Technology in the Service of Social Change

Santa Cruz   I drove over the mountain, as they say in this area, and ended up on the top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley and water, while visiting the stunning campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was there to talk to students who are part of the Everett Program there, where ACORN is new partner, along with other nonprofits. My other motivation was an effort to get a better grip on what the program was all about, as a rookie to the enterprise.

I had gained some sense of the operation over the last year through a series of Skype calls and emails. We are fortunate to have three of the Everett Program students working with our organizers in Bengaluru, India this summer to help create a CiviCRM database for ACORN’s 35,000 member hawkers union there, so this also offered the opportunity to meet the interns face-to-face and shape the effectiveness of their upcoming two months in India with us.

The background I learned from the director, Chris Benner, and veteran staffer and organizer, Katie Roper, indicated that it had been a program for several decades at UC Santa Cruz, but has recently been expanding. Every fall, they begin with about 100 students and by the end of the spring quarter they have about 30 ready to embed in various projects. Historically a lot of the efforts have been California-based, so ACORN is a beneficiary of their growth and expanding vision. Being on the ground I was able to do an early pitch for a team in 2018 to work out of New Orleans to support the tech needs of our organizing both domestically and internationally, which was a nice piece of lagniappe.

Most interestingly was the opportunity to talk to the students for a minute and more importantly to hear their questions and get a feeling for what they were thinking. Spoiler alert: they have a foreboding sense of the world and how it views change and organizers who are part of that process.

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of classes and groups of young people, but now in the Age of Trump and hyper-polarization,  I was still surprised when the first question asked me whether or not I had ever been threatened in the work and how frequently organizers were assaulted. Later in the session, another young woman asked a question that went to the heart of whether or not a young person in their early 20’s could even play a role in the work and whether or not it was worth the risk to jump into the struggle. At one level, this is encouraging. Young people are taking the temperature of the times, and learning that it’s not pretty out there with love, flowers, and constant applause. If these kinds of questions are any true sampling, they are less naive, and therefore will be better prepared, if they take the leap into the work, to weather the constant storms and flying brickbats. On the other level, it is worrisome whether in these beautiful, redwood towers, people might feel intimidated and fearful of taking the plunge to work in the hardscrabble countrysides and mean streets of the city.

We need an active army of organizers and people ready to work in the allied trades, and that was my message: there’s a role for all of you, but everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel and help to win the fight in this struggle. I hope they heard me. We need their help.


Easy Is Winning in Technical Organizing Tools

Bristol  We spent hours in Bristol talking about how to use technology and tech tools in organizing including a Skype call with experts in Washington and our folks from Canada, England, and France. The short summary is the one we already knew going in: nothing is perfect. Everything we tried had gaps, hidden costs, and aggravating features. There’s nothing appealing about making decisions where you know from the beginning that no one is going to be completely happy no matter what. Bad memories of endless discussions from different advocates and fans of different database systems when we were forced to decide on one for everybody came roaring back at me like nightmares.

I spent time before that call, talking to Kentaro Toyamo, professor at the University of Michigan, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology,  who suffers through my techno-peasantry while trying to help me figure out a way to milk advantages from tech potential. The question I posed was whether there was a way to combine locational and relational algorithms, similar to those used by Google, Amazon, and others to allow people to find each other – and an organization – when they faced issues in their tenant block, neighborhood, or workplace and wanted to organize to deal with it. The answer was kind of a “yes, maybe,” but the caution he remarked in developing an independent application or something that triggered to a website was the mountain to climb to the find the crowd versus trying to navigate Facebook where the crowd already congregates. The continuing dominance of Facebook almost argued that it made sense to try to develop an app for that, rather than one that was independent, just because of the pure volume of users and the ease of use and adoption.

Though Facebook is made of “likes,” it’s just hard to love from the fake news to the constant advertising, data mining, and self-absorption from the top down.  Yet, it’s hard to argue with success and when you are trying to work with people, there’s no way around going where people are, and that’s Facebook today for many hours of people’s day it seems.

We spent a lot of time and started building some affection for and its tools. We found the gaps obnoxious, but found the ease of use compelling, along with the fact that the nonprofit operation was created by people with organizing experience who seemed as least receptive to our particular needs.We’re likely soon to decide to go in that direction, all things being equal.

