Artificial Intelligence for Good

Volume 2    Issue 8    August 2017

In June, together with more than 500 experts in Artificial Intelligence (AI), I participated in the “AI for Good” Global Summit. Organised in Geneva by the ITU and the XPRIZE Foundation, the summit focused on a crucial and timely question: Can AI contribute to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that the UN has set to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all?

As an expert in automated decision-making, I know first-hand that AI is a uniquely powerful and transformative technology. AI can have a huge impact not only to further the progress of the wealthy countries, but also to foster the advancement of developing nations. For example, AI can teach people new skills and support lifelong learning. At the same time, the development of AI raises ethical and societal challenges for AI experts and policy-makers, who share the responsability to deploy an AI technology that is safe, reliable and fair.

Why is AI so special? As observed by Stephen Cave during the Summit, AI is a tool different from any other because of three crucial aspects: (i) AI is a universal tool, which will be soon incorporated in all other technologies (e.g. self-driving cars, smart homes, robotics, personalised medicine); (ii) AI can accelerate its own development, besides the development of other tools (e.g. machine learning is an AI tool that can improve itself as well as other AI algorithms); and (iii) AI is autonomous (AI agents make and implement decisions without constant human intervention). In addition, AI is based on data, which are often collected from people and contain sensitive information about them. Considering all these factors together, it becomes clear why AI generates excitement but also concern.

In the last few years, I have focused on the development of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for surveillance and disaster response applications. I have formulated techniques based on task planning and probabilistic reasoning to make UAVs smart enough to fly autonomously and strategically to achieve sophisticated goals specified by domain experts over a large geographical area and a long temporal horizon. The potential of intelligent vehicles in emergency scenarios is enormous as resources are limited and time is critical. However, these are challenging situations in which decisions can have a life-changing impact and human operators need to trust the machines and understand their behaviour.

At the Summit, Professor Virginia Dignum formulated three principles on which AI development should be based, which I find particularly relevant:

  • Accountability: an AI system needs to to be able to justify its own decisions based on the algorithms and the data used by it. We have to equip AI systems with the moral values and societal norms that are used in the context in which these systems operate;
  • Responsibility: although AI systems are autonomous, their decisions should be linked to all the stakeholders who contributed in developing them: manufacturers, developers, users and owners. All of them will be responsible for the system’s behaviou;
  • Transparency: users need to be able to inspect and verify the algorithms and data used by the system to make and implement decisions.

I would like to conclude with a provocative remark that Professor Gary Marcus brought to the table during the Summit and that I share: are we really so close to Strong AI  as many people seem to think, where “Strong AI” means a system that exhibits integration between all aspects of intelligence: common sense, planning, reasoning, analogy, language and perception? I believe that, although AI can truly change the world, we still need fundamental advances first. Key to achieve them are interdisciplinarity and global collaboration. In particular, I would welcome multi-disciplinary collaborations to make UAVs and drones truly effective in disaster response scenarios.

Identification for Development: Benefits and Challenges

Volume 2    Issue 7    July 2017

Over the past nine months, we have been listening to the experiences of lower income individuals with identity systems in India, together with the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (as a research partner), Storythings and the Langtons (as communication experts), and funded by Omidyar Network. We have conducted 150 interviews across rural and urban sites in Karnataka, New Delhi and surrounding Uttar Pradesh, and Assam.  We observed identity-based transactions (such as getting an Aadhaar card, buying a SIM card, being tested for a disability certificate), had a heated radio discussion, and great workshops in Delhi, Bengaluru, Washington DC and Stockholm (at SIF) for input. Our aim was to understand user experiences of identity in a digital world  – what do individuals experience, what are the pain points, how can we move towards more inclusive systems which respect privacy, agency and dignity? All these are particularly relevant in India, where Aadhaar is currently a contentious topic.

Many of our interviewees spoke of the benefit of ID systems – an Aadhaar card which enabled benefits and services; a ration card which allowed subsidized food, kerosene and medicine. On the other hand, at a time when Aadhaar memes are being shared on how it is effectively compulsory, we asked questions on privacy, exclusion, bias and repercussions for groups such as senior citizens dependent on Aadhaar verification for pensions. These concerns are not unique to Aadhaar or the Indian context of course. There have been quite a few reports on identification exclusion in the United States, including immigrants, those homeless and out of prison in Ohio, the story of Alice Faith Pennington in Texas, and the intermediaries who are trying to help those in a catch 22 situation without IDs.

We heard many concerns around all the above.

