How can Technologists and Civil Society Organizations Work Together?
Today, the U.S. State Department* held its third Tech@State event focusing on Civil Society 2.0. The goal of this initiative is “to assist non-governmental (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in using new digital tools and technologies to increase the reach and impact of their work.” Today’s event was the first in a series of convenings that the State Department will be holding to bring together technologists, CSOs, and those who interface between the two groups. Participants hope to learn more about the challenges CSOs face and how the tech community can help.
Later this month, a TechCamp will be held in Santiago, Chile on November 20, 2010, followed by the global Random Hacks of Kindness event taking place online on December 4-5, 2010. According to the program’s site, “Global and regional technology and social media experts will work together with regional civil society representatives to determine specific need and build practical applications on the following themes: promoting social and economic opportunity; ensuring the safety of our citizens; strengthening effective institutions of democratic governance; and addressing the challenges of energy security and climate change."
Here’s highlights of thoughts shared and points made by this morning’s speakers:
Susan Swart, Chief Information Officer, U.S. Dept. of State
Susan describes how the State Department’s 21st century statecraft initiative and events like the program held today “symbolize the way [that] the State Department's use of tech has advanced over the years.” This initiative hopes to promote collaboration between technologists, NGOs, and CSOs.
Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation, Office of the Secretary of State
To Alec Ross, “Civil Society 2.0” means helping nonprofits, grassroots organizations and NGOs who are trying to create social or economic benefits for their communities to better execute their missions in the digital age. He notes that there is a need to overcome the disconnectedness often found between the tech community and CSOs, and that Civil Society 2.0 “at its core [is about] building a bridge between technologists and these grassroots organizations the world around.”
Maura O'Neill, Senior Counselor to the Administrator for Innovation at USAID
Maura mentions how the use of technologies like Ushahidi allowed the Haiti disaster to be the largest in terms of lives saved. She wonders how broadband and mobile technologies can be extended to accelerate achievement of development outcomes.
Brian A. Gallagher, President and CEO, United Way Worldwide
Brian discusses how an “old lumbering NGO like United Way” is moving from a fundraising organization to a social impact and community change organization. He describes that as we shift to a knowledge-based economy, NGOs also have to adapt and think differently about their mission and how to best reach and engage with supporters. In this digital age, how can opportunities best be presented at the community level? He mentions 211 - a phone service in the U.S. that shares information about volunteer opportunities and family services that received 16 million calls last year.
The United Way has created a strategy to mobilize people and connect them with one another. In association with their “Live United” campaign, supporters have uploaded a tremendous number of photos and videos online of people getting involved with their communities.
Tim O'Reilly, Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media
Tim notes that innovation happens in unexpected ways and doesn’t always come from the traditional channels. He stresses that to keep innovation going, create value during the building process so you build a generative system. The challenge in development is that oftentimes systems are built from the top-down and miss the bottom-up dynamics that generate change.
Tim shares two principles that can guide our actions as we move forward:
1. Build simple systems. He cites the simple system Twitter was built on, and how was the users who first started using hashtags. The company soon took notice, and began to integrate hashtags into their system structure.
2. System architecture should be based on small pieces, loosely joined. The units on which people act are small and connectible. He cites the Linux operating system (versus Mac OS or Windows) as an example of a system that doesn't need a central coordinating team because rules were decided beforehand. Linux framework provides flexibility for individuals because control doesn’t come from a central point; it’s delegated. He also mentions the communities behind Wikipedia and CrisisCommons as examples of what he calls “adhocracy.” Rather than trying to solve big problems with complex, all-encapsulating solutions, look at small ways to chip away at problems. As our case study details, after the Haiti earthquake, CrisisCommons volunteers undertook small tasks to solve larger problems like navigation and emergency reporting.
Tim also stresses that open data makes it more possible for people to be generative with it. He mentions data.gov and how it hasn’t been targeted enough by individuals to innovate with the data.
Regarding app contests, Tim believes that the contests themselves aren’t enough. Contest organizers should attempt to put conditions in place that create generativity. What can the public innovate on top of? For example, the GPS platform was built, and then the public took it and built on top of it. He urges technologists to think about the possibilities found in open-ended platforms, not just finished applications.
Finally, Tim stresses the importance of documentation and training workshops so individuals can learn how to best use software and platforms like Ushahidi and Mechanical Turk. From the audience, CrisisCommons Noel Dickover lets everyone know that “CrisisCamp in a Box” coming January 12, 2011.
Beth Kanter, CEO, Zoetica, and Co-Author, The Networked Nonprofit
Beth starts off by defining a “networked nonprofit" as a simple, agile and transparent organization that allows insiders to get out and outsiders to get in, all the while spreading information about their mission and programs, and getting others to spread the word to make the world a better place. Networked nonprofits are also “ninjas” at using social media!
Beth notes that global “wicked problems” have scaled beyond the ability of one single entity to address them. Nonprofits are working less and less as isolated institutions and more as networks. The increased use of social media requires that the organizational culture of institutions becomes more social as well, meaning you have to “be” social in order to “do” social.
To embrace this cultural change, nonprofits need to be more transparent. Beth describes two models for transparency in the nonprofit world: the fortress, which is closed off, and the sponge, an un-fortress open to everyone, including free agents. Free agents is a term used by Beth to describe individuals who are not employees of a nonprofit using online and offline tools to organize, mobilize, raise funds, and communicate outside of institutional walls. Beth introduces the audience to two free agents - Mark Horvath from Invisible People and Shawn Ahmed from the Uncultured Project. Both are working to tell stories about poverty without the agenda of raising funds. They use social media tools to raise awareness and advance their causes (homelessness and global poverty, respectively).
Mark started with just $45 and a laptop to document the plight of the homeless in the U.S. His advice to nonprofits: “You should be listening. If a free agent pops up on the radar, listen to them. See if they are having impact. Then embrace them.”
Shawn, currently in Bangladesh where he is working alongside Save the Children, shared a pre-taped video message with the audience. He says that social media shouldn’t be the “be all and end all” for free agents. His impact has little do with social media, and more about how nonprofits are perceived in Bangladesh, where many people are suspicious of them. Through his work on the ground, Shawn has found that free agents are more trusted by the people and finds himself acting as a bridgemaker working with but not for a nonprofit.
Echoing Mark, Shawn’s advice for nonprofts who encounter free agents is to listen to the free agent's ideas, find employees within the organization who can be allies for the free agent, and turn those ideas into actions. Through his work over the past few years, Shawn has encountered organizations that have embraced him, while also confronting organizations that have turned him away.
Join the conversation
Tech@State has launched a group page at Linkedin where you can join the conversation about Civil Society 2.0. What do you think about Civil Society 2.0? Do you think gatherings like today's event are helpful? Share you thoughts with us in the comments section.