Social Innovation Camp

Chris Adams discusses the ideas for tackling social problems that were discussed at the recent Socia

On the first Friday of this month, I joined a load of other well meaning programmers, designers and social entrepreneurs at Social Innovation Camp, to see if we could apply novel uses of technology to tackle social problems.

By lunchtime the same weekend, we had split into seven teams, and each team had developed an idea into a working prototype of an online service to pitch to a funding panel that would pick the top two entrants for further development.

What kinds of problems do people set out to solve in a weekend of hacking? Lets have a look at the entrants:

Enabled by Design (the first prize winner of £2000 of project funding) helps match disabled people doing common difficult tasks with product designers to make better tools, and find investors to put them into production.

Rate my Prison (the runner up, winning £1000) sets out to make prison visits accessible to families of inmates, and improve transparency.

OntheUp helps people track their personal development over time to provide new ways of measuring the impact of social work.

CV Lifeline is aimed at skilled migrants who miss out on jobs they're qualified for, instead of languishing in low paid work because they don't know enough about how to present themselves in the UK compared to their native countries.

Stuffshare acts like an eBay of sorts, for borrowing items in trusted groups to cut down on wasteful purchasing of rarely used items like camping kits, or power tools.

The Glue sets out to help users look after older loved ones who they don't live with, and connect them with carers who can help when they can't be present, and help families stick together.

Wibi.it is a service that links real world items with relevant information on the internet to help people become active, aware customers when shopping.

I worked as part of the team with Wibi.it (formerly known as the Barcode Wikipedia). Our general idea was that if your phone could read a barcode on a product, it could be used like a hyperlink on the internet, to search online for related information to that product. We designed an application that gave your phone the ability to do this, and created a website for the online community to pool information about any product you pointed your phone camera at. This made it easier for users to make informed choices about who they spend their money with when shopping.

Of course, what constitutes an 'informed choice' varies from person to person. To some people this means ethical consumerism; tracing wine or bananas or suchlike back to their farms where they were grown. To others it's just whether amazon.co.uk is selling the same item at a lower price, or whether your friends have already bought what you're looking at. Which of these considerations takes precedence when designing a system like this?

The 'informed choices' issue highlights how the problems we're facing are changing in the field of new media. Technology is getting cheap and accessible, and the barriers for entry are so low, that we're encountering all kinds of other interesting problems that people would only really encounter in R&D labs previously.

For example, in the case of wibi.it, how exactly are you supposed to present all this information in a digestible form in a screen two inches wide? Or just how foolhardy is it to map the way we use laptops and desktops onto how we use mobile phones? When the information you can access by reading a label is potentially infinite because it links to further info, how does that change how product labeling should be regulated? What would a supermarket trip be like if we googled every other item we looked at before popping it our trolleys?

Questions like these make using new kinds of technology to tackle social issues so interesting - they force you to challenge long-held assumptions about what's possible, or even appropriate, when trying to find smart solutions to complex social problems.

Which is what we're interested in here on this blog.

Selected links about social innovation camp:

The Guardian's coverage of Social Innovation Camp

Premasagar Rose of Dharmafly's account of developing stuffshare, with a video of their presentation to the funding panel

Aleksi Aaltonen's exhaustive list of links to every video, and blog post related to social innovation camp

Yahoo Lead Developer Chris Heilmann's take on Social Innovation Camp

Enabled by Design developer Matt Collins's blog post

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser