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Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

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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This post was originally published on the Open Knowledge Foundation blog

A core theme that the Open Development track covered at September’s Open Knowledge Conference was Ethics and Risk in Open Development. There were more questions than answers in the discussions, summarized below, and the Open Development working group plans to further examine these issues over the coming year.

Informed consent and opting in or out

Ethics around ‘opt in’ and ‘opt out’ when working with people in communities with fewer resources, lower connectivity, and/or less of an understanding about privacy and data are tricky. Yet project implementers have a responsibility to work to the best of their ability to ensure that participants understand what will happen with their data in general, and what might happen if it is shared openly.

There are some concerns around how these decisions are currently being made and by whom. Can an NGO make the decision to share or open data from/about program participants? Is it OK for an NGO to share ‘beneficiary’ data with the private sector in return for funding to help make a program ‘sustainable’? What liabilities might donors or program implementers face in the future as these issues develop?

Issues related to private vs. public good need further discussion, and there is no one right answer because concepts and definitions of ‘private’ and ‘public’ data change according to context and geography.

Informed participation, informed risk-taking

The ‘do no harm’ principle is applicable in emergency and conflict situations, but is it realistic to apply it to activism? There is concern that organizations implementing programs that rely on newer ICTs and open data are not ensuring that activists have enough information to make an informed choice about their involvement. At the same time, assuming that activists don’t know enough to decide for themselves can come across as paternalistic.

As one participant at OK Con commented, “human rights and accountability work are about changing power relations. Those threatened by power shifts are likely to respond with violence and intimidation. If you are trying to avoid all harm, you will probably not have any impact.” There is also the concept of transformative change: “things get worse before they get better. How do you include that in your prediction of what risks may be involved? There also may be a perception gap in terms of what different people consider harm to be. Whose opinion counts and are we listening? Are the right people involved in the conversations about this?”

A key point is that whomever assumes the risk needs to be involved in assessing that potential risk and deciding what the actions should be — but people also need to be fully informed. With new tools coming into play all the time, can people be truly ‘informed’ and are outsiders who come in with new technologies doing a good enough job of facilitating discussions about possible implications and risk with those who will face the consequences? Are community members and activists themselves included in risk analysis, assumption testing, threat modeling and risk mitigation work? Is there a way to predict the likelihood of harm? For example, can we determine whether releasing ‘x’ data will likely lead to ‘y’ harm happening? How can participants, practitioners and program designers get better at identifying and mitigating risks?

When things get scary…

Even when risk analysis is conducted, it is impossible to predict or foresee every possible way that a program can go wrong during implementation. Then the question becomes what to do when you are in the middle of something that is putting people at risk or leading to extremely negative unintended consequences. Who can you call for help? What do you do when there is no mitigation possible and you need to pull the plug on an effort? Who decides that you’ve reached that point? This is not an issue that exclusively affects programs that use open data, but open data may create new risks with which practitioners, participants and activists have less experience, thus the need to examine it more closely.

Participants felt that there is not enough honest discussion on this aspect. There is a pop culture of ‘admitting failure’ but admitting harm is different because there is a higher sense of liability and distress. “When I’m really scared shitless about what is happening in a project, what do I do?” asked one participant at the OK Con discussion sessions. “When I realize that opening data up has generated a huge potential risk to people who are already vulnerable, where do I go for help?” We tend to share our “cute” failures, not our really dismal ones.

Academia has done some work around research ethics, informed consent, human subject research and use of Internal Review Boards (IRBs). What aspects of this can or should be applied to mobile data gathering, crowdsourcing, open data work and the like? What about when citizens are their own source of information and they voluntarily share data without a clear understanding of what happens to the data, or what the possible implications are?

Do we need to think about updating and modernizing the concept of IRBs? A major issue is that many people who are conducting these kinds of data collection and sharing activities using new ICTs are unaware of research ethics and IRBs and don’t consider what they are doing to be ‘research’. How can we broaden this discussion and engage those who may not be aware of the need to integrate informed consent, risk analysis and privacy awareness into their approaches?

