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Archive for January, 2015

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

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

Discrimination has multiple forms.

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

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

Empirical data on racism in the US are troubling.

As Courtney outlined:

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

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

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

Can technology help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, tech can’t do it all!

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

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

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

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

Tech may divide communities and limit participation

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

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

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

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

What about teaching Black youth to code?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need more participatory design and cross-disciplinary teams

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

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

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

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

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

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For our year-end Technology Salon in 2014, we asked lead discussants Felicity Ruby, long-time activist and currently ThoughtWorks’ Director of Global Internet Policy; Abi Weaver, Director of the Global Technology Program at the American Red Cross; and Laura Walker Hudson, CEO of Social Impact Lab (SIMLab), to share their hopes and fears for 2015. We also heard from Salon attendees.

7 hopes for 2015

Below I’ve organized the Salon discussion into 7 aspirations for our sector or 2015. Keep an eye on these themes, and if you have ideas that weren’t mentioned at the Salon, go ahead and add them to the comments section!

1) Continued pushback on mass surveillance

The war against journalists, activists and whistle blowers (referred to by Felicity as ‘the JAWs of change’) continues. Many are still behind bars or in exile (including, Barrett Brown, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden) because of their deployment of technology to provide information that is in the public interest. In addition, the right to encrypt has been weakened and it is feared that the pushback against mass surveillance may lose strength in 2015.

Hopes for 2015 are that the world will focus more on addressing the injustices exposed by these individuals rather than on punishing them for exposing information. It’s also hoped that encryption tools will be preserved so that financial transactions and relationships that rely on trust and confidentiality can be kept in confidence. Lastly hope was expressed that citizens and organizations will unite and coordinate more effectively in the coming year and continue questioning and pushing back against mass surveillance.

One participant commented that in some countries that are just coming on line, Internet will be accessed via Wireless spectra that are let by countries to mobile operators. He hoped that structural elements that support the current culture of surveillance will be eliminated as digital inclusion expands to more countries and that national governments will stand up for citizen rights to privacy.

Another participant noted that technology is increasingly being used for militarization, targeted assassination programs and disposition matrices. He feared that police forces in the US and beyond would continue in this direction. The hope is that the level of public protest against police militarization grows, and that the 2014 movements to stop racist policing will lead to lasting change and a reduction in structural discrimination against people of color and minority groups in the US and globally.

2) Balanced public and private benefits of (big) data

There is positive potential in big data, for example: tracing diseases, expanding financial services, predictive analysis and conflict prevention. However there has been growing concern over bias in big data and the potential for abuse, discrimination, privacy breaches and corporate exploitation of personally identifiable information. The hope for 2015 is that a balance will be struck around the collection, use and sale/sharing of these data, and that policies are put in place to push for collection of fewer data, better encryption, deletion of data after usefulness has expired, improved data privacy and better protection standards.

It is also hoped that there is movement toward individuals owning and bartering with their own data and having more of a say on how personal data are used. Currently, many revenue models are based on free services in exchange for personal data, and alternative models are needed. One hope is that there will be more clarity on exactly how companies are using and sharing/selling personal data, more awareness around privacy and a move towards participatory and balanced opportunities for people to knowingly provide certain data in exchange for free hardware or software.

Salon participants also hope that people will begin to vote with their online habits and stop using services that are exploiting their personal data, and that creative minds will develop revenue and business models that do not depend on selling private data. In addition, it is hoped that adoption of free, open source and encrypted software will grow, thereby helping to ‘re-decentralize’ the Internet.

Perhaps in 2015, the establishment of boundaries and some conditionality will create a win-win situation that would balance the issue of ‘power’ when it comes to the benefits of big data and individual rights to control how personal data are used. This could lead to better frameworks for humanitarian and non-profit organizations who find themselves in the difficult situation of being asked to provide and/or authorize the use of other people’s data. Lastly, third party, neutral organizations and entities may emerge that could hold or manage data and serve as data brokers for vulnerable groups, for example during crisis situations.

3) Ethical data and technology protocols and policies

As more NGOs set up data systems and host platform, more organizations are becoming ‘data holders’, yet many do not know the legal implications of holding data, according to a Salon discussant. Fears are that ‘meaningful’ and ‘informed’ consent will continue to be quashed with the advent of constantly changing technologies and that organizations will not have the capacity or wherewithal to keep up. Hopes are that more organizations will realize that they need to establish responsible and ethical data protocols and policies and will put the time and resources into proper training of staff and management regarding the risks of digital data collection, storage and use.

While it is seen as positive that donors are encouraging open data, geo-located data, and digital data collection, there are also fears that lack of understanding of the risks will lead to a data disaster that harms those whose data are shared and impacts negatively on those doing the sharing or funding the program that requires it. It is hoped that in the coming year, there is a higher investment in learning and guidance for donors, management, grant writers and frontline staff to achieve a better understand of how to protect people’s privacy and mitigate risk. Salon participants hope that in 2015  we will discover the sweet spots where the benefits of greater openness are balanced appropriately with the amount of risk experienced by those providing their data.

One participant noted that the politics and ethics of cellphone data record (CDR) analytics will be at the forefront in 2015 and the discussion will shift. To date, It’s been focused on the risks to individual privacy, yet the conversation is expanding to ‘group privacy’ and questions of power, empowerment, and data literacy. It is hoped that we will have an answer to the question: ‘What is an ethical approach to using cellphone data?’ by the end of 2015. It’s also hoped that the term ‘private sector data’ is challenged, since the data are actually individual data harvested by the private sector.

