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Posts Tagged ‘Technology Salon’

The July 7th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Public Consultation. Our lead discussants were Tiago Peixoto, Team Lead, World Bank Digital Engagement Unit; Michele Brandt, Interpeace’s Director of Constitution-Making for Peace; and Ravi Karkara, Co-Chair, Policy Strategy Group, World We Want Post-2015 Consultation. Discussants covered the spectrum of local, national and global public consultation.

We started off by delving into the elements of a high-quality public consultation. Then we moved into whether, when, and how ICTs can help achieve those elements, and what the evidence base has to say about different approaches.

Elements and principles of high quality public participation

Our first discussant started by listing elements that need to be considered, whether a public consultation process is local, national or global, and regardless of whether it incorporates:

  • Sufficient planning
  • Realistic time frames
  • Education for citizens to participate in the process
  • Sufficient time and budget to gather views via different mechanisms
  • Interest in analyzing and considering the views
  • Provision of feedback about what is done with the consultation results

Principles underlying public consultation processes are that they should be:

  • Inclusive
  • Representative
  • Transparent
  • Accountable

Public consultation process should also be accompanied by widespread public education processes to ensure that people are prepared to a) provide their opinions and b) aware of the wider context in which the consultation takes place, she said. Tech and media can be helpful for spreading the news that the consultation is taking place, creating the narrative around it, and encouraging participation of groups who are traditional excluded, such as girls and women or certain political, ethnic, economic or religious groups, a Salon participant added.

Technology increases scale but limits opportunities for empathy, listening and learning

When thinking about integrating technologies into national public consultation processes, we need to ask ourselves why we want to encourage participation and consultation, what we want to achieve by it, and how we can best achieve it. It’s critical to set goals and purpose for a national consultation, rather than to conduct one just to tick a box, continued the discussant.

The pros and cons of incorporating technology into public consultations are contextual. Technology can be useful for bringing more views into the consultation process, however face-to-face consultation is critical for stimulating empathy in decision makers. When people in positions of power actually sit down and listen to their constituencies, it can send a very powerful message to people across the nation that their ideas and voices matter. National consultation also helps to build consensus and capacity to compromise. If done according to the above-mentioned principles, public consultation can legitimize national processes and improve buy-in. When leaders are open to listening, it also transforms them, she said.

At times, however, those with leadership or in positions of power do not believe that people can participate; they do not believe that the people have the capacity to have an opinion about a complicated political process, for example the creation of a new constitution. For this reason there is often resistance to national level consultations from multilateral or bilateral donors, politicians, the elites of a society, large or urban non-governmental organizations, and political leaders. Often when public consultation is suggested as part of a constitution making process, it is rejected because it can slow down the process. External donors may want a quick process for political reasons, and they may impose deadlines on national leaders that do not leave sufficient time for a quality consultation process.

Polls often end up being one-off snapshots or popularity contests

One method that is seen as a quick way to conduct a national consultation is polling. Yet, as Salon participants discussed, polls may end up being more like a popularity contest than a consultation process. Polls offer limited space for deeper dialogue or preparing those who have never been listened to before to make their voices heard. Polling may also raise expectations that whatever “wins” will be acted on, yet often there are various elements to consider when making decisions. So it’s important to manage expectations about what will be done with people’s responses and how much influence they will have on decision-making. Additionally, polls generally offers a snapshot of how people feel at a distinct point in time, but it may be important to understand what people are thinking at various moments throughout a longer-term national process, such as constitution making.

In addition to the above, opinion polls often reinforce the voices of those who have traditionally had a say, whereas those who have been suffering or marginalized for years, especially in conflict situations, may have a lot to say and a need to be listened to more deeply, explained the discussant. “We need to compress the vertical space between the elites and the grassroots, and to be sure we are not just giving people a one-time chance to participate. What we should be doing is helping to open space for dialogue that continues over time. This should be aimed at setting a precedent that citizen engagement is important and that it will continue even after a goal, such as constitution writing, is achieved,” said the discussant.

In the rush to use new technologies, often we forget about more traditional ones like radio, added one Salon participant, who shared an example of using radio and face to face meetings to consult with boys and girls on the Afghan constitution. Another participant suggested we broaden our concept of technology. “A plaza or a public park is actually a technology,” he noted, and these spaces can be conducive to dialogue and conversation. It was highlighted that processes of dialogue between a) national government and the international community and b) national government and citizens, normally happen in parallel and at odds with one another. “National consultations have historically been organized by a centralized unit, but now these kinds of conversations are happening all the time on various channels. How can those conversations be considered part of a national level consultation?” wondered one participant.

Aggregation vs deliberation

There is plenty of research on aggregation versus deliberation, our next discussant pointed out, and we know that the worst way to determine how many beans are in a jar is to deliberate. Aggregation (“crowd sourcing”) is a better way to find that answer. But for a trial, it’s not a good idea to have people vote on whether someone is guilty or not. “Between the jar and the jury trial, however,” he said, “we don’t know much about what kinds of policy issues lend themselves better to aggregation or to deliberation.”

For constitution making, deliberation is probably better, he said. But for budget allocation, it may be that aggregation is better. Research conducted across 132 countries indicated that “technology systematically privileges those who are better educated, male, and wealthier, even if you account for the technology access gaps.” This discussant mentioned that in participatory budgeting, people tend to just give up and let the educated “win” whereas maybe if it were done by a simple vote it would be more inclusive.

One Salon participated noted that it’s possible to combine deliberation and aggregation. “We normally only put things out for a vote after they’ve been identified through a deliberative process,” he said, “and we make sure that there is ongoing consultation.” Others lamented that decision makers often only want to see numbers – how many voted for what – and they do not accept more qualitative consultation results because they usually happen with fewer people participating. “Congress just wants to see numbers.”

Use of technology biases participation towards the elite

Some groups are using alternative methods for participatory democracy work, but the technology space has not thought much about this and relies on self-selection for the most part, said the discussant, and results end up being biased towards wealthier, urban, more educated males. Technology allows us to examine behaviors by looking at data that is registered in systems and to conduct experiments, however those doing these experiments need to be more responsible, and those who do not understand how to conduct research using technology need to be less empirical. “It’s a unique moment to build on what we’ve learned in the past 100 years about participation,” he said. Unfortunately, many working in the field of technology-enabled consultation have not done their research.

These biases towards wealthier, educated, urban males are very visible in Europe and North America, because there is so much connectivity, yet whether online or offline, less educated people participate less in the political process. In ‘developing’ countries, the poor usually participate more than the wealthy, however. So when you start using technology for consultation, you often twist that tendency and end up skewing participation toward the elite. This is seen even when there are efforts to proactively reach out to the poor.

Internal advocacy and an individual’s sense that he or she is capable of making a judgment or influencing an outcome is key for participation, and this is very related to education, time spent in school and access to cultural assets. With those who are traditionally marginalized, these internal assets are less developed and people are less confident. In order to increase participation in consultations, it’s critical to build these internal skills among more marginalized groups.

Combining online and offline public consultations

Our last discussant described how a global public consultation was conducted on a small budget for the Sustainable Development Goals, reaching an incredible 7.5 million people worldwide. Two clear goals of the consultation were that it be inclusive and non-discriminatory. In the end, 49% who voted identified as female, 50% as male and 1% as another gender. Though technology played a huge part in the process, the majority of people who voted used a paper ballot. Others participated using SMS, in locally-run community consultation processes, or via the website. Results from the voting were visualized on a data dashboard/data curation website so that it would be easier to analyze them, promote them, and encourage high-level decision makers to take them into account.

Some of the successful elements of this online/offline process included that transparency was a critical aspect. The consultation technology was created as open source so that those wishing to run their own consultations could open it, modify it, and repackage it however they wanted to suit their local context. Each local partner could manage their own URL and track their own work, and this was motivating to them.

Other key learning was that a conscious effort has to be made to bring in voices of minority groups; investment in training and capacity development was critical for those running local consultations; honesty and transparency about the process (in other words, careful management of expectations); and recognize that there will be highs and lows in the participation cycle (be sensitive to people’s own cycles and available time to participate).

The importance of accountability

Accountability was a key aspect for this process. Member states often did not have time to digest the results of the consultation, and those running it had to find ways to capture the results in short bursts and visually simple graphics so that the consultation results would be used for decision making. This required skill and capacity for not only gathering and generating data but also curating it for the decision-making audience.

It was also important to measure the impact of the consultation – were people’s voices included in the decision-making process and did it make a difference? And were those voices representative of a wide range of people? Was the process inclusive?

