A Public Problem-based Community Platform in School Club Setting
This paper proposes a design project for communities specifically for communicating problems the community deals with. The main goal of the platform project is to enable its members (especially the newcomers) to participate and support the community in maintaining its sustainability. Since such platform is very general concept, I was hoping to narrow down my thinking about it to a more specific type of community. I recently started interacting with Hack Club, a community of high-school coders. Hack Club itself is a pioneer regards to transparency and a participatory approach in my opinion, which doesn't really apply to the clubs in general. It's interesting to me that the clubs basically provide informal education in the physical world and at the same time have really close relation to the IT and online, open-source world. If it ever turned out to be somehow helpful, hypothetically the network of about 600 clubs could profit from some kind of platform that would make participation in the club easier.
The initial outline of the project was based on the observation of online communities that usually die fairly quickly. Assuming a lot of communities are in their basis build around problems and challenges, I derive two reasons for the high death rate. Communities either fail to approach problems that are big enough to attract attention and energy to solve them or fail in the process of solving them and sustaining in their pursuit. Note that solving is almost never a matter of state, but rather a processual thing that does not have to end. Many communities are built around problems and expertise gained over time, but they fail to reflect it. The problem-based perspective on communities is loosely based on the concept of Communities of practice. CoP‘s are “focused on a domain of knowledge and over time accumulate expertise in this domain. They develop their shared practice by interacting around problems, solutions, and insights, and building a common store of knowledge” . Another observation is that communities are not being transparent in the right way for newcomers and people who would like to participate in them. While In communities of practice and theories of peripheral participation and situated social learning, the less experienced members progress towards being experienced members through incremental interaction with the experienced, centre members of the community  .
Many online communities default to having online social media to communicate, but there are usually not many clear actionable go-to resources to start contributing and belonging apart from being present in communities’ social media. In other words, it’s easy to join communities’ online touch-points and social media, but it’s hard to be a member of the community in a real sense, and be useful for the community to build a meaningful identity there. In the project presentation, I tried to describe the sort of need for a transparent problem-based community management platform that would be welcoming for active participation. In this project, I'm trying to convey what it means in a more specific community setting.
Balancing the tradeoffs of problem-based community processes, implications of transparency, newcomer participation and sustainability are the main themes that emerge in my reasoning about introducing the platform into the club’s community. I cover them bellow.
A useful amount of transparency
100% transparency is not possible so people often talk about transparency when they actually mean only incomplete transparency. Based on whether the community already does some kind of internal documentation or transparency work, increasing transparency usually means additional work for most communities that needs to be taken into account. That the additional overhead of making inner processes in communities transparent is very costly and communities are more likely to utilise this kind of transparency and openness towards newcomers if they operate in online global environment where its more expected that people participate more liquidly and the pool of talent is bigger. In our case the community functions in very limited, local environment of secondary school. The transparency practices of online communities may not hold there.
Furthermore, it takes us to see the paradox of transparency work as there will always be things that cannot be transparent or put into record in such a system. The simplest example is the sort of project management and the verbalisation work required to describe various problems the community has on such a platform. Should this kind of work be requested in form of a task in the platform? Maybe to some degree, but preferably not. It will be always about finding the right degree of transparency that is useful for the community and its environment.
A high degree of transparency might reduce the community’s ability to compete, so naturally, not everything may be turned transparent in communities that are more connected to the market economy. It’s worth noting that product management is built on monitoring customer needs and might require opening up to customers and communities around products. Thus even competitive organisations manage public roadmaps and RFC documents to gather feedback from the market. In some sense, it is shift towards being open to participation and higher transparency, although less related to our case.
Aldo de Moor’s work showed us the research project that was mapping thinking and decision-making processes in urban communities . One of its motivations was that communities can explore maps of these processes in communities in different cities and get inspiration from them. Such mind mapping is basically a technique for increasing transparency. Similarly, making scenarios, milestones, problems and bounties public gives its readers an instant peek into the functioning of an organisation.
A similar effect of allowing sharing, copying and learning between organisations that are transparent, can be expected in the case of our project. This kind of transparency actually introduces a different form of competition that we can observe in the world of open-source ethos. That is people can form new communities based on their understanding of the different communities and possibly leverage the access to the inner workings of different communities, following in their opinion better ways of doing things. Building and maintaining the knowledge base is a common topic in communities of practice. In our case, we want to keep a record of all unusual decisions in the running of the community so other members could, later on, discover their reasoning behind certain decisions and reinvent the community by seeing its history. By knowing why they did certain things a certain way and not the other, the next generation of members can leastways imitate the best practices of their predecessor. Finally, by maintaining the active problems, the community should become more self-aware of it own processes, inefficiencies and opportunities. An ideal is to eventually lead to the development of design thinking above the community itself.
Lowering the barrier of participation
The community becomes more accessible by being more transparent as the big picture of the community’s current problems is publicly available. This can have a very motivational effect because newcomers can instantly see the problems, people, their contributions and their way of thinking around problems. However, it can be also very intimidating in term of sudden information overload “how do I start in here?”. Experienced members of the community can maintain list of real valuable problems in the community, that are at the same time accessible for newcomers and less experienced members. These members can pick carefully selected bite-sized problems to work on and participate in the community in meaningful way. Thus, the platform represents call to actions for instant participation eg. “we need to design poster for next months event schedule”, “prepare short lecture on topic XY”, “update footer on our website”, “research ways to get charitable funding, how do similar clubs in the country get money?” etc. that would traditionally require talking to somebody, being more connected to the community or understanding its needs.
