Category Archives: Conferences

Academic perspectives on WSIS and the SDGs, WSIS 2022

It was a great pleasure to have been invited to contribute as a panellist to Session 406 of the WSIS Annual Forum on 2nd June 2022 on the theme of “Academic perspectives on WSIS and the SDGs”. This was a hybrid event, and as the picture below shows it was sadly not attended by very many people actually in Geneva! (Follow this link for my short, full presentation.)

However there was active participation online, and it was good to share some reflections on the theme. As ever, I tried to be diplomatically provocative, reflecting on my participation in the original World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva (2003) and Tunisia (2005)…

… as well as on many occasions since at the WSIS annual forums, especially when in 2019 I changed WSIS to MISS in front of my good friend Houlin Zhao the Secretary General of the ITU:

My presentation in particular emphasised the important need for the UN system to stop replicating and duplicating its efforts to use ICTs for “development” (or should this read “to serve the interests of the rich and powerful” especially the “digital barons“?); it is striking and sad, for example, that the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for digital cooperation and Our Common Agenda make no mentions at all of the WSIS process.

My main argument was that with only eight years to go, it is essential that we start planning now for what will replace the SDGs, especially with respect to the uses of digital tech.

I did, though, also address to other themes: how academics can indeed benefit from the WSIS process (see below) as well as a short introduction to the work that we are now doing as part of the Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC).

Follow this link for my short, full presentation.

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Filed under Conferences, Development, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, United Nations

Freedom, enslavement and the digital barons: a thought experiment

It was a delight and a challenge to have the opportunity earlier today to present a keynote for this year’s IFIP 9.4 conference on Freedom and Social Inclusion in a Connected World in the form of a thought experiment on the topic of “Freedom, enslavement and the digital barons“.

My main aim was to explore how thinking about the “unfree” can help us better understand the intersection between freedom and digital tech. In particular I focused on five main themes: some of the ways in which academics have previously considered the concept of freedom within the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D); ways of understanding “unfreedom”; six examples of digital enslavement; the relationships between freedom, rights and responsibilities; and the ways in which people in general and academics in particular can resist enslavement by the digital barons.

The examples of digital enslavement that I briefly explored were:

  • Digital addiction
  • We are the data
  • Governments enforcing use of digital systems for government services
  • Labour exploitation (through extending the working week)
  • Digital poverty and education
  • Digital tech contributing to modern slavery

Time precluded the inclusion of several other forms of enslavement that I might have considered. Drawing on my medievalist backgroung, I was especially interested in the role and interests of the Digital Barons.

In part, this keynote drew on arguments that I have previously addressed in more detail in

I also made it clear that appropriately designed digital tech can be used to great advantage by poor and marginalised communities, although given the theme of the confernce I concentrated exclusively on “digital enslavement” and the role of the “digital barons”.

The full slide deck (in .pdf format) is available here without the transitions and animations. It also omits the subtitles in Spanish that were included for our colleagues in Peru who had originally been planning to host us in person.

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“Open Science” Keynote for WACREN

It was a real privilege to have been invited to give a keynote on “Open Science in Africa and for Africans: addressing the challenges” this morning at the West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) 2022 conference held in Abidjan. The role of a keynote is to provoke and challenge, and so I took the opportunity to share some of the reflections and challenges that I have been struggling with over many years, and especially since I first met the inspirational CEO of WACREN, Boubakar Barry, some 18 years ago in Dakar, Sénégal at an event we participated in on Free/Libre and Open Source Software convened by Imfundo.

Participating online in the hybrid WACREN 2022 conference

The six challenges on which I focused in the Keynote were:

  • Whose interests does Open Science really serve?
  • The rise of individualism: is it too late for communal science?
  • Which models of publication best serve Africa?
  • How valuable are Open Data, and for whom?
  • The dangers of Scientism?
  • Who pays?

Underlying my thoughts are two fundamental concerns:

  • If you don’t have access to, or cannot use “Open Science”, can you really benefit from it? Does “Open Science” really empower the poor and marginalised?
  • Is Open Science mainly a means through which the rich and powerful continue to maintain their positions of privilege? This is typified by the ways through which global corporations and companies persuade governments to make their data about citizens available as Open Data, so that these companies can then extract considerable profit from them.

The full slide deck in .pdf format is available here, and the slide below summarises my final thoughts about the ways forward.

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London International Model UN 2022: A new UN for a New World Order

Delegates at the London International Model UN conference, 25 February 2022

It was a real privilege to have been invited to give the keynote address at the 2022 London International Model UN conference held at Central Hall, Westminster on 25th February. After much discussion with the organisers we agreed that I would use the occasion to challenge the delegates with some of the problems I see facing the UN as an organisation, and offer some recommendations as to how these can be addressed. With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia the day before, I considered fundamentally revising what I had intended to say, until I realised that much of what I had prepared was even more relevant following the events of the previous 24 hours.

The event was recorded by the organisers, but for those wishing to have an outline of what I said it is available in .pdf format here (with low resolution images). I was delighted to receive so many questions, and I very much hope that my answers were able to provide further insights into my thinking on these matters.

It was a wonderful opportunity to engage in intergenerational dialogue, and I am most grateful to Luna, Savvas and Siddarth, as well as other members of the Secretariat, for all of their organisation and bringing together so many inspirational young people in London to discuss the important issues facing the world today.

