Participating in the DFID-funded technology for education Hub Inception Phase consultation retreat


Windsor BuildingIt was great to be part of the DFID-funded technology for education EdTech Hub three-day Inception Phase consultation retreat from the evening of  29th July through to 1st August held at Royal Holloway, University of London.  This brought together some 30 members of the core team, funders and partners from the Overseas Development Institute, the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge, Brink, Jigsaw Consult, Results for Development, Open Development and Education, AfriLabs, BRAC and eLearning Africa, and the World Bank, as well as members of the Intellectual Leadership Team from across the world, and representation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The meeting was designed to set in motion all of the activities and processes for the Inception Phase of the eight-year Hub, focusing especially on

  • The Hub’s overall vision
  • The work of the three main spheres of activity
    • Research
    • Innovation, and
    • Engagement
  • The governance structure
  • The theory of change
  • The ethical and safeguarding frameworks
  • The communication strategy, and
  • The use of Agile and adaptive approaches

The Hub aims to work in partnership to “galvanise a global community in pursuit of catalytic impact, focusing on evidence so we can collectively abandon what does not work and reallocate funding and effort to what does”.  Moreover, it is “committed to using rigorous evidence and innovation to improve the lives of the most marginalised”.

Above all, as the pictures below indicate, this meeting formed an essential part in helping to build the trust and good working relationships that are so essential in ensuring that this initiative, launched in June 2019, will achieve the ambitious goals that it has set.

[A similr version of this post was first published on the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D site, 1st August 2019]

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The gendering of AI – and why it matters


Digital technologies are all too often seen as being neutral and value free, and with a power of their own to transform the world.  However, even a brief reflection indicates that this taken-for-granted assumption is fundamentally flawed.  Technologies are created by people, who have very specific interests, and they construct or craft them for particular purposes, more often than not to generate profit.  These technologies therefore carry within them the biases and prejudices of the people who create them.

This is as true of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as it is of other digital technologies, such as mobile devices and robots.  Gender, with all of its diversity, is one of the most important categories through which most people seek to understand the world, and we frequently assign gender categories to non-human objects such as technologies.  This is evident even in the languages that we use, especially in the context of technology.  It should not therefore be surprising that AI is gendered.  Yet, until recently few people appreciated the implication of this.

The AI and machine learning underlying an increasing number of decision-making processes, from recruitment to medical diagnostics, from surveillance technologies to e-commerce, is indeed gendered, and will therefore reproduce existing gender biases in society unless specific actions are taken to counter it.  Three issues seem to be of particular importance here:

  • AI is generally used to manipulate very large data sets.  If these data sets themselves are a manifestation of gender bias, then the conclusions reached through the algorithms will also be biased.
  • Most professionals working in the AI field are male; the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report thus reports that only 22% of AI professionals globally are women. The algorithms themselves are therefore being shaped primarily from a male perspective, and ignore the potential contributions that women can make to their design.
  • AI, rather than being neutral, is serving to reproduce, and indeed accelerate, existing gender biases and stereotypes.  This is typified in the use of female voices in digital assistants such as Alexa and Siri, which often suggest negative or subservient associations with women.  A recent report by UNESCO for EQUALS, for example, emphasises the point that those in the field therefore need to work together to “prevent digital assistant technologies from perpetuating existing gender biases and creating new forms of gender inequality”.

These issues highlight the growing importance of binary biases in AI.  However, it must also be recognised that they have ramifications for its intersection with the nuanced and diverse definitions of gender associated with those who identify as LGBTIQ.  In 2017, for example, HRC and Glaad thus criticised a study claiming to show that deep neural networks could correctly differentiate between gay and straight men 81% of the time, and women 74% of the time, on the grounds that it could put gay people at risk and made overly broad assumptions about gender and sexuality.

The panel session on Diversity by Design: mitigating gender bias in AI at this year’s ITU Telecom World in Budapest (11 September, 14.00-15.15) is designed specifically to address these complex issues.  As moderator, I will be encouraging the distinguished panel of speakers, drawn from industry, academia and civil society, not only to tease out these challenging issues in more depth, but also to suggest how we can design AI with diversity in mind.  This is of critical importance if we are collectively to prevent AI from increasing inequalities at all scales, and to ensure that in the future it more broadly represents the rich diversity of humanity.


