Simple tools for community engagement

I’ve pulled this post out of my drafts folder where it has sat for more than a year. I thought it deserved to see the light of day. Obviously, don’t do this until Lockdown is well and truly over


April 2019

Yesterday I was doing some community consultation work in Birkby, Huddersfield, on behalf of the social enterprise I work with, Locorum Ltd.

The Lark in the Park, in Norman Park was a lovely little event, which achieved considerable success in bringing together a community which has had more than its fair share of trauma recently.

There were two tools which really provided the catalyst for conversation and interaction. One was some lovely food, served at very reasonable prices. Food is always good for stimulating exchanges between people.

The other tool was a bit more surprising; a simple piece of rope. Someone produced a length of rope and started an impromptu tug-of-war competition. Teams were formed and their supporters gathered round to cheer them on. This was the biggest success of the day in terms of bringing people together, starting some social bonding, and encouraging interaction.

Sometimes the most simple tools are the most effective. Remember this when you are trying to get people to interact with each other.


Meanwhile back in May 2020

I was diagnosed with cancer in February 2020 see here

There are a small amount of lovely people who have been providing me with some financial assistance to help me get through this situation, which is obviously made worse by the current pandemic. I won’t say who they are because I am not sure they want me to publicise it; but I am extremely grateful.

If you feel like helping me out in any way, please get in touch or you can support me on a regular basis via Patreon or as a one-off here.

Thanks for reading. I hope to see you all again when this is all over.


Somewhere in the North of England

I love the north of England, I have lived in the north for more than 20 years, and even before that I sort of considered it my spiritual home. I was brought up just outside Nottingham which is in the East Midlands. But, historically, the River Trent was seen as the dividing line between the north and south, and, as the maternity hospital where I was born was three miles north of the river, and the village where I was brought up was another 5 miles north of that, I have always considered myself to be a northerner. I realise that if you are reading this in Newcastle or Carlisle, you’ll consider that Huddersfield, where I now live, is pretty far south, but I think most people would consider it to be pretty much at the heart of that thing known collectively as “the North” (in England at least; “hello” to my Scottish friends).

As a child I was fascinated by the North. My mother was a Londoner, and my dad had a job in which he travelled the country, but had regularly to visit his head office in London. When this happened in the school holidays, the family would all get in the car and be dropped off at my uncle’s house in North London while my dad went off to the head office. This happened regularly, we would all get into the car, head off towards the M1 motorway and turn left to head south for London. And every time we did this, I thought “what would happen if we turned right and went north?”. And then, one day, we did. I can’t remember why, but we turned right and headed north. And it was early evening in winter, it was getting dark. One of the things I remember vividly was that, as we crossed the Tinsley viaduct near Sheffield, there were jets of flame illuminating the night sky, emanating from the steel works. That left a big impression on me. My romantic notions of “the North” were now enhanced by a mental image that was almost like dragons breathing fire beside the road. Of course, those steel works are not there any more, and have been replaced by the Meadowhall shopping centre, which may be some people’s idea of a romantic venue, but not mine.

Somewhere else in the North of England

It was around this time, or a bit later, that my romantic notions of the North were significantly boosted by studying “Wuthering Heights” at school. And I also had this idea, perhaps fostered by my mother’s declaration that, having left London at the age of 21 she would never go back to live there, that the further north you went, the kinder and more collaborative people got (apologies to my southern friends, I know this is a stereotype). So, having lived in the West Midlands, as well as the East, when I got the opportunity to move to Yorkshire I jumped at it.

Even though I love living in the North, it cannot be denied that some of the infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. It always amazes me when I visit London and people complain about the Underground. Of course it has its faults, not least being the over-crowding at rush hour, but the fact that you can disappear underground and be whisked miles across the city in quick time is something that residents of most other cities in the country can only dream of. And, there is the issue of the extra investment being pumped into new lines like Crossrail and Thameslink, at the same time that projects such as the proposed electrification of the Transpennine rail line between Manchester and Leeds have been cancelled. So, is it any wonder that people in the North are angry, and suspecting that the south is being favoured?

