Saturday 25 February 2012

Being taken for a ride (february blog closure)

On the 23th of February, I closed this blog for ten days. The reason why was given were in this text which was available instead of the blog. The first new post on the blog after it re-opened were about copyright and licensing of content:

David Hembrow, A View from the Cycle-Path

25 February 2012

For the past four years I've spent tens of hours each week working on the "A view from the cycle path" blog. The original intention was to provide a reference for people who had been on our Study Tours, but the audience rapidly grew beyond the people who had been on our tours.

I've attempted to build something which was a useful resource for cycling campaigners across the English speaking world and everywhere else that should be using the Netherlands as a reference for how to implement quality cycling infrastructure, but nearly always is not. There was a dearth of accurate information, and abundance of misinformation, about Dutch cycling policy in the English language. I sought to improve this situation.

Unfortunately, the amount of work required to maintain the standards that I had set for myself grew well beyond what anyone can do merely as a hobby. The blog had no real income but was consuming a large part of my life.

For a long time, I didn't mind this. I very much appreciated, and still appreciate, the comments and feedback from genuine readers. I hope that in turn, I have provided useful information to my readers.

However, it increasingly became apparent that commercial organisations including magazines and newspapers, other websites and transport related organisations including the London Cycling Campaign, European Cyclists' Federation and Environmental Transport Association were taking an interest in my work.

While some people from commercial organisations took the time to tell me that my work was "valuable", never did this "value" extend to offers of payment when they asked me to work for them. Some people seem to take a delight in pointing out that they have "no budget" to pay others while they themselves draw a regular salary.

In other cases, my text and photos were copied without asking me and without giving any credit. Or articles appeared on issues not covered often in the English language shortly after I wrote about them, in which the text was re-written to say more or less the same thing. It is then impossible to prove a connection, of course. I've also been quoted out of context both by accident and on purpose by people who seemingly deliberately want to misconstrue what I've written.

Photos have been taken from our website, sometimes used as they are and sometimes edited to remove our watermark image before using them.

I find this all quite abusive.

Apart from in cases of wholesale copying, I had no complaint when other unpaid bloggers referred to my work, perhaps "borrowing" a couple of photos and giving a link to the source. However, it's something else when people start to do this as part of their paid jobs. I'm not willing to be taken advantage of in this way. I am not doing other peoples' jobs for them without being paid their salary to do it.

The blog was never meant as a reference to be used on its own in order to decide policy. What I've written rests upon our experience of living and working in both the UK and the Netherlands and riding tens of thousands of kilometres by bicycle in both countries. We have a view of the world which is different to both that of people who visit the Netherlands briefly and that of Dutch people who don't have the experience of living and cycling in other countries. Our Study Tour condenses our knowledge into three days, in which we demonstrate how things actually work, concentrating on those things which are most important.

Relying on reading articles (including those on my blog) and looking at Google Maps to make assumptions about how things work does not give the full picture. There are many misconceptions spread by many people, often inadvertantly and with good intentions, but they are still misconceptions. I know of instances where planners from the UK have attempted to design "Dutch style" infrastructure based on nothing more than this remote view. The reason that I know this happens is that after starting, some of them have asked me questions about what they should do next - based on such distorted ideas as "Dutch style" cycling infrastructure with absolutely no cycle-paths. While it's clear that many of these people don't really know what they are doing, not one of them has ever come on a tour. Yet again, well paid professionals want free advice. They will actually start planning based in good part on what they have read on a blog. However, they won't pay our modest fee to be shown a good part of what they really need to know in order to do their jobs properly.

While there are people who make a considerable amount of money out of blogs which consist of "reviews" and photos, that does not happen if you take the time to create long and original content. Really profitable blogs target people who want to buy things, because they click through on advertising. Writing paid for advertorials and "recommendations" also helps. I didn't do this. As a result, total income from advertising on the "A view from the cycle-path" blog never reached more than €18 per year. That's under 35 cents per week. This doesn't even cover minimum wage for the time taken to delete spam comments, let alone trying to correct misconceptions, find out who the latest person is who has started "borrowing" from me or to create original content.

Eventually I had to accept that the value of something is very much what people are willing to pay for it. These days, knowledge has no value. Maintaining the blog has become a chore. This is not sustainable. For this reason, the blog has been deleted.

