Podcast: Joe Roberson of Innovation Labs

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Who is Joe Roberson?

Hi, I’m Joe. I help charities and social enterprises to fund, build and deliver trusted, user centred and digitally savvy services and products.
I have 12 years experience of working in the voluntary and private sectors, including eight years as an advocate and participation worker and manager, and five years working as a consultant. During that time I’ve written tonnes of resources and toolkits, including the groundbreaking Headspace Toolkit (2005) and Through the Maze (2008). I’ve also raised over £1,500,000 in grants and contracts.

(from http://www.workingwithjoe.co.uk/about/)

Key quote

I think the core benefits of taking a social tech approach, whatever you’re calling it, is that you can increase or improve what you do and who you reach and how you reach them. It can save money, it can find better ways to help people, it can help you deliver services that are actually more accessible for people. It can actually sometimes take some of the burden off the human sort-of powered part of your service, enabling them to offer support where it’s really needed. There are just a lot of different ways you can integrate it into an existing project, or to build something new, maybe an actual product itself, using technology to do software.


Hi Joe, for those who don’t know could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

My name’s Joe Roberson and there are two things I do mainly; one is I’m the website editor at www.innovationlabs.org.uk, which is a four-year initiative by Comic Relief, Nominet Trust and a couple of other funders to develop apps that improve young people’s mental health. I’m also the co-founder of Mind of My Own, or MOMO, an app to help young people in care speak up for themselves and communicate their thoughts and feelings to their care team.

Okay so just out of interest how did you get into the charity sector – how did you start working with charities?

That goes back a long way, when I left university I wanted to do something that gave me a realistic view of the world rather than just studying so I started as a volunteer with a mental health charity and from there I built a career as a mental health advocate, moving into management and then four years ago I went freelance, running projects like MOMO and Innovation Labs and helping other charities raise funds and get better at using technology.

I’ve seen on your website that you have a free eBook – ‘Learning from the Labs: How to fund and deliver social tech for charities’; how would you define social tech? Because at Dial2Donate we have a lot of charities that use the site that wouldn’t necessarily understand what that means.

So it’s also often known as ‘tech for good’, that’s a hashtag that you often see. Essentially it’s any digital sort of innovations, could be hardware could be software, that’s got a mission of helping people, or helping the environment, or helping a cause in the world that could broadly be defined as social in nature.

As a term you can go from one end of the spectrum as a charity maybe developing an app that helps people in distress, through to you’re a commercial business and as part of your corporate responsibility you are helping to build an IT project with a conservation charity or company or something like that. It is quite broad but the ‘Learning from the Labs’ eBook deals with if you are wanting to build a software product, maybe an app, or even just a website, with a mission to help people, that’s kind of the market that it’s about.

So why do you think that social tech or tech for good is valuable for charities? Why do you think that charities need to embrace this?

I think that it’s a good way for charities to think about how they might want to use digital or innovate with technology to help with what they’re trying to achieve. If they think well let’s do a technology project, that’s one way of thinking of it, or you can look at it in terms of ‘this is a social tech initiative’ and that then immediately opens up a whole sort of community or movement that defines itself with social tech that they then are moving towards as more part of, and in that sense it’s a more convenient way of describing it I think than looking for better ways to use technology.

But yeah I think the core benefits of taking a social tech approach, whatever you’re calling it, is that you can increase or improve what you do and who you reach and how you reach them. It can save money, it can find better ways to help people, it can help you deliver services that are actually more accessible for people. It can actually sometimes take some of the burden off the human sort-of powered part of your service, enabling them to offer support where it’s really needed. There are just a lot of different ways you can integrate it into an existing project, or to build something new, maybe an actual product itself, using technology to do software.

You say you’ve been working in charity for quite a while, how would you say that the evolution of digital and social tech has affected the charity sector?

Okay, so I’ve seen it in two ways – one in which it’s really revolutionising the way fundraising works, so the money that’s coming into the sector. I don’t really know much about that side of things but I see it a lot and obviously a lot of what we do is to help charities explore that route. And the other way is that some charities, some of the more savvy ones, are finding smarter ways to use technology, so actually you can turn it into a bit of a revenue stream, or to compete with other charities for contracts, that enables them to win the contract basically. So those are the sort of two ways – improving a service and saving them money or donating another revenue stream, regardless of how you might want to use technology to do so.

Do you think that charities, let’s say larger charities as smaller ones may not have the resources, are utilising mobile technology or consumer technology as much as they could be or should be?

