Last week I was invited to respond at the launch of the US Institute of Peace Media and Conflict in Myanmar Report. It was a humbling honor to share the technologist perspective among such an experienced and learned gathering, and for a really excellent report, recommended reading. Another good recent report, this on the political economy of Myanmar from the Kennedy School is also worth a read if you have interest there. And this short post from OKFN on the challenges of open knowledge in Myanmar quickly touches on many points relevant to ICT.
Transcript of my remarks are below. There were too many other interesting points to capture them all, but here are a few that I noted. Aung Din recommended creation of an independent media monitor, which would simply “name and shame” out of line uses of the media (to promote private interests, or to stoke tensions); sounds substantially more effective and openly democratic than any official government media controlling body. Joshua Haynes asked the question of how donors can coordinate, and support organic, ongoing processes; that’s a relevant question for this field anywhere, but especially so as internationals accelerate exponentially in Myanmar. Others called for journalism training to emphasize digital literacy, and other innovative practices (I’d include GeoJournalism among those). Mobile networks are set to accelerate rapidly (grow from 17% area coverage to 50% in 12-18 months from now) but still, much of the interesting technical community practices are now mechanical rather than informational. Noel Dickover floated the idea of Maker Faire Myanmar, a super idea, if backed by a great local team along the lines of Maker Fair Africa. Finally, was mentioned that this year will be the first census of Myanmar in over 30 years, and population estimates for the country vary from 60-70 million; hopefully this is an opportunity for more open data and transparency in Myanmar.
I’m going to begin with some of my experiences working with tech activists in Myanmar; then share what I think are instructive experiences working with technology and peacebuilding in Kenya, and conclude with a few specific responses to points from the report.
Typhoon Nargis in 2008 devestated Myanmar, and was my first introduction working with technologists there. This was in the very early days of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Our volunteer community produces geographic data to support the work of humanitarian disaster responders, which can be seen most recently in the Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan. Timely and accurate maps of affected areas are crucial to coordination of response, they are often incomplete or inaccessible, and that’s where we help. In 2008, we still had not proved this ability, but yet, I connected with technologists in Myanmar who were very eager to see if OpenStreetMap could make a contribution. The biggest hurdle was the limited access to the greater internet; using our services would simply be too slow, even for the small minority of people who had access. So I was completely bowled over to learn that these guys installed their own copy of the OpenStreetMap system on a local server. They could do that because the code is open source, but it was not a simple install by far. The motivation and skill of these guys, working with limited means, greatly impressed me. And I saw that with the right opportunities, the brilliant and eager people of Myanmar could quickly use technology for great benefit.
The next year, I connected with expat activists who were concerned with the Shwe pipeline. Very little information was available publicly at that point. That included the precise route of the pipeline, and especially information on communities directly affected by the infrastructure. We were looking at how to map that route openly, again using OpenStreetMap, and collect sociodemographic data and stories from the ground. There was simply no way to find this kind of data, so our effort stalled. No matter what your opinion on the Shwe pipeline, and natural resource extraction is such a contentious issue economically and environmentally, my feeling was that there should at least be clear and accessible information of the common facts on the ground, and platforms for presenting different views, and now that the pipeline is operating, tools to monitor all aspects of the impact of the pipeline. We can see this happening now. I’m pleased this vision of open data and broad communication on a crucial issue has found root in Myanmar.
You also may have heard about the BarCamp Rangoon events. BarCamps are “un-conferences”, where the schedule is set the morning of the event. Anyone can present anything they want, and people “vote with their feet” to choose what sessions are the most happening. And Rangoon has the largest BarCamps in the world, an astounding 6400 participants this year. I can’t even fathom that scale, especially in the political environment when they began there in 2009. But the tech community of Myanmar made it happen. This speaks to the power of tech and open source culture. The focus of much of the BarCamp is on technical details of computing, and sharing knowledge about skills, economically important skills, and those can often fly under the radar of controversy. But the opening is there for more, in an event style and a culture that expects everyone to contribute, that focuses on understanding the full scope of a problem out in the open, but brings people face to face to talk to each other as human beings, and focus on finding solutions and accomplishing things. For all sorts of conversations, I think we can all learn from the BarCamp model.
