When The Toolbox first started, we set out to gain valuable insight from activists, entrepreneurs, and tool creators around the world about how to empower people to take action. Mideast Youth Founder Esra'a Al Shafei, the subject of our first interview, has been such a prolific leader at the intersection of technology and human rights that we decided to ride her brainwaves a bit more and find out what makes her and her team tick.
TB: Mideast Youth has built a number of platforms and tools to give youth a voice. What platforms, tools, or methods have been the most active, and why do you think they're more heavily used than others?
EA: We find that whenever we build a tool that is more interactive, more visual, and more unique in terms of functionality it increases the chances of visibility and traction. But we also quickly learned that it wasn't enough. These tools have to be coupled with great content so that people can see the potential for what it can achieve, or else they won't use it. For every tool we build, we have to build it around a very specific user case as a showcase for what's possible with it. Our most active tool to date has been CrowdVoice.org. CrowdVoice makes sense of the flow of information on social movements across the web by mining precious content from internet noise. We harness the power of crowdsourcing to raise awareness and deepen insight into the forces of change worldwide. It's open source and we're also working on a better installable version because we believe it can be replicated by other nonprofits for a variety of different purposes, such as curating, organizing, and contextualizing a wide range of issues around their causes and campaigns.
TB: How do you and your team go about determining the kinds of tools you create? What's your process?
It helps a lot that we have direct experience with our own advocacy campaigns and initiatives. This enables us to identify "needs" in the field that are not being sufficiently addressed by other services or providers, so we take it upon ourselves to build it and then find ways to replicate it to as many other causes as possible. Ultimately, we want to multiply the impact of these tools so we can continue building and improving them. Whenever we come across a problem that we think no plugin, framework or service solves, and something that we feel other nonprofits could make use of to empower their work, we make it our mission to bring it to life. Sometimes purely as an experiment like CrowdVoice was at the beginning.
TB: Where do you think technology is being best deployed in social change? Where does it need better harnessing and positioning?
EA: There's a lot of work being done around government transparency and data accessibility. There are entire platforms being built around making sure that information is available and searchable, while also offering different ways to make sense of it (maps, visualizations, infographics, etc.). I believe we can still do a lot better with tools for nonprofits to ensure greater visibility for their campaigns in more visual and creative ways. We come across a lot of nonprofits and movements who still really struggle with that. We struggled with that for years, but now we are in a position to finally be able to build some of the solutions. So going back to our roots as campaigners and improving this is our greatest motivation.
TB: What tech and social change trends do you see shaping the future?
EA: I think there's still so much we can do with mapping technology and interactive design. The internet has a wealth of information that requires much more than just curation now and more around sense-making. We should have better tools that enable that beyond pins, complex visualizations and graphs.
TB: What's next for you and Mideast Youth?
EA: We have a lot of work left to do and various platforms that we will just keep building upon and improving. We have huge plans for CrowdVoice in particular, and can't wait to unveil the recent additions soon! We encourage readers to check out our selection of projects on mideastyouth.com and to feel free to reach out for collaboration.