Category Archives: birmingham

BCC’s complex Fix My Street responses

I felt I had to write this blog post, because I consider myself to be very IT literate, however I am utterly confused by email responses from Birmingham City Council (BCC) to my Fix My Street (FMS) reports.

I recently reported a lot of litter near my place of work. Today I received an email about it from BCC.

Problem 1: unintelligible email ‘from’ name:

Email 'from' name

What on earth does CCRMFORWARDMAIL mean? If it wasn’t for the subject line, I might have assumed this was spam.

Surely it can be changed to something like “Council FixMyStreet response” or even just Birmingham City Council or the relevant department name.

It’s not just council employees who work in the Communications department who need to know about Plain English, this was presumably set up by someone in IT. I would make a Plain English course part of every council employee’s (including outscourced employees) induction training.

Problem 2: email content

Below is a screenshot of the whole lengthy email I received with my comments in red (sorry about the inaccessibility of this method, I was struggling to work out how to best comment on it while keeping the original layout as well as the text).

Pretty confusing I think you’ll agree. The council need to make things as easy as possible to understand. Someone could be prompted to use a computer for the first time to be able to use an excellent service like Fix My Street, this is sure to put them off.

Council communications need to be made as easy as possible to understand. We shouldn’t have to decode them. They should be written with the least literate and IT literate people in mind, because those with higher levels of literacy can still understand them. It doesn’t work the other way around.

Problem 3: Responding to this email

The first line of the email states “Please respond to RefuseCollection@birmingham.gov.uk and not directly to
individuals”.

What do I write in my reply, just “no” (in response to “Can you please confirm whether this area has now been cleared.”)

At a minimum, some futher instructions should be given:

  • Even though I am not replying to the individual whose name is on the email, should I mention their name?
  • Do I need to describe the whole problem again if I’m sending a new email to a different address?
  • Do I need to extract the report number from the URL quoted in the metadata of the original report included at the bottom of the email?
  • Do I need to include the URL of the report?
  • Even thought I’m not supposed to reply to individuals, perhaps it should recommend that I forward the email to the address given for replies so that all the information is there?

I should just be able to hit reply. I believe it’s quite quick and easy to change the ‘reply to’ address for an email. After finishing a draft of this post I have noticed the line “Replies to this email will go to the user who submitted the
problem.” in the email from FMS to the council. Perhaps that is the reason I can’t reply straight to the council, and does the ‘from’ address actually originate from FMS? Perhaps more of this is down to Fix My Street than I first realised.

These things are just so obvious. There seem to be so many communication issues with the council that could be solved by a bit of empathy – council staff just need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the average person. Surely it’s not that difficult to use their imagination. Just imagine you know nothing of internal council jargon and systems (why should you know or even care), you could be a new computer user, what would you make of receiving that email?

Update: After finishing a draft of this post I have noticed the line “Replies to this email will go to the user who submitted the problem.” in the email report from FixMyStreet to the council. Is that the method BCC used to contact me? Perhaps that is the reason I can’t reply straight to the council, and does the ‘from’ address actually originate from FMS? Perhaps more of this is down to FixMyStreet than I first realised. Is it their system that includes the original report or the council’s? Perhaps councils should not be encouraged to reply to the Fix My Street report if they can’t see a draft of the email that the user will receive. Either way, a lot of this stuff could be resolved by BCC working more closely with FMS. It shouldn’t be down to the public to have to work out what is going on.

Moseley and Kings Heath pothole hunt

I have noticed the huge number of potholes appearing near where I live due to the recent bad weather. Birmingham council apparently want us to tweet them (although they didn’t say who to) with our pothole reports, but as @bounder pointed out, it would be much more efficient to use the Fix My Street website (or even better the iPhone app as you can photograph and geotag on the scene) because reports are properly logged.

I didn’t much fancy stopping at every pothole on my drive to work as I would never get there, but then I had the idea of a dedicated pothole spotting (and reporting) walk. I need to get out regularly in daylight anyway because I have SAD, but I find walking on my own a bit boring. It’s nice to have a purpose and some company.

So if you fancy joining me on my pothole hunt, meet me at 12.30pm this Sunday at the King’s Heath Superloo (where Vicarage Rd meets the High Street). Armed with my Fix My Street iPhone app, we’ll then wend our way to Moseley around the houses reporting as many potholes as we can, ending up in a pub natch (prob the Fighting Cocks) for some slurps and noms.

