Category Archives: citizenship

The disturbing effects of social tech on civil society: arrests

Tomorrow the Carnegie UK Trust is running a seminar on how social technology will impact on civil society associations … and Dan McQuillan has kick-started discussion with a terrific post here, touching on the research undertaken for Carnegie by Suw Charman-Anderson (scroll down posts). Dan notes:

Carnegie’s report on The shape of civil society to come says that “The purpose of futures work is to ‘disturb the present’ and to help organisations understand and manage uncertainties and ambiguities. Futures thinking operates on an assumption that there is not one future but multiple possible futures, dependent partly on how we choose to respond to or create change.”

My take is that the disturbance will come where the faultlines in civil society are most pressured by the patterns and memes of the social web. The Shape of Civil Society identifies key faultlines such as

  • Voluntary and community associations lose their distinctiveness due to increasing partnership with the state,
  • Traditional political engagement on the wane
  • Diminishing arenas for public deliberation
  • Marginalisation of dissent

These are clearly on collision course with memes like Openness, Transparency, Agility and the return of The Commons.

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Playing the digital neighbourhood game

I’ve been thinking recently how to help people explore the ways in which social technology can benefits local communities – when those involved may not understand what’s possible with tools and methods ranging from websites to digital storytelling, e-democracy to outdoor screens.
It’s a theme I’ve worked on for more than a decade – but recent developments like the digital mentors programme, Talk About Local, and the RSA’s emerging plans, make it particularly topical. It certainly got on airing at the recent National Digital Inclusion Conference … dashboard here.
In the past, working with Drew Mackie and others, I’ve used card-based workshop games like those here to help people play through the possibilities. It all started for me back in Brighton in 1997.
However, it took a recent trip to Holland to give me some fresh ideas about how to scale-up engaging with technology at neighbourhood level.

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Making pdf policy accessible through Simply Understand

After the excellent efforts of Adrian Short to make council web sites more useful by providing news feeds, I found another no-cost digital engagement innovation. Again from an individual.

Corinne Pritchard dropped a comment into a piece a wrote which bemoaned the way that a government department puts up pdfs for a consultation exercise instead of pages you can read on screen. Corinne said: I do that at Simply Understand. I looked – and was hooked.

Simply Understand is a unique translation service. Are you fed up with gobblydegook and jargon? Are you frustrated by endless sentences and hundred-page documents?

Simply Understand aim to cut your policy papers, manuals and programmes down to size! When everything is simply readable, you can simply understand.

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Seriously Civic Social Media in Brum

Today’s the last chance to comment on the Birmingham Big City Plan, so in case I have one or two readers up that way I’d better get this posted, and also endorse Nick Booth’s recommendation to click over to the independent Big City Talk. There you’ll find a “plain English” version of the plan and a host of comments from Brummies who care about how the City Centre may change over the next 20 years

More generally, it’s an opportunity for me to flag up the buzz of social media activity in Birmingham, created by people like Nick. We met up the other day at UKGovCamp09, and I took the chance to interview him on why online journalist Paul Bradshaw says Birmingham is “the sort of social media haven that has people around the world scratching their heads in curiosity”.

Paul was writing about the move of Birmingham Post’s Development editor Joanna Geary to London to become The Times Web Development Editor. Apparently Jo, with the likes of Jon Bounds and Pete Ashton and Nick has helped create the “haven” with its social media cafes, surgeries for voluntary organisations … and a paper that really sees the value of encouraging local bloggers.

Then there’s how bloggers put together a really understandable online consultation process for the Big City Plan, without antagonising the council, and getting a link. Nick explains how it was done.

Real Civic Media … passionate, sincere, hyperlocal … and so different from much of our mainstream media.

More here on hyperlocal media, including Will Perrin’s plan to train thousands of local activists in the use of social media, which I gather is likely to get funding soon. I would love some of that to happen in London … but I think Birmingham has the edge. Or maybe I’ll think it is Manchester, after I’ve visited Gary Copitch and the team at People’s Voice Media in a few weeks.

How Open helps a big player learn collaboration

Bids are now in for the £900,000 Digital mentor programme, including one from the Voicebox consortium whose open approach I enthused about recently.  I tried to explain there why I thought that constructing the bid through open meetings and a blog site produced better ideas and spin-off partnerships.

The managing director of UK online centres, Helen Milner, made a better job of it when she spoke to me the other day at UKGovCamp09 … but I agreed to hold on to the interview until after the bids went in. I started by asking – had the open approach been worth it?

As you can hear, Helen says it has been a huge effort, but worth it for the new partners and network of relationships that have formed. I asked about a large “official” organisation like UK online centres getting down into the messy world of social media. She said:

Yes …we are the “big people” who don’t necessarily play around on blogs and twitter – but I’ve personally learned something doing it this way.

