Even the most perfect system breaks down. Tomáš Sedláček

You Can Do Well By Doing Good

Can the internet empower the voices from developing countries? Martin Eiermann spoke with Juliana Rotich, executive director of Ushahidi, about information flows, local knowledge, and the relationships between activists and entrepreneurs.

The European: Ushahidi has evolved from a single project into a large platform. What is the thinking behind your work?
Rotich: Our focus is on flows of information. How can we use the technology that people have? Out of seven billion people, a huge percentage of people have mobile phones in their pockets. We can start from that baseline and ask: How can a device as simple as a mobile phone change the flow of information? How can that information flow be empowering? How can people get information that is useful and contextual? Can they connect to a body of knowledge that is created by the crowd and gather information on the ground? And once they have gathered that information, can they act on it? We are trying to answer these conceptual questions by looking at the different ways in which people use technology: Online applications, smartphones, text messages, and so on. So convergence is important: Different technologies can be combined, the stuff that we are doing offline should be able to be affected online. And the other important aspect is transparency. Is it possible for the crowd or the citizens to be involved in gathering information that can help keep an eye on the projects that are mostly top-down?

The European: To some, the internet is an instrument that can be used for good and evil. For others, it is a force of bottom-up empowerment. What’s your take?
Rotich: Let’s look at the big picture. We use open source software. The power of open source is in providing a skeleton on which people can flesh out what matters to them or what they would like to accomplish. Jonathan Zittrain has talked about the idea of “generativity”: Can you set up the base infrastructure on which people can build? We’ve certainly seen that in the worldwide adoption of Ushahidi. The first use case was in Kenya, then it was translated into Spanish, then into other languages. It was used in Mexico, and later in Argentina and Chile, to share information about elections and other issues. That would have never happened without the open source model, and without the collaborative connective power of the internet. The way in which technology has been repurposed and used in surprising ways has been really interesting to see. The goal is not to provide a certain methodology but to provide the software to which someone can attach a methodology.

The European: A large percentage of basic internet infrastructure is controlled by a small number of influential actors. So you’re facing infrastructural bottlenecks, where someone could intervene relatively easily. How do you reconcile that with the idea of generativity, with open source, and access to knowledge?
Rotich: Those infrastructural problems are the reality we are facing at the moment. The infrastructure of the internet is owned by several big companies, we are using most of their tools, and they are dictating a lot of things. What we have seen is that open source technology provides a channel for people to openly figure out “hacks” to this juggernaut. When walls are put up, there are always people who ask, “how can we circumvent these walls around us?” I don’t have a a specific answer for how this might play out. It’s kind of a big question, like asking, “how do you deal with the Matrix?” I suspect that open source and crowdsourcing will play a big role.

The European: What is your relationship to more traditional actors, like NGOs or diplomats? Some of them have been doing humanitarian work for a long time, but in very different ways.
Rotich: Linkages are at the core of Ushahidi. We are a platform company. We make software that is open, free, downloadable and useful for anybody who would like to use it. In the last three years we evolved and we have seen the platform being used by established organizations. At first we looked at NGOs and how media organizations like Al Jazeera could use our tool. But we were pleasantly surprised when we had the Council for Foreign Relations or Amnesty Saudi Arabia and Amnesty International on board as well. Those partnerships are one component. And then there’s number two: We often tell our partners that technology is only a small percentage of what goes into making a deployment of our software successful. It is important to think about crowdsourcing strategies, about how information might be gathered, about working with partners on the ground, and about security.

The European: The historian George Dyson recently suggested to us that we shouldn’t talk about the “information society” anymore. “Information is cheap,” he said, “but meaning is expensive.” But when you look at your projects and software deployments, how easy is the actual collection of information, compared to making sense of that information?
Rotich: Both are hard, and I completely agree with George Dyson. When he talks about “meaning,” he is also talking about “context.” Context is everything, and local context is even more important. If you’re not collecting data from a representative cross-section of people, you are missing half the meaning that could come out of the data. When you are collecting data from Twitter, you are predominantly getting data from the middle-class. Does that influence the meaning that arises from the data? Obviously. The great thing right now is that we have many ways of collecting data. We have developed a simple but powerful application called SMSsync. It turns a simple Android phone into an SMS gateway: You can gather information and then sync it with the software. For the meaning part, visual representation of information is important, but it does not stop there. The more data you collect, the harder is becomes to make sense of it in general terms. It is often hard to divorce meaning from place and from context. Imagine that you’re monitoring elections in Nairobi: You can zoom in and get information that is contextual, and hopefully relevant, and very much tied to a specific place and time.

