Formal/Informal Crisis Response birthday party

A couple weeks ago was my 40th birthday. And as you may know, I occasionally throw conferences for my birthday party (CatCon in 2013 & 2016, Animal Talks in 2020, and governance structures in 2022). This year I did the same, focusing an intimate group on the interface between formal and informal groups in crisis response. You know, my jam

I was graced with the presence of John Crowley, Liz Barry, Joseph Pred, Evan Twarog, Suzanne Frew, and Schuyler Erle. I will forever be so grateful to these folks for showing up to share their brains and hearts on this topic. 

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Parameters of Social Interaction

What does equality look like? How do we know if we are getting there?

This is the question I asked to open my talk at SHA 2017. It is also the question carried with me as I walked into CtK.Campfire. Both aimed to look at how to mitigate the polarization of human interaction in a digital age. The talk looked at the infrastructure of human interaction, and the retreat embodied some of the best ideals towards action. I’ve written two blog posts – one about each event – but they occurred temporally and intellectually adjacent. You can find the post about CtK.Campfire here.

The talk at SHA2017 (the Dutch hacker camp) was called “Weaponized Social.” WeapSoc is a project in which Meredith and I invested heavily through 2014 and 2015. She has gone on to write for Status451 on an extension of the topic area. I’ve continued to frame bits of my work in this context but have generally not kept up. It’s some of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally draining work I’ve ever done, and that includes disaster response in the field.

A background assumption for this talk is that the effects of violence become less and less apparent to an observer of a single instance as we push the edges of “acceptable behavior” into being more aligned with human rights.

Violence is defined by the World Health Organization as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”, although the group acknowledges that the inclusion of “the use of power” in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word.

Example: seeing one person hit a non-consenting person is (pretty) easily defined as violence. Seeing one person say “your a dumb bitch” online to another non-consenting person isn’t as easily defined as violence (it’s often instead categorized as “conflict“). We have to zoom out to see that the receiver isn’t able to be online any longer due to thousands of similar messages in order to see it as the violence (in the form of depravation to opportunity or psychological harm) it is. Here’s just one example:

I don’t want to limit what this person says, but I also have a right not to experience him saying it, if it detracts from my ability to be online. As the quote says, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” How can we bridge this sort of contention at scale?

To zoom out like this, and to take action at a systemic level, we luckily have Lessig’s four forces for social change. As the infosec crew which was the audience at SHA is largely skeptical of law (excepting the EFF), of social norms (“don’t tell me how to act”), and that I’m skeptical of markets being able to solve problems of inequality, we are left with architecture/code.

In the talk, I asked this question:

“Do we want to take a scientific approach to equality, where we tweak our infrastructure in explicit ways to see if it changes how people are interacting?”

We, as the creators and maintainers of online spaces have a responsibility to strive towards equality in the ways available to us. How can we do this without surveillance and control of speech? We change the architecture of the spaces. The crew of Weaponized Social (namely, TQ at the SF event in May 2015) started to lay out what the different parameters of social interaction are. Such as, how many people can one account be connected to, how far a message can travel (through timeouts or limits to re-broadcasts), of if an element of serendipity is introduced. These are toggles which can be changed, sliders which can be moved.

If we change these things, we can see how/if architecture changes the way we interact. The social sciences point to us being deeply (tho not solely) affected by our environments. By changing the architecture of online spaces, we could see how it changes how we interact. Who feels safe to speak by taking part in the act of speaking. We can then make better choices about our individual instances and realities based on those results. We now have one more set of tools by which to examine if we are progressing towards equality, without impinging on the individual right to speak. I hope you make use of these tools.

Trustworthiness in response

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

When I came on with Aspiration in January, it was clear in my soul why the joining up made sense. But not many folk in the disaster and humanitarian response circles I run in pay much attention to the overlap of activism and response. It took some time to make it clear and explicit. Back in May Anne from Hirondelle asked for a vizthink for a talk she was going to give, and for the staff working on the project to have a common view of all the moving parts of the program. Anne works in the overlap of response and journalistic integrity1, and has far more experience in both DOING and in EXPLAINING this overlap. I hope that by showing you our drawing and by talking about her case study this overlap can become more clear to even more people.

