Links & Contents I Liked 168

Hi all,

Welcome to the final link review of 2015! 

This one is a bit longer (the Internet apparently does not have holidays…) with plenty of good reads for the long weekend!

In Development we look at supply and demand for data in a donor dominant world; community-driven reconstruction in Nepal; indigenous communities vs. ICT4D in Costa Rica; how bad is microcredit for Africa?; IKEA shelters may not reinvent refugee accommodation; photographing ‘Africa’.
Our Digital Lives looks at the college dropouts-turned Thiel fellows; feminist data visualization; COP21 & data; Twitter bots as activism.
In Academia a Harvard medical professor talks privilege; Elsevier’s new African open access science journal; the rise of hype language in academic publishing; another reminder why US for-profit colleges suck.


New from aidnography

My development blogging & communication review 2015

Development news

2015 Humanitarian year in pictures

Here is our pick of the best pictures of 2015, covering major events from the European migrant crisis and devastating earthquake in Nepal to the war in Yemen and spiraling violence in Burundi.
A good overview from Thomson Reuters Foundation on major events and longer-term crises around the globe.

Evidence based policy or policy based evidence? Supply and demand for data in a donor dominant world

Local demand for data needs to come into focus. A statistical office is only sustainable if it serves local needs for information. The development community needs to remember that demanding evidence for policy means investing in accountability of the evidence-makers. Obtaining data is not a technocratic exercise but rather one of building institutions. Statistical offices are first and foremost institutions that provide information to promote a discourse between citizens and states. We should spend more resources to find out which data matters for the citizens of these countries.
Morten Jerven reminds us (once again) that good data come with good people and good institutions!

Who Is Really Putting Nepal Back Together?

The lesson in all of these smaller successes is that an existing social infrastructure and a trusted community hub can empower local citizens to organize and act nimbly. This is not something that happens overnight, particularly in countries where people have many unmet needs and governments have a long history of being unable — or in some cases uninterested — in meeting them.
Addressing community needs effectively — and building the sense of civic engagement that is necessary to sustain such activities over time — is time-consuming.
It is even more useful to highlight sustainable, low-cost, community-led models that come from within nations in need — and help them understand that they have more power to transform their own communities than they or the rest of the world had realized.
Kristin Lord and Tina Sciabica are pointing out important, albeit not exactly novel, lessons learned from community-led reconstruction in Nepal. But particularly in Nepal these lessons have been learned, shared and applied for many decades and yet poverty and 'underdevelopment' are still widespread and deep-rooted. And as much as I appreciate the role and value of community-driven efforts, aren't these just band-aids or are they really 'putting Nepal back together'?

Secret aid worker: working in a war zone I never thought I'd get trolled online

I never knew why these were sent – only that they affected me terribly. Even after I had finally shut my laptop and gone to bed they persisted long after I had closed my eyes. Crucially, at no point did I report what I was experiencing to my organisation. The attacks were directed toward my own account and even though they were clearly related to my work, they felt very personal.
Humanitarianism has always had a very blurred line between personal and professional. When you’re out on a posting for months at a time your colleagues often become friends, work/life balance is an abstract concept, and your role as ambassador for your country/NGO/all NGOs never really goes away.
Nowadays that role extends to our social profiles, and this can be dangerous ground that we are ill-prepared to deal with. Cyber abuse is just one possibility; inadvertently revealing programme locations in sensitive areas, or espousing political views not affiliated with our NGO are just some of the other pitfalls that await us.
By and large, I find development-related social media exchanges more nuanced, polite and less prone for trolling and cyber-bullying than many other areas of 'the Internet'. But organizations need to be better prepared and prepare staff better to ensure 'digital well-being' while they are in the field and exposed to the toxic fringes of the digital world.

Why Aren’t Costa Rica’s Indigenous Students Graduating?

The Bríbri are referred to as the “hidden people” of Costa Rica. It’s only been in recent decades that economic necessity has led the historically isolated community into developed areas of Talamanca, the province in which they live. This contact has exposed Yorkín to an unprecedented amount of information—and not all of it is welcomed. The rise of technology in Costa Rican society is the cause of mounting concern among some local community leaders as the next generation of Bríbri spend more time on their cellphones than with their school books. And the tech phenomenon may be having an unanticipated effect on the community: Many locals, academics, and activists suspect it helps explain why Yorkin’s high school hasn’t had a graduation ceremony in several years.
Rebecca Gibian and Diana Crandall write a detailed and nuanced insight into what happens when 'tech' meets 'indigenous cultures' and carefully weigh the pros and cons; neither will mobile phones or 'the Internet' liberate remote peoples nor can they simply be ignored in a quest to preserve an often romanticized idea of a 'hidden culture'. Highly recommended read for the ICT4D community!

