Digital Democracy turned 10 this year, marking a decade of our work in solidarity with frontline communities, focusing at the intersections of technology, human rights & environmental justice. In this time our work has evolved, our partnerships have grown, and perhaps more than anything, we’ve learned a great deal. This fall, as we commemorate our first decade and look to the future, we’re taking a moment to explore some of what we’ve learned, in conversation with partners, allies, and others working at the intersection of technology and social justice, such as Color Coded, Amazon Frontlines, Alianza Ceibo, Data & Society, and more. Thanks to support from the Open Society Foundation’s Information Program, we’ll be sharing a series of posts this fall exploring the best practices & lessons learned from 10 years of doing technology-focused work in solidarity with frontline communities.
We’re excited to spark a conversation around the greater tech nonprofit Tech For Good community about what are the best ways to leverage technology to address the world’s most urgent challenges. We’re posting them under this new publication, Technology Solidarity. Which of the following key lessons resonate with your experiences? What’s missing? Feel free to post in the comments as we kick off a conversation about the best ways to use technology for good.
1. Technology is Not Neutral
When I co-founded Dd in 2008, struck by the ways new tools like cheap mobile phones, Facebook & Youtube were transforming far corners of the world, I held a somewhat naive view that technology was neutral in & of itself. What mattered, I thought, was how people use it. I think this is a view that might be popular among technologists partly because it absolves us of thinking about the tricky, complicated ethics of building powerful tools that humans use. But I’ve come to believe that it is utterly & disastrously wrong.
Technology is not neutral, as our friends at Color Coded so clearly articulate. Whether we are conscious of it or not, all technology becomes embedded with the values of its makers. Much has been written recently about this, from the unconscious bias written into algorithms (see Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology and Cathy O’Neill’s Weapons of Math Destruction) to the many drawbacks of how social media is designed to maximize our time on platforms in service of advertisers, no matter the negative effects on society & individual mental health (see the work of Sherry Turkle, this blog post by Tobias Rose Stockwell, and the Center for Humane Technology).
At Dd, we are a technology nonprofit whose mission has always been to build tools for the public good, not make a profit. But we are shaped by our societal upbringing, and good intentions are not enough. The more we understand that technology is not neutral, the more we work to explicitly state our values & check how our biases might get in the way of honoring those values.
In my case, as a white settler on stolen indigenous land in the so-called United States, this means constantly tracking the ways that white supremacy and saviorism creep into my thinking, and the ways in which I revert to individualism over recognizing community. For our multi-cultural team more broadly, it means often double-checking our tech plans against our values – Is what we are building really accessible? Will it increase local autonomy? – and looking for the ways in which goals like efficiency or donor-driven priorities sometimes interfere with our work truly being driven by local partners. We don’t always get this right, so we work to constantly check our approach and to always return to our values.
2. Respect Local Knowledge
This should not be surprising nor revolutionary, but again & again we see what happens when outsiders come in with solutions, rather than recognizing what we should all know – that local people are the experts. Whether that is indigenous people who understand the biodiversity that’s at stake when a forest is threatened by fires, or communities of color facing police violence and criminal injustice, it should never be the role of an outside group to tell a local community what they are facing or what to do about it. For us, this means working with such frontline communities to support them with technology that helps them highlight their local knowledge and advocate for their own solutions. As groups like Whose Knowledge demonstrate, centering the knowledge & wisdom of marginalized communities is key to a more democratic digital future.
3. Human Rights & Environmental Justice Cannot be Separated
When Dd started, we were focused on what might be considered “traditional” human rights issues – refugees, migrant workers, violence against women, and digital security for human rights activists. Then we began working with indigenous people working to protect their land, and were told that this is “environmental” work – and even, most disturbingly, that indigenous people were simply a means to an end for the greater goal of conservation. This couldn’t be more false. The rights of indigenous peoples and other frontline communities are central to environmental justice, not a means to an end. Thankfully, we are not the only organization that recognizes that human rights & the environment cannot be separated – and of course, our beliefs are simply following in the footsteps of frontline communities who have always recognized this truth, and who are facing the worst impacts of the intersections of human rights abuses & environmental injustice, whether they be communities of color with higher rates of asthma because they live in polluted areas, refugees displaced due to climate change, or indigenous people facing threats to their territory & livelihood.
Now, as the global climate movement builds momentum, we believe that explicitly recognizing this intersection is more urgent than ever, and we call upon all social change activists & organizations to do the same.
4. Build With Not For
This simple but compelling phrase sums up our approach to building technology. The concept comes from a long history of movement work, and in the civic tech space has been popularized by Laurenellen McCann, who has written extensively on the topic. To us, the ethos of “build with note for” is a reminder that the moment we are in the mindset of building something “for” our partners rather than with them, we have failed. Going back to the theme that technology is not neutral and that our values are embedded in our work, whether it’s conscious or not, building “for” inherently conjures up a feeling of saviorism, of believing we have the answers, or believing we are here to do something for someone else. Building with means constantly checking our assumptions, being open to ideas we haven’t thought of, and, most of all, results in much better work. From building a call center with our partners in Haiti in 2011 (after a failure to build an SMS violence reporting platform “for” them), to building offline mapping tools with indigenous partners in the Amazon, all of our best technologies have always come from closely collaborating with our partners on the tools they need, and co-designing tools that truly fit their needs.
