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A wealth of hyperlocal insights from #TAL12

The Talk About Local unconference in Birmingham yesterday was a highly sociable and enjoyable chance to catch up on the development of hyperlocal blogs and online communities … and also gather some insights for Socialreporters’ new exploration into community enabling and digital tech.

Here are the video interviews that I shot. I’ve summarised below, with links to each interview. The playlist is here.

In thinking about the new exploration, I was particularly interested in Sean Brady’s description of how he became a network weaver after being a parish councillor (referencing Tessy Britton and Eileen Conn along the way), and Lorna Prescott’s conviction that people working in local communities can start using digital tools easily with some support. Nick Booth and Dave Briggs provide some tips on how to do that.

Annette Albert provides an honest assessment of what it means for a non tech person to run a local online community – an enormous achievement on her part, with 1200 members. Vicky Sargent and Steve Brett emphasise the need to blend online and face-to-face activity to engage people in neighbourhood plans.

The online community notice board got a lot of mentions as a way to curate information about events, online activity and wants and offers. I can see that becoming even more popular. Franzi Bahrle is taking an interesting approach with VisualBrum.

On the wider front, I was particularly interested to hear from Will Perrin and Alex Delaney that TAL and Media Trust will be collaborating in future. Maybe there’s scope for a tie-in with People’s Voice Media, whose Institute of Community Reporters I wrote about recently. Philip John and Simon Perry talked about the Hyperlocal Alliance, and Dave Briggs has invited everyone to join in developing the Hyperlocal Handbook.

Here’s the interviews

The first Talk About Local unconference was in Stoke on Trent in 2009, as I reported here, and where I shot these interviews.

Playlist for TAL09 here.

Update from the Media Trust’s Newsnet

The other day I wrote briefly about developments in the hyperlocal field, with news of the Institute of Community Reporters and Saturday’s Talk About Local conference. I checked in at the Media Trust’s Newsnet, and enquired about latest development in their project, which I’ve written lots about in the past. It is a communication flagship of the Big Lottery Fund People Powered Change programme.

The always-helpful marketing director  Gavin Sheppard provided a very full update, which I’m delighted to quote here:

Hi David, interesting piece – totally agree with Gary’s views about the difference between citizen journalism and community reporting, and actually supports our view, I think, that it’s not as much what it’s called that matters as what people are doing and why it matters to them.

We’ve been focusing more on community reporting and community media and as you know will be supporting innovation in these areas with some inspiring voices grant awards via the newsnet forums.

We’ve also been appointing more beacon projects, some of whom we’re working with intensively to help amplify what they’re doing locally and all of whom are great reference points for anyone interested in how this kind of thing is manifested in different communities.

We’ve launched a programme to support beacon projects with equipment and have been providing bespoke training and mentoring locally (Adam has a blog of some of the people he’s worked with). We’ve continued to increase the number of newsnet members, who are starting to use the online resources to develop their own local projects.

We’ve increased the number of UK360 community news shows to one per week and have had a great response from the 60 communities who have featured in the show as well as from viewers (“Having taken the time and effort to produce a short film that we believe is a cut above the usual community production, we looked around for other outlets that might help us to get our message across and were surprised to discover UK360 – a series with high production values that was already broadcasting on Freeview”) and even the Daily Mail (who say “This thoroughly worthwhile weekly magazine brings community stories to life”).

We’re also broadcasting London360, which is focused on untold community stories in the capital and is made by a team of volunteer young journalists, as well as a wealth of other community content through Community Channel online and on TV (Here’s the TV schedule), including our new Arts360 strand which aims to engage young people in arts and cultural reporting.
Community Newswire, which we provide in partnership with The Press Association, is up to full capacity and has already distributed more than 4,000 community and charity stories into the mainstream local, regional and national media around the UK. We’re going to start geo-tagging that content and making the feed more widely available also.

We’ve launched Local360 in beta at, which currently contains stories from newswire, UK360 and London360, but which will start to include community reporter content from around the country uploaded via newsnet. This feed is being made available to other platforms and we plan to make it available to anyone who wants it, either for their own consumption or for publication on their own local sites etc.

We’re working with Will Perrin and his teams to further develop the newsnet resources and find our next round of beacon projects, and are supporting this weekend’s unconference. We are also working with Jacqui and her team at the Community Media Association to provide more outlets for their great content and with NESTA as a partner in their Destination Local project as well as a number of partner projects, such as the Village SOS events, at which we’re providing community media workshops.

