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How about celebrating the 20 year history of community networking and hyperlocal

The annual Talk About Local unconference #TAL15 on Saturday was a great opportunity to catch up with the world of local blogging, online communities and community journalism that’s now collectively known as hyperlocal.

As usual on these occasions Will Perrin, Sarah Hartley and Mike Rawlins did a great job of semi-organising the crowd into self-managed sessions about everything from WordPress plugins to crowdfunding, and “surviving the abusive relationship with Facebook”, and stimulating lots of energising conversations in between. Here’s Sarah’s round-up.

The event also prompted me to reflect that it’s now just 20 years since I and a bunch of other enthusiasts, inspired by earlier North American online pioneers, and the arrival of the World Wide Web, launched UK Communities Online as a network to support local digital initiatives, or what we called community networking … so please excuse a little digital nostalgia. Maybe 2015 is a good time to look at what was then, what’s now, and what might be next.

In 1995 I spotted, thanks to the Web, that the Morino Intitute was holding their second Ties that Bind conference at Apple HQ in Curpertino, and managed to blag my way to a fare and conference tickets. Thanks due to Kaye Gapen, and Steve Cisler.

You can read here a history of what happened over the next few years, including a launch conference in October 1995 at BT headquarters, and funding for network development from BT, IBM, the Department for Trade and Industry and others.

Tribute is particularly due to Richard Stubbs, Michael Mulquin, Kevin Harris, Dave Greenop and other pioneers who did so much of the early work. Michael became UKCO director. Terry Grunwald provided so much inspiration and experience from the US (and we must rehost the Making the Net Work site). I hope we might update all our stories – about which more below.

Although Communities Online didn’t survive as a network, I think it helped people explore what the Internet might mean to local communities, and to share experience in experimenting with different approaches before the days of blogs and other social media. I believe that we contributed to government thinking, and industry too.

I’ve put together below links to pages I wrote. Many external links are unfortunately broken, which shows how digital is not necessarily a good archive medium. Or put another way, if you want stuff to last, you have to maintain your own site. Even so, I’m afraid I lost some stories.

What’s perhaps most interesting is the sort of models for Community Internet we envisaged then … as expressed in a Manifesto which the BBC helped promote at the time.

Summary of a manifesto for local onine communities – 1999

  • Every citizen, regardless of their economic circumstances, should be able to share the benefits of the Information Age – including better communications, greater participation, electronic life long learning, and e-commerce. To achieve this they should have access to local community technology centres, plus public online forums and services to create an online community. The centres will provide technical support and help ‘on the ground’, the forums will be ‘virtual spaces’ for online communities related to localities.
  • Centres and online communities should be easy to find – signposted locally, and through a national gateway.
  • Public support should be available, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods, where the market is unlikely to provide facilities on a sustainable basis without public funding.
  • Development of centres and online communities should be piloted through pathfinder projects, with community participation.
  • There should be a network and support for the local champions and partnerships who will develop the centres and online communities.
  • A virtual resource centre should be developed to provide sources of advice for local champions and partnerships, and a neutral space online for discussion of the development of centres and online communities.

Long version of the manifesto

Quite a lot of this has come about. The Tinder Foundation has been particularly successful in developing and maintaining a network of local centres.

The people who gathered on Saturday at #TAL15 – and others – are innovating locally in ways we couldn’t dream of. Chris Taggart’s Openly Local map shows hyperlocal sites throughourt the UK and Ireland.

There is a Centre for Community Journalism and course at Cardiff University

I mentioned the manifesto and Communities Online to Will and a few other people at the unconference, and found some interest in discovering more about our collective history … and what we can learn from the journey.

We talked tentatively about a 20-year anniversary event, and re-gathering stories from the pioneers.

It could provide an opportunity to explore more fully what community-based models are most relevant today, to complement the local digital frameworks being developed by Government: see for example my reflections on the Grey Cells blueprint. My hunch that in future we’ll have to look at personalised approaches, as well as local sites, as I wrote here about Living Well with tech.

I’ll check whether others involved in 1990s, and now, would be interested in organising something, and if so hope to get an organising group together, ideally with TAL.

Meanwhile, if you are interested, please drop a comment, or contact me via david@socialreporter.com or @davidwilcox.

Talk About Local and #TAL15

Links from the Partnerships Online site

Other links

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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 n0tice.com 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.

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NESTA announces details of hyperlocal research and funding

The innovation  agency NESTA has now announced full details of Destination Local, their hyperlocal development programme, which I trailed here.

Together with the Technology Strategy Board they are funding £1 million of pilot projects.

In particular, we are looking for prototypes that make the most of mobile technologies to deliver geographically-relevant local media.

