Distributed playbook

While I was at Truss, I helped move us from a dozen people in the Bay Area to nearly a hundred across 20 states. Through monthly meetings to run experiments in improving our practices, we came up with the Distributed Playbook. It’s since changed format enough that I missed the original version, so I’ve ported it over from Github to a page on this blog. It, along with the onboarding guide, are two of the things of which I’m most proud from my time at Truss. Hope they can help you out, too!

RecoveryCon Report Out

Last weekend RecoveryCon happened, a distributed conference to examine how we can come out of this pandemic better than we were before. A blog post on how the facilitation happened already got posted, and now that the participants have approved the notes for public viewing, here they are, followed also by our Joy Gallery (things that are bringing us joy right now).


These are very rough notes from session report-outs, linking to the track’s notes doc.

Supply chain: How we can organize the supply chain for emergencies. What’s going wrong right now, how it can get better. Anarchist organizations and organizing. Challenges of adoption and disseminating information to get people to use the system. Mechanisms that have prevented organizations from centralizing too much power.

Resilient organizations: gentler with ourselves and each other. This is unprecedented, we’re communicating differently. Internalize, feel it, express. How different organizations are trying to adapt. Yearning to connect, be of service. Not everyone is online. Social innovation, getting through the day. Invitation as a way to communicate. Going from community to life organizing and coaching.

Reclaiming streets: How our streets are changed right now, how to sustain those places. Not just pipes to get places. Less use of public transit from this pandemic but bikes as key. Political will to keep this momentum up. How can we take these experiments and make them more human scale, open to all, plan and build?

Putting your own mask on first: Make spaces meet basic need. Shit, sleep, eat. Many people are relocating right now which is not great. Get a bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen into a reasonable state. Bathrooms often only place you can be alone and vulnerable. These spaces are important. Change concept of success – instead of “hit these things or you’ve failed” – but instead “what is the smallest increment on the way to a goal you can be proud of? Cultivating joy and satisfaction. 

Resilience & Rehabilitation: Incarceration, systems and narratives in place that are very broken. Are the majority of people in the state system convicted of violent crimes? Internalized the narrative of what the system is and who’s in it, why and how they’re there, what should happen after. Parole is really social death, people go back to prison because of parole violations not because of committing another crime. Showed a video clip. And interventions of restorative and transformative justice. Focus on healing process for survivors. 

End of capitalism: Weird, deadly time we’re in. Need to look at new models already out there for a global context. US, UK are grappling with things that aren’t new. Patterns from elsewhere in the world. Think about transfers in one direction, need to go in other directions as well. Imagine alternatives. How do we change incentives? Challenge false dichotomies. Cooperative buy-outs.

How are we collaborative?: How we’ve collaborated during this time. Moving collaboration entirely online, better than half on half off. Not having to travel but still having access. Challenges of everything being online. Divide between digital and non digital conversation. Everyone has to contribute. If there’s a digital divide it’s difficult. STructure so everyone can participate. How things can improve: siloed and fragmented, lots of work within single communities. Conferences like this help, but not clear how this scales. How do we get the right people to talk at the right time?

Campuses: Many US campuses on path to closure. Physical space, use for space that is changing and not what the market structures would deem. Could we build with intention and in community? Concepts of education, pulling away from a system that encourages disparity. Experiences to the table. Book recommendations. Paths forward to making and taking space, like squatters’ rights. Fighting entrenched class structures. How to not need to feel productive at all times.

Data for all: Questioning assumption that data is record of record, faithful construction of reality. Constructed, produced. Produced in all types of new ways we don’t know the repercussions of. Dominant narrative of data generating new insights and how to meet those needs, but also new ways for data to control us without our consent. Concentrated interests extracting value out of us and our systems. Even when I’m presented with a request for consent, I don’t know, don’t have a meaningful way to opt out. Our paradigm of more data should shift from individual consent to harm reduction. Do we need new kinds of institutions to mediate these discussions?

