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Can online mapping tackle youth unemployment?

Public services are behind the curve in using online mapping to engage and understand citizens. West Berkshire and Reading councils are the first to use the technology to improve their youth employment service, as Jamie Hailstone reports.

Ask anyone who works for a marketing company, and they will tell you using social media as a research tool is big business.

Pictures, hashtags and even emojis are all valuable currency, particularly when you are a retailer trying to sell the latest smartphone or a politician, trying to get elected.

And while using online mapping for research is commonplace among businesses, very few public sector organisations use it as an engagement tool.

Earlier this month, social enterprise Projects with Purpose (PwP) announced it has hired Brighton-based communications consultancy Foco to conduct the UK’s first online mapping of youth employment issues, on behalf of West Berkshire and Reading councils, as part of the local authorities’ Elevate Me project.

Using the latest online research techniques, Foco are examining how young people use social media in order to tackle youth unemployment in the two local authority areas.

Co-founder and director of PwP, Maxine Moss-Black said the Elevate Me project aims to help young adults defined as ‘Neets’ (not in education, employment or training) back into employment through work experience, mentoring and volunteering opportunities.

The programme aims to reduce youth unemployment in the region by half and generate 1,300 new jobs, along with 1,500 work experience placements.

But she added the programme has faced issues, along with similar schemes around the country, in terms of attracting and engaging with young people.

‘We started thinking about alternative methods and what we could do, which was slightly different,’ she told New Start.

She said online mapping will help them understand not only the issues young people are facing, but the language they are using, which will help the service engage with what can often be a hard-to-reach group.

‘We know that young people spend a lot of time online so we felt it was important to understand what they were doing on social media, which hasn’t been properly understood in the context of youth employment.

‘We are managing to uncover some of the issues about why they are not engaging with public services,’ she tells New Start. ‘One of the key things that has already popped out of the preliminary data is that young people do not understand what is on offer or how to get it.

‘This will give us some insight to identify what we can put in place to support this group. In terms of being able to communicate and invite them to a workshop, it’s an incredible insight that we haven’t had before.

‘The public sector is slightly behind the curve in terms of using this,’ added Ms Moss-Block. ‘But it’s not just about the online exercise mapping. It’s about knowing what to do with the data once we have it, and understanding how to apply it in the practical sense. We must turn this data into useful services.’

Foco co-founder John Shewell describes online mapping as a form of ‘data prospecting’.

‘It’s a vast untapped resource of information,’ he said. ‘Online mapping is identifying conversations, groups of people and the networks they use. It looks at what are they talking about and where are they talking.’

‘Youth unemployment is a big issue facing the country, so we’re really excited to use our approach for gathering deep insights about audiences to help Berkshire achieve its objectives.’

As part of the research, Shewell says Foco has already examined social media posts over a six-month period, including 21,000 posts on Twitter alone.

And as Foco began to break down all the social media posts, Shewell said it began to notice the layers of complexity for young people in Berkshire.

‘We started observing mental health issues in a lot of these conversations,’ he added. ‘And other barriers to engagement. For example, one young person said “I went to apply for a role and I was told it’s already been filled, but it’s still on the website several months later”.

‘When you look at that person’s thread, they are not feeling great and when they encounter structural problems with the system, the system just compounds the pain. You can’t notice that in normal research.’

‘When you are dealing with issues like unemployment, most organisations will design a policy to tackle unemployment. It can be a blunt approach to often what is a very complex problem.’

Mr Shewell said the online mapping research also helps show the peer-to-peer groups which exist on social media and also who young people look up to, like YouTube bloggers.

‘If we are trying to engage people, we really need to understand how to they want to be talked to. It’s about how do you take that and design a policy, which becomes more relevant to the audience.

‘There are literally thousands of voices out there and those that are designing services to deliver need to switch this machine on.’

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