Meet the team

author: Emily Jacobi
date: 2018-06-27
title: Meet the team
categories: – blog

This fall, Digital Democracy will celebrate our ten year anniversary. When we first started, we were a group of four founding volunteers — Liz Hodes, Gabe Hopkins, Mark Belinsky, and myself. Over the past decade, many passionate and dedicated people have worked — and volunteered! — to make Digital Democracy what it is today. But as the impact of our work has grown, it’s become clear that for Digital Democracy to truly achieve its goal to support marginalized communities on the frontlines of the world’s most pressing environmental and human rights issues, we needed to professionalize and grow our team.

For the past two years, thanks to support from our donors, we have expanded our team. For me, it is thrilling to see how much more we are able to accomplish as a group of ten.

From tool-building to local partner support to finances, meet the members of the Digital Democracy team:

Hi, I’m Aldo!

Aldo Puicon Photo

I practice design at the intersection of people, equity, and sustainability. To do so, I partner with visionary people and organizations to co-design radical strategies and solutions.

Outside of Digital Democracy, I’m an active member of Color Coded, an LA-based POC-driven technology collective developing public programs, incubating technology projects, and mentoring people of all ages and skill levels who are wanting to practice technology and design within an intersectionality framework.

On a more personal note: I was born in Lima (Peru), and my family immigrated to Los Angeles in the early 80s. I am a lifelong Angeleno who speaks and reads fluent Spanish. I identify as Queer and Latinx, and my pronouns are they and them. Besides design, I am also passionate about technology, art, maps, and storytelling.

What do you focus on at Dd? At the moment, I focus on designing the user experience and interface for Mapeo Mobile 1.0. This first version of Mapeo Mobile will make it easy for our partners to gather qualitative and quantitative mapping data while helping them stay organized.

What inspires you the most about your work? I am most inspired by the vision for the Mapeo platform and its potential to positively impact not only our partners’ missions but my own communities’ needs. The power of maps and mapping data is critical in framing conversations regarding land rights and land use — whether deep in the Amazon or in gentrifying neighborhoods across the States.

What is a piece of media that you’d like to share with the Digital Democracy community? French Disko by Stereolab (1994) … When I was 14, my good friend Melanie introduced me to the sounds of Stereolab, an English band with a French chanteuse and several Moogs and guitars. Their sound would occupy my ears time and time again throughout my high school experience until they were forced out by other new sounds I came across. Over 20 years later, I have revisited Stereolab… this time diving deeper into their politics. This particular track is both nostalgic yet more relevant today than before…

Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn’t call for total withdrawal
I’ve been told it’s a fact of life
Men have to kill one another
Well I say there are still things worth fighting for
La Resistance!
Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn’t call for (bubble withdrawal)
It said human existence is pointless
As acts of rebellious solidarity
Can bring sense in this world
La Resistance!

Songwriters: Laetitia Sadier / Timothy John Gane

Hi, I’m Aliya!

Aliya Ryan Photo

I was born and brought up in the UK in a people, travel and cooking loving family whose regular perambulations took myself and my sisters between the dreaming spires of Oxford and Cambridge, the wild, boggy, moss-filled Scottish Borders, the crystal clear alpine air of Lake Zurich and ancient sites of mystical & culinary knowledge in modern day Turkey.

I studied anthropology and subsequently moved to Peru, where my love affair with the Amazon and its people took hold.

Now I live in Edinburgh, am feeling joy at the arrival of elderflower in the hedgerows and dusk that turns into dawn in the magical midsummer-Scottish-twilight. And I’m learning the trapeze for the day I run away to the circus…

What do you focus on at Dd? My role is to oversee Dd’s relationships with our partner communities and make sure that our tech development not only takes into account their needs, but is led by them so that the tools we make can be useful and impactful, whilst also reducing dependence and building local autonomy. I do this by visiting the communities and seeing the tools in action, and lots of coordination from a distance. I also spend a fair amount of time travelling, making maps, preparing training and workshop materials and am the first point of contact for people enquiring to use Mapeo in new areas.

