25 March 2012 3 Comments

Hard hats and Trim phones

Hard hats and Trim phones

You’ll have to forgive the murky pictures but I’ve had a fabulous experience this week. One of the real perks of the job.

I was invited to explore the BT Tower, a building that has real resonance for me. As a kid, I watched it being built and was astonished something that shape could stand without toppling over. As a grown up, I still love it. A functional, striking and brave icon of Sixties London and still the hub of live pictures and digital data.

IMG-20120322-00891I joined a group of people who work for BT – they were as excited as I was to explore the parts very few get to see. Even my fear of lifts, heights and ladders couldn’t spoil the experience. For the record, I climbed right to the roof and even scaled the ladder on that spindly lattice tower on the very top.

The building gives up secrets at every turn. The original staircase to the “cocktail bar” viewing deck, wittily altered signs, riggers with deep affection for the building keen to share their memories of working there.

Tower Facts

The building was officially a secret until the mid 1990s and did not appear on official maps.

The QE2 Bridge is the furthest landmark you can see from the Tower

It had to be so tall so that it could beam calls over the Chiltern hills on the north rim of the London basin.

The building moves less than 25 centimetres  in wind speeds of up to 95 mph

I collected a ew of my own factoids as I went along. 99% of live football pictures come through the Tower. The outside of the windows were last cleaned in 1994 but no-one can remember the insides ever being cleaned. (In Bob the Rigger’s office where we collected hard hats, I can vouch for this).



The building is just as curious inside as out. The service lift might look like a padded cell with protective cladding over the glass walls but shot up the building in 30 seconds.


The Media Centre on the Second Floor. When 'X Factor" dropped off your screen, these people would have leapt from their desks

IMG-20120322-00906You leave the high tech control room, with banks of people pouring over monitors, to floors that time forgot, hosting wonderful racks of original 60s telecoms bakelite equipment, still there because they’re too costly to remove.It’s Marie Celeste like –  pin boards with references to radio stations and Codex. Seventies trim phones. A geek treasure trove.

Yes, he's looking where the sat dishes used to be but I'm looking at the drop

Yes, he's looking where the sat dishes used to be but I'm looking at the drop

I walked on terrifyingly open balconies looking at the empty “horns ” where the microwave dishes were once bolted. Or rather the others did. I was mesmerised by that flimsy metal balcony.

Then it was down to the very foundations. To the reinforced concrete”pyramid” on which the tower sits and to an eerie quiet. If you have memories or facts about the tower, do share them.


29 December 2011 Comments Off

The World Tomorrow

The World Tomorrow

I had a great experience just before Christmas. I sat in a studio with a group of enthusiastic young scientists to record an updated radio version of Tomorrow’s World for 5Live. It’s set for transmission tonight at 9.30 pm and will be repeated on New Years day at 9pm. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be involved.

The premise was simple –ask bright research scientists to do a brief report on an area of emerging science and technology – not necessarily their own – and then open up a studio discussion.


Peter Zeidman, Caroline WilliamsLeo Garcia and Jonathan Webb

I’m not going to give away too much about “The World Tomorrow” but the heartening thing was having the opportunity to do a show that didn’t focus exclusively on consumer technology but offered some insight into some fascinating areas of science. There was room for some discussion about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the story.

I also hope we provided some balanced reporting – with discussion around the possibilities tempered with clear reminders of the current limitations.

One of the real joys of Tomorrow’s World was the wide range of science and technology we covered and at times the fearlessness of tacking subjects that might not seem to have an immediate appeal.

Peter Zeidman, one of the PhD students taking part said he enjoyed opening “a window into research which could one day change our lives” and that there was real joy in “having something explained  in plain English which we might never have been able to comprehend”. He added that he learnt a lot from the show, and would love to do more.

I would certainly echo that. As a reporter , learning more was one of the deep joys of working on Tomorrow’s World. And the chance to learn it first hand from people who were at the height of their research careers.

I’ve just climbed out of a cab after doing a brief promo for the show and the taxi driver was waxing lyrical about Tomorrow’s World and the way it assumed interest and curiosity in its audience and never patronised.

I hope we captured some of that spirit in the show tonight and that you enjoy “The World Tomorrow ” as much as we enjoyed making it. We had to be turfed out of the studio after we’d finished recording but carried on chatting in a cafe round the corner.

It felt like a decent pilot …of course, I’m kicking myself about the questions I could have asked and I would have loved it to have been live …but very selfishly I hope it opens the door for more Science nights on 5Live. There are so many good stories out there …

30 October 2011 1 Comment

How can Technology improve life in Birmingham?