And we have had the Northern Powerhouse, which is something I have been sceptical about since its inception. My big problem with it was that, in common with many high-level strategies, it failed to engage with the people of the North in any kind of tangible way. Most of the imagery that came out of it was the usual stuff featuring middle-aged white men in suits. And little of what they produced seemed to have much relevance to people’s lives. And then there came a change of government, and the one project that might have made a difference to how we live, the rail electrification, was cancelled.

A Northern Rail Pacer

Is the Northern Powerhouse dead? I don’t know? What I do know is that the people of the North are angry, and that anger has crystallised around the latest debacle, which has been the failure of the train operating companies, in particular Northern Rail, to adapt to the new timetable which was supposed to give us at least a slight upgrade in terms of speed and frequency of train services. The result has been the opposite of what was promised, with chaos across the region, and reports of people losing their jobs because they can’t get to work on time, among other negative consequences.

I have often been asked for my opinion of the most effective means to get communities organising using social media. My response has often been to suggest that anger is the most likely stimulus. And the Northern Rail situation has produced lots and lots of anger. One of the unexpected results of this has been rival newspaper groups across the region putting aside their normal competitive instincts to come together in a collective expression of the region’s rage at the situation. And much of the anger has been focused around the social media hashtag #onenorth which has been used both to rally people around the campaign to get the government to re-instate its previous promises for investment in northern infrastructure, and to catalogue the nightmare journeys many people have been facing. It is interesting that this began as pretty much a grassroots expression of frustration, with the newspapers offering some kind of leadership and amplification of the message. The politicians of the north, with the possible exception of the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, have been late to this party. Their leadership has been largely lacking.

So, does #onenorth represent a major coming together of the collective spirit of the people of the North? Who knows? It is perhaps too early to tell. I suspect that any collective spirit that does exist will dissipate if the immediate issues are addressed. But I have a hope. It is a hope that this might be a start of something. Could it just be that we can keep the #onenorth spirit going and use it to ensure the people’s voice is heard in future developments across the north of England? The Northern Powerhouse has been something that few people in the North have been able to engage with. Let’s make #onenorth a real movement of the people?

I am being absurdly optimistic about this? Let me know in the comments below.

Oh, and why you are here, I urgently need to get to 1,000 subscribers on my YouTube channel (I make videos about social issues and people’s efforts to improve the world), so please click here and subscribe if you can.

Councillors and Social Media – Could They be YouTube Stars?

2016-02-12 10.04.45This is my second post on my takeaways from this year’s #notwestminster event. It may not be the last.

This was the second #notwestminster event, and there have been numerous other events with a similar slant, principally #localgovcamps over the past 8 years or so. It is tempting to think that we will always see progress as time passes, but I fear that this is not always the case. And in this instance, there is a field in which I think progress has stalled, or maybe even taken some backward steps, and that is the use of social media by councillors.

Councillors as Youtube Stars

Someone like Cllr. David Harrington from Stockton-on-Tees is living proof of why councillors should be making effective use of social media. More of that, including a video interview below. But, before that, at the Friday, Local Democracy Makers’ Day, I pitched an idea that I have outlined before, namely, how can we make Youtube stars out of councillors?

As I have written elsewhere, I am a firm believer that non-profit organisations need to make much more use of online video to engage with their customers and service users. There are now people who are making millions from YouTube videos; their audience is mainly young people, they are mainly young themselves, and their subject matter is normally pretty frivolous. But that doesn’t mean that this experience cannot be translated to a more serious area. And the benefits of Councillors engaging beyond the “usual suspects” of the politically-engaged, the campaigners and those with an axe to grind, has to be self-evident.

So, on Friday, we formed a group to work on how Councillors can use video to engage with their constituents, and I think we came up with something quite interesting, with possible applications beyond local government. The solution we came up with was a tool which would allow councillors to publish a map of their ward populated with videos about issues in particular locations. Lucy Knight pulled the tool together and published it immediately on her blog here, while I conducted a video interview with Cllr. Mike Jordan to give us some content to display. The video interview is posted below. It’s worth a watch as it gives some insights into how floods have been dealt with in Selby and North Yorkshire.

It’s a very rough and ready tool, but sometimes the most simple things are the best. I think this, if developed further, could be the basis of an engagement platform, providing opportunities for councillors to use video to engage their electorate. And it could be opened wider to allow local residents to publish their own videos on it in an effort to get something done about local issues. Please get in touch if you are interested in helping to develop this tool further.

