Big society: app stores and hyperlocal democracy

David Wilcox has been doing a great job documenting the discussions around the Big Society agenda, which according to the website, is

an organisation being set up by frustrated citizens for frustrated citizens, to help everyone achieve change in their local area. Our aim is to create a new relationship between Citizens and Government in which both are genuine partners in getting things done: real democracy using all the human and technological tools we now have available. This partnership will also add a third and fourth leg to its sturdy chair by involving business and the voluntary sector.

This is quite interesting, as it presents an opportunity to tie up a number of the agendas that have been floating around recently. Now, it’s important to remember that the Big Society is not a technology thing per se, but as I mentioned in a previous post, a lot of the language it uses is the language of the net.

So, hyperlocal reporting, community activism, tapping into cognitive surplus, engaging with social enterprise, improving participation in local democracy, digital inclusion and probably a bunch of other stuff could come under the Big Society label. This has all existed in my head as a massive venn diagram slowly scrunching together and overlapping more and more, so it seems like a positive move.

Big Society App Store

The internet has role, not just in providing some cultural reference points, and examples of big society type activity (Wikipedia, open source software, thriving online communities), but also in providing a platform for organisation, sharing, collaboration and communication.

It’s something I bang on about an awful lot, but the way in which many people now choose to communicate and get things done is changing. Current methods of democratic engagement – for example – are actually pretty exclusionary. The very idea of meetings where people have to be at a certain place at a certain time is pretty anachronistic, and by their nature generally excludes anyone with a job and a family. The nature of participation and volunteering – whether as part of democratic processes, or a more general view of participation, needs to have as many interfaces as possible – and online is a key one, I feel.

David has been particularly promoting the idea of an ‘app store’ for the Big Society:

Last night Steve Moore asked me to speak briefly about ideas for a Big Society Commons or Store, which I wrote about here, and here. I said we need space with different levels … information, conversation, exchange, products and services. Maybe it is a mall plus a market, some high tech, some low. It is absolutely not created by government, but by those with something to offer.

Then I started to wonder about the role of the skilled, creative, passionate people at the Open Night. Perhaps one analogy for part of the store is an Apps store, where you can download smart ways of doing things to your mobile phone. Some are free, some you pay for. The fee goes to the developer, with a percentage to the store owner.

It works because there is a framework for the way apps are developed – tight in the case of Apple, more flexible in open sources stores.

So perhaps some of the people at the Open Night were potential developers for the Social Apps Store. If the Network can help to create the store, it will provide a much bigger market for those with social action products and services to sell – or offer free.

The Apps Store offers one metaphor to help us think how we bring good stuff together, what’s in it for the different interests involved, what rules and frameworks we need to make sure things work together.

Sounds like a nice idea… not just tech apps, but other bits of social hackery (training, organisation, actually doing things in real life) too in a way that works for volunteers as well as those who have some bills they need paying.

Hyperlocal democracy

Next on my rambling radar for this post is localism and how Big Society stuff applies there. Actually, there’s no question about it – surely the most obvious pre-existing communities are those in local areas, and there should be in most places existing networks and groups that could start to work together a little better, as well as employing some new engagement methods to increase reach.

Nowhere is this more obvious that in local councils – that is to say, parish, town and community councils which are at the level closest to people. I and the Learning Pool team have been working with Justin Griggs and colleagues at the National Association of Local Councils to help promote their sector and provide some advice and guidance for local councillors on being a little more engaging.

Likewise I’ve attended and contributed to a couple of events organised by the Society of Local Council Clerks – which supports the people helping to herd the local councillors, and keeping everything going. Again, these people need help and guidance on how to best employ new tools on the web to get more people involved in the great work that they do.

I think it is vital for these people, and these existing organisations to be involved as much as possible in the Big Society – but it’s fair to say that for that to happen, those people also need to up their game in terms of being more open, transparent and engaging. Part if this is not being overly tied to existing structures and processes, and accepting that there are other ways of getting involved, and that these are to be welcomed.

A nice, quick guide to the world of local councils can be found in NALC’s ‘Power to the People‘ document – actually a how-to for setting up your own local council, but full of interesting snippets.

I do wonder if there is more potential to tie up the work of hyperlocal bloggers and online community builders, such as those Will Perrin at Talk About Local is promoting, with these very local democratic institutions and processes. A kind of hyperlocal democracy, perhaps.

Big Society in the North

One nice example of people picking up the Big Society baton and running with it is the Big Society North group, who have set up an online networking space, using grou.ps (which I am not terribly keen on, but that’s another post).

