Solving the community information problem – Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series of blogs on the “community information problem”.

I often speak about the “community information problem”. But it’s not something that I hear many people talking about!

It’s a hidden problem. Everyone assumes that there isn’t a problem. After all, the internet should make it easy to find community information. By this, I mean information about events, activities and happenings round the corner from you. When the community choir meets and how to join it, when the School Summer Fair is happening, and how you can meet up with local people if you have a free Wednesday night.

But in practice, this information is hard to find. Really hard to find.

Where do you start?

Google perhaps? No. Unless you know exactly what you’re searching for, you won’t find it suggested to you by Google search.

Facebook, then? Not really. You can search for events in Facebook but what comes up is usually quite a random selection, and excludes what’s going on in those community groups which don’t post their events there. You could join your local Facebook Group for your area, and wait to see what community information is presented to you, but you’ll have to tolerate a lot of “noise” first – complaints about parking, rants about dog-owners, and local businesses promoting new kitchens and home-made crafts.

The local press? As well as local newspapers, there may be free local magazines delivered through your door, or you may be lucky enough to have a local neighbourhood magazine or newsletter produced by your parish council or residents’ association. The problem with these publications is that they can’t possibly include everything going on, and by the time you read them, the information may well be out of date. They aren’t suitable for dynamically changing information, and you’re only likely to find out about the “big stuff”.

So the “community information problem” is that information about what’s going on locally is:

  • incomplete
  • not in one place
  • not up to date & not dynamic
  • not sent to you
  • not available to all

How, then, might this problem be solved?

Completeness

One of the most important parts of the solution is capturing ALL the information (or as much of it as possible). This can be done in a couple of ways:

  • Aggregation of information which already exists online. We do this at interests.me by allowing community administrators to capture events posted for their local area from Eventbrite, Facebook and Meetup, through APIs (application programming interfaces) provided by those companies.
  • Our web tool encourages community groups to add their own information – especially those that are not already online. Persuading groups to share their information regularly is easier said than done. Just providing groups with a directory-style website where they can post their information does not guarantee that they will do it (as many council-led directory attempts have shown). At interests.me we offer a useful web tool (for free) to community groups who are not online, which helps them with their email communication (and their GDPR compliance). If they use the tool for emailing their own members, they are likely to do this whenever they have a meeting or event to promote, and they can share this information with one extra click to the community information platform. Hence we get information that would not otherwise be shared online, and it’s regularly updated.

In One Place

It’s important that the information can easily be found. Our solution to this is:

  • Our community websites. These bring together all the community information from local groups in one place (on either a noticeboard or a calendar page, or both), which means members of the public need to remember only one domain name (theircommunity.interests.me) in order to see the latest community information.

Up To Date & Dynamic

It’s important that information is up to date and old information doesn’t linger about. Our solution to this is:

  • Our system automatically hides all events which have passed their date (unlike Facebook).
  • Our web tool makes sure that groups use it regularly (for emailing) and therefore keep their updates regular.
  • We send reminder emails about our weekly community email, every week, to community groups who participate, to make sure they are reminded to add an event or announcement.

Sent To You

So that residents are updated regularly about events and activities in their community, it’s important that information is sent to them, rather than waiting for them to search for it:

  • Our community weekly emails generate about 60-80% of traffic to our community websites.

Available To All

It’s important that community information is available to all, not just those on Facebook or those who know how to search for it. It’s also important that they should not be forced to sign up for something new – eg a particular app – which many people are put off by. That’s why we aim to distribute our community information across multiple channels, both online and off-line.

  • Email has a wider reach than Facebook, and the vast majority of online users already use email regularly. There is no new app to sign up to, in order to subscribe by email. Our weekly community emails ensure that our information can reach most online users.
  • For those who spend time on social media, interests.me makes all our community information social media friendly, and shareable, and builds partnerships with local Facebook Group admins to make sure the information is shared on Facebook. However at interests.me we don’t rely on social media and we are not its slave.
  • We partner with local press wherever possible (including local government publications), to get our community information into printed publications, making the lives of editors easier (as they don’t need to go and find this information), and spreading the reach of our community information to those not online.

There are 2 other aspects to the “community information problem”, which I haven’t touched upon yet.

  1. Who manages the community information? Who decides what information belongs (and doesn’t belong) in a community? This needs to be done in a neutral, inclusive, relevant and appropriate way.
  2. How can community information be financially sustainable? It’s all very well to describe what needs to exist, but if it’s impossible to generate money from doing it, it won’t work.

I’ll cover these other aspects of the problem in future blog posts.