Podcast Episode 7 — Emily Jacobi: Creating tools to defend human rights

by | January 10, 2022 | Podcasts, Tech for Good, Tech Matters Podcast

MAPEO used during a workshop with Alianza Ceibo, Amazon Frontlines & Digital Democracy in Ecuador.

Emily Jacobi

Emily Jacobi is the co-founder of Digital Democracy, a non-profit dedicated to empowering marginalized communities with the support of tech tools. Among other things, Digital Democracy has been working with local partners from Haiti to Peru to track cultural and geographical data, which was then used as legally effective testimony against harmful corporate practices. Key lessons: co-design and accompaniment; the effectiveness of mapping one’s political and cultural presence; the power of data (sovereignty).

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Jim Fruchterman [0:0]

Welcome to the Tech Matters Podcast, an audio series about digital technology and social entrepreneurship. I’m your host, Jim Fruchterman. Over the course of this series, I’ll be talking to some amazing social change leaders about how they are using tech to help tackle the wicked problems of the world. We’ll also learn from them about what it means to be a tech social entrepreneur, how to build a good tech team, exit strategies, ethical use of data, finding money, and making sure that when you’re designing software, you’re putting people first.

Emily Jacoby is one of the founders of digital democracy. Their goal is to help address human rights issues by educating people on the use of tech, as well as designing and developing software that avoids the pitfalls of mainstream technologies, for example, where data ownership is concerned. One of the things I’m most interested in is how digital democracy co-develops its tools so that communities can use it to keep a record of their experiences and their traditions, with the result being wholly under their ownership rather than flying into the hands of some third party.

Emily, welcome to the Tech Matters Podcast!

Emily Jacobi [1:08]

Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be here.

Jim Fruchterman [1:11]

Well, I’m looking forward to our conversation. And obviously, let’s start with a founding story. What’s the mission of Digital Democracy? And what motivated you to start a nonprofit tech company?

Emily Jacobi [1:23]

The mission of Digital Democracy is to work in solidarity with frontline communities around the world to use technology to defend their rights. And, it’s a great question of what motivated me, because one thing I thought I would never do is start a nonprofit. And another thing I never thought I would do is work in technology. And yet, here I am, but you know, things work out the way they’re meant to.

When I was in middle school, I was able to join a really amazing nonprofit organization that served young people and taught young people how to participate in the media. And that was called Children’s Express and it later evolved into Y-Press, which was the chapter we had in Indianapolis. At the age of 13, I actually got to go with a group of other young people to Cuba on a journalist visa, and I got to attend the Congress of the Young Pioneers, an annual gathering of young people from across Cuba; I got to hear Fidel Castro give a “short” two-hour speech [laugh] And I just spoke to all these young Cubans from across different areas of life. And, as a 13-year-old, I had this huge “aha” moment of the way that politics and my own country’s policies could drastically impact the lives of young people in another country. I started to understand about human issues and human rights issues. So it really kind of gave me a shift in my trajectory. I still cared about the environment, but I also started to better understand how linked human issues and social justice issues are in the world.

I worked kind of towards a career globally; I ended up studying international relations in college. And then after college actually worked for that same nonprofit organization, for Y-Press. As Assistant Bureau Director, I got to be mentored by the amazing Executive Director Lynn Segal, who is the reason why I thought I shouldn’t do a nonprofit because I saw firsthand how hard it is [laugh] and just how hard she worked. And the benefits too, though, for the young people who got to participate and really got to experience firsthand having a voice in the media, an area that normally marginalizes young people’s voices and maybe gives them lip service or talks about teenagers and what they’re up to, but rarely talks to teenagers themselves.

Those were some of my early grounding experiences. I ended up joining a group of people that I got to college with in my mid 20s, and we were doing a research project in Southeast Asia. We were on the Thailand/Burma border in refugee camps, meeting with women’s organizations and other young people and we were interviewing them. And in our interviews with over 100 young people, we found a strong correlation between Internet access and political engagement. The young people who had access to the internet, even if that was walking two hours across the refugee camp to get to a cybercafe, they felt more hopeful about the future, they felt more connected to their fellow refugees, they felt like they had more of a chance to actually have a better life and a better future for themselves. And so that was the “aha” moment for me that led to looking at technology.

