Manchester: Let’s compete on liveability with London

Originally published as a Points North comment for Prolific North.

It’s time to realise that the north can’t compete with London. The sheer size of the place, the awesome edifices, the concentration of people and cultures – it’s an incredible place. No wonder thousands of people from across the country and the EU choose London as the place they want to go to live and work.

But there are a few of us who have moved the other way. After living almost my whole life in our capital city, I threw caution to the wind and moved to Manchester. Attracted by the lower cost of living and the imminent move of the BBC cementing its position as a media hub, it seemed a sensible move to “try out” for 18 months.

Six years later, I’m still here. Swapping my 45 minute car or Tube commute for a 10 minute walk (and now 15 minute cycle) was a revelation. I can live near the city centre for a fraction of what it costs to live anywhere that central in London. And when I need to head over to our York office every couple of weeks, the main train station is only a few minutes away.

Simply put, the north is already more liveable than London. So why isn’t this the main differentiator that we compete on when attracting talented, motivated workers?

I believe that if a city really wants to step up to the plate of becoming the UK’s “second city” then it needs to do so on the basis of being much more liveable than our capital city, not just the second most crowded. In many cities across the north, we’re already half way there: as Guy Garvey says of Manchester, “they return the love round here, don’t they?”. So we’ve got friendly, helpful people. But we need to do more than share northern charm.

One of the elements that I believe can massively improve liveability is to reduce congestion in cities. We can all agree that congestion is a bad thing – it’s wasted time and it’s wasted money. So why do we accept congestion as a fact of life? We say that it’s because of “traffic”.

There’s one flaw in this: if you’re in the middle of congestion, then you are traffic. And a congested city is not a liveable city.

This is why I’m passionate about the effect that walking and cycling can have on improving liveability in cities. But to do that, we need accept that private cars shouldn’t rule our lives and our political decision-making.

Trust me, I’m not some car-hating fundamentalist – I drive when I need to and I think that they absolutely have a vital role to play – but it shouldn’t be a default. I’m actually pretty ordinary: the fact is 45% of households in Manchester don’t have access to a car or a van. Yet Manchester is one of the most congested cities in Europe.

Political leaders across the north need to wake-up to this. Putting real money behind long-term, sustainable plans to shift people away from cars and onto bikes or walking will pay off in the long run. It will reduce congestion and increase the liveability of our cities. That in turn will attract talented, motivated workers who want to enjoy where they live and work – not just tolerate it for a decent wage. Just look at the examples of Copenhagen and Amsterdam – two successful cities, similar in size to Manchester or Leeds that are ranked extremely highly on liveability . Both feature a total modal share for cycling at around 40%; according to TfGM, just 2.1% of people in Manchester cycle to work (though amazingly, this outstrips the 1.3% that use Metrolink!).

So in conclusion: if we want to make our northern cities more competitive with London, and attract talented, motivated workers, not just wage slaves then we should build on our lower cost of living to make them even more liveable. One way of doing that? Well, it’s as easy as riding a bike.

App of the (last) week: Disk Inventory X

Originally published on the Melbourne blog.

In the era of “the cloud”, it seems odd perhaps to be concerned about how much free disk space your computer has left. But there are still plenty of reasons why you might run out of disk space. In my case, my Mac laptop has a relatively small solid-state drive (SSD) and I’m one of those annoying people that decides he wants to use both Mac OS X and Windows, via Boot Camp.

So where the hell has all my disk space gone? It’s not just the fact I’ve donated 20 GB to Windows. My Documents folder is only a few gig, as I save the majority of my work related content to a office cloud server.  And my Applications folder isn’t big enough to justify the lack of space.

Enter my app of the week: Disk Inventory X.

This invaluable – free – app scans your hard drive and shows your usage in the form of a treemap. Essentially, a quick visual way of showing which files and file types are consuming space on a drive. You can home in on problem files just by hovering over them, or get an idea of whether you need to move your photo library somewhere else.

