Tag Archives: ICT4D

Crisis Mapping, Neogeography and the Delusion of Democratization

Professor Muki Haklay kindly shared with me this superb new study in which he questions the alleged democratization effects of Neogeography. As my colleague Andrew Turner explained in 2006, “Neogeography means ‘new geography’ and consists of a set of techniques and tools that fall outside the realm of traditional GIS, Geographic Information Systems. [...] Essentially, Neogeography is about people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset. Neogeography is about sharing location information with friends & visitors, helping shape context, and conveying under-standing through knowledge of place.” To this end, as Muki writes, “it is routinely argued that the process of producing and using geographical information has been fundamentally democratized.” For example, as my colleague Nigel Snoad argued in 2011, “[...] Google, Microsoft and OpenStreetMap have really demo-cratized mapping.” Other CrisisMappers, including myself, have made similar arguments over the years.


Muki explores this assertion by delving into the various meanings of demo-cratization. He adopts the specific notion of democratization that “evokes ideas about participation, equality, the right to influence decision making, support to individual and group rights, access to resources and opportunities, etc.” With this definition in hand, Muki argues that “using this stronger interpretation of democratization reveals the limitation of current neogeographic practices and opens up the possibility of considering alternative development of technologies that can, indeed, be considered democratizing.” To explore this further, he turns to Andrew Feenberg‘s critical philosophy of technology. Feenberg identifies “four main streams of thought on the essence of technology and its linkage to society: instrumentalism, determinism, substantivism & critical theory.”

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Feenberg’s own view is constructivist, “emphasizing that technology development is humanly controlled and encapsulates values and politics; it should thus be open to democratic control and intervention.” In other words, “technology can and should be seen as a result of political negotiations that lead to its production and use. In too many cases, the complexities of technological systems are used to concentrate power within small groups of technological, financial, and political elites and to prevent the wider body of citizens from meaningful participation in shaping it and deciding what role it should have in the everyday.” Furthermore, “Feenberg highlights that technology encapsulates an ambivalence between the ‘conservation of hierarchy’, which most technologies promote and reproduce—hence the continuity in power structures in advanced capitalist societies despite technological upheaval—and ‘democratic rationalisation’, which are the aspects of new technologies that undermine existing power structures and allow new opportunities for marginalized or ignored groups to assert themselves.”

To this end, Feenberg calls for a “deep democratization” of technology as an alternative to technocracy. “Instead of popular agency appearing as an anomaly and an interference, it would be normalized and incorporated into the standard procedures of technical design.” In other words, deep democratization is about empowerment: “providing the tools that will allow increased control over the technology by those in disadvantaged and marginalized positions in society.” Muki contrasts this with neogeography, which is “mostly represented in a decon-textualised way—as the citation in the introduction from Turner’s (2006) Intro-duction to Neogeography demonstrates: it does not discuss who the people are who benefit and whether there is a deeper purpose, beyond fun, for their engage-ment in neogeography.” And so, as neogeographers would have it, since “there is nothing that prevents anyone, anytime, and anywhere, and for any purpose from using the system, democratization has been achieved.” Or maybe not. Enter the Digital Divides.


Yes, there are multiple digital divides. Differential access to computers & comm-unication technology is just one. “Beyond this, there is secondary digital ex-clusion, which relates to the skills and abilities of people to participate in online activities beyond rudimentary browsing.” Related to this divide is the one between the “Data Haves” and the “Data Have Nots”. There is also an important divide in speed—as anyone who has worked in say Liberia will have experienced—it takes a lot longer to upload/download/transfer content than in Luxembourg. “In summary, the social, economic, structural, and technical evidence should be enough to qualify and possibly withdraw the democratization claims that are attached to neogeographic practices.”

That said, the praxis of neogeography still has democratic potential. “To address the potential of democratization within neogeographic tools, we need to return to Feenberg’s idea of deep democratization  and the ability of ordinary citizens to direct technical codes and influence them so that they can include alternative meanings and values. By doing so, we can explore the potential of neogeographic practices to support democratisation in its fuller sense. At the very least, citizens should be able to reuse existing technology and adapt it so that it can be used to their own goals and to represent their own values.” So Muki adds a “Hierarchy of Hacking” to Feeberg’s conceptual framework, i.e., the triangle below.

