Choice Architecture; how to avoid being a ‘Meeting Lemming’

Beware Weasels! Obviously not a Lemming, but I saw this while cycling in Austria and had to use it.

Beware Weasels! Obviously not a Lemming, but I saw this while cycling in Austria and had to use it.

This post follows the one I wrote about meetings being a virus that use human hosts to reproduce.

Paul Taylor rightly questioned; ‘we know meetings are a problem, but why are we unable to do anything about them?’. Ultimately there’s something strange going on with meeting attendance; people cannot, or do not want to, change their behaviour. No matter how bad the meeting promises to be, no matter how much we recognise this; most of us still turn up to suffer.

The sort of behaviour you might expect from Meeting Lemmings*.

Why?…. Is it just too easy to make the wrong decisions and ‘jump’ with the rest of the Meeting Lemmings? Well this might help…. Choice Architecture. I’ve recently been learning about Behaviour Change Science (and Choice Architecture), with people from the Behaviour Change Unit at Bangor University, North Wales.

Old Wine in New Skins? Behaviour Change Science (sometimes called Nudge Theory) has probably been around for ages, just called other things. Anything that involves trying to get people to behave in a certain way, or do different things would probably count as ‘behaviour change’. If you think about why many people participate in certain religious practices (roots in ancient history), or how marketing and advertising influence the products we buy (also quite historic), there’s lots of ‘behaviour change science’ going on out there.

At the moment in the world of public services, there is a huge desire to try to move people away from dependency upon services, and towards greater self-reliance. With this objective in mind you can see the attractiveness of ‘behaviour change science’. You may also have spotted ‘nudge’ and ‘behaviour change’ popping up on your ‘Buzzword Bingo’ cards at meetings?

IMG_3406The idea has been popularised in books like ‘Nudge’ (Thaler & Sunstein) where the idea is that you ‘nudge’ people in the direction of making the ‘right’ choices – you definitely don’t force people (that would be bad, the sort of thing Dictators do).

This is all part of an idea called ‘liberal paternalism’ which you can read about in this helpful paper; Choice Architecture by Thaler, Sunstein and Balz.

Choice Architecture and Meeting Lemmings? In the spirit of sharing, here is some of what I learnt about behaviour change science in Bangor, and how I think some of it could be applied to meetings. In particular I’m thinking about Choice Architecture.

The basic idea is:

  • We have a number of choices we could make around meetings.
  • How these choices are presented is called the Choice Architecture.
  • The choices we make are influenced by the Choice Architecture we face.
  • By presenting ‘choices’ in a certain way, people will be ‘nudged’ to make better decisions.
  • Better decisions will lead to better outcomes (hurrah!).

For meetings, I’m assuming that better outcomes would be: no meetings in the first place, much shorted meetings or alternative (better) ways of holding a meeting. This isn’t perfect logic, but please bear with me.

Boiling the meeting choice architecture down into its essential components, I reckon you have 4 key areas where you can influence choice, the core of most meetings:

  1. Attractiveness – what attracts people to your meeting?
  2. Timing – finding the time for people to meet
  3. Venue – the physical space where they meet
  4. The Paper Trail – proving your meeting achieved something useful.

Making better Meeting Choices: Here are my suggestions for improving meeting choices architecture. If you want a more detailed explanation of why I think these would work, the attached mind map hopefully explains it.

#1 Attractiveness – meeting attendance is always optional – people are free to choose if they attend. They will need to be convinced, ‘will it be useful to do so?’.

#2 Timing – prohibit the use of meeting planners and other ‘productivity tools’. It is a physical and mental hassle to plan a meeting. It’s a choice, do you really want that meeting? Have a look at Matt Ballantiine on Efficient Unproductivity which nicely describes the problem.

#3 Venue – keep it basic. Meetings shouldn’t be about the luxurious surroundings, the focus should be in getting business sorted. Also, spaces can only be booked in multiples of 15mins, with a limit of x8 units (120 mins/2 hours). Your choice of how long to stay in the meeting space is decided by business need, not comfy surroundings.

