Creating Technology for Social Change

Connect/disconnect – thoughts on the Amman Mobile Data Innovations workshop

(Above, a representative of the Iraqi government presents a concept for a mobile-phone-based child safety reporting program)

Since a few weeks have gone by, I thought I’d post some of my thoughts about the MobileActive/UNICEF workshop on Mobile Data Innovations in Amman. Several people, including JD Godchaux of NiJeL and Robert Soden of Development Seed, not to mention Josh Levinger from here at the Center for Future Civic Media have published thoughtful articles about the workshop, but I have to admit the experience remains unsettling in my mind.

First, I want to say that I very much enjoyed the talks, the opportunity to meet among experts in a variety of fields, from mobile health monitoring to community mapping, and the excellent organization and support by UNICEF and MobileActive. But I think the difficulty in collaborating with, or even communicating with, the Iraqi delegation which attended the workshop highlights some of the challenges in bridging differences in spoken lanugage (arabic/english) and especially in technological language. Conversations were nebulous; some of the Iraqis wanted to use mobile survey tools to gather information on child safety and incidences of violence against children – but it the scope of their need was hard to grasp. Did they have volunteers who would interview residents of various communities and submit results? Did they expect just anyone to learn of this system and report things of their own volition? How did they expect to verify or quantify the results?

(Techies type furiously during a brainstorming session)

These are not really technological problems, and they don’t really call for technological solutions. There are a range of possible technologies out there – SMS based surveys, for example, can make distribution of a survey easier, especially if one partners with a local cell carrier. Optical character recognition and cheap cameraphones could make for faster and less error-prone data entry. But I was reminded of some meetings at the Center for Future Civic Media, where organizations were looking for a technological silver bullet to solve what are really problems in reaching out to people. Problems of a cultural or societal nature, let’s say. To me, the big unanswered question is what incentivizes people to participate in projects such as this child safety one? Do they see immediate improvements in safety for their own children? If not, I don’t really see many people getting involved on a voluntary basis.

These difficulties can be very discouraging for people like myself, who are trying to work with communities, who use technology to try to effect social change, and who rely on successful social interactions – and trust – to push our work forward. All I can think of is to look to projects like Paul Chan/Creative Time’s project Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, a project which at first I did not really understand. Basically, Paul Chan and Nato Thompson went to the 9th Ward in New Orleans and organized a performance of Waiting for Godot, involving a wide range of community members, a local theater troupe, musicians, and others in the area. What stands out for me most, and what initially I did not understand the importance of, is that much of what the project describes is a series of potluck dinners and social gatherings – not to mention that the play itself was preceded by free gumbo and live music.

As I thought about the project more, and about how Chan eventually found someone else to direct the play, and built such a good rapport with his local collaborators on a personal basis, I feel that the real genius of the project is how Chan and Thompson essentially yielded the project to those who joined them. The project, for me, was less about the play, and more about the potluck dinners… and I hope to be able to form similarly trustful and rich relationships with participants in the upcoming Grassroots Mapping workshops here in Lima this month. Only then, it seems to me, will we be able to accomplish anything, technological or otherwise.