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panel session photoIn line with my last post (10 myths about girls empowerment and mobile learning), I thought I’d also share what we covered during our panel on ‘Gender Sensitive Content and Pedagogy’ during UNESCO and UN Women’s Mobile Learning Week 2015. This year’s theme was ‘leveraging technology to empower women and girls.’ UN Women did a fantastic job of finding really smart women with varied backgrounds to join the panel, including: Sarah Jaffe, Worldreader;  Andrea Bertone, FHI360; Hongjuan Liu, Beijing Royal School; Catherine King, Global Fund for Women; and Anne Githuku-Shongwe, Afroes. I had the pleasure of moderating the conversation, and here’s some of what we talked about. I’ll put up a few more posts after this one to share the full session.

First, what is ‘gender responsive content?’ Hongjuan sent over a general introduction to include in this post. To begin with, she said, simply having access to schools does not guarantee a proper education and a better future. “Outdated teaching materials silently reinforce girls’ sense of inferiority. Materials rarely picture woman as managers, pilots, doctors or political leaders. The subconscious words neglect the contributions of girls and women to the modern economic world and show women as subordinate to men.” Even worse, she noted, “unless they are trained on gender sensitivity, most teachers and parents are not knowledgeable enough to banish gender bias. Silence in the face of discrimination is the equivalent of allowing lies and distorted facts to continue. And, such blindness is even more dangerous to the gender-bias content itself. As a result, these mistakenly delivered messages will denigrate girls and women from one generation to another.”

According to Hongjuan, teachers are a critical part of efforts to “dig out the seeds of gender-bias in our children’s heart” and they should be paying attention to both content and pedagogy. “Given that boys and girls learn differently, we need to employ diverse pedagogies in order to respond to different learning styles –from small group, individual, lecture, reading, experiences, laboratory work, etc. Diversity in pedagogy matters and increases the opportunities for all students to learn.”

Overturning gender stereotyping must be a collective and universal effort, she said. “Institutions must respond to the call to overturn gender bias discrimination. Some citizens are too weak to resist the strong stereotypes present in their countries and religions. Life is too short to wait to base our actions on a collective worldwide outcry for a harmonious world where woman and man are equally accepted, appreciated and treated. At the very least we should live by our words and deeds so that we are seen as desiring and fighting for equality. We should wish to be painted as believing in not only the potential of women and girls, but the rights they should have. That will inspire women to work to craft their own more promising future.”

Andrea noted that we should pay attention to gender responsive content and pedagogy because “if we don’t prioritize gender responsive content we see the consequences: girls and boys who stay disempowered and miss out on learning opportunities which challenge the unequal gender norms that they are socialized to believe.” In addition, she said, gender-responsive content offers rich tools that we can use to transform unequal gender norms — “those norms that dictate to girls what they can and can’t do, where they can or can’t go, or norms that encourage boys to engage in harmful behaviors against themselves and others.” We have the potential to link two extremely relevant and potentially transformative mechanisms — mobile and gender sensitive content and pedagogy — in the education space, “and that is quite exciting!” Andrea added.

Sarah agreed, noting that what we experience in media and literature shapes us, particularly as children.  “If a girl never sees an example of a woman neuroscientist, in either fiction or non-fiction, how will she know that is a possibility for her?”  We know life gives us all sorts of examples that challenge literary tropes, but “when we are inundated with one-note ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl, these shape us in subconscious ways,” she said. “This example applies mainly to fiction, but of course, non-fiction and informational gender responsive content is also key.”

Hongjuan shared how she was influenced by gender stereotyping. “I chose to be a teacher, because this is the best thing I found in books. Women were never pictured in other roles. These subconscious words imply that a girl’s sweat is so cheap that it will never win them a higher social status,” she said. “We need to change these gender biases. These mistaken messages poison girls and woman from one generation to another.”

“We need to be a part of combating these persistent stereotypes,” continued Catherine. “A lack of representation and the misrepresentation of women and girls persist in mainstream media.” We see this as well in non-traditional sectors, including in the online environment, she noted. “As content developers, we have an opportunity – a responsibility – to disrupt pervasive stereotypical and counterproductive images.” Catherine explained that the Global Fund for Women has expanded its mission to prioritize raising the voices of women via digital storytelling and advocacy campaigns as an equal lever to grant making to create greater momentum for the change we all want to see in the long term.

