Five Ways to Fight ISIS Without Killing People

Like many Americans with a memory, I’m stunned how easily this country can be convinced to support another undeclared war in the Middle East.  All the media has to do is run a week of programming alluding to nice folks getting their heads chopped off, then do a big poll that establishes the “fact” that the general public wants action and then BAM: Drop the bombs!  No Congress necessary.

This new war with ISIS, just like other undeclared wars in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, is justified by the same logic as the others: “We’re fighting them over there so we’re not fighting them over here.”  It’s a childish idea that only makes sense in a world without airlines, the internet, and history.

So first, a brief history of American interactions with “ISIS”.

During the “Arab Spring”, people throughout the Middle East came out into the streets to protest their corrupt political leaders.  In Syria, the leader was Bashar al-Assad, who is Shia (aligned with Iran) and Baathist (aligned with the late Saddam Hussein.)  Assad is obviously not popular with the western powers, but he’s particularly despised by Israel, which identifies his regime, along with Iran, as the main patrons of Hezbollah, a “terrorist” force fighting on Israel’s northern border.

When Assad was challenged by his people, many of his geopolitical opponents hoped his government would fall, and they put their money where their politics was: giving hundreds of millions (maybe billions?) to support rebel groups fighting a civil war against Assad.  One such segment of the groups fighting Assad were Islamist Sunni, and one such group in this segment was ISIS.

I’ll let the mainstream media tell you why the USA is now fighting ISIS. I’m not entirely clear on the matter.  One thing I am clear about is that the strategy of funding Syrian rebels to fight anyone, be it Assad or ISIS, hasn’t been working.  If past performance is any indication of future results, it won’t be long before the training and weapons the US government sends over to Syria fall into ISIS hands as well.

A broader question Americans should asking themselves and their politicians is: do we really want to send more weapons into a region of the world that has been bombed by America for decades?  Why would people there do anything but take our weapons and use them against us?

Another question worth asking is why do we want to keep increasing the number of Syrians and Iraqis being bombed by America?  Isn’t that a surefire way to make more people hate America?  And, in these technologically empowered times of $500 drones, plastic explosives and polished online videos inciting people to conduct lone wolf attacks on Americans, isn’t it clear that it’s never been easier for hatred of America to turn into a terrorist attack on Americans?

More weapons won’t solve the ISIS problem. Neither will bombing our new allies enemies.

We need nothing less than a new foreign policy approach: one that focuses on achieving our objectives without murdering people and making more folks hate America.

Below are a few ideas to suppress ISIS without resorting to murder, from someone whose only qualification is that he graduated from a prestigious university with a major in history (and a concentration in Middle Eastern and African.)

1. Partition Plan

 

Iraq and Syria are nations created by Europeans during the fall of the Ottoman Empire with World War I, and the borders were designed for purely European political reasons.  It was called the Sykes-Picot agreement, and it basically said that the French could influence Syria without interference from the British and the British could influence Iraq without interference from the French.

Notice how the USA wasn't involved.
Notice how the USA wasn’t involved.

By the 1970s, both Iraq and Syria were governed by Baathist political parties using “big man” patronage and violence to hold onto power.  They also both resisted US domination of the region and acted belligerently towards Israel, resulting in the US targeting them for regime change.

If your interest is political stability, pursuing regime change is a bad idea, because regimes enforce borders, and during the process of change, those borders become weaker.  If people don’t like the borders, during the transition between regimes, they’re going to want to change them.

After the USA invaded Iraq and changed the regime, one might have expected the US to facilitate a process whereby the Iraqi people could rethink their borders – particularly since these borders were imposed a century ago by foreign nations and have always been unpopular.  Splitting up Iraq would have likely been quite popular among Iraqis, and this could have been done in a managed way that empowered civil society and limited sectarian violence.  It might not have been a pretty process, but it would have been a whole lot prettier than a decade of civil war in Iraq and the rise of ISIS.

iraqsyriaDue to the logistical realities of the Middle East, the US could have never invaded Iraq without Turkey’s support.  And, due to political realities, the Turkish government wouldn’t have supported a US invasion if the US’s intention was to partition Iraq.  Why?  Because Turkey wants to make sure the Kurds in Iraq and the Kurds in eastern Turkey don’t get together to form a Kurdish nation with territory in both Iraq and Turkey. Indeed, Turkey has been fighting Kurdish separatists who’ve been trying to do just that for decades.

Other nations aren’t so excited about partition either.  Once people start rewriting borders – no one knows where it will stop: Turkey, Syria, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, Spain, Scotland, Texas.  The prospect of border instability terrifies the global power structure – even more than ISIS does.

Since the US and its allies failed to redraw Iraq’s borders, ISIS is more than happy to do it instead — and give the people of that area something they genuinely want: to more easily travel between Iraq and Syria.

2. Administrative Support

 

Governance — more specifically, the administration of a municipality or a nation — isn’t easy.  You have to collect taxes, provide services, respond to constituencies, maintain roads, organize elections and so much more.  A lot of this work is an information management challenge — and there are software tools and operational techniques that can make this process easier, more efficient and more equitable.  Did America provide these tools to the Iraqi government so it could efficiently provide services to its citizens?  No.  Did they outsource this process to contractors who took US taxpayer money and provided the Iraqi government with the lowest quality products they could get away with providing?  Of course!  Does the Iraqi government have any type of modern administrative system to deliver services to constituents?  Doubtful.  Do people now aligned with ISIS praise its administrative effectiveness and capacity to provide for local people?  You bet.

Instead of setting Iraqi governments up to get ripped off by US corporations, the US government should be providing free of charge administrative software tools and operational techniques to the governments it wants to see succeed.  The US should be vigorously training an effective bureaucracy that empowers the Iraqi people to govern themselves in more effective ways instead of spending its resources on an ineffective army that handed its weapons over to ISIS.

If people think their government is doing a good job, they’re less likely to side with the rebels that want to overthrow them.

3. Treat PTSD from the Sky

 

It’s safe to say that every time a bomb goes off in Iraq and Syria, many of the people who witnessed the explosion develop some type of post traumatic stress disorder.  PTSD is a difficult to diagnose.  One of its symptoms is rage.  That’s a symptom that many people in Iraq and Syria certainly have — and lots of it is directed at Americans.

Fortunately, studies now show that PTSD is actually relatively easy to treat using a substance called MDMA.  Unfortunately, MDMA is classified by the US government as a Schedule 1 drug – meaning it’s illegal to possess for any reason.  Is the recreational use of MDMA more of a threat to public health than millions of people running around with untreated PTSD?  I doubt it.

Instead of dropping bombs on Iraq and Syria, we should be dropping MDMA and training people there to facilitate sessions that, in conjunction with MDMA, can treat and even cure people of PTSD.  Obviously this won’t bring back the lives of family members that have been lost, or the homes that have been destroyed, but it would help create opportunities for folks to get relief and heal themselves, at least partially, from the damage war brings to individuals and communities.

4. Engage over Social Media

 

ISIS is very active on social media – which means their members can easily send messages out to the world, and the world can send messages to them.  This is a pretty new phenomenon.  Smaller terrorist groups have been active on social media, but never has such a large group been so active.

This creates a lot of opportunities for the US.  It enables genuine engagement and dialogue with the enemy.  We should be talking with them, not just to convince them to be nice, but also to learn more about them.

That’s a nice thing to do, but there also ways to go on the offensive using social media. We can create fake ISIS accounts that distribute confusing messages – messages that create ambiguity about ISIS’s activities, political objectives, religious interpretations, cultural norms, etc.  The US can also engage in classic trolling activities by dumping ridiculous comments into ISIS forums, sending them pornography, and being just plain old mean – so mean that people no longer want to hang out in the online spaces that ISIS hangs out in.  This is tactic that worked against Occupy.  It’s hard to organize online if all the online spaces that people organize are filled with meanness.

5. War for Oil or Peace for Water?

 

People make decisions based on perceived economic benefit.  Are people going to prosper more under ISIS or a regime more friendly with the US?

At the end of the day, issues in Iraq and Syria, like issues everywhere, boil down to economic realities.  Who has the jobs?  Currently the answer is the oil industry.  Where is the money?  The places where the oil industry is active.

The US can and should help develop economic engines in Iraq and Syria that have nothing to do with oil.  A great way to do this is to focus on water instead of oil – and help people in the Middle East turn barren deserts into lush landscapes that produce an abundance of fruits, nuts, vegetables.  It’s very possible to do this using proven permaculture techniques.  It  requires some heavy machinery (no tanks), designers who understand how to build-up water resources in arid climates, and folks who want to grow lots of food.

http://permaculturenews.org/2014/02/01/desert-oasis-4-years-jordan/
http://permaculturenews.org/2014/02/01/desert-oasis-4-years-jordan/

If the US were turning Middle Eastern deserts into verdant farm land that created local jobs (instead of extracting resources and bombing people) groups like ISIS wouldn’t have any recruits.

These are just a few ideas that come from a different perspective – one that attempts to propose that Americans will be safer if Iraqis and Syrians are happier with their lives.

I think Thomas Jefferson would agree.

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none….”

Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

“History bears witness to the fact, that a just nation is taken on its word, when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others.”

“All the world is becoming commercial. Was it practicable to keep our new empire separated from them we might indulge ourselves in speculating whether commerce contributes to the happiness of mankind. But we cannot separate ourselves from them. Our citizens have had too full a taste of the comforts furnished by the arts & manufactures to be debarred the use of them. We must then in our defence endeavour to share as large a portion as we can of this modern source of wealth & power.”

Additional Resources

 

NYC:Prepared Presentation at NYC OEM Volunteer Conference 5/31/14

Thanks to a positive reviews from my presentation at the Red Cross in April 2014, I was invited to present at NYC Office of Emergency Management’s Volunteer Conference on 5/31/14.

Since I was speaking to city officials and volunteers, I tried to show the audience how they could use simple techniques to understand, share and collaborate using data.

Some of the elements in this presentation were developed further to create my Data Basics Training.

Google Presentation

PDF Archive

Tools of the New Economy: Cryptocurrency, Games and POS Systems

The last five years have transformed conventional and alternative economics.

During this time period, the Federal Reserve Bank has created more US dollars than it had in its entire history before 2008 – and it’s still creating around $85 billion/month through its “quantitative easing” program. Many economists, especially those from the Austrian school, are anticipating some type of currency crisis in the not too distant future.

Source: http://research.stlouisfed.org
Source: http://research.stlouisfed.org

Meanwhile, in less than five years, the value of a unit of Bitcoin has gone from $.01 to over $1000 (at the time of this writing), with a market capitalization of over $15 billion dollars.  Thousands of businesses have been created to service the Bitcoin economy and three more robust cryptocurrencies have emerged, ensuring that the concept of cryptocurrency will live on no matter what happens to Bitcoin.