#4 Paper Trail – you are required to provide ‘written evidence’ that your meeting served a useful purpose – but there is no administrative support for this. Again, a choice with consequences.

My Mind Map - trying to explain the logic behind my thinking, good luck!

My Mind Map – trying to explain the logic behind my thinking, good luck!

That’s not going to upset anyone….. I appreciate that these might look like extreme options and difficult choices. I would however argue that we already know ‘the right thing to do’.

Articles like the Harvard Business Review, ‘All the Charts, Tables and Checklists you need to conduct better meetings’ summarise exactly how you should approach meetings. What all this good practice and advice hasn’t done is affect our behaviour, many people still behave like Meeting Lemmings. Maybe what we need is a different (and possibly difficult) Choice Architecture to ‘nudge’ us in the right direction?

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Meetings are considered a waste of time by many people. But despite ‘knowing better’ they still attend, a case of Meeting Lemming behaviour.
  2. Behaviour Change Science and the use Choice Architecture can be used to influence the choices people make.
  3. The Choice Architecture around meetings could be changed to ‘nudge’ people towards making better decisions about avoiding/improving meetings.

*Meeting Lemmings. Lemmings are a rodent like mammal which is popularly  (and falsely) known for a suicidal tendency to rush off the edge of cliffs and end up dead. They really should make better choices, it doesn’t make sense. The ‘Meeting Lemming’, should also make better choices:.. “this meeting will be a complete waste of time”…. but they turn up anyway, or worse, they organise it.

An actual Lemming - not as impressive as a Weasel.

An actual Lemming – not as impressive as a Weasel.

Meetings are a Viral Lifeform. How to Avoid Infection and Practice Sabotage

Dilbert by Scott Adams 15th December 2001

Dilbert by Scott Adams 15th December 2001

Meetings are a type of Virus that use humans as hosts to replicate…..

That might strike you as an odd statement; but have a look at the Dilbert cartoon and think about how you would answer these questions:

  1. Have you ever gone to a meeting where you have no idea why you are there?
  2. At the meeting people speak your language, but use words and expressions you don’t recognise?
  3. Throughout the meeting some people speak, just for the ‘joy of hearing their own voices’?
  4. At the end of the meeting you feel a deep relief it has ended and wonder, ‘what on earth just happened and what did it achieve?’

If you have answered yes to all of those questions, the only logical conclusion must be that there are factors beyond rational human control that have caused the meeting to happen. Something we cannot quite control through the power of efficient business processes and synchronised Outlook calendars. The Dilbert suggestion that meetings are a viral life-form doesn’t seem so strange now……. does it?

It’s Open Season on Meetings. Just to get serious, everyone seems to have turned their sights on meetings at the moment.  I’m just as guilty and I’ve written a few posts about meetings (available here) where I’ve put the point across that, despite the problems, meetings are very valuable part of doing business. Face to face contact is invaluable in helping to develop relationships and build trust, and sometimes meeting face to face is the only way to get agreement over difficult issues. But that doesn’t count for every meeting.

Just to prove it’s a serious ‘grown up’ issue, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) have produced ‘All the Charts, Tables and Checklists You Need to Conduct Better Meetings’. Despite the 1st April publication date, this is a good summary of the things you need to consider, it is worth looking at. You might have seen this ‘Should I Hold A Meeting’ decision tree from the HBR Article which circulated widely on Twitter (thanks to Paul Taylor where I first saw it).

Harvard Business Review Graphic - Meetings go grown up  and serious

Harvard Business Review Graphic – Meetings go grown up and serious

Virus Control in Meetings. In the spirit of meetings being viral life-form, I thought it would useful to apply some anti-viral techniques for keeping them under control. So here goes with; avoiding infection; escaping the Infection zone and slowing down virus replication.