Africa: How Microcredit Has Hurt the Poor and Destroyed Informal Business

There are three main reasons why the expansion of microcredit has helped preclude the emergence of a growth-oriented local economic structure in Africa.
First, the arrival of microcredit induced the over supply of tiny "buy cheap, sell dear" trading operations. This, predictably, led to:
very high levels of displacement - jobs killed in other competing microenterprises, and exit - many more failed microenterprises.
Second, the financial sector in Africa has switched into supporting the much more profitable microcredit sector. Informal microenterprises and consumption spending get support. Formal small and medium businesses don't. They are much riskier and can only pay low interest rates. But they are much more important in reducing poverty and underpinning longer term development.
So we find a perverse situation. The more productive formal small and medium business sector is starved of financial support. Meanwhile the hugely unproductive informal microenterprise sector is being stuffed full of microcredit.
Third, the market share grabbed by rafts of largely "here today and gone tomorrow" informal microenterprises has militated against patient capital accumulation and organic growth by better placed formal enterprises.
Milford Bateman and Juraj Dobrila paint quite a bleak and maybe too general picture of the (non-)impact of micro credit. But as more and more critical writing is emerging, it becomes clear that the initial 'micro loans will eradicate poverty' claim needs to be analyzed with more nuances.

Swiss city buys Ikea shelters to house refugees, then ditches them over fire risk

The shelters, developed in cooperation between Swedish furniture giant Ikea and the UN refugee agency, have already reportedly been deployed by the thousand in refugee camps and in places like Greece that are facing a heavy influx of migrants.
The city of Zurich said it had relied on safety information from the UNHCR and a Swedish study.
But regional authorities had requested a new test after learning that a German report this week raised concerns about the accuracy of the Swedish study.
Interesting reminder that IKEA's claims to 'reinvent' the refugee shelter/tent may face some serious obstacles.


These relationships thrived even though our day-to-day contact was short lived; we met, spent a few intense months together and then moved on or away. Saying goodbye was difficult; sometimes reunions were held but without the soil of the original context I found most friendships, especially those with expatriate colleagues, didn’t stand the passage of time. Maybe because as expats it was the experience of being where we were, doing what we were doing, that was the most important element of our connection. Our conversations tended to be about next jobs, what organizations were good to work for, who knew who–basic career networking. Or we oohed and aahed about our discoveries of the particular exotic country we were in.
With national staff the basis of friendship was not the job, or the locality. We may have met in a unique place but it was something else that bonded us. Things and interests that did not require the temporary, field-work bubble to survive.
The general rule I’ve just stated applies equally to romantic relationships. Many a horny and lonely aid worker hook-up in the field finding inchoate reassurance by sharing the same sleeping bag. When the mountains of Kurdistan give way to the malls of America however, and you trade the UN 4X4 in for a second hand Hyundai romance tends to fade pretty quick. Among all man-made disasters, the field romance stands out from the pack for its tremendously consistent record of churning out disappointment and bitterness.
More great writing on the Life After Aid' blog!

Guillaume Bonn - Mosquito Coast

The same goes with photographs, how many books have we seen in the last fifty years on the vanishing tribes, the vanishing this the vanishing that, which portrays the Masai or other tribes in Ethiopia and elsewhere, as if they were still living the way they did 100 years ago, that simply is pure non sense but it feeds into a collective romantic idea of the way Africa should be. It bores me to death to be honest. And the same can be said about: here look there is another African war etc… No one takes the time to explain that all these wars are fuelled by the double standards that the west has constantly played in keeping a dictator or a corrupt system in place that serves their interests and in the process keeps the inequalities and despairs it creates for a large amount of people. Could you explain to me why European tax payers money is being used to finance the elections of the Congo DRC when we all know who will win before the process of voting has even begun? It’s all a scam, and if we really want to change the world and make it a better place we have to address and change that.
Great interview in Italy's edition of Vanity Fair with photographer Guillaume Bonn and his take on 'representations of Africa'.

Had a great time talking philanthropy with @NickKristof @WuDunn @NinaEaston at the @Smithsonian earlier this month:

— Melinda Gates (@melindagates) December 22, 2015

The elite philanthropy club is in, probably discussing 'social change' through book deals, TV shows and public events in high places ;)!