Our goal in funding the prototypes is to understand what new business models may be required, what types of service work well with audiences and the challenges and opportunities of using mobile technologies.  Successful applications will be able to demonstrate how they help to understand these themes.

I’m glad to see one of the partners are the champions of local bloggers, Talk About Local. As Sarah Hartley writes on their blog:

At Talk About Local we’re delighted to have been invited to become partners in what must be the biggest drive of its type to identify the technologies, business models, content opportunities and challenges in this space.

We’ve championed, cajoled, encouraged, developed and celebrated the great work which goes on up and down the country since we were formed in 2009 and welcome both the focus the initiative will prompt, as well as the coming together of expertise it is facilitating.

The two headline announcements today are calls for applications:

  • Nesta is offering seed funding of up to £50,000 to test the next generation of hyperlocal media services. Applications open today at www.nesta.org.uk/destination_local
  • The Technology Strategy Board aims at technology-focused feasibility projects and offers grant funding of up to £56,250. Applications will open on 23 April at http://www.innovateuk.org/competitions.

Here’s quotes from the NESTA press release:

Jon Kingsbury, Programme Director, at Nesta, says: ‘Consumers’ increasing adoption of new, mobile-based technologies offers exciting possibilities to deliver highly localised information services to niche audiences.  ‘Destination Local’ will prototype the next generation of hyperlocal services in a bid to understand whether these new technologies and platforms can deliver sustainable, scalable models that serve local communities and deliver economic benefit.’

Dr. Jeremy Silver, Creative Industries Lead Specialist of the Technology Strategy Board, says: ‘Traditional models of local media, print or broadcast, have suffered as the internet has undermined their business models. But the combination of social media with location-aware technologies, the lowering of barriers to entry for self-publishing, and the high degree of user-engagement now visible online suggests that new models for local media might emerge out of new smarter uses of enabling technologies. We believe that the UK could be a great source of innovation in this field and that this could have value to communities around the world.’

There’s a comprehensive round-up of the the announcements and links from Damian Radcliffe, who until recently worked at Ofcom tracking hyperlocal developments. In a private capacity Damian has produced an excellent landscape review as part of the NESTA research, referenced below. Damian writes:

You can read the press release here as well as some FAQs and a list of partners (which includeCreative EnglandMozillaSkillsetSTVTalk About LocalTime OutUniversity of Central Lancashire (uclan) and the Welsh Government).

The Technology Strategy Board is to invest up to £1.8m in feasibility projects that address the converged nature of the digital landscape, the first part will look at encouraging innovative, hyper-local cross-media platforms and enabling technologies that will drive new service offerings, reach out into communities and provide conduits for public services. There’s a four page brief here.

Projects should last up to 12 months and are eligible for grants of up to £56,250 or 75% of total costs. Total project costs must not exceed £75,000. Click this link for more details.

My own involvement has been around a landscape report looking at hyperlocal in the UK. You candownload it from here. Many thanks to everyone who has said nice things about the report thus far. With 52 pages, 173 footnotes and I think 15,000 words or so, it is not necessarily a short read, but I hope it is a useful and insightful one.

Sarah Hartley over on the Talk About Local blog has published Five hyperlocal take-aways from the Here and Now report – be interested to see what others glean from it.

NESTA’s main Desination Local site

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Local pubs and blogs could help build a Hyperlocal Chamber of Commerce

I love it when stories join up … or rather when I can spot ways to join them up. It’s seems particularly relevant when they are about network building.

The other day I wrote about RSA research into how local stores (particularly B&Q in this case) can act as local social hubs, and also about RSA work networking local Changemakers in Peterborough.

Now Tom Matchett has blogged his ideas for a Hyperlocal Chamber of Commerce, which would further catalyse social connections between local businesses and residents, to the benefit of both.

I’ve chatted to Tom over the past few weeks about that, and also about his previous work on how local papers can combine traditional print with online publishing of their content and that from citizens reporters.

In addition, there are models emerging for “reverse publishing” content from hyperlocal blogs in small local advert-heavy publications, and maybe sharing some revenue with the bloggers.

Tom’s idea for the Hyperlocal CoC goes a step further, by adding into the mix one or more local business hubs, then running events and other activities to build a stronger local social and economic community. He writes in his blog The Digital Bohemian:

The Hyperlocal Chamber of Commerce will be established as a social enterprise exploring and developing methodologies to create new (and strengthen existing) hyperlocal business and community eco-systems.  It will build through engagement, education and collaborative activities to establish commercially successful, sustainable hyperlocal business models.

