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Archive for the ‘mobile’ Category

Over the past 4 years I’ve had the opportunity to look more closely at the role of ICTs in Monitoring and Evaluation practice (and the privilege of working with Michael Bamberger and Nancy MacPherson in this area). When we started out, we wanted to better understand how evaluators were using ICTs in general, how organizations were using ICTs internally for monitoring, and what was happening overall in the space. A few years into that work we published the Emerging Opportunities paper that aimed to be somewhat of a landscape document or base report upon which to build additional explorations.

As a result of this work, in late April I had the pleasure of talking with the OECD-DAC Evaluation Network about the use of ICTs in Evaluation. I drew from a new paper on The Role of New ICTs in Equity-Focused Evaluation: Opportunities and Challenges that Michael, Veronica Olazabal and I developed for the Evaluation Journal. The core points of the talk are below.

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In the past two decades there have been 3 main explosions that impact on M&E: a device explosion (mobiles, tablets, laptops, sensors, dashboards, satellite maps, Internet of Things, etc.); a social media explosion (digital photos, online ratings, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, discussion forums, What’sApp groups, co-creation and collaboration platforms, and more); and a data explosion (big data, real-time data, data science and analytics moving into the field of development, capacity to process huge data sets, etc.). This new ecosystem is something that M&E practitioners should be tapping into and understanding.

In addition to these ‘explosions,’ there’s been a growing emphasis on documentation of the use of ICTs in Evaluation alongside a greater thirst for understanding how, when, where and why to use ICTs for M&E. We’ve held / attended large gatherings on ICTs and Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL Tech). And in the past year or two, it seems the development and humanitarian fields can’t stop talking about the potential of “data” – small data, big data, inclusive data, real-time data for the SDGs, etc. and the possible roles for ICT in collecting, analyzing, visualizing, and sharing that data.

The field has advanced in many ways. But as the tools and approaches develop and shift, so do our understandings of the challenges. Concern around more data and “open data” and the inherent privacy risks have caught up with the enthusiasm about the possibilities of new technologies in this space. Likewise, there is more in-depth discussion about methodological challenges, bias and unintended consequences when new ICT tools are used in Evaluation.

Why should evaluators care about ICT?

There are 2 core reasons that evaluators should care about ICTs. Reason number one is practical. ICTs help address real world challenges in M&E: insufficient time, insufficient resources and poor quality data. And let’s be honest – ICTs are not going away, and evaluators need to accept that reality at a practical level as well.

Reason number two is both professional and personal. If evaluators want to stay abreast of their field, they need to be aware of ICTs. If they want to improve evaluation practice and influence better development, they need to know if, where, how and why ICTs may (or may not) be of use. Evaluation commissioners need to have the skills and capacities to know which new ICT-enabled approaches are appropriate for the type of evaluation they are soliciting and whether the methods being proposed are going to lead to quality evaluations and useful learnings. One trick to using ICTs in M&E is understanding who has access to what tools, devices and platforms already, and what kind of information or data is needed to answer what kinds of questions or to communicate which kinds of information. There is quite a science to this and one size does not fit all. Evaluators, because of their critical thinking skills and social science backgrounds, are very well placed to take a more critical view of the role of ICTs in Evaluation and in the worlds of aid and development overall and help temper expectations with reality.

Though ICTs are being used along all phases of the program cycle (research/diagnosis and consultation, design and planning, implementation and monitoring, evaluation, reporting/sharing/learning) there is plenty of hype in this space.

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There is certainly a place for ICTs in M&E, if introduced with caution and clear analysis about where, when and why they are appropriate and useful, and evaluators are well-placed to take a lead in identifying and trailing what ICTs can offer to evaluation. If they don’t, others are going to do it for them!

Promising areas

There are four key areas (I’ll save the nuance for another time…) where I see a lot of promise for ICTs in Evaluation:

1. Data collection. Here I’d divide it into 3 kinds of data collection and note that the latter two normally also provide ‘real time’ data:

  • Structured data gathering – where enumerators or evaluators go out with mobile devices to collect specific types of data (whether quantitative or qualitative).
  • Decentralized data gathering – where the focus is on self-reporting or ‘feedback’ from program participants or research subjects.
  • Data ‘harvesting’ – where data is gathered from existing online sources like social media sites, What’sApp groups, etc.
  • Real-time data – which aims to provide data in a much shorter time frame, normally as monitoring, but these data sets may be useful for evaluators as well.

