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Our Technology Salon on Digital ID (“Will Digital Identities Support or Control Us”) took place at the OSF offices on June 3 with lead discussants Savita Bailur and Emrys Schoemaker from Caribou Digital and Aiden Slavin from ID2020.

In general, Salon Participants noted the potential positives of digital ID, such as improved access to services, better service delivery, accountability, and better tracking of beneficiaries. However, they shared concerns about potential negative impacts, such as surveillance and discrimination, disregard for human rights and privacy, lack of trust in government and others running digital ID systems, harm to marginalized communities, lack of policy and ethical frameworks, complexities of digital ID systems and their associated technological requirements, and low capacity within NGOs to protect data and to deal with unintended consequences.

What do we mean by digital identity (digital ID)?

Arriving at a basic definition of digital ID is difficult due to its interrelated aspects. To begin with: What is identity? A social identity arises from a deep sense of who we are and where we come from. A person’s social identity is a critical part of how they experience an ID system. Analog ID systems have been around for a very long time and digitized versions build on them.

The three categories below (developed by Omidyar) are used by some to differentiate among types of ID systems:

  • Issued ID includes state or national issued identification like birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and systems such as India’s biometric ID system (Aadhar), built on existing analog models of ID systems and controlled by institutions.
  • De facto ID is an emerging category of ID that is formed through data trails that people leave behind when using digital devices, including credit scoring based on mobile phone use or social media use. De facto ID is somewhat outside of an individual’s control, as it is often based on analysis of passive data for which individuals have not given consent to collect or use in this way. De facto ID also includes situations where refugees are tracked via cellphone data records (CDRs). De facto ID is a new and complex way of being identified and categorized.
  • Self-asserted ID is linked to the decentralization of ID systems. It is based on the possession of forms of ID that prove who we are that we manage ourselves. A related term is self-managed ID, which recognizes that there is no ID that is “self-asserted” because our identity is relational and always relies on others recognizing us as who we are and who we believe ourselves to be.

(Also see this glossary of Digital ID definitions.)

As re-identification technologies are becoming more and more sophisticated, the line between de-facto and official, issued IDs is blurring, noted one participant. Others said they prefer using a broad umbrella term “Identity in the Digital Age” to cover the various angles.

Who is digital ID benefiting?

Salon Participants tended to think that digital ID is mainly of interest to institutions. Most IDs are developed, designed, managed, and issued by institutions. Thus the interests baked into the design of an ID system are theirs. Institutions tend to be excited about digital ID systems because they are interoperable, and helps them with beneficiary management, financial records, entry/exit across borders and the like.

This very interoperability, however, is what raises privacy, vulnerability, and data protection issues. Some of the most cutting-edge Digital ID systems are being tested on some of the most vulnerable populations in the world:  refugees in Jordan, Uganda, Lebanon, and Myanmar. These digital ID systems have created massive databases for analysis, e.g., the UNHCR’s Progress data base has 80 million records.

This brings with it a huge responsibility to protect. It also raises questions about the “one ID system to rule them all” idea. On the one hand, a single system can offer managerial control, reduce fraud, and improve tracking. Yet, as one person said, “what a horrifying prospect that an institution can have this much control! Should we instead be supporting one thousand ID systems to bloom?”

Can we trust institutions and governments to manage digital ID Systems?

One of the institutions positioning itself as the leader in Digital ID is the World Food Program (WFP). As one participant highlighted, this is an agency that has come under strong criticism for its partnership with Palantir and a lack of transparency around where data goes and who can access it. Seismic downstream effects that affect trust in the entire sector can be generated these kinds of partnerships. “This has caused a lot of angst in the sector. The WFP wants to have the single system to rule them all, whereas many of us would rather see an interoperable ecosystem.” Some organizations consider their large-scale systems to have more rigorous privacy, security, and informed consent measures than the WFP’s SCOPE system.

Trust is a critical component of a Digital ID system. The Estonian model, for example, offers visibility into which state departments are accessing a person’s data and when, which builds citizen’s trust in the system. Some Salon participants expressed concern over their own country governments running a Digital ID system. “In my country, we don’t trust institutions because we have a failed state,” said one person, “so people would never want the government to have their information in that way.” Another person said that in his country, the government is known for its corruption, and the idea that the government could manage an ID system with any kind of data integrity was laughable. “If these systems are not monitored or governed properly, they can be used to target certain segments of the population for outright repression. People do want greater financial inclusion, for example, but these ID systems can be easily weaponized and used against us.”

Fear and mistrust in digital ID systems is not universal, however. One Salon participant said that their research in Indonesia found that a digital ID was seen to be part of being a “good citizen,” even if local government was not entirely trusted. A Salon participant from China reported that in her experience, the digital ID system there has not been questioned much by citizens. Rather, it is seen as a convenient way for people to learn about new government policies and to carry out essential transactions more quickly.

What about data integrity and redress?

One big challenge with digital ID systems as they are currently managed is that there is very little attention to redress. “How do you fix errors in information? Where are the complaints mechanisms?” asked one participant. “We think of digital systems as being really flexible, but they are really hard to clean out,” said another. “You get all these faulty data crumbs that stick around. And they seem so far removed from the user. How do people get data errors fixed? No one cares about the integrity of the system. No one cares but you if your ID information is not correct. There is really very little incentive to address discrepancies and provide redress mechanisms.”

