Is a Social App Store just Toolkits 2.0?

AppstoreI was inspired to write by the latest issue of Third Sector magazine this week. Not a sentence I've written too often, perhaps, (tend to rely on it for news, rather than inspiration…) but there were three thought-provoking pieces in the current issue.

The first was what is probably the best interview I've read with Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, on the Conservative approach to the sector. There are some good challenges  here for naysayers and cut-watchers alike, and a good summary 'progress report'.

The second was by John Kingston of Venturesome asking "How can we increase supply of capital to the third sector?' I'll cover that in a forthcoming post on Big Society Bank / social investment

And the third was a great challenge from Craig Dearden-Phillips to move away from just complaining politely about cuts (and doing so ever more loudly) and to think radically about how to react, survive, thrive and reconfigure in the current context. To be constructive about the Big Society agenda.


To that end, I've been reading up on one initiative bubbling away in the affiliations of the Big Society Network: the concept of a Social App Store. David Wilcox, arch social reporter, suggested this as an idea and it has begun to be shaped and formed online by the contributions of others. His outline of it is here, and you can read the subsequent discussions here. The concept is summarised as follows:

It will aim to offer online users simple navigation to easy-to-use
content and tools for social action – some free, some paid-for. It will
offer developers of how-to materials for social action the opportunity
to showcase their existing work, and work with others to develop new
offerings. By creating a substantial market place it will provide
developers with an incentive to develop or re-purpose materials in
formats easy to use by those new to social action.

In principle, I like a lot about this: making ideas accessible, thinking radically about how we can scale up their take-up, a commitment to openness, the potential largeness of reach, democratising design / co-production, utilising new tech to connect, providing a real product (or even 'shopfront') to what big society is and means, financial transaction / trading element and so on. Much to build on and work with here.

My constructive questions or concerns are: is the language alienating (does it smack of metropolitan smart-phone-owning tech-savvy people etc)? Others, including David, have noted this already though, and suggested alternatives. More substantively, it is the communicated sense that this type of social action can be 'downloaded and installed' (to borrow the terminology) so simply. Implementation of such work is not one-click and instant, but, often, achieved with hard slog and determination over the long haul. And it is often challenging and difficult and messy. Where I can get up and running with an app or MySociety website cleanly and instantly, other social projects and tools need support, capacity, confidence and persistence to put into action.

The associated risk, therefore, is that this is just toolkits 2.0: everyone in this sector knows there is a toolkit or a resource for everything from community planning to social impact measurement, and also that creating the content after the project (because you wrote it in the bid) is often the easy bit. An online store of these won't change that. (see Richard's recent post on SE Toolbelt for a similar take). Materials, by definition, are only the substances out of which things are made.

So my suggestion is to think and proffer questions about what offline support might look like: who the store workers or shop assistants might be, and where they might be located. Are they voluntary, app-ointees, connected to existing local networks? Are they located in actual stores (as David Barrie suggests in his response in the group discussion)? Where are the learning loops or support networks for those 'downloading' from the store, and what might those look like? Or is there a phone hotline to talk through problems? (the equivalent of e-mailing the app developer?) Will there be any quality control or measurement of success (app-raisals?), or is it genuinely radical in its devolving of trust and, possibly, resource?

Much to ponder, but also much to build.

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5 thoughts on “Is a Social App Store just Toolkits 2.0?

