Co-operate: an online platform to bring communities together

We recently launched Co-operate, an online platform aimed at bringing communities closer together.

So far, our research has told us we should be designing something that makes it easier for people to:

  • start local groups and find others to team up with
  • find a community space
  • club together financially to reach a goal
  • come together and campaign for something they’re passionate about

As always, we’ve started small. We’ve restricted Co-operate to one area for now: Stretford in Manchester.

This post talks about the research that’s shaped the product, what we’ve done so far, and why Co-operate is so very ‘Co-op’.

Community is part of what all co-operatives stand for

The Co-op shares many values with other co-operatives including ‘self-help’ (members joining together and making a difference) and ‘self-responsibility’ (every member supporting their co-op’s activities and using its products and services and encouraging others to support it too).

‘Concern for the community’ is one of the Co-op principles. One of the ways we demonstrate this is by giving 1% of what members spend on Co-op branded products to a local community cause of their choice. Since we launched the new Co-op Membership in 2016, £31.7 million has been invested in around 4,000 community projects thanks to members’ 1%. This has supported a range of community groups including adult literacy classes, youth clubs and schemes that bring isolated older people together close to where they live.

Our new Co-operate platform is an extension of these values and principles. It aims to help communities to make changes autonomously through co-operation – it’s a natural fit for the Co-op.

Clarifying the problem

Last year Co-op started to look into communities. The previous exploration and tests showed us that the combination of people and technology can make it easier for people to co-operate. Over the years, we’ve interviewed volunteers, charity workers, social entrepreneurs and community leaders to find out what’s stopping local communities from coming together to make themselves stronger.

Their research reaffirmed our assumption and we’ve recently been able to clarify the problem: People find it hard to connect and make things happen in their local community.

Poster that says: People find it hard to connect and make things happen in their local community.

From this, we set our vision: Build the one place to go to make things happen in local communities.

poster that says: Build the one place to go to make things happen in local communities.

Ambitious, bold and exciting.

Starting small and locally

As with all digital products we knew that we would need to start small, test, learn and iterate. We decided to do a series of hyper-local trials across Greater Manchester and build collaboratively with users in those areas.

We started in Stretford by assembling a small, multi-disciplinary team and behaving like a start-up. We wanted to build a lean version of the service so we could learn quickly, without wasted effort. By manually adding content ourselves rather than building an expensive content management system, we know what is useful.

Listening to users

We’ve been talking to community organisers in Stretford – the heroes who have managed to start groups that benefit the local area. They’ve told us about the challenges they’ve had to overcome and the ones they’re still struggling with. Most told us:

  • promoting events time-consuming
  • finding more volunteers is hard
  • co-ordinating volunteers is difficult
  • getting access to funding is complicated
  • connecting with other organisers doesn’t happen often

A lot of this is consistent with the research that was done last year. But we are now in direct contact with these people, and see them as an extension of our team. They are the subject matter experts – they’re living and breathing life in a community every day and pushing to improve things for many.

First feature: a ‘digital noticeboard’

As a result of listening and observing, we’ve built a product that pulls together local events and activities that benefit the local area in some way. It’s a kind of digital noticeboard for Stretford called ‘What’s happening’.

Photograph of Co-operate's What's happening in Stretford

We’ve set up a simple, flexible architecture using our Heroku prototype platform along with Contentful, Algolia and Gatsby.js. This lets us quickly try things whilst at the same time being secure and performant.

To get to this point we:

  1. Took photos of all the noticeboards in the area.
  2. Analysed the information and grouped it into categories.
  3. Set up our content management interface and added in the information.
  4. Tested it with users (Stretfordians).
  5. Improved the UX and re-wrote some of the content to make it clearer for users.

You can see this at co-op.co.uk/co-operate.

Next time, we’ll share why we started with a ‘What’s Happening’ product and the next product that we are starting to develop.

If you want to get in touch, email us at co-operate@coopdigital.co.uk

We’re particularly interested in understanding what you’d need to know before you would commit time to helping out in your local area.

Ben Rieveley
Product manager

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