You know, I was part of the Facebook generation, we got Facebook when I was in college, and kind of the early days of YouTube. All of these new technologies were starting up and I’d seen how they affected my life. Of course, I was a US citizen, but to see that even at play at a refugee camp and these really remote areas really made me think technology was very important to pay attention to.

After I did a year and a half of research, I co-founded digital democracy with my colleague, Mark Belinsky, who since moved on to many other endeavors. He came from a computer science background, so I brought more of the kind of human rights and journalism and media background, he brought the technology background. And together, we were getting from local organizations who wanted to create a website, or wanted to better understand cybersecurity, or wanted to learn how to use digital tools to communicate their story.

Jim Fruchterman [5:46]

So, basically, a technology capacity building nonprofit.

Emily Jacobi [5:50]

Exactly. And in fact, and this will be interesting for us to talk about, we explicitly were not interested in building technology tools ourselves. We thought, there’s so many tools out there, the last thing we need to do is build another tool. What we really need is to help the local organizations navigate which tools to use and how to use them effectively. And that’s what we did for the first five or six years of the organization, we worked on a lot of different capacity building projects.

Jim Fruchterman [6:16]

Well, you know, that’s 80 or 90% of technology use, using the off-the-shelf tool, so it’s a great place to start. So you’re doing all this kind of capacity building work for five or six years. And then… what motivated you to leap off into the deep end and actually start developing technology?

Emily Jacobi [6:35]

It was quite the evolution! A couple things happened. One is, we had a project that went in Haiti; we were doing actually photography training in Haiti in early to late 2009 / early 2010, when our team members were all of a sudden in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck. We ended up getting very involved in the humanitarian technology response to the earthquake and supporting the OpenStreetMap and other things.

We ended up getting particularly involved with a Haitian women’s organization that was dealing with issues of gender-based violence that have really increased due to the earthquake and due to people living in displaced persons camps. We ended up with them setting up a call center and helping them kind of address the situation firsthand. And through multiple years of accompaniment, we really saw the greater impact that technology can have when it’s integrated holistically into all the services they were providing. They were providing legal support, mental health counseling, and so on, and the technology they ended up describing as kind of the central spoke that powered all of the other impacts they were having.

Jim Fruchterman [7:44]

Before we go there, you used the word “accompaniment”. And that has a meaning in the human rights field, but most people don’t know what that signifies. Could you briefly say why that was an important way of how you did your work?

Emily Jacobi [8:00]

Yeah, so, our team is now very global. But you know, historically, the people who could afford to work at Digital Democracy and in small nonprofits like us are people who are coming from a more privileged background and are coming from, frankly, a place of more power and more access. So we are, you know, English speaking, we are often college educated, we have some financial stability that have helped us work for very low wages at nonprofits. And we’re often working with partners that are local organizations that often are unfunded, that are really representing local communities.

For us, paying attention to power dynamics has always been really important, so accompaniment, for us, first and foremost, means working at the invitation of local groups, really being invited in. When they see a specific need that they think we can help fill, we will do trainings and workshops to help meet those needs. And yeah, I think it really is drawing from the human rights framework of understanding what are the broader factors at play and how we as allies and accomplices can help them meet their broader goals.

Jim Fruchterman [9:10]

Well, I really appreciate that because Benetech’s human rights program was an outgrowth of a non-violent accompaniment project with the University of Michigan to El Salvador during its civil war. So, not an unfamiliar story, but I learned about that through the people who had been influenced by being there, who were along with the journey, as opposed to leaving the journey or, you know, had this different vision of power. So anyway, let’s go back: You’re in Haiti, you’re working with a gender-based violence group, you’re doing a lot of technology work and… continue the story, please.

Emily Jacobi [9:49]

Yeah, so a couple of different factors were happening at that time. One is, even though we were in an urban center, Port-au-Prince, our partners were still dealing with issues of the power constantly going out, and lack of access to Internet. Often they would have access to basic mobile phones but those would depend on people having credit on their phones, which, when you’re living on $1 a day, isn’t always so possible. I was really starting to see firsthand that some of the challenges were around access, even in places where there is technically internet and mobile phone service.

