On February 16, former President Clinton and 200 social innovators, technologists, entrepreneurs and philanthropists gathered at Ford Foundation for the Wired for Change event to discuss how to create an innovative and equitable digital future.
A good overview, including archived “live blogging” posts, can be found on Jillian C. York’s website.
The following is a brief Q&A I conducted with one of the lucky attendees, Jonathan Eyler-Werve. Jonathan is a journalist, designer and social entrepreneur, who works as Director of Technology and Innovation at Global Integrity. He’s currently working to make the Indaba platform, a beautiful tool for NGO fieldwork.
Monika Kerdeman: So, you were one of the lucky 200 people who attended the event. Can you explain your background and why this event is important to the work you aim to achieve at Global Integrity?
Jonathan Eyler-Werve: I’m the project lead for the Indaba fieldwork platform, which is an online tool that aims to make it easier for distributed organizations like an aid agency or an NGO to collect information and publish it. I sent Wired for Change an email and said, “Hey, you probably have some practitioners at this thing” and they agreed.
I’m a policy person by training, and I wanted to be in a role where we could grapple with big systemic questions. I ended up in public interest journalism. At my first job, my team needed a simple database set up, so I spent a couple hours reading the help files for Microsoft Access, and I put it together. This is a dangerous thing for a reporter to do, because these databases are really useful, and pretty soon I was doing more work on the backend stuff—figuring out how to tell stories—than I was reporting. Ten years later, here I am.
The Wired for Change event is essentially that conversation all over again, at a civilization-scale level. How does information drive good, progressive change, and what interventions can we take to enable or accelerate that? But intervention is a late-stage discussion, and this event was often more foundational. What does the present look like? Who wins and who loses? Are we OK with that arrangement?
MK: From your perspective, what are the critical barriers that have traditionally been overlooked?
JE: I am skeptical going into technology discussions because there’s such a disconnect between rhetoric and reality. It can seem like dueling straw man arguments where technology will save democracy or destroy it, which it totally might, but not for the reasons you get on CNN. So I was ready for anything.
As it turns out, I was really blown away with what the Ford Foundation chose to put on the agenda. They pointed at essential, under-the-radar issues: how to keep the Web open and interoperable; why U.S. broadband duopoly happened and what the consequences are; the crucial difference between regulating pipes and regulating content; the role of institutions (government and corporate) as gatekeepers to information and what we can do to fight that.
These are infrastructure for democracy, and it’s a problem that has been around for a long, long time. At the founding of the United States, there was a raging debate between pragmatists, who argued that the U.S. Postal Service should give newspapers deeply discounted mailing rates, and the idealists, who believed that the USPS should carry newspapers for free. Likewise, the founders insisted that mail service should go all the way to the frontiers, because you just can’t run a democracy without cheap, unrestricted and diverse sources of information. Same issues, new platforms.
MK: How do you think organizations, funders, social innovators and philanthropists can work together to overcome the silo barriers that exist in sharing technology, information and other things?
JE: I think that Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, is kicking the anthill here. He’s trying to start a conversation inside other foundations and within Ford itself. This was a culture change event. Luis is an interesting guy, hired from McKinsey & Company, where he helped media companies think about their new realities. Luis spoke near the end of the need to get technology out of the “overhead” silo and into the strategy conversation, which is essentially giving foundations the same question that newspapers are flailing with: the ‘net changes everything; how will you change?
This sounds like a really good conversation to have right now. And they’re starting with good people and the right questions. So I am on Team Luis. I am in.
Ford invited really good people too: Yochai Benkler, Tim Berners Lee, Gigi Sohn at Public Knowledge, the Global Voices folks, the Mozilla Drumbeat people. Giving them a timeslot next to Bill Clinton is probably more uncommon than people realize.
MK: Do you think the ideas discussed pertain to people around the globe or did they focus on solutions for the developed world, which operates in a different vacuum for tech needs and capacities?
JE: I think these questions are very broad and can be applied in a lot of places. There are winners and losers. There are people who are included in conversations about regulation, about restriction of expression, about terms of service, and there are people who are left out. These aren’t technology questions, which we see all the time at Global Integrity. The process is broken in really similar ways in both the rich and poor countries.
I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to have a conversation that shifted between Internet censorship by the Egyptian government and censorship on U.S. school and workplace networks without pausing. It’s the same questions of individual freedoms, institution controls and technologies that might tip the balance of power to one side or the other.
MK: As a member of the NGO and civil society community, as well as a social entrepreneur and technology innovator, is there any advice you would like to provide to funders to ensure the needs of the people on the ground are met?
JE: This needs to be a conversation. There is a movement out there of people who want to see technology serving and expanding democratic participation, improving social services, bringing justice. It doesn’t have a name, but it does have email lists (e-democracy.org, for instance) and meetings (usually with “Camp” at the end of the name) and people the movement respects and takes guidance from, like Tim O’Reilly.
The first thing funders should recognize is that these people don’t want or need money. The second is that this movement can be really useful in getting money allocated to the right projects. This is going to be opportunistic. This is going to involve taking risks on things that are half-baked. It will involve trusting really smart people to respond to emerging opportunities. A funder who can live in that world, go to the meetings, contribute on the message boards, without doing harm to it, would be a powerful ally. MK: From the info presented, what shocked you the most?
JE: Well, having John Hodgeman dropping a reference to “Rube Goldberg porn videos” was unexpected. There was a spirit of humor and whimsy to this event that I really enjoyed. If this stuff is boring, you’re doing it wrong.