Algorithms for Enforcement or for Data-Driven Introspection?

Many organizations (official or grassroots) have objectives which exceed their capacity, i.e., they have fewer resources than they think they need. In order to either better place limited resources, or to improve processes generally, some of these organizations have taken to collecting data about their objectives and use of resources. For a drought management agency in the Horn of Africa, this might have to do with the location of agripastoral communities and their access to water. For a school district in Michigan, this might be test scores or (better yet) teacher attendance. By documenting historical data and changes linked to actions taken, an understanding of whether or not a goal (equal representation, access to resources, etc) is being reached is more grounded in reality. Data, like all things, is political. What data is collected, how it is collected, where it is stored, to whom it is visible, and who gets to act on it can re-centralize power or become mechanisms of accountability and community empowerment.

This post explores how police departments have been collecting data about the location and types of arrests made as a way to track how much crime is happening in a certain place, as a way of placing their limited resources (cops and their weapons) more accurately (to their eyes). But of course their data has to do with arrests, not crime, and their definition of crime is still based on enforcement of law. This use of force, already untenable, can be seen by some as “unbiased” when based on data. Here we explore why this is not only inaccurate but will further embed systemic racial bias, while maintaining that data collection and subsequent action can be a useful thing when led by the communities themselves. Here, we specifically address questions of large sets of data against which algorithms can be run, and how we can make choices to maximize benefit and mitigate damage of these operations while transitioning from the world we’re in to the world we want.

I anticipate the audience for this blog is more acutely aware of things like state-sponsored surveillance, malware used by abusers to further control others, or circumvention tools than the usual crowd. But there is more to the technology and abilities of networks than just these components. Let’s talk about the data that networks generate, the algorithms by which that data is navigated, and how data is acted upon. One end of the arbitrary spectrum of action is enforcement – an external party exerting force in order to maintain the rule of law. The other end is data-driven introspection – an individual or group of people generating data for tracking changes within their own control. This article explores how to understand and increase the likelihood of just actions taken based on data and algorithms. Continue reading

Acting Together

Regardless of how or if you voted, if the past few days have inspired you to take action but aren’t sure how, here is a template to get started.


Not loading for you? It’s likely due to the chat on the riseup pad. Here‘s a direct link to the pad.

We’ll be hosting one this upcoming Tuesday evening in San Francisco. Let me know if you’d like to know details.

Politics and Death

This was co-written with Fin

When Mihi died, we had some problems beyond just the holes in our chests and the salt in our eyes. 0) He was part of many communities – the medical community, the hacker community, the data journalism community, and many more. We wanted to create a site where these communities could come together, which was complicated as we are 1) activists of one flavor or another, and so most of us aren’t on facebook, 2) facebook memorial pages squick us the fuck out anyway1 2, and 3) there aren’t other accessible options out there for collaborative memorial pages3. Continue reading

Unified in our plurality of voices – Global Voices Exchange

originally posted on the Aspiration blog

Global Voices is “a border-less, largely volunteer community of more than 1400 writers, analysts, online media experts and translators.” They’ve been around since 2005, weaving together locally-produced stories from all over the globe. They also have a translation community called Linguafight against censorship and for freedom through Advox, and their Rising Voices section works to empower civic journalists with microgrants, training and network-building. They deliver a huge amount of news in a startling number of languages, and they do so with humor and humility. Because they’re invested in the everyday experience of people, the community is also wide enough that when major news (like the beginnings of the protests in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey) breaks, a community of trust and support is already established around local reporters. This post initially appeared on the GVeX site on March 2nd.

Global Voices Exchange

One of the projects recently launched by Rising Voices is Global Voices Exchange (GVeX). It aims to develop, document, and disseminate methodologies for digital advocacy campaigns in the Global South. In its inaugural phase, GVeX brought together women leaders working in digital advocacy and activism from the Global South to share, document, and refine their practices into a shared methodology—and to explore points of difference that might require a more country- or context-specific approach. The several-month-long project was accented by a workshop held in Marseille, France from February 15th to 20th, and I had the honor of facilitating.

