on hidden obstacles

A lot of my work has to do with technology. However, I don't always spend that much time working on my actual "hard tech" skills. Much of my day-to-day work looks at how a given tool or service can impact a project, and, by extension, the user experience that comes with that - the learning curve, whether or not people can actually stick with it, the implications of introducing something disruptive. In other words, it's important that I know how (for example) GPS tracking works, but not that I can build my own satellite.* 

But I do try to get as much hands-on practice as I can, in a variety of areas. Not just because it's important for me to stay informed, but also because it reminds me of some of the obstacles that a lay user might face. I'm learning Python with the kid that I mentor, and we've been messing around with an Arduino (from a kit with a manual that, for the record, has so many errors that I started keeping notes). I've dabbled in database construction. At one point, I could make a Flash (!!) animation. Etc. All of which I say to explain why I was actually, physically yelling at an empty map on my laptop this afternoon.

I've been toying for a while with an art project idea that would involve maps, so I've played with QGIS a bit in the past. And today I found myself stuck inside, feeling under the weather and babysitting a blind dog who literally wants to do nothing but cuddle all day.** So it seemed like as good a time as any to revisit it.

My goal, which is not the important part of this post, was to try to make a sample map that showed how unemployment in DC varied based on distance from a metro stop. QGIS is open-source, and there are tutorials from multiple sources across the web, so theoretically, anyone should have the power to take geographical data, visualize it, and (ideally) understand that information in a new way. After having tried it this afternoon, I am here to tell you that that is only kind of true.

The lighter the blue, the higher the unemployment rate. Data from . (Note that the bottom white space is a military base, which is classified as a separate type of employment.)

The lighter the blue, the higher the unemployment rate. Data from (Note that the bottom white space is a military base, which is classified as a separate type of employment.)

Here are some of the things that a person would have to know to make this map:

  • what it means to download a software "package" and why you have to install multiple components
  • how to save an Excel file as a .csv and why that matters
  • what "csv" actually means
  • what integers are
  • what strings are
  • the difference between a shapefile and a table
  • how to join a shapefile and a table

To name a few.

(And yes, you can Google the answers to some of these - I sure did - but that still requires both knowing what questions to ask and the ability to understand the answers. For example, the first thing that comes up when you search for "shapefile" is a Wikipedia article that starts: "The shapefile format is a popular geospatial vector data format for geographic information system (GIS) software. It is developed and regulated by Esri as a (mostly) open specification for data interoperability among Esri and other GIS software products." Cool story, bro.)

The whole experience reminded me of this (excellent) recent article on CES, "Everything is Too Complicated," by the Verge's Nilay Patel. He looks more at interoperability as a user obstacle, but, as part of that, makes a very similar list of real user questions that might prevent adoption. (Personal favorite: "Does Alexa always listen to you like Facebook?") If I had this much trouble creating a join that didn't yield a bunch of fields filled with null sets, and I think about technology and design for a living, imagine how a so-called lay person might do.

So how do we address this type of inaccessibility? There's obviously a need for better educational resources, formal and informal. And I think that open-source software in particular could certainly stand to re-examine its overall user experience. It's a peculiar paradox that the same tools that are free, and thus the most broadly available, often tend to be the least beginner-friendly - not coincidentally because the same people who have the interest in and skills to build new tools are generally expert enough to not need any hand-holding.

But there's also the option of removing the need to know the tool, and making the visualizations themselves more available. Happily, I discovered during my data search this afternoon that the US Census Bureau is doing exactly that. Using the American FactFinder tool, you can look up specific datasets and then create maps (by clicking a button that says "Create Map" - no shapefiles required here) of different categories. For example, let's say you wanted to see where women who worked in STEM fields lived in DC.

Must be something about the Red Line.

Must be something about the Red Line.

Personally, I think this is great. I mean, the site needs some work (seriously, guys, this aesthetic is straight out of 2003), but the map is relatively easy to get and requires no real technical knowledge. Which makes the insights - if not the technical skills - that much more available to everyone. Because not everyone has the time or the desire to spend hours trying to figure out if they should just use Mapbox. (Or a puppy to keep them company while they do.) And the faster we figure that out, the more democratic our usage of technology will be.

*And if I did want to, it would probably be too expensive anyway.

**Good thing he's cute.




like you and me

When I got to the Karamanlis refugee camp, outside of Thessaloniki, I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. I can say for sure, however, that I wasn't planning to watch any music videos.

And yet: behold.

Courtesy of the video's YouTube description: "Karamanlis Camp is the first Refugee Camp in Greece that gets together to make a music video. This project was made by every part involved in Karamanlis routine. Everybody has participated: residents of the camp from Siria and Iraq; volunteers and workers from many countries like Switzerland, Italy, Jordan, USA, Greece or Spain; NGO's (, UNHCR, IOM, AOM, SCM, NPI, SAMS) and Greek municipality workers."

