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Insights / October 2, 2019

Talking Tech for Good: Jonathan Stegall

Text that says Jonathan Stegall Talking Tech for Good.

By Software for Good

At Software for Good, our goal is to help people across sectors use technology to simplify complex processes, communicate important information, and help people be more effective in their work for social and environmental impact.

In Talking Tech for Good, we talk to people who use technology for positive change every day. Jonathan Stegall, who works as a user experience engineer with Software for Good’s client MinnPost, shares his thoughts on using tech ethically and for social good.

Jonathan Stegall.

Jonathan Stegall, UX Engineer at MinnPost

How do you use and/or build technology in your work?

I’m a web team of one at a digital-only news nonprofit, so my role is always oriented around the intersections of and tensions between technology, organizational needs and goals, and user needs and goals. Sometimes my job is almost all code (for example when I ran a migration from Drupal to WordPress) and other times it’s more user experience design or visual design.

Recently we’ve been fortunate to work with Software for Good on a user-centered design project, and have been building upon that work as we move into a broader site redesign. I’ve also, with the help of our Audience Development person, created a user research team that we hope will conduct and share user research with the rest of the organization in an ongoing way.

I also do some work with bringing user experience processes and skills to local organizers and activists who primarily work outside technology. In that work, it’s mostly not about what kind of technology those folks are using, but how they can incorporate the good parts of a process that has been honed by its use in technology.

How does your work pursue or support social good?

I’m not a journalist — at my job I’m the tech person, and in my other work I have a foot in the design world and a foot in the organizing world — but I value journalism as its own social good. Sometimes my job feels very close to the good impact journalism can have, such as when I’m able to advocate for marginalized communities at my job because of the other things I do, or when I’m able to incorporate those voices into how we make design or tech or other decisions. At other times my role feels more generic, but even then I try to be aware that doing that work in the context where I do it does help make other things possible.

In my other work, when I do UX things with activists and organizers, I get to choose the work by how well I think it pursues or supports social good. I get to help organizers and activists take a skill set and apply it to the work they do, and help them apply it thoughtfully, hopefully with an awareness from the inside of the issues design can bring with it when it lacks an analysis of power, for example.

How do you define “tech for good”? What makes tech “good”?

In a broad sense, I think tech for good is about using tech skills in the service of a good mission, something that makes the world better. I try to apply the same ethics to tech that I would to anything else, and especially to apply power analysis and what I know of things like intersectionality to understand how tech can impact people for good or bad, and make the better choices.

I don’t think tech itself is neutral, but I also don’t think it is inherently good or bad. Most often, I think it magnifies the good and bad things about humanity, and we can focus it in either direction in a variety of ways.

What interests you about the potential to use technology for change? What people or organizations do you see doing this successfully?

I’m excited by this in a couple of ways.

One is the chance to take the good parts of tech and bring them out into industries like journalism (and I worked in academia before this, and I often felt the same there), and other work like activism and organizing and theology and spirituality, and use them in the service of that work and also share the skills with those people, as I’ve mentioned above. I think there’s a great deal of value in teaching people who don’t work in tech to understand its processes, both so it is more transparent, but also so they can apply it to their own work when it is relevant.

The other way I’m excited is by taking those other fields and bringing what they have to say into technology. When sociologists or journalists or theologians or activists give us language or practices or frameworks to engage the world, I like to bring them into tech work. I’m a white dude, so I mostly learn this from people who aren’t like me, and I do think I’ve got a responsibility to open the doors to those people if they want to come into tech. But I also think I’ve got a responsibility to critique tech — its business models and its ways of impacting and looking at the world — through what those people have to say so it can be shaped by them.

I have followed Software for Good since before I moved to Minnesota, and you seem like a great example of doing tech in positive ways. One of the ways I’ve appreciated working with you is that I don’t have to explain why it’s important to me that we treat our users ethically, but I can assume you will take that into consideration in the things you advocate for us to do. I also think of the Design Justice folks who gather at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, and many of them run their own organizations. Some of them are worker-owned cooperatives, or agencies that work with organizers, or they in other ways try to engage the work organizers and movements are doing.

What ethical concerns do you have in your work? What ethical principles do you want to see adopted more widely when it comes to tech and/or the work of social good?

I do have a lot of ethical concerns about tech, both as it impacts the world on its own (a great example being the impact Facebook or Amazon has on the world through information or through supply chains), and also as it magnifies existing systems and issues (in the ways intersectionality teaches us that the most marginalized people are oppressed in overlapping ways, tech is not separate from that).

As for ethical principles, I’ve recently been inspired by the Design Justice Network’s principles. I’d really love to see them more widely adopted by designers and other tech folk. Here they are:

1. We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.

2. We center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the design process.

3. We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.

4. We view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process.

5. We see the role of the designer as a facilitator rather than an expert.

6. We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.

7. We share design knowledge and tools with our communities.

8. We work towards sustainable, community-led and -controlled outcomes.

9. We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.

10. Before seeking new design solutions, we look for what is already working at the community level. We honor and uplift traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge and practices.

Can you describe a time when you witnessed the positive social impact of technology, either through something you built or through tech that made your work easier?

At my job, we use a lot of tools by INN (Institute for Nonprofit News) — either the organization itself or by other member organizations — and I think that’s a great thing. Some of the organizations are quite tech capable and others are not, and there’s a decent amount of room for us to share with each other and that helps our work.

I also regularly see people who don’t work anywhere near tech start to understand why something like the user experience design process is valuable outside just designing websites and how they can use it.

What do you wish more people knew about tech, work for social change, or both?

I actually like to help non-tech folk learn how to be skeptical of tech folk. I think most of our culture values tech in an outsized way, and is often not aware of the dangers and pitfalls, so I like to speak to those things from the inside when I can.

There are so very many things I wish people knew about social change work. Maybe especially that justice movements today are often dealing with the same things they did in the past, but people don’t know about the past and so they whitewash it (in more ways than one).

What would be your dream technology aimed at solving a problem in society?

I’m not sure about that. I think generally technology, at least as I generally think of it on the web, doesn’t solve societal problems, but I do think it can magnify the ways people contribute to either solving them or making them worse.