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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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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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Migration is central to the current political debate as well as to the development discussion, especially in conversations about the “post 2015” agenda, the ‘youth bulge’, and youth employment. Prevention work is not likely to end migration, regardless of the organizations and governments working to improve the well-being of children and youth in their home communities. In fact, improved economic capacity may actually enhance people’s capacity to migrate.

Our Technology Salon on January 16, 2014, discussed the role of ICTs in child and youth migration, ways ICTs are influencing migration, how ICTs could make migration safer and more productive, and ideas for mobile applications that would be useful for child and youth migrants. We welcomed Ravi Karkara, United Nations Inter-agency Network on Youth Development; Lucas Codognolla, Lead Coordinator, Connecticut Students for a DREAM; and Michael Boampong, Migration and Development Consultant, UNDP, as our lead discussants.

Some areas on where and how ICTs are playing or could play a role:

  • Sending money / remittances / mobile money. Costs to transfer money need to be reduced. Some studies have shown that the African diaspora pays up to 20% for money transfers. More needs to be done to extend mobile money services, especially in rural areas.
  • Finding a job. Many youth use ICTs from the very start of the migration process to look for work. They may also use ICTs to find work in their home countries if they return.
  • Getting a visa to migrate legally. Most legal immigration processes require making appointments with Embassies via the Internet and the ability to communicate via email.
  • Identifying migration routes. Often, youth who migrate irregularly investigate routes online before their departure. GPS can also help during transit. One program in Mexico is developing a “safe migration map” that provides crowd-sourced, near real-time information to migrants on which areas are experiencing high crime or other dangers so that they can migrate more safely.
  • Reporting abuse. Child help lines are expanding their services across many countries and providing support, advice and help to children in case of emergency or abuse, including during migration. Many help lines are experimenting with text messaging.
  • Connecting with other youth in similar situations.  Youth who have an irregular migration status are able to find others in the same circumstances and feel less alone. They can also connect with peers and organizations who can provide support, help and advice.
  • Keeping in touch with parents/family. ICT are useful for children and youth keep families informed of how they are doing, and to ask for support and help. The African Movement for Working Children and Youth works with telecoms operators to provide a free number to children and youth who migrate in West Africa. Parents and children can remain in touch that way while children are moving from one town to the next.
  • Sharing information on migration rights. Organizations like Connecticut Students for a DREAM use ICTs and social media to reach out to youth who have an irregular migration status to provide support and to engage them in organized advocacy activities. The organization encourages sharing of stories and a safe space to discuss migration difficulties. The “Pocket DACA” application helps young migrants understand the deferred action law and apply for it.
  • Engaging, organizing, and influencing government. Youth in the US are organizing via Facebook and other social media platforms. In some cases, government officials have reached out to these groups for advice on legislation.

Participants pointed out that:

Children/youth are not always victims. Often the discourse around children’s movement/migration is centered on trafficking, protection and vulnerability rather than rights, power and choices. More needs to be done to empower children and youth and to provide opportunities and participation avenues. At the same time, more needs to be done to create opportunities at home so that children and youth do not feel like their home situation is hopeless and that migration is the only option.

Children and youth are not a homogeneous population. When thinking about ICTs and children/youth, it’s important to know the context and design programs that are relevant to specific children and young people. Age, wealth, sex, literacy and other aspects need to be considered so that ICT applications are useful. Both traditional communication and ICTs need to be used depending on the population.

ICTs can widen generation gaps. In some cases, ICTs increase the communication divide among generations. Older people may feel that youth are working in a medium that they are not skilled at using, and that youth are not considering their input and advice. This can create conflict and reduce levels of support that might otherwise be provided from community leaders, elders and government officials.

The role of the State needs more thought. Often irregular migration happens because legal channels are difficult to navigate or they are prohibitive. The role of ICTs in influencing or facilitating legal migration needs more thought, as does the potential role of ICTs in advocating for change. The State may not always be friendly to migration, however, so the topic is controversial. States may also use ICTs for surveillance of youth or migrating populations, especially in places where there is political or ethnic conflict, so ICTs may put people in extreme danger.

