The 11:41 train from Preston to Penrith was the first indication that something was a little wrong. I was almost alone in my coach, save for a few under 30's.
None of them got off at Penrith.
I found my lift and off we drove, for me into the complete unknown. Great Asby is not the sort of place you would expect to temporarily become the centre of a Twitter storm. It's 18 miles South East of Penrith, past Appleby in Westmoreland and off down some violently undulating country lanes for a few further miles. We arrived in sunshine to a village with a stream through it in spate, surrounded by the kind of stunningly beautiful houses I dream of one day owning but never will.
So how does a web/social media geek end up in the middle of nowhere in one of the most beautiful counties in this fair country of ours for a reason other than riding her mountain bike? Well, it's a long story, but it involves City Camp London, enthusing at someone with no idea who they were (this is quite normal for me), and random throwaway comments becoming invitations to attend events with no idea as to what I was supposed to bring to the table. I like adventures (those reading my other blog possibly know this better than most) and so the invitation was accepted and off I went into the beautiful unknown.
On arrival I was immediately out geeked. This is always a good sign at any event, because it means I'm about to learn something. I don't, generally, see the point of life unless it ticks one of two boxes - passing things I know on, or sitting spending time learning from others who know far than me. Yesterday was the learning equivalent of a 7 course banquet. I left with a head stuffed full of so many ideas and concerns, things to follow up and people to cross examine in great detail that I don't quite know if I'll be sleeping for the next month if I'm to follow up on everything I want to.
So anyway. The reason for convening some excellent people in a village hall was the inaugral meeting of the Cumbrian digital broadband champions. When the meeting was convened, things in Cumbria looked a little different - BDUK hadn't picked them as a pilot area for their broadband connectivity roll out for a start.
I suppose I should also make something else entirely clear at this juncture. I am not easily impressed. Indeed, I brought quite a healthy amount of scepticism to the meeting yesterday. I was convinced the vultures were circling Cumbria and that some people were about to make some very bad decisions on where money should be spent, on who should be choosing who should be spending it, and what would be done with all the fabulous connectivity once it had been rolled out.
I was wrong.
The thrust of the people chosen to present yesterday was very much focused around the JFDI ethos. People building their own connection relay networks, digging their own trenches, making their own fibre bundles, climbing their own church spires and setting up their own Limited companies. People, ordinary people, designing school fibre networks for the whole of Lancashire, of dreaming impossible dreams - and then just implementing them. The organiser of this collection of people was Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and Borders, a rather interesting man in himself. Throughout the day he managed to act as an interpreter for those in the audience not familiar with the wildly geeky vocabulary of fibre to the home, cabinets and megabits, sheep herder when people were not too sure what they were supposed to be doing next, defender of speakers when the audience became a little too voracious in their questioning (myself included), charming and clever interviewer and finally, holder of flipchart paper as some digital champions read out the workshop results in the afternoon.
Yes. You did read that right.
I'm not a fan of posh Tory boys. I suspect that might have been evident well before now. Yesterday I learnt most definitely that that is a prejudice all of its own and I wont be judging anyone on the colour of their politics again. Humility, empathy, talent, an enormous ability to connect with people, enthusiasm, inspiration and leadership - well I guess they get bestowed on a wide variety of people and that's just the end of that. It's what you do with them that counts, what should always count.
Other people left a lasting impression. In the midst of explanations about infrastructure, and a chance to hold a real life piece of fibre (2mm thick, possibly, and distributed by the rather fabulous @cyberdoyle aka Chris who I'll come back to later) there was Simon Jones from Cisco. I am a sucker for a smart inspirational enthusiastic visionary. Suddenly, in a tiny little village hall in the middle of nowhere I was thrown back to City Camp London and the feeling of jaw dropping 'you've done what?' feeling as presenters marched in front of us delivering dreams and actions of such audacity that you wondered if they'd landed from another planet. Simon Jones would have fitted in just fine at City Camp. Out of the same mould as Matthew Taylor, and many others I've been honoured to listen to, he explained the possibilities of a super fast broadband connection - 50 mbs a second or so - and what that connectivity had done with video conferencing in Salford Universiy via Dialogue Cafes and in Kenya allowing farmers to collaborate in co-operatives.
Wonderful lovely right up my street kind of stuff. Humanity and the web, social enterprises and the web, communicating for collaboration and community good - on the web. Using the web. You can see his presentation thanks to John Popham on YouTube.