Secondly, we were starting to do work in Chiapas, Mexico. We’d been invited to do work with some Mayan communities that really wanted to create maps of their territory because they were being threatened with eviction from the government authorities. In one of these, you know, strange turns of events, these indigenous people were being pitted against the Ministry of Environment because the Ministry of Environment’s perspective was that the territory where they lived. in the jungle, needed to be empty of people in order to protect it from a conservation perspective, which is a very outdated perspective that I think has been increasingly debunked. But you know, at the time, some of the neighboring communities had been actually evicted at gunpoint and moved to city centers where they were immediately robbed of everything they owned and just forced into destitution. 70% of the women were forced into prostitution, and just really terrible human rights outcomes, all supposedly to protect the environment.

So we were doing this work supporting them with mapping, but we realized there were two options. One option was to take in the usual tools that mapping experts might use, like ArcGIS or QGIS, if you wanted the open-source version, which is a wonderful tool that requires multiple years of training to use. Certainly not something that’s empowering to a local community, most of whom have never even used a computer, to be involved in that process. And we were getting more into the participatory mapping world, we’d done mapping as part of many of the different projects we’ve worked on, but I was really seeing some of these gaps and thinking there’s got to be a better way for local, particularly indigenous, communities to be able to do maps more themselves.

At the time, I got introduced to a man named Gregor MacLennan—you know him—he lived in Peru for many years working on participatory mapping with indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon. He even co -founded with some Peruvian and other British folks a local group called Shinai, that was working for many years in Peru on indigenous mapping. And at the time, he was living in San Francisco working for Amazon Watch doing really great campaigning work, but was seeing the gap in the campaigning work of how much the local groups were dependent on outsiders to tell the story. And he felt like, there’s got to be a way with all these technological advances, for local groups to do more of their own data gathering and to tell their own stories more directly.

We met up, we talked about it, we realized we were really looking towards the same thing, and our joint experiences led to something far greater than either one of us could have done on our own. We wrote a grant proposal, it didn’t get funded. We tried it again, it got funding from the Knight Foundation. We got a News Challenge award, and that enabled him to join our team. And in 2013, our Board of Directors even voted on it, we intentionally said, okay, we’re gonna try tool-building. We’re going to just experiment a little with off-the-shelf things to see if we can do hacks to make existing tools work better offline. And now, fast forward eight years, and we have a whole platform that works offline that we really co-created with our local partners and that enables our partners to create maps offline and create their own data sets and really manage the data themselves, even in places where there’s no internet connection, no mobile phone connection, and the only power comes from either solar panels or a generator.

Gregor had worked with one particular community, or a set of communities in northern Peru; there was a platform called PUINAMUDT, and it’s a gathering of four different indigenous nations that each live along four different river basins that all flow into what becomes the Amazon near Iquitos, Peru. And for more than four decades now there has been oil drilling in those areas. And because it’s very remote, the government hasn’t been able to really provide any oversight and the oil companies are responsible for submitting regular reports on how things are going and those reports are generally glowing: “Things are going fine. There’s no spills, everything sparkles, everything’s great, and here’s the money you’re getting for it”. And then you know, come no questions asked, that was the status quo for a long time. And of course, that wasn’t the reality on the ground. You know, pipelines break, they just do, there are spills that happen. And the Amazon is very fast, so, the spills might be happening over a wide distance, but the pipelines all correspond to the river flows, so the oil was getting into the water which is the same water that the local people use to drink and eat, wash their clothes, and fish, and that the animals drink from as well. There were really high rates of cancer. I know many people who’ve lost their children, due to oil spills and to that contamination.

A lot of the leaders from these communities were saving up money so they could make the three-to-four-day journey to Lima, and then going outside of Parliament and trying to tell their testimony and their story. And they weren’t being listened to, for probably a whole variety of reasons. But they just were basically being ignored. And they could be because there was oral testimony versus the reports that the oil company was turning in that was in a format that could be understood by politicians.