Disk Inventory X treemapAs you can see above, I’ve got a big file taking up quite a large amount of space – though clicking on it shows it’s actually my Mac’s sleep image. The last time I ran this, it showed me a large archive of old emails that I didn’t need anymore too.

Disk Inventory X works on Mac and Windows partitions, though it’s a Mac-only app, so it is helpful if you’re trying to diagnose disk issues on a Boot Camp partitions. However, there’s the similar WinDirStat if you’re a full-time Windows user.

Think it’s useful? Download Disk Inventory X here.

App of (last) week: GIF Finder

Originally published on the Melbourne blog.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then an animated GIF almost certainly livens up a 140 character tweet.

So when your only response to a tweet or awkward moment is to issue an animated GIF, the time it takes to search Google Images, memegenerator or Tumblr can suck the fun out of it.

Enter GIF Finder. This brilliantly simple and free iPhone app offers “All the fun of gifs, none of the hassle of finding them.”

There’s not really much to how GIF Finder works, which is refreshing given the endless bells and whistles you find in most free apps. Just search for the GIF you want, pick from those returned and then share to wherever you want it to go.

GIF Finder uses Tumblr as its source for GIFs, so there’s usually something that hits the spot. And conveniently, it’ll share to clipboard as well as Twitter, Facebook etc so you’re not required to use the built-in iOS sharing.

gif-finder-1 gif-finder-2 gif-finder-3

GIF Finder is a simple concept, well executed and fills a surprising niche. It’s free on the iOS App Store, but there’s no Android version yet which I suspect might go down well with ‘droid-toting teens.

Download GIF Finder now.

How should I choose the right cloud provider for my business?

Originally published for Insider Magazine’s Ask the Expert

Q: How should I choose the right cloud provider for my business?

In 2014, talking about “the cloud” seems almost boring. The marketplace is saturated with many similar types of cloud technology all promising to keep your business-critical data safe and cut costs.

The truth is that the cloud is an old concept. All the cloud really refers to is the efficient and resilient sharing of vast, pooled computer resources. This means businesses can buy into the right level of capacity and resilience that they need, without investing in expensive hardware.

So in a market awash with providers, how do you pick the right one for your business?

Think of it like this: you need to buy a cake for an extremely special occasion. You can’t bake so your options are to go to a supermarket or to go to your local bakery/cake shop.

A supermarket is a reliable place to buy cake off-the-shelf, in different basic forms. You’ll probably get something that you like if you shop around enough. They’ll even let you customise it – say by adding a personal message.

On the other hand, your local cake decorator or baker is going to work hard show off their reputation for beautiful, bespoke cakes that’s been won over years with hard work. They might not have the ability to turn out the perfect cake immediately, but each one they produce will be exactly what the customer asked for. And with planning, a bigger order is rarely a problem.

The key difference between them is that while a supermarket can produce the same basic cakes over and over again, you rarely get outstanding customer service. A good local bakery will try hard to keep good staff and offer a friendly face when you pop in for your next order or even just a cuppa.

So in my opinion, what it boils down to is trust. Who do you trust to produce exactly the right cake for that special occasion?

And if you’re about to buy a slice of the cloud, who do you trust more to deliver the right solution for your business?

Is York poised to emerge as the UK’s next digital city?

Originally published in Prolific North in April for Bytemark

Known more for its history than digital creativity, York has spent the last decade quietly reinventing itself as a city ready for the super-connected digital future. Is York now positioned to be the UK’s next tech startup success story?

Having existed for almost two millennia, York is known better for its rich history than as a centre for digital creativity.

But beneath York’s cobbled streets lies more than just the bones of Viking villagers and Roman centurions. There’s something else: a high-speed fibre optic data network, offering gigabit speeds to homes and businesses.

And within York’s ancient city walls, the city is blanketed by free WiFi, thanks to discreetly installed antennas across the city. It’s also available on buses, in parks and public buildings.

Thanks to a share of £50 million from the Government’s Super-Connected City Programme, these major public investments by the City of York council have helped position York as a remarkably forward-thinking city. By providing digital infrastructure, just like electricity or running water, York has created an environment where digital businesses don’t have to struggle to start up.

