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How to be fluent in Technology & Social Change

Craig Zelizer

May 8, 2020

Is it possible to be fluent in technology and social change?  Is it better to get coding skills and learn about machine learning, or to develop the softer but all-important ability to work with diverse groups, to operate with empathy, and be able to market and sell one’s ideas for change.

What should one do if one is strong in the social (human) but not the tech side? Or the opposite, if one if strong in tech but seeks to go beyond the line of code or screen to contribute to improved social outcomes? There are many stereotypes out there that coders may be so focused on the tech that they may not be as effective in communicating with the people the tech is designed to serve. While do-gooders are often stereotyped as lacking the basic digital or tech skills necessary do build such processes into their work.

In truth, in today’s world we need both the geeks and the do-gooders. We need people who can build amazing technology such as drones for humanitarian purposes, apps that might help support new social movements, tools to analyze big data and much more. But technology without people at the center runs the risk being poorly designed; not having a real impact, or being used for more nefarious purposes. We have hit app overload in the world and the idea that building an app will magically lead to improved social outcome is naïve at best. However, using human centered-design to understand what are the opportunities and challenges in a given context, and collaboratively work to select the right technology and test/iterate can lead to tremendous outcomes.

We have to be careful not to fetish tech and assume that if we throw the tech at a given social problem that this will lead to magical transformation. At the same time do-gooders or change agents, need to more open how not technology can be an essential tool to aid in the very human process of organizing and working for collective action.

In this short post, as part of our future of work and social change career series, we offer a few key suggestions for techies who want to explore how to link their skills to social impact and for do-gooders who may be lacking in tech and where to start. This by no means is a complete list, but instead offers some key resources. Feel free to add your own perspective, a key organization or suggestion for how to better link geeks and do-gooders.


If you’re a geek who seeks to use your skills for social change:

1) There is a burgeoning industry of tech for social good or social impact. It is very possible to use one’s skills to build a career or volunteer on the side where one’s expertise can be focused on helping to build or design products to help the changemaking process. This can be in many areas where humanitarian relief, peacebuilding, international development, civic participation and related sectors. There are emerging career tracks for those with technical skills who want to focus all or part of their career in social impact. Moreover it is possible to use these skills to advance social impact in the private sector, social enterprise, education, foundations, non-profits, foundations and other sectors.


2) Read, learn and contribute – There are now many resources that one can find online writing about tech for change, exploring latest trends, gaps and opportunities. A great place to start is jumping in and find the topics, publications, resources that generate the most interest for you. Follow a few resources and get a sense of how one’s skills and knowledge might fit into the current debates. Do you want to focus on how to ensure data privacy for people? Is your passion building gadgets that can be deployed in the field? Do you want to help facilitate improved organizing? Do some thinking, mapping and perhaps writing.

Some key resources to explore include:

a) Medium A wonderful platform for long-form and often very insightful blogging. Many thought leaders from across industries write and/or follow medium to stay informed. Join Medium and use some keywords such as tech, social good, social change to see what writers and publications show up. Follow a few and see where the stories lead (I get a daily email from Medium and love the diversity and type of writing on the platform).

b) World Economic ForumA leading network focused on innovation around the world in the economy, culture and society. They have many resources on tech and social impact.

c) Fast CompanyA leading publication on the economy, innovation and design. They have many short articles on tech and society, including ones focused on how tech is being used for positive social impac

d) ICTWorks – A leading online community focused on how new technologies are or can be used the international development field.

e) PeaceTech Lab - works to reduce violent conflict using technology, media, and data to accelerate and scale peacebuilding efforts.


3) Join a Professional Network - There are now a host of organizations for professionals or students seeking to engage in tech for social impact. Here are few key ones:

a) Engineers without Borders - A leading network of engineers who seek to use their skills for positive social impact.

b) Crisis Mappers - A diverse network of technologists, do-gooders, activists and others who use their skills to map and help develop better responses in diverse contexts ranging from election monitoring, humanitarian & crisis response as well as citizen engagement.

4) Participate in Events – There is a growing universe of tech for social change events. In fact it may be possible to spend all of one’s time attending online and in-person events. See which one’s most interest you and figure how to attend. Some key events include:

a) BuildPeacebrings together practitioners, activists, academics, policy makers, artists and technologists from around the world to share experience and ideas on using technology, arts and other innovations for peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

b) ICT4Dev Conference- An annual event that brings together public, private and civil society organizations from across the humanitarian and international development community. Participants share how they’ve used innovations in technology to increase the impact of their work.

c) SXSW South by South West One of the largest tech festivals in the world that takes place annually in Austin, Texas. There is also a strong component of tech for social impact.