2. New and mixed methods. These are areas that Michael Bamberger has been looking at quite closely. New ICT tools and data sources can contribute to more traditional methods. But triangulation still matters.

  • Improving construct validity – enabling a greater number of data sources at various levels that can contribute to better understanding of multi-dimensional indicators (for example, looking at changes in the volume of withdrawals from ATMs, records of electronic purchases of agricultural inputs, satellite images showing lorries traveling to and from markets, and the frequency of Tweets that contain the words hunger or sickness).
  • Evaluating complex development programs – tracking complex and non-linear causal paths and implementation processes by combining multiple data sources and types (for example, participant feedback plus structured qualitative and quantitative data, big data sets/records, census data, social media trends and input from remote sensors).
  • Mixed methods approaches and triangulation – using traditional and new data sources (for example, using real-time data visualization to provide clues on where additional focus group discussions might need to be done to better understand the situation or improve data interpretation).
  • Capturing wide-scale behavior change – using social media data harvesting and sentiment analysis to better understand wide-spread, wide-scale changes in perceptions, attitudes, stated behaviors and analyzing changes in these.
  • Combining big data and real-time data – these emerging approaches may become valuable for identifying potential problems and emergencies that need further exploration using traditional M&E approaches.

3. Data Analysis and Visualization. This is an area that is less advanced than the data collection area – often it seems we’re collecting more and more data but still not really using it! Some interesting things here include:

  • Big data and data science approaches – there’s a growing body of work exploring how to use predictive analytics to help define what programs might work best in which contexts and with which kinds of people — (how this connects to evaluation is still being worked out, and there are lots of ethical aspects to think about here too — most of us don’t like the idea of predictive policing, and in some ways you could end up in a situation that is not quite what was aimed at.) With big data, you’ll often have a hypothesis and you’ll go looking for patterns in huge data sets. Whereas with evaluation you normally have particular questions and you design a methodology to answer them — it’s interesting to think about how these two approaches are going to combine.
  • Data Dashboards – these are becoming very popular as people try to work out how to do a better job of using the data that is coming into their organizations for decision making. There are some efforts at pulling data from community level all the way up to UN representatives, for example, the global level consultations that were done for the SDGs or using “near real-time data” to share with board members. Other efforts are more focused on providing frontline managers with tools to better tweak their programs during implementation.
  • Meta-evaluation – some organizations are working on ways to better draw conclusions from what we are learning from evaluation around the world and to better visualize these conclusions to inform investments and decision-making.

4. Equity-focused Evaluation. As digital devices and tools become more widespread, there is hope that they can enable greater inclusion and broader voice and participation in the development process. There are still huge gaps however — in some parts of the world 23% less women have access to mobile phones — and when you talk about Internet access the gap is much much bigger. But there are cases where greater participation in evaluation processes is being sought through mobile. When this is balanced with other methods to ensure that we’re not excluding the very poorest or those without access to a mobile phone, it can help to broaden out the pool of voices we are hearing from. Some examples are:

  • Equity-focused evaluation / participatory evaluation methods – some evaluators are seeking to incorporate more real-time (or near real-time) feedback loops where participants provide direct feedback via SMS or voice recordings.
  • Using mobile to directly access participants through mobile-based surveys.
  • Enhancing data visualization for returning results back to the community and supporting community participation in data interpretation and decision-making.

Challenges

Alongside all the potential, of course there are also challenges. I’d divide these into 3 main areas:

1. Operational/institutional

Some of the biggest challenges to improving the use of ICTs in evaluation are institutional or related to institutional change processes. In focus groups I’ve done with different evaluators in different regions, this was emphasized as a huge issue. Specifically:

  • Potentially heavy up-front investment costs, training efforts, and/or maintenance costs if adopting/designing a new system at wide scale.
  • Tech or tool-driven M&E processes – often these are also donor driven. This happens because tech is perceived as cheaper, easier, at scale, objective. It also happens because people and management are under a lot of pressure to “be innovative.” Sometimes this ends up leading to an over-reliance on digital data and remote data collection and time spent developing tools and looking at data sets on a laptop rather than spending time ‘on the ground’ to observe and engage with local organizations and populations.
  • Little attention to institutional change processes, organizational readiness, and the capacity needed to incorporate new ICT tools, platforms, systems and processes.
  • Bureaucracy levels may mean that decisions happen far from the ground, and there is little capacity to make quick decisions, even if real-time data is available or the data and analysis are provided frequently to decision-makers sitting at a headquarters or to local staff who do not have decision-making power in their own hands and must wait on orders from on high to adapt or change their program approaches and methods.
  • Swinging too far towards digital due to a lack of awareness that digital most often needs to be combined with human. Digital technology always works better when combined with human interventions (such as visits to prepare folks for using the technology, making sure that gatekeepers; e.g., a husband or mother-in-law is on-board in the case of women). A main message from the World Bank 2016 World Development Report “Digital Dividends” is that digital technology must always be combined with what the Bank calls “analog” (a.k.a. “human”) approaches.

B) Methodological

Some of the areas that Michael and I have been looking at relate to how the introduction of ICTs could address issues of bias, rigor, and validity — yet how, at the same time, ICT-heavy methods may actually just change the nature of those issues or create new issues, as noted below:

  • Selection and sample bias – you may be reaching more people, but you’re still going to be leaving some people out. Who is left out of mobile phone or ICT access/use? Typical respondents are male, educated, urban. How representative are these respondents of all ICT users and of the total target population?
  • Data quality and rigor – you may have an over-reliance on self-reporting via mobile surveys; lack of quality control ‘on the ground’ because it’s all being done remotely; enumerators may game the system if there is no personal supervision; there may be errors and bias in algorithms and logic in big data sets or analysis because of non-representative data or hidden assumptions.
  • Validity challenges – if there is a push to use a specific ICT-enabled evaluation method or tool without it being the right one, the design of the evaluation may not pass the validity challenge.
  • Fallacy of large numbers (in cases of national level self-reporting/surveying) — you may think that because a lot of people said something that it’s more valid, but you might just be reinforcing the viewpoints of a particular group. This has been shown clearly in research by the World Bank on public participation processes that use ICTs.
  • ICTs often favor extractive processes that do not involve local people and local organizations or provide benefit to participants/local agencies — data is gathered and sent ‘up the chain’ rather than shared or analyzed in a participatory way with local people or organizations. Not only is this disempowering, it may impact on data quality if people don’t see any point in providing it as it is not seen to be of any benefit.
  • There’s often a failure to identify unintended consequences or biases arising from use of ICTs in evaluation — What happens when you introduce tablets for data collection? What happens when you collect GPS information on your beneficiaries? What risks might you be introducing or how might people react to you when you are carrying around some kind of device?

C) Ethical and Legal

This is an area that I’m very interested in — especially as some donors have started asking for the raw data sets from any research, studies or evaluations that they are funding, and when these kinds of data sets are ‘opened’ there are all sorts of ramifications. There is quite a lot of heated discussion happening here. I was happy to see that DFID has just conducted a review of ethics in evaluationSome of the core issues include:

  • Changing nature of privacy risks – issues here include privacy and protection of data; changing informed consent needs for digital data/open data; new risks of data leaks; and lack of institutional policies with regard to digital data.
  • Data rights and ownership: Here there are some issues with proprietary data sets, data ownership when there are public-private partnerships, the idea of data philanthropy’ when it’s not clear whose data is being donated, personal data ‘for the public good’, open data/open evaluation/ transparency, poor care taken when vulnerable people provide personally identifiable information; household data sets ending up in the hands of those who might abuse them, the increasing impossibility of data anonymization given that crossing data sets often means that re-identification is easier than imagined.
  • Moving decisions and interpretation of data away from ‘the ground’ and upwards to the head office/the donor.
  • Little funding for trialing/testing the validity of new approaches that use ICTs and documenting what is working/not working/where/why/how to develop good practice for new ICTs in evaluation approaches.

Recommendations: 12 tips for better use of ICTs in M&E

Despite the rapid changes in the field in the 2 years since we first wrote our initial paper on ICTs in M&E, most of our tips for doing it better still hold true.

