Territorialising the Cloud

This week saw a critical step in some research work that myself and colleagues are involved in around the Wester Hailes community, Edinburgh. For a while now we’ve been waiting for permission to place a totem pole in the ground. The pole is part of two AHRC Connected Community projects that extend our interest in Community Hacking.

Post co-authored with Dr. Peter Matthews, Heriot-Watt University and co-investigator for the research projects.

Ladders to the Cloud

The Community 2.0 Project introduced a critique of the rhetoric of the Big Society and Gov 2.0 that identified the selective qualities of each programme. Westminster’s ideas of the Big Society and the American concept of Gov 2.0 embrace a vocabulary drawn from the success of network society in which sharing, reciprocity, social networking and communication were all constructive elements that would contribute to a new paradigm of local governance. The Community 2.0 Project explored whether concepts and vocabularies emerging in relation to the Internet could be usefully applied to understandings of off-line contemporary relations and practices. However the project posited that there was a broader vocabulary that was important to identify across ‘connected communities’ in addition to the positive terms, words such as: hacking, spamming, file-sharing, up-loading, down-loading, pirating and commons.

Through close collaboration with key stake holders in the Wester Hailes area of Edinburgh: Prospect Community Housing, and Whale Arts, the Community 2.0 project identified an opportunity to explore a practical strategy that would not only build on the existing activism local residents but also offer a platform across which engagement and communication could be fostered that had ‘read/write’ characteristics. The team identified an emerging mobile platform that allows people to gain access to the internet whilst outdoors, and more importantly to be able to ‘write back’ to it. QR tags are gaining momentum as a popular printed barcode that allows people to link from a paper based advertisement in a newspaper or on a poster, to a related website. However, at present the use of the codes remains largely stuck in a Web 1.0 mode – read only. Through a series of workshops with the community organisations the teams developed a proposal for a physical interface that would allow residents and visitors to ‘read’ information about the neighbourhood and also ‘write’ back and contribute. The project focused upon the value of ‘writing back’ as an important aspect for fostering confidence and developing a sense of shared identity. The project capitalises upon technology developed through the Digital Economy/EPSRC funded TOTeM project (Tales of Things and Electronic Memory) see: http://www.talesofthings.com, and http://www.youtotem.com.

The move to place valuable social services online has also grown over the past ten years and there are many pros and cons for the local resident: on the one hand provision becomes wider and more cost effective, on the other hand the direct connection between people and place is lost. This ‘distance’ (distantiation of propinquity) presents particular problems for communities in which the sense of place is carefully balanced. The proximity between people and people, and people and services that has sustained bridges and bonds across place-based communities is now measured in terms of distance, and the ability to find online connections. Whilst ubiquitous computing promises access from ‘anyware’ (Greenfield) it is useful not to forget the value of location specific services.

The practical dimension of the Community 2.0 project developed an extremely simple approach to capitalise on user-generated and service based resources by bringing them ‘down to earth’ and providing a physical portal that allowed people to both read content about a place and more importantly, contribute to it –  a ‘digital pole’ that is to be installed at a geographically and socially important location in Wester Hailes. The pole, designed and carved in collaboration with Scottish artists features QR barcodes that are gateways to cloud based material relevant to the location of the pole. People can scan one of the labeled tags and access and contribute to historical photographs, stories, video and audio clips. The intention is that pole will act as a social resource to help build connections between the people and the place, as well as drawing upon online resources. The pole builds on recent research such as the Talking Poles project developed by Moulder et al (2011) that transmitted local narratives by members of a community in British Columbia from a physical pole. Whilst the Talking Poles project was successful is was ‘read-only’ and the Ladders to the Cloud project offers the critical dimension of ‘writing’ as well as ‘reading’.



Wester Hailes in Edinburgh was the last major local authority housing estate constructed in the UK with the City of Edinburgh Council beginning construction on the suburban site in 1968. Since the mid-1970s the neighbourhood has undergone a vast amount of transformation driven in a large part by bottom-up community activism. One of the outputs of this was the community newspaper, the Wester Hailes Sentinel; latterly the West Edinburgh Times. In 2008 the West Edinburgh Times ceased publication due to cost and funding pressures. Its archive has led to a number of community activists and local organisations developing resources and activities around the social history of the neighbourhood as recorded by the newspaper’s photographers and writers. A Facebook site is generating widespread excited interest from people who recognise themselves, friends or relatives in photographs from the archive, with over 1,000 followers (http://on.fb.me/mOPPwp). On the other hand, the record of Wester Hailes on RCAHMS Canmore (http://www.RCAHMS.gov.uk/canmore.html) database contains many images, but these have not been populated by the comments of people who live(d) in the area. The neighbourhood remains, in official records, as a grey place of towering blocks of flats.

