As regular readers will be aware….I have a bee in my bonnet about the need for someone to start building civic spaces online – spaces which are designed to support civic and political discourse rather than designed to sell us stuff. However it’s all very well having the idea – you then have to figure out how to build it.

This post provides an overview of the social media audit – a piece of research that is carried out before you set up a civic space in order to gain an objective view of who you should be including in the conversation. I use ‘we’ a lot in this post as though I had the bright idea of doing the audit and put some structure in place its my team at Public-i who have done most of the detailed development of the process.  We’ll be blogging more about this over at the Public-i blog but here is the first draft of the overview that will end up in the thesis.

In essence what we are trying to do is to find the conversations which are already taking place in the local online space.  More importantly we are trying to find the active individuals in order to create a network response to civic interactions – civic spaces are going to be defined by the networks that share them as much as by the content.

A bit of background

When I started looking at this I thought about this idea in terms of government building these spaces. I was influenced by Stephen Coleman’s thinking around ‘A Civic Commons in Cyberspace’ and also Castells’ work that shows the insidious power of media conglomerates and negative impact that gas on objectivity in the press that this brings to the fourth estate (Castells, “Communication Power”). This, combined with the fact that I have been immersed in working with Local Government for almost the last 10 years led me design the “Virtual Town Hall” pilot which you can read about here. The name really gives it away – I was imagining a civic space built by government – echoing real world civic architecture – and then used by the public.

I persisted with this idea for a while and blamed the fact that we were being slow to implement the technology for the fact that the pilot sites were not taking flight. There is no doubt that we were being slow with the technology implementation but I now believe that the reasons for the pilot sites not getting off the ground were more complex than just that and that there were a number of issues with the way I had originally designed the virtual town hall solution, the main one being that the original project design didn’t have the right role for the community. We envisaged using unmoderated community content and then using community moderators or champions to widen involvement but this was really a compromise en route to what has become the inclusion of the affordance of co-production in the final pilot sites. We have to accept that we can only work effectively with the public online if we don’t try and control the conversation that the community moderators were in some way an attempt to manage risk from the point of view of the Council without truly considering their wishes in this.

However once it became clear that these spaces, even if facilitated by government, needed to be equally owned by all stakeholders another issue arose; who do we include in the conversation? The community that you contact to create the civic space is going to integral to how it behaves and even though we would expect participation to shift throughout the life of a civic space that initial group is significant in terms of how likely you are to get an independent conversation started and also in terms of what tone is set for the space from the outset.

Its turns out that picking this group was causing project paralysis – no-one could get started until they knew who to include in the process. I’m going to do some follow up interviews on this point but I think that the issue here was a mix of risk and representativeness. The first was a concern about making the ‘wrong’ choice because we weren’t aware of the full picture. The second is more complex – but I think highlights the real democratic tension here which is the fact that the people who are active online are not representative of the general population and this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that they are more likely to be civic and active offline as well (OXIS, Coleman) but bad in that they are not well…representative. The solution here is fiendishly simple and fiendishly difficult – involve the elected representatives – but that’s for another post.

Social Media Audits – a solution to the problem

The starting point as the fact that a civic space can’t be initiated until you have some idea as to who might be participating.  The social media audit is a response to this problem – its a systematic piece of research that provides a representative snapshot of the local informal civic conversation so that you can make am informed decision about who to include in the initial iteration of the civic space. Not only that – practically speaking – it gives you the list of people to contact , the conversational lures they are interested and a view of the interactions which are already going on.

We wanted to create an objective view of what was happening so that we provided a starting point for engagement with the local civic content creators. We can’t expect to find everything – and the content will change from week to week – but we were looking for a way to provide a starting point that would then be built on rather than freezing the results in time. Its important that the output of the audit also provides the means to extend and continue to search so that the civic space is created in a state of always being open to new voices.

Objective is a difficult thing to achieve as ultimately this process comes down to making value judgements about which sites should be included in the civic space. What we have therefore done is to create as robust and re-creatable process around the creation of the data set and then been as transparent as possible in terms of qualification of that data set down to something which is manageable for analysis and then for engagement with individuals.

This has deliberately been designed in this way rather than a piece of more quantitative analysis around the number of sites located in a specific area for example as we are trying to uncover individuals with specific intents rather than just to content that they are creating online – we are trying to connect to people as well as places.

What are we looking for?

The audit is designed to find not only an overview of the informal civic participation in the area but specifically to focus in on the significant content creators who will be the most vocal contributors to the civic space. The choice of the word ‘significant’ is deliberate here – we’re not trying to judge influence – just activity.

