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This post was contributed by J. (Tales from the Hood

I was pleased when Linda put up her latest post. There’s a lot of opinion in the blogosphere lately about what white people need to understand or not understand, helping us get in touch with our “privilege”, etc. A lot of it is really excellent.

Something that I have struggled with personally, and have seen my white male demographic comrades also struggle with, though, is: What, then, are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to act? I don’t feel privileged, but okay—I still am. I get it. Privilege acknowledgedCheck. But now what?

In his excellent piece Douchebag: The white racial slur we’ve all been waiting for, Michael Mark Cohen notes that “White racial slurs are not common in our colorblind age because they don’t work on people who posses white privilege. When they do work, like “redneck” or “cracker,” it’s a matter of class politics…. Rich white men enjoy the invisible power of being just people. Normal, basic Humanity. Everyone else gets some version of discrimination.”

Now, I don’t want to be a “douchebag”— who would? But somehow, calling taxation of the rich “the douchebag tax” rather than “class warefare”, seems, well, academic and not very important in the grand scheme of things. That’ll win me a few smiles of affirmation in the coffee room, but doesn’t give me much guidance for getting through the day in a racially diverse neighborhood or ideas on how to support change to happen.

So for posterity, for those basically decent white guys who “get it” but are unsure how to act when the conversation around them heats up, here are the rules I try to live by:

This is not about you. If you find yourself entering discussions with a lengthy expose of where you grew up, what your socioeconomic status was, whether your upbringing somehow set you on a path for racism or not-racism… yeah, you may want to reconsider your approach. Process your own issues as needed, but don’t bring them into this conversation. Why? Because this conversation is specifically about the rights and needs of other people.

No one is immune. It doesn’t matter where your origins lie, generations back; it doesn’t matter that your great, great grandfather was or wasn’t a plantation owner. It doesn’t matter if all of your friends are of another race/culture/ethnicity. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an interracial or cross-cultural relationship. No one is immune from making mistakes, not even you. Don’t try to pretend otherwise. If you make a mistake — maybe you use an offensive term or fall back on a convenient stereotype — acknowledge it, give a sincere apology, and move on.

No one’s holding your responsible for the sins of others. Don’t get all defensive, like, “I never hit/choked/shot/raped/owned any black people… so back off!” Fine, you probably didn’t, but that’s not the point, and in the vast majority of cases you’re not being personally accused of those things. The important thing is to acknowledge that those awful things did and still do happen, and then take steps to change that. Too often we use our lack of specific personal culpability as a reason to disengage from the issues of race inequality overall.

[Editor’s note from Linda: The larger issue here is “structural racism,” or “systemic racism.” Learn about what that means, don’t take it personally, and use your vote, voice and behavior to help remove/un-do/change it. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece to get a really deep understanding of how structural racism has affected black people in the US over the years and continues today.]

No token gestures. Don’t collect friends of other colors. Don’t go all over-the-top with moral indignation on your Facebook page. No blasting Salt ‘n’ Pepper while cruising in your Prius. No ostentatious displays of confessing your privilege. Just be normal: Look people in the eye when you speak to them. If you’re friends with people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, express support and solidarity if it’s appropriate to do so, but don’t go all earnest emo. Join protests — definitely — solidarity is critical in order to move these issues forward and achieve structural changes. But don’t make it about you and your needs. Understand that your vote on local issues may accomplish much more than your signboard. And, no — don’t ever wear an “I Am Trayvon” T-shirt.

Don’t use somebody else’s asshattery to justify your asshattery. Newsflash: Literally every community on the planet has members who are jerks. Just because there was that one time, back in 1987 when some black guy was a jerk to you, doesn’t give you carte blance to cling to stereotypes or act like a jerk toward others. This is just basic.

Understand that people get emotional. Some people go ballistic just at Starbucks. Or Walmart. Can you even imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of literally generations of racial discrimination? It should surprise no one that tempers flare, voices get loud, and pronouncements become extreme.  Dude, just let people express themselves. Not everyone is a professional orator. Don’t try to deflate or invalidate it. Don’t feel as if you have to nit-pick or respond to everything. Which leads to…

Know when to shut up.

Don’t play the victim. You know how everyone thinks we can’t dance or “don’t have rhythm”? Yeah, just let it go.

So, here’s a good post called “Dear White Protesters” from Tam who writes on Tumblr as Young, Gifted and Black. It’s aimed at white folks protesting the grand jury decisions on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases and in general at white people who want to be allies in the struggle against structural violence and discrimination against black people and racist policing.

Tam specifically talks about the protests that happened in Berkeley on December 6th, writing:

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I was so happy to read Tam’s post, because I was in Berkeley last week, too, and the protesters were assembled in front of the police station down the street from where I was staying. I went over there around 6.30 because I wanted to join in, and I was missing the protests in New York because of travel. At that point in the evening, the situation was peaceful. The cops were lined up in front of the police station in riot gear, and people were calmly standing around or sitting on the ground singing, “Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” Later, I hear, the protests got crazy and there were rubber bullets, tear gas, windows smashed with skateboards, and tasers.

As I arrived to the police station, however, it was people milling around, getting ready for a ‘die in.’ They started lying down in the street. And I was not sure what to do. I wanted to support the movement and guessed that I should also lie down. But the protest seemed a bit ‘off.’ I hardly saw a black person there. The sign saying “Fuck the Police” covering the body of a hipster white girl lying in the street felt about as real as when middle class white people rap along with the 1988 N.W.A. song by the same name. (OK, confession. I do that. But not in public, and not to make a statement.)

Anyway, the whole thing made me feel confused about what I and others were doing there, so I left, feeling that maybe I was just getting old. I felt like I was not doing enough, but I also felt unable to participate in something that seemed somehow false. As I walked over to the BART station to catch a train, I couldn’t help but notice the group of older black homeless men at the park a half a block away from the police station. I couldn’t help but think of the black man with a shopping cart that I witnessed police harassing earlier that week on a suburban side street in Berkeley. None of them were engaged with this student protest. And I couldn’t help but feel awkward for the protesters who in their zeal to protest, somehow seemed oblivious to their surroundings and their privilege.

