Archive for the ‘participation’ 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.


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.


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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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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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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The July 7th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Public Consultation. Our lead discussants were Tiago Peixoto, Team Lead, World Bank Digital Engagement Unit; Michele Brandt, Interpeace’s Director of Constitution-Making for Peace; and Ravi Karkara, Co-Chair, Policy Strategy Group, World We Want Post-2015 Consultation. Discussants covered the spectrum of local, national and global public consultation.

We started off by delving into the elements of a high-quality public consultation. Then we moved into whether, when, and how ICTs can help achieve those elements, and what the evidence base has to say about different approaches.

Elements and principles of high quality public participation

Our first discussant started by listing elements that need to be considered, whether a public consultation process is local, national or global, and regardless of whether it incorporates:

  • Sufficient planning
  • Realistic time frames
  • Education for citizens to participate in the process
  • Sufficient time and budget to gather views via different mechanisms
  • Interest in analyzing and considering the views
  • Provision of feedback about what is done with the consultation results

Principles underlying public consultation processes are that they should be:

  • Inclusive
  • Representative
  • Transparent
  • Accountable

Public consultation process should also be accompanied by widespread public education processes to ensure that people are prepared to a) provide their opinions and b) aware of the wider context in which the consultation takes place, she said. Tech and media can be helpful for spreading the news that the consultation is taking place, creating the narrative around it, and encouraging participation of groups who are traditional excluded, such as girls and women or certain political, ethnic, economic or religious groups, a Salon participant added.

Technology increases scale but limits opportunities for empathy, listening and learning

When thinking about integrating technologies into national public consultation processes, we need to ask ourselves why we want to encourage participation and consultation, what we want to achieve by it, and how we can best achieve it. It’s critical to set goals and purpose for a national consultation, rather than to conduct one just to tick a box, continued the discussant.

The pros and cons of incorporating technology into public consultations are contextual. Technology can be useful for bringing more views into the consultation process, however face-to-face consultation is critical for stimulating empathy in decision makers. When people in positions of power actually sit down and listen to their constituencies, it can send a very powerful message to people across the nation that their ideas and voices matter. National consultation also helps to build consensus and capacity to compromise. If done according to the above-mentioned principles, public consultation can legitimize national processes and improve buy-in. When leaders are open to listening, it also transforms them, she said.

At times, however, those with leadership or in positions of power do not believe that people can participate; they do not believe that the people have the capacity to have an opinion about a complicated political process, for example the creation of a new constitution. For this reason there is often resistance to national level consultations from multilateral or bilateral donors, politicians, the elites of a society, large or urban non-governmental organizations, and political leaders. Often when public consultation is suggested as part of a constitution making process, it is rejected because it can slow down the process. External donors may want a quick process for political reasons, and they may impose deadlines on national leaders that do not leave sufficient time for a quality consultation process.

Polls often end up being one-off snapshots or popularity contests

One method that is seen as a quick way to conduct a national consultation is polling. Yet, as Salon participants discussed, polls may end up being more like a popularity contest than a consultation process. Polls offer limited space for deeper dialogue or preparing those who have never been listened to before to make their voices heard. Polling may also raise expectations that whatever “wins” will be acted on, yet often there are various elements to consider when making decisions. So it’s important to manage expectations about what will be done with people’s responses and how much influence they will have on decision-making. Additionally, polls generally offers a snapshot of how people feel at a distinct point in time, but it may be important to understand what people are thinking at various moments throughout a longer-term national process, such as constitution making.

In addition to the above, opinion polls often reinforce the voices of those who have traditionally had a say, whereas those who have been suffering or marginalized for years, especially in conflict situations, may have a lot to say and a need to be listened to more deeply, explained the discussant. “We need to compress the vertical space between the elites and the grassroots, and to be sure we are not just giving people a one-time chance to participate. What we should be doing is helping to open space for dialogue that continues over time. This should be aimed at setting a precedent that citizen engagement is important and that it will continue even after a goal, such as constitution writing, is achieved,” said the discussant.

