Wigan Council ran an event today, for their self-appointed #digileaders to tell a whole load of other #digital people what #digital means, and how to win awards for being #digital.

I couldn’t make #DestinationDigital. It was being held on a Friday and I had to work. Yes, I work in tech, so probably I come under the banner of #digital somewhere, although I have no idea what they mean by it. And apparently, neither do they.

I write this from Leigh Hackspace, one of the few Hackerspaces in the whole country that is in a small town as opposed to a big town or city. I started it, along with some friends, about 2 years ago, with £10 in a PayPal account. We built it, through membership subscriptions and manual labour, into a thriving Hackspace, one of the most active in the North West (MadLab probably get 1st prize there), and a great place to be. I work from there most days.

But that’s not the problem. This is the problem:

Tomorrow my council are running another event, a ‘Community Digital Day’. It’s another hashtag-fest, with a few people being encouraged to go online (all good) and some people being shown coding for half an hour. There will be, I’m told, a circus of people who wear LEDs. #digital indeed.

Trouble is — we’re running an event tomorrow too. It’s a low cost Arduino Workshop. It’s really real digital and it’s happening in our town. We teach people of any age and ability how to set up and make things with an Arduino Nano microcontroller. It takes a full day to get them up and running, and to really get into it. They learn basic ‘breadboard’ electronics, some C++ programming, and more importantly they learn transferable tech skills — like how to solve problems, how to debug, and how to share the things they’ve learned. We don’t need a hashtag for it. We don’t want grant funding for it. But we did hope that the council wouldn’t try to undermine it.

The council didn’t want us to do our Arduino Workshop, instead they wanted us to do something at the Community Digital Day, for free, and with minimal notice. (I checked, and the Circus were — quite rightly — being paid).

But the whole reason we have a Hackspace is so we can do tech in our familiar, well-set-up environment, with all our equipment around us — power supplies, spare components, computers etc — and doing the same tech in the local Library won’t work quite so well. (or at least it wouldn’t deliver as good an experience for attendees). Doing Arduino as part of a ‘Digital Day’ also fosters a ‘drop-in’ ‘digital-buffet’ feel which means people don’t get to learn enough to be able take their learning further. It makes for photo opportunities and half-hour #digitalkids experiences, but doesn’t make the Borough one iota more digitally capable than it was before.

We hoped Wigan Council would show their support for real digital by buying tickets to our event (at the normal Eventbrite price — we don’t do public sector special exploitative pricing schemes) and sending some keen people from the Community Digital Day 500yds up the road to Leigh Hackspace.

Their answer: It would be too disruptive of their important and completely superfluous #digital day to actually have people learn a useful, and real, digital skill.

So we have a problem, don’t we.

Wigan Council, which has espoused such an urgent need to grow the Borough’s digital capability, is actively harming its own grassroots digital communities . We’ve been experiencing this problem for nearly the whole time Leigh Hackspace has been ‘a thing’. And they’re getting worse. It’s got to the stage where I feel the only right thing to do is to start to talk more openly about it.

We’re not the only local group doing real tech that has been affected.

There is so much that needs to be done here to develop a real and thriving technology scene, and I fully believe it can happen, but we can’t make any progress while the real tech is ignored and all the money gets spent on ridiculous glossy events.

So here I am. #Dissenting, #digitally.

For the record, the ‘404’ image in the header is from Wigan Council’s own site, at the URL that comes up first in a Google Search of ‘Wigan Destination Digital’ — https://www.wigan.gov.uk/Council/Projects/Destination-Digital.aspx