How to think about tech when you don’t have time to think about tech

Barbara Paes

In 2021, our team worked on a research project to explore how social justice communities and data and digital rights (DDR) communities could collaborate more effectively. As we interviewed over 50 people organising for social justice in four regions, something we have seen on a daily basis in our support work was confirmed: making tech and data issues a priority isn’t simple for social justice organisations

And this isn’t because these organisations aren’t interested in thinking about these topics. The majority of people we spoke to are fully aware of the challenges brought by digital technologies and the harms related to data collection. However, they find it difficult to take on the extra work of rethinking their use of tech and data, since most are overworked and tending to pressing needs from the communities they serve. 

Ultimately, rethinking an organisation’s use of tech and data does take quite a bit of time (and resources!). But, there are low(ish) hanging fruits that you can start tackling, and in this post I want to share some ideas to inspire you to start reflecting on these themes. 

Note: In this piece, I use the terms “tech and data” and “digital technologies” to mean the platforms, devices, tools, data and websites that you might use to carry out or enhance your work.

Tech and data should strengthen your core work instead of creating an extra burden 

This may sound counter-intuitive when you think about investing less in technology, but if you want to think about tech and data in a sustainable way, the very first thing we recommend to our partners is that instead of focusing all of your energy on “innovative tech projects”, try to think more about how tech and data could be an integral part of your existing work and infrastructure

Here are a few questions that can spark this conversation: 

  • What are your most pressing current needs? How can your advocacy strategies, internal processes, communications, or community organising might improve if you adopted a particular tech tool? Is a tech tool the only way to make that improvement, or are there low-tech ways to achieve the same improvement?
  • What kind of digital platforms do you already use for your work as a team? How did you make those tech choices in the past?
  • What kind of data do you collect as an organisation and why? Are there ways you want to change the way you collect and store data? (See some suggestions below!) 
  • Who on your team is interested in tech and data issues and could get the others excited as well? And who on your team is the best placed to keep an eye on the ways in which tech and data, emerging technologies, and the broader tech industry affects your communities and mission?  

Get support

These are big topics for sure, but we have found that organisations of many sizes, resource levels and capacities find it fruitful to start with these lines of questioning! If you need support figuring out how to do this, get in touch with us.

Aligning your political values with your use of tech and data is an ongoing process

We believe that decisions regarding technology can have political implications for your work. For example, using tech that doesn’t prioritise accessibility might result in excluding some of the people or communities that you’re working with, or using tools that don’t have strong pro-privacy design might put activists at risk. 

Rethinking your tech and data practices to better fit your values (and your goals) is an iterative process that takes time. It won’t be an individual, one-time activity. As you go on this journey, you’ll review internal processes, go back to the same questions a few times, and figure out how to rearrange your use of tech and data so that they fit you better. 

One way you can start this process is by having a conversation with your team about your organisation’s core values that you’d like to see reflected in your technical choices. What would you prioritise if you had a chance to rethink your entire tech and data infrastructure? Would you focus on safety and privacy? Open source solutions? Platforms developed by traditionally oppressed groups? Non-surveillance capitalist options? If you have a clear sense of what you want to prioritise in your tech choices as a team, it will ultimately become easier (and more strategic!) to make decisions about your digital infrastructure in the future. 

Read more

For more ideas on what it means to align your values with your tech decisions, check out this interview we did with one of our partners and this blog post on making technical choices with an explicit focus on justice and anti-oppression.

Reflecting on your data management 

Adopting responsible data practices is one of the processes that organisations can start that can generate most positive results in their work. Responsible data is a concept that refers to our collective duty to prioritise and respond to the ethical, legal, social and privacy-related challenges that come from using data in advocacy and social change work. 