In the rush to use new technologies, often we forget about more traditional ones like radio, added one Salon participant, who shared an example of using radio and face to face meetings to consult with boys and girls on the Afghan constitution. Another participant suggested we broaden our concept of technology. “A plaza or a public park is actually a technology,” he noted, and these spaces can be conducive to dialogue and conversation. It was highlighted that processes of dialogue between a) national government and the international community and b) national government and citizens, normally happen in parallel and at odds with one another. “National consultations have historically been organized by a centralized unit, but now these kinds of conversations are happening all the time on various channels. How can those conversations be considered part of a national level consultation?” wondered one participant.

Aggregation vs deliberation

There is plenty of research on aggregation versus deliberation, our next discussant pointed out, and we know that the worst way to determine how many beans are in a jar is to deliberate. Aggregation (“crowd sourcing”) is a better way to find that answer. But for a trial, it’s not a good idea to have people vote on whether someone is guilty or not. “Between the jar and the jury trial, however,” he said, “we don’t know much about what kinds of policy issues lend themselves better to aggregation or to deliberation.”

For constitution making, deliberation is probably better, he said. But for budget allocation, it may be that aggregation is better. Research conducted across 132 countries indicated that “technology systematically privileges those who are better educated, male, and wealthier, even if you account for the technology access gaps.” This discussant mentioned that in participatory budgeting, people tend to just give up and let the educated “win” whereas maybe if it were done by a simple vote it would be more inclusive.

One Salon participated noted that it’s possible to combine deliberation and aggregation. “We normally only put things out for a vote after they’ve been identified through a deliberative process,” he said, “and we make sure that there is ongoing consultation.” Others lamented that decision makers often only want to see numbers – how many voted for what – and they do not accept more qualitative consultation results because they usually happen with fewer people participating. “Congress just wants to see numbers.”

Use of technology biases participation towards the elite

Some groups are using alternative methods for participatory democracy work, but the technology space has not thought much about this and relies on self-selection for the most part, said the discussant, and results end up being biased towards wealthier, urban, more educated males. Technology allows us to examine behaviors by looking at data that is registered in systems and to conduct experiments, however those doing these experiments need to be more responsible, and those who do not understand how to conduct research using technology need to be less empirical. “It’s a unique moment to build on what we’ve learned in the past 100 years about participation,” he said. Unfortunately, many working in the field of technology-enabled consultation have not done their research.

These biases towards wealthier, educated, urban males are very visible in Europe and North America, because there is so much connectivity, yet whether online or offline, less educated people participate less in the political process. In ‘developing’ countries, the poor usually participate more than the wealthy, however. So when you start using technology for consultation, you often twist that tendency and end up skewing participation toward the elite. This is seen even when there are efforts to proactively reach out to the poor.

Internal advocacy and an individual’s sense that he or she is capable of making a judgment or influencing an outcome is key for participation, and this is very related to education, time spent in school and access to cultural assets. With those who are traditionally marginalized, these internal assets are less developed and people are less confident. In order to increase participation in consultations, it’s critical to build these internal skills among more marginalized groups.

Combining online and offline public consultations

Our last discussant described how a global public consultation was conducted on a small budget for the Sustainable Development Goals, reaching an incredible 7.5 million people worldwide. Two clear goals of the consultation were that it be inclusive and non-discriminatory. In the end, 49% who voted identified as female, 50% as male and 1% as another gender. Though technology played a huge part in the process, the majority of people who voted used a paper ballot. Others participated using SMS, in locally-run community consultation processes, or via the website. Results from the voting were visualized on a data dashboard/data curation website so that it would be easier to analyze them, promote them, and encourage high-level decision makers to take them into account.

Some of the successful elements of this online/offline process included that transparency was a critical aspect. The consultation technology was created as open source so that those wishing to run their own consultations could open it, modify it, and repackage it however they wanted to suit their local context. Each local partner could manage their own URL and track their own work, and this was motivating to them.

