We are so proud to share more about the history and conception of People’s Tech Project, and the campaigns that brought us here.
Growing from fifteen years of roots within Movement Alliance Project (MAP) and now a sponsored project of MAP, we are taking on how big tech changes conditions for the vibrant movement organizing we’ve been a part of for decades.
Read on, and join our list for more updates as we grow.
We must contend with the reality of how technology impacts our fights for liberation
Technology is now core to how systems of finance, government, and corporate power oppress our communities, and movements need far more support to contend with that reality.
Governments and corporations use invasive surveillance and predictive algorithms to make decisions about everyday people. Basic access to work, school, medical care, and our democratic voice are locked behind a level of digital access unavailable to millions of us. As movement organizations focus on the core issues their members face and the campaigns necessary to address those issues, they often don’t have the capacity to embed and wield an understanding of these technologies into their fights and to shape their strategies to win with them in mind.
Right now, there is more potential for building organizations that can transform our society than we have seen in years. But as those organizations build towards a liberatory future, we are not fully assessing the terrain upon which they fight when it comes to how technology impacts our economy, government, and communities at this time in history.
We founded People’s Tech to meet this moment
People’s Tech Project supports the national technology justice organizing sector and Philadelphia movement groups to win a future in which technology helps build dignity, justice and liberation, rather than exacerbating oppression and harm in the hands of big corporations and the state.
We will support our movements to develop a vision for how technology could liberate us, rather than oppress us.
We will support the technology justice sector to develop goals and strategies that are accountable to people’s movements.
We will embed with local organizations to develop and wield an assessment of technology as it impacts their core fights, and unite tech justice and people’s organizations to form an ongoing, accountable partnership in the fight for liberation.
People’s Tech Project grew from Movement Alliance Project’s work around technology and justice
Over the last decade, Movement Alliance Project (MAP) has dug deeply into questions of race, technology, and inequality, and learned vital lessons. When MAP campaigns forced Comcast to expand affordable internet access to thousands of low-income Philadelphians, we saw a transformation in how everyday people, movement organizations, and elected officials understood the role of tech giants like Comcast in entrenching inequality, and their accountability to the communities that were the source of their profits. That transformation, over many years, also enabled teachers’ unions, students, and communities to win the mass expansion of free and discount internet during the pandemic, and better, faster internet for low income people.
These wins helped individuals and families in meaningful ways. But after engaging in this fight, we weren’t able to build on those wins to really rein in Comcast’s and other big telecommunications’ companies’ power locally or nationally, even as the intersections between the needs of our people and access to the internet grew.
As Philadelphia worked to reduce its jail population, MAP played a crucial role in preventing the City from using harmful and biased algorithms to decide who gets jailed and who remains free before trial. Through this process, we anchored a national process with civil rights, decarceral, and tech justice groups to unite around a shared vision of abolishing and reducing the harm of risk assessment algorithms in pretrial decision-making.
This work helped local and national groups to better understand and contend with how risk assessments are really used in courtrooms, and to shape their fights to include the fact that risk assessments increase surveillance and racial disparities in court decisions, often without reducing jail populations. But as these technologies continue to expand, we need to be better prepared and more aligned to make sure the fights to end mass incarceration and stop the expansion of e-carceration are connected, so digital prisons don’t replace physical ones.
During the MAPOut, MAP’s strategic planning process, it became clear to all of us that MAP’s core purpose is to help unify and strengthen Philly’s left movement ecosystem—which meant focusing more on providing that infrastructure and no longer on direct work around communications, campaigns, and coalitions.
We also realized that many of the other big questions MAP has asked over its long history still need to be answered: How has the terrain on which we fight, particularly around communications and technology, shifted? How are corporate giants and technology weaponized against us? And how do we confront this reality to build a future where technology is liberatory, rather than oppressive?
From these seeds came the strategy to launch People’s Tech Project.
The Campaigns that Brought us Here
Before building People’s Tech, our team worked on the ground at Movement Alliance Project in grassroots campaigns to assess, examine, and repair the harm of unequal access to and harmful uses of technology in the hands of big corporations and the state. Through this work, we saw firsthand how deeply technology impacts the material conditions of everyday people, and how quickly technology can evolve to replace the systems of oppression we organize to dismantle.
Read more about the campaigns that set us on the path to build People’s Tech below.
Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America and has one of the lowest levels of internet connectivity, particularly of Black, Brown, immigrant, senior, and low income people, of any big city in the country.
In 2013, Movement Alliance Project (then Media Mobilizing Project) identified that the “cable franchise agreement” that Comcast had to sign every fifteen years with the City gave the corporate giant the right to use streets, light poles and other public rights-of-way in exchange for near-monopoly access to cable and internet customers in the city. We built a groundbreaking campaign, Corporate Accountability Project Comcast (or CAP Comcast), around this opportunity.
Together, the Media Mobilizing Project team built a powerful, broad coalition of organizations and community members to build the case for Comcast to expand affordable internet, increase resources for tech education in public schools, and protect Comcast workers and consumers. Our coalition successfully pushed City Council to demand massive community benefits in exchange for the franchise, including expanded affordable internet and cable for low-income consumers, major connectivity improvements to public spaces, and funding and apprenticeship programs for public school students.
Thanks to our organizing, Comcast’s 2015 franchise agreement with Philadelphia was groundbreaking not just in securing major resources for Philadelphia communities, but laying groundwork for future organizing for free and low-income access to the internet as a human right.
Internet is Essential
As the pandemic began to shut down schools and businesses in March of 2020, Movement Alliance Project (MAP) mobilized community members and City Council leaders to begin to push for a full opening of all of Comcast’s public wifi networks, as well as making their discount internet offerings free.
We accomplished that in Philly and worked with partners in Baltimore, Detroit, Colorado, and national allies like MediaJustice to expand that win nationwide.
