The week before last Diane and I went to three (in truth I went to two and Diane went to all three) community events in Newsome to see if we could get a sense of what people say when they talk about local issues through places.

To get things started we took a gigantic map and some blue and yellow flags made out of cocktail sticks and asked people to look at the map, orientate themselves, and then think of something positive or less positive about their neighbourhood, put a flag there and tell us why.

This was something I’d seen done, a little bit more practisedly and with slightly better flags, by some geographers, as part of a consultation process I’d been involved in. What struck me at the time was that people seemed to be really enjoying themselves and the map looked and felt like a board game, which welcomed people to take part and so to talk.

It seemed to work in the same way in Newsome, with people standing over the map for ages finding their own houses, then tracing their old routes to work or Sunday afternoon walks, and from that, being happy to talk about what they did or didn’t think positively about. This seemed a valuable confirmation in itself, that maps are a good way to get people talking.

What we were hoping to find were themes in what people were saying that we could use to pull data sets out of the council that matched what people wanted to know and do. I haven’t listened to all the interviews yet but my sense is that there are themes, not least ownership and responsibility, but that they are more or less the same as Diane identified in her original application. This isn’t so much because the citizens of Newsome are easy to read, but because when Diane isn’t working for the council, she is so active in that community anyway that she already had a good sense of what people were talking about, and the examples from the application are all very real.

What I found trickier on the day was finding a way to explain to people why we were doing what we were doing with the maps.

At first I stayed away from mentioning the open data project at all, just saying we were collecting stories about Newsome, because I thought that if I started talking about “data that the council holds” people would wonder what we were going to do with what they told us, and that would get in the way of them talking.

It was just a practical choice to avoid mentioning open data at first, because if we were going to get any unexpected insights from the map sessions people had to be comfortable saying what they needed to say, but it felt a bit unsatisfactory, and not honest, to avoid mentioning the open data part, so I tried out saying:

“the council holds all sorts of useful information and we are trying to find out what information people would want to have about Newsome.”

I got the feeling that was being met with the kind of polite agreement that meant “well that sounds like it makes sense but I don’t really know what you are talking about in practice.”

And who is to say what “useful” is, after all. Useful to whom, and what for? And it was a bit dry anyway.

So by the end of the second session I was trying out this:

“If you could look at a map, and put your finger on it, what would you want to know about that point and why?”

Andrew Wilson, Thumbprint Co-operative