“The second law of Herodotus, pertaining not only to history but also to human life, is that human happiness never remains long in the same place.” [Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski]
How does a neighbourhood hang on to its happiness? The second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy increases over time. Useful energy is lost. Things fall apart. If each of us operates as a closed system, we will eventually grind to a halt. The laws of physics say so.
But entropy can’t compete with storytelling.
Stories help us to understand each other and the places where we live, see new opportunities, make and strengthen connections – they have a life and an energy of their own. Places that continue to put energy into sharing their stories are happier places. I think I have the good fortune to live in one of those places.
In my neighbourhood, I’ve started to do some work with the West Yorkshire Archives Service as part of their “Our Stories” project, which encourages community organisations to start and maintain their own archives and share them via the Now Then web site. Rachel Tapp, their Archives Project and Engagement Officer, stopped me in my tracks one day by saying this:
“An archive is something you created yesterday.”
This vision of our combined heritage being woven together continuously is very powerful. I live in a place where lots of people care passionately about our local history, but try to interview any of them and you’ll get the same response: “I have nothing important to say”. We are our own archive. And we can add to it every day. If we can only find the confidence to share our stories, help each other to do it, we begin to connect each other across time – past, present and future.
Carole is my hero for being brave enough to take part in our first interview. Her family used to own Church Farm. A little over four decades ago, this farm was at the heart of Newsome, right across the road from our iconic mill. The farm buildings are long gone, but the fields were part of what today is Stirley Community Farm, opened last year by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and supported by Growing Newsome (a community of food growers that me and Carole are both a part of).
Listening to Carole talk about her family’s life on the farm, I began to realise how strongly we are both connected to these patches of earth. We share an allotment, and that has enabled us to share our stories. Carole’s family moved away from Church Farm in the 1960s, and a couple of years later the farm closed. In her interview, Rachel asked Carole: “Did you miss the farm when you first moved away from it?” She replied: “I’ve always missed it.”
I’ve always missed it. This one phrase, one small part of a story shared in a kitchen on a quiet Winter afternoon, changed my whole understanding of who Carole is. Only then did I really know why she’s the most enthusiastic digger on cold Sunday mornings at our community allotment. As a child, she loved being connected to the land, doing her jobs about the farm before going to school in the morning. And it’s never left her.
Yesterday I was asked: “Who is growing the radishes?” This was not one of our debates at the allotment, but part of a long and inspiring conversation with James, Andrew and Mr Tuck and about open data. It was only the second conversation that I’ve ever had with James. His work is about economic strategy, including gathering data and information to support local businesses. On the face of it, this is a far remove from the kind of work I do, paid or otherwise. But between us we’ve discovered a strong potential for working together, because James sees data as stories.
We looked at some great examples of data visualization, including the eXplorer from NComVA. It fascinates me how the use of the word “story” in this context immediately changes how you look at the data, makes you more able to connect with it. Just that one word completely changes the whole thing: story.
James has a vision for using data in a way that will reveal business opportunities – gaps in markets that individuals can respond to. Data might help people to see how something they’re already involved in could be turned into a business opportunity. And lots and lots of small opportunities can strengthen our local economy. Andrew shared some of our experiences of talking to people in local neighbourhoods about open data, and he posed some really key questions:
- How can you put the data in the neighbourhood?
- How can you connect someone who isn’t already thinking about starting a business with the data that can give them the opportunity to do it?
- How do you encourage people to be willing to hear the story in the first place?
I’m interested in finding out whether open data can be used to strengthen a neighbourhood, and I think we share that aspiration. The four of us inevitably talked about what makes a community strong to begin with, and why some of our neighbourhoods are happier places than others. Listening to some of my stories from Newsome, James said: “You’re a drug for improving people’s coherence.” I’ve never been accused of that before, and it took a bit of explaining.
Aaron Antonovsky, an American-Israeli medical sociologist, introduced the theory that we have a “sense of coherence”. How do you make sense of what’s around you, and what is your place in it? The theory of coherence says that if you know your neighbourhood, you also know how to survive. Studies of people who have suffered serious injury or illness show that those with stronger “coherence” are the ones who live. These are people who understand what happens around them, have strong networks, and are able to find meaning in the situation. People who know their place.
Knowledge and experience dwells in neighbourhoods, because we do. On a recent visit to Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol, I was struck by how firmly the centre is rooted in the local community. Andrew remarked that projects like their University of Local Knowledge value and celebrate local experiences, and also treat the neighbourhood as a kind of pool of local data and local stories. The challenge for local authorities is how to mix our data into that same pool – how to put the data that communities can make use of into the places where they can really use it – their own places.
If you know where the radishes are, you know whether it’s feasible to get a supply of radishes – and if you know where the shops are, or what people buy, or what people’s attitude to local food is, then you also know where you might be able to sell those radishes. If you know who is growing the radishes, you can start a conversation with that person, and who knows where it might lead.
I know a few people who are partial to a good radish. There’s a story in that somewhere.