The Practical Radical

What it means to “get it” – Mikel Maron on Building Digital Technology for Our Planet | August 18, 2010

I am going to go out on a limb here and state that I think Mikel Maron and his crew of openstreetmap people are some of the leading experts globally in understanding how technology – specifically spatial technology – can be used in the developing world.

Why you ask? Why them? Well, because they aren’t at 10,000 feet, nor 5,000 feet, or even 500 feet — they are at ground zero. Yes, they passionately believes in technology, Mikel is a self-described techno nerd, but he, like many of the others involved in openstreetmaps movement, are on the ground seeing how technology ACTUALLY works, not how we would love it to, or how we report it to our funders to get more money, or how it works for just enough time for our research to be done (read about the hole-in-the-wall project in his blog post).

I wrote a management-nerdy blog post a while back on one of the projects they were involved in — mapkibera — and if you get past all the graphs my main message was that the people in the project were asking the right questions — basically — how can this project be sustainable past the initial “wow” phase. The answer to this question is quite simple, and one not often followed by aid agencies — the answer is “LIVE THERE”. Yup, be there, not in a hotel, or the UN compound, or the ex-pat enclave, but actually in the place you are working at. Find out where all the gnarly bits are, and then maybe it will be successful — or at least have a better chance. Parallel and just as important is WORK with the people that live there. Seems self explanatory … but something that is not always done.

And, that is what Mikel and his crew have done with mapkibera. They came for 6 months, and have stayed for a year+. They engaged the community in an asset based approach – a la John Mcknight’s Asset Based Community Development – and had the people map their community — and community which heretofore had no community accessible maps. The mapping was done on a platform developed in Kenya after the post-election violence  of a couple years ago called Usahidi (you can as well read my yet unpublished blog post on this).

So, this all being said, the following blog outlines the questions he and they are asking, the possibilities and the possible pitfalls. I’ll shut up and let him speak … (but read my bolded bits to see where I think he nails it bang on) .. ok .. i will really shut up now. Promise …

Brain Off
Mikel Maron : Building Digital Technology for Our Planet

Technology, Hype, Marginalization

A little meandering on how hype and closed systems threaten to overwhelm all our good intentions…

Yesterday, I visited Mukuru slum (still a blank spot on the map) to discuss possible collaborations and methodology sharing with an ongoing participatory mapping project there coordinated by Emory University and Partnership for an HIV Free Generation, at a well apportioned community site built by Micato Safaris.

Mukuru has developed on different lines than Kibera … the road infrastructure is relatively planned, there are designed gutters, the area is flat and sprawling over a huge area south of the Industrial Area. It also receives less attention than Kibera, so there are relatively less NGO and CBO programs trying to fill the service gap. The Mukuru group has used many interesting participatory techniques to engage the community, some based in the work of Robert Chambers, who we met last week at Erica’s IDS talk on Map Kibera (and told us a brief and awesome story of his mugging in 1960s Kibera while rock climbing). Particularly, the group there had undertaken a “community asset mapping” in two villages of Mukuru, a paper based cataloging of community services, with actual GPS mapping done by a consulting company, resulting in a few map prints and spreadsheets detailing services. The resulting data is good, but they complained that it’s not really reusable or updatable by the team directly. So they were very interested to hear about our techniques which both built capacity to create and make use of map data, and other kinds of information, directly … they can do it themselves, have lots of ideas for applications in the community, and perhaps soon we’ll have an opportunity to explore some merging of methods.

On Tuesday, I met with Umande Trust, who do amazing and innovative work in sanitation, best known for introducing biogas latrines to Kibera. I talked with Aidah mostly about data … we have data from our recent water and sanitation mapping, Umande has amazing data in Gatwekera and adjacent villages, exact locations of many standpipes, toilets; and water piping installed by Nairobi Water.

But also we talked about their programs generally. In an innovative compromise to the usual policy of simply ripping out illegal pipe connections in slums, Umande has worked with Nairobi Water for installation of master meters for the entire area, and may work to dialogue directly with the community about how to legitimize and make secure the entire system, in a way that works for everyone. They are also discussing the installation of proper sewerage, partially to help with the volume of waste in the biocentres. Turns out too many people are using the biogas latrines for the decomposition process to fully digest the waste, an example of the challenges of when innovation meets reality.

