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Final Report - Online Tools for Real World Communications

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Neighborhood Conversations

Vermont communities are looking to online tools to improve communications, but also worry that too much time in the online world will weaken community ties in the real world. This shared value of community relationships makes Vermont the perfect place to develop online tools that strengthen the community fabric.

Front Porch Forum (FPF) is an online platform for community conversations that focuses on strengthening those real world connections. It began when founder Michael Wood-Lewis discovered he had no good way to get to know his new Burlington neighbors. The online connections served as a modern day equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar. Today, FPF forums cover 40% of Vermont. And almost 80% of FPF participants think that the service makes their neighborhood feel more neighborly.

Some unique features of FPF are:

  • It's moderated. FPF employees manage information flow, clustering messages into easy-to-read e-newsletters so that users aren’t overwhelmed by traffic
  • Personal attacks are not allowed in any post. Very occasionally an entire topic of conversation is placed out-of-bounds if it turns too negative
  • Participants use their actual names, not e-mail addresses or user names
  • Newly added with e-Vermont is the Community Calendar tool, populated by events pulled from FPF conversations and events submitted by a web form. The calendar is embeddable in any website

FPF built 28 new forums in e-Vermont communities. At the end of the project, these forums averaged a subscription rate of 30% of households. These rates continue to grow. Longstanding FPF platforms tend to have very high usage rates. They usually reach these rates in one of three ways:

  1. A local champion heavily promotes the service and signs up a large number of people from the beginning
  2. A significant community event occurs and people look for a neutral place to discuss it
  3. Sign ups simply reach a tipping point when, after years of slow but steady growth, it seems like “everyone” is on FPF and there is a rapid sign up from the remaining households

Read more about Front Porch Forum and online neighborhood conversations in the Community Conversations toolkit.

Municipal Government

As part of e-Vermont, the Snelling Center for Government developed a simple, inexpensive template for municipal government websites and a resource center offering additional guidelines.

The Snelling Center’s work in e-Vermont communities addressed not only the technical aspects of establishing a website, but also cultural shifts to help these sites flourish. Findings include:

  • Municipal officers and volunteers need to be comfortable themselves with online tools before they are comfortable interacting with citizens online.
  • Adding an online system to municipal government eventually increases access and efficiency, but there is an investment required upfront.
    • Human resources are needed from town offices to set up a first time website. Even with a framework already built, town offices are still responsible for developing policies, content, and a plan for regularly updating the site. Some towns received assistance from Vermont State Colleges’ interns, funded through e-Vermont.
    • Websites can be inexpensive, but for many towns they are new budget lines that need to be approved.
    • Some functions that municipalities may want to put online require creation of online systems at the state level first. For example, e-Vermont funded an application that allowed online access to the statewide lister database managed by NEMRC. In another example, when Pownal attempted to make an online guide to the Certificate of Public Good process, they found inconsistencies within and across state departments in what public documents / announcements are available online.
  • Online systems do not replace offline systems, municipal government online should complement offline options for civic engagement.
  • The state’s guidance for local municipalities using online tools is evolving, technical assistance from organizations that train and support municipal officers is therefore also evolving to keep pace.

Community Projects

In addition to the services provided by Front Porch Forum and the Snelling Center for Government, communities also designed their own projects to use online tools for improving real world communications.

  • Several communities requested an online calendar platform that placed low demand on volunteer time while also being well-populated, something embeddable in any website and also linked to Front Porch Forum announcements. Collaboration with FPF created a community calendar for all e-Vermont towns.
  • Flip Cameras purchased for Middletown Springs and Richford allow groups to make simple videos, for example fire training sessions and student videos from summer camps.
  • Ludlow’s public access TV station received upgraded equipment to support their media lab that helps local non-profits tell their stories through online video. Bristol’s public access station received equipment that allows the station to make more content available for Internet subscribers.
  • Arlington received equipment for putting their local historical materials (the Russell Collection) online, and later advised Bridgewater in a similar project. The Local History Online toolkit overviews this process.
  • Bridgewater and Moretown both made use of online tools for communications in the relief efforts following Tropical Storm Irene, as detailed in the linked community stories.
  • Communities that created wireless Internet zones also created landing pages that highlighted local activities, events and / or businesses. Community portal pages don’t need a wireless zone, for example Cambdrige’s Artists & Entrepreneurs collaborative built www.cambridgevt.com. In Bristol the downtown business partnership upgraded their Discover Bristol site to serve as a portal.
  • In Middlesex, the Town Meeting Solutions Committee led the effort to become an e-Vermont community. Their efforts to recruit residents to Front Porch Forum resulted in 80% of households subscribing in the first year. This committee was originally formed to engage more citizens in town meeting and they continue to explore how online tools can be part of the formula.

The May 8th conference on Vermont's Digital Future explored the role of online tools in communications within a community. Much of the discussion addressed access, specifically how to ensure everyone has the tools to participate and how to create the most inclusive community conversation possible. The conference discussion also clearly identified local and state government leadership as key. Leaders in government can set standards, create expectations and hold themselves accountable for ensuring that there is a seamless transfer of information onto online platforms. Read more in the conference report here.