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 for the daylong network gathering 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 address these challenges.
We broke down the day’s activities, including “Life Mapping,” defining “Community Technology,” the “Big Question Generator” and “World Cafe” in our recap below!
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 from 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 a mix of community organizing, activism, and technology in their life maps. 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 people’s journeys in community technology. Many of these maps were then hung on the walls of the gathering space for participants to continue reflecting on 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 articulated five ideas that embody community technology to the group. These ideas reflected the context of the participants that were seated at the table, and drew from the life maps they created earlier.
Some common themes that emerged across different group’s 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 technology comes with the necessary literacy for using that technology?
- How do we help partner abuse survivors take control of their digital footprints to ensure greater safety and privacy?
- 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 can we get people out of their tech comfort zones and consumer mindset so they see the benefits 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 text of notes taken by participants is 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 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 are 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!), we were excited to have achieved our goals.
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.
We provided a packet of materials for participants including worksheets for the activities from the network gathering. These worksheets, along with the dozens of stories and processes 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.
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 across our discussions, including: building trust, growing autonomy and self-reliance, equitable access and digital literacy, producing media, and facilitating connections between people.
Community Technology: Looking Ahead
This was the first network gathering of its kind at the Allied Media Conference. While the event itself was successful, we are excited to explore ways in which this work can continue throughout the year. We are currently developing a follow-up survey to pose to the participants of the network gathering. The feedback from these communications, as well as the shared notes and media from the event, will be available at the Community Technology Network Gathering website.