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Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 9.36.00 AMDebate and thinking around data, ethics, ICT have been growing and expanding a lot lately, which makes me very happy!

Coming up on May 22 in NYC, the engine room, Hivos, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and Kurante (my newish gig) are organizing the latest in a series of events as part of the Responsible Data Forum.

The event will be hosted at ThoughtWorks and it is in-person only. Space is limited, so if you’d like to join us, let us know soon by filling in this form. 

What’s it all about?

This particular Responsible Data Forum event is an effort to map the ethical, legal, privacy and security challenges surrounding the increased use and sharing of data in development programming. The Forum will aim to explore the ways in which these challenges are experienced in project design and implementation, as well as when project data is shared or published in an effort to strengthen accountability. The event will be a collaborative effort to begin developing concrete tools and strategies to address these challenges, which can be further tested and refined with end users at events in Amsterdam and Budapest.

We will explore the responsible data challenges faced by development practitioners in program design and implementation.

Some of the use cases we’ll consider include:

  • projects collecting data from marginalized populations, aspiring to respect a do no harm principle, but also to identify opportunities for informational empowerment
  • project design staff seeking to understand and manage the lifespan of project data from collection, through maintenance, utilization, and sharing or destruction.
  • project staff that are considering data sharing or joint data collection with government agencies or corporate actors
  • project staff who want to better understand how ICT4D will impact communities
  • projects exploring the potential of popular ICT-related mechanisms, such as hackathons, incubation labs or innovation hubs
  • projects wishing to use development data for research purposes, and crafting responsible ways to use personally identifiable data for academic purposes
  • projects working with children under the age of 18, struggling to balance the need for data to improve programming approaches, and demand higher levels of protection for children

By gathering a significant number of development practitioners grappling with these issues, the Forum aims to pose practical and critical questions to the use of data and ICTs in development programming. Through collaborative sessions and group work, the Forum will identify common pressing issues for which there might be practical and feasible solutions. The Forum will focus on prototyping specific tools and strategies to respond to these challenges.

What will be accomplished?

Some outputs from the event may include:

  • Tools and checklists for managing responsible data challenges for specific project modalities, such as sms surveys, constructing national databases, or social media scraping and engagement.
  • Best practices and ethical controls for data sharing agreements with governments, corporate actors, academia or civil society
  • Strategies for responsible program development
  • Guidelines for data-driven projects dealing with communities with limited representation or access to information
  • Heuristics and frameworks for understanding anonymity and re-identification of large development data sets
  • Potential policy interventions to create greater awareness and possibly consider minimum standards

Hope to see some of you on the 22nd! Sign up here if you’re interested in attending, and read more about the Responsible Data Forum here.

 

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

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

What do we mean by youth financial inclusion?

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

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

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

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

Mobiles and youth financial inclusion

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

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

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

So what are the obstacles?

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

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

Long on enthusiasm and short on examples?

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

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

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

An inevitable future?

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The March NYC Technology Salon offered an opportunity to discuss how mobile technology can transform workforce development and to hear how mobile is improving the reach and impact of existing initiatives working with girls and young women. Attendees also raised some of the acute, practical challenges and the deeper underlying issues that need to be overcome in order for girls and women to access and use mobile devices and to participate in workforce development programs and the labor market.

Conversation kicked off with comments from Kris Wiig (Samasource), Nancy Taggart (Education Development Center)  and Trina Das Gupta (former head of mWomen). The Salon was part of the Mobiles for Education Mobiles and Youth Workforce Development (mYWD) Working Group Learning Series, an initiative created in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation and USAID. The Salon was hosted at the offices of the Clinton Global Initiative.

The benefits of mobile vs stationary ICT for youth workforce development programs

Mobile holds a number of benefits over stationary ICT, including the feature of reaching people where they are because of the ubiquity of hand-held devices. Mobile is being used as both a primary tool in workforce development programming and as a complementary tool to enhance or reinforce content and interaction happening via other means such as web, face-to-face, and radio.

Reaching girls and women. Mobile can reach girls and young women with services and information they cannot normally get, helping them access the opportunities, skills, and information they need to better position them for work. Mobile job matching allows girls and young women to seek jobs without leaving the home. Micro-tasking (breaking up jobs into tiny tasks that can be done by a number of individuals, eg.,  via a mobile phone) offers a way for girls and young women from slum areas, those not able to work outside of the home, and those pulled out of difficult situations like sexual exploitation; to access entry-level work and gain experience that can help them quickly move to better jobs. Some 75% of women doing microtasking with Samasource move on to better jobs within 6 months, for example.

Getting geographically relevant information out to youth. Mobile can help spread information about opportunities to formerly unreached locations. In many places, jobs and scholarships exist, but they are promoted in places where youth do not see them. Mobile social networks can reach youth and connect them, based on their profiles and skill sets, to opportunities in their own geographical area, helping change the idea that youth have to move to the city in order to find work.

Strengthening soft and hard skills. Using mobile applications, gaming and quizzes, youth can work through career pathfinders in a fun way, find out what they like and what they are good at, and begin learning how to plan a career and what types of courses or preparation they need to achieve goals. They can also learn about savings and create savings plans for items they want to purchase, meanwhile making commitments to give up habits like smoking in order to put their limited resources towards other goals. Applications that reinforce basic literacy and numeracy, such as EDC’s Stepping Stone, help girls and young women strengthen the skills they need to move to a higher level of training or to access additional mobile-based information or engage in communications that help improve their livelihoods.

Lowering barriers to entry. Mobile offers a lower barrier to entry than more traditional ICTs. Mobile web has made it easier for many people to get online, especially in rural areas where people often have to be transported to centralized places in order to access desktop computers and broadband. Mobiles also require less electricity than desktop computers, a big plus in rural areas. One participant noted that an iPad costs only $400 vs a desktop that costs much more and requires more expertise and resources to set up and maintain. Tools available today make it easier for non-experts to create mobile applications. The challenge is getting over inertia and allowing kids to play and experiment.

