PACS news/November 5, 2019

Digital Impact: Reflections from Brisbane

On July 29 More than 100 Australian social sector leaders spent a beautiful Saturday in Brisbane discussing the possibilities and responsibilities of digital civil society. Several themes dominated the day: the importance of the “people” part of digital data, the ways digital technologies can highlight and even amplify existing social disparities, and a clear enthusiasm for building connections across sectors, disciplines and expertise.

The current Australian political context was at the forefront of these discussions: tax exemption issues, racial profiling in the criminal justice system, crackdowns on advocacy organizations and encryption technologies, and a series of data-related government failures that are testing people’s trust. A new federal funding scheme to support individuals with disabilities has been in effect for just one month, and nonprofits and public agencies in several states are working to transition services to a more inclusively user-driven model. Adjacent not-for-profits in the health and education spheres are also paying close attention.

The intersection of digital rights and nonprofit responsibilities came up throughout the day. Examples included stories of online threats and abuse, and conversations about the responsibility of nonprofit organizations to keep people safe in digital environments. We considered the way regulatory responsibilities that have fostered more transparency have changed the public’s expectations of the sector. It was encouraging to see the connections being made between “peak bodies” (infrastructure organizations for subsectors of civil society) and digital rights activism.

The Brisbane event featured robust participation from civil society actors beyond non-profits. We were fortunate to be joined by scholars, executives, community activists, and digital designers, each of whom brought a different perspective on the possibilities and responsibilities of digital tools for their work.

Important Aboriginal perspectives on operating in liminal spaces were a highlight of the day, and we considered a variety of practices for specifying cultural protocols for managing digital data and negotiating relationships with mainstream organizations. These were valuable insights on their own, and served as potential models for mainstream non-profit organizations coming to grips with their own dependence on digital tools. The possibilities of learning from Aboriginal experiences in “fitting the digital” to the community’s values, and not the opposite, are exciting. Brett Leavy, a digital archivist and visionary, treated the participants to a first showing of a virtual reality-based, Brisbane-specific Acknowledgement of the Traditional Owners – a beautiful and transporting addition to the day.

Political movements, independent activists, and digital rights activists also distinguished the day. One of the goals for the Digital Impact series is to weave new connections within civil society and the Brisbane event set a new standard for this. Foundation leaders, philanthropic associations, and social service providers shared stages and tables with social media “rabble rousers” and political action membership-based movements. These are important relationships at the individual level. Aggregated to the whole, the lesson learned was that desining the three types of “codes” that shape digital civil society – software, organizational and legal – in a way that represents civil society’s values will depend on building these diverse partnerships of “techies,” rights advocates, scholars, policy makers, citizens, and those who “work at the coal face” of nonprofit action.

Our Brisbane hosts themselves represented this diversity. Led by the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Non-profit Studies at QUT, the host team included partners from industry, peak bodies, and government agencies who convened a phenomenal cross-sector group for a fascinating day of conversation. There was great interest in thinking about the role of universities and training organizations in building and sharing skills across sectors.  By the time the event closed, new allies from across the spectrum of digital civil society – from philanthropy to digital rights – were sharing ideas for how to build upon this work. We can’t wait to see how the Brisbane community builds on these local and global conversations!