To understand the emerging field of cryptocurrency-based economics, we need to look beyond Bitcoin and towards the ecosystem of solutions that will make new/alternative economics a lived experience.  Before we can do that, we need to define some terms.

Money

First, let’s define money.  It has has three functions.

  • It’s a means of exchange – so you can use it to trade with people.  Ex. I give you a dollar, you give me a cup of coffee.

  • It’s a store of value – so the unit can hold value over time. Ex. A dollar won’t “go bad” like a bushel of wheat.

  • It’s a unit of account – so you can use units of money to request payment, document your income and expenses, and plan for big purchases, retirement, etc.

Fiat money

Fiat is a Latin word that means “let it be done”.  I’ll let Wikipedia define fiat money for me:

  • any money declared by a government to be legal tender.

  • state-issued money which is neither convertible by law to any other thing, nor fixed in value in terms of any objective standard.

  • money without intrinsic value.

Another way to describe fiat money is that its value is derived from the capacity of a government to force people to use it.

The US Dollar, Euro and all major national currencies all qualify as fiat.

Cryptocurrency

Dollar bills have a variety of “security features” that make them difficult to counterfeit: the intricate designs, the quality of the cloth/paper on which they’re printed, special threading, plastic inserts, holograms, serial numbers, and more.

Bitcoin and Litecoin the new silver and goal?
Bitcoin and Litecoin: the new gold and silver?

Digital currencies also need security features so they can’t be counterfeited. To create these features, software developers use the practice of cryptography.  Cryptography allows people to turn a message into a nonsensical string of symbols, numbers and letters that can only be “deciphered” with a “key”.  People who have the key can see the message, while people who don’t, can’t. Cryptocurrencies use a network of computers to authenticate units of digital currency during transaction. These networks operate similarly to how the popular peer-to-peer file sharing system BitTorrent works: a user downloads and runs a client on their computer which holds their files (or bitcoins) and lets the user send, receive and authenticate them.

Games

Games are a form of structured play. The structure is made up of rules and rewards. In many games, the reward is explained as a “victory condition”: the set of things that need to take place for someone to win the game. Games without victory conditions often have reward systems that become much more intricate. While there are many possible reward systems in games, the two I’m focusing on are points and badges.

Points are tokens that players earn by engaging in certain activities. The accumulation of points is proof of a player’s progress in the game. Sometimes games allow players to spend their points on items in the game (ex. new costume for an avatar), trade their points with other players or cash out their points so they can spend them in the real world. When games allow players to do these things, point systems become a form of money.

Badges are issued to players to indicate achievement and status. They often accompany another type of reward, such as access to additional levels or components of a game.  Unlike points, they can’t be spent or traded among players, but they can be used within games and outside of them to signal reputation. Everything from diplomas to credit ratings can be displayed as badges.

POS Systems

POS system on an Android Tablet
POS system on an Android Tablet

POS is an acronym that stands for “point of sale”. 50 years ago, cash registers were the main type of POS systems. 30 years ago, credit card terminals connected through telephone lines to banking servers were added to many POS systems so that people could use credit cards in stores. 10 years ago, many POS systems added custom computer operating systems so they could provide more features to their users such as managing inventory and dynamic pricing. Now, people are using consumer-grade smart phones, tablets and laptops with (often free) POS applications as POS systems. Since merchants are now using  consumer hardware and software, they have an unprecedented amount of control over the systems they use to transact — and software developers can make POS solutions just as easily as they can make any other type of application. This means that, from a technical perspective, many stores are just an application download away from accepting gaming rewards and/or cryptocurrencies for their products and services. Indeed, there are already a number of commercial loyalty programs that merchants are using with their POS systems to sell their items for points or give people with special status (i.e. badges) specific discounts and deals.

Predictions and Implications

As the old currency system breaks down, the question many people are asking is: what will take its place?

The answer is, in my opinion, an unimaginable diversity of things that will no longer be limited to solutions based in national fiat currencies.

Here’s a list of predictions I’ll continue to explore going forward:

  • The proliferation of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and Litecoin. Some will be reputable and stable; others will be scams. Over time, the market will separate the wheat from the chaff.

  • The integration of cryptocurrency technologies into gaming platforms so that games can provide people with rewards they can spend in the real world.

  • The development of “productivity games” whereby people work or volunteer to earn “game” credits or point that they can use in the real world.

  • The incorporation of cryptocurrencies and gaming reward mechanisms into modern POS systems, making it as easy to spend alternative currencies as it is to use a credit card.

  • As it becomes increasingly easy for people to use the rewards they earn for day-to-day transactions, the lines will blur between conventional currencies and reward currencies; and conventional jobs and rewarded game play.

My Next Steps

I believe that these developments will democratize finance by enabling anyone to turn their assets and resources into “reserves” that they can use to “back” their own currencies.

Nonprofits can benefit greatly from this type of activity.  Here’s how:

  • A group creates a list of tasks they’d like their constituents to complete
  • Each task is descibed and assigned a point value
  • People complete tasks, send in proof and receive points that they can spend in the group’s online store
  • The group can modulate demand for it’s points by modifying the contents and prices in their online store.

In a subsequent post, I’ll explain how to turn this theory into reality using WordPress, the world’s most popular free/libre/open-source content management system.

FLO Disaster Relief Software – Recommendations for NVOAD

Three and a half months ago, I attended the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD) Convening in Elizabeth, NJ. It was a fantastic event in which people from over 50 nonprofit, mostly religious, organizations came together to network, troubleshoot the ways they were providing Sandy disaster relief, and discuss how they might better tackle disaster relief challenges in the future. The need for better information-sharing tools and techniques was obvious in every event session.

I scribbled notes and promised myself that I’d write a blog post about how the VOAD community could adopt a comprehensive information management strategy using free/libre/open-source software. The post grew in length and complexity, quickly ballooning into multiple posts, and launching Sarapis into a new knowledge management project. Three and a half months later, we have a 100+ page (and growing) wiki at DisasterRelief.FLOsolutions.org that catalogs some of the best practices for community-led disaster relief that we’ve encountered. Please check out the wiki, send us feedback and let us know if there is some information you’d like to see covered or you want to contribute.

 

The National Convening

The NVOAD national convening was organized by National VOAD (NVOAD), which is led by volunteers and staff from its 108 member organizations. There is a VOAD in every state (ex. NYVOAD) and often in large cities as well (ex. NYCVOAD) — each of which is member-run and organized using a structure similar to that of the National VOAD.

The VOAD meetings that I’ve attended have consisted of representatives of member organizations engaging in a facilitated conversation about how to overcome disaster-related issues, and then breaking out into working groups or committees to tackle specific challenges. While it was clear that the larger, better-funded organizations within the VOADs such as the Red Cross have more influence than the other organizations, there was — at least to me — a sense of horizontality and a genuine desire among participants to coordinate and collaborate with each other. Indeed, the VOAD structures reminded me more of “spokes councils” than they did traditional nonprofit organizations — which is pretty cool.

VOADs help groups “active in disasters” coordinate better. From what I’ve seen, discussions center around a range of topics, from food distribution or rebuilding homes to performing case management or analyzing policy issues. Somehow, though, they all seem to end in the same place: with a discussion about how member organizations can better share information.

In general, VOAD conversations are open, inclusive and generative: people recognize the expertise that they and others have gained from on-the-ground relief work, and eagerly share knowledge and information derived from those experiences. However, when the topic turns to software and data, the tone changes. People seem to imagine software and data to be obscure, complicated topics best left to experts — and they don’t imagine those experts to be the people in their network or the room.

Many of the VOAD members I spoke with didn’t know what software they use, told me they don’t feel empowered to make changes to their websites or software systems, and don’t think they can have a software system that meets their needs without someone spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

 

Go with the FLO!

The VOAD community takes pride in its DIY character. Rebuilding a house? No problem! Feeding ten thousand people a day? We’re on it!  But when it comes to websites, databases and information management systems, people become overwhelmed. Yes, databases were extremely difficult and expensive to set up 10 years ago — but things have changed. There has been rapid and sustained progress in software technology, making most common technical challenges easy to overcome with relatively simple FLO (free/libre/open-source) software.

For folks who don’t know what FLO is, a brief explanation is in order. FLO software is free (no-cost), libre (without restriction), and open (you can use, edit, modify and share its source code). Linux, Firefox, WordPress and Wikipedia are just a few of the tens of thousands of extremely popular FLO software packages being used by people everyday. FLO software, like VOADs, are developed by communities of people who work together to build systems that help people help each other. To learn more about FLO software, read this brief explanation and the “free and open source software” page on Wikipedia.

I’m confident that the more VOADs learn about FLO, the more they’ll realize how FLO solutions can help them overcome many of the information management, communication and coordination challenges they face during disasters.

Preliminary Recommendations

Through a three-pronged strategy of trainings, support group cultivation and technical strategy, VOADs can transform their approach to information management.

Software trainings: There is a tremendous need within the VOAD community for training in basic web-based software tools — especially WordPress, CiviCRM, LibreOffice and free (but not libre and open source) Gmail, Google Groups, Google Drive, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube web applications.

Data trainings: There is also a massive need for education in basic data management and sharing techniques. The VOAD community needs to create a set of standard templates for common tasks such as canvassing, volunteer intake, work order management and sharing different types of data among organizations.

Technology Support Group: The VOAD community should form a technology support working group where people can organize skill shares about various technologies useful to the community. If that goes well, such a group could also work with stakeholders to co-create a software development roadmap for local, state and national VOAD groups.

You can see a list of tools referenced throughout this blog post in the tools section of the FLO Solutions for Disaster Relief wiki.

 

Attractive, Easy-to-Use Website

Your organization should have an attractive website that is easy for anyone who knows how to use basic office applications to maintain. The technology that makes this possible is called a content management system (aka CMS).

Recommendation: WordPress
wordpress-logo-notext-rgb

WordPress

There are a number of FLO CMS systems. Our favorite is WordPress, which makes it extremely easy to create web pages, blog/news posts, photo galleries, videos, events calendars, custom forms you can use to collect email addresses, contact info, surveys, process donations, and more. Hosting a WordPress website costs between $5-$50/month depending on how much traffic the website receives.

Bottom Line

Even if your organization isn’t interested in upgrading its website, building a WordPress site is cheap and easy enough that it might be worth creating one for your own team or for a specific disaster.

 

Contact and Case Management

The one piece of technology the VOADs do “share” is the Coordinated Assistance Network system (aka CAN). CAN is a disaster case management system owned and operated by the Red Cross and developed by VisionLink, a for-profit corporation that has also built the National VOAD website and the database systems that powers many of the nation’s 211 “human service” directories. While many organizations in the VOAD community can access CAN, access is often difficult to obtain and limited in scope. Moreover, there are no readily-apparent opportunities for the community to contribute to the system’s development.