It’s possible that later on the protest became different and more diverse, and in that case I will retract these words and feel better, I guess. But I was glad to read Tam’s post. I was having a hard time unpacking my own reactions to the Berkeley protest, and Tam’s analysis illuminated what was wrong. It’s important to have allies in all struggles, but allies need to learn to take a back seat, understand their role, and follow the lead of those whose struggle it is.

Tam gives advice on how:

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As Franchesca Ramsey also says: “An ally’s job is to support.” Watch her video (below) on how to do that, and read Tam’s full post for some good insight.

Ramsey’s 5 Tips for Being a Good Ally include:

1. Understand your privilege.
2. Listen, do your homework.
3. Speak up, not over.
4. Apologize when you make mistakes and learn from them.
5. Saying you’re an ally is not enough.

Lastly, a few months ago I read this post about Imani Henry and Equality for Flatbush, who organizes people (of all colors) in the community where I live around issues of gentrification, racial tension, and discrimination against black and brown people by law enforcement. Henry says many of the same things (read that whole article too – it’s really insightful).

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There are a lots of places for white people to listen and learn how to be better allies, and opportunities to put that learning into practice. Understanding our own privilege is a critical task, and it’s hard. These are all lifelong learning pathways, and as Ramsey says, we’ll make mistakes. It’s part of the process of changing and shifting the balance of power to a more just one. It won’t happen overnight, but we shouldn’t give up just because we feel awkward and uncertain.

So go to protests, get involved, know and exercise your rights to dissent and assemble, show solidarity. This movement needs everyone to get on board. Like Fannie Lou Hamer said: ‘Nobody’s free until everybody’s free’. But as white people, we need to think through our participation, join as allies, and avoid making it about us.

 

 

 

 

AnthropologyThere’s a popular saying amongst the tech and development crowd that 10% of an ICT4D initiative is the tech and the rest is…. well, the rest. I’ve recently heard a modified version that says 5% is the idea and 10% is the business model, and the other 85% is…. well, the rest. The ‘rest’ is mostly made up of people, culture, context and the stuff of anthropologists.

At the Slush conference in Helsinki in November, I joined a short ‘Fireside Chat’ with Tanya Accone (UNICEF) and Mika Valitalo (Plan Finland) about the importance of that other 85-90%, which Tanya referred to as ‘peopleware’.

Tanya kicked off the panel by asking people to think about how much time they’d dedicated to the technology of their start-up idea or their tech solution – the hardware and the software – and to then ask themselves how much time they’d spent on the people component. “People are what will make or break your idea,” she said. When it comes to mobile adoption, for example, we are seeing an exponential adoption pattern all over the world, and people are driving that. “I bet every single one of you at SLUSH hopes to see that curve in your future.”

She went on to note that conventional wisdom is that ‘content is king,’ however a key takeaway from her work in the mobile and social entrepreneurship space is that content been deposed by context. For example, when working with the U-Report project in Liberia, lessons from other countries where it had been rolled out were incorporated, but they had to be contextualized to make them work in Liberia. This involved talking and working directly with youth to ensure that the programming could be adapted properly.

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.34.47 PMMika agreed that ‘peopleware’ is a critical consideration. “I’ve witnessed this 10:90% ratio several times when co-designing and supporting projects using technology for social impact in African countries,” he said, and told the story of working on enhancing birth registration in Kenya, where the slow and manual flow of information between people and the government seemed to be a key challenge that could be tackled with use of mobiles and computers and applications.

“However, the deeper we dug the more varied the challenges seemed to be. We realized that people might be reluctant to register children when local practices were not in sync with the existing legislation. For example, if men are marrying girls under the age of 18, they might not like the idea of birth registration as it would prove a girl’s age. People living near the Kenya-Tanzania border might not want to be identified as being from one or the other country, because being unregistered may allow them to move back and forth across the border more easily and receive some type of benefit or commerce opportunity.

Even with a functioning mobile phone and app in their hand, people will weigh multiple aspects based on their personal situation before taking action. So, spending enough time with end-users and trying to see the world through their eyes as much as possible is crucial, especially when working in places that are not familiar to you. This may sound self-evident, but I’d encourage everyone keep this top on the list.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.28.39 PMI shared two of the key points from the Technology Salon earlier in the week on the topic of start-ups and social impact: a) the importance of partnership and collaboration (eg, people), and b) knowing the local context — not just the technical landscape, but people and culture.

These two aspects were really highlighted for me when I was working on a project in Cameroon that trained youth to use mobile phones to make short videos that they used to organize and advocate for change in their communities and more broadly. The donor was a large mobile phone manufacturer who assumed youth would use their higher-end phones to create the videos. The youth, however, were much more familiar with simple phones like the Nokia 1100. The phones we purchased in order to get good video quality had too many layers and folders and features. So we ended up getting some Flip cameras, because what we really needed was a push and shoot video camera, and this design was a better fit for low-income rural youth who had limited experience with technology.

We also realized that though the training was set up for youth, community adults were really interested in learning to make videos too. So we had to find ways to engage them so that they would not feel left out and so that we could ensure their continued support for the youth’s efforts. This meant we had to spread our resources out a little further than we had imagined, but we saw it as necessary. In all these processes we had to balance the context and reality on the ground, the expectations of the youth and community, expectations of our local partners, and those of the donor.

Tanya added that achieving success with social impact sometimes means rethinking your business model, because you’re in pursuit of the double dividend of financial return and social impact. She gave an example in Burundi where only 3% of the population has access to the electricity grid. “You would think it’s a market ripe for alternative energy solutions. But many businesses avoided it because their existing retail and distribution models simply would not work in that context. It took deconstructing and reconstructing business models to create something that does work — a network of microfinanced microfranchises operated by village-level entrepreneurs.” Now the families use robust, fast-charging LED lights recharged through a pedal-powered generator, a system that also recharges mobile phones. 

