Community organizations in times of crisis

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We have been working at Aspiration on our digital humanitarian and disaster response program for a year and a half. On June 4th and 5th, we hosted our second Humanitarian Technology Festival as an interactive and participatory event for practitioners, students, designers, etc. to gather and contribute to the current state of response. Deep thanks to all the participants, especially those who took notes so others could benefit from what we learned. We played a gametook care with ourselves, and enjoyed the outdoors.

But I do not care about humanitarian or disaster response

We all have enough to worry about without adding in disaster preparedness, even if research points to it being worthwhile (PDF). It is difficult for community groups to know how to prepare for (let alone know how to support in) a crisis. The existing resources are for enterprise-level businesses, or are focused on individual response. There is not much in the way of resources for the groups that Aspiration considers itself in solidarity with. (If you have found some — please do let us know! We would love to point at those resources.)

This challenge came up at both a session at the 2015 Nonprofit Development Summit and at a skill share at California Technology Festival Watsonville. A project started forming around how to be an active organizational participant in crisis response and recovery — without becoming a response or recovery organization. Our dream is that response, recovery, and humanitarian aid will look more like civics than a specialty, and that means embedded capacity in the existing network. Getting started on this path might look like a guide for community groups during a crisis. But a new challenge emerged — I have never been a part of a community group which has responded to a crisis. I have always been outside help.


Moshing the ideas #humtechfest @aspirationtech

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Palante Tech has been a community group supporting their pre-existing network in crisis, however. During Superstorm Sandy, Palante kept the groups they already served up and running, when possible, as well as providing information about what neighborhoods had what functioning communication infrastructure (and why). They would like to know how to do it better in the future. The Humanitarian Technology Festival (#HumTechFest) was lucky to have Jamila from Palante in attendance, and they led a session about how to better understand and document the needs of community groups in a crisis. Our goal is to come up with a lightweight guide with some suggestions which are manageable to deploy in advance of a crisis, as well as some guidance in how to deal during and after a crisis. The session was also attended by some folk who work with New York City for small business preparedness, an international aid networking person, and a creator of games who is generally interested in response. They talked through the arc of the disaster cycle, faith-based volunteer organizations which activate in response, and the specificity required in interacting with formal organizations.

We still have a lot of questions

Could such a guide document the needs of non-response community groups in such a way to make those needs visible and easy to process in order to get available and needed aid from official response organizations? Better yet, is it possible to do so in a way which will hold those organizations accountable?

  • What questions would you have about how your organization could be more resilient in times of crisis?
  • What measures have you already taken to deal with a possible crisis?
  • What have you done to keep your doors, or the doors of your constituents, open during a crisis?
  • How do trainings provided by groups like Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster fit with your needs (or not)?

Send your answers (and questions!) our way. We are excited to build this resource with you, but we cannot do it on our own.

Thank you to the HumTechFest attendees, to Jamila in particular, and to Ken for broaching this topic at CA TechFest Watsonville.

The Social Disaster Cycle

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

This blog entry written with substantial input and support from Meredith L. Patterson.

Aspiration has taken on Weaponized Social as an extension of our commitment to solidarity with our community and to equality in our interactions with and through technology.

Better Tools for a Better World

Our work to support more people in their existing efforts by making use of technology has a peripheral effect of bringing historically marginalized populations into online space. And as the ever-larger online community welcomes new people, we have not only an opportunity, but also an obligation, to do so with more intent and understanding than society has tended towards in the past. When we speak of online intimidation or harassment, regardless of the perpetrator or recipient, culturally we struggle with issues of accountability, enforcement, and identity.

It’s a Disaster

We’ve had a few events (NYCNairobi, and San Francisco). From these, and ongoing conversations on the mailing listthe wiki has been expanded and cleaned up. It now includes clearer indicators of how to make use of it, as well as a restructuring into the same framework as the disaster cycle. The disaster cycle falls into preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. More details on these, along with the added aspect of being an extreme event, can be found on the wiki, with projects and resources listed below each aspect of the cycle. Event notes and project specs continue to also be hosted on the wiki. What are not found on the wiki are academic resources (which can be found in this literature review compiled by friends), nor organizations and initiatives (which Tactical Tech recently curated here).

