Archive for the ‘disaster and emergencies’ Category

by Hila Mehr and Linda Raftree

On March 31, 2015, nearly 40 participants, joined by lead discussants Robert Fabricant, Dalberg Design Team; Despina Papadopoulos, Principled Design; and Roop Pal, PicoSatellite eXploration Lab; came together for Technology Salon New York City where we discussed the future of wearables in international development. As follows is a summary of our discussion.

While the future of wearables is uncertain, major international development stakeholders are already incorporating wearables into their programs. UNICEF Kid Power is introducing wearables into the fight against malnutrition, and is launching a Global Wearables Challenge. The MUAC (mid-upper arm circumference) band already exists in international health. Other participants present were working on startups using wearables to tackle global health and climate change.

As Kentaro Toyama often says “technology is an amplifier of human intent” and the Tech Salon discussion certainly resonated with that sentiment. The future of wearables in international development is one that we–the stakeholders as consumers, makers, and planners–will create. It’s important to recognize the history of technology interventions in international development, and that while wearables enable a new future, technology interventions are not new; there is a documented history of failures and successes to learn from. Key takeaways from the Salon, described below, include reframing our concept of wearables, envisioning what’s possible, tackling behavior change, designing for context, and recognizing the tension between data and privacy.

Reframing our Concept of Wearables

Our first discussant shared historical and current examples of wearables, some from as far back as the middle ages, and encouraged participants to rethink the concept of wearables by moving beyond the Apple Watch and existing, primarily health-related, use cases. While Intel, Arm, and Apple want to put chips on and in our bodies, and we think these are the first cases of wearables, glasses have always been wearable, and watches are wearables that change our notions of time and space. In short, technology has always been wearable. If we stay focused on existing, primarily luxury, use cases like FitBit and Apple Watch, we lose our creativity in new use cases for varying scenarios, he said.

In many cases of technology introduction into a ‘developing world’ context, the technology adds a burden rather than contributing ease. We should be thinking about how wearables can capture data without requiring input, for example. There is also an intimacy with wearables that could eliminate or reframe some of the ingrained paradigms with existing technologies, he noted.

In the most common use cases of wearables and other technology in international development, data is gathered and sent up the chain. Participants should rethink this model and use of wearables and ensure that any data collected benefits people in the moment. This, said the discussant, can help justify the act of wearing something on the body. The information gathered must be better incorporated into a personal-level feedback loop. “The more intimate technology becomes, the greater responsibility you have for how you use it,” he concluded. 

In the discussion of reframing our notion of wearables, our second discussant offered a suggestion as to why people are so fascinated with wearables. “It’s about the human body connected to the human mind,” she explained. “What is it to be human? That’s why we’re so fascinated with wearables. They enlarge the notion of technology, and the relationship between machine, human, and animal.”

Envisioning What’s Possible

In discussing the prominent use of wearables for data collection, one participant asked, “What is possible to collect from the body? Are we tracking steps because that is what we want to track or because that is what’s possible? What are those indicators that we’ve chosen and why?”

We need to approach problems by thinking about both our priorities and what’s possible with wearable technology, was one reply. “As consumers, designers, and strategists, we need to push more on what we want to see happen. We have a 7-year window to create technology that we want to take root,” noted our lead discussant.

She then shared Google Glass as an example of makers forgetting what it is to be human. While Google Glass is a great use case for doctors in remote areas or operators of complex machinery, Google Glass at dinner parties and in other social interactions quickly became problematic, requiring Google to publish guidelines for social uses cases. “It’s great that it’s out there as a blatant failure to teach other designers to take care of this space,” she said. 

Another discussant felt that the greatest opportunity is the hybrid space between specialized and the generalized. The specialized use cases for wearables are with high medical value. And then there are the generalized cases. With expensive and new technology, it becomes cheaper and more accessible as it meets those hybrid use cases in-between specialized and generalized to justify the cost and sophistication of technology. Developing far out and futuristic ideas, such as one lead discussant’s idea for a mind-controlled satellite, can also offer opportunities for those working with and studying technology to unpack and ‘de-scaffold’ the layers between the wearable technology itself and the data and future it may bring with it.