The project will then roll out on a broader scale with supporting educational collateral from the initial pilot projects documented online and on film. As a key part of its modus operandi we will try to work closely with existing hyperlocal bloggers to assist them in creating a sustainable financial model to support their activities and drive long term commitment to their work in hyperlocal.

The first two proposed locations for the initial pilot schemes are Highgate Hill and Stroud Green both of which are very local spaces to me, this is important at this stage as it will fit very well with my other commitments in terms of consultancy work.

The first venue will be The Old Crown on Highgate Hill, which has limited footfall during the day (and so space for meetings) coupled with a lively and diverse clientele in the evenings. Tom adds:

My questions are, what if we could use their space as community and local business convergence hub in the daytime that would create new very localised business and community networks? Additionally, what if you could build around this and other hubs to build networks and develop models that are then self-sustaining?  How can you engage hyperlocal bloggers, businesses and the community to create a co-promotional media and marketing network?  How do you make this a “win” project for all parties involved?

I suggested to Tom that he might like to apply to join RSA, where the social entrepreneurs network should provide further support – as well as connections to the projects I mentioned earlier.

I was very impressed by the range of enterprising projects I heard about when I went along to a Spotlight event at The Westminster Hub recently. I shot some video with the help of RSA staff member Clare Reilly, as you can see here. We didn’t get sound level right on all the interviews, but I think you’ll get a sense of the enthusiasm and optimism.

There’s more information in the cleverly put together time-lapse video on the RSA vimeo channel.

Chatting with RSA staff at the event led to an invite to meet up with the Fellowship team, led by Michael Ambjorn, and talk further about social reporting. I think there could be scope for staff and Fellows to collaborate in reporting on both projects and events.

Maybe I can make some further connections to the work I’ll be doing with community network builders in Manchester, that I wrote about here. What’s the similarities and differences between using reporting for network building in an organisation like the RSA, and in local communities? Or in developing a Hyperlocal Chamber of Commerce?

One of the most interesting spin-off conversations with the Fellowship team was about how Fellows and staff could use social media to recruit more Fellows. If you are interested in RSA Fellowship, there’s information here.

I digress … but that’s the nature of networky storytelling. Follow the strands, and you usually bump into interesting people and ideas. If you can’t make use of the connection immediately, blog a piece and it will come in handy later.

Maybe that’s the difference from some other forms of more journalistic writing, where there’s greater pressure to come up with a hard angle. And maybe it’s why I bridle at over-labeling reporting in communities as citizen journalism.

Hmm … social reporting as networked narrative? Which I find has brief a Wikipedia entry … and will lead me on to other ideas ….

BBC collaboration helps network London hyperlocals

Today very big media (the BBC) met very small media (London hyperlocal bloggers and online community managers) and found they had something to work on together. It might be the start of something significant for local communities.

Their shared interest was that the London TV analogue signal will be switched off next month, starting on April 4. For most people it will be a simple matter of retuning their digital sets if they are using Freeview – but there are still many who will need equipment like a set-top box.

The get-together, in the BBC Council Chamber, was organised by Hugh Flouch of Networked Neighbourhoods

About 1.4 million people could be eligible for the BBC help scheme, which can include installation, advice, and follow-up support for 12 months. However, despite all the publicity, there may be some people who suddenly find their TV isn’t working any more.

Local web sites, like Harringay Online, run by Hugh and other local volunteers, have good connections in their neighbourhoods, as Networked Neighbourhoods research shows – and not just online. They are likely to know who’s who in local networks, and be able to get the word out in various ways.

We heard details of BBC plans from Liam McKay, Switchover Help Scheme Manager for London, and also from presenter Maggie Philbin, who has been spreading the word at events around the country. Then we got into huddles to come up with some ideas of our own, on how bloggers and BBC could work together. As well as local site managers, we had Matt Brown, editor of The Londonist, whose site has enormous reach throughout the capital. It all sounded very promising.

The bigger idea, as Hugh explains in the interview, is that BBC and hyperlocal sites both have a public interest role, and could work together more to deliver on that. BBC can’t always get to the grassroots … and while local sites definitely are grassroots, they need more nourishment to keep going.

The possibility of collaboration with the BBC, and other big agencies, could make it worthwhile for the bloggers and site managers to develop a network that could offer more more fine-grain communication locally. A London network isn’t a new idea, as Hugh explained, but this time something might be possible, particularly if the BBC could help out – perhaps by listing local sites at BBC London. There has to be something in the collaboration for both sides. Samantha Latouche explains more about the help scheme.

Maggie Philbin lives in Chiswick, and when she isn’t out evangelising the switchover help service, drops in to her local site to see what’s happening locally.

