Solving the community information problem – Part 2

Following on from my last post about the community information problem, I’m going to pose the thorny question of who should manage or curate community information.

This post was sparked by a discussion I led at Smart London Camp 2018 – an event run at City Hall in London by the Mayor of London’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell.

It was a great event and there were some excellent “pitches” for discussions.

So I added my own pitch into the mix. I pitched a discussion about “solving the community information problem”, which ended up being astoundingly well-attended by around 25-30 Camp attendees. I outlined the problem as I saw it using 4 tweets:

The participants in the discussion were a passionate, knowledgeable bunch. Some came from the world of local government, some were “open data” geeks and programmers, and others were from the voluntary sector. All had given up their Saturday to sit inside talking to (mostly) strangers about subjects that interested them.

There was huge agreement that this was a problem.

However, when it came to solutions, we found one big area of disagreement. Who should curate the community information?

Should it be Facebook or Google?

Overwhelmingly there were concerns about these enormous, US-based, commercial giants owning this space, although most agreed that they were valuable distribution channels for community information.

Privacy concerns were front and centre, of course.

It was also felt that the voluntary sector – particularly small community groups – had a rough deal competing for audiences on Facebook and Google with businesses prepared to pay for advertising and favourable placement.

Should it be Local Government?

Local government clearly has the interests of a local area at its heart, however it may have a problem being trusted by the public as an unbiased source of information, and being trusted by the local voluntary sector to represent them fairly.

Should it be Councils for Voluntary Service?

These organisations act as umbrella associations for local voluntary groups. However, they are not independent of local government and most funding tends to come from local government sources. Probably more importantly, they are not used to playing this role of curating community information, and they may not be able to commit the time to it, or may lack the technical skills to do this well.

Should it be the NHS?

The NHS came up as a potential curator of community information, since there are incentives for the NHS to encourage citizens to be more active and social – reducing social isolation and depression, and increasing physical activity and health. However, the NHS’s view (or agenda) on what constitutes community information is likely to be different to citizens’ views, and it would undoubtedly have a health-related slant if run by the NHS. It’s also likely that the NHS would be ultra-conservative in what is approved, and would not take risks with new, unknown, groups which had not been checked out. Would bureaucracy get in the way of dynamism and usefulness?

Should it be Housing Associations?

Where Housing Associations exist, there may be a clear motivation to improve the area and create a central view of community information. However, these are not universal and there may be ‘boundary issues’ which get in the way of how locals perceive where they live to be.

Should it be local volunteers?

Just like local Facebook Groups, perhaps we should look to local volunteers (who put their hands up to volunteer their time and have a self-declared passion for their local area) to curate community information. But who vets the local volunteers, and what’s to stop a volunteer coming forward with a distinct political agenda, who skews the curation of their community information in a certain direction?

There’s probably a need for a code of conduct which local volunteers sign up to, if local volunteers are relied upon, and a complaints procedure so that they can be held to account for their decisions – unlike Facebook where nearly “anything goes” in terms of administering local Facebook Groups.

There seems no easy answer to this question. What’s your view?