July 8th, 2016

Technology that can make us all better citizens

In my lifetime, British politics has never felt so divided. From a nation-splitting referendum, to political turmoil amongst our top representatives, it is easy to feel helpless in the face of national and global events.

But despite blogs laden with feelings of alienation from the political process, there are many things that anyone with a smartphone can do to engage with their local community and play a positive role. From reporting on hate crimes, to helping scientists tackle climate change while you sleep; tech companies, social enterprises, and the Government have built a range of services that provide you with a small sense of empowerment from your pocket.

We’ve created a brief list of just some of these services below, which help people tackle a broad range of issues on their doorstep and a cross borders. This list isn’t exhaustive, but is a good sense of what is out there.

Think Global, Act Local

While none of these apps will help you reverse a referendum decision or get you a seat on the U.N., they can all help you to make a local difference. In the long run, we at Balderton believe technology will play an even greater role in our society, from e-voting to smarter allocation of resources. But nothing can beat the positive actions of millions of peoples. In the oft quoted words of the Scottish activist Patrick Geddes, to enact real change you must think globally and act locally.

Below are a few examples of the kind of services that have been developed taken from five categories: Hate Crimes and Civil Disruption; Homelessness; Local Community; Refugees; and Global Challenges.

A Request for Civil Technologists

Many of these services, while important and noble in their effort, struggle to be maintained. Partly this is because few have funding models beyond donations or council grants.

Britain in particular has led in opening up Government data and citizen input, but if technology is really going to empower citizens, it needs to be intuitive to use and technologically robust. So we are putting out the call to build out more services that tackle the issues below, and will be working with the state and the tech community to bring together those who have the skills to build more services that can supercharge citizens and support local services. There is a lot we can do, from meet-ups to funding projects, so if you’d be interested in joining in this effort whatever your background, drop me an email on jwise@balderton.com

Hate Crimes and Civil Disruption

One of the most concerning outcomes from the referendum in the UK was the use of xenophobic and racists issues by fringe groups. Reporting incidents of abuse and violence is the first step to tackling them, and everyone should have one of these on their phones.

Self Evident — A simple way to capture and store evidence of multiple crimes and then file a report to your work or to the police, with a special focus on hate crimes with a direct link to hate crime support. While it has basic functionality, it is maintained and simple to use.

Kick It Out — Supported by the English football’s anti-discrimination league, the app allows for confidential capture and uploading of racist incidents and can be used to submit a complaint. While focussed on football games at every level, it could in theory work in other settings.

Report It — while frustratingly most Report It apps are launched independently by different councils, making discovery more difficult and momentum in the app store impossible, most council Report It apps help you to capture a wide range of civic issues.

Hate Crime — while once again these apps are often split by council, they offer guidance on how to recognise issues of civic disputes, sexual attacks or hate crimes, and how to report them.

Homelessness

While you may not be able to offer every person sleeping rough enough money to find a safe place to sleep, you can alert services that can support them in multiple ways. These services are often run by charities, so consider donating to them as well to help their vital work.

StreetLink — provides data on homelessness by geography, allowing you to report incidents and also offering services for people sleeping rough using the app.

Donate-Locate (iOS only) — An ambitious new app currently only working in certain parts of London — this service allows you to both report someone sleeping rough as well as donate a small amount (£1 — £5 ) to the charity that will care for them.

FareShare Food Cloud — A platform that matches grocery stores and restaurants that want to donate unwanted food to charities redistributing food to people in need. If you work for a tech company that caters lunches to its employees consider donated left-overs that would otherwise go to waste

Local community

As local councils have seen their budgets cut dramatically in the last few years, there’s been an increased call for local citizens to help out where they can. From reporting graffiti to helping track noise levels, there are a lot of easy ways to collect and share data that at scale can improve your neighbourhood.

FixMyStreet — a long standing website that helps you both report local issues from potholes to fly tipping to the council, while also helping you stay up to date on local news

Crime Mapper — while simple, this app allows you to see historical incidences of crime reported in your area, as well as heat maps to show areas where different crimes are most common.

Crowd Justice — While not strictly speaking a mobile service, Crowd Justice lets you support legal battles for those in your community who can’t afford to fight on their own. Cases range from helping families facing immigration challenges to reunite, to stopping landscape destruction in preserved areas.

Noisetube — monitor noise levels in your community and help councils track problem areas, and even report on specific problem areas

Refugees

Despite many tabloids appearing to think that refugees owning smartphones is a bad thing, even the most vulnerable in society can still find access to the web, and you can help them in many ways. There are many groups working in this field, but one to track is TechFugees. Here are just a couple of example services you can try from a long list that can help:

Refugee Aid App — A well designed service designed to help people at risk, and refugees, access vital information and for NGOs to collect data on people.

GiveNow — Allows you to donate specific items that refugees may need, with an NGO ensuring the money is spent on those who are in need.

Global challenges

As well as helping out those on your doorstep there are many services which focus on our survival as a species, which feels a worthwhile endeavour as well. A much better list of projects is hosted by Zooniverse, but here are a few worth looking at:

Power Sleep ( Android only ) — Plug your phone in while you’re snoozing, and the app decrypts protein sequences to help scientists across the world crunch data.

Globe At Night — A global project to help track light pollution levels using the stars, and produce detailed information on how problematic light pollution is in your area.

D-Cent — What happens if you don’t just want to tackle local issues, but instead create a democratic movement? D-Cent has built a suite of tools to help you do just that, providing open-source, privacy aware tools for direct democracy that have been trialled from Finland to Spain.