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Social media and housing

February 20th, 2012

I took part in a live panel discussion on social media in housing today, for the Guardian’s housing network.

It’s a great way to collect a lot of experience-based knowledge rapidly. There were plenty of interesting reflections on how, in organisations, social technologies clash with hierarchical ways of operating; and some challenges to assumptions about the value of being ‘liked’ or ‘followed’.

All of it useful stuff for housing providers, some of which are very adept at communications, some less so, with or without the rhetoric of community engagement.

If there was one disappointment, it was in being unable to get any real discussion going about how residents, not just housing providers, use social media in housing. Perhaps it was the wrong forum; but the lessons of community development, and of all our Networked Neighbourhoods work so far, suggest that the spaces that are set up and run by local people for local people – requiring agencies to come into that space shedding their hierarchical culture – could be the ones that will deliver the lasting social benefits.

I’ll be speaking on this and related themes, alongside Kate Hughes of Wolverhampton Homes, at the Housing technology conference in Birmingham this week.

Kevin Harris

Global game highlights potential of the open web for government

February 20th, 2012


A social media game to be run in five cities across the world on 31st March is highlighting the potential for government agencies to use open social media to disseminate information and gather feedback from citizens.

I’ve long been a champion of the potential of local websites to act as channels for local, regional and national government to understand what people are saying and communicate key messages.

Aggregating these networks alongside Twitter and Facebook offers the opportunity to monitor the opinions of  citizens who may represent different groups than those with whom government habitually engages. The opinions expressed through these media are also often less modulated than those expressed in the more formal channels typically used for consultation.

Events around the world last year, including the riots in the UK,  have further developed thinking about how social media can be used by government. Public agencies are paying more attention to how to get the best use from ‘public’ social  networks like Twitter and Facebook, but are also looking at citizen websites.

In London, Networked Neighbourhoods have been working with the BBC to use local websites to support a community information scheme. Time will tell what impact this first trial will have, but what’s of real note for me is that an organisation like the BBC is now able to see the potential of aggregating local websites at a regional level. (Our 2011 research underlined the increasing recognition local sites are already receiving as tools for local government).

Now a one-off social media game is being launched to orchestrate communication with and collaboration between citizens on a global level. The TAG Challenge requires contestants to collaborate across five countries to identify and photograph five ‘suspects’. The winners will receive US$5,000.

It’s more evolutionary than revolutionary in its scope, but what’s interesting is its pedigree. The game was conceived by a group of graduate students from six different countries as an outcome of a series of conferences on how social media could be used to improve transatlantic security. Funding and support were provided by the US State Department and the US Embassy in Prague, in association with the Institute of International Education.

This heritage underlines the issue of how social media must still be regarded by us all as a double edged sword, as was well illustrated by the role of local websites and Twitter in last year’s riots.

Alan Silberberg considers the potential pitfalls of how government uses social media in a thoughtful piece, Spies LIke us – Literally. He points out:

Currently there are few to zero laws regarding how conversations on social media can be used by law enforcement…….Many agencies are pressing ahead with “initial pilot programs” of converting monitoring the conversations to arrests and or stopping crime before it happens.

Although writing for the US context, I doubt that the situation is much better elsewhere.

I welcome initiatives like the TAG Challenge that have the potential to create buzz around how social media, including citizen websites can be a tremendous force for good. I remain hopeful that government agencies will better exploit the potential of aggregating local websites. However some local website administrators and an increasing number of social media users will continue to worry about interacting with public agencies on local websites or on ‘public’ social spaces until government bolsters our trust by taking measures to hold itself to account over how these new tools are used.

Hugh Flouch


Further Reading

TAG Challenge website

FEMA focuses on speed, not perfection in using social media

The US Government is testing how social media can be used to track terrorists


On the need to re-engineer local communication channels

February 15th, 2012

General surveys and commentaries on the quality of local life generally, and neighbourliness specifically, are seldom optimistic. Our media and politicians relish rehearsing the details of rampant anti-social behaviour and stories of neighbours from hell, while celebrating the sepia-tinted days when everyone knew each others’ names and went in and out of each others’ homes. (‘You try and tell the young people of today that, and they won’t believe you’).