Finally, Anne noted that “today, even in Africa, we live in a connected world that is more transparent, where oppression, harassment or discrimination are not cool and are in fact are exposed because of our connectedness.” She referred to stories we’ve all become aware of — rape in India, pedophiles, the Arab Spring. “On the other hand, gendered relationships at home, at work and in public spaces have changed forever as women’s choices open up more and more.” In the meantime, however, “we old school parents and teachers continue to enforce old stereotypes that are close to dead to the world – confusing our young ones.” Anne emphasized that it is critical to equip young men and women – our future leaders – for a new reality. “In our work building motivated learning products on mobile — using games and gamification rules — we are at pains in our engaged user-based design and testing processes to challenge gender stereotypes and offer a platform to shape new ones. Gender-responsive content is not a nicety, it is imperative!!”

Tune in over the next week or two for summaries of the other areas covered on the panel, including: combating unconscious gender bias; the role of mobile in creation/implementation of gender-responsive content and pedagogy; challenges in the area of gender-sensitive mobile learning; and thoughts on where we can expect mobile technology and gender-responsive content and pedagogy to head in the future.

 

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Cameroon - realizing phone takes videoI had the chance to share some thoughts at UNESCO’s recent Mobile Learning Week. My presentation explored some myths about girls empowerment and mobile learning and offered suggestions of things to think about when designing and implementing programs. Ideas for the presentation were drawn from research and practitioner experiences (mine and those of others that I’ve talked with and worked with over the past few years). Here’s what I talked about below. Since realities are subjective and complex, and contexts differ immensely around the world, I’m putting these out mainly as discussion starters. Some seem super obvious and some contradict each other (which may speak to the point that there is no universal truth!), so I’m curious to know what other people think…

Myth 1: Mobile as a stand-alone solution.

Reality: The mobile phone is just one part of the informational and cultural ecosystem. There is a lot of hype about mobile. I think as a sector we are mostly past the idea of mobile as a stand-alone solution, but in case not, it’s the first myth I’d challenge. There is not a lot that a mobile phone can do as a stand-alone tool to empower girls or improve their education and learning. 

Things to consider: The mobile phone is the device that is most likely to already be in the hands of your target user — but the possibilities and channels don’t start and end with mobile phones. It’s important to think of the mobile phone as just one part of a much wider informational, social, cultural and educational ecosystem and see where it might fit in to support girls’ learning. It’s likely that mobile phones will be used more outside of the classroom than in – in my experience, I’ve found that schools often don’t allow mobiles to be brought into class. So, it’s more about integrating mobiles as a tool that supports rather than as the sole channel for learning and information sharing.

Myth 2: It’s the technology that’s mobile.

Reality: In most cases, the learner is mobile, too. This is one of the exciting things about technology and learning. It’s something I heard John Traxler say a few years ago, and I thought it was really smart. John said we should really be thinking about mobile learners, not just mobile technology. Learners access and share information in all kinds of ways, at different locations, using different devices or not using devices at all.

Things to consider: Rather than starting with the mobile phone, think about design based on a clear understanding of ’digital repertoires’ – in other words, user behaviors or patterns that span places and devices based on factors like data capacity, cost, purpose. These repertoires will differ according to culture, sex, economic status, and availability of information points and sources. For example, maybe some girls use Google search to do homework at an Internet café but use their own phone or a borrowed phone for quick, short text reminders or questions to friends about schoolwork. Maybe other girls are not allowed to go to Internet cafés or they feel uncomfortable doing so, and they rely more on their mobile phone and their friends. This was the case in one community near Jakarta that I was in last month. One of the girls talked about her 15-year-old friend:

 

“She’s too shy to go to the Internet shop…. Boys are always sitting out, calling you to ask ‘where are you going?’ or whistling. She feels too embarrassed to go into the shop because everyone will look at her.”

