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At our April 5th Salon in Washington, DC we had the opportunity to take a closer look at open data and privacy and discuss the intersection of the two in the framework of ‘responsible data’. Our lead discussants were Amy O’Donnell, Oxfam GB; Rob Baker, World Bank; Sean McDonald, FrontlineSMS. I had the pleasure of guest moderating.

What is Responsible Data?

We started out by defining ‘responsible data‘ and some of the challenges when thinking about open data in a framework of responsible data.

The Engine Room defines ‘responsible data’ as

the duty to ensure people’s rights to consent, privacy, security and ownership around the information processes of collection, analysis, storage, presentation and reuse of data, while respecting the values of transparency and openness.

Responsible Data can be like walking a tightrope, noted our first discussant, and you need to find the right balance between opening data and sharing it, all the while being ethical and responsible. “Data is inherently related to power – it can create power, redistribute it, make the powerful more powerful or further marginalize the marginalized. Getting the right balance involves asking some key questions throughout the data lifecycle from design of the data gathering all the way through to disposal of the data.

How can organizations be more responsible?

If an organization wants to be responsible about data throughout the data life cycle, some questions to ask include:

  • In whose interest is it to collect the data? Is it extractive or empowering? Is there informed consent?
  • What and how much do you really need to know? Is the burden of collecting and the liability of storing the data worth it when balanced with the data’s ability to represent people and allow them to be counted and served? Do we know what we’ll actually be doing with the data?
  • How will the data be collected and treated? What are the new opportunities and risks of collecting and storing and using it?
  • Why are you collecting it in the first place? What will it be used for? Will it be shared or opened? Is there a data sharing MOU and has the right kind of consent been secured? Who are we opening the data for and who will be able to access and use it?
  • What is the sensitivity of the data and what needs to be stripped out in order to protect those who provided the data?

Oxfam has developed a data deposit framework to help assess the above questions and make decisions about when and whether data can be open or shared.

(The Engine Room’s Responsible Development Data handbook offers additional guidelines and things to consider)

(See: https://wiki.responsibledata.io/Data_in_the_project_lifecycle for more about the data lifecycle)

Is ‘responsible open data’ an oxymoron?

Responsible Data policies and practices don’t work against open data, our discussant noted. Responsible Data is about developing a framework so that data can be opened and used safely. It’s about respecting the time and privacy of those who have provided us with data and reducing the risk of that data being hacked. As more data is collected digitally and donors are beginning to require organizations to hand over data that has been collected with their funding, it’s critical to have practical resources and help staff to be more responsible about data.

Some disagreed that consent could be truly informed and that open data could ever be responsible since once data is open, all control over the data is lost. “If you can’t control the way the data is used, you can’t have informed people. It’s like saying ‘you gave us permission to open your data, so if something bad happens to you, oh well….” Informed consent is also difficult nowadays because data sets are being used together and in ways that were not possible when informed consent was initially obtained.

Others noted that standard informed consent practices are unhelpful, as people don’t understand what might be done with their data, especially when they have low data literacy. Involving local communities and individuals in defining what data they would like to have and use could make the process more manageable and useful for those whose data we are collecting, using and storing, they suggested.

One person said that if consent to open data was not secured initially; the data cannot be opened, say, 10 years later. Another felt that it was one thing to open data for a purpose and something entirely different to say “we’re going to open your data so people can do fun things with it, to play around with it.”

But just what data are we talking about?

USAID was questioned for requiring grantees to share data sets and for leaning towards de-identification rather than raising the standard to data anonymity. One person noted that at one point the agency had proposed a 22-step process for releasing data and even that was insufficient for protecting program participants in a risky geography because “it’s very easy to figure out who in a small community recently received 8 camels.” For this reason, exclusions are an important part of open data processes, he said.

It’s not black or white, said another. Responsible open data is possible, but openness happens along a spectrum. You have financial data on the one end, which should be very open as the public has a right to know how its tax dollars are being spent. Human subjects research is on the other end, and it should not be totally open. (Author’s note: The Open Knowledge Foundation definition of open data says: “A key point is that when opening up data, the focus is on non-personal data, that is, data which does not contain information about specific individuals.” The distinction between personal data, such as that in household level surveys, and financial data on agency or government activities seems to be blurred or blurring in current debates around open data and privacy.) “Open data will blow up in your face if it’s not done responsibly,” he noted. “But some of the open data published via IATI (the International Aid Transparency Initiative) has led to change.”

A participant followed this comment up by sharing information from a research project conducted on stakeholders’ use of IATI data in 3 countries. When people knew that the open data sets existed they were very excited, she said. “These are countries where there is no Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and where people cannot access data because no one will give it to them. They trusted the US Government’s data more than their own government data, and there was a huge demand for IATI data. People were very interested in who was getting what funding. They wanted information for planning, coordination, line ministries and other logistical purposes. So let’s not underestimate open data. If having open data sets means that governments, health agencies or humanitarian organizations can do a better job of serving people, that may make for a different kind of analysis or decision.”

‘Open by default’ or ‘open by demand’?

Though there are plenty of good intentions and rationales for open data, said one discussant, ‘open by default’ is a mistake. We may have quick wins with a reduction in duplicity of data collection, but our experiences thus far do not merit ‘open by default’. We have not earned it. Instead, he felt that ‘open by demand’ is a better idea. “We can put out a public list of the data that’s available and see what demand for data comes in. If we are proactive on what is available and what can be made available, and we monitor requests, we can avoid putting out information that no one is interested in. This would lower the overhead on what we are releasing. It would also allow us to have a conversation about who needs this data and for what.”

One participant agreed, positing that often the only reason that we collect data is to provide proof and evidence that we’re doing our job, spending the money given to us, and tracking back. “We tend to think that the only way to provide this evidence is to collect data: do a survey, talk to people, look at website usage. But is anyone actually using this data, this evidence to make decisions?”

Is the open data honeymoon over?

“We need to do a better job of understanding the impact at a wider level,” said another participant, “and I think it’s pretty light. Talking about open data is too general. We need to be more service oriented and problem driven. The conversation is very different when you are using data to solve a particular problem and you can focus on something tangible like service delivery or efficiency. Open data is expensive and not sustainable in the current setup. We need to figure this out.”

Another person shared results from an informal study on the use of open data portals around the world. He found around 2,500 open data portals, and only 3.8% of them use https (the secure version of http). Most have very few visitors, possibly due to poor Internet access in the countries whose open data they are serving up, he said. Several exist in countries with a poor Freedom House ranking and/or in countries at the bottom end of the World Bank’s Digital Dividends report. “In other words, the portals have been built for people who can’t even use them. How responsible is this?” he asked, “And what is the purpose of putting all that data out there if people don’t have the means to access it and we continue to launch more and more portals? Where’s all this going?”

Are we conflating legal terms?