Our digital lives
The Rich Man’s Dropout Club

It’s hard to know whether the experiences of the fellows who agreed to be interviewed are representative of the first class as a whole. The Chronicle was unable to determine what nine of the original 24 fellows are doing now, although it appears as if they, like others, moved on from their initial ideas.
Of those interviewed, all but one say they learned more about their abilities and the business world than if they had stayed in college. And though most found college socially and intellectually rewarding, few felt compelled to finish. "Both my college education and my Thiel-fellowship experience were very valuable to me. I don’t think any less of one or the other," says Ms. Full. "But we need to encourage students that they can step off the conveyor belt whenever they want. I want to live my life as an example of that."
Mr. Thiel has acknowledged that the fellowship disproportionately draws students from elite colleges, but he says that "we have to question the system starting from the top." Still, he adds, "the message of the fellowship is the same for everyone: You should think for yourself instead of letting an institution do it for you."
Beth McMurtrie on the limited 'disruptive' potential and difficulties of assessing 'impact' of the high-profile Thiel fellowship recipients; it appears that many exchanged the elite networking of top universities for elite networking with peers and within the Thiel network...

What would feminist data visualization look like?

So one way to re-situate data visualization is to actually destabilize it by making dissent possible. How can we devise ways to talk back to the data? To question the facts? To present alternative views and realities? To contest and undermine even the basic tenets of the data's existence and collection? A visualization is often delivered from on high. An expert designer or team with specialized knowledge finds some data, does some wizardry and presents their artifact to the world with some highly prescribed ways to view it. Can we imagine an alternate way to include more voices in the conversation? Could we effect visualization collectively, inclusively, with dissent and contestation, at scale?
Catherine D'Ignazio highlights some very important points about critically engaging with big data and data visualizations, but I wonder whether a more general call for a nuanced, ethnographic, qualitative etc. critique would automatically include feminist aspects? Definitely an interesting discussion...

Alan Van Wyk on Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly

For Butler, the incompleteness of these gatherings, the openness of these bodies, the precariousness of the people, opens a critical distance between the people and the state. The popular will, Butler argues, can never become co-extensive with the state, nor can popular sovereignty ever be fully translated into state sovereignty. Although bodies in the street may be organized by the state, co-opted by the state, or become the state, there will always be an open remainder, an excess of bodies that will always remain outside the state, establishing a distance between the people and the state. In this way, Butler suggests, “freedom of assembly may well be a precondition of politics itself, one that presumes that bodies can move and gather in an unregulated way, enacting their political demands in a space that, as a result, becomes public, or redefines an existing understanding of the public.” And this, it seems, is the gathering together of concepts toward which these Notes have been struggling. At this moment, in our inability to mourn, when a neoliberal organization of the state enacts an ever-increasing field of precarity, bodies gather in the street not simply to demand recognition, to claim and reclaim a common space, the social, environmental, economic, material conditions of living, but to begin again, and always again, to remember ourselves as a body politic of the living.
A very interesting review of Judith Butler's latest book by Alan Van Wyk and what physical assembly and demonstrations can mean in this day and age.

How Twitter Bots Turn Tweeters into Activists

“We wanted to make it really easy for activists to reach out into large crowds and be able to recruit people and get them to start contributing to their cause without having to invest much time,” says Saiph Savage, an assistant professor at West Virginia University and coauthor of the paper.
The bots tweeted at people who tweeted phrases such as “corruption” and “impunity” with different types of requests for them to take action. The bots also tried to organize potential volunteers into groups by tweeting at multiple people at once and suggesting they collaborate.
Overall, 45 percent of the contact efforts made by the bots were met with a reply. Direct requests for participation, which included questions such as “How do we fight corruption in our cities?” had the highest success rate, with a reply rate of 81 percent.
Signe Brewster summarizes new research from Microsoft on 'Botivists' - adding more nuances on how social media/Twitter interact with (new) social movements.

10 Key Take-Aways from our COP21 Side Event "Climate Change Resilience in the Age of Data"

As mentioned by Emmanuel Letouzé, Director and Co-Founder of Data-Pop Alliance, in his opening remarks, “it is only by conceptualizing Big Data as a vibrant ecosystem with actors rather than as an inert raw material to be exploited that we can shape its future for the better. Building greater resilience in complex human ecosystems through Big Data requires considering Big Data as an ecosystem of its own and figuring out how both can support and learn from each other”.
The issues that Lauren Barrett and Emmanuel Letouzé raise in their post seem to be generalizable to some extent to other areas where 'data' is increasingly becoming part of the picture and actors are realizing that more and bigger data does not 'do' things on its own.

