Elements of local digital ecosystems

Apologies for using the word ecosystems – I just couldn’t be bothered thinking of anything less naff.

So earlier I blogged about the ways NESTA identified that government can help support local digital activity.

I mentioned that there are many different elements of the digital scene within a specific locality, so thought it only fair if I have a crack at listing them.

  • Digital economy – where businesses are active in delivering digital services to the public, private and other sectors
  • Digital access – making sure people have access to the hardware and connections to the net to enable them to make the most of the opportunities the net offers
  • Digital skills – from beginners to more expert skills, helping and guiding people along their learning journey from computer and web basics to more specialised knowledge, such as development, or video work for example
  • Digital engagement – better use of the web by public sector organisations to increase participation and involvement in public service delivery and design
  • Digital media – use of online tools for publishing news and other information online. Hyperlocal news and that sort of thing, but also general non-place specific blogging, video, audio, photography…
  • Digital communities – networks of common interest or based around a locality, using the web as a platform for discussion and collaborative action

I suspect you could plot these things on a venn diagram, showing where they overlap. Wonder if there’s a sweet spot where they all overlap?

Who are the actors and groups involved in this?

  • Businesses – SMEs, freelancers, bigger and more established companies who provide digital services or products. Perhaps non-digital businesses as well, who can benefit from getting better advice and service from suppliers if they understand the issues a bit better
  • Bits of government – there are lots of lessons for the public sector to learn about effective use of digital, which could save money and improve services. Having a rich digital community with which the local public services are engaged members of can help improve knowledge and skills and deliver better results
  • Politicians – politicians are community leaders as well as representatives and a healthy number must be involved in the local digital community. Not just to learn how digital can help them be better at representing and engaging, but better at making decisions too – especially where technology is involved
  • Education establishments – quite a few universities and colleges now forge links with local businesses and startups, including housing them in incubator style office spaces. They are also, of course, full of people about to enter the job market, or start businesses of their own, which could make a considerable impact on the local economy
  • The voluntary and community sector – the opportunities in digital for the civic sector are considerable. Great work by organisations like Cosmic and LASA demonstrate this, and even more could be done with an active digital community within a local area – whether through social media surgeries or more formal arrangements.
  • Digital activists – there are people who care about the opportunities that digital offers and who work hard to make sure people are aware of them and make the most of them. Linking them up with policy people, local techy businesses and community and voluntary organisations seems to be really important to me
  • Individuals – of course, mustn’t forget them. People who don’t fit into any of the above groups but who, of course, have plenty of links with most of them, and therefore occasional interactions with them. It’s really important to keep these people in mind, whatever you’re doing

So there’s a lot of activity, and a lot of different groups and people with an interest in that activity.

It strikes me that there is a lot that can be done in an area to get all of this effort working better, more efficiently. Not through the creation of bureaucratic digital partnerships, but through simple, lightweight creative collaborations where different organisations work together to meet shared problems.

Digital inclusion activity (improving access to, and skills for using, technology and networks) seems an obvious one. It’s better for government that people use online channels – it’s cheaper. At the same time, those people’s own lives could be improved with decent web access and skills. That can then lead onto the devlopment of the local digital economy, whether for training providers or people that build websites, or services computers, etc.

What’s interesting here I think is the role that local authorities and other public sector organisations play in this. There are clear advantages for government if people are active online in the area, both in terms of service delivery, but also less directly, with successful digital economies developing areas and generating tax revenues.

But what can they do? Most attempts by councils to provide environments for community websites, etc, tend to be a bit rubbish – though I know there are exceptions. I’ve got some ideas and – being the big tease that I am – I’ll share them in my next post on this topic.

10 thoughts on “Elements of local digital ecosystems”

  1. Bit like you, not sure where I am going to go with what I am about to write here, but was just about to start a blog post that may mesh in with this. I think.

    This morning, all the noise was about the new “cookie law” in my world. And it wasn’t long before it became obvious that the world and his lobster who could be affected had missed the chance to do so in the consultation that had been held last autumn.

