Creating Technology for Social Change

Building Change, One Map at a Time*


As I mentioned in an earlier post, we not only have immeasurable amounts of information available about the human experience in the planet, but are generating much more than we can possibly digest. The suggestive term “digital exhaust” is a common description of that phenomenon in today’s academic literature.

Having access to that body of information, however, has a fantastic potential to generate social change.  With so many sensors of social activity in operation—from mobile phones to social networking websites—individuals, groups or organizations fighting for social change can create systems (or processes) of dynamic, evidence-based, decision-making. Those systems can help those organizations to make better decisions about their strategy (i.e. What representative should we pressure to get this bill approved?), allocation of resources (i.e. What is the best combination to allocate our money and human capital?) and their impact (i.e. Is people really being affected by our programs?)—If they could only have access to the knowledge to develop those systems in-house.

A great way to support individuals, groups and organizations to fight for social change is to help them tap into real-time or near-real-time of data sources, especially helping develop systems that reduce the knowledge-cost of digesting and analyzing information. But, before we start working, it is absolutely necessary to have a theory of change, in other words, to have an understanding of what has to change, why and how we are going to do it.


A Theory of Change 

I envision social change model based on three great steps: issue, solution, and strategy.

First, it is necessary to understand the issue well enough to be able to propose a solution. This is particularly important and probably one of the most widespread problems in working with social change: there are way too many simplified understanding of issues that often make of the solutions attached to solving them futile and even counter-productive. Knowing an issue well is essential to be able to find the right solutions.

Second, what can be done to change the issue that is being addressed? In the process of trying to find the ideal answer to that question. While this isn’t perfect, I suggest using a model with three elements that can at least help filter many inappropriate solutions. The model is based in: (a) inputs, (b) context, and (c) knowledge.

(a) Inputs: Are the necessary resources available to deliver the solution we are considering?

(b) Context: Many times contextual elements have a great role to play in the process of change. How are the macro-elements positioned toward change in the particular issue addressed (i.e. political, economic, institutional)? Is it the right context? While one might never be able to fully answer these questions, it has a huge value to consider them in the process of choosing the right solution.

(c) Knowledge: Is the knowledge available to deliver the solution in place? How to strategize the implementation of the solution?

Finally, and probably the most complex of the steps, we have the strategy. Many times great solutions are found and have all the elements that make them feasible, but end up failing or become impossible to deliver due to the lack of good strategy. Having a well thought strategy is the single most important step to achieve social change. Strategies require short and long term commitment, the ability to convince others that the solution is feasible, and a plan to use available resources or generate new ones, among others.

While defining the strategy, it is relevant to consider the actors involved in the process of change. Some issues might have actors involved in opposite processes (e.g. monopolist media companies, wealthy organizations), that dominate the narrative or have enormous resources to undermine any social change efforts. Those actors have to be considered case-by-case. Depending on their power and reach, it might be interesting to consider single strategies for each one of them.

Civic Media can have a particularly important role in the strategy process by its characteristics to collect, share and generate decentralized information. Civic Media can use that information to disrupt the dominant narrative, create information products that live outside market systems or challenge proprietary knowledge activities (such as mapping). In one of the projects we are working in the Intro to Civic Media class, the CivicMaps Toolkit, Civic Media has a dominant role to play in defining our strategy because it can involve the organizations and individuals we are trying to help in the process of making the toolkit, it can spread this information in a decentralized way and it can create knowledge outside the market structure.

Using all the elements above, I’ve created the following doodle representing those ideas. I called it “The Great Circles of Social Change (or social stagnation)”using the idea of circles that if not disrupted will continue to revolve. If disrupted systematically, social change is achieved. Each of the circles represent one of the steps for social change. Initiatives can jump from one circle to the other if they achieve to successfully fulfill the requirements of each circle (if they hit the “YES”). Otherwise, (if they hit the “NO”) initiatives fail and social change isn’t achieved.

The Great Circles of Social Change (or social stagnation)


Building Change, One Map at a Time

Using the theory of change and the doodle described before, here is how I envision the CivicMaps Toolkit building social change:

1. What we want to change? We want to empower grassroots organizations make better, evidence-based decisions.

2. What is our solution? Helping them use mapping technology, methodology and tools to analyze data. The tools are available, the project has consistent sponsors and great people involved in it. The context is adequate for the development of such project due to the high level of proliferation of online and dynamic maps. And the team does have the knowledge to deliver this solution.

3. How are we going to do that? While the strategy isn’t definitive, I assume that in order to be successful first the toolkit has first to be developed. It is important, however, to have in mind that all the elements of the Toolkit must be made accessible for the organizations it is trying to reach (i.e. it would not be the most appropriate to use highly charged academic language). A wise strategy could be to have a participatory development project in which grassroots organizations are invited to participate, giving feedback and highlighting the areas that need work or are not useful. Furthermore, the distribution is equally important. Grassroots organizations have to have access to the toolkit, but also have to gain knowledge of where to find it and how to use it in their organizations. Social networking sites could present great opportunities to spread the Toolkit, but also could serve as a forum for communities and individuals to comment how they are using it and offer support for their peers. In that sense, creating a Wiki and making online tutorials could be a good idea to make the Toolkit used.

As early as it seems, the theory of change outlined here could be useful in setting a strategy for the CivicMaps Toolkit project that not only uses, but creates Civic Media tools.


[*] Inspired in Patrick Meier’s talk “Changing the World, One Map at a Time” available here