My #17NTC Takeaway: Intentionality

I was recently in Washington, D.C. for the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference—my first! Rather than summarize everything, I want to share a recurring theme from my experience: intentionality.

Some of the sessions I attended were:

AI and Intentionality

When it comes to AI, the most common type we encounter online—knowingly or not—is algorithms that are taught via “machine learning,” a process in which software continuously adjusts its own behavior based on patterns it finds in massive datasets.

Design with intent.

Camille Eddy

As Camille Eddy compellingly pointed out, this form of AI can lead to horrible unintended consequences such as racist Twitter bots or facial recognition software that can’t “see” black people.

Why does this happen? For a very simple reason: We live in a society with deeply embedded biases about race, gender, and dozens of other things. The datasets that “teach” AI reflect our society because they are created by members of it. We shouldn’t be surprised when the mirror of AI shows us an unflattering face.

Eddy succinctly called us to “design with intent.” When it comes to AI, that means explicitly ensuring that a diverse group of people create technology and use it.

Communications & Intentionality

More and more, nonprofits are encouraged to use “content marketing” and social media to drive traffic and engage supporters. Doing so requires frequently publishing stories, images, video, and audio all across the internet.

As products of our culture, we all must actively “swim upstream” against ingrained biases and stereotypes if we want to avoid disenfranchising and alienating people we want to connect with and support. This slide from the presentation showed that wonderfully using the metaphor of walking opposite a moving walkway:

In one example, our presenters urged us to carefully consider the subtle messages communicated by the photographs we pick to illustrate our posts. Without being intentional about the photos we choose, it’s easy to select depictions of unrealistically diverse groups, tokenized minorities, or “white saviors.”

Serving Low- & No-Tech Audiences Intentionally

This panel included four organizations ((I was thrilled to see the panel included an organization at which I served as an intern, ByteBack. I was blown away to learn that the typing tutorial I developed for them in 2007 now receives 60,000 visits a month!)) serving people who lack “digital literacy.” The work they do seeks to close the “digital divide.”

As a room full of people working in technology, the panelists rightly pushed us to question the missing foundational technology skills one can easily overlook when interfacing with low-tech-skilled folks. We might easily jump to asking someone to open a browser, when they don’t know how a mouse works. The organizations often work with people who have no email address, something that borders on unthinkable to anyone reading this blog.

When teaching people to use technology—or in my case building websites used by people with low “digital literacy”—it’s critical to not assume certain skills and intentionally question even basic assumption. This is extremely hard, but something I hope to recommit myself to this year.

Building Tech Communities Intentionally

Finally, I spent two long sessions with organizers from NTEN’s online communities, NetSquared meetups, and NTEN Tech Clubs and a third with other community managers. We discussed common issues facing us such as recruitment, facilitation, formats, and member onboarding.

As if intended for this blog post, one of my biggest takeaways was the reminder that groups built around shared interests or identities can strive to be welcoming but are limited in their reach without intentional outreach to other communities. It’s easy to think—and certainly easier to act on—the idea that anyone can find a community on their own, but that’s not true in practice.

Particularly as an organizer of online communities where race, education level, employment status, and other traits are “invisible” to the group, it’s easy to uncritically lead whoever shows up. More diverse communities that represent varying cultures and experiences challenge and strengthen the views of its members. Those are communities I want to be in!

Final Thoughts from Dr. King

I stayed in DC for a few more days and got to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial for the first time. As a backdrop to the striking statue of Dr. King, a low wall is engraved with a ten or so quotes.

While I recognized many, there was one I didn’t recognize yet aligns with the idea of intentionality:

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

Accepting the status quo—particularly when it grants us power and privilege—does not guarantee that we are building the society we want to live in.

As a nonprofit technology professional, not just as a general citizen, I have a role to play in building a just society. That will not happen without an intentional effort to do so.

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