Learning To Play Like Yourself
Updating SlashRoots’ Mission
It has been 11 years since the name SlashRoots was first conceptualized. The name was inspired by a play on a “Roots.Rock.Reggae” t-shirt I owned and the Linux operating system’s shortcut to getting to the “home” folder (~/) — getting you “/roots”. Yea, it was pretty nerdy (and not something most people could read, so we ended up spelling out the name). Back then, our motivation was straightforward. Digital technologies like smartphones, web 2.0, and social media were rapidly changing the world around us, democratizing who could create value and who had a voice on the Internet.
We wanted to channel those forces toward persistent challenges we saw across the Jamaican landscape. Could digital technology provide those coming of age in this Internet era with a better path to improve Jamaican society? A lot has changed since we posed that question in the first SlashRoots/dev conference and hackathon. We hosted a few more conferences and formed an organization to create a space where like-minded individuals could explore that question. There were some wins, many mistakes, and hard-earned lessons learned.
Towards the end of last year, the SlashRoots team sat down to reexamine why we do this work, what success looks like for ourselves and the communities we wanted to impact, and the areas we needed to improve to be more effective. In the discussions, a few core motivations stood out.
The Caribbean’s transition to a “digital society” can only be viewed as successful if, through the process, we make our society more equitable, enabling all members to benefit. Latin America and the Caribbean is the most unequal region in the world. Each year, tens of thousands of people leave because they don’t believe there is a path to their individual and family success here. If all we achieve by transitioning to a digital society is to create a few new winners while replicating existing patterns of exclusion as code, we would have failed.
Digital enables us as a country, maybe for the first time, to provide the best we have to offer to every Jamaican, regardless of where they are. Uptown, inner-city, country. One’s location no longer has to mean limitations on access to quality education, meaningful work and career opportunities, or effective public services and social support. Scale, localization, and accessibility for all members of our community are within reach, if we prioritize it. Not only is this the right thing to do, but a growing body of research tells us that services designed to meet the needs of the vulnerable and differently-abled benefit the entire population.
This isn’t naive digital optimism. Connectivity and access are important considerations for building inclusive services. But building digital services does not mean only using digital channels–it means active thoughtfulness of multi-model service delivery. This means more effective offline, paper-based, and face-to-face engagement.
Building great services that people want to use (and have the desired impact) requires changing how those services are built. In too many organizations, especially in government, the decisions that shape how services are implemented primarily flow from top to bottom. Doing one’s job well is measured by compliance with directives received and accomplishing a task within the time allotted, unbothered by whether this meets the needs and priorities of those affected by its implementation. This has to change. Building services centred around the needs of the people you want to use them, through incremental iterations, to learn quickly and cheaply, isn’t an unproven fringe idea. This is table stakes for the companies succeeding in the Internet era.
Realizing a future that resonates with these values is the work our team articulated for itself. This led us to articulate a new mission for SlashRoots.
To leverage digital to make the promise of Jamaica real for everyone.
One of my favourite quotes comes from Miles Davis: “…Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself”. Our team’s internal conversation, and the mission it’s produced, feel like another step in understanding who we are and what motivates us. It will provide a lens to examine our work for the next phase. Many have contributed to this journey. Thank you. I want you to know we’re still working to make good on that founding idea.
In my next post, I’ll go into what we mean by the ideas in the mission. Until then, onwards and upwards, ever!
* This idea is a remix of an excerpt from Katherine Benjamin’s, Deputy CIO of NY, essay on how digital service teams can be more effective. She originally wrote, “building great products that people love to use means changing the way of building those products.”