    In another part of my world, we currently have the BDUK broiadband pilot being developed by Cumbria County Council, supposedly with the communities of Cumbria, but in actual fact, that is also at arms’ length, with none of us actually knowing what the Council are thinking, planning etc. And there is certainly little to no communication between the 4 pilot areas, BDUK, communities, consumers and businesses. And yet, the subject matter would seem to make it hypocritical that there is very little multi-way online communication ongoing to ensure that we get the best solution for all.

    And so, I think back to the Digital Britain Report and think about the site that Write To Reply set up to make it simple for ALL stakeholders to get involved in making sure the final report was at least somehow indicative of everyone’s views.

    Surely, if WTR can set up something like this <a href="http://writetoreply.org/digitalbritain/&quot; Digital britain Commentable Report in what seemed like a few momentss, then we already have an established tool to at the very least plan and discuss what is required by all stakeholders, whatever the digital subject matter?

    However, my big concern is the egos involved. That very human weakness could be the stumbling block in actually making things work. We need humility, compromise, patience, respect and an overriding need to do right by ALL, not just the few.

    What I see at present is that councils (e.g.) are hanging on to control of projects, funding, budgets instead of really using the Big Society mentality that most of us in communities possess to some extent or other. A little less control in some places might mean that those fantastic ideas from grassroots level, often thrown in from the left field, hit a target or two and become reality.

    I am seeing the effect of needing “ownership” right here in my village, right now. Our local pub closed before Xmas, the village has held meetings about buying it out, people have expressed a willingness to do anything required to at least get the doors open again whilst we work through the complexities of buying a community pub – Paint and a Pint was one suggestion for a work party to smarten the place up! The owner lives in Kent, and a new tenant has been found who does not live in the village either, and who doesn’t want any help from the village, thank you.

    It is difficult to ignore the warning bells that ring when people insist upon doing things their way, and don’t engage with the community at all, or as much as they could/should, even when help is required and money is tight. It’s not just about control, it’s more, “What is the agenda that we are not permitted to know about?”

    In my eyes, much of the above in your post could be overcome with simple, small, cheap solutions that work together to make a patchwork that eventually covers the whole community. Whether that is an online ‘wiki’ or discussion space such as the WTR DigiBritain report, any of the ideas on Our Society/User voice or a host of other things that are mentioned on a multitude of other sites where community voices seem to be shouting “upwards” into an authority void.

    • Yeah, the tech is there and isn’t too hard to use. The interesting and tricky bit is opening up government and get it to do the stuff it’s good at, and leave the rest to communities, businesses and so on.

  2. At talk about local we enjoy working with local public bodies, often councils or housing providers to help them give local people the simple skills to find a voice online.

    We start from the premis that a site is owned and run by citizens, not say the council. Using free/nearly free hosted platforms like wordpress.com means people can run their own site quite easily without the need for council provided infrastructure. They often pick up the minor costs for things like a domain etc as they want them from their own personal volunteering ‘budget’.

    Some examples:

    Our trainer Nyree from cambridgeshire council libraries has fostered a wonderful range of community sites in isolated communities in rural cambs including:
    http://fenlandfarmers.wordpress.com/ (still finding its feet)

    Nyree is a peripatetic uk online trainer and has great community links.

    We recently worked for broxtowe council with citizens in bramcote in nottingham to give them the skills to create a simple site that they own and run

    In the Bramcote case I pitched to a community group meeting, the council engaged us when it was clear that citizens wanted a site, we trained a great bunch of local activists (on council premisis) and support them remotely as they need it.