Another challenge is the integrity of the data that goes into the system. In some countries, people go back to their villages to get a birth certificate, at point at which data integrity can suffer due to faulty information or bribes, among other things. In one case, researchers spoke to a woman who changed her religion on her birth certificate thinking it would save her from discrimination when she moved to a new town. In another case, the village chief made a woman change her name to a Muslim name on her birth certificate because the village was majority Muslim.” There are power dynamics at the local level that can challenge the integrity of the ID system.

Do digital ID systems improve the lives of women and children?

There is a long-standing issue in many parts of the world with children not having a birth certificate, said one Salon discussant. “If you don’t have a legal ID, technically you don’t exist, so that first credential is really important.” As could probably be expected, however, fewer females than males have legal ID.

In a three-country research project, the men interviewed thought that women do not need ID as much as men did. However, when talking with women it was clear that they are the ones who are dealing with hospitals and schools and other institutions who require ID. The study found that In Bangladesh, when women did have ID, it was commonly held and controlled by their husbands. In one case study, a woman wanted to sign up as a cook for an online cooking service, but she needed an ID to do so. She had to ask her husband for the ID, explain what she needed it for, and get his permission in order to join the cooking service. In another, a woman wanted to provide beauty care services through an online app. She needed to produce her national ID and two photos to join up with the app and to create a bKash mobile money account. Her husband did not want her to have a bKash account, so she had to provide his account details, meaning that all of her earnings went to her husband (see more here on how ID helps women access work). In India, a woman wanted to escape her husband, so she moved from the countryside to Bangalore to work as a maid. Her in-laws retained all of her ID, and so she had to rely on her brother to set up everything for her in Bangalore.

Another Salon participant explained that in India also, micro-finance institutions had imposed a regulation that when a woman registered to be part of a project, she had to provide the name of a male member to qualify her identity. When it was time to repay the loan or if a woman missed a payment, her brother or husband would then receive a text about it. The question is how to create trust-based systems that do not reinforce patriarchal values and where individuals are clear about and have control over how information is shared?

“ID is embedded in your relationships and networks,” it was explained. “It creates a new set of dependencies and problems that we need to consider.” In order to understand the nuances in how ID and digital ID are impacting people, we need more of these micro-level stories. “What is actually happening? What does it mean when you become more identifiable?”

Is it OK to use digital ID systems for social control and social accountability? 

The Chinese social credit system, according to one Salon participant, includes a social control function. “If you have not repaid a loan, you are banned from purchasing a first-class air ticket or from checking into expensive hotels.” An application used In Nairobi called Tala also includes a social accountability function, explained another participant. “Tala is a social credit scoring app that gives small loans. You download an app with all your contacts, and it works out via algorithms if you are credit-worthy. If you are, you can get a small loan. If you stop paying your loans, however, Tala alerts everyone in your contact list. In this way, the app has digitized a social accountability function.”

The initial reaction from Salon Participants was shock, but it was pointed out that traditional Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) function the same way – through social sanction. “The difference here is transparency and consent,” it was noted. “In a community you might not have choice about whether everyone knows you defaulted on your small loan. But you are aware that this is what will happen. With Tala, people didn’t realize that the app had access to their contacts and that it would alert those contacts, so consent and transparency are the issues.”

The principle of informed consent in the humanitarian space poses a constant challenge. “Does a refugee who registers with UNHCR really have any choice? If they need food and have to provide minimal information to get it, is that consent? What if they have zero digital literacy?” Researcher Helen Nissenbaum, it was noted, has written that consent is problematic and that we should not pursue it. “It’s not really about individual consent. It’s about how we set standards and ensure transparency and accountability for how an individual’s information is used,” explained one Salon participant.

These challenges with data use and consent need to be considered beyond just individual privacy, however, as another participant noted. “There is all manner of vector-based data in the WFP’s system. Other agencies don’t have this kind of disaggregated data at the village level or lower. What happens if Palantir, via the WFP, is the first company in the world to have that low level disaggregation? And what happens with the digital ID of particularly vulnerable groups of people such as refugee communities or LGBTQI communities? How could these Digital IDs be used to discriminate or harm entire groups of people? What does it mean if a particular category or tag like ‘refugee’ or ‘low income’ follows you around forever?”

One Salon participant said that in Jordanian camps, refugees would register for one thing and be surprised at how their data then automatically popped up on the screen of a different partner organization. Other participants expressed concerns about how Digital ID systems and their implications could be explained to people with less digital experience or digital literacy. “Since the GDPR came into force, people have the right to an explanation if they are subject to an automated decision,” noted one person “But what does compliance look like? How would anyone ever understand what is going on?” This will become increasingly complex as technology advances and we begin to see things like digital phenotyping being used to serve up digital content or determine our benefits.

Can we please have better standards, regulations and incentives?

A final question raised about Digital ID systems was who should be implementing and managing them: UN agencies? Governments? Private Sector? Start-ups? At the moment the ecosystem includes all sorts of actors and feels a bit “Wild Wild West” due to insufficient control and regulation. At the same time, there are fears (as noted above) about a “one system to rule them all approach.” “So,” asked one person, “what should we be doing then? Should UN agencies be building in-house expertise? Should we be partnering better with the private sector? We debate this all the time internally and we can never agree.” Questions also remain about what happens with the biometric and other data that failed start-ups or discontinued digital ID systems hold. And is it a good idea to support government-controlled ID systems in countries with corrupt or failed governments, or those who will use these systems to persecute or exercise undue control over their populations?

As one person asked, “Why are we doing this? Why are we even creating these digital ID systems?”

