A sense of place at Social Tech Brewing

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Last night's Social Tech Brewing meetup (when are we going to start calling them brew-hahas?) profiled three very different projects with one powerful thing in common: a sense of place.

(Speaking of a sense of place: WorkSpace in Gastown was the perfect venue for the event. I loved it for BarCamp, and for this kind of meeting it's ideal. Consider them for your next event... or for your nomadic workplace of choice.) 

Up first: James Sherrett and ThinkSalmon.com, a place for people from the Pacific Northwest to "celebrate salmon’s contribution to our communities, and share their salmon experiences, stories, and thoughts." The site's backers (the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Fraser Basin Council) are hoping that, when you think about salmon, you'll think about more than just beauty shots of intrepid fish swimming upstream; you'll think about how we can work together to ensure the wild BC salmon survives and thrives.

"If you don't have salmon in a watershed, you don't have all the other things that rely on salmon," James pointed out, including bears, birds and even the trees themselves. He said that even some Okanagan wines are made from grapes containing phosphates that can be traced back to salmon.

The site is already seeded with video, photos and text, but it will come alive as more and more visitors begin participating. And that's where place comes into play: each story that users share can be geocoded; the site then draws on the Google Maps API to plot maps of stories.

Kylie Turner, the site's lead copywriter and editor, spoke about needing to lower barriers to entry. "When you think of stories, some people think they have to have perfect grammar and be this wonderful, beautiful textual thing," she said. "We need to show them they can just submit a picture or a child's poem."

Next up on the seat of heat: Vancity's Kate Dugas, presenting ChangeEverything.ca. (Why, yes, we did build that site. Thanks for asking.) She explained that the credit union wanted to launch an online community related, not to Vancity products and services, but to the changes important to people in the communities Vancity serves.

After going live in July, the site officially launched in September. Kate said there are now hundreds of users on the site, and the tone of conversation is great: no need yet to delete content or put out fires, and plenty of mutually supportive comments.

Several audience members suggested being even clearer on the front page that the site is not tied to product and service marketing, and that no information is being passed on to the folks in sales. And asked how to bring in new features without seriously disrupting the community, Kate answered, "by involving the community in shaping those features."

Finally, it was Rochelle Grayson and Jennifer Ouano from Elastic Entertainment, talking about their new project, MadeInVAN. They describe it as a "participative cultural urban guide", where Vancouver residents upload stories tied to specific places (called "stops" in MadeInVANese). Users can then compile the various stories from several "stops" into an itinerary for a tour.

Working with MobileMuse.ca, MadeInVAN aims to target mobile devices – mainly with text at first – so users can find out about locations on the fly and get an insider's take on how the city really lives. It's based on an existing site, MadeinMtl, but will extend that site's static platform with social networking and location-aware functions, built in Ruby on Rails.

There's a business model to the project, with sponsorship and contextual advertising but also possibly (and most interestingly) with various local venues kicking in to host their own communities.

Thinking about each of these projects, it's a little funny: back in the distant mists of time (that is, a decade or so), the Internet was going to erase the influence of geography. Instead, we're finding an increasingly powerful – and exciting – potential for mutually reinforcing interactions between physical and online community.

Thanks to everyone who presented, and everyone who came – it was an inspiring, enjoyable evening. And check back soon for details on the next one!

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