As the far-right descended on our city for a spot of light rioting, it was a joy to get away from it all for the day at Google's Headquarters and listen to some very clever people at the Local Government Barcamp. Huge amounts of content is available via the Twitter feeds (hopefully this, and the videos from the day, will be captured and edited). These are some pretty raw notes and thoughts to which I'll add more when I'm on a better broadband connection and have had more time to read through everything else. I've started gathering links on delicious to add to any others with the same tag here: http://delicious.com/tag/ukgc10
The first session I went to was a chance to learn where people are from and how they are tackling the challenges of the modern world. “I'm not here officially, that's how well we're doing”. It is clear that interest in online communication is growing throughout councils and the case that they should be talking to people out there is clear enough, the challenge is how. Much of the conversation is moving beyond barriers and towards solutions. The barriers are going to take a long time to break down, but here are a few ideas from the councils here today:
don't ask for permission: workers within councils have made great links by using social media and then demonstrating the positive outcomes. This may be easier said than done and it is sad to note that a culture of fear is pervasive for many.
you have to start somewhere: using social media is harder if you are not familiar with the space and conventions. You can't get good at it without starting.
there is always risk, but take care to explain what you are doing and why. Most organisations see the benefit of engaging with the public and well-meaning, thought-through engagement has demonstrable benefits. Things can and will go wrong, but in order to innovate we have to be able to fail.
think about using social media for internal collaboration as well as external communication – a closed space may be a good way of developing trust and social media skills. There are plenty of free platforms that don't have to be public.
find hard figures – councils are probably most interested in cost savings, so make comparisons with other areas of spending. For example, if you are piloting a Twitter account (which costs nothing), track the number of tweets and the number of followers, plus examples of engagement like replies and retweets and compare it to the cost of a mailout or leaflet drop.
Use external tools and systems instead of waiting for the IT blocks to come down. By working with your social networks, you can get a lot of help. Mobile internet is making most social websites accessible wherever you are, so you don't need to be disconnected. “Once you start a hub, people join and help”.
“If you've got the passion, use it and ask the rest of the network questions when you need help”.
A number of resources are already available and a resource point is currently under development by iDEA, so if you need examples of strategies or evaluations, have a look round and you might find an example to work from. These might include acceptable use policies and acceptable behaviour guidelines that might already exist, but may need updating to enable council workers and councillors to more effectively engage in conversations in their community whether offline or online.
Some quick suggestions for councils from the session on local content:
Don't publish newspapers – think about how you might stimulate the creation of websites and give people the skills – embrace the people talking about you and treat them equally to the press – open up your data so people can build useful things with it.
I then got a little insight into some of the development platforms that people are using to build those tools, including the data.gov.uk site which is built in Drupal. While this is completely not in my area of knowledge, it was an exciting learning experience. There is clearly masses of choice for the home developer to learn about and the communities building the tools are collaborating on new modules all the time. Hopefully someone has uploaded an photo of the platform comparison the group discussed.
Afterwards I asked Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation if he could make some suggestions of access points for the curious beginner. He said that Python is a fairly easy programming language and that if people just want to make a start with data they could help collaborate on wheredoesmymoneygo, which doesn't involve programming skills, just the time to delve around council websites finding information and adding it to spreadsheets.
Back into my comfort zone, we had a session on how conversations – especially a mass of messy conversations – can be turned into action. This was introduced from the point of view of the private sector, for whom Promised Community undertake consultation processes. We heard a positive vision from Harry Metcalfe, creator of tellthemwhatyouthink, of a “friendly and collegiate” atmosphere of constant consultation. We started to unpick the difficult dilemmas like whether we ask people at the right time and whether we genuinely want 'everyone' involved in decision making.
A few good suggestions emerged, including:
Good outcomes are more likely if all relevant communities are involved at every stage. They are more likely to be content with the decisions and feel that there is transparency in the decision-making. This is difficult, particularly in tense political climates, and heavy on resources. Leaders and political representatives should be encouraged to write or communicate through video regularly.
Feedback mechanisms can solve smaller problems. For example, users of Patient Opinion can highlight problems that can then be fixed, or if health workers have permission to give a direct explanation this can allay anger
We are moving from a time when our only communication channels were the media, meetings and one-to-one contact, to individualised information feeds, opportunities to publish everywhere and the wide availability of free tools that make virtual collaboration not just possible but easy. Could greater self-expression, reflection and dialogue lead to healthier communities?
Finally, a stimulating discussion about data got us thinking about the future. Which datasets still haven't been turned into tools? What would be the dataset that the government really regrets releasing? Which future data-driven tools will have massive public impact and which will make their makers rich? Is data the new oil?
This final metaphor bought forward some interesting points. The service economy around information is easy to see and won't be threatened by the free availability of information, which lowers entry barriers for those who want to develop services. Data's value is not necessarily in its raw form, but in the connections people make between them and the more open source datasets that are developed – for example filling in the gaps in compatability and tagging - the more advanced our tools can become. As well as data, demand will rise for content, particularly government-produced content that can be presented in more effective tailored ways if it is available to reproduce.
It was a fascinating day with a strong mix of different actors. The most encouraging thing to see is the rise of collaboration and a widespread development of confidence. While last year, many of the conversations at gatherings like these were about the problems, this year was much more about the work that has to be done. As well as meeting many of the lovely people who I already know through Twitter, I came away with lots of new contacts and new leads for local skills development. This is how we can build bridges between the areas where this stuff is still either totally unknown or vaguely known and terrifying, to the collaborative organisations and individuals who are keen to get their hands dirty and start building useful things. It's a massive learning curve, but one we will have to face for the rest of our lives.