I continue to blog about bicycle components on the website of our webshop. We also continue to organise cycling holidays.

28 February 2012

There's been a bit of speculation on the web about what I meant when I specifically named the three organisations above. Here I explain in more detail:

London Cycling Campaign
I have in the past let the London Cycling Campaign use my photos without payment. They appear in one of the LCC's videos, for instance.

The incident with the LCC to which I took exception started on the first of August 2011. The LCC membership had overwhelmingly voted for a "Go Dutch" theme for the next year. There had been many misgivings amongst the members about this, due to a perceived lack of enthusiasm amongst the committee. The committee was not on the back foot and trying to catch up with its members.

Mike Cavenett, Communications Officer of the LCC, sent email to the CEoGB and myself asking for permission to reproduce my article "Why the Netherlands is important for British cyclists" in the next issue of London Cyclist magazine.

I initially said that they could indeed use the article, free of charge. However, it turned out that Mike didn't want the article as it stood, but wished to edit it. The edits which were made turned much of what I had said in the article on its head. Part way through what became a time-consuming series of re-edits, I suggested to Mike that he and other officials of the LCC would benefit from a tour to deal with their misunderstandings about cycling in the Netherlands. His response was "You're right of course about seeing things for ourselves, and some of us will be visiting Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the next few weeks". I asked what they would be doing and he replied "Marc from the Amsterdamize blog has kindly offered to show us around the capital, and has put us in touch with someone for Rotterdam too. We did consider your services of course, but our budget for this trip is very low and it would be an imposition to expect a free tour from a professional such as yourself. I hope we didn't offend by going elsewhere - your expertise in this area is clear to us, but it didn't seem to be the right solution on this occasion."

The LCC really is not a small organisation with no money. They spent an awful lot of it recently on publicity their rather fuzzy ideas for "Go Dutch", achieving a large number of extra subscriptions as a result. After their big launch this year, they even appointed a communications agency to send email to bloggers like me to encourage us to support them. There is plenty of money for things that the LCC staff think are important, such as marketing themselves. The budget was zero only when it came to the research which stood behind this major policy change. It appears to me that the LCC knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

The rest of this email from Mike included another re-edit which made it obvious to me that Mike still didn't "get it" as again it had not remotely the same meaning as the words in my original article.

A couple of other emails went back and forth, but we weren't getting anywhere. I sat on it for a couple of days to think about what to do before sending the following response:
I've reconsidered. I don't want to write an article for the LCC at this time.

We do this for a living and we're good at it. Our expertise and time should be valued. We have a unique experience of living and cycling both in the UK and here. We can offer insights which won't get from anyone else.

If you were coming for a study tour, I'd have a lot more patience with the request for free work on an article. However, this is really something completely different. We contacted people in LCC as long ago as 2006 and 2008 to offer a tour. Since then I've responded positively to requests for free use of photos and text.

However, we now discover that at the same time as our expertise is valued enough that you ask for information from us about cycling in the Netherlands, and would like us to provide an article and photos for free for the magazine, we're not valued enough for your organisation to even consider our services as part of your tour.

This is quite unreasonable.

The LCC is not a small organisation. It has a revenue of over a million pounds per year, much of which goes on paying the salaries of 14 staff members. You are perhaps one of them. I dare say that you don't expect to work for nothing.

We're being taken for fools. We don't owe the LCC, it's staff or its members anything at all. We've spent years working in cycling campaigning and other organisations in the UK for free. These days we do quite enough already for free on the blog without asking for a penny in return. We give money to charity and try to help people. These things are our gift to give, not something that someone else can ask for and expect from us.

Another example
Another example of the LCC's methods of research came along in November. Before my post about it in January 2011, the Dutch protest movement "Stop de Kindermoord" was rarely discussed in the English language, but after this time quite a few posts appeared on English speaking cycling blogs. In October 2011, Mark Wagenbuur made a very nice video which also referred to Stop de Kindermoord. He also wrote a post about it for "A view from the cycle-path". This did even more to make the movement known in the English speaking world. In November 2011, Mike Cavenett sent email to Marc van Woudenburg at Amsterdamize including a link to Mark Wagenbuur's post on my blog, asking "Were you responsible for putting together this excellent video and blog post?" and going on to ask to use images from Mark Wagenbuur's video showing the "Stop de Kindermoord" protest.
Mike Cavenett's own article for the LCC about "Stop de Kindermoord" appeared in February 2012. The introduction to Mike's new article has a similar theme to the introduction to my "Why the Netherlands is important for British Cyclists".

