Twenty-First Century Domesday Book

I don’t really have time to watch much TV, for a long time, the only TV I have really seen is late night repeats of “QI”, “Have I Got News for You”, and “Mock The Week” on Dave. Those are the kinds of programmes I like, and it is good that they are on when I’m around, but I’m not sure they bear 15 or 20 repeat watchings each. That is why the BBC iPlayer is so good, I am firmly of the opinion that 99% of the decent TV programmes made in the UK are made by the BBC, and so I could happily live with only the iPlayer for company and no other TV channels available.

The iPlayer means I can find quality TV programmes and watch them when is convenient to me. I am fascinated by history, and it has been a pleasure this week to catch up with the first two episodes of the BBC series “The Normans”. Watching episode 2 this evening, I was struck by the description of William the Conqueror sending out “men with weapons accompanied by men with quills and parchment” to collect the information that went into the Domesday Book. A thought was sparked in me by the mention of the last question which was asked by the Domesday Book inquisitors, namely: “Can more be had than is had?”, which was about the potential for extracting more taxes from the people.

This led me to thinking about the work we are doing on the Big Society in the North, and in particular, in seeking to develop Big Society Community Noticeboards.  It’s probably a bit grandiose to think of it like this, but this endeavour is a bit like a 21st Century Domesday Book. We don’t have any resources at all for this work at the moment, and we certainly don’t have people to send out to collect information, whether or not they are armed with weapons or parchment. So, we are forced at the moment to use free technologies and social media, seeking to plug in the offline communities at one end, and output information to the offline at the other end. In-between, we are piecing together bits of technology like an iPadio channel (here), which means that people can phone in community information, and a Tumblr noticeboard here (thanks to Paul Webster for this) which outputs the information in a readable format.

These are our modern day equivalents of men with weapons and parchment.  And, in the context of the Big Society, we are again asking the question “can more be had than is had”, but we are not talking about taxes here, we are talking about community activity. Can we encourage more people to get involved in community activities. Our 21st Century Domesday Book is an audit of community capacity.

Leeds 2030 Vision and the Big Society

Last night I attended a workshop on the “Vision for Leeds in 2030”. I’m sure we’ve all been to things like this, lots of men in suits sitting around talking about USPs (unique selling points) and landmark buildings, etc., etc, Well, this one was different. Firstly, about a third of the group were women (not good enough, though!), secondly, only one man was wearing a suit (and he apologised for it), and thirdly, there was hardly any of the usual “visioning twaddle”. Instead, a theme emerged from the evening which was that successful cities (and successful communities of any kind) are about human relationships. We talked about needing to create spaces, physical and virtual, where people can interact in informal ways without agendas, and how that can lead to the long-term evolution of places where people want to be, primarily because they know their neighbours and fellow citizens, want to interact with them, and want to build collective spirit and understanding. I found this immensely encouraging, and I hope it is taken account of more widely. I believe it is especially important in a city like Leeds which is such a place of contradictions, with one of the most vibrant and thriving enterprise economies in the north of England existing alongside some of the poorest communities anywhere in the country. This kind of approach could lead to the creation of conditions where the people of Leeds can put their collective brain power to the task of solving the city’s problems and building on its strengths.

I also thought the event was important in demonstrating how the “Big Society” philosophy is starting to influence the way people think. There was a lot of talk about how we need to stop planning, strategising and theorising, and just get on and do stuff.

Two examples in particular came up. One was about the Leeds Mayor’s Show, which used to be the biggest Mayoral parade in the country outside London, with communities and groups from all over the city vying to produce the best float, and the whole city turning out to cheer them on. This was effectively killed off when the policy of the police charging for their services at events was introduced, and policing costs made it unviable. This policy makes all sorts of communal events difficult to stage, and, if the Big Society is to be made a reality, we need to find a way to go back to how it used to be.

The other issue that was raised was the fact that Leeds Bradford Airport is not connected to the railway network, despite being separated by three fields from the Leeds – Harrogate railway line. Surely, the obstacles that have prevented this connection can be overcome in the spirit of the Big Society.

Empty Spaces in Railway Stations

As I travel the country I see increasing evidence of empty spaces in stations which are not being filled. I believe these could be put to community use, and help to turn stations into more thriving entities as well as making rail travel a more pleasant experience.

I have created a Flickr group to collect evidence about these empty spaces. Please take a photo of the empty space and upload it here with the name of the station. If possible, please photograph any “to let” boards with information on how we might contact the agent.

Big Society Community Noticeboards – Part 3

I think we are moving towards some sort of proposal on Big Society Community Noticeboards. My original post here elicited some fantastic comments which have taken the idea on several stages. It also, thanks to Kevin Campbell-Wright, resulted in a major supermarket chain expressing interest. I won’t say who they are at this stage, because that’s at a very early juncture, but it’s a very encouraging development.

