Last week saw the publication of the Harris Review, Changing Prisons, Saving Lives. It was prompted by the large number of young adults and children who take their own lives in our prisons – there were 101 such deaths over the seven-year period that the report covers – but its scope extended to also examine such things as the purpose of prison, the nature of rehabilitation and the treatment of all people within the prison estate.

I read it, as I imagine most people with at least a passing acquaintance with our prison system did, with recognition, and with a mixture of anger and frustration. Anger, because, as the report states, our “prisons and young offender institutions are grim environments: bleak and demoralising to the spirit”. Frustrated, because this report could have been published, pretty much word for word, at any point in the past thirty years.


Lord Harris describes a prison system populated by young people with high rates of mental ill-health. They are often disturbed by their experiences of childhood, with many having backgrounds of abuse and/or of living in the care system. Healthcare services in prison are too stretched and inadequate to treat any but the most severely ill and, even when accepted for treatment, appointments are often missed. This is in no small part due to the staff shortages that also mean that many prisoners, especially in local prisons such as Birmingham, spend most of their days locked behind the doors of their cells.

There are some good people working in our prisons, but they are restricted by the system they work in. It’s one that contains a dispiriting work culture with a fatalistic approach towards its failure to create positive change for the people within it. In fact, we think so little of the work that prison staff do that they are provided with just eight weeks of initial training. We seriously undervalue the profession of prison officer and we get the results you might expect from this.

There are also many third sector organisations who work inside prisons and with people on release. Samaritans is one such organisation. It trains and supports prisoner Listener Schemes – where serving prisoners are the equivalent of Samaritans inside. These Listeners deliver much needed emotional support to their peers in the most difficult of circumstances. They do it in a prison system where distress and mental ill-health are prevalent and where far too many people are incarcerated, for too long and often with scant attempts at rehabilitation.

To have a child go into prison is an awful experience for any parent. For them to die while inside causes the sort of heartbreak that most of us can only begin to imagine. The Harris Review tells us, in detail, of the circumstances that lead to many young adults taking their lives in prison. Many of the recommendations it makes would lead to significant improvements in the lives of people inside our prisons.

There are a lot of recommendations in the Review. If any of them are going to be implemented successfully then the fundamental recommendation in the chapter on the purpose of prison will need to be addressed. It states that:

A prison should provide to those in custody a regime whose primary goal is rehabilitation. The penalty of imprisonment is the removal of liberty; all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for their human rights (including the European Convention on Human Rights) and their individual protected characteristics (as defined by the Equality Act 2010). Restrictions placed on persons deprived of their liberty shall be the minimum necessary and proportionate to the legitimate objective for which those restrictions are imposed. Life in prison should approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community.

Once we’ve decided to send somebody to prison we should then do the best we can to help them lead a crime-free life upon release. A prison system that was truly focused on rehabilitation would undoubtedly lose fewer prisoners to suicide.

It’s really worth writing to your MP if you feel strongly about this and ask them how they are going to support the review. It is an issue that seldom gets much publicity and politicians often have to be especially convinced that prison reform is something their constituents want to see them involved in.

I’ll post both my letter and the response it gets on here.

This summer Young Rewired State are bringing their hugely successful Festival Of Code back to Birmingham.

Young Rewired State | Festival of Code 2015

Young Rewired State | Festival of Code 2015


Happening over the week of 27th July to 2nd August, The Festival of Code brings together young developers, all of them under the age of 18. During the week they attend centres around the country and build web and mobile applications that attempt to solve real world problems, with each project using at least one piece of open government data.

Then, over the weekend, up to 2000 young people will descend upon Birmingham to present their projects and get feedback on how to take them further.Continue reading

This year, if everything goes to plan, I am going to do something I’ve wanted to do for some time and live and work abroad.

