Information technology can be used to enhance social change and shift the conversation on social issues, yet assumptions about its impact often remain unexamined due to fast-changing developments and a lack of capacity amongst actors for social change. Stephanie Hankey builds a movement to bring civil society organizations to the next level of effectiveness and thus reshapes the power balance between changemakers and their counterparts and is building a field of ethical, considered use of information for the good of all.
The New Idea
With the Tactical Technology Collective (TTC), Stephanie Hankey changes the conversation about information technologies’ role within achieving social change. Knowing that the challenge is no longer to provide access to technological tools, but to use them effectively, she enables people working for social change to rethink their use of information technology in order to raise the effectiveness of their work, especially the way they use data. Thus, she works to elevate digital technologies’ role from operational support to core tactical functions.
Breaking from the widespread assumption that data and information technologies alone can create social change, Stephanie changes how people and organizations make use of information to reach their goals, in a way that is both safe and effective. Her programs are designed around a human- rather than technology-centered approach, putting the users, their aims and their context first, and then helping them design or apply appropriate tools. Whether in data security or in using data effectively to reframe public debates, Stephanie is building capacity among civil society actors globally through observing trends in information technology usage and translating them into practical tools and solutions that answer the specific needs of changemakers and stimulates the way they learn and adapt. This leads to increased orientation and knowledge, to demystification of information technology, and to empowered civil society actors considering how best to orient their strategies for change to the digital sphere in order to use them wisely and effectively.
Stephanie and the TTC widely spread the solutions they develop through open source models and a close network of intermediaries around the world. In addition, she uses the format of interdisciplinary camps, curricula development and resources such as films and toolkits that she makes available to others in her own field to support a whole field of professionals worldwide, facilitating the space for constant innovation in the area of information usage for social change. This way, she works towards a society where everyone can be an information activist – civil society actors making sense of digital technologies and the power of information for the societal goals they want to reach.
The more society’s reliance on data increases and the more the Internet emerges as the public sphere, the more political participation takes on new forms in that digital space. It increasingly becomes a place where struggles over power and its abuses are played out, where debates on fundamental freedoms and rights take place. With this development, information and its (digital) control becomes an essential element in obtaining, asserting and increasing power and conversely in having in place checks and balances that control its misuse. This is particularly relevant for political actors working on sensitive issues, such as corruption, human rights or engaged in investigative journalism.
Over the past ten years, digital technologies have brought new opportunities for the ways these political actors use data for evidence-gathering, mobilizing, organizing and increasing accountability. Still, people’s ability to use data and digital tools effectively and wisely for constructive social change is at an early stage of development.
If used effectively, information can shift the conversation on critical issues and influence their development. Key to this effective use is to ask the right questions towards the intended outcome and to then come to thought-through decisions on if and how using digital techniques actually makes a difference. This needs to be done with a realistic eye on the possible downsides of using digital technologies to work on sensitive issues, and against the myth that it is the quantity of available information that can change issues. In reality, a critical perspective is needed to think through the actual influence the availability of information and the use of digital technologies can have on an issue. Still though, many civil society groups end up wasting resources or potentially suffering from adverse effects due to the lack of quality of their evidence or the inability to reach their audiences. This situation increases the need to (re-)introduce the paradigm of always considering context and impact first and have technology follow.
At the same time, technological opportunities and instruments progress very fast. Knowledge on how technology is used best for which purposes and with which consequences outdates itself in increasingly shorter terms. Intricately linked to this is the challenge of safety and privacy. More and more, this is becoming an issue for everyone in the digital sphere, but especially for activists and political actors aiming for social change in critical issues with regard to reshaping power balances. They are often exposed to a large extent while trying to use the digital sphere for their causes – leaving data traces that can be used to intimidate or expose them. This is not only an issue for NGOs, human rights lawyers and professional advocates, but for those who become politically active on sensitive issues. In a world where increasingly everyone can be an information activist, the question is how they can exercise that power effectively and safely.
In order to build a basis for rethinking the use of information technology in creating social change, the Tactical Technology Collective (TTC) was implemented in 2003. Unlike other players in the field, TTC does not focus on promoting certain tools or approaches to technology usage, but on the overall question of how digital technologies can be used to advance political participation and social change. Based on a deep understanding of the work of political actors, TTC’s work is about exploring the alternatives of information usage – it is about translating and demystifying technologies, providing high quality approaches, resources and solutions, devising and sharing strategic and tactical best practices and promoting understanding of the possible adverse effects. TTC’s activities aim at two key things: capacity building and learning on the one hand, and fostering connections between innovators and field leaders on the other, both in order to accelerate better information practices and behavior change in the field.
Stephanie has applied her work for protective measures, showcasing the necessity to build the digital security awareness and capacity of political actors, from human rights defenders to independent journalists - in the “Privacy and Expression Program.”
Through the program, TTC build knowledge and raises awareness – i.e. through the provision of short cartoon films aimed at audiences new to digital security issues or through direct training and materials for high-risk defenders working in some of the world's most repressive environments. Secondly, TTC develops and provides resources that aim to help political actors understand the issues and teach themselves about solutions, such as “Security in a Box” – a comprehensive creative commons toolkit on digital security. Two independent evaluations conducted in 2012 and 2013 confirmed that Security in a box is 'the' resource used by all the organizations providing training in the sector and therefore the reach is much higher than direct tracking shows. Third, audiences not aware of the connection of data and security are reached through an awareness-raising format called flash trainings, which Stephanie and her team developed and which they offer at large advocacy conferences.