What art is giving you visions for the future you want? How can creativity be part of future-crafting? Ways art can bring our imaginations closer to what another world could look like. Star Trek, UKL. Art in community, collaborative process being deeply fueling, esp with other collaborative processes. Meaning making and community building of having a physical object. Street art as assertion of people in space. Dystopian art as highlighting or telling us what we want to avoid?

Fun, creative, and inspiring opportunities for the future of [digital] communications/socializing more vulnerable populations participating. Rope people into ways we want to connect online. Serendipity of real world is missing. Town Online is trying to mimic that, but not really there yet. How we can get to conversations, like rooms for conversations like a house. Brackets and multithreading in chats to track topics. Using video chat with shared activity without expectation of eye contact. How to emote with avatars? Changing video call backgrounds as framing conversations. Annotation as something everyone can contribute to

How do we plan for a post-scarcity society within a society that is collapsing? What is hope? Redefining hope, going from this model of “everything will be ok in a few months” versus what I can have hope in today. Changes expectations and outputs of what you’re capable of. Prepper talk. Differences based on environment, and who is around. Unevenness of post scarcity. How unevenly distributed these crises are. We’ve seen alternative systems of sharing value, but it happens at small scales and in homogeneous places. I believe other worlds are possible, but I don’t see a path towards the multicultural world I want to live in. Security in a world of collapse feels bubbly.

We were all scared to show up. There’s not a lot of capacity to do things, including for the organizers and facilitators. But we’re glad we did.

Joy Gallery

  • Bookcases! Lots of bookcases: https://twitter.com/BCredibility/
  • Old Oakland Railways –
  • Gardening. And the badgers.
  • Listening to the wind in the trees
  • Putting a sprig of rosemary or lavender in my mask as I talk a walk in nature
  • sunset on the rooftop (I’m trying to make a ritual of it)
  • Micro moments to fill in
  • Vicarious cat interactions through lots of videos/tiktok compilations
  • Seeing people’s rooms/homes in the backgrounds and getting to know them in that way
    • This piñata head:  
  • The poetry of Keetje Kuipers (example)
  • Somehow ended up in an all canadian group
  • Playing scrabble with my best friends – i have won 1 game of 700. Keep on 
  • Art – making beauty out of struggle
  • Convening spaces for community across the world – humanitarian wise. It is hard but people really appreciate it
  • Reconnecting with old friends, virtual hangouts
  • These Twitter threads:https://twitter.com/kylosbarechest/status/1264208265245683712
  • https://twitter.com/vilruse/status/1263891922168545281
  • I (Zephyr) have been putting out a small newsletter every Friday of only good/cute/queer/hopeful things – https://tinyletter.com/zalsoa
  • MINECRAFT (building huge group projects with friends)
  • Being with my son
  • Being able to enjoy my art installment around my nome Meural 
  • Reconnecting, finding my grounding and sense of place 
  • Being outside, hiking, connecting with my friends

What’s bringing you joy right now?

Facilitating a distributed conference

I was pretty sure it was going to be a disaster the day before. Hell, the week before. Having multiple tracks of participatory sessions meant that people would need to move from video conference link to video conference link. We didn’t have a shared chat space consistent across all the “rooms,” and I was anxious to go to other links myself to gather people, leaving the core room unattended.

It could have been terrible. Instead, RecoveryCon was a smashing success, with people joining from all over the US, plus the UK, Germany, and Turkey. We ran (mostly) on time. We shared back what had happened in sessions. We cried a bit together. And we ended 3 minutes early.

Another blog post will happen soon with a summary of sessions, links to notes, and our Joy Gallery; but for now I wanted to tell you about facilitating a multi-track open-spaces style event. A caveat that a high proportion of my friends are facilitators and/or are tech savvy. YMMV.

