246: Digital Democracy and Indigenous Storytelling with Rudo Kemper

August 18th, 2021 · 57 mins 3 secs

About this Episode

02:45 - Rudo’s Superpower: Being Pretty Good At Lots of Things!

13:14 - Digital Democracy & Terrastories

27:39 - Defining an “Earth Defender”

30:40 - Community Collaboration/Development Best Practices Without Overstepping Boundaries

  • Tech Literacy

35:52 - Getting Involved/Supporting This Work

45:03 - Experiences Working w/ These Projects

  • Anyone Can Contribute
  • Meeting Fellow Dreamers

47:33 - Oral Traditions & Storytelling: Preserving History


Jacob: Getting involved and connecting virtually.

Mandy: Register for Ruby For Good! Happening in-person this year from September 23-26 at the Shepherd's Spring Retreat, in Sharpsburg, Maryland!

Mae: Being able to adapt and learn as a superskill. Be proud of the things you can do.

Rudo: It’s inspiring to build community around software and the needs that it serves.

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MAE: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Greater Than Code. My name is Mae Beale and I'm here with my friend, Mandy Moore, who will introduce our guest.

MANDY: Hi, I'm Mandy and I'm here with Rudo Kemper.

He is a human geographer with a background in archives and digital storytelling, and a lifelong technology tinkerer. For the past decade, he has worked in solidarity with Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in the Amazon to map their ancestral lands and document their traditional knowledge and oral histories. He is passionate about co-creating and applying technology to support marginalized communities in defending their right to self-determination and representation, and being in control of telling their own stories.

Rudo currently works with Digital Democracy, where he is accompanying local communities across the globe in defending their lands, and stewarding the development of the Earth Defenders Toolkit, a new collaborative space for earth defender communities and their allies. He also serves on the executive boards of Native Land Digital and the International Society for Participatory Mapping, and is one of the core stewards of the open-source geostorytelling application, Terrastories. Rudo is originally from Curaçao, but currently based in Springfield, Virginia.

And I know personally, Mae and I have both gotten to work with Rudo at Ruby for Good. I was in D.C. I'm not sure where you were, Mae. But before we delve into that, we do need to ask our standard question from Greater Than Code, which is what is your superpower, Rudo and how did you acquire it?

RUDO: [laughs] Okay. I love it. Thanks Mandy. It's so great to be on the podcast and to be having this conversation with you all, this is really exciting.

My superpower and how did I acquire it? I think the way that I usually answer is that I don't have any one superpower. I'm not great at anything, but I'm pretty good at lots of things and I've acquired that from just having different roles and just done different things across my life in my career, where I'm able to kind of mess with a little bit of code but I'm not a developer, I've made maps before, but I'm not an expert cartographer in that way either. I speak some languages based off of places that I've lived, but not fluently. [laughs] You get the idea.

So I think that's kind of my super power is just being pretty decent at a lot of stuff, but not amazing at any one thing. I don't know if that's a typical answer or not, but [laughs] that's what comes to mind.

MANDY: That's a great answer! I like it. I like it; being good at a lot of things is a good skill to have.

RUDO: Being decent at a lot of things, let's not get too out of hand here.


MAE: Well, it’s awesome, Rudo because it's not just that you have acquired some skills. I'll try to go in line with what you're putting down here on the good, although I have some personal experience to disagree, [chuckles] but I'll follow you. But it seems like you are always learning new skills and picking up new things that you're able to be adept at very quickly. So I don't know if you have any further thoughts about how did you learn how to learn so well and so quickly?

RUDO: Wow. I think by necessity, [chuckles] like you're just put into a position where you find yourself having to learn something completely on the fly.

For example, I recently joined Digital Democracy in November and one of the projects that I started to work with is this Earth Defenders Toolkit, where I pretty much discovered right away that I had to play the role of a product manager. Now I've worked with product managers before, including yourself, Mae, on some Ruby for Good projects, but I've never had to do it before, or really had a good sense of what that entails.

Somebody told me two months into this project and trying to figure out how to basically coordinate a lot of moving pieces and keeping track of a roadmap, et cetera, et cetera, “Rudo, you're basically a product manager right now. You should know that,” and I'm like, “Okay, let me look up on Google what product manager means and what that all entails,” and that was helpful because I'm like, “Okay, got it.” This is kind of what I've been doing on the fly without much knowledge, or thought put into it and then you learn because you have no choice. [laughs] So I feel like it's been a lot of that.

Also, when I was younger, I would apply for jobs where I'm not exactly sure how to do the thing yet, but two weeks before the job, you figure out what that is. And then the job on the first day, like, “All right, I know how to like mess with a little bit of HTML CSS now because I just spent a few nights brushing up on that.”

And then just also, in my more professional work in South America, you find yourselves in positions very often where you figure out how to do things very quickly working with indigenous peoples and certain contexts where there's a lot of specific local knowledge that is important for you to know and you just pick that up as you go. So I feel like it's been a lot of kind of, sort of ad hoc learning and then after you do a lot of that, you become more mentally, I think trained to do that more often.

MAE: Absolutely. Love it. Yeah.

