Tag Archives: Birmingham

What have I been up to, lately?

I really ought to blog more often (cobbler’s children’s shoes and all that…), but in the style of a back-to-school, what-I-did-on-my-holidays essay, here’s a round-up of some of my recent activity. And inactivity.

In June, I suffered a detached retina, and had to undergo emergency eye surgery. This happened again, in the same eye, a couple of weeks later. My eye is recovering well, but I’m likely to need a further operation for the resultant cataract, at some point in the future. Thanks to everyone who expressed good wishes.

The first detachment happened around the time I was speaking, twice, at the WikimediaUK AGM in Lincoln. There’s a video of my talk on Wikipedians-in-Residence.

I subsequently received a grant from WikimediaUK for a digital recorder to assist with my project asking Wikipedia subjects to contribute recordings of their spoken voices.


Institution of Civil Engineers - One Great George Street - Library

My picture of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ library

Following my surgery, I was laid up for a few weeks, but managed to get out and help at a couple of local Social Media Surgeries (thanks to Si Whitehouse and Steph Clarke, who acted as my chauffeurs). As my recovery progressed, I also visited London, and ran a Wikipedia editathon at the prestigious and historic Institution of Civil Engineers.

Shortly after my first operation, the Museum Association published a series of case studies (some behind a paywall) of collaboration between Wikipedia and British GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), including one about my work as Wikipedian-in-Residence at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, which is freely viewable.

I also took the train to Shrewsbury, to teach Shropshire County Archives staff there to edit Wikipedia. At the “Skill Share Jamboree“, where ‘hacktivists’ came together to share practical knowledge in a number of disciplines, I taught a session on recognising garden birds, and another on how to edit Wikipedia.

The BrewCamp meetings which I and a small group of friends run in and around Birmingham, to allow public sector activists to meet and discuss digital engagement topics, were successfully spun off by us and local collaborators into Dudley (as “BostinCamp“) and Stafford (as “OatCakeCamp“), and will no doubt both now develop independent lives there.

I helped launch the “Best by West Midlands” white paper and website, including case studies of social media use in local government. One of the case studies was about my work as Wikipedian-in-Residence with Staffordshire Archives and Heritage Service. At the launch, I ran a discussion session for the attendees, on “trust in social media”, with a subsequent on-line write-up.


Library of Birmingham - interior 2013-08-28 - 34

Inside the Library of Birmingham, in the week before opening

I was kindly invited to a preview of the new Library of Birmingham, where I took a lot of photographs, which are now available on Wikimedia Commons, under an open licence, and so freely available for reuse.

More recently, I attended State of the Map, the annual international OpenStreetMap conference. I volunteered to “captain” some of the sessions, acting as timekeeper, but was honoured to be asked to chair the main strand for all three days, introducing keynote and other speakers from Japan, the USA, Australia, Indonesia and across Europe. Not only was it a great opportunity to catch up with friends, and to learn, but I was able to find people to work collaboratively on a number of tasks, such as automating links from OSM to Wikipedia, which I’ll be writing about soon.

The very next day, I was back at the New Art Gallery, Walsall as the MC for “GalleryCamp13”, the inaugural unconference for people working at or with, or simply interested in, art galleries. I also spoke there, about my Wikipedian in Residence work. There’s a Storify post about the event.

I’m now working on a number of other projects, about which more in the future, and am available to help your organisation to understand Wikipedia and open content, or social media more widely, or to plan and host (un) conferences.

Trevor Mabbett’s comments on ‘The Man on the Beat’

Last year, my friend Lloyd Davis did some work with the British Council, digitising their film archive. He kindly allowed my father, Trevor, and me to see an early screening of The Man on the Beat, which is now on their website (sadly, not under an open licence). The film was made on and around Ledsam Street in the Ladywood district of Birmingham, where my father was born and grew up.

Merlin Films presents The Man on the Beat - RCA sound system

The following are my father’s comments on the film, transcribed and annotated by me. Times are in minutes and seconds.


00:26 Little Miss Barber, mascot of a local brand of tea. A few of their painted adverts, featuring said female, remain on local (Birmingham/ Black Country) buildings; some as “ghost signs”, while others are lovingly repainted by whoever owns or lives in the buildings. Sadly, every now and again, one gets painted over. Andy wrote a Wikipedia article about her.