Designing mobile workforce development programs with and for girls and young women

Even with all these benefits, however, mobile may not always be the best tool because access to information and content delivery does not resolve deeper gender-related issues. Salon attendees offered some insights on ways to make mYWD programs more inclusive of and adapted to the needs of girls and women.

Addressing underlying gender issues. Girls and young women may find a scholarship or a job via mobile but for various reasons, such as controlled mobility or cultural or resource restrictions, they may not be able to take advantage of it. When working with girls and women, underlying issues are central, for example, past trauma, self-esteem, self-doubt and the question “will I ever be good enough.” Organizations can talk this through with girls and women via a mobile phone or online chat, but in truth it’s a much a deeper issue than a cellphone can solve. Corollary and holistic programs are needed to respond to these broader issues in order to have real, in-depth and lasting impact.

Making mYWD programs accessible to girls and young womenWorkforce development programs need to be designed in ways that fit the lives of the girls and women they aim to support. For example,  training needs to happen at a time when women are more able to participate, such as after breakfast and before lunch when the children are at school and the husband is not back yet. Child care may need to be provided. It’s also critical to understand the dynamics of husbands and mothers-in-law who often want to know what young women are doing at all times. Some women may be happy to conceal the fact that they are participating in training, but programs should help women and girls gauge their potential risks. Another strategy is working with husbands and men to generate buy-in so that girls and women can participate in different labor market-related activities. In some cases negative reactions from fathers and husbands deter girls and women from participating or cause them to drop out. Eg.: “I make more money and my husband takes it and he drinks more, and then he beats me more.” The many precise cultural and social issues around gender and mobile require more research. Talking with girls and young women about these barriers and ensuring programs take them into account is an important part of the design process.

Remembering that women and girls are often the last to own phones. GSMA research found that there is indeed a mobile gender gap. Though there may be a high level of mobile penetration at the household level, often it’s the husband, then the first-born son who get a phone, and only afterward that perhaps a daughter or a wife get one — and this scenario is in wealthier households where there are multiple devices. For most families in emerging economies, there is only one or possibly two phones per household, and women and girls only have access to the phone when the man of the house gives it to them. This does vary from country to country, but overall, women are less active and with less access to mobile devices. This is a critical gap if organizations wish to involve girls and young women in mobile-based programs. Knowing the audience, population and context and designing information and communication strategies and workforce development programs that use a variety of channels (traditional and new media as well as face-to-face) to reach girls and women can help avoid marginalizing or not reaching those without mobile access.

Finding the incentive base for men. In many emerging markets, work needs to be done to discover what might incentivize men to allow girls and women to access mobile phones and/or to participate in workforce development activities. Sometimes it is money, but not always. Men may not want women and daughters working or earning money. In Afghanistan, for example, the CEO of the mobile network operator would sit with the men in the households and discuss the idea of women and girls having mobile phones. As part of one program that trained women for work, transportation services were set up just for women. It is important to meet people where they are in terms of cultural barriers and not try to shift things too quickly or all at once or there can be serious backlash.

Encouraging girls and young women to enter high growth sectors. Age-old gender frameworks are still at play and many girls and young women are not interested in entering certain high growth sectors, such as technology. This is a worldwide hurdle in terms of positioning girls and young women for the new jobs being created in these sectors, not just something that happens in ‘developing’ countries. Some programs are reaching out specifically to girls and young women to teach them to code and to break down the idea that only boys and men are smart enough to do it. Encouraging girls and women to see the world by accessing Internet via the mobile web and connecting with other girls and women this way can also be hugely transformative. Communication and marketing can play a role in helping girls and women see the world as it could be, if there were gender parity, and planting a seed that helps girls and young women see the possibilities of their own impact in the world. Enabling girls and young women to create, not just consume content, can change the status quo.

Mobile as a complementary tool, not a replacement.  Mobile can resolve some information and communication aspects, however, in the case of girls and young women, resource-intensive services are often the most needed and the most important, and these cannot always be done via a device. Mentoring and networking, for example, have shown to be highly valued by girls and women. These need to be more than a quick check-in however; they should be strong, active and consistent relationships of support. Some organizations are doing interesting work with mentoring but even with the added benefits of mobile technology, efficient and cost-effective ways to support quality mentoring at scale have not been fully worked out yet.

Data and research

There is a dearth of data around how girls and women use mobiles. Research has been done in some contexts with women at the base of the pyramid, but in many cases it’s difficult to apply conclusions across contexts. Evidence on what works, what is sustainable, and what can effectively scale is missing.

Understanding the meaning of mobile for girls and women. There is a need for more research on women’s ownership and use of devices, and a better understanding of what these devices mean to girls and women in their daily lives, in their family dynamics and with regard to their purchasing habits. In one country, 40% of women interviewed said they didn’t like text messaging, but this may not carry over to other countries or to girls and younger women. Women in one survey in Uganda said they didn’t like borrowing a phone because it meant they would owe a favor to the woman they borrowed it from — this breaks with assumptions that mobiles are freely shared in communities and everyone can access them. In Papua New Guinea, women surveyed in a micro-tasking project said that what they most liked about having mobile access was not the work opportunity, it was being able to call and arrange dinner time with their husband so they would not be beaten if he came home early and it was not ready.

Gaps in gender and age disaggregated data. The huge gap in gender and age disaggregated data on mobile ownership and use is a huge impediment in terms of going to scale. Donor organizations and governments often ask, “Where is the data that shows me this works?” Using mobile for different programs is a big shift for most countries and organizations. It requires behavior change and large investments, and so decision-makers logically want to know if it works. Some organizations avoid working with government as it can slow down processes. Others argue that government buy-in and support are vital to achieving scale and sustainability and that government plays an important role in reducing tariffs and establishing regulations that favor mobile for development initiatives.