I’ve drafted a map of the main spine of my proposed walk (am open to alternative suggestions). I know for sure that there are loads on Oxford Rd, but it might be just as bad down the roads I haven’t been down recently? If there are enough of us and we fancy it, we can split off and do some of the side roads off the main spine route.
View Pothole hunt in a larger map

The fact that the route looks like cat ears is entirely coincidental I promise!

Update: Dan Davies informs me that HashBrum has a map showing all the potholes in Brum reported on Fix My Street so far.

Update: We had an enjoyable walk and reported over 50 potholes

Wrong way round

I have noticed a disturbing driving trend recently – people driving the wrong way around roundabouts!

I’m sure it started off by people taking a lazy shortcut when turning right at mini roundabouts when there’s no-one else about.

But I’ve seen people do this when there are other people waiting to enter the roundabout and also not just on the very small ‘mini’ roundabouts in residential areas.

I recently saw someone turn right from Wake Green Road (a B-road) into Hayfield Road in Moseley while I was waiting on College Road:

I regularly see people turning right at the roundabout where Spring Road meets Cateswell Road and Tynedale Road in Acock’s Green. I pass this roundabout on my way to and from work and I see this happen so regularly that I’m tempted to go and stand there with a video camera or ask the police to set up camp there!

A van nearly hit me recently at this roundabout. I was on Cateswell Road going straight across and he was coming down Tynedale Road indicating right. It was my right of way so I carried on going, but he decided to turn right without bothering to go round the roundabout and nearly hit me and had to break suddenly. Apart from the obvious problems of driving the wrong way round a roundabout, it mucks up the right of way. If he’d have gone right round the roundabout as he was supposed to, we both could have gone at the same time.

Bad driving habits are quickly formed, so my advice is don’t even take shortcuts on mini roundabouts when there’s no-one about, because you’ll end up doing it without thinking on a bigger, busy roundabout!

a day out around (and around) Birmingham

My main worry about taking part in 11-11-11 was that I was going to get really bored. So I had packed two magazines, Jon‘s DS with my fave game Zookeeper and a pack of cards. I needn’t have worried though as the day flew by and none of the aforementioned distractions left my bag.

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We set off just after 11am from the stop at the end of Vicarage Road, Kings Heath

I had taken my battered old fold-out A to Z map with me so that I could get my bearings. It was my intention to trace the route with a marker pen and make notes on it as I went along, but it was a bit unwieldy for the space I had available and the ride was a bit bumpy for drawing!

An 11A going anticlockwise
An 11A going the other way round (anticlockwise)

So I resorted to tweeting my observations on my iPhone. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake. It took me quite a while to compose each tweet (possibly because I am still getting used to the touchscreen keyboard) and I kept missing things that were going on outside while I was looking at my phone! Also, it wasn’t until the second circuit that I realised that I should quickly take some photos before it started to get dark.

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Parts of the route are quite picturesque, like this stop next to the River Tame.

I think the ideal way of recording my thoughts would have been little snippets of audio/video, then I could have kept my eyes on what was going on at the same time.

Winson Green Prison wall
The 11 route goes right past the walls of Winson Green prison.

I originally planned to observe the people (both inside and outside the bus). One idea was to do a survey of what music people were listening to, another was fashion commentary. I had thought that that was one way to keep me entertained, but actually I found that there was so much going on outside the bus that I didn’t have time to do that.

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Bearwood High Street has quite a few independent shops.

One of the reasons that the time passed quickly for me was that Jon and I had various people join us for parts of the day. To start with, we were accompanied by the BBC Midlands Today crew, Peter Plisner and his camerawoman. Then TWM Driver joined us with his family for a circuit; Jon’s mum and dad joined us for a bit and Michael Grimes aka Citizen Sheep caught up with us during our first circuit celebratory cake break at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in King’s Heath. Artist Alicja Rogalska, who has an interest in art and public transport (go do her survey) joined us for our second circuit. CyBrum boarded our bus totally by chance as he had previously been travelling alone. Then later on we caught up with Simon Gray aka star_one and his lovely wife Bettina. Having lots of companion passengers made for a really enjoyable day.

New QE Hospital
The new QE hospital looked amazing in the sunshine.

