Category Archives: Hyperlocal

NESTA Destination Local – initial reaction to funded projects

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article for the Creative Industries Knowledge Transfer Network about Destination Local in which I outlined my view that the hyperlocal sector would be better helped by small amounts of money, with less stringent criteria, aimed directly at independent hyperlocals rather than any tom, dick or harry with the skills to write a business plan (something few hyperlocals have).

A simple example would be a few hundred quid directed at a site that clearly has the potential to generate significant ad sales revenue but none of the sales skills. That tiny amount of money could pay for training that turns that site into a sustainable operation and maybe even pays part time some wages.

Another complaint I outlined was that the criteria for Destination Local focused too heavily on technology (the one part that hyperlocals generally don’t struggle with). NESTA, whilst recognising the shift from desktop to mobile, has failed to account for the shift in development methods. Instead of developing a website and then 2 or more mobile apps (i.e. a costly way to reach multiple platforms), there’s a shift towards HTML5 responsive web apps (i.e. a single website that gives a great experience independent of the platform).

Take a look at FixMyStreet.com and RateMyPlace.org.uk on your PC and then a smartphone – both of these sites deliver a good experience from the same place, no special mobile website or app required, and they pick up your location regardless of what platform you’re on. Both of these were built by very small teams at massively less cost than building (and maintaining) additional mobile apps.

My worry was that this programme will produce a bunch of ‘same old’ mobile apps that do nothing to help the sector as a whole. So… what have NESTA decided to fund?

MyTown – this sounds like a project to build a network of top-down hyperlocal sites and give each one a mobile app (detail is scarce). It doesn’t sound particularly ground-breaking and I’m wondering how this will help other, independent, hyperlocal sites.

Local Edge – although an app, this is a fantastic idea and something that can’t be done in HTML5 as yet. It’s brilliance is that it represents a bit of diversification into the high street retail business, which should help to sustain the hyperlocal sites and help relationships between local businesses, their customers and the hyperlocal sites.

LocalSay – Augmented reality app, as lovely an idea as it is (I’m as geeky as the next person and love the idea of augmented reality) who really holds their phone up in front of their face while walking down the street? It’s a nice idea and might gain some traction if Project Glass goes mainstream but that’s a way off yet and I struggle to see the impact this will have on the hyperlocal sector as a whole.

LOL! Leeds Online – Nothing spectacular again and another generic mobile app (from the description and video). No other hyperlocal will be able to repeat this without the same level of funding so unless NESTA are going to do the programme again, I can’t envisage how the wider sector benefits.

Papur Dre – Getting the local college involved to turn a local paper into an interactive online TV station of sorts is great. Big downside with this is that it’s an app – massively more costly than a HTML5 responsive website deliver HTML5 video, but interesting nonetheless.

OurTown – Another app that seeks simply to deliver news content via a mobile app. Nothing spectacular (from the description and video) and a disappointing focus again on expensive mobile app development.

#21VC – Finally something that isn’t about creating a mobile app! Another example of diversifying, this project plans to make a hyperlocal site the gateway site to a WiFi portal. Anyone who’s logged onto public WiFi like those at Wetherspoons pubs will know that you quickly get rid of the portal page which raises the question of whether this will be successful. However, the key difference is that most WiFi portals deliver something generic and largely irrelevant like MSN whereas this portal will give you a hyperlocal site about the very area you are in at the time. This could obviously be replicated in villages across the country, if it works.

URTV – A plan for a HTML5 web app, this is music to my ears and a great example of what the future of local TV will look like while DCMS obsesses over transmitters. There is a mobile app in here, too, that complements the HTML5 web app in providing users the opportunity to take and upload videos of their own.

Kentish Towner – HTML5 again and another brilliant idea of how to tie local businesses into the hyperlocal experience in a way that creates a level of interdependence and not just another method of delivery for generic content.

Locali – This one perplexes me a little. Some of it’s benefits are already delivered by FixMyStreet and it’s plan to sell the system to councils looks to me like undermining hyperlocal sites rather than helping them. Why bother going to a hyperlocal when all the info you need is delivered by a Locali-powered app from the local council? Presumably councils will use the app for their entire area, too, which will be district or county-wide (I can’t see any Parish councils buying this) which, by definition, isn’t a hyperlocal audience – it’s regional.

