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July 5, 2004 » 11:23 pm

Advocacy Developers Convergence in San Francisco

I enjoyed the Advocacy Developers Convergence last week, where about 40 super-passionate folks — mostly developers of advocacy tools — gathered in the Presidio to discuss ways to collaborate. Among those represented were Advo Kit, CivicSpace, IndyVoter, Groundspring, Identity Commons (one of three hats I was wearing), and many, many others. Aspiration organized and facilitated the event, and Blue Oxen Associates provided the Wiki.    (1JJ)

While the scope of projects represented — most of which were open source — impressed me, I was really taken by the collective energy in the room. These weren’t your average techies. These folks cared about improving the world, and their passion was palpable. Even the most hardened cynic would have walked away from that gathering with at least a smidgen of hope about our future.    (1JK)

I wore three hats. First, I was there to facilitate Wiki usage during the event. In this regard, I basically did nothing. Most of the people there were already highly Wiki-literate, and the rest picked it up quickly. Second, I was there to help Fen Labalme talk about the Identity Commons system and to identify other potential early adopters. Third, as always, I was there both to share what I knew about collaboration and to observe and learn from others. I was particularly interested in watching Gunner’s (Allen Gunn) facilitation technique. Gunner, who recently took over Aspiration along with Katrin Verclas, used to work for Ruckus Society, and has facilitated a number of interesting events, including several international Open Source boot camps.    (1JL)

Mapping the Space; Emergent Goals    (1JM)

One of Aspiration’s stated goals for the event was to begin mapping the space of advocacy tools. That begged the question: What exactly is an advocacy tool? It was a question most of us conveniently avoided. Some tools are clearly and specifically designed for supporting the needs of grassroots advocacy, such as email campaigns, volunteer organizing, and friend-raising. Several (most?) other tools used by advocacy organizations (such as MoveOn) have multiple applications — mailing lists, contact databases, and so forth.    (1JN)

We never reached a collective solution to this problem, but we seemed to be moving in the direction that Blue Oxen has already gone in determining how to map the collaborative tool space: Map functions (or patterns) rather than tools, and show how different tools can be used for different functions.    (1JO)

The other goal for the event was to identify and pursue opportunities for collaboration among the participants.    (1JP)

Aspiration’s stated goal for the event was to begin mapping the space of advocacy tools and to facilitate collaboration among the participants. A number of interesting projects emerged:    (1JQ)

  • Several people expressed interest in incorporating the Identity Commons protocols into their tools for Single Sign-On and Data Sharing (all with user privacy built-in).    (1JR)
  • An Open Source legislative contact database that activist groups could freely use.    (1JS)
  • Face-to-face code (and other) sprints. A small group is planning a VoIP sprint somewhere on the East Coast later this summer.    (1JT)
  • Internationalization working group, basically a support group for folks internationalizing their code. One of the great things about the attendees was that international representation was reasonably good. There were folks from Poland, Uruguay, and Canada, and people dealing with many other countries.    (1JU)
  • Technical outreach to organizations. Connecting these groups with the right tools, and explaining to them the virtues of open source. A group is planning to use a Wiki to generate a Nonprofit Open Source Almanac.    (1JV)

The challenge with events like these is sustaining the energy afterwards. Face-to-face events that go well are often victims of their own success, because they create a level of energy that is simply impossible to match online. That said, there are certain things that can help assure continued collaboration:    (1JW)

  1. Individual commitment to shared goals.    (1JX)
  2. Group memory.    (1JY)
  3. Shared workspace.    (1JZ)

This group has all of the above. People were super action-oriented. Tasks were getting accomplished on the spot. Requests for information were often followed a few seconds later by shouts of, “It’s in the Wiki” — music to my ears. In general, folks who easily acclimate to Wiki usage — as this group did — are already inclined to share knowledge and collaborate.    (1K0)

Facilitation    (1K1)

Gunner is both high-energy and easy-going. He’s got a goofy, infectious grin and is quick to drop gut-busting witticisms. It would be easy to ascribe the effectiveness of his events to his personality, but that would be largely inaccurate. A well-meaning and amiable person can easily kill the energy of a group by under- or over-facilitating. Gunner has a strong fundamental understanding of self-organizing systems and very good instincts for when to sit still and when to perturb.    (1K2)

Every good event I’ve attended with large groups of people followed MGTaylor’s Scan Focus Act model, and this was no exception. The beginning of these events are always about discovery and Shared Language. Discovery (or “scan”) is inherently messy and unsettling, but when done correctly, “action” naturally emerges. Most bad events I’ve attended are bad because they try to skip this first step.    (1K3)

Each day consisted of several breakout sessions with groups of three to five people, followed by report-outs, yet another pattern of effective face-to-face events. The agenda for the later breakouts emerged as the event unfolded.    (1K4)

The first day began with a game called A Strong Wind, which was an excellent way both to build energy and to get a sense of who was there. Following that and at the beginning of the subsequent days were In Or Out exercises, a way to get a sense of everybody’s mood and to build individual commitment to the collaboration that would follow. The first day, Gunner asked people to describe their moods in one word. The second day, he asked for colors that described their mood. The third day, he asked people to describe the most beautiful place they knew, be it a geographical location (e.g. California) or a situation (e.g. time spent with family, friends).    (1K5)

As a way to accomodate a number of demos, Gunner organized a Speed Geeking session on Tuesday morning. I’m not sure yet whether I liked it or not. On the one hand, I enjoyed the interaction and the energy. On the other hand, it was incredibly draining for the people giving demos (including me), who also missed out on the demos happening simultaneously to theirs. I think the Planetwork Forum model of eight demos — four minute presentations (PowerPoint highly discouraged) and two minutes of Q&A — followed by two hours of unstructured socializing/networking is more effective, but I’m not ready to discount Speed Geeking entirely.    (1K6)

Good Folks    (1K7)

The most important prerequisite for good events and good collaboration is having the right mix of people. I really like MGTaylor’s strategy for achieving this: The larger the group, the more likely you are of having that mix. This group was relatively small (40 people), and I suspect that Gunner and Katrin’s people instincts played a huge role in making sure we had a good group.    (1K8)

I hate to single people out, because I really liked and was very impressed by everybody there. Nevertheless, I can’t help but mention two people. First, I was glad to finally meet Kellan Elliott-McCrea, the author of Laughing Meme, in person. Time and again, I meet folks whose blogs I enjoy regularly and whose work I admire, and I constantly walk away even more impressed with their authenticity and their decency. It’s how I felt when I first met Ross Mayfield and when I met Seb Paquet, and I felt it again when I met Kellan.    (1K9)

Second, I was glad to meet Mark Surman, who’s based in Toronto. Mark founded the Commons Group several years ago, which is very similar in spirit to Blue Oxen Associates. I meet a lot of like-minded people, but it’s a rare treat to meet someone doing similar work. Mark and his group are doing great stuff. They’re an organization folks should keep their eyes on.    (1KA)

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One Response to “Advocacy Developers Convergence in San Francisco”

  1. You’re much too kind, but it was great meeting you as well.

    Also I think you underestimate the effort that went into making the wiki accessible. Gunner and you did a great job.

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