Responsible Project Lifecycle

We’re thrilled to announce our first white paper, inspired by the Engine Room’s Responsible Data Forum in Oakland months ago, and with interviews with Heather, Sara, Max, and Lisha!

Responsible Humanitarian And Disaster Response Project Cycles : Embed a “kill date” on your PLATFORM. If people are using that platform, this becomes a part of the community and culture. Alternatively, create a set of stages for the platform. For example, a crisis platform could have the following stages: initial situation awareness, crisis response, early recovery, recovery, and handover. Each of these stages have different information needs and different/progressively more restrictive rules that can be applied. Stages can have expected transition dates relative to each and informed by the unique situation needs. The most important lesson to learn is that there is no easy mandate. Each event will change the needs/time required to complete tasks, and is informed by engaging and communicating with all portions of the community (mappers, in-field deployments, affected populations, etc.).

What Response Can Learn from Co-Ops

I had an amazing chat with Emily M Lippold Cheney after meeting serendipitously at a Libre Fest in Cambridge. She agreed to do a GWOBcast on the overlap of digital response and the history of cooperatives. It reminded me a bit about the Brainmeats Lisha and I did awhile ago on The Culture of Eviction.

CRISIS/VOID RESPONSE

  • ACDI-VOCA: Coops in Crisis Response Paper (.pdf): This is an international cooperative development org largely funded by USAID, so it uses a democratic model within an not-so-democratic development industry.
  • Isla Vista Community Network: This is the group that just started meeting together in an unincorporated area and, by sheer persistence and existence, started being seen as a representative body that had some authority. Recently, through the work of this network and some of its members, the community was able to save some buildings from being demolished by the County and have the turned into (much needed) community centers. The IVCN is going to be meeting and taking the lead on deciding the how/who of using the buildings.

COOPS FOR THE PEOPLE

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!

Updates from the Field – Taarifa in Iringa

I am utterly exhausted as I write this, but I wanted to get info out sooner rather than later. I’ll likely come back through in a few days for cleanup.

We picked back up with Taarifa in London in, amazingly, the building it was birthed out of. Note I didn’t say conceived in. It’s a project created from deep field experience, in talking to people who live in areas with lacking water infrastructure, and seeing a gap between knowledge held in a community, the knowledge those with lots of resources to wave around have, and fulfilling the need of access to water. It’s one of the few projects I’ve seen in years of hackathons that beyond building a project to feel good, and to learn more about what response is like [which I think are both worthwhile, it’s when conflated with “field-ready” that this becomes an issue]. This one has been carried forward for years, deployed in multiple countries to various success, and always at the request of (to start AND stop) of the local government[Of course my grassroots, activist self grumbles at this]. We were back at UCL, hosted by Muki’s ExCITeS group, and things just sort of worked. More reminiscent of a hackerspace or Libre hackathon than the recent industry ones[hackathonfaq.com]. Most of the team that would be in Dar es Salaam was with us for the hackathon, and we hunkered down and sussed through code – SMS, base code, email integration, and going over again (and again) the dev environment installation documentation. This wasn’t just about getting the barebones up and going, it was also about being sure we could easily onboard new people. Because next stop – back to Dar es Salaam.

In case I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it again here – the series of hackathons were to have base infrastructure in place, and to work with local software devs to maintain their own version of the code. Doesn’t make sense that it’s in the coding language it is? Let’s change it! The last thing we want to do is design, create, and implement a “solution”[man I hate that word] from far away. Because it’s not just about the tool being used well by a community – it’s also about the community fully understanding it, and having full control over the tools they use.

The hackathon in Dar ran Saturday Sunday and involved our team of 7 people – 2 grad students for general assist, 1 core code contributor, 1 cartographer, 1 person from World Bank, 1 hardware person, and myself – and another 12 local students, software developers, and entrepreneurs. [Again, one slightly angsty point for me was that we worked closely with innovation spaces, not hack spaces. Do you know about my NOLA experience? I’ll tell you about it some time. Hilarious. But I definitely try to get as close to the root as possible when working.] We worked on the SMS implementation (yay Telerivet!), backend integration, a smartphone application[many of the water engineers have smart phones – we checked. Thrice.], and the dashboards. From the funds available through the innovation grant, we hired 3 enthusiastic and competent locals to continue working not he project over the next 3 months (at least). They’ll be joining for the biweekly Taarifa call-ins[which you can also join – will be posted to the GWOB Google Plus page once I have my wits about me – but you can see all the past ones via the same place].

