The website world is cultivating community

Community and civic associations across Dorchester are finding that new or improved websites are changing the way citizens connect to one another in the neighborhood. Creating slick, content-packed websites, once the exclusive domain of corporate conglomerates and professional web techies, is now possible for much smaller groups and is expected of any serious community-based organization.

For established civic associations, monthly newsletters have been supplanted by always-up-to-date websites, where event calendars, contact information, and public resources are available to anyone with an internet connection, not just association members or residents.

“We’re hoping we’ll see an uptick in the people who may normally not have been on our mailing list,” said Claire Hughes, a member of the Lower Mills Civic Association Executive Board and also the group’s webmaster.

The Lower Mills site was launched just last month, but Hughes is hopeful that the new web presence, the association’s first endeavor onto the internet, will attract a larger and more diverse crowd to the group’s monthly meetings. Older residents are always well represented at meetings, Hughes said, but new blood is welcome and desirable.

“The average age is probably sixty-five plus and a lot of them don’t have e-mail,” she said. “Older residents are going to come, but we want the younger people to come. We need to reach out to them in a way that they would try to find a meeting or forum,” said Hughes.

Older members are not being forgotten, though, as groups embrace electronic communication without abandoning mailed newsletters. For the Columbia-Savin Hill alerts, members can opt out of mailed material in favor of receiving the electronic forms.

“That constituency still needs to be served and news still needs to get out to them,” said Maureen McQuillen, president of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association.

This week marks the return of one of the neighborhood’s major hubs for online community information, mydorchester.org. The site, operated by the civic engagement initiative Social Capital Inc. Dorchester at Dotwell, is an attempt to bring together various volunteer and community information aimed at the Dorchester community at large.

“It is intended to be a resource for the community, not just for SCI Dorchester’s activities and programs,” said Rosanne Foley, site coordinator for SCI Dorchester at Dotwell. “We’re really looking for the unsung hidden gems. The organizations that are doing a lot of good work that may not necessarily have the time or the expertise to get the word out about what they’re doing,” Foley said.

Mydorchester.org is staffed by a fresh crop of three Amiericorps volunteers eager to get involved in the neighborhood. Volunteers began their ten-month stint in September and the website is a major focus of their work as outreach agents for SCI Dorchester.
“We’re hopeful that once this team has spent a few weeks on it, it will be an excellent resource for folks to find out about all the great resources that we have here in Dorchester,” Foley said.

McQuillen admits that the calendar, the main event for civic associations, isn’t updated as regularly as she’d like it to be on her Columbia-Savin Hill site. The new website, she hopes, will encourage other community members to assist in managing its features.

The webmasters, McQuillen says, “do an excellent job, but they can’t make up content. So it’s up to us, the community leaders and community members, to help them with the content and make it more of a resource tool.”

Many of the area’s civic associations’ websites serve as the neighborhoods’ “one stop shop” for informational links. Information on everything from city trash pickup to state health care can be found online, and many civic groups use their institutional knowledge to compile just the right sources for their constituents into pages full of helpful links. The Pope’s Hill Civic Association’s resource page is overflowing with links a local might find helpful.

“We’ve changed it over the years; we’ve had it to fit the community’s needs,” said Pope Hill Neighborhood Association president Phil Carver. Any flier, announcement, calendar item or other bit of information that a resident might find interesting goes online, according to Carver, who said he maintains the website himself.

“I want it to be at the top of mind when a resident wants to find out information,” Savin Hill’s McQuillen said. She offered last week’s closing of Taft St. for a movie shoot as an example of useful information that neighbors may like to have transmitted to them.

Another use for more frequent e-mails or calendar updates, McQuillen said, is to provide information on other groups’ events that may fall between regularly scheduled meetings and newsletter publications.

According to Hughes, the process to build the Lower Mills site from idea to working webspace went at “glacial speed” though the association’s committee system. Over a year of planning and design went into the final product, which was built by Michael Beganny, a professional web designer who is active in the Ashmont Adams Neighborhood Association. The Lower Mills group hired Beganny after he designed the Ashmont Adams site two years ago.

“The key thing for these sites is to immediately identify and have a list of upcoming events,” said Beganny. Information about the group itself, while popular, is a one-visit feature, he said. ‘About Us’ pages, history pages and other sections do not draw as much interest as a constantly-updated calendar page, he said.

Beganny added that the Ashmont Adams site receives about 100 unique visitors a month, with even more interest when the group is involved in large events, like the a neighborhood yard sale.

As technology progresses and more civic functions are communicated electronically, Beganny hopes that community groups will work together to combine their web efforts into Dorchester-wide compendiums for residents. Combining calendar entries and information is a great way to get organizations to collaborate, he says.

“Once you get the sites up they tend to build themselves,” he said. The group’s members then bear the responsibility of adding content and keeping it up to date.

Lower Mills’s approach will require funds for maintenance of the site, so plans are in the works to solicit advertising from local businesses to be displayed on the web pages. Hughes is in process of adding restaurant advertisements. Her idea for the ads is twofold: the revenue-generating ads would benefit the association as well as help create a guide for the area.

Weaving online communication into how organizations do business is opening up new avenues for groups to raise funds. Carver said that he plans to add a function to the Pope’s Hill site that will allow members to pay their dues or even make additional donations through the online company PayPal.
                                                          
For the Lower Mills group, hiring a professional web developer was worthwhile. Hughes said that spending money on a professional manager for the project was preferable to asking volunteers to make time to put the site together.

The Savin Hill Civic Association is taking a different path, using volunteer “talent within the organization” to create a renovated website while also addressing and overhauling the group’s brand and image, said McQuillen. Savin Hill’s media makeover will be rolled out in the next few weeks with the new site, letterhead, newsletter and logo and matching aesthetics and branding.

Designing a site involves working with a board member or other knowledgeable group member to find out the needs of the organization, according to Beganny. After fleshing out what content and features the site will provide comes design, which in the case of the Ashmont Adams and Lower Mills sites is based around a large central image (the Peabody Square clock and Baker Chocolate factory/Neponset River, respectively.) Colors and other design elements are derived from the tones of the photo, he said.
In the end, though, enhancing community is what it is all about.