Getting the Word Out

Hirondelle works in radio programming in austere areas. Radio programming can be for music. It can also be to get information out – information about health, politics, and community action. Radio can be used to propagate messages inspiring violence through rumors or outright instigation. Messages can also be used to disseminate messages of truth, care, and empowerment. Radio broadcasts were used to coordinate after the Haitian earthquake. It’s a consistent medium used in a lot of places to a lot of different purposes.

Communication gets more expensive the further away from a radio tower you are, as outreach has to happen about the radio programs even existing and/or install additional towers. Anne also pointed out that “it’s not just a question of expense. If you’re out of range, you’re out of range. Radio silence.”

Enter Bluetooth. The consistently increasing number of people with phones, including the Nokia 1100 and other ‘dumb’ phones have started exchanging media files via Bluetooth. Even when there isn’t any internet, it’s still possible to transfer files directly from one device to another2. But people can only transfer what they’ve already got. And so Hirondelle works with a local women-run NGO Media Matters for Women to set up places called Listening Centers, where media programming is delivered by bicycle. People socialize, listen to a program together, and take the audio files with them to share with others3

Messaging and Trust

Mostly, these Bluetooth ‘podcasts’ are about maternal health, domestic violence, and education4. Hirondelle’s ongoing dedication to development and humanitarian response (“slow” disasters) means they’re trusted in most of the communities they’re in. Which means when conflict hits, they often continue to be trusted. Trust is more complicated for other groups, as organizations like the UN might also set up a radio tower and offer programming during extreme times, but their transient nature, close alignment with ‘official’ voices, and not being in the local language inhibit the deep bonds associated with trust from forming. Local radio stations which are in the local language often end up aligned with (or coerced by) those instigating violence. Hirondelle being independent while still close to the communities they serve, with newsrooms that reflect the diversity on the other side of the microphone, means the trust in groups like Hirondelle is deeper. That’s vital for effective response5.

This long term investment in community also means that when something as terrifying as Ebola breaks out, there are infrastructural ways6 to distribute trusted messages. The female journalists in their network used the same capacities built up for their physical and digital safety when speaking truth to power for making informed choices during the Ebola outbreak. The skills to think critically about messaging, how to check in with community members, and how to disseminate trusted knowledge outward to others also applied in both contexts. Even the messaging and response to Ebola is politicized, with who people go to for help depending on networks of trust. And in places like Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone with long histories of civil war and authoritarian governments, official messages about how to deal with the spread of the disease weren’t trusted – even if the information they contained was right. Our means must match our purposes, and vice versa, and the capacities we build in calmer times bolster our resilience when the world gets complex and dangerous. By taking care of our present selves, our future selves are better off.


  1. Which has become activist, strangely/sadly, as truth-telling becomes a radical act.
  2. The ability to transfer files to each other directly – something inhibited on many devices through firmware.
  3. Copyright (or Copyleft) activism is vital to our ability to create media which is our own / held in common, so we might share it outwards. Can you imagine “oh, this program might help you teach your abusive partner that what they’re doing isn’t ok, but you can’t share it to your sister who might be experiencing the same thing because DRM.” Yuck.
  4. They also work with locals to create the programming, and have all sorts of amazing stories about how their programming has changed relationships and cultures, but sadly that isn’t the point of this blog post.6
  5. Being trusted by those wishing to disentangle or opt out of conflict has to do with also having a history of truth telling, especially to power. Activists do this. So do efforts like Hirondelle. Ergo, Hirondelle is activist in a very subtle way.
  6. Mesh networks can’t be disaster-only, because people won’t trust them and won’t know how to use them.
  7. Means of production. People are not just consumers of media or of technology… to co-create is an act of empowerment which more closely strikes at the root of societal issues.

Accountability in Response

I’ve started writing about response over on the Aspiration blog, but this one still has cursewords in it, and is very much in my own language, so I figured I’d post it here first.