Some really interesting applications and I’ll be keeping an eye on Local Edge, #21VC, URTV and Kentish Towner in particular. As for the rest it appears that a few are, on the surface, just a mobile app to deliver existing content to a mobile device. Something that is easy to achieve in a very short space of time with tools like WordPress at virtually no cost. Mostly, it’s disappointing that nothing leaps out as something that could make a huge impact on the whole hyperlocal sector. A couple of new businesses might be created but beyond that I can’t (yet) see where the impact is.

Northcliffe’s Local People: It’s not working, let’s shift the risk

Good news! Northcliffe has realised that it’s Local People network model is flawed and has decided to try and shift the risk onto naive entrepreneurs instead.

Maybe I’m just being optimistic given my well-known loathing of Local People but it’s as if Northcliffe have decided that  receiving £7k for each new Local People site is much better than forking out £6k for a ‘community publisher’.

In launching a franchise “opportunity” the Local People network is now much more like the About My Area and The Best Of networks. Does this then mean that the network is not so much competing with existing grass-roots hyperlocal sites anymore?

Either way, if this represents a slowing down of the roll-out of Local People sites that is a good thing for communities everywhere as far as I’m concerned. The less glorified discussion forums we have threatening the existence of Northcliffe’s own papers the better.

One concern is that pricing a hyperlocal site at £7k has the effect of bringing the hyperlocal bubble that I fear we’re seeing in the US over to the UK. While there is still no clear business model for successful hyperlocal, pumping £7k into such a site with no clear route to a return is surely suicidal.

Of course, this franchise model could see Local People go the way of About My Area and The Best Of and become much more business-oriented and far less about the news. Not that they carry much quality news at the moment anyway….

Blogger arrested for filming council meeting

As if it wasn’t bad enough that the Police arrest hobbyists for taking photos of public events they’re now arresting bloggers for filming council meetings.

While my request to film council meetings in Lichfield was met with no resistance it seems some councillors seem to be living in an entirely different reality.

I’ll be writing to my MP to ask him for a statement from Eric Pickles about the incident following Pickles’ advice to local government to allow local bloggers to film council meetings.

Update: it turns out that the guidance given to councils by Erick Pickles means absolutely jack shit in Wales, which I find hilarious and infuriating at the same time.

Comment on Why Bloggers Shouldn’t Work For Free

I just commented on a blog post by one of The Lichfield Blog’s excellent contributors, Annette Rubery. She talks about the closure of Guardian Local and the attitude of the Guardian towards contributions.

I wanted to make sure you, my readers, saw my comment, so here it is;

This is something I think about a LOT. As one of the main non-journalistic influences of The Lichfield Blog I’m mainly charged (self-inflicted, of course) with the task of making sure TLB survives and thrives.

A big part of that is, honestly, ‘how do we get people to contribute for free?’

That’s not something that sits comfortably with me and is instantly followed (in my head) by ‘what does it give them?’

You’re contributions are some of the most exciting that we have! As you know we’ve talked about how to make sure that isn’t just sucking up your time for nothing but producing an end product that makes it worthwhile.

Because while free contributions are brilliant, as any volunteer organisation will understand (and I’ve seen enough to know), you can never rely on volunteer contributions. Paid work will (obviously) always come first as will pretty much everything else you can think of.

TLB works well so far because so many people have committed so much to it. It won’t take much to erode that commitment though and so we need to be aware that if we don’t provide solid returns (and yes, that sounds horrifically corporate) our contributors will eventually disappear. I wouldn’t blame them.

Cuddly community-benefit volunteer fuel only takes you so far down the road. At some point you need to switch to the premium stuff to keep going.

Response to comments by Paul Court about The Lichfield Blog

In response to Paul Court’s comments about The Lichfield Blog.

“Your clunky ad package”

Why do you say that? It works nicely for us and none of the many advertisers we’ve had have complained. Far from it in fact.

“which seems designed to share information with advertisers you probably don’t want them to know”

Such as? I have no problem being open with such stats.

“not give them information that might encourage them to become your clients”

They can clearly see the views they’d get. What do you suggest we should be giving them?

“even if you could sell your prime ad spot you’d be making just 60 pounds a week”

Actually, the current revenue potential is £94.92 per week.

