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Last week’s Technology Salon New York City touched on ethics in technology for democracy initiatives. We heard from lead discussants Malavika Jayaram, Berkman Center for Internet and SocietyIvan Sigal, Global Voices; and Amilcar Priestley, Afrolatin@ Project. Though the topic was catalyzed by the Associated Press’ article on ‘Zunzuneo’ (a.k.a. ‘Cuban Twitter’) and subsequent discussions in the press and elsewhere, we aimed to cover some of the wider ethical issues encountered by people and organizations who implement technology for democracy programs.

Salons are off the record spaces, so no attribution is made in this post, but I’ve summarized the discussion points here:

First up: Zunzuneo

The media misinterpreted much of the Zunzuneo story. Zunzuneo was not a secret mission, according to one Salon participant, as it’s not in the remit of USAID to carry out covert operations. The AP article conflated a number of ideas regarding how USAID works and the contracting mechanisms that were involved in this case, he said. USAID and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) frequently disguise members, organizations, and contractors that work for it on the ground for security reasons. (See USAID’s side of the story here). This may still be an ethical question, but it is not technically “spying.” The project was known within the OTI and development community, but on a ‘need to know’ basis. It was not a ‘fly by night’ operation; it was more a ‘quietly and not very effectively run project.’

There were likely ethics breaches in Zunzuneo, from a legal standpoint. It’s not clear whether the data and phone numbers collected from the Cuban public for the project were obtained in a legal or ethical way. Some reports say they were obtained through a mid-level employee (a “Cuban engineer who had gotten the phone list” according to the AP article). (Note: I spoke separately to someone close to the project who told me that user opt-in/opt-out and other standard privacy protocols were in place). It’s also not entirely clear whether, as the AP states, the user information collected was being categorized into segments who were loyal or disloyal to the Cuban government, information which could put users at risk if found out.

Zunzuneo took place in a broader historical and geo-political context. As one person put it, the project followed Secretary Clinton’s speeches on Internet Freedom. There was a rush to bring technology into the geopolitical space, and ‘the articulation of why technology was important collided with a bureaucratic process in USAID and the State Department (the ‘F process’) that absorbed USAID into the State Department and made development part of the State Department’s broader political agenda.’ This agenda had been in the works for quite some time, and was part of a wider strategy of quietly moving into development spaces and combining development, diplomacy, intelligence and military (defense), the so-called 3 D’s.

Implementers failed to think through good design, ethics and community aspects of the work. In a number of projects of this type, the idea was that if you give people technology, they will somehow create bottom up pressure for political social change. As one person noted, ‘in the Middle East, as a counter example, the tech was there to enable and assist people who had spent 8-10 years building networks. The idea that we can drop tech into a space and an uprising will just happen and it will coincidentally push the US geopolitical agenda is a fantasy.’ Often these kinds of programs start with a strategic communications goal that serves a political end of the US Government. They are designed with the idea that a particular input equals some kind of a specific result down the chain. The problem comes when the people doing the seeding of the ideas and inputs are not familiar with the context they will be operating in. They are injecting inputs into a space that they don’t understand. The bigger ethical question is: Why does this thought process prevail in development? Much of that answer is found in US domestic politics and the ways that initiatives get funded.

Zunzuneo was not a big surprise for Afrolatino organizations. According to one discussant, Afrolatino organizations were not surprised when the Zunzuneo article came out, given the geopolitical history and the ongoing presence of the US in Latin America. Zunzuneo was seen as a 21st Century version of what has been happening for decades. Though it was criticized, it was not seen as particularly detrimental. Furthermore, the Afrolatino community (within the wider Latino community) has had a variety of relationships with the US over time – for example, some Afrolatino groups supported the Contras. Many Afrolatino groups have felt that they were not benefiting overall from the mestizo governments who have held power. In addition, much of Latin America’s younger generation is less tainted by the Cold War mentality, and does not see US involvement in the region as necessarily bad. Programs like Zunzuneo come with a lot of money attached, so often wider concerns about their implications are not in the forefront because organizations need to access funding. Central American and Caribbean countries are only just entering into a phase of deeper analysis of digital citizenship, and views and perceptions on privacy are still being developed.

Perceptions of privacy

There are differences in perception when it comes to privacy and these perceptions are contextual. They vary within and across countries and communities based on age, race, gender, economic levels, comfort with digital devices, political perspective and past history. Some older people, for example, are worried about the privacy violation of having their voice or image recorded, because the voice, image and gaze hold spiritual value and power. These angles of privacy need to be considered as we think through what privacy means in different contexts and adapt our discourse accordingly.

