Friday, October 31, 2014

Vermont's New Front Porch

01/23/2013

Front Porch Forum, a community discussion site, was started in 24 Vermont towns with the help from a grant from the federal recovery program.

For over a decade, the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) has rallied rural communities to identify and act on key local concerns. These concerns almost invariably include community communications, as even rural towns where “everybody knows everybody” find that, in fact, not everybody does. 

Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis first created Front Porch Forum (FPF) in 2006. This online forum connects people by neighborhood (or small town), requires use of real names, and has light moderation that both collects comments into manageable digests and discourages personal jabs. It’s designed for rural communities, with many participating towns attracting more individual subscribers than there are households. 

Connecting an innovative, online tool with a longstanding local priority is part of a new approach to community development sparked by VCRD’s recently completed e-Vermont Community Broadband Project. You can see the full report here

One of the projects identified by e-Vermont is Front Porch Forum. 

FPF joined with the VCRD to begin the forum in 24 towns across Vermont. Towns started by identifying the needs of community groups, businesses, schools, libraries, and governments. In this way e-Vermont both directly advanced local priorities and challenged the number one reason households give for not subscribing to available broadband: lack of relevance.     

Cambridge, Vermont, offers a typical example of building a culture of broadband use in a rural community. Local resident Michael Moser spearheaded the effort to bring e-Vermont resources to his town of 3,569 people. He explains the early planning this way:  

“The impetus came from the volunteer, municipal planning commission. We sought community input through formal and informal channels.  We communicated the project out and requested, and received, letters of support from churches, businesses, the school, our municipality, local emergency services, and others. . . 

"The menu of possible resources for tech-based community development provided by e-Vermont was very appealing.  Once the menu of resource options was available, we connected each to the relevant stakeholders who could use them.”   

Front Porch Forum took off quickly in Cambridge. Eight out of ten households have a FPF account and it is used by a third of all the town’s residents.

Residents can sign up for the service at www.frontporchforum.com. There is no subscription fee. FPF staff moderate the forums.

The initial cost of setting up FPF is paid for by eVermont, which receives both federal funds and foundation grants. And local costs are often paid for by towns or by local fundraising. The cost of setting up FPF varies according to the size of the forum, but usually runs just a few thousand dollars. 

Ongoing costs are covered by advertising sales.

 “FPF has drastically — and I do not use that word lightly — increased the amount of communication among our community members,” says Moser. “It has also increased the quality of communication. It allows rumors and misrepresented facts to be called out nearly immediately.  We use FPF for matters of ongoing civic discourse — municipal meeting announcements, lots of opinions about municipal topics, as a touchstone to public sentiment, local business development, local events, fundraisers, lost cats, break-ins. . . Essentially, everyone is allowed the opportunity to ‘speak their mind’ in a forum where anonymity is not a detracting factor.”

Cambridge is also realizing FPF founder Michael Wood-Lewis’ vision of online conversations building offline connections between neighbors. One post, re-posted in the FPF blog, reads:

#VT - I am a huge fan of our community’s active FPF and enjoy reading the issue every day! I love it so, that coming to a front porch near you: Real, Live, Front Porch Forum. FPF Live will be held every Wednesday from 6 until 8 in the evening. Come join us next week on Main Street at Visions of Vermont – one of Jeffersonville’s finest front porches! 

It is a great opportunity to meet your neighbors and step out from behind the computer screen. And if you have a front (or back, or seasonal) porch and would like to host a Wednesday FPF Live, let me know!

Tim Newcomb/Seven Days Not even Front Porch Forum is immune from controversy. In Castleton, Vermont, a dispute over a local bond issue led to the town to withdrawing its support from the local Front Porch Forum site, leading to this cartoon in Seven Days about what local residents might be left to do with their announcements without FPF. See a full story on the dispute here.

According to Moser, projects like FPF that are built around the goal of better technology use have provided a comfortable starting place for different parts of the community to work together outside of ideology or political affiliation. 

e-Vermont provides a number of resources to its towns beyond FPF. In Cambridge, e-Vermont partner Digital Wish brought Netbooks to every student in 5th grade along with weekly teacher trainings in using classroom technology. 

The Vermont Department of Libraries delivered equipment for public Internet access and created an online card catalogue to the local library. 

The Vermont State Colleges offered basic digital literacy training. The Snelling Center for Government provided technical assistance and a template for Cambridge’s first municipal website. The Vermont Small Business Development Center provided workshops, one-on-one advising, and small grants to help local businesses establish an online presence. 

Plus, Cambridge developed its own independently proposed projects, such as the Cambridge Artists and Entrepreneurs website (www.cambridgevt.com) that serves as a virtual portal to the community.  

These projects have led to greater attention to the benefits of online tools, particularly around communications through FPF, the municipal site, and the Artists and Entrepreneurs’ site. They also set the stage for future community projects of all types.  

“I believe there’s an ongoing cohesiveness that we feel that was not there before the e-Vermont project,” says Moser, “Having this very successful project with expressly tangible results within our community has certainly encouraged others that they too can affect successful campaigns. We now have a great winter/summer farmers' market.”

Helen Labun Jordan is the former director of the e-Vermont Community Broadband Project at the Vermont Council on Rural Development.