[ Content | Sidebar ]

Online networks in low income areas

October 26th, 2012

Our report into the viability of local online channels in low income areas has now been published. It describes and reflects on four experimental projects carried out during 2011-2012 in separate localities in England.

The basic rationale was to test whether resident-run online neighbourhood networks could be established in low income neighbourhoods and if they could be shown to bring social benefits.

One of the sites has lost momentum but the work has given rise to other promising online activity. Two other sites are stable but struggle to sustain active participation. The fourth is recognised as a very successful initiative which quickly achieved stability.

The report adds weight to claims that local online channels can be established inexpensively in low income areas, that they can be made sustainable, and that they contribute to the quality of local social life.

The project highlighted the critical dependence on key individuals in getting the sites established and running them successfully. The advantages in having a core of willing key contributors, who appreciate the value and purpose of what they are getting involved in, have also been demonstrated. When an individual, ready and able to lead, is supported appropriately by other residents, a site can go from start-up to stability very quickly.

Only one of the sites managed to achieve a lively mix of information sharing and digital conversation consistently, one less consistently. The report argues that sites which are at present effectively noticeboards rather than discussion forums can still occupy a valued place in the local communication ecology, and have the potential to become well-used networks in time.

We summarise lessons in relation to site design and the choice of software platform. Time and effort has not always been invested in ensuring the design is clean and ‘legible’ to navigate; but there does not seem to have been a sense in any of the sites that a mistake was made in choice of platform. It may be that this choice is less critical than is sometimes believed.

We are critical of the lack of involvement of public services and elected members in the sites. All formal local agencies (including the police, health, housing and advice services) stand to gain or are already gaining from the social value of these sites. In all four localities the official contribution has been disappointingly slight at best – and this has made things harder for the citizens who are trying to bring about change on everyone’s behalf.

Please contact us if you would like to know more about this work.

Networked Neighbourhoods: autumn update

October 19th, 2012

The future of the high street

Hugh Flouch was invited to speak at an RIBA Building Futures debate recently, for the inevitably doomed but thought-provoking motion ‘This house believes that the future of the high street is online’. Within the traditional spirit of debating, Hugh managed to put across a sense of genuine regret at the demise of many traditional high streets around the country, while pointing both to the ongoing transformations in terms of online markets and the enormous potential for local social online to be blended with the interests of local traders. You can read a review of the debate by Tom Young on the RIBA blog.

Workshops for community groups

We’ve been working on a series of workshops for community groups for the Lambeth Forum Network in south London. This is an umbrella group whose members spotted the need for deeper understanding of social technologies in their roles. The series includes two starter sessions, one for the unsure and one for the converted, with subsequent sessions on particular tools, platforms and channels such as Facebook, Twitter and MailChimp.

Participants were slightly surprised – and appeared delighted – that we did no hands-on tech work in the three hour starter sessions. We avoid the risk of overwhelming people with naïve enthusiasm for technology. The sessions are soundly based on our long experience of the community sector, and understanding of the principles of communicating with people about local issues. If you’re interested in a similar series in your area, please get in touch.

Local Trust event on enterprising communities

We had the chance to contribute to a stimulating event organised in Birmingham by the Local Trust, exploring alternative approaches to local economies. Lively workshop sessions included redesigning the high street, developing cashless economies, and the knotty theme of ‘fair finance’.

Local online channels in low income neighbourhoods

We are just finalising our report on local online channels in low income neighbourhoods. In 2011-2012 we worked with residents in four areas to explore the potential for local online channels, and set up and maintain their own site. Three of the projects were supported by the Big Lottery Fund and the fourth by the Barrow Cadbury Trust. The report will be available shortly.

Is internet time different?

Finally: I gave a ‘lightning’ presentation to an ESRC workshop on ‘Time and community’ – Is internet time different? Local online channels and community action. I offered examples of the immediacy of online; the ways in which expectations in the timescales of agencies and residents are now sometimes reversed in the online world, with officials struggling to keep up with local action in some cases; and the refreshed appeal of local history online. You can read my personal take on the workshop here.

Naming networks and shaming neighbours

October 19th, 2012

The BBC and the Guardian both published articles yesterday about the various ways people communicate with their neighbours through the naming of their wifi networks.

Apparently ‘We can hear you having sex’ appears with a degree of regularity across Britain and Ireland:

“My favourite a few years ago was ‘StopHavingSoMuchSex’,” notes K_Alva on Reddit of one network. “Ironically, it was unprotected.”

My own favourite is probably “Covet not thy neighbour’s wi-fi”. The BBC article notes however that not all interactions are confrontational:

One generously offers “Free Wifi For Neighbours”.

“Hola Neighbourinos” and “I like my neighbours” further show that networks names need not be a form of conflict.

(Thanks to Emily Cockayne for the heads-up).