I’m not originally from Birmingham (and neither were half of my fellow travelling companions) so was fascinated by the trivia snippets that Jon and TWM driver were able to offer us as we went along. I’m sure that the experience for me was completely different to that of someone who had grown up here and had lots of childhood memories. I was able to look at the city with relatively objective eyes, although there were parts of the route that I was more familiar with than others. I have lived in Acock’s Green and used to drive down a good part of the route (King’s Heath/Stirchley/Bournville/Harbourne) when I worked in Halesowen and another section (Acock’s Green/Yardley/Stechford) when I worked in Sutton Coldfield. For me the day really helped to join up the gaps in my knowledge of the geography of the city.

I thought these one storey shops looked really odd
I thought these one-storey shops looked really odd.

There was so much to look at, that you could almost pick a different ‘theme’ to document on each circuit, such as architecture, shops, housing, parks/green spaces, roads (signs/markings/road furniture), grafitti/tagging etc etc. I suppose I ended up tweeting a bit of everything. When taking photos, it was impossible to take them while the bus was moving, so I was limited to when the bus was stopped at bus stops/juncions/traffic. I’m actually quite tempted to drive a circuit of the route, so that I could stop and take a photo or make a note of everything that I find interesting, in my own time.

Gigbeth band review

Here’s what I thought of the bands I saw at this year’s Gigbeth, I will write a separate review of the festival as a whole.

Young Knives – really tight musically, nice bit of onstage banter. ‘Special effects’ were provided by a lonely bubble machine and it was a joy to see The House of Lords jumping up and down like a 5 year old trying to pop them! I actually knew more of their songs than I thought I did, and they were more punky than I imagined they’d be, which worked really well live. Glad to be able to see them for the first time in a small and intimate setting (The Barfly).

Pete Ashton and his Thingamachines (or whatever he’s decided to call them!) – disclaimer: Pete is a mate and it was great fun seeing him unleashing his bleepy machines on an unsuspecting public for the very first time. The whole thing was a bit of an experiment and people were encouraged to come and have a go at twiddling knobs and waving lights about. Those Things don’t half make some fantastic noises, now if only they’d learn to behave and do what they were told! I’d like Pete to perhaps be slightly less experimental, figure out which configurations of knobs make them do which sounds and ‘play’ them more like a traditional instrument and build up a tune perhaps by layering live sampling and looping over some beats.

Rich Batsford is a hugely talented piano player and a thoroughly nice chap. His tunes are beautiful, just not sure that the 4Talent stage at Gigbeth was the right venue for him? Would love to hear him play on a sunny afternoon at the Moseley Folk Festival or something.

Iain Woods and the Psychologist – I found Iain Woods very interesting. The audience was definitely split down the middle. He came on stage with an arrogant attitude, some were even calling him ‘obnoxious’, but I think an onstage attitude can make for very interesting entertainment. It’s an offstage attitude that I can’t stand, but Danny Smith, who interviewed him after the show for Rhubarb Radio, assured me he was a nice guy. The fact that I passed Iain in the corridor soon after he came offstage and he gave me a big cheesy grin, still buzzing from his first (hard to believe) gig seems to confirm that.

The band consisted of Iain on vocals, a smiley chap with really long dreads on beats and two live string players. Also, interestingly, they had a couple of girls standing behind the audience, doing live paintings and fiddling with various images on layers of acetate, which were projected onto the wall behind the band.

I wasn’t sure about Iain’s voice to start with, it was quite raw, it reminded me of Tricky a little but perhaps that’s because the first track was quite trip hoppy. But when he did an acapella cover of Lauryn Hill’s Ex Factor that we really got to hear how amazing his voice is.

The beats were fantastic and really got me dancing and the strings were great too. Difficult to categorise this band, at times trip hoppy, dancey (Faithless-esque) and R&B (please ditch the cheesy lyrics though!), they have the potential to be huge.

The Keyboard Choir were just that, a band made up of 5 keyboardists including the ‘conductor’ at the front. I thought that the louder and faster they got, the better they sounded! I found the quiet introductory experimental sounds a bit boring, but when they built up the layers into a wall of sound they were much better. Still we slipped off after a couple of songs to go and check out…

Musical Youth – not really much to say about them, they were as professional as expected, great sound, but some of the covers were not my cup of tea. Also found it extremely odd to be sitting down (in the South Birmingham College auditorium) and found myself trying to chair-dance to some cool reggae beats.