  • Several women spoke of feeling uncomfortable in “male spaces” and sluggish bureaucracy impacting more on them because of impact on time needed for family care. Men often acted on behalf of women.
  • Non-formal migrants were particularly affected by requirements such as a permanent address, not knowing local networks for help etc.
  • A visually challenged teacher told us about the long process of getting both a blind and disability certificate and that in addition, when he went to get an Aadhaar card, he was pushed about and there was no help.
  • An HIV/AIDS activist laid out his concerns around Aadhaar being necessary to obtain anti-retroviral [ART] drugs: “now what has happened in HIV-positive communities, in all the ART centres, only if we have Aadhaar cards, the ART box is given. They are making it compulsory. Due to this, our identity of HIV positive is being shown. Now that Aadhaar is compulsory, few people don’t even have Aadhaar and even if they do, and because it is linked to everything, their fear has increased. It is already a stigmatised condition. Who have they asked before doing this? Have they asked our opinion?”
  • A transgender activist was highly critical of invasive identification for “screening committees” for transgender certificates.

Identification processes are not new. But the introduction of networked systems has introduced two major challenges: the huge impact if there are any mistakes; and secondly data is more easily accessible to many more people. Again, this is not unique to India, but the burden of proving you are lies heavily on individuals and impacts even more on those who don’t have time or resources to do so.

While we agree with the above World Bank Principles (and we are cautious of generalizing from 150 interviews), we still saw confusion around processes, and what individuals perceived as an opaque state, leading to the rise of intermediaries – some helpful, others exploitative. We need more evidence on “user” needs and concerns; stronger citizen’s rights with regards to identification processes, and more efficient and effective grievance redressal. In the words of the transgender activist: “when there is an identity card, it has to be beneficial for the people of the community. We do not want cards which create problems for the community.”

http://www.identitiesproject.com

Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development

Volume 2    Issue 6    June 2017

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have immense potential.  However, they are created by people for specific purposes; they reflect the interests of individuals and the companies, or organisations, for which they work.  They can be used to do good, or to do evil.  They usually have unintended consequences.

In the context of debates over “development”, ICTs can thus be used for enhancing economic growth, or for reducing inequality.  However, can they be used to do both at the same time?  Much evidence exists to suggest that with the emphasis over the last 20 years on economic growth as the mantra of “development”, embedded in the MDGs and now the SDGs, ICTs have played an important role in enhancing development (Unwin, 2009).  At the same time, though, their design, implementation and use have led to significantly increased inequalities in the world: between the rich and the poor, between men and women, between those with fewer “disabilities” and those with more “disabilities”, between richer countries and poorer countries, between those living in rural and urban areas …  Despite their potential to be used anarchically and disruptively, ICTs therefore seem to have been used primarily to reinforce existing power differences and inequalities – both by design and by accident.  At its simplest, ICTs usually act primarily as accelerators, both of growth and of inequality.

What we mean by “ICT for Development” (ICT4D) depends fundamentally on what we consider “development” should be.  If reducing inequality does not matter, and economic growth is indeed the aim of “development”, then ICT4D has been successful.  However, for those who are concerned about the implications of an ever more unequal world, as reflected in part in the commitments made towards SDG 10 (Reducing inequality within and among countries), then ICT4D has largely failed.

Based on my practice and research over the last 20 years, I have therefore crafted a different kind of book about ICT4D, intended to encourage everyone to reflect on their own roles in ICT4D, and to reclaim the moral agenda about using ICTs to enable poor and marginalised people to empower themselves.  It is called simply Reclaiming ICT4D (OUP, 2017).  In concept, it draws heavily on Jürgen Habermas’s Critical Theory focusing on interests, on empowerment and emancipation, on the complex intertwining of theory and practice, and on the power of self-reflection.

Reclaiming ICT4D calls for a radical rethinking of ICT4D and advocates the need for six transformations:

  • Designing and implementing technical solutions that prioritise the poorest and most marginalised people and communities
  • Reshaping the role of government and regulation
  • Crafting effective multi-stakeholder partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society
  • Ensuring that digital systems are resilient in the face of security threats
  • Paying greater attention to effective learning and understanding at all levels and in all sectors
  • Placing the poor at the centre of all that we do – working with the poor, and not just for them.

For those attending the 2017 WSIS Forum in Geneva, the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is convening a workshop on Reclaiming ICT4D at 11.00 on Friday 16th June (Room Popov 1).  Do join us to discuss these issues, and to develop an agenda that will enable the poorest and most marginalised to be empowered through the appropriate use of ICTs.  Outputs will be reported on the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D platform.

Above all, ICT4D is a moral agenda.  It is about what is right and what is wrong.  It is about what each of us does to make a difference.

