Georgia Bullen “New challenges bring new partners and new allies in fighting for different issues.”

Georgia Bullen is a civic innovator and open technology advocate. She currently works as the Director of Technology Projects at New America’s Open Technology Institute and leads the Measurement Lab initiative. She has been active in the internet health movement as a MozFest volunteer, a mentor with the Open Web Fellowship program, and a collaborator in the fight to protect Net Neutrality worldwide. She’s an advocate for women in technology, and works to connect people to raise the profile of their work, and make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

Evidence

Start by giving me an overview your work, what you do, and your general goals within that.

I’m the director of technology projects at the Open Technology Institute. At OTI, we focus broadly on open and secure technology policy with the intention of making sure that everyone has access to open and secure communications.

We do that in a number of ways. One of the ways we do that is by building technology. One of the main projects I work on is called Measurement Lab — the largest open data platform for conducting tests on the internet. That data is used for policy and research. We run the platform, support the needs of users, e.g. researchers,  policymakers, developers, and work to make that data more accessible to journalists and everyday people.

We also do more traditional policy work, where we engage at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications), or on Capitol Hill with different regulation that’s being evaluated or considered. Where we work depends on the issue, and where the conversation is happening — locally, nationally, internationally, or even in technical governance bodies.

Another big area of focus for me is what some people are referring to as public interest technology or technology for social good and social justice. We’re doing some work to understand the ecosystem, e.g. who is working in this space, what the work looks like, etc. From my perspective, that is anyone who is using technology, in pursuit of social good. So that includes everyone that is doing advocacy with technology, social justice work where technology is part of their toolkit, and places where people are having to learn technology skills to do work that serves social justice outcomes or public interest outcomes.

There are lots of people who have been doing that work for a long time, and we’re trying to map out the community to better understand what works, what doesn’t work, how people got into their roles, places where people collaborate intentionally and places where there are interesting handoffs, where people learn the skills they need, so we can help foster it — that’s the overall goal of that work.

One of the challenges in this conversation is what values are built into the technology? How much is encoded directly into the technology and how much isn’t? This is particularly challenging as it requires diving in, and researching how the technology works, and what values are deeply embedded in how the technology works. You may have seen this come up a lot in the conversations around artificial intelligence or policing technology. There seem to be more and more stories about how technology exacerbates an existing social problem, which is bound to happen if we treat technology as apolitical. Technology is a medium or tool that we use to solve problems, but how we use it matters.

I don’t want to go too off track, but in terms of places where people learn tech skills, do you work with organizations like Aspiration Technology?

We do! Usually, when we work with Aspiration Technology, it is in the context of a retreat or conference that they are organizing or running, like MozFest or the Open Tech Fund Summit.

They are interesting as an organization because they engage with the whole space — everything from internet freedom to traditional non-profit companies. They host the Non-Profit Software Development Summit, and one of our team members is going to that to see who is in that space and find out more about that community and the work that are they doing.

I find the intersection with the Mozilla Community really interesting. Mozilla has a really interesting global network within the volunteer community, that doesn’t always tie into other more traditional advocacy and justice spaces.

There are places where there are intersections, for example at a local level — like in a city, the Wikimedians and the Mozillians will know the whole community, and they’re also part of the tech activism community. But within that, they’re not always the same group that’s talking about signing a petition related to encryption.

It’s up to individuals rather than a collaboration that is intentional, or official?

Exactly. That’s the area I’m personally really interested in understanding better. I feel like there’s a handful of people who cross a lot of these networks, but otherwise the networks don’t know about each other. I want to understand more where collaborations happen, why they happen, what works and doesn’t work, and where it could be happening more.

Thinking about this work, could you hone in and tell me a story of a specific time where you felt a real sense of success?

One of the projects that I have been involved in since I started with OTI, though I have less involvement on a daily basis with them now, is the Red Hook Wireless project, which came out of the Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn. I worked really closely with them when I was based in New York, helping them set up a digital-stewards program post Hurricane Sandy.

Their digital-stewards program is a training program for young adults focused on supporting the neighborhood wireless network, as well as learning technology skills that they can take forward into tech jobs, e.g. coding and IT. It’s developed from principles of community technology and a curriculum that was developed by Allied Media Projects in Detroit in collaboration with OTI through community-wireless work around the Commotion Wireless project, and funding from the Broadband Technical Opportunities Programs.

