In a new report ‘Untangling Twine: lessons from a funder developing digital tools’, Power to Change team reflect on the process, pitfalls and successes of developing tech products.
After six years of development, Power to Change is handing over its three TWINE digital products to the Institute of Community Studies and Digital Commons Cooperative.
In this blog, the three organisations reflect on the importance of digital tools for the social change sector
Why hand over TWINE?
In 2016, Power to Change’s Research Institute team started developing a digital product that could help their grantees and other community businesses measure exactly how they are making places better. They called it TWINE, based on the idea that these community businesses are deeply entwined in places, and that different data sets twined together can reveal new patterns and insight.
TWINE evolved into three distinct digital products, shaped by the needs of community businesses, and Power to Change’s need for aggregated data. The first two apps – TWINE Volunteer to track volunteer hours and TWINE Visitor, to record visitor attendance – have accompanying dashboards to provide strategic insight. A third app, TWINE Benchmark, was created to help businesses compare their financial health to similar organisations.
“By handing these tools over, the code we created becomes available to the third sector. We’ve done the heavy lifting and investment developing these tools for other people to then remix and repurpose and reuse them,” explains Stephen Miller, Director of Impact and Learning at Power to Change. “We learnt a lot along the way – such as how to keep our board engaged and how to develop using an agile approach- and we’ve shared that in this new report.”
The need for data democracy
“TWINE was created partly because big tech platforms and off the shelf products are about scalability and replication which doesn’t fit with small organisations like community businesses,” reflects Fergus, Digital Innovation Manager at Power to Change. “They’re driven by their values such as owning their data, having the code available in the commons, respecting the integrity of users by not collecting non-essential information, and keeping tools free or as low-cost as possible. They need solutions that respect the plurality of their services, values and mission.”
Kate Swade, Director of Digital Commons Cooperative who are taking ownership of the Twine Volunteer and Twine Visitor apps, agrees “We believe that data is a common good, but there’s a real disparity in the world. People with money and power have access to data and the tools to analyse that data in ways that help them get more money and power. And people without a lot of money or resources or power often either can’t access the data, don’t know that it exists, or when they can access it, it’s in quite a technical or a specialist format.”
Digital Commons was set up as a collaboration between Shared Assets and the Solidarity Economy Association. It’s brought together two mapping and data sharing platforms – Land Explorer and Myko-maps – that have been developed to support community organisations to make better, long-term decisions.
“When the opportunity to take on TWINE came along, it felt like it sat really nicely with both what we were currently doing and what we want to do. We’re really curious about the interoperability of this suite of tools, so we’re super excited to have these two TWINE products.”
Digital Commons Coop have launched a crowdfunder to help them develop a wider community share offer next year.
“With more funding, we want to integrate the apps we’re custodians of. For example, add a mapping function into TWINE. We want to do a whole bunch of focus groups over the next six to nine months with current users to think about where else could the current functionality of TWINE be useful.”
Data dashboards for community insight
TWINE Benchmark is also being developed in different ways. Firstly, the Plunkett Foundation is adding datasets from their annual Better Business reports so that the dashboard has richer data for their community pub and community shop members. And secondly, the Institute for Community Studies is taking ownership of the tool to help communities understand how a community business can work in their area.
“What the Institute is trying to do is understand what’s working in communities.” says Richard Harries, Director of the Institute for Community Studies. “When you get down to the neighbourhood level, to the hyperlocal level, it’s very contextual. It depends on the history of the place, and it depends on the people there. We’re building up as much evidence as we can about what’s going on and what matters to local communities. And then we’ll present it back to policymakers, researchers and communities themselves in ways that they can understand.”
“The TWINE Benchmark dashboard is the first in a series of dashboards we’re going to construct and make available on our website, which present this information back to communities so if they want to run a community business in their area, they can look at comparable financial datasets.”