In order to systematically change the practice of information usage within the sector, more than empowerment through knowledge is needed. TTC therefore runs the “Evidence and Action Program”, through which peer-learning on advocacy and campaigning is strengthened. Two approaches are central here.
First, TTC derives patterns from single cases and looks at which learnings can be adapted and spread to the broader field regarding the planning, collection, analysis and presentation of data. TTC is thus constantly iterating its approach. In September 2013, the book “Visualizing Information for Advocacy” and a complementary film “Exposing the Invisible” will be released and distributed through networks as well as through worldwide screenings coupled with discussions. It shows the common trends, challenges and techniques of having evaluated over 500 cases of data visualization and having run more than 40 workshops on working with data with advocates from around the world, from water rights advocates in Jordan to human rights advocates in Zimbabwe. Previous projects included the building of 10 Tactics, an accessible film and best-practice collection for rights advocates on how to capture attention and communicate a cause, featuring stories, debate and analysis about how groups and individuals are (re-)claiming citizenship from the ground up.
TTC also brings field leaders across professions together to identify emerging challenges to which solutions can be developed and applied broadly. Key to this is to establish peer networks and partnerships across the sector and to convene actors. TTC has hosted eight by-invitation peer-sharing events since 2003 that has brought together over 900 practitioners, leading to more cross-professional cooperation and collaboration. The latest success was an “Evidence and Influence” camp in July 2013, which brought together 120 field leaders working across the areas of open data, investigation, documentation and campaigning and allowed technologists, activists and information specialists from over 40 countries to learn from each other and help to build the field. These events are designed to bring forward the field and to allow for effective peer-learning. Stephanie has shaped TTCs’ role to be a strong network facilitator, bridging the gap between often unconnected professions – technologists, data specialists, activists, designers, journalists and others – in order to foster a holistic picture on current challenges and to enable collaborative innovation.
Last but not least, Tactical Studios is the fees-for-services arm of Tactical Tech which is currently being developed to enable direct implementation experience and learning for the team as well as an alternative to grants funding. Tactical Studios was initiated in 2010 to explore the possibility of Tactical Tech implementing work not based on grants. It supports groups to effectively use information, helping them to implement creative approaches to engaging with and influencing issues and advising and training them on their digital security needs. In 2012, Tactical Studios' clients include Transparency International, Child Helpline, World Vision and Oxfam.
In scaling out and up, TTC has followed a multiplier-based strategy, which primarily aims at organizations and key actors who are intermediaries, community leaders and early-adopters. Stephanie continues to strengthen the network she and her colleagues built because it is central to enabling them to spread their work to the ground and to different regions. In addition, different mechanisms increase TTC’s scale and impact. First, all assets are published with a creative commons license in order to allow local adaptation and translation. For example, an NGO in Mexico adapted the 10 Tactics toolkit and trained more than 2,000 NGOs and activists in Latin America with it. Secondly, train-the-trainer workshops enlarge the network of multipliers and enable indirect growth, for example TTC has an informal network of digital security trainers it has trained across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Third, TTC has built a strong professional reputation and serves as subcontractor to many large networks and organizations, which allows it to constantly reach broader audiences. Lastly, TTC is open to experiment with new formats at all times such as the flash trainings, allowing them to reach thousands of NGOs and activists each year.
TTC is organized as a non-profit with a diversified budget of about 1.4 million Euros. The team is currently made up of 30 staff, consultants and interns in Berlin, Bangalore and around the world. In addition, a board advises regularly on overall strategic questions in order for TTC to stay ahead of current developments. Because TTC has to turn down many demands today, for the next phase of development it will not only be key to further strengthen the ability of staying on top of developments in the shifting environment, but also to systematize distribution and raise the impact through both direct and indirect scaling mechanisms.
Stephanie has worked to strengthen information activism and reduce limits to freedom and expression in the digital sphere since 1998. She was editor-in-chief of a youth magazine and worked as a creative director and producer for a number of London-based multimedia companies and then studied information and interaction design. But she soon asked herself: Did what she was working on in those positions actually play a role for advancing how digital technologies could support social impact? This was at a time when the potential of technology was only explored within the commercial sector. That is why she decided to work with the Open Society Institute in establishing their “Technology Support for Civil Society” Program.
Stephanie's upbringing in a family of entrepreneurs taught her to embrace challenges and to keep trying even when solutions seemed difficult to find, so after spending five years seeing firsthand the challenges faced by civil society around the world in using technology, and finding out that the field needed to support this did not exist, she founded Tactical Tech.
Ever since she has been driving the field of using technological solutions for information activism in the front row, using her problem-solving design based background to innovate in the sector: First as an early-innovator and designer of solutions, then as a field builder and evangelist and now as a critical voice and energetic skeptic in the sector, raising questions whilst providing innovative practical solutions that can be spread amongst a broader community with the aim of solving some of the most challenging problems.