I’d not been since the 1960s to Crete’s Samaria Gorge, with its history of human settlement stretching back to the 8th century BC. So when our son Barney, who’s taking some time off after 8 years working with the travel company Expedia, agreed two weeks ago that he could join me for some high mountain hiking there, it was a great chance to escape rain-soaked England for a few days.

Only 24 hours out of Manchester we were en route for Omalos in the west of the island. At 1100 metres this mountain plateau is the springboard for the magnificent 16 kilometre descent of Europe’s longest gorge to Agia Roumeli on the south coast and we were eager to be off.

Then came the shock when we stopped at a local taverna. Serving us our lunch, Maria reported that they had just found that morning the bodies of two members of an escorted group of 31 Polish tourists. There had been a massive search of the Gorge for 4 days but without water, the 37 year old brother and his 40 year old sister had been unable to survive the temperatures of up to 45 C.

The walk through Samaria Gorge is strenuous and hot but the 5-7 hour route is obvious enough, with steps and railings, WCs, resting and water points, a medical centre and even a helipad – all provided with the aid of generous EU grants for setting up this National Park.

How I wondered could people in a guided group die or even get lost and we found ourselves piecing together the story and events from people we met and from newspaper accounts. Rumours and theories were initially rife, but over the next 6 days we built up a consistent picture of just what had happened (though a coroner’s report is still awaited).

  • The group leader failed for two days to report that the two were missing.
  • The authorities were told the two were seen in the Samaria Gorge itself; and because of this 4 days were wasted on searching the wrong area.
  • On 26 July the brother was found still just alive by a Greek walker who had decided himself to climb above and away from the Samaria Gorge to the more westerly and dangerous Tripiti gorge.
  • The two made no contact via mobile phone to seek help during their 6 day ordeal – presumably because there was no coverage available.
  • The Greek walker had climbed higher in order to use his mobile phone to get news back to the cafe at the head of the Gorge.
  • The resulting search party found the two bodies early on 27th July after a long night climb; and helped the Greek walker back to safety.
  • It’s a tragic story but will lessons be learnt about support and emergency procedures, staff training, registration and group sizes? Basic mountain craft procedures of counting the group in and out of the Gorge were simply not used and there were the other obvious failings (identified above).

    Nor do the Park’s own control systems appear to have been put in place for checking off all successful descents at the southern exit point of the Gorge. Our own exit control counterfoils (See No 24753 below) were not checked or requested from us by the Park officials at the exit gate despite our early descent on 28 July being only a day after the bodies of the two walkers had been found.

    Ticket for Gorge with counterfoil, not removed.

    Finally there’s a key question about the deployment of mobile phone technology. With up to 800 people being bussed daily into the Samaria Gorge (and perhaps 50,000 in a full season), this is big business and a major income generator for the whole island.

    This area of the White Mountains is no ordinary remote wilderness, but a place of mass tourism where the vast majority of people will not be experienced mountaineers but will have a mobile phone.

    A phone mast on the top of Mount Gigolos above the Gorge at 1964 metres (See photo below) wouldn’t stop mistakes being made, but it would provide coverage for emergency calls for most of the area. Is this too much to ask for to lessen the risks to life in this wild and wonderful walkway?

    Mt Gigolos above the Samaria Gorge - a suitable site for a phone mast for SOS calls.

    Perhaps the EU Commission should be asking this question when next it comes to consider an application for a tourism development project for Crete. In the meantime though if you’re travelling abroad, check out the emergency number you need to use for the relevant country on this website. The number 112 is widely used in Europe but it’s worth checking the details before you go.

    Sadly it would not have helped Marek and Danuta Sawicka last week.

    POSTSCRIPT – 10 August 2007

    Yesterday Polish Radio announced that prosecutors in Wroclaw, capital of Lower Silesia, were investigating the deaths to discover if the travel company which organised the trip had put the two walkers into unnecessary danger.