  1. Start with a high-quality M&E plan (not with the tech).
    • But also learn about the new tech-related possibilities that are out there so that you’re not missing out on something useful!
  2. Ensure design validity.
  3. Determine whether and how new ICTs can add value to your M&E plan.
    • It can be useful to bring in a trusted tech expert in this early phase so that you can find out if what you’re thinking is possible and affordable – but don’t let them talk you into something that’s not right for the evaluation purpose and design.
  4. Select or assemble the right combination of ICT and M&E tools.
    • You may find one off the shelf, or you may need to adapt or build one. This is a really tough decision, which can take a very long time if you’re not careful!
  5. Adapt and test the process with different audiences and stakeholders.
  6. Be aware of different levels of access and inclusion.
  7. Understand motivation to participate, incentivize in careful ways.
    • This includes motivation for both program participants and for organizations where a new tech-enabled tool/process might be resisted.
  8. Review/ensure privacy and protection measures, risk analysis.
  9. Try to identify unintended consequences of using ICTs in the evaluation.
  10. Build in ways for the ICT-enabled evaluation process to strengthen local capacity.
  11. Measure what matters – not what a cool ICT tool allows you to measure.
  12. Use and share the evaluation learnings effectively, including through social media.

 

 

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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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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?”

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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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panel session photoIn line with my last post (10 myths about girls empowerment and mobile learning), I thought I’d also share what we covered during our panel on ‘Gender Sensitive Content and Pedagogy’ during UNESCO and UN Women’s Mobile Learning Week 2015. This year’s theme was ‘leveraging technology to empower women and girls.’ UN Women did a fantastic job of finding really smart women with varied backgrounds to join the panel, including: Sarah Jaffe, Worldreader;  Andrea Bertone, FHI360; Hongjuan Liu, Beijing Royal School; Catherine King, Global Fund for Women; and Anne Githuku-Shongwe, Afroes. I had the pleasure of moderating the conversation, and here’s some of what we talked about. I’ll put up a few more posts after this one to share the full session.

First, what is ‘gender responsive content?’ Hongjuan sent over a general introduction to include in this post. To begin with, she said, simply having access to schools does not guarantee a proper education and a better future. “Outdated teaching materials silently reinforce girls’ sense of inferiority. Materials rarely picture woman as managers, pilots, doctors or political leaders. The subconscious words neglect the contributions of girls and women to the modern economic world and show women as subordinate to men.” Even worse, she noted, “unless they are trained on gender sensitivity, most teachers and parents are not knowledgeable enough to banish gender bias. Silence in the face of discrimination is the equivalent of allowing lies and distorted facts to continue. And, such blindness is even more dangerous to the gender-bias content itself. As a result, these mistakenly delivered messages will denigrate girls and women from one generation to another.”

According to Hongjuan, teachers are a critical part of efforts to “dig out the seeds of gender-bias in our children’s heart” and they should be paying attention to both content and pedagogy. “Given that boys and girls learn differently, we need to employ diverse pedagogies in order to respond to different learning styles –from small group, individual, lecture, reading, experiences, laboratory work, etc. Diversity in pedagogy matters and increases the opportunities for all students to learn.”

Overturning gender stereotyping must be a collective and universal effort, she said. “Institutions must respond to the call to overturn gender bias discrimination. Some citizens are too weak to resist the strong stereotypes present in their countries and religions. Life is too short to wait to base our actions on a collective worldwide outcry for a harmonious world where woman and man are equally accepted, appreciated and treated. At the very least we should live by our words and deeds so that we are seen as desiring and fighting for equality. We should wish to be painted as believing in not only the potential of women and girls, but the rights they should have. That will inspire women to work to craft their own more promising future.”

Andrea noted that we should pay attention to gender responsive content and pedagogy because “if we don’t prioritize gender responsive content we see the consequences: girls and boys who stay disempowered and miss out on learning opportunities which challenge the unequal gender norms that they are socialized to believe.” In addition, she said, gender-responsive content offers rich tools that we can use to transform unequal gender norms — “those norms that dictate to girls what they can and can’t do, where they can or can’t go, or norms that encourage boys to engage in harmful behaviors against themselves and others.” We have the potential to link two extremely relevant and potentially transformative mechanisms — mobile and gender sensitive content and pedagogy — in the education space, “and that is quite exciting!” Andrea added.

