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January 04 2012


2011: the UK hyper-local year in review

In this guest post, Damian Radcliffe highlights some topline developments in the hyper-local space during 2011. He also asks for your suggestions of great hyper-local content from 2011. His more detailed slides looking at the previous year are cross-posted at the bottom of this article.

2011 was a busy year across the hyper-local sphere, with a flurry of activity online as well as more traditional platforms such as TV, Radio and newspapers.

The Government’s plans for Local TV have been considerably developed, following the Shott Review just over a year ago. We now have a clearer indication of the areas which will be first on the list for these new services and how Ofcom might award these licences. What we don’t know is who will apply for these licences, or what their business models will be. But, this should become clear in the second half of the year.

Whilst the Leveson Inquiry hasn’t directly been looking at local media, it has been a part of the debate. Claire Enders outlined some of the challenges facing the regional and local press in a presentation showing declining revenue, jobs and advertising over the past five years. Her research suggests that the impact of “the move to digital” has been greater at a local level than at the nationals.

Across the board, funding remains a challenge for many. But new models are emerging, with Daily Deals starting to form part of the revenue mix alongside money from foundations and franchising.

And on the content front, we saw Jeremy Hunt cite a number of hyper-local examples at the Oxford Media Convention, as well as record coverage for regional press and many hyper-local outlets as a result of the summer riots.

I’ve included more on all of these stories in my personal retrospective for the past year.

One area where I’d really welcome feedback is examples of hyper-local content you produced – or read – in 2011. I’m conscious that a lot of great material may not necessarily reach a wider audience, so do post your suggestions below and hopefully we can begin to redress that.

October 28 2010


SeedSpeak Seeks Government Feedback on Pushing Open Data

One of the ways SeedSpeak will measure success is by the number of "seeds" that become successful projects or solutions in a community. Neighbors might suggest improvements to their community ("let's turn a community lot into a neighborhood park" or "let's paint a mural on a brick wall that faces a thoroughfare"), but unless the people who can make it happen buy into it and help make it a reality, those great suggestions might die on the vine.

To that end, one of our biggest concerns in designing SeedSpeak is to make sure we get feedback and buy-in from local leaders, including neighborhood associations, political leaders and city and county government types. The good news is SeedSpeak is coming along at a time when many cities and states are getting more comfortable with the idea of open government. In cities large and small, officials are starting to share data with local programmers and experimenting with ways to harness the wisdom of its employees and citizens when it comes to improving those communities.

The bad news is there is still a lot of hesitancy in doing so. Aside from cities such as Washington, D.C., San Diego and Boston, which are throwing open the vault to city data, many more localities are taking baby steps toward integrating openness as part of their daily operations. Even with social media, many cities are reluctant to interact with residents online beyond official web pages.

Haphazard Approach

Sure, many cities and counties have mastered Facebook and Twitter; they know how useful Twitter is during an emergency and they sort of get the efficacy of Facebook (though too many are still simply using it to drive traffic to their websites). But many will admit that their approach is haphazard. As one government official told me recently, some departments in his county are using Twitter quite often, but only because those departments happen to have a public information officer or other employee who is into it and has integrated it entirely on his or her own.

Enter SeedSpeak. We hope that local officials will use the application to hear what residents are buzzing about in their communities, discover what they want to see changed in their neighborhoods, and actually respond to them within the application. We want the head of the city parks and recreation to respond to neighbors suggesting an abandoned lot be turned into a community garden, or that a mural be painted on a local community center wall. Beyond responding, we hope local officials will use the application to report on what is being done to make those suggestions realities, so that a "seed" of a suggestion is "harvested" into an actual project.

So a part of what my partner and I need to do is both teach them the beauty of an application such as SeedSpeak to get citizens involved, and to really listen and learn about the concerns of public officials as they tip into this world of social citizenship. We need to listen to elected officials' concerns about public records: Is a city council member's post supporting the idea of a local park a public record? How can we build safeguards into the application to make sure those records are preserved in the same way a comment at a city council meeting is preserved? In listening to government officials, we hope we will be building something that works for them as well as for the citizens we hope to help empower.

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July 20 2010


February 27 2010


Can Citizen Journalists in South Africa Help Open up Government Data?

Communities need information, particularly information about what government is doing, and how people can access government services. In South Africa, this information doesn't flow so much as trickle -- and often a paper-based trickle at that!

The fact that communication between government and us citizens is so poor is arguably part of the reason why we are reportedly second only to China in terms of the number of social protests per day (and they have 20 times our population).

