So in response to a message I sent around on the Birmingham University Bicycle Users Group, I’ve had a bunch of people get in touch as willing volunteers.  Thanks to all.  So my diary is full for the next couple of weeks with people who’ve agreed to talk and ride their way home while wearing bits of kit.

Actually, the University’s ethical review committee has yet to formally approve this, so it’s all very much under the radar.  They did get back to me and ask for clarification on some really minor points, so I guess it’s all okay.  If not, huge apologies to the three people who’ve already taken part – you’re clearly not properly ethical and for this I can only hang my head.

Anyway, yes, so there’s a couple of new maps up on the website and, just checking my email, the third participant has sent back a corrected transcript, so I’ll get that online when I’m back in the office tomorrow. 

I made a bit of a cock up of the first two in truth as the mic wasn’t properly plugged in, so we were recording off the built in mics on the recorder itself.  These are pretty good when you’re sat in a room, or even if you’re just walking, but swinging around as you cycle the recordings weren’t of great quality.  Then again it was a bit odd having got everything wired up properly for the one that was done last night.  This is because during most of the recording all you hear is vigorous breathing.  Partly, I’m sure, it’s because yesterday’s participant was working particularly hard (a 45 min cycle with heart rate peaking at 172bpm, which is properly hardcore), but even on a lesser ride I suspect it’ll still be a bit disturbing.  Usually you get participants hating the transcripts because they don’t realise how many ums and ers they put into their ordinary speech, but in this case I’m going to try to make sure they never hear the actual recordings because the panting makes for… ‘uncomfortable’ listening.

The maps produced are already kinda interesting.  It’s definitely a bit tricky to cycle and talk, so there’s not a huge amount of text in the first three – I don’t know if other participants will be a bit more loquacious.  Still, so far (aside from my not plugging the mic in properly) all the equipment has worked beautifully, even in yesterday’s torrential rain.  If only we’d gone into RG1 (Digbeth) knowing what we know now, we probably would have got better data for all that public money.  Still, the whole point of the project was learning how to do it, I guess, so that makes me feel less guilty.

On the subject of RG1, I’ve started thinking of the cycling thing as RG1.5 because James & I have put in another bid to the ESRC for what we’re calling RG2.  If we get the money (profoundly unlikely in the current economic climate) then we’ll get to develop and apply the RG techniques to a live regen project over in Kidderminster.  It’d be a three year project, which would allow us to key into the regen as it goes along, assuming we finally pull out of the current financial difficulties over the next couple of years.  Still we’ll see.

Currently doing a (badly drawn) comic book history of RG1 as part of an idea I’ve had for ages about telling the stories behind the research – i.e. how academic knowledge is really produced, rather than the half-truths we tell in research papers and grant applications.  The original intention of this had been to mock out a storyboard for what would be a photo essay, but everyone I’ve shown it to so far has really liked the (childish simplicity of) my stick figure drawings, so I guess we’ll try it as a comic book.  I bought myself a cheap drawing tablet to do this and I can honestly say that the terribleness of the drawings is entirely to do with my lack of artistic ability and not the limitations of the technology.  I may get around to posting up an extract of this at some point.

I may also post a picture of me wearing the RG1.5 equipment so that cycling  participants have a proper idea of what they’re getting themselves into.  Not sure about this though, as it might involve a shot of me topless wearing the heart rate monitor.  [shudder]  There are some frontiers that ‘public’ geography probably shouldn’t cross…


So a long silence on the Rescue Geography blog.  Without money to pay someone to do the work for us, we have to find the time to do things ourselves.  James and I have not been entirely inactive since the last posting, but it’s amazing how much of a distraction teaching can be sometimes.  A couple of grant applications have gone in to fund other RG work (maybe James will post something about this), but in the meantime I needed a project to tide me over for the long summer of getting things done.  As such, I’ve decided to combine a couple of things that interest me and am working on commuter cycling.

A few years ago I wrote a crazy cultural geography paper about cycling and have wanted to come back to thinking about cycling for a while.  Meantime the University of Birmingham has undertaken a survey of staff as part of drawing up a sustainable transport plan.  So it made sense to me to apply the RG techniques to cyclists commuting to work at the University and to see whether we can get behind the rather dry stats produced by the survey to look at the experience of cycling in Birmingham.

