[S05 E07] “The Gift”

My vagabond shoes, they are longing to stray

So going to be a slightly all over the place note with a few photos just to make up for it this week. Mainly as I have been in New York all week — got back this morning and am currently feeling pretty sub-optimal!

I love New York — pretty sure I have written that in one of these #weeknotes before — and I was staying on the Lower East Side again which I am a huge fan of. Logistically it was a mixed bag — I flew from Bristol via Dublin to take advantage of US immigration pre-clearance. There was a lot of queuing, a moment of panic when I lost track of my boarding pass and an awkward wait when the woman in front of me was ‘invited’ to have a discussion in the backroom by the immigration agent. Despite all this it was still miles better than getting crammed into JFK. The plane however was ancient and my headphones socket didn’t work so no movies for me (nor was there a USB charger). Still it was fine.

I ended up getting the wrong MetroCard which meant I ended up with 10 trips on the AirTrain (8 left!) and nothing for the subway. This was not ideal and meant buying another card almost immediately. Still I knew the route pretty well and had no problem getting to the hotel. Which was just as well as in another slight annoyance my Three SIM that I have used for all my trips abroad the last couple of years was pretty much useless in New York as they have no 3G anymore and Three don’t support 4G internationally. So I have the edge of Edge if I was lucky. Oh and it turned out the hotel we had been booked into wasn’t paid for as we had been told — but to be honest the hotel was so much nicer than anywhere I usually stay I was OK with that (and it got sorted.)

Soooo anyway. It was all a bit awkward without really being a problem.

The hotel was lovely and themed around art work by legendary graffiti artist Lee Quiñones so I was happy. I also had a hit list of food places nearby which I was able to hit up (BBQ, Thai, Italian and Katz’s Deli!) which was wonderful as usual.

Why was I there? Well I’ve mentioned before our ambitions for a ‘democratic commons’ and that Facebook are a factor in that and this was a 3 day workshop with their Civic Tech team to discuss the possibilities and to come up with a plan of some kind. I can’t really talk about much of the detail but I will say it was intense. There was very little give in the long days, the subjects were frequently very detailed and there was a real pressure to come away from each days with actions (some required the next day.)

The Facebook team were pretty much what you would expect to some extent — young, extremely smart, hard working, geeky and pretty loyal to their employer. They were also self aware (they understood the challenges of doing an open project with them), extremely civic minded and good company.

The office(s) also lived up to what you would expect in most ways. There was a LOT of free food and drinks. The food was extremely good and the drink stations were all over the place. The wall art was cool and the work spaces were a mix of open plan, small meeting rooms and random clusters of people. There were many, many Macbooks 🙂

Things I found amusing but reassuring: the guest wifi sucked, there were problems booking meeting rooms, someone used the wrong kind of pen on a whiteboard, there were struggles getting things on screens and security was a nightmare (getting in took longer each day and we had to be escorted to the restrooms.) Oh and Facebook went down internationally while we were there.

I was impressed by the team but not intimidated (which I kind of thought I might be). Turns out I can hold my own in these conversations mainly just due to a mix of experience and bluster!

We came away with potentially an even more ambitious plan than we arrived with and my head is spinning at the scale of what we are aiming to do. It is bloody exciting though.

Oh and the additional factor that made the days challenging was waking up at 5am each day and doing a couple of hours work before we set off to the workshop. I really am wiped out.

We also visited Google — I added zero to that meeting but it was nice to see their offices in NYC as well.

Thursday evening we had a bit of a gathering of both teams at a cool little science communication events space called Caveat where amongst other conversations we got to meet Ben, the founder of Story Collider — a podcast that many, many of my former colleagues seem to be fans of.

I stayed an extra evening that my colleagues (good luck getting me on a plan on Friday 13th!) and spent Saturday morning walking around Alphabet City and Bushwick taking pics of graffiti. Many, many pics. I also fell off the wagon and got a bit dunk Friday evening — I’d been dry a couple of months but really needed to shut my brain down.


No #weightnotes or #no-life this week — we will resume regularly programming next week — where I will likely be writing in an airport in Belfast!

myWeek (s4e15)

Florence and the machines

Week Fifteen — which means I have outlasted the Defra detour and still going strong-ish…

This was a pretty special week as I was in Florence for the mySociety research conference — TICTeC. As ever I managed to make hard work of getting there — there was a taxi protest in the centre of Bristol so I got stuck in the chaos for over an hour which made things a bit tight for the flight! My whingeing tweet ended up in the Bristol Evening Post though 😉

TICTeC is kind of an amazing thing. It is conference that takes a pretty academic perspective on the world of civil tech with speakers from internet giants (both Facebook and Google), serious Universities (MIT, NYU, Oxford and more), governments, NGOs and all sorts of civil tech/society organisations. I met people from Taiwan, Kenya, Australia, all corners of Europe and the US as well as a few friends from the UK.

