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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.




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.)




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. 



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.