Adventures in Government Grants

Over at Geeks Without Bounds, we’re working on filing some grants, including with the USG, and that involves a convoluted process of website registrations, number assignations, and security nightmares.

The site you use to register for your DUNS-number (which stands for Data Universal Number System. What I don’t event.) emailed me my password in plaintext.

The next site in this process asked for a password to act as my sig – exactly 9 LETTERS long, in plaintext. I made that password “plaintext” just for kicks. You might as well know, because it’s just hanging out there anyway. And it’s far more complicated to figure out which address they’re asking for at any point on a form than it would be to crack.

That same site called me the executor of consent, which is pretty badass, and makes me hope the USG might be starting to consider enthusiastic consent from the governed.

I was then asked to enter my CAGE. Which I did not consent to.

Screen Shot 2014-07-24 at 10.19.21 AM

Teachable Moments at #CivicMedia

Cross posted from the Civic Media blog.

A panel at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference was about the Open Web’s Second Chance, and the problems we are facing with growing the open web movement.  The panelists were Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation and Seamus Kraft, Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation.  Mark kicked things off with the story of the open web, how Mozilla was born in 1997 and where he sees the movement today.  Then the conversation turned to Seamus, who was first logging online 17 years ago when Mozilla was founded.

Seamus first went on the Internet in the late ’90′s for two main reasons.  Not as an activist, or as a software developer, but as a young teenage boy both hoping to trade live Grateful Dead and Phish concert recordings…and looking to meet and chat up his preferred gender on AOL Instant Messenger.  Fast forward to today: Seamus became a fighter for the open web in 2011 when he, as a conservative Congressional staffer, saw the impending SOPA and PIPA laws threatening the everyday Internet he had grown to love over the intervening years.  He is someone who dearly loves what the Internet has enabled him to do, exchanging music and knowledge, and connecting with others…and he has dedicated his life to protecting it.  A beautiful story – we need more activists generally, and the more diverse we are in our origins the more vectors we can understand these issues along. So it was pretty rad that he showed up to a conference that is diverse in some ways but not in others to talk about this shared ideal. I love this – it gives us more dimensionality to our ideas when they hold up under different objectives and sources as well as the ones we’re more used to.

But Seamus’ story of discovering the web wasn’t told that way.  The phrase “going online to get girls” kept cropping up during the panel discussion.   Indignation bubbled up on the back channel, and then turned into outrage. When Seamus left the stage, he saw the Twitter Storm, was shocked and aghast at the interpretation, and spent the rest of the day owning up to his mistake and personally apologizing on Twitter…all far away from the conference.  I would have done the same. I am amazed and honored that he returned the next day, and even more so that he’s willing to write this with me.

Seamus here:

“As I sat outside the conference, reading every single Tweet and comment, and soaking in how my non-inclusive language made people feel, it was like getting punched in the stomach…by myself.  It was brutal, searing and embarrassing, all at once.  How could I be so blind with my language?  Had I actually become the Idiot Tech Guy?  I should have known better, and used the language we celebrate as open web activists, instead of what you’ll too often find in the darker corners of the Internet.  Reading the civic media hashtag and all the tweets directed at me, I felt like I had irreparably insulted everyone in the room, everyone watching the webcast and everyone fighting for the open Internet.”

“In telling the story of how I logged on as a young teenage boy, I had allowed myself to use the language of a young teenage boy.  And in trying to share my passion for growing the open web movement, I had accomplished precisely the opposite.  Showing up the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I am so thankful for the kind and amazing people who put aside their justifiable anger, sat down with me on the conference sidelines, and literally helped me become a stronger, more aware and – I pray – more linguistically inclusive person moving forward.  You gave me another chance, a lesson in humility, and some sorely needed hugs that I will never, ever forget.”

Now Willow here, with an exercise in empathy:

I’m reminded of being in New Orleans, and trying to make a point about NOT being an expert – the people who live in the area are experts in their own experience. I said “I’m clearly not from around here, look at me.” As in look at how sunburned I am, I don’t spend time outside or know how to take care of myself when I do. But guess how it was perceived, and how I immediately knew it must have been perceived. I was mortified. The best I could think to do in that moment was turn even redder and say “well, that came out wrong.”