What inspires you the most about your work? All the people that I am lucky to work alongside, spend time with and count amongst my close colleagues and friends.

I feel particularly lucky to be able to spend quality time with our partners in the field, often visiting their beautiful homelands and seeing first hand the threats they are facing and their efforts to confront these through community mobilisation, capacity building and mapping and monitoring efforts. This is a frequent reality check for me to ensure that our tools remain grounded in real needs.

The tech world was new to me when I joined Digital Democracy, but through it I have also been introduced to radically subversive, genius and inspiring people using tech to build more collaborative, distributed and kind systems which I believe can help bring positive change.

What is a piece of media that you’d like to share with the Digital Democracy community?
The decolonial atlas blog which publishes maps that undermine colonial / imperial views and show alternative or maginalised ways of seeing and relating to space. In the same vein Hugh Brody’s beautiful book Maps and Dreams, which inspired me twenty years ago to start working in the area of indigenous land rights. More recently the reflections of Renee Paulani Louis on the challenges of being a contemporary indigenous cartographer and the gorgeous, imaginative maps of James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti in Where the Animals Go.

Hi, I’m Cindy!

Cindy Zeng Photo

I work on mapeo-mobile as a developer for Digital Democracy. I’m inspired by the possibility that the Mapeo ecosystem provides. Ideally, Mapeo ecosystem would help empower people/communities in a way that feels intuitive and natural without exploitation. It’s inspirational to see the team work and think through solutions in a way that puts the user/communities first to make sure that communities own the product instead of the other way around.

Is there a person or group from your work with Dd that has particularly inspired you? The person who has particularly inspired me, probably by way of just being the one I’ve worked closest with, is Aldo. Aldo has inspired me to approach problems both in work and life in a completely different way. Their approach to problem solving blends together the impatient get-it-done attitude that I’ve become accustomed to in the private sector and the warmth, understanding, and emotional intuition that is unique to Aldo. When approached with a problem, their attitude is never accusatory or defeated, but inquisitive, empowering and supportive. “How can I help support you?” is always the first question they ask. Working with Aldo never feels like work and is always filled with laughter and warmth. I can’t say I have a particular story that sticks out in my mind of Aldo’s inspiration, but I will say when I think back to my interactions with them, each and every one has prompted me to learn something new about myself or the world. Perhaps that’s what’s truly inspiring about them, they bring out the best and most productive from a person, not through exploitation, force, or impatience, but through kindness, understanding, and just the right amount of sass.

Hi, I’m Emily!

Emily Jacobi Photo

I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and was lucky enough to take part in an incredible youth journalism program that treated young people as if their voices matter. There, I was trained to ask questions and use my skills to amplify the voices of others. Pretty much everything I’ve done in my professional life has been inspired by this early training!

I’m passionate about social justice, decolonization, healing ancestral trauma, and just generally how humans can live more harmoniously with themselves and the environment. I split time between Oakland, California and Washington, DC, and I spend as much time outdoors – hiking, biking, or gardening – as I can. My pronouns are she/hers.

What do you focus on at Dd? I wear a lot of hats at Dd, so I have to admit I’m not always as focused as I would like to be. But as the Executive Director, I get the chance to work with all of our incredible team members and board of directors. Together, we work to set the vision of the organization and work towards our goals. I oversee our operations, financial and fundraising work, and work closely with the programs and tech teams to implement our work with our programs and tools. I also work at a high level with our international and local partners, and support our communications work, speaking about Digital Democracy at conferences and other convenings.

What inspires you the most about your work? Something transformative happens when communities are able to control their own data and share their narratives. Although this is shifting, we still live in an era where some worldviews dominate and oppress others. At Digital Democracy, we’re working in solidarity with people who have been told that their lives, their territories and their cultures are less worthy than others. So we’re working with our partners to co-create tools that allow them to challenge these stories, on their own terms. And that’s amazing. because our team strives not to come in thinking we know all the answers, we are continually learning from our partners. We may have more technical knowledge about particular digital tools than they do, but we recognize them as the experts of their local environments. In the process, I find myself continually inspired by the work they are doing, and what they share with us.

