I can remember quite distinctly the first time I realised people think about the world in very different ways. For me, it all began with music.
It's increasingly insufficient to think that more information leads to better decisions, or even a better informed public.
- James Bridle, speaking at 33c3
My entry into this world of tech, data and social good was via campaigning for the right to information. I still believe that’s a core and necessary part of what we do, but I also think we need to invest more into the layers after just accessing the information, and think more carefully about what skills we’re advocating for in data litearcy, and how.
When somebody asks me how I got to where I am, there are a few words I use generously: luck, serendipity and kind people. I want to give credit where it’s due, and acknowledge the people who helped me and supported me to get to where I am. If I’m honest, it also makes for a better story, too.
Part of me wants that tale I tell to be engaging and modest-sounding (I’m British! Boasting is Terrible). But that mythology I find myself trying to build up is probably harmful to others as well as myself.
Telling a story of finding a job in Berlin through luck, settling in here through the help of kind people, being in the right place at the right time through serendipity - that all gives a much easier impression of my career, of not trying too hard but finding my way. It’s charming, but not threatening. It’s also an incredibly gendered approach to talking about myself.
This year, I loosened my resolve to read only books by women, partly for practical reasons and partly to see if I could notice a difference when starting to read books by men. (Spoiler: most of the time, I can - if only thanks to terrible descriptions of women’s feelings or bodies.) I just about read fewer books than in previous years, but more pages, according to Goodreads.
I’ve put *s by my favourite picks, and lists of the books I read are under each section. Recommendations are always very welcome.
A few weeks ago, I received the unexpected news that I’d been awarded a Shuttleworth Flash Grant - one of the Shuttleworth Foundation’s “small grants to a collection of social change agents, no strings attached, in support of their work.” They’re given to people nominated by existing fellows, and really do come with no strings attached.
I was happy to get it, and naturally it made me ask: what’s the most useful way of spending that money?
I’m coming up to two months in my fellowship at Data & Society, and I’m trying my best to appreciate it, and not take any of it for granted. The fact that I’m getting paid to read, learn, discuss and debate is still a little bit surreal!
One thing that I have been thinking a lot about is the privileges and the opportunities that the fellowship grants me. Along with the fantastic Data & Society network and community, it’s been such a nice break to be assigned reading lists and books in preparation for discussion groups, debates and seminars.
With that in mind - and as someone who thoroughly appreciates when others make curricula public - here’s everything that I’ve been assigned to read over the past two months.
I’m almost 2 months into my stint here in the US, which means I’ve spent a lot of time on subways over the past few weeks, and I’ve been listening to a lot of podcast episodes. I love reading lists generally, so here’s a list of my favourite podcast episodes.
The more I spend time working with data, the more I’m becoming convinced that the most important tool we have in our advocacy or social change toolbelts, is storytelling. Why? There are countless examples of when “data” has proved a certain thing without a shadow of a doubt - but people’s behaviour has not changed as a consequence. What’s often missing there, is compelling storytelling. “Data” on its own, doesn’t change a thing - not to mention its subjectivity, despite being perceived as “truth”, way too often.
Here are a few of the best talks I had the chance to see, and those that were recommended to me - mostly along the lines of technology and its use among under-represented communities.
Disclaimer: some of these are more confirmations of obvious-sounding things, and others, you might disagree with. I’m open to changing my mind on lots of these, but wanted to write them down at least for posterity.
I learned that…
Last Wednesday, on November 18th, the Bangladeshi government ordered blocking of social messaging apps until further notice - first blocking Whatsapp, Facebook, Messenger, and in a second directive later the same day shutting Line, Tango and Hangouts. The decision to block the sites came immediately after the Supreme Court upheld death penalty convictions against two former opposition leaders for their role in the 1971 Liberation War. Citing “security reasons” the government seems keen to try and restrict communications in a bid to dampen protests that might happen in response to the ruling - but in the meantime, there have been some interesting developments in use of social media in Bangladesh.
Last week, a new book Data Journalism: Inside the global future was launched, to which I contributed a chapter.
The chapter I wrote was called ‘So you found a unicorn- what now?’ which takes a look at the cultural changes needed to successfully integrate technologists into a newsroom. Taking lessons from the fabulous Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellowships, the brilliant work done by Code4South Africa, as well as my own experience working alongside journalists and technologists and anecdotes I’ve heard along the way, I argue that doing data journalism properly needs more than having tech skills - it’s a culture change, and a new way of collaborating within newsrooms.
