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Archive for April, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 8.59.45 PMBy Mala Kumar and Linda Raftree

Our April 21st NYC Technology Salon focused on issues related to the LGBT ICT4D community, including how LGBTQI issues are addressed in the context of stakeholders and ICT4D staff. We examined specific concerns that ICT4D practitioners who identify as LGBTQI have, as well as how LGBTQI stakeholders are (or are not) incorporated into ICT4D projects, programs and policies. Among the many issues covered in the Salon, the role of the Internet and mobile devices for both community building and surveillance/security concerns played a central part in much of the discussion.

To frame the discussion, participants were asked to think about how LGBTQI issues within ICT4D (and more broadly, development) are akin to gender. Mainstreaming gender in development starts with how organizations treat their own staff. Implementing programs, projects and policies with a focus on gender cannot happen if the implementers do not first understand how to treat staff, colleagues and those closest to them (i.e. family, friends). Likewise, without a proper understanding of LGBTQI colleagues and staff, programs that address LGBTQI stakeholders will be ineffective.

The lead discussants of the Salon were Mala Kumar, writer and former UN ICT4D staff, Tania Lee, current IRC ICT4D Program Officer, and Robert Valadéz, current UN ICT4D staff. Linda Raftree moderated the discussion.

Unpacking LGBTQI

The first discussant pointed out how we as ICT4D/development practitioners think of the acronym LGBTQI, particularly the T and I – transgender and intersex. Often, development work focuses on the sexual identity portion of the acronym (the LGBQ), and not what is considered in Western countries as transgenderism.

As one participant said, the very label of “transgender” is hard to convey in many countries where “third gender” and “two-spirit gender” exist. These disagreements in terminology have – in Bangladesh and Nepal for example – resulted in creating conflict and division of interest within LGBTQI communities. In other countries, such as Thailand and parts of the Middle East, “transgenderism” can be considered more “normal” or societally acceptable than homosexuality. Across Africa, Latin America, North America and Europe, homosexuality is a better understood – albeit sometimes severely criminalized and socially rejected – concept than transgenderism.

One participant cited that in her previous first-hand work on services for lesbian, gay and bisexual people; often in North America, transgender communities are prioritized less in LGBTQI services. In many cases she saw in San Francisco, homeless youth would identify as anything in order to gain access to needed services. Only after the services were provided did the beneficiaries realize the consequences of self-reporting or incorrectly self-reporting.

Security concerns within Unpacking LGBTQI

For many people, the very notion of self-identifying as LGBTQI poses severe security risks. From a data collection standpoint, this results in large problems in accurate representation of populations. It also results in privacy concerns. As one discussant mentioned, development and ICT4D teams often do not have the technical capacity (i.e. statisticians, software engineers) to properly anonymize data and/or keep data on servers safe from hackers. On the other hand, the biggest threat to security may just be “your dad finding your phone and reading a text message,” as one person noted.

Being an LGBTQI staff in ICT4D

 Our second lead discussant spoke about being (and being perceived as) an LGBTQI staff member in ICT4D. She noted that many of the ICT4D hubs, labs, centers, etc. are in countries that are notoriously homophobic. Examples include Uganda (Kampala), Kenya (Nairobi), Nigeria (Abuja, Lagos), Kosovo and Ethiopia (Addis). This puts people who are interested in technology for development and are queer at a distinct disadvantage.

Some of the challenges she highlighted include that ICT4D attracts colleagues from around the world who are the most likely to be adept at computers and Internet usage, and therefore more likely to seek out and find information about other staff/colleagues online. If those who are searching are homophobic, finding “evidence” against colleagues can be both easy and easy to disseminate. Along those lines, ICT4D practitioners are encouraged (and sometimes necessitated) to blog, use social media, and keep an online presence. In fact, many people in ICT4D find posts and contracts this way. However, keeping online professional and personal presences completely separate is incredibly challenging. Since ICT4D practitioners are working with colleagues most likely to actually find colleagues online, queer ICT4D practitioners are presented with a unique dilemma.

ICT4D practitioners are arguably the set of people within development that are the best fitted to utilize technology and programmatic knowledge to self-advocate as LGBT staff and for LGBT stakeholder inclusion. However, how are queer ICT4D staff supposed to balance safety concerns and professional advancement limitations when dealing with homophobic staff? This issue is further compounded (especially in the UN, as one participant noted) by being awarded the commonly used project-based contracts, which give staff little to no job security, bargaining power or general protection when working overseas.