4) Greater inclusion of low-resource populations and of community groups

One lead discussant shared her hope that enterprises and entrepreneurs developing new initiatives would pay more attention and work more closely with populations that have fewer resources in 2015. Many large-scale enterprises are not willing to look at the humanitarian implications of new technologies until they’ve been tested in the ‘developed’ world, she noted. A hope is that the larger private sector technology companies will develop more technologies specifically aimed at benefiting low-income consumers rather than focusing first on higher-income consumers as they normally do.

Another hope is that the excitement of humanitarian organizations will rise to match the enthusiasm of communities around the world who are eager for new technologies. A fear is that humanitarian workers will shut down community enthusiasm due to a fear of the complex, assumptions that communities are ‘not ready’ for new technology, privacy concerns, and/or skewed media portrayal of some technologies, for example unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as drones.

Participants also fear that legislation will not foster inclusion in the case of some technologies. Though UAVs have been successfully used by some local groups for taking imagery during and following disasters, some governments are beginning to require pilot licenses for flying UAVs. Many small companies, community organizations and individuals cannot afford pilot licenses. One hope is that inclusive policies will enable community access to UAVs, and that these policies will be accompanied by community education around UAVs so that their use for community-based disaster preparedness and response is enhanced.

Other hopes include hardware improvements to allow 3D printers to become more affordable, faster and better able to serve mass needs rather than being limited to custom or small-batch manufacturing. Improved battery life, alternative power sources, and alternative networks were also mentioned as a key area in which to focus so that technologies become increasingly accessible to low-income or remote populations with little access to the grid or existing networks.

Lastly, participants hope organizations will focus more on understanding local habits and behaviors (for example, those around mobile money, remittances, and use of airtime minutes as currency) rather than parachuting in and setting up new systems based on something designed elsewhere.

5) A way out of the ‘innovation valley of death’

Participants at the Salon fear that the notion of ‘innovation’ will continue to be too technology focused and that innovation challenges would continue to incentivize some of the wrong things. Donors have been trying hard to fund risky innovations and to use ‘venture capitalesque’ models, said one discussant, and these may not be the right approach in our sector. Another noted that trendy innovation challenges tend to draw those who can do a lot with $50k, yet many of these smaller organizations and social entrepreneurs are not able to take their efforts to scale without broader partnerships with larger organizations or governments who have greater reach, yet innovation funding and grand challenges don’t seem to take this into account. A big gap in funding is the ‘innovation valley of death’ between ‘pilot project’ and ‘optimization at scale’ and Salon participants hope that in 2015 there will be better funding opportunities to support movement though that middle phase.

Fears include a continued donor tendency to see ‘innovation’ as something shiny and fancy rather than supporting new or combined approaches that implementors believe are the best for resolving a challenge. Some participants worry that programs and ‘solutions’ are being handed down and scaled simply because donors say so, rather than because they are really the best ways to address a particular problem. Given how difficult it can be to communicate why something is innovative, one discussant hoped that the field of ICT4D might join together and find ways to fund some of its own initiatives rather than being dependent on donor funding. This might allow implementors to think more about innovative processes and ways of working rather than shiny devices and implementing specific ‘solutions.’ The hope is that as a wider field, we can push towards innovation as process and practice, and achieve fundamental shifts in how we work and how we collaborate.

Scale was another topic Salon participants hope will be discussed more critically and re-imagined in 2015. The definition of scale requires a closer look because scale has different characteristics for different contexts and situations. The ‘black box’ between invention and optimization came up again, with one participant recommending this document which explores the space between these two stages in more detail.

6) More focus on monitoring, evaluation and learning

A discussant commented that the contribution of technology to goals within programs and projects is not well teased out or shared. She fears that our lack of sharing and learning in meaningful ways is holding back the sector. In addition, as noted here, it’s difficult when those working at the project level are asked to prove at the sector level what is working, where, when and why. Determining causality for a particular technology tool or process is complex and difficult – if not impossible — but the hope is that in 2015 we can develop better ways to understand the contribution of different ICT tools and platforms to development goals.

Another hope is that better local level monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will happen in 2015. The SDG global consultation process used social media to source input for the SDGs, and it will also be important to engage communities in monitoring and evaluating the results of efforts made to reach the SDGs.

One participant mentioned that technology is enabling new kinds of research and outreach to people that development agencies had no way of reaching before. Her hope is that new groups and more individuals, especially populations who are often marginalized, will be able to access services and support because technology helps to reach and connect them. In addition, her hope is that that social media will continue to enable like-minded people and organizations to find one another to engage and learn as peers. Another participant hopes for more institutional sharing and openness so that different organizations can work more closely and share their methodologies, processes and innovations without a competitive angle.

7) Greater humility

Finally, an overall hope for more humility from the ICT4D and wider development and humanitarian sectors was voiced. We heard things like: Let’s not sashay in…. Let’s stop parachuting products and solutions in…. When local people have their act together and are moving ahead, let’s not try to co-opt, own or control it…. Let’s change the paradigm and stop using the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing’…. Let’s learn to better support and ask people what they need and if/how we can help…. Let’s listen…. Let’s get out of the way…. Let’s take a closer look at our privilege and power…. Let’s call each other out when we see power and privilege being abused…. Let’s work together to change our sector.

Yes, let’s!

 

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