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While the vast majority can participate in a conversation about what to map (Meaning), only a “small technical elite within society” can contribute to “Deep Technical Hacking,” which “requires very significant technical knowledge in creating new geographic data collection tools, setting up servers, and configuring database management systems.” Muki points to Map Kibera as an example of Deep Technical Hacking. I would add that “Meaning Hacking” is often hijacked by “Deep Technical Hackers” who tend to be the ones introducing-and-controlling local neogeography projects despite their “best” intentions. But the fact is this: Deep Tech Hackers typically have little to no actual experience in community development and are often under pressure to hype up blockbuster-like successes at fancy tech conferences in the US. This may explain why most take full owner-ship over all decisions having to do with Meaning- and Use-Hacking right from the start of a project. See this blog post’s epilogue, for more on this dynamic.

One success story, however, is Liberia’s Innovation Lab (iLab). My field visit to Monrovia in 2011 made me realize just how many completely wrong assumptions I had about the use of neogeography platforms in developing countries. Instead of parachuting in and out, the co-founders of iLab became intimately familiar with the country by spending a considerable amount of time in Monrovia and outside the capital city to understand the social, political and historical context in which they were introducing neogeography. And so, while they initially expected to provide extensive training on neogeography platforms right off the bat, they quickly realized that this was the wrong approach entirely for several reasons. As Muki observers, “Because of the reduced barriers, neogeography does offer some increased level of democratization but, to fulfill this potential, it requires careful implementation that takes into account social and political aspects,” which is precisely what the team at the iLab have done and continue to do impressively well. Note that one of the co-founders is a development expert, not a technology hacker. And while the other is a hacker, he spent several years working in Liberia. (Another equally impressive success story is this one from Brazil’s Mare shantytown).


I thus fully subscribe to Muki’s hacking approach and made a very similar ar-gument in this 2011 blog post: “Democratizing ICT for Development with DIY Innovation and Open Data.” I directly challenged the “participatory” nature of these supposedly democratizing technologies and in effect questioned whether Deep Technical Hackers really do let go of control vis-a-vis the hacking of “Meaning” and “Use”. While I used Ushahidi as an example of a DIY platform, it is clear from Muki’s study that Ushahidi like other neogeography platforms also falls way short of deep democratization and hack-ability. That said, as I wrote then, “it is worth remembering that the motivations driving this shift [towards neogeography] are more important than any one technology. For example, recall the principles behind the genesis of the Ushahidi platform: Democratizing information flows and access; promoting Open Data and Do it Yourself (DIY) Innovation with free, highly hackable (i.e., open source) technology; letting go of control.” In other words, the democratizing potential should not be dismissed outright even if we’re not quite there yet (or ever).

As I noted in 2011,  hackable and democratizing technologies ought to be like a “choose your own adventure game. The readers, not the authors, finish the story. They are the main characters who bring the role playing games and stories to life.” This explains why I introduced the notion a “Fischer Price Theory of Tech-nology” five years ago at this meeting with Andrew Turner and other colleagues. As argued then, “What our colleagues in the tech-world need to keep in mind is that the vast majority of our partners in the field have never taken a computer science or software engineering course. [...] The onus thus falls on the techies to produce the most simple, self-explanatory, intuitive interfaces.”

I thus argued that neogeography platforms ought to be as easy to use (and yes hack) as simple as computer games, which is why I was excited to see the latest user interface (UI) developments for OpenStreetMap (image below). Of course, as Muki has ably demonstrated, UI design is just the tip of the iceberg vis-a-vis democratization effects. But democratization is both relative and a process, and neogeography platforms are unlikely to become less democratizing over time, for instance. While some platforms still have a long road ahead with respect to reaching their perceived potential (if ever), a few instances may already have made in-roads in terms of their local political effects as argued here and in my doctoral dissertation.


