Wednesday, 11 February 2009

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.
What do you mean, 'local'? Over on the Local democracy blog Dave Briggs asks, how close is local? I'd say most people regard 'local' as geographically within reach, and obviously that differs individually, which is fine. If terminology is fuzzy it doesn't necessarily mean it's invalid. We need definitions for administrative areas (wards, cantons, parishes) but not to explain individually-variable experiences of the socially-charged space nearest to the home. And maybe it helps to think about what local is not. For instance, it's not the same as nearness, and that's reinforced in this image (courtesy of Indy Johar, 00 architects), which reminds us how transport efficiencies influence our sense of distance. So why after generations and centuries of people gathering together in villages, towns and cities, are we suddenly struggling with the fact that terms like neighbourhood and locality aren't rigidly defined? What has happened for instance that causes Dave quite reasonably to suggest that 'it will be increasingly important to research how people’s notions of their own ‘local’ will determine levels of interest'? Well here's a wild guess: our behaviours within societies have become just a bit too fluid and mobile to make our identification with place readily apparent to each other. It's not that people were not mobile in the past - the middle ages for instance saw significant levels of complex mobility - but that when we are settled in a given place, we're still not always 'there' or always associated with it. We occupy our neighbourhoods less than ever and interact less with those around us, partly because we no longer have to of course. Hold the grimey lens of hyper-diversity in front of all that and the character of 'localness' becomes even less clear. This stuff crops up everywhere now. Last night I took part in a discussion at a Talk the Walk networking meeting where participants explored some of the reasons why people find some public spaces offputting or threatening. And immediately, voices were rehearsing technical solutions - urban design, essentially. I've no wish to denigrate the role of design to help address such needs, but somehow discussion of social and cultural issues always seems to get squeezed out. How come we find it so hard to accept that problems in the use of public space are (at least in part) social problems? Some places can appear 'anti-social' (in the broadest sense) not just because of design problems but also because of the way people behave when they have few and/or inadequate connections with those around them. How does it happen that a loan male walking in the park in broad daylight is perceived as threatening? Design solutions alone will not make much difference in helping the woman who sees things that way begin to reclaim the space - for which she'll need a range of local social connections. How does it happen that the group of kids rippling their muscles on the street corner are seen as intimidating? (Partly because they are, I know). Design solutions alone will...

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