ICT for Social Justice: hype debunked!

This week's 'ICT for Social Justice' event at Google Campus London was fascinating for a number of reasons: cool tech, debunked hype & geek critique.

There was a full house of diverse technology and development types at Google Campus London to discuss the work of four organisations using tech to tackle social justice issues. For me the theme that united the presentations by Huridocs, OneWorld, Tactical Technology & Daraja was that in the final analysis: it is not tech that transforms society, but people, process and politics.
Ben Taylor from Daraja Tanzania gave a wonderfully open and honest presentation about an ICT4D initiative of theirs which failed. Hyped shamelessly by The Open Government Partnership in their launch video before it had even been trialled, the project aimed to use mobile text messaging to identify water supply breakdowns and trigger remedial action. Like many first-time ICT4D practitioners Daraja discovered that “getting the human side of things right” was both more important and more difficult than getting the technology right – lending yet more weight to the old ICT4D adage that only 10% of your time and money should be focused on the technology, with 90% invested on people, process and politics.
Elsewhere in ICT4D the hype sometimes takes the form of claims that access to information is the silver bullet solution. This formula merely replaces the erroneous 'technology as the end of development' with the variant 'access to information as the end of development'. However, as Friedhelm Weinberg from Huridocs explained in his presentation, the problem more often faced by human rights workers is one of drowning in too much information with too little effective use. As rights-based advocacy organisations have grow they often amass a wealth of information and documentation but it is held in formats and locations that make it practically inaccessible to activists and to members of the public. As information availability grows exponentially, the work of Huridocs and others in devising intuitive ways of making this information and documentation open, searchable and actionable is key in providing activists with ammunition for effecting social change.
Having attended last year's Free Elections Hack I smugly thought I knew all about OneWorld's election monitoring system, but, thanks to some great new graphics hacked together by Adam Groves very late the previous night (!), his presentation threw new light on their cool tech process. What was most intriguing however was that unlike some other citizen monitoring systems they chose not to rely on the crowd but rather to control quality by investing in the training of dedicated personnel. For me this resonated with a point made by Ben Taylor. Learning their failed project, Daraja are now investing in building a close working partnering with an existing network of local activists who have a track record of speaking out on social justice issues. Building capacity for those people closest to, and most affected by, social justice issues. Enabling them to self-define and self-actualise processes that they can sustain seems to be the way to go here.
In her presentation Becky Faith, like Friedhelm before her, highlighted the issue of human rights advocates drowning in data in multiple formats. When it comes to  funky ways to use information for social justice the Tactical Technology Collective is outstanding. They run an online school for turning dirty data into powerful graphics and a camp for information activism. Becky's presentation covered Tactical Tech's tools to protect the identity of human rights defenders working online and with mobile devices. Their tools help activists to reduce their 'shadow' with top security tips from a legless robot! Although most people know Tactical Tech because of their film “Ten Tactics for Turning Information into Action”, what I really love is the amazing new tool that they have produced called 'Ten Tactics Unstitched', which allows you surf through over 50 different real-life examples of the ten tactics being applied by social justice activists in 30 different countries and you can drill-down two levels into each example. It is a fantastic resource that deserves to be more widely shared.
Cool tech. Hype debunked. Geek critique. No wonder the debate carried on long after the event on-line.
The London ICT4D tweet-up group meets on the last Tuesday of every month. So if you fancy a friendly drink with some propeller-headed hackers, you like to deconstruct modernist meta-narratives with post-developmentalistas, or like me, just smile and nod knowingly at both, as long as you're buying the beer, you will be very welcome.

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