Last week we convened the sixth and final (at least for now) online TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.
Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion on one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.
This time, the discussants looked at the challenges and rewards of creating civic tech within hostile environments, from war zones to dictatorships; examined what ‘peacetech’ means and whether it can be applied more broadly; and then discussed how a small grant might best be deployed to help those working for good despite tough external factors.
Discussants were Yolanda Booyzen, Communications Coordinator at HURIDOCS, joining us from South Africa; Julie Hawke, Digital Peacebuilding Lead at Build Up speaking from the US; and Teona Tomashvili, co-founder and Project Lead at ForSet in Georgia.
For a high-level view, read on. We’ve attempted to capture all the ideas discussed, but if you’re keen not to miss anything, access the notes from the meeting, as well as the full recording of the session and the AI-generated transcript.
A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.
- Security: Both people and information must be kept secure when working in hostile environments.
- Practical and logisitcal problems: Stable internet connections and electricity supplies can’t be relied on; roads may be poor and organisations may need to work across large or difficult-to-reach areas; there may be language barriers.
- Time: Issues with time expectations manifest themselves in a variety of ways; for example –
- The documentation of atrocities may take longer than the period in which funders expect to see results;
- Organisations may need to react more quickly to fast-changing events than tech developers are used to.
- Socio-cultural factors:
- Organisations have to work in hostile online environments which also foster mis- and disinformation; hate speech, algorithmic profile targeting and polarisation.
- In the real world, they may be battling electoral fraud and a non-independent media that is under political pressure.
- Lack of political will: Trying to run a service that is helpful to citizens, such as an Alaveteli-based FOI service, is difficult without government co-operation — and this leads to a lack of open data for civic technologists to work with.
- Create networks of grassroots organisations working in the same or similar areas, online if that is safer.
- Make longlasting and authentic relationships with the organisations working on the ground; not just partnerships for the duration that the funding is available.
- Base your services or software on the actual needs of the people you’re making it for. Listen to them before you begin. They might not even need software: it might be that they need connections, or training, instead. The objectives come first, before the tech.
- Ensure that the safety of people and security of information are prioritised.
- Build software so that it works offline — for example by storing data locally on a device and allowing the user to upload it when they come back to somewhere with wifi.
- Often the way forward is to use or repurpose existing software in new contexts. You don’t necessarily have to see yourself as a creator of ‘peacetech’ to be providing a technology that fosters peace.
- Don’t forget that people in hostile environments need psychological support as well as technological tools. A sense of humour is also important.
- Consider giving money to people other than ‘the usual suspects’, directly and without strings. Take more risks.
How the grant could help
Some ideas for spending (and administering) the grant.
- Consult the organisations over what they really need.
- A handbook listing ways to work and what not to do in hostile environments.
- The organisations that need the most help are not always fluent in English. Consider providing a contact that can help them through the grant process.
- Consider not requiring any proposals or reports, as that uses up the valuable resource of the organisations bidding for the money, and takes up some of the money you’re granting in terms of their time.
Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.
We are now inviting people to join the Action Lab working group, which will comprise up to six people who are keen to use this discussion to inform the group as they pin down how the grant will be spent.