Tackling Behavior Change

One of the common assumptions with wearables is that our brains work in a mechanical way, and that if we see a trend in our data, we will change our behavior. But wearables have proven that is not the case. 

The challenge with wearables in the international development context is making sure that the data collected serves a market and consumer need — what people want to know about themselves — and that wearables are not only focused on what development organizations and researchers want to know. Additionally, the data needs to be valuable and useful to individuals. For example, if a wearable tracks iron levels but the individual doesn’t understand the intricacies of nutrition, their fluctuations in iron levels will be of no use.

Nike Plus and its FuelBand has been one of the most successful activity trackers to date, argued one discussant, because of the online community created around the device. “It wasn’t the wearable device that created behavior change, but the community sharing that went with it.” One participant trained in behavioral economics noted the huge potential for academic research and behavioral economists with the data collected from wearables. A program she had worked on looked closely at test-taking behaviors of boys versus those of girls, and wearables were able to track and detect specific behaviors that were later analyzed and compared.

Designing for Context

Mainstream wearables are currently tailored for the consumer profile of the 35-year-old male fitness buff. But how do we think about the broader population, on the individual and community level? How might wearables serve the needs of those in emergency, low resource, or conflict settings? And what are some of the concerns with wearables?

One participant urged the group to think more creatively. “I’m having trouble envisioning this in the humanitarian space. 5-10 years out, what are concrete examples of someone in Mali, Chad, or Syria with a wearable. How is it valuable? And is there an opportunity to leapfrog with this technology?”

Humanitarian disaster contexts often face massive chaos, low literacy rates, and unreliable Internet connectivity, if Internet exists at all. How can wearables be useful in these cases? One participant suggested they could be used for better ways of coordinating and organizing — such as a warning siren signal wearable for individuals in warzones, or water delivery signal wearable for when water arrives — while keeping in mind real restrictions. For example, there are fears today about vaccines and other development agency interventions. This may escalate with wearable devices or edible tracking devices.

No amount of creativity, however, replaces the realistic and sustainable value of developing technology that addresses real needs in local contexts. That’s where human-centered design and participatory processes play a vital role. Wearable products cannot be built in isolation without users, as various participants highlighted.

As one lead discussant said, we too often look at technology as a magic bullet and we need to avoid doing this again when it comes to wearables. We can only know if wearable technology is an appropriate use case by analyzing the environment and understanding the human body. In Afghanistan, she noted, everyone has an iPhone now, and that’s powerful. But not everyone will have a FitBit, because there is no compelling use case.

Appropriate use cases can be discovered by involving the community of practice from day one, making no assumptions, and showing and sharing methodology and processes. Makers and planners should also be wary of importing resources and materials, creating an entire new ecosystem. If a foreign product breaks with no access to materials and training, it won’t be fixed or sustainable. Designing for context also means designing with local resources and tailored to what the community currently has access to. At the same time, international development efforts and wearable technology should be about empowering people, and not infantilizing them.

The value of interdisciplinary teams and systems maps cannot be overlooked, participants added. Wearables highlight our individual-centric nature, while systems thinking and mapping shows how we relate with ourselves, our community, and the world. Thinking about all of these levels will be important if wearables are to contribute to development in a positive way.

Tensions around Privacy, Data, and Unethical Uses

Wearables exist in tension with identity, intimacy, and privacy. As consumers, users, makers, and planners of wearables, we have to think critically and deeply about how we want our data to be shared. One discussant emphasized that we need to involve VCs, industry, and politicians in discussion around the ethical implications of wearable technology products. The political implications and erosion of trust may be even more complex in developing world contexts, making a consortia and standards even more necessary. 

One participant noted the risks of medical wearable technology and the lack of HIPAA privacy requirements in other countries. The lack of HIPAA should not mean that privacy concerns are glossed over. The ethics of testing apply no matter the environment, and testing completely inappropriate technology in a developing context just for the captive audience is ethically questionable.

Likewise, other participants raised the issue of wearables and other types of technology being used for torture, mind control and other nefarious purposes, especially as the science of ‘mind hacking’ and the development of wearables and devices inserted under the skin becomes more sophisticated.

