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Posts Tagged ‘social good’

Coming from the viewpoint that accountability and transparency, citizen engagement and public debate are critical for good development, I posted yesterday on 5 ways that ICTs can support the MDGs. I got to thinking I would be remiss not to also post something on ways that ICTs (information and communication technologies) and poor or questionable use of ICTs and social media can hinder development.

It’s not really the fault of the technology. ICTs are tools, and the real issues lie behind the tools — they lie with people who create, market and use the tools. People cannot be separated from cultures and societies and power and money and politics. And those are the things that tend to hinder development, not really the ICTs themselves. However the combination of human tendencies and the possibilities ICTs and social media offer can can sometimes lead us down a shaky path to development or actually cause harm to the people that we are working with.

When do I start getting nervous about ICTs and social media for social good?

1) When the hype wins out over the real benefits of the technology. Sometimes the very idea of a cool and innovative technology wins out over an actual and realistic analysis of its impact and success. Here I pose the cases of the so-called Iran Twitter Revolution and One Laptop per Child (and I’ll throw in Play Pumps for good measure, though it’s not an ICT project, it’s an acknowledged hype and failure case). There are certainly other excellent examples. So many examples in fact that there are events called Fail Faires being organized to discuss these failures openly and learn how to avoid them in the future.

2) When it’s about the technology, not the information and communications needs.  When you hear someone say “We want to do an mHealth project” or “We need to have a Facebook page” or “We have a donor who wants to give us a bunch of mobile phones–do you know of something we can do with them?” you can be pretty sure that you have things backwards and are going to run into trouble down the road, wasting resources and energy on programs that are resting on weak foundations. Again, we can cite the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, where you have a tool, but the context for using it isn’t there (connectivity, power, teacher training and content). There is debate whether OLPC was a total failure or whether it paved the way for netbooks, cheap computers and other technologies that we use today. I’ll still say that the grand plan of OLPC:  a low-cost laptop for every child leading to development advances; had issues from the start because it was technology led.

3) When technology is designed from afar and parachuted in. If you don’t regularly involve people who will use your new technology, in the context where you’re planning for it to be used, you’re probably going to find yourself in a bind. True for ICTs and for a lot of other types of innovations out there. There’s a great conversation on Humanitarian Design vs. Design Imperialism that says it all. ICTs are no different. Designing information and communication systems in one place and imposing them on people in another place can hinder their uptake and/or waste time and money that could be spent in other ways that would better contribute to achieving development goals.

4) When the technology is part of a larger hidden agenda. I came across two very thought-provoking posts this week: one on the US Government’s Internet Freedom agenda and another from youth activists in the Middle East and North Africa region who criticize foundations and other donors for censoring their work when it doesn’t comply with US foreign policy messages. Clearly there are hidden political agendas at work which can derail the use of ICTs for human rights work and build mistrust instead of democracy. Another example of a potential hidden agenda is donation of proprietary hardware and software by large technology companies to NGOs and NGO consortia in order to lock in business (for example mHealth or eHealth) and prevent free and open source tools from being used, and which end up being costly to maintain, upgrade and license in the long-term.

5) When tech innovations put people and lives at risk. I’d encourage you to read this story about Haystack, a software hyped as a way to circumvent government censorship of social media tools that activists use to organize. After the US government fast-tracked it for use in Iran, huge security holes were found that could put activists in great danger. In our desire to see things as cool, cutting edge, and perhaps to be seen as cool and cutting edge ourselves, those of us suggesting and promoting ICTs for reporting human rights abuses or in other sensitive areas of work can cause more harm than we might imagine. It’s dangerous to push new technologies that haven’t been properly piloted and evaluated. It’s very easy to get caught up in coolness and forget the nuts and bolts and the time it takes to develop and test something new.

6) When technologists and humanitarians work in silos. A clear example of this might be the Crisis Camps that sprung up immediately after the Haiti Earthquakes in 2010. The outpouring of good will was phenomenal, and there were some positive results. The tech community got together to see how to help, which is a good thing. However the communication between the tech community and those working on the ground was not always conducive to developing tech solutions that were actually helpful. Here is an interesting overview by Ethan Zuckerman of some of the challenges the Crisis Commons faced. I remember attending a Crisis Camp and feeling confused about why one guy was building an iPhone application for local communities to gather data. Cool application for sure, but from what people I knew on the ground were saying, most people in local communities in Haiti don’t have iPhones. With better coordination among the sectors, people could put their talents and expertise to real use rather than busy work that makes them feel good.

