Local community networks with Ning

I’ve always been a little uncertain of Ning, the service that allows you to create your own social networks. I’m not sure why: possibly a comination of them looking rather samey (certainly in the early days), and being – to me – a little unintuitive to use. Plus there’s always been the fact that you share a service with a bunch of porn barons.

However, recent uses of the platform have made me rethink my position. Firstly, there is Tim DaviesUKYouthOnline network, started as a way of communicating with people attending the upcoming unconference, but now developing into something rather bigger than that. Tim’s customisation of his network turned it into a really nice looking site, and while I still have reservations about having blogs and a forum on one site, it doesn’t look too busy.

Next up, a Sunday tweet from Steph alerted me to a Ning network that had been created for his local area, Beckenham. Originally put together to discuss issues around parking in the area, people are using blogs to raise and chat about other topics, too. I had never really thought about Ning for local networks, to be honest, always thinking that a reporting style blog, and use of common tags, would be the best way to go about things. But with Ning, you can allow people to upload stuff directly, or aggregate it from other places, whether through built in services or just by hooking up to the RSS feed.

For a local residents’ network, then, Ning is pretty good. One issue is that I haven’t tested it out on legacy browsers, like ancient version of Internet Explorer which could still be residing on people’s computers. It’s certainly made be reconsider some of the stuff in my plan for building local online communities though.

A couple of pieces of advice though, if you are planning to use Ning:

  • Think carefully about the functionality you enable. Forums, blogs, chat, notes… do you really need them all? What you don’t want to happen is for someone who wants to post something getting frustrated because they don’t know which is the best medium
  • It might be a good idea to pay to get rid of the ads – Ning seems to throw up a lot for online dating, etc, which might not be the right thing for your community’s image.

One issue I still have with Ning though: when am I logged in and not logged in? If I log in at ning.com, I still have to re-enter my credentials to get into individual networks. And sometimes I have to enter a master key, and sometimes not. It’s confusing!

Communicosm

A short while ago, I wrote a little piece about a possible idea to enter into the Building Democracy competition, which was to create a social ‘directory’ of online community groups. I put directory in inverted comments because that isn’t really what it is, but I could think of a better word. Anyway, I’ve come up with a working title for the project: Communicosm – it’s like a microcosm of communities. Or something. I dunno.

Anyway, for the Building Democracy site, I need to answer some questions about the project. Here’s my draft responses, which will hopefully give more detail on how this thing might just work. Once again, all feedback gratefully received! I need to get this up on the site next week really, so chop chop people.

What is your idea’s name?

Communicosm.

A short description of your idea (in twenty words or less)

A socially generated directory of online communities, tagged by areas of interest, that organisations can use to find people to talk to. (This is 22 words. Dammit.)

Describe your idea. What will you do?

Create a wiki based site which will contain details of online communities, which organisations such as central and local government can use to find the people they need to get in touch with for consultations, etc. Each community will have a page describing it and its interests, with tags describing it with keywords, which can then be used by organisations to find the right communities quickly whether through a search engine or a tag cloud. Time will be spent at the beginning researching and finding communities and adding them to the site so that when it launches, it is full of content for people to get their teeth into. After this initial burst of activity, it will be a community generated job. Further additions to functionality might be for people to make lists of communities that they have found on the site, which can be emailed to them or shared on the site.

What will the benefits be?

The site will save time for those searching for groups to contact and engage with. Searching online for communities is a time consuming business, not least because some human research element is required to judge activity levels and how relevant the community is to a project.

Who will you target?

Online community groups will be targetted and encouraged to add themselves to the site. Non-online community group could also be added, though if they have no online presence this could be tricky. It will also be publicised amongst government and other organisations to encourage use.

Is your idea linked to a particular town or region? If so, where?

No, it’s a national thing. A local version already kind of exists with GroupsNearYou.

What kind of assistance would you like from others?

Help in identifying, adding and tagging communities on the site once up and running. Encouragement of organisations to make use of the site’s content.

My Building Democracy idea

I just had a request from someone asking what the best community sites are for a certain – fairly specific – group of people. A little digging, partly Google, partly ‘I know I’ve seen something like this somewhere…’, soon produced some good results. I emailed them off and my contact was a happy chappy (hopefully).

This set me off thinking, that some kind of online resource for government, both central and local, and other organisations, could use to identify where the places are that people are talking about certain topics. It could be community maintained and updated, but would need some seriously work in the first place to firstly identify key target groups that would be good places to start, and secondly do the grunt work to track down the most popular communities and forums, and then list them on the site.

A further development could then be to add other communities which aren’t necessarily online based – though if they have no web presence at all, that might be tricky.

