A Simple Website Started It All
In keeping with the stereotype, as someone of Indian origin, I’ve always been naturally oriented to technology. Over the years, I’ve taught myself graphic design, how to code in HTML and (some) CSS, how to wireframe and prototype, and how to use content management systems. Unlike a lot of Indians/Indian-Americans, however, my passion for technology was like a bag of dry seeds – unless I found the figurative water, the interest wouldn’t sprout.
I discovered what that water was in my undergraduate education. I satisfied my parents demands of being a doctor or getting an MBA by enrolling in one of the easiest majors of the business school. Instead of immersing myself in marketing consumer products to people, I took my lessons learned and ran a sort of small business of my own – our university’s International Relations Organization (IRO).
At IRO, we hosted conferences that turned a sizeable profit and gave the students of the depressed part of the state new opportunities. We took up causes that few of our classmates had heard of let alone cared about, including the crisis du jour of the time – Darfur, Sudan. Our crowning achievement was sending six students – myself included – to work with a microfinance organization in Togo, a small West African nation.
The MFI, HELP Africa, in Lomé, Togo
Somewhere along the way, I realized how important it was to digitally document everything we did. When reporters from the campus newspaper wanted to run a piece on us, they had all the background information they needed on our website. Several high school students cited our work as the main reason they wanted to come to our university. Having a comprehensive website of our work may not have been groundbreaking in 2006 on the global scale. It was through IRO, however, that I understood innovation in technology is usually not being the first ever, but being the first that works in a particular context.
Tech, the Global State of the World and My Master’s Thesis
After finishing my undergraduate degree and living in France for a year, I ended up at The New School in New York City for my Master degree in International Affairs. One of the main reasons I chose the school was to work with a woman named Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, who had been the head of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Reports. The HDR quite literally summarizes the state of the world through a particular thematic lens. The 2001 edition was titled Making New Technologies Work for Human Development. From that report alone, I knew I had to work with this woman.
My wish came true through my thesis; Sakiko agreed to be my advisor. Before I understood what confirmation bias meant, I charged in knowing that my thesis would show the world how great information communications technology (ICT) had been for India. After all, nearly my entire family in the city of Bangalore had greatly benefitted from the ICT boom. Surely there were others.
After a number of discussions with Sakiko, I landed on the idea of comparing Indian IT to Senegal. I would evaluate how India’s models of business process outsourcing, service delivery, and calls centers had impacted the local population and see if those models could be replicated in West Africa for the European market, much like Indians call centers largely serviced the United States and Canada.
I proposed doing field research for my thesis and won a grant to allow me two weeks of evidence gathering in Bangalore and the surrounding areas. I spoke to everyone from IT business owners, to local activists to management consultants. I went to nearly a dozen government agencies and tracked down population and statistics reports that were only available in paper form. It was exhausting and rewarding at the same time, especially at the end of my second week when I got an email from a leading researcher on the global tech industry confirming that from the best of her knowledge, this kind of work had never been done before.
|Outside Vishtar, one of the NGOs I visited in Bangalore, India|
One thing I could have never expected was how radically different my conclusions were from my starting assumptions. Business leaders and local activists alike told me that the only people who were hired for these well paid jobs already had relative wealth, as poor people did not have the soft skills – interpersonal communication, good hygiene, body language – needed to work at multi-national corporations. IT business owners told me international companies that started an office in Bangalore received incomprehensibly large tax breaks, often paying zero percent corporate tax for 10, 15 or even 20 years. This meant people who were forcibly displaced from their land to make room for the tech complexes received no compensation. No tax revenue from the tech industry went into the government system or services, property prices skyrocketed and priced out locals, wealth inequality grew exponentially, local resources were strained and the majority of the profits went to international companies.
While this cycle of gentrification due to the tech industry is common knowledge now, back in 2010, it was jarring to understand what was happening in India. What I thought had been the saving grace of India was actually hugely destructive for most local people. There’s no doubt that the IT industry benefitted millions, but a disproportionate gain went to those who already owned property in the city and could get the needed education. My family’s good fortune was anecdotal, it was not the norm. The barrier to technology adoption was a key point in the 2001 HDR Sakiko oversaw. I didn’t realize until my thesis that applied to the industry as a whole, not just the individual products.