Sarah agreed, noting that what we experience in media and literature shapes us, particularly as children.  “If a girl never sees an example of a woman neuroscientist, in either fiction or non-fiction, how will she know that is a possibility for her?”  We know life gives us all sorts of examples that challenge literary tropes, but “when we are inundated with one-note ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl, these shape us in subconscious ways,” she said. “This example applies mainly to fiction, but of course, non-fiction and informational gender responsive content is also key.”

Hongjuan shared how she was influenced by gender stereotyping. “I chose to be a teacher, because this is the best thing I found in books. Women were never pictured in other roles. These subconscious words imply that a girl’s sweat is so cheap that it will never win them a higher social status,” she said. “We need to change these gender biases. These mistaken messages poison girls and woman from one generation to another.”

“We need to be a part of combating these persistent stereotypes,” continued Catherine. “A lack of representation and the misrepresentation of women and girls persist in mainstream media.” We see this as well in non-traditional sectors, including in the online environment, she noted. “As content developers, we have an opportunity – a responsibility – to disrupt pervasive stereotypical and counterproductive images.” Catherine explained that the Global Fund for Women has expanded its mission to prioritize raising the voices of women via digital storytelling and advocacy campaigns as an equal lever to grant making to create greater momentum for the change we all want to see in the long term.

Finally, Anne noted that “today, even in Africa, we live in a connected world that is more transparent, where oppression, harassment or discrimination are not cool and are in fact are exposed because of our connectedness.” She referred to stories we’ve all become aware of — rape in India, pedophiles, the Arab Spring. “On the other hand, gendered relationships at home, at work and in public spaces have changed forever as women’s choices open up more and more.” In the meantime, however, “we old school parents and teachers continue to enforce old stereotypes that are close to dead to the world – confusing our young ones.” Anne emphasized that it is critical to equip young men and women – our future leaders – for a new reality. “In our work building motivated learning products on mobile — using games and gamification rules — we are at pains in our engaged user-based design and testing processes to challenge gender stereotypes and offer a platform to shape new ones. Gender-responsive content is not a nicety, it is imperative!!”

Tune in over the next week or two for summaries of the other areas covered on the panel, including: combating unconscious gender bias; the role of mobile in creation/implementation of gender-responsive content and pedagogy; challenges in the area of gender-sensitive mobile learning; and thoughts on where we can expect mobile technology and gender-responsive content and pedagogy to head in the future.

 

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Cameroon - realizing phone takes videoI had the chance to share some thoughts at UNESCO’s recent Mobile Learning Week. My presentation explored some myths about girls empowerment and mobile learning and offered suggestions of things to think about when designing and implementing programs. Ideas for the presentation were drawn from research and practitioner experiences (mine and those of others that I’ve talked with and worked with over the past few years). Here’s what I talked about below. Since realities are subjective and complex, and contexts differ immensely around the world, I’m putting these out mainly as discussion starters. Some seem super obvious and some contradict each other (which may speak to the point that there is no universal truth!), so I’m curious to know what other people think…

Myth 1: Mobile as a stand-alone solution.

Reality: The mobile phone is just one part of the informational and cultural ecosystem. There is a lot of hype about mobile. I think as a sector we are mostly past the idea of mobile as a stand-alone solution, but in case not, it’s the first myth I’d challenge. There is not a lot that a mobile phone can do as a stand-alone tool to empower girls or improve their education and learning. 

Things to consider: The mobile phone is the device that is most likely to already be in the hands of your target user — but the possibilities and channels don’t start and end with mobile phones. It’s important to think of the mobile phone as just one part of a much wider informational, social, cultural and educational ecosystem and see where it might fit in to support girls’ learning. It’s likely that mobile phones will be used more outside of the classroom than in – in my experience, I’ve found that schools often don’t allow mobiles to be brought into class. So, it’s more about integrating mobiles as a tool that supports rather than as the sole channel for learning and information sharing.

Myth 2: It’s the technology that’s mobile.

Reality: In most cases, the learner is mobile, too. This is one of the exciting things about technology and learning. It’s something I heard John Traxler say a few years ago, and I thought it was really smart. John said we should really be thinking about mobile learners, not just mobile technology. Learners access and share information in all kinds of ways, at different locations, using different devices or not using devices at all.