This approach was taken because many conversations in this space are derailed when discussion of intentions and tactics are conflated. For instance, #hoodsoff revealed the identity of those both in positions of political power AND who were members of the KKK using the same tactics which those same activists might find untenable in regards to doxxing of visible feminine gamers. Or that the tactics used against Brianna Wu and Chris von Csefalvay match at a pattern level that goes beyond that specific instance of escalation. This is where Weaponized Social seeks to explore and intervene, because human rights apply to everyone, including ourselves and whoever we might perceive to be our enemies. “Lead by obeying,” as the Zapatistas say.

Who Watches those Watching the Watchmen?

On the same note of rules applying to everyone equally, including the rulers, and of making the conversation clearer, the Weaponized Social crew has also been ruminating a fair amount recently on how accountability and enforcement factors into all this. When people treat each other in unethical ways, our current social systems indicate bringing the law (and associated enforcement) to bear on those breaking the rules. But we are currently facing a long-overdue distrust in enforcement, especially in police. So just as we’re running into the network effects of negative human interaction, we also have no successful foundation to build upon to mitigate through enforcement. The conversation is therefore further confused by asking who should be holding whom accountable, how do we know that’s being done fairly, and how does enforcement happen? Some are turning to community, some to law, some to software platforms, some to police, etc. Each of these may become a viable option. It’s more likely to be a combination therein, and it’s important to think about the historical patterns of enforcement as well as the repercussions of unchecked social errors.

What’s Missing?

The glaring hole which was surfaced by restructuring projects and pieces into this framework is a complete lack of recovery (it’s also totally possible that I’m just not aware of it. If you know of any, please send them our way!). Preparedness and response are necessary and worthwhile aspects to cover, but we offer no long term support or recompense to those who have been affected by the weaponization of social so as to make them whole again. Even legal and policy interventions seem to linger in only half of the cycle, when arguably institutions are responsible for longer term stability (leaving the network to adaptation). This is heartbreakingly familiar, as it’s the same in response to offline disasters.

Additionally, as the conversation expands and deepens, more individuals and organizations are beginning to see their responsibility in encouraging healthy interactions. A few requests have now come in for guidelines in making tools and platforms which take into account these issues. We’ve started to describe the various vectors of online communication which might be fiddled with, and we welcome your feedback!

What I’m excited about is how much of the Weaponized Social crew (most notably, Meredith and TQ) has focused on the mitigation aspect of the disaster cycle. How can we change the very way we do things, to become more pro-social for everyone? We welcome your perusal and contributions to any of the projects on the WeapSoc wiki, but these are the ones I’m most excited about.

What’s Next?

What’s up next is a discussion with Meredith et al to historically, theoretically, epicyclically, technically explore the weaponization of social interaction, such that we can arrive at better interventions. To start, we might discuss the history of liberal social justice and identity politics social justice, cognitive biases, and network effects. You can tune in December 18th at 11a PT / 2p ET by registering here.

We’re also starting to explore a code sprint on some of these tools. If you’d like to get involved, please let us know!

Weaponized Social

I want to give special thanks to Meredith (@maradydd), Sam (@metasj), and the Berkman crew (@berkmancenter) for help in parsing all these complicated ideas. I’m forever grateful for our conversations.

The existing harms of social scripts we ran while in smaller, geographically-constrained groups are being amplified due to network effect. Tiny unchecked errors, scaled, become large harms as people find ways to exploit them, in life just as in software.

I propose we hold a 2-day event to understand “weaponized social” historically, tangentially, neurochemically, and technically — and to arrive at ongoing ways of addressing them. These challenges are not new, they are simply arising in space we consider new. Given the erosion of trust online, I see meeting in person as vital to rebuilding trust. You can suggest when and where the event takes place via


There was a time when the hacker and academic circles I run in had the default assumption of “it’s better to have your idea broken by your friends than by someone else.” The implicit assumption being that we’d build even better ideas, together. I *hate* that loving dissent is disappearing from my corners of the internet, when I used to dream it would spread. I hate that there’s a vanishing chance I can reasonably assume a trolling comment online is social commentary from an yet-to-be-known compatriot dealing with the same bizarre issues of a system that I am; but rather must now deal with such as a potential precursor to having to leave my home based on legitimate death and rape threats. I hate that some of my intelligent male-shaped or neuro-atypical friends are scared to join conversations online for fear of being severely and permanently ostracized for slight missteps. I hate that some of my intelligent female-shaped friends feel unwelcome online – yes, because of “trolls” who often happen to be self-male-identified, but ALSO  because of an incredibly strange practice of women belittling each other. I hate that I only know how to speak to these issues in a gender-focused way, despite knowing damn well race and class come strongly into play, and having the sinking suspicion that cohorts don’t feel safe calling me out. I hate that nearly all my lovely friends of all genders feel unwanted and unsafe because they and others happen to be organisms interested in sex, and respond to culturally indoctrinated shame (in response as well as in self-assessment) by pinning problems on the tangible other, building self-fulfilling prophesies of distrust and violence. And I hate that we’re driving each other off pro-social paths, making taking an anti-social one more likely. I’m sick of these social scripts we’re auto-running, and I’m set on returning to lovingly breaking my friends’ ideas, and us examining and strengthening those ideas together. Please join me in this act for this event, the surrounding ideas, and the rest of life.

