Networked Councillor: connecting with your councillor (or council) online

This morning I came into work with the intention of writing a blog post about Networked Councillor. The idea was to try to say something meaningful about the project for myself. You can learn more about what that’s all about here.

Anyway, I couldn’t think of anything particularly meaningful that hadn’t been said by someone better qualified, so I figured it might be a good idea to investigate, for just a minute, how easy it might be to contact a councillor for myself.

Problem was – and this is a terrible confession to make – I wasn’t even sure what the name of my ward was, let alone my councillors’ names, so I needed to take a look on the Brighton and Hove City Council website to find out. Unfortunately – and while it really is a very nice looking website – when I found the ‘find your councillor’ page within the Council and Democracy section, it didn’t help.

I’d expected to find a postcode look-up service, which I remember the council having before. So I asked the council on Twitter. Within a few minutes, not only did I have a response, but a commitment to resolve the problem, as you can see from this Storify of the tweets…

Brilliant. A few years ago, a (very minor) problem like this could have gone unnoticed for weeks because, while people would have spotted it, they may have considered it too trifling to bother with given the time it would take to tell someone. Now social media permit people to quickly say something that can lead to real action with minimal fuss.

That is as important for councillors as it is for councils. If I’m being brutally honest, the time I’ve got to share stuff with politicians is limited. Just as if I’d been faced with filling out a form or writing a letter I might have not told the council about the problem with the website, if I’m faced with attending a surgery in person or writing a letter, I probably wouldn’t talk to my councillor. Frankly, if councillors don’t make it easy for me to talk to them, I won’t and I’m guessing I’m not alone in holding this sentiment. In that light, it’s natural that many of us don’t think councillors are people who can solve problems for us – when , in fact, they often are.

That’s a problem for us all, because it can have a corrosive effect on the power of local democracy to solve local problems, which obviously is a bad thing. But cases like the one I’ve highlighted offer a little light at the end of the tunnel, as does the Networked Councillor report, because it sheds light on how we can be better connected to local democracy.

This blog post was supposed to add to the debate around the report – on what we should expect from councillors and how they should navigate this world. I’m afraid it’s done absolutely nothing to help that. But at least, maybe, it’s illustrated why getting online makes sense – and how  it will help councillors connect with people like me, who are online, time poor, short of attention but nonetheless have something to say. There are more than a few of us, I’m guessing.

PCCs – and the new battle ground for local government

Over at Public-i, we’re interested in the developments leading up to the arrival of Police and Crime Commissioners later in the year.

I thought it might be worth doing the occassional post on this – that offers a little commentary on the PCCs. This is because, as the debate between prospective PCC candidates grows, we’re coming across some really interesting developments that seem worth sharing (with more than a tweet). These aren’t all directly pertinent to Public-i, but they are what people are talking about – which is why I’m publishing them on my own blog rather than at Public-i.

Anyway, today I came across this post from Richard Hibbs – which he has posted on Sam Chapman’s Top Of The Cops blog, dedicated to all things PCC.

Richard’s post is a number of things – with some well-aimed digs at the Local Government Association’s attempts to become the professional association for PCCs and a swipe at Association of Chief Police Officers’ attitude to the new office, too.

What stands out to me is the point he makes about the power of the PCC’s voice. Here he’s making a point about the LGA’s proposed creation of a Police Executive board – which he says aims, among other things, to give PCCs a strong voice.

“… PCCs will be at least 100 times as important as local councillors in constitutional terms (due to the size of the constituencies and their democratic mandate) and will therefore have a pretty loud voice which will carry all the way to Westminster anyway without amplification. Plus they’ll be able to say no to the Home Office if, in consultation with the Chief Constable, they don’t wish to “have regard to” aspects of the Strategic Policing Requirement they simply don’t believe in (whatever ACPO thinks!).”

Richard is, of course, right. PCCs will be heard by central government without any help – there will be just 41 of them across England and Wales and the power they will have to influence national and local politics (quite aside from their statutory powers) will be of huge interest to a government, not least because of the damage they could do to its reputation on law and order with the public.

And, in turn, that’s going to have an impact on what local government looks like, which I think is only slowly dawning on us…

Two things occur to me about this:-

  1. The ruptures that are caused by the development of the PCCs for local government will take a long time to be resolved. And the influence the PCCs wield will have profound effects on how we see the rest of local government.
  2. PCCs – with their big mandates – are likely to be agressive players. The creation of a directly elected official of this kind is new to England and Wales (mayors aren’t an equivalent) and Richard’s assertions might hint at future battles between councillors and PCCs – with its arena, obviously, the Police and Crime Panels where some will sit to scrutinise PCCs.