Now I haven’t yet made it to Myanmar for a BarCamp, but I’m certain with this opening environment, that’s in my future. A great deal of my work the past few years has been in Kenya, where I founded an organization with slum dwellers in Nairobi called Map Kibera Trust. Slumdwellers have taken the skills of making maps in OpenStreetMap, and citizen reporting with SMS and Ushahidi and video, and used those tools to represent their communities, essentially put themselves on the map. They’ve recently completed a technology and peacebuilding project for the Kenyan election this year, supported by USIP, and I wanted to highlight a few aspects that I think are relevant. This was the first election since the 2007-2008 post election violence. The team mapped ward and constituency boundaries and distributed printed “election maps”, and did citizen, community based reporting on all phases of the election, from voter registration, to primaries, campaigning, and aftermath. While this was all excellent technical work, it was only able to directly impact due to the great amount of work in peacebuilding and networking which Kenya has seen since 2008. Mosts of that happened offline, people directly talking to each other, organizing, deciding to work together for peace. And at the same time, technical communities in Kenya gained stature, particularly projects like Ushahidi, and gathering places like the iHub. Map Kibera was able to link to these peacebuilding networks, and these technical networks, and complement this work. This collective build up of a culture of peace in Kenya, in large part played out in the media.
So some of my responses to the recommended activites of the report should come as no suprise. Mobile technology for early warning and crisis response. Yes absolutely, can only emphasize the potential of this from my experience, and other projects from Kenya like Sisi ni Amani, when part of a broader context. Help people to understand the best social and technical practices. This is poised to be very important as mobile technology spreads rapidly through Myanmar.
On the issue of hate speech in social media, I do not want to minimize these realistic concerns, but from my perspective, I must sound a warning. My inclination when observing efforts to neutralize extremist voices on social media anywhere is, to wonder how any system of control itself would be held accountable. Who is to judge what is acceptable public dialogue and criticism and legitimate dissent, and what is dangerous? Especially in a place emerging from authoritarian rule, the temptation to control must be very high. There have been issues in the past. During the Saffron Revolution, photos of protests were posted to Flickr, and to great worry of people I knew working there, those photos were apparently used by security services to identify individuals. Facebook and Google are private companies, and do have relationships with many governments, and do act on requests, so finding a working relationship with them and others is important. Though as you can see with the NSA revelations, we still haven’t found the proper limits that preserve legitimate privacy and freedom.
However, I do have some ideas of the risks with social media, and what could become explosive, and that’s why I think it’s imperitative to invest in processes of dialogue, both offline and online, and in training in responsible reporting and technology. The initiative for training in journalism is right on. Let me suggest broadening that to non-traditional journalists, to citizen and community journalists, and connect all of that training to open digital culture and technologists.
That is what I imagine the Peace Technology Innovation Workshops can accomplish. Getting people together from different backgrounds, and different skill sets, to talk and work face to face, is excellent. I suggest making these workshops not only talk, not only skills training, but places where things can practically happen. One simple means to do that is through OpenStreetMap mapping parties, where people would produce open data right there. Also, think about such initiatives participating in other ongoing events, and connect to those, like the BarCamps.
And let me conclude with some suggestions I didn’t spot in the report. First, physical innovation spaces have been key to anchoring these kinds of initiatives. In Nairobi, the iHub has been instrumental in providing a neutral meeting ground, where things can happen. Encourage hubs in Myanmar. Second, information security and privacy tools need to be on the agenda, so that journalists and technologists and citizens can be sure they truly have liberty to share their ideas without fear. Finally, embrace the Open movement. Open source software is not only accessible, it’s modifiable for new purposes. Promote open data initiatives, both from data held by the government, and data created by citizens. And apply these both to open exploration. There are so many areas where media and technology can have impact in Myanmar, for urban issues, the environment, a responsible tourist industry, health, education, cultural preservation, and many other things that no one has even thought of yet. Let’s help Myanmar to embarce open culture.
Thanks very much.
On a recent post, I talked about how effective feedback loops are close to being realized in Dar es Salaam.
In this post, I discuss the challenges facing this type of work today – specifically, the serious problems with the current landscape of funding in technology for development, and how we hinder progress in getting from flash-in-the-pan pilots to meaningful change.
In Dar es Salaam, GroundTruth began as a consultant to a pilot initially conceptualized and supported by the World Bank. We’ve supported it to an extent now independently (and voluntarily) for three years. In spite of having very engaged community members, having met with prominent members of government who have a strong interest in the information, and getting some local notoriety, as well as a good amount of international attention, the ultimate work of creating a strong feedback loop has yet to be done.
What’s going on?
Well, here’s how funding tends to operate when it comes to technology for development or feedback projects:
- A tech pilot concept is developed and funded by a large organization or institution, lasting no more than a couple of months. The concept can be initiated by a smaller partner NGO or by the big organization or institution, or even by a funder.
- OR: a project contest, hackathon or app contest is initiated, sponsored and publicized by a funder or large agency. The contest may come with some funding as a reward.
