What tools should I use?
As part of our Common Tools project, we're developing a guide to digital tools for grassroots organising. In this post, we'll outline why we're doing this, how we're going to approach it and what we've found so far.
Why we're researching this
When we speak to people who are establishing a new campaign or organisation, one of the first questions they ask is: "what tools should I choose?"
There's an overwhelming range of digital tools for organising out there, on top of all the usual consumer technology that organisers end up holding together with digital duct taping.
We know that many, many useful lists, databases and guides to digital tools exist already. For example:
- Blueprints for Change is an open library of how-to guides for progressive organisers. One of these is a round-up of useful digital tools.
- Civic Tech Field Guide is a crowdsourced, global collection of tech for good tools and projects.
- The US-based organisation ACRONYM have published a Digital Organizing Tools Assessment that compares the strengths and weaknesses of different tools, along with their prices.
- Tectonica regularly share advice on digital tools and organising strategy.
- The National Lottery Community Fund published a guide to digital tools for mutual aid groups that covers the basic building blocks of online community-building.
- Govbase is an open, crowdsourced database of tools for online governance, aimed at developers.
- Catalyst publish useful resources and recipes to help charities and community organisations learn digital strategies from each other.
- Switching Software lists ethical, easy-to-use and privacy-conscious alternatives to well-known software.
- Privacy Tools does the same, but with even more focus on protecting against surveillance.
So why are people still unsure of what to use? Listicles and guides are helpful, but we think one thing that's missing is concrete case studies and advice for the specific domain of grassroots political organising.
Understanding the context
We've spent a lot of time working with a broad range of organisers to set up their tech systems and processes. In fact, the first project we worked on as a co-op was a set of interviews investigating this very theme.
The reality is that there's no hard and fast answer to the question of which tools to choose. It's highly dependent on the organisation and its context. When we're collaborating with an organisation, we'll ask questions to understand their context and approach. We use this to develop custom recommendations for a tech stack that will improve their capacity and allow them to get on with their organising.
Some of the areas we usually explore include:
- Their mission, strategy and/or theory of change.
- Their vision, values and culture.
- What tools or systems people are already using or familiar with.
- The level of digital literacy within the organisation.
- Their organisation chart and membership.
- Existing internal processes and rituals.
However, not everyone has time or the funds to hire someone to do this work. While there are many contexts where this outside perspective and expertise is valuable, we also think that there are some cases where people can self-serve.
We believe that organisers are best placed to make decisions that will fit within their own organisation and context. A good example of this is the Tool Selection Assistant that The Engine Room developed based on two years of research with organisations in Kenya and South Africa. It guides people through the decision-making process without prescribing any specific tools.
Establishing a growing resource
One of the issues with any guide to digital tools is that it can turn outdated quite quickly, particularly if it's been produced and maintained in a centralised way. Any list that attempts to be exhaustive is almost set up for failure. Tech and society moves too quickly for this kind of project.
Civic Tech Field Guide is a good example of trying to address this issue by creating a crowdsourced guide. We think that there's potential to take this even further by establishing something between a wiki and a peer-to-peer learning community, where organisers can share their knowledge and learn from each other. This would also allow for cross-pollination between different organisations.
We're also interested in exploring what a guide would look like if we took a digital garden approach to creating a guide. A digital garden is a space for learning in public, a bit more freeform than a traditional wiki. Rather than being ordered by date, like a blog or social media stream, digital gardens are linked through contextual associations in a way that invites explanation. They're a lot less polished than a traditional blog – they're designed to be a space where you can share early ideas that will develop over time.
Taking a holistic approach
Finally, we think that it would be useful to create a space where people can learn holistically about how tools and processes are used for the specific purpose of progressive organising. It's impossible to separate social processes and structures from the technical – the two are intertwined.
Our research therefore is focused on both digital tools and facilitation. We'd like to see more recommendations that make a direct connection between the digital tools and their context, including specific political contexts, power dynamics and organising techniques.
At the moment, our plan is to create an accessible, living resource that might include opinionated guides to digital tech, tailored to specific organising contexts; interviews with organisers on their technical infrastructure, successes, failures and recommendations; and general frameworks on making decisions and advocating for new approaches to digital-social systems.
To give a few examples of certain publishing formats, we imagine that this will fall somewhere between:
- Uses This – short, engaging interviews that explore people's tech set-up.
- Wikipedia – a knowledge commons that is stewarded by contributors around the world.
- Catalyst's service recipes – helping charities and community organisations learn digital strategies from each other.
- Wirecutter – a trusted and opinionated source that only reviews the best in class.
How to contribute
It's important to us that this be a collaborative, open resource that will continue to grow over time. If you're interested in contributing to the project, please get in touch. You can also fill out this short survey on the tools you're currently using.