In a consultation conducted by Plan in 2011, girls in some countries said it was too dangerous to travel to the Internet café, especially at night. When men and boys watch porn and play video games in Internet cafes, girls tend to feel quite uncomfortable. Libraries, if available, may be places where girls go to access Internet because they feel safer. Girls may face reputation risk if they go too often to the Internet café. So in this case, girls may rely on phones. In some parts of East and West Africa, however, girls with mobile phones may be accused of having ‘sugar daddies’ or selling sex for airtime or nice phones, so the phone also carries reputation risk. All of these situations impact on girls’ communication repertoires, and program designers need to take them into consideration. And perhaps most importantly, ‘girls’ are not a homogeneous group so we always need to unpack which girls, where, when, what, at what age, living where, with what kinds of social or cultural restrictions, etc.

Myth 3: Vulnerable girls don’t have access to mobiles.

Reality: Many girls with phones are more vulnerable than we think, and more girls that we consider vulnerable are accessing mobiles. This is something that Colman Chamberlain from the Girl Effect’s mobile initiative pointed out. “We often hear that the most vulnerable girls don’t have access to mobile phones,” he says, “but this depends on how we understand and define vulnerability. Many girls with phones are vulnerable, and many vulnerable girls are starting to access mobile. This means we have a real chance to reach and engage with them.”

Things to consider: Age does normally play a role in access to mobiles. Younger girls from lower income families in most countries do not have their own mobile phones. Upper class children may, however, have phones. It really varies. Recent research (unpublished) found that it was common for 14-15 yr olds in Indonesia to have their own phones. In India and Bangladesh, that age was closer to 18. Girls who were no longer in school often had a mobile — some had even dropped out to get jobs in order to purchase a mobile. Sometimes married girls’ husbands purchase them a phone, yet it may be primarily to control and monitor their whereabouts.

When designing programs, it’s really important to take the time to learn whether the girls you’d like to work with own or borrow mobile phones and whether their access is controlled by someone else or if they are free to use a mobile however they’d like. Design for different scenarios and ‘user repertoires’ based on girls’ access and use habits. Don’t make assumptions on which girls access mobiles for what and how based on perceived vulnerability, do the research and you may be surprised when you get into the weeds.

Myth 4: Cost is the biggest barrier to girls’ mobile phone access and use. 

Reality: Cost is a barrier, but perhaps not the biggest one. Clearly cost is still a big barrier for the poorest girls. But the unwillingness to invest in a girl’s access to mobile or to information and learning is linked to other aspects like a girl’s position in her family or society. Mobiles are also becoming cheaper, so the cost barrier has been reduced in some ways. Overall, compared to landlines, as Katie Ramsay at Plan Australia notes, mobile is cheaper and that opens up access to information for even the poorest families.

Research conducted this past year in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, found that in some communities girls have much greater access than assumed, and cost was a lower barrier than originally thought. Parents and gatekeepers were actually a bigger barrier in some countries. For many of us this is a total no-brainer, but I still think it’s worth bringing up.

Things to consider: As already mentioned, the key when developing programs is to dig deep and talk with girls directly to understand and help them to overcome different barriers, whether those are personal, familiar, economic, societal or institutional.

In order to help get past these barriers, mobile-enabled programming or product/service offerings need to have real value to girls as well as their gatekeepers, so that girls’ participation in programs and use of mobiles is seen by gatekeepers as positive. This was shown clearly in a UNESCO girls’ literacy program in Pakistan, where 87% of parents changed from a negative opinion about girls using a mobile phone to a positive perspective by the end of the program, because they saw the utility of the phone for girls’ literacy.

It’s important to do work on educating and changing behaviors of parents. Katie Ramsay also notes that in places where men own the tech, there is a huge opportunity for targeting them to gain their support for girls’ education. So it’s worth re-thinking the role of mobiles in girl-focused programs, especially where girls’ access to mobile is low or controlled. The best use of mobiles for learning may not be ‘delivering content’ to girls via a mobile device. Instead it might be using mobile and other media to target gatekeepers to change their behavior and beliefs around girls’ education and girls’ empowerment.

Myth 5: Girls share their phones.

