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Digital public sector news, research & engagement

Friday 30 March 2012Author: Dan Jellinek

Knowledge Hub architects defend switchover as lever is thrown

The architects of the new local government Knowledge Hub, an online platform for exchange of ideas between council officers, politicians and the public, have defended the switchover from its predecessor Communities of Practice (CoPs) after criticism from some users.

Following a year of testing, the Knowledge Hub's owner the Local Government Association (LGA) this week finally switched off the CoPs for good, though users can bring across their same log-in details.

The CoPs were created six years ago by the former local government Improvement and Development Agency - since subsumed into the LGA - as a place where council officers could share service improvement ideas through discussion forums, blogs and document exchange. Since then more than 1,000 communities have been developed and more than 100,000 users registered.

However rising costs and supplier lock-in - the system was proprietary, developed by Conseq - and limited functionality led to plans for an open source replacement built around interactivity with social media, Sarah Jennings, head of digital communications and knowledge at the LGA, told on the day of the switchover.

"The CoPs were very good for the time, but they predated the social media explosion," Jennings said. "The problem we found were the communities were quite siloed - if you went into a CoP you wouldn't know what was happening in another community. The Knowledge Hub is open source and interacts with social media, public blogs and instant messaging."

The Communities and Local Government department helped fund the KHub's £1.5 million development costs, with LGA now taking on running costs, Jennings said.

Use of the system is free, though only local government or fire and rescue officers and councillors in England and Wales can start up groups freely, and the Scottish Improvement Service for local government was funding groups for Scotland, she said. Others including companies can gain permission to start groups, but only if they demonstrate value to the core user groups.

The fact that members of the public can freely join could help boost local government transparency, and the LGA also wants many more councillors to be involved than joined the old CoPs, Jennings said. Future opportunities include the possibility of building a complementary system for central government.

The KHub is based on Intelligus open source "collaborative workspace" software which allows interactivity with major social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, with privacy settings to protect restricted material.

Over the past few weeks, not all feedback on the switchover process has been positive: a feedback forum on the KHub has featured much grumbling from fans of the old CoPs about high levels of bugs in the new software; problems understanding the new interface; and low levels of user activity transferring across.

However Mike MacAuley, KHub Project Lead at the LGA - tired and blinking in the sunlight after a few late-nighters leading up to switchover - says a dip in activity was always expected at transfer, and many of the other issues were a natural response to major change: "some people take time to adjust". There have been 42,500 visits to the new site in the past calendar month, he said, which represented an 80% rise on the previous month, and a communications push was now planned to meet and exceed past CoP traffic figures.

Liz Copeland, Online Knowledge Adviser at the LGA, admitted bugs had been found, but said where users pointed them out they were being rapidly fixed.

With the possibility for public access, councils were already planning innovative ways of using the system, such as to communicate with volunteer groups in their area, Copeland said. Overall, she said the purpose of the system was to save public money by avoiding duplication of effort - another theme set to chime well with modern public services.

Knowledge Hub