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.

Heatwave Hackathon

Hugs and thanks to Lindsay Oliver and the Kenya Red Cross team for their contributions to this entry.

On November 15th, I helped facilitate the Red Cross Crescent Climate Center’s HeatHack 2014, a gathering of amazing people to collaborate on solutions to climate-related challenges. This event focused on the risks and impacts of heatwaves, and how to provide community care and safety nets for at-risk people during extreme weather episodes.

In case you wonder what a hackathon is:

A hackathon is a gathering of diverse people who form teams to work on addressing challenges over a short period of time. These challenges can be technical, physical, resource-based, or even social. During HeatHack, participants learned about heatwave challenges from climate experts and people who have experienced heatwaves firsthand. Teams formed around potential ways to address these challenges, and worked together to come up with solutions to present to the judges. Prizes were awarded based on innovation, documentation, usability, and inclusiveness.

Why “HeatHack”?

Heatwaves can cause power outages, wildfires during a drought, buckling and melting roads, burst water lines, and serious health effects such as severe sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and death.

  • According to NASA, when the temperature hits 95*F (35*C) your ability to function drops by 45%. Your loss of accuracy is 700%.
  • MPR News reports that body temperature can rise to 105*F (40.6*C) if working outside in a heatwave. Death occurs usually when a body temperature reaches 107.6*F (42*C).

Despite the severity of heatwaves, the health risks often go unnoticed because the people most affected are easily overlooked in a large population, especially if they are poor. We need to create ways of responding to these challenges to care for people who are currently at risk and to prepare for future heatwaves. As the effects of climate change become more severe, the number, length, and temperature of heatwaves will increase – including in Nairobi! Climate change affects the entire globe, and Kenya can lead the way in creating solutions that help as many people worldwide as possible. Continue reading

A month in Nairobi

Background of the gig

Pablo and games

I met this guy named Pablo Suarez in a pub in Boston, when our mutual friend John Crowley insisted I leave my introvert-hole. When John insists, I tend to listen. And as always, it was totally worth it. Pablo plays games. As a climate scientist, he got tired of people falling asleep in meetings. He was aware of the direness of the situation, but no one else felt the same urgency. So he started expressing probability and costs and delays through dice, and beans, and objectives. He’s played these games with people who live in disaster-prone areas on through people at the UN who make policy about resource allocation. He’s created actual, connected change through an entire system. We’ve since embarked upon a few event adventures together, and I’m glad to call him friend and cohort.

My experience with KRCS

And so I met this guy named Dr James Kisia, when Pablo suggested I take a gig at the Kenyan Red Cross. In a continuing trend, when Pablo suggests things, I tend to listen. James has become well known as an innovator in the NGO/innovation space. As an example, reframing the understanding and practice of social entrepreneurship in resource-poor settings. Exploring sustainable resource mobilization for an organization whose relevance in disaster-prone Kenya is increasingly becoming apparent. The KRCS runs 3 hotels in Kenya, taking advantage of the fact that conferencing is a major business in Kenya, and in Nairobi particularly. It might seem paradoxical, having a five star facility on the campus of the a humanitarian organization, but the money the hotels make is ploughed back into the humanitarian work of the organization — including non-funded sudden onset disasters.

Based entirely on good faith, shoe strings, and a few well-placed calls, James and I embarked upon a trust fall with each other, based entirely on Pablo’s word. The Web of Trust in real life. I arrived to Nairobi for 4 weeks of work with little guidance beyond to lay groundwork for a Dadaab-focused intern or contractor, as specific to what would be applicable to climate change issues as well. Continue reading

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.

