Is Crowd Mics the answer to making events truly engaging?

Question

Such a familiar situation when you go to a conference:

Ever been part of an audience and wanted to participate in a live event?

Your options were limited: either raise your hand and project as far as your voice allows; or patiently await a wireless microphone to relay its way through the crowd.

Yep, that’s the picture I recall from every conference I’ve spoken at or attended in recent years.

So a BBC news item today got my attention with its report on a pretty neat-looking method of enabling real participation that I think would galvanize conferences and speaker engagement with those attending, aka the audience.

Imagine if there were a simple method of enabling anyone to ask a question or join in a conversation with an event speaker, a panel, etc, using their smartphone as a microphone. No special microphones, just an app on your own familiar phone that lets you speak.

Not only that, but also enable text messaging between participants and speaker. Easy instant polls as well.

A US-based company called Crowd Mics has done just that.

It’s simple to use:

  • Download Crowd Mics on an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch
  • Plug that device into the sound system with the headphone port
  • Attendees download the free app for iOS or Android
  • Everyone connects to the same WiFi network
  • Watch audience interaction get real!

Take a look:

Conferences  just got more engaging. I’ve yet to see an event in the UK so enabled, but it’s just a matter of time, I bet.

(Photo at top by Cvent via Flickr CC-NC-ND-SA.)

IBM delivers the experience at Wimbledon 2015

2015 Wimbledon - Henman Hill

The picture above is of a landmark that’s well known by fans of the Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament that is taking place in London right now.

It’s Henman Hill, the grassy mound smack in the middle of the Wimbledon venue, nicknamed thus for the now-retired British player Tim Henman. It’s packed with people – and usually more than than you see here – enjoying the live tennis on huge screens at the side of Number 1 Court to the right, just out of the view, or having a picnic in the glorious summer sunshine.

I took the picture when I was there last week, on June 30, the second day of the championships. I was there not so much to see the tennis, more to get to know about the technology behind the event that makes the tennis an enveloping experience combining the audio-visual live-action that you see and hear at Wimbledon itself; and on TV screens, computer monitors, tablets and smartphones wherever you are in the world with a network connection, along with data-driven information that adds enrichment to your experience.

I was there to find out about that last bit – the data that adds the enrichment – thanks to an invitation from Andrew Grill, Global Managing Partner in IBM’s Social Consulting business. IBM is Wimbledon’s prime technology partner, a rather dry phrase that somewhat under-states the role IBM plays largely behind the scenes in enabling that enrichment I mentioned.

And so I arrived at Gate 5 to meet Andrew, suitably attired for the occasion.

It was a blisteringly hot day on Tuesday last week, with temperatures in the afternoon well in excess of 33 degrees Celsius. The cool air-conditioned and climate-controlled interior of the IBM Bunker, the first port of call on our Wimbledon tour, was a most welcome respite from the heat and humidity outside.

Deep beneath the media centre building, the IBM Bunker is the central hub of IBM’s data services for Wimbledon. Our bunker guide was Sam Seddon, IBM’s Wimbledon Client and Programme Executive. In plain English, he’s the man responsible for managing the end-to-end delivery of the technical solutions that IBM provides to The Championships.

One end of those technical solutions is the rack of servers that funnel data to the screens of a dozen or more IBM engineers in the bunker who are the sharp end, so to speak, of analysing and extracting insights from the huge amounts of data generated from the activities across the 19 courts of the Wimbledon complex, to be used by the match commentators, the TV broadcasters and internet video feeds, on the Wimbledon.com website – built and maintained by IBM – and to the apps people install on their mobile devices.

From here, data is also provided to the media in the media centre that helps them build their commentaries and stories. There is so much data, says Sam, that IBM has people in every court who are able to help presenters and reporters construct their stories and reporting through helping them understand what the data can tell them.

2015 Wimbledon - IBM Bunker

Data analytics is a key part of what IBM does here – and an aspect I was keen to know more about – along with social media analysis and reporting. The picture above shows two of the team of engineers who pay attention to what’s happening across the web.

Note in particular the monitor with screen in purple/white at top left, displaying some metrics about website visitors the day before my visit. 2,365,398 total unique visitors to Wimbledon.com on June 29, it says. Project that out across the two weeks of these championships, and you’ll get a number probably far north of 30 million.

Sam told us that data from Wimbledon’s 19 courts comes into this room. That includes data created from tennis experts and others stationed at each court who capture datapoints like the speed of each player’s serve which they input into the system as quickly as possible. The target is to be 100% accurate, says Sam, as well as quick. Last year about 3.2 million datapoints were captured, he says.

With at least two people per court, three on the smaller ones, that’s well over 40 people who are capturing every movement of every player and entering that data into the IBM system for analysis and insight-creation, which is where the TV commentators, etc, I mentioned get the real value.

Data is the raw material: it’s the insights gleaned from analysis of that raw material that really matter.

2015 Wimbledon - IBM Bunker

Website security is paramount: the above shows part of the security team of engineers who keep an eye on the IBM cloud servers around the world to ensure “digital Wimbledon” stays up 24/7.

One of the amazing things about the IBM Bunker is that it exists only for the fortnight of the Wimbledon Championships. All that tech, all that engineering skill, all that talent, it comes together in Wimbledon each year for less than two weeks.

Yet it’s part and parcel of what IBM delivers to its primary customer, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club which owns Wimbledon, and in turn the broadcasters and others who produce the content that you see (and interact with) on your TV, computer, mobile device, etc. Not only that, IBM also provides the players with data insights on their quality of play and more that enable them to analyse their performance in every match. That must be exceptionally useful and valuable to them.

And I heard about and saw a great deal of IBM Watson, what IBM describes as “a cognitive system that enables a new partnership between people and computers that enhances, scales and accelerates human expertise.” I think of it as a sort of a digital Mechanical Turk that answers questions when you type them in.

That’s not to make fun of it. On the contrary, this is sophisticated technology that does some simple-looking things quickly, and learns more every time you ask it a question. You can ask relatively simple tennis-related questions – eg, “when is Andy Murray’s next match?” – and get an answer pretty quickly. Sam told me that the plan is to develop Watson so that TV commentators and others can ask it anything related to what they’re talking about at that moment, to dig up myriad facts, with relevant context.

Smart stuff.

We continued our tour with a conversation with some of IBM’s social media team, which opened my eyes (ears) to the importance and measurable value of the strategic use of social media where data analysis leading to valuable insights is paramount. It also demonstrated clearly to me that if you are to deploy social media in your business, you really must have the right skilled and talented people who can measure it and interpret outcomes – the missing link I see too often in some companies large and small.

During our bunker tour – and, indeed, for much of our overall time at Wimbledon – my host Andrew Grill video-recorded just about everything. So coming soon on this blog will be some additional posts with further narrative from me plus embedded videos that will give you the detail of Sam Seddon’s commentary with some fascinating insights into the detail of data analytics and social media analysis at Wimbledon, as well as additional commentary from other IBM experts.

In fact, here’s Andrew on the roof of the media centre with that camcorder!

2015 Wimbledon - Andrew Grill

It was a tremendous afternoon and I thank Andrew and Sam especially.

And we did get to actually see something of the tennis, in case you were wondering about the ticket I had clutched in my hand when arriving at the venue (as shown in Andrew’s tweet, above). Not seated in any of the courts, you understand, more peeking over the shoulders of IBM’s tennis experts during their datapoint captures.

A bit like this bird’s eye view from the box on Court Number 1 which we got to just as the match between Rafael Nadal and Thomaz Bellucci ended. (Nadal won.)

2015 Wimbledon - Court No 1 bird's eye view

For different perspectives on IBM’s Wimbledon tech, here are some very good mainstream media reports on this year’s Wimbledon:

And look out for more content here with those videos I mentioned. Subscribe to the RSS feed so you’ll get those posts automatically.

All the pictures I took at Wimbledon are in an album on Flickr. All shot on a Samsung Galaxy S4. Pretty good camera on that device.

7/7 perspective 10 years on

7/7: how the day unfolded

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the July 7 terrorist bombings in London in 2005, known as 7/7.

On the morning of Thursday, 7 July 2005, four Islamist men detonated four bombs – three in quick succession aboard London Underground trains across the city and, later, a fourth on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. As well as the four bombers, 52 civilians were killed and over 700 more were injured in the attacks, the United Kingdom’s worst terrorist incident since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing as well as the country’s first ever suicide attack.

I was in London that day and caught up in a very minor way with the unfolding  events as I tried to get to Heathrow airport for a flight back to Amsterdam where I lived at the time. I recorded some thoughts about my experience on the train to the airport on the afternoon of that day. While my experience bears no relation at all to the horrors of the bombings and the people killed and injured, I think this 10-minute commentary contributes one individual perspective to the overall picture of what we call 7/7.

