Funding the Digital Policy Lab

Promising Trouble is seeking funding to support charities working with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to develop digital policy and campaigning skills

Following on from the Community Tech Fellowship, supported by the Coop Foundation and Luminate, Promising Trouble has developed a Digital Policy Lab format to deepen the digital rights and digital policy expertise of civil society. We believe this is an essential piece of civic infrastructure, and are looking for funding to launch the programme. Please do get in touch at hello@promisingtrouble.net if you’re interested in financially supporting the programme.

Strengthening civil society in a digital world

Very often, the people who get consulted on new government digital policies are digital experts: they are technologists, lawyers, academics and privacy experts who think deeply about how technology works. They also very often work in industry, and represent the interests of big technology companies.

But people who are experts in the impacts of these technologies — people from the communities most likely to be affected by a policy, or from the organisations that support and advocate on their behalf — are less likely to be asked.

And while it is brilliant to see digital civil society growing, many digital rights organisations are often focussed on a specific application of technology, rather than advocating for specific communities. And it is very difficult for non-digital, long-established charitable and advocacy organisations to engage with technical issues that might seem outside their area of expertise.

A resilient and digitally literate civil society is vital for shaping the ways technologies develop in society

I’ve seen this first hand as, over the last 18 months, the UK has developed a National Data Strategy. Throughout Autumn 2020 I worked to engage UK civil society organisations in the first-round consultation: making it relevant and accessible to non-technical experts took a huge amount of work

While “National Data Strategy” sounds like a technical document, the policies set out in there have lots of real-world consequences for equality in public services and beyond, in areas as diverse as policing and justice, child welfare and education, health care, housing, and transport. When I spoke with experts in areas as diverse as family law, sexual health, and disability rights, many could list the specific ways their communities were disadvantaged by biased and unfair uses of data and digital tools, but few had the confidence to engage in a process that seemed so far outside of business as usual. Government policy timetables can be exhausting at the best of times without the added layer or jargon and obscure references to technologies and existing legislation.

But it is vital that non-digitally native civil society organisations engage with digital policies: not just in response to government consultations, but as shapers and makers of the digital future.

Technologies tend to be used to embed and strengthen existing power structures

While the Internet and digital technologies have led to many wonderful things in the last thirty years, their uses have also tended to deepen and consolidate many social injustices and power disparities. Many programmes exist to support digital capabilities in civil society, but more digital policy literacy is also vital to help mitigate the excesses of both the market and the state. In 2021, big tech companies spent €97m on EU tech lobbying— so it seems only fair that communities who are already under-represented in power should also get a say.

Working with refugee, asylum seekers and migrant organisations

Throughout 2021, we took the learning from the National Data Strategy consultation and also the Community Tech Fellowship and self-funded a programme of research to work out how best to confront this problem. We have now developed a format that can be tailored to meet the needs of different specialist groups.

Through conversations with experts in the field, we appreciated the urgency of starting with organisations that support refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are often subject to the worst extremes of technological exploitation and experimentation, including:

  • biometric and facial recognition
  • the datafication of borders and of access to essential services
  • the use and reuse of technology created by military and policing companies such as Palantir
  • lack of access to hardware or connectivity needed for independent living; poor data security.

These technologies might be deployed in humanitarian spaces, at borders, and in the countries that people gain access to, compounding and extending the negative impacts. (This paper by Petra Molnar for EDRI is an excellent primer.) Immediately, the UK hostile environment makes this a matter of urgency. We believe this programme would be complementary to other related efforts in this space, and the funding need outlined below includes remuneration for an expert steering panel.

What will the programme provide?

  • It will build digital rights infrastructure, making it more diverse and effective.
  • It will build a deeper understanding of the social impacts of technologies on specific communities, reducing the use of generalised concern for “minoritised groups”, and so also improve the outcomes of advocacy.
  • It will embed understanding of the social impacts of technologies in non-technical charities and VCS organisations, helping them to anticipate and mitigate specific harms, build relevant campaigns, and develop useful prototypes.
  • It will build confidence in digital policy.
  • The effectiveness of the work will be strengthened through building a mutually supportive cohort of digital policy innovators, and meaningfully growing the field of digital rights.

How much money do we need?

To support 10 people through the programme over 10 months, we estimate the cost would be £90,000, or — for 15 people — £110,000. (These numbers include VAT, because we’re a social enterprise, not a charity.)

Promising Trouble is contributing an additional £25,000 to the programme to make sure it runs in a timely and efficient way and is replicable. We would also love to find a funder who could support the participating charities to take part by offering each participating organisation a small sum to contribute to backfill for participants.

How can you help?

In Q1 of 2022, we are working to build a consortium of funders to support the work. We would love to get the programme up and running in the summer.

If you can help or are interested in supporting it, we have a full proposal we can send you. Please email hello@promisingtrouble.net for more information.

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Exploring careful innovation, community tech and networked care. Day job: @carefultrouble .

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Rachel Coldicutt

Rachel Coldicutt

Exploring careful innovation, community tech and networked care. Day job: @carefultrouble .

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