There’s one key feature of these narratives of decline which I know a bit about, since it’s been the focus of much of my work for many years: communication channels. In the kinds of historical local community referred to in nostalgic stories, communication flowed through the frequent day to day encounters between residents and the dense overlapping ties.

Now that we tend to live our lives in personal social networks, with fewer daily encounters and fewer work colleagues or kin around us in our neighbourhoods, it’s obvious we need to re-engineer the communication channels that facilitate pro-social behaviour and co-production at local level. Which is just what online neighbourhood networks do.

This message still needs to be publicised, judging by one of the headline findings from a survey commissioned by the Ordnance Survey and described on the BBC today:

‘25% said a community forum where they could air their concerns would help tackle community issues, whilst 29% claimed that a source of local information would help tackle community issues.’

(National survey carried out online by Opinion Matters, 1,977 adult respondents).

It’s great that the question is being asked, but these figures are disappointingly low, in my view. Of course the communication channel doesn’t necessarily have to be online. But neighbourhood online networks boost the flow of openly shared information – 95% of respondents in our 2010 survey said they felt more informed about their neighbourhood as a direct consequence of using their local site – and that is an essential precondition for a confident, responsive local community.

Kevin Harris

Littlemoor Live: a new local site gets a little national attention

December 9th, 2011

Littlemoor is an estate on the outskirts of Weymouth. It is one of the Big Local areas with Big Lottery funding, where residents have received support from Networked Neighbourhoods in developing a local website, Littlemoor Live, which was set up earlier this year. The site admin is Tammie Barnes. Tammie was recently asked to speak about her experience at a Big Local national event in Birmingham, and offers her reflections here. We’re very grateful to Tammie for taking on this challenge so readily, and for sharing these thoughts.

Talking to others about Littlemoor Live – this was quite a scary thought as I hadn’t done a presentation like that before. After some phone calls and some childcare juggling, I said yes. Then a crash course in PowerPoint (I’d never used it before!) and I prepared my presentation and booked my train ticket for the rather long journey from Weymouth to Birmingham.

The Big Local event was organised by the National Association for Neighbourhood Management and was about sharing ideas on how to bring people together in your local community. There were about 50 people from all over the country attending – many from the midlands, some had come from as far as Cornwall. The morning sessions looked at how people had got involved with Big Local using innovative and imaginative methods.

I talked a little about the area, and then shared about how it all started – for me it was getting a flyer in my daughter’s book bag at school. Then I gave a little demo of the site, looking at the different pages and what purpose they had. Finally I shared what I had learned through the experience, what I would do again and what I wouldn’t.

Afterwards we had a question and answer session, where others asked about setting up their own site. Some attendees already had Facebook sites, and we talked about how best to maintain them. It was great to share ideas, but also to find that others experience the same challenges as we do.

I felt very proud to be representing Littlemoor to people all over the country, and also proud of those who had contributed to the site thus far. I often tend to think of LL as a website only accessible to those who live where I do, but it dawned on me as the day went on that wasn’t the case. We are well and truly on the map!

Tammie Barnes


We also received this comment from NANM’s Ben Lee:

“Tammie’s presentation went down really well. Feedback was very good and three participants thought Tammie’s presentation was the best thing about the whole day.

“Most of all she got a very important message across which is that blogs themselves etc don’t generate conversations, it’s the hard graft every evening from someone like Tammie which builds the community and generates the buzz.”



Neighbourhood websites, Twitter and Facebook: the council view

November 24th, 2011

Our recent survey of local government officers and elected members suggests that they regard neighbourhood websites as the most useful online channel, above others such as Facebook or Twitter.

We invited respondents to assess the following as ‘not useful’, ‘fairly useful’, or ‘very useful’ or indicate if they ‘don’t use’:

1. Local residents’ personal Facebook profiles

2. Area-based Facebook pages or groups (not council run)

3. Council Facebook page

4. Member Facebook profile/page

5. Local residents’ personal Twitter streams

6. Twitter streams set up as neighbourhoods channels

7. Council Twitter stream

8. Residents’ groups’ websites and chat groups

9. Local online communities of interest e.g. local environmental groups, history groups etc

10. Local bloggers

11. Neighbourhood websites

(We had previously defined the term ‘independent citizen-led neighbourhood websites’ as sites having the following characteristics:

  • established and run by local citizens
  • with most of the content relating to local issues or interests
  • open to discussion and contributions from anyone living in the area or with an interest in the area.)