That might not sound like a big deal (cue headline: new politicians make life difficult for other politicians) but Richard’s bullishness, which may be justified, is an indication of a battleground opening up in local politics.

The government has a lot invested in PCCs and – as I think has been suggested elsewhere – may wish to extend powers to them if they are a success. This can only be made more likely, I guess, by the general rejection of city mayors earlier this month.

Building civil spaces online: Howard Rheingold

Last week I listened to a webinar interview with Howard Rheingold by the Pillar Summit’s Richard Millington .

If I was working for a newspaper I’d probably call Howard a web guru – or an elder statesman of the Internet, or hang my reverence on some other cliché. But, after listening to him speak for an hour about online communities and communication, it might be simpler and more revealing to say that he’s someone who understands life online, because he’s been living it for longer.

At a time when the world remained largely unaware of the Internet, Howard was already an avid user of the WELL – and in 1985 he wrote Virtual Communities, the book he’s perhaps best known for. He’s now promoting a new publication, Net Smart , that’s the continuation of a near-30-year exploration of how we live online.

Online living
Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that the first portion of the interview dealt with the value of online relationships, which have been under attack recently, in part thanks to Sherry Turkle’s opinion piece in the New York Times. The MIT-based psychologist fears that we’re overlooking ‘messy’ offline relationships in preference for an always-connected virtual world where we can pick and choose our encounters. This, Turkle believes, is to our detriment…

“Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference,” she says.

Rheingold, in contrast, is more worried that the media dwell on the negative aspects of technology, obscuring the overwhelmingly positive impact it has had on our lives. He stresses that he’s not a web evangelist, so much as someone who accepts the good and bad in online behaviour; technology, he says, doesn’t change behaviour, it facilitates it.

Where he is bullish, however, is in asserting that online relationships needn’t be of less value than those established ‘offline’. “If you think that using digital media are making you shallow why not learn to swim in the deep end of the pool?” he asks, pointing out that what might be missing in our understanding of these relationships is a recognition of the learning we need to do to operate effectively within them.

One example, he says, is in online behaviour: “We need to teach the importance of being civil online,” he argues. Where face-to-face communication is as much about the nuance of gestures and expressions as it is about the words that are used, most online communication is reliant on what is written down. Without making a more concerted effort to understand online communication – and allow for this – we will fail to make best use of these spaces in the future.

So how can we build civil online spaces? He says this is about signposting the kinds of behaviour that will be acceptable within an online space in order to attract users who will subscribe to these values. “You should have a few simple rules,” which might include: “Respect intellectual property” and “attack ideas, do not attack people”.

“Build it and they won’t come”
But Howard thinks getting people to play by the rules is less of a challenge than attracting them in the first place. He says that while it’s now easy to find people who share your interests online – they don’t necessarily need your community. You need to be original and have a clear idea of the people who are going to join and participate. And you can’t sit back and expect a community to flourish: “If you want to build a critical mass of participation you have to pay a lot of attention,” he says. “You have to participate.”

For Howard, attracting users is a numbers game – in which you can expect only a fraction of those to whom you promote your community to join. And getting them there is only half the battle. “It’s simply a ratio of 80-20,” he says. Most people (80%) will not take part, while the 20% who do will (or should) talk a lot. “You need to have people who are willing to engage. No conversation, no community,” he says.

The pay-off
And, of course, community is what it is all about. Returning to the subject of the benefits of life online, Howard talks about the ‘norms of reciprocity ’, the expectation that people will respond in kind to offers of help or, indeed, harm.

He says: “If you put in effort – to put in something – you are going to get 10 things back [online]”. He says he has been astonished how this “pay it forward” philosophy has worked online – with people prepared to help people that they have never met.

Howard says…
These are some of the other points that Howard made during the interview…

  • Most online communities fail: You need to identify what it is that people can get from each other that they are not going to get from their own blogs – ther is no guarantee that that is going to exist, he says.
  • With two billion people online, remember that one in a million is 2,000 people. In other words, with such large numbers of people online, even small niche communities can thrive.
  • Spending time online does not lead to social isolation. People who spend more time talking online to each also tend to spend more time talking to people face to face, Howard said.
  • Dunbar’s number doesn’t mean that online relationships have to be shallow: Howard talked about how social networking gives people the opportunity to develop ‘weak ties’ – and therefore suggested Dunbar’s number is therefore not hard and fast. Furthermore, he challenged the notion that this 150 limit applies naturally online.

Brighton’s first social media surgery

Brighton's first social media surgery

Last night I attended the first ever Brighton Social Media Surgery – a rather special if small event that marks an important landmark for a number of reasons.