That is, in fact, a music video. Like thousands of other homemade videos on YouTube, it features a bunch of people who mostly can't dance hopping around and lip-syncing with unabashed glee. The main difference, of course, is that it was filmed in unheated warehouses and featured a bunch of performers who had fled their homes and were living out of tents. But everything else, you'll have to admit, is a pretty close match.

Today seemed like a good day to share this, given the news that's coming out of Aleppo. What's happening is so horrific, and yet countries around the world - my own not least among them - remain terrified of taking in the people who are fleeing. And I wonder, if we realized how similar we are and how easily these lives could have been our own, we'd feel the same way.

The person who introduced me to the video above was the guy in the white cap, the one who does a lot of the dancing; his name is Azziz.* I was there for work about a month ago - one of our clients is an NGO that operates clinics in the camps - and he was one of our translators. His university studies, in chemistry, had been interrupted. He spoke four languages, and his favorite musician was Ed Sheeran. While I was there, I also met a neurosurgeon, a student of Arabic literature, and an agricultural vet (he specialized in chickens). I met a telecom engineer and a former five-star chef who made the best falafel I've ever tasted. These were people who had lived middle-class lives. They did not have any problems when I handed them an iPad. And then, all of a sudden, they went from houses and grocery stores and nice cars to living in tents and worrying about lice.

I'm not sharing this story, and this video, right now because I think that you should be well-off or a pop song fan in order to be an Acceptable Refugee. (I don't. I really can't emphasize that enough.) I'm sharing it for two reasons. One, because the fear that drives anti-immigrant sentiment, of the kind that has become so disturbingly common in America, thrives when you're looking at a faceless Other - but it's a lot harder to sustain when we identify something we have in common with the other side. Even if that something in common is just a mutual love of Justin Timberlake. 

And two, I'm sharing it because even if you're not particularly opposed to supporting refugees, in the massive tsunami of tragedy, it's often hard to make out the shapes of individual stories. And like it or not, those are the stories that often move us to action. They're the stories that cause us to reconsider just how bad it would be to have an influx of newcomers arrive, or how active we should be in advocating for safer spaces, for more resources, for a better welcome. Marketing has been a big part of my career. I know how this works.

So here is your proof - not from me, but straight from them - that we're not that different. That, despite the almost unimaginable atrocities that are happening, there are real people involved, not just numbers, and they need all the support they can get. And, as John Darnielle puts it:

They came in by the dozens
Walking or crawling
Some were bright-eyed, some were dead on their feet

And they came from Zimbabwe, or from Soviet Georgia
East Saint Louis, or from Paris, or they lived across the street
But they came, and when they finally made it here
It was the least that we could do to make our welcome clear...


(PS. Just to be clear, there are lots of actual things you can do. Refugees Are Welcome has some advocacy tips if you're so inclined; has resources for donation and volunteer opportunities.)

*He gave me permission to use his first name. Also, he said he would like this video shared as widely as possible.



where I'm going, where I've been

Apparently it has been 2+ years since I wrote about development, which is shameful but not terribly surprising. There isn't one reason for it; I got busy, and then enough had happened that it seemed exhausting to resume. I'm not always great at prioritizing my time, and the act of writing is, for me at least, satisfying but also immersive and draining. 

But those aren't good enough reasons to quit. And I'd like to continue to try and provide an accessible window into the work that we do in this field, a field that is often ignored or misunderstood. Particularly now, post-election - although I've been planning to do it for a while. Also, I'm on a work trip, which gives me a few immediate topics to cover.

So. Hillary, where the hell have you been?

Since last we spoke, I've been continuing to work on tech, development, and what's broadly termed "innovation" - a word that has a real meaning, but is often used (if you'll pardon my profanity) as a BS catchall to describe things that are shiny and new. I've been really lucky in that I've been with some amazing teams, people who are truly trying to change the development landscape by understanding others' needs better. I can't take a lot of credit for the work we've done, but I can say that I've learned a lot.

But, because there are a lot, I will summarize them below, mostly for context purposes. I'd like to go back and reflect on some of the lessons I've learned, and hopefully I will, but that's also a bit ambitious right now. Let's just get back to regular posting first, shall we?

ANYWAY. For about a year and a half, I was at the World Bank, working on some very different projects with a few key similarities.

  • One was called ISPMS, and it was charged with trying to engage the general public to come up with better indicators for the performance of public management systems. Try saying that five times fast. The short pitch is that public management systems - taxation, procurement, government HR - are vital for the functioning of a country, but it's very hard to tell if they're actually doing well. So this project was trying to get ordinary people to think critically about this, about what it means for a government to not be corrupt and for a tax system to be fair.