MANDY: I can totally relate to that because that's why I'm here. 12 years ago. My daughter is turning 12 next week.

RUDO: Hey, congrats!

MANDY: And I know exactly how long I've been in tech because it's from almost the exact day she's been born. So I was never interested in getting into tech, or it was never a thing that I had planned on doing, but I can really identify that just out of necessity, getting in there and finding myself in a place where I always saw myself in a job. I was waitressing and as a single parent and doing it alone, you can imagine bartending isn't a very lucrative career, or easy-to-have career for someone who has to work till 2, or 3 o'clock in the morning.

So I was like, “Where can I find any job that I can work online that's not a scheme, or multilevel, or sales because I'm just not a salesperson.” No offense to anyone who is, I think salespeople are great. I just didn't like really laid back in the fact that you really don't have to buy this thing unless you want to. [laughs] So I make a really crappy salesperson.

But learning how to do things on necessity and 12 years later, here I am. Actually, I started out just being the person who produced these shows and now, here I am second time being a panelist because I've grown into that self-confidence in that I feel like maybe I don't code, but I still have technology skills that I've come into and picked up along my 12-year career that I can also contribute to Greater Than Code conversations. So I love it.

RUDO: Awesome. Yeah. That sounds totally relatable in that regard where you figure out how to do the little things and then eventually, those become bigger things and before you know it, you're running the ship. [laughs]

MANDY: Yeah, and a lot of it is reputation too, which I'm guessing that is where you are. Like, if you're just one of those kinds of people that jumps in and put yourself in these situations, that can be really, really scary sometimes and then all of a sudden, people are asking you for more things and they're like, “Oh, can you do this?” and I'm like thinking to myself, “No, but I'm going to learn.”

RUDO: Right.

MANDY: So when somebody always asks me, “Can you do this thing? Can I hire you to do this thing?” I'm like, “I have no idea how to do this thing.” I will learn to do this thing and just they say fake it till you make it, I guess that's what I did for 12 years. So that's how I'm here. [chuckles]

But we're not here to tell them about my story. We are here to talk about Ruby for Good and especially Terrastories and Digital Democracy and all the stuff that you do that's improving our world as a whole.

I just want to quickly say that our friend, Jacob Stoebel, has joined us so he is now here, too.

RUDO: Hey, Jacob.

MAE: Hey!


MANDY: So I'm excited to get into the meat of this conversation and where should we start?

MAE: Well, if it's okay, I would love to add one thing to what we were just talking about, where I thought going into coding that it was something that is masterable. I didn't that actually the whole entire time, you're just reteaching yourself, or you're just teaching yourself things that you've never seen before.

So I tell people that I get paid to solve puzzles I've never seen before and that's a pretty good life [chuckles] and it's very similar to what both of you are describing and what I know of both of you. I still feel it sometimes, but there's this orientation that the coders, or the code is the most important part, which just isn't. being in community and figuring out how to connect people and make things happen, that's what all of y'all do brilliantly.

So anyway, I just want to say from the perspective of being a coder, it’s like that's one part of what makes things happen and so many coders I know have so many projects that just never see the light of day because they don't have all of these other pieces to pull it together, or connections, or the ability to make them. So I just want to effusively credit both of you with being amazing and helping all of us be here right now. So way to go and thank you.

RUDO: I love that. I actually just want to add to that before I started working with coders and developers and getting into the more direct tech development space, I had this idea that the programmers are totally people that mastered to know how to do this entire code base. I can just pull different pieces of code from nothing and there's very systematic kind of way and that was my conception of the coder and then I started working with developers.

Initially threw me for good and now with Digital Democracy, I realized it's exactly as you say, Mae. It's problem-solving like, “Okay, well, let's look at that. Let's examine what this does and mess with it and figure out how to get it to behave the way that we want to,” which is actually how I do things, too and it made me feel like, “Oh, wow, actually, maybe I could one day become a coder because they think and work exactly as I do just at a higher capacity, of course. It was more of a toolkit, if you will. But the methodology is pretty much the same. It’s really cool.

JACOB: It really is. It's the attitude of given enough time, I theoretically could learn anything, but that doesn't mean I want to because there's only so many seconds I have in my life. But theoretically, if it feels worth it, I can do it.

MAE: I think that's true for anyone ideally. I used to play pool full time and someone asked this famous pool player, who I was standing next to and who I know, and they said, “Well, do you think that Mae can be a pro pool player?” and he said the same thing you just said, Jacob, like, “Well, yeah, if she puts enough time in, of course she can.” So there's this thing about mastery is more about time commitment.

I tell my niece all the time, she rolls her eyes, but I ask her, “How do you succeed, or get good at something?” and she's like, “You do it a lot,” and I'm like, “What else?” She goes, “You fail.” [laughs] Like I've got her trained on this is how you just have to put in the time.

Rudo, it's now been, I think 7 years since we first met that you have been stewarding this Terrastories program and your commitment and devotion to this project and just effusiveness in general help it continue to thrive and I'm just so excited that you're here.

