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I am not a digital native… Part 2

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Alex Ross
June 22, 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...

The waste is immense.

In the immediate days following the Ukraine invasion, a large number of the tech community wanted to help and did so by building digital solutions which were sadly, short lived, not integrated into existing best practice or systems and not safe spaces for people to be. We see this in numerous hackathons and other innovation spaces elsewhere as well.  

I have learnt that we must work together, across the different languages of our professions, with a common goal and respect for each other’s skills, experience and resources. I know nothing about tech, but I do know a bit about the human structures in place that would need to use a solution. I have also learnt that people in Zambia use their phones very differently than people in the Philippines and all for very good reasons. People who come from the LGBQT+ community also have different tools and behaviours online due to their deep knowledge of risks to them. I would be arrogant to think I could imagine their thought processes. Building something useful, accessible, and safe requires a team of different expertise coming together to build something lasting, adaptable and impactful. We must not build solutions in our own echo chambers, there is not enough money to do that.

Open data does not mean a lack of safety.

The thing that we saw the most consistently across every country, is how using a phone can bring anonymity to someone who is otherwise at risk of speaking up.  In every country women said that they are scared to report abuse because they don’t know who the person is they will be speaking to. Even if they might be well meaning who will that person tell? The consequences are too grave to risk speaking up. The option to report through anyone’s phone, without any need to disclose their exact name or address was a big positive during our prototyping.

Nothing is 100% safe if there is a large enough actor willing to target the information. However, there are some very clear things that should be done on a regular basis, to protect all data online – penetration testing, GDPR requirements globally, separation of data, only ask for the minimum data required, Opt in not Opt out, informed consent etc. This is especially important when users are in vulnerable positions (I can take you off a beneficiary list providing food for your family), or targeted due to their race, religion, sexuality and their lives literally depend on it.

While data security is essential, I believe it is sometimes used as a reason to reinforce siloed approaches. This lack of sharing results in the individuals at risk being marginalised further and the perpetrators remaining at large. With technology there is a real opportunity to aggregate data in an anonymous safe way so that gaps and areas of risk can be seen and addressed early. In many investigations we hear that ‘everyone knew’. Through sharing of anonymised safe aggregate data ‘everyone’ can report in what they ‘know’ to build up a pattern of information which can then be acted on earlier.

Think of the #metoo movement.  Only some people felt comfortable or secure enough to self-identify and each person made their own choices about what to share openly. The impact was felt on multiple sectors across multiple countries and was only possible because of the technology revolution.

Access is a right. Let’s use technology to decolonise data.

Hugo Slim talks about Humanitarian Self Determination, yet our current approach uses technology to make old extractive systems more efficient and centralised. I believe that we can reverse this trend and use technology to address the power structures inherent in the humanitarian system specifically.

As outlined above, most of the use of technology is for those who read and write a majority language (usually English), who have access to the internet and who have the funds to commission surveys, reviews, or interviews. The findings are stored within their organisation, with a small number of people having access and time to look at the data.  Reports at an aggregate level are produced for senior leadership to consider.  Why?

As a person affected by crisis, I want to ask questions, share opinions, request support about what is important to me. I want to see and hear what others are saying and I want to be able to use that information to inform my own choices and my own agency. In a crisis I don’t want to be asked questions by a/ multiple organisation(s) that might give me ‘Aid’ if I say the right thing, that I never hear back from. I have information that is useful for your program design, and you have information that is useful for my decision making.

Two-way communications and open data is essential for a respectful, dignified response. Technology can help with that but only people can make it happen. All this to say, I am NOT a digital native but these are the things I have learnt so far.

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Alex Ross
Loop Lead