Turning Anxieties into Productivity

I’ve had a few people over the past few weeks make a special point of pointing out how (overly) productive I am. And because part of the way I do things is doing them in public, I figured I’d put together an overview of how I work for The Internets. Much of it is not healthy – I battle with temporal compulsiveness in a way I can only imagine is similar to the exerted control over diets those dealing with eating disorders display. So this is a less a “how to be productive if you find yourself uninspired” and more a “how to funnel your anxieties towards good use.”

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This is actively not a way to interact with people you’re Not Working With. This is a constant battle with me, as it’s easiest for me to interact with people around projects. But that’s not fair to people I care about AND work with. It might not even be a way to interact with people you are working with. I’ve tried to have that tension/disfunction show through in this post – the same things that make me really good at productivity are what also make me have unreasonable expectations of carbon-based life forms.

Some of the following advice also has to do with deceiving yourself or other people, primarily about timelines, in exchange for projects being delivered on time. Every person is different – it’s important to ascertain if someone can self-regulate on time and deliverables, or if they need to be managed and reminded. It’s ideal if you can have a frank conversation with someone about this – but I’ve had this go both splendidly (“I’ve got this” or “Yes, please pad my time”) or horribly (“you lied to me? How dare you” (while still delivering late)). YMMV. Informed consent is important. Continue reading

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.

Cascadia.JS

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.

Wikimania

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.

Dar

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.

Dar pt 3

Thursday is a holiday, and so no meetings – we wake up early and head to Mkuranga District – a rural, rather than urban (like Tendale), slum. We run for the ferry, tho thankfully we don’t have to jump for it, new journalist friend Erin in tow. On the other side of the sea, we drive for hours, slipping between staring out the window and talking about interactions and plans. When we finally arrive, Msilikale talks with some women about if they’d be ok to be interviewed. We negotiate money amongst ourselves – in the US and Europe, you get paid for research subject time. Here, there’s an expectation that uzungu will provide money. I offer to buy a meal or drinks1, but it doesn’t go over. Even this is complicated, with potential larger ramifications. What expectations are we setting? Are those ok? Ethical? The lacking infrastructure and predictability isn’t just about drains and tap water, it’s also about social interaction and protocols2

We talk about sewing, and water, and responsibility. There are only wells here, and those only produce salt water, with which they clean, wash, cook, and drink. There was once a community-held water point, but it broke at some point and it wasn’t fixed. The assumption is that the government will install the infrastructure, in the same breath as a complete lack of belief that it will ever happen3. Water can only be gotten when there’s electricity.4, when it can be gotten at all.

reports from the field

Again, there’s no central square, no place for known dissemination of information. Everything is done by word of mouth, neighbors talking to each other. Do they ever update each other with phones? No, there’s too much worry about the cost coming back to them (or to the person they contacted). But they’d be happy to do what’s needed to bring water to their place. If mgunzu like me try to figure out things, how can we avoid being jerks5? So long as the government brings it in, they’ll work with it. Again, this weird relationship to authority.

We hang out by one of the salt-water wells while Msilikale finds a taxi6, watching people bring carts and buckets to fill up. Children throw rocks at a lizard, chase each other, drink water from the bucket used to wash clothes now hung to dry. We stand under the gas station awning during a short but heavy rain, and then pile into a car for the long journey back to Dar es Salaam. Now it’s back to interaction at the scale of organizations, but now as informed as it can be on our short time scale by interactions with humans as humans, not in aggregate for logistics. The UNHCR refugee camp in Northwest Tanzania seems most appropriate for the water sensor innovation test deployment, as it’s a closed loop. Kibaha makes the most logistical sense for the test deployment of Taarifa, as a lot of cultural work around accountability has already been done there by a potential partner organization. Mkuranga doesn’t make sense because it’s too far out, there’s no existing social infrastructure for organizations, and there aren’t plans to put in water infrastructure for awhile yet, so people would quit reporting after awhile of no results. It’s all practical, but not cold. People here feel their responsibilities, just like anywhere else.

The next morning it’s raining as we gain a blessing from the Ministry of Water – we’ll work with their water engineers on updating reports of water points7. We sit in a taxi in traffic and talk, then meet with a potential local partner who will help with social interaction and embedding – managing expectations, closing feedback loops, continual interaction for a more successful launch – or for a better understanding of a failed launch. If it works in Kibaha, we’ll try it out in Mkuranga, with more focus on the sensors than on the reporting, to ease survey fatigue. We get back in the taxi and talk more while we head back to the Ministry of Water to talk to some engineers about what they would want out of a reporting system (yay more talking to people who use Taarifa, not just read the outputs!). As the depth of the water on the road increases, the speed of the traffic decreases. Finally, concerned about even making his flight, we send Mark off in the taxi with his luggage, and I pile into a bajaj with my own suitcase. A meeting to get to, and facilitate, on my own!