Lake Titicaca from Wikimedia - I want to go there

As of next week I’ll be studying on a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course for two days a week at Gloucester College. CELTA is one of the more widely recognised qualifications that prepare people to teach English as a foreign language. The course lasts five months, finishing towards the end of June.

There are some significant birthdays (the kind that end in a zero) amongst family and friends in July and so my plan at the moment is to be heading off for Central or South America around early August time.

Hopefully by then I’ll have narrowed it down to a more specific locality.Continue reading

After Tim Harford Tweeted the link to it, I spent a fair bit of time yesterday wrestling with what XKCD reckon to be

The Hardest Logic Puzzle in the World

Here’s how it runs:

‘A group of people with assorted eye colors live on an island. They are all perfect logicians — if a conclusion can be logically deduced, they will do it instantly. No one knows the color of their eyes. Every night at midnight, a ferry stops at the island. Any islanders who have figured out the color of their own eyes then leave the island, and the rest stay. Everyone can see everyone else at all times and keeps a count of the number of people they see with each eye color (excluding themselves), but they cannot otherwise communicate. Everyone on the island knows all the rules in this paragraph.

On this island there are 100 blue-eyed people, 100 brown-eyed people, and the Guru (she happens to have green eyes). So any given blue-eyed person can see 100 people with brown eyes and 99 people with blue eyes (and one with green), but that does not tell him his own eye color; as far as he knows the totals could be 101 brown and 99 blue. Or 100 brown, 99 blue, and he could have red eyes.

The Guru is allowed to speak once (let’s say at noon), on one day in all their endless years on the island. Standing before the islanders, she says the following:

“I can see someone who has blue eyes.”

Who leaves the island, and on what night?’

Now, it’s possible to Google the answer but I thought it would be interesting the explain how I worked it out.Continue reading

Back in June I had the pleasure of helping out at Interactivos Birmingham. This was a fortnight-long workshop for people to develop projects that used new technologies such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino to make art. In particular, these were pieces of art that responded to the world and people around them. The workshop was hosted and supported by Midland Arts Centre and run in partnership by Birmingham City University, Sampad, the BBC and Medialab Prado.

Nearly all of the projects that took part were using free and open software, and were also making the code that they wrote openly available for other people to see, contribute to and reuse. There is a set of repositories on Github for anybody who is interested in getting into the technical details of the projects.

What I really enjoyed about the workshop was the energy and enthusiasm that all of the participants brought with them. At the start of the fortnight I sat down with some of the project leads who, quite frankly, scared me with the scale of the projects they were hoping to deliver. While not everybody achieved all they set out to do, each project achieved lots in the relatively short time scales they had.


You can read all about the individual projects over at the Interactivos Birmingham website, which has loads of different content courtesy of Tim Wilson and BCU social media students.Continue reading

This Saturday is Open Data Day.

A photograph of Chris Morris on the set of the Day today

The Day Today BBC © 2014

Data describe the places where we live, work and play and it helps us to understand the world around us. You could be interested in local transport, health or education, our public services create data about all of them. Data can help you hold politicians to account, or it can tell you where the nearest public loo is.

In Birmingham we are holding an event at Birmingham City University where we are going to set up a West Midlands “Open DataStore In A Day”. The idea is quite simple. Over the day we will set up a website that can hold open datasets and publish what we can find to it. You don’t have to be a technical whizz to take part. Enthusiasm and curiosity are enough to make it worth your while coming along.

We’ll spend the day finding and collecting the data that people are interested in and we’ll put it all together in one place online, in the West Midlands Open Datastore. Once we’ve done that, it makes it all a lot easier to do something useful with.

If somebody can’t find the data that they are interested in then we will help them to write a Freedom Of Information request to ask for it. When those are answered we will add them to the Open Datastore.

I’m really pleased that Data Unlocked, the co-operative venture that I’ve recently helped to co-found, are providing the website for people to work on during the day, and that we will continue supporting it afterwards. We’ve helped to organise the day along with Open Mercia and RnROrganisation.