I’ve learned it is a better way of doing things because it is much more inclusive, more collaborative  and you have got to be humble enought to say you don’t have all the best ideas yourself – you have to talk to other people to get their ideas

So will there be any going back to older ways of doing things? Helen says they would probably do it differently another time but it is definitely now part of their DNA.

Helen confirms something I feel strongly – that it is one thing for large organisations who say they are in the business of promoting digital inclusion to write papers, do presentations, hold conferences – but it doesn’t mean much unless they get their hands dirty and actually join in.

Over on Voicebox Ben Brown confirms who will be doing what, if their bid succeeds. Citizens Online will be leading the Research and Mapping work stream, while Training and Toolkits will be led by two organisations: Ruralnet|uk and Opportunity Links.

Update: Helen has now added her reflections on the process over here on Voicebox. In summary:

  1. Partnership is a much better way to do things
  2. It takes loads of time to develop ideas in this kind of forum
  3. Social media helped me to put aside prejudices and listen to all comments with an open mind and a receptiveness to learn
  4. It’s really hard to balance open debate and to provide structure for a constructive discussion
  5. Not everyone likes using social media to develop bids
  6. The journey’s been fun but arriving will be better

Could blogging bosses '08 become social artists '09?

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA,  is writing about new progressivism in a series of blog posts this week. I particularly like the suggestion that he makes for greater focus on political ends instead of means, and a shift in the nature of debate. I believe that the 27,000-strong membership of the RSA could be an excellent testbed for the social artistry needed to achieve this. read more »

Tracking the buzz online


My creative friends over at Delib have launched a tool to track online conversation, and used it to give us insights into the buzz around Boris, Ken and others in London Mayoral election. You can read the analysis behind the diagram here – Boris is getting talked about a lot, but there’s general discontent among voters.

Brand Republic provides more background on the tool and its uses:

The technology behind the Opinion Tracker uses spider programs similar to the robots and crawlers used by popular search engines to scan the web for specific clusters of keywords on blogs and other areas where internet users interact.

The data collected by the spiders is aggregated, and then sampled and processed by a team of analysts at Delib, to provide end analysis and metrics.

The metrics collated by Opinion Tracker are organised into different categories, including “buzz”, the level of noise created by internet users; “mood”, where public sentiment lies; and “what’s hot”, a summary of the main topics inciting chat among internet users.

“Live conversations” provides examples of what users are saying online.

Chris Quigley, managing partner at Delib, said “With the increased usage of social media by the general public, its now possible to find out what people are saying and thinking without running a straight opinion poll or focus group.

“Using a service like Opinion Tracker can help organisations keep an eye on what’s being said about them across the social internet and the levels of buzz they’re generating.”

Other research firms provide online tracking, but I think we can rely on Delib to make it fun too. They specialise in online engagement and e-democracy, with a mix of serious forums and games, as you’ll see here. I thought of letting them know about this post, but I expect they pick it up anyway …

Could the BBC co-design its new community services?

Here’s a try-out for socialreporter as collaboration co-ordinator, on the lines of “wouldn’t it be a good idea if…” rather than “here’s a problem, let’s stir things up”.
I wonder if it’s possible to organise a get-together between people interested in how new BBC services may support social action, local democracy and online communities.
It seems timely because the BBC is planning something substantial which could, for the first time, link their “professional” services to online material produced by citizen journalists and other local community media projects. Proposals will soon be put to the BBC Trust, which has to approve the plans.
Before that happens it seems to me important that all parties take a realistic look at what’s possible, and think out how to co-design something useful to local democracy.
The problem is that the community side of the deal may not hold up. Recently Charlie Beckett, champion of networked journalism, raised the issue of what happens if no-one comes … that is, the citizen journalists don’t materialise in the form the professionals hope. The BBC’s Robin Hamman offered some useful insights from the Manchester blogging experiment, including:

People don’t necessarily blog or post content about the topics, stories and events that media organisations might hope they would – and, in our experience anyway, rarely post about news and current affairs.

Now another media commentator, Martin Moore, has trawled through the Annex 8 of OFCOM’s Public Service Broadcasting Review similarly trying to work if there’s a future for local news, community and social action on the web. In Still waiting for local community web sites, he writes:

When it comes to local content – particularly community / social action, or news (outside major news organisations) there is, according to the report, precious little out there. There are exceptions of course – hyperlocal independent sites like Urban 75 (for Brixton) – but these are few and far between. ‘Local, regional and national sites’ the report says, ‘tend to have limited ambitions and low production values’.
And then there are the local newspaper sites. Unfortunately many of these are ‘heavily templated and homogenous between regions’ (p.38). Trinity Mirror is trying to break the mould slightly with its postcode project (e.g. see TS10 Redcar), though it’s unclear the extent to which this is a vehicle for news or for classified advertising (though you could argue this is the same for many local print papers).
It’s very difficult, in other words, to find successful examples of thriving local community sites (as compared to the US, say) and even harder to find examples of local sites performing the ‘watchdog role’ of the Fourth Estate (a role that appears conspicuously absent from OFCOMs definition of ‘public purposes’).
We already know that local broadcast news is in serious trouble (not least because OFCOM tells us it is), but going by this study it’ll be quite some time before local community sites can fill the gap.