Legal frameworks around data ownership were debated. Some said that the data belonged to the person or agency that collected it or paid for the cost of collecting in terms of copyright and IP. Others said that the data belonged to the individual who provided it. (Author’s note: Participants may have been referring to different categories of data, eg., financial data from government vs human subjects data.) The question was raised of whether informed consent for open data in the humanitarian space is basically a ‘contract of adhesion’ (a term for a legally binding agreement between two parties wherein one side has all the bargaining power and uses it to its advantage). Asking a person to hand over data in an emergency situation in order to enroll in a humanitarian aid program is akin to holding a gun to a person’s head in order to get them to sign a contract, said one person.

There’s a world of difference between ‘published data’ and ‘openly licensed data,’ commented our third discussant. “An open license is a complete lack of control, and you can’t be responsible with something you can’t control. There are ways to be responsible about the way you open something, but once it’s open, your responsibility has left the port.” ‘Use-based licensing’ is something else, and most IP is governed by how it’s used. For example, educational institutions get free access to data because they are educational institutions. Others pay and this subsidized their use of this data, he explained.

One person suggested that we could move from the idea of ‘open data’ to sub-categories related to how accessible the data would be and to whom and for what purposes. “We could think about categories like: completely open, licensed, for a fee, free, closed except for specific uses, etc.; and we could also specify for whom, whose data and for what purposes. If we use the term ‘accessible’ rather than ‘open’ perhaps we can attach some restrictions to it,” she said.

Is data an asset or a liability?

Our current framing is wrong, said one discussant. We should think of data as a toxic asset since as soon as it’s in our books and systems, it creates proactive costs and proactive risks. Threat modeling is a good approach, he noted. Data can cause a lot of harm to an organization – it’s a liability, and if it’s not used or stored according to local laws, an agency could be sued. “We’re far under the bar. We are not compliant with ‘safe harbor’ or ECOWAS regulations. There are libel questions and property laws that our sector is ignorant of. Our good intentions mislead us in terms of how we are doing things. There is plenty of room to build good practice here, he noted, for example through Civic Trusts. Another participant noted that insurance underwriters are already moving into this field, meaning that they see growing liability in this space.

How can we better engage communities and the grassroots?

Some participants shared examples of how they and their organizations have worked closely at the grassroots level to engage people and communities in protecting their own privacy and using open data for their own purposes. Threat modeling is an approach that helps improve data privacy and security, said one. “When we do threat modeling, we treat the data that we plan to collect as a potential asset. At each step of collection, storage, sharing process – we ask, ‘how will we protect those assets? What happens if we don’t share that data? If we don’t collect it? If we don’t delete it?’”

In one case, she worked with very vulnerable women working on human rights issues and together the group put together an action plan to protect its data from adversaries. The threats that they had predicted actually happened and the plan was put into action. Threat modeling also helps to “weed the garden once you plant it,” she said, meaning that it helps organizations and individuals keep an eye on their data, think about when to delete data, pay attention to what happens after data’s opened and dedicate some time for maintenance rather than putting all their attention on releasing and opening data.

More funding needs to be made available for data literacy for those whose data has been collected and/or opened. We need to help people think about what data is of use to them also. One person recalled hearing people involved in the creation of the Kenya Open Government Data portal say that the entire process was a waste of time because of low levels of use of any of the data. There are examples, however, of people using open data and verifying it at community level. For example, high school students in one instance found the data on all the so-called grocery stores in their community and went one-by-one checking into them, and identifying that some of these were actually liquor stores selling potato chips, not actual grocery stores. Having this information and engaging with it can be powerful for local communities’ advocacy work.

Are we the failure here? What are we going to do about it?

One discussant felt that ‘data’ and ‘information’ are often and easily conflated. “Data alone is not power. Information is data that is contextualized into something that is useful.” This brings into question the value of having so many data portals, and so much risk, when so little is being done to turn data into information that is useful to the people our sector says it wants to support and empower.

He gave the example of the Weather Channel, a business built around open data sets that are packaged and broadcast, which just got purchased for $2 billion. Channels like radio that would have provided information to the poor were not purchased, only the web assets, meaning that those who benefit are not the disenfranchised. “Our organizations are actually just like the Weather Channel – we are intermediaries who are interested in taking and using open data for public good.”

As intermediaries, we can add value in the dissemination of this open data, he said. If we have the skills, the intention and the knowledge to use it responsibly, we have a huge opportunity here. “However our enlightened intent has not yet turned this data into information and knowledge that communities can use to improve their lives, so are we the failure here? And if so, what are we doing about it? We could immediately begin engaging communities and seeing what is useful to them.” (See this article for more discussion on how ‘open’ may disenfranchise the poor.)

Where to from here?

Some points raised that merit further discussion and attention include:

  • There is little demand or use of open data (such as government data and finances) and preparing and maintaining data sets is costly – ‘open by demand’ may be a more appropriate approach than ‘open by default.’
  • There is a good deal of disagreement about whether data can be opened responsibly. Some of this disagreement may stem from a lack of clarity about what kind of data we are talking about when we talk about open data.
  • Personal data and human subjects data that was never foreseen to be part of “open data” is potentially being opened, bringing with it risks for those who share it as well as for those who store it.
  • Informed consent for personal/human subject data is a tricky concept and it’s not clear whether it is even possible in the current scenario of personal data being ‘opened’ and the lack of control over how it may be used now or in the future, and the increasing ease of data re-identification.
  • We may want to look at data as a toxic asset rather than a beneficial one, because of the liabilities it brings.
  • Rather than a blanket “open” categorization, sub-categorizations that restrict data sets in different ways might be a possibility.
  • The sector needs to improve its understanding of the legal frameworks around data and data collection, storage and use or it may start to see lawsuits in the near future.
  • Work on data literacy and community involvement in defining what data is of interest and is collected, as well as threat modeling together with community groups is a way to reduce risk and improve data quality, demand and use; but it’s a high-touch activity that may not be possible for every kind of organization.
  • As data intermediaries, we need to do a much better job as a sector to see what we are doing with open data and how we are using it to provide services and contextualized information to the poor and disenfranchised. This is a huge opportunity and we have not done nearly enough here.

The Technology Salon is conducted under Chatham House Rule so attribution has not been made in this post. If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here

 

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Our March 18th Technology Salon NYC covered the Internet of Things and Global Development with three experienced discussants: John Garrity, Global Technology Policy Advisor at CISCO and co-author of Harnessing the Internet of Things for Global Development; Sylvia Cadena, Community Partnerships Specialist, Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) and the Asia Information Society Innovation Fund (ISIF); and Andy McWilliams, Creative Technologist at ThoughtWorks and founder and director of Art-A-Hack and Hardware Hack Lab.

By Wilgengebroed on Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What is the Internet of Things?

