Thoughts on BeLocal – Building and Engaging Local Communities using Digital Technologies

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On Thursday this week i went to the BeLocal workshop called Building and Engaging local Communities using Digital Technologies in London.

I didn’t think i was going to make the event because of the weather but all was well and the train was only delayed by 40 minutes due to frozen points near Frome.

On the way up and to help pass the time i was twittering and listening into the conversations that generally happen. A particular post asking for help avoiding the circle line sparked me to ask the same question as i had planned on using it for 2 stops and then join the central line. However a post back from @hadleybeeman suggested i walk from Paddington to Lancaster Gate and get straight on the central line. This was a good idea although i didn’t know the way. Hadley kindly posted the following tweet which contained a link to google maps local and showed me the directions. It was fortunate that my blackberry as well as my Nokia N95 could view the maps well enough to follow the directions.

@hadleybeeman posting google map link
@hadleybeeman posting google map link

What was also interesting about the conversations that were happening in twitter is that people were more keen to learn about the real picture from real people as opposed to official websites. One example of this was a post by Tim Davies who said

@timdavies tweet
@timdavies tweet

On to the event itself. There were about 20 people there, including the speakers which meant that there were good opportunities to network. When i first arrived i starting talking with Justin Griggs from the NALC. We had a general chat about what we did and what we were hoping to get out of the session.

First up on the agenda was John Sheridan, Head of eServices at OPSI (Office for Public Sector Information), who spoke about Unlocking our Data.

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John started by setting the picture and gave the context of the Wealth of Networks and that “everything is deeply intertwingled – Benkler 2006

The key challenges we have are about enabling others to use the information on our websites.

We currently take the closed door approach and we keep our arms closed in relation to information sharing. We need to stop “hugging data” and allow other people to have  access to it, who maybe better at presenting the information we own.

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Jeni Tennison’s Blog post “Your website is your API”, which was prepared for last Saturday’s UKGovBarcamp was highlighted and John raised some of the key points that Jeni raises and states within her blog post.

There are three fundamental things that we need to do:

  • identify the data that you control
  • represent that data in a way that people can use
  • expose the data to the wider world

Without re-posting Jeni’s thoughts here, i will include a further quote from her blog which John also referred to and one which is common sense and is almost too simple.

Every resource should have an identifier. A Uniform Resource Identifier. A URI. That URI tells us where we can find information about the resource. So your second step is to work out URIs for each of your resources.

The final and most important point from my point of view that John said was:

DO, TALK, EXPERIMENT and SHARE

This approach came through a lot at the Barcamp on Saturday and it will be one of the key challenges this year for local and central government.

Up next came Justin Griggs, Head of Policy from the NALC.

Justin gave a “reality check” in that he deals with town and parish councils and to be fair they are not all embracing digital technologies at teh same pace as the rest of government and rightly so, becuase of the size and culture within a given council.

Justin said that there were 80,000 Town and Parish councillors. This got me thinking what would the impact be if all of these councillors had a basic blog promoting what they do and enabling conversations with there local community?

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Justin also highlighted that Elected Representatives remain the indispensible link between the public and decison making  and the opportunities that exist around digital engagement and participative democracy will inform and enhance  representive democracy.

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The next speaker was William Perrin from the Cabinet Office.

William showed examples of where residents were engaging and supporting each other around central or local government service areas in online networks.

Examples included

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The interesting aspect to these examples was that the original posts contained what we in government would classify as sensitive data. However the individuals concerned were obviously keen to provide contextual information to enable others to provide the correct advice.

A simple action to take would be to do an online audit of groups that exist in online forums which are Devon based as Netmums for examples operates on a region basis. If the scale of online activity is high in the Devon area then we would need to ascertain what our role should and could be in these spaces, taking into consideration that the individuals who posted the original questions obviously felt more comfortable asking a group and potentially felt approaching local or central government awkward and less personal. We need to learn from this simple message and how we interact with people as organisations. The benefits of these groups is that they are personal and non judgmental. How personal do we act in our services.

An interesting point that was raised in when should we accept that other people are better at providing online services then we might be, an example could be planning.

Planning Alerts.com vs Planning Portal

You can make your own mind up in terms of usability and functionality, but just consider this when making your decision, Planning Alerts.com website was developed by some people who wanted to access the information better. I did notice that my authority is currently not supported and i suspect that may well have something to do with the way our information is provided. Something to look into.

One of the keys things we need to look at is our copyright statement. This is often one of the key barriers to others reusing our information. I have since checked our copyright statement and I think we could alter it to make it clearer what people can and can’t do. Although essentially our statement allows otehrs to use our content without permission providing it isn’t used in a derogatory way against the council.