Last week, I was invited by IDEO to attend a small event on the theme “Design x Intimacy.” The theme intrigued me, as the intersection of design, technology and intimacy is one that I’ve not (consciously) put much thought into before.
The panel discussion that I was part of was recorded and will soon be online, I believe. It was a short discussion though, and in the lead up to it I benefited from a lot of smart people sharing their thoughts on the topic with me, so I wanted to share some of the discussions that we had.
I’m a big ‘open’ advocate, and inclusivity and diversity are very important to me. Over the past few months, though, I’ve been wondering more about “closed” communities - and, I have to say that I’m seeing more and more benefits of them. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I’m finding more and more that closed communities are actually more inclusive than many open ones. Let me explain why.
Writing has always been cathartic for me. Normally it’s ranting, cathartic against anger or annoyance, but now, I need it to be cathartic against grief.
We’re in mourning. We’re in mourning on our laptops and in real life: offline, and online. Right now, the line between those two seems blurrier than ever. Tears running down my face; a genuine representation of the [crying] emoji. There are people sitting all over the world who met Michael in person, who shared fantastic experiences with him, who now have the internet to turn to for comfort. I’m one of the lucky ones: I’m in Berlin, along with a bunch of other people who loved him like I did. We met up in person, and hugged, and told stories of all the funny and happy times we had with him.
I was in Buenos Aires over the past couple of weeks as part of a project I’m working on looking at citizen-generated data - essentially, datasets, whether qualitative or quantitative, that are actively contributed to by individual people. Sometimes this is for a particular social cause, like helping tag photos of deforestation - and other times, it’s contributing to a broader narrative, like sharing stories or experiences about a certain topic, like sexual harrassment.
Often when we talk about such initiatives, we say “anybody can contribute” - but how true is this really? While thinking about data on illegal abortions in Argentina, I came up against a potentially fascinating topic where data is very much needed, but very hard to collect.
Last week saw almost 5000 people converge on an old brick making factory just outside of Berlin, for the Chaos Communication Camp. It takes place only every four years - so it was a big deal for the hacker community.
It was a hacker camp, and I’m not a hacker. I work and spend time with hackers, activists, technologists, civil society groups, researchers who study technology and society - lots of people who are on the peripheries of hackerdom, but I’m not a hacker, and initially, this worried me slightly. I wondered whether I would feel out of place, and even though I had a talk accepted to speak at the camp, I wondered whether people there would be interested in what I had to say.
The third full episode of Collusion is online! This episode, we looked at food: the role that food played in colonialism in the past, things that happen now that echo the power structures that we see in colonialism, like food speculation, and new technologies aimed at addressing world hunger.
Links to research for the latest episode are up on the Tumblr - during the research for this episode, our main source of information seems to have been media articles and NGO reports rather than academic papers, so thankfully we didn’t have too many problems of important papers being behind a paywall.
As always, comments and criticism on the episode are welcome - we hope you like it!
Today in Dhaka, Niloy Chakrabarti, or “Niloy-Neel” as he was known online, was murdered in his home. He is the fourth blogger to be murdered this year in Dhaka - all in a brutal way, with machetes, leading the media to report it with the unthinkable phrase - they were “hacked to death”.
There have been, and there will be, many more articles calling for changes in Bangladesh. For the government to respond in an appropriate way (Chowdhury had reportedly asked for police protection just three weeks ago, and had it denied). For Bangladeshi media to support the blogger community.
But I’m writing to a different audience: the international open government community. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw the agenda for a planned workshop run by UNDESA in Dhaka to be held at the end of the month. Its theme: “Open Government Data Sensitization, Gap Assessment, and Strategic Planning”. It made me laugh at the time - a ‘gap assessment’? Seriously?
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at Datengarten, the Chaos Computer Club Berlin’s (CCCB) monthly meet up. I decided to talk about technology in international development; partly because it’s a topic I feel comfortable with, but also because the narrative and general conversation among the development sector is a world away from what I imagine CCCB to be talking about.
One of the biggest issues I’ve come across with those working in international development, or ICT4D, is low levels of technical literacy. People are keen to tout the benefits of technology, but they have little training or critical perspectives on the potential consequences around security, data (mis)management, and more. The audience I was talking with at CCCB are, in a way, the polar opposite of this - all very, very technically literate, but potentially with not as much exposure to people in vulnerable situations, for whom technology could have big benefits.