Revisiting our (Disciplinary) Geographies of Development

Volume 2    Issue 5    May 2017

The fundamentals of ICT4D as an area of practice and research have been revisited several times since the early days, emphasising the limits of technological determination, as well as the problematics made invisible by simplistic definitions of the ‘4D’ (e.g. Toyama, 2015). Recent events and issues in what are considered advanced economies open up to scrutiny yet another, deeply embedded view: that advanced and developing economies can be mapped jointly onto geographical areas, separating North and South and distinguishing the advanced economies in Europe, North America and some Asian countries from emerging economies in Africa and Latin America.

This taxonomy is infused in the fundamentals of ICT4D as a discipline and has many implications. It also reinforces the donor-recipient humanitarian pattern evident from the beginnings of development practice, by assigning semi-permanent labels to countries and actors that are either on the giving or on the receiving side. The consequences of this have been amply debated, especially by Latin American scholars, noting how being on the receiving end hinders self-directed action towards change. These conceptual categories tend to render us impervious to the problems that are right on our doorstep: Europe, for instance, has been recently facing issues that are central to ICT4D practice and research. The number of people seeking refugee status in EU countries, for example, rose steadily to reach around 1.3 million in 2015 and 2016 (Eurostat). However, the migrant and refugee crisis is just one side of the coin. Europe also faces challenges that are endemic to the continent, some associated with the process of redress after the 2007/08 financial crisis. To this we can add inequalities, social exclusion and marginalisation based on gender, religion and ethnic belonging.

Since 2009, I have conducted research with disadvantaged groups in Europe, particularly one of the continent’s most vulnerable populations – the Roma minority. The Roma are widely considered to be the most discriminated and socially excluded European minority group, facing widespread poverty, low literacy and digital literacy, and lack of access to quality education and housing. Numerous efforts and programmes for social inclusion and economic redress have targeted the Roma. Outcomes are often unsustainable and limited, and true change and development have yet to be achieved. In my ICT4D research I have addressed issues around voice, social inclusion and cultural affirmation of the Roma (e.g. Sabiescu, 2013; Hagedorn-Saupe et al., 2015, Ch.5) and brought it in dialogue with the situation of other vulnerable groups across both North and South, most recently, within the EU project EduMAP, which takes a development communication lens to understand how adult education across the EU can better serve the needs of vulnerable youth. What the Roma example points out is that clear-cut distinctions and firm boundaries between developed and developing contexts are illusory. Poverty, inequality and exclusion, along with the issues posed by unequal access to technology and information literacy levels permeate both developed and developing regions. There is thus scope for ICT4D research and practice to contribute to more equal, inclusive, and tolerant societies in all parts of the world. This could be developed in collaboration, bringing together ICT4D and interdisciplinary perspectives for research and practice across regions historically targeted by development programmes, and what are considered advanced economies. It is also important to encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue and exchange through events that link across various disciplinary traditions and geographical areas of focus.

Steps are being taken already by ICT4D researchers and practitioners that look not only outside but also within advanced economic regions. The International Development Informatics Association Conference (IDIA) has thus chosen a European country (Romania) for its 10th edition. Its call for papers emphasises the same vantage point captured above: that a closer, unbiased look at our contemporary societies and economies compels us to acknowledge that in essence ICT4D perspectives, tools and sensibilities are equally needed across North and South, developed and developing regions.

Innovating Cyber Security Engagement

Volume 2    Issue 4    April 2017

Introduction

Much of what we call “cyber security” has its roots in an area of study and practice called “IT security”, which can be described as the protection of computer produced data and information and the associated protection of the infrastructure that makes possible the production, circulation, protection and curation of that data. However, the protection of data is no longer solely a question of IT security. The widespread adoption of digital technology across all strata of society and the increasing reliance by governments and industry to engage with citizens through digital media brings data protection into the realm of everyday life. If data protection is to make sense to people, IT security must clearly link to the human security needs and concerns that affect the individual. By approaching data protection in this way, we are looking at and responding to the challenge of the protection of data in a more holistic manner that includes the social, political, cultural and economic as well as the technical. This is often termed “cyber security”.

Engagement innovation

To understand cyber security in terms of what it means in people’s every day lives, Royal Holloway has developed a programme of creative security engagement methods that are playful, participative, open- ended and democratic, and are designed to support and structure conversations about digital security. They tease out how digital security relates to other parts of everyday life and create spaces in which people can actively discuss what cyber security means to them.

