Digital Circle Admin

Does Digital Circle need to do more?

Article posted by Digital Circle Admin 10

Simple enough question.

Between August 2008 and September 2011, Digital Circle was funded to create presence, to motivate and accelerate, to help provide a communications stream between government and the digital media industry.

The funding was to hire one person, provide some admin support and a little travel and a marketing and events budget. We managed the budget to deliver on time (though we moved a chunk of cash from salary to the travel budget).

  • We have organised dozens of events over the years and sponsored dozens more.
  • We have organised special interest groups for mobile devs, for games development, for open data and more.
  • We’ve pushed the envelope in innovation across our industry. Encouraging and promoting, funding and managing.
  • We’ve over delivered on every metric we were given and created new metrics where there were none.
  • We’ve pushed digital content to the front of the minds in government and we have weathered every knock back and every threat with renewed vigour.
  • We’ve secured millions of pounds in public funding and procurement for the local industry.
  • We’ve engaged the industry at every point, challenged them and we have never considered this to be a 9-5 job.
  • We’ve worked with colleges and universities to deliver hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of value into the skills chain with helping advise on new courses, getting free training for local businesses to help them compete.
  • We have sent hundreds of people to international events over the years for business, training and awareness. These include Apple’s WWDC, SxSWi, Games Developers Conference, IBC, Mobile World Congress, Microsoft Partner Conference, Learning Without Frontiers, Paris Regional IT Conference and EU events in Brussels.
  • We have helped companies with over £4M of additional revenue
  • We have provided administration support for the Creative Industries Innovation Fund (CIIF) in previous years and we will continue to do so. This means attending hundreds of individual workshops, assessing hundreds of project plans and being an advocate for the dozens of projects which have a chance of getting funded.
  • We provided responses to the Consultations on the Independent Review of Economic Policy, the new Economic Strategy and the Inquiry into the Creative Industries. We have met regularly with InvestNI, DETI, DCAL, DRD, DEL, DFP, The Arts Council, NI Screen, eSynergy, Clarendon Capital, L&PS, Translink, NISP, QUB, UU, BMET, SERC, SRC, NRC, SWC, NWRC and a dozen other acronyms.

We didn’t do everything perfectly, not by a long shot. The App Economy resulted in half a million jobs in the US and by that scale we should have managed a thousand. We managed probably less than 20% of that. We simply didn’t campaign hard enough for the additional training that would be required to deliver that scale. The local software industry is currently facing two challenges:

Companies cannot grow without new staff and the rate we are training software engineers is significantly lower than the rate they are leaving the industry (through career change, emigration, retirement and death). We currently have over 650 vacancies in ICT-related jobs and this number will be a lot higher next year.

Software engineers are the skeleton of the industry and this discipline is becoming more and more important as our media services move ever more digitally focused and delivered. Upon this skeleton, we estimate four times as many jobs can be created in other disciplines. Artists and designers to add form to function, managers to ensure delivery, marketing and sales to generate cash and then the ripple effects of the spread of wealth.

From October 2011 until March 2012, Digital Circle was funded by the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure and though the future is uncertain, the future is always uncertain and it needs to be uncertain in recessionary times. The challenge is to constantly provide value for money.

I wasn’t concerned when a local tech magazine started even though someone suggested we should do that. Or when a series of big ticket event started and people said we should do that. Or when a venture fund appeared and, yes, people said we should do that. Or a dozen other things – all of which would be fun and worthwhile but it would require a much larger team. Because while we might have been able to do one of those things, we couldn’t do them all and nor should we try.

Digital Circle was not meant to do everything. It’s really just one person, restricted by delivery requirements and job roles and a network of volunteers each of which have their own careers and businesses to manage.

Towards the end of March we will be asking everyone in our industry to comment on what we plan to do in the future. Not so much on Strategy but on Implementation, Roadmap and Milestones.

We have no idea what happens after March with Digital Circle. We have no promises from government, no idea what the size of the ask should be (and in recession we don’t know what’s available). We know what we can expect and what we would hope for (and yes, they are vastly different).

We want to do more.

Article posted over 5 years ago by Digital Circle Admin in  

10 Comments so far

Paul Vaughan

Hi Matt,

Ok, I'm mostly in support of the activities of the Digital Circle. Without blowing smile up your chuff, the hour we spent having a cup of coffee recently was more valuable than monetary metrics can evaluate. After our meeting, I spoke with one other potential applicatant for CIIF and they had concluded that it was a pointless exercise as they had felt their interview was very negative. However, after mentioning a few positive points from our conversation, their minds were made up to continue.
We have not been regulars to your meetings - that's our bad. The digital circle can potentially be viewed as being a clique, but only when you/we/I bother to put effort in, then tr organisation becomes "ours". The digital circle will not be for all and should not try. I think if the government is being serious about the digital future of NI plc then more resources need deployed in this area. InvestNI handed back over 40m last year and they are pretty hard to get cash out of when a business puts a good idea to them. Maybe a lot of that is red tape - who knows the reason, but the more people pushing for olinvestment, training and other resources the better. Maybe there should be more circles, perhaps regional or sectoral - I'm not the best one to judge.
For my money, I appreciate the engagement we have had with the service. I hope the future will involve some sort of digital specialist. Without that type of sympathetic ear, the suits in government and other organisations will struggle to understand the difficulties we face.
Many thanks.

over 5 years ago

Paul Vaughan

@Andrew Jarvis, sorry it should have said "smoke" not "smile". Damn predictive text!

over 5 years ago

Stephen Downey

Stephen Downey

Freelance Artist

I think you are doing a great job so far. I could have not started my own game developmental studio with the help of Digital Circle.

