Tag Archives: technology

Data and the scandal of the UK’s Covid-19 survival rate

Govt CovidI have held off writing much that is overtly critical of the UK government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but can do so no longer. We have known for a long time that data published by governments across the world about infections is highly unreliable, although figures on deaths are somewhat more representative of reality.  The UK governments’s lack of transparency, though, about its Covid-19 data is deeply worrying, and suggests deliberate deceipt.  The following observations may be noted about the figures that are currently being published, and the ways in which official (and social) media use them.

  • Official infection rates are very unreliable and largely reflect the number of tests being done.  These figures are so meaningless that they should be ignored in public announcements and media coverage because they give the public completely the wrong impression.  Countries such as Germany are believed to be able to produce up to 500,000 tests a week (although their aim is to do 200,000 tests a day), whereas by 7th April there had only been 218,500 tests in total in the UK since the start of January. The UK government aims to achieve 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, but seems highly unlikely to meet this target; a figure of more than 10,000 tests per day in the UK was only first achieved on 1st April.  The official reported number of infected cases in Germany at 119,624 on 10th April is  likely to be somewhat nearer reality than the paltry 73,758 reported cases in the UK (Source: thebaselab, 10th April).  In practice, it seems that most of the UK figures actually refer to those who are tested in hospital as suspected cases, since there is negligible testing of the public in general to get an idea of how extensive the spread really is.  By keeping this figure apparently low, the UK government seems to be deceiving the population into believing that Covid-19 might be less extensive than in reality it is.
  • Figures for the number of deaths should be more reliable, but are also opaque.  Even with figures for deaths there is increasing cause for doubt, not least because of differences between countries reporting whether someone has died “from” or “with” Covid-19.  In practice, it is even more complex than this, since some countries (such as the UK), are publishing immediate data only on those who die in hospital.  Those who die in the community are only added into the total official figures at a later date.  By manipulating when these figures are officially added, governments can again deceive their citizens that the deaths may in the short-term be lower than they are in reality.  A good analysis of the situation in the UK has recently (8th April) been produced by Jason Oke and Carl Heneghan for The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM), which highlights the considerable discrepancies between data made available by the National Health Service (NHS) and Public Health England (PHE).  Not only does this make it difficult in the short-term for modellers and policy makers to know what is really happening, but it also gives a distorted picture to the public.  As this report also concludes “The media should be wary of reporting daily deaths without understanding the limitations and variations in different sources”.
  • Hugely unreliable mortality rates.  Combining published figures for infections and deaths gives rise to figures for mortality rates.  These figures are also therefore very unreliable.  Because of the low levels of testing, and yet the high number of deaths in the UK (8,958; Source: thebaselab, 10th April), the UK mortality rate is reportedly the second highest in the world at 12.15%.  This can be compared with Germany’s 2.18% (undoubtedly a much more accurate figure), Italy’s 12.77% (the highest in the world), and a global average of 6.06%.  As I have argued previously, though, these figures are largely meaningless, and the figures that really matter are the total number of deaths divided by the total population of a country.  Accordingly, to date, China has had only 0.23 deaths per 100,000 people, whereas Spain has had 33.88, Italy 30.23, France 18.80 and the UK currently 11.75 deaths per 100,000 (Source: derived from thebaselab, 10th April).  Put another way, the UK figure is 51 times more than the Chinese figure.  Such figures are far more meaningful than official mortality rates, and should always be used by the media (preferably using choropleth maps rather than proportional circles for total deaths).
  • Extraordinarily depressing recovery rates.  The UK’s current “recovery rate” is by any standards appalling.  As of 9th April reported figures for the number of people who have recovered from Covid-19 in the UK were between 135 (by the baselab, and worldometers) and 351 (by Johns Hopkins University).   This suggests a “recovery rate” of possibly only 0.18% in the UK (Source:  thebaselab, 10th April), in contrast with China’s 94.56%, Spain’s 35.45% and a global average of 22.2%.  In part this is again a result of data problems.  We simply don’t know how many people have been infected mildly, and how many have survived without even knowing they have had it.  It also reflects the fact that it takes time to recover, and many people are still in hospital who may yet recover.  However, the UK’s figures is the worst in the world for countries where there have been more than 50 cases of Covid-19.

Such figures raise huge questions for the British government and people:

  • Why are UK reported survival rates so low? Surely the government should want to do all it can to show the success of the NHS in treating patients and it should therefore publish the real figures?  That is unless, of course, these figures are truly bad.
  • What is the balance of numbers between those dying in hospital from Covid-19 and those leaving having recovered?  The rare euphoria that greets those who leave hospital having recovered (as with 101-year-old Keith Watson who was recently discharged from a hospital in Worcestershire) suggests that very few people have actually left hospital alive having been admitted with Covid-19.  Is the government trying to hide this?  Is the grim truth that you are likely to die if you go into hospital with Covid-19?  Does this mean that people are being admitted to hospital far too late because of the advice given by the NHS and its 111 service?  Should the NHS simply stop trying to treat patients with Covid-19? (An update noted below suggests that more than half of the people going into intensive care in UK hospitals with Covid-19 die).
  • Why did the government not act sooner?  Some of us had argued back in January of the threat posed by the then un-named new coronavirus (I first raised concerns on 20th January, and first posted about its extent in China on social media on 27th January).  It was very clear then (and not only with hindsight) that this posed a global threat.  Undoubtedly the WHO failed in its warnings, and did not act quickly enough to declare a pandemic, but many governments did act to get in supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing equipment, and ventilators.  The UK government has failed its people.  One quarter of my close family have probably already had Covid-19; many of my friends have also had it – some very seriously.  I guess therefore that between a quarter and a third of those living in the UK may already been ill with the pandemic (Update 13th April: this must be an exaggeration, as news media over Easter suggest that experts think the current figure of infections is only 10%; Update 26th April, the MRC-IDE at Imperial College modelling back from actual deaths, suggest that only some 4.36% of the UK population is infected).  They are individual human beings, and not just statistics.

These questions are hugely important now, and not just when a future review is done, because it is still not too late to act together wisely to try to limit the impact of Covid-19 in the UK.  The fact that the government has not yet been transparent and open about these issues is deeply worrying.  In trying to explain them the following scenarios seem likely.  I very much hope they are not true, and that the government can provide clear evidence that I am wrong:

1. Throughout, the government knew that the NHS would be overwhelmed by Covid-19, and has been doing all it can to cover up its own failings and to protect the NHS.  In 2016, a review called Exercise Cygnus was undertaken to simulate the impact of a major flu pandemic in the UK. The full conclusions have never been published, but sufficient evidence is in the public domain to suggest that it showed that the NHS was woefully unprepreard, with there being significant predicted shortages of intensive care beds, necessary equipment, and mortuary space.  In December 2016 the then excellent Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, conceded that “a lot of things need improving”.  It is now apparent that the government (largely including people who are still leading it) did nothing to rectify the situation, and must therefore be held in part responsible for the very high death rate in the UK.  Its failure to fund the NHS appropriately in recent years is but a wider symptom of this lack of care and attention to the needs of our health system.  I therefore find it very depressing that this government is now so adamant in asking us to protect the NHS; as shown on the cover of the document sent to all households in the UK (illustrated above), it seems to be more concerned with protecting the NHS (listed second) above saving lives (listed third).

