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Archive for the ‘communication for development’ Category

Our August Technology Salon in New York City (TSNYC) was a stimulating and deep discussion on whether ‘girl advertising’ detracts from girls empowerment. The topic surfaced after a Facebook conversation about the rise in commercials about girls and women’s empowerment such as Always’ “Like a Girl,” Verizon’s “Inspire her Mind,” and Pantene’s “Stop Saying Sorry.” There are mixed feelings about what these ads accomplish for girls and women, and whether their commercially driven motivations are actually helping to achieve gains for girls in the US and elsewhere.

Some of the key points raised at the Salon included:

Participatory media vs slick, overproduced ads. When it’s participatory media with children and youth making choices about what is being said, shot and edited, it’s one thing. It feels authentic, said one Salon participant. “But the current spate of ads tend to show a very ‘produced’ girl, wearing make-up, feeding into stereotypes about beauty, talking to a screen and selling a product or a brand.” These ads may feel inspiring to people watching, but are they actually ‘empowering?’ The underlying message of many of these ads for girls is still often sex, beauty and/or sexual attractiveness.

Surface rather than deeper change. One discussant pointed out that companies making these empowering girl ads on the one hand are making misogynist NFL ads on the other. If a company really wants to do something for girls, it should be a holistic effort that permeates all its advertising, she felt, not just a slick ad for girls and business as usual with everything else. Making girls feel better about themselves is one thing, but it’s not enough. Girls may say they prefer ‘Goldiblox’ to ‘Barbie’ but the toys are still plastic consumables, and they are still pink, as one participant noted. “Girls need to build confidence at a deeper level,” said a youth participant. “Rather than just providing a one-way ticket to solving a simple problem, we need to go deeper, because the problem does not have just a single cause.” In addition, as other participants called out, much of the change being pushed by ads is shallow change, when what is really needed is systemic change. “Have you really addressed structural injustices and inequities with these one-off actions and campaigns? Do these simple narratives really help? Or are they a distraction?”

Are we conflating empowerment and consumerism? These girl-focused ads encourage girls that we work with to spend money that they don’t have, commented one Salon participant. Are we supporting girls’ assimilation into corporate consumerism or are we trying to change the status quo for girls who have been traditionally left out? “Girls we work with have issues with lack of access to housing, education, a living wage. These ads encourage them to spend money that goes back to corporations, and we don’t know what the corporations are doing with it. Are they supporting militarization of the police? Are they lobbying to cut sex education or planned parenthood funding?” Often the topics addressed in these ads, she noted, are the tip of the iceberg. “We see ads about teen pregnancy, but we don’t see work that addresses its underlying causes.” Addressing underlying causes, many in the room felt, would be the truly empowering work.

Higher visibility of girls’ issues is unintentionally causing problems. The increased presence of girls in the media and in NGO advocacy campaigns was initially very helpful, but some commented that it is becoming a problem. “Donors think that there is a higher level of investment in programs that directly impact on girls, which is not necessarily the case. Often the investment is made in branding or social media rather than in concrete programming that supports girls with real assets and skills.” This has meant that some donors are reluctant to fund programs for girls, because they think the topic is over-saturated. In reality, there is a lot of talk and media but not enough on-the-ground support.

Being a girl in 2014…. In addition to the funding challenges, some research has shown that in the US, girls as young as 7 and 8 feel that they “cannot drop the ball on anything now.” The empowering visions of girls can make them feel that they are expected to do and be everything, and to solve all the world’s problems on top of it all. At the same time, on social media such as Facebook research shows that girls tend to downplay their intelligence and up-play their fun and sexiness, because media bombards them with messages that on top of being successful at everything, they are also supposed to be cute, carefree, and sexy.

What about boys and men? The higher visibility around girls can lead to a marginalization of boys and men from gender work, commented some Salon participants, as it sets up a boy vs girl dynamic. Though for advertising, binaries tend to work, in the wider scheme of things, these issues are very complex and binaries are not helpful. If we are looking for change an empowerment, boys and men also need to be part of the equation and gender should be a more holistic approach, not only focused on girls. “Working with both boys and girls is more empowering for everyone,” said one participant. When boys feel threatened by girls it just creates more conflict. “We need to empower boys by teaching them about girls and gender dynamics,” because both boys and girls are affected by gender stereotypes.

Ads by their very nature simplify complex issues. Ads are simplified because of how they need to be packaged, especially now in the day of social media, as one of the youth Salon participants pointed out. “People take a simplified message and create their own meaning out of it, without really understanding the complexities. Then they share the ad around and feel like they’ve done their part. They think an ad is fully informing them and this is dangerous. These ads don’t really feel empowering for me, it’s just an upswing in ads for teenaged girls and in media targeted at my age group. The ads are just one more thing that’s shared on Facebook. So it’s like someone else packages ideas for you, you share them, and you move on.” Another participant agreed, yet added that ads can open the door to a conversation about something larger that can be followed with more nuanced discussions.