One discussant recommended: “Do your baseline. Track your data. Share your data. Share your failures. Collect gender and age disaggregated data.” Large research firms are starting to set up these data but they are for the most part proprietary and are not available to those working in development. Organizations like CGI could use their influence to encourage firms and companies to share some parts of their data. Going beyond micro-level pairing of people with jobs to the use of mobile data at scale to look at development trends could be hugely beneficial.

In summary, more needs to be done to better understand the intersecting areas of gender, mobile technology, and youth workforce development programming. Further reading and resources compiled to complement the Salon are available here.

The Technology Salon methodology was used for the session, including Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this summary post. Sign up here to receive notifications about upcoming Salons in New York, Nairobi, San Francisco, London and Washington, DC. 

Visit the Mobiles and Youth Workforce Development Working Group page and sign up to receive information on mYWD Learning Series Events and the upcoming mYWD Landscape Review, due out in July 2013.

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The November 14, 2012, Technology Salon NYC (TSNYC) focused on ways that ICTs can support work with children who migrate. An earlier post covers the discussion around Population Council’s upcoming ‘Adolescent Girls on the Move’ report. The current post focuses on the strategic use of data visualization for immigration advocacy, based on opening points from Brian Root and Enrique Piracés of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Visualizing the US Detention Network and the transfers between detention centers.

The project

The HRW initiative used data to track and visualize the movement of people through the US immigration detention system after noticing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was moving people very freely without notifying their families or attorneys. HRW was aware of the problem but not its pervasiveness. The team obtained some large data sets from the US government via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They used the data to track individuals’ routes through the immigration detention system, eventually mapping the whole system out at both aggregate levels and the level of individual. The patterns in the data informed HRW’s advocacy at the state and federal levels. In the process, HRW was able to learn some key lessons on advocacy and the importance of targeting data visualizations to specific advocacy purposes.

Data advocacy and storytelling

The data set HRW obtained included over 5.4 million records of 2.3 million people, with 10-12 variables. The team was able to connect these records to individuals, which helped tell a meaningful story to a broad audience. By mapping out all the US facilities involved and using geo-location to measure the distance that any individual had been transferred, the number of times an individual from Country X in Age Range X was transferred from one facility to another was visible, and patterns could be found. For example, often people on the East Coast were transferred to Texas, where there is a low ratio of immigration lawyers per detainee.

Even though the team had data and good stories to tell with the data, the two were not enough to create change. Human rights are often not high priority for decision makers, but budgeting is; so the team attached a cost to each vector that would allow HRW to tell decision makers how much was being spent for each of these unnecessary transfers.

They were also able to produce aggregated data at the local level. They created a state dashboard so that people could understand the data at the state level, since the detention facilities are state-run. The data highlighted local-level inefficiencies. The local press was then able to tell locally relevant stories, thus generating public opinion around the issue. This is a good example of the importance of moving from data to story telling in order to strengthen advocacy work.

HRW conveyed information and advocated both privately and publicly for change in the system. Their work resulted in the issuing of a new directive in January 2012.

FOIA and the data set

Obtaining data via FOIA acts can be quite difficult if an organization is a known human rights advocate. For others it can be much easier. It is a process of much letter sending and sometimes legal support.

Because FOIA data comes from the source, validation is not a major issue. Publishing methodologies openly helps with validation because others can observe how data are being used. In the case of HRW, data interpretations were shared with the US Government for discussion and refutation. The organization’s strength is in its credibility, thus HRW makes every effort to be conservative with data interpretation before publishing or making any type of statement.

One important issue is knowing what data to ask for and what is possible or available. Phrasing the FOI request to obtain the right data can be a challenge. In addition, sometimes agencies do not know how to generate the requested information from their data systems. Google searches for additional data sets that others have obtained can help. Sites such as CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), which has 20,000 documents open on Scribd, and the Government Attic project, which collects and lists FOI requests, are attempting to consolidate existing FOI information.

The type of information available in the US could help identify which immigration facilities are dealing with the under-18 population and help speculate on the flow of child migrants. Gender and nationality variables could also tell stories about migration in the US. In addition, the data can be used to understand probability: If you are a Mexican male in San Jose, California, what is the likelihood of being detained? Of being deported?

The US Government collects and shares this type of data, however many other countries do not. Currently only 80 countries have FOI laws. Obtaining these large data sets is both a question of whether government ministries are collecting statistics and whether there are legal mechanisms to obtain data and information.

Data parsing

Several steps and tools helped HRW with data parsing. To determine whether data were stable, data were divided by column and reviewed, using a SHELL. Then the data were moved to a database (MySQL), however other programs may be a better choice. A set of programs and scripts was built to analyze the data, and detention facilities were geo-located using GeoNames. The highest quality result was used to move geo-location down to the block level and map all the facilities. Then TileMill and Quantum GIS (QGIS) were used to make maps and ProtoViz (now D3) was used to create data visualizations.

Once the data were there, common variables were noted throughout the different fields and used to group and link information and records to individuals. Many individuals had been in the system multiple times. The team then looked at different ways that the information could be linked. They were able to measure time, distance and the “bounce factor”, eg.., how many times an individual was transferred from one place to the other.

Highlighting problematic cases: One man’s history of transfers.

Key learning:

Remember the goal. Visualization tools are very exciting, and it is easy to be seduced by cool visualizations. It is critical to keep in mind the goal of the project. In the HRW case the goal was to change policy, so the team needed to create visualizations that would specifically lead to policy change. In discussions with the advocacy team, they defined that the visualizations needed to 1) demonstrate the complexity 2) allow people to understand the distance 3) show the vast numbers of people being moved.

