Grassroots activism is hard. Can open source help?

Short Form


Grassroots activists have to deal with many challenges - including the tools they’re using. Sounds like a great opportunity for open source! This session will survey progressive and transpartisan grassroots activists’ needs and today’s solutions (including techniques that work for explicitly intersectional groups), look at some existing open-source offerings and how they could evolve to better meet grassroots activists’ needs, and identify future directions that could be even more impactful.


There’s a new wave of grassroots activism sweeping the US — leading to a new wave of activists discovering just how challenging it is to combine online and in-person organizing, communication, and collaboration. And on top of that:

  • Groups with progressive values have additional challenges: helping people avoid microagressions, discussing intersectionality and its implications, ensuring that everybody’s voices get heard, taking accessibility and other aspects of diversity-friendly software into account, and stopping the endless rehashes of the 2016 Democratic primary.
  • So do transpartisan groups, who have to work together without letting disagreements on key issues (and elections, where people are often on different sides) split them apart or suck all the energy into flamewars.
  • And it becomes even more complicated when groups want to work together to co-promote events or get the word out about what’s happening without overwhelming everybody with irrelevant information.

Grassroots activism is hard.

Grassroots activism is primarily about people, so we need to be careful not to overstate the technology aspects. Still, the tech matters. Tools like Slack and Google Docs help; but when Micah Sifry did a brief survey of six grassroots activist groups in How Movements Organize Now, he concluded “no one is satisfied with what they’re using”.

Sounds like an opportunity to me!

With most startups and larger corporations relatively uninterested in grassroots activism use cases (and sometimes actively hostile), it’s a particularly good opportunity for open source. And with relatively-new open projects like Mastodon and Wire and solid platforms like Wordpress, Drupal, and Media Wiki, there are plenty of building blocks.

This talk will:

  • Survey the landscape today (with details documented on the wiki)
    • Describe grassroots activist groups’ typical needs
    • Look at the kinds of solutions in use today
    • Highlight techniques from projects like Resistance Manual that take an explicitly intersectional focus
  • Identify areas where open-source solutions could have an impact
    • Look at some existing open-source offerings, how they can help today, and how they could evolve to better meet grassroots activists’ needs
    • Identify future directions that could be even more impactful

If there’s enough interest, an unconference session on Friday could delve into specific opportunities.


Activism, software, diversity

Speaking experience

I've spoken about software engineering, diversity, and activism at a variety of conferences, most recently at SXSW with Shireen Mitchell on "Diversity-friendly software" - the video and slides are available at Three OSBridge talks (in 2014 with Deborah Pierce, 2015 with Lynn Cyrin, and 2016 with Tammarrian Rogers) also focus on the intersection of diversity and software engineering. Activism-focused presentations include "Cognitive Evolution and Revolution" at Politics Online '09 and "Dealing with Hate Speech,Flaming, and Trolls" at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy.

This talk is new material.


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    Jon Pincus, OPTYVA, Get FISA Right


    Software engineer / entrepreneur / strategist / activist, currently CTO at O.School and Architect – Integrative Technologies + Communities at OPTYVA,. Previous positions include CTO and VP of Engineering roles at startups, Architect and Researcher at Microsoft Research, and leading the oppression-theory based Ad Astra project as GM of Strategy Development at Microsoft. With my activist hat on, I’ve worked with a broad coalition on Stop Real ID Now, as one of the organizers of Get FISA Right and Voter Suppression Wiki, started #p2 (the largest progressive hashtag on Twitter) with Tracy Viselli, was a board member of Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and am currently active in several Indivisible groups.

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