The problems our planet is facing are becoming more extreme. People and politics mean there are larger populations more densely packed in cities. Nomadic populations traveling along their historical routes are now often crossing over arbitrary (have you *seen* some of the country lines people in Western countries have drawn in places they might never have even been!?) political boundaries, making them refugees or illegal immigrants. Climate change means more and more extreme events are impacting those populations. We have *got* to get our shit together.

In all this, the people who have been historically marginalized often become even more so as those in power see scarcity encroaching on their livelihoods. But the ability to hold people accountable in new ways (through things like social media), as well as (I hope) a real awareness and effort in the long arc towards equality, means there are groups of people seeking new ways to better allocate resources to those most affected by these events. Often, these groups are also in a post-scarcity mentality — that, when we work together, wisely, we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. These are folk who think we *can* reach zero poverty and zero emissions (within a generation). These are the folk who see joy in the world, and possibility.

The resource allocation and accountability necessary for these transitory steps towards a world that can survive and even thrive won’t happen in a vacuum. In the organizations, governments, and grassroots efforts there are entire supply chains, and ways of listening (and to whom), and self-reflexive mechanisms to consider. In these are embedded corruption, and paternalism, and colonialism. In these, too, are embedded individuals who have been Fighting The Good Fight for decades. Who have added useful checks and amplifiers and questions. It’s into this environment we step. It is, at its core, like any other environment. It has History.

It’s in this context that I’m so excited about Dialling Up Resilience. It taps into questions of efficacy in programming by using and contributing to metrics for success in building resilience. It assumes good faith in policy makers and implementers by offering up data for them to do their jobs better. It protects against bad actors by providing granular, speedy data aggregated enough to protect data providers but transparent enough to be clear when a program is working (or not, if those we’re assuming good faith in don’t actually deserve that). And, my favorite part — instead of contorting and posturing about what makes people able to bounce back faster after a climate-related shock… we just ask them. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But the core is there.

We’ll be working with a few different groups in Kenya, including the National Drought Management Authority (and their Ending Drought Emergencies program) and UNDP on their existing surveying initiatives, as well as groups like GeoPoll (SMS), Twaweza (call center), and Kobo (household) on stand-alone surveys about how communities estabilish and track their own resilience. If we get the grant extension, we’ll work more directly with communities using tools like Promise Tracker and Landscape (a digitized version of Dividers & Connectors) to be closer to their own data, and to subsequently be able to have more agency over their own improvement as well as accountability.

What’s also exciting is that our means and our ends match. I was recently in Nairobi for a stakeholder workshop with not only the project partners, but also with the organizations which would eventually make use of the data. We’ve been conducting community workshops to test our basic assumptions and methods against reality, as well as to be sure community voice is at the core of each component we consider. We’ve thrown a lot out… and added some amazing new things in. We’re hoping to break down the gatekeeper dynamic of accessing communities in the Horn of Africa, and we want to be coextensive with existing programs (rather than supplanting them). It’s feminist and it’s development and I’m kind of fucking thrilled.

Another Whirlwind Tour

The Bank booked my tickets for me (yay no financial overhead!.. but–) with an 11-hour layover at LHR. So I popped on the Heathrow Express to Paddington. I’m sitting in a Starbucks, of all places. They’re playing Morrisey. It’s pretty awful, but it’s also a holiday and everything else around here was closed. I was meant to have been back in Boston for the past week, after a long stint of travel, but things got extended by a continent, so here I am.


I gave a keynote at Cascadia.JS, and the event and its people were absolutely wonderful. Even played some pinball with Case (oh, PS, we’re throwing a CyborgCamp at MIT in October and you should come). I was soooo stressed when I gave this talk. Not from the talk itself – this community is lovely! I even wrote about it on the Civic blog – but because of the things surrounding this entry. When I watched the video later, it’s actually pretty alright. They gave me a full 30 minutes, and I wish I had padded it with more information. C’est la vie. Huge huge hugs to Ben and Tracy and the rest of the crew. You made a rough time easier through your care.

The drawings I did for other people’s talks are all here.


This was my first Wikimania, and it was stunning. So so much fun. Many things to think about, frustrations in new light, conversations over cider, and even more stick figures. And! Some lovely person taught me how to upload my drawings to the commons, and so now I’ll be hosting from there instead of from Flickr. Got to spend too-short time with Laurie (who I’ll see more of in Boston! Yay!), AND found out about Yaneer’s work on networked individuals and complex systems which rings closer to true in my intuition than most anything else I’ve run across recently.