“Working back from the 12,000 page views a week claimed that would probably make about 3,000 visits and up to 2,000 uniques.”

Not sure how you reached these figures. Actually in the last four weeks we’ve averaged around 8,000 page views, 4,000 visits and 3,500 uniques.

“Not enough for viability by a long way but you should be making more than you are.”

We’re a not-for-profit with costs amounting to around £100 per year. Two ads for just one month out of 12 will meet those costs.

“Ad rotation would be a quick and easy way to boost the number of sellable page views.”

You clearly haven’t looked closely enough.

“However, as for charging community groups for space on the site – what on earth are you thinking?”

They all get any coverage that they need through articles on the site. If they want to really push something particular, they have a very accessible, low-cost method to do so, whilst simultaneously supporting a fellow community group. The alternative is paying hundreds for an ad in a local paper.

“You are not a blog so why lumber you site with a tag which is off-putting and misleading.”

A quick look into our history will tell you why. Few of our readers seem to have an issue with it because we clearly demonstrate through our actions that we are not a blog in a traditional sense. That’s why two local festivals (one world-renowned) have just chosen us as their media partner. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, our community doesn’t.

“One of the reasons your audience numbers remain low probably misperception of what you are doing.”

Judging by the ABCs of the local paper we actually reach more people than they do in their patch. I wouldn’t call that low.

“lack of a discussion board and a newsletter seem to be basic errors”

Why would we have a forum? That doesn’t suit our aims. We quite clearly have a method for readers to receive articles by e-mail. It’s generated every day by using the RSS feed. I use it myself.

“You can’t have a partnership with your biggest competitor.”

A quick glance at http://www.birminghammail.net/your-communities/staffordshire/lichfield/ will clearly demonstrate just how little we compete with the Birmingham Mail.

“Just because you haven’t been able to generate revenue out of your site doesn’t mean it is worthless so you are wrong to give away its most valuable asset.”

We’ve generated a pretty good amount of revenue out of it, actually. We’re satisfied that what we get in return from BPM is worth the benefit we give them, and there is much more to come from our relationship.

“Judging by you blog post on networks you have a negative view of Local People.”

I’m not keen no, I don’t believe the model is the right one and I think people in those communities largely see through it. By contrast, Guardian Local and STV identify people passionate about their area and give them the tools and training to do an exceptional job, which they do.

“a partnership with Local People would negate the technical inadequacies of your site”

Wow. That’s a big statement. You really think People sites are more technically adequate than TLB? I’d love to know how…

“lack of commercial nous”

You don’t manage several businesses without having some commercial nous. Nor do you (as a tiny volunteer operation) build relationships with the biggest media organisations in the country without a bit of business sense about you. Frankly I find this assumption about our operation very insulting.

“struggle along for another couple of years”

I’m fascinated that you have such an insight into what it’s like for us to run the site. Until now I’d considered it an incredibly fulfilling, exciting adventure that has been touted countless times as a leader of hyperlocals everywhere. It’s certainly hard work but then if we weren’t working hard, we wouldn’t be doing our community justice.

For clarity, here is the full comment from Paul:

Philip, rather than getting sniffy with Alex about her (?) linking policy perhaps you should start to take on board some of the points she is making. Looking at your Lichfield Blog, it epitomises many of the problems she has highlighted. Firstly, in case my later points seem unduly harsh, I would stress that it is an excellent example of what a community site should be in terms of its content. It manages to be firmly rooted in the community without being dry and introspective.

Unfortunately it seems to be woefully undersold. As far as I can see you have no independent advertisers. Your clunky ad package, which seems designed to share information with advertisers you probably don’t want them to know but not give them information that might encourage them to become your clients, suggests that even if you could sell your prime ad spot you’d be making just 60 pounds a week. Working back from the 12,000 page views a week claimed that would probably make about 3,000 visits and up to 2,000 uniques.

Not enough for viability by a long way but you should be making more than you are. Ad rotation would be a quick and easy way to boost the number of sellable page views. However, as for charging community groups for space on the site – what on earth are you thinking? Engagement with these people should be the life-blood of you site and you should not be discouraging them in this way. The unsold ad space on your front page for non-profits is wrong on so many levels.

