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

The Federation is officially open

The Federation was opened by the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham last night.

Photograph of Mayor Andy Burnham on stage speaking at Th Federation launch

We first shared our plans for The Federation back in February and since June, the building has been gradually filling up with a community of digital businesses and innovators from the north west. Federation Manager Victoria Howlett showed us around the co-working floors in the summer, but Tuesday evening marked the official launch.

Photograph of technology engagement thought leader Emer Coleman speaking on stage alongside Federation manager Victoria Howlet.
Opening The Federation wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication and vision of Federation Manager Victoria Howlett and Technology Engagement Advisor Emer Coleman

The Mayor has been supportive of The Federation’s plans to bring co-operative values to the development of the digital economy right from the start.

Last night he talked about his commitment to making Manchester a ‘smart’ city – a city that uses digital expertise to increase operational efficiency, share information with the public and improve both government services and citizen welfare.

He said: “The smartest cities don’t just make use of the digital economy, but use digital to connect people, helping tackle things like homelessness. We need to be a truly smart city to connect all our citizens.”

Our values at The Federation align well with Mr Burnham’s vision for Greater Manchester because, as he said: “The Federation is a space that brings together organisations, big and small, public and private [and,] by promoting collaboration and inclusion through digital, [we’re] building a better future for the people of Greater Manchester.”

Photograph of some of the community at the launch party.

Here’s to a thriving tech, digital and design community in the north. One which shares the Co-op’s ethical values: social responsibility, openness, honesty and caring for others.

Photograph of specially made Federation beer in bottle that was served at the launch.

You can follow The Federation on Twitter.

Steve Foreshew-Cain
Group Digital Director

Our mental health meet ups and why they matter

Mental health problems affect around 1 in 4 people in the UK each year according to the latest stats from Mind. In England, 1 in 6 people say they’ve experienced a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week.

This week is mental health awareness week so it seems like a good time to talk about how we’ve been supporting each other at Co-op Digital.

Opening up

Getting people to talk is something I’ve been encouraging people to do here for a little while now. Since September last year, I’ve been running a mental health meet up.

I set up the group after finding that opening up about my experience with anxiety helped me. I also noticed that friends and colleagues I’d spoken to would often then open up to me and say things like, “I’ve never talked about this with anyone before”. That’s not good. I wanted to change that. So, twice a month a group of us have been meeting to talk about all issues relating to mental health.

A safe place to speak

I knew the most important thing for anyone who came to the meet ups would be knowing that anything they said would be confidential and for them to feel they were among empathetic people who understood. This way they could talk freely.

So our meet ups started out small and very informal. Everyone was welcome but I didn’t want to risk opening up the group to spectators, which would be easily done in an organisation as big as ours, so I didn’t involve HR.

No minutes, no register, no pressure.

At the meet ups

We hold the 1-hour meet ups on site because it’s hard to find a safe space off site. Doing it on site also means it’s in the open and makes it as accessible for people as possible. There’s no pressure to come to every session. Come when you want to.

Sometimes, we have an agenda but most meetings start with people saying how they’re doing. Then we talk. Loneliness, depression, isolation, medicine, stress, sex, relationships – no topic is off limits. Some like to talk a lot and some don’t like to talk much, and that’s ok. Whatever works for them.

This is a place where you can come to feel reassured you’re not alone, and a place you can let others know that they’re not alone either.

A few guidelines

To keep people safe in the meet ups, we have a set of guidelines that we stick to.

Photograph shows 5 post it notes. 1 says "guidelines" the other 4 have one guideline on each.

  1. Everything said during meet ups is confidential.
  2. There’s no need to apologise for how you feel.
  3. Instead of advice, offer personal experience. Ask, “Can I tell you what I’ve done in a similar situation?”
  4. Try to speak openly. The more we do that, the more we can remove the stigma around talking about our mental health.

Learning as we go

I regularly ask the group how they think the meetings are going. This cycle of feedback means I can continually iterate and do what’s right for the group. In the early days, I learnt that even though what we talk about may be hard and people might feel sad, the meet ups shouldn’t just be a place to be sad together.

To prevent that happening, we try and end on a positive note. We’ll look at a feel-good article or a funny YouTube video or Twitter account. Just something that helps people leave feeling more positive.

In the future

The group has gone from strength to strength and we’re keen for it to become an even stronger support network. We’re throwing around ideas about how we could help more people. At the moment, we don’t know the answers so we’d like to hear from you.

If you’re a Co-op colleague, let us know what you’d like to see. We’d also like to hear how other organisations help their staff. You can leave a comment below (anonymous if you like), or email tom.walker@coopdigital.co.uk

Mental health is a big deal and is often an unseen issue. It affects so many of us and workplaces need to give their colleagues the time to build stable and useful support networks.

Tom Walker
User researcher

Co-op employees, we meet every second and fourth Thursday of the month at 12 noon in Federation House. I post reminders in the #general Slack channel a few days before.