I wrote this in a blog post when I eventually arrived home that evening:

I’ve been in London over the past two days. Caught up in the chaos at Paddington station this lunchtime which, as I arrived there to catch the Heathrow Express, was evacuated because of a bomb threat. Police everywhere and hundreds of people rushing out of the station. But the massive inconvenience today resulting from my being indirectly caught up in the effects of the terrorist outrages pales into complete insignificance compared to the direct and awful effects of those outrages with more than 35 people dead and over 700 injured.

Just to put things into proper perspective.

In memoriam.

[Addition, 10.15 am] Thinking about 7/7 after I published this post, I was suddenly reminded of another perspective I heard about last month – the role of communication during a tragedy such as 7/7 in a presentation made by Chris Webb, the Strategic Communication Lead for the emergency services on the ground, so to speak, on that fateful day.

Webb spoke at the FutureComms15 conference in London last month and took us through events on 7/7 from the communication perspective.

This was a time before Twitter existed and before Facebook had moved out of the American uni dorm rooms; it would be more than another year before YouTube was acquired by Google and began to really catch on. Social media in 2005 meant blogs, a  nascent form of media that was already getting increasing attention.

So in a crisis, a tragedy, like 7/7 there was mostly what we call today the mainstream media and all the processes and procedures that will be familiar to anyone who was a communication practitioner in the 90s and early 00s and knew about crisis communication.

How different such a landscape would be today with social media as a key part of the media mix.

Watch Chris Webb’s complete presentation in this video.

#FC15 Call to Action: Let the journey begin

The crowd at FutureComms15

One of the difficulties for an event that’s intended to look at the future of communication is delivering on the promise and expectation established in the description of and communication about the event.

FutureComms15 in London – hashtag #FC15 – that took place on June 18 was a one-day event organized by MyNewsDesk, and described thus:

PR & Comms are evolving. With content marketers taking centre stage in digital, is there a place for PR? Is PR actually dead? Do PR pros need to turn into content marketers? Or will content marketers slowly take on all PR duties?

Following last year’s acclaimed event, FutureComms15 delves into the PR/content divide to unveil the future of communications.

Ah, the “future of communications.” There’s an expectation that is almost impossible to meet unless you really are going to focus beyond the horizon and offer event-goers something that captures their imaginations, that galvanizes their thoughts into actions; something that’s different, that’s beyond what you typically hear at every comms-related event you go to these days that usually has the phrase “The future is digital” mentioned somewhere up front.

I was there, in the audience mostly but also with a stint chairing a 35-minute panel discussion on SEO and PR in the morning. More on that in a minute.

If there’s one thing I took away from #FC15 last week, it’s that it was pretty clear to me that everyone broadly knows what’s needed, and the part they need to play, to create a communication landscape that is close to what many wish to see in the not-too-distant future. They also know there’s no magic wand or bullet but instead quite a lot of work to do to create the landscape to enable organizational communication – whether that’s PR, employee communication, corporate, whatever – to be valued and valuable and to be effective.

This take-away reminds me of a point I make to communicators when speaking about the future of communication or, more fundamentally, what each of us needs to do as part of the journey to that future, best portrayed in this self-explanatory slide:

be

My point is that the future of communication requires each of us to play a role. While there will be paths and maps, the navigators are each of us. That route should start with asking the question “How To Be…” for each of the eight words in the slide above, ie, what is it that each of us must do?

The “How” should feature large in  any discussion about the future of communication where such discussion often (usually) includes credible and valuable opinions on  what needs to change in order to get to that future.

Usually missing, however, is “How.”

At #FC15 last week, I did hear quite a bit of foundational stuff in some significant areas that will make “how” a lot easier to answer. For instance:

Incidentally, Sarah and Stephen are, respectively, current and past presidents of the CIPR, the PR industry body in the UK. No coincidence that.

Circling back now to that morning panel discussion on SEO and PR that I chaired – and which Sarah Hall did a terrific write-up – the discussion was interesting even if we did spend a lot of our time explaining  what SEO is understood to be in the PR business (not the same as what it is) and considering its value in contemporary communication practice. But we did get to the “How” that produced some common views on what each of us needs to do to in order to create that future everyone looks towards.

And here are two simple but powerful calls to action from this SEO panel that apply broadly, not just to the topic:

Lukasz Zelezny got us well focused when he proposed that everyone should learn about something that isn’t within their usual areas of interest or expertise. In the context of SEO, that means things like reading publications that talk about SEO, attending conferences about SEO.

In other words, if you want to really understand the role of something like SEO that has evolved hugely from what the Wikipedia description says, you need to find out about it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And each of us has the power to do that.

Gem Griff made a key point about talking, noting that people in the tech industry constantly have informal get-togethers to share thinking, knowledge and expertise. These gathering are often known as hackathons. You don’t see those in PR really, do you?