  1. Thanks Nick for picking up on the idea of the social app store. As I and others have said in discussion – and I’m particularly indebted to Anne McCrossan for her thoughts – it is as much a metaphor as a practical proposition. It started with: if Big Society is substantially DIY, where is the DIY store? Yes there are lots of toolkits, but are they easy to use, and do they fit together?
    Then – how might we create a place where stuff is user-centric in design, easy to access, partly free, partly paid-for, and refreshed because there is a market. What does that call to mind… mobile phone apps.
    The value of a retail metaphor is that everyone has experience of shopping and trading, and you can talk about ambience, ownership, roles, online, offline … as you have shown in exploring the idea.
    Which bring us to the point – how on the one hand do you assemble useful stuff, while also avoiding just another shelf of manual/toolkits no-one uses?
    It’s an issue that has exercised knowledge management professionals for many years, and is at the heart of work, for example, on the local government knowledge hub, reported here by Dave Briggs
    I think that on the one hand it is important to write things down and where possible turn practice into useful tools (apps), while on the other hand recognising that the most useful stuff comes from anecdote and conversation … so we need lots of opportunities to talk to each other.
    One way to combine the two is by workshops that provide some simple props to promote conversations around methods, and we have done that with the Social by Social game
    The next step is to link the cards in the game to an evolving app store … so you play the game, have lots of conversations about what you want to do, come up with a set of cards, then go to the store. Or it may be that the conversations are enough.
    We could use another metaphor, and cooking is a good one. Who is the meal for? Big-do or intimate? How much preparation … what ingredients, utensils? The recipe is the social app.
    So, to put things around a different way, what are good recipes for Big Society cooking? Plenty out there, but should we try and bring them together? And would anyone use them? Etc.
    As you suggest in talking about support networks, what’s important is how you learn to cook, and who can help.

  2. Thanks David. As you say, offline conversations and exchanges and learning is crucial. And also support in using the tools, in implementing the methods. Not only is it about “what is the right thing at the moment?” or “what meets our needs right now?” or ” what might solve this problem?” but also how do you go about it, who is best placed, who will lead it, how we will involve people and so on.
    To revert to your other metaphor, it’s the big hearty meal and the nutrition for all that excites me!

  3. Nice post, Nick.
    I’m with David on this, but then we’re working together on it, so why wouldn’t I be?
    I hope the “app store” name is not off-putting, I think, as well as trying to convey the “tool-kit” idea, it’s also about expressing a modern approach, what we are starting to call 21st Century community organising.
    I believe the “apps” analogy is apposite because the “store” is about providing some short cuts. Just as phone apps short circuit the process of fiddling around with your phone to find a function via a web browser or otherwise, the Social App Store is about easily being able to find a nugget of best practice which is both straightforward to locate, and will set you off on the front foot because it has been tested elsewhere.
    Whether we call them apps or tool-kits, no one should be any illusion that they will do the job for you. We are all capable of buying a paintbrush from a DIY store, but its unlikely many of us will paint the Sistine chapel with it.

  4. From Ben Lee, Director, National Association for Neighbourhood Management
    Nick, David, John
    All very good discussion which takes us forward. I like the ‘App’ metaphor – it’s current (even though I don’t own an iPhone), and allows for simple to complex applications.
    First why I’m excited by Apps over Toolkits – I’ve also produced more toolkits than I care to admit, and I’m sure many are out there gathering dust. But no wonder Toolkit-world was dull (and in many cases wasted precious cash) when there were hardly any feedback mechanisms about how often they’re used? The Social App Store (in whatever guise) means the demand for each app will be visible – and this simple dynamic has been wholly missing in Toolkit-world.
    Second – I’m starting to worry along the lines of Nick’s original point that App ideas might come in too big and too complicated. The ideas I’m trying to come up with (like the Easy-Waiver ) are really simple in concept, and in delivery – although they can respond to as comlicated problems as you want…
    Happy to continue this discussion online or off!

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post Nick. Realising the promise of bringing an idea as ambitious and potentially productive as The Big Society to life is no small challenge, and it seems to me the way we navigate our way through that challenge is a fairly crucial aspect of it.
    You’ve touched on that very well with your commentary about offline and online spaces and how they integrate and I agree there’s a synthesis to enable there.
    There’s a lot we can lift from the principles of wayfinding and navigating through complex information within the store metaphor that can help here, as a sense-making process as well as to assist how the Big Society can lay out its stall to encourage people to participate and get more involved. I’m with John Popham re his thought above in that, when you add that to community organising, and not just passive consumption, we could have an exciting time on our hands if we play our cards right.