Author: Nick Booth

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?

Cquestrate: Can we crowdsource a carbon solution.

Cquestrate Intro Video from cquestrate on Vimeo.
Last week I met Tim Kruger. He’d asked me to do a little bit of work on a very bold plan that he hatched today.

is an organisation and a website which plans to crowdsource technical solutions to the huge problem of recapturing the CO2 pumped out since the industrial revolution began.

He’s working with some financial backing from Shell, but critically he has a legal agreement which means that all the ideas generated through cquestrate remain open source.

Why should Shell care? Well partly because he wants to use lime as a means of capturing CO2 by adding it to seawater. Producing huge quantities of lime could be a viable (money making) use for the energy wasted in oil/gas production.

For more information see the site. As cased puts it:

… well, the site explanation actually then continues onward by answering the very question about to drop from my smug yet woefully uneducated lips :

One of the questions I often get asked is: if this is so simple why hasn’t it been done before? The idea has been around for a number of years. It was first suggested by Haroon Kheshgi in 1995, but it was considered uneconomic as the process uses a large amount of energy. What we are interested in doing is using stranded energy to drive the process.

Aha- well, that explains it. Its all down to stranded energy.

Well, I think it sounds like a wonderful idea – a bit of open sourcey, crowdsourcey goodness… if only I knew more about stranded energy and limestone…. hm.

Thank goodness for scientists! Please forward on this post to people who know what stranded energy is!

Other mentions:
Neural Transmissions

The Charity Commission Responds to Education and Blogging.

A month ago I asked if your blog helped you learn. There were dozens of responses both here and on the Bad Science blog – mostly from people who keep personal or professional blogs which help them learn. (Thank you)

This was all in reply to the Charity Commission using blogging as an example to try and rootle out what it means for a something to have educative value. Duncan Gotobed asked the Commission to respond to this debate for his business podcast Top Briefings (the bit on this is about two thirds of the way through. So first I’ll give you the Charity Commission response, then Duncan’s really useful analysis then my thoughts. All will then be sent to the Charity Commission for them to add into their consultation.

Charity Commission Response:

We are aware that the reference to blogs written by individuals in our
draft public benefit guidance for charities that advance education has
provoked some debate, particularly among bloggers. The draft guidance
was published three months ago for consultation to give charities and
the public the chance to tell us what aspects of the guidance are
helpful – and what isn’t clear. In the draft guidance we explain that
in our view an activity will only be considered of educative merit if
either the subject or the process is capable of being of educative
value. We then go on to explain that where the value is not
self-evident, positive evidence of merit will be needed.

To illustrate this we give the example of a wiki site which, if the
content of the site was not verified in any way, would need to provide
positive evidence of having educational value. Similarly an
individual’s blog, if its content was not verified in any way, would
have to provide positive evidence of having educational value – either
through its content or the process by which the information was
delivered. Our consultation on this draft guidance remains open until
July 11, and we encourage anyone who would like to comment on the
document to respond before this date so that their comments can be
considered when we draw up the final guidance later this year.

It’s not the greatest reply, but to be fair there is a consultation (pdf) going on and anything you want to contribute you can do so through the email address

Duncan Gotobed makes some really key points in his podcast, which I’ll paraphrase here.

  1. If you write a blog about a useful subject (eg business practice) that might have educative value.
  2. Just putting the knowledge up is not educative, it would need to be part of an exercise e.g compare and contrast.
  3. To be of educative value the information has to be subjected to verification and analysis.
  4. It would need to include a route map for the audience so they are not learning by chance.

My Thoughts:

I think all of these are useful points and of course all can be provided through the mechanism of a blog, whether that blog is an individual blog written about personal matters of potential benefit to a student’s social learning or whether they are blogs which support learning in a subject like business studies or from an archaeologist helping learning ins history or geography.

What matters about the points above is these limitations apply equally to all forms of media – to books, dvd’s, television programmes and radio programmes which might be produced or used as part of someone’s education. On top of that though blogs represent a potent new form of learning opportunity simply because they are, like other social media, much more interactive, responsive and easier to make than most old media. Because blogs hyperlink and have a conversational mechanism they allow the learner more scope to interrogate the validity of the content than previous media whose use has been enshrined in the education system. These qualities of course strengthen their educative value.

But the basic principles of whether the content and how it is presented has educative merit applies in much the same way.

For that reason I would ask the Charity Commission to take out the specific reference to individual blogs and replace it with a more considered set of guidelines for the use of media in creating an environment which has educative value.

There is another huge step beyond this – which is that self publishing and conversational media are drivers for growing methods of informal learning. I think at this stage the Commission is unlikely to put that in the scope of its advice, but I’d caution those writing the report. Please don’t underestimate the power of informal learning over formal learning and take care not to write something so restrictive that a future school which excels at supporting informal learning using social media would be taken to task for apparently having no educative value.

After all, the use of social media in both formal and informal ways will certainly be a key opportunity for private schools to spread their privilege to a wider community, and hence demonstrate their charitable value.

If the report writers are not certain that they have enough experience in this area there are loads of people who do. Please ask.

Do you want access to UK Government/public data? Ask and it may be unlock (ed):

I’m sensing a snowball.  Moments after the government offered a £20,000 fund for re-working gov data they are now asking us what else we want access to:

Public Sector Information Unlocking Service (beta)

What’s it about?

As the regulator for public sector information re-use, we know that people can encounter problems from time to time getting hold of the information they need in the formats they want. Difficulties can include problems with charging, licensing or the data standards that public sector information is provided in.

Not access (covered by Freedom of Information), but re-use

These problems aren’t about access (which is dealt with under Freedom of Information legislation), but all the other issues which can occur when you want to do something with public sector information – copy it, remix it with other data or add value and republish it. If you are trying to re-use some public sector information, but the data you need is locked-up, this service is for you.

How it works

  1. You describe the public sector information asset you want unlocked for re-use, and post a request to the service. We’ll check through your request and if it’s OK (e.g. not a Freedom of Information request) we’ll post it here.
  2. Others can see your request and support it, either by adding a comment or by voting. The more support a request has, the better the chances of unlocking the information you want to re-use.
  3. We’ll contact the public sector information holder and see what can be done to unlock the information for re-use. To keep things simple, if the problem relates to an issue specifically covered by the Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations or the Information Fair Trader Scheme, we’ll treat it accordingly – so you won’t need to make a separate complaint. We’ll post back our findings here.