- The winner of the contest or the implementer of the pilot works on the idea, and if there is enough funding, tries it out in the field. This involves – or should involve – real people, and real communities. It’s possible that they get some results, usually in the form of uptake by citizens – there are reports posted to their online reporting tool, SMS sent in, apps tried out, used and maybe even tinkered with based on feedback.
- Blog posts are written about the nascent success, and a conversation is started about what this can potentially contribute to the feedback loop or target social issue. Publicity helps raise awareness of the pilot. Social media lights up, conferences are attended and lightening talks are made.
- That’s it! The funding fades and the world moves on to the next new thing. (Here is a humorous take on this published today by ICT Works).
Of course, there are some attempts to provide sustained funding for important ideas – there’s the Grand Challenge model, for instance. But more commonly, ideas that are proven to be good languish in a post-hype slump, while backers search for the Next Big Thing (or, Next New Thing). In some ways this is a chronic issue in development funding. But when it comes to technology, it’s much worse, simply because the focus tends to be on the technology itself – not on the program design, context or thornier issues in the society which created the problem in the first place. And, as we all know from our own lives, technology is indeed a quick fix and changes almost daily. Suddenly we can communicate instantly with thousands of people or book plane tickets in a few seconds from our phone. Why should it be any different for efficiently solving a social problem? And, shouldn’t any project be almost immediately “scaleable” – taken to a huge number of people or places very quickly – just like an iPhone 5 or Pinterest?
But creating actual social impact with the help of a technology is, clearly, a completely different ballgame. While we should know that, many are blinded by the potential for continuous (and cheap) experimentation which continuously boosts the profile of the associated agencies – simply because the news cycle highlights the “new” and “buzzworthy”.
The temptation of quick and inexpensive (if superficial) impact and great PR is proving to be too much to resist.
Unfortunately, lost in the storm are not only the potentially transformative projects, but the people who took part in the pilot phase in the first place. Those people are the citizens, the residents, the community members, the real people who hoped they had something to gain from putting effort into association with a promising pilot. Is it really responsible – or ethical – to ditch such an effort before it has time to bear fruit? No – which is why many participants in this funding cycle keep trying to serve their public in spite of such immense resource challenges.
And the final blow is that the same funders continue to serve the cycle of the new, while tending to blame the initial developers and implementers for not creating something that’s going to operate on its own sans grant funding. That is, something marketable. Or, that proves its own worth in a matter of months and thereby becomes something the public will pay for, or requires no money because of extensive volunteerism. In my view, this fallacy is akin to saying that public libraries don’t deserve public funding because people should pay to access books and information if they truly value them (or they should manage and run their own free-braries). But that’s another post.
Many technology interventions can indeed create an attractive output that appears online quickly and relatively easily, whether or not the ground reality has changed at all. This is different from most development areas – health, education – whose challenges resist even the illusion of a quick impact.
Where we need to concentrate resources now is on those organizations and individuals who have gotten past the first three, four, five iterations of a technology intervention and that attractive output – the projects where a constituency of support has already been built up at the grassroots level.
This isn’t just us – I’ve met countless inspiring people often working in their own backyards on real feedback loops and real impact from collective citizen voices amplified by technology. Most of the time, what I hear is this same story – their potential is severely limited because after the initial buzz, there wasn’t any more funding. While one might think that a good project will somehow manage to attract the support it needs, that’s just not always the case. There are indeed resources out there which are being spent on technology and development, but they are not being directed toward those people already making a real difference, nor are they targeted at the post-pilot phase – which is not the same as the “scaling up” phase. I would call it the “impact phase” – putting in the hard work needed to create a tangible effect and close the loop of feedback, leaving a real mark on society. This might happen in year 2, 3, or 4 of a project, not year one.
We’ve had the surreal experience of watching a presentation in Washington which happened to show our Dar es Salaam pilot as an example of a great success, while we were chatting online with a project participant and learning that our entire stock of computer equipment had been destroyed in a flood, and therefore any chance of the pilot reaching its potential was nearly eliminated unless we could somehow get them new equipment. We started asking around for donations, and thankfully friends at a small tech company contributed two laptops. The project has now been kept going on just those two laptops for over a year now. This is great – but clearly limited. I think it shows that the nitty gritty of getting any of these ideas to work is ALWAYS much more difficult than it might initially appear. It requires a stronger commitment than anyone anticipates when they first realize that technology could become a game-changer in development.
It’s complicated: in our case, there has indeed been interest to push forward from this pilot on the part of those we started out with at the World Bank. But there are often problems with having large institutions involved with small experimental pilots, which require strong adaptability and agility – within the organization as well as externally. For one reason or another and after various attempts, there hasn’t yet been a successful channel for taking it forward to the impact phase.
