Aten Design Group had the great pleasure of attending the 14th Annual Allied Media Conference (AMC), a gathering of artists, filmmakers, web developers, grassroots organizers, musicians, and other media-makers working to transform the world through media.
Being part of a company that works primarily with non-profit groups, humanitarian organizations, and media outlets, we felt it would be good to wade out of the familiarity of tech conferences and see what our client base was up to. We walked away with a lot of insight into the creative ways people are putting web technology into use and the common needs that continue to come up.
Bridging the Digital Divide
Web technology, open source technology in particular, plays an interesting and complicated role in the work of organizers. On one hand it gives people the ability to communicate in new and exciting ways, transcending barriers once placed between one another. On the other, there continue to be serious disparities in who has access to the web and the amount of control and agency people have with the online tools that are interwoven into our lives.
One exciting example of how web technology is facilitating communication in new ways is the Between the Bars project. Between the Bars is a blogging platform built for prisoners. Its backend workflow allows people to upload scanned pages of a prisoner’s letter, classify it, tag it, and then publish it. People can then read an imprisoned blogger’s post and make a comment. The prisoner’s support network of family and friends then print out the user’s comment and mail it back to the prisoner. Despite the physical barriers of prison as well as the denial of internet access to prisoners, Between the Bars has generated a creative way for people in prison to communicate in ways that those on the outside are becoming more accustomed to in this age of social media and online communities. Prisoners are able to fight the solitude and isolation that comes with prison, while people on the outside are easily connecting with people they would have otherwise never known.
Another exciting initiative we learned about was the creation of neighborhood mesh networks. A mesh network is a way for people to share wireless internet connections amongst themselves. Presenters with the New School for Design, Work Department, and the Open Technology Institute showed how people in Detroit were able to build a neighborhood mesh network which both improved residents’ access to the internet as well as strengthened ties between residents as well as the techies who introduced the idea.
While there were many other examples of people fighting for justice in new and exciting ways, we also found that there are many challenges and obstacles when it comes to usability and access to online resources. We regularly found that organizers on the ground were largely using a small suite of tools available to them- (ie: Facebook for events, Wordpress.com for websites) while web developers were the ones privy to more flexible tools such as Drupal. Organizers expressed frustration with the limitations of the platforms they currently used, but felt beholden to them because of their ease in installation and use compared to other alternatives. Even tasks as small as registering a domain, securing hosting, and creating a basic website continues to be a laborious task for those without a technical background, leaving them at the mercy of a web development environment that can be hard to navigate. Smaller groups and artists struggle to know how to find a trustworthy developer within their budget or be able to learn the skills themselves to create a website.
At Aten Design, we’ve been thinking about the ways we can help make the tools we use such as the OpenAid distribution more accessible to people who don’t necessarily have a strong background in web development.
In the end, the conference was extremely refreshing. Sometimes we become so immersed in the work we are doing that we can momentarily forget the ways in which these sites we build are impacting the world. Our time in Detroit was a great reminder of why we work with the people we do, and the amazing work they are doing in partnership with us.