Which is pretty much what we did with Commscamp the first unconference for communicators in and around local and central government.
Held at The Bond Company, a lovely converted warehouse in Birmingham’s creative quarter of Digbeth, we drew people from all over the country. It’s 135-capacity we could have sold four times over.
More than 170,000 saw the tweets on the day, a tweetreach survey revealed, and more than 500 joined in the debate on Twitter. More watching the sessions which were livestreamed.
People left the day fired with ideas with connections having been made with the unconference format allowing debate to flow over the tea, coffee and cake.
What is an unconference? It’s attendees deciding what gets talked about and voting with their feet to choose the break-out sessions they want. Want to crack a problem? Pitch a session and help run it yourself.
A revolutionary approach? Not really. It’s based on the success of sister events like UK Govcamp, localgovcamp, librarycamp and Hyper WM with many of them being staged in the highly networked city of Birmingham.
Why has there been such an explosion? Simple. A perfect storm of budget cuts, new technoplogu and people excited a little by the new and better things they can do with them.
A couple of years ago I talked to Home Office press officers.
“Why would I bother with a few thousand people on Twitter when the frontpage of the Sun gets read by two million?” one asked.
A few months later the riots struck and those organisations without a Twitter presence were hopelessly exposed.
I thought of that press officer when the streets burned.
But commscamp was far more than just geeks needing to understand how the web has changed.
It was also about the real human day-to-day problems of how not just to do better for less but how to do completely different for less too.
There was the central government comms person sharing in her session how they coped when their team was cut by two thirds almost overnight.
There was the local government officer talking about how comms people should be letting go of the reins and allowing frontline staff to use social media to tell their day-to-day story.
I’m biased, but people like Morgan Bowers, Walsall Council’s tweeting countryside ranger should be revered and held up as an example to every organisation. You can connect with people with a realtime picture of a newt. Morgan does.
There was the heated debate over the future of the press release. Some thought they had just as important a role as ever. Me? I’m not so sure. Not when you see what things like Torfaen Council’s excellent singing Elvis gritter YouTube can achieve with its 300,000 views. That’s just brilliant.
There was the local government press officer who button holed me with the words: “I just didn’t know comms people could help democracy” or the central government comms person almost drunk with the ideas and possibilities they’d breathed in the asking anyone who would listen how things like commscamp could be repeated.
But the simple answer is it can. With enthusiasm, some volunteers and a smidge of sponsorship you can run your own and it was heartening to hear how others were planning their own.
The fact that it was planned by three people – two local government people myself and Darren Caveney – along with the Cabinet Office’s brilliant dynamo Ann Kempster really shows the power of a good idea, drive and some free social media platforms. The helpers who helped on the day showed that too.
The real value of unconferences is not just the lessons learned on the day and there are plenty. But it’s the connections made and the experiences shared that will still be paying back in 12 months time.
There’s no question that local government and central government have got so much in common and can learn from one another. Fire and rescue people too. And NHS. And the voluntary sector. We need to work with each other more because we face the same problems.
But the golden thread that ran through everything was a determination to do things better by sharing ideas. That, people, is just a bit exciting.
A version of this appeared on The Guardian.
Get three things right in local government you may well be laughing: school closures, bin collections and gritting.
Those three horseman of the winter apocalypse can wreak havoc with lives.
Back in 2009, a handful of councils started to tweet when they were going out to treat the roads. Why? Because at 3am when there’s two shift workers and a drunk you need to shout about it.
Those pioneering early grit tweets opened-up a door and showed how real time information – and stories – is worth while.
By 2010 the idea had spread, thanks in part through SOCITM’s Twitter Gritter report which hailed best practice. I blogged a case study on it here.
By 2011, digital innovation looks to have taken another step forward with #wmgrit. This is a hashtag but so much more. A Cover It Live pulls Twitter Gritter tweets from eight West Midlands Councils – Birmingham, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Solihull – as well as the Highways Agency which treats motorways.