Another aspect is understanding the value proposition, she said. It would seem to be basic business, but all too often well-intended initiatives forget this and rush in with a cheaply-made solution. “In the process, they trample over the basic human dignity of their target consumer or beneficiary.” She suggested keeping in mind that people with limited resources are among the most discerning consumers because they don’t have disposable income. They are cost conscious, and equally, they are looking at value for money and return on investment in the durability, feature sets and total cost of ownership of everything they buy and value. This means that more energy-efficient chips, better battery technology, and robust handsets are important to economically challenged users.

Tanya also noted that ‘base of the pyramid’ users are no less style-conscious or aspirational than consumers in general, so “don’t disrespect them by skimping on the design and delivery of your solution. And like you and me, consumers in marginalized communities seek enjoyment and entertainment and fun too. Music has huge pull and potential… and don’t forget that pay-as-you-go comes with data!”

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.29.41 PMMika shared an example where the technology that was introduced carried almost too much power with it. In this project, a mobile phone was loaded with videos and connected to a portable projector. Daycare workers and parents were able to watch good childcare practices from model early childhood care and development centers. “What we found out was that using new technology not seen before sometimes amplified the message so much that caregivers wanted to discard what they already knew and replace it with what they saw on the screen from the model daycare centers.” Though the project showed the power of tech, unintended consequences may come up at the intersection of software, hardware and ‘peopleware’.

Mika talked about another project in Uganda that supported parents’ involvement into school activities. Plan realized that men were more willing to come to parent-teacher meetings once they introduced a mobile SMS service through which they sent invitations. The technology lowered the threshold for men to participate in issues they might have previously considered ‘women’s issues’. These subtle dynamics in the local context can have a big influence on how an innovation works, he noted.

Mika’s takeaways for startups and innovators were that civil society organizations might offer good synergy for co-designing, testing out and distributing products and services. “I’ve seen startups getting needs and ideas from the ground through NGOs, and then innovating products and services together. For example we produced a start-up mobile data gathering tool called Poimapper based on the needs coming from our frontline staff. We did on the ground pilots and product development in Kenya with actual end users who gave crucial feedback to make the service work well. Peopleware matters and partnering with NGOs can help startups to get it right,” he said.  “INGOs often have a wide presence around the world, and they are on the ground in communities and the surrounding society. They know quite a lot about peopleware, participatory methods, and community engagement. Then again, they don’t necessary have the same agility and fast innovation processes combined with new business models that startups are often good at.  So, my advice to NGOs is to go and meet startups and visa versa.”

I added that it’s important to understand who has access to and control of devices, and to ensure that a product or service is valuable to people in the long-term. So first — Who owns the phone? Who controls it? Often the story is that everyone has a phone but you may find that some people own 2 phones, some don’t have any. You may find that the people you least expect to have phones have them or can access them, and those you’d think would have a phone don’t. This is critical especially when working with girls and women who typically have lower access and control – and of course you should be sure the project is including girls and women!

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.31.42 PMAlso, you may be working with people who have very little disposable cash – but if your application or idea saves time and money and meets a real need, they may be willing to move their resources from one thing to another. For example, using solar for light and charging up phones can save money and time as well as eliminate the health risks of kerosene lamps. However, you need to make sure that what you offer is a long-term and sustainable change. When people have limited resources, they’ll be hesitant to invest in something new if they are not assured that it will be available, sustainable and cheaper in the long term.

Lastly, as Mika said, partnering with non-profits can offer start-ups a way to reach communities, because some non-profits are quite well-known and respected by the community (though of course, some are not too!). But ethical non-profits will not risk their reputations on ideas that they do not believe in, that are unconvincing, or that seem to take advantage of the poor. Start-ups will need to have clear ideas and evidence that a proposition is solid, because most non-profits have a low tolerance for risk and failure and (one hopes) a higher ethical standard than a basic money-making operation.

Tanya closed us out by summing up the key points:

  1. People are your critical success factor. “People” include your end-user as well as those that you may be partnering with.
  2. Context is king! Understand the social dynamics, know who owns and controls the device, know what people spend money on.
  3. Build a better business model.
  4. Understand the value proposition — Figure out how your application/tool/innovation can help save precious $ and time.
  5. Understand your partners — Remember that brand and reputation are very important to non-profits, and they don’t like risk.

Thanks to Tanya and Mika for co-collaboration on the Fireside Chat and this blog post!

IMG_5689Technology Salon Helsinki kicked off as part of Slush, a fantastic start-up and technology event that takes place with about 10,000 people every Fall in the Finnish capital. Slush added a social impact stream for the first time this year, making it a good fit for Technology Salon. Plan Finland organized the Salon and Netlight hosted.

Our topic for this Salon was broad – how can technology increase social impact? – but lead discussants (Jussi Hinkkanen of Fuzu, René Parker from rLabs, and Mika Valitalo of Plan Finland) brought inspiring personal stories, fundamental questions, practical experiences, challenges and questions that made for an intimate and lively conversation that incorporated expertise from everyone in the room.

The discussion raised a number of key points for social impact start-ups and those working in the development space:

1. Making a direct contribution to social impact is a prime motivator. Most people in the room who considered themselves to be entrepreneurs or who felt they were working with a ‘start-up’ or ‘social innovation’ mentality had tried different pathways before landing on their current one, yet had found them unsatisfying due to bureaucracy, lack of agility, unsustainable efforts, systems not based on merit, and feelings of not being able to input into or control decisions. “Do I want a job where I’m comfortable, well-paid and getting accolades for the supposed social good I’m doing, but where I know I’m not having any real impact, or do I want to be somewhere that I’m paid less but I’m actually doing something worthwhile?” summed up one participant.

2. It’s not clear how to best achieve social impact at scale. There was some disagreement in the room regarding whether it was better to work outside of the system to avoid the above-noted problems with corporate social responsibility efforts, governments, multi-laterals and international development agencies, or whether it was imperative to work with those institutions in order to achieve longer-lasting impact at scale. Questions were also raised about what is meant by scale. If we help communities to demand better government services through some kind of innovative approach, that can also lead to a scaled impact and more resources and social good coming into a community, even though the scaled impact is not so directly attributable. The big question is how to achieve scale yet remain locally relevant and contextually sensitive.