Unfortunately, it’s quite common for pilots that have great potential and international fanfare to stall and not go much further than that. I understand the real need for serious thinking and research on how to create that elusive impact – how to complete the loop – and for much, much better evidence and stronger theories of change. But that is the level at which we should be experimenting and piloting by now. And that is where funding needs to be directed. This field is no longer new – there are many, many pilots which need to take the experimental mindset to the next level of closing the loop of impact. Let’s give them our support.
Closing the Gap with Decision Makers
I was recently in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, examining the potential for a “feedback loop” in some of the regions where GroundTruth has worked, particularly in Tandale, and Keko Machungwa, two informal settlements.
GroundTruth hasn’t had a formal program running in Dar, but since our mapping project in 2011 we’ve supplied the community group with computer equipment and supported a local student participant, Msilikale Msilanga, to help out on a regular basis, resulting in a fantastic community blog. We also provided some technical support to the local chapter of Slumdwellers International to do their own mapping in Keko Machungwa.
The information outcomes in both pilot areas have been quite impressive—they are much more visible now, and community members can work with information in ways that it’s usually assumed only experts can manage. But we also knew that the potential for transformation on the ground would require, at a minimum, closing the gap between the community and those who could respond to their needs.
While there, I worked with volunteer Brielle Morgan and Msilikale to provide extra training for the key Tandale bloggers, and to help the group in Keko create their own blog. Then, we discussed the specific goals they wanted to achieve through their information work, their motivations, and how they imagined the information would loop with decision makers and produce the desired ground-level action. I took some of the same questions to meetings with local government officials, NGO leaders, urban experts at the World Bank, and other advisers.
In each community, we came up with a target issue that they wanted to work on through reporting/mapping. In Tandale, it was building a secondary school.
We had an amazing moment where Msilikale showed the group a map of all the local schools, and they were able to demonstrate where their children must travel to attend school—extremely far! This information could well support a push to build a new local school.
Creating a Full-fledged Loop
I’m not sure if you can see the way this project “could” go and become a full-fledged loop, so I’ll detail it first:
- Reports/information lead down a media and publicity path—a wider audience is brought to the blog and maps, and therefore to the community, generating a potential interest by mainstream media. Government response follows due to public demand.
- Reports reach to particular target actors in government. Key community members who participated in the reporting make the information known to those key people, along with those of us working at a higher level. The combination of targeting the right person/people, and having high quality information and clear goals, leads to the desired outcome
- Reports influence the community itself to take actions, such as, not throwing trash in the river, or addressing various other public problems.
Here are six lessons we can take from the experience of learning how to create an effective information circle that allows local voices to be heard, and increases the impact of the grassroots information activists.
1) Context Matters (maybe more than anything else)
While this sounds more than obvious, I don’t think it gets nearly enough prominence in technology and development projects in general. It’s a top consideration.
Our Dar example illustrates this well: while it’s just next door to Kenya, it’s a world apart. So while in Kenya we’ve looked at how to work closely with community organizations and NGOs to achieve changes, collaboratively assessing information needs, in Tanzania, most people recommend working directly with government officials. Civil society organizations are comparatively few and far between. This is a pretty fundamental difference when it comes to planning the trajectory of your information or advocacy.
In Kibera, it’s best to build a coalition of local groups and individuals that have an interest in the topic you’re working on, and slowly build toward incorporating government and larger organizations. But in Tandale, meet directly with the local MP and mayor, ward officers, and individuals from the community.
2) Deciphering the political context isn’t something most people know much about
If you expect your average participant (or even average organization) in a feedback loop to understand the political system well enough to navigate through it, you’ll probably be disappointed. In Dar, the expectation was often that “the right people will listen and do something” if we collect and publicize local information and needs.
Part of working in this space means helping people find out how things actually work, and what they can do to have a stronger impact.
But this doesn’t mean you should do the connecting yourself, or determine the pathways independently of the group you’re working with. It’s about partnering, not leading. This is when teaching the skills needed for investigative journalism can come in handy—why, exactly, isn’t there a secondary school yet in Tandale? Who can I talk to and ask?
Once you ask people to begin to scratch the surface of an issue, you realize that people aren’t often comfortable asking such questions. Our groups in Dar were not sure whether those important key people would be willing to talk to them at all (and maybe they would not). But this is a good problem to have—it’s where things get interesting, especially once people begin to cross these perceived boundaries. Partners that are knowledgeable about advocacy and those with a “convening” ability are fantastic to bring in at this point.
3) Don’t assume you know people’s motivations for participating
Here are some examples of what people said about their reasons for writing the Tandale and Keko blogs:
“We’re expecting someone to see our problems and help us.”
