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Civic Media at Sun Yat Sen U: Jing Wang and NGO 2.0

Professor Jing Wang is the organizer of our international symposium at Sun Yat Sen University. She’s the founder of a project called NGO2.0, which teaches participatory and social media tools to grassroots NGOs in China, helping them advertise themselves to the outside world.

Jing opens her talk by examining her personal motives for focusing on strengthening NGOs in the “hinterlands” of China, the western and central provinces. She shows a photo of herself in the mid-1950s, as a kindergartner in Taipei. Her family retreated to Taiwan with Chang Kai-Shek’s government in exile. Hoping to give her and her brother as many advantages as possible, Jing’s parents sent their children to a newly built private school. She and her brother stayed for seven years, which sound like they were pretty hellish. She was in the same class with sons and daughters of nationalist generals, mainstream media moguls and, in general, the children of the cultural and political elite of the nationalists.

“As a little girl, I understood the meaning of social class.” The other students – and the school administrators – bullied and ostracized the less wealthy children. One girl came in for particular humiliation – she was the granddaughter of an activist and critic of the Chang Kai-Shek government, and when her grandfather was arrested for treason, she was ordered to be ostracized from her peers at school.

“That emotion remained with me for years after I left the school. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts that I was able to name that feeling: ‘Opression’.” Jing tells us, “To this day, my favorite films are martial arts films.” As those of us who interact with her know, her online avatar is a sword-carrying warrior.

In 2006, Jing was deeply involved with launching Creative Commons in China. At the launch of the CC license for China, Larry Lessig attended, and celebrated the idea that 1.3 billion new users could now license their content freely. Jing realized that Creative Commons, as a project, has a blind spot about digital literacy – CC needed to think beyond digitally sophisticated users, and how to help the digitally challenged have their voices hear.

NGO2.0 was born in response to this second question. There was a boom in the forming of NGOs in China in 2008 in reaction to the Sichan earthquake. These nonprofits face a lot of serious problems. The government is not very interested in investing in non-government led civic participation. Most of these organizations don’t actually have legal status – their existence is in a legal grey area. And it’s very difficult for NGOs to compete with “GONGOs”, government-founded NGOs.

While NGO2.0 focuses on the least wealthy provinces in China, those in the Center and West, there’s less of an access divide than you might expect. A village to village universal service program brought internet connectivity to 98% of small townships by 2010. What’s missing was the knowledge of how to navigate online. NGOs in these areas needed extensive training in social media if they were to use new media to reach audiences.

NGO2.0 is run by a twelve person virtual team which meets for three hours each Sunday night. This distributed team has produced a huge range of outputs. Their partner organizations have recorded three minute promotional videos to share their work with public audiences. There’s an online and offline set of social media trainings, including a series of training workshops, a field guide to software and an online survey of NGO internet usage and behavioral patterns.

The field guide takes the form of a technology field map. NGOs have a wide variety of technical needs, including the ability to send out mass emails. NGO2.0 has evaluated 160 tools useful to NGOs. The database includes information on who’s developing the tool, whether they are domestic or overseas, which can be a key issue for product support. That database both informs existing NGOs on what tools they might use, and helps provide a backdrop for future tech and NGO collaborations and hackathons, helping hackers who are anxious to create tech but who don’t always know what NGOs need.

NGO2.0 is now building around the idea of city-based NGO2.0 networks. NGOs in the same city are able to reach out to each other for help and for information. And these city-based networks allow NGOs to reach out to the local commercial sector, finding businesses who might be interested in supporting these grassroots organizations. The importance of reaching out to corporate sponsors stems from the fact that the culture of personal philanthropy slow to grow in China.

Traditionally, corporations only give to large and established NGOs. But there was a scandal recently where a woman who identified herself as the general manager of Red Cross China flaunted her expensive lifestyle online, creating a crisis in confidence in these large NGOs. As a result, there’s a new opportunity for these small NGOs to approach large donors.

NGO2.0 initially tried to match NGOs and donors through a map, allowing donors to see what NGOs were located in their communities. But they’ve discovered they need to run a set of fora involving local government, local media, local corporations, and local NGOs. Jing explains that you need to invite the government because media follow government, and corporations follow media.

She closes her talk with a portrait of six NGO workers including Ma Junhe, who fights desertification through tree-planting in Minching; Qi Yongjin, who works as a barefoot doctor for the poor; and Gao Qiang, a former drug addict and advocate for welfare of AIDS patients.

Professors Zhou Runan and Wang Qing are also working with China’s NGO community. They jointly ran a course of codesign, matching design and computer science students with local NGOs to work in tandem to create new technology that meets their organizational needs. We close the day hearing from five teams of students. They show a new website produced for PFLAG China, a mobile phone application designed to document bicycling routes in Guangzhou, and a video-based training program that helps migrant workers understand their rights.

The co-design course is based on Sasha Costanza-Chock’s class on codesign, offered annually at MIT as part of the Center for Civic Media. It’s awesome to see Sasha’s hard work turn into inspiration for an important course taught at Sun Yat Sen, which is inspiring some very impressive students.