Creating Technology for Social Change

How To Choose The Best Way to Create Change

“Sometimes you wake up and realise that you want to change the world.”

Last week, Mark Simpkins wrote a blog post about how hard it is to know what to do if we want to create change. “When do I create a pledge? When do I contact my MP? When do I take to the streets?” he asks. “How do we move from someone who cares about an issue to taking action that will be genuinely meaningful? Might search or lists help people decide what to do?”

This blog post is my response to Mark.


Photo explanation: In 2008 Peter Sinclair tried to set up a mural to honour the memory of his son, Tom, who was fatally stabbed on Old Street, London. Peter had created the Flavisum Trust to raise awareness and attempt to change young people’s attitudes towards knives. It took many months of letter writing and wrangling on Peter’s part to secure planning permission from Islington Council. In this case, like so many, the simple first step towards change became a protracted effort.

Why is Mark asking this question when he’s so well placed to give us an answer? When we first met, I was proud to hand over my role as technical advisor of a creative writing centre in London into his capable hands. He has considerable experience in citizen engagement, news, and ICT4D. He’s technical director of Africa Gathering in London and is a researcher on socially responsible design at Central Saint Martins. Most recently, Mark worked with Lily Cole (who’s going to be a Berkman Center affiliate next year) to launch Impossible, a platform that connects people to meet each others’ wishes and gifts. So why the soul-searching?

Tom Steinberg at MySociety has been doing similar soul-searching lately. In a post from April, Tom laments our inability to share knowledge among those who are trying to use the Internet to organise people for good. We don’t have names for what we do, we don’t talk to each other enough, and we struggle to identify what differentiates our work. We’re also still figuring out how to recognise effectiveness and share what we learned when something good does happen.

To explain how 38 Degrees and mySociety are similar in some ways but different in other very significant ways needs a way of naming things that can signal both commonality and difference.

This lack of language, Tom says, is one reason why we can’t easily find an answer to the question of “what tool should I use” to create the change we want. Excepting the area of data-driven voter targeting, this poverty of words also complicates our ability to connect research to practical questions of impact. Even among academics, it’s hard to find the language. This summer at UW, I’ve had a chance to spend time with Mary Joyce and her colleagues at UW, who are trying to classify digital activism— a critically important and complicated task. As they add more cases, the team has found themselves repeatedly redefining basic terms for tactics and outcomes.

Six Ways to Move Tech for Change Forward

An amazing range of people are warming to the belief that digital means to organise ourselves can support fairer, more just, and happier societies. And yet Tom and Mark are right; we still have much to learn about the basics of creating change. Here are six ways that I see people responding to this moment of questioning:

Buyer’s Guides & Case Studies

Mark suggests that we need services that help us decide how to create the change we care about. One response is to curate marketplaces or collect case studies to list the options and strategies for change.

  • For his Master’s thesis, Matt Stempeck created a Digital Humanitarian Marketplace that matched people’s professional skills to organisations in a crisis, using case studies and stories to help people understand how the best ways to help. His blog post on 81 ways Humanitarian Aid has Become Participatory is a must-read.
  • Code for America Commons (formerly Civic Commons) is another marketplace for civic technologies, showing you what cities are using what apps, and how it’s going.
  • Models like Ethan Zuckerman’s think/thick engagement and levers of change help us understand the field of options and why we might want to use certain tools (this is an awesome post, and you should read it Mark).
  • Processes like power maps sometimes help us figure out where to apply our levers of change.
  • Maybe most people don’t set out to be activists but fall into it unexpectedly. Is it possible to trick people into active citizenry? That’s a question Tom Steinberg asked us last May when he talked at the Media Lab.
  • The Digital Activism Research project and Civic’s own upcoming book on youth digital activism offer case studies of what others have done.
  • Civic tech sites like Techpresident feature commentary and discussion within the field.

Supporting People and Communities

As attractive as it seems, change doesn’t simply come from picking the right tool or tactic. By supporting people, we can empower them for moments when change is needed. Capacity building initiatives like hack days are very dear to my heart. I would never have found myself doing civic tech if it hadn’t been for the rich ecosystem of unconferences and hack days where I found a supportive community.

Data & Experiments

In addition to knowing what we could do and having the confident experience to try, we need to know what works and what doesn’t. This is an area where academics can help.

  • Quantified media analytics like the work we do at the Center for Civic Media may help us understand how a media story plays out and how effective different players have been within that story. The Berkman Center’s case study of Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere is a great example of this kind of work.
  • Can experiments give us the data we need to choose an intervention? Ben Goldacre’s Randomise Me is a genius new site that makes it easy for anyone to create and participate in randomised controlled trials to evaluate their theories. In connection with the site, Ben also produced a wonderful BBC radio show on RCTs and a helpful guide for officials on using RCTs in government.
  • It’s possible that the new Harvard Program on Behavioural Economics and Law and the new NYU GovLab may take on these issues, but it’s too early to tell, and they may end up focusing mostly on governments.

Design Research

My own work involves imagining new civic technologies or new approaches to civic design and trying them out. The resulting research adds new approaches to our palette of options, sometimes even working products, and evaluation of outcomes in relation to the people who are involved.

  • Most of my projects explore a new way to measure or organise social behaviour. Open Gender Tracking offers a metric. Passing On is an intervention based on that metric. My upcoming acknowledgment platform is another example of social design that helps people say thanks online.
  • Diverse teams like and Reboot, the Engagement Game Lab, and Make:Good combine human centred design and ethnography to research a context as a precursor to imagining and testing interventions for social good.
  • The list of people doing this kind of work is very long, and probably deserves its own blog post. What differentiates us tends to be:
    • Whether on balance we’re focusing on research or interventions
    • How robust the evaluation is
    • How participatory the design process is
    • How far we go with implementation, versus imaginative work
    • Is the work open source or not

Ideas, Inspiration, Critique

We need people to look at these projects from the outside, inspire us, tell us we’re wrong, or at least raise important questions that influence how we do our work. Here are some examples of people I’m reading right now; it’s certainly not an exhaustive list:

Solutions or Contestation?

I sometimes think that the “how to create change” question will never have answers. Often when people try to create political change, it’s easier to think that the next victory will put meaningful change in place with some kind of permanence. Whether you’re launching a project or passing a law, good things also need to grow and evolve in order to survive. Kate Crawford or Mike Ananny might say that this growth and evolution also includes contestation, a public conversation (sometimes disagreeing) about the direction taken by the technologies involved in shaping our lives.

And on that note — I hear that Andy Piper has taken on the role of Chief Tech Advisor for the Ministry of Stories, just as it’s starting to support new creative writing centres in cities throughout the UK. I wish you all the best success, Andy!