What is a piece of media that you’d like to share with the Digital Democracy community? I read two books recently that I found deeply enriching and engrossing, and that I think might be of interest to Digital Democracy’s broader community. The first is Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which weaves together indigenous traditions and scientific knowledge to explore the incredible wisdom of the plant world. The second book is Whose Global Village by Ramesh Srinivasan. His book explores how technology development is shaped by corporate capitalism, often deepening existing inequalities, and shows ways in which local communities are reclaiming technology and building it on their own terms. For anyone interested in our work, I think it would be an enlightening and thought-provoking read.

Hi, I’m Gregor!

Gregor MacLennan Photo

I was born Scotland and grew up near London, England. My original passion was math and science, but I had the great fortune to travel to Indonesia and Uganda before I started university. Those trips opened my eyes to the diversity of experience in the world, and the injustice, and I switched from math to studying anthropology.

I took every opportunity I could to travel, from which I learnt more of how the history of my own country and European colonialism has been a major part of the problems communities around the world face to this day. I participated in different development and conservation projects until I found a place and a role that made sense to me: in the Amazon Rainforest, working to support inspiring initiatives by local communities who were locked in a struggle to defend their land, their rights, and maintain their identity and culture in a changing world.

I have now been working with indigenous peoples in the Amazon for the past 19 years. Initially I lived in Peru for 7 years, then worked from the US as a campaigner against destructive oil drilling in the Amazon. When I met Emily I joined the Digital Democracy team and we focused our work on supporting communities with technology and training, so that they could challenge extractive industries in their territory.

What do you focus on at Dd? My role is to understand the diverse needs of our partners and other marginalized communities around the world, and lead the design of tools, like Mapeo, which help overcome technical barriers and dependencies on outsiders. I coordinate our amazing team of designers and developers and work closely with the program team. I have frequent trips into the field to learn about the work partners are doing on the ground, and where existing technology solutions are falling short for them.

What inspires you the most about your work? We have the great privilege to be working with incredible community partners in some of the most beautiful places on the planet. Their dedication to their own people, their land, and their future has helped challenge the worst of colonization and environmental destruction. The way that the right technology, designed to meet their needs, can empower people and strengthen the important work they are already doing, is a strong inspiration for me.

Is there a person or group from your work with Dd that has particularly inspired you? I first met the Achuar of the Corrientes river basin in Northern Peru in 2006. I was accompanying a PhD student from Barcelona visiting the area to research using satellite imagery to detect oil spills. The Achuar we met had a different idea: they wanted to learn how to use cameras and GPS to document the oil spills they had been suffering for decades, and show the world their plight. We helped support them in starting a community managed monitoring and reporting program, which has led to major improvements to oil operations in the region. Over the years projects and financial support has come and gone, and the team has grown and changed, but the local team have continued to work for their own communities, diligently documenting oil spills and holding the oil company to account.

What’s something you wish people knew about the work that Digital Democracy does? I wish more people could meet the communities and the individuals we work with, and be inspired as I have by their dedication to fighting for their land and future.

What is a piece of media (a book, song, story, movie, event, podcast, etc.) that you’d like to share with the Digital Democracy community? When I had just started this work, 20 years ago, I was strongly inspired by the book “Maps and Dreams” by Hugh Brody, writing of his experience working with the Beaver people of Northeastern British Columbia, Canada. I learnt of the power of maps, and the challenges of the role of an outsider working to be an ally.

Hi, I’m Helena!

Helena Qin Photo

I am a curious mind, passionate cook and foodie, that person who will pet your dog, and (at times) a software developer. Outside of Digital Democracy, I also work at Intuit as a front-end engineer based in Mountain View, California, though I love to eat my way through travelling.

What do you focus on at Dd? I focus on Mapeo Mobile as a front-end developer, helping to connect indigenous communities with access to technology that will help tell their stories and protect their land and culture.