Privacy is hard to explain, as one discussant said: ‘There are not enough dead bodies yet, so it’s hard to get people interested. People get mad when the media gets mad, and until an issue hits the media, it may go unnoticed. It’s very hard to conceptualize the potential harm from lack of privacy. There may be a chilling effect but it’s hard to measure. The digital divide comes in as well, and those with less exposure may have trouble understanding devices and technology. They will then have even greater trouble understanding beyond the device to data doubles, disembodied information and de-anonymization, which are about 7 levels removed from what people can immediately see. Caring a lot about privacy can get you labeled as paranoid or a crazy person in many places.’

Fatalism about privacy can also hamper efforts. In the developing world, many feel that everything is corrupt and inept, and that there is no point in worrying about privacy and security. ‘Nothing ever works anyway, so even if the government wanted to spy on us, they’d screw it up,’ is the feeling. This is often the attitude of human rights workers and others who could be at greatest risk from privacy breaches or data collection, such as that which was reportedly happening within Zunzuneo. Especially among populations and practitioners who have less experience with new technologies and data, this can create large-scale risk.

Intent, action, context and consequences

Good intentions with little attention to privacy vs data collection with a hidden political agenda. Where are the lines when data that are collected for a ‘good cause’ (for example, to improve humanitarian response) might be used for a different purpose that puts vulnerable people at risk? What about data that are collected with less altruistic intentions? What about when the two scenarios overlap? Data might be freely given or collected in an emergency that would be considered a privacy violation in a ‘development’ setting, or the data collection may lead to a privacy violation post-emergency. Often, slapping the ‘obviously good and unarguably positive’ label of ‘Internet freedom’ on something implies that it’s unquestionably positive when it may in fact be part of a political agenda with a misleading label. There is a long history of those with power collecting data that helps them understand and/or control those with less power, as one Salon participant noted, and we need to be cognizant of that when we think about data and privacy.

US Government approaches to political development often take an input/output approach, when, in fact, political development is not the same as health development. ‘In political work, there is no clear and clean epidemiological goal we are trying to reach,’ noted a Salon participant. Political development is often contentious and the targets and approaches are very different than those of health. When a health model and rhetoric is used to work on other development issues, it is misleading. The wholesale adoption of these kinds of disease model approaches leaves people and communities out of the decision making process about their own development. Similarly, the rhetoric of strategic communications and its inclusion into the development agenda came about after the War on Terror, and it is also a poor fit for political development. The rhetoric of ‘opening’ and ‘liberating’ data is similar. These arguments may work well for one kind of issue, but they are not transferable to a political agenda. One Salon participant pointed out the rhetoric of the privatization model also, and explained that a profound yet not often considered implication of the privatization of services is that once a service passes over to the private sector, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not apply, and citizens and human rights organizations lose FOIA as a tool. Examples included the US prison system and the Blackwater case of several years ago.

It can be confusing for implementers to know what to do, what tools to use, what funding to accept and when it is OK to bring in an outside agenda. Salon participants provided a number of examples where they had to make choices and felt ethics could have been compromised. Is it OK to sign people up on Facebook or Gmail during an ICT and education project, given these companies’ marketing and privacy policies? What about working on aid transparency initiatives in places where human rights work or crime reporting can get people killed or individual philanthropists/donors might be kidnapped or extorted? What about a hackathon where the data and solutions are later given to a government’s civilian-military affairs office? What about telling LGBT youth about a social media site that encourages LGBT youth to connect openly with one another (in light of recent harsh legal penalties against homosexuality)? What about employing a user-centered design approach for a project that will eventually be overlaid on top of a larger platform, system or service that does not pass the privacy litmus test? Is it better to contribute to improving healthcare while knowing that your software system might compromise privacy and autonomy because it sits on top of a biometric system, for example? Participants at the Salon face these ethical dilemmas every day, and as one person noted, ‘I wonder if I am just window dressing something that will look and feel holistic and human-centered, but that will be used to justify decisions down the road that are politically negative or go against my values.’ Participants said they normally rely on their own moral compass, but clearly many Salon participants are wrestling with the potential ethical implications of their actions.

What we can do? Recommendations from Salon participants

Work closely with and listen to local partners, who should be driving the process and decisions. There may be a role for an outside perspective, but the outside perspective should not trump the local one. Inculcate and support local communities to build their own tools, narratives, and projects. Let people set their own agendas. Find ways to facilitate long-term development processes around communities rather than being subject to agendas from the outside.

Consider this to be ICT for Discrimination and think in every instance and every design decision about how to dial down discrimination. Data lead to sorting, and data get lumped into clusters. Find ways during the design process to reduce the discrimination that will come from that sorting and clustering process. The ‘Do no harm’ approach is key. Practitioners and designers should also be wary of the automation of development and the potential for automated decisions to be discriminatory.

Call out hypocrisy. Those of us who sit at Salons or attend global meetings hold tremendous privilege and power as compared to most of the rest of the world. ‘It’s not landless farmers or disenfranchised young black youth in Brazil who get to attend global meetings,’ said one Salon attendee. ‘It’s people like us. We need to be cognizant of the advantage we have as holders of power.’ Here in the US, the participant added, we need to be more aware of what private sector US technology companies are doing to take advantage of and maintain their stronghold in the global market and how the US government is working to allow US corporations to benefit disproportionately from the current Internet governance structure.

