Open Thinkering


Tag: Catalyst

Weeknote 12/2021

Old-school square drainpipe with plants growing around it

This week was the second of two weeks that our two children have spent in school since lockdown. It’s now the Easter holidays, and I’m planning to take (the equivalent of) two days off each week for the next couple of weeks.

Last week was the last (funded) week of a project, a Catalyst-funded sector challenge that I’ve been leading for most of 2021 so far. We achieved a lot in a short amount of time (see participants’ thoughts here), and did a project retrospective on Wednesday and a digital team retro on Friday. The ‘playback’ for the funders is next Tuesday.

The other Catalyst project I’m involved with just finished Week 6 of 10. That one involves taking a cohort of charities through a ‘definition’ programme, leading them to prototype solutions for problems faced by the audience they serve.

In addition to some business development and catching up with a few people, I attended the RSA’s Cities of Learning Summit on Thursday afternoon. Back in 2013, my colleagues on the Mozilla Open Badges team helped with Chicago’s Summer of Learning. That morphed into a programme of ‘Cities of Learning’ across the US.

Here in the UK, the RSA did things slightly differently, and over a longer period of time, so the pilot projects have only just finished up. It’s been a success, particularly during the pandemic (oddly) so the programme is being rolled out to more places — and not just cities.

I’m keen to see this programme succeed, and in an open source way. I’d like to ensure that a diversity of badge platforms and providers are involved, to avoid vendor lock-ins and silos.

The thing that took up a lot of my curiosity and time this week was refactoring the site. I explain more about that process in this post, but suffice to say figuring out the technical side of things had me staying up past midnight for the first time for a long time…

Other than that, I haven’t published anything as I’ve switched Thought Shrapnel to a monthly newsletter. That allows me more time for other side projects.

As I’ve already mentioned, next week I’m taking some time off, which will be nice. I need to get back to doing more exercise as my back is slowly getting better. I really wish I could get back to the gym, but until all of the adults around me have been vaccinated, that’s probably not a great idea.

Image: a curious-looking drainpipe on the side of the Boys Brigade Hall, Morpeth, England

Weeknote 09/2021

Abstract image with concentric circles

This week seems to have gone rather slowly. It seems a long time since last Sunday afternoon when I launched, my new side project. I later found some time to refactor it down to a mere 6.6KB in size and change the default to dark mode. It’s a fun thing to work on.

I’ve worked more hours this week than I have since the pandemic started, I reckon. We’ve just finished Week 8 of the 11-week Catalyst project I’m leading, and Week 3 of the one of which Laura is in charge. Both have their challenges, I guess, but I’d definitely answer “yes” to my late grandmother’s question, “are you winning, son?”

I published a post on the Medium publication about the project I’m leading to help people be able to register more successfully for Universal Credit. We’re testing three prototypes, progress on which you can see below:

Screencast of three prototypes from ‘Sector Challenge 9: Claiming Universal Credit remotely’

It’s a pleasure working with the digital team we’ve put together. Dan, who’s organisation Bay Digital I’m partnering with on this project, wrote a post about the difficulties we’ve had doing remote user testing. I’m looking forward to writing the report when we’re finished.

I’ll give you three guesses as to what happened to my decision to give up refined sugar for Lent? Well, reader, I feel like my friends and family conspired against me; my co-op colleagues told me I was “definitely grumpier” and then my daughter, mother, and wife baked sweet delights on consecutive days that it would have been positive rude not to taste.

In addition, my back is hurting. I’m trying not to whinge and I really should seek some medical advice, but I’ve got all of the symptoms the NHS list of a slipped disc. I did go for one (what I’d be ashamed to call) ‘run’ this week, but then was popping ibuprofen like a junkie the next day. I exaggerate for comic effect, but something’s not right.

I’ve done a decent amount of business development for We Are Open this week, talking to people about blockchain, digital credentials, and getting their processes sorted out. I’m never quite sure where the next bit of work is going to come from, but it always does. I guess that’s what happens when you work as part of a talented collective.