Things to consider: Rather than starting with the mobile phone, think about design based on a clear understanding of ’digital repertoires’ – in other words, user behaviors or patterns that span places and devices based on factors like data capacity, cost, purpose. These repertoires will differ according to culture, sex, economic status, and availability of information points and sources. For example, maybe some girls use Google search to do homework at an Internet café but use their own phone or a borrowed phone for quick, short text reminders or questions to friends about schoolwork. Maybe other girls are not allowed to go to Internet cafés or they feel uncomfortable doing so, and they rely more on their mobile phone and their friends. This was the case in one community near Jakarta that I was in last month. One of the girls talked about her 15-year-old friend:

 

“She’s too shy to go to the Internet shop…. Boys are always sitting out, calling you to ask ‘where are you going?’ or whistling. She feels too embarrassed to go into the shop because everyone will look at her.”

In a consultation conducted by Plan in 2011, girls in some countries said it was too dangerous to travel to the Internet café, especially at night. When men and boys watch porn and play video games in Internet cafes, girls tend to feel quite uncomfortable. Libraries, if available, may be places where girls go to access Internet because they feel safer. Girls may face reputation risk if they go too often to the Internet café. So in this case, girls may rely on phones. In some parts of East and West Africa, however, girls with mobile phones may be accused of having ‘sugar daddies’ or selling sex for airtime or nice phones, so the phone also carries reputation risk. All of these situations impact on girls’ communication repertoires, and program designers need to take them into consideration. And perhaps most importantly, ‘girls’ are not a homogeneous group so we always need to unpack which girls, where, when, what, at what age, living where, with what kinds of social or cultural restrictions, etc.

Myth 3: Vulnerable girls don’t have access to mobiles.

Reality: Many girls with phones are more vulnerable than we think, and more girls that we consider vulnerable are accessing mobiles. This is something that Colman Chamberlain from the Girl Effect’s mobile initiative pointed out. “We often hear that the most vulnerable girls don’t have access to mobile phones,” he says, “but this depends on how we understand and define vulnerability. Many girls with phones are vulnerable, and many vulnerable girls are starting to access mobile. This means we have a real chance to reach and engage with them.”

Things to consider: Age does normally play a role in access to mobiles. Younger girls from lower income families in most countries do not have their own mobile phones. Upper class children may, however, have phones. It really varies. Recent research (unpublished) found that it was common for 14-15 yr olds in Indonesia to have their own phones. In India and Bangladesh, that age was closer to 18. Girls who were no longer in school often had a mobile — some had even dropped out to get jobs in order to purchase a mobile. Sometimes married girls’ husbands purchase them a phone, yet it may be primarily to control and monitor their whereabouts.

When designing programs, it’s really important to take the time to learn whether the girls you’d like to work with own or borrow mobile phones and whether their access is controlled by someone else or if they are free to use a mobile however they’d like. Design for different scenarios and ‘user repertoires’ based on girls’ access and use habits. Don’t make assumptions on which girls access mobiles for what and how based on perceived vulnerability, do the research and you may be surprised when you get into the weeds.

Myth 4: Cost is the biggest barrier to girls’ mobile phone access and use. 

Reality: Cost is a barrier, but perhaps not the biggest one. Clearly cost is still a big barrier for the poorest girls. But the unwillingness to invest in a girl’s access to mobile or to information and learning is linked to other aspects like a girl’s position in her family or society. Mobiles are also becoming cheaper, so the cost barrier has been reduced in some ways. Overall, compared to landlines, as Katie Ramsay at Plan Australia notes, mobile is cheaper and that opens up access to information for even the poorest families.

Research conducted this past year in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, found that in some communities girls have much greater access than assumed, and cost was a lower barrier than originally thought. Parents and gatekeepers were actually a bigger barrier in some countries. For many of us this is a total no-brainer, but I still think it’s worth bringing up.

Things to consider: As already mentioned, the key when developing programs is to dig deep and talk with girls directly to understand and help them to overcome different barriers, whether those are personal, familiar, economic, societal or institutional.

In order to help get past these barriers, mobile-enabled programming or product/service offerings need to have real value to girls as well as their gatekeepers, so that girls’ participation in programs and use of mobiles is seen by gatekeepers as positive. This was shown clearly in a UNESCO girls’ literacy program in Pakistan, where 87% of parents changed from a negative opinion about girls using a mobile phone to a positive perspective by the end of the program, because they saw the utility of the phone for girls’ literacy.