5) Build Your Own Product/Idea - If you have strong tech background and interesting idea how to apply to this to social impact there are a host of ways one can get started. Perhaps you might consider starting your own business or nonprofit organization to develop the concept. There are also many incubators & startup accelerators that have a partial or full focus on tech for social impact. Look around also in your city or region, as there are also many open pitch competitions, hackathons and other opportunities to network, pitch an idea and perhaps win some support for your initiative. A few key resources include:

a) PeaceTech Accelerator- provides the mentorship and training needed to scale both for and not-for-profit PeaceTech initiatives rapidly, securely, and cost-effectively.

b) Zinc- Learning from the successful innovation systems in computer and life sciences, Zinc combines insights from social sciences with top entrepreneurial talent and venture capital to build new, scalable, mission-led businesses.

c) Halcyon Incubator- Equipping early-stage social entrepreneurs with the support they need to transform audacious ideas into scalable and sustainable ventures, and change the world.

d) SXSW Accelerator Pitch – Great opportunity to pitch innovative startups that have a strong tech focus.

e) Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship accelerates entrepreneurship to end global poverty and protect the planet.

f) Accelerator & Incubator Mapping – A wonderful resource that lists many accelerators/incubators around the world that can be searched by focus, region, etc.

g) Hackalist – a directory of local hackathons around the world. You may ask what in the world is a hackathon? Think of it as an often weekend long marathon where designers, tech people, regular citizens, students & more form teams and work on building a prototype of a product that may have a some impact focus.


6) Volunteer or look for your next gig

There are a host of ways to advance one’s professional experience at the intersection of tech and social change. One can volunteer; find a gig, or a fellowship among a few key options including:

a) Volunteer – Many organizations are seeking volunteers who have technical expertise and willing to use them for social impact. Find opportunities on PCDNetwork.org, Idealist.org, UN Online Volunteering, or as  a crisis mapper. Also use resources in your community, look up local opportunities, offer your services to organizations, or start your own project.

b) Find your next Gig – There are many opportunities in tech for social change to build a career. Some key resources include PCDNetwork.org  and also our metalist of job resources in social change. Other great resources include Omidyar Network Job board which includes many technology & change jobs, sign up for the great email list (which features many job opps) from Mobilisation Lab, ICT4D has good jobs newsletter. Finally, use tools such as indeed.com to search for jobs

c)  Find a Fellowship There are a number of fellowships where one can use tech for social impact. These include Code 4 America, TechChange often has a summer fellowship, consider applying for opportunities such as Fulbright or Atlas Corps. See also the many fellowships on pcdn.global or Profellow.com


For do-gooders who want to explore getting more technical skills. There is no one path for how best path as there many ways to do this. Here are some key suggestions:

1) Jump into opportunity – Review the many resources & recommendations for techies seeking to do social good listed above. Find the organizations, publications and opportunities that most excite you and start engaging.

2) Develop your tech skills – There are several paths for how to do this including:

a) Use your University Resources - If you’re in school make take classes on tech, programming, big data, data analysis, and related fields. If your program doesn’t offer such opportunities strongly encourage them to offer such classes to help you stay competitive.

b) Self-learning – There are many ways to build skills yourself through reading books, websites, apps, MOOCs and more. Do a basic Google search and see what comes up that piques your interest. Look at quality MOOC providers such as EdX, Udacity and Coursera. All offer various courses on technology (often more the basics without the social impact focus). One can enroll in a single course, or some providers are offering micro-degrees, certificates or even full-degrees that may be of interest.

c) In community – In addition to self-paced learning and what you can pick up from your school, look up local opportunities in your community and online. Join Hackathons to learn by doing (and build your network).

d) Take Courses – In addition to MOOCs, there are other opportunities to build one’s skills through courses. One great opportunity is the courses offered by TechChange, a leading provider of high quality online interactive education in tech and social change (note, Tech Change does periodically advertise on PCDN for their courses). There are also many opportunities to do coding bootcamps from providers both in-person and online.


I hope these suggestions provide useful next steps for those seeking to work at the intersection of tech & social change. We need many more people who speak geek & change as often the best results come from combining skills & disciplines. Got resources you want to add (this list will be updated periodically), a new organization, a course, etc. Feel free to add comments to this post or drop us a line.


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