Research

Tech Translation

For a technical project to be successfully implemented within the social change sector, a combination of context and technical skills is needed — deep area-­specific understanding of the threats and risks faced, as well as thorough tech knowledge.

D&S fellow Zara Rahman is investigating the role of people who do the work of translation, in support of the successful implementation of technology projects, between tech-savvy communities and social change communities with lower tech literacy.


In projects done well, there is often someone playing a role that is taken for granted or somewhat invisible: the person who takes what a human rights defender is saying and helps them articulate their needs to the person who is coming up with the specifications for a tool; or vice versa, the person who converts what a developer is saying about the limitations and potential consequences of a certain technology and adds context to make sure that the activist really understands. Sometimes this involves asking questions beyond the mandate of a developer or questioning tech infrastructure choices, questions that might only come to mind for those with technical knowledge.

The role exists under many names, and it’s often present in an ad hoc way. In the corporate world, some product managers or UX designers play it. In nonprofits, some community managers do it. Some people think of it as tech translation, or playing a bridge or a broker role, or even being a catalyst or champion among a community.

Whatever the role is called, it’s under-appreciated. In our tech-focused world, we often valorize those with “hard” programming skills, relegating those with “soft” communication skills to being invisible caretakers. This binary correlates strongly with traditionally male-dominated roles of programming and largely female-dominated roles of community management or emotional labour. It’s worth noting too, that one is paid much more than the other.

Zara’s project is looking at strategies used by people playing this tech translation role, and the required skills to get there, and examining the difference that having someone playing this role makes to project implementation. The goal is to question who and what needs to be present for a technology project to reach its goals among activist and human rights defender communities.

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