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!