Advocacy Tech – Civic Tech Field Guide
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Advocacy Tech

Advocacy Tech

Civic tech isn’t neutral. It’s about shifting power – from the many to the few, and from the over-represented to the disenfranchised. Democracy depends on healthy political organizing and space for dissent from those currently enjoying power. We’re interested in tech that can involve more people, at deeper levels.

Organize campaigns


A campaign is how we gather people to shift power. Technology has changed how campaigns operate, for the better (it’s never been easier or cheaper to reach and organize large numbers of people) and the worse (private data has been used to profile voters, and technology is accused of facilitating shallower relationships between supporters).

Campaign tools:

  • Canvassing – One of the key modalities in organizing a campaign is talking to other people. Canvassing apps help organize and optimize that work.
  • Organize events – Digital tools for getting people together.
  • Direct action tech facilitates activists taking action to protest in person.
  • Manage volunteers – Large organizing campaigns have inspired new software products that facilitate onboarding, managing, and leading large networks of volunteers.
  • Email campaign tools – Email is still the main driver of key actions, from petitions to fundraising to volunteer signups. This section includes tools for sending email campaigns that promote civic action.
  • SMS tools take advantage of the relatively high open rate and intimacy of text messaging to reach people with information and calls to action.
    • Peer to peer SMS tools allow campaigns to coordinate and semi-automate one-to-one text outreach campaigns. Although they operate in a legal gray-zone, depending where campaigns acquired their target data, peer to peer texting offers the added benefit of conversational replies from an actual human.
  • Call campaign tools allow campaigns to call through supporter and potential supporter lists, and can also connect supporters through to targets, such as their representatives’ legislative offices.
  • Petitions – Online petition platforms symbolize many of the pros and cons of digital organizing: they can be used to amass huge amounts of support around an issue, but have been criticized as a tactic when groups use them to collect email addresses, rather than deliver change. Some online petitions are never delivered, and congressional staff are skeptical of the tactic.
  • Boycott or buycott – Tech that helps people direct their money away from socially and environmentally destructive companies, or toward good ones. For example, scanner apps that link bar codes to producers’ campaign donations, environmental footprints, or other proxies of note.
  • Fundraising technologies and strategies promise to reinvent donation collection, volunteer tracking, and employer-matching funds.
  • Official campaign apps allow supporters to take a range of actions and coordinate directly with the campaign. (Here, we present a small selection).
  • Distributed campaign platforms provide the digital infrastructure to organize many places at once.
  • Story-based campaigns leverage the power of personal stories to advocate a position (see our Narrative Technology section for more).

We also maintain a collection of discrete campaigns, specifically those with a strong tech or civic tech component.

Campaign organizations are groups that regularly plan, incubate, and launch campaigns. We follow some of them here.

Watchdogging and transparency


Technologies that seek to provide greater visibility to the activities of governments, corporations, or individuals in power and allow others to monitor them.

  • Freedom of Information tools simplify the interface for filing freedom of information requests.
  • Budget explorers help citizens understand where government funds — and their tax contributions — go. They’re usually visual, and sometimes interactive, helping people become more literate in the budget-setting and expenditures process.
  • Promise trackers leverage tech to enunciate political promises (often made during the campaign period) and then audit the degree to which the politician or party has or hasn’t fulfilled these promises while governing.
  • Whistleblowing tech helps encourage and protect people who take great risks to expose illegal and unjust behavior to the press and/or the public.
  • Consumer watchdogging efforts use tech to bring transparency and accountability to private sector actors.
  • Civic lobbying projects track, visualize, share, and otherwise make public the story of interests lobbying for government influence. We also track projects that seek to make access to lobbying government more equitable and participatory.
  • Social and financial connections tools track and expose the entanglement and interconnection of elites.
  • Report cards and audits provide systematic analyses of the status quo: is it working? How well?

 

Activism aggregators


How can you help? Where can you take action? These sites and wizards connect your desire to make an impact to active channels for participation. Many of them were launched to keep track of widespread resistance actions following the US 2016 election.

Learn more

Advocacy Tech Suggested Readings

Campaign reading

  • The Exit Interviews: “The people behind the 2020 primary’s biggest digital moments share lessons learned + the tactics that changed the game.”
  • Activism in the Social Media Age: On the fifth anniversary of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, Pew Research Center how Americans view social media’s impact on political and civic engagement (2018).
  • What is a digital department? (And why 350.org doesn’t have one). Hanna Thomas writes a piece that epitomizes a trend towards dismantling the digital department in the hopes of diffusing digital skills and systems throughout the entire campaign organization. (2019)
  • In When It Comes To Fixing Politics, Tech Needs A Reality-check, Cheryl Contee, Josh Hendler, and Julie Menter unpack why Silicon Valley has failed to grok the political tech market. (2017)

Direct Action

Relational organizing

Peer to peer texting

Canvassing

  • A new model known as ‘deep canvassing’ is being tested in the swing areas of Pennsylvania. Micah Sifry provides an inside look in The American Prospect (2020).
  • Organizing for Action (the surviving part of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign following his election) has shared their canvassing guide (PDF), which includes information about why campaigns canvass, tools, persuasion scripts, and more. By Kunoor Ojha, Aram Fischer, Tom Liacas. (circa 2009)

Events

Petitions

Watchdogging and Transparency reading