Case Study

Creative security methods have been deployed as part of e-safety programmes. For example, a community centre in a lower socio- economic area of Sunderland (North East England) wanted to include e-safety as part of an education and engagement programme designed for local young people. The youth workers at the centre decided to focus on e-safety in the context of parental advice and the role they would like parents to play. It was agreed that creative methods would be used to enable this discussion. The researcher worked as a facilitator to help the youth workers and young people to develop the conversation through the co-creation of a wall collage.

The wall collage was co-constructed using the following process:

  1. The facilitator spent time observing the space and talking to the community.
  2. The facilitator worked with the youth workers and young people to create a series of open questions that reflected the e-safety interests of the community.
  3. The facilitator arrived at the Centre to start the project with some stimulus images and a large wall space.
  4. The facilitator worked alongside youth workers to ask the open questions with small groups of young people.
  5. The young people generated material for the wall collage.

The e-safety engagement was deemed a success because of the level of sustained engagement from the young people, showing that the topic was important to participants as well as being enjoyable as a mode of engagement. The young people produced a wall collage that demonstrated that they knew about e-safety issues but that there wasnot always a “right path”. Their narratives further showed that parents could be a security threat as well as a support.

The narratives gave youth workers an important steer on what type of e-safety support was most needed. This type of approach also enables information security researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds to collaborate by developing a shared understanding of the real-world security problems faced by a community. In particular, the approach enables a common understanding of the security concerns from the perspective of the individual.

Localising and Contextualising Access Technologies

Volume 2    Issue 3    March 2017

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has highlighted the importance of prioity assistive technologies to ensure the needs of people with a disability are met globally. Addressing this need requires a combination of innovative new solutions and the localisation in new communities of existing ones.  Localisation can be described as the linguistic and cultural adaptation of digital content to the requirements of a specific cultural market and GALA suggest that is beyond simply translation and includes other conventions such as date, time, currency, number formats, text, images, colour symbols, flow of information and product functionality. In order to complete such localisation there is a need to understand the differences between cultures and the problems that are likely to occur as a result. In seeking to address the global needs for assistive and accessible technologies such processes need to be recognised and considered. In truth, any definition of Universal design that fails to take account of culture and language cannot truly be referred to as Universal.

Our work in developing a framework for this in the Arab world has been based upon the practical experience of localising over 40 assistive technologies to support Arabic, working with developers to transition their technology, and with investment to mitigate any risks. The framework established has been effective in delivering in both the commercial and Open Source spheres. Full details of the Mada framework are available online alongside a downloadable summary of the key factors, which include the need to: 1) address design; 2) understand the language; 3) outline and address technical issues; 4) consider individual needs; and 5) deliver through partnerships

There is value in the clear discovery of requirements and local needs, generating a design that respects culture and language and recognises any impact on content. Great care should be taken with translation, which may be strengthened through the addition of a glossary and by engaging with both local translators and linguists.

Developers recognise a need to establish a consistent style regardless of the local version of a product. Later localisation is facilitated if a clear style guide for design is developed which includes the use of universal graphics and icons wherever possible. Testing with potential users, provides feedback that forms the basis of further development including both maintenance and updates. In the Tawasol project, (creative commons symbol dictionary for Arabic speakers) the engagement of users was central to design. The community was at the heart of the process of review and testing through a combination of approaches including face to face and focus group sessions to discuss and vote on design options, alongside an online voting and management system that allowed users and professionals to give continuous feedback.

The delivery of successful, innovative technology solutions for people with a disability requires full consideration of these issues and implementation of suitable processes. Used effectively they can help reduce the cost of transfer, and in the case of Open Source solutions lead to a well managed, distributable solution that is cost effective and will have impact.

The ICT4D community has an opportunity to address these issues in a systematic manner. In seeking to support the production of quality cost effective solutions there is much that can be done together to map the availability of necessary components for localisation. The availability of available text to speech engines, word prediction tools and algorithms, speech recognition API’s and symbols for communication all provide the bulding blocks upon which new solutions can be built. Where such direct tools do not yet exist then there is a need to stimulate the production of the resources upon which these are built. Frequency of words lists in the form of a usable corpus are essential and the work of language communities to build a shareable phonetic speech corpus is an excellent example of the ways in which research can directly impact upon the creation of solutions.

Such building blocks significantly reduce the cost of localisation. They directly engage language and cultural communities in the production of products and they stimulate local innovation and development. The use of Open licences for such resources can do much to enable digital empowerment for people with a disability. Sharing the availability of research and resources can accelerate that process significantly.

Post-Conflict and ICTs: Coverage, Stupidity or What Else?

Volume 2    Issue 2    February 2017

Many countries are using information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their government organisations.  In the current geopolitical situation of some world regions, there are emerging challenges related to situations of post-conflict.  These situations often involve the reintegration of ex-combatant and victim groups to the economic, cultural and social spheres of life. How to ensure adequate appropriation and empowerment of these groups via ICTs involves a complex set of issues to address by different actors.