2. The government has consigned those least likely to survive Covid-19 to death in their homes.  Despite claims that the government is caring for the most vulnerable, it seems probable that its advice to the elderly and those most at risk to stay at home was not intended primarily for their own good, but was rather to prevent the NHS from being flooded with people who were likely to die.  This is callous, calculating and contemptable.  On March 22nd, The Sunday Times published an article that stated that “At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings [the Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor] outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. Downing Street swiftly denounced this report, but it remains widely accepted that even if these were not the exact words Cummings used, this was indeed the view of some of those at the top of the UK government at that time.  Subsequent evidence would support this.  Some, perhaps many, hospital trusts, for example, have clearly told their staff not to accept people who are very old and fall into the most vulnerable category.  Likewise, Care Homes have been told to care for Covid-19 patients themselves, since they may not be accepted in hospital. The British Geriatrics Society thus notes (30th March) that:

  • “Care homes should work with General Practitioners, community healthcare staff and community geriatricians to review Advance Care Plans as a matter of urgency with care home residents. This should include discussions about how COVID-19 may cause residents to become critically unwell, and a clear decision about whether hospital admission would be considered in this circumstance”
  • “Care homes should be aware that escalation decisions to hospital will be taken in discussion with paramedics, general practitioners and other healthcare support staff. They should be aware that transfer to hospital may not be offered if it is not likely to benefit the resident and if palliative or conservative care within the home is deemed more appropriate. Care Homes should work with healthcare providers to support families and residents through this”

This  policy incidentally (and also helpfully for the government) lowers the daily reporting death rate because such people are not counted as “dying in hospital”.

3. The use of digital technologies may be used to identify those unlikely to be given hospital treatment.  The government quite swiftly introduced online methods by which people who think that they fall into the extremely vulnerable category could register themselves, so that they might receive help and such things as food deliveries.  Whilst aspects of this can indeed be seen as positive, it also seems likely that this register could be used to deny people access to hospital services, since they are most likely to die even with hospital treatment.  If true (and I hope it is not), this would be a very deeply worrying use of digital technologies.  Nevertheless, care homes are being forced to hold difficult discussions with those they are meant to be caring for about end-of-life wishes, and all doctors and medical professionals are increasingly having to make complex ethical decisions about who to treat (see Tim Cook’s useful 23rd March article in The Guardian).

4. The government has tried to pass the blame onto the scientists. Early on in the crisis I was appalled to see and hear government spokespeople (including the Chief Medical Officer – so beloving of systematic reviews) saying that they were acting on scientific advice.  As some of us pointed out at the time, there is no such things as unanimity in science, and so it was ridiculous for them to claim this.  However, they seem to have been doing so, and in such a co-ordinated manner, because they were seeking to shift the blame in case their policies went wrong.  Leading a country is a very tough job, and those who aspire to do so have to make tough decisions and stand by them.  Fortunately, this position by the government is no longer tenable, especially now that academics are competing visciously in trying to prove that they are right, so that they can take the credit. Nevertheless, there remains good science and bad science, and it is frightening how many academics seem to be pandering to what governments and the public might want to hear.  Tom Pike (from Imperial College), for example, predicted (against most of the prevailing evidence) in a pre-print paper with Vikas Saini on 25th March that if the UK followed China (which it clearly wasn’t doing) the total number of deaths in the UK would be around 5,700, with there being a peak of between 210 and 330 people, possibly on 3th April.  Although he retracted this a few days later when it was blatantly obvious that his model was deeply flawed, news media who wanted a good news story had been very eager to publish his suggestion that the pandemic would not be as bad as others had predicted (he certainly got lots of pictures published of himself in his lab coat).  Likewise, at the other end of the scale, the IHME in the USA predicted that the UK would have 66,314 deaths in total by 4th August, rising to a peak of 2,932 deaths a day on 17th April.  This  might have been wishful thinking, because on 7th April, UK reported deaths were only 786, which was substantially below their model prediction of around 1250.  By then, though, their research had already hit the news headlines with lots of publicity.  Subsequently (as at 11th April), they revised their predictions to a peak of “only” 1,674 deaths a day (estimated range 651-4,143) with a cumulated total of 37,494 deaths.  These differences are very substantial, and emphasise that scientists often get it wrong.  Put simply, the UK government cannot hide behind science.  They can try to take the credit, but government leaders must also admit it openly when they have been wrong with the policies that they make based on the evidence.

In conclusion, by sharing these thoughts I have sought to:

  • Ask the UK government to be more open and transparent in the information that it provides about Covid-19;
  • Plead with media of all sorts to use data responsibly, and to be critical of claims by governments and scientists who all have their own interests in saying what they do; and
  • Encourage everyone to work together for the common good, openly and honestly in trying to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Above all, I write with huge respect for the many people in our NHS who have been working in the most difficult of circumstances to try to stem the tide of Covid-19.  Too many of them have already died; too many of them have become sick.

[Update 12th April: A report in The Times notes that “The death rate of Covid-19 patients admitted to intensive care now stands at more than 51 per cent, according to a study on a sample of coronavirus patients”.  The original report is by ICNARC, which showed that “Of the 3883 patients, 871 patients have died, 818 patients have been discharged alive from critical care and 2194 patients were last reported as still receiving critical care”. I should add that this is despite the very valiant efforts of our NHS staff]

[Update 14th April: Great to see that the BBC is at last reporting more responsibly about government reported deaths (based on those in hospital) being a serious underestimate of total deaths, and comparing trends of deaths with previous years – two useful graphs included and copied herewith below

deaths well above normal range - line chart      daily death updates are an underestimate since they exclude deaths outside hospital and are subject to reporting delays

Thanks BBC]

Updated 14th April

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Filed under Covid-19, digital technologies, UK, Uncategorized

Crowdsourcing Covid-19 infection rates

Covid-19, 19 March 2020, Source: https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/

Covid-19, 19 March 2020, Source: https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/

I have become increasingly frustrated by the continued global reporting of highly misleading figures for the number of Covid-19 infections in different countries.  Such “official” figures are collected in very different ways by governments and can therefore not simply be compared with each other.  Moreover, when they are used to calculate death rates they become much more problematic.  At the very least, everyone who cites such figures should refer to them as “Officially reported Infections”

As I write (19th March 2020, 17.10 UK time), the otherwise excellent thebaselab‘s documentation of the coronavirus’s evolution and spread gives mortality rates (based on deaths as a percentage of infected cases) for China as 4.01%, Italy as 8.34% and the UK as 5.09%.  However, as countries are being overwhelmed by Covid-19, most no longer have the capacity to test all those who fear that they might be infected.  Hence, as the numbers of tests as a percentage of total cases go down, the death rates will appear to go up.  It is fortunately widely suggested that most people who become infected with Covid-19 will only have a mild illness (and they are not being tested in most countries), but the numbers of deaths become staggering if these mortality rates are extrapolated.  Even if only 50% of people are infected (UK estimates are currently between 60% and 80% – see the Imperial College Report of 16th March that estimates that 81% of the UK and US populations will be infected), and such mortality rates are used, the figures (at present rates) become frightening:

  • In Italy, with a total population of 60.48 m, this would mean that 30.24 m people would be infected, which with a mortality rate of 8.34% would imply that 2.52 m people would die;
  • In the UK, with a total population of 66.34 m, this would mean that 33.17 m people would be infected, which with a mortality rate of 5.09% would imply that 1.69 m people would die.

These figures are unrealistic, because only a fraction of the total number of infected people are being tested, and so the reported infection rates are much lower than in reality.  In order to stop such speculations, and to reduce widespread panic, it is essential that all reporting of “Infected Cases” is therefore clarified, or preferably stopped.  Nevertheless, the most likely impact of Covid-19 is still much greater than most people realise or can fully appreciate.  The Imperial College Report (p.16) thus suggests that even if all patients were to be treated, there would still be around 250,000 deaths in Great Britain and 1.1-1.2 m in the USA; doing nothing, means that more than half a million people might die in the UK.