Everything goes beautifully. I’ve learned to hold firm when I’m told someone doesn’t have time, or tells me they only have a few minutes. “We’ll talk again on Monday, but right now I do want 15 minutes. That’s it.” Engineer B and I end up sharing frustrations, drawing on pieces of paper, and giving a firm handshake at the end. Msilikale and I meet up, and head to my new lodging – not the fancy hotel anymore, but a friend’s-of-a-friend house. From here, I can still see birds flocking, and the sun setting over the sea, but there are also bugs and the shower is weird and it feels so much more comfortable than the fanciness. We have dinner with one of her Dutch friends, and brave traffic, and bond over growing up in the Midwest. The ensuing days are similar, with one day blissfully off. Plans for Zanzabar are trumped by epic, amazing rains. I read frivolous articles on my iPad and watch the rain roll over the sea.

In all this, the World Bank8’s hammer is money, and so everything looks like a project to fund. What makes this a complicated mess to my anti-capitalistic heart is that, indeed, many projects do need funding in the current environment. I see the “we read as much about about a grassroots thing that works as we could, and this is how we think we should do it…” All the people I’ve met within the org want a way to make the world to suck less. But these are institutions whose tools are people, and funding, and other institutions. And while they try various tactics, and sometimes make headway, in making the world suck less… they’re also held accountable for their actionsIn theory.. The difference is, the people in grassroots initiatives have to live with the reality of the failings and successes of their (and institutional) endeavors. So of course they are who I think of first. And last. And always9.

And Msilikale and I go over the drawings I did, and listen to music, and talk about all sorts of things. The power goes out, and we keep talking, the windows closed against mosquitos and the oppressiveness of the growing heat inside overwhelming. We walk in the dark to a local Indian joint, eating overly peppered food and listening to the calls to prayer out the window. The lights go out there, too, and we eat by the light of cell phones until the generators kick in. “This,” say Msilikale, “is Dar es Salaam.”

1. Worked for Kibera.
2. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is ideologically interesting, but if there’s no way to get clean water but through organized distribution of resources, such ideology gets tempered at least a bit.
3. It’s like breaking up with someone before they break up with you.
4. Mind you, this is a project with the Ministry of Water. Not Ministry of Power. This is with water. So we can only focus on water. *shakes fist at silos*.
5. Again, Msilikale mitigating anything that seems like a promise. Or hope, really.
6. Easier to negotiate price if we’re not there.
7. The hand washing tap in the MoW does not in fact produce water. Oh, the irony.
8. A World Bank innovation fund is what is supporting this initiative.
9. Not saying others don’t, simply that there sure does seem to be a lot of reminding.

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.

Value-Based Design Workshop

Bex and I put together a Value-Based Design workshop for the Codesign Studio at MIT Media Lab. Originally posted on the Codesign site (and then to the Civic blog and Bex’s blog). Here’s how we did it:

link to the hackpad version of this post

When you are designing a project for social justice, where do you start?

In this workshop, we practice value-based design, a method that helps us to design for large scale social impact and to relate this directly to how we plan and implement projects. We envision the impacts we’d like to contribute to in the world and the values we bring with us into our work as the first steps in this design process. As individuals, this method helps us to express our connection to our projects on a personal level and to prevent burnout as we are able to identify work that resonates with our values and to set aside work that doesn’t. As a team, this method helps us to identify shared values and to make design decisions based on our shared vision instead of personal preferences.

At the last Codesign Studio, Bex and Willow took the class through an hour-long workshop toidentify our individual values and to design our projects and approach around shared values.

This workshop is inspired by Monica Sharma’s work in transformational leadership for large scale system shift. In this article, she describes the framework of the methods she shares for this kind of work. Connecting with our personal values and designing based on values is a key component. [Sharma, Monica. “Contemporary Leaders of Courage and Compassion: Competencies and Inner Capacities.” Kosmos Summer 2012.]

Individual Values


Purpose
Uncovering our core values gives us better understanding of our own purpose and desire in the world. Doing this exercise with teammates is a great way to connect to each other’s inspiration.

Process
(3 min) Select one person in the room to work these questions with:

Share something you’ve worked on that you had some role in designing.

