December 6, 2008
These ICT professionals hold down demanding jobs, but volunteer work is very much a part of their lives. What drives them to take on these multifaceted roles?
Vivian Chandra never forgets that a person living in a country with scant regard for democracy could get jailed for doing the job she does. As IT manager for Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand, Chandra runs the information technology side of the human rights organisation, but is also active in its campaigns.
An issue close to her heart, because of the nature of her chosen profession, is campaigning against internet censorship. One case concerned a Chinese national who was imprisoned for emailing the details of the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre to foreign journalists.
She says internet users in China will not get a result for Amnesty International on Google. “If you try to type amnesty.org.nz, it would come out as file ‘not found, or file error’. And you may get a ‘knock on your door’ within the hour. That is the reality for a lot of people living around the world.”
Chandra says most Kiwis would find it difficult to relate to such fraught experiences. “You can go online right now and blog something nasty about your Government, and it would not matter. I could go out and stand in the middle of Queen Street and yell out something rude about the Prime Minister and the best I can get is a disturbing the peace [charge], a slap on the wrist.”
From volunteer to full-time employee
Chandra joined Amnesty International while doing her BSc in Physics at the University of Auckland 10 years ago, and has been active in the organisation ever since first as a volunteer worker (“placard, marches, that sort of thing”), then as an ICT contractor and now as its first permanent head of ICT. Four years ago she joined AI New Zealand’s governance team, a position she held for a year.
Prior to her current role, AI New Zealand had no full-time ICT staff, instead relying on project managers contracted for a specific period, interns and volunteers.
In October 2007, Chandra was contracted to recreate AI New Zealand’s IT infrastructure. The work involved changing the email and file systems from Lotus Notes to a Microsoft-based system.
After taking maternity leave the CEO of AI New Zealand offered her a permanent position, which Chandra “was ecstatic to accept”.
Chandra is aware of the quite different challenges she faces, compared with her ICT colleagues in the commercial sector. “I am effectively a one-man-band. While I still have to keep the website running, etc, there is also the long-term strategy and the building up of new technologies,” she says.
“I am working hard to implement a more corporate outlook. Corporates always have hardware refresh and all that kind of policy, I am trying to set those things in place while working on a budget as much as I can.”
AI New Zealand appointed a campaign director two months ago and they are working together on the organisation’s strategic web direction.
“The problem with nonprofits [is] there is never enough time or money for what you want to do,” she says. “I have grown up with this technology. I have a lot of exciting ideas I want to implement and it is hard to find the time. New things often have bugs that you need to work on. If you don’t have those hours to give, that is where things start to fall over.
AI New Zealand is currently applying for funding for new IT equipment. “I feel bad using the money that we have raised for things like computers, so we apply for funding from various sources.”
A Web 2.0 strategy
Social networking tools are in the sights for the campaigns. Chandra recently attended a conference on social networking and she says AI New Zealand has “sort of started dabbling” in social networking.
The organisation already has a couple of Facebook sites that are run by volunteers. “We have decided that is the best way for us to go, slowly, rather than try to manage it here; to encourage our groups to run their own thing.”
AI New Zealand has also uploaded some of its videos on YouTube and is also building a more interactive portal. “At the moment it is just a website,” she says. “Anything interactive usually comes from our head office in London.”
She says how AI is a movement of 2.2 million people globally, with 10,000 members in New Zealand.
When AI New Zealand moved to a new office on Grafton Road in Auckland, Chandra had the choice of sitting with the campaigning people or the fundraising people. She chose the former. “I can see my role will be more closely aligned with them, whereas I may help fundraising people with their IT. But with the campaigning people, I will really be working with them.”
Thus, while wearing her IT manager’s hat, part of Chandra’s duties is to work on some of the campaigns. She created a website banner for AI New Zealand’s campaign at the recent national election and uploaded a video to YouTube for the party candidates’ debate. Recently, she worked on standbyme.org.nz, the website for AI New Zealand’s Stop Violence Against Women campaign.
So what keeps her involved on the job? “I have a passion for human rights and that is where I come from,” says Chandra. When she meets with ICT colleagues, she does not introduce herself as the head of ICT. “I introduce myself as an Amnesty International activist who campaigns through fixing the IT.
“Just the fact that I know that I am making a difference in the world,” is an upside of the job. If she had worked for a corporate, she says, “at the end of the day the only difference you are making is increasing the profits for whatever company you are working for”.
At AI New Zealand, she says, “most days we get good news stories, [such as] political prisoners being released. A lot of these people come out of jail and say, ‘yeah, it was Amnesty International that helped me’.”
She shares a parable that keeps her spirits up when the news they receive is not positive. “A little boy is walking on the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them back into the sea. An old man comes along and asks him ‘what are you doing?’ ‘I am saving the starfish,’ says the boy. The old man says there are hundreds of starfish on the beach, why are you bothering? ‘You’ll never make a difference.’ And the boy says nothing, he picks up another one and throws it into the sea and says, ‘I made a difference to that one’.
“That,” she says “is the mentality you really have to have when you work in an organisation like Amnesty International, because while there may be 50,000 starfish on the beach dying, you have saved five just by walking along the beach.”
(The article continues on with interviews of the other two CIOs)