Having accurate data on infection rates is essential for effective policy making and disease management.  Globally, there are simply not enough testing kits or expertise to be able to get even an approximately accurate figure for real infections rates.  Hence, many surrogate measures have been used, all of which have to make complex assumptions about the sample populations from which they are drawn.  An alternative that is fortunately beginning to be considered is the use of digital technologies and social media.  Whilst by no means everyone has access to digital technologies or Internet connectivity, very large samples can be generated.  It is estimated that on average 2.26 billion people use one of the Facebook family of services every day; 30% of the world’s population is a large sample.  Existing crowdsourcing and social media platforms could therefore be used to provide valuable data that might help improve the modelling, and thus the management of this pandemic.

Crowdsourcing

[Great to see that since I first wrote this, Liquid Telecom has used Ushahidi to develop a crowd sourced Covid-19 data gathering initiative]

The violence in Kenya following the disputed Presidential elections in 2007, provided the cradle for the development of the Open Source crowdmapping platform, Ushahidi, which has subsequently been used in responding to disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, and valuable lessons have been learnt from these experiences.  While there are many challenges in using such technologies, the announcement on 18th March that Ushahidi is waiving its Basic Plan fees for 90 days is very much to be welcomed, and provides an excellent opportunity to use such technologies better to understand (and therefore hopefully help to control) the spread of Covid-19.  However, there is a huge danger that such an opportunity may be missed.

The following (at a bare minimum) would seem to be necessary to maximise the opportunity for such crowdsourcing to be successful:

  • We must act urgently. The failure of countries across the world to act in January, once the likely impact of events in Wuhan unravelled was staggering. If we are to do anything, we have to act now, not least to help protect the poorest countries in the world with the weakest medical services.  Waiting even a fortnight will be too late.
  • Some kind of co-ordination and sharing of good practices is necessary. Whilst a global initiative might be feasible, it would seem more practicable for national initiatives to be created, led and inspired by local activists.  However, for data to be comparable (thereby enabling better modelling to take place) it is crucial for these national initiatives to co-operate and use similar methods and approaches.  There must also be close collaboration with the leading researchers in global infectious disease analysis to identify what the most meaningful indicators might be, as well as international organisations such as the WHO to help disseminate practical findings..
  • An agreed classification. For this to be effective there needs to be a simple agreed classification that people across the world could easily enter into a platform.  Perhaps something along these lines might be appropriate: #CovidS (I think I might have symptoms), #Covid7 (I have had symptoms for 7 days), #Covid14 (I have had symptoms for 14 days), #CovidT (I have been tested and I have it), #Covid0 (I have been tested and I don’t have it), #CovidH (I have been hospitalised), #CovidX (a person has died from it).
  • Practical dissemination.  Were such a platform (or national platforms) to be created, there would need to be widespread publicity, preferably by governments and mobile operators, to encourage as many people as possible to enter their information.  Mutiple languages would need to be incorporated, and the interfaces would have to be as appealing and simple as possible so as to encourage maximum submission of information.

Ushahidi as a platform is particularly appealing, since it enables people to submit information in multiple ways, not only using the internet (such as e-mail and Twitter), but also through SMS messages.  These data can then readily be displayed spatially in real time, so that planners and modellers can see the visual spread of the coronavirus.  There are certainly problems with such an approach, not least concerning how many people would use it and thus how large a sample would be generated, but it is definitely something that we should be exploring collectively further.

Social media

An alternative approach that is hopefully also already being explored by global corporations (but I have not yet read of any such definite projects underway) could be the use of existing social media platforms, such as Facebook/WhatsApp, WeChat or Twitter to collate information about people’s infection with Covid-19. Indeed, I hope that these major corporations have already been exploring innovative and beneficial uses to which their technologies could be put.  However, if this if going to be of any real practical use we must act very quickly.

In essence, all that would be needed would be for there to be an agreed global classification of hashtags (as tentatively suggested above), and then a very widespread marketing programme to encourage everyone who uses these platforms simply to post their status, and any subsequent changes.  The data would need to be released to those undertaking the modelling, and carefully curated information shared with the public.

Whilst such suggestions are not intended to replace existing methods of estimating the spread of infectious diseases, they could provide a valuable additional source of data that could enable modelling to be more accurate.  Not only could this reduce the number of deaths from Covid-19, but it could also help reassure the billions of people who will live through the pandemic.  Of course, such methods also have their sampling challenges, and the data would still need to be carefully interpreted, but this could indeed be a worthwhile initiative that would not be particularly difficult or expensive to initiate if global corporations had the will to do so.

Some final reflections

Already there are numerous new initiatives being set up across the world to find ways through which the latest digital technologies might be used in efforts to minimise the impact of Covid-19. The usual suspects are already there as headlines such as these attest: Blockchain Cures COVID-19 Related Issues in China, AI vs. Coronavirus: How artificial intelligence is now helping in the fight against COVID-19, or Using the Internet of Things To Fight Virus Outbreaks. While some of these may have potential in the future when the next pandemic strikes, it is unlikely that they will have much significant impact  on Covid-19.  If we are going to do anything about it, we must act now with existing well known, easy to use, and reliable digital technologies.

I fear that this will not happen.  I fear that we will see numerous companies and civil society organisations approaching donors with brilliant new innovative “solutions” that will require much funding and will take a year to implement.  By then it will be too late, and they will be forgotten and out of date by the time the next pandemic arrives.  Donors should resist the temptation to fund these.  We need to learn from what happened in West Africa with the spread of Ebola in 2014, when more than 200 digital initiatives seeking to provide information relating to the virus were initiated and funded (see my post On the contribution of ICTs to overcoming the impact of Ebola).  Most (although not all) failed to make any significant impact on the lives and deaths of those affected, and the only people who really benefitted were the companies and the staff working in the civil society organisations who proposed the “innovations”.

This is just a plea for those of us interested in these things to work together collaboratively, collectively and quickly to use what technologies we have at our fingertips to begin to make an impact.  Next week it will probably be too late…

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Filed under Africa, AI, Asia, Empowerment, Health, ICT4D

The attitudes and behaviours of men towards women and technology in Pakistan

Gender digital equality, however defined, is globally worsening rather than improving.[1]  This is despite countless initiatives intended to empower women in and through technology.[2]  In part, this is because most such initiatives have been developed and run by and for women.  When men have been engaged, they have usually mainly been incorporated as “allies” who are encouraged to support women in achieving their strategic objectives.[3]  However, unless men fundamentally change their attitudes and behaviours to women (and girls) and technology, little is likely to change.  TEQtogether (Technology Equality together) was therefore founded by men and women with the specific objective to change these male attitudes and behaviours.  It thus goes far beyond most ally-based initiatives, and argues that since men are a large part of the problem they must also be an integral part of the solution.  TEQtogether’s members seek to identify the best possible research and understanding about these issues, and to incorporate it into easy to use guidance notes translated into various different languages.  Most research in this field is nevertheless derived from experiences in North America and Europe, and challenging issues have arisen in trying to translate these guidance notes into other languages and cultural contexts.[4]  TEQtogether is now therefore specifically exploring male attitudes and behaviours towards women and digital technologies in different cultural contexts, so that new culturally relevant guidance notes can be prepared and used to change such behaviours, as part of its contribution to the EQUALS global initiative on incresing gender digital equality.

IMG_5561

Meeting of EQUALS partners in New York, September 2018

Pakistan is widely acknowledged to be one of the countries that has furthest to go in attaining gender digital equality.[5]  Gilwald, for example, emphasises that Pakistan has a 43% gender gap in the use of the Internet and a 37% gap in ownership of mobile phones (in 2017).[6]  Its South Asian cultural roots and Islamic religion also mean that it is usually seen as being very strongly patriarchal.[7]  In order to begin to explore whether guidance notes that have developed in Europe and North America might be relevant for use in Pakistan, and if not how more appropriate ones could be prepared for the Pakistani content, initial research was conducted with Dr. Akber Gardezi  in Pakistan in January and February 2020.  This post provides a short overview of our most important findings, which will then be developed into a more formal academic paper once the data have been further analysed.

