Blackpool. Almost in the Digital Age
This is a post about a town that is undergoing massive changes - and is gradually becoming digitally connected within its own communities, as well as to there.
Some people, however, seem to think that this is a simple transition, but it comes with a past, a history. It is a history that needs recording in the same way anything should be archived, for posterity. These are my own thoughts.
Let us consider Blackpool and its changes under each of three magnifying glasses. No area is exclusive to others, and all interconnect.
Business (including the Visitor Economy), Education, Community.
Something quite astounding has happened in Blackpool. It is not exclusive, nor is it revolutionary, but it might have been.
It might have been as revolutionary as the first electric lighting that sparked the illuminations and led the World, but alas, it was not to be. In about 2003, when I joined Blackpool Council, ideas were being cast around about the possibilities of, and promise about a leading electronically driven town. The ideas were good, indeed - they were exciting but the execution was only just starting to be considered. Blackpool was one of the first places that I saw street kiosks for Internet access, although I never actually saw anyone utilising them (I assumed they did?). This was the era of the Internet Cafe, although there were few around. This was the point where mobile phones were being popularised, but the Smartphone was still a small pip, rather than an Apple in someone’s eye.
There was an impending revolution happening in Education, both at HE level, and also in schools, although it had not had the fortune to take shape in Blackpool. I saw it internationally as well as nationally, but few really understood, or had the experience of what ICT could offer in reality. It was all a bit of magic. ICT was magic, and those who operated in its shadow were magicians. I was lucky in that I had been working at the cutting edge with Apple in places like South Yorkshire (and across the Scottish Authorities before that), and had started to do much more than experiment with Virtual, as well as mixed mode Learning Environments. WiFi had been the norm at home for a number of years, and this at a time when you never saw another network on your home system. I was only too happy to share this experience with my new colleagues - and to encourage their interest. I had just that opportunity when Blackpool BIG (Blackpool Interactive Grid) sought to expand from an idea into an entity. It was a rather radical vision at the time, but it was a vision, not a practical reality. I recall, a large number of interested parties, drawn together from across public sector, education at HE, FE and Schools, and we had a day debating ways forward at the Territorial Army Centre in the Town. I was working closely, as part of Education, Leisure and Cultural Services, developing connected plans for two major Library Modernisation Programmes when I was asked to take over and grow the possibility of a Community based Web Portal. This project, although with an Educational bias, was already underway - funded from Libraries Funds (£80k of New Opportunity Funding was sunk into it), but it had failed to deliver more than a promise. It was, at the time, linked to a product being created by Granada Learning for Blackpool, and was known in the community as “Communitywise”. Unfortunately, this project was progressing very slowly, and so I was asked to take it over with the aim of moving it along.
1) One portal to offer it all:
Working with a number of stake-holders, and also taking the lead with the fledgling eCommunity Partnership in the town, I rapidly focused in on the needs of the local community, as well as the successes or otherwise of the project to date. The one outstandingly positive thing I can say was that “Commiuntywise” was planned to be created from an educational context with a Virtual Learning Environment starting point. It became clear that there was a great deal of work to do, but that what was needed could well become a model for other communities around the UK. That was the driver. I continued to meet with community groups, listened to their needs, recorded their comments and went away with a clear mandate. They wanted FREE websites….that were easy to set up.
In 1994 I worked with a colleague to create a bid for European Regional Development Funding. I actually wrote most of the bid, but it was supplemented with a requirement to extend Internet Kiosks in the town, so this was integrated into the application. We were successful in raising an approximately 50% funding for what became I-CAN, the interactive Community Access Network. This amounted to a total funding pot of over half a million pounds. I was over-the-moon with this success…..but the hard work was to come.
The Granada based product we were contracted to simply, and annoyingly, continued to cause headaches, and within a short time it was clear that we were being sold vapourware, or (as one community wag stated “a dead duck”). We had to effect a change - and quickly, as our ERDF project deadlines and targets loomed. I was granted permission to start a search for a suitable replacement. In the meantime, Blackpool Council was able to recover funding to the tune of some £100,000 from Granada and its partners at that time. A real success.
At this point in time, moves were being made to modernise Blackpool Council’s website. To cut a long story short, while I was actively reviewing products for trials, I worked with colleagues in Education and we did decide to embrace my research and adopt my top scoring product. Alas ICT did not. Education went ahead without the Community, which was a real shame, and actually it did not follow the agreed protocols with the funders. I was told to use the same product that was being used for the Council Website. Now while this was possible, my reservations were that the product (Microsoft Content Manager MCMS) was old - even at this time, poorly equipped with tools and had no track record for Education etc. It was not ideal, and very expensive to licence compared to other, better solutions. No matter, I was ready to make the best of what I had to work with, but was not following the very project plans that so recently we had even raised additional funding against. There was no attempt within the project, to define value, best use of funds etc.
