Category Archives: Digital Government

Does a Facebook focus do us any favours?

[Summary: Reflections on going beyond Facebook in online youth work. Reposted from the Youth Work Online blog]

When I started out researching Youth Work and Social Networking in 2007 I really wanted to look at ‘Youth Work and the Internet’, but the needs of focussed research meant the boundary was drawn to look specifically at social network sites. At the time, a considerable number of young people were on Bebo and MySpace, and only certain groups were using Facebook, which had not-long opened it’s doors to everyone – having started out restricted to students at selected Universities. Talk of social media would range over a wide range of tools – from YouTube and video sharing, to still take in ideas of online chat and instant messaging, and niche photo-sharing or art-sharing websites. Now when I talk about young people online, the conversation far too often becomes ‘Young people on Facebook’.

There is a tension. The youth work idea of starting where young people are means that Facebook may well be a natural starting point. Bebo and MySpace are all but gone, and Facebook is the starting point for many young people’s online lives. Yet, Facebook is not all there is to the Internet, nor should it be. I’ve undoubtedly been guilty at times of ‘promoting’ Facebook as an youth work setting and writing about online youth engagement in very Facebook centric ways. Facebook is a youth work setting; and it does offer powerful tools for youth engagement. But as well as starting where young people are, youth work principles also encourage us to ‘go beyond’ – and to work with young people to explore alternatives and to be critical about the dominance of Facebook.

What does this mean in practice?

  • When we think about young people’s media use and online lives – we should be careful not to focus entirely on Facebook.In a presentation today by Stephen Carrick-Davies on how young people in a london Pupil Referral Unit are using the Internet Stephen emphasized “For Internet, read Mobile Phone” and highlighted the messaging and social networking taking place through Blackberry Messenger.
  • We should mix-and-match different online engagement tools. Even if there is a Facebook point of contact with a project, there might be other more open tools for hosting other elements of interaction and conversations.
  • I’ve long advocated for making blogging platforms the ‘home’ of any open access online content, with an ‘outpost’ taking the content into Facebook. Facilitating in the online space might involve encouraging young people to move from closed discussions in Facebook, to discussions in blogging spaces or on discussion lists – reflecting in the process on the different impacts of each technology choice.
    I’ve watched a recent process with interest where a discussion has moved from an open Ning network into a Facebook group. The velocity of discussion has increased in the Facebook group – but different voices are coming out stronger.
  • ‘Going beyond’ in digital youth work isn’t just about moving from ‘consumer’ to ‘creator’ of digital content, but also from ‘consumer’ to ‘creator’ of digital spaces.
  • Whilst it is hard to establish any sort of online network that will ‘compete’ with Facebook, the process of setting up and running online discussion spaces (or even just exploring how to create pages and other spaces within Facerbook) can help young people gain critical skills for thinking about the online environment. And even if we don’t create Facebook replacement spaces, we need to raise awareness of the wider potential of the open Internet – beyond centralising and dominant media platforms.

I realise some of this is pretty demanding stuff. How many practitioners would feel they have the digital skills right now to set up and manage their own online spaces – working with open source software and servers to make space. Yet, if I go back to youth work values, and a vision of informal education as helping young people to be empowered in a digital world – it’s exactly some of these skills that workers and young people may need to be exploring together.

What do you think? Do we focus too much on Facebook?

 

(Image Credit – Webtreat ICONS Etc)

Reflections: Blended facilitation at Commonwealth Young Professionals Forum

[Summary: Reflective learning from an experience of blended facilitation at Commonwealth Local Government Young Professionals Forum]

I spent two fascinating days yesterday and Sunday with the Commonwealth Local Government Young Professionals Forum. It’s the first time that an event focussed on engaging under 35s (youth in Commonwealth contexts has a slightly broader definition than most contexts I’m used to working in…) has been organized alongside the main Commwealth Local Government Forum, which brings together 100s of delegates from local politics and government administrations. The main focus of the smaller (about 60 of us) Young Professionals Forum (#cypf11 on Twitter) was to draw out from discussions a series of recommendations to make to the main forum, sharing a young adult voice on issues of local economic development and on youth participation.