They didn’t ask for permission to do this, they just saw an opportunity and took it. An event is being run on Tuesday (27th July) for interested folk to get together and discuss how the Big Society idea might work. What’s pleasing is that not only are those involved in the Big Society centrally supportive of this self-organising, but are also attending the event in Sheffield. I’m hopefully popping up myself, assuming life doesn’t get in the way.

Your Square Mile

The Big Society is not without its challenges however. One part of it, which is pretty vague at the moment, but nevertheless sets off alarm bells, is ‘Your Square Mile‘:

This simple, modest web-site, plus all the blogs, twitters, mobile apps, Facebook and Google groups that it will spawn, will grow into a resource library for your use; to give you the confidence and means to change your neighbourhood and improve your life.

Shudder. I don’t think the square mile name is a good one – a project about localities with such a strong central London reference as its title? – and the potential for some duff tech platform to be built when it isn’t needed seems to be significant.

Far better I would think would be to provide options of what is already available, with learning on skills and knowledge. Again, tie this in with the Talk About Local and Harringay Online approaches – using free or cheap tech to provide the glue that can stick communities together.

Summing up

OK, so a real ramble. But the Big Society offers a number of opportunities and challenges. There are a number of wrong courses those involved in it could take.

But as long as the urge to create new platforms or systems is resisted, as long as it is genuinely self organised locally, and that existing local communities and democracy is respected and engaged with, there is a lot of potential.

There’s another possibility, of course, that it’s just a load of flim-flam and will go nowhere. But that isn’t a very positive way of looking at things.

Event reporting toolkit

David has written about covering events again as part of his investigation of the role of the social reporter. He writes:

So on the one hand it is more difficult to charge for the logistics, and on the other hand it is less easy to keep the content within the event. You have to work harder to provide value. That can be done – but it means organisers will have to be skilled on two fronts. They’ll have to be really good at the physical organising and also the briefing of speakers, facilitation, documentation and other content – not always the case. And in future they’ll have to blend online and offline activities. When this is done well – as I think it was for 2gether08, and will be this year – then it’s worth the price.

I’m doing some work with David at the moment, plotting and planning how best to squeeze online coverage in; not to mention some other similar work which I’ll hopefully be blogging about soon.

The tools that are available to use are legion, and not a lot of them cost very much money. In this post, I’ll go over some of them and what their uses are. It would certainly be good to hear from others what they find useful.

1. WordPress

A self-hosted WordPress blog is probably the one constant for me. Better to be self hosted than on WordPress.com because you need the flexibility of being able to add your own plugins, or edit the theme, to match exactly what you want. I used WordPress in this way at Cisco08, IDeA Performance and the Social Media Exchange. You’ll notice that there isn’t much that’s bloggy about those sites – it’s key to draw content in from others.

Another advantage of using WordPress is that others can have blogging account and can give it a go – great if you want the delegates at the event to get involved.

2. Twitter

Twitter happens at conference now, whether those in charge approve or not. A fantastic way of arranging an instant back channel of discussion, it’s also fabulous to connect people in attendance with others. It’s important to get a common tag agreed in advance or as early in the event as possible to stop the conversation getting fragmented. Hashtags used to be important, but with the advent of Twitter Search, less so.

3. Ning

Each time I start to use Ning, I like it a little more. At events, Ning can be used to kick start some connections and conversations before they even start – a great way to begin an event by hitting the ground running. Ning is also brilliant at getting content online – people can blog, use forums, upload photos and videos (the latter two by mobile phone, too!) and import content from elsewhere.

A Ning site can therefore become a clearing house of content, from which you can pick and choose the best stuff to go on your main blog, for example.

4. Some kind of aggregator

It’s still nice to have a dashboard of what’s being said online. I’ve used Pageflakes a lot, others Netvibes; but both of those services have not been without their issues of late. For sheer laziness I would now recommend Addictomatic, which just automatically puts your dashboard together for you.

5. Streaming video

This isn’t something I tend to get involved with, but streaming video live from events is pretty cool, and can be made really easy using tools like Ustream and Mogulus. FutureGov used Ustream to great effect at their recent event including the use of live commenting on the action.

Don’t forget social reporters and/or delegates can use their phones with Qik or Bambuser to stream their own stuff live as well.

6. Other video and photos

Other video might be taken by recording vox-pops on a Flip, or using a service like the wonderful VideoBoo on a Macbook. The three services I tend to use are YouTube, Vimeo, and Blip.tv. YouTube has the bigger community and better recognition. Vimeo has the best quality pictures and the nicest interface. Blip is good for longer video. I don’t think any one service can really be described as better than the other right now.

Is there anywhere other than Flickr to put photos?!

