One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.
Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city’s 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.
Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other’s glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.
This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project’s backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.
The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?
Smit and his co-panelists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.
Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.
Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.
All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.
Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…
Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’ She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.
I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.
Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.
Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.
I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.
On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.
In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?
My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.
They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice
I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.
But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.
Mental health is a globally pressing issue. Conservative estimates suggest that 400 million people worldwide suffer from various mental illnesses, while the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s leading cause of the burden of disease, with mental health problems already exacting a greater toll than tuberculosis, cancer, or heart disease.
Yet look at this global picture more closely, and to some observers it appears as though this burden might not be spread evenly around the world. With recovery rates for schizophrenia and depression in the USA, UK, and other wealthy countries worse than those in Nigeria, India, and other developing nations, it looks as though the poor world is outperforming the rich when it comes to dealing with some mental disorders.
Theories as to why this may be abound. These range from the perhaps outdated and stereotypical idea that there is a greater tradition of family and community solidarity in economically developing nations, to the social anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s theory that a combination of greater stigma and “disgraceful” normative care practices in the West often mean that sufferers of devastating mental disorders like schizophrenia concurrently experience a range of other afflictions – ostracism, homelessness, poverty, substance addiction and a set of humiliating interpersonal experiences that she calls ‘social defeat’.
Last night, in his RSA lecture entitled ‘The Global Mental Health Crisis: What the rich world can learn from the poor’, Professor Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine offered a slightly different perspective. Focussing on access to care, he gave examples of the relative ingenuity of mental health care practices in countries like India, where he has done extensive work.
There is, he said, no shortage of psychiatric professionals in wealthy Western nations; for example California alone has more psychiatrists than the whole of South Asia. Despite this, some 60% of people with mental illness symptoms in the USA do not access any form of psychiatric care. The UK, even with its free-of-charge National Health Service, only performs slightly better, with 40% of sufferers not seeking or receiving treatment. As explanations for this he pointed to the sometimes alienating, over-complicated professional culture of DSM-influenced approaches to mental illnesses in the West, and the remoteness of psychiatric practitioners to their patients in both lifestyle and outlook as reasons for people not knowing about or feeling they can access services.
By contrast, he presented a model of public health in India that, with limited resources in the form of professionals or pharmaceuticals, utilises lay community health workers to provide collaborative, locally appropriate community-based care. Specially trained lay workers operate under the direction of psychiatric professionals to provide outreach services, ‘psychiatric first aid’, and social interventions based in the home, in a Wellcome Trust-funded controlled trial, documented in a series of documentaries available online.
Back in the UK, the RSA is looking to draw upon a similar approach as part of its Connected Communities project, which seeks to explore ways of building resilient communities in which people’s wellbeing and life satisfaction benefit from social connections with their peers. Working with Nicky Forsythe of Positive Therapy, we shall shortly be launching an innovative Talk For Health peer support programme which will train key members of community networks as lay counsellors, giving them the confidence and knowledge to take the therapists’ skills of empathy, non-judgemental listening, and conversational support out of the doctors’ surgery and into the hands of the community. In Bristol, we’ve just launched an innovative tablet computer app called Social Mirror, which volunteer health champions will use to help people map their social networks and, where necessary, receive suggested social prescriptions. Simultaneously, we are working with Talk To Me London to launch an exciting pilot project in New Cross that seeks to encourage Londoners to engage in conversations with strangers, with participants identified by their ‘Talk To Me’ badges which show that they are friendly and willing to chat. The designers of the project promise that it will “be the most innovative, culture-changing campaign of our times”, so stay tuned for more on that.
With ever-increasing strains on public health and social care budgets, and worrying research that demonstrates links between social isolation and the risk of mental illness and death, it is hoped that we can learn much from Professor Patel and others in the ‘poor world’ who are demonstrating that innovative, ingenious social interventions can help manage the burden of mental illness by supporting connected communities. Keep checking this blog, follow #RSAConnected and @SocialMirrorApp on Twitter, or email email@example.com and ask to join the relevant email lists to keep updated with how this work progresses.