THIS WAS FIRST POSTED ON THE ITU’S TELECOM WORLD SITE ON 17TH JUNE 2019.  It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

 

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On digital happiness


Are digital technologies making people across the world any happier?  I recently posed this question on social media, commenting that I did not think they were, and was challenged by a colleague from Africa who implied that it was obvious that ICTs had increased human happiness in his part of the world.  Whilst I have touched on this issue in my previous work (ICT4D, 2009,  and Reclaiming ICT4D, 2017), I have never really teased out the difficult issues involved in answering such questions, preferring instead to focus mainly on the impact on inequality of economic growth supported by technological innovation , and the differences between development agendas based on absolute and relative definitions of poverty.  It is timely to address this issue in a little more depth.

Defining happiness

Butterfly mediumA large part of the challenge in exploring the relationships between digital technologies and happiness depends on the controversial issue of how happiness is defined.  Philosophers, psychologists, medical doctors, theologians, and even economists have long debated what happiness really is, and each has their own definition.  In psychology, one of the best-known approaches to happiness is Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs, but self-determination theory, free-choice approaches (see some of Inglehart‘s work, as well as Sen’s notions), and positive psycholoy (largely influenced by Seligman) all have much to say about happiness.

In very general terms, happiness is a collective word to describe positive feelings such as success, amusement, gratification and joy.  Many of the difficulties with the word derive from the observation that although we may know when we feel happy or sad, we do not always know the cause of the emotion, and it is not easy to measure it consistently.  Indeed, at the extremes, one person’s happiness might be another person’s sadness.  It is thus perfectly possible that one person playing digital games for six hours on end could feel elated as a result, whilst another could feel suicidal.  This illustrates the well-known view that digital technologies act primarily as an accelerator of things such as economic growth or human emotion.

Digital technologies, international development and happiness

Over the last two decades some work has explicitly explored the interface between  digital technologies, international development and happiness. As noted above, my own work has briefly explored this, as for example has Heeks in his 2012 paper on ICTs and Gross National Happiness.  Both of us, I think independently, were drawn to this important notion coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972, and have highlighted its role in leading Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness as a key indicator of progress, emphasising that development should be holistic, combining both well-being and economic growth.  This clearly runs counter to the global hegemony on development largely as economic growth, which is enshrined in the MDGs and SDGs, and sees digital technologies as one of the prime drivers of such growth.

There are also now various new initiatives that are explicitly exploring the interface between digital technologies and happiness.  One of the most interesting of these is the University of Oslo TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture’s HAPPY project focusing on Responsible innovation and happiness: a new approach to the effects of ICTs, which is funded by the Norwegian Research Council.  Its core objective is to explore how we can “assess the complex and multifaceted impacts of ICTs on individuals’ welfare, and shape ICTs research and innovation activities towards responsible trajectories”.  One of its partners is NUPI, which has also published Maurseth’s (2017) useful overview on ICT, growth and happiness.

On the dehumanisation of labour

AI for Bad 2019

Most people still read this as “AI for Good”; image altered to make the point!

Until recently most digital technologies or ICTs have been largely seen as agents for good.  The ITU’s “AI for Goood”, or the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress with its 2018 slogan “Creating a Better Future” are but two graphic examples of this.  Underlying this positive image, though, have been the very significant advertising efforts of large global corporations eager to expand their markets by focusing exclusively on the positive benefits brought by ICTs; they truly make the world better, and people happy!   Moreover, this is all too frequently represented through the logic of increasing economic growth, and reducing absolute poverty.

Back in the 19th century Marx wrote passionately about the ways through which the rise of the factory system under capitalism dehumanized labour.  Very similar arguments have also been applied to the ways through which digital technologies are dehumanizing not only labour, but also many other aspects of human life as well in the 21st century (see my, 2016, Dehumanization: cyborgs and the Internet of Things, and more fully in Reclaiming ICT4D).  Almost by definition, dehumanization seems opposed to happiness.   Two simple digital examples can be used to illustratge this.  E-mails and online learning have dramatically extended the working day for office labourers who are now usually expected to be available online wherever they are for well beyond the traditional norm of 8 hours daily work – are they happyer as a result?  Likewise, 3D-printing is now replacing the happiness of human craftsmanship involved in creating fine objects.