Significance is a fairly subjective term and so we try and define this with the site hosts to make sure we have a clear idea of what we are looking for. Once a site has been found via the relevant search terms then broadly we are after:

  • Persistence – we are looking for sites and individuals that are active over a reasonable period of time – or are linked to a specific campaign – not 2 post blogs that have been set up with the best intention
  • Audience – we can’t easily judge audience but we are looking for indications that the creator is aware of an audience and wants to interact with it
  • Constructive – we are looking for voices that want to improve their community not just complain

This last one is the most difficult – judging intent from content is extremely tenuous. Another way of looking at this is to say that we looking for content and creators who would satisfy a simple code of conduct test for any community website. Codes of conduct exist to ensure that interactions are respectful and do not insult some basic principles. The point of this filter is to try and rule some of these people out from the start. I see this as largely a pragmatic decision – no council is going to put together a civic space which includes inappropriate content from the start – but its one that needs to be kept under consideration to make sure that the space remains inclusive and open.

Its also worth noting that we usually issue a health warning with respect to language – the language online can be robust but this needs to be included. This issue of language is a cultural one where you need to understand that the social web can use a different tone to that which the more formal world is used to.

What’s the process?

To state the obvious – the internet is huge – and if you try and do this on a rolling basis then you just keep searching forever.  Instead we create a snapshot which we know will not include all the content but will be representative of the local civic space to an acceptable degree.  Here is how we go about creating that snapshot:

  • Define a matrix of search terms: This point about language is relevant from the onset of the audit. The process starts with a definition of search terms based on place and topic. We are trying to identify the language that the local residents are using to talk about where they live and about current affairs. We are seeking the stories that are currently active as these are the ones which illuminate activity.
  • Create a data set: we then use a combination of advanced use of google and link analysis to create an initial data set. This can be done largely automatically and then gets deduped and cleaned up. This second step may create a data set of over 1000 sites.
  • Qualify the data set: Once we have the data set narrowed down to around 3-400 then there is a manual qualification task which is the really time-consuming bit as we check each site against the significance criteria and also categorise it for place, topic, type of site and a few other metrics. We also highlight interesting examples – and also the downright odd stuff that you find online.

At this point we would hope to have a well qualified data set of around 200 sites that give us a good overview of the local informal civic activity. We do not know if these numbers of going to provide a useful benchmark – we’ve run the process a number of times now and they seem consistent but we expect them to keep increasing. However – at the moment – we believe that the 200 sites for a County or urban area is a reasonable benchmark to work against.

And the analysis

This is my favourite bit…

Once we have a coded up spreadsheet then we can do some straightforward statistical analysis and look at the spread of sites and content creators in terms of location and topic. We can see what proportion of activity is on Facebook for example (yes – we even search there), examine interactions on local media sites and see if there are pockets of activity around a specific place. We then use this to identity clusters of sites for a short case study analysis – which is really focused on looking at what is causing the cluster and how it might be used to introduce the group into the civic space.

The other piece of analysis is to use twitter as the starting point of a social network analysis of the space. This is really just a starting point for this and can be considered to be a snowball approach to an open network (Wasserman) rather than a real piece of SNA but what is does show is the potential reach of the civic creators. For my own research purposes I then ask the civic creators we have found to complete a more through social network analysis questionnaire which looks more deeply not just at their online but also their offline networks.

What don’t we do?

In developing the audit process we considered using semantic analysis tools bit in the end concluded that they didn’t offer the sophistication of search combinations that we were after and, more importantly, are designed to find content rather than individuals.

I think we could probably use more of the mainstream analysis tools but to date have not found anything that delivers what we are after – we’ll keep researching this however I will post findings on that when I have time.

It may be possible to have the same result through word of mouth as opposed to this fairly labour intensive research – ie by asking community participants to self report activity. My concern with this approach is that many of the sites that we find are not really describing themselves as civic – they are just people who are doing something that they think is interesting and they don’t feel the need to define it.

And the impact?

Its too early to say what the overall impact will be on the civic space but we have definitely succeeded in overcoming the project paralysis issue and have also been able to shape appropriate approaches and messages in order to involve these content creators in the initial proposition of the shared civic space and I wouldn’t want to try and instigate a site without doing this kind of research as we have not yet failed to turn up content and individuals that the host was not aware of before.

Even without knowing what impact it will have on the civic space its clearly a really effective way of getting a feel for the local activity in order to shape any kind of intervention online.

Its also an excellent way to deal with the people who are still saying that they don’t need to engage online – this is as robust a process as we can make it and is carried out based on search terms that the host defines – excellent and relevant local facts to put in front of anyone who thinks digital engagement is still optional at this point.