It’s important to do work on educating and changing behaviors of parents. Katie Ramsay also notes that in places where men own the tech, there is a huge opportunity for targeting them to gain their support for girls’ education. So it’s worth re-thinking the role of mobiles in girl-focused programs, especially where girls’ access to mobile is low or controlled. The best use of mobiles for learning may not be ‘delivering content’ to girls via a mobile device. Instead it might be using mobile and other media to target gatekeepers to change their behavior and beliefs around girls’ education and girls’ empowerment.

Myth 5: Girls share their phones.

Reality: Phone sharing brings with it a challenging social power dynamic. Many people in ‘the West’ hold the romantic notion that people in ‘developing countries’ like to share everything and live communally. Now, I’m not saying that girls are not generous, but when it comes to girls and phones, we have not really seen a great desire to share.

In some of the unpublished research conducted in Asia (and previously referenced in this post), girls without phones said that they do borrow phones, often from family members or friends, but they don’t necessarily like doing so. They said that borrowing here and there just isn’t enough to do anything substantial on a phone. Girls described girls who do not have mobile phones as sad and unpopular. They drew girls with phones as happy, popular, and successful. Some girls also described girls with phones as stuck up and selfish and said that girls who have phones don’t share them with girls that don’t have phones.

 

“A girl with a phone would look down on me, and show off what her phone does. She would let me hold it, but only because she would like to take it back from me again.” —Girl, 18, Dhaka

I was at a school in Cameroon last year, when a big fight broke out because one girl had taken another girl’s phone and thrown it in the toilet. The professor said that fighting over mobile phones was common among students. Phones had been prohibited at school in part to reduce conflicts, and sometimes students ratted each other out for having phones at school. This is not specifically a “mobile phone” problem, it’s a wealth or class or equity issue, but it manifests itself with phones because they are an asset that defines haves and have-nots. 

Things to consider: Don’t assume it’s easy for girls to borrow phones. If you find that many of your targeted users for a mobile-enabled initiative are borrowers, then it’s important to design short, to-the-point options for them, because they may have only a few minutes at a time with a mobile. Girls may not share their phones unless there is some kind of incentive for doing so. If you are designing for borrowers, think about rapid communication in bursts, and don’t communicate about anything that would put a girl at social or reputation risk if the person she borrows the phone from should see it.

Myth 6: All girls (& all youth) are tech savvy.

Reality: Many girls are indeed tech savvy, but some are still behind the curve. In many places, girls with phones are way more tech savvy than their parents. And most young people around the world are pretty quick to pick up on technology. But girls’ level of savvy will obviously depend on what they have access to.

Girls I talked with in the urban slums areas of Jakarta were quite tech-adept and had Internet-ready phones, but they still only used Facebook and Google. They also mixed up ‘Facebook’ and ‘Google’ with ‘The Internet’ and did not use email. They were unfamiliar with the concept of an “app”. Girls knew how to search for jobs online (via Google), but they said they had trouble understanding how to fill out online forms to apply for those jobs. So regardless of a girl’s level of tech savvy, in this case, she was still missing certain skills and relevant online content that would have helped her get to the next level of job-seeking.

Things to consider: It’s really important to do your research to understand what technologies and platforms girls are familiar with and be sure to plan for how to engage girls with those that they are unfamiliar with. Basic literacy might also still be a huge issue among adolescent girls in some places.

Basically, the message here again is to avoid making assumptions, to do your research, and to remember that girls are not a homogeneous group. Market research techniques can be helpful to really start understanding nuances regarding which girls do what, where and how on a mobile device.

Myth 7: Girls don’t have time to use mobile phones.

Reality: You might be surprised by which girls find time to spend on a mobile phone. This again really depends on which girls, and where! Girls find the time to use mobile, even if it’s not at the always on-line levels that we find in places like the US and Europe, notes Colman from Girl Effect. Spending time in the communities you’re working with can allow you to find times that girls have free and uncontrolled access. Jessica Heinzelman from DAI told us that in one project she was working on, they had assumed that girls in more traditional communities and rural geographies would have less access to mobiles. In reality, it was common for girls to be sent on errands with mobiles to places where there was connectivity to contact relatives on behalf of the family, leaving the girls with at least some alone time with the mobile.

