Front Porch Forum

Front Porch Forum now statewide across Vermont

(several articles below... see others here)

Front Porch Forum to go statewide 

By Neal P. Goswami
September 11, 2013
MONTPELIER — An online forum allowing local communities to share information or seek and offer assistance to neighbors is set for a statewide rollout with backing from the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Front Porch Forum, which launched in Burlington in 2006 before spreading throughout Chittenden County, is now available to all 251 towns in Vermont, according to co-founder Michael Wood-Lewis.

“We’ve grown steadily outward across about half of Vermont,” he said. “Now, as of Sept. 1 we’re available on the other half of the state as well.”

Each town or neighborhood site is moderated by “professional online community managers,” and members are clearly identified when sharing postings, according to Wood-Lewis. Each forum allows members to share information quickly and with ease, seek help finding lost pets, provide information about local events and debate local issues.

“Our business is to help neighbors connect and to build community. They do that by going online and sharing simple messages with clearly identified neighbors,” he said. “Some people have described it as Craigslist meets Yelp meets Angie’s List meets Groupon.”

Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, developed the site from a precursor after the couple moved to the city in 2000 and sought a way to meet neighbors. More than half the households in Burlington are now members, and the service quickly spread throughout Chittenden County, he said.

Front Porch Forum has focused on expanding the service for the last six months. In February, there were 47,000 active members across 90 Vermont towns covering about half the state. Now it is available statewide in every town, with 57,000 members. New members are signing up by the hundreds each week, Wood-Lewis said.

“People, ultimately, are getting a great response to items they post … mostly because it’s nearby,” he said. “What’s exciting for us is that people tend to join because they’re looking for local results. They stay on because after months of using it they’re more connected, they feel dialed in.”

Much of the rapid expansion was made possible after the Vermont Council on Rural Development noticed how effective the site was in the aftermath of several natural disasters, according to Wood-Lewis.

“What we saw coming out of all the terrible challenges associated with Tropical Storm Irene and the 2011 Lake Champlain flooding was that people used Front Porch Forum along with other tools during the crisis and after the crisis. VCRD noted that and wanted all communities to have that support mechanism for the next crisis that comes down the pike,” he said.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that communities that had a pre-existing forum were able to bounce back faster from the flooding, according to Wood-Lewis. “When disaster hits … if you’ve got a lot of social capital you’re stronger in the face of calamity,” he said.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development, a nonprofit that works to support the state’s rural communities, secured a disaster relief grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to create online forums across the state as part of its Vermont Digital Economy Project, according to Sharon Combes-Farr, the project director. A total of $1.8 million was secured with the assistance of Vermont’s congressional delegation.

Combes-Farr said the council’s executive director, Paul Costello, noticed the impact the forums were having on local communities as he traveled the state. Tropical Storm Irene highlighted how Front Porch Forum was boosting communities, she said.

“We see a real value of having every town on the same platform,” Combes-Farr said. “We have the ability to put messages and information across all of those forums where people are used to getting information. We see great potential in disaster situations.”

Front Porch Forum was selected through a competitive bid process to be the vendor that supplied a statewide service. Wood-Lewis said the company’s customized software and existing infrastructure was a good fit.

“They were looking for a service pretty much like ours, and we’re fairly unique out there,” he said.

The grant money must be expended by the end of next summer. Combes-Farr said the grant is serving as an investment to provide the service free to the entire state. When the grant money is gone Wood-Lewis can maintain the site through advertising and sponsors, she said.

“We’re just basically giving a boost,” she said.

The online forums in new towns and neighborhoods will start in “registration” mode and will become fully functional when at least 100 residents sign up, Wood-Lewis said.

New users can go to frontporchforum.com and enter their street address to be directed to their local site.


Front Porch Forum comes to Bennington, whole state 

Bennington Banner
By Keith Whitcomb, Jr.
September 13, 2013
BENNINGTON — After Tropical Storm Irene hit the state two years ago, a group of students loaded up a truck with tools and set out to help. They were turned away at least twice because the towns they went to had not yet been able to identify what work needed to be done, but then they came to Moretown, where residents had strong planning and communication networks, partly thanks to Web service that provides extremely localized discussion forums.

Michael Wood-Lewis, co-founder of Front Porch Forum, said what happened with Moretown can now happen all over Vermont.