Next steps for us are to get the Local360 content feed working well and finding new outlets for it, perhaps working with partner organisations to surface the content in innovative new ways, increasing the number of beacon projects and providing more support to them as well as highlighting them as an inspiration to other communities who may want to pursue community media, and supporting other organisations with resources, content and outlets to amplify their work and bring it to new audiences and increase their reach and impact locally.

With Newsnet focussed on links to mainstream media and TV output, as well as supporting beacon projects; accredited training from PVM, and Talk About Local’s growing network and hands-on support for sites, there’s a rich of complementary activities in the hyperlocal field.

Community reporting grows up with its own Institute

Good to see another burst of energy from the Manchester-based People’s Voice Media, with the launch of their Institute of Community Reporters, and also a European Network for community reporters.

In a news release Gary Copitch, PVM’s Chief Executive says: “We now have over 1000 reporters on the database from across the UK and a further 600 across Europe so it seems to make sense to develop the network and recognise the achievement of the reporters.”

Gary emphasises what he sees as the difference between citizen journalism and community reporting:

Community Reporting is a community development tool with individuals producing the content/stories they want to in order to encourage dialogue and discussion and establish online and offline networks. We feel this is different to citizen journalism where the emphasis is more often on individuals reporting on other people’s news.

This chimes in with some discussion sparked by Richard Millington, who blogged that hyperlocal sites were struggling, because of too much focus on technology and on news-style content, adding:

What we need is a genuine community building approach. You identify your first members, initiate discussions, invite members to participate in those discussions, write content about what’s happening in the community, and repeat as you grow.

More here on the PVC institute:

The Institute of Community Reporters (ICR) will be the accrediting body for the Community Reporter programme. It will accredit courses, issues certificates and manage the Community Reporter badge scheme. The ICR will also:

  • Provide access to online training resources and support for running local meet ups
  • Host Community Reporter content on the web site
  • Curate content at a European, national, local and organisational level to feed into policy and consultation

There will be three types of membership, Bronze, Silver and Gold. Platinum members will be for authorised trainers who have completed the ICR training programme.

I’ve raised the issue of the value of citizen journalism in community building before here, and on the Media Trust Newsnet site, which started with a commitment to a journalistic approach, while offering support to a wider range of projects including a competition.

There should be a chance to discuss this issue, among many others, next Saturday at the Talk About Local unconference - updates here – which will be a gathering of the liveliest of the country’s hyperlocal bloggers, and managers of community sites.

These various approaches to citizen-generated content, and other aspects of local media, are being studied by the innovation agency NESTA as part of its programme to support the hyperlocal sector, as I reported here. Talk About Local are one of the partners. There’s a detailed report on the hyperlocal scene, commission by NESTA, available here, written by Damian Radcliffe.

I think there’s value in a diversity of approaches. Which route to go depends, as usual, on what you want to achieve. Holding local councils and agencies to account may best be done through a lively mix of news and discussion like that at Pits n Pots in Stoke on Trent.

Sites like Harringay Online and W14 provide all members with an opportunity to contribute in ways that reflect their many and varied interests.  People’s Voice Media is focussing on training for citizens to develop their own reporting skills using a range of media, rather than necessarily developing and maintaining sites.

I’m currently particularly interested in how community and social reporting approaches can be adopted by community builders and organisers, who don’t see reporting as their main activity but can benefit from the use of new technologies.

The challenge for those promoting these approaches is how, on the one hand, to acknowledge the need for a variety of styles and methods, while on the other hand providing a sufficiently distinctive offering to appeal to funders and other customers. I think the People’s Voice Media Institute, and associated training, shows how the sector is maturing in its search for different business models.

I’ve no doubt there will be plenty more innovation surfacing at the Talk About Local unconference, where NESTA and Guardian Media Group are sponsors.


Social reporting insights from an exploration for BIG

Big Lottery Fund have now reported on plans to evolve their England programme, with some generous references to the work John Popham and Drew Mackie and I did last year.

I’ve posted on their plans at - How BIG aims to be a more engaged, open and social organisation. Also copied below.

We spent three months exploring and blogging openly about how BIG might be more than a funder, ran a workshop to bring together people we met along the way, and did some network mapping. It seems this has influenced the development of BIG’s future programme in some small but significant ways.