The general sentiment about CAN at the NVOAD event was that it’s a terrible piece of software, but it’s the best thing the community’s got. Even still, few organizations use it and it’s widely cited as one of the largest bottlenecks to effective disaster case management.

Some of the problems with CAN articulated during the event include:

  • It takes days, sometimes weeks, to be granted access to CAN; and many grassroots relief groups and some VOAD member groups simply don’t qualify for access. Many groups waste time and energy trying to access CAN when they could be using those resources to develop and deploy CRM systems that meet their own unique set of needs.
  • All data that goes into CAN becomes the property of the Red Cross under terms that are difficult to question or change.
  • Only CAN employees and CAN partners can perform import and export functions.
  • No one but VisionLink can modify the CAN software.

One of the first things that becomes evident to people providing disaster relief is that they need a system to manage contacts and document their interactions with at least four types of people:

  • volunteers who want to give their time
  • donors who want to give their money
  • survivors who need assistance
  • human service providers who can help people in need

CRM (customer/constituent relationship management) systems are designed to help a large and physically dispersed group of people collect information about individuals and groups, record interactions and document outcomes.

This type of tool is being used very successfully by a few VOAD member groups that I spoke with — but, by and large, the VOAD community isn’t using CRMs. Instead, most VOAD members I spoke with were either using spreadsheets or desktop-based database systems to track and manage their relationships. The few organizations that were using the CAN system for disaster case management and human services directory functionality lacked a solution for the CRM functions CAN doesn’t provide, such as volunteer and donor management.

Recommendation: CiviCRM
civilogo_triangles_only

CiviCRM

CiviCRM is a fantastic FLO case management solution, and also happens to be the world’s most popular FLO CRM system for nonprofits. A standard CiviCRM installation package can do donor, volunteer and case management, send out e-newsletters, process donations, generate event pages and maintain a directory of service providers to the public. Since CiviCRM is FLO, organizations can run it on their own servers or they can pay around $300/year for a CiviCRM specialist to install and host the software for them.

CiviCRM makes it extremely easy to build a content-based website around it since it is a component of the three most popular FLO content management systems (WordPress, Drupal and Joomla). Indeed, if your organization is already using one of these CMSs, adding CiviCRM can be extremely simple. CiviCRM can be useful for any nonprofit organization that needs to send out email newsletters, process online donations and collect contact information — so even if your organization is happy with CAN’s case management functionality, you might nevertheless want to consider CiviCRM for other common nonprofit functions.

CiviCRM could become a fantastic disaster contact and case management solution that any VOAD could use for itself and in partnership with others. And since the solution would be FLO, any organization wanting to become active in disaster relief would be able to “spin up” their own system and keep ownership over their own data. At the very least, the existence of a CiviCRM powered alternative to CAN will encourage VisionLink to be more responsive to the community of VOADs who use CAN. Of course, CiviCRM can play well with CAN by being configured to export and share data using CAN-compliant format and standards. Compliance with Federal requirements and standards is something that could also be built into a CiviCRM component, as could a basic reporting mechanism that would enable each disaster case management deployments to share basic identity information about clients to ensure that people aren’t enrolled in more than one case management system to get “double benefits”.

Bottom Line

If your organization or local VOAD group doesn’t currently have a CRM system for its basic operations such as sending our email newsletters, collecting online donations and tracking donors, then it should consider getting a CiviCRM.

National VOAD and larger VOAD groups should come together to ensure CiviCRM works well for disaster relief. I recommend pursuing the following course of activity:

  • Develop a case management template (in XML) that could be imported into any CiviCRM to turn it into a disaster case management system. Estimated cost: under $10,000.

  • Fund the development of a user interface for CiviCase configuration. There is a fundraising campaign currently underway to raise $30,000 to create a user interface that would make it much easier for people to customize CiviCase.

  • Develop capacity within the NVOAD network for managing CiviCRM hosting, either by hiring a CiviCRM expert or contracting with a provider like CiviHosting.com.

  • Run database management trainings so VOADs learn how databases can be used to solve a wide range of challenges they encounter.

 

Human Services and Referral Directories

During a disaster, relief providers need good information about where to refer victims for “human-services” assistance such as homeless shelters, mental health counselling and food pantries. Unlike local business information, which was made readily available via the internet over a decade ago, “human service” information sits locked up in proprietary database systems that not even most VOADs — let alone disaster survivors — can access.

This means disaster relief providers often have to direct people who need assistance to call their local 211 system operator and speak to a call center worker to access critical human services information. This can lead to confusion and wasted time for survivors. It also creates a problem for relief providers who want to ensure that survivors receive high-quality information and access to critical services.

VisionLink, the company that makes CAN software, is also the nation’s leading provider of proprietary 211 software — making the inaccessibility of human services information inexplicable.

Recommendations: Drupal, CiviCRM or Sahana EDEN
sandydirectory2

Directory powered by Sahana

Directory software isn’t particularly complicated. Indeed, there are a number of FLO software packages that could be used to organize and display 211 information to the public, as well as provide additional functionality like granular “agency-by-agency” permissions, calendaring, volunteer management, document management and other solutions touted by VisionLink as “what makes CommunityOS different.” Drupal and CiviCRM could both power 211 directories, as could Sahana EDEN and the Knight Foundation-funded Open211 software development project.

Of course, software is just one part of the challenge. The other critical piece is a taxonomy for organizing 211 information. Fortunately, the Open Eligibility Project has produced a FLO taxonomy for 211 information that anyone can use to organize 211 data.

With FLO software and data taxonomies available, the time is right for a group of organizations to come together to set up open 211 systems around the country. Such an effort presents an amazing opportunity for the VOADs — not only to increase information accessible to disaster relief providers, but to make “human services” information easier for everyone to access.

Bottom Line

National VOAD should ensure that 211 information is accessible during a disaster. This means having an easy-to-deploy FLO 211 directory software solution ready for when disaster strikes. This solution could be offered to state and city based VOADs immediately. A FLO 211 directory software solution could be built with CiviCRM and Drupal or with Sahana..

 

Data and Knowledge Repository

Each stage of a disaster presents a tremendous information challenge. People might disagree about what, when, where and how to share disaster related information, but it’s hard to imagine anyone will argue against better tools for data and information sharing.

Recommendation: OwnCloud and/or CKAN
ckan

CKAN Data Repository

At the most basic level, VOADs should have access to a dropbox-like file sharing system which can host both public and private files and folder systems. OwnCloud is an easy-to-deploy, easy-to-use system that could meet this need.

If a VOAD network wants to make it easy for its member organizations to benefit from the open data revolution, they can set up a CKAN “data repository”, which provides groups with the ability to upload, describe, preview, download, host and stream a wide variety of data formats. It can be used to host and organize PDFs, turn CSVs (spreadsheets) into interactive maps and serve dynamic data streams in real time to other software applications. For the more technically ambitious, it can also wrap data in an API that software developers can use to create applications, produce visualizations and build semantic information resources.

VOADs could use a data repository to share a wide variety of data and knowledge information, including:

  • information about affected areas, such as demographics, geography/geology, environmental reports, important places, and mapping layers
  • canvassing data related to individual and neighborhood needs for things like food, shelter, and health care
  • raw data about who is providing disaster relief and which populations they are serving
  • templates for managing inventory, work sites, damage assessment surveys, volunteer registration forms and other tools for disaster relief groups
  • how-to’s and trainings guides about everything from killing mold to anonymizing and responsibly sharing data

Data repositories allow users to upload both public data that can be shared with everyone, and private data that can be managed by particular users without anyone else seeing it. To prevent confidential information from being made public, the system can be configured such that all public data uploads are moderated, and only approved data sets are made public. In such a configuration, when users find incorrect data or data that shouldn’t be shared on the system, they can flag it as inappropriate so it can be taken offline. Of course, with more data tools available, it would be incumbent on the VOAD community to learn more about how to use data and data tools to improve their operations.

Bottom Line

The VOAD community needs a place to share files. The first step is to set up an OwnCloud system (which would cost well under $1,000/year) and start giving VOAD members accounts and providing trainings that show people how to use widely-accessible online tools to collect, use, analyze, permission and share data. As people become more comfortable using this file sharing system, it might make sense to set up a CKAN data repository for the VOAD community. This is the same software used by data.gov and enables much deeper data utilization functionality.

 

Inventory and Logistics Tools

Before, during and after a disaster, many VOAD member organizations turn into logistics groups with a specific set of needs that FLO software solutions can meet:

  • requesting and receiving inventory items
  • tracking inventory through multiple spaces
  • distributing inventory to people in need
  • generating reports about their activities
  • sharing up-to-date inventory information with stakeholders such as government agencies such as FEMA, nonprofit and community groups, donors and the general public
  • developing an awareness of the other relief providers in the area

Without a software tool set to help organizations meet these needs, groups are often left using spreadsheets and personal relationships to make sense of the disaster logistics environment. Many people suffer and many resources are wasted because a coordinated disaster logistics network doesn’t exist — and it very well could.

Recommendation: Sahana EDEN
sahanaedenlogo

Sahana Foundation Logo

Sahana EDEN is a FLO “disaster management system” with robust logistics functionality that can be used by participating organizations to manage their own inventory, ship and receive inventory items, track assets (like vehicles and generators), build reports for various groups, and create maps. EDEN has robust directory functionality, for individuals, organizations, facilities, victims, volunteers, projects and more, making it a great tool for organizing information within a geographic area before disaster strikes. When disaster does strike, people can find the information they need in order to be effective in the aftermath.

Bottom Line

The National VOAD should work with Sahana EDEN developers to create a generic configuration that could be deployed by its chapter organizations, and/or in response to specific disasters. Sarapis has begun this work by helping to create an EDEN system for Long-Term Recovery Organizations in NYC. We will need assistance from the VOAD community, financial and otherwise, in order to see this project through.

 

Collaborative Work Order System

When disaster creates damage over a wide area, one of the biggest challenges is coordinating the (often volunteer) work crews to clean things up. This task requires a massive amount of information sharing: from the canvassing that results in comprehensive neighborhood damage assessments, to the assignment (or self-assignment) of work teams and the tracking of work statuses so the entire network knows what has been done and where.

Recommendation: CrisisCleanup
crisiscleanup

CrisisCleanup

A new tool called CrisisCleanup distinguished itself during Superstorm Sandy relief work as an amazing solution to this challenge. It was developed by Aaron Titus, a volunteer within the Mormon disaster response community. As a part-time software developer, he saw a need for a tool that “implements a ‘Craigslist’ philosophy to recovery efforts—organizations that are aware of work orders enter them into the system, and organizations with capacity to help can claim and perform the work.” The tool’s success during Sandy was stunning: CWOS was used by over 100 organizations to coordinate nearly 30,000 volunteers fixing over 5,000 homes. What began as one person’s passion project has grown into an effort involving nearly a half dozen volunteer software developers and designers — and it is already changing the way disasters cleanup is managed.

