Localgovcamp enlightens cultivating the digital garden

Last Saturday’s Localgovcamp in Birmingham provided me with a blindingly-obvious insight. If we want to use social media to improve public services and local democracy, build social capital, and tackle every other known social ill, innovatively (of course) in the face of spending cuts (inevitably) then there isn’t one big idea and intervention that will work. It’s about cultivating the whole of the digital British garden.
We need community websites and blogs, lots of work inside councils, mashing up of data, research, better connections, and all the other things that were talked about on the day.
Totally obvious … and in the world of physical renewal we’ve got used to say environmental AND economic AND social AND working with a mix of interests.

But when many people in the public sphere are not very clued up about the online world, there’s a danger of going for the latest tech solution and buzz … and for maintaining the council-community us-and-them divide. It’s no good “empowering” the local community with social media tools if council officers aren’t allowed to access blogs and video sites. There no point doing smart things with internal data if what’s then pushed out doesn’t match local needs because local interests haven’t been involved in the design.

The event itself was terrific: great organisation by Dave Briggs and friends, excellent venue at Fazeley studios, including blindingly fast wifi, and Brum warmth and hospitality. Then terrific sessions, self-organised in the usual barcamping fashion.

I shot some video with those running sessions, and it was in those conversations that the need to cultivate local communication ecologies came through most strongly. (A bit like information ecologies, described here … anyone got a better reference?)

Carl Haggerty and Rob Gray talked about the way that they are piloting social networking with Devon County Council … taking the “outside” models of Facebook and similar sites inside the council to help build conversations and relationships. And then being better able to connect with the outside.  Sarah Lay reports here. (Update: Carl reports here)

Nick Booth talked to me twice – once about the Help Me Investigate project that enables people in a community collaboratively research news stories or problems; once about Be Vocal which helps ensure data mashing is relevant (listen to Nick, he explains it well).

Will Perrin, Talk About Local,  and Nicky Getwood, Digbeth is Good, talked about community websites and how the council had to join in too. It ties neatly into my earlier post on community websites here. See Andrew Beekan on Will’s session here.

Tim Davies recapped on the session in which he explored the 50 small obstacles to adopting social media … and the small steps to overcome them.  He reports here.

Dave Briggs talked about organising Localgovcamp, and the advantages of sharing knowledge this way. We concluded councils and other organisations should run them internally, and with local interests.

I started to pull together other blog items, tweets and videos, but Dave and friends are doing it very well here. That’s impressive … to often there’s a great event, lots of stuff produced, but you can’t find it.

I should, however, highlight Ingrid Koehler’s report on helping local councillors make effective use of social media. It really brings home the many-small-solutions point again.

So … got the insight. Digital gardening with many small cultivations, and careful fertilising. Not simply build the paths (pipes) and they will come. But how do we help people think about what’s needed? That’s where the Social by Social handbook and game will come in, to be launched at Reboot Britain. More about that shortly.


  • Tori Holmes
    June 22, 2009 - 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Hi David, you asked if anyone had a reference for ‘communication ecologies’. Try this for a very small variation on the term, from the Ethnographic Action Research Training Handbook: ‘Communicative ecologies are the everyday, complex network of information and communication in an individual’s life. In any place, and among any group of people, there will be different ways in which communication and information flows.’ (http://ear.findingavoice.org/intro/2-0.html)

  • June 22, 2009 - 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Tori – really useful and worth quoting:

    Communicative ecologies are the everyday, complex network of information and communication in an individual’s life. In any place, and among any group of people, there will be different ways in which communication and information flows. Some people use media like television and radio to learn about what is happening in their village, town, city, country or region, or in the wider world. Other people do not have access to these communication channels, and depend on face to face communication. Understanding and describing how information flows, and who uses what communication technologies and why, an EAR researcher builds up a clear picture of communication in his/her area that helps his/her ICT initiative to be relevant and effective.

    If you were studying the ecology of a forest or desert, you would not look at one or two animals or plants in isolation. You would study how animals, plants, soil, climate and so on are interrelated because you would have to understand how the whole system or ecology works in order to understand any one part of it. The same principle applies to communications and information: there are many different people, media, activities, and relationships involved and none of these elements work in isolation; instead they form part of a system. We call the system of communication the ‘communicative ecology’.

    There are many ideas we can use to study communicative ecology. People do not use or think about an individual medium in isolation from other media or from how they are used and understood in their everyday lives.

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