Thanks to longstanding and deep relationships with organizations of students, low-wage workers, faith communities, and people impacted by mass incarceration, MAP had clear understandings of what community members needed in terms of expanded discount/free internet offerings.
Through 2021, our engagement also pushed Philadelphia to create a major public/private partnership providing direct support and digital inclusion access to Philadelphia school-age families. The PHLConnectED program, funded by City, philanthropic and corporate resources, has connected over 18,000 offline families to the internet, so kids can get online for school work, and parents, caregivers, and other family members can access resources, work, and information.
Mapping Pretrial Injustice
When Philadelphia started working to reduce its jail population, we learned that they planned to build a risk assessment algorithm—a tool that uses historic data from arrests—to try to predict who could be “safely” released pretrial and who could come home before getting their day in court.
We were alarmed to hear courts were considering this tool to reduce jail populations. Philly already had a risk assessment in the probation and parole department, and it was an almost impenetrable black box algorithm that heavily weighted biased demographic factors such as age and zip code.
We joined the #No215Jail Coalition to campaign against the use of the algorithm, and successfully pressured the city into reducing the jail population without a risk assessment.
Knowing the way this tool reinforced biases, we decided to look into risk assessment tools (RATs) to better understand how they work. What began as a small project trying to account for the few pretrial risk assessment tools we assumed were in use ballooned into a three-year research project tracking risk assessments in over 300 jurisdictions across the country.
We conducted over 35 interviews and emailed almost 500 counties and states to dig into who conducts RATs, on whom they are conducted, how judges and magistrates use the scores, and if and how jurisdictions are trying to reduce racial bias or jail populations by using these tools. We had to dig deep to track down information on these tools that should be readily available to the public but wasn’t. The overwhelming majority of those we talked to did not have any data about the impact of these tools on their jails or racial disparities.
We also tracked the inconsistency in how jurisdictions define risk, the biases RATs embody, the severe limitations of validation reports claiming their accuracy, how they are often misused, and most importantly, who they impact most and how hard it is for those impacted to find this information.
After studying the use of these algorithms in pretrial systems locally and nationally, we worked with over 100 local and national civil rights, tech justice, and community organizations to write a Statement of Concern, pushing to abolish and reduce the harm of pretrial risk assessment algorithms and end pretrial incarceration.
In February 2020, along with our partner MediaJustice, we published our findings on our website Mapping Pretrial Injustice.
We concluded that RATs are unnecessary for ending pretrial incarceration, extremely biased, and give a false sense of scientific objectivity to very complex and fraught pretrial systems. Our conclusions have since been bolstered by several publications and organizations, including the Pretrial Justice Institute’s February 2020 withdrawal of support for the use of RATs in pretrial systems. We continue to update our research as our capacity allows.
Our Team and the Work Ahead
Four of MAP’s most seasoned organizers and leaders came together to launch People’s Tech—former policy organizers Devren Washington and Jenessa Irvine, communications coordinator Shari Bolar-Martray, and longtime policy director Hannah Sassaman.
Technology has permeated every facet of everyday life for the vast majority of people in this country, and communities organizing for justice need far more support to contend with that reality. As movement groups work to tear down current oppressive systems and policies, they must be ready to face and take on the new technologies that stand to enhance or replace them to accomplish similar oppression:
- When movements organize to end cash bail, the mass incarceration system may replace it with e-carceration: permanent surveillance and monitoring of accused communities, sorted by algorithms and paying for their own supervision. We have to be ready for that.
- People organized to temporarily freeze housing displacements in the pandemic, but the housing system may permanently mark a generation of renters with weakened credit and red marks on their housing records, to be rejected by landlords and housing courts for years to come. We have to prepare our movements for that.
- Movements may win organizing rights for gig workers, rideshare drivers and Amazon employees, but corporations will use hiring algorithms and background checks embedded in just-in-time employment will keep formerly incarcerated people, people with disabilities, Black and brown people, and neurodivergent people from just and dignified work. We must account for this evolving use of technology.
In order to meet this moment, the movement for tech justice must shift to be more directly accountable to people’s organizing in the United States. Tech justice organizing has won important shifts in regulating the big and small technology companies that dominate our economy, our democracy, and how everyday people communicate and make sense of our world. But the movement for tech justice is still too small to win the many battles it is currently fighting, and remains largely unconnected to people’s organizations, making decisions on what to fight for without enough accountable ties to the people most negatively impacted by technology in the public and private sphere. When the technology justice movement becomes grounded in the vision, needs, and battles fought by people’s organizations, we can be more sure of how tech justice wins will make their larger fights stronger and more able to contend for power.
To be truly armed to win, we must build a concrete assessment of how technology aggravates the core issues on which people’s organizations fight. To truly interrupt the power of big tech at this time in history, popular organizations and movements must build and wield that concrete assessment as they organize to win basic dignities, with the support of the tech justice movement.
In concert with both the brilliant popular organizations for human liberation and the movement for technology justice, People’s Tech will:
- Support the movement for technology justice to shape its goals and strategy to be accountable to the vision and goals of popular organizations that mobilize large groups of people impacted by racial monopoly capitalism.
- Embed with a select number of local people’s organizations in Philadelphia to help them develop and wield an assessment of how their opponents use technology to aggravate the core conditions for their organizing, and support them to win their core campaigns, successfully accounting for that assessment.
- Bring together segments of the tech justice movement and people’s organizations to form an ongoing, accountable partnership deeply informed by and dedicated to increasing the power of people’s organizing and the ability of people’s organizing to win liberation.
This work is already underway, and wouldn’t have been possible without growing from MAP’s history and from beautiful leadership from so many of you. Join our email list and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to keep in touch and help to shape this project as we grow.