Councillors and Social Media

And so to the wider issue of councillors using social media. I conducted the interview below with Councillor David Harrington because I was very struck with what he had said about how his councillor caseload has increased greatly as a result of his high profile on social media. A few years ago there was funding avialable to run programmes like this one which had quite an influence on increased uptake of social media on the part of local elected members. But, as austerity has bitten, funding for things like this has dried up. I think that is a great shame, and I’d be very interested in running some social media training sessions for councillors if either funding could be found, or if councillors themselves might be prepared to pay a modest amount to attend. If anyone can help with this, please get in touch. I’d be interested in the views of elected members themselves as to whether they would attend such sessions and how they might be funded.

What I learned from my walking tour of 10 Polling Stations on General Election Day 2015

As trailed this morning, today I did a walking tour of the 10 Polling Stations nearest to my house on General Election Day. I did this to highlight the ridiculous situation that our voting system still uses 19th Century methods in 2015. I hope that we will have online voting before the country as a whole does this again.

First, here’s the story of the day.




The Starting Point



Polling Station 1 – I voted


Polling Station 2


Polling Station 3


Polling Station 4


Polling Station 5


Polling Station 6


Polling Station 7


Polling Station 8


Polling Station 9


Polling Station 10


So, what did I learn?

Well, I learned that the terrain of Huddersfield is pretty challenging, something I already knew, but perhaps needed to be reminded of. And some of the Polling Stations were in quite hilly places. They must be difficult to get to for people with restricted mobility.

I also learned that Polling Stations are in some pretty varied places. But, in my sample of 10, there was only one, at Paddock Village Hall, that was in a place which seemed to be offering other reasons for people to be there, namely a community cafe.

And I perhaps learned most from the 40 minute break I took along the way in a pub. I overheard a couple of conversations, one involving two people who were voting today for the first time in years “because it’s important this time, isn’t it?”; and one about voting in Australia, which is not only compulsory, but, it seems, is made an occasion of, with barbecues at the Polling Stations.

I think we need to move to online voting as soon as possible. But, in the interim, barbecues at Polling Stations doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

Local Democracy for Everyone #notwestminster

2015-02-07 10.11.04

Yesterday I walked from my house for 10 minutes and joined a national event. And an excellent event it was too. It was Local Democracy for Everyone – We’re Not in Westminster Anymore. I was pretty staggered when I walked into the Huddersfield Media Centre to find the place packed and buzzing with around 70 people, all desperate to discuss how we can adapt our democratic processes for the needs of the 21st Century. I’m not sure why I was surprised. I live in Huddersfield, I am biased about it, I think it’s a great place. I also think it has fabulous transport links. Using the Transpennine rail line, I can be in either Leeds or Manchester in around half an hour, and there are direct trains to Liverpool and Newcastle. But, the fact that the town does not have direct rail links with the likes of London, and Birmingham had made me believe that people wouldn’t travel here for national events.

#notwestminster proved me wrong. It helped that it was a really good event, with an exciting agenda put together by the people who comprise the Local Democracy Bytes section of LocalGovDigital. There was some great discussions and some very useful meetings of minds. You can catch up with most of what happened via the Storify of tweets here.

2015-02-07 14.09.43

And it was really good to catch up with the likes of Ken Eastwood, Tim Davies, Councillors Tim Cheetham, Simon Cooke, and David Harrington, all of whom I hadn’t seen for far too long, and Dave McKenna (and others). And it was doubly nice that they all came to the town where I live, rather than me having to travel long distances to meet up with them. The previous time I saw Tim was at a seminar in London at which he was talking about the reasons why he had abandoned Twitter. The #notwestminster event must have been pretty powerful, however, as it got him tweeting again. Tim has always been one of the wittiest and sharpest contributors to my Twitter stream, so I really hope that this is a permanent return.

2015-02-07 15.23.02

I’ll let others blog about the detail of what went on at the event. I’m just writing here to capture some of my impressions of a really good day. I am encouraged that so many people want to contribute to making democratic processes fit for the modern day.That really makes me feel good.

Public Gatherings

Today was the second day of the Huddersfield Food & Drink Festival, an annual event lasting four days, which, apparently regularly attracts 65,000 to St. George’s Square in the centre of town.

