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

Some of the key points raised at the Salon included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last week’s Technology Salon New York City touched on ethics in technology for democracy initiatives. We heard from lead discussants Malavika Jayaram, Berkman Center for Internet and SocietyIvan Sigal, Global Voices; and Amilcar Priestley, Afrolatin@ Project. Though the topic was catalyzed by the Associated Press’ article on ‘Zunzuneo’ (a.k.a. ‘Cuban Twitter’) and subsequent discussions in the press and elsewhere, we aimed to cover some of the wider ethical issues encountered by people and organizations who implement technology for democracy programs.

Salons are off the record spaces, so no attribution is made in this post, but I’ve summarized the discussion points here:

First up: Zunzuneo

The media misinterpreted much of the Zunzuneo story. Zunzuneo was not a secret mission, according to one Salon participant, as it’s not in the remit of USAID to carry out covert operations. The AP article conflated a number of ideas regarding how USAID works and the contracting mechanisms that were involved in this case, he said. USAID and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) frequently disguise members, organizations, and contractors that work for it on the ground for security reasons. (See USAID’s side of the story here). This may still be an ethical question, but it is not technically “spying.” The project was known within the OTI and development community, but on a ‘need to know’ basis. It was not a ‘fly by night’ operation; it was more a ‘quietly and not very effectively run project.’

There were likely ethics breaches in Zunzuneo, from a legal standpoint. It’s not clear whether the data and phone numbers collected from the Cuban public for the project were obtained in a legal or ethical way. Some reports say they were obtained through a mid-level employee (a “Cuban engineer who had gotten the phone list” according to the AP article). (Note: I spoke separately to someone close to the project who told me that user opt-in/opt-out and other standard privacy protocols were in place). It’s also not entirely clear whether, as the AP states, the user information collected was being categorized into segments who were loyal or disloyal to the Cuban government, information which could put users at risk if found out.

Zunzuneo took place in a broader historical and geo-political context. As one person put it, the project followed Secretary Clinton’s speeches on Internet Freedom. There was a rush to bring technology into the geopolitical space, and ‘the articulation of why technology was important collided with a bureaucratic process in USAID and the State Department (the ‘F process’) that absorbed USAID into the State Department and made development part of the State Department’s broader political agenda.’ This agenda had been in the works for quite some time, and was part of a wider strategy of quietly moving into development spaces and combining development, diplomacy, intelligence and military (defense), the so-called 3 D’s.

Implementers failed to think through good design, ethics and community aspects of the work. In a number of projects of this type, the idea was that if you give people technology, they will somehow create bottom up pressure for political social change. As one person noted, ‘in the Middle East, as a counter example, the tech was there to enable and assist people who had spent 8-10 years building networks. The idea that we can drop tech into a space and an uprising will just happen and it will coincidentally push the US geopolitical agenda is a fantasy.’ Often these kinds of programs start with a strategic communications goal that serves a political end of the US Government. They are designed with the idea that a particular input equals some kind of a specific result down the chain. The problem comes when the people doing the seeding of the ideas and inputs are not familiar with the context they will be operating in. They are injecting inputs into a space that they don’t understand. The bigger ethical question is: Why does this thought process prevail in development? Much of that answer is found in US domestic politics and the ways that initiatives get funded.

Zunzuneo was not a big surprise for Afrolatino organizations. According to one discussant, Afrolatino organizations were not surprised when the Zunzuneo article came out, given the geopolitical history and the ongoing presence of the US in Latin America. Zunzuneo was seen as a 21st Century version of what has been happening for decades. Though it was criticized, it was not seen as particularly detrimental. Furthermore, the Afrolatino community (within the wider Latino community) has had a variety of relationships with the US over time – for example, some Afrolatino groups supported the Contras. Many Afrolatino groups have felt that they were not benefiting overall from the mestizo governments who have held power. In addition, much of Latin America’s younger generation is less tainted by the Cold War mentality, and does not see US involvement in the region as necessarily bad. Programs like Zunzuneo come with a lot of money attached, so often wider concerns about their implications are not in the forefront because organizations need to access funding. Central American and Caribbean countries are only just entering into a phase of deeper analysis of digital citizenship, and views and perceptions on privacy are still being developed.

