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The Apollo and Dionysus of digital evaluation

What's the digital dimension of non-profit evaluation? We started a discussion a couple of days ago at Charities Evaluation Services where myself and UnLtd World's Dan Lehner lobbed some digital stones in to a calm pool of nonprofit evaluation consultants.

Happily, I work somewhere where social media is embraced as a valid campaigning tool. But the righteous challenge is to hang that off the Planning Triangle in a way that answers the 'so what?' question. Facing that challenge means debating numbers versus stories and investment versus insight. This post lays out some of my thinking in the hope that others will pitch in with some ideas.

At Make Your Mark our specific objectives will be partly delivered by different kinds of digital activity, from buzz building to amplifying events to online community development. And each of these has some plausible metrics that can be drawn from lists (like this one for enterprise social media).

But for me the cross-cutting point of all that activity is engagement. As far as I can see, us digital types have been trying to visualise engagement for a couple of years and have been wrestling for just as long with how to make making numbers out of it. As Steve Bridger said "Measuring engagement is like eating an elephant: it’s a big job and you’re not sure where to start".

I wonder if I and others have become a bit lost in the chimera of measuring engagement. Even the latest thinking from the highly laudable Measurement Camp (if you haven't been yet, you're missing something) feels a bit like a post-reality justification for the purposes of satisfying digital buyers' spreadsheets.

Make Your Mark's purpose as a campaign is to change behaviour, so at the end of the day we need to influence people. The Edelman White Paper on Distributed Influence: Quantifying the Impact of Social Media(PDF) has some interesting pointers to measuring influence, ranging from the Social Media Index (uncannily similar to a spreadsheet we already developing for our own internal use) to the concepts of 'meme-starters' and 'meme-spreaders'. It finishes on the thought that traditional comms activities are amendable to metrics like metrics like impressions, conversations, in-bound links and friends, whereas activites that they call Open Collaboration "will adopt entirely new methodologies that measure based on outcomes".

But how do we track the outcomes. Anyone around Make Your Mark has had those experiences of seeing the light go on for a young person, that moment when they become inspired by the possibility of making their idea a reality. Or, equally as inspiring, has heard the enterprise message authentically expressed by someone like the young people from Moss Side who lack a lot of life's privileges. Social media is the story-engine that shares the feeling of what we do, the shared sense that 'this stuff makes a difference'. (There's a great series of NTEN webinars from the end of last year on Social Media and Storytelling). We can also go beyond this to track outcomes that come about because of social media, such as the schoolgirl who left a comment on the Make Your Mark blog which resulted in the team helping her to set up a MYM Club in her school.

So the trick must come in finding the right mashup of stories and numbers. The inimitable Beth Kanter explores this in depth in The ROI of Social Media where she riffs on the term 'Return on Insight'. What's the technique that converts the Apollonian distancing of neatly printed tables to the Dionysian celebration of shared sensations of change? I think one of the consultants at the CES session cracked it when she said that the lab coats of traditional expert evaluation were starting to give way to self-evaluation and user-led evaluation. Maybe what makes the difference is not just the social media but the people who's hands it's in - when the cameras are held by the young people (as they have been at some Make Your Mark events), where users are making the podcasts and the online communities are as self-managed as Savvy Chavvy - then, maybe, it'll be pretty clear what's working and what the impact really is.

Photo by smithmatt

Non-sectarian Social Media & the civilian tragedy in Sri Lanka

What advice about digital tactics would you give to someone who wants to use social media to help civilians caught in a near-invisible conflict?

I was contacted by a British Sri Lankan who wants to do something positive about the plight of civilians caught up in the conflict back home. She wants to aggregate news and bring people together (outside of allegiances to the Sri Lankan Government or the Tamil Tigers) to come up with ideas about how to address the problems.

She's seen the way that internet campaigns have captured public attention in the cases of Gaza, Tibet and Burma - how the highlighting of inequity makes people want to get out there and protest. I knocked out an email with my first ideas but I'm blogging for more. My thoughts are below; how would you use the power of social media to help?

My ideas:

  • Check out Sri Lanka news on Global Voices, the global blogging project - it's a start for news aggregation outside of the mainstream, and a way to find good contacts
  • Get you and our friends on to Twitter; use search to find other interested people & start conversations; start a hashtag like #srilankacrisis; do some
    coordinated tweeting at a critical moment. (Here's an interesting post by Ethan Zuckerman about following the under-reported coup in Madagascar via twitter).
  • Think through what you want to achieve online; what are your goals? who do you want to reach? how will you know if it's working?
  • If you just want to aggregate news, start with something like Netvibes
  • If you want a space for sharing and collaboration you can use an off-the-shelf social network like Ning
  • For sure, you can't expect people to find you; you'll have to go out and find people in the online spaces where they already are.
  • So, er, Facebook for starters (like the Burma example I linked to in
    A Monstrous Mashup - The United Nations and Social Media)
  • And you can use a tool like Addictomatic to find other places where the crisis in Sri Lanka is being discussed.
  • Decide what kind of digital activism might work for you. Do you want to fundraise? to mobilize? to collect video evidence? Check out the extensive case studies at Digiactive.
  • If there's people on the ground who can help, consider the use of tools like Ushahidi (an open source project which allows users to crowdsource crisis information to be sent via mobile).

