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12. Plant some flowers

July 1, 2012

It’s been well documented in recent years that bees are declining in the UK (and in many other parts of the world, too). In 2008, the British Bee Keepers Association reported that the bee population in the United Kingdom dropped by around 30% between 2007 and 2008. A population decline of almost a third in one year is incredibly disturbing.

A little something called Colony Collapse Disorder is often to blame, which is when bee colonies suddenly disappear. There have been numerous theories as to why this is – new pesticides, malnutrition, radiation – but there actually isn’t a definitive answer at the moment, and it might well be a combination of factors. What we do know is that across the globe, the bee population is shrinking at quite an alarming rate.

Apart from the fact that it’s always worrying when any species starts to disappear for no reason, it’s also potentially going to cause significant problems for humans. Bees are great little pollinators, meaning that they play an important part in crop production. With millions of bees disappearing, the effect on agriculture is going to be significant.

In fact, one theory regarding the disappearance of the bees is to do with the fact that there is less land used for agriculture in the UK these days, and bees find it increasingly difficult to survive in a hostile environment. Therefore, if you have a garden, or even a window box, you might want to think about making it a better place for bees to be. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has some handy tips on ways to do this, and even has an app called Bee Kind to help you identify plants that bees will like. For example, bees can’t get into long, tunnel-shaped flowers, so those aren’t great, and there are also a number of flowers, such as pansies and double begonias, which produce little or no pollen and nectar because they have been selectively bred for their appearance. It’s also a good idea to plant flowers together – that means that bees don’t have to travel far between flowers. Bees get tired too, you know!

Although nobody is completely sure how we’re going to be able to save the bees, this is something that anybody with a bit of outside space can do. Hopefully it’ll make a difference, and in the meantime, you’ll have a more beautiful, colourful garden.

11. Take some pictures

June 19, 2012

I have a lot of photos. I don’t even think I take that many, but there still seem to be hundreds on my computer, from holidays and birthdays and random photo-taking days. I would definitely be outdone by some of my friends, who take cameras everywhere, or just use their phones to permanently document their lives – and somehow, manage to come up with great-looking shots, unlike my amateur attempts.

What happens to these photos? For my part, most of them go up on Facebook and might be shown to family and friends. They get pored over and commented on (sometimes), and then after a week or two, that’s it. I might come back to my own photos to have a look, and perhaps in a few decades I’ll have an interesting record of my early adulthood, but I’m not really using my photos. Which is to say, if somebody else could use them, I wouldn’t mind.

That’s pretty handy, because there are others who can use my photos (not all of them, maybe, but some of them). I’ve recently found photofoundation, which is an image library that uses donated photographs from volunteers. This is useful for two reasons. Firstly, it means that member charities can use photos as they wish, which is no small thing when organisations are expected to update their media so regularly to show their activity. They might have some photos, but if they need stock photos for a blog or an advertising campaign, for example, then they have to fork out for the rights to pretty standard images. But if I’ve donated a photo of a turtle that I saw on holiday, and they need a photo of a turtle for their Save the Turtles update bulletin, then – well! – they can just use my photo.

However, it’s not only charities who can use these images. As you can imagine, with thousands of people donating snaps, it’s as good an image library as any. That means that if you or a company you work for or with needs images, you can use photofoundation as well. You have to pay, as with other image libraries, but then proceeds raised are donated to the member charities. That means that if you’re deciding where to source a picture of a flower or a funfair, you might as well head to photofoundation and make your money go further.

The member charities currently supported by photofoundation are:

RICC (Research into Childhood Cancer)
Beatbullying
Groundwork
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association
Samaritans
CoppaFeel!
YouthNet

It’s also great that photofoundation has a clear set of guiding principles, which basically state that it is important that the images donated are only used with the full understanding, participation and permission of the subjects (or their guardians), and with respect for the dignity of anyone concerned. Also, you have to be a registered user to donate images of people in the first place.

I’ve registered and have started to donate photos. It costs me nothing, and it’s actually nice to feel that photos that are happy memories for me could have a life beyond my Facebook timeline. Why not see what you can donate?

10. Meet your street

May 6, 2012

I’ve moved recently, and that means a couple of things. Firstly, it means that I’ve seriously downsized, and in ruthless few hours several months ago, packed off half my stuff to charity shops. In many ways, this is great – my room is less cluttered, I can find things I need more easily and I actually know what I have in each drawer. However, every now and then, I find myself searching for something and then realising that it was one of the things I parted with, assuming I would never need it again. Things like, for example, knitting needles. When I was about ten, I used to knit quite a lot after my grandmother taught me, but I hadn’t done it for years and they were culled. Recently, though, I’ve seen my mother knitting in front of the TV and thought, hey! That could be fun! But no needles. Or when my family recently became enthusiastic enough to want to play a game of Monopoly. It rarely happens that all of us are simultaneously mentally prepared for a game of such fortitude. But it happened a few weeks ago – and there was no Monopoly to be found.