Ask the following questions:

  • What did you envision as success for that project? Often people will dissemble, and say it wasn’t a success. People will also commonly talk about the activities of the project, things they did, instead of what the vision was of the project. So:
  • Ask them to imagine that it WAS a success. What is happening in the world then? How are people living? What is the quality of life?
  • Drill to one word. That’s the value you were working from. The value you represent. The word should not be an action or process (manifestation, collaboration, interaction, etc), but what people feel like if they can act or work in that way (joy, justice, inclusion, health, etc).

(12 min) Now, break into pairs. If there are project teams in the room, ask people to work with someone in the same team and ask each other the questions above.

(at 6 min) Remind people to switch

Reportback
Have each person say their value when you reconvene. If you can, write these somewhere that will be visible for your team as you continue to work together.

Value-Based Design


Purpose
Designing a project with the larger purpose in mind helps to think big and understand that your actions connect to your visions of social justice. It also helps your team to recognize shared values, a great starting place for connecting when you have to make difficult design decisions.

Overview (5 minutes)
In this method, we design with our teams first by developing shared understanding of the impacts we want to see as a result of the work we do together. These will be large-scale and will likely relate to values we identified in the Individual Values exercise. In this exercise, Impacts, longterm sustained state change.

Because we can’t implement impacts directly, we continue to design our work into pieces of work that we can implement. We divide these pieces into three categories: Inputs, Outputs, and Outcomes.

Process
Share the above graphic.

Go through an example, here is an example of how we might have used this methodology in developing Codesign:

Ask what desired impacts of Codesign are:

  • Impacts – sustained state change. – What do you think the intended impacts of codesign as a method are? Empowered and equal engagement.

Ask what some inputs, outputs and outcomes are of Codesign:

  • Outputs – collaborative workshops
  • Inputs – YOU! Partners, us, this room, MOUs, etc
  • Outcomes – A change, but requires continued effort to maintain – Such as social relationships, people try it and don’t keep it up

We tend to fill these three categories with information in a nonlinear way — recognizing an Outputmay surface desired Outcomes and Inputs. Broadly, we design right to left and implement left to right.

Project Design (25 min)
Now practice the value-based design methodology with project with your team. If you are at an early stage in your work together and you haven’t yet identified or selected a project you will work on, you can begin by taking the various partner’s organizational values into consideration. Broadly, what are the impacts that your team’s members envision?

Before completing the exercise, have each group fill in at least 2 points under each section.

Wrap It Up
Reportback (15 min)
Ask people to share their process. Try using the Green/Yellow/Red method and ask each group to share one Green – a thing that was easy or clear; Yellow – one thing that was challenging or that they learned something from; and Red – something that was difficult or a block.

If the teams went to different parts of the room, have everyone tour around. Document the work of each group.

Social Accountability

Most of the projects I work on involve me holding myself accountable. I don’t have a boss to fire me, just the possibility of losing gigs and support. I don’t have relationships with people that require certain actions from me. The side projects I tend to take on take place over a long period of time and involve many parties.

Checking in regularly with a number of people I trust, but am not accountable to or for, helps me stay on track with (and realistic about) my workload. Especially related to side projects.

Not Your Usual Checkin

These are people you are not directly accountable to. They are people to whom you strive towards being socially accountable. This mainly boils down to working with people you desire the respect of, but are friendly enough with to fail in front of. No part of your livelihood should depend upon your honesty (obviously, I hope this would be the case in any job, but the dream is not yet the reality).

Tom sez: The Table is Round : There is no project manager. Rather, participants ask one another about their projects. “So Tom, how is ‘Writing a cover letter’ going?”

Fin sez: I really like the informal and casual tone we keep.

Have a Regular Call Time

You might tweak this regular call time to later in the day or that week occasionally, and let people know if you won’t make it or need to reschedule. Some weeks everyone will miss together. Just keep going. Assume it will happen the next week at the regular time. If people consistently miss, ask them if they mean to make it. Remove them from the workflow if they can’t commit on at least a semi-regular basis, welcoming them back if they are able to prioritize it again.

Have a Place to Meet that Doesn’t Rely on Any One Person

Charlie set us up with a persistent Unhangout. No invites, no person flaking preventing an easy join, just. showing up at the regular time. The code to set up such a thing exists here. It can be a little intense for someone to install and run on their own, so if you’d like to use the hosted service for a permalink, do so here.