Research Methods

The central aim of our research was better to understand men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology in Pakistan, but we were also interested to learn what women thought men would say about this subject.[8]  We undertook 12 focus groups (7 for men only, 4 for women only, and one mixed) using a broadly similar template for both men and women, that began with very broad and open questions and then focused down on more specific issues.  The sample included university students and staff studying and teaching STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), tech start-up companies, staff in small- and medium-sized enterprises, and also in an established engineering/IT company.  Focus groups were held in Islamabad Capital Territory, Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh, and they were all approximately one hour in duration. We had ideally wanted each group to consist of c.8-12 people, but we did not wish to reject people who had volunteered to participate, and so two groups had as many as 19 people in them.  A total of 141 people participated in the focus groups.  The men varied in age from 20-41 and the women from 19-44 years old.  All participants signed a form agreeing to their participation, which included that they were participating  voluntarily, they could withdraw at any time, and they were not being paid to answer in particular ways.  They were also given the option of remaining anonymous or of having their names mentioned in any publications or reports resulting from the research.  Interestingly all of the 47 women ticked that they were happy to have their names mentioned, and 74 of the 94 men likewise wanted their names recorded.[9]  The focus groups were held in classrooms, a library, and company board rooms.  After some initial shyness and uncertainty, all of the focus groups were energetic and enthusiastic, with plenty of laughter and good humour, suggesting that they were enjoyed by the participants.  I very much hope that was the case; I certainly learnt a lot and enjoyed exploring these important issues with them.

This report summarises the main findings from each section of the focus group discussions: broad attitudes and behaviours by men towards the use of digital technologies by women; how men’s attitudes and behaviours influence women’s and girls’ access to and use of digital technologies at home, in education, and in their careers; whether any changes in men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology are desirable, and if so how might these be changed.  In so doing, it is very important to emphasise that although it is possible to draw out some generalisations there was also much diversity in the responses given.  These tentative findings were also discussed in informal interviews held in Pakistan with academics and practitioners to help validate their veracity and relevance.

I am enormously grateful to all of the people in the images below as well as the many others who contributed to this research.

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Men’s attitudes and behaviours towards the use of digital technologies by women in Pakistan

When initially asked in very general terms about “women” and “digital technology” most participants had difficulty in understanding what was meant by such a broad question.  However, it rapidly became clear that the overall “culture” of Pakistan was seen by both men and women as having a significant impact on the different ways in which men and women used digital technologies.  Interestingly, whilst some claimed that this was because of religious requirements associated with women’s roles being primarily in the sphere of the home and men’s being in the external sphere of work, others said that this was not an aspect of religion, but rather was a wider cultural phenomenon.

Both men and women concurred that traditionally there had been differences between access to and use of digital technologies in the past, but that these had begun to change over the last five years.  A distinction was drawn between rural, less well educated and lower-class contexts, where men tended to have better access to and used digital technologies more than women, and urban, better educated and higher-class contexts where there was greater equality and similarity between access to and use of digital technologies.

Whilst most participants considered that access to digital technologies and the apps used were broadly similar between men and women, both men and women claimed that the actual uses made of these technologies varied significantly.  Men were seen as using them more for business and playing games, whereas women used them more for online shopping, fashion and chatting with friends and relatives.  This was reinforced by the cultural context where women’s roles were still seen primarily as being to manage the household and look after the children, whereas men were expected to work, earning money to maintain their families.  It is very important to stress that variations in usage and access to technology were not always seen as an example of inequality, but were often rather seen as differences linked to Pakistan’s culture and social structure.

Such views are changing, but both men and women seemed to value this cultural context, with one person saying that “it is as it is”.  Moreover, there were strongly divergent views as to whether this was a result of patriarchy, and thus dominated by men.  Many people commented that although the head of the household, almost always a man, provided the dominant lead, it was also often the mothers who supported this or determined what happened within the household with respect to many matters, including the use of technology and education.

In the home, at school and university, and in the workplace

Within the home

Most respondents initially claimed that there was little difference in access to digital technologies between men and women in the home, although as noted above they did tend to use them in different ways.  When asked, though, who would use a single phone in a rural community most agreed that it would be a male head of household, and that if they got a second phone it would be used primarily by the eldest son.  Some, nevertheless, did say that it was quite common for women to be the ones who used a phone most at home.

Participants suggested that similar restrictions were placed on both boys and girls by their parents in the home.  However, men acknowledged that they knew more about the harm that could be done through the use of digital technologies, and so tended to be more protective of their daughters, sisters or wives.  Participants were generally unwilling to indicate precisely what harm was meant in this context, but some clarified that this could be harassment and abuse.[10] The perceived threats to girls and young women using digital technologies for illicit liaisons was also an underlying, if rarely specifically mentioned, concern for men.  There was little realisation though that it was men who usually inflicted such harm, and that a change of male behaviours would reduce the need for any such restrictions to be put in place.

A further interesting insight is that several of the women commented that their brothers are generally more knowledgeable than they are about technology, and that boys and men play an important role at home in helping their sisters and mothers resolve problems with their digital technologies.

At school and university

There was widespread agreement among both men and women that there was no discrimination at school in the use of digital technologies, and that both boys and girls had equal access to learning STEM subjects.  Nevertheless, it is clear that in some rural and isolated areas of Pakistan, as in Tharparkar, only boys go to school, and that girls remain marginalised by being unable to access appropriate education.

Boys in rural school in Tharparkar

Boys in rural school in Tharparkar

Furthermore, it was generally claimed that both girls and boys are encouraged equally to study STEM subjects at school, and can be equally successful.  Some people nevertheless commented that girls and boys had different learning styles and skill sets. Quite a common perception was that boys are more focused on doing a few things well, whereas girls try to do all of the tasks associated with a project and may not therefore be as successful in doing them all to a high standard.

There were, though, differing views about influences on the subjects studied by men and women at university.  Again, it was claimed that the educational institutions did not discriminate, but parents were widely seen as having an important role in determining the subjects studied at university by their children.  Providing men can gain a remunerative job, their parents have little preference over what degrees they study, but it was widely argued that traditionally women were encouraged to study medicine, rather than engineering or computer science.  Participants indicated that this is changing, and this was clearly evidenced by the number and enthusiasm of women computer scientists who participated in the focus groups.  Overall, most focus groups concluded with a view that generally men studied engineering whereas women studied medicine.

In the workplace

There is an extremely rapid fall-off in the number of women employed in the digital technology sector, even if it is true that there is little discrimination in the education system against women in STEM subjects.  At best, it was suggested that only a maximum of 10% of employees in tech companies were women.  Moreover, it was often acknowledged that women are mainly employed in sales and marketing functions in such companies, especially if they are attractive, pale skinned and do not wear a hijab or head-scarf.  This is despite the fact that many very able and skilled female computer scientists are educated at universities, and highly capable and articulate women programmers participated in the focus groups.