Participants noted the value in projects like the EU’s Ethics Inside and the pressure for a UN Representative on privacy rights. But there is still much headway to be made as data privacy and ethical concerns only grow.

The Future We Wear

The rapid evolution of technology urges us to think about how technology affects our relationships with our body, family, community, and society. What do we want those relationships to look like in the future? We have an opportunity, as consumers, makers and planners of wearables for the international context to view ourselves as stakeholders in building the future opportunities of this space. Wearables today are where the Internet was during its first five mainstream years. Now is the perfect time to put our stake in the ground and create the future we wish to exist in.


Our Wearables and Development background reading list is available here. Please add articles or other relevant resources or links.

Other posts about the Salon, from Eugenia Lee and Hila Mehr.

Many thanks to our lead discussants and participants for joining us, and a special thank you to ThoughtWorks for hosting us and providing breakfast!

Technology Salons run under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this summary post. If you’d like to join future Salons to discuss these and related issues at the intersection of technology and development, sign up at Technology Salon.

Read Full Post »

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 3.34.23 AM

As Tom over at Humanosphere wrote a few days ago, there’s a cool initiative happening at Sheffield University that seeks to develop a global research agenda related to the post-2015 sustainable development goals process. (Disclaimer, I’m part of the steering committee.)

ID100: The Hundred Most Important Questions in International Development asks individuals and organizations from across policy, practice and academia to submit questions that address the world’s biggest environmental, political and socioeconomic problems. These will then be shortlisted down to a final set of 100 questions following a debate and voting process with representatives from development organizations and academia who will meet in July 2014. 

The final list of questions will be published as policy report and in a leading academic journal. More on the consultation methodology here. Similar crowdsourced priority-setting exercises have worked in biodiversity conservation, food security and other areas, and they have been instrumental in framing global research priorities for policy development and implementation.

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 3.36.06 AMAnyone can submit up to five questions related to key issues in international development that require more exploration. You are encouraged to involve colleagues in the formulation of these questions.

Please submit your questions by March 25th – and check the submission guidelines before formulating questions. More information on the project can be accessed on the ID100 website. Hashtag: #ID100.

Read Full Post »

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 6.14.40 PM

Migration has been a part of the human experience since the dawn of time, and populations have always moved in search of resources and better conditions. Today, unaccompanied children and youth are an integral part of national and global migration patterns, often leaving their place of origin due to violence, conflict, abuse, or other rights violations, or simply to seek better opportunities for themselves.

It is estimated that 33 million (or some 16 percent) of the total migrant population today is younger than age 
20. Child and adolescent migrants make up a significant proportion of the total population of migrants in Africa (28 percent), Asia (21 percent), Oceania (11 percent), Europe (11 percent), and the Americas (10 percent).

The issue of migration is central to the current political debate as well as to the development discussion, especially in conversations about the “post 2015” agenda. Though many organizations are working to improve children’s well-being in their home communities, prevention work with children and youth is not likely to end migration. Civil society organizations, together with children and youth, government, community members, and other stakeholders can help make migration safer and more productive for those young people who do end up on the move.

As the debate around migration rages, access to and use of ICTs is expanding exponentially around the globe. For this reason Plan International USA and the Oak Foundation felt it was an opportune time to take stock of the ways that ICTs are being used in the child and youth migration process.

Our new report, “Modern Mobility: the role of ICTs in child and youth migration” takes a look at:

  • how children and youth are using ICTs to prepare for migration; to guide and facilitate their journey; to keep in touch with families; to connect with opportunities for support and work; and to cope with integration, forced repatriation or continued movement; and
  • how civil society organizations are using ICTs to facilitate and manage their work; to support children and youth on the move; and to communicate and advocate for the rights of child and youth migrants.

In the Modern Mobility paper, we identify and provide examples of three core ways that child and youth migrants are using new ICTs during the different phases of the migration process:

  1. for communicating and connecting with families and friends
  2. for accessing information
  3. for accessing services

We then outline seven areas where we found CSOs are using ICTs in their work with child and youth migrants, and we offer some examples:

Ways that CSOs are using ICTs in their work with child and youth migrants.