Security concerns within being an LGBTQI staff in ICT4D

A participant who works in North America for a Kenyan-based company said that none of her colleagues ever mentioned her orientation, even though they must have found her publicly viewable blog on gender and she is not able to easily disguise her orientation. She talked about always finding and connecting to the local queer community wherever she goes, often through the Internet, and tries to support local organizations working on LGBT issues. Still, she and several other participants and discussants emphasized their need to segment online personal and professional lives to remain safe.

Another participant mentioned his time working in Ethiopia. The staff from the center he worked with made openly hostile remarks about gays, which reinforced his need to stay closeted. He noticed that the ICT staff of the organization made a concerted effort to research people online, and that Facebook made it difficult, if not impossible, to keep personal and private lives separate.

Another person reiterated this point by saying that as a gay Latino man, and the first person in his family to go to university, grad school and work in a professional job, he is a role model to many people in his community. He wants to offer guidance and support, and used to do so with a public online presence. However, at his current internationally-focused job he feels the need to self-censor and has effectively limited talking about his public online presence, because he often interacts with high level officials who are hostile towards the LGBTQI community.

One discussant also echoed this idea, saying that she is becoming a voice for the queer South Asian community, which is important because much of LGBT media is very white. The tradeoff for becoming this voice is compromising her career in the field because she cannot accept a lot of posts because they do not offer adequate support and security.

Intersectionality

Several participants and discussants offered their own experiences on the various levels of hostility and danger involved with even being suspected as gay. One (female) participant began a relationship with a woman while working in a very conservative country, and recalled being terrified at being killed over the relationship. Local colleagues began to suspect, and eventually physically intervened by showing up at her house. This participant cited her “light skinned privilege” as one reason that she did not suffer serious consequences from her actions.

Another participant recounted his time with the US Peace Corps. After a year, he started coming out and dating people in host country. When one relationship went awry and he was turned into the police for being gay, nothing came of the charges. Meanwhile, he saw local gay men being thrown into – and sometimes dying in – jail for the same charges. He and some other participants noted their relative privilege in these situations because they are white. This participant said he felt that as a white male, he felt a sense of invincibility.

In contrast, a participant from an African country described his experience growing up and using ICTs as an escape because any physical indication he was gay would have landed him in jail, or worse. He had to learn how to change his mannerisms to be more masculine, had to learn how to disengage from social situations in real life, and live in the shadows.

One of the discussants echoed these concerns, saying that as a queer woman of color, everything is compounded. She was recruited for a position at a UN Agency in Kenya, but turned the post down because of the hostility towards gays and lesbians there. However, she noted that some queer people she has met – all white men from the States or Europe – have had overall positive experiences being gay with the UN.

Perceived as predators

One person brought up the “predator” stereotype often associated with gay men. He and his partner have had to turn down media opportunities where they could have served as role models for the gay community, especially poor, gay queer men of color, (who are one of the most difficult socioeconomic classes to reach) out of fear that this stereotype may impact on their being hired to work in organizations that serve children.

Monitoring and baiting by the government

One participant who grew up in Cameroon mentioned that queer communities in his country use the Internet cautiously, even though it’s the best resource to find other queer people. The reason for the caution is that government officials have been known to pose as queer people to bait real users for illegal gay activity.

Several other participants cited this same phenomenon in different forms. A recent article talked about Egypt using new online surveillance tactics to find LGBTQI people. Some believe that this type of surveillance will also happen in Nigeria, a notoriously hostile country towards LGBTQI persons and other places.

There was also discussion about what IP or technology is the safest for LGBTQI people. While the Internet can be monitored and traced back to a specific user, being able to connect from multiple access points and with varying levels of security creates a sense of anonymity that phones cannot provide. A person also generally carries phones, so if the government intercepts a message on either the originating or receiving device, implications of existing messages are immediate unless a user can convince the government the device was stolen or used by someone else. In contrast, phones are more easily disposable and in several countries do not require registration (or a registered SIM card) to a specific person.

In Ethiopia, the government has control over the phone networks and can in theory monitor these messages for LGBTQI activity. This poses a particular threat since there is already legal precedent for convictions of illegal activity based on text messages. In some countries, major telecom carriers are owned by a national government. In others, major telecom carries are national subsidiaries of an international company.