Our event goals were to strengthen the network of advocates in the Global South, to scope and design preliminary content and structure for a strategic campaigning and advocacy guide for leaders moving into online advocacy in the Global South, and to form an action plan to test and review the guide after the workshop. The participants represented eleven countries each with a unique political and economic climate, specific concerns around equality, and a rich history. Each of them has an active hand in some form of training and advocacy within their own countries, either locally or remotely.   

A (nonuniversal) guide

Every attendee had at least some experience with many of the amazing guides and manuals out there for building campaigns, for security, and for digital tools. Each of them was able to give at least one example of ways in these—supposedly universal—guides had either not fit their situation or offered information and advice that could put them at genuine risk. Would it be possible, then, to create a simple frame or scaffolding that someone in the Global South could use as a basis for exploring their own circumstances and designing a campaign tailored to their specific needs? The many guides that already exist provide a solid set of modules from which we could select. We explored this (and many other) questions while together.

Global Voices is ideally positioned for projects such as this—while much of design thinking, protocols and standards, and other aspects of technology aim towards one agreed-upon way of interacting, Global Voices takes the alternative view that sometimes the one thing that unites us is that we are all speaking our own unique and specific truths. And this isn’t simply a nice theoretical framing—it’s practice the community has lived for over eleven years, and counting.

Unifying a plurality of voices

Even though Global Voices successfully walks this talk, devising a guide based on that framing is a new and somewhat daunting task. Thankfully, with twelve women leaders and members of the Global Voices network putting our heads together over five days, the beginning skeleton of the guide now exists, as well as pockets of detail and a huge repository of documented knowledge waiting to be deployed wherever it’s needed. We learned, for example, about the ease and relative accountability of fundraising in Pakistan versus the illegality of obtaining resources for nonprofits and civil society in Venezuela. We now understand why people decide to remain anonymous in LGBTQI campaigns in Zimbabwe and walk together in Cambodia. And from our Palestinian participant I learned how to draw a tank, something I’d thankfully not yet needed to know.

Where we are at

We still have a lot of work to do, but you can look forward to seeing a draft of the guide at some point in the future. It includes things like measuring and communicating value. Many activists and advocates have difficulty expressing exactly what changes will happen in the world if they “win.” This section helps users explore their own hopes, what is culturally relevant, and what is possible to measure in order to demonstrate the effects of their campaigns and actions. Risk analysis (and response)—those operating in the Global South face a very, very different set of risks from people in other parts of the world, be it repressive regimes, violence against women, or a lack of connectivity. To design and implement culturally relevant campaigns we need to embrace these specificities. We also developed a module around building trust in worn-out communities. As a result of the same issues mentioned in risk analysis, trust in many of these communities is worn down. People working in these environments have experienced the actions of infiltrators, complete loss of institutional legitimacy through changes in political leadership or legal structures, and violent shutdowns of campaigns and organizations. To rebuild trust under those circumstances demands integrity and persistence—and the exercise we did on this topic produced some of the most charming drawings I’ve seen in a while, from our own Marianne Diaz.

Pathway to ‘trust building’ vs ‘trust destruction’, an outcome from our discussion at #gvexhttps://t.co/Pc2PT4Fmho pic.twitter.com/WNSLwJSFd8— Sopheap Chak (@sopheapfocus) February 18, 2016

What would you want to see out of such a guide?

Whether you’re from the Global South or not, tell us in the comments what would you want to see from such a guide. We have a huge amount of experience and intelligence in this beginning set of contributors, but as future users of such a guide, we want to be able to factor in your needs and ideas.

Thanks to the participants and organizers

Major thanks to the Global Voices crew of Eddie, Georgia, and Ivan for conceiving, driving, and most of all trusting this project. Mad props to Abir, to whom I already wrote a bit of a love note over on my blog, and who opened up her city and her heart for us to feel safe and stimulated during our time. Thank you to Tamara for her directness, to Arzu and Tanya for their facilitation, to Marianne and Sarita for being open and honest, to 88.8 for their venue and recording skills. Thanks to Sopheap and Zarah for jumping in with such enthusiasm and joy, to Nighat and Natasha for your leadership, to Mashiat for your hugs and insights, to Indira for your warmth, and to Dalia for always keeping things real and approachable. Thanks to Eric, Paul, and Liat for all your adaptiveness and translation skills, and to Gillo for his deep understandings of security teaching methods. I’m looking forward to seeing what we create together.

