Whenever my wife has difficulty sleeping she usually asks me to explain the principles behind social software. While the technical aspects behind it are less than exciting, she may find one social software project, which officially launches today, actually interesting. Why? Because it might just help us find a decent builder in the area.
One of the first projects to map the comments of real people to real places is a new project from Upmystreet.com. The site born in 1998 was originally made famous for being able to tell you just about everything you needed to know about a postcode, from the price of houses to the local MP.
Its Conversations service launches today. In trial since early November, the service allows users to create a profile mapped to their postcode, and enter into discussions with people close to their location. It’s this element of location which has lifted UpMyStreet Conversations out of the old bulletin-board arena into the trendy new area of social software.
It works like this. You enter your postcode and click to find out what discussions are taking place close to that postcode. To take part you simply register and get posting.
Some of the more common postings include requests for recommendations for good local builders, debates about local planning controversies, people moving into the area who want information and myriad local topics.
As Stefan Magdalinski, the site’s chief technology officer, explains: “Upmystreet has built a large user-base looking at extremely local information. It’s always been in the plan, having built a critical mass, to get them talking to each other. This increases the value of the site, the content, and the relationships.”
But is there a business in this? Magdalinski says UpMyStreet already sells the underlying technology to organisations such as local councils. The new service could also lead to selling advertising to local businesses.
He is understandably upbeat about the future: “The early days of internet communities were necessarily all about shared interest, substantially because not enough of your immediate friends or neighbours were online to talk to. Now that internet penetration is approaching the general population, it is possible to build applications closely tied to real-world communities.”
UpMyStreet already has a relationship with Sky Broadcasting, allowing its postcode-based information to appear on the Sky Interactive service. The Conversations service will not initially be on Sky, and although Magdalinski is keen, he says not enough Sky users have keyboards, which would hamper their ability to post to the forums.
A casual perusal of the boards reveals a high level of politeness and willingness to help, and even some real-world meetings. In November, a “dansky” in Stoke Newington (postcode N16) posted a suggestion that people in his area meet in a local pub. As anyone can see from the post-pub discussion, the evening was evidently “splendid”.
And the conversations can take on far more serious issues than litter in the local high street. In Hackney E8, residents holed-up outside and within the cordon area surrounding Britain’s longest-running armed siege were venting their thoughts and frustrations at the stalemate. It’s also possible to search on topics. Broadband internet access is one such topic exercising the country’s minds.
But connecting people in an area could potentially lead to problems, especially if children attempted to take conversations offline. Only this week, the Home Office launched a £1m campaign to alert children and parents to the potential dangers of meeting strangers online – especially ones close by.
It’s the question of privacy and possibility for abuse that led UpMyStreet to trial Conversations. A variety of safeguards are built in. The exact location of users is invisible, email addresses are not shared and any online abuse will result in a ban.
“We take swift action against inappropriate behaviour,” says Magdalinski. “We want Conversations to be useful, informative, and fun.”
Looking at the boards, there is already a vast range of people using them, from young to old and the atmosphere is overwhelmingly one of good-natured, honest discussion.
So, now to find that builder.