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Archive for December, 2011

Original published on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters site as part of a series of year-end reflection pieces.

An Egyptian anti-government protester holds a flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square earlier this year. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Waking one lazy Sunday morning and checking my Twitter feed, the first link I clicked on was a video of the Egyptian military beating unarmed protesters. The second was a series of Lego reconstructions of key moments in 2011, including the now-famous campus policeman pepper spraying unarmed student protesters in the face. It’s impossible to look back on 2011 without recalling the massive number of people who joined in worldwide protests to push for openness and inclusion – financial, political and social. No less memorable is the violence with which those protests were met.

As 2012 approaches, protesters across the world continue to occupy public spaces and fight for a voice in how things are run. They seek greater transparency, and new means of participating in social, financial and political life.

Many of 2011′s more horrifying and memorable images – captured on mobile phones, and generating global outrage and solidarity – involved systemic repression by the powers-that-be. Progress has been made in some countries, but sadly it’s not clear what the end result of the world’s uprisings will be.

Inclusion was not only a theme of large-scale world events, it was also key in aid and development. Organisations continued to push for adolescent girls’ inclusion in development initiatives and to emphasise that the most excluded and marginalised populations need to be reached in order to advance towards shared development objectives such as the millennium development goals. In June 2011, in a clear move forward on inclusion, the UN endorsed the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people, yet the world still has a very long way to go.

Another central themein 2011 was openness. Whether it was the World Bank’s open data site, the Open Government Partnership (OGP), theInternational Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), the Busan high level forum on aid effectiveness, the increase in “fail faires“, or grassroots initiatives pushing for more transparency – in aid and government funding as well as political decision making – “open” was everywhere.

As yet, however, the trend hasn’t reached quite far enough, and it would be good if it expanded in 2012 to encompass banks and other private sector entities. Hopefully, openness can help to advance inclusion and itself become more inclusive. All this amazing, open data needs to be re-used and it needs to connect back with people who might not be technology or data experts, have an internet connection or speak one of the major languages.

I hope 2012 sees greater effort to support communities and local organisations to access and use open data. I also hope there will be more effort to understand what information communities and local groups need to improve their own situations and exact more accountability and better governance from aid agencies, governments, service providers and the private sector.

Along with inclusion and openness, authenticity was a key concept in 2011. I enjoyed seeing critiques of simplistic media pieces about “the poor” and “the excluded”. Lakota youth, for instance, responded in a video to a Forbes [should be ABC] piece about poverty and hardship on reservations, emphasising: “We’re more than that.”. The Forbes piece, headlined “If I was a poor black kid“, caused a huge stir and response. One close reading of simplistic mainstream journalism called out the author for habitually ignoring the complex, systemic causes of poverty and exclusion.

I look forward to hearing more voices in these debates in 2012, continued questioning of simplistic messages, and more authentic reporting. New media can help previously excluded people tell their own, unspun stories and comment on simplistic reporting about them elsewhere. I hope aid and development agencies will increasingly support this, not as a gimmick or marketing ploy, but as a core element of their work and a way to better understand and share the issues and opinions of the people they aim to support through their programmes.

My wish for 2012 is that the world makes serious gains in reducing social, political and financial exclusion, in advancing participatory and accountable governance, and in achieving a better distribution of power and resources. Hopefully, aid and development organisations will continue to make progress in understanding what inclusion, openness, and authenticity in the global landscape mean for the kinds of programmes they fund and support.


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I spent the past few days at the mHealth Summit where James BonTempo and I (supported by Plan International USA and MCHIP via USAID) co-hosted the “mHealth Reality Booth,” which we hoped would bring some mHealth practitioner reality to the Summit and offer an opportunity to capture some learning from folks working on the ground and implementing mHealth programs in some of the less cushy environments.

As people came by the booth, we asked them if they’d be willing to do a short video that completed the idea:

“We thought that…. but in reality….” or “Most people think…. but in reality….”

We ended up with some great advice on mHealth design and implementation. Watch below or on YouTube! If you have an mHealth Reality you want to add in the comments or as a ‘video response’ please do!

