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fun with a purpose

(Cross-posted from H+M.)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you use data for development purposes.

This is a map from DC Action for Children, a nonprofit that advocates for better city policies for children and families. They recently launched a revamped version of their data tool, DC KIDS COUNT, which is part of a national program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 

A few years ago, I had a boss who was fond of saying, "Maps are great, but then what?" The point he was making - and I think it's a good one - was that with all of the new data visualization and crowdsourcing technology that's arisen over the last decade, it's easy to get caught up in making really neat-looking infographics that nonetheless fail to serve any strategic purpose. And if these maps stood alone, that description would probably apply to them; yes, a map that shows how sharply student reading levels decline as you move across the city is arresting, and depressing, but it doesn't offer a clear call to action.

What I love about DCAC's tool, though, is that it was designed for a reason and for a specific audience. Its maps provide nonprofits with hard data they can use in lobbying local officials, particularly ANCs (Advisory Neighborhood Committees - a local body of government in DC) and city council members. They also provide a clear visual reference for DCAC itself to use in making their case to local politicians for more child-friendly policies on issues like school funding. And - should these politicians choose to back a given initiative or policy - they now have accessible, engaging data to which they can refer when trying to get their peers on board.

If you're interested in data tools or issues of child poverty and development at all, I encourage you to go check out what DCAC is doing - their data is open-source and available to all, so if you want to play with it and see what you can learn about kids in this city, go for it. (Their incredibly dynamic founder, HyeSook Chung, is also posting some neat information on their blog that explains a little bit about their methodology and the choices they made in developing this.)

(Full disclosure: I participated in a volunteer consulting project last summer that worked with DCAC to advise on potential changes to the old DC Kids Count tool. However, I was not involved at all in the creation of the final product - I was part of one team out of several, and my work ended in August, before the changes began.)



I hear America singing

Here's your daily dose of cultural diplomacy: an American diplomat singing on Pakistan Idol.

This is the sort of development story that often gets relegated to feature/"human-interest" status: look how cute it is that they're all singing together! Look, they have a television show just like we do! Consider the fact that I learned about the story of Philip Assis, Cultural Affairs Officer in Karachi, through BuzzFeed - a site that is also currently featuring the stories "17 Celebrity Hookup Confessions" and "Facts All French Fry Fanatics Should Know." (I'm not clicking on that until they tell me how many facts.)

Which is a damn shame. Because people watch Pakistan Idol, just like they read BuzzFeed. America needs all the positive publicity it can get, particularly in a country where our relations remain somewhat dicey. If this is where the kids who will someday be Pakistan's soldiers and diplomats see that some Americans are trying to build bridges, so what if it's silly?

And, by extension, I'm actually sort of glad that this appeared on the site it did. Okay, BuzzFeed isn't the Economist. But that means that people who don't usually have a reason to think about Pakistan have now learned a few useful things - how US diplomacy is implemented, for example, and that Pakistanis (just like their American counterparts) enjoy watching people make fools of themselves on live television. It's not much, maybe, but we have to start somewhere. And maybe the set of a television show isn't a bad place to start.



me and you and everyone we know


I recently came across this speech from Sumana Harihareswara, an exec at the Wikimedia Foundation, about how user experience (UX) is, at is heart, a social justice issue. It's great, particularly for techies, because (hey, EMPATHY) it puts it in very tech-friendly terms:

Let's look at what it takes to do user experience work. You have to look at your service from the point of view of someone who knows a lot less than you, and see where they're coming from. You have to imagine the reasons why they want what they want. Seeing that causation, seeing the connection between what someone's doing now and all the causation that went before it, is empathy. It's a little like reverse engineering; you're trying to unlock the DRM that's stopping them from getting what they need. Which is a really cool hack, actually.

We need to to exercise a disciplined empathy. It's an empathy that includes qualitative thinking, like interviews and watching people use stuff to see where the snags are, and quantitative thinking, like A/B testing and heatmaps.

But the tech industry is pretty crappy at empathy. And I'm speaking from my experience here - I know library tech is its own field - but in my experience of our industry, we just drop the ball on empathy and hospitality, a lot.

This issue is SO IMPORTANT, for the ICT4D community in particular. I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall sometimes when I write about empathy, because it's hard to say anything new when it feels like nothing ever changes.