Getting to know a neighborhood in London that I actually like, with art in the alleys and a bike repair and tailoring shop with a pub and wifi while you wait that is totally hipster gentrification and I so don’t care. And a strange moment in a Bombay-style restaurant of a half-recognized face, that ends up being the brother of the heart-based Seattle ex-Partner. We hug fiercely (as is the way of his family, and mine), until his manager gets angry. We laugh and promise to catch up.

Thence to Future Perfect, through the too-early fog of morning, and a panic attack, and dear Sam handling the accompanying compulsive need to stick to The Plan, even if it did not make the most sense, with the sort of calm curiosity and fondness which is exactly what is needed in those moments, and jogging through far away airports to finally arrive at our not-even-yet-boarding gate.

Future Perfect

A short flight (slept through) and a longer ferry ride (also slept through) through the archipeligos of Sweden, and Sam and I are on the island of Grinda for Future Perfect. We’re here at the behest of one Dougald Hine, long-time mirror-world not-quite-yet-cohort, to be Temporary Faculty at the festival, and to “difficultate.” It’s a strange thing, to be encouraged to ask the hard questions, and Ella and I are a bit adrift in the new legitimacy of our usual subversive action. “Ella, I think we’ve just been made legible.” “Shit. Quick, act polite!” But there’s an awfully strong thread of Libertarianism and Profiteering From The Future, so it’s not a difficult thing to ask stir-up questions. I sit on a panel called When Women Run the World, and mock the title, and question the assumption of binary sex, and point out matrixes of power. I draw as people talk, and post the print-outs to a large board for all to see, a strange combination of digital and analogue. Another panel I’m pulled onto I advocate for inclusion and codesign on the basis of values – not everyone bites. So then, pulling from Yaneer’s work, I point out that hierarchies fail at the capacity of any individual, whereas examined networks can scale in complexity. They nod. I grit teeth.

We also meet Bembo and Troja Scenkonst and Billy Bottle and Anna and the Prince of the Festival Lucas, and see old friends Ben and Christopher and Smari. We walk through the cow and sheep pasture as a shortcut from breakfast to festival, avoiding dirty boots and communicating via body language to over protective rams. I jump into the half-salt water of the archipelagos after a long sauna stint, and we drink sweet Swedish cider, and we sing Flanders and Swann across our joined repertoires. Ed gives me access to his audio book library, and I’m high on dopamine and scifi for hours to come. Our tiny temporary faculty crew sleeps in adjacent cabins, keeping the floors swept and porches clean.

And another early flight, stomach dropping as the pre-booked taxi service couldn’t find us and didn’t speak English (and Sam doesn’t hold Swedish in his repository of languages), no Ubers showing up on the app as they had the previous night, and finally finding a taxi app that would generate our location and sent a lovely driver for us. Getting to the airport, again, in time, with an uncertainty of how to part ways from this other human-shaped being who moves at high velocities, having been caught up in each other’s orbits for a short period of time, still texting threads and punctuation past gates.


And then I went back to Dar. And I realize in writing this how worn down my travel-muscle is, exhausted to the core. Less able to appreciate the beauty of a second wrecked ship on a calm sandy beach, unable to see the trying and hurt at the core of some of the people we hear speak. I am frustrated that the workshop I have been flown here to participate in has people reading verbatim from slides, that at the core of this workshop are not the people who are the most marginalized. I am brief, and I am blunt, and I do not show the same care that I expect to be shown to everyone. I become even more blunt with those who are unkind to others, a sort of brute force function into civility, and I and others know it will not work.

But some of the workshop has us figuring out hairy problems like reducing the 16-digit identifier for water points to locally useful and uniquely identifiable phrases for the database lookup table. I listen while the People Who Decide These Things think their servers won’t have the troubles other servers have. And some sections have people talking about appropriate technology and inclusion. It is productive, though differently than I’m used to.