3. Keeping a social impact focus is a challenge. It’s critical to think about both social impact and sustainability from the very beginning, participants agreed. A social impact start-up, like any business, needs to pay salaries and other costs, so it needs a good business model that brings in enough revenue. “If you do not show revenue and growth, you will drive off investors,” said others, “and then your start-up won’t grow.” Yet those in the lowest income bracket will not have the highest capacity to pay for services, and donors often have policies prohibiting them from funding profit-building entities, even if they start off as non-profits. Ensuring that investors have a social impact motivation so that the mission of the start-up does not skew as it grows can also be a challenge. This area is being somewhat addressed by ‘social impact investing’ however, “as a start-up entrepreneur,” said one participant, “you know that next phase investors don’t like it if you have an impact investor already on board, so that makes it difficult to get further funding.” This all poses real challenges for start-ups.

4. Social good is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone will say that their company is values-based and that it’s ‘doing good’ but who decides on and judges the social function of a company? “Maybe one way is to see if it motivates Generation Y,” said one participant. Another pointed out that one company might be doing something that is perceived as ‘socially good’, but it might have a very small impact. Whereas another company might be doing something not perceived as ‘socially good’ (say, selling clothing) yet it has embedded strong values, good business ethics, pays workers well with good benefits, doesn’t pollute the environment and contributes to local economic growth in a large way. People won’t think of the second company as doing social good even if its social impact is greater than the first company. The idea of social impact is largely in the mind of the beholder, concluded one person, it’s in the psyche.

5. Staying true to social impact values in the long-term is difficult. As one discussant noted, keeping the social impact mindset requires constant consideration as to whether you are doing good with and for your employees, but you also need to ask the community that you are serving what they think. “It’s easy to say you are doing social good, but if you go directly to ask people in the community whether your initiative is doing what it says and if it’s having a good impact, you’ll see it’s not easy. When an investor comes along who wants to change things, you always have to go back to look at who you are, how you started, how a particular change will impact the organization, and how it will impact on the thousands of people who rely on you.”

6. A sustainable business model helps bring autonomy according to one discussant. A start-up can remain agile and make its own decisions if there are no donors or external funders. Having its own sustainable revenue stream will allow it to stay true to its vision and to community needs, or at least provide enough to cover staff and operations costs. However, partnership and collaboration are key. “You have to work with other people whether you like it or not. If you are working as a social impact start-up, you’ll need to partner with those already working in the community, and work with everyone to bring in their part. Just because there is a community out there somewhere, you can’t assume that they don’t know what is happening or that they don’t know anything. You need to partner with these local groups and work with the existing community context and structures.”

7. An innovative business model trumps innovative technology. Many of the places where non-profits are working and where people may think about ‘social good’ start-ups are those where the market doesn’t work and people have very few resources. Yet these are the very people we want to support the most in terms of social impact, said one discussant, so how can we do it? Targeting solutions and payment for different parts of the markets might be one way, for example, offering a solution to the segment of the market that can pay and in that way extending the services to those who cannot pay. “The most innovative thing here is the business model, not the technological solution,” advised another person. “And if you really listen to people and you build according to people’s needs, you may uncover needs as well as new markets and business models.” Your services will need to keep evolving over time, however, as people’s needs and the context changes. “You need to go there and spend time with people in order to deeply understand their needs, their contexts and their behaviors.”

8. People won’t think like you think. Another participant quoted activists in the disability movement “Nothing about us without us,” saying that start-ups should follow that mantra also. All the really bad examples of NGO, government, development or corporate failures have been when people are looking top-down or outside-in, she said. “When you think ‘since those people are poor, they have nothing, they will really want this thing I’m going to give them,’ you will fail,” she added. “People everywhere already have values, knowledge, relationships, things that they themselves value. This all impacts on what they want and what they are willing to receive. The biggest mistake is assuming that you know what is best, and thinking ‘these people would think like me if I were them.’ That is never the case.”

9. There is space for various approaches. You won’t want one single product or service to monopolize, said one person. “There are roles and limitations for different entities in any community. There are some non-income generating things that can and need to happen, and that is actually fine. It used to be a charity and welfare mentality, but now we think markets will solve everything. Neither extreme is correct. We need to have space for various partners and efforts.” At the same time, there needs to be space for different partners at different stages in time. It is important for the various partners to understand what their role is. Emergency support is good in an immediate post-conflict stage, for example, but then humanitarian organizations need to step aside and open space for other actors when a community or country moves to a more stable development and growth period.

10. It’s difficult to find investors for social impact in ‘the South.’ The perceived risk in investing in start-ups that want to ‘go South’ or start-ups already based in ‘the South’ makes it hard to find investors. “Finnish investors are myopic,” said one person. “Finland has already provided examples of how companies can access these new opportunities and also have a social impact. Spending power has skyrocketed in some countries. If investors looked properly, they would see the potential of making more money in some of these vast markets than they can in Europe or Finland,” noted another person. The risk is indeed greater due to various elements in some of these countries, added one person. “It’s like courtship – you can’t go after people who are not in your league or not right for you. But if you find the right investor who understands the risk as well as the significant potential returns, it can be a great marriage.”

11. NGOs and start-ups can be great partners. They can come up with ideas from scratch, or they can partner later in the process. NGOs can take advantage of start-up applications and services, whereas the start-ups can find new customers, build a portfolio, do field-testing and get feedback on what to improve with their idea. In addition the two have a lot to teach each other, said one discussant. “NGOs can learn a lot from start-ups about how to operate. They should be learning how to think about iterative improvements, pivoting and changing quickly, failing fast and learning fast.” Start-ups can also learn from NGOs. “Some NGOs are quite good at participatory practices, knowing the community well, collaborating at multiple levels with various stakeholders, communities and governments.” In addition, community-based organizations know the community very well and often work together well with start-ups and NGOs.

12. Pacing and timing can make collaboration tricky. The pacing in these different organizations and partners is quite different, however, and that causes friction and frustration. But even large multi-lateral agencies can be helpful for start-ups who want to gain entry into different countries or communities because they are well-known and because they can provide an ethical and legal framework that helps protect the start-up from making big mistakes due to a lack of understanding of these key elements. NGOs can also serve as a kind of infrastructure upon which to build start-up efforts. Lack of NGO and donor agility however sometimes causes efforts to fail. Hybrid models of funding that can enable start-up-NGO collaboration are needed. One discussant emphasized the importance for start-ups to generate their own funding on the one hand while seeking donor funds for some things too, but never doing anything for a donor that is not part of the organizations core mission.

