July 7, 2010
Learning to navigate the superhighway
The power and influence of the internet on our lives increases by the day. But one area where the potential of the internet has been less marked is in the development of community action. It can only be a matter of time and people like William Perrin and his colleagues at not for profit company MySociety are starting to show what’s possible.
William Perrin was looking out of the window of his flat on a chilly November night when he had his “Damascene moment”. About 20 young people had broken into a Renault 5 dumped in his street in King’s Cross, north London, stuffed it full of fireworks, and set light to the car, which exploded as he watched on.
He called the police but they didn’t come. This confirmed what he suspected: that the area wasn’t heavily policed and was “almost a no-go area”. At the time, a combusting car was not an exceptional occurrence, sometimes youths would even add a stolen gas cylinder for an extra explosive kick. “At that moment I thought I had a choice: either move to the suburbs like most middle-class people or get stuck into community action.” He chose the latter. That was nine years ago.
A particular irritant for Perrin was the number of broken streetlights in King’s Cross. One winter’s evening he found 50 broken lights in his area and reported them all to the various departments of Islington council responsible. “As a result of me making a lot of fuss over the months, we were one of the first local areas to get new lights,” he recalls.
Next, Perrin turned his attention to abandoned fridges. But the phoning and emailing was taking over his free time. “I wanted to find a way of co-ordinating what was going on, of exchanging information,” he says. His interest in improving his local neighbourhood led to him helping with the design of FixMyStreet.com, a website built by not-for-profit company MySociety. So maybe it was only a matter of time before he struck upon blogging as the solution to solve problems at a local level, and started his own site: www.kingscrossenvironment.com. Initial posts were about abandoned mattresses and white goods, uncollected refuse and burnt-out cars. Perrin found that blogging was more effective than sending emails and phoning council departments. “An email can be like a tree falling in a forest: if you don’t know an email has been sent, you don’t know about it. Whereas on the web it’s always there,” he says.
Five years on, his site is a substantial archive of local planning campaigns, environment issues, crime and antisocial behaviour – as well as information about new local shops and cafes.
Perrin found that, over time, a different local audience began to contribute. “This was partly due to the demographic changes happening in King’s Cross, but also because previously people had found civic action too hard to engage with. Attending evening meetings, reading stacks of papers, listening to people talking in a Latinate language for several hours feels totally alien to modern values,” he says. “The site gives a 21st century interface to a 19th century system. People have got involved because the time cost to them is so much less.”
The website gets 400 to 500 views a day, has a network of 20 local people who send in local information, and a handful of core volunteers who do most of the blogging.
A year or so after starting the site, specific campaigns were beginning to dominate, and some campaigners wanted to set up breakaway sites. Perrin, who has never written a line of computing code, says people didn’t realise how easy it is to set up a website. He produced a simple six-page guide to help.
In June last year, during a year-long sabbatical from the civil service, where he works as a government policy adviser, he set up TalkAboutLocal (talkabout local.org), which aims to give people across the UK a powerful online voice on community issues. “We want to help people communicate and campaign more effectively to influence events in the places in which they live, work or play,” says the website.
Perrin, with funding from Channel 4’s 4iP project and Screen West Midlands, employs two staff and some freelancers who train people at UK Online centres to teach aspiring local bloggers. As a result, dozens of hyperlocal sites are up and running, including by communities in Florence in Stoke-on-Trent (florencera.org.uk), Kington in Herefordshire (kingtonblackboard.org) and Heeley in Sheffield (heeleyonline.wordpress.com).
Perrin’s work with TalkAboutLocal earned him a place at Downing Street’s table last month, at a seminar on the coalition’s “big society” plans. Perrin says he is “quite optimistic” about the concept. “One of the greatest prizes is a massive increase in civic action and people taking responsibility for working with public services in their neighbourhood instead of having public services do things to you,” he says.
In King’s Cross, he believes that local residents are more likely to get things changed than in another ward in the borough. “That’s because what we have created through community action, through sheer hard work, is a very effective campaigning network,” he says.
He admits, however, that a website on its own won’t magically transform a neighbourhood. “But a neighbourhood that already has some effective social capital can benefit from having some sort of web resource that helps people network, understand what’s going on locally and project their voices beyond the immediate physical boundaries of their estate or village,” he says.
The question for local government is how it chooses to engage with these sites. Once a site begins to grow in popularity and is campaigning on local issues, should the council have a formal relationship with it – should it consult with it in the same way as it would a residents’ association, for example? “The challenge for people who run councils is to respond to modern communications values. To make democracy respond as if it was any other modern good or service,” says Perrin.
The Leadership Centre for Local Government has, with the Improvement and Development Agency, produced a guide and website (socialmedia.21st.cc) for councillors on how to use social media. Joe Simpson, director of politics and partnerships, says the question for councils is how do they move from communicating with their residents to having a conversation.
“Local authorities are at the beginning of that journey,” he says. “We can’t hide behind the facade that we’re the professionals and can tell people what to do. The vast majority of people don’t expect to get everything they ask for, but they want to know their views have been heard and understood. The key issue is going to be cuts. If people feel we are listening to their concerns we will get some buy-in.”
In Birmingham, the council has so far failed this test, according to Stef Lewandowski. His website (bccdiy.com) set out to simplify and enhance the city council’s new website unveiled last year. Lewandowski discovered through a freedom of information request that the cost of the city council’s website was £2.8m. “We thought the figure was rather a lot,” he says, “especially as the process for paying your council tax was nothing short of labyrinthine.”
After he believed that his concerns were rather airily dismissed by a councillor at a public meeting, Lewandowski sat down the following morning and began downloading the site on to his laptop. The download took three hours.
Transforming the site into something that he regarded as more user-friendly entailed involving as many potential users as possible. He staged a Hack Day at Moseley Exchange, a cross between a community centre and a co-working space. More than 60 people turned up, including students and pensioners as well as computer programmers.
“Above all, there was a requirement for really fast access to the services that people need – bin collection times, for instance, and the opening times of your local library. So I built in a facility called ‘Near me’. You tap in your postcode and find a page of useful services and events in your immediate neighbourhood.”
Tap in the postcode B31 2LP on bccdiy.com and it reveals that a street lamp is out of order. “Again,” it says. There is a map pinpointing the offending light, along with the date and time of a complaint by a woman who writes that her husband has just undergone a knee operation and had to use a torch to avoid broken paving slabs. From other postings we learn the exact location of potholes in roads – some fixed, some not – and the dumping of a shopping trolley in a pond. There is a list of planning applications, many of which will elicit instant objections.
“I like the idea of holding power to account, getting people more involved with decision-making in their area and making them feel part of the process, not separate from it,” says Lewandowski.
Birmingham city council declined to comment on bccdiy.com but a spokesman pointed out that the £2.8m figure was for more than revamping the website. It covered a larger remit that he claimed had massively improved the council’s relationship with residents – face-to-face, by phone and via the web.
Having taken on Birmingham council, Lewandowski is engaged in providing a similar service for every other council taxpayer in the country through diycouncil.com, which he built by downloading the contents of another site and adding content based on his work with bccdiy.com.
“In just a few hours – so far I’ve spent 20 hours on the diycouncil.com site – someone can make very interesting things happen with these tools. And with the coming push to have all public sector data in the public domain, we’re going to see some innovative, surprising and exciting things being done very quickly outside the usual tender/commission/report cycle that the public sector is used to,” he says.
“What comes next is that we collectively find ways to make that data meaningful to people in unexpected ways, some of which will work, many of which will fall by the wayside,” says Lewandowski. “But the end result will be a smoother interaction between people and government. At least that’s my hope.”