Shaping up Cambridge


Some thoughts on the launch of a local authorities-backed community website for Cambridge

It was Cambridge Citizen Journalist Richard Taylor who tipped me off about the looming launch date of this in his blogpost about Shape Your Place coming to Cambridge. The first I heard about it was over a year ago – around the time Liz Stevenson and I launched Teacambs. It was one of the early topics.

As mentioned at the time, and as you can see from the top menu bars on Shape Your Place Ely, (pronounced Eee-Lee – a tiny city with a massive cathedral just north of Cambridge), the communities hosted are all in the northern half of the county. Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire are conspicuous by their absence. Feeling sort of left out, I wondered why Cambridge didn’t have such a set up – a one-stop online portal for the City.

“Hang on Pooffles, doesn’t this sound like Cambridge L!VE that you’ve mentioned?”

A little bit – I had some ideas around developing an integrated community-based website throughout 2012 under a theme I titled Cambridge L!VE. Over the 18 or so months since then, I’ve come to realise that achieving the vision that I have in my mind is going to be a much harder slog than I thought it would be. The original timetable I had in mind proved to be hopelessly unrealistic. You can’t just rock up somewhere and expect people to jump on board. Earning people’s trust and respect takes a huge amount of time and effort – and consistency too. That has involved a huge amount of listening – turning up to events, talks, gatherings and workshops. And even then you’re only scratching the surface in terms of ‘presence’.

“But isn’t this website stealing your thunder?”

Not at all – if it’s going to do something that I think is a good idea in principle, it means I don’t have to do it myself. Bonus! The problems arise if what they do goes pear-shaped. It’s easier to persuade people to try something new than to repeat something that in their mind did not work out first time around. How many of you have worked for organisations that have had regular restructures? You know, where centralising things makes sense one year, then decentralising makes sense the next? Where you have your specialists embedded in teams throughout the office vs having your specialists all together in a single hub of experts? What goes through your mind when managers announce there is going to be a restructure? Heard it all before?

If it’s going to be a success, who needs to do what?

The first thing to note is that it’s going to be a 6 month trial. Looking at Ely’s ‘about’ page one of the things that stands out is the attempt to make the functions as technologically simple as possible. (Note, this is not the same as being ‘user-friendly’). So from an expectations point of view, it’s not going to be a polished, finished product when it goes online. Quite the opposite.

As far as local authorities and local public sector organisations – in particular their corporate communications teams are concerned, their existing publicity will need to incorporate this website. In one sense that should be straight forward – the county-wide services have already started using the existing sites so all that is happening is increasing their presence within a county they already cover. But for those new to the set up – in particular Cambridge City Council, are their systems and processes ready? Are their councillors ready and prepared too?

Communities of space, communities of interest?

This for me is one of the big acid tests: Can the local authorities persuade existing communities to ‘buy in’ to this community portal? If so, then softer publicity from such groups and communities could become self-fulfilling in terms of getting more people to use it. In particular, it increases the chances of having that minimum number of people needed to sustain a community portal – that all-important critical mass.

Some parts of Cambridge already have well-established communities of space. Others, less well so. What will the approach be to a part of Cambridge where the council has a large presence say of community centres such as in the north of Cambridge, compared to my side of town where council-run community centres are few and far-between? 

Who are the existing groups and organisations that might be interested in using the community portal? This may be useful for those that might, for example be interested in blogging every so often but not on a regular basis that justifies their own personalised blog.  How will the presence of this portal be used in existing training courses provided not just by schools, colleges and local training providers, but by employers too?

Richard Taylor’s concerns

He’s right to ask the first question: Why go with a bespoke solution when something is already there – Facebook? Part of that answer is consistency with the rest of the county. If the feeling within local authorities and partner organisations is that Shape Your Place is working in the north of the county, why not roll it out to the south based on an existing structure that’s shown to work?

