Get this stuff out of my head.

Street Light Sensor Network

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Some time ago I was asked what a city like Sheffield could do that would set itself apart in terms of digital infrastructure.  Sheffield City Region already has an ambitious broadband access plan (Digital Region) that is already rolling out high speed broadband to many areas.  Also, the challenge is to digitally enable a city rather than address (the very great) need for even basic digital access to more rural areas.  So my thoughts ran to digitally enabling the city rather than its citizens.

I have always had a fascination with street hardware, everything from park benches, litter bins to manhole covers and most interestingly, street lights.  These bits of civic infrastructure are often invisible and perfunctory, but when they are well designed they can become part of a city’s identity.

Street light sensor networkStreet light sensor network


Street light sensor network

This is not a suggestion that we need to preserve old lamp posts or create overly ornate new ones, but that street lights have previously and should in future be used to create a sense of commonality or purpose and municipality.  This city binding can now be aided by thinking about the digital presence of a city.

When posed the question of ‘What could Sheffield do in the digital space?’ my answer was to suggest that we create a device that when fitted to a street light post provides not just a visual identifier for the city, but also acts as a platform for interfacing between the physical public space and the digital world.

I imagined a beautifully designed box that would sit high up the lamp post and contain:

  • a wifi networking access point
  • bluetooth networking
  • NFC senors
  • environment sensors like:
  • ambient light
  • temperature
  • noise level
  • air quality
  • motion sensors
  • coloured light indicators
  • a video camera with Kinect style gesture recognition
  • a LCD projector focused on nearby pedestrian areas

While the potential for Sheffield City Council to use a network of such devices to gather data and inform their planning, decision making and provide information services to the public is interesting, it was the potential unlocked by opening up this platform to commercial organisations and the wider public that really excited me.

Not only could the data be made open to be used by anyone to understand and add value, but the platform, if properly mediated and managed, could be ustilitised for people to develop applications for way-finding, local services and advertising, community building or even more excitingly, games.

Having suggesting all this over a coffee, I left the idea alone.  Until I heard that Sheffield City Council had let the contract to replace all of its 46,000 street lights to Amey, a public services outsourcing company, via a Public Finance Initiative (PFI).

We have now have passed the point where we can influence what Amey do with the street lights in Sheffield, but it might be worth finding out whether they have thought of the possibilities above. 

Localgovcamp 2012

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Another LocalGovCamp another brilliant event.  As always, it’s a chance to catch up with the people I follow and converse with on twitter.  Those hardy bunch of masochists who are trying to do things in Local Government differently, better, with the new tools that they have found.

This year there was a different feel to the thing. It feels like we’re making progress, the conversations have moved on from how to use Twitter and applying Agile. Those topics were useful, but now they are just the job in hand.  

I attended some fascinating sessions and had some fantastic conversations including:

Future Cities

 Led by Liz Stevenson and Catherine Howe we discussed the growing gap between the what Councils and corporates are doing in the area of data sensing, gathering, analysing and sharing and what systems and platforms are supporting citizens doing the same.  It seems that data is being captured about us and our shared spaces with little input from or visibility by us.

During the discussion it was mentioned by someone (sorry, missed your name) that much of the research being produced in Europe is highlighting the need for openness  in Smart Cities projects, however this seems to be getting lost in translation when getting implemented in the UK.

I certainly feel that this is the case. There appears to be a lack of consideration about how the public will be able to use the sensor networks that are being implemented..  And I don’t just mean getting access to the data archives, but how people and organisations get to build apps on the sensor networks and displays.

3D printing

Carrie Bishop suggested a session on how the rise of 3D printing might impact local authorities. I attended simply because I had no idea whatsoever.  Some interesting ideas came up, first was that assisted living and social care devices could be customised.  Examples were given of hand grips that were ‘moulded’ to the person’s grip and remodeling switches and buttons to be easier to use or more familiar.

One participant (I think it was Esko Reinikanen) talked about the potential for a local authority to get ahead of the market and support the development of a local centre of excellence in the emerging 3D printing and Fab Lab industry.  I think he was inferring that by giving local digital creative people access to the technologies, they could develop the skills that will be needed in future.  This sounded like an excellent proposition for any council who have a dispersed creative industry.

There was a question about the potential moral objections to 3D printing technologies and a valid point was made that, at present, it seems like a technology that will simply fuel disposable consumerist behaviours in the developed world (where product distribution is not an issue)

I was most interested when Ben Proctor helped me make a leap of scale and talked about the possibility of printing prototype houses. The thought that a 3D printer could be scaled up to let us produce prototypes for things that we currently have to imagine or visualise illustrates the power of the concept over simply customisation to meet the preferences of an over-privileged consumerist few.


I lead a session in which I hoped to find out what barriers there would be to using crowd-funding style models or platforms to facilitate local councils or social enterprises co-funding projects that would not otherwise get off the ground.  Granted, it’s quite a stretch to jump from taking $20 from 50,000 individuals to using similar techniques to get a dozen councils to provide a few thousand pounds each to develop a new online tool or carry out a pilot project, but I hoped we would work out whether it was even feasible.

The group pointed out some significant issues. First that current procurement rules requires any spend greater than £500 to go through a competitive tendering process and secondly that councils already enter into local consortia to do this kind of collaborative purchasing. Unfortunately, it seems that both of these processes are quite long winded and cumbersome, if not completely broken.