The European: I want to go back to the idea of convergence. Is that one way to conquer the digital divide and the white spots that still exist on the map of global internet access?
Rotich: Yes, access is still a real problem. One answer is to increase the options for gathering information, for example by providing SMS services in addition to web and smartphone services. The other answer is to ask what feedback loops might extend the information that you are gathering. What if there was a way to engage with digital information, but to do through radio programming? In many parts of Africa, radio is still king. Can we mix different communication strategies and channels to extend our reach? That is a strategy and process that I haven’t seen too much on, but where we are presented with quite a big opportunity.

The European: This brings us to the question of design. How suitable are Western technologies and products to the local environments that you are working in?
Rotich: Something that is being designed in the “West” for a certain use can be appropriated by people in other countries with interesting and surprising effects. Look at Ethan Zuckerman’s “cute cat theory”: In the West, Facebook or Twitter are often used to share pictures of “what I’ve had for breakfast” or “I’m meeting with these cool people” or “look at this cute cat.” But activists have appropriated those tools to gather information about uprisings and strikes. When Twitter was founded, who would have expected that it would be used in that way? And was it designed for it?

The European: I suppose that is the power of open source, where you can change not only the context of use but the software itself.
Rotich: We should distinguish between “design for” and “design with.” When you design for something, you often get initiatives that are very top-down. But you can also have technology that can be adopted and tinkered with to make it locally relevant and useful. That is what I mean by “design with,” and open source obviouly has that power. You can look at an issue and figure out creative solutions – hacks that are not only on a technological level, but also on the level of implementation.

The European: What do you see as the most important hack or development of the past ten or twenty years?
Rotich: I’d say it was the simple mobile phone. In Kenya, the Nokia 1100 was very important: A very simple phone that could do calls and SMS. It connected people across large distances. The next thing was fiber optic connectivity around Africa. I think that was a watershed moment, that was around 2009. It made a huge difference in how we communicate in Kenya. Internet access is still expensive, but connectivity on the continent is increasing. Before 2009 you couldn’t dream about being an internet or mobile entrepreneur in Nairobi. But now it’s a reality.

The European: When you mentioned Nokia, it brought up the issue of for-profit companies. How is that commercial and entrepreneurial spirit useful for a non-profit like Ushahidi? Can you use profit incentives to develop technologies for the good?
Rotich: We are not for profit, but we are also a tech-organization like Nokia, for example. Sometimes people call us an NGO, but internally we see ourselves as a tech company. Being a non-profit organization doesn’t mean that you can’t make revenue. A recent trend has been impact investing. Money can finance both non-profit and profit orientated organizations. You can do well by doing good. You can be in the non-profit space but think like an entrepreneur, and you can mix that with for-profit partners. Things are not black and white anymore.

The European: You are skyping from an iHub incubator in Nairobi. Can you take those local bubbles of innovation and creativity and blow them up to a larger scale? “Institutionalization” might be the wrong word, but can you bake innovation into the rules of the game, and make creativity less dependent on local and spontaneous contexts?
Rotich: That’s a really good question. I think we’re exploring some of that through our work with the iHub. I can’t see that we have an answer yet. A bubble of innovation and entrepreneurship needs to be a function of culture and it needs to be a function of community. It’s very difficult to replicate culture and community. What you can do is this: You can foster these dynamics by identifying places where people gather based on passion and engaging these communities in discussion, and by providing support. It requires patience, it requires patient capital that does not expect immediate returns. Because we are more interconnected, the world is more complicated than before, but it also creates new opprtunities. One question is whether we can find new funding models to support these passionate communities with patient capital.

The European: What precisely is the importance of culture? Is it a moral guide that tells us, “go here, but not there?” We agree that scientific progress is good – but do we want to embrace all forms of progress? Do we want cloning? Do we want a certain approach to digital copyright? It seems that culture is what allows us to make a decision about these questions.
Rotich: Let’s look back at how the internet was once conceived. Early on, when people were thinking about the very basic structure of it, the “Request for Comments” were are very participatory process. The open source movement grew out of that spirit, and now you have a company like Red Hat that has hit one billion recently. They took open source software and started to build services on top of it. That tells me is that there is something interesting about open source culture. It’s empowering in every sense of the word because it gives people tools on which they can build anything. In developing countries I actually think we need to look more at open source models, much more than at any other models of development.

The European: This hacker culture seems to challenge some fundamental notions of 20th century capitalism and Max Weber’s “protestant ethic”: Instead of acting out of duty and for the pursuit of money, your innovation bubbles are driven by passion and an almost childish desire to build and create.
Rotich: I completely agree with that. There are very interesting linkages between open source and religion in terms of how we might conceptualize ourselves and our environment. That culture provides us with a very different view of the world, but it is a view that could truly shape solutions to many contemporary problems. Let’s look at some of the biggest challenges right now: If you ask anybody what they’re most worried about, health is mentioned, and education, and the environment, and energy. These are essential questions. The strength of open source is that it taps into the network and turns us from people who know the problem into people who might be a part of the solution. I don’t really know what that might look like, but it feels like using technology as the agent that could explore what it means to filter these diverse perspectives out of our discourses. If we can collaborate to make something, then we could also collaborate to come up with a solution to a problem that affects all of us.

The European: You recently wrote that “to be innovative, you need a healthy modicum of humility.” How is innovation linked to humility?
Rotich: It ties back to our earlier conversation about designing with, rather than designing for. If you are “designing for,” then the mindset is that you know what is best for others. I’m African, and I am very skeptical of this whole “saving Africa” approach to development. That is just not cool. It’s very paternalistic and it’s so passé.

The European: Do you think that we in the West have been too blind to the innovation and the cool things that come out of Africa, or out of Southeast Asia, or out of Latin America?
Rotich: I think it’s good to listen closely what is going on on the ground. You could say that the West has not had very good hearing. But you can also look at my fellow African entrepreneurs and fellow African people and say that we need to be doing a better of job of explaining and showcasing our work. Connectivity is the greatest thing that happened to us, because we can now share our stories much more easily. We can have a voice. It is easy to make assumptions about someone without understanding what is going on locally. If you cannot connect with someone, it is hard to find out. The question now is: Are we using our connectivity to find out what’s cool about others, and how we might work together? That relates to the bigger issue of stepping out of your own bubble and expanding your global view. There are some people out there who identify themselves as global citizens – I’m one of them. I want to talk to other people to get their narrative, their point of view.

The European: You are saying: We have used global networks to broadcast our own world view, rather than treating them as satellite dishes that pick up the world views of others?
Rotich: A very quick example of that is the Kony 2012 video. It was really popular, but it did not include the voice of the people on the ground. If you want to ask the Ugandan diaspora, if you want to ask for a single source from the ground, from Uganda, to tell you what they think or what’s going on, they are avaiable on Twitter. There’s a girl called @RosebellK on Twitter. She recorded a video about her reaction to the Kony 2012 video. We can’t have a single narrative of things, we have a great range of views and opinion that can complicate our personal narratives. This is something we should embrace – things are not black-and-white. I just think with technology, there is no excuse to not get the ground view.

The European: You earlier described yourself as an entrepreneurial person, but this sounds very much like an activist. How do you think the two are related? What is your self-perception?
Rotich: My background is in technology, and that is fundamentally a big part of my self-perception. I would just say that I’m a geek. It took me a while to accept that, especially as a woman, but I’ve accepted it. I get so excited around my colleagues – we had a great lunch today and they were talking about having sensors that collect pollution levels and are connected to a tablet. These are things that get me excited: sensors, mobiles, mapping, technology in general. Other people get excited about other things. And what I’m really excited about is working with a global team. When we have our conference calls, we have them over seven different time zones. We have a team member in New Zealand and when it’s Sunday here, it’s already Monday there. It’s like getting a call from the future – don’t tell me that is not cool! And here’s the thing: You can’t institutionalize excitement. What you can do, and that is my wish for technology, is that you can find a group of people who are excited about the same things. You can build something together, and connect with a global community of people who are thinking and building as well. Technology is this great skeleton on which we can flesh out our ideas.


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