Doing Real Work Online: Lessons From COVID-19

A Conversation with Senior Fellow Harper Reed

Harper Reed is a hacker and engineer who builds paradigm-shifting tech and leads others to do the same. In 2011, he served as Chief Technology Officer for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and has done a bunch of other cool stuff you can learn about here. He also happens to be one of the civic media fellowship’s senior fellows. 

In January, as word about COVID-19 was just coming out from China, Harper reached out to some friends and started tracking COVID-19, looking particularly at the tech approach and zeroing on a community of people he could follow on Twitter to engage with to see what was happening on the ground and move from a more passive “follow” to a more active direct engagement. What once started as a small group of grassroots individuals engaged in what was happening in China grew into a global conversation between doctors and scientists, technologists and researchers, and journalists and individuals sharing data, real news/information, etc. 

Very quickly, the chat group grew into dozens of action networks helping nations like Italy, Argentia, Mexico with data and analysis that helped shape public health policy and cope with the new realities. It also created a digital space that was safe for doctors and other clinicians to share their experiences on the frontlines and to get hundreds of thousands of PPE to frontline workers by shipment or by sharing DIY mask-making instructions. And finally, it also connected organizations and folks who needed it with funders. 

While this isn’t work that he isn’t directly getting paid to do, it has had real impact, especially with connecting people behind-the-scenes. For Harper, it was very natural and organic to do.  

“There was never a moment where it was like, ‘Okay, now I’m going to put on my business pants and get work done,’” Harper said. “When I look back at what I have been successful at, it’s been very similar experiences where you find yourself in some extraordinary circumstances. The Obama campaign, a startup, whatever it might be. And I’m like, oh, I don’t know how to do any of this stuff. I’ve got to call people who do and I think that’s the key.” 

It’s become just that: a place where people who know stuff/experts share info, and that sharing has huge impacts. Including WHO, and global. Recently they released this op-ed, which has helped to drive decision-making around what’s now called “test, trace and isolate.” 

We sat down with him to learn more about this most recent pandemic response work and the lessons he’s learned about doing real work online during this moment. Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Use just enough and the most accessible tech

Although Harper said he wasn’t enthused that it’s owned by Facebook, he chose WhatsApp because it was very accessible by a very large group of people and the people they wanted to work with are largely from international immigrant communities. There’s a lot of WhatsApp usage amongst that group. Especially in the beginning, communities spawned on WeChat in China. They wanted this to be on people’s phones already.

“You go where the people are,” Harper said. “We’ve a lot of people been like, ‘Yo, let’s move to Slack.’ And it’s like, nah, if we move to Slack the whole thing will die.” 

According to Harper, the key to accessibility for this particular project was implementing  lightweight touch points, including a strategic explanation and building in reinforcements for community management.

  1. Build Trust

“That thing of how do you make sure that you trust the community is so hard,” Harper said. “That’s one of the hardest things because people are crazy and do crazy stuff. We have opinions. We’re all different. We’re messy.”

Building trust is the hard part of any collaborative project, but setting ground rules helps the process. For this project, it was important to Harper to make rules easy to understand and to let them be few and clear. It was also important to set norms like requiring citations, not allowing self-promotion and stating what’s off the record. And finally, adding support where necessary, like a Google doc list of people with contact information, to reinforce trust and help with easy navigation.

“The hard part is participating as a good actor and thinking of the community first,” Harper said. “Obviously, we’re people who think of ourselves first and then the community. But being able to short that distance, maybe to get the motivations to be the same–I think that’s the trick. So I do think empathy and trust is really important, but I think having interests aligned is really important too.” 

  1. Include diversity in people and ideas

“We often say this narrative around how diversity is so important because we’re building things for the world,” Harper said. “In some cases it’s just lip service and in some cases people mean it. This is a case where truly it is real.” 

Having many different types of peoples from different backgrounds was key to the project. 

“The more different types of people you have in these communities, the more weird shit happens,” Harper said. “The weird shit happens because of the mixing of ideas. And it’s so clear that we would not have had as unique of a perspective if we did not have the people that were international, if we did not have the people who were working in human rights or who are working epidemiologists. We would just be a bunch of tech bros sitting there being like, ‘I know how this disease works–I built Instagram.’ But the thing that I think is interesting is when you add new people. It changes to the dynamic.” 

  1. Keep an eye on the most vulnerable

Harper thinks this approach isn’t resonating with the “San Francisco tech types” and is very confusing to him, but something he tries to bring up a lot. 

“It’s very simple and the sad thing about all of this, regardless of the tech, regardless of the work [is that] the most vulnerable people are still the most vulnerable people,” Harper said. “We still have to make sure that we’re not fucking them over more than they’re already fucked over. In fact, we should try and make their world better.” 

  1. Take care of yourself and find fun!

Even in a pandemic, humor has a place. One of the things Harper did, for example, was create a funny zoom background screensaver. 

“It just reminded me how important it is to do stupid shit, like to really do fun stuff, something that gets you to giggle,” Harper said. “We’re in such a heavy time with all these heavy things going on. If we don’t figure out how to take care of ourselves, to make ourselves laugh a little bit, we can’t continue going on.” 

Another important tip Harper shared that helped him refuel for the cause was to reframe the question of, “How do you be productive in this situation?”

“Productive means so many different things. Productive might be just getting to sleep. Productive might be how do you call your parents, your friends, your loved ones? What is that self-care?” Harper said. “That’s why for me, it was so important to write it down, because sometimes you need to look at that. You need to be like, oh, yeah, I should go on a walk because you forget because it’s overwhelming, because you’re like, fuck, man, 3,000 dead a day.” 

Join in and learn more about the work Harper is doing HERE.