Risks need to be considered. There are serious risks associated with using ICTs in general, and especially with vulnerable populations. These include everything from online grooming and risks of being lured into trafficking or sex work, to scamming sites that take advantage of youth, to political aspects such as surveillance and targeting of certain populations of youth by the State or other armed groups. ICTs could be a way to help break conspiracies of silence and to report and speak out about human rights abuses, but care needs to be taken that people are not put at risk when they do so.

ICTs need to fit local contexts. Rural areas are less connected and so other forms of information and communication are often more common. Both online and offline means need to be used when working with children and youth. In addition, different social media tools and platforms are used in different places. For example, though the end of Facebook is heralded by some in the US, because youth are reportedly fleeing as older people join the site, Facebook is taking off in Latin America, where many organizations use it for engaging youth and helping them to organize and get informed about their rights.

Not much is known about children, youth, ICTs and migration.  The area of child migration is relatively weak in terms of research. The upcoming World Youth Report centers on child and youth migration and has been a highly controversial process. Migration needs to be considered from an evolving age perspective, with focus on aspects that impact on children, adolescents and youth differentially. A gender perspective needs to be included. There is also a difference between children and youth who migrate for employment and those who move due to conflict or who are seeking asylum, and deeper knowledge is needed in all of these different areas.

Recommendations for future efforts included:

  • More youth voice and support for youth movements in the area of migration
  • More involvement of youth in the debate/dialogue on migration and ICTs
  • Micro-grants for youth who want to work on migration initiatives, including those that use ICTs
  • More nuanced research and understanding of the role of ICTs in child and youth migration with specific lenses on age, sex, ethnicity, and other factors

Resources on ICTs and child/youth migration:

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

by Tom Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is a guest post from Anna Crowe, Research Officer on the Privacy in the Developing World Project, and  Carly Nyst, Head of International Advocacy at Privacy International, a London-based NGO working on issues related to technology and human rights, with a focus on privacy and data protection. Privacy International’s new report, Aiding Surveillance, which covers this topic in greater depth was released this week.

by Anna Crowe and Carly Nyst

NOV 21 CANON 040

New technologies hold great potential for the developing world, and countless development scholars and practitioners have sung the praises of technology in accelerating development, reducing poverty, spurring innovation and improving accountability and transparency.

Worryingly, however, privacy is presented as a luxury that creates barriers to development, rather than a key aspect to sustainable development. This perspective needs to change.

Privacy is not a luxury, but a fundamental human right

New technologies are being incorporated into development initiatives and programmes relating to everything from education to health and elections, and in humanitarian initiatives, including crisis response, food delivery and refugee management. But many of the same technologies being deployed in the developing world with lofty claims and high price tags have been extremely controversial in the developed world. Expansive registration systems, identity schemes and databases that collect biometric information including fingerprints, facial scans, iris information and even DNA, have been proposed, resisted, and sometimes rejected in various countries.

The deployment of surveillance technologies by development actors, foreign aid donors and humanitarian organisations, however, is often conducted in the complete absence of the type of public debate or deliberation that has occurred in developed countries. Development actors rarely consider target populations’ opinions when approving aid programmes. Important strategy documents such as the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs’ Humanitarianism in a Networked Age and the UN High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda’s A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transfer Economies through Sustainable Development give little space to the possible impact adopting new technologies or data analysis techniques could have on individuals’ privacy.

Some of this trend can be attributed to development actors’ systematic failure to recognise the risks to privacy that development initiatives present. However, it also reflects an often unspoken view that the right to privacy must necessarily be sacrificed at the altar of development – that privacy and development are conflicting, mutually exclusive goals.

The assumptions underpinning this view are as follows:

  • that privacy is not important to people in developing countries;
  • that the privacy implications of new technologies are not significant enough to warrant special attention;
  • and that respecting privacy comes at a high cost, endangering the success of development initiatives and creating unnecessary work for development actors.

