Wrote this post for Plan International (my employer) on the occasion of Plan endorsing the Principles for Digital Development.
The fictional kingdom of Wakanda, in the box-office hit Black Panther, is a highly technologically advanced, affluent, closed-off kingdom. To outsiders, it presents itself as poor, partly because its rulers don’t want the kingdom’s powerful technology to end up in the wrong hands. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that the Wakandans' concerns regarding misuse of their technology are valid.
Isolation, however, becomes increasingly untenable. At the end of the film, Black Panther – now rightfully the kingdom’s ruler – decides to open up and share their technological advances with the world.
In ending their isolation and embarking on a new road to use their tech for good, one can only hope the Wakandans are following the Principles for Digital Development.
The power of tech for good
Designed to help development practitioners successfully integrate technology into programming, they are a set of nine best practice guidelines, written for and by international development actors. To date, they have been endorsed by over 100 UN agencies, INGOs, tech companies, and civil society groups. And today, Plan International has joined that community by formally endorsing the Principles.
Much like the Wakandans, we at Plan International believe in the power of tech for good and want to use it to advance children’s rights and equality for girls all over the world. We know it can work: we have seen first hand how an app is preventing child marriages in Bangladesh, how a predictive text keyboard is breaking gender stereotypes, and how virtual learning environments are making education accessible to girls who would otherwise be left without.
But we are also aware of the risks. Risks related to dealing with data on vulnerable groups, the harassment and bullying that girls face online, and the potential of technology, and particularly artificial intelligence, to further entrench gender inequality, by reproducing current and historical biases.
The potential benefits outweigh the risks, but only when technology is used thoughtfully and responsibly. Which is where the Principles of Digital Development come in, as best practice guidelines that will help us use digital technologies increasingly effectively and responsibly so that 100 million girls can learn, lead, decide and thrive.
Using the Principles to steer our work
Already, the Principles have guided our extensive work on digital birth registration, and, more recently, our ground-breaking work on OpenCRVS, a software platform for rights-based civil registration and vital statistics.
Central to the latter is the principle of openness. Recognising the need to create a global good that can be re-used and improved over time, OpenCRVS will be built on open source technology. The system will also be built on the principles of open standards and open architecture so that it can work with and complement existing systems of registration.
How we practice the Principles is further evident in our Free To Be crowdsourced city safety maps, which recently launched in 5 cities around the world following a successful pilot in Melbourne. At the heart of the initiative has been designing with the user, i.e. girls and young women.
“I was proud to be part of developing Free to Be because it’s designed by young women like me, for young women, to help make our streets safer,” said Alice Rummery, a university student who helped co-design the Sydney city safety map for Plan International Australia. “I don’t want to have to change my behaviour so that I’m not harassed. I want decision makers, authorities and men to act.”
Digital Principles with a gender lens
Our endorsement of the Principles for Digital Development is a statement of how we intend to use tech for good. But we also intend to give back to the Principles community by looking at the Principles through the lens of gender.
Given the digital gender gap, a key question for us not only how we can use tech for good, but how we can and must use tech to further gender equality and bridge the digital divide. This involves not just designing with the user, but designing with girls and women; not just understanding the ecosystem, but also its gendered dimensions; not just being data-driven, but recognising that there are significant gaps when it comes to availability of gender-disaggregated data.
Gender inequalities in the real world are reflected in the digital. So while Plan International doesn’t have the revolutionary high tech of Wakanda with which to make the world a better place, we do have expertise and insights on patriarchal structures and how to break these, both online and off. And that’s something the kingdom of Wakanda could learn from too.
Wrote this piece for Plan International (my employer) on the occasion of Girls in ICT Day 2018.
If Alexa or Siri could, they’d probably be saying “Me too”. But they haven’t been programmed that way. Instead, these personal assistant bots are more likely to be evasive or even respond positively when sexually harassed. While officially genderless, both Siri and Alexa have feminine names and default female voices; it’s hard not to see their evasion as condoning the sexual harassment of women.
Neither Siri nor Alexa of course have a mind of their own. They have been programmed to respond to prompts in one way or another. Last year, digital news outlet Quartz tested how they respond to sexual harassment: in response to “You’re a slut”, Siri said “I’d blush if I could”. Someone had programmed it that way.
I bet that person was a man: some three-quarters of staff in tech firms are.
Girls must be encouraged to create
The digital gender divide is particularly large when it comes to girls and women as creators of technology. As AI becomes ubiquitous, this is increasingly a problem: without girls' and women's perspectives, we risk creating tools, solutions, and systems that reproduce and perpetuate existing gender inequalities – as well as fail to address the unique issues and challenges girls and women face.
