Archive for the ‘ICTs, mobile and technology’ Category

I had the privilege (no pun intended) of participating in the Art-a-Hack program via ThoughtWorks this past couple of months. Art-a-Hack is a creative space for artists and hackers to get together for 4 Mondays in June and work together on projects that involve art, tech and hacking. There’s no funding involved, just encouragement, support, and a physical place to help you carve out some time out for discovery and exploration.

I was paired up by the organizers with two others (Dmytri and Juan), and we embarked on a project. I had earlier submitted an idea of the core issues that I wanted to explore, and we mind-melded really well to come up with a plan to create something around them.

Here is our press release with links to the final product – WhiteSave.me. You can read our Artist Statement here and follow us on Twitter @whitesave.me. Feedback welcome, and please share if you think it’s worth sharing. Needless to say full responsibility for the project falls with the team, and it does not represent the views of any past, present or future employers or colleagues.


Announcing WhiteSave.me

WhiteSave.me is a revolutionary new platform that enables White Saviors to deliver privilege to non-Whites whenever and wherever they need it with the simple tap of a finger.

Today’s White guy is increasingly told “check your privilege.” He often asks himself “What am I supposed to do about my privilege? It’s not my fault I was born white! And really, I’m not a bad person!”

Until now, there has been no simple way for a White guy to be proactive in addressing the issue of his privilege. He’s been told that he benefits from biased institutions and that his privilege is related to historically entrenched power structures. He’s told to be an ally but advised to take a back seat and follow the lead from people of color. Unfortunately this is all complex and time consuming, and addressing privilege in this way is hard work.

We need to address the issue of White privilege now however – we can’t wait. Changing attitudes, institutions, policies and structures takes too damn long! What’s more, we can’t expect White men or our current systems to go through deep changes in order to address privilege and inequality at the roots. What we can do is leapfrog over what would normally require decades of grassroots social organizing, education, policy work, and behavior change and put the solution to White privilege directly into White men’s hands so that everyone can get back to enjoying the American dream.

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WhiteSave.me – an innovative solution that enables White men to quickly and easily deliver privilege to the underprivileged, requiring only a few minutes of downtime, at their discretion and convenience.

Though not everyone realizes it, White privilege affects a large number of White people, regardless of their age or political persuasion. White liberals generally agree that they are privileged, but most are simply tired of hearing about it and having to deal with it. Conservative White men believe their privilege is all earned, but most also consider it possible to teach people of color about deep-seated American values and traditions and the notion of personal responsibility. All told, what most White people want is a simple, direct way to address their privilege once and for all. Our research has confirmed that most White people would be willing to spend a few minutes every now and then sharing their privilege, as long as it does not require too much effort.

WhiteSave.me is a revolutionary and innovative way of addressing this issue. (Read Our Story here to learn more about our discovery moments!) We’ve designed a simple web and mobile platform that enables White men to quickly and easily deliver a little bit of their excess privilege to non-Whites, all through a simple and streamlined digital interface. Liberal Whites can assuage guilt and concern about their own privilege with the tap of a finger. Conservatives can feel satisfied that they have passed along good values to non-Whites. Libertarians can prove through direct digital action that tech can resolve complex issues without government intervention and via the free market. And non-White people of any economic status, all over the world, will benefit from immediate access to White privilege directly through their devices. Everyone wins – with no messy disruption of the status quo!

How it Works

Visit our “how it works” page for more information, or simply “try it now” and your first privilege delivery session is on us! Our patented Facial Color Recognition Algorithm (™) will determine whether you qualify as a White Savior, based on your skin color. (Alternatively it will classify you as a non-White ‘Savee’). Once we determine your Whiteness, you’ll be automatically connected via live video with a Savee who is lacking in White privilege so that you can share some of your good sense and privileged counsel with him or her, or periodically alleviate your guilt by offering advice and a one-off session of helping someone who is less privileged.