One key task at the Salon was clarifying what exactly is the “Internet of Things.” According to Wikipedia:

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects—devices, vehicles, buildings and other items—embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data.[1] The IoT allows objects to be sensed and controlled remotely across existing network infrastructure,[2] creating opportunities for more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems, and resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy and economic benefit;[3][4][5][6][7][8] when IoT is augmented with sensors and actuators, the technology becomes an instance of the more general class of cyber-physical systems, which also encompasses technologies such as smart grids, smart homes, intelligent transportation and smart cities. Each thing is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system but is able to interoperate within the existing Internet infrastructure. Experts estimate that the IoT will consist of almost 50 billion objects by 2020.[9]

As one discussant explained, the IoT involves three categories of entities: sensors, actuators and computing devices. Sensors read data in from the world for computing devices to process via a decision logic which then generates some type of action back out to the world (motors that turn doors, control systems that operate water pumps, actions happening through a touch screen, etc.). Sensors can be anything from video cameras to thermometers or humidity sensors. They can be consumer items (like a garage door opener or a wearable device) or industrial grade (like those that keep giant machinery running in an oil field). Sensors are common in mobile phones, but more and more we see them being de-coupled from cell phones and integrated into or attached to all manner of other every day things. The boom in the IoT means that in whereas in the past, a person may have had one URL for their desktop computer, now they might be occupying several URLs:  through their phone, their iPad, their laptop, their Fitbit and a number of other ‘things.’

Why does IoT matter for Global Development?

Price points for sensors are going down very quickly and wireless networks are steadily expanding — not just wifi but macro cellular technologies. According to one lead discussant, 95% of the world is covered by 2G and two-thirds by 3G networks. Alongside that is a plethora of technology that is wide range and low tech. This means that all kinds of data, all over the world, are going to be available in massive quantities through the IoT. Some are excited about this because of how data can be used to track global development indicators, for example, the type of data being sought to measure the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Others are concerned about the impact of data collected via the IoT on privacy.

What are some examples of the IoT in Global Development?

Discussants and others gave many examples of how the IoT is making its way into development initiatives, including:

  • Flow meters and water sensors to track whether hand pumps are working
  • Protecting the vaccine cold chain – with a 2G thermometer, an individual can monitor the cold chain for local use and the information also goes directly to health ministries and to donors
  • Monitoring the environment and tracking animals or endangered species
  • Monitoring traffic routes to manage traffic systems
  • Managing micro-irrigation of small shareholder plots from a distance through a feature phone
  • As a complement to traditional monitoring and evaluation (M&E) — a sensor on a cook stove can track how often a stove is actually used (versus information an individual might provide using recall), helping to corroborate and reduce bias
  • Verifying whether a teacher is teaching or has shown up to school using a video camera

The CISCO publication on the IoT and Global Development provides many more examples and an overview of where the area is now and where it’s heading.

How advanced is the IoT in the development space?

Currently, IoT in global development is very much a hacker space, according to one discussant. There are very few off the shelf solutions that development or humanitarian organizations can purchase and readily implement. Some social enterprises are ramping up activity, but there is no larger ecosystem of opportunities for off the shelf products.

Because the IoT in global development is at an early phase, challenges abound. Technical issues, power requirements, reliability and upkeep of sensors (which need to be calibrated), IP issues, security and privacy, technical capacity, and policy questions all need to be worked out. One discussant noted that these challenges carry on from the mobile for development (m4d) and information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) work of the past.

Participants agreed that challenges are currently huge. For example, devices are homogeneous, making them very easy to hack and affect a lot of devices at once. No one has completely gotten their head around the privacy and consent issues, which are are very different than those of using FB. There are lots of interoperability issues also. As one person highlighted — there are over 100 different communication protocols being used today. It is more complicated than the old “BetaMax v VHS” question – we have no idea at this point what the standard will be for IoT.

For those who see the IoT as a follow-on from ICT4D and m4d, the big question is how to make sure we are applying what we’ve learned and avoiding the same mistakes and pitfalls. “We need to be sure we’re not committing the error of just seeing the next big thing, the next shiny device, and forgetting what we already know,” said one discussant. There is plenty of material and documentation on how to avoid repeating past mistakes, he noted. “Read ICT works. Avoid pilotitis. Don’t be tech-led. Use open source and so on…. Look at the digital principles and apply them to the IoT.”

A higher level question, as one person commented, is around the “inconvenient truth” that although ICTs drive economic growth at the macro level, they also drive income inequality. No one knows how the IoT will contribute or create harm on that front.

Are there any existing standards for the IoT? Should there be?

Because there is so much going on with the IoT – new interventions, different sectors, all kinds of devices, a huge variety in levels of use, from hacker spaces up to industrial applications — there are a huge range of standards and protocols out there, said one discussant. “We don’t really want to see governments picking winners or saying ‘we’re going to us this or that.’ We want to see the market play out and the better protocols to bubble up to the surface. What’s working best where? What’s cost effective? What open protocols might be most useful?”

Another discussant pointed out that there is a legacy predating the IOT: machine-to-machine (M2M), which has not always been Internet based. “Since this legacy is still there. How can we move things forward with regard to standardization and interoperability yet also avoid leaving out those who are using M2M?”

What’s up with IPv4 and IPv6 and the IoT? (And why haven’t I heard about this?)

Another crucial technical point raised is that of IPv4 and IPv6, something that not many Salon participant had heard of, but that will greatly impact on how the IoT rolls out and expands, and just who will be left out of this new digital divide. (Note: I found this video to be helpful for explaining IPv4 vs IPv6.)

“Remember when we used Netscape and we understood how an IP number translated into an IP address…?” asked one discussant. “Many people never get that lovely experience these days, but it’s important! There is a finite number of IP4 addresses and they are running out. Only Africa and Latin America have addresses left,” she noted.

IPv6 has been around for 20 years but there has not been a serious effort to switch over. Yet in order to connect the next billion and the multiple devices that they may bring online, we need more addresses. “Your laptop, your mobile, your coffee pot, your fridge, your TV – for many of us these are all now connected devices. One person might be using 10 IP addresses. Multiply that by millions of people, and the only thing that makes sense is switching over to IPv6,” she said.

There is a problem with the technical skills and the political decisions needed to make that transition happen. For much of the world, the IoT will not happen very smoothly and entire regions may be left out of the IoT revolution if high level decision makers don’t decide to move ahead with IPv6.

What are some of the other challenges with global roll-out of IoT?

In addition to the IPv4 – IPv6 transition, there are all kinds of other challenges with the IoT, noted one discussant. The technical skills required to make the transition that would enable IoT in some regions, for example Asia Pacific, are sorely needed. Engineers will need to understand how to make this shift happen, and in some places that is going to be a big challenge. “Things have always been connected to the Internet. There are just going to be lots more, different things connected to the Internet now.”

One major challenge is that there are huge ethical questions along with security and connectivity holes (as I will outline later in this summary post, and as discussed in last year’s salon on Wearable Technologies). In addition, noted one discussant, if we are designing networks that are going to collect data for diseases, for vaccines, for all kinds of normal businesses, and put the data in the cloud, developing countries need to have the ability to secure the data, the computing capacity to deal with it, and the skills to do their own data analysis.