Ways that CSOs are using ICTs in their work with child and youth migrants.

Though we were able to identify some major trends in how children and youth themselves use ICTs and how organizations are experimenting with ICTs in programming, we found little information on the impact that ICTs and ICT-enabled programs and services have on migrating children and youth, whether positive or negative. Most CSO practitioners that we talked with said that they had very little awareness of how other organizations or initiatives similar to their own were using ICTs. Most also said they did not know where to find orientation or guidance on good practice in the use of ICTs in child-centered programming, ICTs in protection work (aside from protecting children from online risks), or use of ICTs in work with children and young people at various stages of migration. Most CSO practitioners we spoke with were interested in learning more, sharing experiences, and improving their capacities to use ICTs in their work.

Based on Plan Finland’s “ICT-Enabled Development Guide” (authored by Hannah Beardon), the Modern Mobility report provides CSOs with a checklist to support thinking around the strategic use of ICTs in general.

ICT-enabled development checklist developed by Hannah Beardon for Plan International.

ICT-enabled development checklist developed by Hannah Beardon for Plan International.

We also offer a list of key considerations for practitioners who wish to incorporate new technologies into their work, including core questions to ask about access, age, capacity, conflict, connectivity, cost, disability, economic status, electricity, existing information ecosystems, gender, information literacy, language, literacy, power, protection, privacy, sustainability, and user-involvement.

Our recommendation for taking this area forward is to develop greater awareness and capacity among CSOs regarding the potential uses and risks of ICTs in work with children and youth on the move by:

  1. Establishing an active community of practice on ICTs and children and youth on the move.
  2. Mapping and sharing existing projects and programs.
  3. Creating a guide or toolbox on good practice for ICTs in work with children and youth on the move.
  4. Further providing guidance on how ICTs can help “normal” programs to reach out to and include children and youth on the move.
  5. Further documentation and development of an evidence base.
  6. Sharing and distributing this report for discussion and action.

Download the Modern Mobility report here.

We’d love comments and feedback, and information about examples or documentation/evidence that we did not come across while writing the report!

Read Full Post »

This is a cross-post from Tom Murphyeditor of the aid blog A View From the Cave. The original article can be found on Humanosphere. The post summarizes discussions at our November 21st New York City Technology Salon: Are Mobile Money Cash Grants the Future of Development?  If you’d like to join us for future Salons, sign up here.

by Tom Murphy

Decades ago, some of the biggest NGOs simply gave away money to individuals in communities. People lined up and were just given cash.

The once popular form of aid went out of fashion, but it is now making a comeback.

Over time, coordination became extremely difficult. Traveling from home to home costs time and money for the NGO and the same problem exists for recipients when they have to go to a central location. More significant was the shift in development thinking that said giving hand outs was causing long term damage.

The backlash against ‘welfare queens’ in the US, UK and elsewhere during the 1980s was reflected in international development programming. Problem was that it was all based on unproven theories of change and anecdotal evidence, rather than hard evidence.

Half a decade later, new research shows that just giving people money can be an effective way to build assets and even incomes. The findings were covered by major players like NPR and the Economist.

While exciting and promising, cash transfers are not a new tool in the development utility belt.

Various forms of transfers have emerged over the past decade. Food vouchers were used by the World Food Programme when responding to the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa. Like food stamps in the US, people could go buy food from local markets and get exactly what they need while supporting the local economy.

The differences have sparked a sometimes heated debate within the development community as to what the findings about cash transfers mean going forward. A Technology Salon hosted conversation at ThoughtWorks in New York City last week, featured some of the leading researchers and players in the cash transfer sector.

The salon style conversation featured Columbia University and popular aid blogger Chris Blattman, GiveDirectly co-founder and UCSD researcher Paul Neihaus and Plan USA CEO Tessie San Martin. The ensuing discussion, operating under the Chatham House Rule of no attribution, featured representatives from large NGOs, microfinance organizations and UN agencies.