Here’s our talk-show host intro (why does self-filming always make me look so weird?) and our list of mHealth Realities underneath. Enjoy!

1) Phones do get stolen, so you should involve health workers in determining what the consequences are when it happens.

2) When hospitals are gutted, cell towers are gone and there’s no electricity, for example during the Great Floods in Pakistan, you have to go back to the basics.

3) The technology should be the last thing to think about in the design process. You need to know the what first, and then think about the how.

4) Mobile operators are very interested in exclusivity. This is a challenge if you want your project to reach the entire population.

5) Even if your macro level research tells you that 80% of households have mobile phone access, it doesn’t mean that 80% of women have mobile phone access.

6) There’s literacy, and then there’s ‘mobile phone literacy’. Both are important.

7) If your paper form is crap, your mobile data collection form will also be crap.

8 ) You need policies on lost, damaged, stolen phones, and emergency mobile phone resuscitation training.

9) You will be beholden to traditional funding cycles regardless of how innovative you are, or how sustainable your own business plan is.

10) NGOs just want to come in and do one year pilots, pack up and leave, and come back to do another one year pilot. This is not sustainable. Governments need to be involved. (in French translation pending…)

11) You really need someone who’s available locally to provide technology support and someone who’s good at helping others use and be comfortable with tech.

12) Power is always a consideration. Having it figured out in one place doesn’t mean you have it solved for another place.

13) Things take a really long time. Much longer than you initially think.

14) You might love designing for iPhones and Androids, but if your users don’t have iPhones and Androids, well, that’s not very useful, is it?

15) There are very talented software development firms in places outside of the US and Europe.

16) Every assumption you have about an area or a population is probably wrong.

17) Every country has a different set of mHealth issues and there’s no way of anticipating until you have hands on the ground there.

18) User testing will help you understand what users really want. And NGOs need to ask themselves the hard question: why do we really want to use new technologies?

19) People in low resource settings and with no previous experience really can learn to use smart phones and like it.

Watch all 20 on YouTube.

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If you have any sort of curiosity about how youth across sub-Saharan Africa

are engaged in social accountability and participatory governance, I suggest downloading and reading the PLA Special Issue 64 on Young citizens: youth and participatory governance in Africa.

[Update: In French now, too!]

PLA 64 goes in depth on the involvement of youth in governance, the particular challenges that youth face in this area and ways young people are overcoming marginalization to participate and make change. It talks through key theories related to good governance, social accountability and social audits and shows concrete examples of putting them into action.

‘Social accountability can be defined as an approach towards building accountability that relies on civic engagement, i.e. in which it is ordinary citizens and/or civil  society organisations who participate directly or indirectly in exacting accountability.  Mechanisms of social accountability can be initiated and supported by the state, citizens or both, but very often they are demand-driven and operate from the bottom-up. Source: Malena et al. (2004).’

Scenes were acted out during the write shop to express how young people might feel about participation and governance initiatives.

PLA 64 aims to share practices that avoid instrumentalizing children and youth or using them as puppets or tools in achieving organizational or political aims. The idea of ‘seeing like a young citizen’ was critical during the writing process, as were authentic examples of youth participation and leadership in good governance and social accountability processes.

‘…Young people in Africa are challenging the norms and structures that exclude them, engaging with the state and demanding accountability. This special issue describes how young people are exercising their right to participate and developing the knowledge, skills and confidence to affect to [sic] change. It explores methods of communication, appraisal, monitoring and research which are involving young people in decision-making spaces. It asks how can we re-shape how young people perceive and exercise citizenship? How can we redefine and deepen the links between young citizens and the state?

This issue demonstrates the persistence, passion and enthusiasm that youth bring to governance processes – and how they are driving change in creative and unexpected ways. It highlights how young Africans are addressing the documentation gap that surrounds youth and governance in Africa and enabling other participatory practitioners – young and old – to learn from their experiences.’

Topics covered in the edition include: youth as young citizens; digital mapping and governance; participatory video; youth poverty forums; youth capturing pastoralist knowledge for policy processes; youth and HIV/AIDS laws; children’s shadow parliaments; mentoring and role modeling to encourage girls’ participation; youth-led violence prevention; local governance work; and budget advocacy.