Relatively recent crowdfunding platforms, membership platforms and consequent gig-economy and web3 trends seem to be all sticking together because the Integration of communities, their funding, actions and goals/problems is now possible, although mostly using tools that are still very new and risky (see DeFi, DAO bounty platforms). The Commonfare.net space for social innovation focused on making the often invisible acts of caring visible through a platform was actually very close to this related to non-profit communities. The platform even had its own closed economy with its internal currency . So-called social DAOs and projects like $CARE token, or carbon credit tokens and so on are very close to this in my opinion. In this case, it is important that the platforms enable community to use and reflect the economical incentives by setting valuations (bounties) for the selected problems.
Example: a high school club setting
There is a non-profit organisation and a programming/hacker community at a high school. With about 10 active members, the community meets weekly in the space provided by their school. The community also receives a 50 USD monthly donation through its school’s fund besides irregular small donations from parents and school’s friends. Individual meetings and mutual lectures are arranged by the members themselves, mostly the founding members, and it is up to them how they decide the structure of individual lectures. There is a large amount of work that the founding members have to invest in the running of the community.
The community meetings are usually structured with a short welcome, joint activity and subsequent discussion. Designing a unique fun educational activity in programming is a difficult activity that takes at least 5 hours, which they cannot always do. Therefore, they try to use various resources, which, however, need to be tested before the meeting. Alternatively, they try to regularly invite expert guests from the world of programming and technology, who will give them a lecture or joint discussion on a technical topic. Community members need to be informed in advance about the content of the meeting, which is usually done through a common chat. The community publishes summaries of meetings for potential members and a monthly report of its activities on its website in order to saturate the school’s need for information about the return of its subsidy and space rental. A poster needs to be printed and posted around school with a list of scheduled meetings at least monthly to attract potential members and keep other high schoolers aware of the existence of the community.
Most of the work is done by the founding members, for whom the management of the club will not be sustainable in the long term. They are looking for ways to promote their community, attract new members and build momentum but they must consider that they are students in the last years of high school and they will soon become students of distant universities. Ideally, other members of the community can take over their position but there is a small guarantee the community will survive. Together with their school advisor, they seek incentives to give the onus of community care to its members in a healthy way while maintaining the tradition.
Imagined technological solution
A partial solution to the described situation is a problem-based community platform designed specifically so that it could manage and communicate its goals and related problems to be solved. The basic idea is to make transparent what the community leaders already have in their project management systems and the documentation tools they use to run the community. This could mean a completely new platform but an existing platform that allows for public project management and discussions.This approach clearly springs from the open-source ethos and is now natural for online organisations that seek problem-solving in the technological world. The platform would have the following properties highly derived from GitHub which is the preferred platform to use in the case of this community for its Issues feature.
- There would be a publicly available list of problems to which everyone can contribute, and create problem records. Problems are forced to have a unique serial number identifier, title and author assigned. It can also have a descriptions with a simple text editor features including attachments and a have a user comment section where solutions to the problems and other related things can be discussed.
- Each problem can have states Open or Closed. Only selected members of the community who are considered experienced have the privilege to set the problem’s state as Closed, but no problem can be deleted and thus disappear from the list completely.
- Each problem can have optional labels assigned. The list of possible labels is maintained by selected members of the community who are considered experienced.
- Each problem has its complete history available to the public, so its always trackable who made what change and when, as it is usual in event-driven software architecture (EDA).
- The problems could be viewed and projected in ways that are traditional in project management like: basic list, kanban, gantt, milestones, goals.
- User profiles show user’s complete history of contributions and events made to the platform.
I didn’t explore much about the participation of the community in the design process of the platform resp. service though at best, the project should be made public using a similar platform and follow a systematic design process. One of the reasons may be that I believe that building a real open-source MVP of such a platform could be done in a participatory way. The analysis of the community and the potential platform is still very general and rough but it suits the format of this text and it unravels angles I found interesting and valuable to consider. Although the essay ends up mostly in the level of motivation and thought experiment. Its main argument should be that by carefully adapting to the relatively simple platform, the initial founders of the community can pass control over the community and ensure the club’s knowledge it won’t be lost.
- I’m slowly realising that my biggest personal struggle is an inability to narrow my interest from highly general to more specific thing.
- In this case, it took me a while to realise I need to narrow the project down to something that would be actually doable in a reasonable amount of time in one person or a small team, and of course something I can write about in this format.
 Elayne Coakes and Steve Clarke, ‘Concept of Communities of Practice, The’,Encyclopedia of communities of practice in information and knowledge management. Idea Group Reference, Hershey, PA, pp. 92–96, 2006.
 J. Lave and E. Wenger,Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
 A. de Moor, ‘Co-Discovering Common Ground in a Collaborative Community: The BoostINNO Participatory Collaboration Mapping Case’, in_Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Communities & Technologies - Transforming Communities_, Vienna Austria, Jun. 2019, pp. 255–262. doi: 10.1145/3328320.3328404.
 M. Sciannamblo, M. L. Cohn, P. Lyle, and M. Teli, ‘Caring and Commoning as Cooperative Work: A Case Study in Europe’,Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., vol. 5, no. CSCW1, pp. 1–26, Apr. 2021, doi: 10.1145/3449200.