How to Build Tech With, Not For, Movements

In an age of mass participation, how best to make technology that serves good organizing? In this guest oped, Brian Young of Action Network offers some answers.

In an age of mass participation, how best to make technology that serves good organizing? In this guest oped, Brian Young of Action Network offers some answers.

One of the defining features of “The Resistance” to the Trump agenda has been the mass mobilizations – the “marches” – with sometimes millions of people rallying in thousands of locations on the same day. And most people can picture the process: there’s a website with a map, you enter your address, and you can attend a local event or host your own. The result is a collective, networked mobilization, with people “owning” their local event but hooked in to a much broader network, often leading to a big boost in power for a brand new organization, like the Women’s March, or March for Our Lives. It seems so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a beginning for it, but this is the story of that beginning and, even more, a unique development model that centered the needs of movement-building in creating technology.

If you asked people for the first big tech-driven distributed mobilization they could think of in this country, and, if they have been paying attention over the last decade, they might say Occupy Wall Street. And, in many senses, they’d be right. But there are key differences that point to the importance of the technology used in building these. OWS started essentially in one place – Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan – and spread as the message about inequality captured people’s attention, with people starting their own events on Facebook and elsewhere. It unfolded over weeks, with “camps” cropping up in cities around the country attracting hard core activists, loosely connected with hashtags, Facebook pages, some listservs and message boards, and other communication devices. It was inspiring.

And it frustrated the hell out of me. I was just starting development on what would become the Action Network – the progressive, non-profit technology organization of which I am the Executive Director – with the explicit goal of building technology that would provide infrastructure for mass mobilizations like this. Technology needed to make it far easier and faster for people to create events or find the ones near them, it needed to provide ways for organizations of various sizes to work together, and it had to break apart the old campaign-website-focused method of creating campaigns. And it needed to create an infrastructure so that big events like Occupy led to strong organizations going forward.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any money to be made in building something like that at all. You basically need to give away use of this technology for free to the vast majority of users, and you even need to let large organizations use it for free to build the momentum and scale around the technology. Luckily, we at Action Network had some wonderful partners at Change to Win – the labor federation – who saw the need for movement building technology like this, and they gave us money to help build this.

Working with these partners led us to what was, in retrospect, an extremely important decision. We built a strong relationship with the OUR Walmart campaign and the UFCW and decided to build these distributed mobilization tools directly with them. In effect, we built a cooperative around building this platform with Change to Win, working hand-in-hand with the eventual users of the technology to define what it should do. We built a system that could create a tool where people could input their address to find the local event or host their own, and it could be embedded on any website so any organization could put it on their own website with their own branding.

The result was the technology that drove what in many ways was the first of the current form of mass mobilization: the Black Friday strikes and protests against Walmart in 2012. The marriage of the message and organizing prowess of the campaign with the new technology we had built was explosive. Over 1200 events were created at Walmarts around the world and hundreds of thousands of people attended. It was – and may remain – the largest day of worker-led protests in decades in the US and, by some metrics, perhaps ever.

The lesson for us didn’t stop with that particular technology, though. As we were approaching that first Black Friday, we had an epiphany at Action Network: the key lesson wasn’t about this particular technology but about the approach to building it. We had created a funding and development model that truly centered movement-building and the needs of organizers and campaigners. It was a cooperative approach to technology development.

So we widened our perspective. We saw a common pattern where for-profit companies would create technology focused on the needs of the progressive movement but then eventually, inevitably, start focusing on bigger markets. The logic is irresistible and, on its own terms, entirely correct. Focusing on movement technology is limiting your market in an economically indefensible way. There are FAR bigger markets than the progressive movement, so when you have investors to satisfy and returns to generate, you just have to focus elsewhere.

The problem is that the needs of civic technology are often not the same as technology focused on corporate needs. An email system geared to the needs of a marketing department is going to emphasize different things than one geared to the needs of an activist organization.

We saw this market failure to consistently prioritize civic technology and realized our cooperative model and not-for-profit organization was an answer. We set out to complete a full email mobilization toolset and build cooperative partnerships to fund it and guide the development. The result was the current Action Network toolset, now used by a large portion of the progressive movement here in the United States and increasingly around the world. Progressive organizations mobilizing for the election have sent over a billion emails in the last couple of months alone, driving turnout and fundraising in this critical election. And it was built in a cooperative model.

We have been far from alone in this. For example, Laurenellen McCann has argued persuasively for “building with, not for” practitioners. And organizations like OUR Walmart and NDWA are currently building great technology by putting people on the front lines first in building technology. And the list is growing.

We place campaigners and organizers in the center of our development process, working constantly with the people on the front lines to develop the technology. And our funding model is cooperative as well, with some of the most important progressive organizations in the country, including AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, and others, contributing significant funds to our development process and getting a direct say into what tools we develop and how. It’s not a “customer committee” like traditional tech firms create; it’s not just a forum to get advice and ideas but a controlling body that collectively decides on our development priorities.

We built this committee with the deep partnership of the AFL-CIO, our key partners in this enterprise. They were there every step of the way, starting our model with a unique partnership with a vital progressive organization and set up a cooperative development process within their organization as well.

The other organizations using our technology — progressive organizations from small grassroots groups to national, networked organizations like Women’s March, Working Families Party, and United We Dream — contribute based on their use of the system. In this way, we pool the resources of the movement, keep costs low, and ensure that the tech we build meets the specific needs of the movement.

It started as a business/ideological decision, a way to keep the organization focused. It’s also a great way to build technology. As we are increasingly finding as a movement, by developing tools hand-in-hand with activists, we build exactly what our progressive partners need. And our cooperative business model goes hand-in-hand with our development process. The progressive movement collectively owns the future of the Action Network’s tools in addition to the cooperative development model that builds them. By building tools, as Laurenellen has said, “with the movement” instead of “for the movement,” we can create outstanding technology at a fraction of the cost of other development models.

I firmly believe that this is the best way to build core infrastructure in a movement context. It’s not the only answer – it’s not great, for example, at spinning up apps quickly, and it’s best suited for tools that a wide swath of the movement needs – but when it comes to the core technology that organizations build significant programming upon, it provides a stability, an efficiency, and a long-term dependability that is vital.

We’ll be rolling out new tools in the year ahead to meet other core needs of our movement, creating new cooperatives around other toolsets. The needs of organizers and activists will constantly change, and this model can work hand-in-hand with those committed activists to build technology focused on civic society, not profits, building a strong infrastructure for our communities and our democracy.