Nairobi (2/2)

We went on safari in the national park, waking up so so early and adventuring first around parts of Nairobi to find Andy, new cohort in action and humored outrage. Backroads and hanging out of the car window asking for directions, every interaction a moment of pleasantry and shared experience. Francis, exhausted from funeral travel the day before indulging our awkward questions and changing plans, finally looking less emotionally exhausted after a chicken lunch.

giraffesA giraffe rather immediately looming on the left, blended with the forest, perturbed to be interrupted but not worried about us. The immediate dispersal of any remnants of jadedness I might have felt about being outside, and joy in seeing a creature move in unconstrained strides. Later seeing young giraffes fighting, I hope in play, but likely not. Spotting the “Kenya Express” of warthogs nestled down in the distance, called as such because they run from wherever they are to whatever their next stop is. I might like them a lot, given that.

Stopping into the animal orphanage, Andy and I excited about animal conditioning and release back into the national park, our wilted demeanor as it dawned on us both that the area is essentially a zoo. At some point, lingering behind the guides for this area and our expedition, I referenced the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I had been thinking about, and he laughed that quiet desperate laugh shared by so many people with a certain level of awareness and care. We took our weary selves to iHub, and immediately met up with Kevin, an amazing human being and fantastic guide for further adventure, of course also connected via Sasha.

We took the matatu to Kibera, instead of a taxi, walking after we arrived to the area, exploring the new permanent building being built at the outskirts. It will hold toilets, and offices, and a meeting space. The solid walls are a rarity here – especially the doors – and a welcome shift from the compounds we’ve been on for the past week. Bankslave is around the corner of the building, laying down the priming layer for a mural he’s working on with other folk, expressing hygiene as empowerment. They’ve run into a problem – a small swimming pool, or rather, ditch, in the way of the scaffolding they’ve set up. We work with them on problem solving before wandering deeper into the slum.

KiberaWe walk for a bit, and then pause, waiting for some folk to join us. Nearby, children crowd, staring, whispering and laughing. When I turn around, they point at my head. I remove my hat, they shout “blue!” One asks “are you a boy?” “Nope.” “Why are you dressed that way?” “Because I look good.” They nod. One notices tattoos peeking out – I went for the dress shirt but not bow tie and vest – and I discretely show the top of the ink. They chatter and gather around. I hand out dum-dums, and they run away.

Before we head down the next road with our growing cohort, the difference between “politically dangerous” and “physically dangerous” is explained. The folk working on Human Needs Project take us through the slums, insisting we take pictures, showing us local artisans, subtly and simultaneously protecting and showcasing us and their home to/from each other. They have born a hole so deep that it brings clean water. They have set up a way to collect it, and the surrounding building will hold laundry, and toilets, and offices for local initiatives. They will have wifi and computers. It is too expensive, and too daunting, to go see the innovation centers of Nairobi, so they’re bringing a center to Kibera. We speak of education, and of shared joy, and of politics.

I’ve seen, this week, what it is to be surrounded by people who give freely of whatever they have, without question or obligation. What it is for someone to know what actions must be taken to see the community of which you are a part be better off. There is an unassuming but persister baseline of giving in Nairobi. Any overt transaction is heavily negotiated, but giving is freely done.

The stressful process of the Nairobi airport, seeing Brenson and Josh and Oliver from State Department again, what are the chances (passed them also on safari), and hugging and wishing each other safe travels. Two more security checkpoints after that one, the first having separated Lindsay and myself rather abruptly. And now I sit on the first leg of a very long journey, obviously but not comically demonstrating the opening and using of our food packets and seat configurations. The gent in the seat next to me carries an International Organization for Migration packet, and studies from the sides of his eyes.

I’m ready to be in another home, and feeling heart-warmed and -torn for finding yet another one. Three homes in as many weeks, Boston> Nairobi> Seattle> Boston.

Nairobi (1/2)

I’ve just been to Nairobi for my first time, Kenya for my first time, Africa for my first time. The 3 days before the trip, I stressed about travel in a way I haven’t for at least a year, pacing and unpacking and repacking my bag. Ethan sitting me down to frankly say “your equals are in Nairobi, and if you fail to see that, it is on you. They could be doing the work they do anywhere, and they choose to do it there. Don’t stress. It will be incredible. I’m so excited you’re going.” SJ asking me in my anxiety what I had packed, me saying the same things as always, him insisting I include small things for my pockets. I looked at him blankly. I only have the essentials on me, always. “Get candy,” he says, “something they won’t have there. Dum-dums are great.”