I visit the Netherlands quite often but it’s only recently that I’ve actually cycled there.  Blimey, it’s a whole different thing.  Everything is laid out in an entirely logical and helpful way for cyclists, even in Rotterdam, supposedly the most car-centric Dutch city.  Cycling in Birmingham, which has always seemed like an insane thing to do, seems even crazier in comparison to the Dutch experience.  My morning commute to work leaves me feeling as if I have vanquished some merciless foe.

But other people respond differently to these things and that’s what the new RG cycling project is all about, getting at the experience of supposedly ‘sustainable’ transport.  If you cycle to work at the University and want to get involved, drop me a line.

The project may or may not tie up with a ethnographic photography project that Dan and I want to do.  We’re waiting to hear from the Leverhulme Trust about whether we get the money for this or not.  I’ll say more if we get the cash.

Couple of bits of housekeeping.  First, I’ve refreshed the Rescue Geography website to reflect the move onto a new project.  By ‘refreshed’ I mean ‘changed the colours around and altered some of the links’ – don’t worry, all the Digbeth/Eastside stuff is still there with a link from the homepage.  Secondly, in the last blog post, all those months ago, I promised a link to the article I’ve written on walking interviews as a research technique.  This is now online and in an open access journal for anyone to read (unlike the cycling one mentioned above… feel free to drop me a line if you don’t have a subscription to that journal).

At some point I may even remember to put in a link to access the End of Award Report written for the guys who gave us the money for the original Eastside project…

Well, the exhibition launch was over a week ago now and I almost feel like I’ve recovered.  Astonishing how it all came together so nicely in the end.  All without having a gantt chart which, considering the hassle little Steph gave us over the summer about the need for a gantt chart, simply reinforces my anti-gantt chart prejudices. 

Oyvind was brilliant helping us set up at MADE.  He and Dan hung all the stuff in the front room where Dan’s portraits hung in artistic loveliness.  Myself and James did a bit more of a, ahem, ‘handwoven’ job in the back room with all of our research stuff.  Still it all looked pretty good.  Props also to Jane P for forcing us all to get organised and making sure everything ran like clockwork on the night.  And obviously much thanks to Julia for letting us do it.

We had about 70 people pass through over the evening – including a handful we kidnapped on their way to the opening of Fazeley Studios which was happening just down the road.  I’ve put some pictures up onto Facebook, which I’ve made open access.  They’re some of the worst photos I’ve taken since buying a camera with autofocus – no amount of photoshopping could redeem them, but you get the general idea.  I’d been out the previous weekend shooting a bunch of stuff on the helmetcam and wrapped it all up into a Google Earth file (available from the revamped Download page, as is, incidentally, the exhibition catalogue produced to go alongside Dan’s portraits).  It was quite fun sitting with people, getting them to play with Google Earth projected onto one of the walls.  I lost count of the number of people who said “it’s like the Blair Witch Project” while watching footage of my walk through the bushes next to the River Rea.

So huge thanks to everyone who turned up on Friday.

MADE asked us to take part in their Organic Eastside workshop, which was held at South Birmingham College last Tuesday.  Some really interesting stuff presented – George Fergusson, responsible for the redevelopment of the old Wills Tobacco factory in Bristol gave a really interesting paper.    I gave a brief outline of the RG project, but had to hurry off afterward.  Work has been insanely busy this week as all the stuff I hadn’t been doing in the previous fortnight getting ready for the exhibition finally started to catch up with me.  Plus I really have to send off the End of Award Report to the ESRC to justify the cash we spent.  Actually it’s been quite nice filling in the forms because a lot of the things most social science projects routinely fail to do – particularly regarding ‘end user engagement’ – has been really easy to sort out.  MADE, the gods of networking saw to that.

In a sense the exhibition brings the formal part of the Rescue Geography project to an end, but we’re still working on writing things up, doing more analysis and, of course, applying for more money to do Phase 2.  I think that RG has grown beyond the particular project that we originally applied to do in Digbeth/Eastside and both James and myself are pretty excited about where this goes next.

Oh and we’ve just had a piece accepted by an open access online journal.  It gives some details of different ways to do walking interviews and draws on RG as well as some students who I persuaded to do walking interviews for their dissertations.  I’ll post a link as soon as it’s online.