7. Live blogging

To be honest, I tend to find that blogging using WordPress is fine, and just publishing the post at the end of a session works well. I’ve never used anything like Coveritlive – can anyone comment on its effectiveness?

8. Huddle

Just to get everything organised in the first place, Huddle is invaluable. I’ve never been a big Basecamp fan, largely because of its awkward interface and odd use of language, but Huddle is pretty much perfect for me.

What have I missed? It would be good to hear from others what they like to use.

Convening through reporting

David Wilcox has published another great thought-piece on social reporting and exactly what it is and where it fits:

I’m delighted to find there’s increasing interest in social reporting around events … which may start with an enquiry about how to capture some video interviews, but can lead to a discussion about how an organisation may network with its members, clients or customers.

David, along with some colleagues, is building up some resources on social reporting, including a wiki and a toolkit.

He also mentions some of the stuff I have been doing:

Nevertheless, more and more corporate and public sector event organisers are interested in social reporting, not least through the efforts of Dave Briggs, who is a real wizard with different social tools. I must compare notes with Dave on his use of Ning for UKGovCamp09, where all participants get a profile and personal blog with ability to contribute their own photos, videos and forum comments. It is a great environment within which anyone attending an event can become a social reporter, learn about social tools, and develop new relationships online that build from connections made at the event.

What Dave is starting to do, I think, is show a way forward for social reporting as one way in which an organisation can use its events to develop the new convening role that Clay Shirky talked about in his interview with Amy Sample Ward. My analysis here.

The use of Ning to build up buzz before, during and after an event was really brought to my attention by Tim Davies with the Youth Work Online event and network. That really showed what could be done by giving people a place to meet and talk before turning up to an event, and to report and develop ideas afterwards. As much as I would like to take the credit, I really can’t!

However, especially with UKGovWeb, the people participating are already heavily networked and web-savvy. It’s also a bunch of people who don’t have a comprehensive, open online community to join, so I really hit the ground running in a way that I don’t think would happen with a different group.

Elsewhere on the social reporting front, I’ve done three bits of work using a modified WordPress template which aggregates different feeds using tags on services like Flickr, delicious, Twitter and others. It’s not perfect, but it worked well with Cisco, IDeA and the Social Media Exchange.

The beauty of this approach is that it isn’t ‘just’ an aggregator – being built on WordPress there is a blog there too, so if others want to be able to contribute by blogging for the first time, in a ‘safe’ environment, they can. Using something like PageFlakes to map what’s being said on the web misses this learning opportunity.

(Incidentally, I’m in the process of rewriting the social reporting WordPress theme entirely. It’s going to be a lot slicker, and will be much easier for people to use – telling it what tags to track will be a matter of setting an option in the WordPress admin panel, likewise changing basic colours and a logo.)

I think, in the end, that it comes down to what the purpose of the online reporting is. Some people just want a record of what happened, some people want to build something that people will use again and again in the future. Either way, I think it begins to blur the edges of an organisation just a little bit.

On Social Reporting

David Wilcox, the godfather of the social reporting concept, has written up his reflections from a couple of days spent at an event in Portugal:

What was unusual, in my experience, was that we had the benefit of a three person team, a good base at the venue, and another team led by Richard Jolly doing the really hard work of capturing more formal interviews with the main speakers. That left us to concentrate on the informal…

We were fortunate in having a work space with power and good wifi, in the middle of the venue. People could find us.

You can find the content from David’s team’s efforts on the event blog.

I’ve just finished a similar gig in Sweden for Cisco, where I was the lone social reporter, but with a remit to try and galvanise some of the delegates to give it a go themselves. I was very lucky to identify Rui Grilo (coincidence that Rui himself is Portugese?) early on in proceedings – Rui clearly got what it was we were trying to achieve and was soon contributing via Twitter, Flickr and the conference blog. Lev Gonick also contributed via Twitter and his own blog (all content tagged with cisco08 was also aggregated on our event blog, through Google Blogsearch’s RSS feeds).

One thing I was pleased about was the layout of the site we used, which managed to capture all the new content with a nice dashboard feel. It being displayed on screens around the venues helped – it really helped delegates get a feel for what was being said.

I would have liked to have done more video interviews than I managed, but being on my tod made it difficult. I did have a couple of Flip cameras to lone out to anyone wanting to help out, but I think that such was the quality of the sessions at the event at the networking inbetween that no-one really had the time to do it!