So my colleague, Gregor, long before he joined Digital Democracy, and a colleague of ours, a professor from Spain, from Barcelona, who was working on this, they were invited in by the communities. They said, we need a better way to gather data about this, we need to actually have data that shows these problems because the government’s not listening to our oral testimony. And so, they set up an initial system. And throughout the more than 10 years of all this work, I think it’s been more than 15 years now, we’ve gone through many different iterations, but they started with GPS devices and basic digital cameras, going out collecting those points, gathering the data on where the oil spills were, putting those together into reports and giving them to the government.

But imagine how complicated it is to get a bunch of GPS coordinates, you have maybe paper notes about the observations, like what each coordinate correlates to, you’re taking a picture on, a different device, on your digital camera… As you can imagine, it just became a database nightmare when you’re working with people who’ve rarely used a computer before. They’re using laptops—laptops often fail in the jungle where there’s high humidity. And so, you know, some data was being collected, and it was starting to make an impact for the government, but there might be six to 12 months turnaround between gathering the data and actually getting it to the government, which is due to how hard it was to travel locally and requiring some sort of outside expertise to come in. And it’s outside experts to come in like Gregor and Marty to get the data together. And when Gregor and Marty would visit once every six to 12 months, they would just find a file full of GPS devices here, GPS points here and a file full of photos here and trying to figure out what matches very complicated and difficult. So, we really saw a need to make a system that would be simpler for them to manage themselves.

Jim Fruchterman [18:30]

Were these like shadow reports to the government? Did they end up with being used in litigation?

Emily Jacobi [18:36]

I think in those early years they found one parliamentarian who was willing to listen and who was willing to look at the reports that they were bringing. In 2013, actually the same year we began to formally work on this project, we ended up going in and doing quite a few workshops and trying to help streamline the process. We ended up using ODK later (Open Data Kit) on the Android app. But before that, we were just trying to streamline the photo and GPS collection and trying to better understand what the real needs were and what the pain points and challenges were for the data collection. And that year, we were able to help them put together a few reports with data that we could for sure prove, you know, these GPS points correlate to these images of oil spills, and these observations. Then, they got a couple of parliamentarians from Lima to come, they flew in and they went to verify themselves the information. That was a watershed moment. The government declared a state of environmental emergency for this area, even though it had been going on for decades, you know, when they finally came and saw themselves, you could literally—I’ve done this—you can take a stick and stir it in the water and just see the oil, like the film on it. You would never drink that water, you would never put your foot in that water. And so, it made a big difference, and that really inspired us to keep going.

Then, over the past eight years, we’ve now evolved to the point where those same partners are using our app MAPEO, they can go and they can take a photo, a GPS point is gathered automatically through the app, they can write down their observations all together, you know, can’t be de-linked, it’s easy to use, they can then sync that information between each other. So, from village to village—the natural flow of things is often they’ll have different monitors in each village, which are along the river, so one monitor might see the other monitor who’s at the next like village down from them quite frequently, but that particular monitor might not make it all the way to Iquitos where there’s internet connection more than once a year. But through just the natural flow of trade, they can share information back and forth, get to the place where it is they do have internet access, gather all of that together, and be able to then share more timely reports with the government.

Just in the past… let’s see, from a 10-month period of late 2020 into spring 2021, they submitted more than 36 different reports in a timely fashion to OEFA, which is the government agency in Peru that monitors oil spills, and were able to get immediate responses from that government in a way that just has never happened before thanks to having the tool that allowed them to do it.

Jim Fruchterman [21:40]

So there was this journey where they were ignored for decades, you started collecting data in sort of this awkward sort of gen-1 kind of way, but something they could actually do, but depended on outside experts, and now it sounds like they have a tool to collect data, they do reports and they get redress from the government without needing a lot of your involvement!

Emily Jacobi [22:08]

That’s exactly right. The Peru story that I told you of the oil spills is really what led to one of the key features of MAPEO mobile, and the data collection, but simultaneously we ended up getting involved in Peru at invitation of the Waorani people who are in one of the indigenous nations in the Ecuadorian Amazon. And they invited us in alongside two NGOs, Amazon Frontlines which is an ally-led organization based in the western Amazon, and then Alianza Ceibo which is an amazing alliance of four different indigenous nationalities including the Waorani nation. And they invited us in to help with mapping partially due to my colleague Gregor’s deep experience with participatory mapping. We had just tested the earliest version of MAPEO, we weren’t even calling it that yet. But the offline mapping tool for our partners, we’d just tested it in Chiapas, Mexico, and they invited us to come and help them with a process.