The elephant in the room

Despite our good intentions to do better planning and risk management, one big problem is donors, according to some of the OK Con participants.  Do donors require enough risk assessment and mitigation planning in their program proposal designs? Do they allow organizations enough time to develop a well-thought-out and participatory Theory of Change along with a rigorous risk assessment together with program participants? Are funding recipients required to report back on risks and how they played out? As one person put it, “talk about failure is currently more like a ‘cult of failure’ and there is no real learning from it. Systematically we have to report up the chain on money and results and all the good things happening. and no one up at the top really wants to know about the bad things. The most interesting learning doesn’t get back to the donors or permeate across practitioners. We never talk about all the work-arounds and backdoor negotiations that make development work happen. This is a serious systemic issue.”

Greater transparency can actually be a deterrent to talking about some of these complexities, because “the last thing donors want is more complexity as it raises difficult questions.”

Reporting upwards into government representatives in Parliament or Congress leads to continued aversion to any failures or ‘bad news’. Though funding recipients are urged to be innovative, they still need to hit numeric targets so that the international aid budget can be defended in government spaces. Thus, the message is mixed: “Make sure you are learning and recognizing failure, but please don’t put anything too serious in the final report.” There is awareness that rigid program planning doesn’t work and that we need to be adaptive, yet we are asked to “put it all into a log frame and make sure the government aid person can defend it to their superiors.”

Where to from here?

It was suggested that monitoring and evaluation (M&E) could be used as a tool for examining some of these issues, but M&E needs to be seen as a learning component, not only an accountability one. M&E needs to feed into the choices people are making along the way and linking it in well during program design may be one way to include a more adaptive and iterative approach. M&E should force practitioners to ask themselves the right questions as they design programs and as they assess them throughout implementation. Theory of Change might help, and an ethics-based approach could be introduced as well to raise these questions about risk and privacy and ensure that they are addressed from the start of an initiative.

Practitioners have also expressed the need for additional resources to help them predict and manage possible risk: case studies, a safe space for sharing concerns during implementation, people who can help when things go pear-shaped, a menu of methodologies, a set of principles or questions to ask during program design, or even an ICT4D Implementation Hotline or a forum for questions and discussion.

These ethical issues around privacy and risk are not exclusive to Open Development. Similar issues were raised last week at the Open Government Partnership Summit sessions on whistle blowing, privacy, and safeguarding civic space, especially in light of the Snowden case. They were also raised at last year’s Technology Salon on Participatory Mapping.

A number of groups are looking more deeply into this area, including the Capture the Ocean Project, The Engine Room, IDRC’s research network, The Open Technology InstitutePrivacy InternationalGSMA, those working on “Big Data,” those in the Internet of Things space, and others.

I’m looking forward to further discussion with the Open Development working group on all of this in the coming months, and will also be putting a little time into mapping out existing initiatives and identifying gaps when it comes to these cross-cutting ethics, power, privacy and risk issues in open development and other ICT-enabled data-heavy initiatives.

Please do share information, projects, research, opinion pieces and more if you have them!

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The February 5 Technology Salon in New York City asked “What are the ethics in participatory digital mapping?” Judging by the packed Salon and long waiting list, many of us are struggling with these questions in our work.

Some of the key ethical points raised at the Salon related to the benefits of open data vs privacy and the desire to do no harm. Others were about whether digital maps are an effective tool in participatory community development or if they are mostly an innovation showcase for donors or a backdrop for individual egos to assert their ‘personal coolness’. The absence of research and ethics protocols for some of these new kinds of data gathering and sharing was also an issue of concern for participants.

During the Salon we were only able to scratch the surface, and we hope to get together soon for a more in-depth session (or maybe 2 or 3 sessions – stay tuned!) to further unpack the ethical issues around participatory digital community mapping.

The points raised by discussants and participants included:

1) Showcasing innovation

Is digital mapping really about communities, or are we really just using communities as a backdrop to showcase our own innovation and coolness or that of our donors?

2) Can you do justice to both process and product?

Maps should be less an “in-out tool“ and more part of a broader program. External agents should be supporting communities to articulate and to be full partners in saying, doing, and knowing what they want to do with maps. Digital mapping may not be better than hand drawn maps, if we consider that the process of mapping is just as or more important than the final product. Hand drawn maps can allow for important discussions to happen while people draw. This seems to happens much less with the digital mapping process, which is more technical, and it happens even less when outside agents are doing the mapping. A hand drawn map can be imbued with meaning in terms of the size, color or placement of objects or borders. Important meaning may be missed when hand drawn maps are replaced with digital ones.