Privacy. It is possible to link together individual records and other information to tell a broader story, but one needs to be very careful about this type of information identifying individuals and putting them at risk. For this reason not all information needs to be shared publicly for advocacy purposes. It can be visualized in private conversations with decision makers.

Data and the future

Open data, open source, data visualization, and big data are shaping the world we are embedded in. More and more information is being released, whether through open data, FOIA or information leaks like Wikileaks. Organizations need to begin learning how to use this information in more and better ways.

Many thanks to the Women’s Refugee Commission and the International Rescue Committee for hosting the Salon.

The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up soon. 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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New technologies are opening up all kinds of possibilities for improving monitoring and evaluation. From on-going feedback and crowd-sourced input to more structured digital data collection, to access to large data sets and improved data visualization, the field is changing quickly.

On August 7, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Community Systems Foundation (CSF) joined up with the Technology Salon NYC for the first in a series of 3 Salons on the use of ICTs in monitoring and evaluating development outcomes. Our lead discussants were: Erica Kochi from UNICEF Innovations; Steven Davenport from Development Gateway and John Toner from CSF.

This particular Salon focused on the use of ICTs for social monitoring (a.k.a. ‘beneficiary feedback loops’) and accountability. Below is a summary of the key points that emerged at the Salon.

1) Monitoring and evaluation is changing

M&E is not only about formal data collection and indicators anymore, one discussant commented, “It’s free form, it contains sentiment.” New ICT tools can help donors and governments plan better. SMS and other social monitoring tools provide an additional element to more formal information sources and can help capture the pulse of the population. Combinations of official data sets with SMS data provide new ways of looking at cross-sections of information. Visualizations and trend analysis can offer combinations of information for decision making. Social monitoring, however, can be a scary thing for large institutions. It can seem too uncontrolled or potentially conflictive. One way to ease into it is through “bounded” crowd-sourcing (eg., working with a defined and more ‘trusted’ subset of the public) until there is comfort with these kinds of feedback mechanisms.

2) People need to be motivated to participate in social monitoring efforts

Building a platform or establishing an SMS response tool is not enough. One key to a successful social monitoring effort is working with existing networks, groups and organizations and doing well-planned and executed outreach, for example, in the newspaper, on the radio and on television. Social monitoring can and should go beyond producing information for a particular project or program. It should create an ongoing dialogue between and among people and institutions, expanding on traditional monitoring efforts and becoming a catalyst for organizations or government to better communicate and engage with the community. SMS feedback loops need to be thought of in terms of a dialogue or a series of questions rather than a one-question survey. “People get really engaged when they are involved in back and forth conversation.” Offering prizes or other kinds of external motivation can spike participation rates but also can create expectations that affect or skew programs in the long run. Sustainable approaches need to be identified early on. Rewards can also lead to false reports and re-registering, and need to be carefully managed.

3) Responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is critical

One way to help motivate individuals to participate in social monitoring is for governments or institutions to show that citizen/participant feedback elicits a response (eg., better delivery of public services).  “Incentives are good,” said one discussant, “But at the core, if you get interactive with users, you will start to see the responses. Then you’ll have a targeted group that you can turn to.” Responsiveness can be an issue, however if there is limited government or institutional interest, resourcing or capacity, so it’s important to work on both sides of the equation so that demand does not outstrip response capacity. Monitoring the responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is also important. “Was there a response promised? Did it happen? Has it been verified? What was the quality of it?”

4) Privacy and protection are always a concern

Salon participants brought up concerns about privacy and protection, especially for more sensitive issues that can put those who provide feedback at risk. There are a number of good practices in the IT world for keeping data itself private, for example presenting it in aggregate form, only releasing certain data, and setting up controls over who can access different levels of data. However with crowd-sourcing or incident mapping there can be serious concerns for those who report or provide feedback. Program managers need to have a very good handle on the potential risks involved or they can cause unintended harm to participants. Consulting with participants to better understand the context is a good idea.

5) Inclusion needs to be purposeful

Getting a representative response via SMS-based feedback or other social monitoring tools is not always easy. Mandatory ratios of male and female, age groups or other aspects can help ensure better representation. Different districts can be sampled in an effort to ensure overall response is representative. “If not,” commented one presenter, “you’ll just get data from urban males.” Barriers to participation also need consideration, such as language; however, working in multiple languages becomes very complicated very quickly. One participant noted that it is important to monitor whether people from different groups or geographic areas understand survey questions in the same way, and to be able to fine-tune the system as it goes along. A key concern is reaching and including the most vulnerable with these new technologies. “Donors want new technology as a default, but I cannot reach the most excluded with technology right now,” commented a participant.

6) Information should be useful to and used by the community

In addition to ensuring inclusion of individuals and groups, communities need to be involved in the entire process. “We need to be sure we are not just extracting information,” mentioned one participant. Organizations should be asking: What information does the community want? How can they get it themselves or from us? How can we help communities to collect the information they need on their own or provide them with local, sustainable support to do so?

7) Be sure to use the right tools for the job

Character limitation can be an issue with SMS. Decision tree models, where one question prompts another question that takes the user down a variety of paths, are one way around the character limit. SMS is not good for incredibly in-depth surveys however; it is good for breadth not depth. It’s important to use SMS and other digital tools for what they are good for. Paper can often be a better tool, and there is no shame in using it. Discussants emphasized that one shouldn’t underestimate the challenges in working with Telco operators and making short codes. Building the SMS network infrastructure takes months. Social media is on the rise, so how do you channel that into the M&E conversation?

8) Broader evaluative questions need to be established for these initiatives

The purpose of including ICT in different initiatives needs to be clear. Goals and evaluative questions need to be established. Teams need to work together because no one person is likely to have the programmatic, ICT and evaluation skills needed for a successfully implemented and well-documented project. Programs that include ICTs need better documentation and evaluation overall, including cost-benefit analyses and comparative analyses with other potential tools that could be used for these and similar processes.

