Skip to Content

The work i do

This is one question that I keep asking myself quite periodically and the only constant thing is the variability of a response. ‘Change is the only constant’. And, for a change, this time I’ll try and document the response so I can track how, and why it changes. The most recent event that triggered this question was a conversation I had with a person who is overlooking some carpentry work at my place. We took a short trip to get some construction materials, and then this question was directed at me as an ice-breaker.

Over the last 2-3 years, I’ve used these one-liner responses. From the most frequent ones to the least:

  • Software developer/engineer
  • Works in a private [Indian] company
  • Works from home
  • Work with NGO’s
  • Data Analysis
  • Works with government (somehow through strange project engagements) on policies
  • Build FOSS (Free and Open Source) software for NGO’s

Will update this list as and when I come up with a new response.

This time, the second option listed above was sufficient and somehow everything was understood in an instant. But that also resulted in me spending the remaining part of the trip in contemplating the answer to this question. Did the ice-breaker worked ?

In this particular conversation, I knew that the other person is a carpenter who loves to work with wood and create things that are useful in ways more than one. He didn’t need to explain his work. But, I’m aware that a lot of people find it difficult to understand what I do, and in such discussions I often tend to rate my response and its usually a bad rating. Responses that lead to meaningful conversations are rare, even with people who, I feel, have some context and I’m not required to explain the details.

I’ll list out a few things that should capture the essence of what my team does. The emphasis here is on ‘Team’ and ‘We’.

  • We create diverse and inclusive spaces that lead to the creation of tools for people to exercise their rights, most importantly the right to information
  • We help people understand the way governance is supposed to work (at-least theoretically)
  • We try and make our governments more accountable to everyone
  • We create bridges between the citizens and the pillars of our constitution (legislature, executive & the judiciary)
  • We demand more accessible, responsible and ethical tools, processes and practices from the government especially to serve the not-so-privileged sections of our society

Everything in this list is hard, unclear, controlled by a powerful few and always in dearth of all kind of resources. Success rate is low, so are the days where you feel happy, content and satisfied with the work. Power, strength energy and resources to do these things comes from the collective and it is (the collective) the machinery that make our clocks tick.

Some common questions that we get during such conversation (and the knee-jerk response in my head):

Who pays for this this work ?

  • Do we ever ask this question to our political parties and do they reply ? Jokes aside, avenues to start and sustain this work are few but they are present. We need to showcase the value, stay at it, try and be part of a larger community and get ourselves acquainted with network of individuals and orgs who are trying and helping individuals and orgs like ours.

But you said that you develop software ?

  • Yes, building software and understanding how data and technology work is a big part of what we do. This is what makes us different from others and this helps us to question the ones in power, keeping a check and convincing them to think before they plan to collect primary data, build more surveillance technology and connect more databases with the Aadhar.

Earlier, I used to believe that whatever we do should be the job of the state (government). But the more we get to collaborate, we sense that reality is a lot different that what we think and with every project, we get more clarity on our roles and responsibilities. The current version of reality leads us to believe that:

  • We need a lot more people doing this work so we, as a society, can visualize, measure and question everything that is happening around us.
  • We need people who demand more transparency and access to information, are curious, get anxious when they don’t know how they’re being controlled and more anxious when they see the government getting more and more into their lives in one way or the other.
  • We need people who value democracy and can channelize the frustration with our current systems at the right places to create something that they believe in.

This is a role to empower people.

Here, I would like to cite a paragraph from ‘A civic technologist’s practice guide’ written by Cyd Harrell

I subscribe to the definition that government is what we do together. Working in civic technology means partnering with any of thousands of entities in the wide universe of civic institutions, all with the common goal of improving public life.

You should read this text if you’d like to learn about the history of civic tech. Written more from the perspective of the type of work done in the USA, still most of the insights shared in the text are valuable for anyone looking to contribute in the field.

In our country, people usually come together (more often than other events) during:

  • Cricket World Cup (or any form of cricket for that matter)
  • Elections

Can we, with the same passion and intensity, also come together to demand social justice for all, demand transparency from the ones who govern us and create institutions that help our democracy to thrive and not die. We’ll keep searching for an answer through our work.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart….live in the question.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

So, coming back to our original question on what makes it difficult for me to define the work I do ? A large part is my inability to articulate, but what also contributes is the demand from the society to reflect, understand and listen to all that is happening around. Isn’t this a reasonable demand ? Or we believe that everything is fine and under control and we dont want to change anything, this is the happiest, peaceful and content our society (not just a priviledged few) can be and there is no room for improvement ?

This may sound narcissistic, but the more we start to observe and question, the easier it will be for people like me to define and do what we love to do. It’s always a collaborative effort and we need people with all the skills one can imagine.

I hope I come up with a better explanation next time around …