In addition, it yielded a few useful lessons and inspirations for social reporting, as I mention at the end of the earlier post. Here’s further thoughts:

  • The first is that “explorations” are something a social reporter can offer to a client as an alternative to research and consultancy – if you have a client like BIG that is prepared to take the risk and be a little innovative.
  • However, online exploration isn’t enough: the real buzz came from the workshop we ran at the end of the process, where BIG staff were able to meet some of the people we had talked to.
  • Although you can start with a quest, you don’t know where it will lead – and often the most interesting stories arise by chance.
  • The value to the client may come as much from the introductions as from content. We were able to say to people in government and other agencies “I think BIG would be interested in that” – and vice versa.
  • If you blog openly as you go, there’s a good chance you will spark other connections. And you don’t have the chore of writing a report at the end that may or may not be read and acted upon.

Maybe there’s nothing really new in this. Some researchers conduct open processes, some journalists share their contacts and work in progress. Lots of people run creative workshops, and do social network maps.

I’m just re-assured that it seems to stack up as part of the portfolio of services that a social reporter may offer, along with reporting events, and helping people learn how to use new ways of communicating and connecting.

So – how to get paid as a social reporter? Events, explorations and enabling.

Here’s my post from

Linda Quinn, Big Lottery Fund Director of Communications and Marketing, has provided an update on how BIG will evolve its England programme after a year of People Powered Change.

Linda kindly acknowledges that some of the new ideas draw on the explorations last year documented on this blog. Linda writes:

This included a workshop with some of those people with ideas and a shared interest in this area, informing a paper to our England Committee on future ways of working.

The Committee supported the paper and as a result we are developing a number of ideas which we hope will make us a more engaged, open and social organisation. I also hope it will help us support projects to share their stories, inspirations and ideas.

In her post, Linda highlights:

  • Recognising that encouraging beneficiaries of funding to tell stories and be more sharing has to be reflected inside BIG too: so they have set up BIG Connect as an internal network.
  • Crowdsourcing ideas in how best to map where funding goes and the impact it makes, drawing on people’s willingness to swap and share experience.
  • Support for projects to tell, share and learn from stories including surgeries and games.
  • Testing ideas on the use of social media with projects funded under the Silver Dreams Fund and the Jubilee People’s Millions.

Linda adds:

In a future world I’d love all our evaluations and grant management to be socialised so that stories and impacts are available to the armchair auditors, enthusiasts and others working in similar areas – this very much reflects the open data work we blogged about here at our joint event with NCVO andNominet Trust. Such a social approach not only shows the impact of National Lottery funding but also provides an opportunity for projects to promote and showcase what they do, share and inspire others.

We’ll also develop our focus on some place and people based initiatives that strongly reflect People Powered Change. For example, our Big Local Trust investment recently announced a further 50 areas that will receive at least £1million for local communities (around ward size) to decide how they wish to spend that money over a ten year period. This is taking decisions out of central committees and into local communities and giving them the space and time to make those decisions.

People Powered Change informs a way of working that will develop overtime and we’re keen to continue to hear what others are doing, where we can share and where we can learn. And talking of sharing, you may recall that in March last year we also announced a number of awards under People Powered Change. These were to UnLtd’s, ‘Big Venture Challenge,’ Young Foundation’s ‘Building Local Activism’ project, Media Trust’s ‘Newsnet’, NESTA’s ‘Neighbourhood Challenge’ and Your Square Mile. We’ll be publishing a blog from each of these over the next week or so updating on their activities, investments and learning.

Looking back on the work that John Popham, Drew Mackie and I did for BIG, I’m naturally delighted that it proved useful in helping develop some ideas for their programme. We were given a pretty open brief by Linda and deputy director Shaun Walsh, and encouragement to follow up ideas as they emerged. It was a social reporting exploration – and the reverse of a carefully-planned research and consultancy project.

In the event a lot of useful stuff came up by chance … perhaps because of “strategic opportunism” as James Derounian said over here “putting yourself in the place and way of likely useful links to take forward projects etc.”

The post about internal communication Linda mentions – Sharing outside means first sharing inside – arose because I bumped into Tom Phillips at an innovation event in Kent and shot an interview. I went to the event because it was organised by Noel Hatch, and I knew it would be interesting … if not in what way. I got lots of other interviews too.