How can Technology improve life in Birmingham?

I asked Twitter for help with a brief talk I gave at Birmingham Art Gallery on Thursday night to spark and inform a discussion about ways technology could make a real difference to the city.

Chatting to people upfront of the day , I was struck by the number of times I heard people say “Actually, I was quite surprised by Birmingham” . Not scientific I know, but I googled “Birmingham” and “quite surprised by” and it seems they are not alone. 10,600,000 others have made that comment.   Outsiders may have a very outdated view of the physical city  and some also have an outdated understanding of  how people want and need to live and work there. So my question to Twitter was how could technology improve the experience of living ,working and visiting Birmingham?

Many, many thanks for your  ideas. It makes such a difference to be able to confront people who may be making decisions which will affect the city with the thoughts and concerns  of people who are living and working there. It’s so powerful.

Slide1The first thing you did was to convince a number of  social media refuseniks who finally grasped the value of the conversations you take for granted. Birmingham has a Living Lab project running to engage local communities in finding innovative, technology driven solutions . And as @podnosh points out  Social Media Surgeries started in Birmingham. I flagged up sites elsewhere like Change By Us in New York,  Dear London and the Amsterdam Opent open innovation project which invited suggestions from citizens to help deal with three issues the city was struggling to solve :parking bicycles. restructuring the red light district and encouraging people to generate as well as consume energy. These initiatives only work if it’s clear who’s listening and change happens.

As you can see you brought a range of ideas from very different perspectives

Slide3Free wifi across the city? Well sited and equipped co-working spaces? No mistaking what a difference this would make. Not only for people fed up with searching for coffee shops with decent speeds but for the 40% of people in Birmingham who are still not online. And is enough being done to support people who aren’t online or who are struggling with literacy? Birmingham is a young city – 37% of the population is under 24 – the youngest profile in Europe – but how aware are they of the opportunities offered by what is officially a Science  and Digital City. There have been some good initiatives from Birmingham Science City , Aston Pride’s Computers in the HomeStudent Access at Home and  Young Disciples Please add any others.

Slide2There  were a number of people at the event from the transport industry, so the desire for reliable real time information across the city was understood. They took on board the need to make bus and train information accurate, especially when snow or traffic issues meant erractic timetables. There was a also lot of discussion about how to make wayfinding much simpler, so it was easy for visitors to see that they were only a 3 minute walk from where they wanted to go.

@ccrpinkie’s comment about the need for an Oyster type travel card sparked a heated discussion. There was a feeling that rather than Birmingham devising yet another system, surely it was time to go beyond this and take the lead in insisting on a payment system which could be used in any city. A sense that you should just be able to swipe your card anywhere and get on to any train or any bus. Time to stop a myriad of incompatible systems sprouting up across the UK.

Slide4Making data available and crowdsourcing data to improve the quality of  information should be a no-brainer. Access to data means people can transform that raw data into useful apps or devise innovative solutions that the community needs. The London Datastore shows the potential this has for allowing the digital community to improve life for everyone.

8 October 2011 Comments Off

World Skills

World Skills

Welding close upWorld Skills is an extraordinary event.  From plumbers to garden designers, pastry chefs to car mechanics, cabinet makers to welders, hundreds of young people come from all over the world to compete for coveted gold medals.

Newham-20111008-00565The scale of the show is colossal – halls full of cars, robots, landscaped gardens. There are jewellers, aircraft repairers, graphic designers, pastry chefs, florists, beauty therapists. Watching the competitions and taking part in numerous “Have A Go” activities are thousands of young teenagers and their parents, many hoping to find an answer to the big question of what to do next.

The enthusiasm of the visitors moved one employer to tears. He simply couldn’t believe the level of interest in his business.

Newham-20111008-00584If the Korean team return home with a medal for this work of art in sugar, they’ll be treated like national heroes. As will their welders, engineers, web designers and plumbers.Here in the UK we need to do more to celebrate the achievements of our own competitors because they are superb role models. These focussed, talented young people demonstrate the value of contemporary vocational careers. I watched cabinet makers, web designers and plumbers complete demanding set pieces for the judges. But it was our young UK tiler who won my utmost admiration. He’d made an error on his design but the rules didn’t  allow him to go back and correct it. He accepted the mistake, professionally carrying on for hours with the complicated design, determined to finish the rest to perfection.