Bob Malpiedi has a dilemma. As the manager of Chilli Studios, he oversees opportunities offered to some of the people most at risk of social exclusion and loneliness in Newcastle. The studio, led by service-users, provides a place for the vulnerable to be creative through workshops in watercolours, composition and creative writing.
Malpiedi knows this work is about making a difference, in small but not unremarkable ways, to people who might not otherwise see friends or leave home that week. But to keep the project going, he has to be able to prove to funders that it is worth the money. For that, he needs numbers.
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“We need quantitative data,” he says. “We’re constantly applying for funding or reporting to funders. It’s not just getting the money, but proving that we are using it effectively.”
All around the UK, volunteer-led organisations and charities are increasingly stepping in to provide social care and other services as local authority budgets come under strain. These organisations often rely on foundations and charities for funding, but they do not have the big budgets necessary to invest in software that would help them collect the data to prove the good work they are doing.
Since 2016, Power to Change, a lottery-funded organisation working with community businesses, has been developing a solution to this problem called Twine. Twine has two uses: one allows volunteers to log time on a smartphone app, and one allows community businesses to capture visitor footfall on a web app. The idea came out of a charity hack day supported by Founders and Coders, a free coding school training the next generation of open source, co-operatively minded software developers based in Islington, north London.
“Twine is very customisable,” says Edward Walden, a data training co-ordinator at Power to Change. “It basically asks who you are and why you are visiting. That’s what local authorities and funders ask community businesses: how many volunteers they have, so that if they get funding for one staff job, they know how many volunteers that will support.”
Walden says that as the app gathers more data, it will be able to provide estimates to support larger funding bids. “If a funder asked how many people will attend and what impact will it have, we can say other community centres in similar areas of deprivation have seen this many people through the door, providing a community model for doing speculative things with data,” he says.
Elias Malik now works full time as a developer on Twine after attending a 16-week training programme to become a software developer with Founders and Coders. “I was looking to move out of my old career,” he says. “Founders and Coders seemed attractive because there were no tuition fees. They seemed to have a big emphasis on an alternative model and trying to use digital skills to work on social projects.”
Malik met Sonja Wiencke, who used to manage the Twine project, at Tech for Better, an open meeting in which Founders and Coders invites social enterprises and charitable organisations to explore digital solutions to problems. Wiencke had been working with a digital agency on building Twine, but the project had run into difficulties around coding languages and other technicalities. Founders and Coders stepped in to build a basic version of what would become the current iteration of Twine.
Malik was eventually hired by Power to Change as part of a two-person in-house development team for Twine in the summer of 2018. He says: “For me, it’s exciting getting in early on and being able to shape the entire platform from a tech perspective, such as making large scale architectural decisions.”
But rolling out the technology to the community and voluntary sector hasn’t been simple. Malik remembers one time Wiencke made a follow up visit to a community group who had complained that Twine wasn’t working for them. It turned out the group hadn’t yet installed the app, because they didn’t know how to find it in the app store.
“Delivering digital solutions into that environment is tough,” Malik says. ”You can make assumptions about what people know that can be straight up wrong. Part of the solution to that is designing it a bit more carefully and providing support – human support.”
By the time Malpiedi came across Twine, he had already spent some time thinking about how workers in the voluntary sector could use technology to register attendance and prove impact. “Often there’s a disconnect,” he says. “We ask people to sign in, but people don’t always sign in, so we need to capture that element and measure impact on a self-assessment.”
Twine “seemed like a no-brainer”, Malpiedi says. “It was a free, very straight-forward, easy interface with our membership.”
In the two months since Chilli Studios started using Twine to record footfall, it has helped the organisation grow and streamline services without becoming too detached from the people at the heart of what they do. That has become increasingly important as voluntary services have come under pressure from austerity and cuts to state provisions. “As the cracks in between what’s available and people’s need grows, the voluntary sector is filling those gaps,” Malpiedi says.
Chilli Studios has provided extra support to members around changes to welfare reform and the introduction of universal credit in the last two years, for example. “Our group struggles with significant change and the process of assessment has had a serious impact on wellbeing,” Malpiedi says.
Twine can’t compensate for the extra hours and the extra pressure. But it might make it a bit easier for Chilli Studios and other like-minded organisations to prove the value of the work they are doing and to stay open for people who need help. Malpiedi says: “Any system that helps an organisation like ours is welcome.”