This blog post is part of a series of blogs I’m putting together for my nomination for the Drupal.org board. For this reason it’s more Drupal focused than for a more general audience.
I’ve been fascinated with how people engage with online tools for years, and in particular how non tech people can and will use them.
In Australia from mid December through January organisations pretty much shut down. I’m not attached to an organisation at the moment so I had the freedom and the time to pursue a couple of projects that put some of my passions into action during this time.
I had a few theories about community engagement and technology that I wanted to test, and I was on the lookout for project opportunities that would allow this. The theories were that:
- Communities, both Drupal and non-technical would engage in a remote web build project to support something they were passionate about;
- Non technical people could be quickly upskilled to engage with Drupal, online tools, and the web build process
- Drupal could be configured in a flexible, agile way to build sites in a collaborative way
I put together two projects:
Kalgoorlie Young Leaders – Drupal 8 web build
Kalgoorlie is a remote community about 600km from the nearest city in Western Australia. It’s a mining town with a high Indigenous population. A young Indigenous boy was killed and it caused huge community tensions. Through social media I heard of a young woman that was running a youth summit and two weeks of workshops. I contacted her and simultaneously over the two weeks we built a Drupal 8 site. All up about 30 people contributed to this site build, some technical, most non technical. Participation ranged from hand on to a sounding board of advice and direction if required.
The symbolism for these young people, so physically remote, of people they didn’t know across Australia and the globe coming together to build something to reflect their passion and energy on the ground. I think it symbolical demonstrates that the world is larger than their community, there are people that are kind and helpful, and that technology opens a world of possibilities and opportunity.
The site is Kalgoorlie Young Leaders, it's a potential model for other youth projects. There is a pledge form to support young people that we will have up and running in the near future. The entire site was built in two weeks, including a young branding team coming up with the design, there is also a video of images from the event that someone put to music that was created as well.
Not My Debt #NotMyDebt – Drupal 7 GovCMS web build
The NotMyDebt site build and campaign has been next level and it evolved faster than anything I have seen before. In Australia we started seeing reports of our Government Social Services provider issuing debts to people from years earlier, people were having to go back six years to get payslips to disprove these debts. The timing of people getting letters saying they owe thousands before Christmas was one thing. However, what was quickly uncovered is that these debts had been generated from data matching with the tax department. The problem? The algorithm has been flawed issuing countless false debts, you know you have an issue on your hands when you see the headline “Bludgers And Imaginary Debt: What The Hell Is Happening With The Latest Centrelink Clusterfuck?”
I knew we had an opportunity to use the long weekend to get a site built, and I had a sense that if people didn’t collectivise the issue may not be properly uncovered. On the Friday I knew that if we could get an MVP up by the time people went back to work Tuesday it would be great. Once I’d triggered interest the pressure was on. The fastest way was to use an existing distribution; GovCMS was the obvious choice. It’s accessible and it has workflow and versioning which was important because I wanted to engage as many non techs as possible. I’ll also admit I liked the irony of using a distro commissioned by the Government and handing it over to the people to use.
You might think that this approach is hostile and combative, it really wasn’t, and it’s not my style. From the start this was about enabling the community to support people that had been affected to tell their story and facilitate and boost community discussion; conducting rather than orchestrating.
People within these departments implement the policy and practice they are told to; in fact, Ministers boasted that the system worked as designed. Unless the community shines a light and shows concern it’s easy to sweep these issues under the rug. In Australia the media take stock in perpetuating “dole bludger” rhetoric, it makes it hard for stories and voices to get through; one of the ongoing legacies of this project is the signs I see in shifting this attitude. In the first week of January our shock-jock current affairs outlet did a story; their default is welfare bashing so we held our breath when we hear they were covering. The result? A positive story on the issue and its affect. In Australia you know there has been a shift when this occurs!
Sharing stories is such a powerful medium in providing a voice, connecting people, and it was clear we needed a critical mass of voices to truly get an understanding of the depth and breadth of the issue. Therefore story sharing became a key focus of the site. I thought if we got between 10-20 I’d consider it a success, currently we have 469 and people add more daily. Remember this was a cold site build started from nothing 2 months ago.