Reality: Phone sharing brings with it a challenging social power dynamic. Many people in ‘the West’ hold the romantic notion that people in ‘developing countries’ like to share everything and live communally. Now, I’m not saying that girls are not generous, but when it comes to girls and phones, we have not really seen a great desire to share.

In some of the unpublished research conducted in Asia (and previously referenced in this post), girls without phones said that they do borrow phones, often from family members or friends, but they don’t necessarily like doing so. They said that borrowing here and there just isn’t enough to do anything substantial on a phone. Girls described girls who do not have mobile phones as sad and unpopular. They drew girls with phones as happy, popular, and successful. Some girls also described girls with phones as stuck up and selfish and said that girls who have phones don’t share them with girls that don’t have phones.

 

“A girl with a phone would look down on me, and show off what her phone does. She would let me hold it, but only because she would like to take it back from me again.” –Girl, 18, Dhaka

I was at a school in Cameroon last year, when a big fight broke out because one girl had taken another girl’s phone and thrown it in the toilet. The professor said that fighting over mobile phones was common among students. Phones had been prohibited at school in part to reduce conflicts, and sometimes students ratted each other out for having phones at school. This is not specifically a “mobile phone” problem, it’s a wealth or class or equity issue, but it manifests itself with phones because they are an asset that defines haves and have-nots. 

Things to consider: Don’t assume it’s easy for girls to borrow phones. If you find that many of your targeted users for a mobile-enabled initiative are borrowers, then it’s important to design short, to-the-point options for them, because they may have only a few minutes at a time with a mobile. Girls may not share their phones unless there is some kind of incentive for doing so. If you are designing for borrowers, think about rapid communication in bursts, and don’t communicate about anything that would put a girl at social or reputation risk if the person she borrows the phone from should see it.

Myth 6: All girls (& all youth) are tech savvy.

Reality: Many girls are indeed tech savvy, but some are still behind the curve. In many places, girls with phones are way more tech savvy than their parents. And most young people around the world are pretty quick to pick up on technology. But girls’ level of savvy will obviously depend on what they have access to.

Girls I talked with in the urban slums areas of Jakarta were quite tech-adept and had Internet-ready phones, but they still only used Facebook and Google. They also mixed up ‘Facebook’ and ‘Google’ with ‘The Internet’ and did not use email. They were unfamiliar with the concept of an “app”. Girls knew how to search for jobs online (via Google), but they said they had trouble understanding how to fill out online forms to apply for those jobs. So regardless of a girl’s level of tech savvy, in this case, she was still missing certain skills and relevant online content that would have helped her get to the next level of job-seeking.

Things to consider: It’s really important to do your research to understand what technologies and platforms girls are familiar with and be sure to plan for how to engage girls with those that they are unfamiliar with. Basic literacy might also still be a huge issue among adolescent girls in some places.

Basically, the message here again is to avoid making assumptions, to do your research, and to remember that girls are not a homogeneous group. Market research techniques can be helpful to really start understanding nuances regarding which girls do what, where and how on a mobile device.

Myth 7: Girls don’t have time to use mobile phones.

Reality: You might be surprised by which girls find time to spend on a mobile phone. This again really depends on which girls, and where! Girls find the time to use mobile, even if it’s not at the always on-line levels that we find in places like the US and Europe, notes Colman from Girl Effect. Spending time in the communities you’re working with can allow you to find times that girls have free and uncontrolled access. Jessica Heinzelman from DAI told us that in one project she was working on, they had assumed that girls in more traditional communities and rural geographies would have less access to mobiles. In reality, it was common for girls to be sent on errands with mobiles to places where there was connectivity to contact relatives on behalf of the family, leaving the girls with at least some alone time with the mobile.

Schoolgirls in the slum area of Jakarta that I worked in earlier this year said they checked their Facebook every day. Out of school urban girls checked at least a few times per week, and rural out of school girls also usually managed to borrow a phone to check Facebook quickly now and then.

Things to consider: I’m beating the drum again here about the importance of on-the-ground research and user testing to find out what is happening in a particular context. Alexandra Tyers from GSMA points out that user testing is really a critical piece of any girls and mobile learning effort, and that it can actually be done for a reasonable price. She notes that in her case, “Bangladesh user testing cost $5,000 USD for fifty tests in five different locations around the country. And yet the return on investment by making those necessary changes is likely to be large because making sure the product is right will ensure easy adoption and maximum uptake.”