Ads are ads. They are not CSR. Companies are not really interested in empowering girls with these ads, pointed out one participant. These are not Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) ads; they are marketing ads. Another participant added that “many of these campaigns are run by very smart, high-powered women. They do want to see high-powered versions of girls, and they also want to sell their products or their brands.” The income from the ads does not go into social programs; it’s revenue, noted another participant. CSR managers then have the job of advocating internally so that some of the revenue does go towards these types of causes, but it’s not a given. CSR staff work to encourage corporate leadership to allocate some of the funding into programs that have an impact on girls’ lives. Consumers should also be doing their homework and finding out what is happening with different campaigns. Companies want to make employees, customers, and investors/their boards happy. Consumers should pressure corporations to do more than just ads, and to do something that reaches farther. Corporate mandates are totally separate from Foundation mandates, as one participant pointed out. “It’s up to people like us who care about these issues to bridge the gap, to have these conversations in the board room, with management and leadership, with PR staff.” “How can we increase transparency about what these companies invest in,” asked one participant. This is important not only for CSR budgets and ‘girl issues’ but for companies overall.

Starting with the delivery system is a problem. Rather than starting with a solution – an ad, a technology, a delivery system – we should start by picking the group or population where we want to make a difference and then decide what is the best way to go about it, commented one Salon participant. “What does success look like for girls? What do girls themselves what to do, to be? Empower is a vague word. If you substituted ‘farmer’ for ‘girl’ you’d never get away with some of the mystical pronouncements that we hear now about girls. Do you ever hear people saying ‘Ah, farmers… I just feel so alive and so inspired when I meet them! They can change the world!’ Probably not. And much of the rhetoric around girls is just inspiring language that doesn’t actually help girls to achieve their goals. We’ve swallowed the language of the current delivery system. We now measure success in terms of retweets, likes, social media campaigns and putting out manuals and guides. We need to push back and ensure that the money goes to girl programs on the ground.”

Using media for behavior change is a science. Others, however, felt that there was a role for behavior change communication (BCC) done in a scientific way and with solid measurement of impact. Activism and advocacy are different approaches than behavior change, commented a participant. Likes and tweets can be measures of activism, awareness and advocacy. But for behavior change, we need to go deeper. Well-targeted behavior change communication starts with strong, solid research into what drives behavior. There are different categories – knowledge is the first one. But most times, it’s not lack of knowledge that prevents people from changing behavior. More often, it’s attitudes, social norms, and lack of social support and self-efficacy. A well-defined campaign should isolate what will make change and the communication piece should speak to that very specific change. It’s also critical to understand the audience and what will move them to action – for some girls it will be a strong aspirational role model, for others it will be real-life women and girls. Formative research helps us understand what will work with a particular audience.

How are we measuring impact? People are measuring the number of tweets from the general public and calling it impact, rather than measuring indicators of real change for girls themselves. “Attention is being placed on media impressions, tweets, hashtags,” said one discussant. “We measure hollow metrics about the giver rather than measuring the impact on the ground, on the lives of the people we say we are supporting or helping.” She went on to cite some very well known campaigns where the only impact reports were media hits, but no available reports track what happened with funds raised, or with ‘awareness’ and how it translated into actual change. “Is it enough to show women in empowering ads,” asked one participant. “There is a disconnect between advocacy and messaging and measuring impact,” said another person. Within organizations, some digital teams are very good at showcasing to management how many Facebook likes and tweets they get, and this distracts leadership from looking at more impactful efforts on the ground. It allows these shallow campaigns to take funding away from the more solid programmatic efforts that work directly with girls and their families and communities to address underlying causes, and to build skills and assets and enabling environments for girls to succeed.

Equality vs liberation. Boiling complicated intersectional analyses down to an ad that can only carry a single message is complicated and having an equal number of male and female board members does nothing for women who are not operating at these high levels, said one participant. “I have so much I want to say about all this!” she added. “Where are the transformational campaigns? None of our organizations or brands or corporations has enough money individually to do a campaign that would really create structural, systemic change. Even the Ms. Endowment has only $35 million and it’s not enough. We are all competing in the market. How can we collaborate and converse with one another to do something bigger and better. How can we work together to really shift things? What if we came together and only took money from corporations that did something like have a certain percentage of women on the board plus ads that show positive images plus funnel funding into good programs on the ground? How can we hold companies accountable? How are we measuring success?” Another person commented “Many corporations feel that we are lucky to have their money.” She wondered how we can build strength in our numbers and work together as a more solid front.

It’s not one or the other…. In closing, one participant pointed out that there were multiple conversations happening in the room, because those of us working on gender and girl issues are fighting the good fight on multiple fronts. “Work on the ground is one thing. Work at the global policy/advocacy level is something else. And then there is work with the private sector and the public as well,” she said. “We all have different strengths. How can we connect in more meaningful discussions on it all? How can we flag issues that need consideration so that we are all contributing to a wider goal?” Further conversation and joint work could help to address some of the challenges that those in the room are facing. Many participants wished for a follow up conversation to take the ideas a step further, and the topic of engaging boys and men was brought up as something that needs more work.