We were also taken with as well, which is a free service used extensively by the Sanders campaigns to link volunteers and more recently by activists trying to connect and organize in the US period of chaos and resistance. ACORN in the UK has been using Slack to do daily communications with organizers and allow them to add channels for work projects. I’ve been trying it with slightly less success with my research interns at the University of Ottawa as well.Nonetheless, I found it very, very easy, and way better than something like Dropbox to move large documents effectively to the work team, so that’s something to love, but no matter the tool, it only has value if people use it. How an organizer would keep up with 1600 Slack groups is still beyond me, no matter how easy it is to use, but that’s something worth learning.

So we get back to Facebook groups, which we use, and our members love in dealing with tenant support issues in the UK, mental health rights in Alaska, and disability rights in Vancouver. Hard to beat.

No matter what works in theory, we have to go where people are.


Apps for Organizing and Social Change

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.13.28 AMNew Orleans   Marching solidly on the trailing edge of new technology innovation, I want to make it clear that I’m no hater, I just want it to work for all of us. And, hey, maybe there’s some hope out there that some of the apps are coming our way and might be tools for social change.

In Taiwan for example, a free protest app available through the Apple Store named Bingela, after a Taiwanese phrase associated with overturning a table in rage, was downloaded 260000 times in a two-week period by users who wanted to determine if a product was associated with Ting Hsin International, a conglomerate at the center of a food safety scandal last year involving cooking oil. Now that’s interesting, and what a great tool to assist the difficult task of organizing a consumer boycott in these days when big corporations can so easily show one brand somewhere and hide others everywhere.

I’m not sure that the organizing was done with an “app,” but an interesting phenomena on the other side of the digital divide seems to be happening in Seattle as well with the organization of something that almost seems a contradiction in terms: the App Based Drivers’ Association or ABDA. It seems that Uber and Lyft drivers who work in precarious terms at the beck and call of smartphone and computer apps for these high-flying ride sharing services have organized in Seattle with the help of the Teamsters local union there to resist the downgrading of pricing in the city which has cut wages for some of these so-called subcontractors by as much as 50% in recent months. They have organized and gone to this very progressive City Council asking the council to establish a procedure allowing subcontractors to unionize since there is no provision for them to do so under federal labor law. Needless to say, the companies are saying no-way, but still for the rest of us the message may be that in the same way that apps can disrupt us, there may be ways and means for us to use apps to disrupt them.

Tunde Obazee, formerly the longtime public affairs and empowerment radio broadcaster with our “voice of the people” radio station visited with me recently in Los Angeles where he is now the IT director for UCLA’s Family Clinics in Venice. Sitting in front of his computer bank in the quiet of the clinic closed on a Saturday he showed me how I might be able to use a free application called U-Stream on a smartphone with an internet connection to broadcast remotely from the phone directly on the air. It was amazing. I can hardly wait to try this myself. Meanwhile, Tunde is finally going to walk me through how we can develop a separate internet radio capacity for ACORN International.

I have a Skype call this morning linking tech-perts in the USA, Abu Dubai, India and elsewhere to discuss how to develop a membership recruiting video that could be shared with or without the internet for organizing in India. My daughter just sent me a link to the podcast on Serial about the soldier’s dilemma in Afghanistan. All that says there’s hope for all of us if we can just develop somewhere between a cadre and a crowd of folks who can listen to us closely and then take us by the hand to be able adapt technology to the needs of organizing and social change.

Maybe they’ll help us develop an app for that?


Popping the Bubble on Tech Utopians and the Law of Amplification

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy, with his 10-year-old Nokia phone. (Erynn Rose photo)

New Orleans    Every once in a blue moon there is a piercing needle that bursts the bubble of hucksterism, no matter how well-intentioned, and brings its wild claims based on hope and hustle down to the hard ground of reality. In this case, the sound of the pop is louder because the sharp points are delivered from an insider, Kentaro Toyama, a tech company veteran with the years in grade and degrees to prove it, in his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Right from the title, I knew this was a book worth reading, and Toyama delivered time and time again. Spoiler’s alert: it’s one thing when working stiff organizers points out that the tech emperors of our times are naked as the day is long, day in, day out, but when it’s the geek speaking the heresy to comrades in wealth and power, its rich with the flavor of truth and justice.