Overall, though, I think my efforts in Stockholm were a success, and adds to the work that David has done in proving that having a social reporting element is vital for any conference. This is because:

  • It gives a voice to those attending the event, with a direct live feedback loop to event organisers and speakers, etc (if they choose to listen!)
  • They help delegates who are not engaged with the social web find out what is being said online about the event they are attending
  • It can provide background material to place sessions into context
  • It gets content online much quicker for those not attending to be able to view – eg my pretty bad Flip recordings of sessions were available online within a few hours of the sessions ending
  • It also gives those not in attendance the chance to contribute by leaving comments, etc

Many thanks to Paul Johnston of Cisco for inviting me along. Paul is one of those behind Cisco’s community for those who want to make government a little more collaborative, called The Connected Republic. Closing the circle, Paul was interviewed a while ago by one David Wilcox at an event about what this initiative is all about. You can watch it here.

Getting things into the open

David Wilcox has taken the bull by the horns and created an open thread on the OpenRSA blog calling for a more collaborative approach to the discussion on jounalism being carried out on the RSA networks platform. This debate is one which takes into account trust in news media, and could also pull in issues around the role of the BBC in civic life.

I’m personally most interested in breaking out of the old media professional boundaries because I think greatest innovation – and citizen empowerment – is likely to take place as old cultures are challenged, openly. It’s time the newspeople stopped seeing those that they write for as “news users”, now we are producing a lot of our own content online.

The issue at the RSA is not one of platform – the Drupal based system used by the Networks is superb – but of worldview. David and I were the most consistent contributors to the discussion, but I felt my time there was up when a message was posted by a project leader confirming that the desire was to keep the debate ‘on topic’ and ‘informed’. As neither a journalist nor a fellow of the RSA, I guess this counted me, and anything I had to add, out.

I’ll be following the debate through the comments to David’s post, and anything else tagged with civicjournalismuk. I have my platform here, which I am happy to use to contribute with – or when the time is right for a dedicated platform to be created, I can use that – as long as it is open!

Private and public collaboration

RSA Networks

There is an interesting project underway at RSA Networks, the social network for Royal Society fellows, and, for the moment at least, anyone else who fancies joining in (that’s the category I belong to, by the way). It has been proposed by Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, and goes by the name of the “RSA Journalism Network”:

The public’s declining trust in the news media is a worrying trend. The RSA and the Reuters Institute of Journalism are looking at how we can support the civic function of news. We’re particularly interested in how professional journalists and Fellows relate to the public’s ideas about news and what it is for.

This is a great idea, and an important and interesting area for discussion. The web is a perfect place for the coversation to be held in, of course, because online developments are a part of both the problem and the cure for the relevance of news to people’s lives.

David Wilcox has commented on his blog about this project – again supportive of it but questioning the closed nature of the discussion on the RSA Networks platform. As anyone not a member of the network will find out, when clicking my link above, you can’t see anything without first logging in.

I can’t see how it is possible to have a useful discussion about media and citizenship in an old-style walled garden. You can link out – but people outside are then forced to come to “your place” to join in. This seems particularly inappropriate on this topic, where issues are so interesting precisely because the Internet has created a public commons.

David has started a similar thread within the project space on the RSA Network too. I’m fully supportive of his stance, having been happily involved in open online collaborative projects such as the Open Innovation Exchange, RuralNetOnline, the Membership Project and the etoolkit.

It’s far better to have these conversations out in the open, where people can read and find out more before they decide to dive in, and where people can add their thoughts whether they are a member of a specific network or not. The civic role of news is something that matters to everyone, not just RSA members, or whatever.

One of the ways that the web can help us to bring conversations together is through the use of tagging. By using tags effectively, people can write about a subject on their own blogs without needing to join another platform. All you need is  way of bringing them together, easily achieved by mixing up Technorati or Google Blog Search with RSS. Services like Pageflakes or Planetaki can then be used to publish the results.

Another way is to create the new platform, but make it open, rather as David does with his Drupal-based group blogs. Anyone can join and have an input, even if it is just to point to what they have written elsewhere. Indeed, David has taken this further by incorporating a Grazr-based widget displaying relevant content from various external blogs within the Membership Project group blog. In this way, those that have a blog can write there, and those that don’t can contribute directly to the group blog.

David is actively facilitating the Membership Project by posting regular updates and transferring the points that are made in the blog posts into a project timeline and associated work packages, thereby creating outputs from the organic content created through the group blogging process. This will be vital to keep the project moving forward, and is a great example of online community facilitation.

Taking this approach would therefore create a far more useful project, or network, than the current arrangements for the  RSA Journalism Network. I think this is too important a topic for discussion to be held behind closed doors, and for the moment I would like to suggest the use of the common tag civicjournalismuk to hold the conversation together for anyone who would like to have a say. We can figure out what to do with it all later. Let’s see how our open approach can feed into and add to what’s happening within the walled garden…