Social media, weak ties and social divisions

July 4th, 2012

The Beeb has a piece this morning which features Danah Boyd suggesting that social media use is not stimulating diversity of ties.

It’s not clear whether or not her comments are based on research, but the claim seems to be that web 2.0 brought about a shift whereby people went online ‘to be with people they already know’. This reinforces divisions along ethnic lines.

The argument is backed up with recognisable examples of people from ethnic groups explaining that their online connections reflect their own culture and background. Hispanic and African-American people use Twitter disproportionately; white women use Pinterest; Asian Americans use Tumblr. Partly, as one participant in the video points out, this could be explained by clusters of early adopters occupying a space, and the homophily principle (birds of a feather) applies.

So what would we expect? Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman in their recent book make the point that social media

‘enhances the density of inter-connections among a person’s relatively close ties by allowing friends of friends to become aware of each other.’

The argument is surely that social media helps strengthen people’s weaker ties far more than was possible for most of us pre-internet. Weaker doesn’t necessarily mean ‘weak’. So it’s probably a question of expectations. If you were led to expect that that would mean demonstrably increased diversity, and that social media could overcome homophily, you may be disappointed.

And as this recent Atlantic Cities article points out, a linear model of diversity and segregation is too simplistic: ‘you can have segregation and diversity in the same place, at the same time.’

Awards for Community Online

June 18th, 2012

It’s great to see recognition, in the form of two recent awards, for Community Online, the service which covers the ‘three villages’ of Gobowen, St Martin’s and Weston Rhyn villages in Shropshire.

We started work there with residents about a year ago as part of our project with the Big Lottery Fund. After a hesitant start the site really benefited from the efforts of Lee Barnfield, Maggie Rowlands and several others who have made it a lively, well-respected and relevant online channel.

In April, the site received a DO IT Award from UnLtd, and today it has been announced that they have won a Media Trust Inspiring Voices award.

Warm congratulations to all involved!


Stimulating digital conversations in low income areas: lessons from Local 2.0 and e-democracy.org

June 15th, 2012

Our 2010 research study, along with plenty of anecdotal evidence, has helped build up a convincing argument for investment in neighbourhood online networks. We argue that investment and intervention may be especially needed in low income areas because of the potential for power imbalances to become exaggerated. People who are accustomed to power and influence are already, understandably, exploiting local social technologies effectively in their collective interests. In less affluent areas it can be harder to stimulate community activity online.

Two recent reports – from e-democracy.org in the US and the Local 2.0 project in England – really help us think more clearly about this, and we review both briefly here before asking whether we need to adjust our expectations.

Lessons from e-democracy.org: paid intervention

The evaluation of E-democracy’s Inclusive Social Media Project describes interventions in two ‘high-immigrant, low-income, racially and ethnically diverse urban neighbourhoods’ in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. For us, the single most striking finding from the project has to do with the amount and nature of intervention. The staff appointed already had personal connections among the residents on each site. The report notes:

‘E-Democracy’s forum outreach staff made exceptional headway on both forums by putting in an average of only about 7 hours a week. In addition to these two paid contractors, the neighborhood residents serving as volunteer Forum Managers contributed to this effort. That means the cost of effectively engaging and supporting forum participation – particularly at startup – is extremely low, making it realistically replicable.’ (p3, emphasis added)

Apart from the need for persistent involvement in connecting with people face-to-face, the key roles appear to have been starting threads and seeding online conversations. A rationale for staff or identified volunteers doing the seeding is put forward:

‘Doing this makes it far easier to move diverse communities toward doing that themselves over time.’

Active residents offered comments like these:

‘It’s been helpful to have someone start those threads since I’m not sure many people would start one.’

‘I am not sure the forum would work without having someone whose job it is to do that.’ (p33)

So the model here is that, to stimulate online engagement in low income neighbourhoods, some professional intervention and a mixture of online and face-to-face community development work may be needed.

There are plenty of nuances in the report around some of the challenges of inclusion, and the point is made that

‘The forum can separate people – it can compound the segregation between those who know and can access the Internet and use it and those who don’t and cannot.’ (p39)

The project required a bit of wrestling with issues of diversity and representativeness, and there’s a discussion of the gender dimension of aggressive political machinations within and behind one of the forums: one woman for example experienced pressures from her family and stopped posting on her forum. Again, the report notes that

‘Sometimes people don’t engage in discussions because there are power dynamics on the ground (off the forum) that people don’t want to engage with…’ (p41)

E-democracy.org’s inclusion work continues.

Lessons from Local 2.0: expectations of dialogue

The Local 2.0 programme was established by the Young Foundation in 2010 to work with local government on exploring ways in which social media could connect and support ‘people in low and middle income neighbourhoods.’ The project involved a range of local initiatives, including local websites and community reporter training, in Kirklees, Kensington and Chelsea, and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk.