Here is another thing: I don’t know anybody. Sure, I have a few friends in London, but the thing that you don’t realise when you move to London is that it’s stupidly big. Just because I live in London, and Harriet lives in London, does not mean that Harriet and I will ever see each other, unless I go on a bus and then catch a tube and travel for an hour each way. Put it this way: I’m not dropping into Harriet’s for a cup of tea. There are, of course, lots of people who do live near me – people who live on my road, or who live within a ten minutes’ walk – hundreds of them! But I don’t know any of them. It doesn’t help that I am sufficiently socially awkward that when I walked a few steps up my neighbour’s path to stroke their cat, and my neighbour opened the front door, I turned and ran because my immediate assumption was that he would think I was some sort of daytime burglar or catnapper. True story.

But, joy of joys, here we have Streetbank to solve both of these problems. It’s a bit like Freecycle, because when you have things that you don’t need anymore, you put them up on the site for others to claim. It’s more than that, though, because there’s a sort of trading principle, and you can also offer things to borrow (I have a huge collection of books, and while I wouldn’t give them away, I’d be more than happy to lend them), or even services, such as dog walking or teaching somebody how to make a cheesecake. How useful is that? There are so many things that you don’t really need to buy, because you only need them for a party or a holiday, and probably half your street own the thing you need, but we all inefficiently end up making these short term purchases that end up under our beds and in our sheds because we don’t need them anymore.

The extra thing is, as well as giving people things they need, Streetbank also connects neighbours. If I go borrow a lawnmower from Becca and Pablo from two doors down, then we’ll probably have a conversation, and another one when I bring it back, and another one when I bring round a jug of homemade lime juice and some brownies. Now I wave at them when I walk past and if I need any gardening equipment, I know they’ll be happy to help. It gives you warm feeling inside, doesn’t it?

Here’s what some people who’ve used Streetbank say about it:

I was looking for some lego for my four-year old son and did a call out to my area. A neighbour I hadn’t met before got in touch and ended up giving me three huge bucketfuls of lego! We had so much we ended up passing on half of it to my son’s school. I love that – the idea of spreading things around your community to where it’s going to be best used.

Without Streetbank, I would have hoarded all my baby gear as opposed to meeting someone really nice and give it to a deserving home. Without Streetbank I might not have met the amazing neighbour who gave a knitting lessons to my child while we downed red wine and chatted, or met the neighbour who strung my daughter’s guitar. I might not have the fab music centre that was fortuitously advertised the day mine died; or met the amazing Chrissy who gave my daughters a ton of brilliant books. I might not have had coffee with another really charming neighbour whilst experiencing pangs of Floor Envy (she has a great floor).

I think the thing that touched me most was the number of people who rustled up VCRs for me when in desperation I contacted Streetbank: My child with Autism fast-forwards and re-winds videos and when they break and we have no replacement ready and waiting she screams the house down. I have been really moved that so many people were quite so incredibly kind. Similarly when a pal was looking for some urgent advice on NHS dentists, and I posted a query, the response was fantastic. People bothered to reply. That’s the thing. In a world that can be quite bleak Streetbank is quite an eye opener to the possibility that that many people have a kind and altruistic side to them.

I put a note up asking to borrow a fondue set for a dinner party and also asking for dolls clothes so that i can make a box frame/sculpture as a gift for a friend who’s having a new baby. By the end of the day I had two offers of fondue sets and two offers of dolls clothes! So today I went round to pick up the fondue set and got on really well with the lady who was loaning it. She said she uses Streetbank all the time. She also gave me some dolls clothes on the condition that I came round and did some craft making with her 8 year old daughter sometime. So I am going to go round and teach her daughter how to make box frames like the one I’m making!

It’s easy to sign up. All you need is something that you can offer – you can’t sign up just to take check out what your neighbours are willing to give you! I signed up offering several books to lend. I can see that, pretty close to me, I can get my hands on a ladder, heat gun, or somebody to babysit. I can get tutored in French and borrow a single sofa bed. It’s awesome! Also, if there’s something specific I’m after, I can post about it and hope somebody in my neighbourhood can help. So I might just manage to get my hands on some knitting needles after all…

9. Map your happiness

April 15, 2012

I’m a pretty happy person most of the time. Oh, sure, there are days when nothing seems to go right, and there are times when I grapple with near-uncontrollable rage when somebody on Facebook writes about who’s out on The Apprentice before I’ve had a chance to watch it. On the whole, though, I think I’m a lucky person and I enjoy my life.

