Tuesday, 04 November 2014

What to do about local community information? What’s needed to re-invigorate local democracy? Well we could start with an honest assessment of the state of local community information, and who contributes to it. Some years ago Hugh Flouch and I ran an unconference at Ofcom for people interested and involved in local online networks (sometimes unhelpfully called ‘hyperlocals’) in London. A number of recommendations emerged for modest pieces of work – e.g. around standards, training in journalism and editing etc – which wouldn’t have required much funding to ensure they happened. As far as I know no funding was secured and none of this work was ever carried forward. Despite the early enthusiasm and promise, and many remarkable examples of good practice, the local online networks movement can hardly be described as being in rude health; and I’m sure there is much reinvention of wheels. Meanwhile the state of local information provision around the country is dire. A new paper by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust notes that around the country, local council meetings now regularly go unattended and unreported. Moore argues that: Innovation in local news and information is urgently needed to address the decline in local newspapers and to help support and reinvent local news and community information for the 21st century Without such reinvention we risk weakening our civic communities and our local authorities becoming unaccountable There is a window of opportunity for the UK government to seed, through an independently run competition at no cost to the taxpayer, a flowering of innovation in news and information and civic technology at a local level The opportunity for innovation and growth will decline as non-UK technology platforms further colonise local media space. There's a little hyperbole here - local authorities won't suddenly become 'unaccountable' - but the argument is sound. I would have preferred less emphasis on competitive funding schemes, which have arbitrary effects, and more on (i) small-scale targetted grants that add value across the sector; and (ii) the social, economic and governmental benefits of involving more citizens in the production of their own news and the discussion of their own issues. I’ve recently been designing a questionnaire survey to be administered at a local level in east York, for a JRF-funded project. Among the questions we’ll be asking will be a few about local channels of information – how important are they? do local people contribute to them? and could local people be contributing to them more? Is a local resident-run website likely to encourage community involvement in local issues, or discourage it? Would it make for a more positive sense of local identity or a more negative one? By taking a non-tech, community development approach to such questions we may gain insights that will be valuable in re-invigorating the neighbourhood online networks movement: that certainly seems to be needed.
State intervention in keeping an eye out for older neighbours? Views from London, 1918 As the impact of the ‘Great War’ is much in people’s minds at the moment, this blog offers some reflections on neighbourly support for older people, originally published (unparagraphed, in tiny font) in 1918. Lonely dwellers and their neighbours ‘It was stated in the newspapers recently that a woman, 73 years of age, living alone in a house in Gray’s Inn road, fell down stairs one Wednesday evening, and, being unable to move, was not discovered until the following Saturday. On the next day she died in the hospital to which she had been taken. Stories of this kind, or of solitary persons who die and whose bodies are only discovered after some time, are not infrequent, and such cases occur in the country as well as in great cities. Probably, however, they are rarer in rural districts and small towns, where eccentric characters and the poor and lonely are of greater interest to their neighbours than they are in the metropolis. It is difficult, indeed, to suggest any means which would prevent such an occurrence in the crowded area around Holborn, nor can we say that any duty of neighbourliness was neglected by those in her vicinity who went their daily way while an old woman lay at the foot of a staircase in a house which they had no reason for entering. Nor does society, the State, or the local authority appear to be called upon to interfere if persons of mature age , whether poor or not, prefer to live alone rather than in surroundings which would expose them to observation. In the absence of organised intervention it is usually the baker, or the milkman, or the postman, particularly the last in country districts, who reports that he cannot get the accustomed answer at a certain door, when further inquiry shows that a lonely dweller is ill or dead. It might conceivably be made an instruction to postmen to be observant in such matters, and to report the non-delivery of a letter through failure to get a reply to a knock at the door. But lonely dwellers receive few letters. There remain the baker and the milkman, whose services might also be requisitioned in normal times, but even then there are many cases where the customer fetches his own bread from a shop where his abode is not known. It is, indeed, likely that any such system as we have suggested, even if reinforced by the aid of the police, would not only lead to many false alarms, but would break down and be inoperative in a substantial proportion of genuine instances. Cases, therefore, such as that on which we have commented will continue to fill us with pity, but will not be averted unless and until the State undertakes even greater surveillance over the details of our daily lives than it does at present. Do we want that?’ The Lancet, 192(4959), 14 September 1918, 362-363.

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