I exchange a quiet conversation in the front of a taxi that waited for us at a restaurant, a practice which I hate, on the long journey home. The driver having not said more than a word or two at a time at first, now sharing anger about high taxes and now visible payout. The roads are paid for by other countries, the buildings, the power grid… where are his tax dollars going? We talk about schools, and his sister, and about how he has no way to speak.

We work with the Dar Taarifa team, who are unfolding and learning to push back, hours into github and strange google searches and odd places to encourage and odder places to encourage disagreement. We pause for translations, and I try to bow out so they’ll operate at full speed in Swahili, rather than moving slower so that I might understand.

Oh, also:

One of my drawings ended up all over the place:

Morgan’s research is pretty boss, and Barton did a great job writing.

It looks like I’m going to be in Kenya in parts of October and November playing games around climate change.
This post is apparently in the memory of LJ.

Happy Birthday Debcha!

I’m about to get on a plane to the West Coast. Three incredible guitar players practice so adeptly nearby that the desk folk have turned the overhead music off – think Triplets of Belleville soundtrack. This morning I kicked off SpaceApps Boston, and then I got to sit for awhile to listen to a great lineup of my friend Deb‘s friends give talks for her birthday. My talk was to draw everyone else’s talk, and then show them at the end. I’d usually post this over on bl00viz, but it’s more personal, and I do try to not cross the streams too much.

Deb was/is a core part of why I now feel so at home in the Boston area. She reminded me that part of having a history with people was building that history with them, inviting me out to dinner parties, talking on Twitter, checking in on text. And always amazing music, Zoe Sighting, Emergency Leroy. Thanks for being persistent proof that people can be amazing, intelligent, kind, calm, and stimulating. Happy Birthday.

The Architects of Houses

My most recent hex tattoo says “throw away the scabbard”. The full meaning is that when the time comes to fight, you draw your sword and throw the scabbard away. Because you either face a foe you are unlikely to beat, or that you will not be forgiven, or that there is no going back. It’s also a quote attributed to Stonewall Jackson. Who was a right git. But the quote is thus both a reminder that I get to make a choice, once, to draw my sword; as well as that those I rally against have conviction to rival my own (as well as some things to say that I do believe in).

It’s a manifestation and reminder of the ongoing battle within myself between the desire to fix what we’ve got, and the desire to build something alternative and independent while tearing down the current structures. I mean this for education, for economies, for law, and for societies. It’s a constant balance, and one I’m lucky to be surrounded by individuals and groups in both extremes as well as others also balancing. What I hope for are more people I can share nuanced views with – there are a few, but it’s been an alienating experience to examine possibility between these two worlds. I hope this post can help open up that conversation. And I truly feel that, with enough understanding and allies, it will be possible to both do damage control with the current system by creating where we want to be – either with existing or with new.

Here’s the main strain between the two sides for me :

The master’s tools will never dismantle
the master’s house. – Audre Lorde

At the same time, those who are harmed most in
tumultuous times are those already most at risk.

Scaling is hard, and we have a responsibility to the people who already exist on the planet in whatever actions we take to make a better world. Is the suffering caused by the current set-up greater or lesser than the process of shifting to a less damaging system?

One of the reasons I sit in this balance is because of my work with Geeks Without Bounds on humanitarian and disaster response work. I see how amazing groups of people can be if you just get out of their way. Social media in response is not about a curated format for intake for FEMA or OEM or even Red Cross. It’s about a group of people (in this case, in an affected area) that already know how to talk to each other, and who know what they need, finding a new audience of people who want to help them. It’s about mutual aid. But FEMA and OEM and Red Cross have a place in this system, as experts and as providers of specific and prolific resources. And that sort of interaction needs people like me, at least right now, who can talk to both sides about how to get what they need and how to avoid being trampled on.

That bridging requires a lot of talking and trust building. Neither of these sides is especially fond of the other – the formal out of confusion and fear, and the informal from righteous indignation and historical awareness (caveat caveat caveat on both parts – most individuals I’ve met do not fit these descriptions, but as collectively held viewpoints, it holds depressingly true). On rare occasion, such as in response, both sides end up being both hard-pressed but hopeful, forgetting to be wary.