This evening there was a lovely atmosphere in the Square as people ate, drank and listened to music. This raised two important issues in my mind:

  1. Why don’t the British gather in the open more often? Are we that scared of the weather that we have to be dragged out of our houses to meet each other? and
  2. Why is the wonderful space in the centre of Huddersfield empty so much of the time? It is our space, let’s make much more use of it.

Here’s a taste of the show

and here is the local band Helter Skelter closing the show tonight

Guerilla Opera in Huddersfield – Well done!

So, today (23rd July 2011) saw the first performance of Huddersfield Youth Opera‘s production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Mozart & Salieri” as part of Huddersfield Creative Arts Network‘s Art in Memorable Spaces initiative.

Scene 1 took place outside the impressive George Hotel

The small company did well to overcome the challenges of the outdoor conditions, not least the considerable gusts of wind.

For scene two, set in an inn, the cast and crew decamped appropriately to the opposite corner of the Square, outside the Head of Steam pub, where proceedings were enlivened by some audience participation courtesy of a Stag Party, who insisted on being photographed before the scene began

Stag Party Outside the Head of Steam, Huddersfield; 23rd July 2011

The Stag Party departed half way through the scene to catch a train, meaning the second half took place against a slightly quieter background.

The performance is repeated next Saturday, 30th July, at 2:30pm. It’s an opportunity to see some opera for free in an interesting setting, and not to be missed.

Guerilla Opera in St. George’s Square, Huddersfield

Graffiti Jacket

Tomorrow (Saturday July 23rd 2011) sees the first of two open air performances of a “Guerilla Opera” in the centre of Huddersfield. In partnership with the Huddersfield Creative Arts Network, Huddersfield Youth Opera will be performing Rimsky Korsakov’s “Mozart & Salieri” in St. George’s Square on successive Saturdays. In a first for the opera group, their small troupe will take to the flagstones outside Britain’s most attractive railway station at 2:30pm on both days.

I caught up with the Youth Opera’s General Director, David Heathcote, Director of the production, Janet Cowley, and cast members, David Fearn, who plays Mozart and Jamal Rahman who plays Salieri, to find out what it’s all about and why they are doing it.

I think this is a fantastic initiative, and applaud the group for making productive use of the expensively refurbished square which stands unused for most of the year, in between a few high profile, and well-attended, formal events. Perhaps even some casual passers-by will pay attention to the production and decide that opera is something they want to find out more about.

Here is a snippet of David and Jamal in rehearsal for the production.

Some of the costumes which will be on display on the two Saturdays are quite spectacular and a credit to the work of Huddersfield University students including Natalie Lawson and Emily Hargreaves

Emily Hargreaves and Natalie Lawson show off one of the costumesI very much hope that this initiative will lead to more regular use of the space that is St. George’s Square. The people of Huddersfield need to feel that it is their arena for them to make use of.

How to Amplify Your Event

Earlier this year, I ran a workshop at the “Creating Connections” conference in Huddersfield called “How to Amplify Your Event”. It’s taken a while, but I have now pulled together the notes I made for that workshop into this blog post. Sorry this makes for rather a long post, but I hope it will be of use if you are looking for ways of promoting an event. I don’t claim this to be a definitive list of the available tools, your favourite tool may not be on it, but it describes a good number of the tools I have used or seen being used.

Digital Engagement

The age of widespread digital literacy, internet use, and the rising tide of Social Media means that small organisations, if they get their message right, can have a much wider impact than they might ever have thought possible in the past. Pictures and videos tell much more powerful stories than text, and the Internet means that content can reach much wider audiences than printed material ever did.

Similarly, the digital age means that there is no longer any excuse for only talking to the people in the room at any event. Free and easy-to-use tools means that it is a relatively straightforward process to open your event up to the world, via live streamed video and audio, live blogging, instant feedback via Twitter and otherwise. Social Media means even the smallest event can become a global phenomenon.


The first step in amplifying an event is to create a hashtag for it. A hashtag is a short code which can be used as an identifier for the event, and make content from it easily searchable on a range of social media platforms. Example hashtags include #NDI10 (for the National Digital Inclusion Conference 2010) #d2020 (for Digital 20/20), or #cconns for the Creating Connections event. The presence of the # at the start of the code creates a clickable search term within many social media clients (e.g. Tweetdeck & Twhirl for Twitter) and separates the code from other, similar terms. As well as allowing for collation of content from the event. The hashtag also facilitates remote participation. For example, it allows Twitter users to see everyone’s comments on the event, whether those comments come from people they follow or not.

