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t'Big Society in t'North

Last night was the inaugural meeting of the Big Society In the North, held at the Electric Works in Sheffield. I went along feeling like a bit of an interloper - although I participate in a lot of the techie networks that are in similar orbits, I’m not part of the third-sector quangocracy of organisations that’s involved in these kind of events.

As a result, I couldn’t really contribute that much to the higher-level discussions that were going on - I did more observing than talking. That did give me the chance to lurk around the edges and come away with some general impressions.

I sort of expected that this could have been a gathering of panicking people who are about to have their funding cut - but it wasn’t. Instead there seemed to be a general acceptance that there isn’t any money, anymore, and we’ve all got to get to grips with this. And it wasn’t political - I suspect that this wasn’t a gathering of natural Tory sympathisers, but it was interesting that more than one speaker explicitly ruled out outright opposition. Or indeed the less confrontational approach of just waiting another five years in the hope of a change of government.

There’s a real danger of sounding like a Daily Mail reader channelling the Taxpayers Alliance - and this isn’t intended as an ad hominem judgement of the people in the room last night - but I suspect that this is an area is similar to advertising - half of all the money pumped in is wasted, it’s just that we don’t know which half.

Sometimes it seems that for every person who delivers tangible projects that actually DO something, there about another three who spend their professional lives “coordinating”, “strategising” and producing policy papers. I’ve had enough experience of engaging with public sector funding sources to be very wary of the processes and hoops which have to be jumped through, and I wonder if we haven’t created an environment with an incredible amount of (albeit well-meaning) friction.

I can’t admit to having really understood some of the project pitches that took place - some seemed to be less tangible and more strategising - but one did strike me as having some potential, and something of a tech angle. The App Store is probably a poor title, though, because I’m not convinced that apps in the technical sense are what’s needed.

I see it as being more akin to the online stores that sell boiler-plate contracts - instead of going to a solicitor for a bespoke contract, you can buy one online for ¬£50 and fill in the blanks. This could also get adapted to common things that seem complicated if you’ve never had to deal with them before - indemnity forms for events, what kind of liability insurance should I have for this event I’m putting on, that kind of thing.

And no doubt there are some things which are applications - community forums in a box, for example? It would be fairly straight-forward to assemble a toolbox of open source building blocks which could be assembled for specific online purposes on demand.

The official hub for the activities is at the Big Society In The North forum, and there’s much discussion on Twitter with the #bsitnorth tag. Watch this space, as they say…

[Update: Saul has his take on the event on his blog]