5. Code is a Commons
As a nonprofit, we see our work as being part of the collective, and we believe open source technology should be treated as a public good, a modern, digital commons space where everyone can benefit. We’ve been open source from our first commit, and by building tools off of other open source libraries, we’re able to add value without reinventing the wheel, or try do it all ourselves. By treating our work as part of the greater commons, we can share pieces of our work in meaningful ways, and others can then do the same. Whether building our map editor from OpenStreetMap’s iD editor, or building our peer-to-peer database in collaboration with the Dat Foundation, contributing to the greater digital commons is a cornerstone of our approach to building technology that supports a mission greater than us.
6. Data Sovereignty not Data Extraction
One of the things that has radicalized me most over the past 10 years is seeing how much the values of extractivism are present in our technology tools. On the NGO side, this may mean development projects that train local people to collect data, such as about community health or water quality, but never bother to return this information to the communities where it was collected. On the broader level, this is the dominant business plan of too many tech companies today. When users’ “data” is the product, when every like, photo & post is mined for information & sold to advertisers, many have observed that data is the new “oil”, the valuable resource that is being collected & sold.
But technology doesn’t have to work this way. Data extractivism might be the dominant model, but we believe there is an alternative. In contrast to an economy of extractivism, inherently modeled on colonial dynamics, we envision an ecosystem of data sovereignty, where individuals, communities & groups have the power to manage & control our own information. As groups like the US Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network & the Global Indigenous Data Alliance make clear, this is particularly important for native communities, who are fighting for their sovereignty in general. In the 21st century, data sovereignty is a key part of the broader quest for collective liberation.
7. Local-First Software for Frontline Communities
As we explore how to honor our partners’ autonomy and ensure they have sovereignty over their data, we’ve increasingly seen the importance of embracing offline first & decentralized tools, in sharp contrast to models of surveillance capitalism. Over the past 5+ years of building technology with local partners in the Amazon, we’ve co-developed local-first software for frontline communities. This goes beyond tools that merely function offline, to ensuring that the whole ecosystem works first & foremost for our partners at the ground level.
8. Decolonize Mapmaking
Our work on local first tools is deeply influenced by indigenous-led movements to decolonize mapping, with the explicit goals of making maps that increase indigenous sovereignty & land rights. From participatory mapping, collective mapping, counter-mapping and MappingBack, there are inspiring examples from around the planet of how indigenous peoples & other local communities are reclaiming mapmaking in order to assert sovereignty over their traditional territories. Such decolonized mapping processes enable communities to communicate their worldviews, values and relationships with territory to outside audiences. They disrupt existing norms and assumed practices of European cartography, including whether rivers should always be blue, which direction maps are oriented, and even what constitutes a map. From our projects supporting indigenous-led mapping, we’ve been inspired by the ways that indigenous people are making their own maps to assert their rights, and the ways that they are decolonizing mapmaking in the process.
9. Satellites & Drones Alone Won’t Protect the Rainforest
Stories of how satellite imagery, smartphones or drones are “saving the rainforest” might get attention & clicks, but they miss a critical part of the puzzle – that these are just tools that must be leveraged by people in order to take action that leads to real change. Take for example the recent fires in Brazil. As I wrote in the article The Amazon is Burning, visual imagery of the fires helped the outside world learn what frontline communities already knew – that the rainforest is under attack not just from fires, but from targeted deforestation in indigenous territories. Protecting the Brazilian Amazon requires supporting the forest guardians who are on the frontlines of defending it.
We’ve seen firsthand what new reports like this study from the Rainforest Foundation US are demonstrating: locally-led monitoring is key to environmental protection. Indigenous people are on the frontlines of protecting the rainforest. They are using tools like satellites & drones in critical ways to help monitor what is happening in remote areas & gather evidence of destruction, but to achieve real change they must combine this evidence with holistic action including patrolling their lands, filing legal cases, advocating for policy changes, and sharing information with local authorities & government agencies. In a time when an average of 3 environmental defenders are killed every week, it’s important to honor the people putting their bodies on the line, not just focus on one aspect of the tools they are using.
10. Ally is a Verb
Solidarity is an ongoing process, and ally is a verb. Showing up in a good way is something we continually practice, not a destination where we arrive. This is not our unique insight – the concept of ally being a verb, not a noun, has a long history in social justice spaces, and it’s one worth highlighting. When we think of ourselves as “allies” (nouns) we can get complacent by thinking we have arrived, or we can get fragile when we make mistakes that make us question our status as “allies.” When instead we see ourselves as practicing allyship with frontline communities, then we recognize that our goal is to continually listen, learn from and take action in solidarity with our partners.
What do you think? Which of these lessons would you like to see us write more about? How do these relate to your own experiences, and lessons learned?