I don't know if it would make sense for you to maybe share with our listeners something about either how you came into Digital Democracy through the Terrastories angle, or if you wanted to go from Digital Democracy back out, whichever way might be just some framing of we said a lot of words so far and I don't know that everybody knows what – I don't definitely know that I know what they all mean.

RUDO: Sure. Yeah. Gosh, has it been 7 years already? Man, time flies. [laughs] It's been quite a journey, no doubt. Yeah, I think the way I would frame that is more like by entry point of like how I got started working with code and doing Terrastories and how that all emerged.

So it was a little bit of background. I've always had a little bit of a background in web development. I used to build basic websites in the early 2000s and I know a little bit of HTML and CSS and so, I've always had that in my back pocket later working with WordPress and stuff like that.

I joined an organization in 2014 called the Amazon Conservation Team where basically my role was doing participatory mapping with indigenous people. So by training, I've background in geography and so, that's what a lot of my work has been in the past 7, or 8 years is working with communities to help them map their lens and to do that in a participatory way. That means we're not doing it, we're helping communities use the tools, build capacity to do it themselves.

So I was working with the community in Suriname, which is in South America. Dutch-speaking country with an Afro-descendant group called the Matawai and we were doing this participatory mapping project where they were – it's really amazing, actually. It's this community that the ancestors are formerly escaped slaves that were brought over in the 1700s and were able to escape into the rainforest. They fought against the colonial power at the time, which was the Dutch, and they successfully fought for their freedom to exist there and they continue to live there today.

It's this really kind of amazing community. They have a lot of pride in their history of course, as well and there's a lot of storytelling about the first time that their ancestors arrived in a completely new world, new forest, new things to eat, [chuckles] new medicines, completely different space and had to adapt to living there and have a lot of really fascinating stories about their ancestors. What they first did and where they first settled and what are the sacred spaces and almost mythological stories about their history that are really informative for who they are as a people. It's part of their self-identity is this amazing history.

So we were doing this mapping work with this community basically helping them use technology like GPS and smartphone applications to map their lands and out of that came this desire to want to do more. Because when you're mapping, it's place names, but that's only a part of the puzzle. It's only a part of the story. There's so much richness and information and knowledge about places that people are carrying. They basically carry with them in their heads. Basically, the mapping spurred this broad community level reflection of wanting to do more to capture that oral history that's contained by the elders and so, that spurred a desire to want to capture some of that.

Long story short, we start working with this community to record oral histories and we were trying to think of creative ways that we could use technology to maybe produce something that would appeal to the young people especially. Like younger people anywhere, the kids in the Matawai had cell phones and they're not really so interested in sitting around listening to the stories of their elders.

We wanted to create this new technology, or some way to make it exciting for them to learn about their oral histories. With my previous hacky web developer background, I'm like, “Well, we could probably maybe spin up, I don't know, an offline WordPress, or something with some interactive maps. We'd get it working on local hosts, it'll be fine.

MAE: It’ll take like two months; we’ll have it rolling.

RUDO: Yeah. No big deal. I knew about Wham Stacks and stuff where you can locally have servers and like, “Yeah, we'll figure it out. No worries.” So we tried to do that and it was not quite so easy. Interactive maps, as it turns out, are very hard to get running offline. They're very dependent on APIs and all kinds of stuff that's available on the internet and that's where that industry is going, especially. So that was the first thing. The second thing is you need to get it working on smartphones and all that. Basically have it running in the jungle turned out to be a little more complicated than anticipated. [chuckles]

So we had a lot of setbacks where we tried to do that ourselves and we tried to hire some consultants that were interested, but then gradually ducked out after they themselves realized like, “Hmm, this is tricky, I don't know if I can do this.”

And then one thing led to another, after a long year of just trying to put this application together, we ended up encountering a network called Ruby for Good, which is what Mae as a part of as well and I think has been featured on this podcast before and basically, it's this amazing collective of volunteer developers that like to build software for good and that can be something like a diaper service to get diapers that are no longer being used by a family into the hands of another family. So building software to engender and enable those kinds of services, or it can be building really amazing storytelling applications for communities in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

As we told the community about that, we pitched the ideas like, wouldn't it be amazing to build this application and the community really loves it and was inspired by it and out of nothing, the first Ruby for Good, which I think it was 2018, Mae, if I'm not mistaken.

MAE: Yeah. You might be right. I thought it was earlier, but.

RUDO: Yeah. Who knows? The idea was around longer. In 2018, there was a D.C.-based events where a team got together and was like, “All right, how do we make this happen?” I was fortunate enough to be there as well and in the span of a weekend, an application materialized out of nothing, which is amazing to see. Of course, it was buggy, it was scrappy, it didn't do everything we needed it to, that took years before we got to the point where we even talked about an MVP, or anything like that.

But that was just so powerful and incredible to see what you can do with a group of people that are motivated and that want to help out and that was really, I think my first foray into code and that was mainly watching people do things and being like, “Okay, that makes sense. This little module does this,” and eventually, I got to be good enough that I could make little changes, like changing the color of something and hiding something and then making it appear again and eventually, smaller, but still more in-depth changes to the application.