James Alexander, Leader of City of York Council is adamant that digital infrastructure is the key to the city’s future success:

“We want to be a top 5 UK economy and to do so, we need the physical infrastructure to support that. Turning York into a ‘Gigabit City’ is hugely important for businesses, residents and visitors.”

But it’s not just connectivity and infrastructure. Beyond the narrow streets of the centre, there have been active developments outside the city walls that have promoted hi-tech industries. York is a founding National Science City and between 1998 and 2008, gained 80 new tech companies and 2,800 jobs. York Science Park and other business parks on the outskirts have provided room for these fast-growing firms to expand.

One growing York firm that’s taking advantage is Bytemark Hosting. Founded by Matthew Bloch and Peter Taphouse in 2002, Bytemark are a provider of dedicated and cloud hosting services. Today, they host thousands of domains including, the Cabinet Office and the Royal Institution.

Last year, Bytemark invested £1.2 million in building their first wholly-owned datacentre in York at the York Business Park just north of the city. Their expansion was helped by the availability of office space suitable for hi-tech firms and easy access to power. Matthew Bloch, Managing Director explained why this was an important step for the business:

“Bytemark has been in business for over ten years and in that time we’ve had to rent space in premium facilities in Manchester and London,” explains Matthew.

“Now we can put our money where our heart is, and invest in our home town. Being completely in control of our own infrastructure means we can confidently stand behind every single aspect of our service. This benefits our existing global customers, but especially those in Yorkshire who can come and see exactly what they’re getting.”

As Bytemark have grown, they’ve also benefited from the availability of highly-skilled local talent. The University of York has a world-leading computer science department with many graduates staying on to work in local businesses including Bytemark.

Pete Taphouse, Operations Director says “it’s helped support our growth”:

“In the last 12 months we’ve grown staff numbers by 30 per cent. I’ve found it easy to fill roles locally which has helped keep recruitment costs down.”

Bytemark is just one of the many digital businesses growing and investing in the city. Revolution Software, creators of the hugely popular Broken Sword series that earned them over £60 million have seen new growth following investment in mobile platforms for they games. Isotoma, a creative technology consultancy, have also seen success with new clients including Arcadia Group.

And now, a new initiative by two York web developers is looking to put York firmly on the map as a centre for digital creativity. “DotYork” is the first major digital conference to be held in the City of York and will bring some of the UK’s top speakers in web design to the region. Rick Chadwick and Jonic Lindley are two freelance developers who intend to bring the city’s digital community together for a “day of inspiration” at the DotYork conference on 1 May.

“York is well known for its history, but it’s not exactly known for its digital industry,” says Rick. “We set up DotYork to try to change that.

“The conference is just the start of what we have planned.”

Whilst at first glance, York retains its history, scratching beneath the surface reveals more than just old bones. The digital infrastructure is in the ground. The location is right with space for growth. And the community is growing, aided by local talent.

All these things are strong indicators that York is a strong contender to be the UK’s next digital success story. If so, it would be a fitting new chapter for one of Britain’s most ancient settlements.

Developers: stop re-AOLizing the web!

No AOLI recently succumbed to the hype and downloaded Mailbox, a mobile email client that tries to help you manage your overflowing email inbox and achieve the mythical “inbox zero”.

Mailbox does this by encouraging you to immediately archive, trash or schedule the email for a re-read or response using a swipe interface. It’s pretty good, actually, and I’ve found myself with fewer new emails just sitting in my inbox waiting for me to do something with them. My older email archive is another matter.

There’s one major flaw however.

By using Mailbox, I’m effectively helping to re-AOLize the web. You see, Mailbox only supports two email providers: Gmail and Apple iCloud.

I find it incredible that an app developer working on an open, well-documented and well-understood platform like email has effectively closed down access to their product to users who are on just a couple of providers.

Don’t get me wrong: I know the problems are difficult, especially as open platforms beget a multitude of implementations.

But by choosing to lock yourself into the Google API, when there is another, really open way to do things, feels like a mistake to me. If Mailbox supported any standardised IMAP provider, they’d no doubt have access to a much wider user base who would use their app across multiple providers.

And they might even be able to charge for the app and make an income – rather than selling themselves to Dropbox to survive.

It doesn’t help that locking me even more to the Google ecosystem and all the threats to my privacy and freedom that brings with it. Dropbox is another cloud company with a questionable approach to customer’s privacy and freedom.

Google (and to a lesser extent) Apple, Facebook and Twitter, have little interest in allowing their products to inter-operate in a meaningful way. Let’s remember that this is exactly how much of the consumer internet worked in the late 80s and 90s: CompuServe only reluctantly added email to its internal messaging and AoL generally preferred to lock down users to its own walled-garden of content rather than having them access the web. Both these networks, once seen as pioneers are now effectively defunct.

When developers choose to lock-in to an ecosystem like Google, they also lock in users. And that’s when innovation dies: users’ choice is restricted, so they demand less (and alternatives don’t get developed). By using it myself, I’m helping depress demand for a good email client that works with multiple providers. That’s not a good thing because it means I’ll have less choice.

Despite email being an inherently tedious form of communication, it’s essential and here to stay. If developers want to play their part in improving email, then it’s not going to be by re-AOLizing the web and locking down to a single provider: it’s going to be by supporting open email platforms that enable a wide range of people to use your product.

As it stands, Mailbox has been a useful so far. But I know my own time with it is limited, as I continue to transition away from closed source, anti-privacy services like Gmail to self-hosted, free and open source alternatives.

And that will be a loss for the Mailbox developers.

The Best Bike Route Planning Startup You’ve Never Heard Of – 30 Days of Biking: Day 29

Following yesterday’s blog post about the brilliance of OpenCycleMap and the Wikipedia-like service that it’s built on, OpenStreetMap, I’ve been thinking: wouldn’t it be useful to be able to plan a complete bike-friendly journey, complete with turn-by-turn directions and maps? 

That’s where journey planning startup CycleStreets comes in.

CycleStreets is not-for-profit cycle journey planner for the United Kingdom. Founded in 2009 as an outgrowth of a Cambridge bike journey planning tool, CycleStreets uses the power of OpenStreetMap and other open data to generate sensible cycling routes from and to virtually any point in the UK.

Even though it’s described as “beta”, I’ve found CycleStreets’ journey planning to be far superior to that provided by Google Maps. Their secret sauce is their mapping engine which properly uses bike routes marked on OpenStreetMap and accounts for factors like slowdowns on  hills, traffic lights and other crossings.

CycleStreets offers a desktop site, mobile site and mobile apps for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry (all open source).

CycleStreets screenshot

Try this journey from Chorlton to MediaCityUK – perfect for the new BBC commuter. Each route conveniently gets its own URL that can be shared easily and in addition to the map view, there are turn-by-turn directions below. 

CycleStreets offers a choice of route suggestions: fastest, balanced and quietest, each catering for a different type of rider, and also offers timings based on your average speed (I choose “Unhurried!”). Usefully, there is a ‘quietness meter’ which gives an indication of how quiet/busy the roads will be, based on their size and also an elevation profile so that you can see at a glance if there are any big hills!

That particular route isn’t the most complicated, as there’s designated bike route for most of the way (NCN 55). The difference between the three options is that the fastest route briefly follows a dual carriageway, then offers a slightly hairy right turn (!). Not for the faint-hearted, but you get my drift.

This exposes one of the major flaws with any automated mapping service – the lack of intelligence, but also giving you what you asked for – the fastest route, as calculated. CycleStreets, though, is designed for cyclists by cyclists so a lot of work has gone into making even the fastest routes reasonably sane so as to offer options to stronger riders. The default mapping style also emphasises the quality of the bike infrastructure installed (if any) so users can make an informed choice about the routes suggested. For more info, you can project the route onto other map layers like Ordnance Survey, Google Maps and its Satellite view.