These assumptions are deeply flawed. While it should go without saying, privacy is a universal right, enshrined in numerous international human rights treaties, and matters to all individuals, including those living in the developing world. The vast majority of developing countries have explicit constitutional requirements to ensure that their policies and practices do not unnecessarily interfere with privacy. The right to privacy guarantees individuals a personal sphere, free from state interference, and the ability to determine who has information about them and how it is used. Privacy is also an “essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression”. It is not an “optional” right that only those living in the developed world deserve to see protected. To presume otherwise ignores the humanity of individuals living in various parts of the world.

Technologies undoubtedly have the potential to dramatically improve the provision of development and humanitarian aid and to empower populations. However, the privacy implications of many new technologies are significant and are not well understood by many development actors. The expectations that are placed on technologies to solve problems need to be significantly circumscribed, and the potential negative implications of technologies must be assessed before their deployment. Biometric identification systems, for example, may assist in aid disbursement, but if they also wrongly exclude whole categories of people, then the objectives of the original development intervention have not been achieved. Similarly, border surveillance and communications surveillance systems may help a government improve national security, but may also enable the surveillance of human rights defenders, political activists, immigrants and other groups.

Asking for humanitarian actors to protect and respect privacy rights must not be distorted as requiring inflexible and impossibly high standards that would derail development initiatives if put into practice. Privacy is not an absolute right and may be limited, but only where limitation is necessary, proportionate and in accordance with law. The crucial aspect is to actually undertake an analysis of the technology and its privacy implications and to do so in a thoughtful and considered manner. For example, if an intervention requires collecting personal data from those receiving aid, the first step should be to ask what information is necessary to collect, rather than just applying a standard approach to each programme. In some cases, this may mean additional work. But this work should be considered in light of the contribution upholding human rights and the rule of law make to development and to producing sustainable outcomes. And in some cases, respecting privacy can also mean saving lives, as information falling into the wrong hands could spell tragedy.

A new framing

While there is an increasing recognition among development actors that more attention needs to be paid to privacy, it is not enough to merely ensure that a programme or initiative does not actively harm the right to privacy; instead, development actors should aim to promote rights, including the right to privacy, as an integral part of achieving sustainable development outcomes. Development is not just, or even mostly, about accelerating economic growth. The core of development is building capacity and infrastructure, advancing equality, and supporting democratic societies that protect, respect and fulfill human rights.

The benefits of development and humanitarian assistance can be delivered without unnecessary and disproportionate limitations on the right to privacy. The challenge is to improve access to and understanding of technologies, ensure that policymakers and the laws they adopt respond to the challenges and possibilities of technology, and generate greater public debate to ensure that rights and freedoms are negotiated at a societal level.

Technologies can be built to satisfy both development and privacy.

Download the Aiding Surveillance report.

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This is a cross-post by Duncan Edwards from the Institute of Development Studies. Duncan and I collaborated on some sessions for the Open Development stream at September’s Open Knowledge Conference, and we are working on a few posts to sum up what we discussed there and highlight some lingering thoughts on open development and open data. This post was originally published on the Open Knowledge Foundation blog on October 21, 2013

by Duncan Edwards

I’ve had a lingering feeling of unease that things were not quite right in the world of open development and ICT4D (Information and communication technology for development), so at September’s Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva I took advantage of the presence of some of the world’s top practitioners in these two areas to explore the question: How does “openness” really effect change within development?

Inspiration for the session came from a number of conversations I’ve had over the last few years. My co-conspirator/co-organiser of the OKCon side event “Reality check: Ethics and Risk in Open Development,” Linda Raftree, had also been feeling uncomfortable with the framing of many open development projects, assumptions being made about how “openness + ICTs = development outcomes,” and a concern that risks and privacy were not being adequately considered. We had been wondering whether the claims made by Open Development enthusiasts were substantiated by any demonstrable impact. For some reason, as soon as you introduce the words “open data” and “ICT,” good practice in development gets thrown out the window in the excitement to reach “the solution”.