Matthew Taylor has recently written several blog posts about the need to reconsider care. His suggestion that secondary school pupils should be required to do 100 hours of caring as part of a compulsory work experience programme seems like a good one for lots of reasons.
Acquiring the skills of caring early in life can only be an advantage, and raising the profile and status of care are important likely benefits of such a scheme. In general I think working with young people in schools is a valid way to try to achieve cultural shifts across a generation.
Shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives?
But I also think that it can be an effective strategy for sidestepping our own responsibility to contribute in areas that we recognise as important, but might not want to engage with directly. For those of us who left school years ago and are busy working full time, developing our careers, or in Matthew Taylor’s case, running the RSA, the idea of doing a bit of hands-on care as well might seem unfeasible, not to mention unappealing.
If we are in broad agreement with Matthew’s arguments, shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives? It occurs to me that there might be scope for companies and organisations to set up schemes in which employees are encouraged to offer their time as voluntary carers during work hours.
There is at least one precedent in which a company has decided to donate employees’ time to charities. The housing association, First Ark Group, has recently made the decision to donate 500 days of staff time to volunteer in local good causes. In the Guardian’s report, published on Monday, First Ark explain that they see their responsibility to the community as extending beyond doing their ‘bread and butter’ work in the best way possible. Being a force for good and building genuine connections with the community are also key priorities and donating staff days is one way of making these things happen.
There is plenty of evidence to indicate that volunteering is good for us. It’s not just good for our communities and for the organisations, individuals and groups who receive voluntary help, it’s also good for the volunteer. In addition to the fact that volunteering brings the opportunity to learn new skills and build different kinds of relationships, it’s also good for our overall wellbeing. It has the feel good factor.
So, if an organisation were to introduce a caring scheme, what would it mean for the workplace? I suspect it would be likely to increase morale amongst staff, raise pride in the employer, develop a reputation for being a socially responsible organisation. If staff throughout organisations, from chief executives to managers to cleaners were all expected to participate, it would give the entire workforce a shared experience and sense of solidarity.
What about the likely costs? How could any company afford to donate staff time to offering care? What would the impact be on individuals’ time management and workload? According to First Ark, these problems are easily ironed out quickly, and all it takes is a bit of adjustment. Tot up the amount of time staff waste at the water cooler, and we already know that being present at work 100% of the time doesn’t amount to 100% productivity.
It will be interesting to see how First Ark’s scheme works out, and whether they continue with it beyond this year. It seems to me that if we really care about care, we should be prepared to demonstrate that by actually getting involved ourselves. The way working life is structured makes it a tall order to expect people to volunteer to care in their spare time, but I wonder how prepared we would be to do it if it became part of our working lives.
As Matthew Taylor noted in an earlier blog post “it is often said that the Fellowship has the potential to be the RSA’s greatest and most distinctive asset”. Two key questions for staff in the Fellowship department are:
1) How can we support Fellows and provide them with new opportunities to help further the RSA’s charitable objectives?
2) How can we recruit new Fellows who have the potential to help us deliver the RSA’s mission?
A large number of Fellows are willing to donate their time and expertise to help others with projects that aim to have a positive social impact, and many organisations that share similar goals to the RSA would welcome the opportunity to access this expertise. By partnering with these organisations the RSA can:
- Provide new engagement opportunities for Fellows
- Help further the charitable objectives of our partner organisations and so in turn further the charitable objectives of the RSA
- Raise our profile within new communities of individuals committed to positive social change, and recruit new Fellows from amongst these leaders and thinkers
- Contribute to the growing sense that the RSA Fellowship is made up of people with the inclination and the tools to intervene when solutions are needed.
Given the increasing value of partnerships I thought it would be useful to outline the RSA approach to collaborative working.
Selecting the right partner
Selecting the right partner is important and before moving forwards both organisations need to give some thought to the following questions:
- Can we create something we wouldn’t be able to create on our own?
- What do we want to gain from the partnership and how realistic is it that we will achieve our aim?
Honesty is the key to success. In most cases, it is useful to have a broad conversation at the initial exploratory meeting which covers what both organisations would like to achieve in an ideal world, and then work back from this to reach more realistic objectives.
Honesty is the key to success.