No, I think some are, some are progressive about it but there’s a lot of learning within the sector, just as within the public sector, around how technology can be adopted and used. It’s often I think reliant on individuals, whether it’s a big or small charity – they have an idea or interest or are actually passionate about digital, who can take it forward and help the charity to move and embrace it further, whereas if there isn’t that sort of person within the charity they tend to you know the movement is not there.

Obviously within the really big charities they invest in a whole digital team, with in-house developers and stuff, but yeah mainly I think there are always better ways to do it – get out there, try stuff, get your hands on, trying things out, learning, and collaborate. It’s always good to have someone to bounce ideas off – you need to go and talk to people who’ve maybe done it before, and there’s a load of knowledge and experience out there that you can tap into, what I see is that a lot of charities don’t make that effort to go and talk to people or take ideas from other charities and turn them into spin-offs, or just develop products in house. They’re not used to thinking in the way of ‘oh let’s just go and talk to someone who’s done this before, and that’ll save us maybe from making mistakes.’ In my experience is that in practice that doesn’t happen.

Again that’s true of the private sector as well. So in terms of charity apps, what would you say makes a successful app?

Well it depends what you define as success. If your definition is that it’s still there in three years’ time and has continuously been developed, it’s had better and better work and reaching more people, and you can say well is it still here in three years’ time and helping people. Or you could say well actually this app is a one-year project, we’re going to build it and we expect that when the funding runs out we’ll discontinue support for it cause it will have reached people and already helped them, maybe it’s the number of people it’s helped, maybe it’s the outcome that it’s helped them to achieve.

I mean that is quite hard to track, just like in conventional projects, that for me personally I think it’s not just about ‘hey you’ve got a great product and it’s helping people’, it’s about what’s a model that enables you to continuously develop that product so that it remains relevant and improves because otherwise all you get is that people create apps or charities create apps and a couple of years down the line the app’s down the road and someone else comes doing something similar. It’s just not a very good use of resources and money if there’s no thinking from the beginning around how are we going to enable this to be successful beyond the length of the funding that we’ve got and sustain it. Because it’s actually at that point that it needs the most help to actually get people using it. Of course if it’s been designed well, fits into people’s lifestyles, to tackle the problem that they have in a way that works for them, then that way success is going to be easier.

You still have to you know plan for how you’re going to sustain it and keep it going. So if someone came up to me and said to charities when you have funding for normal projects, how will you sustain this project when the grant ends, I would say it’s even more important if you are developing an app because you’re actually developing a product, which will still be there when the grant ends, it’s not just a case of well you might get more funding but take it on in a different form, or you know to keep your staff in form and employed, it’s basically you have a product, it’s doing something in the world, and it’s often quite hard then to get another grant to keep it going, there has to be some other way of supporting it. This could be incorporating it into your core cost, or it could be a revenue-generating model, you just need to do some thinking about that. My definition of success is that if you’ve done that thinking and you’re keeping on working at that and that you get your product to that point where it essentially pays for itself. There are plenty of apps out there that do not pay for themselves and started off as great ideas but never reached their potential.

Working in the social tech sector do you see apps dropping off quite a lot, do you see a lot of wasted grants, wasted funding for the people who aren’t planning ahead?

In some ways you’d be asking that to someone like Nominet Trust, what they see. I mean you have to recognise that there will be a certain failure rate, that’s actually quite a hard thing for organisations, for anyone to talk about at the beginning.

Statistically there’s a good chance that your app will fail, and I think that out of Innovation Labs, if you talked to each of the product owners, they’ll have a different view of how successful their app or website has been. Not all of them will go on and will still be effective in six months or a year or two years’ time. So yeah it’s a hard one to comment on that one, how often you actually see stuff being unsuccessful or failing, hopefully less though as the sector gets more tech-savvy I guess.

From your own point of view what charity apps would you say are successful and are thriving?

Okay so a really good example is a mental health app called Buddy. The Buddy app is not run by a charity it’s run by ___ studios? (missed word – approx. 13.06). It’s run as a social venture but it is profit-making, but then they invest a lot of their profit into the product.

I think Care UK has got a good app that they are still working on to develop, I like the look of that one. MOMO is not run by a charity but is run by a social enterprise, but the idea behind the app is that if it gets to a point where it breaks even then any other money after that is reinvested in the development, which could happen for MOMO in six months’ time. I like the look of Doc Ready – that’s one of the Innovations Labs projects, it’s not run by a charity but there actually are in terms of innovation, a lot of the apps I know of that have been successful are run by either straightforward commercial organisations or the majority are run by social enterprise, that’s the broadest way of describing it.