Digital maps, however, can be printed and further enhanced with comments and drawings and discussed in the community, as some noted. And digital maps can lend a sense of professionalism to community members and help them to make a stronger case to authorities and decisions makers. Some participants raised concerns about power relations during mapping processes, and worried that using digital tools could emphasize those.

3) The ethics of wasting people’s time.

Community mapping is difficult. The goal of external agents should be to train local people so that they can be owners of the process and sustain it in the long term. This takes time. Often, however, mapping experts are flown in for a week or two to train community members. They leave people with some knowledge, but not enough to fully manage the mapping process and tools. If people end up only half-trained and without local options to continue training, their time has essentially been wasted. In addition, if young people see the training as a pathway to a highly demanded skill set yet are left partially trained and without access to tools and equipment, they will also feel they have wasted their time.

4) Data extraction

When agencies, academics and mappers come in with their clipboards or their GPS units and conduct the same surveys and studies over and over with the same populations, people’s time is also wasted. Open digital community mapping comes from a viewpoint that an open map and open data are one way to make sure that data that is taken from or created by communities is made available to the communities for their own use and can be accessed by others so that the same data is not collected repeatedly. Though there are privacy concerns around opening data, there is a counter balanced ethical dilemma related to how much time gets wasted by keeping data closed.

5) The (missing) link between data and action

Related to the issue of time wasting is the common issue of a missing link between data collected and/or mapped, action and results. Making a map identifying issues is certainly no guarantee that the government will come and take care of those issues. Maps are a means to an end, but often the end is not clear. What do we really hope the data leads to? What does the community hope for? Mapping can be a flashy technology that brings people to the table, but that is no guarantee that something will happen to resolve the issues the map is aimed at solving.

6) Intermediaries are important

One way to ensure that there is a link between data and action is to identify stakeholders that have the ability to use, understand and re-interpret the data. One case was mentioned where health workers collected data and then wanted to know “What do we do now? How does this affect the work that we do? How do we present this information to community health workers in a way that it is useful to our work?” It’s important to tone the data down and make them understandable to the base population, and to also show them in a way that is useful to people working at local institutions. Each audience will need the data to be visualized or shared in a different, contextually appropriate way if they are going to use the data for decision-making. It’s possible to provide the same data in different ways across different platforms from paper to high tech. The challenge of keeping all the data and the different sharing platforms updated, however, is one that can’t be overlooked.

7) What does informed consent actually mean in today’s world?

There is a viewpoint that data must be open and that locking up data is unethical. On the other hand, there are questions about research ethics and protocols when doing mapping projects and sharing or opening data. Are those who do mapping getting informed consent from people to use or open their data? This is the cornerstone of ethics when doing research with human beings. One must be able to explain and be clear about the risks of this data collection, or it is impossible to get truly informed consent. What consent do community mappers need from other community members if they are opening data or information? What about when people are volunteering their information and self-reporting? What does informed consent mean in those cases? And what needs to be done to ensure that consent is truly informed? How can open data and mapping be explained to those who have not used the Internet before? How can we have informed consent if we cannot promise anyone that their data are really secure? Do we have ethics review boards for these new technological ways of gathering data?

8) Not having community data also has ethical implications

It may seem like time wasting, and there may be privacy and protection questions, but there are are also ethical implications of not having community data. When tools like satellite remote sensing are used to do slum mapping, for example, data are very dehumanized and can lead to sterile decision-making. The data that come from a community itself can make these maps more human and these decisions more humane. But there is a balance between the human/humanizing side and the need to protect. Standards are needed for bringing in community and/or human data in an anonymized way, because there are ethical implications on both ends.

9) The problem with donors….

Big donors are not asking the tough questions, according to some participants. There is a lack of understanding around the meaning, use and value of the data being collected and the utility of maps. “If the data is crap, you’ll have crap GIS and a crap map. If you are just doing a map to do a map, there’s an issue.” There is great incentive from the donor side to show maps and to demonstrate value, because maps are a great photo op, a great visual. But how to go a level down to make a map really useful? Are the M&E folks raising the bar and asking these hard questions? Often from the funder’s perspective, mapping is seen as something that can be done quickly. “Get the map up and the project is done. Voila! And if you can do it in 3 weeks, even better!”

