Final report: The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Working Group

Our Stated Goals

The ICT working groups goals, as explained in our initial description document, are:

  • lead the US Social Forum in the development of its technology policies
  • organize the progressive technology movement's participation in and support of the social forum movement
  • protect and uphold the USSF technology principles
  • create, maintain, and use tools with the organizing teams to facilitate internal and external communication.
  • raise consciousness about the political importance of technology to the social forum movement.

Work was done in the furtherance of all these goals. In some areas, the success was spectacular; in others, it was partial. On the balance, we can reasonably report that the ICT WG experience was a highly successful one that greatly contributed to the political and technical maturity of the WG's participants and was fundamental to the success of the U.S. Social Forum.

Our Responsibilities and Involvements

From the start, we sought to build an ICT team that was comprised of political technologists from all over the country who clearly understood the potential importance of the Social Forum and were committed to making it happen. One of our goals was to protect the concept, a principle of the Social Forum, of the use of Free and Open Source Software.

We focused particularly on making connections with techies in the Detroit area.

Starting in May 2009, we held two hour phone meetings every two weeks to define the work needed, discuss approaches to it and organize (and assign) it. Work was often conducted at weekend work sessions. Our techie group encompassed, at various times, about a dozen technologists as well as National Coordinator Sylvia Orduno (who attended all our meetings).

The ICT was involved in supporting and/or enabling virtually every aspect of the Social Forum's work because the USSF is very heavily technology-dependent.

We also understood the increasing importance of the growing relationship between the USSF and other Social Forums and movements throughout the world and sought to facilitate and support that through streaming video and audio technology.

Among the responsibilities of the ICT Working Group:

  • Organize techies who wanted to volunteer at the Forum. In the end, more than 40 technologists participated in the tech work for the Social Forum in virtually every aspect of its technology communications
  • Develop software and resources in support of the forum
  • Develop the registration software - we implemented the registration vision of the US Social Forum, which redefined the standard concept of event registration. Unlike standard registration systems, which only define a registration between an individual and an event, we customized our base registration code to allow organizations to register as organizations, thus keeping with the USSF vision of organizing organizations. We also implemented complex payment options such as date-dependent sliding scale registrations (different for organizations and individuals), allowing organizations to include three individuals in their base payment, and yet another sliding scale system for organizations registering additional people. The system was also linked to the workshop submission process to ensure that only people registered for the event could submit workshops.
  • Organized computers at site which included the acquisition, testing and sometimes repair of the more than 60 computers used at the USSF, the networking of those computers on-site and troubleshooting and tech support for their operations.
  • Staffing of all registration and other technical operations at Cobo and the organization of non-techie staff people for all registration tables and systems.
  • Handling tech support at the Forum itself
  • Negotiated Internet capabilities at Cobo, contracting for ATT lines, at the last minute, to make Internet connection possible throughout the facility and, in some cases, remotely outside Cobo.
  • Broadcasting, in collaboration with Free Speech TV, an Internet feed of all major events at the Forum, interviews and other special reports from the event. And broadcasting, through streaming, presentations and involvements by activists from other parts of the world who couldn't attend the Forum in person.
  • Establish collaborative and constructive relationships with Detroit-based organizers, particularly those working on technology.
  • Lead, advise and support the Social Forum's organizers, and its National Planning Committee, in developing progressive and constructive Internet communications policies.

  • Collaborate with all other Working Groups in their use of technology for their work.
  • Establish a common meeting, living and working space, called "Techie House", for over a month before the forum and during the event. This space, used by about 50 techies are various times, proved fundamental to the political cohesion, intelligent planning and collaborative work of the Forum's technologists.
  • A People's Media Center was created after many months of collaboration with media and technology activists all over the country. It was a huge convergence space, allowing for meeting, production, and learning spaces.

What Worked?

All of this, to some extent, worked. We were able to make unprecedented contributions to the Forum in all the above areas. In fact, the U.S. Social Forum is viewed by organizers in many other parts of the world as among the Social Forum movement's most technologically sophisticated and openly collective in its nature.

There can be no question that this is partly due to the advanced technological capability available to the movement in the United States. But the USSF's leadership and organizers unquestionably made major strides in fashioning a policy, a political perspective and an innovative use of technology that will serve this country's movements and the world's in the evolving future.

There are so many stories and particulars that illustrate this: too many to mention here. But we might summarize the experience in a few points.