Running with these rare moments has changed things. But it requires being open to possibility, trusting in good will, and standing strong with your source and vision. It requires seeing what people want to offer, and what is non-negotiable. And it does require the understanding that at any point, this balance might change. While I might trust some of the people within it, I do not trust The System, while it sure can be useful.

So when a chance to possibly tweak a part of our executive branch came up recently, but in a way that is daunting and consuming, it caused a lot of internal angst. Here’s a 5-minute explanation, to be watched before the rest of the post is read:

Yes, their goal is that of recruitment. But this is where shared vision can come into play – the world where any of the folk I love and trust would be willing to recruit to this group is also a world in which external oversight is fully supported and embraced. Hopefully, it’s a world in which such a group wouldn’t even be needed. And I’m willing to work towards that world with many people. Our inputs and outputs may be different, but it all starts to look the same the further towards our core it goes.

But! Even if the gents we are entertaining the thought of talking to might have the best of intentions at heart, and a vested interested in making it work out well for all parties involved, it might not be safe to do so. Even if they work to protect a spark of understanding and collaboration, to fan it towards making their organization one worth working for, anyone else from within that organization might ensure information from interaction snaps into the proscribed uses – that of targeting and undermining dissidents. The whole path and system of interaction is not safe, the architecture is lacking for intentional systems shift. Which means the tiny, squishy people not protected by that system will be severely damaged, and in a way that continues allowing the current track of harm. No martyrdom here will work.

That is why so many things have been allowed to get so messed up. There’s no self-referential nor -checking mechanism for our systems. There’s no pause [wait, are we sure this is where we want to be?] function. And that is simply ridiculous. Ridiculous because it is simple, and it makes everything better and easier, regardless of where you’re wanting to go.

So what’s to be done? I can do small things, and so can you. Make sure the organizations you associate with, the social interactions you are a part of, and even your self have self-checking mechanisms. Meditate. Do not-project-focused gatherings where folk say, without fear of firing or abandonment, how they think things are going overall. Where you don’t have direct influence to make such things happen, find allies and work towards it together. And if you have the chance to talk to someone from the Other Side, be sure they can actually follow through on what they’re going for. Help them understand why it’s vital, and help get there, if you can.

So much love to all the folk who listened to me parse through this incessantly for the better part of a few weeks. Their hearts and minds are folded into this world view, and I could not be the person I am without them. You know who you are.

We’re not even sure you need that

In talking to someone I would rather see as both infallible and immortal about going under the knife, I lightened the situation by telling them they could be altered within several deviations of themselves and still be tolerable. Bantering with SJ around what are organs even for, if you don’t need entire parts of them, lead us somehow to my drawing this image.


Thank goodness for humor.


Advancing Visual Thinking / Graphic Facilitation

I’ve recently launched bl00viz, a way for people to hire me for my graphic facilitation and visual thinking skills. This is the third in a 3-part series. The first part covered various sorts of vizthink, and the second covered the tools used.

So, I do these live drawings while people are speaking in order to demonstrate their ideas. I started doing visual thinking in earnest when someone turned left in front of me, causing a shattered radius. Since, it’s become my primary method of note taking, and a wonderful way to augment written notes.


Now that I can record the process of drawing, it’s even more fun to show ideas develop through the process itself, rather than just the completed ideas overlaying each other. So far, I’ve figured out how to tell a story on top of a drawing, like for Galway’s Ignite:

And taken an already-done talk, drawn it, and synced back to the audio:

This takes more energy, but I’m really pleased about the storytelling style.


The next bit that I’m super interested in exploring is that of how to collaborate together in drawing. I’m looking forward to the next unconference I get to go to where others are willing to play with me in this space. Whether in physical space on pieces of butcher paper, or in the collaborative editing capabilities of Prezi, I can’t wait to further explore this space. SO EXCITED.

Cohort and fellow Berkmanite Primavera showed me the Kopfschlag project, a persistent, collaborative, online drawing tool. You can play at the link, but here’s a time-lapse:

Kopfschlag from kopfschlag on Vimeo.

In the same way people have taken quickly to collaborative document editing, I see those of us who are visual thinkers sharing drawing space to express ideas in new ways.