new ones from scratch.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_Comes_Everybody

What I have found interesting is that so many of the people in organisations I have met thought that because they went to networking events, they had got this business of connecting covered. Well they haven’t, because until you begin to discover what the real driver is behind a person/group or organisation, you cannot begin to know what they need to be connected with. It may just be connecting anybody to anybody, this isn’t about protocol and communication strategies, it’s about somebody needing something connecting with someone else with the answer or the route to the answer, sometimes it’s about collaboration, sometimes it’s sharing stuff, in fact, it could be anything!

Whilst this role of connector has earned me the nickname ‘mobile Google’ locally, it began as a byproduct of the Bizfizz project; one of those amazing outcomes so difficult to describe to funders and those so wholly output driven. Yet is is probably one of the most vital and productive functions that can be fulfilled. Connectors have to be independant, free to roam and without agenda.

Bizfizz, because of the way it is operated is fulfilling this function (if it has an agenda it’s only to continue connecting, for the good of the clients, but, of course, it doesn’t stop there, it connects to assist anyone) but when this project stops, as it will, what will become of this role? Will anybody recognise the true value of this function? Maybe you have some thoughts on this?

Coming back to to the question ‘What is it you do again?’   Answer – All of the above

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