On that front, we had a chat with a mortgage adviser this week about our options for moving house. We’re not entirely sure whether to stick or twist, knowing that we’ve got it good where we are for the moment. However, that’s likely to change for a number of reasons, so it’s just deciding when (and how) to make the jump.

Things I published this week:

Next week, it’s the Mozilla Festival. This is usually an event I’m excited about and enjoy the heady mix of meeting new people and ideas. I’ve bought a ticket and even helped Outlandish with the sessions they’ve had accepted. I just haven’t been able to prioritise going through the 500+ sessions yet to pick out the ones that I can attend alongside getting my work done. A first glance at the schedule suggests there’s a lot of sessions about AI and not loads on the open web…

Image by Adrien Converse

Weeknote 05/2021

After around 10 days of migraine-like headaches and fuzziness, they ended towards on Thursday evening. I’m sure some of it is due to the weather, which has been abysmal (it’s still raining as I write this) but also due to the amount of time I’m spending on screens.

We’ve just finished Week 4 of the Catalyst-funded sector challenge project that I’m project managing. As I mentioned last week, the project is successful if we manage to identify and prototype ways to remove barriers for the 25% of people who are eligible for Universal Credit, but who, for various reasons, don’t claim it.

I published a post on the project blog about the double-diamond process we’re using to organise the 11 weeks we’ve got to get something prototyped. Thankfully, we’ve got a talented team in Dan Mosforth of Bay Digital, Hannah Belshaw, Ivan Minutillo, and Tom Broughton.

In addition to the Catalyst project I’m project managing, I’m part of the We Are Open Co-op team that is helping 11 charities better-define what they need to do to create a product or service for their users. Laura Hilliger is project managing and is doing a great job in getting everything organised.

It’s Week 1 for that project next week, so from mid-February until the end of March, I’ll be working almost entirely on Catalyst-funded stuff.

In preparation for that, I’ve been tying up most of my work with Outlandish this week. I led a retro on the productisation work I did with them primarily from September to December last year, and am stepping back from the week-to-week work around Building OUT. I will, however, still be part of their monthly strategy sessions around the latter.

The only other bit of work I’ve been doing this week is planning the Getting Started with Digital Badges workshop I’m running for Waterford Institute of Technology, funded by the Irish National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. It’s been a couple of years since I ran a badges workshop, so it’s a good chance to revisit existing resources and materials.

While I didn’t write anything here this week, over at Thought Shrapnel I published two link-based posts with a tiny bit of commentary:

Next week, then, is the badges workshop, Catalyst projects, and a co-op half-day. Laura and I will also hopefully finish recording the first episode of the podcast we’re working on.

Photo of the stepping stones in Morpeth, England, where I live. The amount of rain this week has meant that the River Wansbeck is close to flooding.

Weeknote 01/2021

Whew. As someone, somewhere pointed out this week, we know doomscrolling is bad for us, but the doom has been top-notch recently, hasn’t it?

Welcome to 2021.

People standing behind a wall, tentatively pushing open a door marked '2021' using a large stick.

I’m back, well-rested, with plenty of energy and optimism for the new year. Taking three weeks off work at the end of 2020 was magnificent. If I can, I’m going to do it every year. And it would seem that I’m going to need that reservoir of energy and optimism. All of it.

This week, like most people who still have jobs or some form of paid income, I’ve been returning to work. I took things easy on Monday and Tuesday and then, because there’s a million projects and the world is on fire, dialled that up for the rest of the week.

My areas of focus have been:

  • Getting set up with a Catalyst-funded project I’ll be project managing. It’s a collaboration between Dynamic Skillset and Bay Digital to help three charities with a ‘sector challenge’ to help remove barriers to remote claiming of Universal Credit.
  • Re-establishing convivial relations with my We Are Open colleagues. Thankfully, the members who were the cause of the tension I’ve mentioned in passing over the last few months, resigned.
  • Getting back up-to-speed with Outlandish projects and people. I participated in a workshop about the (bright!) future for SPACE4 and helped with a lightning talk about Building OUT.
  • Helping with We Are Open and Outlandish bids to Catalyst for some more funding to help with a ‘Definition’ phase for various cohorts of charities.
  • Ensuring that my wife and kids have everything they need for successful remote learning.