Perceptions of privacy

There are differences in perception when it comes to privacy and these perceptions are contextual. They vary within and across countries and communities based on age, race, gender, economic levels, comfort with digital devices, political perspective and past history. Some older people, for example, are worried about the privacy violation of having their voice or image recorded, because the voice, image and gaze hold spiritual value and power. These angles of privacy need to be considered as we think through what privacy means in different contexts and adapt our discourse accordingly.

Privacy is hard to explain, as one discussant said: ‘There are not enough dead bodies yet, so it’s hard to get people interested. People get mad when the media gets mad, and until an issue hits the media, it may go unnoticed. It’s very hard to conceptualize the potential harm from lack of privacy. There may be a chilling effect but it’s hard to measure. The digital divide comes in as well, and those with less exposure may have trouble understanding devices and technology. They will then have even greater trouble understanding beyond the device to data doubles, disembodied information and de-anonymization, which are about 7 levels removed from what people can immediately see. Caring a lot about privacy can get you labeled as paranoid or a crazy person in many places.’

Fatalism about privacy can also hamper efforts. In the developing world, many feel that everything is corrupt and inept, and that there is no point in worrying about privacy and security. ‘Nothing ever works anyway, so even if the government wanted to spy on us, they’d screw it up,’ is the feeling. This is often the attitude of human rights workers and others who could be at greatest risk from privacy breaches or data collection, such as that which was reportedly happening within Zunzuneo. Especially among populations and practitioners who have less experience with new technologies and data, this can create large-scale risk.

Intent, action, context and consequences

Good intentions with little attention to privacy vs data collection with a hidden political agenda. Where are the lines when data that are collected for a ‘good cause’ (for example, to improve humanitarian response) might be used for a different purpose that puts vulnerable people at risk? What about data that are collected with less altruistic intentions? What about when the two scenarios overlap? Data might be freely given or collected in an emergency that would be considered a privacy violation in a ‘development’ setting, or the data collection may lead to a privacy violation post-emergency. Often, slapping the ‘obviously good and unarguably positive’ label of ‘Internet freedom’ on something implies that it’s unquestionably positive when it may in fact be part of a political agenda with a misleading label. There is a long history of those with power collecting data that helps them understand and/or control those with less power, as one Salon participant noted, and we need to be cognizant of that when we think about data and privacy.

US Government approaches to political development often take an input/output approach, when, in fact, political development is not the same as health development. ‘In political work, there is no clear and clean epidemiological goal we are trying to reach,’ noted a Salon participant. Political development is often contentious and the targets and approaches are very different than those of health. When a health model and rhetoric is used to work on other development issues, it is misleading. The wholesale adoption of these kinds of disease model approaches leaves people and communities out of the decision making process about their own development. Similarly, the rhetoric of strategic communications and its inclusion into the development agenda came about after the War on Terror, and it is also a poor fit for political development. The rhetoric of ‘opening’ and ‘liberating’ data is similar. These arguments may work well for one kind of issue, but they are not transferable to a political agenda. One Salon participant pointed out the rhetoric of the privatization model also, and explained that a profound yet not often considered implication of the privatization of services is that once a service passes over to the private sector, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not apply, and citizens and human rights organizations lose FOIA as a tool. Examples included the US prison system and the Blackwater case of several years ago.

It can be confusing for implementers to know what to do, what tools to use, what funding to accept and when it is OK to bring in an outside agenda. Salon participants provided a number of examples where they had to make choices and felt ethics could have been compromised. Is it OK to sign people up on Facebook or Gmail during an ICT and education project, given these companies’ marketing and privacy policies? What about working on aid transparency initiatives in places where human rights work or crime reporting can get people killed or individual philanthropists/donors might be kidnapped or extorted? What about a hackathon where the data and solutions are later given to a government’s civilian-military affairs office? What about telling LGBT youth about a social media site that encourages LGBT youth to connect openly with one another (in light of recent harsh legal penalties against homosexuality)? What about employing a user-centered design approach for a project that will eventually be overlaid on top of a larger platform, system or service that does not pass the privacy litmus test? Is it better to contribute to improving healthcare while knowing that your software system might compromise privacy and autonomy because it sits on top of a biometric system, for example? Participants at the Salon face these ethical dilemmas every day, and as one person noted, ‘I wonder if I am just window dressing something that will look and feel holistic and human-centered, but that will be used to justify decisions down the road that are politically negative or go against my values.’ Participants said they normally rely on their own moral compass, but clearly many Salon participants are wrestling with the potential ethical implications of their actions.