The post about BIG staff inventing Biglopoly, referenced by Linda, came from an outside source who was working with BIG on the Big Local programme. BIG staff then readily produced their own excellent video explaining what they did: I was really just the story-spotter.

On reflection I think that the 50 or so blog posts that we generated served several purposes:

  • They provided an exploration of the landscape of people powered change, and some insights and ideas for BIG to dip into.
  • They informed the workshop that we organised, bringing together many of the people that we met, providing an opportunity for them to share more ideas directly with BIG staff.
  • They also provided some further stories to share with Shaun over a coffee at several points during the exploration.

Being engaging, open and social is more about attitude than mechanisms, and Linda and Shaun set the style in taking a risk with a social reporting exploration. We just found and told some stories to help things along.


GlobalNet21 hub to boost Newsnet coverage

The Media Trust’s Newsnet is following up its commitment to feature a wider range of community media, on a number of fronts. Earlier stories here.

There’s an offer of five awards of £500 for “inspiring stories from across the UK of how community media, citizen journalism and community reporting have contributed to positive change in local communities”. A couple of interesting pitches are in the forum already.

In addition there’s a great demonstration of the potential of community media by Newsnet staffer Adam Perry:

I made a short video this weekend with Kirkbymoorside supporters of Safe and Sound Homes, a York-based charity that I volunteer for that works to prevent youth homelessness.  Supporters were holding a sleepout to raise funds and you can see the resulting video about their experiences here.  As well as the video my son, who has an interest in photography took the photos, and the weekend became a good example of using all the free tools we could find to get the message out to the community and to SASH’s supporters across North Yorkshire; Clare Usher from SASH put together a summary using Storify which you can see here.
During the course of the weekend I also had the good fortune to meet Kirkbymoorside resident and newsnet member Gareth Jenkins who runs The Kirkbymoorside Town Blog, and is setting up blogs for Helmsley and Pickering as well.  We didn’t get much of a chance to chat as the work for the sleepout took up most of the time, but I’m looking forward to catching up with Gareth very soon to find out more about the work he’s doing in these communities and the challenges of building an audience.

I posted a rather provocative piece in Newsnet forums following my post on this blog about the apparently narrow focus on citizen journalism … and I’m glad to welcome new developments, and a promise there from Alex Delany of improvements to the Newsnet site.

An even more interesting development could be the linkage with Globanet21, being launched on March 28 at an event at Channel 4.

Francis Sealey, Christina Wiltshire and supporters have built Globalnet 21 to a membership of 3,800 through a mixture of events and webinars and other activities. I took part in a webinar the other day on Strengthening Civil Society through social media, and was very impressed with both organisation and contributions. The March 28 event intro says:

Ensuring people have a voice in the public square of debate and discussion is vital in any democracy. We try to enable this through our meetings, webinars and podcasts.

We are now taking this one step further.The Media Trust has now invited us to become a Beacon Hub for their lottery funded Citizen Journalist project. This will link us to a Single Publishing Interface to enable those stories that members want to distribute more widely to be published to media partners (BBC, ITV, local and national press.) They will also be available on our own Blog Podcasting Channel and through the Media Trust.

At this meeting we will learn what it means to be a Beacon Hub and how our members can get their stories into the public domain whether they be blogs, photojournalism or podcasts. Not only will we find out about Beacon Hubs and the work of the Media Trust but also we will discuss Blogging and how this is an important tool of citizen journalism and Photojournalism and our plans for an Exhibition of this in May.


We bring a special dimension to the work the Media Trust does by offering material through our members who are interested in the big issues of the present century, want to discuss them, give stories and case studies to illustrate them and create a socially responsible society that holds those who take decisions to account.

If Globalnet21 can encourage network members to post, it should provide a rich source of content for Newsnet.

Meanwhile, over at the RSA, we are discussing how digital champions and reporters can animate online networks for the 27,000-strong Fellowship. Maybe there will be a chance to share experience.


More rebranding of citizen media as “journalism”. Sigh

The Guardian voluntary sector network has an interesting provocative piece headlined How citizen journalism is setting the local agenda which goes on to say:

Hyper-local news, websites and blogs are inextricably linked to cohesion and engagement within communities.

Adding in a caption:

Many local bloggers and writers may not recognise themselves as citizen journalists, but they are telling their story and connecting local people.

The first point is supported by the Networked Neighbourhoods research by Hugh Flouch and Kevin Harris, though not cited in the piece.

