The 18th Annual Community Conference took place on November 2nd at the Hiton Templepatrick with over 300 people attending from all over Northern Ireland. This year, the event, which is a partnership between the Central Housing Network, Supporting Communities and the NI Housing Executive, looked to the future of community engagement and the increasingly digital world in which we live.
Linda Watson, Chair of the Central Housing Forum introduced the theme for the day which was #FITforFuture (that’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, how clever) and the need to be digitally literate as both individuals and as community organisations in looking at ways to engage online and communicate our messages.
The opening speakers made the context of this year’s conference plain - digital is here to stay and no one can afford to be left behind. Clarke Baille from the Housing Executive, and Trevor Steenson of the Department of Finance both discussed the changes to the benefits system and the digital transformation that is taking place in government meaning that everyone must be confident and competent with using the Internet.
But far from turning into a lecture on the urgent need for digital skilling up, the day went on to focus on the ways that engaging online can be useful to communities and groups as well as great fun for individuals.
James Kerr from the Verbal Arts Centre broke the ice with an exercise to measure the audience’s level of comfort using social media, which got us all talking and thinking. The room averaged out to a middle of the road response; apparently, we are collectively sitting on the fence about online interactions with some totally comfortable with it and others who have never tried and don’t care to!
An impressive list of UK and NI experts were on hand to offer their knowledge including four breakout workshops each looking at an aspect of “Changing the Narrative”.
Aidan Kearney (Supporting Communities) and Amanda Ashe (NIHE) presented their ongoing collaborative digital inclusion project, “Digital 4 Community”, which provides training, broadband, and tablets to a pilot group of Housing Executive tenants who previously had no access to the internet in their homes.
Kevin Hippsley from the Hive Studios in Derry talked about taking the first steps to Social Media Success and engaging online – now we know who is using what channels and how to reach them!
Helen Reynolds delighted everyone in her session with her witty take on all things communications and even drew us some cartoons on Twitter. She answered the important question of how to be heard and make things happen!
After the breakout sessions, the conference reconvened to see if the scales had moved on James’ “Perception Analyser”. The scales moved only slightly, but we did agree that we were better informed after the breakouts. Patricia McQuillan from the Central Housing Forum then literally threw the mike to the room so we could hear directly from some of the social media and Internet sceptics in the audience. Concerns around information security and money scams remain a significant factor in keeping people offline.
Our Keynote speaker, Geraldine Howley, the Chief Executive of Incommunities, wrapped up the event with insights from West Yorkshire on how a housing association can embrace all things digital to improve services and create meaningful engagement with tenants. We also learned a bit about her work with the Housing Executive and the GEM project.
In the closing remarks for the day, Professor Peter Roberts, the acting chair of the Housing Executive, praised the event and all the guest speakers. He encouraged the delegates to take the themes and lessons of the event back to their groups in order to get all our communities plugged in!
Colm McDaid, Chief Executive of Supporting Communities, said:
“Community representatives and staff look forward to this event each year – it’s a major focus in the community calendar.
“It serves as a platform for best-practice sharing for Housing Community Network groups and gives the opportunity to foster vibrant communities, network and learn.”
Thank you to everyone who came and especially to our guests who travelled to share their expertise with us. We will be following you all on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!