The logistics

We had as many video conference “rooms” as we had tracks. This will come into play with the agenda. One “room” should be both a track and also where you start / regroup to. This means anyone coming to the conference at weird times is swept up in a session without extra overhead. It also gives a consistent sense of a “common room” that people know to go to if they get lost or booted or whatever.

Start a notes doc for each track, including headers for each session and reminders of when to come back to the main room. That way, folk don’t need to ask about it. It will be a bit of a Thing when times change and you have to go update each doc, but oftentimes folk will have already updated it for you. You will be able to see this in the notes doc when the content overview post goes up.

If I were going to do this again, I would have a chat of some kind with the session leads and facilitators to coordinate and remind about coming back. This time it worked out great, tho!

The agenda

This was bananas to me. I am in the school of facilitation that does not share the agenda for an event, but rather encourages people to be fully present by asking them to trust me and giving folk whatever comes next as it happens. This time, I shared a spreadsheet of when various things were going to happen. This spreadsheet also provided a source of truth so far as links to video conference rooms and notes docs so folk could self-sort.

All sessions ended up being the same length of time, which was different than originally planned. I tried to add in complexity where it wasn’t needed, and we organically got back to a simpler state.

Expectation setting

In addition to a version of the participant guidelines from Aspiration I give (and was reminded to do so this time — thank you), we also had the expectation of all watching the clock together, and of returning to the main room. I asked at least once on each front for those to be repeated back to me, and made the main room clear in the communications emails sent out to attendees.

We also set the expectation of collaborative note taking as active listening and of reporting back on sessions so folk who went elsewhere still felt like they got something out of the sessions they missed.

Thank you

Thank you to all the amazing folk who came to RecoveryCon and made it what it was. Special shout out to Greg, for helping with organizing; to Liz, for having boundaries; to Adrienne and Heather for facilitating tracks; and to Cheryl, Beatriz, Nathan, sevine, Julie, Courtney, Lou, Ahmet, B, and two other folk I missed for leading sessions.

A playbook for distributed teams

Originally posted on the Truss blog

There are a lot of articles coming out these days about how to be an effective distributed employee. But there is much less around on how to be a good distributed team. Truss hired our first distributed employees back in January of 2018, and we’re now at 55% outside our “home state” of California (and many of us are spread across CA). We’re now 75 folk, and there are usually 5 of us in “the office.” As Isaac recently said, “it’s like a coworking space that only Trussels have access to.”

We’ve had to learn a few things in order to keep the organization functioning and aligned with our values. We’ve now codified the steadiest of these lessons in a distributed playbook on GitHub.

A quick note on language, and why we chose “distributed” over “remote.”

“Remote” suggests that there is a central place to which a node is remote. Because we wanted to emphasize that we are all on equal footing, we instead chose “distributed” – there is no “center.” We have collections of Trussels in NYC, Atlanta, Chicago, Sacramento, LA, and SF; as well as individual Trussels in many other locations.

What the playbook holds

We think healthy distributed team interaction falls into four buckets: facilitating interaction, properly resourcing people, bonding with each other, and seeing each other in person on occasion. This includes other things like taking stack, having a place for banter, having offsites, and having ways to connect about not-work. Things we’ve talked about in previous blog posts and will continue to post about (and now will collect into this playbook as we do).

A quick note on internal references in the playbook

We talk in the playbook about TDRs – Truss Decision Records. We pulled these from ADRs (Architectural Decision Records) which we use in our code repos to document why we made certain choices. We do the same for our organization now, and anyone can propose a new decision. We should probably do another blog post on that at some point.

We want your help!

We’re still learning about distributed team interactions—we all are—and we’d love your feedback and contributions to the playbook so we can all learn with each other.