They knew bad things might be happening in the future, but at that point what they were dealing with is almost a million acres of territory that’s still intact, and that’s under their sovereignty. However in Ecuador, like many post-colonial countries, you might have the land rights to the land but you don’t have the mineral rights to what’s below the ground. The government is supposed to do consultation with local groups before selling those mineral rights but we know that consultation, especially for remote indigenous communities, doesn’t always look as fair as we would like it to.

So they had gone and recently seen oil drilling in other parts of Ecuador and were astonished by the negative impacts and how it had just decimated communities, similar to what I was describing in Peru, just across the border. And they had looked at the government maps, which were just big green areas, because there are no major roads in Waorani territory, there’s no roads at all, for the most part. There’s no major cities, they had a few settlements down, and otherwise it just looks green and empty here, so if you stick a few oil wells in, what’s the harm really going to be? It’s a million acres, what bad things can happen?

And so, what they told me is that they wanted to create a map full of things that don’t have a price because they wanted to show the enormous impact that oil drilling might have if it were to happen in the future. We were invited in 2015 and we started doing village by village workshops, we started with pen and paper, always the most accessible technology, you know, you don’t even have to be literate to be able to draw what’s important to you. And I will tell you, yes, these are people who, for the most part, had never seen a modern GPS app, and yet in their heads have the most incredible knowledge of their territory. I watched once, we were doing a workshop in one village and a man from a nearby village had come by. There were like 12 people working on this big set of butcher block paper, drawing their rivers and what they wanted to go out and gather data with GPS about. Because he wasn’t from that village, he wasn’t working on that map, but he just had his little notebook, and it was about four-by-six inches. He drew the most detailed visual overhead of his community—the community itself was like a pinprick—and all of the rivers and streams that went by all the nearby mountains, etc. he had that in his head. I later looked it up against an aerial map, and the accuracy is just uncanny.

So anyway, they have this knowledge. It’s more about figuring how they want to translate that both internally and then to the outside world. So, with Waorani communities, we did the second prototype of MAPEO desktop. And what we would do is they would set up a projector in the local village, people would go out with GPS, collect the data of what they identified as important, bring it back, hook the GPS into the computer, MAPEO desktop would load it, and people could see in real time as all the data points sprung up against the satellite imagery we were using as background. And then they could say what they wanted things to be labeled in their own language. And you know, all this came together. Over the course of three plus years of mapping, they developed over 150 of their own custom icons, and they really did achieve that goal of creating a map full of things that don’t have a price. They mapped over 400,000 acres of their territory.

Jim Fruchterman [27:00]

Wow. And so when the government says, what’s going on here, they pull out their map and say, there’s all this stuff here. And it’s valuable to us. And no—we don’t want to sell it.

Emily Jacobi [27:13]

Yeah, and during that time nothing was really going on, and then all of a sudden—we started in 2015—in 2018, the government announced a new round of oil concessions and it included block 22, covering western Waorani territory, almost, not quite, but like 80% overlap with the area that they’d already mapped as part of our project together.

Amazon Frontlines launched a legal case—they have amazing lawyers on their team—and they launched a legal case to argue that the government had not adequately gone through the process of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). And they used the maps in court because they actually petitioned to have the judges come to Waorani territory, which I thought was a brilliant strategy. It didn’t work [laugh] the judges did not leave there. But the maps then became the next best thing to translate that. There was a court case and in early 2019 the local regional judge did rule in favor of the Waorani people, saying that the government had violated, and in fact said something along the lines of oil drilling does not fit into the cosmo vision of Waorani understanding of place, and how to maintain territory. And the legal team said that the maps played a critical role in that process, helping the judge, and then that was later affirmed by the Ecuadorian Supreme Court later that year. So, half a million acres of Waorani territory have been protected from oil drilling. And the maps were just a part of the process, but were critical part of that process.

Jim Fruchterman [28:48]

Wow. And of course, the amazing thing is, these communities said, we want these maps as insurance against the possibility this bad thing might happen. And when it did happen, they were prepared and able to mount a successful case. And of course, as we know, technology plays a role in this, it’s not the only thing, but boy, that was a very forceful decision.