CrisisCleanup wasn’t developed by a software group inspired by building intellectual property for themselves or a high end consulting firm: it was made by passionate people who want to help people help each other. By embracing FLO solutions, the VOAD community can encourage more of this type of innovation from a global community of do-gooders.

Bottom Line

The team behind CrisisCleanup is enthusiastic to work with VOAD. NVOAD should encourage its members to take CrisisCleanup trainings before a disaster strikes and, when it does, push member organizations to sign up for that disaster’s CrisisCleanup instance.

 

FLO Solutions for Disaster Relief

crafty_penguin

“Tux” with a Toolbox

The FLO solutions I’ve described above have been and will be continue to be used during future disasters. Some were used extensively during Sandy relief efforts, including CiviCRM for volunteer management and case tracking; Sahana EDEN for request fulfillment, inventory management and assessment tracking; CrisisCleanUp for collaborative work order management; and WordPress for fast and easy-to-use content-based websites.

If the VOAD community were to bring these tools together to make them more accessible to member organization, the entire VOAD community would benefit greatly — and so too would all the future victims of disaster for whom they serve.

This could be done by pursuing the following activities:

  • creating configurations for disaster response use cases,
  • creating a more unified interface for these tools,
  • providing some training and support for their implementation, and
  • maintaining deployments of these solutions for when disaster strikes.

Over the last few months, we at Sarapis have built out a knowledge resource for the VOAD community cataloging FLO Solutions for Disaster Relief. We have also continued to help Long-Term Recovery Groups in the New York City area access FLO solutions using best practices in knowledge management. We’re now coordinating a technology development effort that will bring together numerous FLO software communities to integrate effective FLO solutions for disaster relief. This will create an even more comprehensive set of FLO Solutions for Disaster Relief.

We’re looking for support from the VOAD community — city, state and national — for our work. Please connect with us if this post is interesting to you.

If you want to receive updates about our progress with this initiative, please sign up for our newsletter on the top right corner of this page.

If you have any questions, feel free to write a comment on this post or contact us directly.

We’re currently accepting tax-free donations through our fiscal sponsor, On The Commons. Please support our work by donating today.

The post FLO Disaster Relief Software – Recommendations for NVOAD appeared first on Sarapis.

Occupy Sandy’s FLO Databases

Have you ever been working on a spreadsheet and found that you just couldn’t get all the information you wanted into it?  Have you ever looked at the horizontal and vertical cells and wished there were—somehow—a third dimension that gave you the ability to define more stuff?  Well, that’s what databases do: they provide you with a third dimension of information, making it possible for web applications to make data so useful.

Occupy Sandy is fortunate to have access to a number of incredible database software “solutions.” The three on which I’d like to focus in this post are:

  • Sahana EDEN (located at sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org): a “humanitarian” platform designed to help NGOs and government agencies manage disaster responses.
  • CiviCRM (located at crm.interoccupy.net): a system used for sending email newsletters and collecting information about volunteers; and
  • ShareTribe (located at occupysandy.permabank.net): a sharing platform that enables folks to post, find and fulfill offers and requests for products, services and spaces.

All three of these software solutions are free/libre/open-source (FLO), meaning they’re free to use, they have no licensing restrictions, and their source code is accessible to anyone who wants to view, use and modify it. Sahana and CiviCRM are both supported by nonprofit organizations, and all three pieces of software are developed by horizontal, non-coercive FLO communities motivated by the desire to make great software—not the desire to make a lot of money.

Sahana, deployed at sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org
Our Sahana system can help us manage a wide variety of tasks common to disaster relief, but we only use it for a few.

requestssandyreliefCurrently, people doing comms and dispatch use the system to record requests for supplies from sites. These requests usually come in via a phone call or email. Once a request is made, people check to see if the request can be fulfilled. If so, the system generates a “waybill,” which is a PDF that has the item names, their quantity, the intended destination and the driver on it. The PDF is printed out, taken to the inventory room where someone collects the items to be shipped, places them in their car and gives the driver the waybill to show him/her where to go. When the shipment is delivered, the hope is that the site that made the request will confirm their requests fulfillment with comms, but in practical use that rarely happens. Over 400 requests have gone through the system to date, with an average of six requests being registered per day since 2013 began.

sandyreliefmapRespond and Rebuild is using Sahana to track and map their work orders. When they assess a house, they record their findings in Sahana. Using the system, they’re currently tracking over 180 work orders, each with nearly 50 variables of information. Sahana also enables them to map each work order, letting them see on a map all the jobs they’re working on, the status of those jobs, and other useful information. The system could easily be configured to provide similar functionality for all the canvassing data that’s been collected by the Occupy Sandy relief effort, but so far that information hasn’t been made available to the Sahana team. If you’d like to connect with them, please email tech@nycga.net.

There are many more ways we could use Sahana to keep Occupy Sandy organized. Some of these ideas are currently underway, while others are just suggestions at this point:

  • Organization and location information: We can use Sahana to keep records of organizations that Occupy Sandy members encounter. In these records we could map out all the places where organizations maintain facilities, add the names and contact information for people at those organizations and facilities, write notes about our interactions with them and more. This could be useful for folks involved in the NYDIS organization information update project.
  • Warehouse inventory: One of Sahana’s main features is its ability to track inventory items through time and space. We can list all the inventory in a warehouse and make it accessible to everyone with access to the system. Then people can use the Sahana system to search for items they’re looking for. This could be useful for the Coney-Childs space.
  • Asset tracking: We share a lot of high value items in the Occupy Sandy network, such as vehicles and expensive tools. We can use Sahana to create a directory of the “assets” we share in the Occupy Sandy network and indicate whether those assets are available or in use, log who is using them (including when, where and for how long), and more. This could be useful for managing vehicles and tools.
  • Canvassing Information: People have been collecting a tremendous amount of information by canvassing neighborhoods to identify needs, gaps, potential health issues and more. Sahana could make all of this data searchable, mappable and (more) actionable. If someone needs help with mold, their record can be assigned a mold workflow in which their status would move from “needs assessment” to “pending work order” to “project underway” to “project completed”. If someone lacks heat, a workflow could be created that goes from “needs heat” to “complaint filed” to “heat fixed.”  Workflows can be created and modified as needed.

CiviCRM, deployed at crm.interoccupy.net
Occupy Wall Street has been using CiviCRM for over a year to send out big email blasts (such as Your Inbox:Occupied). When Sandy hit, the folks at InterOccupy quickly created volunteer intake forms using their CiviCRM. These forms collected a bunch of information about over 10,000 volunteers for Occupy Sandy NY and thousands more for Occupy Sandy NJ.

civicrmosnjEmail newsletters and alerts are sent out to different groups of volunteers depending on how they answered questions on their intake form. This has enabled us to mobilize a tremendous amount of volunteers via email. Now, a group has emerged within Occupy Sandy called “Volunteer Infrastructure,” which is organizing to call the over-8,000 volunteers who gave us their phone numbers in order to update their info and invite them to contribute more time to the cause. It’s a promising endeavour that could bring a tremendous number of people back into the Occupy Sandy fold.

Occupy Sandy NJ has gone one step further than Occupy Sandy NY in their use of CiviCRM. OSNJ fills out a Civi form every time they get a request for assistance from someone in NJ. That information then goes into a queue monitored by OSNJ volunteers who then commit to fulfilling the request. The volunteer reports back when the request is fulfilled and can then commit to fulfilling another one. The kind folks at OSNJ have served thousands using this system and have documented how they do it with this not-very-short video.

There are many more ways we could use CiviCRM in the relief effort: for case management, event pages and RSVPs, fundraising, membership management and more. I encourage folks to check out civicrm.org to see all the ways the system can be used. If you’d like to get involved with CiviCRM use in the Occupy Sandy operation, email tech@nycga.net.

ShareTribe, deployed at occupysandy.permabank.net
In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, a group of technology-oriented activists hatched a plan to create a web application that facilitates sharing among its users. During the first months of Occupy Sandy, we finally deployed a FLO software package with the appropriate features called ShareTribe. It’s built by a community of developers centered in Finland and their intention is to create “Wordpress for Sharing”—which I think is the right idea.

permabankosdbPermaBank provides users with the ability to post offers and request items, services, rides and spaces from each other; and provides a workflow that makes it easy to do real world exchanges with messaging, commenting, and a transaction workflow that enables folks to commit to fulfilling a request and certifying that their request was indeed fulfilled. Folks who find Sahana’s administrator-oriented request fulfillment system too heavy and “industrial” might find the PermaBank system more to their liking.

Conclusion
It goes without saying that all the technology in the world is worthless without the folks in affected areas doing relief work and practicing mutual aid. A database isn’t going to muck-out a house, deliver diapers or give people the experience of personal connection. But what it will do is organize information critical for all those tasks taking place.

Some people feel weird using systems like Sahana or CiviCRM to work with data. The systems can feel awkward, impersonal and clunky, especially when you compare them to the slick applications from Facebook, Twitter and Google. But don’t be fooled by polished web apps from massive corporations—they’re providing you with the digital equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger or Starbucks Frappuccino.

Corporations provide you with “free” web applications because they make tons of money off of your data. They absolutely, positively do not want you to run free/libre/open-source (FLO) software such as Sahana and CiviCRM because FLO software empowers people to be producers instead of consumers.

More people using WordPress (ex. occupysandy.net) means more people producing grassroots media and consuming less mainstream media.

More people using CiviCRM means more people producing online fundraising and advocacy campaigns and consuming less corporate sponsored “clicktivism”.

More people using Sahana means more people producing effective resource and supply chain management systems and consuming fewer corporate products and services.

More people using PermaBank mean more people producing money-less exchanges and consuming fewer resources.

If you’re interested in getting more involved with the FLO technologies used by Occupy Sandy, email tech@nycga.net. We need as much help as we can get.

Sandy, Sahana and Sarapis

When “Superstorm Sandy” hit New York City on October 30th, dozens of relief organizations, hundreds of grassroots groups and thousands of people mobilized to provide aids to those most affected. The challenge of coordinating such a relief effort was felt by everyone involved.

How do you keep track of who has what resources, who is requesting those resources, where the resources are now—and where they’ll need to be tomorrow? How can you see whose needs have been fulfilled and who still needs help? The list of information challenges is extensive.

Sarapis saw the information management challenge coming. Within days of the hurricane we were on-location, helping grassroots-organized disaster relief hubs collect data more efficiently and feed it to folks who could turn it into actionable information for relief providers. We embedded ourselves in grassroots efforts and turned paper forms into spreadsheets and spreadsheets into database tables—and now we’re integrating the data in those tables together through a free/libre/open-source (FLO) disaster management solution provided by the Sahana Foundation.

