Innertube ambassador training – behind the scenes

Posted on 11/05/2011 by


I’ve spent much of the last month selecting a group of volunteers for the Innertube map project, and training them to be able to blog on computers and smart phones about the Innertube network.

It’s been an exciting process right from the start – and, I think, our approach has been creative and quite unconventional. So I thought I’d share some of the details here – perhaps it will be useful for other people starting social media and citizen journalism projects.

In a sense the training began almost before we had even met the potential ambassadors. Most of our applicants for the voluntary positions found out about it via twitter, community newspapers like the North Edinburgh News, or blogs like Guardian Edinburgh.

We invited fourteen of the best applicants along for interviews, but rather than meet them individually, we held two informal group interview sessions, where we asked them to introduce themselves, and then work in groups on giant versions of the Innertube map, drawing which lines they would like to cover, and sticking post-it-notes with story ideas onto the maps.

As well as taking less time than formal interviews, this gave us a strong sense of how people would work together in a group, and meant that the volunteers were starting to get to know each other right from the start. In fact, even before the interview, we’d asked them to suggest story ideas on our Facebook page, and to introduce themselves to each other – a fun but effective way of testing people’s social media “sociability.”

Our volunteers are a pretty diverse and interesting group.

Unlike most of the current volunteers and staff at the bike station, there are far more women than men. Some are keen cyclists, but only one is a bike commuter. There is also a long distance running, a policewoman from the mounted division, a mum of four from North Edinburgh, an Edinburgh Spartans supporter, and a blogging wheelchair user from Portobello.

Eleven so far have gone on to complete the ambassador training, which was made up of a series of evening workshops, which covering blogging, story telling and story gathering skills, twitter, RSS feeds, and a simple introduction to the dangers of defamation.

Like the recent Edinbuzz social media surgeries, we held these session in Edinburgh City libraries, including Piershill and Stockbridge – our thanks to them for once again providing the computer facilities for free.

We also went on a number of “recces” of  different Innertube routes. The idea for these was to get our volunteers used to using various apps on their smart phones whilst on the go, an important part of the project.

There was certainly lots going on at both our recces. When we went to Portobello (on the organge line) one of our ambassadors, blogger Morag Edward from Portobello, who is our intrepid wheelchair user, was going out in one of the two communities two skiff rowing boats, for her first outing as a cox! This gave us some great photo and audio recording opportunities.

For the Union Canal recce, we based ourselves at the Zazou canal boat cafe. Again, the idea was to get used to the kit, so the ambassadors went off with their phones, looking for interesting pictures and people to interview. We had  a bit of a surprise when Jackie Jack, another volunteer and a mounted police officer, turned up on duty on her rather large horse!

By using these phones, we can geo-tag our blog posts so that, when we launch our interactive map and blog, the stories will appear on the map in on the nearest stop. It’s an idea I had as soon as I saw the paper version of the Innertube map, and one that I still find very exciting after all these months working on it – I think it’s a pretty original and unique way of organising and presenting a group blog.

And certainly the idea of recruiting and training volunteers from across the city to do the reporting using hi-tech phones is radical in itself.

Tech toys - a bag full of HTC Desire smart phones for our ambassadors

Mainstream media is increasingly trying to draw on community created content to add interactivity and depth to their coverage of local news – just look at Guardian Edinburgh and STV local’s effort alone – but the idea of investing in, training and equipping those people with great tools is not common. I see that as being an important part of the social media “contract” between us – they have to get something out of the deal other than just a by-line, exciting though that might be.

So, what happens next? Later today I’ll be getting my first look at the nearly completed group blog, which our web developers and design team, Gecko New Media and the Hillside Agency, have been working hard on for the last month. We are expecting to launch both in June.

But before that we’ll start introducing you properly to our team of ambassadors. They’re busy practicing their blogging on Posterous, and sharing their story ideas for the different routes using Google Docs. And later this week, we’ll launch their new twitter identities – so stay tuned to the @innertubemap on twitter!