Humanitarian Technology Festival

I came on with Aspiration back in January as the Community Leadership Strategist, to merge the work I’ve been doing in the humanitarian and disaster response space with Aspiration’s practices and team. It’s been a *blast* so far, and continues to be.

Most of the work I’ve done in the last 5 years has been about what social justice looks like when we’re doing response, with a focus on technology (as that opens up paths to conversations we otherwise quit having). With Geeks Without Bounds, we did hackathons all over the world, including Random Hacks of Kindness and SpaceApps Challenge. I’ve been a coordinator for the Digital Humanitarian Network, keynoted the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, was invited to the White House to talk about Sandy response, facilitated the first hackathon IN (not just for) Haiti, etc etc etc. I’ve also had a huge organizational crush on Aspiration since my first DevSummit in 2013, attending as many Aspiration-connected events as possible. When I was able to join Team Aspiration, I was overjoyed — even while much of the work I’ve continued to do on response had already existed, it’s been a slow shift to get those previously-defined objects to be a bit more Aspiraiton-shaped.

The Humanitarian Technology Festival in Cambridge May 9+10 is the first event that is both committed to response and framed on Aspiration ethos. I am SO EXCITED about this it hurts. Let me explain why.

The very way we deliver aid perpetuates the need for more aid, both for fast- and slow-onset disasters (or “extreme events” or “humanitarian issues” or “earthquake” or “famines” or whatever you’d like to say). When people need lodging after a hurricane, they’re either told to evacuate and/or they’re put into temporary homes, away from neighbors and family. There is little impetus to return and rebuild both social and tangible structures. People are uprooted, and must start from scratch. When, instead, we see that people don’t just need lodging but in fact need social fabric, responders (and the technologies used for response) can focus on how to maintain family and neighborhood ties. People are then less stressed as well as being more likely to take their own actions to return and rebuild.

For humanitarian aid, this is even more paternalistic and stratifying… while not actually “fixing” any of the things it aims to. Aid is primarily about making the giver feel better. But like Tom’s Shoes picking up on the “buy one, give one” idea that OLPC actually handled with cultural grace and systems thinking, instead Tom’s put some people out of work while trying to provide something THEY thought others needed. Even if it had been delivered in a less-jerky way, aid often ends up with locations dependant on that aid, rather than internally strengthened. This is one way we keep extracting resources out of other places without actually contributing to those locations. See also this bit of the paper I’m still working on. This allows the worst parts of globalization (erasure of cultures, consolodation of wealth, etc) to continue.

Some might say “fine, let them fend for themselves,” but that’s not ok either. When we don’t have to look at our neighbors (when we build walled housing complexes, or segregated schools), we can ignore how bad things are for them. And that’s also not an acceptable answer.

What we need are ways to listen to what people can offer, and what they need, under the assumptions that we are equals. This is why I’m so excited to see how the participatory methods I associate so strongly with Aspiration come to bear on this space. Just do a search-and-replace for “Nonprofits” to “Affected Communities” on our Manifesto and Participant Guidelines. People in these fragile situations are NOT a population to playtest new tools. Not only do failures have a larger impact in these spaces, but to think of another location and its people as “demo” space is undignified and unjust. We need better ways (not just better tools) for life EVERYWHERE, and to assume that we WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic)-o’s have all the answers is downright arrogant. By instead, as we do at Aspiration events, speaking to each other in easy-to-understand language, under the assumption that everyone is bringing something meaningful to the table, and that together we’ll figure it out; we can shift not only how we do response, but the after-effects of that response.

I’m especially excited to speak to people about distributed response, and how the tools we build for ourselves can be welcoming to others using as well. Check out NYCprepared and Taarifa to see what this can look like.

Liminal Transport

One used to pick me up from the airport, on whatever motorcycle was working, my hip-shaped leathers on under his, a matryoshka doll of care. We’d each have a backpack, holding on tight for safety and because it was the thing to do.

Another still does sometimes, eye-corners crinkling, the easiest silence. The city always appearing around the same bend, a skyline of calm.

