Why Government and funders might give more support to community technology, social infrastructure and connecting citizens

This may be wishful thinking, but I sense that we could soon see a resurgence of interest in community technology, social infrastructure and connecting citizens among funders and policy people.

That’s something we’ve explored over the past two years through Networked City and the Connecting Londoners group.

If you want some earlier backstory community tech was a hot topic in the 1990s: see the archive here.

Over the past ten years or so, we’ve rather left things to Facebook, Google and other platforms. It is difficult to compete with free, even if you may be concerned about loss of control, and ways that data is used.

However, Cassie Robinson nudges us to think differently for the future in this post about Community tech and social infrastructure, reporting on work Doteveryone undertook with Civil Society Futures last year.

That work faded, but Cassie reports the insights gained, and these could provide the basis for further research and development. The value of shared or common infrastructure includes:

  • It can reduce risk — fewer places holding data etc, if you have shared infrastructure, than hundreds of tiny services
  • It affords new explorations for different ways of doing privacy and identity
  • It’s easier to support than many tiny services
  • It facilitates more coordination and resilience
  • It can build greater connections between activities and services
  • It helps build collective / local intelligence and resilience — spotting opportunities and challenges
  • It means you can gather data at a level and of a type which can be used for community information and planning — local data for local people
  • It facilitates collective knowledge building — documenting how people solve problems is useful for future communities

Cassie is moving from Doteveryone to work at the Big Lottery Fund as their new Head of Digital Grant Making, where she will head up a new £15 million Digital Fund to support the charity and voluntary sector.

Cassie says that she will “start regular enquiries, seeking out feedback and ideas from people, and sharing the insights regularly” about funding, and no doubt other matters, so there’s a good chance ideas on community tech will gain some traction there.

Cassie also mentions that CAST is undertaking work with IVAR on how to make tech imaginable and usable for small voluntary organisations. They have a survey here.

On another front, the PM has just launched the Government’s first loneliness strategy with funding to support social prescribing, the practice by which GPs refer people to community activities.

The Prime Minister also confirmed £1.8m to increase the number of community spaces available – the funding will be used to transform underutilised areas, such as creating new community cafes, art spaces or gardens.

… which sounds to me like confirmation of the importance of local social infrastructure, highlighted in a recent Local Trust report.

There are clear benefits to patients in social prescribing, but issues including matching people’s interests to local opportunities, and whether local community groups, often run by volunteers or a few hard-pressed workers, will always be able to welcome more people.

As Third sector reports, funding is needed for community work as well as health support staff. Who will pay for that?

It is a concern that resonates with Sarah Burns, head of communities at Croydon Voluntary Action. A recently established social prescribing service operating across the borough from a local medical centre is underpinned and supported by community building work from CVA. “Without that, it would be set up to fail”, Burns says. But there is no direct funding to support that work. Instead, CVA dips into other existing pots of money designed for health work, including £45,000 from the clinical commissioning group. Burns is grateful for supportive relationships with health colleagues, but also frustrated that what she sees as fundamental street-level community development work has to operate on a shoestring from existing resources.

Either way, it is pretty certain that in order to do any prescribing, GPs and surgery staff will need good intelligence about who’s who and what’s happening in their area.

That’s where maps and local network building becomes important, as Drew Mackie, Barbara Brayshay and I are exploring in Thames Ward, Barking building on some earlier work we did in Croydon.

As part of the Barking work we’ve just developed a Local mapping and communications checklist which suggests that the following system components:

  • A directory of local facilities, organisations etc
  • Geomap of social infrastructure and issues
  • Netmap showing interests, wants, offers, collaborations
  • Existing local comms – Facebook, WhatsApp, blogs, Twitter etc
  • Other spaces and tools for communication and collaboration
  • People who make the system work: mapping and comms manager(s), local activists learning new methods, community and social reporters.

… could support a number of community system functions around these issues:

  • Infrastructure – finding and understanding facilities, plans and needs
  • Activities – news, events, conversations
  • Cooperation, collaboration, campaigns – enabling people to see interests, wants and offers
  • Engagement, effectiveness and organising – increase profile and impact

Taking these ideas from different sources together, I think there is a strong case for investment in community tech and social infrastructure.

However, while the Tech for Good movement, and others in London like Outlandish and Newspeak House can offer technical expertise, there are relatively few people on the ground who can help groups and networks apply mapping, technology and new ways of working in local communities and pan-London networks.

That why we believe it is important to find the visionaries for responsible community tech and also develop a learning network and community of practice.

Back in 2011-12 the Big Lottery Fund commissioned me and and John Popham to explore some of these issues as part of their People Powered Change programme: blog posts here.

Now seems a good time the Fund,  or some of the other major organisations I’ve mentioned, to bring together research findings and people working in this area, to discuss what civic operating systems we need for the future.