Some participants felt the need for greater donor awareness of these ethical questions because many of them are directly related to funding issues. As one participant noted, whether you coordinate, whether it’s participatory, whether you communicate and share back the information, whether you can do the right thing with the privacy issue — these all depend on what you can convince a donor to fund. Often it’s faster to reinvent the wheel because doing it the right way – coordinating, learning from past efforts, involving the community — takes more time and money. That’s often the hard constraint on these questions of ethics.

Check this link for some resources on the topic, and add yours to the list.

Many thanks to our lead discussants, Robert Banick from the American Red Cross and Erica Hagen from Ground Truth, and to Population Council for hosting us for this month’s Salon!

The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up in March. Stay tuned for more information, and if you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up for the mailing list!

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Continue reading on Storify…

Amanda’s workshop was educational, thought-provoking, well-researched and participatory. The youth who participated in the workshop were from Bangladesh, Liberia, Haiti and across the US. They were incredibly savvy and insightful in their thoughts, analysis and comments. I learned a lot about ethical advocacy as well as about what makes a campaign or initiative interesting for well-informed, globally engaged young activists.

The rest of the workshop is captured here, including my favorite part:

The advocacy Do’s and Don’ts that participants generated during group work:

And a key take-away:

Summary of the full workshop.

Amanda’s ebook “Beyond Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness and Activism in the Internet Age.

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This is a cross-post by Laura Pohl who works at the Bread for the World. The post is a summary of the latest Humanitarian Photography group meeting. The meetings are part of a series of meetings about photography in humanitarian work organized by CORE Group. (The original is posted here)

An employee at the Yemi Hanbok factory near Yanji, China, examines a traditional Korean skirt she is dyeing.The factory’s unique geographic position in China, near North Korea, means it can have work done cheaply in both countries and then sell to customers in South Korea. Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

One of the most common questions I get asked at work is, “Can I use this picture?”

Oh, there are so many answers — and we talked about most of them at our latest Humanitarian Photography Group meeting this past Tuesday. Jim Stipe of Catholic Relief Services, Ann Hendrix-Jenkins of CORE Group and I organized the meeting. I led it, starting off with a talk on figuring out whether a photograph is yours or not. Sounds easy, right?

Well, if someone on your staff shot the picture then yes, the answer is easy: you can use it. But should you use it? (More on that later.) If your organization hired a freelancer to shoot pictures for you, then yes, you can use the pictures but possibly with restrictions. It depends on the type of contract between you and the photographer. The main point here is that the photographer usually still retains copyright to the picture and your organization is licensing the pictures. If this all sounds complicated and legalistic, don’t worry; we’ll be delving into copyright, contracts and licensing in a future meeting. Finally, if you don’t know who shot the photograph, where it came from or who owns the copyright, it’s best not to use the picture.

Next I talked a bit about Creative Commons licenses, which photographers use when they want to let the public publish their pictures without paying a licensing fee. CC-licensed photos abound on Flickr, a frequent source of pictures for nonprofit organizations. Just be sure the picture editor at your organization (or the person in this role) understands all six CC licenses and when a picture is fully copyrighted, all rights reserved. When I was a freelance photographer, an NGO once published my copyrighted photographs from Flickr without my permission. I found the copyright violation and sent the organization a stern letter and invoice for the pictures. The organization paid up. They never apologized, though. The organization had tasked their intern with finding pictures. It turns out he didn’t understand copyright.

Finally, I talked about content and technical criteria for publishing pictures, showing about 20 “bad” photos that Jim and I found. There are many reasons photographs shouldn’t see the light of day but I think the best way to summarize the photo usage criteria listed below is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That out-of-focus photograph of 10 bored-looking people sitting in a meeting? You don’t have to use it. That portrait of a person with a strange expression on his face? Just don’t publish it. As Jim often says, “It’s better not to use a photograph than to use a bad photograph.”