Truly hackable technology, however, needs to go beyond the adventure story and Fischer Price analogies described above. The readers should have the choice of becoming authors before they even have a story in mind, while gamers should have the option of creating their own games in the first place. In other words, as Muki argues, “the artful alteration of technology beyond the goals of its original design or intent,” enables “Deep Democratization.” To this end, “Freely pro-viding the hackable building blocks for DIY Innovation is one way to let go of control and democratize [neogeography platforms],” not least if the creators can make a business out of their buildings. 

Muki concludes by noting that, “the main error in the core argument of those who promote [neogeography] as a democratic force is the assumption that, by increasing the number of people who utilise geographic information in different ways and gain access to geographic technology, these users have been em-powered and gained more political and social control. As demonstrated in this paper, neogeography has merely opened up the collection and use of this information to a larger section of the affluent, educated, and powerful part of society.”  What’s more, “The control over the information is kept, by and large, by major corporations and the participant’s labor is enrolled in the service of these corporations, leaving the issue of payback for this effort a moot point. Significantly, the primary intention of the providers of the tools is not to empower communities or to include marginalized groups, as they do not re-present a major source of revenue.” I argued this exact point here a year ago.


Democratizing ICT for Development with DIY Innovation and Open Data

The recent Net Impact conference in Portland proved to be an ideal space to take a few steps back and reflect on the bigger picture. There was much talk of new and alternative approaches to traditional development. The word “participatory” in particular was a trending topic among both presenters and participants. But exactly how “participatory” are these “participatory” approaches to develop-ment? Do they fundamentally democratize the development process? And do these “novel” participatory approaches really let go of control? Should they? The following thoughts and ideas were co-developed in follow-up conversations with my colleague Chrissy Martin who also attended Net Impact. She blogs at Innovate.Inclusively.

I haven’t had the space recently to think through some of these questions or reflect about how the work I’ve been doing with Ushahidi fits (or doesn’t) within the traditional development paradigm—a paradigm which many at the confer-ence characterized as #fail. Some think that perhaps technology can help change this paradigm, hence the burst of energy around the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field. That said, it is worth remembering that the motivations driving this shift are more important than any one technology. For example, recall the principles behind the genesis of the Ushahidi platform: Democratizing information flows and access; promoting Open Data and Do it Yourself (DIY) Innovation with free, highly hackable (i.e., open source) technology; letting go of control.

The Ushahidi platform is not finished. It will never be finished. This is deliberate, not an error in the code. Free and open source software (FOSS) is by definition in a continual phase of co-Research and Development (co-R&D). The Ushahidi platform is not a solution, it is a platform on top of which others build their own solutions. These solutions remain open source and some are folded back into the core Ushahidi code. This type of “open protocol” can reverse “innovation cascades” leading to “reverse innovation” from developing to indus-trialized countries (c.f. information cascades). FOSS acts like a virus, it self-propagates. The Ushahidi platform, for example, has propagated to over 130 countries since it was first launched during Kenya’s post-election violence almost four years ago.

In some ways, the Ushahidi platform can be likened to a “choose your own adventure” game. The readers, not the authors, finish the story. They are the main characters who bring the role playing games and stories to life. But FOSS goes beyond this analogy. The readers can become the authors and vice versa. Welcome to co-creation. Perhaps one insightful analogy is the comparison between Zipcar and RelayRides.

I’ve used the Zipcar for over five years now and love it. But what would a “democratized” Zipcar look like? You guessed it: RelayRides turns every car owner into their own mini-DIY-Zipcar company. You basically get your own “Zipcar-in-a-box” kit and rent out your own car in the same way that Zipcar does with their cars. RelayRides is basically an open source version of Zipcar, a do-it-yourself innovation. A good friend of mine, Becca, is an avid RelayRides user. The income from lending her car out lets her cover part of her rent, and if she needs a car while hers is rented out, she’ll get online and look for available RelayRides in her neighborhood. She likes the “communal ownership” spirit that the technology facilitates. Indeed, she is getting to know her neighbors better as a result. In this case, DIY Innovation is turning strangers, a crowd, into a comm-unity. Perhaps DIY Innovation can facilitate community building in the long run.