Although there are huge concerns about Digital ID, the flip side is that a Digital ID system could potentially offer better security for sensitive information, at least in the case of humanitarian organizations. “Most organizations currently handle massive amounts of data in Excel sheets and Google docs with zero security,” said one person. “There is PII [personally identifiable information] flowing left, right, and center.” Where donors have required better data management standards, there has been improvement, but it requires massive investment, and who will pay for it?” Sadly, donors are currently not covering these costs. As a representative from one large INGO explained, “we want to avoid the use of Excel to track this stuff. We are hoping that our digital ID system will be more secure. We see this as a very good idea if you can nail down the security aspects.”

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is often quoted as the “gold standard,” yet implementation is complex and the GDPR is not specific enough, according to some Salon participants. Not to mention, “if you are UN, you don’t have to follow GDPR.” Many at the Salon felt that the GDPR has had very positive effects but called out the lack of incentive structures that would encourage full adoption. “No one does anything unless there is an enforcing function.” Others felt that the GDPR was too prescriptive about what to do, rather than setting limits on what not to do.

One effort to watch is the Pan Canadian Trust Foundation, mentioned as a good example of creating a functioning and decentralized ecosystem that could potentially address some of the above challenges.

The Salon ended with more questions than answers, however there is plenty of research and conversation happening about digital ID and a wide range of actors engaging with the topic. If you’d like to read more, check out this list of resources that we put together for the Salon and add any missing documents, articles, links and resources!

Salons run under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made in this post. Technology Salons happen in several cities around the world. If you’d like to join a discussion, sign up here. If you’d like to host a Salon, suggest a topic, or support us to keep doing Salons in NYC please get in touch with me! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our February 6th Technology Salon in New York City focused on the organizational challenges that development organizations face when trying to innovate or integrate ICTs into their programs and operations. We looked at the idea of “innovation” and different ways to approach it. We asked what “innovation” really means and why “technology” and “innovation” seem to always be used interchangeably. We shared ideas, challenges and good practice around supporting and encouraging staff, managers, and donors to experiment with new and better ways of doing things.

A huge thank you to Somto Fab-Ukozor and Rachana Kumar for their collaboration on writing the summary below!

Mika

Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland. (Photo by Somto Fab-Ukozor)

Our lead discussants were Jessica Heinzelman, DAI’s senior ICT specialist; Chris Fabian, UNICEF’s advisor to the Executive Director on innovation and co-lead of UNICEF’s innovation lab; and Mika Valitalo, Plan Finland’s program manager for ICT4D.

What is innovation?

Different organizations bring in different ideas and definitions of innovation. Is innovation always synonymous with technology? Does it always require technology? For some organizations, “innovation” means doing things faster, better and differently in a way that adds value and has a concrete impact.

One discussant noted that innovation is not necessarily disruptive in nature; it can be categorized into 3 main forms:

  • a totally new context, new problem, new solution
  •  an existing solution that is improved
  •  an existing solution that is adapted to a new context, country or sector

Another lead discussant pointed out that innovation is not necessarily something brand new; it can be something that existed but that is used in a different way or simply different processes or ways of thinking, and innovation does not have to be technology. The concept of innovation is often misunderstood, he said, because “someone can come up with 10 crappy ideas that are new but that does not make them innovative or useful.” He also cautioned that innovation should not only be about replication and scale, yet donors sometimes decide that an idea is innovative and encourage organizations to replicate the idea, without ensuring that it is having a real or relevant impact across different local contexts.

One discussant disagreed and said that there’s no innovation without technology; for example, 60% of kids are stunting in one of the greenest areas in the world because of lack to electrical grid; the provision of electricity is technology. Without the electrical grid, the country will never reach any of its developmental goals. Technology enables the work to happen. A different viewpoint, as another discussant explained, was that the application of the technology is the innovative part, not the technology itself.

What fuels innovation?

A key part of the Salon discussion focused on whether having dedicated resources fueled innovation, or whether the presence of challenges and constraints forces innovation. Some Salon participants felt that when people are faced with challenges such as less time, fewer resources, no office space, etc., they may find themselves being more innovative in order to overcome constraints. Others found that staff often use the excuse of not having time and resources as a reason for not innovating or thinking outside the box. Some felt that innovation is difficult to achieve within large bureaucratic institutions due to their risk averse cultures, whereas others felt that one of the benefits of large-scale organizations is having resources to innovate and then test and scale innovations. Participants did agree that regardless of the outside setting, some people are more inclined to be innovative – these people are easy to identify almost everywhere, as they are always coming up with new ideas and trying/testing things out. The key is to find a way for organizational structures to support and reward innovators.

Encouraging innovation within large development organizations

Different organizations approach the innovation question in different ways. One discussant said that at his organization, the innovation team spends 60% of its time working on problems the organization is facing at the moment; 20% of its time looking towards the future (a 3-5 year horizon) for ideas that have an immediate direct impact on its work; and 20% of its time on organizational redesign, in other words, how to work with users to create solutions that are not top down and that take advantage of the existing ecosystem. His innovations team is only interested in finding/creating innovations that could reach very large scale, such as 10,000,000 people or more.

The innovation team created some guidelines for staff and allies with tips on how to defend one’s existence as someone working on innovation.  The guide addresses questions like: Why innovation?  Is it valuable to have an innovation unit? If so, why? If so and why, then prove it. Working on these questions led the innovation unit to develop metrics for innovation to justify staff positions focused on innovation. These guidelines can help people at other organizations who are trying something new to have a reference point; they allow innovation teams to say “such-and-such organization is doing this, so we can do it too.”

