Reflecting on the first Community Tech Fellowship

A short rundown of what the pilot was meant to achieve, what we did, and what we learnt

This programme was funded by Co-op Foundation, in partnership with Luminate

A screengrab of the nine fellows and three facilitators, trying and failing to pose for a proper photograph

What we wanted to achieve

The aim of the programme was to see if we could inspire a group of dynamic community leaders in Greater Manchester to actively engage with the ways technology is changing society.

Why?

The active role that communities play in using, shaping, and tidying up after technology is often underestimated. But — as the pandemic has shown — the wisdom and generosity of neighbourhoods and informal networks, committed campaigners and established charities is still a vital source of innovation in a healthy society. Yet people from those communities are often only invited to discussions about “R&D” or “innovation” when they are being called upon to modernise or become more efficient. And that feels like a missed opportunity.

We didn’t want to interrogate digital capacity or build digital skills, as there are plenty of other programmes doing that. The purpose of this project was to find out what would, or could, change when a group of leaders was immersed in some of the most urgent issues for technology and social justice and introduced to some inspiring thinkers and practitioners.

What we did

In August 2020, we put out a call to find “eight of the most rooted, dynamic, determined community leaders in Greater Manchester” to join the pilot programme and help us to shape the programme. Each fellow would be asked to attend a series of monthly workshops, and commit to some time outside of the sessions for reading and group work; in return, they would receive a small stipend to cover their time. Due to the pandemic, all sessions were programmed remotely.

This call attracted more than sixty brilliant applicants. Thanks to the flexibility and understanding of Sam at the Co-op Foundation we were able to reallocate the budget and slightly redesign the format of the programme to offer places to nine fellows: Reina Yaidoo, Jackie McNeish, Paul Fairweather, Terry Manyeh, Lisa Lingard, Vimla Appadoo, Tom Togher, and Alice Toomer-McAlpine. Cassie introduced the Fellows in this post from September 2020.

After a really quick turnaround, the course ran from September 2020 to January 2021. Sessions were monthly, and each one lasted a full morning.

The itinerary for the sessions was roughly: group check in and discussion, followed by one or two external speakers, a group discussion on the topics, then a scanning and sensing discussion to reflect on whether the themes from the previous session had changed the way the Fellows viewed the world around them. All the talks and videos are available on the Community Tech Fellows website. I’ll briefly step through the arc of the programme here, but there’s a fuller rundown in this post, in case you want to recreate it at home :-)

Throughout the programme, we were really pleased to welcome a range of really fantastic expert speakers as well as group discussions and reflections. We began with a reflection on technology and power and moved on to the importance of stories and narrative to mobilise people. We then looked at why design and data justice are vital for a healthy, equitable society, the design of social infrastructure, and then dived more deeply into what makes a healthy online space. Alongside the discussions and sense-making, there were one-on-one chats and masterclasses on writing blog posts and mapping influence.

In our last session the Fellows worked in small groups to present back some of the thoughts and ideas the fellowship had sparked in them.

Reina, Debbie and Paul presented a proposal to use libraries to help LGBTQIIA+ refugees become more confident in the ways data about them is used and captured ahead of the 2021 Census, so their needs can be better understood when services are created and reviewed. They also spoke about the long-term importance of working closely with communities to make sure forms and other kinds of data capture are accessible and build trust-based relationships.

Lisa, Vimla and Tom talked about the need for more open and accessible data around energy use: if this was usable by local advice agencies, it would help people experiencing fuel poverty get access to better and more fairly priced services, and it could empower everyone to call for better and more systematic energy efficiencies from government and businesses.

Alice, Terry and Jackie made the case for more inclusive data about domestic violence. Afro-Caribbean women are over-represented in ONS domestic violence data, but the information is not granular enough to inform the provision of better services to support those women, or to create useful storytelling to strengthen community action and create more effective routes for women who experience abuse to find safety.

What we learnt

We learnt that there is both an appetite and a need for community leaders to engage with the ways technology is changing society. In the UK tech ethics debate, the concept of the “digital society” can be over-generalised, and the layers of specialist knowledge that are needed can make it difficult to apply theory to practice. The Fellows translated big, broad themes about data, power and inequality into the context of their own specialisms incredibly quickly, and pinpointed specific areas of need — both for their own communities and for Greater Manchester.

Cassie, Iona and I learnt a lot about the design of the course. This was neither an academic course, nor a formal piece of professional development; it was more like an immersion, and we’re very thankful for the patience and good cheer of the Fellows, who helped us to work it out as we went along. For future iterations, we learnt that we need to leave more space for reflection and group work, and be clearer on learning outcomes.

What’s next

Some of the Fellows have already started organising a follow-on project, with a greater reach across the voluntary and community sector in Greater Manchester. And after some evaluation work, I have been exploring what needs to be in place to turn the pilot into a more robust and repeatable programme.

And finally, turning around a pilot like this in a pandemic was a learning experience all of its own. It was wonderful to share this time together, even over Zoom, but none of us can wait for the opportunity to get together in real life.

Thank you to all of the Fellows, and to Sam Freston at the Co-op Foundation for all of his support as we delivered the pilot.

Luminate and Coop Foundation logos

The Co-op Foundation is the Co-op’s charity. It helps people challenge inequality and co-operate for change so they can share a fairer future. By funding work in partnership with Luminate, the Foundation’s aim is to provide a backbone for collaboration and a forum for shared learning and educational opportunities, to contribute to a more inclusive digital economy for Manchester and the North West of England.

Feminist. Responsible technologist. Reading and writing on equality, automation and climate crisis. On sabbatical-ish. Formerly @doteveryone .