But no one called me out. There was no discussion. And that, I think, sucks even more. What we have in this moment from the Civic Media conference is a chance to learn and teach.

I was more upset about how my community reacted to this than I am at Seamus’ comments. The comments were unwitting, and bumbling, yes. It’s good (I would argue necessary) to call those things out. I honestly feel that if he’d been speaking directly to the audience (not on a panel) he would have seen that immediate feedback from the audience. I’m upset the other panelist and the moderator didn’t call him out on it, gracefully, in the moment. In fact, they may have cued, or at least amplified, it. And I am upset that a community that considers itself open worked itself into a frenzy over such comments — and that I was a part of that.

This is an amazing moment to learn – and certainly not just for Seamus. Here’s the question: If someone well-meaning uses language that triggers response from an esoteric community, how can we inform them in a way that assumes their good faith and alliance? I don’t know of any discipline or approach (including feminism) where I think “don’t come back until you can meet us at our level” is an appropriate response to people who are trying but might stumble. Especially given intersectionality, and that as feminist values start showing up in new arenas (yay!) the people already there don’t understand those nuances yet. How could they?

I’m reminded of how I trained ballet and gymnastics for the better part of a decade and yet had terrible balance. I had no stabilizing muscles because if a movement wasn’t perfect, I was supposed to bail. With parkour, I practiced to fight to stay on a ledge, by whatever wiggling and arm-waving necessary. The imperfections of maintaining footing trumped perfection of form. The thing was, in doing this, I gained enough minor muscle control to start landing things near-perfectly.

Being an ally is HARD. To me, the important thing is not never messing…which I see as impossible. Even the most linguistically precise shift contexts (intentionally or through context collapse). The important thing is returning to a conversation after a misstep. And it’s on me, as the one being allied with, to make it safe to have those post messup-talks when I think they’ll be useful (and I have the bandwidth, and etc etc). I’m not remotely suggesting not to get mad about something that is horrible, as anger is of course merited a human emotion etc etc. But after anger… then what?

If the point is the understanding, and the respect and equality that comes of that understanding, that means learning. And while there are some great resources out there on feminism, equality, behavior, etc, I assume we all know that there’s a difference between reading a book on how to do something and doing it. While it’s not necessarily on us (women) to teach men what’s going on, people are going to have to learn somewhere. If it’s up to men to learn, and we’re (feminine types) not the ones teaching, it’s probably going to be other men. Which is awesome, but I want to be open to questions and check-ins – “are we doing this right?” because we know the vacuum chamber hasn’t exactly worked out well so far. And this sort of exchange means there will be faux pas. And we need to know how to handle those in a way that encourages the growth of the other person in the process. That is what learning is, after all. It is my prerogative if I want to be a part of those conversations, but I am advocating here that it is worth it and a responsibility, not an obligation.

So how do we do this? How do we call out information in a way that it cannot be ignored which can be quickly addressed or shown that it won’t be? How do you like to have your social faux-pas pointed out? For me, I’d like people to say “HEY! Seriously?” in the moment, assuming good faith, and I’ll either drop everything for that conversation, or sidebar it for later, depending on level of urgency and transgression.

Seamus here:

“Looking back, I would have loved to have had the panel’s language called out while we were still on stage; and as a result, the opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation and adjust was was being said in real time.  An ‘Excuse me, but could you elaborate on that last comment?  It comes across as rather sexist.’ would have instantly set me straight, as would the ability to have seen the action on the conference hashtag while we were in front of the room.

“I’m not sure exactly how we can translate into real life the instant linguistic feedback loops made possible by the open web and social media.  But I do believe it’s possible.  To me, the definition of ‘ally’ should include having the confidence within our community to call out non-inclusive language from the audience, ensure those on stage truly listen and understand, and help the person who stepped in it – like I did – right their wrong words and grow stronger from what can be a positively painful experience for everyone involved.”

Facebook Issues

Aside

The issue in the recent “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks“is not A-B testing.

If our role as digital stewards is to bring people into a cosmopolitan view of the world, to break out of homophile (birds of a feather), we will need to do A-B testing to see what works.