Facilitating distributed All Hands meetings

Originally posted on the Truss blog

All hands meetings are important – they are a way to spread a message, a way for a team to get to know each other, and a way to move a decision making process forward. They are easy to do wrong—to hear something everyone already knows a thousand times over, to be unclear, or to be a jumbled mess without enough time to accomplish a goal. I’ve run the numbers of how much we pay for an all hands meeting (something I can do with internal salary transparency), and the cost is nothing to laugh at. So why do we have these meetings so often (at Truss, once a week), and how can we make sure we’re getting the most of them?

We see facilitation as the way to get the most out of a meeting like this. I’ll arbitrarily define “meeting facilitation” here as the act of deciding what you want to get out of a gathering, planning for, and then constructing and maintaining a space and flow to optimize for achieving that goal with a group of people. This is different from presentations—which are also useful—as a presentation is about the clear delivering of a message by one or a small group of people to another set of people. It is possible to facilitate a set of presentations, especially if there is Q&A at the end.

Facilitating distributed meetings

As we’ve talked about before, facilitation changes when you have a distributed group. And so as Truss noses up past 70 (and still growing) we’re hitting new facilitation challenges. As our client base grows, and our internal operations change, and fewer Trussels know each other well, what do we want out of our all hands meetings (that we call “Practitioners’,” or “Prac” for short), and how can we be sure we’re achieving those goals?

Skill share

We know we don’t have all the answers at Truss, and so we wanted to have the conversation about how to further improve our practices with a broader group of people. Four Trussels (Sara, MacRae, Isaac, and Willow) were joined by Emily of honeycomb.io, Pam of One Medical, Aaron of CivicActions, Liz of Public Lab, and Mike of an undisclosed media company to skill share. The all hands we facilitate run from groups of a handful to in the 70s. Some of us rotate facilitators, some of us hold that honor for a prolonged period. Some of us are fully remote, some of us are clumped into rooms in different locations.

While you can get into the details by watching the video or reading the notes, our main categories of interest fell into engagement & participation, meeting purpose, and who is remote versus who is in person. We had a few main takeaways that we’ll be cross-pollinating across our organizations.

Facilitation Guild

Having a group of similarly dedicated folk within your organization can help up everyone’s game. Try out experiments together, lean on each other for support, and perform course corrections by having allies to check in with. We try out new things on our project teams and then share them back to the guild, helping the whole organization benefit from gains (and avoid and/or reproduce discovered failures!)

Collaborative decision making

While some of us (including Truss) still use all hands primarily as a way to disseminate information, Aaron of CivicActions and Liz of Public Lab told stories of making decisions as organizations during all hands meetings. This makes my robot heart sing with joy, and the Truss facilitation guild will be looking for ways to start doing this in our projects.

“Hand” in chat

As a group grows larger, it becomes more difficult to track who wants to say something, and in what order. We use the video conferencing software’s chat to raise a hand through text—literally typing “hand”—in order to signal we want to say something. Not only does it help the facilitator keep stack, it also gives time to folks who want to consider what they want to say before they say it

Banter / Side channel

Banter is a great way to keep everyone engaged—I may not want to take up everyone’s attention with the perfect gif in reaction to something that’s just been said, but if I have somewhere to post it, I’m more likely to stay engaged as are the folk looking at and responding to the gif. Using a side channel (so not distracting from the “hand” channel above) means everyone wins.

What’s next?

Huge shout out to all the folk who joined for this facilitation skill share—I’m excited about a lot I get to do, and this was still the highlight of my month thus far. To be able to share skills across organizations is rarer than I’d like in the private sector, and that’s just silly. We all do better when we all do better. I hope we have more reason to collaborate with each other to grow and uplift the spaces we’re in. Is there something you want to learn or share about?

There is a growing body of work around working from home and working from anywhere… as well as the practices individuals take to stay sane and healthy while doing so. But we’re lacking a supporting body of work in how to help groups work together well in this new distributed environment. Truss is beginning to codify our learnings into a distributed playbook, which we’ll share when it’s good enough to face the tumult of the internet. When it’s out, we hope you’ll join us in making it better.