Since online conversation is currently so focused on gender divides, let’s look at that for a moment. This proposed re-scripting is complicated by women being socialized to understand men, to reach out to them, to be accommodating. In a desire to NOT run dis-equalizing social scripts, we as female-types are instead falling into scripts of victimization and back stabbing/”you’re doing feminism wrong.” I’d consider the former set worth embracing as human, the latter to be consciously left to the wayside. Those socialized to be masculine have social scripts they’re bucking and/or selecting, too. Scripts about being protective, and reliable, and strong. Scripts about being stoic, and angry, and omnipotent. But such re-scripting is entirely doable, and we should hear from people about why these cycles happen, and how other disciplines have escaped cycles and built new scripts. Attendees will be trusting me that other attendees are here in good faith, a meatspace web of trust, and that means attendees will be vetted. We will talk about difficult things, and we will set an example of doing so with an interest in begin tough on ideas but kind to people. There will come a time that we can expect every human to stand open but unwavering; but personal, cutural, and institutional histories matter. Violence across these has left a wake of torn-down individuals, and in this space everyone will be expected to be kind.

The re-writing of scripts has proven powerful and useful in other spaces. There are communities in conflict zones which refuse to adopt the identities of victim nor aggressor, instead providing pockets of increased stablity in tumultuous geographies. They do this not out of pacifism, but because that particular conflict doesn’t work for them. We see things like Popehat emerge to offer a way out of victimhood and isolation in being targeted by unparsable legal threats. We see groups like Strike Debt question entire financial structures, providing paths to visible solidarity in otherwise isolating systems. Others have shown it is possible to forge new paths, many in more dangerous and complex situations than what we face. Let’s learn from them.

If you’d like to contribute suggestions to who should be invited to speak, examples to look at, or even helping with the event itself, please be in touch!

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Jigsaw Renaissance

Hi, all. Life’s been a bit crazy. Well, more than a bit. Lots of working on my bike, lots of working on my relationships, lots of projects, lots of learning.
One of the projects is a non-profit I’m director of called Jigsaw Renaissance. It’s an emerging maker space – we focus on education and interdisciplinary interaction. We believe in passion-based learning and action-based thought. And we’re gearing up to move into a space by year’s end, so we can have work space and cooking space and hang-out space. To raise money, we’re holding an event:

Jigsaw Renaissance Benefit Event
11/18/09 9p-2a
Heaven Nightclub
172 S. Washington St.
Seattle, WA

Dash EXP – dubstep
Toy Box Trio – classical/acoustic/crunk
Q – dub/industrial
Cathartech – experimental/noise
xben – mashup

$15 admission / 21+

I know it’s a Wednesday, but it would mean the world to me if you’d come out to dance in support of a cause I believe in so much!

Wayfarers of the Gypsy Mansion

For those of you lucky enough to be within driving distance of Seattle:

“These are the times, my friends. And these are the days. Where the world becomes malleable, palpable. When novelty and genius are within our reach. We are cautioned against being passionate about these things by tales of progress turned to greed and of technology turning on us. And yet, the golden light is just right, the clocks are synchronizing, the stars are in alignment.

This is what we celebrate tonight. We celebrate these transient times, with these transient artists.” – c. lantz

WAYFARERS OF THE GYPSY MANSION – a musical bazaar of sorts

Sunday, May 10, 2009 3 pm to 10 pm
The Little Red Studio
750 Harrison Street, Seattle, WA
ALL-AGES, $15 donation

Wearables, craftables, and edibles provided by a plethora of local and regional artisans. We will take a dinner break (with DJ) at 6:30 pm – please bring your own sack meal, a picnic to share, or food can be acquired from two of our vendors. Vegan options available. Adult beverages can be purchased by 21+ individuals.

Spread the word. All are welcome.

[Another fine event brought to you by Libby Bulloff and Willow Brugh.]