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

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

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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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If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ll know that I have a strong connection with El Salvador where I lived during the decade of the 1990s. Every so often I get nostalgic or something triggers me and I get the urge to write about those days or how they still impact on me and my kids. The Central American child migration situation is in the news every day now, with varying explanations and huge amounts of political manipulation, so it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

I migrated to El Salvador for love in 1991 and back into the US with my kids in 2001 to get out of a country that was increasingly sinking into terrifying violence and where I could not envision a future for myself or my kids. The very week we left El Salvador, the 9-year-old son of a man who owned a small mechanic shop (eg, not someone who was uber wealthy) was kidnapped and then killed by his captors when the police attempted to rescue him. My son Daniel was also 9 at the time.

Still, leaving El Salvador was the hardest decision I’ve ever made — and I had a plane ticket, family support in the US, spoke the language, had a job, and already had US citizenship, as did my kids. I cannot imagine sending my children on their own, by foot. I cannot imagine having to make the choice between the known day-to-day violence of one kind and the potential yet very real violence of another.

My ex-husband made the journey into the US in the early 1980s when he was 18. It took him four months to make it. He tells of hunger, of sleeping outside, of looking for short-term work in Mexico to replace the money that the police had stolen from him, and being chased through the fields by a man with a machete. He traveled with the clothes on his back and not much else. The heartbreak and fear involved in a decision to send a child on that journey alone is something I can’t fathom. But I know that El Salvador is no place to try to raise children right now either. Even in the 1990s, every time I left the house I wondered if I would return that evening or if I might be caught up somehow in the senseless violence that runs wild in the country. It’s something you learn to live with, and you don’t realize how stressful it is until you wake up somewhere where you feel safe.

Our decision to migrate back to the US continues to be difficult sometimes, as I wrote in this post about my daughter’s experiences dealing with family separation. It’s never easy for families to be separated, and it enrages me when the family bonds, of “others” or of “the poor” are imagined to be less strong or less meaningful than those of more privileged people or of the current citizens of a particular country. Sending a child to walk across a desert is not a decision parents make lightly. Why do people seem to understand that when it’s the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and not when it’s children of Central America?

Yesterday, my son Daniel wrote about his experiences for a newspaper called Brasil do Fato, where he’s interning for the next 3 months as part of a human rights grant he received from his university. He doesn’t elaborate about his childhood in El Salvador in this version, but his original version talked about the joy of growing up in the Barrio where we lived, playing in the alley and the rubble of an abandoned building down the road, and how things have changed since then.

Daniel’s piece gives a quick history of the US’ involvement in Central America and why it’s not an isolated issue, free of history and a broader global context. He also reflects on “how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.” It’s something he understands well, because he’s had the best of his two worlds.

Here’s the original article published on July 24, 2014, in Brasil do Fato (in Portuguese), and I’ve pasted in an English translation here:

Human Rights here and in the wider world

by Daniel Ramirez

I am Salvadoran, on my father’s side. Which means that I share, at the very least, a common history and memories of life in a Salvadoran barrio. In the barrio, I grew up alongside many children living in very difficult circumstances, just like the children who are seeking to flee the country today.

Our lives, however, turned out very differently. I am privileged to be a college student at the University of Chicago, and currently in São Paulo working as an intern for Brasil de Fato thanks to a grant from my school’s Human Rights program. This highlights for me how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.

Throughout the 20th century — especially after 1932 when the Salvadoran government put down an attempted peasant insurrection led by the Partido Socialista Centroamericano, killing up to 40,000 indigenous people in a massacre known as “La Matanza” — economic tension between the Salvadoran oligarchy and its working classes continually increased.

This conflict hit a high point during the global economic crisis of the 1970s, and in 1979 an attempted coup d’etat sparked the Salvadoran Civil War. The United States saw this as an opportunity to ensure communism would not take root in El Salvador, as it already had in Nicaragua, and funded the Salvadoran military’s campaign against popular resistance. On the left, the guerrilla militia named Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (in honor of Farabundo Martí, the leader of the 1932 insurrection) was organized to fight for the Salvadoran people.

It was a brutal war that lasted until 1992. Thousands were killed and human rights were grossly abused on a massive scale. To escape this, many Salvadorans migrated to the United States, including my dad who escaped to the US in the early 1980’s. In 1990, my dad was deported back to El Salvador, and my mom went with him.

I lived in El Salvador until I was nine, then I moved to the United States with my mom and sister.