13. You need to lose the ego. In every sector, egos and brands get in the way of social impact. Start-up founders have egos too, and the start-up personality may often be one that wants the spotlight, or in order to obtain funding the start-up may need to act in a particular way, and this can be detrimental. “For social impact work, we need to think about catalyzing something, not being the center of it. We need to help bring snowballs to the top of the hills, and then let them roll down on their own without branding,” recommended one participant. “We hear that 60% of mHealth initiatives die before they thrive. They are isolated, with little connection and interface with one another. We need more platforms and sharing, less egos and brands.”

IMG_5690Next Technology Salon Helsinki. Plan Finland is hoping to continue convening in Helsinki. If you are interested, sign up to get invitations at Technology Salon!

I’d also recommend attending Slush next year – especially if you like high energy, high-tech, Helsinki and lasers! I’m sure next year’s impact stream will be as good or even better than this year.

Thanks again to Plan for convening and sponsoring the first Salon, to Slush for including it as part of their Social Impact Stream, and to Netlight for hosting at their beautiful offices!

The first two and half years that I lived in San Salvador, back in the early ‘90s, I didn’t work. I spent my time adapting, perfecting my Spanish, and learning from my mother-in-law how to cook, wash clothes, and take care of a house and family the Salvadoran Barrio way.

The other thing I did was read. I’d read anything I could get my hands on, often finishing a book in a day or two if my supply was plentiful.

A few months after I arrived, however, I had run out of things to read and was getting a little bored. By then my husband had started working as a mechanic in the shop where he had apprenticed as a teenager. We were not taking trips out to the beach or hanging out on the patio anymore, and I had mastered much of the housewifely chore learning. I was looking for something to do with my time and my attention turned to finding books.

Aside from the newspaper, reading was not something that anyone I knew in San Salvador did. Most of the people in the Barrio, including those in my new family, had not studied past 6th or, in some cases, 9th grade, nor did they have extra cash for things like books. (A Finnish friend who lived for a few years in El Salvador once said that she had loved visiting Suchitoto, a town outside the capital, because, “Linda, I saw people sitting around reading! And it wasn’t the bible!”)

I realized that finding books was going to be a challenge. There were no bookstores in downtown San Salvador, which was the extent of my range of movement at the time. So I asked my husband if there was a university anywhere, because certainly they would have a bookstore.

Y vos, ¿quién te crees? Who do you think you are?” he asked, pointing his chin at me, a little surprised at my question. “You think you can just waltz into a university campus and go in their bookstore?”

I didn’t know what to say.

So I asked what the problem was. Why couldn’t we? He explained that people like him, people from the Barrio, didn’t go to universities, and that if poor people went where the fufurufu (Salvadoran slang for wealthy, snobby, fancy, powerful people) lived, the police would chase them out. If as kids he and his brother had dared to walk into places where they didn’t belong, he said, the police (which was, at that time, the feared military police) would want to know what they were doing there and they’d be in big trouble. So they didn’t go to places like that.

With the idea of going to a university bookstore ruled out, he suggested that we go to “La Hispanoamerica,” a school supply shop downtown, to see if we could find something there. I was in luck — Hispanoamerica had a shelf full of classics in Spanish and even some in English, so I started browsing. A clerk quickly came over. She was annoyed that I was behind the glass counter touching the books.

“What book are you looking for?” she asked. “I don’t know, I’m just looking,” I answered. “Pues sí,” she said, “but which one are you looking for?” I answered again that I wasn’t sure, I just wanted to see what they had. By then she was even more exasperated. “Yes, but what is the title? Which book did they tell you to read? Give me your reading list and I’ll find the books for you.”

At this point I understood that this was not a place where people browsed to find something to read, it was a place you came to buy the books that you had been assigned to read. Foiled again.

I felt sheepish for not understanding the situation, and my husband was a little embarrassed by my walking behind the counter in the first place, and because the clerk seemed to think I was an idiot. “You can’t just walk behind the counter,” he told me. I felt like again he was asking me, “Just who do you think you are?” So I ended up not buying anything.

Instead, I asked my mother if she could send me books. She was running an auction house in Indiana at the time. So she would find and send me whatever used books came along that she thought I’d like. (She’d also send me envelopes full of newspaper clippings a couple of times a week. I like to think of this as the original Twitter. :))

These books ranged from romance novels to best sellers to biographies. I’d go to the post office a few blocks away downtown and spend the entire morning standing in lines, filling out paper work and waiting for signatures, purchasing colorful tax stamps at the bank and returning to the post office so that the clerks could wet and affix them to the boxes and mark them with government seals. It was an education in how the bureaucratic system of the country worked, learned through the simple act of picking up a box of used books.

I didn’t have much choice, so once I finally had them back to the house, I read them all. I remember reading a fascinating biography about a woman named Nora Barnacle, the wife of author James Joyce, a famous (I then discovered) Irish author.

At that time in my life, I never imagined that I’d end up one day having a job where I could travel the world. I wasn’t even able to get my hands on a copy of James Joyce’s books at that point, much less think about visiting his home country of Ireland.

***

Last week, however, there I was in Dublin, where Joyce did much of his writing. Before leaving home, I grabbed a copy of his book Dubliners from my college-aged son’s bookshelf for the trip. I figured it was high time I finally read some Joyce. Dubliners is a set of short stories written by Joyce when he was only 25 years old, just slightly older than I was when I was milling around San Salvador looking for books, and learning how to live in the Barrio. The stories focus on ordinary life in Dublin in the 19th century, after the city had weathered a long decline. They talk of grimy children, tenements, poor sewage systems, and a working class that struggles to make ends meet. The comparisons with Salvadoran barrios are easy to make.