Both categories of respondent indicated that neighbourhood websites are the most useful to them in their role. The last four channels in the list were all regarded by elected members as ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ useful, and the figures are similar for officers.

A significant minority of members responding (ranging from 38 to 47 per cent) say that they do not use the first seven of these channels (Facebook or Twitter). A quarter of them find members’ Facebook pages useful.

Among officers, 41 per cent say that they do not use members’ Facebook pages. Officers appear to value Twitter, particularly its use by councils: almost 80 per cent of officers find their council’s Twitter stream useful.

Kevin Harris and Hugh Flouch

Online contributes to the diversity of social networks

November 21st, 2011

Some years ago there was interest in the possibility of what was known as ‘cyber-balkanisation’ – the expectation that online activity would create silos of communities of interest at the expense of diversity of networks; and perhaps that local communities based on face-to-face contact might atrophy as a direct consequence. I even wrote an article for the New Statesman about it, it must have been at least ten years ago.

Now here’s research to confirm that social networks are not less diverse when mediated by online, and that online use makes a ‘positive and substantive total contribution’ to network diversity and hence to the social capital that is accessible through personal networks.

This is the most recent output from Keith Hampton and his colleagues based on the data collected for the Pew Internet and American Life Project (which has grabbed our attention a couple of times in the past, here and here).

The argument goes something like this.

The potential for higher social capital is maximized in social settings where the diversity of others is highest. More than anything, that means certain kinds of public space; but the study refers to ‘traditional settings’ broadly to include urban public spaces, semi-public spaces, voluntary associations, religious institutions and neighbourhoods – settings in which people organise social relations. The research first confirms that such settings make an important contribution to social network diversity.

It then asks, does online activity have a positive or negative effect, or none at all, on the diversity of people’s social networks?

Specifically referring to frequent use of the internet at work and the use of social networking services, the researchers find that the direct contribution of even such limited relationships to the diversity of personal networks is ‘substantial’. To put it into some sort of perspective, they say it is comparable to:

‘the dif­ference between those who know none and those who know all of their neighbors, those who do not attend church and those who attend twice weekly, those who make three additional weekly visits to public spaces, belonging to two additional types of voluntary association, or making four additional weekly visits to a semipublic space.’

They go on to conclude that,

‘In contrast to a belief that networks would be more easily abandoned in the electronic age, social networks may be more persistent now than at any point in modern history. ICTs afford relationship maintenance in ways that reduce the likelihood that ties will ever become completely dormant… Not only are networks persistent over time, but they are increasingly pervasive and visible across what were once clearly articulated and bounded cliques.’

While there are cautions about the possible effects of the uses of different technologies in the future, the key point of this paper is to confirm that online use is likely to enhance the diversity of social networks, not constrain it, and hence assists in the accumulation of social capital.

Kevin Harris


Councils and neighbourhood networks: new survey findings

November 21st, 2011

Local council officers and elected members regard neighbourhood websites as the most useful online channel, above others such as Facebook or Twitter, according to our latest survey results. The level of awareness of these sites has increased significantly over the past year. The survey report suggests an increasing need for council guidance on how to interact with sites.

This is the second Networked Neighbourhoods survey of council officers and elected members. Our first was conducted a year ago and the report is available here. See also Section 4 of our 2010 main study, ‘Relations with councils‘.

Key findings

  • Neighbourhood websites are valued as the most useful online channel, above others such as Facebook and Twitter, by officers and elected members.
  • Those claiming that they are aware of one or more neighbourhood sites in their area increased from 63 per cent in 2010 to 84 per cent for members, and from 55 per cent to 92 per cent among officers responding.
  • The proportion of members who perceived local sites to be negative dropped 5 per cent, from 17 per cent a year ago.
  • Nonetheless, in 2011 the proportion of members who feel that relationships with sites can be described as ‘co-operative’ is about 50 per cent, compared to two thirds in 2010. Among officers the trend is in the other direction: from 53 per cent in 2010 to 67 per cent this year.
  • Some 90 per cent of members feel that they should read and contribute to neighbourhood websites as active participants, compared with 65 per cent in 2010.
  • Members and officers recognise a broad range of pro-social and co-productive roles, such as ‘quickly identifying issues of concern for residents’, acting ‘as a link to council online services’ and ‘sharing council news and information on council services and events’.
  • Officers and members reported more concern about getting involved in protracted or discordant conversations than in 2010.
  • Internal barriers within councils are still constraining their ability to take advantage of neighbourhood websites. These include restrictions on the use of the internet, the lack of council clarity on responsibility for interacting with the sites, and the lack of council guidance.

