A blog written to accompany The Young Foundation‘s final report on the Local 2.0 project: Local 2.0 How digital technology empowers local communities (pdf)
A little over two years ago, I became one of the guardians of a scruffy patch of mud that was to grow into our community allotment. We inherited an expanse of horrible clay soil, punctuated by couch grass roots and shards of glass, plus the remains of two glasshouses – a precarious A-frame and something that had been knocked together from old window panes and was full of brambles.
We discovered that there was something else in that old greenhouse, a grapevine. It was the only thing growing on the site when we arrived, so that’s what we started with.
A small bunch of novice gardeners grew small bunches of grapes that year (something that we never expected to be able to do), whilst struggling to grow allegedly-easy crops like potatoes. In the process, we learnt from our mistakes and we learnt from each other. We grew friendships, confidence and ideas.
Around the same time, I began working with the Young Foundation on the Local 2.0 project. We wanted to find out how we can use technology on a very local level to help connect people and find new ways of getting things done in our neighbourhoods. Our aim in Kirklees was to create shared spaces where residents, community organisations, councillors and frontline workers can all contribute what they know.
We worked with Newsome Ward Community Forum, a network of community groups supporting residents across a large ward in Huddersfield. At the beginning of the project, the group asked us to use technology in a way that would encourage people to get involved in their community. They wanted online activity to lead to offline participation. They also asked for us to make sure we included everyone. One resident told me: “this social media stuff is all very well, but what about those of us who struggle with email?” These two requests gave us a very clear direction.
We started some drop-in sessions where people could get together to help each other with all kinds of technology. People who had never used the internet came along to learn some basic computing skills, whilst those who were already using a computer brought along specific questions or practical tasks that they needed a bit of support with. Residents helped to run these sessions and got to know each other at the same time. And we got to hear about the ways that local groups are already communicating, so we could start to see how new technologies might fit in with that.
As with the allotment, we started with what was already there. We helped local groups and activists to create online content in whatever way suited them. This gave everyone freedom over their own information, and it helped us to see how different technologies can be used. For example:
- Growing Newsome now have a text message mailing list for the community allotment, using a Huddersfield-made texting system called Thumbprint. We use it to let people know when there’s someone at the allotment, so that people can join in. Richard had his own allotment plot once but was driven away by vandals, so it took a lot for him to come back and work on the same site again. He suffers from depression and used to feel pressured when people called to ask him to come along. Phoning around everyone also took up a lot of time, which meant that sometimes not everyone got the information. Now, everyone gets the same text message – it’s quick and direct, and no-one is singled out.
- A resident from a nearby sheltered housing complex came along to our drop-in sessions. He could only stay for half an hour each week, as he had to get back home to give his wife her medication. After meeting him, we applied for funding to get computers and wi-fi access set up at the sheltered housing scheme, along with other equipment which the residents wanted to try. David, a young man with learning disabilities, used the new laptop to run his own informal computer surgery in the lounge.
It’s not always the most obvious social media tools like facebook and twitter that appeal to people. It’s easy to overlook things like texting, which in Newsome has proved an important way of keeping people connected. Unless you start with each individual and find out their skills and interests, it’s also easy to overlook what each person can contribute. Running a computer surgery would be quite overwhelming for most people, so you might not expect a resident with learning disabilities to be able to do so much to help his neighbours. We didn’t expect the grapevine to grow either, but it did.
Later in the project, we began to join up all the content that local residents had already put online: blogs, photographs, text messages, calendars, videos and audio recordings. We created Newsome Grapevine, which weaves all these contributions together into a web site for the area, and sends information out by email, text and twitter to let others know what’s going on. The site isn’t something separate from the neighbourhood – it’s part of the community activity that goes on every day, and everyone has a share in it.
Reflecting on Local 2.0, we realised that together we’ve discovered some key aspects of this ‘shared spaces’ approach. We’re now keen for other communities to benefit from this understanding. We want to help people to learn about all the different tools they can use, but also to appreciate what they already have and to think about how technology fits in with that. So I’ve worked with Andrew Wilson from Thumbprint Co-operative to write a guide for community groups and activists in Kirklees. We’ve called it ‘Shared Spaces: How to use all sorts of technology to help get things done in your neighbourhood.’ We’re interested to see what people make of it.
What we’ve also learnt is that the same things don’t necessarily work year on year. The rainy Spring this year has thrown our seed planting into disarray, so some of our crops are delayed. Some of the residents at the sheltered housing complex have passed away. Other residents are grieving or experiencing a deterioration in their own physical or mental health. The once popular Wii is now sitting unused in the lounge, the usual gang of four unable to play. What interested people last year may no longer be relevant – and we have to accept that. We are also welcoming new people to our community all the time, with their own circumstances, skills and ideas.
A new growing season is a bit like starting all over again. I used to feel daunted by the empty expanses of earth, with nothing growing there. But I’ve realised that the ground is full of the time that we’ve put into it through our work together – and because we’ve worked to prepare the ground, we can get things growing again more quickly. Having tried a few things, we’re better equipped to choose what to put where. We can also try new things because we know that we’re surrounded by people who will help us to figure it out.
My hope is that people in Newsome now feel the same way about using technology. We have learnt to recognise opportunities where technology can fit in with what we’re already doing. We grow lettuce in the gaps between our onions, and we take photographs everywhere we go. Sometimes we get mud on our cameras, but at least we don’t miss anything.