Googling Alone Revisited : simple measures of social capital by postcode

By February 12, 2015Uncategorized

In 2008 I posted a blog posting called Googling Alone about how one could simply Google postcodes to explore local social capital. I said then:

You may have heard of the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam where he surveys the decline of social capital and suggests how it can be revived. The evidence base is generally drawn from American sources, however the points he make are very much applicable to other developed democracies.

Putnam conducted a lot of research for his book, but many working in their community trying to assess social capital for their area do not the time or the academic resources Putnam had.

Perhaps there is a web 2.0 solution?

If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you use Google or another good web search engine. If you use Google a lot you may be aware of many of its search facilities. One of the most interesting is if you type a full postcode in you get many internet entries associated with that geographical area.

As someone who was a Councillor for 20 years, I was fortunate in having a pretty good understanding of the social geography of my area. As a result recently I started typing in postcodes for some of the wealthier areas of my borough and some of the poorest.

The results were reasonably predictable. In areas that were quite wealthy you would find postings for people who ran their own businesses or were in community groups. In poorer areas you would generally find websites that related to wider public sector bodies but little community or small scale enterprise activity. At times I found up to 10 times as many pages for a relatively well-off residential road with no other facilities compared to a poorer area of flatted social housing.

You can read the orginal blog posting here.

In the posting I suggested the following way yo make the most of this:

  • One idea I had was that Local Strategic Partnerships (LSP) could trawl every postcode in their locality and ensure they are connected with every group listed. I suspect there is good software that can automate much of this process. This in itself might go some way to increase the overall stock of social capital across a local authority area as more groups and individuals would be connected to key local stakeholders. A far-sighted LSP might even seek to connect people within a community together through encouraging the development of geographical based social networking software similar to Residents HQ that I have previously blogged about.
  • Another thought was for Local Strategic Partnerships to identify 10-20 postcodes with low Google pages and perhaps conduct a pilot survey of them regarding internet access. It may be that residents are not using free facilities in local libraries? Some extra publicity and perhaps even the sort of doorstep engagement that TCC recommends for many projects could be easily provided. This could be linked to an offer of simple computer training.

Seven years later I would argue that all what I suggested is still relevant. Nowadays the cloud and mobile technology means more people are connected. At  same time social media means there may additional community sites at a local level. The crucial thing is to map and audit them through some of the simple approaches above

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our community cohesion work here and our work into values here.