MAE: Love it. So cool, Rudo and Ruby for Good, what's cool is it's not only developers, but there are designers, product managers, other community people, and generally, we try to have someone from the organization that we're serving come to the event and Rudo was one of the first people that that actually worked out with. So there was an event and there might've been one other group that had a representative. So it was like, “Whoa, hey, hi!” It was really fun to have Rudo there.

And then another connection is one of the organizers was Brazilian and so really was motivated to help with Amazonian preservation and also had a connection to Mapbox and Mapbox was a huge supporter early on for Terrastories to get off the ground, too. So there's just so many different connections that have come along to contribute and it's just such an honor in the world to have opportunities to contribute. So thank you, Rudo for continuing to make that be available to people to help with.

What I'm curious about is just to rewind the timeline just slightly to when and how did the Amazon Conservation Team get connected and asked to make these maps and then it became –? Because one of the things that moves me most about this project is that it was indigenous requested, indigenous-led partnerships and so many times, especially from the States, there's a lot white savior stuff and like, we're going to bring our modern technology to help you do….

So just the fact that this exists at all and the way it came to exist is just so beautiful and I was hoping maybe if you share a little bit more of that, people might be interested to hear.

RUDO: Yeah, absolutely. So the way the ACT operates in many other organizations that are very grassroots and oriented towards working closely with communities take on a similar approach, which is first of all, to only take action when invited. So instead of coming to a community with an idea in advance and being like, “Hey, wouldn't it be cool if?” It's a request that comes from the community.

In the case of this example of the Matawai from Suriname, they had learned about similar mapping work done elsewhere and wanted to do their own map and inquired in their network who can we speak to that can help us make a map like this and that's what led them to be connected with ACT. So it's that initial contact from the community that's really key to that and then there's different modalities of that, too as it plays out.

Another concept that's really important that doesn't get practiced enough, to be honest is very simple, but it's always to first listen before taking any action. Such a simple concept, but it's so often not practiced, especially when it comes to NGO worlds where there's funders and they have their own deliverables and timelines and things like this and they want to see something. No, listen to the community first and see what they want and take the time to do that as well.

With indigenous peoples, this is especially relevant because decision-making and consensus building is not the same based on community to community, it differs. So taking the time to go by the local processes and hanging out a while and not showing up only for 48 hours and then leaving, expecting to have a fully fleshed idea of what that community needs. It takes time and it can evolve as well.

So having that open-endedness is really important when it comes to working with communities and the flexibility for projects to adapt and evolve, and to never come with solutions that are pre-made. Never. That's so pivotal.

And then the final thing, the final piece of that to take it one extra level—and this is something that Digital Democracy we take very seriously—is co-creation. So when solutions are proposed and specifically tools, even digital tools, and those start to be worked on, define ways of co-creating that as much as possible with communities.

I would even say for example, with Ruby for Good, I was able to show up and that's fine, but ideally, somebody from the community would have been able to show up as well to have that kind of co-creation relationship be even more direct and more complete rather than via proxy. Of course, that was the best we could do, but ideally, we want community members to be as involved in a co-creation of technology as possible. That can be tricky. It can be hard, it takes time. Donors don't understand that; it's very hard in our space to find donors that really realize what that takes and what that entails. But that's what we believe is the right way forward.

Mapeo, which is one of the tools that we're building at Digital Democracy, with Terrastories as well, there's always this process of constantly verifying and validating if what we're building is actually matching the needs and if not, what needs to be adapted and that goes from the code and how it's built and the different principles that communities find to be very important like data sovereignty to the user interface.

One example, people in the Amazon sometimes have eyesight issues and don't have glasses and so, looking at a phone and a small application can sometimes not be very helpful. So it's across the board from the backends to the way that the frontend of applications is built and of course, that's technology, but really this goes to any project design to have that co-creation being really core of it.

JACOB: Are there ongoing needs that have to be fulfilled? Support if something goes wrong, or maintaining infrastructure, like, I don't know what any of that might mean.

RUDO: Yeah, this is a huge part of it and it's something that at Digital Democracy for example, there's a technology team, which is software engineers, developers, UX designers, product managers, all of that, and then we have a programs team, which is more folks and that's what I'm serving over at Digital Democracy, where our role is that accompaniments and ensuring that the communities that are using the tools have the resources that they need, whether that's training guides, or modules, or something breaks in the field and they need support and that happens a lot.

It is one of the, I don't want to say tensions, but difficulties in doing this work is that we are developing open source technology and things can sometimes break and communities have expectations. Sometimes when something breaks in the field, if it's not clear why it broke, the person might feel like it's their fault somehow, that they somehow broke it and that can be very tricky to work with. Especially in the case of the pandemic where nobody is able to travel and so, there's a level of remote support, so that has to happen.

We're very sensitive to that ensuring that while co-creating and involving communities in the early stages of software is very powerful, it can also lead to disappointment if it's not done in the right way and that people aren't clear about well, this is an early phase at this particular software and that people don't feel like guinea pigs as well that they're just being used to develop a software that's not working and there's a lot of frustration that can result from that.