Unlike many hackathons, the time limit on this one wasn’t arbitrary. We (Mark from World Bank, Austin from MoMo, George and Gregor on Taarifa, an awesome local and hackathon attendee who was able to join us named Fufiji, our amazing driver Mr Wensei, and myself – sad to see Jeremy the cartographer and Andreas, our other grad student, go away) into the car at about 19:30 and headed to our stopover in Morogoro, to continue on to Irigina the next morning. 5 hours on the road, most in traffic of a supply chain made apparent, we took up half of the dark hotel we arrived at early early in the morning. Bed nets overhead, farm animal noises out the window, we slept the sleep of exhausted travel and intensive thinking. The day after, we continued at a leisurely pace to Iringa, stopping to eat fried chicken and check out hardware stores for Austin’s MoMo. We crept along mountain roads, behind cautious trucks, their brethren crashed along the roadside and pilfered for parts. I sang Flanders and Swann, Mark sang naval songs, but we generally shared silence and admired the vastness and beauty of this country. The buildings with Xs on them are within 30 meters of the road, and are slated for demolition if cities ever grow in these rural areas – a hedged bet against the traffic nightmare of Dar. Drivers signal to each other with blinkers and high beams and horns about upcoming speed traps, safety in passing, and general hello’s. And when we finally arrived, we ate chicken and fish by the light of cell phones, the power having gone out, and talked about the next couple days.

The first day we met with district officials to explain the purpose of the innovations, so we might move forward with their blessing. It’s an incredibly hierarchical society, and so authority buy-in is essential. The district water engineer, the head of health, and of education, and even the executive director of the region come by. We demoed Taarifa, and MoMo, and everyone was much impressed. But I was left feeling.. lacking. I wanted people to understand how it worked, and how it was important for their workflow (if it was). Patience, our community partner reminded me. Tomorrow we will do activities. We go back to the hotel, and Austin solders, and I draw, and we all type and talk. The gents head out to a local bar, stopping to take part in a dancing line for a music video on the way. I stay in the hotel, knowing I will only be angry about gender politics if I venture out into night life.

The second day, I lay out a game. We have 8 water points, and the room is divided up into community members, COWSOs (Community Owned Water Source Organizations), water engineers, and the district water offices. We set some constraints – the water engineers can only visit so many water points in a round, the district should know what’s going on at the end of the round so they can properly send funds. They have data in a database about what the water points were at when last surveyed, a couple years ago. Now, GO. 10 minutes to repair anything they can. Chaos. Some points get fixed, but the water engineers went to more villages than their limit allowed (we said they were flying! Not on buses. We laugh), often to places where the points were already fixed, and all in one group. Now, reconvene and talk through it. The COWSOs were completely left out (just as they are right now! Again, laughter, but there’s something deeper there, something we don’t have time for right now), and some villages were never visited. And the district gave money to places that they had listed as broken – some of which had been fixed, and didn’t give money to some places because they thought it had been fixed but it wasn’t. We talk through distribution of money – of course places with fixed points would make good use of extra funds, but they’d prefer those with less than they have get much needed funds instead.

We redefine the parameters. Anyone can send Taarifa a message (as represented by Fufuji with a spreadsheet) about their water points. The water engineers can pay as much or as little attention to it as they want, and the district can make their report off of the information, since the platform will have seen the updates to the water. We go through the exercise again, and this time there is clarity. We talk through it. Resources were better used. Time was better used. Everyone felt heard[It was, in all honesty, pretty awesome]. Then we take tea, demo the actual tools, and head out to the field.