Live Blogging

Many events organisers encourage live blogging, which effectively allows real-time, detailed, commentary on the events in a form that is accessible outside the conference room. There are tools which are specifically designed to facilitate live blogging – including Such tools can pull in comments made via other platforms such as Twitter, as well as allowing posting of material such as photographs, and even live video streams.

Connecting to the Outside world

There are still conference and event venues which fail to take into account the need for good wifi. If you want to Amplify your event, decent wifi connections to the outside world are essential. And, it is important to realise that standard domestic, or small office, wifi systems are no longer adequate for events. Most small wifi systems have low limits to the number of connections allowed, and they can suffer from limited bandwidth. If there are a lot of people with different wifi-enabled devices at your event, you need to allow for many connections, and, live streaming of video and audio needs a fair amount of bandwidth.

Live Video Stream

The ultimate way of broadcasting your event to the world is by effectively turning yourself into a TV channel and sending live video and audio out to the world. I am always surprised by how many people still think that this is an expensive and difficult process. In the age of social media, live video broadcasts can be done for free and using relatively cheap kit, or at least kit that you might already have in your possession for other purposes. and

are all services which allow you to stream live video and audio directly from a webcam. The easiest way of using these services is to utilise the built in webcam and microphone from a laptop computer, point them at the speakers at your event, and stream live to the world. All of them have facilities to collect input and feedback from participants in the room and remotely. is a version of the livestream service which is integrated with Twitter, and makes it very straightforward to promote the live stream via Twitter and collect feedback the same way. and are services which allow live video and audio streaming from a video-enabled mobile phone. also has a service which allows live streaming from an iPhone (3GS & 4 only). If broadcasting from a phone, remember to ensure that you are using a wifi connection, or that, if using the mobile phone network, you have a contract with a generous data allowance. Failure to check this could result in a big addition to your mobile phone bill.

Live Audio

It IS possible to broadcast live audio from an event. is a service which broadcasts and archives the content of a telephone call on the web. The live facility of iPadio suffers in my opinion, however, from being of telephone call quality, which can be difficult to listen to. There are other, more techy ways of broadcasting live audio, and, if you know a community radio station, you might be able to get them involved. Personally, I think there is a gap in the market for a user-friendly application which delivers high quality, live broadcast audio on the web, as audio can often be very useful if you are trying to follow an event on the move, and are not sat at a screen.

“Vox Pops”

A popular way of amplifying an event is to record “Vox Pops”, i.e. short interviews with participants or speakers, and upload them to the web.

There are some really good, cheap video cameras on the market now, such as the Flip range, which not only record excellent quality video, but are quite cheap (upwards of £70) and easy to use. Many of them have “one button operation” and plug easily into the usb port of a computer to upload content. But, you don’t even need to buy dedicated equipment for this purpose. Many modern mobile phones will record video of sufficient quality for these purposes.

There are lots of sites which will host video on the web for free, including: and

The obvious place to put such videos is Youtube, as this has the highest number of users, and you will have access to their vast audience. But Youtube has a 10 minute limit on videos, so, if you are looking to host longer film, then one of the other sites is recommended.

Audio interviews are also a popular tool. As already mentioned, iPadio is one such tool which can be used for this, and, as well as the live, telephone call-quality option, there is also the facility to upload better quality sound in the form of mp3 files to the iPadio site. Another option, which currently only works on iPhones and Google-powered (Android) phones, is At the moment, there is a five-minute limit on audioboo files, but this is likely to change in the future. Audioboo works by recording high-quality audio and automatically uploading it to its own site. So, it is not live, but integrates with services such as Twitter and Facebook to promote your audio widely.

Here’s an example of an interview using audioboo

Collating it all

So, there are a variety of options to Amplify your event, but, at the end of the day, you may think you will be left with content in a lot of different places, and it could be difficult to keep tabs on it all. This is where the hashtag comes into its own again.

Services such as: and

can be used to collate your content in one place. By enter the hashtag in the boxes of these services, you can present all your event content in one place on the web.