School of Everywhere

The School of Everything went international yesterday. We launched in New York at the NY Tech Meetup, which is terribly glamorous of course, but the exciting bit for me was the process back at Everything HQ of getting our new international locations system working. We've implemented the open gazetteer source Geonames as our locations database, so rather than using the very UK-specific "postcode" lookup we're now handling everything based on names of localities. You enter your location, such as "Clapham" or "Felixstowe", we look it up in Geonames and assign you a location on the map. If Geonames picks the wrong Clapham, we've added a neat disambiguation tool so you can choose which Clapham is right for you.

The data is easy to change in the Geonames database (via their site), which means if your location isn't listed currently, you can add it. We're hoping that over time we can encourage lots of web projects to standardise on Geonames, so that in time we can refine it to be a really comprehensive, open geolocations system for everyone to share.

Take a look at now, create a teacher profile, have a play with it and let me know what you think. And if you've got friends around the world who have something to teach, tell them about us!

Social Innovation Camp

My friends Paul Miller and Anna Maybank are hard at work at the desks next to me developing Social Innovation Camp. The idea is to bring hackers and social innovators together to use "web 2.0 tools" to solve social problems. I've just submitted my first idea - Partner Up: prosocial networking for organisations. Any comments welcome, and please do submit a few ideas of your own and make my co-workers happy. I'm going to put a few more into the mix over the next few weeks. It's shaping up to be a rather nice event.


Here's a video of a talk I did for my friend and Sociability Associate Saul Albert back in October, explaining my Freeschools project. It's a bit long and more than a little rambling, but some of you might find it interesting, if only for the fluffiness of my hair.


It picks up from about 7 minutes in. (There's also a transcript and some interesting marginal discussions on our Freeschool Commentpress site.)

The Freeschools concept is my favourite "social technology" project right now because it's so simple. Through the simple application of two colours of post-it notes and some simple "social software", it is possible to turn any group of people into a learning network. We're starting to spread this concept via the School of Everything now, and already people are beginning to run these evenings all around the country. If you'd like to have a go at starting your own freeschool, the instructions are here.

The Freeschool concept is based on the experiments of the Palo Alto Free U, on which the School of Everything is based and which I explain a little in the talk. You can see a Freeschool experiment in action in the second half of the video. I think as a social research project, it demonstrates two very important things: firstly, all people need to begin sharing their skills is a clear process for sharing what they know, and what they need; and secondly, you never know what people know.

Freeschools are more than just experiments for me though, they are a good example of an emerging methodology for designing social interactions, once called "social engineering" but which might now be termed social design. In modelling processes for constructing interactive software applications, we are discovering new ways to model all the other interactions in our lives too.

In each strand of my work at the moment, my underlying purpose seems to be to reduce what we're doing to the simplest format possible. For the RSA Networks we reduced the process of incubating projects to "propose -> discuss -> support". For Croydon Council last week I was modelling citizen-led campaigning as "Be heard. Get involved. Make change." My colleague Mary recently reduced the process of a peer-to-peer project support group to "what are you doing, and what do you need help with?"

It may feel like oversimplification, human interactions are surely too rich to really be defined in such crude terms. But that's the joy of complex systems: a few simple rules can have huge and unpredictable consequences. After all, Go is a very simple game. So is football for that matter. Freeschools are a very simple idea, but their potential for impact is complex and far-reaching. And most importantly, they demonstrate that you don't need the internet to have social technology.

Free collaboration tools

With more and more tools available either free or for small sums to help people collaborate and share information, I've been compiling a list of the best ones I've come across. (Thanks to Saul Albert and the School of Everything team for their contributions to this list.)

