Category Archives: My digital life

Reflecting on climate change and #nptech

List of five people and distances travelled to NTEN's conference, March 2014Three tonnes of CO2.

That’s the ballpark estimate for how much of the climate changing carbon that will be emitted on my behalf, for my flights to the Nonprofit Technology Conference.

It’s a long way to Washington DC for me. It’s over 14,000 kilometres from my home on the west coast of Te Ika a Maui, New Zealand’s northern island.

Living close to the sea with a coastline threatened by rising sea levels is another reason for my concern. If we don’t reduce (or limit) the level of carbon in the atmosphere, I’ll likely suffer. As will my children. And their children too.

Some of my South Pacific neighbours are already finding sea water rising perilously close to their homes.

Knowing that my flights, in whatever small way on a global scale, contribute to climate change isn’t something I can truthfully ignore. It’d be easy to brush my insignificant contribution under a handy carpet. After all, my flight is hardly unusual. Why should I do anything about it?

It was looking at Beth’s presentation from her talk on individual social responsibility at TedXBerkeley in February that really spurred me to act.

Writing earlier about this topic after some personal philanthropy in India, Beth talks about “taking small actions that collectively can add up to changes.”

So, what am I doing?

My first response was to consider planting a small forest on our section. Then call it Washington DC forest as reminder of my obligation to the planet.

Before looking into this in any detail, my sister – who is an environmental planner – dissuaded me. Any trees not planted in certified scheme won’t guarantee carbon is locked away she said.

Giving $100-120 dollars to a certified carbon sequestration scheme would be easy. A one-off payment and my carbon problem is wiped.

It was only after talking with my friend and mentor Andrew Mahar, that I’ve decided how to discharge my climate responsibility.

As an inspirational leader Andrew never shies away from tackling difficult social and environmental challenges. Currently he is supporting a multi-faceted social enterprise in Timor Leste (the recently liberated nation in the Western Pacific). Prior to this he set up and led Infoxchange, a highly successful Australian nptech social business.

The WithOneSeed initiative supports subsistence farmers in East Timor to reafforest their land. Donations from people living in industrialised countries to pay for trees and other essential support. Incomes rise and carbon is locked away. Knowledge transfer is occurring alongside this through education and technology programmes.

As soon I talked to Andrew, he laid down a challenge: Don’t limit the carbon you offset to what you’re generating through a single trip: what about the carbon emitted to support your everyday computing habits?

Much as I’d rather not think about this, it’s true. Immense quantities of pollution are caused by coal-fired power stations that feed the data centres owned by Microsoft, Facebook, nameless cloud providers and others. When we watch YouTube videos, listen to music and live our digital lives, we are contributing to global warming.

WithOneSeed have a handy App that can help anyone interested to determine how much carbon is emitted by their digital media habits (on phones and tablets at least).

The personal story from Andrew, and a better understanding of my daily data usage in context, has allowed me to zero in on a global issue all too easy to ignore.

So, I’ll donate to WithOneSeed to offset the carbon. Not just for my flight, but for my daily computing too.

As I get ready to travel back home to New Zealand, I’m thinking not only of what I’ll take back the communities I work in, but also about the unseen impacts of my personal technology choices. I guess that is what individual social responsibility is all about.

Do you know what impact your technology is having?

Acknowledgement: my trip to Washington DC is only possible with support from NetSquared/ TechSoup, @goodresearch, @nzdrug, and my fab partner Roz. My evolving storify is at: http://sfy.co/rPzq

Don’t get caught up with making it perfect

Cartoon, punchline: Just click the damn publish butotnWarning: this is something of a limbering up blog post. Some stretching to loosen a muscle dormant for quite some time.

Things have been very busy since I waved good bye to Beth Kanter in May.

Work on 2-3 projects at a time, my part-time role with Community Research, organising NetSquared Wellington events and sundry other distractions have inched there way between me and my blog.

Being an advocate for slowing down and making time for reflection, this hasn’t felt quite right. Where is the time I set aside to quietly shape ill formed ideas into something worthy of discussion? Were my gleanings just rotting away?