You also have a branding issue. You are not a blog so why lumber you site with a tag which is off-putting and misleading. Bloggers are negatively perceived by the less web savvy part of the world who will make up the biggest part of your potential audience. One of the reasons your audience numbers remain low probably misperception of what you are doing.

Engagement is also a problem. I appreciate the use of free software maybe a constaint but the lack of a discussion board and a newsletter seem to be basic errors. The site gives more of an impression of you talking to Lichfield rather than you providing a platform to Lichfield to talk to itself. Offering an RSS feed only is likely to alienate further the majority of your visitors who won’t know what an RSS feed is.

It is disheartening, given the quality of the content, that you feel it is a good idea to effectively give it away free to Trinity Mirror. If you are ever going to be viable you have to compete with them for audience and sales. You can’t have a partnership with your biggest competitor. You are capable of highlighting the declining quality of reporting in their titles because of the genuinely local and informed coverage you provide. Trinity must be breathing a huge sigh of relief that you have agreed to provide them with free story origination allowing them to paper over the cracks of their current operation. Just because you haven’t been able to generate revenue out of your site doesn’t mean it is worthless so you are wrong to give away its most valuable asset.

Judging by you blog post on networks you have a negative view of Local People. I presume that because you say you have missed out a couple of networks as ‘I don’t see them as proper grass-roots hyperlocal efforts.’ I can’t see who this could refer to other than Local People yet bizarrely you include the Guardian and STV. You may dislike Local People for their association with the Daily Mail but it is wrong to say that it isn’t a proper grass-roots hyperlocal effort. Like Patch in the States they are employing local editors and the quality and success of their sites is dependent on the quality of that person. Ironically for you, a partnership with Local People would negate the technical inadequacies of your site and your lack of commercial nous allowing you to concentrate on what you are good at.

The alternative seems to me that you struggle along for another couple of years without achieving sustainability and then either give up the ghost or Local People, Patch or another entrant into the market come along and do it better.

Trinity Mirror Editors Conference – 23/03/2011

Today I spoke to regional editors at Trinity Mirror about how they could work with hyper local sites.

You can watch my presentation to them here and you can listen to me take you through it with this AudioBoo:

Listen!

Below are links to sites, quotes and articles mentioned in the presentation. I hope to add some audio too at some point.

Some journalism student hyperlocal sites

Examples

Quotes

Finally, I asked my hyperlocal followers on Twitter what they would say if they could have half an hour with their local newspaper editor. There are some interesting, amusing and not so amusing responses, which you can view on the Storify I created.

I’m available to consult on any area of working with hyperlocal sites, including helping to broker relationships. Just get in touch.

6 hyperlocal networks in the UK that are showing the US how it should be done

In a very rare spate of blog posts this week I’ve been talking about hyperlocal networks. Now I want to talk about the UK-based hyperlocal networks that are leading the way.

Guardian Local

Most of you will probably know about this. Headed by Sarah Hartley, it is the Guardian’s experimental exploration into different forms of local media.

They have 3 sites at the moment, serving Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds. Each is run by a beatblogger who works full time in that community. They are John Baron (Leeds), Hannah Waldram (Cardiff) and Michael MacLeod (Edinburgh). All three have a background in media and have been trained up by the Guardian for a role that demands they use multiple forms of media in their reporting.

Supporting the beatbloggers are the three web sites which are pre-loaded with tools from e-democracy charity mySociety. These tools allow citizens to more easily report street issues, write to their local representatives and track the activity of their MP.

Technically, it’s a form of ‘top-down hyperlocal’ – something those who know me are already aware I passionately despise. However, Guardian Local is a great example of how an existing (large) media organisation can tap into what makes hyperlocal successful and make it work from the top down.

John, Hannah and Michael are given the tools and the freedom to serve their community. They only need to concern themselves with being an effective beatblogger. Note that the Guardian calls them beatbloggers too, despite all of them being trained journalists. That says to me that the beatblogger is somewhere between a local blogger and local journalist, taking the best of both the new grass-roots hyperlocal bloggers and the traditional local journalist, mashing it all up and producing something pretty damn good.

It’s not all good though – they still haven’t figured out locally-relevant advertising, and let’s be honest – they need to do that to be a real success. As I look at each of the home pages now, they have three ad spots. Two of them are rich media and are filled with generic national advertising. The third is a spot with two Addiply text ads priced at £10 per week. As we found out on The Lichfield Blog, rich media is much more appealing even to local advertisers.