The tip of the iceberg for ICT experts and policy makers is the legacy of initiatives whose initial aims were to transform societies into citizen-centred ones.  In post-conflict situations, a transition to citizenship by the above groups requires thinking of long-term measures to first re-establishing a sense of belonging to society and secondly restoring trust in government organisations.  Developing countries could have advanced in rolling out communications, telephone and internet networks to several geographical areas.  They could have made available online many services and platforms to organisations and citizens.   But have they tackled the root causes that led people to become marginalised in the first place?  Are the methods promoting participative decision making inclusive of people and their concerns for a better life together?

In 2007 I became interested in the evaluation of e-government in Colombia and wanted to explore how this phenomenon was pervading government organisations at national, regional and local level(s) of decision making and what opportunities could be discerned to enhance citizens’ participation.  After some interviews and analyses during 2007 and 2011, it became clear to me that e-government was in need of adopting a more systemic view of how the use of ICTs is conceived of, planned and implemented (Córdoba-Pachón and Orr, 2009; Córdoba-Pachón, 2014, 2015).

There are opportunities for citizens’ participation which could be enhanced by enabling the purposes of ICT to be openly discussed and if necessary reformulated before any policy or investment is finalised.  A systemic view of e-government required also to explore if and how citizens’ participation (does not) take place so that the causes of their (un) willingness to appropriate and feel empowered by ICTs could be identified and addressed.  These could be basic problems of access to public services, corruption or economic marginalisation.

In 2016, the Colombian Government had already envisaged a clear direction for the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to support post-conflict. According to a newspaper article in El Tiempo, ICTs were seen as fundamental to improve among other sectors the business, agricultural and educational.   Education in the use of ICTs as well as through ICTs for ex-combatants and victims is to be contracted with public and private institutions.  Also, according to El Espectador, competitions for ideas for digital products are being sponsored or funded by the Colombian National Department for Science, Technology and Innovation.

Still, legacy thinking about ICTs could be reinforced.  Investments on coverage, service penetration and achievement of measurable service goals seem to benefit government at the potential expense of marginalised groups. It is still assumed that they are to become users and that they somehow are ‘stupid’ and subordinated to experts (Rose, 2003). Centralisation, coverage and standardisation seem to privilege a market-oriented view of populations.

Alternative views about the role(s) of ICTs to support post-conflict are needed.  These could be developed collaboratively by different political actors.  The support of academics would be to enable them to design meaningful and holistic plans to enable inclusive reintegration both locally and in relation to what happens elsewhere.  In this regard, systems methodologies and creativity ideas could offer some support for stakeholders to work together and be supported rather than directed by ICT experts or policy makers.  The door is open for ICT4D researchers and practitioners to venture to involved or influenced by the UNESCO chair explore the multifarious complexities of post-conflict situations in the global arena and provide adequate thinking and practice to benefit the most vulnerable.

Big Data for Anti-Poverty Policies

Volume 2    Issue 2    February 2017

The idea of datafication, intended as rendering many non-quantified processes into data, has become ubiquitous in business intelligence. Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier (2013) refer to big data as “a revolution that will transform how we live, work and think”. Given the pervasive nature of datafication, it makes sense to ask whether/how this can affect anti-poverty action and research on a global scale.

Since 2011, I have conducted multiple rounds of fieldwork, to monitor the evolution of the computerisation of anti-poverty programmes from back-end digitisation to biometric recognition of users. My interest in datafication sparked from the observation that data has become, over time, an integral part of the making of the nation’s anti-poverty policy.

Anti-poverty programmes are often devised as safety nets to protect the poor and vulnerable against livelihood risks. These programmes range from food security to employment guarantees, and with the advent of the Internet and mobile technologies, they have already been pervaded by many diverse forms of digitisation. However, datafication of anti-poverty programmes is radically different from digitisation.  Digitisation refers to the adoption of digitality in existing processes, whereas datafication is a process in which data become the basis for administering the programme. For example, this can be used to ascertain and assign entitlements such as food or cash to particular people on the basis of poverty status.

Examples of anti-poverty programme datafication abound worldwide. Cash transfer programmes across Africa are moving to mobile money, assigning entitlements on the basis of user data. Perhaps the most powerful example of this is that of India, where the Unique Identity Project, or Aadhaar (meaning “foundation”), proposes to collect the biometric data of all residents, storing them in a  central database.

