5 Nov 2010

Reflections on a year of blogging: What's it doing for Daraja?

It's now exactly 12 months since this blog was launched, followed a little later by a facebook page and twitter profile for Daraja. At the time, we did not have a very clear idea of what it was for, just a hunch that it was an idea with some potential and a belief that the best way to explore new territory is to get out there and wander around for a bit. This is exactly what we've done.

And we hope it's proved as interesting to you as it has to us. Our ideas on what social media can offer Daraja have developed somewhat, as a number of posts over the past year have documented. (See some highlights here.)

One year in, it's now time to take stock of where we are. What have we learned, what's working, what's not, where's the real potential, and how can we capitalise on it?

Apologies for the longer-than-usual post, but I think this experience is worth sharing. To stop it getting out of hand though, I will focus primarily on this blog and leave facebook and twitter for another day.

Let's start with some numbers. Since November 2009, a total of 1,153 people have visited the blog in 2,086 sessions, viewing pages 3,658 times. There has been pretty steady growth in visitor numbers over this time - see figure 1 (click to expand) - up to around 100 unique visitors per week recently. It gets a bit messier if you look at the number of visits on a daily basis - figure 2.
Fig.1. Number of unique visitors per week to blog.daraja.org, 11/09-11/10

Fig.2. Number of visits per day to blog.daraja.org, 11/09-11/10

(Before I go any further, a couple of brief points relating to the numbers here. They are produced by Google Analytics, which keeps track of visitors to the blog. First, all these charts and headline numbers given in the text above are correct as of November 4th, 2010. Second, the numbers don't include readers who have subscribed to the blog either by email or through a feed reader such as Outlook, Google Reader or FeedDemon. We haven't worked out how to keep track of all of them just yet.)

Who are our readers, where are they, and where do they find us? Well, we can't know exactly who they are, but can tell us what country they access the site from - see figure 3. Unsurprisingly Tanzania comes out well on top with 56%. Some may be surprised to see Malawi in fourth, but that's where my parents live! And we can also see what site referred them to the blog - see figure 4. The biggest number (20%) come direct (i.e. by typing the address directly into the browser's address bar, or from their saved favourites / bookmarks). The biggest referring sites (where someone clicked on a link to the blog on another site) are Facebook (networkedblogs), Twaweza and Google (the result of searches). We have no idea whatsoever what item no. 7 on that list represents!

Fig.3. Where are blog.daraja.org readers based?

Fig.4. What sites are referring visitors to blog.daraja.org?

And which posts are most popular, in terms of the number of views? The answer surprised us - see figure 5. Top of the list comes Njoluma Region, some initial reactions, with 172 views. We haven't been able to work out why - it was never (to our knowledge) publicised outside our regular group of readers, but it does seem to have struck an unexpected chord somewhere. (Please note that the number of views for a particular page only includes those who viewed the specific page for that post, and doesn't include those who read the post straight from the blog's homepage).

This is followed by three posts that did get extra publicity: A car crash in slow motion was widely circulated among donors and water sector civil society groups; media and civil society in Tanzania got picked up by the Community Media Network for Tanzania (COMNETA) email list and Swahili Street; Wanademokrasia was publicised by the Democracy Club in the UK. Other posts towards the top end got similar boosts from the Mjengwa blog, Swahili Street and Global Voices.

Fig.5. Most read posts on blog.daraja.org, 04/11/2009-3/11/2010

Other than the gradual growth in readers over time and the benefit of extra publicity, it's hard to discern any trends. Some water sector posts were popular, others are very low down. Some Daraja-related news posts got traction, others didn't. The same can be said for posts focussing on the media, civil society and local governance.

I think that will do for the numbers, now for some thinking. What's the blog done for us, is it helping us to meet our objectives, how could we manage it better?

There's no doubt that the blog has helped Daraja stay in the loop of donor, civil society, media and activist circles in Dar es Salaam. Through the blog we have a presence there, despite being based 10 hours away in Njombe. This acts as something of an replacement for coffee-break networking on the meeting circuit, but with the advantage of not having to sit through the meetings themselves.

Similarly, the blog has developed into Daraja's foremost internet presence and communications mechanism to those beyond Tanzania's borders. That includes existing supporters as well as, potential partners and donors, many of whom have commented to us that the blog helps them feel in touch with our work, to understand it on a practical level and to get a sense of the context Daraja's working in. For a young NGO based in a relatively remote part of Tanzania, this connection is very valuable.

Another positive is the ongoing exploration of the potential of social media as a new forum for civic activity in Tanzania. We feel we have forged a space for ourselves in the Tanzanian blogosphere (and on facebook), and a budding reputation to go with it. The growth in visitor numbers is the main evidence for this, along with feedback received through comments both spoken and posted on our various online presences.

On the negative side, however, we haven't yet found a way to use that presence to mobilise any kind of movement of activists. To be honest the ideas we have floated have produced a disappointing response. Even the number of comments on this blog and facebook page isn't what we would hope. But we haven't yet tried to push ideas strongly as yet, or even directly to promote debate. And we're gradually learning and working ourselves into a position where we can hopefully capitalise on the potential that's certainly out there.

However, all that has to be balanced against the question of time. Our social media presence costs us almost nothing in terms of direct financial expenditure - a few dollars a year to register the daraja.org domain name - but it does have a time cost. And while many blogposts and facebook links can be put together very quickly, a matter of minutes, a few posts have to be carefully constructed and take rather longer to write. This post has taken just over an hour so far, for example. At present, we feel that the time cost is more than justified by the networking and learning that's gained, but that it needs to be handled with care to make sure it doesn't get out of hand.

And some tentative conclusions, not necessarily all related to what's above.

  • The combination of Daraja-related news and more general commentary and analysis works reasonably well, and should be continued.
  • We should aim to broaden the range of contributors within our staff, and to identify more clearly who has written or drafted a post - despite appearances, they're not all written by Mr Taylor.
  • We should give more attention to exploring how to use social media as a mobilisation tool, going beyond networking and news sharing.
  • We should increase the use of Swahili for blogposts.
Finally, let's open the floor. If you've got this far in a long post, you must be interested in this topic, so please tell us what you think. As a guide, three questions:

  1. What posts or topics have you enjoyed reading most, and what would you like to see more of?
  2. How do you think we can capitalise on the potential of social media for mobilising citizens to take actions that hold local government to account?
  3. Have we drawn the right conclusions (see bullets above) from our first year of blogging?