    My job was to figure out why people might not be excited about this topic, and come up with outreach strategies to get them involved. There were quite a few interesting findings; there was a lot of complacency with the status quo to address, and the sheer size of these systems and their level of entrenchment in many countries made them seem un-reformable in some ways. Also, quite frankly, these are abstract topics, and abstract topics aren't known for their mass appeal. Despite these challenges, we did manage to triple our expected participation, which was great.
  • From there, I moved on to two projects within the Bank's Climate Technology Program. CTP's mission is essentially to address climate change by making it easier for green economies to grow. One of the projects I worked on there was called MarketConnect, and it was a design geek's dream: we were trying to figure out what external (not in-country) resources green tech entrepreneurs in developing countries needed in order to grow and be successful. Rather than working directly on the use of technology, we were looking at what needed to be available for technology to grow and be adopted - a sort of groundwork approach that has proven massively helpful and relevant for the work I'm doing now (see below). 
  • The other CTP project was called Launchpad, and it also took more of a systemic approach. It was (is! it's still going, as is MC) an internal incubator for Bank staff, set up to equip them with the tools to design projects that supported the growth of green tech. Or, in other words, to help them learn to know what people needed before actually designing a project. These teams were also focused on promoting the growth of green tech businesses; what we were working with them on was understanding the landscape, people's needs and incentives, and potential barriers to adoption of a given project. This, in turn, required *us* to understand what the *teams* needed, so we could make sure they got the most out of the experience. You follow? Good. 

As noted, I will probably return to these projects in future writings. But right now I want to look at what I'm currently doing and the role this work has played - which I'm doing not just because I am assuming you want to know (if you don't, you probably aren't reading this in the first place), but also because making a career in this field can be really difficult. And if I can show at least one path, well, why not.

I left the Bank last year to join a tech startup called Dharma. For a bit over a year now, I've been working on helping set up the company, develop some of our business and marketing strategy, and - my main focus as of late - technical advising for product implementation. Our platform is a web- and mobile-based tool that makes it easy for people to collect, understand, and use data; we got started in the humanitarian space, but we've seen it used for everything from tracking booth visitors at trade shows to creating patient records in low-resource clinics. In essence, you can build a form to collect whatever information you need, manage the people collecting it, and understand it without using Excel or STATA or any other non-entry-level tool. (Although you certainly can use those for analysis. But you don't have to.)

Which is why the past few years, unconventional as they may seem, have been absolutely vital to helping me do my job well here. Our platform is user-friendly - extraordinarily so, and I say that honestly and with great conviction - but it's still technology. Which means that learning how to figure out if people will or won't use it, and why, is arguably the most important part of my job. The most life-saving technology in the world doesn't matter if people won't use it. Understanding their hearts, and minds, is vital to any sort of collaboration, and absolutely necessary for any possibility of innovation. (You see what I did there.)

All of which is to say that: I am currently in Beirut, working with a large NGO to use Dharma to set up a records system for mental health, and so far it's been incredible. I've learned so much in the last few days alone that it's hard to sum up. I'll be writing a few blog posts for work, which I may cross-post here, and I'll try to leave notes here and there if I can. 

It feels good to be back. I can't promise posts on any schedule, but I'll do my best.



thoughts iconic

Sticking my head above water here for a few minutes to note a particularly interesting initiative that came across my desk: The Noun Project.

As far as I can tell*, The Noun Project is a sort of marketplace where anyone can access and upload icons from designers around the world. And they do appear to be limited only by the imagination: in a one-minute scan of the site, I saw icons for hand dryers, a man summiting a mountain, needle-nose pliers, and a "paleo muffin." 

For the most part, this strikes me as an advancement for humanity, and one with particular relevance to development, where we're often dealing with language and/or literacy barriers. There's no guarantee, of course, that these symbols will be universal (as anyone who has ever tried to Pictionary their way through a foreign market can attest), but they obviously have a lot more potential to be understood. For the most part, a person looks like a person looks like one of those bathroom door icons. 

What might be more interesting in the long term, however, is the impact of this communication shift on our actual thought processes. These icons have the potential to turn our brains lazy, I'm afraid, with the shorthand that they provide - but they also provide semiotic layers that words can't necessarily. (To cite one example, some friends and I have lately become fascinated with a particular set of "stickers" on Facebook that features the incredibly strange Sunny Eggy,** which is a character with a fried egg for a head. Somehow, the exuberance of an egg yelling "Good Morning" sometimes conveys my feelings better than the words themselves. And yes, I am being totally serious.)