It was far from a jolly though. Gemma, our empress of events, had jobs for everyone and everyone had a job. I did the full range from manning reception, helping in the the cloakroom (poor Meredith the local student employed to do the job really had to stretch her amazing English to cope with me!), taking notes and chairing sessions.

The venue..

One of my big takeaways from the event was just how provincial my knowledge of this space is. Basically I know an awful lot about the UK, a fair bit about the US, a decent amount about Australia, New Zealand and Canada but very little about stuff in Asia or Africa or South America — or what I do know is shamefully out of date. Not surprisingly maybe I also know a lot more about Government initiatives than the more activist end of things so much was new to me. If nothing else I can see I need to broaden my reading and will be looking for new blogs etc to follow to get a broader perspective.

I also enjoyed the relative anonymity I had at this event. Given I either go to conferences where I am a speaker or attend those where I am already part of the community and thus evening if people don’t know me there is a chance they have encountered me online it has been a while since I had quite such a low profile. More than once I was mistaken for a volunteer rather than mySociety staff.

I have attended my share of conferences and worked on more than a few as well and this was an incredibly slick affair —it looked fantastic, the wifi held up, the talks were well curated, the food was amazing. The WhatsApp backchannel for the team was a steady stream of reminders, nudges, questions and volunteering. There were a lot of blooming steps though. I’m not exactly renowned for my cardio capability!

To be honest by the team meal on Wednesday evening my extroversion fuel tank was pretty much running on empty (as well as my energy more generally) but it was worth it — it was a great experience and I felt very proud to be part of the team. Seeing some of them in action with delegates and just how well liked and respected they are was a real treat. I’m very lucky to have landed amongst these folk.

As I’d never been to Italy I had decided to spend an extra 24 hours in Rome — I kind of wish I’d stayed on to explore Florence but live and learn. I got the high speed train to Rome (very impressive) and then got the Metro (which has been ‘bombed’ by graf writers like the NYC subway in the 70s!) to the Colosseum/Forum for some touristy action. As these big tourist attractions go these pretty much lived up to expectations and are kind of insane when you try to make the connections in your head about just how long they have been there.

Honestly the rest of my Rome experience was a little underwhelming. It poured down with rain and the Spanish Steps were entirely meh and the Trevi Fountain while stunning was tourist central and just a bit insane. I didn’t end up with time due to weather/getting soaked to get to either the Vatican Museums or the street art tour I wanted to do which soured me a bit I think. Oh well. Next time.

I had quite a bit of time to think over the week as well — less Netflix distractions — I think it is time to kick on a bit with my ambitions for the Better Cities team. While I haven’t exactly been passive I do think I’ve been a bit less forthright than I might have been elsewhere as I found myself in a different culture with a different set of challenges (not ‘transformation’ as usual..). I’ve also allowed myself to be distracted by all my projects we are juggling where my job should be setting a clear path through it all that provides a clear focus for the team that prioritises our products. I also need to get over my aversion to the commercial side of things and get out there and help bring in more customers in whichever way is most helpful.

I still have a lot to learn (but have some thoughts there) but I am much clearer about where I can contribute now as well.


Bristol to Brooklyn…Filton Ave to Franklin Av

April 2013

I have just spent four brilliant nights in Brooklyn, NY and this is a not so short summary of events (in fact some of you may feel like it takes longer to read than I was here!)

I flew from Bristol with Aer Lingus. The first surprise was the plane to Dublin. I have friends who drive bigger mini-vans! That said I did get the best seat on the plane — up the front with loads of leg room so despite the fear I should not complain.

The second surprise was Dublin. The advantage to doing the journey this way is you pass through immigration at Dublin rather than JFK — thus saving potential hours of heartache (only other place this exists is Israel apparently!). The problem was the timings seemed improbable at best! As it turned out they knew what they were doing and I made my flight with 10 whole minutes to spare. It created an awful lot of stress though and I think things could have been communicated better.

The flight was a doddle and landing at the JetBlue terminal at JFK is a real win — I was on the AirTrain in about 10 minutes with no problems.

One of my things this trip was to stick to the subway and avoid cabs. It seemed vital for that real NYC experience. So I got the ‘A’ line train to Nostrand Ave and went looking for my apartment. This was something of an experience. I had made a bit of a boo-boo and thought I was staying in Clinton Hill. An up and coming neighbourhood home to rap and movie stars. In actuality I’ve been in Crown Heights home to one of the highest crime rates in New York state and where apparently a white face (not in uniform) is so rare people were genuinely confused! To be clear I haven’t had the slightest bit of trouble personally but its clear a little later in the evening that things get dangerous very quickly around here!