This is not merely a hypothetical risk. Already, we’ve seen “comprehensive” health apps that come without period trackers because the developers didn’t see menstruation as a core bodily function worth tracking. Research has shown that AI-powered facial recognition systems are particularly poor at recognising darker skinned women’s faces. And machines currently provide gender-biased translationacross languages, assuming someone who is a nurse, for example, is always a woman.
This is a problem. Women and girls constitute half of the world’s inhabitants, and if we’re not involved in creating our common digital future, it will be created for us.
Getting tech into the hands of girls
As a girls’ rights organisation, Plan International is working to get technology and technical skills into the hands of girls themselves. We believe it is vital to provide girls in developing countries, including those without access to formal education, with opportunities to themselves create technology and digital solutions that address their needs – which is essential. A "brogrammer" in Silicon Valley is unlikely to understand what benefits a teenage girl in Ecuador could gain from technology.
We walk the talk too. In Uganda and Ethiopia, we have set up SmartUp Factory innovation hubs, where marginalised youth – including girls – can access and try out digital tools and technologies. In an environment that is safe for and encouraging of girls, they are supported to develop their own solutions for communal problems using methodologies such as human-centred design.
In Timor-Leste, Plan International has worked with girls and young women to develop the country’s first sexual and reproductive health app, designed to provide youth with easy access to reliable information on topics they often have no one to ask about. And in China, we have worked with teachers to influence their views on which gender is more “suitable” for careers in ICT.
This work is important. If we don’t want women looking for a job online to be less likely to be showntargeted ads for high-paying roles than their male counterparts, and if don’t want AI to be more likely to label people who are cooking and cleaning as women, but people who are playing sports and shooting as men, we need to increase the number of women engaged in creating technology.
Digital equality will help create an equal society
We also need to make technology our ally. Beyond creating digital tools and solutions that address the needs of girls and women, like apps to improve street safety or ones that connect mothers and mothers-to-be, we need to explore the potential of creating gender transformative technology, i.e. tech that seeks to transform unequal gender power relations and actively challenges the prevailing status quo.
An example of this type of tech is Sheboard, a predictive text app developed by Plan International in Finland together with girls and young women. The app works just like a regular keyboard, but challenges prevailing gender stereotypes of girls being primarily pretty or beautiful, by suggesting empowering words such as “strong”, “smart”, and “clever”, following phrases like “I am” or “my daughter is”.
The future is digital, and if the majority of humankind is not involved in creating that future, we’re in trouble. Instead of allowing tech to perpetuate gender inequality, let’s harness its power for the opposite and create a gender equal society where no one loses out.
This morning I spoke at the USAID Digital Development Forum 2018 in Washington, DC. Below is my speech in full:
Hi Nora, writes one of our senior execs.
I’ll be talking about our use of digital technology at an upcoming meeting. Can you tell me how we are using blockchain in our work?
Of late, these types of queries have popped up in my inbox relatively frequently. The blockchain hype has entered the mainstream, and everyone wants to be seen using it, or at least testing out how it could be used. And why not? Last December an iced tea company changed its name to Long Blockchain, and it’s stock price skyrocketed. A lot of people don’t know what blockchain is, but they’re pretty sure they want to be in on it.
The hype is on in international development too: Perhaps if we allowed people to donate in bitcoin, we’d be raking it in. Or we could bank the unbanked. Provide transparency in land registration and agricultural supply chains. Provide identities to those without.
In an op-ed for Devex last year, blockchain was described as “the single most disruptive technology for the international development sector as we understand it today.”
My answer to the executive that wrote to me is however no. No, we are not using blockchain in our work on girls’ rights. Anywhere.
We’re not not using blockchain because I and others don't see it's potential. I do. And I’m aware of the work UN agencies are doing in spearheading its use to improve food security and reduce remittance costs.
However, there are many organisations - including mine - who are not using it because we’re still struggling to see the tangible use cases that would bring added value beyond the initial experimental hype. It’s not yet clear how heavily we should be investing in it right now: There are genuine concerns about piloting new technology on extremely vulnerable populations, in situations where we don’t have the right to fail. Also, not all new technologies fulfill their disruptive promise: how many of you still regard 3D printing as the massive big next thing in the international development?
While being interested, even excited by the dots on the Gartner hype cycle, lots of practical gains and returns on investment still come from “older” technologies.
There is a slight tendency to talk about using mobiles phones in development as something that’s already been done, like it’s DVDs when everyone’s moved to streaming. Yet many of our organisations still have so much to gain and so much to learn from using mobile phones.
