Using the places database

I was asked recently by a colleague for some information about the names and locations of local authorities in this country. I was able to respond quickly and usefully thanks to the places database, which sits on the website of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Here’s what I did, as a simple example of what you can do with this resource. We’re just going to produce a spreadsheet containing the names and contact information for local councils in England. I’m no expert on this stuff, but hopefully this demonstrates some of what is possible, and encourages folk to have a play.

First, go to http://www.places.communities.gov.uk/ in your web browser.

Scroll down and choose ‘download data by theme’:

Download data

On the next screen, we need to tell the system what information we want to extract through a number of steps. Here’s what steps 1-3 should look like for our example (click for a bigger version):

Steps 1 to 3

For step 1 select Current, step 2 select Key Facts, step 3 select Local Authority.

Two more questions to answer:

Steps 4-5

Step 4 choose Place Details, Step 5 leave start and end dates both as current.

Finally, there is a bit of a warning message – which I just ignore – and then the option to download the data as either an Excel spreadsheet or in CSV format:

Steps 6-7

Then just hit download, and your data will be saved to your computer. Dead easy.

Thanks to Martin Stone who first pointed this out to me.

I’d be interested to find out what uses other people have been putting this tool to.

Disruptive communities

A few interesting sites I’ve come across in the last few weeks have got me thinking – always dangerous – and have also connected some stuff in my head. As always, I might have got this wrong, but thought it worth sharing.

Some of the most exciting uses of the web to emerge over the last couple of years have used the power of web 2.0 to foster conversation online amongst people with things in common, who might not otherwise have found each other.

This is effectively what I am banging on about in the talks I give on this subject, putting together the apparently opposing aspects of the web which I label – in line with the books of the same titles – The Long Tail and Here Comes Everybody. That is to say that the web allows us to be incredibly individual online, to find information that’s incredibly niche, to write our own blogs about very esoteric subjects (the Long Tail bit). But at the same time, the web connects us, so no matter how apparently individual our interests, we can always find others into the same stuff – whether they are geographically near or far (the Here Comes Everybody bit).

By combining these two things – individual interests and self organising, websites can create new communities for people who may have otherwise thought they were alone. We can belong to as many of these communities as we like too, no matter how apparently contradictory – just like our own personalities. For instance, I could be a member of an online conservation group, as well as a Range Rover owners’ community. Belonging to one need not preclude me from another as long as I feel comfortable with it myself. This would not necessarily be the case with other, mainly offline groups – political parties being one obvious example.

This is incredibly powerful – and potentially very disruptive. There are a few examples of mass scale communities which are often trotted out – NetMums is one, Money Saving Expert another – but these are generally technically pretty traditional. The new communities are increasingly targeted at niche areas and are increasingly sophisticated in terms of the tech.

Disruption is considered a bad thing in many circles – wrongly, as is failure (the best we can ever hope to do, after all, is fail better). In fact, disruption is just doing things in a different way – perhaps bypassing process or procedure, or creating a whole new process in place of the old one. It’s just change, really.

These new, disruptive communities bring people together, and it is at that point that real change can start to happen. Websites don’t really change anything – but people do. This has a considerable number of implications for many different organisations, but particularly government. This ranges from what kind of organisations and groups should be consulted on issues to actually who should deliver services.

Here are some examples, which are those interesting sites I mentioned at the top of this post. They aren’t necessarily new, but are great examples of what I’m talking about.


PatientsLikeMe

PatientsLikeMe is a US based site which creates communities out of people with similar health complaints. It allows members to share experiences, information and knowledge about their conditions, with obvious benefits. Those people living in small rural locations, for example, are unlikely ever to meet other folk with similar issues – but online it is easy to connect and discuss. Members of the site also share data relating to their illness, which in turn is shared with partner organisations to help develop cures.

Enabled By Design

Set up in the UK by Denise Stephens, with help from Dominic Campbell and others, Enabled by Design

…is a community of people passionate about well designed everyday products. By sharing their loves, hates and ideas, Enabled by Designers challenge the one size fits all approach to assistive equipment through the use of clever modern design.

The site brings together people who have great ideas for design in assistive and other equipment, as well as taking contributions from those who spot great – and terrible – examples of design out there now.

Help Me Investigate

Help Me Investigate is a site that encourages people to get together and, well, investigate stuff. It’s a mixture of local journalism and a social network. People list things they want to investigate, and others join them, adding what they find out to an investigation page online that everyone involved can see.

With a team boasting the best in networked journalism and technology that Birmingham has to offer (Paul, Nick and Stef) Help Me Investigate is a great site for bringing citizens together around the issues that matter to them – and issuing challenges to public and private organisations.

Signpostr

Signpostr is a very new site, only just out in Alpha testing mode. The brainchild of School of Everything‘s Douglad Hind and Colin Tate, Signpostr is a community for job seekers, particularly those leaving education into the current job market. It offers three things:

  • a space to talk honestly about the realities of looking for work at a difficult time;
  • a user-generated resource directory, where people can share information about resources useful for finding work or living cheaply;
  • and a tool for organising and developing your own projects.