A common narrative in many “open” development projects goes along the lines of “provide access to data/information –> some magic occurs –> we see positive change.” In essence, because of the newness of this field, we only know what we THINK happens, we don’t know what REALLY happens because there is a paucity of documentation and evidence.

It’s problematic that we often use the terms data, information, and knowledge interchangeably, because:
Data is NOT knowledge.
Data is NOT information.
Information is NOT knowledge.
Knowledge IS what you know. It’s the result of information you’ve consumed, your education, your culture, beliefs, religion, experience – it’s intertwined with the society within which you live.

Data cake metaphor developed by Mark Johnstone.

Understanding and thinking through how we get from the “openness” of data, to how this affects how and what people think, and consequently how they MIGHT act, is critical in whether “open” actually has any additional impact.

At Wednesday’s session, panellist Matthew Smith from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) talked about the commonalities across various open initiatives. Matthew argued that a larger Theory of Change (ToC) around how ‘open’ leads to change on a number of levels could allow practitioners to draw out common points. The basic theory we see in open initiatives is “put information out, get a feedback loop going, see change happen.” But open development can be sliced in many ways, and we tend to work in silos when talking about openness. We have open educational resources, open data, open government, open science, etc. We apply ideas and theories of openness in a number of domains but we are not learning across these domains.

We explored the theories of change underpinning two active programmes that incorporate a certain amount of “openness” in their logic. Simon Colmer from the Knowledge Services department at the Institute of Development Studies outlined his department’s theory of change of how research evidence can help support decision-making in development policy-making and practice. Erik Nijland from HIVOS presented elements of the theory of change that underpins the Making All Voices Count programme, which looks to increase the links between citizens and governments to improve public services and deepen democracy. Both of these ToCs assume that because data/information is accessible, people will use it within their decision-making processes.

They also both assume that intermediaries play a critical role in analysis, translation, interpretation, and contextualisation of data and information to ensure that decision makers (whether citizens, policy actors, or development practitioners) are able to make use of it. Although access is theoretically open, in practice even mediated access is not equal – so how might this play out in respect to marginalised communities and individuals?

What neither ToC really does is unpack who these intermediaries are. What are their politics? What are their drivers for mediating data and information? What is the effect of this? A common assumption is that intermediaries are somehow neutral and unbiased – does this assumption really hold true?

What many open data initiatives do not consider is what happens after people are able to access and internalise open data and information. How do people act once they know something? As Vanessa Herringshaw from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative said in the “Raising the Bar for ambition and quality in OGP” session, “We know what transparency should look like but things are a lot less clear on the accountability end of things”.

There are a lot of unanswered questions. Do citizens have the agency to take action? Who holds power? What kind of action is appropriate or desirable? Who is listening? And if they are listening, do they care?

Linda finished up the panel by raising some questions around the assumptions that people make decisions based on information rather than on emotion, and that there is a homogeneous “public” or “community” that is waiting for data/information upon which to base their opinions and actions.

So as a final thought, here’s my (perhaps clumsy) 2013 update on Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 song “The Revolution will not be televised”:

“The revolution will NOT be in Open data,
It will NOT be in hackathons, data dives, and mobile apps,
It will NOT be broadcast on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,
It will NOT be live-streamed, podcast, and available on catch-up
The revolution will not be televised”

Heron’s point, which holds true today, was that “the revolution” or change, starts in the head. We need to think carefully about how we get far beyond access to data.

Look out for a second post coming soon on Theories of Change in Open, and a third post on ethics and risk in open data and open development.

And if you’re interested in joining the conversation, \sign up to our Open Development mailing list.

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Last Friday I had the opportunity to share a panel discussion on “Designing New Narratives: from poverty porn to agency” with Leah Chung, Maharam Fellow and RISD student, and Victor Dzidzienyo, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering Architecture and Computer Sciences at Howard University. The panel was part of the “A Better World by Design” Conference planned and run by a committee of students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, here in Providence.