The longer I’ve left it, the harder it has been to restart.

Thanks to self proclaimed data nerd chris lysy from fresh spectrum this has changed.

From the twitter flow I fished up a reference to “22 bloggers with advice for researchers and evaluators, illustrated”.

After putting off staring the well structured and creatively presented post – largely because the 22 bloggers manage to share over 10,000 words of insights – I’ve just read it.

Advice from Chi Yan Lam – who is thinking about the intersection of program evaluation, design and social innovation – captures some of the thinking behind why I started blogging in 2004, and still really resonates:

I realized that the blog could be a space for my thinking. Instead of insisting on writing for an audience, I wrote for myself. I guess what this boils down to is this: Blogging is simply a platform. There are many successful models of blogging. The important thing is to make blogging goals consistent with one’s goals. Don’t Emulate. Create.

Cartoon caption: don't get caught up with making it perfectA post on blogging wouldn’t be complete without hearing from the aforementioned Beth ‘blogger extraordinaire’ Kanter, who said to chris:

Look at your blogging time as a form of professional development and a commitment to write something regularly. Don’t get caught up with making it perfect either

I’m don’t want to overdo my mental stretching. I’m feeling warmed up. Keys and finders in sync. I’ll be back. Soon? Soon!

Being a content producer ain’t always easy

Picture of a crumpled, batter book left outside, by penelopejonzeDon’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Opportunities abound for everyone to create and share creative and serious work online. Here we all come, as the saying goes.

Yet, it’s not always easy.

I’ll give you a real life example from last night.

In a bit of an experiment (cos I’m that sort of guy), I decided to add audio to a presentation of mine available on SlideShare. In May I gave a lecture to Visual Communication Design masters students at Massey University on the august topic of the “Future of the book”.

My starting point was as a common, garden reader talking about where reading fits in my life, blurring boundaries between being a producer and consumers, and what really is a book.

When I sat down at my computer last night, my slides were already uploaded to slideshare. All I had to do was transfer the recording from my dictaphone to create something they call a slidecast. Simple, huh?

After two and a half hours of expletives and wild swipes at my (inanimate) screen I eventually got there. This is what the real web is like, not the airbrushed version you’ll see in ads for apps.

Here’s a brief outline of what I went through:

  1. Dictaphone storage drive is not appearing in the finder after I plug it in via USB port – it normally pops up straight away.
  2. Hmmmm, maybe I need special software for Mac OS version 10.7.
  3. Find and install Olympus’ Digital Speech Standard (DSS) software.
  4. Oh, a serial number is needed for the software to work.
  5. Search for the box, find serial and enter it.
  6. The drive is still not appearing.
  7. Strange error message pops up when I remove the USB cable.
  8. Time to dive into the help forums.
  9. Try various restarts and key combinations.
  10. Still no joy.
  11. Try swapping cables. Brilliant!! I can now see and transfer the .wma files.
  12. Upload the file to iTunes as AIF, then convert to MP3.
  13. At least an hour has elapsed.
  14. Time to import the file into SlideShare. It takes five minutes of fluffing around.
  15. As it’s the first time I’m using their browser based audio editor, it takes a while to make the manual adjustments so that the audio plays with the right slides.
  16. Argh… the editor keeps freezing!!! I find a work around which involves quitting Firefox, reopening the browser and waiting for the full audio file to reload.
  17. Very slow to buffer after refresh and editing is fiddly.
  18. Finally, DONE – it’s 11.06pm.

Okay, so I skipped a few steps, but I’m sure you get the idea.

In detailing all this, I’m not saying that what slideshare offer isn’t user friendly. But I am saying the process of uploading was agonising and not terribly creative in itself. It took some willpower to persevere to the end.

Using any new online publishing tool tends to involve a similar amount of wrestling formats, fiddly interfaces and delays. I could easily write a couple of other blog posts about this in relation to video codecs (argh!!!).

While the opportunity to share and be creative definitely exists, it’s not without hurdles. I wonder how others surmount these types of barriers, or if it’s all too much?