What inspires you the most about your work? The possibilities for positive impact and change that Mapeo has on communities and people inspire me. The technology that we are building is taking a different approach by working alongside our partners to come up with solutions that will make a difference, as they truly own their data and stories.

The people that make up Digital Democracy also inspire me. Everyone brings unique perspectives that have inspired me to think about issues much bigger than myself, and ultimately have inspired me to do better to help bring change through technology.

What is a piece of media that you’d like to share with the Digital Democracy community?
The “Comfort Zone” episode of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour podcast, here. This episode discusses ideas about pushing us out of our comfort zones, from facing our fears and taking risks, to hard issues like talking about race and privilege.

My favorite section in the podcast is with humanitarian activist Dan Pallotta. He talks about the importance of community, as we seem to have an abundance of the word community, but a lack in actual community. Dan speaks of “our inability to be with one another that gives rise to so many of the problems” that we currently have, which really resonates with me.

Hi, I’m James, also known as Substack.

James Halliday

I live off-grid in Puna District, Hawai’i where I write software and
grow food. I’m a member of

What do you focus on at Dd? I work on osm-p2p, the custom database for map data used by mapeo. The database is designed so that people can edit locally and replicate with peers without ever needing to be online.

What inspires you the most about your work? I like how the tools are grounded in the material requirements of pre-existing struggles. Real-world experience informs how the tech should be built, not the other way around.

Hi, I’m Jen!

Jen Castro Photo

My path has been an interesting one beginning with my parents migrating from Quito, Ecuador to Toronto, Canada, being born and raised in a concrete jungle and moving to the West Coast and living in East Vancouver for the last nine years. I have had the privilege of using some of my many talents to support critical social justice issues in the city and learning from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people about their territory through climate justice, arts and community organizing in Vancouver. When I’m not working on amazing projects with Digital Democracy, I like to stay busy in my garden, studio, and kitchen creating all kinds of interesting things for my friends and I to enjoy.

What do you focus on at Dd? I’m a Program Coordinator working with our partners in Peru to navigate their technical needs for critical community based projects in response to logging, mining and oil projects that impact the ecological health of their territories and their way of life.

What inspires you the most about your work? My inspiration is the people who tirelessly fight to protect their communities, culture, and the ecosystems they are part of. The active projects we have working with many different indigenous communities in the Amazon are all uniquely thrilling and critical in a time where climate change and the rights of Indigenous people around the world are finally being acknowledged as real, and the connection between them is undeniable.

What’s something you wish people knew about the work that Digital Democracy does?
The thing I hope people learn about Digital Democracy is how much attention we put on process. The nature of technology is results oriented and we are often working to help partners achieve concrete tasks with the right tools, but on our way there we work to make sure that our process is working in harmony with what is going on for the communities involved. They are true collaborators in our work and are the experts in their respective struggles for environmental and human rights.

What is a piece of media that you’d like to share with the Digital Democracy community?
I had the fortune of hearing Leanne Betasamosake Simpson do a reading from her paper Land as Pedagogy. She was talking about the place where I grew up, Toronto, in a similar way I had thought of the Amazon, "back home" in Ecuador.

Hi, I’m Karissa!

Karissa McKelvey Photo

I’m an open source software developer, musician, bicycle nerd, and avid traveler. I’ve been involved in movements for social and economic justice since I was small, starting with fighting for equal rights on the streets of San Francisco with my two moms and a sign.

What do you focus on at Dd? I work most closely with Gregor to develop, maintain, and communicate about our software. From peer-to-peer databases to interactive applications and maps, we provide a large variety of open source tools for managing, syncing, filtering, and visualizing map data.

What inspires you the most about your work? Normally, technology companies own the data generated by users, and make money by privatizing that data. Our work is unique by respecting user autonomy and privacy. Users own their data and can use it offline, choosing to share it with whomever they want. This ‘decentralization’ of data is cutting-edge technology, and I’m proud that we’re setting an example for other technology and human rights organizations.