00:34 Top right as camera pans left is the Belliss and Morcom factory. St Margaret’s church is behind the Rann St sign — my parents were married there in 1919. The church is the building at 52.47875,-1.92304 on the old Ordnance Survey map. Rann Street is to the South of that, running SW-NE (roughly the line of modern-day Guild Close; which you can see by toggling the map selection, top-right). Monument Road LMS sheds can be seen further NE (now Kilby Avenue). My parent’s shop is a few blocks behind the camera. I used to climb on the wall on which the Rann St sign is fixed, often. The phone number on the back of the van is not genuine — perhaps it was changed for filming?

00:39 The pub is possibly the Ladywood House. “Discol” was a brand of diesel fuel.

01:25 Birmingham’s coat-of-arms.

01:47 An RAF corporal; I’m not sure what chevrons on his arm denote (possibly years of service?). The brick “box” in front of the shop in background is the entrance to a cellar bomb-shelter.

02:18 The man in a peaked cap looks like a railwayman (Monument Road LMS sheds were nearby).

02:19 St John Ambulance badge on arm denotes first-aid training. Note finger post (sadly unreadable) behind policeman’s shoulder. “A” on policeman’s collar denotes division to which he was allocated. The dome on top of the phone was blue flashing light, used when station needed to speak to a beat officer (these were the days before police radios).

03:37 Birmingham’s coat of arms in helmet badge.

03:58 Probably Steelhouse Lane Police Station (in city centre); certainly not Ladywood Police Station, which was inside a courtyard. Steelhouse Lane Police Station is still in use, so easy to check.

04:07 BDC — possibly Birmingham Dairy Company?

04:19 White bands on street furniture were added during blackout.

05:20 Reference to Witton on first tram, so Villa Park.

05:22 Second tram is route 3X.

06:38 Bus route 12.

06:40 Rhodes, a fine china shop. Left-hand shop has an owl, sign of Harrisons Opticians. This shop was on corner of Snow Hill (Andy’s mom adds that she remembers being taken to see a large owl sign on top of the building illuminated once the war ended). Note streetlamp above owl, with glass mostly painted black for blackout. Building on right may be the Gaumont cinema.

06:50 Street sign says “Steelhouse Lane”. When facing Rhodes, the city centre is to the left.

08:15 The box on a pillar, painted red, was a break-glass fire alarm, with a telephone connected to the fire station.

09:43 The shop under the street sign may be Mrs Noyce’s tripe shop, where I used to go with a jug, to collect tripe for my family and our neighbours.

10:09 “The Gunpowder Shop”, named after 19th century IRA man who lived
and plotted there. I found a picture in “Britain in old photographs — Ladywood” by Norman Bartlam (1999, p32, lower picture, ISBN 0-7509-2071-8) which also has a brief history of the incident.

10:27 The modern brick annexe with a concrete slab roof is an air-raid shelter.

10:44 The white-painted rocks in the wall are another remnant of the blackout.

Misc: None of the policemen have medal ribbons, which you would expect at the end of the war, so they’re possibly actors, not real officers.

The BBC, Open Content and Wikipedia

I had a really interesting meeting with Robin Morley, the BBC‘s Social media lead for the English Regions, a couple of weeks ago. After he gave me a very interesting tour of their premises in Birmingham’s Mailbox (where, in its former guise as Royal Mail’s Birmingham head office, my father Trevor had an office), he described to me the work he does.

We then discussed how his London colleagues insert automatically content from Wikipedia, into the BBC website’s pages on wildlife (example: Barn Owl), and on music (example, of course, ). I contributed to the former by writing markup to make them emit the ‘species’ microformat, of which I’m also the author.

Screen capture of BBC article on Pink Floyd, linked to in post

BBC article on Pink Floyd, including Wikipedia content (links to original article)

They are able to do this because all of Wikipedia’s content is available under a . In other words, anyone can reuse it, for free.