In addition to the articles by practitioners, researchers, and youth themselves, PLA 64 provides tips for trainers on how to carry out specific activities and programs, exploring expressions and forms of power in youth governance work, conducting a social audit, using a community scorecard as an alternative form of budget tracking when governments lack openness, games to play to engage children in budget monitoring, and conducting youth participatory situation analyses.

The journal closes out with a list of written resources to support youth and participatory governance work, events and training. It also provides links to online or technology enabled examples such as Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative, Daraja, the Technology for Transparency Network, and Twaweza.

PLA 64 offers an opportunity to broaden thinking and learn from youth and practitioners who are involved directly in good governance initiatives in East, West and Southern Africa. It is also a good reminder that although new technologies can enable, enhance or even transform accountability and governance efforts, there are many ways to work on accountability and good governance, and technology is not always the driving force behind this work.

*****

Background: A call for submissions to the PLA journal went out about a year ago. Submissions were then reviewed and ranked by an editorial team. Final authors selected were from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Lesotho, the US, the UK, Ghana, Germany, Cameroon, Somalia and Liberia. Authors attended a “write shop” organized by Plan UK, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in March to share different youth participatory governance initiatives, reflect on challenges and successes therein, gather tips on better writing, and write up final articles. I attended the write shop and a colleague and I have an article included on digital mapping and local governance work.

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Some of the top organizations and corporations working in the mobile technology and health space will gather December 5–7 at the  mHealth Summit near Washington, D.C. The summit program offers several tracks and a wide range of sessions and  exhibits  for  just  about  anyone interested in mobile technology and health.

A few months back, James Bon Tempo and I came up with the idea to co-host a “Reality Booth” at the Summit.

Innovative business models are great. New behavior change communication technologies open huge opportunities. Mobile tools to help health professionals build capacity to improve healthcare systems sound like a dream come true. But what happens during implementation? What are the real life barriers and challenges that practitioners face when implementing programs with an mHealth component? Where can you get some honest answers?

The Reality Booth is a place for practitioners working in rural settings or implementing programs in ‘developing’ countries to connect with others working in similar situations and facing comparable challenges. It offers a space to share and learn from peers who implement mHealth programs on the ground and to get advice on resolving the kinds of difficulties that probably won’t be highlighted during the official presentations.

We’ve invited some of the most respected mHealth practitioners to attend the booth for an hour or 2, and are pleased to mention that we’ll have some fantastic folks joining us. (We’re filling our last few remaining slots, so stop by booth number 131 for the full schedule on Monday!)

Come and share your mHealth reality stories, ask your implementation questions and get some practical or strategic advice from:

Monday, Dec 5

11:15-12                Isaac Holeman

12-1                        Heather La Garde

1-2                          David Isaak

2-3.15                      David Cantor

4.30-5.30              Pamela Riley

Tuesday, Dec 6

2-3.30                   David Cantor

3.30-5                   Neal Lesh

Wednesday, Dec 7

10-11                     David Isaak

We’re also planning to make a short video on ‘mHealth Realities,’ so stop on by if you have a ‘reality story’ to share.

The Reality Booth is co-hosted by MCHIP, USAID’s flagship maternal, newborn and child health program, and Plan International USA, one of the oldest and largest children’s development organizations in the world, and co-coordinated by James BonTempo of Jhpiego and Linda Raftree of Plan International USA. Contact James (JBonTempo@jhpiego.net) or Linda (Linda.Raftree@planusa.org) for more information.

In addition to the Reality Booth, we’re hosting ICT4Drinks at Thai  Pavilion from 5.30-7.30 on Tuesday, December 6. Meet and mingle with your fellow mHealth practitioners! Free drinks for the first folks in the door and fantastic Thai munchies for everyone!

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Civil society has been working for years on participation, transparency, accountability and governance issues. Plenty of newer initiatives (small and large) look at new technologies as a core tool in this work. But are these groups talking and learning from each other? What good practices exist for using new technologies to improve transparency, accountability and governance? What are some considerations and frameworks for thinking about the role of new technologies in this area of work? What needs consideration under this broad theme of good governance?