India’s Aadhaar project is the biggest biometric project worldwide, and a good example of ICTs and datafication for development. Aadhaar provides a unique 12-digit number to those who enrol, capturing their fingerprints and iris scan. Its purpose is that of semplifying delivery of social services, enabling rapid identification of those entitled. Biometric details are linked to citizens’ data, hence a fingerprint is enough to access subsidised foodgrains or other benefits.  My research on Aadhaar reveals two important points about the datafication of anti-poverty programmes. First is their technical rationale, and second are the political consequences that the new data architecture produces.

The technical rationale lies in fighting exclusion errors, which exclude entitled users from service provision, and inclusion errors, meaning inclusion of the non-entitled. Aadhaar’s datafication discriminates the poor from the non-poor, so that a non-entitled citizen cannot receive social safety benefits. It also gives users an identity, so that poor citizens without documents can have access, though this effect is sometimes blocked by malfunctioning technology (Shagun & Aditi 2016).

The main finding of my research on Aadhaar, though, focuses on its usage in India’s main food security system, and is that the programme has visible effects on the design of anti-poverty policies. Aadhaar has the function of transforming India’s anti-poverty agenda, based on subsidies for the poor, into a system in which cash will be directly transferred to them. This embodies the Central Government’s intention to do away with subsidies, substituing them with a free-market system based on bank accounts. As it has been designed, the move is hence likely to yield strong consequences on the wider development of the nation’s anti-poverty policy.

Big data bring together a set of actors – from development managers to recipients – which needs to be made sense of as development becomes more and more data-based. In particular, datafication can do much more than streamlining existing anti-poverty programmes. Aadhaar in India, for example, is entrenched in social policies that can deeply transform the inner architecture of the social security system. As ICT4D researchers, in the study of such phenomena, it is hence important to ask if datafication is actually expanding poor people’s entitlements, or if it generates ambiguous effects on their access to social safety schemes.

Royal Holloway, University of London, at EQUALS Focal Point meeting in New York

UN SmallThe UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was delighted to represent Royal Holloway, University of London at the first Focal Point meeting of the EQUALS initiative held on the side of the UN High-Level Political Forum in New York on 18th July 2017 .

EQUALS is a global initiative founded by the ITU, UN Women, the ITC, GSMA and the UNU, and delivered by a partnership of more than 20 corporate leaders, governments, non-profit organizations, communities and individuals around the world working together to bridge the digital gender divide – by bringing women to tech, and tech to women.

Royal Holloway, University of London, was created from two of the leading women’s university institutions in the UK: Bedford College founded in 1849 as the first women’s higher education institution in the country; and Royal Holloway College, founded in 1879, also as an all-women College.  The wealth of expertise of Royal Holloway, University of London’s researchers and teachers, especially  those involved in the UNESCO Chair of ICT4D in fields such as information security, business management, computer science and geography, is highly relevant to the EQUALS agenda of enabling gender equality in the digital age.  The Chair is also one of the first 20 research organisations committed to working as part of EQUALS Research Group led by the UNU-Computing and Society Institute, and looks forward to participating actively in the group.

EQUALS smallThis first Focal Point meeting brought together the founders and partners to explore ways through which the work of EQUALS can best be delivered through three coalitions of partners:

  • Access: Ensuring that women and girls have full access to digital technologies, devices and services;
  • Skills: Empowering women and girls to acquire skills to become both ICT users and creators in the digital world as well as in broader STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields; and
  • Leadership: Promoting leadership opportunities for women in the digital workforce including women’s entrepreneurship.

The work of EQUALS can be followed at:

Despite all of the global initiatives undertaken so far to use technology to empower women, digital inequality has increased.  As UNESCO reported in March 2017 “the global Internet user gender gap grew from 11% in 2013 to 12% in 2016, with the estimated gap highest in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) (31%) and Africa (23%). Moreover, Internet penetration rates remain higher from men than women in all regions of the world”.  EQUALS aims to use new approaches to reverse this trend, ensuring that women across the world have the access, skills and leadership to enable them to benefit from ICTs to the same extent as do men.

Gender and ICTs – a Long Way still to Go…

Volume 1   Issue 3   December 2016

The launch of “EQUALS: The Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age” by the ITU and UN Women in September 2016 is to be welcomed.  However, it highlights that much still remains to be done at the interface between technology and gender, despite all of the efforts made over the last two decades. We suggest that there are four key areas where further action is necessary.

First, the word “gender” is all too often equated simply with “women”, and ignores the diversity of genders encapsulated in the acronym LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Questioning).  Indeed, whilst women are frequently marginalised through ICTs, the challenges faced by gay and lesbian people are often at least as bad, as witnessed by the hacking to death of gay activists who used online media in Bangladesh in 2015 and 2016.  Using “gender’ rather than “women” for initiatives that explicitly focus on women also seems to devalue the very important work that still needs to be done to enable and empower women to use ICTs safely and productively.