Going forward, in order to build on the consultation process and to support the principle of accountability, the initiative will shift focus to become a platform for public participation in monitoring and tracking the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Political will and responsiveness

A question came up about the interest of decision-makers in actually listening. “Leaders often are not at all interested in what people have to say. They are more concerned with holding onto their power, and if leaders have not agreed to a transparent and open process of consultation, it will not work. You can’t make them listen if they don’t want to. If there is no political will, then the whole consultation process will just be propaganda and window dressing,” one discussant commented. Another Salon participant what can be done to help politicians see the value of listening. “In the US, for example, we have lobbyists, issues groups, PACs, etc., so our politicians are being pushed on and demanded from all sides. If consultation is going to matter, you need to look at the whole system.” “How can we develop tools that can help governments sort through all these pressures and inputs to make good decisions?” wondered one participant.

Another person mentioned Rakesh Rajani’s work, noting that participation is mainly about power. If participation is not part of a wider system change, part of changing power structures, then using technology for participation is just a new tool to do the same old thing. If the process is not transparent and accountable, or if you engage and do not deliver anything based on the engagement, then you will lose future interest to engage.

Responsiveness was also raised. How many of these tech-fueled participation processes have led to governments actually changing, doing something different? One discussant said that evidence of impact of ICT-enabled participation processes was found in only 25 cases, and of those only 5 could show any kind of impact. All the others had very unclear impact – it was ambiguous. Did using ICTs make a difference? There was really no evidence of any. Another commented that clearly technology will only help if government is willing and able to receive consultation input and act on it. We need to find ways to help governments to do that, noted another person.

As always, conversation could have continued on for quite some time but our 2 hours was up. For more on ICTs and public consultations, here is a short list of resources that we compiled. Please add any others that would be useful! And as a little plug for a great read on technology and its potential in development and political work overall, I highly recommend checking out Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology from Kentaro Toyama. Kentaro’s “Law of Amplification” is quite relevant in the space of technology-enabled participation, in that technology amplifies existing human behaviors and tendencies, and benefits those who are already primed to benefit while excluding those who have been traditionally excluded. Hopefully we’ll get Kentaro in for a Tech Salon in the Fall!

Thanks to our lead discussants, Michele, Tiago and Ravi, and to Thoughtworks for their generous hosting of the Salon! Salons are conducted under Chatham House Rule so no attribution has been made in this post. Sign up here if you’d like to receive Technology Salon invitations.

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The private sector has been using dashboards for quite some time, but international development organizations face challenges when it comes to identifying the right data dashboards and accompanying systems for decision-making.

Our May 29th, 2015, Technology Salon (sponsored by The Rockefeller Foundation) explored data dashboards and data visualization for improved decision making with lead discussants John DeRiggi, Senior Data Architect, DAI; Shawna Hoffman, Associate Manager, Evaluation and Learning at The MasterCard Foundation; Stephanie Evergreen, Evergreen Data.

In short, we learned at the Salon that most organizations are struggling with the data dashboard process. There are a number of reasons that dashboards fail. They may never get off the ground, they may not deliver what was promised, they may deliver but no one uses them, or they may deliver but the data is poor and bad decisions are made. Using data for better decision-making is an ongoing process – not a task or product to complete and then relegate to automation. Just getting a dashboard up and running doesn’t guarantee that it’s a success – it’s critical to look deeper to see if the data and its visualization have actually improved decisions and how. Like with any ICT tool, user centered design and ongoing iteration are key. Successful dashboards are organized, useful, include targets, and have trends and predictions. Organizational culture and change management are critical in the process.

Points discussed in detail*:

1) Ask whether you actually need a dashboard

The first question to ask is whether a dashboard is needed or possible. One discussant, who specializes in data visualization, noted that she’s often brought in because someone wants to do data visualization, and she then needs to work backwards with the organization through a number of other preparatory steps before getting to the part on data visualization. It’s critical to have data dashboard discussions with different parts of the organization in order to understand real needs and expectations. Often people will say they need a dashboard because they want to make better decisions, noted another lead discussant. “But what kind of decisions, and what information is needed to make those decisions? Where does that information come from? Who will get it?”

2) Define the audience and type of dashboard

People often think that they can create one dashboard that will fulfill everyone’s needs. As one discussant put it, they will say the audience for the dashboard is “everyone – all decision makers at all levels!” In reality most organizations will need several dashboards for different levels of decision-making. It’s important to know who will own it, use it, keep it up, and collect the data. Will it be internal or externally facing? Discussing all of this is a key part of the process of thinking through the dashboard. As one discussant outlined, dashboards can be strategic, analytical or operational. But it’s difficult for them to be all three at once. So organizations need to come to a clear understanding of their data and decision-making needs. What information, if available, would help different teams at different levels with their decision making? One dashboard can’t be everything to everyone. Creating a charter that outlines what the dashboard project is and what it aims to do is a way to help avoid mission creep, said one discussant.

3) Work with users to develop your dashboard

To start off the process, it’s important to clearly identify the audience and find out what they need – don’t assume you know, recommended one discussant. But also, as a Salon participant pointed out, don’t assume that they know either. Have a conversation where their and your expertise comes together. “The higher up you go, the less people may understand about data. One idea is to just take the ‘data’ out of the conversation. Ask decision-makers what questions they are trying to answer, what problems they are trying to solve. Then find out how to collect and visualize the data that helps them answer their questions,” suggested another participant. Create ownership and accountability at all levels – with users, with staff who will input the data, with project managers, with grantees – you need cooperation from all levels noted others. Clear buy-in will also help with data quality. If people see the results of their data coming out in a data visualization, they may be more inclined to provide quality data. One way to involve users is to gather different teams to talk about their data and to create ‘entity relationship models’ together. “People can get into the weeds, and then you can build a vocabulary for the organization. Then you can use that model to build the system and create commonality across it,” said one discussant. Another idea is to create paper prototypes of dashboards with users so that they can envision them better.

4) Dashboards help people engage with the data they’ve collected

A dashboard is a window into your data, said one participant. In some cases, seeing their data visualized can help staff to see that they have been providing poor quality data. “People didn’t realize how bad their data was until they saw their dashboard,” said one discussant. Another noted that people may disagree with what the data tells them in the dashboard and feel motivated to provide better data. On the other hand, they may realize that their data was actually good, and instead they need to improve ineffective programs. A danger is that putting a dashboard on top of bad data shines a light on the data, said one participant, and this might create an incentive for people to manipulate their data.

5) Don’t be over-ambitious

Align the dashboard with indicators that link to strategic goals and directions and stay focused, recommended one discussant. There is often a temptation to over-complicate with tons of data and visuals. But extraneous data leads to misinterpretation or distraction. Dashboards should make complex data available in an accessible way to users, she said. You can always make more visuals if needed, but you want a concise story told in the data and visuals that you’re depicting. Determine what is useful, productive and credible and leave out what is exciting but extraneous. “Don’t try to have 30 indicators.”

6) Be clear about your data categories and indicators

Rolling up data from a large number of different programs into a dashboard is a huge challenge, especially if different sites or programs are using different data models. For example, if one program is describing an activity as a ‘workshop’ and the other uses ‘training session,’ said one discussant, you have a problem. A Salon participant explained that her organization started with shallow but important common denominators across programs. Over time they aim to go deeper to begin looking at outcomes and impact.

7) Think through how you’ll sustain the dashboard and related system(s)

One discussant said that her organization established three different teams to work on the dashboard process: a) Metrics – Where do we have credible representative data? Where do we have indicators but we don’t have data? b) Plumbing: Where are the data sources? How do they feed into each other? Who is responsible, and can this be aggregated up? And c) Visualization: What visual would help different decision makers make their decisions? Depending on where the organization is in its stage of readiness and its existing staff capacities, different combinations of skill sets may be required to supplement existing ones. Data experts can help teams understand what is possible, yet program or management teams and other dashboard users also need to be involved so that they can identify the questions they are trying to answer with the data and the dashboard.

8) Don’t underestimate the time/resources needed for a functional dashboard

People may not realize that you can’t make a dashboard without data to support it, noted one participant. “It’s like a power point presentation… a power point doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s a result of conversations, research, data, design and more. But for some reason, people think a dashboard will just magically create itself out of thin air.” People also seem to think you can create and launch a dashboard and then put it on autopilot, but that is not the case. The dashboard will need constant changes and iteration, and there will be continual work to keep it up. The questions being asked will also likely change over time and so the dashboard may need to shift to take this into consideration. Time will be required to get buy-in for the dashboard and its use. One Salon participant said that in her former organization, they met quarterly to present, use and discuss the dashboard, and it took about 2 years in order for it to become useful and for people to become invested in it. It’s very important, said one participant, to ensure that management knows that the dashboard is not a static thing – it will need ongoing attention and management.

