Technology as a facilitator of community mobilisation and support

A positive consequence of the pandemic has been an outpouring of solidarity and goodwill among citizens.

How can we ensure that this will be a lasting legacy of the pandemic, and how can technology facilitate community mobilisation and support moving forward?

While the overall number of active volunteers has diminished, as older-aged people reduce contacts outside of their home, the number of younger volunteers surged with the urgency to help millions of vulnerable people during the crisis.

Volunteering schemes such as NHS Volunteer Responder, local authoritie’s schemes, and 4300 hyper-local mutual aid groups were overwhelmed with registrations. In parallel, thousands of community initiatives emerged, often leveraging technology to tackle issues that took many sectors by surprise; community-led PPE manufacturing, marketplaces enabling small businesses to sell directly to consumers, avoiding food and plants going to landfill, etc.

How does this new form of mobilisation differ from traditional volunteering?

The urgency of the situation has removed many perceived barriers for engaging as volunteer.

Many people realised the impact they can make from the comfort of their home, by helping with small but essential tasks such as assembling protective visors, fundraising through online pub quizzes, and providing support remotely through befriending calls, or school tutoring. We’ve also seen many furloughed workers sharing their skills and competences to support charities and small businesses.

Engagement formats are flexible, and volunteers are encouraged to help when and where they can, contrasting with traditional volunteering programmes often perceived as long term, regular engagements. New types of programmes designed with the younger generation in mind such as the one-week Re-action programme emphasise the collective impact of small, quick and accessible individual actions, and the ripple effect of one’s engagement.

This growing mobilisation has been facilitated by digital technologies, and the fast and agile response of local groups and organisations.

How can technology facilitate citizen mobilisation?

Here are a few ways in which people leveraged digital tools to connect those seeking support with those willing to help, coordinated support, and optimised and share knowledge and resources efficiently.

Geo-localised information for localised support

Limitations of movement have pushed people to think and act more locally. Tools enabling geo-localised information such as the map enabling citizens to find their local mutual aid group make it easy to identify support available, help needed, or community initiatives locally. Such location-based tools are likely to be more commonly used to map solidarity geographically.

Crowdsourcing knowledge and solutions for collective intelligence

Another great emerging trend is crowdsourced libraries such as the Coronavirus Tech Handbook. Thousands of people contributed their time to share and organise knowledge and resources to tackle specific problems faced by many, ranging from instructions to decontaminate medical equipment, facemark sewing patterns, security tips for remote working, guidance for parents, charities, or policymakers.

Peer-to-peer online communications and coordination

An array of communications platforms and social media have been adopted by organisations and community groups to facilitate remote coordination and cooperation –  WhatsApp, Facebook groups for a group of neighbours, Slack workspace for engineers making 3D printed PPE, to Zoom coordination calls. All of these newly formed online networks and bonds form a foundation for stronger social fabric and more resilient local communities.

Data-led approaches to optimise and distribute resources

We’ve also seen the implementation of data-led approaches to identify needs, resources available and distribute to them. For example the Dare to Care PPE needs dashboard, generated by collecting requests from hospitals and health workers in online forms, ensuring an optimised distribution of PPE gathered by the organisation.

Volunteer management solutions

The surge in volunteers' supply overwhelmed many organisations, already overstretched by  demands for help, at times resulting in underutilisation of resources available. It seemed that the smaller the organisation, the more agile they were in managing supply and demand. Many cobbled together different off-the-shelf solutions together to efficiently engage, register and onboard volunteers, but also match their availability and skills with appropriate tasks. Moving forward , digital tools are key to help organisations alleviate the pressure of managing volunteers and sustainably grow their capacity.

With the long lasting economic and social challenges emerging from the crisis, it’s crucial to ensure that we build this digitally enabled solidarity which is increasingly essential for the resilience of local communities.

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