In Emer Coleman’s recent post about the City as a Platform she says that she has seen quotes of up to £200,000 for Data Platforms. We think that we can do a lot with some free open source software and the goodwill of people volunteering their time and skills.

We are using Ckan to host the West Midlands Open Datastore and are thankful to the Open Knowledge Foundation for providing this free, open source software for us to use. Thanks also to Birmingham City University, who are providing us with a room in their sparky new offices at Parkside.

This Wednesday Nesta are hosting the Pitch and Celebration Event for the Open Data Institute’s first challenge series, which focused on Crime and Justice. I’ll be going down to see which of the three finalists have won the grand prize of £40,000 and to hear a little more about the next two challenge areas: Education and Energy & The Environment.

Open Data Institute - Challenge Series - Crime and Justice

Open Data Institute – Challenge Series – Crime and Justice

I had a really enjoyable time working as Series Lead on the Crime and Justice series and am really thankful for the opportunity to work with both Nesta and the Open Data Institute. I think we did a good job of attracting a range of entries and the shortlisting, although difficult, resulted in the strongest projects going forward to the final.Continue reading

Techkoji image from article on personal privacy

Techkoji image from article on personal privacy

I made a couple of Freedom Of Information requests towards the end of last year, using What Do They Know.

My first request asked Staffordshire and West Midlands Probation Trust for

any reports you have created or commissioned measuring the effectiveness of programmes you support to reduce re-offending

They very helpfully responded by placing a number of reports on their website and sending me the link to the page. There are some useful and intriguing reports on there. The reoffending analysis on the Anawin Project, who support “vulnerable women”  in Balsall Heath is particularly impressive, showing a statistically significant impact on reducing re-offending rates.

However, my second request for individual organisations’ data behind Arts Council England‘s

Regularly Funded Organisations: key data from the 2011/12 annual submission report

has been refused. This data provides information on the benefits brought through millions of pounds of funding to arts and cultural organisations around the country. It’s money that is derived through taxation and so I was a bit surprised when my request was refused, although Arts Council England were able to provide me with a list of the organisations that either didn’t complete their return, or sent it in late.

I asked for an internal review and although the reasoning was amended, the original refusal has been upheld.

Continue reading

The West Midlands Open Data Forum is an idea that has been initiated by Digital Birmingham. It has a mission

“To promote the release, re-use and integration of open data to benefit communities, businesses and public services in the West Midlands area.”

I was asked to join its steering group a few months ago and have attended three of its meetings so far. Here we have mostly been discussing the Terms of Reference for the group, commenting upon proposals for a Birmingham Open Data Platform and planning how the current steering group will support the new forum to host quarterly events that “bring together developer, activist, public authority, university, third sector and business communities over open data”

openDataWordlePhoto Credit: suzannelong via Compfight cc

Continue reading

Myself and Mike Cummins have been doing some work looking at the Birmingham School Admissions procedure. Over the past year we’ve developed a tool that helps people find out more about the local authority’s schools, including showing the annual cut off distances.

Currently, these school cut off distances are typically provided by local authorities in paper documents or on the web in text formats such as pdf. This doesn’t make it easy for parents to get an overall view of the preferences they might choose. We hope our school finder tool, which allows you to put in a postcode and shows you the schools around you, is a step in the right direction.

Birmingham wide school catchment areas

Birmingham wide school cut off areas

With the applications for Birmingham Secondary Schools due in at the end of the month we think that now is the ideal time to make an alpha version of the tool available, which we’ve done today. This is a work in progress and the usual caveats apply. Please don’t use it as the only thing you base your decisions on, if you’re looking for a school place for your child.

There’s a feedback forum on UserEcho that we’ve set up for people to comment on the tool and suggest how we might develop it further.

We’re indebted to Caroline Beavon who worked very hard with us at the start of the project, had many of the good ideas and did a lot of the early data work.