Tip to NESTA on hyperlocal research: go camping

The UK innovation agency NESTA has just launched a 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. The programme is starting with mapping who is doing what, followed by formation of a partnership, foresight research, and funding for innovative pilots. More here in my earlier post. Below I suggest NESTA might consider a more open process to complement current plans.

For the past few years people involved in websites and other digital stuff for for central and local government, and anyone else interested in civic services and interactions, have got together for free, open conferences organised by volunteers, with no set agenda, a minimum of Powerpoint and a max of conversation. Here’s the first one I reported, organised by Jeremy Gould in 2008. It was hugely stimulting … even slightly shocking … to see such creativity released from the realms of bureaucracy. Other unconferences followed specifically for local government, and other interests.

Credit David Pea

Today I went to ukgovcamp2012 organised by Steph Grey and Dave Briggs, hosted by Microsoft, with an attendance list of more than 200 people over two days, and around a dozen sponsors large and small.

You can see the sort of buzz generated at this event site. There were a terrific range of sessions – organised within 12 minutes from impromptu participant pitches by facilitator Lloyd Davis. This time I concentrated on networking rather than reporting. I got maybe a dozen ways to take forward ideas and projects, and an energising update on what’s happening in the field. It was the civil/civic online ecosystem in one place.

At the end of the day Mike Bracken, executive director of the Government Digital Service, gave a preview of the next generation of user-centric gov.uk websites – with a generous tribute to many in the room who had helped. I think it was more than a tribute to their skills: it included an acknowledgement that the open style modelled by ukgovcamps had helped the way that innovation processes work best in the public sphere. They need to engage the many interests involved in and touched by service development, be open to fresh ideas from more than the core group of professionals, and open to chance connections … as well as cranking things through the bureaucratic machine and procurement process. (That’s just my outsider take … others there today could give a much better account. And explain how tough the cranking is).

Anyway, the reason I’m rehearsing this is partly to applaud the campers (and thank Steph for offering me a last minute ticket after I failed to register) but also to make a connection with the programe of innovation research and development started by NESTA, which I reported the other day. This is looking at hyperlocal communications – 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.

It is hugely important for local democracy, and the social and economic health of our community. Quite a few sessions today covered these issues, though few people had heard of the NESTA research because it hasn’t been strongly promoted. The only document that I have found is tucked away here under a call for strategic partners.

As I reported in my post, the programme has started with some mapping of the hyperlocal landscape, and will then go through foresight research and a funding call for pilots. These will be evaluated, lessons learned, and promoted.

That’s all fair enough, as a traditional process … but it isn’t open, transparent, networked, serendipitous, user-focussed. It’s seems a bit like UK government web development a few years back. I’m sure there’s all sorts of good reasons for this, rooted in the procedures that NESTA has developed over the years. I’m quite sure it is not because of the attitudes of individual staff, who are very open, buzzy, creative.  I think it just kind-of happens in institutions where there isn’t much competition or user engagement.

Unfortunately I think it matters because 1) the process may marginalise just those smaller, community-based interests who have produced a lot of the hyperlocal buzz 2) it may be dominated by media and digital interests, with too little regard for non-digi community realities 3) the results may have too little impact because those who could take up and implement ideas haven’t been involved in development.

I started thinking about an alternative process, with workshops, simulations, project blogging and so on.

Then when I was talking about the hyperlocal research today, someone said “why don’t they have an unconference like this” (if you remember the conversation, please claim the credit!)

On further reflection, it might not be one event, but several, at which big media people might chat, eat, drink and plot with local bloggers; defenders of local heritage discover some common interests with coders (can’t predict that one); and pioneers of local TV connect with … dunno. It’ll just happen. It will be the local communication ecosystem in one room … or probably a dozen rooms, given the range of interests and topics

I know that the campers could not only create some incredible ideas for collaboration, but also plan a process to evolve them, test them, promote them, engage others, connect with government… not just in the UK but worldwide.  Further inspiration might come from CityCamp.

Well, that’s it. I can’t get to ukgovcamp tomorrow to pitch this idea, because I’m trying some street photography in Hackney with The Amazings. But that doesn’t matter – I’ll tweet this post, and if anyone is interested they’ll take the conversation forward. That’s how lots of innovative stuff happens.

Additional thought: I’m not suggesting that an unconference is any substitute for the otherwise well-conceived NESTA process: just that it could set in train something that would start in parallel but end up influencing the main programme … just as UK govcamps have.  And it can just be done by those who don’t seek permission … whatever their day jobs.

Update: As you can see from comments below, NESTA have responded with an open invitation to pitch more ideas on the process, and I’ll be finding out more from them later this week. Elsewhere I’ve heard suggestions for a grassroots alliance of community sites and interests to join the partnership. Other people I know are holding back until there’s an invitation to pitch for funding.

Update 2: Our Society now have a forum for discussion about the programme


  • Philip Colligan
    January 21, 2012 - 10:08 am | Permalink

    So sorry that I can’t be at the camp. Looks amazing. I know my colleague Jon.kingsbury@nesta.org.uk is planning to attend today.

    We’re right at the earliest stage of our hyper local media programme and very much in the market for ideas – so really welcome this suggestion David. Others with ideas should connect with Jon.

    We’ve hosted a few unconferences on different issues over the years and been involved in many more – including the brilliant City Camp London brought together by Futuregov. I am sure we could make it happen.

    BTW have a great day with The Amazings. I’m a big fan of what they’re doing.


  • david wilcox
    January 21, 2012 - 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Philip for such a positive response, and I hope more ideas will surface thanks to your encouragement.

  • January 23, 2012 - 9:09 am | Permalink

    Just a quick note to agree with Philip – we’re very much open to ideas and we are at very early stages.

    My email address is jon.kingsbury@nesta.org.uk

  • January 23, 2012 - 5:14 pm | Permalink

    hi david et al – you’ll be delighted to know we are planning a talk about local unconference for roughly April time. the cardiff one last year, our third) was fab. we’ve had about 300 people at them so far

    just nailing down a venue

    see you there

    all sponsorship from nesta welcome – if you meet our cash costs we’ll give you our time

  • January 23, 2012 - 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Would love to see NESTA offering something like UK govcamps. Particularly interested as I am non techy and have a background in community. And have had good and bad times with hyperlocal.

    Would in particular welcome an open process, events, forums where people could see the discussions taking place about development.

    Hope this could be something similar to the work going on Our Society to develop guides and local experience. http://oursociety.org.uk/group/our-society-a-guide by Lorna Prescott.

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