Use a rights-based approach to data and privacy to help to frame these issues and situations. Disclosure and consent are sometimes considered extraneous, especially in emergency situations. People think ‘this might be the only time I can get into this disaster or conflict zone, so I’m going to Hoover up as much data as possible without worrying about privacy.’ On the other hand, sometimes organizations are paternalistic and make choices for people about their own privacy. Consent and disclosure are not new issues; they are merely manifested in new ways as new technology changes the game and we cannot guarantee anonymity or privacy any more for research subjects. There is also a difference between information a person actively volunteers and information that is passively collected and used without a person’s knowledge. Framing privacy in a human rights context can help place importance on both processes and outcomes that support people’s rights to control their own data and that increase empowerment.

Create a minimum standard for privacy. Though we may not be able to determine a ceiling for privacy, one Salon participant said we should at least consider a floor or a minimum standard. Actors on the ground will always feel that privacy standards are a luxury because they have little know-how and little funding, so creating and working within an ethical standard should be a mandate from donors. The standard could be established as an M&E criterion.

Establish an ethics checklist to decide on funding sources and create policies and processes that help organizations to better understand how a donor or sub-donor would access and/or use data collected as part of a project or program they are funding. This is not always an easy solution, however, especially for cash-strapped local organizations. In India, for example, organizations are legally restricted from receiving certain types of funding based on government concerns that external agencies are trying to bring in Western democracy and Western values. Local organizations have a hard time getting funding for anti-censorship or free speech efforts. As one person at the Salon said, ‘agencies working on the ground are in a bind because they can’t take money from Google because it’s tainted, they can’t take money from the State Department because it’s imperialism and they can’t take money from local donors because there are none.’

Use encryption and other technology solutions. Given the low levels of understanding and awareness of these tools, more needs to be done so that more organizations learn how to use them, and they need to be made simpler, more accessible and user-friendly. ‘Crypto Parties’ can help get organizations familiar with encryption and privacy, but better outreach is needed so that organizations understand the relevance of encryption and feel welcome in tech-heavy environments.

Thanks to participants and lead discussants for the great discussions and to ThoughtWorks for hosting us at their offices!

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

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

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

What do we mean by youth financial inclusion?

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

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

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

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

Mobiles and youth financial inclusion

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

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

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

So what are the obstacles?

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

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

Long on enthusiasm and short on examples?

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

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

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

An inevitable future?

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

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

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

***

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

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

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The NYC Technology Salon on February 28th examined the connection between bigger, better data and resilience. We held morning and afternoon Salons due to the high response rate for the topic. Jake Porway, DataKind; Emmanuel Letouzé, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; and Elizabeth Eagen, Open Society Foundations; were our lead discussants for the morning. Max Shron, Data Strategy; joined Emmanuel and Elizabeth for the afternoon session.

This post summarizes key discussions from both Salons.

What the heck do we mean by ‘big data’?

The first question at the morning salon was: What precisely do we mean by the term ‘big data’? Participants and lead discussants had varying definitions. One way of thinking about big data is that it is comprised of small bits of unintentionally produced ‘data exhaust’ (website cookies, cellphone data records, etc.) that add up to a dataset. In this case, the term big data refers to the quality and nature of the data, and we think of non-sampled data that are messy, noisy and unstructured. The mindset that goes with big data is one of ‘turning mess into meaning.’

Some Salon participants understood big data as datasets that are too large to be stored, managed and analyzed via conventional database technologies or managed on normal computers. One person suggested dropping the adjective ‘big,’ forgetting about the size, and instead considering the impact of the contribution of the data to understanding. For example, if there were absolutely no data on something and 1000 data points were contributed, this might have a greater impact than adding another 10,000 data points to an existing set of 10 million.

The point here was that when the emphasis is on big (understood as size and/or volume), someone with a small data set (for example, one that fits into an excel sheet) might feel inadequate, yet their data contribution may be actually ‘bigger’ than a physically larger data set (aha! it’s not the size of the paintbrush…). There was a suggestion that instead of talking about big data we should talk about smart data.

How can big data support development?

Two frameworks were shared for thinking about big data in development. One from UN Global Pulse considers that big data can improve a) real-time awareness, b) early warning and c) real-time monitoring. Another looks at big data being used for three kinds of analysis: a) descriptive (providing a summary of something that has already happened), b) predictive (likelihood and probability of something occurring in the future), and c) diagnostic (causal inference and understanding of the world).

What’s the link between big data and resilience?

