Hyperlocal till I die

In the 20 months I’ve been editor and proprietor of bournvillevillage.com I’ve often been on the verge of giving it up. I tend to update it no more than a couple of times a week but sometimes I just get fed up with it. What usually makes me carry on is the knowledge that looking for someone else to do it would take as much energy as just doing it myself.

So, I thought I’d write a post here to offer some advice on how to keep sane and keep your hyperlocal blog going.

1. You are not a business model
Perhaps the greatest revelation I’ve had is that hyperlocal doesn’t have to be financially sustainable. You may have to finance it (a minor cost if you self-host and buy a domain name), but don’t go worrying about a return. There are many engaged in a debate about the economics of doing this stuff but by and large they’re not talking about you. You didn’t get into this to make money and the debate is distracting you from being…

2. You are a Creative Citizen
I’ve decided that rather than a hobby, running the Bournville blog is part of my ‘practice’. Positioning it this way makes it sound a bit arty and pretentious – that’s a good thing. Putting together words and images is a creative act. Maybe you’re only telling the world about a lost cat but that lost cat article is contributing to a new form of journalistic practice – hyperlocal blogging. Given you don’t have to adhere to the techniques journalists get taught at journalism schools, that you can experiment and test out new ways to use various media, you’re not far off being an artist. At the very least you’re playing a part in a shifting media landscape that’s coming round to your way of working, take pride in that.

3. Making is Connecting
In my review of David Gauntlett’s book, Making is Connecting, I talked about the pleasure of fiddling about with bits of code as I go about making the stuff I publish. Recently I got handed some data from the city council (they didn’t release the data, I had to go ask for it and it slipped out the back door into my hands) from which I created a map that I thought might be useful to residents. It’s not a great map, I’m not a designer, but in creating it I learnt tons of stuff and got useful advice and guidance from others with a bit more map knowledge than myself. And that’s part of the joy of creating. Hyperlocal is not only about the community you blog about but also the communities of interest that you connect to as part of your practice (mappers, photographers, other bloggers).

4. You are not the community
You’re just someone blogging about a particular space, in which there’s no doubt many communities. Stop worrying about representing them, or being their ‘voice’. Imagine all the tiresome meetings you would have to go to to properly represent them – nobody wants to be the kind of person who goes to tiresome meeting all the time. Blog about stuff that comes your way and that you think might attract readers; heck, don’t even worry about attracting readers, it’s not like you have a business model to support (see point 1).

5. Have some children
Or something that keeps you tied to an area. I could equally have put, provocatively, ‘be unambitious’, or ‘have an aged parent close by’. The longevity of your blog is directly connected to your life circumstances. As long as Bournville has good schools I’ll probably stay here. I’m sufficiently lacking in career ambition to not go chasing employment anywhere that would take me away from Birmingham. My ageing Mother lives locally(ish). In short, I’m staying put. And ‘staying put’ is the best chance your blog has got of a long life. Knowing I’m staying put helps me not worry about updating it 10 times a week; I know my hyperlocal blog will be around and part of the media landscape for quite a while to come.

6. Local media is worse at this than you
You think your journalistic prose is bad? Think some interesting local stories have passed you by? Have you not read a local paper lately? By quite some distance you are better at covering local stuff than they are. There are exceptions. On the Bournville blog we did a decent job of covering the Cadbury takeover but now Kraft are in place they tend to feed the PR opportunities only to established media. I quite fancied interviewing Irene Rosenfeld when she finally came to Bournville but despite their PR people knowing I exist they only ever send press releases, and give opportunities, to established media. But really, who cares. There’s bigger fish to fry.

Have been meaning to get these thoughts down for a while – hope they’re useful. I hate to see hyperlocal blogs grinding to a halt so maybe my views (in summary: stop worrying about it, do what you can, you’re amazing) can give you some comfort.

Some hyperlocal blogging joy

The local news website (or ‘hyperlocal blog’ as we call it nowadays) that I edit has given me some joy this week. Firstly a comment came in that I thought summed up some nice community spirit; and secondly we got a story on the front page of the local newspaper, the Birmingham Mail.

The front cover thing first: so I saw a train come through Bournville station on Thursday November 4th at about 1.20pm. I realise what it is (I just know, okay, I have that kind of knowledge in me) and quickly grab a pic of it on the iPhone. I tweet it, as one would, but there’s not any kind of earth-shattering reaction in that rarefied world of twitter so I don’t think too much of it.

But over the weekend it’s apparent that a story about a nuclear train is timely. And timeliness is something my old journalism lecturer taught me was important in deciding if something is newsworthy.