The turn-by-turn instructions below the route also help inform riders of what they’ll experience along the way, including: surface conditions, whether cycling is legally permitted (as you could be routed over a footpath if that’s the best way) or things to watch out for like bollards and level crossings. All of this is based on data submitted to OpenStreetMap.

Conveniently, there’s a link to Google Streetview at each stage but where possible, there’s also a link to CycleStreets’ user-generated Photomap. This means you can see photos of potential pinch points or areas of concern that are bike-only and where Google’s Streetview cars simply can’t reach.

As an example, I added a photo of the Latchford Locks on the Manchester Ship Canal from last week’s bike ride to Liverpool. The map suggests the locks can be crossed – and they can – but adding a photo and some detail can help riders choose a route that suits them. I, for one, would not cross those giant locks at night!

For such a young organisation, it’s a shame that Google stole a bit of their mojo by adding cycle maps in 2012. Still, CycleStreets happily acknowledge that putting cycle route planning into Google is likely to help more people get on their bikes for short journeys. This is a good thing for making cycling sexy… or at least, normal.

Unlike Google though, CycleStreets is free and does not show advertising. However, they’d love a donation, or maybe you know a local authority or organisation that wants to promote alternative travel options? CycleStreets will also happily build a custom mapper or perform a site integration for a sensible fee. Developers are also welcome – check their API and code on GitHub.

CycleStreets is an invaluable, free resource that harnesses the data freely available and volunteered by the public, as well as open data sources, to suggest reasonably sensible bike routes.

Discover new bike routes in your area and try CycleStreets now.

Breakfast – 30 Days of Biking: Day 5

A really short post from me as it's been an action-packed day. This morning, in search of breakfast, we dropped into London's famous bike cafe: Look Mum No Hands!

It's a brilliant place – part bike workshop, part cafe-bar where bike bits hang side-by-side with bags of coffee and boxes of bananas. It was busy of course on a weekend, but served up breakfast til 1 pm – ideal for assuaging a hangover.

It's a place that you pop into, find a table then order at the bar. We were warned our veggie breakfast and orange juice might take some time, and they did. Still, this gave us a chance to absorb the array of bikes hanging from the ceiling and also the Look Mum branded puncture repair kits, which were just some of the memorabilia available. I resisted buying a pack of pants.

The veggie breakfast was okay. Sourdough toast was a nice touch as were the almost endless sea of scrambled eggs. Unfortunately, the onion and black pepper sausages were pretty tough and overdone and I wasn't quite sure what to make of the spinach leaves. The coffee was pretty good though, coming from the Square Mile roasters.

I did love the vibe and atmosphere. Old Street is particularly busy for passing cyclists it seems, despite lack of dedicated infrastructure, so it benefits from a regular stream of drop-ins kitted out in everything from ordinary street clothes to full Lycra bodysuits. The breakfast just felt a bit below average for what we could've got elsewhere.

To be fair, the friendly staff did warn us that it was busy and I'm sure I will go back on a future occasion. I'll also be reviewing Manchester's own answer to bike cafés: Popup Bikes.

Takk Manchester review – 30 Days of Biking: Day 4

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m off in London for a couple of days so posting new content and riding is a bit more difficult. Still, I’ll try and do my best. No riding today, but here’s something I wrote earlier as part of a series featuring bike-friendly businesses in Manchester.

Earlier this week, I met a colleague at Takk, one of the (relatively) new cafes on Tariff Street at the edge of the northern quarter.

Takk is an Icelandic themed cafe occupying a space in what I think was formerly a fashion warehouse or outlet. It prides itself on the fantastic selection of coffee on offer, including: espresso-based drinks; good filter coffee and also Aeropress. They also offer cakes, some pastries (which are gone by 10 am) and freshly-made sandwiches at lunchtime, made on bread baked down the road at Barbakan.