So, do girl ads detract from girls’ empowerment? According to the majority of Salon participants, yes, in many cases they do. But there is potential to integrate these kinds of ads into wider, more effective efforts to push for systemic change that involves both boys and girls, works at various levels, and demands greater corporate accountability and better measurement of results.

What should advertisers do, then? [Adding this today (Aug 26) after a request for some recommendations for advertisers]

  1. Be consistent. Look inwardly. Don’t be all ‘girl empowering’ on the one hand and then be all misogynist on the other hand with everything else that you do.
  2. If you’re making revenue from girl empowerment ads, then do something with the money that actually supports programming that is proven (evidence-based) to make a real difference to girls in their daily lives or support policy work that help girls advance.
  3. If you’re really about girls’ empowerment and want to work on behavior changes that benefit girls at a widespread level, then look at some of the behavior change science approaches that can help you to plan campaigns that get people to move beyond a) feeling inspired and b) gaining knowledge to c) actually acting and changing their behavior….
  4. A combined effort that works at multiple levels (ads that are well researched and directed, policy changes that support girls and women, and work on the ground that provides girls with skills and helps them build assets) would be a better way to approach girls’ empowerment, if indeed advertisers do want to help empower girls.
  5. Stop commodifying everything and putting more pressure on girls and women to be and do everything. Use some of the power and expertise of creating and motivating people through brands and advertising to support social change that has nothing to do with buying more stuff.

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For more background reading, see our crowdsourced list of ‘girl ads’ and commentary about girl ads.

Thanks to those who contributed to the Salon topic idea and preparation (especially Eva Kaplan, Karen Cirillo, Clare Ramirez-Raftree, Lina Srivastava and Greta Knutzen) and to ThoughtWorks for their generous hosting!

If you’d like to attend a future Salon in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, London, Toronto/ Ottawa or Nairobi, sign up here to get on our email list!

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My Regarding Humanity co-founder Lina and I have been talking about the effectiveness of “hashtag activism” for a long time now, and every week there is something new to say or learn from. We took the plunge and published where our thinking is this week – though it’s sure to change by next week. (Thanks to Alex Lee and Winter Schneider for their research and writing support!)

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I’m still grappling with whether hashtag activism and “slacktivism” in general are more important for changing perceptions and behaviors of the individuals who participate in them (which is where many marketers and social media guru types look for impact), or if they should be measured based on their effectiveness in terms of resolving the problem that the hashtag is aimed at addressing. I’m guessing if a hashtag does both, that’s when it’s really found the sweet spot. I’m also thinking that in order for it to do both, it probably needs to involve the people who are directly impacted by the issue and/or people who can actually do something about the issue (these could be one and the same in some cases).

Some say that small acts of online activism (and slacktivism) open the door to a greater feeling of individual agency, which then increases political engagement and more meaningful/more active social cause participation in the future. But I wonder if this is true when the social cause is one that does not directly touch upon the life of the person participating. Does engaging in serial online hashtagging along the lines of #bringbackourgirls make an individual more prone to taking on meaningful action at some point? Or does the hashtag engagement need to relate to something more locally addressable (eg., something the individual could directly impact) in order for it to lead to meaningful action? As we note in our article, some research has found that when it comes to global causes, people have very short attention spans and they move on to a new topic once the complexity of the situation is apparent and they understand their individual inability to make any real difference.

I’m curious about how having “skin in the game” impacts on a person’s feeling of agency and on the impact of hashtag activism at both the personal level and at the level of wider social and political change. I wrote something about this a few years ago (Activism vs Slacktivism: It’s about context not tools), and I wonder whether spontaneous hashtags that spring up and help create critical consciousness and form movements and build cohesion within them (a la #iftheygunnedmedown or #myNYPD) are more effective than those created by marketers/advocates with particular engagement goals in mind.

And anyway, what do I mean by “effective?” I suppose it’s all relevant and that, like any tool, a hashtag can be used for ton of different things and maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here. There will be different measures of success with different hashtags – some for branding, some for fundraising and some for deeper social change and political engagement. Maybe my thoughts and feelings about hashtag activism are just reflecting my wider viewpoints on the kinds of change that I find valuable, and those usually doesn’t have much to do with building an organization’s brand…

And in the end, why do I spend time debating the value of hashtags!? Surely that’s a kind of slacktivism in its own right.

Oh, hashtags.

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Photo from Wikipedia.

As I’ve written before, I moved from El Salvador to Rhode Island in 2001 with my 2 kids. Their father is Salvadoran and they look an awful lot like him.

A few years after we moved, when my daughter Clare was about 7 years old, one of the checkout ladies at the supermarket we frequented said to me, “Your daughter is such a nice child. She’s always so helpful. Where did you get her?”