Below are some brief reflections on two parts of the process I was involved in working on…

1) Social media orientation & encouraging social reporting

On the Sunday afternoon at the start of the forum we ran a short session introducing the Ning network set up for the event, and offering people quick opportunities to think about different social media tools that could be used for social reporting the event. I ran through posting blog posts and photos to the online network; gave an overview of how twitter could be used at events; and talked about vox-pop style video interviews. Everyone was encouraged to use their own equipment for social reporting; although as not everyone had devices available in the session we had a few practice/interactive activities that didn’t need technology there.

The first, asking people to think about the headline of a blog post they might write during or after the forum, generated some really good ideas – and the suggested headlines that delegates shared revealed a lot about their interests and aims for the event (e.g. ‘Best practices in youth entrepreneurship’, or imagining the post they would like to write after the forum ‘Local Government Forum accepts youth recommendations’).

The second activity, inviting people to practice vox-pop style interviewing of a partner sitting with them, also got people talking and sharing ideas for the event (and felt very similar to a standard ice-breaker, albeit with the addition of getting people’s permission to record them, and trying to manage a camera whilst talking).

On reflection:

  • A number of delegates commented on the usefulness of a social media introduction. Whilst almost all the young professionals taking part were familiar with blogging, and many had twitter accounts etc., many had not considered how to use these effectively in a conference context (for example, the use of tagging or hash-tags on Twitter was new to a number of people). Given digital communication and sharing messages online can be a key advocacy tool for the messages coming from the forum, a half-hour spent pointing to how digital tools could be used seemed to be useful investment of time.
  • Even with a good introduction, social reporting still needs facilitating. I switched my attention to the real-time collaboration, and running an afternoon workshop on open data in the commonwealth, and hadn’t formed a dedicated social reporting team. As delegates also got more involved in recommendations drafting, social media activity started to drop off and potentially a lot of stories and case studies that would have been useful to digitally share may have been missed.
  • My main take-away is to explore how the social media introduction could be integrated with ice-breakers and introductions. The blog post activity could be combined effectively with an expectation or aim-setting activity; and the vox-pop practice with an ice-breaker. Sometime to try next time…

2) Real-time collaboration for statement drafting

The process of drafting a text (statements or recommendations) from an international youth fora is an interesting one. Delegates vary in their experience of political processes, in the backgrounds they come from, and in the degree to which they are present representing a specific group or constituency – either by virtue of a formal mandate (e.g. elected youth representatives; leaders of organizations or networks), or informally adopting a representative role – or to which they solely represent and feed their own views into the process. Bringing together diverse views and voices into a text which can potentially influence policy making, and be used as an advocacy tool, is practically challenging.

There are all sorts of general process issues to be addressed in statement drafting (for example, the way in which processes generally start with a blank sheet of paper, rather than seeking to build on past statements), but one practical one we tried to address at CLGF was the process of typing up the statement itself. I’ve sat in a youth hostel late into the night before along with about 20 other people crowded round a laptop quibbling over phrases and wordings, all whilst one person: the person at the keyboard, acts as facilitator and gatekeeper of the document. At CLGF, instead of typing into documents on individual laptops, we took advantage of Cardiff City Hall’s free Wifi to get everyone typing into Google Documents – made public for anyone to edit – but with a rapporteur in each working group taking main responsibility for typing up their notes. As we moved from individual thematic working groups generating ideas, to the process of drafting a final statement, we moved into one single shared document to edit.

It might be a bit premature to assess how the process has worked, as I’m writing this as the second day of CYPF is starting (alas I’ve had to leave early) and there is still work to be done on the statement – but the process raised a number of interesting learning points.

