Ten top internet tips for councillors

After a break of a week, the guest posts are back! This time it’s Mark Pack, who has written a handy guide for councillors on how to get to grips with the net.

It is pretty rare these days to find a councillor who doesn’t use the internet, at least occasionally. However, in part because the average age of councillors means that the vast majority are not ‘internet natives’, that often does not amount to much more than frequent use of email, a familiarity with the basics of searching on Google and not that much else. So in an attempt to help close the gap, here are my top ten tips for councillors. Any list like this is bound to exclude some tips which other people think are vital, so by all means post up a comment saying what you think should have been included in the list.

1. Get a feed reader (also known as a news readers or RSS reader)

These days nearly all news sites and blogs, along with many other websites, offer an RSS feed (sometimes called a ‘news feed’, or simply ‘RSS’ or ‘feeds’). You can sign up to the feed with a feed reader, and then, in future, when a new story appears on the site, it will appear in your feed reader, saving you the time otherwise spent checking on sites to see if they have anything new.

Google Reader – www.google.com/reader – is reliable, free and has a wide range of functions. It is by no means the only one available, but it’s a good safe choice.

Once you have set up your feed reader, you can tell it to keep an eye on a website either by inputting the web address into the feed reader software, or by visiting the website and then looking for the ’sign-up to a feed reader’, ’subscribe to RSS’ or similar option on screen (frequently accompanied by an orange square with curves cutting across it).

2. Use Google and Microsoft’s free satellite photos

Whether it is pondering a planning application, wondering about transport proposals or trying to picture a particular community, it is often useful to be able to see what an area looks like from the comfort of your desk.

Both Google – maps.google.co.uk and pick “satellite” in the top right – and Microsoft – http://www.bing.com/maps/?cc=uk and click “bird’s eye” – provide free comprehensive satellite photography of the UK.

Google has the bonus of its Street View for many areas, so you can not just look down on an area but also look at it from street level. Microsoft on the other hand has a slanted bird’s eye view, which can be particularly useful for trying to picture how a new development will look and affect an area.

3. FixMyStreet

This is a free service for the public to report local issues such as potholes and dumped rubbish to their council. Usage varies hugely around the country, but it’s a good way of keeping tabs on what some members of the public are concerned about in your area. Go to http://www.fixmystreet.com/alert and you can sign up to receive automatic notifications of new reports in the area of interest to you.

It is particularly useful for councillors who can use examples from the site as a sanity check against what the council staff and reports say about how the different departments are performing.

4. Planning Alerts

If you are a councillor, the chances are you are inundated with information about planning applications anyway. But make a visit to http://www.planningalerts.com/ and you can sign up to very clear and convenient alerts (including via RSS) which you can then use to spot what to dig out from all your council papers. It is also a very useful tool to highlight to non-councillor colleagues and constituents.

5. Use Google Alerts

Head over to www.google.com/alerts, enter the search term you want (such as Indeterminate Council) along with your email address. You can choose how often you want to receive the alerts, such as ‘once a day’ so that the alerts are reasonably timely but don’t distract you too much from what you should be doing!

These alerts are a very useful supplement to having a feed reader. Feed readers are great where you are regularly wanting news from the same sites; the alerts fit in where you want news on a particular topic, almost regardless of which site it has appeared on.

6. Flickr

Flickr lets you easily store photographs online for all to see, such as photos of local issues or your campaigning work. That then means they are all in one convenient place for future use or reference (no more scratching around for copies of photographs when you need them for a leaflet). It is also somewhere you can point journalists or residents to and it avoids the need to email round huge photos (which then fill up someone’s inbox or bounce).

All those benefits apply even if you don’t do anything else online, but Flickr also works easily with blogs, websites, Twitter and Facebook. If you have any mix of those, you can put your photos on Flickr and then reuse them easily.

7. Use communities.idea.gov.uk

I’ve not used this site myself, but it’s been strongly recommended to me (thanks @mariejenkins) and it looks to be a good way of sharing knowledge and gathering information.

8. Install Google Desktop search

Another free tool from Google – http://desktop.google.com/. This is a very quick search program which looks through just the contents of your computer. But it does it fast and goes through emails and documents at the same time. On a decent speed computer it is so quick, you will often find that searching is quickly than remembering where a file was and then clicking through your different folders to get to it.

9. Keep your computer in good shape with CCleaner and Secunia PSI

Given that amount of personal data about other people that is likely to pass through your computer, even if you do only the smallest amount of casework, keeping your computer secure should be taken seriously. Plus getting infected with a nasty can end up taking up huge amounts of time and cause great inconvenience whilst it gets sorted.

You should have an anti-virus program and firewall anyway, and these days it is hard to get a computer without them. Adding these two free programs – http://www.ccleaner.com/ and http://secunia.com/vulnerability_scanning/personal/ – will give you a lot of extra protection at very little effort.

CCleaner is a program you can run regularly to keep you computer clean and tidy, which helps its performance as well as wrinkling out possible problems. Secunia can scan your computer to spot missing security patches and then point you at the right place to install them. (Both are for Windows computers.)

10. Make use of the previous nine tips

Don’t think that any of these tips are too complicated or too time consuming. You need very little skill with a computer to do them – and there are plenty of people who can help. With a little investment of time you will end up being able to do your job better and saving much more time as the weeks and months go by.

Mark Pack worked for the Liberal Democrats 2000-2009, ending up as their Head of Innovations. During that time he often trained councillors on how to make better use of the internet. He’s now at Mandate Communications (www.YourMandate.com) and blogs about politics, history and technology at www.MarkPack.org.uk. He’s on Twitter at @markpack

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.