Impact story: Social media as a source of data

Merton Mutual Aid is a grassroots community network in South London, set up to support vulnerable Merton residents during the COVID-19 crisis. The group operates entirely online, with platforms set up to connect neighbours to one another, and to provide support and help to those most in need. The community Facebook group now has 3,000 members, and there are ward-based WhatsApp groups with 30-50 people actively signed up to them across the borough.


The initial impetus was important, with a few people being able to make the connections happen through social media platforms. After that, within a day of setting up, Merton Mutual Aid was receiving requests for support from local residents and offers to help by community members ready to volunteer. From there, the network grew organically and exponentially as the Covid-19 crisis deepened; within the first two weeks of lockdown, some 1,000 people joined the platforms, including local councillors, voluntary groups and local businesses, with numbers swiftly growing after that.

Activities carried out by volunteers have included help with shopping, picking up prescriptions and dog walking. They have provided assistance with basics to those in most need, such as delivering food and clothing and furniture donations – the latter in partnership with the London Furniture Collective. They have worked alongside the local GP Federation to enable oxygen monitoring on doorsteps and have made and distributed masks. Volunteers have also carried out mini-activities to get the community to interact and have some fun; a collection for paramedics was also well received.

The group had to quickly come up with a relevant policy that enabled volunteers to have the confidence to assist their neighbours; the approach to volunteering had to be ‘soft’ as well as secure. They drew up guidance providing a policy for mutual consent, rather than having a formalised DBS checking which would have taken time to process.

“Questions about safeguarding came up a lot. People were reluctant to volunteer. This was the biggest barrier to enabling people to volunteer with neighbours. We had to be clear about the role of a community volunteer and the duty of care we have for the health, wellbeing and safety of each community member. The guidance we put together for volunteer and community members was endorsed by the local council which gave people the confidence to volunteer.”

Using social media to collect data

The group have a website and a database but, beyond that, no real paperwork or documentation for data gathering; most information, they say, ‘is in our heads’. The group report ‘99% satisfaction/positive feedback’. They do have statistics and comments from their Facebook page, receiving ‘beautiful messages’ also by text and on WhatsApp, giving feedback that they were making a difference to neighbours and that they were doing ‘the right things at the right time’.

As they have grown, the group have continued to ‘keep it informal, keeping it organic … [as this is] what has worked’, keeping the platforms open and the communication lines available with some light monitoring and managing.

However, this ‘not over-managing’ poses a challenge in cases of ‘inappropriate behaviour or comments’ or where members might be using it for ‘political gain’ or to gain community publicity. The group have also had to be careful about putting out messages on behalf of voluntary organisations and particularly on behalf of council in case people misinterpret the role of the organisation as a mouthpiece for the authorities rather than an independent organisation responsive to community needs.

If you are thinking of doing something similar we suggest you:

  1. Read Evaluation Support Scotland’s guidance on using social media to evaluate activities. Read more here.
  2. Find out how SWAN manage to keep anonymity when receiving feedback virtually. Check it out here.

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