“We want Tandale to be known.”
“To learn computer skills.”
“With the map, instead of someone coming in to tell you, you can see what is needed for yourself. We can use the blog to share this in a story with photos and locations. The community as a whole will see and take action. It will also allow us to interact with all levels of government. We can defend our ideas with information.”
As you can see, the last respondent has a much more nuanced idea of what they hope the information can do—thanks to her experience working on community issues in a leadership role. She anticipates playing an active role to get the information where it needs to go—whether out to the wider community, or targeting it to particular members of government.
But the other responses are also important. The desire to be “seen,” in particular, is something we often hear, and it gets into deeper issues of social standing and subtle ways of raising the status of people in a community—toward the longer-term goals of increasing their power in society. An invisible or unheard person/community is easily ignored.
4) Feedback is fundamentally a social process—not individual
This reinforces what we’ve learned elsewhere—there is a group or social aspect to reporting and using information that is different from what we tend to do in the United States. Belonging to a group that is working toward a shared goal, and having physical contact with the group members is critical. Which means . . .
5) Organizations matter
We’ve learned this over and over again, but it’s still left out (or wished out) of the planning process, much of the time. While GroundTruth started working in Tanzania with partners like the World Bank, Twaweza, and Map Kibera, on the ground we had a group that consisted of university students, community members, and members of the Slumdwellers federation.
Would this group coalesce into something that enables the feedback loop to sustain into the future? Not on its own. Institutionally ungrounded pilots are simply not going to succeed. It was a fantasy initially that a large university would play that role. Grounding must come from close to the ground.
We’ve essentially provided this for the initiative until this point. So during my trip, I revisited the topic of ownership and how to support community members who were so enthusiastic about the potential of the mapping and blogging. I had a great talk with the leader of a civil society organization umbrella group about how to institutionalize a project in a place with few capable non-governmental organizations.
But it often boils down to…
6) Sustained funding matters: pilots and experiments need time to bear fruit
We need to be able to work intensively, over a long enough period of time, until a paradigm shift begins to happen. This requires not one-off pilot funding, but sustained funding over a couple of years.
Then, and only then, you’ll start to see real results. We’ve been at this for three years in Dar es Salaam, and we’ve seen amazing persistence by the participants, but less than inspiring funding opportunities.
We’ve seen contests and hackathons and government-led initiatives, but not investment in the very people who are on the cusp of effectively changing the way citizens relate to their government.
You might wonder how a few blogs are going to change the face of participation in development. This probably sounds very piecemeal and unscalable or whatever other impatient adjectives. But the final question remains:
Is building a large, all-encompassing feedback system through government going to be what works in this new frontier of development, or is it going to be the messy process of engagement at the grassroots and people’s own experimentation with and ownership of technology that ends up having a chance to finally flip the development paradigm on its head?
I will go into this in more depth in a follow-up blog post coming soon.
The Kenyan elections were more than a month ago, but a debate continues in the crisis mapping community about whether the various technologies deployed to track and respond to outbreaks of violence were a confused and possibly dangerous mess, or a successful contribution to what was ultimately a peaceful (if disputed) process.
DO WE REALLY NEED ALL OF THOSE PROJECTS??? Do we really need 3 maps, 7 phone numbers, and several web-forms? Is that really such a crazy bad idea to have one coordinated number/web-form that could then have in the back-end multiple responders and organizations working together? – Anahi Ayala (ICT Works blog post)
The criticism goes on to describe this duplication as irresponsible and dangerous, especially supposing that the submitted information has no real response mechanism.
While it’s true that having multiple public numbers for submitting information about one election is not ideal, I believe that behind the scenes was a much more encouraging process that has only just begun. Here’s why I think that in the balance, technology was part of the solution, not the problem, during Kenya’s elections:
1) Unprecedented collaboration among technologists, at least at a pilot level.
Map Kibera took part in elections monitoring by mapping and reporting through SMS, blogs and video throughout the election period on our multimedia sites, Voice of Kibera and Voice of Mathare in two slums. Kepha Ngito, our executive director, offers this extensive writeup of how the process looked behind the scenes, definitely worth a read. Map Kibera already had been working with Ushahidi-based websites and video news for three years in Kibera, and with blogging and video in Mathare for about two years; therefore neither project was created specifically for the election. Given our status as an established community-based group focusing on reporting and local information, we were ready to take on this event without creating any new technology.
As elections neared, more organizations began to set up temporary programming around election reporting. In particular, our team joined events held by Ushahidi around their Uchaguzi platform, and we began to think about how to collaborate: they as a national scope project and ourselves in-depth in two key communities. Ultimately, some members of our team worked throughout the election at the iHub headquarters of Ushahidi to monitor their reports coming in from Kibera and Mathare, and share our more detailed and verified reports with their system. This meant both reports and response could be tightly coordinated.