Mandeep Hothi, also writing recently for the Guardian, has a nuanced view – as I’m sure do Kevin and Hugh – about the role of social media in communities. Mandeep wrote:

Our experience suggests that social media is not the shortcut to higher participation that we all hoped it might be. On the websites and social networks we helped residents set up, the numbers of people who are engaging in conversation with each other is quite small. It varies amongst sites, but the highest is around 10% of network members.

If you read both studies, they show how complex is the role of new media in the local communication ecosystem, that’s made up of many informal and formal relationships, enhanced or disrupted by the effort of newspapers, radio, TV, blogs, websites, Twitter etc

… which is why I bridled got cross about the Guardian piece’s second point, which implies that local online writers and bloggers should be branded (whether they like it or not) as citizen journalists. Some may like the label, other may feel that “journalist” is not currently a term that engenders a lot of trust among citizens, however unfair that may be to the majority that do an honest job.

The Guardian piece is written by Gavin Sheppard, marketing director at the Media Trust, who are running Newsnet, supported by the Big Lottery Fund as part of People Powered Change. I’ve written lots before about Newsnet and its role in networking civil society, including an early challenge on How helpful is journalism for People Powered Change?

After citing the excellent work of the Preston blog in a campaign, Gavin writes:

The Poynter Street residents, like many communities across the country, may not recognise themselves as citizen journalists, but they are telling their local story, connecting with others and harnessing support for local people. They are reflecting many of the qualities of citizen journalism. This dedication to the local community deserves to be nurtured and supported and can benefit from learning, connecting and sharing with others.

My challenge is on two fronts. First, that while mainstream journalism is essential for democracy, challenging powerful institutions, bravely reporting from wars and disasters … and keeping us amused … the news values of conflict, crisis, celebrity aren’t necessarily helpful to collaboration and community building, which is important in civic life. Thanks to Nick Booth of Podnosh for highlighting this a few years back.

So while it is hugely important that some bloggers, like those in Preston, take on – and sometimes improve on – the reducing role of local papers in running campaigns and holding councils to account, “journalism” is only a part of the community media that we need.

Some bloggers and users of social media in local communities want to call themselves citizen journalists, and hopefully take on the best aspects of journalism in being inquisitive on behalf of others, and “speaking truth to power”. Fine …. but to what code do they operate in the way that they report? And are they just a loud voice in the community … the equivalent of those who can dominate public meetings? Some are hugely ethical, collaborative, supportive of others … some less so. As journalists they don’t necessarily “connect local people”: that’s more of a role for community organisers and builders.

We need a discussion around citizen journalism in parallel with that about mainstream journalism. We know mainstream journalism has to be, in part, about making money for the proprietors, balanced with a societal role. What are the equivalent tensions in citizen journalism?

At the same time, the majority of those using social media in an enormous variety of ways for social impact do not choose to call themselves “journalists”. I explored this wide use of social technology with co-authors Amy Sample Ward and Andy Gibson in the NESTA-funded publication Social by Social a couple of years ago.

So my second point is that trying to brand citizen media as citizen journalists is unhelpful. If people “may not recognise themselves as citizen journalists” it’s not for the Media Trust to say that they are.

I think that Newsnet – which is funded £1.89 million by those of us who buy lottery tickets – could both play an important role in this discussion, and help amplify the work of those using community media. Adam Perry is indeed blogging about that on Newsnet.

If Newsnet is going to stick to supporting “journalism” then we need some other ways to connect and amplify the use of social media for local social good … as I rambled on about here: The challenge of networking civil society.

Although Newsnet was funded by BIG last year, and “launched”  five weeks ago, it has yet to carry any news: their “single publishing interface” is still promised (see comments). The site is currently simple a set of blogs and forums within the Media Trust site (see discussion).

So yes, let’s applaud the best of citizen journalism, but not put easy branding above some very complex substance.

Disclosure: I worked for Big Lottery Fund last year exploring their role as more than a funder.

Note to self: there’s another potential client gone. That’s the problem with being a social reporter … the critical journalist in me keeps breaking out.

The challenge of networking civil society

Summary: local activists and volunteers need to share their achievements and experience in hard times. The publicly-funded sites for this have some limitations, and  smaller sites, mainly run by volunteers, don’t have the resources to grow. Is there scope for more joining up, rather than further top-down solutions?