9) Be selective when it comes to the technology

People tend to think that dashboards are just visual, said a Salon participant. They think they are really cool, business solution platforms. Often senior leadership has seen been pitched something really expensive and complicated, with all kinds of bells and whistles, and they may think that is what they need. It’s important to know where your organization is in terms of capacity before determining which technology would be the best fit, however, noted one discussant. She counseled organizations to use whatever they have on hand rather than bringing in new software that takes people 6 months to learn how to use. Simple excel-based dashboards might be the best place to start, she said.

10) Legacy systems can be combined with new data viz capabilities

One discussant shared how his company’s information system, which was set up over 15 years ago, did not allow for the creation of APIs. This meant that the team could not build derivative software products from their massive existing database. It is too expensive to replace the entire system, and building modules to replace some of it would lead to fragmenting the user experience. So the team built a thin web service layer on top of the existing system. This exposed the data to friendly web formats from which developers could build interactive products.

11) Be realistic about “real time” and “data quality”

One question that came up was around the the level of evidence needed to make good decisions. Having perfect data served up into a perfect visualization is utopian, said one Salon participant. The idea is that we could have ‘real time’ data to inform our decisions, she explained, yet it’s hard to quality check data so quickly. “So at what level can we say we’ll make decisions based on a level of certainty – is it when we feel 80% of the data is good quality? Do we need to lower that to 60% so that we have timely data? Is that too low?” Another question was around the kinds of decisions that require ‘real time’ data versus those that could be made based on data that is 3 to 6 months old. Salon participants said this will depend on the kind of program and the type of decision. The sector in which one is working may also determine the level of comfort with real time and with data quality – for example, the humanitarian sector may need more timely data and accept a lower level of verification whereas the development sector may be the opposite.

Another point was that dashboards should include error bars and available metadata, as well as in some cases a link to raw data for those who want to dig into the data and understand what is behind the dashboard. Sometimes the dashboard process will highlight that there is simply not much quality data available for some programs in some countries. This can be an opportunity to work with staff on the ground to strengthen capacity to collect it.

12) Relax

As one discussant said, “much of the concern about data quality is related to our own hang-ups as data nerds and what we feel comfortable putting out there for people to use to make decisions. We always say ‘we need more research.’” But here the context is different. “Stakeholders and management want the answer. We need to just put the data out there with some caveats to help them.” One way to offer more context for a dashboard is creating a dashboard report that provides some narrative alongside the visualization. Dashboards should also show trends, not only what has happened already, she said. People need to see trends towards the future so that decisions can be made. It was also pointed out that a dashboard shouldn’t be the only basis for decisions. Like a car dashboard – these data dashboards signal that something is changing but you still need to look under the hood to see what it is. The dashboard should trigger questions – it should be a launch pad for discussion.

13) Organizational culture is a huge part of this process

The internal culture and people’s attitudes towards data are embedded into how an organization operates, noted one Salon participant. This varies depending on the type of organization – an evaluation focused organization vs. a development organization vs. a contractor vs. a humanitarian organization, for example. Outside consultants can help you to build a dashboard, but it will be critical to have someone managing organizational change on the inside who knows the current culture and where the organization is aiming to go with the dashboard process. The process is getting easier, however. Many organizations are thirsty for data now, noted one lead discussant. “Often the research or evaluation team create a dashboard and send it to the management team, and then everyone loves it and wants one. People are ready for it now.”

More resources on data dashboards and visualization.

Special thanks to our lead discussants and to our hosts for this Salon! If you’d like to join our Salon discussions in the future, sign up at the Technology Salon site.

*Salons run under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made in this post.

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by Hila Mehr and Linda Raftree

On March 31, 2015, nearly 40 participants, joined by lead discussants Robert Fabricant, Dalberg Design Team; Despina Papadopoulos, Principled Design; and Roop Pal, PicoSatellite eXploration Lab; came together for Technology Salon New York City where we discussed the future of wearables in international development. As follows is a summary of our discussion.

While the future of wearables is uncertain, major international development stakeholders are already incorporating wearables into their programs. UNICEF Kid Power is introducing wearables into the fight against malnutrition, and is launching a Global Wearables Challenge. The MUAC (mid-upper arm circumference) band already exists in international health. Other participants present were working on startups using wearables to tackle global health and climate change.

As Kentaro Toyama often says “technology is an amplifier of human intent” and the Tech Salon discussion certainly resonated with that sentiment. The future of wearables in international development is one that we–the stakeholders as consumers, makers, and planners–will create. It’s important to recognize the history of technology interventions in international development, and that while wearables enable a new future, technology interventions are not new; there is a documented history of failures and successes to learn from. Key takeaways from the Salon, described below, include reframing our concept of wearables, envisioning what’s possible, tackling behavior change, designing for context, and recognizing the tension between data and privacy.

Reframing our Concept of Wearables

Our first discussant shared historical and current examples of wearables, some from as far back as the middle ages, and encouraged participants to rethink the concept of wearables by moving beyond the Apple Watch and existing, primarily health-related, use cases. While Intel, Arm, and Apple want to put chips on and in our bodies, and we think these are the first cases of wearables, glasses have always been wearable, and watches are wearables that change our notions of time and space. In short, technology has always been wearable. If we stay focused on existing, primarily luxury, use cases like FitBit and Apple Watch, we lose our creativity in new use cases for varying scenarios, he said.

In many cases of technology introduction into a ‘developing world’ context, the technology adds a burden rather than contributing ease. We should be thinking about how wearables can capture data without requiring input, for example. There is also an intimacy with wearables that could eliminate or reframe some of the ingrained paradigms with existing technologies, he noted.

In the most common use cases of wearables and other technology in international development, data is gathered and sent up the chain. Participants should rethink this model and use of wearables and ensure that any data collected benefits people in the moment. This, said the discussant, can help justify the act of wearing something on the body. The information gathered must be better incorporated into a personal-level feedback loop. “The more intimate technology becomes, the greater responsibility you have for how you use it,” he concluded. 

In the discussion of reframing our notion of wearables, our second discussant offered a suggestion as to why people are so fascinated with wearables. “It’s about the human body connected to the human mind,” she explained. “What is it to be human? That’s why we’re so fascinated with wearables. They enlarge the notion of technology, and the relationship between machine, human, and animal.”

Envisioning What’s Possible

In discussing the prominent use of wearables for data collection, one participant asked, “What is possible to collect from the body? Are we tracking steps because that is what we want to track or because that is what’s possible? What are those indicators that we’ve chosen and why?”

We need to approach problems by thinking about both our priorities and what’s possible with wearable technology, was one reply. “As consumers, designers, and strategists, we need to push more on what we want to see happen. We have a 7-year window to create technology that we want to take root,” noted our lead discussant.

She then shared Google Glass as an example of makers forgetting what it is to be human. While Google Glass is a great use case for doctors in remote areas or operators of complex machinery, Google Glass at dinner parties and in other social interactions quickly became problematic, requiring Google to publish guidelines for social uses cases. “It’s great that it’s out there as a blatant failure to teach other designers to take care of this space,” she said. 

Another discussant felt that the greatest opportunity is the hybrid space between specialized and the generalized. The specialized use cases for wearables are with high medical value. And then there are the generalized cases. With expensive and new technology, it becomes cheaper and more accessible as it meets those hybrid use cases in-between specialized and generalized to justify the cost and sophistication of technology. Developing far out and futuristic ideas, such as one lead discussant’s idea for a mind-controlled satellite, can also offer opportunities for those working with and studying technology to unpack and ‘de-scaffold’ the layers between the wearable technology itself and the data and future it may bring with it.

Tackling Behavior Change

One of the common assumptions with wearables is that our brains work in a mechanical way, and that if we see a trend in our data, we will change our behavior. But wearables have proven that is not the case. 

The challenge with wearables in the international development context is making sure that the data collected serves a market and consumer need — what people want to know about themselves — and that wearables are not only focused on what development organizations and researchers want to know. Additionally, the data needs to be valuable and useful to individuals. For example, if a wearable tracks iron levels but the individual doesn’t understand the intricacies of nutrition, their fluctuations in iron levels will be of no use.

