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Talk About Local 2013 attendees at the start of the day.

Talk About Local 2013 attendees at the start of the day.

Talk About Local 2013 (#TAL13 on Twitter) was held at MIMA, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art  (@mimamordernart), on Saturday 28th September. Other people have blogged about the event before me, but everyone’s experience is a bit different since we attend different mixes of sessions. It was the first unconference I had attended without a DSLR camera, and I felt strange without it.

I went because I have just set up a new website for the local community with which I’m involved, and I’m keen to get others actively involved with it. Since it’s an urban area in Newcastle which attracts tourists and is a base for many arts and creative businesses,  I was lucky enough to go with Anna Williams, the delightful editor of The Ambler, probably one of the oldest online UK community newspapers and one to inspire others. Anna is also very involved with the Amble Puffin Festival.*

View of the Bart Simpson bouncy slide ride in the fairground outside MIMA.

View of the Bart Simpson bouncy slide ride in the fairground outside MIMA.

There was a lot going on at MIMA that day. We arrived to find a fairground outside the building, and a stage being set up on the ground floor for a music festival. We were based in a windowless room on the top floor, but the plentiful supplies of coffee, tea and biscuits helped to make it seem more welcoming.

There seemed to be more men than women attending, but that might have just been the impression I got. It did make me wonder: are men are more likely than women to create and write for local community websites? Previously, I had assumed that equal numbers of women and men would be involved but perhaps I’m wrong.

It was interesting to see that only approximately half of the 50-odd people there had been to an unconference before (I’ve been to several, including UKGovCamp and ScotGovCamp). Those new to it seemed to pick up the idea very quickly. I was going to propose a session, but seeing the long queue of people waiting to pitch their idea, I decided not to on this occasion.

First session: Get back your blogging mojo

Will Perrin proposed and led this session. It was held on the outdoor terrace where it was sunny, hot, and sometimes quite noisy from the fair below. This topic interested me a lot because some of our Weekly Blog Club members suffer from blogging blocks and fatigue at times, and I try to help people to regain their blogging mojo – or at least to get the next blog published. I also want to work out how we can avoid it for the Ouseburn Futures website (so far I’ve been the only one updating it).

It was really interesting to hear Will talk about his hyperlocal blogging at Kings Cross Environment , which he founded and manages. This was a privilege since Will is legendary for his work in the King’s Cross area of London. They have an average of 500 people per day reading things on their website, about 6,900 Likes on Facebook and over 1,100 followers on Twitter.
I felt relief that even the legendary Will Perrin has suffered from blogging fatigue. He does share the blogging duties with others. That would be one of my top tips – if you intend to blog regularly, try to share the blogging with others. Some people invite others to be guest bloggers, which can be great for those who don’t have their own blog, or who are just starting out and would benefit from a larger audience.

One of the others in the group said that he sets aside a specific time to write and then writes several blogs at a time, and then posts those at appropriate intervals so he has something fresh to post. He also keeps a diary of what happened a year before because people respond well to such anniversaries.

Another person said that he has a style guide, and aims to plan content for the year for travel blogs.

I could happily have spent the rest of the morning finding out more but we came to the time to change sessions.

Second session: Hyperlocal offline

This one was led by James Clarke and also held outside on the terrace. James told us about why they had set up their hyperlocal blog, to improve perceptions of their local area (which is just outside Wolverhampton). They joined their local Community First panel (which encourages local communities to have a say in local matters). They have become more involved in offline community activities, but these also feed back into the website.

Pamela Pinski of Digbeth Is Good said that she was interested in getting more people to contribute, because people keep coming to her as someone who writes about Digbeth and it’s difficult to fit it all in alongside her full-time job.

Nicky Getgood gave a good example of how to get offline community involved through lending a group DVDs of films if they wrote reviews of the films for the website.

Jessie of I Love Stockton Me (I’m sorry I didn’t get her full name or personal Twitter handle – she’s lovely, passionate about her area, and articulate) said that they have pizza nights to bring all the contributors together.

James told us that they get people to contribute on single issues, for example, a planning application. They also hold fun days in their community.

One of the things that I found interesting was that at least a couple of the people had got involved with their community after starting their hyperlocal website. They are doing things the other way round from how Ouseburn Futures has done things. We formed a community group and then I set up a temporary website and social media accounts, but was very limited on what I could do with the website and have only recently set up the proper website (which has design to be added after others have sorted out the group’s branding).