You can click through to the Cover it Live here: West Midlands Gritting Alerts
Why does this work? Because often a journey in the West Midlands can start in one area and go through others. Travel from Telford to Dudley and you can pass through five council areas in less than 30 miles. Bigger areas like Northumberland probably don’t need this.
Giving simple real time information is a brilliant way to make life a little easier for motorists, shout alerts and lets not forget remind people what local government does for them.
Who is the brains behind this? Much kudos to the digitally-savvy Birmingham City Council press officer Geoff Coleman who has developed this idea. Geoff – who is @colebagski on Twitter – hatched the plan and got people on board.
The man is brilliant. It’s people like Geoff and his militant optimism and his spirit of innovation that makes local government such an inspiring place to work and I’ll look forward the case study Geoff writes.
Twitter Gritter SOCITM’s report.
With Walsall Town Centre 100 we’re looking to go a step further and tell a different story.
We want to tell a hundred things about the life of a town centre across seven days from May 17 to 23 2011.
It’s not just about litter getting collected this time. It’s the faces on the market, the people in the shops and what gets done to keep people safe and protect law and order.
In effect it’s the council, the police, businesses and other partners joining forces to tell people what they do. It’s also about letting residents speak with Q&A sessions for key people.
All these factors make up the life of a town centre.
In many ways, Walsall is a typical town. It competes against bigger neighbours in Birmingham and the Merry Hill Shoping Centre in Dudley 14 miles away.
There’s three indoor shopping centres, 400 shops, an 800-year-old market, a circa 1905 Council House, a New Art Gallery, two museums and a 35-acre Arboretum giving a splash of green on the edge of the town centre.
It’s a town with civic pride built on the leather industry and one that was once known as the town of a hundred trades – hence the name of this experiment.
What are the channels?
We’re looking to use the council website walsall.gov.uk, the Walsall police web pages, Twitter, flag up some locations on Foursquare and also keep people informed via Facebook. There’s even geocaching too and a Flickr group to celebrate the beauty of the town.
The purpose is not to use a whole load of web tools just for the sake of it.
It’s to talk to people on a platform they might want to use.
How can you follow it?
@walsallcouncil from the council.
@walsallpolice from the town’s police force.
@walsalltown from the town centre management team.
There’s also historic updates from @walsalllhcentre.
There’s a web page on it to tell you all about it here.
Why more than one organisation?
Because what happens in an area isn’t just down to one. It’s down to several.
Why use social media?
Because it’s a good platform to communicate and listen.
What will it look like?
If you’ve seen Walsall 24, that was a barrage of information in real time. This is slightly different. There may be a background noise of tweets with more focussed on events this time.
For example, We’re live tweeting a pubwatch meeting, a day on the market and a Friday night with the police on patrol. All this is part of what makes a town centre tick.
There’s a Peregrine Watch staged by countryside officers, RSPB Walsall and the West Midlands Bird Club, a walk in the Arboretum and other things.
Why seven days?
To show all parts of the town centre from Saturday morning shopping to a Friday night on the town to a regular weekday morning.
This is what linked social is about. It’s a range of voices from a range of places with input from residents and shoppers too.
Will there be resources from it?
With Twitter being the live action, we’ll look to pull together Match of the Day-style highlights with storify.com.
Peregrine Falcon on Tameway Tower http://yfrog.com/hs90k9j
Walsall images from my Flickr stream http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/
Get like-minded people in one place and then decide what you are going to talk about on the day. You’d be amazed at the hot house ideas that emerge.
Believe it or not the first event described by such a term was the XML Developers Conference of 1998 in Montreal in Canada.
How does an unconference – or Barcamp – work? Basically, four or five rooms are used with different subjects being discussed in each in hour long slots. Feel like saying something? Just chip in. It’s as simple as that.
They work brilliantly in and around government where there is a willingness to share ideas without being hampered by private sector hang up about competition and bottom lines.