Other key learning was that a conscious effort has to be made to bring in voices of minority groups; investment in training and capacity development was critical for those running local consultations; honesty and transparency about the process (in other words, careful management of expectations); and recognize that there will be highs and lows in the participation cycle (be sensitive to people’s own cycles and available time to participate).

The importance of accountability

Accountability was a key aspect for this process. Member states often did not have time to digest the results of the consultation, and those running it had to find ways to capture the results in short bursts and visually simple graphics so that the consultation results would be used for decision making. This required skill and capacity for not only gathering and generating data but also curating it for the decision-making audience.

It was also important to measure the impact of the consultation – were people’s voices included in the decision-making process and did it make a difference? And were those voices representative of a wide range of people? Was the process inclusive?

Going forward, in order to build on the consultation process and to support the principle of accountability, the initiative will shift focus to become a platform for public participation in monitoring and tracking the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Political will and responsiveness

A question came up about the interest of decision-makers in actually listening. “Leaders often are not at all interested in what people have to say. They are more concerned with holding onto their power, and if leaders have not agreed to a transparent and open process of consultation, it will not work. You can’t make them listen if they don’t want to. If there is no political will, then the whole consultation process will just be propaganda and window dressing,” one discussant commented. Another Salon participant what can be done to help politicians see the value of listening. “In the US, for example, we have lobbyists, issues groups, PACs, etc., so our politicians are being pushed on and demanded from all sides. If consultation is going to matter, you need to look at the whole system.” “How can we develop tools that can help governments sort through all these pressures and inputs to make good decisions?” wondered one participant.

Another person mentioned Rakesh Rajani’s work, noting that participation is mainly about power. If participation is not part of a wider system change, part of changing power structures, then using technology for participation is just a new tool to do the same old thing. If the process is not transparent and accountable, or if you engage and do not deliver anything based on the engagement, then you will lose future interest to engage.

Responsiveness was also raised. How many of these tech-fueled participation processes have led to governments actually changing, doing something different? One discussant said that evidence of impact of ICT-enabled participation processes was found in only 25 cases, and of those only 5 could show any kind of impact. All the others had very unclear impact – it was ambiguous. Did using ICTs make a difference? There was really no evidence of any. Another commented that clearly technology will only help if government is willing and able to receive consultation input and act on it. We need to find ways to help governments to do that, noted another person.

As always, conversation could have continued on for quite some time but our 2 hours was up. For more on ICTs and public consultations, here is a short list of resources that we compiled. Please add any others that would be useful! And as a little plug for a great read on technology and its potential in development and political work overall, I highly recommend checking out Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology from Kentaro Toyama. Kentaro’s “Law of Amplification” is quite relevant in the space of technology-enabled participation, in that technology amplifies existing human behaviors and tendencies, and benefits those who are already primed to benefit while excluding those who have been traditionally excluded. Hopefully we’ll get Kentaro in for a Tech Salon in the Fall!

Thanks to our lead discussants, Michele, Tiago and Ravi, and to Thoughtworks for their generous hosting of the Salon! Salons are conducted under Chatham House Rule so no attribution has been made in this post. Sign up here if you’d like to receive Technology Salon invitations.

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

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

Brooklyn: lots of cool, lots of inequality

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

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

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

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

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

What other roles could technology play in strengthening existing work?

Connecting people and organizations

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

Transferring tactics from one movement to another

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

Offering new, potentially more effective ways to report housing violations

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

Tracking housing violations

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

Encouraging local politicians to get involved

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

Tracking and predicting trends and population movements and displacement

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

Other recommendations

Don’t forget about the legalities of videotaping and sharing

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

Use the right technology for the audience

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

Understand the landscape

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

SMS is not a silver bullet – and trust is key

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

Local organizations are key

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

Youth could play a role

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

Be careful about creating demand without adequate response capacity

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

Figure out how community organizations and technology partners can work together

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

Think about short and long-term efforts

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


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

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

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




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This post was contributed by J. (Tales from the Hood

I was pleased when Linda put up her latest post. There’s a lot of opinion in the blogosphere lately about what white people need to understand or not understand, helping us get in touch with our “privilege”, etc. A lot of it is really excellent.

