Digital Democracy, Part I: Peru

Last month I joined Digital Democracy, an Oakland-based nonprofit that brings technology to indigenous communities in South America to protect their land rights and fight climate change. I’ve joined for a little while to advise them on how to grow their team. Yes, it is as cool as it sounds.

As we know, if you want to exploit some natural resources, you’ll have the easiest time doing it around people that are marginalized. The communities DigiDem works with across Peru, Guyana and Ecuador are about as marginalized as you can get – often days from official government, lacking roads and/or Internet access, or without widespread fluency in a global language. When an oil spill happens in the Amazon, and no one with political influence is around to see it, how do you make it matter?

Digital Democracy has a great approach to this challenge. We don’t want to organize everyone in the field to collect their data and upload it to San Francisco, both because that’s arguably data colonialism, and also because they often literally can’t get online to reach us. We’d rather build open source tools that allow these communities to the work of mapping, monitoring and storytelling without us. This means building lots of solid relationships, lots of listening, and lots of very user-centric design. I’m helping think through how to scale the effort turn these ideas into a suite of tools.

To get a better handle on these systemic technical challenges, I spent the last two weeks with our lead developer meeting some of our partners in the Peruvian Amazon.

Our trip had three components.

  • We started around the famously isolated city of Iquitios (accessible only by air and water), training anthropology researchers to use drones, handheld GPS devices, and Quantum GIS to create georeferenced maps of their communities.
  • We continued to Atalaya, a recently constructed logging town, to train indigenous forest monitors to detect timber harvesting violations with ODK Collect for Android.
  • We assembled a new drone that can switch between helicopter and plane modes, enabling longer range surveys of over 20 kilometers.
First practice session, inside the hotel.

First practice session, inside the hotel.

Our jungle dog-friend was amused by the drone.

Our jungle dog-friend was amused by the drone.

Forest monitors refining their plan for data collection.

Forest monitors refining their plan for data collection.

Peru is a large country with difficult terrain.

Peru is a large country with difficult terrain.

Carrying the test drone for its first flight.

Carrying the test drone for its first flight.

Now that I’m back in Oakland, I have some answers and better questions. Look for more soon on what it means to be totally low tech. And photos of jungle plants, of course.