Is the Internet fueling social change or giving license to engage in lazy activism?

Shrum pointed to a march for gay rights in Washington, D.C., that was organized entirely on facebook.
“I’m not sure slacktivism is a completely fair description for what’s going on with online political interactions,” he said. “For some people it’s probably purely symbolic, but for others, it is an expression of what they can do — and even a precursor for meaningful real-world gatherings or protests.”
A good summary of some current debates. Bottom line: Online engagement matters-but it doesn't 'do' or change things easily or by itself and needs to be anchored in '1.0' institutions and processes.

2015 Trends: How Digital and Social Media Have Transformed Nonprofits [Infographic]

by MDG Advertising


A Harvard Medical School professor makes the case for the liberal arts and philosophy

My father, uncles, and grandfathers were all physicians.
Last year, I taught in an advanced philosophy of mind seminar at Harvard, addressing the normal and disordered neural substrates of belief. The students were fascinated and inspired by what medical science could contribute. They realized that some of the philosophically posed questions and debates they were wrestling with, while sophisticated and instructive thought experiments, were unknowingly misguided by virtue of being under-informed by data.
We need to foster and protect academic environments in which a broad, integrated, yet still deep education can flourish. They are our national treasure and a strategic asset, whether some politicians would recognize that, or not — and philosophy is foundational, whether my old dentist would appreciate it or not.
Written from a position of extreme privilege, David Silbersweig, an older, white man who teaches at one of the world's most renowned academic institutions finds it easy to make a case for the humanities. Whether this helps in the discussion around liberal arts education is a different question...

Elsevier plans African open access journal

At the event, Chahin said the journal would aim to open new avenues for African research. “Research from the US and Europe is easy to access, but frequently their methods and materials are not adequate for the African conditions, so researchers have to reinvent them,” he said.
The pan-African journal is not meant to compete with existing journals, the project’s partners stress. Murray says this problem could be minimised if the journal’s supporters include existing African journal publishers from the start to ensure that the “achievements and strengths of current African scholarly publishing endeavours are boosted by the platform, not disadvantaged by it”.
This looks like good news, but I wonder whether it is not just a lot of hot CSR air from Elsevier. First of all, as we discuss often and at length in development, the representation of 'Africa' is always problematic-I don't care if a lab is in Nigeria, Italy or Canada as long as it produces world-class competitive research. The reasons why a lot of Africa-based research does not end up in 'good', high-impact journals are complex, but lack of publication avenues shouldn't be the primary issue. Then there is the question of funding after the first five years (when measurable impact should be visible and things are starting to get interesting). But I do agree that a 'proper' open access journal is better than more predatory journals hoovering up research.

"Unprecedented!" "Amazing!" "Novel!": the rise of hype in scientific journals

A team of researchers from the Netherlands tried to quantify the rise in hype by studying the titles and abstracts of scientific papers published in the PubMed database between 1974 and 2014. They wanted to see how often adjectives such as "unprecedented," "amazing," "groundbreaking," and "promising" were used.
They found a ninefold increase in frequency during the period
Whatever the reason, scientific hype in medicine has become a real problem. Overselling can not only mislead patients but can also help inform misguided policies, pressure regulators to speed through substandard drugs, and, worst of all, create false hope in people who may be desperate for cures that never come.
In a world of increasing pressure to attract funding, media attention, visibility, citations and impact-driven publications the discourse of science has been changing.

For-Profit Colleges: Amid Investigations And Protests, Is ITT Technical Institute In Trouble?

Watson knew how hard she’d worked for her degree, but that didn’t matter to interviewers. “Once they saw my transcripts from ITT Tech, they either told me I wasn't eligible or I never heard from them again,” she said.
A decade later, living in Sebastian, Florida, and selling jewelry on Etsy to help her husband with the bills, 37-year-old Watson starts to cry when she talks about her college experience. Watson has 16 student loans, owing a total of $93,500 for a degree worth nothing to her.
Julia Glum's longread is an important and sad reminder about the predatory practices of for-profit colleges. These institutions prey on vulnerable groups such as students from non-college family backgrounds, veterans etc. and it always makes me sad to read those stories of motivated, driven students ending up with nearly worthless degrees and a lot of debt because they often were advised poorly.


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