Second, we are dismayed that the harassment of women at international ICT events still remains commonplace, as exemplified by recent high profile incidents.  Undoubtedly, this is in part related to the male domination of the ICT sector more generally, which is itself something that the EQUALS initiative seeks to address.  However, such male behaviour is unacceptable, and conference organisers need to address it unequivocally.  We call upon all conference organisers who have not already done so to put in place clear guidelines on expected behaviours and actions taken should they be broken.  The Geek Feminism Wiki has an excellent conference anti-harassment policy template that could serve as a model for organisers to build on.

Third, there is good evidence that online sexual harassment is much more widespread than is often thought, particularly in the conservative societies of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia as reported by the BBC in their recent stories on sex, honour and blackmail in an online world.  Our own ongoing research in Pakistan has highlighted the very extensive amount of sexual harassment using mobile devices there.  Whilst women suffer most from such harassment, it is important to note that men too are harassed.  Interestingly, preliminary results from our online survey suggest that although social media are used for harassment, most often it occurs through calls and text messages.  The implications of posting images on social media have recently been highlighted by the apparent honour killing of Pakistani model Qandeel Baloch, but this is just the tip of an iceberg, with many women in Pakistan living in fear of retribution should family members see imagery that others may have posted.  Most worryingly, our survey shows that 40% of respondents think that when women are sexually harassed through their mobile devices, they are usually or sometimes to blame for it.

Finally, we argue that men need to become much more involved in challenging the unacceptable ICT related behaviours of other men. Initiatives led by women for women have not yet made the necessary inroads into changing male behaviour, although they have often provided valuable advice about safe online behaviour for women and support for those who have been abused online.  Multimedia resources can be used very effectively to share advice and information online, and men should be encouraged to stand up and complain publicly when they witness unacceptable behaviour. Likewise, there is a growing movement for men not to participate in conference panels or sessions in which women are not also involved. Organisations such as the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) and Men Stopping Violence also provide an example of what can be done to develop grassroots male initiatives to counter sexism.

Very much more needs to be done, though, if women and men are to benefit equally from the appropriate use of ICTs.  This is an agenda that requires urgent attention, and it is something that everyone involved in ICT4D can, and should, act upon.

Digital Innovations for Financial Inclusiveness

Volume 1   Issue 2   November 2016

Digital innovation is often seen as something that does not happen in developing regions, because, so it is argued, radical innovations require advanced resources, considerable finance and the right infrastructure, which can only be managed by large organisations that are absent in developing regions. However, digital innovations for financial inclusiveness in developing countries have the potential to change this perspective.

Collaborative entrepreneurship financing is one of the areas where technological advancements in ICTs, social capital and economic capital can be combined to bridge inequalities in the global digital economy.  Safaricom’s M-Pesa in Kenya for example offers peer-to-peer transfer options comparable to what banks in developed countries have traditionally done.  BKash in Bangladesh is similar, allowing users to transfer money or make payments using their mobile wallets or agent shops. Such solutions do not try to replicate what already exists in developed countries, but they build on what is available in emerging economies: a high level of mobile penetration without many smart devices, strong social capital links and local cultures.

The traditional model in developed countries where payments are effected using a debit card, a credit card, a PayPal account or mobile payment apps all connected to a bank account does not work in cash-based emerging economies. In these regions only 3% of the population uses digital payment options  according to a report on ‘Digital Finance for All – Powering Inclusive Growth n Emerging Economies’ by McKinsey Global Institute (2016). Yet, from the same report referring to the World Bank’s Financial Inclusion Index (Findex), digital transactions between developed and developing regions are expected to be balanced by 2025 thanks to the use of low-cost mobile technologies for financial inclusion, expecting 91% of adults in emerging economies to have access to some form of financial account compared to around 55% today.

Differences in digital innovations for entrepreneurship financing and inclusiveness in emerging economies deserve more attention from researchers.  Those looking at crowdfunding, for example, need to explore hybrid models between, for example, the Village Fund by the Government of Thailand matching locally-sourced donations, and mobile wallet solutions. Research on platforms such as Kickstarter for reward-based crowdfunding in the USA, or Kiva, a US-based charity for micro-finance for development might be a good starting point, but they do not explain why similar platforms in emerging regions such as Idea.me in Latin America, DemoHour in China or Zoomal in Arab countries do not have the same popularity despite serving larger regions. Does “culture” matter in these circumstances?

