Tuesday, 03 February 2009

Under snow Some time ago a frontline public library worker said to me, it's like working in mental health. What she meant was that libraries are an important refuge for people with mental health difficulties, who may have nowhere else to go for much of the day; and a lot of what library staff do now is providing a facility which helps them. It's an under-appreciated role. Libraries are also an important daily checkpoint for many refugees and asylum seekers. So I applaud the fact that on a day of capital-stopping weather, on which schools were shut without hesitation, at least in my area the libraries were kept open. Other notes from the day: Checking up on the NDNs. She offered me table salt for my path. Apparently the local store opened up as usual, but a small gang gathered to hurl snowballs through the doors at the groceries so they shut for a while. Some complete plonker driving on packed icy snow, one hand with a mobile phone to his ear, yacking away. As a pedestrian, it's not the conditions, it's prats like that you have to worry about. Admiring the weak light making the boughs seem green on a hidden path I use, gasping at the clear readiness of landscape. On my way back from my run I noted a snow-woman, scruffy but still somehow poised and elegant. A minute later cries caused me to turn, to realise she'd been brutishly knocked over by a couple of unthinking lads, embarrassed at their own laughter. Well at least they were outdoors. Other schoolkids who have not really known snow, rolling down hill together, learning something about innocent collective discovery that will outlast all childhood. Recalling the winter of '63, slides right across the village pond, birds frozen to wires and frozen milk forcing the caps off bottles that stuck to the step.
BeLocal workshop game The other day I ran a game at a BeLocal workshop on 'Building and engaging local communities using digital technologies,' organised by Simon Grice. The intention was to use fiction to create a local context and bring a touch of reality to the fresh excitement of 'freeing up information' for the citizen. Time to refer to the recent Power of Information Taskforce Report (beta) report which recommends that UK central government should create the capability for others to re-use and innovate with 'official' datasets. They quote the Prime Minister: ‘Public information does not belong to government, it belongs to the public on whose behalf government is conducted' - but of course we need to go further. Most people aren't going to be too interested in whether or not information 'belongs' to them, if it doesn't help them or is not pertinent. If we can create information services, personalised or not, that advance the engagement and empowerment of people who experience disadvantage and exclusion, then making them relevant to others is not likely to be too problematic. And invariably, as Simon noted during the workshop, discussions among information professionals tend to drift away from 'community' to reflect a precoccupation with the systems. So the objective of the game was to devise an information system, but it had to be based on a neighbourhood context - invented and described by participants; and on the day-to-day lives of individuals - also invented and described by participants. In the end I over-prescribed some of the conditions but each of the three groups rose to the increasing challenges of complex neighbourhood environments and awkward personal circumstances for their character. The outcomes, when they came to describe their proposed systems, were inventive and sincere: given some of the IT 'solutions' in which local authorities have invested serious money, you might think they had a ready market. The potential value of the game was summed up for me in the narrative developed by one of the groups about their character - a 51-year old gay formerly married self employed tradesman with no computer skills, who became the driving force for a locally-grown information service that addressed exaggerated and stifling perceptions of the fear of crime. Lots of new services are going to emerge in the post-Taskforce context and in the slipstream of the Timely Information Initiative, and it may start to feel like a bewildering frantic dash. Reflecting creatively on the environment in which people need and seek information is surely essential for getting this right. Much of the content of the BeLocal workshop has been captured here by Carl Haggerty.

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