Women employed in the tech sector

Women employed in the tech sector in Pakistan

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly simply the cultural expectation that young women should be married in their early 20s and no later than 25.  This means that many women graduates only enter the workforce for a short time after they qualify with a degree. Over the last decade overall female participation in the workforce in Pakistan has thus only increased from about 21% to 24%, and has stubbornly remained stable around 24% over the last five years.[11]

Nevertheless, the focus groups drilled down into some of the reasons why the digital technology sector has even less participation of women in it than the national average.  Four main factors were seen as particularly contributing to this:

  • The overwhelming factor is that much of the tech sector in Pakistan is based on delivering outsourced functions for US companies. The need to work long and antisocial hours so as to be able to respond to requests from places in the USA with a 10 (EST) – 13 (PST) hour time difference was seen as making it extremely difficult for women who had household and family duties to be able to work in the sector.  There was, though, also little recognition that this cultural issue might be mitigated by permitting women to work from home.
  • Moreover, both men and women commented that the lack of safe and regular transport infrastructure made it risky for women to travel to and from work, especially during the hours of darkness. The extent to which this was a perceived or real threat was unclear, and there was little recognition that most threats to women are in any case made by men, whose behaviours are therefore still responsible.
  • A third factor was that many offices where small start-up tech companies were based were not very welcoming, and had what several people described as dark and dingy entrances with poor facilities. It was recognised that men tended not to mind such environments, because the key thing for them was to have a job and work, even though these places were often seen as being threatening environments for women.
  • Finally, some women commented that managers and male staff in many tech companies showed little flexibility or concerns over their needs, especially when concerned with personal hygiene, or the design of office space, As some participants commented, men just get on and work, whereas women like to have a pleasant communal environment in which to work.  Interestingly, some men commented that the working environment definitely improved when women were present.

It can also be noted that there are very few women working within the retail and service parts of the digital tech sector.  As the picture below indicates this remains an environment that is very male dominated and somewhat alienating for most women.

tech

Digital technology retail and service shops in Rawalpindi

Changing men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology

The overwhelming response from both men and women to our questions in the focus groups was that it is the culture and social frameworks in Pakistan that largely determine the fact that men and women use digital technologies differently and that there are not more women working in the tech sector.  Moreover, this was not necessarily seen as being a negative thing.  It was described as being merely how Pakistan is.  Many participants did not necessarily see it as being specifically a result of men’s attitudes and behaviours, and several people commented that women also perpetuate these behaviours.  Any fundamental changes to gender digital inequality will therefore require wider societal and cultural changes, and not everyone who participated in the focus groups was necessarily in favour of this.

It was, though, recognised that as people in Pakistan become more affluent, educated and urbanised, and as many adopt more global cultural values, things have begun to change over the last five years.  It is also increasingly recognised that the use of digital technologies is itself helping to shape these changed cultural values.

A fundamental issue raised by our research is whether or not the concern about gender digital equality in so-called “Western” societies actually matters in the context of Pakistan.  Some, but by no means all, clearly thought that it did, although they often seemed more concerned about Pakistan’s low ranking in global league tables than they did about the actual implications of changing male behaviour within Pakistani society.

Many of the participants, and especially the men, commented that they had never before seriously thought about the issues raised in the focus groups.  They therefore had some difficulty in recommending actions that should be taken, although most were eager to find ways through which the tech sector could indeed employ more women.  Both men and women were also very concerned to reduce the harms caused to women by their use of digital technologies.

The main way through which participants recommended that such changes could be encouraged were through the convening of workshops for senior figures in the tech sector building on the findings of this research, combined with much better training for women in technology about how best to mitigate the potential harm that can come to them through the use of digital technologies.

Following the main focus group questions, some of the participants expressed interest in seeing TEQtogether’s existing guidance notes.  Interestingly, they commented that many of the generalisations made in them were indeed pertinent in the Pakistani context, although some might need minor tweeking and clarification when translated into Urdu.

However, two specific recommendations for new guidance notes were made:

  • Tips for CEOs of digital tech companies who wish to attract more female programmers and staff in general; and
  • Guidance for brothers who wish to help their sisters and mothers gain greater expertise and confidence in the use of digital technologies.

These are areas that we will be working on in the future, and hope to have such guidance notes prepared in time for future workshops in Pakistan in the months ahead.

Several men commented that improving the working environment for women in tech companies, and enabling more flexible patterns of work would also go some way to making a difference.  Some  commented how having more women in their workplaces had already changed their behaviours for the better.

 

Acknowledgements

We are extremely grateful to colleagues in COMSATS University Islamabad (especially Dr. Tahir Naeem) and the University of Sindh (especially Dr. M.K. Khatwani) for facilitating and supporting this research.  We are also grateful to those in Riphah International University (especially Dr. Ayesha Butt) and Rawalpindi Women University (especially Prof Ghazala Tabassum), as well as those companies (Alfoze and Cavalier) who helped with arrangements for convening the focus groups.  Above all, we want to extend our enormous thanks to all of the men and women who participated so enthusiastically in this research.  It was an immense pleasure to work with you all.

 

[1] Sey, A. and Hafkin, N. (eds) (2019) Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Equality in Digital Access, Skills, and Leadership, Macau and Geneva: UNU-CS and EQUALS; OECD (2019) Bridging the Digital Gender Divide: Include, Upskill, Innovate, Paris: OECD;

[2] See for example the work of EQUALS which seeks to bring together a coalition of partners working to reduce gender digital equality.

[3] See for example, Manry, J. and Wisler, M. (2016) How male allies can support women in technology, TechCrunch; Johnson, W.B. and Smith, D.G. (2018) How men can become better allies to women, Harvard Business Review.

[4] Especial thanks are due to Silvana Cordero for her important contribution on the specific challenges of translation in Spanish in the Latin American context.

[5] Siegmann , K.A. (no date) The Gender Digital Divide in Rural Pakistan: How wide is it & how to bridge it? Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)/ISS; Tanwir, M. and Khemka, N. (2018) Breaking the silicon ceiling: Gender equality and information technology in Pakistan, Gender, Technology and Development, 22(2), 109-29; see also OECD (2019) Endnote 1.

[6] Gilwald, A. (2018) Understanding the gender gap in the Global South, World Economic Forum,

[7] Chauhan, K. (2014) Patriarchal Pakistan: Women’s representation, access to resources, and institutional practices, in: Gender Inequality in the Public Sector in Pakistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[8] This research builds on our previous research in Pakistan published as Hassan, B, and Unwin, T. (2017) Mobile identity construction by male and female students in Pakistan: on, in and through the ‘phone, Information Technologies and International Development, 13, 87-102; and Hassan, B., Unwin, T. and Gardezi, A. (2018) Understanding the darker side of ICTs: gender, harassment and mobile technologies in Pakistan, Information Technologies and International Development, 14, 1-17.

[9] All names will be listed with appreciation in reports submitted for publication.

[10] Our previous research (Hassan, Unwin and Gardezi, 2018) provides much further detail on the precise types of sexual abuse and harassment that is widespread in Pakistan.

[11] https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/Pakistan/Female_labor_force_participation/

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Digital technologies and climate change

The claim that the use of digital technologies is a solution for the problems of “climate change” and environmental sustainability is fundamentally flawed.[i] The creation of such technologies, and the interests that underlie their design and sale, are part of the problem rather than the solution.  An independent, comprehensive and holistic review of the environmental impact of such technologies therefore urgently needs to be undertaken.

A farm near Tartu in Estonia in the mid-1990s

This reflection brings together some of my previous comments on digital technologies and environmental change that have been scattered across different publications.[ii] It focuses on three main arguments, each addressed in a separate post:

  • Part I suggests that “Climate change” is a deeply problematic concept. Its widespread use, and the popular rhetoric surrounding it, may well be doing more harm than good as far as the environment is concerned
  • Part II argues that the current design and use of digital technologies are largely based on principles of un-sustainability, and are therefore having a seriously damaging impact on the environment.
  • Part III proposes that there is consequently an urgent need for a comprehensive and holistic audit of the impact of digital technologies on the environment.

Lest I be misunderstood in the arguments that follow, I believe passionately in the need for wise human guardianship of the environment in which we live.  Some of my previous research as a geographer[iii] has explicitly addressed issues commonly associated with “climate change”, and I have no doubt that humans are indeed influencing weather patterns across the globe.  However, “climate change” per se is not the problem.  Instead the problem is the behaviour of humans, and especially those in the richer countries of the world who wish to maintain their opulent lifestyles, not least through using the latest digital technologies.  “Climate change” is but a subset of wider and more fundamental issues concerned with the interactions between people and the environment.[iv]  Focusing simply on “climate change” takes our eyes off the most important problems.