Update: we now use a permalink at meet.jit.si

Choose a Platform

We use Trello. Generalizable enough to make sense for various projects, public, low barrier to entry. Especially useful with its API so some of us plug into our more finely detailed project management software.

We use the following Columns:

  • “Backlog” for things that may or may not happen.
  • “ToDo” for things yet to be worked on, or that have stalled out.
  • “Doing” for things that are in progress & are being actively worked on.
  • Update: we now also have “Blocked” for things which are out of our hands in how to move forward.
  • “Done” is the high-five column, which gets emptied every check-in.

We also assign tasks to ourselves, so everyone can have an overview of what others are doing – and thus can take over “moderation” of the call.

You’ll slowly start to notice that some things you meant to do just… aren’t being done. Put them on a back burner. After awhile, either admit they’re not going to get done, or restructure them to be approachable and actionable.

Generalities, Not Atomized

All of our participants have personal task management on various platforms. This is about what we’re generally needing to get done, not the granular aspects. We each have our own systems for those more specific aspects (I use OmniFocus on my desktop, tho thinking of switching off, and TeamBox for GWOB).

This has been super useful for me in staying on task, delivering on long-term projects, and in feeling connected to a group of people even when my work isn’t. Hope you find it useful, too!

Is it secret, is it safe?

Being in Berlin reminded me that I haven’t been around the hackers I know and love since my last round of gadget aquirement. A lot of conversations have been happening recently around the usability of crypto-aware tools (including an event in DC on Jan 11th that GWOB is doing with OpenITP – you should go!). What we fail to talk about are how easy many existing things are out there, and what they are. Here are some things we did:

Encrypt all the things!

Why this matters: when interacting with law enforcement, you can plead the 5th around your password, but the hardware itself can be seized, albeit sometimes for a short time. During this, they can take an image of your disk, IE, scan and copy anything on it. By encrypting your device, all they will see is adsfliu9p8aerkadfov8c79234hfgia etc instead of “ohai.”
File Vault

  • A Mac. It’s not as hard as you think. With a solid state drive, it takes about 45 minutes. Let it run tonight while you head to bed. For a Mac, plug it in, launch System Preferences > Security and Privacy > File Vault > Encrypt.
  • An Android. Also not difficult. Settings > Security > Encrypt Device. Again, you’ll need to leave it plugged in and have a bit of patience with it.

Password Management

Why this is important: helps you not fall into password reuse issues by allowing you to only remember one strong password, and loading in non-human-memorable passwords.
On Mac, I went for 1Password. It costs some money, but it’s hella easy to use, and I can share an encrypted file via dropbox between my multiple devices so I can still access accounts. While I’m plugging in these accounts to 1Password, I’m slowly changing all my less-secure passwords for randomized ones.

Communications

drawn for Morgan Mayhem’s Center for Civic Media talk on Coercion Resistant Design

Why this is important: While we’ve achieved HTTPS in most places, within and between larger “clouds” data is not actually sent encrypted. In order for you to maintain your privacy, it’s important for anything you send to be encrypted. All of these are usable in the exact same way from a user standpoint as the things they replace. They just also encrypt the traffic. Try them out.

I already use Adium for Off The Record (OTR) and Thunderbird for Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) on my Mac. I’d use Jitsi but it crashes anytime I’ve tried. Waiting until it works. That said, I also want the messages I send on my phone to be encrypted.

  • ChatSecure : chat on phone
  • TextSecure : already installed, but worth mentioning
  • Threema : also encrypts images etc! Let me know if you’re on it, definitely needs critical mass in order to be usable. I’m K69NNHXE
  • Orweb : Tor browser on phone
  • Orbot : Tor node on phone

Self-Hosting

Why this is important: you control your data. Or at least someone you can go punch in the face does. I am also incredibly hungry at this point of writing this post and thus this section lacks detail.
Uberspace : I like this group out of Berlin. They’re pretty great.
Ownweb : All the functionality of calendar, contact storage, etc. Works beautifully on Uberspace.
edit: Make that OwnCloud. Thanks, Natanji! Also, hosting on your own of course requires the mental and technical to maintain those servers.

Is it safe?

When is the last time you ran a backup? Why not right now?

<3 to all the fine folk who helped out with this : Tomate, Herr Flupke, Morgan.

InterTwinkles

Yesterday held many gems, and one of my favorites was seeing Charlie defend his dissertation (he would prefer it be called “defenestration“). He’s built an incredible tool called InterTwinkles, an online tool for non-hierarchical, consensus-oriented decision making.