Umande has also done community asset mapping of the entirety of Mukuru, by actually training community member on GPS … those individuals and that data could be a great start to further work in Mukuru. Of course we need the data shared. I was delightfully surprised and also shocked that I hadn’t seen these maps before. But realize, this is not due to any intent of Umande, Aidah is very willing to share the data for reuse if only there were an infrastructure to use. I’m interested to build off the Digital Gazette, an integration of Crabgrass and GeoCommons for use in Northwest Pakistan, to help build up the information commons of the slums.

So, on Monday, I attended a Nike Foundation event to discuss innovative use of technology to assist young girls. This is something Map Kibera has focused on through our association with Unicef, and the Nike team were very interested to learn and listen, kudos. One point during the presentation touched on Pamoja Mtaani a video game developed by Time Warner that conveys messages about HIV/AIDS prevention. As chance would have it, I got to see Pamoja Mtaani in action directly in Mukuru.

Before our meeting started yesterday, I was given a tour of one of two centers built in Mukuru to “host the game”. My jaw dropped as we entered a spacious room, with 20 gleaming computers showing Pamoja Mtaani. The game looks pretty well designed and fun, definitely innovative and not overly didactic … the game starts with a matatu robbery, includes graffiti and MC games, runs through a virtual Nairobi … a kinda slum version of Oregon Trail.

What struck me cold was that most of the computers were unused, and were completely locked down to only run this game. Here was a resource that any school anywhere in the world could use well, and Time Warner only permits their game, a game that you also can not download and run freely. Frankly, an idiotic implementation of a good initiative, and somehow emblematic of many things wrong with the inappropriateness technology in development. I can understand the desire to make sure the game is actually played, rather than just giving away computers for kids to check Facebook (of course that would happen) … but you do that through a well designed program and continual involvement rather than locking away all the other potentials of this computing resource.

Now we could make pretty good use of those computers for mapping in Mukuru. As it is they are useless for anything else.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few days before, I was reminded of the Hole in the Wall computer project, when Tanya Notley asked me my impression of this TED Talk on education innovation in the slums. The Hole in the Wall computer, simply an open kiosk installed in the middle of the slum, open for children to experiment on without restriction, is one of my favorites. The radical experimentation here has been widely celebrated and hyped, including in that TED Talk.

Now someone recently went back to actually visit these Hole in the Wall computers. The program had change considerably. Wonderfully, there are many more computers in the slums … but they are not the unrestricted free for all the original program experimented with. Apparently those original computers quickly stopped functioning, and the program now looks like a more traditional digital village, with computers, internet, and programs to use them. There’s still space for exploration, but not without supervision.

So in response to Charles Leadbeater, I wrote Tanya..

I broadly believe in what he’s saying, but the talk is pretty hand wavy. The critique of our education system is not new, and plenty of examples of experiments from the past 50 years abound. Certainly there is innovation in education happening in marginalized areas, enabled by new technology, access, and approach … we see ourselves fitting this movement quite well. What’s more difficult is to see how informal education will connect with the existing models … which are still essential for legitimacy and maximum opportunity for all. We’d like to see the opportunity for mappers to continue studies in GIS if they are keen, and several are, but there is no consistent financial aid here. Seems to me that there’s a need to still engage with traditional institutions, open up the way they approach education.

So maybe after some more research, he’ll have some insights! For one, he needs to ground check his facts … just yesterday I read that the hole-in-the-wall computers more or less stopped working 3 months in, and they’ve now adopted a more traditional approach. I still love the audacity and thought provoking of that project, but too often in innovation (and generally) we’re hiding the failures and not learning.

Perhaps one of the hardest lessons I’ve been learning is the limits of innovation. Map Kibera is innovative, and it’s much hyped, but is it in danger of being another project that only looks good from afar? To really make an impact with technology, is requires far more than simply doing something new. It takes a lot of work which you might think is boring, lots of discussion, lots of program design, lots of failure and revision, lots of reality. There are limits beyond simply getting computers and internet into marginal places, limits beyond training, that have to do with the dense interconnection of all issues facing our increasingly urban and marginal world. The shiny glean of technology starts things off, but after that the work may be the same as ever … learning from each other, respecting different points of view, long negotiations of how things can change for the better.

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