Research from Kenya, Uganda and Liberia show both the promise and shortcomings of cash transfers. For example, giving out cash in addition to training was successful in generating employment in Northern Uganda. Another program, with the backing of the Ugandan government, saw success with the cash alone.

Cash transfers have been argued as the new benchmark for development and aid programs. Advocates in the discussion made the case that programs should be evaluated in terms of impact and cost-effectiveness against just giving people cash.

That idea saw some resistance. The research from Liberia, for example, showed that money given to street youth would not be wasted, but it was not sufficient to generate long-lasting employment or income. There are capacity problems and much larger issues that probably cannot be addressed by cash alone.

An additional concern is the unintended negative consequences caused by cash transfers. One example given was that of refugees in Syria. Money was distributed to families labeled for rent. Despite warnings not to label the transfer, the program went ahead.

As a result, rents increased. The money intended to help reduce the cost incurred by rent was rendered largely useless. One participant raised the concern that cash transfers in such a setting could be ‘taxed’ by rebels or government fighters. There is a potential that aid organizations could help fund fighting by giving unrestricted cash.

The discussion made it clear that the applications of cash transfers are far more nuanced than they might appear. Kenya saw success in part because of the ease of sending money to people through mobile phones. Newer programs in India, for example, rely on what are essentially ATM cards.

Impacts, admitted practitioners, can go beyond simple incomes. There has been care to make sure that implementing cash transfer programs to not dramatically change social structures in ways that cause problems for the community and recipients. In one case, giving women cash allowed for them to participate in the local markets, a benefit to everyone except for the existing shop oligarchs.

Governments in low and middle-income countries are seeing increasing pressure to establish social programs. The success of cash transfer programs in Brazil and Mexico indicate that it can be an effective way to lift people out of poverty. Testing is underway to bring about more efficient and context appropriate cash transfer schemes.

An important component in the re-emergence of cash transfers is looking back to previous efforts, said one NGO official. The individual’s organization is systematically looking back at communities where the NGO used to work in order to see what happened ten years later. The idea is to learn what impacts may or may not have been on that community in order to inform future initiatives.

“Lots of people have concerns about cash, but we should have concerns about all the programs we are doing,” said a participant.

The lessons from the cash transfer research shows that there is increasing need for better evidence across development and aid programs. Researchers in the group argued that the ease of doing evaluations is improving.

Read the “Storified” version of the Technology Salon on Mobiles and Cash Transfers here.

Read Full Post »

Back in May I participated in a discussion on if and how International Civil Society Organizations (ICSOs) are adapting to changes around them. Here’s my summary of the conversations: Can International Civil Society Organizations be nimble?

A final report from the meeting is ready (download Riding the Wave: A proposal for Boards and CEOs on how to prepare their organizations for disruptive change) and here’s a video summary:

I’m curious what other folks think about this topic and the analysis and recommendations in the report.

Read Full Post »

M4 Version 5[4]I’ve been looking around for a good read for the past several months and finding myself dissatisfied with the airport bookstore. So I was glad to get a review copy of J’s latest: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit.

I read it in one sitting on the plane home from a meeting about disruption, civil society and the capacity of international development/aid organizations to adapt, so it was through that lens that I consumed the book. It pretty much answered the question “can INGOs adapt?” (Spoiler alert: prognosis is not good.)

And make no mistake: These structural issues are universal. It’s not Oxfam or WAC or Save or CARE. You don’t escape this problem by moving to another organization or taking a different job in your current organization, because this is the nature of the aid industry itself.

J’s description of personal agendas, bureaucracy, competition, jostling for position, stressed local government workers, exhausted staff, and unrealistic demands from donors and headquarters is an insider’s view of why INGOs have a hard time adapting and changing. The book describes the complexity of aid and humanitarian work in detail, bringing in the conflicting push and pull of the different stakeholders.

Rather than complexity encouraging adaptation and organizations that are more “fit for purpose,” however, J’s main characters are trapped in complexity that paralyzes, breeds mediocrity, loses sight of the mission and rewards the “wrong” motives and decisions.

Aid is not broken because aid workers are cynical, hedonistic alcoholics. Aid workers are cynical alcoholics because aid is broken, and further, because they have been repeatedly slapped down by their own leaders for trying to make it better.