Politicized Humanitarianism

This post is a collaboration between Margaret Killjoy and yours truly. If you find yourself in need of a co-author or ghostwriter, or just generally like to be challenged and your hopes dashed and lifted at the same time, please reach out to them.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu

Four years into the Syrian Civil War, with no end in sight, the Syrian refugee crisis is just getting worse and worse. More than four million people have fled their homes and sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, and throughout the world.

There are wonderful grassroots initiatives (most too informal to even call “organizations”) who are on the ground in Europe helping Syrian refugees navigate the nightmare they’ve been thrust into (bureaucracy and xenophobia) after the nightmare they’ve escaped (the Syrian civil war). But as crucial as it is to meet these people’s immediate needs, it will take more than emergency aid to solve the source of this crisis and ones like it. It will take radical, political solutions.

Relief organizations and related nonprofits could position themselves to advocate and act towards / in alignment with those solutions. Which is to say: we need humanitarianism, yes, but if we’re going to find long-term solutions, we also need politicized humanitarianism.

When we speak of people and groups being politicized, we don’t mean campaigning and/or voting for elected officials every few years. Instead, to be political means to do work that addresses the very way our society—and its decision-making—is structured. For many of us, to be political also means to embrace the feminist concept that the personal is political—that the way we interact with one another one-on-one cannot be divorced from the broader structures of social control. Continue reading

…and yet…

At Cascadia.JS in 2014, I picked up a tshirt from the freebie pile. It’s pink. I know — I was also shocked about this, but the quote on the front was so good I had to go for it. “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” On the back is a subtle “&yet” which I learned was an open source consulting company (ish). Neat! — humility, a culture that accepts shirts which are both pink and comfortable, and a nuanced logo. I especially love wearing this shirt in academic and tech-centric situations.

A few months ago, Case asked my consent to be put in touch with someone on the &yet team — they had a conference coming up, and had suggested I speak. Our phone conversation was brief, but it sounded both fun and values-based, so I said yes (a rarer and rarer thing for me these days), and so I spent Wed/Thurs/Fri of last week in Richland, Washington. If interested, here are my drawings of others’ talks, my slide deck, and the paper I referenced.

It is now easily one of my favorite large social experiences. Music, art, and story were woven throughout the conference, all evoking self-reflection on our role in the path the world takes. It was already populated by some of my favorite people in this space (the aforementioned case, plus ben, jden, kawandeep, etc), and the textcapade starting weeks in advance, recieving letters from another character in the story by mail, all playing through these struggles, had me jazzed up long before the event.

The talks were a beautiful mix of art demonstrations, hopeful distribution structures, empathy arcs, and design philosophies. Inclusion was constantly present, and never for its own sake, but rather from a deep understanding that these are the voices that make up the world. The care &yet took of attendees (and encouraged us to take for each other) opened space for some rather heart-wrenching moments. Please, check out the talks when they go up.

While all of this is amazing, I want to talk about the trust and responsibility that &yet placed in the attendees. The storyline was a surprisingly nuanced version of one of my own ongoing internal battles — burn it all down, or patch to save what we can. (The mixed-mode system work is my attempt at making these transitions graceful, by the by). At no point was a clear value judgement imposed upon the story, or implied to the players. The textcapade transitioned into a sort of backchannel for actors in the parts of those sending the messages at points during the conference, and this archetypical internal battle continued to be played out there as well as by stage actors between talks.
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What’s the Catch?

Chaos Communications Camp is something that happens once every four years, and it is My Favorite. It’s a few thousand hackers etc camping together in Germany. There’s brightly colored hair everywhere, and a slowly improving gender ratio, and stickers on laptops, and a gigabit to the tent. There are disco balls in trees, and competing soundscapes of German techno and old rock and roll or hiphop, and a giant sparkley rocket ship called Fairy Dust. I’m camping with Norton’s Obscure Phoggy Embassy (the manifestation of a few Bay Area hackerspaces), which is successfully trolling much of the rest of Camp through their assumption we’re being colonial (because Emperors), as well as having an inflated shark Rubin‘s been shouting at people to jump over. Also, NOPE attire are booty shorts.

