Yesterday I spent the afternoon at Hyperlocal Govcamp West Midlands, a gathering of hyperlocal bloggers, local government officials, and people involved in open data.
The final session of the afternoon focused on what bloggers wanted from council officials. The subject itself says a lot about just how the power relationship between communications professionals and hyperlocal bloggers has changed.
As one attendee from a police authority commented: “We have to treat questions from members of the public in the same way as from the press.” The ability to publish is no longer unique. Forget about citizen journalists – we are all citizens now.
A distributed, engaged audience
Indeed, Dan Slee from Walsall Council – a former print journalist with the local paper – noted the difference between the numbers of readers of the local paper (22,000) and those on Facebook (197,000), and that one of the attractions of local bloggers from a communications perspective was their strong presence on social networks. He also bemoaned the inability to get an accurate figure on the numbers reading a particular newspaper – “There are no Google Analytics for newspapers”.
Another attendee noted that many people buy a newspaper to read the crossword, but that “People read blogs because they want information.”
And a third explained why she released information about a story to a hyperlocal blog in preference to the local paper. The paper, she said, wouldn’t publish the story until the following day. And the hyperlocal blog had demonstrated that it “cared about the issue”, while the paper would only be interested in a ‘story’.
The blogger’s creed: make information findable
Meanwhile I noticed a recurring theme from the bloggers’ perspective on their role – something unique to online journalism, and which I’ve commented on before: the duty to make things findable.
Bloggers repeatedly referred to information about the local democratic process that was hidden away on council websites – and which they worked hard to make available and interesting to their community. Council meeting times; minutes; planning meetings.
They did not see their role as ‘telling a story’ so much as communicating important details about what was happening in their area.
At one point someone said that the bloggers were there to “hold power to account”. Not always in the active sense of posing difficult questions – but also in making the invisible visible; the obscure findable.
By doing so they are not only shedding a light on the workings of local government, but transferring power. “This is your responsibility”, it says – not “This is my story”.
Open data: not just findable, but linkable
Later I spoke to Chris Taggart, the creator of OpenlyLocal, a platform for making data about local councils accessible and linkable. He told me about councilllors’ webpages that could only be seen when accessed from another page on their council website. This made them invisible to Google, and impossible for anyone else to link to.
Then there were the pages on suppliers that could only be accessed by filling out a form – again, making it invisible if you were searching for details on that supplier using Google.
Chris saw a large part of his role in making that information visible, so that it could be linked to other information. What companies is that councillor a director of? Who won that contract, and what other contracts do they hold? How much investment is being made in my area? And in what fields?
In a networked age, making information findable – and linkable – is a public service. It is not about ‘easy win’ stories on who finishes at the bottom of a given table, aimed to sell papers. It is about giving readers the information – and the tools – to ask the questions that matter to them (some might call that Big Society). It’s an acknowledgement of the shift in power from publisher to user, serving a community rather than shouting at them. The open data movement – covered throughout the day at the event – will give that shift a whole new dimension. And it’s bloggers, once again, who are at the forefront of that.