Online forum connects Vt. residents in rural towns

By Lisa Rathke
October 13, 2013

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — When Tropical Storm Irene flooded mountain valley towns in Vermont two years ago, some savvy residents turned to social media to rally for help and spread news.

Their posts on Facebook pages and other community forums were answered in droves with volunteers, fundraising and supplies.

Now advocates are making sure every community has access to an online community platform where they can share information with their neighbors and pull together in times of need as Vermont spreads broadband service to all corners of the rural state.

An online community called Front Porch Forum is now available to all 251 Vermont towns and cities. Residents can register for free, and once 100 people have signed up in the community, it goes live.

Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife started a precursor to the forum in 2000 after they moved into a south-end Burlington neighborhood where they didn’t know their neighbors. They got such positive feedback that they wanted to expand it elsewhere, Wood-Lewis said.

‘‘It’s just remarkable to watch how folks put it to use,’’ he said.

In 2006, they formed a business and added community forums for towns across Chittenden County. By August of this year, the forum had expanded to every community in Vermont with help from about $300,000 in a federal disaster relief grant that is being used for software development, marketing and ramping up service.

Towns and cities with a strong presence on Front Porch Forum had an easier time pulling together after Irene because they had a platform to communicate, said Sharon Combes-Farr, project director for the Vermont Digital Economy Project, who directs the grant.

Meg Allison, of Moretown, used the forum during Irene when the village was evacuated and roads were washed away.

‘‘We had one thing going for us that some other towns did not—a digital infrastructure and a citizenry who knew how to use digital tools to communicate, to organize, and ultimately, to continue our long-term recovery,’’ she said in a blog in 2013.

The days and weeks following Irene, interest in Front Porch Forum exploded in the town with dozens and dozens signing up, Allison said.

The forum offers an outlet for members to get baby sitter recommendations, borrow equipment, spread the word about a lost pet and launch a reading group. Forum staffers monitor the forums to keep discussions civil. Besides the grant, the forum is supported through advertising.

A similar private social network started in San Francisco in 2010 called NextDoor. More than 100 cities around the country now use it, according to its website.

In the Vermont town of Westford, population 2,027, a food shelf got off the ground through Front Porch Forum.

Julia Andrews responded to a post from a woman asking for help starting a food pantry. They became partners six years ago and still use the forum to organize volunteers, food drives and events.

‘‘I can also say it’s very useful for thanking people who contribute,’’ Andrews said.

It’s also helpful for organizing meetings and sales, said Spencer Putnam, who helped bring the service to the small Addison County town of Weybridge. Putnam says his biggest coup was selling a full-size tractor within a day.

Susan Clark, of Middlesex, recently posted on the forum asking to borrow a stationary bike for a month as her son recovered from an injured knee.

‘‘I was getting emails and phone calls for two days with people offering to loan theirs,’’ she said in an email.

On the forum, local officials post meetings, votes and news about upcoming road work. The school board has conducted surveys about improvements to facilities. Some residents have posted gardening tips, seasonal recipes, poems, and weather records. They also warn about burglaries or other problems.

‘‘My hope is that it makes us feel less polarized and isolated, so that when controversial issues do come up, it’s that much more likely that we can come together face-to-face and talk about them in a civil, respectful manner,’’ Clark said.

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