  • The remarkable commitment shown by techies who faced tremendous challenges are Cobo and worked tirelessly to successfully meet those challenges while never losing site of their primary role as fellow organizers of the Forum. We didn't get one complaint about people being ignored or disrespectfully treated by techies and, given the size and the huge technical challenges of the event, this is truly remarkable.
  • The willingness to "pitch in" during any problem and the flexibility to rewrite code, rethink approaches and reorganize personnel in the middle of the event to overcome unforeseen problems and challenges.
  • The collaboration with technologists from Detroit who were fundamental in making this event happen. They helped wire the critically important Media Center, donated computers and helped set them up at registration points, pitched in on technical support and helped guide "out of town" techies on protocol, culture and approach.
  • The collaboration with other Working Groups which is among the highlights of our work. We were able, with the collaboration of these brothers and sisters, to work out difficulties, challenges and problems that always arise when organizers use technology. That took a lot of work and was sometimes painful but it created a precedent for this kind of collaboration that is very very rare in the movement. This was due, in part, to our superb collaborative relationship with the National Technology staff person, Mallory Knodel who frequently acted as a bridge among Working Groups.
  • The "Video Feed" work we did on the Forum itself and in feeding into the Forum from various "non US" locations. No Social Forum has ever had a full-time video presence and, thanks for to outstanding work of our colleagues at Free Speech TV, we had one this time out.
  • For the first time in US Social Forum work, we were able to establish a respectful, responsive and productive relationship with the "local organizers" in Detroit. Again, an unprecedented model.

What Didn't Work?

No evaluation is complete without defining, in general terms, what we did wrong and we certainly did some things very wrong.

  • Perhaps the most egregious problem was Internet infrastructure at Cobo Hall. We assumed we would have full access to Cobo Hall's Internet connection as part of our base price, or for a reasonable surcharge. When we discovered, late in the game, that we would have to pay in excess of $4,000 for the use of the Internet, the ICT scrambled to find alternative and cheaper access via ATT DSL service. We succeeded in saving the US Social Forum thousands of dollars, however, it cost us the ability to properly share the experiences of the USSF with people around the world who were not able to afford the expense of traveling to Detroit. In retrospect, this was a poor decision. In the future we must negotiate Internet access with the facility from the beginning, as part of the facility negotiations.
  • Relations with NPC and other Working Groups were frequently rocky early on. This was unquestionably an outcome of the political differences that exist between progressive technologists and the movement in general about such issues as free and open source technology, technology use and website function and role. It is also certainly a product of the sometimes seemingly strident and rigid perspective advanced by the WG's main leader, Alfredo Lopez. In any case, these discussions need to occur early on in any future process and the fact that we had them and were able to resolve these differences will surely make things easier in the future.
  • We failed to integrate Local Tech Coordinator Tdka Kilimanjari. We made much effort towards this end but those efforts fundamentally fell short and, in the future, an evaluation of why they fell short will serve our entire movement.
  • The registration software we developed was not optimized for the huge registration numbers we got on the first day. We were able to optimize it the night of the first day and things went smoothly after that. But things are supposed to go smoothly from the start.
  • Because we were forced to deploy so heavily into registration, we were not able to do as much remote video of events and never got the video storage capability off the ground. This must be viewed as among the most serious problems with ICT work at the Forum. Many of the younger people at the Forum were drawn into the event by the remarkably artistic and culture program organized there. Most of this wasn't captured and stored on our websites. Specific and exciting workshops and PMAs weren't video'd and streamed as had been planned.

We never were able to adequately plan and organize resources and staff for these efforts and we can never repeat this error again!

The Political Implications

To put things shortly (and perhaps a bit dramatically):

  • The USSF was among the most technologically supported Social Forum in history both at Cobo and leading up to it. Technology truly added to the success of its mobilization and its success as an activity. This demonstrates how political importance technology is as both a resource and a political issue.
  • The Forum was more linked to the rest of the World than ever before and technology supported this and, in some cases, made it possible. You can't change the reality of this country by remaining within its borders. The "other US" we are committed to will develop only with the support and collaboration of the rest of the world. And to make that happen, we need the Internet and need to develop more sophisticated and effective use of it.
  • People of all ages gather for the Social Forum -- a truly stunning political achievement -- and Internet technology is what brings them together day in and day out.
  • As the Social Forum grows, and the progressive movement grows, more and more people will want to participate. But they can't all travel, they can't afford increasingly expensive tickets and accommodations, they are more challenged in leaving their locations.

The future is clear: if we are going to continue to grow, we are going to need to do much more Social Forum interaction long-range through Internet communications. If it is to remain viable and grow as a political force, the Social Forum of the near future will be one combining on-site interaction with "over the Internet" convergence.

The USSF 2010 laid the groundwork for that development.

Last modified 8 years ago Last modified on 09/04/10 17:23:02