Marnie Webb—building apps that change the world, one community at a time

By Chris de la Torre

In just days, the Social Good Summit 2013 will ask the question: how can new technologies drive social change on a global scale to transform the way we live for the better? Offshoot events will be hosted in hundreds of cities worldwide, including São Paulo, where Social Good Brazil will link up with the main event in New York and be broadcast via livestream. Meanwhile, The Rockefeller Foundation has launched the 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, where cities will receive support for implementing plans for urban resilience. No doubt, we live in a hyperconnected world where social change via tech is not only essential, but likely, given the players involved.

Marnie Webb is the CEO of Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup Global whose driving force seems to lie somewhere between SGS13 and the Rockefeller Foundation initiative. Caravan Studios “builds tools that help communities organise, access, and apply local resources to the issues that most concern them” because, as the slogan goes, “we’re all in this together.” During a recent Skype chat with Webb she explained how the organization is developing software apps to change the world for the better. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

WINGS: Social Good Summit 2013 is about figuring out how to unlock the potential of new media and technology to drive social change. A few emerging tech spaces that come to mind are Big Data and software applications, both of which seem to be at the core of Caravan Studios, along with Community. Needless to say this resonates big with nonprofits.

Marnie Webb: This idea of data and nonprofits’ place in it is one that organisationally we find engaging, one I find engaging as well, and I think we need to have multiple ways of getting at this issue of how nonprofits can be participants and input devices for big data—how to access it and use it, and then how to genuinely take advantage of it—the tools that they use. from my standpoint there’s not one strategy that will work to move this issue of how civil society can better use data to manage and inform the impacts we want to make. And at the same time there’s a lot of confusion about what big data actually is. It’s a complex issue that’s going to require a lot of strategies working simultaneously to be able to effectively move forward.

WINGS: Caravan Studios’ collaborative approach uses a theory of technology intervention to allow communities to respond to the issues they care about most. What is “technology intervention” in this context?

MW: We have found that there are opportunities for technology to help in communities. First I want to separate the baseline enterprise technology that’s needed for an organisation to function adequately. The focus of our work at Caravan Studios is not on things like backing up your systems effectively or having a robust database with redundancies built into it, or having a solid connection to a working internet. These things are all very important but they aren’t the focus of what we’re doing. Our focus is really where the organisation touches the community, and what we’re very interested in is coming up with ways for communities to organise, access and use any available resources to meet what is most pressing to them locally.

SafeNight is a terrific example of this. It’s an app that allows a staff member at a domestic violence service organisation to request that supporters pay for a hotel room for an individual in need when there’s no available space at a shelter. We’re not building new shelters with it. It’s not another fundraising tool that’s helping the organisation increase its coffers; it’s taking these available resources—empty hotel rooms—and the goodwill of supporters who are providing support to these organisations, and matching it up to a need whenever it happens. It’s organising those resources.

So a technology intervention is something that does that. It’s something that says, hey, here’s a positive deviant that’s going on in this community—whenever there’s no available shelter space, some organisations are putting people in hotel rooms. As clumbsy as it may be this is how they’re reaching out to their supporters to get it paid for. We think there’s an opportunity for tech to help organise this and supercharge it and make it available to more organisations.

WINGS: Technology intervention seems to have a social good aspect built into it.

We’re about technology interventions for social good, and the reason we came up for a small theory of how they intervene was so that we had an organised way to break down the issue and to replay it, so that we can turn it into actionable opportunities for technologists. 9:30 I was talking to someone who is deeply engaged in the issue of feeding youth, and they see this whole entire problem. The problem is we need better grocery stores that serve fresher food in these impoverished districts of San Francisco and we need to teach kids how to grow their own food, and we need to teach them how to cook in the home so they get more nutritious meals. They see the issue from this really holistic response.

It’s hard—you’re not going to make an app that fixes hunger. But we could, if we start breaking the issue apart, make something that identifies land that’s available to plant food on within a community. we could make something that helps highlight places where free food is available to youth, that doesn’t require the intervention of the youth’s parents—a place a kid can show up and get a meal, that doesn’t require that their parents fill out a form. We could use technology to help showcase, like the USDA has, food deserts across the United States so we see what that looks like. But those are all different interventions that are used for different points of describing the issue and identifying the problems and allowing the community to work on the problems.

