local San Francisco neighborhood preparedness

One of the hardest lessons and ongoing challenges in digital disaster and humanitarian response is how to connect with a local population. While many digital response groups deal with this by waiting for official actors (like the affected nation’s government, or the United Nations) to activate them, this doesn’t always sit well with my political viewpoints. Some of these affected nations have governments which are not in power at the consent of the governed, and so to require their permission rankles my soul. But to jump in without request or context is also unacceptable. So what’s to be done? It’s from this perspective that I’ve been diving into how civics, disaster, and humanitarian tech overlap. And it’s from this perspective that I’ve been showing up to Bayview meetings for San Francisco city government’s Empowered Communities Program. ECP is working to create neighborhood hubs populated by members already active in their communities. Leaders in local churches, extended care facilities, schools, etc gather about once a month to share how they’ve been thinking about preparedness and to plan a tabletop exercise for their community. This tabletop exercise took place on October 20th in a local gymnasium.

The approach of ECP is generally crush-worthy and worth checking out, so I won’t dive into it too much here. In brief, it is aware of individual and organizational autonomy, of ambient participation, and of interconnectedness. It has various ways of engaging, encourages others to enroll in the program, and lightens everyone’s load in a crisis by lightening it in advance. I am truly a fan of the approach and the participants. It’s also possible to replicate in a distributed and federated way, which means digital groups like the ones I work with could support efforts in understood and strategic ways.

Here is what doesn’t necessarily show through in their website: how grounded in local needs and social justice these community members are. There is a recognition and responsibility to the vulnerable populations of the neighborhood. There is a deep awareness of what resources exist in the community, and of historical trends in removing those resources from a poor neighborhood in a time of crisis. We’ve had frank conversations about what they’ll do about debris, and how the Department of Public Works parking and storage in their neighborhood is suddenly a positive thing. About what to do with human waste, and what a great boon it will be to have the waste water plant in their neighborhood. The things that wealthier parts of the city have vetoed having near them because of noise, pollution, and ugliness (NIMBY, or “not in my back yard”) will make Bayview resilient. They’re preparing to take care of themselves, and then to take care of other neighborhoods.

There’s a plan in NYC now to knock on every. single. resident’s door in the next crisis. It’s an approach other cities might also consider. But it’s one which is nearly impossible to implement. Who is doing the knocking? What are they doing with the information they gain? ECP’s approach is to apply their own oxygen masks first, and then to check on their neighbors, to know what the local Hub can take care of and what is needed for external support. When/If a city employee comes knocking on their door, they can then speed up the process of getting aid to where it’s needed (“I’m ok, but Shelly up the street has our 7 disabled neighbors there and they need a wheelchair, medication, and no-sodium food.”)

The end of the tabletop exercise had Daniel Homsey, the gent who heads up this program, talking about how we didn’t devise plans while together, but we did learn how to suddenly have to work at another role with people we’d barely or never met before. And I, as a digital responder, listened to what the community’s needs were, how they organized themselves, and considered the smallest interventions which could be maximally applied.

Social Infrastructure

I’ve now lived in SF for some months. My room is built out, painted. Still last-20% things left to do, like a door frame and a functional curtain rod, but the two things of Home are handled: books and art. The books for awhile were shelved 3 deep in a setup meant to stagger two. But now there is an extra bookshelf, so that’s remedied. “You may have too many books,” the red mohawk said. The phrase didn’t even land, the impossibility of it. The art has been fit around the shelves. Still a few new pieces to frame (a constant balance between Past Willow “more art! support artists! shiny things!” and Future Willow “now this must be framed and put somewhere.”). The tetris of nesting.