The backstory on Toyama is that he started on the path of Silicon Valley privilege with the degrees from Harvard and Yale and the big job at Microsoft and all was going swell. Then he was recruited to go with a respected and senior colleague to open up the Microsoft research center in Bengaluru. They did this and that, and he was responsible for some bit of gee whiz niftiness, but there was a problem. Rather than being the usual LED screen potted plant, he had tried teaching calculus in Ghana before going total geek, and though he didn’t go native in India, he did actually visit the schools where they were working and take a good look. Worse for many other sacred cows of international development and research from microfinance to high flying randomistas, like the widely touted Poverty Lab, who argue for data and metrics as the benchmarks for all development work, he actually went into the field, met the folks, and dug deeper, and despite preambles full of praise for the big whoops, his bubble bursting is categorical and indisputable.

Not because Toyama and Geek Heresy are on a mission of destruction and global depression, but because he is a realist unable to become a true believer of the utopian claims of the modern day tech babblers. He just can’t help saying what he’s seen on the ground. He argues for what he calls the Law of Amplification as an antidote to the utopian claims. In plain English, his law holds that nothing will change just because of technology if the necessary support system of people, training, resources, and infrastructure are not in place to take advantage of the technology. To organizers on the ground, this is so obvious that it should be gospel, but from the partnership of Silicon Valley and Wall Street is so powerfully steering the hype machine, that it’s hard not to drink their Kool-Aid.

Toyama has spit it out though. His examples are endless, but time and time they are of the kind that gently points out that cars are great inventions, but without roads, gas, or people who are taught how to drive, they really won’t get you too far. Tools are really just tools, no matter how high faluting. We all know this, but still have to sometimes catch ourselves and stop from nodding about the outrageous claims for computers, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, and the like, all of which are wonderful, but none of which can change the world without “amplification,” roads, gas, drivers and the like. Microfinance, as we have pointed out repeatedly is not the silver bullet to end poverty, and Toyama is devastating on this as well. He also takes down the data freaks and randomistas worshipping at the altar of testing and metrics, by reminding that the local partners with years of experience, staffing, resources, and pure and simple competency essentially have their fingers weighing heavily on every measuring scale. He introduces another law, the Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules, which heartbreakingly points out that “The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero,” which before any of you jump off the cliff is a helpful reminder that because something works well locally or in one context, does not mean that it will automatically work well when scaled up in others. Wisely, Toyama also pops the pretense of philanthropists who claim one-and-done to a grant as if that ensures success rather than failure as it goes to scale.

As an organizer often in the field, whether India, Kenya, Houston, or Little Rock, who sits side-by-side with brilliant, caring, courageous organizers trying to “amplify” their ability to make the computer a tool, rather than a paperweight, access the internet despite the cost, technical, and training barriers, and do simple research, organizing math, and other tasks for our members, it was great to be Toyama’s partner page to page with the truth that you find under your feet, no matter the sugar plums being fed daily to your brain.

There’s no substitute for doing the real work. Praise be to the heretics, like Toyama, who can speak truth to tech power, and who, wonderfully, still believe in and are committed to social change. Don’t let his voice be unheard!


Technology versus the Poor

Technology_management_LG_FOCNew Orleans    With herculean efforts along with extensive field work and mega expenditures of dollars and political capital, works better now to the degree that about 2 million people weathered the storm to sign up under the new Affordable Care Act with millions more expected hopefully before March 31st.  I use the words “works better” carefully though since there’s not a day still where the hollers don’t ring through our offices about the website failing.

Meanwhile, I wonder about the lessons we’re really learning.  Tennessee for example just announced that they were moving to a web-only application system for everyone for TennCare, their version of the health insurance system.  I have to wonder what papers they are reading and whose interests they are hoping to serve by such a change in face of widely disparate internet access and the complex problems and challenges posed by these new systems.

Recently, I reminded everyone about the huge problems presented by the Bush Administration’s rollout of the drug expansion benefit under Medicare Plan D and its complexity and challenged enrollment and the lessons not learned by the Obama administration.  Georgetown law professor, David Super, in a Times op-ed piece does an even better and more comprehensive job in documenting the trail of tears for lower income families trying to get through the maze.