Photo from http://www.affenstunde.com article on One Laptop Per Child.

I was responsible for setting the stage and moderating, wearing my Regarding Humanity hat. I showed a number of images and narratives that I find questionable – from aid agency fundraising campaigns to children receiving free shoes to famous musicians visiting Ethiopia to models posing in front of poor children to photos of them with imported technological “solutions”. The theme of the conference was “Pause and Effect.” My point was that we should pause and think about the long-term effects of these kinds of images and narratives on people we say we are helping, supporting or partnering with. Beyond fundraising, advocacy and branding for our organizations, what is the impact of these narratives? What long-term effects do they have when there is no strong competing narrative or variety of narratives that enable a more complex, nuanced and varied story?

Some of the ways that we can help change the narrative include:

Leah followed, sharing highlights from research she conducted this summer in Uganda on what Ugandans think about how they and Africans in general are represented in the Western media. With support from Hive Co-Lab, Leah and her research partner, Joseph Wanda, researched how people working in local NGOs and living in rural communities and informal settlement areas view ads like these:

People were asked which of these images they would prefer in a fundraising campaign. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Perhaps not surprisingly, a large percentage of the adults interviewed said they preferred the sad photo, because it would be more effective at showing a story of need and raising funds. Interestingly, however, 66% of the children and adolescents interviewed preferred the happy one. Leah said  that a good number of people used the opportunity of her presence to include a story of their own needs and a personal appeal for funding or help during the interview process

Adults selected the sad image more often, whereas children and adolescents selected the happy one. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Which of these images would you prefer for a fund-raising campaign? Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Overall, 76% of people Leah and Joseph interviewed said that they were not happy with the way that Africa is represented in the Western world.

The majority of people who participated in the study were unhappy with how Africa is represented in the "Western" world. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Leah noted that through her research, she grew to understand that images are only the symptom of deeper dysfunction within the aid industry and its colonial legacy. She also noted that people all over the world hold stereotypes about others. She was viewed as someone bringing in resources to help, and called “Chinese,” although she is actually Korean.

Victor continued the topic by sharing his own story of living in DC as a child, and being one of the people that others wanted to come in to help. “For you as the outsider who comes in to save me, I have some questions,” he said. “For the folks who want to go on a ‘free trip’ to help, my question is: you are going there for what? What are the skill sets that you have that can make a difference? If you don’t have a skill set to offer, you should just stay home.” He recommended hiring local people for the various jobs needed during reconstruction after a disaster rather than sending over students with limited understanding of the local context and limited skills to work in it.

Victor emphasized the similarities in architectural design and designing programs aimed at helping after a flood or an earthquake. For both, a good understanding of the environment, the cultural context, the complexity of social structures, and the local beliefs and norms is required. He questioned whether academic institutions are doing enough to prepare students for working in these environments.

The ensuing comments and discussions made their way across a variety of related topics, with active participation from the room:

  • What can media and development professionals do to support agency? How can we move beyond satire and critique? The bullet points above are a start but what else can be done? We need to change our language, for one thing, and stop using phrases like “we are empowering people, giving them a voice, giving them agency.” We also need to remember that using poverty porn takes away agency from those who donate. The entire cycle is disempowering.
  • Local people are not passive in this: Communities and individuals can be very adept at manipulating this system. Local NGOs also have their own agendas and the aid industry also ties them in knots and makes it difficult for them to function, to be effective and to have a real impact.
  • How issues are framed and by whom matters. There is a great deal of exposure to the Western world and its viewpoints, and often the issues and narrative are framed by outsiders. Local work does not get the spotlight and credit, it’s normally sexy graphic design and social media campaigns like Kony 2012.
  • Should we help locally or internationally? The issues and problems in the world are global problems and they are interlinked at the global level, so where a person helps is not the issue. Location matters less than the underlying motives and levels of respect for people’s own agency, and level of ownership that local people have in the process. Going in to help a community in your own neighborhood or country that you do not understand or that you view as ‘lesser’ is not much different than doing that in a community abroad.
  • Poverty porn is a symptom of much larger issues in the international aid and development industry. The causes go much deeper and require a major shift in a number of areas.
  • Is it possible to change things or do we need to start over? Do we need a new model? It’s likely that international aid and development organizations will be disrupted and disintermediated by a number of forces and changes happening right now, from social entrepreneurs to global economic and power changes to technology to changes in “developing” country economies and attitudes. The problems are not going to go away and the market is not working for everyone, but the nature of how we address these issues will most likely change.
  • Poverty porn is profitable, how can we change this? How can we make the idea of agency and elevating other voices as profitable as poverty porn? How can we take a more comprehensive look at the system and where it’s not working? How can we change what the general public responds to and switch the general consciousness of people who care to a new way of looking at things? How can we re:see, re:listen and re:frame the narrative and get people excited about stories from people who know and live these issues? As intermediaries, our job is to provide platforms and to work to make these voices visible, not to tell other people’s stories. Can we engage people better by showing impact and change rather than miserable situations that victimize and provoke feelings of guilt?
  • Sharing and dialogue is one way that people can learn from each other and build strength in numbers to change things. Supporting “south-south” discussion and learning is key, as is discussion and dialogue between policy makers and practitioners.
  • People (we) need to be aware of their (our) own privilege. People give out of guilt. Until they (we) understand their (our) own power and privilege and step out of it, we will never move forward. Educational institutions confirm and allow people to benefit from their privilege. Going on a semester abroad to “help” people ends up looking good on a student’s resume and helping them, in the end, get a job, not really helping those they went to “help.” So the volunteer ends up getting wealthy from these situations, in a way.
  • Empathy matters, but how do we take it a step further than sleeping outside for a night to understand homelessness? Do these small efforts towards empathy add up to a larger awareness and behavior change, or are they meager attempts to experience life as “the other” without a real examination of power and privilege? How do we take this conversation a step wider also and look at how the West perpetrates and causes poverty by our own policies and consumption patterns?

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Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 5.09.30 PMYouth make up 17 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of the world’s unemployed, according to the International Labor Organization. A number of factors combine to make sustainable, decent employment an enormous challenge for youth the world over, including low levels of education and technical skills, slow job growth, lack of information about available jobs, and difficulties accessing financial capital to start small enterprises. Decent jobs are especially difficult to find for rural youth, girls and women, and youth with disabilities.

In addition to the growth in youth unemployment, access to and use of mobile technologies (e.g., mobile phones, tablets, eReaders, radio, portable media players, SD cards) among youth worldwide is also expanding. This has created excitement about the potential of mobile devices to catalyze new approaches that address some of the constraints keeping youth from finding and sustaining decent livelihoods. Documentation and evidence of impact in the broad field of mobile technology and youth workforce development (mYWD) is lacking, however, meaning that it has been difficult to identify where mobile technology and youth workforce development initiatives overlap and where mobile may have the greatest added value.

After a year of hard work, last week we launched the mEducation Alliance’s Mobiles for Youth Workforce Development (mYWD) Landscape Review, an effort of the mEducation Alliance, The MasterCard Foundation, and USAID. The review maps out who is doing what and where, and to the extent possible, discusses evidence of what is working. The body of the report answers questions such as:

  • What organizations and programs are using mobiles to help overcome the barriers to employment for youth?
  • What type of programming has been implemented and how?
  • Where do prime opportunities exist for integrating mobile devices into youth workforce development programs?
  • What are relevant considerations related to gender and disability in mYWD programming?
  • What factors facilitate or hinder mYWD in specific contexts?
  • Are there any research findings that show the impact of mobiles on youth workforce development?

