Snow: Hyperlocals 1 – Local Councils 0

Actually, I struggled giving this post a title. I wanted to call it something like:

‘I wish local government communications people would stop self-aggrandising and give credit to their citizens instead’.

There was lots of snow in and around Birmingham on Friday (Jan 18). There was a time when the resultant unfolding narrative of school closures and rush hour traffic chaos used to be played out solely on local radio (oh how we used to gather round the radio praying for our school to be called out). Now we live in different times and not only are other media organisations able to publish updates but local councils can play a part by publishing updates on websites or via social media.

Unfortunately Birmingham City Council’s special website for disruption fell over on Friday morning so proved pretty useless. However, its twitter account (952 followers up to 2754 followers by Jan 22) did a pretty good job of tweeting school closure news as they came in.

Local government communications people seem to like the snow. The idea to come up with a hashtag for gritting (#wmgrit) got them a write up in a SOCITM report, coverage in mainstream media and in a report on Innovation in West Midlands councils (PDF). “By following that hashtag, residents can now see instantly when their council is out working on a cold night gritting the roads to make sure the county keeps moving,” the report says.

But a recent write-up asking ‘what’s next’ for snow-related local government comms seems to sum up a particular problem within local authorities. That is, the assumption that their adeptness in using social media places them at the centre of our communications universe. The role of citizens in this narrative is to ‘complain’ or ‘have a pop’.

The opposite couldn’t be more true on Friday. A hyperlocal website close to where I live, B31 Voices, showed how citizens are more than able to make communications contributions in times of crises that are a world away from ‘having a pop’.

B31 is run by Sas and Marty Taylor who decided at the first sign of snow on 11 January to organise their communications around a hashtag: #B31Snowwatch. It came into its own on Friday 18th with Sas and Marty juggling getting their own kids ready for school whilst tweeting (2464 followers) and facebooking (2324 likes) school closure updates.

Their information sources were both official and unofficial. By the latter I mean that other parents were tweeting updates as well as schools themselves or the council. They stayed online throughout the day and evening, updating on where the buses were terminating and on traffic problems.

But if you stand back from the key coordinating role that Sas and Marty played in this then perhaps more impressive is the contribution of the citizens of south Birmingham. #B31Snowwatch is an exemplar of networked communications innovation and its contributors should lauded for the ways in which they kept south Birmingham moving and communicating in an emergency (well, as much of an ’emergency’ as a bit of snow is).

All I’m suggesting is that it would be nice if professional communicators gave examples like this more recognition.

The storify below covers tweets (not inc. retweets) from 11 Jan to 19 Jan 2013.

18 thoughts on “Snow: Hyperlocals 1 – Local Councils 0

  1. Hi Dave.

    Thanks for stopping by. I fondly remember that innacurate post you wrote about Facebook stats (link here: http://daveharte.com/social-media/social-media-stats/) where you assumed I’d said something and still didn’t buy it when I and then a member of the audience gently broke it to you you’d got totally the wrong end of the stick.

    Any road up. To press onto your latest post here ‘Hyperlocals 1 Local Councils 0’ in which you say‘I wish local government communications people would stop self-aggrandising and give credit to their citizens instead’ which links to a blogpost about the good work done by Twitter Gritter.

    To state the blooming obvious a blog about local government comms is going to focus squarely on local government comms. It’s not self-aggrandising to point at something on a blog and say it works well. The Twitter Gritter initiatives do a really good job put together as they are often out-of-hours by staff who really believe in the job they are doing. Someone asked me on Twitter if there was a role for this ‘extravagant’ PR activity. The answer is that it’s extravagantly affordable saving as it does scores of telephone calls from irate residents on the return of updates to the website and social media. I didn’t know it had been referenced by West Midlands Innovation. Thanks for flagging it. But that wasn’t the aim.