Upping Our Distributed Practices

Originally posted on the Truss blog

While there are lively debates about whether or not the Future is Distributed, at Truss we’re having a pretty solid time of it. Running online meetings is just the beginning of making sure your distributed team is included, and we’re continually working to improve our distributed practices.

We have a running doc of practices we want to try. Our goal is to fail at least occasionally — it means we’re actually reaching further than our grasp. Here are a handful that we’ve recently tried, and to what result.

  1. Persistent distributed video : quiet failure
  2. Being Humans Together : resounding success
  3. #in-out-status : success
  4. Synchronized cupcake delivery : failed, but worth a re-attempt

Persistent distributed video

One of the things we missed most in becoming fully distributed was the human bonding time we got with our rad coworkers while in the office together. One of our attempts at addressing this has been a standing video link which people can jump into and out of to “cowork” with each other. There’s sometimes some idle chitchat, and then often heads-down working.

It ended up not working for a few reasons:

  • being on it as the same time as other folk is rare;
  • we have a culture of scheduling time to talk about specific subjects rather than hoping it happens organically;
  • the standing video link quickly became “invisible.”

Result : quiet failure

Being Humans Together

Getting distributed folk in a video in a coordinated way to talk about Not Work is now a standing half-hour weekly timeslot. It is some Trussels’ favorite part of the week. We do a couple different formats:

  • if under 9 participants, each person gets 2 minutes to talk about anything at all they want to, so long as it’s not work.
  • if it’s more than 9 participants, a quick checkin happens on how people are feeling, and then breakout groups of 3-4 people each for a deeper dive.

We sometimes have a prompt (“what’s one story about you that you think really represents what you’re like?” or a show-and-tell.

Breakout functionality in video conferencing software has been amazingly useful. So far we’ve done these randomly, but at some point we might try self-selection into these “rooms.”

Result : resounding success


Has this ever happened to you? You log in on the East Coast after a sick day, and you have no. idea. what is going on with different stories. Did someone delete that blocker, or has it been worked around? And it’s 3 hours before anyone else who might know what’s going on will be online.

We now have a Slack channel called #in-out-status where people give a brief summary of the status of what they were working on before they go out for the day. It’s evolved to be a place where we also flag when we’re in for the day, going to lunch, taking a sick day, etc.

Result : success

Synchronized Cupcake Delivery

The project I manage recently hit a big milestone in October. While it was more of a non-event than our June release, there was still some stress around it, and a celebration was warranted. I set up a 2-hour session — the first hour of which was to catch up with each other (similar to Being Humans Together, but less structured), and a second hour to wander around where each of us is, and post pictures back to the group. The pictures were to put everyone on equal footing, rather than prioritizing office Trussels.

Also, during the first hour, I had lined up (what I thought would be) synchronized treat delivery to people regardless of location, scheduling deliveries for the time of the zone of delivery (IE, deliveries marked for 11:30 PT, 13:30 CT, and 14:30 ET in the interface should all arrive at the same point in time).

It ends up this is not a use case for this particular delivery service.

While all the cupcakes (plus one cookie order and one bundt cake order for some destitute places of the world which don’t have cupcakes available for delivery) for people in my timezone arrived as expected, 2 folk received theirs at the time requested but in MY timezone (hours late), and 2 received theirs hours early (for conversion errors I don’t understand).


While it didn’t work out this time, everyone felt included and celebrated. Definitely worth trying again at some point.

Result : failed, but worth a re-attempt

“Show you can be free in a colony.” – a brief history of Puerto Rico

This post is being staged here while the presenters and other Public Lab attendees review it. It will updated in the next few weeks and pushed to Civic and Occupy Sandy blogs (as well as anywhere else that wants to share). Many intended links are missing, as are images.

“Know the history of the region” is something community-led crisis responders tend to repeatedly say those coming into a region impacted by crisis. But most histories are written by the colonizers, and so the role of educator also falls on the shoulders of those fighting to survive.