“By pushing the IoT onto countries and not supporting the capacity to manage it, instead of helping with development, you are again creating a giant gap. There will be all kinds of data collected on climate change in the Pacific Island Countries, for example, but the countries don’t have capacity to deal with this data. So once more it will be a bunch of outsiders coming in to tell the Pacific Islands how to manage it, all based on conclusions that outsiders are making based on sensor data with no context,” alerted one discussant. “Instead, we should be counseling our people, our countries to figure out what they want to do with these sensors and with this data and asking them what they need to strengthen their own capacities.”

“This is not for the SDGs and ticking off boxes,” she noted. “We need to get people on the ground involved. We need to decentralize this so that people can make their own decisions and manage their own knowledge. This is where the real empowerment is – where local people and country leaders know how to collect data and use it to make their own decisions. The thing here is ownership — deploying your own infrastructure and knowing what to do with it.”

How can we balance the shiny devices with the necessary capacities?

Although the critical need to invest in and support country-level capacity to manage the IoT has been raised, this type of back-end work is always much less ‘sexy’ and less interesting for donors than measuring some development programming with a flashy sensor. “No one wants to fund this capacity strengthening,” said one discussant. “Everyone just wants to fund the shiny sensors. This chase after innovation is really damaging the impact that technology can actually have. No one just lets things sit and develop — to rest and brew — instead we see everyone rushing onto the next big thing. This is not a good thing for a small country that doesn’t have the capacity to jump right into it.”

All kinds of things can go wrong if people are not trained on how to manage the IoT. Devices can be hacked and they may be collecting and sharing data without an individuals’ knowledge (see Geoff Huston on The Internet of Stupid Things). Electrical short outs, common in places with poor electricity ecosystems, can also cause big problems. In addition, the Internet is affected by legacy systems – so we need interoperability that goes backwards, said one discussant. “If we don’t make at least a small effort to respect those legacy systems, we’re basically saying ‘if you don’t have the funding to update your system, you’re out.’ This then reinforces a power dynamic where countries need the international community to give them equipment, or they need to buy this or buy that, and to bring in international experts from the outside….’ The pressure on poor countries to make things work, to do new kinds of M&E, to provide evidence is huge. With that pressure comes a higher risk of falling behind very quickly. We are also seeing pilot projects that were working just fine without fancy tech being replaced by new fangled tech-type programs instead of being supported over the longer term,” she said.

Others agreed that the development sector’s fascination with shiny and new is detrimental. “There is very little concern for the long-term, the legacy system, future upgrades,” said one participant. “Once the blog post goes up about the cool project, the sensors go bad or stop working and no one even knows because people have moved on.” Another agreed, citing that when visiting numerous clinics for a health monitoring program in one country, the running joke among the M&E staff was “OK, now let’s go and find the broken solar panel.” “When I think of the IoT,” she said, “I think of a lot of broken devices in 5 years.” The aspect of eWaste and the IoT has not even begun to be examined or quantified, noted another.

It is increasingly important for governments to understand how the Internet works, because they are making policy about it. Manufacturers need to better understand how the tech works on the ground, especially in different contexts that they are not accustomed to working in. Users need a better understanding of all of this because their privacy is at risk. Legal frameworks around data and national laws need more attention as well. “When you are working with restrictive governments, your organization’s or start-up’s idea might actually be illegal or close to a sedition law and you may end up in jail,” noted one discussant.

What choices will organizations need to make regarding the IoT?

When it comes to actually making decisions on how involved an organization should and can be in supporting or using the IoT, one critical choice will be related the suites of devices, said our third discussant. Will it be a cloud device? A local computing device? A computer?

Organizations will need to decide if they want a vendor that gives them a package, or if they want a modular, interoperable approach of units. They will need to think about aspects like whether they want to go with proprietary or open source and will it be plug and play?

There are trade-offs here and key technical infrastructure choices will need to be made based on a certain level of expertise and experience. If organizations are not sure what they need, they may wish to get some advice before setting up a system or investing heavily.

As one discussant put it, “When I talk about the IOT, I often say to think about what the Internet was in the 90s. Think about that hazy idea we had of what the Internet was going to be. We couldn’t have predicted in the 90s what today’s internet would look like, and we’re in the same place with the IoT,” he said. “There will be seismic change. The state of the whole sector is immature now. There are very hard choices to make.”

Another aspect that’s representative of the IoT’s early stage, he noted, is that the discussion is all focusing on http and the Internet. “The IOT doesn’t necessarily even have to involve the Internet,” he said.

Most vendors are offering a solution with sensors to deploy, actuators to control and a cloud service where you log in to find your data. The default model is that the decision logic takes place there in the cloud, where data is stored. In this model, the cloud is in the middle, and the devices are around it, he said, but the model does not have to be that way.

Other models can offer more privacy to users, he said. “When you think of privacy and security – the healthcare maxim is ‘do no harm.’ However this current, familiar model for the IoT might actually be malicious.” The reason that the central node in the commercial model is the cloud is because companies can get more and more detailed information on what people are doing. IoT vendors and IoT companies are interested in extending their profiles of people. Data on what people do in their virtual life can now be combined with what they do in their private lives, and this has huge commercial value.

One option to look at, he shared, is a model that has a local connectivity component. This can be something like bluetooth mesh, for example. In this way, the connectivity doesn’t have to go to the cloud or the Internet at all. This kind of set-up may make more sense with local data, and it can also help with local ownership, he said. Everything that happens in the cloud in the commercial model can actually happen on a local hub or device that opens just for the community of users. In this case, you don’t have to share the data with the world. Although this type of a model requires greater local tech capacity and can have the drawback that it is more difficult to push out software updates, it’s an option that may help to enhance local ownership and privacy.

This requires a ‘person first’ concept of design. “When you are designing IOT systems, he said, “start with the value you are trying to create for individuals or organizations on the ground. And then implement the local part that you need to give local value. Then, only if needed, do you add on additional layers of the onion of connectivity, depending on the project.” The first priority here are the goals that the technology design will achieve for individual value, for an individual client or community, not for commercial use of people’s data.

Another point that this discussant highlighted was the need to conduct threat modeling and to think about unintended consequences. “If someone hacked this data – what could go wrong?” He suggested working backwards and thinking: “What should I take offline? How do I protect it better? How do I anonymize it better.”

In conclusion….

It’s critical to understand the purpose of an IoT project or initiative, discussants agreed, to understand if and why scale is needed, and to be clear about the drivers of a project. In some cases, the cloud is desirable for quicker, easier set up and updates to software. At the same time, if an initiative is going to be sustainable, then community and/or country capacity to run it, sustain it, keep it protected and private, and benefit from it needs to be built in. A big part of that capacity includes the ability to understand the different layers that surround the IoT and to make grounded decisions on the various trade-offs that will come to a head in the process of design and implementation. These skills and capacities need to be developed and supported within communities, countries and organizations if the IoT is to contribute ethically and robustly to global development.