WINGS: With SafeNight, there seems to be an element of immediacy we wouldn’t necessarily see in education or clean water activism or AIDS prevention initiatives. It’s all about right here, right now. Might some of those principles be used in other spaces that aren’t considered immediate?

MW: Absolutely. The way we break down how we think about technology interventions is the first distinction that we make, and it’s based on a writer named T.D. Weldon, a political science writer from the 60s, and I’m paraphrasing him, but we look at the difference between issues and problems. Issues are systemic ongoing things that require our attention. Hunger, for example, is an issue. Clean water is an issue, health of a community is an issue. It’s never going to get done—we’re never going to check it off our global to-do list. Because there’s always going to be some new reason that there’s hunger.

Those are things best suited for things that can help illuminate and describe it. where we can illuminate the issue so we can effectively do advocacy. Technologies that help with that, like data visualizations and mapping tools. These are great examples of showing what the issue looks like.

Then technology can also be used to help pinpoint problems within that—and those are the fixable things. The problem within hunger is the food deserts. And sometimes that’s mapping technologies and a lot of times it’s reporting technologies. Things like ‘See Click Fix’ – for example, that allows a community to say, “this is what it looks like for us”. A lot of those projects, interestingly enough, often look like art projects to some degree.

And finally there are technology interventions that can allow people to make an immediate change on something. That’s what SafeNight does. There are other issues that we may think of as less immediate that there are still applications of that general principle. Take clean drinking water. Certainly, particularly outside of the United States, there’s a huge immediacy to that issue. But other issues like HIV transmission among youth—a big part of impacting HIV transmission among youth is making sure they get tested, something that youth can often be loathe to do. So making sure they know the places they can walk into to do testing is a vital part of that. It’s about talking about an issue enough to start breaking down its problems.

Part of the process that we go through with folks is being able to break the issue out into component problems and figure out which ones are attackable via technology, because not all of them are. Designing better testing facilities is not something we can help with an app. Pointing to where they are so that a youth can go is something we can help with an app.

The very good side effect and the connection to data is the second you start organising some of these things through apps you start getting great data on it, you start knowing things about it. Right now, coourtesy domestic violence census we know that on one day in 2013 6,818 requests were made for shelter that weren’t met. But we don’t know how many people those requests represent. But once we start organising some of those requests via an app, once we start breaking it down and knowing what the numbers look like, then we start having data that lets us ask things like, do we need a new shelter in this community? Do we need a shelter that better accommodates families in this community? That’s a very real part of the decision making process, and you need to expose those things and make them visible so funding can be more responsive to the realities of the needs in the field, and not just the aggregate a year later.

WINGS: Your work with Caravan Studios is focused, there’s a precision to what you do. What’s your passion, what ties it all together?

MW: There’s this John Cleese video on creativity. One of the things he says about it is that creativity happens when you’ve been resting your mind against a problem for a long time. Organisationally, TechSoup has been resting our collective minds against this problem of how we help communities through nonprofit organisations, impact the things they want with technology, we’ve been resting our mind against that for 25 years, and I have been for most of the 20 years of my career.

I’m lucky to be in an organisation that’s been thinking about this for a long time, and I’m an individual who’s been exposed to it from different perspectives for a long time. And what I am most engaged in with all of that is coming up with processes and solutions that allow the community to own the results and own the knowledge—the knowledge that went into building it and the knowledge that comes out of building it. I also care a lot about using community-based organisations as the institutions to help with that process.

For communities to be genuinely resilient—to be able to prepare for, respond to, recover from a multitude of things, from natural disasters to manmade disasters to economic meltdowns—we have to give them ways to organise what is available to them, whether it’s empty hotel rooms for people suffering from domestic violence, volunteers willing to transport an animal from point A to point B, a skilled doctor that can respond after an emergency, or a financial advisor that can provide advice to a community that’s been hit hard by the foreclosure process. It’s not that the resources aren’t there. It’s about using the tools available to us to better organise them.

More WINGS interviews here. Watch the John Cleese video below.

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