Emily Jacobi [29:12]

And if I may, there’s one other lesson that we really drew from that, because I don’t think it was the maps themselves. There was also the way the maps were used. Initially, the Waorani people had gone Iquito, the capital, to learn ArcGIS. And they were very frustrated with it, it was difficult to learn. And they also felt like with ArcGIS you are dependent on one or two people who know how to use a technology who are doing the mapping for everybody else. And they thought that would be disempowering to their communities. So when they tell the Waorani story, they really emphasize how involved everybody got to be in using MAPEO. And I think that was another key part of it.

So, the maps themselves were effective. And the process of mapping together, and everybody in the community being able to be involved in the process, I also think was key to them building the political will that helped them then weather the storm of that legal case, which was a very trying the time and were a lot of mobilizations and so on. I think that’s part of why organizations like ours are focused on building technology that really is empowering and involves multiple people in the process, because it’s not just about the end product, it’s also about how the process can either support human rights goals or work against them by disempowering people.

Jim Fruchterman [30:38]

So, let’s talk about data ownership. Who does the data belong to?

Emily Jacobi [30:43]

Yeah, well, especially because we’ve been working primarily with indigenous groups, for them to be able to actually gather data that they know they own themselves, that is honestly the reason why we think we have users. If we didn’t put that promise at the center of our tool, then probably we’d have maybe one or two partners. But because we put that promise at the center of our tool, we now have dozens of partners in a growing number of countries.

So many of our partners have been burned by, certainly by national governments, especially by corporations like oil companies and mining companies and so on, but even sometimes by NGOs that, while well-meaning come in and say “We want to build a map”, they come in, they might gather the data, and then those groups never ever see that data, they never see the final reports, and never see the final maps, and they just feel extracted from.

For us, that was one of the key features that made building an app so necessary, in addition to the offline features. Our partners can always own it themselves and then they have the power to decide when and how they share it. So, when there’s an important court case, they can export the right data, they can choose, they can do mapping for their own purposes, they can map sacred sites and nobody else can ever have access to that data unless they want them to.

Jim Fruchterman [32:12]

I think it’s ironic that the social entrepreneurship field, which by and large defines itself as breaking with traditional philanthropy and top-down, command-and-control—“we want to empower the community we work with”—often, when it comes to data, we flip right back into the command-and-control and “We’re gonna use data to punish you”, right? And that means you now have created a whole bunch of incentives for people to not share their data, if they’re gonna get punished, or to cook the data. What do you want to hear? We’ll give you data that says that. And that makes data a lot less useful, right?

And then people say, well, but they might do the wrong thing. And, well, you know, I’m from a rich economy and, overall, if you took a look back at what we’re doing… we’re doing a lot of the wrong things for the planet. Maybe if we trusted 95% of humanity with better information, on the average, I agree with you, I think they’ll make much better decisions. Even if 20% of the time we go, why are they doing that, why is it our place to decide that some of the things they do isn’t what we want them to do? That’s not our job, actually.

So, how do you see, you know, projecting 5 or 10 years from now, what does that shift in power look like that’s different than today? And what are you going to do to help make it happen?

Emily Jacobi [33:39]

Yeah, well, we just launched a new project initiative this summer called Earth Defenders Toolkit. And it showcases different tools. In fact, there’s a tool finder that helps local groups determine “What tool should I use in the world of all these different tools? What tool should I use depending on what my needs are?” and so on. We will launch our Defenders Toolkit with the case studies and research and so on. But we also hosted a few events, and we hosted, with Oxfam and with Natural Justice, an event called Africa Forum for Earth Defenders. And it was so cool to hear people from Kenya, from Zimbabwe, from Botswana, from Senegal, from Cameroon, speaking together about the common threats they’re facing, which sounds so familiar to me from our work in the Amazon, you know, companies coming in, lands being invaded, agribusiness, etc.

All these threats that are both human and environmental. And as they’re sharing stories of the work that they’re doing, what I really hope to see over the next five to 10 years, and I hope we play a part in this, is really more of the frontline communities who are facing these terrible threats communicating with one another, sharing the strategies, the resources, the tools they’re using to win fights. The Waorani story has been inspiring to so many people all around the world, and many of our partners have come to us because they saw what the Waorani people did with the mapping process and they want to do the same.