Thanks to APNIC for sponsoring and supporting this Salon and to our friends at ThoughtWorks for hosting! If you’d like to join discussions like this one in cities around the world, sign up at Technology Salon

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post.

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Photo: Duncan Edwards, IDS.

A 2010 review of impact and effectiveness of transparency and accountability initiatives, conducted by Rosie McGee and John Gaventa of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), found a prevalence of untested assumptions and weak theories of change in projects, programs and strategies. This week IDS is publishing their latest Bulletin titled “Opening Governance,” which offers a compilation of evidence and contributions focusing specifically on Technology in Transparency and Accountability (Tech for T&A).

It has a good range of articles that delve into critical issues in the Tech for T&A and Open Government spaces; help to clarify concepts and design; explore gender inequity as related to information access; and unpack the ‘dark side’ of digital politics, algorithms and consent.

In the opening article, editors Duncan Edwards and Rosie McGee (both currently working with the IDS team that leads the Making All Voices Count Research, Learning and Evidence component) give a superb in-depth review of the history of Tech for T&A and outline some of the challenges that have stemmed from ambiguous or missing conceptual frameworks and a proliferation of “buzzwords and fuzzwords.”

They unpack the history of and links between concepts of “openness,” “open development,” “open government,” “open data,” “feedback loops,” “transparency,” “accountability,” and “ICT4D (ICT for Development)” and provide some examples of papers and evidence that could help to recalibrate expectations among scholars and practitioners (and amongst donors, governments and policy-making bodies, one hopes).

The editors note that conceptual ambiguity continues to plague the field of Tech for T&A, causing technical problems because it hinders attempts to demonstrate impact; and creating political problems “because it clouds the political and ideological differences between projects as different as open data and open governance.”

The authors hope to stoke debate and promote the existing evidence in order to tone down the buzz. Likewise, they aim to provide greater clarity to the Tech for T&A field by offering concrete conclusions stemming from the evidence that they have reviewed and digested.

Download the Opening Governance report here.

 

 

 

 

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Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 10.17.25 AMSince I started looking at the role of ICTs in monitoring and evaluation a few years back, one concern that has consistently come up is: “Are we getting too focused on quantitative M&E because ICTs are more suited to gather quantitative data? Are we forgetting the importance of qualitative data and information? How can we use ICTs for qualitative M&E?”

So it’s great to see that Insight Share (in collaboration with UNICEF) has just put out a new guide for facilitators on using Participatory Video (PV) and the Most Significant Change (MSC) methodologies together.

 

The Most Significant Change methodology is a qualitative method developed (and documented in a guide in 2005) by Rick Davies and Jess Dart (described below):

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Participatory Video methodologies have also been around for quite a while, and they are nicely laid out in Insight Share’s Participatory Video Handbook, which I’ve relied on in the past to guide youth participatory video work. With mobile video becoming more and more common, and editing tools getting increasingly simple, it’s now easier to integrate video into community processes than it has been in the past.

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The new toolkit combines these two methods and provides guidance for evaluators, development workers, facilitators, participatory video practitioners, M&E staff and others who are interested in learning how to use participatory video as a tool for qualitative evaluation via MSC. The toolkit takes users through a nicely designed, step-by-step process to planning, implementing, interpreting and sharing results.

I highly recommend taking a quick look at the toolkit to see if it might be a useful method of qualitative M&E — enhanced and livened up a bit with video!

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Our December 2015 Technology Salon discussion in NYC focused on approaches to girls’ digital privacy, safety and security. By extension, the discussion included ways to reduce risk for other vulnerable populations. Our lead discussants were Ximena BenaventeGirl Effect Mobile (GEM) and Jonathan McKay, Praekelt Foundation. I also shared a draft Girls’ Digital Privacy, Safety and Security Policy and Toolkit I’ve been working on with both organizations over the past year.

Girls’ digital privacy, safety and security risks

Our first discussant highlighted why it’s important to think specifically about girls and digital security. In part, this is because different factors and vulnerabilities combine, exacerbating girls’ levels of risk. For example, girls living on less than $2 per day likely only have access to basic mobile phones, which are often borrowed from parents or siblings. The organization she works with always starts with deep research on aspects like ownership vs. borrowship and whether girls’ mobile usage is free/unlimited and un-supervised or controlled by gatekeepers such as parents, brothers, or other relatives. This helps to design better tools, services and platforms and to design for safety and security, she said. “Gatekeepers are very restrictive in many cases, but parental oversight is not necessarily a bad thing. We always work with parents and other gatekeepers as well as with girls themselves when we design and test.” When girls are living in more traditional or conservative societies, she said, we also need to think about how content might affect girls both online and offline. For example, “is content sufficiently progressive in terms of girls’ rights, yet safe for girls to read, comment on or discuss with friends and family without severe retaliation?”

Research suggests that girls who are more vulnerable offline (due to poverty or other forms of marginalization), are likely also more vulnerable to certain risks online, so we design with that in mind, she said. “When we started off on this project, our team members were experts in digital, but we had less experience with the safety and privacy aspects when it comes to girls living under $2/day or who were otherwise vulnerable. “Having additional guidance and developing a policy on this aspect has helped immensely – but has also slowed our processes down and sometimes made them more expensive,” she noted. “We had to go back to everything and add additional layers of security to make it as safe as possible for girls. We have also made sure to work very closely with our local partners to be sure that everyone involved in the project is aware of girls’ safety and security.”

Social media sites: Open, Closed, Private, Anonymous?

One issue that came up was safety for children and youth on social media networks. A Salon participant said his organization had thought about developing this type of a network several years back but decided in the end that the security risks outweighed the advantages. Participants discussed whether social media networks can ever be safe. One school of thought is that the more open a platform, the safer it is, as “there is no interaction in private spaces that cannot be constantly monitored or moderated.” Some worry about open sites, however, and set up smaller, closed, private groups that were closely monitored. “We work with victims of violence to share their stories and coping mechanisms, so, for us, private groups are a better option.”

Some suggested that anonymity on a social media site can protect girls and other vulnerable groups, however there is also research showing that Internet anonymity contributes to an increase in activities such as bullying and harassment. Some Salon participants felt that it was better to leverage existing platforms and try to use them safely. Others felt that there are no existing social media platforms that have enough security for girls or other vulnerable groups to use with appropriate levels of risk. “We sometimes recruit participants via existing social media platforms,” said one discussant, “but we move people off of those sites to our own more secure sites as soon as we can.”

Moderation and education on safety

Salon participants working with vulnerable populations said that they moderate their sites very closely and remove comments if users share personal information or use offensive language. “Some project budgets allow us to have a moderator check every 2 hours. For others, we sweep accounts once a day and remove offensive content within 24 hours.” One discussant uses moderation to educate the community. “We always post an explanation about why a comment was removed in order to educate the larger user base about appropriate ways to use the social network,” he said.