18ish hours of flying later, I found a pink-haired Lindsay outside the ad hoc airport (the other one burned down), our presentation already garnering surprised but approving response. We caught up in the back of the taxi, new smells and tree shapes and stories from the driver. A long ride later, we happened upon new friends Steven (Mercy Corps) and Per (Standby Task Force) and Amean (International Organization for Migration), soon not only being good tobacco and booze friends upon arrival to our hotel, but also cohorts in response and making the world suck less.

We spent the next 3 days at the UN Compound for the International Conference of Crisis Mappers. Which was beautiful, but still a compound. The only chance we had to be outside the short walk there in the morning, the way back being a taxi ride in the dark. I had another amazing chance to draw things, and we had a chance to call ourselves out, which I think we failed to do. At long last, someone dedicated to security held a session – Gillo from Tactical Tech. 3 people showed up, and two were Lindsay and myself. I am deeply upset with this group of people I otherwise have so much respect for.

bird1 bird2But we are taken care of in physical security, escaping to nearby dinner and drinks via shared buses. Shaddrock’s toast to those who work within the system (himself included), the swimming upstream and constant trials. And to the volunteers, who truly are changing things. We all laughed, and drank, and ate. We all made a point of talking to new people, Lindsay apparently taking that to mean making new bird friends, and encountering a bird as tall as she is. In attempting to feed it some bread, she then threw said bread roll at it when it threatened her. We drew a profile of it for the internets, Mark, SJ, Lindsay and myself escalating on Twitter across timezones.

Running away early the last day, no longer able to handle the compound, to vibrant Pawa254. Sitting on the roof, chatting to members of a band about the sort of music they make, and cracking jokes about creatures, Lindsay doing startlingly close interpretive dance for a Beta Fish. Seeing Bankslave’s work and plans, the celebration of Toilet Day. Sitting back downstairs at the table, drinking beer and chatting about crypto while we wait to be ready for the taxi.

The experience of just having to wait, and of slowly dying inside because time is one of the few ways I know of to clearly indicate care. Having to accept that the pace that our hosts moved at was the pace everyone else moved at, feeling indignant on their behalf was patronizing to them and stressful only for me.

The astounding, unexpected hosting of Sasha, who booked us amazing and kind drivers, and things to do, and suggested the perfect people to meet without blinking an eye. As Lindsay and I reunited with her at the iHub on our last day, Lindsay suggested she’s like the US Ambassador, but we ended up agreeing she’s much more Internet Ambassador.

The Digital Humanitarian Network Summit in the beautiful 88MPH, an utterly unmarked coworking space somewhere along Ngong Road, just like everything else. The security guards at the gate of the center shrugging when we asked them what the area was called, and how we could get other people to it. Everyone excited for a chance to get to know each other deeper, and to get work done, and to address hard problems. Jus holding space not only for her own self, and organizations, but also for the internet. And initiating a totally amazing way of considering the Network, and how we can be an actual Network, and not just a group of organizations which can be called upon by the same point of contact. And local folk showing up, and making their voices heard, and telling us what we need to do to be useful to groups they represent. They came into a foreign environment, and thrived.DHN_2_of_2

And beer, and dancing, and live music at the end of the second day. A foie burger and surprise 2-for-1 beers, immediately shared. The locals giving us long looks while we belted out the songs, got the dance floor going, talked louder than we probably needed to. Rejoicing to be done with compounds and enforced productivity. 5 days straight of conference, finally done, accomplished and exhausted.

Lindsay as a fantastic traveling partner, always on top of logistics, enthusiastic, and willing to try new things. Dragging me away from keyboard and closed curtains onto safari, us both being excited enough to continue on to Kibera later that day.