You can start reflecting on your data practises with the following questions:

  • What data is essential for your organisation to do your job well? Are you collecting it? If yes, are you collecting just what you need or more than necessary? 
  • What are the potential unintended consequences of the data you’re collecting and using? What are possible mitigation strategies? For example, if you collect and store data about human rights violations, what could happen if this data got lost? What data management practices could prevent this from happening? Or, if you work closely with activists in sensitive contexts, what could happen if this data (such as meeting notes, recordings, or spreadsheets, to name a few) ends up in the wrong hands?
  • What data is missing in your context that would be crucial to your work and the people you’re working with? And can you generate some of that data yourself? For example, if data about certain rights abuses would be crucial to your work, but aren’t otherwise documented or archived (such as data on war crimes or corruption in your country), how can you generate that data in a responsible and sustainable manner, without jeopardising the safety and dignity of your target groups? 

Read more

While shifting your data management practices might take sustained investment, some of the lower hanging fruits of responsible data handling don’t require too much time. Make sure to check our tips on how to start your responsible data journey and our resource Becoming RAD!, for guidance on how to create a responsible process for retaining, archiving and deleting data.

Learning about the ways tech and data impact the issues you work on

In the past few years, digital technologies have helped and harmed us more than ever before. We have witnessed the ways that digital technologies are increasingly used to reinforce injustices. For those fighting for social justice, investing time and resources on understanding how tech and data impact the issues you’re working on is likely to help you better serve the communities you work with.

Here are some of our team’s go-to resources:

Make building tech and data literacy a team-wide priority

It is likely that in your organisation there are already people who are interested in these topics and maybe already working on it, which is great. One thing we try to advise our partners is to slowly build tech and data literacy across their entire team, instead of appointing certain people to “take care of the tech issues”. Digital technologies evolve quickly, as do the debates and conversations about the potential benefits and harms of using these technologies. Being the only person carrying the responsibility to keep up with such a fast-paced environment can seem daunting. So, if you’re in a leadership position and your organisation has resources for professional development and/or trainings, consider directing at least part of them towards building tech intuition across your team as a whole. 

Create spaces for learning with colleagues and building on each other’s knowledge

One small way you can kick off the process of reflecting about your tech and data practices is by creating spaces for informal discussions and/or exchange of information about these topics. It can be as light-weight as a Slack or Mattermost channel (or an email thread, or whatever works for you). Other than contributing to building internal tech and data literacy and intuition, this space can be helpful for:

  • Talking about the tech and data practices the team thinks could be re-designed or tweaked to better suit your organisational goals and values;
  • Sharing relevant resources, things people are learning and practises they’ve seen elsewhere and think could work well for your organisation too; 
  • Keeping tabs of links and resources that your team could potentially learn from.

Connect with other organisations, you don’t have to go through this alone!

We encourage you to find other organisations or groups in your sector and/or your region who are also working on their tech and data practices and create a dialogue with them. For example, in our research on intersectional collaborations between social justice groups and data and digital rights groups, we talked to an organisation in Mexico who is convening a group of fellow organisations in their sector, who meet periodically to exchange knowledge about the tech and data issues they are facing. 

At The Engine Room, we act as stewards for the Responsible Data Community: a community of people working on sectors such as social justice and international development, developing practical ways to deal with the unintended consequences of using data in social change work and sharing approaches between leading thinkers and doers from different sectors. You can learn more about (and join!) the community here. We also convene the Organisational Security Community, a resource created by and for security practitioners from all backgrounds to share useful resources and document innovative approaches to long-term security work.

Get support from our team to navigate this process! 

We provide pro-bono support to organisations or individuals with resource constraints–e.g. in terms of funding or internal capacity–and with challenges that we can tackle together. Organisations with stable funding are welcome to partner with us through our research or consulting work. We work with a wide array of organisations, usually within Latin America and Africa, and our partners vary in terms of technical backgrounds–some want specific, technical advice, while others are less familiar with digital strategies and data or technology processes but eager to learn. 

This year, with support from Sigrid Rausing Trust, we’re deepening our offer of support to activists, collectives and movements – particularly those who serve marginalised communities – that are facing challenges incorporating technologies in their work.

Lastly, here are a few resources to get you inspired

Image by Ivan Oštrić via Unsplash.


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