Some of the most exciting digital social innovations we have come across in Europe, such as guifi.net, Goteo and the Fab City initiative have originated in Spain. One organisation that has closely followed how DSI has grown and developed in Spain is the Cibervoluntarios Foundation (‘Cybervolunteers’).
For 15 years, the Cibervoluntarios Foundation has sought to support the use of technology to tackle social challenges from its base in Madrid, promoting social innovation and citizen empowerment. At the heart of Cibervoluntarios is a network of more than 1,500 volunteers who give their time, both offline and online, to share digital skills and help others harness the power of ICT to improve their lives. Promoting interaction and collaboration with a network of more than 500 GrassRoots Organizations all over the country. We spoke to Angel Sola, Head of Communication and Social Engagement, to learn about their work to support the DSI community.
Where did it all begin for Cibervoluntarios?
It all started 15 years ago in Valencia at one of the Campus Party (an annual week-long technology festival that brings together tech enthusiasts from across the world to envisage a ‘better tomorrow’). Things were very different then and not a lot of people had access to technology. Suddenly, 5,000 people arrived with their computers in the city for this huge open event. It was something really new! Ordinary people were looking around asking, “what’s going on?”.
After seeing this reaction, we realised that there was a lack of knowledge in Spain about technology and what it can do to improve people’s daily lives. This was the inspiration to start creating free courses and specific ICT training to help citizens in general and collectives at the risk of social exclusion take part in the digitally connected social information society as we know it now.
What happened next?
At this point we were dealing with basic problems related to the use of technological tools; for example, a lot of people didn’t know how to send an email! We focused on reaching those who were at the greatest risk of digital exclusion by building relationships with more than 500 grassroots charity associations – societies supporting the elderly, migrants, the unemployed, people with mental health difficulties, people living in rural areas, local associations and many others. We’ve been based in Madrid since the beginning, but soon our actions spread across the whole of Spain. There was a lack of ICT education and we tried to make up for it.
10 years ago, we identified a different problem. We already knew that individuals were at risk of digital exclusion, but we realised that we also needed to raise awareness among larger institutions, educational institutions, the private sector and the general public of the ways that technology can improve people’s lives. We wanted to create a network of digital and social entrepreneurs all over the world to generate synergies and showcase their work. To do this we started Empodera.org. The programme highlights the experiences using digital social innovation in their communities. Once a year we bring together 200 experts to think about how we can work in a more connected way to achieve greater social impact at an International event called Empodera LIVE. We publish a free eBook each year. Our most recent publication is dedicated to “Civic Technology, the ecosystem of Social Innovation”, collecting examples from successful projects and organizations around the world – From Field Ready 3D, creating humanitarian supplies in disaster areas like Haiti, to GreatFire.org, defending online Freedom of Speech in China
What are you main activities now?
Helping people to learn digital skills is at the heart of what we do. We have a network of over 1,500 cybervolunteers who help us deliver digital training, both offline and online. These cover a wide range of needs: everything from writing a CV online to protecting yourself with Tor.
This connection with everyday users has been really important as we’ve taken on new roles too. For example, right now we are coordinating the SOCRATIC project (an EU-funded initiative aiming to further social innovation by giving to citizens and institutions a platform to address Digital based solutions to social problems). So far, the project has created the ‘Social Innovation Village’ experience in Norway. This ‘village’ is on the campus of NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim. Until the 27th January, this is acting as a home for bright minds from across Europe as they work hard trying to build digital solutions to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As one of the partners on this project, our role is to connect these innovative technological solutions with the everyday users and grassroots groups who need them most.
Who are your cybervolunteers?
We have over 1,500 cybervolunteers across Spain who each share their time and skills to support people build digital skills. Anyone can be a cybervolunteer, some come from the charity sector or universities, others from the tech departments of huge companies like Telefónica Foundation, and others are regular citizens who want to help. Because we offer different types of support to our beneficiaries, the technological proficiency required is not necessarily that high. The community of people who want to help is very large. They believe in what we’re doing so they just need to find a way to help that suits them.
What’s really important is that it’s not just online volunteering. Of course, we make online courses and webinars, but lots of people don’t know how to use these tools. We need our cybervolunteers to go into grassroots organisations and teach them face to face using facilities in public spaces with internet access that offer us their spaces. This means our cybervolunteers act like social change agents.
How do you build a network of volunteers?
There’s no magic spell. Work and work and work: we’ve been doing this for 15 years! If you create an environment of collaboration between individuals, grassroots organisations, schools and universities then you’ll find people who want to participate. Of course we make online campaigns to spread the word and engage new volunteers. We use Social Media a lot to generate engagement and we teach other smaller organizations how to promote their activities using free online tools. We also have specific programs focusing in finding new volunteers in Universities, for example.
What is the most pressing issue in Spain that your community is working to improve?
It’s got to be employment. We’re going through an economic crisis so finding work is very hard. Spain has the second highest unemployment rate in the EU (19.2%) after Greece (23.1%). Although there’s a lot of online platforms for finding jobs, so many people are stuck offline. You can’t send a CV in the post anymore! There’s a gap between the technology out there to help people and the users it’s supposed to help; we fill the gap.
Migrants find it particularly difficult to find work even though they have lots of skills. We help people to show themselves with employers and the rest of the world. In this line, we are running a program called Innovadoras TIC, an specific program focusing on employability of women at risk of social exclusion through ICT mentoring and training. One of the grassroots organizations that we have worked with a lot is the SPANISH ASSOCIATION OF ROMA WOMEN (Romi Serseni). We offered several courses in 2016 to promote entrepreneurship among Roma women using ICT, reaching 45 Roma Women. The main goal is fighting against any kind of discrimination and provide them with the technological tools to start their own business.
What are the biggest barriers preventing more people from using technology to improve their lives, and the lives of others?
It’s a question of resources and skills. Some people don’t have access to resources – a computer, fast internet or a smartphone – and some don’t have the skills to use them. We focus in this last barrier. Knowledge is power, so it’s really important to help people learn.
Our training programmes can help to address the skills shortage, but most people are still suspicious of technology. Some either think it’s a bad thing, or that they won’t need it. But that’s only because they don’t see how it can improve their lives. Many people also think that the internet is not secure. We all need to make an effort to raise awareness of the positivity and healthy uses of these tools.
What actions would you like to see governments take to support the DSI community in Spain?
What we really need is a global vision for how DSI can lead us to a better society. People within governments are too often focused on solving individual problems, rather than collaborating to find or develop the structures that solve bigger problems. Programmes like HORIZON2020 (the EU research and innovation funding stream which will award nearly €80bn across 7 years) are helping, but this wide view is missing at the national and local level.
This vision is needed within the DSI community too. The community is growing day by day, but as a whole society we still need much greater awareness of what technology is out there, and what it can do. If the DSI community and the government work together to raise awareness, then we will all be able to help solve the societal problems that we struggle with.
If you were granted one DSI-themed wish for 2017 what would it be?
I wish we could all approach problems from the point of view of the people we’re trying to help. It’s partly a problem of language. Technical language can work at tech forums or events, but when we’re trying to reach out to ordinary people it just doesn’t work. Only when we’ve fixed our language will we be able to engage a wider audience and truly start working collaboratively to improve all aspects of society.
To find out more about the Cibervoluntarios Foundation, or to become a cybervolunteer, head to their site.