    [Digital nations in the making: Update Page 98 – Web 2.0 & adult education].

    “We have an old Slovak saying”, my interpreter once told me, “’The dogs are still barking, but the caravan’s moved on’”. She was explaining an intricacy of the old communist bureaucracy in Bratislava, but I’ve found myself recently wondering if the same saw applies to the concept of Web 2.0. Is it just a bit of clever marketing by people with an interest in pushing their own product or services?

    Tim Berners Lee, founder of the web, has been saying for a while that he never thought it was a useful concept and that the next serious development was the semantic web, which would enable far more powerful manipulation and classification of data on the web – and help usher in the development of a new ‘web science’.

    He has a point of course. Anyone with some basic html skills has been able to publish on the web for years, so the likes of blogs, wikis, flickr.com photo galleries etc – which facilitate web publication and contributions by individuals – are not technically major advances.

    But for the non-technical and for adult learners they are major developments. They have moreover great potential for tutors working with adults on improving literacy and numeracy skills and for democratizing the web.

    Powerful resources and exciting tools are available from a wide range of web sites but surprisingly they have not yet been very actively taken up by tutors and adult education providers – although there are early adopters, who have been keen to innovate. A simple but effective example is the class blog set up last year for Entry Level 3 ESOL students at Dewsbury College.

    A good start in opening up debate on this whole area in the world of education has come this year from JISC. In February Theresa Beattie and Chris Barber from JISC’s Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Support Centre led a well-attended Excellence in e-Learning event in Wakefield – backed up by some good online documentation on their Moodle platform – on Web 2.0 technologies and social learning; and in the same month JISC published Paul Anderson’s excellent paper, What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education“, which is well worth reading.

    JISC has also supported the innovative work – discussed at the Wakefield event – which Rose Papworth has been doing at Hull College using the open source e-learning tool http://elgg.org/  The web site for this work at Hull is currently being developed; and further information about the RSC’s Web 2.0 course can be obtained from Theresa Beattie (T.Beattie@leeds.ac.uk).

    Like the phrase ‘The Industrial Revolution’, the term Web 2.0 is very broad and generalized but it does encompass one very important notion of opening and broadening the web to far more active engagement of citizens and learners through networking and the use of social software. It may not be a perfect term, but for my money it retains some traction and explanatory worth.

    You may wonder though what exactly that other term “web science” is all about, which Tim Berners Lee (TBL) has been pursuing with others at MIT and Southampton University. It’s an interesting idea, but is there really a new discipline emerging here or is it rather a bid to set up some new academic courses? For a report of an interview with TBL on this subject, see The Register (23 March 2007).

    “THINK. DON’T PHONE WHILST DRIVING” was the text message flashed to me from the electronic notice-boards on the M62 motorways round Manchester this week. It was a snappy reminder that under a new law I would now be fined £60 and 3 points for dangerous driving if using a mobile while at the wheel. Fair enough but it got me thinking laterally like this – and about the safe use of mobiles and texting.

    1. Short messages can be a very effective medium in the right context
    2. Ten years ago few would have ‘got’ this particular message
    3. The mobile phone medium is now near ubiquitous
    4. How could this pervasive medium best be used to advantage for adult learners?

    Since my last posting ‘e-cash and the irresistible rise of the mobile‘ this issue has become in my mind a far more interesting question for ACL tutors and managers as they plan next year’s programme.

    I’ve been talking to Paul Wakefield, whose article ‘JANET and SMS’ in the December issue of UKERNA News I came across last week but had missed in the Christmas melée. With money provided by the DfES, UKERNA has already provided fast broadband connectivity via the JANET network for all ACL providers who want it.

    One of UKERNA’s big new projects under way is to organise a national SMS (Short Message Service) programme for the entire JANET community.

    Their market research and surveys have already shown use of SMS (especially in FE and HE), but a nationally provided service with lower unit costs, potentially allowing two way communication, integration with admin systems and group functionality (for up to ¼ million messages at once) could have a huge impact upon practice across all educational sectors.