At dinner in a nice restaurant with friends one evening last week, something triggered me to tell my tablemates the story of finding books in San Salvador, and how it had made me examine my own privilege and to consider the limits that my husband had set for himself as someone who identified himself as being ‘poor’ and ‘from the Barrio.’ How often we self-marginalize because we feel like we don’t belong, or because a dominant class or culture sets clear boundaries that we are not supposed to think about crossing. These boundaries become strong mental and physical barriers and deter us from entering both the spaces and places of the privileged.

Because humans are adaptable, however, these can be learned and unlearned. I discovered, for example, that I wasn’t supposed to do certain things in San Salvador because of the class that I had married into or because I was female, and I altered my behavior. When I moved back to the US, I re-learned things I had unlearned in El Salvador about what women should and shouldn’t, can and can’t do. Similarly, over time, my (now ex) husband learned that he could do things that he thought he wasn’t supposed to. He ended up returning to finish high school, and eventually went on to get a university degree. This was in part because he started to believe that he could, part because universities became more accessible, and part because I had started working and we had a little more money to allow him to pay fees and to work less.

I think about this experience a lot in the work I do, because I’m often working with or writing about marginalized groups and ways to improve inclusion. How can we help people overcome self-imposed barriers? What should institutions and social spaces look like physically, culturally and attitudinally, so that they can be inclusive? How do girls and women in particular self-exclude, and what kinds of wider environments are needed to reduce gender exclusion? I know that these barriers can be unlearned and overcome, but not without some work, support and effort on different fronts, including from those institutions and spaces that are excluding.

***

Book of Kells

Yesterday a friend from the Dublin dinner conversation emailed me while I was sitting in a little coffee shop, getting some work done. He was over at Trinity College at the Book of Kells exhibit. “Was only here for a few moments when I thought of you and your book story,” he wrote. So I met him there to see it. The Book of Kells is a very old bible, from 800 a.d.. It is housed in a glass case, and it’s full of gorgeous illustrations in amazing color. Upstairs from the Book of Kells itself is a library full of other old books. They are all roped off or encased in glass, physically off limits like the ones at the Hispanoamerica and the university bookstore that we were not supposed to go into back in El Salvador — yet for slightly different reasons.

Afterwards, we went to grab a quick lunch. We wandered down a small street where I had spied a sign that looked to me like it said ‘Daily Bread.’ “Let’s see what they have,” I said. (Oh, my terrible eyesight!) The shop was actually a pub called “Davy Byrnes,” but no matter, it was 3pm and they were still serving food. In fact, inside there were a lot of people having an early happy hour and lively conversations. We ordered some hearty food.

My friend ate quickly and ran off to catch his flight. I stayed around to finish my lunch and decided to order a glass of wine, as the atmosphere was warm and friendly (and inclusive!). In the process of eating, I knocked my knife off the table and onto the floor. It clattered loudly and landed in right between the feet of an elderly man with a cane sitting next to me. I apologized and leaned over to pick it up.

“A harrrr!” He turned to me and laughed loud and long, perhaps a bit tipsy from the port he was drinking. “Soooo! Now I’m gonna trow a pen at you!” he said, and reached into his vest pocket while wiggling his eyebrows and staring at me intently with watery pale blue eyes. He cackled like a pirate and threw a pen onto the floor near my feet.

I was being a bit slow, so he explained. “The pen is might-ier than the sword! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

He was ripe for a good chat, and I was enjoying the banter. “Don’t miss the Joyce exhibit while you are here,” he told me. I said that in fact, I was reading Dubliners but had barely cracked the book open yet. “Ah, he said. Dubliners is easy. Now Finnegan’s Wake, that’s the one that’s hard to crack!”

He went on to tell me some short stories of his own, riddled with the kind of swearing that you might expect from a feisty old Irish man you find in a pub. He finally leaned on his cane to get up and head home, leaving behind his book from the Joyce exhibit and his cap. The bartender assured me he would be back to get them.

As I settled up my bill, I asked what was the story of the pub, since it was unlike any other I’d ever patronized. Strangely enough I learned that Davy Byrnes, the pub we’d randomly wandered into, is famous for its association with Joyce. He spent time there, wrote there, mentions said “Davy Byrnes” in his books, and it’s been known since 1889 as Dublin’s most famous literary pub.

It’s weird how people, things and themes wander through your life and come together at points you never expect. The question “Who do you think you are?” has stuck with me, for better or worse, and it pops into mind at different times. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you can just walk in there and…?” It’s a good one for examining privilege, or on the flipside, exclusion.

Notes on PopTech

I first attended PopTech in 2009, and I had very little idea of what I was getting into. I had never heard of “design thinking” and though I had been working with technology and social change, I was new to the wider field of “innovation.” So PopTech was pretty mind-blowing for me. I remember meeting a couple of guys from Frog Design early on, and I ended up kind of tagging along to what they were doing a lot of the time (they were very cool about it). It now cracks me up that back then I had never heard of Frog.

Though terms like “interaction design” and “user interface” and “human centered design” were brand new to me in 2009, I do remember being surprised that the idea of working to design things together with users was seen as innovative. Design thinking can be magical, but in many ways it looks a lot like participatory development. There were very few international NGOs attending PopTech in 2009, but clearly it was a space where NGOs could learn a LOT and where grassroots and community centered organizations could share their knowledge and experience with community engagement and participation. (I’m glad to see that “hybrid” is the topic for 2015, and I hope that more of that kind of hybridization happens!)

I’m pretty sure I’ve come a long way since 2009. I’m no longer very impressed by product inventions – I’m more excited when someone is able to innovate through a whole cycle, rather than just invent a product. And that process requires a lot of thought to things like logistics and ecosystems.

Wikipedia says it well:

Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.

But that’s another blog post….

So, what did I learn at PopTech 2014*?

I like humility. The stage is a hard thing to manage for some people (including myself). I noticed this time around at PopTech that I didn’t pay as much attention to the super polished speakers and the ones with lots of inspirational quotes. The theme was “rebellion” and I liked the people who didn’t necessarily think of themselves as rebels, but who were just doing their thing. I liked hearing the stories from those who seemed less accustomed to the stage, who didn’t have a Ted-Style hero story, and who seemed a bit uncomfortable in the limelight. When it comes to social change, I believe that humility is a key ingredient. Being true to a mission through and through is critical whether you are working in a non-profit or as a social entrepreneur. It was great to see folks on stage who are living their ethics through their work.