Schoolgirls in the slum area of Jakarta that I worked in earlier this year said they checked their Facebook every day. Out of school urban girls checked at least a few times per week, and rural out of school girls also usually managed to borrow a phone to check Facebook quickly now and then.

Things to consider: I’m beating the drum again here about the importance of on-the-ground research and user testing to find out what is happening in a particular context. Alexandra Tyers from GSMA points out that user testing is really a critical piece of any girls and mobile learning effort, and that it can actually be done for a reasonable price. She notes that in her case, “Bangladesh user testing cost $5,000 USD for fifty tests in five different locations around the country. And yet the return on investment by making those necessary changes is likely to be large because making sure the product is right will ensure easy adoption and maximum uptake.”

Myth 8: Mobile phones can’t address girls’ real needs.

Reality: Mobile phones can help address girls’ real needs, but probably not as stand-alone devices, and maybe not as ‘content delivery’ channels. There is a lot of hype around mobile learning and mEducation, and as some presenters talked about at Mobile Learning Week, there is little evidence to help us know how to integrate mobiles in ways that could scale (where appropriate) and offer real results. I sometimes think this is because we are expecting mobile and ICTs in general to do more than they feasibly can.

Depending on the context and situation, where I have seen the greatest opportunity for mobiles is:

  • enabling girls to connect with peers and information
  • allowing girls more opportunities for voicing their opinions
  • linking girls to online support and services
  • linking girls with offline support and services.
  • helping organizations to track and monitor their programs (and hopefully then do a better job of adapting them to girls’ real needs).

Things to consider: It’s really important to think through what the best role for mobile is (if any role at all). Here is where you can (and should) be super creative. You may not get the biggest impact by involving girls as the end user. Rather, the best place might be aiming your mobile component at behavior change with gatekeepers. Or sending text messages that link a girl to a service or opportunity that lives offline. It might be getting feedback on the school system or using mobile to remind parents about school meetings.

Myth 9: Mobile phones are dangerous.

Reality: Many girls and women say a mobile helps them feel safer, more independent, and more successful. The 2011 Cherie Blair/GSMA study on women and mobiles noted that 93% of women said a mobile made them feel safer and 84% felt more independent. Tech can also offer a certain level of anonymity for girls that can be beneficial in some cases. “Tech is good for girls because they can be anonymous. If you go to the bank, everyone can see you’re a girl. But if you start a business online, they don’t know that you’re a girl, so you don’t have to deal with the stereotypes,” according to Tuulia Virha, formerly of Plan Finland. Parents may also see mobiles as a tool to help them keep their children safe.

Things to consider: Mobiles can help with an increased sense of security, safety and autonomy, depending on context and situation. However, and this is what I’ll say next, mobiles also bring risk with them, and most girls we talked to for our research were aware of obvious risks – meeting strangers, exposure to pornography, pedophiles and trafficking – but not so aware of other risks like privacy. They were also not very aware of how to reduce their risk levels. So in order to really reap the safety and empowerment rewards that mobiles can bring, initiatives need to find ways to improve girls’ digital literacy and digital safety. Data security is another issue, and organizations should develop responsible data policies so that they are not contributing to putting girls at risk.

And that brings us to the other side of the coin – the myth that mobiles make girls safer.

Myth 10: Mobiles make girls safer.

Reality: Mobiles can put girls at risk. That sense of being safer with a mobile in hand can be a false one, as I noted above. Dirk Slater, from Tactical Technology Collective noted, “A big issue of working with adolescent girls is their lack of awareness of how the information they share can be stored and used. It’s important to educate girls. Look at how much information you find out about a person through social media, and what does that mean about how much information someone else can find about them.”

Things to consider: Institutions should aim to mitigate risks and help to improve girls’ digital security and safety.

Girls face safety risks on mobile at a number of levels, including:

  • Content
  • Contact
  • Data privacy and security
  • Legal and political risk (in some places they may face backlash simply for seeking out an education)
  • Financial risk (spam, hacking, spending money they don’t have on airtime)
  • Reputation risk (if they participate on social networks or speak out)

It’s also key for organizations working with girls and mobile to develop ethical policies and procedures to mitigate risks at various levels.

And that’s that for the top 10 myths! Curious to know what you think about those, and if there are other myths you find in your work with girls, mobile and learning….

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanya closed us out by summing up the key points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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