In terms of the last point, I’m back on Twitter and noticed so many parents struggling with their technical setup. So I created a Twitter thread to help give some tips to alleviate wifi drop-outs and other problems. I hope it proves handy for people, as it was a useful distraction for me after waking up at 05:15 on Saturday morning…

With all of that energy and optimism I’ve written a bunch of things. Here, I published:

…and over at Thought Shrapnel (🔗 = link posts)

Team Belshaw is fine, thanks for asking. We put our house on the market on 19th December which was only a few days before lockdown here in the UK. So, although we have had a couple of live viewings, we’ve created a video tour to share via our estate agent. It might seem mad to want to move during a pandemic, and our house is lovely, but life goes on.

I’m continuing to exercise, despite not being able to get to the gym and it being very slippy out due to the inconvenience that is winter. I’m running when I can, despite some (suspected) tendonitis. I’d forgotten how useful Twitter is for asking people about stuff like this: it appears I probably tie the laces on my running shoes too tightly! Over and above that I’ve been on the exercise bike and going for walks with the family.

I’m not going to comment here too much on the self-coup / insurrection / whatever you want to call it in the US on Wednesday. Next time, as I mentioned on Mastodon, ‘protesters’ will be well-armed and actually have a plan. This is a mere foreshadowing of future events in the US and elsewhere.

We can (and should) wring out hands about digital literacies, about political education and civics, but the elephant in the room here is the role that social networks have played in enabling fascism. It’s the right thing to do to kick Trump off major social networks, but it’s too little, too late. Deplatforming is important, but we need more than that to stem the rising tide of disinformation and radicalisation.

Anyway, next week, the Catalyst project I mentioned above gets started, and will take ~3 days/week for the next 11 weeks. So I need to prioritise the most impactful work I can do through We Are Open and Outlandish, and use all of that energy and optimism to good effect!

Weeknote 43/2020

Eroded cliff face (Cresswell, Northumberland,)

This has been a good week. Among other things both at work and outside it, the highlight perhaps came on Friday morning when I went for a run.

Picture the scene: I get my running gear on, head downstairs, pick up my phone and open the Spotify app. It notifies me there’s a new album out by Faithless. I stretch, and start my run just as the sun is beginning to rise.

As I run the bypass route around Morpeth, the sky changes from purple to pink to orange to yellow, while a magnificent sonic landscape emerges, and my endorphins surge. Perfect.

In parenting news this week, we confiscated my son’s smartphone for a week due to his consistent, albeit reasonably low-level, flouting of family rules. When he persisted a bit, I banned him from the PlayStation for the weekend as well.

The above isn’t usually something I’d share here, but I watched The Social Dilemma this week, and thought it was so good that I watched it with my son at the weekend. Although the whole thing is a warning about the dystopian mess we’ve got ourselves into, it was nevertheless gratifying to see my own position vindicated.

Not only have I retreated from mainstream social media, but I’ve also insisted that our children go nowhere near it either. Their screen time is limited, especially compared to other kids their age. I wasn’t surprised to learn via The Social Dilemma that the those involved in Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, etc. do likewise. I remember reading that Steve Jobs was particularly zealous in that regard.

I wrote a rare post on my blog about this after watching the film, which I entitled Notification literacy? Being very intentional and strict about notifications is, I think, the single most important thing you can do to improve your (and your children’s) relationship with their devices.

The funny thing is that, after a few days away from his phone, my son (as usual) finds other things to do, and is generally just a much nice teenager to be around. Funny, that.

