Moving civil society into the digital

Zara Rahman

This week, Alix and I had the chance to attend the Do Good Data / Data on Purpose conference held at Stanford University in the US. After the conference, I attended a smaller workshop on “The Future of Digital Infrastructure,” which provided a great opportunity to work through issues from the conference in a more hands-on way.

The civil society organisations I’ve encountered here in the US seem to be scrambling to understand how to respond to the quickly-changing political environment. Now, US-based organisations need to take a moment to listen and learn from counterparts in countries where authoritarian governments have been in power for years, and where trust between government and civil society has long been broken (if it ever existed).

For too long, “partnership” efforts have been far more about getting perceived “developing” countries to be more like “developed” countries. Finally it’s becoming clearer that that relationship should be anything but one-way and linear.

On a more tech-related front, it seems like a healthy development that organisations, especially the ones that focus on technology, are moving from framing their work as “neutral” to understanding that their work has clear political implications.

We can’t talk about technology without talking about power, and it was interesting to see how the event being convened in Palo Alto, and by Stanford (a powerful and globally well-reputed university) affected these discussions. Participants were almost all from North America, and from relatively well-off organisations or companies who were able to cover travelling to an expensive area of the world, which made discussions of the needs of a “global” civil society seem slightly skewed, to my eyes.

The workshop we attended focused on thinking about what a “safe, ethical and effective digital infrastructure” would look like, and we had the opportunity to identify two futures: the default (ie. the one that would happen without our intervention) and our desired future. As a big fan of speculative fiction, I appreciate techniques like this as a way of getting our imaginations going.

Understanding what we rely upon

For a digital civil society to exist – and even for a digital infrastructure to exist – we rely upon physical infrastructure, which is messy and complex to understand. As members of civil society organisations with limited resources, it can be almost too easy to take physical infrastructure for granted and assume that someone else – companies, governments – will take care of it, but this is a dangerous route to take.

In more and more countries around the world, corporations (often US-based) are playing a core role in building out physical infrastructure to provide internet infrastructure. In some cases, this is experimental and “innovative”, like Google’s Project Loon, an experiment to provide internet coverage to users via balloons, and in others, it involves providing more basic telecommunications infrastructure, like in Myanmar.

Google's Project Loon

This, of course, comes with conditions and long-term consequences that we need to understand before we accept that without question. In a lot of senses, infrastructure is control, and corporate sector incentives are generally significantly different to those of civil society.

It’s not physical infrastructure but take, for example, Facebook’s Free Basics initiative which provide limited access to content for free to users, billed as a way to “bring more people online”. The initiative violates net neutrality principles, provides poor internet to poor people, and gives Facebook a lot of control over what kind of content and levels of access people using the service actually see.

Digital, but strategically

At the workshop, one of our conversations considered how civil society might have an increased focus on digital over the next ten years. This, I hope, is true: but I worry that without that focus being strategically aligned with the organisation’s mission, and without tech and digital projects properly and responsibly implemented, it might not necessarily be a positive development.

As we see regular with our Responsible Data work, engaging with technology and data irresponsibly can have negative unintended consequences, and sometimes end up doing more harm than good. It’s also not that easy to do, and it takes time and resources to think through those potential unintended consequences and pro-actively mitigate against them.

As my colleague Alix has written about previously:

“Using technology and data for social change requires fundamental transformation of the organisations who are the drivers of that change.”

She defined three concepts of transformation required: organisational, data, and digital. All of them take time, whereas technology fixes are sadly often still seen as the “quick-fix” approach.

Maintaining that infrastructure

However we define what a “digital infrastructure” for civil society might be, it’s true of all infrastructure that maintenance is necessary for it to stay healthy. It’s hard to see though, who is willing to do that potentially boring work – and perhaps more crucially, who is willing to fund it.

We’ve been lucky to receive a grant from Markets for Good for what I consider to be some of that maintenance work, revamping the community Responsible Data site. Together with SIMLab, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Future of Privacy Forum, we are building upon existing resources to create a coherent journey for organisations who are struggling with the ethical challenges of their work.

A lot of what we do will not be new, but will be pulling together existing and unfinished work to create a well-designed user experience. It’s a project that I believe is sorely needed, but before this grant, it was striking to me how hard it was to pitch.

Many civil society organisations in this space perceive that funders are more willing to fund exciting, innovative, new projects – which runs counter to maintenance of infrastructure. There are, of course, exceptions for which I’m very grateful, like the Prototype Fund in Germany, or the Open Technology Fund, both of which offer funds to existing projects to be able to support them or work on a particular feature.


Last week’s event gave me a lot of food for thought, and I was grateful to be among such smart thinkers in this space. As co-convenor Lucy Bernholz said at the beginning and closing of the event, there is much more to be done to ensure a safe and effective digital space for civil society.

In-person spaces like this where we can come together and share challenges and ideas for potential futures are incredibly valuable, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to attend and learn from other participants about the futures they are aiming for.


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