Wedged in the front of a bicycle’s cargo bucket, luggage on my lap, while one took us to a front-yard farm to play ukulele music.

Another took pictures as I rode off, capturing our overlapping liminal spaces.

One with temporal and signal precision to arrival doors and green lights, dive bombing down hills and through streets. Rapid-fire catch-up on passions and focus.

A surprise-pile of people under bags in a backseat, through the deserted streets and crunching deep snow of some city. A warm greeting after a stressful time.

One took my 10+hours off-zone self to a warm bed and a shower in their profane and sacred home.

Finding the metal angler fish to get to the private plane, to be taken to find a car covered in floppy disks stashed away in a parking lot, followed by blissful water and the first time we slept intertwined.

In the backseat, a tiny person knitting, another devising experiments to make explosions scientific. Me not holding your hand.

One dropped me off at an airport on one side of the country, and weeks later retrieved me from somewhere else, that same smile and hatchback somehow transported. Now accompanied by a very polite dog and a growing history.

When one held the art between us, wind rushing past, uncertain if the high was from the bike or from the fear.

I took the train from the plane, and another handed me a heavily caffeinated drink and a helmet.

From the backseat, staring at the headlong scar from home to departure, through radiation-thinned hair, a freckled abyss.

But usually it’s gruff drivers, or confusing transit, and I’m not sure I’m thrilled by the adventure any longer.

Life, Distributed

Most of my work focuses these days on social justice in networks. Distributed response is this – how do we perform mutual aid in times of extreme events? Weaponized Social is sort of this (hey, did you know we’re doing one in Nairobi? Also in San Francisco?), of the role of an individual and a group in a networked culture. Networked Mortality is about how we deal with death in a networked age, how a distributed group copes with the loss of one of its members. I gave a talk at Arse Elektronika years ago about PostGeographic Sexuality — what it was like to be partnered with people when encounters are instance-based, rather than cycle-based.

The whole thing a little bit ago with the manic episode pointed at something else glaring in my life which needs to be explicitly coped with in a new way: pattern detection. While I could just take medication to create hard-borders around my affect, I’d rather at least attempt meditation practices to cope. But the interim is potentially dangerous – what if my unpracticed mind isn’t able to do it, or (worse yet) fails to catch that it’s not working? A person with a more standard life might ask a neighbor or partner to look out for them, but that’s not much of an option for me. How am I, who at my most stationary still spends half of each week for 3 weeks a month Providence and the other half in Camberville, and one week a month in the Bay Area; supposed to benefit from people who care for me noticing my unhealthy patterns? How is anyone supposed to notice a pattern with me?

So I’ve started to do this intentionally, similarly to all of the other exercises. A small group of people, who do see me more often (and regularly) than most, have been put in touch with each other with the explicit purpose to check with each other if I seem to be going off the rails in any way. I’ve caved and purchased a fitbit (an evil step sibling to the Pebble of which I’m quite fond), so the Warning Signs (excess coffee, extended sleep deprivation, etc) can be noticed by other people. A tiny web of friendly surveillance. I don’t yet know how it will go, but I do find it highly amusing that Distributed Life is present even here.

I’ve detailed out my process, in case anyone is interested in replicating it.
Continue reading

Distributed and Digital Disaster Response

Been working the new job with Aspiration in SF (while I still live in Providence and Cambridge), which is outstanding. Also been working on a paper about the topic I’m focused on with Aspiration, of how we perform mutual aid, at scale, specifically in disaster response and humanitarian aid. It calls for what we’d call a “mixed-mode system” in Complexity Science. I gave a talk at Berkman Center yesterday on the topic, and they’ve already got the video live. I had a great time! Thanks to everyone for coming out and sharing your brains with me.

NECSI Salon: First Day Celebration

NECSI’s action-based 4th Wednesday Salon focused on First Day. This is an event which provides the resources, framing, and impetus to take personal responsibility for community health. It is not a fix-all, but is it an important, missing piece in the US health care debate, and a fulcrum for connected shifts to a healthier society.