The exhibition (24 October) draws ever closer and a healthy dose of panic is setting in.  To be fair I’ve no real right to panic because most of the ‘University’ stuff is organised now and, let’s face it, it’s Jane P and Oyvind at MADE who are doing all the curatorial stuff and Dan is doing most of the artwork.  All we’ve got to do is turn up on Thursday and hang stuff on the walls then turn up on Friday and look glamorous for the adoring crowds.  Or, you know, hand out glasses of wine and make small talk, whatever seems more appropriate at the time.  But there has been a feature written about the exhibition on the BBC.

On the techie side one of the undergrads in my department at Birmingham has done an extra year in his degree doing computer science stuff.  He’s now back doing geography and I’ve persuaded (i.e. paid) him to write some software for us.  During one of the lunchtime meetings at MADE we showed off the proof-of-concept stuff we’d done using mediascapes to create Google Earth files of areas people like and don’t like.  One of the comments from a developer was how it would be really useful to be able to see what people are referring to when they register a preference.  We’ve got these, well posh mobile phones really, that have built in cameras as well as GPS so Matt was set to work creating a really simple user interface that allows people to take pictures, give them a rating (0-9) and record this against their GPS location.  Matt, being a genius, then got the program (which is 38k in size – a triumph of elegant simplicity) to automatically kick out a Google Earth KML file, with shaded dots depending on the user rating and direct links to the photographs.  This is a massive improvement on the proof-of-concept work which required a huge amount of behind the scenes data processing to get it to produce a KML.  So I’m getting another student to use this technology in a pilot project on ‘Studentification’ in Selly Oak.  It should be a really nice tool that we can use in a variety of contexts.

Some sad news to end on.  Myself and James were deeply shocked and upset to learn of the premature death of friend and fellow geographer Duncan Fuller from the University of Northumbria.  Duncan’s work was one of the inspirations behind the Rescue Geography project and he was always very supportive of what we were doing.  A natural subversive, fine scholar and all round good guy, he’ll be deeply missed.

Not in reference to the classic album by Yes, because, frankly, no right thinking person should ever admit to having heard this, let alone liking it.  No, the title of the post refers slightly to my mental state now that we’re approaching ever closer the deadline for the exhibition.

Because, yes, we have now settled on a date for this.  We had a meeting at MADE a week last Friday with Jane P and Dan.  We sat and thrashed out a bunch of details and then plotted out how we are going to use the wallspace (and exterior space, for projections).  So Friday 24 October we’re having the launch, then it will be at MADE for the Organic Eastside Seminar which is being held in South Birmingham College on 28 October.  It may then partly move to South Birmingham College as part of something Richard Trengrouse is organising, though we haven’t settled the details of this.  (When I say ‘we’, let’s be honest, Jane P is doing all the organising here).

So all that’s left to do is actually get all the materials together.  From our end I went out a week last Saturday and took a bunch of photos in the sunshine of various locations that people talked about in their interviews.  Then I used these to put together a unified Google Earth file which has locations, photos and quotes – kind of like the highlights of the highlights.  I’ve also been printing out some of these quotes and the accompanying location shots to mount up as part of the ‘academic’ bit of the exhibition.  I’ll post this up on the website shortly (have been distracted recently by James asking me to work on a complete redesign of it).

Dan, meanwhile, has been taking a bunch of portraits which look really great.  He’s been in to discuss colour balance and whatnot with Kev from our Drawing Office.  So when I happened to be downstairs this morning photocopying stuff I saw Kev printing out the first copies of the prints on the map plotter.  And, I have to say, they look great as small prints but are amazing as posters.  I sit in intense jealousy of Dan’s talents.  Looking forward to seeing other people’s reactions to these.

So all that’s left to do is get all the location photos and quotes put together and organise the maps and some posters about the methodology.  Oh and sort out whatever multimedia stuff we’re doing.  So nothing very much really.  Fortunately I don’t have much teaching, although my tutees this afternoon seemed less than impressed by the stuff I’d given them to read about Google Maps mashups.  Hey ho.  We will shortly be having an article published on BBC Birmingham Online about the whole RG thing, so celebrity beckons at last – especially after we got a mention in the Times Higher a couple of weeks ago in an article about the Royal Geographical Society conference.

