National Award for WIMPS
WIMPS picked up a national accolade recently when they won The Community Impact Award at the Tech4Good 2014 awards in London. Paul Smyth, Public Achievement Chief Executive Officer, tells us more about the organisation.
Could you tell us how WIMPS got started?
WIMPS started in 2004. The initial idea was to find an easy way to connect young people to elected representatives using a post-code driven database so that young people could identify and message all their elected representatives from Council to EU level.
Using the working title ‘Democrasearch’, we pulled together a group of 10 teenagers from across Northern Ireland with a team of web designers, and asked them to come up with a design for the website and a name for the project.
They came up with WIMP (Where Is My Politician?) and I encouraged them to add the ’S' and make it Where is My Public Servant - as we felt they needed to hold all those in power to account - not just the elected representatives.
What work do you do?
Most of our work is done through local ‘WIMPS Crew’. A Crew is a group of around 6 - 8 young people based in a local area. They meet on a weekly basis with a volunteer ‘Coach’, who helps them to identify and work on issues that are important to the group.
Our team trains and supports the coaches and also trains the young people in media production, so that they can interview local politicians and make films about issues in their communities.
Through this work the young people increase their political awareness and engagement, and become more interested in looking at important social issues.
They also get to meet people from a wide range of backgrounds, and regularly meet young people from other Crew. The issues vary widely from things such as local transport, the lack of facilities for young people, to wider issues, such as the campaign for votes at 16 and the campaign against paramilitary attacks.
Although WIMPS is seen as a technology project, most of our work is face to face with young people in their own communities. The technology creates effective ways for young people to get their message across.
You recently celebrated your 10th birthday - what have been your greatest achievements in this time?
There have been many highlights and achievements over the decade. In recent years these include Public Achievement’s Big Society Award, where several of the young people got to go to Downing Street to meet the UK Prime Minister, two young people speaking at a UNESCO Seminar in Paris, and of course our recent Tech4Good Award.
Other highlights include succeeding in getting the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote in favour of votes at 16, and the media coverage we got for the #StopAttacks campaign.
There are also many, many personal achievements - such as a young guy saying when he got into University that he would never have even thought of going to University before he joined WIMPS, and the young woman who went on her first flight, her first hotel stay and then met the Prime Minister in Downing Street!
What did the Community Impact Award mean to the organisation and what did you have to demonstrate in order to win?
It was particularly wonderful to win the Community Impact Award. We were up against some fabulous projects. We had to show the ways in which we have used technology to promote social good - so the judges were impressed by our political messaging system, the campaigning functions on the WIMPS website, and our use of social media and video.
They were also impressed at the courage exemplified in the project - that the young people were not afraid to discuss and address difficult and complex problems.
Why is tech so crucial to the work of WIMPS?
Technology is really important to all our work at Public Achievement. However, we see technology as a set of tools - a way of helping to address problems - but not a solution in its own right. Our core work is ‘Civic Youth Work’ - working to help young people to be more engaged critical citizens.
As young people spend vast amounts of their time in the social media space, it is important that we as youth workers are also there.
Technological tools can be used for social good or for destructive purposes. This depends in large part on the intentions of the user. We have found video to be an incredibly powerful way of engaging disengaged young people.
They love making films and will apply themselves to the research, planning and the acquisition of technical skills in order to make a good product that they are proud of.
The WIMPS project taps into this blend of film making and social media technologies to help young people to communicate effectively to those in positions of power.
How important you do you think technology is in the VCSE sector now?
In everything from running an effective office, through managing finances, to fundraising, engaging with donors and working with beneficiaries, board members and volunteers, technology is generating new and often more cost-effective ways of increasing the impact and reach of our sector.
Often technology is a low priority for organisations and funders, but in our view, it is vital to our mission. We think this will be increasingly so in the coming years - particularly in making effective use of various forms of data, as well as harnessing the opportunities of crowd funding and social media campaigns.
Sadly many funders don’t see the value - so it can be very difficult to get the resources to invest properly in technology and social media.
One of our best ever grants was from the Department of Social Development’s ‘Modernisation Fund’. It allowed us to buy our branded ‘WIMPSmobile’ van and pack it with film making equipment - as well as providing us with computer hardware and software for film production.
These kinds of grants are so rare these days, and for us it was a real game-changer in both our impact and our ability to raise funds through making films for other organisations.
How would you recommend other organisations take steps to improve their own digital footprint?
This really depends on the organisation but most organisations in our sector have been slow off the mark to engage effectively with social media.
In particular, many CEOs have been nervous about using it through fears about reputation damage.
Also social media needs to be integrated into other communication channels. Video can also be an incredibly effective way of communicating what we do - and few organisations here have used video to good effect.
Fortunately many good technology solutions - for example MailChimp for Ezines; or online donation or crowd funding platforms - are now free or very low cost to use.
A key area for our sector has to be around the effective use of public data (as well as our own data) - and I think this will be one of the most interesting areas of development and opportunity in the next few years.