Think again – Gem started #PRFuture Hack Day, an informal PR hackathon where anyone can talk about anything with anyone else in an informal setting, the kind of setting that encourages dialogue and connection. There seems to be appetite for PRs to collaborate, Gem says. Who knows where that might lead? (It sounds a lot like The Big Yak unconference that Rachel Miller and others organize for internal communicators.)

In fact, there’s a #PRFuture Hack Day planned for July 23 in London. Why not sign up and come along? That’s part of your “How.”

See, starting the journey to that ‘tomorrow place’ isn’t difficult.

The final word on #FC15 comes from Dan Slee.

Passion is a wonderful thing.

Fixing a polling system that’s out of sync

Latest Voting Intention

Reading the various reports, narratives and commentaries this weekend about the results of the UK general election that took place on May 7, the overall perspective I’ve formed on all of that is how could the expert commentators, opinion-formers and outcome-predictors have got it all so wrong?

The election result produced a clear win for the Conservatives with a slender majority in the House of Commons (12 seats), and the virtual annihilation of the primary opposition political parties – the leaders of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip have all quit – that confounded every single opinion poll in the months, weeks and days leading up to May 7, which had all predicted a hung Parliament as the best outcome anyone could expect.

So another coalition government looked a likely election outcome according to those polls – followed perhaps by another election in six months or so – and many column inches and pixels have been spent in offering what-if? scenarios of who might be able to form a government with whom, etc (the BBC’s interactive tool was especially good), much of it based on those opinion poll results.

About the only thing the pollsters did get right was the surging Scottish Nationalist Party which triumphed in Scotland in almost a clean sweep, winning 56 of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster.

Having been in America since May 3 with hardly a moment spare to look at the TV never mind online news, I had been shielded from any mainstream reporting and commentary back home in the run-up to election day last Thursday (our election was unquestionably not a big news item in the US mainstream media). What I did see, though, was plenty of comment and opinion on social media channels, notably Twitter, that presented a view of Labour being well ahead as the likely voting preference of a majority, and reinforced much of the mainstream feeling about a close-run election and a hung Parliament.

Socialist Media - Economist.com

And so I flew back to the UK on Thursday night US time arriving here on Friday morning UK time to the news that took me by surprise as much as it apparently did all those experts I mentioned – not a close-run thing at all but a pretty decisive Conservative victory, nothing like a hung Parliament, and a political landscape that no longer looked familiar with the downfall of the traditional political opposition.

With the nationalists rampant in Scotland and the Conservatives resurgent just about everywhere else outside the large urban centres in England, the former looks alarmingly like a one-party state with the latter arguably close to that territory. Indeed, it doesn’t look like a very United Kingdom at the moment.

But analysis on comment like that is for more knowledgeable subject-matter experts to ponder over.

What interests me mostly now is those opinion polls I mentioned earlier – how could they have got it so wrong?

You can choose from a great deal of opinion on that question, to which I add my two-pence-worth to suggest a combination of factors such as:

1. Reliance on an opinion-polling system that, largely, behaves the same as 50 years ago when few-to-many was the only communication model: the few controlled the news and methods of communication (the mainstream media companies); the many (the great British public) formed opinion based on what they read in the newspapers or heard on the radio (TV was still in its infancy) – their only reliable sources of news and information; and the pollsters formed their predictions based on what the public told them in answer to narrow questions where you read what the newspapers said to help you form opinions.

That’s totally not the picture today where the mainstream media is but one element in an immersive crowded information and communication landscape that enables anyone with an opinion and an internet connection to become a content-creator, news broadcaster and opinion-former.

Anyone with an opinion...

2. Lack of trust in, and engagement by, the political process and politicians themselves: let’s start with the Edelman Trust Barometer 2015 published in January that shows a continuing trend line for lack of trust in governments and politicians on a worldwide level, not only in the UK.

3. Public tiredness and disenchantment with politics in general and this election process in particular: so much partisan opinion and commentary – yes, I do call it propaganda – where it has been tough to filter signal from relentless noise and focus on what you think is credible and trustworthy to warrant your attention and your willingness to believe.

A case in point for me was the Leaders’ Debate on BBC’s Question Time programme on April 30. Debate? Hardly. Prepared sound-bite responses by each leader individually to questions from a carefully-controlled audience. The inauthenticity of it was breath-taking.

(Of course, I should point out that some analysts are saying that this TV event was instrumental in helping many voters decide who to vote for. If that’s true, then I’ll stick to my day job.)