Peter Durand’s illustration of Anil Dash’s talk.

I like ethics. Speaking of ethics, I also liked the talks that emphasized the hard questions around leadership, reflection, agency and privilege. A big shout out to Anil Dash, Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin for that. Their time on stage emphasized the importance of the values behind what we do, the problem with egos (both in Silicon Valley and in social impact work) and the way egos get in the way of social impact and progress. Palmer also talked about contemplation, and that it’s not necessary to do meditation to be contemplative. (This is great news for me as I have a hard time with yoga and sitting still in general, and things like capoeira and running work better for me to clear my mind.)

Good facilitation is like good user interface design. I ran into Matt, one of the ‘design’ folks I met at PopTech 2009. I loved how he explained working on a user interface for Xbox: “You have to anticipate the users’ needs and be there for them when they need help, and then get out of the way as soon as possible.” It sounds a lot like good facilitation – whether of a workshop, a community development process, or learning – and maybe even a little like good parenting of teenagers.

It’s OK to take time out for yourself at a conference. At my first PopTech, since I felt out of my element, I felt awkward when there were times I was standing alone with no one to talk to.  Perhaps thanks to all the books and articles on introverts and extroverts over the past few years, this time around I realized it was ok to sit out sometimes (I’m a bit of an introvert). So at this PopTech, I purposely found time to sit by myself for a few minutes to think, or to go for a walk or a hike and to just be on my own or be a bit quiet for a while to regenerate. It made the socializing more enjoyable and helped me to keep my mental and social balance.

It’s OK to not ask people what they do. One of my favorite conversations at PopTech was on the way home from the closing event, on the bus. I was out of energy and tired of hearing my own voice, so I just asked the person next to me to please not ask me what I did or where I was from, and could we just have a normal conversation? Luckily I was sitting next to Peter Durand, (master illustrator) and we had an amazing chat about all sorts of things, including what we both did, but in a much more roundabout way.

It’s OK to chuck the elevator speech. In addition to getting tired of hearing my own voice, one of the reasons I dread the “what do you do” question is that I don’t exactly know how to explain what I do. I tend to change my explanation according to whom I’m talking with. Not to mention, I do a ton of things, and they are hard to explain, so I am always looking for an entry point that might resonate with the person rather than a one liner. It was great to hear Courtney Martin talk about the idea of a “portfolio career” as something her mother had and something that she has as well. A portfolio career is when what you do doesn’t fit on a business card because you do so many different things, or because there is not really one description that fits all the things you work on. I love this – as it felt like permission to never try to come up with an elevator speech again.

It’s OK to have a vocation rather than a job. Another point that resonated with me was the point about having a vocation over having a job. There has been plenty of debate in the development community about this, and I always land on the side of development work and community organizing being a vocation, not just a job. Some say that development work should be seen as a profession, and it doesn’t matter how development workers live outside of the job, but I’ve never been comfortable with that idea. I believe that values, ethics, and ego need to be in check and well-aligned if a person wants to get involved in socially oriented work. Vocation goes further than a job, and it’s a combination of the set of values and beliefs you bring to your life’s work. It’s what you do because you just can’t not do it, as Palmer noted.

It’s OK to go to a conference just to learn and connect (but it has to be the right conference). Attending something like PopTech is luxury – I’m well aware. If you are trying to convince someone to pay for a conference, normally you have to justify it with some goals or “return on investment.” But when I go to conferences with specific goals in mind, or when I’m told to go anywhere with an “ask,” I tend to leave empty handed after some awkward interactions. When every conversation is seen as a way to “get something” I tend to be stressed, and every interaction feels engineered rather than natural. I end up with much better results when I go without an agenda and when new ideas form together with someone else based on an authentic conversation or experience. Because PopTech is the “right” kind of conference for learning, and it’s set up to help people make real and in depth connections, it’s fine to go without any agenda other than learning, sharing ideas, and meeting people.

So once again, tons of learning at PopTech and above all, great people and connections. I hope I can make it back sooner than in another 5 years!

*and this will all probably sound incredibly naive when I read it in 2019…

Our Technology Salon in New York City on Oct 7 focused on the potential of games and gamification in international development work. Joining us as lead discussants were Asi Burak (Games for Change), Nick Martin (TechChange), and Craig Savel and Stan Mierzwa from Population Council.

TechChange is a social enterprise that uses principles of gamification on its online education platform to incentivize learners to participate and interact. Games for Change has been around for 10 years, working on convening events and festivals about games for social change, curating and sharing these kinds of games, producing games in an effort to mainstream social issues, and providing strategy support for games. Population Council is using personalized avatars (participants select skin color and tone, weight, dress, piercings, and sexuality) to encourage US youth in low-income settings to provide health data through online surveys.

The three discussants provided background on their programs, benefits of gaming and gamification, and challenges they are facing. Then we opened up to a wider discussion, whose main points are summarized here:

Public perception about games is mixed. Some people believe in the potential of games for a range of goals. Interest in gaming in the field of development is growing quickly – but many organizations rush into gaming as a ‘silver bullet’ or trend and do not fully understand how to go about integrating game theory or creating games. Others believe games are shallow and violent and cannot be used for serious work like education or development.

More nuanced discussion is needed to distill out the various ways that games can support development. “The conversation needs to move from ‘why would you use games?’ to how can you use games? How do you succeed? What can we learn from failure? What methodologies work and what are the good practices? Games for Change is working on a typology report that would outline what games can do, when, where and how. The organization is also working to define how to measure success for different types of games. A learning/educational game is very different from an awareness raising or a behavior change game, and approaches need to reflect that fact.

Data extraction was one concern. “Are we just creating games so that we can extract and use people’s data? Or so that we can shift their behaviors from one thing to another?” asked a Salon participant. “Why not co-create and co-design games that provide benefits to the players and their communities rather than extracting information for our own purposes? Where are the games that encourage two-way conversations with authorities or NGOs? How can we use game theory to open up these discussions to make for more transparent conversations?”

