By Elizabeth Moses (Posted: September 30, 2014)
The 5th TAI Global Gathering, taking place in Bogotá, Colombia, October 29th-31st, 2014 is fast approaching. This year’s event, Using Information, Data and Technology to Protect Forests and Strengthen the Rights of Forest-Dependent Communities,” will bring together over 90 civil society organizations, community members, and indigenous groups from around the world to explore new innovations for using technology to share information about forests, encourage government transparency and participation, and improve accountability of natural resources decisions. The Gathering will be facilitated by Allen Gunn also known as “Gunner”, Executive Director of Aspiration Technology. Aspiration Technology has a long history working with civil society and has hosted almost 300 interactive and collaborative events in more than 40 countries across the globe. We met with Gunner to ask him some really important questions about what to expect from the Global Gathering, his “unconference” facilitation philosophy, and the important role he will play in ensuring a successful Global Gathering. Tell us about yourself and the work of Aspiration Tech?. I’m a recovering Silicon Valley engineer and Chief Technology Officer who has worked in the nonprofit sector for almost 15 years now. Aspiration is a United States NGO that works to help other NGOs and foundations make more effective use of technology. We describe ourselves as working across the NGO technology supply chain, advising those that fund and develop technology solutions, collaborating with those who deploy and train, and supporting those who adopt and use various technologies. Collaborative knowledge sharing events are a core component of our program offerings. You specialize in participatory events. How do you see your role at the Global Gathering? We work very hard to create safe and creative space for strategic sharing to happen and for trust relationships to develop and grow. To us, traditional conferences represent a tragically large opportunity cost; people travel great distances and burn lots of carbon to sit still in dark rooms and stare at projected slides while being lectured at. We work to create an environment you can’t watch on YouTube; each participant has an active role in shaping the agenda, each person has a voice in sessions and those sessions are rarely larger than 10 people. We encourage facilitators to focus on outcomes rather than just covering topics. Overall, we work to invert normal power dynamics where so-called “experts” talk at “non-experts” in static formats, and instead establish a more co-equal ethos where each person’s experiences and perspective are important to the proceedings.
We work to create an environment you can’t watch on YouTube
Why is using technology so important for social change? What are the challenges civil society faces in utilizing technology for advocacy? I would distinguish between the importance of technology for social change and the importance of appropriate technology for social change. I think tech is over-hyped, over-sold and over-relied upon in many NGO efforts, without adequate thought and design effort put into addressing non-success scenarios. We advocate a philosophy of technology minimalism, coupled with a mantra of “technology last”. NGOs should think first about their strategic goals, develop concrete strategies to achieve the same, then whenever possible select simple, stable technologies proven to support realizing such goals, and design and document replicable processes to employ those tools. We like to say “when in doubt, leave it out.” Used appropriately, technology can scale both reach and visibility, drive richer engagement and attract new allies, and have a multiplier effect on programmatic activities. But NGOs also need to consider how the tech they employ and depend upon can be used against them, either via compromise or deprivation, as well as how data they acquire and manage can create new types of risk for those whose personal information is being recorded, stored and analyzed. (This is more fully addressed in our loving rant of a manifesto) How can these types of events advance the dialogue and capacity building of groups working in the area of Transparency and Accountability? We model events primarily to strengthen relationships. You can only consume a finite amount of information at live events, and the shelf life on tech knowledge varies widely. But having knowledgeable allies and ambient awareness of those employing similar technology in their work is a gift that keeps on giving. You can go to them when need dictates, and you can compare notes at various point in your technology journey. Events also provide a forum to articulate shared needs and visions solutions that address the same. And you can never overstate the value of sharing of strategic learnings and practices amongst peers. Our own activism at these events is focused on moving away from gatherings where participants feel they need to passively listen to others with more experience, and toward peer sharing and peer learning approaches. We emphasize learning by doing and by dialogue, with participants shaping that discourse and practitioners sharing knowledge within that framework. Done well, these types of events are movement building moments that invert power dynamics, lift up new leadership, and build stronger networks of practice. That’s our goal for the TAI Global gathering.