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On Innovation, Social Change and Tech: TechSoup is Stirring the Pot

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 12 2011

Back in February, about 200 people gathered at Microsoft's Silicon Valley campus for an unusual gathering of non-profit leaders, funders, corporate donors, social media experts, capacity-building organizations and other social change technologists. The TechSoup Global Contributors' Summit was different from your typical conference; rather than feed people's brains with amazing speakers, its goal was to gather amazing people with already well-fed brains to galvanize real collaboration. The idea, in the word's TechSoup Global founder and co-CEO Daniel Ben-Horin, was to pull together leading representatives of the four kinds of groups that TechSoup works with--"networks of organizations that need technology support, networks of corporations that are willing to donate their products, networks of funders interested in building the capacity of civil society, and networks of technical volunteers"--and see "how these networks, and the capabilities that power them, can be effectively leveraged to create greater impact." (Lots more information, including a full list of participants, can be found on the Summit wiki.)

I'm writing this post now in part to do a little full disclosure, and let readers know that Andrew and I and the Personal Democracy team are starting to collaborate with TechSoup on some projects (including this one), and also to urge you to take a look at what is starting to happen in the wake of Contributors' Summit. Nearly a quarter of the people who participated were moved to a wide range of action items in its wake, which they are sharing on the wiki. That alone is an impressive achievement--lots of times these kinds of conferences generate a lot of positive energy while everyone is in the room, but it's much harder to turn that into ongoing commitments once people go back to their own contexts.

More concretely, Ben-Horin and TechSoup have impressively managed to tease out some of the common threads that emerge from the many different action items shared by participants, and they've begun authoring a series of blog posts that sketch out several of what you might call "grand projects" for ongoing common effort. Briefly, the first three are:

  • 1. "Putting the World Into the World Wide Web": Imagine what could be achieved if we solve the translation problem. A glimpse of this future came in how activists with the AliveInEgypt project, which was doing rapid curation of tweets and other messages escaping the regime's censorship efforts, rapidly used the Universal Subtitling Project (built by the good folks at the Participatory Culture Foundation) to add English subtitles to Wael Ghonim's pivotal TV interview on his release from prison at the height of the uprising in February. Universal translation would open up access to all kinds of invaluable information resources, and the wealth of "best-practices" know-how that many in the English-speaking tech and nonprofit sectors could be much more easily shared.
  • 2. "Geek Power." This is essentially a call for all good developers to come to the aid of their [fill in the blank]. But as several people pointed out at the Summit, and Daniel writes, "The first obstacle is that the nonprofits and NGOs that will necessarily play a key role in implementing these solutions (increasingly in collaboration with social entrepreneurs and other civil society actors) don't know how to frame their problems and ideas in a way that technologists can grasp and work with. The second obstacle is that all this collaboration and implementation takes resources — money and also time — which are in short supply; civil society organizations don't typically have R&D budgets." But all kinds of people are holding pieces of this puzzle and are looking to attach themselves to its solution, it appears. Part of the answer obviously requires money, but another piece--some kind of smart aggregation of questions-and-answers that social activists and developers need to connect around--doesn't seem that hard to do. Picture a section of Quora devoted to this (see Nancy Scola's in-depth article on same in case you missed it); with a little helpful curation I bet a very rich and easy-to-use living repository of how-to knowledge could get off the ground quite fast.
  • 3. "Supercharging Communities of Practice." This is where PdF and TechSoup have great synergy, as a lot of what we strive to do with our conference and this blog is to highlight the best work that people are doing and create ways for them to network with each other productively around mutual concerns like how to use technology to increase transparency and fight corruption, or how to navigate networked media, or how to harness the social web for social good, or how to use the internet to win campaigns and advance causes. The bottom line here, as Daniel suggests, is to create virtual and real spaces where innovative folks and projects can hook up, and to also foster a broader understanding among both governmental and philanthropic entities of the value of fostering those spaces. As more innovation starts and spreads in from the edges, networks that connect lots of edges are the way to go.

I'm told there's more ideas coming, including a discussion of how to use cloud computing for social change. So stay tuned.

What TechSoup Global is doing with this ongoing conversation is hard, hard work. But we don't live in ordinary times, either. So, even if you're busy and feel like you have your nose up against the grindstone, pull back and take some time to read through the TechSoup blog posts I've linked to above. They offer all kinds of useful handles for joining in the conversation. Grabbing hold is now up to you.