NGO 2.0 is a China-based project to increase the capacity of Chinese NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to work with social media and other communications technologies. Much of such training is accomplished through workathons and workshops, pictured above. Last spring, In Medias Res talked with NGO 2.0’s founder Professor Jing Wang, of MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures and a CMS/W affiliate, to get a better sense of how NGO 2.0 works — and why it is so needed.
In Media Res:What can you tell us about your path from Taiwan to MIT?
Jing Wang: I grew up in Taiwan, back in the 1950s and ’60s, and came to the U.S. in the ’70s for graduate school. (Though I grew up in Taiwan, my work is in China and, so, I go there quite regularly.)
My mother was a housewife. My father was actually a sea captain. I didn’t get to see him at lot when I was growing up — maybe once every three years. We were considered lower middle class in the early ’50s when Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. It was very, very difficult being lower middle-class back then.
I was trained as a scholar in comparative literature. The discipline of comparative literature took many twists and turns. It branched into cultural studies in the ’70s. And then within cultural studies, you had people who were more interested in theoretical study — on the relationship of power and culture and the effects of power on the politics of signifying practices.
And then there was another branch that paid attention to the study of contemporary popular culture. So I sort of made that turn, reoriented my research. There is actually, believe or not, a significant overlap between what I do in my own projects now (advertising research and civic media) and my earlier training as a cultural studies critic.
I had taught for sixteen years at Duke University. In the late 1990s, I sensed that something big was going to happen in how we create knowledge, how we disseminate knowledge, and how new technology and media will transform the traditional mode of knowledge production. And I made the right decision, I think, I left Duke for MIT in the early 2000s.
It was [MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures professor] Edward Turk who told me about the opening. FL&L was looking for somebody who would build connections beyond silos, between separate units of area studies embedded in the department. They were interested in developing pop cultural studies and more contemporary research, so I came to them.
Duke University, where I had my prior position, has a strong cultural studies program. But at one point, I was tired of recycling the same kind of meta-discourse. So when MIT approached me, I very happily took the offer.
You mentioned your work focuses on China. What sparked that interest, at least in terms of your work studying Chinese NGO’s?
China has become more open to outside forces since the 1990s. And in 1995, I believe, the country held its first World Women’s conference. That was the beginning of grassroots NGOs flourishing in China. At the time, there were a lot of international NGOs that poured resources into China. They were so influential that the concept of NGO spread quickly, and domestic Chinese grassroots nonprofits began to form themselves.
I started my own project, NGO 2.0, to help improve the digital literacy and social media literacy of grassroots NGOs in the underdeveloped areas of China — in the Western and Central provinces especially. And through that, we’re trying to enhance NGO’s capability for social innovation.
Only one-third of grassroots NGOs in China is registered officially. Most operate in a gray area. They’re not legal, but they’re not illegal either. In order to operate and survive as an NGO, they have to cultivate close relationships with local governments. Local NGOs are registered locally, and most of them are visible only locally.
There is a paradox though. The more cordial an NGO’s relationship with the local government, the more autonomy it enjoys. Take us for instance. For the first two years when NGO 2.0 was underway, I was closely watched by the government. I’m an American citizen, and I go to China twice a year. I was known as an MIT professor, a foreigner held in suspect. But then a year ago, I got a faculty appointment from a Chinese university in Guangzhou. And now I have a “Chinese” identity. So suddenly the government feel less anxious about who I am and what I do.
Grassroots NGOs have trouble competing for attention, however. They cannot compete for media coverage with GONGOs — “government-affiliated NGOs” (common in Latin America and in lots of developing countries, especially countries that are ruled by repressive governments). The lack of mainstream media attention made it difficult for grassroots NGOs to raise public awareness of their cause, to recruit volunteers, and bring in resources.
So imagine these very small, grassroots NGOs. They don’t have the same access to media. Free media platforms would help. Social media won’t resolve all their problems, but it will enable them to communicate with the public.
Another important program of NGO 2.0 is building the bridge between locally-based software developers and local NGO communities. We bring these two groups together for civic hackathons through which we are building the NGO-Tech network locale by locale. Google played a role in this. The Google Developers community is huge in China, in every province, especially in the largest two cities. They sponsored our first hackathon.
In a recent hackathon held in Guangzhou, six teams (each was made up of hackers, interface designers, and NGOs) attended the event, and after twenty-four hours, they came up with six solutions to six user stories. It was an excellent example of collaborative design. For example, one team worked on the prototype of an audio book app for the blind. China’s largest internet company Tencent will collaborate with NGO 2.0 to develop select prototypes from our hackathons into full-fledged products. In the future, we hope to add an international component to those civic hackathons.
We know that almost ninty five percent of China, including underdeveloped areas, are wired. However, the big challenge is how to teach people to navigate the web. That’s a skill that is lacking, not just for NGOs but for people who are learning to adapt to a digital life. And that’s a mission the Chinese government is propagating. The government wants to strengthen the digital communication infrastructure in rural areas in particular.
What’s important is that we cannot contradict the overall goal of the government. We are, in a way, helping with what the government says they want to do. That’s a protection we need in order to be less heavily monitored.
We do two social media workshops a year, and we travel from province to province. Since late 2009, we have held nine workshops and trained 270 NGOs.
Back in 2009 and 2010, the local public security bureau in some provinces tried to prevent us from holding these workshops. I remember one incident where they told the university not to rent us the classroom. They even demanded that the hotels stop accommodating us.