They work well in the hyperlocal community too – Talk About Local have run excellent events – and they’ve even gravitated into the travel industry.
Some of the most exciting thinking I’ve come across has been at unconferences. It’s not exaggeration to say Localgovcamp Birmingham in 2009 utterly revolutionised the way I think and approach my job.
Elsewhere, UKgovcamp in January saw around 120 people with five rooms and eight slots. That’s 32,000 possible combinations. In other words, a lot of knowledge and conversations. Coming back from one such event in London as the train was passing through the Oxfordshire countryside one clear thought struck me.
Invariably, those who go are innovators. This is great. In local government, there is a need for these key events every few months if for nothing else than the sanity of those who blaze a trail sometimes with little support. But how do you get the message through to the 9 to 5-ers and policy makers who would also really benefit?
It’s an idea I’ve kicked around idly with a few people. Myself and Si Whitehouse mulled this over at the London Localgovcamp. I like the phrase ‘Locallocalgovcamp’ he came up with. It has the spirit of localgovcamp but it’s a lite version.
What it may be is this: A space where ideas could be kicked around in the informal, unconference style.
But crucially, there maybe an item or a hook pre-advertised that may encourage slightly less adept to come along. Besides, it’s easier to convince your boss to let you go to an event if you know you’ll get something out of it. The pitch of ‘Cheerio boss, I’m off now to drink coffee with geeks and I may just learn something’ is not as compelling as ‘Cheerio, boss, I’m going to this event to learn x and if y and z too.’
The idea of the local meet-up itself is not especially something new.
London digital people in government do something called ‘Tea Camp’. A 4-6pm slot in a department store cafe. Tea. Cake. Conversation. All seems dashed civilised idea. Besides, there’s a critical mass all working in a small area.
So what would an as-part-of-the-day-job West Midlands bostin social event look like?
Two hours? Two rooms? Two sessions? Or is that too short?
What do you think?
Creative commons photo credit: Barcamp: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid laughingsquid.com.
That’s the verdict from the excellent Future of News West Midlands event in Birmingham.
Depressing? Not really. Realistic? Absolutely. And there’s a surprising amount in common between hyperlocals and local government web experimentors like me.
This rather excellent event at Birmingham City University drew web entrepreneurs, hyperlocals and newspaper people.
Forward looking rather than finger pointing it looked for solutions and answers rather than blame.
The seven income streams idea for hyperlocals prompted debate about what those streams could be. Straight forward banner ads emerge from the print model. But then what?
Actually, a whole myriad of ideas that the show web as a vibrant place for entrepreneurs.
Picture framing, listings, ad features, hyperlocal t-shirts bigging up an estate or area and PR services all emerged as potential solutions. There was even a natty idea to maximise dead air time on pub TVs.
However, the danger is the cash cow you chance upon replaces the hyperlocal reason for doing it in the first place. Besides, what works in one town may not work in a different estate.
But surely this lack of sure funding means hyperlocals are doomed? If you were an accountant, yes. You could be right. And if you were looking at these sites to make piles of cash.
But then balance sheets don’t count the enthusiasm, community spirit and zeal many people are powered by.
First, there’s still demand for local news, for one. And a passion for an area.
But if something really did become crystal clear it’s this: there are barriers to hyperlocals as we’ll as local government. They just have different labels.
For hyperlocals it’s lack of time and the prized extra time seven income streams can bring.
For local government, who can have a degree of funding, it’s lack of time and the barriers a chain of command – and IT departments – can bring. We may want to deploy leftfield ideas. It’s just not always possible.
Both sides can be forgiven for looking enviously at the other.
Yet, for all these obstacles there are some brilliant ideas taking shape in all corners of the web in the public and private sectors.
There’s no golden bullet for the future of news but I’m convinced the answers will be found through pioneering spirit plus a passion for an area.
That’s not unlike how good web ideas will succeed in local government.
Creative commons credits.
Abstract image www.imageabstraction.com.
Corrected journal Judge Mental