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The Social Tech Guide to Civic Empowerment

The Social Tech Guide to Civic Empowerment

July 15 2015

By Nominet Trust

A survey of the many and varied ways in which technology is being used to strengthen and transform civic activity around the world is a tonic for the outrage, mistrust or apathy inspired by recent waves of revelation about governments using tech to monitor their fellow citizens.

Wikileaks continues to demonstrate that digital tools both produce and provide the means of distributing material governments would rather was withheld, while a host of organisations have grown up to gain access to, scrutinise, produce, publish, use and improve civic data, on the boundaries between civil society and government: Sunlight Foundation, Young Rewired State, Code For America, open-government, the-open-aid-register. MySociety’s collaboration with Ciudadano Inteligente on Poplus, a set of openly available, reliable tools for any organisation wanting to build their own transparency and advocacy initiatives, is evidence of the maturity of the civic tech community. legislation.gov.uk, meanwhile, was an early example of how digital innovation can also emerge from within government, producing what is now one of the UK government’s most well-used online resources.

The founding of the Digital Humanitarian Network, a coalition of many groups formed to use digitally skilled volunteers to support relief efforts, is evidence of the vibrancy of this collection of communities. To virtually gather, analyse and present back the information those on the ground need to save lives and rebuild communities.

Natalia Project and Panic Button both employ tech to provide some protection for those who put themselves on the line working as activists opposing oppressive regimes, while OVDinfo provides a means of documenting oppression. Martus and Byzantium are two examples of a wide range of tools used by activists to conceal their identity and activities, along with tor, better known though it may be for more nefarious uses. One of the most long-established organisations working in this area is WITNESS, which since 1993 has consistently used the latest developments in technology to help human rights defenders to document and share evidence of abuse: thus far, WITNESS media has reached more than 260 million people worldwide.

On the less acute end of privacy concerns, duckduckgo and mailpile exemplify a widening demand to understand and better control the data we produce in our daily interactions with the web and email respectively. Much like Fairphone in the world of mobiles, these are highly unlikely to grow to compete with the dominant players in their market, but they may maintain a steady and loyal audience of users, demonstrating in the process that alternatives are viable.

So while it is healthy - crucial - to pay attention to how technology is used to circumscribe the freedom of citizens, we can also celebrate the fact that it is also providing us with the means to harness the power we can individually and collectively exert.

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