We are going to continue to work on the process and also on the automation of the process where possible. We are also trying to build in the idea of ‘discovery’ where we start to set the civic space in listening mode in order to uncover new civic voices but this is still early days – I’ll keep you posted.

As ever comments on this are very welcome.

The first set of Virtual Town Hall are hovering on the bring of launch – the development is all live but we are tweaking content and design – but they should be out in the wild later this week.  In the meantime I wanted to get moving on the community ambassador work. This has evolved a great deal in the course of the project to date and this post is about how we actually go live and proceed with these.

The initial view of the community ambassadors was that we were looking for people from the community to provide, to a greater or lesser extent, the interface between the social web and the Council. Their role would be as representatives of the process out on the wider social web and they would be asked to both encourage and moderate content from other participants. The advantages of this approach is twofold:

  • Moderation is being done by the community instead of to the community
  • Its a much more sustainable for the Council who are not going to be able to resource a huge moderation requirement

However – as we talked more and tested the idea with actual people it was clear that there are some flaws in this approach (quelle suprise). These centre both around practicalities and also around the overall approach. The light bulb moment was really when we realised that we were coming to be whole proposition as “The Council” rather than from the point of view of the participants. They don’t want to be pigeon holed into a job description of our choosing and really don’t want to be pinned down with a prescriptive todo list. As I type this really seems very obvious – and I am sure there are a lot of community activists and hyperlocal site owners who will put the do into doh on this one – but clearly it wasn’t obvious to us initially. Revelations over we decided what we need to do is to deconstruct the community ambassdor role into its discrete tasks – and then ask people which of these they want to take part in. the list below is not meant to be final – but it gets us started.

What I have tried to do is to relate the tasks to the stage of the process as per the informal / formal model I have been building. This also helps to guide things like the degree of risk/exposure that might be perceived. Risk is something I will need to come back to at some point – and I want to draw a strong distinction between actual risk and perceived risk as the latter is clearly greater than the former – and this can be evidenced by the general skittishness of most local authorities as they start to engage with social media – but this is for another post.

So – below is the break down of tasks as organised into the groupings which I am using to describe stages of behaviour (this relates to a much bigger descriptive picture which relates to engagement ladders etc – but this is enough to describe work for the community ambassadors I think)

Arena Participation Democratic participation
Rule of law: Spaces and processes which have legal and constitutional standing Formal Democracy: Participation in the actual decision making process or in setting the agenda
  • Attend a formal meeting
  • Start a petition
  • Interact with a member
  • Stand for election
Formal Consultation: Contributing to the information gathering stage of decision making
  • Respond to a consultation
  • Sign up to attend an event
  • Comment on the discussion board (within VTH)
  • Sign a petition
Wild West: the Wider social web, outside of spaces owned or managed by government Informal Civic Participation: Expressing and acting on an interest in local issues
  • Comment on a blog (outside VTH)
  • Comment on the discussion board (outside VTH)
  • Comment on a blog (within VTH)
  • Comment on webcast
  • Sign up for alerts
  • Rate a comment on a discussion board (within VTH)
  • Rate a comment on a blog (within VTH)
  • Watch a webcast event
  • Tweet VTH topics
Informal Social Participation: Connecting to other people in the area or around a specific topic
  • Rate a comment on a discussion board (outside VTH)
  • Rate a comment on a blog (outside VTH)
  • Rate a YouTube clip
  • Rate a webcast
  • Comment on YouTube clip
  • Create a user profile
  • Save something to your user profile
  • Share something from the Virtual Town Hall with someone else

This obviously all needs to be written up more formally but basically is a way of interpreting the following actions and putting them within an analytic framework – and I am trying to involve online and offline actions – not just social media stuff. List of actions that we will be measuring / influencing are (in no particular order):

  • Respond to a consultation
  • Sign up to attend an event
  • Comment on the discussion board (within VTH)
  • Sign a petition
  • Rate a comment on a discussion board (outside VTH)
  • Rate a comment on a blog (outside VTH)
  • Rate a YouTube clip
  • Rate a webcast
  • Comment on YouTube clip
  • Create a user profile
  • Save something to your user profile
  • Share something from the Virtual Town Hall with someone else
  • Comment on a blog (within VTH)
  • Comment on webcast
  • Sign up for alerts
  • Rate a comment on a discussion board (within VTH)
  • Rate a comment on a blog (within VTH)
  • Watch a webcast event
  • Tweet VTH topics
  • Comment on a blog (outside VTH)
  • Comment on the discussion board (outside VTH)
  • Attend a formal meeting
  • Start a petition
  • Interact with a member
  • Stand for election

I would be really interested in people’s views on this initial list as it is obviiously going to be a big part of the data collection. I would also be interested how/if people would weight this list.

