In designing the methodology, the project was selected as the unit of analysis to account for BTR activity on crowdfunding platforms. Likewise, other decisions were made as to the specific platforms to be used and the criterion to classify BTR projects. The sections below further present those decisions and the methods developed to identify projects run by BTR organisations on each of the platforms.
The first thing that becomes apparent when conducting any kind of research on BTR activity is the need to establish a working definition for such a concept. To that purpose, a very concrete notion as to what can be considered a BTR organisation was selected from the multiple definitions documented in the Third Sector Research literature.
Namely, the term BTR organisations is used in the context of this project to refer to those organisations that, while carrying out voluntary activity with a social purpose, remain unregistered and unregulated. That is to say, they do not appear in official registers such as the Register of Charities by the Charity Commission. In summary, it describes those organisations that are under the ‘regulatory radar’1.
Crowdfunding is defined as ‘the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet’2. The fact that BTR organisations lack a legal structure implies that they might not be able to raise funds for their activity through the conventional channels used by organisations with a registered formal status. Therefore, crowdfunding platforms constitute an available alternative to BTR organisations in terms of funding.
In order to select the crowdfunding platforms to be used in the project the following questions were posed: what platforms are likely to be broadly used by BTR groups in the UK in order to reach their targeted audience? what platforms do actually have enough data on groups that can be considered BTR organisations? what platforms present a suitable data structure to allow for the deployment of co-link analysis, the method selected to map BTR activity?
As the scope of this project is limited to the study of BTR organisations within the UK, CrowdingIn.com, a directory of crowdfunding platforms that operate in this country, was used to select the platforms. Crowdfunder and Spacehive seemed to be the best option in that both present sufficient data on the type of organisations sought.
Spacehive is said to be the world's first crowdfunding platform for civic projects3. It is primarily aimed at local projects of an infrastructural nature. A civic project, as defined on the platform, is ‘anything that brings a benefit to a space that's accessible to the public - either permanently or temporarily. Projects could be new community centres, free public WiFi networks, rooftop gardens, street festivals’4 and so on. As projects on this platform are intended for public use, they can be deemed to have a social purpose to a certain extent. As a result, it seemed that Spacehive would be a suitable place to look for projects run by BTR organisations.
Crowdfunder is currently the UK’s leading reward-based crowdfunding platform. By April 2014, it was found to have more projects than all other UK platforms5. Thus, even if it is a more general-purpose platform, it presents a significant amount of projects with the kind of social purpose that characterises BTR groups. Or in other words, enough relevant data. Furthermore, both platforms present an appropriate data structure to deploy co-link analysis, as further explained in the subsection below.
In going through the process of selecting platforms for the project, other types of platforms were also taken into account. In fact, Facebook was initially selected along with the two crowdfunding platforms above. Namely, Facebook Groups6. However, the idea of using Facebook for this project was eventually dropped, as it was not possible to get Facebook consent to collect data from the platform in the intended way7.
The main method used to identify new BTR groups in crowdfunding platforms is co-link analysis, which was implemented for the first time in the Issue Crawler. The Issue Crawler, a web application developed by the Digital Methods Initiative, deploys co-link analysis to enable the location and analysis of ‘issue networks’ on the Web, defined as a set of web pages ‘dealing with a common theme that are connected by hyperlinks’89.
The Issue Crawler deploys co-link analysis in the following way: from a set of seeds or website URLs entered by the user, the crawler10 returns only the URLs of those sites that receive links from at least two of the seeds. The resulting websites will be part of the issue network of the seeds. In order to achieve a set of results that effectively represent an issue space, it is advisable that the seeds be representative actors within that particular issue space. Issue Crawler has been used in the past to render visible ‘issue spaces’ such as climate change11.
In the framework of this project, co-link analysis is used to identify a set of crowdfunding projects thematically related, rather than web pages, departing from a single seed project. Any project on those platforms could be used as a seed, that is to say, as the initial project from where to start the search - or crawl - of new projects by following its hyperlinks.
As this implies shifting the focus from crawling the whole Web to crawling specific platforms, co-link had to be adapted to fit the particular data structure on the selected platforms. On these platforms, projects do not show hyperlinks to other projects. Instead, each project has hyperlinks to its backers’ profile pages, and these pages, hyperlinks to the pages of all the projects they have pledge money to.
As a result, co-link analysis is deployed to follow the connections or hyperlinks between two different objects: the projects concerned and their contributors. Thus, given a single seed project, new projects can be obtained. The premise here is that only the projects that have at least two contributors in common with the seed will be captured for further analysis. That is two say, projects that have been funded by at least two people who also pledged funds to the seed project.
The new projects are expected to present a thematic relation with the seed and between themselves. That is to say, if a seed project is selected that pursues a social aim that has to do with the environment, the projects obtained from that seed will all be expected to revolve around a similar theme.
Meeting the premise above didn’t prove to be a sufficient condition to ensure that the new projects are run by the type of organisations sought in this research. Therefore, two extra conditions were established in order filter the projects resulting from the co-link. Namely:
Being run by BTR organisations. It is usual to find projects on these platforms that, while aimed at a social purpose, were created by registered organisations, from charities to different types of social enterprises, and therefore, do not count as being below the radar. In order to identify those projects run by BTR organisations, two different filters were developed, as explained in the next section.