What we can do? Recommendations from Salon participants

Work closely with and listen to local partners, who should be driving the process and decisions. There may be a role for an outside perspective, but the outside perspective should not trump the local one. Inculcate and support local communities to build their own tools, narratives, and projects. Let people set their own agendas. Find ways to facilitate long-term development processes around communities rather than being subject to agendas from the outside.

Consider this to be ICT for Discrimination and think in every instance and every design decision about how to dial down discrimination. Data lead to sorting, and data get lumped into clusters. Find ways during the design process to reduce the discrimination that will come from that sorting and clustering process. The ‘Do no harm’ approach is key. Practitioners and designers should also be wary of the automation of development and the potential for automated decisions to be discriminatory.

Call out hypocrisy. Those of us who sit at Salons or attend global meetings hold tremendous privilege and power as compared to most of the rest of the world. ‘It’s not landless farmers or disenfranchised young black youth in Brazil who get to attend global meetings,’ said one Salon attendee. ‘It’s people like us. We need to be cognizant of the advantage we have as holders of power.’ Here in the US, the participant added, we need to be more aware of what private sector US technology companies are doing to take advantage of and maintain their stronghold in the global market and how the US government is working to allow US corporations to benefit disproportionately from the current Internet governance structure.

Use a rights-based approach to data and privacy to help to frame these issues and situations. Disclosure and consent are sometimes considered extraneous, especially in emergency situations. People think ‘this might be the only time I can get into this disaster or conflict zone, so I’m going to Hoover up as much data as possible without worrying about privacy.’ On the other hand, sometimes organizations are paternalistic and make choices for people about their own privacy. Consent and disclosure are not new issues; they are merely manifested in new ways as new technology changes the game and we cannot guarantee anonymity or privacy any more for research subjects. There is also a difference between information a person actively volunteers and information that is passively collected and used without a person’s knowledge. Framing privacy in a human rights context can help place importance on both processes and outcomes that support people’s rights to control their own data and that increase empowerment.

Create a minimum standard for privacy. Though we may not be able to determine a ceiling for privacy, one Salon participant said we should at least consider a floor or a minimum standard. Actors on the ground will always feel that privacy standards are a luxury because they have little know-how and little funding, so creating and working within an ethical standard should be a mandate from donors. The standard could be established as an M&E criterion.

Establish an ethics checklist to decide on funding sources and create policies and processes that help organizations to better understand how a donor or sub-donor would access and/or use data collected as part of a project or program they are funding. This is not always an easy solution, however, especially for cash-strapped local organizations. In India, for example, organizations are legally restricted from receiving certain types of funding based on government concerns that external agencies are trying to bring in Western democracy and Western values. Local organizations have a hard time getting funding for anti-censorship or free speech efforts. As one person at the Salon said, ‘agencies working on the ground are in a bind because they can’t take money from Google because it’s tainted, they can’t take money from the State Department because it’s imperialism and they can’t take money from local donors because there are none.’

Use encryption and other technology solutions. Given the low levels of understanding and awareness of these tools, more needs to be done so that more organizations learn how to use them, and they need to be made simpler, more accessible and user-friendly. ‘Crypto Parties’ can help get organizations familiar with encryption and privacy, but better outreach is needed so that organizations understand the relevance of encryption and feel welcome in tech-heavy environments.

Thanks to participants and lead discussants for the great discussions and to ThoughtWorks for hosting us at their offices!

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

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We looked at the role of mobiles in youth financial inclusion at our March 11th Technology Salon in New York City. Tim Nourse, Making Cents; Peter Goldstein, Intermedia; and Jamie Zimmerman, Bankable Frontier Associates; joined as lead discussants.

