Setting up collaborative online communications

Trello Board

Following the first project volunteers meeting on 5th June 2018, we needed to move from organising through invitations sent out to a mailing list and a face to face meeting, to a network of volunteers that could communicate directly with one another and develop ideas independently.

We obviously couldn’t share volunteers email addresses among volunteers. Even if we had full consent to do, as smaller working groups formed it’d be easy to lose transparency and harder for others join in conversations as the project progressed. If we used Bcc or a solution like MailChimp we could send the same email to all volunteers, but their replies would not be equally shared. We could set up a mailing list, but the scale and anonymity of mailing list conversations can be off-putting.

We needed a way that community members could be known to other members by as little or as much information as they wanted to share. There needed to be opportunities to engage on a personal level, to share ideas and areas of interest and form collaborative circles and still retain transparency – so that discussions and activities were available to any new community members who wanted to join in, but without the need to share every thought with everyone and without swamping people’s inboxes.

The initial communications infrastructure addressed three main considerations:

Personal information sharing and opportunity for direct personal contact - project website built using Drupal 8: All volunteers will be invited to create an account on the project website and will have the opportunity to share information about themselves and their areas of interest on their profile page. The majority of this information will only be available to logged in community members, not publicly, and a contact form on the profile page will make direct contact possible. If members prefer not to be contacted, this form can be switched off.

Transparency, ideas sharing and activity tracking - Trello: There are many systems available, but Trello was chosen as the initial solution. It had already proved useful as a project management tool for the project team, and the distributed system would give volunteers the opportunity to create and manage their own boards on particular areas of interest, whilst still retaining visibility within the Digital Democracy team.

Quick and easy conversation - Slack: Slack is so widely used for discussions in the tech community it was an obvious choice. Familiarity with its use opens up a whole world of advice, discussion and support. Again, volunteers would have the opportunity to set up their own channels for detailed chat on areas of specific interest – with others still being able to tune in at any time.

The three tools have different advantages and different interfaces, and community members will obviously have preferences depending on areas of interest and ways of working. Not everyone needs to be active in all three spaces as long as some community members operate in more than one space, to help maintain connections between spaces.

There are also technical solutions to maintaining connections - integrations that make it possible to add information to Slack from Trello and to Trello from Slack, and there will be opportunities for those who want to explore these possibilities to try them out with support, but full use of all tools certainly won’t be a requirement for participation. In addition, as the project proceeds, we’ll experiment with software for online meetings, so that we can start to include face to face discussions.

With Trello and Slack, I’ve chosen tools I’m familiar with. They’re well known amongst online communities so familiarity with their use gives access to a range of existing discussions (many groups make their Trello boards public) and a recent search showed they’re being used as part of Canada’s Open Democracy Canada’s Democracy Kit -

However, there are many more tools available and it is hoped that others will bring knowledge of other systems that can be shared, so that those of us who are interested in this aspect of the project can experiment with these tools too.

It is also hoped that community members will be willing to write about their experiences with joining and participating in the Hatpins to Hashtags community (what was easy, what was difficult, what needs to be better explained, what works, what doesn’t) so we can build a reference library that will help all community members and others with the choices they need to make when setting up their own collaborative online communities.

If you'd like to become a volunteer, please do get in touch.