Nike Plus and its FuelBand has been one of the most successful activity trackers to date, argued one discussant, because of the online community created around the device. “It wasn’t the wearable device that created behavior change, but the community sharing that went with it.” One participant trained in behavioral economics noted the huge potential for academic research and behavioral economists with the data collected from wearables. A program she had worked on looked closely at test-taking behaviors of boys versus those of girls, and wearables were able to track and detect specific behaviors that were later analyzed and compared.

Designing for Context

Mainstream wearables are currently tailored for the consumer profile of the 35-year-old male fitness buff. But how do we think about the broader population, on the individual and community level? How might wearables serve the needs of those in emergency, low resource, or conflict settings? And what are some of the concerns with wearables?

One participant urged the group to think more creatively. “I’m having trouble envisioning this in the humanitarian space. 5-10 years out, what are concrete examples of someone in Mali, Chad, or Syria with a wearable. How is it valuable? And is there an opportunity to leapfrog with this technology?”

Humanitarian disaster contexts often face massive chaos, low literacy rates, and unreliable Internet connectivity, if Internet exists at all. How can wearables be useful in these cases? One participant suggested they could be used for better ways of coordinating and organizing — such as a warning siren signal wearable for individuals in warzones, or water delivery signal wearable for when water arrives — while keeping in mind real restrictions. For example, there are fears today about vaccines and other development agency interventions. This may escalate with wearable devices or edible tracking devices.

No amount of creativity, however, replaces the realistic and sustainable value of developing technology that addresses real needs in local contexts. That’s where human-centered design and participatory processes play a vital role. Wearable products cannot be built in isolation without users, as various participants highlighted.

As one lead discussant said, we too often look at technology as a magic bullet and we need to avoid doing this again when it comes to wearables. We can only know if wearable technology is an appropriate use case by analyzing the environment and understanding the human body. In Afghanistan, she noted, everyone has an iPhone now, and that’s powerful. But not everyone will have a FitBit, because there is no compelling use case.

Appropriate use cases can be discovered by involving the community of practice from day one, making no assumptions, and showing and sharing methodology and processes. Makers and planners should also be wary of importing resources and materials, creating an entire new ecosystem. If a foreign product breaks with no access to materials and training, it won’t be fixed or sustainable. Designing for context also means designing with local resources and tailored to what the community currently has access to. At the same time, international development efforts and wearable technology should be about empowering people, and not infantilizing them.

The value of interdisciplinary teams and systems maps cannot be overlooked, participants added. Wearables highlight our individual-centric nature, while systems thinking and mapping shows how we relate with ourselves, our community, and the world. Thinking about all of these levels will be important if wearables are to contribute to development in a positive way.

Tensions around Privacy, Data, and Unethical Uses

Wearables exist in tension with identity, intimacy, and privacy. As consumers, users, makers, and planners of wearables, we have to think critically and deeply about how we want our data to be shared. One discussant emphasized that we need to involve VCs, industry, and politicians in discussion around the ethical implications of wearable technology products. The political implications and erosion of trust may be even more complex in developing world contexts, making a consortia and standards even more necessary. 

One participant noted the risks of medical wearable technology and the lack of HIPAA privacy requirements in other countries. The lack of HIPAA should not mean that privacy concerns are glossed over. The ethics of testing apply no matter the environment, and testing completely inappropriate technology in a developing context just for the captive audience is ethically questionable.

Likewise, other participants raised the issue of wearables and other types of technology being used for torture, mind control and other nefarious purposes, especially as the science of ‘mind hacking’ and the development of wearables and devices inserted under the skin becomes more sophisticated.

Participants noted the value in projects like the EU’s Ethics Inside and the pressure for a UN Representative on privacy rights. But there is still much headway to be made as data privacy and ethical concerns only grow.

The Future We Wear

The rapid evolution of technology urges us to think about how technology affects our relationships with our body, family, community, and society. What do we want those relationships to look like in the future? We have an opportunity, as consumers, makers and planners of wearables for the international context to view ourselves as stakeholders in building the future opportunities of this space. Wearables today are where the Internet was during its first five mainstream years. Now is the perfect time to put our stake in the ground and create the future we wish to exist in.

***

Our Wearables and Development background reading list is available here. Please add articles or other relevant resources or links.

Other posts about the Salon, from Eugenia Lee and Hila Mehr.

Many thanks to our lead discussants and participants for joining us, and a special thank you to ThoughtWorks for hosting us and providing breakfast!

Technology Salons run under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this summary post. If you’d like to join future Salons to discuss these and related issues at the intersection of technology and development, sign up at Technology Salon.

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Our January 21st, 2015, Technology Salon examined the role of technology in addressing structural discrimination in the US. We were hosted by the Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF), whose Director of Community Leadership, Tynesha McHarris, served as a lead discussant. Courtney D. Cogburn Assistant Professor of Social Work at Columbia University and Senior Advisor to the International Center for Advocates against Discrimination (ICAAD), joined as our second discussant.

Our discussion covered various angles, as summarized below, related to the central point of structural discrimination and racism.

Discrimination has multiple forms.

It can be observed at an individual level and in exchanges between people, but we shouldn’t reduce discrimination to a problem of an individual’s beliefs and behaviors, said our first lead discussant, Courtney. Rather we need to look at it as a complex whole that is embedded into structures and culture, and as a set of historic discriminatory patterns that produce systemic social disadvantage. “If we focus at the individual level, we will focus on individual accountability and individual solutions. Instead of looking at the systemic issues, we’ll encourage individuals to try harder, to be smarter, to stop being criminals. We’ll look at those who turn out OK as being exceptional,” she said.

“’I’m not racist’ doesn’t mean ‘I’m anti-racism.’ I don’t need you to like me, I need you to hate racism,” she continued. Interpersonal relationships won’t end structural and social disadvantage. This issue is also bigger than simple socio-economic status. So ending poverty won’t eradicate racism. In our society, there are two sides of the coin – discrimination or privilege, advantage or disadvantage. Our roles and our accountability here depend on how we came out in the coin toss.”

Empirical data on racism in the US are troubling.

As Courtney outlined:

  • Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be rejected or receive worse terms on a loan — even when they have comparable financial backgrounds/risk to Whites
  • White men earn roughly 15% more than Black men with comparable education and experience
  • A White male with a felony conviction is more likely to be hired than a Black male with a clean record — all other factors being the same
  • Black women with a college degree have higher risk of premature/low birth weight than every other racial/ethnic group across levels of education
  • Even when accounting for various socio-economic status factors, including quality of health insurance: Blacks have an early onset, worse progression and premature death; they are more likely to be amputated and less likely to receive pain medication; and mothers exposed to discrimination while pregnant have higher stress hormones, which transfer over to their newborn children
  • Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer. And Black men, our discussant argued, are also more likely to have their deaths mocked, for example, in the case of Trayvon Martin Halloween costumes and the Mike Brown musical.

In the US we fail to frame this as a human rights issue.

If we observed a similar situation happening elsewhere in the world, we would consider it a human rights issue, commented one participant. How can we change the debate in the US? Another felt we need to move the debate within the US from offering ‘charity’ to talking about ‘justice.’ “We need to talk about privilege and power, and philanthropy is about both – it’s older White men making decisions about money that impact the lives of people of color.”

Can technology help?

Social awareness and empathy are critical, as are data and equity-based policies, noted a discussant. Social awareness can help people see beyond their own realities. That might help more people to support equity-based policy. But we also need data in order to document discrimination. “If you don’t have an empirical base, people say ‘that’s just you, you’re playing the race card, Black people are just more violent.’ So we need data to show patterns of violence and discrimination in order to tackle this at the systemic level.” Newer technology can play a role with helping people empathize and with collecting data and visualizing patterns.

In the past several months, videos and hashtags have played a critical role in documenting racist incidents and engaging people and helping them to empathize, said a lead discussant. State violence and police violence are not new, but people are talking about them right now. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was run by Black queer women. They are not being recognized for this, yet it’s been trending all over the world. At the same time, it makes me want to cry. I need a hashtag to tell the world that my life, the lives of Black people matter? Just having to state that is problematic.”

Amplifying stories, such as is happening in the ‘Serial’ podcast, which has caused a case to be re-opened, is another way that technology and media have addressed racism and built empathy through mainstream and social media. Gaming may also be a way to help people empathize, said another participant. Efforts are also being made to use virtual reality technology (oculus rift) to help people empathize with situations that they cannot personally experience. YouTube has been a powerful space for helping bring issues of structural racism and State sponsored violence against certain groups into the public eye both nationally and internationally.