Would it have made sense to have used only one reporting number, that of Uchaguzi for instance? No, because Uchaguzi is no longer active, while Map Kibera is building up a long term citizen engagement including this SMS number. It made more sense to work on interoperability and coordination.
2) Unprecedented coordination among community-based groups
What was the key to all the information coming in, and the verification process?
At the community level, there was unprecedented coordination among a variety of agencies who normally do not work together. Concerned groups put aside whatever challenges normally keep them operating separately, and pledged support to each other in order to serve the good of the community. This kind of network is a real breakthrough in coordination locally given the challenges that often prevent such teamwork, and it naturally came from desire for security in the slum not any outside impetus. As Kepha writes:
KCODA, Pamoja FM, Map Kibera, Kamukunji Pressure Group, CREAW, the Langata District Peace Committee, Community Policing groups and the office of the District Commissioner joined efforts to create a network called the Kibera Civic Watch Consortium, a body that would respond to and coordinate the community’s efforts to maintain peace and provide interventions where possible. (Kepha Ngito, How slum communities came together to help prevent election violence)
3) Response and verification
It was this background offline coordination that would allow for immediate election-day verification and constant liaising with security groups, both official and community led, in case of any problem. The online-offline coordination often involved both SMS into the system, and phone calls to security or other key people to keep tensions down.
…We stationed our trained citizen reporters in each polling station to be relaying SMS news to our verification team to be verified and approved before being posted on our Voice of Kibera and Voice of Mathare websites.The Map Kibera verification team dealt with every information that came in, calling back and forth to establish the facts and figures about every report sent in. Our video teams rushed to scenes, most of which were not known or easily accessed by the mainstream or foreign press to capture instant news which they edited and uploaded on Youtube. Members also took photos and posted them to our blogs and Facebook group. In this verification process, the team succeeded in dismissing several false alarms, wrong information and propaganda for violence. In addition and in response, security organs and emergency service providers enhanced their presence in these areas highly reducing chances of violence. In one instance, when many reports were sent about youth gathering around in groups in one area of Kibera, after several phone calls with the security organs, the Police Commissioner authorized a chopper to fly around conducting a security check, the crowds soon dispersed and calm returned. (Kepha Ngito, How slum communities came together to help prevent election violence)
I heard a number of claims floating around about technology platforms being directly responsible for police or security response. I would advise that these be investigated closely. In the case of both Kibera and Mathare, if anything it was this type of “online” or SMS-based reporting in conjunction with offline personal and official networks, connected often through ordinary phone calls, which activated response, not a pure technical system.
Bringing together the various kinds of technical reporting options with great local networks can create response processes that are effective, but not overly sensitive to false alarm reports.
4) Good citizen election monitoring is not “pure” crowdsourcing. We and others relied on establishing networks and offline meetings and coordination to build participation.
Another misconception is that every SMS number was targeted for the general public. Actually, the Map Kibera SMS line was and is primarily used by our volunteer reporters to send information from prearranged locations like polling stations. For the election, aside from our members, the Kibera Civic Watch Consortium sent in many reports during the election. The numbers are publicized to general residents, but operate mostly through carefully cultivated users.
I think there is a basic misconception that “crowdsourcing” something like election violence will happen with anonymous individuals. In tight-knit communities, this is simply not the case. They may text into a nationally publicized number, but those reports are not always the ones you want or can rely on. Verification is needed, which means local networks are still key. My hunch is that when people report through a local system the information is more likely to be accurate, because they know the faces behind the tech.
Particularly in more marginalized, insecure, or informal communities, people come together based on relationship networks, and being known and trusted as a leader in the community is an earned privilege that does not come easily nor is it taken lightly. People do not often trust something new that is introduced from “outside”.
National scale projects targeted to single events like elections should heavily support existing community level initiatives, and community-level initiatives around information need to be long-term investments into the community fabric. This means not just new technology projects which are still rare, but also traditional community media or data-driven local planning groups.
5) We’re still working out what works best in the space, so multiple projects are important for narrowing it down. A top-down model won’t work for citizen-based technology in emergencies, at least not for a long while.
While coordination and duplication avoidance is good, we are talking about places where the normal emergency response functions need supplementation and should be supplemented. I don’t know if a single top-down system for emergencies is ever going to work in Kenya, but it certainly hasn’t yet. I’ve seen way too many everyday crises happen with absolutely no response at all save for neighbors helping neighbors (and literally saving each others’ lives on a daily basis). In that sense people need access to options and a variety of ways to draw attention to and publicize an urgent situation. It’s also in the spirit of the technology world to keep trying out new ideas and iterating.