The issue is that the digital should make systemic biases more explicit, not bury them further. To me, the upset about the Facebook study is about those motives and methods being obfuscated, not that those motives and methods exist.

Technology as a Means to Equality

Originally posted on Geeks Without Bounds

I had the honor recently of speaking at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF / Doctors Without Borders) Canada Annual General Assembly (AGA). While an international organization, each location has a very large group of people who work on decision and policy for their specific group for the year – usually in the AGA. These are three days of talks, debates, and dinners. The international group defines a focus for the discussions, but it’s up to each pod how they act around that focus. This year, it was how MSF is using (or not) technology. While most of the talks were internal, the bit of time I was there the topics ranged from telemedicine to social media in conflict zones. They asked I come speak about technology and disaster/humanitarian response.

The gist of the talk I gave (15-minute video follows) is that technology is a means to more equality in the world – a way to be inclusive. That there are many people in the world who want to use their technical skills to help groups like MSF out, but we absolutely need them at things like hackathons. That there are many people with voices and connections to the globe now, and that groups like MSF have a responsibility to listen to them directly. And that technology, when done in codesign, will be aligned with what their needs are, and is an ongoing relationship, not a one-off delivery.

Again, most all of the discussion happened behind closed doors, but I recorded my laptop and voice while I did my own presentation.

It seemed to go pretty well. We’re keeping the conversation going, and I’m excited for more points of connection. You can follow the prezi at your own pace here, and see the full #vizthink for the panel here.

Some other highlights:
The other exceptional panelists and myself advocated for F/OSS, especially in light of security, for inclusion. MSF is rightfully anxious about infiltration, ways to be transparent, and usability. Ivan and I re-emphasized open source communities, that people are committed to examining (and re-examining) code for backdoors and optimizations. That open source has been around for decades, that most technology is built upon it, and that it’s a way of performing mutual aid between countries and cultures.

Someone asked in Q+A about using things like Facebook and Twitter in the field, if use could cause problems. Problems of location or images suddenly not being as private as you thought, and kidnappings and killings resulting. Or, what if things just get hacked by governments or by insurgents? My response was that MSF, with all their weight and influence in the world, has a duty to insist upon things like Coercion-Resistant design. Insist that these companies treat their customer bases humanely.

Everything Wrong With How to Write Things Up In One Entry

I was just heading back from a week in Dar es Salaam and Iringa District when a bunch of people I <3 filled up my inbox. “Have you seen this thing? Isn’t that what you’re in Tanzania for?” Yes. Which made me sigh, because all the updates about this deployment and the community development have been blogged at the Taarifa and GWOB websites. Sometimes it’s easiest to uphold the very vacuum chamber lamented, rather than do DuckDuckGo searches. Nor did the author reach out to the existing community before complaining about… the lack of community… which is amusing as those two things cover most of what the write-up is about.

But maybe I’m tired from travel. 11 hours in a car to catch a 7 hour flight that was delayed enough that I wrote this while standing in the Istanbul airport sorting out a new route to North America. And all I can think is, “is this blog entry worth my time?” But as it gets to a deeper crux, I’ll go for it. From the article, Everything Wrong in ICT4D Academia in One Research Paper:

  1. Focusing on Westerners: The paper starts with a long detail about a Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon that was the start of the Taarifa software. Nice enough, but they spent 2 whole pages on it – almost 1/3 of the total report.
  2. Focusing on Software Developers: They spend the next 2 pages of the report going into detail around Ushahidi developers and who did or didn’t commit code to github. Okay… interesting to a point, but do we really care about the standard deviation of commits per contributor
  3. Forgetting about Community Members: Remember the title of the paper? Well exactly 1.3 pages of the report, less than 1/3 of the total, was spent talking about the actual community impact. You know, if crowd-sourced location based reporting can improve public service provision? And they didn’t even answer the question!