J does recognize the conflicts, however, and (with only a little bit of blame and harsh judgment), he shows the demands made on people at all levels of the aid machine:

Management and leadership are the easiest things in the world until you actually have to do them.

J does a good job of humanizing the aid worker and his or her personal and professional struggles within this dysfunctional system. He writes about how the passion for aid work conflicts with the personal choices each aid worker makes, most significantly when the addiction to aid work obliterates the possibility of having “normal” and healthy relationships with one’s family and home country society. The book also highlights the internal doubts and fears of self-aggrandizement that any self-reflective aid worker experiences:

…Suddenly Mary-Anne felt overwhelmed with the feeling that her career in the humanitarian world had thus far been built on so much self-important dishonesty….

….“You come here, you and your foreign friends. You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to instruct refugees about drinking enough water or where they should shit every day.” He snorted derisively. “These people were mapping the stars and perfecting mathematics while your ancestors were painting themselves blue and dancing naked around fires in the forest…. You children come here to patiently explain to Ethiopians about accountability and honesty… You think we need you to help us know right from wrong. You come here to ‘supervise’ people old enough to be your parents. My youngest daughter is your age. ”

Reading the book was like having a long conversation with J over Skype or beers where he offers you career advice and makes you feel better by acknowledging you that you are not the first person to experience internal conflict and self-doubt. There is a fair bit of J bestowing his wisdom on the reader, but I find that J normally has good insights and offers solid advice, so this did not bother me.

I did feel that the book was half-finished. Several of the characters introduced early in the book were not developed out in the rest of it. Given the “to be continued” on the last page, I assume that their stories will be picked up in the next book in the series. I also would have liked more about the setting and history woven in, and more active roles for some of the “local” characters, as well as a chance to get inside their heads and see their perspectives in more depth. This would have rounded the book out and brought it fully from the tongue-in-cheek harlequin romance novel style of J’s first book (Disastrous Passion) to a more solid kind of “historical fiction”.

Some have criticized the book for being aimed solely at those in the aid and development world and making too many “insider” assumptions. I suspect, however, that J purposely wrote it for “Expat Aid Workers,” and I didn’t find that to be a problem. Simplifying things for a mainstream audience would water the book down, making it less “real” for those working in the sector. This choice means that this book will not become a best seller outside of the industry — but I don’t think it is meant to.

I will note that the fact that I didn’t have a problem with the level of detail-that-only-an-aid-or-development-worker-would-appreciate probably means that I am sitting firmly in the category of “Misfit.” Read the book and you’ll understand what I mean!

Disclosures: I was provided with a free copy for review. I have known J for quite some time and consider him a friend, which may color my opinions about the book.

Read Full Post »

Imagery and stories used to frame issues of humanitarian development for advocacy and funding are often sensational and culturally disrespectful, representing those living in poverty as helpless victims in need, rather than as empowered and capable individuals.

Fueled by intense Twitter and blog discussions about this topic (which is often referred to as “Poverty Porn,”) a few years ago a number of us decided to work together to create a space for wider dialogue around issues of representation of the people that aid and development organizations support.

Screen Shot 2013-05-19 at 2.53.22 PM

Today we launch our multimedia platform Regarding Humanity or “Re: Hum.” The platform aims to engage practitioners, educators, and students in discussions on how to represent  communities we work with in relevant and respectful ways.

Re: Hum is a website and blog that explore how the way we see, listen and frame stories of “the poor” often strips individuals of their agency and creates a general sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. More respectful and relevant methods of seeing, listening and framing can help tell more nuanced stories that respect people and their complex realities.

The Re: Hum website will source content from a diverse set of authors and creators in order to bring a global perspective to the issue. It will serve as an educational resource and discussion forum to teach visual literacy, the importance of ethnography, and ways to maintain narrative integrity. We will be expanding to a discussion series, research, and an educational curriculum over time and as resources permit.

We invite you to take a quick look at Re: Hum (which is still a work-in-progress) and let us know your thoughts and suggestions on how to generate constructive conversation and learning on this issue!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 894 other followers