  • Avoiding Infection – this is easy, just don’t go to any meeting that doesn’t look useful. Obviously this is easier said than done, especially where some organisations enforce ‘mandatory’ meetings. However it is worth persevering, the HBR checklist is useful, particularly when you have the power to call the meeting. Just think of taking the decision to not call the meeting as the metaphorical equivalent of a good dose of extra strength hand sanitizer. A bit tingly, but worth the effort.
  • Escaping the Infection Zone – this particularly applies to the meetings where you are at the mercy of someone else. The longer you stay in the ‘zone’, the more likely you are to become infected with the ‘meeting virus contagion’. You can use multiple excuses to escape and ‘slip away’ for a while. Urgent telephone calls are a favourite, so are lavatory breaks. People will generally be too polite to ask why you’ve been away for ages, and its also a chance to use the hand sanitizer.
  • Slowing down replication – only one thing to say here, SABOTAGE. If you become a complete meeting nuisance, in a non-specific sort of way, there’s a good chance you won’t be asked back. There are a few approaches you can take, asking awkward questions is always good, but can be counter-productive. You don’t want to be routinely brought in as the ‘critical friend’ or ‘voice of reason’.
  • Be boring – It’s a definite ‘anti-viral’ meeting killer and might get you permanently excluded. If you want some more detail have a read of ‘A Guide to Boring’ from Helen Reynolds.
  • The Field Sabotage Guide. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual is a practical guide to basic, but effective meeting sabotage. Produced in 1944 by a predecessor organisation to the CIA it was declassified recently and is applicable 70 years on as it was on the day it was written. You might recognise some of the behaviours from meetings you’ve attended. I have written about it previously (Spotting Field Sabotage), and the picture below clearly explains what you need to do.
Simple Sabotage Field Manual. Section 11, Page 28. Declassified

Simple Sabotage Field Manual. Section 11, Page 28. Declassified

 So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Meetings can be a highly effective way of building relationships, developing trust and getting things done.
  2. Not all meetings are organised to make the most of the valuable resources they attract. Sometimes you can wonder ‘why are we here?’
  3. Always ask why do you need this meeting? Use things like the HBR ‘charts and checklist’, but if all else fails you could use sabotage to slow down the replication of the meetings viral life-form.

Picture sources:

Dilbert Cartoon: 15 December 2001.

Simple Sabotage Field Manual

Harvard Business Review Meeting Charts, Tables & Checklists:

5 Monkeys, Bananas, Ladder, Water. Why do we comply with daft rules in organisations?

IMG_3141A Question: Can you think of an organisation you have been part of, one where there is an unwritten rule that almost everyone complies with, and nobody really knows why?

This rule dictates how people behave and is often about stopping people doing something. The reasons why the ‘rule’ exist are unclear, and nobody can adequately explain the behaviour.

It is part of “the way things are done around here”. 

Information Governance, Data Sharing, IT Security.  Just to help you, here is a situation you might have experienced. You know the sort of thing “you are not allowed to read that very valuable information because it is on a WordPress Blog. There are ‘security issues’ with WordPress. The IT department will cut and paste the text into a word document and will email it to you …… it will be available in 10 working days”.

I’m not making this up, I have seen this happen in recent history. The justification is always some hazy requirement to comply with ‘IT security’ and is justified by referring to some terrible incident (usually not explained) that happened in the past.

Too many episodes of The IT Crowd

Too many episodes of The IT Crowd

I had occasionally (very unfairly, in dark moments of frustration) thought this sort of thing was down to some IT people, in some organisations, being more interested in job protection, the joy of sheer awkwardness and making everyone play by their rules; rather than treating the users as customers.

This was probably as a result of me watching too many episodes of The IT Crowd. I realise now I was very wrong, sorry.

 5 Monkeys and the Path to Enlightenment. I’m grateful to my friend Geof who helped me with my unjustified prejudice and pointed me at the 5 Monkey Experiments. This gives an explanation of why groups of people might do things (comply with rules) for reasons they don’t fully understand. There might be a good logical explanation for the behaviour, but it is buried in the mists of time. Way back in the ‘corporate memory’ if you like.

