Bookmarks for February 23rd through April 4th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Digital local resources – and a bit about Your Square Mile

Continuing the posts about local digital communities, here are a couple of links to interesting research and publications on the subject, which I’ve been giving a re-read recently.

Of course, there has recently been a very interesting move in this space with the announcement of the Big Lottery funded Your Square Mile project, which has very close links with the wider Big Society agenda, and which involves some kind of relationship with the social networking platform SocialGo. David Wilcox blogs comprehensively here.

I’m not sure anyone has access to enough information about this to make a proper judgement, however, some alarm bells are ringing in my mind:

  • As per the comments from Will and Manny highlighted in this post, government sponsored online community development does not have a great track record. I appreciate this is at arms length – but Your Square Mile is heavily linked with the Big Society Network, and therefore the current government
  • People will drift towards the funded option, and if (and I emphasise if) SocialGo is the mandated or preferred solution from those with the cash, we are going to be in a one platform fits all situation, which doesn’t really work
  • Objectives are important. Right now, I don’t fully understand Your Square Mile or what it is setting out to do. Hopefully internally they know exactly what they aim to achieve – because if it’s just a vague ‘we’ll get people to talk to each other on the internet and they’ll self organise themselves to do wonderful things’ then that might not work so well
  • What about those organisations that have being doing this stuff for the last few years? Are they just going to be steamrollered by the beast?

I think my real worry is that the one thing that has become apparent, from conversations I have had with people about this stuff, is that with online local communities, in the majority of cases, you need the community before the online. It’s what brings sustainability to the online effort.

Online elements certainly bring visibility to the community’s activities and spread reach, and enable more people to be involved. But a square mile, online or off, is going to be pretty empty if there isn’t the desire or will to keep it going.

Update: just seen this post from Kevin Harris, featuring this lovely line:

There is a study to be done of the damage caused by highly persuasive people who seem to feel compelled to impose template social ‘solutions’ on others.

Gov’s role in local digital ecosystems

Many thanks to Will Perrin from Talk About Local, who basically did my job for me in a comment on my last post about local digital communities and economies.

The thrust of my post was that having a lively digital community in a local area is a good thing, which can benefit various bits of society.

Here’s Will’s advice for what public sector organisations should do if they want to help foster this community locally:

  • 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.

This is great advice, particularly for the community and voluntary sector, where groups with a shared passion for an issue, or a specific location, use the web as a platform for communication and cooperation.

Mandeep Hothi from the Young Foundation, who has been working on the excellent Local 2.0 initiative, also shared his learning on developing thriving local online communities on that previous post:

  • They [councils] 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…)

So that’s fairly clear. Government struggles at creating new communities online. What they can do is provide support to existing communities to help them make the most of digital – and this best done at arms length, introducing a dedicated third party service like Talk About Local.

But what about the wider point about a digitally focussed online community? As mentioned in previous posts, I’m really interested in how local startups and SMEs can play an active role. Well, just as services like Talk About Local can be introduced by a local authority, so could more local suppliers.

So if there is a training need, or a website that needs creating, local authorities ought to be looking local to develop it. Even better, by being engaged with an active local digital community, those innovative small suppliers could help shape requirements and scope, ensuring that the council, or whoever, gets the best possible solution.

It doesn’t even have to always involve money. Councils have access to other resources, such as meeting rooms, and indeed whole buildings. I love examples of where council owned properties, which for whatever reason are empty, are handed over to communities to use as meeting or co-working spaces.

I’m sure there are plenty of other great examples of how councils can support a local digital community – please do share them in the comments.

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.

Local digital impact

I’m increasingly interested in how creative collaborations between small suppliers, public services and organisations from other sectors can come together to solve problems in an open innovation-y sort of way.

The digital arena is probably one of the best places for this type of thing to happen, and a useful post has appeared on one of NESTA’s blogs about it.

In the post, they provide a list of things that government can do to foster local digital activity and collaboration:

  1. Encourage the take-up of broadband and internet access more widely so that we can all participate in this world. Let’s not leave anyone behind.
  2. Find new business models to balance freely available broadband in cities with ISP’s right to recoup the costs of putting in a next generation infrastructure.
  3. Open up local data at a very local level, and then find ways of encouraging engagement between the private creative businesses and our public sector. Our Make it Local programme is trying to do this, but we need much more of it.
  4. Remember that most digital developers still need to make real-world connections to get business and the role of local and regional agencies – both trade associations and screen agencies can be tremendously valuable in helping digital SMEs to win business.

There’s another post to be written at some point about the different aspects of digital activity in an area, and what the role is of government in supporting and nurturing that. But it’s certainly more than just subscribing to local bloggers – important though listening is.

I’m going to be writing a few posts about this in the future, I think, so have created a category – ‘digital local‘ – for them to sit in.

Nothing’s really new…

A quick post as I am preparing my slides for the knowledge management talk I’m delivering on Thursday.

In the slides, one of the key points is that the internet from the very beginning was designed as a tool for recording and sharing knowledge. I get to cover some of my favourite ground, talking about amazing people like Vannevar Bush, Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson and of course Tim Berners-Lee.

One thing I haven’t been able to squeeze in, but a story I love, is that of the Community Memory project.

I may as well just steal the text from Wikipedia:

Community Memory was the first public computerized bulletin board system. Established in 1973 in Berkeley, California, it used an SDS 940 timesharing system in San Francisco connected via a 110 baud link to a teletype at a record store in Berkeley to let users enter and retrieve messages.

While initially conceived as an information and resource sharing network linking a variety of counter-cultural economic, educational, and social organizations with each other and the public, Community Memory was soon generalized to be an information flea market. Once the system became available, the users demonstrated that it was a general communications medium that could be used for art, literature, journalism, commerce, and social chatter.

It other words, it used a terminal in a record shop, attached to a big mainframe miles away. It brought computing power to people who would never normally go near it. It was leapt upon by people, who used it to share information, buy and sell stuff, talk to other people.

Sounds a bit hyperlocal to me.

Hyperlocal alliance

Will, Dom and Kalv are starting something that has the potential to become really rather cool.

So where are we going with this? Well we want to know if hyperlocal people in the UK are up for some sort of ‘UK Hyperlocal Alliance’ (working title) dedicated to a positive future for hyperlocal content in the UK. This isn’t an attempt to form a trade body or a union or a lobby group, just a simple web resource where we can sign up to a simple statement of intent, get in touch with each other and tell our stories.

Leave a comment on the post if you want to keep involved…

Engagement in Kettering

My local authority, Kettering Borough Council, is doing some great work in the democratic engagement field, firstly by taking part in an excellent nationwide democracy project, and also by promoting local online communities.

First up, Kettering is taking part in the annual ‘I’m a Councillor, Get Me Out of Here!‘ project which is run with my good friends at Gallomanor. It’s an excellent initiative:

For the two weeks of the event, young people use web technology they feel comfortable with, to ‘meet’ local councillors from their area. They ask questions and have live chats with councillors, and then vote for their favourite to become ‘youth champion’ for the area.

Secondly, a local group in the village of Burton Latimer have started their own website to help promote their activities and maybe get some others involved too. Great! Even better is that the Council are giving them space on their own website to promote it. Excellent work all round, I’d say.