If you want ideas for implementation; how about a larger scale version of the monthly group meetups. Perhaps a twice annually digital 'convention', bringing in speakers, companies and games from all over the UK and Ireland? Probably beyond the budget, but it might be nice to host such an event here and take the opportunity to showcase our talent.

over 5 years ago

Craig Smith

Craig Smith

New Media Designer

I’d just like to thank Digital Circle for the numerous events supporting the local creative community in Northern Ireland. The opportunity for Northern Ireland companies, small businesses and freelancers to network and learn from one another, and guest speakers, is absolutely fundamental to the promotion and growth of the creative industries. Northern Ireland clearly needs to nurture the digital sector, as emerging digital platforms begin to influence the ways in which we, the general population, consume information and entertainment services. One only has to look at the number of ‘Apps’ for newspapers, magazines, games, information services etc… to see the growth of this sector in the past 3-4 years.

I think Stephen's suggestion of a 'local' annual digital convention or conference would highlight some of the fantastic work Digital Circle and it's members are doing. Let's get industry, gamers, academics, digital marketers and others together over a couple of days.

Another suggestion ... training is vital. Let's support the talent in Northern Ireland by providing short, but intensive training workshops to all age groups, not just the 18-25 demographic. I've met quite a few people at Digital Circle who have ideas, ambition and drive, but are balancing family commitments alongside paying the mortgage. Let's help them top up their skills by initiating fundamental courses that enable them to develop in the longer term.

Finally, I'd just like to state that Northern Ireland needs Digital Circle … it’s as simple as that!

over 5 years ago

John Girvin

John Girvin

Reticulator of Splines at Six Echo Studios

I'll second what Stephen and Craig have said.

My contact with DC has been in terms of the games and mobile development networking events they have organised. The contacts, advice and inspiration gained from just meeting and talking to other like-minded individuals has been invaluable in starting my own digital content business. It takes an organising body that knows and is involved in the industry to make these events a success.

over 5 years ago

Andrew Jarvis

Andrew Jarvis

Founder + Generalist at Eximo Project

"Without blowing smile up your chuff" is my new favourite phrase. Keep up the good work.

over 5 years ago

Russell Moore FCIM

Russell Moore FCIM

Managing Director

Matt, Digital Circle was originally conceived as trade association for the digital content industry sector and was to be represented in all of the relevent discussions (with Government, funders, Invest NI, NI Screen etc) by an elected committee. Part of that initial work secured some funding for a full-time industry 'rep' (ultimately your good self of course) who would act as a pivot, focus, enforcer, honest broker etc for the industry members and the committee for those times when, as you say, the rest of us had other day jobs to attend to.

I would like to register my thanks on behalf of the industry for all of your sterling work thus far and for your very many achievements over the course of your tenure. But Digital Circle was never about the one person or role - it's about the industry and what we want and we need and what we're prepared to do about it!

There is as you say a huge employment opportunity for NI in software development, programming etc but for me that's more about what Momentum is meant to represent, i.e. 'IT'. However, Digital Circle is about 'content development' that just happens to use IT, and this was always going to represent both those interested in original, consumer-focused work (apps, games, ebooks etc) but also those us engaged in corporate and marketing communications, advertising etc.

My one comment (and criticism is too strong a word) is that over the course of the last 3 years the 'ownership' of Digital Circle by and for the industry at large seems to have been diluted - although that's what happens if nobody bothers to take part! - and also that the larger, wealthier, longer-established, provider-of-more-jobs etc, Marketing Comms side of our industry seems to have either opted out or been forgotten.

If we are coming to the close then of one chapter of Digital Circle - and, crucially, as a new strategy for the industry is being developed - then I would call on ALL of the industry to re-engage with the Association more fully so that this next chapter more accurately reflects and represents what we ALL want and need.

Once again though Matt, many thanks again for everything that you have achieved on our behalf.

over 5 years ago

Colin Mitchell

I have a few unrelated, random thoughts as follows:

Two years ago when I stopped working down in Dublin and decided to dip my toes in the digital porridge around Belfast, I knew almost nobody - now, I know a lot of people and have been to more events than you could shake a stick at. Digital Circle has been the hub for most of that, and it was an initial coffee with Matt that pointed me in the right direction.

It's actually easy to meet people in this space - we have a real community that DC has done a lot to build and I think it's an essential element for any strategy of growth. We need to continue to connect people together - to find ways of increasing numbers who turn up to an ever wider circle of groups and meetings. Continue to drive engagement, because that's what will help to draw new people in.