A quick way of explaining the 5 Monkeys Experiment is this graphic.

The text is also at the bottom of the post. If anyone has the original source for this I'd be grateful

The text is also at the bottom of the post.
If anyone has the original source for this I’d be grateful


If you prefer here is a 90 second video of the 5 Monkeys experiment. However if you want an even better explanation, get Matt from Complex Care Wales to describe it – with full Kung Fu movements!

Detecting  5 Monkeys Behaviour? Does any behaviour that might fit the 5 Monkeys theory come to mind after those explanations? I’ve heard of a few over the years, and would be happy to add to this list:

  1. IT Security – the one above, WordPress poses a dangerous risk to security so we cannot let you read blogs….
  2. More IT Security – Skype is really dangerous. There are ‘security risks’ so you are not allowed to have a business meeting using Skype.
  3. Staff Surveys – “it’s all about 5 Monkeys Behaviour…..the reason why everyone is unhappy here is because of some terrible thing in the past. It’s nothing to do with the current regime.”
  4. ‘Signing The Book’ – my favourite example of this is an establishment (in Cardiff) where people who cycled or walked to work dutifully signed a special book. This practice (which only stopped in the 2000’s) dated back to the Second World War and was linked to an entitlement for extra canteen rations as part of the war effort. 50 plus years of compliance and signatures for absolutely no purpose.

Is this all too good to be true?  The 5 Monkeys Experiment does provide a very helpful to explain away some features of organisational life. There are plenty of examples of compliance with rules you cannot explain and behaviours that fit the 5 Monkeys model.

I am however just a bit sceptical.

Firstly because I’m not a monkey, and I don’t really like getting compared to what happened in a monkey experiment. Secondly, there is a bit of doubt about the experiment taking place as described. Have a read of this thread on the Skeptics Website which questions the source of the information. I’m hoping Matt from Complex Care Wales will zoom in at this point and fill in the gaps in my knowledge.

Finally, despite my scepticism, I do like the metaphor it provides….if you spot a new colleague (new monkey) having their new ideas crushed by existing staff (being beaten up by the old monkeys), step in and tell them the 5 Monkeys Experiment story.

So, whats the PONT?

  1. People in organisations do comply with rules and behave in certain ways, without fully understanding the reasons why they are doing it.
  2. This can be for good useful reasons, or others that are not so useful. The key thing is to ask questions like, ‘why are we doing this?’
  3. The justification of ‘it’s the way we do things around here’ might just be because you are acting like a 5 Monkeys and ignoring the bananas for reasons that are no longer relevant.

Thanks again to Geof and Matt for prompting this post.

Sources: Skeptics Website 

Here is the full test from the graphic - via the Skeptics Website

Here is the full test from the graphic – via the Skeptics Website














Social Movements, The Slime of Bureaucracy and SHEDS!!!!

My T-Shirt - worn to important meetings (under a shirt - obviously!)

My Kafka T-Shirt – worn to important meetings (under a shirt – obviously!)

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy”.

There is a point to the Franz Kafka quote, which will be explained later. In the meanwhile I’ll stop being pseudo intellectual and resume normal service….

Last week I was at this Working With Not To event, learning about Co-Production and Asset Based Community Development. It was great to meet Cormac Russell and even better that he mentioned MEN’S SHEDS!  I’ve been desperate to talk about sheds for ages, so here goes.

