Giving Tech Help

“The internet doesn’t go to meetings. The internet doesn’t write letters. The internet doesn’t stand outside a building with a sign and shout at people as they come in and out. And the reality is, in the 19th century political system that we have, you still need to do those things. What the internet does, or can do, is help spread the information that was exchanged in the meeting to those who weren’t at the meeting, as they had kids to look after or whatever; or they were at work; or they have 2 or 3 jobs as they try and keep ends together. The internet can help people act more accurately, and more precisely, and it can also reduce the huge information barrier that people find to action. It can make it much less time expensive for people to act than otherwise, but it’s still about physical action. And I often think that people who think that they can just campaign on the web, good luck to them, and eventually that might work, but for now, in the majority of cases, you still have to get up and go to a meeting, no matter how tiresome that is”
Will Perrin at OpenTech 2009 (audio)

One of the things that was getting talked about at OpenTech was helping out with other groups. Which is great, as that’s something that we really wanted to happen, and we started a bit of. But it didn’t really work all that well.

As Fran and Will said in that session, “we see a lot of serendipity” from “bumping into people on the street”. But “they don’t really know what a blog is”, The most powerful thing you can do is not necessarily use your skils to build a really complicated tool for someone, but to show them how to use a simple tool”. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a one page memo, written with the right background, to the right person, at the right time, to destroy an industry or change the world for better.

Over the last year and a bit, I’ve been looking for other projects to work on outside of the pure tech scene. Building perl each night so that it’ll continue to exist in the morning ( cf Clay Shirky ) is great, and I’m very very glad people do. But my aim was to spend less time in front of a keyboard, or at least, different time in front of a keyboard, and do stuff that actually helps people.

I was talking with a friend recently about a project I was involved in at bits of last year. While the work I did was useful, and gave them the chance to see why certain things helped, the biggest benefit wasn’t anything direct. It’s not that the spreadsheets I worked on did lots of stuff; it was that they existed at all. And the fact that a database existed was had the effect to “scare the shit out of” those whose negative activities had to be reduced. Not in any way a technical victory, but a significant beneficial impact on the community and the area (unfortunately, it was all too temporary). Similarly, consider the ability to produce a statistic about numbers of activities; on one hand, mySociety produces maps ; they manually put different sized red dots on a picture; and the latter achieves their aims. The right solution for them is a selection of handily sized dots.

WIth strong tech, you can mash up job centre job posting information with unemployment locations and track the ability to use public transport between the two). That’s be uniquely useful mashup (and give JCPP another compelling feature on top of simply email alerts). Being able to find somewhere nice to go on holiday is one thing; being able to find a job is much more of a civic benefit.

But the vast majority of this isn’t advanced technology; it’s what those in the tech-savvy group (as Bill Thompson describes them ) consider relatively simple, and which those outside that group can’t distinguish from magic. Helping someone setup a wordpress site that they can edit themselves, and that they can learn how to edit themselves, is fine, and better because then they will actually do so. But knowing that’s what they want, is not easy.

There was some random chatter about the creation of a board where groups could post what skills they’re looking for, and geeks could go and find groups who needed those skills. Unfortunately, that’s a short term and limited solution, unlikely to get persistent traction. As much as people in those groups don’t know OpenTech exists, and wouldn’t know why they should go even if they did, a website would have similar issues, with a much harder solution – it would require significant ongoing overhead of publicity, and still have neglible impact. The e-campaigning forum already does some of this for campaigning organisations, and similar areas exist for others.

A much better solution for geeks looking to give, is simply to step away from the keyboard, into the big blue room with the yellow thing, and start to look in the local community outside your front door. The UK has charities, NGOs and community groups doing huge amounts of impressive work, all over the country, in many different ways, in many different places, at many different times. Go out into your community, and find a group that needs some help. Whether it’s volunteering with Bike Recycling, Queer Arts, asylum seekers or a community newspaper, there are a range of groups who need a variety of inputs (and I currently help out groups in 3 of those 4). Some of what they need will be somewhat technical – setting up a mailing list, help with posting video to youtube – but most would never think to ask, let alone using audioboo to interview councillors before a meeting, and then writing up the . The issue most of the time is that there’s a lack of understanding of the possible, which makes asking for what they want hard because while they may have a rough idea, it may not have a good idea, and they don’t have the knowledge to tell the difference, or take the gem of an idea out of some wooly prose. If you know what recursion is, you can use it to help people who don’t, and don’t even comprehend what becomes simple and possible using it.

By those with skills to offer going out to their communities and volunteering on a topic in which you’re interested, or even possibly interested. You don’t have to commit, you don’t have to necessarily go to more than one meeting if you decide that’s not actually what you want. All you need to start to help is to find others working on whatever you’re interested in.

Good luck with that.

Here’s a wiki version of this post, so where it’s wrong or needs to be better, you can add links and make suggestions, or rewrite vast chunks if you choose. if you’re not sure what a wiki is, just email me 🙂

Aug 2009
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