European Cyclists' Federation
Julian Ferguson, Communications Officer of the European Cyclists' Federation, made contact in October 2011 with an email which said:
I'm just writing a quick email from the European Cyclists' Federation to wonder if you'd like to collaborate on a myths and facts brochure that we're hoping to compile for our new website launch at the end of this month. You have quite a reputation in the bicycle world, and we regularly look at your blog for a whole range of policy insights.

He admits in this email that the ECF read my blog for insights on policy. He also wants to make use of my reputation, and he wants help in making their website look better for its relaunch. Julian continued:
I was envisaging drafting up a myths and facts brochure which would be downloadable and free for anybody to distribute. The idea is to have a "Top Ten Cycling Myths". I came across this post of yours, ( and thought perhaps we could collaborate to knock all those nasty myths made by politicians into an easy to read and attractive booklet? Unfortunately we couldn't offer you any sort of remuneration if you were willing to help out, but we would of course pay for all the design costs, and make sure that you're credited as a co-author, as well as allowing you to distribute the PDF on your own blog?

So now we find out what he wants. He wants to use text from my blog in a booklet. I am, of course, not to be paid for this work, but I do get to be "credited as co-author" of my work, and what's more I would be allowed to distribute a PDF file which promotes the ECF on my blog.
This is not a reasonable offer from a staff member who receives a regular salary at an organisation which has quite a large budget. I sent the following reply:

I'm very happy to hear that you read my blog and find it insightful. A lot of people write to me to say that they like the blog, and a lot of people tell me I've attained a reputation through it.

Unfortunately, while this has lead to a lot of people valuing my work, it has not lead to many people valuing it enough that think my time is worth anything. I get several requests every week for me to do work for free. This can be writing articles for magazines, assisting with other people's articles, proof reading, advising on planning issues, making videos on specific topics, taking photos of particular types of infrastructure, advising on technical issues with bikes or indeed with help making lists of one thing or another. However, for some reason my reputation doesn't seem to attract paid work.

I have put thousands of hours into the blog and supporting cycling through campaigning. These days it consumes as much time as many people spend on a full time job, but I do this without a salary as reward.

For this reason I have to turn down your request. It's gone far enough. I am available for paid work, but not for unpaid work.

I received no reply to this email and assumed that would be the last I heard of it. However, on November the 8th a thread appeared on the ECF forum, started by Julian Ferguson and entitled "The Myths and Facts about Cycling: We want to create a brochure!". Julian gave three examples of what he wanted, which sounded somewhat familiar:

So tell us about all the myths you've heard.

I'll get the ball rolling.

Cycling infrastructure is too expensive in economic times

It won't work in cities with urban sprawl...

Not everybody is dutch...

Now let me leave it up to you. Start posting...

When I saw this, I responded with the following (which was later moved by the ECF to another thread on the forum):

On the 10th of October I received email from one of the paid staff at the ECF starting with:

"I'm just writing a quick email from the European Cyclists' Federation to wonder if you'd like to collaborate on a myths and facts brochure that we're hoping to compile for our new website launch at the end of this month. You have quite a reputation in the bicycle world, and we regularly look at your blog for a whole range of policy insights."

It went on to say that what they were interested in was that I should work for them on a version of my blog posts entitled "All those myths and excuses in one post".

Like most such requests that I get, this one pointed out that "Unfortunately we couldn't offer you any sort of remuneration if you were willing to help out".

As it happens, I feel differently about this when it comes from someone who gives their own time for free than I do when it comes from a paid staff member of an organisation which has money and does actually have a budget for spending on things like this.

My reply to the ECF was the same as two others sent that week, pointing out that an asymmetrical "collaboration" between two parties in which only one party is paid for their time is not a reasonable way of going about getting things done.

If they find what I write so worthwhile that they read it regularly because I write things which they find insightful, why not offer to work with me on a more equal footing so that I can perhaps continue to spend time on the blog ?

Naturally, I heard no more from the ECF staff member.

So now they're looking for information again, but using a different tack this time. Frankly I’m getting a bit fed up with these attitudes.



p.s. The blog post is still there, and still has a nice long list of myths and excuses.