Non-hierarchical, participatory, consensus-based decision making has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years. The traditional techniques of formal consensus, however, are limited to face-to-face meetings, which can limit organizations’ capacity due to their time and cost. InterTwinkles is a set of integrated but composable online tools designed to assist small and medium-sized groups in engaging in formal group decision making processes online. In this thesis, Charlie DeTar presents a thorough investigation of the ethical and practical motivations for consensus decision making, and relates these to concerns of control and autonomy in the design of online systems. He describes the participatory and iterative design process for building an online platform for consensus, with particular attention to the practical constraints of real-world groups with mixed technical aptitude. He presents the results of a three month field trial with six cooperative groups in the Boston area, and evaluates the results through the lens of adaptive structuration theory, with particular attention on the fit between the ethical motivations and performance outcomes.

It also generated one of the better #vizthink outputs I think I’ve done in awhile. A big part of being able to do that is based all of the wonderful conversations Charlie and I have shared over the past few months. He’s always been generous with his time and his brains.

Keep an eye out for his future work, try out InterTwinkles in your housing co-op or other affinity-based consensus group. While I (and the rest of the Media Lab) will miss Charlie dearly, Montana calls him to new adventures (and to his awesome partner!).

Introducing the Participatory Aid Marketplace

My cohort Matt Stempeck at the Center for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab recently finished his graduate thesis on participatory aid. We were also on a panel together at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference. Here’s a blog he posted on the Civic Blog about his work – it’s reposted here with his permission.

Unlike my thesis readers, who may or may not have made it through all 244 pages, you get to experience the condensed version. The full PDF is here, if you’re into reading and citations.

Participatory Aid

People are using information and communication technologies (like the internet) to help each other in times of crisis (natural or man-made). This trend is the evolution of a concept known as “mutual aid”, introduced by Russian polymath Peter Kropotkin in 1902 in his argument that our natural sociable inclinations towards cooperation and mutual support are underserved by capitalism’s exclusive focus on the self-interested individual. My own reaction is to the bureaucracy’s underserving of informal and public-led solutions.

The practice of mutual aid has been greatly accelerated and extended by the internet’s global reach. I introduce the term “participatory aid” to describe the new reality where people all over the planet can participate in providing aid in various forms to their fellow humans. In many of these cases, that aid is mediated at least partially by technology, rather than exclusively by formal aid groups.

Formal aid groups like the UN and Red Cross are facing disintermediation not entirely unlike we’ve seen in the music, travel, and news industries. Members of the public are increasingly turning towards direct sources in crises rather than large, bureaucratic intermediaries. Information is increasingly likely to originate from people on the ground in those places rather than news companies, and there is a rich and growing number of ways to help, as well.

You are more than your bank account

The advent of broadcast media brought with it new responsibilities to empathize with people experiencing disaster all over the world. For most of the 20th century, the public was invited to demonstrate their sympathy via financial donations to formal aid organizations, who would, in turn, help those in need (think telethons). This broadcast model of aid works well for martialing large numbers of donors, IF a crisis is deemed significant enough to broadcast it to the audience. Many crises do not reach this threshold, and therefore do not receive the public or private relief support that often follows broadcast attention.

People are using the internet to help in creative ways in times of crisis. There are pros and cons to this development, to be celebrated and mitigated. Briefly, the pool of people who can help in some way is now orders of magnitude larger than it was previously, and the value of those peoples’ contributions is no longer limited to the financial value of their bank accounts. People have consistently proven capable of creative solutions and able to respond to a wider range of human needs than formal needs assessment methodologies accommodate.

On the flip side, not every way to help online is as effective as providing additional funding to professional crisis responders. There is already a graveyard of hackathon projects that never truly helped anyone (especially those with no connection or feedback loop from anyone in the field). The expansion of the range of crisis responders can lead to fragmentation of resources and duplication of efforts, although anyone managing the thousands of traditional NGOs that descended upon Haiti following the earthquake there will tell you that the same problem exists offline. It is my hope that open data standards and improved coordination between projects can mitigate some of these issues.

case-library-categories

How to Help Using Tech

One of the more celebrated methods of recent years is the practice of crisismapping. Following a disaster, crowdsourced mapping platforms like Ushahidi are populated with geocoded data by globally distributed online volunteers like Volunteer Standby Taskforce. The teams collect, translate, verify, analyze, and plot data points to improve the situational awareness (the “what’s going on where”) of formal emergency managers and organizations.