And the coffee here. It is so good that I make nearby people uncomfortable with the sounds of happiness I make during those first sips.
I miss Cambridge, fiercely. But it is so good to be here.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about infrastructure. I blame having George Voss in town awhile ago, another social-scientist-flavored person enamored with infrastructure. The beauty of it, the visibility and iteration and possibility of it. The lived-in infrastructure of Western Europe. The gregariousness of US infrastructure. The iterated-until-smooth infrastructure of Japan. How each feels when you stand near it, when you benefit from it, when it breaks. Continue reading

Politics and Death

This was co-written with Fin

When Mihi died, we had some problems beyond just the holes in our chests and the salt in our eyes. 0) He was part of many communities – the medical community, the hacker community, the data journalism community, and many more. We wanted to create a site where these communities could come together, which was complicated as we are 1) activists of one flavor or another, and so most of us aren’t on facebook, 2) facebook memorial pages squick us the fuck out anyway1 2, and 3) there aren’t other accessible options out there for collaborative memorial pages3. Continue reading

notre dam de la garde

Yesterday I walked to the top of a hill to see the Notre Dam de la Garde, and was sad that it was just as Catholic as any other cathedral, and even more filled with tourists. I had somehow hoped for a pile of tiny boat models, superstitiously left over decades in hopes of protection. As I couldn’t discover hidden pockets of trust and hope made manifest, my favorite part was sliding down the railings back down the hill.

The week has been dedicated to Global Voices Exchange, a project to create a digital advocacy campaign guide by and for women of the global south. 20 of us gathered to question, scaffold, and draft the guide. I was honored to facilitate in my role at Aspiration, and as a friend of the Global Voices community. It was amazing to remember that about 2 years ago, I had facilitated the GV strategy meeting, and it was the first intensive time collaborating as mentee to Aspiration. It was incredible to see the progression of my skills (still so far to go!), the continued trust put in me by GV, and also how significantly working with Aspiration has influenced me. Continue reading

2015 in review

It can be easy to forget what one has done in a year. Here’s my 2015 retrospective, and what I would like to do in 2016. My word, when I was wrapping up my time in Seattle and headed to Cambridge, was intent — I was good at doing what I could with what I had, but I wanted to be more intentional about where I wanted to end up. Having now oscillated quite far in that direction, the word I’ll be carrying with me in 2016 is humility. I want to return to listening to what others have to say, to seeking the gems and surprises and connections, rather than focusing on my own intentions. That said, intentionality sure did carry some pretty amazing things with it…

Invested in taking care of myself


With two dear friends in Cambridge, working out twice a week (ish) became joyful instead of a chore. I’m now stronger than I’ve been in a long while, and my body is eager to move regularly (and noticeably unhappy when I don’t). I also can even (sometimes) run 5k in under 30 minutes. I’m comfortable in my own body again, years after breaking my arm and losing access to that part of life.

Mental health

In no small part due to an aggressively healthy work place (that in the next section), I have been taking been taking care of myself. I devised ways of being connected to others while still being mobile, and made that into a pattern for others to follow. This has also meant tracking my mood, how much I’m drinking (which way less, of both caffeine and alcohol, and way more of water), how well I’m sleeping, and starting to detect trends and linkages across everything. I started practicing meditation with any degree of regularity, and continue to feel the benefits. I also took a plethora of tiny vacations which, while including coworking, but were not for work. Being places Not For Work was bizarre and magical. All of these things combined to make this my least anxious year in a very, very long time.


While still by no means wealthy, I have started a retirement account (at 31 years old!) and paid off the small running loan I had with a family member (privilege jazz hands).


I tend to put myself into situations in which I cause myself anxiety. As an exercise in taking care of myself without extra stress while also spending time with friends, I attended Burning Man with False Profit… and didn’t tell anyone. It was great — I ran into old friends, made new friends, helped take care of camp, learned to fly a kite, and took it so easy that I only made it into the City once.
I’ve also started saying “no” more often in general. “No” to projects which aren’t strategic for myself and the project-holder, and to people who are unhealthy for me. I nearly took a job at the end of 2014 which would have been super unhappy even though it was with on amazing projects and with amazing people. Instead, with the help of a few friends, I disappointed those rad folk at that prospect by saying “no,” and instead I… Continue reading

A great day on Twitter

So I’m trying to get things in order to attend a hackathon against gender-based violence in rural India put on by a woman named Chinmayi who had been a GWOB participant, then mentee, and is now a friend of mine. Trying to sort things out means filling out an online visa application for India, which has been pure hilarity. The joys of Twitter are recreated here for the stake of posterity.