There are an awful lot of government sponsored initiatives out there to help people get (back) into work during the recession – and it will be fascinating to see whether a self organised community can add something that ‘official’ projects cannot provide.

FreeLegalWeb

FreeLegalWeb describes itself as

…a project designed to deliver a web service that joins up and makes sense of the law and legal commentary and analysis on the web, providing a substantially more reliable, useful and efficient service than is currently available.

So, the current arrangements are perceived to be failing people, so here is a self-organised attempt to put that right. A great team is behind the project, including Nick Holmes, Robert Casalis de Pury and Harry Metcalfe; and support is being provided by the Cabinet Office, OPSI, BAILII, the Open Knowledge Foundation and mySociety. Well worth keeping an eye on.


All of these community projects have identified a need where government or the market is failing people, and have stepped up to fill that gap, using digital technology as a cost effective way of bringing large numbers of people together in one (online) place.

These communities are also, I think, great examples for local authorities to follow when making applications to the (deep breath) Communities and Local Government Customer-Led Service Transformation Capital Fund which Ingrid at the IDeA has been doing so much to promote recently.

This fund is looking for projects that fill a genuine need for citizens which isn’t currently being met, to provide information to key identified groups of people and focusing on specific issues that have been made priorities by local government. It isn’t really about getting those little projects kick started that you’ve never found the money to do – it strikes me that these sites funded by this money will be new ideas – and big, scalable ideas too.

Those interested in going for the funding should be looking at the sites I have mentioned above, and thinking what are the issues where citizens currently aren’t getting the access to information, or the conversations, that they need.

Beyond the CLG dosh, though, is a bigger question for government, which is whether it should be involved in building these sites at all. There is a convincing argument that says they shouldn’t, and that self organised action is entirely preferable.

I agree with that view to an extent, and in an ideal world, that’s how it would work. But where government – local or otherwise – can help kickstart that community building process, whether by acting in a convening capacity, or investing in the necessary technology, promotion and community management work, it should. It need not matter whether an online space is set up by a community activist or a local council – just as long as it does the job required and is run in the interests of its members.

Digital mentors are unorganising themselves…

To pick up on the thread of Digital Mentors – the role outlined by CLG to help disadvantaged communities find a voice online – I have started a new site along with a growing bunch of collaborators to develop the role online, gather stories and resources together and maybe to unorganise a tender bid when the funding for the pilot projects becomes available.

I’d encourage anyone interested to get involved: check out the blog, sign up to the mailing list and throw some stuff up on the wiki.

What is a ‘Digital Mentor’?

One of the ideas in the Communities in Control white paper, published last week by the Department for Communities and Local Government, that has attracted a fair amount of attention is that of the ‘Digital Mentors’. Here’s what the paper itself says about them:

Government will pilot a ‘Digital Mentor’ scheme in deprived areas. These mentors will support groups to develop websites and podcasts, to use digital photography and online publishing tools, to develop short films and to improve general media literacy. The Digital Mentors will The digitalalso create links with community and local broadcasters as part of their capacity building, to enable those who want to develop careers in the media to do so. Depending on the success of these pilots, this scheme could be rolled out to deprived areas across England.

This is part of an initiative to help communities take control of their media, to fill the gaps in coverage themelves in a way that takes advantage of the remarkable opportunities that exist with social web  tools, to both provide a means of communicating a community’s messages, and to help that community collaborate both internally and with other agencies too. I would argue that such a role is required in all local communities, not just the deprived ones, though it may well be the less well off that need it the most.

What isn’t particularly clear at this stage is who these mentors will be, nor how they will work. Should they be the employees of local authorities, for example? Or should they be volunteers, who perhaps are rewarded for their time in some way? Should they belong to the communities they mentor, or can they be ‘outsiders’?

One option might be for digital mentors to operate out of local colleges, say, and turn it into a real educative experience, or perhaps community centres or village halls would be better locations.

Then, what role should the mentors actually have? Just providing the training on new media, or actually coordinating projects too? It’s interesting that the focus here is on enabling ‘those who want to develop careers in the media to do so’ – what about people who just want to use this stuff to revitalise their local democracy?

I think the role, as fuzzily defined in the white paper, needs to be developed and broadened in scope. In an earlier blogpost, I wrote about a possible process for social media to be used to bring togther the various elements of civic society in a locality. The focus was on social media as an end in itself, like a local social media club, but I think it works for democratic participation too.  The main steps I identified were:

  • Establish tags – common ways of describing and finding content that everyone can use: local gov, local press, individual bloggers, existing communities and groups
  • Aggregate content – use the tags to bring the conversation about the area into one place
  • Communicate – start to talk amongst the various content producers
  • Meet – get everyone meeting and talking to each other in real life
  • Develop – put together some of the infrastructure together to allow for further collaboration and coworking, both online and off

The digital mentor could be the person driving this forward in a local area.

I know that there are people really interested in this role and its development, people like David Wilcox and Paul Webster, to name just two. It would be great if the Digital Mentor concept could be designed in the public, between CLG and those willing volunteers who think this could be a great initiative.