The three complaints in the write-up are spot on for trends in ICT4D as a whole, and indicative of some of the points that grate at my nerves as well. But these are not new points, especially in the GWOB+Taarifa overlap, nor does it start discussion around how to walk the fine line between tech imperialism and community involvement; discussions I agree are lacking in the field. It’s the same opening cry against tech solutionism. Which Nate and I did a whole site and presentation about recently. However, the going-for-the-face-without-looking-at-what-you’re-going-for manifest in the writeup is even more grating. The comments later show that it’s a sensationalist take on… the sensationalism of the paper’s title. And unless we’re getting into ICT4PoMo (please dear god no) I don’t see how it’s a useful rhetoric. This is a paper taken out of its highly-specific academic context and then critiqued for not being broad enough. It’s extremely short and very targeted. Of course it’s going to focus on the tech, because of the forum for which it was written. But none of that context comes forth in this critique. And if we’re going to get into the analysis-of-the-thing-as-the-thing, then the writeup is spot on, as it missed community involvement in the critique, and completely lacks context. But I digress.

The world is huge, and wonderful, and more complicated than I could ever hope to understand. Projects and people and contexts change. That’s what gives me hope in the world – that all the things that bring me tiny rage (from gender ratios to spirals of conflict to vast wealth differences) can, and will change, over time, so long as we pitch in. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: you are not at fault for where the world is right now. You are, however, responsible for making it suck less.

That the world is so complex and nuanced also means one of my favorite things is meeting people who work on making the world suck less in a way or on a topic that I have no hope of fully understanding. Because how could I possibly understand every angle on the myriad challenges we face? By all of us approaching from different angles, but together, we have better chances of making those improvements. When I have qualms with how someone has approached a topic, I speak up to them about it. I try to understand where things are misunderstood (remember this exchange with Patrick?). So, thanks to the author for doing that. Yes to speaking up, but in order to instigate healthy debate, for the betterment of the whole community. Because people and projects and the world change. The github repos of social good hackathons are paved with good intentions, but healthy debate within the community is based on good faith.

So, as in back in the old day of blogger rings and LiveJournal, what shall we talk about – with an assumption of moving into action – next? The community involvement in Dar es Salaam? How the Iringa District Community Owned Water Source Organizations are really excited about these “innovations,” and how they’re taking lead on it? The work that GWOB does around gender equality in the tech and response space? Or should we discuss how to ensure niche academic papers have easy links to other components of the continuation of those projects? Any extra support and enthusiasm thrown at online annotation platforms is a boon to not only situations like these, but also to the museum and open access communities. Hooray for building knowledge together!

The signals of Tanzania

The driving in rural Tanzania is intense. Mountains without guard rails, extended trucks going around the curves, sometimes passing each other at the same time. Sometimes creeping, sometimes breakneck speeds. Our race against the setting sun, beautiful against trees and mountains, has been lost, and so we’re on a nighttime road. Already dangerous, it becomes even more chancy with blind curves made blinder. Sorry mom.

There are always people walking and riding bikes alongside the road, no shoulder or sidewalk, trusting that vehicles will avoid them, sometimes at the last moment. I fear for their safety, and for my own trust in the buses they recently emerged from, careening along, crossing road lines when they exist.

A language of signals becomes more and more apparent as we go along – present during the day, it is more visible at night. Sometimes high beams flicker, sometimes horns are tapped, sometimes a right or left turn signal is left on for what seems like no discernible reason. So we ask.

The high beams flicking to you oncoming are a “slow down, caution,” because of a speed trap or a tight curve or a wrecked truck. One slow pulse of high beam is a “hello, I see you. All is well.” As a following car, turn your high beams on to indicate to the vehicle in front of you that you want to pass. A turn signal to the outside for the car behind is “it’s safe to pass,” to the inside is “caution this side.” We think the outside turn signal is also for oncoming traffic, to help define the outside of the car for oncoming traffic. Horns are used as thanks and heads up.

Of course I wonder how this started, how it spread, why it’s so standard now. I wonder how it spreads. And I love how it has people in touch with each other, even from within their little enclosed world of vehicles.

The Fears of Inequality

Written in response to the recent Santa Barbara shootings, mental illness, misogyny, and the debates and #YesAllWomen on Twitter. I focus here on fear, because the bodily harm, harassment, stalking, job insecurity, etc are already focused on at the hashtag. This is an important part of that conversation, and one that is missing, but is by no means meant to be the focus.