On Wednesday, March 11th, we will hear talks from Deb Roy from the MIT Media Lab, Devin Belkind from OccupySandy, and Sam Klein from Wikimedia on Distributed Organizations. Register here.

First Day is about taking personal responsibility for your own wellbeing at personal and global level. Inspired from the idea of regeneration and new year resolutions, First Day wants to create a community level engagement at a personal level and community level.

 

Deck created by Catalina Butnaru

Deck created by Catalina Butnaru

We assumed those attending would be both in a position to, and have a desire to, act. The Wednesday before had provided space for folk to ramp up to this state, including review of readings about a similar Wal-Mart initative. We were additionally inspired by Boston’s own First Night and City Awake.

After very short reminders of what we were there to accomplish for the day, each person introduced themselves and what they were interested in specific to First Day. From these, we pulled out a few break-out sessions tasked with creating an actionable list or guidelines for organizers to work with. The overarching points we ended with were an appreciation of the need of safe space for people to ask questions which might otherwise be taboo (especially around health), comfort in complex problems having interventions (especially with a light hearted attitude!), an appreciation for existing cultural events (Days of the Dead as well as Chinese, Tibetian, and Indian celebrations of new cycles and health), and holistic approaches to mental and physical health.

Slightly curated notes follow: Continue reading

Complexity Salon : Ebola

These notes were taken at the 2014.Dec.18 New England Complex Systems Institute Salon focused on Ebola. Sam, Willow, Yaneer contributed to this write-up, and 20 people were in attendance. We hope you’ll join us in future. We’ll have unstructured meetings each Wednesday from 18:00 to 20:00 (6p-8p) starting Jan 21st, with the fourth Wednesday of each month structured towards contribution towards a global challenge. The next such structured event will be on January 28th, on the subject of ethnic violence. You can see notes on this and potential future subjects here, and can register here.

About Ebola at NECSI [briefing by Yaneer]

NECSI has a history of studying Ebola models, and has predicted something similar to what is currently going on in West Africa for some time now. NECSI started with a model of pathogen evolution in which the most aggressive stable state has virus constantly passing slowly through populations, creating islands, dying out as people expand into areas with no disease.

Aggressive diseases plus long-range transport

Then if you add long-range transport, you get more and more aggressive strains. The more long-range transport you have the more aggressive the strain can be without dying out; and eventually could kill an entire global population. Paper published in 2006, mentions risk of Ebola.

As transportation becomes more pervasive, vulnerability increases.

Early warning and preparedness

Presented to the WHO in Jan ‘14. They were respectful and excited by the work. Discussed other public health issues faced by WHO, however didn’t return to pandemic models.

Since then: outbreak happened. Lots of discussion. Why don’t we engage in risks in a more serious way? Everyone thinks their prior experience indicates what will happen in the future.

  • Look at past Ebola! It died down before going far, surely it won’t be bad in the future.
  • Models of outbreaks look at existing conditions, which prove to be too limited here.

Example: with flu, people take exactly that disease and known circumstances, and simulate an outbreak, ignoring changes in the disease or in the conditions (and: nothing has to change in order to have huge risk). the same properties could remain, but a low-probability event could unfold, “fat tail distribution” – past experience isn’t necessarily a predictor of what will happen in the future.

Individual and community

Contract tracing, the standard public health method, doesn’t work well when there are more than just a few cases. Stop thinking about the contacts of the person, think about the community. Travel restrictions so new communities aren’t infected. Now that people go door to door for symptom screening, the cases have decreased dramatically in Liberia.

People were saying: “The beds are empty!” Authorities responded: “We can’t figure out why. We think people are still sick!” Why are the hospitals and authorities waiting for the sick to show up? Going door-to-door in the neighborhoods shows what’s going on, and is what is effective.

Once you know the right question, the answer is clear.