Another major concern raised relates back to privacy. Many major international development organizations do not have the capacity or ability to retain necessary software engineers, ICT architects and system operators, statisticians and other technology people to properly prevent Internet hacks and surveillance. In some cases, this work is illegal by national government policy, and thus also requires legal advocacy. The mere collection of data and information can therefore pose a security threat to staff and stakeholders – LGBTQI and allies, alike.

The “queer divide”

One discussant asked the group for data or anecdotal information related to the “queer divide.” A commonly understood problem in ICT4D work are divides – between genders, urban and rural, rich and poor, socially accepted and socially marginalized. There have also been studies to clearly demonstrate that people who are naturally extroverted and not shy benefit more from any given program or project. As such, is there any data to support a “queer divide” between those who are LGBTQI and those who are not, he wondered. As demonstrated in the above sections, many queer people are forced to disengage socially and retreat from “normal” society to stay safe.

Success stories, key organizations and resources

Participants mentioned organizations and examples of more progressive policies for LGBTQI staff and stakeholders (this list is not comprehensive, nor does it suggest these organizations’ policies are foolproof), including:

We also compiled a much more extensive list of resources on the topic here as background reading, including organizations, articles and research. (Feel free to add to it!)

What can we do moving forward?

  • Engage relevant organizations, such as Out in Tech and Lesbians who Tech, with specific solutions, such as coding privacy protocols for online communities and helping grassroots organizations target ads to relevant stakeholders.
  • Lobby smartphone manufacturers to increase privacy protections on mobile devices.
  • Lobby US and other national governments to introduce “Right to be forgotten” law, which allows Internet users to wipe all records of themselves and personal activity.
  • Support organizations and services that offer legal council to those in need.
  • Demand better and more comprehensive protection for LGBTQI staff, consultants and interns in international organizations.

Key questions to work on…

  • In some countries, a government owns telecom companies. In others, telecom companies are national subsidiaries of international corporations. In countries in which the government is actively or planning on actively surveying networks for LGBTQI activity, how does the type of telecom company factor in?
  • What datasets do we need on LGBTQI people for better programming?
  • How do we properly anonymize data collected? What are the standards of best practices?
  • What policies need to be in place to better protect LGBTQI staff, consultants and interns? What kind of sensitizing activities, trainings and programming need to be done for local staff and less LGBTQI sensitive international staff in ICT4D organizations?
  • How much capacity have ICT4D/international organizations lost as a result of their policies for LGBTQI staff and stakeholders?
  • What are the roles and obligations of ICT4D/international organizations to their LGBTQI staff, now and in the future?
  • What are the ICT4D and international development programmatic links with LGBT stakeholders and staff? How does LGBT stakeholders intersect with water? Public health? Nutrition? Food security? Governance and transparency? Human rights? Humanitarian crises? How does LGBT staff intersect with capacity? Trainings? Programming?
  • How do we safely and responsibility increase visibility of LGBTQI people around the world?
  • How do we engage tech companies that are pro-LGBTQI, including Google, to do more for those who cannot or do not engage with their services?
  • What are the economic costs of homophobia, and does this provide a compelling enough case for countries to stop systemic LGBTQI-phobic behavior?
  • How do we mainstream LGBTQI issues in bigger development conferences and discussions?

Thanks to the great folks at ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing a lovely breakfast to us! Technology Salons are carried out under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made. If you’d like to join us for Technology Salons in future, sign up here!

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Our April 16th Technology Salon Brooklyn, co-hosted with the Brooklyn Community Foundation (BCF) and AfroLatin@ Project explored the issue of tenant rights within the wider context of structural discrimination. We aimed to think about how new technology and social media might be a tool for helping community organizations to support Brooklyn residents to know their rights and report violations. We were also curious about how better use of data (and ‘big data’) might help housing rights activists and community organizations to more successfully engage residents and advocate for change.

Our lead discussant was David Reiss from Brooklyn Law School, who provided an overview of the wider housing market and challenges in New York City as well as information on some applications that are helping landlords do a better job of keeping properties up to standard. We also heard from Tynesha McHarris (BCF) and Amilcar Priestly (AfroLatin@ Project).

Brooklyn: lots of cool, lots of inequality

Kicking off the Salon, one discussant talked about the essence of Brooklyn. “What do you think of when you hear ‘Brooklyn’?” she asked. “It’s incredibly ‘cool,’ yes. But it’s also incredibly inequitable and there is incredibly inequality, mainly for people of color.” Brooklyn is the hub of New York’s tech industry, yet it’s also where tenants are being displaced, harassed and finding it difficult to live. “We want to see how tech can be used as a tool for, not a tool against,” she said, “how can we support folks to understand, advocate and organize around their rights, how we can use tech to organize in as well as across communities, because these issues don’t just affect some people, they affect all of us who live here.”