Though mobile financial services are seen by many as inevitable, some Salon participants felt that, like in so many other ‘mobiles for xxxx’ areas, we were long on enthusiasm and short on evidence and successful examples. Are we just too early in the game, as with so much of ICT4D? Emerging research on youth demand for mobile financial services may help answer some of those questions, but many other questions remain.

What do we mean by youth financial inclusion?

The Salon started with a quick overview of the terms “financial inclusion” and ‘youth.’ One lead discussant emphasized that the idea of ‘youth’ is context specific. According to the UN, “youth” are people between 15 and 24 years old, though in many countries this can extend to age 30 or 35. Segmentation within this wide age range is important when designing programs because of varying needs, demands, and concerns within age subsets. Using a gender lens is also critical, because young women and young men have different needs, concerns, barriers, interests and experiences. Cultural norms about girls’ and young women’s access to and use of assets and resources, financial services, and mobiles also come into play and need to be well-understood. When discussing youth financial inclusion, it’s useful to talk about the age ranges of 15-17 and 18-24, because in most countries 18 is the legal age at which youth can enter into a formal financial system, sign contracts, and purchase a SIM card in their own name. Program design, challenges faced, and workable business models may look quite different for these two age groups.

The term ‘youth financial services’ includes a full range of services (credit, savings, insurance, money transfer and payments) that help youth build assets. In other words, financial services go far beyond mobile money transfers. Most youth in developing nations are engaged in some kind of livelihood or education, and access to financial services can help them achieve goals in both arenas. It is important to reach youth with financial education when they are adolescents, as they are more inclined to form good habits if they are engaged early on. Availability of services at specific transition points in youth’s lifecycles when they are making serious decisions is another key to establishing good long-term financial habits. It can be difficult, however, to convince banking institutions to develop a menu of financial services for youth because few successful business models exist for youth-focused financial products and services. Savings, account balances and demand for credit tend to be lower among youth, so serving the youth market profitably can be difficult. Strategic rationales and successful business cases around expanded access to youth financial services are needed.

Emerging guidelines for good practice in design and implementation of youth-inclusive financial services being developed by Making Cents include:

  • Involve youth in market research and product development
  • Develop products and services that represent the diversity of youth
  • Ensure youth have safe and supportive spaces
  • Provide or link youth with complementary non-financial services
  • Focus on core competencies and collaborate with youth organizations to ensure holistic programs
  • Involve communities to reinforce and enhance the effectiveness of programming
  • Establish a strategic rational and ensure institutional readiness for serving youth

Mobiles and youth financial inclusion

Many have high hopes around the role of mobile phones in enhancing and expanding youth financial services. Mobiles may allow financial institutions to lower costs for financial products and thus enable new and profitable business models. In addition to providing direct services, mobiles might be able to improve the reach and impact of financial education aimed at youth, and encourage particular behaviors and habit formation. For example, SMS reminders are being used to ‘nudge’ youth towards particular actions related to savings and smarter purchases.

A report called “Beyond the Buzz” however, highlight some of the major challenges when it comes to the role of mobile and financial inclusion for the under 18 population. As explained by one lead discussant (also one of the report’s authors), most youth surveyed in Sub Saharan Africa believed mobile money would be far more important for financial inclusion in the future than SMS. Non-profit organization practitioners and financial institutions surveyed for the report expressed strong belief in the potential of mobile money and other mobile services for broadening youth financial inclusion.

Enthusiasm is quite high, though there has been little success thus far, and the evidence on the ground is not very encouraging. Even though most people surveyed felt that mobile money was the future and would change everything, mobiles are actually being used far more commonly for financial education (SMS and nudges) than for providing youth access to financial services.

So what are the obstacles?