The Sahana Foundation shepherds a number of FLO disaster management solutions.  The one we’re using, Sahana EDEN, was created after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. Its first iteration was developed through a series of code sprints organized by local information and telecommunications companies in Sri Lanka, who wanted to develop a FLO resource management system that would enable a wide range of relief efforts to coordinate supplies, staff and volunteers over a massive area.

Within a week of Hurricane Sandy, the Sarapis team was touring Mark Prutsalis, CEO/President of the Sahana Software Foundation, around a half dozen community-organized relief hubs and sites, introducing him to key stakeholders and decision-makers who would ultimately determine whether the Sahana system would be implemented at their locations. Less than a month after Sandy hit New York, Sarapis is proud to announce that the Sahana system at sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org is operational, has dozens of active users, and is being used at the largest “Occupy Sandy” communications hubs. It has been demonstrated for folks at a wide variety of voluntary organizations active in disasters (VOADs) including the American Red Cross, New York Cares, United Way and government agencies such as FEMA. It’s also likely that Sahana will be used on a permanent basis by grassroots and community organizations to provide various forms of relief to individuals and groups in the greater New York City. Our work has both facilitated the use of an amazing FLO resource management platform by grassroots organizing efforts and raised the profile of the Sahana Eden system in the eyes of large institutions who will hopefully, at some point in the future, abandon the proprietary systems that grassroots organizers can’t easily access in favor of FLO systems that everyone can use.

The Sahana Foundation’s commitment to supporting grassroots, community-led organizing endeavors has been astounding. Mark Prutsalis, the CEO/President of the Sahana Software Foundation is a resident of Brooklyn and has gotten deeply involved in the relief efforts, touring sites, organizing trainings and providing less-experienced disaster responders with a sense of confidence that only 20 years of disaster relief work can provide. He also flew in Sahana’s core team of developers to New York so they could work with the grassroots efforts in the Occupy Sandy network. Michael Howden of New Zealand and Fran Boon of England jumped right in, visiting sites, surveying users and making everyone feel closer to the technologies they were using for their work. They worked with everyone from user experience designers to warehouse floor managers and comms/dispatch teams to troubleshoot issues, build new features, and generally increase the usefulness of the software. They spent a week in New York and Mark documented their experience better than I ever could on the Sahana Foundation blog here and here.

Why did the Sahana Foundation dedicate over $40,000 worth of their time to the Occupy Sandy effort? Because they recognized it as something familiar: a physical manifestation of the free/libre/open movement. Unlike decades-old institutions that structure themselves around an industrial-age information technology ecology—fax machines, memos, bosses’s bosses’ bosses, and people who resist change in order to preserve their jobs—Occupy Sandy is a temporal network that organizes itself around its technological capabilities. For example, for a shipment of supplies to go out to a relief location, someone needs to create a waybill that has a list of item to be included in the shipment and a destination. If a technology (such as Sahana) comes along that automatically generates printable waybills, the person who used to perform that task isn’t going to lobby to keep their job—they’re going to go do something else.

Occupy works because everyone is trying to make useful contributions to the network, older institutions work because everyone is trying to keep their jobs. As a blank slate that molds itself to the technologies it can access, Occupy can be a technologist’s dream, but it can also be a nightmare. In traditional institutions where bosses tell their underlings what technologies to use, it’s easy to get people to use nifty new technologies: you just have to convince the boss that it’s a good idea. In the Occupy network, each user has to be personally convinced that a tool is worth his or her time. This is a complicated task that more closely resembles bringing a product to market than it does training folks to use software in an organization. And that is the unique work we do at Sarapis: getting people who perform the core functions of a healthy and effective civil society to use FLO solutions.

Learn more about Sarapis’s disaster relief work here.

The post Sandy, Sahana and Sarapis appeared first on Sarapis.

Why I Didn’t Participate in “Occupy vs. Tea Party”

I was initially very excited to participate in “Occupy vs. Tea Party” because I viewed it as a platform to bring the two political movements together through dialogue.  The confrontational framing of the “debate” seemed like an obstacle that could be overcome by focusing on problems upon which both “sides” seem to agree: the central banking cartel, the destruction of civil liberties, the disempowerment of the general public, etc.

The first indication that this would be a misadventure was the so called “tea partiers” that were selected to participate.  As one liberty blogger noted “this should be called ‘Occupy vs. NeoCons”.  While one or two of the so called “tea partiers” are liberty-oriented activists, most of them seem to be 2nd wave Tea Party who are more aligned with neocon ideology than the liberty ideology upon which the Tea Party was founded.  One particularly unpleasant participant is a racist shock-jock whose built a career by spreading fear of Islam.  I attempted to bring a liberty-focused tea party organizer onto the show and he was given the run around and then rejected.

The second indication that this would be a misadventure was that Gordon, the show’s producer, gave us no information about his intentions.  Despite a brief phone call, I had no information about the show: no idea what the format was, how the video would be distributed, whether we were receiving any compensation (or free tickets) or if we had rights to footage.  No doubt it was a sloppy operation.  Then, four days before “Occupy vs. Tea Party” was supposed to take place and after numerous attempts to contact Gordon, the Occupy team received an email with the format of the show.  The so-called “debate” would involve each team voting its own members out of the debate.  This extra dimension turned what could have been a fruitful debate into a circus, and that was the idea.  Gordon suggested we “roll with” the other surprises he had in store for us.  I’m not interested in being involved in a circus-style reality show.  If I were, I’d make sure to find one that was offering prizes.

In my short political history, I’ve been involved in both occupy and liberty movement organizing, and I believe that substantial political change is impossible in this country until those two movements come together.  I didn’t believe “Occupy vs. Tea Party” would provide a platform for that type of work to take place, and thus, didn’t participate in the event.

The experience of planning to debate tea partiers has inspired me to commit to doing more organizing that brings the two groups together.  Stay tuned for that.

Welcome to the FLO Movement

The free, libre, and open source (FLO) movement has created many of the technologies local communities need to rebuild the world from the grassroots upward. These technologies include entire operating systems with complete suites of free software (ex. Ubuntu Linux, OpenOffice, GIMP), web applications for constructing enterprise grade inter/extranets and websites (WordPress, Drupal, Joomla), cloud computing server platforms (OpenStack), designs for local manufacturing of industrial equipment including tractors (Open Source Ecology), 3D printers (RepRap) and automobiles (WikiSpeed)—and much more.

As FLO technology development accelerates and access to information technologies increases, more people than ever could be using high-quality solutions to solve their local problems. But few people are aware the FLO phenomenon even exists, including the nonprofit organizations that could benefit most from its use.

Unlike for-profit enterprises which exist in a state of competition with each other, nonprofits have the opportunity to exist in a state of collaboration—one in which they help each other by spreading best practices, tools and techniques so they can all contribute more effectively to the work of building a better world. This collaboration is essential if the nonprofit sector wants to provide services efficiently in the 21st century and beyond.

By adopting FLO solutions, nonprofit organizations can get better tools for lower prices, increase their organizations’ capacity to collaborate with their stakeholders, and align themselves with an extremely active and productive social movement that wants to make sure people have the information they need to create the world they want to see.

FLO tools and techniques will be discussed in future blog posts, but for now, here’s a glimpse of the ways FLO can promote social justice goals:

Imagine if educators could download a complete technology system to operate a K-12 school and customize it to meet their needs with just a few mouse clicks.

Imagine if farmers could access designs and build procedures for all the tools they need to manage their land.

Imagine if medical researchers could freely share all their data and knowledge with each other.

Only FLO technologies can provide everyone with access to the tools and techniques they need to create wealth and wellness for themselves and their communities. We view universal access to basic technologies as a human right and the key to empowering people to escape poverty.

Participating in the FLO movement is easy. It begins with using FLO tools like Firefox for web browsing, WordPress for online publishing and Linux for your operating system. It continues when you use FLO techniques in your life and work, such as documenting solutions that will benefit others, gifting your time to projects that support the commons and helping people use FLO technologies. If you’re comfortable using software, help FLO projects identify bugs, field questions in forums, contribute to documentation, build extensions, and publish code to communities like Github.

As more people participate in the FLO movement, more people will be empowered by technology, enabling more people to participate in the movement, and more FLO production to take place. This cycle constructs an ecosystem of FLO technologies that we can all use to produce what we want, when we want, and how we want.

A bright future is possible if we all go with the FLO. :)

The post Welcome to the FLO Movement appeared first on Sarapis.

The FLO Consensus: Author’s Cut

Written by Devin Balkind

Edited by Leah Feder

Submitted to Palgave Publishing for inclusion in “Occupying Political Science” on 6/20/2012

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About the Author

 

I remember standing in the doorway of my bedroom and feeling the type of expansive, all-encompassing stress that can only exist in the mind of someone who hadn’t lived long enough to recognize the ups and downs of life. There were so many scenarios playing in my head I couldn’t even muster the mental energy to decide whether or not to walk into my room. I was 12 years old and I knew I had to transform my life or I’d go crazy. Then inspiration hit me. All my stress was rooted in guilt and all my guilt was rooted in my own lies. If I could stop lying to myself, to my family and to my friends, then I’d have nothing to feel guilty about, and thus no longer have any reason to be stressed. At that moment I decided to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to any and everyone, for the rest of my life.

 

At that moment I became an activist.

 

Context within the Occupy Movement

 

Within the Occupy Movement and, from what I understand, in many of the social movements that preceded it, there has always been a conflict between the “revolutionaries” that want to create a crisis to first disrupt, and then destroy, the existing social order; and the “reformers” who want to take control of existing power structures and change society from “the inside”. Within the occupy landscape, the “revolutionaries” gravitate towards the language of “occupy” and “direct action” while the “reformers” gravitate towards the language of “99%” and “protest.”

 

This essay is concerned with a third group within the occupy movement – a group rarely mentioned by the media and often discounted by the activists who spend their time doing the type of self-promotion that gets them on to panels. I’m referring to the “providers”: activists who invest their time and resources into providing services to individuals and groups within “the movement”. These people are often vocal advocates for “mutual aid” (leftist terminology) or “free aid” (rightist terminology). Since occupy originated more from the left than the right, the term “mutual aid” is most popular, defined on Wikipedia as “voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.” Within the context of OWS, mutual aid is probably more accurately described as “the revolutionary act of helping people for free.”

