I’ve been absent from this blog for a few weeks, but in that time I’ve been thinking through and deepening some of the threads I’ve explored here before. Rodrigo Davies and I were recently awarded a prize in the GDN Next Horizons Essay Contest for an essay where we explore how two parallel data revolutions are affecting development programming. First, we posit that the Open Data movement has pushed organizations – governments, non-profits and companies – to publicly share information and allow public scrutiny. Second, we suggest that the increasing availability of free, open source and user-friendly information technologies is enabling a growing number of civic actors to collect, process and analyse their own data.
The essay explores the processes that are being set in motion in the development project “marketplace” by these twin data revolutions. It describes three ways communities and organizations are building on these developments – by organizing and leveraging new resources, creating new narratives, and building collective intelligence – and provides illustrative examples from civic engagement and peacebuilding. We then argue that these new ways of doing things present networked, decentralized alternatives to established ideas, and are beginning to exert some pressure on incumbent processes and stakeholders.
I’ve written about alternative infrastructures as they related to peacebuilding before. In fact, it was Rodrigo’s research into civic crowdfunding that first introduced me to this way of thinking about the effect technology has on social change processes. As we have continued to talk with colleagues in the civic engagement and peacebuilding fields about this idea of alternative infrastructures, it’s become increasingly clear that there is an opportunity to engage with and support the growth of alternative infrastructures into ones that complement incumbent infrastructures. In the essay, we argue that to do so, development organizations must learn to allow communities to shape their priorities about where and how aid is deployed and focus programming on creating an enabling environment for this organic process to happen in a constructive, democratic manner.
That’s what we say in the essay, but I think the issue of alternative-to-complementary infrastructures transcends the development sector. The emergence of communities that want to engage in social change and that leverage technology to organize is by no means restricted to the development sector. Nor is it only the (often exaggerated) tale of protest movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy. From direct investments in US municipal bonds to the rise of new participatory political parties in Spain, it’s becoming the way we can collectively speak truth to power, engage with existing structures of power and shape them with grassroots initiative. It’s an uncertain and radical future – and one we should all be excited to be a part of.