One of the big improvements with this change from a formal role to a collection of tasks that people pick and choose is that it is much more compatible / complementary to the role of the elected representatives.  One of the things I want to do is to focus specifically with the team at Kirklees on how we expand this list to included the work of members as well so that we can represent some kind of composite picture.

Will take this all away and think more – there may be a tidier post lurking in this sprawl.

I meant to blog this at the weekend but annual tree decorating party got in the way. As the halls are now fully decked with boughs of holly (and a lot of paper chains thanks to extensive child labour) normal blogging resumes…..

I wanted to capture some thoughts about the community ambassador role which is fairly central to the whole Virtual Town Hall concept. In short – we are planning on creating a network of community ambassadors who will mediate between the wider social web and the civic space which we are creating. We want to do this for a couple of reasons:

  • If the whole point of this is the fact that there are existing conversations that we want to invite into a shared space we should be connecting the people having these conversations!
  • We think the public can moderate themselves – they don’t need government to do it for them
  • It’s a lot more sustainable than expecting huge resources from council’s to do this work

You can read here what my first thoughts on this role and I don’t think the person description has changed much – buts but needless to say – having met some potential ambassadors it is clear that I had both over complicated and over simplified what might be needed.

This thought comes from a particularly useful meeting at Essex last week where I met some potential ambassadors and got their view directly on the project. They were largely positive – though expressing some concerns as to whether the Council really understood what they were getting themselves into and whether, if the project is successful it will be resourced properly. Hopefully we were able to reassure them – but I think it is a very legitimate concern as we are asking for them to commit time to the project. This also built on the work at the North Lincs meeting where we met some other potential ambassadors.

Before I get into details though a big piece of feedback that has come from all of the community folks I have spoken to which will need to be resolved by Councils I think:

  • Be sociable: This is a person driven environment so make sure that you have identifiable individuals
  • Postal based turnaround times will not be good enough – you need to think about how you can respond quickly – even if it is just with an acknowledgement

However the main point of this post is to highlight the fact that a community ambassador could be far more things than we originally started imagining it as. The diagram below shows the map so far but I expect this to grow:

Mind map of the community ambassador role

A few observations about this:

  • Why not. The reason we tried to define a role was to recruit people – we don’t need that definition if we are able to find people who are interested. We should perhaps instead focus on defining tasks and then ask for volunteers to do those
  • That being said there is a need to give people an actual role of some kind so that they know when they are speaking for the Civic Space. Someone at the meeting suggested ‘Advocate’ as someone who would help other citizens navigate the democratic space
  • If we start to rethink the community ambassador role we perhaps start to relieve some of the tensions that might have been set up between this and the role of the representative. If we think of tasks and not people then the role is not a representative one – though if you carried out all of the tasks you should arguably be standing for election. Perhaps this is where our 21st Century Councillors come from as we start to break down the process of democracy into measurable and discrete tasks and parcel it out – anyone who is prepared to take a large share of this should be able to stand for election!
  • There is a marked difference between how we should be dealing with effective individuals – the social reporters – and people who are managing local community sites. Their motivations and concerns are really different and we have to reflect this in the roles that they have within the Civic Space.

The workshop at North Lincolnshire was slightly different to the others because it also involved some potential community ambassadors for the first half of the day.
The team had put out a general notice about the event and so we were joined by a range of people from the council (including someone who works with local volunteers which was great), a couple of town/parish councillors, a local blogger as well as a Local PCSO. This made for a really different debate as a lot of the focus was on discussing the right mix within a team of community ambassadors. We looked at the following factors within this discussion:

  • Socio-economic background
  • Life circumstances – we want people with young families, retired people, single people etc etc – a real mix of service users
  • Age
  • Rural / Urban – basically a good geographic mix across the area
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender (this one was mine but the team let me keep it in!)

I think there is a real debate to be had as to how the community ambassador role interplays with the role of the member – and I know the team at Kirklees are looking more closely at this. In terms of having town councillors there I think this could be a really interesting development as their role is fairly limited at present and could be really enhanced with more online engagement – though this may then set up tensions with other members.

Once again we had the reassuring experience of all the participants agreeing with the basic premise of the project – but as this is a self-selecting group it is perhaps not surprising. Once the sites are live then I think we need to do more work around how we find the people who aren’t immediately sold on the concept and to find out how (and if) they would want to be involved. Once idea has been to have an online representative of a community that prefers to stay offline. This makes me think of the work that Peter Cruikshank is doing on self-efficacy which worth taking a look at as we start to try and understand why some people choose not to participate at all – let alone online.

