Herne Hill website
Herne Hill is a local community in south London with a very active and innovative Neighbourhood Forum. The group’s website boasts a membership of nearly half the entire town’s population. But the site was beginning to show its age and struggling to meet their needs. So they brought us in to redesign and rebuild it for them.
As one of London’s most active online place-based communities, the website of Herne Hill’s Neighbourhood Forum already hosted nearly 5,000 registered users. Since 2003, the group has provided strong digital support and leadership to the area’s wealth of local community groups, charities and associations. In 2013, Forum coordinator Giles Gibson – a passionate hyperlocal activist and a driving force behind the forum – approached us. He needed a Drupal agency to help improve and upgrade the site to D7 because he was concerned the system was showing its age and could no longer support their work. We immediately saw strong similarities between his needs and our earlier designs for a Drupal distribution that could support Transition Towns as part of the Transition Drupal initiative. After further exploration it became clear that Neighbourhood Forums and Transition Towns have an awful lot in common. So, as you can imagine, we were very eager to work with Giles and his team. This was the system we’d always dreamt of building.
What we did
We worked with Giles to define a new site design specification, extending the core feature set and building on their excellent earlier work. We prioritised group formation, peer-to-peer communication and user generated content. To support that we also specified a stronger workflow to enable his team of volunteer content moderators to collaborate on content approval. Lastly, a complex migration process was needed to transfer all the data and content from the existing Drupal 6 website into the brand new D7 installation. We developed a brand new information architecture, using a common category scheme for all the content across the site. We enhanced the content model to support this. We also designed a completely new set of page layouts using Drupal’s Panopoly and Panels sub-systems to enable Giles to adjust the layouts to fit his own requirements and offering the maximum flexibility for him as a site builder.
The site was already established as the best online source for discovering news and up-to-date information about all the big stories happening in Herne Hill. However, the layout and news stream didn’t help readers to find the news stories they were interested in. We added news categories, a listing page and better news article page layouts and we ensured that news articles themselves could all have featured images and commenting where it was deemed appropriate.
Missing pets are the killer app for hyperlocal news platforms and Herne Hill’s “Missing Moggie” spot was no exception. We’ve enhanced the Missing Moggie tool to become a complete section in its own right with an Alerts panel above the fold on the home page. We intend to continue expanding this feature in future too.
We made several major improvements to how events were displayed with stronger calendar views, categorised Events listings. And we created the concept of Venues and Places which are essentially managed or unmanaged locations where Events can take place.
The forum is the beating heart of the Herne Hill site. Giles likes to describe it as a combination of the school gate, the market place and the doorstep. It’s where members can visit for a chat, a moan or a gossip. The forum was upgraded to the latest version of Drupal’s Advanced Forum module.
Groups, including events and group posts
The other area of the site we focused on was Community – the section designed to enable local community groups to present a page about themselves and even to interact with update posts and content. For groups which are too small to host their own site, there’s room here for them to host a complete microsite about their organisation and even to allow other users to register as members of their group. We built on Drupal’s Organic Groups module to enable news feeds, membership and other group-based functions for this area.
Local traders have always had a place in the Herne Hill site since the Neighbourhood Forum seeks to support independent local businesses. During our upgrade, we strengthened the layout and tools available to traders still further and are undertaking ongoing development to support them still further with various new tools such as integration between Google’s services for businesses.
To encourage everyone in the area to feel more civic pride, we set up a completely separate Visual Media section for the site which would allow anyone to upload images into private albums which could then be published into public Galleries if they desired.
Residents, visitors (and anyone else) can create a User Profile on the site. This enables the user generated content features to become
Sitewide category filtering and faceted search
One of the potentially most powerful new features we built into the foundations of the new system is a shared categorisation scheme. All content which is added to the system is sorted under a standard taxonomy. This standard scheme means that residents can discover what’s happening in their area (i.e. events, news stories or groups) which match whatever they’re already reading about.
One of Giles’s big requests was for him to be able to delegate a lot of the community management and site administration tasks out to a team of willing volunteers. Nowhere was this more important than with the user generated content section. He needed a super-simple way to allow anyone in the entire community to feel empowered to add their own content. So we built a workflow behind the scenes which uses Drupal’s Workbench feature that divests editorial control to a team of content editors who check and approve content before it can be published to the live site. We’re proud of this feature and are hoping to extend and continuously improve it for the next version of the system.
What happened next
The site migration and new launch took place in April 2015 and the new site has been very well-accepted by members and residents. Up until launch, the site had been predominantly seen as belonging to the Neighbourhood Forum. But Giles felt it was now time to shift emphasis away from the Neighbourhood Forum itself; the thinking being that it would be much better for the site to act as a representative for the whole town of Herne Hill. We rearranged the content to enable the Forum to became just one of the many other local groups represented in the Community section. And we changed the domain from hernehillforum.org.uk to hernehill.org.uk. It was a bold move but it helped to change perceptions and brand of the site from being about more than one community group. Following launch, several other local Neighbourhood Forum groups have voiced interest in launching their own version of the system and we are actively working with them right now to develop a standard Drupal distribution for local towns and settlements.
The process of rebuilding and enhancing the Herne Hill Forum’s site enabled us to also create all the components which form the foundations of of OpenLocal – a general Drupal distribution for local, place-based communities. We firmly believe the local community sector needs much better digital tech support in the future from sustainable and realistic projects. So we’re aiming to continue maturing OpenLocal with as many similar communities as possible. Vassall and Coldharbour forum – a neighbouring ward to Herne Hill itself – is the next installation. And, as further improvements are developed, we aim to also roll them back into Herne Hill’s own site, along with any others which also choose to adopt the platform.