Some reflections:

  • From one laptop the facilitation team were able to get an overview of the points emerging from different groups by looking at all the different docs, and to point out overlaps – either adding notes into the Google documents – or going to talk to specific groups (spread out in different parts of the room / different rooms) to suggest making connections with another group on a particular point.
  • We could use that access to the developing drafts to visualise emerging themes. For example, at lunchtime I put together Wordles of the drafts which a number of delegates noted were useful in getting a sense of the discussions and record being generated. http://network.cyec.org.uk/profiles/blogs/drafting-recommendations
  • Whilst allowing multiple editors changes the power dynamic associated with one person at a keyboard – by allowing anyone with an Internet access device in a group to directly clarify and update notes – one delegate pointed out that it can lead to (a) some people being left out, as screens become personal again rather than shared; (b) people making edits direct without discussing them – missing on opportunities for dialogue across the table (this matches my experience of sitting in silence at IGF10 drafting a statement in etherpad with a number of other delegates – all the interaction taking place in chat and on the text directly).One practice way to address some of this may be to try and project each document up on a shared screen as well – and to think about having different ‘editing policies’ (possibly enforced with the document sharing settings) for different stages of the process (e.g. during initial idea creation anyone can add anything; during refining thematic papers edits should be discussed; during final changes to a statement, all changes should be approved by the group before being made to the text).
  • The documents we were using were set so that anyone in theory could access, read and edit them – even if not at the forum. This was mainly for ease (no need to get people’s e-mail addresses to share the document with them), but also seems to me to be a good thing – potentially enabling more enhanced participation and allowing expertise and ideas to be brought in from across the world – regardless of people’s ability to travel to the conference. We didn’t exploit this possibility – and how it could fit into the general processes of statement drafting would need more thought – but it’s an exciting one.
  • The cost (or lack of) Internet access in hotels is still a big barrier to this process. I was able to set up a MiFi to allow a couple of people back at the hotel to carry on working on the draft, but a lack of affordable WiFi suddenly limited the breadth of possible collaboration.

Seeing how quickly and easily delegates adopted real-time collaborative documents for drafting in a general conference (I was wondering if the YCIG experience was unique to a technology conference), I’m keen to spend more time looking at effective and empowering facilitation techniques in this space – and to see how the process could be developed more.

Diplomacy labs

We’ve only scratched the surface of how digital tools can transform youth fora, and other international gatherings. However, the ingredients of a transformed way of doing business are coming together: remote (or enhanced) participation; understanding the digital record as a fundamental vehicle for driving outcomes of an event and real-time collaboration tools. I certainly hope institutions like CLGF, CYPG and the upcoming Commonwealth Youth Forum in Australia in October take up the challenge of innovating and living out the common conference platform claim that “we need to change the way politics is done”.

 

Update: Photo Credit to Dan from A-Leap (fab participation, youth and learning people in Wales) for the picture in this post.

Sprinkled stats and the search for data…

[Summary: Data-driven vs. data guided change-making. Reposted from the new Making a Difference With Data website]

I woke up to a tweet this morning from @YoungAdvisors pointing me to their new ‘Big Book of Stats’ and ‘What’s the Real Cost of Cutting’ resources – bringing together statistics from across the youth sector in a quick-to-skim PDF.

I got in touch with Gary Buxton, Young Advisors Chief Exec to ask a few questions about the stats:

Q: What inspired your to collect the figures you have gathered?
When times are tough its even more important to share and collaborate.  Our social goals are about creating good opportunities for young people. Having charities, social enterprises and young people all replicating work is distracting and reduces everyone’s ability to deliver. If we all shared a little bit more, we’d all be greater than the sum of our parts.

Q: How easy was it to find the data and numbers you needed?
Both pieces were pretty difficult to pull together.  It became a bit of an evening hobby! Stats came from old NYA policy briefings, NCVYS, Twitter, Facebook, Private Consultancy Companies, New Economics Foundation, Prince’s Trust and government sites etc etc.  I still really want how much it costs when a young person is excluded from school!

Q: How are you now planning to use these figures?
We use the stats for writing bids and helping the young people we work with write bids and presentations that are well informed and referenced.  Knowing your data helps young people make reasoned and compelling solutions to community problems.  We wanted to open the data to others who might find it helpful so everyone can work smart and not hard, keep delivering great work, but most of all, make a good case to decision makers, councillors and MPs about how important investing in young people is and the risk of pulling funding from services that young people regard as important.

As the ‘Sprinkled Statistics’ recipe over in the Open Data Cook Book suggests, sometimes using open data is as simple as backing up an argument with the numbers – with no need for fancy visualisation or mash-ups. Resources like Young Advisors Big Book of Stats can make that easier for other groups.