She noted that technology is a tool with potential, and donors could be funding projects that use tech to help organize and advocate on tenant rights, but there is insufficient evidence to know how to approach it. To date technology has not really been part of the bigger picture.

Another discussant talked about the housing market as a whole in New York City, citing that there available affordable housing has not kept up with the huge influx of population over the past several years. “Technology will not fix the underlying problem,” he noted. “It can’t expand the supply of affordable housing.” The real potential for technology is more in helping protect the rights of current tenants.

Some examples of how tech is supporting housing rights include applications and portals aimed at improving communications between landlords and tenants, so that problems can be more easily reported by either side, and record is kept of complaints, he commented. Incentives for landlords include free advertising of their units on the site and some reduced legal fees for things like rent stabilization approval. An interesting aspect of these sites is that the data can be analyzed to see where the largest number of complaints are coming from, and in this way patterns can be found and identified. For example, who are the bad landlords? Other sites offer lots of data for those who are interested in purchasing units, and this same type of data could be repurposed and made more accessible for lower-income and less technologically savvy residents.

One participant noted that gentrification and policing are very connected. “As we talk about legal rights and landlord-to-tenant conversations,” she noted, “we need to also bring in aspects of policing and racial justice. These are closely linked.“ As neighborhoods gentrify, newer residents often call for a greater police presence, and this can lead to harassment of long-time residents.

What other roles could technology play in strengthening existing work?

Connecting people and organizations

Lots of community organizations are working on the issues of tenant rights and gentrification, and there is a desire to build a network across these organizations. Tech could help to bring them together and to support stronger advocacy and organization. People don’t always know where they can go for help. One idea was to map organizations in different neighborhoods where people can go for help on housing issues. People also may think that they are the only tenants in a building who are having trouble with a landlord. Improved communication via tech might help let residents know they are not alone and to reduce the fear of reporting and speaking out about housing violations. One idea was to use the new system of NYC neighborhood domains to provide local information, including housing rights and specific information on buildings and their histories.

Transferring tactics from one movement to another

We’ve seen the huge role that mobile video has played in raising awareness on the issue of police violence, noted one discussant. “Technology has become a very powerful tool for communication and accountability, look at the case of Walter Scott (who died at the hands of a volunteer policeman). The young man who filmed Scott’s death knew just what to do. He pointed his camera and captured it. How can we transfer this kind of action over to the housing movement? How can we get people to use their cameras and record housing violations and landlord harassment?”

Offering new, potentially more effective ways to report housing violations

Tech can offer different dissemination channels for different people – for example, in Detroit the elderly are particularly vulnerable to housing violations, said one Salon participant. One organization encourages people to report housing harassment via SMS. They included a call-back option to cater to older people who did not feel comfortable with SMS. Stories are also an important part of campaigns and public awareness, noted another participant. Sandy Storyline created a way to share text plus a photo via SMS for those who wanted to communicate stories but who were offline. This type of application could serve as a way of keeping record of housing violations, when/where they are reported and what the outcomes are.

Tracking housing violations

One way that tech is already helping is by tracking whether public housing buildings have heat and water. Sensors are attached to the buildings, and the information is sent to journalists who then write stories when building violations happen, mentioned one Salon participant. This could be accompanied by text messages out to residents of these buildings to inform them of the status of their building. Knowing that they are not the only ones noticing problems could help residents feel more confident about speaking out and confronting bad landlords. “It’s information that says to someone: ‘this message it not only for you, it’s for everyone in your building, and here is the number you can call to get support or if you fear retribution for reporting.’” Media attention puts pressure on landlords and can help bring violations to light and make people feel safer reporting them.

Encouraging local politicians to get involved

A study in Kenya found that youth tend to bypass local politicians and pay more attention to national government and governance. Similar trends are found in the US where although local political decisions may impact more directly on residents fewer are involved in or aware of local political processes than national ones. Tech could play a role in helping connect residents to local representatives who could take action to support fair housing, address bad landlords, and support longer-term solutions as well. Some local political offices have been very open to integrating technology into their work, said one participant, and these offices might be good places to think about partnering on initiatives that use technology to better connect with their constituencies.