9) Technology is not automatically cheaper and easier

These processes remain very iterative; they are not ‘automated’ processes. Initial surveys can only show patterns. What is more interesting is back-and-forth dialogue with participants. As one discussant noted, staff still spend a lot of time combing through data and responses to find patterns and nuances within the details. There is still a cost to these projects. In one instance, the major project budget went into a communication campaign that was launched and the work with existing physical networks to get people to participate. Compared to traditional ways of doing things (face-to-face, for example) the cost of outreach is not so expensive, but integrating SMS and other technologies does not automatically mean that money will be saved. The cost of SMS is also large in these kinds of projects because in order to ensure participation, representation, and inclusion, SMS usually needs to be free for participants. Even with bulk rates, if the program is at massive scale, it’s quite expensive. When assuming that governments or local organizations will take over these projects at some point, this is a real consideration.

10) Solutions at huge scale are not feasible for most organizations 

Some participants commented that the UN and the Red Cross and similarly sized organizations are the only ones who can work at the level of scale discussed at the Salon. Not many agencies have the weight to influence governments or mobile service providers, and these negotiations are difficult even for large-scale organizations. It’s important to look at solutions that react and respond to what development organizations and local NGOs can do. “And what about localized tools that can be used at district level or village level? For example, localized tools for participatory budgeting?” asked a participant. “There are ways to link high tech and SMS with low tech, radio outreach, working with journalists, working with other tools,” commented others. “We need to talk more about these ways of reaching everyone. We need to think more about the role of intermediaries in building capacity for beneficiaries and development partners to do this better.

11) New technology is not M&E magic

Even if you include new technology, successful initiatives require a team of people and need to be managed. There is no magic to doing translations or understanding the data – people are needed to put all this together, to understand it, to make it work. In addition, the tools covered at the Salon only collect one piece of the necessary information. “We have to be careful how we say things,” commented a discussant. We call it M&E, but it’s really ‘M’. We get confused with ourselves sometimes. What we are talking about today is monitoring results. Evaluation is how to take all that information then, and make an informed decision. It involves specialists and more information on top of this…” Another participant emphasized that SMS feedback can get at the symptoms but doesn’t seem to get at the root causes. Data needs to be triangulated and efforts made to address root causes and end users need to be involved.

12) Donors need to support adaptive design

Participants emphasized that those developing these programs, tools and systems need to be given space to try and to iterate, to use a process of adaptive design. Donors shouldn’t lock implementers into unsuitable design processes. A focused ‘ICT and Evaluation Fail Faire’ was suggested as a space for improving sharing and learning around ICTs and M&E. There is also learning to be shared from people involved in ICT projects that have scaled up. “We need to know what evidence is needed to scale up. There is excitement and investment, but not enough evidence,” it was concluded.

Our next Salon

Our next Salon in the series will take place on August 30th. It will focus on the role of intermediaries in building capacity for communities and development partners to use new technologies for monitoring and evaluation. We’ll be looking to discover good practices for advancing the use of ICTs in M&E in sustainable ways. Sign up for the Technology Salon mailing list here. [Update: A summary of the August 30 Salon is here.]

Salons run by Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been made. 