Last December, Plan Finland launched Sheboard, a predictive text app that empowers girls by suggesting words such as “clever” “brave” and “powerful” after phrases such as “I am” or “my daughter is”. This was described as revolutionary.
Data collection is still not universally digital, and not everyone even has access to a mobile phone. In fact, women globally are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men.
We also have a lot to learn about making use of data we collect, as well as ensuring the data is stored securely and privately.
Anyone who has studied development theory will be familiar with the phrase “hand over the stick”, coined by Robert Chambers. As we think about using technology – new or otherwise – in our work, we also need to be mindful of handing over the tech. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to artificial intelligence, or machine learning. We all know Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, but what also needs to be recognized is the impact this has on how, and what, machines learn.
AI has several potential applications in international development – from chatbots to natural language processing.
But if machines are programmed to learn from the current status quo, then we risk them reproducing existing power relations, from gendered stereotypes through neo-colonialism to inequality.
That’s why we in international development increasingly need to work on getting knowledge into the hands of the people we work with, and empower them to develop their own tech. The future is digital, and if the majority of mankind is not engaged in creating that digital future, we’re in real trouble.
The three things I want you to take away from this talk are these:
watch blockchain, experiment with it where it makes sense, but don’t think that it’ll be sole source of digital development, added value and competitive edge in the future.
expand your use of mobile phones and other familiar technologies and do it ever better and more responsibly
create opportunities for the people you work with to access, use, and create technology: HAND OVER THE TECH.
Many INGOs, including the one I work for, are keen on increasing the use of technology and digital solutions in their work. It's pretty well recognised that this should be done responsibly, in the sense that tech is used where it makes sense: to extend reach, amplify voices and improve cost efficiency. All good things.
What gets discussed less often, however, is if the tech and tools we use are themselves responsibly produced, and whether that's any of our business.
Unfortunately, the tech sector is fraught with human rights violations at almost every level. Amnesty International recently published a report outlining how major electronics and electric vehicle companies have failed to address documented human rights abuses in their supply chain, specifically relating to child labour in the mining of cobalt in the DRC.
Cobalt is a key component in lithium-ion batteries, and more than half of the world's cobalt comes from the DRC. According to Amnesty's report, none of the leading tech companies are taking adequate action to comply with international standards on company practices, such as conducting due diligence checks on their supply chain and being transparent on human rights risks.
Workers' rights are a concern at other levels of the supply chain too. The "Foxconn suicides" of a few years ago brought to the fore the very poor working conditions of the millions of people of who assemble our phones and other gadgets in highly secretive factories in China. It's hard to know what improvements have been made since then.
There are also environmental concerns. Some relate to the impacts of the mining of materials used in tech; others to short product life-cycles and e-waste. The energy consumption of technology also needs to be addressed.
Recently, as the price of bitcoins has sky-rocketed, stories of the blockchain-based cryptocurrency's large energy consumption have gone viral. While the situation isn't as dire as some claim, and bitcoin's use of energy doesn't necessarily reflect that of all other blockchain uses, making sure tech not only enables its users to live greener lives, but in itself is as environmentally friendly as possible, must be on the agenda.
We are the product
The issues don't end with the production of tech but extend to how it gets used. We like to think of the internet as a place where anything can be found (provided you have internet access), but the truth is quite different. From China's Great Firewall to internet censorship in places like Turkey, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Egypt, much of the world's population accesses a censored internet.
While much of the repression online is pushed by governments, some argue Silicon Valley companies are increasingly aiding them by complying with take-down requests.
So, on the one hand, the powers that be are trying to control what information we can access. On the other, they are trying to find out as much as possible about us. While there are ways to protect your privacy online, being private takes some effort and is hardly ever the rule. This is of particular concern when it comes to children, who without adequate digital awareness may expose themselves to risks.
UNICEF's recent State of the World's Children 2017 report argues that to protect children online a greater burden of responsibility needs to be placed on online service providers to set clear limits to their collection, processing and retention of children's data.
Significantly, however, the authors of the report concede that until "tech companies start thinking about ethical design, users – especially children and young people – will continue to face the consequences of technologies designed for social media firms' financial incentives and not users' real needs".
Does the goal justify the means?
When none of the tech companies have entirely clean hands, does that mean we shouldn't be using technology to aid and amplify our work? No. Turning our backs on tech would be foolish – we all know the variety of ways in which girls and boys around the world can benefit from being able to access the internet, or even use a simple mobile phone.
But we do need to be aware of the problems, and seek to address them when we can: demand due diligence from corporate partners, engage with companies for them to improve their human rights record, and educate children and adults on online risks and how to protect themselves.