Games by their very nature are more participatory than other media, others felt. “Traditional media are top down and linear, providing a scripted story that someone designed for us and where we have no choice as to the consequences. We can’t change the path, and there is one beginning and one end. But games are about participation and feedback. People surprise us by how they play our games. They get takeaways that we didn’t anticipate. At the same time, you can glean a lot of information about people from how they use, play, and move through games. So games are also very good for collecting information and evaluating people and their behaviors.”

(Co)-creation of games is indeed happening all over the world. Rather than create games in New York or DC, there are huge opportunities for working with local developers to create games that resonate with local audiences and communities. Some organizations use open source, free software such as Scratch, a game making software that even children are using to create games. “In Colombia, we used Scratch to engage kids who were going to Internet cafes and just doing emails and chatting. We trained the kids in 30 minutes and they learned to program in blocks and to do animations and make games,” reported one Salon participant.

Games and gamification resonate with all cultures because they stem from play, and all cultures play. There are cultural differences however that need to be considered, and even more important may be aspects like gender barriers, urban/rural differences, and access to the technology and platforms on which digital games are played. In rural Uganda, for example, one organization is using gaming in an online learning program with 3000 pharmacists to train them on how to use a new rapid diagnostic test for treating malaria. The gaming was not a problem, as the group was well versed in gaming concepts. The challenge was teaching the group to use computers. It’s likely that fewer women and girls game in some contexts because of their lower access to technology, lack of time, cultural/gender barriers.

Photo sourced from: Do Something, on http://mashable.com/2012/12/20/dosomething-texting/

Moving games to mobile may help reduce technology barriers. SMS gaming has been quite successful in some cases. One example cited at the Salon was DoSomething.org who created an SMS-based game around teen pregnancy that girls and their boyfriends could sign up for. They would receive texts from “the baby” asking for a diaper change, food, and other things, and this helped them to understand what having a baby might be like. The game was very social and engaged both males and females.

Building on existing viral trends was another suggestion for making better use of gaming. “The most successful and fast-spreading services over mobile seem to be horoscopes and tips. For example, viral spread of a game where someone records their voice, the app scrambles it, and they send it to their friend, is huge right now. How can we harness and try to better understand the potential of those types of threads in the communities where we are working?” asked one Salon participant. “In addition, there is an explosion of things like gambling games in China. What could development organizations do to tap into trends that have nothing to do with development, and piggyback on them?”

Balancing fun/games and learning/impact was another challenge or organizations using games. Some media houses are taking documentary films about serious issues and making them interactive through games so that people can engage more deeply with the story and information. One of these puts the viewer in the shoes of an investigative journalist working on a story about pirate fishing off the coast of Sierra Leone. “The challenge is balancing the need to tell a linear story with people’s desire to control the action, and how to land the player at the end point where the story actually should end.” The trade offs between greater interaction vs staying true to the story can be difficult to manage. Likewise, when using game theory in education, the challenge is balancing game play with the social issue. “We need to figure out how to reward for quality not quantity of participation when using gamification for learning,” said one Salon participant, “and figuring out how to avoid making the game the whole point and losing the learning aspect.”

What about girls and women and gaming? The field of gaming has traditionally appealed to men and boys, noted some, but what is behind this? Some Salon participants felt this was in part because of biological differences, but others felt that we may be playing into stereotypes by thinking that men like gaming and women like social media and communication. One study (by Matthew Kam), for example, notes that when girls in India were given mobile phones on which to play a literacy game, their brothers would often take the phones away and parents would not intervene.

Women are gaming – a lot! Statistically speaking, in the US and Europe, women are now around 50% of gamers. There is a big gap in terms of women game developers, however, and the gaming field is struggling intensely with the balance shifting to a more equal one between men and women.This has erupted into a controversy called ‘GamerGate’ that is rocking the gaming industry and provoking a heated (and often ugly) conversation. “Women who game and who develop games face an incredible amount of harassment online and in person because they are a minority in their field,” commented one Salon participant.

Few game developers are women. “Only 10% of game developers are women,” noted one Salon participant. “There is a lot of discussion in the sector on misogyny. If you play any of the more popular games, the main characters are always men.  Outspoken female developers talking about more inclusive games (as opposed to shooting games) have been targeted and harassed.” (See the recent backlash against Anita Sarkeesian). There is a sense from some male game developers that women developers are entering into a space and taking something away from it. An upcoming film called “GTFO” documents the situation. Though there are changes happening in the independent gaming sector and women are playing a bigger and more vocal role, this has not yet hit the mainstream. Until that happens, said one Salon participant, we will continue to see a lack of representation and agency of women in games/gaming similar to that which we see in the Hollywood movie industry. (See the Geena Davis Institute’s research on gender bias in the film industry.)

Can games reach low income gamers in ‘developing countries’? Much of the gaming dynamic will need to adapt if we want to reach lower income populations. Likely this will happen through mobile, but in places like Kenya and India, for example, people have mobiles but don’t download games. “It may take 5-10 years before people everywhere are downloading and playing mobile games,” said one Salon participant. In addition, there is a lot of work to be done on business models and monetization so that these efforts are sustainable. “People love free things. And they are not used to paying for things in the digital space.” In the meantime, analog games can also be hugely beneficial, and many organizations at present are using more traditional games in their work.

What would help organizations to work more with games and gamification? Areas for further exploration include:

  • Stories of surprise wins and successes
  • More evidence and analysis of what works and where/why/how/when/with whom
  • Better understanding of free content and business models and sustainability
  • More evidence that games contribute to learning, literacy, numeracy, behavior change (eg., studies like this one)
  • Better understanding by donors/organizations of the wider ecosystem that goes into creating a successful game
  • Funding that includes support for the wider ecosystem, not just funding to make a game
  • More work with local developers who are proficient at making games and who understand the local context and market

As a starting point, Games for Change’s website has a good set of resources that can help organizations begin to learn more. We’re also compiling resources here, so take a look and add yours!

Thanks to Nick, Asi, Stan and Craig for joining as lead discussants, and to Population Council for hosting the Salon!

If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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