Points of View 28th July 2017

In the hot seat: Tom Youll of Shelter Scotland talks through building and inspiring digital communities

by Paul Bradley

Having returned from the Open Government Partnership in Washington – where CSOs and governments were promoting their use of tech to progress open government commitments – Shelter Scotland’s recent one day event aimed at bringing charities and the tech community together felt particularly relevant to the OpenGov Network.

Tom Youll, one of the event hosts, has worked with Shelter Scotland for over ten years, and is now Writer in their Digital Team. Having only recently joined the network, I met with Tom to talk about the need for improving the way in which we all approach digital in Scotland today, and the necessity for a digital civil society to complement a digital government.

Picture of activity at Shelter Scotland's inspiring digital communities

There looked to be a real buzz around the building digital communities event – how did it go? 

The event went really well and beyond expectations; we were blown away by the energy and ideas in the room. I think when it comes to any event/idea, you are never that sure people will be on the same page as you. But we needn’t have worried, from the start of the day to the end it was none stop ideas and positive chat. 

Overall, the main takeaway was that there is a demand for cross sector knowledge and learning, and that we are all willing to work collaboratively towards a common goal.

What sparked your interest in hosting #techincharity? 

I was part of the team that delivered the Shelter Scotland Product Forge hackathon last summer over at CodeBASE. It was all about finding digital solutions for housing issues. The hive of activity around me and the end product – an ‘I Need Help’ button to signpost people using our website – was enough to spark us off and see the need for something broader like this.

What did you want to get out of the event? 

We’re always coming across problems that we know aren’t insurmountable but for whatever reason, we don’t have the means within our organisations or alone to solve. The charity and tech community can create amazing digital solutions if they worked together. That’s what we wanted to bring people into, to create a space where ideas were the main purpose of the day. We don’t have the answers to any of this, we just wanted to start a conversation. 

Why does digital matter to the third sector? 

We live in a connected world, and if charities don’t innovate and find new ways of working, then they’ll find it harder to stay relevant – it’s the same for government. From the open government angle, it’s vital that civil society leads the way in using digital tools to be a little more creative, flexible and open in how we operate with different groups. Its leadership in a real doing sense.

What’s stopping us? 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s great digital projects, support and services right across the sector. But I think that, sometimes, we feel there is a need to do something brand new and innovative – something that’s expensive and a lot of hard work. To me, innovation can be as simple as using a tool like Trello or Slack to improve exchanging knowledge and ideas. And what’s great is they’re both free!

What’s the overlap between building digital communities and advancing open government? 

This is a tough question to answer in a few words, but I’ll give it a go and hopefully not come across trite and/or simplistic. I think it comes down to something about data literacy and digital literacy. 

Currently the open government agenda is led by discussions about open data and by groups of open data advocates. While open data is ‘open’ in that it has been made available to the public, the formats are often not readily understandable, so there is some technical knowledge needed. Linking the third sector and tech communities could help advance the open government agenda because it could allow third sector to get closer to ‘how’ to access open data, analyse it and mash it up and use it to help forward the needs of their client group.

What had you thinking the most? 

One part of the workshop (ran by Andy Young) – We posed the question what can you do to stop a community working together? And I liked the way that it got all the positive energy in the room to focus on a negative action. We then spun this round 180’ and asked how would you overcome these barriers?

What can you do to stop a community working together? 

No management buy-in, no resources that are focused on solving the problem, having a head in the sand mentality, thinking you know best.

We’re trying to build a community ourselves. What advice would you give members of OpenGovScot? 

Alex from Creative Mornings (one of the speakers on the day) suggested that when you’ve been looking at something for a long time then you should have a ‘holiday’ from it! It’s good to take a break from a network or forum and come back in a week having thought about how you can contribute. Then, put ideas out there and see where it gets you – it’s the only way sometimes. And I can only agree with this approach. 

It feels like this is only the start of a conversation. How can OpenGovScot members get involved? 

There are a few ways people can be part of the conversation, one is by joining to our Slack team, and the other is following #techincharity on twitter. But the most important thing that people can do is talk, network and get in touch –[email protected].

Thanks to Tom for speaking to Scotland’s Open Government Network. You too can become a member and contribute simply by clicking here — we’d love to see you join in the discussions on our forum! You can also reach me anytime at [email protected]

Cheers for reading!