But we had flown in representatives of grassroots NGOs from several provinces, so we had to hold the workshop. It was a big crisis. But in China, whenever the government sets up a hurdle, resistors can find countermeasures to prevail. Eventually we succeeded in holding that workshop, because we found an internet cafe in a faraway place, and they were clueless that the local officials tried to stop us. They took us in.
In another instance, we held a workshop at the University of Science and Technology of China. But after one day, the school authorities said they could not allow us to continue to hold the workshop on campus. “What are we supposed to do?”, we asked. They said, “Well, why don’t you all go sightseeing?”
So we took a bus. We took a two-hour drive to a lake resort, booked a hotel, and continued our workshop there. I think the authorities knew we would do that. In China, the mid-level officials are very apprehensive about the consequence of allowing something that they’re not sure about. So all they want to do is just stop you, and once you leave their territory, they don’t care who you do. It was one of our most successful workshops because of the many obstacles we had to overcome. The team and NGO trainees bonded quickly.
Because NGO 2.0 does not have legal status, it’s difficult for us to get either resources or governmental approval. We are in the process of becoming registered as an NGO in Shenzhen. The motivation for doing that is, otherwise, we can’t get funding from China. Nor would we be able to establish trust with the government.
Now let me go back to our program. Originally, NGO 2.0 built a crowdsourced map to connect grassroots NGOs with corporations involved in social responsibility. But we had a surprise. After we built the map, we realized NGOs themselves didn’t know who was doing what, even in their own NGO sector. So the map met that special need. Although the map is the brainchild of the team, it was coded and designed by our incoming CMS grad student Yu Wang.
Right now, NGO 2.0 builds our program around three different areas of NGO needs. One is communication (needs). Another is resources. And the third is technology, NGOs’ need for technological solutions. In addition to the workshops, we are also compiling a field guide of software for NGOs and foundations (tools.ngo20map.com).
Basically, the field guide is organized around the user’s technology proficiency level and his/her role in an organization — because if you are a fundraising officer of an NGO, you probably don’t need to learn how to use tools for project management.
We are rolling out the guide this October. It will include interactive web and mobile tools and international case studies about how NGOs can utilize social media to do their work.
When the guide is completed in 2014, we will have published 250 tool entries and case studies.
Recently graduated CMS student Sun Huan was my research assistant and she worked with two other team members on compiling the field guide to software for NGOs. She loved the work and continued her participation even after she graduated.
What makes this project unique is the fact that the volunteers all came from universities. This model can be replicated in places where the founder or organizer has a strong academic background. The person has to be multi-disciplinary, because, as you can tell, this involves collaboration across disciplines, across sectors.
I wanted to say something about the connection between my research on advertising and marketing with this project, because a lot of people just don’t understand the impact of my earlier research on this project. When we designed the curriculum, from the very beginning, we found that teaching them how to use the tools is probably less important than teaching them how to position themselves, how to brand themselves, how to utilize digital communication to deal with stakeholders, the public, and volunteers.
So an integral part of the curriculum that we designed for them is social media communication and marketing strategies.
How does an NGO design a social media communication strategy? That starts with finding out who your target audience is, on what kind of social media platforms your targets are congregated, and step by step, making a marketing plan using microblogging and tagging, and selecting interactive tools or data visualization tools. We prioritize web 2.0 concepts over tools. Marketing 2.0 is an important part of that communication plan.
Is the kind of model you’ve developed something that can be replicated by others?
I want to just emphasize how important it is to get the universities, professors, and their students involved. That is a key component to the sustainability of a project like this, that is, a project based totally on volunteer work. I’m a volunteer too. All of our teams are made of volunteers.
But most of us do heavy-duty work on academics. We can’t always motivate our students to participate in this type of activist work. But we are fortunate. Apart from involving MIT students in a Chinese program to help translate materials for NGOs, we also recruited mainland China students to create more easily spreadable content for grassroots NGOs and display it on the map. More specifically, we mobilized the faculty and students from Sun Yat-sen University, Anhui University, and Sichuan University to work with local NGOs to produce a three-minute long video for each organization. Those volunteers specialize in TV and video production.
NGO 2.0 also signed agreements with the deans of communication schools in several provincial universities where faculty and students will be tasked with creating in-depth news stories for the NGOs we recommended that they serve. They will have those journalistic pieces published in print media and online. Best of all, this assignment is integrated into the university curriculum. As for the videos, we’re going to work with China’s video-sharing sites such as Youku and Tudou. The Dean of the School of New Media at Beijing’s Communication University of China will undertake the negotiation with those commercial platforms about setting aside a place for those videos to be showcased.
So this kind of cross-sector and inter-university collaboration, I think, is easier to build if the major players are academics. One important factor is: in China, faculty in media and communication departments have a very close working relationships with the news and entertainment industry.
What is an example of one of your successful experiments?
After one workshop, an NGO came up with an idea of using social media for social good. They used Google Buzz, Twitter, and Follow5 to do a ten-hour long, real-time broadcast of the entire journey of an NGO’s water testing team along a polluted river. It attracted strangers who happened to be around the river, at different parts of the river, and who joined the team’s real-time reporting of polluted spots.
We (the NGO 2.0 volunteers) were also spread in different provinces of China, yet we were having a sustained conversation with the water-testing team about their findings round the clock in real time.
So it was a very successful experiment. Originally, we wanted to help them promote this activity to media, but the board of trustees of the NGO got scared. They weren’t sure about broadcasting this; they didn’t want trouble. But even with that, it ended up being a sort of internal experiment, a wonderful experience because it was open and participatory. And since Google Buzz was linked to Google Maps, you could see exactly where they stationed themselves along different parts of the river and what they were doing even what they were eating for lunch while having a continuous conversation with them.