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.