In this post I wish to explore some the ideas around our research into the idea of “Smart Local Communities”, which describes communities which make best use of online tools to achieve their local goals through the use of existing digital infrastructure.
Local communities are an immense force for change. Locals with shared goals and knowledge, come together and form groups which in turn use their shared skills, energy, know how and free time to bring about change in their communities. I am referring to all sorts of groups: business groups, sport groups, environmental groups, social support, heritage and arts groups, the list goes on.
The internet as a service has completely transformed most sectors, the obvious include AirBnb for accommodation, Hitcharide for transport as a means of ride-sharing and less dramatic but just as immersive, the hotel sector, the engineering sector and even the public sector have all been transformed through the proliferation of digital services tailored for the needs of the sector.
The community sector has not had the same transformative change through dedicated digital services. Facebook has had a significant impact, allowing local groups to help local people to tell their story in a way they never did before. Facebook is also a two way conversation allowing feedback from the community.
How would the future look if the community development sector went through a similar transformation as it has in other sectors? (internet connectivity problems aside).
Just imagine if we could better quantify community work undertaken in Ireland each year. All the areas of life that community groups support and develop. Think of Tidy Towns, Chambers of Commerce, Men’s Sheds, Coder Dojo’s, GAA, St Vincent de Paul, the list goes on. Hera are some figures to back this up.
- There are 18,586 non profit groups in Ireland the majority of which are community groups.
- 10,9816 people employed in the sector (all non profit, many again community orientated).
- The leader budget alone for 2014 - 2020 is €250 million along with many other public funding mechanisms.
- Over 25% of the Irish population volunteer their time with various groups.
- There are 232 million volunteers hours annually which is equivalent to €2 billion annually (@minimum wage )
Ref: Irish Times
I own a small digital R&D company based in Dublin and one of our main projects is called eTownz where we explore ideas in this area. We have been involved in research with the Department of Sustainable Communities in NUIG for the past 2 years and we have a few ideas on how digital services could transform the community development sector. I have highlighted four areas where dedicated and centralised online community development tools could have a significant impact on the community development sector and in turn our country’s future.
● Bottom Up Data
Like all sectors, in order to make smarter decisions we need access to up-to-date & relevant data. Smart communities will be equipped with the tools and know how to regularly gather local data. This is the dominant principal behind a school of thought in the sector called “Asset Based Community Development” .
A smart community ecosystem would mean that all communities gather this information on a common platform allowing direct comparison to be drawn allowing for a greater understanding on regional and even national basis.
● Top-Tier Data
The Open Data movement provides a wealth of public datasets which can help communities better understand their opportunities and issues. The data is open source and publically available, however it needs to be cleaned, visualised, interpreted and delivered on a very regular basis to those involved in local development
● Community Engagement, Opinion and Local Governance
Facebook among others now provides a place where people can discuss local issues online. However, it has some limitations, as it was not designed as a community development tool. A well designed online community forum would allow cross pollination of ideas between local people, communities and be specific to local community development themes. Regular local opinion polls, feedback and suggestions will also help build engagement and participation in local initiatives and should be facilitated with a dedicated centralised platform
● Task Management in Local Development
More and more communities are now tracking tasks and volunteers hours. We strongly believe in the potential of integrating online task management tools into the sector. Online task management and volunteer hour logs allow project managers to better assign tasks and acknowledge the effort contributed by all. Task management tools also provide continuity between meetings and provide a clear dashboard of what the community need to do next.
● Online meetings & training
Not everyone has time, community groups need to move toward conducting or partly conducting meetings online.This opens the door for so many more people to contribute to local issues even when they can perhaps not attend a meeting. A simplified means of documenting and distributing meeting notes, project plans and such again helps open doors.
● Knowledge transfer
Effective and efficient transfer of ideas and knowhow among the sector is an essential component of a smart community. Knowledge silos exists across all players in the community development sector from research institutes, to community groups and funding organisations. We believe there is a need to develop a system to carefully document and catalogue best practices, case studies and other relevant information in a centralized digital repository so any community can access, as a starting point, the collective know how of similar initiatives which have taken place in the country.