Progress was initially slower than I’d wished, even with the product we now had to work with. Almost every part of the Blackpool4Me portal had to be scratch built by an external contractor (I did not take any part in their selection). I-CAN contributed to the employment of a developer, who later, when trained, proved to be a valuable asset. His time, as was the development time paid out to a 3rd party development team, was split between I-CAN’s Blackpool4Me development and that of the Council Website. It was somewhat of a parasitic relationship really. I had no handle on the costs model from the Council Website side at all, but clearly I was aware of the costs to I-CAN. Blackpool4Me was concerned primarily with creating a product that reasonably inexperienced users could adopt, and so we invested in those tools that enabled MCMS to be something other than a programmers environment. This was one of the reasons I referred to as making it a less than suitable solution for I-CAN. I had to research tool sets and editing facilities, as well as the needs for reporting, none of which MCMS performed very well - if at all. These were the essence of what we needed at the time, and as were reported to the funders.
I-CAN purchased the hardware, alongside developing a user interface and a set of procedures that would open up its facilities to a broad audience. Our acid test was user acceptance - something the earlier Granada solution was aimed to do, but which regularly failed users in tests and trials. Without a doubt, I-CAN helped engineer a better solution for the Council’s Web site in the process - but we had nothing to do with the design!
What was our overriding aim with Blackpool4Me?
“This project will create a readily accessible ICT framework that will encourage individuals and
communities to access and share information through a dedicated and specifically targeted web
An indication of the success and popularity of Blackpool4Me comes from the numbers gleaned from an audit of
page accesses made on the second of June 2008 (and subsequently projected to Project end at June 30th 2008)
gives us a total of 2,020,953.
Over 2,000,000 page accesses
Extracts from Project Plan submission 2004
Key to our success was always usability. Our aim was to develop a facility (environment) that would be as familiar in look as possible; it had to be capable of “self-management”; there needed to be a simple entry point for users, but we did not want to preclude those with experience using it to their full capacity. This was as much about what the community wanted, and what they could cope with as anything else. We tried to put the technology aside, but alas, having a mainly Windows XP base in public sector access points, there would always be the usual stumbling blocks.
Development went well over 9 months, and while not every feature was in place, we launched Blackpool4Me on a revised timescale. Its reputation grew in the decade, and by the time the project concluded, it was shown to be attracting some 4500 accesses per day.
What we created was in effect a Facebook for Community Groups. It was a localised multimedia portal with updating facilities, simple templates, news, events, forums and discussions…..and most importantly connections.
Blackpool4Me is still alive today, in 2013, but no longer what it was in format, yet it still incorporates many user “channels” or mini sites, regularly updated. Projecting from 2008 (when finally reported and counted) to today one can only guess at the success in attracting users.
Intriguingly, Blackpool4Me was latterly used as the host for a whole range of Community Consultations in the town. This was its most powerful use, and the Third Sector (OneBlackpool) are now creating a portal to do a similar job.
Because Blackpool4Me has grown in its inclusion significantly (there are over 200 channels of all kinds), I can
only offer a snapshot of what is, at this point in time. The portal is still being as the main point of reference for
Community Consultations, carrying a compilation of the main current public consultations in an accessible
format for easy access by Blackpool residents. The 'Community Consultations' channel has attracted over 5922
accesses in the period of just 10 weeks.
Extract from Project Plan submission 2004
What also strikes me is that scratching the surface of Blackpool as a community was not what Blackpool4Me and I-CAN did. They got to the heart of the people of the town in a way that few other virtual projects have achieved - if any? There were great plans for Blackpool4Me. The development of a “TV” Channel; ideas that sprang from community which would have found favour in many areas. It was possible that we’d have found many more imaginative ways to use it - even at the Heart of the Digital Challenge bid in 2006.
Blackpool is home to approximately160,000 people and a surprisingly high number of these are transient, but it has a pride within its communities that make the place unique.
2) In 2008 Blackpool tried to become a connected town - twice.
In around 2004, discussions started to be fielded around the possibility of a unique project being undertaken in Blackpool. NOTSCHOOL was at the time looking for a research partner to develop its offering of a virtual facility to enable the successful education of “uneducable” students. These were not the difficult ones, but students who, for all sorts of reasons, often not of their making, were precluded from school. The connectedness came from the need to recognise that transient students were a problem technologically, as they did not necessarily remain in one location for periods. THis made connectivity by broadband very difficult. The solution was a WiFi based system. It was installed, town wide, in 2004, with minimal fuss. It was robust, reliable, and had a zero tolerance approach to downtime. This network was created to connect approximately 70 students from NOTSCHOOL, but it was later offered openly for business and community use. It was rejected.