“Um,” I answered, a little confused, “…I gave birth to her?”

“Ooooohhhhhh! OK,” the lady said. “I thought you had adopted her from somewhere.”

I was annoyed with the lady, at first, for the assumptions she was making. I let it go, however, realizing that it didn’t really matter whether I had adopted my daughter or not. I would love her the same, regardless.

People often ask these kinds of questions without meaning any harm. They say things like “Oh, she’s your daughter? She doesn’t look like you. What is she?”

This question always stumps me. “What is she?” I know that people are asking about her ethnicity, but I find the phrasing odd. So I usually feign confusion or make a dumb joke like “Um, what is she? She’s…. a human?”

Clare is 17 now and she’s been getting into slam poetry. Here is her take on it.

An open letter to the woman at the grocery store that asked my mom “where she got me.”

Home grown.

Sitting on the shelf next to the Autocrat Coffee Syrup and the Del’s Lemonade.

I have made my place here.

I do not belong in the exotic fruits section. The Latin foods section.

It is not for you to decide where I call home.

The sticker on my forehead labeling me “IMPORTED” should not be the only thing you see about me.

I am also organic, fair trade original.

I am my own woman. Not a further perpetuation of the idea that the only way to have such an exotic being is to have taken it. As if to fill a space in your collection.

AND HERE WE HAVE CLARE RAMIREZ RAFTREE. ALL THE WAY FROM EL SALVADOR.

To those who ask, “What are you?”

I am anything I want to be.

(Published with Clare’s permission)

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Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 7.10.25 AMPlan International’s Finnish office has just published a thorough user-friendly guide to using ICTs in community programs. The guide has been in development for over a year, based on experiences and input from staff working on the ground with communities in Plan programs in several countries.

It was authored and facilitated by Hannah Beardon, who also wrote two other great ICT4D guides for Plan in the past: Mobiles for Development (2009) and ICT Enabled Development (2010).

The guide is written in plain language and comes from the perspective of folks working together with communities to integrate ICTs in a sustainable way.

It’s organized into 8 sections, each covering a stage of project planning, with additional practical ideas and guidance in the annexes at the end.

Chapters include:

1 Assessing the potential of ICTs

2 Assessing the social context for ICTs

3 Assessing the physical context for ICTs

4 Reviewing

5 Choosing the ICT

6 Planning for sustainability

7 Building capacity

8 Monitoring, evaluation and sharing learning

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 7.27.32 AMThe sections are not set up as a linear process, and depending on each situation and the status of a project the whole guide can be used, or smaller sections can be pulled out to offer some guidance. Each section includes steps to follow and questions to ask. There are detailed orientations in the annexes as well, for example, how to conduct a participatory communications assessment at the community level, how to map information and communication flows and identify bottlenecks where ICTs might help, how to conduct a feasibility study, how to budget and consider ‘total cost of ownership.’

One thing I especially like about the guide is that it doesn’t push ICTs or particular ‘ICT solutions’ (I really hate that term for some reason!). Rather, it helps people to look at the information and communication needs in a particular situation and to work through a realistic and contextually appropriate process to resolve them, which may or may not involve digital technology. It also assumes that people in communities, district offices and country offices know the context best, and simply offers a framework for pulling that knowledge together and applying it.

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 7.07.45 AM99% of my hands-on experience using ICTs in development programming comes from my time at Plan International, much of it spent working alongside and learning from the knowledgeable folks who put this guide together. So I’m really happy to see that now other people can benefit from their expertise as well!

Let @vatamik and @tuuliavirhia know if you have questions, or if you have feedback for them and the team!

Download “A practical guide to using ICTs” here.

 

 

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Earlier this month I attended the African Evaluators’ Conference (AfrEA) in Cameroon as part of the Technology and Evaluation stream organized by Pact with financial support from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Evaluation Office and The MasterCard Foundation.

A first post about ICTs and M&E at the Afrea Conference went into some of the deliberations around using or not using ICTs and how we can learn and share more as institutions and evaluators. I’ve written previously about barriers and challenges with using ICTs in M&E of international development programs (see the list of posts at the bottom of this one). Many of these same conversations came up at AfrEA, so I won’t write about these again here. What I did want to capture and share were a few interesting design and implementation thoughts from the various ICT and M&E sessions. Here goes:

1) Asking questions via ICT may lead to more honest answers. Some populations are still not familiar with smart phones and tablets and this makes some people shy and quiet, yet it makes others more curious and animated to participate. Some people worry that mobiles, laptops and tablet create distance between the enumerator and the person participating in a survey. On the other hand, I’m hearing more and more examples of cases where using ICTs for surveying actually allow for a greater sense of personal privacy and more honest answers. I first heard about this several years ago with relation to children and youth in the US and Canada seeking psychological or reproductive health counseling. They seemed to feel more comfortable asking questions about sensitive issues via online chats (as opposed to asking a counselor or doctor face-to-face) because they felt anonymous. This same is true for telephone inquiries.

