Technology Salon NYC had another banner year of great discussions. To cap it off and start the 2015 series of events, we had a unique Salon. We shared our hopes and fears for 2015, with three amazing lead discussants to guide the conversation:
- Felicity Ruby, long-time activist and currently ThoughtWorks’ Director of Global Internet Policy;
- Abi Weaver, Director of the Global Technology Program at the American Red Cross; and
- Laura Walker Hudson, CEO of Social Impact Lab (SIMLab).
Below I’ve organized the Tech Salon discussion into 7 aspirations for our sector in 2015. Keep an eye on these themes, and if you have ideas that weren’t mentioned at the Salon, go ahead and add them to the comments section! Better yet, subscribe to Salon invites, to join the next discussion in New York, DC, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Nairobi, Helsinki, and soon, Lusaka, Denver and Bangkok.
1) Continued pushback on mass surveillance
The war against journalists, activists and whistle blowers (referred to by Felicity as ‘the JAWs of change’) continues. Many are still behind bars or in exile (including, Barrett Brown, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden) because of their deployment of technology to provide information that is in the public interest. In addition, the right to encrypt has been weakened and it is feared that the pushback against mass surveillance may lose strength in 2015.
Hopes for 2015 are that the world will focus more on addressing the injustices exposed by these individuals rather than on punishing them for exposing information. It’s also hoped that encryption tools will be preserved so that financial transactions and relationships that rely on trust and confidentiality can be kept in confidence. Lastly hope was expressed that citizens and organizations will unite and coordinate more effectively in the coming year and continue questioning and pushing back against mass surveillance.
One participant commented that in some countries that are just coming on line, Internet will be accessed via Wireless spectra that are let by countries to mobile operators. He hoped that structural elements that support the current culture of surveillance will be eliminated as digital inclusion expands to more countries and that national governments will stand up for citizen rights to privacy.
Another participant noted that technology is increasingly being used for militarization, targeted assassination programs and disposition matrices. He feared that police forces in the US and beyond would continue in this direction. The hope is that the level of public protest against police militarization grows, and that the 2014 movements to stop racist policing will lead to lasting change and a reduction in structural discrimination against people of color and minority groups in the US and globally.
2) Balanced public and private benefits of (big) data
There is positive potential in big data, for example: tracing diseases, expanding financial services, predictive analysis and conflict prevention. However there has been growing concern over bias in big data and the potential for abuse, discrimination, privacy breaches and corporate exploitation of personally identifiable information. The hope for 2015 is that a balance will be struck around the collection, use and sale/sharing of these data, and that policies are put in place to push for collection of fewer data, better encryption, deletion of data after usefulness has expired, improved data privacy and better protection standards.
It is also hoped that there is movement toward individuals owning and bartering with their own data and having more of a say on how personal data are used. Currently, many revenue models are based on free services in exchange for personal data, and alternative models are needed. One hope is that there will be more clarity on exactly how companies are using and sharing/selling personal data, more awareness around privacy and a move towards participatory and balanced opportunities for people to knowingly provide certain data in exchange for free hardware or software.
Salon participants also hope that people will begin to vote with their online habits and stop using services that are exploiting their personal data, and that creative minds will develop revenue and business models that do not depend on selling private data. In addition, it is hoped that adoption of free, open source and encrypted software will grow, thereby helping to ‘re-decentralize’ the Internet.
Perhaps in 2015, the establishment of boundaries and some conditionality will create a win-win situation that would balance the issue of ‘power’ when it comes to the benefits of big data and individual rights to control how personal data are used. This could lead to better frameworks for humanitarian and non-profit organizations who find themselves in the difficult situation of being asked to provide and/or authorize the use of other people’s data. Lastly, third party, neutral organizations and entities may emerge that could hold or manage data and serve as data brokers for vulnerable groups, for example during crisis situations.
3) Ethical data and technology protocols and policies
As more NGOs set up data systems and host platform, more organizations are becoming ‘data holders’, yet many do not know the legal implications of holding data, according to a Salon discussant. Fears are that ‘meaningful’ and ‘informed’ consent will continue to be quashed with the advent of constantly changing technologies and that organizations will not have the capacity or wherewithal to keep up. Hopes are that more organizations will realize that they need to establish responsible and ethical data protocols and policies and will put the time and resources into proper training of staff and management regarding the risks of digital data collection, storage and use.
While it is seen as positive that donors are encouraging open data, geo-located data, and digital data collection, there are also fears that lack of understanding of the risks will lead to a data disaster that harms those whose data are shared and impacts negatively on those doing the sharing or funding the program that requires it. It is hoped that in the coming year, there is a higher investment in learning and guidance for donors, management, grant writers and frontline staff to achieve a better understand of how to protect people’s privacy and mitigate risk. Salon participants hope that in 2015 we will discover the sweet spots where the benefits of greater openness are balanced appropriately with the amount of risk experienced by those providing their data.
One participant noted that the politics and ethics of cellphone data record (CDR) analytics will be at the forefront in 2015 and the discussion will shift. To date, It’s been focused on the risks to individual privacy, yet the conversation is expanding to ‘group privacy’ and questions of power, empowerment, and data literacy. It is hoped that we will have an answer to the question: ‘What is an ethical approach to using cellphone data?’ by the end of 2015. It’s also hoped that the term ‘private sector data’ is challenged, since the data are actually individual data harvested by the private sector.