But, as Gary notes, even just collecting the statistics you need from government reports, let alone getting access to raw data to slice and explore it in different ways, can be tricky. And as Paul Clarke questions in a blog post today, is getting the data always the most important part of campaigning for a change? Whilst we might imagine there are clear ‘facts’ about the cost of school exclusions, or patient to nurse ratios, these statistics do not come solely from direct measurement, but are based on calculations from different datasets, and, importantly, rest upon definitions (what is an exclusion; what counts as a direct or indirect cost of exclusion; do you count all the time a nurse is on the ward, or only the time they are available for patient care (not paperwork). As Paul puts it:

…does the cause need the data? Does the search for data delay the obvious? Could the open data revolution sometimes obfuscate more than enlighten? While we’re arguing over reporting standards, boundary definitions and data feeds, real people are hurting and starving.

So where does this leave us? Having access to statistics, data and figures at a local level can certainly help strengthen those advocating for change. And knowing the numbers can inform bids, proposals and smarter working. But perhaps key here is to see campaigning for change as ‘data guided’ and ‘data backed’ rather than ‘data-driven’.

Making a difference with data means knowing how to use it as a tool, but one amongst many in the change-makers toolbox.

Open data quick links: cook books; aid data; campaign camps; MADwData

[Summary: A couple of quick open data links]

The Open Data Cook Book now has a new look and a few more recipes – providing step by step instructions for working with open data. It’s also now Wikified – so anyone can sign-up to edit and add recipes. So, if you’ve got ideas for how people can use open data in creative ways – head over and add some recipes.

On the topic of Making a Difference With Data the new MADwData website is packed full of links and analysis on open data to support change at a local level, particularly organised around different sectors: health, local authorities, housing, transport, crime & education.  I’m editing the education section, and have been exploring how open the EduBase dataset really is. Take a look though at the fantastic content from the other editors – all giving some great overviews of the state of data for change in different contexts.

In the MADwData forum Vicky Sargent has been asking about the use of data in library closure campaigns. I’ve been in touch with a lot of campaigning organisations recently who sense that there is real potential for using open data as part of campaigns – but unsure exactly how it should work and how to start engaging with data (and open data advocates asking the same questions from the other direction). Hopefully we’ll be digging into exactly these questions, and providing some practical learning opportunities and take-away ideas at the upcoming Open Data Campaigning Camp in Oxford on 24th March. It’s tacked onto the end of the E-Campaigning Forum, and I’m co-organising with Rolf Kleef and Javier Ruiz. Free places are still left for organisations interested in spending day of hands-on learning exploring how data could help in campaigning against cuts; on environmental issues; and in international development campaigns and funding.

And talking of development funding… (not only a post of outward links; seemless links internally as well!) – last week the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Standard‘s first version was full agreed. I had the pleasure of working with Development Initiatives on a demonstrator of how IATI data could be visualised, the results of which are available on AidInfoLabs as the IATI Data Explorer - allowing you to pick any country and dig into details of where DFID UK Government Aid spending has gone there – and, where the data is available, digging into the individual transactions.

Skills for the job: digital literacy

In the lead up to the Youth Work Online Month of Action I’ve got an article in Children and Young People Now’s ‘skills for the job’ section, talking about digital literacy. Here’s how it starts:

A lot of what we hear about young people and the internet is focused on e-safety. But digital literacy is about a lot more than that. Digital literacy involves being able to navigate the digital world – making the most of the many opportunities it provides for accessing information, creating connections, having a say, being part of communities and developing skills and knowledge for now and for the future.

Developing young people’s digital literacy needs professionals to engage with the online world – supporting young people to move beyond narrow use of a few social networking websites or apps – to discover the full potential of the internet as a global information resource. It also involves the development of critical skills – enabling internet users to choose what information to engage with. One key part of digital literacy is to know when to multi-task, when to focus, when to be connected, and when to disconnect.

You can read the full article over on the CYPN Website.

In the upcoming Month of Action we’ll be focusing a lot more on these themes – working to build broader networks of practitioners focussed on all aspects of the digital world for young people.

P.S. I’m still on the lookout for a venue for the Month of Action’s unConference. We’re looking for somewhere in London, available on Saturday 16th April, with good Wifi, room for 100 people in break-out spaces, and crucially, either free or low-cost. If you know someone who could sponsor the event by sharing their venue/offices/meeting rooms for the day, do get in touch.

