Organizing Map Kibera

by: January 19th, 2011 comments: 1

Back in October 2009, Erica and myself explicitly intended to NOT start a new organization in Kibera, a place awash with hundreds of NGOs and CBOs. Now in January 2011, we are two of four (growing to seven) Trustees on the Board of the Map Kibera Trust, a Kenyan based organization with staff and over 30 participants in three programs and a national outlook. How the heck did we get here? I wanted to explore a bit of the history, social process and discussion that went into the formation of the Trust, and in a later post outside this series, will give a full introduction to how the Trust is structured and operates.

Early during the first phase, it was clear sustainability would be an issue. Without some organization or network to keep the torch moving, the work Map Kibera started in October-December 2009 would stop there. The participants, while enthusiastic and skilled, are mostly young and had their own individual priorities. They didn’t have experience forming organizations, and as soon will be clear, neither did Erica or myself! We had maybe hoped that the “community” would pick this up, but with such a new kind of activity, there wasn’t a natural home that immediately had capacity.

Our first response was in December 2009 to present the issue to the mappers, and ask them to discuss and self-organize in our absence over January. They needed to take the lead, to take ownership, and we would help support them in the process. On our return in February, we found things hadn’t gone smoothly. The group didn’t have a single strong direction or vision, egos were colliding to take control, and our Kenyan partners at SODNET had been called in to mediate. We, being the initial leaders, needed to provide direction in the process, clearly present the vision, and at the same time balance that with empowering the group to lead. And, we were already getting ready to start training in online media and video in Kibera to expand on the toolset available, as well as work on deeper issue-based mapping. A tricky, tricky, ongoing process.

We started in discussion with the mappers, the intention being to support them to create whatever vehicle they needed to move forward. There was consensus around starting formal registration, and building an organization that had national scope and could do a variety of things, including crucially provide some level of support for the individuals. After examining a number of different types of organizations, like NGO, community based organization, and society, the group settled on a Trust as best fitting our needs and being relatively easy to set up. With that mandate, we formed a working group of Philip (from SODNET), Douglas (mapper), Jane (Map Kibera administrator) and myself, and began to meet to work on the nitty gritty. That meant hiring a lawyer, drafting a Trust Deed, selecting and inviting Trustees according to criteria, deciding a structure and draft a Constitution, terms of reference for Trustees and Advisor, HR policy, partnership policy, financial policy. We soon decided to invite ongoing friends of Map Kibera Kepha Ngito and Douglas Ragan to join the Board of Trustees.

On top of all that, we had the activities of Phase 2 moving full steam, and the full expansion of the project into Voice of Kibera and Kibera News Network. We were all busy, and communication broke down on the progress of the Trust. Though by August 2010 we had made decent progress, the participants were beginning to grumble – especially since by now there were three young programs and things seemed to be changing at a fast pace. We hastily organized a meeting of all the participants, had excellent team-building activities led by Rosie from Community Cleaning Services, and introduced the Organizational Overview we had created for the Trust. But when it came to the detailed discussion of the Trust, it was perhaps too little too late for clarity.

The Mappers felt the remit of the Trust had widened to include the new programs (Voice of Kibera and KNN) without their consent, while the other groups felt the Trust was a structure set in stone, making them beholden somehow to the Mappers. There was a feeling that the Trust was more driven by myself and Erica then the guys from Kibera. We felt we had carefully communicated the purpose of the Trust, and especially, that we wanted to co-develop the organization of the Trust with everyone, but on reflection we’ve seen how our words and actions were in conflict. We know well now that ambiguity and open-endedness is not something easy to communicate to the youth of Kenya. When dealing with “figures of authority”, and lacking experience, the usual expectation is to be told what to do, very clearly. The conflicting needs of our organizational development required input and ownership from everyone, but also very strong guidance to produce what’s expected. We had also been in something of a conundrum, since we had created a partnership with Unicef for Phase 2 and made plans to move ahead on activities, sending a message that we were still in charge. Yet we wanted the group to start taking more ownership of the project.

We pushed forward, and there was no better time for the focus groups and reflections with Sammy Misoyuki, which helped air all this out in a productive way. Kepha stepped up to really make clear what this Trust thing was all about. While those discussions didn’t quash all uncertainties that the Trust was indeed working in their interest, it set things in the right direction for a productive, bottom-up structuring. By bottom-up, we emphasized that the Trust is set up to support the programs, and rather than being explicitly told what to do, the programs themselves are responsible for devising their own vision and mission, activities, budgets, membership policies, structures, and in iteration with the coordinators, come to a workable structure.  Perhaps this is more difficult in the short term, but in the long term a more resilient and empowered organization. Even now, we are looking at how to structure a program of training in the skills needed for planning an organization, and required deliverables, to get into a solid place; while the guys are probably wondering again if the Trust has packed its bags along with Erica and I.