Some of these barriers (such as internet skills and access) are practically soluble within authorities without much difficulty. The other barriers call for an informed awareness-raising approach, which requires the leadership of agencies representing the local government sector.

Hugh Flouch, Kevin Harris

Connected neighbours-to-be

November 7th, 2011

Here’s a little story (with more behind a paywall) from Singapore, reporting online interaction between neighbours-to-be. A handful of the future occupants of a 680-unit development have already met up through a community Facebook group. And they don’t move in until 2014.


Council officers should be ‘freed up’ to engage with local sites

October 21st, 2011

The democratic potential of community websites has long been heralded, but it won’t happen just by itself. What developments are needed to overcome barriers like digital exclusion, lack of interaction between local councils and residents, or the capture of local sites for narrow interests?

This week we collaborated with the Hansard Society and the LGIU to run a discussion event on these themes at Parliament’s Portcullis House , with short presentations from Natasha Innocent (Race Online), Hugh Flouch (Networked Neighbourhoods), Jonathan Carr-West (LGIU) and Kerry McCarthy MP.

Hugh reported some early findings from our recent survey into the views of elected members and council officers concerning neighbourhood websites – a follow-up to our 2010 survey. Over the past year there seems to have been more activity in low income areas, which needs to be fostered; increasing use by police forces; and evidence of interest from the social housing sector.

Hugh noted that awareness of local sites seems to have grown: those aware of one or more sites in their area increased from 63% in 2010 to 84% for members, and from 55% to 92% among officers responding.

We have also seen a significant increase in the number of respondents agreeing that the sites are useful as a link to online council services.

As in 2010, among the main barriers affecting the relationship between councils and sites, respondents included ‘lack of council or party guidance on how to interact with neighbourhood websites’. Hugh called for councils to start developing policies for engaging with the growing number of local sites.

This year we included a question asking which online channels are the most useful to the respondent (including member, resident and council Facebook pages or Twitter streams, for example, as well as council websites, residents’ blogs and so on). Neighbourhood websites topped the list for both officers (85%) and members (79%). Twitter came second for officers but was far less valued by members.

We’ll be announcing more on the research findings soon.

The meeting also heard about recent research from LGIU which calls for authorities to ‘go where the eyeballs are’ and build more effective and engaging communications strategies: reduced communication costs are implied in a more citizen-oriented approach to digital media.

Among the issues raised in the discussion, we heard the need to keep pointing out that local online is not a solution on its own, but needs to be absorbed into other community development and engagement activities. There were calls to end the still-prevalent perception among some officers of the public as ‘problem’; digital exchanges may help to accelerate that change. And from the perspective of democratic engagement generally, it was suggested that Twitter may be starting to lose its value ‘as a genuine conversation’.

Arguably the most significant remark on the night came from Kerry McCarthy MP, who called for council officers to be ‘freed up’ to engage with local sites and use them to connect with residents.


Kevin Harris



BBC’s citizen journalism app: opportunity for local news?

October 6th, 2011








Interesting to read the news yesterday that the BBC is planning to launch a citizen journalism app. They’ve clearly wised up to the benefits of contributions by the many. According to the European Journalism Centre,

“Theoretically, the ‘news gatherer app’ will be able to feed user-generated content into the BBC’s content-management system, which is then edited by editorial staff and aired within minutes of submission’.

One of my first thoughts was how perfect this set-up could be for online neighbourhood networks and other citizen-run local websites. I can’t help thinking about the great opportunity for the BBC to collaborate with local sites here. It’s likely that this app will generate a quantity of material that can’t be used by the BBC but may still be of interest at a local level, or indeed to special interest groups. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the BBC offering to use it’s brand strength to call for and collect local stories as well as ones of national interest and to act as information broker and opening up access to citizen-submitted stories. Even on a limited basis, it would be a wonderful interpretation of the organisation’s public service remit.