  • For one, it’s the start of an important phase of the We Live Here project which is aiming to usher in a new relationship between the public, voluntary and community sectors in Brighton and Hove.
  • It’s also one of the first surgeries to have taken place since the Social Media Surgeries were honoured with a Prime Minister’s Big Society Award.
  • And, from a personal perspective, it feels like it rubber-stamps by big-money transfer to Public-i from Podnosh – the firm that through the enormous largesse, industry and general brilliance of its creator, Nick Booth, has made the surgeries the success they are.

OK, so I was slightly lying about ‘big money’ bit, but the rest is absolutely true – and being involved in social media surgeries (which I first blundered into in Fazeley Studios in Birmingham – as it happens without a computer and could only lend a hand moving the desks) has been a source of enormous enjoyment and reward for me. So getting the chance to become involved as a surgeon in my new home town is, frankly, fabulous.

Enough of the gushing… Now for the surgery…

The We Live Here project will be holding surgeries in the three pilot communities it’s running in. Two of these, Hangleton and Knoll and Brunswick and Regency, are geographical; the third, the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities in Brighton is obviously rather harder to define.

For that reason, Susie Latta – the surgery organiser, held the first one in the Black and Minority Ethnic Community Partnership building, which is at 10A Fleet Street. Here’s a map!

We sat in the foyer of the BMECP and, while I was a little late, Anthony Zacharzewski was able to help out three patients with Twitter (that’s Anthony in the picture above) – with this account for for Forward Facing created. Please give ’em a follow!

When Anthony went, I took over and helped Bert Williams of Brighton and Hove Black History to learn a little more about how he’d be able to use QR codes as part of his work. Bert holds tours of our city that devle into the remarkable role people of different ethnic backgrounds have played in Brighton’s history. As ever, being a surgeon was as much a learning experince as it was an opportunity to impart my own knowledge: I found out from Bert that – much to my surprise – the Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) had visited Brighton while in exile!

For details of surgeries visit the Social Media Surgery website. The next one in Brighton will be on the 27th of February 2012 and there’ll be one in Hangleton and Knoll on the 29th of February.

SHARE THIS POST: (I’ve cross-posted this piece on my own blog and on the Public-i blog. Please re-post it to your own blog if you want to tell people about the surgeries – and modify for your audience, but please link back to the orginal and attribute the post. Thanks!)

Map of allotments in Brighton and Hove

Here’s a map on Google Fusion tables that I did a wee while ago to show allotments in Brighton and Hove…

You can click on the dots to find out more information.

Adding to the Twitter map

I’ve realised that adding to the Twitter map for Brighton and Hove can be a bit of a pain, so I’m writing this quick post to explain to people an easy way to do it (which basically involves you telling me).

If you tweet me (@andbwell) and include the hashtag #bhtwitmap, I can add stuff – but only (and this really is an only) if you provide me with good latitude and longitude co-ordinates for what you want adding.

I guess there are two ways of doing this:-

1). you are standing in front of the thing and send me a geotagged tweet
2). you quickly visit this nifty site,, find the place and paste the co-ordinates into the tweet (or email me at andrew dot brightwell at gmail dot com).

Remember to send me the Twitter account (if it isn’t obvious) and any other instructions and contact details you’d like adding.

Of course, if none of this works just email or tweet me and I’ll help!!


Creating a Twitter map for Brighton and Hove

Quite by accident I appear to have started a Twitter map for Brighton and Hove. Hove, actually. (Sorry, this is an in joke, those of you don’t live here.)

The map – which is currently useless, and will need other people’s help to get anywhere – is really just an attempt to straighten out who you might offer some kind of information on Twitter to if you’re a passer-by and find something disturbing/important that needs an authority to sort out.

So, for example, today I was in King Alfred’s Leisure Centre (he doesn’t actually own it, it’s just the name) and, as I waited to be served, I heard that the car-park ticket machine wasn’t working. The lady at reception didn’t know who to contact or who it’s owned by (it’s a local authority car park and, while the pool is owned by Brighton and Hove City Council, it’s run by Freedom Leisure, so she might not be expected to know).

So, anyway, I tweeted @brightonandhovecc. And someone there (and I’d love to know their name, but understandably they don’t give them out) told me that the message would be passed on to Brighton and Hove Transport, who also have a Twitter account. Great. That person told me that this information had been passed on and thanked me. I thanked them (cue warm civic feeling).

All this is good, but how often, I thought, am I unable to work out who I should contact? I’m fairly adept at the old Twitter, but not everyone even knows as much as me. And how would they find out? Twitter’s great at helping to get information into the right hands, but it needs a little finessing, right?