On the other hand, it’s true that some might irresponsibly publicize reporting channels that seem to promise response they can’t deliver, and technology is most certainly something we are now seeing organizations use to make themselves look good even at the expense of the public. We should ask whether there were unnecessary institutional barriers or unethical motivations to any lack of coordination or collaborative spirit, and direct our transparency lens that way. If competition for funding or funder requirements inhibited the social benefit of working together, as it usually does, then these incentive systems should be exposed. Also, the opportunism of pop-up and parachute technology projects just a week or so before the election is a distraction, and there were several of these as well. But what I think we’ve seen here is a partial triumph of civic collectivism over the usual silos created by the donor marketplace, which is why I’m seeing the glass as half-full. It could stand to be filled up all the way.
But here’s the most important trend that gives me hope:
7) A sea-change is underway in terms of how people engage with information in Kenya: they feel it’s their right and responsibility to speak out and to protect peace by countering rumor; and they increasingly feel they have tools with which to do so.
This is my hunch, but since 2009, I believe that the positive side of social media has had an impact in Kenya – or at least in Nairobi. I noticed during the election that people expected to be able to counter incorrect news and information sources by using their Facebook account or Twitter or one of the projects referenced here – they have grown used to reporting themselves and no longer rely exclusively on traditional media sources. When they see something happening, they expect someone local – if not themselves, then a neighbor – to be able to take a photo, send a message, somehow communicate.
This means that rumors can be countered more quickly, and leaves room for peace activists (most Kenyans) to organize and amplify accurate and helpful messages and at least contribute to the conversation, creating a more balanced discussion.
During these elections there was a new sense of the importance and responsibility that citizens have for being information collectors, transmitters, publicizers, verifiers, and the inkling that the standard channels of information aren’t the only ones that exist anymore – and that citizens have the responsibility to not only voice opinions but keep the rumors down, to participate in peace. Real crisis prevention has much more to do with local leadership, coordination, and behind the scenes response than the information that’s necessarily visible online. But that isn’t to say that creating visibility, keeping track of the truth and bringing information out of the dark in close to real time isn’t extremely valuable – it connects and inspires those who want to keep the peace and provides the opportunity for a local counter narrative to the dominant media.
Don’t risk missing the bigger story here: the simple act of residents recording actual ground level events themselves will have a long-term transformative impact on society – nowhere perhaps, as profoundly as in places like informal settlements.
This post originally appeared at Disruptive Witness.
Theyyam is a religious ceremony of Kerala (from Nila northwards, not in Chalakudy) performed annually and uniquely in hundreds, maybe thousands of temples (see note from Prakash in the comments clarifying..). A kind of possession takes place, the deity inhabits the performer of the Theyyam, through dancing, procession, drumming, fire, psychotropic altered states, elaborate costumes, sometimes sacrifice, all eventually bringing direct blessings, fortune telling, and satisfaction to the place and people in attendance. Superficially, there are similarities in style to other arts of Kerala, like the more refined and somewhat better known art of Kathakali, as well as Mudiyett, recognized by UNESCO as a more ancient source folk practice. We visited the master of Mudiyett, watched his evening instruction of local kids in drumming, and while fascinating, it’s hard in that brief exposure to understand how all these folk art forms fit together and relate to each other. So that’s just one place where I see open platforms for responsible tourism deepening visitors’ experiences by having communities themselves document and share knowledge and draw connections and tell the stories.
Kaleidoscopic Catholic Church in Kerala
Kerala has 75 kinds of bananas, and 75 lakh variations of culture. While we were in Chalakudy, an annual pilgrimage season to a local diety was starting, an intense Hindu bachelor God, which inspired a “temporary temple” in Chalakudy itself (no, I asked, it’s not burned like the Temple at Burning Man). People of different faiths are welcome to celebrate each others festivals, and whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim, the folk festivals all have a similar Kerala feel. There’s blending and borrowing: baroque cake-like churches lit up in kaleidoscopic fun fair lights (again fitting in right on the Playa); the oldest mosque in India nearby in Kodungallur has a Hindu-like oil lamp in the most inner place of worship. Theyyam sometimes involves very pre-Brahmin seeming animal sacrifice, and tribal peoples perform snake possession ceremonies. I can only wonder what kind of festivals were held at the oldest Synagogue “site” in India, since that community has all left for Israel (based on a gravestone marked 1264, though the entire community traces back at least til 3rd century AD).
Malayalam Calendar. Open Thayam could be just one simple hack of Open Watersheds.