    The success of any communication depends on it being read, shared, talked about and discussed. My focus as a local government press officer is how councils can get the information out in a timely and effective way so that they can be read, shared, talked about and discussed by a whole range of people. Hyperlocal blog sites included. But without the information first coming out from local government in the first place – either from a school or centrally – there wouldn’t be much to talk about. Or rather there would. It would be people asking what the heck was going on and why the heck weren’t they being told about it by the school website, council website, Twitter stream or Facebook stream. When we don’t tell people what’s going online believe me, that’s what happens.

    On a wider point, I’ve really noticed this year that in my own corner of the universe in Walsall a hyperlocal blogger Brownhills Bob doing a rather fine job in rumour-busting with people who think that the roads should behave just as they should on a summers day in snow and if they don’t it’s the council’s fault. The fact that he’s often a critic of what the council does should be noted. Other Walsall bloggers and residents retweeted or shared @walsallcouncil updates or shared their own pictures or updates. That’s all part of the mix.

    By the looks of things B31 Voices did a great job of their own in sharing the messages that were coming out from schools and the rest of the community. That’s just it. It’s getting quick messages out and sharing them. But to turn this into ‘Hyperlocals 1 Local Councils 0’ makes you look just a bit petty, to be honest, Dave.

  2. Have to say I disagree with the final sentiment Dave.
    The very reason #wmgrit works is because it is taken up by people across the region – hyperlocals and individuals. We always make a point of thanking people for spreading the messages.
    From a Birmingham point of view for example, I liaise with Sas and others on a fairly regular basis and always acknowledge any help.
    I think all parties played their part yesterday. The councils for regularly updating the gritting alerts and other messages, the hyperlocals for helping us amplify our message and adding their own information. Better still, we had countless individuals adding their own particular layer of information.
    Put all that together and I believe it was a success.

  3. In the last couple of days the volunteer-made West Midlands gritting map – http://mappa-mercia.org/gritting-map.shtml – has been cited and praised several times by official Twitter accounts of Birmingham City Council (@BCCNewsRoom, retweeted by @BhamCityCouncil and both Tory and Labour councillors), Walsall MBC (@WalsallCouncil) and Solihull MBC (@SolihullCouncil) as well as the shared @WMGrit account.

    @BCCNewsRoom, for example, said “We love what our friends at @mappamercia have done with the grit route data.”

    @MappaMercia is the team of local OpenStreetMap editors who built the gritting map; of which I’m one.

    If that’s not “giving credit to their citizens”, what is?

  4. Pingback: Thanks for your #B31SnowWatch contributions! | B31 Voices

  5. Thanks Dave for recognising the role that the B31 Voices community played yesterday. We’ve been using the #B31SnowWatch hashtag since last winter. To us, #B31SnowWatch epitomises everything we would like B31 Voices to be (we’re not quite there yet!)

    As I wrote in the post linked above, it is really pleasing to us that the contributions of the community are recognised. We’ve always intended that B31 Voices should be about engaging both ways with the community, improving communication – allowing local people to share their information and opinions, whilst we help to dispel rumours and provide “official” information and news.

    I’d also like to note that #B31SnowWatch only works so well because of the information that is received and shared from all parties – we couldn’t have managed without #wmgrit, @bccdisruption and @bccnewsroom ! It’s all about the sharing! (I was tempted to say “We’re all in this together” but Dave C has hijacked that cliche!)

    Perhaps “Snow: Hyperlocals 1 – Local Councils 1” would be a better title? 😉

  6. @simon – well it’s timed by the BBC, not me. The research is six months old so I didn’t even time its release to coincide with this event. In any case, it’s a BBC event at which I was chairing a single panel so very little to do with me.

  7. I think we need to be careful of creating unhelpful groups of ‘them’ and ‘us’ and then driving a wedge between without substantive evidence that either model works or fails.

    I applaud people who use their time (sustainably?) to help share information, I have yet to see evidence that it is time well spent. And I don’t mean Twitter follower numbers.