Government policies of localism and cuts to the voluntary sector are pushing citizens and community groups to do more for themselves on the ground, and find their own ways of learning from each other nationally. A couple of recent events prompted me to review what is available online.

The first event was an invite to chat informally to a new team in the government department of Communities and Local Government about the role of social reporting in helping sharing. It was very encouraging to meet a young team full of enthusiasm and enquiry, who describe their remit like this:

The neighbourhood engagement team are working to open up the conversation on neighbourhoods policy to a greater range of people: sharing enthusiasm, tapping into a wider pool of ideas and examples and exploring how government can best support those who want to have greater control and influence in their area. Workshops and online platforms will empower those active in the community to continue the conversation across professional silos, supporting each other to innovate in local arenas with less central government direction.

The second event was a webinar, organised by Globalnet21, on whether social networking can “help create a network of mutual independence that strengthens the countless groups that are the social glue of our civil society”.

That nudged me to prepare the slides that I posted earlier, based on work I did last year with Big Lottery Fund, as well as the blogging I’ve done here about social reporting. I’ve linked a lot in this piece so you can find starting points for your own research, and draw your own conclusions.

I started looking at what platforms are being developed to help people share – about which more later. However, as you’ll see from the slides, I was also emphasising that sharing is about networks, not one-stop-information-shops, and it is people who make that work. It takes people who have some digital literacy skills, with the support of facilitators. An excellent post by Tim Davies says it very well and is worth quoting at length:

When we look at a successful example of online collaboration the most obvious visible element of it is often the platform being used: whether it’s a Facebook group, or a custom-built intranet. Projects to support online learning, knowledge sharing or dialogue can quickly get bogged down in developing feature-lists for the platform they think they need – articulating grand architectural visions of a platform which will bring disparate conversations together, and which will resolve information-sharing bottlenecks in an organisation or network. But when you look closer at any successful online collaboration, you will see that it’s not the platform, but the people, that make it work.

People need opportunities, capabilities and supportive institutional cultures to make the most of the Internet for collaboration. The capabilities needed range from technical skills (and, on corporate networks, the permission) to install and use programs like Skype, to Internet literacies for creating hyper-links and sharing documents, and the social and media literacy to participate in horizontal conversations across different media.

But even skills and capabilities of the participants are not enough to make online collaboration work: there also needs to be a culture of sharing, recognising that the Internet changes the very logic of organisational structures, and means individuals need to be trusted and empowered to collaborate and communicate across organisational and national boundaries in pursuit of common goals.

Online collaboration also needs facilitation: from animateurs who can build community and keep conversations flowing, to technology stewards who can help individuals and groups to find the right ad-hoc tools for the sorts of sharing they are engaged in at that particular time. Online facilitators also need to work to ensure dialogues are inclusive – and to build bridges between online and offline dialogue. In my experience facilitating an online community of youth workers in the UK, or supporting social reporting at the Internet Governance Forum, the biggest barriers to online collaboration have been people’s lack of confidence in expressing themselves online, or easily-address technical skill shortages for uploading and embedding video, or following a conversation on Twitter.

Building the capacity of people and institutions, and changing cultures, so that online collaboration can work is far trickier than building a platform. But, it’s the only way to support truly inclusive dialogue and knowledge-sharing. Plus, when we focus on skills and capabilities, we don’t limit the sorts of purposes they can be put to. A platform has a specific focus and a limited scope: sharing skills lays the foundation for people to participate in a far wider range of online opportunities in the future.

The challenge of supporting sharing and local innovation was picked up last year by the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) under its banner of People Powered Change, with investments of £5.76 million in a range of programmes including Your Square Mile and the Media Trust’s Newsnet, as I first wrote about here, and followed up later. I then worked with BIG for a few months exploring, with John Popham, how they might be more than a funder. Posts here.

As part of that work I put together a Netvibes dashboard taking feeds from the main community and voluntary sector sites.

I’m a little circumspect in what follows, because BIG is a client, and I know the people involved in Newsnet and Your Square Mile, and admire what they are trying to achieve.

Here’s Linda Quinn of BIG,  Gavin Sheppard on Newsnet,  Paul Twivy of Your Square Mile, in interviews last year.

The bad news is that at present it is almost impossible to find out what is going on, where to get help, how to to connect. As I aimed to show in this slide from the webinar (pdf download), there’s a big gap between local networking and national, with many unconnected initiatives in between.

