Creating a national network of Community Technology Partnerships

How we are going to transform the relationships between people, technology and place over the next two years, thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund

An illustration of a community of place

We’re delighted to announce that Geeks for Social Change, working in an ambitious partnership with C2 Connecting Communities, Manchester School of Architecture, The Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, and half a dozen friends and allies, have collectively won £220,000 from The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.

This funding, from the Growing Great Ideas programme, will help establish a national network of Community Technology Partnerships (CTPs), which we hope will revolutionise the relationships between people, place, technology and culture.

Anyone who’s been following our work for a while might have heard us talk about this concept, which we originally mooted in 2017 and published a journal paper on in 2020, following us winning two major awards for our work on the PlaceCal platform.

This article explores what a CTP is, what this initiative is all about, and how it differs from other approaches to these topics. We’ll explore what we’re hoping to do with this award over the next couple of years, and how you can get involved.

What is a Community Technology Partnership (CTP)?

In real life we know that people help other people in their communities all the time.

But this doesn’t happen in the same way on the internet, where tech giants like Facebook have designed their systems to harvest data and generate profit. The online world is shaped by an imbalance of power and driven by a profit motive which is at odds with the work being done all over the UK by grass roots community organisations.

An illustration of a community of place linked by digital networks

What we want to do

Our dream is of a network, or ecosystem, of local partnerships across the UK where communities can share the problems that they want to address, and we can work with them to co-create digital solutions to help achieve their goals.

All over the UK there are local groups who want to improve their communities — for example, by clearing up the streets; reducing loneliness; welcoming refugees; making spaces safer after dark; or a million other community inspired and community led ideas.

For too long, disadvantaged communities have been seen as ‘the problem’ - when we know in fact that they understand the issues they want to address better than anyone else.

“Disadvantaged communities and their people are not the problem – they are the solution”

– Hazel Stuteley OBE (Chair C2 Connecting Communities)

GFSC have an established track-record of helping communities transform themselves and their environments by developing digital solutions to support community action. However, there needs to be a step-change in supporting the digital autonomy of local communities. We need to build momentum.

Here’s some examples of our work locally:

  1. PlaceCal. Older people in Manchester said they were lonely, isolated and had nothing to do. On investigation, it was found that there were actually lots of activities for older people ranging from yoga to knitting to IT and language classes. The challenge was finding out about these activities. We worked in partnership with the Age Friendly Hulme and Moss Side to develop a solution, an online calendar called PlaceCal which is owned and populated by community groups. It’s simple to use and no log in details are required. This software was recognised internationally as outstanding, winning second place in the 2018 AAL Smart Ageing prize.
  2. Taphouse TV Dinners. During lockdown, a small group of people in Hulme, Manchester became concerned about local residents who didn’t have access to, or couldn’t afford cooked meals. This particularly applied to older people who lived alone but also anyone else who was struggling. We helped them to set up Taphouse TV Dinners, a volunteer led project which supplied free or subsidised meals to people who wanted them and also reduced local food waste. We set up a website to connect people who wanted meals with volunteers and supermarkets with excess food. This has now delivered over 5,000 meals directly to residents with no support from local government or institutions.
  3. ‘imok’ (or “I’m OK”) is a simple bot designed to support people undertaking potentially risky activities. It was designed in partnership with No Borders Manchester to protect asylum seekers who have to ‘check in’ at a Reporting Centre, with the knowledge that at any point they may be detained and taken to the airport for extradition with no way of informing friends or family. Originally, No Borders volunteers accompanied asylum seekers to every check in, but this was unsustainable. We worked with them to develop ‘imok’. In the event that someone fails to check out from the Reporting Centre within a reasonable amount of time, volunteers can mobilise quickly. The bot can also be useful to support protestors at risk of arrest, women and LGBTQ+ people walking home at night or going on dates, emergency workers in dangerous situations, and potentially even more applications.
An illustration of people meeting and traveling between different community spaces

How will it work in practice?

In each community, we will help establish a partnership between local tech experts and community organisers.

Together, these partnerships will create a culture that breaks down the currently insurmountable barriers between community organising and tech development, so that people are able to work together to identify and overcome shared problems. Our team will help develop creative digital solutions which will then be owned and managed by the community.

We will take a collaborative approach by sharing solutions, using open source software so that communities can build on one another’s success by using the digital tools which have been developed or by repurposing them. In this way communities will be empowered to understand and engage in every aspect of tech creation, rather than being extractively consulted when it’s already too late for input.

Why not just use existing technology?

This isn’t an either/or thing — we are committed to working with what people already have.

We know that thousands of community groups use Facebook, WhatsApp and Google to organise, communicate and publicise events. They use these apps because they currently have no choice. These tools will be community organising mainstays for a long time — our goal is to give people choice, education, and digital autonomy.

At the moment the tech industry is focussed on making privatised tools (often ‘cloud’ services run for profit) where the whole business model is about restricting access to the tool and extracting data from people without their knowledge.

We want to disrupt existing power structures by developing a manifesto to get back to a more kind, community-oriented tech culture, like the internet of a lot of our childhoods. To do this we will work with communities and neighbourhoods to co-create new digital tools, resources, ideas, capacity, inspiration, and connections.

