Digital Birmingham is creating net-savvy communities – Jo Ind meets some of the people who are taking part.
Rebecca Docherty is sitting in the Inn on the Green in Acocks Green, Birmingham laughing, chatting and sharing a laptop with the others at her table.
The 36-year-old, who is about to train as a teacher, does not know her ATMs from her LDAPs but has come up with the idea of creating a blog for her street.
“We want to organise a street BBQ at the end of August or the beginning of September,” says Rebecca who lives in Francis Road, Acocks Green and has recently taken over the Neighbourhood Watch.
“We want people to know who’s doing what. We’ve got a strong sense of community but not everybody knows everybody. We want to be able to recommend tradespeople, carpenters and so on, that other people in the street have used.”
So where do you go when you have got a great idea for a blog but no idea how to set it up? You go to your local pub for a social media surgery – that’s where.
Social media surgeries are organised by Be Vocal, which is part of the Birmingham – Open City initiative run by Digital Birmingham which aims to develop a net-savvy community empowering citizens. At the pioneering end of Be Vocal’s remit is the exploration of datamashing, which aims to make public information available to ordinary people through imaginative uses of the net.
For that to work, ordinary people have to be happy and comfortable web users, which is where the social media surgeries come in. At a surgery people with skills in social media freely offer their time to help voluntary organisations and community groups with any questions they might have.
The idea for social media surgeries was hatched in October 2008 as part of Bog Action Day, where bloggers all over the world join forces to write about a particular subject. That year it was poverty. “We wondered if there was something else we could do,” says Nick Booth, owner of Podnosh which is running Be Vocal. “We came up with the idea of surgeries.”
So far there have been eight in the Fazeley Studios in Digbeth, one in the Methodist Church in Lozells Street, Lozells and three at the Inn on the Green in Acocks Green. The idea is that they should be expanded throughout the city and run by local people.
Meanwhile, back in the pub, Steve Cooper, an IT consultant is helping Rebecca with her blog, set up privately at the previous social media surgery. Now she feels ready to open it to the public.
“In my job I’m always sorting out problems for people but I don’t have the chance to pass my knowledge on,” says Steve. “That’s what I like about coming to the surgery.”
Another “surgeon,” as they are known, is Alan Colson, who works as a data centre manager for Solihull Council. “My job involves trying to get the council to engage with people using social media,” he says. “This is the fourth social media surgery that I’ve helped at. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s something I believe in. ”
There are many lovely things about the surgeries, not least that the line between the surgeons and the patients becomes increasingly blurred.
Nick says that sometimes someone comes to a surgery knowing next to nothing about social media and then several surgeries later comes back as a surgeon. By the fireplace at the Inn, Helen Roberts and Mary Horesh are having an animated conversation.
Helen has come to the surgery for the first time. She is part of the Arden Residents Association, which represents about five streets in Acocks Green, and which has been having trouble with its website. Mary has come for the second time after getting help with the website for the environmental charity, Friends of the Earth.
Nick has just explained to Helen that you can use a service, called Google reader, to “listen” to the internet. Straightaway Mary picks up his baton and runs.
“It’s like your inbox with your email,” explains Mary to Helen passing the laptop towards her and the two of them put their heads together in front of the screen. “Look you can arrange what’s coming in, in folders so it’s not too confusing. I learnt that at the last social media surgery.”
“What do you do about photographs?” asks Helen. “I’m never sure about copyright.” (Nick doesn’t get a look in now and turns his hand to videoing the moment for the Be Vocal website instead.)
“It’s my first social media surgery and already I’m completely enthralled,” says Helen. “One of my friends from the Acocks Green Neighbourhood Forum told me about it. I’ve already learnt so much.” It is quite magical to see how something that, at one level is hardwork and technical, becomes fun and sociable amongst such a willing and creative crowd.
But the proof of the value of the surgeries is not in what happens in the pub – though that is good in itself – but what happens on the internet and then back in the communities that created the sites.
As a result of the surgery francisroadb27.wordpress.com is up, running and on the net for all to see. By the next day three tradespeople have been recommended.
Residents are reminded there’s to be a dog show at Millennium Green. And it looks as though that BBQ is going to happen.
“Hello, Francis Road – this is Douglas Road calling!” says Amanda Baker in a comment to the site. “The traffic is pretty heavy for us with the diversion, but I suppose it’s very quiet up your way with Yardley Road being closed!