‘Resilience’ as a concept is contested, difficult to measure and complex. In its most simple definition, resilience can be thought of as the ability to bounce back or bounce forward. (For an interesting discussion on whether we should be talking about sustainability or resilience, see this piece). One discussant noted that global processes and structures are not working well for the poor, as evidenced from continuing cycles of poverty and glaring wealth inequalities. In this view, people are poor as a result of being more exposed and vulnerable to shocks, at the same time, their poverty increases their vulnerability, and it’s difficult to escape from the cycle where over time, small and large shocks deplete assets. An assets-based model of resilience would help individuals, families and communities who are hit by a shock in one sphere — financial, human, capital, social, legal and/or political — to draw on the assets within another sphere to bounce back or forward.

Big data could help this type of an assets-based model of resilience by predicting /helping poor and vulnerable people predict when a shock might happen and preparing for it. Big data analytics, if accessible to the poor, could help them to increase their chances of making better decisions now and for the future. Big data then, should be made accessible and available to communities so that they can self-organize and decrease their own exposure to shocks and hazards and increase their ability to bounce back and bounce forward. Big data could also help various actors to develop a better understanding of the human ecosystem and contribute to increasing resilience.

Can ivory tower big data approaches contribute to resilience?

The application of big data approaches to efforts that aim to increase resilience and better understand human ecosystems often comes at things from the wrong angle, according to one discussant. We are increasingly seeing situations where a decision is made at the top by people who know how to crunch data yet have no way of really understanding the meaning of the data in the local context. In these cases, the impact of data on resilience will be low, because resilience can only truly be created and supported at the local level. Instead of large organizations thinking about how they can use data from afar to ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ the poor, organizations should be working together with communities in crisis (or supporting local or nationally based intermediaries to facilitate this process) so that communities can discuss and pull meaning from the data, contextualize it and use it to help themselves. They can also be more informed what data exist about them and more aware of how these data might be used.

For the Human Rights community, for example, the story is about how people successfully use data to advocate for their own rights, and there is less emphasis on large data sets. Rather, the goal is to get data to citizens and communities. It’s to support groups to define and use data locally and to think about what the data can tell them about the advocacy path they could take to achieve a particular goal.

Can data really empower people?

To better understand the opportunities and challenges of big data, we need to unpack questions related to empowerment. Who has the knowledge? The access? Who can use the data? Salon participants emphasized that change doesn’t come by merely having data. Rather it’s about using big data as an advocacy tool to tell the world to change processes and to put things normally left unsaid on the table for discussion and action. It is also about decisions and getting ‘big data’ to the ‘small world,’ e.g., the local level. According to some, this should be the priority of ‘big data for development’ actors over the next 5 years.

Though some participants at the Salon felt that data on their own do not empower individuals; others noted that knowing your credit score or tracking how much you are eating or exercising can indeed be empowering to individuals. In addition, the process of gathering data can help communities understand their own realities better, build their self-esteem and analytical capacities, and contribute to achieving a more level playing field when they are advocating for their rights or for a budget or service. As one Salon participant said, most communities have information but are not perceived to have data unless they collect it using ‘Western’ methods. Having data to support and back information, opinions and demands can serve communities in negotiations with entities that wield more power. (See the book “Who Counts, the power of participatory statistics” on how to work with communities to create ‘data’ from participatory approaches).

On the other hand, data are not enough if there is no political will to make change to respond to the data and to the requests or demands being made based on the data. As one Salon participant said: “giving someone a data set doesn’t change politics.”

Should we all jump on the data bandwagon?

Both discussants and participants made a plea to ‘practice safe statistics!’ Human rights organizations wander in and out of statistics and don’t really understand how it works, said one person. ‘You wouldn’t go to court without a lawyer, so don’t try to use big data unless you can ensure it’s valid and you know how to manage it.’ If organizations plan to work with data, they should have statisticians and/or data scientists on staff or on call as partners and collaborators. Lack of basic statistical literacy is a huge issue amongst the general population and within many organizations, thought leaders, and journalists, and this can be dangerous.

As big data becomes more trendy, the risk of misinterpretation is growing, and we need to place more attention on the responsible use of statistics and data or we may end up harming people by bad decisions. ‘Everyone thinks they are experts who can handle statistics – bias, collection, correlation’ these days. And ‘as a general rule, no matter how many times you say the data show possible correlation not causality, the public will understand that there is causality,’ commented one discussant. And generally, he noted, ‘when people look at data, they believe them as truth because they include numbers, statistics, science.’ Greater statistical literacy could help people to not just read or access data and information but to use them wisely, to understand and question how data are interpreted, and to detect political or other biases. What’s more, organizations today are asking questions about big data that have been on statisticians’ minds for a very long time, so reaching out to those who understand these issues can be useful to avoid repeating mistakes and re-learning lessons that have already been well-documented.