On this blog I wrote:

Meanwhile, on Thought Shrapnel, I published:

On the work front, this was the final week collaborating with a cohort of nine charities as part of the Catalyst Discovery programme we’ve been funded to work with over the last month. It’s been great, and they’ve all really enjoyed it too, giving us fantastic feedback and all rating We Are Open Co-op as either a 9 or a 10 out of 10 in terms of an NPS score.

Other work has included a bit of work on a new Greenpeace project, mainly reading and suggesting ideas while Laura is away. She’s leading the project, but is currently away for a couple of weeks, sailing around the Mediterranean with her husband and scuba diving. Not that I’m in any way jealous.

The third bit of work I’ve been doing is to continue helping Outlandish with productisation and their new Building OUT programme. The sweet spot between the two is the playbook I’ve started helping them with, demonstrating how they add value to organisations by sharing the resources they use internally and with clients.

It’s half-term for our kids now, and we’ve booked a couple of nights away next weekend just over the border in Scotland. We’re on the verge of a Tier 3 lockdown in the North East of England due to the pandemic and numbers rising in certain areas. If those restrictions are introduced, we won’t be able to go, so fingers crossed!

If we do get to go, I’ll be taking Friday off, but either way I’ll be taking it a bit easier next week to hang out with my family and decompress after a reasonably-intense few weeks.

Image from the cliffs near Cresswell, Northumberland, where I took my laptop to work on Wednesday morning. There’s a lot of fossils around there!

Weeknote 35/2020

Road being resurfaced with lorry

I’ve spent this week looking forward to this Bank Holiday weekend. I’m not employed as such, so there’s no particular reason I have to take Monday off, but not only do I want to, I feel like I should. After all, public holidays were fought for by previous generations.

I spent the majority of Sunday afternoon with my neighbours at a pot luck on the back lane behind our terrace of houses. Thankfully, the sun came out after the wind and rain earlier in the week!

On the work front, we had the final deliverable meeting for the work we’ve been doing for Catalyst and the Social Mobility Commission. It’s a series of linked resources relating to charities taking their programmes online: a quality framework, benchmarking survey, and toolkit of resources.

For Outlandish, I’ve continued with the productisation work, thinking particularly about the product manager role in a co-operative, and about upcoming products and services around Sociocracy.

I had a chat with a couple of large tech companies this week about roles with them. One flat out told me I was over-qualified for the role I’d applied for, but it looks like we might get some consultancy through the co-op with them. The other is a work in progress.

I made the decision yesterday, after much deliberation, to delete my Patreon account. This means I’m no longer supporting a bunch of creators, and also means I’ve told the ~50 patrons of Thought Shrapnel that I’m taking it in a slightly different direction.

Other than that, I’ve been playing quite a bit of FIFA 20, going for a run and on our exercise bike, and hanging out with the family. One thing that’s had quite a big impact on my life over recent days is workmen re-doing the road surface right next to my home office. The noise!

Next week will be a four-day working week due to the Bank Holiday. I’ve got a couple of days lined up for Outlandish, and then will be applying for a couple of pots of funding and doing some business development. Let me know if you see anything Doug-shaped!

Image shows road being resurfaced next to my house.

Weeknote 34/2020

This week has been another good week. Let’s start with last night’s wild camping in Northumberland National Park: it was windy.

My son and I, after walking a couple of hours from where we parked the car, and carrying everything in our backs, got soaked through by the rain and wind coming at us down the valley.

Mercifully, it stopped raining when we got to the place we’d decided to pitch, but the wind continued to howl. In the end, we we erected the tent behind a cow barn and then moved it into place carefully, being very careful not to become a human kite.

The wind howled all night, but we’d brought our headphones and each put on different variations of ‘sleep’ music to get some rest. I decided to sit in the entrance of our tent from 05:30 to watch the sun rise, which was pretty magical.

After some slightly disappointing tea and toast, we packed up the tent and walked back to the car. On the way, we stopped to have a look at a memorial to the servicemen killed in the planes that came down over the Cheviots during the Second World War.

