Technology for Change

Over the weekend I had the pleasure to sit on two thought-provoking panels. One at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference on ‘Technology Solutions to Social Challenges’, the other at The Institute for Global Leadership’s EPIIC Conference, Conflict in the 21st Century, on the panel ‘#Power: Youth, Technology and the State.” On both panels I was joined by a great group of practitioners and experts with a range of experience–from a young organizer in Tunisia, to a software developer from San Francisco. Both panels had some interesting discussion about technology in context and I wanted to share some of my favorite (at times subtle) takeaways:

  • The Social in Social Media:  We need to be careful not to interpret every encounter with Facebook and Twitter the same. It is important to understand when you are http://www.troakley.com/ talking about the more social part of social media. What I mean is that around the world people use Facebook or Twitter all the time–often the way I use e-mail–to keep up with friends or plan a meeting via direct or group messages. Too often we give credit to ‘social media’ that organized something among existing offline groups while other systems can and do play the exact same role.
  • Local and Foreign Facing: Both panels touched on US facing technology that impacts audiences here and other technology with remote touch-points around the world. The takeaway is that the technological and cultural landscape in different places is also different and doesn’t take the same skills or tools on both ends. For example, just because you can organize a crowd in Boston via a web platform to support a project in Haiti, doesn’t automatically mean that same technology should also be in Haiti, or that you have the skills to create the same network or impact there.
  • Technology for a Few:  In lots of places almost everyone will have a cell-phone and so this may be the communication channel of choice to reach the crowd. Likewise, only a select group of people may have smart phones or use twitter or social media expertly. Sometimes only this group is needed to have an impact. Every project should not be designed for the lowest-common denominator of local technology. You have to design for community–consider when you need one to many, many to many, and one to some to many.
  • Rumors and Aggregation: A big topic of concern for social media is how to make sense of the overflow of information while also pulling fact from fiction. When I was in middle school I was taught how to read a newspaper. How to pull the facts in the articles from the opinion in the op-ed. This taught me to be a critical reader and a contextual thinker. While some fascinating technical tools exist to help make sense of social media, we also need to educate about and on social media to embed these processes and skills everywhere.
  • Open isn’t Everyone: Open data doesn’t mean that everyone is using it or making sense of it. Just a few people can do a lot with data–and create some Oakley Sunglasses cheap powerful and supportive tools. But at the same time, making your data open online doesn’t mean that everyone has access to it, or can draw meaning from the data–there can be technical or data literacy challenges. Open data can be great in a lot of contexts, but we should look for the opportunities to get new people and expertise into open data.


Once again a special thanks to everyone involved in all of these panels–it was a great weekend.

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