The web is a big place and growing rapidly, both in terms of sheer physical size and complexity. Against that backdrop, tools for communicating have never been more ubiquitous or simple to use. The democratisation of content and the explosion of mobile computing has led us to a point where we are always connected and ready with something to say. For organisations, being able to ‘listen in’ and influence that conversation can be invaluable, allowing you to monitor your community and shape the discussion. However, discerning the signal amongst all the background noise can be difficult.
An agile solution
Sam and Ben created Hyp3rLocal to help capture and make sense of the vast amounts of web communication going on across Barnet. The content is drawn from a variety of sources, tagged with keywords, plotted on a map for visual clarity and keywords are tracked over time. Everything is captured – the good, the bad and the ugly. Too often the loudest few get all the attention. One of the key ambitions of Hyp3rlocal is to source a balanced landscape of opinion, giving equal space to the evangelists, moderates and critics on any given subject.
Every five minutes Hyp3rLocal will check the feeds it knows about for new content and pull in up to five new items. The system and the items it tracks need to stay relatively light in order to keep the load on the infrastructure (and costs) down. However by aggregating from well-known sources like Google for news and YouTube for video, we can have created a reasonable view of Barnet and the scale of communication about the area on the web. Feed items are kept for two weeks to allow for tracking conversations over time.
As feeds are brought in, Hyp3rLocal looks for keywords and associates each item with a category and location. Items are then presented back as either a list or mapped on Open Street Map. Keywords can be searched and are also graphed to show the frequency of their appearance – a simple but effective snapshot of community sentiment.
A big (society) ambition
Currently the site is being used by consultation, customer services and communications officers at Barnet Council to monitor the public conversation about Barnet the place, local public services and general community sentiment on a range of issues. Our hope is that over time the wider community will find value in the site, especially community organisers and local developers. With any luck, a number of new community websites will emerge, forming new online hubs with ongoing conversations and an active membership. If this happens – as it has in Haringey – these hubs will allow citizens to connect with and support others in their local area without the need for third party involvement – a key idea in the much discussed Big Society agenda. Moreover, vibrant online hubs can replace public meetings as the primary way for councils and communities to interact – let public services come to residents on their home turf, not the other way around.
To support this ambition, we have made it easy for developers to take a snippet from Hyp3rlocal and embed the content on their own site, or to take RSS of any feed or channel. Likewise, anything found on Hyp3rlocal can easily be shared with other social media sites. We have also visualised local fixmystreet reports and news from TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow on Hyp3rlocal – again with a view to making it easy for start-up websites to find content that is useful and relevant to their community.
Nuts and bolts
We are using a lightly customised version of Managing News by Development Seed for the job of aggregating and analysing the content. It is a very agile framework with lots of opportunity to use the flexible open source content management system Drupal to extend the site by building new features.
Since the platform lacks a semantic filter, sometimes the site finds items that have been pulled in which have no relation to Barnet (or at least, not the one on North London). All that is required is for a system admin or custodian to check in and delete any irrelevant feeds every few days.
Managing News itself is a highly extensible framework that can be used to build entire platforms. It has been used variously by the World Bank and the United Nations to track various subjects, like the Afghan elections or the spread of the H1N1 virus.
The entire project took approximately seven days to complete and cost nothing but the server space it sits on (and Ben’s valuable time).