Tuesday’s Technology Salon* in New York City focused on those issues, kicked off by our two discussants, Hapee de Groot from Hivos and Katrin Verclas from Mobile Active. Discussion ensued around the nuances of how, with whom, when, why, and  in conjunction with what do new technologies play a role in transparency, accountability and good governance.

Some of the key points brought up during the Salon**:

What is “good governance?”  The overall term could be divided into a number of core aspects, and so the discussion is a big one and it’s complicated. Aid transparency is only one small part of the overall topic of good governance.

The World Bank definition includes aspects of:

  • Participation of citizens in political processes, freedom of expression and  association, free media
  • Political stability and absence of violence
  • Government effectiveness in the delivery of services
  • Regulatory quality, rule of law
  • Control of corruption

There’s a need to look at governments and aid, but also to look at the private sector. Some commented that aid transparency is in vogue because donors can drive it but it’s perhaps not as important as some of the other aspects and it’s currently being overemphasized. There are plenty of projects using ICTs and mobiles in other areas of governance work.

More data doesn’t equal more accountability. Data does not equal participation. Can mobile phones and other ICTs or social media reduce corruption? Can they drive new forms of participation? Can they hold power accountable in some ways? Yes, but there is no conclusive evidence that the use of new technology to deliver data down from governments to people or up from people to governments improves governance or accountability. The field of tech and governance suffers from ‘pilotitis’ just like the field of ICT4D. Some participants felt that of course open data doesn’t automatically equal accountability and it was never the idea to stop there. But at the same time, you can’t have accountability without open data and transparency. Opening the data is just the first step in a long road of reaching accountability and better governance.

Efficient vs transformational. Transactional efficiency within a system is one thing. Transformation is another. You can enhance an existing process from, say, writing on paper to calling on a landline to texting in information, thereby improving accuracy and speed. But there is something more which is the transformational side. What’s most interesting perhaps are those ways that ICTs can completely alter processes and systems. Again, there are a lot of promising examples but there is not much evidence of their impact at this point. One participant noted that current evidence seems to point toward the integration of mobiles (and other ICTs) into existing process as having a greater impact and quicker uptake within large, bureaucratic systems than disruptive use of new technologies. But the question remains – Are the systems good systems or should/could ICTs transform them to something totally different and better or can ICTs help do away with poorly working systems entirely, replacing them with something completely new?

Is open data just a big show? Some alluded to opaque transparency, where a government or another entity throws up a bunch of data and says “we are being open” but there is no realistic way to make sense of the data. Some felt that governments are signing onto open data pacts and partnerships as a fake show of transparency. These governments may say, “The data base is available. Go ahead and look at it.” But it costs a lot of money and high level skills to actually use the data. In addition, there is a need for regulatory frameworks and legislation around openness. Brazil was given as an example of a country that has joined the open government partnership, but as yet has no regulatory framework or freedom of information act, even though the country has a beautiful open government website. “Checks and balances are not inherent in the mobile phone. They need to be established in the legislation and then can be enhanced by mobile or other technology.” Open Data Hackathons can help turn data into information. The question of “what does open data actually mean?” came up also and the “cake test” was recommended as one way of defining “open”.

Is open data an extractive process?  Some at the Salon cautioned that the buzz around Open Data could be a bit false in some ways, and may be hyped up by private companies who want to make money off of nice data visualizations that they can sell to big donors or governments. The question was raised about how much data actually gets back to those people who provide it so that they can use it for their own purposes? The sense was that there’s nothing wrong with private companies helping make sense of data per se, but one could ask what the community who provided the data actually gets out of this process. Is it an extractive data mining process? And how much are communities benefiting from the process? How much are they involved? Mikel Maron wrote a great post yesterday on the link between open data and community empowerment – I highly recommend reading it for more on this.