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Politicized Humanitarianism

This post is a collaboration between Margaret Killjoy and yours truly. If you find yourself in need of a co-author or ghostwriter, or just generally like to be challenged and your hopes dashed and lifted at the same time, please reach out to them.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu

Four years into the Syrian Civil War, with no end in sight, the Syrian refugee crisis is just getting worse and worse. More than four million people have fled their homes and sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, and throughout the world.

There are wonderful grassroots initiatives (most too informal to even call “organizations”) who are on the ground in Europe helping Syrian refugees navigate the nightmare they’ve been thrust into (bureaucracy and xenophobia) after the nightmare they’ve escaped (the Syrian civil war). But as crucial as it is to meet these people’s immediate needs, it will take more than emergency aid to solve the source of this crisis and ones like it. It will take radical, political solutions.

Relief organizations and related nonprofits could position themselves to advocate and act towards / in alignment with those solutions. Which is to say: we need humanitarianism, yes, but if we’re going to find long-term solutions, we also need politicized humanitarianism.

When we speak of people and groups being politicized, we don’t mean campaigning and/or voting for elected officials every few years. Instead, to be political means to do work that addresses the very way our society—and its decision-making—is structured. For many of us, to be political also means to embrace the feminist concept that the personal is political—that the way we interact with one another one-on-one cannot be divorced from the broader structures of social control. Continue reading

Missing Persons Application!

This is a draft of a blog entry. The idea needs further refinement, and we welcome your feedback!

When a disaster occurs, whether fast like an earthquake or slow like a drought or war, people go missing. As outsiders wishing to contribute to restoring the stability of our worlds, the desire to reunite friends and loved ones through the technology we know so well can be tempting. Making use of our knowledge of social platforms, geotagging, and databases is far easier than addressing the long-term systemic injustices which allow these crises to affect entire populations in the way they do, afterall. But let’s say a typhoon has just made landfall, or that there’s a sudden influx of refugees from a drought-blighted country, and you and a group of your friends have gathered to see what you can do about it. This is beautiful — we need to learn how to work in solidarity with those in other geographies. But it’s also a delicate space. This particular post is about whether or not you should build that missing persons app, or spend your time contributing to something like Google Person Finder, OpenStreetMap, Sahana, or Standby Task Force instead.

The missing persons/reunification domain of humanitarian response is not just about people logging themselves so as to be findable by those missing them. It’s also about those individuals being protected during the process, having support in finding those they’ve been separated from, and the infrastructure which surrounds these actions. Software has a lot to contribute to connection, information security, and sorting through indexes, but missing persons is a delicate space with real humans in the mix.

This is an inhabited space

There are already missing persons tools and organizations which have been vetted for capacity and integrity for follow-through and security. Here are the few most successfully used ones: American Red Cross’ Safe and Well, Google Person Finder, Sahana, Refugees United, International Committee of the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Please offer to help improve and maintain these existing tools (code repos and communities are linked to from each name)! If you are uncomfortable or unsure of how to contact them, please let me/Tim know!

However, we also understand that the world changes. We gain access to new technologies, there are new clever people in the world, and our understandings of situations change. There is *always* room for improvement in this space, just as any other. Want to do something substantively “better” or different than what the existing tools and organizations already do? Here’s what you need to know:

A component, not a solution

The software-based frontend and backing database are a TINY FRACTION of the overall system of missing persons reunification efforts. People are often missing for a *reason*, possibly because of political unrest, domestic violence, or displacement. If your platform publishes photos of someone or their geographic location, will someone try to come after them? Can you protect their physical and emotional wellbeing? There are national and international laws in place to protect such individuals, especially children, and your component of the system must be in alignment with those laws (or have a damn good and intentional reason for not being as such). Ethically, you should also respect an individual’s desire or need for privacy. In the Missing Persons Community of Interest, organizations handling missing persons data are reviewed by external parties for their ability to perform long-term maintainence and protection of said data. You and your tool will need to undergo the same rigor before being launched.

Complications versus easing interaction

Your goal is to make finding loved ones easier, right? Think about how many tools are already in play (see “This is an inhabited space” section above), and what adding one more to the mix would be like. Every new missing persons platform is another point of decision-making stress on the missing persons and those seeking them. Imagine being asked for personal information about yourself while under extreme duress over and over and over again.. or having to repeatedly enter in the details of someone you love and are deeply worried about while on a desperate search for them. The listed existing tools have gone through (and in some cases, are still working out) data sharing flows to reduce these stressors while still maintaining their committments to privacy and security of the data they hold. If you launch your tool, you’ll need to adhere to the same levels of empathy, respect, privacy, and sharing. (Side note, please don’t start a “uniting platform,” either, lest we get here. That’s what sharing standards are about.)