Close moderation becomes difficult and costly, however, as the user base grows and a platform scales. This means individual comments cannot be screened and pre-approved, because that would take too long and defeat the purpose of an engaging platform. “We need to acknowledge the very real tension between building a successful and engaging community and maintaining privacy and security,” said one Salon participant. “The more you lock it down and the more secure it is, the harder you find it is to create a real and active community.”

Another participant noted that they use their safe, closed youth platform to educate and reinforce messaging about what is safe and positive use of social media in hopes that young people will practice safe behaviors when they use other platforms. “We know that education and awareness raising can only go so far, however,” she said, “and we are not blind to that fact.” She expressed concern about risk for youth who speak out about political issues, because more and more governments are passing laws that punish critics and censor information. The organization, however, does not want to encourage youth to stop voicing opinions or participating politically.

Data breaches and project close-out

One Salon participant asked if organizations had examples of actual data breaches, and how they had handled them. Though no one shared examples, it was recommended that every organization have a contingency plan in place for accidental data leaks or a data breach or data hack. “You need to assume that you will get hacked,” said one person, “and develop your systems with that as a given.”

In addition to the day-to-day security issues, we need to think about project close-out, said one person. “Most development interventions are funded for a short, specific period of time. When a project finishes, you get a report, you do your M&E, and you move on. However, the data lives on, and the effects of the data live on. We really need to think more about budgeting for proper project wind-down and ensure that we are accountable beyond the lifetime of a project.”

Data security, anonymization, consent

Another question was related to using and keeping girls’ (and others’) data safe. “Consent to collect and use data on a website or via a mobile platform can be tricky, especially if we don’t know how to explain what we might do with the data,” said one Salon participant. Others suggested it would be better not to collect any data at all. “Why do we even need to collect this data? Who is it for?” he asked. Others countered that this data is often the only way to understand what people are doing on the site, to make adjustments and to measure impact.

One scenario was shared where several partner organizations discussed opening up a country’s cell phone data records to help contain a massive public health epidemic, but the privacy and security risks were too great, so the idea was scrapped. “Some said we could anonymize the data, but you can never really and truly anonymize data. It would have been useful to have a policy or a rubric that would have guided us in making that decision.”

Policy and Guidelines on Girls Privacy, Security and Safety

Policy guidelines related to aspects such as responsible data for NGOs, data security, privacy and other aspects of digital security in general do exist. (Here are some that we compiled along with some other resources). Most IT departments also have strict guidelines when it comes to donor data (in the case of credit card and account information, for example). This does not always cross over to program-level ICT or M&E efforts that involve the populations that NGOs are serving through their programming.

General awareness around digital security is increasing, in part due to recent major corporate data hacks (e.g., Target, Sony) and the Edward Snowden revelations from a few years back, but much more needs to be done to educate NGO staff and management on the type of privacy and security measures that need to be taken to protect the data and mitigate risk for those who participate in their programs.  There is an argument that NGOs should have specific digital privacy, safety and security policies that are tailored to their programming and that specifically focus on the types of digital risks that girls, women, children or other vulnerable people face when they are involved in humanitarian or development programs.

One such policy (focusing on vulnerable girls) and toolkit (its accompanying principles and values, guidelines, checklists and a risk matrix template); was shared at the Salon. (Disclosure: – This policy toolkit is one that I am working on. It should be ready to share in early 2016). The policy and toolkit take program implementers through a series of issues and questions to help them assess potential risks and tradeoffs in a particular context, and to document decisions and improve accountability. The toolkit covers:

  1. data privacy and security –using approaches like Privacy by Design, setting limits on the data that is collected, achieving meaningful consent.
  2. platform content and design –ensuring that content produced for girls or that girls produce or volunteer is not putting girls at risk.
  3. partnerships –vetting and managing partners who may be providing online/offline services or who may partner on an initiative and want access to data, monetizing of girls’ data.
  4. monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (MERL) – how will program implementers gather and store digital data when they are collecting it directly or through third parties for organizational MERL purposes.

Privacy, Security and Safety Implications

Our final discussant spoke about the implications of implementing the above-mentioned girls’ privacy, safety and security policy. He started out saying that the policy starts off with a manifesto: We will not compromise a girl in any way, nor will we opt for solutions that cut corners in terms of cost, process or time at the expense of her safety. “I love having this as part of our project manifesto, he said. “It’s really inspiring! On the flip side, however, it makes everything I do more difficult, time consuming and expensive!”

To demonstrate some of the trade-offs and decisions required when working with vulnerable girls, he gave examples of how the current project (implemented with girls’ privacy and security as a core principle) differed from that of a commercial social media platform and advertising campaign he had previously worked on (where the main concern was the reputation of the corporation, not that of the users of the platform and the potential risks they might put themselves in by using the platform).

Moderation

On the private sector platform, said the discussant, “we didn’t have the option of pre-moderating comments because of the budget and because we had 800 thousand users. To meet the campaign goals, it was more important for users to be engaged than to ensure content was safe. We focused on removing pornographic photos within 24 hours, using algorithms based on how much skin tone was in the photo.” In the fields of marketing and social media, it’s a fairly well-known issue that heavy-handed moderation kills platform engagement. “The more we educated and informed users about comment moderation, or removed comments, the deader the community became. The more draconian the moderation, the lower the engagement.”

The discussant had also worked on a platform for youth to discuss and learn about sexual health and practices, where he said that users responded angrily to moderators and comments that restricted their participation. “We did expose our participants to certain dangers, but we also knew that social digital platforms are more successful when they provide their users with sense of ownership and control. So we identified users that exhibited desirable behaviors and created a different tier of users who could take ownership (super users) to police and flag comments as inappropriate or temporarily banned users.” This allowed a 25% decrease in moderation. The organization discovered, however, that they had to be careful about how much power these super users had. “They ended up creating certain factions on the platform, and we then had to develop safeguards and additional mechanisms by which we moderated our super users!”

Direct Messages among users

In the private sector project example, engagement was measured by the number of direct or private messages sent between platform users. In the current scenario, however, said the discussant, “we have not allowed any direct messages between platform users because of the potential risks to girls of having places on the site that are hidden from moderators. So as you can see, we are removing some of our metrics by disallowing features because of risk. These activities are all things that would make the platform more engaging but there is a big fear that they could put girls at risk.”

Adopting a privacy, security, and safety policy

One discussant highlighted the importance of having privacy, safety and security policies before a project or program begins. “If you start thinking about it later on, you may have to go back and rebuild things from scratch because your security holes are in the design….” The way a database is set up to capture user data can make it difficult to query in the future or for users to have any control of what information is or is not being shared about them. “If you don’t set up the database with security and privacy in mind from the beginning, it might be impossible to make the platform safe for girls without starting from scratch all over again,” he said.

He also cautioned that when making more secure choices from the start, platform and tool development generally takes longer and costs more. It can be harder to budget because designers may not have experience with costing and developing the more secure options.