Only after I made this post on their public forum did I receive a reply by email. Of course, it was still not offering to actually pay me for writing for the ECF.

After I closed the blog, and people asked about this on Twitter, Julian made an extraordinary tweet on behalf of the ECF which reveals the attitudes at work. It said: "People would be willing to pay for @davidhembrow 's work. He just needs to market himself more like @copenhagenize and @amsterdamize". Just as with the LCC, it seems that marketing is the only thing that matters to and impresses the ECF.

Apart from this public tweet, the ECF have not responded to me about the closure of the blog.

Environmental Transport Association
The ETA is primarily known to its customers as a car rescue service. For many people, the ETA is preferable to the RAC or AA because they are not involved in lobbying for roads.

The photo which I know of on the ETA website is that which is shown to the right. It was cropped to remove the text and used on a blog post by Andrew Davis (since removed).

I found out about this use of my photo only by accident because someone sent me the link. When I saw my photo being used without having been asked for and without credit, I immediately sent email. The ETA has now added a link to our website. However, in the return email came the following paragraph:

Again, apologies. It was originally lifted for internal training purposes - must of our staff have not been to the Netherland or Denmark. It was not intended for broadcast. We will happily add the link. Let me assure you that we normally ask before broadcast and permission is always given. This is just a mix up and no one else's fault but mine.

Now the ETA were at least gracious enough to include a link. However, it was only with this email that I found out my material is being used for internal training in the ETA. I have no idea in what context they use it, and as their staff mostly have not been to the Netherlands, it is quite likely that there are many misconceptions about what this country is like. In their view, it seems the only mistake they thought they'd made was that of using the photo in public. However, this is not the way in which copyright law works. Try it with, for example, Microsoft. Let them know that you use their software only for "internal training purposes" and therefore do not think you need to pay them.

The ETA doesn't offer a free car rescue service. This would be impossible because there are costs involved, and the ETA needs to make a profit. Likewise, we don't provide a free photographic service. We have costs too, and we also need to make a profit in order to live.

While we lived in the UK, we were members of the ETA. Our subscription fee helped to pay the salary of ETA staff members including Andrew Davis.

The ETA have not responded to me about the closure of the blog.

I'm far from the only one
There is of course nothing new about commercial enterprises leaning on "volunteers" to do work. Photographers have this problem all the time, as do rather better authors than myself.

November 2012 update

Transport for London / Steer Davies Gleave architects Several months have passed since I last wrote about people wanting me to work for free for them. In the mean time I've received several requests to work for free, but none quite so blatant as this one from Transport for London (featured several times on my blog) and the large international architectural firm Steer Davie Gleave. It started with the following email from Caitlin Bell on the 19th of October:

Dear David,

Our client, Transport for London, has commissioned my company to do a series of case studies on exemplary transport projects throughout the world, to give them ideas on the best way to upgrade a number of streets throughout the city. One of the projects they’ve asked us to look at are the streets in Assen: Noordersingel, Brinkstraat, Nieuwe Huizen and Groingerstraat. My search is proving difficult due to the difference in language, however I did come across your blog, and I was wondering if you knew where I would be able to find some detailed information on the project? I need to know things such as the cost of the project, the transport policy behind it, the year the project began and finished, etc.

I apologise for the somewhat random email, however if you are able to help in any way it would be very much appreciated.

Kind regards,
Caitlin Bell
Landscape Architect
Steer Davies Gleave
28-32 Upper Ground, London SE1 9PD

All polite enough, but the angle was obvious. This was going to turn into another opportunity for me to be able to "help" someone who is paid for their work.

I wrote back explaining that the only reason why Transport for London had shown any interest in these streets is because I had written about them on this blog and on our webpages. It was not "random" chance that Caitlin found me to ask to work for her, because there is simply no other information to find. I sent several links back to prove the point, asking if she had found any other information in either English or Dutch which pre-dated August 2007 when we moved here and started writing about Assen

The email I received in return started off "Thank you very much for your email and the wealth of information you have provided on your blog. I found the footage and photographs particularly interesting and extremely useful for the case study." before continuing with "you and your website will be fully acknowledged in our documentation and I will include a link to your cycle tours website".