So who might be interested in a get-together? I keep bumping into people from different innovative parts of the BBC who say, yes, interesting things are happening but it’s not actually in their department. … love to know more. The BBC Trust are thinking about how they might develop an online presence after their experiment in engaging with bloggers last year. I should think Charlie and Martin would be interested, and my friends at Involve, who specialise in public engagement.
On the local front it seems a must for Bristol, home to many excellent local e-democracy projects, led by Stephen Hilton and his team. The Connecting Bristol blog has hosted some lively discussion recently, and Stephen picked up on the BBC plans in The BBC, Democracy & The Internet – Job Done. As part of the discussion there I wrote:

Maybe the BBC will venture into networked journalism, as hinted in the Action Network closure statement.
I hope that the BBC Trust – who have to agree the plans – will give us a chance to engage with them online as well as running their traditional consultation process.

Professor Stephen Coleman, who was guest blogging, kindly responded:

David – I agree. The BBC Trust certainly ought to connect with the e-democracy community. I’m sure that there’s much valuable advice that you and others could offer them. The Centre for Digital Citizenship at Leeds University would be happy to set up a forum for such an exchange of views. Let’s see if we can take this forward in a way that will help the BBC to make the best possible plans.

Birmingham is another place with some online civic activity, and I do hope Nick Booth and Paul Bradshaw might be interested. They have been selected as the only UK finalists in the Knight News Challenge, a competition based in the US to develop and fund innovations in online journalism. Nick is a former BBC producer, and in his podcasting and blogging is one of my inspirations for social reporting. Paul is a City Birmingham City University lecturer whose Online Journalism Blog is another inspiration.
So there’s a start … and I’m sure there are plenty of other people potentially interested. I had hoped that the RSA would act as a convenor for this sort of project, but their journalism initiative sounds like a professionals-only affair. Maybe the Centre for Digital Citizenship could step in, perhaps with some of the other organisations? I think a good first step would be something fairly informal that allowed everyone to get to know each other and be, well, collaborative.
After that, wouldn’t it be exciting if the BBC decided to join in a co-design process with people trying to make community media work – rather than invent something top-down which may or may not work?

E-Democracy Centre "surprised by speculation"

The International Centre for Local e-Democracy has been subject to some discussion on blogs and mailing lists, started by Professor Stephen Coleman questioning what we get for our money.

Is it new research and understanding? Or new tools to be used by governments? Or critical debate about the merits and values of e-participation? Perhaps someone can tell me what ICELE is for and why considerable amounts of public money should be spent supporting it?

Almost as interesting as the value or otherwise of ICELE projects has been the lack of online interaction offered by the Centre, and low profile in the discussion. Now the director, Rita Wilson, has responded on the UK and ireland E-Democracy Exchange.

Having been on holiday for a few days I was surprised to come back to lots of speculation about ICELE. First of all I would like to say that I am more than happy to provide information regarding what ICELE has been achieving and there is nothing hidden about our activities. But we are doers not talkers, delivering a programme to make a difference in how local authorities use tools and technology to move from consultation to participation.

Far from not being well known we have around 1800 subscribers to our newsletter and we get over 2700 visitors to our website each month.

Adding later:

Yes we promote the use of social media and have our Facebook site, but it isnt about what we do but about what we enable others to do that we should be judged  some of which will take years to fully mature. We dont know what our future is  but our passion to make a difference to how local authorities engage remains.

You can read the rest on this thread and judge for yourself.

Costs of the BBC Action Network

BBC Action Network costs

As I wrote here, the BBC is shortly closing the Action Network, set up five years ago to support grassroots action. Tom Steinberg, founder of the mySociety, which produces tools for social action and e-democracy, has now established some of the costs of the BBC project through a freedom of information request – details. From the spreadsheet provided by the BBC looks as if it will be rather more than £1.3 million by the time it closes.

I should think that interest will now shift to whatever the BBC is planning next. The closure announcement said the BBC would:

… launch a new service which will give people access to all the BBC’s content across tv, radio and online on a range of topical issues. Many of these topic pages will reflect the same issues that have been central to Action Network, from healthcare and schools, to public transport and policing.
Each topic page will offer the latest news stories on an issue, including TV and radio programmes, while linking to the wider debate through people’s blogs, campaigns and websites.
Many of the Action Network guides and briefings will be moved across to the BBC News Online website and will be found in the new topic pages – and will continue to help people understand how political systems work and how to get involved.

It seems to me that the big question for the BBC – and BBC Trust who will have to approve the plans – is what sort of local online activity they can hope to see in future. As Charlie Beckett questioned recently in relation to citizen journalism – what happens if they don’t come? I hope the BBC, and the Trust, will feel it’s a good idea to co-design and prototype the new system with license-payer/citizens.