    This community devleopment foundation in Sheffield wanted to get their quarterly magazine online – we showed them how to do it using a simple blog site

    There are no hard and fast rules – each communtiy and group of people is different, but if i had some tips for your next post they would be:

    don’t host your own platform. this often puts the effort and spend in what is often the wrong bit of the organisation (the IT bit), retains ownership and thus legal liability, layers in cost and medium term hassle and also cramps people’s style

    equally don’t present local people with fait accompli site on wordpress.com and expect them to use it – you will be much more successful taking the time to help them make their own site

    let people find their own voice – find local people to get involved who have something to say and a burning need to communicate, this keeps them going as they run into problems.

    be prepared to take some time over this – there’s no set formula as to who will make a good local site. be prepared to fail quite a few times before you find the right people in the right roles

    don’t assume web means young people – the average person we train has grey hair

    follow the audience and increasingly thing Facebook first, even though it is inflexible and fiddly. marry a facebook page or group up with an external wordpress.com blog that is linked.

    • Thanks Will. I’ll use your points to kick off my next post if that’s ok.

      TAL does great work in the skills and access areas, and promoting the use of digital media in localities.

      It’s also a great example of a small business providing a service that a local authority could probably only do fairly badly!

  3. agree with the comment above, but would like to point out that no matter how loud or long we shout from the grassroots nobody seems to listen…
    … big society
    my arse.

  4. As Cyberdoyle says, it’s not the doing that matters – we have proven we can JFDI. It’s being heard and being engaged in decision making with the public sector bodies, who often seem to be making poor decisions that bear little relation to what we want or need.

    Many of the patches which will make up the patchwork of solutions are digital – there is no getting around that, but it could be community wide infrastructure that joins up all the utilities into a SmartGrid, rather than a village website. And once we start seeing how that will impact into every corner of every community, then creating a website for a village is simple.

    The economy will start to upturn as people can create new businesses, set up online social enterprises that generate the funds needed to build a new playground, events to raise funds for the village hall roof can be more widely promoted because people will be able to communicate more simply, new skills will come into existence which will then knock on to social and business and government sectors as more people talk about and share what they can now do etc etc etc.

    But if there is no open and transparent discussion, but rather division between public bodies, communities, business etc, then how far are we going to get? There is a big task ahead of us to re-invent this country, and the sooner we accept that there is a need for a radical shake-up over who has ‘power’, the better.

  5. @Lindsey Annison -while waiting for a radical shake-up of power, we can share the power/skills that we have. More people with digital confidence lays the ground for sustainable digital eco-systems, as in Will Perrin’s examples above. (Don’t want to strain that metaphor further).
    In Edinburgh, we have Edinbuzz’s successful and fun social media surgeries http://www.edinbuzz.net/social-media-surgeries-edinburgh
    and are piloting Online Ambition, where we’re specifically looking at using the Internet for job search and careers. Some of Edinburgh’s top recruiters and career coaches are coming to a local library to share their tips. http://itc.napier.ac.uk/huwy/onlineambition.pdf
    All free -skill sharing is the goal and hopefully reward.

    • Ella, these sound like excellent initiatives and great examples of creative collaboration between different sectors – exactly what I’m talking about in these posts!

      One area I am particularly interested in is how people can be encouraged to explore careers and starting up businesses in the digital economy having been enthused and trained by projects such as those you mention. Great stuff!

  6. Hi Dave – good post!

    I’ll be trying to figure out ways of sharing learning from the Young Foundation’s Local 2.0 project over the next few months, but some reflections from my dealings with local authorities:

    – they really don’t want to be the ones developing community spaces. They would much rather that communities do it themselves and they are very receptive to outside agencies like TAL doing this. We’ve tried to get People’s Voice Media’s Community Reporters programme going to but couldn’t find funding, however, one of the councils has funded it themselves and another has had discussions about doing it with PVM.
    – The reasons for this are varied, but by and large they recognise that it is much healthier for communities/residents to own and manage blogs, social networks etc.. Some of the motivation is about risk and responsibility – they don’t want to be liable for anything and they don’t want to moderate (although they are likely to try to intervene if people slag off their service!)
    – Engaging through hyperlocal sites is still a challenge. Reasons include a fear of changing the tone of online spaces, but also a legitimate fear of misrepresenting (or not knowing) council policy. But we have some great examples of officers engaging online (and some bad ones too…)

    There is loads more in my head too which I will download at some point soon, all of it will reinforce the points Will has made.



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