But - and here, of course, I can add my own experience to the mix - she's right. Because empathy is hard. If you have not spent a lot of time with Burmese refugees who have literally never seen a computer before, it's hard to imagine what their user experience might be like. Not impossible, but certainly not intuitive. And yet the experience is the gate; it's the X in "If X, then Y." Which means that if we want to use technology - any kind of technology, from radio to broadband - to give people more options and choices in their lives, we have to get imagining. We don't really have a choice.

(Side note: if you are at all interested in technology and its potential, particularly from this angle, I really can't recommend enough that you subscribe to Sumana's blog. I learned about it from Brendan, the King of the Internet, who never updates his own blog anymore but is also worth following on Twitter for the same kind of content and much, much more.)




the rain king

I come from mission-trip country. As a Catholic, I never attended churches where foreign travel was de rigueur (I guess because we did so much of it back in the 17th century). For my peers at Protestant (particularly evangelical) churches, however, goodwill vacations were quite common; some focused heavily on aid, some on proselytizing, some were a mix. No one ever questioned, however, the utility of such ventures, not with all the pictures clearly documenting grinning brown children. 

I had mixed feelings then about such trips, and I have them now. Which is also how I feel about a recent essay that's been making my social media rounds, Pippa Biddle's "Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist." The piece, mostly focused on secular aid visits (which I did not know existed until much later in my life...more on that later), comes down pretty squarely against this kind of travel. Overall, I don't think her thesis is wrong. But I'd like to respectfully disagree with some of her arguments, and I'd be interested to see how she (and other development practitioners) respond.

Biddle makes the argument that shipping unskilled Westerners in to do work that could be more efficiently done internally is ineffective, self-serving, and kind of imperialistic. I don't entirely disagree; because such trips are often designed in a way to engage volunteers and donors, they may not be equipped to actually address local needs. This is a well-known, and huge, problem in the development community. 

At the same time, however, this generalization has some holes, both in argument and in presentation.

  1. This article fails to acknowledge the other benefits of this kind of cultural interaction. The people who make these trips have the chance to expand their perspectives; become inspired to learn and do more; and provide positive and realistic examples of America (or other Western countries) in places where our image is glamorized at best and despised at worst. Do these outweigh the cons of badly-planned aid trips? Probably not, a lot of the time. But they do exist, and in some cases I would wager that they are enough to justify the trip.
  2. The article also conflates "service trips" and actual international aid projects, which is naive, poorly informed, and unfair. It would be great - ideal, really - if quality-of-life improvements were entirely beneficiary-led and -run. Unfortunately, the problem is that a lot of interventions require money and/or prior experience, which countries like America have and which other countries do not.

    If our development establishment worked the way it's supposed to, development projects would be understood as mutually beneficial collaborations in which each party contributes resources and benefits from the system-wide improvements that result. Is this how development works? Of course not. But the reasons for that are complicated, and entrenched, and won't be solved by our country deciding it's not qualified enough to help anymore.
  3. Finally, and I think this is my biggest issue: despite the fact that this entire essay is about privilege, I don't think that the topic is adequately addressed - at least not in terms of the privilege required to take a stand like this one. There are a couple of reasons for this.
    1. These kinds of trips are out of reach for a lot of Americans. I think the implications of taking an "aid vacation" like this are very different for someone who grew up in poverty in America, who may have experienced discrimination at home, and who may not have had the chance to travel - who may not even know people who have traveled before. I suspect that this lack of prior resources might act as a force multiplier for such a trip; if this is the only travel a person has ever done, it's going to have a lot more resonance. I also suspect that the results of such an aid trip might be different if the visitors were people who had struggled themselves, and who might have also been "beneficiaries" of poorly designed interventions. In other words, the empathy gap that Biddle describes might not be so big after all. It's sort of like railing against non-organic foods; at some point, you're going to have to consider what makes that Twinkie appealing to so many people.
    2. Whether these trips are effective or not, they undoubtedly provide volunteers with professional skills, travel experience, and the kind of resume boost that will eventually lead hiring managers to conclude that they are well-rounded job candidates. Biddle's bio notes that she is Director of Talent at a tech startup. It also notes that she is 21 years old. I am going to guess that her "voluntourism" experience is part of what qualifies her for such a high-level position at this age. In fact, I'm sure it helps, and I'm sure she's probably very good at her job; it sounds like the camp she organized provided her with managerial experience and the ability to improvise in low-resource circumstances, two qualities that are essential for startup participants. She's had a lot of opportunities for intercultural interaction and related self-reflection, which is helpful no matter how you slice it. 