Since I worked closely with Red Hook, roughly 4 years ago, and they’ve continued the program, my feeling of success comes everytime I see them still in that space. At the Allied Media Conference in 2016, I met the sixth generation of digital stewards from the Red Hook Initiative. They were there to run a session. They told me about the work that they were doing, which sounded great! Four years later, these are young adults that I’ve never met before are still developing this program that I had the honor to be involved with at the start.

Similarly, one of the women from the first digital-stewards cohort, now works for New America (OTI is part of New America) in a program around building Resilient Communities. They are working on a project right now to apply the lessons learned through community technology, the digital stewards, and Hurricane Sandy recovery, to work with communities to develop community technology solutions that address community needs. She’s now continued the work she learned as a young-adult in the technology training program, in the digital-stewardship program and is now paying that back to other communities.

In my mind, seeing all of that transpire, I see a successful ecosystem — where something that started as a community need, allowed people to gain skills, and allows them to serve other community needs. It becomes a part of this overall ecosystem where we can work with communities to develop tools that can then be leveraged by other communities. It’s a methodology, a pedagogy of training — there’s technology involved but it’s more about understanding how to solve problems within your community and make use of technology where appropriate.

Red Hook Wireless originally started around a relatively straightforward need and desire to improve communication in the community, “We have communication problems in our community. How do we fix that?” The wireless network was an experiment to create a local platform for the community to connect to each other better.

When the hurricane hit, it became critical infrastructure so that people could talk to each other, and communicate out. The fact that there was a mesh network in place that was running the Commotion Wireless software, made it easy to quickly expand to support more people, and spread the internet connection from a part of the neighborhood with power to a park where there was no power.

The people’s stories are the interesting part for me because the technology changes or the needs change. Knowing how this is impacting people’s lives. It’s pretty great to know there’s now been six or seven generations of young adults who have been learning these skills and who are taking it with them.

I ran into another young adult from the second class of digital stewards — he’s interning at Google, in IT. A young man from a traditionally underserved community is now interning at one of the biggest tech companies. He’s considering going to college, which hadn’t been something he’d considered before or felt he’d had access to. It’s amazing that we can address community needs, while at the same time facilitating people gaining knowledge and skills, which can then impact the choices and things they are able to do with their life. That, to me, is the main success story.

Honing in on these youth and early career folks — what skills have you seen them develop?

There are classic technical skills, like how to setup or flash a wireless router and how to make Ethernet cables. There are more “soft” skills, like how to do community organizing work. Mostly, it comes down to learning how to solve problems — being able to say, “I’m not sure how to do this but I know that I can look it up and try and figure it out.” Understanding that they can look it up, or ask someone, and play a part in solving the problem as opposed to “It didn’t work. I can’t do anything about it,” is a big mentality shift that then affects how they approach everything.

It’s also learning to be OK with failing — everybody fails, so we might as well try. A lot of the focus is on the tech skills people learn, but in reality, they’re learning problem solving skills, and that gives them a lot more agency with technology that they’re interacting with everyday.

Flipping the original question I had, tell me about an example of a challenge.

There are challenges every day — but one that comes to mind is the ephemeralness of some of the changes we make in the world. What I mean by that is, in general, the big challenges we deal with are scales of impact — we’re trying to do something that’s small that can actually have a network effect.

This comes into play with policy, or with organizing, or in open source. You might have to organize a community around changing something, and then make that change happen, and then that change might finally happen.

Take for example, the work that has gone into getting Open internet rules in the United States. With the administration change in the United States, the rules are now being threatened to be removed — but it’s something we can work together, as people in technology, and to push and fight for maintaining these rules. New challenges bring new partners and new allies in fighting for different issues.

The challenge is how we maintain these scales in communities, e.g. when and how to activate across the Mozilla network, and then within the policies, technology, and advocacy networks — with groups like MAG-Net, FreePress, and Center for Media Justice.