In the case of evaluations, someone suggested that rather than a mobile or tablet creating distance, a device can actually create an opportunity for privacy. For example, if a sensitive question comes up in a survey, an enumerator can hand the person being interviewed the mobile phone and look away when they provide their answer and hit enter, in the same way that waiters in some countries will swipe your ATM card and politely look away while you enter your PIN. Key is building people’s trust in these methods so they can be sure they are secure.

At a Salon on Feb 28, I heard about mobile polling being used to ask men in the Democratic Republic of Congo about sexual assault against men. There was a higher recorded affirmative rate when the question was answered via a mobile survey than when the question had been asked in other settings or though other means. This of course makes sense, considering that often when a reporter or surveyor comes around asking whether men have been victims of rape, no one wants to say publicly. It’s impossible to know in a situation of violence if a perpetrator might be standing around in the crowd watching someone getting interviewed, and clearly shame and stigma also prevent people from answering openly.

Another example at the AfrEA Tech Salon, was a comparison study done by an organization in a slum area in Accra. Five enumerators who spoke local languages conducted Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) surveys by mobile phone using Open Data Kit (an open source survey application) and the responses were compared with the same survey done on paper.  When people were asked in person by enumerators if they defecated outdoors, affirmative answers were very low. When people were asked the same question via a voice-based mobile phone survey, 26% of respondents reported open defecation.

2) Risk of collecting GPS coordinates. We had a short discussion on the plusses and minuses of using GPS and collecting geolocation data in monitoring and evaluation. One issue that came up was safety for enumerators who carry GPS devices. Some people highlighted that GPS devices can put staff/enumerators at risk of abuse from organized crime bands, military groups, or government authorities, especially in areas with high levels of conflict and violence. This makes me think that if geographic information is needed in these cases, it might be good to use a mobile phone application that collects GPS rather than a fancy smart phone or an actual GPS unit (for example, one could try out PoiMapper, which works on feature phones).

In addition, evaluators emphasized that we need to think through whether GPS data is really necessary at household level. It is tempting to always collect all the information that we possibly can, but we can never truly assure anyone that their information will not be de-anonymized somehow in the near or distant future, and in extremely high risk areas, this can be a huge risk. Many organizations do not have high-level security for their data, so it may be better to collect community or district level data than household locations. Some evaluators said they use ‘tricks’ to anonymize the geographical data, like pinpointing location a few miles off, but others felt this was not nearly enough to guarantee anonymity.

3) Devices can create unforeseen operational challenges at the micro-level. When doing a mobile survey by phone and asking people to press a number to select a particular answer to a question, one organization working in rural Ghana to collect feedback about government performance found that some phones were set to lock when a call was answered. People were pressing buttons to respond to phone surveys (press 1 for….), but their answers did not register because phones were locked, or answers registered incorrectly because the person was entering their PIN to unlock the phone. Others noted that when planning for training of enumerators or community members who will use their own devices for data collection, we cannot forget the fact that every model of phone is slightly different. This adds quite a lot of time to the training as each different model of phone needs to be explained to trainees. (There are a huge number of other challenges related to devices, but these were two that I had not thought of before.)

4) Motivation in the case of poor capacity to respond. An organization interested in tracking violence in a highly volatile area wanted to take reports of violence, but did not have a way to ensure that there would be a response from an INGO, humanitarian organization or government authority if/when violence was reported. This is a known issue — the difficulties of encouraging reporting if responsiveness is low. To keep people engaged this organization thanks people immediately for reporting and then sends peace messages and encouragement 2-3 times per week. Participants in the program have appreciated these ongoing messages and participation has continued to be steady, regardless of the fact that immediate help has not been provided as a result of reporting.

5) Mirroring physical processes with tech. One way to help digital tools gain more acceptance and to make them more user-friendly is to design them to mirror paper processes or other physical processes that people are already familiar with. For example, one organization shared their design process for a mobile application for village savings and loan (VSL) groups. Because security is a big concern among VSL members, the groups typically keep cash in a box with 3 padlocks. Three elected members must be present and agree to open and remove money from the box in order to conduct any transaction. To mimic this, the VSL mobile application requires 3 PINs to access mobile money or make transactions, and what’s more, the app sends everyone in the VSL Group an SMS notification if the 3 people with the PINs carry out a transaction, meaning the mobile app is even more secure than the original physical lock-box, because everyone knows what is happening all the time with the money.

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As I mentioned in part 1 of this post, some new resources and forthcoming documentation may help to further set the stage for better learning and application of ICTs in the M&E process. Pact has just released their Mobile Technology Toolkit, and Michael Bamberger and I are finishing up a paper on ICT-enabled M&E that might help provide a starting point and possible framework to move things forward.

Here is the list of toolkits, blog posts and other links that we compiled for AfrEA – please add any that are missing!