This poor statistical literacy becomes a serious ethical issue when data are used to determine funding or actions that impact on people’s lives, or when they are shared openly, accidentally or in ways that are unethical. In addition, privacy and protection are critical elements in using and working with data about people, especially when the data involve vulnerable populations. Organizations can face legal action and liability suits if their data put people at harm, as one Salon participant noted. ‘An organization could even be accused of manslaughter… and I’m speaking from experience,’ she added.

What can we do to move forward?

Some potential actions for moving forward included:

  • Emphasis with donors that having big data does not mean that in order to cut costs, you should eliminate community level processes related to data collection, interpretation, analysis, and ownership;
  • Evaluations and literature/documentation on the effectiveness of different tools and methods, and when and in which contexts they might be applicable, including things like cost-benefit analyses of using big data and evaluation of its impact on development/on communities when combined with community level processes vs used alone/without community involvement – practitioner gut feelings are that big data without community involvement is irresponsible and ineffective in terms of resilience, and it would be good to have evidence to help validate or disprove this;
  • More and better tools and resources to support data collection, visualization and use and to help organizations with risk analysis, privacy impact assessments, strategies and planning around use of big data; case studies and a place to share and engage with peers, creation of a ‘cook book’ to help organizations understand the ingredients, tools, processes of using data/big data in their work;
  • ‘Normative conventions’ on how big data should be used to avoid falling into tech-driven dystopia;
  • Greater capacity for ‘safe statistics’ among organizations;
  • A community space where frank and open conversations around data/big data can occur in an ongoing way with the right range of people and cross-section of experiences and expertise from business, data, organizations, etc.

In conclusion?

We touched upon all types of data and various levels of data usage for a huge range of purposes at the two Salons. One closing thought was around the importance of having a solid idea of what questions we trying to answer before moving on to collecting data, and then understanding what data collection methods are adequate for our purpose, what ICT tools are right for which data collection and interpretation methods, what will done with the data/what is the purpose of collecting data, how we’ll interpret them, and how data will be shared, with whom, and in what format.

See this growing list of resources related to Data and Resilience here and add yours!

Thanks to participants and lead discussants for the fantastic exchange, and a big thank you to ThoughtWorks for hosting us at their offices for this Salon. Thanks also to Hunter Goldman, Elizabeth Eagen and Emmanuel Letouzé for their support developing this Salon topic, and to Somto Fab-Ukozor for support with notes and the summary. Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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

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

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

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

Participants pointed out that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendations for future efforts included:

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

Resources on ICTs and child/youth migration:

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. Many thanks to our lead discussants and to ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing breakfast.

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

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

by Tom Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the November 8th Technology Salon in New York City, we looked at the role of ICTs in communication for development (C4D) initiatives with marginalized adolescent girls. Lead discussants Kerida McDonald and Katarzyna Pawelczyk discussed recent UNICEF reports related to the topic, and John Zoltner spoke about FHI360’s C4D work in practice.

To begin, it was pointed out that C4D is not donor communications or marketing. It is the use of communication approaches and methodologies to achieve influence at various levels –  e.g., family, institutional and policy –  to change behavior and social norms. C4D is one approach that is being used to address the root causes of gender inequality and exclusion.

Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 7.24.48 AMAs the UNICEF report on ICTs and C4D* notes, girls may face a number of situations that contribute to and/or are caused by their marginalization: early pregnancy, female genital cutting, early marriage, high rates of HIV/AIDS, low levels of education, lack of control over resources. ICTs alone cannot resolve these, because there is a deep and broad set of root causes. However, ICTs can be integrated systematically into the set of C4D tools and approaches that contribute to positive change.

Issues like bandwidth, censorship and electricity need to be considered when integrating ICTs into C4D work, and approaches that fit the context need to be developed. Practitioners should use tools that are in the hands of girls and their communities now, yet be aware of advances in access and new technologies, as these change rapidly.

Key points:

Interactivity is more empowering than one-way messaging:  Many of the ICT solutions being promoted today focus on sending messages out via mobile phones. However C4D approaches aim for interactivity and multi-channel, multi-directional communication, which has proven more empowering.

Content: Traditional media normally goes through a rigorous editorial process and it is possible to infuse it with a gender balance. Social media does not have the same type of filters, and it can easily be used to reinforce stereotypes about girls. This is something to watch and be aware of.

Purpose: It’s common with ICT-related approaches to start with the technology rather than starting with the goals. As one Salon participant asked “What are the results we want to see for ourselves? What are the results that girls want to see? What are the root causes of discrimination and how are we trying to address them? What does success look like for girls? For organizations? Is there a role for ICTs in helping achieve success? If so, what is it?” These questions need to be the starting point, rather than the technology.

Participation: One Salon participant mentioned a 2-year project that is working together with girls to define their needs and their vision of success. The process is one co-design, and it is aimed at understanding what girls want. Many girls expressed a feeling of isolation and desire for connection, and so the project is looking at how ICTs can help them connect. As the process developed, the diversity of needs became very clear and plans have changed dramatically based on input from a range of girls from different contexts. Implementors need to be prepared to change, adapt and respond to what girls say they want and to local realities.