MAE: Absolutely. Yeah, we experienced that—we being me and anyone else with whom I've done any kind of software venture that is for good whether, or not through Ruby for Good—and to have the cultural barriers and historical exploitation to try to figure out how to mitigate that is super complicated. So awesome that that is the priority of Digital Democracy.

Something I noticed from Digital Democracy’s website is the use of the term earth defender and you're talking about co-creating and listening to the people themselves, I'm curious if you might be willing to share with us some more about what defines an earth defender. Do people call themselves earth defenders? Who gets named an earth defender? Who gets to wear the earth defender sash, or superhero costume, and how does that work? And if it's relevant, how did Digital Democracy come to have that as a priority and a phrase that's got as much privacy as it does on its website.

RUDO: Yeah. I love it. It's such a good question. So whenever we have any kind of session, or workshop about Earth Defenders Toolkit, or any discussion, any chance that we have to talk to people, we always start with that question actually of like, what does earth defender mean to you? If you were to interpret this term, what is your takeaway? What comes to mind when thinking about this? We almost intentionally don't define it because we want people to be able to have their own version, or definition of it, or their own interpretation, because it can mean so much.

So definitely, we're thinking of some things when we started to use the term. Of course, we've done a lot of work with indigenous peoples in the Amazon, more recently in Africa and Southeast Asia as well, but there's also other communities, like local communities, that are not indigenous, that are also on the front lines of fighting for their rights to their land, or protecting biodiversity, fighting extractivism taking place that's nearby, and these kinds of big global forces that are threatening the livelihoods of both lands and communities on a local basis.

So we wanted to have something a little bit more broad to be able to essentially, apply to many different communities that are in that same position. But then at the same time, I think gesturing to your question, Mae anybody can be an earth defender if you're taking an action to defend the earth. That can be any of us as well. That can be somebody who wants to get involved to do something, to contribute to that broad pursuits and that can be many things. That can be climate action, that can be working on the front lines with communities combating extractivism, like I said, it can be political activism, it can be many different things.

So this notion of earth defender, I know we haven't defined it, or you might've even looked on the website, like, “Let's see how they define it,” and we've almost intentionally kept it that way because we want it to be an open definition where people can decide for themselves what that means.

And then also, the platform that we're building, Earth Defenders Toolkit, also has an intentionally open-ended structure where the resources that we're providing focus on some things that we hear a lot about from communities in terms of pain points and obstacles and resources that they wish existed. But there's a lot of room to again, co-create it with anybody that wants to use it and own it and make this be a hub, or a platform, or a community. So that lack of parameterization is almost intentional there.

JACOB: This is making me think in – well, if I have any incorrect assumptions about what I meant to say, please check them, but I'm thinking about a community that has been doing something along the lines of what you're talking about and they've been doing it well for a long time and they have a lot of genuine connections in their own community, but they've never made software before.

I'm thinking about collaborating with a community and wanting them to be the leaders, but at the same time, helping them understand what are good ways to go about, what are best practices to go about making quality software, which might not – I come from the nonprofit world in a previous life and I think those work cultures are very different and for a good reason. But I'm wondering like how helping a community pick up those best practices while also letting them be in charge seems like an interesting challenge to me.

RUDO: Yeah, I totally agree. I think it's so interesting and I think of one community that, I haven't worked with them, but a colleague of mine has in Guyana where there was an application that was being built. I think sometimes when software is being developed, there's almost this intention to keep the community, or whoever it's serving out of the kitchen, if you will, out of the development process of what that looks like. In this case, in this community in Guyana, he tried to do the opposite and actually explain how the tech is built and why the pieces are what they are and what they're doing. This was in an indigenous community that, I think sometimes the assumption might be better not to involve them, or have them considering those kinds of technical details, even though in a way where you assume that indigenous people wouldn't understand that somehow. But in fact, they really gravitated towards that and actually appreciated the application all the more understanding how it's built and we actually got a lot of enthusiasm out of learning the technology.

I feel like it speaks to a broader interest in tech literacy and just how that as a whole, like when you work with the community on their tech literacy, it enables them to achieve things far beyond just a creation of one application. It has much more broad impact in terms of interacting with all technology. So it has a benefit beyond just the application development cycle itself. But also, I think we don't give people enough credit in terms of how much they actually are able to get involved in that process and make sense of the different pieces of the application. So there can be a huge benefit actually to having that.

I hope I articulated that well. I thought it was a really interesting question.

JACOB: No, definitely and I didn't have any particular answer in mind, [chuckles] but I just think it's an interesting problem because I think about my family, or my friends who were not in the tech industry and they just want technology to work. Like, they know what they want, they just want it to work. The best practice is iteration, which are really important like, I'm the stakeholder, this is the software that matters to me and then saying, “Hey, go use the software that works and doesn't do everything you told us you'd want us to do and tell us what you think,” [laughs] I just feel like would be just such a new concept to people who haven't worked in that way.

RUDO: Yeah. One of my colleagues once described this as the way that browsers used to tell you what was going on behind the scenes and then even if you don't know about technology, you can figure it out. You associate certain lines of texts that are obscure to you, but something happening in the application, even if you can't make sense of what exactly that is, or the sound of a modem, the old dial-up modems, and you could figure out by the sounds when it's actually connecting versus when it's [laughs] not doing its job.