The same is true for the police, who in Sussex are pretty damn awesome at the Twitters. I should know, we at Public-i, have been helping them. That’s why I know, for example, that PCSO Nick Packham is in Hove Seafront and, if I tweet him at the right time, I can ask him about stuff and the like. He’s a smashing bloke, so he’ll tell me what’s up, etc. and he’d do the same for anyone else who lives in his patch. Again, great. But making the connections between people is what matters, right?

So this is what the map (lame as it is) sets out to do. It tries (for my purposes, at least) to map out who the folk are that should hear about something if there’s a problem (or can help when you need assistance). It strikes me that it could include resident associations and other groups that pay attention to a specific place, so could be quite helpful to all sorts.

OK, so it’s a Google map and that doesn’t mean it’ll be winning any usability awards in the near future – but it’s a start, right?

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who has added stuff (I’m going to have to make a list). I’ve now made some very simple instructions for anyone who’d like to add stuff but is struggling with Google Maps (don’t worry we’ve all been there). Follow this link to the post to find out more.

View Twitter map for Brighton in a larger map

Oh – by the way – if you want to put something on the map or edit it please do. I’m not going to get this done on my own!!!

Advertising on council websites – a few thoughts from the dark side

There was a really interesting conversation this morning on Twitter about councils advertising on their websites – which was started by Adrian Short (see his blog post, here, about his complaint to Nottigham City Council). I’ve tried to put the pertinent tweets together into a Storify, so that people can follow the debate. There’s probably more out there, so if you’ve got anything to add, please just tell me.

Anyway, I don’t have much to add to what Dave Briggs said here, or the debate, other than a few thoughts that come from my experience of working as a local journalist, where advertising often causes ructions.

The most salient example of this came for me a few years ago when the BNP chose to try to advertise in the Ham&High, a venerable liberal north London institution which has many Jewish readers. At the time I was a sub editor for the newspaper. The editor, Geoff Martin, chose to allow the advertising – pointing out, I think fairly, that the newspaper group, Archant, had chosen to take advertising from other political parties. To distinguish between different parties (choosing to accept advertising from some, but not others) wasn’t a consistent position. It would, he felt, be better to either accept all or decline all. And, consequently, it was only sensible to accept the advertising.

There were those who disagreed with his position, quite vehemently. This is as one would expect, given the BNP’s politics and it led to a very heated debate. Geoff was interviewed on the Today programme, defending his position.

There are a number of conclusions (and questions) that follow from this example that I think should concern any council that chooses to allow advertising:-

1). Do you have a policy for your advertising? Because if you don’t you leave yourself open to criticisms of inconsistency, which may be spectacularly unhelpful to you.

2). Can you ensure that the people who broker your advertising can avoid adverts that will break your own rules – much harder online than might at first appear to be the case?

3). Is it worth the effort? After all, revenues are often small (from things like Adsense) and don’t necessarily stack up if you consider the potential cost – in man-hours, e.t.c., from defending your position when things don’t go well?

This third point I think is crucial. Councils don’t know much about advertising – and therefore they don’t really understand the risk (or costs) that putting advertising on a site may generate. As a consequence of that how many have really thought through what might happen? For newspapers – and for other businesses who generate much of their revenue through advertising – these risks are understood and managed (but actually not entirely). For councils they are not likely to be a chief concern, nor should they be.

Councils, by their definition, are there to serve the people who live and work in their area. And it is, I think, unclear how that is best served by advertising – even if it might generate some small amount of money. Imagine, for a moment, what happens if an online service does generate income. Should the council continue to offer it even if it doesn’t serve the best needs of the council’s citizens?

My point here is that councils shouldn’t really be in the business of generating income. Other people can do that – and pay taxes that will contribute towards these websites. All of which, I think, seems a great deal more sensible.

Mapping deprivation in Brighton (a first, faltering attempt)

For a few reasons I decided to keep out of the way at CityCamp Brighton. But I was still keen to try to do something with a bit of my time.

Paul Colbran and the folk at Brighton and Hove released some data around postcodes and deprivation at the beginning of the conference, so I thought I’d have a look at it and see if I could get anything useful from it. The data is presented on this page, here. It’s a biggish spreadsheet, with a lot of fields that take a bit of getting used to!

I’m no expert with data, but I imported it into Google Refine – which allows you to call APIs and augment the fields with other information. I added some Lat Long coordinates – so that I could have a look at mapping the most deprived areas.

