If you open it, they will come...

stevieflow's picture

Originally published on community boost_r

I firmly believe in the value of “offline” meetups when evolving communities around technology. This is even more appropriate when concerned with community causes. So, I wanted to share my experience in Manchester, UK - from the past four years. There has been a real growth in community groups that meet up on a regular basis to share knowledge, stories and insights around technology - and I’ve been lucky to be a small part of that.

Originally, I had imagined this would be a story about community spaces, and how we need them.  By spaces, I really mean the physical - community centres, meetup venues and the like.  But, as I wrote, I realised it was a story of people and networks - the spaces are are there for us to build upon.  I guess that seems obvious now - but I wanted to share the story nevertheless...


It goes like this:

Just over four years ago I met Amy at the Non Profit Technology Conference in San Francisco.  She told me about NetSquared local, an initiative getting people together to look at and discuss all things technology and non-profits.  I said I'd be interested to try it in Manchester, in a non-committal way.  At the same time I started to go to Free Software Manchester meetups, that happened above a pub once a month.  There, I met people likeTim and Michael and Ian.   Shortly afterwards I met Dave and Hwa Young.  Along withAsa and Rachael, they'd managed to get access to an old skateboard shop in the city centre, and planned to offer it to "tech community groups" to use, mainly for free.  They named this the Manchester Digital Laboratory - MadLab for short.  So, I contacted Amy and set a date for the first Manchester NetSquared.  I gave myself a few months preparation for some reason - I didn't want to rush things. I also invited Nick, as he was doing some stuff in Birmingham that would interest people.  Around 25 people showed up on a cold Tuesday night in January, including Tim and also Mark.  And so, we continued to meet each month.  Numbers changed along with the focus and topic, but we showed up each month, put the kettle on and attached a laptop to a projector.  We looked at issues from digital storytelling to community campaigning, through to more tech-centric topics such as SEO for charities and fundraising platforms.  At the same time, I found it easier to start to arrange other events and activities, using MadLab, but sometimes other venues in the city.  Events didn't need months of planning anymore.  Showing up was the important bit.


And so:

With Ian and Hwa Young we arranged an evening of Ignite talks (as it was the Global Ignite Day).  I met Julian there - and we discussed open data.  With others, we established Open Data Manchester, which has also met monthly at MadLab for the past three years.  

I mentioned Tim.  He and I co-operated with MadLab to become a host centre for Young Rewired State (YRS) - a national initiative for "hackweeks" for young people in the August holidays.  I've continued to host that each year.  And now - we have regular events for young people that code and are interested in digital technology (from 6 to 18 years old!).  We’re even now hosting Code Clubs in schools.  Again, this has been through networks - meeting people like DJBenJoeSam and Liz has helped spur on new collaborations.  

As for NetSquared - it's now mushroomed into several events and activities.  With Nick (I mentioned him at the first event!) we've got a network of regular Social Media Surgeriesgoing, aided by the brilliant Kate.  With Michael, whom I met via Jonathan (still with me?!), we're hosting regular analytics meetups for non-profits. Mark (see above!) is speaking next month about Facebook Insights. With Mick - whom I bumped into a Mozilla Festival - we're also hosting monthly meetups on Open Badges.  This week we had the first of a regular set of meetups on CiviCRM....

Coming up soon - Jonathan is hosting regular meetups on open source energy monitoring, whilst with Dan - whom I met through Open Data Manchester - we're planning a hackday on tax justice: taxhack.  


As the story goes on...

Still with me?  I know, a flurry of names of people you've not met and places you haven't visited might not be too helpful.

But, this particular story doesn't end.  It will just grow and cross paths.  As the story goes on, the networks grow and the relationships form.  As a result, confidence builds up, and more people get involved.  That, it seems, is our modus operandi.

Very little - if any - money has been involved in any of this.  But crucially, our capital to make things happen and bring people together has been enriched.

It's a simple story that is being replicated across the world.  All it takes is a few people to make the first moves....



So - what have I learnt?

As you can appreciate, this is a long and winding road - a narrative that has small pieces, loosely joined.  In terms of takeaways, I’d like to offer the following five for those thinking of organising in their communities:

1. Don't fret on the tech!  

Computers crash, but communities build.  Some of our best meetings and events have been when people have turned their computers off!  We can all check websites and videos later on - meeting and talking are far more important

2. Release Early, Release Often. 

Don't wait, organise something soon/now.  Community events are iterations.  Our most valuable commodity is time, so don’t spend it thinking “what if”...

3. Be there. Show up.  

If you can, show up early!  I’ve actually held some events where it was just me there!   My approach is grounded in “zero expectations” - if I am committing the time, then that is good enough for me.

4. Take a step back. Meet & Greet

Make sure everyone is comfortable and welcome, but also realise when to get out of the way.  Sometimes, amazing things happen if you give the room...

5. Take new directions

Be prepared to change things, dismantle them and rebuild.  Don't think everything will last as it is.  If somebody wants to help shape things, then welcome them - you’ll always need help and new ideas.


So - that was the story, and my learning so far.  This has been a hugely rewarding journey that is far from over.  I look forward to your stories in return....  


The pictures used in this post have been taken from the MadLabUK FLICKR photo stream and (apart from the picture no 2CC BY-NC 2.0, taken by podnosh) published under the CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.