So, some time is required to get it up and running, which if I were to do it (and why not?) I’d probably like to be paid for. Which made me think of Building Democracy, the competition to identify projects which help ‘stimulate public discussion’. I reckon this idea suits that remit pretty well. I need to do some maths around how much time it would take to scope and do the initial work, but I doubt it will use up very much of the available £150,000 at all.

Before I post it up to the site, though, I’d like some initial feedback:

  • Is it a good idea?
  • Does something like this already exist?
  • Can you see any problems at this early stage of the idea’s development?

Any thoughts welcomed! Oh, and please don’t steal my idea!

Quick picks from Communities in Control

Just had a chance to have a run through the executive summary of the white paper Communities in Control, published today by the department for Communities and Local Government, with a highlighter pen and picked out a few juicy bits. I suspect most of my interest will be in Chapter 3: Access to Information, and you will all no doubt be delighted to note that some discussion of the detail of that will be forthcoming…

For my more cynical readers, please note that I am commenting on all this stuff in a very positive frame of mind!

First up, some bits talking about money on page 3:

We will also set up an Empowerment Fund of at least £7.5m to support national third sector organisations turn key empowerment proposals into practical action…

we are establishing a £70m Communitybuilders scheme to help them become more sustainable. Grassroots Grants, developed by the Office of the Third Sector, offer small sums of money from an £80m fund – in addition there is a £50m community endowment fund – to help locally-based groups to survive and thrive…

Excellent news. One of the issues being raised a lot at 2gether08 was the fact that there wasn’t the money to get community action going. What’s also needed, though, as well as the money existing, is for the funds to be marketed in such a way that people know it’s there, and how to bid for it.

Tracey and others might be interested in this on p4:

We will support community effort in tackling climate change. A ‘Green Neighbourhood’ scheme has been launched which will demonstrate how communities can take action to adopt low carbon lifestyles.

Also on page 4:

The Internet offers huge opportunities and we want to encourage public bodies to authorise the re-use of information. We are improving the information available to local citizens and service-users. But there is a correlation between social and digital exclusion. We will ensure all sections of society can enjoy the benefits of the Internet, and other methods of communication.

A strong independent media is a vital part of any democracy. We will continue to support a range of media outlets and support innovation in community and social media. We will pilot a mentoring scheme in deprived areas on using the Internet.

This is good, positive stuff. The digital divide is not, as far as I am concerned, a reason (excuse?) not to engage with people online. Instead, make it a part of any initiative to get people online. Run some classes. Take some laptops with 3g dongles to a community centre. Do something!

Page 5:

Petitions have become easier on the internet…To make it easier to influence the agenda at a local level we will introduce a new duty for councils to respond to petitions, ensuring that those with significant local support are properly debated…Petitions should be taken into account in decision making in public services.

Petitions are an interesting thing, they’ve been popular on the Number 10 website, and have certainly raised the profile of certain campaigns. Whether they really encourage real participation, rather than just a single, throwaway response at a friend’s email request, I’m not sure.

Again from page 5:

Citizens should have a greater say in how local budgets are spent. Participatory budgeting – where citizens help to set local priorities for spending – is already operating in 22 local authorities. We want to encourage every local authority to use such schemes in some form by 2012.

This is interesting and Participatory budgeting is something I would like to have more of a look into. The biggest question people have about their local authority is ‘what does my council tax go on?’ and anything which makes the budgeting process a little more transparent has got to be a good thing. I guess the trick is to avoid it becoming gimmicky.

Page 5 must have been a good one:

Local authorities should do more to promote voting in elections, including working with young people through citizenship lessons.

Music to Tim‘s ears I am sure. Mind you, I did Politics at Uni (a 2:1 from Hull in case you’re interested…) and the idea of citizenship classes gives me the willies. Later the idea of incentives to vote is raised, even a prize draw. Oh dear.

Finally we are onto page 6:

A quarter of local councils use neighbourhood management to join up local services including health and transport and help tackle problems in deprived communities…The third sector also has a unique ability to articulate the views of citizens and drive change, and we will work with them to develop principles for their participation in Local Strategic Partnerships…

we want local people to have more of a say in the planning system so we will provide more funding to support community engagement in planning

Again, good stuff, sounding like we want to get the people involved in the processes that affect them. I do worry in the growth of levels of governance here though: we have central, local, town and parish, now neighbourhood councils and management. Good that the third sector is being involved, though the mention of LSPs reminds us all of just how damn complicated the service delivery landscape has become in this area.

Page 7 has a lot of stuff about getting young people involved:

We will establish direct access for young advisors to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and set up a programme for young people to ‘shadow’ government ministers and elected mayors. DCSF are establishing a £6m national institute for youth leadership

Getting younger people involved in local democracy is a great initiative to take forward, and of course it is already happening in pockets around the country, say with I’m a Councillor amongst others. I am no expert on the likes and dislikes of young folk, though (as the contempt in which I am held by my son proves), but I do worry that a ‘national institute for youth leadership’ might be a bit too dorky to attract a representative group.

