Connecting activists to each other for rich peer-to-peer learning across the world using messaging and machine learning
People gathering in South Africa's Freedom Charter Square, where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955. Its first demand is: The People Shall Govern.
Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)
The project will bring world-class, curated knowledge to community activists, connect them to each other to have rich conversations about what they are going through and what works, and enable trusted researchers to advance the state of knowledge on collective action.
It will do so in a way that uses machine learning and messaging to overcome the challenges of today's internet: its over-reliance on developed-world data connections, its centralization, and its prioritization of attention & advertising over rich, useful content and curated conversations among people facing similar challenges.
We will do this through the innovative use of mobile messaging platforms and machine learning, with a specific focus on the likely opening of WhatsApp to third parties (but also built to run over Signal or Telegram or other messaging services, wherever possible), as it is the dominant communications tool for a large and rising share of community activists.
Our goal is to significantly increase the flow of knowledge and density of connections in civil society; the effectiveness and success rate of distributed and decentralized community action at scale; and the state of knowledge of what contributes to such effectiveness.
Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)
Our beneficiaries are ordinary women and men in communities around the world with the fire to create change, but who are forced to wage isolated struggles.
In South Africa, strong and sustained collective action helped defeat Apartheid, but it atrophied in the twenty years after the first democratic elections. In the last five years that has begun to change, as poor and marginalized communities have become much more active. But organizing has steep transaction costs and can be an isolated and difficult task if those who undertake it lack ready access to information or connections to others like them.
These are people like Lebo, in Tshepisong, organizing her neighbours to get pre-school classes open at the local public school; or Nyoni, in Mzondi, organizing the community to crowdfund toilets; or Thapelo, in KZN, organizing a mass social movement for land and housing for the poor. Each has different needs, but all need greater knowledge, and connections to others like them.
A community leader in Soweto, Johannesburg, describing her use of technology and organizing
How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)
We have learned that there is no silver bullet for the challenges these democratic activists face. But we have been consistently asked to help them with two tasks. First, matching them to information and knowledge they need, at a level that is not overly broad. For example, about how and when it is most effective to engage a local budget process in their province, or to understand trade-offs in sanitation and education in a low-income area. Second, matching them to others who have gone through or are going through the same struggles and engaging the same issues, so that they can learn from and support each other.
The Internet and its largest platforms helps answer these needs in part, but with severe drawbacks. They require too much in device specifications, connectivity and information literacy. For example, it might seem natural to search Google repeatedly, or hunt through Facebook LinkedIn, but that doesn't work on a low-spec device with no data, and major privacy concerns.
Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)
Initial Design: I am exploring the idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.
Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)
Grassroot is half a field organization, half a technology start-up, which creates simple, purpose built tools to strengthen community-based organizations in low-income and marginalized areas of South Africa. Our tools have reached almost 100,000 people and have been used for almost 15,000 meetings, votes and actions. https://www.grassroot.org.za
Organization Filing Status
Yes, we are a registered non-profit.
In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.
We have been working to enable community leaders with simple tools for several years now. We have always wanted a way to connect them to each other more effectively. We've been relying on SMSs, but always wanted to explore what we could do with WhatsApp. When we saw the results of a beta use of WhatsApp to message new mothers with health information, we noted a 100x increase in engagement, and were immediately inspired to think of how we could use it. Merging the two strands led to this idea.
Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).
n Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “In a democracy, the science of association is the mother of all sciences. On its progress depends that of all the rest.” In economics, we have learned in the last decade how social capital is often the most important form of capital, for the development of individuals, communities and countries.
These general relationships are particularly acute in the developing world. In democracies that are still finding their way to being strong and resilient, and even long-standing ones where trust has eroded, peace is strongly influenced by the ability of communities to resolve differences. Prosperity is dependent on the provision of public services, from quality education to health provision, and that is in turn dependent on community's ability to act together to hold institutions to account. In SA, and across the developing world, peace and prosperity both flow from the diffused, widespread ability to take robust collective action.
Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)
Community leaders from low-income communities around South Africa. Over the last few years we have had a great deal of practice in conducting user-centric design with such community leaders. We will first engage them with a manual prototype of the service - that is, having a person fielding and responding to queries and setting up conversations - and build up feedback through repeated follow up design workshops. We will then move into conversational interface prototyping, with a manual intermediary selecting from default responses and evaluating how well these respond to community leaders. We will then move into the full design phase.
Alongside this design of the service 'interface', we will also design, with the same community leaders, the mechanics of establishing trust and building up reputation. This will likewise be built through an iterated process of engagement, manual testing, and then escalating automation, with continued feedback loops built in.
Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)
1 - Persistence. In recent focus groups and surveys, 80% of people report trying a form of collective action, and receiving no government response - and over 80% say they will try again.
2 - Imagination. Whether finding a way to use unutilized class rooms, or working out plans for self-providing sanitation, or facing a myriad other challenges.
3 - Resilience. Several community leaders face threats of violence, some even assassination, but they continue.
Primarily South Africa, then Sub-Saharan Africa and India, then global.
How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)
Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)
If Yes, how has project idea changed, grown, or evolved since last year? (2,000 characters)