New Union is 5 years old - Part 1

This year marks 5 years starting in 2016 so now it’s starting to calm down and we are slowly coming out of the pandemic. I thought it was a good time to reflect and write down my thoughts in this 2 part blog.

Starting out as a tiny not-for-profit in a small Black Country town in the West Midlands, over the years we have still kept our proud local roots but always looked further afar.

In the New Union early days one of our first commissions was creating vlogs for the NHS, running around the streets of The Black Country asking local unsuspected citizens random questions about local health issues alongside running various small civic tech with local government across the area.

To this day, and with brutal honesty, if it was not for the NHS putting their trust and belief in us, it wouldn't have given us the launchpad to get to where we are today.

In 2017 and onwards, youth activism was also a bigger part of what we did, from ensuring youth issues were on the agenda during the last 2 General Elections here in the UK, giving young people the opportunity to interview their prospective Members of Parliament alongside the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner and the candidates in the inaugural West Midlands Combined Authority election. The latter did particularly well in regards to digital engagement with an impression rate of 6,435,018 and covered by ITV Central, The Express & Star Newspaper, The Birmingham Mail and The Huffington Post along with local radio using our material on dedicated political shows to youth politics.

Using civic journalism, we also held a policy hackathon with Ugandan civic tech organisation Pollicy looking at awareness around human trafficking, with it being one of the biggest social issues in North Africa and with the startling realisation that every single town in the UK is affected by human trafficking in one way or the other, it was an issue that young people should be aware of. Therefore, we designed a workshop which was held simultaneously in Uganda and the UK with a series of participate activities on subjects such as ‘how can young people be more vigilant and prevent human trafficking?’ and ‘how would you explain human trafficking to a friend?’All of the evidence was then packaged up for young people to collaborate on a series of collaborative blogs offering reflection from young people from different cultures.

All this work was created to help young people to hold decision makers accountable on the things that they say and we haven't forgotten or dropped that type of work, a few years ago we launched the #DemJam platform which consisted of 2 workshops. The first gave young people a safe space to debate safety issues in their area, everything from knife crime to staying safe online was covered, the second was a hackathon that looked at work aspirations in marginalised areas, we turned this into a downloadable toolkit so you can run it yourself if you work with young people, you can find that here.

Socially minded digitalisation and open government has always been a core interest and that is something we have never hidden, be that commissioning, our excessive altruistic work or volunteering programs.

But, it is worth pointing out that, yes, digital policy has been at the forefront of what we do, but I have always seen New Union as simply a civic engagement organisation - my personal skill set was originally graphic design and illustration, even though my educational background is in social sciences, design has definitely shaped our USP, because having the ability to take a concept from a proposal, design, brand the project, facilitation all the way through to reporting has been something I’ve been really proud to do but it takes a lot of work, and yes, it helped being a bit of a control freak, I will admit.

If you follow us, you would have seen we do a lot with open data. We really believe that there is an inherent issue with the process and that is it’s language and that has had a negative impact on people using it for social good, so, we have tried to change that.

When you listen to people explain open data it’s like they are talking about quantum physics, but, open data really isn't quantum physics, is it?

That mentality also had a knock on effect to the government sector as a lot of senior government workers found it confusing and senior staff members did not feel they could ask questions as they felt they should already be the expert which means they did not feel comfortable to ask questions or indeed ask for training - we took it upon ourselves to address this and we thought training is definitely the way forward. Working with a range of local councils across the UK, we designed a workshop that strips back open data and presents it in a clear and easy to understand language showcasing what it means for the third sector, how they can use it and part in a series of activities that policy makers can use as an evidence base for outreach. This gave government institutions a bridge to third sector organisations and learn alongside them, taking vulnerability (out sometimes pride) out of the equation.

That was the launchpad to a whole host of work, in 2019 we were approached by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany to create a toolkit on this issue and so #ODFA (Offene Daten Für Alle) was born, this is a resource German government institutions can download and run in their area to create their own community-led open data agendas, the toolkit holds a workshop presentation, a manuscript so facilitators of any skill level can run it, tools to promote their event alongside after care such as guidance on setting up steering groups and networking events.

You can download it in German here and in 2021 we launched the English language version which you can download here.

During the pandemic, we looked at how we could develop this work and we believed that direct government staff training may be an area to explore, because, when policy is created and rolled it, it is rarely the department who wrote it that is on the ground talking to third sector or running activities within our neighbourhoods, that is usually their community development departments.

It’s important that there is a clear narrative that is understood by officers who work or run activities in our neighbourhoods especially when it comes to digitalisation, if staff are asked questions or challenged they feel more confident in explaining it, and above all it’s only fair that grassroots staff are armed with all they need to ensure policy works. Our research shows that if community organisations are presented with digital strategy outreach, and if it’s explained in a complicated manner, they will just disengage and when trust in local government is already strained, that is really damaging and we believe there is literally no reason to complicate open data.

With this idea in mind, we ran a series of virtual hackathons teaming up with The Government of Colombia, The Government of Romania, The Scottish Government, The Government of Kenya, The Government Office of the Slovak Republic, The Palestinian Authority Government along with local government partners such as The State Government of Ontario in Canada and The Government of The City of Sao Paulo in Brazil to work directly with their staff - you can learn all about that work in more detail and read the report, by clicking here.

We also did some work in Kosovo and North Macedonia with Open Data Kosovo and the Metamorphosis Foundation respectively, with funding from The United States Embassy in Kosovo and the United States Agency for International Development. This was a series of virtual workshops held over 2 weeks on using the pandemic of a case study of good practice of data communication and using it to quel misinformation on Covid-19. Misformation was a massive issue during the crisis in the 2 Balkan states, a third of the Kosovo population for example, believe Covid-19 was a hoax quoting research from Euronews - you can learn more about that work, here.

But it’s worth noting, our first paying customer in regards to anything open data related was The Government of the United Kingdom and Birmingham City Council who commissioned us to create a platform resource called Ward Explorer that helped community developers quickly find relative information on housing, transport, community and much more, from that tiny acorn we went on to do so much more.

You can read part 2 by clicking here.