We look forward to your heartfelt, well-thought out contributions to this space.

Tim and Willow

…and yet…

At Cascadia.JS in 2014, I picked up a tshirt from the freebie pile. It’s pink. I know — I was also shocked about this, but the quote on the front was so good I had to go for it. “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” On the back is a subtle “&yet” which I learned was an open source consulting company (ish). Neat! — humility, a culture that accepts shirts which are both pink and comfortable, and a nuanced logo. I especially love wearing this shirt in academic and tech-centric situations.

A few months ago, Case asked my consent to be put in touch with someone on the &yet team — they had a conference coming up, and had suggested I speak. Our phone conversation was brief, but it sounded both fun and values-based, so I said yes (a rarer and rarer thing for me these days), and so I spent Wed/Thurs/Fri of last week in Richland, Washington. If interested, here are my drawings of others’ talks, my slide deck, and the paper I referenced.

It is now easily one of my favorite large social experiences. Music, art, and story were woven throughout the conference, all evoking self-reflection on our role in the path the world takes. It was already populated by some of my favorite people in this space (the aforementioned case, plus ben, jden, kawandeep, etc), and the textcapade starting weeks in advance, recieving letters from another character in the story by mail, all playing through these struggles, had me jazzed up long before the event.

The talks were a beautiful mix of art demonstrations, hopeful distribution structures, empathy arcs, and design philosophies. Inclusion was constantly present, and never for its own sake, but rather from a deep understanding that these are the voices that make up the world. The care &yet took of attendees (and encouraged us to take for each other) opened space for some rather heart-wrenching moments. Please, check out the talks when they go up.

While all of this is amazing, I want to talk about the trust and responsibility that &yet placed in the attendees. The storyline was a surprisingly nuanced version of one of my own ongoing internal battles — burn it all down, or patch to save what we can. (The mixed-mode system work is my attempt at making these transitions graceful, by the by). At no point was a clear value judgement imposed upon the story, or implied to the players. The textcapade transitioned into a sort of backchannel for actors in the parts of those sending the messages at points during the conference, and this archetypical internal battle continued to be played out there as well as by stage actors between talks.
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What’s the Catch?

Chaos Communications Camp is something that happens once every four years, and it is My Favorite. It’s a few thousand hackers etc camping together in Germany. There’s brightly colored hair everywhere, and a slowly improving gender ratio, and stickers on laptops, and a gigabit to the tent. There are disco balls in trees, and competing soundscapes of German techno and old rock and roll or hiphop, and a giant sparkley rocket ship called Fairy Dust. I’m camping with Norton’s Obscure Phoggy Embassy (the manifestation of a few Bay Area hackerspaces), which is successfully trolling much of the rest of Camp through their assumption we’re being colonial (because Emperors), as well as having an inflated shark Rubin‘s been shouting at people to jump over. Also, NOPE attire are booty shorts.

I was invited to sit on a panel called “What’s the Catch?” put together by nat from Open Technology Institute. Josh (also from OTI), Kate (from tor), and myself were the three panelists. We each attempted to speak for about five minutes, and then we focused on questions from the audience. Our topic was an ongoing debate in infosec (and other) circles : is it possible to take money from governments and corporations while maintaining a project’s integrity? I vote yes, if you work really hard at it. The talk will eventually be up on the CCC wiki (and I’ll likely post it here once it’s up) but for now, this is the rant I put together when I was considering how to concisely state why I think this is the case.

In relation to this, and the other existential questions which I continually struggle with, I refer often to a quote from the Zapatistas, one of the few groups to maintain a governance structure after their revolution: “Caminando preguntamos,” which roughly translates to “we walk while asking questions.” To me, it means that we should move, but let’s analyze as we do. Let’s be in both critique and solidarity with each other.

I’m going to attempt to touch on three points, alliterated for your memory: perfection, pluralism, paternalism.
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