Previous posts on ICTs and M&E on this blog:

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The NYC Technology Salon on February 28th examined the connection between bigger, better data and resilience. We held morning and afternoon Salons due to the high response rate for the topic. Jake Porway, DataKind; Emmanuel Letouzé, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; and Elizabeth Eagen, Open Society Foundations; were our lead discussants for the morning. Max Shron, Data Strategy; joined Emmanuel and Elizabeth for the afternoon session.

This post summarizes key discussions from both Salons.

What the heck do we mean by ‘big data’?

The first question at the morning salon was: What precisely do we mean by the term ‘big data’? Participants and lead discussants had varying definitions. One way of thinking about big data is that it is comprised of small bits of unintentionally produced ‘data exhaust’ (website cookies, cellphone data records, etc.) that add up to a dataset. In this case, the term big data refers to the quality and nature of the data, and we think of non-sampled data that are messy, noisy and unstructured. The mindset that goes with big data is one of ‘turning mess into meaning.’

Some Salon participants understood big data as datasets that are too large to be stored, managed and analyzed via conventional database technologies or managed on normal computers. One person suggested dropping the adjective ‘big,’ forgetting about the size, and instead considering the impact of the contribution of the data to understanding. For example, if there were absolutely no data on something and 1000 data points were contributed, this might have a greater impact than adding another 10,000 data points to an existing set of 10 million.

The point here was that when the emphasis is on big (understood as size and/or volume), someone with a small data set (for example, one that fits into an excel sheet) might feel inadequate, yet their data contribution may be actually ‘bigger’ than a physically larger data set (aha! it’s not the size of the paintbrush…). There was a suggestion that instead of talking about big data we should talk about smart data.

How can big data support development?

Two frameworks were shared for thinking about big data in development. One from UN Global Pulse considers that big data can improve a) real-time awareness, b) early warning and c) real-time monitoring. Another looks at big data being used for three kinds of analysis: a) descriptive (providing a summary of something that has already happened), b) predictive (likelihood and probability of something occurring in the future), and c) diagnostic (causal inference and understanding of the world).

What’s the link between big data and resilience?

‘Resilience’ as a concept is contested, difficult to measure and complex. In its most simple definition, resilience can be thought of as the ability to bounce back or bounce forward. (For an interesting discussion on whether we should be talking about sustainability or resilience, see this piece). One discussant noted that global processes and structures are not working well for the poor, as evidenced from continuing cycles of poverty and glaring wealth inequalities. In this view, people are poor as a result of being more exposed and vulnerable to shocks, at the same time, their poverty increases their vulnerability, and it’s difficult to escape from the cycle where over time, small and large shocks deplete assets. An assets-based model of resilience would help individuals, families and communities who are hit by a shock in one sphere — financial, human, capital, social, legal and/or political — to draw on the assets within another sphere to bounce back or forward.

Big data could help this type of an assets-based model of resilience by predicting /helping poor and vulnerable people predict when a shock might happen and preparing for it. Big data analytics, if accessible to the poor, could help them to increase their chances of making better decisions now and for the future. Big data then, should be made accessible and available to communities so that they can self-organize and decrease their own exposure to shocks and hazards and increase their ability to bounce back and bounce forward. Big data could also help various actors to develop a better understanding of the human ecosystem and contribute to increasing resilience.

Can ivory tower big data approaches contribute to resilience?

The application of big data approaches to efforts that aim to increase resilience and better understand human ecosystems often comes at things from the wrong angle, according to one discussant. We are increasingly seeing situations where a decision is made at the top by people who know how to crunch data yet have no way of really understanding the meaning of the data in the local context. In these cases, the impact of data on resilience will be low, because resilience can only truly be created and supported at the local level. Instead of large organizations thinking about how they can use data from afar to ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ the poor, organizations should be working together with communities in crisis (or supporting local or nationally based intermediaries to facilitate this process) so that communities can discuss and pull meaning from the data, contextualize it and use it to help themselves. They can also be more informed what data exist about them and more aware of how these data might be used.

For the Human Rights community, for example, the story is about how people successfully use data to advocate for their own rights, and there is less emphasis on large data sets. Rather, the goal is to get data to citizens and communities. It’s to support groups to define and use data locally and to think about what the data can tell them about the advocacy path they could take to achieve a particular goal.

Can data really empower people?

To better understand the opportunities and challenges of big data, we need to unpack questions related to empowerment. Who has the knowledge? The access? Who can use the data? Salon participants emphasized that change doesn’t come by merely having data. Rather it’s about using big data as an advocacy tool to tell the world to change processes and to put things normally left unsaid on the table for discussion and action. It is also about decisions and getting ‘big data’ to the ‘small world,’ e.g., the local level. According to some, this should be the priority of ‘big data for development’ actors over the next 5 years.

