By Susannah Vila | A version of this post appeared on engine room’s blog

From the Arab Spring to Occupy, the events of 2011 highlighted the potential of new technologies for advocacy. But new tools are more likely to facilitate social impact if they’re used by people with the right training and support.

This isn’t happening as much as it could. Why? I think it’s because of a few big challenges facing the field of support for digital advocates. First, there’s a lack of information from the ground about what is actually needed. Second, trainers are too often flown in from thousands of miles away for a few days of workshopping with no incentive to remain in contact with the advocates they trained. Third, remote training resources (like guides) often sit on the web without reaching those who might be able to benefit from them.

From infographic on IHub Nairobi (

Part of why we founded the engine room was to address these challenges. Our first project, the Social Tech Census, aims to map the best resources for integrating digital media into advocacy work in order to inform the work of the communities of practice that we work with: advocates, support organizations and technologists.  The Census is an important foundational step for us and (if all goes according to plan) will also be a useful tool for our partners.

But how, exactly, will it be useful for them? We decided to ask, and here’s what we found out. There are four main ways that groups we partner with will be able to act on the information that we’re gathering.

1.   New program ideas based on empirical evidence for who needs what and where

Any attempt to compile an exhaustive database of resources will ideally end up spotlighting gaps in what’s out there. We suspect this will be the case with regard to regions (where are all the francophone tech trainings on mapping tools?), issues (say, digital security versus strategy for online video) and types (ad hoc communities built on email lists or formal organizations) of support.

By shedding light on these gaps the Census should make it easier for our partners to better identify and understand demand in order to meet it. Here’s an example: say WITNESS is writing a proposal for a training program in a region that they’ve never worked in before. They could use the Census to identify and include hard data about the relevant training gaps in order to underline the importance of the proposed program.

2. Adapting existing training programs to on-the-ground contexts

The first step in launching any capacity building program (technology-focused or otherwise) is often to identify local stakeholders. You need these networks to engage with the most nuts and bolts aspects of your training effort (for example, identifying the right participants). This process is both time consuming and expensive. The Census aims to allow trainers to identify local actors – and get necessary information from the ground in order to maximize the impact of their projects.  New Tactics in Human Rights, for example, could use it to connect on the ground trainers with people who are already there providing support – helping both to maximize their impact.

3. Getting resources for remote learning into the right hands

A lot of our partners have put quite a bit of very laudable effort into creating resources for remote learning so that they can help more people to become effective digital advocates. Take WITNESS’ Video Advocacy Toolkit, Access’ guide to addressing DDoS attacks or the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self Defense project. If they’re going to have as much impact as possible, these resources need to get into the hands of those who need them most.  Partners should be able to use the Census to identify outreach partners who clearly understand information needs in target communities.

4. Working together to enhance the current model by which advocates get tech support

Will the the Census minimize the degree to which trainers have to be parachuted into new contexts in the first place? We hope so. The best thing we heard from one of our partners was that they didn’t want to fly across the world to give a training (or send one of their staff). They’d rather use the Census to connect local need to local support.

Do you work with an international organization or network that supports technology use in advocacy? We’d love to get your opinions- take this survey– it only takes 5 minutes.


Susannah used to run outreach and training content for, where she spent a lot of time developing online resources for digital advocacy and speaking with other support organizations and advocates in the field about their work.  She co-founded the engine room to address needs that were made clear through this work and through a series of in-depth interviews that she conducted with advocates in Cairo in the summer of 2011.

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