Some of the challenges that prevent mobile financial services from taking off include:

  • Age restrictions and regulations. In most countries, a young person cannot obtain an identity card until the age of 18, meaning access to a bank account, a SIM and/or mobile money is restricted. Many young people get around this obstacle by borrowing a handset or asking a parent or guardian for support. When phones do not belong to youth, however, SMS ‘nudges’ for financial education may not reach them. In addition, the lack of a private handset may discourage youth from using mobile to manage their money due to the potential loss of privacy and control over their money. Children under the age of 18 are a protected group, and many countries have regulations around collecting information about or marketing to this population. Child protection policies and legal regulations are a positive thing, however, they can also create barriers to financial education and financial services for under 18s.
  • Lack of data. One discussant noted that age-disaggregated data from mPesa’s mobile money service would probably show that older youth (ages 18-30) are the majority of the mobile money users. The lack of data on youth, however, makes it difficult for non-profit organizations to develop targeted and demand-led financial products and services. Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have data, yet their data are not easy to access. One Salon discussant told of a project where it took over two and a half years to obtain legal permission from an MNO to access youth data for an RCT on the impact of SMS on youth savings.
  • Industry barriers. Successful and sustainable business models for youth financial services are few and far between. The likelihood of low financial returns from youth make most banks uninterested in approaching the youth ‘base of the pyramid’ market. Institutions that make money from youth financial services are most likely making it from 24 and 25 year olds, not under 18s. Explaining the potential benefits of a long-term business model (that you may need to take a loss earlier on to gain from this segment later) to financial institutions is difficult. In addition, mobile operators are not fully empowered to launch mobile financial services on their own, even if they wanted to, because of government regulations (in some cases, added one Salon participant, because the banking industry actively lobbies government to avoid losing business to MNOs).

Long on enthusiasm and short on examples?

Considering all the obstacles, why are hopes so high when it comes to mobiles and youth financial inclusion? Some consider that MNOs have a fundamental advantage over banks in countries where the majority of people have access to a mobile phone yet have never used a bank or formal financial service. In many parts of the world, banking systems are unavailable and/or inefficient, and people do not trust formal systems or large bureaucracies. When it comes to mobile, however, use and availability of handsets, widespread recognition of mobile operator brands and services, and familiarity with the notion of transferring airtime mean that mobile money is a fairly easy idea for people to grasp and thus it may be easier to generate trust in mobile as a means to access financial services.

The impact of mobile money and mobiles on financial inclusion is difficult to evaluate rigorously, however, noted one Salon participant. The volume of money is very small, so we should have very low expectations in that regard. If 20% of a target population uses a financial service or product, we should be excited because we see an individual having more control over and information on their own financial transactions. This enables them to make better decisions over their finances. Mobile financial services are likely doing more good than harm, even if a large, broad-based impact study is not available. Another Salon participant pointed out, however, that market research to inform good product and service offerings is very much lacking, and a concerted effort is needed to document and research this area.

A large study is being conducted with youth ages 15-19 and 20-24 on youth demand for mobile money and financial services in several African and Asian countries as part of the Financial Inclusion Insights program, said one lead discussant, and data will be available to the public. The majority of youth surveyed for the study said that they did not use a bank because they did not have enough money to do so. In five years, according to the discussant, mobile financial products will be accessible in a wide range of countries and the number of youth using them is increasing. Research shows that urban youth tend to adopt these products more often than older people or rural populations, and there is a male-female gap, where more males are accessing and using them. In general, younger populations have been positive about mobile financial products and services.

An inevitable future?

Despite the dearth of successful business models, evidence, and large-scale sustainable examples, some Salon participants felt that we are entering a new era where financial products and services will be widely available through the mobile phone. As one person explained, it’s a question of moving with the times or becoming obsolete. In Southern African countries, she said, the move is towards rolling out products and services that provide holistic financial inclusion — credit, savings and insurance. In addition, municipal and utility bill paying is getting people accustomed to mobile financial services via MNOs. Banks who are running at a low level of innovation will lose out if they are not capable of providing these kinds of time-saving services through mobile phones.

So what should organizations be doing to prepare youth to widely access and use mobile financial services? Should financial education programs include content about mobile financial services, offerings and fees, and potential risks and benefits for youth of using them? Might mobile gaming be a way of getting around some of the barriers for under 18s, as one Salon participant suggested? In this case, children could practice important concepts around savings and loans, types of bank accounts, fee structures for banking, etc., without assuming any real risk.

