On June 18th, 2015, at the 17th annual Allied Media Conference, over 90 people attended the first ever Community Technology Network Gathering. The event was was an unprecedented gathering of people from all over the world working on technology and inclusion issues. It included coders, civic technologists, network engineers, community wireless advocates, youth media practitioners, bloggers, as well as international participants from Brazil, Spain, Germany, and Mexico.
The gathering was coordinated by Diana Nucera, program director of Detroit Community Technology Project; Jack Aponte, worker-owner at PalanteTech; Andy Gunn, Field Engineer at Open Technology Institute; and Janel Yamashiro, coordinator at Co.Open.
The agenda was structured around a common goal of understanding the major questions and challenges people have within their community technology work and exchanging practices and strategies to solve these issues. Participants were seated in groups of 5 to 6 around large tables, and worked in these groups throughout the morning. After lunch, the participants were able to move to new groups to work on topics that most interested them.
The day began with a “Life Mapping” exercise: a creative exploration of an individual’s personal journey to community technology work. The aim was to identify themes throughout people’s lives that brought them to the gathering.
While every participant’s life journey was unique, there were many shared elements and ideas. Many people had an equal number of community organizing, activist related, and technology related elements to their lives. Often, there was a turning point: either someone worked in a technology field, then found community organizing; or a community organizer or activist began to work more intentionally with technology. In addition, many people saw the lack of equity in the access to technology, and altered the way they work or organize to address that.
After developing a personal life map, participants were invited to move around their table and around the room to view other’s journeys to (and through) community technology. Many of these maps were then hung on the walls of the gathering space for participants to inspect later.
Understanding Community Technology
After the Life Mapping exercise, groups worked together to collectively define what Community Technology means to them by documenting its many landscapes and themes. Groups were to identify and create sentences that articulate five ideas that embody community technology to the group. This should reflect the context of the participants that were seated at the table, and draw from the life maps created earlier.
Some common themes that emerged across definitions were: access, empowerment, privacy, ownership, resource sharing, collective expression, and organizing and movement building. These themes recurred throughout the day’s conversations.
Big Question Generator
The core activity of the day was understanding and defining the “Big Questions” around Community Technology, which are the main challenges everyone faces in their work. Each group worked together to brainstorm problems that their communities face, as well as what skills and practices could address that challenge. They then worked together to synthesize a single question that investigates the problem. The guideline sheet for the Big Question generator can be found on the AMC CommTech website.
The big questions that emerged from the “Big Question Generator” process were:
- How do we put technology in a political context?
- How do we build trust in our communities?
- How does access to technology help communities of color become more autonomous and self-reliant?
- How do we share the resources and spaces we have to fight racial segregation?
- How can we create spaces that change the power dynamics around sharing tech knowledge?
- How do media literacy and media-based organizing skills take us from passive, selfie-centric consumers to active energized, community-minded collaborators?
- How do we create a community based-owned infrastructure to facilitate online exchanges and transactions that we care about most?
- How do we make sure that greater access to tech comes with the appropriate / suitable literacy?
- How do we help partner abuse survivors take control of digital footprints to support their safety?
- Can community tech for us and by us help identify and connect emerging audiences?
- How can we use organizing and education to build movements online and offline?
- How to get people out of tech comfort zone and consumer mindset so they see the benefit of community tech?
The afternoon session involved three rounds of the “World Café” activity, where participants engaged in dialogue in small groups to respond to the big questions generated earlier in the day. Participants picked the three questions they wanted to discuss and work on with others from the gathering. Notes on each discussion were gathered in a collaborative note-taking platform. The full copy of notes as taken by participants are available on the AMC CommTech website.
The day concluded with a full-group fishbowl-style discussion. Participants were invited to sit in a small circle, five people at a time, and reflect on community technology issues and the big questions generated earlier in the day. When someone from the larger group wanted to participate in the discussion, they would tap out one of the individuals in the smaller circle and take their place.
Network Gathering Outcomes
The stated goals of the Community Technology Network Gathering were to:
- Build stronger relationships.
- Discover new approaches to the problems we’re trying to solve.
- Grow a shared sense of priorities and values that we can take back to our own projects and communities.
From the positive response the organizers received, the copious notes taken, and the various artifacts (life maps, landscapes, and hundreds of sticky notes!), it appears that these goals were achieved.
Relationships – Participants made solid connections with each other through the shared practice of discussion and problem solving. They were able to carry the big questions and ideas from the gathering to the rest of the Allied Media Conference, and continue to strengthen the relationships started during the gathering through the rest of the weekend.
Problem Solving Approaches – The worksheets and process for the activities from the network gathering were all shared with the participants in a packet of materials. These worksheets, along with the dozens of stories and process that were shared from person to person, gave each participant a new set of tools and approaches to work on challenges they face in their own communities.
Shared Priorities and Values – There is no single set of priorities or values for community technology. Just as each community is unique, the practices and technologies in use in each is unique. Despite that, there are many lessons to be learned from hearing the stories of other technologists, organizers, and activists from around the world. There were many common themes: building trust, growing autonomy and self-reliance, equitable access and digital literacy, producing media, and facilitating connections between people.
Community Technology in the future
This was the first network gathering of it’s kind at the Allied Media Conference. While the event itself was successful, there are questions about what will be next:
- How will the work of the gathering continue beyond the AMC?
- Will there be future meetings,workgroups, or collaborations?
- How are the ideas that were discussed during the gathering turning into actionable items?
These questions, as well as a survey, will be posed to the participants of the network gathering in follow-up communications. The feedback from these communications, as well as the shared notes and media from the event will be collected at the Community Technology Network Gathering website, found here: https://amccommtech.wordpress.com/