I suggested to Robin that his news staff could similarly reuse Wikipedia content. For example, the article “Birmingham Assay Office silver name plaque stolen“:

screen shot of BBC article linked to from this post

BBC Birmingham & Black Country article on a theft from Birmingham Assay Office (links to original article)

could use text from Wikipedia in a pullout (a sub-section, or box at the side of the article) which might say:

The Birmingham Assay Office is one of the four remaining assay offices in the United Kingdom.

It opened on 31 August 1773 and initially operated from three rooms in the King’s Head Inn on New Street employing only four staff and was only operating on a Tuesday. The first customer on that day was Matthew Boulton. The hallmark of the Birmingham Assay Office is the Anchor.

Services provided by the office include nickel testing, metal analysis, plating thickness determination, bullion certification, consultancy and gem certification.

Text in this section copyright Wikipedia authors, licenced

All that would be required would be for credit to Wikipedia to be given, and the pullout text (but not the whole BBC article) to be made available under the same open licence, as above.

This could be done on articles about all sorts of topics: people, places, organisations, events and more, as well as sports reports.

Robin seemed to like the idea, so I’m looking forward to seeing how he and his colleagues make use of Wikipedia content.

Update: Another post, “The BBC, Regional News and Sport, and Hyperlocal Blogs” about something else we discussed at our our meeting, is now published.

How eBay could help Wikimedia Commons get more open-licensed images

Here is a screen-shot of a recent eBay auction (ends 18 April):

eBay auction page for '18th Century Token Warwickshire General Elliot Henry Biggs 1792 Birmingham'

It’s for a 1792 trade token, commemorating General Elliot and worth a halfpenny at Henry Biggs, of Moor Street, Birmingham.

Here’s the close up of both sides of the token:

Both sides of the token

I’ve taken the liberty of using the latter image without asking permission, to illustrate the points I’m making in this post, and it’s(permission now obtained) The latter image is one of many I could have chosen — eBay is full of such pictures, of old tokens, coins and medals, old books, documents and ephemera, plus all sorts of other objects. Those images lead transient lives, effectively disappearing when their auctions end.

I’d really like to upload it to Wikimedia Commons, the repository of media for Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects, and freely reusable by anyone.

It could then be used to illustrate Wikipedia articles on the general, trade tokens, and various aspects of Birmingham’s history — and by anyone, on other websites or printed projects. All the benefits of free content would apply.

I’ve written before about open-licensing images, what it means and how to do it.

Of course I could ask the seller concerned for permission to upload their image to Wikimedia Commons, but doing so on an individual basis would be time consuming and require them to send e-mail to a third address, confirming their agreement. Doing this on a large scale is infeasible, and contacting individual sellers many times — or several people contacting them —  would be irritating to them.

I would like eBay to consider (after discussion with me and the Wikimedia community) introducing a feature where their sellers are asked to confirm that they are the author of such images and, if so, to tick a box releasing them under a suitable Creative Commons licence (as described in my earlier post).

These open-licensed images would then be flagged, be searchable, and could perhaps be made available via an RSS feed or feeds.

Wikimedians could then add them to Commons individually, after checking that the subject of the image was not itself subject to copyright (in the case of, for example, a recent book or CD cover). As with uploading open-licensed Flickr images to Commons, tools to expedite this could be written.

Sellers with Commons accounts could even be given the opportunity to upload images to both sites at once.

What about it, eBay? Can someone put me in touch with the relevant people there?

The Prime Minister, Social Media Surgeries and Me

The Prime Minster, David Cameron, really likes me. He’s just given me a “Big Society” award.

Well, not just me, but the whole Social Media Surgery movement, of which I’m proud to be a part. I’ve been standing on the shoulders of, and often shoulder-to-shoulder with, giants.

It all started in 2008, when a couple of very clever friends of mine, Pete Ashton and Nick Booth, decided to hold an event, in Birmingham, to which anyone from a not-for-profit organisation was invited, and where they would get free assistance in using the web, and especially social media tools, to promote or conduct their socially-useful activities, with “no boring speeches or jargon”.

The event — dubbed a Social Media Surgery —  went so well that they decided to repeat it regularly, and as soon as I head about it, I offered my assistance. I’ve been involved ever since.