In 2010, Blackpool Council’s ICT Department published a series of articles about the deployment of a Town Centre based web enabling in the open streets and a number of selected venues in the town. The planning and deployment of this installation took over two years to come to fruition, and used funding from the Local Economic Growth Initiative to establish it. When it started, the “Wireless Blackpool” Service was truly innovative. I travelled to the USA in 2006 and met with Google to discuss deployment possibilities (San Francisco was an early WiFi City). I note, that the trip was made without cost to Blackpool Council, but it proved most fruitful to the knowledge we needed. The eventual deployment took no heed of my findings at all. I assume that a tender was placed to award the contract, but I was not included. I was asked to work with and take responsibility for the deployment however. I turned that down on the basis that my recommendations were not taken onboard, but I did assist throughout the problematic period of the installation of the network.
In many ways, it is sad that Blackpool did not take up the offer of Solutions Inc/NOTSCHOOL in 2004. Blackpool would have been THE leading town in the Northwest. Once again, the idea of Blackpool being a town with a connected community formed part of the 2006 attempt to win the UK Digital Challenge……along with several other quite well matched Blackpool programmes. The saddest lost opportunity? Upskilling locals with the technology that literally has taken over the world (WiFi).
Reports and advertorials about Wireless Blackpool
Click here ……. and here …… and here
3) Accessibility Leads the Way
There are certain things that bring - certainty. I already knew that Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Society for the Blind were being led by an open minded, technologically savvy CEO, and we decided to seek funding to create an innovative project for the Sight-Challenged of the area. iBrowse was born in 2003/2004, and won £20,000 worth of funding for the organisation from NIACE. This was an Educationally based project to explore whether the disabled could benefit from new technology. The proof was in the report, and the Blackpool project received national and international praise at the time.
3a) One Step Beyond
By the end of 2004, the project team behind iBrowse realised that the evolution of technological possibility was happening at a pace that needed responding to. In 2005 we were working on blueIRIS, a project to work with the same sight-challenged groups, but using the newly emergent streaming technologies to provide even greater richness and variety of content. We developed blueIRIS with the support of the Lancashire Digital Development Agency, to the tune of some £200,000, and over 18 months work. What emerged was simply stunning. Unfortunately, although the project had applicability beyond the cohort for which it directly served, there were no adoptions of this in the areas we targeted in the hope of expanding its influence. The Blackpool Council, although contributing to the project by way of expertise was offered access for information issuing, as well as a source for content to be delivered by Libraries. Had Blackpool sen fit to adopt the technologies created in its own back garden, the town may have now been in the position of being a leading light in this area. blueIRIS, along with the Lancashire Digital Development Agency, are fondly recalled.
4) Realtime, real opportunity
In 2003, I introduced Blackpool Council to the then successful, up and coming company - Realtime Visualisation. It was a real concern of mine, that having tracked the MD of this fledgling company, that it had huge promise, and World Class possibilities. I arranged for some senior staff to visit Realtime in its old offices in Blackpool (it has since changed venue). I was, as always, knocked out by the qualities on display. I recall Realtime’s Tony Prosser asking why they were not included in contract notifications for major project realisations…..such as the then Casino’s vision, as this was exactly what they did - i.e.: Visualise. Alas, Realtime was never embraced, and because they were located on the “wrong side of a road”, a company of their calibre was being courted by the big and the great to move from the area. In the end (a few years ago), Realtime moved out of Blackpool and into adjacent Fylde. Along with them went the fact that Blackpool had work in the Gaming and Interactive Entertainment industries, contracts with leading industries, Disney etc.
Such a shame.
5) TV? No thanks.
Blackpool’s City Learning Centre is a wonderful example of what can happen when public sector organisations (in this case, the Council) work in synchronisation and harmony. I fear the harmony did not last long however. I was lucky to have had close connections, via my work at Apple, to the development of Blackpool’s CLC. When I joined Blackpool Council, the project was almost completed, and it was a real pleasure to see the fruits of the hard work in place. A brand new TV studio, and more Macs than you can shake a fist at. It was stunning. I offered to help, using my connections, and approached a friend at the BBC, who at that point was the Head of People Development. Working with him, I was able to secure an offer many would have died for. This was 2004/2005 note - long before the BBC had mentioned any changes in their location to Manchester. The offer was to pilot the running of BBC training in Blackpool. Imagine the benefits for everyone. Business, Education, Community?
Imagine my embarrassment when I had to say that the CLC Management did not want this from the BBC. They did. I tried twice.
I will stop there. These 5 (6 really) initiatives show where innovations were in place, would have cost very little, but in each and every case Blackpool Council, at one stage or another, made a decision to not play ball. I regret now not fighting harder, but alas, fighting harder would in all likelihood have curtailed my options.
It is a strange world. It is a strange world that is changing rapidly, and it is at least possible to state “I told you so”.
Now - time travel…..
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