“I’m from Cleveland,” noted another participant, “and I’ve been in touch with organizers working on the Tamir Rice case. Technology in that instance has been so helpful in organizing a disorganized city. We’re talking about Google groups and list serves being used in similar ways to how women used list serves and yahoo groups to organize post-Katrina relief. So technology can include even the bare minimum. Email is so powerful to organize mass amounts of people. The NY Justice League is also doing a lot of this kind of work.”

Tech can also help with transparency and credibility. “We found that putting data up on a website helped us to be credible and more transparent – it also gave us strength, backing and encouragement. We posted video narratives backed up with data, and this became part of our outreach and a focus for wider discussions about structural discrimination and issues like the criminal justice system and school suspensions,” commented one person.

Collecting and visualizing data is another arena where technology is useful in the case of structural discrimination, noted another participant, giving the example of hate crimes. “The New York Police Department only has reports of between 7 and 9 thousand hate crimes per year, yet the Department of Justice records up to 290k hate crimes. That is a data gap. We’ve argued that the absence of data is a structural issue. How can the State protect what it has no knowledge or record of? Tech and better data could fill this gap. Communities could report hate crimes through an app either directly to the police or to an NGO/civil society organization as a liaison if they felt uncomfortable reporting directly due to fear of the police.” Better tracking could help put more resources into preventing and following up on hate crimes.

We also need to be better at translating data for people and building empathy around it, said a discussant. “I think we have enough data. We know what’s going on. The issue is translating data across spaces. How can we create a collective body of data? And then there’s a big problem with framing of the issues. I can tell you all day long that Blacks are more likely to die early or be shot by the police, but if that doesn’t fit within your frame or align with your thinking, the data won’t matter.”

Obviously, tech can’t do it all!

“We can’t ask tech to do the work that our minds and hearts have to do,” said one person.

“In Ferguson, right after Mike Brown was murdered, I was close to the people running the Ferguson Action website. I watched a team of communications and web people trying to figure out how to talk about this with America. They were trying to make it compelling enough so that the world would respond to the death of a child, and that broke my heart a little.” People responded to Ferguson because of raw images of young people resisting that shocked us out of our senses, she added.

“We need organizers, lawyers, and communications strategists in this fight. We can’t expect for tech to take the place of work of courage, of seeing the world as it is, and knowing we have agency to change it. Without that website, without that hashtag, however, would the world have known what was happening?” she asked. “Technology and branding brought it to national and world attention.”

Despite that, however, young Black men are still getting shot. It’s still repeating itself. We need to open minds and hearts because there are fundamental beliefs that our media, our literature, our stories are cemented in. Changing minds and hearts is the work we still need to do, she commented.

Tech may divide communities and limit participation

As much as technology can help to support to organize people around human rights and social justice work, tech can also divide communities, noted one discussant. “In East New York, [during a consultation process in Brooklyn], we found that those who feel the most comfortable and confident using tech have been at an advantage when it comes to pushing for their opinions about what is happening in our communities. So they end up having a greater amount of participation in development processes in Brooklyn.” Often new ways of participating in these debates don’t take into consideration that many older people would prefer to find out about things through a flyer and to participate face to face or in community meetings. There are also people with disabilities and recent immigrants who tend to be left out as government starts to become e-government and consultations are more often conducted online.

We need to better understand technology used by and against our communities

“In doing research in Bed-Sty with young people of color on their social networks and tech use, I realized that I had a lot of assumptions about youth culture, mobile technology, and community relations, and they’ve all been challenged. As researchers, we need to continually ask ourselves how tech can help us document discrimination. We need to look at the hardware, the digital artifacts, the hashtags that help us to locate culture and document conversations,” said one person.

“These young people are on platforms I’ve never heard of,” she continued. “They are negotiating their identity spaces in ways I’ve never heard of before. I’m always asking ‘What are you doing? What does that mean?’ I’m asking about ethical and privacy issues and surveillance. I’m less interested in what they are doing when they are online or on their phones and more concerned about how their community is being watched from the outside and how that connects to what they do in their online spaces. There are lots of video cameras in their neighborhoods. They’ll ask me: will the police see my text messages? There is a concern and an acknowledgement of surveillance via social media and tech.” Another participant shared some detailed research on access to and use of technology among low income New Yorkers conducted by her organization.

What about teaching Black youth to code?

Some participants felt that efforts to teach Black and Latino you to code are critical to resolving structural discrimination. “One of the biggest economic justice issues in our country is young people of color not coding,” said one participant. “Coding lets you create things and you can generate income just by people downloading your app.” Currently the vast majority of coders are White and Asian males, and schools don’t tend to teach brown and black kids how to code, they said.

Others pushed back at this idea. “Young ppl I’m working with are not creating apps. They are trying to figure out how to use tech in their day-to-day lives – to create a resume, to find a job. We should be thinking about what are the possibilities and the challenges of having these devices in our communities. How do they constrain or offer support?” commented one person. Another noted “Access to tech is not as simple as ‘Do you have access to a computer and some will power.’ The problem is that systematically for the first 15 years of a young Black man’s life he gets the message that he is worthless. It’s not just parents, it’s teachers, it’s television, and it’s the structural issues. We need to also create environments that encourage Black youth.”

One discussant said that the default response is to point out individual success stories and to put effort into helping individuals who are disadvantaged, “but how about working more to shake things up at the top and hold the privileged and advantaged more accountable? Rather than ‘How do we help these poor kids,’ we should be asking, ‘how are we helping remedy this at its source?’”

These are social justice issues, commented another person. “So yes, teaching 10 year olds to code is great. But the problem is that this is a structural problem that hits 80 year olds, 60 year olds, 40 year olds, and 20 year olds. There is no quick fix. We need to continue to organize. And apps are not the real structural and systemic change that we need. We need to also talk about funding. There is no funding for a radically different way of thinking. It will take time. But how to put money behind big ideas?” she asked. “Can we seed and support more entrepreneurial work with youth in our communities? Is there a tech opportunity there? Can we use technology to link people to a tenant protection fund and to connect them with tenant rights information and eviction support? What would all that look like and how can we make it happen?”

The Brooklyn Insights report synthesizes input from individuals and community organizations across the boroughs and sets out priorities .

The Brooklyn Insights report synthesizes input from individuals and community organizations across the boroughs and sets out priorities.

We need more participatory design and cross-disciplinary teams

“Are the people we are trying to help at the table with us when we are designing?” asked a participant. “And can we do a better job of helping designers and coders to empathize with the people they are designing for? Can we get people out of their boxes and will they be willing to work in an environment where they feel consistently uncomfortable with their own privilege and power?”

“Are there places besides Tech Salon where these conversations are happening?” asked another person. Participants noted that there are hackathons but felt that normally they don’t lead to much in the way of real change. Doing a hackathon for and by a particular user community and tying developments into services that will still be there on Monday was one suggestion for remedying this gap.

Others asked how we could bring together multi-disciplinary teams that combine a deep knowledge of and experience in a community with social science, data science, law, and the social media capacity to help people empathize. A number of organizations present at the Salon are working with and/or conducting research in communities in Brooklyn or around issues of structural discrimination. Others specialize in creating technology for low-resource communities, and some are funding or otherwise supporting wider efforts to reduce structural discrimination. There was interest in continuing this discussion and addressing together some of the structural discrimination issues felt in Brooklyn communities and in the wider US.

Take a look at the BCF’s Insights report, which summarizes results from community consultations with over 1000 Brooklyn residents and numerous community organizations and offers a good overview of the core issues that Brooklyn communities are facing. And join us for Technology Salon Brooklyn, in collaboration with the Brooklyn Community Foundation, where we’ll meet (in Brooklyn) to discuss some of the issues raised and the role of technology in addressing or exacerbating them.

Thanks to ThoughtWorks for providing breakfast for us and to BCF for hosting! If you’d like to attend Technology Salon Brooklyn or Technology Salon New York City, sign up here to receive invitations!

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AnthropologyThere’s a popular saying amongst the tech and development crowd that 10% of an ICT4D initiative is the tech and the rest is…. well, the rest. I’ve recently heard a modified version that says 5% is the idea and 10% is the business model, and the other 85% is…. well, the rest. The ‘rest’ is mostly made up of people, culture, context and the stuff of anthropologists.

