Networked Neighbourhoods: Brockley Central strengthens community

Brockley Central has made our life so much easier. I wish we had one in every area.
- Lewisham Council officer, Networked Neighbourhoods report, Nov 2010 (anon, natch)

Between April and June this year, Brockley Central readers participated in a research project by a group called Networked Neighbourhoods to investigate the impact that hyperlocal sites like this one are having on their communities. The work included a survey and focus groups with readers from Brockley Central, East Dulwich Forum and Harringay Online.

The report is published today and we’ll be examining its conclusions in more detail over the week, but some of the top-line results are very interesting.

Before we go on, it’s worth pointing out a few things:

- Most of the research took place before the May elections, so the results relate to the last generation of local councillors
- Since the study was carried out, the Brockley Central readership has grown by approximately 25% in terms of daily visits
- Since the study was carried out, we’ve added hotlinks to create a permanent home for tradespeople recommendations, flat sharing and so on, in response to reader feedback
- The survey population of 135 readers was self-selecting – they volunteered to take part

So, allowing for all of that, here’s what we learned about BC readers...

46% have lived in the area 1-5 years
16% have lived in the area 6-10 years
15% have lived in the area 11-20 years
14% have lived in the area 20+ years
82% own their property
92% have a degree
66% are in full time employment
92% are white

In terms of insights, the most glaring is that if Lewisham Councillors are keen to avoid smoke-filled protests outside the Town Hall, they should engage with voters via sites like this one.

More than 40% of BC readers said their opinions of Councillors improved as a result of reading their comments on the site (negative reaction was negligible). Even Council Officers, who are rarely heard from on the record on here (although we know they occasionally post anonymously) improved their reputation by over 20% - most likely in large part due to Nigel Tyrell’s contribution.

Across all three sites, more than 70% of the Council officers’ polled about their experiences of contributing had been positive and nearly 90% believe hyperlocal sites are a constructive influence.

This pattern was similar across all three sites, although Harringay Online was the only site which produced a major improvement in attitudes towards the police – the editor points out that his site is almost unique in that the Met engages with it.

Not only do readers like it when the Council engages, they are actively willing to work with the Council. More than 70% of BC readers said that people on the site show willingness to help and get involved.

Of the three sites studied, Brockley Central is rated by its users as the least mutually supportive (although it still scores a healthy 69% in support of the statement that “People show support for one another”) but the most welcoming (a whopping 92% think so).

Where Brockley Central performs relatively poorly is in converting online conversation in to physical engagement. Nearly 30% of BC readers said they had met someone as a result of the website, but more than 60% of East Dulwich Forum readers answered yes to the same question. The argument for a BC Xmas drink has never been presented more starkly.

Neighbours were also less likely to have exchanged things (goods? Services? Bodily fluids?) via the website than on the East Dulwich Forum or Harringay Online. The forum format obviously lends itself more easily to this, but hopefully the hotlinks have provided a short-term fix.

Overall, the message of the study is emphatic. The hyperlocal sites studied produce a strong sense of local identity among readers, provide useful information:

- 92 per cent agree that useful information gets shared efficiently
- 95 per cent say that they feel more informed about their neighbourhood as a consequence of using their site
- 91 per cent agree that the sites help people to find out about shops and venues
- 74 per cent say that their site makes it easy to find local tradespeople who can be trusted
- 92 per cent agree that people are helpful if someone seeks advice on their website

On average, 63% of people surveyed said their hyperlocal website was their main source of local news, compared with 11% who said their local newspaper. As we argue here, hyperlocal sites are the perfect vehicles for community engagement.