Category: Blog

After a week speaking at a digital rights demonstration, a free map meeting, a 600-strong Critical Mass and lots of electioneering capping off days at the office it was quite a relief to complete the weekend with a spade, wheelbarrow and several tonnes of soil. Growing Southwark, who I first came across last September, have been running a community food growing project on the Cossall Estate in Peckham. I planted my broad beans at the event in February – here’s a pic of me with my pots – but this time the work was much more heavy going. Residents, Growing Southwark volunteers and a team from Veoila with 2 master carpenters worked together from Thursday-Sunday to erect a 18×1.5×0.6 meter raised bed. When I got there on Sunday they were filling them up with 16 tonnes of organic soil and soil improver. After a couple of hours lugging large quantities of soil around…

I met up with two map/GIS officers from Southwark Council this evening to continue a discussion about OpenStreetMap; they’re very interested in it. The obvious starting point, with some help from ITO, will be to use OpenStreetMap for the new web mapping service on all zoom levels up to the very detailed Ordnance Survey master maps (which have exact road shapes, buildings, etc.). That’s right – they might replace the commercial stuff with maps that were made by the community and shared for free! Southwark has some pretty well known landmarks – Tower Bridge, the Globe Theatre, Peckham library and Nunhead Cemetery to name but a few. It will be exciting to have OpenStreetMap data of these on the Southwark web site. But wait – it gets better. They’re also interested in discussing real, actual collaboration. To begin with, they might be able to provide data for OpenStreetMap and help…

I’ve a lot of respect for anyone who steps up to run for election with a manifesto that, they genuinely hope, will improve the lot of their constituents. But aside from my obvious partisan reasons, I don’t think I could ever vote for a Pirate Party candidate in these forthcoming national and local elections. I suspect I’m like the majority of people in that I really get put off by politicians saying “don’t vote for Party X or you’ll let Party Y in”, as though they’ve nothing more compelling to offer voters than “we’re not that lot”. Ultimately I would always want people to vote for the party they most support, give or take some tactical voting if they prefer. So if the Pirates are your bag then get involved with them. But the Pirates are an unashamed single issue party. Their manifesto lays out a radical agenda for copyright,…

OK, it isn’t really. But an event at City Hall today threw up some difficult lessons for economists from other academic disciplines. After a massive crisis in the global financial system, which was triggered by and hugely deepened a cyclical recession, it’s a pretty easy time to have a dig. So here they go! Paul Ormerod kicked off with lessons from physics. The big one was: use empirical evidence and discovery to test, falsify and improve theories. In economics, evidence has very little status whilst most theory is developed in ignorance of evidence. His pet example was the work done on networks and effects such as herding (e.g. fashions and fads), which has barely scratched the surface of classical economic theory. Luc Bovens gave a fascinating dissection of the financial crisis using Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics. Who is morally culpable for the crisis, he asked? In the tradition of all good…

It’s unhappily easy for our earnest efforts to fall on deaf ears, especially if (like me) you’re a bit of an egg-head. It would be lovely if people listened attentively to our reasoned arguments, but any academic psychologist could tell you it ain’t so. The Bad Science movement has roundly bashed the media for dangerously misrepresenting science. Ben Goldacre angrily lays blame at the feet of humanities graduates (like me?) who write and make editorial decisions about scientific subjects without any understanding of the subject or even getting the basics of the scientific method. Just recently we have seen climate scientists have their names dragged through the mud by, er, journalists and editors who obviously don’t realise how much of a non-scandal “Climate Gate” really was. So do we fight back with Goldacre-style condescension, taking the arguments to pieces and shouting at humanities graduates like me? That probably won’t get…

How could the Greater London Authority, Southwark Council or tenants on estates use OpenStreetMap? I regularly use it to get around, but of course I’m an OSM nerd. Most people have never heard of it, which is a shame because they could really benefit from it. This evening I introduced the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations to the project, handing around some printouts showing how OSM has many estates much better mapped than Google, and how we have nice (but very incomplete) public transport and cycling maps which are much more useful for your average tenant than a map for car drivers. Everyone seemed really enthusiastic, which was lovely! One lady thanked me for getting the name of her estate right; it changed in 1979 but lots of maps still have the old name. So I’m going to do some workshops with tenants on a couple of estates to get…

Are free photos evil? I’m going to stick my neck out and defend the Greater London Authority for setting up a Flickr group where Londoners can submit photos to be used on the GLA web site. A few photographers are upset that anyone can now get decent photos for free from citizens who donate them. Shocker. These photographers want the GLA to use our taxes to pay them for their hard work. I’m sorry, but that’s just plain ridiculous. Should we condemn the GLA for using free software for their web site, instead of paying for a proprietary content management system? Dearie me. Look, the web has changed many creative industries and bust the business models of those few who were charging for stuff that lots of us will happily share quite freely. Get over it. This storm-in-a-lens-pouch has been picked up by the venerable Boris Watch and the Telegraph,…

Labour have never really understood how to empower people and their community groups, although they do love to talk about it. Take this recent article by Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, where they say “the right kind of state action is not a drain on individual empowerment; it can enhance it”. Great, so why have they been party to a state that has taken ever more power away from people, replacing citizenship with shallow consumer rights? How do you get beyond slogans and soundbites to genuinely empower local people? In a recent blog entry I wrote about the money side of the equation – how you can enable local people to directly invest in projects that will improve their neighbourhood, a topic Matt Sellwood has some interesting thoughts on. You could also use tools like participatory budgeting, made fun by the unsurpassably brilliant The People Speak, or really make the…

How can we tell a simple, persuasive story about Green housing policy? Tom Hill sent me this challenging article about the US Democrats’ recent failure to turn solid facts into folksy stories, reminiscent of George Lakoff’s past work on their failure to frame issues correctly (read this and this). I’ve been doing some work recently on the Green story about the recession, and what the Mayor of London should do in response. A big part of this is the Green story on housing, since the housing bubble is both a structural weakness in our economy and a negative consequence for the majority of people for whom it is far too expensive. Jenny Jones has recently published a great report explaining the downside of the story, and we’re working together on a follow-up describing a range of rather complex solutions. So how can we tell our positive story on housing in…

I came across a shocking statistic today: environmental taxes are decreasing in the UK! The total revenue has risen slower than inflation between 1999 and 2008; from around £32.6bn in 1999 to £38.5bn in 2008. If it had grown with inflation over that period it would have stood at £41.4bn in 2008. As a percentage of GDP over that period it fell from 3.5% to 2.7%. As a percentage of the total taxes and social contributions in the UK, it has also fallen behind. In 99 it peaked at 9.7% of total tax revenue, then fell to 7.2% in 2008. Environmental taxes made up a lower share of our economy and tax revenue than at any time since 1993, when the ONS records begin. So much for shifting the tax burden from income to environmental damage!