Interests

We then stated our interests – each person said one thing about the topic or intro talk they’d be interested in diving into more during breakout groups Continue reading

Museo aero solar

Years ago, after Chaos Congress, Rubin insisted we go to some art show. I, as always, preferred to stay at home — whatever continent, country, city home might be in that day. But Rubin can be lovingly persistent. It would be worth it. It would be beautiful. We went, mere hours before I boarded a plane from somewhere to somewhere else.
blue-haired willow has her back to the camera, focused on a large transparent orb. Children play in the orb, suspended on a clear sheet of plastic. black lacing holds the orb in place. Rubin took this picture, and Willow is fond of Rubin.
Biosphere was a study in liminality to me, suspended spaces tethered to more commonly understood as habitable floors and walls. Perfectly clear water in heavy plastic and vast space define in clarity and iridescence. It was a liminal future, an in-between home, the moment the wheels leave the runway. The terror of my anxiety and the complete love for the possibility of Something Different, wrapped up in the moments of stepping into the future. In short, Rubin was right.

Jump forward a few years.
When Pablo invited me to Development and Climate Days in Lima, I was glad to go. Even before the deeply pleasurable and productive Nairobi gig with Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and Kenya Red Cross, I trusted Pablo to have spot-on inklings of the future. Maybe all that climate forecasting has gotten into his social forecasting as well. His efforts around serious games resulting in their now being generally accepted, he told about an art-involved step to get people to think about the future differently. Something about plastic bags, and lighter than air balloons. Would I be willing to, in addition to my talk, document their process of creating a Museo Aero Solar for others to participate and replicate? Of course – distribution of knowledge, especially with illustration and technology is kind of my jam. It would also help me venture into the city.

I arrived at 2a to a deserted city and a vast and rolling Pacific out the cab window. I cracked jokes with the driver based on my poor grasp of Spanish (“ehhhh, Pacifico es no muy grande.”) He humored me. And in the morning, mango that tasted like sunlight, and instant coffee, and the Climate Centre team of whom I am becoming increasingly fond. And a new person – the artist Tomas, with whom Pablo and I ventured to an art space to join the already-started process of community building and art creation, large bags full of plastic shopping bags ready for cutting and taping. Pablo eventually had to go spend time at COP20, I relished not going.
a phone-camera captured image of a pamphlet instructing how to create a museo aero solar. it instructs the collecting, cutting, taping, and combining of plastic bags.
I took such specific, ritualistic care with each plastic bag. Cut off the bottom, cut off the handles, cut a side to make a long rectangle. Lay it gently on top of the pile, pressing down to smooth and order. Pick up the next bag. Feel it on my hands. The crinkle, the color. Smooth it out. Cut. Place. The sound of tape being pulled, torn, applied, and stories told in Spanish. The slow joining of each hand-cut rectangle. I smiled, to dedicate so much care to so many iterations of things which are the detritus of life. Francis laughed with me, saying she felt the weight of each one. A heavy statement for something so light. Tomas walking around, constantly seeming to have attracted a bit of plastic bag handle to his heel, no matter how many he peeled off, a persistent duckling of artist statement.

We went to the Lima FabLab to speak to a hackathon about making a GPS and transponder so we could let the creation fly free without endangering air traffic. And this time I saw it from the outside – seeing Tomas speak to a group of self- and community-taught Peruvian coders, and seeing their faces display disbelief and verge protection against the temporal drain of those outside your reality. Then, as he showed step by step, and finally an image, that these can fly, their cousins can lift a person, grins break out. Peoples’ hearts lift, new disbelief replaces the jaded. There is laughter and a movement to logistical details.

And then we took it to the D&C venue, and it worked.

I imagine what Pablo must have gone through, to get bureaucratic sign-off on this. No metric of success. No Theory of Change. Him, fighting tooth and nail for a large and hugely risk-adverse organization to trust fall into the arms of a community, an artist, a facilitator, and a game maker. And they did. And it changed the entire event. People in suits crawling into this cathedral made of plastic bags, each individually cut and added with love to the whole. A pile of fancy shoes outside the entrance, like a ballroom bouncy castle. People’s unabashed joy watching art some of them had made become a room, and then lift off to become a transport.

This future we want — it’s hard work, it can seem impossible. But it’s right here, we made it. It works, and it is beautiful.

