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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