So I blog the story on the Sunday, knowing that on Monday the mail trawl the local blogs for their communities pages on Tuesday. They’ll go big on this one, I think, presuming they’ll give it a couple of paragraphs. However, before I know it there’s a photographer taking ‘grumpy of Bournville‘ pictures and the following day we’re front page, continued on page three and in the communities pull-out as well.

Nice result and site traffic quadrupled.

That coment: given we don’t get a lot of comments on the blog I was most pleased to get one that summed up a bit of the community spirit I think Bournville possesses. This was in relation to the protest against a phone mast:

Well done to all who protested i was so proud for me and my children and for all the young people and children I work for as a youth and playworker in the Northfield area. And a very big thank you to MP Steve McCabe for all his hard work and for listening to the local people and their children well done. Well done also to the Birmingham mail for a great picture of all the families. Andrew Cartwright.

Yeah sure, the mast protest may well come across as a bit of nimbyism but people protesting in the street against an unwanted intervention by a multi-national corporation – that sounds exactly the sort of thing we should be celebrating.

Notes on pretending to be a journalist

[Or: ‘Onward Chocolate Soldiers‘ as I was going to call this blog post]

As I’m minding shop at Bournville Village blog at the moment I thought I’d write up some thoughts on what has been a really busy couple of weeks for the blog. This might offer some insights to those, like me, dabbling in ‘hyperlocal‘ (yes I know that links out to an unanswered question – like me, they may not know the answer).

(Lack of) preperation is everything: When I agreed to take on the blog in the new year I’d kind of forgotten about the Cadbury thing. I certainly didn’t take on board how big a story it might be should Kraft or someone else finally get their hands on the company. So when the phoney war ended and the Cadbury story kicked off big time on the 19th January, for the life of me I couldn’t think how best to cover the story. What kind of blog is Bournville Village anyway? Is this a good time for the blog to come over all Socialist Worker? As it turns out I didn’t have time to reflect as the hits on the site went a bit bonkers (we already score high for ‘Cadbury’ or ‘Bournville’ searches as it is).

The Voice of the People: Almost as soon as we’d published our own story breaking the takeover bid news, there began a series of enquiries from international journalists. CBS News shot a short interview with me (that they then cut), a lovely French journalist from Les Echos conducted an interview with me at Bournville station and seemed scandalised that the station was painted purple: “in France, this would not be allowed.” There was an interview for Smooth FM and an appearance on the Carl Chinn show on Radio WM as well as a host of other emails from Canadian, US and European journalists. They all thought I was some kind of ‘voice of the people’ for Bournville. I’m not, but if your blog is getting this kind of attention, play along, it could useful in the long term.

Why Journalism skills matter: I studied a couple of undergraduate modules called ‘newswriting’ in the early 90s and I was involved in the student newspaper for about three years. The former taught me the art of the ‘intro’ – get the first paragraph right and the rest falls into place. A skill I could really do with though is shorthand, especially when you’ve got Lord Digby Jones in front of you barking out great quotes and you need to be quick and accurate. I was neither, so went back with a video camera and got a really good interview with him.

You’ll miss stuff, don’t worry: I drop the kids to scool in the morning at two different locations in Bournville and Selly Oak. I was desperate to cover the coach leaving Bournville taking workers to Westminster for a demostration. I missed it by a whisker and was a bit cross with myself. Not to worry though as I think the following makes a useful golden rule:

If you see other journalists, go somewhere else: When the takeover was actually completed I thought I’d better get some immediate reaction. I went down to the front of the factory only to find the place ambushed by journalists. They were clearly waiting for workers to emerge so I thought better of it and went round the back of the factory to the Village Green to find not a single hack there. I shot a couple of interviews with local business people, some moody Bournville at dusk scenes and had them uploaded within an hour. Generally I’m intimidated by journalists, they have bigger cameras, shorthand and can think of better questions than me – best steer clear.

Use the medium you’re comfortable with: However, try not to use it like others do. I enjoy using video as it relies on some previous training I have. So I know why you should shoot an establishing shot or two (for cutaways; jump-cuts are so 1960s), why you should generally prevent people looking direct into camera (your blog is not their broadcast platform), and why if you have two interviewees with opposing views you should shoot them looking in different directions (it reinforces their postions in the viewers’ minds). You can do all the above and still avoid your stuff feeling like the stuff produced by mainstream broadcast media.

I don’t care about technology: I’m sure if I had slicker technology I could get things online quicker but I don’t. I have a Canon DV cam and a Canon compact stills camera. They share the same battery type which can be advantageous and the still camera shoots nice video (example above). I have the world’s worst phone.