I know it is early days, but as well as the CLG neighbourhoods team work, further announcements are due soon from BIG about People Powered Change (see below), so it is a good time to review progress so far, and how to build on or complement those investments. We have the elements of a rich knowledge ecosystem if we can join them up.

Your Square Mile (£830,000) has a powerful vision of what people may need locally, and a site that does a smart job of aggregating useful data and advising people about local services and the part they may play. There is currently no networking, but that may be a feature of next stage development. Baroness Newlove, Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, favours the site as the hub for community activists, as I reported earlier.

In addition Newsnet (£1.89 million)  has a vision of local hubs to connect a network of citizen journalists. Their site has some limitations, but there is interesting discussion and some good examples of hubs, with ways to upload and network news promised later.

In my view something like Newsnet has great potential if it can blend the dynamic of community reporting with citizens finding their own voices to tell their own stories. However this will take time, and on current plans Newsnet site will be archived in two years, when BIG funding ends. We can’t reckon it will be a long-term element in the mix (however, see update below).

Meanwhile a range of unfunded online communities like Our Society, ABCDEurope, and NatCan are doing well in each attracting hundreds of members and a wide range of discussion and resources. Networks like Transition TownsFiery Spirits and i-volunteer show what is possible with some modest investment in platform, and far more facilitation. Tim Davies facilitates Youth Work Online here.

(Disclosure: I’m one of the group running Our Society).

Mandeep Hothi, writing for Guardian Voluntary Sector Network, reports on the results of some other BIG-funded work supported by DCLG’s Empowerment Fund, confirming again that investment in social media and technology is not in itself the answer. It is people who connect. Social media can amplify and assist … but we need to understand the fine grain of how that works as a blend of face-to-face, SMS, email, forums, Facebook and other methods.

Another of the People Powered Change partners, NESTA, are just beginning a big programme of research and development in the field of hyperlocal communications. Interest from the BBC may help catalyse a network of hyperlocal activists in London.

So … we know that just investing in technology isn’t the answer, and that instead it would help to improve and support the digital literacy of activists. We know there are a number of programmes that could join up to achieve this: I’ve only highlighted a few.

But who is going to help bring it together? Big Lottery Fund is a strong supporter of the idea of asset based community development: making the most of the resources that you have in any neighbourhood, rather than just looking at the problems and putting in more funds. Could BIG apply that philosophy to networking for civil society?

After the workshop we ran with BIG in December, Linda Quinn wrote:

We’ll then spend some time working our thoughts into an overall strategy that will inform a paper to our Committee in March. My sense is that much of what we discussed is about how we engage, how we share and how we collaborate. Some of this I think we can test out in pilots, some of it requires us to think how we might change our internal processes but all of it requires that we carry on the conversation with those who have helped us so far and hopefully will remain constructive critical friends and supporters in the future.

In drafting this post, I started at this point to write that Power Powered Change phase two, when announced, may be more about investment in people than in technology platforms, and that it might be developed in part by bringing together the various initiatives I’ve mentioned, and others, to co-design something  for the future.

However, I don’t know if that will be the case – and on reflection I don’t know that we need to wait on BIG … however welcome their support would be.

I then wondered whether there was more scope for joining up the smaller sites I mentioned – even if only by sharing newsletter items and some feeds, and having a shared signposting system of who is doing what where: a more accessible version of the Netvibes dashboard I developed.

Ideally this network of networks should be animated by some social reporting … helping people make sense of the civil society ecosystem, and joining up conversation. It would be the online equivalent of local community building, in this instance designed to make the most of the knowledge assets that we have.

What do you think? Is there a problem for activists trying to get information and advice, and connect with others? If so, should we follow Baroness Newlove’s suggestions, and focus on the development of one site, like Your Square Mile? Or should we try and build a knowledge ecoystem of smaller sites, and of civil society organisations better able to network online? (By we, I’m thinking of those who manage online communities or other civil society sites).

The NESTA hyperlocal research and development programme is very timely. Maybe we need something similar at national level.

Update: if you are interested in the big picture, Steve Dale has some deeply-researched slides and notes on The Future of social media and social networks

Update 2: I dropped a query about Media Trust plans into Newsnet discussions, and Gavin Sheppard responded:

“Whilst the BIG funding is for another two years, we’re committed to supporting the platform beyond that date. Obviously further development will depending on what funding is available to us, but I see no reason why the community can’t continue to grow beyond 2014″.