Some of the techniques the others use to get offline people involved are ones we couldn’t use, such as using old photos to encourage people to contribute their memories of the place in the past (another organisation does the heritage things), or holding a festival (there is already a very established festival that is organised by another charity). Stickers were suggested – but we find that people tend to stick stickers onto street furniture in our area. I would certainly like to have sociable meetings with the other bloggers and tweeters in the valley – just a regular gathering with coffee and cake to discuss ideas, forthcoming events that we can cooperate to promote.

Third session: Hyperlocal and the “desolate North East”

This session was held in The Drop, a mezzanine area where we could see down into the ground floor. Things began to get very noisy as a sound check for the temporary stage was being done.

The session was about how hyperlocals could be more effective at helping to get across the positive aspects of the North. One of the group said that he was surprised at how much of a backlash there was at Lord Howell’s statement that fracking should be carried out in the North East where he considered there were large “desolate” areas. We had started an ironic #desolateNorthEast tag on Twitter immediately, of course, and shared our loveliest pictures of the North East looking stunning.

We discussed the issue of the North East having been regarded as somewhere to rush through, without stopping, between London, York and Edinburgh. We bemoaned the persisting images of the North East as the black-and-white photos of slag heaps and coal-blackened men at the colliery, of the Jarrow Marchers in October 1936, as men in flat caps with a pint of beer in their hand and a whippet by their side. We agreed that we have lots of fabulous coast and countryside with opportunities for activities such as walking, cycling, pony trekking, sailing and surfing.

Someone said that if the North East region had as many visitors as Lincolnshire, it would create 80,000 more jobs. Although the Passionate People, Passionate Places campaign had been good, there seemed to be a lack of promotion of the region this year.

Jessie was concerned about the lack of an official tourism website for Teesside. We discussed how to have a low cost website that could use the strengths of the hyperlocals and to pull in RSS feeds from those and from others such as Flickr to bring together existing information and pictures to promote the Teesside area as a whole. We also wondered about involving local colleges who teach journalism and tourism. I hope that they succeed in setting up a crowd-sourced Teesside tourism site since they will convey such passion for their area.

Session 4: Anchoring hyperlocal in the real world

This session was proposed and led by James Rutherford. James explained what he meant by ‘anchoring the hyperlocal in the real world.’ One example was that it could turn bus stops into digital noticeboards so the content relates to along the bus routes as well as the usual bus information relating to that specific bus stop.

The technology to do it currently included RFID tags, QR tags (a couple of us groaned), NFC tags (against which phones could be tapped), new Bluetooth widgets.  They could be attached to artworks in streets, or to posters, and do more than simply lead to a website. We had some discussion about the problem of getting people to download apps and the problem of having lots of apps on smartphones. James was looking for areas to try out the idea in order to develop it further.

I will be very interested to see how this develops. In the Lower Ouseburn Valley this summer, we tried out some tech questionnaire posters, made by researchers from Culture Lab at Newcastle. I would like to see us try other experimental, low-cost ways of incorporating technology in order to provide people with information in the Ouseburn Valley, and to encourage people to give their views on issues such as future building developments.

The unAwards

At the end of the day, everyone gathered above rising volumes of noise from below from the fairground and setting up for the music festival. The unAwards (pound store goodies + a bag of candyfloss from the fairground below) were awarded to various people for their contributions to hyperlocal blogging.

Post-event thoughts

I enjoyed the day. Anna and I chatted about the day and about hyperlocal community websites all the way back from Middlesbrough to Newcastle. We talked about things like best times of day to post on Twitter and Facebook, and why the West Midlands had such a strong blogging community whilst we don’t in the North East, despite having a strong regional identity. I wished that there had been some other hyperlocally-engaged people I know at Talk About Local 2013. It was great to meet new people, and to meet some of the people I’ve known of, followed on Twitter for a long time, such as Nicky Getgood, Clare White and Will Perrin.

If you’re involved with or interested in a hyperlocal website and were not at #TAL13, I recommend going to #TAL14.

Further reading (includes links to other blogs)

Mike Rawlins, ‘Middlesbrough, we came, we saw, & we loved it. #TAL13,’ Talk About Local, 30th September 2013.

*If you have never visited the North East, do consider trying at least a short break. Whilst the weather cannot be guaranteed, the landscape is fabulous and the people are friendly. The coast is particularly gorgeous with romantically ancient monuments of castles and priories, as well as natural treasures such as the seals, octopuses, dolphins and whales, the seabirds such as puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, the fierce Arctic terns and the rare roseate terns.