4) Greater inclusion of low-resource populations and of community groups
One lead discussant shared her hope that enterprises and entrepreneurs developing new initiatives would pay more attention and work more closely with populations that have fewer resources in 2015. Many large-scale enterprises are not willing to look at the humanitarian implications of new technologies until they’ve been tested in the ‘developed’ world, she noted. A hope is that the larger private sector technology companies will develop more technologies specifically aimed at benefiting low-income consumers rather than focusing first on higher-income consumers as they normally do.
Another hope is that the excitement of humanitarian organizations will rise to match the enthusiasm of communities around the world who are eager for new technologies. A fear is that humanitarian workers will shut down community enthusiasm due to a fear of the complex, assumptions that communities are ‘not ready’ for new technology, privacy concerns, and/or skewed media portrayal of some technologies, for example unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as drones.
Participants also fear that legislation will not foster inclusion in the case of some technologies. Though UAVs have been successfully used by some local groups for taking imagery during and following disasters, some governments are beginning to require pilot licenses for flying UAVs. Many small companies, community organizations and individuals cannot afford pilot licenses. One hope is that inclusive policies will enable community access to UAVs, and that these policies will be accompanied by community education around UAVs so that their use for community-based disaster preparedness and response is enhanced.
Other hopes include hardware improvements to allow 3D printers to become more affordable, faster and better able to serve mass needs rather than being limited to custom or small-batch manufacturing. Improved battery life, alternative power sources, and alternative networks were also mentioned as a key area in which to focus so that technologies become increasingly accessible to low-income or remote populations with little access to the grid or existing networks.
Lastly, participants hope organizations will focus more on understanding local habits and behaviors (for example, those around mobile money, remittances, and use of airtime minutes as currency) rather than parachuting in and setting up new systems based on something designed elsewhere.
5) A way out of the ‘innovation valley of death’
Participants at the Salon fear that the notion of ‘innovation’ will continue to be too technology focused and that innovation challenges would continue to incentivize some of the wrong things. Donors have been trying hard to fund risky innovations and to use ‘venture capitalesque’ models, said one discussant, and these may not be the right approach in our sector. Another noted that trendy innovation challenges tend to draw those who can do a lot with $50k, yet many of these smaller organizations and social entrepreneurs are not able to take their efforts to scale without broader partnerships with larger organizations or governments who have greater reach, yet innovation funding and grand challenges don’t seem to take this into account. A big gap in funding is the ‘innovation valley of death’ between ‘pilot project’ and ‘optimization at scale’ and Salon participants hope that in 2015 there will be better funding opportunities to support movement though that middle phase.
Fears include a continued donor tendency to see ‘innovation’ as something shiny and fancy rather than supporting new or combined approaches that implementors believe are the best for resolving a challenge. Some participants worry that programs and ‘solutions’ are being handed down and scaled simply because donors say so, rather than because they are really the best ways to address a particular problem. Given how difficult it can be to communicate why something is innovative, one discussant hoped that the field of ICT4D might join together and find ways to fund some of its own initiatives rather than being dependent on donor funding. This might allow implementors to think more about innovative processes and ways of working rather than shiny devices and implementing specific ‘solutions.’ The hope is that as a wider field, we can push towards innovation as process and practice, and achieve fundamental shifts in how we work and how we collaborate.
Scale was another topic Salon participants hope will be discussed more critically and re-imagined in 2015. The definition of scale requires a closer look because scale has different characteristics for different contexts and situations. The ‘black box’ between invention and optimization came up again, with one participant recommending this document which explores the space between these two stages in more detail.
6) More focus on monitoring, evaluation and learning
A discussant commented that the contribution of technology to goals within programs and projects is not well teased out or shared. She fears that our lack of sharing and learning in meaningful ways is holding back the sector. In addition, as noted here, it’s difficult when those working at the project level are asked to prove at the sector level what is working, where, when and why. Determining causality for a particular technology tool or process is complex and difficult – if not impossible — but the hope is that in 2015 we can develop better ways to understand the contribution of different ICT tools and platforms to development goals.
Another hope is that better local level monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will happen in 2015. The SDG global consultation process used social media to source input for the SDGs, and it will also be important to engage communities in monitoring and evaluating the results of efforts made to reach the SDGs.
One participant mentioned that technology is enabling new kinds of research and outreach to people that development agencies had no way of reaching before. Her hope is that new groups and more individuals, especially populations who are often marginalized, will be able to access services and support because technology helps to reach and connect them. In addition, her hope is that that social media will continue to enable like-minded people and organizations to find one another to engage and learn as peers. Another participant hopes for more institutional sharing and openness so that different organizations can work more closely and share their methodologies, processes and innovations without a competitive angle.
7) Greater humility
Finally, an overall hope for more humility from the ICT4D and wider development and humanitarian sectors was voiced. We heard things like: Let’s not sashay in…. Let’s stop parachuting products and solutions in…. When local people have their act together and are moving ahead, let’s not try to co-opt, own or control it…. Let’s change the paradigm and stop using the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing’…. Let’s learn to better support and ask people what they need and if/how we can help…. Let’s listen…. Let’s get out of the way…. Let’s take a closer look at our privilege and power…. Let’s call each other out when we see power and privilege being abused…. Let’s work together to change our sector.