The Ushahidi platform shares this same spirit. The motivation behind Ushahidi’s new “Check-In’s” feature, for example, is to democratize platforms like Foursquare. There’s no reason why others can’t have their own Foursquares and customize them for their own projects along with the badges, etc. That’s not to imply that the Ushahidi platform is perfect. There’s a long way to go, but again, it will never be perfect nor is that the intention. Sure, the technology will become more robust, stable and extensible, but not perfect. Perfection denotes an endstate. There is no endstate in co-R&D. The choose your own adventure story continues for as long as the reader, the main character decides to read on.

I’m all for “participatory development” but I’m also interested in allowing indivi-duals to innovate for themselves first and then decide how and who to participate with. I’d call that self-determination. This explains why the Ushahidi team is no longer the only “game in town” so-to-speak. Our colleagues at DISC have customized the Ushahidi platform in more innovative and relevant ways than we could have for the Egyptian context. Not only that, they’re making a business out of customizing the platform and training others in the Arab World. The Ushahidi code is out of our hands and it has been since 2008. We’re actively promoting and supporting partners like DISC. Some may say we’re nurturing our own competition. Well then, even better.

Freely providing the hackable building blocks for DIY Innovation is one way to let go of control and democratize ICT4D. Another complementary way is to democratize information access by promoting automated Open Data generation, i.e., embedded real-time sensors for monitoring purposes. Equal and public access to Open Data levels the playing field, prevents information arbitrage and disrupts otherwise entrenched flows of information. Participatory development without Open Data is unlikely to hold institutions accountable or render the quality of their services (or lack thereof) more transparent. But by Open Data here I don’t only mean data generated via participatory surveys or crowdsourcing.

The type of public-access Open Data generation I’m interested in could be called “Does-It-Itself” Open Data, or DII Data. Take “The Internet of Things” idea and apply this to traditional development. Let non-intrusive, embedded and real-time sensors provide direct, empirical and open data on the status of develop-ment projects without any “middle man” who may have an interest in skewing the data. In other words, hack the Monitoring and Evaluation process (M&E) by letting the sensors vote for themselves and display the “election results” publicly and in real time. Give the sensors a voice. Meet Evan Thomas, a young professor at Portland State, who spends his time doing just this at SweetLab, and my colleague Rose Goslinga who is taking the idea of DII Data to farmers in Kenya.

Evan embeds customized sensors to monitor dozens of development projects in several countries. These sensors generate real-time, high-resolution data that is otherwise challenging, expensive and time-consuming to collect via the tradi-tional survey-based approach. Evan’s embedded sensors generate behavior and usage data for projects like the Mercy Corps Water and Sanitation Program and Bridges to Prosperity Program. Another example of DII Data is Rose’s weather index insurance (WII) project in Kenya called Kilimo Salama. This initiative uses atmospheric data automatically transmitted via local weather towers to determine insurance payouts for participating farmers during periods of drought or floods. Now, instead of expensive visits to farms and subjective assessments, this data-driven approach to feedback loops lowers program costs and renders the process more objective and transparent.

There is of course more to the development field than the innovative processes described above. Development means a great many things to different people. The same is true of the words “Democracy”, “Participatory” and “Crowd-sourcing.” For me, crowdsourcing, like democracy, is a methodology that can catalyze greater participation and civic engagement. Some liken this to demo-cratizing the political process. Elections, in a way, are crowdsourced. Obviously, however, crowdsourced elections in no way imply that they are free, open or fair. Moreover, elections are but one of the ingredients in the recipe for  a democratic, political process.

In the same way, democratizing ICT4D is not a sufficient condition to ensure that the traditional development space obtains a new hashtag: #success. Letting go of control and allowing for self-determination can of course lead to unexpected outcomes. At this point, however, given the #fail hashtag associated with traditional development, perhaps unexpected outcomes driven by democratic, bottom-up innovation processes that facilitate self-organization, determination and participation, are more respectful to human dignity and ingenuity.