Our smart business model guarantees WhiteSave.me will be around for as long as it’s needed, and that we can continue innovating with technology to iterate new solutions as technology advances. WhiteSave.me is free for White Saviors to deliver privilege, and non-Whites can choose from our Third World Freemium Model (free), our Basic Model ($9/month), or our Premium Model ($29/month). To generate additional revenue, our scientific analysis of non-White user data will enable us to place targeted advertisements that allow investors and partners to extract value from the Base of the Pyramid. Non-Profit partners are encouraged to engage WhiteSave.me as their tech partner for funding proposals, thereby appearing innovative and guaranteeing successful grant revenue.

See our FAQs for additional information and check out our Success Stories for more on how WhiteSave.me, in just its first few months, has helped thousands to deliver privilege all over the world.

Try It Now and you’ll be immediately on your way to delivering privilege through our quick and easy digital solution!

Contact help@whitesave.me for more information. And please help us spread the word. Addressing the issue of White privilege has never been so easy!


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The July 7th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Public Consultation. Our lead discussants were Tiago Peixoto, Team Lead, World Bank Digital Engagement Unit; Michele Brandt, Interpeace’s Director of Constitution-Making for Peace; and Ravi Karkara, Co-Chair, Policy Strategy Group, World We Want Post-2015 Consultation. Discussants covered the spectrum of local, national and global public consultation.

We started off by delving into the elements of a high-quality public consultation. Then we moved into whether, when, and how ICTs can help achieve those elements, and what the evidence base has to say about different approaches.

Elements and principles of high quality public participation

Our first discussant started by listing elements that need to be considered, whether a public consultation process is local, national or global, and regardless of whether it incorporates:

  • Sufficient planning
  • Realistic time frames
  • Education for citizens to participate in the process
  • Sufficient time and budget to gather views via different mechanisms
  • Interest in analyzing and considering the views
  • Provision of feedback about what is done with the consultation results

Principles underlying public consultation processes are that they should be:

  • Inclusive
  • Representative
  • Transparent
  • Accountable

Public consultation process should also be accompanied by widespread public education processes to ensure that people are prepared to a) provide their opinions and b) aware of the wider context in which the consultation takes place, she said. Tech and media can be helpful for spreading the news that the consultation is taking place, creating the narrative around it, and encouraging participation of groups who are traditional excluded, such as girls and women or certain political, ethnic, economic or religious groups, a Salon participant added.

Technology increases scale but limits opportunities for empathy, listening and learning

When thinking about integrating technologies into national public consultation processes, we need to ask ourselves why we want to encourage participation and consultation, what we want to achieve by it, and how we can best achieve it. It’s critical to set goals and purpose for a national consultation, rather than to conduct one just to tick a box, continued the discussant.

The pros and cons of incorporating technology into public consultations are contextual. Technology can be useful for bringing more views into the consultation process, however face-to-face consultation is critical for stimulating empathy in decision makers. When people in positions of power actually sit down and listen to their constituencies, it can send a very powerful message to people across the nation that their ideas and voices matter. National consultation also helps to build consensus and capacity to compromise. If done according to the above-mentioned principles, public consultation can legitimize national processes and improve buy-in. When leaders are open to listening, it also transforms them, she said.

At times, however, those with leadership or in positions of power do not believe that people can participate; they do not believe that the people have the capacity to have an opinion about a complicated political process, for example the creation of a new constitution. For this reason there is often resistance to national level consultations from multilateral or bilateral donors, politicians, the elites of a society, large or urban non-governmental organizations, and political leaders. Often when public consultation is suggested as part of a constitution making process, it is rejected because it can slow down the process. External donors may want a quick process for political reasons, and they may impose deadlines on national leaders that do not leave sufficient time for a quality consultation process.