Years ago, a difference of opinion severely chilled a friendship with someone with whom I loved arguing. He saw the lack of easy acceptance from women as an emotional violence against men at an equal level to the physical violence enacted upon women by men. I agreed that it was problematic, and the two fed into each other, fueled by culture at large. I absolutely disagreed that it was of equal standing. Fear is a very real thing. Whether it is that someone will laugh at you or someone will kill you, the fear is real. The repercussions and reality lived are what are different.

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them. – Margaret Atwood

On a lighter note, I really enjoy this short clip from Louis CK about saying yes to dates:

It is vital to make it clear that the objectification of, violence against, etc+preposition, women is absolutely unacceptable, and that continuance is untenable. It is possible, even necessary, in the same moment and breath, to have empathy for the fear experienced by being on the other side of the coin of these atrocities. How dehumanizing it must be to be expected to treat other human beings as objects. And most of the language we have around this phenomena is in Feminism, which is villainized during the propagation of these issues. How can one make use of tools closed off by the simple fact of where and when and with whom they grew up?

These issues are systemic, a positive (not “yay”, but “self-reinforcing”) feedback loop. (Not the only components in this feedback loop, clearly). Until we address the root cause for women being cautious of men – the high likelihood of violence being inflicted upon them – that caution is a legitimate response to a very real threat. We must make our way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs – not in series, but in parallel, with a focus on the more dire.

I am not blaming you, as a man, for things like what happened in Santa Barbara. I’m blaming what culture makes men think they have to be in order to be manly. What that means for your alienation because it is unobtainable. What it means for people like me, who happen to have a certain body, for you to strive towards that unobtainable standard through the objectification and devaluation of my self. You are not at fault for where we are as a culture. You are, however, responsible for getting us to a better place than where we are right now.

This is what I mean when I call out friends and strangers about discounting the fear felt by all parties in this mess. The fear is shared, but different. The fear is real. Do not discount the fear, or demean people for feeling it – because the fear is legitimate. Hold people accountable for their actions. Address the causes of their fear, in a way that holds all people as whole.

It is because I love you, that I fight to diminish your power over me. When we are equal, we can freely love each other as we are.

Dar pt 3

Thursday is a holiday, and so no meetings – we wake up early and head to Mkuranga District – a rural, rather than urban (like Tendale), slum. We run for the ferry, tho thankfully we don’t have to jump for it, new journalist friend Erin in tow. On the other side of the sea, we drive for hours, slipping between staring out the window and talking about interactions and plans. When we finally arrive, Msilikale talks with some women about if they’d be ok to be interviewed. We negotiate money amongst ourselves – in the US and Europe, you get paid for research subject time. Here, there’s an expectation that uzungu will provide money. I offer to buy a meal or drinks1, but it doesn’t go over. Even this is complicated, with potential larger ramifications. What expectations are we setting? Are those ok? Ethical? The lacking infrastructure and predictability isn’t just about drains and tap water, it’s also about social interaction and protocols2

We talk about sewing, and water, and responsibility. There are only wells here, and those only produce salt water, with which they clean, wash, cook, and drink. There was once a community-held water point, but it broke at some point and it wasn’t fixed. The assumption is that the government will install the infrastructure, in the same breath as a complete lack of belief that it will ever happen3. Water can only be gotten when there’s electricity.4, when it can be gotten at all.

reports from the field

Again, there’s no central square, no place for known dissemination of information. Everything is done by word of mouth, neighbors talking to each other. Do they ever update each other with phones? No, there’s too much worry about the cost coming back to them (or to the person they contacted). But they’d be happy to do what’s needed to bring water to their place. If mgunzu like me try to figure out things, how can we avoid being jerks5? So long as the government brings it in, they’ll work with it. Again, this weird relationship to authority.

