A somewhat less-than-interesting day today, at the Talk About Local hyperlocal media event in Birmingham, although the people were charming etc. Not bad, but not quite as fab as I was expecting.

11:15

The first morning sessions were: Law; Hype Your Local; Data and Smart Cities, Disabled Access, and ‘Is the Social Media Bubble Going to Burst?’.

My first choice was ‘Hype Your Local’. I had gathered that this was to be about using hyperlocal media to promote/boost a place, to those located outside of that place. Sadly it turned out to be a ‘tell the group about the greatest news story you’ve covered’ session. So I quickly left for ‘Law’ instead. But ‘Law’ proved to be someone running through his standard Powerpoint about the basics of libel etc, so I swiftly departed from that one too. I don’t spend a week’s shopping money on a train fare, just to learn something I could have found out in half-an-hour’s online reading.

So I found myself in ‘Data and Smart Cities’, but this seemed to have morphed into… ‘how to make money from a local listings site’. This talk was on www.visithorsham.co.uk, and didn’t at first look very promising either. Visit Horsham is an ugly design-free directory and listings site, of the sort I normally wouldn’t give a second visit to. It punts £10 a month placements and ads to local businesses, based on its No.3 Google ranking for certain keywords. But the site’s owner had made an interesting alliance with a local estate-agent, someone who was already delivering a printed house-sales free-sheet to a vast number of local homes. Together they had quickly turned this delivered publication into a proper print newspaper called The Resident. This was quite a ninja move, I thought. There were also interesting Facebook figures given, such as a 30,000(?) reach among those who use town-centre businesses. Looking at his website just now, that’s possibly because of the extensive use of local discount couponing by local shops. The owner had been able to leverage the ‘reach’ that the interconnected combo of print / website / social / ads / coupons gave him, to encourage a good relationship with the local Council. He had even managed to get local Council officials to go onto his Facebook group and have real conversations there, which I would suspect is quite rare in the UK. It had taken 4-5 years to get to that point.

There was a short announcement that a formal Birmingham Open Data User Group is being mooted, for those who want to use (and perhaps standardise/swop) open data in Birmingham. More info will be available at the Government Open Data Hack Day, happening on 18th May 2012 at Birmingham Science Park. There were the usual general comments about the inevitable problems in assessing, cleaning, and standardising government data.

12:00

The second tranche of morning sessions were on: the BBC and hyperlocal; Neighbourhood Plans; Geo-location; City Mayors; the new (and probably doomed) Pinwheel service; and Social Media Surgeries.

‘Neighborhood Plans’ was my choice here, not knowing much about them, or how they’re really working at the grassroots. They’re connected with the government’s Localism Act and are supposed to give place-based communities a say in shaping official planning-related activity in an area. Although it seems that everything has to be approved and coordinated with local planning officers, and also has to be consistent with the (possibly out-of-date) official Local Plan, so there are heavy limitations on the process and how radical it can be. Some of these Neighborhood Plans are business-led, others resident-led, depending on where they are. Some are a mix of the two. The Neighborhood Plans are apparently(?) only legally enforceable if there’s a local referendum on them in their final version, and the plans for widespread referendums have apparently been recently dramatically scaled back.

Various challenges in engaging local communities in planning were explored. Most local residents only “engage when they are enraged”, and even then you’ll only draw a small subset of local people to the usual 7pm Town Hall meeting. Alternatives to the usual “sticky notes on-a-map” neighborhood consultation activity were suggested, such as training local people to use the 3D modelling tool Google SketchUp in combination with Google Earth. The Prince’s Trust Development Award team have apparently developed some interesting interactive mapping tools, for use with public planning consultations. Both approaches assume geographic and map-reading skills that may be beyond the majority of the population. The biggest challenge in consultation is perhaps the community’s suspicions that decisions have already been taken behind closed doors, and that their consultation is just an official box-ticking activity that will have little or no real impact. Or that huge costly infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2 or energy projects will mean that the rules will get ripped up, if they are found to be inconvenient in the future. Or that their local Council has a murky history on who gets to influence planning decisions, haunted by rumors of ‘sweeteners’ and incentives. Communities who have been through these sorts of planning / masterplanning / pre-bid processes, and who have been let down again and again under Labour, are especially hard to reach. I suggested the idea of a far more radical and free-wheeling “critical friend” report, envisioning the area’s aspirations for development, to be published alongside a Neighbourhood Plan.

