You are here Catalysing Technology-Assisted Advocacy in Quebec

Submitted by admin on Sun, 01/16/2005 - 14:08

The most significant project that I am involved in at the moment is the creation and consolidation of an activist-geek-worker's-coop in Montreal called Koumbit. The ultimate goal is to have two legal entities: a non-profit that allows organisations and individuals to pool resources and influence the development of the communications technologies that we are all increasingly dependent on; and a worker's coop that enables geeks to make a living while working within a technologically sophisticated AND progressive context. So far, we probably have a dozen or so highly skilled geeks involved in the project (a hard core of a half-dozen at any given point in time) and we have legal status in Quebec as a non-profit.

So what is Koumbit? Well, it depends on who you ask, but one thing is for sure, it is a project worth watching.

Disclaimer: The Koumbit project is a work in progress that brings together a wide range of individuals and organisations with different goals and vested interests. Therefore, the description that follows should not be interpreted as the "official" Koumbit position/orientation, rather it reflects my personal perspective on the project and its "raisons d'être".

Beyond the global "Robinhood" and "worker-control" mandates that Koumbit has adopted, the project addresses a couple fundamental problems that exist with respect to technical work, especially in progressive and non-profit contexts: dependence on individual geeks and inability to provide these workers with a rewarding/understanding working environment.

Organisations, especially in 'progressive' contexts, are dependent on individual geeks who usually do not have all the skills required to satisfy/fulfill all the demands placed on them. Thus, even organisations that actually have budgets to hire one or two technical staff (already a distinct minority), are forced into choosing between specialists (e.g. sysadmins, graphic designers, etc.) and generalists (e.g. web developers, technical trainers and support staff). Either way, these organisations sacrifice skills that they require to be truly effective and, moreover, they are ultimately dependent on one or two individuals rather than on a pool of individuals.

For example, sysadmins are rarely endowed any notable degree of graphic design skills and graphic designer rarely know much about server administration. It is very rare to find a person who can, on the one hand, throw together a really appealing PR brochure, and on the other hand, can confidently update the kernel on a production server. Similarly, generalist web developers usually lack a number of very specific, and yet quite crucial, server-side skills (e.g. security auditing, network configuration, etc.) that organisations require.

Complicating things even further, geeks tend to be particularly fickle individuals. Working in isolation, they ultimately tend to get frustrated and/or burn out for lack of support and/or technical comprehension within these organisations which, after all, rarely have clearly defined technical mandates. This is especially true within the non-profit sector where resources are few and far in between, and where personal sacrifice is the norm.

Koumbit aims to provide a viable, affordable and community oriented "outsourcing" option for organisations requiring ICT services/infrastructure. This, in turn, reduces their dependency on, and "risk-exposure" to, finicky individual geeks and turnover in technical human resources. For the geeks, Koumbit aims to provide an open structure that rewards them appropriately for their skills and effort, and is understanding of the technical issues that are important, even crucial, to them. Try holding infrastructure discussions (such as choosing between Debian and OpenBSD, Drupal and Tikiwiki, or between identity protocols such as SXIP and SAML) between the geeks and the directors of, say, a homeless shelter or a human right's group and you will quickly realise the enormous communication gap that exists between them despite any number of political affinities that may exist between them.

Koumbit also provides the geeks with and flexible and supportive platform on which they can build their own businesses/projects/contracts. Koumbit provides them with shared infrastructure (telephone number, letterhead, voip services, all kinds of servers, bandwidth pooling, etc.), technical support (help from other geeks for specific tasks, problem solving, contract negotiation, alphageek-to-meremortal translation, etc.) and increased credibility (i.e. they can seek work under the Koumbit banner rather than simply as individuals with no institutional credibility).

While we have an impressive array of skills and expertises, I'd say that one of the most powerful aspects of the project is the scope and strength of Koumbit's social network within Quebec which is a direct result of consolidating our credibility as individuals, who have for years been providing services to a wide range of community and non-profits groups in Montreal and beyond.

Some things have progressed quickly while others have been sluggish. Thus, while have made a lot of progress in terms of consolidating our legal identity, winning clients and building up out technical infrastructure, we still don't have business cards or even a proper website (it remains more of an internal tool than an appropriate public face)!

Were still pulling things together but the ball is rolling and rapidly picking up momentum. So, if you are interested in the appropriation of ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) by progressive and non-profit groups, then keep an eye on this exciting initiative.

If you would like more information about us, the tools we use (AlternC, Drupal, MoinMoin, etc.) and/or our infrastructure, please feel free to visit our web site.