7) When short attention spans give rise to vigilante development interventions. Because most of us in the West no longer have a full attention span (self included here), we want bite sized bits of information. But the reality of development is complicated, complex and deep. Social media has been heralded as a way to engage donors, supporters and youth; as a way to get people to help and to care. However the story being told has not gotten any deeper or more realistic in most cases than the 30 second television commercials or LiveAid concerts that shaped perceptions of the developing world 25 years ago. The myth of the simple story and simple solution propagates perhaps even further because of how quickly the message spreads. This gives rise to public perception that aid organizations are just giant bureaucracies (kind of true) and that a simple person with a simple idea could just go in and fix things without so much hullabaloo (not the case most of the time). The quick fix culture, supported and enhanced by social media, can be detrimental to the public’s patience with development, giving rise to apathy or what I might call vigilante development interventions — whereby people in the West (cough, cough, Sean Penn) parachute into a developing country or disaster scene to take development into their own hands because they can’t understand why it’s not happening as fast as the media tells them it should.

8 ) When DIY disregards proven practice. In line with the above, there are serious concerns in the aid and development community about the ‘amateurization’ of humanitarian and development work. The Internet allows people to link and communicate globally very easily. Anyone can throw up a website or a Facebook page and start a non-profit that way, regardless of their understanding of the local dynamics or good development practices built through years of experience in this line of work. Many see criticism from development workers as a form of elitism rather than a call for caution when messing around in other people’s lives or trying to do work that you may not be prepared for or have enough understanding about. The greater awareness and desire to use ‘social media for social good’ may be a positive thing, but it may also lead to good intentions gone awry and again, a waste of time and resources for people in communities, or even harm. There’s probably no better example of this phenomenon than #1millionshirts, originally promoted by Mashable, and really a terrible idea. See Good Intents for discussion around this phenomenon and tools to help donors educate themselves.

9) When the goal is not development but brand building through social media. Cause campaigns have been all the rage for the past several years. They are seen as a way for for-profit companies and non-profits to join together for the greater good. Social media and new ICTs have helped this along by making cause campaigns cheap and easy to do. However many ‘social media for social good’ efforts are simply bad development and can end up actually doing ‘social harm’. Perhaps a main reason for some of the bad ideas is that most social media cause campaigns are not actually designed to do social good. As Mashable says, through this type of campaign, ‘small businesses can gain exposure without breaking the bank, and large companies can reach millions of consumers in a matter of hours.’ When ‘social good’ goals are secondary to the ‘exposure for my brand’ goals, I really question the benefits and contribution to development.

10) When new media increases voyeurism, sensationalism or risk. In their rush to be the most innovative or hard-hitting in the competition for scarce donor dollars, organizations sometimes expose communities to child protection risks or come up with cutesy or edgy social media ideas that invade and interrupt people’s lives; for example, ideas like putting a live web camera in a community so that donors can log on 24/7 and see what’s happening in a ‘real live community.’ (This reminds me a bit of the Procrastination Pit’s 8 Cutest and Weirdest Live Animal Cams). Or when opportunities for donors to chat with people in communities become gimmicks and interrupt people in communities from their daily lives and work. Even professional journalists sometimes engage in questionable new media practices that can endanger their sources or trivialize their stories. With the Internet, stories stick around a lot longer and travel a lot farther and reach their fingers back to where they started a lot more easily than they used to. Here I will suggest two cases: Nick Kristof’s naming and fully identifying a 9-year-old victim of rape in the DRC and @MacClelland’s ‘live tweeting’ for Mother Jones of a rape survivor’s visit to the doctor in Haiti.

Update: Feb 22, 2011 – adding a 10a!

10a) When new media and new technologies put human rights activists at risk of identification and persecution. New privacy and anonymity issues are coming up due to the increasing ubiquity of video for human rights documenting. This was clearly seen in the February 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere.  From Sam Gregory’s excellent piece on privacy and anonymity in the digital age: “In the case of video (or photos), a largely unaddressed question arises. What about the rights to anonymity and privacy for those people who appear, intentionally or not, in visual recordings originating in sites of individual or mass human rights violations? Consider the persecution later faced by bystanders and people who stepped in to film or assist Neda Agha-Soltan as she lay dying during the election protests in Iran in 2009. People in video can be identified by old-fashioned investigative techniques, by crowd-sourcing (as with the Iran example noted above…) or by face detection/recognition software. The latter is now even built into consumer products like the Facebook Photos, thus exposing activists using Facebook to a layer of risk largely beyond their control.”

11) When ICTs and new media turn activism to slacktivism. Quoting from Evgeny Morozov, “slacktivism” is the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation: why bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space? Given the media’s fixation on all things digital — from blogging to social networking to Twitter — every click of your mouse is almost guaranteed to receive immediate media attention, as long as it’s geared towards the noble causes. That media attention doesn’t always translate into campaign effectiveness is only of secondary importance.” Nuff said.

I’ll leave you with this kick-ass Le Tigre Video: Get off the Internet.… knowing full well that I’m probably the first one who needs to take that advice.

‘It feels so 80s… or early 90s…  to be political… where are my friends? GET OFF THE INTERNET, I’ll meet you in the streets….’


Related posts on Wait… What?

3 ways to integrate ICTs into development work

5 ways ICTs can support the MDGs

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Amateurs, professionals, innovations and smart aid

I and C, then T

MDGs through a child rights lens


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