Being worth studying. Projects on crowfunding platforms are often developed over an extended period of time during which the organisations behind them can be considered to be active. Thus, the successfully funded project seemed a good indicator of sufficient and significant activity beyond the purely digital domain. As only successful projects do actually receive the money to be realised, projects that have not reached their funding target will be discarded.
Using categories to classify both the seed projects and the projects resulting from deploying co-link analysis seemed a suitable approach to the exploration of thematic relations between projects. The initial idea was to select a set of external categories. To that aim, different classification systems used in previous voluntary sector research in the UK to categorise third sector organisations were explored. The classification system used by the National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises seemed a good alternative for this project.
External categories seemed the best option for Facebook, as groups on this platform are not labelled with a thematic category. However, as projects on the crowdfunding platforms selected do present a thematic category, the above approach was discarded. As a result, platform categories rather that external categories were eventually used to classify the projects obtained from these platforms.
When testing the use of co-link analysis as presented above, it became apparent that the number of new projects returned was too low considering that the complementary filters had not been applied yet. Therefore, a second iteration of co-link analysis was developed in order to obtain a higher number of projects from a single seed project.
That is to say, the projects returned when running the co-link analysis using the initial seed project, are then used as the seeds for the second iteration. The resulting set of projects output by the app will include those projects obtained from both, the first and the second iteration of co-link analysis.
The original method aimed at filtering out projects by BTR organisations was not eventually developed for Crowdfunder, only for Spacehive, as described in the next subsection. Instead, an alternative method was implemented for that purpose. This method is based on the fact that registered organisations tend to make explicit their legal status on the description of their projects on the platform.
In developing the method, a set of keywords were selected from the description of a sample of projects on Crowdfunder to account for the most common ways in which registered organisations describe their legal status on the platform12. This method is deployed such that the app checks whether the selected keywords are shown on the description of the projects returned from the co-link, and if so, discards them, keeping only projects that do not contain those specific keywords.
The filter that checks if projects are worth studying was implemented to return only those projects that had reached their funding target within the present or previous year. The later allows to ensure that the organisations behind projects are ‘alive’ at the moment data is collected. This information can be extracted from the panel on the right side of project pages.
Even though the data structure on this platform is suited to deploy co-link analysis, this method was not eventually employed due to the lack of the relational data needed for that purpose. That is to say, at the time the method was being implemented it became apparent that funders hardly ever contribute to more than one project. This might be due to the local nature of Spacehive projects that results in funders contributing exclusively to projects in their own area.
The reason why it was decided to go ahead with the deployment of a more simple methodology for this platform is that Spacehive is specifically addressed at civic projects, which are presumed to have a social purpose. Thus, it seemed that development of suitable methods to filter out projects based on the complementary conditions would nevertheless allow to identify BTR organisations on this platform.
As co-link analysis was not being used, an alternative way to primarily select new projects had to be devised. Opportunely, Spacehive presents ways to filter out results based on certain conditions. Thus, a crawler was developed that uses that platform feature to capture projects from all categories that comply with the condition of having succeeded in meeting their funding target. As Spacehive do not provide the date in which projects reached their target, all successfully funded projects are kept for further analysis.
The method intended to identify projects run by BTR organisations combines two different filters: the keywords filter already described and another one that checks whether the names of the organisations behind Spacehive projects appear on certain registers13. If this happens to be the case, the project is discarded. Otherwise, it will be included in the results output by the app. This filter was implemented for Spacehive because on this platform, unlike on Crowdfunder, the username of the project promoter usually matches the name of the organisation behind the project, provided it is a registered organisation14.
1McCabe, A., Phillimore, J. 2009. Exploring below the radar: issues of theme and focus.http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tsrc/documents/tsrc/working-papers/working-paper-8.pdf
6Facebook Groups, seemed a good option according to the project purpose for several reasons. Firstly, Facebook is at present the most popular social networking platform within the UK*, what makes it suitable for BTR groups that want to reach a broad audience in order to be widely heard and joint by potential members. Secondly, the data structure on Facebook Groups allows the deployment of co-link analysis, as the pages of groups link with the individual pages of their members on the platform and vice versa.
Furthermore, Facebook Groups, as it name suggest, is specifically addressed to groups. This presents a big advantage. Namely, that the object of study and the unit of analysis on the platform refer to the same thing, ‘groups of people’, what makes the identification of BTR organisations more straightforward. Moreover, the tools made available by Facebook Groups make it specially suitable for informal groups like BTR organisations, as they might lack the IT tools that registered organisations use for the coordination of their activity.
7While Facebook provides an API that can be used by applications to collect user data, it does not allows to collect data by other means such as harvesting bots, robots, spiders, or scrapers, unless formal permission is obtained. As the data needed to deploy co-link analysis was not available through the Facebook API, it became apparent that the only possible way to deploy the method was to develop a crawler or spider, for which formal permission was ask. However, no response was ever received.
8Marres, N. 2012. The re-distribution of methods: On intervention in digital social research, broadly conceived.http://research.gold.ac.uk/7773/1/Marres_redistribution_of_methods.pdf
9The Issue Crawler deploys co-link analysis in the following way: from a set of seeds or website URLs entered by the user, the crawler returns only the URLs of those sites that receive links from at least two of the seeds. The resulting websites are expected to be relevant actors on the Issue Network of the particular theme introduced by the seeds.
10A crawler is a program that automatically visits a list of URLs entered by the user, called ‘seeds’, identifies the hyperlinks shown on each of those pages, and adds them to the list of URLs to visit.