Reflecting on Energy Sparks as a “Community Tech” project

I recently attended the launch event for the new Power To Change Community Tech Fund and have been reading through the essays and report on the Community Tech network website.

It’s great to see this topic getting some attention and much needed funding. It’s also prompted me to reflect a bit on my own experience with community lead projects.

For a few years I was leading Bath: Hacked which was a community group and then a small CIC, run by volunteers, who were trying to foster use of open data by the local communities of Bath & North East Somerset.

We managed to support the council and others in publishing open data. And we ran a lot of events, meetups and hack days to support and encourage use of the data.

For example, Accessible Bath involved us mapping accessibility of shops, restaurants and other locations around the city. We consulted with local people who had mobility issues to identify some useful actions we could undertake, rather than just jumping into the technology. And in the end we worked largely within the technical infrastructure of other existing platforms rather than creating our own.

However its Energy Sparks that has been the lasting legacy of Bath: Hacked.

There’s a blog post by the ODI that talks about the history, so I’m not going to write a full origin story. I just wanted to highlight the community tech aspects.

Energy Sparks was initially a local project. Philip, the founder, has already working with local schools for some time through Transition Bath. He was using spreadsheets to analyse energy data for them and the council.

A Bath: Hacked hack day provided the opportunity for Philip to work with others from the local tech community to prototype an online service. We then took it from there to something that was eventually launched to a range of schools in B&NES.

The team was originally all local. Philip, the energy analyst, working with a mixture of developers, students, educators and others. A mixture of local expertise. The focus was very much on delivering benefits for our local schools.

This feels like it firmly fits within the definition of “community tech”.

My original idea was to offer Energy Sparks as an open source platform that other communities could deploy and use for themselves. With very limited funding, and with the initial team being largely volunteers, I wasn’t sure we could scale up the service to support other areas. Or even get access to the necessary data to make that possible.

So I was interested in exploring a more decentralised model that would allow other areas to run the service for themselves.

While I was working at the Open Data Institute I’d helped lead a short research project looking at how to scale local, open data enabled innovation. I’d seen so many interesting things created for local areas, but also felt frustrated when trying to replicate them locally. Recognising that others might build on your work, and planning for that to happen, seemed to be an important part of making that successful.

So I was keen to see if this model might work for Energy Sparks. Ultimately it didn’t. For several reasons.

Firstly, while we had interest from other areas, there wasn’t the technical capability necessary to actually launch and run a local version of the service. All of the code was available. It was possible to run it on free or very cheap infrastructure, but it still needed some technical skill to customise and deploy. And those who were interested in reusing the service weren’t necessarily technical, or have access to developers or a local community who could support them.

Secondly, it proved easier to secure funding to scale, than it was to help others secure the funding they needed locally. I think this is because funders seem mostly interested in scaling things up, rather than in seeing things replicated.

We’d pieced together funding (and a lot of volunteer effort) from the “ODI Summer Showcase”, Bath & West Community Energy, the Nature Save Trust and others to support the early development.

The scale up support came from the BEIS NDSEMIC innovation competition. That supported hiring a team and investing further in the technology. Allowing more of that spreadsheet based analysis to be turned into an automated tool.

There are clearly economies of scale to be had in scaling up. But it also has its own challenges. While it might not have been right for Energy Sparks, I still think there are benefits to be had from replicating technology locally and not just scaling upwards. It just needs a good alignment of motivation, funding and skills. Something I hadn’t fully appreciated at the outset.

It was through that BEIS funding and then later support from the Ovo Foundation, Centrica and more recently the Department for Education that we’re now able to offer a national service, which is free for state schools. Today we now have a core team of eight people and a network of freelancers.

The code is still open source. But it’s now more of a transparency measure or insurance policy than an attempt to collaboratively build the technology.

Our shift to a national service means our notion of community has changed.

For example, we’re no longer primarily place-based. But there is still place-based activity and engagement through our partnership with Egni. Egni are running a package of educational and creative workshops with a range of schools in Wales. Energy Sparks is a core component of that. Together we’re able to deliver on our goals whilst supporting them in achieving their goals of creating more community-owned clean energy. Working together rather than in competition.

If Energy Sparks is a “platform”, this is the kind of platform we want it to be.

Our community is now the schools and teachers using Energy Sparks to tackle the energy crisis and educate young people about climate change. We’re creating steering groups in Wales and England to involve them more with our planning, whilst continuing to engage through existing networks of sustainability and climate groups.

I’m proud of having had the opportunity to be involved in the project and to continue to be part of the team working to deliver more impact through our work.

I’m looking forward to seeing what other projects spring up from the Power To Change fund.