My contact also said that lots of NGOs seem to be fed up of working in Sri Lanka because of the restrictions imposed on them by the Government. But if there are ways that social media can help, why aren't these NGOs being more agile about using digital means? Not as a replacement for vital on-the-ground humanitarian aid, but in the innovative style of Ushahidi. I suspect that the truly interesting stuff will come from passionate people like my contact who can catalyse self-organisation amongst the concerned diaspora and others, using the power of social media.

Transparency Tech and Riga Rioters

Suddenly, the workshop on 'Interactive Tech Tools for Transparency' I'm leading in Riga in a couple of days (February 5th & 6th) has been given a sharper focus. On January 14th hundreds of demonstrators clashed with riot police in Riga after an anti-government protest. The disillusioned young people involved, fed up with what they see as arrogant and corrupt governance, are ripe for being reached by pro-transparency NGOs. This isn't just the case in Latvia but plays out in different ways across a lot of the Central and Eastern European countries where the NGOs attending our workshop are based.

We'll certainly be accelerating their pilot projects as mySociety's Tony Bowden (handily based in nearby Estonia) will be passing on his experiences of developing the definitive Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow. But as I found out at last year's Crowdsourcing for transparency launch there's an urgent need to boost the way the NGOs mobilize through social media. This time round they'll have the benefit of Nixon McInnes's Anna Carlson taking them through a buzz monitoring and network mapping bootcamp.

Personally, I'm fired up by the potential of Ushahidi-style transparency engines that can be cloned and deployed in different settings; and by engine I mean both the tech and the collaborative model that it embodies. This Latvian blogger seems to think a clampdown on free speech may follow the recent disturbances in Riga. Certainly, whatever tools & techniques the NGOs settle on will get a reality-check from experienced digital activist Sami Ben Gharbia who knows all about repressive regimes. Fascinatingly the same Latvian blogger refers to an emerging youth movement called The Penguins (Pingvini). What are we to make of the fact that their civil disobedience blog sports the Linux penguin..?

Making History with the Interweb, 2009 to 1649

There's some nice histories of the Internet knocking around, like this animated documentary using PICOL icons . The Internet changes so fast that webheads use the word 'traditional' for stuff we were doing 2 years ago.

And there's an upsurge in people figuring out how to use the Interweb for social change which was my deepest hope when I started this blog.

It seems like the Interweb is ready to make real history, influencing social and political upheavals. But a lot of the talk puts the Interweb alongside Guns, Germs, and Steel; a technical determinism that ignores the cultural history of socio-economic change.

Why aren't people closest to the curve talking about the currents that are resurfacing through the gaps rendered by social media? Maybe Net generation insiders have a narrow perception of what's going on. On the Netsquared blog, Alex Steed questions the narrow conformity of ideas being circulated:

Q: What books have you read this year?
A: Here Comes Everybody, Groundswell, Tribes ... you know - the usual.
Q: Anything else?
A: I've been meaning to, but not yet. Hopefully in 2009! [Nervous, embarrassed giggles]

As he puts it - "Social change has a history. It didn't begin with Twitter, or Barack Obama. I think that 2009 will really be a year in which we go back to the history books in order to figure out how to move forward".

Here's to a history of the Interweb where The Diggers doesn't refer to people voting web stories up and down...

Amplifying the Other - a response to Amplified08

Some events just make you go 'hmmm', and last week's Amplified08 was one of them. A critical mass of UK social media types assembled themselves at NESTA for an evening's unconference, and real cred goes to the volunteer organizers for pulling it together. The declared mission of this Network of Networks is to boost interconnectedness - but that strength also seemed to me to be it's weakness. Amongst the Twittering throng my head throbbed with the question 'Amplify what?'. Amplify creativity? Amplify business? Amplify racism?

Perhaps most of the crowd at #amp08 felt that more connectedness is enough of a purpose, and fair play to that. Robert Putnam's take on Social Capital highlights the collective value of all social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks as a broad societal measure of communal health. But let's not forget that Bourdieu, another pioneer theorist of social capital, emphasises it's role in forming and maintaining elites. Part of my 'hmmm' is to wonder which way is the Amplified 08 - 09 - 10 train is heading.

The other 'hmmm' I have is a frustration that there could be something really powerful in Amplified 09, but only if it's mixed with other ingredients. The voices that really need amplifying are "the Other"; the excluded and the marginalised. I'd be switched on by a social media geek gathering that nailed that mission to it's mast, in the same way that 4IP is digitalising Channel 4's public mission to "champion alternative voices and fresh perspective and to challenge people to see the world differently". So we've had Amplified 08 and we know who 'we' are; let's get out there and mash it up with the outsiders. As it says in NESTA Connect's core beliefs "extreme collaboration can lead to bigger leaps forward".