That seems to be an area that is easier to set the social enterprise, and innovate or build an app or something, than I think it is for the more traditional charities. Not always, cause anyone can innovate and again it’s often about the individuals within those organisations but it is I think easier to build a successful product if it’s within a small, start up kind of environment.

So in terms of the problems within social tech, what are some of the problems you’ve seen people come up against? Is it more user take-up, is it development, is it engagement?

I think user take-up in terms of how you build the adoption of your app I think that’s something which parts of the sector struggles with, cause if you look at how it’s done by more of a tech start up,  conventionally it’s that you build an audience before you’ve even got a product on the market. So you start building relationships, people who will become your first users, who would be on your second stage of users.

Often we tend to think about the product and then we’ll market it, but actually there’s so much more than can be done before that. A lot of that involves just like blogging about it on your website, seeing if people have an interest in building a core community. So that’s a big one, cause uptake can be a problem.

It’s a great idea, it’s well-executed, but actually you’re struggling to get the audience because you’ve not put any time into building it. I think the other one is often business models – what happens when your funding runs out, how are you going to get through that second stage of ‘we’ve got a product out here, we’ve got an idea of how we can make money, but actually it’s going to take a while and what’s going to happen to the product in the 12-24 months it’s going to take to make it profitable?’ And when I say profitable I mean actually paying for itself.

I think Dan Sutch at Nominet Trust took at least two years or two to four years to develop a product that was actually successful, I don’t know enough about the sort of routes that those products have taken, but there is in a way a lack of funding out there to take ideas from ‘yeah we’ve got a product out there’ to the point of ‘yeah this is a sustainable business’. MOMO has been lucky because the funders like it and liked what we did so much that when it launched they gave us a second round of funding to actually kind of turn it into a sustainable business which you know we seem to be hopefully on track to.

There isn’t much funding out there to help people to go to that second stage. A lot of people think yeah I’ve got an idea I want to develop this but not so much the second stage. I think once you get through that second stage and you’re in a position where you can make an investment, which can help you then to scale up. It’s all a bit grey, there is no black and white, it is a bit messy, but there are people out there who have done it and they’re the people to talk to and learn from so that you’ve got more chance of getting it right first time.

Okay so you’ve talked a bit about the work you’ve done on projects but what would you say you’re most proud of in terms of social tech?

I would say definitely MOMO, the app for children in care. We started MOMO two years ago, and we’re now working in 14 local authorities with an app that’s free for young people and a subscription package for children’s services within local authorities.

It’s revolutionised how they’re involved in people and their decisions. There seems to be a general ___ between young people and the local authorities. It’s been a real journey from an idea that was kicking around in my head three years ago, now I’m the person who’s sort of leading it and making it sustainable, working with a team to improve the app, to help local authorities get to grips with integrating technology into the more conventional ways in which they work. But alongside that, the work I’ve done with Innovation Labs I’m privileged to have been a part of cause there’s been a lot of different models of those seven products that the labs developed, and each one was done in different ways, being able to witness all of their successes and failures and then write about it or blog about it has been brilliant.

With the labs, the whole idea, the ethos is to capture some of what did and didn’t work within. Basically the funding programme is for those different organisations and partnerships to build apps and you can put that into a manual for other people to use – if they are starting off with an idea they can then think well how do we do the next bit?

Have you got anything coming up in the near future that we should know about?

There are a load of new developments happening with MOMO over the next sort of two months, some of those are captured on our website – mindofmyown.org.uk.

We’ve also got two months left of the labs before the labs initiative closes altogether, we what we’ll be sharing on there is someof the product evaluations, from the impact that some of the products have had, which we find out independently, by MindTech at Nottingham University, and we’ll be sharing more insights from each of the seven product owners about what was a hit and what was a miss.

Now the grant programme is finished they can reflect a bit more and so there’ll be some new stuff coming out of there. And all that is about generating content that’s useful for other people so that we all benefit and they’re less likely to make some of the same mistakes again.

So if anyone wants to get in touch with you, how would you recommend it? You’re on Twitter obviously.

I am on Twitter – it’s @workingwithjoe, I have my own website – www.workingwithjoe.co.uk, that’s one of the ways to get in contact with me.

But if you also Google Innovation Labs or go to www.innovationlabs.org.uk you can get in touch with me through there but that’s done on behalf of Comic Relief. And then there’s MOMO, you can get me on there too. I’d be bored just doing one thing I think!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for asking – I’d just recommend checking out the Learning from the Labs document – you can download it, it’s a really easy read and I’d recommend it for anyone planning to build a website or app.