Sunday 25 November 2012

Oh, what a miserable morning ...

The above title is intended to be sung, humorously ...

Another wet, windy and having to dash out into the garden to rescue escaping items day.  On Thursday our newly emptied compost bin attempted to waddle, dalek-style across the fruit and herb garden, the adjacent tanning shop's sign (we live in a classy area!) smashed across the road into the neighbour's car and the drain pipe arrangement to our water butts collapsed.  Small things I know, but warning signs of what might happen if we didn't take precautionary measures quickly.  Unfortunately as I look out the window the compost bin seems to have taken off again, there's a scattering of assorted vegetable peelings and the bin itself is trying to climb over a nearby plant!  Stronger tethering measures required!

Meanwhile the OH and I are recovering from our marathon IT session on Friday night and the rushing around yesterday hosting a regional CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) meeting. 

CAMRA, being a volunteer organisation, relies upon members with IT skills to set up functionality that in any publically funded organisation or profit making business would be farmed out to consultants with the necessary skills and no doubt at a high cost.  This unfortunately results in projects that are labouriously set up by well meaning people in their spare time which do not always best serve the rest of the membership.  Some years ago the OH, who is quite IT literate for a mature time-served joiner employed by the local authority (I mean he's self taught, there being no requirement for Barnsley Council to let craftsmen even have access to email let alone keep them updated in the modern advances of technology) set up an online pub guide for the Barnsley Branch of CAMRA.  With some pointers from another member who still works in IT and a very fat php manual we managed to construct an  online guide which could be searched, contained photographs of the pubs and as part of the design included field names that followed the CAMRA national guidelines for data to be submitted to the then yet to be completed national pub database. 

Several years later and after many other branches had similarly constructed their own databases and guides the national one What Pub was launched.  It is currently visible only to CAMRA members and is slowly collecting information from the 211 branches across the country.  Don't get me wrong, I think this is an admirable idea, and definitely something CAMRA should be doing.  It will provide a central resource for keeping tabs on pub closures, changes of use, demolitions.  It will provided statistics on pub and club numbers, distribution across the country and highlight areas where tough campaigning is needed to save the last pub serving a community. 

A screen shot of the CAMRA What Pub guide front page
In no way, shape or form do I disagree with the principle of the national database.

However from a personal point of view, and after hearing the Yorkshire RD speak about it yesterday at the Regional meeting, I do worry that expecting our tiny groups of volunteers to keep doing more and more to support this and other intitiatives there will, eventually come a point where we have just had enough, run out of time, need our lives back and so on.

I hadn't been to a Regional Meeting in several years, not being the in the best of health. I'm afraid that travelling for hours to far flung parts of Yorkshire, surely the largest region in CAMRA, which stretches from Middlesborough to Sheffield, and Skipton to Hull, on public transport so that the OH can have a beer (an essential part of a CAMRA meeting you would think) is quite beyond me these days.  What I noticed straight away, as the members filed in, was that with very few exceptions they were the same old faces that I'd seen at these meetings for at least 15 years.  And later one comment really brought home what the problem was ... someone mentioned a letter in a recent edition of What's Brewing the CAMRA monthly newspaper which had asked older members to be more friendly towards younger members.  The meeting discussed this for a few minutes and comfortably concluded that none of the branches represented had any problems with young members (please bear in mind that for CAMRA young means 18-30 or even 35). 

BUT no one in that room was younger than 40 at a guess.  When the campaign started more than 40 years ago those members present yesterday were whippersnappers of 20 and 30 themselves. Why were none of the young members there to speak for themselves? Better things to do on a Saturday afternoon?  Face to face meetings are seen as irrelevant in a digital, social networking age? Or, plain speaking now, just off put by the idea of a dreary rambling gathering of elderly people that appears to achieve nothing? 

Back to the national pub database: The RD mentioned that four of the branches in Yorkshire had not as yet submitted any data to the project.  He noted that he had this in hand and that there was no cause for concern.  Having spent more than 7 hours on Friday stuggling to get Barnsley's information into the system I think that there is.  The header I have reproduced above states that 138 branches out of 211 have achieved amber or green status, that is have uploaded basic details for 80% of their real ale pubs.  Further investigation on the site showed 31% of the branches have achieved green status (so that's 65 branches out of 211) which means that they have uploaded full details for 50% of their real ale pubs.  Sorry to be a fuss pot - but 50% of solely real ale pubs for 31% of the country doesn't sound that impressive.  In order to provide the resource I described above it needs to contain all pubs, real ale and others, open and closed and it needs to be up to date in order to keep tabs on pub closures. Sadly I don't think the currently active volunteers have the skills and the time to do this.  There will be members out there amongst our 144,000 plus who would find it a doddle to upload and maintain this database, but sad to say they are probably amongst the younger ones who just don't feel welcomed or involved at branch level.