I brought up ways for other people to participate. In a beautiful act I would associate with Libre ethics, the Lima crew have opened up not only our stories, but our process. We want you to join us. We want you to be a part of this future, and it means hard work. The fledgling wiki and mailing list can be found here. I hope you hop on.

Networked Mortality


Death is different now. In a time of networks and social media, it’s not just having a song remind you of your deceased loved one anymore, it’s Spotify suggesting you listen to their playlists. It’s scrolling just a bit too far too soon and seeing their last shares on Twitter or Facebook. It’s not just figuring out funerals and atom-based belongings granted through wills (or figuring things out there wasn’t any pre-planning), it’s a faceless mass of internet informing you that your friend has died. It’s not just compiling half-finished scrawled songs and old love notes, it’s debating cracking the password for a laptop full of memories. Because the internet and technology haven’t just changed how we live – it’s changed what happens in death. And we can simply be awash in tragedy in these new ways, or we can use those new connections to show our care and values, even through death.

Today the spontaneity of planning, which makes it possible to search for a place to eat with your incoming friend while already out the door, forms habits making the avoidance of planning for death even easier. But after working through the unexpected deaths of a number of networked friends, I have started explicitly planning for the eventuality of my own death, to ease the burden on others. I’ve set up a living will (detailing things like whether I want to be kept on life support — I don’t), a will (what to do with my corpus and my corpse — open them up and share the contents), and mechanisms for notifying the many communities I inhabit, helping them find each other for support. The compartmentalization of online selves otherwise makes discrete and care-full notifications difficult, and sadly the current viable option is mass broadcast.

Because I’m also from the parts of the internet that care about open access and free software, friends and I have taken my death preparations and formed a guide for the bits of postmortem planning other guides may have missed. Based on ideas from open access and information security, it includes topics like how to deal with passwords, contact lists, plans for account deletion while archiving information, and donating one’s body to science in ways that support open research.

This living documentation is called NetworkedMortality, and I hope it helps others to start thinking about and planning for the inevitable, either privately or in this wiki-based and public place. Just as the internet is about creating, storing, and transmitting knowledge, this guide is about contributing to something larger than the individual. It’s about continuing to build the commons, establishing protocols for death in the digital. The sorrow of death need not also be accompanied by confusion over what intentions would have been or who should know what. Funeral home directors and lawyers have helped guide us through the protocols of death in the better-known world. In this new space those steps are considered by Twitter, Facebook, and Google, but I at least would prefer to trust people I know to deal with my wishes more accurately and with more love. We’ll be hosting a “death drill” to test out these new protocols on December 13th from 2p-5p at the Berkman Center.

Too often, we think only about the short term – this quarter, this school year, this laughably short short life span – when considering how we plan as well as what we build. We must instead intentionally look to the public future, and our responsibility as members of that shared story. We must contribute to freely available knowledge which lasts beyond our brief moments. An unavoidable part of life is death. Let’s care for each other, and hold true to our values, through the entirety. Let’s network our mortality, together.

P.S.
It is possible to speak about death without fear – I hope you can act from this place.  If you are in danger of harming yourself, please get help, rather than indirectly indicating through things like estate planning.