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Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 10.41.22 PMA second study commissioned by UNICEF explores how young people use social media. The researchers encountered some challenges in terms of a strong gender approach for the study. Though a gender lens was used for analysis, there is little available data disaggregated by sex. The study does not focus on the most marginalized, because it looks at the use of social media, which normally requires a data connection or Internet access, which the most marginalized youth usually do not have.

The authors of the report found that youth most commonly used the Internet and social media for socializing and communicating with friends. Youth connected less often for schoolwork. One reason for this may be that in the countries/contexts where the research took place, there is no real integration of ICTs into the school system. It was emphasized that the  findings in the report are not comparable or nationally representative, and blanket statements such as “this means x for the whole developing world” should be avoided.

Key points:

Self-reporting biases. Boys tend to have higher levels of confidence and self-report greater ICT proficiency than girls do. This may skew results and make it seem that boys have higher skill levels.

Do girls really have less access? We often hear that girls have less access than boys. The evidence gathered for this particular report found that “yes and no.” In some places, when researchers asked “Do you have access to a mobile,” there was not a huge difference between urban and rural or between boys and girls. When they dug deeper, however, it became more complex. In the case of Zambia, access and ownership were similar for boys and girls, but fewer girls were connecting at all to the Internet as compared to boys. Understanding connectivity and use was quite complicated.

What are girls vs. boys doing online? This is an important factor when thinking about what solutions are applicable to which situation(s). Differences came up here in the study. In Argentina, girls were doing certain activities more frequently, such as chatting and looking for information, but they were not gaming. In Zambia, girls were doing some things less often than boys; for example, fewer girls than boys were looking for health information, although the number was still significant. A notable finding was that both girls and boys were accessing general health information more often than they were accessing sensitive information, such as sexual health or mental health.

What are the risks in the online world? A qualitative portion of the study in Kenya used focus groups with girls and boys, and asked about their uses of social media and experience of risk. Many out-of-school girls aged 15-17 reported that they used social media as a way to meet a potential partner to help them out of their financial situation. They reported riskier behavior, contact with older men, and relationships more often than girls who were in school. Girls in general were more likely to report unpleasant online encounters than boys, for example, request for self-exposure photos.

Hiding social media use. Most of the young people that researchers spoke with in Kenya were hiding social media use from their parents, who disapproved of it. This is an important point to note in C4D efforts that plan on using social media, and program designers will want to take parental attitudes about different media and communication channels into consideration as they design C4D programs.

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When implementing programs, it is noteworthy how boys and girls tend to use ICT and media tools. Gender issues often manifest themselves right away. “The boys grab the cameras, the boys sit down first at the computers.” If practitioners don’t create special rules and a safe space for girls to participate, girls may be marginalized. In practical ICT and media work, it’s common for boys and girls to take on certain roles. “Some girls like to go on camera, but more often they tend to facilitate what is being done rather than star in it.” The gender gap in ICT access and use, where it exists, is a reflection of the power gaps of society in general.

In the most rural areas, even when people have access, they usually don’t have the resources and skills to use ICTs.  Very simple challenges can affect girls’ ability to participate in projects, for example, oftentimes a project will hold training at times when it’s difficult for girls to attend. Unless someone systematically goes through and applies a gender lens to a program, organizations often don’t notice the challenges girls may face in participating. It’s not enough to do gender training or measure gender once a year; gendered approaches needs to be built into program design.

Long-terms interventions are needed if the goal is to emancipate girls, help them learn better, graduate, postpone pregnancy, and get a job. This cannot be done in a year with a simple project that has only one focus, because girls are dealing with education, healthcare, and a whole series of very entrenched social issues. What’s needed is to follow a cohort of girls and to provide information and support across all these sectors over the long-term.

Key points:

Engaging boys and men: Negative reactions from men are a concern if and when girls and women start to feel more empowered or to access resources. For example, some mobile money and cash transfer programs direct funds to girls and women, and some studies have found that violence against women increases when women start to have more money and more freedom. Another study, however, of a small-scale effort that provides unconditional cash transfers to girls ages 18-19 in rural Kenya, is demonstrating just the opposite: girls have been able to say where money is spent and the gender dynamics have improved. This raises the question of whether program methodologies need to be oriented towards engaging boys and men and involving them in changing gender dynamics, and whether engaging boys and men can help avoid an increase in violence. Working with boys to become “girl champions” was cited as a way to help to bring boys into the process as advocates and role models.

Girls as producers, not just consumers. ICTs are not only tools for sending content to girls. Some programs are working to help girls produce content and create digital stories in their own languages. Sometimes these stories are used to advocate to decision makers for change in favor of girls and their agendas. Digital stories are being used as part of research processes and to support monitoring, evaluation and accountability work through ‘real-time’ data.

