The #digitalsentinel and on being the cutting edge of mundane.

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I’m currently in London after attending the AHRC Connected Communities Showcase yesterday. I was representing the Digital Sentinel project that is based in Wester Hailes and is a follow on from a wider set of ‘Community Hacking‘ projects (check out the amazing comic strip on the projects website!) such as Ladders to the Cloud and the installation of the Digital Totem Pole last year.

I feel, for me, the process of the Sentinel is at a crucial stage where it is now moving from a vision of a ‘digitized newspaper’ format (that will replace the previous paper copy that had its funding cut in 2008) to become something that is more of a living breathing news agency, which needs to be by the community, for the community (and that doesn’t mean it can’t be printed/hard copies produced and shared as well for those with limited access to the technology. I’ll get onto that in a mo.)

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Last month, I ran a taster session for the staff of those who work for the service providers in the community – which includes representatives from places such as the Health Agency, the Library, Community Learning Partnerships, Prospect Community Housing and others – to discuss what a Digital Sentinel might look and feel like.

After walking through Citizen’s Eye (a community news agency in Leicester that I was very much involved in/advocated when I lived there) and other Media Trust’s Local 360 beacon hubs as case studies of successful and active community led news agencies in the UK, I got the group to walk about between different flipcharts and to write down the How, Why, What, Where and When of the Sentinel from their perspective, keeping it open for interpretation (as ‘Where’ for instance could mean both a physical space for meeting to produce news, a place to host content or a place to access the website. I left the workshop deliberately informal to leave space for much needed discussion and debate about what this should actually be, where we should take it and, most importantly, who was going to step up and actually do it (as it’s all very well that I’m there and funded to be there for now, but essentially ,it’s not about me and never will be, and I need to be able to hand it over to the community as a thing and a process, not as a tick box, step by step commissioned wordpress magazine format that sits empty without me putting my own content up.)

Some of the obvious (but I needed to hear it from the community) points was the notion of an affordable central service provision for communicating the information that they currently provide online (be it through email lists, social media or facebook/blogs – see (and get lost in) the excellent social history of Wester Hailes blog “From There to Here.” to get a taste of what is already happening in online around this community.) whiteboardsThis is absolutely attainable through platforms such as WordPress and content that already exists can be aggregated/converted to be pulled into the website – no problem.

But – and this is a big but, the energy and stamina for a community news agency to get of the ground and to exist needs to be beyond sharing existing services and act as simply an information giving service – even if that information being given is stories from the past or a social history style project. It needs to want to exist and it needs to be opened up to new ways of thinking through co-collaboration with those who will be involved (and I honestly canne tell you/or predict who will be.)

You see, when you identity with employment or a service role, it is much clearer to identity with the purpose of communicating online as part of a process. If you want to use social media/citizen journalism as an exercise in stimulating community engagement, empowerment or even politicising (with a tiny p) people enough to want to attend some of the many activities in place that are inclusive to democratic, citizenship style processes (like the community council for instance) – then it needs to be more fluid, less replicate on journalistic processes and more about seeing value in the mundane, not the shiny.

68913_10151173953067654_843607420_nMy lovely friend John Coster (who is the editor of Citizen’s Eye and a big inspiration in my life) phoned me last week for a bit of a #peptalk style catch up on all of the things (including some of the exciting #citizenrelay plans for the Glasgow 2014 – stay tuned!) and having just opened the first UK Community Media Training School in Leicester (*proud* get to visit it in a few weeks!) the came out with the phrase “I aim to be the cutting edge of all things mundane” – which got me thinking. I’ve been trying hard to get to grips with how I am going to stimulate a community to want to take ownership of their news – getting a bit hung up on the fact that I’m *not* from there, I’m all academic-d out my nut when it comes to theorising about it (which is why AHRC event yesterday  – and the the related Connected Communities UWS event on Remaking Society a few weeks ago was so useful for me in terms of getting back on track with PhD and reflecting on that weird role of being a academic who does practice and is/has been pretty political with it all.) and that during the Olympics it all just got a bit too bloody much.

Anyway… cutting edge of mundane. What does that mean for Wester Hailes and the process of the Digital Sentinel as a thing that needs to be imagined but also start to exist?

Rather than focussing on the big ideas and the complexity of community (rarr, PhD, rarr!), in fact, I need to focus on just getting those who show an interest in the future taster sessions (to be arranged this week) to 1) get involved 2) produce content that is relevant to them 3) get it online 4) walk down to the totem pole with the kit bags that are getting bought in the next few weeks, to scan the QR codes of the pole (on smart phone or the rentable ipads) that point to the Sentinel and to see that what you have made, written, filmed, taken a photo of, is now online and existing online, live and feeding into a site as part of a wider community.totem

It can be present in the community (there is a section on the website that can only be accessed from scanning the pole, so you have to be in Wester Hailes to do it) and it can go out-bound. It can be tagged as super -hyperhyperlocal (there are 7 estates in Wester Hailes, all with clear identities right down to whit street you live on – like everywhere really) or it can be pointing out to the wider world as a process that folk might want to get involved in, connect with, respond to or just read as something related to their interest. It can be all or both – but the main things is to make the access to such processes (the making of the media stuff) so simple and non-judgemental a process (so none of the ‘this isn’t proper journalism’ argument at this stage – it’s story telling, its data, its whatever you want to make it – it is mundane) and to be able to meet in places to get involved. It’s loose and it is flowing & anybody can get involved.) My support is getting those who are interested and engaged at this stage (with little existing stuff happening on the site) to get to a stage where they can take ownership and feel that it is theirs.

I rambled some stuff to myself on audioboo a few times about this yesterday.

What is just superb is that all of the things I am using to update about the Sentinel are all tools that can and will be used to make it exist. Even down to the photographs which are all my own and taken in Wester Hailes on my phone and using instagram to make them look a bit better. It is important to remind yourself that some of the most mundane, boring things that you find yourself doing on a daily basis (or feel a little silly doing at the time – #jencam) can actually be some of the most interesting and useful things that you can bring to projects such as this. It’s not about being, replacing, challenging the mainstream/established media and processes. It is about giving people the option to provide and contribute to their own alternative narratives.