Today we live in an increasingly cashless society. Transactions are becoming streams of information transferred and secured via digital devices and big data analytics is putting increasingly more value on information produced in networks. Exploring synergies using existing ICT infrastructures, embracing differences between developed and developing countries without necessarily trying to change them, promoting open and inclusive innovation and redefining financial inclusiveness beyond money could all really bridge gaps in the global digital economy.

Background and collaboration opportunities

Since 2014 I have been researching on crowdfunding platforms for entrepreneurship in an international context, publishing with Prof Paul Robson in Entrepreneurship and Regional Development on ‘Social identity and signalling success factors in online crowdfunding’ , and presenting comparative studies in international conferences like eChallenges 2015 or LAEMOS 2016. To understand and addresses current changes, closer collaboration between multidisciplinary researchers, businesses and policy-makers working on ICTs for development is necessary. I am currently exploring a research project proposal on digital innovations and ICT solutions for entrepreneurship in emerging economies, which builds on the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s network of organisational partners such as ITU, UNCTAD, and the British Council, as well as connections with researchers and practitioners in Central Africa, North Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. I would welcome collaboration with researchers and practitioners working on digital innovations for financial inclusiveness and entrepreneurship in developing countries. It would be good to explore this topic together as well as the broader scope of our work at the UNESCO Chair in ICT for Development at Royal Holloway University of London.

ICT Solutions in Proactive Disaster Mapping

Volume 1   Issue 1   October 2016

Prompted by Dunn et al.’s (1997) article in Area that examined the appropriateness of GIS for ‘development’ (scare quotes in the original) I delivered a presentation on GIS4D for the 2015 ICTD conference in Singapore together with Ollie Parsons from the GSMA. A 20-year-old article on GIS (Geographic Information Systems) might seem an odd choice of topic, except perhaps to re-visit times past.  In this case, however, many of the issues brought up by the original GIS4D article are still unresolved.  Old questions are constantly being re-worked in new guises.

For example, what is GIS?  Does it include people or is it fundamentally just software?  If it includes people, where do they fit in, and how is their participation enrolled?  Once participating, do ‘experts’, or indeed expert systems tend to take over?  And last (but not least), can computers incorporate cultural systems and beliefs?

The latest round of debate revolves around GIS for disaster management.  In Haiti, Nepal, and Liberia, earthquakes and disease have recently occurred.  Logistically, one of the biggest problems is how to target areas for immediate assistance.  For example, where is an Ebola victim located?

Existing base-maps in many areas are simply lacking information.  The advantage we have today over past iterations of participatory GIS in response to local needs is the existence of open source and free mapping tools such as OpenStreetMap (OSM).  After disasters, OSM tends to fill in very quickly.

The problem we raised at the Singapore ICTD conference is that maps produced quickly in response to a disaster may fill an immediate need, but the maps themselves will be around for a long time.  Quickly produced disaster maps are not always very accurate or complete, and can consequently be misleading.

Now, ‘proactive’ disaster mappers are trying to fill in the maps before disasters occur, often using drones or Google Earth imagery to do so.  The problem here is that very little thought has been given to ‘classic’ issues of cartography such as scale, extent, and density of coverage; appropriateness of field protocols, positionality, and frequency of update.  These are all important considerations for GIS disaster mapping (Tomaszewski, 2015).

The purpose of this short briefing then is to put the question to you, the reader, as the presenters put it to their Singapore audience: are there more sensitive ways of doing disaster mapping that avoid ‘blackboxing’ communities (i.e. associating specific locales with disaster), and that look more towards long term mapping needs?

This is also a question of impact and collaboration which, in turn, revolves around multi-disciplinarity and new ways of being inclusive.  The involvement of local knowledge keepers, experts, and residents should combine with that held by outside experts, anthropologists, and mappers more in tune with cultural protocols and long term commitments that academic ethnographers have long held dear.

Mapping needs to be more ethnographic, but not only that.  Maps will become more robust, and hold more meaning for both the etic (outsider) and local sensibilities, if they combine geographic and emic (insider) views alongside each other. This will lead to more positive long-term impacts, and can hopefully avoid algorithmic (search engine) tagging of places with negative connotations.

More work needs to be done in this area, even as new disasters arise, with appropriate and necessary (but measured) responses that consult the maps and sensibilities for better ‘ground truthing’ what they depict.

References:

Dunn, Christine E., Atkins, Peter J., and Townsend, Janet G.  1997.  GIS for Development: A Contradiction in Terms?  Area.  29.2.  151-159.

Tomaszewski, Brian.  2015.  GIS for Disaster Management.  CRC Press.