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A few other examples of where innovation has happened despite the issues faced by social entrepreneurs is:

  • schoolmap.org.uk
    Information about the school’s location, oftseted report and other relevant information
  • schoolguruhertfordshire.co.uk
    You can find the best schools in your area, by using the School Selector. Then the Admission Calculator will tell you whether you would have got in, on allocation day, in recent years.

In order for us all to enable this innovation more, we need to adopt a new publishing model. Once which facilitates reuse directly and supports a more mash-up approach. This is exactly the approach i am incorporating into the new web strategy for my council, so i am pleased that this direction is now promoted from cabinet office.

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We then had a roundtable discussion which was very interesting and touched on all the thoughts and issues that were going around my brain.

Kent County Council spoke about their “pick and mix” project which is funded via the Innovate08 competition. They don’t know whether it will be successful but are prepared for any failure and will learn the lessons. That is the kind of thing we should all do more. I look forward to hearing more about their progress.

For me the main issues and stages for local councils are as follows

  • Reality check
    we need to first accept that the new model of engagement is already happening, it may not have reached the masses but there are significant numbers in online spaces for us not to ignore the opportunities
  • Acceptance
    once we accept that this is a practical opportunity, we need to promote and raise awareness of the issues and skills required to effectively use and engage with people in these spaces. We must not underestimate the skills required for online facilitation
  • Listening
    a simple but effective first step is to start listening to the conversations and gaining insights and knowledge, this can be done via either using the same tools, twitter, facebook etc and or searching for keywords and subscribing via RSS to broad our picture.
  • Advice
    This is a practical step and one which needs a dialogue with communities to position how this role could and should be supported. It maybe more practical to participate in a community and promote a practical “council surgery” in a separate forum or group. This will ensure that we are not perceived to be steamrolling in and taking over spaces.
  • Nurturing
    We have a role to encourage and stimulate the development of online communities and to recognise them as in our engagement and consultation strategies
  • Discussion and debate
    I believe that once we have done all the above we would be able to invite people to formal spaces which would be facilitated and managed effectively.

The key aspect to all of this is to start to open up and explore the new connections and to create an information and conversation flow between residents and councils (or council staff) and then creating and developing new opportunities to communicate out.

There is a huge potential to support these environments which also foster social capital. A great example of this is Harringayonline, which is not a council lead initiative and Kings Cross Environment.

It was then time for lunch and more chat and networking.

Up next was Kevin Byrne, Head of Policy, London Borough of Hillingdon.

Kevin spoke about the work Hillingdon are doing on engagement in general, which was very interesting and was based around face to face or traditional channels. Kevin spoke about 7 key challenges:

  1. Engagement or empowerment or both. and if, when, where and how?
  2. Incremental improvement or transformation change – perhaps we need to take a bigger step toward transformation.
  3. Ensuring when engagement happens – how do we validate whether people are actually local or just vocal?
  4. What is the role of members in promoting local democracy and participative democracy
  5. build on our successes and not be forced down a central government route if we know it doesn’t make sense.
  6. apathy – is it contentment or are people truly demotivated
  7. don’t underestimate the impact of the economic downturn

We then moved onto a game, which essentially got us to create a community with some neighbourhoods, create the conditions and the people and then try and then suggest and information product which could help resolve a particular issue.

I am not going to go into huge detail on the content of the game, but it was great to experience.

Some final thoughts at the end of the day:

If people are bothered and want to engage, where do they go? can they go online?  If they are not interested, then perhaps by going online and listening to the conversation there is likely to be greater potential for them to participate and engage.

I think for me, the key messages are, enabling communications and information flow so that people can listen to what is going on, providing simple and easy avenues and opportunities to feedback and then nurture that connection.

There is also a lot to be said in developing and encouraging internal cultures which mirror this approach so that as an organisation we reflect engagement and conversational strategies in what we do. Essentially leading by example.

On the whole a great day with more yet great connections.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on BeLocal – Building and Engaging Local Communities using Digital Technologies

  1. Good report Carl.

    Some useful key messages. I’d be interested to hear more from local authorities about how you see your role in enabling communications and information flow through mediums that you don’t control, like Harringay Online for example.

    There’s a risk in relinquishing control, but if you want to encourage the conversation, realistically where is the most fertile ground; in a virtual town hall (council-led website) or a virtual street corner cum cafe (citizen-led website)?

    (Thanks also for the positive mention of Harringay Online.

    It’s great you reference the two very different models; the citizen journalist model blogging sites like Kings Cross Environment and the Social Media idea as exemplified by Harringay Online.

    We’re really keen share our learning and sit down with Council partners to look at how a well managed hyperlocal social network like Harringay Online can deliver significant contributions to empowerment engagement and well-being.)

  2. dianasmith

    That is really useful.
    I am in the process of thinking this through in Stafford, so you have probably saved me a lot of time.

    Thanks.

    Diana Smith (mulberrybush) on twitter.

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