This is the sort of thing that Mappiness is trying to find out. It’s an app that maps your happiness (see what they did there? Do you though? Do you see it?). It’s part of a research project being done by the LSE, to try to find out what things have significant bearings on our emotional wellbeing, so by participating, you’re giving them more (confidential) data that will add to all their research on the topic and ultimately, contribute to a more reliable conclusion.

It’s pretty simple if you have some sort of smartphone an iPhone (apparently LSE are working on creating an Android version, but it might take a while. Give them feedback here). You download the Mappiness App, and sign up, specifying details such as how often it should ask you and when; for example, I told it never to ask me before 10am (let’s just say that if it woke me up on a weekend, I would most certainly not be happy). Then, every now and then, it’ll alert you and ask you how you’re feeling. There are sliding scales for how happy, relaxed and awake you feel. You then enter some information, such as whether you’re indoors or outdoors, at home, work, or somewhere else, if you’re with anybody and what exactly you’re doing. It also apparently takes a noise level measure and a rough GPS location (which, again, the site stresses is anonymous and secure).

As well as contributing to research, I’ve found it interesting on a personal level. It’s not often that you stop and think carefully about how you actually feel, and even less often that you also consider what you’re doing and where you are. It’s not a surprise for me to find that I’m generally less happy when I’m on my own than when I’m with other people, but as I think about it more, I’m motivated to do more to get happier.

There are also some interesting Hedonimeters on the site, showing average happiness/today’s happiness for the UK and London. As I write this, it looks like the UK is slightly happier than average. Well, it’s a Sunday and the sun has just emerged from a few weeks of clouds, so I wonder how much that affects things?

In their last blog post, the creators of Mappiness said they have had over 3 million responses from over 46000 people. They’ve been able to start writing papers, such as one entitled Happiness is greater in natural environments. That might sound kind of obvious, but with data backing it up, this statement becomes more meaningful, and it can then be used to influence policy; for example, demonstrating a tangible benefit of having parks and preserving areas of natural beauty.

8. Hunt for bras

April 13, 2012

I’m willing to bet that most women own a lot more bras than they regularly wear. I know I do. In fact, when I talked to my cousin about a campaign that asked women to donate unwanted bras, between us, we managed to fill three shoeboxes. You can get quite a lot of bras in a shoebox.

There are loads of reasons why you might have bras that you don’t wear. People change sizes and old favourites become uncomfortable. A friend might have bought you a zebra print one that makes you laugh. You might have 7 black ones that are all pretty similar. Whatever the reasons, it’s likely that you or women in your life have a stack of unworn bras.

Unlike other items of clothing, most people don’t think of giving bras to charity shops. That might be why we all have so many old ones knocking around. Oxfam want to change this with their Big Bra Hunt. They might sell some in UK shops (and obviously raise money for their campaigns addressing poverty), but a lot of them will be sent to Senegal. Here, they’ll go to Frip Ethique, an Oxfam-run social enterprise. The people there will sort the bras, and then sell them to local traders.

This gives people (a lot of them women) jobs and opportunities, and the profits raised all go towards combatting poverty in Senegal.

Here’s what some of the women at Frip Ethique say about it:

“Now my children are all at good schools… I’ve worked at a lot of places but this is the best… We’re well paid. We’ve got job security. And we have sickness benefits and pension.”
Amy Collet Gueye, stock manager

“Now I work for Frip Ethique, not only am I able to take care of more people but also my parents and my sister who are in the village.”
Dieynaba Coly, staff association representative and clothes sorter

It’s a great campaign that offers a lot of benefits for people in Senegal, and it’s so easy to participate, as I know so many of the people reading this will know people with bras they don’t use. Send them the link and get them to take part!

All you have to is collect the bras and drop them at your local Oxfam shop (find out where that is here). Happy bra hunting!

7. Hollaback!

April 8, 2012

In all parts of the world, women who walk down their own street risk being harassed. It could be somebody on the packed train feeling you up; it could be a group of guys coming out of a bar yelling their fantasies at you; it could be an old man who flashes you as you walk home, then rushes off. These things happen to women on a startlingly regular basis, but very often, nothing is done about it. Women feel that their experience doesn’t merit reporting to the police, or the police say there is nothing they can do about it.

The way things are now means that there isn’t much hope of the situation being improved. The perpetrators never feel repurcussions, and most people just accept it as “normal”. Even men who aren’t street harassers will often defend them, saying that women should see this kind of behaviour as a compliment, or that they should just be more relaxed about it.