    Paul’s in the midst of the procurement process at present and UKERNA is on course to sign a contract with the chosen supplier by the end of April, with a ‘go-live’ date following shortly after. “I can see this being a fantastic resource for the ACL community” he told me with obvious enthusiasm.

    He’s right and it’s not too early to think how it can be used to benefit both adult learners and hard pressed services. For a start imaginative use could bring both improvements in recruitment and retention of learners – which can’t be bad with a new OFSTED Inspection regime round the corner from next month. In any event look out for the announcement of the details in the early summer.

    POSTSCRIPT (13 March) – Paul Wakefield has now posted more details of the planned SMS service on the Development section of the JANET site.

    [Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 11 – Mobile phones]

    It’s interesting to see that last week’s cover story in the Economist (17 Feb), “The end of the cash era” has a follow-up to my last blog posting on the use of mobile phones in Japan. I noted there how the keitai is being used widely as a ‘cash wallet’ to buy tickets, coffee and much else.

    The Economist briefing report on The future of money (Pages 75-78) has an excellent survey on what’s happening with smart cards and and how the Japanese ‘bitWallet’ Edy system – owned by Sony and DoCoMo (the country’s biggest mobile operator) – has already been migrated to over 4.5 million mobile phones for making payments.

    Based on “near-field communication” (NFC) technology [See video below], the inserted chip allows paperless transactions to be completed at 43,000 stores – all in under a second by a swipe of the handset. No more wating then in the till queue for your fruit bar or quick fix snack!

    Studies by Visa in the US have shown that Americans generally are two times as likely to carry a mobile as cash  and four times as likely if they’re aged 18-24. So in the technology convergence stakes, the coming of e-cash could put mobiles still higher up the list of devices available  in everyone’s pocket, handbag or briefcase.

    Isn’t it time we put some more effort into thinking just how best we could use them for attracting and supporting adults back into learning?

    [Digital Nations in the making: Update Pages 11 and 32 – Mobile phones; Pages 83, 92 – GIS]
     I’m just recently back from two weeks in Japan visiting Hokkaido in the north and Kyoto. The second largest economy in the world, it’s a fascinating country combining a willingness to embrace and shape the future with a strong sense of tradition and reverence for old ways.

    I travelled out when the news stories about Apple’s iPhone and its touch screen features were at their height so it was a good opportunity to catch up on developments and the use of mobile phones over there. The Japanese have a strong record for innovation with mobile technology and were the first to introduce camera phones in 2000 and to upgrade to third generation (3G) broadband networks to allow widespread downloading of music and video.

    By the end of last month the Japan Times (February 8th) reported that over 100 million people (78% of the population) owned a handset or keitai, as they are called. According to the Philadelphia News (21 January 2007) Japan is “far ahead in reinventing use of cell phones.”

    As you would expect there’s plenty of use for texting, snapping photos and web browsing, but keitai are also a tool or ‘second self’ for watching TV, accessing trains, storing data, updating blogs, downloading games and paying for cinema tickets, books, coffees etc.

    For the sheer variety of sizes, shapes and features of Japanese phones take a quick look at this recent video from mutant’s musings (3 January 2007) of available phones and for comparison with the iPhone’s features see comments from Japanese on the street in this short CNN video.

    The Wikipedia entry lists 27 additional features now on many keitai including a pedometer, MP3 player and ‘read aloud’ system – 10 more than I listed 12 months ago when doing a final draft of Digital Nations in the making! Despite some very attractive features the iPhone simply doesn’t compete for versatility.

    A couple of news items caught my eye. The first was the announcement (Japan Times January 11th) by KDDI Corporation, Japan’s second largest mobile operator that it was launching a new child’s handset which would allow parents to track their children’s location and movements every five minutes.