Men Sheds Australia. Cormac told the story of how the Men Sheds movement in Australia had grown from a small social movement, into something that attracted the attention of large government institutions. The key points were:

  • Many Blokes like to mess about in their sheds – fact – no further explanation needed.
  • During the 1990’s in Australia a few Blokes started to informally gather together in sheds and do ‘shed based activities’ – you know the kind of thing, fixing lawnmowers, repairing a bookcase, making new things etc etc.
  • The activity became popular and spread by ‘word of mouth’ around Australia. Men Sheds started to pop up everywhere.
  • Some people (Academics) started to notice that the Blokes who got involved in Men Sheds were healthier and happier than those who didn’t.
  • Proper scientific research followed which tried to understand if there was a clear link between better men’s health and Men Sheds. The research wasn’t completely conclusive (is it ever… ha ha), however the general view is that Men Sheds are beneficial. This report by the Lancaster University Centre of Ageing Research summarises the ‘shed loads’ of research into Men Sheds.
  • Scientific research led to government bodies taking an interest and now Men Sheds features prominently in the Australian Government Department of Health Policy.
  • A small social movement has grown to global success with a 1000 Men Sheds in Australia and expanding networks across the globe in countries like the UK, Ireland, Finland and Greece.
  • Have a look at this video of an example from Age UK (Bromley & Greenwich) which has been funded by the National Lottery.

Where does this fit with the Slime of Bureaucracy?

If you look at any of the Men in Sheds websites and you’ll see a fair few references to ‘Health and Safety’, Insurance and ‘guidance’ for operating a shed.

I suspect that when the first Men Sheds started as a Social Movement in Australia there wasn’t a Health and Safety Policy in sight. Cormac Russell made the point that with the growth of Men Sheds they attracted government attention, and MONEY.

The money is quite necessary, sometimes essential. It helps to keep the sheds viable, particularly those where opportunities to raise funds by selling products and services don’t exist. However, money, particularly if it’s been provided by the taxpayer, usually comes with a bunch of rules and regulations attached. There might even be a Manager,  a Coordinator, a Liaison Worker and even an Evaluation and Reporting Officer attached.

I’m not sure if any of these things actually harm the Men Sheds movement, but they do add a layer of something that didn’t exist when the first ‘social movement’ started. Maybe this is the ‘Slime of Bureaucracy’ that Kafka spoke about?

Whatever it is, I hope the revolution of Men Sheds doesn’t evaporate before I get a chance to get a saw in my hand and put some overalls on.

So What’s the PONT?

  1. Men Sheds are an activity that helps many men to socialise and make a positive contribution to society.
  2. Whilst the research doesn’t seem to have absolutely proved the link with better physical health, they are undoubtedly a very good thing (in my view).
  3. With any revolution (or social movement) I think a bit of ‘the slime of bureaucracy’ is probably inevitable if the movement becomes highly successful and grows significantly beyond it’s original community.

Here are some useful Shed based links:

 Mens Sheds UK: 

Age UK Men in Sheds:

Age UK Cheshire – Men in Sheds:  (where I first heard of Men in Sheds)

And a Shed Locator Map – to find your nearest shed:


10 of My Development Needs and Cardiff NHS Hackday

Cardiff NHS Hackday 2015 - from above

Cardiff NHS Hackday 2015 – from above

I was going to call this post “Don’t worry about the slashed training budget…. Send your people to NHS Hackdays and get them trained for free…”.

However that gives the wrong message and would send some Organisational Development Professionals into a bit of a ‘tail spin’. The idea doesn’t quite fit with conventional thinking.

The point I’m trying to make is that NHS Hackday is much more than a bunch of enthusiasts getting excited about technology and fixing medical problems. It exposes the people who participate to a wide range of ‘development opportunities’ that you might wait a lifetime to experience in many traditional personal development programmes.

I should say that I have been very lucky over 20 plus years to experience a wide range of training and development courses. Everything from online Health and Safety compliance courses through to Raft Building with ropes and logs (the dreaded team-building) and ‘Speaking Confidently’ with an opera singer. Most of the experiences have been very good, and I would like to think they have helped me become better at my job(s). However, nothing comes close to 36 hours of NHS Hackday when you are fully immersed in trying to make something that is real. Something you believe will make a difference. If you could transfer that essence into other training and development situations I think it would have a huge positive impact.

Here's some paper and pens - explain your idea!