Over the last three or four years, as well as the original and on-going Central Birmingham surgery, I’ve helped at Social Media Surgeries in Aston, Coventry, Digbeth, Dudley, Perry Barr, Stourbridge and elsewhere, I’ve also set up and run sessions near where I live in Oscott, north Birmingham, and in Walsall, and more impromptu Social Media Surgery sessions at unconferences like LibCamp.

I’m not alone. Surgeries directly spun off from what we do in Birmingham have been held in over 50 towns and cites, in pubs, community halls and cafes, on trains, and in tents at country fairs, and in several other countries.


Me, in my cool shades, helping at Central Birmingham Social Media Surgery in July 2011. © Gavin Wray, CC-BY-NC-SA

Literally hundreds of organisations have benefited. I personally have helped bereavement counselling services, organic fair-traders, residents’ associations, target-shooting rifle clubs, arts festival organisers, parks’ friends groups, model railway clubs, Oxfam supporters, art galleries, cyclists’ groups, hospices, local historians, and many others, to use Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Flickr, Google Docs, and a host of other online tools. I’ve even taught a few to edit OpenStreetMap or edit Wikipedia, and to avoid conflicts of interest when doing the latter, by declaring them and not being overly promotional.

It’s been one of the most rewarding of the many voluntary activities I’ve performed. And as a result of all our work, we have now received the aforesaid award.

The Prime Minster said:

This is an excellent initiative — such a simple idea and yet so effective. The popularity of these surgeries and the fact that they have inspired so many others across the country to follow in their footsteps, is testament to its brilliance.

Congratulations to Nick and all the volunteers who have shared their time and expertise to help so many local groups make the most of the internet to support their community.

If you work or volunteer for a non-profit organisation, why not pop along to your nearest surgery? And if you already use such tools, even a little, why not pop along and offer to share your knowledge? If there isn’t a surgery near you, why not set one up?

On the other hand, your work is commercial (or you work for a not-for-profit organisation, but require additional or more intensive support), that’s part of what I do for a living. I’d be happy to hear from you.

I should also comment on the name of the award, since the surgeries have been running long before the current government came to power and before their “Big Society” brand was heard of, and would be held even if neither of those two things had occurred. We do this because we want to give to the community and help those who are prepared to try to improve their world, not because of a political ideology.

In closing, my thanks and congratulations, to my fellow surgery managers and surgeons (many of whom have written blog posts about receiving the award), especially those who’ve helped at the surgeries I’ve run and to the patients, whose appreciation and continued use of what we’ve shown them, make it all worthwhile.

Portrait with Brompton Bike

I had my portrait (or rather, several) taken yesterday, by , aka Dividenthal, as part of his project to record the cyclists of Birmingham.

We got in touch on the useful Birmingham Cyclists website.

I posed with my beloved Brompton bike, under Lancaster Circus Flyover (52.48598,-1.892513) and by one of my favourite statues, Hebe (52.484438,-1.892175), by (1966).

Thanks to Pete for permission to reproduce the pictures, which are his copyright, all rights reserved.

Don’t confuse your social media channels

Earlier today, Birmingham‘s O2 Academy (a large popular music concert venue, m’lud) posted this to Twitter:

Tuesday’s giveaway….Black Rebel Motorcycle club CD’s to give away! Just head over to the competitions tab for more information!

Unfortunately Twitter doesn’t have a “competitions tab”, and neither do the various Twitter clients that people use.

As you can see from the suffix I’ve highlighted in the screenshot, “via Facebook”, the tweet they posted was actually a Facebook status update. It turns out that their Facebook page has such a tab, and the Academy have simply piped their Facebook statuses into Twitter, without thinking about, or remembering, what they’ve done.

A salutary lesson to be careful about feeding content from one forum to another; and about writing for a specific context. Failure to do so can give confusing messages, and is not helpful to your audience

My Open Data Challenge to UK Local Government: a Wikipedia Page for Every Council

At yesterday’s excellent West Midlands “Open Data: Challenges & Opportunities” event, hosted by the West Midlands Regional Observatory, Chris Taggart (), who runs the very useful Openly Local website, aggregating data about councils and their elected members, mentioned the problems he has extracting linked data about councils from Wikipedia, via DBPedia, because Wikipedia tends to conflate places with their local authorities.

