Follow the flow

I love technology. And what I love about technology is that is allows you to do things that normally you are not able to do or that require lots of time and resources to be done manually. Pretty banal till here, I know.

But what I really love about technology is that it is the realization of what in humanitarian affairs we call empowerment. Technology in this contexts can go out from the charitable principle of “I give you what you don’t have” and enter into the world of “Hey this is a tool that can allow you to do things the way you want”.

Of course, I am not so naïve to think that technology by itself can solve all the problems of the old school paternalistic approach typical of humanitarian affairs: the approach is ultimately a matter of the people and not of the tools. But there is a difference that technology can make.

If we look at Ushahidi this is pretty clear. From Africa to the entire world, here there is a tool that can empower people in developing and developed countries to have a voice, to express their opinion, to make a difference. What Ushahidi can do it’s in the power of the people using it, but I will say that if we have the right tool, than we can start working on the people.

Now, there is something I am always amazed about when people come to me asking to use Ushahidi or other tools to do crowd-sourcing or mapping project: the majority of the organizations chooses a tool and then decides what they wanna use it for. Kind of an upside down approach hu? The funniest part is that you can have people coming to you telling you that they wanna use SMS to collect information in places where the literacy rate is 20%, or others that want to use e-mails surveys where there is no internet at all.

I know it is not easy to be able to understand and keep yourself updated on all the issues going on out there. I know also the when you have no money, you also have no resources to invest in researching and studying fully the context. But for fuck’s sake!

So let’ s be very clear on this. Information flow is related to context. When you wanna work with informational management and crowd-sourcing you HAVE to know the context. This is the first lesson I learned.

The second lesson is that people can communicate even without technology. Nobody is waiting for us tech/humanitarian people to go there and help them communicating. In the entire world, from the small village in Africa to the jungle in Cambodia people know how to communicate. They have their own system, it may be slow, it may be very inefficient according to our standards, but it is there, and it is the system that this people decide to use. And they didn’t decide to use it because they are idiots, but because it is the best combination of their resources and their culture. It is the best for them because they are the ones that have the right to choose it.

Third lesson. When doing a crowd-sourcing project for whatever reason, electoral monitoring, development, long term human rights violations monitoring, the most efficient flow of information is not something up to you. The flow is there already, there is a path. Information moves in a country according to the context: it is like the flow of a river. A river doesn’t go from the mountain to the sea in a straight line, right? Sometimes actually it takes the longest route, it goes around mountains, it deviates in different direction, it adapts its flow to the conformation of the land and the earth’s composition.

This is the way information moves in a country: it follows a path. So if you wanna understand how to influence this path, if you want to put yourself into the information flow, for whatever reason (and it better be a good one) you have to follow the same path. There is nothing to be invented, but just to be found. It is all there already.

So, last final lesson I learned: shut up and listen. Everything is there, if we want to use the information and collect it, if we want to increase its efficiency, if we want to provide a tool to empower, there is nothing that we have to invent or discover. We only have to be able to listen and understand. After we have done it, then we can implement our technology in the best possible way: we just need to adapt it to the context. It’s all there, just follow the flow!

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