Some broader questions linger around mobile financial services for youth as well: What impact does (or will) mobile financial services have on people’s lives and wellbeing? Will they impact how youth invest and manage their money? Will they improve redistribution of resources to households? Will they end up pulling a large segment of the population into unsustainable systems and backfire?  So far there’s no clear answer, but watch this space.

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A list of resources, links, projects, organizations and research on the topic is here. Please add anything that’s missing!

Thanks to participants and lead discussants for the great discussions and to Population Council for hosting us at their offices for this Salon. Thanks also to Peter Goldstein for suggesting the topic and to Somto Fab-Ukozor for support with notes and the summary. Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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

This post summarizes key discussions from both Salons.

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

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

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

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

How can big data support development?

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

What’s the link between big data and resilience?

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

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

Can ivory tower big data approaches contribute to resilience?

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

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

Can data really empower people?

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

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

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

Should we all jump on the data bandwagon?

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

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

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

What can we do to move forward?

Some potential actions for moving forward included:

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

In conclusion?

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

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

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

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This is a guest post from Jamie Narkunski, who works as a UX consultant at ThoughtWorks NYC.

by Jamie Narkunski

IMAG0304

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

I recently attended a Tech Salon where the subject of grant applications came up.  Part of the conversation revolved around the issue that the complexity, format, and investment required in the traditional grant application process acts as a barrier for organizations that lack the resources or experience needed to complete the process in a competitive manner, leading to the exclusion or weeding out of potential target applicants in some cases.

The conversation made me think of a recent grant I was a part of:  The Digital Prototype Opportunity.  ThoughtWorks partnered with Parsons New School and Blue Ridge Foundation to host a grant for $100k in funds + $350k worth of development work. The grant was split across two winners. The grant application was open to organizations who had an existing social impact innovation but wanted to use technology to extend and/or deepen their impact in their social space.

Because there were organizations of varying sizes and capabilities involved, we wanted to try to level the playing field as best we could without negatively impacting the applicants.  We started the process with an announcement and invitation to come to our offices for a two-hour workshop where we helped the organizations explore their current process flows and the users they serve, and to identify where they could make the most impact with the addition of technology.

The interest came to around 120 individual organizations. After the first workshop we had the organizations submit a short proposal based around the work done in the workshop or work they’d done based on the format of the workshop we had introduced to them.  The proposals we received were, for the most part, to the point and included a direct ask and perceived impact.  The workshop had enabled organizations to understand our interest in the “What” and the “Why” over the “How”.  This allowed applicants to focus their efforts around what they know best:  their users and the needs of those users.  It would be misleading to say that every single proposal we received stuck to this format — there were of course the occasional 20+ page proposal from the organizations with the professional grant writer — but that was the exception.

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

Next, we narrowed the group down to ten finalists.  Our promise to the finalists was that even if they were not one of the two winners, they would walk away with a fleshed-out proposal with a clear ask, reasoning to back it up, and an understanding of resources, funds and time needed to complete it.  In order to make good on this promise, we held a second workshop for the finalist groups.  They each got 1:1 assistance, and this time the focus was on framing an MVP and rough scoping the tech, resources and time needed to complete.  From there they had the option to refine their proposal, images and diagrams from the workshop.

We ended up with a clear understanding of what was being asked for, why, and what it would take to pull off.  It made for a difficult evaluation on our end, because there were few applicants we could disqualify for technicalities. For me, that proved the success of the application process.  In the end we ended up with two diverse winners and 8 finalists with very strong proposals.

I would love to see and to personally attempt to repurpose the format we did at a local level on a larger scale.  It will be interesting to see the creative use of partnerships and program management most likely required to grow this model.

If there are any questions or interest in the methodologies and tools used in the workshop I am happy to help.  You can reach me at jnarkuns [at] thoughtworks.com.

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Our February 6th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the organizational challenges that development organizations face when trying to innovate or integrate ICTs into their programs and operations. We looked at the idea of “innovation” and different ways to approach it. We asked what “innovation” really means and why “technology” and “innovation” seem to always be used interchangeably. We shared ideas, challenges and good practice around supporting and encouraging staff, managers, and donors to experiment with new and better ways of doing things.

