Building the spec for your Community Information Platform

So you’re interested in exploring whether a Community Information Platform could meet your needs at your local authority? If so, this post aims to help you consider what your spec needs to be, and what a Community Information Platform might do for you.

Every local authority’s needs will be different, but there’s a lot of common ground across the sector. Some of your needs might be met by interests.me’s solution,and some may not be. We aim to work only with local authorities whose needs align with our offering, so if that isn’t you, we’ll happily point you in a different direction.

Here are 16 questions you should be asking to build the spec for your community information platform:

WHAT KIND OF INFORMATION DO YOU WANT, AND WHERE WILL IT COME FROM?

1. Do you want a directory or more dynamic content?

Do you need a directory where local people can look up organisations and contact details, or do you need more dynamic content? Directories can be useful, but they can be very difficult to maintain with up-to-date information, if you are relying on organisations telling you when things change. They are also incredibly static in terms of their content. They do not lend themselves to you contacting your residents regularly and adding value to their lives. Dynamic content ensures that your residents are fully informed about the latest, greatest opportunities to get involved locally, and it ensures you always have something new to say, every week.

2. Is the information you want to share only about public services, or is it community-sourced?

Some community information platforms focus on public services, for instance providing a searchable directory of public services. These platforms tend to meet local authorities' needs but rarely meet residents' needs, and again don't lend themselves to you contacting residents regularly. Information platforms which feature events from the community (not just services from the council) are likely to be much more engaging. Information platforms which feature local culture, sport, and activities that go beyond what the council has to offer are likely to be much more engaging.

3. Do you want information collected from existing third party sources?

Collecting information from existing third party sources (eg Meetup.com, Eventbrite, Facebook groups, etc) is hugely beneficial as it ensures you are not asking local organisations to input data into multiple systems, and hence helps ensure that your information is as comprehensive as possible.

Local community groups simply don't have the time or energy to input their data in multiple places.

You may also want your to enable you to add new sources of information via RSS or XML feeds, eg from local websites which already contain a rich source of community information - eg the local theatre or cinema).

4. Do you want local organisations to input their own information?

This is probably essential unless you want to input a lot of data yourselves or rely only on third party sources. The tool or interface which your local organisations will use to add their own information needs to be extremely simple to use, ideally built with volunteers and the over-65s in mind.

Ideally, you might like to give local groups enhanced functionality so that they can ALSO use the platform to manage ALL their communications. For instance, you could encourage them to post more information by giving them free access to a useful email newsletter tool which is integrated with your information platform. Perhaps you'd also like to support them with training to do so, so they can communicate easily with their own members.

You might also like your solution to have built-in reminders to local organisations to add information. (For instance, we send weekly automated reminder emails ahead of sending out the weekly community email).

HOW WILL INFORMATION BE MANAGED?

5. How much control do you want over the information on your platform?

Do you have the appetite to edit and curate it on a daily basis, or not? If not, you need to ensure that there is an approval system for organisations using the platform, and that editing and curation are very light-touch and straightforward. For instance it needs to be easy to disconnect an organisation from your community if they are posting inappropriate content.

6. Do you need bespoke categorisation?

In order to ensure your information is as user-friendly as possible, it needs to be categorised on entry to your platform. What categories do you need - perhaps you need these to be bespoke to your community?

WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH THE INFORMATION?

7. Do you only need to broadcast information or do you also need discussion?

Do you need your information platform to spread information as far and wide as possible, or are you really looking for a discussion solution - for instance a local discussion forum? These two objectives can be in conflict. If you want discussion, such as that provided on local Facebook groups or local social networks such as Nextdoor, it's likely that the effectiveness of your broadcast messages will be diluted as the content will be hidden amongst local discussion. You'll also be competing against these existing platforms where residents are already talking. We think it's better to post and disseminate your information across these platforms (particularly Facebook) but not to try to replicate what Facebook does. We believe quality of information is more important than the quantity of discussion. Discussion can make it difficult for relevant information to be found.

8. Do you need automated social media distribution?

Do you want your community information platform to make it possible (even automated) to post content onto a designated Facebook page or Twitter account? If not, you will need to ensure your social media manager is on the case on a daily basis to make best use of your community information by selecting and posting information manually.

9. Do you want weekly automated community emails?

Email is so important as a communication method. Yet if you don't automate your email newsletters, this can take a huge amount of time. interests.me will help you send automated, perfectly formatted community email newsletters out to your residents, taking no more than 10 minutes per week. This needs to be an automated feature (with relevant editing privileges) in order to ensure that it takes as little time as possible to administer.

10. How important is search engine optimisation?

Do you want each item of community information to have its own well-designed web page which enables it to be independently findable on search engines?

11. How important is a place-focused website?

Do you want your community information to be aggregated together on community websites? Do you want as many community websites as you have suburbs or villages, so that residents can see the information that's the most relevant to them?

12. Do you want an online community calendar function?

interests.me offers this as standard. All community information which is event-related automatically goes into the community calendar.

13. Do you want to move towards a print version of your community information?

At interests.me we are moving in this direction as we see it as a highly complementary communications method.

14. Do you want to publish community information on your own council website?

If so, you need to ensure that a suitable feed is available and that there is a plug-in which allows you to do this, or that your own developers can work with the feed.

FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY

15. Do you want your community information platform to be financially sustainable?

Do you need or want your community information platform to be self-funding, rather than to be a money pit? If so, ensure that the running costs are low by choosing a solution which takes advantages of economies of scale with other local authorities. In addition, choose a solution which you can monetise. If a service has a highly engaged local audience you will be able to share in advertising revenue from local businesses. This will usually be difficult if you're only talking about council services.

16. Do you need to build from scratch or can you use a pre-built solution?

Building from scratch obviously has its advantages – you can (in theory) get whatever you want. But bear in mind that, not only is this likely to be expensive to build, it is also likely to be expensive to maintain and continue to develop. No solution stands still – you need continuous development. Pre-built solutions allow you to share the cost with other similar local authorities and to contribute towards the further development of the platform. It will almost certainly be cheaper, but it will involve losing some control.

We hope that these questions are helpful when you draw up your own wishlist for features and functionality for your community information platform. Looking for something else that goes beyond? If so, please get in touch with Helen at helen@interests.me to talk about what your requirements are.

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interests.me helps local communities build online networks that bring community groups and businesses together. We also provide a free email newsletter tool specially designed for community groups.

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