“A valuable lesson is that you have to make sure that what you’re trying to do in the first place is worth it if it’s going to be that expensive. It is worth a girls’ while to use a platform if she first has to wade through a 5-page terms and conditions on a small mobile phone screen? Are those terms and conditions even relevant to her personally or within her local context? Every click you ask a user to make will reduce their interest in reaching the platform. And if we don’t imagine that a girl will want to click through 5 screens of terms and conditions, the whole effort might not be worth it.” Clearly, aspects such as terms and conditions and consent processes need to be designed specifically to fit new contexts and new kinds of users.

Making responsible tradeoffs

The Girls Privacy, Security and Safety policy and toolkit shared at the Salon includes a risk matrix where project implementers rank the intensity and probability of risks as high, medium and low. Based on how a situation, feature or other potential aspect is ranked and the possibility to mitigate serious risks, decisions are made to proceed or not. There will always be areas with a certain level of risk to the user. The key is in making decisions and trade-offs that balance the level of risk with the potential benefits or rewards of the tool, service, or platform. The toolkit can also help project designers to imagine potential unintended consequences and mitigate risk related to them. The policy also offers a way to systematically and pro-actively consider potential risks, decide how to handle them, and document decisions so that organizations and project implementers are accountable to girls, peers and partners, and organizational leadership.

“We’ve started to change how we talk about user data in our organization,” said one discussant. “We have stopped thinking about it as something WE create and own, but more as something GIRLS own. Banks don’t own people’s money – they borrow it for a short time. We are trying to think about data that way in the conversations we’re having about data, funding, business models, proposals and partnerships. You don’t get to own your users’ data, we’re not going to share de-anonymized data with you. We’re seeing legislative data in some of the countries we work that are going that way also, so it’s good to be thinking about this now and getting prepared”

Take a look at our list of resources on the topic and add anything we may have missed!

 

Thanks to our friends at ThoughtWorks for hosting this Salon! If you’d like to join discussions like this one, sign up at Technology SalonSalons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post.

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At our November 18th Technology Salon, we discussed how different organizations are developing their ICT for development (ICT4D) strategies. We shared learning on strategy development and buy-in, talked about whether organizations should create special teams or labs for ICT- and innovation-related work or mainstream the ICT4D function, and thought about how organizations can define and find the skill sets needed for taking their ICT-enabled work forward. Population Council’s Stan Mierzwa, Oxfam America’s Neal McCarthy, and Cycle Technologies’ Leslie Heyer joined as lead discussants, and we heard from Salon participants about their experiences too.

Participating organizations were at various stages of ICT4D work, but most had experienced similar challenges and frustrations with taking their work forward. Even organizations that had created ICT4D strategies a couple of years ago said that implementation was slow.

Some of the key elements mentioned by our first discussant as important for managing and strategically moving ICT forward in an organization included:

  • being more informed about where different offices and staff were using ICTs for programmatic work,
  • establishing a standard set of technology tools for organizational use,
  • improved knowledge management about ICTs,
  • publishing on how ICTs were being used in programs (to help with credibility),
  • engaging with different teams and leadership to secure support and resources
  • working more closely with human resources teams who often do not understand ICT4D-related job descriptions and the profile needed.

Our second discussant said that his organization developed an ICT4D strategy in order to secure resources and greater support for moving ICT4D forward. It was also starting to be unwieldy to manage all of the different ideas and tools being used across the organization, and it seemed that greater harmonization would allow for improved IT support for more established tools as well as establishment of other ways to support new innovations.

In this case, the organization looked at ICTs as two categories: technology for development workers and technology for development outcomes. They used Gartner’s ‘pace layered’ model (which characterizes systems of innovation, systems of differentiation, and systems of record) as a way of analyzing the support roles of different departments.

One of the initial actions taken by this organization was establishing a small tech incubation fund that different offices could apply for in order to try something new with ICTs in their programs and campaigns. Another action was to take 10 staff to the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) ICT4D conference to learn more about ICT4D and to see what their peers from similar organizations were doing. In return for attending the conference, staff were required to submit a proposal for the tech incubation fund.

For the development of the strategy document and action plan, the ICT4D strategy team worked with a wider group of staff to develop a list of current ICT-enabled initiatives and a visual heat map of actions and activities across the organization. This formed the basis for discussions on where lots of ICT4D activities were happening and where there was nothing going on with ICTs. The team then discussed what the organization should do strategically to support and potentially consolidate existing activities and what should be done about areas where there were few ICT-related activities – should those areas be left alone or was there a reason to look at them to see if ICT should be incorporated?

Having done that, the organization adapted Nethope’s Organizational Guide to ICT4D to fit its own structure and culture, and used it as a framework for ICT4D strategy discussions with key staff from different teams. The Nethope guide suggests five key functions for strategic, organization-wide ICT4D: lead organizational change, drive knowledge exchange, build a portfolio, manage processes, and develop an advisory service (see below). The aforementioned activities were also clustered according to which of these 5 areas they fell into.

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(Table of contents from Nethope’s Guide.)

The organization felt it was also important to change the image of the IT team. ‘We had to show that we were not going to tie people up with formal committees and approvals if they wanted to try something new and innovative. Being more approachable is necessary or staff will bypass the IT team and go to consultants, and then we open ourselves up to data privacy risks and we also lose institutional knowledge.’

Salon participants agreed that it was important to know how to “sell” an ICT4D-related idea to frontline staff, management and leadership. Some ways to do this include demonstrating the value-add of ICTs in terms of longer-term cost and time efficiencies, showing the benefit of real-time data for decision-making, and demonstrating what peer organizations are doing. Organizations often also need someone at the top who is pushing for change and modernization.

Our third discussant said that her company has been shifting from a commercial product developer to a full-fledged technology company. She outlined the need for strategic thinking along that journey. Initially, the company outsourced activities such as research and data collection. With time, it started to pull key functions in house since systems maintenance and technology has become a core part of the business.

“As a small company, we can be flexible and change easily,” she said. ‘ICT is embedded into our culture and everyone thinks about it.’ One challenge that many ICT4D initiatives face – whether they are happening in a non-profit or a for-profit — is sustainability. ‘People are often fine with paying for a physical product, but when it comes to the web, they are accustomed to getting everything for free, which makes long-term sustainability difficult.’

In order to continuously evolve their strategies, organizations need to have time and space to constantly step back and think about their underlying values and where they see themselves in 5 or 10 years. A more pro-active relationship with donors is also important. Although Salon participants felt that the ICT4D Principles and related processes were promising, they also felt that donors do not have a clear idea of what they are looking for, what exists already, what needs to be created, and what evidence base exists for different tools or kinds of ICT4D. One Salon participant felt that ‘donor agencies don’t know what kinds of tech are effective, so it’s up to you as an implementer to bring the evidence to the table. It’s critical to have the ITC4D support staff at the table with you, because if not these more detailed conversations about the tech don’t happen with donors and you’ll find all kinds of duplication of efforts.’