At the Slush conference in Helsinki in November, I joined a short ‘Fireside Chat’ with Tanya Accone (UNICEF) and Mika Valitalo (Plan Finland) about the importance of that other 85-90%, which Tanya referred to as ‘peopleware’.

Tanya kicked off the panel by asking people to think about how much time they’d dedicated to the technology of their start-up idea or their tech solution – the hardware and the software – and to then ask themselves how much time they’d spent on the people component. “People are what will make or break your idea,” she said. When it comes to mobile adoption, for example, we are seeing an exponential adoption pattern all over the world, and people are driving that. “I bet every single one of you at SLUSH hopes to see that curve in your future.”

She went on to note that conventional wisdom is that ‘content is king,’ however a key takeaway from her work in the mobile and social entrepreneurship space is that content been deposed by context. For example, when working with the U-Report project in Liberia, lessons from other countries where it had been rolled out were incorporated, but they had to be contextualized to make them work in Liberia. This involved talking and working directly with youth to ensure that the programming could be adapted properly.

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.34.47 PMMika agreed that ‘peopleware’ is a critical consideration. “I’ve witnessed this 10:90% ratio several times when co-designing and supporting projects using technology for social impact in African countries,” he said, and told the story of working on enhancing birth registration in Kenya, where the slow and manual flow of information between people and the government seemed to be a key challenge that could be tackled with use of mobiles and computers and applications.

“However, the deeper we dug the more varied the challenges seemed to be. We realized that people might be reluctant to register children when local practices were not in sync with the existing legislation. For example, if men are marrying girls under the age of 18, they might not like the idea of birth registration as it would prove a girl’s age. People living near the Kenya-Tanzania border might not want to be identified as being from one or the other country, because being unregistered may allow them to move back and forth across the border more easily and receive some type of benefit or commerce opportunity.

Even with a functioning mobile phone and app in their hand, people will weigh multiple aspects based on their personal situation before taking action. So, spending enough time with end-users and trying to see the world through their eyes as much as possible is crucial, especially when working in places that are not familiar to you. This may sound self-evident, but I’d encourage everyone keep this top on the list.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.28.39 PMI shared two of the key points from the Technology Salon earlier in the week on the topic of start-ups and social impact: a) the importance of partnership and collaboration (eg, people), and b) knowing the local context — not just the technical landscape, but people and culture.

These two aspects were really highlighted for me when I was working on a project in Cameroon that trained youth to use mobile phones to make short videos that they used to organize and advocate for change in their communities and more broadly. The donor was a large mobile phone manufacturer who assumed youth would use their higher-end phones to create the videos. The youth, however, were much more familiar with simple phones like the Nokia 1100. The phones we purchased in order to get good video quality had too many layers and folders and features. So we ended up getting some Flip cameras, because what we really needed was a push and shoot video camera, and this design was a better fit for low-income rural youth who had limited experience with technology.

We also realized that though the training was set up for youth, community adults were really interested in learning to make videos too. So we had to find ways to engage them so that they would not feel left out and so that we could ensure their continued support for the youth’s efforts. This meant we had to spread our resources out a little further than we had imagined, but we saw it as necessary. In all these processes we had to balance the context and reality on the ground, the expectations of the youth and community, expectations of our local partners, and those of the donor.

Tanya added that achieving success with social impact sometimes means rethinking your business model, because you’re in pursuit of the double dividend of financial return and social impact. She gave an example in Burundi where only 3% of the population has access to the electricity grid. “You would think it’s a market ripe for alternative energy solutions. But many businesses avoided it because their existing retail and distribution models simply would not work in that context. It took deconstructing and reconstructing business models to create something that does work — a network of microfinanced microfranchises operated by village-level entrepreneurs.” Now the families use robust, fast-charging LED lights recharged through a pedal-powered generator, a system that also recharges mobile phones. 

Another aspect is understanding the value proposition, she said. It would seem to be basic business, but all too often well-intended initiatives forget this and rush in with a cheaply-made solution. “In the process, they trample over the basic human dignity of their target consumer or beneficiary.” She suggested keeping in mind that people with limited resources are among the most discerning consumers because they don’t have disposable income. They are cost conscious, and equally, they are looking at value for money and return on investment in the durability, feature sets and total cost of ownership of everything they buy and value. This means that more energy-efficient chips, better battery technology, and robust handsets are important to economically challenged users.

Tanya also noted that ‘base of the pyramid’ users are no less style-conscious or aspirational than consumers in general, so “don’t disrespect them by skimping on the design and delivery of your solution. And like you and me, consumers in marginalized communities seek enjoyment and entertainment and fun too. Music has huge pull and potential… and don’t forget that pay-as-you-go comes with data!”

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.29.41 PMMika shared an example where the technology that was introduced carried almost too much power with it. In this project, a mobile phone was loaded with videos and connected to a portable projector. Daycare workers and parents were able to watch good childcare practices from model early childhood care and development centers. “What we found out was that using new technology not seen before sometimes amplified the message so much that caregivers wanted to discard what they already knew and replace it with what they saw on the screen from the model daycare centers.” Though the project showed the power of tech, unintended consequences may come up at the intersection of software, hardware and ‘peopleware’.

Mika talked about another project in Uganda that supported parents’ involvement into school activities. Plan realized that men were more willing to come to parent-teacher meetings once they introduced a mobile SMS service through which they sent invitations. The technology lowered the threshold for men to participate in issues they might have previously considered ‘women’s issues’. These subtle dynamics in the local context can have a big influence on how an innovation works, he noted.

Mika’s takeaways for startups and innovators were that civil society organizations might offer good synergy for co-designing, testing out and distributing products and services. “I’ve seen startups getting needs and ideas from the ground through NGOs, and then innovating products and services together. For example we produced a start-up mobile data gathering tool called Poimapper based on the needs coming from our frontline staff. We did on the ground pilots and product development in Kenya with actual end users who gave crucial feedback to make the service work well. Peopleware matters and partnering with NGOs can help startups to get it right,” he said.  “INGOs often have a wide presence around the world, and they are on the ground in communities and the surrounding society. They know quite a lot about peopleware, participatory methods, and community engagement. Then again, they don’t necessary have the same agility and fast innovation processes combined with new business models that startups are often good at.  So, my advice to NGOs is to go and meet startups and visa versa.”

I added that it’s important to understand who has access to and control of devices, and to ensure that a product or service is valuable to people in the long-term. So first — Who owns the phone? Who controls it? Often the story is that everyone has a phone but you may find that some people own 2 phones, some don’t have any. You may find that the people you least expect to have phones have them or can access them, and those you’d think would have a phone don’t. This is critical especially when working with girls and women who typically have lower access and control – and of course you should be sure the project is including girls and women!

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 4.31.42 PMAlso, you may be working with people who have very little disposable cash – but if your application or idea saves time and money and meets a real need, they may be willing to move their resources from one thing to another. For example, using solar for light and charging up phones can save money and time as well as eliminate the health risks of kerosene lamps. However, you need to make sure that what you offer is a long-term and sustainable change. When people have limited resources, they’ll be hesitant to invest in something new if they are not assured that it will be available, sustainable and cheaper in the long term.

Lastly, as Mika said, partnering with non-profits can offer start-ups a way to reach communities, because some non-profits are quite well-known and respected by the community (though of course, some are not too!). But ethical non-profits will not risk their reputations on ideas that they do not believe in, that are unconvincing, or that seem to take advantage of the poor. Start-ups will need to have clear ideas and evidence that a proposition is solid, because most non-profits have a low tolerance for risk and failure and (one hopes) a higher ethical standard than a basic money-making operation.

Tanya closed us out by summing up the key points:

  1. People are your critical success factor. “People” include your end-user as well as those that you may be partnering with.
  2. Context is king! Understand the social dynamics, know who owns and controls the device, know what people spend money on.
  3. Build a better business model.
  4. Understand the value proposition — Figure out how your application/tool/innovation can help save precious $ and time.
  5. Understand your partners — Remember that brand and reputation are very important to non-profits, and they don’t like risk.

Thanks to Tanya and Mika for co-collaboration on the Fireside Chat and this blog post!

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IMG_5689Technology Salon Helsinki kicked off as part of Slush, a fantastic start-up and technology event that takes place with about 10,000 people every Fall in the Finnish capital. Slush added a social impact stream for the first time this year, making it a good fit for Technology Salon. Plan Finland organized the Salon and Netlight hosted.