 

During the occupation of Liberty Square, there were 17 “operations working groups” which were defined by the “spokes council” as groups that supported the logistical operation of the park. About a dozen of them provided mutual aid-style services. A few examples of such groups were the OWS library, which maintained a reading space and made books accessible to the community, the “occupied kitchen”, which fed up to 5000 people a day, the street medics, who did their best to keep folks healthy, and the “comfort” group, which handed out clothes and other items to the park’s inhabitants. I’m involved with a group that came to be known as the Technology Operations Group, or TechOps for short. This group manages NYCGA.net, a free/libre/opensource social network with nearly 10,000 users that became the main communications organ of the OWS community; stared the Occupy.net suite of free/libre/opensource software services such as the wiki, map, notepad and a dozen other services; manages the CRM (constituent relationship management) system that sends out newsletters to tens of thousands of people; and runs a cloud hosting environment.

 

Depending on one’s perspective, Occupy Wall Street’s TechOps groups was either a disastrous failure or a brilliant success. It was a failure because Occupy’s web presence is still wildly unorganized and people find it difficult to engage with the movement through the web. TechOps is a success because it has laid the foundation of a free/libre/opensource technical infrastructure that will integrate elegantly with existing FLO systems to provide a framework through which social movements can transform the economic landscape by “producing their way out of oppression.”

 

An Introduction to FLO

 

There is a global movement consisting of millions of the world’s most highly skilled people, a substantial portion of which believe they have the solution to all the world’s problems: free information. Before discounting this simplistic idea, consider that this movement’s participants have produced some of the world’s most significant technological innovations: the world-wide-web, Linux, LibreOffice, WordPress and Wikipedia, to name just a few of the thousands of software projects that identify as free, libre and/or opensource (FLO). When people attempt to estimate the value of FLO software to the economy, estimates are in the ten to hundreds of billions of dollars. In reality, the FLO movement contribution is invaluable: without it, the information technology revolution we have been experiencing over the last 50 years would not have been possible.

 

The origins of what some people are calling the FLO movement could begin millenia ago with the transition from oral histories to written ones. The basic idea that information should be free from restriction is an old one. However, stories have to start somewhere and the community at Wikipedia who wrote the page on the “history of free and open source software” is most qualified to tell the narrative. They begin with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturing Association of 1911.

 

“The concept of free sharing of technological information existed long before computers. For example, cooking recipes have been shared since the beginning of human culture. Open source can pertain to businesses and to computers, software and technology.

In the early years of automobile development, a group of capital monopolists owned the rights to a 2-cycle gasoline engine patent originally filed by George B. Selden.[1] By controlling this patent, they were able to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands, or risk a lawsuit. In 1911, independent automaker Henry Ford won a challenge to the Selden patent. The result was that the Selden patent became virtually worthless and a new association (which would eventually become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association) was formed.[1] The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all US auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, these patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers.[1] By the time the US entered World War 2, 92 Ford patents and 515 patents from other companies were being shared between these manufacturers, without any exchange of money (or lawsuits).[1][improper synthesis?]”

Software communities that can now be compared with today’s free-software community existed for a long time before the free-software movement and the term “free software”.[2] According to Richard Stallman, the software-sharing community at MIT existed for “many years” before he got involved in 1971.[3] In the 1950s and into the 1960s almost all software was produced by computer science academics and corporate researchers working in collaboration. As such, it was generally distributed under the principles of openness and co-operation long established in the fields of academia, and was not seen as a commodity in itself. At this time, source code, the human-readable form of software, was generally distributed with the software itself because users frequently modified the software themselves, because it would not run on different hardware or OS without modification, and also to fix bugs or add new functionality.[4]

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_free_and_open-source_software#Early_information_sharing

 

To fully grasp the concept behind the “free software movement’ and the reason this author has chosen the term “FLO” we must look at how the word “free” is used in the English language. Free has two distinct meanings: free of charge (gratis) and free of restrictions (libre.) The free software movement is much more concerned with the latter freedom, not the former. While most in the movement envision a world where everyone has the software solutions they need to do the things they want, it’s the intellectual property restrictions that motivate them to organize, because it’s those restrictions that hamper innovation – and the act of innovation is the act of transforming problems into solutions. While free/gratis software can be used by consumers to temporarily satisfy a need, it’s free/libre software that can be used, edited, modified and resold by producers to develop transformative innovation.

 

While the “free software movement” advanced the philosophy of free/libre, the “open source movement” organized itself to implement FLO solutions for others. “Open source” was coined by a group of people who made their living by implementing free software solutions for clients. They found that the gratis definition of free confused people. If the software was “free”, then why did people who implemented it charge money? If anyone could download the software’s code, wouldn’t it be easy for hackers to exploit it? If my competitors can run the same software, then don’t I lose my advantage? If a community of volunteers maintain the software, how could I be sure that it would continue to be developed? Since most clients were not interested in the revolutionary potential of free/libre software, the “open source movement” chose to focus its attention on building the business case for FLO: its accessibility, the diversity of support options, limited vendor lock-in issues, etc. This approach has been very successful, but the “free software movement” saw it as a co-option of the core values of information activism – and thus resist using the term and encourage their communities to do the same.

 

Despite the naming wars and lack of community and brand cohesion within the FLO movement(s), FLO software has gained rapid adoption over the last few decades, and that adoption continues to accelerate. While the mainstream media focuses on the financial success of Facebook and Twitter, the technology community recognizes that the popular FLO content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, Drupal and Joomla have transformed people’s capacity to build highly functional technology systems for themselves and their communities. It’s because of these CMS platforms that writers, video producers, schools, hospitals, governments and people of all types have access to increasingly sophisticated technology tools. Indeed, technical solutions that cost $50,000 5 years ago cost $5,000 now, and will cost $500 in the not-too-distant future. This isn’t because of Moore’s law, which states that microchip prices will naturally go down by 50% every 18 months. It’s because the FLO software community produces solutions to common challenges everyday, and in aggregate those solutions create a FLO technology commons that makes it easier and easier for people to create the solutions they want. This process has – and continues to – fundamentally transformed the technology sector – and beyond.

 

FLO and the Physical World

 

In the last few years, FLO has made the leap to the physical world. One of the centers of FLO hardware culture is Marcin Jacobowski’s Factor e Farm in Missouri. Marcin was a high energy physicist turned rural homesteader who has spent the last few years coordinating the development of a series of 50 tools that he calls the “Global Village Construction Set” – or GVCS for short. The organizing principle behind the GVCS is Marcin’s claim that these tools could be built on-site from readily available materials and that, once built, these tools could be used to produce all the comforts of “modern” living: everything from food, clothing and shelter to tractors, solar concentrators and batteries.

 

The distinguishing feature of Marcin’s GVCS project isn’t its ambition – the internet is awash with dreamers describing their dreams. Nor is it its technical sophistication – there are myriad other high-tech open hardware projects out there. The GVCS became the darling of the Free/Libre/Open Source Everything community because its instigator took the virtual conversations taking place about a FLO world and turned them into a livable reality for people brave enough to come out to Missouri, live in a yurt and work non-stop toward building FLO hardware tools.

 

The most difficult part of FLO hardware development is the production of the documentation people need to recreate the tools. One reason this is so difficult is that it often takes one very specific type of intelligence to solve a hardware engineering problem and a completely different type of intelligence to document how that solution works in a way that’s useful to other people who want to build, edit, modify and contribute their own innovations to the project. Over time, best practices have developed for doing this type of documentation within the FLO software community. Their solution set involves writing “read me” pages that orient people to the project, placing comments into the code, writing guides for developers and users in a wiki, having highly structured project management systems and providing venues for public discussion. The GVCS project incorporated a lot of these practices into their work with great success, but also discovered the limitations of employing software practices for real world applications – limitations that Occupy Wall Street would begin to experience as it attempted to employ open source principles in the pursuit of global revolution.

 

FLO Solutions at Occupy Wall Street

 

When I came to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th, I had an agenda: bring the free/libre/opensource movement’s message to the “demonstrators”. This is something I had experience doing with “liberty” activists surrounding the Ron Paul campaign, and I was eager to see how the message translated to “leftists”. Within the first week of the Occupation, I had created the “Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group” and was making daily mic checks at the General Assembly about the importance of Free/Libre/Opensource movement.

 

“Mic Check!”

“Mic Check.”

“I’m from the Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group!”

“I’m from the Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group.”

“Free/libre/opensource solutions!”

“Free/libre/opensource soltuions.”

“give you the right”

“give you the right”

to use

to use

to edit

to edit

to modify

to modify

to sell

to sell

solutions people need

solutions people need

to create the world they want

to create the world they want.

 

I also handed out hundreds of fliers explaining Marcin Jacobowski’s GVCS project. To many people in the those early days, I was known as the open source tractor guy. For a small fraction of those people who were actually FLO activists themselves, I became someone worth connecting with because I was working on the same revolution as they were.

 

To FLOers, the peer-to-peer, networked, FLO information revolution is the revolution. Not only is the FLO revolution democratizing communications, making it easier than ever for people to organize themselves outside the framework of a corporation or state to state a political revolution, but FLO technologies are also making information accessible to facilitate a productivity revolution. In the productivity revolution, individuals and communities are empowered to produce their own goods and services. While this might sound fanciful, think about the GVCS. What if high quality, production ready plans existed for all the technologies people need to create a “modern” community – from food and shelter technologies to the financial services ones that Wall Street uses to move capital around the world at breakneck speeds? Is there any doubt the world would be a wealthier place, and that this wealth would be available to more people than ever before?

 

The vision of a world in which material scarcity is vanquished by improved productivity is often called “abundance”. Abundance has been the topic of a number of books in recent decades, but surprisingly few of them point to the FLO movement as the vehicle through which an abundance revolution is made possible. Instead, they look more at abundance from the perspective of the self – in which people go through a transformation where they lose their fear of being without food, shelter, and social affirmation and embrace the reality of an abundant world in which all their needs will be met as long as they follow a certain set of practices that often involve being nice to other people and being open to new opportunities

 

Abundance is an increasingly popular vision among all types of people, but only the FLO movement has a practical strategy for achieving it: give people the tools and techniques they need to create the things they want. When people are empowered to produce for themselves, they are much less easy to exploit. For this reason, abundance is, in this author’s opinion, the only modality in which a truly non-coercive, anarchist society is possible – and FLO solutions are the only way we’ll be able to achieve such a revolution.

 

Since so many people at Occupy Wall Street identify themselves as anarchists, one would imagine that this message would be very appealing to occupiers – and it is. In fact, people within Occupy Wall Street are more than happy to declare themselves aligned with the FLO movement. Indeed, the three major statements of Occupy Wall Street all contain endorsements of the FLO movement – and that wasn’t an accident. FLO solutions were vigorously advocated within the movement – not just by me, but by nearly every technologist that showed up to do the work of providing technical solutions to the budding movement.