Metrics for innovation

Having a set of metrics can help innovation labs, teams or persons charged with organizational innovation to measure whether they are actually achieving their goals, too. One organization defined the following metrics:

  • permission to fail or fail cheaply without fear
  • working with heterogeneous groups
  •  sharing knowledge across countries and contexts

Working across organizational boundaries without “soul crushing bureaucracy” and having the real ability to work horizontally is one key to achieving these metrics.

Decentralizing the innovation function

Another lead discussant described the institutional changes and underlying understanding of people needed to improve and support innovation:

  • Identify the real incentives that someone has – individual or project – and the disincentives to innovating. It is important to look underneath the excuses people come up with such as time constraints and additional work, and find out what is driving them.
  • Hire realistic optimists – Sometimes in the ICT4D space, people gloss over the challenges and promote the technology. It is important to hire people who are grounded and have a good analytical sense, and who can think beyond gadgets and hype.
  • Building and sharing expertise within the organization – Creating a champions group of mid-to entry-level professionals within the organization, who understand the power that new technology has, is another way to make innovation and ICT4D spread. Rather than keep the expertise isolated within a specialist unit, finding younger people who are hungry for knowledge and who see this kind of work as a way to help further their career and set themselves apart from their colleagues can help. Then the “innovation team” can provide them with support and guidance. Participatory workshops on new tools and approaches can be organized where these innovation champions are tasked to research and explore something and then present it. Equipped with tools and trainings, they will be able to better identify opportunities for innovation.
  • Getting innovation into the plan early and working with those who are putting proposals and RFPs together to make sure that it is part of the metrics being measured from the beginning. It’s hard to add new elements into the program later because people will perceive it as additional work.

One Salon participant said that her organization disconnected “innovation” from its other programs so that space for trying new things would be made, and the fear of failing would be reduced or “offloaded” to the innovation team. In this case, the unit is funded through private sources which support it to experiment. It still has to struggle for its existence and show the impact and value of either failure or success.

Ideas for taking innovation and ICT4D forward

Some ideas for moving ahead included:

  1. Flexibility in program planning– In reality, most times during program implementation the plan changes and we have to figure out how to cope with it. The solution lies in the ability to quietly promote innovation and to influence donor organizations to embrace more flexible implementation.
  2. Integrating User-Centered-Design – Ethnographic research can help to better understand how people use technology locally and what its meaning is. It also helps identify existing patterns and ways of doing things that could be enhanced or shared with other communities if they are working well. Agile methodology from the software world can be pulled into development programs in order to end the top-down approach of solving problems from afar and having everything cooked up from the start. Rather, focusing on small iterations and the impact of the deliverables can be a better approach.
  3. Collaboration with Universities – Universities can be great places for working on and trying out  new ideas. Links with universities can be used as ways to find solutions, but even moreso to “change the proteins” inside of a traditional organization.  Collaboration among staff and students provides opportunities for staff to learn how to think about things differently and for students to understand real-world challenges in development agencies.
  4. Bridging the gap – Involving educators, health experts, child protection specialists and others who are not very interested in gadgets can bring about strong understanding of the real needs. Then connecting them with “techies” and ICTs in plain language and asking them to relate their own use of tech (they probably all use mobile phones in their personal lives, for example) to the ways that community members use tech can help to bring about solid, practical, sustainable and locally driven solutions.
  5. Provide a safe environment – Many humans are innovative by nature, said one discussant. Hierarchies and organizational processes are often what prevent people from doing new things. Giving feedback and psychological support can help those who are innovative to flourish within a difficult environment.
  6. The interdisciplinary approach – One Salon participant said that his organization had started to work with some senior staff to think and structure data in a way that would help them understand their challenges and programs better in order to innovate. This makes people more comfortable, and working across different teams with a variety of people and skill sets can help new ideas and solutions to bubble up.
  7. Information intermediaries – Infomediaries working at various levels can help connect people with technology, conduct training, and ensure that staff can acquire skills to use the technology themselves and in programs.
  8. Open source – Making project documents, budgets, concepts, “open” online can make them more accessible and  help  enable sustainable projects and prevent issues and costs associated with proprietary tools, applications and content.
  9. Younger management – There’s an age differential between the people who lead most large organizations and large-scale projects and those who are more interested in technology. One participant suggested it would be important to get younger people into positions where they can make contributions of ideas and decisions without being blocked by higher level people that may be “past their innovation prime.” Another solution may be to hire more experienced people but to ensure that they are open to working with  younger people who bring in new ideas. (Some Salon participants, however, felt that age has nothing to do with innovation, and that it is more related to personality types and organizational environments).

For  additional resources on the Salon topic, look here – and add your resources as well.

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. Many thanks to our lead discussants and to ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing breakfast.

If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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At the November 8th Technology Salon in New York City, we looked at the role of ICTs in communication for development (C4D) initiatives with marginalized adolescent girls. Lead discussants Kerida McDonald and Katarzyna Pawelczyk discussed recent UNICEF reports related to the topic, and John Zoltner spoke about FHI360’s C4D work in practice.

To begin, it was pointed out that C4D is not donor communications or marketing. It is the use of communication approaches and methodologies to achieve influence at various levels —  e.g., family, institutional and policy —  to change behavior and social norms. C4D is one approach that is being used to address the root causes of gender inequality and exclusion.

Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 7.24.48 AMAs the UNICEF report on ICTs and C4D* notes, girls may face a number of situations that contribute to and/or are caused by their marginalization: early pregnancy, female genital cutting, early marriage, high rates of HIV/AIDS, low levels of education, lack of control over resources. ICTs alone cannot resolve these, because there is a deep and broad set of root causes. However, ICTs can be integrated systematically into the set of C4D tools and approaches that contribute to positive change.

Issues like bandwidth, censorship and electricity need to be considered when integrating ICTs into C4D work, and approaches that fit the context need to be developed. Practitioners should use tools that are in the hands of girls and their communities now, yet be aware of advances in access and new technologies, as these change rapidly.

Key points:

Interactivity is more empowering than one-way messaging:  Many of the ICT solutions being promoted today focus on sending messages out via mobile phones. However C4D approaches aim for interactivity and multi-channel, multi-directional communication, which has proven more empowering.

Content: Traditional media normally goes through a rigorous editorial process and it is possible to infuse it with a gender balance. Social media does not have the same type of filters, and it can easily be used to reinforce stereotypes about girls. This is something to watch and be aware of.

Purpose: It’s common with ICT-related approaches to start with the technology rather than starting with the goals. As one Salon participant asked “What are the results we want to see for ourselves? What are the results that girls want to see? What are the root causes of discrimination and how are we trying to address them? What does success look like for girls? For organizations? Is there a role for ICTs in helping achieve success? If so, what is it?” These questions need to be the starting point, rather than the technology.

Participation: One Salon participant mentioned a 2-year project that is working together with girls to define their needs and their vision of success. The process is one co-design, and it is aimed at understanding what girls want. Many girls expressed a feeling of isolation and desire for connection, and so the project is looking at how ICTs can help them connect. As the process developed, the diversity of needs became very clear and plans have changed dramatically based on input from a range of girls from different contexts. Implementors need to be prepared to change, adapt and respond to what girls say they want and to local realities.

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Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 10.41.22 PMA second study commissioned by UNICEF explores how young people use social media. The researchers encountered some challenges in terms of a strong gender approach for the study. Though a gender lens was used for analysis, there is little available data disaggregated by sex. The study does not focus on the most marginalized, because it looks at the use of social media, which normally requires a data connection or Internet access, which the most marginalized youth usually do not have.

The authors of the report found that youth most commonly used the Internet and social media for socializing and communicating with friends. Youth connected less often for schoolwork. One reason for this may be that in the countries/contexts where the research took place, there is no real integration of ICTs into the school system. It was emphasized that the  findings in the report are not comparable or nationally representative, and blanket statements such as “this means x for the whole developing world” should be avoided.

Key points:

Self-reporting biases. Boys tend to have higher levels of confidence and self-report greater ICT proficiency than girls do. This may skew results and make it seem that boys have higher skill levels.

Do girls really have less access? We often hear that girls have less access than boys. The evidence gathered for this particular report found that “yes and no.” In some places, when researchers asked “Do you have access to a mobile,” there was not a huge difference between urban and rural or between boys and girls. When they dug deeper, however, it became more complex. In the case of Zambia, access and ownership were similar for boys and girls, but fewer girls were connecting at all to the Internet as compared to boys. Understanding connectivity and use was quite complicated.

What are girls vs. boys doing online? This is an important factor when thinking about what solutions are applicable to which situation(s). Differences came up here in the study. In Argentina, girls were doing certain activities more frequently, such as chatting and looking for information, but they were not gaming. In Zambia, girls were doing some things less often than boys; for example, fewer girls than boys were looking for health information, although the number was still significant. A notable finding was that both girls and boys were accessing general health information more often than they were accessing sensitive information, such as sexual health or mental health.

What are the risks in the online world? A qualitative portion of the study in Kenya used focus groups with girls and boys, and asked about their uses of social media and experience of risk. Many out-of-school girls aged 15-17 reported that they used social media as a way to meet a potential partner to help them out of their financial situation. They reported riskier behavior, contact with older men, and relationships more often than girls who were in school. Girls in general were more likely to report unpleasant online encounters than boys, for example, request for self-exposure photos.

Hiding social media use. Most of the young people that researchers spoke with in Kenya were hiding social media use from their parents, who disapproved of it. This is an important point to note in C4D efforts that plan on using social media, and program designers will want to take parental attitudes about different media and communication channels into consideration as they design C4D programs.

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When implementing programs, it is noteworthy how boys and girls tend to use ICT and media tools. Gender issues often manifest themselves right away. “The boys grab the cameras, the boys sit down first at the computers.” If practitioners don’t create special rules and a safe space for girls to participate, girls may be marginalized. In practical ICT and media work, it’s common for boys and girls to take on certain roles. “Some girls like to go on camera, but more often they tend to facilitate what is being done rather than star in it.” The gender gap in ICT access and use, where it exists, is a reflection of the power gaps of society in general.

In the most rural areas, even when people have access, they usually don’t have the resources and skills to use ICTs.  Very simple challenges can affect girls’ ability to participate in projects, for example, oftentimes a project will hold training at times when it’s difficult for girls to attend. Unless someone systematically goes through and applies a gender lens to a program, organizations often don’t notice the challenges girls may face in participating. It’s not enough to do gender training or measure gender once a year; gendered approaches needs to be built into program design.

Long-terms interventions are needed if the goal is to emancipate girls, help them learn better, graduate, postpone pregnancy, and get a job. This cannot be done in a year with a simple project that has only one focus, because girls are dealing with education, healthcare, and a whole series of very entrenched social issues. What’s needed is to follow a cohort of girls and to provide information and support across all these sectors over the long-term.