Tracking and predicting trends and population movements and displacement

Mapping and big data sets are providing investors with incredible amounts of information on where to purchase and invest. How can organizations and advocates better use this information, not just to identify movement and displacement and conduct research on it, but also to predict it, prepare for it, and fight it together with residents? How is information that data scientists and research institutes have, as well as open data sets on New York City used by local organizations, some wondered, and where could it be better brought to bear? “Rather than coming up with parallel studies, how can we advocate for more and better open data from New York City on housing?” asked one participant.

Other recommendations

Don’t forget about the legalities of videotaping and sharing

Some people and politicians are pushing to make things like police videotaping illegal. This happened recently in Spain with the so-called “Citizen Security” law that has made it illegal to videotape a police officer in some cases. One discussant mentioned that some US Senators are also trying to restrict the rights of citizens to film police, and that advocates of social justice need to fight to keep these rights to document authorities.

Use the right technology for the audience

One participant noted that you can create great apps with all kinds of data and patterns, but the question is more about who will access and use them, and who is benefiting from them. Wealthy white men and already-privileged people will likely find it very simple to find and use the information and these applications, giving them an advantage in terms of finding good apartments at lower prices, with good landlords. The best way to reach lower income people, he said, as personally experienced from working on political campaigns, is knocking on doors and reaching out personally and directly. “We need to see how to marry community organization and technology.”

Understand the landscape

In order to understand what tech tools might be useful, it we need to understand the communication and technology landscape in which we are working. Though Salon participants mentioned the importance of certain print publications, community radio stations in various languages, and increasing use of smart phones by young people, no one was aware of any current and widespread information on the information and communication habits of residents of Brooklyn that could help to target particular outreach efforts to different groups who were at risk of housing violations.

SMS is not a silver bullet – and trust is key

SMS can be extremely accessible, and there are many examples where it has worked very well. But experience shows that SMS works best where there are already strong networks in place, and trust is hugely important. One participant cautioned, “People need to trust where the text message is coming from. They need to know who is sending the text.” SMS also has limits because it is hyper local. “You won’t find it working across an entire Borough,” said one participant.

Local organizations are key

Along with the issue of trust is the critical component of local organizations. As one participant reminded us, “especially faith-based organizations – temples, churches, mosques. They know everyone in the neighborhood and what’s going on. They tend to know how to walk a fine line on local politics.”

Youth could play a role

Because youth around the world, including in Brooklyn, tend to be up on the latest technology, they could play a role in helping parents and grandparents with housing rights violations, especially in communities where older people are not comfortable with English or where they may fear the police due to undocumented status or other past experiences. One idea was bridging the technology and age gap by engaging young people, who could help older people find out about their rights, legal support services and where to find help. Some research has shown that young people are starting to rely on technology as an institution, said one participant, with technology and online institutions replacing physical ones for many of them.

Be careful about creating demand without adequate response capacity

As with any tech project, creating demand for services and informing people about the existence of those services is often an easier task than building and sustaining the capacity to provide quality support. Any efforts to generate greater demand need to be accompanied by capacity and funding so that people do not become apathetic or feel that they’ve been tricked if they report a violation and do not receive the support they expect or were promised. Previous experiences with service providers or legal institutions will also impact whether people trust these efforts, even if they come through new channels like technology.

Figure out how community organizations and technology partners can work together

An important thing to work out is what a relationship between community organizations and technology partners might look like. “Community organizations don’t need to become technology experts, we could partner and work together on resolving some of these challenges,” said one participant, “but we need to figure out what something like that would look like.” In some cases, community organizations in Brooklyn have low capacity and extremely poor infrastructure due to limited funding, commented one participant. “How can we reach out and engage with them and ask if they are interested in working with tech partners? How can we find out from them what tech would be supportive for them in their work?”

Think about short and long-term efforts

It will be important to look at both supporting residents and community organizations in the immediate term, and thinking about how to use data and information to help address the long term and the wider structural issues that are playing a role in housing rights violations and differential impacts of the housing situation on specific groups, for example, the elderly and people of color. It’s also important to try to address some of the root causes – for example, as one participant asked, “Who is funding predatory landlords? Who are the investors in these vulture funds?”

***

In conclusion, participants expressed their interest in continuing discussions and a desire for greater participation by community organizations in future Salons. The hope is that the Salon can help to connect community organizations and those in the tech space in order to work together to address some of the issues that Brooklyn residents face.