 

After starting the FLO Solutions group with a number of friends, it became very clear to many of us that advocating FLO approaches was the easy part. Implementing them would be another story. The Internet Working Group, which maintained NYCGA.net – the General Assembly’s communication platform – was feuding with OccupyWallSt.org, the movement’s most popular website, over control of the online brand. Meanwhile, a number of groups and individuals emerged claiming to be PR. Press, OWSPR, etc. Wealthy liberals came out of the woodwork to offer us free websites that they would build and of which they would have undefined levels of control. In short, distributing a coherent message through strategically aligned online platforms wasn’t something the technologists in Zuccotti had the ability to accomplish. Therefore, our collective focus shifted from outward facing communication platforms to empowering the myriad individuals and groups within the movement with good FLO solutions.

 

To achieve this goal, the FLO Solutions Group began working with the Internet Working Group to transform the NYCGA.net website from a standard WordPress into a social network activists could use to communicate with each other. Collaboration around this task and others made it clear that the Internet and FLO Solutions Groups were one in the same. The lines between the two faded away: FLO Solutions gave its radical FLO activism philosophy to Internet and Internet gave its responsibility for managing the NYCGA’s technology infrastructure to FLO Solutions. The synthesis of the groups, however, wasn’t made official until the formation of the Spokes Council required working groups to officially register. Since the distinction was being made between “operations” groups that worked on supporting the Zuccotti occupation and “movement” groups that were interested in policy, we decided to name ourselves “Technology Operations Group” – TechOps for short.

 

By this time, the general consensus within TechOps was that we would focus on developing internal communications tools and supporting activists through technology, letting the various PR and Media groups and OccupyWallSt.org take responsibility for public facing content. Instead of focusing on fans and followers, TechOps spent its time developing enterprise grade FLO systems that would enhance activist work. We deployed a constituent relationship management (CRM) system that can send millions of emails to constituents, a wiki that uses the semantic technology we need to develop a globally accessible shared knowledge resource, a directory of all the occupations around the world, news aggregators, campaign websites and literally dozens of other solutions. We also continued to maintain NYCGA.net, which was becoming an increasingly important tools for the emerging OWS bureaucracy.

 

Occupy Wall Street was organized through a “working groups” model in which people would join a group of people with similar interests, attend “open meetings” and give report backs to the General Assembly. Benefits of group membership was affiliation with “Occupy Wall Street” and the ability to solicit funds, which had hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal. Since each group was given a presence on NYCGA.net, defining a group became the responsibility of TechOps. Guidelines were written up by a team that required groups to conduct regular meetings in the NYC area, take notes at each of those meetings, and have up-to-date contact information on their group page. These rules were followed by many of the larger groups, but were untenable for smaller ones – making the policy difficult to enforce.

Once groups were accepted, they were required to pick administrators who then became the only people with the ability to post official events to the site. Group admins could also promote and delete users, edit comments and create a “group blog” at an NYCGA subdomain. The myriad of permissions and clumsiness with which they were set up created a variety of problems that slowly turned NYCGA.net from a no-nonsense communications and documentation platform into a venue for some of the movement’s most vitriolic conversations. While we outlined a variety of administrative guidelines for positive and responsible community management, we found it very difficult to enforce them with any type of regularity. The need for enforcement was becoming increasingly important as the disruptive behavior that was ruining the productivity of General Assemblies and Spokes Councils was transferring over to the NYCGA.net online community. It wasn’t long before each of the most disruptive people at OWS also had NYCGA.net personas. Some of them had multiple personas to increase their capacity to disrupt. Many people suspected this type of activity was taking place when they would see two personas using similarly structured language to agree with each other or echo criticism, and it was confirmed when site system administrators discovered those personas had the same IP addresses. Whether this was an indication that these people were “provocateurs” hired to disrupt the OWS community from making forward progress or just off-kilter people who enjoyed a conflict was a question TechOps never fully tackled. But these situations were rare. More problematic was that there were “normal” trolls within many group forums on NYCGA.net, that lots of Occupy activists have bad internet manners and that, quite simply, there were many conflicting personalities within Occupy Wall Street – and forums were a popular place for clashes amongst such personalities to take place. The aggregate effect was that NYCGA.net became an “unsafe space” that people didn’t want to use to communicate, and which they instead used only to comply with the demands of the OWS bureaucracy.

 

As NYCGA.net struggled as both a community site and a platform with severe technical limitations, it became clear to many in TechOps that we should shift our focus away from NYCGA.net and into Occupy.net.

 

Occupy.net was secured in the early days of the occupation by a member of FLO Solutions. We began to use its subdomains to host various software services that we thought OWS activists would need to conduct a successful social movement. Our decisions to deploy certain tools were very much informed by our experiences working with other FLO projects – especially the experiences of the GVCS project. We deployed MediaWiki, the software used by Wikipedia, as a knowledge management solution at wiki.occupy.net; CiviCRM, the world’s most popular FLO constituent relationship management tool up at crm.occupy.net; a directory of all the movement’s occupy websites at directory.occupy.net; a news aggregator at newswire.occupy.net; a mapping solution at map.occupy.net; and much more. At this moment, we have 8 “launched” software services and about 30 more in evaluation phases.

 

Unlike NYCGA.net, which was a utility for Occupy Wall Street in New York managed by a NYC based group of techies, Occupy.net is a set of tools, each of which is maintained by a different team, many of whom aren’t located in the New York area. In some ways it’s the software equivalent to the GVCS: all of the FLO software tools our community needs to build a robust social movement. The intention behind the toolkit is to do more than simply provide the Occupy movement with useful tools; it’s to provide an FLO alternative to the world’s largest web application provider – Google. That isn’t as crazy as it might sound: there is an FLO alternative for nearly every Google application, but no one has tied all these FLO alternatives together with a unified design language, single user sign-on, comprehensive documentation and community support network to create something that feels competitive. Our ability to frame Occupy.net as an alternative to corporate software is what attracts activist technologists to maintain services under the Occupy.net name. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to attract the attention of the mainstream media, who are looking for stories about social media flash mobs organized on corporate social networks like Facebook and Twitter, not how a bunch of technologists are designing, deploying and maintaining enterprise grade FLO software solutions that will be able to enhance the movement’s growth over the long term and chart how to create software infrastructure for the new, emergent, FLO economy.

 

Where’s the Marketing Department?

 

Deploying dozens of technical solutions at Occupy.net has been much easier than getting activists to use the tools. When Occupy Wall Street first started, I assumed, like many techies did, that Outreach, Info and various other working groups would want to build email lists so they could develop deeper relationships with people who were inspired by the Occupation. To my surprise, I found it extremely difficult to find anyone interested in taking responsibility for collecting email addresses and producing a newsletter. By the 2nd month of the occupation, we had a CRM solution together for use by “Outreach”– but it took them another 3 months to begin to use it.

 

To what could we attribute this failure in community adoption, observable not just in the CRM but in the Occupy wiki, the mapping application, and the other dozen or so tools made available through the Occupy.net project? First of all, the very nature of Occupy’s decentralized, autonomous organizing is that few groups exist to serve the others. The corollary of this truth is that groups quickly began to assume that they would have to rely on their own [communications] tools and resources to meet all of their organizing needs. When TechOps came forward with the tools that we saw a need for and were in some instances even requested to produce, few came to us as a resource, and fewer still followed through with our recommendations.

 

This speaks to a problem familiar to those in the technology world: highly useful tools are produced but users don’t adopt them. It was one thing for us to produce the tools that were necessary—it was an entirely different challenge to actually communicate these services outward, a task people within the media community are more qualified to tackle than those in the technology one.

 

Ideally, this would have been a function performed by the Media Working Group—a group which specialized in the production and promotion of documentary content. Unfortunately, instead of documenting how activists can use tools to enhance their work, their attention was more focused on conflicts between “protesters and police” —known inside the movement as “riot porn.” This isn’t surprising as mainstream media outlets would often evaluate whether or not to cover an “action” by asking the self-identified occupy PR people how many arrests they thought would be taking place. Violence gets views, and media people produce content so people can view it, so it’s not surprising they gravitate towards the sensational instead of the functional, brutality instead of kindness, actions over mutual aid. This highlights, once again, the conflicting interests of those who create crisis through disruptive actions and those who develop solutions through sharing productivity tools and techniques. Activist movements have traditionally found it difficult bringing these groups to the same table where they can align their interests around a single vision and set of strategies. It helps if that table has lots of delicious, regionally appropriate, organic food grown by mutual friends.

 

Food at Occupy Wall Street

 

Food is the foundation of our society, our economy and our culture. Everyone eats, and most people like to talk about their eating experiences. It’s safe to say food is one of humanity’s most shared interests. Food has played a central role in the Occupy Wall Street experience. While the marches and actions captured the attention of the mainstream media, it was the occupied kitchen that captured the attention of those who came to Zuccotti Park. At its height, the occupied kitchen was serving over 5,000 free meals a day. It was so successful at feeding people that many OWS activists blame it for the “failure” of the occupation. In the first week of the occupation, before it became a national news item, nearly all of Zuccotti’s inhabitants were activists who came out for Occupy Wall Street. As the mainstream became aware of the occupation, word spread that there was food available for all who showed up. At first non-activist groups that showed up were homeless people who found park life more comfortable and exciting than life on the streets. As time went on, all types of street people found a home and hot meal at Zuccotti Park – including the mentally unstable, drug dealers and other “unsavory characters” that made the park feel increasingly dangerous. By the time of the eviction, things had deteriorated substantially and the park’s culture had turned from an activist center to something more akin to a refugee camp. The Daily Show’s now-famous piece describing the divide between the east side of the park, which was filled with more mainstream activists, and the west side of the park, which was filled with “street people”, was accurate but missed the critical importance of food in explaining why both communities continued to inhabit the space.

 

The food narrative is central in the story of Occupy Wall Street. If the media, mainstream or otherwise, had followed the narrative thread of food, they would have encountered OWS’s truly radical narrative that explains how people can voluntarily organize themselves to produce services for an inclusive community within the confines of a militarized American metropolis. The articulation of such a narrative, and it’s popular distribution is an important goal of for many people involved in Occupy Wall Street, but as members of the mutual aid community, we know that talking about providing services is much easier than actually providing them. While Zuccotti was in operation, we had an opportunity to make the case for a mutual aid revolution because we had an example to point to, but the eviction destroyed that example. We need to produce another, more resilient one. Fortunately, we’ve spent 9 months setting up the FLO technology infrastructure to make that possible.

 

FLO Farms, FLO Food

 

A popular phrase within food activist communities is “no farms – no food.” Within the context of occupy, that phrase could very well mean “if we don’t organize farms, we won’t be able to organize the distribution of food.” From the unlabeled genetically modified organisms (GMO) in mainstream food to the predatory practices of agro-business, the inhumane treatment of livestock to our food system’s dependency on fossil fuels, there’s more than enough opportunities to criticize our existing industrial-captialist food system. So, when Occupy Farms was chartered as a working group within the NYCGA, no one would have been surprised if it had developed into another criticism-oriented group – but it didn’t. Instead, Occupy Farms started building relationships between rural farmers and urban occupiers and helping occupy activists get out of the city and onto some farmland. By approaching its work from the perspective of a service provider, Occupy Farms established itself as a mutual aid group — compelling myself and others in TechOps to join and bring all of our tools to this effort. In doing so, we switched roles from being tool providers to users, allowing us to see things from a different perspective and better understand the type of documentation we need to produce to make these tools accessible to the OWS community.