Much more worrying, though, is the dark side of digital technologies, which is all too often hidden from the innocent eye.  To be sure, digital technologies do indeed have many positive benefits, but increasing research and attention are now at last shedding more light on their negative aspects.   UNICEF’s (2017) excellent report on Children in a Digital World, for example, provides a well balanced account of both the positive aspects of digital technologies and the harm that they can do.  Increasing evidence points to the link between smartphone use and depression amongst young people (see for example Twenge, 2017), addiction to digital technologies is becoming a growing concern (Brown, 2017) with clinics being set up across the world to treat it (see also Gregory, 2019), online gambling has been widely criticised for the harm it causes, and the role of social media in the rising tide of suicides is now being seen as an urgent prioirty that needs to be addressed by governments.  All these provide clear evidence that digital technologies do not always lead to the blissful happiness promoted in the advertising campaigns of digital corporations.

On method – historical and comparative

There is a clear need for much further research on the conditions under which digital technologies can indeed lead to greater human happiness, and those where they lead to a downard spiral of misery.  Methodologically, we need both historical and comparative studies to identify who is happier and why they are so when they use these technologies.  We need to understand more about the longitudinal experiences of those who were alive before computers and mobile phones became readly available and affordable.  We also need to understand much better what it is that enables some people to use digital technologies quite happily, whereas for others they can be the cause of misery so severe that people kill themselves.

The digitisation of human life

In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on what the future holds.  It has traditionally been thought that human happiness comes in part from the use of all of our senses of feeling, touching, seeing, hearing and smelling.  If this is so, happiness can be seen to derive in large part from fulfilment of this sentient being in the world.  Sitting for hours in front of a computer or other digital device has already been widely condemned for the negative health impacts that it causes: obesity, muscle degeneration, eye damage, back pain, and organ damage.  This is hardly happiness.  However, with the increasing commingling of human and machine, it may be that our cyborg future will no longer require traditional sentient experiences for us to be happy.  Our happiness may derive in the future from electrical impulses directed by neurally connected chips to stimulate feelings of happiness.  The rise of Transhumanism (H+), and the increasing numbers of people who are choosing to have microchips inserted in their bodies, is but one more step on this journey.

BirdI am privileged to have been born long before mobile phones existed, and vividly recall the first laptops, digital typewriters, and the pleasure of physically printing out cards to run my Fortran programmes.  I have also had the pleasure of recovering from broken bones, and the exhilarating happiness of playing the sports that caused them!  This has given me the sense that living life to the full as humans, being truly happy, does indeed require use to use all our senses.   We need wide public debate on the future relationships that we want to have with machines, a debate not driven by the economic interests of global capital, but one in which the joys of human sentient happiness can also be applauded and priortised.

 

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Reflections on Buenos Aires


The invitation to give a Keynote Address at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) excellent President’s meeting last month, provided me with a wonderful opportunity to spend a little bit of time exploring the fascinating city of Buenos Aires.  I had never been there before, and I left with many contradictory memories in my mind.  I hope that the pictures and reflections below capture something of these.

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My lasting memory, is of the diversity yet uniformity of the city.  Laid out on its grid plan from the 19th century, blocks are dominated mostly by 6-10 storey grey buildings, in various states of dilapidation, with a wide range of different commercial uses on the ground floor.  There seemed to be little attempt at commercial zoning; shoe shops were next to ones selling fruit and vegetables on one side and mobile phones on the other.

It is hard for people living in Europe or North America to appreciate that in the early 20th century Argentina was among the 10 richest countries in the world in terms of per capita income; it was richer than either France or Germany, and had outgrown Canada and Australia in population, total income, and per capita income.  This huge wealth is still visible in the moumental buildings spread widely apart across the city: the theatres, mansions, and buildings of state.  Yet its subsequent economic decline and political turmoil also remains all too visible.

The city’s large size, and the dispersed character of its monuments, made me feel that it had little obvious centre.  Yes, people point to the Obelisco at the crossing between Av. 9 de Julho and Av. Corrientes as its centre; others emphasise the importance of the Plaza de Mayo and the Av. de Mayo leading west towards the Congreso de la Nación Argentina from the Casa Rosada.  However, for me it still lacks a central throbbing heart.  New growth and development is scattered apparently haphazardly through the city, in parts of Palermo or to the east by the old harbour.