If you’d like to join us for our next Salon, sign up here.

Many thanks to the Brooklyn Community Foundation for their fabulous hosting and AfroLatin@ Project for helping make the Salon happen!

 

 

 

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I had a few welcome breaks from my habitual ‘learning’ zone this past month — got away from workshops, conferences, panels, academic reports, meetings, articles and posts for a bit and popped into a little art, comedy and fiction.

Art

Marlene Dumas’ superb exhibit at the Tate Modern in London is called ‘The Image as Burden‘ (it’s on till May 10 so go check it out!). It’s quite relevant for those of us thinking about poverty porn and ethical use of image and narrative in development work, especially Black Drawings. The description of the piece said that she found old photos of Africans, usually taken by anthropologists or colonizers, and where the focus was almost always on black bodies, not on persons, and where individuals were never named. She enlarged the photos and painted close-ups of the faces as portraits, re-focusing on the individuality and humanity of each person.

As I stood there absorbing the wall of faces, it struck me that no amount of ranting and preaching to people about the single story narrative or the way that Africans and the poor are so often stereotyped and filmed and photographed as objects rather than subjects can really bring the point home like this.

Dumas also has a moving piece called Great Men, where she’s done portraits of famous men in history who were gay, using a similar technique of close up painted portraits, here each with a short biography.

Comedy

Last week, I went to my second stand-up comedy show from America Meet World, where comedians from different countries showcase their craft to US audiences. Trina Das Gupta, who has always been irritated by poverty porn and the aid industry’s single story penchant, runs the production. She started it as a way to lower cultural barriers and introduce the ‘rest of the world’ to Americans. What better way than comedy, she figured. When she told me about her idea a few years ago, I wondered how comedy would translate — they always say humor is cultural, but her strategy is proving to be brilliant. The two shows I hit were hilarious, and I don’t normally follow comedy. The Daily Show is also embracing the idea of a more globalized comedy in the US, with their recent choice of Trevor Noah to replace Jon Stewart. Comedy, when done right, is so good for pointing out absurdities and making you think about yourself and your culture in different ways. (It’s even better when you go out dancing afterwards.)

Fiction

J. (formerly @talesfromthhood) just put out his latest book, one of the very few in the genre of ‘humanitarian fiction’. This is J’s third novel and he’s firmly settling into the role of writer. In Honor Among Thieves, he introduces readers to likable characters struggling to be ethical in their various roles as development workers. By exploring the challenges and obstacles that people at different levels and in different sides of the industry face, he helps those already inside the industry and those just getting into it to deepen their understandings of the contradictions inherent in the aid system. It would be great reading for some of the journalists and aid critics who like to bash individual aid and development practitioners without understanding the trade-offs they often have to make. The book is entertaining and easy to get through on a plane ride. It critiques the industry but in a more fun and accessible way than articles and posts from academics and journalists and aid critics. (If Honor Among Thieves is too serious, the old fallback ‘Disastrous Passion‘ explores many of the same themes but takes the form of a ‘humanitarian romance novel’, with hilariously over the top sex scenes to break up any serious talk).

We need more art and edutainment

We could classify all these as ‘edutainment’. I looked up the term to see how long ‘edutainment’ has been around. According to Wikipedia, it’s about 50 years.

Since the 1970s, various groups in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Latin America have used edutainment to address such health and social issues as substance abuse, immunization, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and cancer.

Parables and fables have been around for quite a bit longer the entry notes (obviously). And of course fairy tales and nursery rhymes sneak advice and warnings inside of clever poems, songs and stories. Some might say that the sacred texts of the world’s major religions are edutainment. But at the risk of offending, I will keep quiet about that.

It’s kind of funny that we (meaning ‘we aid and development people’) like to use edutainment to achieve behavior change with ‘the poor’ but we don’t do nearly enough of it with ourselves and our donor publics.  I, for one, think we need more edutainment. More Fail Fests (comedy plus theater). More satire like Africa for Norway and Tim’s Revolutionary One for One campaign. More shows like The Samaritans and blogs like Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like.

More, more, more!

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by Hila Mehr and Linda Raftree

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

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

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

Reframing our Concept of Wearables

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

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

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

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

Envisioning What’s Possible

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

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

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

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

Tackling Behavior Change

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

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

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

Designing for Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tensions around Privacy, Data, and Unethical Uses

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

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

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

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

The Future We Wear

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

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

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

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

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

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