As we’d expect, to some extent the sites have ‘helped to connect residents in need with active local residents who are willing and ready to help;’ and being in a public online space, the conversations involving those active residents are of course much more visible to others.

But none of the sites was a triumphant success, and much of Mandeep Hothi’s report is concerned with understanding why, and hinting at the need to ask more closely, what constitutes success?

Take the Notting Barnes site in North Kensington, for instance. The report notes that

‘Content is sparse and attempts to stimulate active engagement from residents have largely failed.’ (p7)

Or Fairstead.org, where ‘content is created by approximately 15 members, all of whom are involved with offline community activity:’

‘Whilst the website has anecdotally resulted in more people being aware of what is happening on the estate, it has not resulted in significant numbers of new people becoming visibly involved in either online or offline community activity.’ (p7)

Mandeep does point to what may be a crucial explanatory factor: expectations of dialogue. To build relationships between residents and with institutions requires dialogue (we discuss this in terms of ‘everyday democracy’ in our 2010 study). But the Local 2.0 report suggests that, while social media ‘supplies opportunities’ for dialogue, the demand isn’t necessarily there:

‘the majority of residents are not interested in cultivating a relationship with local institutions and many are ambivalent about forming relationships with their neighbours online.’ (p9)

The conclusion offered is that ‘social media reflects the conditions of a neighbourhood’ – if people are active offline, this will be reflected online, and the reverse applies:

‘The technology makes participation easier for most, but it does not affect the underlying behaviours and values that really motivate people to get involved.’ (7)

This seems to jettison the idea that social media can have a transformative effect, implying that the only effective approach is to invest in the communication prowess of existing groups of active residents. We might want to question that: apart from anything else, civic worthiness is not the only role that local online forums can support – lots of people are attracted by social gossip, which can have all sorts of benefits. But we have no problem that the challenge is then presented as not ‘how do you engage people with social media?’ but

‘how do you transform people’s interest in local news and events into deeper forms of participation?’

No-one said it was easy

The lessons from these two projects add insights. Neither report claims or appears to be based on the most robust evaluation processes, and the quantitative evidence is scant. But the key conclusions we have discussed help us re-consider what it is we are trying to achieve.

First, when we talk about online neighbourhood networks and distinguish them from, say, static community websites or hyperlocal journalism, we’ve always been conscious that those local sites where digital conversations take place are both harder to establish and decidedly more powerful in their social impact. It may be a mistake to say for example that at a certain point, ‘attempts to stimulate active engagement from residents have largely failed’; when in fact was has happened could be that foundations have been laid for the transparent exchange of information which will lead in time to social involvement, leading in turn to increased civic involvement. Any community development practitioner will tell you, it usually takes even longer than you dare expect.

Secondly, we’ve always recognised that in low income areas, success will be harder to achieve and will require some form of intervention which combines face-to-face and online to stimulate participation. We should not be surprised to find widespread initial disinterest, a sense of stagnation, or slow growth, among people who are wholly accustomed to feeling disempowered and marginalised. If local information is flowing out to people, however passive they are in receipt, that is a bonus to be built on.

Thirdly, crucially, as the e-democracy report suggests, it can make a difference to have someone on the ground stirring things up, connecting and reconnecting, encouraging and provoking, for a few hours a week.

Finally, it’s worth glancing back to our 2010 literature review for the online neighbourhood networks study, which included a section on exclusion and cohesion with particular reference to Keith Hampton’s paper on ‘internet use and the concentration of disadvantage‘. Several of the successful neighbourhood email lists in his study were located in areas with high concentations of disadvantage, areas where residents could be expected to experience serious constraints on their abilities to exert informal social control and establish a stable sense of cohesion. But analysis of the content of messages exchanged within these neighborhoods found evidence of social cohesion and informal social control that were similar to rates found in more advantaged areas, suggesting that internet use can overcome certain constraints to local social interaction. He argues that where we find an alignment of ‘context’ (neighbourhood design and environment), ‘desire for tie formation’ (‘demand’ in Mandeep’s terms), and of course the necessary infrastructure for communication, then internet use is likely to stimulate collective efficacy.


Here and now: UK hyperlocal media today

April 12th, 2012

How important is the ‘hyperlocal’ sector, what does it cover, and what are its prospects for sustained development? Will hyperlocal resources really fulfil their promise and bring about distinctive social change by weakening the centrifugal forces of contemporary politics?

To help us begin finding some answers, here is a ‘landscape’ paper prepared by Damian Radcliffe, formerly an Ofcom adviser (and also a member of the advisory group for the Online Neighbourhood Networks study). Damian was one of the first people in an official national capacity to grasp the significant potential of local online resources, and he explored its potential with welcome enthusiasm.

