Libby Drew, founder of On Our Radar talks to us about the critical role of voice as a measure of inclusion.  While we recover from the pandemic, we also live with financial austerity, climate instability and deepening social inequality in our lives.  Radar are determined that the challenges ahead are not used as an excuse for the same voices to dominate our narratives, and that a rich tapestry of stories defy stigma and stereotypes.

Q. Tell me about the change you want to see in the world?  

A. Voice is a powerful measure of inclusion and strong vocal communities will pave the way to better informed, more effective, fair and healthier societies globally. 

On Our Radar is a specialist group of journalists, technologists, digital storytellers and development practitioners that uses community reporting to amplify the voices and experiences of those on the margins of society.  

We believe those on the frontlines of humanity’s toughest challenges hold incredible insight. Yet, those who are most at risk of harm or marginalisation are often the least likely to have the tools and networks to speak and be heard. 

By supporting communities to report their stories of lived experience, we are contributing to a paradigm shift in the way people and institutions perceive and engage with those experiencing vulnerability – from assumptive stereotypes that reframes them as a burden to acknowledging the value of their knowledge and potential to inform and drive social change.  

Q. Describe what you do.  

A. We work in partnership with those who shape societal systems, attitudes and behaviours, and those who hold the relevant lived experience to inform their work and platforms. This includes partnerships within news and media; governance and policy; community development and humanitarian action; and with communities worldwide facing exclusion or harm. 

To support them to harness community reporting, we establish and train reporter networks, co-design participatory communications strategies, adapt and develop accessible communications technology and co-produce award-winning media.  

We have our own curriculum for community research and reporting, as well as a community reporting platform, Radius, that helps organisations manage offline and online reporter networks. Our in-house productions team works sensitively with communities to share their stories via the media. Each project we support helps to demonstrate the value and quality of community reporting, and we aim to scale the potential for impact by getting successful models into the heart of influential sectors and organisations. We do this through our advisory work, sharing tools and learning, and building capacity among both communities and those with influence, leaving awareness and skills in place after our partnerships.  

Q. Tell us about your users and how have they been impacted by the pandemic?  

A. The pandemic has deepened inequality, exaggerating existing vulnerabilities and creating new environments for risk. We’ve developed new relationships with communities facing domestic violence, homelessness and isolation – all had an urgent need for support during the pandemic but also held valuable insight into priority issues that services, media houses and government wanted to better understand. The lockdown response significantly widened the digital gap and raised additional communication barriers for those we work with. This sharpened our resolve to create a suite of robust strategies and tools for offline and data-scarce communities and those designed out of technologies and platforms.  

We work around the world and travel restrictions highlighted the importance of having strong local actors and representatives, as well as the need to move away from our reliance on flying in outsider professionals to tackle social challenges. The pandemic also ran alongside the merger of DfID and the aid cuts, which have increased pressure on the most vulnerable communities around the globe and reduced our scope to support and collaborate with them. However, we have noticed a marked increase in UK interest in civic accountability mechanisms and community voice during the pandemic, which feels promising.  

Q. How did you respond to the needs of your users during the pandemic? 

A. As the risk increased and societies locked down, there was an urgent need to keep communities talking. It was essential that their voices were heard in a timely fashion by public audiences and institutions so national responses could be effective in tackling both entrenched and emerging crises alongside Covid-19.  

The pandemic posed additional access barriers for and to the communities we work with. Still, one of our biggest achievements of the past 18 months has been shifting to accessible remote training and mentoring tools so we could keep building community confidence and capacity, despite restrictions. We used a range of channels to reach people where they were, including SMS, voice tools, messengers and chat apps, as well as accessible e-learning platforms and peer training roles. These will continue to be of significant value to those with enduring access challenges, even when the pandemic subsides. 

Another rewarding project over the pandemic has been with Groundswell UK, working together to establish a national network of community reporters experiencing homelessness. Their mobile reporting was posted on a public site to help deepen a national conversation around safe housing and the insight has been shared routinely with NHS England to help them shape an accessible, inclusive and trauma-informed Covid response. We’ve since secured additional funding to develop an enhanced version of Radius, our community reporting platform, with other organisations tackling homelessness and responding to housing needs around the country.  

