KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
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."
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.