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The Technology Salon (TSNYC) on the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), held April 13th, offered an overview of IATI as a coming-together point for aid transparency. It also stimulated discussion on opportunities and challenges for organizations and institutions when publishing information within the IATI standard and shared some available tools to support publishing NGO data.
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IATI Background
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Simon Parrish from Aid Info explained that IATI aims to provide information that meets the needs of a number of diverse groups, is timely, is ‘compilable’ and comparable, improves efficiency and reduces duplication. Simon explained that IATI arose from the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and was launched as part of the Accra Agenda for Action in 2008 due to a strong call from civil society to donors, multilaterals and northern NGOs for greater transparency.
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Organizations felt they were already working hard to be transparent; however governments, journalists, tax payers and others looking for information were not able to find what they needed. Rather than each organization creating its own improved transparency and accountability system, the idea was to use an open data approach, and this is where IATI came in. Since Accra, transparency and accountability have gained global traction and IATI has been a key part of this movement for the aid sector.
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Donor agencies, the World Bank, the EU, the US Government and others have already signed on to IATI and have started to publish basic information. INGOs are also starting to come on board and schedule their dates for publication to the IATI standard. It is hoped that over time the quality and amount of information published will improve and expand. For example, ‘traceability’ needs to be improved so that aid can be followed down the supply chain. Information from international and local NGOs is critical in this because the closer to the ground the information is, the better it can be used for accountability purposes.
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Opportunities and Questions around IATI
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To complement Simon’s overview, I shared ideas on some of the opportunities that IATI can offer, and some common questions that may arise within INGOs who are considering publishing their information to IATI.
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For example, IATI can help catalyze:
  • transparency and accountability as core values
  • better coordination and program planning (internally and externally)
  • reduced reporting burden (if donors agree to use IATI as a common tool)
  • improved aid effectiveness
  • collective learning in the aid sector
  • improved legitimacy for aid agencies
  • an opportunity to educate the donor public on how aid/development really works
  • ‘moral ground’ for IATI compliant aid organizations to pressure governments and private sector to be more transparent
  • space for communities and ‘beneficiaries’ to hold aid agencies more accountable for their work
  • space for engaging communities and the public in identifying what information about aid is useful to them
  • concrete ways for communities to contest, validate and discuss aid information, intentions, budgets, actions, results.
Concerns and questions that may arise within NGOs / CSOs around IATI include:
  • Is IATI the right way to achieve the goal of transparency and accountability?
  • Is the cost in time, money, systems, and potential risk of exposure worth the individual and collective gain?
  • Is IATI the flavor of the month, to be replaced in 2-4 years?
  • What is the burden for staff? Will it increase overhead? Will it take funds and efforts away from programs on the ground?
  • What is the position of the US Government/USAID? Will implementing agencies have to report in yet another format (financial, narrative)?
  • Much internal project documentation at NGOs/INGOs has not been written with the idea of it being published. There may be confidential information or poorly written internal documents. How will aid agencies manage this?
  • What if other agencies ‘steal’ ideas, approaches or donors?
  • What security/risks might be caused for sexual or political minority groups or vulnerable groups if activities are openly published?
  • Isn’t IATI too focused on ‘upward’ accountability to donors and tax payers? How will it improve accountability to local program participants and ’beneficiaries’? How can we improve and mandate feedback loops for participants in the same way we are doing for donors?
  • Does IATI offer ‘supplied data’ rather than offer a response to data demands from different sectors?
ICT Tools to support NGOs with IATI
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Ruth Del Campo discussed some of the different tools that are available to support INGOs and smaller organizations with IATI reporting, including Open Aid Register (OAR) which she created to support smaller organizations to comply with IATI. The Foundation Center has created a tool to support Foundations to enter their information into the IATI Standard also. Aid Stream is being used by many UK organizations to convert their data to the IATI Standard. Geo-visualization tools include CartoDB, AidView.
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IATI awareness in the US
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Although tools exist and awareness around IATI is growing elsewhere, Ruth noted that in the US many organizations do not know what IATI is, and this is a problem. Another issue Ruth brought up is that most existing charity raters do not rate program effectiveness or program transparency. Instead, charities are judged based on overhead rates, growth, financial statements, and whether they are publishing certain information on their websites. These measures do not tell what an organization’s program impact or overall transparency are, and they do not trace funds far enough along the chain. Linking charity rating systems with IATI standards could encourage greater transparency and accountability and help the public make decisions based on program accountability in addition to financial accountability. (For background on INGO overhead, see Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s “Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices”).
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Because many INGOs are not familiar with IATI, a greater dissemination effort is needed for IATI to be of optimal use. If only 20% of the aid picture is available, it will not be very helpful for coordination and decision making. Many INGOs feel that they are already transparent because they are publishing their annual reports as a .pdf file on their websites and they have an overhead rate within a certain percentage, but this is not enough. Much more needs to be done to gain awareness and buy-in from US INGOs, government, charity rating systems, donors, media and the public on transparency and IATI.
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Discussion…
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Following the 3 discussants, TSNYC participants jumped in for a good debate around key points:
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Carrot or stick approach?
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NGOs place great importance on their Charity Navigator rankings and Better Business Bureau reviews, and many donors select charities based on these rankings, so it will be important to link these with IATI. The Publish What You Fund index, which tracks the transparency of different organizations, has been helpful in getting countries and institutions on board. The Foundation Center lists transparency indicators on their site GlassPockets as well. The Brookings and CGD QuODA report was mentioned as a key reason that the US Government signed onto IATI at Busan last November, since the US was ranked very low on transparency and saw that they could bring their ranking up by signing on.
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Consensus at the Technology Salon was that it is not likely that the US Government or USAID will make IATI compliance mandatory for their grantees and implementing partners as DFID has done. Rather, the existing dashboard for collecting information would be used to report into IATI, so the dashboard needs to be improved and regularly updated by US agencies. One concern was whether in this scenario, the information published by USAID would be useful for developing country governments or would only be of use to USAID Missions. On the bright side, it was felt that movement within the US Government over the past few years towards greater openness and transparency has been massive. TSNYC participants noted that there seems to be a fundamental mindset change in the current administration around transparency, but it’s still difficult to make change happen quickly.
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Some members of the US Congress have latched onto the idea and are pushing for greater transparency and this could impact whether the IATI profile increases. Transparency and accountability are of interest to both major US parties. Liberals tend to be interested in the idea of being more open and sharing information; and conservatives tend to focus on value for money and stamping out corruption and lowering inefficient aid spending and waste. IATI can support with both and be a win for everyone.
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Making IATI mandatory could, some cautioned, backfire. For example there are foundations and corporations that for a variety of reasons do not openly share information about their giving. If pressured, the tendency may be to shut down totally.
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Showing what positive things can be done with IATI and how it can benefit CSO information management and coordination internally as well as externally was thought to be a better approach than positioning IATI as “we are being audited by everyone now.” IATI should be emphasized as an opportunity to join data together to know what everyone is doing, visualize the data using new technologies, and use it to make better program decisions and improve coordination as well as accountability. Some examples of vibrant and informative uses of IATI data include Mapping for Results, Interaction’s Haiti Aid Map and the Foundation Center’s comparison of Foundation giving and World Bank funding.
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Transparency as a ‘norm’
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Many organizations are investing in transparency for reasons that go far beyond IATI compliance. Three kinds or organizations were identified at the Salon session: those who comply because it is mandatory; those who comply because it’s inevitable; and those who comply because they believe in the inherent value of transparency as a core principle. Even within organizations, some teams such as Democracy and Governance, may be much more interested in IATI than, say, Education, Health, or Arts teams, simply because of the themes they work on and their competing priorities. It is hoped that in 5 years’ time, it is no longer a question of mandatory or inevitable compliance, but rather transparency becomes the norm and it starts to feel strange to work in a space that is not transparent. Leadership is important to get an organization on board.
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Challenges and opportunities in IATI compliance
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Challenges to IATI compliance were discussed in depth at the Salon, including questions around the amount of resources needed to report to IATI. It was noted that the biggest challenges are organization, coordination, and change of attitudes internally. Some of the core obstacles that Salon participants noted include:
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Time and resources
Some pushback might be seen around IATI because investment in IATI compliance may not be seen as providing an immediate return to individual organizations. TSNYC participants felt that rather than a constraint, IATI provided an opportunity for organizations to better manage their own information for internal sharing and use. IATI can help improve program planning, reduce time spent gathering program information from colleagues and across countries, and support better internal coordination among offices and partners. It was noted that when governments started publishing open data, the people who most used it were government employees for their own work. IATI can be seen as an investment in better internal coordination and information management. Once the information is available in an open format it can be used for a number of data visualizations that can show an organization’s reach and impact, or help a number of organizations share their joint work and impact, such as in the case of coalitions and thematic or sectoral networks.
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Project document quality
Concerns may be raised in some organizations regarding the state of project documents that were not originally written with publication in mind. Organizations will have to decide if they want to work retroactively, invest in quality control, and/or change processes over time so that documentation is ready for publication.
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Losing the competitive edge
TSNYC participants worried that without USAID mandatory compliance, some INGOs, and contractors especially, would not be motivated to publish information for fear of losing their competitive edge. It is feared that getting contractors to report to any level of detail will be difficult. This, the group discussed, makes peer pressure and public pressure important, and mechanisms to encourage broader transparency will need to be found. One idea was to create a ‘5 star system’ of IATI compliance so that organizations with full compliance get a higher star rating (something that Aid Info is already working on). Another angle is the hope that IATI reporting could replace some other mandatory reporting mechanisms, and this may be another entry point.
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Accountability to whom?  
It was recognized that IATI was initiated as a top-down approach to accountability. The question remains how to make IATI information more useful for ‘beneficiaries’ and program participants to track aid flows, and to contest and validate the information. What complaints mechanisms exist for communities where aid has not been effectively implemented? One point was that IATI is designed to do exactly that and that when it is more populated with information, then this more exciting part that involves playing with the data and seeing what communities have to say about it will start to happen.
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Simon noted that there is a huge emerging civic hacker and ICT for social change movement. Access to aid information can be hugely liberating for people. At some aid transparency workshops the focus has been on what national NGOs and governments are doing. Young people are often angry that they don’t know about this. They often find the idea that the information is available to them very exciting. Much of the conversation at these meetings has been about ways to reach communities and about who can be involved as intermediaries.
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IATI is still top down and the information that people need is bottom up. However the conversation is starting to happen. Infomediaries need to be multiple and varied so that there is not only one source of IATI data interpretation, but rather a variety of interpretations of the data. Social accountability processes like community score cards and social audits can be brought into the equation to extend the value of IATI information and bring in community opinion on aid projects and their effectiveness. Platforms like Huduma are examples of making open data more accessible and useful to communities.
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* * * * *
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A huge thanks to our discussants Ruth Del Campo and Simon Parrish and to all those who participated in this 3rd Technology Salon NYC!
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Contact me if you’d like to get on the list for future TSNYC invitations.
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The Technology Salon™ is an intimate, informal, and in person, discussion between information and communication technology experts and international development professionals, with a focus on both:
  • technology’s impact on donor-sponsored technical assistance delivery, and
  • private enterprise driven economic development, facilitated by technology.

