Notwestminster Part II

by | Feb 15, 2016 | Local democracy | 3 comments

I spent Friday and Saturday at the second Notwestminster Maker Day and Conference, getting thoroughly immersed in rock and roll local democracy stuff.

It was my first Notwestminster but only the second since its launch, which coincided with the start of Open Data Camp, a resurgence of LocalGovCamp and the growth of UKGovCamp. Nowadays, getting a ticket for these events is as hard as buying tickets to a rock concert! The two-day format included a Maker Day to hack on real problems and solutions followed by a PechaKucha Night of 20 second/20 slide talks as well one whole day for the Main Conference itself.

Friday – Local Democracy Maker Day

Of the three #LDMaker16 Design Challenges, the Digestible Democracy theme seemed closest to some of the ideas we’ve been exploring with Giles Gibson and the Herne Hill Neighbourhood Forum. A couple of ideas emerged, admirably led by Lucy Knight and John Popham:

  • Neighbourhood ward walks that could connect people with hyperlocal issues, potentially with tech such as iBeacons raising notifications of relevance to that area.
  • Councillors creating short videos, possibly in real-time using Periscope, as a way to be more engaging than a set of meeting minutes!

I spent some time looking at the election candidates widget for hyperlocal news sites while Democracy Club’s Sym Roe was in the room. He also built a quick hack to scan at least 50 localgov websites that run ModernGov software, as a way to find current councillors and when they were elected, to inform when they might be re-elected (helping to grow their dataset of which councils have upcoming elections). If you know of any, please add them to this post’s comments. The Real Representation team came up with Civic Starter, a Kickstarter-style site where people offer support or express interest in issues, perhaps to avert a negative outcome. Quite a large overlap with Change by Us, a LocalProjects project that was also reused by the Code for Europe Amsterdam team. The Pecha Kucha included some excellent talks, in particular Dave McKenna’s “The Godfather Part II, Part II” (this post’s title a cheeky nod to it) which featured almost nothing about democracy but was jolly entertaining all the same – I’ll probably have to watch the whole trilogy again soon, as it’s been a while.

Saturday – Notwestminster Main Event

The main day had everything you could want from an event like this – a cracking programme of good content mixed with an amazing crowd. “Mapping the issues, mapping the meetings” by Perry Walker and Bob Bollen looked at whether the technique of argument mapping could help to create more constructive discussion of complex issues, either on paper or possibly through a digital tool like Litemap.

There is definite promise here and there are similar tools like Loomio, WhatLeadsTo or even Kumu, but getting the right mix of user experience is an ongoing challenge and one we’d love to contribute to. “Updating, owning and aggregating fragmented data” was a good discussion on how different services and data sources might be made more easily available on council websites, because it’s too hard to trawl them all to look for specific data.

Sym presented this idea for a simple metadata file, but there are the well-known barriers of lack of resources to create better data and make it easily findable. Collating a single reference typically involves talking to people in many different departments. The user need and benefits must be developed to make the argument stronger. For example, Democracy Club might offer a way for councils to show data on their websites about their local elections, updated from their candidates API, thus driving the incentives for councils to produce good elections data in the first place.

In “Growing the Civic Conversation”, Nick Booth put forward the idea that councils could do more to foster civic conversations by encouraging local organisers with better web skills and thinking more carefully about their own comms functions – read more here.

Also fascinating was Councillor David Harrington’s highly effective use of social media to connect with citizens and manage casework. By using Twitter, Instagram and Skype for remote sessions with citizens he’s dramatically improved connections to local constituents. It was also great to learn about The Data Loop from Lucy (in a session I missed, always the challenge of too much overlapping goodness) and a lightning talk by Nick about his 5 stars of open democracy. All in all, this year’s Notwestminster was a great event – huge thanks to the organisers!

I’m planning to work more with Democracy Club in the near future to build a Candidate Widget for hyperlocal websites as well as ways to aggregate data across council websites. If you’re interested in hearing more about this, please let us know in the comments. Amongst all the noise of better or worse services, austerity and so on, local democracy often feels under-represented. Notwestminster is doing an awesome job to fill that space, and I really hope I can make Part II Part II for more rock n roll next year!