For a glimpse into this future, I suggest you watch this video. Note: a brief part of it is mildly NSFW, but nothing serious.

Eventually, perhaps we will all find that the English language is no longer sufficient to express the complexities of our thoughts. Just like Gina. Now that is a consequence worth assessing.

(H/t An Xiao Mina for the Noun Project link.)


*Note to site designers: the "About" page is pretty difficult to find. I did, but it took some effort.

**Fun fact: I was discussing these stickers with a friend who's based abroad, and she expressed fondness for them too. Subsequent discussion revealed that we were actually talking about two DIFFERENT sets of stickers featuring eggs, which is either a testament to human ingenuity or a sign that we need to destroy the Internet.




The NYT has an article today about "luxury that's by Africa and for Africa." It features a variety of entrepreneurs who have taken it upon themselves to establish Africa-based luxury brands, with goods created by local artisans. The author, Vanessa Friedman, acknowledges that "(t)he idea that luxury, which can be considered the ultimate in excessive self-indulgence, can be used to effect real economic change is a complicated proposition, and one that is often met with skepticism." But one of the business owners, Paul van Zyl, mounts a spirited defense:

"“It’s true, you get the raised eyebrow a lot,” Mr. van Zyl said of Maiyet. “But the real and robust response to that is: Ask any artisan of incredible skill if they would rather be paid $70 a running meter for their silk, which is what we pay at the luxury level, or $7 a running meter, and what the former can do in terms of transforming the lives of their workers, and the answer is pretty clear. Why should this be O.K. only when it comes to Italian and French artisans, and suspicious when it comes to African artisans? That’s the real issue.”

Yeah...that's not actually the real issue. The real issue might be the whiff of colonialism that exists around the whole thing.

Let me say this: I am very much in favor of local economic development. I am also very much in favor of innovations in local economic development, which is to say the encouragement of more businesses than the typical beaded-necklace-and-placemat projects. (Which is not to say that those necklaces aren't beautiful! But.) And I am definitely in favor of artisans getting paid according to the actual worth of the good they create, and if that's $70 and not $7, all the better. 

But what the article fails to discuss is the (white) elephant in the room - race and class. All of the entrepreneurs she features are white, which might not be an issue if this wasn't taking place on a continent where, historically, white people have come in and set up businesses based on the labor of the original residents. And while two of the people in the article are from Africa, they're not exactly poor Afrikaner farmers; one, Hanneli Rupert, is the daughter of a billionaire. Of course, one can hardly argue that a business that compensates its artisans that well is exploitative, but it still doesn't really feel like meaningful progress.

I think I would feel better about the whole thing if I knew that as part of the model, these business owners were also providing other Africans - white and black, but particularly the poorest - with the resources and knowledge necessary to develop their own luxury empires. Market barriers are a lot higher when you start off poor and distant from traditional centers of luxury spending, and it would be great if these business owners could not only continue what they're doing, but also contribute to a more sustainable model of economic growth that doesn't just rely on others coming in and dropping jobs from a plane. Again, I don't necessarily have anything against these companies themselves. I just hope that this is only the beginning of the story.



but are we all Aztecas, really

More on the World Cup. (I realize that I'm stretching relevance here, but: marketing + international relations + it's my blog.)

Among the many, many things that fascinate me about the World Cup is the creation of team slogans. Partly because they reflect the event's ability to create a (somewhat) equal ground for countries that otherwise differ dramatically in global power, and partly because they are awesome.

The Washington Post did a pretty good roundup of the slogans, but I beg to disagree with a few of them. For example:


  • Australia: "Socceroos: Hopping Our Way Into History!"
    • Washington Post says: C+
    • Hillary says: A-. How can you not admire their commitment to something so profoundly dumb? Also, it's kind of fun, and games are supposed to be fun, the last time I checked.
  • Cameroon: "A Lion Remains a Lion"
    • Washington Post says: A- ("smacks of laziness")
    • Hillary says: A++++++. This is arguably the toughest and most menacing slogan I have ever heard, for anything.
  • Chile: "Chi Chi Chi Le Le Le! Go Chile!"
    • Washington Post says: B+
    • Hillary says: D. I'm pretty sure that this is just a thing you say, and not a slogan per se.
  • Ecuador: "One Commitment, One Passion, Only One Heart, This is for You Ecuador!"
    • Washington Post says: B (too earnest)
    • Hillary says: B-, for different reasons. I am actually a big fan of their sincerity, but much like Chile's "slogan," I don't think this one really qualifies. I mean, look at its length alone.
  • Ghana: "Black Stars: Here to Illuminate Brazil"
    • Washington Post says: B, for cheese
    • Hillary says: A+. It references the nation both symbolically and literally (black star on the flag), and it factually describes the behavior of stars. Plus it strikes a nice balance between being threatening and being terrifying. They're not going to eat you, like Cameroon! They're just going to show you how it's done. They'll show you the light. The black star light.
  • Greece: "Heroes Play Like Greeks"
    • Washington Post says: D, although they admit bias
    • Hillary says: Are you kidding? A++. It's not as breathtakingly baller as Cameroon's slogan, but it's in the same arena. Bonus points for the mythological allusion.
  • Mexico: "Always United, Always Aztecas"
    • Washington Post says: B+
    • Hillary says: D. First of all, why does Mexico get credit for its historical reference, when Greece does not? Secondly, this is not even accurate, as there were a multitude of pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico, including the Toltec, the Mixtec, the Purepecha, and the Maya, all of whom could very well have been good at soccer. We don't know, because colonialism. And now we're even erasing them from our team slogans. 
  • Netherlands: "Real Men Wear Orange"
    • Washington Post says: C-
    • Hillary says: B. I don't know, I kind of like it. There's another historical callback in there, and also orange is not a color that America traditionally associates with masculinity. 
  • Portugal: "The Past is History, the Future is Victory"
  • Russia: "No One Can Catch Us"
    • Washington Post says: B+ (basically: too soon)
    • Hillary says: A, for chutzpah. Also, it's short and descriptive, which is how a slogan should be. (Are you listening, Ecuador?)
  • South Korea: "Enjoy It, Reds!"
    • Washington Post says: B-, for reduced expectations
    • Hillary says: B. They really nailed the essence of most of the English that gets translated from Korean - technically clear, but still a little puzzling.
  • Uruguay: "Three Million Dreams...Let's Go Uruguay"
    • Washington Post says: B+, because it accurately reflects Uruguay's overall position coming in
    • Hillary says: B+, but again, this is a concurring opinion. I like that it sums up the World Cup's importance as a global stage. But "Let's Go [team]" is not a slogan. I don't know how many times I have to say this. 

Anyway. I do agree with the Post that America's slogan ("United by Team, Driven by Passion") is stupid and probably better suited for a Chevy truck commercial. How about "At Least Our Country Is Kind of Paying Attention This Time"? Another option: "We're Still Not Calling It Football." Team USA, if you're listening, I am available as a brand consultant. Just saying.




an "appropriate technology" manifesto

This "love-fueled rant" from Aspiration Tech should be required reading for anyone who has ever worked with technology and/or nonprofits. A few highlights:

...Technology discussions and planning should remain firmly rooted in the language of the end user. Vocabulary is a powerful barrier to organizational autonomy and empowerment.

...What has worked offline for generations still deeply informs what works best overall. Technology has not changed the game so much as it has changed the process of winning the same. The game is the same as it has been since before anyone walking today on this earth was alive: build power in movements to catalyze social change and justice, and hold corporations, governments, and random controlling parties accountable for the leverage they exert and maintain. Tech fetishism is never a substitute for great organizing. Technology will not set you free, in fact quite the opposite.

...And last, but perhaps most important: nonprofits should never forget who technology leaves out, and what it leaves undone. A number of those most in need of the social justice impact that nonprofits strive to realize exist beyond the reach of the latest shiny internet fad. Technology is a powerful, seductive and essential vehicle for communicating vision, winning campaigns, buttressing programs and supporting operations. But technology doesn't make a better world, people working for positive social change make that better world. (Editor's note: THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS)

The only things I would add are that:

  • These ideas apply to the philanthropic arms of for-profit groups as well as nonprofits, and
  • We're not dealing with just nonprofit employees here - we also need to think about external stakeholders, including the target audiences of these projects. There's tech to improve internal function, and tech as a part of outward-facing initiatives, and most of these apply to both.

But still. It's good to remind ourselves of these things. (H/t Sean Martin McDonald.)




it's your party

"Axel Witsel" is such a great name.

"Axel Witsel" is such a great name.

I love being in DC for the World Cup. It's probably because of all the international organizations that are based here, but my fellow citizens are approximately 1000x more excited about this event than people anywhere else I've ever lived.* And even though I'm not much of an athlete, or even much of a sports fan, I dig it; I think it's the global nature of the event, the fact that fans are sort of required to know about things that are happening in Croatia or Ghana, even if they're only related to soccer. And in a way, it feels more globalized even than the Olympics - maybe because there's only one sport, so the country-level fandoms are way more focused and intense (as opposed to the Olympics, where there are so many sports and affiliated politics that it's easy to lose track).