Meanwhile, we finally got agreement that all three programs were going to have equal say and participation in a coordinating body for the Trust, but could still manage themselves independently in terms of their internal structure or operations. There was a lot of back and forth on this but I think we finally got everyone to see how working together could be more beneficial than creating three separate organizations. This was eye-opening for us since we easily saw the links between video, Voice of Kibera, and mapping – we tend to live in an online interconnected virtual world. On the ground in Kibera, the tendency is more to mark off your territory and huddle together with those you trust.

If the this wasn’t enough, we also experienced outrageous problems with our “lawyer” – who ran off with our registration fees without even filing properly – and had to make a very late switch for someone more reliable. Caveat emptor.

Yes, it’s been a lot of back and forth, between the initiators and the participants. Perhaps that’s the only way to proceed, with everyone’s inexperience in this (especially our own), and the terrifically difficult balance this kind of development engagement and relationship requires. I sincerely appreciate everyone’s patience and energy to this process … it hasn’t been easy.

The usual procedure is for some kind of founders to form the organization, set up the mission and operations of the group, and then do activities. We did it backwards. We started with a big splash of an activity, and then founded an organization of necessity, and that led to confusion. I still think this is a wise direction to proceed, to build off of real work before formalizing and ask trainees to envision what they want and need. We’ve actually gone a lot further in our thinking now, by thinking along with  IDS and Sammy Muyoki about how participatory development can work with new technology in communities. However, we’ve learned from this experience and from the reflection in the study that serious thought and preparation must be given to what happens after we (GroundTruth) are invited to initiate an activity, and leave, as our role is of necessity not long term. In Mathare, the Map Kibera Trust and Ground Truth have clearly engaged a network of groups prior to start, and explicitly told them to think of how they can maintain the activities after March, with the ongoing linkage but not ownership by us. We are eager to see how this open-ended future forms!

This post is part of a series exploring the ideas and issues that have emerged in our research project with Institute of Development Studies, supported by DFID. All posts from the Map Kibera team, the researchers from IDS, our trainers and colleagues are collected here. As always, we are eager to discuss this work, so we hope to hear your comments.

Open Source Values and Realities

by: January 18th, 2011 comments: 2

Map Kibera, and especially the reflection part of our research with IDS and DFID, has finally changed assumptions that have led my work for the past five years. Open Source software development, and its progeny in collaborative media and especially OpenStreetMap, are all guided by core values. My assumption has been that these values are so powerful and inherent in the practice of engaging with these technologies, that they can overcome the gaps international development attempts (but often misses) to bridge. Turns out, maybe obviously to non-technologists, that technology rapidly adapts to different cultural contexts and individual conditions, and those vital values can be lost without a well-thought-out methodology of working in new communities.

Open Source is transparent in its operations, requires collaboration among very different kinds of actors, requires self-motivation and a spirit of volunteerism, and is a true meritocracy. Anyone can participate, and the results are available to everyone. This is ensured by open source software licenses, and backed up by well-developed communities of practice. These ideas have influenced the formation of the Web, and Web 2.0, participatory projects like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap. In OpenStreetMap, we are completely driven by individual contribution, and ideally the most expert mapper is anyone who knows their home and neighborhoods well. When it comes to international development, engaging within an open source approach means valuing the individual, trusting them inherently, making sure they benefit from giving something away, and opening up new opportunities. Transparency has potential to improve the efficiency and accountability of international development, which too often operates business as usual, opaque with its finances and its results. Personally, this potential has taken me to India, Palestine, and influenced my involvement in the HOT response in Haiti.

We’ve had some success this way, but for this to really work, it takes a lot more context. I’m reminded of my disillusionment with Artificial Intelligence. The idea is that human-like thinking and knowledge-grappling can by engineered entirely from algorithms, separate from the entire physical, emotional, social experience of being a human being. The view is that “Intelligence” is something separate from its emergence in human beings, and can be transplanted to another context completely. Whatever. When you realize that computers can’t even successfully replicate the intelligent workings of an insect, and that insects are actually very complicated, you start to appreciate not only the complexity of the entire system, but its absolute necessity. In my case it led me to study emergent systems.

Open Source is a lot like that. It emerged from a particular cultural domain and we’re still learning how it will adapt to other contexts. I particularly find interesting the interaction of 1960s American counterculture, American expansionism, and early Silicon Valley, explored in What the Doormouse Said. We’re free and we can do what we want … with the machines! Douglas Englebart, the pioneer of making computers humanly approachable, had plenty of time in hippie hot tubs in the woods above Palo Alto. The Homebrew Computer Club pranksters believed in openly sharing knowledge (even if some of them founded secretive Apple). And as the meme of open source spread out of the States to Finland, Germany, India, wherever, it has had to find suitable grounding in a culture which supports these sames values in some form. Any kind of endeavor, including participation in Open Source, needs to be tied to someone’s personal motivation, and often the motivation for hacking into the night or writing Wikipedia articles is to stand out and show off, do something never done before, to contribute something important after the drudgery of everyday needs are taken care of.