Here’s some paper and pens – 2 minutes to explain your idea!

What about My Development Needs?: Just to prove I do think about this stuff, and don’t swan off to random gatherings on the weekend, this I how I thought the NHS Hackday helped with 10 of my development needs (it’s also annual appraisal time, and my Boss might read this).

  1. Networking Skills. I bet there isn’t a single organisational competency framework that doesn’t have ‘networking skills’ featuring somewhere. Well, Hackday is the perfect place to practice these, 36 hours to network with a 100+ people. I must admit to drawing comfort from the fact that although I might have the lowest IQ at Hackday, I probably wasn’t the most socially awkward person in the room…
  2. Speaking Confidently in Public. Always tricky to develop this skill, well try this….. the Saturday Morning Pitch! Getting your point across, in 60 seconds, to a packed lecture theatre of 200 really clever people, beats anything I’ve ever experienced on a training course.
  3. Visual Communication. “Here’s a sheet of flip chart paper and some pens. You have 2 minutes to create something that explains your idea, and then post it on the boards”. It really happened! Again, a skill I often use in real life, and there’s nothing like practicing it under real pressure. I could name and shame someone here who cheated – and turned up with printed posters, but I won’t…..I’ll be doing it next year.
  4. Influencing Skills. Now you have to convince some people, over who you have absolutely no power, to come and work with you for the next 2 days. It was at this point I was wishing I’d done training in hypnosis and mind control. This is one of the toughest things I’ve done in ages.
  5. Teambuilding. No empty barrels, ropes and logs to help out; just a table, some chairs, an extension lead and flipchart paper. All that stuff you learn about setting the vision, working to people’s strengths, communicating clearly and respecting the needs of all team members are used in overdrive at this stage.
  6. Project Management. ha ha ha, there wasn’t a PID, Gantt Chart or a Prince2 Manual in sight! With less than 24 hours on the clock we were ‘stripped down, flexible and outcome focussed’. I’ve not yet done ‘Agile’ Project Management Training, if I do, I hope it’s a bit like this.
  7. Problem Solving & Learning from Failure. This alone would sum up the Hackday experience. As it turns out my original idea ‘needed some work on the detail’ to put it mildly. Approaches like ‘brainstorming’ (in a non obvious way) get dragged out as part of the creative thinking process. We did try some things that didn’t work, learnt from failure and moved on (quickly).
  8. Time Management. Did I mention we had less than 24hours on the clock? The prospect of presenting our working solution to the other Hackers at 3pm the next day is a great incentive to manage the time effectively.
  9. Decision Making & Prioritisation. It’s easy to delay decision making and do more fact-finding when there is no pressure. The urgency of Hackday meant that we made rapid decisions about what we were going to do and stuck with them. Prioritisation meant that some of the things we could have done, or were ‘nice to do’s’ were put aside for another day.
  10. Thinking On Your Feet. If the 60 second pitch on saturday morning had felt like a challenge, the 150 seconds to present your working prototype to your peers on Sunday afternoon was on another level. Then to top it off you get questions from the Judges. Cue what you learnt on the ‘thinking on your feet’ course.
  11. Dress For Success. A long time ago I really did go on a course like this, well it was the 1990’s. The observant will have noticed that this is number 11 in my top 10 list, which is a deliberate mistake. I just wanted to point out that not every course you attend will be effective. It’s clear, from the picture below that I didn’t take on board the lessons from ‘dress for success’. What was I thinking keeping that hat on?

So, whats the PONT?

  1. NHS Hackday was about so much more than a group of enthusiasts fixing some problems.
  2. The act of working with other people to make something real creates a sense of enthusiasm and commitment that is impressive.
  3. For me, it tests and develops all of the things I think are important in my personal development, and I would recommend it to anyone.

Links to other NHS Hackday Posts I’ve written here: 

Picture via Paul Clarke

Failure to learn lessons from the 'Dress for Success' training

Failure to learn lessons from the ‘Dress for Success’ training

Our product partly developed.