The choice of blue and yellow flowers for my “thank you bouquet” was brilliantly appropriate!

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Inter Islamic Network on IT and COMSATS University workshop on ICT for Development: Mainstreaming the Marginalised

PostersThe 3rd ICT4D workshop convened by the Inter Islamic Network on IT (INIT) and COMSATS University in Islamabad, and supported by the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D (Royal Holloway, University of London) and the Ministry of IT and Telecom in Pakistan on the theme of Mainstreaming the Marginalised was held at the Ramada Hotel in Islamabad on 28th and 29th January 2020.  This was a very valuable opportunity for academics, government officials, companies, civil society organisations and donors in Pakistan to come together to discuss practical ways through which digital technologies can be used to support  economic, social and political changes that will benefit the poorest and most marginalised.  The event was remarkable for its diveristy of participants, not only across sectors but also in terms of the diversity of abilities, age, and gender represented.  It was a very real pleasure to participate in and support this workshop, which built on the previous ones we held in Islamabd in 2016 and 2017.

The inaugural session included addresses by Prof Dr Raheel Qamar (President INIT and Rector COMSATS University, Islamabad), Mr. Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui (Federal Secretary Ministry of IT & Telecom) and Dr. Tahir Naeem (Executive Director, INIT), as well as my short keynote on Digital Technologies, Climate Change and Sustainability.  This was followed by six technical sessions spread over two days:

  • Future of learning and technology
  • Policy to practice: barriers and challenges
  • Awareness and inclusion: strategizing through technology
  • Accessibility and Technology: overcoming barriers
  • Reskilling the marginalised: understandng role reversals
  • Technical provisio: indigenisation for local needs.

These sessions included a wide diversity of activities, ranging from panel sessions, practical demonstrations, and mind-mapping exercises, and there were plenty of opportunities for detailed discussions and networking.

Highlights for me amongst the many excellent presentations included:

  • Recollections by Prof Abdful Mannan and Prof Ilyas Ahmed of the struggles faced by people with disabilities in getting their issues acknowledged by others in society, and of the work that they and many others have been doing to support those with a wide range of disabilities here in Pakistan
  • The inspirational presentations by Julius Sweetland of his freely available Open Source Optikey software enabling those with multiple disbilities to use only their eyes to write and control a keyboard
  • Meeting the young people with Shastia Kazmi (Vision 21 and Founder of Little Hands), who have gained confidence and expertise through her work and are such an inspiration to us all in continuing our work to help some of the pooorest and most marginalised to be empowered through digital technologies.
  • The very dynamic discussions around practical actions that we can all take to enable more inclusive use of  digital technologies (mindmaps of these available below)

Enormous thanks must go to Dr. Tahir Naeem (COMSATS University and Executive Director of INIT) and his team, especially Dr. Akber Gardezi and Atiq-ur-Rehman, for all that they did to make this event such a success.

A shortened version of this workshop was also subsequently held on Monday 3rd February at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro, thanks to the support and facilitation of Dr. Mukesh Khatwani (Director of the Area Study Centre for Far East and Southeast Asia) and his colleagues.  This also focused on the practical ways through which some of the most marginalised can benefit from the appropriate use of digital technologies, and it was once again good to have the strong involvement of persons with disabilities.

Quick links to workshop materials and outputs:

 

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Filed under Climate change, Conferences, Environment, Gender, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, Pakistan, Uncategorized

Hungarian music and dance, at Telecom World 2019

One of the highlights of the ITU’s Telecom World this year was the generous hospitality of our Hungarian hosts.  Preceding the impressive (if slightly concerning) drone display over the Danube, there was an excellent performance of music and dance in the recently refurbished neo-Renaissance Castle Garden Bazaar complex overlooking the Buda riverfront.  I hope that the images below capture something of the evening’s entertainment.  The men dancing were truly spectacular!

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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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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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Filed under capitalism, Conferences, Dance, Inequality, Latin America, Photographs, Politics

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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Digital technologies and accessibility: from rhetoric to reality – at WSIS 2019

Accessibillity 1It was great to be part of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D team working with our colleagues at the Inter-Islamic Network on Information Technology (INIT) to convene and host the first session on Accessibility Day (8th April) at this year’s tenth anniversary WSIS Annual Forum held in Geneva.  The theme was “Digital technologies and accessibility: from rhetoric to reality”, and our session began with three short opening presentations:

Building on these inspiring presentations, participants then turned their attention to discussing what still needs to be done to turn rhetoric into reality with respect to the empowerment of people with disabilities through ICTs.  This was captured in the mind map below (link to a detailed and expandable .pdf file of the mind map):

What must we do to turn rhetoric into reality so that people with disabilities can be empowered through digital technologies

This discussion highlighted the continuing need for work in ten main areas:

  • Holistic approaches
  • Enabling voices of people with disabilities
  • Policies and legislation
  • Partnerships
  • Leadership
  • Differentiation between universal inclusion and assistive technologies
  • Training, awareness and capacity building
  • Building appropriate technologies
  • Finances
  • Delivering commitments

Working together, we can all contribute to the empowerment of people with disabilities (details of some of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s activities and resources supporting people with disabilities).

Looking forward to another special set of sessions on accessibillity at next year’s WSIS 2020!  Thanks to Gitanjali and her team for all the great work that they did in delivering this year’s conference!

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