PS My “Future of the book” slidecast is now online with audio. A list of publication, links, etc I referred to are also available.

Photo credit: penelopejonze

Hmmm, is it worth paying for SlideShare?

Old fasioned overhead projector beaming bat on wall It’s almost exactly five years since I started using SlideShare. On May 15th 2007 I uploaded a set of powerpoint slides all about the Couch website I shared at the Govis conference that year.

I’ve been a happy, if in infrequent user of the presentation service ever since.

Not only have I uploaded and shared another 17 sets of slides but I’ve been alerted to some awesome new content created by people whose work I really respect.

As I can only see the number of views, embeds, downloads and favourites, I don’t really have a sense of how much value people are getting from accessing my slides. Are people attending any of the workshops I run actually accessing my material? Are people getting anything out of it?

I’m pausing to think about these types of questions as I’ve just become aware of a change in SlideShare’s pricing structure.

The free membership tier works for smallish presentations (ie up to 10MB) but you have to pay a monthly fee if you want to upload larger files.

As my presentations are contain lots of graphics they tend to be fairly hefty. So I need to upgrade to at least the first tier of the ‘Pro’ service. Based on today’s exchange rate, it’ll cost me NZ$24 per month (or NZ$222 per annum).

Obviously the ‘market’ for the presentation services offered by SlideShare is fairly well heeled. I draw this conclusion as the company (which has just been bought out by LinkedIn) have not opted for a ‘notional’ or cup of coffee priced charge. I tend to make smaller payments without hesitation.

The prices of a cup of coffee approach is adopted by services like Wikispaces, whose charges start at $5 per month for it’s “Plus Plan”, and LastPass, which charges $12 per annum for “Premium”.

Is it worth it?

On the positive side: SlideShare is an easy to use service, attractive and has many good features to promote sharing. If I move I’ll probably want to move my presentations, which will take a fair chunk of time. Moving is no guarantee of security, as another service may also start free then introduce a charges. Along the way people following my work could be lost.

On the down side: it is actually a fair amount of money, which I’m uncertain about the real value I’m receiving. SlideShare can gussy up all marketing hype it likes, but it remains hot air until I generate some tangible benefit.

The dilemma is not unique to my decision about using SlideShare. It applies to virtually ever aspect of having a web presence. Inertia generally takes over. Mostly once things are set up I don’t tend to regularly re-evaluate the benefits.

Until I’m forced to, that is. Right now I don’t have an instant response to whether it is worth paying for SlideShare Pro. I’m going to sit on the fence while I think it through. Part of this is about finding out the pros and cons of any alternatives I can find.

Hmm, what should I do?

Photo credit: joygantic

What I did on my holidays…. visiting community gardens in Otumeotai

Close-up of red sunflowers at Otumoetai Community Garden TaurangaQuite by accident when looking for lunch while on a rambling walk along the Otumoetai foreshore in Tauranga, Roz and I tripped over the fabulous, fecund Let’s get growing community gardens.

Sited in the Otumoetai Railway Reserve, the allotment style gardens are a vision of paradise on earth. You’ll have to look at the pics below to believe me when I say the sunflowers were already over four metres tall in early January. Smote was this Wellington gardener.

On returning from our walk I found the website for Let’s get growing. There is all the information I could wish for about the history, plenty of engaging photos and a Google map so I can find my way back. The level of detail is excellent for people wondering how it works, and for others involved in community gardens elsewhere to see how they run the space.

Of course, this visit is not the only thing captured on ‘film’ from our family’s summer vacation which now require my attention. An announcement at Roz and my civil union party inviting well-wishers to be part of a crowdsourcing approach to documenting the celebration has generated over 300 photos and a few hours of video.

In between the occasional sun in the Bay of Plenty and Wellington, I have started to get organised for 2012.

As promised, the Wellington NGO webmasters networking events will continue each month in 2012. The first one is on Tuesday 14 February.

At the Connecting Communities event in Christchurch, on 29 February, I’ll begin promoting some new services to help people run online meetings/ webinars for their organisations or networks. Quite a bit of prepare yet, so I can’t say too much just now. You’ll find more details about what I’m offering on this blog in early March, along with some of the things I learn as I go.

