A clear “no” as responsibility

While we still deeply believe in the mission behind Digitally Responsible Aid, Seamus and I are severing our direct ties with the organization for shared reasons.

I would like to take a moment to explain why, in my opinion, 1) DRA (or something like it) is needed and 2) some of why it didn’t work out for us.

The humanitarian sector should be guided by Do No Harm principles when using digital means

The Do No Harm framework has proven to be a vital and meaningful step forward for the humanitarian sector. One of the benefits of Do No Harm is in reviewing not just what aid is sent, but how it is delivered. For instance, something as pedestrian as selecting which local groups are employed at your field office can exacerbate or alleviate a conflict. Do No Harm provides a framework to analyze unique circumstances to have the positive impact you want on complicated situations.

We need something similar for considering the digital tools the humanitarian sector is adopting. Humanitarian organizations are rapidly adopting new technologies like biometrics and blockchain without sufficient consideration of the new risks created. We are wading into deep risks by using technology with untested frequency of failure in new contexts with new threat agents working on new threat surfaces. We worry that it will be too late when people finally start considering data breaches, the history of surveillance, and the politics of companies which are building and maintaining the software, hardware, and datasets.

Joe, Seamus, and I were a dream team. Joe focuses on research and policy, Seamus focuses on running the organization, and I focus on action and centering in communities. These things in balance meant grounding in the real world, taking action at what points were available to us, documenting the process, pushing on creating a copasetic operating environment, and consistently empowering stakeholders.

Here’s our concept note! It’s good.

I hope the org can still live up to its potential. We assembled an amazing board and advisor set. I’m rooting for the success of the group. I’m also still rooting for groups like Responsible Data, the UN Digital Blue Helmets, Amnesty’s Decoders, and a slew of other groups working in this space. Together, the space can be transformed to be not only more effective but also more equitable.

Then why step out?

I have been working to reduce the number of side projects1 in my life2. Seamus has been doing the same. This blog post is of course mostly covering my specific reasons.

Having a full-time gig which is also fulfilling means I’m wanting to spend my other time on things like deepening relationships, reading, and boxing. I knew upon taking the job at Truss that I could no longer do all the things associated with being a cofounder of a nonprofit, communicated that, did the paperwork involved to move from an executive to board position, and then acted as a very active board member to transition the organization to a healthy, sustainable place. I love it when other people similarly have an idea of how much they can (and can’t) give. I have literally high-fived people when they tell me “no” in response to a request for their time. It means I can figure out another way to get the thing done, instead of pestering someone who, in the end, can’t or won’t do it.

My stepping back removed the pull into balance around focusing on action4 in addition to policy. Without that, the organization had become focused solely on research and policy. Good for the space, but not something to dedicate my limited time on.

In Summary

Know and communicate your boundaries.

I get more time to box now.

I hope the space continues to grow and examine itself. I’ll be helping with that, but in a role different from what I expected.

Footnotes

  1. My side projects this year: being a lead organizer for an 1150-person art and music festival called Priceless, writing content and building a website for a resource repository for baby boomers about digital estate planning, researching and writing a white paper about getting journalists connected in post-disaster zones for the Ford Foundation, creating a significant talk about disaster tech and coauthoring a paper to accompany it for Frontiers of Engineering, doing all the things associated with bootstrapping the nonprofit mentioned in this post, and co-organizing and facilitating an unconference for coordinators of community-led crisis response called Crisis Convening. I put a book proposal about bridging formal and informal decision making structures in crisis response on the back burner. I’ve picked up one new thing since December, which is being a reviewer for the Canadian Grand Challenge.
  2. July was a bit of a slog for me to get much of the above out the door. I didn’t see my friends much. While there are still some editing passes to do, and rooms to be locked in with people to argue about who gets what grants, and emails to send about what organization is adopting the maintenance of some resources, most of the actual work is done.3
  3. I have been planning on seeing my loved ones more often and in a more relaxed way, boxing a lot more, diving back into the book proposal, and getting involved in local activism around homelessness. Maybe attempt being bored occasionally, which is very uncomfortable for me (if you can’t tell).
  4. I like designing systems more than most, but the moment those designs touch reality, they change. I’ve learned to speak my vision and take concrete steps toward it, rather than wait for everything to line up perfectly at scale.