AkiraChix and Weaponized Social

I went to AkiraChix: Women in Technology Conference in Nairobi, Kenya this past Saturday. It was pretty outstanding. A couple hundred people in attendance, including a few men, and an incredible variety of relationships to tech (women who run the business side of tech orgs, sysadmins, bloggers, PHP devs, those in technical classes, etc).
Here are some things that stood out to me, in no particular order:
  • Cross-generational mentoring: There were students from 2 (3? 4?) high schools in attendance. AkiraChix has ongoing talks and workshops at these high schools, and the young women were definitely a highlight of the conference. Some jumped to interact/speak up, some needed/wanted encouragement to speak up, but each had astute and empathetic contributions to the conversations and workshops. Those who have been in tech for 20+ years in Kenya and the rest of the world had a reigniting of passion, and the interactions seemed great all around. I’ve been inspired to make more of an effort in integrating youth in future events I participate with.
  • Celebration of achievements / ritualized phases: AkiraChix has a bunch of photos of graduations from classes/bootcamps the group has held, and were hosting a competition for tech for women’s empowerment, etc. I often get so lost in process I forget to celebrate the milestones that have been accomplished — this was a good reminder that these moments of pausing and celebration are important.
  • Integration with educational systems: The students in attendance felt comfortable in their skills as well as with the other attendees in no small part because of the consistent interaction between high schools and AC. AC has created curriculum for (I think) both their own workshops as well as for general use in schools.
  • Self-care: Every. Single. Volunteer and Speaker consistently asked each other “how are you doing? Have you eaten? Do you need some tea or water?” It was difficult to not take care of one’s self, and it was infectious to offer care to others around you after this had been instilled. A++, 1 million points.
  • Focus on interactivity: The day was led by a keynote from Juliana Rotich, about the new AC tagline, “she builds, she serves, she leads” which was powerful and inspiring. This was followed by a panel with lots of time for Q+A, 3 rounds of breakout sessions, and a wrap-up panel (again, with lots of Q+A). The interactivity made sure everyone had a chance to speak, as well as breaking down more traditional (and hierarchical) “I speak, you listen” modes. I find this important to systemic change.
My experience, and a few sticking points:

Despite traveling globally pretty consistently for the past 4 years, I’m still very much aware of having been raised in the whitebread American Midwest, and feel that my experience of being aware of, but not the target of, power inequalities in race might be similar to those of feminist men. Intersectionality is something I studied… 10? years ago (oh man), but not something I’ve been deeply committed to understanding until these moments of enforced empathy. Sorry for being so late to the game, everyone.
I am not scared of being shouted at for saying something wrong. I’m terrified of no one talking to me about it if I do. That makes my bringing up sticking point in this context difficult – being still somewhat fresh to post-colonialism, there is definite deference to the light-skinned in Tanzania (and I think a lesser but still present tendency in Kenya), i.e. my Tanzanian friends get frisked before entering buildings, whereas I don’t. Differing with people in at the conference was delicate business I tended to avoid in deference to this. Was this power dynamic not present because I was in a space AkiraChix had created, and invited me into? Was it something to pay even more attention to, as one of three mzungus there? Is my assumption of this power dynamic reinforcing that power dynamic? Have I used the term “they” somewhere in this entry because it would be ok in other contexts and I missed the othering it causes in this one? HOLY SHIT THE ANXIETY. Regardless, here are the things I still found sticky, and I hope everyone feels comfortable telling me if I’m wrong, or even simply presenting it in a terrible way:
  • Rhetoric of Lean In: The idea of “just try harder, stand up, etc” is incredibly disconcerting to me. This is a tension between activism (things are going to suck, you’re going to get hurt, but it’s worth it for societal gain) and basic human dignity (you shouldn’t have to “lean in” at the office, as a woman. You shouldn’t have to, anywhere). This happens in the weird time between legal equality and normalized equality. But is Lean In different, in this cultural context? I heard many women speaking of men whose verbal representation had changed after street harassment exposure, and of fighting to have their voices heard, and it now being understood as culturally normative in some spaces. In short, because this idea doesn’t work for my circles, does it mean I need to bring it up here, and what does my bringing it up mean in larger contexts?
  • Tension of timeliness and inclusion: The “successful/productive” technologist is also perceived as a timely one, a value instilled by the Global North, which is in tension with those with less time or access to transportation, who spend longer in traffic and are subsequently 30 minutes or two hours late to any endeavor. This was hard for me because of my own temporal anxieties. There has been a shift in Kenya in the year I’ve been gone, across the groups I’ve spent time with, with more value now placed on timeliness. I don’t know what this means, and I don’t have the language to speak about it.
Finally (have you made it this far? holy wow), I had the honor of being invited to sit on the closing panel of “Securing Women’s Spaces Online.” The video will be up eventually, but the prezi follows. I encouraged the re-writing of social scripts/memes to not include attack nor rockstar martyrdom (common in hacker circles, and a script I’m concerned about being transmitted), and to remember that homophiliy is easy but serendipity is why the internet seemed/seems so wonderful.