On patches the size they’re dealing with, you’d have thought Guardian Local could attract more locally targeted rich media advertising.

STV Local

Another top-down network but yet again a great example of how to do grass-roots hyperlocal. STV is the Scottish equivalent of England’s ITV if you didn’t know (I think that’s right…).

Their model is much the same as Guardian Local – they find passionate people to report on their area, giving them the tools and training they need so they can forget about the tech and the money, concentrating instead on being a good community reporter.

Each local site has a reporter, clearly named at the top right with contact details (much like Patch). They include news, events, eating out guides, local directory and information sections. I especially like the local info section which includes bus timetables, GP surgeries and the like.

Readers are also very much encouraged to contribute themselves, with a very clear call to action on the right hand side. This is something that you find papers do on their site but it’s generally clunky and not very attractive.

Again, they let themselves down when it comes to advertising though. Two spots on the homepage both contain generic ads (for the evil of BT, no less) and on individual articles there are three spots again taken up by non-local ads, which is a shame. To their credit though, each local site can have a sponsor and on Elgin at least it’s a local car dealership.

Uretopia

Otherwise known as hyperlocal.co.uk, run by Rob Powell who gets the grass-roots bit. I really like this one although I have a feeling it’s less well known than the above networks.

Included in the network are Greenwich.co.uk, The City and About Mayfair. Just yesterday a new site was added for Kingston. Rob employs paid writers for the sites and as you can clearly see there is only locally-relevant advertising.

Lichfield Community Media

It’s a new one, and I’ve already spoken about it so I’ll just quickly mention the thought process here.

We have The Lichfield Blog and are in the process of taking Tamworth Blog under our wings. As with STV Local and Guardian Local we’ll be helping Warren by dealing with some of the tech and commercial elements so he can concentrate on being a good community reporter.

Very naughtily, in my opinion, we cover Burntwood within The Lichfield Blog. Burntwood is it’s own town with it’s own identity though and we rarely get out there into the community. To that end I’m talking to some lovely Burntwood folk who’ve already shown the desire to report on their area. The plan is to split out a separate site, with them as the community reporters supported by the rest of the network. Exciting!

We only take locally-relevant ads and are developing lots of cool local information tools at the moment – watch this space!

Journal Local

Again, I’ve spoken before about this but I just want to give a quick overview. Journal Local is primarily a platform for hyperlocal web sites, taking away the stresses and strains of dealing with technology from site owners to allow them to get on with being a good community reporter.

All the sites on Journal Local are independent and free to operate their sites as they see fit. Being part of the wider Journal Local network means they benefit from shared resources which are improved upon all the time thanks to suggestions by other sites in the network.

On top of this, when we launch the public beta there’ll be tools for sites in the network to talk to each other, share experiences and improve together. That’s not being done yet, and I’m expecting it to be pretty awesome!

The un-named one in Cheshire 😉

I did miss this one originally (for shame!) but it’s another one I love. I’ll use Martin’s words from his comment to describe it.

Our sites are alderleyedge.com, wilmslow.co.uk and prestbury.com – with knutsford.com launching in due course. Whilst the other sites have some catching up to do our most established site, alderleyedge.com, has a monthly audience that far exceeds the population of the place.

Proper grass roots journalism with good levels of user engagement and a rounded proposition that goes beyond news. And each site even has it own professional iPhone app.

On top of that we have plenty of truly local advertisers paying competitive CPM rates that reflect the quality of the sites. We have about 10 ad campaigns running at present (90% sold out across the network) and every single one of them is a local business or event taking place within the locality (with the exception of 1 campaign where a bloke is trying to sell 3 rhinos – yes you read that right!).

Have I missed anyone?

I’m aware I’ve missed a couple of networks, purely because I don’t see them as proper grass-roots hyperlocal efforts. They don’t have the right characteristics and don’t serve their communities as they should (i.e. they’re simply a revenue generation machine for existing media companies).

If you think I’ve missed something do tell me though.

What do you think?

I’ve made quite a few opinion points here – especially on advertising and the nature of grass-roots vs top-down hyperlocal. So am I talking bull or does it kinda make sense?

