Go off grid but not offline

That nice Mr Briggs has been encouraging me to post some stuff about hardware.

As it happens I’ve been trying out a new piece of ultra-modern hi-tech digital equipment.

No it’s not a MacBook Air, ChromeBook or even one of them new Google tablets.

It is… drum roll… The PowerMonkey Extreme.

Which is basically a back-up battery.

Photo of a Power Monkey battery charging

Bear with me.

The use case for this bit of kit is for situations when you find yourself some distance from a power supply and need to charge your device.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: how often does that happen in this modern age? And the answer is: surprisingly often. For example on a train journey from Hereford to Sunderland (it happens) you will be six hours without an onboard power supply and because of the patchy mobile signals your tablet and mobile phone will be exhausting themselves screaming at non-existent cell stations. Even a day in London can be frustrating when every Starbucks you pop into is full of Apple-heads sucking lattes and hogging the 240volts.

Of course other backup power supplies are available. The Power Monkey was attractive because it is capable of delivering the 5v 2.1 Amps necessary to charge an iPad or Galaxy Tab. The Extreme bit seems to refer to its general resilience, waterproofness and separate solar panels.

The battery itself is pleasingly compact. It can be charged from the mains. This takes a reassuringly long time. It seems to hold two & a bit charges for my tablet and a large number of charges for my LG mobile. It can charge both devices simultaneously. It charges around as fast as the mains.

I’ve tested the device completely off grid (a week in a sailing boat and camping in the rain).

A stream leads to a misty estuary

The solar panels are slow to charge in the rain and I did have to ration my device use to conserve battery. That said it beats all other options and will now join my short list of never travel without items.

I’ve also used it on a variety of day trips. Such as a 13hr visit to London yesterday. When I start a meeting I can pop my devices on charge and use them with confidence in the gaps. The solar panels are less useful while travelling on the underground of course.

It seems to me that it would also be a useful piece of resilience kit for public information officers and other people who might want to keep their mobile devices working in a power failure or while temporarily off-grid.

Living on a cloud

While despatched on a mission of digital mercy a few weeks ago Mr Briggs (of this parish) and I fell to comparing our computers. Or rather he fell to ridiculing my rather ancient Samsung laptop (seven years old I think, it doesn’t like to process video, original power supply fell apart and it now boasts a rather lovely Maplin back up device). Apple fans do tend to look upon me with fear tinged with pity when I unpack the machine.

I explained to Dave that all I really need is an OS to show me a browser because I live in the cloud. He’s become slightly cloud obsessed lately with visions of Chromebooks floating before his eyes. When he challenged me to write a blog post about my online working I realised that that I’m still not quite there.

The Basics

I do rely heavily on those lovely people at Google. They handle my mail for a start. A huge variety of email addresses are sent into my email account (or collected by GMail from mailboxes) and the system handles them smoothly. I virtually never see any spam and it is rare (though not unheard of) for real mail to get caught in the spam filter. I have a couple of Android devices that sync happily with the big G’s servers and lo: mail wherever I need it.

And I make a lot of use of Google Docs. Or Google Drive as we must now call it (what are they going to call the self-directed cars then?). The word processor meets my day to day needs.

Google Spreadsheets meet my fairly simple requirements perfectly well. There was a time when I demanded much of my spreadsheets but those days are mostly behind me. And for the days when they aren’t I have Google Fusion Tables.

Paying for stuff

Mountain View doesn’t seem to be able to deliver a decent task manager. For this I must turn to the excellent Remember The Milk. It’s idiosyncratic but it is fast, in the cloud and it has a cow logo which is nice.

For presentations I am inexorably drawn to SlideRocket. This is NOT cheap but it does make slideshows look good and its library system is easy to understand and flexible. If, like me, you create a lot of slideshows and then embed them all over the place it is probably worth the money. I guess it must be worth the money or I wouldn’t pay. I wish it cost less money though.

I use Hootsuite to help me manage my extensive social media real estate. I even pay them a little.

Other toys

I do use Dropbox but I haven’t fallen in love with it.

I’m more enthusiastic about Evernote. Especially since its Android app has got so good.

Google Reader is quite annoying but I haven’t found anything better for subscribing to blogs and other sites via their RSS feeds. And it handles my podcasts quite well.

What I still don’t do in the cloud.

Serious document prep. When I have a big report to prepare I will do the grunt work in Google Drive but I’ll apply the final formatting offline in Libre Office because it packs a lot more formatting oomph. And Scribus and InkScape are still my go-to guys for what we used to call DTP.

Stills and video editing. Actually simple edits are now pretty easy to do on things like Picnik (now integrated into Google+ of course). For stills there’s the GIMP for video there’s Kdenlive and for sound Audacity, natch.

When the rain comes

There are two big risks with leaving your stuff lying on random servers scattered around the world:

  • other people might see the data without my permission
  • the data might vanish or be locked away from me

So I fret a quite a bit about security. Google has good tools and I try to keep an eye on account activity, change passwords and use 2-factor authentication and so on. As to people being allowed in without my knowledge. I try not to think about that. This does make moving between machines less than frictionless but it seems to be sensible.

And I regularly take copies of my data and documents out of the internet and hide them in a lovely little Buffalo Terastation where they nestle quietly on a RAID. Google’s Data Liberation Front is a bit marvellous in this regard.

Luckily no-one asks me to do any heavy coding, design or other things that require a sooper-dooper machine. I suppose I could do that on a virtual box but that’s hardly the same.

But the crucial question is, when the old laptop finally gives up the ghost should I buy a shiny Chromebook or just shove Linux on a passing laptop?

Reputation: not a goal but a measure

I am not Dave Briggs*.

I’ve been following the #lgcomms12 hashtag this week. This is the label for tweets from the LGComms Academy event in Birmingham. It is much more lively than in previous years I must say and it sounds like they’ve been having a really interesting time.

Richard Stokoe from London Fire Brigade has caused quite a stir. He seems to have been arguing that Councils should not care about their reputation. I’ve put a flavour of the tweets in a Storify. Richard refuses to tweet himself.

It is pretty strong stuff for corporate comms professionals. Managing reputations is what PR professionals do. Already under threat from digital comms, from people “just doing it” within their own organisations they now face one of their own turning on them.

Which is all to the good.

I’m pretty sure that Richard Stokoe does care about the reputation of local government. He ran the LGA news team after all.

But he cares more about looking after people. When I interviewed him about how London Fire Brigade approaches social media he was very clear that it is all about stopping fires.

I agree with that approach, communications activity should be about changing people’s lives. It should be about making sure that the vulnerable know what services they can access, it should be about making sure that everybody makes use of the recycling service, it should be about transforming the way services are delivered.

Though I have concerns about where that narrative takes us. If local authorities cease to care about their reputation locally that could take them into some very dark areas.

Local authorities are important. They intervene very heavily in the lives of the most vulnerable in society and they shape the environment and economy for us all. They regulate things, they balance competing needs and wishes, they hold the ring in communities.

If we don’t trust or respect our local authority it will find it hard to deliver services. It may make people’s lives worse. It will become dragged into conflict and a cycle of failed projects and angry customers.

Local authorities should earn and re-earn trust. They should care about their reputation: not as a goal in itself but as a measure of how well they serve their community.

PR in local government should be a tool by which citizens can drive improvements in the council. It should not be a tool by which citizens can be persuaded their services are better than they are.

*This is my first blog on Kind of Digital’s site. I have my own blog where I write about digital comms and emergencies. The plan is that, as I often help Dave deliver projects and training, I may post on this site from time to time about non-emergency comms stuff. But I guess that depends on how many complaints the Kind of Digital team receives.