Popularity + Impact in Volunteer Movements: Alcoholics Anonymous, Poetry Slams, and the Path to Impact for the Civic Innovation Movement

Here’s a presentation I’m giving here later today.


Hi, I’m Dan O’Neil, and I want to talk to you about popularity and impact in software. All of us here are somehow a part of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry, which has largely been a volunteer-driven movement.


There are some lessons to be had by looking at other volunteer-driven movements. Specifically, I want to dive in a tiny bit into other movements that I’ve seen up-close, first-hand, because the more I work in civic tech, the more I see value in these other examples.


I am a recovering alcoholic, and have been for some time. I have come to learn and appreciate this program, and it really helps me live a good life. I am also a poet. In the 1980s and 90s, I wrote books and did tours.


I considered myself— in kind of a windmill-tilting way— a member of the entertainment industry. It was a shtick. But the idea was real— that poetry should be at the center of society. And entertainment was— and still is— at the center of society.


And I am in civic tech. I made my first civic app in 1999. It was called KilleronTheLoose.com. It let people know via Wireless Application Protocol when there was a killer on the loose, and they might kill them. True story.


True story. And I’ve worked in civic tech since then. So I have experience with three separate international movements that are based on volunteer labor. Let’s take a closer look.


Alcoholics Anonymous is the most successful decentralized movement in history. There are explicitly no leaders. The whole thing is run, to this day, by principles + suggestions codified in 1939 + 1947.


The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous have not changed since they were first written down. More than 30 million copies exist. There are dozens of groups— we might even call them “projects” based on this text— Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous. Forked code; all of it.


The impact of this movement is widespread in the economy. A huge portion of the health industry, every self-help book. Hell, the entire 70s.


I’ve never competed in a poetry slam, but I was there at its creation. It, too, has a strict set of rules, and they are maintained over time by volunteers.


The rules specifically cover compensation, which is minimal. The winner of the Uptown Poetry Slam gets a $10 bill, presented dramatically onstage. The key is the joy of self-expression, of doing something that is special, unique.


Nearly 30 years after its creation, the poetry slam movement has achieved a certain National Poetry Month/ Sunday Styles section – level popularity. In contrast, rap & hip-hop— another sector of the entertainment industry that relies in some part of spoken word— is dominant, and generates enormous dollars.


Civic tech doesn’t really have a founding set of rules, but we’ve certainly developed routines and norms with hackathons and other volunteer / “for the civic good” programs.


We do have the 8 Principles of Open Government Data, which I helped write, in 2007. It specifically calls out the publication of data with personally identifiable information, noting (correctly) that it should not be published.


Due, in part, to the fact that there’s been little effort to re-combine personally identifiable information in our products, it’s fair to say that civic tech has generated little revenue and had little impact on culture. Meanwhile, the larger technology industry is taking over culture.


So what’s going on here? If we accept this analysis, what accounts for the vastly different impact patterns? To me, it’s a matter of framing and focus. AA is about product + service for the masses, poetry slam is about individual expression + satisfaction grown city by city.


And it’s the underlying attitude toward professionalization and commercialization that makes the difference. AA is radically indifferent— we’re focused on staying sober, not policing adherents. In contrast, the “Slam Masters” from each city that adopts the slam meet yearly. They enforce a sort of sameness that is palpable, and exclusionary.


The result is a default openness in AA. Onboarding is a breeze. People desperately want what people in recovery have— sobriety. Slams, in contrast, have complex modes of operation, full of insider references and tight networks. Above all, glorifying the singular poet with a microphone.


We have our own poets in civic tech, our own open mics, our own singular heroes. The result is separation and divorce. Meanwhile, aggressive startups, all about disruption and de-regulation, eat our lunch in our cities, building software people love.


They are popular. And through their popularity, they have impact. And we don’t make popular things. And we have to, because we’re better than everyone else. The larger technology industry needs us. Let’s make products, not projects.

Technology, Equity, and Who’s Mayor

I read this article this morning, looking for myself, since I am in technology and I support the Mayor for re-election: “Can Chicago’s Tech Community Carry Rahm Emanuel To Victory?

I found lots of places and themes that are familiar to me (1871 as a hub for innovation, the growth in tech jobs, and the Mayor’s concrete efforts to make Chicago a more inviting place for tech businesses).

What I didn’t find is anything about the parallel growth in support for public computer centers, and the training in digital skills, and the support for the hundreds of technologists and regular residents I work with all the time in order to make technology work for everyone.

It’s a common oversight. There’s a natural tendency to focus on heroic tech people, gleaming downtown workspaces, and gaudy corporate job announcements. But we’ve got a pretty special sauce here in Chicago, and the Mayor’s policies and people have played a significant role in that.

Technology isn’t just a driver of raw economic growth— it’s an engine of equity for all. Where getting an email account is necessary for getting an entry-level job, where being connected to the Internet is essential for receiving social services, and where we can use networks to plan our lives together. I want more of that.

Public Computer Center, King Library, Chicago
Public Computer Center, King Library, Chicago


Digital Skills + Me (re: Digital Divide Elimination Advisory Committee)

Digital Divide Elimination Advisory Committee
Today I chair my first full meeting of then Digital Divide Elimination Advisory Committee which “advises the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity in establishing criteria and procedures for identifying recipients of grants under the Digital Divide Elimination Act“. If you have an interest in these topics topics, consider coming to one of the next two:
  • Tuesday, August 12, 2014 @ 10:00 a.m.
  • Monday, November 10, 2014 @ 10:00 a.m.


A great part of my day job is that I get to work with people who are on the front lines of delivering digital skills to the people of Chicago.  Since 2011 at Smart Chicago, I have worked directly with librarians, trainers, and other practitioners. These are the people who meet with new patrons every day, helping them get email accounts, find information about their health, and otherwise improve their lives with technology.

In the summer of 2003, I taught a course of 15 elementary and high school students in a week-long “computer camp”. This was entry-level stuff for low-income youth who had never tried to make a website; ever.
WeblogConsultant and InternetLifeServices

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Let’s Build on the CTA’s Open Standards Fare System

Though it seems to have dissipated as people get used to the new system, there has been a lot of sturm und drang about Ventra over last year.

Now that the drama is over, it might be time for us in the civic innovation sector of the technology industry to turn our attention to building on the open standards fare system infrastructure upon which Ventra was built .

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