I'm also really interested in sports and global integration from another angle - the idea of one sports team as a unifier of diverse fans. Which brings me to the point of this post: a fascinating article by Sam Knight in Grantland that explores whether or not the diversity of the Belgian national team is leading to greater "Belgitude" - an attitude roughly analogous to national pride, with a dose of "I guess this country shouldn't split up after all" in the mix.  The idea is that, while many Belgians are permanently annoyed that they live in the kind of country that can go for multiple years without a government, the diversity of younger generations has led them to appreciate Belgium for what it is: a weird place, but not necessarily a bad one. For example:

...(T)he article also put forward the idea that the country’s newest citizens might be the first to truly accept Belgium on its own eccentric terms. Leman believes that theory has come true. “How to explain?” he said. “Our national discussions are internal discussions, and very domestic, and these guys coming from outside look at Belgium and they say, ‘Why destroy this country? With its nice system?’”**

As a person who has seen the Mighty Ducks movies,*** I know the trope of sports as common ground is a bit simplistic, but I also think there's something to it - maybe because it's simplistic, actually. Sports fandom is a little bit primal; as much as we might like to imagine that it comes from our head, I think it's probably based in the heart and the gut. Which means that even though there are a million political and economic differences that a sports team will never bridge, that instinctive aspect of being a fan lets us circumvent all of that and, for a moment, find common ground with someone else. It's not everything, but it's also not nothing.

And what's even more interesting about cases like the Belgian team is that, if this analysis holds up, they're actually taking the idea of sports-based unity to the next level by not only bringing people together, but by creating a new reality in order to do so. (Granted, that reality can best be summed up as "This isn't so bad," but again, you've got to start somewhere.) I'll be interested to see if it holds up, and to consider the implications of this narrative creation for the future - after all, as divided states go, Belgium is probably among the tamer examples.

Also, I am kind of obsessed with Stromae and his video about the Red Devils' official song, "Ta Fête" ("Your Party").

*With the possible exception of South Korea, but everyone there would have been cheering for one team.

**A sentiment that reminds me of Tina Fey's turn as Blerta, the Albanian addition to Girls. ("I have roof over head. For this, I thank God.")








integrating empathy into the Maker movement

At the 2014 DC Mini Maker Faire. 

At the 2014 DC Mini Maker Faire. 

I think I've finally figured out my problem with the mantra "Fail fast, fail often."

This week/end, I had the opportunity to attend two "Maker" related-events - the DC Mini Maker Faire on Sunday, and an AAAS/MakerEd-hosted conference, "Making Education Great: Expanding Support to Broaden Access and Participation in STEM Education Through Making," on Monday. Since, of course, I have an affinity for both nonformal ed and user-centered program design more generally, I jumped at the chance. Besides, they sounded like fun.

And they were fun - interesting, thought-provoking, engaging, with lots of Legos and wire for me to play with as I listened. If you're not familiar with the Maker movement, it refers broadly to "the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers" - in other words, DIY, with a heavy focus on creation and/or technology. (This post is largely focused on the domestic community, but there is certainly a push to export these ideas to encourage entrepreneurship and the acceleration of tech innovation as well.) It's a movement that, in theory, has the potential to be radically inclusive; when you make stuff, after all, you're no longer bound in the same way by what you can buy. In theory, it should lead you to the idea that institutions and rules are mutable and breakable, that you have the power to invent things and to change them and to take them apart. In theory, "making" and "hustle" aren't so far apart in spirit. In theory.

But theory is one thing, and practice is another. In practice, inclusivity remains a huge issue, which is why everyone was gathered at that conference. (Tellingly, the vast majority of participants were highly educated, although there was a lot more racial and gender diversity than I was expecting, which was cool.) So-called "maker spaces," labs with materials where anyone can play and create, are one of the linchpins of this movement, but they're also far more common in well-off communities; low-income schools often struggle to support quality STEM education at all, much less innovation in science teaching. But I think one of the biggest reasons - certainly the biggest reason we're not talking about - is this: in America, when you're poor, and when you lack privilege, the consequences of failure are different. 

Think about it. When you give yourself permission to fail, the implicit assumption is that you have the resources - materials, time, reputation/social capital - to try again. That's a pretty damn privileged assumption to make. When you're poor, you don't have resources. That's what being poor means. Furthermore, mainstream American society is not exactly set up to reward experimentation among underserved groups; when you're on welfare, and being derided for your life choices by people who don't even know you, it doesn't exactly put you in a head space where you can be like, "You know what I want to do? Experiment!" It's more like, "You know what I want to do today? MAXIMIZE MY CHANCES OF SURVIVAL WITH EVERY CHOICE I MAKE." Risk aversion is often ultimately the more practical option.