Using Tech and Finance for a More Resilient Africa
How tech reinforces inequality stayed with me. I decided to make a career out of making tech work for more people. A few years after finishing grad school, I walked into the New York City office of the United Nations World Food Programme. Ironically, being one of those lucky people with access to a good education, I landed a job as a Programme Officer on WFP’s African Risk Capacity, which combined finance, insurance, physics, tech and data to create the first pan-African drought risk insurance mechanism at the national level. For the first time, the same insurance modeling techniques that allowed a commercial farmer in Iowa to receive millions in compensation for a bad crop yield would be applied to help the poorest farmers in sub-Saharan Africa receive near-immediate assistance if their crops failed and they could not afford to feed their families.
|On a team retreat in South Africa|
Working on ARC taught me a lot about the bureaucratic overload of the UN system, what a truly interdisciplinary team can look like, and how large data/big data can work for a greater good, at least in theory. It also taught me about what was then being formulated as a new-ish discipline called UX design. Living in New York, most of my friends worked in the private sector and two in particular were working in “user experience” or “user-centered design”. This translated into building digital tech products that fit with how people already think. It was a radical departure from the method the UN did and mostly still uses: build it, force people to use it, pray it works. I started using the phrase, “The UN likes to build a lot of bad online tools that no one ever uses.”
While UX design had brilliant potential, what was disheartening to me was how much time and effort went into building digital tech products that were ultimately for the purpose of making people buy more stuff. For a lot of companies, a poorly designed online platform means a customer ends up with a product they don’t want. On the other hand, I was working on a tool that if not intuitive, might result in hundreds of thousands of people not getting the assistance they need to not die.
The same was true for a lot of other industries. At the time, my brother was working for an electronic medical records company and my father was dealing with terrible EMR platforms for his patients. Key in the wrong code, and the patient may not receive the right medicine. Similarly, what happens if a social worker couldn’t distribute food stamps, or a fire department couldn’t locate a burning house, or a student couldn’t apply for financial aid to go to university? So much was being spent on getting someone to buy something, but those same principles were not being applied to life saving services because only a select few companies could afford the investment. We’re now seeing the result with the Netflixes, Amazons and credit card companies of the world operating like fine-tuned machines while half of the global HIV/AIDS patients are being treated using digital services designed 10+ years ago.
Extreme Poverty in Burundi
After I left ARC in 2013, I embarked on the road of independent consulting broken up by a stint with UNICEF in Burundi. One of the lessons I have learned over the years is that most Americans think of the massive continent of Africa as a monolith of poor people and underdeveloped villages. In reality, the majority of black billionaires in the world are from and live in Nigeria, some of the fastest Internet connections in the world are in Kenya, and Cape Town, South Africa is probably the most beautiful city I have ever seen.
Burundi was not one of those African economic success stories. By the time I went there, I had worked throughout the African continent, but the poverty of Burundi was still hard to comprehend. It was my job to implement and deploy a platform called RapidPRO to help the Burundian Ministry of Health plan and track health services and commodities. It was also the first time in my life in which I had no idea where to start. In every other country I had been to, there was a real ICT ecosystem – telecom providers, millions of consumers, thousands of small and large business, hundreds of non-profit organizations, events, digital communities and even sub-cultures of techies. In Burundi, save a small website design company and a few self-taught coders UNICEF had recruited, the only thing that seemed to be keeping the ICT industry afloat were a handful of European telecom companies.
|Burundian Health Center|
I made it my mission to connect with all of the telecom companies and to see how they managed to stay in business. The simple answer was that they were losing money. In fact, all three were either charitable missions of a for-profit company or they were funded by the Aga Khan Foundation. One of the heads of engineering told me that their companies set up operations in part to stabilize the country, as the region overall was turning a huge profit. If Burundi went into another civil war that produced millions of refugees, neighboring countries would bear the brunt. So telecom companies decided to step in and provide a service everyone needs in hope it would help the political landscape. These companies understood the security risk of poverty. American companies did not.
Burundi was particularly challenging because as someone smarter than me pointed out, you can’t innovate the basics. My boss and others responsible for funding the project had thought things through well. They had procured some ambulances, computers and medical supplies for local health centers because they understood even if tech made the system better, a more efficient system distributing nothing is still helping nothing. When I suggested bringing on an intern who was an electrical engineer, my boss agreed. But at the end of the day, we were left with the same fundamental problem. You needed grounded electricity, running water, roads, transportation and other infrastructure for things to work. You need the majority of the population to understand the fundamentals of a technology. Though it’s possible to tackle one small piece of these issues in a project, no one project or organization can do all of these things at once. Just like in India, I saw how governments have to be able to provide basic services because the private sector will only to do something if they see a profitable gain. Of course. Technology can make something more efficient, but no technology can innovative around having the basics.
