Those things I’ve learned through my role as the Digital Commonwealth project coordinator…

Thursday night’s Digital Commonwealth finale showcase marked the end of a project that I had been involved in and represented for over 2 years. I was in a full time post (funded by Big Lottery Fund Scotland) from August 2013 – December 2014 and from January 2014, I’d been retained through UWS for 1-2.5 days a week to completed and wrap up the many elements that the project sparked – as well as coordinating the production of the outputs for dissemination that had been produced by the delivery team.

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(Photos from John Popham)

After hearing (wonderfully live) from some of the participants that took part in the creative voices (songwriting and spoken word) elements of the project on Thursday, I’d realised (for me) how much of the project had been mediated through my screens. When the lights went up at the end of the performances – I realised that it was finally over, not just Digital Commonwealth – but much of the other projects that I’d been connected to over the last 4 years – citizenrelay, media2012 and even as far back as some of the work I did during my PhD data collection – waaay back in Feb 2010 at the Vancouver 2010 Games.

Project coordinators united - myself and Alison McCandlish (Education Coordinator)

Project coordinators united – myself and Alison McCandlish (Education Coordinator)

I felt a little sad, because it has been such a massive and core part of my work identity for such a long time – but ultimately, being able to see a project from start to a natural and happy conclusion has been incredibly… liberating? Empowering? I’m not entirely sure what the word is – but one of my colleagues who I’d been working with on an element of the project said to both myself and my friend and coordinator-in-crime Alison, that we’d both came on so much throughout the project.

I definitely agree in terms of my own work – It helped that the whole project was pretty much captured and shared online throughout – watching random YouTube clips to find screen-grabs for the final event, I’ve had about 15 different hair styles, lost weight (and slightly better at dressing myself👌), got better at presenting work and ideas (I thought I was ok at presenting but my confidence took a massive knock when I had to suspend my PhD) and ultimately have became a better teacher and communicator in the process.

Writing this on World Mental Health Day, I also wanted to note about how I’m less angry/anxious as well – I’m not angry at all, haven’t been for at least a year. But that has less to do with the project and more about having to address a bunch of unaddressed mental health stuff that seemed to have coincided at the same time of the Games. I had a lot to be busy with and I think that helped. It was rewarding to pull together to something like at the same time as trying to reign in anxiety, got to work with good people, who understood and empathised with, as well as getting to getting to ‘repair’ some of the associations I’d had with a previous games. In all honestly, London 2012 just had me freaked out…

I remember how proud I was when I got that job – I’ve done a lot of short term contracts, I’m used to being included into projects because I’m there and I have a particular skillset – and I’ve reluctantly committed to longer projects because of this shadow of a “not quite funded enough to live on” PhD hanging over me for the last half-decade. This job was the first job I’ve had where I’d had to apply through open call, meet an interview panel, work hard to get the job and that’s even before I could begin to start it. I remember feeling like if I didn’t get it – I wouldn’t know what I would have done. I was emotionally invested in the projects that had come before (and inspired) the grant application – and I would have taken part in the Glasgow games if I’d got the job or not.

It hasn’t been a walk in the park. I think at one point in mid-delivery (around Easter 2014), I tried to count the amount of workshops the project had delivered up until that point – including schools and community media groups. We were sitting at nearly 200+ successfully delivered – and yet, we were sitting in the office in Paisley, worrying about the next round of workshops – trying to cross off local authorities, find schools and groups who might want to take part in ‘our idea’ – and getting disappointed when we found out that people couldn’t make it, or we couldn’t find a time where and when it would work.

Access to technology-wise, we’d hear stories about facilities not being equipped with appropriate Internet access, or popular websites being blocked – even when we’d be assured that they’d be opened up for workshops. Alison and I were the mediators between 3rd party trainers, venues who had kindly donated space for free, and representatives who potentially had access to the people who’d benefit from the workshops. Expectations varied greatly – the concept of ‘digital’ meant vastly different things to different people – and making sure that you reach the people who’d benefit from it the most was always a constant focus.

Some saw it as an opportunity for digital literacies training (and the project was definitely grounded in that philosophy), others saw it closer to social media, blogging & media/film making or even coding and/or ICT training. And this was ok. But we needed to be sure that the project that they’d be undertaking, the trainer they’d meet and the expected outputs they’d produce all matched up – otherwise there was a real danger that there would be a rather confused everybody when the workshop was to take place. This was a massive learning curve for us – I’d dealt with similar issues on an individual workshop or specific project, but never on such a big and a national scale, we really were making a map of how and where different forms of digital participation were emerging – however, as the project progressed, we started to see work being produced and shared online– which in turn ended up being used as examples to show other groups of what indeed, is possible.

Momentum was so important – and trying to keep groups engaged is always a challenge, in particular when we are dealing with community settings where there is a reliance on volunteers, people can move roles and locations suddenly & an incentive to participate and to continue to participate is often required and made clear.

Being able to offer (free) workshops to people is great, but it isn’t always the right time, or the right context – for the first 3 months of the project (when we were still in 2013) I felt that I was doing much of my pitching around why the Commonwealth Games were important to Scotland – and not why digital participation is important to wider society. It got much easier once the bell tolled for 2014 and there were a lot of other projects out there working alongside us to capitalize on the momentum of the event.

Tapping into existing events – Although we won’t be having an event like that for some time now, tapping into events will always be a method I’d recommend when considering other forms of training in this area – ready made content, you are getting people at their best and are primed to chat, there is an audience for it. As long as we keep having conferences and seminars (in an academic context) and fairs, sports days and creative performances (in a community context), we will have a starting point to encourage people to begin to tell stories and find ways to represent themselves online.

And that’s the final part of this blog post – learning about the importance of representation. I was particularly delighted that our creative writing trainer Andrea McNicoll had managed to coordinate that one of her groups (Lochbrae Sheltered Housing, Rutherglen) to be able to come down to Ayr for our final event. They were featured on the front cover of the project’s printed anthology, they were featured in the documentary film – I’d went out to visit them during one of their sessions nearly 2 years previously on a cold November in 2013 – and through hearing what they’d written and worked on together during the sessions several times over the past two years, I’d felt like knew them.

But they didn’t know me – I’d just been a small part in setting up the workshop, promoting workshops and passing footage onto Pete, who’d be making the documentary for us. And this was particularly important to note, as Thursday’s event gave me a proper chance to really listen and experience the story – like really experience. This was the central feature for the project. I’ve found unless I’ve been at least a few of the events or workshops in the duration, I could just be still sitting on my laptop, worrying about the next thing in the diary. Spinning plates.

As a coordinator, or a project manager, or a content manager, you are so wrapped up in making sure things are scheduled, recruited, promoted, justified, evaluated, legally and ethically sound, that it takes so much to truly stop, switch off your phone for 3 hours (the event was in the signal-less, wifi-less performance space deep in the bowels of our Ayr campus) and concentrate on exactly what is there.

And this is why I suggest, or emphasis that during this project it was not really about blog hits, or numbers or even the amount of times something was and where it was shared (but it does help, sometimes) – it was about bringing that story into existence, to say it out loud, to allow it to be told. And it seems so straight forward, so straight forward that you can almost miss it when you are busy trying to convince people and make it happen.

I’ve learnt a lot working on this project and it is time to move on, knowing that we can take the ethos and learning from it into new spaces. It is very rare that you get to see things right through from the start to the end and for that I’m very grateful to have been part of it all.

The Digital Commonwealth Memory Box

The Digital Commonwealth Memory Box