Unfortunately, "fail fast, fail often" is a common mantra among Makers and the subcultures it overlaps - design thinkers, "innovators," etc. The idea is that you want to iterate, to improve, to fix things, that failure is how you learn. And it's not a bad idea, per se. But it's also not an idea that we can just assume is natural in every community. Because failure is for those who have resources and chances, who can make a mistake and not have to worry that it will reflect poorly on their entire race or ethnic group or neighborhood. And if we assume that an aversion to failure is some sort of flaw, rather than a natural reaction to circumstance, we're just flaunting our own privilege and the fact that we don't have to worry, at least not in the same way.

So what's the answer? I'm not totally sure. To its credit, the Maker movement - which is very new, at least in its current form - is grappling with these questions, using discussions like yesterday's to figure them out. But I think we might ultimately need to change the way we talk about these things a little bit. Rather than just talking about placing Maker Spaces into communities, we need to address the experience we hope to co-create, to actively work with the community to understand what they want and need (which is to say, ask them). We need to understand that these kinds of spaces might look different in different places, that they might involve car mechanics or Instagram apps instead of 3D printers (which are cool, but come on guys, we need something else). We need to understand that they have an intimidation factor, and that intimidation factor needs to be dealt with. (And, for the record, I think these are lessons that can be applied to ICT4D more broadly as well.)

Rather than saying "Fail fast, fail often," I think we might need to say, "I'm scared sometimes, but here is a place where it's safe for me to try things and fail. How can we make it a space where you feel the same way? How can we fail together?" We all want to pull back the curtain on Oz, to learn how to build our own worlds. But we have to understand that we haven't made it easy for people to get started on that journey, and to get anywhere, we're going to have to learn what failure means for each other.

(HUGE thanks to Danielle Martin, who told me about this event and encouraged me to come, and to the amazing Dorothy Jones-Davis and Kipp Bradford, who organized the event with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)



fun with a purpose

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

DCAC's Data Tools 2.0.

DCAC's Data Tools 2.0.

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.)



love is the driver: or, about that Reading Rainbow Kickstarter


Over the last few days, every social media platform I know has been lit up with posts about LeVar Burton's attempt to restart and remodel Reading Rainbow. By and large, the overall coverage of the project has been extremely positive, which makes sense; in addition to being a terrific show, Reading Rainbow hits all the right nostalgia buttons for a pretty wide swath of the population. I mean, it's difficult to criticize the mission of a project that includes both Reading and Rainbow in its name. 

One notable critique, however, appeared from Caitlin Dewey on the Washington Post's Intersect blog, and I think it's worth addressing. Among the concerns Dewey highlights: that the project is out of step with the digital reality of children in poverty, and that it ultimately addresses the wrong issue - it focuses on teaching kids to love reading, when they might not know how to read at all. 

First of all, there are a few basic facts here that I would dispute. For example, she points out that low-income kids are more likely to access the Internet at home via mobile phone, which is totally true, but ignores the fact that the program is (at least in part) designed for teachers in classrooms, where desktops and laptops remain the primary means of Internet access. She also notes that the service will cost money, which is true as well, except for "disadvantaged" classrooms, where access to the new platform will be provided for free. My beef with inappropriate and inaccessible technology is well-documented, but honestly, I don't think that's as much of an issue here.

What I find more problematic, however, is the idea that we can't focus on both literacy education and fostering a love of books. Reading is a skill that only improves with practice, and as anyone who's ever studied a musical instrument can attest, no one wants to practice unless they're enjoying themselves. The kids who are struggling with literacy are the ones whose parents don't have the time, the resources, or the ability to read to their kids, to let their kids see them reading, to spark that flame that lights the way for a lifetime of learning. To succeed, they need that extra drive, that extra grit. They've got to want it. It's the desire that, at least in part, motivates the learning.

So I don't think it's wrong for us to expose kids to books, and the wonders they hold, in as many places as possible. In fact, I think it's helpful for kids to see reading in action, to connect stories to books and books to joy. It certainly can't replace literacy education, but it's far from irrelevant.

Now, is this project everything I'd dream of? Not necessarily. My heart still lies with public television, which remains the most accessible medium we have. Do I wish that the general public would devote this much time and focus to other, less flashy education issues? Of course. But this is still a good idea overall, and it's one that deserves our support. And if you have any doubt about the program's potential for inspiration, go check out some of the old clips on YouTube. You don't have to take my word for it. 



thanks to listeners like you

"It is because of NPR," my Uber driver told me this morning. "All because of NPR!"

He was referring to his knowledge of English, which he acquired almost exclusively from - you guessed it - National Public Radio. "I have RFI [French public radio] access on my phone, but my teacher and my wife said, 'No. You should listen to NPR.' And now? RFI? Never." (He added that his favorite host was Kojo. Obviously.)