A huge thank you to Somto Fab-Ukozor and Rachana Kumar for their collaboration on writing the summary below!

Mika

Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland. (Photo by Somto Fab-Ukozor)

Our lead discussants were Jessica Heinzelman, DAI’s senior ICT specialist; Chris Fabian, UNICEF’s advisor to the Executive Director on innovation and co-lead of UNICEF’s innovation lab; and Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland’s program manager for ICT4D.

What is innovation?

Different organizations bring in different ideas and definitions of innovation. Is innovation always synonymous with technology? Does it always require technology? For some organizations, “innovation” means doing things faster, better and differently in a way that adds value and has a concrete impact.

One discussant noted that innovation is not necessarily disruptive in nature; it can be categorized into 3 main forms:

  • a totally new context, new problem, new solution
  •  an existing solution that is improved
  •  an existing solution that is adapted to a new context, country or sector

Another lead discussant pointed out that innovation is not necessarily something brand new; it can be something that existed but that is used in a different way or simply different processes or ways of thinking, and innovation does not have to be technology. The concept of innovation is often misunderstood, he said, because “someone can come up with 10 crappy ideas that are new but that does not make them innovative or useful.” He also cautioned that innovation should not only be about replication and scale, yet donors sometimes decide that an idea is innovative and encourage organizations to replicate the idea, without ensuring that it is having a real or relevant impact across different local contexts.

One discussant disagreed and said that there’s no innovation without technology; for example, 60% of kids are stunting in one of the greenest areas in the world because of lack to electrical grid; the provision of electricity is technology. Without the electrical grid, the country will never reach any of its developmental goals. Technology enables the work to happen. A different viewpoint, as another discussant explained, was that the application of the technology is the innovative part, not the technology itself.

What fuels innovation?

A key part of the Salon discussion focused on whether having dedicated resources fueled innovation, or whether the presence of challenges and constraints forces innovation. Some Salon participants felt that when people are faced with challenges such as less time, fewer resources, no office space, etc., they may find themselves being more innovative in order to overcome constraints. Others found that staff often use the excuse of not having time and resources as a reason for not innovating or thinking outside the box. Some felt that innovation is difficult to achieve within large bureaucratic institutions due to their risk averse cultures, whereas others felt that one of the benefits of large-scale organizations is having resources to innovate and then test and scale innovations. Participants did agree that regardless of the outside setting, some people are more inclined to be innovative – these people are easy to identify almost everywhere, as they are always coming up with new ideas and trying/testing things out. The key is to find a way for organizational structures to support and reward innovators.

Encouraging innovation within large development organizations

Different organizations approach the innovation question in different ways. One discussant said that at his organization, the innovation team spends 60% of its time working on problems the organization is facing at the moment; 20% of its time looking towards the future (a 3-5 year horizon) for ideas that have an immediate direct impact on its work; and 20% of its time on organizational redesign, in other words, how to work with users to create solutions that are not top down and that take advantage of the existing ecosystem. His innovations team is only interested in finding/creating innovations that could reach very large scale, such as 10,000,000 people or more.

The innovation team created some guidelines for staff and allies with tips on how to defend one’s existence as someone working on innovation.  The guide addresses questions like: Why innovation?  Is it valuable to have an innovation unit? If so, why? If so and why, then prove it. Working on these questions led the innovation unit to develop metrics for innovation to justify staff positions focused on innovation. These guidelines can help people at other organizations who are trying something new to have a reference point; they allow innovation teams to say “such-and-such organization is doing this, so we can do it too.”

Metrics for innovation

Having a set of metrics can help innovation labs, teams or persons charged with organizational innovation to measure whether they are actually achieving their goals, too. One organization defined the following metrics:

  • permission to fail or fail cheaply without fear
  • working with heterogeneous groups
  •  sharing knowledge across countries and contexts

Working across organizational boundaries without “soul crushing bureaucracy” and having the real ability to work horizontally is one key to achieving these metrics.