The video of my talk is below, along with the slides I used. It’s also the first public talk I’ve done in German, which was a nice milestone to reach - especially as it happened to be on my 4 year anniversary of arriving in Berlin! It was great to have such a friendly audience for the talk, and some interesting questions afterwards, too.
Hidden in the darkest and deepest corners of the web are secrets beyond what most of us would believe possible. Jamie Bartlett’s book, The Dark Net, dives into these secrets, and gives us a guided tour - the fora that many of us never frequent, the places where you can place a bounty upon someone’s head, or order illegal substances and have them delivered to your door.
But Bartlett’s attitude to many of these online spaces and the resulting behaviour, is largely uncritical, perhaps in his attempt to be a neutral and objective guide to the space. Take this statement about a Reddit community whose aim was to “troll” other community users, “generating laugh at someone else’s expense”, as he puts it.
Game of Trolls was eventually banned by Reddit; a highly unusual step for the otherwise liberal site, but testament to the pervasiveness and persistence of the Reddit trolls.
The second episode of Collusion is now up, focusing on the theme of water. In it, I talk about how the British used water technologies as a key part of colonial policy in former British India, and Luiza, my co-presenter, talks about current day examples from Palestine and Brazil. This time though, we produced two versions: the regular one, and a “closed access version”, which I explain more about below.
Last week, I was invited for an interview with Civic Radio. We talked about what it means to participate in civic life, and the role of civic technology. For me, civic life is closely connected to participation - and this made me wonder, who has the opportunity to participate in public life?
Algorithms. We’re all talking about them, but how many of us actually understand what they are? Tech critics, researchers and academics are sounding warning bells that an increasing societal dependence upon algorithms is potentially very dangerous. Data scientists that I follow, though, are excited by the possibilities that algorithms hold for society. These conflicting views can be confusing - so let’s go back to basics, and consider what exactly we mean when we talk about algorithms.
Facebook controls our Newsfeed- what we see, what we don’t, and we have little idea how it works. But we don’t necessarily need to know exactly how it works, in order to use it to our advantage. It turns out that a couple of individuals have already “hacked the algorithm” by using certain keywords in their Facebook status, to give visibility to issues they care most about - so maybe it’s time for activists to join the game.
Last week, I took part in a debate on the role of big data in development, at re:publica here in Berlin. The session was fun, and interesting, and a couple of things have stayed running around my mind since then, helped by some other inspiring talks that I saw at the conference, and conversations I had.
The biggest one: that, especially in international development, we seem to assuming that within big data holds all sorts of answers. Within the context of the “data revolution”, big data is put on somewhat of a pedestal, and in my opinion, we’re putting too much faith in the insights that can actually be gained from big data alone.
The first full episode of the new podcast I’m co-presenting and researching, Collusion, is now up, and you can listen directly below:
Doing the research for this was incredibly interesting, and so just in case other people want to know what sources we drew upon, we’ve started a Tumblr, https://collusionpodcast.tumblr.com, where we’ll be putting research and links that we find in preparation for the podcast.
In the days since the tragic earthquake in Nepal, various forms of assistance have been offered from governments, charities, humanitarian response organisations, and by for-profit technology companies, whose reach and influence is bigger than ever before.
In many ways, it’s quite incredible that we have an expectation that international corporations and companies should offer some kind of response or assistance in the wake of a humanitarian emergency; but in fact, they’re very well placed to do so in lots of cases.
Here’s a list of responses from tech companies that I’ve come across so far; I’m sure I’ve missed some out, and I’ll keep updating it, so please let me know which ones I’ve missed out.
Note: as Maya pointed out: there’s lots of other digital responses going on right now, like the great work by the Humanitarian Open Street Map team. In this post though, I’m thinking about ‘tech company’ as being a for-profit company without an official social mandate.
Last week, I attended the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. It was beautiful, and in many ways, surprising.
With my usual work, I spend most of my time thinking about how civil society and journalists can use data more effectively in their work, and the problems that we come up against are things like:
- Not having enough data (eg. it doesn’t exist, it’s not online, no access to it)
- Not having access to the right technologies (tools behind a paywall, open source tools might not do the trick)
- Not having good enough access to internet, or no access at all - or, audiences having low levels of connectivity
- Being in restrictive political environments with low levels of press freedom
- Keeping safe online
But in Perugia, the problems mentioned were largely very different. The hurdles facing data journalism here aren’t related to technology, they’re related to culture.
