How we created PlaceCal, an award winning community calendar system, designed to combat loneliness and isolation in neighbourhoods across the UK and beyond.
We were approached by Manchester School of Architecture to help them work on a neighbourhood project, Manchester Age Friendly Neighbourhoods (MAFN). MAFN had created four age friendly resident-led partnerships, one of which was in Hulme where GFSC are based.
This project ran for four years and had 6,000 conversations with older people, divesting £200,000 to community groups. Through extensive co-research processes the MAFN team created an evidence base detailing the priority issues to make the neighbourhoods better places to live for the over 50s.
One key finding across all neighbourhoods was that older people who were socially isolated commonly thought “There’s nothing to do in my neighbourhood!”. In communities up and down the country, this has led to social isolation and loneliness for a number of citizens, and therefore a lack of community resilience.
This is a big issue in the UK in particular, where it is estimated that 2 million older people will be lonely and isolated by 2024. Studies show that social isolation and loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking two packets of cigarettes a week.
Despite massive investments of time and money by big institutions such as city councils and health providers into event listings, asset maps and community directories, still no one could find out what was happening in their area.
We continued to work with age friendly partnerships in Hulme and Moss Side (our pilot area, where we are based) to find out why.
We found three big problems
People were not working together. Every large institution was working on their own community information websites, with different organisations gathering the same data.
This top-down approach of people in large institutions trying to gather information on small community groups was inefficient and missed out large swathes of activities and groups.
It also resulted in duplication, or several low quality results rather than one really good one.
Current software wasn’t working. Existing community information websites were either maintained on behalf of the groups by institutional staff or required community groups to regularly log in to keep their events updated.
This meant that community groups had to input their information in one site for each provider, in addition to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, creating an ever-increasing amount of work for a very small amount of publicity.
Tech skills are very low. Digital exclusion has affected community groups disproportionately, particularly in deprived areas such as Manchester. Groups often don’t have the skills or tools needed to promote themselves effectively.
Staff at many institutions have felt equally left behind by recent innovations.
Most groups in our neighbourhood had never published anything online about their group at all, relying completely on word of mouth and thereby missing out on many opportunities to connect with new and enthusiastic participants.
We realised we would need to fix all these together to make an impact.
We created a three-part solution to the problem that tackles social and digital inclusion together, creating a new neighbourhood infrastructure.
Collective, not-for-profit ownership. To be sustainable, everything must be owned and managed directly by institutions and community groups working together.
This supports the existing efforts being done in neighbourhoods by partnerships of councils, community organisers, and public health services.
Software built on existing tools. Our software builds on top of tools that community groups are already using, such as Google Calendar, Outlook 365, and Facebook.
These listings are then converted into super simple, highly accessible and constantly updated listings for each neighbourhood, community group and venue.
A training program that includes everyone. Our educational program for institutions and community groups alike walks everyone through the process of publishing and updating their information.
It operates on a ‘train-the-trainers’ basis, so key people in the community can pass on their knowledge to other groups and organisations.
This means no one is left behind, helping to close the ‘digital divide’.
What’s happening now?
PlaceCal won the AAL Smart Ageing prize in 2018, and Nesta’s “Tech to Connect” prize in 2019. We have since set up a new company, Place Health Technology CIC, and raised £220,000 from the National Lottery Community Fund in 2021 to expand the initiative nationwide. We’re currently planning a national rollout.
We’ve also launched The Trans Dimension, our first standalone application of our methodology. This is for the London trans community in collaboration with Gendered Intelligence, and you can read more about it here.
We are actively seeking both funding and clients for PlaceCal, which we not-so-humbly are calling “the next Wikipedia” – please do get in touch if you have a community you want to use it with!Find out more