  • Dignity – No emaciated children, flies in eyes, violence or stereotypical images.
  • Safety – Could the picture put the photo subjects in danger, even if they agreed to be photographed?
  • Context – No pretending photos of one thing are of something else. Sometimes photos published as a collection make sense together but one photo on its own from the collection doesn’t make sense.
  • Caption – Who’s in the picture? Where was it taken? Why is this picture important? Even if you can’t publish this information because of safety concerns, it’s important to have the information for your internal records.
  • Credit – Who took the picture? It’s just like attributing a quote.
  • Third effect – Two pictures paired together can take on a new meaning.
  • Focus – Is the picture sharp or blurry?
  • Framing – Is the photo framed well?
  • Exposure – Is the picture properly exposed?
  • Color – Does it look natural?

People had great comments and questions at the end. (By the way, Jim did a nice job tweeting the meeting at #NGOphoto.) A woman named Aubrey said her organization works on a lot of construction projects, roads, latrines, etc. They often shoot before and after photographs to show the impact of their projects. Another person asked about setting up or staging shots. Some people wanted to know more about contracts and how to work with country programs to set up photo shoots. These are all meaty topics. I can’t wait to get into them more in future meetings. We’re taking a break for the summer but we’ll meet again in September, so get in touch if you’d like to join us.

You can find summaries of other meetings here:

April: On the ethics of photos in aid and development work

May: Aid, ethics, photography and informed consent

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There’s a great, ongoing discussion happening around aid and development and the ethics of using photographs and other media and stories about people INGOs and NGOs are working with (a.k.a beneficiaries, clients, participants). The discussions are organized by CORE Group in DC. I also participated in the first meeting of the group in April (see this post: On the ethics of photos in aid and development work).

Today’s meeting focused on consent and informed consent for photographs.
Jim Stipe was the key speaker. He shared Catholic Relief Services‘ experiences with developing a process that allows for informed consent in a variety of situations.
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Future discussions will cover related topics such as what happens with social media sites and consent and copyright? What about fair use of images and stories? I’m quite looking forward to continuing the discussions and learning!

Check out the compilation of tweets here on Storify – be sure to read from bottom to top!

Also see this old post: Child protection, the media and youth media programs.

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  1. Share
    Looking forward to group conf call with CORE today ref: Photos, ethics, values and INGO/NGO work.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 06:55:44
  2. This morning I participated in a massive conference call about photography in aid and development, and the ethics and values that surround photos taken and used by NGOs. The call was organized by CORE Group (@coregroupdc). Now maybe I’m exaggerating here, but the call organizer, Ann Hendrix-Jenkins, read off a list of participants that went on forever. I’m estimating that there were something like 40 or 50 people listening in from as many organizations. This topic has always been important for a strong segment of NGO staff and it seems to be gaining steam again.