I go on to my local website chiswickw4.com at least once a day, and if I’m working from home it is slightly more, because there is something slightly addictive about checking out what’s going on. I know it doesn’t matter whether you have lost your cat or there has been some horrendous tragedy, I know the web site will cover it, and the forum will cover it. They are a really powerful source of local news and the place that you turn to.

“Sitting around this table today was this absolutely golden resource across London, of the people who know their areas. No matter how hard you try as a big organistion like the BBC you cannot know your areas as well as the people in this room. Tapping into this knowledge is really useful for the BBC – and I hope it can be reciprocal, and can go both ways.

I don’t think the London bloggers could have hoped for a strong endorsement – and if this interview is useful for a local site, you can get the embed code here. I would just be glad of a link back.

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. read more »

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Nick Booth of @podnosh blogs #hyperlocal for the BBC

I’ve just caught up with Nick Booth’s blog on BBC online about very local web sites. Nick deserves the space, from his track record over the past few years of podcasting the stories of active citizens, setting up innovative social media projects, and running social media surgeries. More at http://podnosh.com.
He observes that “making media about people is a great way to establish relationships. Through interviewing people for a podcast two things happened, I established stronger relationships with them, but they also started connecting with each other. The simple idea of understanding each other better and, to a degree, sharing a platform.”

read more »

The challenge of scaling and sustaining hyperlocal

I’m delighted that discussions about local blogging, local councils using online engagement tools, and how to sustain these activities have lifted off on socialbysocial.net – the online community I’ve started with Amy Sample Ward, co-author in the Social by Social book (download free). I’ve now added an interview with Rick Waghorn, who explains how the Addiply service may help: more below on that.


Michele Ide-Smith has a particularly interesting post about the choices she has posed to the council and other bodies she is working with: should that they support hyperlocal bottom-up activity, or develop their own digital engagement tools linked to neighbourhood panels and other methods.

Amy has reported on the workshop that we ran with Community Voices at the Digital Engagement event, and I’ve pondered on how far traditional community organisers could join up with those that are using social media. Will Perrin has set up a hyperlocal alliance group for these activists, and there’s also a group for the knowledge hub, which I’ve written about before.

Now back to Rick. Events like the Talk About Local unconference show the terrific enthusiasm developing around local blogs and online communities … but is it realistic to expect volunteers to keep them going?


Nick Booth (podnosh) summed it up when he tweeted from a recent discussion: local blogs are compelling when they are the authentic voice of the blogger … but it’s difficult to get more of them because they depend so much on the individual. Not only do bloggers and community managers put in lots of effort, they probably have some costs to bear by way of charges for online services.

Rick Waghorn doesn’t have the complete answer, but the Addiply service he is developing does offer bloggers the chance to make a few pounds from small ads tailored to their locality. He suggests this might help them move to not-at-a-loss, helping keep up motivation, and also providing a way for local groups and businesses to get a presence online through low-cost ads. You can see the service in action on the excellent Lichfield blog.

I find people in the traditional world of community organising can be a bit sniffy about for-profit enterprises coming on to their territory … while often being keen to get local businesses to support their community newspaper. Fine – but I know from experience that it’s a real chore going round traders and collecting a few pounds from each for the next issue. Addiply very neatly shows how online commercial services can help do the job, even at a modest level … and hpw the old for-profit, not-for-profit divisions may be breaking down.

Update: here’s a summary of the meeting  at the Department of Culture Media and Sport tweeted by Nick Booth, including suggestions on what Government should and should do to support hyperlocal news.

Old media declines … social communication entrepreneurs emerge

Conversations at the Euromeduc media literacy conference in Bellaria, Italy, confirmed for me that the story of media change is similar throughout Europe – on the one hand decline of some traditional big players, particularly newspapers, and on the other the increase in media created by individuals and small groups. I also heard about work in community media centres in Holland similar to that developing in the UK.

I first talked to two people who have a good overview of what’s happeningin local media. Peter de Groot teaches media economics, while Simon Strömberg works in the field for the Culture Administration in Stockholm. Both are also involved in the Media Coaches network that trains teachers, librarians, health workers and others to help children, parents and others use the web.
I was particularly interested in the implications for journalists seeing their jobs disappear, and for activists in local communities creating their own blogs and online communities. In the UK local activists are being supported by Talk About Local and Community Voices. read more »

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Could 20thC civic join up with 21stC hyperlocal?

The Civic Trust was an important force for conservation and local pride for 50 years, with a network of campaigning civic societies and an awards programme. I found the Regeneration Unit in particular great people to work with on a number of projects.  But earlier this year the Trust ran out of money, and closed … and I confess I didn’t even notice. That shows how far I’ve given up reading magazines, and moved online. It may also show how little visibility the Trust had in the new online world. read more »