Our topic for this Salon was broad – how can technology increase social impact? – but lead discussants (Jussi Hinkkanen of Fuzu, René Parker from rLabs, and Mika Valitalo of Plan Finland) brought inspiring personal stories, fundamental questions, practical experiences, challenges and questions that made for an intimate and lively conversation that incorporated expertise from everyone in the room.

The discussion raised a number of key points for social impact start-ups and those working in the development space:

1. Making a direct contribution to social impact is a prime motivator. Most people in the room who considered themselves to be entrepreneurs or who felt they were working with a ‘start-up’ or ‘social innovation’ mentality had tried different pathways before landing on their current one, yet had found them unsatisfying due to bureaucracy, lack of agility, unsustainable efforts, systems not based on merit, and feelings of not being able to input into or control decisions. “Do I want a job where I’m comfortable, well-paid and getting accolades for the supposed social good I’m doing, but where I know I’m not having any real impact, or do I want to be somewhere that I’m paid less but I’m actually doing something worthwhile?” summed up one participant.

2. It’s not clear how to best achieve social impact at scale. There was some disagreement in the room regarding whether it was better to work outside of the system to avoid the above-noted problems with corporate social responsibility efforts, governments, multi-laterals and international development agencies, or whether it was imperative to work with those institutions in order to achieve longer-lasting impact at scale. Questions were also raised about what is meant by scale. If we help communities to demand better government services through some kind of innovative approach, that can also lead to a scaled impact and more resources and social good coming into a community, even though the scaled impact is not so directly attributable. The big question is how to achieve scale yet remain locally relevant and contextually sensitive.

3. Keeping a social impact focus is a challenge. It’s critical to think about both social impact and sustainability from the very beginning, participants agreed. A social impact start-up, like any business, needs to pay salaries and other costs, so it needs a good business model that brings in enough revenue. “If you do not show revenue and growth, you will drive off investors,” said others, “and then your start-up won’t grow.” Yet those in the lowest income bracket will not have the highest capacity to pay for services, and donors often have policies prohibiting them from funding profit-building entities, even if they start off as non-profits. Ensuring that investors have a social impact motivation so that the mission of the start-up does not skew as it grows can also be a challenge. This area is being somewhat addressed by ‘social impact investing’ however, “as a start-up entrepreneur,” said one participant, “you know that next phase investors don’t like it if you have an impact investor already on board, so that makes it difficult to get further funding.” This all poses real challenges for start-ups.

4. Social good is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone will say that their company is values-based and that it’s ‘doing good’ but who decides on and judges the social function of a company? “Maybe one way is to see if it motivates Generation Y,” said one participant. Another pointed out that one company might be doing something that is perceived as ‘socially good’, but it might have a very small impact. Whereas another company might be doing something not perceived as ‘socially good’ (say, selling clothing) yet it has embedded strong values, good business ethics, pays workers well with good benefits, doesn’t pollute the environment and contributes to local economic growth in a large way. People won’t think of the second company as doing social good even if its social impact is greater than the first company. The idea of social impact is largely in the mind of the beholder, concluded one person, it’s in the psyche.

5. Staying true to social impact values in the long-term is difficult. As one discussant noted, keeping the social impact mindset requires constant consideration as to whether you are doing good with and for your employees, but you also need to ask the community that you are serving what they think. “It’s easy to say you are doing social good, but if you go directly to ask people in the community whether your initiative is doing what it says and if it’s having a good impact, you’ll see it’s not easy. When an investor comes along who wants to change things, you always have to go back to look at who you are, how you started, how a particular change will impact the organization, and how it will impact on the thousands of people who rely on you.”

6. A sustainable business model helps bring autonomy according to one discussant. A start-up can remain agile and make its own decisions if there are no donors or external funders. Having its own sustainable revenue stream will allow it to stay true to its vision and to community needs, or at least provide enough to cover staff and operations costs. However, partnership and collaboration are key. “You have to work with other people whether you like it or not. If you are working as a social impact start-up, you’ll need to partner with those already working in the community, and work with everyone to bring in their part. Just because there is a community out there somewhere, you can’t assume that they don’t know what is happening or that they don’t know anything. You need to partner with these local groups and work with the existing community context and structures.”

7. An innovative business model trumps innovative technology. Many of the places where non-profits are working and where people may think about ‘social good’ start-ups are those where the market doesn’t work and people have very few resources. Yet these are the very people we want to support the most in terms of social impact, said one discussant, so how can we do it? Targeting solutions and payment for different parts of the markets might be one way, for example, offering a solution to the segment of the market that can pay and in that way extending the services to those who cannot pay. “The most innovative thing here is the business model, not the technological solution,” advised another person. “And if you really listen to people and you build according to people’s needs, you may uncover needs as well as new markets and business models.” Your services will need to keep evolving over time, however, as people’s needs and the context changes. “You need to go there and spend time with people in order to deeply understand their needs, their contexts and their behaviors.”

8. People won’t think like you think. Another participant quoted activists in the disability movement “Nothing about us without us,” saying that start-ups should follow that mantra also. All the really bad examples of NGO, government, development or corporate failures have been when people are looking top-down or outside-in, she said. “When you think ‘since those people are poor, they have nothing, they will really want this thing I’m going to give them,’ you will fail,” she added. “People everywhere already have values, knowledge, relationships, things that they themselves value. This all impacts on what they want and what they are willing to receive. The biggest mistake is assuming that you know what is best, and thinking ‘these people would think like me if I were them.’ That is never the case.”

9. There is space for various approaches. You won’t want one single product or service to monopolize, said one person. “There are roles and limitations for different entities in any community. There are some non-income generating things that can and need to happen, and that is actually fine. It used to be a charity and welfare mentality, but now we think markets will solve everything. Neither extreme is correct. We need to have space for various partners and efforts.” At the same time, there needs to be space for different partners at different stages in time. It is important for the various partners to understand what their role is. Emergency support is good in an immediate post-conflict stage, for example, but then humanitarian organizations need to step aside and open space for other actors when a community or country moves to a more stable development and growth period.

10. It’s difficult to find investors for social impact in ‘the South.’ The perceived risk in investing in start-ups that want to ‘go South’ or start-ups already based in ‘the South’ makes it hard to find investors. “Finnish investors are myopic,” said one person. “Finland has already provided examples of how companies can access these new opportunities and also have a social impact. Spending power has skyrocketed in some countries. If investors looked properly, they would see the potential of making more money in some of these vast markets than they can in Europe or Finland,” noted another person. The risk is indeed greater due to various elements in some of these countries, added one person. “It’s like courtship – you can’t go after people who are not in your league or not right for you. But if you find the right investor who understands the risk as well as the significant potential returns, it can be a great marriage.”

11. NGOs and start-ups can be great partners. They can come up with ideas from scratch, or they can partner later in the process. NGOs can take advantage of start-up applications and services, whereas the start-ups can find new customers, build a portfolio, do field-testing and get feedback on what to improve with their idea. In addition the two have a lot to teach each other, said one discussant. “NGOs can learn a lot from start-ups about how to operate. They should be learning how to think about iterative improvements, pivoting and changing quickly, failing fast and learning fast.” Start-ups can also learn from NGOs. “Some NGOs are quite good at participatory practices, knowing the community well, collaborating at multiple levels with various stakeholders, communities and governments.” In addition, community-based organizations know the community very well and often work together well with start-ups and NGOs.

12. Pacing and timing can make collaboration tricky. The pacing in these different organizations and partners is quite different, however, and that causes friction and frustration. But even large multi-lateral agencies can be helpful for start-ups who want to gain entry into different countries or communities because they are well-known and because they can provide an ethical and legal framework that helps protect the start-up from making big mistakes due to a lack of understanding of these key elements. NGOs can also serve as a kind of infrastructure upon which to build start-up efforts. Lack of NGO and donor agility however sometimes causes efforts to fail. Hybrid models of funding that can enable start-up-NGO collaboration are needed. One discussant emphasized the importance for start-ups to generate their own funding on the one hand while seeking donor funds for some things too, but never doing anything for a donor that is not part of the organizations core mission.

13. You need to lose the ego. In every sector, egos and brands get in the way of social impact. Start-up founders have egos too, and the start-up personality may often be one that wants the spotlight, or in order to obtain funding the start-up may need to act in a particular way, and this can be detrimental. “For social impact work, we need to think about catalyzing something, not being the center of it. We need to help bring snowballs to the top of the hills, and then let them roll down on their own without branding,” recommended one participant. “We hear that 60% of mHealth initiatives die before they thrive. They are isolated, with little connection and interface with one another. We need more platforms and sharing, less egos and brands.”

