SW12 Social Network

One of the themes I picked up on at this year’s Opentech conference was that of local social media. More and more people are using open source tools to build local online communities and this movement seems likely to grow. I was particularly impressed with the work that Will Perrin and friends are doing over at TalkAboutLocal. I confess that Lloyd had mentioned the project to me some months ago, but I had forgotten about it until I saw Will speak at Opentech.

I’ve written about my interest in local sites before. You might remember me introducing Planet Balham and Balham Twits. I still think that both of those sites are useful, but they aren’t very interactive. What I wanted was something that the local community would find more useful. I spent a few hours playing with Drupal. I think that Drupal would be a great tool, for building local sites, but I didn’t have the time to spare learning how to get the best out of it, so in the end I went back to an earlier experiment.

A couple of years ago, I used Ning to build a simple social networking site for Balham. At the time I didn’t have many local contacts so the site atrophied through lack of use. But this lunchtime I went back to have another look at the project.

And after only twenty minutes or so of fiddling, SW12.org was ready to go. The great thing about Ning is that it has all of the standard social networking features already available as modules that you can just drop into the site. As a start, I’ve picked a pretty standard-looking set of features (user profiles, blogs, disscussion forums, photos and videos) and have seeded the site with a few entries of my own. I’m sure things will grow and change if the site becomes popular.

Through my other web experiments (particulalry through Balham Twits) I’ve made contact with some Balham-based internet users, so hopefully this time the site will get a little more use. I’m planning to put in some work to promote it locally as well. Even if it means dropping leaflets through every door in Balham (ok, perhaps I won’t go quite that far!)

It looks to me as though Ning is a great way to get a social network site up and running really quickly. I expect I’ll be using it again for other similar sites in the future. If you’re thinking of doing something similar then I recommend talking a look at it.

And if you’re in or around Balham, please join up to the site.

Hack Day Plans

This weekend is Yahoo!’s Hack Day. And as in the last two years, I’m going to be there. Although (also like the last too years) I’m far to old and soft to consider staying up and hacking through the night. I’ll be leaving at a reasonable time on Saturday evening to get home to a comfortable bed. This will be easier than in previous years as this year’s venue is near the tube network (Alexandra Palace is a lovely venue – but a real bugger to get to).

So the question is, what to hack on. Actually I already have some ideas. And (unsurprisingly for those of you who are regular readers) it’ll be based around the local community stuff that I’ve been writing about (and talking to Lloyd about) recently.

Here’s the current plan.

Building local planets is all very well, but it can be hard work to get a good one going. As I’ve mentioned before, you need good local knowledge to pick up interesting feeds about a location. This certainly doesn’t scale to building local community sites for the whole of the UK (well, not without a lot of help). But I think you can get a lot of the way there – close enough to be useful – with an automated process. Last month I mentioned some feeds that I was using as a basis for all of my local planets. I think that’s an idea that is worth exploring further. There are other feeds that can be added to that list. Things like MySociety‘s FixMyStreet and GroupsNearYou. There are also things like TheyWorkForYou‘s feeds of when your MP has spaid something in Parliament.

One problem with this approach is that localities aren’t named consistantly. For some of these feed you need a placename (a Google news search for news mentioning “Balham”) and for others you need a postcode (which MP represents SW12). I’ve been looking at Yahoo!’s GeoPlanet API and it looks like it will get me some way towards solving this problem (as a bonus, there’s already a Perl module for it).

All of which leads me to my plan. A service that builds automated web sites providing local information for communities in the UK. I’m imagining that you put in a post code (or, perhaps, a placename) and it goes away and builds a useful and interesting web site for you.

I have no idea how close I’ll get in 24 hours of hacking, but it will be an interesting experiment. If you’re going to be Hack Day and this sounds interesting to you, then please get in touch.

Local Media – Twitterers in Balham

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’m becoming very interested in using the internet to bring local communities together. So here’s something else that I’ve built over the last few days.

About a week ago I saw Paul Carvill’s new site Twitian. It brings together all of the people from The Guardian who use Twitter and reposts their tweets. It’s an interesting way for people to find other people who might share their interests. I thought that it would be interesting to aggregate tweets on the basis of geography.

I contacted Paul and asked if he planned to release his code as open source. He said that he would, but that it wasn’t quite ready. But then I discovered the Perl Net::Twitter module and realised that it would be pretty simple to recreate a lot of what Twitian does. A couple of evenings of hacking and Balham Twits is ready to go.

It’s a pretty simple set-up. And I don’t do things quite the same way as Twitian. I’ve set up a new user on Twitter called balhamtwits and the site is generated using information about the people that user is following. One feature that I think is rather clever is that the program automatically follows anyone that follows it. So anyone can add themselves to the site by simply following balhamtwits. Of course that could lead to spam accounts being included automatically, so there’s a mechanism to manually remove and block undesirable accounts.

Anyway, I’ve put the code up on Github so that anyone else who wants to have a go can do so. It’s a surprisingly small amount of code. Of course, like all quickly hacked together projects, the documentation is a bit lacking. But I’ll work on that over the weekend. Honest.

Please let me know if you find it useful. And if you’re twittering in SW12, please follow balhamtwits.

Local Planets

Over the last few years I’ve written a few times about how I’ve been building planets. A planet is a web site which aggregates web feeds on a particular topic and republishes them as a combined web site (almost certainly with a combined web feed as well). One of my earliest planets was Planet Balham which combines feeds about Balham, the area of London where I live.

The idea of using the internet to bring together local communities has been gaining a lot of traction recently, so I’ve been doing a bit of work on Planet Balham firstly to improve the design and secondly to make the content as interesting as possible. I’ve also promoting it a bit and, as a result of that work, someone suggested to me earlier today that a Planet Streatham might also be useful. For those of you who don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of London geography I should probably point out that Streatham is the area to the east of Balham.

I have a pretty good system in place for building planets quickly so in my lunch break I threw together a quick prototype for Planet Streatham. And then (because I was on a roll) I did Planet Tooting and Planet Clapham too.

Of course, the problem with building planets is finding good content. For Balham, I have some local knowledge and I’m pretty happy with what I have[1]. For Streatham, Tooting and Clapham I have less local knowledge and, to be honest, less inclination to research the subject. But I’ve discovered that you can actually build a decent local planet with just a few standard feeds. And those are what I’ve used for the new planets. I think these would be a good start for any local planet. The great thing about them is that it’s easy to customise them for any other location.

In all cases, I hope it’s obvious how to customise the  link.

Automated searches aren’t without their problem, of course. Since I’ve been following Google’s news search for “Balham”, I’ve learned more than I really wanted to about Nebraskan basketball player Chris Balham. But that’s only to be expected and the “real” results far outweigh the problems. Initial results indicate that the problem might be worse for Planet Tooting. Tuning the search terms – perhaps to include “London” – might be an improvement.

So I have basic planets for Streatham, Tooting and Clapham. I don’t intend to spread my empire any further. But I’d really like to see more local planets like this springing up. I’ve already had a couple of people contact me on Twitter about creating others. There’s already a Planet SE16, but there’s no reason why every part of London shouldn’t have one.

The technology isn’t hard. My planets are built with my own software, but I expect pretty much any language will have some kind of planet application available. I’ll write in more detail later this week about how I’ve built mine, but if I’ve inspired you to build one, please let me know and I’ll start some kind of directory.

[1] Still interested in adding more though, let me know if you know of a good local feed that I’m missing.