What this revealed was that there are quite a few ‘dead’ postcodes – those being, essentially, dead locations that the API can’t help you to locate. While there are Eastings and Northings, for a novice these are harder to work with – and because they are not a universally recognised system (albeit very accurate) they are not as easy to automatically map. On Saturday night I manually inputed data for the first set, but I wimped out on the Sunday and simply left the locations out.

As it happens the vast majority, I think, are located close to the areas that are revealed in the map, below. I chose to work with the 10 per cent most deprived wards, based on the assessment of deprivation made in 2007 – the ‘index of multiple deprivation 2007 overall LSOA score’. There’s an explanation of what this is here, but essentially it’s a combination of seven different aspects of deprivation – including (according to Wikipedia) ‘deprivation, employment deprivation, health deprivation and disability, education skills and training deprivation’.

Because there is some data missing – and because of the hit-and-miss nature of this kind of first stab at using the data – my map SHOULD be taken with a pinch of salt. There are, for example, a couple of fishy-looking results (deprivation on a golf course?). SO THIS IS NOT SCIENCE!!. Nonetheless, as an exercise it has been useful in proving that, with relatively little preparation, it’s possible to begin to interrogate the data and understand more about the city – and its needs.

A map presented by Anthony Zacharzewski in his introduction to CityCamp Brighton suggested that there is much deprivation intermingling with more affluent areas – I think these are called ‘pockets’ in the trade. These don’t really show up in the data that I’ve used. This might be because deprivation can be measured in a variety of ways, but it may also be because there are different degrees of deprivation. The postcode data that I looked at distinguishes, by way of illustration, between ‘the 10 per cent most deprived’ and the 20 and 30 per cent most deprived. Since I went for the most narrow definition, it is almost certainly the case that a broader range would elicit a more complex picture of where deprivation in the city is located.

There are a few things that I think come out of this:-

1). There’s a need to revise and work on cleaning up the data – particularly the postcodes – which would certainly help the council.

2). There’s an opportunity for the city itself (i.e. not just the council) to work together to explore what deprivation means, where it is and how it can be tackled that good (not the use of a very lazy positive adjective) data can help to provide.

3). There are some important questions that need to be asked about need – particularly in the location of resources and services – that mapping of deprivation is particularly useful at helping to reveal. While the council may have been considered, traditionally, to be best-placed to do this, I think it makes sense that if we start to broaden who is able to explore and consider this kind of information, we will be more likely to come up with better ideas on how to go about dealing with these problems.

4). I feel there’s a responsibility on those who push for open data to start using it as soon as it appears – even if it is only to decide that it can’t be used and to feed that information back to government. It’s only by working on the data – demonstrating that it’s useful or that it’s not – that we can help those who want to help us in winning the argument that this stuff really matters.

Better get back to Google Refine!

The big society is a bit like… [add your thoughts here]

I think I might have become a fan of the Big Society. Not because I think it’s brilliant (although at least some bits of it do make sense), but because it’s incredibly difficult to describe. Things that are difficult to describe make life tricky for journalists and commentators (let alone civil servants and junior ministers) and result in fantastic similies and metaphors – rich in both imagery and variety.

While the policy (is it a policy? Or a slogan?) may seem destined to die a slow and painful death, at least it has had us all working hard to sum up what the hell it actually means. Oddly I think this trend may have actually started in earnest with Nick Clegg who, long before he realised he might one day have to defend it, said that David Cameron’s pet project was ‘a bit like a party in a pub where your card is behind the bar’. It was a joke, I think, but it also presaged a golden era of ‘the Big Society is a bit like’ creations.

In the hope that this creativity is not lost, I have started to collect what I’ve spotted on Delicious. Below I’ve listed the best. Admittedly not all are direct comparisons – some are simply associations. A good many are excellent articles that do very well to describe what might be behind some aspects of the Big Society. And possibly one or two others are just plain mad, even quite stupid. I hope you enjoy them all.

The Big Society is a bit like…

Cool Britannia (Anthony Zacharazewski, The Democratic Society).

Downton Abbey (Deborah Orr, The Guardian).

Harry Hill’s TV Burp (The Waugh Room, Politics Home).

The Great Society (Chris, Prerogative of Harlots).

Communism. Yes, that’s right, communism. (From the David Icke forum. Hmmm… the places I get.)

Bullshit (Anne Shooter, Daily Mail).

A toy town (Hillary Wainright, The Guardian Cif blog).

Oliver Twist (Mike McNabb, Outside Left).

The 1950s (Statement from Unite the Union).

Common sense (Janet Daley, The Telegraph).

A cloak (Ed Miliband, The Independent).

Cheese (CMPO).

Ballroom dancing (Phil Redmond).

Education, education, education (The Archbishop Cranmer blog).