At an event called the Crisis Convening Public Labs Barn Raising in Newark, NJ in July, 3 Puerto Ricans (Jessica, Luis, and Raquela) gave a brief history of Puerto Rico to a room of folk interested in community-led crisis response and environmental justice. We took a rough transcript and created this blog post to distill their knowledge. With this documentation, those who wish to be in solidarity with Puerto Rico can educate themselves. Much of the blog post is comprised of pulling the transcript and doing slight rewording. The transcript follows the post. None of it should be considered mine. It is published here with their consent and endorsement.

Puerto Rico was first colonized by the Spanish for 400 years. Just as the fight for independence was taking hold, the Spanish-American war ended and Puerto Rico fell under United States rule. Our summary begins there, in 1898.

It is a story of resistance, industrialization, imposed poverty and debt, diminished schooling, imprisonment, bombs hidden on beaches, and a growing trust in self-sufficiency. It doesn’t end with a plan of action beyond listening more.

Resistance has always been a thing in Puerto Rico

In 1917, Puerto Rico got their “citizenship.” But as a different category – it meant if residents could receive financial aid for education, but of those of those who did, the men could be drafted into the military, and that Puerto Ricans still couldn’t elect anyone who has a hand in U.S. politics (no Congressional, no House, no Presidential votes). While local elections for local positions can occur, no matter what is decided in the island the U.S. has veto power, and the last decision.

The United States wanted to make an example of the impact of industrialization to lift a place out of poverty, but that poverty persisted. In 1920, a new fight for independence began. To push back against this fight, the official language (including the language of education) was changed to English, forcing many to drop out of school. After a couple/few decades of this, it was finally accepted that it wasn’t working, and the official language was changed back.

In 1952, a ray of hope! Countries fighting for their freedoms were released as colonies by the UN. But it was fake in Puerto Rico, which was named as a “Estado Libre Asociado,” which translates to “state free associated” – none of which are true.

All this happened during a brutal oppression of the movement. In the ‘20s, more than half of Puerto Ricans were working towards independence. Now it’s far less1. There is a well-documented history of persecuted, killed, and jailed those who stood up for Puerto Rican independence. Oscar López Rivera just released (in 36 years)2; two more are still there.

In the 1960s, organizing against the military complex reached a new height. Here’s as good a time as any to tell you about how the U.S. military used Puerto Rico to test bombs, contraceptives, and Agent Orange (all without consent). We even rented out the region for other countries to bomb! Organizing against these joined the existing movements for independence and educating community members they can be self-sufficient.

In 1999, the realities of these activities were realized when a civilian was killed by a bomb. People took to the streets to stop bombing, told Marines to get out of the land. It wasn’t until 2003 that Marines got out of Vieques. This was a huge deal, compared to the moments where it felt like Occupy Wall Street could win. It crossed political lines, generational lines, those who wanted statehood or independence. Side note that the bombs are still there, marines don’t want to clean it up.

During all this time, Puerto Rico was borrowing money3. Anything produced there had to be shipped to the U.S. and back in order to be used because of a bullshit act called Ley Jones4. In 2016, Obama put in place a fiscal control board, called “P.R.O.M.E.S.A,” which put 7 people who don’t live in Puerto Rico as a fiscal control board to determine how budget is spent. In addition to the standing requirement of having to pay creditors before investing in infrastructure or anything else, these people now also had a say in what budget cuts were. Further privatization, creeping into schools, hospitals, and power occurred in addition to the airport and telephone companies. As you might imagine, this has caused further poverty.

Bombs hidden on beaches are no longer the priority (somehow)

With Hurricane Maria in 2017, all the poverty, destruction of land, and poor infrastructure was revealed. The same thing that happened with Katrina in New Orleans is happening across the island – cutting social services, closing schools and hospitals. Money is going to contractors who often don’t do the work. School closures help transition to charter schools, which pull more money into outside pockets.