Though some participants at the Salon felt that data on their own do not empower individuals; others noted that knowing your credit score or tracking how much you are eating or exercising can indeed be empowering to individuals. In addition, the process of gathering data can help communities understand their own realities better, build their self-esteem and analytical capacities, and contribute to achieving a more level playing field when they are advocating for their rights or for a budget or service. As one Salon participant said, most communities have information but are not perceived to have data unless they collect it using ‘Western’ methods. Having data to support and back information, opinions and demands can serve communities in negotiations with entities that wield more power. (See the book “Who Counts, the power of participatory statistics” on how to work with communities to create ‘data’ from participatory approaches).

On the other hand, data are not enough if there is no political will to make change to respond to the data and to the requests or demands being made based on the data. As one Salon participant said: “giving someone a data set doesn’t change politics.”

Should we all jump on the data bandwagon?

Both discussants and participants made a plea to ‘practice safe statistics!’ Human rights organizations wander in and out of statistics and don’t really understand how it works, said one person. ‘You wouldn’t go to court without a lawyer, so don’t try to use big data unless you can ensure it’s valid and you know how to manage it.’ If organizations plan to work with data, they should have statisticians and/or data scientists on staff or on call as partners and collaborators. Lack of basic statistical literacy is a huge issue amongst the general population and within many organizations, thought leaders, and journalists, and this can be dangerous.

As big data becomes more trendy, the risk of misinterpretation is growing, and we need to place more attention on the responsible use of statistics and data or we may end up harming people by bad decisions. ‘Everyone thinks they are experts who can handle statistics – bias, collection, correlation’ these days. And ‘as a general rule, no matter how many times you say the data show possible correlation not causality, the public will understand that there is causality,’ commented one discussant. And generally, he noted, ‘when people look at data, they believe them as truth because they include numbers, statistics, science.’ Greater statistical literacy could help people to not just read or access data and information but to use them wisely, to understand and question how data are interpreted, and to detect political or other biases. What’s more, organizations today are asking questions about big data that have been on statisticians’ minds for a very long time, so reaching out to those who understand these issues can be useful to avoid repeating mistakes and re-learning lessons that have already been well-documented.

This poor statistical literacy becomes a serious ethical issue when data are used to determine funding or actions that impact on people’s lives, or when they are shared openly, accidentally or in ways that are unethical. In addition, privacy and protection are critical elements in using and working with data about people, especially when the data involve vulnerable populations. Organizations can face legal action and liability suits if their data put people at harm, as one Salon participant noted. ‘An organization could even be accused of manslaughter… and I’m speaking from experience,’ she added.

What can we do to move forward?

Some potential actions for moving forward included:

  • Emphasis with donors that having big data does not mean that in order to cut costs, you should eliminate community level processes related to data collection, interpretation, analysis, and ownership;
  • Evaluations and literature/documentation on the effectiveness of different tools and methods, and when and in which contexts they might be applicable, including things like cost-benefit analyses of using big data and evaluation of its impact on development/on communities when combined with community level processes vs used alone/without community involvement — practitioner gut feelings are that big data without community involvement is irresponsible and ineffective in terms of resilience, and it would be good to have evidence to help validate or disprove this;
  • More and better tools and resources to support data collection, visualization and use and to help organizations with risk analysis, privacy impact assessments, strategies and planning around use of big data; case studies and a place to share and engage with peers, creation of a ‘cook book’ to help organizations understand the ingredients, tools, processes of using data/big data in their work;
  • ‘Normative conventions’ on how big data should be used to avoid falling into tech-driven dystopia;
  • Greater capacity for ‘safe statistics’ among organizations;
  • A community space where frank and open conversations around data/big data can occur in an ongoing way with the right range of people and cross-section of experiences and expertise from business, data, organizations, etc.

In conclusion?

We touched upon all types of data and various levels of data usage for a huge range of purposes at the two Salons. One closing thought was around the importance of having a solid idea of what questions we trying to answer before moving on to collecting data, and then understanding what data collection methods are adequate for our purpose, what ICT tools are right for which data collection and interpretation methods, what will done with the data/what is the purpose of collecting data, how we’ll interpret them, and how data will be shared, with whom, and in what format.

See this growing list of resources related to Data and Resilience here and add yours!

Thanks to participants and lead discussants for the fantastic exchange, and a big thank you to ThoughtWorks for hosting us at their offices for this Salon. Thanks also to Hunter Goldman, Elizabeth Eagen and Emmanuel Letouzé for their support developing this Salon topic, and to Somto Fab-Ukozor for support with notes and the summary. Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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This is a guest post by Daniella Ben-Attar (@dbenattar) who consults for international development agencies, NGOs and corporations on areas relating to youth participation, governance, municipal capacity building, ICT4D and peace building.

by Daniella Ben-Attar

Youth in Mali with local authorities.

Youth in Mali with local authorities.