Since I left, I’ve gone back to visit El Salvador once every couple of years. Now, my old friends have grown up. They work hard for little pay and already have families, and we’ve grown apart. There are still kids hanging out outside, but they’re older, and it seems to me like the character of their activities has become more serious.

The barrio has changed. It now “belongs” to the 18th Street gang. There’s more violence around, some of it between rival gangs, and my dad tells me to be careful who I talk to. The kid who lived directly across from us back in the day was shot and killed along with his mother right in the alley in front of my old house. If I’d been born ten years later, my childhood would not have been the carefree, playful existence that it was.

Violence, Hope and Reality

This is the type of social climate that is causing children to leave for the United States. And if we follow the chain (if not totally causal, then at least telling) from US military funding, to an intensified civil war, to refugee migration, to Los Angeles gangs, to deportation and finally to the pervasive power of gangs throughout El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, we can see how much current migration into the US from Central America has been shaped by the United States’ influence.

Right now, on the United States’ side of the US-Mexico border, thousands of children are arriving at immigration detention centers, most looking to escape violent conditions in their home countries. Meanwhile, President Obama is looking for the power to deport them as quickly as possible, intending to send Central Americans the message that the US will not aid immigrants arriving en masse to its borders, even if they are children.

United States foreign policy in Latin America extended and fueled a brutal civil war in El Salvador. Its domestic treatment of immigrants, refugees and low income communities bred gangs who then committed crimes and who then were deported back to a Central American economy and society that had no room or place for them to reintegrate in a healthy manner.

The United States is a major historical cause of the current influx of child immigrants. It would be just for United States society to take collective responsibility for the harm it inflicted in the past, and do what it can to help remedy the crisis in Central America. But, as can be seen by looking at how United States society treats its African-American community, as a country, it is not very good at taking responsibility for past crimes.

Why I’m Here

Now, I’ve come to Brazil with a critical eye in order to understand the interconnections between my Salvadoran barrio, my experiences in the United States, and the periphery and the social movements in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo, where I’ve come to live these three months.

I hope to see how diverse groups of people organize to fight for themselves. My goal is to consistently articulate my insights, and track the progress of my thinking on the theme of human rights. I’m not sure where this project will go, but I’m excited to go along with it and take it wherever it leads.

 

 

 

 

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I spent last week in Berlin at the Open Knowledge Festival – a great place to talk ‘open’ everything and catch up on what is happening in this burgeoning area that crosses through the fields of data, science, education, art, transparency and accountability, governance, development, technology and more.

One session was on Power, politics, inclusion and voice, and it encouraged participants to dig deeper into those 4 aspects of open data and open knowledge. The organizers kicked things off by asking us to get into small groups and talk about power. Our group was assigned the topic of “feeling powerless” and we shared personal experiences of when we had felt powerless. There were several women in my group, many of whom, unsurprisingly, recounted experiences that felt gendered.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 5.24.53 AMThe concept of ‘mansplaining‘ came up. Mansplaining (according to Wikipedia) is a term that describes when a man speaks to a woman with the assumption that she knows less than he does about the topic being discussed because she is female. ‘Mansplaining is different from other forms of condescension because mansplaining is rooted in the assumption that, in general, a man is likely to be more knowledgeable than a woman.’

From there, we got into the tokenism we’d seen in development programs that say they want ‘participation’ but really don’t care to include the viewpoints of the participants. One member of our group talked about the feelings of powerlessness development workers create when they are dismissive of indigenous knowledge and assume they know more than the poor in general. “Like when they go out and explain climate change to people who have been farming their entire lives,” she said.

A lightbulb went off. It’s the same attitude as ‘mansplaining,’ but seen in development workers. It’s #devsplaining.

So I made a hashtag (of course) and tried to come up with a definition.

Devsplaining – when a development worker, academic, or someone who generally has more power within the ‘development industry’ speaks condescendingly to someone with less power. The devsplainer assumes that he/she knows more and has more right to an opinion because of his/her position and power within the industry. Devsplaining is rooted in the assumption that, in general, development workers are likely to be more knowledgeable about the lives and situations of the people who participate in their programs/research than the people themselves are.

What do people think? Any good examples?

 

 

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

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

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

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

Chapters include:

1 Assessing the potential of ICTs

2 Assessing the social context for ICTs

3 Assessing the physical context for ICTs

4 Reviewing

5 Choosing the ICT

6 Planning for sustainability

7 Building capacity

8 Monitoring, evaluation and sharing learning

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

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

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

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

Download “A practical guide to using ICTs” here.

 

 

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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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