The problem is that street harassment is not a compliment. It makes women feel unsafe and threatened, and it shows that the men doing it see these women as objects rather than people.

Hollaback! is a movement that emerged in response to street harassment. Some women, sick of being targeted, started retaliating by taking photos and videos of their harassers and posting them online, along with their stories of what had happened. It sparked a worldwide movement; now, there are posts from 45 cities in 16 countries. People post about their experience, add a photo or video if they’ve taken one, and add the location to make a map pin.

Here are some recent posts from London:

I was walking along Harleyford St. to Vauxhall tube station at roughly 4.50 pm on Friday 30th March when I felt a painful slap across my bottom and a squeeze between my legs from behind. The man who had done this then ran off in front of me.

My friend has a habit of playing with her hair. A security guard starts talking to her, and being the good natured and polite girl that she is, she maintains the conversation. Soon enough, he comes out with this comment. “You shouldnt play with your hair like that. It turns security guards on”. Naturally, she gets scared and runs away. He mocks her.

Shocking. If you can’t trust a security guard, who can you trust?

I was cycling by myself down the canal and had stopped to check my phone to see where I was, and was standing by my bike. A group of teenage boys on BMX bikes cycled by me and one grabbed my bum and another laughed at me. They were about 14-years-old.

Source: HollacbackLDN!

There’s a huge variety of posts on the site (and there are country/city specific sites and maps that give more details). Hollaback! is in many ways catalogueing a problem that is otherwise often ignored or accepted.

This is a great idea for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows the extent of the problem. Reading the stories can be hard at some points, but they really demonstrate how many women have these experiences, regardless of their age, the time of day they’re out and what they’re wearing. When women see other people sharing experiences, they are more likely to share theirs, so in many ways it’s a more accurate representation than police reports. In New York, this led to a hearing on street harassment, which was the first in the world.

In addition, the action of responding to a harasser and sharing the story is one that shows that the harassment is not ok. It confronts the harasser in a way that a lot of other reactions don’t. It calls them out on what they have done, and that might make people think about what they’re doing before yelling sexual suggestions at lone women.

Finally, it’s empowering for women to be able to share these stories and have a voice. If you don’t talk about what’s happened to you, you can be left feeling that you’re overreacting, or that you deserved harassment. Hollaback! allows women to discuss what has happened, receive support and be assured that they have done nothing wrong.

Here’s how you can use Hollaback! for the best. If you’ve been harassed, report it, even if it’s just a few words and a map pin, because that’ll add to the catalogue of harassment in your area. If you’ve seen somebody being harassed, then you can do the same. And you can go read the stories and give people who have been upset or scared support – which can make a huge difference and shows solidarity against the normalisation of the public abuse of women.

6. Tweet about it

April 6, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, Twitter celebrated its sixth birthday, and reported in a blog post that it currently has 140 million active users. That’s a pretty big number! Even if we retain some scepticism about Twitter’s own definition of “active”, we can be sure that there are a lot of people who use it.

It’s a charity’s dream to be able to spread its message to this many people. Twestival’s a great example; if you aren’t familiar with the idea, it’s about using the power of social media on one day in a year to connect cities and groups, collaborating for the same purpose. Here’s some info about the first one:

Over one billion people on the planet do not have access to clean and safe drinking water. That is one in six of us. The inaugural Twestival Global on February 12, 2009 highlighted this important cause in 202 cities that hosted events and carried the message of charity: water. The events, which were organized under very short timescales raised $264k, resulting in 55 wells for over 18,000 people in Ethiopia, Uganda and India.

Source: twestival.com

That just goes to show how powerful Twitter can be, as an aid to raising awareness and sparking action. Charities would love it if they could reach more people, but obviously, they’re tweeting to people who are following them, and are therefore probably already aware of the issues and interested in helping. It’s great when one of these followers re-tweets, because that means that other people are exposed to the charity’s message. And do you know what’s great about that? Well, a message coming from somebody you know is five times more likely to trigger an action than a charity approaching you directly.

Just Coz has this figured out. This is a platform that allows people to donate their tweets, so a charity or non-profit can send up to one tweet a day on their behalf. Most charities won’t use it that often, but when they do, they’ll reach so many more people then usual. Just Coz provides this handy illustration:

As you can see, when the charity uses Just Coz, everybody who’s indicated that they would like to donate tweets for that charity will send out a tweet on their behalf, automatically.

In my opinion, it would be far better for people to write their own, personalised tweets, but then far fewer would be sent out. I think that Just Coz is a good balance, and if people with a fair number of followers sign up, then it could make a big difference, particularly to smaller charities that struggle to get their name out there.

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