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Online Neighbourhood Networks

December 2, 2010

Hyperlocal websites are evolving and expanding at a rapid rate and are attracting increasing interest, not just from local residents keen to ask about trustworthy plumbers, but also from community organisers, local government and academia.
Local 2.0 attended the launch of the Online Neighbourhood Networks study led by Hugh Flouch and Kevin Harris. Their study of three of London’s most successful sites made some interesting findings:

  • 42% of respondents say they have met someone in their neighbourhood as a consequence of using the website, suggesting a direct effect of these websites in promoting connections between people.
  • Only 13% of respondents were also involved in local decision making bodies, perhaps showing that these websites are drawing in more than the ‘usual suspects’.
  • Moreover 42% of respondents said their attitude towards local councilors had changed for the better.

For me, the last statistic leads to some key questions.  What do these sites mean for local democracy? And how should councils become involved in these sites? Several Councilors and Councilor Officers shared their mixed experiences of delving into the world of hyperlocal. Interesting highlights from the discussions included that only two Councils have online engagement officers (Brighton and Lewisham), that real engagement with these sites can sometimes only happen when extraordinary events allow a suspension in Council’s corporate control (the threatened Blackheath fireworks) and that whilst one Councilor saw their hyperlocal website as winning them their seat another saw theirs as ignoring sections of their ward.

Councils obviously have a long way to go to engage with these sites, something a lot of the audience members from Councils seemed to acknowledge, especially in moving away from the view that these sites are the dangerous terrain of angry residents, best ignored or dealt with only be the external relations department.

Flouch and Harris’s research with Councilors and Council Officers revealed a broad range of barriers to engaging with these sites including concerns about representativeness, discordant conversations, and a lack of clarity on who is responsible for this interaction. These are real concerns: whilst the stifling corporate culture of councils is often disparaged, giving clear consistent information to residents is extremely important and there are dangers associated with different council staff responding to different enquiries with potentially different answers.

The answer to these concerns is not to evangalise about how these websites are a quick route to cost savings, more local involvement and better community relations, but to demonstrate to councils that these sites have their own specific advantages and can be engaged with carefully and on specific issues, such as holding online surgeries alongside real life surgeries, getting out information about street clearing, or to help organise community events .

A hyperlocal website should never be seen as more than the sum of its parts – they can be excellent at serving the intentions with which they were set up but they cannot solve all of a neighbourhood’s problems – nor should they be the only feather in the hat of successful community engagement.

– Written by Ellie Kuper Thomas

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