IMG_5690Next Technology Salon Helsinki. Plan Finland is hoping to continue convening in Helsinki. If you are interested, sign up to get invitations at Technology Salon!

I’d also recommend attending Slush next year – especially if you like high energy, high-tech, Helsinki and lasers! I’m sure next year’s impact stream will be as good or even better than this year.

Thanks again to Plan for convening and sponsoring the first Salon, to Slush for including it as part of their Social Impact Stream, and to Netlight for hosting at their beautiful offices!

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Our Technology Salon in New York City on Oct 7 focused on the potential of games and gamification in international development work. Joining us as lead discussants were Asi Burak (Games for Change), Nick Martin (TechChange), and Craig Savel and Stan Mierzwa from Population Council.

TechChange is a social enterprise that uses principles of gamification on its online education platform to incentivize learners to participate and interact. Games for Change has been around for 10 years, working on convening events and festivals about games for social change, curating and sharing these kinds of games, producing games in an effort to mainstream social issues, and providing strategy support for games. Population Council is using personalized avatars (participants select skin color and tone, weight, dress, piercings, and sexuality) to encourage US youth in low-income settings to provide health data through online surveys.

The three discussants provided background on their programs, benefits of gaming and gamification, and challenges they are facing. Then we opened up to a wider discussion, whose main points are summarized here:

Public perception about games is mixed. Some people believe in the potential of games for a range of goals. Interest in gaming in the field of development is growing quickly – but many organizations rush into gaming as a ‘silver bullet’ or trend and do not fully understand how to go about integrating game theory or creating games. Others believe games are shallow and violent and cannot be used for serious work like education or development.

More nuanced discussion is needed to distill out the various ways that games can support development. “The conversation needs to move from ‘why would you use games?’ to how can you use games? How do you succeed? What can we learn from failure? What methodologies work and what are the good practices? Games for Change is working on a typology report that would outline what games can do, when, where and how. The organization is also working to define how to measure success for different types of games. A learning/educational game is very different from an awareness raising or a behavior change game, and approaches need to reflect that fact.

Data extraction was one concern. “Are we just creating games so that we can extract and use people’s data? Or so that we can shift their behaviors from one thing to another?” asked a Salon participant. “Why not co-create and co-design games that provide benefits to the players and their communities rather than extracting information for our own purposes? Where are the games that encourage two-way conversations with authorities or NGOs? How can we use game theory to open up these discussions to make for more transparent conversations?”

Games by their very nature are more participatory than other media, others felt. “Traditional media are top down and linear, providing a scripted story that someone designed for us and where we have no choice as to the consequences. We can’t change the path, and there is one beginning and one end. But games are about participation and feedback. People surprise us by how they play our games. They get takeaways that we didn’t anticipate. At the same time, you can glean a lot of information about people from how they use, play, and move through games. So games are also very good for collecting information and evaluating people and their behaviors.”

(Co)-creation of games is indeed happening all over the world. Rather than create games in New York or DC, there are huge opportunities for working with local developers to create games that resonate with local audiences and communities. Some organizations use open source, free software such as Scratch, a game making software that even children are using to create games. “In Colombia, we used Scratch to engage kids who were going to Internet cafes and just doing emails and chatting. We trained the kids in 30 minutes and they learned to program in blocks and to do animations and make games,” reported one Salon participant.

Games and gamification resonate with all cultures because they stem from play, and all cultures play. There are cultural differences however that need to be considered, and even more important may be aspects like gender barriers, urban/rural differences, and access to the technology and platforms on which digital games are played. In rural Uganda, for example, one organization is using gaming in an online learning program with 3000 pharmacists to train them on how to use a new rapid diagnostic test for treating malaria. The gaming was not a problem, as the group was well versed in gaming concepts. The challenge was teaching the group to use computers. It’s likely that fewer women and girls game in some contexts because of their lower access to technology, lack of time, cultural/gender barriers.

Photo sourced from: Do Something, on http://mashable.com/2012/12/20/dosomething-texting/

Moving games to mobile may help reduce technology barriers. SMS gaming has been quite successful in some cases. One example cited at the Salon was DoSomething.org who created an SMS-based game around teen pregnancy that girls and their boyfriends could sign up for. They would receive texts from “the baby” asking for a diaper change, food, and other things, and this helped them to understand what having a baby might be like. The game was very social and engaged both males and females.

Building on existing viral trends was another suggestion for making better use of gaming. “The most successful and fast-spreading services over mobile seem to be horoscopes and tips. For example, viral spread of a game where someone records their voice, the app scrambles it, and they send it to their friend, is huge right now. How can we harness and try to better understand the potential of those types of threads in the communities where we are working?” asked one Salon participant. “In addition, there is an explosion of things like gambling games in China. What could development organizations do to tap into trends that have nothing to do with development, and piggyback on them?”

Balancing fun/games and learning/impact was another challenge or organizations using games. Some media houses are taking documentary films about serious issues and making them interactive through games so that people can engage more deeply with the story and information. One of these puts the viewer in the shoes of an investigative journalist working on a story about pirate fishing off the coast of Sierra Leone. “The challenge is balancing the need to tell a linear story with people’s desire to control the action, and how to land the player at the end point where the story actually should end.” The trade offs between greater interaction vs staying true to the story can be difficult to manage. Likewise, when using game theory in education, the challenge is balancing game play with the social issue. “We need to figure out how to reward for quality not quantity of participation when using gamification for learning,” said one Salon participant, “and figuring out how to avoid making the game the whole point and losing the learning aspect.”

What about girls and women and gaming? The field of gaming has traditionally appealed to men and boys, noted some, but what is behind this? Some Salon participants felt this was in part because of biological differences, but others felt that we may be playing into stereotypes by thinking that men like gaming and women like social media and communication. One study (by Matthew Kam), for example, notes that when girls in India were given mobile phones on which to play a literacy game, their brothers would often take the phones away and parents would not intervene.

Women are gaming – a lot! Statistically speaking, in the US and Europe, women are now around 50% of gamers. There is a big gap in terms of women game developers, however, and the gaming field is struggling intensely with the balance shifting to a more equal one between men and women.This has erupted into a controversy called ‘GamerGate’ that is rocking the gaming industry and provoking a heated (and often ugly) conversation. “Women who game and who develop games face an incredible amount of harassment online and in person because they are a minority in their field,” commented one Salon participant.

Few game developers are women. “Only 10% of game developers are women,” noted one Salon participant. “There is a lot of discussion in the sector on misogyny. If you play any of the more popular games, the main characters are always men.  Outspoken female developers talking about more inclusive games (as opposed to shooting games) have been targeted and harassed.” (See the recent backlash against Anita Sarkeesian). There is a sense from some male game developers that women developers are entering into a space and taking something away from it. An upcoming film called “GTFO” documents the situation. Though there are changes happening in the independent gaming sector and women are playing a bigger and more vocal role, this has not yet hit the mainstream. Until that happens, said one Salon participant, we will continue to see a lack of representation and agency of women in games/gaming similar to that which we see in the Hollywood movie industry. (See the Geena Davis Institute’s research on gender bias in the film industry.)

Can games reach low income gamers in ‘developing countries’? Much of the gaming dynamic will need to adapt if we want to reach lower income populations. Likely this will happen through mobile, but in places like Kenya and India, for example, people have mobiles but don’t download games. “It may take 5-10 years before people everywhere are downloading and playing mobile games,” said one Salon participant. In addition, there is a lot of work to be done on business models and monetization so that these efforts are sustainable. “People love free things. And they are not used to paying for things in the digital space.” In the meantime, analog games can also be hugely beneficial, and many organizations at present are using more traditional games in their work.

What would help organizations to work more with games and gamification? Areas for further exploration include:

  • Stories of surprise wins and successes
  • More evidence and analysis of what works and where/why/how/when/with whom
  • Better understanding of free content and business models and sustainability
  • More evidence that games contribute to learning, literacy, numeracy, behavior change (eg., studies like this one)
  • Better understanding by donors/organizations of the wider ecosystem that goes into creating a successful game
  • Funding that includes support for the wider ecosystem, not just funding to make a game
  • More work with local developers who are proficient at making games and who understand the local context and market

As a starting point, Games for Change’s website has a good set of resources that can help organizations begin to learn more. We’re also compiling resources here, so take a look and add yours!

Thanks to Nick, Asi, Stan and Craig for joining as lead discussants, and to Population Council for hosting the Salon!

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

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