[i] Typical of such claims is Ekholm, B. and Rockström, J. (2019) Digital technology can cut global emissions by 15%.  Here’s how, World Economic Forum.

[ii] See Unwin, T. (1992) The Place of Geography, Harlow: Longman; Owen, L. and Unwin, T. (eds) (1997) Environmental Management: Readings and Case Studies, Oxford: Blackwell; Unwin, T. (ed.) (2009) ICT4D: Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Cambridge: CUP; Unwin, T. (2010) Problems with the climate change mantra, 27 Jan 2010; Unwin, T. (2017) ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, in: Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU, 37-71; Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming information and communication technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.

[iii] See references above in footnote 2.

[iv] The interactions between people and the environment have long been part of the domain of Geography, and this reflection is thus largely constructed through a geographer’s lens (see footnote 2: Unwin, 1992)

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The running shoes, girls’ learning in Africa and the gecko: a fable

shoesOnce there was a brilliant young entrepreneur living in Africa.  Let us call him Alfred.  He wanted to make loads of money, but was also very committed to trying to improve the quality of girls’ learning and education.  One evening, drinking probably too much Tusker, Alfred had a stroke of inspiration.  What if he could persuade the government that giving girls high quality new running shoes would transform the quality of their learning experience, and thus their future job prospects.  This was an absolute no brainer.  The government would have to buy his trainers for every girl in the school system!

Children 1

Schoolgirls in Ghana

But how was he to start? Many international donors are eager to support such schemes that might contribute to achievements of SDGs4 (education) and 5 (gender).  So, he set about getting to know the heads of country office of some of the leading European donors, and learnt that at the heart of getting funding was the need to have a theory of change (well, really not a comprehensive “theory”, but just a basic description of how running shoes would improve girls’ learning).  This was easy: good quality running shoes would enable the girls to get fitter, and it is well known that a fit body creates a fit mind; then, if they ran to and from school each day they would have more time to do their homework; and with good shoes on their feet they would not suffer as many injuries or catch diseases that might impair their learning.  Alfred had to think of an inspiring name for these shoes, so that everyone would want a pair.  How about “Jepkosgei” after the great young Kenyan runner who had just won the New York Marathon?  She was very happy to lend her name to this incredibly exciting initiative that could transform girls’ learning.

Malawi classroom bright

A school classroom in Malawi

The stage was set.  His friends among the donors recommended a great European university research team who would do the baseline survey as part of one of their research grants, and then they would do a follow-up evaluation at the end of the first term.  The shoes would be randomly allocated to girls in classrooms in a small set of pilot schools, and the purpose was to show that giving girls smart new running shoes would indeed improve their results when compared with those in the classrooms that were not given the shoes.  At the end of term, the researchers returned.  Everyone was on best behaviour.  What would they discover?

The results were extraordinary.  In just one term, the girls had improved their scores by 20% in Mathematics and English.  The researchers checked and re-checked their resuts, but there was absolutely no doubt.  The President got to hear of Alfred’s great success, and eager to do well in the next elections he ordered all schools immediately to supply girls with Jepkosgei running shoes. Demand outstripped supply, but Alfred set up new factories to produce them, providing much needed employment and contributing to the country’s economic growth.  Soon neighbouring countries got to hear about the impact of running shoes on girls’ learning, and they too sent in orders for tens of thousands of shoes.  Alfred became a superstar.  He won numerous awards at prestigious international events, and was fêted by the likes of Bill Gates and António Guterres.  Alfred was an African hero transforming African girls’ learning.  Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before.  It was so simple.

Gecko 2

A friendly and wise gecko

Back at the school where this all began there was a wise old gecko.  He had watched and listened as the changes took place.  He knew why learning had changed.  When the girls had first been given their runing shoes they were so proud!  They were going to be like Joyciline Jepkosgei!  People were paying attention to them.  For the first time in their lives they had felt appreciated at school.  They wanted to respond positively.  But it wasn’t just this.  Other children in the school knew that if the pilot was a success, they too would be given smart new running shoes.  So, they did everything they could to help ensure that their peers with the shoes would learn especially well that term.  They did extra chores for them so they could concentrate on their work.  They provided advice and help when something wasn’t understood.  They gave them quizzes and checked they knew the right answers.  The teachers also wanted to ensure that these girls did really well as a result of the running shoes, and so they put extra effort into preparing their classes, and ensuring that the girls had the best opportunities to learn, despite the limited resources.  Some even helped them with the answers in the tests when the researchers came to evaluate the scheme.

It was all a wonderful success.  Alfred was happy and rich, the President was happy and re-elected, the donors were happy because they could show how they delivered on the SDGs.  But the girls weren’t happy, and their exam results gradually declined over the next few years.  Girls’ feet grow, and their lovely bright shoes were soon too small for them.  There was no way to hand them on or recycle them, and in any case after a couple of years continual use by their younger sisters they were wearing out.  The government couldn’t afford to buy new shoes for all the girls.  Once everyone had them, those who had been in the pilot no longer felt special, and no-one helped each other to try to improve results.  In any case, the government was now more interested in the 4th Industrial Revolution, and how they could use it to control their people and further advantage those who were already rich and powerful and living in the burgeoning constantly surveilled smart cities…

The gecko, though, continued to enjoy catching insects, and watching the children play.  Occasionally, he wistfully wondered why no-one had asked him how to improve girls education and learning.

Malawi school children small

A school in rural Malawi

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Short guides to literature on technology use in education: both the positives and the negatives…

Infant school

Infant school in Cocody, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Far too many initiatives using technology in education fail to learn from the experiences of others as they seek to be innovative and novel.  Consequently, the same mistakes tend to be replicated over and over again.  Far too many researchers likewise fail to read but a fraction of the vast literature that has been published on technology and education, and bibliographies in PhD theses in the field are increasingly often only sketchy at best.

In 2017 and 2018 I had the privilege of being asked to write a report for UNICEF on how the organisation might respond to the future interface between technology and learning.  This involved reading hundreds of reports, interviewing numerous people, and drawing on my experiences across the world over the last quarter of a century.  It made me realise how little I know, and how much still needs to be done.

However, in order to help others on this journey of discovery and learning, I thought it might be helpful to share a shortened version of the footnotes (34 sides) and a short summary bibliography (10 sides) that I included in that report.  Many of the links to the original literature or examples are included (please let me know if any are broken so that I can try to update them!).  Not least, I hope that this might reduce the flow of questions I receive from people beginning to get interested in the field, either for research or because they have a great idea that they would like to introduce in practice on the ground – most of whom have never actually read much before asking me the question!  These are but starting points on a lifetime of learning and discovery, but I hope that people may find them useful.

I have previously posted summaries of some of the content of my UNICEF report elsewhere on my Blog as follows:

I must stress that these are very much my own views, and in no way represent the opinions of UNICEF or those with whom I have previosuly worked.  They are offered here, though, to get us all to ask some of the difficult questions about ways through which some of the poorest and most marginalised can benefit from the use of technology in education, if indeed that will ever truly be possible (at least in a relative sense).

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Failures and corruption in DFID’s education programme in Pakistan

DFID’s much-vaunted education programme in Pakistan has been beset by problems since its very beginning.  Many of these issues could have been avoided if people responsible had listened to the voices of those on the ground who were working in the education systems and schools in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  Those responsible for designing and implementing the flawed programme need to be identified, and take responsibility for their actions.  Many are still in highly paid and “respected” roles in private consultancy companies that are at risk of delivering such failed projects over and over again unless they are stopped.