Sourcing raw data… (drafting the open data cook book)

Open Data Cook Book LogoI’m at the Local by Social South West ‘Apps for Communities’ event in Bristol today, doing some prototyping work on the Open Data Cook Book. Listening to people working through how to find data – and trying to search for data myself, I thought I would try and map out all the different places I’ve been looking to track down different open datasets. So – with a sprinkling of recipe book metaphors – here’s a draft for comment of key places to track down open data (focussed on UK government data)…

Sourcing raw data

Finding the right ingredients for your data creation is often the hardest part. You will often have to mix-and-match from the approaches below to get all the data and information you need.

1) Search the supermarkets – the data catalogues & data stores

There are a growing number of data catalogues that bring together listings of published open data (and there are also now data marketplaces that can help you find commercially licensed data as well – so be sure to check the details of the data you find).

Data catalogues often have a particular focus – and no one catalogue can tell you about all the data out there.

CKAN.net is a catalogue of data from many different sources. Good to check if you are not quite sure where the dataset you want might be found to see if someone has already created a ‘packaged‘ version of it.

Data.gov.uk is the UK Governments data catalogue, which aims to include listings of all open datasets in the public sector. It’s early days yet, but it boasts over 4,600 dataset listings, many of which link direct to spreadsheets and data downloads.

Guardian World Data Store makes it easy to search across a range of different government open data catalogues – browsing data by country and format.

Your local authority might have a data store, or at least a data page on their website. London has http://data.london.gov.uk and you can find a list of other local open data web pages through the ‘All Councils’ listing at OpenlyLocal.com.

Publicdata.eu is a new catalogue bringing together data from right across Europe.

2) Specialist independents – data stores

Where the supermarkets are stacking the datasets high, and sharing them free – there might be a specialist in your area of interest – working hard to source and bring together the finest data they can. Fortunately, most of them provide the data for free too.

OpenlyLocal.com is focussed on making local council information accessible. You can find details of local council spending for many authorities alongside details of council meetings and councillors that has been scrumped and scraped from the respective websites for you. Most of the raw data is available through an API – so you might need to explore a few new skills to get at it though.

Timetric.com are specialists when it comes to time series data. If you can plot it on a graph over time, chances are they’ve taken the dataset, tidied it up, and providing ways to search and browse for it – with csv spreadsheet downloads of the raw data.

Do you have a specialist independent you go to for data? Tell us about them in the comments.

3) Foraging – searching for the data

If the data you want isn’t available pre-packaged and catalogued, you might need to head out foraging across the Internet. There is a lot of open data in the wild – you just need to know how to spot it.

GetTheData.org makes a great first port of call to see if other data-foragers have already found a good spot to get the data you are after. It’s a community website full of requests for data, and conversations about good places to find it. Plus, if your own foraging doesn’t turn up anything, you can come back and pose your question to the community here later.

SearchTry searching the web for the topic you are interested in. Perhaps add ‘data’ as an extra key word. When you read news articles or web pages that appear to be based on data, take note of the names of the data sources they mention and plug that back into a search. Oftentimes that will lead you to some data you might be able to use.

Think-tank websites, academic researcher web pages and even newspaper sites can all host lots of datasets. Just make sure you find out all you can about the provenance of the information before you use it!

Deep searchingYou can use a standard Google Search to look for data published in common office formats hosted on a particular web domain: your local council or university for example. All you need are two handy operators:

  • The ‘site:’ operator on Google restricts searches to only show results from a particular domain;
  • The ‘filetype:’ operator only returns files of a particular type.

Using those together you can construct searches like ‘filetype:xls site:oxford.gov.uk’ to find all the Excel spreadsheets that Google has indexed on the Oxford City Council website.

4) Scrumping – screen-scrape the data

It’s not uncommon to find the data you need… only it’s just out of reach. Perhaps it’s in a table on a web page when you want it in the sort of table you can load into a spreadsheet to sort and chart. Or it might be spread across lots of different web pages and files. That’s where screen-scraping comes in – creating small computer scripts that turn structured information on a website into raw data.

