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.