How will the web change social action on a local level?

Civil Society Innovation Network logoThis guest post from Luke Bozier is part of the Civil Society Innovation Network series 

Regardless of how much stick the Big Society has gotten over time, there is a vibrant, buzzing, healthy social/community action ecosystem in Britain today. There are loads of innovative, interesting social enterprises working on a local level around the country, filling gaps where services aren’t or can’t be provided by the state (or indeed, shouldn’t be provided by the state).

Organisations like North London Cares in London is a community network, matching volunteers with volunteering opportunities close to their homes and workplaces. Projects like the Riverside Co-op/Market in Wales, which seeks to help low-income families in Cardiff access fresh fruit & vegetables. All across Britain, millions of people are pulling up their sleeves and getting involved locally, because of, or regardless of, the Big Society initiative.

As a technologist, and a (very amateur) social anthropologist, I wonder how technology can be used to support and facilitate some of these local projects. We live in an age saturated with supposedly helpful technology at every turn, for almost every need or whim. But technology’s not just there to allow us to do our groceries at home or text our friends and loved ones – the Internet is already radically changing the way government organisations of all shapes and sizes communicate and engage with citizens. Politics too has been changed beyond recognition by the advent of digital campaigning and blogging.

I have to admit to a professional interest in the subject; my Silicon Valley-backed start-up, Municipo, makes software for local authorities and third sector organisations, helping them to use the Internet in a more effective way to organise and engage. Municipo provides an interactive mapping system, which allows all sorts of organisations to track interactions between people and places. For example in the third sector, an organisation which matches volunteers with opportunities for volunteering would use Municipo’s mapping system to make those links and opportunities clear in a visual, map-based way. Likewise, local authorities who want to communicate more effectively with the non-profit organisations in their areas can use an app as their main daily interface with those organisations through an interactive map.

Technology is going to radically change the way social enterprises and community groups organise and work. If, for example, the Obama campaign in 2008 could use mapping and other web-based tools to enable supporters to campaign in their neighbourhoods, why can’t a small social enterprise in Manchester or Leeds use similar tools to a) communicate about the work they do and, more importantly, b) organise and rally their people to solve issues they’re concerned with? If an organisation which seeks to match volunteers with volunteering opportunities wants to be most effective in the second decade of the 21st century, perhaps the best way to do that is via social networking sites and interactive maps.

Equally, there already exists in most local authorities an interface between council and certain local third sector organisations. Some work that charities do locally has an important impact on the work of the local authority, and vice versa, so they already work together in many areas. Technology can make that interface more efficient and useful. For example an organisation which might have to regularly report on the work they do, or problems they find locally, might find a map-based, web-based interface through which to file those reports more effective than the phone or email. There are examples of where this already happening: the #wmgrit Twitter project is being used to give local people in the West Midlands gritting alerts from local authorities in this area.

Local authorities themselves, when seeking to encourage more “Big Society”-style initiatives in their local areas might benefit from using interactive web-based technology to promote local problems which need addressing and/or opportunities for community groups or individuals to get involved. Those groups and individuals could then be supported with web-based tools to help manage, organise and track the work they do. Municipo is currently involved in pilot-stage programmes like this in two local authorities in the South East of England.

Over time, these examples will become common practice all over the UK. As the benefits of technology-driven social and community action become apparent, and I think they will become apparent very quickly, using the Internet in this way will be first nature for social enterprises and neighbourhood groups.

This post is a guest blog from Luke Bozier. Luke is co-founder and Chief Executive of Municipo. Municipo launches publicly in January. http://municipo.com.

The Civil Society Innovation Network is bringing together councils from across the political spectrum to share practice, develop new thinking and raise questions and ideas with Ministers and Government officials. To sign-up to receive updates, follow this link.