  • FolderShare: my favourite, a simple application which turns any group of un-networked, web-enabled PCs into a virtual shared drive (backed-up onto all machines, available offline, and it even includes good version control).
  • FilesAnywhere: free tool for sharing documents and files online, including version control and multiple workgroups functionality.
  • Skype: an obvious one, the most common internet telephony service also offers handy chat functions, plus Skype Prime for video conferencing.
  • Wordpress: collaborative blogging can be a powerful way to collaborate and develop a project; Wordpress now allows private blogs accessible only to selected users. (It also produces nifty little websites like this one...)
  • PhpBB: vanilla free bulletin board software, often cited as the open-source standard.
  • Google for Domains: particularly their e-mail and calendar tools for project management.
  • Google Docs: excellent for collaborative concurrent authoring of documentation and project plans.
  • Wikispaces, Wikidot, Stikipad: free wiki tools for recording ideas, meeting notes and decisions collaboratively in a shared space. (See also the neat new Facebook wiki tool, Wikimono.)
  • the most well-known bookmark-sharing system is increasingly popular with organisations for sharing useful links
  • Feedburner: the free RSS aggregation and subscription tool, now including e-mail broadcasting (subscribe to this site for a demo)
  • Hiveminder: a simple-to use but powerful task management tool, with support for groups and email integration.
  • 37 Signals: these guys offer some classic project management tools, including Backpack, Tadalist and Basecamp.
  • Zoho: a range of online project and collaboration tools including wiki and task manager.
  • Huddle: yet another new project collaboration engine, but slick and with many features.
  • Openworkbench: basic Gantt and project planning charts, editable and shareable online.
  • MindMeister: powerful collaborative online and offline mindmapping software
  • Gliffy: diagramming and project planning software online.
  • Rememble: social site for timelining and sharing a range of media, from text-messages to photos. Useful if you have too much communication! (Disclosure: my friend Gavin actually runs this, but I was recommending it before I knew him.)
  • Compendium: excellent if rather technical tool from the OU for mapping discussions and capturing decisions.
  • Surveymonkey: simple, free survey tool for basic questionnaires and consultations.
  • Highrise and SugarCRM: cheap and effective contact management tools for managing wider engagement (Highrise is actually provided by 37 Signals).

So, anything I've missed? There are new tools emerging all the time and I make no claims to completeness, so if you've got anything to add please share it in your comments below. Happy collaboration!

Consultancy 2.0

There seems to be no end to the number of things to which we can append "2.0", but at least consultancy undoubtedly deserves it. Interesting idea from Nesta about consultants who deliver their own projects. I think it's really important to do this, hence why I make sure the main focus of my work is the projects I am delivering myself. If I wasn't doing this stuff myself, how could I possibly advise others how to do it themselves?


Last week I gave a talk on peer learning with Ben Vershbow of NY think-tank if:book. He's been doing some fabulous things in collaborative reading, which I think could have big implications for the way blogs and discussion forums interact. If:book have developed a hack for the Wordpress platform which places comments to the right of each paragraph of a blog post. It's based on marginalia in old-fashioned academic texts and is intended to allow collaborative annotation of academic texts - but it's such a simple tool that I think it's got much wider implications.

We've been playing with an installation of the system based on the talk we gave at, with some success.

The software itself is available for free at I strongly urge you to check it out and put it to good use!

The Visual Web

I had a good chat with Euan Semple yesterday about, amongst other things, how to design social web tools for visually-orientated people. Euan's been helping me figure out how to use blogs, wikis, forums and tagging to engage people in film and TV industries, and it really struck me how text-based most social web tools are. In many ways, web 2.0 is simply the web taken back to basics. At last we've stopped building websites using the rules of print and publishing, and we're extracting more value from simple hyperlinks again. But because of that, the semantic web requires us to be very textual in our thought patterns. There are some things that (visual impairments aside) can be communicated much more elegantly in colours, diagrams, sequences, videos or animations. And besides, doesn't it all that text just look at bit, um, boring?

At Skillset we created storyboard guides to the media industries that worked pretty well as a visual portal into the deeper site content. But they're still embedded as Flash pop-ups in text-based pages, and extracting content relationships from Flash movies is a bit like putting a comic through text-recognition software. Hyperlinked text and tag clouds are easily mapped, and navigation systems can use those relationships easily enough. But what about physical proximity on the screen? Or relative position in a narrative sequence? Or just things that look similar?

Microsoft's Photosynth and other similar projects (and possibly the OU's Compendium) are beginning to offer some answers, but it's still early days. So, how long before we can create navigation systems that are as flexible and granular as hypertext, but as visually appealing as a style magazine? How long before visual storytelling takes its place alongside text linking in the paradigm of the social web?