Somewhere in there I met Ali aka @fit_to_print who is quite quite wonderful in that she is a normal lady in a normal world thinking in extraordinary ways - her idea of using mobile libraries as campaign vehicles to collate views, explain broadband and its associated opportunities to people was one of those ideas where something in my tummy did a little flip, where I knew I'd just heard something and seen a revelation which will work, which will be implemented, which will connect with people using traditional methods but change traditional peoples lives. Those moments, of watching others epiphanies, of watching the glee and the enthusiasm and listening to the words tripping out of someones mouth as the speed of the realisation is slightly ahead of the ability to express it - those are the moments. The magical moments. They are the moments where tiny shards of the future are made. Just awesome.
Then there's @cyberdoyle. Within 5 minutes of meeting her, you know that a) she is exactly who you expect her to be after following her stream on Twitter - straight to the point, smart as all hell, so incredibly not aware of how smart she actually is and fantastically brilliant and talking and enthusing at people without making them want to back away slowly. Watching her in action, watching her talk to important people and being so comfortable in doing so, so assured and so passionate, was a lesson not only in fighting hard for what you believe in, but also a lesson for me in the ability of ordinary people to be extraordinary. None of us have any excuses to accept status quo's after meeting that women. If I could, I would introduce half the people I know to her just so they could see that apathy does not reign in places in this country.
Speaking of apathy, this picture (via John Popham), mapping where each of the digital champions had come from spoke volumes to me. Firstly, all those people gave up their Saturday afternoons to be in a village hall when the sun was shining outside. All of them are volunteers. All of them are spread to the four winds. Some of them run businesses on 1 megabit connections. Some of them have no internet connection at all. Still others are connecting to the web on a 28.8k modem. All of them, I think, were over 45. Bar Rory's team, the guest speakers and a few 'experts' invited along, no one in the hall was under 45. Someone apparently said they were struggling to enthuse their local parish with the opportunities broadband would bring to the community, and that they had responded that if the older generation couldnt be enthused then maybe the under 20's could be. The reply? There aren't any, they've all left because there is no broadband.
Which is where I was going with the opening sentence of this post. Cumbria has a massive opportunity here. They stand on the cusp of being complete trailblazers in so many different areas, from education connection and delivery to healthcare provision, from ending isolation and disengagement to possibly doubling their economic contribution. But without the next generation to pick it up and pass it on to, what is the value of all this connection? Even more than that, what price the lack of input and vision from the younger generation in this whole process? If the loudest voices are skewed to a certain generation, what will be missed in a world where Facebook is for play and not for learning, information gathering, engagement or campaigning?
The vultures are circling Cumbria as it becomes known that a massive amount of money is being spoken of. The biggest task of all is going to be knowing who to listen to and who to believe, and ensuring that that money is spent wisely, carefully, and with the right people so that the absolute maximum return on investment is gained and Cumbria is not left with a broadband network which does not deliver the speed requirements of those using it for their businesses and their lives. Even more than that, there is a massive responsibility on the local County Council, to lead and inspire, to see the possibilities of this gift of infrastructure, and to plan quickly and efficiently how they will switch delivery of their services from paper to digital. In a County where connection has been cobbled together in assorted systems by assorted interested parties, the challenge is going to be to prepare adquately and to trailblaze fiercely in the delivery of online services and to prove how much money can be saved in switching to digital transactions, to become more efficient but more engaged in their service delivery and more responsive and agile, not only in their thinking but in their minute to minute service response.
Gifts are wonderful things, and Cumbria has received a great gift. The making of a county is in the balance here, no small thing. Rory has the right political hands for this gift to be placed in, I am now convinced of that. But whose hands will the telecommunications, technological, visionary and service delivery be placed in, and are those hands swift enough, big enough, quick enough to not only hold on to the gift, but to shape it, hone it and carve it so that it is fit for the future of a county which needs it so badly to be done well.
I am holding my breath. I am not alone.
#gab10 is the hashtag, the collation of which can be seen on What the Hashtag? via @cyberdoyle
The Wordle of the hashtagged Twitter stream via @cyberdoyle
The YouTube list of associated videos via @johnpopham
The Flickr set from the event from @johnpopham
A 'social reporter' blog post from @johnpopham