We hang out by one of the salt-water wells while Msilikale finds a taxi6, watching people bring carts and buckets to fill up. Children throw rocks at a lizard, chase each other, drink water from the bucket used to wash clothes now hung to dry. We stand under the gas station awning during a short but heavy rain, and then pile into a car for the long journey back to Dar es Salaam. Now it’s back to interaction at the scale of organizations, but now as informed as it can be on our short time scale by interactions with humans as humans, not in aggregate for logistics. The UNHCR refugee camp in Northwest Tanzania seems most appropriate for the water sensor innovation test deployment, as it’s a closed loop. Kibaha makes the most logistical sense for the test deployment of Taarifa, as a lot of cultural work around accountability has already been done there by a potential partner organization. Mkuranga doesn’t make sense because it’s too far out, there’s no existing social infrastructure for organizations, and there aren’t plans to put in water infrastructure for awhile yet, so people would quit reporting after awhile of no results. It’s all practical, but not cold. People here feel their responsibilities, just like anywhere else.

The next morning it’s raining as we gain a blessing from the Ministry of Water – we’ll work with their water engineers on updating reports of water points7. We sit in a taxi in traffic and talk, then meet with a potential local partner who will help with social interaction and embedding – managing expectations, closing feedback loops, continual interaction for a more successful launch – or for a better understanding of a failed launch. If it works in Kibaha, we’ll try it out in Mkuranga, with more focus on the sensors than on the reporting, to ease survey fatigue. We get back in the taxi and talk more while we head back to the Ministry of Water to talk to some engineers about what they would want out of a reporting system (yay more talking to people who use Taarifa, not just read the outputs!). As the depth of the water on the road increases, the speed of the traffic decreases. Finally, concerned about even making his flight, we send Mark off in the taxi with his luggage, and I pile into a bajaj with my own suitcase. A meeting to get to, and facilitate, on my own!

Everything goes beautifully. I’ve learned to hold firm when I’m told someone doesn’t have time, or tells me they only have a few minutes. “We’ll talk again on Monday, but right now I do want 15 minutes. That’s it.” Engineer B and I end up sharing frustrations, drawing on pieces of paper, and giving a firm handshake at the end. Msilikale and I meet up, and head to my new lodging – not the fancy hotel anymore, but a friend’s-of-a-friend house. From here, I can still see birds flocking, and the sun setting over the sea, but there are also bugs and the shower is weird and it feels so much more comfortable than the fanciness. We have dinner with one of her Dutch friends, and brave traffic, and bond over growing up in the Midwest. The ensuing days are similar, with one day blissfully off. Plans for Zanzabar are trumped by epic, amazing rains. I read frivolous articles on my iPad and watch the rain roll over the sea.

In all this, the World Bank8’s hammer is money, and so everything looks like a project to fund. What makes this a complicated mess to my anti-capitalistic heart is that, indeed, many projects do need funding in the current environment. I see the “we read as much about about a grassroots thing that works as we could, and this is how we think we should do it…” All the people I’ve met within the org want a way to make the world to suck less. But these are institutions whose tools are people, and funding, and other institutions. And while they try various tactics, and sometimes make headway, in making the world suck less… they’re also held accountable for their actionsIn theory.. The difference is, the people in grassroots initiatives have to live with the reality of the failings and successes of their (and institutional) endeavors. So of course they are who I think of first. And last. And always9.

And Msilikale and I go over the drawings I did, and listen to music, and talk about all sorts of things. The power goes out, and we keep talking, the windows closed against mosquitos and the oppressiveness of the growing heat inside overwhelming. We walk in the dark to a local Indian joint, eating overly peppered food and listening to the calls to prayer out the window. The lights go out there, too, and we eat by the light of cell phones until the generators kick in. “This,” say Msilikale, “is Dar es Salaam.”

1. Worked for Kibera.
2. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is ideologically interesting, but if there’s no way to get clean water but through organized distribution of resources, such ideology gets tempered at least a bit.
3. It’s like breaking up with someone before they break up with you.
4. Mind you, this is a project with the Ministry of Water. Not Ministry of Power. This is with water. So we can only focus on water. *shakes fist at silos*.
5. Again, Msilikale mitigating anything that seems like a promise. Or hope, really.
6. Easier to negotiate price if we’re not there.
7. The hand washing tap in the MoW does not in fact produce water. Oh, the irony.
8. A World Bank innovation fund is what is supporting this initiative.
9. Not saying others don’t, simply that there sure does seem to be a lot of reminding.