I was invited to sit on a panel called “What’s the Catch?” put together by nat from Open Technology Institute. Josh (also from OTI), Kate (from tor), and myself were the three panelists. We each attempted to speak for about five minutes, and then we focused on questions from the audience. Our topic was an ongoing debate in infosec (and other) circles : is it possible to take money from governments and corporations while maintaining a project’s integrity? I vote yes, if you work really hard at it. The talk will eventually be up on the CCC wiki (and I’ll likely post it here once it’s up) but for now, this is the rant I put together when I was considering how to concisely state why I think this is the case.

In relation to this, and the other existential questions which I continually struggle with, I refer often to a quote from the Zapatistas, one of the few groups to maintain a governance structure after their revolution: “Caminando preguntamos,” which roughly translates to “we walk while asking questions.” To me, it means that we should move, but let’s analyze as we do. Let’s be in both critique and solidarity with each other.

I’m going to attempt to touch on three points, alliterated for your memory: perfection, pluralism, paternalism.
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Accountability in Response

I’ve started writing about response over on the Aspiration blog, but this one still has cursewords in it, and is very much in my own language, so I figured I’d post it here first.

The problems our planet is facing are becoming more extreme. People and politics mean there are larger populations more densely packed in cities. Nomadic populations traveling along their historical routes are now often crossing over arbitrary (have you *seen* some of the country lines people in Western countries have drawn in places they might never have even been!?) political boundaries, making them refugees or illegal immigrants. Climate change means more and more extreme events are impacting those populations. We have *got* to get our shit together.

In all this, the people who have been historically marginalized often become even more so as those in power see scarcity encroaching on their livelihoods. But the ability to hold people accountable in new ways (through things like social media), as well as (I hope) a real awareness and effort in the long arc towards equality, means there are groups of people seeking new ways to better allocate resources to those most affected by these events. Often, these groups are also in a post-scarcity mentality — that, when we work together, wisely, we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. These are folk who think we *can* reach zero poverty and zero emissions (within a generation). These are the folk who see joy in the world, and possibility.

The resource allocation and accountability necessary for these transitory steps towards a world that can survive and even thrive won’t happen in a vacuum. In the organizations, governments, and grassroots efforts there are entire supply chains, and ways of listening (and to whom), and self-reflexive mechanisms to consider. In these are embedded corruption, and paternalism, and colonialism. In these, too, are embedded individuals who have been Fighting The Good Fight for decades. Who have added useful checks and amplifiers and questions. It’s into this environment we step. It is, at its core, like any other environment. It has History.

It’s in this context that I’m so excited about Dialling Up Resilience. It taps into questions of efficacy in programming by using and contributing to metrics for success in building resilience. It assumes good faith in policy makers and implementers by offering up data for them to do their jobs better. It protects against bad actors by providing granular, speedy data aggregated enough to protect data providers but transparent enough to be clear when a program is working (or not, if those we’re assuming good faith in don’t actually deserve that). And, my favorite part — instead of contorting and posturing about what makes people able to bounce back faster after a climate-related shock… we just ask them. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But the core is there.

We’ll be working with a few different groups in Kenya, including the National Drought Management Authority (and their Ending Drought Emergencies program) and UNDP on their existing surveying initiatives, as well as groups like GeoPoll (SMS), Twaweza (call center), and Kobo (household) on stand-alone surveys about how communities estabilish and track their own resilience. If we get the grant extension, we’ll work more directly with communities using tools like Promise Tracker and Landscape (a digitized version of Dividers & Connectors) to be closer to their own data, and to subsequently be able to have more agency over their own improvement as well as accountability.

What’s also exciting is that our means and our ends match. I was recently in Nairobi for a stakeholder workshop with not only the project partners, but also with the organizations which would eventually make use of the data. We’ve been conducting community workshops to test our basic assumptions and methods against reality, as well as to be sure community voice is at the core of each component we consider. We’ve thrown a lot out… and added some amazing new things in. We’re hoping to break down the gatekeeper dynamic of accessing communities in the Horn of Africa, and we want to be coextensive with existing programs (rather than supplanting them). It’s feminist and it’s development and I’m kind of fucking thrilled.