Good and Terrible Recognition Being an Author
For a number of reasons, I decided to leave my job with UNICEF Burundi and come back to New York City, where I threw myself into the marketing campaign and book tour of my debut novel. I had long known aspects of my writing career and working in ICT4D were tough to reconcile, including that it’s impossible to do book events being based in a lot of Africa. Telecommuting in can be impossible when electricity isn’t consistent and the time zone difference means finding a safe and secure spot in the middle of the night. So I was determined to take advantage of my time back in NYC and perhaps start an entirely new primary career.
Ironically, it was my marketing efforts that steered me back to ICT4D. One of the golden children of the modern-day tech era was social media. Millennials were and are famously cited (again, as a monolith) to care more about the social impact of a brand than the brand’s products. Marketing campaigns have to connect on an emotional level with consumers or the brand seems heartless. Bearing all of this in mind, I set up book events in five different cities, authored articles and did interviews that spoke to this emotional message. And for good reason – I wrote an emotionally charged book.
My efforts worked. Within a year, I landed myself on the front page of USA Today, CNN India and The Advocate. Video clips I did ran in syndication and were viewed around the country, some even around the world. Dozens of people reached out with their own story, hundreds of people came out to the events, and thousands of people read my words.
|Filming for a web series at USA Today|
Then came the death threats. The first was in French and was an email sent directly to me. By the phrasing and from the IP address, I saw it originated in West Africa, probably Senegal. The next few threats came in English by email as well. Soon, in true viral form, the threats had spread through to Twitter, or as I started to call it: The Internet’s Best Bullying Ground. Some were in graphic detail, others were probably bots designed to mimic the essence of a threat. Some had references to sexual violence. All of them were completely and totally disturbing.
By the time the last one came through, I had emailed 20 friends living within a 5-mile radius of me to distribute everyone’s contact details in case the threat of violence turned into actual violence and someone needed to contact my family. I added an online security system to my website, and I turned down two high-paying jobs in areas I thought would put me at further risk. I gained weight, I stopped going out, and I felt like my life had careened out of control. It was only through the support of my friends, my brother and an ex that I made it through.
I did a lot of research into the possible courses of action against the people who threatened me. It didn’t take long to figure out that there are few if any laws governing online abuse originating from other countries. Even within a jurisdiction like Palo Alto or San Francisco – where many of these technologies are born – there aren’t many protections for those who face online abuse. Around this time, The Guardian published an article about online abuse, and it came at no surprise that their journalists who faced the overwhelming majority were a woman who writes about women’s issues, an openly gay black man, and a brown woman.
Despite my efforts to move away from ICT4D, I had a project idea that I wanted to move forward. I connected to my ICT4D network only to hear many of my colleagues were dealing with the same existential crisis I was, albeit in different forms. In one case, a social media project meant to bring young women together was infiltrated by a sex trafficking ring. Several of the participants were tricked into meeting in person, abducted and sold into sex slavery. Another colleague was looking at initiatives to get students who were good at STEM to take on careers in coding apps, only to find out Google Play and Apple stores do not support work in most African countries, leaving the students with skills they could not use and a lot of wasted time they could have spent earning money. A third colleague did a study about online learning modules and concluded young girls were bullied so frequently that most felt they could not participate. Slowly but surely, we were all coming to the conclusion that beyond the hype, digital tech and specifically social media were doing a lot of damage.
Somewhere in the deep throes of all things terrible about digital tech, I found a lot of glimpses of hope, namely, the number of people who thought my project idea had great merit and the audience I had cultivated for my book, neither of which would have been possible to find without the Internet. I thus decided to get a certificate in UX design and solidify the skills that I had been using for all of those years before. I made my ICT4D project idea my final project for the UX course.
The course itself was a great experience overall due to a smart class and an insightful, open-minded instructor. I had to admit that there were a lot of well-reasoned, thoughtful people working on the products that I had dismissed as unnecessary. The course made me pause every now and then and appreciate how some of the work presented in the class was helping people who didn’t have the same means or motivation I have been lucky enough to have.
Unfortunately, a tech bro then arrived. On the first day of evaluations for the final projects, the day on which I presented, the panel of judges consisted of three white men, a hallmark of the homogeneity that plagues the tech industry. All three of them had made careers working on products that they themselves admitted were commodities for wealthy people. Among the worst was a motorcycle helmet that would allow the driver to watch TV while driving. I’m not joking.