The team at North Lincs had done a great job with the social web audit – partly because they had really dug down to use ‘real’ words for the location searches.  Their report shows the increased activity if you drill down from North Lincolnshire, to North Lincs, to Scunthorpe and finally to Scunny – which is where they found most results.  I think this is a tip that all the other sites should take advantage of.

We also had a really good discussion of the social web contract – which will be shared by members, officers and citizens who participate in the space – and I think we will have a working draft of this very soon.

The day finished with a crazed 20 minute brainstorm which has resulted in a name for the site – we all agree that “Virtual Town Hall” is good for the project but not for the specific sites – more news later on what this actually is!

We need to remember that if we are going to make the virtual town hall work we have to always remember that its all about the people and we need to make this work in the messy realm of people compromises rather than the tidy world of technology.

One of the underpinning assumptions of the virtual town hall pilot is the idea that we will work with members of the community and train them to be moderators of CitizenScape sites. There are two main reasons for this:

  • Communities will respond far better to moderation from within than to moderation from government

  • There is no way that Local Government can take on the work of moderating a successful social environment so its best not to build with this as a requirement – it will just limit growth in the future

I have been discussing and thinking about this role a great deal recently and want to capture some thoughts before they disappear into next week’s todo list. We need to come up with a repeatable process for recruiting and then managing these moderators but before we do that we need to clearly define the role and manage the risks as this is a new type of engagement in an online context.

In an offline context there are precedents for working with community representatives which connect back to the ideas of the Arnstein ladder and its top rung of community control. Community representatives have been used extensively to intermediate with the decision making process and connect to the formal environment. This is not a straightforward process as you need to engage with the right people, keep them motivated and then, one the relationship is working, avoid the ‘Usual Suspects’ problem where the community representatives become more similar to your organisation than to the community they are there to represent. You also need to be clear that this is community and not democratic representation and ensure that you are still including elected representatives in the conversation.

[as an aside I really want to look into more detail at the way that these citizen relationships are handled in councils – isn’t it odd how far adrift community engagement is from democratic engagement?].

In the online context there is a slightly different role – called moderators – who are responsible for managing and encouraging the online conversations in a particular space. Often people are given moderator status once they have shown themselves to be ‘good citizens’ of a web space and many communities function brilliantly essentially self-moderated by volunteers.

It is this idea that was in my mind when I designed in the idea of community moderators into the Citizenscape proposition and I still think its the right idea. However I was asked an excellent question about the role the other day that really clarified things and made me realise we need to do more work on this: Will they (the moderators) be filtering or moderating content? Of course I thought – in a democratic context there are two roles, as per the community moderators, and we will need to be very clear as to whether the participants are community representatives or community moderators. Apologies if this seems screamingly obvious to you.

So, here is a first description of the role which I will next discuss with the Virtual Town Hall project team:

  • Firstly – lets not call them moderators and representatives – the role is something between these two ideas and calling it either things confuses things. At the moment my thought is that we call them Community Ambassadors

  • Current thinking is the Community Ambassadors would do four main things:

  • Help with offline publicity

  • Help to raise awareness of the space out in the wider social web and take part in existing conversations

  • Invite relevant conversations from the wider web into the democratic space to connect to the formal process

  • Moderate any discussions which are being held on the Citizenscape space

  • We need to make sure that succession planning is built into the role – partly to keep things fresh and avoid overburdening individuals but also because we want to avoid the usual suspects problem

  • We need to get contracts in place – they will be acting for the council so we need to get the parameters clearly in place

  • We need to do the social media guidelines in place as well as the code of conduct so the Community Ambassadors have a clear picture to moderate against

  • We need to put some structure around training and ongoing mentoring. The idea is that someone from the council will co-ordinate a team of Community Ambassadors and so we need to figure out the infrastructure needed around this

  • We need to ensure that we don’t trip over other community engagement programmes

We probably also need to come up with a profile for the role to help us recruit. I think the basis of this is:

  • People who are natural communicators – viral marketers call them sneezers and Robert Putman talks about them as people who provide social glue in Bowling Alone.  We want people who naturally tell their friends and families about what they are doing

  • People with existing community networks. Ideally we are plugging into existing networks rather than building new ones

  • Civic minded people – they have to see the value in connecting people to the formal process and be able to deal with the frustrations this may bring!!

  • Comfortable though not necessarily familiar with technology – we don’t expect to find experienced social networkers (though that would be a bonus) – but we do need them to be willing to learn

I think this forms the backbone of this strand of the project – we’ll flesh it out more when we start work next month.

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