Community Noticeboard

Community Noticeboard by Pip Wilson

There are two proposals here, but I think it makes sense to bring them together as two sides of the same coin. The original proposal is about getting information from offline organisations and making it available online in order that it can be brought to the attention of the wider world, can attract new users and members, and, from a Big Society in the North perspective,  we can find out who is doing Big Society stuff without the resources to go out and physically connect with them.

The second proposal is about getting information out to people who are not online, by displaying information from the web on public displays. Thus, proposal one collects the information from people who are not online, and proposal two displays it, also to people who are not online, but not necessarily to the same people.

So, we now need to work out how to make all this happen. And, initially at least, we’ll need to do it with few or no resources.

So, here’s some thinking that I’d welcome some feedback on.

Stage 1 – collecting the information – We get someone (which may be a supermarket employee) to photograph the notices on the Community Noticeboards and upload them to the internet. This needs to be by a process that is as easy and cost-free as possible. My current thinking is to create a special Flickr account, and encourage people to use the “upload by email” option. We may need to find other ways of uploading if the person doing the uploading is not sufficiently confident to set up email on their phone or able to connect their phone to a computer. I am also looking at Shozu which may be a simpler way of uploading photos, but it will need to be downloaded, installed to a phone, and configured for the Flickr account. This may not be that easy if no one is available locally with the requisite technical knowledge. And, whichever method we use, we need to be mindful that data charges are likely to be incurred if people are uploading directly from phones.

Stage 2 – Collating and distributing the information We need to work out if this could ever be automated, but, I suspect, for the foreseeable future, that is not going to be possible. So, it would need to involve people looking at the uploaded photos, transcribing the information, and entering it into a system which can make use of it. I was originally thinking this might be achieved by something like a Google Calendar, but it would need, eventually at least, to output information which could be shown on public displays.

Stage 3 – Displaying the Information The ideal would be something like the community displays in Wray, or even a Community Info Point. I suspect that we will have to start this at least by looking at sticking old, recycled computers in shops and pointing the screen at a shop window. This probably means that we need a revolving slide show, rather than stuff which can be operated on touch screens. And, crucially, we will need the data collection scheme to spit out information relevant to the locality.

Oh, this might all be complicated, but, if we pool our cognitive surplus, I am sure we can make it happen.

Community Noticeboards and the Big Society

Following on from my previous post on the potential for photographing Community Noticeboards to develop an online database of local “analogue” community activities, this is a different take on the Community Noticeboard.

As I mentioned in the post about my visit to Eden a couple of weeks ago, I have been thinking about the issue of how to communicate information quickly and cheaply to people in a dispersed area like Eden, many of whom do not have access to Broadband. One of the examples we talked about was the Electronic Noticeboard developed by Lancaster University for the village of Wray in Lancashire. This allows people to enter information online, and it appears on a touchscreen in the village shop.  I think this is a fantastic idea, but, it could be a bit expensive to replicate in lots of different communities, especially in these days of financial austerity.

So, could we not develop something which does this job as, effectively, a website, which could then be displayed on a computer display in a shop window? It would need to show notices which would probably rotate on a regular basis, could accept user-generated content, and could be moderated to filter out inappropriate content.

Big Society in the North is moving on

As Julian Dobson has already explained here, events are moving on in the Big Society in the North.

There has been some criticism about the restricted nature of the consultations we have been able to carry out to date. We are aware of the deficiencies, but, as Julian says, we are doing all of this without a budget at the moment, and we have been moving quite fast. This means we have necessarily been having to use social media as the quickest, and cheapest, way of getting the word out. Thus, the kind of people who receive the message and act on it will be limited. But, we fervently hope that those people will cascade the messages out to the people they work with.

At the planning meeting on Wednesday, we were talking about how we can communicate with the many community groups who will play a big part in the Big Society but which aren’t online. The idea we came up with is this.

Community Noticeboard

Community Noticeboard by Pip Wilson

Many supermarkets have Community Notice Boards. We would seek to encourage the supermarkets, as part of their contribution to the Big Society, to promote Community Notice Boards (and install them if they are not present already), and make sure that local groups are using them to promote their events. Then, we could get someone in each town, city or district to go round and photograph the boards and upload the photos onto a central site. We might even persuade the supermarkets to get one of their own staff to do this. We could develop a phone app, which made it really simple to upload the photo to the right place. Then we would extract the information from the photos and make them into an online diary with location, maps, etc. We’d need to start small with this, because, until we get some resources, the data processing could get onerous.

I think this is something that could be relatively simple to do, quite cheap to execute, and would have the added benefit of helping to bring groups online who had not previously been making use of technology.

Any views?