Using tech to improve your advocacy - during the pandemic and into the future


COVID-19 and social distancing disrupted traditional community organising, but it has led one group of activists to develop new and effective approaches to their work.

The Belfast-based Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) created a series of tech tools to adapt their campaigning to the new realities, delivering benefits that will be of use long after the pandemic has ended.

Now Dessie Donnelly, the outgoing director of PPR, is using that experience to help other social change organisations benefit from similar approaches.

Dessie addressed an event co-hosted by SCI and The Good Lobby, attracting an international audience of activists and funders. He provided a number of insights into how tech can support effective activism:

  • Tech alone won't change campaign outcomes or shift power
  • Tech solutions need to be built for utility and fit into the rhythm of what organisations do.
  • Tech skills can't be an appendage. Organisations have to prioritise them and funders have to provide resources.

“None of the tools would have been possible if we did not have people with technical skills occupying the same space as our campaign staff,” Dessie explained. "That requires a cultural shift."

Tech Activism

Following the outbreak of the pandemic, PPR built a new platform that included information on their campaigns, plus tools that allowed the public to take part. The organisation benefitted from in-house expertise and brought in additional skills to create tools that supported online campaigning.

Dessie talked about three examples of how they used technology to support their activism.

In a bid to tackle inequitable provision of mental health services, PPR built an interactive map profiling where counselling services could be accessed and highlighting serious gaps in provision. The map also facilitated direct action, including personalised automated emails to lobby elected representatives. (see here). 

The campaign stimulated considerable public engagement, attracted media attention and, ultimately, drew an official response and new resources. It was conducted entirely online, achieving impact despite the pandemic restrictions.

Dessie also demonstrated a tool to simplify and streamline research into private companies, their links to other firms and their owners, which allowed researchers to swiftly identify key players and vested interests associated with a campaign. (See here.)

Separate software was used to monitor the labyrinthine local government planning process, making it quicker & easier to monitor important decisions and plan action.

'A qualitative shift'

On the integration of technology, Dessie added: “It really has to be resourced. On the one hand, organisations need to look at mainstreaming it into funding applications and into their budgets. But on the other hand, it’s a case of funders appreciating that an arm’s length approach to this, where you bring in tech resources as an appendage to an organisation for defined periods of time to produce a product, is not enough.

“We’re really talking about a cultural change within organisations, a qualitative shift in organising.”

Dessie now aims to extend this approach to other social change organisations.

Supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation's Ideas and Pioneers Fund, over the next 6 months he will be setting up a tech workers' cooperative alongside a colleague who helped develop and build PPR's tools.

Together they hope to identify a number of organisations, working across different disciplines and jurisdictions, who are willing to trial new tech approaches.

The ultimate aim is to build tools that can be adapted for use by changemakers around the world.