A deconstruction of how TBD and Patch do hyperlocal

Yesterday I said that hyperlocals must find the network if they are to be sustainable. Today I want to take you through networks like Patch and TBD.com.

TBD

Upon visiting TBD.com it’s hard to see how it even is hyperlocal. Under the logo we see the tagline “All over Washington” but its’s hard to see how, if I lived in an area such as Annandale, I’d find out what’s going on in that area.

Under the very last menu item, in a drop down I spot the “TBD Community Network” – is this it? Regulated to a sub-menu option after everything else? Actually, no this is an alphabetised list of links to other blogs, many of which are not overly local.

So I tried the option above the Community Network – TBD Blog Network. This seems to be topic-based, although there is one called “@TBD Community” so I check that out. Nope, not that either.

Okay, I’ll use the search. I try various areas of Washington D.C. including; Annandale, Aspen Hill, Colesville, Brentwood, Marlton and Oakton. The majority of results are for external sites, both independent and many from TBD competitor, Patch.

Where there are good articles on the area there is no indication of how I can subscribe to content about that area. Each article is also headed with the section it’s in – often just “Community” or something like “On Foot” – the relevance of which I’m struggling to see.

Meanwhile I’m being shown generic, seemingly site-wide ads that have no relevance to the area I’m reading about.

This is no network. It’s a mish-mash of regional content supplemented by aggregation of independent hyperlocals and all surrounded by the same lack-lustre ad targeting that seems to infect local media here in the UK.

Patch

Moving onto Patch I’m instantly greeted with a map that I can click into my area with. It’s all state-based though which isn’t exactly very refined so I try the (very small) search box beneath. I figure I should try the same areas again.

I instantly find Annandale Patch which appears to show local content, invites me to sign up to the newsletter, shows me locally relevant ads and I can see services like event listings, a business directory and classifieds – all focused around Annandale.

Patch isn’t in any of the other areas, but does suggest Vienna when I look for Oakton. So I wonder if these areas are too small for Patch and check Wikipedia for population stats;

I’d randomly picked these places off a Google Map so I’m quite pleased with the range of population sizes, so it’s not that they’re too small.

Perhaps Patch just hasn’t found anyone in that area! Looking at the jobs they’re advertising in the area, they don’t seem to be looking in the towns I’ve chosen. Where they are looking, population appears to be above 30,000 as far as I can tell.

Additionally, a quick search for Aspen Hill shows an existing community wiki for the area. That site isn’t featured instead of telling the user ‘nothing for your area’ so the network is decided by where Patch wants to be, not where there is a passion for hyperlocal.

Thoughts

Firstly it doesn’t surprise me that TBD is having to cut staff because it hasn’t sussed local advertising. When it isn’t sending people away (and thereby limiting it’s own traffic) it’s serving up generic, poorly-targeted ads. It ain’t rocket science boys and girls, it’s common sense. It’s a lesson for all hyperlocal endeavours – serve an area properly, and make the model work.

On the flip side, Patch appears to be doing a good job. What Patch does appear to be suffering from though is blowing air into an emerging hyperlocal bubble. It’s spending about £3,000 on each site with plans to reach 1,000 by the end of the year. £3m sounds a lot to be spending on a business that isn’t getting the traffic in. The same lesson as TBD, except that Patch’s rapid expansion could, if it fails, mean the loss of numerous jobs and a another blow to the communities they serve, just like TBD has already done.

Headlines are already questioning whether any hyperlocal can be successful in light of analysis of these two.

I’ll touch on that last point in more detail tomorrow when I talk about why I believe networks in the UK, including my own efforts, are showing the way forward.

How hyperlocal sustainability is only possible with the network; how we’re doing that in Lichfield and with Journal Local

Networks of niches underpinned by local partnerships are, in my opinion, the way forward.

What do I mean by that?

A burning issue for any independent hyperlocal at the moment is sustainability including paying costs (hosting, travel, equipment etc), sourcing content, producing content, organising contributors, handling (& learning) technology. There’s a lot to consider.

So how does the network help?

Let’s look at this in terms of what we’re doing in Lichfield. Last year we launched Viva LichVegas as a way to generate sustainability revenue for The Lichfield Blog.

