Saturday, March 12, 2011

Jim fixed it for me

Photo from Emma Culturevulture, photo in Backwards Lion's picasa.

One of the things I have the occasional issue (and rant) about is the idea that the argument, or the debate, or the conversation is a great starting point. It is a great step along the way, but the start of anything is the idea. The conversation elps it along, and I agree with all of that; where I get unstuck is that many people - myself included - don't seem to be able to see past the conversation. Talking endlessly about an idea isn't actually getting the idea done, and so, like so many of my doomed projects, time runs out and you find yourself feeling like a failure, or worse; you forget about the idea. I've been trying to stop myself from endlessly getting 70% of the planning done and then abandoning stuff because it turns out to be a nightmare to get onto the 71% stage, without having even started to execute the plan.

And so, to me, Cultural Conversations seemed a bit like another line in the endless round of meetings and chats over beer and puzzling over spreadsheets at 3am; organising the enterprise without engaging the endeavour. (Plus, they're held during the day at a time I'd normally be at work.) So I wasn't really thinking about going to the one held on Friday, the We Are All Jim event. But, a chat with Emma convinced me to book the afternoon off and see not just what my city could do for me, but what I could do for my city.

I arrived to see a pile of tea & coffee supplied by Shine and the instantly recognisable cakes of Sunshine Bakery, gawd bless 'em all. The rules were set out (want a conversation about something? Put it on the wall and see who else is interested) and so, because of a minor faff about Bake Battle, I put up a request for a conversation about a baking competition in Leeds.

About a year ago, myself, The Secret Underground Tearoom and Lay the Table got together to start organising a baking comp. It went well but we kept on coming unstuck on the final logistics, the "where to hold it" and for one reason or another it sort-of fell apart earlier this year. 70% complete, 71% being that little step too far. Anyway, the upshot is that we decided to keep the ball rolling (the logo designer was paid! In cake, admittedly, but that's the currency we work in) and leave the tech infrastructure in place while we took a step back to see what we could do.

And so, my conversation quickly took an interesting turn, with having representatives from Leeds Libraries, a retail giant and the people who would be interested in having such an event, taking us into a fascinating, enormous project scope that involved roadshows, workshops, community engagement and possibly getting word out into the adult education and school sectors as well. One of the things we wanted from the beginning was a community involvement element and the ideas that came out of my/our chat were making great strides in that direction. What remains, then, is to take the next step and untangle the jumble; who we want to target, which organisations can we help and can help us, the education question, the events programme, what a workshop or roadshow could entail (and getting, perhaps, Leeds Loves Food involved in this would be fun), potential prizes and support. Location may need to be rethought (but I'm now thinking in terms of mobile kitchens, like you see in big marquees on Masterchef and Hairy Bikers, in one of the empty buildings so many arts orgs can find their way into nowadays) and perhaps we should be drawing on food as art (and art as food?) to tap into those elements.

I was able to hand out some of the tasty shortbread Jim'll Fix It badges (again, big happy thanks to Sunshine Bakery for those, as well as Elly Snare, who had to tun out for more ribbon twice) which got me into some more conversations; a joining the dots thing, a database of people who are willing to do stuff, a community cafe. The next thing I felt I could offer a contribution to was a Fab Lab, explaining different ways on how to get kit rather than focussing on the money (I ought to take my own advice, sometimes) and exploring different ways in which continuing revenue to keep such an enterprise going could be generated.

So I left the day with much to mull over; Leeds is apparently the debate capitol of the North, with over 40 groups and orgs whose sole purpose is to talk about stuff (next time I get a spare hour I'll research & make a list of all of them) and a lot of talking went on. How much of it translates into action is another thing, but I did get to talk to many interesting people and got quite a few interesting thoughts out of them. I guess time will tell; the bigger the project then the harder it gets. We'll just have to see whether anything comes out of this.

Oftentimes I'm quite cynical about this sort of thing. I think that this time I am genuinely hopeful. Big thanks to Emma & Mike Chitty for doing the hard work!