The challenge to that mindset is reflected in the recent county council elections: Cambridgeshire is divided: politically, economically and by infrastructure geographically. What might suit a rural area with a series of parish and town councils within each district might not sit so easily in an urban area. The challenge they face in Cambridge is building up an online community from scratch. How do you go about doing that? Because doing so is not easy and requires a huge amount of combined effort.

How will it compete with what’s already out there? My take is that what is already out there doesn’t meet what Cambridge both needs and also has the potential to host. We need a central community portal but one that is genuinely driven by the grassroots. But how do you achieve this? I don’t think the likes of Richard or other local bloggers need to worry – people will continue to read their blogs so long as they find the content interesting. Chances are having a central portal is more likely to increase traffic towards the bloggers than decrease it, depending on how local bloggers choose to use it. People commenting on Cambridge Evening News stories will continue to do so too.

Moderation matters

If you want to have good quality exchanges, having an active pool of community moderators is essential. Even more important that a number of that pool are volunteers too, rather than council employees alone. Otherwise the risk is that the council employees’ actions in moderating comments becomes the story of ‘censoring free speech’. Free speech is one thing, but what’s the point if one person’s free speech drives lots of other people away, killing the life of the online forum? It’s like the general who says that in order to defend a town and prevent it from falling into enemy hands, he has to launch a military operation that wipes the town off of the map. In the end, nobody wins.

Thus moderation policy needs to be clear and needs to be acted upon. This also means that moderators need to be helped and guided too – especially on judging on when comments break criminal law – such as some of the incitement offences, or civil law such as libelling someone. Active moderation of comments soon sets the expectations of what is and what is not acceptable.

Does the ‘online propaganda’ point Richard made apply? Not in this case – this is a foray into social media for local authorities which means users can bite back. Propaganda is flammable in such environments. If local authorities put out material that is at odds with what citizens and users feel, the latter will respond in kind.

In the final point of Richard’s concerns, for me it’s not an either/or. One of the keys to success for Shape Your Place Cambridge is its ability to convene and bring people together online for big conversations. That also means having a liberal policy of linking to where online conversations are taking place. This doesn’t mean allowing local party activists to swap conversation streams with spam or abusive posts – something that poorly-moderated forums find all too often, especially with extremists. Will the presence of one or two people with extremist but not illegal political views put off other people from using the portal?

It’s only just a beginning

It may not even work for Cambridge. On the other hand it may work so well that lots of people get on board and push for more interactive and advanced features that other parts of the county don’t have. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to try it.


3 thoughts on “Shaping up Cambridge

  1. I think a lot depends on how the detail will work. There need to be clear levels of expectation, and it needs managing/moderating.

    The facebook thing is spurious I think – not everyone wants to use facebook, and lots of us don’t want to use it for everything. I, and many other people involved in politics, like to seperate their facebook account from twitter, for those very reasons (I don’t generally add constituents to facebook, apart from ones who are friends anyway).

    As with most IT, you need to decide what the purpose of your ‘thing’ is, then choose a way of doing it, not choose the platform then choose the way of doing it.

  2. Cllr Manning’s North Area Committee had a Facebook page, on which matters could be raised, but there was no formal link between the activity there and the committee itself. Matters raised online were not reported to the committee. All I’m suggesting is the council provides online, asynchronous, routes to participate in discussion currently held only within public meetings via such pages.

    I’m not suggesting councillors join facebook and add constituents (they can of course) but that would enable private exchanges, and what I’m seeking, and what I hope the ShapeYourPlace site might provide is public discussion and deliberation. I’m just noting this is possible with Facebook too.

    Facebook is just an example of where the council could go to where people are already. Another example I’ve given is the Cambridge News website, I’d like to see the councils and other public bodies engaging there too, and perhaps working closely enough with them that formal, official, routes for having input into decisions can be incorporated.

    If the police, and other public bodies, are to respond to matters raised by the public on ShapeYourPlace – why not also get them to respond to news articles on the Cambridge News, the latter would, I’d expect, reach a much wider audience.

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