Leveraging digital histories of use for resource-sharing organizations: The case of the Vancouver Tool Library
Authors: Anton Fedosov & Marc Langheinrich, Università della Svizzera italiana
Country: Case based in Canada, contributed from Switzerland
Case study type: Local initiatives
Keywords: Tool Sharing, Cooperative, Interaction Design
The Vancouver Tool Library (VTL) is a non-profit tool sharing cooperative. The VTL was established in 2011 in Vancouver (BC), Canada. It is a collective community resource that is run primarily by volunteers (around two dozen) and is coordinated by the board of directors (seven individuals elected by and among members). The VTL is motivated by “a vision of our community empowered by the tools and skills needed to transform their homes and neighbourhoods into vibrant spaces that reflect a commitment to sustainability”.
The VTL is a Community Service Co-operative, which operates under non-profit practices. In order to become a member, one may purchase the one-time $20 share and pay the annual maintenance fee ($45). In addition to the individual membership program, the VTL offers group membership for non-profits, local cooperatives and small businesses. The VTL accepts donations in the form of financial support and/or tools from private supporters and organizations. Ultimately, to support day-to-day operations, the VTL implements daily rental fees for some categories of tools.
We consider the VTL an interesting example of the collaborative economy not only for their actions (e.g., affordable access to tools, DIY learning opportunities) to support all communities “including women, non-binary people, LGBTQ2S, black people, indigenous people, people of colour, low income people, people with disabilities and intersections of the above”, but also to their commitment to environmental sustainability and waste reduction.
To-date, the VTL cooperative has over 2000 tools in their possession and serves over 2000 members. The tools vary from simple hand tools for home and garden maintenance (e.g., jack plane, pipe clamps) to high-end power tools (e.g., table saws, air compressors). More unusual equipment, such as precision sewing machines and a vintage cider press, are also available. The VTL uses MyTurn (www.myturn.com), an online inventory system. It provides essential features of tool tracking and rental, as well supporting the sale of excess equipment, and is designed specifically to “easily tap into emerging Collaborative and Circular Economies”.
While MyTurn provided comprehensive statistics about the registered rental transactions (e.g., who rented the tool, when the tool was checked out and returned, and any associated fees incurred from the rental), details of the borrowers’ experiences were largely unknown to different library stakeholders. In order to help to capture the breadth of member’s tool-use experiences, and to unveil the creative potential of members, we created Roaming Objects, a mobile application that aims to support the capture, retrieval, and sharing of digital experiences with tools that “roam” from one borrower to another. We deployed the application with 16 members of the VTL. Our goal was to use the Roaming Objects application as a probe to investigate people’s attitudes toward, and perceptions of, digital records of shared tools, to support the capture and review of digital experiences with shared resources, and to explore how these experiences might shape their practices on individual and social levels. Our research methodology draws on related approaches, including technology probes and research through design.
We conducted the study in the winter of 2016 for two months. During this period, we twice observed participants for several hours at the VTL’s street level location, and used the shadowing method to follow a volunteer at the checkout desk. During these field observations, we also took note of activities occurring in the VTL (e.g., tool maintenance and organization). These observations illustrated well the lack of visibility of members’ work outside of the tool library, and the lack of accountability for the tools themselves. We took extensive notes during multiple informal, open-ended conversations with key stakeholders (i.e., volunteers and members of staff) and took accompanying documentary photographs. We also recruited 16 members of the VTL to install and to use the Roaming Objects app to annotate and share the ongoing work that they did with the borrowed tools. At the end of the two-month period, we invited them for follow-up interviews to discuss and reflect on their experiences with the app.
Our data analysis drew on various sources from our fieldwork: participant observations, participants’ reports on the rental experiences through the Roaming Objects app, and semi- structured interviews. Through encoding and sharing digital histories of tool-use, our Roaming Objects system elicited a range of self-reflections across members of the tool- sharing cooperative – from contemplations on personal relations and uses of tools, to mindful attention to the care and sharing of tools and projects.
Our findings show that the Roaming Objects system provoked members’ personal reflections about shared tools in diverse ways: from spending time learning the tool through exercising personal creativity, to representing themselves through digital capturing, sharing, and archiving experiences. We found that these shared digital “histories of use” stimulated speculations about the shared tools themselves and, over time, their value at a broader community-level. Moreover, our participants suggested several uses of the system beyond tool sharing organizations: rental-driven services such as sport equipment shops (e.g., for outdoor gear rentals) and vehicle sharing platforms (e.g., car or bike sharing) could further benefit from the histories of use that accompany the experience with the shared resource.
Our full study report (see below) makes two contributions. First, we describe the design of the Roaming Objects system and list the findings of our eight-week deployment study in the Vancouver Tool Library. Second, we propose design opportunities that facilitate sharing both physical objects and digital information about their use, thus offering insights into how technology could better support resource sharing co-ops and collectives.
For full details, see:
Anton Fedosov, William Odom, Marc Langheinrich, and Ron Wakkary. 2018. Roaming Objects: Encoding Digital Histories of Use into Shared Objects and Tools. In Proceedings of the 2018 Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS '18). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1141-1153. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3196709.3196722