Building the Big Social Apps Store

Yesterday we had the first Open Night for Big Society Network, with more than 150 enthusiasts, sceptics and critical friends working through just what Big Society might mean in practice.
Was it a mask for coalition cuts on public funding, re-invention of the community development wheel, an unrealistic expectation about volunteering? Or could it be, in part, a new sort of Open Source Social Apps Store?
BSN chief executive Paul Twivy was frank in acknowledging the concerns. But he said it could also be a way to develop creative approaches to tackling local problems, mixing the skills and resources of existing networks and groups with social innovation powered by new technology. The BSN model for that is Your Square Mile, about which more later.

After an intro from Paul, and briefing from facilitator Steve Moore, people came to the front of the room at Communities and Local Government, pitched the topic they wanted to discuss, formed groups, and got talking. It was hot, noisy, creative and mostly very positive. You can see the Twitter stream as well as background material on the BSNopen wiki here.
In my role as social reporter I pulled Paul and Steve into the cooler, quieter, foyer for the five minute verson of what was going on then returned to the buzz to capture feedback from the groups. You can see Paul and Steve above, and all videos below.

Once you start to play the first one, the later ones appear at the bottom of the player frame. Or you can find them all here on YouTube.

Paul provided a framework for the discussions by explaining Your Square Mile – above – as a way of bringing together the best advice and services for social action in a locality, enhanced by a range of new products developed by BSN with partners. The Network will be mutually owned by its members … and Paul is talking millions of members. For a few pounds a year subscription they will receive special benefits that might include, for example, low-cost insurance cover. Paul talked about ways to encourage people to invest their saving locally, to think about time as a currency, and to reduce barriers to volunteering and social action.

One of the strengths of the  Big Society idea is that it the reverse of the centrally planned government programmes of the past, where policy-makers developed frameworks, invited people to pitch ideas within those, and attached strong guidelines and targets to any support. It’s to be Your Idea, Your Priority, Your Passion.

The problem is that it is difficult to explain just because it is so diverse. There is no one Big Voice, Big Idea … but potentially many voices, many ideas. Last night was a microcosm of that. So how do you help join up those conversation so people can learn from each other … and so there is a heightened sense of what is possible? How do you create opportunities for people to share and sell, find new partners?

Last night Steve Moore asked me to speak briefly about ideas for a Big Society Commons or Store, which I wrote about here, and here. I said we need space with different levels … information, conversation, exchange, products and services. Maybe it is a mall plus a market, some high tech, some low. It is absolutely not created by government, but by those with something to offer.

Then I started to wonder about the role of the skilled, creative, passionate people at the Open Night. Perhaps one analogy for part of the store is an Apps store, where you can download smart ways of doing things to your mobile phone. Some are free, some you pay for. The fee goes to the developer, with a percentage to the store owner.

It works because there is a framework for the way apps are developed – tight in the case of Apple, more flexible in open sources stores.

So perhaps some of the people at the Open Night were potential developers for the Social Apps Store. If the Network can help to create the store, it will provide a much bigger market for those with social action products and services to sell – or offer free.

The Apps Store offers one metaphor to help us think how we bring good stuff together, what’s in it for the different interests involved, what rules and frameworks we need to make sure things work together.

But then, I like tech stuff. What’s your metaphor?

Over the next few days I’ll pull together the blog posts written after last night, and update the wiki. Meanwhile tonight I’m with colleague Drew Mackie, and Niall Smith of IDeA, at Warwick University where over dinner we are running a version of the Social by Social game for people working in tobacco control alliances around the country.

We’ll be looking at how social media and social reporting can engage smokers and help them quit,  and build stronger partnerships among health organisations. Far fetched? Not at all – just look at the work Steve Thompson is doing in Wrekenton, where we ran a version of the game a few months back. We provided the framework – local people filled it out with their knowledge and enthusiasm.


  • john Minett
    July 9, 2010 - 10:55 am | Permalink

    I have just checked into the Big Society for the first time and had the most exciting morning. As a planner and urban designer I have been concerned for a long time in how to involve people in planning their community to get what they want rather than get what the planners/developers think they should have. I am in the process of setting up a company Placemaker Associates, that aims at Public Involvement in Placemaking andenvisages people as associates in what I think I should now call their ‘Square Mile’. Only this week we launched helping a small community in Eastwood near Hebden Bridge (Yorkshire) in a project that has been spurred by the problems of the local authority wishing to expand a waste transfer station in the middle of the community. your articles and al the stuff I have read on Big Society blog have totally enthralled me. As a long time member Liberal, this is what I have been waiting for. Thank you.

  • July 18, 2010 - 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Love the name “social apps”, something that can be quickly downloaded and that people can go back to and spread to their friends.

    Think there’s a couple of analogies which maybe will be different to real apps stores (and I know you’re not trying to skin every single principle from real apps stores!). What would be really powerful is an Amazon-style approach to see when someone looks at one “social app” (i.e. Social by Social) they can see what other apps have been used by people who’ve downloaded that one. This could help the “developers” make connections amongst each other.

    Another idea could be for people to indicate what projects they’ve used a particular “app” for, as this could help “developers” work out their target audience and build that tricky bridge we all now that’s moving from free to paid “apps”!

    I think the best target audience it could be pitched to are the “developers” those people or organisations who are building the bridges between sectors, between communities or between approaches.

    Obviously whereas in real apps stores, the skills gap between developers and users is huge, whereas in Big Society Social Apps, it isn’t at all. Maybe that’s an offer that could be provided by the Apps Store and that’s how community groups/self organising initiatives can build their own “social apps”?

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