SPANNER

is a busy little web company that sometimes grows but usually consists just of me, William Ross, and my long-suffering apprentices. I’ve been building web machinery for nearly 20 years, from neat little hand tools to orbiting institutional platforms. My clients include the Royal Society, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Scope, BT, the Islamic Development Bank, Defra and the BBC. The machinery has always been released under open source licences and you probably use bits of it every day.

Latest: We've just started work for DFKI, the German Institute for Artificial Intelligence, on the framework around their various experimental mobile apps. They've given us a lovely set of challenges: clean provisioning tools, responsive real-time visualisation and very high throughput. Lots of mongo! More details soon.
The Royal Society's annual Summer Science Exhibition is coming up and we've put together a tablet-forward redesign that people can carry around while they explore. As always it's an exercise in creative frugality, and here we’re mixing Tumblr, Disqus, a very basic internal CMS and a lot of CSS media queries to create a single interface that works everywhere from a visitor's phone to the TV on the wall. Try shrinking a browser window sideways to see the layout gradually cope.

For over 30 years the Croucher Foundation has been helping Hong Kong's brightest young scientists to study overseas, complete their PhDs and move into post-doctoral research. There are nearly 1000 Croucher scholars, some now very eminent, and we have been helping the Foundation to reunite them.

We have created a deceptively simple directory application that catalogues, links and maps the scholarship. It allows the Foundation to celebrate the accomplishments of its scholars, and it gives each scientist a prestigious personal page that will stay with them throughout their careers.

Administratively the Foundation is very small, so all of this relies on mobilising the scholars themselves. We've been doing that sort of thing for nearly 20 years, and we know how to make it work: sincerity, goodwill, rewarding tools, personal contact and a carefully staged launch.

This is just the start, but the snowball is rolling and the pages are filling with interesting, characterful, serious contributions. We are helping the foundation to build momentum and sustain the high quality, and we have been invited to bring the same polish to all their other online tools. Our next challenge is to build the world's first comprehensible grant application system.

Spanner put by far the most cable-geeky crew in the police control room for the 2011 Lord Mayor's Show. The Show's iPhone app is not just a useful tool for the visitor: it's part of the command and control structure of the Show and one of our main ways of guiding the crowd in case of an emergency. It's all just the beginning of a grand plan to augment the traditional Show with new layers of interaction, social networking and historical context, and at the end of the day Stephen Fry came to interview us about it all. We blushed and remained mostly silent while the TV cameras circled hungrily. He was very nice about it.

Spanner is joining the University of Passau and the LSE in the Socionical Project , building a mixture of web and iPhone tools to help in their study of the behaviour of crowds. When I say 'joining' I mean 'working for', of course, much as Lord March is joined by his gardeners, but it's a fascinating project with many interesting challenges. We are also very pleased to be retained by the Croucher Foundation in Hong Kong to help channel the work of their fellows and scholars.

Radiant, the smart little ruby CMS is just about to hit version 1.0 and I’ve just spent a month or so working with John Long and several talented radiant extension developers to pull together the world’s easiest and most obvious asset manager. Our fondest hope is that you will never notice that you’re using it.

A proposed Ulverston superstore is causing
much local dismay and unrest
and its proponents are
throwing a lot of expensive PR at the problem. Spanner has been getting back to its roots with a very easy and manouvreable site (built on radiant in three days) that the campaigners can use to marshal opposition. It’s deliberately not glossy but has very lively social media links including a petition that automatically tweets and makes facebook noises when signed.

Paul Kingsnorth is an author and poet and an old friend. He needs a site that will help him to show his work and sell his books, but his writing is usually about how blandly plastic everything has become. The whole idea of promoting it on facebook makes him squirm.

In place of the usual wordpress blog we have built between us a radiant site that combines wilful anachronism of appearance and tone with excellent cataloguing and some discreetly modern social media integration. Almost pictureless, it uses open source fonts, ancient printers’ ornaments and good old-fashioned typography to put the text in the foreground and let the quality speak for itself.

In late 2009 the Royal Society was building up to a hugely ambitious programme of 350th birthday celebrations. They would be national and local, on TV and radio, in museums and theatres and all over the news. All this was to be supported by a new website that had been in development for years, but it was late, broken and refusing to mend.