ICTs and social accountability. Digital tools are helping young people address accountability issues and inform local and national development processes. In some cases, youth are able to use simple, narrow bandwidth tools to keep up to date on actions of government officials or to respond to surveys to voice their priorities. Online tools can also lead to offline, face-to-face engagement. One issue, however, is that in some countries, youth are able to establish communication with national government ministers (because there is national-level capacity and infrastructure) but at local level there is very little chance or capability for engagement with elected officials, who are unprepared to respond and engage with youth or via social media. Youth therefore tend to bypass local government and communicate with national government. There is a need for capacity building at local level and decentralized policies and practices so that response capacity is strengthened.

Do ICTs marginalize girls? Some Salon participants worried that as conversations and information increasingly move to a digital environment, ICTs are magnifying the information and communication divide and further marginalizing some girls. Others felt that the fact that we are able to reach the majority of the world’s population now is very significant, and the inability to reach absolutely everyone doesn’t mean we should stop using ICTs. For this very reason – because sharing of information is increasingly digital – we should continue working to get more girls online and strengthen their confidence and abilities to use ICTs.

Many thanks to UNICEF for hosting the Salon!

(Salons operate under Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been given in the above summary. Sign up here if you’d like to attend Salons in the future!)

*Disclosure: I co-authored this report with Keshet Bachan.

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Screen Shot 2013-07-14 at 2.40.51 PMLast week, 600 exceptional youth activists from 80 countries arrived to New York City for a UN Takeover, where they called for urgent action by member states to meet Millennium Development Goal 2 on education by 2015. The youth’s inputs will feed into setting the agenda for global education priorities post-2015. One of the highlights of the week was this inspiring talk by Malala Yousafzai, who made her first public address to the UN on June 12th, her 16th birthday.

Seven of the youth participating in the UN Takeover with the support of Plan joined us as lead discussants for our July 10th Technology Salon. Agung, Dina, and Nurul from Indonesia; Kamanda and Fatmata from Sierra Leone; Tova from Sweden; and Frank from Uganda told us about ICT access and use in their communities and countries. We also heard about their work as youth activists on issues of child marriage, school violence, good governance, and education, and whether ICTs are effective outreach tools for campaigning in their contexts.

The realities of access

In both Sierra Leone and Uganda Internet access is quite difficult. Traveling to Internet cafés in urban areas is too expensive for rural youth to do regularly, and it is unsafe for young women to travel in the evenings. There is not enough equipment in schools and universities, and youth have trouble affording and finding regular access. The majority of primary and secondary schools do not have ICTs, and non-governmental organizations are unable to reach everyone with their programs to supply equipment and training. Although there are often funds given to governments to build computer labs, these tend to benefit urban areas. In some cases projects and funds are used for political gain and personal favors. Even at university level, student access might be limited to 1-2 hours per week at a computer lab, meaning they end up doing almost everything on paper.

Lack of ICT access impacts on job prospects for youth, because jobs exist but employers are seeking people who know how to operate a computer. Many of these job applications have to be submitted online. This puts jobs out of reach of youth in rural areas. Basic infrastructure remains a problem in rural areas. Although telecommunication lines have been laid, electricity for charging mobile phones is still a problem and often electricity is dependent on a solar panel or a generator, making it difficult to run a computer lab or Telecenter.

ICTs are heightening the development divide, noted one Salon participant. In schools near urban areas, parents pay more in tuition and school fees and their children have better ICT access than rural children. This creates inequality. “Students going to these schools have access and they will even study computer science. But when you go to a rural village you might only see one small room where children can access a computer, if anything at all. Teachers themselves don’t know how to use computers.” In cities, parents know ICTs are important. In the rural villages, however, many people are skeptical of technologies. This inequality of access and education means that youth in rural areas and the poor are not able to meet requirements for jobs that use ICTs.

One discussant noted, “It is possible to access Internet through mobile phones. You can use some phones to access Internet, Facebook, etc. In the villages, however, you find that you can only receive calls and make calls. There is no Internet. When I went to Nairobi and saw everyone with smart phones, I wondered, ‘What is wrong with Uganda?’ We don’t have many smart phones.” Another discussant commented that her university has a wide area network, but it is only available to lecturers, not to students.

Most of the youth discussants considered that, among their peer groups, more girls than boys had mobile phones, and more girls were active on the Internet and Facebook.

Access brings concerns

In Indonesia, it was noted, Internet is very available, except for the more remote islands. In Java, commented one discussant, “every young person has a smart phone. They use Facebook and Twitter and can get all kinds of information, and those without smart phones can use Internet cafés.” Internet access, however, is creating new problems. “Parents are proud that their kids are going to the Internet shop to get information, but they also worry about increased access to pornography.” Internet is believed to contribute to an increase in child marriages. The youth discussants said they would like more guidance on how to filter information, know what is true and what is not, use Internet safely, and avoid exposure to offensive content. One discussant from Indonesia mentioned that parents in her community worried that if girls went to Internet cafes or browsed online, they would be exposed to inappropriate materials or prostitution through Facebook.