Hi, I’m Sesoo!

Sesoo Igbazua Photo

I am a husband to a lovely southern belle and a father to two restless love vortexes. My life partner’s name is Keisha and our sons are Terva and Yima. I was born and spent the first two decades of my time on the planet, in Nigeria. I enjoy fufu, ramen and sushi, and I attempt poetry. My days are spent learning, and collecting experiences.

What do you focus on at Dd? I work closely with Emily to ensure our decisions are informed by the most complete and accurate financial information, our operations are in compliance with all regulatory and tax requirements, and that we are responsible custodians of the funds entrusted to Dd.

What inspires you the most about your work? The social justice impact of Dd’s work was the main attraction. I am inspired by anyone working to improve the world from a genuine and informed place.

Is there a person or group from your work with Dd that has particularly inspired you? Meeting Emily and learning about Dd at the time I did was serendipitous and necessary. It gave me hope to be reminded that there were still good people out there working with marginalized communities from a genuine and informed place. In the short time I’ve worked with her, I can tell she places a great deal of importance on having the best information necessary to understand her role and impact on the communities she works with. I think that level of care is crucial to developing the most sustainable solutions.

What is a piece of media that you’d like to share with the Digital Democracy community? “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe is a critically acclaimed novel that chronicles a man navigating the impact of the British colonial presence on his way of life in Eastern Nigeria. You can find this on Amazon. James Baldwin and WIlliam F. Buckley’s debate at the Cambridge Union in 1965. This is a conversation that I think highlights at the heart of it, the primacy of justice as a foundation for a sustainable existence for all members of society. You can find this on Youtube. I love Miles Davis’ album “Some Kind of Blue”. You might enjoy it as well. Here’s a link to my poetry book “The Faithful Miracle”. It’s a short ebook.

Hi, I’m Stephen. On the internet I’m called noffle.

Stephen Whitmore (noffle) Photo

I live in Oakland, California with my partner and a cuddly but mildly psychotic cat named Roxy, with a smattering of happy plants basking in our living room window. I identify with the solarpunk ethos of a bright collective future through sustainable technology and nurturing our connection to nature. I enjoy writing empowering Node.JS modules and small programs that do one thing well, and also sometimes design video games.

What do you focus on at Dd? I primarily focus on designing and developing the peer-to-peer technologies that power the database and sync portions of Mapeo Desktop and, soon, Mapeo Mobile. I also write small features for Mapeo Desktop. I really enjoy MacGyvering together fixes for emergencies that arise in the field.

What inspires you the most about your work?

  1. I admire the people I work with. They make me a better human being.
  2. I get to write 100% free open source software. We share what we create, and work in the open.
  3. We live our values through our work and interactions. They truly unify us as a team.
  4. We’re focused on truly helping real, marginalized people, not building wasteful or unsustainable venture-capitalist funded gadgetry.

What’s something you wish people knew about the work that Digital Democracy does?
Technology is not neutral; it cannot exist in a vacuum. It is not an unstoppable, external deity in the service of “progress”. The values and power structures of organizations embed themselves in the technology they create. It’s no surprise then what we see daily: for-profit, hierarchical corporations creating software that so vividly mimics these very qualities.

Digital Democracy is the only place I’ve ever worked where it’s different. Dd seeks to empower marginalized peoples and communities; to listen before speaking; to suggest and not demand; to put people before profit, and no human being above another. We’re still learning as we go, but Dd embodies these values in our intentions, and it’s exactly these qualities that our world so urgently needs in the technology it creates.

What is a piece of media that you’d like to share with the Digital Democracy community? Zach Mandeville’s modular The Future Will be Technical essays. Technology doesn’t have to be awful and oppressive and isolating. It can be rejuvenating, empowering, community-building, and a conduit for creativity, personal expression, and self exploration.

Thanks for taking the time to learn more about our team! Huge thanks to the many other contributors, volunteers & collaborators who make our work possible. Follow along with our work on and