Austin fit an exposed pipe with a MoMo, updating the firmware from the field. First time I’ve seen someone code from a pit, hands dirty, umbrella held overhead to shield the screen. We struggle with what SIM card to use in this spot, how to test given water hasn’t flown since morning, and that a 1” pipe was promised but a 3/4” pipe is what we’ve got. It finally works, tape and adapters and dirt-laden code, everyone sweaty but high on possibility. If it will send updates under the 2.5 feet of dirt which will also protect the device and the pipe from elements and scrappers, is another question. We send some messages via Taarifa, and thank everyone, and acknowledge George, Gregor, and Austin will be back within a week. Reiterate that it is the combination of the device and the people that ensure a robust system.

And then we have to get in the car and race the sun and the mountains and the supply chain on dangerous curves so I might catch my flight. An 11 hour car ride later, I’m sitting in an airport, queuing up my laptop to write this, exhausted but happy.

Taarifa Hackathon Updates

We camped out for a few lovely days at the inspiring Little Devices out of N51 at MIT. Hugs and hearts to Anna and Jose who brought their brains and their space to our hackdays. And didn’t find our requests for things like buckets, tubing, and CNC strange. We were constantly surrounded by go carts and craziness. So happy.

Maps

Mark used the OSM-Bright style and started to add Tanzanian Open Data to create a basemap for Taarifa (and generally anyone interested in Tanzania). Have started to refocus the cartography on public services as opposed to navigation – roads are the design focus of OSM Bright – Mark is changing this!

Requests have been made to import this data into OSM, however, as yet have been unsuccessful – I am following up on this! So, seeing as I can replicate OSM’s stack insofar providing a map tile service is concerned, I’ve started to create a Tanzanian base map.
Before: TZ Before

 

After: TZ after

Next Steps

Currently continuing to work on it. Will need to understand how the loading of OSM Stylesheets into TileMill can be re-consumed by others, currently the work is installed on a local TileMill and isn’t packagable for wider consumption. Changing this is a priority.

Lives at

On Mark’s computer – needs to be on a github repo. As a (rather large) side note. The finished product will need to be hosted on a server with at least 100gb of space, if not more. Consequently understanding where and who has this infrastructure will be important.

User Interface / Dashboard

Drew did a bunch of work on this. Here’s a drawing from brainstorming:

And a link to the PDFs.
Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 7.24.56 AM

User Stories

It’s important to know who your users are, if you’re going to build any tool. By building out user stories based on experience and interaction, we can consider message format, connectivity, visual needs, and the like. Willow typed up a bunch of user stories based on her week in Tanzania.

Next Steps

There are some lingering questions that not enough experience was garnered in order to answer. Things like – if we want to show people that their reports are being acted on, but we can’t send them text messages back (if we’re protecting their identities), then having printouts at local municipal offices makes sense. What should those look like?

Code Base

Dirk and Florian led the charge on this.

  • Created initial installation and usage docs for the API and Waterpoints flavour of Taarifa.
    • Drew helped to guineapig this
    • range of bug fixes & doc fixes
  • Understand the sensor use case and how that relates to the Taarifa use case. Settle on the use of a separate, existing dedicated sensor api solution (potentially MITs chain-api).
  • Trying to complete the TaarifaWaterpoints application but ran into technical issues. Lots of debugging with Florian which lead to more a fundamental discussion as to what the scope of Taarifa should be.
  • Technical issues pretty much solved with a couple of things swept under the carpet for later. Scope discussion started on the mailinglist, community needs to comment (this is where a board could be useful)
  • Lots of discussions with Spencer (chain api), Jude (Promise Tracker), Ben (MoMo), Dan (Riffle) in between

Next Steps

  • Complete Waterpoint example so it’s usable
  • Main priority: focus on UI / Dashboard, implementing Drews mockups.
  • In parallel continue work (who?) on a more flexible, generic API depending on outcome of scope discussion on mailing list
  • Don’t actively evangalize Taarifa codebase to outsiders and other applications without some caveats.

Videos

Introductions

Day 2 Updates

What Else?

There was also some killer work done on water sensors with Public Labs, and on telephony plugins with Tropo. Look for that followup here!