So yet again this initially honest looking request for information had turned into an opportunity to do someone's work for them but not be paid for it. A link is not the same as payment. Several more emails were exchanged in which  I made it clear that I was willing to allow Steer Davies Gleave to use my content and my photographs, but only if they were willing to pay for the privilege. I asked repeatedly to be told exactly what content of mine they wanted to use and for what purpose. No straightforward reply was forthcoming, but I did eventually receive the following very short email:

We have looked into this and our client has not agreed for us to buy information for this project. Therefore we are using only publicly available sources.

‪Thank you for your assistance to date, and apologies if we have caused any inconvenience.

So there we have it. From a company which charges a considerable rate for its employees' time, I receive an email containing the absurd notion that TfL have no budget to pay for people to do the research that they say they want done.

If Transport for London want to know about Assen and they only found out about the city because somewhere there reads my blog and watches my youtube videos, then why didn't they contact my directly instead of appointing an expensive international firm of architects who don't even have the information that TfL is asking for ?

This is beyond ridiculous, but it also appears to be normal so far as this blog is concerned. People appreciate the information which I have made available, and many use it in the way it was intended. However, there are also many people who want me, in effect, to work for free so that they can use my work to further their own careers. That is not acceptable to me.

Just a few days later
A few days later, TfL awarded contracts worth 1.2 billion pounds, to be added to 1.4 billion from other sources, to be spent on maintenance as well as design and construction of new schemes in London. Steer Davies Gleeve are clearly amongst the beneficiaries of TfL's billions and I find it quite astonishing that they imagine I will believe that the one thing they have no budget for is paying for information from the only person who has the information that they need.

Enough is enough
No-one asked us to start organising study tours, and no-one asked me to start blogging either. While we charged for most study tours, only some of them ran at a profit and that profit was never large. Taken as a whole, the total revenue from study tours did not meet the total cost of organising them. We subsidized tours in the past because we believed in what we were doing.

While the blog didn't have such large outgoings associated with it as the tours did, it was a black-hole for time.

In both cases we hoped that the expense might at some point be offset by attracting work from organisations like LCC, ECF, ETA and TfL. All of these multi million pound enterprises pay their staff and subcontractors well. However it has become clear that the type of people who those organisations employ see bloggers like myself as nothing more than a chance to have their work done for them for free. Organisations like these, and I'm sure there are others who I don't know about who are using my work without even asking, have proven that what we have done is of value, that our knowledge is valuable to them, and that in many cases they want us to directly work for them. However, they have also proven that they think that we want to do their work for them for free. We will not work for commercial enterprises for no reward.

You might think that our ability to aid communication between Dutch and British people might be valued on this side of the North Sea, but it is not. It appears that we're simply not "Dutch" enough to be taken seriously, and for that reason our unique insight which comes from the fact that we've lived in and cycled for long periods in different countries, that we see things that the Dutch don't, and that because we're native speakers of English we've been able to spot when the Dutch make particularly bad mistakes with translations of their own material, seems to count for nothing.

There has been some acknowledgement here, but it doesn't add up to much. I was interviewed for the Fietsberaad newsletter, and though I submitted my piece in both Dutch and English in an attempt to prevent confusion they didn't print what I wrote but substituted opinions quite the opposite of my own and printed the result without asking for confirmation. It's a classic example of the confusion that so often reigns when Dutch and British people communicate with one another, and something that we could have helped to prevent if the Dutch were not overconfident about their ability in English.

The situation here recently changed such that some bloggers and others with interest in cycling in the Netherlands, people who have referenced material as part of building their own, receive funding or are invited on expenses paid trips. This comes in part from the taxes that we pay in the Netherlands but we are not included in whatever club it is that you have to be a member of. This is not something we're willing to continue to support.

So thank you to all the genuine readers of the blog, those who made positive comments and supported us, and to those who came on the tours. The blog is now closed. I will not continue to work hard on something substantial like this only to see it being taking advantage of by others.

We are continuing with our businesses in the Netherlands, and Hembrow Cycling Holidays. Through the latter we are available for paid consultancy and can still organise study tours on a commercial basis on which you will be able to take advantage of our knowledge gained by living and cycling in both countries - still something you won't find elsewhere.

Also see our other blogs, the Dutch Bike blog about bicycle components, the Hembrow Cycling Holidays blog about cycle holidays in the Netherlands and my personal blog about things other than cycling.

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