Communities in Control: real people, real media.

Empowered people tend to be good at conversation, understand their place in networks, have experience of how networks help get things done.

So it is very good news that the new Government Empowerment White Paper acknowledges that social media (the conversational web) will play a part in the emergence of more active citizens and stronger communities. The launch came with the start of a blog and Twitter experiment from Hazel Blears and her team. (Tip – loosen up a touch: more Hazel less bleargh).

“Communities in Control”
was published nigh on two weeks ago and this is the first time I’ve sat down to writewordle2.jpg about it, prompted partly by a call from Simon Berry (who’s seconded to the Department of Communities and Local Government to help them appreciate the possibilities of social media in community empowerment).

Simon is curious about the whole shebang but also seeks examples of innovative forms of community media. (The key community media parts of the white paper, including the simple yet excellent idea of digital mentors in the poorest communities, can be found in chapter 3).

I just want to offer up some examples from Birmingham which are likely to be thought of as innovative for anyone new to social media, whilst may be considered less so by those who are up to speed. Some I’ve worked on, others not.

Grassroots Channel Podcast: Anyone who knows this blog knew I’d probably begin here. This is one of mine.
Started through the now defunct Birmingham Community Empowerment Network in Autumn 2005 this was the first community story telling podcast channel of its kind. I haven’t updated it since March 2008, although there are wordletall.jpgstories coming. Why is this a useful example?

It shows the benefits of patience. We now have 60 episodes on the channel telling the stories of active citizens. Since the launch 220,000 programmes (mp3’s) have been downloaded, 120,000 of those in the first 6 months of this year.

I think that indicates the growing pace at which people are now consuming social media and the simple truth that it takes time and patience to establish a channel like this. Another useful lesson is that the Channel was supported by an organisation but run by an individual. This meant than when bcen closed (as so many government initiatives do) the podcast still had a life. Social media is a thing that individuals tend to do better than organisations.  It also helps as a reminder of the value of the process. We are able to bring people together and make some conversations happen through the medium that might not have taken place otherwise. The business of making the media should be sown into the relationships that need to be forged for stronger communities. We can also boast some earlyish widgetizing (although we called them badges and now in need of a revamp)

The downsides? It hasn’t been hugely interactive and it has relied mostly (but not entirely) on the skills of someone already experienced in making media. That though is more to do with the things I haven’t yet done properly rather than this medium.

Community Podcast Radio is also now making podcasts about community activity in and around South Birmingham, with some financial support from Advantage West Midlands and the post Rover collapse funded South West Birmingham Community Association.

Masefield TV is a project from c21vox, again in South Birmingham (Selly Oak and Northfield),  and uses a combination of mobile phones and web services like Qik and Bambuser to get people broadcasting live to the web. It is a little like having your own outside broadcast unit – only small enough to fit in your pocket. It also removes the hassle of editing etc from the process of generating video conversation. I’ve used bambuser only briefly as part of a one day social media documentation of a youth run conference on the future of schools in Birmingham. combined blogging, photography, audio and a touch of video to support one student to become a social reporter for the day. It is a really simple model for covering and recording a whole range of community events/consultations.

Citizenship Podcasting in Schools. Still in South Birmingham there’s another project I’ve worked on with Stan’s Cafe. evolved from a place where children shared audio drama to a tool for students to find out about their immediate community. Again video or audio podcasting is a fabulous way to wordle3.jpgencourage conversation between young people and the world outside their normal boundaries. Carrying and using a microphone shifts the balance of power between adult and child. Listen to the last half of this podcast (“scroll” through) to witness a tense discussion unfold between council officer and young citizen journalist. This was work made with barely any professional involvement – just some support and encouragement.

Castle Vale has it’s own Community Radio Station (license just granted so still off air) and newspaper (using a wordpress blog) which teamed up with the local school and the local citizens community scrutiny committee the 2005 Group to produce some podcasts. (again the training was podnosh). The end result here is partly the audio, but more important is the relationship. The 2005 group were struggling to get young people involved – the podcasts have begun a conversation, although continuing it will be a challenge. Fortunately Castle Vale will see a much larger podcast project start soon which uses the medium to get young interviewing their elders about the history of the neighbourhood.

Then there are other bits. Cllr Martin Mullaney’s controversial youtube films (with comments), Lolitics, an offshoot of LolDeidre which affectionately satirised a local councillor to the point where flickr were asked to take down some images. The fledgling North Birmingham Social Enterprise is interested in using social media for adult training, slightly off topic but without doubt they understand there is a strong bond between communities, empowerment and using social media to accelerate learning.

Finally Never underestimate the blog. One other key example is not directly to do with active citizenship or neighbourhoods but proves a brilliant point. Created in Birmingham is a hugely popular focal point for creative activity in the city. The people operating it over the last 18 months have also actively sought to encourage creative businesses in Birmingham to establish their own blogs, which has meant the online community has flourished. None of this has been done with much money or any major, lumpen, bureaucracy behind it. The key has been people who care using lightweight online systems and encouraging people to behave in certain ways, rather than use particular platforms or government sponsored online portals.

I also think, at this stage, that if you look behind most projects in any major cities you find just a handful of names supporting them, working on them, encouraging. This means each city will already have a kernel of activity to tap into.

So there we go, that’s one city. People of Birmingham what have a missed? People of everywhere else what is happening in your patch?


  1. dankzy says:

    Challenge accepted – although not quite a first timer, enjoyed the gig yesterday. Must try and make time to spend time with the computer for something rather than aggro!

  2. Nick Booth says:

    Hello Mat, you\’re the first to step up to the plate. Welcome and thank you. I imagine over the next few months you\’ll find plenty of new work uses for the internet.

  3. Jayne says:

    Hi Nick – thanks for this – I am chuffed that not only do I understand widgetizing, but I’ve used it! I wonder how many of the team will respond to the challenge.

  4. Charlie says:

    Aren’t you worried that in attempting to find new ways of including people in discussions of developing community programmes you are conducting conversations in which most people do not have the technical nous to particiapte actively myself included. Sorry to sound a negative note, but this group is a lot more self selecting than the folk who can be bothered to walk to the town hall – or am I already wrong?:sad:

  5. Nick Booth says:

    Hi Charlie, welcome and thanks for commenting. I reckon you’re half right. Many people don’t have the technical nous, although many know someone who does. A whole mass of people don’t want to have the technical nous – the barriers to participation are more about attiude than access to technology.

    However I think it is worth the effort. We face an opportunity here to help people become literate in digital media, and if we miss it we miss further opportunities to learn more effective ways to collaborate and improve participatory democracy. The numbers of those already using social media is suprising – Universal McCann has been looking at the rapidly growing use of the social web across the globe:

    Oh and welcome to twitter.

  6. Charlie Bagnall says:

    Mm interesting – thanks

    Methinks online democracy should soon be on the national curriculum!

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