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Monday, June 21, 2010

Information Activism: 10 Tactics for Real World Impact


Published in MediaRights.org on June 17, 2010

by Theresa Dawson

10 Tactics provides original and artful ways for rights advocates to capture attention and communicate a cause.
What is “information activism,” and what are the most effective strategies for putting it to work? This question was put to 130 activists from 35 countries at the 2009 Info Activism Camp, a seven-day intensive institute hosted in Bangalore, India by the Tactical Technology Collective, a global NGO created to help human rights advocates use information, communications and digital technologies to maximize the impact of their advocacy work.

The answers to those questions—along with inspiring stories of how information can be translated into action—are now contained in Tactical Tech’s indispensable resource 10 Tactics for Turning Information Into Action. Stephanie Hankey, a cofounder of Tactical Tech, says, “We knew [all the participants] had really interesting stories to tell about how they had turned information into action using digital technologies. We decided to document and explore people’s stories throughout the camp. When we had finished we knew that what we had collected was pretty remarkable.”

What is 10 Tactics?
10 Tactics is a 50-minute film anchored by stories from activists about how they have used digital technologies to instigate real world impact. Equally central to the project are the set of beautifully conceived tri-fold cards relaying tips and advice for planning info-activism campaigns based on examples from the film. While the examples explored are primarily applied to human rights causes, these strategies can be readily applied to any brand of social action activism. The 10 Tactics resources can be viewed and downloaded for free directly from the website, and activists are encouraged to use them to host their own screenings and use the cards as a teaching tool. (For a small fee, you can order a package including a DVD of the film and the full array of cards and support materials. I recommend this; not only will you be providing financial support for this groundbreaking project, but you will also value adding these potent tools to your resource library.)

Since its launch last December, the 10 Tactics film has screened at over 100 conferences and panel events worldwide, and volunteers have created subtitles for the 10 Tactics film in more than 20 languages; the support materials are available in three languages. “We hope these stories can be used to inspire others,” says project manager Tanya Notley. “The video and cards provide the sort of in-depth background information you usually don’t have access to. People have shared how much their digital activism campaign cost, what tools were used, what skills are needed, what the local context was, and exactly what happened. All of this information can be used by other people to develop their own ideas.”

So, what are the 10 Tactics for turning information into action?

1. Mobilize people
2. Witness and record
3. Visualize your message
4. Amplify personal stories
5. Add humor
6. Manage your contacts
7. Know how to use complex data
8. Use collective intelligence
9. Let people ask the questions
10. Investigate and expose

Taken individually, nothing on this list will likely surprise those of us working in social impact media. What is surprising, though, is the generosity of the activists who have shared the nuts and bolts of what they did, the resources they needed, the reach (and the pitfalls) of their campaign and—my personal favorite—the level of difficulty in planning an action of this kind, rated with a level of difficulty of 1 through to 5.

A Level 2 out of 5 Info Activism Campaign
Namita Singh of Video Volunteers offered a very simple, replicable tactic for mobilizing people. She shared an account of how a community-made video on land rights in Gujarat, India, was screened in 25 nearby villages. The result? More than 700 people rallied and filed applications with the local government to have land fairly distributed to them. In a YouTube world where we measure video impact based on the 100,000s or millions of views, it is sometimes forgotten that making an impact means more than collecting web analytics. A more telling barometer is whether a message is taken up as a call to action by those that are uniquely positioned to create change. Singh, who managed the land rights in Gujarat video project, says “Video is a good tool because I think a lot of communities do not have literacy and access to other forms of technology such as the Internet. In that sense, video is a very good medium to reach out to such communities because they see things right in front of their eyes and it really creates a lot of impact.”

A Level 4.5 out of 5 Info Activism Campaign
An example of one of the most difficult projects to replicate—with a level of difficulty rated at 4.5 out of 5—is offered in a detailed case study of how to use complex data to inspire action. Fair Play, Slovakia developed a website that gathers information on how the Slovakian government spends its money, to whom it awards contracts, and data on connections between the companies awarded contracts and the government officials. Zuzana Wienk from Fair Play says, “We learned that contracts were given to companies that are closely connected to the government’s leaders. Soon after doing this, NGOs, journalists, concerned citizens and academics started to analyze the data themselves and write about it. There were very active forums based on these articles. This made us feel it was important to include the public in these investigations.” Fair Play involved an intensive programming and technical phase that might be beyond the resources of many grassroots groups, but it had enormous reach. During the Slovakian funding scandal, the Fair Play website was one of the top three most visited in Slovakia. The Fair Play alliance now offers a unique opportunity for NGOs to receive free database software, provided they can cover translation, transfer and training costs.

These are just two examples from the many informative, illuminating and inspiring case studies presented within 10 Tactics.

A 10 Tactics Contributor’s View of the Project
Sam Gregory, program director at international human rights and video organization Witness, participated in the camp and is featured in the 10 Tactics video. I asked Gregory how he characterized the strength of the 10 Tactics approach. “Diversity,” he replied. “Participation at the camp was so varied, and it drew on local activism examples.” On his return to New York following the camp, he demonstrated his commitment to the movement by representing the film in three panel events at the Open Society Institute; Coup, a space for a coalition of activists and teachers, designers and technologists based in Brooklyn; and at The Tank performing arts space, hosted by Organizing 2.0 and Grass Roots Camp.

The panel screenings of 10 Tactics around the world are conceived to engage local activists and reground the project in local activist movements. Gregory cites the Coup screening as an example of this strategy. “The best part about this event was the 60-minute session after the film where we broke into small groups to discuss the examples in the film and how local social justice activists might apply them in their work.”

Gregory also describes how he is now using the 10 Tactics resources in his work. “It’s been really valuable in a teaching context; as well as using it in Witness trainings, I have also used it in a class that I teach at the Harvard Kennedy Carr Center for Human Rights. It gets a great response from students.”

I left Gregory with a question I had been itching to ask: Out of the ten, which is his favorite tactic? “Well, that’s tough!” he responded. “Obviously I advocate for video-based approaches, but I’d have to say that the mapping and visualization of complex data is powerful. Often in campaigns there is too much data, not too little, and mapping can be a very effective tactic.”

I am inspired by all that I’ve learned from this collective, and keen to start using the 10 Tactics material in my own work. I teach a class at The Jacob Burns Film Center Media Arts Lab called Reel Change for Nonprofits, a course that teaches nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, volunteers, and activists how to create their own advocacy videos. In the fall I will be enrolling a new group of activists for this class and I will also be offering a new class, Reel ExChange for Nonprofits. I can’t wait to start using 10 Tactics in my work, and I am confident that as soon as you see what this resource offers you will join the growing legions of film-for-change practitioners and educators to harness the power of info activism.

Theresa Dawson is a film-for-change practitioner and instructor as well as a faculty member at the Jacob Burns Film Center Media Arts Lab. The Media Arts lab is a 27,000 square feet facility based in Westchester, NY that houses a fully-equipped sound stage, recording studio, workshop space, screening room, and 16 editing suites. The Media Arts Lab mission is to transform what it is to be media literate in a world where digital media is increasingly the way we participate in community, and engage in democracy and the global economy.

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