Recent get-togethers about local online have both rekindled enthusiasm for what social media can do for neighbourhoods, and also pointed to more general models of how collaborations may work between commercial, public, nonprofit interests and volunteers.
My early enthusiam for the web in the mid-1990s was fired by the example of Freenets and community networks in North America, so I was delighted when my friend Kevin Harris helped organise a couple of events recently, as I reported here.
One of the people I met was Matt Collins, who is developing Localmouth, aiming to provide a “Local Community Guide to Every Town, Village and Hamlet in Britain”.
When local enthusiasts tried building local community sites in the 1990s – as I recalled here – they found it difficult to develop models that worked either as a business, or for volunteers. Part of the problem was you had to get everyone to contribute to the same place, then persuade them to maintain it, or do it yourself.
When I met Matt again the other day – video above – I said it seemed he now had a better way … and then asked him how Localmouth started, and how it worked.
He started off explaining that inspiration came when he was staying with his parents in a Wiltshire village, after spending time in big cities, and getting bored. So he did what any geek would – and searched the web. Nothing easily findable … too spread about.
Localmouth solves the problem, and that of the 1990s model, by making use of the fact that commercial sites now provide comprehensive national information on houses for sale, events, and local businesses. What’s more they want to give it away by enabling other sites to search and pull results across via a bit of geekery called an Action Programming Interface (more here on APIs). They get more traffic, commissions, eyeballs for adverts and so on.
Non-commercial sites are also providing national but locally-focussed data, like Groups near you. If you run a group, you add its web site, blog, email list once and it is then seachably on site and also distributed via the API.
Just using other people’s data won’t be enough to create good local content and conversations, so Localmouth allows bloggers to add their sites directly, and has a forum for conversations.
I talked to Matt about other locally focussed sites he admired, and among others he mentioned TrustedPlaces, whose co-founder Walidd Al Saqqaf I interviewed here last year and We Love Local. That enables you to search for and review restaurants, cafes, pubs, and clubs. On the purely local Matt is a big fan of London SE1, run by James Hatts.
Perhaps the biggest potential for linking up lies with mainstream media, where both BBC and commercial interests are creating more local content and working with citizen journalists, as I’ve explored in some items here. Charlie Beckett – interviewed here – has written a book called Supermedia on the potential for Networked Journalism, so I suggested Matt might like to get in touch. My bit of aggregation.
What interests me about Localmouth is not just the potential benefits for localities, but that it provides one easy way to show people the difference between the old 1990s Web 1.0 “come to my place” idea of community, and the Web 2.0 possibilities of aggregating content from different places while still building something special. It should be possible to build a business model based on the combined efforts of commercial interests, volunteers and other public data as Government is exploring through Showusabetterway, explained here by the Minister responsible, Tom Watson MP.
I know it’s all more complicated than that … so I hope others who know more about APIs, RSS and other means of aggregation can add a little gloss to this account. Matt says Localmouth is now his day job, so he has confidence.