A recent report in the Financial Times (by Bethan Staton and Farhan Bokhari, 24th August 2019) has gone largely unreported elsewhere, as a coalition of silence continues over this failure and corruption in a prestigious DFID programme.  As their report begins, “Buildings in more than nine in 10 schools in Pakistan delivered under a £107m project funded by the UK’s Department for International Development are not fit for purpose, leaving 115,000 children learning in makeshift classrooms as a new academic year begins”.  Some 1,277 out of the 1,389 schools that were meant to have been built or renovated are potentially at risk from structural design flaws, which put them at risk of collapse in earthquakes.  Pakistan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world and has had six major earthquakes over 6 Mw in the last decade.  The earthquake in October 2005 killed over 86,000 people, and set in train various initiatives to try to ensure that schools were indeed built to protect children in earthquakes.

The UK government has responded quickly to the FT’s report, with the new Secretary of State, Alok Sharma, saying that this is unacceptable and the contracting company would be retrofitting all affected classrooms at no extra cost to the taxpayer.  Stephen Twigg, the chair of the House of Commons International Development Select Committee, has also pledged to investigate this as part of an inquiry into the impact and delivery of aid in Pakistan.

However, all of this could have been avoided if earlier warnings had been heeded, especially from people in Pakistan on the ground who really knew what was going on.  The suspicion is that those who designed and benefitted from the programme thought that they could get away with benefitting personally from these contracts.  Yet again, suspicion falls on the probity of “international development consultants” and “implementing agencies”.  As a very good Pakistani friend said to me, “follow the money”.  So I have!

I first warned about problems with DFID funded education projects in Pakistan following a visit there in 2016.  I raised my concerns in a post in May of that year entitled Education reform in Pakistan: rhetoric and reality, and shared these with colleagues in DFID, but was assured that this was a prestigious DFID programme that was above reproach and was delivering good work.  My comments were, I was told, mere heresay.

That post ended with the following words:

“The main thing that persuaded me to write this piece was a Facebook message I received this morning, that then suddenly disappeared.  It read:

“It is true though Tim Unwin.  What is really pathetic is that neither Dfid nor Sindh/Punjab government are made accountable for those children whose education will discontinue after this debacle. Education Fund for Sindh boasted enrolling 100 thousand out of school kids. Overnight the project and project management has vanished, website dysfunctional…Poof and all is gone. There is no way to track those children and see what’s happening to their education”

This is so very sad.  We need to know the truth about educational reform in Pakistan – and indeed the role of donors, the private sector and richly paid consultants – in helping to shape this.   I cannot claim that what I have been told is actually happening on the ground, but I can claim that this is a faithful record of what I was told”.

I wish I knew why the words were taken down; perhaps the author did not want to be identified.  More importantly, I wish that people in DFID had listened to them.

My earlier post alluded to the coalition of interests in international development between individual consultants, global corporations, local companies, and government officials.  Let me now expand on this.

  • McKinsey, Pearson, Delivery Associates and Sir Michael Barber.  Barber is curently chairman and founder of Delivery Associates (among other roles) and was in many ways the mind behind DFID’s recent educational work in Pakistan.  From 2011-2015 he was DFID’s Special Representative on Education in Pakistan (as well as Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, 2011-2017), and in 2013 he wrote an enthusastic report entitled The Good News from Pakistan: How a revolutionary new approach to education reform shows the way forward for Pakistan and development aid everywhere, which explored in particular ways through which expansion in low-cost private sector educational delivery might spur the government to reform itself (pp.49-50).  However, as the Mail Online pointed out Barber was paid £4,404 a day for his advice.  As this source goes on to point out, “Sir Michael was handed the deal 18 months ago as part of a wider contract with management consultants McKinsey.  Originally McKinsey was planning to charge £7,340 a day for Sir Michael’s advice on improving Pakistan’s education system over 45 days, making a total of £330,300.  Overall, four consultants were to be paid £910,000 for 250 days’ work, although this was reduced to £676,720 after the firm agreed a ‘social sector discount’, which took Sir Michael’s daily rate to £5,505. A fellow director was paid the same rate while two ‘senior consultants’ were paid £2,350 a day”.  There is no doubt that Barber played a key role in shaping DFID’s educational policies in Pakistan and was paid “handsomely” for it.  The 2016 review of the PESP (II) (Punjab Education Support Programme) clearly describes his involement: “More formally, the bi-monthly stocktake of the Roadmap provides a high-level forum to discuss a range of key education indicators (such as student attendance and missing facilities) with the CM, Secretary Education and Sir Michael Barber, as the UK Special Representative for Education in Pakistan”.
  • IMC Worldwide, the main contractor.  The British Company IMC Worldwide won the main contract for delivering much of DFID’s school building programme in Pakistan, and continues to claim on its website that the project is a great success (as noted on a screenshot of its home page earlier today, shown below).

Screenshot 2019-08-30 at 18.04.25

This goes on to highlight their success in improving up to 1500 classrooms, with videoclips emphasising in particular their use of reinforced foundations, innovative use of Chinese Brick Bond, preserving history through innovations, and building community engagement.  It is, though, worth remembering that the Punjab Education Support Programme PESP (II) January 2016 review commented that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform. This was due in part to a delay in legal registration of IMC Worldwide (the international private sector implementing partner) in Pakistan. Unit costs have also risen dramatically since the last Annual Review and work is behind the original schedule. The quality of construction in the classrooms that have been completed is encouraging”.  In hindsight, the quality of work would appear to have been anything but encouraging!

  • Humqadan-SCRP, the local initiative.  IMC needed to implement the programme through local contractors, and this led to the creation of Humqadan-SCRP.  The implementation phase started in May 2015 as a five year programme funded by DFID and the Australian government, and managed by IMC Worldwide.  It is very difficult to find out details about exactly who is involved in delivering the construction work on the ground (closed tenders are listed here).  Its newsletters in 2017 and 2018 mentioned that Herman Bergsma was the team leader, although he has now been replaced (his predecessor was Roger Bonner).

Screenshot 2019-08-30 at 18.44.44

As with the IMC site, Humqadan’s media centre page above indicates great success for the initiative.  However, local media in Pakistan has occasionally reported problems and challenges with the work.  In December 2017, Dawn thus highlighted the case of a school building being demolished in 2015, but still remaining to be reconstructed.  More worrying, though, are suggestions that IMC may have failed sufficiently to do quality checks, and had challenges in ensuring that local contractors were paid appropriately and on time; there are even claims that IMC may have sought to keep much of the money for themselves.  DFID’s July 2016 annual report for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Sector Programme (KESP) perhaps gives some credence to such rumours, noting that “Just before the finalisation of last year’s KESP annual review, Humqadam flagged to DFID an expected increase in their costs for construction and rehabilitation, but the detail was not clear at the time of publication. Humqadam subsequently confirmed that after going out to the market for the construction work, several cost drivers were significantly higher than in their original estimates. This had the effect of approximately doubling average classroom construction costs from PKR 450,000 (£2,813) to PKR 950,000 (£5,938)”.  The Pakistani construction sector is notoriously problematic and anyone the least bit familiar with the country should know the importance of good and rigorous management processes to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained.  A doubling of costs, though, seems remarkable; even more remarkable is DFID’s apparent acceptance of this.

