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I am not a digital native… Part 1.

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Alex Ross
June 6, 2022
February 6, 2023

I had typewriter lessons at school in New Zealand, where only girls attended such classes while boys focused on woodwork. I carried floppy disks around university to use on shared computers and used brick satellite phones to confirm I was still alive on a fortnightly basis to the Headquarters while in rural Iraq for 2 years. And now, not far from my 50s, my 12-year-old sorts out my phone issues on a regular basis. All this to say, I am NOT a digital native.

Yet, I have spent the last 2 years setting up an independent charity, with the sole purpose of providing a safe mechanism for people to raise their voices to improve services at scale. More so, harnessing the Digital Revolution to address aspects of the myriad of inequalities I have seen across my 20 plus years of working in Humanitarian Aid has been my priority.

There are many moving parts involved for all this to happen and here are some of the things I have learnt so far...

Talking across languages

Building a solution that involves technology is like building a house.  You need the architect – Designers.  This could either be flatpack off the shelf solutions like websites, chatbots etc or it can be specifically designed to your user needs.  

It is essential that designers focus on the UX or User Experience. How would one walk around the house, where is the entrance, is it accessible, what is culturally appropriate and how much will it cost to build? They have their own language and acronyms, and it is important to find the right fit for you and the community you are designing the technology for – that’s anyone who will use it - Users. To navigate this, we always partnered with local tech designers, with an equitable gender balance, to ensure we understand the local environment and got honest feedback.

Then you need a builder – Developer – Dev Ops - to manage everything.  They bring in the plumbers and electricians and other specialists.  They all speak another language, and it is best to go through one main focal point who understands your mission, your principals. Finding the right one is important and there is a growing number working in the humanitarian space. It’s essential to make sure the plans are yours so you can change architects and builders at any time. Finally, like building a house, it always takes longer than first expected!

See below links of those we work with, and whom I would recommend. Also, find reference to some great Principals, Manuals and Standards to help with these discussions. We are definitely not starting from scratch.  

Bongo Hive // Zamid Consulting // Elite Crew // Sonder Collective

Leaving no one offline!

The world is being affected by the Digital Revolution and we are only at the very early stages of the potential it can bring to all of our daily lives and what technology will be able to help us with.  All of the serious investment in innovation is coming from the Private sector, so we need to find partnerships to help extend those tools to help the less affluent consumers – us.

I see a huge amount of innovation linked to chatbots, surveys, SMS messaging etc. That’s exciting and positive but it doesn’t help us reach the most marginalised people in many contexts.  

How many of the most underserved people are comfortable communicating through writing/ texting? Many come from oral cultures and while some may be able to read, we learnt that they don’t feel comfortable to express themselves clearly in written form, let alone on a phone. We found this for specific populations in every country.

How many of the most underserved people speak a majority language? Most technology is in English and then increasingly other majority languages – Spanish, French etc.  The speed of new languages being added to the digital space is impressive and being driven by the private sector.  There are also a lot of exciting commitments to add on additional languages and in time this will have a huge impact on Humanitarian and Development digital solutions.  

In the short-term, having things in Arabic, French, Spanish and English is a minimum and very low cost. Not doing so is reinforcing the Western centric concentration of knowledge and data. Other languages should soon be added – Portuguese, Swahili, Bahasa Indonesian etc.  Machine Translation has a huge potential in the next five years for massive swathes of the global online population to have more access to information and to own their own data. For now, including non-western languages on digital spaces needs to be reviewed at best, but most often input by a native speaker all the time. Without things being in multiple languages any investment in digital solutions remains an extractive process that mirrors the pen and paper process that we are trying to improve upon.

How many of the most underserved people have access to a smart phone? This doesn’t mean that we cannot use technology to help, but it must cross the digital divide.  It needs to serve people on a non-digital phone and bring this information into digital spaces. That’s what we designed in Somalia with Somali people, where they can use voice (Interactive Voice Response) that is then transcribed, translated and then included on the digital space to be responded to in any language. We added an extra R (IVRR) – Reply, because this digital reply is then sent back to the author as a voice message in their chosen dialect. The potential for this is so exciting.

I believe that in ten years everyone with a phone will be connected to the internet, doubling the current market and bringing the ‘bottom billion’ online in some form. There is huge potential with cheaper smartphones, better data packages, wider satellite internet access, even the idea of Information Technology as a human right. This coupled with Machine Translation and Voice to Text is the future.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where I will talk about decolonising data. In the meantime, please share this blog with your friends and family if you found it useful.

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Alex Ross
Loop Lead