We believe that if people had more of a choice, they would organise tech differently and more inclusively. They would prefer things that don’t require a log in unless necessary, that don’t sell anyone’s data, that have been designed with the community in mind, that are non-profit, community owned and hosted locally. And they certainly wouldn’t be having to ‘pivot to video’ to get their groups to show up on social media. They would spend more time learning how to use things they already have, and adapting them to their needs. Perhaps most of all, they would be finding ways to use less time and less technology to get the same job done with less effort, giving them more time to spend on actually caring for each other.

We want to change the idea of technology from being about ‘apps’ made by mega corporations, to thinking about the hundreds of small activities people do every week, and helping each other find creative ways to overcome them. We want to make it easier to talk about, adapt and commission software. We want communities to have the language to force tech creators to centre community needs and advocate for themselves, as well as critically evaluate their existing tools.

Our work will create a transformational network of communities where people share solutions for the benefit of all. The network will share ideas and solutions which can be accessed online, reused and repurposed by other organisations. In this way, disadvantaged communities will create an open source library of digital solutions, ideas, skills, knowledge and case studies which is available to communities across the UK. By pooling resources we can develop software which it wouldn’t be easy to make individually. We can establish community data trusts on co-owned hardware and software that is transparently owned in the public interest — again, very hard for communities to do individually.

Our goal is not to harvest clicks on a website or installs of an app, which is how most technology organisations work. Our goal is to build a thriving empowered community where people have the information and skills they need to live happy and healthy lives.

How do we differ from existing ‘digital inclusion’ approaches?

An illustration of a variety of tools digital and analogue

Digital exclusion has possibly never been worse in the UK. Despite enormous spends on the concept at every level of government, and the increasing insistence that we live in a connected, digital world, these benefits are simply not felt in many communities. Where I live in Hulme, there are community centres that don’t have proper WiFi not half a kilometre from buildings that we are told are the most ‘high tech’ in Manchester with 100GB upload speeds.

The underlying logic seems to be we need a kind of ‘trickle down’ digital economy, and that simply by having huge companies and providers and initiatives, these benefits will be felt by the most structurally marginalised. But just like the real trickle down economy, it’s a neo-liberal myth with no basis in reality. In fact the reverse happens: digital exclusion increases as each new tech fad comes and goes, and each new initiative suddenly demands more of people, creating a further gap between the tech-haves and tech-have-nots.

This means that life is harder than it’s ever been for most regular people trying to start a nice community group. Somehow the array of tools and takeover of digital is bigger than ever, and yet the country is perhaps the most unequal it’s been in our lifetimes.

We’re already hearing about both a mass exodus from Facebook, as it increasingly doesn’t do what community groups need, as well as a general dip in community organising following two long years of Covid-19. More than ever, people need to come together in real life, and yet do not have suitable tools to do this. Only by tackling both together, in an embedded and networked community of passionate people, can we have any hope of solving both digital exclusion and social inclusion.

Digital inclusion programmes usually focus on addressing skills barriers to access existing systems. Often, face-to-face services are quickly and poorly replaced with online or digital services as a cost-saving measure by both public and private sector, bringing with it a raft of ‘Key Performance Indicators’ which are more about surveillance than support. People’s inability to use these badly designed tools is then dismissed as ‘digital exclusion’, with the suggestion that the barrier to entry is one of cost, education, or interest. Digital exclusion is just exclusion, and in a modern computer-controlled age, there is no meaningful separation between the social and digital.

This results in nonsensical policy objectives like “[Making] Greater Manchester a 100% digitally-enabled city region”. Does this mean that we won’t rest until every grandma in the city is playing Fortnite? Or that children need to be taught about Bitcoin in schools? (Actually, please don’t answer that). Not everyone needs every digital skill just as not everyone needs to learn to wire up a house, fly a plane, publish a magazine, or perform open heart surgery. What’s important is that together, in communities and through our public services, we can get support for these things collectively.

It’s not that we don’t think digital inclusion has it’s place. It’s just that without defining what it is people are being excluded from, and who or what is doing the excluding, the real causes of the harm are obscured. A common refrain is people saying something like “But I’m not a tech person!”, even though almost everyone’s work and social life is now accessed in large part through computer systems — from checking emails, to using digital calendars and messaging apps, photo sharing, and finding out information.

Community Technology Partnerships will readdress this power balance and let people decide what’s important to them. You can read more about our approach in our journal article.

The Partnership

We have set up a dedicated non-profit — Place Health Technology CIC — to own and deliver this work.

This CIC is in the process of figuring out what collective ownership looks like between GFSC, Manchester School of Architecture, C2 Connecting Communities and The Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health.

Thanks to the National Lottery funding we’ve hired three wonderful people to work on this project, each two days a week. They are:

  • David Hayward, project manager. David also organises Feral Vector, where he makes videogame developers do non-digital stuff and go outside. His background includes running hackspaces, community events, and commercial events.
  • Rachele Evaroa, community organiser for North of England. Rachele is the landlady of the Old Abbey Taphouse, and was recently voted the most eccentric landlady in the UK.
  • Coral Freeman, community organiser for South of England. Coral founded Idle Games Club, a Community Games Lounge located in South Devon, and is also the Volunteer Co-ordinator at Torbay Domestic Abuse Service.

The project is currently three months in and we are discovering so much already about how, why and where tech is failing people locally.

We look forward to sharing our progress with you as we go!