Key points:

Engaging boys and men: Negative reactions from men are a concern if and when girls and women start to feel more empowered or to access resources. For example, some mobile money and cash transfer programs direct funds to girls and women, and some studies have found that violence against women increases when women start to have more money and more freedom. Another study, however, of a small-scale effort that provides unconditional cash transfers to girls ages 18-19 in rural Kenya, is demonstrating just the opposite: girls have been able to say where money is spent and the gender dynamics have improved. This raises the question of whether program methodologies need to be oriented towards engaging boys and men and involving them in changing gender dynamics, and whether engaging boys and men can help avoid an increase in violence. Working with boys to become “girl champions” was cited as a way to help to bring boys into the process as advocates and role models.

Girls as producers, not just consumers. ICTs are not only tools for sending content to girls. Some programs are working to help girls produce content and create digital stories in their own languages. Sometimes these stories are used to advocate to decision makers for change in favor of girls and their agendas. Digital stories are being used as part of research processes and to support monitoring, evaluation and accountability work through ‘real-time’ data.

ICTs and social accountability. Digital tools are helping young people address accountability issues and inform local and national development processes. In some cases, youth are able to use simple, narrow bandwidth tools to keep up to date on actions of government officials or to respond to surveys to voice their priorities. Online tools can also lead to offline, face-to-face engagement. One issue, however, is that in some countries, youth are able to establish communication with national government ministers (because there is national-level capacity and infrastructure) but at local level there is very little chance or capability for engagement with elected officials, who are unprepared to respond and engage with youth or via social media. Youth therefore tend to bypass local government and communicate with national government. There is a need for capacity building at local level and decentralized policies and practices so that response capacity is strengthened.

Do ICTs marginalize girls? Some Salon participants worried that as conversations and information increasingly move to a digital environment, ICTs are magnifying the information and communication divide and further marginalizing some girls. Others felt that the fact that we are able to reach the majority of the world’s population now is very significant, and the inability to reach absolutely everyone doesn’t mean we should stop using ICTs. For this very reason – because sharing of information is increasingly digital – we should continue working to get more girls online and strengthen their confidence and abilities to use ICTs.

Many thanks to UNICEF for hosting the Salon!

(Salons operate under Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been given in the above summary. Sign up here if you’d like to attend Salons in the future!)

*Disclosure: I co-authored this report with Keshet Bachan.

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This is a summary of the May 14th Technology Salon in New York city on “Does social media exacerbate poverty porn”.

  1. MT @nidhi_c: #povertyporn is never about the beneficiary..it’s an org’s attempt to stay relevant. #techsalon
  2. RT @nidhi_c: How do we teach orgs & journalists that #povertyporn isn’t necessary to raise $ or awareness? #techsalon
  3. Fr my notes on today’s NYC #TechSalon on #povertyporn: Ppl visit Africa like it’s the zoo. Do you know the names of ppl u took photos with?
  4. #povertyporn is disempowering both to those it portrays and to those it’s aimed at, bc you only offer one solution – yours. #techsalon
  5. Telling only “positive” stories is also not the solution. Life anywhere is not only one or the other. It’s complex. #povertyporn #techsalon
  6. Great question from @meowtree & #TechSalon on #povertyporn – Do you know the names of people you take photos with?
  7. Stop hijacking people’s stories by putting your NGO/organization at the center of it. #povertyporn #techsalon
  8. transmedia storytelling is one good way to bring in more stories fr more angles to create a diverse narrative #techsalon #povertyporn
  9. Don’t need to take the western voice out. We need all the voices. But often the most vulnerable are not included. #povertyporn #techsalon
  10. Why do donors demand impact evals for ‘regular’ devt pjcts, but to prove soc med impact they’re fine w likes/clicks? #povertyporn #techsalon
  11. Where is the accountability to small individual donors/donations garnered via social media, i.e. for Kony2012? #povertyporn #techsalon
  12. Why do ppl from US photo’d during tragedy have name/story, yet ppl from other places are unknown victims? #povertyporn #techsalon
  13. Yet also, are we respecting privacy, consent and dignity when we photograph ppl in other countries? #povertyporn #techsalon
  14. Why ppl in US portrayed as heroes after tragedy (eg., Boston, 911) but not first responders in other countries? #povertyporn #techsalon
  15. How to get influentials w lrge audience (eg N Kristof) to see that external hero narrative not helpful in long term? #povertyporn #techsalon
  16. #PovertyPorn not only problem of “white” saviors/Africa. Privileged often view “the poor” this way in their own countries #techsalon
  17. Social media does not necessarily reduce the “othering” of #povertyporn. We still create our own filter bubbles #techsalon
  18. NGOs send media teams to find pre-conceived #povertyporn stories. Eg: this post by @morealtitude ht.ly/l23yQ #techsalon
  19. Diff to change existing orgs/system. But what is being done in schools re global education and media literacy? #povertyporn #techsalon
  20. Sites like everydayafrica.tumblr.com can help to overcome the #povertyporn narrative. #techsalon
  21. Or google “tumblr” and any country a hashtag (eg., #elsalvador) to find a diverse range of images, not only #povertyporn #techsalon
  22. How can we harness social media to show this range of images/realities to overcome the #povertyporn narrative? #techsalon
  23. And I’ll stop now – here’s @viewfromthecave‘s summary of this really thought provoking #techsalon on #povertyporn ht.ly/l24sJ

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At the global level, a very small percentage of development funding goes to urban spaces, yet hard-hitting issues impact many of the urban poor: lack of tenure, lack of legality of land, informal settlements, lack of birth registration and civil registration in general, waste disposal, clean water, politicizing of local authorities and more. Can new technologies be a solution for some of these issues?