What’s Next?

Next, we’re taking this show on the road to University College London 5/24 and 25 (bit.ly/taarifalondon), and then to Dar es Salaam (bit.ly/taarifadar). We hope you’ll join us, in person or remotely, for one or both.

See the list of our tasks on this hackpad page.

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.

Dar part 2

People don’t lean out of vehicles to ask for directions here, as they did in Nairobi. The security guards, when they exist, lounge in chairs and ask questions rather than standing, mostly silent, with automatic weapons. But like Nairobi, meetings can start (and end) hours late due to traffic, to tardy risers, to rain that causes traffic, to conversations running long, to torn-up infrastructure (that causes traffic), to slow service for your lunch meeting. Tardiness is sometimes used as a sort of posturing card to play – whether or not someone gives you a meeting, and how prompt they are, as sorts of indicators of status.

Everything we’ve done here has required status strutting in order to gain speed. Those plates I told you about? Only people with yellow plates get pulled at traffic stops, because they won’t be diplomats, or military, or donors, or government. If you get stopped, it’s easier for everyone if you just hand the officer money rather than pay the huge fine for driving illegally. Which most are. And because we don’t want to slow down our project, nearly every introduction is “and this is Willow, from MIT.” Which is great and all1, but as someone who prefers to be affiliated with institutions for access to incredible brains and the space to consider at length, rather than constructed legitimacy, it makes me feel like I’d be prettier if I just smiled2.

Those same posturings and rerouting the system means there’s a fear of transparency here. Entire systems here are built up around being opaque. People across all walks of life ignore the floods for fear of being blamed for what happened, being put out of a job. This means any transition into transparency will require safe space. No “we’re coming after you” attitude, but a “we have been operating to the best of our abilities within the structure we have. Now that the structure is changing, we get to change as well!” But it seems enough people into open data and transparency have done it with a vindictive streak that everyone balks these days, and it’s a slow, gentle process.

Two and a half days into an 8 day trip, we’d chatted with NGOs, World Bank3 employees, the Ministry of Water, UNHCR, and no people who actually live the experience this technology would change. And as much as I trust all of those people (and my hosts) to know what the status of their work is, I needed to go see things. Establish ground truth. Everyone gets caught up in paperwork, rhetoric, image, and email, and so seeing it for oneself is always imperative. Mark, an amazing guide and cohort as always, got us out to Tandale a full day early for the sake of my patience and sanity.

On the way there, Msilikale leaned forward to ask the bajaj driver to drive like he does, not like we’re tourists. The roads had washed out from the recent floods, full of pot holes and rubble to negotiate and lurch over. Tandale is a slum in Dar es Salaam, and is a place to live, just like anywhere else. We walk with a man who has lived there, him taking us past houses with water lines up to our mid-thigh, insides still covered in silt, to the river running by the open defication area (ODA here). Kids run by with make-shift toys, and young women peep out to ogle my hair (or Mark’s size)4. As we stand by a washed-out bridge, our guide explains context.

The river divides two areas, one has most of the markets and the other is mostly houses. There’s no grid system (it’s an informal settlement), and so paths are highly reliant upon available bridges, and new structures are based on those paths. IE, functionally ad hoc labyrinthine. And when the floods came, the bridge washed out, and there are still people learning about that and figuring out new routes home. No one is responsible for the bridge – the government won’t come fix it, and the man who built it and had lived nearby died awhile back. No one takes responsibility, either.
It’s not just the bridge getting washed out – it’s the height at which the water rose, and that the ODA is not much higher than the river on a regular basis anyway, and it’s certainly lower than the water marks. So all the trash and bodily functions and such from the ODA get caught up in the river, which means it gets clogged up (as do the drains in the area), which means standing water, which means more mosquitos, and mosquitos are bad news bears. That’s besides all the things in the ODA also flooding into the houses with the rest of the river water.
Flooded or not, the water from the river (and the wells around it) is used to wash, cook, and sometimes drink. This is only for people who can’t afford the water out of the water points – which can be salt or fresh. For half price, you can get jugs of salt water to wash with, and sometimes for cooking. For full price, you can get fresh water. The water is delivered out of water points – giant containers, raised up off the ground, from which people purchase water. These are privately owned, though installed and supplied by the government, and few enough are stocked and working at any given point that there are queues for the resource.