That was a good move, but it was a bit spur of the moment and not part of any over-arching strategy of how we were going to meet the challenge of sustainability. We thought about it and realised we had a lot of lessons, expertise and technology to share. Lichfield Community Media (LCM) is the answer to that. LCM is the network.

LCM will soon incorporate Tamworth Blog as the first site to join the new network. What this means is that Warren (who started TB shortly after TLB started) can take advantage of the resources we’ve built up. In short;

  • All the technology we use on TLB will be available on TB
  • We can cross-post stories
    Lichfield & Tamworth are covered by the same Police division, County Council,  ambulance service, fire service and – perhaps most importantly – bin collection service. A big chunk of stories don’t require a local presence and can be publish simultaneously to multiple communities, dramatically cutting down on time.
  • Sharing equipment – we’re buying equipment (laptops, cameras etc) that we can share with Warren to help him report goings on in Tamworth
  • Commercial opportunities – I can now largely take care of the revenue generation for Tamworth Blog. Dealing with advertisers, setting up business directories and other services that help to generate sustaining revenue.
  • Shared reporting – I actually helped Warren out at the general election count while Ross did Lichfield. It’s likely I’ll help Warren with the next Midlands Music Festival. This should mean better reporting thanks to more people.

We’re also planning to split out Burntwood & Chasetown to be covered by a separate site which will have it’s own Burntwood-based community reporter(s). This would add a third site to the network and improve our coverage of Burntwood and Chasetown.

Why stop there? We could share our resources, expertise, technology and kit to other sites nearby – building upon their already established desire to support their area.

Why the need for partnerships?

As a volunteer-run operation we don’t have the resources to do more investigative reporting nor to sell ads. To be a real alternative for Lichfield residents we need these things though.

We can achieve them through partnerships.

  • Through our partnership with BPM we could suck in locally-relevant sub-sets of their own classifieds and other services to fill our own whilst simultaneously selling into their directory from the grass-roots.
  • We can fill our ad space by giving a commission to a local publication like Lichfield Gazette who already have a local ad sales team.
  • By supporting awesome projects like News Waves we can improve the depth we can go to in our reporting.
  • Partnering with a company like Civico could help us to promote e-democracy in our area.
  • Tamworth Blog has already partnered with community radio station, TCR fm.
  • We could partner with South Staffordshire College and their media students to produce quality local ‘TV’.

So what about further afield?

As you may know, our sites run off WordPress (mostly because I’m a big WP fan!) and that is basically provided by Journal Local. So that means that anything we decide to do with LCM sites is also going to be available to sites using Journal Local.

Journal Local itself then becomes a network of hyperlocals, sharing resources. Not only that but as sites using JL request new features, those new features are available to all sites. See where I’m going? It starts to give hyperlocal sites a sort of collective consciousness whereby an improvement to one site is an improvement to all.

Just think of how that could impact the rate of progress!

It’s already started to happen. There are now seven hyperlocal sites using Journal Local, not including Tamworth Blog or the new Burntwood site mentioned above. Three of these are sites I created for Birmingham City University that are now being run by their journalism students. Another is run by Kellie Maddox, a 3rd year BCU journalism student.

BCU (and it looks like Staffordshire University is about to join them) have seen the value in joining a hyperlocal network. It simplifies the tech and sets the projects up for future growth without the growing pains experienced by many hyperlocals.

So what next?

There will be a lot happening with Lichfield Community Media this year. My aim is to set a terrific example of how hyperlocal can and will be sustainable long term.

Journal Local will come out of private beta soon. It is set to become a hub of hyperlocal activity and not just for those sites hosted there.

Watch this space.

Tomorrow, I’ll be blogging about existing ‘hyperlocal networks’ TBD and Patch.

Five ways to make a difference with data – a round up of #madwdwm

As part of the Making a difference with data project I was asked to run an ‘unworkshop’ for the West Midlands which pulled together hyperlocal site owners, local government folk and data geeks.

Thanks to Nick Booth‘s generosity we had a suitable venue where we could gather. We had 16 people altogether and a good mix of backgrounds. It was also encouraging to see so many journalism students running hyperlocal sites in attendance.

Objectives for the evening were fairly simple: to find out the most important issues to communities, what information pertains to those issues, who holds that information and if it’s available, then how do we use it and if not what exactly do we want.