Polls often end up being one-off snapshots or popularity contests

One method that is seen as a quick way to conduct a national consultation is polling. Yet, as Salon participants discussed, polls may end up being more like a popularity contest than a consultation process. Polls offer limited space for deeper dialogue or preparing those who have never been listened to before to make their voices heard. Polling may also raise expectations that whatever “wins” will be acted on, yet often there are various elements to consider when making decisions. So it’s important to manage expectations about what will be done with people’s responses and how much influence they will have on decision-making. Additionally, polls generally offers a snapshot of how people feel at a distinct point in time, but it may be important to understand what people are thinking at various moments throughout a longer-term national process, such as constitution making.

In addition to the above, opinion polls often reinforce the voices of those who have traditionally had a say, whereas those who have been suffering or marginalized for years, especially in conflict situations, may have a lot to say and a need to be listened to more deeply, explained the discussant. “We need to compress the vertical space between the elites and the grassroots, and to be sure we are not just giving people a one-time chance to participate. What we should be doing is helping to open space for dialogue that continues over time. This should be aimed at setting a precedent that citizen engagement is important and that it will continue even after a goal, such as constitution writing, is achieved,” said the discussant.

In the rush to use new technologies, often we forget about more traditional ones like radio, added one Salon participant, who shared an example of using radio and face to face meetings to consult with boys and girls on the Afghan constitution. Another participant suggested we broaden our concept of technology. “A plaza or a public park is actually a technology,” he noted, and these spaces can be conducive to dialogue and conversation. It was highlighted that processes of dialogue between a) national government and the international community and b) national government and citizens, normally happen in parallel and at odds with one another. “National consultations have historically been organized by a centralized unit, but now these kinds of conversations are happening all the time on various channels. How can those conversations be considered part of a national level consultation?” wondered one participant.

Aggregation vs deliberation

There is plenty of research on aggregation versus deliberation, our next discussant pointed out, and we know that the worst way to determine how many beans are in a jar is to deliberate. Aggregation (“crowd sourcing”) is a better way to find that answer. But for a trial, it’s not a good idea to have people vote on whether someone is guilty or not. “Between the jar and the jury trial, however,” he said, “we don’t know much about what kinds of policy issues lend themselves better to aggregation or to deliberation.”

For constitution making, deliberation is probably better, he said. But for budget allocation, it may be that aggregation is better. Research conducted across 132 countries indicated that “technology systematically privileges those who are better educated, male, and wealthier, even if you account for the technology access gaps.” This discussant mentioned that in participatory budgeting, people tend to just give up and let the educated “win” whereas maybe if it were done by a simple vote it would be more inclusive.

One Salon participated noted that it’s possible to combine deliberation and aggregation. “We normally only put things out for a vote after they’ve been identified through a deliberative process,” he said, “and we make sure that there is ongoing consultation.” Others lamented that decision makers often only want to see numbers – how many voted for what – and they do not accept more qualitative consultation results because they usually happen with fewer people participating. “Congress just wants to see numbers.”

Use of technology biases participation towards the elite

Some groups are using alternative methods for participatory democracy work, but the technology space has not thought much about this and relies on self-selection for the most part, said the discussant, and results end up being biased towards wealthier, urban, more educated males. Technology allows us to examine behaviors by looking at data that is registered in systems and to conduct experiments, however those doing these experiments need to be more responsible, and those who do not understand how to conduct research using technology need to be less empirical. “It’s a unique moment to build on what we’ve learned in the past 100 years about participation,” he said. Unfortunately, many working in the field of technology-enabled consultation have not done their research.

These biases towards wealthier, educated, urban males are very visible in Europe and North America, because there is so much connectivity, yet whether online or offline, less educated people participate less in the political process. In ‘developing’ countries, the poor usually participate more than the wealthy, however. So when you start using technology for consultation, you often twist that tendency and end up skewing participation toward the elite. This is seen even when there are efforts to proactively reach out to the poor.

Internal advocacy and an individual’s sense that he or she is capable of making a judgment or influencing an outcome is key for participation, and this is very related to education, time spent in school and access to cultural assets. With those who are traditionally marginalized, these internal assets are less developed and people are less confident. In order to increase participation in consultations, it’s critical to build these internal skills among more marginalized groups.