To give that slight exposure to what's going on with the tech can be really helpful and powerful for people that usually are shielded from that more backend stuff and then also might not have a sense of why something isn't working.

MAE: Yeah. Any project that I've been involved in helping people understand, not only how does technology work, but how to establish processes that have resilience and are able to be replicable and all of these more structural organizational things, how can we help improve that? Because it translates way beyond the specific project and that's another—oh, I don't know if I even love referencing this. I'm trying to think if I know of a different one. But that teach someone how to fish and then they can be able to self-sustain whereas, going and bringing some fish is a one-time situation. So yeah, I love that angle and thanks for bringing that up, Jacob. That's awesome.

It's cool too, because it connects right into what I was going to ask next and I'm channeling Casey Watts a little bit in how if any listener wanted to be involved and that person could be a coder, they could not be a coder. How can people become involved and/or support this work, any part of the Earth Defender Toolkit? Rudo, you probably have a great idea of all the different ways in which any human could be of service, or connection, or whatever. I don't know if you already have a – hopefully, you have an elevator speech ready to go about this topic.


RUDO: I think yeah. What occurs to me thinking about that question is that there's so many communities that need help with many, many, many different things and sometimes that can just be accessing resources, or just helping communicate what's going on in their lens to an outside audience, or help configuring phones, or help translating materials, or just being somebody who has exposure to how the Western world, or forces that are now emerging in their lens.

So communities never needed help with the management of their own lands. But now that these external forces are frequently impacting their livelihoods, somebody who can help navigate those changes that are taking place is a tremendous need that so many communities express.

Like in the past couple of weeks, we've had a couple of forums, virtual, with communities in Africa. Just this morning actually, we had an Africa forum where they were saying something over a hundred different community members from Africa present where we were discussing basically what the work and what sort of actions are looking like in different parts of Africa, from Senegal to Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Congo and providing those opportunities for learning from one another and there was just so much requests for how can we apply this toolkit? How can we take similar actions where we are?

So I think just anybody that wants to get involved, there's so many communities and the question isn't how to find those communities. In my own experience, just showing up somewhere is actually an effective way of finding a way to be helpful because you might have skills that you don't even know about, that could be something you take for granted. Just to name a silly example, file management, knowing how to navigate a directory of files with trees and subdirectories and things like that is something that a lot of people don't know, or quite understand because they didn't grow up with it like many of us did. Just little things that you might not think are valuable skills can actually be tremendous assets to a community that is trying to solve a problem, even before you even get to something like technical stuff like coding, or mapping, or whatever. Just being a resource is such a huge asset.

So we are creating spaces for more communities to post help requests to we're dealing with this, is there anybody that can help us and vice versa. If you are somebody that wants to get involved, to write about what you have to offer. Under Earth Defender Toolkit, there's a form for that where let's say that you have 10 hours per week to dedicate to whatever it may be and anybody that wants to get in touch, that this is what you have to offer and what your skills are.

Beyond that, of course, there's if you are a programmer, if you are a developer, there's definitely open source software that one can contribute to and there's processes to plug into that. So in the Earth Defenders Toolkit, we do have a contribute page where there's lots of different ways to get involved. Financial, of course, is an elephant in the room. There's tons of communities that need support financially to be able to take actions, or to travel somewhere, or to get resources that they need. So there's all of that and we try to point to different places that responsibly where one can contribute in that regard. [laughs] I think that's what comes to mind.

MAE: Awesome. And what is the relationship between Digital Democracy and Earth Defenders Toolkit like, what is the larger mission of Digital Democracy and how does this help fit in the picture?

RUDO: Yeah, so Digital Democracy is basically, we're an NGO. We're an odd NGO in the sense that we're a tech company in a way with a product manager and a roadmap and all that stuff and familiar processes, but we're a nonprofit. So we also then have to work with finding funding from a nonprofit space, which can be tricky for tech, because as I mentioned earlier, donors don't often understand exactly the work that we do and then the other thing is the programmatic company and for the tools that we're building.

It’s interesting because we take on this value of tech Gnosticism, but then we're also building specific tools and so, our approach isn't done to like, “Hey, we have this hammer, let's go find nails.” It's still very inspired by this philosophy of not wanting to promote any kind of one tool in advance when starting to work with a community.

Out of that idea is where Earth Defender's Toolkit came from, which is this new platform where we're thinking very open-ended about actions and tools and what even is a tool. Does it need to be digital? Can it be something analog? Can it be something like a human connection. Those are things that we're learning when we ask communities about the different tools that they need and resources that they need.

One thing that we're really trying to take seriously in terms of software—there's Mapeo, there's Terrastories and frequently, we get inquiries where a community might write to us and say, “Hey, I love this. How do I use this? How do I get started?” and the only thing that we have to provide is a software guide of here's how you install it, or here's how you set it up and things like that. But the question they're asking is much bigger. They're asking, “How do I get started? How do I find resources? How do I make a team? [laughs] How do I apply this thing that you've created?” We usually don't have anything for that.