    After I started tweeting about it, a couple of people asked if I’d be writing a blog post. So here it is. I’ve ‘Storified’ it since I was tweeting instead of taking notes, and because there was a nice side conversation happening with folks on Twitter too. (See the Storify here – it looks a little bit nicer there than it does here.)
  3. Share
    “Humanitarian photography is a hot button issue.Touches on dignity, how we do our jobs, & our ideas about ourselves, others & our work.”
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:08:52
  4. The call organizers had earlier conducted a survey about NGO images, policies, consent, and operational processes around photographers and photography and shared it with participants ahead of the call. The organizers also suggested a couple of links to check out beforehand, including an Aid Watch post (“Adorable child in NGO fund-raising photo sues for royalties“) and a link to a photo  that appeared in the New York Times. These two links and other similar “poverty porn images” had sparked the discussions that led to the decision to organize today’s call. [update: here is the original discussion thread on Linked In]
  5. Share
    Jeez – like 50 orgs on this CORE call re: photography, ethics and values. Discussing: @aidwatch post ht.ly/a3gYA & more
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:06:19
  6. Share
    I’m reminded that these discussions happen all the time among INGOs, even when they are not documented on Twitter or a blog.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:10:46
  7. Share
    Second photo touching off this conversation is NYT image from last year re Somalia famine. ht.ly/a3i0s #povertyporn
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:13:32
  8. Share
    Also reminded that blogs can and do touch off broader and wider discussions that often we never know are happening….
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:14:45
  9. Share
    @meowtree I think too many people online forget that about a lot of issues. Not all discussions are necessarily open for outside viewing.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:16:09
  10. Share
    @meowtree Shoot, I forgot about the call! Are you going to write a post about it?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:28:06
  11. Share
    @meowtree Would have loved to be there but couldn’t… Will you report?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:36:40
  12. Laura Pohl (@lauraepohl) from Bread for the World gave a short introduction to the topic along with some points to think about.
  13. Share
    What considerations do NGOs (and journos/freelancers) need to go through before publishing a photo? Appropriate use? Consent? What else?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:16:15
  14. After this introduction, Jim Stipe from Catholic Relief Services gave a quick summary of the survey highlights, and we had a group discussion around some of the key issues detected in the survey and additional ones sourced from the participants on the call. 
  15. Heartening to know most INGOs have photo policies saying images must show dignity, & image usage is restricted/protected to some staff.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:21:54
  16. Share
    Hearing: INGOs don’t seem to have policies stating photo must match/relate to/be part of story or have policies re: copyright of photos.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:23:38
  17. Share
    Hearing: often pgm staff are taking photos, but many INGOs don’t train staff on policies or good techs for photos or on photo ethics.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:25:47
  18. Share
    Hearing: What about consent for photos? We need to discuss this much more. It’s key to a good photo policy.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:26:57
  19. Share
    @meowtree Unable to keep up today, busy. But have you asked @irinnews input? I use their photo service. Will catch up soon. Thanks for topic
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:28:38
  20. Share
    My question: what is ‘informed consent’? what are different ways to get it? how to ensure ppl rlly understand use of their image and story?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:37:41
  21. Share
    @meowtree you can’t ensure that ppl understand use of their image unless they know context in which it will be used & understand its nuances
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:40:12
  22. Share
    Re: informed consent – how not to intimidate ppl with consent forms? Also – shd we be applying US consent laws to local settings? or not?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:39:02
  23. Share
    @meowtree @jcdonner thanks brilliant, parallel questions for researchers being encouraged in IDRC SIRCAII programme, spread it
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:40:34
  24. Share
    Also: how does consent differ when children/under 18s are involved? what about difference btwn traditional and social media use of images?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:40:32
  25. Share
    @meowtree What I learned from ethnography: entirely contextual and subjective. Even when you’ve succeeded, you’ve failed. But you must try
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:41:52
  26. Share
    @meowtree When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:42:32
  27. Share
    Someone asks: What about before and after pictures in the case of malnutrition? is it better to show the “after” picture to show progress?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:42:41
  28. Share
    Another Q: what about when working with images of people in conflict settings? where use of their images may endanger them?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:43:25
  29. Share
    Comment: Takes a lot more ppl, resources and planning than we think to do this right. We seldom put enough emphasis on ethical image/video.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:44:51
  30. Share
    @meowtree In the West we focus on “informed consent” re: the individual–but in other cultures, the community consent is more important
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:40:28
  31. Share
    .@meowtree good discussion of photos in #ict4d vs journalism here is.gd/G4oGsC
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:20:44
  32. Share
    Comment: Need to work with US media also to help have more ethical use of images.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:46:26
  33. Share
    Re. #povertyporn conversation @meowtree is tweeting: all humanitarian/devt agencies should have comms ombudspersons to defend those depicted
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:47:19
  34. Share
    @meowtree I’ve always found Photovoice UK’s ethical guidelines useful in regard to some the issues at your discussion photovoice.org/images/uplo…
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:47:47
  35. Share
    [ 1] MT @meowtree Comment: Takes a lot more ppl, resources, planning than we think… We seldom put enough emphasis on ethical image/video