It is also amazingly ethnically and culturally diverse; hugely European, yet little like Europe.  Somehow there remains the sense of an indigenous undercurrent from before the Spanish conquests of the 16th century, but this has been almost completely obliterated by the waves of European settlements; mainly Spanish, Italians, and Germans.  By the early 20th centry it is estimated that just under a third of the population had been born overseas.  This European identity of the 19th and early 20th centuries remains very visible in the built landscape and in the culture of the city.  The grand opera house, the Teatro Colon, is reputed to be one of the five best concert venues in the world in terms of acoustics.  Nearby are other theatres, such as the impressive Teatro Nacional Cervantes; the Teatro Gran Splendid to the north-west opened in 1919, and a century later the bookshop that now fills its balconies has been described by National Geographic as the most beautiful in the world.

This European culture is embedded in its music; it helped me understand why the cultural evening generously laid on for us included, surprisingly for me, classical ballet and music, alongside the challenging songs of Nacha Guevara, and the stunning beauty and passion of the tango.

And the wealth of a growing middle class is increasingly visible in the plush shopping malls of the Galerias Pacifico or in the old railway arches of Distrito Arcos in Palermo; gated communities nearby enable the rich to watch out over the city, in which poor beggars sleep on the streets underneath any shelter they can find.

I have never been anywhere in the world where there have been so many people calling out “Cambio”, “Cambio”, wanting to change your money on the streets; scarcely surprising when it is so difficult to change it legally elsewhere, and the cashpoint machines charge almost 20% for transactions!

Many people like the old cemetery at Recoleta; I found it depressing, and an omnipresent reminder of the faded past of the city.  But the white brightness of the adjacent Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Pilar next door was a reminder of the vital present, and the neighbouring Centro Cultural Recoleta a vibrant, colour-filled explosion of life.  The lively market nearby provided me with the opportunity to purchase a much-wanted multi-coloured gaucho belt.

Thanks to all those in Buenos Aires, for this wonderful opportunity; and I haven’t even started on the huge steaks and the delicious Malbec wines…

 

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Participating in IFLA’s President’s Meeting and Ministerial Forum, Buenos Aires, 22-23 May 2019


Ministers Forum

Ministers and Secretaries of Culture Forum

It was a real privilege to have been invited to participate in the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean on 22nd May, and to give a keynote address at its 2019 President’s meeting which was on the theme of Motors of change: libraries and sustainable development on 23rd May, both in Buenos Aires.  These meetings provided a valuable opportunity for those actively involved in the role of libraries in contributing to the development of Latin American and Caribbean countries to share ideas and experiences, and agree on ways through which their work can be further enhanced.

The Forum of Ministers and Secretaries of Culture was held in the very impressive Congress of the Argentine Nation, and provided an excellent opportunity for senior

President

IFLA President and Secretary General

government officials from across the region to share presentations and discuss the theme of Libraries, Access to Information and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Welcoming participants, IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón reminded them of the theme of her presidency – Motors of Change – and underlined the difference that libraries can make, for so many people, in so many ways.  IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner stressed to the ministers of the power they had in their hands, and made the case for ensuring that they – and libraries – are included fully in national development plans.  A key outcome of the meeting was the signing of the Buenos Aires Declaration which affirmed participating governments’ commitment to the UN 2030 Agenda, and to the power of libraries and access to information to achieve it.  The meeting also saw the launch of the second edition of the Development and Access to Information Report produced by IFLA and the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington, focusing especially on SDG4 (education), SDG8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG10 (inequalities), SDG13 (climate chage) and SDG16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), and edited by Stephen Wyber and Maria Garrido.

In the evening, there was a Cultural Gala in the Public Hall of the Library of the National Congress, which consisted of three main elements:

  • Nacha

    Nacha Guevara

    A dance performance in two parts by the Arte Ballet Compañía: the Don Quijote suite, and Tiempos de Tango, with ideation, choreography and direction by María Fernanda Blanco.

  • Music played by the Chamber Orchestra of the Honorable Argentine Chamber of Deputies with a repertoire dedicated to the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, featuruing especially the saxophone soloist Jorge Retamoza.
  • A wonderful closing sequence of songs by the famous Argentine artist Nacha Guevara.

