Digital Commonwealth

On the road and on the wire

Training in Dornoch last month with the Digital Commonwealth project

Training in Dornoch with the Digital Commonwealth project, May 2014

“Digital inclusion” is a big buzz word at the moment,” Marilyn Slavin, director of the CK UK website tells me.

She is filming an interview for the My Brilliant Moment series on Media Trust’s Community Channel and she is concerned that many of those involved in trying to make the internet and all its devices more accessible are not looking carefully enough at what’s on their websites and how it’s written.

“We’ve been doing digital inclusion since 2004 and it should be further on.

“One of the reasons that I’m doing this film, talking to this camera, is to encourage more people to get involved and make their websites accessible, because if you make it accessible for people with learning difficulties then it covers a lot of other people: people whose first language isn’t English, people who have got literacy issues.

“If you get it right for people with learning difficulties all of those other folk will be engaged with what you are trying to say and your message.”

Marlilyn Slavin (r) with Maureen McGinn, chair of Big Lottery Fund Scotland at launch of Do #Something Brilliant Scotland project. April 2014. (pic: Simon Dalziel)

Marlilyn Slavin (r) with Maureen McGinn, chair of Big Lottery Fund Scotland at launch of Do #SomethingBrilliant Scotland project. April 2014. (pic: Simon Dalziel)

Marilyn’s comments were a wake-up for me.

I had just returned to a near-normal schedule of work after a knackering, but massively rewarding, trip to Orkney and the far north of the Scottish mainland in a final round of training workshops with the Digital Commonwealth project.

Watch this space for an extended report on the road trip and the wider project in a forthcoming edition of Media Trust’s #Brilliant Scotland programme.

In the meantime, there’s a flavour of the kind of work I was doing in this mini video, filmed with Jennifer Jones in Dornoch:

 

The focus of much of this training work is on how to get the best pictures and sound using low budget equipment. In the case of these Digital Commonwealth workshops, that usually means smartphones and tablets – sometimes with the help of catering-size coffee tins, as we found during one training session hosted at the Orkney Library in Kirkwall (below).

Filming with digital inclusion activists at the near-legendary Kirkwall Library (Orkney, May 2014)

Filming with digital inclusion activists at the Orkney Library in Kirkwall (May 2014)

The library has near-legendary status among book people for the breadth of its social media following and especially its presence on Twitter, so it was great to get a chance to visit the place and to meet such enthusiastic and committed people.

But Marilyn’s comments highlighted to me that training is only one part of opening digital access to wider groups across Scotland.

Speaking at this month’s DigiScotFest2014 event in Edinburgh, Michael Fourman, chair of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s landmark inquiry on digital participation, said “we have to start with the hardest places,” when it comes to digital inclusion.

One strong message from what I heard at the DigiScotFest was that this has to include those with all kinds of special educational needs as well as remote rural areas and Scotland’s austerity-hammered housing schemes.

For Marilyn Slavan, there has been poor progress so far on digital inclusion.

“It’s not fair.

“People with learning difficulties are customers, clients, they’re people that could attract organisations and they have got spending power, too.

“So a lot of organisations are missing out.

“People need to open their eyes and make it better, make it fairer, because at the moment it’s still not fair for people with learning difficulties.”

Media Trust’s My Brilliant Moment series is an outlet for groups or projects to speak directly to the audience about what they do, what motivates them and how they hope to make a difference to those around them.

The series is one feature of our Big Lottery Funded project Do #SomethingBrilliant, which gives charities and community groups a way of amplifying their message through programmes on the Community Channel (which has recently had more than 2m viewers a month), but also via the website, fortnightly newsletter and the Community Newswire, run by MT and the Press Association.

Groups can also send their calls to action to the Little Brilliant Things pages, which are an opportunity to encourage people to get involved in campaigning for change.

Advertisements

Sounding off about podcasting – it’s radio-to-go

phone-micThe tools of this trade are changing – alarmingly fast for some, not soon enough for many.

When some of us think of DIY media, the first call is video – smartphones, compact cameras, or if you’re lucky and have the money, a DSLR. And that’s good, because pictures tell great stories.

But so do sounds.

The ground-breaking US news website, ProPublica, published a podcast this week which stopped me in my tracks – and not just because of what we regard as the liberties which the US legal system allows journalists to take on air and in print when someone has been arrested and a trial is pending.

When I began listening, I knew nothing about the case of the 1979 disappearance in New York City of 6-year old Etan Patz, still less about the (ProPublica’s reporter argues) “questionable” confession by a man with learning difficulties who has been charged with Etan’s abduction and murder.

But within moments of clicking to start the podcast, I was gripped.

This was the heart-rending story of a child abduction and now, a potential miscarriage of justice (according to campaigners), told in a simple, compelling way. No bells and whistles, just what people used to call “great radio”.