    Twitter follower numbers mean very little, particularly now there are so many ways to see someone’s updates. For example, I’ve stopped following people at work and use lists instead; or I follow a hashtag.

    It would be far more useful to know, say, how many people actually chose #b31 over conventional channels, and how many of _them_ found it more useful, reliable and _accurate_ than conventional channels.

    And don’t forget where much of this information originates: the local authority. It would nice if non-professional communicators gave that a little more recognition 😉

  8. @Michael – the interesting aspect of #B31Snowwatch was the volume of information that didn’t originate from local authority sources. People had received texts from their school or they had witnessed sliding cars or suchlike. I’m really interested in non-professional information sources and hope to gain a deeper understanding of them as I go about researching the value of Hyperlocal.

    As to creating divides I think there’s a more fundamental question about who we value as custodians of knowledge. There’s a sense in which those with ‘official’ knowledge ask citizens to trust them yet that trust doesn’t always work the other way round.

  9. ‘Time well spent’ is, of course, subjective: if someone enjoys doing it, then it’s time well spent. I mean that I’ve yet to see evidence of success that justifies such an attack on local councils.

  10. There’s no attack on local councils here Michael. There’s a questioning of the ways in which communication professionals in local government talk about citizens in the context of digital communications.

  11. so when you said

    ‘I wish local government communications people would stop self-aggrandising and give credit to their citizens instead’.

    you weren’t attacking local councils?

    of course, parents sharing information is a good thing. should councils propagate rumour and hearsay, though?

    in birmingham (and i expect most other local authorities) there’s a recognised procedure for disseminating school closure information – that procedure is the safeguard that stops mischievous schoolchildren from informing a whole bunch of people the school is closed when it actually isn’t. why has that procedure been put in place? because it was found, by experience, to be necessary.

  12. @Dave Sure. A lot of people are working very hard to address that though, particularly those involved in initiatives such as Twitter Gritter. I think it’s a little unfair to level at those people the accusation that trust ‘doesn’t always work the other way round’; over the last few years I’ve heard more people in local government praise the work of ‘regular citizens’ than I have heard the latter praise the work of local government. Trust and acknowledgement needs to flow in both directions.

    It’s very easy to share information freely when we only have our own conscience to constrain us; it’s a very different kettle of fish when it’s someone’s job, their professional integrity and their contract with citizens that are at stake.

  13. I think both can and should work together and the winner is the reader.

    @bccdisruption & BCC came in for a ‘bit of stick’ on Friday when their website went down, at the same time as Free Radio’s school closure list. Both did a fantastic job of ensuring they still got the information on school closures out there – we just shared it. We made sure @bccdisruption knew we appreciated them! https://twitter.com/B31Voices/status/293057823137492992

    The role we played was simply to bring together the information from different sources – both official & unofficial – into something more locally focussed and easier to follow. We shared tweets and messages from individuals on school closures, road conditions, buses, trains etc but always encouraged readers to check official sources by providing lots of links.

    We’ve had lots of messages thanking us for #b31snowwatch, stating how helpful it has been, so that’s reason enough for us to make the effort :)

    Without good partnerships with official sources of information, working alongside contributions from local people, B31 Voices would be nothing more than gossip and that is definitely something we do not aspire to! And those good partnerships are built by the professionals, not us. They are willing to engage and share with us. If they were not, it wouldn’t happen. Our readers trust our information because, over the past two and a half years, they have learned that these relationships exist.

    We started B31 Voices as we wanted to make a positive contribution to our local community. I think we’re doing that. That’s ‘time well spent’ :)

  14. What Michael, Simon, Sas, Andy and Geoff said. All that.

    The interesting point that emerges from all these comments is that most people are more interested in co-operating between local government and the community than in petty point-scoring between them. Which is a good thing.

  15. @sas – and it was nice comments like yours and the many other people who also said nice things that really did make it feel worthwhile for the three of us who were staffing the account, knowing that what we were doing was appreciated!

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