The 2019 President’s Meeting on 23rd May built on the themes of the Development and Access to Information Report, and began with a session of welcoming speeches by IFLA President Glòria Pérez-Salmerón, IFLA Secretary-General Gerald Leitner, Alejandro Lorenzo César Santa (General Coordinating Director, Library of the National Congress), and Rene Mauricio Valdes (United Nations Resident Coordinator, Argentina).  This was followed by my keynote  on Libraries and Sustainable Development: challenges of inequality in a digital world (.pdf of slide deck), which:

  • Screenshot 2019-05-25 at 21.00.54Challenged those who believe that the SDGs will deliver on their aspirations;
  • Highlighted the role of digital technologies in leading to increasing inequalities;
  • Explored issues around power, knowledge and content;
  • Advocated for the important role that libraries can serve as open places and communal resource centres; and
  • Concluded by encouraging participants to have the will to make a difference.

In the afternoon, there were three sets of discussions and presentations by the authors of the Development and Access to Information Report and others on the following themes:

  • A Library Response to Global Challenges: What Can Libraries Contribute to International Efforts to Tackle the Issues that Affect the Planet?
  • Driving Development at a Local Level: Libraries Making a Difference to People’s Lives
  • Improving Decision-Making and Accountability: Libraries as Pillars of Democracy and Good Governance
Tango 1

Our great tango teachers!

These two days of lively and interesting discussion provided a wealth of ideas for all those participating from governments and libraries to implement on return to their own countries.  It was also a very valuable opportunity to build a network of people working at the interface between libaries and international development, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Very many thanks are due to the hard work and hospitality of colleagues from IFLA and our Argentian hosts.  One of my lasting memories will definitely be learning to dance the tango – for which many thanks to our brilliant teachers!

 

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The Champagne stained glass window in Reims cathedral


Over many years I have gathered together a wide range of imagery about grape growing and wine making, but although I have visited Reims cathedral on several occasions, I have never before had a camera with the right lens to take close up pictures of the famous stained glass window representing wine growing in the Champagne region.    Last weekend was different, and a leisurely afternoon provided the opportunity to share the imagery below.

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The window in the south transept was completed in 1954 following the removal of earlier glass in the 18th century, and damage to the cathedral in the 1914-18 war.  Funding came from  the Champagne Houses, winegrowers, overseas agents and others who wanted to help restore the cathedral.  The imagery shows many of the stages in making Champagne, but does so in the style of medieval glass.  It provides a fascinating insight into Champagne production as it was in the middle of the 20th century.

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TEQtogether workshop at WSIS 2019: changing men’s attitudes and behaviours to women and technology


TEQtogether 1Members of TEQtogether, working with colleagues in the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, were delighted to have convened a workshop on 11th April at WSIS 2019 in Geneva on Changing men’s attitudes and behaviours to women and technology.  This represents part of Royal Holloway, University of London’s commitment to the global EQUALS partnership designed to increase gender digital equality.  The session began with three short opening presentations:

  • An overview of the work of TEQtogether
    • informing men about how their actions impact digital gender inequality (see  Resources and Other Initiatives pages);
    • Identifying actions that men can take to enhance gender equality in the tech workplace (see  Guidance Notes)
    • Recommending actions that men can take to reduce digital violence against women
    • Encouraging reverse mentoring through which women mentor men at all levels in tech organisations.
  • An introduction to TEQtogether’s Guidance Notes by Paul Spiesberger (ict4d.at), focusing especially on guiding for when running a computer programing workshop
  • An overview of work on the use of mobiles for sexual harassment by Bushra Hassan (International Islamic University, Islamabad).

TEQtogether 2The main part of the workshop then built on these presentations to discuss what needs to be done to change men’s and boys’ attitudes and behaviours towards women and girls in technology.  The co-created mindmap developed during the workshop is illustrated below (link to detailed .pdf file of the mindmap).2 Changing men’s attitudes and behaviours to women & technologyThe four most important issues identified that require attention were:

  • Education (especially gender sensitivity materials and unconscious bias)
  • Family roles (especially in early life)
  • The resocialization of men
  • Tech industry and employment

A second tier of issues focused on:

  • Cultural change – takes time
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Awareness raising
  • Role models (both men and women)
  • Virtual reality (so that men can experience the difficulties faced by women)
  • Legislation
  • Practical women’s empowerment.

TEQtogether is committed to take forward actions that will make a difference to all of the above, through its guidance notes and future workshops.

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