Navigating the current digital emergency

Zara Rahman

As a support organisation, our work is focused on strengthening the work of other civil society organisations through their use of data and tech. For the past three years, we’ve run an open service whereby people in civil society working towards social justice goals can get in contact with us to talk through their project, use us as a sounding board, or ask for advice – through our Light Touch Support programme. And since the Covid-19 pandemic began, we’ve been noticing some trends and new types of requests coming from our networks. 

Civil society organisations forced to operate exclusively in digital spaces for the first time are facing a digital emergency – they need to develop new ways of working, reshape programmes, support staff and communities, all under unstable political conditions and severely lacking internal digital capacity and resources. At the same time, migrating to digital infrastructures increases activists’ traceability and vulnerabilities to exploitation – and moving at such a speed makes establishing and following digital security protocols harder than usual.

We’re seeing that many civil society organisations, particularly those working in service provision or public-facing roles, must reimagine their programmatic objectives and goals quickly in the face of government measures restricting their typical activities, or new social norms affecting communities they normally work with. For example, replacing in-person door knocking with digital alternatives; supporting people who need abortions without in-person contact; or identifying communities in need of food banks when they can’t turn up and ask in person. 

We’re critical optimists. Yes, moving everything to digital spaces does, of course, increase the potential for digital security vulnerabilities to arise. But it also pushes us to streamline our procedures for dealing with data and technology, improve information management, and develop new, creative and digital-first ways of achieving an organisation’s mission. 

We’re keen to ensure that organisations in the midst of speedy digital transformations can see both the potential of technology to support their work, as well as the risk that might arise, and can hold both of these realities to develop strategic pathways through this crisis for themselves and their communities. 

As part of this transformation, organisations need to think critically and holistically about:

  • Programmatic work, which may come to look quite different for those whose planned programmatic activities can no longer take place (e.g. in-person legal aid support, counselling, accompaniment and more) or for those whose sectors are rapidly changing (e.g. the wrongful categorisation of abortion providers as a non-essential service, gig and healthcare workers’ safety and rights, increased evictions, insufficient prison rehabilitation programs). The current situation requires a rapid rethinking of planned activities and deliverables. In many cases, knowing the limitations and potential of technology to design those deliverables is essential, but, until very recently, this knowledge was not always cultivated within organisations – large or small. Now, as we’re seeing, it needs to happen urgently. 
  • Internal operations and coordination, as organisations move to remote work and reduce in-person contact as far as possible. Of all the challenges identified here, this is getting the most attention at the moment, and tips on successful remote work have been widely shared, with some success. But unconsciously moving to online work exacerbates the ‘digital divide’ by privileging people with access to the internet. However, internet access alone doesn’t guarantee that digital tools are usable; many tools remain inaccessible to large swathes of people with varying needs, like those with disabilities, low bandwidths, unreliable power grids and more.
  • Technical infrastructure, as organisations restructure or establish the technology they have on hand to adjust to remote work. In many cases, challenges in this bucket include security and privacy risks; reserving time and expertise to carry out risk assessments to facilitate informed decisions about tool choices; and lack of internal tech capacity to provide ongoing support to staff struggling with technology.

Layered throughout these three areas, organisations (especially front line organisations or those working in risky environments) also need to think about privacy, security and responsible management of data, as a function of their current organisational strategy, culture and way of working. 

There’s a lot of existing guidance and resources out there on digital transformation, but the abundance of information can itself be a problem for resource-constrained organisations.

We’re here to support

So – if any of these problems or challenges sound familiar to you, please get in touch with us for a call (at to talk through what you’re facing. We’re keen to support civil society organisations in using this crisis as an opportunity to increase their digital security, boost technical intuition among staff, and develop ways of responsibly integrating tech and data into their work. We’re conscious that context determines how any of these things can feasibly happen – so we’re here to listen to you, make suggestions based on our diverse range of experience, and accompany you and your organisation through your digital transformation. 

Photo by Yulia Agnis on Unsplash