Recently I attended my 2nd Talk About Local unconference. This time in Cardiff. Last year I attended the unconference in Leeds too, and having just re-read the post I wrote about that experience, it’s clear that they Leeds event had a huge effect on me. There I learnt about reader surveys, and social media surgeries, and remarkably I managed to put some of that learning into action. For example, you can read a quick summary of the results of our Greener Leith Readers Survey in this post, and I managed to get a wee bit of funding to run a programme of Social Media Surgeries in Edinburgh – even if I haven’t been able to get to as many of them as I wanted to myself. At lot seems to have happened in Edinburgh in between Talk About Local conferences – even our local council website went from totally rubbish to award winning. So perhaps there’s more chance we’ll be seeing it indexed as part of the Openly Local project too?
This year, I must confess I didn’t feel like I learned quite so much, but perhaps that’s because the whole hyperlocal thing is maturing a bit. On the one hand, there’s a whole load of established, and very impressive, local news sites, and on the other hand there’s also a lot of interest in what one might call ‘neighbourhood action’ sites, which have a slightly different focus – and probably less of an commercial aim.
On the more commercial side of hyperlocal, the established independent news websites, like the Ventor Blog or Blog Preston, are all still doing things in ways that might raise eyebrows in some media circles. For example, I was amused to learn that the Ventor blog team have simply started reprinting press releases from the Police and other emergency services, even giving them the byline – instead of wasting time chopping the releases around to make them look as though they’d written them themselves, which is generally the convention.
However, there also seemed to be more interest from bigger media companies in TAL. I was there this time with my new STV Local hat on, but there were other folk there from media businesses large and small, some making money, some not, some still looking towards the future for profits, but nevertheless, it seemed to me that there was less ‘us and them’ and more simply a gradual transition between independent citizen journalists on the one hand, through to the likes of the efforts by the Trinity Mirror, STV and the Guardian. I wasn’t aware of the experimental collaboration between the Birmingham Mail and local bloggers that is “Your Communities,” and it was interesting to meet people with some experience of it.
The first session I went to looked at the ‘Hyperlocal City’ and I came away more convinced than ever that there are still a whole lot of opportunities presented by media convergence of online. The process of blending both traditional broadcast media, and print media, into an SEO friendly, easily digestible format that people can consume anywhere they want still has a long way to go, and probably presents as much of a challenge to broadcasters as it does to print media companies. We had an interesting chat for example on why there seems to be such a divide between the community radio sector and the hyperlocal blogging scene. Similarly, it was interesting to consider what local TV might mean in an environment where Welsh language TV might be significantly cut. Can the web replace an established dedicated broadcast channel?
There also seemed to be a bit of regrettable consensus that commercially based sites were going to have to figure out how to work with Facebook, as so much on-line now happens on that site, however frustrating some people may find it. At the Facebook “show and tell” session it was pretty much agreed that all sites would need to integrate the “like” button at the very least – and that a Facebook page is probably a must. For any serious site that produces a lot of content, there is a big question as to how much of that content you feed into the Facebook beast – and how much you keep as an incentive to get people out of Facebook.
I didn’t get the feeling that anyone has figured that out, although my personal view is that most people and organisations are naturally protective of their content. In my experience, Facebook seems to reward sites with more traffic, the more stuff they put into it. That said, partly because I’ve integrated the Greener Leith main site with a Ning based social network, I still don’t feel like I’ve found a useful way to use some of the more advanced Facebook Social Plug-ins – and there’s probably scope to do more with them. And of course, from a Hyperlocal point of view – there was some uneasiness about what Facebook plan to do with their Place pages. Will they be a threat or a benefit to other hyperlocal media sites?
There was also some a bit of interesting chat about what content works on Facebook. For example, S4C reported that they get huge engagement by simply posting the weather forecast every morning on their Facebook page.
Remarkably, someone posted an example of a hyperlocal business that seemed to be entirely based around selling status updates on a Facebook page. A sort of local Groupon, which seemed to use Facebook to distribute the offers. Frustratingly, I can’t find it now, so if anyone reading knows the links, I’d like to know it. I’d also like to know if that sort of thing breaks the terms and conditions of Facebook!
Ultimately, it seems to me that Facebook at best presents an opportunity to build a community and and longer lasting relationship with readers. It seems worth considering how you can strengthen that relationship both within facebook, as well as finding ways to engage directly with your content. For example, at Greener Leith, we’ve had pretty good results from using the MailChimp Facebook plug-in that allows people to sign-up for our weekly email news letter from within Facebook.
Community Development Sites
I also attended the hyperlocal for community development session. There was a lot of interest in how we can go use web tools to go ‘beyond’ Fix my street to a more involved level of engagement. There were lot’s of points I felt I could’ve made but didn’t as I didn’t want to drone on for ever at this session, as that wouldn’t be very nice. However, if you can’t drone on, on your own blog, where can you? So here’s some points I wanted to make at the session, if we’d had all day to discuss these things:
1. Good community development requires a clear, well designed community engagement process.
If you want to use the web to be “a community organiser,” don’t waste time learning CSS, HTML or PHP. First learn how to become a post-it note ninja, and learn how to facilitate stuff like this in the real world, if you don’t know it already. Social media and the web can be powerful tools to augment and amplify a community development process. The web tools don’t replace it: they’re really a labour saving device!
