Be Vocal

Be Vocal is

A site about social media for social good in Birmingham and using the internet to turn public data into something useful.

It’s part of the ‘Birmingham Open City’ project run by Digital Birmingham with a grant from the Timely Information for Citizens programme set up by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Nick Booth is involved, so it must be good. Here he explains what it is all about:

Mash the State

Mash the State is a campaign to “encourage UK government and public sector organisations to make their data available to the general public.”

The first part of the campaign is dedicated to getting local authorities in the UK using RSS to disseminate information from their websites. Currently only 66 of 434 local councils currently produce RSS.

Helpfully, a PDF one pager has been published to explain why this is a good idea. There is also a blog so you can keep up with developments.

Mash the State is the brainchild of Adrian Short, who has also founded a civic hacking club in Sutton, London; and developed a rather neat local news aggregator.

How close is local?

Paul Evans kindly asked me to write a post for the Local Democracy blog. I came up with one called How Close is Local?

I live in a house on a street, in a village, within a parish, that is in a district, a parliamentary constituency and a county too. I’m also close to a city which I visit, sometimes attend meetings but am not officially connected with in any way. I work on a regular basis in London, too.

All of these areas could legitimately be described as local – yet if I were to create project based on locality I would probably have to pick at most two or three of these to focus on. Would this still be legitimate though, and would it mean alienating people for whom local means something different?

Read the rest at Local Democracy.

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, 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!

Local stuff

I always like reading Andrew Brown‘s roundups of stuff that’s happening in his area – Lewisham – that he regularly posts to his blog. I haven’t the discipline to do anything regularly, but here are a couple of things I’ve been looking at recently.

First up is that I took another look at the website for my village – Broughton, near Kettering in Northamptonshire. Before you click the link be warned: it’s not a very modern design. Indeed, as I suspected, a quick ‘View Source’ shows that the thing is done in Frontpage (argh!). But ignore that…

…because the content in fabulous. It’s a really, really good community resource. There’s stuff for the Parish Council, loads and loads of photos and bits of history about the village. Elaine Bradshaw, who is behind the site, really has done a terrific job.

The only shame is that I can’t find any contact details for her on the site, firstly to congratulate her on what she has achieved, but also to wonder how much easier it would be if we WordPress’d the whole thing. Maybe stuck all the photos up on Flickr, made it easier for anyone in the village to contribute… If somehow you end up reading this, Elaine, do get in touch.

Secondly, on the way to work today I saw a large fluorescent sign, imploring those that saw it to ‘Save Naseby Battlefield!’. I wasn’t under the impression that the battlefield was under any threat, but apparently it is:

Power company E.ON is investigating the possibility of installing turbines close to the historic battlefield.

The proposals have been met with anger from historians, who are working on plans to boost the national reputation of Naseby by building a visitor centre at the battle site.

A further bit of digging revealed that the campaign has its own site, and it runs on WordPress! Stop Kelmarsh Windfarm is the name of the site, which I can’t help but feel is a rather negative slant on things (‘Save Naseby Battlefield’ sounds much nicer, I think).

It also confuses the hell out of me. I mean, wind farms are good things, right? But heritage stuff is important too… argh!