Mapping Data, Networking the City

This is a short blog about some attempts in London to look at using digital, data, ideas around the network broadly for social good in civil society – partly stimulated by the Way Ahead report.

I’ll try not to bore you – but hold out for the end because there’s a surprise coming courtesy of Mr Zuckerberg.

At a half day event at City hall we caught up with a number of projects around digital, mapping and participation and then broke into workshops to further our ideas.  I joined Geraldine Blake (London Funders Way Ahead consultant) and Kate White (from Superhighways) in a group looking at London VCS data as this seemed the most aligned with a Way Ahead theme.

The discussion seemed to work broadly at three levels.

  1. There was a pure data level where the problem was addressed as a technical issue with a relatively straightforward solutions.  Basically, get those databases talking to each other with APIs and other technical trickery.
  1. A more nuanced version which acknowledged the reality that the majority of VCS organisations are not registered charities (or registered anything) so may be on a CVS database, but may or may not be public. For example, here is our public directory showing about 1800 organisations (only approx 600 are registered charities).  However, we have the same number again on our database that do not want to be on the public directory.  So here are two problems already – the significant one that probably only the local CVS has any sort of directory of the majority of local organisations (as they are not registered charities or companies) and secondly the fact that a good proportion of them don’t want to share their data (usually because they are too small or are using private numbers, home addresses etc). This was significant as it revealed a pretty major USP for local CVSs.  There’s no easy way to get that data from elsewhere and there’s no way to scoop that up into a centralized database. Looks like we’re indispensable!
  1. And finally, Way Ahead’s little grenade – civil society.  What does civil society use?  Anything and everything; spreadsheets of email addresses cut and pasted into the bcc field.  Yahoo Groups, Twitter, Facebook, Meetup, mail groups on listeron, riseup, mailchimp, shared files on google drive and dropbox.  And all manner of websites. And facebook.  Network that!

Perhaps the final challenge here for  networked civic participation is that I have a strong feeling that most of these activists are happy with this state of affairs.  They want to be below the radar.  They don’t want outsiders muscling in on their discussions.

This is a conundrum for local government and civic participation.  Matthew Ryder, the Deputy Mayor, challenged us to come up with ideas to deepen engagement. But from local experience this is becoming a fraught area. The impetus for a lot of hyper local civic engagement in London is development and in most cases the peoples are in conflict with their council as many councils are using development as way to back fill their budgets that have been stripped by central government. For example, almost 400 tower blocks are going up across London.  On top of this is intensification – a euphemism for knocking down an estate and rebuilding it more densely, with luxury apartments to pay for it all, and often less social housing than before.  Dozens have already been redeveloped with mixed results from complete success to abysmal failure (see Heygate and Sweets Way).  And this intensification is nearly all in what were social housing areas – though post intensification the areas are often much more ‘gentrified’. And then there are other developments including major infrastructure such as HS2 and Crossrail.   Councils are also engaging their people about  charges for care, cuts to services and new taxes. So by and large the people are revolting.  Tensions are running high.  And there are local elections next year. Engagement is going to be tricky.

So I’m not sure where we are going with networked civic participation if the bureaucrat view is to centralise and standardise. But it’s worth noting that there have been some attempts at centralising and channelling engagement before.  Camden tried it with a website called WeAreCamden (based on a Cambridge Open Systems platform). The site was quietly taken down in 2015 and now just hosts consultations, but it was  originally aimed to be an all singing all dancing social engagement tool , a ‘social network for Camden’ – but allegedly never had more than 4000 users (around 1% of the boroughs daytime population).  And sadly rather than share the learning it was just quietly shelved.  And there is a more recent example from the enterprising Community Southwark who have set up a Nation Builder site called Southwark CAN which is similarly trying to engage the broad population and is partly organised around local “Community Action Networks” that seem to parallel the council’s community councils (which confusingly each have a facebook page as well). It’s only a year old but numbers look low here as well.

So to conclude, the bureaucrats are still attempting to centralise and standardize (as they always will), but the realization that CVSs engage with a majority of unregistered groups who are recorded nowhere else gives CVSs a strong unique selling point and the CVS network needs to drive this home as a key message in the Way Ahead. Networking deeper into civil society is yet more challenging as the networks become (deliberately) less visible and more hyper local and fragmented. But the experiments with borough wide social networks clearly show that some boroughs are thinking about this – though no one has cracked it yet (I wonder where they share this thinking?). There are also lots of unspoken assumptions linking the networked society with political engagement and on just whose terms do these two things come together.

And then in comes Mark Zuckerberg.  On 18th February, five days before our meeting, Zuck dropped a bombshell –

“For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

I’m really not making this up.  You can read his full statement – all 5700 words of it here.


Kevin Nunan


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