The rollercoaster ride of Celebration 2.0
I suppose it’s fitting for a project that’s about celebration that I’ve found Celebration 2.0 to be something of a rollercoaster ride, to use a terribly hackneyed cliché. From Roller Derbies to the launch of a Community Health project, I’ve been part of some really diverse events, helping to bring them to wider audiences through live video streaming and social media amplification. And, as the project nears its last lap, it’s pretty much time to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned so far.
Celebration 2.0 grew out of the Twicket initiative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twicket) the first ever live online, live broadcast of a village cricket match. That was an activity which set out to make a point about the problems caused by lack of rural broadband, but it also had some additional consequences which I and others involved had not necessarily envisaged at the outset. These included the elevation to cult internet superstardom of Brenda the commentator, and players in the game receiving Facebook messages from all over the world from people who had watched them in action. This convinced me that I had stumbled on proof of a truth which I had always known, but not necessarily articulated, that turning people on to new technologies through fun means is a more effective method of engaging them, and keeping them engaged, than formal courses or sessions in IT suites.
So Celebration 2.0 has set out to work with people who are running events that are primarily about having fun. It has sought to help them build an online audience for their activity, and it has aimed to pass on the skills and knowledge for doing this themselves to those involved. But it has also been a big learning process for me. In most cases, I have been live video streaming events. You can catch all the archived livestreams on my bambuser channel at http://bambuser.com/channel/johnpopham. This has posed a number of challenges, the biggest of which has been connectivity. I’ve been live streaming events for a number of years now, and have experienced a number of issues with connectivity. One of the biggest is getting venue managers to appreciate that it is the network UPLOAD that is the important consideration. I’ve experienced IT network managers telling me that no one has ever asked them about upload speeds before and expressing bemusement that it would be an issue. And those difficulties have occurred when I’ve been specifically invited in (usually on a paid basis) to live stream the event. In Celebration 2.0, I’ve been pitching up at venues (some of them outdoors) which are often totally unprepared for my requirements. And, I have to say my experience has almost universally been negative. I’m not blaming anyone for this, except the general UK culture which has still not woken up to the requirements of a modern multimedia, content-creating population. There just isn’t the awareness of the kind of bandwidth requirements that live video streaming requires.
So, in most cases, I have resorted to using 3G for live video streaming. This has been possible largely due to the fact that I have a WiBE (http://wp.me/ppLRZ-kR), the incredible device which has proved itself capable of getting a pretty decent 3G connection virtually anywhere. It hasn’t worked everywhere, but, where it has failed, my mifi has often stepped in as a replacement. I calculate that I need at least 1.5Mbps in upload speed to produce a decent video stream, and that is very rarely available via venue connections. And, even when I had access to a 50Mbps symmetrical connection (which I tested as running fairly close to the claimed speed), I had to revert back to 3G because the connection kept dropping out. So, it seems, that, even fast connections can be too unstable to carry a video stream.
The other connectivity issue I’ve faced has been at the viewer’s end. I do most of my live video streaming using the Bambuser app on my iPad or iPhone. The app gives me statistics on the screen which tell me the “stream health”, i.e. the quality of the stream leaving the device, given the bandwidth available. I am fully aware when there are problems with the live stream, I get red numbers appearing on the screen in front of me. However, the other thing about Bambuser, is it allows viewers to make comments and chat about the stream, and these comments appear on the screen while I am streaming. And you would be amazed by how many negative comments I get while the stats are telling me everything is more or less fine at my end. I have had a number of online conversations with people who are convinced that the problems they are having watching my streams can only be my fault. These conversations have highlighted again for me just how little people, even some quite technologically literate people, know about their own internet connections. Many have been taken in by the “up to” claims of the internet service providers, others don’t realise that their connections are contended and will inevitably slow down at peak times. It seems that, in many cases, it is only when watching live video that the reality hits homes that their connections might not be as good as they had believed them to be.
One of the most frustrating experiences with regard to connectivity, was also one of the most inspirational. At the end of March, I went along to the Grand Opening of Bradford’s CityPark, the new lake and urban park in the city centre. This turned into quite an emotional day, following on from some well-documented problems experienced by the city, crystallised for some by yet another TV expose of supposed community tensions, and it was also, as it turned out, a few days before the momentous Bradford West by-election.
Thousands of people descended on the square during an afternoon of events during which the lake gradually filled with water. I started off happily streaming the proceedings, interspersed with some commentary from local personalities. But, as the square got more crowded my connectivity died. As I struggled to try different methods of getting a stream out, the realisation dawned on me that the difficulties I was experiencing were due to the thousands of people in the same area all using their phones to text, update their Facebook status, upload photos, and tweet about what was happening. At this point I had to give up live streaming, and resort to old methods of recording video for later upload. You can see the video of the latter part of the opening ceremony here http://youtu.be/ZooCK0pV7RE. Despite my frustrations, this was a really joyous event to be part of, and there were lots of comments about how great it was to see people from different backgrounds mingling together and enjoying themselves. And many of these people were using digital means to share their experiences with friends and family. This is a feature of many community events these days, but the infrastructure currently in place may struggle to cope with it.
Celebration 2.0 has taken me to some very interesting places, brought me into contact with some lovely people, and allowed me to be part of some fabulous events. And it’s taught me a lot about the challenges of internet access which show how far we remain from being truly Digital Britain.