Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Slow Drip Invasion: use of ICT and UAV in weak states

If you imagine the challenges faced by local communities plagued by conflict and institutional instability, someplace for example like Somalia, a nation that has faced profound governance issues (sorry to pick on Somalia, but this post is about weak states), and you work in any part of the humanitarian or development organization network, it may seem perfectly reasonable to empower local communities and civil society groups to collaborate on Alternative Modes of Governance.  In this way, communities can see to their own basic needs.  Mobile technology has emerged as a resource that development experts are thinking creatively about in order tackle these types of issues.  The rapid influx of phones, more generally of information and communication technology (ICT) has presented new opportunities for governance according several influential tech architects.  In a new book, Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood edited by Steven Livingston and Gregor Walter-Drop, contributing authors such as Patrick Meier the developer of Ushahidi (an SMS platform relied on by branches of the UN and US government) as well as development heavyweights such as Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR) at the University of Cambridge, explore ICT's viability as an Alternative Governance Modality.  They discuss the effects of ICT proliferation within the slums of Kenya and Russia as well as other areas that are considered to have limited or weak central governments.  

Alternative Governance Modality.  It sounds like a very neat solution.  Certainly seems like the best option in the slums of Kibera, Kenya.  If you break it down, it becomes decidedly less neat.  Alternative to what exactly?  If local community groups and NGO/civil society partnerships have been capacitated with ICT, where did that technology come from?  Where did the policy directives come from?  Is there a Dutch NGO or USAID project that has essentially invaded a small corner of some weak state that is unable to object, all via mobile device?  And where does the data go?  Who is it for?   
I am not advocating that communities should not organize or utilize whatever means they find in order to address the issues they face; however, the authors are not being entirely honest in their assessment of 'locally empowering' when they describe the use of ICT in these projects.  The tech tools employed are inherently external and foreign objects.  Indigenous ICT simply does not exist yet, and the means to develop it might, to incorporate the cultural nuance of information and communication preferences from Kibera or a Somali community, but these design techniques are not being used in the humanitarian ICT field.  The focus is mistakenly on simplicity, assuming that streamlining applications will overcome literacy issues or even culture barriers.  This approach compounds the problem.  What Western designers understand as the most logical, the most simple, the most intuitive, inherently expresses their conceptualization of how information should be organized and how it connects.  The ways in which information can be connected and organized at a conceptual level is by no means universal, particularly if you take into account differences between more predominately oral cultures.  (Check out some earlier posts on orality; it’s not the opposite of literacy, but a cultural communication preference with cognitive implications.) By concentrating or streamlining the design, it becomes extra-Western in its conceptualization and thus even more distorting to non-Western information and communication intentions.  The current interface and information design empowers Western users not the users described in these ‘weak state’ contexts.  By capacitating local groups with ICT, the authors are describing a situation for linking up new populations to a vast data network.  Connecting them as potential sources of information and points of leverage (perhaps for Western policy makers, perhaps for commercial enterprise).  ICT which captures information in ways useful to non-Western users, ICT that functions as a tool, a potential policy-making aid or technological advancement outside the Western concept has not been fully realized; therefore, what does exist is only useful or empowering to the group that designed it, that released it in the field, that is writing about its vast potential because that potential will be for them.  

The problem of data collection in weak states is brought into relief with the use of UAVs (drones). 
 The images they provide are meant to enable humanitarian crisis responders to more efficiently get know ‘the lay of the land’ when called to work.  Who could argue with technology that improves humanitarian missions and potentially saves lives?  This was the original purpose of ICTs like Ushahidi-- crisis response.  There is a jump in the script, a missing (or a few missing) steps that take us from designing a successful tool for crisis response in which information is marvelously organized and communications are streamlined during a short-term intensive mission by external actors to a stage where this technology is being used to govern long-term by indigenous populations.  These are two massively different tasks not to mention two different sets of users.  How did these parameters escape the designers?  How did we just slide into alternative governance modality from what was initially a cobbled together system to organize the hectic atmosphere of crisis response?  How did these projects go from responding to crisis (after the fact) to inserting into the fabric, the airspace, of weak states in an on-going capacity with the stated aim of preparedness?  The reason mapping projects seem to empower the technology providers more than the local population is that, for example, in a region where I recently did fieldwork in Northern Uganda the language spoken there has no word for map. This was true for the surrounding languages ranging into Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan.  (read more about about it in Without a Map, and Like It's 1899).   The data collected with UAVs will arguably improve humanitarian missions.  But what else besides?  

There is something in scientific research called dual-use technology and for which certain safety protocols are developed.  A scientist may discover an amazing virus that can be harnessed to cure cancer, but it could also be released as a weapon—there are two uses.  So far, ICT applications and other digital technology are not treated as creations with this same bipolar potency.  There is little ethical debate about the long-term implications or context of use.  There is certainly no ethical training for designers or engineers.  I have been pleasantly surprised by a few technology journal editors that encourage ethically driven arguments, but I think it would be terrific if there were more voices in the field taking the idea of 'empowerment,' a bit further, that is to say really delving into how this power comes about and from where/to whom.   To put it another way, these tools will only become empowering for more people, become better tools if designers are driven to improve them—this is an area where there is huge opportunity to develop new tools for new groups of users (staggering large groups of new users) that approach local governance or any number of issues from a non-Western conceptualization.  A total departure from the humanitarian crisis responder-user and task and an embrace of the indigenous user and his/her information and communication preferences should lead to a much more successful tool.  This culturally based ICT development is certainly on the horizon.  I can't wait to see (or hear) it in action.