Government champion backs Your Square Mile as activist hub

Last July Baroness Newlove, the Government’s Champion for Active Safer Communities, promoted the idea of a central information hub for community activitists, as I reported here. Her latest report favours Your Square Mile as the the solution.

The report is a pdf, so I have clipped the relevant section:

I am a firm believer in the power of information.

Technology has, of course, changed everything in terms of the ease and speed at which information can be got out there. I applaud this Government for the importance it attaches to transparency. Putting more data into the hands of citizens means they can hold services and decision makers to account. It means they are also in a better position to get involved, by working out exactly what needs doing to improve their neighbourhood.

However, as I have said elsewhere in this report, I get very frustrated, whenever I see information wrapped up in jargon or presented in very complicated formats. Organisations need not just to surrender the information they hold. They also need to remove all the trappings that suit professionals, or other people well versed in bureaucracy, who have the time and training to handle data. These unnecessary barriers will discourage the people who really count: hard-pressed local residents trying to work out what’s going on, what to do and how best to do it.

My original report in March 2011, and the Government Progress Update that followed in July, set out the criteria for a successful, effective online ‘hub’ for the kind of grassroots activists I believe in.

I have said that I want to see a service that is clear and simple for the end users. The information they need should be just a couple of clicks away. It should be presented in language that everyone can relate to and understand.

A good hub would showcase what works and explain how different areas have overcome problems. There would be content provided by activists and practitioners, rather than Government. There would be links to local information, allowing activists to get their hands on facts unique to their area.

In July we also said that, if there were promising models already out there, or in the pipeline, time and money should not be wasted on ‘re-inventing the wheel’.

In September, when I met up with activists from the seven Newlove Neighbourhoods who so generously helped me in compiling my original report, I sought further advice from them on what they liked in online information and advice.

Bearing all of this in mind, one model stands out: yoursquaremile.

This website was launched in October 2011. It is early days and I really hope it meets its huge potential. It meets the criteria I set out in previous reports, and which I have summarised again above.

  • The Be a Savvy Citizen town map is easy on the eye and easy to use. With a couple of clicks, it allows users to find information on whatever aspect of local life is concerning them and signposts them to where they can go for expert advice if needed.
  • The Local Info facility means that people can find all kinds of information about their neighbourhood gathered together in one place. They can, for instance, find the crime map for their street without needing to log on to and re-entering their postcode.

Your Square Mile has great promise to be that online website hub for grassroots community activists. As this technology is so fast moving, I shall also keep a look out for other sites which may develop.

There are other websites out there to help grassroots activists grasp the tools and materials they need.

Many spring up daily across the web and in other English speaking countries.

Although the report mentions these sites

… it doesn’t refer to the more obviously relevant ones like Our SocietyABCDEurope, and NatCan that are each doing well in attracting hundreds of members and a wide range of discussion and resources. Networks like Transition TownsFiery Spirits and i-volunteer show what’s possible with additional facilitation.

Nor is there any mention of the Media Trust Newsnet project, supported by the Big Lottery Fund with £1.89 million. More here in my previous posts.

The features of Your Square Mile that Baroness Newlove highlights are valuable, but there isn’t yet anywhere for activists to tell their stories or network with others, and as I wrote in my earlier piece I think the idea of one hub is a mistake. We need a well-connected network of sites. More on that in a later post.

Media Trust launches Newsnet site and network

The Media Trust have launched their site for Newsnet, which aims to be “a UK-wide hub of community reporters, citizen journalists and local storytellers, providing them with the tools and skills to get more from their local news, as well as learning from the experiences of others.

“The aim is to improve the quality and reach of these stories, through increased sharing amongst communities and distribution to mainstream media outlets, including Community Channel’s UK360 magazine show, which will broadcast some of the best community news stories”. read more »

Innovation agency NESTA announces hyperlocal media research and funding

The UK innovation agency NESTA is starting a major exploration of the future of hyperlocal media – covering everything from struggling local papers, and reduced local BBC services, through to new Government-backed local TV, and the blogs, online communities and radio stations run by passionate digital activists.

Some work is underway to map the hyperlocal landscape, undertaken by Damian Radcliffe. That should be pretty comprehensive, because Damian produces excellent updates on what’s happening in the field: you can see his review of 2011 here, and other slides here. read more »