In addition, the annexes provide information on 80 initiatives and over 275 publicly available documents describing efforts that use mobile technology to support youth workforce development programming in five key areas:

  • Workforce education and training, including basic education, technical and vocational education and training (TVET), job skills training, apprenticeships, and life skills training (in and out of the classroom).
  • Employment services, including on-going job referral services that bring employers and workers together through job postings, job fairs, job shadowing, job placement, resume preparation, and coaching.
  • Entrepreneurship and enterprise development, including support programs for self-employment and business development, such as entrepreneurship training, mentoring, and financial services for loans and capital.
  • Demand-side policies and programs, including broad-based economic growth programs like national youth employment policies, value chain development, public works programs, wage subsidies, minimum wages, and tax breaks for employers (JBS International, 2013).
  • Addressing social norms, including programs that support effective participation of excluded groups, non-traditional skills training, safe training and employment spaces for excluded youth, and broader awareness campaigns.

There is an enormous amount of activity in mYWD, from small-scale, market-based start-up applications to mobile innovation hubs for youth entrepreneurs. The landscape review offers a summary of how mobile devices are used in the above five areas, draws out relevant lessons from the available literature and existing evidence base, offers advice from practitioners working in the field of mYWD, discusses the issue of scale and sustainability of mYWD programs, and offers a number of recommendations for furthering the field, including:

  • Creating a mYWD framework to aid in advancing the field
  • Further developing the evidence base for mYWD
  • Improving our understanding of what scale means
  • Focusing on gender and youth with disability
  • Improving knowledge sharing and collaboration
  • Building the mYWD evidence base through research and impact evaluation

Download the mYWD landscape review at this link!

If the topic is of interest, you can also join the mYWD working group by signing up here.

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According to the latest GSMA statistics, nearly 50% of people own a mobile phone in the developing world and almost 70% have access to mobile phones. With mobile access increasing daily, opportunities to use mobiles in development initiatives continue to grow and expand. The area of Mobiles for Development (M4D) has attracted investment from all sides, including mobile operators, entrepreneurs, investors and international development agencies – all working to generate social impact and improve wellbeing at the base of the pyramid. However, efforts to scale M4D initiatives and make them sustainable have largely failed.

Our July 25th NYC Technology Salon examined the topic of Scaling M4D. Lead discussants Corina Gardner from the GSMA’s Mobile Development Intelligence (MDI) unit and Sean McDonald from FrontlineSMS joined us to kick off the conversation, which was hosted at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 10.52.13 AMThe Salon started off with key points from the MDI report “Scaling Mobile for Development: A developing world opportunity,” which highlights the issue of sustainable and scaled impact as the central challenge (and opportunity) in M4D over the next five years. Because the GSMA is commercially focused (it is made up of telecommunication industry members), business models that can achieve both revenue goals and added value to customers are a core concern. GSMA is interested in finding M4D business models that convince industry to re-invest and replicate. However not many of these examples exist.

Business models at the base of the pyramid (BOP) tend to be different than what the industry is used to. If scale is defined as the number of people reached with a service, and the population being reached has little money, then the only clear business model is via a huge customer base. Given that international development agencies also want to achieve scale with development programs, there is a good potential overlap in M4D. In order to achieve good impact, it’s critical to think through what BOP users want and need, and what offers real value to them for their limited resources.

Innovative vehicles are needed for investing in M4D. Currently, M4D financing tends to take two distinct paths: International Development funding and Venture Capital (VC) funding. Hiccups occur because the two operate very differently and do not always work well together. International development funds and processes do not move as quickly as technology-based funds. There is low tolerance for uncertainty and a desire for initial proof of potential impact, adoption and uptake. On the VC side, there is the desire for a light overhead structure modeled after Silicon Valley; however in African countries, for example, there is little existing infrastructure, meaning a heavier structure and a slower process. In addition, the exit strategy may not be clear. A worst-case scenario is when one of the two types of financing bodies is interested in investing, yet both walk away when they see the other at the table.