Getting it right at the beginning
Once both organisations have identified some potential areas for collaborative working, a number of steps should be taken before moving forwards. They are:
- Establish clarity of purpose – ensuring both organisations are clear on what the common purpose is as well as the shared objectives. It is easy to put in place very broad over-arching objectives; however these should be teased apart to be short, simple and specific.
- Establish roles and responsibilities – complex partnerships with different strands of work often have several people involved and so clarity of individual roles and responsibilities is important.
- Operational plan – put in place a plan which outlines what will be happening when, and who is responsible.
- Measures of success – ensuring that there is some system for measuring success against each objective.
- Review – agree an initial date to review the partnership to discuss progress against each objective.
- Memorandum of understanding – before commencing with the partnership a document outlining all of the above should be agreed – note this does not necessarily have to be a formal contract. This document is essential to ensuring the on-going success of the partnership and should form the basis of future review meetings.
Give and take
Partnerships tend to fall along a spectrum with more transactional partnerships at one end contrasting with much closer working relationships at the other. Partnerships are not static, and so there needs to be some flexibility regarding governance and processes. As a general rule, the more transactional the relationship the more you need strong governance (e.g. a contract for a reciprocal advertising arrangement across several forms of media), whereas more collaborative partnerships need to have greater flexibility built into the governance and processes.
Partnering with the RSA
If you would like to discuss partnering with the RSA please do get in touch.
For more guidance about partnerships and collaborative working, please do take a look at “Collaborative Leadership: How To Succeed in An Interconnected World” by David Archer FRSA and Alex Cameron. This publication is available from the RSA Library.
Adam Timmins is Deputy Head of Fellowship Partnerships at the RSA, you can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org or @Im_AdamT. For more images please visit http://www.flickr.com/groups/rsa/
I was struck by just how powerful the work of a few individuals can be to create and sustain an idea following a meeting recently with Ian Jamie, a Fellow and School Governor at Whitley Academy. Through personal experience and insight of the local situation he has begun to work with the Academy to help support Year 12 students as they begin to consider their next steps. Having experienced the power of support from a network of alumni and family friends as he developed his career he has seen the value of connectivity. Ian and the staff that are working with the 6th form are keen to take the best from their experiences to offer similar opportunities for 6th form students at Whitley Academy.
As students move into 6th forms, colleges and work the need to focus their minds is increasingly encouraged. Choices and decisions are looming and it is school, families and friends that offer support and advice. Recent work from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted that young people and families rarely suffer from a lack of aspirations but what if students families and friends have limited experiences of the wide career options available?
At Whitley Academy Ian Jamie and the Academy staff will be offering further support to Year 12 students. He has worked with the school to create a programme to help students explore where they want to go after Whitley Academy. As Temi Ogunye notes in his blog about school networks it is important to “provide opportunities for [students] by creating the conditions within which useful connections can be made and enriching experiences can be had.”
This is the overarching aim for the work in Coventry. The Academy has identified career connections for all its Year 12 students. Through personal and community networks the staff and governors have begun to draw up a list of supporters to offer advice, encouragement and links with the world of work.
On Thursday 21st of March they will be taking the next step by hosting a targeted careers session for the 6th form to help foster these connections. Ian is hoping to encourage further support from another powerful network that we all know about. I have been tasked with seeking out a number of Fellows from our 27,000 strong network to offer support and time to students, so if you see email@example.com or @pickfordrich in your inbox you know what might be coming next. If you have any of your own ideas for supporting students across the RSA Academies then please contact me. The RSA will be running open roadshows at each of the sponsored schools across the next two terms. The first was held yesterday on Monday, 4th of February at RSA Arrow Vale and Ipsley Academies. Watch this space for a report about this event.
A popular brand of cereal was once accompanied by the slogan “central heating for kids”. In the television advertisements (which have become something of a classic) children leave the house with an uncanny red glow, the visual token of the benefits of a good breakfast.
It seems 70s ad executives knew more than they thought. There’s a persuasive body of research that suggests eating a healthy breakfast in the morning has a range of positive effects on a child’s ability to learn. Many schools have started to offer breakfast clubs, both in reaction to this evidence and in order to boost attendance.
RSA Fellow Laura Billings cites this evidence in the introduction to her short report Beyond Breakfast, which describes a project she’s undertaken in Willesden, North London with funding from the RSA’s Catalyst seed fund. She worked in partnership with charity Magic Breakfast, who provide free breakfasts to over 200 primary schools across the country (their generous support enabled Laura to work on the project).
Laura aimed to investigate whether a school breakfast club could create opportunities for learning in the wider community, as well as helping children get through the school day. As she puts it: “’fuel for learning’ [Magic Breakfast’s slogan] could be argued to include not only a nutritional breakfast, but also quality schooling, parental involvement and community social capital. And this involves us all”.
You can see Laura describe the project in the video above, but her idea at its simplest is to use the breakfast club as an excuse to ask parents a question: what would you like to learn? Drawing on the work of American academic Dr. Jerry Stein and his Learning Dreams project, Laura and Michelle (a teacher at the school) tried to connect parents who wanted to learn something with people in the local community who could teach them.
The first parent they met, for example, was Ngenarr, who said she wanted to dance. Laura and Michelle helped to find a local teacher who could teach a class at the school, and other parents at the school helped to organise and promote the sessions. As this suggests, where the project becomes really interesting is in its potential to create links between members of the community.
The relationship between a school, a child and their parent is necessarily focussed on certain kinds of activity, mostly related to formal education. Laura’s aim was to show that there are opportunities to create connections between parents and other members of the community that can support a different kind of learning, accessible to parents as well as children. What’s more, she hoped that this could point to a more sustainable model for breakfast clubs, as a collaborative undertaking between a school and its community.
In her clear-eyed evaluation of the project’s impact (which is concise and worth reading in full) Laura acknowledges that making connections isn’t an easy thing to do: building relationships of trust requires time and patience, and isn’t easily done in the confines of a busy school day. Laura’s suggestion is that creating a new kind of common space is the next step, with activities determined by the local community – with healthy breakfasts as a way to welcome people in and create a warm atmosphere.
This echoes the findings of the RSA’s Connected Communities work in New Cross Gate, where surveys and interviews indicated the importance of local community hubs – pubs, cafes and community centres – in sustaining local social networks, and providing opportunities for interaction between people who would otherwise not meet.
Of course, a ‘hub’ is only as useful as the people use it, and creating a physical space – no matter how well intentioned – is no panacea. However, what Laura’s project shows is that the idea of something universal and easily grasped, like the need for a decent breakfast, can start a chain of helpful social connections.
She admits she didn’t see the project ending up that way, which is perhaps the thing I like best about it. Beyond Breakfast began with the problem of a hungry belly and ended with something else entirely: the idea that learning can spread through a community like water through pipes. Perhaps the ad men weren’t so far off the mark, and even a little modest: a good breakfast can be central heating for all of us.
Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.
I recently joined the RSA Connected Communities team working on the Social Mirror app. Social Mirror is a smartphone/tablet app that allows users to measure, visualise, and change their social connections, with the potential to strengthen communities while improving a person’s own health and well-being.
As a graduate student studying Digital Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, I’m excited to put what I’ve been studying at the intersection of sociology and digital innovation into practice.
Social Mirror is a project that RSA Connected Communities is working on in collaboration with Nathan Matias at MIT Center for Civic Media. I’m really excited to be working with this team, and think that Social Mirror is a great tool to elaborate on the work that Connected Communities is doing. Connected Communities understands the importance of a person’s social network and the impact this has on their personal life. Understanding this connection is one step. Social Mirror is the next.
With Social Mirror, people will be able to map out their own real-life social networks (so don’t think Facebook) and understand how their social connections affect their lives. Simply by visualising one’s social network, people begin to make choices to improve their social networks. Sometimes it’s hard to see the connection between the friends you have and your ability (or not) to find a job. Social Mirror will allow people to map their real-life social networks to help them recognise the connection between their communities and their individual health and well-being. When people visualise and interact with their social networks, they are more likely to understand how this affects their personal lives and start to make choices that will improve their social network. As Nathan puts it, it is essentially a tool for conducting a social checkup.
Helping the elderly and isolated
An area that we want to focus on while developing Social Mirror is how the app can be used to help the elderly and isolated within a community. Over the summer we will be working in the New Cross Gate area and beyond to develop this app in a way that will specifically benefit the elderly. One way to do this might be to work with health practitioners to develop a diagnostic tool. Health practitioners would be able to use Social Mirror to understand the patient’s social network and the implications for the patient’s health. The app will also be able to prompt suggestions for improving the patient’s social network to improve overall health and wellbeing.
One interesting example of apps that help the elderly is Care Innovations Connect. This is an app developed by Intell and GE. It is intended to help seniors living on their own to facilitate communication between them and their caregiver. It also has a social networking aspect, provides games to maintain mental fitness, news and information about the local community, and sends alerts when medication needs to be taken. Do you know of any other apps that have been developed to help the elderly?
The Guardian and the LSE have just published findings from their research on the riots. This is really really worth a read and a watch. However, anyone with any experience of youth work with marginalised young people will not be at all surprised. This is a bit of a reflection of some of my own work and a call for better ideas!
A digested read, digested, of the topline tells us that “Widespread anger and frustration at the way police engage with communities was a significant cause of the summer riots” with deep-rooted “distrust and antipathy toward police”. A feeling of injustice and alienation pervaded the various reasons cited for the riots- from lack of jobs and opportunity; to scrapping the EMA; to how they felt they were treated compared with others.
It was acknowledged that the form the riots took (e.g. looting) was essentially due to opportunism given a “perceived suspension of normal rules”- people felt this was an unusual chance to get away with it. Social networking sites were seen as mere corollaries to the main facts – although Blackberry messenger was seen as being crucial – and it was found that far from being centered around gangs, the riots were actually a reflection of an unprecedented ‘truce’ which allowed people to cross postcode lines.
“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
This all took me back into work I conducted in Camden on young people’s social networks with the fantastic charity PanArts. The social world inhabited by the young people in the Synergy project – which aimed to unite young people divided by endz gangfare- was typical of this. If they wanted young people from, say, NW5 to go to a youth centre in NW3, they needed a mini-bus.
The young men that took part in the arts projects were incredibly affectionate between themselves – playing with each other’s hair and clothing – but untrusting of others: “they do have to look over their shoulders all the time” (PanArts worker, 2010). They were never still, always on the look-out for danger, and always in friction with the police.
This friction might be expressed in police de-facto stopping youth club meetings by imposing a curfew on the area, or the anger-inducing story of a young man who left all his friends and networks behind to go on to bigger things, yet found that once he had left Camden to learn new skills, Camden could not leave him. Whilst in the centre of London attending a prestigious arts training course he was stopped and searched by police who informed his new friends who knew nothing of his background that he was a ‘repeat offender’ who they should not be spending time with.
Youth culture has historically always been about forming identities… Gangs are not the problem
As expressed by PanArts in an interview with me at the time:
“ A lot of the kids we work with don’t have that belief that society is working ultimately for their good, so those micro-systems [of trust] are what they latch onto, well possibly because it is all they have got… and because they like being able to trust people… and tell their secrets and have fun”
Human beings need identities, and when they are shut out from mainstream society, they form their own. Youth culture has historically always been about forming identities: our identity is what we barter our social capital on. Social capital is not always ‘positive’, it merely describes human interactions. A sense of community is not solely about geographical proximity, it is about who we recognise as ‘like us’.
Gangs are not the problem. What is worrying is marginalised groups who feel they are not part of mainstream society, who feel that they are treated different to everyone else, handed a rawer deal than everyone else, who experience suicidal levels of disinterest in what happens to them as they feel they have nothing to lose. Anger at police, is essentially anger at how representatives of the state interact with you. Researchers for the LSE/Guardian reported being repeatedly asked “This is nothing to do with the government right, this is nothing to do with the police, right?
We are seeing the formation of “some neighbourhoods that are effectively somewhere else from the rest of society”, and we can all see the cracks in the perfect offering of a supposedly meritocratic ‘open-opportunity’ society. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
We’re looking for ways that technology – particularly the web – can play in helping young people: whether it’s helping them access advice and information, seek support from others, or connecting them to hidden job and training opportunities
I would love to see what would happen if we were to run a service re-design project with young people affected by the riots or gang violence. Co-production has been used to great effect in many arena: what happens if you ask people “Right, this is our budget, these are all the people we need to provide for: how would you do youth services? How would you ensure something of a fairer deal?”
Or maybe you have a far better idea: the RSA has just launched a interactivism challenge with Google “ asking people of all backgrounds – software developers, young people, professional practitioners, teachers and policymakers of all levels – to put forward innovative ideas for how the internet and technology could support young people.” What can you build?
We have heard the bells, and we have seen the cracks. Is it maybe time to let the light in?
RSA Connected Communities has started a new project with Nathan of the MIT Center for Civic Media to create a new, cost-effective way to measure the social impact of public services and civic interventions and to allow people to see their own personal networks. We’re designing a mobile and tablet app for recording real-life social networks: your friends, families and contacts. The open source software we build will also be useful to journalists, ethnographers and anyone trying to make sense of rapidly changing social phenomena. Here I illustrate how we are currently recording this data, and why I think it is important that we change the way that we do it.
What is data?
Data is a rushed researcher putting together a survey to capture the full extent of a human life on paper. The scales are based on someone else’s testing. The newly combined scales are then re-tested on new people. Any newly invented questions can change as a result of piloting; the old questions – based on someone else’s testing – must remain constant. These newly tested combined scales – with the odd bit of cut and paste – are then recalibrated and re-launched.
A community researcher goes door to door. “Hello! My name is… “ Door shuts. “Hi! I’m… Some version of a person’s social network and social world is transferred from local person, to community researcher’s ear, to RSA paper survey. Interesting anecdotes and unusual answers are scribbled in the margins, for few paper-based-surveys have the space to fully annotate human complexity.
Back at the RSA HQ a data entry scribe enters these reams upon reams of human data. Comment boxes are full of the annotated scribbles, although some anecdotes are lost to time, bad weather and even worse handwriting. Data entry becomes data book; data book becomes social network; social network might become a Guardian Society supplement.
We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them.
And so what? Your social network, your human network, is a map of you. And maps need to be used in the now, not in a year’s time when the roads have changed and bridges have been broken. The social app I am working on with Nathan from the MIT Center for Civic Media might allow us to do just that. It will be a means of researching somebody’s human networks and then playing it back to them, in real time.
Here in the RSA Connected Communities team – when not dealing with 4000 peoples’ worth of social networks and wellbeing, community health networks and the innovation networks of various councils – we are trying to help social network analysis become a real life tool. For this to happen it needs to make sense to people.
We already know that people with more diverse networks are healthier and happier. Our human networks help us to find work, with those with more diverse networks tending to have higher status and better paid jobs. We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them. Poor networks are a real form of poverty: lack of mainstream social capital slows you down and closes off options.
You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers
Through visualisation work to make network outputs more intelligible and the creation of network toolkits that hopefully make the subject more intuitive to people, we are trying to open up social network knowledge so it can be part of every individual’s personal toolkit. I really hope that the tool we are working on with Nathan will be a big part of this.
It will allow researcher and researched to really co-produce.You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers. It will make the data better and it will do what the data protection act tried but failed to do: it will make you own your own data, because you can see, feel and change it.
This might become a way for people to check in on their own social networks every once in a while, or a tool that might measure your isolation and suggest a local reading group or walking club. I can imagine GPs using this kind of tool to help them socially prescribe local activities. Any organisation which acts with social networks – such as the NGO Tostan- could use this as a low-cost way of measuring the impact of their interventions.
Organisations which rely on interviewing broad sections of people to understand new social phenomena – such as Human Rights Watch or any news organisation worth its salt – could use the tool as a prompt in interviews, a means of recording data and a way on ensuring that they have actually managed to ask a diverse group of people and not just people who float in similar circles.
So over to you. These social networks are your human networks. And these human networks delimit that which is possible in your life. What does this tool need to do, if it is to be of real use?