Training

What's the current mismatch between the tools that DC people are currently using vs what is being taught in college and Uni? On the dev side, we are immersed in open source stuff like Ruby, Python, MySQL and sitting on Google App Engine and Amazon. Are they still doing VB6 in colleges, or what? I used to think it didn't matter what platform you were taught, as it was the methodologies that were important but now I think that engagement with new, sexy stuff can make a huge difference to the attitude of emerging students.

How can we infect students with the enthusiasm that only seems to emerge some years after leaving college or Uni? Can we form partnerships with colleges where some of us in the world of work run dev courses within education, with some spin-off benefit related to placement students who thus have knowledge of the platforms we are using?

If we focus on spinning out .NET people, we shouldn't be surprised that they all end up in the big corps.

I know Matt has been doing stuff with Belfast Met et al on mobile, which is excellent. There may be more happening here than I'm aware of, but I throw the idea out anyway.

Finance

I pitched the idea a while back of hooking up startup funding with a framework similar in structure with the existing Student Loan, so that if you 'qualified' as a startup you could apply for a loan on the same kind of basis as a student loan. It could be capped to eg £40k and be connected to the individual NOT the business. Most startups fail, but most startup folk don't become destitute - they either go on to create something successful or drift back into employment - so there is almost zero risk to Gov, similarly with student loans. No one vets your business idea or plan - there simply needs to be some qualification to make sure random members of the public don't use it as a cheap loan for a house extension. And there would be no issue with past failure - you can have as many loans over a lifetime as you wish (though limited to the capped max at any time, and perhaps scaled down with age where risk of default increases as retirement or death loom ever closer).

Just a thought.

Digital Circle needs to continue - it's too important a hub to disappear, and what's been done so far has been excellent.

over 5 years ago

Andrew Leonard

I have only really come across Digital Circle in the last few months so I cannot comment on my past experience of them.

The one thing that seems to be lacking in the IT sector in Northern Ireland is a long term game plan. It is very clear that the more accessible computers become (e.g. mobile phones, tablets etc) the more uses people will find for them, so we all agree that somebody has to write the software.

All I keep reading about is the lack of software developers etc. right now. It takes a specific type of person to be a software developer - it is not everybody's cup of tea. Those students who have the potential to be great developers (clear logical thinking and an interest in maths and technical things) are likely to be enticed away to other careers as these are seen as Professional careers.

Digital Circle need to go into the schools and colleges and help identify potential developers at an early age (11-12 years old). They then need to work with the schools to encourage such pupils to consider establishing a profession in IT - scholarships - pay university fees?

To really crack the nut you have to make a computer science degree sound exciting to those students who are not technically minded.

Digital Circle need to create a 5-10 year master plan concentrating on computer education in schools. The first thing required in that plan is to get the NI Executive to make computer programming part of the curriculum - the raspberryPI could help achieve this - low cost hardware. Then you need to make it exciting - to a teenager is writing a program in a computer lesson as exciting as cutting up a dead rat in biology or making an explosion by mixing some chemicals in chemistry.

Even if you do get the students to train as software developers you have to keep them here in Northern Ireland. To achieve that, the developers have to be paid the same or more than developers on the mainland and given similar environments, benefits and opportunities. You have to stop the brain drain.

One final thing, each year in Northern Ireland, approximately 22,000-25,000 children leave school at the age of 16. Approximately half of these go onto do A'Levels. So we are looking at roughly 12,000 pupils leaving sixth form college every year.

If we said over the next 10 years Northern Ireland need 10,000 new entrants into the IT sector - we would be looking at on average 1000 students a year - just over 8% of all students leaving sixth form college at the age of 18. Is that a realistic figure to aim for?

It may be that Northern Ireland has a natural ceiling for creating home grown talent in the IT industry. Incentives may have to be offered to encourage overseas graduates to come to Northern Ireland.

Andrew Leonard
ASL Creative Ltd
@ASLCreative

over 5 years ago

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams

Technical Architect at BBC Northern Ireland

Does Digital Circle need to do more?

(disclaimer, I'm a current Steering Group member)

The obvious answer is, of course, yes.

There's a decent argument to say that we could continue to do as we have done. We've had a reasonable pot of money to spend over the three years of the project, and we've made it go a long way. Matt has outlined the long list of things that Digital Circle has achieved, and if we built on that over the next three years we would probably be doing ok.

But is ok enough?

No. A resounding no.

Has Digital Circle been outspoken enough on behalf of our members? Have we persuaded the education providers to start delivering the graduates that our businesses need? Have we persuaded government to invest in the infrastructure to allow us to compete on a global scale?

No.

We've had some success. The landscape for digital content companies in Northern Ireland is definitely better today than it was in 2008. The community of individuals working together in order to then compete commercially is astonishing. The funding opportunities for start up companies are developing nicely, and we have a plan to further grow that.

Hopefully our strategy will be met with approval, I certainly think it sets out a good plan for the future. We really need our members to get involved, mainly by adding their weight to our proposed strategy, by supporting our events and initiatives, and by telling us what they need us to do for them.

over 5 years ago

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