Whose data? A related issue that wasn’t fully discussed at the Salon is: who does the information that is being “opened” actually belong to (in the case of household surveys, for example)? The government? The International NGO or multilateral agency who funds a project or research? The community? And what if a community doesn’t want its data to be open to the world – is anyone asking? What kind of consent is being granted? What are the privacy issues? And what if the government doesn’t want anyone to know the number of X people living in X place who fit X description? Whose decision is it to open data? What are the competing politics?

For example, what if an organization is working on an issue like HIV, cholera, violence or human trafficking. What if they want to crowd source information and publicly display it to work towards better transparency and improved service delivery, but the host government country denies the existence of the issue or situation? In one case I heard recently, the NGO wanted to work with government on better tracking and reporting so that treatment/resources could be allocated and services provided, but when the government found out about the project, they wanted control over the information and approval rights. Government went so far in another case as to pressure the mobile service provider who was partnering with the organization, and the mobile service provider dropped out of the project. These are good reminders that information is power and openness can be a big issue even in cases not initially identified as politically charged.

Privacy and security risks. The ubiquity of data can pose huge privacy and security concerns for activists, civil society and emerging democracies and some at the Salon felt this aspect is not being effectively addressed. Can there really be anonymous mobile data? Does the push/drive for more data jeopardize the political ambitions of certain groups (civil society that may be disliked by certain governments)? This can also be an issue for external donors supporting organizations in places like Syria or Iraq. Being open about local organizations that are receiving funding for democracy or governance work can cause problems (eg., they get shut down or people can be arrested or killed).

Can new ICTs weaken helpful traditional structures or systems?  Is new tech removing some middlemen who were an important part of culture or societal structure? Does it weaken some traditional structures that may actually be useful? The example of the US was given where a huge surge of people now engage directly with their congressperson via Twitter rather than via aggregation channels or other representatives. Can this actually paralyze political systems and make them less functional? Some countered, saying that Twitter is somewhat of a fad and over time this massive number of interactions will settle down, and in addition, not everyone gets involved on every issue all the time. Things will sort themselves out. Some asked if politicians would become afraid (someone – help!! there is a study on this issue that I can’t seem to locate) to make some of the secret deals that helped move agendas forward because they will be caught and so openness and transparency can actually paralyze them? In other words is it possible that transparency is not always a good thing in terms of government effectiveness? The example of paying Afghan police directly by mobile phone was given. This initiative apparently ended up failing because it cut decision makers who benefited from bribes out of the loop. Decoupling payments from power is potentially transformational, but how to actually implement these projects when they disrupt so much?

Does new technology create parallel structures? Are parallel structures good or bad? In an effort to bypass inefficient and/or unaccountable systems, in one case, private business owners started their own crime reporting and 911 system to respond and accompany victims to report to the police and follow up on incidents. Questions were raised whether this privatization of government roles was taking justice into ones’ own hands, forcing the government to be accountable, allowing it to shirk responsibilities, or providing a way for government to see an innovation and eventually take on a new and more effective system that had been tried and tested with private funds. This same issue can be seen with parallel emergency reporting systems and other similar uses of ICTs. It may be too early in the game to know what the eventual outcomes of these efforts will be and what the long term impact will be on governance. Or it may be that parallel systems work in some contexts and not in others.

***

The Salon could have gone for much longer but alas, we had to end. Dave Algoso covers some of the other ideas from the Salon in his post Technology for Transparency, Accountability and Governance, including how to approach and define the topic (top down vs bottom up? efficiency vs transformation?) and the importance of measuring impact.

Thanks to UNICEF and Chris Fabian for hosting the Salon. Thanks to Martin Tisne from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative for sparking the idea to choose this topic for the first Technology Salon in NYC, and thanks to Wayan Vota for inviting me to coordinate the series.

Contact me if you’d like to be on the invitation list for future Salons.

*The Technology Salon is sponsored by the UN Foundation’s Technology Partnership with the Vodafone Foundation as a way to increase the discussion and dissemination of information and communication technology’s role in expanding solutions to long-standing international development challenges. Technology Salons currently run in Washington DC (coordinated by@wayan_vota) and San Francisco, with New York City as the latest addition, coordinated by yours truly.

**The Salon runs by Chatham House Rules, so no attribution has been made in the above post.

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