Though very few examples of M4D at scale exist, some elements brought up during the Salon that need to be considered include:

User-centric design. It is critical to understand the community and the end user’s needs, demands, and payment capacity. Both the private sector and international development agencies have existing approaches to developing M4D initiatives that focus on understanding local context and consultation and engagement with users, but the two sectors use different language to describe these approaches and they often talk past each other without connecting on their commonalities. According to one discussant, the best and most user friendly design is that with the lowest barrier to access, the simplest technology, the cleanest interface and configurability, so that people can build in more complexity if needed. These types of design will also tend to be the most replicable, an important element of scale. Iterative design and getting prototypes in front of users is needed to get their feedback, and this can be a challenge in M4D programs if they are being done within typical international development cycles of planning and funding.

User data. Users at the base of the pyramid are both financially poor and “data poor” and companies cannot create products for users that they know nothing about. Mobile can help gather data on user behaviors. This data can be used to inform business models, create products and services of value for BOP users, and to create revenue streams. One key question is that of how the data can be better used to benefit the BOP more broadly.

Understanding what ‘scale’ means for different parties. For mobile operators, scale is important because it is linked to numbers, volume and revenue. However this is not the element that matters for those working in international development, where impact may be a more important measure of success. Uptake of an M4D service may be due to advertising, rather than because it has a measurable impact on the life of a user. The difference needs to be understood and better analyzed and documented before success, scale, or impact is claimed. One measure of success is improved and sustained functioning of broader systems — and mobile may only be one small piece of a well-functioning development program, information ecosystem, or service delivery effort. As one discussant noted, “I don’t care if someone uses mobile banking or branch banking, so long as they are banking.” The mobile device may not be the central piece; it may be an additional access point for people who were formerly left out of these systems. In addition, “reaching” people is different than “influencing” people, and the latter will likely have more of an impact. Trust is critical in these efforts to influence, and often that takes more than a mobile connection.

Infrastructure.  The case for improved networks, coverage, and other infrastructure (electricity, for example) needs to be made to operators and government. The urban-rural divide when it comes to infrastructure is a global issue, not just one in so-called ‘developing economies.’ For example, using 4G and a credit card, someone can order a product on Amazon from the DRC, however Amazon will not be able to deliver that product. Similarly, someone can report poor government services via a mobile phone, but until infrastructure and governance improves, there may be no response. Poor infrastructure in rural areas is an issue globally.

Payment. Operators incorrectly give away free SMS to NGOs, said one discussant. Instead, having to pay a small amount (either as an NGO or an end user) means that much more care is taken in terms of what is communicated. “If it costs 5 cents to send a message, you will not spam people.” This is also critical for building in sustainability, and where the best ROI tends to be found in technology influenced programming. More thought and research is needed regarding payment and sustainable, scalable models.

Due diligence. A challenge in the M4D space is the high incidence of people seeing a problem, thinking no one has addressed it, and jumping in to build their own solution. This wastes money and time and creates churn. It is important to do research, layer, and build from other people’s ideas and existing solutions. One problem with the idea of due diligence, according to a participant, is that it means different things to different people. In technology it means “you have a problem, what is the cheapest and most robust solution,” but in the field of international development, context discovery takes a very long time and requires multidisciplinary knowledge and awareness that goes far beyond technology. There is also a need to consider whether technology (as opposed to non-digital efforts) is the most viable solution for the information and communication situation. ‘Horizontal due diligence’ (looking at partnerships) and due diligence with regard to maximizing systems are also needed.

Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). M&E is currently sub-par on most M4D initiatives, said one participant. Organizations are often doing their own M&E rather than having a third party conduct external M&E.  There is a lack of comparative data on M4D programs also, and often M&E is attempted at the end of a project rather than built in from the start. A greater presence of academia is needed in M4D work, it was noted, and we also need more qualitative data, as currently the emphasis is on the quantitative data that are collected more easily via mobiles. One benefit in M4D programs is the ability to digitize and intelligently store data from the very start. This is the way to show scale and impact, said another participant. However data need to be well-used and refined, and available to the right person or people at the right time. Greater respect and understanding of privacy and ethical issues along with helping people to understand and steward their users’ data are also critically important and need more attention.

Salons function under Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been made. Sign up here to join the Technology Salon mailing list to receive invitations for future events in NYC, DC, San Francisco, London and Nairobi!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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