Willow Brugh "We might be able to build a different future, rather than the one we’re sleepwalking into."

Willow Brugh works with digital tools to enable coordination between response agencies and emergent response groups in areas affected by fast and slow crisis. Currently the Community Leadership Strategist at Aspiration Technology, Willow has co-founded a maker space in Seattle, an organization that links collaboration spaces, and Geeks Without Bounds. In the academic world, Willow studies citizen engagement and combining distributed and centralized decision making structures at the Center for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab. She has also been a Professor of Practice at Brown University, an affiliate at the New England Complex Systems Institute, and a fellow at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.


Willow’s Story

I’m wondering if we can start with an overview of what you’re working on. I’m especially interested in the work you did around the Weaponized Social.

I’m the Community Leadership Strategist at Aspiration. Most of the work that I do is in disaster and humanitarian response, the digital form that most people can do remotely, but also how responders use technology in the field. How they select that technology, what it ends up doing in the long run, that sort of thing.

Lately I have been working on a digital response ecosystem map. Who are the stakeholders? What are the tools they use? Who are the personas that are usually involved? What workflows do they fall into? What data are we generating, and who do we hand it off to when we are done? Things like that has been the main focus of my work lately.

The thing you wanted to talk to me about is called Weaponized Social, which is a program we had last year. My background is in sociology, and there are things called social scripts, which is how we know how to interact with each other. These scripts are different in different cultures whether that is a country, a region or whatever. They inform us what is appropriate and what is not and how to expect certain things.

There are bugs in those scripts. Just like computer code, it sucks if you run it just on your own laptop. But, if you try to support it at scale, you end up with exploits that bad actors can take advantage of.

If we were to help people interact, instead of stop-gapping problems, if we were to look at what the actual issues are and how we might mitigate them in our online interactions, then we might actually be able to build a different society and future, rather than the one that we’re currently sleepwalking in to.

So I spent a lot of time in the online harassment space, and I spent a lot of time around social theorists and network mathematicians and people like that. It’s a really interesting overlap. It was some of the most intellectually stimulating stuff that I have been a part of in a long time. And it was also some of the most emotionally draining stuff I’ve been a part of for a long time.

Because of the content?

Yes, and also the people who are involved in these spaces often come to it because of personal experience. They are rightfully very angry about how people treat each other. It is not a detached conversation that we are having where we are problem-solving together. Often we are addressing people’s past woes. There were a lot of triggers all over the place.

People need to be cared for and supported, but that is not what I came into this space to do. I came here to problem-solve and instead people needed empathy, so I came across as being too harsh, which was true.

Can you tell me about a time where you felt a sense of success?

My favorite success story is when I was working with Digital Democracy in Port-au-Prince. We did a hackathon with KOFAVIV, which is coalition of victims for victims. They run a call center for people who have been affected by gender-based violence.

I worked with them and students from the local technical college to build out their reference database, which was based on people calling in, based on what they had been affected by, and the person answering the phone knowing geographically what would be around them and then pointing them in different directions.

It was scaling so much. They couldn’t hold it all in their heads. We were building them a database. It was amazing — not just because it successfully got built — but because the international team that attended was there as a support to the students. So we were there to teach methodology, not to build the thing for them.

I really pushed for the students and the call center workers to speak for themselves more and more. We had excellent translators, and the people who were international took up less and less space.

It worked. People were really proud of what they had built for themselves, and they still maintain it. It was a success all around, to me most of all because of that shift — from us showing up and taking up space, to us sitting and listening to the people who actually live there.

What you’re describing to me sounds like participatory development, with and not for. How did you get to the methodology to be able to pull back and to give those people space? Is it years of experience? Was there a toolkit that you used or a specific set of practices?

No. At that point, I was only a year or two into facilitating hackathons. I had been a long time moderator of discussion groups, but not a facilitator of those actionable things for very long, given the amount of experience I now have.

The thing that we decided was important was that the participants understand their own power. We operated from that. We didn’t allow ourselves to get lazy, so when people pushed back and didn’t want to take up space or were shy — we held fast to that ideal.

Now, I would have used all sorts of toolkits that I know exist. At the time, I don’t know if any of them existed. If they had, I certainly would not have known the terms to search for.

Flipping back, you mentioned a time where you faced a really strong challenge. And you mentioned the need for empathy versus problem solving with the Weaponized Social. Is there another example of a challenge that you might want to share?