I like mini-adventures, especially given we were back home by 10:00 on Saturday, giving us most of the weekend to spend with the rest of the family!

On the work front, it was again split between the work I’m doing with Outlandish, and that which I’m involved with as part of a team for the Social Mobility Commission and Catalyst. The latter is wrapping up now and looking great now that we’ve applied the official style guide.

For Outlandish, I led a ‘Theory of Change’ session for the new Products circle. We used Miro, including for the video conferencing aspect, which worked well! I’m hoping to stick around beyond my initial engagement with them to the end of September, and indeed have drafted OKRs taking me to Christmas.

Our children were at athletics camp for three days this week, which is unremarkable in and of itself. What made a huge difference is that it was the first time since March that my wife and I have been in together by ourselves during the day. It was nice to be able to have lunch together and do the crossword as we used to.

Next week, I’m going to be writing a couple of bids for funding from Catalyst and the Ford Foundation. It’s the final week of the Social Mobility Commission work, and I’ll be continuing with my productisation activities at Outlandish.

It’s also the children’s last week before they start school a week on Wednesday. Due to the three-tier system in Northumberland, they’re both starting new schools, so I may work slightly less so I’m around for them.

Image of our tent in Northumberland National Park.

Weeknote 30/2020

I’ve written quite a bit this week as part of my #100DaysToOffload challenge:

Over and above what’s detailed in these posts, I’ve been splitting my time between working on projects for We Are Open and Outlandish this week. For the former, my ‘home’ co-op in the CoTech network, I’ve been mainly focusing on work for Catalyst and the Social Mobility Commission. We’re working with Erica Neve and Pedram Parasmand on three contracts, helping charities who are rapidly undergoing digital transformation. We had a really successful retrospective on Friday with UpRising, who we’ve been helping in more depth.

With Outlandish, I’m helping with some productisation of similar projects they’ve worked on for a range of clients. I find this really interesting as it’s simultaneously about meeting user needs and about organisational development. I’m also advising around ways in which they can develop the workshops they offer.

I’m fortunate to work with organisations which are so emotionally intelligent, and which go out of their way to be so. One of the reasons for working with Outlandish is to give them some short-term help with project management while they’re a bit stretched. But another reason is to learn from their processes and procedures; although they’ve only been a co-op for as long as us (four years), they’ve been together and honing things for a decade.

When I was at Jisc, one thing that always impressed me was their internal knowledgebase. They used PBworks for that, while Outlandish uses a WordPress installation with a theme called KnowAll. I’ve been wanting to experiment with wiki.js and so this week Laura Hilliger and I set up an instance at and copied over existing pages from our GitHub wiki. I’ve set user permissions so that only logged-in members can edit the wiki, and indeed see any pages that are ‘internal’ only.

We finally got sign-off from Greenpeace for one of the best things I think I’ve written for a while: HOWTO: Create an Architecture of Participation for your Open Source project. As Stephen Downes mentioned when mentioning it in OLDaily it’s perhaps applicable to wider contexts than just open source projects.

Other than that, I’ve just been reviewing a document Laura put together for some work we’re doing with Red Hat, doing a small amount of work for our ongoing work with Greenpeace, and contributing to a ‘playback’ of some recent work we did for Catalyst.

Next week, I’m tying up work for We Are Open on Monday, and for Outlandish on Tuesday, before turning everything off and going on a family holiday for 10 days. As my therapist said in our meeting on Friday, as I’m a bit of a perfectionist, there’s no guarantee that I will actually relax during my holiday just because I’m away from home. So I’m actively trying to cut myself some slack. I deliberately went for a slow run this morning and I even had an afternoon nap yesterday. Small steps.

Header image is a selfie I took on a family walk in the Northumbrian hills last Sunday. Inspired by Low-tech magazine’s solar powered website, I loosely followed this guide to create the ‘stippled’ effect. This reduced the size of an 8.6MB image to a mere 36.6KB.