Q. How have the broader social issues that you’re addressing changed?

A. For societies to thrive, both the public and our institutions need to be well-informed and for that to happen, information systems need to be decolonised, democratised and equitable. Radar works to shift power through voice and narrative, transferring skills, networks and platforms so those who have traditionally been unheard can share their stories, knowledge and experiences. It is easy to assume that this involves minority groups, but the reality is that the majority of the world face digital, social, political, cultural, cognitive and economic barriers to speaking and being heard. Approximately half of the world remain offline, while women and girls are the least likely to have independent access to communication channels. Given the rate that our conversations, services and relationships are shifting online, that represents an enormous engagement gap and a significant loss of documented knowledge. Other groups such as young people and older people, those who are disabled, displaced or facing violence are often absent from our more formal forums.  

At the same time, trust in institutions, governments and media is at an all-time low; people want to hear from people with lived experience and value the authenticity of their stories. There is demand from every angle – from communities once overlooked as creators of news and information who now want a place in the discussion; from institutions and media houses who know there is an increasing mandate to involve those they represent in their systems and communications; and from audiences who detest fake news and are calling out bias, racism, sexism and colonial practices.  

The dual benefit of strong community reporting is that it responds to that demand and feeds a healthy well-informed society, and at the same time, offers a viable way to make community concerns visible and help tackle issues, improving the life chances and standards of living for those reporting.  

Q. How did Social Tech Trust’s support prepare you for this journey? 

A. We connected with Social Tech Trust in 2018 when we were included in the NT100 list of social tech innovations. That encouraged us to apply to the Tech To Unite challenge and we received support from the Trust to develop an MVP of Radius, our online community reporting platform. This pre-emptive investment in a tool for managing remote community reporter networks meant we were in a strong position to help services and organisations listen to and engage with the communities they serve and represent during the pandemic. This became particularly crucial in a lockdown environment. Beyond the funding, the specialist advice and the introduction to rich and diverse networks of social entrepreneurs have been invaluable.  

Q. What role do you think purpose-driven technology plays in shaping a better future? 

A. Technology is a tool – it can be put to great use or can do great harm. Yet,  what those involved in that debate often seem to overlook is that it is here to stay. Not engaging with technology from a clear purpose-driven perspective just leaves the space in the hands of those without concerns over improving people’s lives, safeguarding them from harm (technological or otherwise) and ensuring they are not left behind in an increasingly connected and digital world.  For Radar, this could not be more critical – we firmly believe that people have a right to a say in the decisions that affect their lives, and that telling their own stories of their own experiences can be an incredibly powerful way to make this happen.  

Without the digital technology we integrate into our methodologies, there are people we would not be able to hear from, the costs of reaching people and sharing their stories would be insurmountably high, and we would miss vital opportunities to bring people from marginalised communities along on the journey.  

Q. What’s next for Radar?

A. Radar turns 10 next year and, after a decade of experimenting with different models for community reporting, we are focused on reviewing and consolidating the most successful frameworks and resources so they are accessible to others and become more efficient to deploy and scale.  

We are also developing strategic partnerships that span a number of years, taking us beyond projects to work on organisation-wide systems and behaviours for harnessing community stories and insight. Alongside this influencing work, we have an interest in taking forward an independent productions house to enable us to work on flagship features that can inform public attitudes. We are also exploring how Radius might enable more organisations to listen better and engage their communities in conversation and storytelling. Finally, we have a vibrant country network in Sierra Leone that is becoming a self-managing chapter with scope to encourage regional community reporting and we are all excited to support that journey.  

Across the world, we are looking ahead to a period of financial austerity, climate instability and deepening social inequality. We are determined that the challenges ahead are not used as an excuse for the same voices to dominate our narratives. We need a rich tapestry of stories that defy stigma and stereotypes, share stories beyond our blindspot and help to set roadmaps for overcoming marginalisation. Community reporting is one part of a wider movement to rebalance power and we are excited to see where we can contribute and where that takes us.  

Find out more about On Our Radar on their website.

Published in November 2021