The paper has been published as background for a new programme, Destination Local, recently launched by Nesta, who summarise it as follows:

‘It maps the current landscape of hyperlocal media activity in the UK, defining what we mean by the term, highlighting the ingredients for success and identifying some of the challenges the sector is facing.’

The term ‘hyperlocal’ is widely and uncritically used, and is contested, but Damian offers a definition which we can probably all get along with:

‘Online news or content services pertaining to a town, village, single postcode or other small, geographically defined community.’

The paper is very readable and strong on two particular themes: the relations between traditional local media and hyperlocal; and the (uncertain) potential for sustainable business models to strengthen the sector. The international coverage is also a very distinctive contribution, giving perspective to the development of hyperlocal in the UK.

Where we’d welcome more focus in the future is on demonstrating an appreciation of the significance of voluntary effort in establishing and managing local online resources; and the way that effort fits into the shifting culture of civic and community involvement. Of course, that’s a complex and fuzzy area, under-researched and under-theorised, but hugely important in the next couple of years at least.


What can local websites offer the BBC and other public service providers?

March 1st, 2012

Networked Neighbourhoods has been working with the BBC to test the potential contribution of an alliance of London neighbourhood sites, using the forthcoming digital switchover as a catalyst.

With representatives from a number of London local networks and heritage media groups, gathered in the council chamber at Broadcasting House yesterday, we explored the ways in which neighbourhood websites could be used as part of a two-way public service information network.  (Special thanks to David Wilcox who has already offered a summary on Social reporter, with a video interview of Hugh Flouch, Samantha LaTouche and Maggie Philbin).

When an organisation like the BBC or a government department needs to communicate with people individually at the most local level, there are numerous potential connections to be established or revived – through councils, schools, carers’ networks, GP surgeries, sports clubs, interest groups and so on.

Hugh Flouch, Sam Latouche and Maggie PhilbinBut there will still be gaps. When the London digital switchover takes place in a few weeks’ time, some people will be taken by surprise and risk losing use of their television altogether – and they could well be vulnerable people for whom the company of the TV is very important.

Following several months of discussions with Hugh Flouch, the BBC recognised the exceptional potential of online neighbourhood networks to reach the parts that other efforts cannot reach. It requires those who are unfazed by the switchover to think about and inform those they know who might find it problematic.

So what is the potential of a regional alliance of local websites? Not only can they function as channels in both directions for major external institutions like the BBC; there is also the potential to syndicate stories, and the potential for greater sustainability of sites through supporting advertising and other input.

We’ll be talking to the BBC to explore this potential further in the future.

Big Local: 50 new areas announced

February 29th, 2012

Today saw the announcement of the next wave of 50 Big Local areas in England, along with a celebratory event with the Big Lottery Fund and the local project which is already underway in South Bermondsey, London.

Big Local is arguably the best approach ever to a national community development programme because it empowers local people, in a genuine and uncomplicated way, to take decisions about their locality and to exploit opportunities. It’s precisely the kind of programme that my former boss at CDF, Alison West, campaigned for passionately, so in some ways I see it as a testimony to her and to sound community development arguments.

It’s also striking that digital media are an integral part of the mix for the Big Lottery Fund (who came up with the scheme), the Local Trust (who are managing it), and some of the local trusts themselves at an early stage.

At the celebration event tonight it was a treat to hear some of the stories from three of the localities, and to witness the commonsense readiness to exploit the internet and social media as part of their activities.

It was also an inspiration to feel the enthusiasm and sense of involvement and momentum in the stories that were shared.

Our work with three of the pioneer Big Localities continues. Margaret Pritchard, a resident in one of these areas, Lumbertubs in Northampton, has prepared a short case study for the Local Trust website. She notes:

‘We felt that a great way to bring people together would be a virtual community space, as a digital platform would ensure the space is open and long lasting. Coincidentally, we were asked at this time to participate in an online pilot project with the consultancy Networked Neighbourhoods. It was just what we were looking for.’

We look forward to sharing and learning more lessons with some of the new projects as they get up to speed.

The list of new areas in receipt of funding is here.

Kevin Harris

What kind of online neighbour are you?

February 28th, 2012

Here’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek US article suggesting the stereotypes you might find on a neighbourhood site – ‘the wonders and weirdos on your email group’. They include:

  • The loose cannon
  • The armchair urban planner
  • The neighborhood patrol nut, and
  • The entitled pet owner.

Among the additions in the comments section, recognition is given to ‘Local conspiracy theory guy’ and the wannabe editor ‘who needs to correct everyone’s online spelling and punctuation’. Ring any bells?

So who wants to start a UK version of this list? Ah, that’ll be the List-Starter.

Thanks to Steven Clift of e-democracy.org for the heads-up.

Kevin Harris