The government (as this history might indicate) have not shown up in a useful way, and so it’s up to the community organizers who have been around through these movements to serve the people to Puerto Rico. Solidary work has become the flag. The work done to build community kitchens, farming projects, occupying abandoned schools for housing, rebuilding infrastructure, and have become the shoulders on which local response to Maria are occuring.

This is a moment to build the empowerment movement. Puerto Ricans know they can do things by themselves, for themselves. They opened roads, created community kitchens, held spaces for sorrow. It is a place for freedom, but it is delicate.

So when you ask to help, this is why there is push back. This is why impeaching Trump is not a good first (or even tenth) topic of conversation.

“I am protecting the 35 years of wins we’ve had.”
Your first plan in helping Puerto Rico should always be listening more, first.


  1. We don’t know the percentage. Less than half of the population voted last election, about 3% for independent party, but there are many more non-party affiliated fighting for independence.
  2. More than Mandela!
  3. Something like 72 billion?!?!
  4. What the everliving fuck


Continue reading

Well Met: The Online Meeting

Originally posted on the Truss blog

There are many valid reasons to consider having an online meeting — maybe your squad is spread across multiple time zones or just different regions, or maybe you’re trying to foster a time of inclusive change at your org. However, with that optimistic reach for cohesion comes some real risk: online meetings are, inevitably, much more difficult to do effectively than in-person ones.

These two meeting types do share some goals: not having a single talking head, needing to pay attention to the “room’s” temperature, needing an agenda and a dedication to timekeeping. What changes is that people are even more likely to be distracted and less likely to engage, reading a room is different, and audio/technical issues are exponentially more likely as more people join.

To host a successful online meeting, you’ll ideally have:

  • an agenda;
  • strong, uninterrupted connections for each attendee;
  • a conferencing system that allows for “hand raising” or other signals;
  • a place for notes to be taken collectively;
  • someone whose sole task during the call is dealing with technical issues (at least until the system and participants are tried and true).

Adjusting your own expectations is also a useful exercise. I think of online meetings as a block of time everyone has offered to spend attention on the topic at hand… not that they’ve agreed to listen, nor (if they aren’t listening) to speak. Maybe I’ve simply admitted defeat too early.

How to be remote

When it makes sense

If anyone on your team is remote, everyone on the team should act remotely. Sometimes we have 4 or 5 people of a 6-person team in the same room but on laptops for a Truss meeting. We do this because the moment meetspace is prioritized is the moment you’re not able to hear your remote crew. They matter. That’s why they’re your crew. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones and a reliable conferencing system.

When you simply can’t all be online, have a person in the room dedicated to watching for signals from the online crew that they want to speak, can’t hear, have questions, etc.

Temperature checks

It’s harder to gauge how people are feeling during a meeting when it’s not in physical space. Are shoulders slumped because energy is low or because proper posture at a desk is hard? Are people looking away because social media truly is a fascinating cesspool, or because they’re displaying the video on their other screen? WHO KNOWS. Here are some ways to read a digital room.

  • Optimize for how many people you can see at once. Zoom gallery mode works well for this. There’s even a special setting for sharing a screen on one screen and still having gallery mode on the other screen if you’re sufficiently decadent to have more than a single screen to work from.
  • Be sure to check in on people you can’t see. People still call by phone to video sessions; that’s part of their beauty. But not seeing someone’s face means not only are their reactions not included in temperature checks, but also that sometimes we even forget they’re there. Make a conscious effort to include them.
  • Set (and stick to) how people “raise their hands.” We often use the “raise hand” button in Zoom to help the facilitator keep stack. This is because, again, lack of physical bodies means a sudden lean into a camera might be someone getting comfortable, not wanting to jump into the conversation.

Some tools have options to use (or adapt to use) for polling, including Zoom and Maestro. These can be used for a multiple-choice question, for voting on if a proposal should pass, and for flagging technical issues.

