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‘Communities’ and webites

The LGCSB is getting into the community website business with Mobhaile. At the same time, there are other related ideas kicking around for developing a sense of place on the Internet. It looks simple, but as myself and Gerry McGovern found out in the late 90’s, it’s actually pretty difficult.

There is plenty of discussion of this (for example, by Bernie Goldbach), mostly concentrating on the technologies and the various mistakes the parties are making and the technologies they should be using, but aren’t. I am unfortunate enough to have had a wider view of the problem.

We worked on developing Local Ireland based on community-based content about Ireland, as a means to link the Irish abroad with the Irish at home. The idea was that this would give Ireland access to the massive international community of people with Irish ancestry. This link would lead to greater commerce, which would provide the funding to make the whole thing self-sufficient.

The problem was that it is not simple to bring community on-line. There are a number of problems.

1. You have to deal with lack of writing knowledge and lack of technical knowledge at the local level. Content doesn’t just happen. You have to make firm partnerships to get it to emerge.

2. You have to understand the way communities in Ireland are structured. The structure is very subtle. Many people don’t actually live in a town, becuase the population is very spread. Places like Deansgrange and Foxrock don’t have clear borders, they just sort of merge into one another.

The country is too diverse to cover with one solution. Urban and rural needs are different, for one thing Worse, the hopes, needs and desires of different communities in Ireland are completely different. There’s no use trying to impose a system that works in Longford on people in Killarney.

3. It is very hard to avoid being perceived as being in competition with local resources, such as local media, and the guy who does small scale website design. You also risk ending up in competition with the heavyweights, like the classified directories (Golden Pages, etc.)

This inevitably alienates people from you. They don’t want to deal with you if you’re going to undermine their friend up the road, or if you’re offering something which is similar to something they get from another supplier.

There’s a high probability the community will begin to turn against you. It’s inevitable, and you just have to be ready to manage it. Look at Movable Type.

4. It isn’t enough to just put the information up there. You have to integrate it in a meaningful way. You end up trying to integrate a disparate infrastructure. Providing information about services in a particular county is incredibly complicated, because administrative districts for different functions (religious, medical, security, etc.) tend to be haphazard and to overlap. The state of local administration in Ireland is abysmal, and it’s very hard to work around that.

5. Information, through a content management system, is only part of the total picture. Just as mailing lists, discussion boards, GIS systems, wikis and blogs are only part of the total picture. You have to take all these things and blend them together as well as you can. There’s no point trying to build one super-system that will somehow encompass them all.

6. This is all the worse because there is no proper address coding system in Ireland, unless you are prepared to put down your EUR 200k to get access to the Geodirectory. Don’t be surprised if it costs you the same again to get it to do something useful, and don’t be surprised if you still have problems. For a number of reasons, a lot of places simply don’t have unique street addresses to identify them.

That’s some of the problems. Some of the solutions might have gone as follows.

1. Focus on partnerships, not competition. You can’t do this stuff on your own. You have to tie in with other resources. Of course, you should never leave yourself beholden to any one partner. ‘Open standards’ for connecting to partners are critical.

2. Figure out the revenue model from the very beginning. You have to find some way of making money from early on, even if it’s only running a banner ad system. Don’t bother trying to compete with your potential partners. It’s a waste of time. They’ll beat you up badly if you do.

3. Work on specific projects that you can make serious inroads into, that demonstrate a clear benefit and that you can get funding for, rather than trying to ‘boil the ocean’ at the beginning by trying to provide a supersystem that does everything. For example, one project might be to get planning permission information online. Another might be to get a regularly updated database of community groups together.

4. Work with national interest groups at first, rather than trying to forge links at local level.

5. Get the government to put a decent post- or placecode system in place. This would make this sort of development a lot easier.

Oh and make sure that you have a good bit of cash around, and access to more if you need it (and can justify it).

Anyway, good luck to anyone who wants to try this. I have a bit of expertise and I’d be happy to help out if I could.

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