Our product partly developed.





Cardiff NHS Hackday 2015 – A Wales Coastal Path Pitch

New stickers for 2015 I hope

New stickers for 2015 I hope

This weekend sees the return of the Cardiff NHS Hackday and I’m going to make the plunge. Last year I was an interested observer, and produced a few posts about what happened (available here). This year I’m hoping to make a pitch. This might be a completely daft idea, so I’m testing it here first, what could possibly go wrong?

So here it is….., my idea for a visual tool for getting people to walk the Wales Coastal Path. All comments very welcome.

The Wales Coastal Path – A Visual Tool for Sign-Up and Completion of Walking Stages. Supporting Groups to Participate in Walking the Path.

Route of the 1400Km Wales Coastal Path

Route of the 1400Km Wales Coastal Path

Why Walk the Wales Coast Path as a Group?

The health benefits of exercise are well-known and considerable effort and resources are directed towards encouraging people to participate in a wide range of physical activities. Walking is a form of exercise that is many positive features which include; relatively easy access to the activity, low-cost of participation (you don’t really need expensive equipment) and above all, the ability to get easy access to very many excellent walks in Wales. One of the most interesting and potentially challenging of these walks is the Wales Coastal Path, all 870 miles or 1400 km of it.

The prospect of walking the whole length of the Wales Coastal Path is daunting, even for the most experienced and enthusiastic walker. There are however groups of people who are interested in tackling challenges, as a group. The popularity of events such as the Welsh Three Peaks Challenge organised by Charities such as Ty Hafan clearly demonstrate this. One of the benefits of tackling a challenge as a group (apart from the principle of ‘many hands make light work’) is that people are able to provide support and encouragement to other group members. Peer pressure, for a positive purpose, can help people achieve impressive things.

This Hackday pitch is to create a visual tool that allows groups of people to sign up to walk the Wales Coastal Path; then commit to walking a specific section(s) and register completion when they have walked that section(s).

How would the Wales Coastal Path Visual Tool work?

  • The ‘front end’ part of the tool (the part users see) would be a map of the Wales Coastal Path. Users would able to download the tool for specific use with their own group.
  • At this point the whole of the route of the Coast Path is highlighted as RED – unassigned.
  • The route of the Coast Path is divided up into units of walking. These could be 5km units, to encourage ‘entry level’ participation or they may be based upon other distances which are determined by the difficulty of the terrain or accessibility. For example 5km stretches in the flat urban areas of North and South Wales are probably more feasible than remote areas of the Llyn Peninsular or rural Pembrokeshire.
  • Members of the group would select their walking section based upon their own abilities and preferences.
  • Once a walking section has been chosen, that part of the Coastal Path map turns YELLOW.
  • A Wales Coastal Path map progressively turning yellow would act as a good visual stimulation and will encourage peer support amongst the group.
  • As members of the group complete their walking section, they register this and that section of the map turns GREEN. Again the visual elements of this will encourage peer support amongst the group and acts as a record of achievement.
  • Just to be clear – this is not a detailed navigation tool for the Wales Coastal Path – there are plenty of commercial providers of this information – from paper Ordnance Survey maps to real-time digital GPS navigation tools. This is an overview that allows scheduling and sign off for groups.
  • Beyond this being a tool to visualise sign up and completion, there are very many opportunities to enhance the basic version, for example:
    • The ability to post photographs of the walk,
    • Links to social media feeds to share experiences,
    • Links to local services such as public transport or accommodation and
    • Links to fund-raising activities.

Some Questions that Need to Consideration.

  • Does this tool exist already? (I’ve looked but found nothing)
  • How easy is it to get a digital version of the route?
  • Will this ‘tread on the toes’ of Wales Coastal Path?
  • How easy is it to split up the walking sections?
  • Are there any liability issues?