I really think that the more we do use digital technologies to help groups communicate with each other, share these stories, share these approaches, the more we will see bottom-up people movements winning. And that’s not just in the Global South—I currently live in Wisconsin, in the United States, and just nearby Minnesota there’s a whole pipeline fight against line three which is running through indigenous territory, and it’s violating treaties with the United States who signed.

On all these different fronts, we have to fight against the things that are closing off good future potentials for our children, for our grandchildren, for humanity. I think technology plays a role in all that, it’s not the central actor but it can play such an important role in helping communities tell their own story, control their own data, share that with the right actors. And really, whether it’s holding bad actors accountable or presenting a vision for the world we want to see, the things that we do want to protect, the animals, the plants, the sacred sites that we want to protect, I think all of that fits together.

I think over the next five to 10 years, our team really hopes to grow to address some, I mean, our tech teams do focus on just like the nitpicky actually, like, “this sync function doesn’t work as well as we’d like”, and “we’d love to fix this”. And, you know, we’d love to add in tracks, or we’d love to add in audio recording. So, you know, there’s the nuts and bolts that we want to improve.

Jim Fruchterman [36:42]

Well, I think you’ve just described why technology that really empowers these communities is not a one off project. You just described why it’s this arc, and why there’s always going to be tech features and functions that need to be upgraded. And there’s always going to be a need to improve the training, and do outreach, and make sure people take advantage of it.

I hope that you’re highly successful in making these communities more powerful in pursuing their human rights, their civil rights, basically, their vision of the community that they want to live in, and for the next few generations to come.

Emily Jacobi [37:21]

Thank you so much, Jim.

Jim Fruchterman [37:22]

So, do you have any advice or final words for aspiring tech social inspectors who are thinking about embarking on this crazy path that you never expected to be on?

Emily Jacobi [37:33]

My advice is totally dependent on where somebody is coming from. There’s absolutely a need for tech to be part of the social good sector, but I also think rigorously checking, “Am I or is my team the right team to do this?”, you know, “What is our kind of relationship to the groups that are requesting this need or where the need is coming from? What are the unique skills that we have to offer?”, and then figuring out where we fit in that landscape.

So it may be starting your own nonprofit, it may be starting the kind of hybrid social enterprise, or it may be something else entirely. It may be working another job and doing part-time coding volunteer work. It could look a lot of different ways. Surround yourself with people who will ask you tough questions and advisors in particular who will caution you, and even if you end up ignoring their advice, make sure you’re getting that advice and really testing your own assumptions.

And then finally, I of course think the most rewarding work always comes in deeper, authentic relationship with local groups. So, if you are doing something like me, where it’s been primarily benefiting a community that you’re not a part of, you know, I’m very aware of that that I’m a white woman from the United States mostly working with indigenous groups. Always come from a place of authenticity and trust-building and recognizing your partner. You might be the technology expert, but I guarantee you’re partners with experts on everything else. And so really, I think having a humble attitude—you’ve got to have a little bit of audacity to start a nonprofit or start a tech initiative—but temper that with humility.

Jim Fruchterman [39:24]

I think that’s realistic and great advice. We really appreciate you investing this time with us and we’re excited about sharing your story. As you know, we’re also excited about Digital Democracy and MAPEO, and so hopefully this is a way that we can help our audience but also hopefully, you know, be one of the 100 things that’s helping build towards that inflection point that you’re trying to make happen.

Emily Jacobi [39:51]

I really appreciate that. And I really enjoyed the questions and the conversation, it was a lot of fun.

Jim Fruchterman [39:57]

I hope you enjoyed this episode. You can find out more about Digital Democracy at digital-democracy.org and @digidem at Twitter. For more interviews, check out the Tech Matters Podcast on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or visit techmatters.org to read our blog.

That was the last guest interview of season one. Up next, I’ll finish with some final thoughts and all the ideas that came from our amazing guests and some ideas for season two.

This podcast is funded by the generous donors of Tech Matters, especially Okta for Good. Thanks, and see you next time!



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