Kano – was 45 mins late, which upset my other half, but didn’t bother me too much because the DJs who were on were playing some fine tunes (not sure who they were). I had a good old dance to the bouncy basslines, I showed them youngsters a thing or two, I can tell you ;)

It must be really difficult to do hip hop live, I’ve seen a few terribly muddy attempts in my time, but Kano has a really clear and distinct voice, even when he was rhyming really fast. I much prefered his rap/hip hop stuff to his more melody based R&B, which I found a bit cheesy.

Anyway, Kano had a great stage presence and he really seemed like he was enjoying himself. If he gave up the cheese and found the right producer, he could be the UK’s answer to Eminem/Snoop Dogg etc etc.

Sugarhill Gang – they were on so late that I was too tired to appreciate them properly and it was bladdy freezing in the Custard Factory. Rapper’s Delight was pretty momentous and their cover of Apache was ace, but I felt like there was a lot of filler.

Gigbeth: urban music festival or urban myth?

Gigbeth is Birmingham’s biggest music festival that coincides each November with Music Live at the NEC.

100 Acts, 10 venues and only one weekend….

Gigbeth is a weekend of the very best music set in Birmingham’s fabulous Digbeth creative district.”

Oo great, sounds like Birmingham’s version of the Camden Crawl or the Great Escape, or even a mini South by South West. A music festival in the city centre without having to camp or deal with mud.

I expect we’ll see such exciting new acts as Crystal Castles, Florence and the Machine, Friendly Fires, Ladyhawke, Lykke Li, Noah and the Whale, Operator Please, Last Shadow Puppets, Laura Marling, MGMT, Neon Neon, Santogold, Tilly and The Wall, Ting Tings, etc. etc. etc…

Er no, you won’t get chance to see a load of up and coming artists that you’re excited about having heard them a lot on music radio recently, over one weekend in the same city. You’ll see a hotchpotch of whatever acts the promoters, that are lumped together under the umbrella of “Gigbeth”, (probably) already had booked for that night anyway, a few local bands and a couple of token acts provided by Gigbeth themselves.

That’s why the lineup is so incongruous. When the lineup was first announced, everyone was thinking D:ream?? are they even still going? (they’re provided by Moneypennies so that makes a bit more sense now). The Sugar Hill Gang, are they even still going? (oh, they’re on at a Heducation night). A couple of the dance acts are a bit more exciting (Stanton Warriors, subfocus), but they’re part of a Spectrum night, so no thanks to Gigbeth. One of my fave, local bands of the mo are the Destroyers, but they’re on at a free event. The 4Talent stuff looks pretty good, but (I think) mainly local so would no doubt get a chance to see them anyway at some point.

So Gigbeth basically just boils down to The Young Knives, Guillemots and Kano (who I’m actually quite excited about), which seems a bit pricey at £25.

We bought a weekend ticket and went to Gigbeth last year and it was a similar format to this year. Our wristbands got us into various different venues, but there didn’t seem to be anything holding them together. We just felt like our wristband was a pass into various events that would be happening anyway, 90% of the people in the Medicine bar for DJ Zinc, for example, wouldn’t have even heard of Gigbeth. There was no Gigbeth ‘vibe’ as most of the people at the promoters events weren’t there for Gigbeth.

The street stage was fun, but we found out later free, so we needn’t have paid for that. We saw a couple of OK local bands, but the best part for me was the Capsule night (why aren’t they there this year?) which was happening anyway. After last year’s Gigbeth, we offered some feedback about the disjointedness of the event, but looks like that was ignored and they’ve gone for exactly the same approach this year.

Anyway, I already have my ticket for this weekend, I fear it will be as incoherent as last year’s, but I will keep an open mind. I’m looking forward to some individual acts and promoters’ recommendations rather than anything that Gigbeth can offer as a whole.

So, no, I don’t think Gigbeth is “a weekend of the very best music” I realise this is subjective, but I think there would be a general consensus among music industry/radio types about some of the bands “the very best” would include.

It could be so great, it’s got a great name, a great home (Birmingham) with some great venues, but it’s got no cohesion and a severe lack of decent acts. Why can’t we have an urban festival to rival the likes of Camden Crawl/Great Escape? At the mo it feels a bit like a naff youth club event, and I doubt many people outside the city will be travelling here especially for it.