4. The remoteness of much of it: so much stuff by people you don’t know, with hashtags on social media like #GE2015 that are tsunamis of opinions you don’t trust because much of it is so clearly partisan; and politicians who sound so patronising with their so-sincere-sounding and constant over-use of phrases like “hard-working families” and “working people” that you eventually tune it all out.

Some or all of this probably contributed to the huge number of “Don’t know” responses when people were asked by pollsters for their voting intentions – 25 percent of voters said they didn’t know who they’d vote for on the day, according to one report I saw.

That meant that the polling organizations, pundits and others were left to predict outcomes based on incomplete data from which to glean credible insights, along with that imperfect methodology for a contemporary society – are those the major factors that let it all be so wrong?

I read of one poll where the organizers predicted the actual election outcome with some clarity (and accuracy as it turned out) but who said they didn’t publish it for fear of being ridiculed: their poll was so totally different to all the others that were predicting a neck-and-neck close race, hung Parliament, etc.

And what was their methodology? Actually talking to voters: ringing them up on the phone and directly asking them relevant questions that they would want to answer.

YouGov’s Antony Wells summarized what he thought of the polling debacle:

[…] there is something genuinely wrong here. For several months before the election the polls were consistently showing Labour and Conservative roughly neck-and-neck. Individual polls exist that showed larger Conservative or Labour leads and some companies tended to show a small Labour lead or small Conservative lead, but no company consistently showed anything even approaching a seven point Conservative lead. The difference between the polls and the result was not just random sample error, something was wrong.

It’s worth taking a look at the 700+ comments to Well’s blog post.

So the current polling system used in this kind of significant national event has suffered a severe setback in how it is regarded from accuracy, trust and credibility perspectives. This has clearly rung a loud alarm bell as the British Polling Council, the trade body for the polling industry, has announced with some understatement that it’s setting up a public enquiry into what went wrong:

The final opinion polls before the election were clearly not as accurate as we would like, and the fact that all the pollsters underestimated the Conservative lead over Labour suggests that the methods that were used should be subject to careful, independent investigation.

The British Polling Council, supported by the Market Research Society, is therefore setting up an independent enquiry to look into the possible causes of this apparent bias, and to make recommendations for future polling.

The focus of the enquiry will be on polling methodology, according to the announcement.

Looking forward to learning what those recommendations are.

Social business, your intranet, and you: Collaborate/London

Collaborate/London

If you’d like to know how leading UK retailer The John Lewis Partnership planned, developed and implemented an intranet that employees actually like, and hear insights from those who made it happen, then mark Thursday April 16, 2015, in your calendar and register to be at Collaborate/London.

This morning event is from Igloo Software, the company behind the intranet that enhances internal collaboration, improves employee communication, and provides a central repository for assets and project deliverables. And that’s just the overview (here’s more).

I’ve partnered with Igloo to host this workshop, where my job will be to set the scene for what you’ll hear about John Lewis with an introductory session that explains why “Social business is here to stay”:

Humans have always been social, but businesses aren’t always ready for this level of interaction. Neville Hobson will be leading a workshop to shed light on what it means to have a true IT/business partnership, and how to build and reinforce your company culture.

The key part of the day’s event is what you’ll learn from and about the John Lewis experience:

Kimberly Thomson, of the John Lewis Partnership, will discuss the key drivers for seeking a new solution, and their milestones and measures of success. Karen Hobart of Contexxt, the consultancy engaged by John Lewis, will share her methodology, ideas for establishing a project plan, and tips for vendor evaluation.

In sum, you’ll have the chance to hear lessons learned by Igloo customers and thought leaders as well as best practices for planning, implementing, and maintaining a social intranet.

There’s no cost to attend Collaborate/London, but places are limited – sign up now to secure your place.

I hope you can join us for a morning of listening, learning and sharing. Igloo’s philosophy is encouraging:

Our events will be different.
We know how that sounds, but it’s the only way to put it.
Real people talking, information you can use, goals you can set.
Right now.

It will be a few hours of our time well spent. Note your diary:

  • Thursday April 16, 2015, 9:30am – 1:30pm.
  • St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, London NW1 (Google map).
  • Free to attend but places are limited – sign up now.

Collaborate/London is the second event in Igloo’s Collaborate series, the first of which took place in Los Angeles last month. Upcoming Collaborate events are planned for New York on May 14 and Chicago on June 9.

(Igloo Software is a sponsor of For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report, the business podcast I co-present each week with Shel Holtz. I am very pleased to be working on Collaborate/London with Igloo that builds out our existing relationship. Good people! You can try Igloo’s intranet for yourself – and it’s free for up to 10 people. Find out more.)