Smart Cities: smarter VCSE

A version of this article was first published in infrastructure organisation bvsc 'Update' Oct-Nov 2015 as the first in a series of three articles on the role of digital technology and data in the transformation of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE) in Birmingham and beyond. The article was updated slightly in November 2017

Tech and data for good

We believe technology and the understanding and usage of data can help us do our important work better, sometimes using it to free us up to spend more of our valuable time helping our beneficiaries, sometimes using it to make better decisions and work smarter.

The terminology we need to get used to using more in the sector includes digital, data, transformation, ownership, impact, collaboration and sharing.

Work smarter

We all need to work smarter – digital technology and data will help us to do that. We need to increase the digital and data literacy of everyone but especially those in our sector. We are not the only ones in society doing the work that we do but there is no shortage of need and time is not on our side. If we do not transform our organisations, other organisations, without our understanding of local community needs, will come into the ‘market’ and say they can do the job better than us.

We need to reclaim our mission and prove the need we serve, using technology and data, including our own, to improve our processes and prove our impact. Transformation using technology is in the best interests of our beneficiaries and our organisations.

Data

In terms of data, we are constantly having to rely on data produced by the statutory sector. We want to encourage the VCSE sector to understand, value, use and share our own data, amongst ourselves and with trusted allies.

As RnR Organisation we attended a datadive in June 2014 where data scientists gave up a weekend to examine the data of 4 separate charities, eventually producing dashboards (CAB) or data visualisations which helped each charity show its impact. It was run by the UK chapter of a US organisation called Datakind UK.

In the West Midlands region there is a group called Net Squared Midlands, part of a global network of people interested in using web or mobile technology for social good, where VCSE organisations can meet and get support from digital advocates who want to support work in the sector by sharing their technical skills.

Digital skills

There are some worrying statistics from the 2015 Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index which tracks digital adoption among small to medium sized businesses (SMEs) and charities:

  • 58% of charities lack basic digital skills (23% of SMEs), up from 55% last year

  • 28% of charities think that they’re doing all they can online

  • Over 50% of charities do not believe that having a website would help increase their funding and nearly 70% say the same about social media

  • 55% of charities think that the knowledge level at board level is lacking.

  • One-quarter (25%) of all organisations surveyed (SMEs and charities) believe digital is ‘irrelevant’ to them.

In the course of this series of articles we will refer to tools, resources, organisations and events to do with technology for non-profits, many of them available to us in the VCSE sector at low or no cost. Many of the tools and resources are designed and maintained by people who believe in tech for good, including volunteers.

We will also recommend organisations and events like VCSSCamp, the unconference for voluntary sector infrastructure organisations (CVSs and Volunteer Centres etc) at which you can network with and get support from other organisations in the sector who are also engaged on this same transformation journey.

Allies

We have allies in this work, people who work in the public or private sectors but who also want to ‘give something back’. Organisations like Datakind UK bring together charities and data scientists to enable the data scientists to examine the charities’ data and help them understand the patterns in the data which will help them do a better job. Meetups like Net Squared attract ‘techies’ who are civic-minded and want to help us find solutions.

What technology many charities need

A national charitable funder recently ran a pilot programme which was to help charities use technology to create change in the lives of certain groups in society. There were a number of things which the funder said this programme would not cover and these were:

  • Upgrading of internal IT systems

  • Large-scale capital costs

  • Updating of websites and routine social media campaigns

  • Exploration events or hack days

  • Staff or volunteer training

  • Capacity-building to make an organisation more ‘digital ready’

As an organisation which believes in the need for the digital transformation of civic society, we think this is a handy list of work which does need to be funded by some funder(s) and we aim to identify and seek dialogue with funders who will fund these areas.

Resource-saving tools

What are the tasks you need to do? What are the time-consuming ones which could be automated? How much time do you spend answering the same queries over and over, organising events, arranging meetings, travelling to meetings, keeping up to date, managing projects, updating documents, finding out what your members think? How much money do we pay for simple website maintenance and updates?

Tools like Eventbrite, Doodle, Skype/Hangouts, Google alerts, Trello, Google Drive and Survey Monkey are our friends in these scenarios and we should be using them more.

Voluntary sector and smart cities

In a blogpost written by us in September 2012, when Birmingham was establishing its Smart City Commission, we said:

“The voluntary and community sector (VCS) has accommodated the move from early computers to flat screens, to laptops, blackberries, smartphones, iPads etc etc. We have accommodated changes in programme applications – online, monitoring through prescribed databases and spreadsheets, and reporting on pre-set and template programmes. Smart/digital systems, big/open data, ‘Smart Cities’ programmes are all processes and programmes that will benefit the sector in developing, delivering, monitoring and reporting services.

The question for the VCS is not about whether, or how, we engage in ‘digital by default’ [see Government Digital Service], but how do we proactively lead/shape our involvement within the ‘technological journey’. While the public sector is planning reforms and changes based on technological developments, there are growing concerns over our sector’s ability to take part in and respond to the continued changes”.

Future articles

In the forthcoming articles in this series we will look at the strategic and operational processes we in the sector need to be aware of and implementing if we want to achieve the transformation to ‘digital by default’ that is so badly needed.

Events

Some events relevant to this topic:

What next?

If you or your organisation wants some strategic help to take any of these ideas forward, please contact us for a discussion about how we might work together.

 

OTHER ARTICLES IN SERIES:

Digital governance

How do you review your digital footprint?