  • The donor’s role, DFID.  DFID’s regular reports on progress with the project are mixed.  Ever since the beginning, they have tended to over-emphasise the successes, while underestimating the failures. That having been said, it is important to emphasise that some attempts have been made by DFID to grapple with these issues.  As I noted in my earlier post relating to the Punjab Education Support Programme (PESP II): “DFID’s Development Tracker page suggests that there was a substantial over-spend in 2013/14, and a slight underspend in 2015/16, with 2014/15 being just about on budget.  Moreover, DFID’s most recent review of the project dated January 2016 had provided an overall very positive account of the work done so far, although it did note that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform” (p.2)“.  The July 2016 KESP report likewise noted that “Over the 12 months since the last KESP review, DFID has responded by strengthening its management of the Humqadam contract to increase scrutiny and oversight. The team produced an enhanced monitoring strategy and commissioned a Third Party Verification (TPV) contract to verify that this intervention still represented value for money.”  It is nevertheless remarkable that the programme score for this programme increased from C in 2012, to B in 2013 and 2014, and then A from 2015 to 2016.  As far as DFID is concerned it was indeed therefore being successful.  Not insignificantly, though, the risk rating rose from High from 2012-2015 to Major in 2016.  Unfortunately there is no mention of Humqadan in the first Performance Evaluation of DFID’s Punjab Education Sector Programme (PESP2), published in 2019.  On balance, some aspects of the overall programme would indeed appear to be going well, but DFID’s monitoring processes would seem to have failed to pick up a potentially catastrophic failure in actual delivery on the ground.

This is clearly a complex and difficult situation, but above all two things stand out as being extremely sad:

  • Children on the ground in desperate need of good learning opportunities seem to have been failed, since so many new school buildings appear not to have been built to the appropriate standards; and
  • DFID’s reputation as one of the world’s leading bilateral donors has been seriously tarnished, whether or not the scale of construction failure is as high as the FT article suggests.

All of these problems could have been resolved if:

  • greater care had been taken in the design of the programme in the first place;
  • greater attention had been focused on the problems picked up in the annual reporting process;
  • greater scrutiny had been paid to the work of the consultancy companies and local contractors; and
  • greater efffort had been expended on monitoring local progress and quality delivery on the ground.

Above all, if senior DFID staff had listened more to concerns from Pakistanis working on the ground in rural areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and had been less concerned about portraying its success as a donor agency, then these problems might never have arisen in the first place.  Yet again the coalition of interests of donor governments, international consultants and their companies and corporations, seem to have dominated the views and lives of those that they purport to serve.

If the Financial Times report is true, and the scale of incompetence and possible corruption is indeed as high as is claimed, I hope that DFID will take a very serious look at its processes, and ensure that those who have taken British taxpayers’ money for their own personal gain are never permitted to do so again.

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Filed under Education, ICTs, Pakistan, poverty, technology, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Africa, Development, Education, ICT4D, Inequality

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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Filed under Conferences, Dance, ICT4D, Latin America, My Lectures, Photographs, research, SDGs, United Nations, Universities

The gendered language of ICTs and ICT4D

I have long pondered about writing on the gendering of language in the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), but have always hesitated because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.  However, I feel that the time is now right to do so following the recent launch of our initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of men in the ICT/tech sector (TEQtogether).  This post may offend some people, but I hope not.  It is an issue that needs addressing if we are truly to grapple with the complexities of gender in ICT4D.

The way we use language both expresses our underlying cognition of the world, and also shapes that world, especially in the minds of those who read or hear us.  My observation is that in the ICT field most writers and practitioners have been blind to this gendering of language, and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualisation of ICT4D.  Four very different examples can be used to highlight this:

  • The gendering of electronic parts. For a very considerable time, electronic parts have been gendered.  Take, for example, male and female connectors.  This is summarised graphically in the populist but communal Wikipedia entry on the subject: “In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, each half of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The “female” connector is generally a receptacle that receives and holds the “male” connector … The assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and heterosexual sex; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male in contrast to the part containing the corresponding indentations, or fitting outside the other, being designated female. Extension of the analogy results in the verb to mate being used to describe the process of connecting two corresponding parts together”.  Not only are different electronic parts gendered, but such gendering leads to an association with heterosexual intercourse – mating.  Interestingly, in digital systems, it is usually the male part that is seen as being “active”: keyboards and mice (male) are the active elements “plugged into” a female socket in a computer.  Yet, in reality it is the processing IMG_3261power of the computer (perhaps female) that is actually most valued.  Moreover, the use of USB “sticks”, often phallic in shape, can be seen as a clear example of this male/female gendering associated with heterosexual sex.  The use of such sticks to infect computers with viruses can also, for example, be likened to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in humans.  The shift away from the use of such male and female connectors to the increasingly common use of WiFi and Bluetooth can in turn perhaps be seen as one way through which this gendering might be being broken down, although much more research needs to be done to explore the gendering of all aspects of digital technologies.
  • The use of language in ICT4D.  Far too often the language associated with the use of technology in international development carries with it subconscious, and (hopefully) usually unintended, meanings.  In the light of the above discussion, the DIGITAL-IN-2018-003-INTERNET-PENETRATION-MAP-V1.00widely used term “Internet penetration” is, for example, hugely problematic.  The “desire” to increase Internet penetration in poorer parts of the world can thus be interpreted as a largely male, north American and European wish sexually to “penetrate” and “conquer” weaker female countries and cultures.  Whereas normally countries are “seduced” into accepting such Internet penetration, the forceful and violent approach sometimes adopted can be akin to rape, an analogy that is occasionally applied to the entire process of imperialism and its successor international development when considered to be exploitative of “weaker” countries or economies.  The implication of this is  not only that great care is needed in the choice of particular words or phrases, but also that the complex subconscious and gendered structures that underlie our understanding of technology and development need to be better understood.   For those who think this too extreme a view, why don’t we just talk about the spread of the Internet, or Internet distribution?
  • Digital technologies represented by male nouns. At a rather different level, languages that differentiate between male and female nouns often consider ICTs to be male.  Thus, a computer is un ordinateur in French, ein Computer in German, un computer in Italian and un ordenador in Spanish.  Likewise a mobile phone is un téléphone portable in French, ein Handy in German, un cellurlare in Italian, and un celular in Spanish.  Not all ICTs are male (it is, for example, une micropuce for a microchip in French), but it seems that in languages derived from Latin the majority are.  The implications of this for the mental construction of technologies in the minds of different cultures are profound.
  • Computer code: bits and qubits.  Computer code is usually based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually represented by 0 and 1.  Binary codes assign patterns of binary digits (or bits) to any character or instruction, and data are encoded into bit strings.  The notions of male and female are similarly a binary distinction.  However, it is now increasingly realised that such a simple binary division of gender and sexuality is inappropriate.  The recognition of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning) identities challenges the traditional notions of binary distinctions that have long held sway in scientific thinking.  In particular, it can be seen as being closely isomorphic with many concepts of quantum computing, most notably the use of quantum bits (qubits) that can be in superpositions of states, in which any quantum states can be superposed (added together) to produce another valid quantum state.  This fluidity of gender, paralleling new notions in quantum computing, is particularly exciting, and may be one way through which the traditional maleness of ICTs and digital technologies may be fragmented.

These are but four examples of how the language of ICTs can be seen to have been traditionally gendered. They also point to some potential ways through which such gendering might be fragmented, or perhaps changed.  For some this will be unimportant, but let me challenge them.  If a largely male ICT or digital world is being constructed in part through the way that it is being spoken about (even by women), is it surprising that it is difficult to engage and involve women in the tech sector?  If we want to encourage more women into the  sector, for all the undoubted skills and benefits that they can bring, then surely we can all rethink our use of language to make the world of ICT4D less male dominated.

Finally, it is good to see that some of these issues are now being considered seriously by academics in a range of fields.  For those interested in exploring some of these ideas further, I would strongly recommend that they also read papers on gendering robots such as:

See also the following interesting article from a UK civil service (Parliamentary Digital Service) perspective on gender and language:

And thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this interesting link from the BBC:

 

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Filed under Gender, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, language