Page 7 also has a bit on Scrutiny. Yay!

We will raise the visibility of the overview and scrutiny function in local government, which is similar to Select Committees in Parliament.

My first proper job in local government was in scrutiny, so I have bit of a soft spot for it, and nobody knows what it is about. I also don’t think it is accorded the respect it needs as a process in a lot of councils. Built into it from the start was the ability for residents to get involved, so it’s a prime area to be developed furthr as part of the empowerment agenda.

Page 8 must have been boring, straight onto number 9 (I can’t believe I am doing this voluntarily, my fingers are aching from typing and I am starting to feel a little sick):

We will amend the Widdicombe rules which forbid council workers above a certain salary band from being active in party politics.

I would really be interested to know how big a problem this is. Also, what about civil servants who want to get involved locally? Anything that frees public servants up to participate as much as they want to has to be a good thing though.

More from page 9:

We will give backbench councillors more powers to make changes in their ward with discretionary localised budgets that they can target on ward priorities.

Just backbench councillors? So those with cabinet members representing them lose out? Anyway, this is a nice idea to give backbench councillors something to do, which many lost following the large scale move away from committees.

Page 10 now (last one, phew!):

We want to make it easier for people wishing to serve on local committees, boards or school governing bodies to know what the role involves and how to go about applying for vacancies.

It’s too hard to get involved, I think most people agree. It also needs to be easier for those who want to help but can’t commit the time to do an entire role, though. Maybe job-sharing governors or councillors?

Last gobbet:

We want to see more people involved in starting and running social enterprises, where the profits are ploughed back into the community or reinvested in the business. A new Social Enterprise Unit is being set up in Communities and Local Government to recognise the social enterprise contribution to the department’s objectives. We will also encourage local authorities to ensure social enterprises are able to compete fairly for contracts.

Nice bit to end on. There was mention of the third sector before, but I don’t think that is a sufficiently all inclusive term. What about individuals who have ideas, people sat with laptops in bedrooms, groups who emerge and want to do specific work in the community. I think we are into Clay Shirky territory here, where social enterprise can be started by people without the backup of a pre-existing organisational structure. Such people may need help identifying other people can help, or where funding is. Maybe they just need a room they can borrow to meet up in. But they need support, whether from central or local government, that the sorts of organisations that did this stuff in the past never needed.

Anyway, that’s me for now. Would be good to hear other people’s thoughts in the comments. I’m off to read the rest of the white paper now…

Connecting through communities

I love the way that the social web creates connections between people, and allows us to pass those connections on to those that we think might be interested.

I had a great chat today with a guy called Peter Haine (note the ‘e’ – it’s not him). I first came across Peter because he had posted in the forum on the Improvement & Development Agency‘s website, asking for feedback from people about how they have found success or otherwise in online communities. A fascinating topic, and even better, Peter is based at the Techno Centre in Coventry, just round the corner from where I work.

Peter works at the Applied Research Centre for eWorking, part of Coventry University, and as a result the office in which he works is chock full of neat little gadgets to make working outside the office easier: digital pens, laser keyboard things, ludicrously tiny keyboards. As a gadget-freak, it was a kind of heaven for me.

The research project into online communities that Peter is currently engaged in is funded by JISC, through their Emerge programme. The report is coming through shortly, and I am really looking forward to reading it. Whilst there is a real determination in both the private and public sectors to try and engage with communities and to take a community based approach to increasing participation, engagement and brand loyalty, there isn’t, as far as I am aware, much in the way of research into both how effective it actually and and how that effectiveness can be achieved. Hopefully this work will help start this process develop.

Peter did let me into a couple of points that he had discovered from his research. He did admit that some of it might seem obvious – but of course that doesn’t make it invalid nor does it mean people always remember to do it!

  • Purely online communities are unlikely to succeed – you need some kind of face-to-face meetings to build a sense of belonging and trust in other community members
  • Communities need a defined sense of purpose and a way of measuring achievement of that purpose
  • Active facilitation is required in seeding discussions, getting folk involved and keeping things on the right track
  • Nobody is satisfied with the tools they have available!
  • Barriers to entry must be as low as possible. Choose the most basic tool you can get away with – people may be happy to give up their time to take part in a community, but not if they have to spend hours learning the platform
  • Payback – what’s in it for the community members? Whether financial, reputational or whatever, there needs to be something positive that those involved can get – even if it’s just a warm fuzzy feeling inside

So, Peter gave me plenty of useful, interesting information. What I gave him, hopefully, was the benefit of some of my connections, most notably Steve Dale and Ed Mitchell, who I later introduced to Peter in a couple of emails. Hopefully they can help Peter, and him them, in the future.