I ask questions. How do people know that one is broken? I wonder about where knowledge of what is going on would be hosted and shared. Is there a town center where things are posted, or is it all word of mouth? No center, just neighbors telling neighbors. No bulletin board system. I saw a vanishingly small number of feature phones while we were out. Only government and donor officials and contractors smart phones. Which, to me, makes me wonder how to get maps built of the water system back to the people in the area5. And given the level of corruption in the country, that data being only accessible to groups already in power is fraught with peril. Mark, aware to not ask questions about anything that won’t have a guaranteed resource response, waves me off asking more specific questions of how points break, and how to track response, what would next challenges and steps be, etc6.

Night threatening and malaria mosquitos7 lazing about, we walk back towards the main road. At a bodaboda station, we negotiate with the fliers. I feel like I’m choosing who to be auctioned off to, having to dismiss the enthusiastic and be wary of the most aloof. Msilikale shoos off the most invasive, and I’m glad of a native Swahili speaker friend and a friend who’s 6’6”. That negotiated, we take a rather epic dive-bomb through traffic route home8, avoiding jams and vehicles traversing the median to gain a clearer route. Only one or two of the passing bike riders make kissy faces and eyebrows at me. Mosquitos die on my visor, and mud splashes on my boots.

And I stare at the bathtub in the hotel room, and think about not finishing my dinner when I was young and knowing most parents referred to starving children in Africa. But the issue then, and with this, is in supply chains and politics around them.

1. Waves MIT flag.
2. Institutional objectification. Which is at least different from institutionalized -isms.
3. Yes, of course I wore my “/capitalism” pin, why do you ask?
4. Please forgive my tense-shifting.
5. A core ethic when obtaining data. See also this blog entry.
6. DEMAND EQUITABLE ETC9
7. Dhengi for day, malaria for night.
8. Sorry, mom.
9. Inside joke.

Updates from the Field: Taarifa in Dar es Salaam part 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.

Updates from the Field : Taarifa in Dar es Salaam, part 2

People don’t lean out of vehicles to ask for directions here, as they did in Nairobi. The security guards, when they exist, lounge in chairs and ask questions rather than standing, mostly silent, with automatic weapons. But like Nairobi, meetings can start (and end) hours late due to traffic, to tardy risers, to rain that causes traffic, to conversations running long, to torn-up infrastructure (that causes traffic), to slow service for your lunch meeting. Tardiness is sometimes used as a sort of posturing card to play – whether or not someone gives you a meeting, and how prompt they are, as sorts of indicators of status.

Everything we’ve done here has required status strutting in order to gain speed. Those plates I told you about? Only people with yellow plates get pulled at traffic stops, because they won’t be diplomats, or military, or donors, or government. If you get stopped, it’s easier for everyone if you just hand the officer money rather than pay the huge fine for driving illegally. Which most are. And because we don’t want to slow down our project, nearly every introduction is “and this is Willow, from MIT.” Which is great and all1, but as someone who prefers to be affiliated with institutions for access to incredible brains and the space to consider at length, rather than constructed legitimacy, it makes me feel like I’d be prettier if I just smiled2.

Those same posturings and rerouting the system means there’s a fear of transparency here. Entire systems here are built up around being opaque. People across all walks of life ignore the floods for fear of being blamed for what happened, being put out of a job. This means any transition into transparency will require safe space. No “we’re coming after you” attitude, but a “we have been operating to the best of our abilities within the structure we have. Now that the structure is changing, we get to change as well!” But it seems enough people into open data and transparency have done it with a vindictive streak that everyone balks these days, and it’s a slow, gentle process.

