Last weekend we ran a workshop at The World Transformed bringing together activists and technologists to work on grassroots campaigns. We called it Making Technology Work For Your Campaigns.
Our goal for the technologists¹ was to help them better understand what it means to get involved with a grassroots campaign and how they can best serve social movements.
Technologists have many skills that can be useful but often they don’t feel they know how they can get involved. Sometimes they get involved, but in ways that campaigners don’t need or find useful. The best way to help isn’t always the most technically challenging but is often more about making tedious aspects of campaign organising more efficient. This enables organisers to get on with their work and focus on the outcomes they want to achieve.
For the grassroots campaigners in attendance, our aim was to facilitate them to map out their goals, resources and tactics, with a particular focus on the role digital technology can play in achieving these. We also hoped to bring in technologists to help our their campaigns where their skills were needed.
The ACORN session we attended the previous day had stressed the use of the Midwest Academy Strategy Chart to plan and win a campaign. Many campaigns could benefit in taking a clear approach in establishing their theory of change and what they might do when faced with obstacles as the campaign unfolds.
We gave the following presentation, drawn from our own experience as organisers and technical activists and the user research we’ve conducted over the last year.
Our key points for technologists were…
- Listen — leave your ego at the door
Understanding the most pressing needs of campaigners and proceeding from there beats your own personal science project.
- Use boring technology (mostly)
80% of your problems have already been solved by off-the-shelf tools, or by software developers 15 years ago in a framework that is still in active development.
- Don’t become a bottleneck
Don’t get in the campaigns way of fulfilling their goals by never being around.
- Learn the tools campaigns use already
Digital technology never fills a void; it replaces alternative systems and processes that existed for a reason. Work with how campaigns work.
- Technology is broader than code
Digital tech only works if people know how to use it, and can rely on it in the long-term.
Our key points for campaigners were…
- Technology should be an enabler, not a time sink
We see that many campaigners are put off digital technologies because of headaches we try to remedy with the above points.
- Master the technology you already use
Often the only difference between ‘techies’ and ‘non-techies’ is how much googling has been done.
- Learn from parallels in other worlds
You can often steal solutions to admininstration and organisational problems you face from other campaigns, teams, non-profits and even small and large businesses.
- Sometimes organisational problems are tech problems
How does access to information and tools affect how you work as a team? There is usually an alternative.
- Sometimes tech problems are organisational problems
More likely though, what is seen as a problem with tech may be about how your organisation or organising is functioning.
We’ll be expanding these ideas in individual blog posts over the next few weeks.
After the presentation
We then grouped campaigners with a handful of technologists. Each group had ten minutes to list out their campaign goals, resources, and the tactics they intended to use in order to meet these goals. This was to encourage them to reflect upon their current practices and produce the raw material for the following exercises. Often campaigns don’t have the space and time to articulate their goals. So this exercise would be useful in itself.
The next exercise was to collaboratively map out how their upcoming campaign might work. This is good and common practice when planning campaigns, as it helps spell out a theory of change and consider the forces to influence or defend against. Using a structure helps you to build a full picture, cover all the bases, and crucially allows you to get creative to reach your goals.
We then asked groups to identify the points on their map where different technologies could be useful. For example, you might use social media to make someone aware of a campaign, or a use mailing list to contact supporters. The groups ranked each potential technical intervention, paying attention to two factors: ease of implementation and potential impact. These are often drawn as axes on a chart, to help visualise the options. We emphasised simplicity here: the best intervention would be something hugely impactful but very easy to do.
We concluded the workshop by asking the technologists and campaigners to commit to completing the easiest and most impactful task that they had identified together. This moment of asking for commitment was crucial — many workshops like this don’t end with concrete next steps. As a collective, we want to enable people to do things, rather than just talk about doing them.
We were pleased to find that all groups committed to working on these projects together. Our plan is to keep track of their progress and input where useful over the coming months.
We learnt a great deal from the participants and running the sessions, which we will use to further develop them. We had wrongly assumed that campaigners attending the workshop would be at roughly similar ‘stages’. In fact, most were at the ‘ideas stage’. Different campaigns have different technology needs at different moments. Working out how technology overlaps the campaign life-cycle is something we plan to look into in future workshops.
Common Knowledge is a workers cooperative dedicated to building tools and infrastructure for social movement activists.
If you’d like us to run a workshop like this at your event, or have any comments or feedback, let us know at email@example.com.
 Technologists is clunky phrasing but we mean those who work in digital technology, be they programmers, designers, UX specialists, product managers, user researchers and so on.