Something that I have struggled with personally, and have seen my white male demographic comrades also struggle with, though, is: What, then, are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to act? I don’t feel privileged, but okay—I still am. I get it. Privilege acknowledgedCheck. But now what?

In his excellent piece Douchebag: The white racial slur we’ve all been waiting for, Michael Mark Cohen notes that “White racial slurs are not common in our colorblind age because they don’t work on people who posses white privilege. When they do work, like “redneck” or “cracker,” it’s a matter of class politics…. Rich white men enjoy the invisible power of being just people. Normal, basic Humanity. Everyone else gets some version of discrimination.”

Now, I don’t want to be a “douchebag”— who would? But somehow, calling taxation of the rich “the douchebag tax” rather than “class warefare”, seems, well, academic and not very important in the grand scheme of things. That’ll win me a few smiles of affirmation in the coffee room, but doesn’t give me much guidance for getting through the day in a racially diverse neighborhood or ideas on how to support change to happen.

So for posterity, for those basically decent white guys who “get it” but are unsure how to act when the conversation around them heats up, here are the rules I try to live by:

This is not about you. If you find yourself entering discussions with a lengthy expose of where you grew up, what your socioeconomic status was, whether your upbringing somehow set you on a path for racism or not-racism… yeah, you may want to reconsider your approach. Process your own issues as needed, but don’t bring them into this conversation. Why? Because this conversation is specifically about the rights and needs of other people.

No one is immune. It doesn’t matter where your origins lie, generations back; it doesn’t matter that your great, great grandfather was or wasn’t a plantation owner. It doesn’t matter if all of your friends are of another race/culture/ethnicity. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an interracial or cross-cultural relationship. No one is immune from making mistakes, not even you. Don’t try to pretend otherwise. If you make a mistake — maybe you use an offensive term or fall back on a convenient stereotype — acknowledge it, give a sincere apology, and move on.

No one’s holding your responsible for the sins of others. Don’t get all defensive, like, “I never hit/choked/shot/raped/owned any black people… so back off!” Fine, you probably didn’t, but that’s not the point, and in the vast majority of cases you’re not being personally accused of those things. The important thing is to acknowledge that those awful things did and still do happen, and then take steps to change that. Too often we use our lack of specific personal culpability as a reason to disengage from the issues of race inequality overall.

[Editor’s note from Linda: The larger issue here is “structural racism,” or “systemic racism.” Learn about what that means, don’t take it personally, and use your vote, voice and behavior to help remove/un-do/change it. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece to get a really deep understanding of how structural racism has affected black people in the US over the years and continues today.]

No token gestures. Don’t collect friends of other colors. Don’t go all over-the-top with moral indignation on your Facebook page. No blasting Salt ‘n’ Pepper while cruising in your Prius. No ostentatious displays of confessing your privilege. Just be normal: Look people in the eye when you speak to them. If you’re friends with people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, express support and solidarity if it’s appropriate to do so, but don’t go all earnest emo. Join protests — definitely — solidarity is critical in order to move these issues forward and achieve structural changes. But don’t make it about you and your needs. Understand that your vote on local issues may accomplish much more than your signboard. And, no — don’t ever wear an “I Am Trayvon” T-shirt.

Don’t use somebody else’s asshattery to justify your asshattery. Newsflash: Literally every community on the planet has members who are jerks. Just because there was that one time, back in 1987 when some black guy was a jerk to you, doesn’t give you carte blance to cling to stereotypes or act like a jerk toward others. This is just basic.

Understand that people get emotional. Some people go ballistic just at Starbucks. Or Walmart. Can you even imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of literally generations of racial discrimination? It should surprise no one that tempers flare, voices get loud, and pronouncements become extreme.  Dude, just let people express themselves. Not everyone is a professional orator. Don’t try to deflate or invalidate it. Don’t feel as if you have to nit-pick or respond to everything. Which leads to…

Know when to shut up.

Don’t play the victim. You know how everyone thinks we can’t dance or “don’t have rhythm”? Yeah, just let it go.

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