Engaging Your Community to Create Tools that Solve Local Problems

Posted by Sarah Washburn on August 24, 2017 at 2:45 PM

It all started with an email from a stranger.

I work for Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup, a nonprofit that helps NGOs and libraries worldwide use technology to further their missions. We facilitate events that generate ideas and design solutions and we hold these events at the library. My team creates the environment and the methodology for communities to identify problems and design solutions together.

We were contacted by a person who works at the City of Indianapolis who wanted us to build something similar to our Range app—maybe even a website—to help residents access resources for finding emergency food assistance in Indianapolis.

In the past, we guided communities in designing Range, an app that finds free meals and safe places for youth each summer, and we developed SafeNight, a mobile app supporters can use to make tax-deductible donations that pay for safe emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. These free apps were built from concepts designed by the agencies that use them.

We travelled to Indianapolis to identify the problems people face when trying to access emergency food assistance and help the library and community partners design solutions. We gathered people who provide assistance at food pantries and information through nonprofits, people who advocate and develop policies through city departments, people who study the issue at universities, and librarians who support those who seek resources. We met at the Indianapolis Public Library and began to design new concepts to help residents access resources.

Accessing emergency food resources

We organized a two-day Generate + Design event starting with a question, “How might we design solutions that connect Indianapolis residents to emergency food assistance?” Participants learned about how technology can solve problems and were guided through a process that helped them refine their larger pain points into statements that framed their design activities. During our Design phase, they imagined and developed how their app might be described online in an app store. This activity is a tangible representation of their imagination and aspirations for the product they hope to see built. Plus, it’s fun! Everyone is encouraged to branch out creatively using the craft supplies we provide.

They came and they built!

Here’s what the teams developed over two days:

  • Food Compass: helps people understand what type of assistance they should apply for, how to do it, and provides information about how to get assistance.
  • Pantry Power: provides information about local pantries in an effort to help potential volunteers find the right opportunity. The app also includes an easy way to donate to a collective of pantries.
  • Reasonable Ready Recipes: helps people on a budget learn how to cook healthy meals with 5 ingredients or less. It links to local stores and highlights sales on items. This one was really something—I watched it surface as participants kept having side conversations about how cooking with healthy ingredients is a lost art and a necessary one.

Their ideas were developed into posters that were displayed at community-based organizations and public libraries across Indianapolis in an effort to get feedback from people who would use them. This stage just ended; we’re excited to learn from their ideas!

Libraries are more than space

It’s important to note that what we do during these events is NOT technical. It’s an exercise in ideas, and librarians and staff are full of them. Librarians have participated in our events as subject matter experts, community advocates, information specialists, and general smart people. A memorable moment for me happened during our introductions at the start of the day, when Melanie Wissel, the Program Development Manager at the Indianapolis Public Library, shared how she had attended some community meetings and learned about Indianapolis’ struggle with becoming a growing food desert.

She was actively planning how the library might engage with the public, and she shared her early ideas for the library’s Summer Reading program, called Read It and Eat. People ooohed and took note: the library is a smart organization to partner with. Collaborating with the library is much more than space: librarians are dedicated to serving their communities. Working with them is an opportunity to benefit from the vast resources the library provides, both human and found in the library; from their reach into the community; from their creativity; and from the continuity of community connections and collaborations librarians by nature create. Libraries transform communities, so why not try to solve community problems at the library?

What libraries can do now

Libraries can do parts of what our team is setting out to achieve. Libraries can:

  1. Get out and learn about their community. Find out what local problems people are facing.
  2. Convene organizations and people at the library to inform the public about local problems.
  3. Share what they have learned with techies—students, local companies—and people who can implement solutions to address the problems people are facing.
  4. Bring people together at the library and figure out how the library might solve problems together with the community. Solutions don’t need to be tech-related.

The community is fueling our next steps

We’re just now learning from the people who voted on-and offline on the Indy app concepts. You can learn more about our time in Indy and find out what our team is up to at www.CaravanStudios.org. Big thanks to our community partners: the Indianapolis Public Library, the City of Indianapolis, and the Indy Hunger Network.

Please get in touch with your own ideas!

Sarah Washburn
Director of Community Engagement
Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup
We developed Range, a free app to find free food and safe places for youth


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