We started by brainstorming the most important issues to the community and ended up with the four big ones being;

  • Jobs & benefits
  • Anti-social behaviour
  • Budget cuts
  • Built environment

We split into four teams with each team looking at one of these issues and went away to discuss them and our objectives for the night.

Jobs & benefits

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LN4_G0-lS4Q]

The group looking at this decided on a few key starting points;

  • Information about available jobs is live and rarely out of date.
  • There is a difference in quality of information between jobs put out by the private sector (e.g. recruitment agencies) and the public sector (i.e. Job Centre) where agencies typically mask employer details. It’s unlikely that change will be affected here.
  • Public and private sectors have different agendas – i.e. Government need to encourage employment.
  • Job centres are policing rather than constructively seeking jobs for people whilst confusing people with a three-layered IT-based system.

With this, these points about necessary change came out of the discussion;

  • DirectGov database needs to be more open, instead of hidden behind the current 3-layered, difficult to use interface.
  • Provided as open data, the database could be formatted into more usable applications.
  • The incentive for this change is the need to increase employment levels and do that better than the private sector.

Anti-social behaviour

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vc5IDh924K4]

This group identified a few issues with information;

  • Often collected for the purposes of measuring against targets, as opposed to providing useful information.
  • Contact centre data doesn’t necessarily contain everything.
  • Some information comes out of more informal channels, such as a social worker going round for a cuppa and a chat.
  • Data is often buried in silos and a lack of information sharing within authorities leads to incomplete datasets.

So what can be done?

  • Have more data collected just because it’s good to have raw data to work from, rather than for measurement.
  • Use linked data that can easily be linked to other sources.
  • Share information across data sources.

Budget cuts

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlVkAW3SDKQ]

Obviously a big issue at the moment this group had a wide-ranging discussion. Some key points to come from it were;

  • Data could be collected in different ways which has an effect on the consequences of that data.
  • Data is not ideologically or politically neutral
  • Complications arise with linked data – i.e. as soon as you have one set of data it’s likely you’ll want to explore that data but will need another set of data to do so. This process repeats itself making a single issue more complex just because of the effort involved in analysing the relevant data.
  • Data rarely comes with explanation of what it is, why it’s been collected and using which methods.
  • Information is data with added opinion.
  • People approach budget cuts with their own opinion and seek the data to confirm that.

Food for thought from this group then;

  • How can we make linking data easier, and communicate that without overcomplicating it?
  • The 5-step process encouraging ‘just get it out there’ is great but the data now needs explaining.

Built environment

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WglLnzmDvB8]

An interesting topic given recent (ongoing?) investigations on Digbeth is Good on this very issue.

  • It costs money to find out about empty properties – why is this, what is the cost for?
  • Where’s the cause and effect with empty buildings?
  • Is a property empty because of planning permission?

Some thoughts on possible solutions/advances;

  • Planning notices are placed on lamposts – these should be available as open data (i.e. we shouldn’t need scrapers like Planning Alerts).
  • Mapping planning applications could play a big role in providing information on properties.
  • Re-purposing should be a consideration. Birmingham City Council is doing this.
  • Housing exchanges should be looked at where two council tenants wish to move to another local authority area.

Conclusion

All in all a good bunch of thoughts and for me we can boil a lot of this down to five points that need acting on;

  1. We need more open data – we have been given a lot but there is more out there and open data should be the default.
  2. But we need context – data can often carry an agenda with it so we need context such as why the data was collected, who by/for otherwise how can we trust the data?
  3. Linking data should be easier – the concept of linked data is all very well but there are very few people with the know-how to actually do it.
  4. Data empowers community solutions – issues such as empty buildings and the lack of a home for community groups can be solved if the relevant information was freely available in an open format that could be interrogated.
  5. Training is a must – we have a lot of data, we need more and we need explanations with it to provide community solutions to community problems but we need the knowledge to retrieve, link and interrogate data effectively.

A big thank you to everyone who came and gave up their evening. Especially to Nick for providing his office as a venue, to Nicky for shooting the videos andMichael Grimes for his notes.

Coverage from elsewhere

Remember – if you do contribute anything more to the discussion please tag it with ‘madwdwm’ and add it to the Making a Difference with Data site too!

Making A Difference With Data West Midlands from Nicky Getgood on Vimeo.