More buzz around Local 2.0

Another boost to the growing interest in using social media for local communication and action, with a report from Kevin Harris on Simon Grice’s Hyperlocal *mashup workshop, which he helped facilitate. Kevin did a lot of early work on digital inclusion and local online centres in the Web 1.0 world, and knows both about technology and neighbourhoods. This time around there are lots more commercial interests, though Kevin reports:

But at the end of it I found it hard to believe that any of the companies represented, large or small, has a commercial model that will deliver sustainable local online communication with an acceptable framework of ownership, in sufficient density to help compensate for the current inadequacy of communication channels at local level.

He feels we’ll need more action from local government and housing organisations to underpin substantial developments. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to hear senior civil servant William Perrin describe the voluntary work that he does on hyperlocal blog Kings Cross Environment. William is passionate about the potential of very local sites, and blogs about it at Ultra Local Voice. He has slides here. His solution, from the event: “You’ve got to find the activists who have the burning need to communicate. It’s hard but it’s not that hard”.

Meanwhile over on Dave Briggs site, Georgia Klein is inviting people to tell the Department for Communities and Local Government what they think of the idea of Digital Mentors, which Dave wrote about here. General view is that it’s more about inspiration, encouragement and support than technology.

There ‘s some linkage with Clare White’s idea for a network of social reporters, which I wrote about here. Clare submitted a bid to the Ministry of Justice Building Democracy programme, and is now developing the idea further on a wiki here.

There was a lot of interest in local online communities back in the 1990s when I and others developed a network called UK Communities Online, inspired by the North American Community Networks and Freenets. Kevin – with his combined knowledge of new technologies and community development – gave us many insights then. The problem, which he rightly identifies again, is the business model. In those days the technology models were centralised websites with pages for many different local interests. They were costly to maintain, and as initial funding and volunteer enthusiasm faded, they mostly went under.

These days there are lots of commercial offerings focussed on information about local shops, and services. There’s far more scope for local networking through mobile devices. Enthusiasts like William can easily set up a blog to campaign for local improvements.

What’s crucial to the mix – as William highlights – is people, whether they are called digital mentors, social reporters or anything else. If they are volunteers, the overhead of managing a site has to be fairly low. If they want to get paid, the social reporting/mentoring probably has to be an add-on to other activities. There could be some opportunities in the new world of networked journalism … though that’s going to be pretty crowded with local pro journalists trying to earn a living in difficult times.

My hunch is that William has the right idea: keep it small, simple, and under local control. If you don’t like what the enthusiasts are doing, you can always start your own.

Update: William Perrin has now blogged his analysis in more detail:

There is a paradox for local news – it can’t support its industrial era costs in a world where interest in news is moving online.  But at the same time conventional local news isn’t interesting enough to people because it isn’t local enough.   So it faces a lose-lose situation – to cut costs (and still broadcast or print) it has to concentrate production at a regional level and so is less interesting to its audience.  Communities lose out as they lose an albeit imperfect voice.

With only a few exceptions, it is hard to see how solo ultralocal or hyperlocal sites can support a paid member of staff (at the very lowest £25k inc overheads).  So unless new sources of funding arise, a conventional paid for journalist model looks unlikely at an ultralocal level.  The only way to gather hyperlocal news for an industrial era news model is by tapping into a volunteer base to write news for you.

So if you want social reporting to be a job as well as role, you can’t just do local.

* Here’s an earlier item by Kevin, reporting a workshop he organised that I did attend, hosted by CABE – the government’s advisor on architecture, urban design and public space. I hope they continue to show an interest, so that we get stronger linkages between policy and practice online and off.

9 Comments

  • October 7, 2008 - 8:10 am | Permalink

    I really think online activism in Britain has moved on hugely in the last year. Community organising was hard in the past because you really were the only one online in a lot of cases, not only the one maintaining the website but probaby the only one reading it too. I found most of my main online collaborators in different countries.

    Recently, however, in my local area, there has been a big rise in the number of people using email to organise some very powerful campaigns and share information across communities that were previously disconnected. We’ve got new blogs and websites emerging that challenge the previous very limited channels of information.

    It raises a big question for those of us in this field. Certainly training and mentoring has an impact but people need to ‘get it’ themselves and once they do the tools are really very simple and just a few people can make an enormous difference.

    I hope there will be avenues for paid social reporting – digital mentors in communities will be able to accelerate online engagement – but on a lot of levels I think the main work will be done by volunteers. At the grassroots and hyper-local level I definitely think that will be the case.

  • October 7, 2008 - 8:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks Clare for those front-line insights. If we accept, as you suggest, local level work will be done by volunteers (or as add-ons to existing work), and people largely have to learn for themselves, it gives us a clue to what’s needed by way of encouragement and support. How about a Barcamp-type get-together for social reporters and digital mentors to develop this further?

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  • October 8, 2008 - 11:54 am | Permalink

    This social reporter idea sounds very interesting and is useful whilst I’m developing thinking around digital mentors on behalf of CLG prior to going out to tender. I’m intrigued to hear your views on how one overcomes the motivational issue. As Claire said, helping people to ‘get it’. And there are contrary views on how simple the tools are when working with people with no ICT and poor literacy skills. Any thoughts on these or other mentor issues are welcome here, at Dave Briggs site or directly georgia.klein@communities.org.uk are welcome.

  • October 8, 2008 - 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Georgia – great to find CLG out in the blogosphere gathering ideas!
    I think the biggest barrier to adoption (beyond skill, costs etc) is “why bother”. People rightly question what benefit there will be for them in learning how to use new tools. Exhortation (it’s good for you) and threats (you’ll be left behind) don’t work. I find people get interested through friends and family, and seeing examples of activities that save money, better connect with family, solve problems, provide some fun … whatever … depending on their circumstances.
    Social reporters may help in this if they are telling story, making meaning, demonstrating tools in situations that people can connect with. That may be in their neighbourhood, at an event, in a group or organisations. They are technology plus content, and at their best may also be able to say “you can do this too” and show the way.
    I don’t know what your tendering procedure will be … but in the nature of these things it could present some problems if you are looking for one provider. Social reporting, digital mentoring etc is new and not embedded in any one potential training supplier.
    I wonder if you might be sympathetic to the sort of open bidding process that a group of us tried in relation to the Innovation Exchange bid http://innovationexchange.net/
    Could you say in the tender docs that you would be interested in proposals that aimed to harness the expertise of those working as social reporters, digital mentors etc? That would give us encouragement to collaborate on a proposal … not of course expecting any preference.
    Hope this helps – David

  • October 9, 2008 - 9:57 am | Permalink

    Not quite out there enough if I’m typing my email address wrong! georgia.klein@communities.gsi.gov.uk ! David I’m really pleased you brought up the tendering process as an issue and pointed me to the innovation exchange. I’d like to take further views on this. How can we use the tender process to help develop bids which will best facilitate building on existing knowledge /activities or gap-fill?

  • October 13, 2008 - 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Georgia – thanks, and sorry your comment got stuck in the spam filter. As you may have spotted by now, Dave Briggs is setting up a process for digital mentors and others to develop ideas and maybe offer a ready-made network.
    The challenge for government procurement, it seems to me, is to find a way of giving a fair chance to all proposals while co-evolving through the process something that best achieves outcomes. John Craig and colleagues now running the “official” Innovation Exchange might have some ideas on that from their work over the past year. Anyway, you are showing the way!

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  • June 4, 2009 - 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi, good post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting.

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