However, the group moved on to discussing the possibility of using crowd-funding platforms to raise money for activities that would be considered non-essential and, under current economic pressures, would simply be cut.  The discussion centred around the benefits (greater ownership and engagement in community activities) and the problems (effectively introducing voluntary taxation and the lack of any in built redistribution of wealth).  However, it was clear that many thought that crowd-funding has great potential for communities either through councils or just with its support.


My last session of the day was chosen almost at random.  The post-it note simply said ‘Stories’ and I was half hoping for a nice relaxing Jack-a-nory session to round off the day.  As it turned out Peter McClymont was leading a discussion on the use of story formats in council comms.

Council communications is one of the topics I tend to steer clear off, but I was drawn in by Pete’s experience of using local blogger tweets, official council sources and Storify to create their coverage of the recent Olympic Torch procession.  Pete talked about how, with hindsight, he would’ve starting documenting the story from earlier as much of the interesting issues were in the early days of negotiating the procession with LOCOG.

While I could appreciate that Pete and many other teams are doing great things with the new tools at their disposal to create more interesting and compelling, I was feeling a little disruptive at the end of the day and so I asked whether it should be the job of the comms team to find the stories not just in what the council does, but in the things that the community does.

So instead of being a service to the council, communicating to the citizens the value that the council delivers (with pictures of councillors cutting red ribbons on things they spent citizens money on), they could actually deliver value directly to the citizens by bringing visibility to the civic activity that they do.

After a few minutes of puzzled looks I saw a few nods (and tweets) of agreement, but it was Si Whitehouse that pointed out the need for comms teams to also find stories in council data, to provide some context or counterargument to the prevailing ‘truths’ that are commonly used to influence opinion or drive policy.

It was interesting that no-one suggested that it’s actually the role of local journalism to do both of those things - but perhaps that’s a discussion for an entirely different conference. #localjournocamp anyone?


Thinking About Backups

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I suspect that many of you, like me, are the unofficial IT support for your neighbours, family, extended family and anyone else they fancy recommending you for.  This means that you are probably constantly either telling them to backup their data or trying to restore an ‘really’ important photo/document/thing from barfed disk drive.  

If this is the case then you might want to point your ‘supported users’ at this post in order to try and get people to think about backing up sensibly.

What would you save in a fire?
It turns out that in a survey of this question laptops come higher than pets. And just check out how many people included their precious slabs of plastic and silicon in these photos of what some people would save. But it’s not the physical thing that we care about, it’s the memories that are contained on it - all those photos, the downloaded music, films and software would take weeks to recollect.  

How much for your memories?
Exactly how much is that worth?  If you’d just lost the lot,  forever, no chance of ever getting them back, at all - and I offered to get them back for £200.  I suspect you’d bite my hand off.  what about £400 - I’d still have a queue, even at £1000 I suspect I’d have a few takers who’s realised that they had no other photos of a relative who passed away or of a special holiday. and you’ll never be able to take those baby pictures again will you.

Not if, but when?
Computers fail - especially disk drives.  All that spinning at 7200rpm is bound to wear them down eventually.  In fact, there’s an industry term to express it - MTBF - mean time before failure.  I just randomly picked a diskdrive manufacturer and model and googled Samsung Spinpoint MTBF and found an article from 2006 stating the MTBF for a Samsung SpinPoint to be 600,000 hours.  That means that about half of the those disk drives bought when that article was written will have failed by now.  Like tossing a coin, heads you win, tails you lose (all your photos).

Backup now and now and now
How often should I backup and when? It seem a reasonable question, but the answer is you should never backup because you should always be backing up.  If you decide to backup every month or week then the photo you store on your computer today will be just as gone tomorrow  if your computer fails tonight.  Instead look for a backup solution that backs up new and edited files as it goes.

Don’t ignore the warnings
Okay, so the services that perform the filesyncing (like Dropbox, Google Drive and are a little more expensive than the scheduled backup solutions (like jungledisk, Zipcloud and my favourite, ElephantBackup). If you decide that you’re willing to run the risk and backup regularly, you should backup as often as possible - like daily. Pick a time when you know your computer will be on and schedule the backup then.  Try and set a time when it’s on but not under heavy use, like first thing in the morning when you switch on and then go to make a cup of tea.
The big down side to daily scheduled backups is that you get so many backup reports that after a while you simply switch them off or start ignoring them.  This is bad!  If you turn off or ignore the reports you will never find out if there has been a been an error. I’ve seen (on nameless relative’s PCs) where the backup has failed for months and gone unnoticed.  Rather than let yourself get bored of successful reports, set up a filter on your email that put successful reports into a folder and highlights failure reports to you.
This won’t help if the backup software doesn’t run at all of course.  I’m sure someone, somewhere has created a backup service that emails you if if doesn’t receive a backup from you within a specific time period. Kind of the backup equivalent of peering through the letterbox to check the post has been picked up.

So, there you go, points to remember:
  • your computer will fail at some point - be prepared
  • remember how much your data is worth to you
  • backup all the time
  • if you can’t, do it frequently
  • make sure you notice if it fails

And if you need any more help with your PC, I would like to refer you to the XKCD Tech Support Cheat Sheet:
thinking about backups