I’ve been into Takk a few different times during the day. It’s a great place to grab a cup of coffee and do a bit of work, or just meet people who might be stopping by: think of a common room, particularly for creative and digital types, which explains the number of Mac users. Takk happily caters for them: there’s decent wifi, ample power sockets located around the room and the mix of individual and communal tables is ideal for having some quiet thinking time or getting a group together to flesh out some ideas.

They also do a stunning Brie, apple and jelly sandwich.

Takk is notably bike-friendly: whenever I’ve been in, there have been a few bikes stacked up nearly beside the coffee counter. It’s a warm welcome to riders, if ever there was one. It helps that many of the staff cycle into work too. Unfortunately, there’s no official bike parking outside and a neighbouring local grinch business wasn’t too happy with cyclists locking up against their railings opposite. Takk gracefully responded by inviting anyone who cycled there to bring their bike indoors.

This isn’t a problem unique to Takk: Tariff Street is one of these new bits of Manchester that has yet to benefit from bike parking. Hopefully, we’ll see bike racks appear nearby very soon. It’s something that I raised at the nascent NQ Forum.

I’m looking forward to returning to Takk soon. I still think about that sandwich. But if you can’t be a regular, they do offer roasted coffee ready to take away so you can try and recreate it at home. Just make sure you have an array of Mac laptops to complete the experience.

Takk Manchester, @takkmcr, 6 Tariff St M1 2FF

9-6 every day (I think!)

What does a ‘network attack’ look like?

Today, the popular content delivery network Akamai is reporting that ‘network attacks’ are 95%+ above ‘normal’.

Screengrab from Akamai’s ‘real-time web monitor’

It’s hard to get a feel for what data Akamai are using here or what the baseline is, but it caught my attention because of some attacks against our own network that we saw over the weekend.

It also got me thinking: ‘what does a network attack actually look like?’ for a hosting company.

To answer that, I suppose I need to explain what I mean by a ‘network attack’.

A network attack can come in many forms, but the most common type that we experience is a DDoS – a distributed denial-of-service attack. This type of attack is intended to disable access to a server or network by overloading it with network requests. Almost any network or server is vulnerable to such attacks because its job is to respond to network requests, e.g. to display a web page or access other content be it public or private. Depending how powerful they are, servers (and multiple groups of servers in clusters) can handle hundreds, thousands or even millions of simultaneous requests. A DDoS attack harnesses hundreds or even thousands of compromised computers or servers connected to the Internet to overwhelm the target servers by sending thousands or millions of requests (hence the term ‘distributed’). The sheer weight of requests will often rapidly overwhelm a server’s ability to respond as it runs out of resources. Hence, servers and websites ‘go down’. (The Wikipedia article on DDoS attacks has more background).

It’s important to note that however properly a server is configured, it can still be vulnerable to DDoS attacks. A DDoS attack exploits the very basic function of a server – to answer network requests and serve up content. An attack also often happens with little warning. And because it passes through network hardware that is at the edge of our network (thus usually shared by some other customers), it can have a wider impact.

Bytemark NOC – not really

But let’s make one thing very clear. A network attack happens in real time. Unlike the popular media image of an ISP, we don’t have a NORAD style mission control centre to monitor attacks through the paradigm of global warfare. There are no progress bars, or red lines curving over a map to warn us of what’s about to happen.

What does happen is that the target server is no longer able to serve the content that it would normally be expected to serve. If the network attack is large enough, it can also begin to affect other sites on our network. This is clearly an unacceptable situation.

So what we need is a system that monitors client servers, detects when they’re not serving content normally and then alerts the right people in the most effective way to take action. That action being to “null route” all the traffic directed at the target server, i.e. configure our network infrastructure to redirect it to nowhere, meaning it’s dropped and ignored. We also need to contact the client and explain what’s happening, as well as let everyone else know through our forum.

Summing up, responding to network attacks (like a DDoS) is an important part of what we do as a responsible hosting provider. What they ‘look like’ isn’t particularly sexy (though I do now wish we had a WarGames style command centre). However, our visibility of network attacks is optimised for rapid and efficient response be it night or day.

In the light of recent attacks across the Internet, I hope this has shed some light on how we handle these challenging events.