      But what this article implicitly assumes is that - if you don't gain this kind of experience through aid trips - you can probably get it somewhere else. I'm going to guess that if you have the resources to attend boarding school and then drop out of an Ivy League school to work on a startup,* you probably CAN get that kind of experience somewhere else. But that's often not the case. And so, if we're going to suggest cutting out experiences like these, I think we need to address the issue of substitution.

Look, I don't mean to come to the defense of half-built schools and unwanted preaching. I really don't. Those things are extremely problematic on a lot of levels - I think Pippa Biddle and I can at least agree on that. However, I also think that oversimplifications like these are easy targets for distortion, quotable by people who haven't really devoted a lot of thought to the issue, and generally run the risk of getting the baby thrown out with the bathwater. 

And so I think a perhaps more useful article to read, although it's a lot more Inside Baseball, is Oxfam's blog post on why interdisciplinary collaboration for development is so damn hard. As a complexity geek myself, I would like all of the development community, all of the time, to start talking about systems and the need for holistic approaches and resilience and I'll stop boring you now. However, this provides a grounded and realistic look at how and why development works the way it does. It's not as easy to applaud, or condemn, as a picture of a volunteer bouncing an African baby. But I think that's probably the point.

*I am currently helping my mentee apply to private schools and their accompanying financial aid. So I acknowledge that I could be wrong about Biddle and her privilege, in which case I certainly apologize for making assumptions.



following the signs

I love Sesame Street for a lot of reasons, but I think what might have triggered my initial infatuation was its song parodies. As has been previously documented, I was a super weird kid*, and I distinctly remember watching Patti LaBelle sing "How I Miss My X" and feeling delighted - not just because it was clever, but because I felt like I was getting the adults' joke. It was a secret club, and by virtue of being a nerd, I had found my way in.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy (yes, I just read them, yes, I am sorry I didn't listen to everyone who told me to read them four years ago). Around the same time, I came across a link for the Sesame Workshop version of book 2, "The Hungry Games: Catching Fur." First of all: awesome. Second of all: the very existence of this video inadvertently highlights one of the most overlooked and (I think) one of the most important aspects of the books.

Obviously, the Hunger Games, as an event, are a huge viewing event for the members of the Capital. Something Katniss mentions a few times, however, is that the Games really aren't for the elites; they're there to remind the Districts of their powerlessness. The whole shindig is ostensibly for one audience, but, under its surface, has a completely different purpose. 

This is a level of media analysis that I think is often missing from the coverage of so-called viral videos and other marketing tactics. Sesame Street's target audience (3-5 YO) probably doesn't care much about the cleverness of the takeoff, just as they don't really care about the borderline-Dada parody "Homelamb." (At least I hope they don't, because I'm pretty sure Homeland is not appropriate for children.) Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit that relies on the support of Viewers Like You. The whole point is to remain present and worthwhile in the minds of supporters, so that it ultimately has the resources to provide the educational programming that is targeted at children. Similarly, the amazing PBS remixes that came out last year are clearly focused on people who *used* to watch Reading Rainbow, and who would potentially donate to support the network if they felt that it would provide some sort of cachet.

(I'm going to embed one of the Mr. Rogers videos here, because it is required viewing. Be prepared to choke up a little bit.)

In my first gig out of grad school I was doing ICT consulting for governance projects, and I did a little bit of side reading on semiotics and the art of signaling. The intersection between these areas of study and international development seems to me to (also) be important and overlooked - don't we need to know what people want to say about themselves before we offer them something that allows them to speak, literally as well as metaphorically? Side note: if you have any recommended readings here, I'd love to hear about them.

At any rate, this is one of the many things that Suzanne Collins got right in her book, and it's one of the many approaches that Sesame Workshop has gotten right in their work. I'll be looking for more examples of the interaction between mission-driven work and semiotics (MAN, that sounds dry, but it's not). If you come across any, please let me know.


*I really wanted to find a clip from the 30 Rock episode with Carrie Fisher, where a preteen Liz Lemon watches Laugh-In (or its surrogate), looks at the camera, and says, "It's funny because it's true." I don't know if I've ever seen a more accurate representation of my childhood on television.



everybody get together, try to love one another

(TL;DR: an update on my life that segues into a complaint about international development) 


If you're wondering where my posts and I have been, that is reasonable. The short answer is: it's complicated. Without getting too much into other people's business, I can say that my mother is enrolled in a clinical trial at the NIH, and I've been here for the last week, reading aloud and watching TLC and locating bakeries that sell the widest variety of cupcakes.  (Side note: After some comparison testing, we recommend Jennycakes.) She's probably going to be fine, but she's not exactly enjoying herself (cupcakes aside), and I'm going home in a couple of days to hang and help out for a week or two. For this and a variety of other reasons, I'm freelancing right now, so I'll be working from home and then coming back to DC.