That's where the accompaniment comes in where we can walk somebody through that process, or perhaps share a case study of somebody else who has, but there's no real resources to target that and that's really what communities are asking and then when they find out that something like that doesn't exist, they say, “Hmm, I don't know. I won't download this application, or use it because it's too complicated. I don't have a sense of how to really apply it in practice.”

So that's what we're trying to do with the Earth Defenders Toolkit is providing guides on how to get started, how to even figure out what kind of action to take. For a community in the Amazon and the Ecuadorian Amazon that's facing petroleum concessions being given out in their lens like, how do you fight that? How do you take action? That's such a huge phenomenon that it can be hard to figure out how to even meaningfully fight back against that. It may take time also to figure out what that looks like and so, we try to provide guides, or case studies of how other communities have taken action as well. In some cases, using software successfully so for example, mapping software to create maps.

We'll also while generally always recognizing that it's much bigger than the tools, it's also the human networks; the solidarity that comes out of using a software and the processes around it can be just as meaningful, if not more than the tool itself. So honoring that broad ecosystem that exists around the usage of a tool is what we're trying to create materials about and how to engender that and how to meaningfully use tools as part of this broader scaffolding.

JACOB: And proving out because there's always the story of seeing a piece of technology and like, “Oh yeah, we'll use this and it’s going to solve all of our problems,” but there's no buy-in in the team, or the community, or as a group. How can a community prove out, “Oh yeah, it’s going to solve this very specific problem and look how exciting this is.”

RUDO: Yeah. I think one of it is seeing it be created and playing a part in that. Like, filing a request of oh, well, this is almost exactly what we need, but can it also do this one thing and then seeing that happen and knowing that that was your request that made that happen is, I think a huge part of it. Right, Mae this also goes to Ruby for Good in how stakeholders of projects become involved in it and really start to embrace it.

MAE: Absolutely.

RUDO: They play a role actually in the creation of it and so, that generally is helpful in terms of ownership. If you've developed a project, or designed a project, rather than having somebody else to design it and bring it to you, you feel more ownership over the process, you feel like it's yours and a lot of the communities have expressed that. Like Mapeo is ours, we had a role in building it, I think is a huge part of it and then the other thing is seeing other communities use it and what they've been able to accomplish.

It's also really important for especially local communities and indigenous peoples to see how another indigenous community has taken action is hugely inspiring for themselves because they are fighting the same things we are with the same constraints and they've been able to do this. We want to do that, too. So I think knowing about those other stories of communities can be really helpful, too.

I would love to hear more from me as well about how what your experience has been like working with one of these projects, which is Terrastories.

MAE: Sure, yeah. Thanks for asking. The first year that Terrastories, which apparently was 2018, was that Ruby for Good, I was leading a different team and I was so jealous because I didn't know about this project and I wanted to be part of it from the very first moment and then later on, I did have the pleasure of co-leading a team for a virtual Ruby for Good.

What I love most about the Terrastories project, second to the part I was saying about it being in existence because of indigenous request and interest, is that anyone can contribute. Tou could just read the Read Me and send a Slack message through Ruby for Good Slack, “Hey, we were wondering about this.” You don't have to be a developer. But people who are new developers, the team and all the different people that have ever been involved in coding the pterosaurs repo are super supportive of any brand-new coder. Like if you've never even committed to GitHub before, or never done open source before, there's a lot of community building.

What inspires me is the energy of that, of let's all do whatever it is that we can in that moment and let's all gain more skills to work toward a world we want to be living in and want our future generations to live in. It's this really resonant thing going on between how it happens and what it is and where it leads us all together.

So that's pretty much my answer. I get inspired by community and building a future that I dream of and meaning fellow dreamers, like everybody on this call. Just want to encourage anybody who might have a concrete interest in Terrastories and that visual video storytelling app to consider trying to get involved. We'll leave some links in the show notes about how to get ahold of Rudo, who is amazing and can direct anybody to anybody else. [chuckles] You'll find a way to become involved if Rudo is there. [laughs] I think that's probably what I would share.

MANDY: I was involved in 2018 with Terrastories and I was just blown away from the second I heard about it. I was like, “That's the team I want to be on,” and it was more because I’m not – yeah, I am technical, I need to stop having this imposter syndrome. I am technical, but I'm not a coder.

But I loved the whole concept behind Terrastories, especially it was because I'm a reader. I love to read. I love memoirs. I love history, the whole concept behind Terrastories and just right now, there's oral traditions, oral traditions, everything is passed down and as people are unfortunately, dying, or those stories are getting lost. So now the big draw for me was that this is how these stories are getting told and they'll be here for future generations and that that won't be the case anymore. And now that you know and also, there's that what's it called? Is it the game that they play the telephone game and it's like, “Well, you said this,” and then it gets turned into, “Well, they said this,” and then it's completely wrong by the end of the time, it gets the whole way down the telephone line?

The visual storytelling is just so compelling because you will actually have this concrete stuff now that you can actually go and look up because technology is advanced. I don't have that with my grandparents. I only know what I've been told and who knows if those things are even true! [chuckles] So I love that this exists and I love that this is a way to preserve history as a whole.