This has been taking place in a so-called deprived neighbourhood. All of Wester Hailes is within the bottom 15% (most deprived) of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, despite the neighbourhood receiving vast amounts of regeneration investment in the 1980s and 1990s. This regeneration led to massive physical changes in the neighbourhood, for example, 18 blocks of high-rise flats, 1600 homes in total, being demolished. However social challenges around community development remain in terms of engaging residents with their community and neighbourhood (bonding social capital), and more importantly engaging the neighbourhood with the wider city to challenge stigma and spatial inequality (bridging social capital).

Since the regeneration “ended” in Wester Hailes, web 2.0 services have prospered with cloud-based services such as Flickr, YouTube and Facebook all founded upon user-generated-content through which social connections are made. For example, Facebook groups draw out many photographs and stories that would otherwise be impossible to trace, engage people in their local Community Council and provide a new media for the local Council office to engage with residents. However, whilst communities are able to use these systems, the conversations and content occurs online and detached from their places of origin. Whilst this distance between the cloud and the place of origin is useful in attracting activity from people who have moved away, an opportunity is missed to use it to benefit existing residents .

As well as virtual historical clouds of data that surround social networking websites, the move to place valuable social services online has also grown over the past ten years. Information about local services can no longer be said to be local when it is distributed from a server anywhere in the world. The proximity between people and people, and people and services that has sustained bridges and bonds across place-based communities can no longer be measured in terms of distance, and can instead been replaced with the ability to find online connections. Whilst ubiquitous computing promises access from ‘anyware’ (Greenfield), research on the impact of middle-class community activism on improving local neighbourhood services demonstrates that we cannot forget the value of propinquity in service delivery.

This project intends to use the pole as a physical and technical method to capitalise on user-generated and service based resources by bringing them ‘down to earth’ and providing a physical portal that allows people to both read content about a place and more importantly, contribute to it. This will use the social history recorded in the Sentinel archives as a “lever” to bring people into the conversation and create a new Sentinel based on social media content.

With the end of large regeneration projects, such as the New Deal for Communities in England, many neighbourhoods share Wester Haile’s story. Yet regeneration and local economic development policy is always forward looking, failing to capture the history of what has just past. The project will also make links with other neighbourhoods in the UK and across Edinburgh and Scotland, to share stories and lessons learnt, and to normalise the history of the neighbourhood and popularise it as part of Edinburgh’s rich history, reflected in its built environment.

Aims and objectives

The broad aim of the next steps are simple: to recover the Sentinel local newspaper in a way that is affordable and sustainable, whilst fostering communication skills using new media technologies that reinforce existing bonds and extend bridges to other parts of the community.

This will be achieved in the first instance through the use of  the QR codes on the Digital Totem Pole. These codes act as portals for the receipt of local news by members of the community with a weekly deadline of Friday, on the following Monday the same QR codes will offer news about local events, jobs, classified adverts, all of which can only be read if you walk to the actual pole and scan the codes. Community members will use a simple to use web interface to edit the content of the newspaper before publication, and will press the ‘publish’ button for release on Monday morning. Supported by workshops and close collaboration with community partners the reinvention of the Sentinel offers a cheap, innovative, socially engaging and highly transferrable methodology for communities to recover local newspapers as a platform for fostering social cohesion and developing a sense of identity.

Now that the pole is up the work begins to find methods that will encourage locals to use the ‘territorial cloud’ that surrounds the pole.


Thanks to all of the team who have made this possible. Its an emotional moment to see it happen after two years of work.

Eoghan Howard – Wester Hailes community activist
WHALE Arts Centre (particularly Alan Farmer and Alison Reeves)
West Edinburgh Time Bank (particularly Tracey Lee)
Prospect Community Housing (particularly Roy Mccrone and Caroline)
Wester Hailes Health Agency
The Dove Centre
Gate 55
RCAHMS – Rebecca Bailey and Philip Graham
Tales of Things (read-write QR technology) – Jane Macdonald
Chris Speed, University of Edinburgh
Amadu Khan, University of Edinburgh
Amy Guy,  University of Edinburgh
Martin Phillips, University of Leicester
Peter Matthews, Heriot Watt University
Sharon Baurley, Brunel University

Official launch was on Monday 10th of Dec by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh.

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