Just as disaster-relief agencies keep track of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, students of anti-poverty programs remember a litany of automation and contracting meltdowns — some of them prolonged, even epic. Florida, 1992-93. Michigan, 1998-99. Colorado, 1998-2002. Texas, 2006-7. Indiana, 2007-9. The Colorado Benefits Management System is particularly memorable: When first implemented, it reportedly refused food stamps to anyone who did not have a driver’s license from Guam.  But finding parallels to the meltdown requires no memory at all. Just as was filling the headlines, a contractor for the Georgia Department of Human Services was neglecting to send renewal notices to the homes of some 66,000 food stamp recipients and about half that number of Medicaid beneficiaries. On Nov. 1, the state’s computer system…automatically terminated benefits to all those affected for failure to cooperate with reviews they had never been told were underway. In December, a Massachusetts contractor sent thousands of people, many of whom were elderly or had disabilities, new electronic food stamp benefit cards and immediately deactivated their old cards — without waiting to see if the new ones had arrived in the mail. Many had not. In mid-October, a contractor’s glitch made food stamps inaccessible to recipients in 17 states. The White House showed impressive alacrity in fixing But its response to technology failures affecting low-income people has been far more sluggish.

This would all seem embarrassing, if the frequency of occurrences didn’t seem so inevitable and perhaps even deliberate.  There are so many better ways to do this, I have to wonder who is being fooled by these slipshod efforts that are punishing the poor while worshiping the holy grail of new technology while neither assuring access or ability to use it.


Collateral Citizen Damage from Cyberwar and Cyberweapons

New Orleans   Cyberweapons, cyperwar, black box hacking into weapon systems, and whatever else might be on the list is neither my skill set nor part of my usual reading scan, but I find myself dipping into these pieces now from time to time having gotten a number of scary and hair raising briefings from my old friend and comrade, Charles Koppelman, who is a Bay Area filmmaker doing a documentary (and trying to raise money on Kickstarter, so pony up!) called “Zero Day” on a lot of this stuff.   An article in the Times probably had grey hairs popping up on many heads around the world.

Let’s look at some random, “throwaway” quotes:

  • While the United States and Israel are using the weapons [cyberweapons!] to slow the nuclear bomb-making abilities of Iran, they could also be used to disrupt power grids and financial systems or even wreck havoc with military defenses.
  • A growing array of nations and other entities [!] are using online weapons…because they are ‘thousands of times cheaper” than conventional armaments.

Talking about the recently discovered Flame virus:

  • It’s interesting and complex.  It could be the work of a military contractor – Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon [all USA-based!] and other contractors are developing programs like these for different [many many non-USA!!!] intelligence services.
  • It [Flame] was the first virus to look for Bluetooth-enabled devices in the vicinity, either to spread to those devices, map a user’s social or professional circle, or steal information from them.  The program also contained a command called ‘microbe’ that silently turned on users’ microphones and sent audio files back to the attackers.  It was clearly not a virus made by criminals.

Holy, Jesus!  If they can do that for war, they can also do that for love, and Big Brother won’t be watching you, he could be living inside your cell phone (which is virtually a mini-computer now), monitoring your Skype calls, reading your emails, and whatever, whenever, and however they want.  This just speaks to the capability, not the probability.  You can ignore the probability right now, because the government (governments?) and corporations can’t afford to fix roads, pay staff, or much of anything today.  Furthermore, we’re all small potatoes trying to create power and justice and a long way off the radar, right?  And, hey, we’ve got Julian Assange!  Well, I guess we really don’t, do we?

If all of these weapons are roaming about the world in the hands of governments large and small, corporations rigid and rogue, let me know who feels safe now and is not backing up their computer right this minute!  Whether Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Love Canal, friendly fire, plane crashes, or whatever, if we humanoids make it, we will also break it.  It’s a rule!    To me that spells the potential or rather the likelihood that there will be huge collateral damage to citizens.

The article in the Times largely focused on the fact that the Russians want to negotiate treaties to ban cyberwar, so much of the piece focused on the old adage about “people living in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones,” since there’s a lot of cyber-mess that comes rolling out of Russia.  In fact we have a website that is one of 20,000 WordPress sites under attack from Russia if you try to enter through a search engine as opposed to directly.  It’s a bummer.  We clean it, and they clog it, repeat over and over again for the last 8 weeks.

The fact that Russia is not perfect and that this may be self-serving seems beyond the point.  This is scary stuff that by definition is supposed to go viral and infect and affect citizen populations not just government weapon installations.  Regulating or banning stuff like this starts to seem like a good idea to me!