Oh, wow. There are so many different challenges. In disaster response, there’s the ongoing challenge that we’re traffic-coordinating — and how much of that can be solved by talking to each other. That’s something that happens all the time.

I like the question and I like why you’re asking it but it’s seriously so broad, that I cannot think of the story to tell you.

In your own words, how would you describe the open internet?

I’d think about that in two different ways. One is standards. We often conflate the standards of an open internet with the social aspects of an open internet, because we’ve made open into a social thing, which is rad, but the same rules and guidelines don’t apply to both.

To me, an open web, as far as the software — and hopefully the hardware eventually, that’d be great — is the ability to take your data from one place to another, to continue owning it. To me, that’s the ideal of the individual as interacting with society — or how the individual makes up society and how that’s even possible — is the moving around of those points of data in a way that doesn’t diminish the information as it goes. It also has to do with copyright and all sorts of other things. We have to have that as a base line. Period.

For the social part… Georg Simmel is a sociologist who talked about anomie, which is, if you are in a small town, you are many things to few people. You are a father, a farmer, and the person that people can go to talk about a specific thing, and whatever else. You’re all of these different things to a small number of people.

In a large city, you get to be a very niche thing to as few people as you want. You can be as eccentric as you want, and you can be exactly that, and you’d never have to interact with anyone if you don’t want to.

I could be a blue-haired, heavily tattooed disaster and humanitarian response technologist, who also can order all my food through the internet, and never have to interact with another human being. The thing that happens when everybody can be hyper-individualized, in Simmels’ theory, is that we start to lose our social fabric.

We don’t have expectations of each other, we don’t know how we’re supposed to interact with one another, which are those social scripts I talked about when introducting Weaponized Social, and so we start to lose the social scaffolding. People don’t know how to interact, and that’s what I see very much in the open internet, as in, we don’t have social codes online.

It is sort of a meritocracy, but only for those who have a visible past, whether or not what is visible is true. Quinn Norton gives an incredible talk on how it used to be that you had to join onto something, prove yourself, and then you were given responsibility, and then you were given decision-making power.

Now, it’s been flipped on its head. You’re expected to make choices for yourself, which then builds your reputation, which then means you can get work done, and be trusted. Just completely flipped the order of operations. We don’t have any social code for that.

Quinn also points out that when people seem like angry 12-year-old boys online, it might be because they are angry 12-year-old boys. We don’t have any transitory space for the online. Everything is the same room. Things fall apart in really interesting ways.

Can you tell about a time when the open internet has been important to you?

Oh, anytime. But specifically, people being able to organize themselves during the Sandy response — and who had access to that data and what it was visible to — definitely highlighted that for me.

Who was able to vocalize their needs? Was it on Facebook? Was it only to the friends who could actually see their thing? Was it only to a closed group? How could you make use of that data in any useful way? Was it on Twitter, where it also had to be ported out? Were they sending it to a Google form, and who could read it? Or were they sending it via Sahana, which is an open-source crisis management system, where the data could be ported into an and out of very easily for logistics and other actions.

Where people decided to state their needs determined how likely it was that they were responded to, just as much as who they were influences how likely they are to be responded to. Usually that’s based on geography and visibility, and this was based on web geography and visibility based on that.

Shifting now to Mozilla, could you tell me about your involvement, your interactions with Mozilla, what that’s been like?

Sure. I went to one MozFest, it was delightful. Aspiration also does work with Mozilla in other ways. My engagement has actually been pretty limited. I’ve enjoyed the people I know who work at Mozilla, I’ve gone to a few offices just to hang out and hear what people were up to, but I’m not as heavily involved as other people have been.

MozFest was interesting. I liked how it was laid out, and that nearly everything was interactive. The space was gorgeous. I met you [Christine Prefontaine], I met Jess Klein, and we were able to really focus on the topics that we wanted to work on. I enjoyed the arbitrary timeline by which we had to deliver.

I liked how much external stimuli was happening around us. A lot was happening between people with shared ideals, so we could shortcut those deeper discussions and get to work — because we already agreed. But also we were challenged by the technical and topical approaches that people were taking on their own projects, such that our own project was more creative.

What project were you working on there?