RUDO: Right. Yeah, totally, Mandy. I think that's what's so inspiring about it. Of course, it came from an indigenous community and their specific needs, but really, this is something that's applicable to all of us. Because everybody has oral histories in their own family history that has been passed down from generation to generation and that we may lose at some point as well, or like you're saying, the telephone game, or changes, or just perhaps details that are not quite so clear.

For any community, really, whether it's a subculture, people talk a lot about oral histories of underground music, for example and to different venues in a city. Terrastories can be used to map something like that, or your own personal family, history of migration, for example, and where people came from. I feel like as humans, we all live place bound lives and so, an application like this is really applicable and useful to everybody.

JACOB: This is the part of the show where we like to wrap up by everyone reflecting on something that they're going to take away from this conversation, maybe have a call-to-action. Well, first of all, I have wanted to do the Ruby for Good in D.C., I think every summer since 2018 and for every single summer, there was a reason why I couldn’t do it. [chuckles] The pandemic of course, being last year, [chuckles] but no, and I can't do it this year. I don't even know when it’s happening.

Any who, I think it's probably time to get on the GitHub page and see how we can get involved because I have been trying to find ways to connect in new ways with new people because of the pandemic and this seems like an interesting way to do it while maybe hopefully contributing something that I might be perfectly good at. So I guess, that's my takeaway.

MANDY: Cool. So yeah, on that note, I will say that I was just informed yesterday via email that Ruby for Good is happening this year. It's going to be from September 23rd to 26th at the Shepherd's Spring Retreats. That is in Sharpsburg, Maryland. So I'm planning on going, I know our fellow friend and panelist, Casey Watts, is going. Mae, are you coming?

MAE: Oh yeah, I don't miss Ruby for Good.

MANDY: Rudo, will you be there this year?

RUDO: I have to check and see if I'm around.

MANDY: Okay.

RUDO: Date wise. Yeah, I'd love to.

MANDY: It’s actually longer. The last one I was at was only Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I think they're actually adding a day to it this year. So it's going to be four days and I will have to leave a day early because I, unfortunately, have another commitment that I have to come back for. But I'm planning on being there and if you want to go, I suggest you go to rubyforgood.org and sign up. Tickets do tend to go fast and there's an option to just get a ticket if you are paying by yourself, or if you're perhaps a bigger company and feel like donating, or sponsoring a cause like Terrastories, or the other causes that we talked about throughout this episode. There are options for you to be a sponsor and you should check it out.

MAE: Thanks, Mandy. Yeah, same for Digital Democracy and Earth Defenders Toolkit. These projects, like Rudo said, depend on support from donors as well. So in our middle of the pandemic situation where we are right now, all of these kinds of things to preserve and protect goodness in our world and the ability for humans to be here at all, [chuckles] as much as you can contribute, please consider that.

For my reflection, I loved the part, Rudo where you were talking just at the very beginning about being able to adapt and learn and I am naturally good at that, but can sometimes not think of that necessarily as a super skill and you were reluctant to do so also. [laughs] But anyway, it just reinspired me to be more proud of the things I can do and that ties into some of the stuff Mandy was talking about, too and like, no, actually I do do this. So y'all gave me a nice boost to that today.

RUDO: Awesome. So maybe I'll go last on inspirations. So for me, for the past 3, or 4 years, it's been just tremendously inspiring to work and volunteering open source developers and with Terrastories, I think the last time I checked, there were more than 60 people had contributed to the code and that's just a code. That's not even talking about designers, or people who have just had an idea, or a suggestion, or things like that. They're not documented on something like GitHub and it's just been really tremendously inspiring to build community around software and the needs that it serves.

In the pandemic, we've let that lapse a little bit because of course, everybody has priorities in their lives and other things are going on, but it's really inspiring me again to start building more community again and to start sharing more of the word of Terrastories and being more involved in that.

And then the other thing is, I think to go back to the beginning again about everybody can be a coder is to motivate myself to do more of this and just get to that point where you realize like, “Oh gosh, now I'm suddenly –” like you were saying Mandy in terms of the podcast suddenly, you're in charge of this now. [chuckles] But it started with just little steps here and there to continue that journey for myself and to become more of a better developer and to own that title instead of being like, “No, I'm not a developer. I just happened to know how to do a few things with code.” [laughs]

MAE: I'm so proud of you! You said to be a better developer. Yes!

RUDO: First time I’ve ever said it. [laughs]

MAE: You heard it here, folks.

MANDY: Yes, I love it. I think we would all do that more as people is you know what, I am going to do this, or I can do this, or get rid of that imposter syndrome.

Well, Rudo, thank you so much for coming on the show today. We really appreciated having you here and I hope to see you at Ruby for Good in September.

To everyone else, I urge you to check out the show notes, get involved. We provide transcripts. We also have a Greater Than Code Slack committee, which Rudo will also be getting an invite to for being a guest. You can come talk to us and hang out there. You can go to our Patreon page to get into that. It's patreon.com/greaterthancode, or if you can't afford to donate, or give, just DM me on Twitter and I'll let you in as long as you’re also greater than code. And with that, we will see you all next week.

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