The Syrian conflict is one of the worst tragedies of our time, and now, unlike during many tragedies of years gone by, now we have new ways of telling those stories in real time, reaching people who might be geographically far away, but who could (perhaps with the right story) be brought ever closer. Over the past couple of years, organisations, institutions and individuals have used various digital strategies to tell Syria’s story.
As Susan Sontag said, images transfix, and anaesthetize. I wonder though; could digital storytelling methods cause a similar ‘fatigue’? Though some of the examples here are now fairly new and innovative strategies, will they at a point become so regular that they don’t evoke any emotions within the viewer at all?
Here are a few examples I’ve come across of interesting campaigns and stories around the Syrian conflict, all of which evoked strong emotions for me.
I’m very excited to announce that together with Luiza Prado, I’ll be co-hosting a new monthly podcast exploring the relationship between power and technology. We’ve explained a little why we’re doing the podcast, and what we hope it will be, in this (very short!) introduction:
We’ll be tweeting from @Collusion_, and putting episodes up on http://soundcloud.com/collusion, together with links to sources and further material on the topic that we find, and the first full episode will be coming up in late April.
Get in touch if you’ve got ideas for what we should be reading or looking into!
Last week, I took part in a workshop discussing “Impact Assessment for Data training”, with a number of different practitioners working on some aspect of improving data literacy in their communities.
From a personal perspective, it was fascinating to see that the priorities of people there were largely similar: everyone was working (in some way) on improving data skills among different groups of people who were well placed to then use those skills to push for social change. In some countries, the target group for this was university students; in others, the focus was activists, or young people, but the overall aim was the same; to empower them with the skills they need to achieve their own goals, better.
An interesting exercise asked us to define what we actually meant by ‘impact assessment’ - we realised that for many of us, it was a way to work out whether the interventions we were leading, were having a positive or negative effect on the communities we’re working with. Most of the time, though, these impact assessments act as feedback to donors for the said activity - so I do wonder what it would take, or how often it comes about, that an impact assessment carried out internally actually reveals anything but a positive outcome.
I’ve noticed two somewhat distinct schools of thought, or action, around asserting digital rights online. One, calling for people to practise better digital security online; raising awareness of privacy-protecting ways to browse the internet, promoting alternatives to big, privacy-invasive corporations, to name just a few tactics.
The other: encouraging playfulness, and subversion of the roles that those corporations and governments are putting internet users in. Instead of hiding; revealing. Instead of blocking; pushing. Instead of circumventing; confronting.
This weekend was the Art and Feminism Wikipedia Editathon- a campaign to improve coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia.
I joined the Berlin group today, and I did two main things: created a page for the feminist artist Dilara Begum Jolly, whose work looks at social injustices in Bangladesh and globally, focusing on the role of women; and I improved the page of Kanak Chanpa Chakma, a Bengali artist who focuses on the lives of ethnic minorities in Bangladesh.
I found both of them via this pretty enormous page, Women Artists of Bangladesh. I wasn’t sure where to start on cleaning it up purely because it is so unwieldy - that is to say, long, without many references or structure, and with a very unusual style of writing. So, I focused on the two of them instead.
It is a lot more rewarding than I had thought to create a page and to see the improvements on Kanak Chanpa Chakma’s page, too! To my surprise, just 4 hours after creating Dilara Begum Jolly’s page, it’s now in the top 5 hits when you search for her name on Google, too.
Here are some things I learned today:
Last week, I joined the Responsible Data for Humanitarian Response meeting in The Hague, where I had the pleasure of moderating a session on civic data streams, as well as talking about the International Aid Transparency Initiative process, together with Roderick Besseling of Cordaid. Roderick talked more about the specifics of using IATI within Cordaid, and it was really impressive to see how they are actually using internally the data they publish to IATI - while I talked about IATI data from a more general perspective.
I’m planning to write up the notes from the discussion very soon, but in the meantime, here are the slides I used for the discussion.
Yesterday, I gave a talk at the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung here in Berlin, about the work I’ve been doing looking into how data is being used in international development. I adapted a presentation I did together with Becky Kazansky at last year’s re:publica, which you can see online here, where we talked about the unintended consequences of increased uses of technology in development.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how civic tech tools need to be “less shiny, and more useful”. I got some good feedback about this - most people agreeing with the general premise behind it, but some people spoke out in defence of ‘shiny’:
I’ve been trying recently to think about the things I’m most interested in, and I realised that with regards to technology, there are a few terms that come to mind: civic technology, data journalism, and Information Communication Technologies for Development, or ICT4D. The more I think about the three seemingly disparate labels, the more similarities I see between them.