I usually build with a developer, but she was away and I’d used a lot of goodwill on the previous project. So this project was a cold build, I didn’t know anyone that ended up being a core contributor. There were a few times where I pulled people into help, or people that offered to help. It was great to work with other people building in Drupal that I didn’t know. I will give a special mention to Nick Wilde, he’s helped me out on both projects with a module feature (coincidently he was the maintainer on an exact D8 feature I needed) and he set up the debt amount calculator from stories submitted – numbers make such a great visual feature on the site. Nick is always positive and helpful and friendly, and it’s a reminder of how much I love working in a team.
Since the site was started the media pressure and social media and political and community interest has continued to build. People continually share our stories, engagement on social media is high, and a number of groups with high profile members have formed in order to fight this issue. Next month a senate inquiry starts into the mess, and we are focussed on supporting people to send submissions and engage in the democratic process in a way that traditionally Australians shy away from - it's interesting stuff.
We facilitated engagement and contribution in a number of ways, by:
- Providing a range of ways for people to contribute. We used google docs to set off the site build, content specs and site structure; anyone could add to or comment on this document.
- Facilitating and boosting conversation – as people started tweeting about this those with passion, skills and a strong interest rose to the top.
- Letting go and handing things over to others – there were times where I could have done things myself, but that was not the point of this. I wanted non-techs to use and test the platform and tools as much as they could; and I wanted techs to contribute expertise and advice.
Success factors to consider when using technology for social projects:
- Technology allows people to drop in and drop out; they can provide skills and expertise that come easy to them and just contribute what they can when they can and then step away
- Technology allows remote collaboration and for people that otherwise couldn’t to contribute. We’ve reduced barriers and as a result most of the people contributing are women, majority come from rural Australia, and a number have circumstances that mean they need flexibility when participating (ie carer responsibilities, illness or disability)
- Technology allows people to drop in and out when they are available, in fact things moved so fast that there was this sense of urgency in the momentum – managing people and making sure they took breaks so they didn’t burn out was crucial (for myself as well) – the investment and ownership generated has been that powerful
- Technology allows for quick connections and speeds deliberation, and reduces barriers to communication.
The biggest success factor in this project is simply the ability to able to open doors to broad participation, and to easily ask people to contribute. On or off line, the main reason people volunteer their time or participate in community is because someone asked them to do something they could do and have an interest in. Even if you need to say no, who doesn’t love having their skills or interests recognised enough to be asked by someone to participate?
This type of site building is about using technology as a tool to amplify community building. The best comparison is to think of it as a series of agile sprints. You get to the minimum viable product by trusting in the people that are participating and giving their time. You have to make decisions fast. As complex as Drupal can be, its flexibility works well for this. As the project and community is revealed you can respond with new content types and sections.
I’ve had so much positive feedback from people involved. I’ve also had real interest from the Drupal community, after all people have dedicated so much time in creating the software, it’s only natural that they have an interest in seeing it used for good. There is always an added enjoyment in developing for a purpose – such as a project you have an interest in built in Drupal 8… To me the Drupal community development is secondary; these projects show a way to give non-technical people an “in” to this world – especially for women.
I’ll leave you with this a story about Amy, she is now managing content on the Not My Debt site. She tweeted a reply within minutes of us starting the site build: “I have no skills to offer (aside from proofreading, probably not useful?) but I'd share the shit out of this.” In actual fact she holds a sociology degree, is an editor, and one of the best content managers I have ever worked with. Within a month the site had over 400 news items and she managed the collation, taxonomy and is creating IA and running the facebook campaign; she had never used a CMS before, let alone Drupal. In two short months her employment possibilities have been split wide open, I could not recommend her highly enough to any organisation. She now has a new career focus, something that she can do remotely or semi remotely, that will pay well and provide her with flexibility for her family. That’s just one person, I could share a bunch more. It's these examples that make these sorts of projects game changers in my opinion.