How and when do we collaborate and solve big problems with communities. Learning how and when to take a step back. Deciding where we do or don’t need to collaborate. Deciding whether these problems are just in this one area? Is this a problem we can solve with technology? Or will we be better served through good organizing in order to make change?

Especially when we’re having to fight multiple battles at once, these scaling challenges are the hard part.

I’m hearing you talk about the challenge of not really knowing where to spend your time and energy — that it’s sort of a gamble. Your time is limited, so what’s the best strategy?

Everyone has their shared and differentiating values — the challenge is knowing when to collaborate and compromise on something to have a stronger persuasion, and knowing when to make other choices. Strategy work is really hard, especially in a loosely-defined broad community. People have been doing it for a while so it’s not unattainable. Part of that challenge is finding a way to include collaboration, everyday in a way that’s sustainable — sometimes, it’s easier to solve the problem that you have in front of you.

It’s almost like looking at things from a network level. What are some of the ways that you approach addressing this?

At a personal level, I stay pretty engaged in a number of different communities. I also value and spend time connecting people. It may not always work out, but I’d rather share my network and hopefully help something happen by having connected people who didn’t know each other before. So many challenges in life, will work out better if more of the people that are working on the same thing talk to each other. It isn’t always the answer, but it I always think it’s worth trying.

Turning out to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, keeping the Web open and free — what for you, and I really want to emphasize the for you part here, is the Open internet?

That’s a good question. One of the things that I like to include, that not everyone does, is the access piece. Having free, open communications, and having a space to learn how to make things yourself is only one part of the equation. Everyone has a right to have access to the internet, and everyone should have access to the internet. Not necessarily that they have to have a home broadband connection, but that they have to have a way to get connected and to be a part of that community.

Can you give me an example of how this access has been important for you personally?

Part of the reason why it is important to me is because I have always seen how technology is not always accessible to people. Even as a kid, I knew that I had an easier time understanding and making things work than a lot of my family or friends, so I would help people a lot. There was always such a barrier for most people on how things worked — you know even as simple as, “You got a computer. Here’s how things plug in together,” or, “Oh, you got internet and you have no idea what to do with it, let me help,” or, “Here are resources that could be helpful to you.”

I have always seen it as a place where I could be helpful to others. It’s not so much that it’s ever been a challenge for me but I’ve observed it be a challenge for so many people around me and that’s something that I’ve always aimed to fix. As I started learning about different fields, I learned about HCI (Human Computer Interaction) and I was like, “This is clearly the field for me,” so I initially went into user experience design.

Most of my training is actually in HCI and user experience design. I worked as a designer in a software company for a few years and then realized I was interested in addressing not just user interface issues in software but bigger systems problems, where the disconnect between the tools and how people think have day to day systemic impact. I ended up studying urban planning, and then that intersection of these systems and public space, especially as technology and the internet is inherent in a lot of that now. That’s been where I see there being a need to solve problems.

So my path may have started at helping my grandfather understand how to work the mouse on his computer when I was a kid, and moved  to putting computers together, to software design, and now to public space issues. I see a threat there, that I know not everyone does. But I think it will start to be more apparent as there is more internet in all the things that we do.

What do you think has driven your desire to help others? What do you think is behind that?

I think it has a lot to do with how I grew up. My mom was a teacher when I was little, and also really involved in our community — making sure that there was affordable housing for people who needed it in our town. She would take me to the public meetings where she was pushing for those things — the necessity for people to have opportunity and access in the world — this was what I was exposed to as a kid.

I’ve also been told that when I was in preschool, I wouldn’t nap, but instead would help with the other children. So it might just be how I’m wired. I do know that all of that has contributed to how I approach everyday.

Getting more specific about Mozilla now, how have you gotten involved with them and what does that felt like for you?

I started coming to MozFest a few years ago — I’d heard about it, and always wanted to go. The first MozFest I had an opportunity to attend was for a session we organized on Measurement Lab. I walked into the session wranglers meeting and realized that I knew a bunch of people in the room from other aspects of my life and I was like, “This is amazing.” It was great to see the network of work that Mozilla does was intersecting with so many, in my mind important areas of amazing work — that were not directly related to projects I was doing.