Put simply, I’m most interested in the use of technology to improve people’s lives.
This week, I had the pleasure of joining a group of about 100 people working on topics around ‘following the money’ at a two day workshop in Berlin. There was a mixture of people at this workshop; technologists, activists, journalists, and funders. One of the first ‘spectogram’ questions that was asked was regarding ‘shiny tech tools, and whether they are useful or not.
I found this statement, and the reactions that followed, particularly interesting - for the last year, I’ve been looking closely at how data is put online by international development organisations - normally, through “shiny” data portals, which seem to be used very rarely. The statement, and the rest of the workshop, got me thinking about what we makes an effective and useful technology tool.
There are so many talks up online from the Chaos Communication Congress that it can be a little hard to know where to start watching. Here are some of the favourite talks that I had the pleasure of watching, and some others recommended by kind people on Twitter - in the spirit of bringing attention to the great talks held by women, I have prioritised those talks in this list. Included below the embedded videos is a list of all of the other talks that were also recommended.
My head is still spinning a little after returning from my first visit to the Chaos Communication Congress, aka 31C3, with the assigned motto ‘A New Dawn.’ It was four days long, with upwards of 12,000 people, organised by Europe’s largest association of hackers, the Chaos Computer Club who, for more than 30 years, have been - in their words - providing information on:
technical and societal issues, such as surveillance, privacy, freedom of information, hacktivism, data security and many other interesting things around technology and hacking issues.
It wasn’t anything like an event I’d ever been to before, for many reasons. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland having fallen way, way down the rabbit hole; there were things I didn’t realise were possible, and things that I didn’t understand all around me. The Congress Centre in Hamburg was transformed from a standard conference centre into a thing of beauty; volunteers running the Congress had spent days (weeks?) there building, decorating, and illuminating the entirety of the place.
Across the global development sector, the idea of opening up data and becoming more transparent is taking hold. One might even say that it has become reasonably well established; almost every week, new data portals commissioned by global development organisations are appearing.
Undoubtedly, this move towards transparency and open data is, in theory, a positive development. Responsibly sharing data on global development projects is potentially, a crucial step towards more effective international development projects, both in terms of more efficient development programming on the side of the practitioner, and in terms of increasing accountability for citizens affected by projects.
So surely the flourishing online data portals are a good thing?
Not entirely. While the intentions are undoubtedly good, the results are often much less so.
When we talk about “open government”, it’s common to also hear talk of transparency and accountability alongside. At its simplest, a government being transparent and open about their actions is a necessary step for citizens to know what is happening in their country, and to understand what decisions are being made on their behalf. Having access to this information is also a necessary step for citizens to be able to hold government accountable for their actions, and citizens being able to take action through legal and official means when they feel a government has taken irresponsible actions is a crucial step in this chain.
So- what about in “open aid” or “open development”? One major focus of transparency in aid has been ensuring that aid projects are carried out in the most effective and efficient way; without wasting money, either through inefficient service delivery or corruption, or other means. Here, the chain of accountability that is addressed goes directly from the donor agency (eg. the UK’s Department for International Development, DFID) to their citizens (ie. UK citizens). In the case of large multilateral donors, the accountability mechanisms are perhaps more complicated, but still present.
This move towards transparency and accountablity within international development is, of course, a great development; but what about accountability to the people who are affected by aid projects? Those whose lives are completely changed by aid projects, and those who are most at need; if their lives are negatively affected by (whether intentionally or unintentionally) aid projects, where do they turn?
Data collection and use in humanitarian situations is increasing. But what can we learn from the past?
It turns out that there have been multiple occasions when mass surveillance and data collection have played key roles in facilitating humanitarian crises, including genocides. In addition, as has been covered comprehensively in Privacy International’s report, “Aiding Privacy”, aid organisations are now some of the biggest data collectors among the world’s most vulnerable communities. Aid agencies are also supporting and funding data collection schemes which have in some cases been knocked back in their home countries; such as USAID funding the “My ID My Life” campaign in Kenya in 2013, which provided national ID cards for 500,000 young people.
To make really clear the link between surveillance and mass human rights’ abuses, and to highlight some of humanity’s worst examples of what can happen with mass surveillance, lack of freedom of expression, and abuse of data, here are a couple of examples.