I have no real new observations here, except that I love being reminded of how powerful effective media can be for educational purposes. When I hear stories like this one I think of my father, living as a child quasi-refugee in France, getting his first introduction to America from Tom Mix Westerns; of my old friend Yuriy, who once told me that he learned English from the reruns of DuckTales they broadcast in his city in Ukraine; of my host brother in Korea, who learned the word "undertaker" from the name of his favorite American wrestler. (Yes, really. And yes, I'm counting it.)

And, of course, now of this man, a former executive with Coca-Cola in Cameroon whose daughter is in the US Navy and who's working on a novel about the experience of the African immigrant in America.* I'm glad that the mediated, highly enunciated NPR accent has proven its worth. And I'm glad that we make it freely available to all Americans, new and old.


*It was a long ride. 



necessary but not sufficient

Daily Intel has a piece today on how NYPD officers are (theoretically) going to start carrying naloxone, the heroin anti-overdose medication, in an effort to stem the rising tide of opiate-related deaths in that city. Predictably, naloxone is a controversial treatment, particularly in this context; the rationale against it seems to be that if heroin users *know* that they can just overdose whenever they want and not die, they'll have no incentive to stop using. In that sense, it's reminiscent of the Bush-era PEPFAR campaigns that emphasized abstinence over condom usage, with the logic being that if people know how AIDS is passed on but you don't give them protection, then they just won't have the unprotected sex. Harm prevention vs. harm reduction.

Unsurprisingly, those AIDS programs didn't really work, and forsaking naloxone probably won't either. Now, I love behavior change and its related communications - there's a reason I've focused so much of my academic and professional career in that area - but, unfortunately, difficult problems generally require systemic, multi-pronged solutions. And while we should be working on the structural issues and individual choices that lead to problems as aggressively miserable as heroin addiction, in the meantime we have some people who are dying on our hands.

This is a domestic issue, of course, but the treatment of harm reduction vs. harm prevention as a binary instead of as a compliment has substantial relevance for the development world as well. No one is going to argue that an educational radio program is an adequate substitute for a well-run and well-resourced school, but building institutions takes time, and there are kids who need an education in the world we live in now. Not to state the obvious or anything, but the trick is figuring out how to balance the two approaches - not making ourselves choose only one.


(Another example of the need for a systemic approach to social change: this Onion article. I know, two in one day. With me, this is what you get.)



some UN humor to start your week

As a person who is working on some large-scale institutional reports, I'm a big fan of this. (H/t @frankrebecca.)

“Mexico is among the world’s chief contributors to the ongoing magical realist crisis, as it remains the country with the highest number of deceiving uncles whose visits to their extended families are presaged by strong, icy north winds in the middle of summer, which can damage infrastructure and sharply disrupt transcontinental weather patterns,” said U.N. analyst Alison Nguyen. “But many other countries are suffering as well, ranging from Venezuela, whose potable water supply diminishes every time a river dries up and leaves an impassable mountain range in its place, to Chile, where an entire state’s ecosystem was recently blighted by an ever-blossoming mango tree that grew thousands of feet into the clouds above the grave where Mama Rosita was buried.”

“We must act now, before the rainy season,” Nguyen added. “That’s when Mama Rosita’s temper always flared.”




on ICT4D and empathy


(Originally published, in slightly modified form, on April 14, 2014.)

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.)



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.




hearts + minds

Over the last few months, I've avoided writing about a lot of international development-related topics, because I didn't really know where they fit into my blog overall. These topics are a big part of my life, and something about which I care a lot, but - because they were all mixed in with stories about my uncles and quotes from the metro - I never really had a way to articulate what it is that matters to me in this field, where my heart lies. So I sort of cast this topic to the side, but because I missed it, I didn't really want to write that much about anything else either. (Totally productive. Right?)

"STOP WORRYING," you are saying to yourself right now. "JUST MAKE A SEPARATE BLOG."

Reader, that's what I did. And it's what you're reading.

So here it is - Hearts + Minds. I want to write about development and empathy and respect, about empowerment and the roles that communications and technology and good design can play in that process. The "hearts and minds" concept generally refers to victory by persuasion instead of force, but the kind of victory I'm interested in is collective - the progress we can make when we understand each other.

I was inspired by this quote from Lilla Watson, and actually considered calling the blog "Collective Liberation," but it turns out that that phrase has been used by several nonprofits and an author already. (Other rejected titles, in case you're wondering: "Songs of Freedom," "Medium and Message," "Me and You and Everyone We Know," "No Islands.") The "hearts and minds" concept is often attributed to LBJ, who referenced it frequently during the Vietnam War, but it actually started with John Adams, who said of the American Revolution:

"The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people."