That’s one of the things that I really like about what can happen as part of the Mozilla community — it’s so broad and intersects with education, libraries, science, and journalism. You have people coming together around very intersectional issues with a similar idea of that people can work on this and can make change themselves. It’s a very individual agency-driven environment. I’ve found that interacting with the Mozilla Foundation, Corporation, and community, there’s just lots of great people doing good projects and trying to find those good connections.

The Open Web Fellows Program is great and I’m excited to see how it continues to evolve. We were one of the first host organizations and I was our mentor for that. It’s been really great to have partners and thinking about building up this ecosystem and support so that we can have the community be larger, and more effective, and more collaborative in ways that work.

It’s fun to be a wrangler this year. It was a cool experience and nice to work with other people who are partnered on some of the meta stuff that a lot of people don’t have time to think about. It’s good that Mozilla can foster more of the meta-work, the community work.

A higher level of bigger issues, or perhaps the forces behind what’s creating the situation on the ground?

Yeah — being able to run big things like MozFest is great. You have an opportunity to get people together who don’t otherwise have the resources or space to do it themselves. Mozilla is creating spaces for people to do community building work and that underpins being able to work together to work on an issue.

You’re giving people opportunities to meet others working on similar projects, even when they live in another country, so they can work together to make things happen — it’s being able to hear the diverse stories from around the world, and meet the people, and actually work together. As a result of interacting with Mozilla community, I know that there are others out there, all over the world, working on the same issues as me.

What would you highlight as an impact, if any, that Mozilla has had on your life, or your work, or on your organization?

Connecting to this broader community has been impactful.

What have you gained from those connections?

On a really tangible level, we’re doing some work in the EU around net neutrality. Reagan MacDonald and the Mozilla team have been really helpful in connecting to communities I didn’t know, and helping to organize and navigate the environment. We did some sessions this year at MozFest on net neutrality and we were able to meet and build relationships with new people and potential partners on net neutrality through that. Also in being part of the wranglers and helping to organize for sessions this year,  I was able to develop new connections and relationships both with other wranglers and the people that we brought in for sessions.

Knowing that there is support there in this community has been really helpful. There’s a support network within the Mozilla community so projects can continue to happen, and you can lean on people and know that you don’t need to be the only one shepherding a project, there is a support network of people who are doing things to continue it.

Do you have any feedback — any times that your interactions with Mozilla didn’t meet your expectations, things that could work better?

The thing we were talking about earlier, when we got on the call initially, was, “Where in Mozilla do you live? Who do you work with? How are these things related?”

I don’t know if that is even a necessarily solvable challenge. One of the things that’s good is everyone at Mozilla feels that “Mozilla’s a little fast-moving and funky. We got this. It’ll be OK.”

It’s sort of a known challenge for you all at Mozilla, so it works in the end. That’s the only thing, and that’s only because I’m like, “Oh, I hope these things come together,” and then later, they usually do so I have faith in it. But there’s always that moment of, “Do I need to tell them to talk to themselves? I don’t know?”

Yes, probably.

I was talking about this with a Mozillian at MozFest — like, “I worry about all of you as humans who work there. It seems like all of you have to travel and work a lot and so I just worry about all of your burn out levels in the same way I worry about my own team and myself.”

I worry about this for the field in general. Do we spend too much time on airplanes going to places that are not where we actually live and work? Are we being as effective as we could be? That’s like the conference circuit tech industry problem.

I’ve had that feeling. We’re collecting these stories, as I mentioned, from across the Mozilla network, different levels of engagement, different programs. How might the stories that we’re collecting be useful to you, if at all?

I was just thinking about this and I need to explore the site. This baseline project that we’re doing, understanding the ecosystem, I can see it being helpful there. We’re doing similar interviews and thinking about how to share that data. It’s helpful even just to see how you guys are approaching this and how you’re using it. Thinking about how we can build and learn from that is helpful. I was just talking with people about how we, as a community, need to do a little bit more sharing of stories.

We should be sharing success stories, and challenges, and what is working for people about how to solve problems at different scales. It’s beneficial to know about other similar efforts — we can then echo and point to them, acting as a model for others.

Both at the Meta level and the methodology level but also at the content level.

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Is there anything more you want to tell me or ask me?

Not that I can think of at the moment!