The OH and I are pretty good at home grown IT I like to think, I did spend 9 years shuffling digital student records for a living and can still manage a bit of SQL, HTML and PHP at a push (the latter with the manual on hand!).  The OH's web page is, in my opinion, wonderful (OK, he has a fondness for moving banner style ads which sometimes make the pages slow to load ...).  Even though Barnsley's own database was originally designed with field headings to suit the proposed national database we discovered several months ago that the upload we had sent when first asked was not being used as the field headings were incorrect.  It wasn't us, someone had moved the goal posts and renamed the required fields without informing us.  The OH told the database people that he couldn't rename his database fields without causing enormous amounts of work to rejig the Barnsley online database, so a helpful chap (AS) wrote us a php script that took our data, downloaded it renaming them to suit in the process.  Wonderful or so we thought.  Bear in mind that the OH also maintains the branch website, writes the branch newsletter, delivers 1000s of them himself, attends meetings, socials, runs beer festivals and on top of all that is a member of a national committee entailing weekends travelling to meeting even further away than Saltburn-by-the-Sea (at 100 miles away, our furthest Yorkshire Regional venue). 

Eventually he had a spare day - mainly due to being sent home from work AGAIN (long story).  So we sat down to do the upload.  The OH had prepared a spreadsheet of updated information, gathered during the preparation of the Barnsley Local Guide (originally due out this autumn, but now put back to March due to lack of supporting articles from other members, another symptom of the problems with volunteer participation).  The plan was to upload this information into the Barnsley database, use the script provided by AS to download it in the required format for uploading to the national database, upload to What Pub and tra laa! all done.  Hmm, not that simple. 

After a couple of hours of head scratching we worked out that the reason our uploads weren't feeding into the Barnsley online pub guide as they should have been was that the firm that provides our online database facility had migrated our database and we were still updating the old one which was no longer connected to the Barnsley online guide.  AS had somehow worked this out and his script WAS downloading from the new location, but we had to find it by trial and error.  We managed to upload the new information to the Barnsley online guide and then did the download with AS's script.  Then we opened What Pub and followed the instructions there for the upload.

Firstly we were directed to open yet another webpage with yet another data management system, the link worked to the header page, but the page after that was blank.  We tried it in FireFox instead of Internet Explorer, hooray now we could see it.  We uploaded the file and waited whilst it checked for errors - 50 records and then it stuck.  Errors in postcodes and phone numbers.  The OH was able to swiftly amend these using his phone (he had designed the Barnsley online guide to be updatable on the move by committee members so that there would be no excuse for not adding new information about pub opening times and available beers.)  We downloaded the file with the script again.  Uploaded it again.  Waited for the errors - 100 records loaded this time, more postcodes and phone numbers.  The OH wants to know where CAMRA got the sophisticated software that checks these things, it even spotted that a post code was 2km from the latitude and longitude input for the same pub.  Clever!

And again, corrected errors, downloaded data, uploaded data, sat with bated breath whilst it worked through, 100, 200, 300 and yay! it reached the end of the file successfully with just a long list of warnings that it had changed our Ys to Yes and Ns to No.  (Anyone out there from HE, it felt like a HESA return only much, much smaller!) Great stuff.  We went back to What Pub and searched for Barnsley ...

Showing the results of a search for Barnsley on 25th November 2012
Oh dear, the only Barnsley visible was the one in Gloucestershire!  Happily clicking the Branches link did take us to Barnsley, Yorkshire.  A grand total of 366 entries, but 12 of the entries are the dummies the OH uses to set up new pubs on his system so that leaves:-

354 entries for Barnsley Branch including:
  • 104 open real ale pubs/clubs
  • 118 closed pubs/clubs
  • 132 with no real ale
Unfortunately AS's script did not differentiate between pubs and clubs so all of Barnsley's entries had gone on the system as pubs - add that mending job to the list.  Photos have to be uploaded separately, as far as we could see one at a time, so that's going to take a while. 

The only Barnsley entry with a photograph so far...
So here's looking forward to the day when all the 211 branches manage to get to this point, and this great resource launches to the public.

Anyone want to hazard a guess how long it might take and how many pubs we'll have left when it is launched?


Chris Pampling said...

I hear what you say about younger CAMRA members not getting as involved as we did when we were their age. I blame Thatcher with her "no such thing as society" gibberish, which led to people only thinking about helping themselves.

But whatever, I'm sure people are willing to help out with other stuff, but don't know they can: they're just waiting to be asked. Today's volunteers want to help in different ways, they don't want to sit in rooms and debate the finer qualities of one pub versus another, nor do they necessarily want to spend months planning a beer festival. They might want to work at a festival, but don't know they can. It's up to us old timers to do more to reach out to them.

Maybe list the jobs that are required at a festival, i.e. produce a task list? Or in a branch?

CAMRA could benefit from becoming involved with the national volunteering organisations such as NCVO or NCVYS (the youth volunteering organisation), or Volunteering England. They would be able to gain ideas as to how to engage with potential volunteers, as well as give the benefit of our good practice in looking after volunteers once we have them. Just a thought, maybe not for you as such but for the Powers That Be.

BarnsleyHistorian said...

Some interesting ideas there Chris. I've seen too many younger members start off keen and then over time get disillusioned because their ideas aren't listened to, or they get stuck with the rubbishy jobs or just plain patronised by older members. Education on how to engage with potential volunteers ... yes, I like that.