CoTech: IT collaboration to build new technology
‘The mood over the last few years on the back of the 2019 election and the pandemic is one of urgency, to make a change ourselves’
“What sets CoTech apart is that we are people building technology, while communicating with each other and directly saying what we need to do our job,” says John Evans. “There’s a recognition that we have to do things ourselves, that we have to get on with things. So we do.”
Evans is a member of Code-Operative, a network of freelance software developers based in the North East with seven full members. Code-Operative is itself one of 45 members of CoTech – a network of ethical co-operatives providing technology, digital and creative services.
“At Code-Operative, freelancers charge the client an extra 5% and the individual Freelancer on a project will give 5%; this 10% is put into the co-op and used to run day-to-day activities, such as improving the website, promoting freelancers within the network and finding contracts,” says Melissa McNab, another Code-Operative member. “We have worked on a lot of very different projects, such as an emergency response app and an e-commerce site for Give Your Best, a charity which helps connect refugee women with pre-loved clothes.”
They have also recently worked with Digital Commons Co-operative on the technical and design work for Land Explorer, an open data project giving a broad view of land data.
“You might be a community group that has lots of information about orchards for example, and want to compare that with data on historic flooding and soil types,” says Evans. “The vision is that once you have enough people who are comfortable sharing their data, people can look at each other’s information and share it. Our vision of data is one that profits the people who supply it and own it rather than the people who happen to control it.”
“This is a really positive example of how data should work,” adds McNab. “And that’s basically what Digital Commons is trying to do, create one big, collaborative piece of data.”
Co-operative Technologists – CoTech – was formed in 2016, and the network has been growing ever since. “It seems to be cohering more and more over time and is now a stable, known quantity,” says Evans.
“Our co-op would not exist in the form it does without CoTech, we’ve had a lot of advice and support from other members. Our co-op started in late 2018 so we have not known a reality without Cotech, we really do rely on it. When we have problems, we can see if other people have had similar issues and see how they’ve fixed them, or just ask for advice. Or if co-ops are taking on large projects, people will post something like ‘Hey, we don’t have enough capacity for this, can anyone come in and fill a role?’”
As freelancers, Code-Operative members have collaborated with several other tech co-ops. Last year, for example, McNab worked with virtual reality co-operative Animorph on a 3D rendering of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp for the 40th anniversary of the start of the protests. “On the website, you can go in, walk around, click on people and hear their stories. It’s very, very cool,” she says. CoTech members are involved in the wider co-op movement through collaborations and events, and the network is an obvious choice to be the IT sector representative in the UK’s new Worker Co-op Federation.
Covid hit just as Code-Operative really started to take off. “We basically landed one of our biggest projects right at the start of the pandemic,” says Evans, “so from a financial and work point of view, it was actually okay, although it was difficult not being able to meet in person.
“With CoTech, obviously in-person gatherings couldn’t take place, although we did have a virtual gathering in April 2021 on a 2D platform. The temperature turned down a bit on collaborations as people focused on their own co-ops, but it was good to be able to check in with other co-operatives occasionally.”
CoTech Gatherings are an important part of the network and are “very fun and very useful,” says Evans.
Before the pandemic, the two-day events were held every six months, bringing together 20-50 people. Hosted by CoTech members, they were usually held in co-operative venues; in Newcastle it was a co-op cinema (the Star and Shadow) and in Birmingham in June, it was hosted by Autonomic in the Warehouse Cafe. The next is planned for Glasgow in November, hosted by the Media Co-op.
“Before the gathering, people volunteer to run sessions,” says Evans, “and then on the day people can also decide to run a session or two. Sessions could be a co-op sharing their company handbook, or looking at rules and best practices, or exploring how we can collaborate better. There can also be technical sessions where everyone gets their laptops out and updates the website. At the end of the first day, there’s usually a proposal session where people can present a decision they want CoTech to agree on, and use sociocracy methods to pass it. If it doesn’t pass you get the second day try and do it again. By day two, people have had a chance to talk and get to know each other and often pair off and do more interesting things.”
One proposal planned for the next gathering is around the appointment of a CoTech network co-ordinator.
“The role is an idea that’s been around for a long time, and I’m part of the latest wave trying to make it happen,” says Evans. “I think the sentiment is there, but members have to decide what they are willing to pay for, and how much.”
“At the moment CoTech members pay into a fund,” adds McNab. “We are having to re-evaluate how members pay into that fund, and find income to pay for this role. There are questions about how much of the role will be business development, and how much will be going after bigger projects for members to work on jointly. And there’s also an element of internal activity coordination, such as setting up skill shares between co-ops. It’s going to be about finding the right balance of all of this.”
The plan is to produce a draft job description to be shared with CoTech members, with further discussions taking place at the November gathering.
The last few years have taken their toll, but Code-Operative – and CoTech – are in a strong place, and a renewed determination has emerged. In terms of politics, Evans says that within CoTech, “any sort of political belief is fairly left wing.”
“I think the mood over the last few years on the back of the 2019 General Election and the pandemic is one of urgency, to make a change ourselves, co-operate together and have a real impact.
“In the 2019 Labour manifesto, there was support for co-ops from central and local government. The economic plan had a place for co-operatives, but it seems unlikely that the Conservatives or Starmer’s Labour are going to include anything like that in the near future. So the question becomes: ‘How do we do it ourselves?’
“One thing that seems to be happening is co-ops engaging with their local authorities, like Outlandish with Cooperate Islington. There’s a strong feeling of ‘this needs to happen. So let’s do it ourselves’”.
With thanks to the News.coop