As an aside, I did meet some lovely people there who I'd be more than happy to take for a beer one day. Someone needs to restart the (alas, long lamented) LeedsBeer email flashmob list; sign up, and if someone posts to the list saying "Beer?" people can go "yeah, ok" or ignore it. I probably should have brought that up at the Conversations, too.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is This The End of the IT Department? Answer: no.

T'other day (about 10 days ago at time of writing) I saw what I consider to be a bloody ridiculous article from a "noo meedja" company. The article in question, entitled "Is this the end of the IT department?", is yet another rehash of something which I think I first saw as an article in about 1997.

Today's articles are very similar, and the one I saw might as well have been called "a manifesto for using the cloud" or "why google docs wins every single time" or "I don't give a monkeys about intellectual property rights or proprietary information, so why should you?" There's a couple of good arguments in there if we were still stuck in 2002, but as with all these articles they are buried under the raft of assumptions that many short-sighted beancounters in businesses make when they discover that IT is a cost sink and the only way they can reduce that sink is to outsource.

I love this particular line, though (which is new, and crops up more and more in recent articles pf this nature):

Today you can get just about all the services that previously required local expertise from a web site somewhere.

Yep. Because the only things people need in an office are basic - as in, ultra-basic - spreadsheets, a WP and email. Maybe a presentation package if you need to get the venture capitalists on board. Of course that's the case, because who needs to do anything else? There's nothing else you can do with computers in the body corporate, surely?

Rubbish IT can be very expensive, because you pay first for a shoddy service and they you pay more for a decent service to patch up the holes your first service made. Good IT can be comparatively cheap, because you pay once. Would you feel happy contracting out an enterprise service to the lowest bidder? Sure, if they have proper method statements and procedures, a signing-off list and an audit trail, but nobody who is cheap does any of those things. Should the contractors have access to confidential data, or the customer list? I can think of at least two scenarios where someone would bid deliberately low just to get the contract and access to business data, and the crucial thing about data is that once it is in the wild it is impossible to get it back again.

Admittedly: these articles are inevitably very US-centric and of course there's no such thing as the DPA or RIPA in the States (that demands quite so much), and 20-people offices generally don't have the requirement for storage that a defence contractor has. But... when someone says "I need better stats than google spreadsheet can give me" the whole cloud concept goes out of the window. When the person on the next desk installs Inkscape to design a logo for the company, what's the backup strategy? The CIO - although, in a non-IT shop, what's the point in having a CIO? - could need to run a database, and if they're sensible they're running it on a server instead of in Access on a shared directory. Although you'd need an IT guy to rig up the shares, because if you do it wrong then Guinevere on the front desk will inevitably discover that Alice earns 40 times more than she does, and that Barney spends his entire work day playing Farmville. Let's not talk about what Chris gets up to, but Guin, or Fred, or Eva, or even poor old Hector, pushing the janitor bucket along will inevitably find out all kinds of stuff they really shouldn't if you don't have a guy in the server room keeping an eye on stuff.

From an EU perspective the whole idea of cloud computing should give everybody with commercially sensitive or proprietary data the wiggins, but I've gone on about that at length beforehand to anybody who foolishly asks me about this over a pint. In the old job I regularly had to go to academic staff and kick them with pointy shoes whenever they started talking about Mobile Me or Dropbox, because their data inevitably contains stuff that could be useful to competetors, foreign governments, marketing managers, nigerian crown princes or script kiddies in Xinghao. The point is that no matter what you may think your data is useful for, someone else will find it useful for something else.

But I've given up that argument now; there's only so much I can care about and whilst I appreciate there may not be a requirement for a bunch of guys to show Guin how to use a word processor any more (although there almost certainly is), having a decent IT department is ultimately a cost effective concept, simply in terms of the vast swathes of knowledge and metaknowledge about all the different aspects of IT they will have. And they're usually too busy to find out who has spent the day playing Farmville or discovering just how far Rule 34 extends. But tell that to the beancounters? Nah. They have to pay the rent, and they have to pay the electricity and rates and taxes. IT is a simple thing to shed because all it does is - on paper - cost money. But the value-added is worth so much more.

Meh, what do I know. I've only been doing this for 15 years.