Meet Avijit Michael, the former Global Development Director for Change.org who recently moved to Jhatkaa.org, a tech nonprofit focused on digital advocacy in his home country of India. Avijit wears many hats—software designer, artist, environmentalist, campaigner for progressive causes, and musician. After almost a decade in the world of digital activism, he gives us his thoughts on the state of the field.
Tell us about Jhatkaa. What makes it different from other online petition tools?
What Jhatkaa does isn’t really new, globally speaking, though in India there isn’t really anyone else doing this. It’s similar to MoveOn.org or SumofUs.Org—we run rapid-response campaigns on progressive issues. The usual model involves looking at the media that is taking off and is in the public awareness. We then do a campaign strategy, figuring out the ‘winability’ of the campaign, and by identifying the decision-maker who could bring about change—someone in the government or in a corporation. We then do a quick analysis of how susceptible those people are to change, to public pressure, to brand pressure, etc. For example, in India, we’re running a campaign to combat air pollution. We’re looking to create a model in Bangalore and replicate that in other urban areas across the country.
Image courtesy: Avijit Michael
Usually, the kind of campaigns that we get into are the kind where can generate public pressure to make quick change without going into a deep-dive campaign. The way this is different from other advocacy organizations that have a digital side, say Greenpeace or Amnesty International, is that those organizations also spend a lot of time and effort in doing a lot of research the root causes of a problem and its various solutions.
People have tried to create email campaigns and Facebook groups around all kinds of issues, but only a handful ever succeed in cutting through the noise. In your view, what determines the success of these campaigns?
If there were a formula to this, then it would all be so easy (laughs). One of the biggest factors, of course, is how big the issue is in the public imagination. And it’s hard to tell what can create that spark. For example, the killing of Trayvon Martin sparked a viral moment. The fact that Trayvon’s parents started the petition on Change.org created a really personal appeal, and it received over 3 million signatures in a couple of weeks. At the same time, there have been so many instances of racial violence and injustices since Trayvon, but I haven’t yet seen another campaign that’s taken off as much.
So instances of clear injustice, emotional stories, and media attention can definitely play a role. Then of course, you have the technology side of things in terms of how much you make your page sharing-friendly, easy to use, etc.
What are the technology innovations—beyond email and social networks—that are enabling this kind of advocacy to gain greater traction?
Obviously, the penetration of the smartphone and the fact they are much more ubiquitous than laptops or other devices is obviously the next big step for us. So, for example, Change.org recently released a smartphone app called Change Politics. It’s kind of like Yelp for political candidates. It allows you to follow people, see who they support, etc.
The other aspect is figuring out the gamification of change-making. What are the abstract concepts that make games so addictive, and can we apply those concepts advocacy and citizen mobilization? I think that’s another space that’s going to continue to be interesting.
Here in India, we’re building out our ability to mobilize people on feature phones, say via IVR or mobile polling to get a sense of the public sentiment around an issue. I’ve been closely following the work of CGNet Swara in India, which has created a purely voice-based forum discussion platform for feature phones.
What business models have you have tried to sustain your work, and what models do you see succeeding in the future?
There are really two models in the space. Jhatkaa is a traditional nonprofit, so we run on donations. Change.org’s model was based on running sponsored campaigns for nonprofits. So, while it was free for anyone to start a campaign, organizations could pay for Change.org to push a campaign out to more targeted audiences. But I do believe there’s definitely a viable business model around using the customer relationship management capabilities at the core of these platforms as a software-as-a-service.
You are personally engaged in all kinds of activism via art, music, your farm, etc. What draws you to technology-based activism?
I’ve seen the power of technology to catalyze change and to mobilize people. Having been part of various campaigns that have seen various levels of success—all the way from significant milestones to real-world changes that are measurable and quantifiable. That drives me a lot.
The other side that really gets me excited is trying to figure out what it takes to get people involved and also how we can innovate on the technology to have different kinds of involvement. So, for example, on this latest air pollution campaign in Bangalore, we made a mapping tool where people can send in photos via Whatsapp, which we have then used to put pressure on the BBMP [the municipal office]. Now, this isn’t something that’s completely new. But I’m excited by the idea of giving people different kinds of tools that make it easier for them to engage in the democratic process.