Things have been a bit hectic since the last post, mixing up a couple of weeks intense work with a trip to the Lake District on non-RG business.  Not sure how I could work climbing up Scafel Pike into the Rescue Geog universe, other than the fact that I took my new toy up the mountain with me.  But I’ll come back to that.

James & I went down to the conference of the Royal Geographical Society during the last week of August.  It was a bit of a strange experience for me because for the first time in a while I’d made a decision that I was going to be very diligent about going to see a whole bunch of different papers – if I’m honest I was a bit slack when I was in Boston, spending more time ‘networking’ than actually listening to people present.  So I was definitely in the conference bunker for a few days.

This said, I did sit through some really interesting papers.  Mike Raco from Kings had organised a mammoth session on urban regeneration which stimulated some really interesting debate.  Interestingly a community organiser from Liverpool turned up and in the discussion session talked about the on-the-ground effect of the market renewal pathfinder in the city (which is basically knocking a lot of stuff down).  James and I gave separate ‘joint’ papers on the Thursday.  I talked about some of the technical, methodological issues about how I’ve used the Google API to do the maps and got an awful lot of techie questions from a map-centric audience.  James presented in the public geographies session and talked about how the research programme had developed in ways that we hadn’t originally expected.  He used the metaphor of the rhizome – the way certain plants can spread out their root systems in a variety of different directions to maximise survival if one bit gets damaged.  He actually talked about this in terms of strawberries and we were later emailed a link explaining to us that, technically, strawberries aren’t a rhizomatic, but in fact develop stolons, which are similar but different.  Which just goes to show really that you don’t want to take on people when it comes to horticulture even if you are the son of a farmer (who then had to leave the conference early after he got a call from his dad to come and help get the harvest in).  Nonetheless, the paper ended up getting a mention in the Times Higher Education’s review of the RGS conference, so we reckon fame and fortune must be beckoning.

Getting back from an extremely sweaty London I discovered that our new toys had arrived.  These are HP smart phones which have built in GPS and cameras and run on Windows Mobile which means one can install ArcPad GIS software onto them.  I got these to experiment with for the Kidderminster project.  I’m trying to develop a way where participants can walk around an area and take photos of things they like and don’t like, tagging each one with a zero (hate) to nine (love) value as well as recording the GPS location.  I’ve only just had ArcPad turn up, so I’ve got to figure this one out yet.  So far all I’ve done with it is use TomTom to navigate myself to the foot of a mountain and then the inbuilt camera to take photos of myself from the top (which I’ve put on Facebook).

Last week was spent on transcription.  Yes, I finally got fed up and decided the easiest way was just to type up the backlog of interviews myself.  Actually this wasn’t all that hard which left me wondering why I’d bothered to employ a postdoc at all, but that’s the way of things.  Nonetheless it did mean that other than dealing with email and admin I didn’t get a lot else done last week.  Of the interviews we’ve done I’ve got two left to go through and check the work of our original transcriber, then I’m just waiting for people to get back to me approving the transcripts (several have already, and I’ll have their stuff up on the web early next week).

Dan is back from the Lebanon – you can read about his adventures on his blog.  He’s off taking portraits this month ready for the October ‘event’ down at MADE.  They’ve decided to tie us up with their Organic Eastside event on 28 October about which we’ll say more after we’ve had a meeting with MADE next week.  I’m getting kind of excited (i.e. panicking) about all this now, especially with the start of term rushing headlong towards us.  Two weeks of peace and quiet left – a truly scary prospect.

James, Jane RH & I are all making our separate ways to London this week.  This is Jane’s last week working for Rescue Geography before she disappears off to her new job in Cork, so this is a good opportunity to thank her for working on the project.

The reason we’re all heading south is the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society.  This sounds like a much bigger deal than it is because, in truth, only a few wafer thin slithers of the geography ‘community’ actually go to this thing.  It’s not just that it’s only academics, but also the fact that no physical geographers (chaps interested in skies, rocks, rivers, coasts etc.) ever go to this.  In fact, of the human geographers, it’s mostly the environment/cultural/urban people that go.  You don’t see much in the way of economic geography there.