Admirably, many of the students in my class chose to focus on problems that are actual issues, including homelessness in New York, children who have nightmares most nights, and a better system of understanding school choices in a particular neighborhood, especially low-income areas. Watching the panel criticize the projects, on the other hand, was hard to witness. According to their feedback, the context involved in the project didn’t matter, the technology restrictions facing users didn’t matter (“They should just upgrade their phones” was the advice I got), and the potential funding constraints were ignored. It was as though focusing on the user experience of a motorcycle helmet with a TV screen was more important than the fact that having a motorcycle helmet with a TV screen is a stupid and dangerous idea. It was as though being an active thinker who looks outside of the perceived norm has to ignore the real constraints of a society or an audience.
In the summer of 2016, I fortunately had the opportunity to channel some of those thoughts into a project I came up with as part of Art-A-Hack, a creative collective. The project was called “Superficial/Substantive” Tech. Our team of ICT4D professionals and coders spent a week discussing how to frame the project, and eventually made these two conclusions about the tech industry:
- A deep understanding of superficial problems overshadows real societal problems being addressed.
- A superficial understanding of real societal problems overshadows real solutions being addressed.
Our Final Art-A-Hack Presentation
The parody project consisted of a VR experience, a fake app and a pitch deck for a fake company. The fake company “Pump It Up!” had people customize parts of a water pump through the app and “send those parts to Africa”. The VR experience would then allow a user to take the parts sent and build a water pump. The project focused on the user experience of the app instead of the actual problem of water scarcity. The fake pitch deck reduced Africa down to a singular place that had easily solvable problems. Our commentary was on the tech community focusing on consumerism, using language like “solving problems” that gives importance to inane “needs”, and reducing complicated issues to a few statements in a PowerPoint. To say the least, it was a cathartic project to put together, especially after my UX course project evaluation.
The Near-Present and Not Really a Conclusion
By the time I landed a job as a Solutions Designer and Insights Manager at a London-based NGO, I was ready for a reset in the industry. I needed to be excited again about the work I was doing, the impact it was making and potential good my work could have. In some ways, I was able to achieve this through focusing on UX and user centered design. I don’t know if UX design is the panacea to a better and brighter tech world that the industry makes it out to be, but I do think it’s a really great way to get teams talking to each other and to bring out opinions of people who normally don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable offering their opinions. If the team is paying attention, I also think that UX design can highlight when a team is dangerously homogenous.
The world has gotten smacked around with the past 18 months of the global political landscape – Brexit, Trump and the two referendums in counter protest have showed us how bad the situation, and how divided the United States and Europe have become. More and more people understand that it’s dangerous to only care about the opinions and progress of a select few. Even if that hasn’t quite yet made it to the mainstream’s understanding of the tech industry, it doesn’t decrease the importance of capturing diverse opinions now. In some small way, user centered design allows me to practice what I preach by including beneficiary opinions into the tools being created to help beneficiaries. It allows me to counteract the echo chamber that got us here.
One major concern still floats around in my mind, however. In the first class I ever took with Sakiko, she said a lot of the international development “industry” focuses on one kind of solution, then decides the solution was terribly misguided, then tries to undo what was done in the previous generation. The Millennium Development Goals were a prime example.
I can’t help but wonder if ICT4D is this generation’s solution to undo. For all of the promise that tech was supposed to offer, it seems as though many of us working in this field are on some kind of damage control. And it’s not just us in ICT4D. Private sector companies are spending an increasingly large fraction of their budget on security to protect the users of the tools they created. Is that what we are doing? Will it be enough to use a new method of designing and making pre-emptive risk analysis the new norm? Or will we have to go one step further and actually discourage organizations that are not equipped for the possible fallout from working in ICT4D? As an industry, do the risks outweigh the gains? Or does it matter? Do we have a moral obligation to keep trying to make tech work for more people because tech will continue to evolve regardless of whether we try to make it more equitable?
To be honest, I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone else does, either. As a minority in several ways, I can say from my own personal experience that tech would be a lot scarier if I did not have the support systems I do to help me overcome the risks it poses. But that would never prompt me to discourage anyone else from using tech as a means to a better life. It would, however, prompt me to help them understand the potential consequences as best as possible.
All I can say is that for anyone concerned with the direction tech is taking our society, pay attention to what we do in ICT4D. So many ICT4D practitioners have been thinking about the fallout of tech longer than the tech companies themselves. It stands to reason what we learn in our work will shed light on the kind of world we’ll all see in the future.
Find out more about my work at http://malakumar.com.