We’re working on something called Emergency Aid Badges. We have difficult time vetting responders. This was a way that our front-line population in a region affected by a crisis could use the open badges project to verify that a responder had been both ethical and efficacious in their interaction with the front line of population. So it also closes a feedback loop as well as validating responders.

Has that morphed into anything, either in terms of that project itself or the relationships you may have built?

Yes. I’m still involved with the people that worked on that project. We dust it off every once in a while and push it forward a bit. We’re still not sure if we’re going to use the Mozilla badges structure, mostly because it seems like that’s going to sunset if it hasn’t already. But the idea is there, the people who want to work on it are there, and the data structure that we created is still there.

It still comes up in conversation and it’s useful. I was talking to Human Surge recently, which is a new group. Let me back up: There’s surge capacity in a crisis that you need, and there are people that you probably haven’t met before. It’s really difficult to know if they’re legit or not. So their idea is to create this roster that one group maintains — instead of all the other individual response groups in country offices maintaining a roster that might be out of date. That seems useful, but then they also need to validate them. This came up in the conversation, like, “This is a thing that you want to do.” Now, they’re in touch with the people who talked about the data model of the project.

That’s such a good example. Part of the challenge of evaluating these larger events is that, how would you ever capture all everything that emerges? You couldn’t do it in a pre/post survey because sometimes the impact comes years later. Do you have any thoughts on this? It’s just something that I’ve been musing on as I’ve been to several MozFests and formed relationships that blossom many years later. Perhaps a series of conversations — almost like a panel format — where you just keep coming back and having conversations over time.

I think it would be interesting to look at who keeps coming back. Instead of trying to track all the individual components, which would be difficult. I would find it desirable to act on that information. Or maybe it’s the wrong data set. Here’s how I would approach that as a sociological study. I would ask, What were the formats that happened in those years? Who were the people who attended? When did people return and when did they quit coming?

If there are years where a certain format or a certain set of people makes people come back the next year, then that’s what I would start to examine further. If something is attempted and more people than normal drop off, then I would assume something is happening in that data set that people didn’t deem as useful.

We often say, “We have to figure out what the conversations are — or show the value in these ways.” To me, if people keep coming back, then it’s useful.

How might some of the stories we’re collecting be useful for you? Is there any way that they can contribute to your work? What would you be curious about?

That is an excellent question and I’m glad you asked it. That even might be the thing that I take out of this, that question. I might use it myself. I view any interview as a chance to think about the work I do from another angle — an angle that I wouldn’t have been able to cover on my own.

That’s why one of the many reasons why collaboration is so great, and making sure that the way that I think of the world is actually internally consistent. The thing that I would benefit from is knowing who other people out there are who might think about things in a similar way or even in a usefully different way, that I could connect with for other projects. That would be useful to me.

Also seeing how people represent other people’s stories. I think one of the best ways to share information is through storytelling, but it’s also one of the most time-intensive ways to understand something, because of that depth. Seeing how people represent the stories that they’re told is useful to me because I’ll end up trying those things out as well.

What do you mean by represent the stories? Do you mean how did they re-tell them or how do they package them?

Exactly. Like, what things will you find the most useful out of these interviews and how will you represent that? Even though I doubt this isn’t the thing that you would do. Do you end up doing a word cloud, “Well, this is what people talked about. Here are the trends and what people were thinking about,” or whatever else.

Is it audio files where you transcribe them, show people that are using the same language or similar cadence or whatever else? What are the things that were important to you, based on your in-depth analysis of all the information that you’re currently getting? Even just knowing the process of how you decided that that was the important thing is also interesting to me.

We have a really rough draft of the methodology up on StoryEngine.io. We will definitely iterate on it. Likely I’ll use an approach influenced by grounded theory, which means we’ll go through the stories and we’ll generate some initial ideas and tags, then go through again.

One of the methodologies that I thought was interesting was this one developed by Cognitive Edge, SenseMaker, which GlobalGiving used and later modified, where you ask people to tell one specific story. Then you ask them to tell you what the story is about — they call that self-signifying.

So instead of another researcher coming in and saying, “Oh, this sentence is about this and this sentence is about that,” the respondent does that for you. That external interpretive layer is not there. In addition, it gives another chunk of information: the answers to the questions plus how they interpret those answers. I’d like to explore something like that, but right now our questions are too broad. GlobalGiving used this methodology in the context of a more specific intervention, and it was generally just one or two questions.