I found the apartment with minimal effort and my ‘host’ Niya is a lovely chap. A photographer and film maker (he works on a lot of music videos including with guys like Hype Williams) he took the time to give me the local run down which I appreciated. A true Brooklynite he made it clear that he considered Manhattan an unwanted neighbour — which I liked immediately 🙂

I went exploring and found ‘Dutch Boy Burgers‘ which was a real win as far as I am concerned. There is a small section of Franklin Ave in Crown Heights that is full of win — great bars, an amazing Mexican and this top-notch burger spot. I liked it so much I went twice in 4 days! It didn’t hurt that they sold cans of ‘Pork Slap Pale Ale’ 🙂 One thing that always strikes me in the US is that they really don’t have a pub/bar culture like we do — and certainly don’t drink in the same way. Not for the first time bar staff asked me if I was OK as I seemed to be drinking so quickly (I thought I was taking it slow!)

The travel broke me early on Thursday but I got a great burger, a couple of beers and the lay of the land.

Friday morning I headed up to Long Island City to 5Pointz . This required a couple of subway changes and I was very proud of myself!

5Pointz is essentially a massive outdoors graffiti gallery — think Nelson Street but bigger. It is also very much graf and not ‘street art’. I am not sure I have ever been anywhere better. I took an awful lot of pictures and spent an hour just walking the perimeter to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I met a couple of groups of young Japanese tourists there — they were big old school 4 elements hip hop fans and really knew their stuff.

The fact there was an awesome old school diner opposite didn’t hurt either. My corned beef hash, scrambled egg and fried potatoes was lovely. Unfortunately it was here that my Nexus4 bit the dust — I dropped it on the way back to the subway and it shattered. Badly 😦

I didn’t let it slow me down though and headed in to Lower Manhattan so I could walk Brooklyn Bridge. Oops. What a let down. Half of it is now essentially walled off so your view is corrugated iron and equally pissed off tourists. The Brooklyn side of the bridge is better but still I was a little disappointed — though am happy I did it — if only to tick that box. I then wandered around DUMBO (nice but oh so pretentious — at least the bits I saw!).

This is where I bought a terrible cheap Android phone with a US T-Mobile SIM. The idea of having no connectivity was freaking me out and the wifi in the apartment was cut-off (my fault it seems — there was a, to me, very small download limit on the account and some iTunes background stuff I had running killed the account!) Its a horrible phone but it has been useful I have to admit. I’ll be keeping it as my US ‘cell-phone’ going forward.

That evening though I went to the Crown Inn — a bar I had researched in advance and scouted during my Dutch Boy trip. I had a great few hours here — chatting to all manor of local types and trying <em>all</em> the beers they had on tap! In particular I met a chef named Bill who was friends with all the staff so long after he left I got preferential treatment and was invited to join a wedding part for 2 Brooklyn lawyers (they and all their friends were smashed!) I even got US Chinese take-out on the way home (rice great — noodles a bit bland!)

Saturday was a Manhattan day. I set off early to the Lower East Side for an explore. I love visiting these neighbourhoods that are referenced in all my movies and books but off the tourist trail. I even saw the original ‘Coyote Ugly’ bar. The reason I was there though was to do the ‘Mafia’ walking tour with Eric Ferrara. Eric is an author and researcher who has a particular interest in the culture and history of the ‘mob’ in and around ‘Little Italy’. He consults on movies and shows like ‘Broadwalk Empire’ and is a genuine local guy — his father grew up next door to Scorsese! The talk was 2 hours but it flew by. I knew a lot of the high profile stuff but Eric was very good at adding context, shattering myths and giving some cultural insights. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot — not easy given how much I read about this stuff!

Next I visited ‘Grand Central Terminal’. Yes I know it is just a train station but it is a stunning, iconic space that more than lived up to what I expected. From here I gave in to my inner traditional tourist and walked along to Times Square. My god what a nightmare! I didn’t last long — the crowds, the hawkers, the police and did I mention the crowds chased me away! I did however managed to find ‘Midtown Comics’. Regularly voted the best comic book store in NYC it is hidden just off Times Square up a tiny staircase with an entrance on a side street. Once you are in though it is amazing — soooooo many comics and staff who actually know their stuff. I only stayed a short time — any longer could have been dangerous — but I’ll be back.

Saturday night was a bit of a washout — my body clock hasn’t really adjusted to the 5 hour time difference and it is also boiling hot so I am knackered…early! Also it turns out that Saturday really is date night in Brooklyn (or at least the bars I was trying) and a single bloke on his own just looked weird!