Technical support

One of the most distracting and time-consuming aspects for the facilitator (thereby impacting everyone else on the call) is a participant experiencing technical difficulties. “Are they ok? Is it their setup or ours?” One of the easiest wins for online calls is to have a person dedicated to troubleshooting technical issues. While the facilitator moves the group towards the meeting goal, the troubleshooter can help everyone engage fully.

Agenda and what you ask of participants

Online meetings don’t have to be a time during which everyone half-listens-in while perusing parts of the internet with the other half of their attention (we’ve all done it). Your goal as facilitator is to offer opportunities for people to engage even when not fully listening to the speaker. Having other things related to the topic to work on assists in maintaining and regaining attention.

Collective note taking and asynchronous questions

In contrast to fully in-person meetings, where it’s reasonable (even vital) to ask people to put away their devices so their attention can be maintained, remote meetings take place on the distraction device. One of the best ways to keep people engaged is to ask for their help in documenting. Multiple people can take notes in one place, with others cleaning up typos or adding in links. This can evolve into a “live blog,” and/or will sometimes spark side conversations in nested bullet points. Both add depth and thoroughness to something that might otherwise be a bare-bones skeleton not much better than the agenda itself. Taking notes this way can lead to documentation like this.

Taking this approach also helps those who are joining late or having audio issues — they can follow along in the notes to catch up, or to read ideas they weren’t sure they heard correctly.

Breakout groups and other activities

Breakout groups and other activities can still happen when meeting online, it just takes a bit more planning and group robustness than doing it in person. Zoom and Maestro both have a breakout-room functionality, for instance, which allow you to randomly or directly assign people to rooms, to indicate when wrap-up times are nearing, and to regroup people. You might also set up jit.si or Google Hangout rooms in advance for breakouts, and include the links to the breakouts in your notes. Asking people to maintain documentation from these breakout sessions in the main set of notes ensures a cohesive understanding is still maintained across all groups.

Activities such as spectrograms can also be adapted to online space – when using collaborative note taking, put a grid into the space, like so, and then have people move their cursors if visible (Google Docs) or mark an “x” if highlighted by color code (etherdocs) based on where on the spectrum they “stand.”

We’d love to hear how you engage with folk in online meetings – it’s a growing art form, and we’re still wet behind the ears ourselves!

An Open Letter From Civic Hackers to Puerto Rico & USVI in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

We are a group of civic developers committed to supporting Hurricane victims for relief & recovery who have helped with the software development and data analysis of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma primarily in Texas and Florida. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, we want to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the same way. Devastation has already occurred in Puerto Rico and the USVI, and we’re here to help in the response and recovery pending from Maria.

But, we won’t jump in without your permission. These places have a long history of imperialism, and we refuse to add tech colonialism on top of that.

Here’s how we might be able to help:


Sometimes emergency services are overloaded fielding calls and deploying assistance. Remote grassroots groups help take in additional requests through social media and apps like Zello and then help to dispatch local people who are offering to perform rescue services (like the Cajun Navy in Houston after Hurricane Harvey).

Shelter updates

As people seek shelter while communication infrastructure remains spotty, having a way to text or call to findt the nearest shelter accepting people becomes useful. We can remotely keep track of what shelters are open and accepting people by calling them and scraping websites, along with extra information such as if they accept pets and if they check identification.

Needs matching

As people settle into shelters or return to their homes, they start needing things like first aid supplies and building materials. Shelter managers or community leaders seek ways to pair those offering material support with those in need of the support. We help with the technology and data related to taking and fulfilling these requests, although we don’t fulfill the requests directly ourselves.

If you are interested in this, please let us know by emailing me (willow dot bl00 at gmail) or finding us on Twitter at @irmaresponse and @sketchcityhou.

Here are other groups lending aid already (maintained by someone else).
If you’re looking to jump in an an existing task, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team already has a tasker active for helping to map the area for responders and coordination.

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.