Combining online and offline public consultations

Our last discussant described how a global public consultation was conducted on a small budget for the Sustainable Development Goals, reaching an incredible 7.5 million people worldwide. Two clear goals of the consultation were that it be inclusive and non-discriminatory. In the end, 49% who voted identified as female, 50% as male and 1% as another gender. Though technology played a huge part in the process, the majority of people who voted used a paper ballot. Others participated using SMS, in locally-run community consultation processes, or via the website. Results from the voting were visualized on a data dashboard/data curation website so that it would be easier to analyze them, promote them, and encourage high-level decision makers to take them into account.

Some of the successful elements of this online/offline process included that transparency was a critical aspect. The consultation technology was created as open source so that those wishing to run their own consultations could open it, modify it, and repackage it however they wanted to suit their local context. Each local partner could manage their own URL and track their own work, and this was motivating to them.

Other key learning was that a conscious effort has to be made to bring in voices of minority groups; investment in training and capacity development was critical for those running local consultations; honesty and transparency about the process (in other words, careful management of expectations); and recognize that there will be highs and lows in the participation cycle (be sensitive to people’s own cycles and available time to participate).

The importance of accountability

Accountability was a key aspect for this process. Member states often did not have time to digest the results of the consultation, and those running it had to find ways to capture the results in short bursts and visually simple graphics so that the consultation results would be used for decision making. This required skill and capacity for not only gathering and generating data but also curating it for the decision-making audience.

It was also important to measure the impact of the consultation – were people’s voices included in the decision-making process and did it make a difference? And were those voices representative of a wide range of people? Was the process inclusive?

Going forward, in order to build on the consultation process and to support the principle of accountability, the initiative will shift focus to become a platform for public participation in monitoring and tracking the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Political will and responsiveness

A question came up about the interest of decision-makers in actually listening. “Leaders often are not at all interested in what people have to say. They are more concerned with holding onto their power, and if leaders have not agreed to a transparent and open process of consultation, it will not work. You can’t make them listen if they don’t want to. If there is no political will, then the whole consultation process will just be propaganda and window dressing,” one discussant commented. Another Salon participant what can be done to help politicians see the value of listening. “In the US, for example, we have lobbyists, issues groups, PACs, etc., so our politicians are being pushed on and demanded from all sides. If consultation is going to matter, you need to look at the whole system.” “How can we develop tools that can help governments sort through all these pressures and inputs to make good decisions?” wondered one participant.

Another person mentioned Rakesh Rajani’s work, noting that participation is mainly about power. If participation is not part of a wider system change, part of changing power structures, then using technology for participation is just a new tool to do the same old thing. If the process is not transparent and accountable, or if you engage and do not deliver anything based on the engagement, then you will lose future interest to engage.

Responsiveness was also raised. How many of these tech-fueled participation processes have led to governments actually changing, doing something different? One discussant said that evidence of impact of ICT-enabled participation processes was found in only 25 cases, and of those only 5 could show any kind of impact. All the others had very unclear impact – it was ambiguous. Did using ICTs make a difference? There was really no evidence of any. Another commented that clearly technology will only help if government is willing and able to receive consultation input and act on it. We need to find ways to help governments to do that, noted another person.

As always, conversation could have continued on for quite some time but our 2 hours was up. For more on ICTs and public consultations, here is a short list of resources that we compiled. Please add any others that would be useful! And as a little plug for a great read on technology and its potential in development and political work overall, I highly recommend checking out Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology from Kentaro Toyama. Kentaro’s “Law of Amplification” is quite relevant in the space of technology-enabled participation, in that technology amplifies existing human behaviors and tendencies, and benefits those who are already primed to benefit while excluding those who have been traditionally excluded. Hopefully we’ll get Kentaro in for a Tech Salon in the Fall!

Thanks to our lead discussants, Michele, Tiago and Ravi, and to Thoughtworks for their generous hosting of the Salon! Salons are conducted under Chatham House Rule so no attribution has been made in this post. Sign up here if you’d like to receive Technology Salon invitations.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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