Any answers to the questions would be very much appreciated. I’m unlikely to be much help with coding, but I can talk a bit about walking some of the coast path. Hopefully see you at Hackday.

Picture and Information Sources:

Detailed maps of path sections are available

Detailed maps of path sections are available



Dunbar’s Number 150, Perfect for Christmas Card Lists and Twitter Friends

A dark winter evening flew by reading this lot

A dark winter evening flew by reading this lot

It’s that time of year in our house when I dutifully read all of the Christmas Cards before they are dispatched for recycling. There are literally 100’s of them.

“How can there be so many?”  I ask my wife, who controls everything Christmas related at home, with ruthless military precision. “There are only supposed to be 150, it’s Dunbar’s Number, scientifically proven you know…. How many people are on our Christmas Card list?, I innocently enquire….

As it happens (which I would apparently know if I was a decent husband) there are 267 people on our Christmas Card list; 246 in the UK and 21 requiring overseas postage. I’m regretting I asked at this point, but Dunbar’s Number and Christmas Card Lists is an interesting subject, honest.

Dunbar and Hill’s Christmas Card List Research. This paper is a neat bit of research from 2002 looking at the size of human social networks. Previous work by Robin Dunbar had predicted that there was an average size of about 150 for human social networks. This basically means that (on average) you can only have meaningful social ties with about 150 other people. Dunbar proposed that this was linked to the size of the neocortex in our brains and our ability to do things like remember faces.

Much of this work had been done with groups of primates where it is relatively straightforward to understand social networks. Primates spend a lot of time in social groups, grooming – picking the fleas out of each others fur – which isn’t as obvious in Humans. I should point out here that this was in 2002, before the proliferation of social media. Nowadays there may well be ‘flea picking’ equivalents in social media networks to study, which I’ll get onto in a minute.

We send more Christmas Cards to friends as we get older.

We send more Christmas Cards to friends as we get older? From Hill & Dunbar 2002, Durham

Working with Hill, they gathered information about now many people are on the average Christmas Card List. Guess what – the mean was about 150.  There is plenty of other interesting information in the paper about demographic makeup of people on the lists and the emotional strength of the relationships.

One thing that did strike me was the reason for choosing Christmas Card Lists as a method of studying social networks. According to Hill and Dunbar the sending of Christmas Cards represents; ‘one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all of those individuals within their social network whose relationship they value’.  An inspired bit of lateral thinking. I do wonder though, how much longer will Christmas Cards survive in a world of digital media?

Validation of Dunbar’s Number using Twitter. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better….  how about some analysis of a massive dataset from Twitter:

  • 1,700,000 Individuals
  • 380,000,000 Tweets
  • 25,000,000 Conversations
150 is the Magic Number. Validation of Dunbar's Number from Twiiter

150 is the Magic Number. Validation of Dunbar’s Number from Twitter

This 2011 research paper by Goncalves, Perra and Vespignani, looked at all of that data and came to the conclusion that ….’the economy of attention is limited in the online world by biological and cognitive constraints as predicted by Dunbar’s number’. Basically this means that our minds cannot cope (on average) with more than about 150 people in our social networks.

What does this mean if you have 1000’s of Twitter Followers, 100’s of LinkedIn Connections and Millions of Facebook Friends and don’t forget the people on your Christmas  Card List? In reality, it probably means most of them aren’t actual friends, and it’s a bit difficult to have a meaningful relationship with more than about 150 of them.

Now I feel so much better that I wasn’t able to recognise about half of the people that those Christmas Cards were from. Sorry, it over stretched my cognitive ability. Happy New Year!

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Dunbar’s Number (150) is the mean for people in a stable human social network.
  2. Beyond 150, it becomes difficult to have meaningful relationships due to the cognitive limits of our brains (things like the ability to recognise faces become harder).
  3. I do wonder if habits developed through the use of Social Media over time might change Dunbar’s Number?

I have gone on about Dunbar’s Number before if you are interested150 The Magic Number and The Monkeysphere and Stable Work Groups