2. Building a website isn’t enough if no-one knows it’s there.
Unless you have a massive marketing budget (and this is the voluntary sector so chances are you won’t), then it may take a long, long, time (i.e years) to establish your hyperlocal website with an audience that is sufficient for you to treat it as a community engagement tool that has a value in itself.
However, by understanding the demographics of the website you run in as much detail as you can then you can design a practical engagement process to “fill in the gaps.” Don’t just ask how you can engage the people on your website – you also need to ask how you can engage with the people who aren’t using your website – and how you can design an engagement process that works both on and offline.
3. Can you remain objective?
There was a lot of chat at the Talk About Local session about who sets the agenda, and setting winnable goals. The fact is, that your agenda will probably be influenced by you, whoever funds you, and whoever writes and participates on the website – or a combination of both. It helps if you have a clear statement of values, aims and objectives – particularly if you have a lot of different people writing for your website.
Although it’s very easy to set-up a blog as an individual ‘active citizen’ without any need or thought of constitutions, bank accounts, AGM’s and so forth, you should give people a clear idea how decisions will ultimately be made about the content and tone of the site. Will you elect a management committee, for example? Or is your word as ‘owner of the site’ final? Is it profit making, political, or non-profit?
4. What will you do if it works?
This is of course a nice problem to have. However, you should be aware the combination of one or more successful participatory processes, combined with the transparency, accessibility and reach of a popular website means that there’s a chance that some people, perhaps those more used to thinking in terms of representative democracy, or ‘statutory roles’ might feel somewhat aggrieved by the potential influence your website may appear to wield. The papers will be interested in it. Politicians will be interested in it. There’s also a chance that others will try to claim ownership, or draw different conclusions that you did from a non-partisan process. Or you may be drawn into something that you hadn’t anticipated.
It’s worth thinking about how you can work with those people at an early stage, how you will answer if someone asks you what right you have to speak on behalf of the neighbourhood you work in and what you will do if someone seeks to co-opt the site you’ve set-up to serve their own interests.
5. Just recording and documenting things is a community development outcome
After a while, a local neighbourhood site can become a bit of an archive of community campaigns, and action. This in itself is hugely valuable, and helps to encourage even more positive action. So for example, whilst it might seem strange at the time, to take millions of photos of even the smallest community event, in a years time on Flickr, they will seem really inspirational. And hopefully not just to you.
6. Monitor what you do.
Measure what you do. Work out how many unique visitors you have, and where they come from. Use tools like Klout to show that you’re not just tweeting into the ether. If you invest in building your audience, and you can show that what you do works, then you can use this information to support grant applications. Like this.
7. Some practical tools
Whilst lot’s of people already know of these tools, I thought I ought to pull them together as there seemed to be a few folk in the session who would be interested. Where possible I’ve added links to a practical Greener Leith example:
- Scribd is a great way to embed documents on-line, and to make them accessible and shareable. Greener Leith has only recently started using it.
- Slideshare is also good for sharing presentations. Powerpoint is often the medium of choice for the professionals at poorly attended public meetings. You can ensure that many more people see the presentation by putting it online, and embedding it in a blog post with some commentary about what it really means.
- Google Documents is amazing. Spend time with it. Learn how to combine Google Forms, Google Spreadsheets and Map-a-list. Learn how to embed the various bits in your website. Now, you’ve got a secure, free, flexible survey tool that maps where survey respondents live in (nearly) real-time. At Greener Leith we used that set-up as part of our ‘alternative budget consultation,’ with the full results shared with all local councilors. However, there are undoubtedly millions of other cool uses out there and I’d love to hear about other examples.
- Uservoice is also a tool with amazing potential for group decision making junkies, even if it was originally designed as a customer service forum. It may be a bit intimidating for some people who are not familiar with the interface. We used it to ‘crowd source’ green travel ideas for the neighbourhood. You can see them here.
- All the My Society stuff. Fix My Street, Write to them, What do they know? etc Are all amazing, and because they produce RSS feeds you can use them to generate content relevant to your area. Similarly, Openly Local provides feeds for many local councils – but sadly not Edinburgh. My Society provide instructions on how to add a Google map that shows local Fix My Street reports to your blog in this blog post.
- Whilst we’re on the topic of clever maps. You might want to check out ZeeMaps as a means of building rich content maps. You can even use the service to crowd source maps too. On Greener Leith I used it to build a neighbourhood story map.
- Storify has immense potential for participative ‘story telling.’ Thus far, Greener Leith has only used it once, to collate lot’s of tweets from a public meeting, but I thought Michael MacLeod’s use of it when he asked on Twitter What Does Edinburgh Smell like? shows the interesting uses this tool could be put to in a community engagement context.
All in all a great conference once again. Kudos to all involved in organising it – and the next question is: Will Edinburgh be the venue for the first McTAL 2012?