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:48:29
  36. Share
    Interesting commentary on INGO photo policies & the ethics of humanitarian photography by @meowtree.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:48:35
  37. Share
    @meowtree @giantpandinha I really like the ombudspersons idea but they would need to be local?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:49:28
  38. Share
    @miskellaneous @meowtree Anybody with an empathetic impulse would be a good start. But yes, eventually, why not local?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:50:32
  39. Share
    @meowtree photos and ethics such a big topic. I find the whole issue of people coming back from mission trips and volunteering with these
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:49:52
  40. Share
    @meowtree photos equally disturbing. Take a snap of a poor kid and then put on facebook – where’s the dignity and ethics in that? Volunteer
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:50:36
  41. Share
    @meowtree eduction is equally important, but so hard!! At the very least, if you wouldnt want a similar image of your mum/child/bro etc to
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:51:35
  42. Share
    @meowtree be shown are the world or usesd in the same way, then think twice. (this concept doesnt go down well when I mention it to people).
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:52:16
  43. Share
    .@meowtree One challenge – a Western audience that is eager to consume #povertyporn. Many INGOs seek to reach out to that audience.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:51:08
  44. Share
    Comment: tension btwn fundraising people, program people. What is the concept of what the org is doing? Charity? solidarity?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:55:08
  45. Share
    @meowtree @miskellaneous I find the “golden rule” goes a long way. Would I want my child, my niece/nephew depicted this way? Ever?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:54:02
  46. Share
    @giantpandinha @meowtree yes it’s my golden rule too though there are somethings it misses like cultural understandings of modesty
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:57:06
  47. Share
    @miskellaneous @meowtree I remember a moment with my agency’s graphic designers when we cropped a woman’s belly peaking out from her t-shirt
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:58:00
  48. Share
    @miskellaneous @meowtree Again, the golden rule worked there. (But you are right @miskellaneous, might not work in every situation.)
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 11:59:46
  49. Share
    Comment: can we look at studies on the use of photos and impact on donors & learn. Also look at ethics vs what works w fundraising?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:07:06
  50. Share
    Comment (mine) and what about participatory media? How often do we promote people’s own photos/videos of themselves/their communities?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:07:55
To finalize the call, we heard a summary from Jim of some of the areas that the group could consider forming smaller groups to dig into and work on further, including: 
  • Issues around consent, alternative ways to obtain consent, release forms, and how to get truly informed consent.
  • Ethics of both taking photos and ethics of using photos – these are related yet separate issues.
  • What makes for a good NGO photo? What’s a good vs bad photo? What works and what doesn’t?
  • How do you grow your options for getting more high quality photos? How to train your staff on good photography? How to find and work with good freelance photographers? How to plan out a shoot and put the right amount of time into it? How to ensure photos are taken ethically?
  • Creating a photo policy, what does a good photo policy look like? what should it contain?
  • How to tell better stories? You can document your programs with photos and you can tell visual stories – these are 2 different things….
  • Getting good photo captions. If you don’t have good captions, photos are less useful.
  • Other places to source photos; eg., if you don’t have the photos you need, where can you go to get them?
  • Photo journalism vs NGO photography – similar yet different, different approaches and goals. Let’s discuss this.
  • Vocabulary for talking about photos in order to articulate to staff why one photo better than another. Turning gut sense into language and tools.
  • Looking at studies on the use of photos and their impact on donors, what can we learn from that? How to reconcile the different set of ethics that we may find in terms of ‘what works’ for fundraising and what is ethical?
  • What about participatory media and people portraying themselves and their own images
  • An Ombudsperson within INGOs who can defend the rights of those being photographed
  • The question of how people perceive you when you go from doing program work to becoming a photographer in the same afternoon. 
  • The related question about what happens when your organization makes you do both things? Who owns the photos? Do you get paid if your organization uses them? What if you are using your own equipment? How is your organization using you if that’s not your job in the first place? What are you expected to do and how much of this should you actually be doing?
  • Budgeting. We need to begin inserting budget into the conversation. How much can we pay photographers, or do we invest in training our own staff?
  1. Share
    Well pointed out by @miskellaneous: our “golden rule” re. depiction of “the Other” sometimes “misses cultural understandings of modesty”.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:08:55
  2. Share
    However, I still believe some “golden rule” is better than none, and the bottom line should be: err on the side of caution.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:10:15
  3. Share
    Comment: What about when you’re asked to be both a “program” person and also take comms/PR photos? How does community view you?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:08:59
  4. Share
    Comment: what are the rules when your focus is pgm, but ‘photographer’ is added to your task list before you go out to ‘the field’?
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:10:10
  5. Share
    @meowtree @julienne_l I work with youth and struggle with this a lot. How do you keep integrity and get ppl to pay attention? #povertyporn
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:04:39
  6. I’m looking forward to continuing the discussions as this is an issue that constantly jumps out at me. It’s fantastic to know that there is such a strong contingent of NGO staff who are keen to address the issues around how we take and how we use photographs of the people that we work with.
  7. Share
    That’s it for tweets from @coregroupdc conversation on #povertyporn, photos, ethics and values. More later – discussions will continue.
    Tue, Apr 03 2012 12:11:55

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