Our meetings are lively conversations, not boring presentations – PowerPoint is banned and attendance is capped at 15 people – and frank participation with ideas, opinions, and predictions is actively encouraged through our key attributes. The Technology Salon is sponsored by Inveneo and a consortium of sponsors as a way to increase the discussion and dissemination of information and communication technology’s role in expanding solutions to long-standing international development challenges.

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Civil society has been working for years on participation, transparency, accountability and governance issues. Plenty of newer initiatives (small and large) look at new technologies as a core tool in this work. But are these groups talking and learning from each other? What good practices exist for using new technologies to improve transparency, accountability and governance? What are some considerations and frameworks for thinking about the role of new technologies in this area of work? What needs consideration under this broad theme of good governance?

Tuesday’s Technology Salon* in New York City focused on those issues, kicked off by our two discussants, Hapee de Groot from Hivos and Katrin Verclas from Mobile Active. Discussion ensued around the nuances of how, with whom, when, why, and  in conjunction with what do new technologies play a role in transparency, accountability and good governance.

Some of the key points brought up during the Salon**:

What is “good governance?”  The overall term could be divided into a number of core aspects, and so the discussion is a big one and it’s complicated. Aid transparency is only one small part of the overall topic of good governance.

The World Bank definition includes aspects of:

  • Participation of citizens in political processes, freedom of expression and  association, free media
  • Political stability and absence of violence
  • Government effectiveness in the delivery of services
  • Regulatory quality, rule of law
  • Control of corruption

There’s a need to look at governments and aid, but also to look at the private sector. Some commented that aid transparency is in vogue because donors can drive it but it’s perhaps not as important as some of the other aspects and it’s currently being overemphasized. There are plenty of projects using ICTs and mobiles in other areas of governance work.

More data doesn’t equal more accountability. Data does not equal participation. Can mobile phones and other ICTs or social media reduce corruption? Can they drive new forms of participation? Can they hold power accountable in some ways? Yes, but there is no conclusive evidence that the use of new technology to deliver data down from governments to people or up from people to governments improves governance or accountability. The field of tech and governance suffers from ‘pilotitis’ just like the field of ICT4D. Some participants felt that of course open data doesn’t automatically equal accountability and it was never the idea to stop there. But at the same time, you can’t have accountability without open data and transparency. Opening the data is just the first step in a long road of reaching accountability and better governance.

Efficient vs transformational. Transactional efficiency within a system is one thing. Transformation is another. You can enhance an existing process from, say, writing on paper to calling on a landline to texting in information, thereby improving accuracy and speed. But there is something more which is the transformational side. What’s most interesting perhaps are those ways that ICTs can completely alter processes and systems. Again, there are a lot of promising examples but there is not much evidence of their impact at this point. One participant noted that current evidence seems to point toward the integration of mobiles (and other ICTs) into existing process as having a greater impact and quicker uptake within large, bureaucratic systems than disruptive use of new technologies. But the question remains – Are the systems good systems or should/could ICTs transform them to something totally different and better or can ICTs help do away with poorly working systems entirely, replacing them with something completely new?