See, for example, the Wikipedia article on the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley; or those on , which (at the time of writing) has only a small section on its town council and Lichfield district (so a challenge there for Stuart Harrison, , and his colleagues!); and compare them with the separate articles about and ; or , the , and . The former, all-on-one-page, pattern is far more common. (Disclosure: I created some, and have edited all, of those articles.)

I suggested at the event that this problem could be solved if staff from each UK council simply started a Wikipedia article about their council, where none already exists.

As each UK council is, inherently, (to use the Wikipedia jargon) notable, there should be no issue with this, provided that they are mindful of Wikipedia’s policy on conflicts of interest (which explicitly allows for such editing), and the requirement that articles maintain a neutral point-of-view, and be referenced. Short “stub” articles can be created in the first instance.

(If council staff are hesitant to do so themselves, then I can help to pair them up with volunteer Wikipedia editors who will assist them, or create articles directly.)

Update: Added Dudley & Lichfield district examples.

Bacchus Bar, Birmingham. Awful.

I spent yesterday evening, from 7–11, in , Burlington Arcade, Birmingham, one of Mitchells & Butlers supposedly “Classic Pubs”. Had I not been there as a guest of others, for whom I have great respect, I would have left.

The only guest ale was off.

The dirty plates left by the departing people whose table we occupied, and their and our empty glasses and bottles, were not collected once. The plates included uneaten food, which sat festering for four hours.

The men’s toilets were an utter disgrace: stinking, awash with urine – footsteps caused audible splashes; I’m going to have to have my trousers laundered – and clearly not attended to all evening. Everyone who entered, each time I was in there, commented. I was told the women’s toilets were little better.

A pile of vomit on the carpet outside the toilets was marked with a “wet floor” A-frame, but otherwise left for over an hour, remaining until after closing.

I have never seen such bad practice, even in run down inner-city pubs; let alone a supposedly prestige, and pricey, city-centre venue.

Update: I have contacted Mitchells & Butlers, and asked them to respond here. Their contact form includes several unnecessary yet mandatory questions, such as wanting my postal address (which I declined to give, using bogus data instead) and the number in the party, which must be a number, making it impossible for me to say “over 15”.

25 things about Andy Mabbett

I’ve been wondering whether anyone would tag me to give “Seven Things you Never Knew About Me”, and how on Earth I would come up with that many. My friend and colleague Emma Routh tagged me on Facebook in a similar exercise, but requesting twenty-five factoids!

For the benefit of those of you not on Facebook (where I’ve already tagged another 25 victims), here they are:

  1. I come from a long line of horsemen (following the paternal line). My grandfather was a cavalryman in India in the 1920s, then delivered bread from a horse-drawn cart. His father was a carriage driver for a wealthy Birmingham family, before that, my ancestors were stablemen for a Duke; and were from Fairford in Gloucestershire. I’ve contacted someone called Mabbett whose family has been in New Zealand for generations, but also harks from Fairford.
  2. I love flying and watching or reading anything to do with aeroplanes. I had an hour piloting a helicopter as a 30th birthday present, I’ve been up in a microlight, and I sweet-talked my way onto the cockpit of a commercial airliner for the landing at Birmingham International Airport on the return leg of my first flight (to Amsterdam) in 1989; yet I haven’t flown since a business trip to Dublin in 1996.
  3. I’m a pacifist.
  4. My spelling is appalling. I particularly have trouble using double letters when I should not, and vice versa. This is, apparently, typical of people of my generation, who were taught to read using the “” (ITA) system, which had no double letters. Nonetheless, I’ve always been a good and voracious reader (my reading age was over 16 when I was 9), and could read “proper” English while still being taught ITA. Forbidden, as a child, to read at the meal table, my mother says I would read sauce-bottle labels.
  5. I am a published writer: I have written two books on Pink Floyd ( an update of a previous work by ; all my own work), contributed to another, and written articles on the same subject for Q and Mojo, among others. When Pink Floyd were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Seattle, I wrote the programme notes. I was subsequently invited to the induction ceremony in New York, but couldn’t go as I was in the middle of buying my house. My second book is a set text on a university course in the USA.
  6. My hair used to be waist-length. Female friends were aghast when I cut it. I sold it to a wig-maker.
  7. I used to be a professional computer programmer, in COBOL and suchlike, for Cadburys. There was a time when every bar of chocolate which left their factory at Bournville had been counted by a stock control programme which I wrote. I haven’t coded for many years, though. I’d like to learn to programme again, for the web, perhaps using PHP.
  8. My books came about because, for ten years, I published and edited, with friends, a fanzine about Pink Floyd, ““. It was read in every continent except Antarctica (I really must get around or sending a copy to our research station there) and even smuggled behind the iron curtain. We had a subscriber in Kuwait, but sadly I never heard from him after the Iraqi invasion.
  9. I hold a certificate in counselling skills. I was encouraged to take my training further, but a job change took my career away from working with unemployed adults and towards on-line work. And how does that make you feel?
  10. I absolutely love dogs, but my domestic situation means I can’t keep one. My friends laugh at how often I stop to pat dogs in the street.
  11. Through my writing, I’ve met many famous people, and become an unashamed name-dropper. JohnRabbitBundrick, the Texan keyboard player with Free and The Who, once cooked me chilli and cornbread. James Galway and the London Symphony Orchestra played just for me (but he still owes me £15). The picture researcher on my first book was Mary McCartney, daughter of Paul. Bob Geldof once called me a cynic.
  12. I am a certified first-aider, and once saved a man’s life with CPR.
  13. I’ve always done voluntary work. I now do so for the RSPB, such as entertaining children at events (I’m very skilled at making dragonflies from pipe cleaners), and as a trustee of the West Midland Bird Club, for whom I am also webmaster and chairman. In my schooldays, I did conservation work at Moseley Bog Nature Reserve. Later, I was a volunteer for the Birmingham Railway Museum, doing almost everything from engine cleaning to shop sales, and from manning a level crossing to booking guest speakers. I also acted as steward on mainline steam trains, looking after the passengers as we went all over the country. The only place I never worked was on the footplate.
  14. I only passed my driving test at the third attempt, and have since been involved in four collisions requiring insurance claims. Only one, the most minor, was my fault.
  15. I’ve been managing websites since 1994 — the year Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented them founded the W3C (he invented the web in 1991, of course). I’ve been using on-line fora for work and socialising since 1995 since October 1994.
  16. I’ve been stalked online for years. If you search the Usenet archives, you will find fake accounts (including someone pretending to be me) announcing that I’m both a convicted “cottager” and a child abuser (I have a police safety-check certificate which says otherwise), have been sacked by the people who still employ me, and more.
  17. I collect things. If I had unlimited space, I’d collect everything, but I really have to stop myself, and limit my collecting to books, original artwork showing birds, fossils, and old artefacts related to Birmingham, such as bottles and badges and beermats and coins and 78-record sleeves and… Oh dear.
  18. I’m a grammar pedant: I say “fora” not “forums”, and detest the use of “bored of”. I love copy-editing and proof-reading, too.
  19. I had the job of demonstrating the World Wide Web to Michael (now Sir Michael) Lyons; the first time he saw it. He’s now head of the BBC Trust, and ultimately responsible for bbc.co.uk, ““.
  20. The Guardian‘s Ben Goldacre once referred to me as “the ever-vigilant Andy Mabbett“.
  21. I own an original drawing by Bill Oddie, from one of his books, “Birdwatching with Bill Oddie”. It cost just a couple of pounds on e-Bay, in a job lot with a signed photo of Liberace.
  22. I love old street furniture, especially the old cast-iron stuff we have inherited from the Victorian era. One of my achievements was to save the street-urinal from where Birmingham‘s International Convention Centre now stands, for Birmingham Railway Museum (though I don’t think they’ve yet re-erected it).
  23. I hate bananas. I really wish I didn’t as I know they’d be good for me, and are handy to carry when out in the countryside, but I can’t stand the taste or texture. Even the smell makes me feel nauseous. I love almost all other fruits and, as a child, would usually prefer fruit to sweets.
  24. If I go near fresh paint, I can still smell it for a week or more afterwards.
  25. The Duke of Edinburgh once trod on my cousin’s toe.