Front Porch Forum was started in 2006 in Burlington. Wood-Lewis said residents of Burlington neighborhoods could log on and talk about the sorts of things neighbors talk about, such as school taxes, muffin recipes, lost pets, job opportunities, things for sale, things needed, and to plan parties and events. Or recovery efforts.

He said one woman, after hearing from her children that other students at their school did not have enough to eat, put together a food bank using the forum. She organized a board of directors, secured space, funding, and food, all through her neighbors.

To use it, one must visit FrontPorchForum.com and create an account. For a town’s forum to become active, at least 100 people must register. As of Thursday evening, Bennington’s forum needed 90 more people to register in order for it to be up and running.

Wood-Lewis said the forums are divided largely along town lines, which keeps the odds of the content being valuable fairly high. His company moderates the forums and funds itself through advertising and selling access subscriptions to large municipalities. For example, Burlington pays to access the some 20 neighborhood forums within the town. It can learn about problems people are having as well as give information to them through the forum.

Front Porch Forum had been made available in a number of Vermont towns already through the e-Vermont grant. Pownal, Arlington, Sandgate, and Sunderland have had it since 2011.

Front Porch Forum is being made available to all towns via the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said Sharon Combes-Farr, project director Vermont Digital Economy Project.

"The Vermont Council on Rural Development was an early fan of Front Porch Forum, because we could see all the community benefits that the service was providing in Burlington neighborhoods and then throughout Chittenden County," Paul Costello, executive director of the VCRD, said in a release. "Through e-Vermont, VCRD was able to leverage the expansion of Front Porch Forum to 30 new towns, bringing additional benefits to local businesses."

Costello said it was the forum’s use during the storm that caused historic levels of damage across Vermont that made it attractive to his agency. "It was amazing how people shared tools and lent each other aide through this vehicle," Costello said. "We’ve been talking to FPF co-founder Michael Wood-Lewis for three years about how we could help bring Front Porch Forum to every town in the state. Today, with the support of the Economic Development Administration, we are doing it."


Front Porch Forum Now Available to All Vermont Towns Statewide  

By Amy Kolb Noyes
September 11, 2013
Does your town have Front Porch Forum? If so, you know the online community bulletin board can be a resource for all sorts of information - from contractor recommendations, to meeting minutes, to yard sale announcements. And now the service is being made available to every Vermont town.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development announced this week, "After significant investment by the Vermont Digital Economy Project and software development by FPF, there is now a forum available for every Vermont town!"

Front Porch Forum is a free, Vermont-based service that currently serves 57,000 members across half the state. It started in Burlington in 2006 and has been expanding to other communities ever since. A Vermont Council on Rural Development press release says the system is now in place for every community to have its own forum, but forums will only become fully functional if enough people sign up.

"New FPFs start in “registration” mode, and once 100 residents sign up, the new forum becomes fully functional. Register for your Front Porch Forum here.

"Front Porch Forum is a free community-building service that allows neighbors to connect with one another. It is moderated and members are clearly identified as they share postings about all sorts of topics. Each FPF helps neighbors share recommendations, find lost pets, welcome newcomers, inform about local events, and engage in healthy and civil debate about important local issues."

In addition to helping residents find lost pets and good plumbers, Front Porch Forum can be a valuable communication tool during a disaster. It is this potential that prompted the Vermont Council on Rural Development to fund the statewide expansion, according to VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello:

"... after Tropical Storm Irene, it was clear that Front Porch Forum enabled communities by providing an easy volunteer organizing tool that was already at everyone’s fingertips...It was amazing how people shared tools and lent each other aide through this vehicle."

Over the last six months, Front Porch Forum co-founder Michael Wood-Lewis and his team have been focused on enabling expansion of the service. In February, Front Porch Forum had 47,000 active members across 90 Vermont towns. Now Front Porch Forum is gaining hundreds of new members each week, and it has the digital infrastructure to serve all 251 towns in the state.


Vermont-created community website connects neighbors statewide:  The online neighborhood meeting place is now available everywhere in Vermont 

By Bridget Shanahan
September 16, 2013
BURLINGTON, Vt. —It's the latest way to connect with your neighbors, and now it's in every community across Vermont.

Front Porch Forum is the brainchild of a Burlington man, who created the online meeting place after finding it difficult to communicate with his neighbors in such a busy age.

“Front Porch Forum helps people connect with their neighbors,” Front Porch Forum CEO Michael Wood-Lewis said.

But instead of going outside to connect, you log on from anywhere, at any time.