Now, there was a time when being a radio reporter required bags of (usually really expensive) kit. Getting on the air from outside a studio required heavy boxes of ISDN gear and (not “lite” at all!) satellite equipment, before you even got started on the laptops, the mics and what felt like miles of cables you had to lug around with you.

I’ve been there and done it: from the Lockerbie Trial at Camp Zeist, via Westminster and Holyrood, to election campaign roadshows and car crashes.

Been there, done it – and loved it.

But now, a smartphone, a good microphone, set of cheapo headphones and a home-soldered cable made from £5-worth of bits from Maplins or wherever (numerous other fine electronics retailers are available) seems to do the job just about as well.

If it’s bells and whistles you’re after, there are some pricey apps you can spend your money on, but there are lots of free ones that do the job, too.

During the second half of 2013, I was using this kind of kit in a really brilliant training project with secondary school students in Highland region. Now, in 2014, I’m hoping to be taking those lessons and that experience out on the road with the Digital Commonwealth project, to help set up 4 community media hubs around Scotland.

I’ve also been talking to a number of volunteer groups about how they could use minimal equipment and free software to make the kind of enhanced podcasts I was doing in my old job, which include still images, some text and active weblinks in amongst the audio reporting.

It’s proper, full-spectrum multi-media stuff. And it has the capacity to change the way you think about sound – as well as how you think about dodgy confessions made to the NYPD.

From the Black Isle to Pilton – putting new media in people’s hands

Jennifer Jones speaks at a Digital Commonwealth Cafe meeting, Royston Wardieburn Community Centre, Edinburgh

Jennifer Jones speaks at a Digital Commonwealth Cafe meeting, Royston Wardieburn Community Centre, Edinburgh

A group of rowdy school students in Fortrose – a small town in the Black Isle, on the Cromarty Firth – pounces on a box of handheld recorders, mics and headphones on the classroom desk in front of them.

Hardly before I know it, they are off, heading out around the school to interview teachers, members of sports teams, or even each other, their notebooks full of questions they’d prepared beforehand, thanks to a training session earlier in the week from a fellow journalist, Catherine Deveney.

Over the next half hour, I’m unpacking cables, a sound mixer, microphone stands and other bits to build a small DIY radio studio the students will be using as part of a literacy project now involving a number of schools across Highland Council – from Plockton on the northwest coast, to Kingussie on the edge of the Cairngorms and northwards across the River Spey to the Black Isle.

It is one of two inspiring pieces of work I’ve been involved with in the last week or so – the other took me to a community centre in the north of Edinburgh, where around 20 community activists had gathered to look into getting involved in a 2014 project which hopes to turn the focus of the journey of the Commonwealth Games ceremonial Queen’s Baton around from the baton itself onto the people communities it passs through on its 40-day relay around Scotland to the Glasgow stadium for the start of the games in July.

The project is designed to “change the narrative of the establishment version of the Games,” according to Jennifer Jones from the University of the West of Scotland, who is helping to organise the Digital Commonwealth initiative.

It is based on the success of the Citizen Relay reports from scores of towns and villages as the Olympic Torch caravan made its way through Scotland in 2012. Both projects attempt to make citizens and their voices the central subject, rather than the circus around the torch and baton. It is an attempt to allow the voices of Scotland’s communities to be heard above the cacophony of excited sports commentators or the politicians who will inevitably try to seize the credit for the success of the Games, and possibly even for any word records that get broken in the pool, the velodrome or on the track.

“If you can’t get your story heard by the media, why don’t you become the media yourself?” asked Jennifer, as she spoke to activists at the Royston Wardieburn centre.

“The narrative of the Commonwealth Games has been established by the mainstream media snce the very start,” she says.

“If you try to tell any alternative stories, they’ll just take you down. So our plan is to train people to report their own communities and to create a digital archive of people’s expereince during the Commonwealth Games, so that we have more than just the official account of the event.”

I have been working on the Highland schools  Literacy Hub project in one way or another for most of 2013 and it has seen my working life come almost full circle, from adult literacy teacher just after I emerged out of university in the depths of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, to a spell as a history teacher in southern Africa before entering journalism and now returning (for some of the time at least) to the classroom and training.

The King Edward fountain at Invergordon illuminates an oil rig in the Easter Ross repair yard.

The King Edward fountain at Invergordon illuminates an oil rig in the Easter Ross repair yard.

The project, which has taken me to schools across the region, including Invergordon, has opened my eyes not just to the lives of young people in these schools and communities, but to their eagerness – and the truly impressive scope of their ambition – to report on their lives around them when they are presented with the tools to do so.

A big part of my new job as Scottish Outreach Manager with the Media Trust is going to be geared towards getting these tools to people in these communities and helping them take their first steps towards reporting on their lives, their concerns and their hopes for themselves, in their own words.

I’m keen to make a start.