How can humanitarian response be decentralized?

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

For a long time, it wasn’t possible to include everyone’s voice in planning or decision-making without impossibly large amounts of time. There was no way to listen, at scale. So aggregation and centralization became common, especially in times of urgency, even with the troubles these tend to cause.

But now, with the technologies we have, we can *listen*, in high resolution and in high fidelity. But technology isn’t a silver bullet. We also need the political will and the personal values to make that happen. With Aspiration’s new Digital Humanitarian Response program, we get to support some of the rad people willing and able to make these movements happen. In May, we hosted the Humanitarian Technology Festival at MIT. The Digital Response Wiki provides resources and notes, and here are some top-level highlights from the event:

Disaster and humanitarian issues don’t happen in a vacuum

Notes from the Humanitarian Technology Festival

Groups like Public Lab help lay the groundwork (both socially and technically) for fast-cycle disasters, via their ongoing interaction with communities around environmental justice. This also provides scaffolding for handing off responsibilities after an extreme event. Kathmandu Living Labs, a group committed to mapping the infrastructure of their geography, is an excellent case study in this. When the Nepal earthquake hit, they were able to jump into action quickly due to pre-existing Open Street Map communities, workflows, data infrastructure, and (most importantly) social ties. Kathmandu was then capable of making use of (and maintaining) the updated data after the fact. Simply by being (and being allowed to be) active in affected communities on a day-to-day basis, organizations can support communities in becoming more resilient to disasters.

That said, preparing for extreme events before they happen can help mitigate the severity of impact on people lives. We explored the idea of games to make what might be considered dull more fun. No need to start from scratch (though that can be stimulating as well!). Climate Centre makes such games, and publishes them openly over on their website.

We already have much of what we need

One of our spectrogram statements was, “We already have all of the technology we need.” While we were divided in our responses, we acknowledged that the ability of groups of people to make do with what they have in disaster is astounding. And our preferences apply here technically as well as ethically. Distributed, federated systems both for technology and for communities/governance are more resilient than centralized systems (as well as addressing human rights in general). There are a few of these rad systems being built, NYC Prepared being one of my favorites.

Data and consent are deeply linked

Data use with populations that are vulnerable (based on their history, their current circumstances, or both) is still a big question, but not one we need to face on our own. OpenGov, Missing Persons, and other transparency-related initiatives have figured an awful lot of that out, and we should take note. Additionally, while consent is different in high-stress situations than in long-term advocacy campaigns, it should still be a strong consideration in any plan or intervention.

We looked at the Framework for Consent Policies which came out of a Responsible Data Forum in Budapest, and suggested advocating for a “notify this set of people in case of emergency” embedded into social platforms, similar to Networked Mortality or ICE contacts in some phones. This way, people would be consenting and determining who would be their contacting associates in case of disaster (unlike what Facebook recently did). Consent is a component of accountability, both of which highlight how frontline communities might be the architects of their own rescue.

Accountability is just as important in precarious situations as it is in everyday life, if not more so

Accountability is sorely lacking in humanitarian aid and disaster response. Fantastic organizations exist to track where spending is going, but money is often considered misspent. Frameworks exist for deploying aid in ways which alleviate, rather than exacerbate, conflict and tensions. However, these frameworks and mechanisms are still sometimes insufficient, as even well intended groups remain in regions for decades while populations become reliant on them, rather than becoming self sufficient.

Rather than come up with an external group to hold response groups accountable, we figured the frontline community could state whether or not initiatives are working, and those reports could be sent directly to the response organizations, their donors, and relevant constituents. This factors in strongly to the Dialling Up Resilience initiative grant of which Aspiration is a part (Yes, it’s spelled with 2 L’s. They’re Brits). More on that soon.

You can find more thorough notes from Humanitarian Technology Festival on (you guessed it) our wiki. Reach out to us if you have any questions about this ongoing work. Contact us here: humtechfest@aspirationtech.org / @willlowbl00

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.