As a result of recent events, I've gotten to know the NIH Clinical Center very well, from the parking guys to the location of the linen closets. Something that's not surprising, but is worth noting, is the quality of care we've all observed. Everyone is incredibly nice; people who don't know information will go out of their way to find it for you; the food (mediocre at best, but that's inevitable) is presented to patients on a menu and referred to as "room service"; the children's ward is painted purple and features brightly colored lights and art; everything is immaculate. This is obviously the quality of care one would hope for from the government's flagship hospital, but even my father, the doctor, has repeatedly commented on how hard everyone here works to make patients not just get better, but also feel better.

Let's compare that experience to the one described in this NPR story about HIV treatment in South Africa. It's about how one particular clinic is trying to innovate in its outreach practices to known disease carriers.

Brenda says that it's hard for most of "the ladies" to go to public health clinics. The people there look down on prostitutes because of the way they earn a living and because many of them are not from South Africa.
That's a problem the University of the Witwatersrand is trying to solve. It runs a clinic on the second floor of a public health facility just a few blocks from where Brenda and the other women work at night.
Brenda says she recently went there for help with a sexually transmitted infection. "They gave me good treatment, and I was fine," she says. "I really appreciate that."
She says the staff at the clinic understands her.

To recap: South African sex workers are more likely to have HIV, and they are more likely to seek treatment (and inhibit the spread of disease) if healthcare providers are nice to them. NICE TO THEM. In its most basic form, this is a lesson that most of us learn around the age of five. And yet: it is so novel, so innovative in the field of public health and development, that it gets featured as though it is something special. I think we can all be forgiven for asking what is going on here.

I bring up this particular example to say that I don't know what it's going to take for the development world to acknowledge the fact that experience matters. I feel like I'm beating on the same old drum by saying this, being reductive and overly simplistic, but it's still not happening, so I guess none of us are drumming loud enough. This idea, that the reactions and signs and perceptions a person has will impact the way that person behaves, is not new. When I was working in the private sector, the customer experience was one of the first factors we considered in creating a marketing campaign: How will this look to the customer? Is the language challenging, welcoming, direct? If we choose one particular channel to distribute our message, are there connotations associated with that channel that affect customer receptiveness to our message? (You know. There's a reason textbooks aren't printed on pillows.) 

And nowhere have I seen this principle demonstrated more clearly than at the NIH. I mean, there's no reason to front; people suffer here, and they die, and no one is pretending otherwise. But resilience is emotional as well as physical, and it's particularly crucial when patients (or beneficiaries, or customers, or stakeholders) are going through something that is so stressful and so difficult and so straight-up miserable. The soft slippers, the frequent and direct doctor updates, the nurse who mixes your juice into a cocktail when you've had nothing but ice and painkillers for two days: each of these is a tiny push, but a push nonetheless, away from the idea of just giving up.

Think about getting tested and treated for HIV. That's one of the most stressful medical experiences possible. Couldn't it use a similar approach?  Seriously?

I can imagine the responses that practitioners might have to this rant: we do try to focus on the users; our resources are constrained; funders are restrictive; there's so much more to a quality initiative; etc. To which I say: 1) until this idea is not perceived as innovative, I want us to keep working on documenting this, to integrating it into our development proposals and M&E plans; 2) that's true to a certain extent, but neither hospitality nor customer service are restricted to the Global North, and a lot of these issues can be addressed through better and more user-centered program design; 3) spin this as innovative, because apparently everyone else is; 4) correct, but this is still important, and it's being ignored. (I am citing one example here for rhetorical purposes, but if you would like to learn about other development initiatives that have failed because they offered a poor user experience, I can certainly provide other cases. So, for that matter, can anyone who has ever worked in the field.)

I just...I don't know. I'm so thankful for the care we've received at this wonderful institution, and I wish that everyone could experience it, that seeking healthcare could be an engaging and challenging and dynamic process rather than just one that sucks a lot. It would save the human community a lot of time and effort and heartache.