There are recipes that explain the details of screen-scraping coming in the cook book, and you can go screen-scrape scrumping with a variety of different tools.

Google Spreadsheetsusing a special formula you can grab tables and lists from other websites direct into your spreadsheet (recipe).

Scraper Wiki – helps you get started created advanced scrapers which they will run every day to grab information from websites and turn it into accessible raw data (recipe).

5) Special order – FOI

Perhaps you have found that no-one stocks the data you need – not even in places you can forage or scrump for it. If the data comes from a public body, then it might be time to explore putting in a special request for it using the Freedom of Information Act.

WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a service that makes it easy to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to a local authority, government department or other public body. You have a right to ask authorities for a copy of the information and data they hold, and you can ask for it to me returned as raw data. Search WhatDoTheyKnow to see if anyone has requested the data you want already, and if not, put in your request. (Often if data is available on WhatDoTheyKnow it will be locked up in PDFs. You might need to crowd-source the process of turning it into structured raw data, although there are a few tools and approaches that might help turn PDFs into data programatically)

The Public Sector Information Unlocking Service available at http://unlockingservice.data.gov.uk/ provides a root for requesting data is opened up by the Data.gov.uk team. It’s not backed by the legal framework of FOI, but may play a role in data requests under the currently debated ‘Right to Data’ legislation.

IsItOpenData.org provides a useful tool for asking non-public bodies to share their data as open data, or to clarify the licensing.

6) Home grown – research and crowdsourcing

Some data simply doesn’t exist yet – but you can create a raw dataset through research, and through crowd-sourcing, inviting others to help you research.

Simple spreadsheets - if you are systematically working through a research task, keep your results in a spreadsheet. See the section on raw data for ideas about how to structure it well.

Google Forms - available through http://docs.google.com allows you to create an online form that anyone can fill in, with all the responses going direct into a spreadsheet for you to use. You might be able to get supporters to research for you and collaborative build up a useful dataset.


Always check the label

Is the data you have found licensed for re-use? Whilst you might get away with cooking up some foraged raw data for your own consumption without checking out the details – when you re-publish data and share it with others you need to be sure you have permission to do so.

Remember as well to keep a list of the ingredient you use, and where you got them from, so you can publish a full list of sources along with your creation.)

Worked example: A simple search, with many steps

Sadly we’re not yet at the stage where you can easily get all the data you need delivered to your door – so most projects will involve some searching around.

For example: I was recently looking for data on library locations in Bristol. I started at the data supermarkets, searching data.gov.uk for ‘libraries’. I found a few datasets listed, but the links were broken, so I ended up at a dead end. Next I turned to the Guardian datastore, but that wasn’t very helpful either – so I looked at GetTheData.org to see if anyone else had been looking for library data. Fortunately they had, and their conversations pointed me towards a few possible data sources. Again though, I ended up almost a a dead end – I could find a list of planned library closures, but not a dataset of all the libraries. However, I did find a link to the Bristol Council website, and on browsing the site I came across a listing of libraries in a web-page – so I turned to a little scrumping – using Google Spreadsheets to import the web-page table into a spreadsheet table that I could manipulate and work with. Working through the list of data sources above I was searching for about 15 minutes – following my nose to finally get to the raw ingredients I needed for some data creations.

Digital Futures – Trends in Technology, Youth and Policy

[Summary: What technologies will affect services for young people in 2011? Presentation, worksheet and reflections on a workshop]

I’ve read a lot of blog posts and watched a lot of presentations about technology trends, and future technologies that everyone needs to be aware of – but they can often feel pretty distant from the reality of frontline public services trying to make sense of how new technologies affect their work. So when I was offered the opportunity to run a workshop on ‘digital futures’ at the children’s services conference of a national children’s charity, right at the start of 2011, I thought it would provide an interesting opportunity to explore different ways of talking about and making sense of technology trends.

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Young people, activism & the web: Speaking Out in a Connected World

[Summary: Sharing slides and notes from a children's sector conference presentation]

I was speaking earlier today at the Children England & NCVYS ‘Speaking Out’ conference on the topic of ‘young people, activism and the web’. The conference was predominantly attended by staff from third-sector organisations providing frontline services for children, young people and families, so I tried (not entirely successfully in a short slot…) to cover a mix of examples of youth-led use of the web in campaigning at the national level, and some practical steps that organisations, who may not be campaigning organisations, can take to make the most of the web to engage with young people and get their voices heard.