Tuesday’s Technology Salon NYC offered a space to discuss some of the key challenges and good practice related to working with children, youth, and urban communities and explored the potential role of ICTs in addressing issues related to urban poverty.

According to UNICEF, who co-organized and hosted the Salon at their offices, half of the world’s people – including over one billion children – live in cities and towns. By 2030, it is projected that the majority of the world’s children will grow up in urban areas, yet infrastructure and services are not keeping pace with this urban population growth. (See UNICEF’s 2012 State of the World’s Children or Plan’s 2010 Because I am a Girl Report: Digital and Urban Frontiers).

We welcomed 3 experienced and engaging discussants to the Salon, who commented on the intersection of children, youth, urban environments and new technologies:

  • Doris Gonzalez, Senior Program Manager Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs at IBM Corporation who manages IBM’s grade 9-14 education model Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), a program that maps work-based skills to the curriculum and provides mentors to students and teachers
  • Ron Shiffman, a city planner with close to 50 years of experience providing architectural, planning, community economic development, and sustainable and organizational development assistance to community-based groups in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods; and the co-founder of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development [PICCED]
  • Sheridan Bartlett, a researcher affiliated with the Children’s Environments Research Group at CUNY and the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, co-editor of the journal Environment and Urbanization, supporter of Slum Dwellers International, and researcher on the link between violence and living conditions as they affect young children.

Doris shared IBM’s experiences with technology education programs with children and youth in New York City, including the highly successful P-TECH program which prepares youth for jobs that require 21st century skills. Some of the key aims in the PTECH program are making technology accessible, engaging, relevant to children and youth, and connecting what kids are learning to the real world. Through the program, IBM and partners hope to turn out skilled employees who are on entry-level career tracks. They look at what jobs are hiring with AAS degrees, what skills are attached and how to map those skills back into curriculum. Helping children and youth acquire collaboration, communication, and problem solving skills is key to the approach, as are broad partnerships with various stakeholders including government, private sector, communities and youth themselves. The program has been lauded by President Obama and is in the process of being replicated in Chicago.

Ron highlighted that working on urban poverty is not new. His involvement began in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was elected and there was a thrust to address urban poverty. Many, including Ron, began to think about their role in abolishing (not just alleviating or reducing) poverty. ‘We thought as architects, as planners about how we could address the issues of urban poverty.’ Broader urban poverty initiatives grew from work done forming the first youth in action community based organizations (CBOs) in Bedford Sty, Harlem and the Lower East Side. Originally these programs were empowerment programs, not service delivery programs; however because they confronted power, they faced many challenges and eventually morphed into service delivery programs. Since then, this youth in action community based model has served other community based initiatives all over the world. Ron emphasized the importance of differentiating among the roles of CBOs, technical assistance providers, and intermediaries and the need to learn to better to support CBOs who are on the ground rather than supplanting their roles with NGOs and other intermediaries.

Sherry picked up where Ron left off, noting that she’d collaborated with a network of federations of the urban poor in 33 countries, looking at ways they’ve used technologies and how technology presents new challenges for communities.

A large percentage of the urban poor live illegally in non-formal settlements where they can’t vote and don’t have legal representation, she said. They want partnership with the local government and to make themselves visible. The first thing they do is to count themselves, document the land they live on, map every lane and garbage dump, every school (if schools exist), their incomes, livelihoods, and expenditures. This body of information can help them engage with local authorities. It’s an organizing tool that gives them a collective identity that can lead to a collective voice.

This process seems to be a natural fit for technology, in that it can allow for management and storing of information, she said. However, technology use can be incredibly complicated. Traditionally the process has been managed manually. The information comes in on paper, it is fed immediately back to community members, contested and corrected right there. The process is very participatory and very accurate, and includes everybody. Things that have been mapped or measured are validated. Boundaries are argued and joint agreement about the community reality and the priorities is reached right there.

Sherry noted that when technology is used to do this, participation becomes more restricted to a smaller, more technically savvy group rather than the entire community. It takes longer to get the information back to the community. Many urban poor are technology literate, but there are complexities. Sometimes youth want to go with technology and older leaders are more comfortable with the more manual, inclusive processes.

The complexity of urban environments was addressed by all three discussants. According to Sherry, many people still hold a development image of the ‘perfect village,’ contained, people sitting around a tree. But urban communities are very complex: Who owns what? There are landlords. Who represents whom? How do you create the space and the links with local authorities? Ron agreed, saying that cities and settlements  tend to be far more pluralistic. Understanding the nature and differences among them, how to weave together and work together is critical. Doris noted that one organization cannot work on this alone, but that multiple partners need to be involved.