Next week I’ll be discussing with my colleagues at Family and Community Services how we go about sharing my work raising awareness of NGO ICT capacity building needs. Sharing a presenation I’ve cooked up is one idea, notwithstanding the lengthy title: “Why ICT matters for family support services and community organisations, and how to help people get better at using IT”.

Enough preambling, I hope you enjoy my visit to the Let’s get growing community garden as I did.

Technical note: the photos and (clumsy) video were shot using my Nokia E5 – designed to capture an impression, rather than being great photography. It’s taken me about 30 minutes to upload, sort, batch edit and share the pics.

Reading again on a Kindle

Huddled up mouse, carved from bone... a netsukeIt is easy to understand why Edward de Waals’s book “The Hare with amber eyes” featured in so many best book of the year lists at the end of 2010. It’s a compelling mix of family saga, social history, and art criticism interwoven with a personal journey.

I had just 150 pages to go when I unexpectedly had a stroke in June (see “An unanticipated hiatus”). Bereft at the idea that I wouldn’t be able to finish reading the story because of a residual visual impairment (the only lasting impact fortunately), I gave away my paperback copy.

However, thanks to the ready availability of ebook reading gadgets I finished the book at the weekend. I reached as far as Odessa and glided through de Waal’s final musings. I’m awarding the book five stars out of five.

This did involve buying a second copy of the book. Something I didn’t begrudge paying for twice. Not only because it was such a good story, but it also marked my return to reading.

What I want an ebook reader for

With so many choices of portable device that can be used to read on, it wasn’t easy to know where to start. What was the best one for my unique needs?

It was only after I trialled an iPad that I got clear about what I wanted to be able to do. Simply put I wanted to read books and articles. Read on the bus, in bed and perhaps even in the bath. Not just scan, not just browse, not get distracted surfing, but actually read. I didn’t need a way of inputting text or manipulating photos, as I already have a perfectly good laptop that is designed for these types of tasks.

When my eyes tire of fighting against wavering text, I like to have things read aloud to me. I was on the hunt for a device with a text to speech function.

After some searching I decided that Amazon’s Kindle 3 was the best fit. What clinched my decision to make an order was seeing a positive review of the Kindle 3. A review by Nathan at “The eBook Reader” website and companion YouTube channel had all the hallmarks of credibility. This was important as I couldn’t lay my hands on a Kindle as they weren’t yet lying on shelves in New Zealand shops.

It wasn’t so much the positive review itself, but listening to a recording of the text to speech reading aloud the whole review. The eight-minute sound bite suggested I could learn to live with the electronic voices.

What stuck in my throat as I went to pay for the device was the realisation I was buying a product that would be lining Amazon’s pockets. Not just once either. Virtually everything you use on the Kindle happens within the Amazon corporation’s sandpit. As a proprietary ebook format is used, book ‘owners’ can’t share books they ‘buy’ from the retailer, nor is it easy to import books created using open formats (eg ePub). I also had misgivings about the imbalance in power between writers and their publishers, and the massive retailer.

Aware of these contradictions I hit pay now. Two weeks later a Kindle 3 arrived on my doorstep.

Hands-on the Kindle

Screenshot of Kindle accessibility options, from tiny to extra large fonts, by WiterI’d say the Kindle 3 is lighter than most novels I’ve ever read. It’s easy to hold and wiggle about in a single hand. I do lots of wiggling as I adjust the screen position to get the best light, and the most comfortable position my eyesight. With buttons to turn pages on both sides it’s just as easy to hold the Kindle in my left as my right hand. The thinness and rounded corners make for an understated elegance, if not somewhat modest. Underscoring this reserve is the nondescript grey finish.

The accessibility features are glaringly obvious and easy to use. There are not an abundance of features, but they actually do everything I need. The main features are modifying font size, line spacing and page width. It’s so easy to change and adjust, then start all over again, as it only takes a tap on the AA button.

When I’m reading on a bus, or in other situations where I don’t have a direct source of light shining on the screen, I do find the contrast a little weak. I can of course rectify this by getting a small, clip-on light.

