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May 30 2013


[Net2 Burlington] Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Amy Sample Ward

Burlington NetSquared was delighted to host nonprofit technology strategist Amy Sample Ward at their May 22 meetup!

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January 03 2011


Neighborhood Sites Can Awaken Community Involvement

"When I was first on my own I used to bemoan that my fellow renters could hardly be bothered to return a wave but someone kept stealing my newspaper...," wrote author Laura Grace Weldon in a recent blog post, What Makes A Street Into A Neighborhood?. "Then we moved to a little house. It was silly how hard it was to meet the neighbors. They'd wave but that's about it."

Along the same lines, Sarah Byrnes wrote in YES! Magazine that "In the past, neighbors knew each other and engaged more naturally in mutual aid, sharing common resources and helping those in need. Nowadays, our mutual aid muscles are out of shape and pretty flabby."

The National Conference on Citizenship's Civic Health Index has attempted to bring science into the discussion by measuring things like the percent of people in a place who discuss politics with family and friends (44 percent in Vermont, for example). They found that 9 percent of Americans work with neighbors to improve the community, and 16 percent exchange favors with neighbors a few times a week.

Local Sites Drive Engagement

In their new book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, John McKnight and Peter Block provide strategy and tactics culled from decades of community organizing. The book is chock full of hands-on, face-to-face ideas for pulling neighbors together. The Internet gets a mention, but it should get more.

A recent study out of the U.K. by Hugh Flouch and Kevin Harris found incredible civic engagement impact from neighborhood-focused websites. Among the findings reported by residents who use these websites:

95 percent feel more informed about the neighborhood
92 percent feel useful information gets shared efficiently
82 percent feel people pull together to improve the neighborhood
69 percent feel an increased sense of belonging within the neighborhood

How is this possible? I'm guessing that the sites studied offer highly relevant (that is, very local) content, don't waste people's time, and emphasize relationships and communication among "participants" over simply feeding news to passive "readers." These sites likely move away from social media's 90:9:1 principal, which says 90 percent of visitors are lurkers, 9 percent pitch in a little, and 1 percent create the vast majority of a site's content.

Sometimes even the 1 percent of the content that appears to be user-generated is actually supplied by paid contributors, such as the recent case with Yell.

Front Porch Forum

I see a different pattern with our Knight News Challenge-supported Front Porch Forum. We host a pilot regional network of online neighborhood forums in Vermont with the simple mission of helping neighbors connect and get involved.

In one rural town, we found that half of the community had subscribed to FPF after one year and, remarkably, 66 percent had posted. Instead of 90:9:1, we saw a ratio closer to 34:44:22. In another study in Burlington, Vt., where half of the city subscribes to FPF, 90 percent reported that their local civic engagement had increased due to this online service.


Finding quality, timely and accessible local information is a daunting task in our current environment, with traditional media's convulsions and new media's fits and starts. But that's only half the battle. An informed yet isolated and disconnected populace does not make a democracy. We need more efforts like those covered in the U.K. study above that get people connected to neighbors and involved in the places where they live.

That's our mission at Front Porch Forum and we're excited to find growing interest in turning online words into offline local actions. Please share examples in the comments.

August 06 2010


Front Porch Forum: Connecting Strangers in the Neighborhood

Mention the Internet, and most people think of the World Wide Web, of reaching out across the globe for news, long-lost friends, or low-price bargains. But in dozens of Vermont towns, residents are using the web to connect with their back-fence neighbors. In an era where national and global information is broadly available online, it seems that few of us know our neighbors and what's going on down the street.

My name is Michael Wood-Lewis, and my wife, Valerie, and I saw an opportunity four years ago and created Front Porch Forum (FPF) to serve our home region in northwest Vermont. Amazingly, nearly half of the state's largest city now subscribes to FPF. The sense of community here is thriving and winning national recognition, including a 2010 Knight News Challenge award. You can learn a bit more about us in this video:

Knight News Challenge: Front Porch Forum from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Creating Real Neighbors

It's astounding what a couple minutes per day of neighborhood news and chatter in a person's inbox can do. People tell me that they lived on their street for years not knowing a soul. Now, since Front Porch Forum kicked in, those familiar strangers have become real neighbors.

Each neighborhood has its own online space and the whole region is blanketed with a network of more than 100 neighborhood forums. People post about lost pets, block parties, car break-ins, plumber recommendations, helping ailing neighbors, local politics, school plays and much more. All ages partake, from seniors in their 80s seeking community support to stay in their homes to teenagers looking for summer jobs.

In one rural area, people used FPF to find a pair of spooked horses who jumped their fence, then pitched in to build a better enclosure as a gift to the owners. In an urban neighborhood, residents rallied around a mother who was assaulted in the park, and eventually got the city to improve safety conditions there. And in a different community, a young family asked for a couple volunteers to help move their household into new digs across the street -- 36 neighbors showed up! Not only was the job done quickly, but now this family knows three dozen people in the surrounding blocks.

"This small family business turns the Internet on its head," says FPF member and University of Vermont associate dean Susan A. Comerford. "The web offers countless ways to waste time, but Front Porch Forum actually pushes people offline and onto the sidewalks to chat with neighbors, face to face."

And that leads people to get more involved in their communities, as the chat evolves into action. An incredible nine out of ten FPF members report becoming more involved in local issues due to this free service.

"Front Porch Forum is a post-modern return to citizen democracy," says Comerford. "This may well be the most important advance in community development strategies in decades."

The Knight News Challenge award will allow us to rebuild FPF's current proof-of-concept software to better provide for our subscribers. We'll then expand to all 251 towns in Vermont, and prepare to offer Front Porch Forum to communities outside of Vermont in 2011.

I look forward to reporting on our progress here on Idea Lab, and I hope to hear from readers in the comments below or via FPF's website.

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