Kenya and Kibera are certainly entrepreneurial places, but so different from freewheeling San Francisco. We’ll talk about the challenges facing individual participants in other posts, but broadly, the prime concern is on day to day survival, and there’s little space for frivolous activities. Especially if you are working with foreigners, the community expectation is that you are banking it today, not necessarily contributing to growth for the entire community in the future. People operate in groups, are used to face-to-face communication and are most comfortable working in teams. Standing out from the group and taking personal initiative is an exposure risk that is usually too great. Transparency is still viewed as a risk by organizations operating in Kibera; even if they see the value, they face a prisoner’s dilemma of possible short term loss by giving away their details. Certainly personal motivation is more oriented towards finding immediate economic opportunity. There are other intangible motivations for participating in such a project, such as acceptance as equals in OpenStreetMap, on Youtube, as colleagues in Nairobi and international conferences. However, they’re usually not the same rewards that motivated those who started the Open Source movement or those who keep it going in the rich world, today.

There’s a hierarchy of needs, and I guess a hierarchy of open source needs. Just introducing a participatory technology doesn’t lead to participatory development. It doesn’t mean open source isn’t the right or appropriate choice for technology, it usually is. However, it must be embedded within another context and methodology that accounts for the much more vital and complex lives and social scene. The challenge will be to show that the opportunity to share freely is so important, as the urgency to address poverty is so high and a barrier as simple as information should be easily hurdled. In the Kenyan context and culture, the focus of open source work is much more on well functioning groups and networks, rather than individuals, who need a supportive space within which to express their individual motivation. And when forming such groups or networks, meritocracy in the technology must be matched by meritocracy in participation in the program as a whole. For participants, the opportunity for real influence on how a project operates is key, with the ultimate goal of ownership. As ever, we don’t have all the answers, but especially through this research, we have learned that we have to find ways to keep listening and adapting.

This post is part of a series exploring the ideas and issues that have emerged in our research project with Institute of Development Studies, supported by DFID. All posts from the Map Kibera team, the researchers from IDS, our trainers and colleagues are collected here. As always, we are eager to discuss this work, so we hope to hear your comments.

Map Kibera has become a Research Subject. Happily!

by: November 24th, 2010 comments: 3

This past month, Map Kibera became a research subject. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

With all the excitement (or hype) around technology and mapping in development, there has apparently been very little academic or solid web based research into the challenges faced when applying the methodologies of participatory technologies to participatory development and aid (excepting a few highly valued voices like Paul and Linda). Basically, what will make you pull your hair out when trying to bring Open Source to the Whole Wide World? We’ve long recognized our own shortcomings in Map Kibera, and make no effort to hide them, but we have lacked an objective and constructive critical view. It’s so difficult to find critics of our project, that I was contacted to possibly provide the dissenting view to the recent BBC World Service report on Map Kibera based on this blog post!

What especially interested us about working with Evangelia Berdou from IDS and Samuel Musyoki from Plan was that the research was designed to not be extractive, resulting in research papers only for the eyes of academics, but to be immediately practically useful for the program itself. Evangelia and Sammy conducted interviews and focus groups with just about everyone, and wrapped up with a general meeting with representatives from all facets of Map Kibera to present the results together. It’s totally appropriate to call this group therapy! Sammy did a masterful job at drawing out honest reflections on the past year with just a little prompting, and I will be keeping the small trick of passing a literal baton between tight lipped participants to get them to open up. The focus groups were followed up with an incredible 3 day workshop on understanding learning, so that everyone is prepared for training others in Mathare and elsewhere.

One year on. It was the second Monday of November 2009 that we started mapping. Kenyatta Day (now Mashujaa Day) marked our official one year presence in Kenya. It was only supposed to be one month to start, then four months, now one year! Looking back over the past year, honestly so much has been accomplished, it’s staggering. With a small informal and fluctuating initiating team, and eager and motivated young people, Map Kibera has done incredible work and made huge waves. I think we demonstrated that the technology and the training totally work. What we continue to struggle with is everything else! The sticking points are the social and organizational dimensions of the introduction of this technology, but maybe more crucially ourselves as newcomers, to an extremely complicated community with a complicated relationship to the international community.

There’s much to reflect on the topics of Money, Organization, Expectations, Communication, Commitment and more. Each of these deserves at least a post in themselves, and I’ll return to these and others to dig into what we’ve learned about making open source work for development.

This post is part of a series exploring the ideas and issues that have emerged in our research project with Institute of Development Studies, supported by DFID. All posts from the Map Kibera team, the researchers from IDS, our trainers and colleagues are collected here. As always, we are eager to discuss this work, so we hope to hear your comments.

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