The recent Net Impact conference in Portland proved to be an ideal space to take a few steps back and reflect on the bigger picture. There was much talk of new and alternative approaches to traditional development. The word “participatory” in particular was a trending topic among both presenters and participants. But exactly how “participatory” are these “participatory” approaches to develop-ment? Do they fundamentally democratize the development process? And do these “novel” participatory approaches really let go of control? Should they? The following thoughts and ideas were co-developed in follow-up conversations with my colleague Chrissy Martin who also attended Net Impact. She blogs at Innovate.Inclusively.
I haven’t had the space recently to think through some of these questions or reflect about how the work I’ve been doing with Ushahidi fits (or doesn’t) within the traditional development paradigm—a paradigm which many at the confer-ence characterized as #fail. Some think that perhaps technology can help change this paradigm, hence the burst of energy around the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field. That said, it is worth remembering that the motivations driving this shift are more important than any one technology. For example, recall the principles behind the genesis of the Ushahidi platform: Democratizing information flows and access; promoting Open Data and Do it Yourself (DIY) Innovation with free, highly hackable (i.e., open source) technology; letting go of control.
The Ushahidi platform is not finished. It will never be finished. This is deliberate, not an error in the code. Free and open source software (FOSS) is by definition in a continual phase of co-Research and Development (co-R&D). The Ushahidi platform is not a solution, it is a platform on top of which others build their own solutions. These solutions remain open source and some are folded back into the core Ushahidi code. This type of “open protocol” can reverse “innovation cascades” leading to “reverse innovation” from developing to indus-trialized countries (c.f. information cascades). FOSS acts like a virus, it self-propagates. The Ushahidi platform, for example, has propagated to over 130 countries since it was first launched during Kenya’s post-election violence almost four years ago.
In some ways, the Ushahidi platform can be likened to a “choose your own adventure” game. The readers, not the authors, finish the story. They are the main characters who bring the role playing games and stories to life. But FOSS goes beyond this analogy. The readers can become the authors and vice versa. Welcome to co-creation. Perhaps one insightful analogy is the comparison between Zipcar and RelayRides.
I’ve used the Zipcar for over five years now and love it. But what would a “democratized” Zipcar look like? You guessed it: RelayRides turns every car owner into their own mini-DIY-Zipcar company. You basically get your own “Zipcar-in-a-box” kit and rent out your own car in the same way that Zipcar does with their cars. RelayRides is basically an open source version of Zipcar, a do-it-yourself innovation. A good friend of mine, Becca, is an avid RelayRides user. The income from lending her car out lets her cover part of her rent, and if she needs a car while hers is rented out, she’ll get online and look for available RelayRides in her neighborhood. She likes the “communal ownership” spirit that the technology facilitates. Indeed, she is getting to know her neighbors better as a result. In this case, DIY Innovation is turning strangers, a crowd, into a comm-unity. Perhaps DIY Innovation can facilitate community building in the long run.
The Ushahidi platform shares this same spirit. The motivation behind Ushahidi’s new “Check-In’s” feature, for example, is to democratize platforms like Foursquare. There’s no reason why others can’t have their own Foursquares and customize them for their own projects along with the badges, etc. That’s not to imply that the Ushahidi platform is perfect. There’s a long way to go, but again, it will never be perfect nor is that the intention. Sure, the technology will become more robust, stable and extensible, but not perfect. Perfection denotes an endstate. There is no endstate in co-R&D. The choose your own adventure story continues for as long as the reader, the main character decides to read on.
I’m all for “participatory development” but I’m also interested in allowing indivi-duals to innovate for themselves first and then decide how and who to participate with. I’d call that self-determination. This explains why the Ushahidi team is no longer the only “game in town” so-to-speak. Our colleagues at DISC have customized the Ushahidi platform in more innovative and relevant ways than we could have for the Egyptian context. Not only that, they’re making a business out of customizing the platform and training others in the Arab World. The Ushahidi code is out of our hands and it has been since 2008. We’re actively promoting and supporting partners like DISC. Some may say we’re nurturing our own competition. Well then, even better.
Freely providing the hackable building blocks for DIY Innovation is one way to let go of control and democratize ICT4D. Another complementary way is to democratize information access by promoting automated Open Data generation, i.e., embedded real-time sensors for monitoring purposes. Equal and public access to Open Data levels the playing field, prevents information arbitrage and disrupts otherwise entrenched flows of information. Participatory development without Open Data is unlikely to hold institutions accountable or render the quality of their services (or lack thereof) more transparent. But by Open Data here I don’t only mean data generated via participatory surveys or crowdsourcing.
The type of public-access Open Data generation I’m interested in could be called “Does-It-Itself” Open Data, or DII Data. Take “The Internet of Things” idea and apply this to traditional development. Let non-intrusive, embedded and real-time sensors provide direct, empirical and open data on the status of develop-ment projects without any “middle man” who may have an interest in skewing the data. In other words, hack the Monitoring and Evaluation process (M&E) by letting the sensors vote for themselves and display the “election results” publicly and in real time. Give the sensors a voice. Meet Evan Thomas, a young professor at Portland State, who spends his time doing just this at SweetLab, and my colleague Rose Goslinga who is taking the idea of DII Data to farmers in Kenya.
Evan embeds customized sensors to monitor dozens of development projects in several countries. These sensors generate real-time, high-resolution data that is otherwise challenging, expensive and time-consuming to collect via the tradi-tional survey-based approach. Evan’s embedded sensors generate behavior and usage data for projects like the Mercy Corps Water and Sanitation Program and Bridges to Prosperity Program. Another example of DII Data is Rose’s weather index insurance (WII) project in Kenya called Kilimo Salama. This initiative uses atmospheric data automatically transmitted via local weather towers to determine insurance payouts for participating farmers during periods of drought or floods. Now, instead of expensive visits to farms and subjective assessments, this data-driven approach to feedback loops lowers program costs and renders the process more objective and transparent.
There is of course more to the development field than the innovative processes described above. Development means a great many things to different people. The same is true of the words “Democracy”, “Participatory” and “Crowd-sourcing.” For me, crowdsourcing, like democracy, is a methodology that can catalyze greater participation and civic engagement. Some liken this to demo-cratizing the political process. Elections, in a way, are crowdsourced. Obviously, however, crowdsourced elections in no way imply that they are free, open or fair. Moreover, elections are but one of the ingredients in the recipe for a democratic, political process.
In the same way, democratizing ICT4D is not a sufficient condition to ensure that the traditional development space obtains a new hashtag: #success. Letting go of control and allowing for self-determination can of course lead to unexpected outcomes. At this point, however, given the #fail hashtag associated with traditional development, perhaps unexpected outcomes driven by democratic, bottom-up innovation processes that facilitate self-organization, determination and participation, are more respectful to human dignity and ingenuity.
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