Another challenge with thinking about ICT4D in a strategic way is that donors normally don’t want to fund capacity building, said another Salon participant. They prefer to fund concrete projects or innovation challenges rather than supporting organizations to create an environment that gives rise to innovation. In addition, funding beyond the program cycle is a big challenge. ‘We need to be thinking about enterprise systems, layered on systems, national systems,’ said one person. ‘And systems really struggle here to scale and grow if you can’t claim ownership for the whole.’

Salon participants highlighted hiring and human resources departments as a big barrier when it comes to ICT4D. It is often not clear what kinds of skills are needed to implement ICT4D programs, and human resources teams often screen for the wrong skill sets because they do not understand the nature of ICT4D. ‘I always make them give me all the CVs and screen them myself,’ said one person. ‘If not, some of the best people will not make it to the short list.’ Engaging with human resources and sharing the ICT4D strategy is one way to help with better hiring and matching of job needs with skill sets that are out there and potentially difficult to find.

In conclusion, whether the ICT4D strategy is to mainstream, to isolate and create a ‘lab,’ or to combine approaches, it seems that most organizations are struggling a bit to develop and/or implement ICT4D strategies due to the multiple pain points of slow organizational change and the need for more capacity and resources. Some are making headway, however, and developing clearer thinking and action plans that are paying off in the short term, and that may set the organizations up for eventual ICT4D success.

Thanks to Population Council for hosting this Salon! If you’d like to join discussions like this one, sign up at Technology Salon.

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule. No attribution has been made in this post.

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Last month I joined a panel hosted by the Guardian on the contribution of innovation and technology to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Luckily they said that it was fine to come from a position of ‘skeptical realism.’

To drum up some good skeptical realist thoughts, I did what every innovative person does – posted a question on Facebook. A great discussion among friends who work in development, innovation and technology ensued. (Some might accuse me of ‘crowdsourcing’ ideas for the panel, but I think of it as more of a group discussion enabled by the Internet.) In the end, I didn’t get to say most of what we discussed on Facebook while on the panel, so I’m summarizing here.

To start off, I tend to think that the most interesting thing about the SDGs is that they are not written for ‘those developing countries over there.’ Rather, all countries are supposed to meet them. (I’m still not sure how many people or politicians in the US are aware of this.)

Framing them as global goals forces recognition that we have global issues to deal with — inequality and exclusion happen within countries and among countries everywhere. This opens doors for a shift in the narrative and framing of  ‘development.’ (See Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries; and Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.)

These core elements of the SDGs — exclusion and inequality – are two things that we also need to be aware of when we talk about innovation and technology. And while innovation and technology can contribute to development and inclusion…by connecting people and providing more access to information; helping improve access to services; creating space for new voices to speak their minds; contributing in some ways to improved government and international agency accountability; improving income generation; and so on… it’s important to be aware of who is excluded from creating, accessing, using and benefiting from tech and tech-enabled processes and advances.

Who creates and/or controls the tech? Who is pushed off platforms because of abuse or violence? Who is taken advantage of through tech? Who is using tech to control others? Who is seen as ‘innovative’ and who is ignored? For whom are most systems and services designed? Who is an entrepreneur by choice vs. an informal worker by necessity? There are so many questions to ask at both macro and micro levels.

But that’s not the whole of it. Even if all the issues of access and use were resolved, there are still problems with framing innovation and technology as one of the main solutions to the world’s problems. A core weakness of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was that they were heavy on quantifiable goals and weak on reaching the most vulnerable and on improving governance. Many innovation and technology solutions suffer the same problem.

Sometimes we try to solve the wrong problems with tech, or we try to solve the wrong problems altogether, without listening to and involving the people who best understand the nature of those problems, without looking at the structural changes needed for sustainable impact, and without addressing exclusion at the micro-level (within and among districts, communities, neighborhoods or households).

Often a technological solution is brought in for questionable reasons. There is too little analysis of the political economy in development work as DE noted on the discussion thread. Too few people are asking who is pushing for a technology solution. Why technology? Who gains? What is the motivation? As Ory Okollah asked recently, Why are Africans expected to innovate and entrepreneur our way out of our problems? We need to get past our collective fascination with invention of products and move onward to a more holistic understanding of innovation that involves sustainable implementation, change, and improvement over the longer term.

Innovation is a process, not a product. As MBC said on the discussion thread, “Don’t confuse doing it first with doing it best.” Innovation is not an event, a moment, a one-time challenge, a product, a simple solution. Innovation is technology agnostic, noted LS. So we need to get past the goal of creating and distributing more products. We need to think more about innovating and tweaking processes, developing new paradigms and adjusting and improving on ways of doing things that we already know work. Sometimes technology helps, but that is not always the case.

We need more practical innovation. We should be looking at old ideas in a new context (citing from Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From) said AM. “The problem is that we need systems change and no one wants to talk about that or do it because it’s boring and slow.”

The heretical IT dared suggest that there’s too much attention to high profile innovation. “We could do with more continual small innovation and improvements and adaptations with a strong focus on participants/end users. This doesn’t make big headlines but it does help us get to actual results,” he said.

Along with that, IW suggested we need more innovative thinking and listening, and less innovative technology. “This might mean senior aid officials spending a half a day per week engaging with the people they are supposed to be helping.”

One innovative behavior change might be that of overcoming the ‘expert knowledge’ problem said DE. We need to ensure that the intended users or participants in an innovation or a technology or technological approach are involved and supported to frame the problem, and to define and shape the innovation over time. This means we also need to rely on existing knowledge – immediate and documented – on what has worked, how and when and where and why and what hasn’t, and to make the effort to examine how this knowledge might be relevant and useful for the current context and situation. As Robert Chambers said many years ago: the links of modern scientific knowledge with wealth, power, and prestige condition outsiders to despise and ignore rural peoples’ own knowledge. Rural people’s knowledge and modern scientific knowledge are complementary in their strengths and weaknesses.

Several people asked whether the most innovative thing in the current context is simply political will and seeing past an election cycle, a point that Kentaro Toyama often makes. We need renewed focus on political will and capacity and a focus on people rather than generic tech solutions.

In addition, we need paradigm shifts and more work to make the current system inclusive and fit for purpose. Most of our existing institutions and systems, including that of ‘development’ carry all of the old prejudices and ‘isms’. We need more questioning of these systems and more thinking about realistic alternatives – led and designed by people who have been traditionally excluded and pushed out. As a sector, we’ve focused a LOT on technocratic approaches over the past several years, and we’ve stopped being afraid to get technical. Now we need to stop being afraid to get political.

In summary, there is certainly a place for technology and for innovation in the SDGs, but the innovation narrative needs an overhaul. Just as we’ve seen with terms like ‘social good’ and ‘user centered design’ – we’ve collectively imbued these ideas and methods with properties that they don’t actually have and we’ve fetishized them. Re-claiming the term innovation, said HL, and taking it back to a real process with more realistic expectations might do us a lot of good.

 

 

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