Birmingham city council is making great strides with the way it uses lightweight web tools (like wordpress) to communicate and create space for conversation.
The first round of the Big City Plan consultation led to a group of us (led by Jon Bounds) producing Big City Plan Talk – an independent volunteer built site designed to encourage online conversation about the council’s plans for the city centre.
I’ve been a bit annoyed with the provision of swimming facilities here in Brum for a while. Nick Booth suggested I compare them with those of the other core cities to see how Birmingham rated. So I’ve just had a little go.
What I did
First I went to each council’s website, found its list of leisure facilities and then checked each one to work out which were swimming pools. Occasionally, in the case of Manchester, that was easy because it was quite handy. In other cases it was a pain, because the council had different ideas about presentation. Anyway, I managed to make a crude tally of the number of pool facilities.
I wanted to do more, but as this spreadsheet shows it’s hard to get all the data.
Some councils provide more information than others, some are completely inconsistent about what they do present. You’ll also see that, scandalously, I’ve added some Scottish cities and left out the likes of Sheffield in my list.
I then had a look on the same sites for population statistics. I didn’t always find them. On some occasions the website provided a mid-2008 census estimate, and sometimes it was just the numbers from the 2001 census. Sometimes it was in a nice HTML format, and other times it was buried in a PDF.
What I produced
I managed to collate the information into this incredibly crude spreadsheet, where I divided the population of the city by the number of pool facilities.
I then used Many Eyes to upload my spreadsheet and turn it into a visualisation, which you can see here:-
Now, this isn’t a great analysis. After all, Birmingham has Moseley Road Baths, which is something like 20m long, while the Manchester Aquatics Centre has two 50m pools in one facility. Yet they each get a score of one. Deeply unfair. If I could find out how long and how wide each pool was then I could add it all up and then compare the total swimming area to population. But that depth (pun intended) of information isn’t available.
So what does this mean?
For me this is a scrutiny issue, because working out how Birmingham compares to other cities in terms of facilities helps us to understand whether it needs to improve. But the information isn’t there, or if it is it’s inconsistent. And it’s not just geeks who’d like to know how big a swimming pool is, how long it’s open for and even how warm it is. It’s all information that’s relevant to users.
What can be done?
Making comparisons between councils’ services would be made easier if we all were engaged in a discussion about what information needs to be made available and in what formats that information is presented in.
As this little experiment demonstrates, it’s not technically challenging to collect data and then use a free, web-based tool like Many Eyes to interpret it. And, for the time being, I’m considering setting up a site that looks specifically at swimming pools to work out how that process could become more useful and accurate.
It’s a wordpress based site for their news service to the public and press and describes itself as
…your first stop for all the news from Europe’s largest local authority.
The aim is to improve our news delivery, so we want the newsroom to be a useful resource for both journalists and members of the general public.
Last rites to the press release?
Deborah Harries, head of news at the council, blogged about where they are at:
The press office at Birmingham City Council has moved into the 21st century and after months of hard work we’ve finally launched our online newsroom. This is an exciting development for my team and hopefully this site will prove to be a useful resource for journalists, bloggers and residents.
We haven’t quite read the last rites to the press release but the world of media relations is changing. (my emphasis)
People consume news in many different ways now and we’re keen to reach a wider audience through the burgeoning and exciting range of social networking tools available. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from the finished article and we’re looking for your views to help further develop the service.
A dedicated Youtube Channel, managed partly through vodpod, with straightforward self made content like this:
There is a series of photos in their self hosted gallery (I’d like to be able to link to and use these images) and the twitter account, which popped up a while ago. Plus the all important RSS feed(s?) and it’s good to see comments enabled on individual blog posts/news items. I imagine trackback is too?
What do I think?
I think it’s wonderful. I’ve got a head full of things that could be done next or perhaps a litle differently, but they can wait. It’s through using social media that you get good at it and here the council has created a wonderful place for doing just that.
Congratulations to Geoff Coleman, who’s been nursing this for some months, and Deborah Harries for just getting on with it.
(Declaration – from time to time I get paid by Birmingham City Council – not for this though!)
Kris Kowalewski at Birmingham City Council press office has sent me this:
Online petitions are set to be introduced by Birmingham City Council as a 21st Century way for citizens to express their views on matters of concern. Under the plans, the new easy-to-use system, accessible via www.birmingham.gov.uk, will go live later this month.
E-petitoners will be able to upload external documents and images as supporting information and follow the progress of their petition through its life cycle thanks to a timeline function. Additionally the system would give users access to support materials to market their petition to the public and be given the ability to create paper-based versions of petitions to run at the same time.
Those working on the scheme in partnership with the city council include Digital Birmingham and Service Birmingham. Cllr Paul Tilsley, Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council, said: “The introduction of an e-petition facility promises to be major step forward for the city of Birmingham. “It will provide an additional mechanism for people to have their say on issues – strengthening and broadening citizens’ access and participation in democratic decision-making. “As a council we are committed to embracing modern technologies and enabling citizens to make the most of the digital age. This project is clear evidence of this.”
Funding for the system would be supplied by the EU, which would also foot the bill for any amendments and upgrades that are needed over the next two years.
The most prominent online petition system was created by MySociety for the 10 Downing Street site and has created all sorts of political ructions since it went live in in November 2006. It was an early triumph in the process of using the internet to nurture a conversation between governed and government. The Downing Street site also gets used for local petitions, such as this one started by the Bradley Stoke Examiner in Gloucestershire.