 

Like most groups, Occupy Farms needed a website through which to communicate its intentions, share logistical information with its community and collect information about individuals interested in its work. In response to that need, we deployed a WordPress website with the necessary functionality, organized our information on the wiki, used our CiviCRM to match occupiers and began sending out a regular newsletter to our community. We also created a Google Docs collection to share information among Occupy Farms core team members. While Google Docs certainly isn’t free/libre, its usefulness is difficult to exaggerate.

 

While documentation for all of the tools we deployed existed, it was mostly directed a technical audience who might want to help us support the tools, not an activist audience who simply wants to use them. This became very obvious to us as the Occupy Farmers ran into difficulties and had to come to us to resolve them because the documentation was insufficient for their purposes. Fortunately, in an act of mutual aid, some people in Occupy Farms offered to work with TechOps to write appropriate documentation so it’s easier for more individuals and groups to adopt the tools. This activity will greatly benefit the entire Occupy Wall Street community and will also benefit Occupy Farms. When more people use FLO tools, more bugs are found and squashed, more features are defined and implemented, and more solutions are integrated together to create better products for all. Not only can our FLO systems support ten to a hundred times more users, but we can also easily package our solutions up and distribute them to affiliated groups for a near zero marginal cost. This doesn’t just apply to Occupy Wall Street related groups – it applies to everything.

 

The FLO Consensus

 

During Occupy Wall Street’s brief history, the OWS community has asserted numerous times the importance it places on freely sharing information, defining itself as a FLO movement. The Declaration of the Occupation of New York instructs us to “generate solutions accessible to all”; the Principles of Solidarity requests we make “technologies, knowledge, and culture open to all to freely access, create, modify, and distribute”; and the Statement of Autonomy defines Occupy Wall Street by saying it “is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand.”

 

For people truly interested in transforming the world, solving the big problems and empowering each other to self-actualize, intellectual property is a nuisance that gets in the way of productive collaborations that generate solutions anyone can use. Common sense dictates that if we, the people, share a problem, we should work together to produce free (meaning both gratis, as in no cost; and libre, as in no restrictions) solutions to everyday challenges that are also openly accessible so anyone can use, edit, modify and even sell to others. Yet the vast majority of the general public isn’t even aware that such a possibility exist, much less that the FLO movement exists to do just that. For many activists and do-gooders who have not fully ingested the “FLO Everything pill”, the idea of a free/libre/open source world in which abundant information technologies leads to an abundance of the material things sounds unbelievable at best and disillusion at worst. For those of us who have taken the pill, however, that world of abundance is an often experienced reality that motivates a type of distributed activism that’s unique in the western world.

 

The easiest way to share that abundant reality is through the food system, and the food system is ready for an information revolution. If you ask any small farmer about the quality of their tools, they’ll tell you that the big agricultural corporations are neglecting them. Monsanto, John Deere, Cargill and others have shifted their focus from small scale farmers to industrial farm operators. This leaves small farmers, those whom Jefferson considered the backbone of American democracy, with a poor selection of products and services from which to choose and the FLO community with a massive opportunity to break into the agricultural market.

 

Conventionally, large corporations have the advantage when it comes to industrial innovation because they have the capital necessary to support expensive research and development initiatives. FLO hardware can only be viable when information technologies are sophisticated enough to allow individuals to take responsibility for their own capital needs while aggregating their innovation with others to produce something that everyone can own. Innovations in FLO software make this possible. FLO computer aided design (CAD) technologies enable people to transfer production ready schematics in a single file and subversioning technologies like GIT enable people to track changes to keep file histories organized. 3D printers, torch tables and CNC machines are all emerging to make small scale, micro factories not only possible but profitable. Factor e Farm is producing FLO brick presses in Missouri that are cheaper than their industrial, mass produced competitors by a factor of three. As Marcin Jacobowski of Factor e Farm says in his TED talk:

 

“This is only the beginning. If this idea is truly sound, than the implications are significant. A greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chain and a newly relevant DIY maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity. We’re exploring the limits of what we can all do to make a better world with open hardware technology.”

 

In the digital realm, the troubleshooting process is relatively easy – you turn it on, it doesn’t work, and you turn it off. In the physical realm, depending on what you’re building, the cost of failure is real: both in time and resources. If, for example, someone tried a new tractor design feature and it failed, the cost is substantial in materials, capital and time. So substantial, in vast, that the vast majority of small farmers, hardware innovation is prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, land use innovation is not.

 

If there is any doubt that America is in need of dramatically improving the way its residents manage land, consider that American farmers are paid by the government to destroy their crops. This isn’t a conspiracy: it’s an acknowledged practice and proof that we need widespread distribution of permacultural practices such as natural building, intensive agro-forestry, concentrated solar construction, and other DIY innovations. Armed with the knowledge of how to produce wealth with land, America’s energetic youth can build their own communities – earth brick by earth brick. By bridging the gap between those who desire a new society and the more docile older population who owns the land but prefer to spend their time pursuing other pastimes, Occupy Farms is organizing the infrastructure for a new, FLO economy. If we exhaust the resources of friendly land owners, we can take the land from the Federal government, which owns 29% America, mostly in the western states. Just a small fraction of Federal land could support all the Americans who want to transition from the industrial lifestyle to a more ecologically sensitive and liberated one.

 

This lifestyle doesn’t necessarily involve conventional farming, which has a well deserved reputation as being hard work. Permacultural practices produce ample amounts of food but in a different way. While farming focus on producing crops that need to be planted and harvested every year, permaculture focuses on creating abundant landscapes that produce more per acre over the long term. Permaculturists design their landscapes in layers. For example, a permaculturist will plant nut trees, vines, berry bushes and grown crops all in the same space. Once planted, these crops require minimal maintenance, and when mature, the space will produce food consistently over the course of the year, every year. Permaculturists proudly call themselves lazy farmers and viewing their horticultural approach as an evolution of conventional agriculture and the foundation of a solutions-based social movement of its own. While their natural instinct is to share as much information as possible with any and all people who’re interested in a more sustainable lifestyle, their exposure to FLO practices is minimal so the community is still producing more books than semantically structure online knowledge resources, but that’s changing thanks to projects like Appropedia.org, Farmhack.org and OpenSourceEcology.org. Each of these projects have Occupy activists embedded within them who are coordinating with each other to ensure that we’re all ready to integrate our resources when the time come.

 

A master plan for revolution is organically emerging that involves the development of a competency in useful FLO solutions within the occupy community, the distribution of FLO solutions through networks of rural farms, urban occupied spaces and allied communities, and the manifestation of a new set of exchange practices that can replace the coercive neoliberal economic model with something more conducive to the collaborative production practices of a FLO economy.

 

FLO economics can’t exist without FLO money. Fortunately, money is just a technology and there’s already a sufficient FLO alternative to the Federal Reserve Note called Bitcoin. While the mainstream media likes to pretend that Bitcoin is a product you can purchase, it’s better understood as a software service people can deploy to create their own cryptographically secure digital currency network. Just as physical currency has security features such as intricate designs, unique textures and exotic printed features, digital currency requires cryptographic features to remain secure. One way to understand Bitcoin is to focus on its physical features. A Bitcoin is a long string of information – numbers, letters and symbols – that can be printed out as a QR code. That QR code contains the Bitcoin. If you give it to someone, they have the Bitcoin. When they scan the QR code, the Bitcoin is transferred onto a computer and automatically authenticated by the network of computers running the Bitcoin software. Once authenticated, the network changes the Bitcoin, so the QR code can’t be reused. If someone wants to create a physical Bitcoin again, they have to print out a new QR code.

 

Just as a Federal Reserve Note is one part of our currency ecosystem which also includes everything from gift certificates and credit cards to complex derivatives, Bitcoin is one tool in a toolbox of alternative currency technologies that are emerging to support the new types of exchanges being motivated by FLO economics. It’ll be quite some time before a FLO currency can provide its users with the breadth of economic exchange possibilities as the Federal Reserve Note, it won’t be long before someone in the Northeastern United States York purchases some local produce from an occupied farm using FLO currency systems. Indeed, by the time you’ve read this, it might have already taken place.

 

“The revolution is here – it’s just not everywhere.”

The Gifting Experience

An amazing gifting phenomenon emerged during the occupation of Zuccotti Park (Liberty Square) in which strangers spontaneously organized themselves to provide food and shelter to anyone in need.  This organic emergence of mass generosity flowered for two months amidst the sky scrappers of multi-national banks and the cynicism of abused souls who looked upon the ‘occupation’ as an unsanitary oddity.

While it may seem odd to the mainstream personality that people would work night and day to feed, cloth, shelter and secure each other without receiving any type of financial compensation, to those who participated in the process of occupation, nothing could be more natural – or rewarding.

Mainstream society is build on the assumption that “resources are scarce” and that “incentives drive decision-making”, but gifting society see things differently.  Gifting societies assume essential resources such as sunlight, water, food and shelter are abundant (but possibly mis-allocated) and that personal passion drives decision-making.  The assumption of abundance allows people in gifting societies to escape the crippling fear of poverty that most people in mainstream society experience on a day to day basis.  When people let go of their fear of poverty, they can begin to embrace their true passions, but the transition isn’t always smooth – in fact it can be quite frightening.

The occupation of Zuccotti Park frightened many people not because it was unsanitary or dangerous, but because it showed people that another world is not only possible, but practical – and may ever provide better services at lower costs. Everyday that the occupation provided shelter to hundreds, food to thousands and entertainment to millions, was a day that the mainstream world-view was not only challenged, but replaced for something more interesting and authentic.

The original occupation of Wall Street is over, but the gifting society that spontaneously emerged out of it is not.  Those involved in the occupation experienced, for a few short months, a society free from money, coercion and hierarchy.  Occupy activists are not going back.  In fact, they’re determined to recreate the experience and spread it far and wide.

The mission of PermaBank is to give people the tools they need to engage in and spread the experience of gifting.  Our first feature is a simple gifts/wishes application in which people “offer a gift” or “make a wish.”

All of PermaBank’s code is free/libre/opensource software designed, developed and deployed by folks from the New York General Assemblies Technology Operations Group.  Check out our other projects and please please please let us know if you’d like to get involved in the PermaBank project.  We need your unique gifts, seriously!

…Solutions through Solidarity through Solutions through Solidarity…