(Not that I’ve much interest in economic geography, which is why I like the RGS conference so much. )

So James & I are going to give separate presentations on different aspects of Rescue Geog.  My paper’s on the technical aspects of mapping and his is on… well, I’m not sure.  We had lunch yesterday and he’s been getting very excited about Deleuze recently.  Hmm, not sure how many people are going to be thrilled by French philosophy wrapped around this project, but if it makes James happy.

Went out on Sunday and did some filming with the helmet-mounted camera we’ve got:

Okay, it’s not great quality, but you’d be amazed how difficult it is to cycle and keep your head level.  This is about the best 40 seconds from 15 minutes of filming.  Still, it’ll pretty up my PowerPoint presentation a bit and that’s all that matters.  Bearing in mind that at last year’s RGS James & I did a performance piece, I suspect that the more conventional presentations we’re doing this year will disappoint some of our incipient fan club, but so it goes.

Will post more when i get back.

The morning began eventfully enough as I was woken at 7:00am by a torrential rainstorm.  While in the shower, Kerrang FM gleefully informed me that there was a severe weather warning out for Birmingham, revelling in the regional motorway chaos.  Most excitingly, it appeared that the Hagley Road was totally closed (reach for those TomToms, people) because TGI Fridays had caught fire.  The phrase ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ has never been so apt, but it left me wondering why buildings tend to catch fire in heavy rain.

Hitting the streets expecting to see a scene out of ‘Children of Men’, I was disappointed to not to find any burning cars or floods on the way into town and arrived at the MADE offices 15 mins early.   Confused, I stood in the rain until I remembered what I usually do when confused and rang Phil.

The meeting went well, anyway.  Jane is really nice and helpful, and the work placement guy Matt (geography student from UCL) was also really into it.  For the sake of clarity and brevity I’ll bullet point our discussion…

1. The October lab/expo.  With the failure of the Arts Council bid we’re slimming this down and it now looks suspiciously like the event we originally had in mind back along. 

Thursday night= launch night.  Interviewees, friends, collaborators, and maybe some others. 

Friday lunch – afternoon= professionals.  Almost like an extended lunch meeting witht the exhibition there for afters.

Saturday = open doors to public.  Not sure about publicity yet…

The actual content of the expo comes in three parts: art (piccies, quotes etc), techie stuff (maps, interactive computer stuff, helmet cam wondering around digbeth), and analysis (actual results).

2. Legacy of Dan’s artwork / RG.  Jane suggested that it would be nice to produce some materials that would outlast the expo and provide a longer legacy – this could be postcards, foldable posters and so on.  We decided that Dan would probably have some good ideas on this when he gets back from the Lebanon.

3. Spring event.  This is now up in the air without the Arts Council funding, but MADE seemed keen to keep it slated.  It may take the form of an extended meeting / gathering, or a full on end-user event (see next item).

4. Kiddie bid.  Me and Phil will be on it in sept.  We discussed working the Spring event in as the opening end-user event of the Kiddie project to get some funds.

5. Canal pilot project.  Matt is all over this – he is even working in some theory on space and place.  Jane also offered to lend a hand with the surveying.  Obviously this is all contingent on the rain ceasing before the end of August…

6. Place theory.  Matt mentioned some of the De Certeau and Lefebvre that he had been reading and noted the pertinence of theories of space and place to the RG project.  He also mentioned the idea of ‘Map discourse’ and ‘tour discourse’, and the quote that mapping space prompts stories about place… we really should get him blogging here…

That’ll do for now, I’ll blog some more about the canal project some time soon…

This is the new home of the Rescue Geography Blog.  We’ve posted archived versions of the old blog (Sept 07-Aug 08) on our website.  Essentially we were getting too much spam on the old blog host which meant that it was starting to shut down ten days into the month saying that we’d exceeded our allowed traffic.  Compulsory reading though this blog is, there’s no way it was attracting that many legitimate hits.  The host service suggested we pay to add more bandwidth.  Hmm.  So we’re here giving WordPress a go, in part because James & I are involved in a ‘creative geographies‘ event which has a WordPress blog which we’re supposed to be posting to.

Anyway, we run out of money from the ESRC in just 18 days so the first phase of the project is nearly at an end, which is a bit sad.  But we plough on.  James has just had a meeting with our new handler from MADE, Jane P (not to be confused with Jane RH who’s been employed as our researcher for the last 12 months).  He may even blog about it, who knows.  At least it all seemed pretty positive.