A slightly adapted version of the slides can be seen via slideshare below, and I’ve tried to write up some notes with links to relevant resources as well.

Notes and Links

I started planning the presentation by posing the question “How can young people use the web in activism?”, which pretty quickly, as I turned to watch a Twitter stream full of tweeting from the University College London students occupying their University, making extensive use of different digital media challenges to get their message out, and with members of UK Youth Climate Coalition celebrating their success keeping Chris Hune at the climate negotiations in Cancun by mobilising hundreds of people by e-mail, Facebook and Twitter to flood the Number 10 switchboard with calls, that the question was really “How can they not?”. The web is right at the heart of much modern youth action – and yet so many organisations still struggle to engage with online spaces.

As I put together the next slides, however, I was quickly reminded that the web alone doth not change create. Earlier this year I came across a Facebook group set up by young people campaigning against the use of Mosquito sonic weapons against young people in Barnsley, and I fired up Facebook to grab a screenshot of this today’s presentation – hoping I would see stacks of campaign updates. Yet the Facebook group, which when launched had quickly accelerated to over 700 members, was standing stagnant, the top updates as spam, and apparently no real action having been taken further engage and mobilise the young members of the group. So whilst young people may turn to social media tools when they’ve causes to campaign on, and they may have the know-how to set up Facebook groups and YouTube channels, the skills, support and connections needed to campaign effectively remain as vital as ever. As the Young Foundation put it, many young people are plugged in, but with their digital skills untapped.

Resources like Act by Right (and the great Act by Right on Climate Change remix by Alex Farrow), the Battlefront campaign toolkit, and a wealth of web pages about campaigning with the web, can provide some of those skills through the web itself – but there is also a need for youth organisations to work directly with young people to support the development of critical campaigning skills. Just before I spoke today, John Not, General Secretary of the Woodcraft folk, gave a last-minute presentation and shared the inspiring work they are doing to offer support to young people who are passionately campaigning right now on the issue of University Fees, demonstrating some great leadership on how organisations can provide responsible backing to youth-led action.

Helping young people to make connections with decision makers, through sites like TheyWorkForYou.com and WriteToThem.com, with the press, through the leverage that organisations might have, and with other campaigners, through spaces like TakingItGlobal and Battlefront is also a key role that adults can play in supporting young people to use the web for positive activism. There is also a need for organisations to think about how they support young people to make safe and effective use of the web in campaigning.

Many organisations, however, might not see their role as supporting general youth-led activism, but there are still many ways digital tools can support the delivery of participative practice. Online spaces can help organisations to engage young people, to communicate and co-ordinate, and to amplify their practice; and to ensure that young people’s views and insights on key aspects of a service, or key local issues, are heard and valued in decision making.

In thinking about how to engage with young people online it’s important to understand the different ways young people use the web and to think about whether a project is trying to engage young people who are already into an issue, or whether it’s trying to attract attention of those who are predominantly ‘hanging out’ online – spending time with friends and paying little attention to organisations and issues in the digital space. Good engagement also starts by listening (I mentioned Google Alerts as one handy digital listening tool, but there are many more), and starts from where young people are, whilst seeking to support young people to move beyond their starting point (a theme I initially developed in talking about youth work values and social media in the Youth Work & Social Networking report (PDF)).

Using online spaces to communicate involves finding the right tools for each job, and, finding out the right ways to use them. For example, Facebook profiles, groups and pages look very similar – but offer nuanced different ways of communicating with young people and creating online community. Quite a few of the practicalities of using different social media tools for youth engagement, including issues around organisational policy and safety concerns are covered in the ‘Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy’ report and in posts on Youth Work Online.

I ended today’s presentation by taking a look at three big policy agendas which have a digital edge to them, and trying to relate each to a critical question for organisations working with young people – but the full articulation of each of those I think will have to wait for a future blog post…

Further links
For those who were at the conference, and have made it reading this far without being overwhelmed by lots of links (and for anyone interested), a few more bits that might be of interest: