This blog was originally posted by the Mint Magazine on 30th June, 2021.
The UK social sector economy comprises the myriad charities, social enterprises, cooperatives and grassroots organisations working hard to make the world a better place.
There is huge breadth and depth to the activities of the people operating within the social sector. The people reviving peri-urban farming to build market garden cities. Those championing sustainable, community owned energy. The ecosystem of community and cooperatively run pubs, shops and cafes. The successful community-supported farms, and the growing movement of cooperatives providing health and social care. The community land trusts providing much more than housing, and the development trusts running vital community buildings.
It is a small but crucial part of the economy. And like all other parts of the economy, it needs data.
The UK government sees data as a key strategic priority, but there is very little in either the National Data Strategy or the Geospatial Data Strategy about the social sector as a generator and user of data. The strategies talk about social value being generated by providing better services to customers. But they are silent on the way the social economy could harness data gathering, creation and use to innovate for its customers.
What is needed is infrastructure for the social sector, tailored to its needs?
Many social sector organisations – often small, and under-resourced – are unable either to access data fully or to gather data efficiently. What is needed is infrastructure for the social sector, tailored to its needs, so that its people can access or gather the data they need, at a price they can afford, without needing specialist skills or software.
Much of the information needed to start a social project is often already out there, whether in the form of government data, or in the many state of the sector reports on different parts of the social sector. Many organisations could have filled in five or more surveys a year for other people, only to find that they need to commission one of their own to fill in the gaps, or to get the data in a form they can manipulate and analyse.
Shared Assets is an organisation with a mission to reimagine what we can do with land, together. It works with people managing land for the common good, and in 2016 realised that many of them shared a common problem: lack of access to good information on land. Shared Assets created a mapping platform, Land explorer, which brings together key information about land with the ability to draw, measure and collaborate.
Meanwhile our friends at promoter of social justice and sustainability, the Solidarity Economy Association (SEA), have created a methodology for mapping the social and solidarity economy in a local area, using linked, open-data alongside face-to-face community building. However the huge potential for this to grow could draw resources away from SEA’s core focus.
So Shared Assets saw synergies in combining SEA’s linked, open-data commons back end, with Land Explorer’s user-friendly, map-based front end. In essence, both softwares are trying to do the same thing in seeking to make something usually not seen – whether that’s information on land or the solidarity economy networks in your local area – more intelligible and visible to people working for social justice.
So the two organisations have combined forces to create a new cooperative community benefit society, Digital Commons, with a mission to use GIS, mapping, linked data and other tools to support the growth of the solidarity economy and the social sector.
We want to see a world where data is recognised as a common good.
Together, we want to see a world where data is recognised as a common good and where the solidarity economy is empowered and enabled to collect, use and share data in ways that contribute to the social sector.
Mapping and visualisation of data should be freely available to people working for social change but it remains the preserve of people with abundant financial resources or specific technical tools. In trying to develop Land Explorer, we applied for every digital-related grant going, and were consistently knocked back. We always got good feedback on the idea, but for charitable funders our emphasis on providing infrastructure rather than direct services meant we often viewed as not “front line” enough. For more commercial funders – including the government backed ones – the fact that we didn’t want to take equity, scale and exit, ruled us out.
So with Digital Commons, we’re taking a different approach, working to build a platform cooperative that will be owned by its users, workers, investors, and data providers.
We’ll be launching a crowdfunding campaign to generate some working capital in the near future, and have big plans to become a custodian of self-generated data for the sector. This is a small step on a much longer journey but imagine how many research surveys would be unnecessary if social good organisations could own, update and share easily cross-referenceable information about their activities.