In many areas, government is doing more than people know, but the lack of data sharing and access to basic information helps incite anger and frustration. We lack useful information in electronic format about everything from police and ambulance response times, waste disposal, street light repair, and pothole repair, not to mention bigger issues like the provision of good social housing, the construction of new medical clinics, and data about school performance. better. Here in South Africa, anger often translates into marches, strikes, barricades and sometimes riots,. People have figured out that there is nothing like a well organised, small riot to open up the information flow.

With this background in mind, the recent Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital age, is helping our Iindaba Ziyafika project in South Africa. We're approaching some of our information flow priorities with fresh insights. The deep thinking that has gone into the Commission's report -- and its unusual citizen-centric perspective as opposed to focusing on the typical 'how do we save newspapers or journalism' approach -- is refreshing and useful.

The three big areas the commission explored, with a U.S.-only focus, are: "Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information," "Enhancing the Information Capacity of Individuals," and "Promoting Public Engagement." Below are some reflections on the first area; some thoughts on what we're doing (or trying to do) in terms of the second and third will follow in the next few weeks.

Making Information Available

First, in terms of "Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information," we've been struck by how much information there is about government, and yet how historically inaccessible it has been, even in advanced democracies like the U.S. That much is clear from the Commission's work. And, in South Africa, much of this information is even less easily available, and rarely in digital form.

The same is even more true in the rest of Africa. Basic information -- the building blocks of representative democracy -- such as knowing the timing of a local government body meeting (a city council, or municipal executive), what the agenda is etc. can be seriously hard to come by. And if available, getting it as Word document is often just as challenging.

There are other challenges, too. Though the press, and newspapers in particular, have had the resources to attend government meetings and access agendas, minutes and other documents, they have only reported on a small subset of the available information. This was usually what was deemed the most interesting through the usual but often fairly arbitrary agenda setting of editors.

There's a lot more wrong with the traditional news reporting approach than just narrow subject selection. Most of the time, reporting is about 'what's happened,' rather than what's still coming up, and why we should sit up and take notice. In other words, the news is so often about decisions made, and issues that we can often no longer do much about.

We're finding that a more proactive, anticipatory (and participatory) journalism is more essential in areas where the municipality or local authority does not make unmediated information easily available.

As Peter M Shane, the executive director of the Commission mentioned in a subsequent speech about the Knight commission's work:

A community without public accountability suffers from unresponsive government. Neglect is common, corruption all too plausible. Money is wasted, as government officials are slow and awkward at doing what other governments do quickly and nimbly. Voter turnout is low, not because people are satisfied, but because people are resigned.

Sadly, these words could describe almost all local government in South Africa. Some are better than others, and our area, the Makana municipality, is one of the most efficient and effective. But they are not communication champs. And part of their relative efficiency, if this is fairly measured, relates, I believe, to having an independent newspaper, Grocott's Mail, doing journalism in our town for 140 years without a break.

In 2008, Grocott's Mail even took the local municipality and mayor to court after they withdraw local government advertising in the wake of a series of critical stories about financial mismanagement by the council. The case was big deal, and widely followed in South Africa. The council didn't have a leg to stand on, which is why they eventually settled out of court. But this only happened after our dogged local paper was deprived of critical advertising revenue for many months.

Asking Citizen Journalists to Step Up

Taking up the Knight Commission's cudgels to maximise the amount of information (and ensure it is both credible and "the right information at the right time"), we've been focusing on finding the information and getting it out. To do this, we're embracing citizen journalism in more complex ways than before, including exploring different ways of training, editing, nurturing, rewarding and recognizing our citizen journalists. We're doing this because, like many small newspapers, we don't have the labour power to cover all the important civic issues well. We're hoping our citizen journalists will be more able to do the work of ferreting out existing data and information.

Most times, the information is there -- it just takes a really patient person to find it, stand in queues, whine, beg, plead and push... It is not for the easily discouraged, nor is it easy to do for our few busy professional journalists, each of whom has a few pages to fill virtually on their own.

So how best to inculcate a desire (and impart the necessary skills) to push and prod and persevere to get information out of every level of the state? And what does one do when a lot of the information and data is in the same format as it was before the digital age? Will people volunteer to photocopy the daily handwritten police reports and capture them in a digital system? Or do we try and encourage local government to catch the digital wave faster than it has so far?

In my next post, I'll share more of what we're doing, and share some big milestones and next steps for getting more useful news and information in and out. This includes ideas for allowing citizen journalists to join the usually jealously protected daily news diary meeting at the paper, and some ideas of how unearth and digitize much needed sources of information in our small town.

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