A bemused bald guy at Amplified 08.(Photo by Lloyd Davies )

Another World Is Possible: submit your idea for Social Innovation Camp

 "Another World Is Possible" - a slogan of defiance and hope, often on the face of overwhelming odds. But at this particular moment in time, history has delivered us the tools to start making it a reality , especially in the gaps left by the Leviathans (corporates, governments, NGOs). Hurrah for the Internets!

At Social Innovation Camp we are asking "What does that other world look like, and how can we use social tech to make it happen ?" At the first camp, people said it looked like a world

- where having a physical disability doesn't mean you have to fill your house with relics from a crimean war hospital, where you can enjoy usable and stylish products like the rest of us: it looks like Enabled By Design.

- where where visiting prison is not a demeaning, family-wrecking experience: it looks like Prison Visits.

The second Social Innovation Camp happens between 5th and 7th of December 2008, and it's your chance to say what an alternative world could look like, because it looks like something driven by your passions, your frustrations: like the social need you feel most strongly about, like the cool tech you know would have an impact if it was released in to the world.

Social Innovation Camp is a vessel for helping to make those ideas happen. We assemble the ingredients, mixing the tribes of geek and social change activist in a space that is itself outside of 'business as usual', a space where all the usual rules are off; you can imagine whatever you want about the possible impact of this digital stuff. The Social Innovation Camp call for ideas closes November 7th, so get your ideas in now.

Photo by Roland Hartig

Austin Tweetup Blood Drive

The Austin Tweetup Blood Drive: nice example of how online tools can be used to organise offline action. Twitter users will know how memes sweep across Twitter feeds - I like the way that's been turned into something real.  (Cred to the We Are Media Project for surfacing this). 

AustinBloodDriveTweetup from Kristine Gloria on Vimeo.

Sizzling Surveillances, Batman - Join the ORG Board!

The Open Rights Group is looking for new Board members (closing date for applications: Tuesday 28 October). As one of the current board I've blogged before about the necessity & effectiveness of ORG (BISH! to copyright term extension and BASH! to e-voting) - since then, ORG has been even more active in protecting our digital civil liberties. Recent top picks include

I'm happy to spend most of my time working on the cool ways that the Internets can be used to make a better world, but we all need to wake up to the multiple threats enroaching on internet freedom. So if you're inspired by the idea of standing up for digital rights  take a look at our detailed job description and apply for a place on ORG's Board.

Footnote: if you're an ecampaigner or you're using the internet for campaigning, don't forget the lessons of history - the rights we've got are the ones we've fought for. (See also eCampaigning for Internet Freedom).

Freedom Not Fear: the Open Rights Group photo-action

Come and join the Open Rights Group this Saturday (11th Oct 2008) as we stage a photo-action in Parliament Square with our friends No2ID . Our action is part of the international Freedom Not Fear day against the total retention of telecommunication data and other instruments of surveillance.

If you can't make it on the day, don't worry; you can still contribute. We need as many people as possible to take photos of stuff that embodies the database state, and the UK’s world-famous surveillance society. Here are instructions for sending us your photos. If you’d like to join the action, email info [AT] openrightsgroup.org and let us know.

The power of the Freedom Not Fear concept comes from linking opposition to technical measures, like blanket surveillance and filtering of internet communications (EU Telecoms-Package) and blanket logging of communications and locations (data retention), to a positive vision of a free and open society.

And the growing reach and scale of the day of action is impressive; one of the organizers emailed me yesterday to say that "in Berlin, things are shaping up really well. We have more than a hundred organizations that call for the demonstration, most of the 100 buses from all over Germany are booked out, there will be a club night afterwards with prominent DJs, films, keysigning parties etc. I am really blown away how this all has developed from a vague idea into an international action. In the Netherlands, they even have three demonstrations (Amsterdam, The Hague and Rottterdam). And we had inquiries from places as remote as Sri Lanka about how to join FnF."

Best online bailout responses? Sarcasm, transparency and taking to the streets.

A thread on the Progressive Exchange list asks "What's the best online response to the bailout?". For my money (heh heh) the star is www.buymyshitpile.com, which reckons we should all benefit from the $700bn rescue deal. Use their form to submit bad assets you'd like the US government to take off your hands.

If you like a bit more depth, the Sunlight Foundation has an awesome dynamic visualisation of campaign contributions by the finance, insurance and real estate industries, showing how they peaked as regulatory mechanisms were being dismantled. Click on the play button to see the visualisation, and roll-over the circles to see the industry sector.

Thanks to Nisha from Sunlight for pointing out that they're pressing Congress to make the legislation public and to let citizens comment and review.  While PublicMarkup.org is an admirable tool for online citizen participation, I don't see the decision-makers taking much notice unless they're pushed by offline action as well. One of the (many) amazing things about the 2001 crisis in Argentina was watching respectable members of the middle classes beating down the doors of the banks during the cacerolazos. If the internet is to have a place in the history of the current crisis, it may well be as a tool to for offline organising.

A protest and cacerolazo in 2002. The large sign reads "Thieving banks - give back our dollars".(Photo by Pepe Robles)

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