Of course, participatory aid is not limited to producing crisis maps to benefit formal aid organizations, and I argue we shouldn’t limit our understanding of the space to this one early example. Countless professions have shifted to support the digitization of labor, so many of our jobs can (and are) conducted online (pro bono networks like Taproot Foundation and Catchafire are important inspirations to consider). Over time, technology has continued to expand the range of actions an individual can accomplish from anywhere in the world.

A Case Library of New Ways to Help

To support this argument, I collected a case library of nearly one hundred ways members of the public can help communities in crisis (as well as the formal aid organizations working on behalf of these communities). I still need to convert the full case library from Word to HTML, but you can get a sense of it here.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the many ways people can help using technology, and abstracted from these many cases 9 general categories to organize the library. They are to your left.

Framework

From the many examples in the case library, I abstracted a framework to help define and think about participatory aid projects:

framework

Participatory aid can consist of projects that help existing formal aid groups (like a crisis map created at the request of such an institution) or projects that seek to help the affected population directly (like the Sandy Coworking Map, which listed donations of commercial real estate by and for the people of New York). This is a spectrum, because there are many projects which seek to help the affected population as well as the professionals mediating their aid.

Likewise, there is a spectrum between microwork, which often gets called ‘crowdsourcing’, and far less discrete tasks, like designing an entirely new software project or launching an entirely new public initiative like Occupy Sandy. In my research, I noticed that even some of those in the participatory aid space a limited view of its possibilities, and consider crowdsourced microwork at the behest of existing state actors (quadrant IV) to be the ideal application of technological innovation in crisis response. This is an exciting area, but there’s equally great work being done elsewhere. We can create and execute much deeper, more complicated solutions than helping sort thousands of tweets to extract actionable information. (See Ethan Zuckerman’s discussion of thick vs. thin engagement, which I borrow).

Participatory Aid Marketplace

Because I’m at the Media Lab, I was charged with building a piece of technology in addition to producing the written thesis. After conducting interviews with a wide range of leaders in the participatory aid space (and reading a crazy wide range of documents), it emerged that coordination of efforts was a major and unsolved need. Volunteers are interested in what they can do to help, and prefer to use their professional skills if volunteering (versus making a donation). Leaders of semi-formal volunteer organizations like those that make up the Digital Humanitarians Networkseek common check-in forms to easily alert one another (and the world) to their deployments. The individuals within formal aid organizations (like UN-OCHA) who are working to better integrate participatory aid with formal aid also stand to benefit from improved coordination and aggregation of participatory aid projects.

So, with a team of MIT undergrads (Patrick Marx, Eann Tuann, and Yi-shiuan Tung), I co-designed and built a website to aggregate participatory aid projects. The goals of the site are:

  • to index active participatory aid projects by crisis to provide an overview of public response
  • to match skilled volunteers with projects seeking their help
  • to host the case library of previous examples of peer aid, tagged by the needs they addressed, in the hopes of inspiring future projects
  • to do all of this in as user-friendly, open, and distributable ways as possible (including early support for a couple of emerging aid data standards)

Participatory Aid Marketplace
A design mockup of the functional Drupal site

The site provides administrators of participatory aid projects with a simple form to list their project. This form populates the active project views as well as the case library, and links projects to common crisis needs and general buckets of volunteer skills. It can also automatically distribute the content to existing coordination fora like Google Groups or RSS readers.

Volunteers can participate in the site with full-fledged profiles, skills<->project matching, and specific LinkedIn skills importing. The more likely use case consists of short, anonymous visits to quickly identify meaningful ways to help in the crises people care about.

The skills selection and importing prototype

The skills selection and importing prototype

Future Work

There’s a lot more in the full thesis, but essentially, we’ve worked with some of the most innovative groups in crisis response to build a functional prototype that would only require some design work and loving iterations to be of real utility. I’m looking into various ways to finish development and implement the site (not to mention identify a good organizational / network home). Get in touch with me if you’d like to talk about the platform, or this space in general.

THANKS

Thanks for reading this.

Also, while I’ve worked for years to use the web to organize people to create change in the world, my background isn’t in humanitarian aid or crisis response. My ability to rapidly understand this space and consume massive amounts of information (written and social) was directly correlated with the kindness and enthusiasm of people like Willow Brugh, Luis Capelo, Natalie Chang, all of my interview subjects, all of the kind survey respondents, and of course my readers, Ethan ZuckermanJoi Ito, and Patrick Meier. My colleagues, the staff and fellow grad students of the Center for Civic Media, shared their intellectual firepower at every turn.