Myth 8: Mobile phones can’t address girls’ real needs.

Reality: Mobile phones can help address girls’ real needs, but probably not as stand-alone devices, and maybe not as ‘content delivery’ channels. There is a lot of hype around mobile learning and mEducation, and as some presenters talked about at Mobile Learning Week, there is little evidence to help us know how to integrate mobiles in ways that could scale (where appropriate) and offer real results. I sometimes think this is because we are expecting mobile and ICTs in general to do more than they feasibly can.

Depending on the context and situation, where I have seen the greatest opportunity for mobiles is:

  • enabling girls to connect with peers and information
  • allowing girls more opportunities for voicing their opinions
  • linking girls to online support and services
  • linking girls with offline support and services.
  • helping organizations to track and monitor their programs (and hopefully then do a better job of adapting them to girls’ real needs).

Things to consider: It’s really important to think through what the best role for mobile is (if any role at all). Here is where you can (and should) be super creative. You may not get the biggest impact by involving girls as the end user. Rather, the best place might be aiming your mobile component at behavior change with gatekeepers. Or sending text messages that link a girl to a service or opportunity that lives offline. It might be getting feedback on the school system or using mobile to remind parents about school meetings.

Myth 9: Mobile phones are dangerous.

Reality: Many girls and women say a mobile helps them feel safer, more independent, and more successful. The 2011 Cherie Blair/GSMA study on women and mobiles noted that 93% of women said a mobile made them feel safer and 84% felt more independent. Tech can also offer a certain level of anonymity for girls that can be beneficial in some cases. “Tech is good for girls because they can be anonymous. If you go to the bank, everyone can see you’re a girl. But if you start a business online, they don’t know that you’re a girl, so you don’t have to deal with the stereotypes,” according to Tuulia Virha, formerly of Plan Finland. Parents may also see mobiles as a tool to help them keep their children safe.

Things to consider: Mobiles can help with an increased sense of security, safety and autonomy, depending on context and situation. However, and this is what I’ll say next, mobiles also bring risk with them, and most girls we talked to for our research were aware of obvious risks – meeting strangers, exposure to pornography, pedophiles and trafficking – but not so aware of other risks like privacy. They were also not very aware of how to reduce their risk levels. So in order to really reap the safety and empowerment rewards that mobiles can bring, initiatives need to find ways to improve girls’ digital literacy and digital safety. Data security is another issue, and organizations should develop responsible data policies so that they are not contributing to putting girls at risk.

And that brings us to the other side of the coin – the myth that mobiles make girls safer.

Myth 10: Mobiles make girls safer.

Reality: Mobiles can put girls at risk. That sense of being safer with a mobile in hand can be a false one, as I noted above. Dirk Slater, from Tactical Technology Collective noted, “A big issue of working with adolescent girls is their lack of awareness of how the information they share can be stored and used. It’s important to educate girls. Look at how much information you find out about a person through social media, and what does that mean about how much information someone else can find about them.”

Things to consider: Institutions should aim to mitigate risks and help to improve girls’ digital security and safety.

Girls face safety risks on mobile at a number of levels, including:

  • Content
  • Contact
  • Data privacy and security
  • Legal and political risk (in some places they may face backlash simply for seeking out an education)
  • Financial risk (spam, hacking, spending money they don’t have on airtime)
  • Reputation risk (if they participate on social networks or speak out)

It’s also key for organizations working with girls and mobile to develop ethical policies and procedures to mitigate risks at various levels.

And that’s that for the top 10 myths! Curious to know what you think about those, and if there are other myths you find in your work with girls, mobile and learning….

 

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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…

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It’s been two weeks since we closed out the M&E Tech Conference in DC and the Deep Dive in NYC. For those of you who missed it or who want to see a quick summary of what happened, here are some of the best tweets from the sessions.

We’re compiling blog posts and related documentation and will be sharing more detailed summaries soon. In the meantime, enjoy a snapshot!

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