Is open data just a big show? Some alluded to opaque transparency, where a government or another entity throws up a bunch of data and says “we are being open” but there is no realistic way to make sense of the data. Some felt that governments are signing onto open data pacts and partnerships as a fake show of transparency. These governments may say, “The data base is available. Go ahead and look at it.” But it costs a lot of money and high level skills to actually use the data. In addition, there is a need for regulatory frameworks and legislation around openness. Brazil was given as an example of a country that has joined the open government partnership, but as yet has no regulatory framework or freedom of information act, even though the country has a beautiful open government website. “Checks and balances are not inherent in the mobile phone. They need to be established in the legislation and then can be enhanced by mobile or other technology.” Open Data Hackathons can help turn data into information. The question of “what does open data actually mean?” came up also and the “cake test” was recommended as one way of defining “open”.

Is open data an extractive process?  Some at the Salon cautioned that the buzz around Open Data could be a bit false in some ways, and may be hyped up by private companies who want to make money off of nice data visualizations that they can sell to big donors or governments. The question was raised about how much data actually gets back to those people who provide it so that they can use it for their own purposes? The sense was that there’s nothing wrong with private companies helping make sense of data per se, but one could ask what the community who provided the data actually gets out of this process. Is it an extractive data mining process? And how much are communities benefiting from the process? How much are they involved? Mikel Maron wrote a great post yesterday on the link between open data and community empowerment – I highly recommend reading it for more on this.

Whose data? A related issue that wasn’t fully discussed at the Salon is: who does the information that is being “opened” actually belong to (in the case of household surveys, for example)? The government? The International NGO or multilateral agency who funds a project or research? The community? And what if a community doesn’t want its data to be open to the world – is anyone asking? What kind of consent is being granted? What are the privacy issues? And what if the government doesn’t want anyone to know the number of X people living in X place who fit X description? Whose decision is it to open data? What are the competing politics?

For example, what if an organization is working on an issue like HIV, cholera, violence or human trafficking. What if they want to crowd source information and publicly display it to work towards better transparency and improved service delivery, but the host government country denies the existence of the issue or situation? In one case I heard recently, the NGO wanted to work with government on better tracking and reporting so that treatment/resources could be allocated and services provided, but when the government found out about the project, they wanted control over the information and approval rights. Government went so far in another case as to pressure the mobile service provider who was partnering with the organization, and the mobile service provider dropped out of the project. These are good reminders that information is power and openness can be a big issue even in cases not initially identified as politically charged.

Privacy and security risks. The ubiquity of data can pose huge privacy and security concerns for activists, civil society and emerging democracies and some at the Salon felt this aspect is not being effectively addressed. Can there really be anonymous mobile data? Does the push/drive for more data jeopardize the political ambitions of certain groups (civil society that may be disliked by certain governments)? This can also be an issue for external donors supporting organizations in places like Syria or Iraq. Being open about local organizations that are receiving funding for democracy or governance work can cause problems (eg., they get shut down or people can be arrested or killed).

Can new ICTs weaken helpful traditional structures or systems?  Is new tech removing some middlemen who were an important part of culture or societal structure? Does it weaken some traditional structures that may actually be useful? The example of the US was given where a huge surge of people now engage directly with their congressperson via Twitter rather than via aggregation channels or other representatives. Can this actually paralyze political systems and make them less functional? Some countered, saying that Twitter is somewhat of a fad and over time this massive number of interactions will settle down, and in addition, not everyone gets involved on every issue all the time. Things will sort themselves out. Some asked if politicians would become afraid (someone – help!! there is a study on this issue that I can’t seem to locate) to make some of the secret deals that helped move agendas forward because they will be caught and so openness and transparency can actually paralyze them? In other words is it possible that transparency is not always a good thing in terms of government effectiveness? The example of paying Afghan police directly by mobile phone was given. This initiative apparently ended up failing because it cut decision makers who benefited from bribes out of the loop. Decoupling payments from power is potentially transformational, but how to actually implement these projects when they disrupt so much?

Does new technology create parallel structures? Are parallel structures good or bad? In an effort to bypass inefficient and/or unaccountable systems, in one case, private business owners started their own crime reporting and 911 system to respond and accompany victims to report to the police and follow up on incidents. Questions were raised whether this privatization of government roles was taking justice into ones’ own hands, forcing the government to be accountable, allowing it to shirk responsibilities, or providing a way for government to see an innovation and eventually take on a new and more effective system that had been tried and tested with private funds. This same issue can be seen with parallel emergency reporting systems and other similar uses of ICTs. It may be too early in the game to know what the eventual outcomes of these efforts will be and what the long term impact will be on governance. Or it may be that parallel systems work in some contexts and not in others.

***

The Salon could have gone for much longer but alas, we had to end. Dave Algoso covers some of the other ideas from the Salon in his post Technology for Transparency, Accountability and Governance, including how to approach and define the topic (top down vs bottom up? efficiency vs transformation?) and the importance of measuring impact.

Thanks to UNICEF and Chris Fabian for hosting the Salon. Thanks to Martin Tisne from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative for sparking the idea to choose this topic for the first Technology Salon in NYC, and thanks to Wayan Vota for inviting me to coordinate the series.

Contact me if you’d like to be on the invitation list for future Salons.

*The Technology Salon is sponsored by the UN Foundation’s Technology Partnership with the Vodafone Foundation as a way to increase the discussion and dissemination of information and communication technology’s role in expanding solutions to long-standing international development challenges. Technology Salons currently run in Washington DC (coordinated by@wayan_vota) and San Francisco, with New York City as the latest addition, coordinated by yours truly.

**The Salon runs by Chatham House Rules, so no attribution has been made in the above post.

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