I was brought in as a project doctor, and as usual the problems were simple but too close and too large for people to see. I rearranged the team, moved responsibilities to the right places, cut away debris, brought in new roles, built up the project management and offended an awful lot of people. It worked: within a month we put the site on its feet, supplemented it with a fancy event calendar and set the whole project on an orderly course of bug-fixing, version control and steady improvement.

After the success of this field surgery I carried on working for the Society for most of 2010, first to redesign the site and then to devise new editorial structures and help the site’s content owners to channel their work better and enjoy it more.

I wrote my first multi-user content management system in 1995 for Amnesty International. It was a baroque contraption written in the new Perl 5 and soon in need of the also new mod_perl. I tended it like Flann O’Brien’s steam engine but it worked well and Amnesty must have been one of the first organisations in the country whose people could publish their own work directly online.

The resulting site won several awards and became the subject of a book put out by the NCVO to show what charities could do on the web.

I carried on improving it through many iterations of the same software until 2001, when I spent a year helping Amnesty to draw up a new web strategy and appoint the right staff to bring it in house.

Somewhere around 1997 we shared a DMA gold award with Leo Burnett for a pioneering and frankly rather horrible online marketing campaign in support of Amnesty’s campaign against torture. It was created in Director and made novel use of interactivity, multimedia and studio recording (of screams, mostly) to underline some simple messages about human rights and the feet on the stair. The ads were visited by over 100,000 people, which was a tremendous amount in those days.

That summer I also built a blood-spattered new site for Lynx, the anti-fur charity. Since this was the mid 90s I had to spend the whole winter snowboarding to recover.

The Horizon Scanning and Futures Unit is a small and very busy team with responsibility for all of Defra’s modelling of likely futures. They play an important role in setting the context for policy but like most futurists their work is widely misunderstood.

I was retained in 2006 to help the Unit in its transition from experimental curiosity to essential policy tool. They needed to present a coherent offering to the rest of the Department, and they knew there was no way to provide thinking service to such a large and diverse group. We had to teach people to incorporate futures studies and horizon-scanning data into their own work with the right mixture of imagination and rigour, and to help them make use of the peculiarly fractional insights it generates.

We used a long series of workshops and interviews to distil the Unit’s experience of futures work into a practical handbook that was equal parts support, reassurance and provocation. It was delivered wrapped in a wallchart that passed on pithy advice from other Defra people concerning every stage of a futures project, and which subsequently turned up on office walls as far away as the Government of New Zealand.

The handbook was a great success and we spent a large part of the next two years building a wiki system that would help Defra people to learn futures techniques, pool their findings and work within a shared set of scenarios and likelihoods. The wiki was popular and getting quite busy, and we were preparing to roll it out across Government, when it was buried by a series of spending freezes and budget cuts. It remains in suspended animation and we still hope to reawaken it.

In 2007, against stiff competition from specialist agencies, the London Development Agency appointed spanner and spark to create their Knowledge Transfer Programme. We were to investigate the state of relations between business and the museum sector and propose ways to create better links, but instead of a sensible economic analysis we had proposed a novel qualititative study that would gather experiences from the professional front line and fuse them into a summary of real obstacles and practices.

The project was fortunate in its very hard-working steering group but it was conducted on a shoestring and consisted mostly of provocation and careful curation. The gathered responses were fed into the qualitative research machinery we had developed for oral history work and from this mangle we produced a report in two strands: a sober account of their business needs and activities brought to life with earthy first-hand testimony. In 2008 every one of our pilot schemes was commissioned.

The Lord Mayor’s Show is Europe’s oldest celebration of democracy. It’s a cherished London tradition, the largest unrehearsed procession in the world and a massively complex event put together by nearly 7000 people.

I’ve been building and improving the Show’s web services ever since 1997, when the pageantmaster first approached spanner with the idea that it might be interesting to take his ancient Show onto the internet. What began as a simple information site has grown to become a central part of the organisation of the Show. It has active involvement from the City Corporation, the emergency services, the army and the City police, and since 2002 all of those people and groups have been linked through the Show’s highly secure discussion and document-sharing systems. In 2010 we added mobile and mapping services and in 2011 it will have its own iphone app. We are confident that this is the world’s most technologically advanced mediaeval procession.

Spanner Ltd
Cheesepress Barn, Scales, Cumbria LA12 0PF
Telephone 01229 206060, fax 01229 206061
Email spanner@spanner.org.
Registered in England number 3376238. Vat number 718 8011 38.