2:00

Afternoon sessions included; NESTA giving the basics of its new £50k funding competition for hyperlocal innovation; hyperlocal reporting of crime; and a couple of others I didn’t note down. The afternoon session I chose was on using online radio and TV-style video. This is happening alongside the decline of the national media, a decline which is most evident in terms of: the cuts to production capacity in local radio; the senility of much of the local and national press; and the general scaling back of mainstream local news gathering. Old broadcast models are being followed in term of the online presentation of audio and video, which can load hyperlocal services with some of the mainsteam media’s high costs (e.g.: the Performing Right Society licence costs of using music in online radio). There were various comments about the need to break up / disaggregate such rich media content, so that it could be easily rearranged and condensed by the audience to suit their needs. ITV Regional News has apparently recently started to move some small way toward this, in terms of posting more and shorter video clips. But the ideal would be for the audience to have open access to tagged content, content that could be re-assembled at will (much like Spotify’s playlists). Local BBC radio could at least provide a 45 minute weekly digest of their highlights of the week’s spoken-word broadcasting, in the form of an MP3 podcast.

Places such as Wales were able to get grants from organisations such as the Welsh Books Council, to deliver online audio/tv programmes about reading and language. Such online media had the advantage of being able to also reach “expatriates” who had left the area, and is generally much more efficient and cost-effective than broadcast.

There is a danger of such media being “led by the technology and the techies”, rather than by the needs of the audiences and by the new creative possibilities. Live webcast technology is still “not quite there yet” in terms of costs and ease-of-use, partly because of the uplink bandwidth limitations in the UK and the fixed Gb cap on data transfers. Partly also because of the cost of equipment, although the new $500 live HD video-streaming boxes from the USA may change that.

There was huge skepticism in the room about the likelihood of the success of local TV in the UK, if and when it finally arrives. There was even some skepticism that it would even be tried on any serious scale, especially now that there’s increasing uncertainty about the survival of the DCMS. Some places such as Oxbox.tv (in Oxford) have shown that it is possible to do hyperlocal primarily via online video, but the consensus was that local TV in the UK would be done in a conventionally managed manner and thus die a horrible and expensive death. There are also inherent problems around the content-gathering capacity required for coherent coverage of an area, some possible problems in rural areas around finding and keeping of the programme-making talent, and also problems arising from the way that people are increasingly able to avoid seeing traditional annoying/time-wasting TV advertising. That said, it was mentioned that Sky Local is currently heavily subsiding a local video-news gathering experiment in Tyne and Wear, involving one curator/director (based in London?) and 11 roving local reporters who are given a roster of assignments to cover.

3pm

The final session saved the day for me. A brilliant and inspirational TED-like talk by Twitter user @benjionthetrain about covering the “third culture” inhabited by regular train commuters. Benji uses his regular Telford-Birmingham commute to build up a running commentary on fellow passengers, delays etc, via Twitter comments. Over the years this has built into a sort of storytelling “soap opera”, one which has regular recognisable characters (suitably anonymised under evocative nicknames he gives them). Recent 2011 research in the Midlands showed that only 11% of public transport users use Twitter, but his stream of comments can be followed by non-Twitterites on the Web via twitter.com. His @benjionthetrain Twitter persona has brought a set of relationships with the train companies. Some PR people in companies are very wary of Twitter and blogs, apparently having the notion that… “once conversations are started they can’t be stopped”. Benji suggested that transport PR people should be required to be “roving around” on their own transport services all day, working from mobile devices rather than sitting in offices. The local radio station sees him as “the commuter’s champion”, and he is on their speed dial for pithy comments whenever any train delays occur. He’s become something of an activist. He’s reluctant to develop the Twitter stream beyond what it is at present (e.g:: into a daily online comic-strip version, a “how to commute” book, a radio or stage play, or a graphic novel) and is happy as things are. This latter point was something that seems common to many hyperlocal editors. It’s a lifestyle choice rather than a business.

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I also had conversations around the dubious nature of the national creative industries statistics (something I’ve looked at in detail many times on D’log); the possibilities of merging community development with running income-generating online courses around personal change; and the need for a hyperlocal service to cross highly artificial municipal boundaries and instead serve coherent organic areas (which may include far-out commuter dormitories, only connected to a place by the thin thread of a transport service). Some comments about hyperlocal news reporters getting their facts wrong, possibly related to a Stoke politics blog that recently had the facts on two ‘news’ stories shot down.

Most interesting quote of the day: “To people outside, a group of very open hyperlocal bloggers can look like a clique”.

Next: “How can mainstream and community media co-exist and collaborate?” BBC College of Journalism ‘Connecting Communities’ event at Salford in Manchester, 24th May 2012.