Experiment but don’t be upset when it fails: On deadline day, when the offer had to accepted by Cadbury shareholders by 1pm, I had to be at work. So I decided instead to countdown Cadbury’s final hours by doing some live blogging with coveritlive. The end result – a bit lacklustre and little external engagement. It wasn’t really a live event as such since we didn’t find out the takeover result until 5pm.

So overall I’ve had fun covering the Cadbury story but am grateful that things will go quiet for a while and we can cover the issues that really matter to Bournville residents. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you what is still our biggest story to date, upping our unique visitors by ten times: Tesco at Christmas – store opening times.

[Thanks to Hannah Waldram for giving me the chance to take on the blog and to the BBC Radio WM people who were kind enough to treat me like a proper journalist whenever I met them and linked to the blog from their own coverage]

Data is the New Grit

I’ve taken over the reins at Bournville News for the duration and one of the things I did recently was to produce a map of gritting routes for the area (idea nicked from Northwood Local):

View Bournville and surrounds – gritting routes in a larger map

Now I’m not all that sure that in the course of things seeing a gritting map is particularly useful for Bournville residents. However, I thought the potential grit shortage might mean that some roads would stop getting gritted should the cold spell continue and knowing which roads were meant to be gritted would be useful knowledge.

‘Will my road get gritted?’ is an easy question to answer since the City Council has a alphabetical list of all the roads that are gritted in order of priority. Should supplies run low, I thought, then some roads around Bournville wouldn’t get gritted, residents would get annoyed and the story might grow.

But anyway, daveharte.com doesn’t exist to tell you about annoyed Bournville residents. Instead I wanted to go through the whole pointless, tedious process of creating the map and why this hyperlocal blogging thing is doomed to failure unless we get a rich supply of local data to feed off.

Creating the map – the tedious way:

  1. So, as I said above, the data exists in some rather clumsy, unsortable data on the Birmingham City Council website. I cut and paste this data into a google spreadsheet.
  2. I ordered the spreadsheet to just show the Bournville area.
  3. I then used this information to create a new map in google maps tracing the roads that were to gritted using the ‘Draw along Roads’ button. It was easy then to label up each road as to its gritting priority (level 1, 2 or 3)
  4. Hang on though, what the list called Bournville and what is generally thought of as Bournville aere two different things. A search under Weoley Castle, Northfield and Selly Oak eventually teased out the remaining Bournville roads
  5. Simple now, just get the embed code and place in new blog post.
  6. What? Google Maps has split the map into pages if there’s too much data. Some roads are on page two. Aaaargh. Hang on, google always has the answer
  7. So, get the kml data from the map I produced and import it into a new map to get over the above issue. Now get the new embed code and erm, embed
  8. Look up from laptop and realise that the entire football match you had intended to watch has now finished

Creating the Map – the easy way
The data for the gritting lorry routes already exists. The City Council has it. They have data in usable formats (kml) for loads of stuff like this. If I had that I could, with a click and a few tweaks, create a gritting map for the whole city. It would probably show the routes the trucks went on as well. I (and other local bloggers) could then embed a map for the bit we need. And get this, I (or someone else with an equally mediocre technical knowledge) would create the grit map, not the City. Free the data and we’ll do it for you.

How London Borough of Sutton do it
Not gritting routes maybe but still useful. They’ve got a google map with grit bins on it. If your bin is empty then let them know. If it’s been nicked then let them know. The map is the result of some useful trickery by Adrian Short who is pushing the data through a yahoo pipe. I’m presuming the data for where the grit bins were wasn’t sourced using OS maps. Rather, their locations were plotted by blokes in vans and then input into the council’s GIS (geographical information) system. Adrian took a csv file to feed the pipe. Take a look at Adrian’s version of the map – it incorporates streetview, very smart. And it’s all open. You can clone the pipe, use his data file, create your own map with your own funky grit bin icons.

What all this means for hyperlocal blogging
I wasted too much time creating the Bournville gritting map, I got some nice praise for it but on the whole it was wasted time. There’s a bit of a discourse around spending too much time on things like this that annoys me a bit. I don’t want to be putting in loads of effort for the greater civic good, I don’t want to be making sacrifices of my personal time – I’d much rather watch the football. But give me the data to make it easier and I’ll happily do it again because it would simple, easy, quick. Hyperlocal is going nowhere without data. It’s just a local freesheet without it. Give us data and we’ll be the frontline to citizen queries that could save a local authority an expensive phone call. If you idly type into google ‘Which roads in Bournville get gritted?‘ see what you now get.

Of course, we’ll also enable citizens to cause a fuss when their road is meant to be gritted and isn’t. But that helps create dynamic democratic relationships between citizens and local government – itself a government target I believe. But until we get the data we need we’re doomed.