“I think there's always just been 24 hours in a day and increasingly those are being taken up with commuting and working, and if there are two parents in a house, they both work and there's not as many stay-at-home parents anymore,” Wood-Lewis said.

While sitting on his own front porch, Wood-Lewis tells Newschannel 5 why he created the site seven years ago to connect people first in his neighborhood, then Chittenden County and now all of Vermont.

There are 60,000 users right now.

“We'd love to get beyond Vermont next year, but right now we're focused on Vermont,” Wood-Lewis said.

Once you’re on Front Porch Forum’s website, log in and you're instantly connected to other users in your community.

When you peruse the posts, you’ll likely read about lost pets, yard sales, school budget details and warnings about break-ins or other crimes in the area.

“It's always with a clearly identified nearby neighbor. It's not anonymous. It's not the worldwide web, it's just your neighbor,” Wood-Lewis said.


Burlington's Front Porch Forum Expands Statewide  

By Cathy Resmer
September 12, 2013
How do you share hyper-local news with your neighbors? If you live in Chittenden County, you've probably been using Front Porch Forum to spread the word about break-ins, lost cats and municipal meetings. The Burlington-based online community building service, created in 2006 by Michael Wood-Lewis (pictured) and his wife, Valerie, has become part of the fabric of civic life in many Vermont communities.

But the service hasn't been available in many parts of the state. Though FPF is free to users, the company has been charging towns that wanted to launch the service a one-time set-up fee to cover the cost of building the digital infrastructure and providing a community moderator. And some cash-strapped municipalities have been reluctant to pay.

Now those Porch-free towns are going to get connected for free. The Vermont Council on Rural Development has directed $300,000 in federal disaster relief funds from the Economic Development Administration to help upgrade Front Porch Forum's capabilities. 

In a blog post announcing the award on the VCRD website, executive director Paul Costello lauded FPF's usefulness to communities looking to organize volunteer efforts in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. “It was amazing how people shared tools and lent each other aide through this vehicle,” says Costello. “We’ve been talking to FPF co-founder Michael Wood-Lewis for three years about how we could help bring Front Porch Services to every town in the state…and today, with the support of EDA we are doing it.”

This isn't the first time VCRD has helped FPF grow; in 2010, the organization directed $100,000 to FPF through its e-Vermont Community Broadband Project, to help the service launch in several rural areas. FPF has also received significant funding from other sources, including a $220,000 Knight News Challenge grant it won in 2010, which helped the company upgrade its software.

According to FPF CEO Michael Wood-Lewis, the new EDA money — delivered through VCRD's Digital Economy Project — is the largest investment in the company's history; he points out that FPF completed a competitive bidding process to obtain the funds. Wood-Lewis says he and his eight part-time employees are using the money to upgrade the software and increase outreach efforts in an effort to cover the whole state.

The roll-out will happen in stages, Wood-Lewis explains. Though registration for FPF is now available in all Vemont towns, the forum functionality — which includes regular email digests from forum members and access to posting archives — won't kick in until 100 people sign up for a forum in any given area. Why implement a 100-person threshold? He offers an analogy: If you're putting on a concert, he says, "you don't start singing when the first guy shows up three hours early." You wait until there's a critical mass of people in the crowd.

And, he adds, this model encourages the people who want the forum to act as champions for the service and encourage their neighbors to sign up. "When there's a local effort to attract people, there's a much greater chance of quick success."

He notes that there are currently 110 active forums statewide — Montpelier, Bethel and Wallingford have just launched. Ninety more are in the registration stage. About 60,000 people statewide are signed up for the service.

The company relies on advertising revenue from local businesses to support its day-to-day operations. It also charges some municipal officials and organizations a fee to gain access to multiple forums — the typical FPF user can only participate in a single forum.

So, Wood-Lewis clarifies, the service is free for the town clerk of Bristol, which is covered by one forum. But entities such as the Chittenden Solid Waste District pay a fee to communicate with all of the forums in the CSWD service area.

Would FPF be open to creating new revenue streams by allowing non-governmental entitites, such as businesses — or news organizations — to pay for access to multiple forums? Wood-Lewis confirms that it's "on our docket to explore forum enhancements," adding: "Of course, we want to protect the integrity of our core offering."

If you're not familiar with FPF and want to see what all the fuss is about — and you live in Vermont — you can sign up here.

FPF's Story

Read best-selling author Bill McKibben's take on Front Porch Forum's origins.

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