A List of Completely Wrong Assumptions About Technology Use in Emerging Economies

I’ve spent the past week at the iLab in Liberia and got what I came for: an updated reality check on the limitations of technology adoption in developing countries. Below are some of the assumptions that I took for granted. They’re perfectly obvious in hindsight and I’m annoyed at myself for not having realized their obviousness sooner. I’d be very interested in hearing from others about these and reading their lists. This need not be limited to one particular sector like ICT for Development (ICT4D) or Mobile Health (mHealth). Many of these assumptions have repercussions across multiple disciplines.

The following examples come from conversations with my colleague Kate Cummings who directs Ushahidi Liberia and the iLab here in Monrovia. She and her truly outstanding team—Kpetermeni Siakor, Carter Draper, Luther Jeke and Anthony Kamah—spearheaded a number of excellent training workshops over the past few days. At one point we began discussing the reasons for the limited use of SMS in Liberia. There are the usual and obvious reasons. But the one hurdle I had not expected to hear was Nokia’s predictive text functionality. This feature is incredibly helpful since the mobile phone basically guesses which words you’re trying to write so you don’t have to type every single letter.

But as soon as she pointed out how confusing this can be, I immediately understood what she meant. If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration). And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive).

In one of the training workshops we just had, I was explaining what Walking Papers was about and how it might be useful in Liberia. So I showed the example below and continued talking. But Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes. This is when it dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.

Kate went on to explain that this kind of picture is what you would see if you were flying high like a bird. That was the way I should have introduced the image but I had taken it completely for granted that satellite imagery was self-explanatory when it simply isn’t. In further conversations with Kate, she explained that they too had made that assumption early on when trying to introduce the in’s and out’s of the Ushahidi platform. They quickly realized that they had to rethink their approach and decided to provide introductory courses on Google Maps instead.

More wrong assumptions revealed themselves during the workshpos. For example, the “+” and “-” markers on Google Map are not intuitive either nor is the concept of zooming in and out. How are you supposed to understand that pressing these buttons still shows the same map but at a different scale and not an entirely different picture instead? Again, when I took a moment to think about this, I realized how completely confusing that could be. And again I kicked myself. But contrast this to an entirely different setting, San Francisco, where some friends recently told me how their five year old went up to a framed picture in their living room and started pinching at it with his fingers, the exact same gestures one would use on an iPhone to zoom in and out of a picture. “Broken, broken” is all the five year old said after that disappointing experience.

The final example actually comes from Haiti where my colleague Chrissy Martin is one of the main drivers behind the Digicel Group’s mobile banking efforts in the country. There were of course a number of expected challenges on the road to launching Haiti’s first successful mobile banking service, TchoTcho Mobile. The hurdle that I had not expected, however, had to do with the pin code. To use the service, you would enter your own personal pin number on your mobile phone in order to access your account. Seems perfectly straight forward. But it really isn’t.

The concept of a pin number is one that many of us take completely for granted. But the idea is often foreign to many would-be users of mobile banking services and not just in Haiti. Think about it: all one has to do to access all my money is to simply enter four numbers on my phone. That does genuinely sound crazy to me at a certain level. Granted, if you guess the pin wrong three times, the phone gets blocked and you have to call TchoTcho’s customer service. But still, I can understand the initial hesitation that many users had. When I asked Chrissy how they overcame the hurdle, her answer was simply this: training. It takes time for users to begin trusting a completely new technology.

So those are some of the assumptions I’ve gotten wrong. I’d be grateful if readers could share theirs as there must be plenty of other assumptions I’m making which don’t fit reality. Incidentally, I realize that emerging economies vary widely in technology diffusion and adoption—not to mention sub-nationally as well. This is why having the iLab in Liberia is so important. Identifying which assumptions are wrong in more challenging environments is really important if our goal is to use technology to help contribute meaningfully to a community’s empowerment, development and independence.