In Sweden, access to Internet and smart phones is universal. However, parents may buy children a smart phone even if they cannot really afford it. Although many children learn English early because they can easily access Internet, many also do not learn how to write properly because they only use computers.

When phones are available but there is no capacity to purchase them, additional problems also arise. According to one discussant, “Some girls want to have big things before their time.” This can lead to young women offering sex to older men in return for money, fancy phones and airtime.

ICTs in formal education

Youth discussants all said that they are increasingly expected to have access to the Internet and computers in order to complete their school assignments, and they felt this was not a realistic expectation. In one of the youth’s schools in Indonesia, computer class is offered for 4 hours per week and a computer lab is available with 30 desktop computers. In another school in Jakarta, however, every child is expected to have their own laptop. “Our problem is different than in the remote areas. Every teacher in Jakarta thinks that a smart phone or computer is ‘the world in our hands.’ They think we don’t need education about the computer itself. They think we can learn from the Internet how to use computers, and so we have to search and learn this all by ourselves with little guidance.” In Sweden, “if you don’t have Internet access, it will be very difficult to pass a course.”

Effective ways to reach and engage youth in campaigns

Discussants were asked about the communication channels that are most effective for campaigning or engaging youth and communities. In rural Sierra Leone and Uganda, face-to-face was considered the most effective outreach channel for reaching youth and communities, given low levels of access to computers, radios and mobile phones. “Most times our campaigns are face-to-face. We move to communities, we use local language to be sure everyone gets the message,” said one youth discussant. In Jakarta, however, “it’s easy to use online means, it never sleeps. Young people in Jakarta are too lazy to attend workshops. They don’t like to listen to speakers. So we share by social media, like Facebook and Twitter.”

Digital media is only useful in urban areas, said one youth discussant from Sierra Leone. “We mostly use radio to do advocacy and sensitization campaigns. We also do it face-to-face. For secondary schools, we do talks. We tell them about documents signed by government or NGOs, what is in place, what is not in place. We give advice. We talk straight about health, about sex education. You just wait for the light in their eyeball to see if they are understanding. We also do dramas, and we paste up wall bills. We do all of this in our local languages.” Youth groups and youth networks are also useful channels for passing along messages and building support.

Radio is effective in theory, but one discussant noted that in his district, there are only two radio stations. “You take your information or announcement there, and they say they will pass it, but you stay waiting… it’s a challenge.”

Campaigns must also involve engaging local decision makers, a participant noted. Often chiefs do not understand, and they may be the very ones who violate the rights of girls. Youth noted the need to be diplomatic however, or they risk being seen as impolite or trouble-makers. “You have to really risk yourself to do rights work in the community,” noted one discussant. Another commented that having support and buy-in from local leaders is critical in order to be taken seriously. “You need a ‘big voice’ to back you and to convince people to listen to you.”

INGO staff can help legitimize youth work in some cases, but there are also issues. “Local leaders always ask for money,” noted one discussant. “When they hear Plan, UNICEF, Care, Save the Children, they think these organizations gave us money and we’ve taken it for ourselves.” Youth often resort to using external INGO staff as their legitimizing force because “we don’t have other role models, everybody wants money. The politicians say they will help us but then they are always too busy. We have to take the lead ourselves.”

Conflicting information and messages can also be a problem, commented a Salon participant. “One year, it’s the ABC Campaign for HIV prevention, the next it’s condoms, and then it’s prevention. Sometimes youth don’t know who to believe. The NGO says something, the government says something, and local leaders say something else. We need consistency.” In addition, he noted, “INGOs come in with their big range rovers, so of course local leaders and communities think that there is money involved. INGOs need to think more carefully and avoid these conflicting messages.”

What would youth like to see?

Going forward, the youth would like more access, more ICT education, more transparency and accountability in terms of how governments spend funds directed to ICT programs, and more guidance on filtering information and ensuring it’s veracity so that children will not be taken advantage of.

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Thanks to the Population Council for hosting us for the Salon! Join us for our next Salon on July 25th: How can we scale Mobiles for Development initiatives? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data and research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The points raised by discussants and participants included:

1) Showcasing innovation

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

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

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

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

3) The ethics of wasting people’s time.

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

4) Data extraction

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

5) The (missing) link between data and action

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

6) Intermediaries are important

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

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

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

8) Not having community data also has ethical implications

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

9) The problem with donors….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The project

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

Data advocacy and storytelling

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

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

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

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

FOIA and the data set

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

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

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

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

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

Data parsing

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

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

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

Key learning:

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

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

Data and the future

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

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

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

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