Sunday I was a man on a mission. This was the day I had planned most carefully. D’oh! Firstly I was planning on going to the Fort Green flea market. Unfortunately as I discovered after I walked the 2 miles to it that happens on a Saturday not Sunday. D’oh! Then I decided to visit the Brooklyn Museum. However I got on the wrong train and spent an hour trying to get that sorted so I just gave up. D’oh! Then I decided I would head to Bushwick a little early for my street art tour. However once there I discovered (a) there wasn’t really anything there and (b) I could find all the art myself. So I had a very nice sandwich from Brooklyn Naturals and proceeded to host my own tour. It was a bit more ‘arty’ than 5Pointz but there was still a lot of lovely stuff so glad I went.

I was now several hours ahead of schedule though so on the spur of the moment decided to jump on an ‘L’ train and go and walk the High Line. This was interesting if a little low-key but it gives a different perspective on a part of NYC and also gave me an excuse to wander around the ‘Meat Packing district’ another of those places I had heard of bit never visited. Then in another spontaneous moment I jumped on the ‘E’ train and decided to visit the 9/11 memorial. This was a bit more ‘proper’ tourist that I had planned and meant a lot of queuing and security checks. It was also all a bit weird. The memorial is a long way from complete, is surrounded by a massive construction site and despite some very moving moments the overwhelming feeling is that it has become just another tourist attraction when it should be something more meaningful (it doesn’t yet feel like it has the same gravitas at the Vietnam memorial in DC for example..)

To all intents and purposed I completed my trip with a visit to the Way Station bar. Amazingly this is a Doctor Who themed bar! A TARDIS for a toilet, artwork on the walls, cocktails named after characters and episodes and screenings of the latest episodes (which was treated like a big sports game!) It was a fun place with a geeky clientele that even I thought was a bit OTT — also a bar with only one toilet — come on!

I am writing this on my last night (though will probably update it before publishing) but all in all this has been a great success of a trip and for the most part avoiding the obvious has led to more fun. I do reckon I would make a great Brooklynite though! In fact my last (evening) meal was even from the fried chicken fast food chain Popeyes which is apparently a little notorious locally. No problem for this intrepid reporter though (9pm on a Sunday probably a little different than 3am Sat/Sun though — inner-editor-voice)…

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Originally published at jukesie.wordpress.com on April 9, 2013.

Dream (digital) destinations

As I tend to travel solo I am prone to taking the ‘busman’s holiday‘ route. I like to tie my holidays in to events or activities not a million miles away from what I do for a day job to give things some structure amongst the sight-seeing and drinking 🙂 It also gives me something fresh to write about and the opportunity to have some human contact beyond chatting to bar flies and asking directions!

Photo Credit: Steven McNeil via Compfight cc

It was my intention to return to Brooklyn this winter for Brooklyn Beta but as I only visited in April I wasn’t 100%. My plans have changed as it is now my intention to go full on long haul and visit New Zealand in February – catching up with one of my best mates but also attending Webstock a conference that has always looked amazing from afar and also trying to arrange a meeting with someone from the NZ Statistics web team as they have a site often held up as an example to us. Obviously I’ll also do my share of Hobbit hunting etc but the trip will have a bit of a geeky spine.

This got me thinking about where else I’d like to attend with a similar mix of tourism and geek (while avoiding the obvious like SXSW and SF/Valley).

The two places that I settle on as dream destinations were pretty different.

Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Compfight cc

The slightly more obvious one is that I’d love to attend the XOXO Conference in Portland one day and combine it with a visit to Seattle and maybe blag a visit to Amazon HQ somehow 🙂 I love the way XOXO describes itself “independent creators using the Internet to do what they love, and the geeks building the tools that make it possible.” I’ve always wanted to visit the American North West – I have visited a lot of the US now but that area remains unexplored by me.

The other place I’d love to visit is Nairobi! It seems to me that some really interesting things are happening with digital in Africa these days and a lot of it seems to be radiating from a single building in central Nairobi.

Photo Credit: exfordy via Compfight cc

The stuff Ushahidi do around their mapping apps etc and now with their BRCK hardware is amazing. Important work for sure but also genuinely interesting from a geeky point of view. Thanks to the power of the Mozilla global community I am lucky enough to have met Heather Leson, their Director of Community Engagement, a couple of times and one day I’d like to visit her and her colleagues when she is at the Nairobi office.

Funnily enough just down the corridor from the Ushahidi office FrontlineSMS have their local office and former Bristol resident, Delib product manager and viral video star Alex Pitkin is now working there. I met Alex a few times over the years and he gave a talk for me at GovWest last year and his blog has been pretty interesting since he moved over there (especially the post-match interviews!).

It seems like there is loads of other interesting stuff going on there – especially in that kind of open source / civic technology space I find interesting.

I don’t know much about the city or the country really but I’d really like to have a proper visit to Africa at some point after my flying visit to Uganda at the start of the year.

Guess I better start playing the lottery if I want to do all three of these trips on the next couple of years!

[now I’m relying on Flickr metadata for whether these pics are actually of the correct cities!]