Decentralizing the innovation function

Another lead discussant described the institutional changes and underlying understanding of people needed to improve and support innovation:

  • Identify the real incentives that someone has – individual or project – and the disincentives to innovating. It is important to look underneath the excuses people come up with such as time constraints and additional work, and find out what is driving them.
  • Hire realistic optimists – Sometimes in the ICT4D space, people gloss over the challenges and promote the technology. It is important to hire people who are grounded and have a good analytical sense, and who can think beyond gadgets and hype.
  • Building and sharing expertise within the organization – Creating a champions group of mid-to entry-level professionals within the organization, who understand the power that new technology has, is another way to make innovation and ICT4D spread. Rather than keep the expertise isolated within a specialist unit, finding younger people who are hungry for knowledge and who see this kind of work as a way to help further their career and set themselves apart from their colleagues can help. Then the “innovation team” can provide them with support and guidance. Participatory workshops on new tools and approaches can be organized where these innovation champions are tasked to research and explore something and then present it. Equipped with tools and trainings, they will be able to better identify opportunities for innovation.
  • Getting innovation into the plan early and working with those who are putting proposals and RFPs together to make sure that it is part of the metrics being measured from the beginning. It’s hard to add new elements into the program later because people will perceive it as additional work.

One Salon participant said that her organization disconnected “innovation” from its other programs so that space for trying new things would be made, and the fear of failing would be reduced or “offloaded” to the innovation team. In this case, the unit is funded through private sources which support it to experiment. It still has to struggle for its existence and show the impact and value of either failure or success.

Ideas for taking innovation and ICT4D forward

Some ideas for moving ahead included:

  1. Flexibility in program planning- In reality, most times during program implementation the plan changes and we have to figure out how to cope with it. The solution lies in the ability to quietly promote innovation and to influence donor organizations to embrace more flexible implementation.
  2. Integrating User-Centered-Design – Ethnographic research can help to better understand how people use technology locally and what its meaning is. It also helps identify existing patterns and ways of doing things that could be enhanced or shared with other communities if they are working well. Agile methodology from the software world can be pulled into development programs in order to end the top-down approach of solving problems from afar and having everything cooked up from the start. Rather, focusing on small iterations and the impact of the deliverables can be a better approach.
  3. Collaboration with Universities – Universities can be great places for working on and trying out  new ideas. Links with universities can be used as ways to find solutions, but even moreso to “change the proteins” inside of a traditional organization.  Collaboration among staff and students provides opportunities for staff to learn how to think about things differently and for students to understand real-world challenges in development agencies.
  4. Bridging the gap – Involving educators, health experts, child protection specialists and others who are not very interested in gadgets can bring about strong understanding of the real needs. Then connecting them with “techies” and ICTs in plain language and asking them to relate their own use of tech (they probably all use mobile phones in their personal lives, for example) to the ways that community members use tech can help to bring about solid, practical, sustainable and locally driven solutions.
  5. Provide a safe environment – Many humans are innovative by nature, said one discussant. Hierarchies and organizational processes are often what prevent people from doing new things. Giving feedback and psychological support can help those who are innovative to flourish within a difficult environment.
  6. The interdisciplinary approach – One Salon participant said that his organization had started to work with some senior staff to think and structure data in a way that would help them understand their challenges and programs better in order to innovate. This makes people more comfortable, and working across different teams with a variety of people and skill sets can help new ideas and solutions to bubble up.
  7. Information intermediaries – Infomediaries working at various levels can help connect people with technology, conduct training, and ensure that staff can acquire skills to use the technology themselves and in programs.
  8. Open source – Making project documents, budgets, concepts, “open” online can make them more accessible and  help  enable sustainable projects and prevent issues and costs associated with proprietary tools, applications and content.
  9. Younger management – There’s an age differential between the people who lead most large organizations and large-scale projects and those who are more interested in technology. One participant suggested it would be important to get younger people into positions where they can make contributions of ideas and decisions without being blocked by higher level people that may be “past their innovation prime.” Another solution may be to hire more experienced people but to ensure that they are open to working with  younger people who bring in new ideas. (Some Salon participants, however, felt that age has nothing to do with innovation, and that it is more related to personality types and organizational environments).

For  additional resources on the Salon topic, look here – and add your resources as well.

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. Many thanks to our lead discussants and to ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing breakfast.

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

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