Two and a half days into an 8 day trip, we’d chatted with NGOs, World Bank3 employees, the Ministry of Water, UNHCR, and no people who actually live the experience this technology would change. And as much as I trust all of those people (and my hosts) to know what the status of their work is, I needed to go see things. Establish ground truth. Everyone gets caught up in paperwork, rhetoric, image, and email, and so seeing it for oneself is always imperative. Mark, an amazing guide and cohort as always, got us out to Tandale a full day early for the sake of my patience and sanity.

On the way there, Msilikale leaned forward to ask the bajaj driver to drive like he does, not like we’re tourists. The roads had washed out from the recent floods, full of pot holes and rubble to negotiate and lurch over. Tandale is a slum in Dar es Salaam, and is a place to live, just like anywhere else. We walk with a man who has lived there, him taking us past houses with water lines up to our mid-thigh, insides still covered in silt, to the river running by the open defication area (ODA here). Kids run by with make-shift toys, and young women peep out to ogle my hair (or Mark’s size)4. As we stand by a washed-out bridge, our guide explains context.

The river divides two areas, one has most of the markets and the other is mostly houses. There’s no grid system (it’s an informal settlement), and so paths are highly reliant upon available bridges, and new structures are based on those paths. IE, functionally ad hoc labyrinthine. And when the floods came, the bridge washed out, and there are still people learning about that and figuring out new routes home. No one is responsible for the bridge – the government won’t come fix it, and the man who built it and had lived nearby died awhile back. No one takes responsibility, either.
It’s not just the bridge getting washed out – it’s the height at which the water rose, and that the ODA is not much higher than the river on a regular basis anyway, and it’s certainly lower than the water marks. So all the trash and bodily functions and such from the ODA get caught up in the river, which means it gets clogged up (as do the drains in the area), which means standing water, which means more mosquitos, and mosquitos are bad news bears. That’s besides all the things in the ODA also flooding into the houses with the rest of the river water.
Flooded or not, the water from the river (and the wells around it) is used to wash, cook, and sometimes drink. This is only for people who can’t afford the water out of the water points – which can be salt or fresh. For half price, you can get jugs of salt water to wash with, and sometimes for cooking. For full price, you can get fresh water. The water is delivered out of water points – giant containers, raised up off the ground, from which people purchase water. These are privately owned, though installed and supplied by the government, and few enough are stocked and working at any given point that there are queues for the resource.

I ask questions. How do people know that one is broken? I wonder about where knowledge of what is going on would be hosted and shared. Is there a town center where things are posted, or is it all word of mouth? No center, just neighbors telling neighbors. No bulletin board system. I saw a vanishingly small number of feature phones while we were out. Only government and donor officials and contractors smart phones. Which, to me, makes me wonder how to get maps built of the water system back to the people in the area5. And given the level of corruption in the country, that data being only accessible to groups already in power is fraught with peril. Mark, aware to not ask questions about anything that won’t have a guaranteed resource response, waves me off asking more specific questions of how points break, and how to track response, what would next challenges and steps be, etc6.

Night threatening and malaria mosquitos7 lazing about, we walk back towards the main road. At a bodaboda station, we negotiate with the fliers. I feel like I’m choosing who to be auctioned off to, having to dismiss the enthusiastic and be wary of the most aloof. Msilikale shoos off the most invasive, and I’m glad of a native Swahili speaker friend and a friend who’s 6’6”. That negotiated, we take a rather epic dive-bomb through traffic route home8, avoiding jams and vehicles traversing the median to gain a clearer route. Only one or two of the passing bike riders make kissy faces and eyebrows at me. Mosquitos die on my visor, and mud splashes on my boots.

And I stare at the bathtub in the hotel room, and think about not finishing my dinner when I was young and knowing most parents referred to starving children in Africa. But the issue then, and with this, is in supply chains and politics around them.

1. Waves MIT flag.
2. Institutional objectification. Which is at least different from institutionalized -isms.
3. Yes, of course I wore my “/capitalism” pin, why do you ask?
4. Please forgive my tense-shifting.
5. A core ethic when obtaining data. See also this blog entry.
6. DEMAND EQUITABLE ETC9
7. Dhengi for day, malaria for night.
8. Sorry, mom.
9. Inside joke.