    This uses GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite based technology and is already being copied by the country’s two other main operators DoCoMo and Softbank. It’s an example of the use of GIS (Geographical Information Systems) that I wrote about in Digital Nations in the making and is getting mainstreamed now because there is apparently a likely income stream from anxious parents.

    The other development was a fascinating story, Big Books hit Japan’s Tiny Phones of how mobiles are being used to write novels by mostly high school girls with no previous experience of writing. The first mobile phone novel was written six years ago and the trend has accelerated recently with writers posting to very popular community sites, like Magic iLand. The novels, 200 – 500 pages in length, can be downloaded by readers to their mobiles for about $10 each .

    Young people in Japan have taken to new technology perhaps more quickly than they have elsewhere. Could they be setting trends in the use of mobiles for the two young girls in Manchester in the photo below, who are already proficient in using digital cameras?  Do mobile novels have any potential for adult education in the UK, with for instance tutors with Skills for Life and ESOL learners exploring their use for publishing short stories?

    Young girls in Manchester taking digital photos at a wedding reception.

    In my last post of 2006 I said that the new year was likely to see a growth of wi-fi and mobile services. The Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, opening today in the US, will be showcasing many of the hand held devices that will be vying to speed this process.

    Improvements in battery life, brighter screens and more memory are contributory factors and are all part of the story.

    Just as important though is connectivity and access. When I was in Seattle last year, I spent a morning with David Keyes, the city’s Community Technology Officer talking about Mayor Greg Nickells’ plans for free wi-fi access. These have attracted considerable corporate sector interest and will involve a pilot project in two neighbourhoods and four downtown parks. [Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 68-69 – Seattle]

    Things have been moving fast though on this side of the Atlantic too, spurred among other things by the Government’s Digital Challenge initiative. Ten local authorities were short-listed last summer and final details of their proposed strategies and action plans for digital inclusion are being hammered out this week to meet the 19th January deadline.

    Manchester’s bid ONE-Manchester, coordinated by the City’s Digital Development Agency (MDDA), looks strong on digital inclusion, has taken a bottom up approach and has succeeded in drawing in neighbouring Salford, Tameside and Trafford to create a unique ‘city-region’ laboratory for digital experimentation and testing.

    Its outline bid had some interesting elements of a framework like Digital Action Places and Personalised Netstart programmes for local residents and organisations, which will need some thinking through prior to implementation.

    Importantly the City has like Seattle gained a lot of national attention for its wider plans; and it’s gathered substantial corporate sector interest in establishing a 100 square mile free wi-fi network, Europe’s biggest, to help draw in the 40% of residents not presently engaged.

    As Dave Carter, Head of MDDA told me when I met him, Manchester and its partners are now taking digital inclusion very seriously as were the company representatives at the Request for Information and Comment (RFIC) meeting I went to in December.

    The bid is a strong one and deserves to do well in a very competitive field. Whatever the outcome, Manchester could be creating models and structures for implementing the Information Society in large metropolitan areas for the next decade. [Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 108 – Greater Manchester]

    Illustration of laptop prototype. Illustration of laptop prototype for Nigeria. Illustration of laptop prototype with wind-up handle.

    More news this time after my posting of 4 December 2006  from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the details of this scheme which will provide $150 laptops to children in the developing world. A key feature is that “the laptop’s creators started from scratch in designing a user interface they figured would be intuitive for children”, according to a recent Associated Press report. One curious feature is that the user interface does not appear to have been trialled with potential users in developing countries.

    The XO machines – as they are called – using a slimmed down version of the Linux operating system, are organised round an automatically generated journal, and not through folders. Though the experience will be very different from a conventional PC, there is still the opportunity to create a word document, browse the web and use a RSS feed (for blogs). The project has received at least $29 million from companies like Google, Red Hat and News Corp.

    The MIT Review article (1 January 2007) is worth reading in full and there’s a good website on further details of the project at  (http://www.laptop.org). The site also has a FAQ area and a Wiki section which explores many of the issues relating to the ‘One Laptop’ project in more detail.