ICTs are increasingly being looked to as holding great promise for improving participatory governance and citizen engagement. Mobile phones have been a game-changer in this sphere, with nearly seven billion mobile-cellular subscriptions worldwide, including 89% penetration in the developing world. Youth are at the center of these developments, both as drivers and consumers of technological innovation.  This is particularly true in developing countries where the young generation is leading the way in the usage of technology to overcome social, political and economic exclusion to begin driving positive change in their communities. The largest cohort in history, youth aged 15-24 number more than 1.2 billion worldwide, with an estimated 87% living in developing countries.  They are almost twice as networked as the global population as a whole, with the ICT age gap more pronounced in least developed countries where young people are often three times more likely to be online than the general population.

The combination of the “youth bulge” and “mobile miracle” has great potential to enable new responses to the longstanding challenge of youth engagement in governance across the developing world. Young citizens are utilizing simple mobile technology to innovate new platforms, tools and mechanisms aiming to amplify their voices and influence government. Youth are being proactive to play a greater role in governance through mobile-based communication avenues, user-generated information, tools tracking government accountability, anti-corruption platforms, crowd-sourcing and more. This is a dramatic shift from the days when the only way to gain the attention of a government official was through slow and cumbersome bureaucratic processes and official meetings in government offices.

A Growing Youth-Local Government Disconnect

Ironically, the impact of these efforts appears to be more pronounced at the national level than at the local level of government. Indeed, ICTs seem to be strengthening communications between youth and central government instead of enhancing connections with the closest level of governance where young citizens can be resources for community development. Applications and innovations in cooperation with government that address local issues have largely been the product of national government bodies. Most youth-led initiatives have not been successful in securing local government partnership, limiting impact. A communications gap has widened between young citizens and their local governments, which are often staffed by individuals with far less digital experience than their youthful constituents. As a result, youth and their local leaders often seem to be speaking in different languages through different media.  Local government deficits in capacity and resources continue to exist as barriers, as well as the need for sensitization to youth engagement as a priority outcome of adopting and shaping ICT-enabled practices.

Most young people using technology as a way to influence governance will tell you a similar story. When expressing themselves through social media outlets and ICT-enabled mechanisms, it is usually the national political figures that are more attuned and responsive. Local leaders are far behind their national counterparts in ICT capacity and usage. National ministers and officials often use Twitter accounts, blogs, SMS and websites to engage with their citizens, who by default are largely young. While this is a positive development, it also elicits frustration from young people who feel that their voices are ignored or unheard by elder leaders at the local level where chances are greatest for tangible impact in their day-to-day lives.

President Kagame of Rwanda is a stark example.  Youth have described how the president directly interacted with young citizens via Twitter and addressed concerns relating to many issues, from police violence towards youth to business ideas for urban tourism.  No such possibilities existed for these same youth to approach the local authority with these locally-based needs.  Even more significant, Kagame merged the national ministries of Youth and ICT in 2012 and appointed a Minister of Youth and ICT.  This is a groundbreaking move both in terms of ICT and youth, with youth ministries commonly grouped with sports or culture. However, these extraordinary national developments are not reflected in the policy and practice of local government in Rwanda.

Digital mapping initiatives have been in the spotlight as a new youth-driven tool drawing attention to local issues often overlooked by government officials.  While communities are benefitting from these processes, youth leaders report that these maps often do not gain the attention of city hall. For example, Kenyan NGO Map Kibera has seen its maps utilized by national ministry committees, better equipped with the capacity and mindset to absorb digital data, while city council has not been responsive to ICT-based approaches. Young leaders in Kandy City, Sri Lanka are working to bridge the “youth-local government ICT gap” which they have identified as a major barrier in engaging youth in local development. These young leaders are training municipal officials in computer skills and creating new ICT platforms for citizen-local government interaction as part of a UN-HABITAT supported youth-led training and education program run by YES – City of Youth.

Building Local Government Capacity for ICT & Youth Engagement

Partnership with local government is viewed by stakeholders as a key missing ingredient in enabling governance technology applications to have tangible results at the community level. The importance of “closing the engagement loop” and early local government buy-in is emphasized time and again by stakeholders in the field as a vital lesson learned through pilot programs. Youth organizations like Youth Agenda and Sisi ni Amani have achieved successful governance results by engaging local leaders as partners from the preliminary stages, highlighting the benefits they can gain through mobile solutions that increase civic engagement, enhance service delivery, fight corruption and bridge between local government and citizens.

Bridging the youth-local government gap will require sensitizing local officials and encouraging them to see the advantages of “listening” to youth ICT platforms, to bring them to where the majority of youth are voicing their opinions, and enable them to take responsive actions. National governments should be encouraged to help local governments be better equipped to address youthful concerns at the local level through capacity building for both youth engagement and ICT4G.  This can be supported by integrating local ICT components in national ICT plans, or increased “decentralization” and integration of both youth and ICT strategies, bolstered by budgetary allocations and devolution of authority. When seeking to utilize ICT to deliver positive governance outcomes for young people, “local gov” must be part of the “ICT4Gov” equation.

This blog post draws on findings from a UN-HABITAT Report entitled “ICT, Urban Governance and Youth” co-authored by Daniella Ben-Attar and Tim Campbell.

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