Although not all books have text to speech enabled, many do as does any media I add to the device. Using a keyboard short-cut allows me to have articles or PDFs read aloud on a whim. I can listen through built in speakers or by plugging in headphones. There is a male and female voice, with some options to customise speech.

I didn’t need to use a manual to begin using the accessibility features. It’s simply a matter of getting started. I realise these features are not necessarily helpful for people who have very poor vision, or are blind. There are no on-screen announcements of navigation, page location and other options. Apparently the web-based Kindle reader for PCs does have key board short-cuts and accessibility features.

Up and reading again

Before I got the Kindle 3 I managed to scan websites and read things with a fair bit of difficulty. I could make my way through a few paragraphs of pages, but anything longer was a real struggle. Now, I’ve finished off the book about the hare and other netsuke. It feels great to be reading again!

It’s not only books that I read using the Kindle 3 but other types of content as well. I’ve only once used the built-in web browser – it was too cumbersome a process to want to repeat.

However, I have found an easy way of accessing articles, stories, news and other tidbits from websites. Using the readability.com plugin I’ve installed in the Firefox toolbar I can send web content to my Kindle. The button’s within easy reach and after clicking “Send now” the article text, minus adds, navigation and any other junk, is on its way to my Kindle. This happens the next time I access a wifi network. A proportion of the US $5 monthly for readability.copm fee is redistributed to content creators, so using the plugin helps keep independent publishing alive.

I use this feature far more than adding PDF or other documents manually. You can do this using a USB cable when connected to any computer or sending via a unique email address supplied to each Kindle owner.

As well as the odd book I’ve been buying single copies of the award winning UK daily newspaper, the Guardian. Within minutes of authorising the NZ $2.50 payment, I receive a full copy of Saturday edition of the paper. It is available in time for a late lunch (about 2pm or so New Zealand time). The layout mimics what it is like to thumb through a print edition. It’s easy to scan every article heading, or flip from page to page with reading summaries and intro paragraphs. Keeping back copies isn’t taking up space in the hallway.

Reading the same content I’ve got on my Kindle on one of my computers is not something I’m likely to do (unless I loose the wee wisp). Perhaps this is useful if I’m stranded without the Kindle or without any other means of amusing myself when on a deserted island or foreign airport.

So far, after living with the Kindle at my side for six weeks, I’m not reading any more than I did in the past. But I am actually reading articles, not just storing them up as I tended to do. This feels like an achievement in itself.

I’m not worried about stock piling a huge stack of unread volumes on my bedside table Kindle. My strictly enforced policy is thus: it’s okay to get a new volume, only when the last one is 100% read.

About the beauty of books, and other tangents

Yet, I’m far from being completely won over. I do miss the physicality of books. The Kindle is not the same, nor can I see it replacing the popular hard-copy format. Books on the Kindle are reduced down to a dull conformity. Everything is presented the same way. This removes the interplay between the text and the choice of design elements.

Publishers of physical books are considered in their choice of formats, paper stock, layout on the page, inclusion of addenda, illustrations and covers (amongst other things) to add meaning to the text. Taken as a whole, the book along with the text assist readers to grapple with the meaning of the words.

I could go on about how the Kindle world is bland by comparison. But I’ll stop here. And express a sense of wonder and gratitude that I live in time when I can engage with texts gain – it’s a choice many people do not have now, and one that didn’t exist for the greater part of human existence. I also acknowledge I’ve the resources to make this choice.

It seems fitting to end this post reflecting on the past. Now that I’ve read about the journey of minature, carved hares and other figures, I’m engrossed in Graham Robb’s Francophile social history, The Discovery of France. Makes me wonder what some of the people he writes about would think of the Kindle modern age?

Useful resources on Kindle accessibility

“Access review of the Amazon Kindle 13”, from Access Australia

“Kindle 3: An Accessibility Evaluation…Is the Third Time the Charm?” by Darren Burton, on AccessWorld (blog on the American Foundation for the Blind)

Photo credits: Curious Expeditions and Witer.