Participants at the Technology Salon. (Photo: UNICEF)

Key points brought up during the ensuing discussion included:

Process, product and participation:

  • It’s important to work directly with community based organizations rather than surrogates (in the form of external NGOs). It’s critical to work on building the capacity of people and organizations on the ground, recognizing them as the core actors.
  • The process by which people engage is just as important as the end product. If new technologies are involved, participation needs special attention to ensure no one is being marginalized and the data is interpreted by local people, and they play a role in gathering it and learning, sharing and discussing during the process.
  • Digital data collection and fly-over mapping should not replace participatory processes of data collection and local interpretation. Bringing in more efficient processes via new technologies is possible, but it often means losing some of the richness and interpretation of the data. If you’re not including everyone in this process, you risk marginalizing people from the process.
  • Every community, village or barrio has a different personality. No one size approach or model or technology fits all.
  • It’s important to let people create solutions to their own challenges; set the right policies so that what is produced can be scaled (open/open source); and make sure things are hyper-local – yet help move the ideas and build networks of south-south collaboration so that people can connect.
  • The technologies only make sense when they are done within a participatory framework or context. People get excited about technology and the idea of really iterating and trying things out very quickly. But this only makes sense if you have a bigger plan. If you go in and start playing around, without context and a long-term plan, you lose the community’s trust. You can’t drop in tech without context, but you also can’t come and create such a huge infrastructure that it’s impossible to implement. You need balance.
Children and youth:
  • We shouldn’t forget protection and privacy issues, especially with children and with mapping. These need to be carefully built in and we need to be sure that information and maps are not misused by authorities.
  • We can’t forget the young people and adolescents that we are working with – what do we want them to gain out of this? Critical thinking, problem solving skills? This is what will serve them. Educational systems need to address the pedagogy – if children are even in schools – where do you get that critical thinking? How do you create space for innovation? What is the role of tech in helping support this innovation? What is the role of mapping? Just accounting? Just quantifying? Or are you helping youth know their communities better? Helping them understand safety? What are we mapping for? Community self-knowledge or outside advocacy?
Technology:
  • We need to always ask: Who owns and manages technology? Technology is never neutral. It can both empower and disempower people and communities, and certain groups of people within communities.
  • The technology is a tool. It’s not the technology that teaches, for example, it is teachers who teach. They use the tech to supplement what’s going on in the classroom.
  • Rather than bring in ‘really cool’ things from the outside, we should know what tech already exists, what children, youth and communities are already using and build on that.
  • The challenge always comes down to the cost. Even if an idea works in the US, will it work in other places? Can other places afford the technology that we are talking about? There are some very good projects, but they are impossible to replicate. We need to find feasible and sustainable ways that technology can help reduce costs while it improves the situation for the urban poor.
Engaging local and national governments and the private sector
  • Bottom up is important, but it is not enough. The role of local authorities is critical in these processes but national authorities tend to cut local budgets meaning local authorities cannot respond to local needs. It’s important to work at every level – national policies should enable local authorities and mandate local authorities to work with local communities.
  • Local authorities often need to be pushed to accept some of these new ideas and pulled forward. Often communities can be more technologically savvy than local authorities, which can turn the power dynamic upside down and be seen as threatening, or in some cases as an opportunity for engagement.
  • Communities may need to learn to engage with local governments. Adversarial or advocacy techniques may be useful sometimes but they are not always the right way to go about engaging with the authorities.
  • It’s useful for CBOs to work with both horizontal and vertical networks, and NGOs can play a role in helping this to happen, as long as the NGOs are not replacing or supplanting the CBOs.
  • There needs to be support from the local city government, and an interest, a need, an expressed dedication to wanting to be involved or these kinds of initiatives will fail or fizzle out.
  • There is a tendency to seek quick solutions, quick fixes, when we all know that creating change takes a long time and requires a long-term perspective and investment. The city of Medellin for example has done a good job of investing in connecting settlements to the city through infrastructure and access to technology. Long-term vision with participation from private, public and  community engagement is critical.
  • The quality of investment in poor areas needs to be as high as that in wealthier areas. Many interventions are low quality or limited when they are done in poor areas.
  • Multiple partners and collaboration among them is necessary for these initiatives to move forward and to be successful. You need to bring everyone to the table and to have an existing funding structure and commitment from local and national governments and ministries, as well as local communities and CBOs, NGOs and the private sector.
  • A role for the UN and INGOs can be to help ensure that the right channels are being opened for these projects, that the right partnerships are established, that systems and technologies are kept open and not locked into particular proprietary solutions.
Learning/sharing challenges, approaches and good practice:
  • There is much to learn from how marginalized youth in communities have been engaged without technologies. Once they have the information, no matter how it was gathered — in the sand, by SMS, on the wall — then how can marginalized young people access and address local authorities with it? How can we help enable them to feel more empowered? What can we learn from past efforts that we can apply?
  • There is a lack of exposure of those working in ICT to the urban space and vice versa. This reflects a need to break down the issues and opportunities and to think more deeply about the potential of technology as a part of the solution to urban poverty issues.
  • We need to make a distinction between wonderful projects that some are doing, but that are very costly and have a high cost per participant; and programs that can be done in developing countries. Consider that 75 million youth are now unemployed. The more we learn about what others are doing, the more information we have on how to do it, the better.
  • ICTs are a relatively new element in the urban space. It would be helpful to have a a follow-up report that focuses on how ICTs have been used to address specific issues with children, youth and communities in urban spaces and what specific challenges are posed when using ICTs in this space. What projects have been done or could be done? What are the challenges in implementing projects with refugee populations, undocumented populations, migrants, and other groups? We need to understand this better. We need a document or guide that explores these issues and suggests practical ways to move forward.
  • Social media and new technologies can be used to spread information on successful case studies, to share our learning and challenges and good practice so that we can apply the best approaches.
A huge thanks to ICT Works, UNICEF, our discussants and participants for making this 2nd Technology Salon NYC a success!

Save the date for our 3rd TSNYC, on April 13, 2-4pm at New York Law School. The topic will be the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI); how it can contribute to  better aid coordination and effectiveness; challenges and opportunities for CSOs in signing onto IATI; and ways that technology and open data are supporting the process. 

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