Prakash is a passionate, obsessive collector of Kerala culture. He diligently seeks out the locations of athaani rest blocks, marking the ancient trade routes. He’s called on frequently as an expert on Thayam, having collected the location and timing of hundreds of ceremonies. And he’s generous with his knowledge. From what is his private word doc, we could potentially iterate and create a simple site openly sharing the location, timing and details of Thayam. Start just with a single site, Leaflet or OpenLayers with a timeline, sharing this data. Iterate to something db-backed to help Prakash and others manage the collection and update the collection into the thousands (complexly, timings vary slightly each year because of the subtly different Malayalam calendar). From culture, to passion, to data, to openness, to open culture.
The Temple 2010 on Burning Man Earth
The vibrancy, the pervasive creative and sacredness of Kerala, where any group of trees can become a sacred grove, reminds me of Burning Man, and I realize the platform for creating, sharing and connecting of Kerala’s river basins could look a bit like the structure of Burning Man Earth: there are camps (or places in Kerala context), art, events, and people; and means to connect, communicate, share media, and pivot around all these. One idea that bounced around BME were tools to create your own schedule (pre-selection) and record your own experience (via automatically linking GPS traces to places and art and events). The work of Blue Yonder for tourists is based in part around developing itineraries, and I could eventually see itinerary functions directly in that responsible tourism platform. Before our arrival to Chalakudy we received an ambitious itinerary (exhaustively including every identified responsible tourism site) and having a map and idea of how much road travel the days would entail would have helped us prepare as tourists and sealed the memories. Of course, we were there to actually help create that map…
Participatory Mapping of Indigenous Names in Taiwan
Open Watershed Data, and a methodology of responsible tourism for river basins, provides a context for these media tools to develop. Design workshops, data fellowships, (even, um, yes, maybe) hackathons, could enable technical and design participation in creating amazing tools for cultures, communities, environments. Kerala has a volunteer spirit, and people want to contribute to “the something greater” when they have the chance. Folks described as “literary people” research local place names, recording the stories and meanings embedded in those names. While in Taiwan, I sat in on a session with an elder of an indigenous group, while he browsed his village in Google Earth, he told stories of (and a dozen students dutifully recorded) the names of every place, indicating deep knowledge of the landscape, how to practice agriculture, what to expect from the weather, commerating the efforts of the past. Indigenous people of Taiwan have gained stature in their society, and they are working to see through the right to return to indigenous names in their communities, yet the big challenges of responding to change remain, including increasing interest from Han Chinese tourists. The struggle is to maintain the integrity of the culture, preserve the culture, as money comes in, avoiding division and degeneration as more opportunities open up. One tribe managed to organize into a tourist cooperative, so home stays and the like don’t compete but cooperate. Many issues are over the land itself. Do individuals in the tribe have the right to sell land to outsiders for agriculture, even if risking overuse and environmental degredation, as it is their land, or is there a collective responsibility in the notion of tribal rights?
The issues of land rights management, cultural preservation all ring true to Kerala, with overlapping jurisdiction of tribal reserves, forest reserves, water bodies, and individual rights. In Kerala, what to say when the people of the river in some desperation, mine the sand in order to make a little money and survive, yet hasten further destruction of the river they depend on. The last remaining sand bank of Chalakudy was saved due to collective effort, as it was adjacent to a religious site. Hence, culture and value are the greatest strengths to seeing long term benefit vs short term individual gain. Perhaps sharing openly, and inviting the real interest of the wider world, can change the trajectory of damanged rivers and lost ways of life.
There is a tremendous wealth in Chalakudy. The crop of this very place, pepper, drove globalization mellenia ago. Roman coins have been found here. Jewish and Christian communities have been here since the 3 century AD. The first mosque and first synagogue in India are here. Colombus was looking for Chalakudy. The Portugeuse built the first European fort on this river. All of this is smartly being invested in by the Kerala government in the Muziris Heritage project. It’s wonderful, and likely to draw many tourists, both international and from India’s growing middle class (the India tourist riotous take of a place like the Athirappalli Waterfall is an experience in itself). But what of the every day history still there today. There are growing numbers of people who want to know more, surely typical and niche, but a crucial part of the tourism “industry”, or maybe better, “culture”. During our last trip to Nila, we impromptly stopped at a matchstick factory. The ruckus of this very basic mechanical operation was transfixing, totally normal to the people working there, who couldn’t understand our interest … but have you ever seen matchsticks made by hand? Social media and the internet are connecting unprecedently, changing relentlessly, challenging (I heard young Kerala guys listening to Gangam Style on their phones). We’re in that moment where perhaps this force of technology can discover and perserve the extraordinary normal of Kerala.