Increasing the quality, range and uptake of digital tools and technology and by civil society is vital if we are to truly shift how we tackle social and environmental issues in the UK. Here’s how the Catalyst plans to amplify and build on existing work to boost the availability and use of appropriate tech and talent in the sector.
Catalyst is a new and unprecedented network of funders and organisations coming together to help create more resilience and better services in voluntary and charitable organisations. These organisations do amazing work in often extremely challenging environments, with phenomenal knowledge, professionalism and vigour.
But while they are doing an amazing job with the tools and people they currently have, imagine how much more they could do if they had access to the greatest tools, and talent, for productivity and impact of our age.
Far-reaching reform is urgent: none of us should be content for these organisations to tackle 21st century problems using 20th century tools.
One of our main jobs at Catalyst is to identify how to develop new, or improve existing, technological tools and the flow of talent into the sector to reinforce civil society’s work and expertise so they, in turn, can make ever-greater strides in service delivery and ultimately improve social and environmental outcomes. Far-reaching reform is urgent: none of us should be content for these organisations to tackle 21st century problems using 20th century tools.
Catalyst takes a networked approach with the vast majority of work led by partners and, even better, by voluntary and charitable organisations themselves, meaning that our role is to enable and support the ecosystem to scale up or increase existing provision.
The many ways we might increase sector tech include:
- defining standards which the sector can use and developing tools they can reuse/remix
- working alongside central and local government to help smooth interfaces, release important data and agree uses of standards
- forging partnerships between charities and vendors that make software which is standards compliant and give the best user experience
- fostering a culture of reuse, where software is written well once, and shared between many organisations
- attracting talent: agencies, designers, developers and those who have experience of delivering great products
- constantly advocating for the user to be put first
Within these possible priorities, three areas stand out for our immediate focus in Catalyst — where there is most urgent need and where we believe our network can play the most constructive part in sparking change.
Standards and Tools
This emerging workstream is focused on underlying infrastructure. It’s about finding ways to describe shared functionality, data models, activities and processes and then understanding how best to deliver services in the most consistent and cost-effective way possible.
At its simplest, it’s agreeing on a format to describe a piece of data. At its most complex, it’s performing the user research, actor mapping and design thinking to understand an incredibly multifaceted problem such as impact reporting, and to devise standards which will reduce the cost and time given to reporting, improve data quality, and satisfy stakeholders in mission-driven organisations and the foundations and local government organisations who fund them.
In some cases we’ll need to specify and build tools; working software that organisations can clone and fork to adapt for their own needs. In others, we’ll work with charities and vendors to make the tools that already exist and are in use today interoperate with each other.
One example where the sector is already doing this brilliantly is in the use of the 360 Giving Open Data standard where funders reporting on their grant-giving use a standard allows easy analysis and comparison.
If you make a tool and no-one uses it, you’ve not made anything useful. If everyone makes a tool to do the same thing the same way, you’ve wasted an enormous amount of effort and money. Both of these are existing problems that we seek to address in the Catalyst.
Organisations are often reluctant to switch to better products, such as cloud-based Platform-as-a-Service offerings, if they don’t know they’re already being used by organisations like themselves. We’ll need to enable dynamic catalogues of products, solutions and code, along with the social proof of who is using them already, and case studies, recipes and known ways to integrate them with other tools and common workflows.
We need to work with vendors to help them build and sell solutions which will work well for the sector, but which are currently not widely in use, either due to lack of knowledge, slight changes needed for regulatory reasons, or a perception that they are irrelevant or inappropriate.
Other barriers to reuse include lack of either training or of confidence around using other organisations’ or vendors’ solutions; and lack of support for organisations with concerns about making their own products, tools, or components available to others to reuse or Open Source.
An organisation which has made use of a proprietary API from Twilio to send SMS reminders for service users to bring specific information to appointments is Law Centres Network. They’ve built a platform which is used by individual law centres and it’s already successfully reducing valuable wasted sessions from pro-bono lawyers as people are prepared and on time for their appointment.
We need to focus on both the supply and demand side.
On the supply side, we need to understand what’s in the DNA of digital agencies who work in partnership with charities, rather than merely in client or service provider modes, so that more agencies can work in this way.
We hear of organisations wanting to hire their first developers and other digital professionals to their teams and we want to create support networks and Communities of Practice to make this even more successful.
The sector as a whole is going to need a lot of Service Designers, User Researchers, User Experience Designers, Visual Designers, Storytellers, Content Strategists, Data Scientists, Back End Engineers, Front End Engineers, Architects and Team Leads, Product Managers, CTO/CIO/CDOs, advocates and mentors over the next few years. If you have these skills, please consider exercising them for the good of those who are the furthest away from privilege, power and influence, and get in touch.
We may need to find some new ways of people working with each other. We hear a lot about organisations needing “a day a week of a devops person” or “a week a month of a data scientist”. We need to explore new models for doing this: perhaps micro-sabbaticals, a lending library of people or maybe even a central pool of resources.
On the demand side, the organisations which Catalyst will help are very unlikely to have Software Developers, Designers, Delivery Managers, Content Strategists, Data Scientists or other similar individuals on their team. They may have never managed a digital project, outside of having a website.
We need to equip people in these organisations with an understanding and confidence to engage with — and even employ — digital professionals and to build (better) digital products and services. Skills such as service design are already present in so many of these charitable organisations who deliver incredibly rich and complex support to those in need. We need to create organisational confidence and competence to not just commission, but to create, measure and iterate services using digital processes.
An example of an organisation who are working to build better partnerships with development agencies is NCVO and I would recommend you to read Megan Griffith-Gray’s wonderful series of blog posts on the work going on there.
Underpinning all we do — and will do — is data. This includes data that the Catalyst network of partners compiles and collects about the sector as a whole. It includes asking bodies that have relevant data to publish it in a standards-compliant, frequent and open way. It includes empowering charities to claim data about themselves and help to keep it up-to-date. It must involve helping organisations to efficiently use the data they already have and where they don’t, to collect and use it ethically and responsibly.
Civil society and voluntary and charitable organisations help those most in need, the most vulnerable. As a sector we need to ensure that proper stewardship and safeguarding is maintained in the data which is gathered and processed about them.
We have some projects in planning, some just getting started and others already up and running in these areas. If the work set out above resonates with you we’d love you to get involved, whether you work in civil society or tech. Please get in touch if you are keen to collaborate, and we will continue to share our thinking, plans and programmes through regular posts as they progress.
My boss at The Guardian, Matt McAlister, had the most wonderful phrase about “weaving The Guardian into the fabric of the internet”, something I’d argue they’ve been pretty good at. The Sector Tech strand of Catalyst is about weaving digital processes and skills into the organisations who help those most in need: organisations and individuals that need those processes and skills most.
We should aim to use technology, not for the sake of it, but to make the interventions that help people’s lives almost invisible to them, and the improvements to their lives and outcomes most profound. It’s the most urgent time to do this, and also the best time.
As always, please let us know your feedback and ideas: ways you might contribute or how we might join up with work already underway. And if you’d like to read more about the Catalyst’s overarching ambitions, I suggest you start with Dan Sutch’s excellent “A social purpose at the heart of the digital revolution” and other excellent pieces from other people involved.