Thinking about collaborative technology
Defining the term collaborative technology is difficult. Often when we talk about collaborative technology or, for that matter, social media or web 2.0, people naturally think about popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, YouTube or Wikipedia.
What we are actually referring to is the functionality featured on these platforms such as instant messaging, blogs, micro blogs, the sharing of pictures or videos, ratings, tagging, discussion forums, wall postings, book marking, even sending email or text messages; through which anyone can easily find, create and share content, and collaborate with others.
These technologies can be assembled in different ways to serve a variety of purposes be they social, commercial or civic. Websites such as Ushahidi, Quora or Kickstarter make it easy to crowd source information or contributions; tools like Task Rabbit or Meet-Up connect individuals to their peers or help people gather around ideas; platforms such as Freecycle, Ebay or Gumtree allow people to share, swap or sell to others; tools like Google Drive or Drop Box make it easy to work together and share documents; platforms like We Will Gather, Slivers of Time or Orange's Do Some Good app help people volunteer their time; while services such as Zip Car or AirBnB support new types of collaboration to share and make use of idle resources.
But how can these tools support the delivery of new forms of public service? Before we can answer this, it is important that we understand more about the types of opportunities these tools open up. Some of the key properties include:
Better connected - collaborative technologies may be global in their reach, but even at a local level they bring about changes in behaviour that are significant. We already know that the number of people who rely on or work in our public services is large, but they are not necessarily well connected. These tools make it easy for people to connect at much lower cost and on a much larger scale with others who share similar interests, concerns or expertise.
Meaningful involvement - collaborative technologies offer people the opportunity to play a more substantive role at little or no cost. Platforms such as the Diabetes UK Tracker make it easy for patients to monitor their own health, while sites such as Patients Like Me or Patient Opinion let people access advice from their peers. As well as offering greater individual control, this also reduces the administrative burden placed on professionals so they can spend more time treating others.
Improved trust and co-ordination - collaborative technologies make it easier for people to connect around a shared issue and as the growth of hyper-local community websites shows, with minimal co-ordination, people can mobilise around an issue and easily co-ordinate their actions to make change happen.
Increased transparency - participants are privy to the contributions of others, which increases transparency and makes it easier to surface new ideas, learn and strive for better outcomes. At Nesta, for example, through our website, we will regularly share our knowledge, experiences and reflections in a way that can be understood, interrogated and improved by others.
Easy to use - collaborative technologies tend not to require specialised skills and training to use and, where they do, often these skills are easily acquired so anyone with access can take advantage of the opportunities the tools have to offer.
So why have we not seen these technologies applied to support transformational change in challenging relational public services? People increasingly demand digital solutions to everyday situations and understanding how collaborative technologies might support our public services is the first obstacle public service practitioners need to overcome.