This feature is a part of #TechforGood series that we are doing across Europe, in collaboration with Social Innovation Europe. We are trying to discover and spotlight the ways that people are using and building technology to power social change.
This month, Tech for Good spoke with Josh Harvey, Lead at UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo. You can follow him on Twitter @thatjoshharvey.
How would you describe the “tech for good” field in your country?
It’s early days for tech for good in Kosovo—and when I talk about Kosovo here and hereafter, I mean in the context of UNSCR 1244—but promising that the majority of initiatives have strong local ownership at the grassroots and institutional levels. Even those initiatives driven by international actors at the outset – things like UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo’s Know Your Rights platform, our Citizen Science Kosovo project and our upcoming Kosovo Volunteers platform are finding homes with local groups and Kosovo institutions; homegrown solutions big (like corruption reporting platform kallxo.com/reports) and small (math learning platformcabacuso.com) are meeting with satisfactory adoption.
We’ve also seen a proliferation of tech for good organisations that may not be building products but focus instead on advancing the tech for good ecosystem. There’s us (the UNICEF Innovations Lab), but even more important are local and grassroots organisations like Prishtina Hackerspace, Free Libre Open Source Software Kosova (FLOSSK), Girls Coding Kosova, Open Data Kosovo, Bonevet, Prosperity Initiative Kosova (PIKS) and others who are introducing young people to how tech can be bent in the service of social good.
All that said, I think a good number of the organisations working in the space wouldn’t necessary characterise their work as tech for good. The ecosystem is growing, but the networks and associations that make for a gestalt tech for good community - one that drives exponential impact – aren’t yet realised; we’re not reaching down into universities and schools to make young people aware of the opportunities in the space; we’re not mobilising tech professionals looking for a meaningful alternative to their day to day.
What kinds of challenges is it being used to address?
It’s safe to say that much of Kosovo’s tech for good community is looking at “classic development challenges” (if such things exist); issues like corruption and transparency, access to information, environment, gender equality. Corruption and transparency is a central issue – the open data movement in Kosovo is looking specifically at this space, opening institutional data and making it accessible to citizens. The Citizen Science initiative that UNICEF Innovations Lab—along with Transitions, Internet Artizans, and Peer Educators Network—is one of many programmes working in the environmental space, though may be the only one with an explicit tech component (i.e. the use of open sensors for environmental monitoring).
Who are some notable organisations that we should look out for?
The ones I’ve already mentioned are the key actors.
What kinds of impact do you see them creating?
Apart from the impact realised by each initiative, shared across many of these initiatives is the theme of youth empowerment and participation – Citizen Science, Know Your Rights, the Volunteer Platform all are focused on blurring the lines between rights holders and duty-bearers (to use development speak) – to prepare young people to identify and meet their own needs and those of their communities without waiting for intervention from institutions local and foreign or the private sector. So long as we’re aware of the ways that tech can be insular and exclusive (e.g. a young person poorly served by the educational system faces barriers to entering the tech for good space), and so long as we put accessibility at the core of our efforts (e.g. pair our efforts with capacity and skill-building “on-ramps” for under-served young people), tech for good can be an extraordinary equalizer, a democratising force. Take Open Data Kosovo – the young people visualising municipal procurement data to uncover suspect transactions are prepared with, in some cases, better evidence for advocacy around transparency than are traditional actors. Bringing solid data earns them a seat at would otherwise be an exclusive table. A similar dynamic can be realised through tech-enabled citizen science – non-majority community members most likely to be impacted by environmental issues now have the tools and they need to start meaningful engagement with incumbent actors. That’s enormously empowering.
What about communities - are there specific tech for good communities?
We see two communities emerge, one focused on advancing tech products with social benefit and the other with advancing the ecosystem of tech for good through skill and capacity-building. There’s certainly overlap between the two – we, for example, build product but also champion and facilitate others to build products that meet their own needs. Building communities around tech for good is one of the challenges in Kosovo—there’s a lot of cooperation, but Kosovo is a difficult economic environment meaning that many of these organisations are in the unfortunate position of competing for resources and attention. Kosovo being a development context, a lot of the investment has been centred on those initiatives that are building products.
What are the challenges for the “tech for Good” field where you are?
Community building is definitely one. Another is education and capacity. We’re generally dissatisfied with the education young people are getting in the technology—both in terms of access and quality—and what that means for tech for good. In terms of access, we’re seeing enfranchised and socio-economically better-off young people get access to more and better training opportunities, better university education, etc. This is an unfortunate reality everywhere, of course, but particularly evident in Kosovo where a young person from a non-majority community might never even use a computer in the primary and secondary education; where after school programmes don’t exist; where high schools might not even have electricity. How do you get this group of young people engaged in tech for good when they haven’t been exposed to tech? This is one of our key questions, as we feel that if tech for good is only the purview of the few, then we’re actually increasing inequality. We need to create a tech for good field that works for everyone.
Regarding quality, it’s been my experience that too many young people able to access higher education are graduating from university with that computer science degree but aren’t trained in many of the fundamental skills to go out and build product. Young people are leaving school familiar with outdated and/or closed technologies, who have never compiled code, who have never experimented, who are passingly familiar with hardware or networking technologies but unable to make.
How do you personally make a distinction between “tech for good” and “tech for bad”?
I think this is a hugely important and too infrequently asked question.
It might be that tech for bad alienates users from their objectives and energies. We see tech for bad fairly often in the world – you think you’re using a platform to connect with friends while really your handing your data to an ad company; you use a platform to discover and learn and laugh, but others use that same platform to spread hate—with the knowledge of the product owner—and your patronage sustains it.
I don’t think tech for good must necessarily follow a non-profit model—the opposite, really, it’s great if you can crack that nut—but the social contract under which an end user and product owner operate must be made explicit. Everyone needs to be conscious of the exchange of value. Tech for good must prioritise the needs of end users and, the sine qua non, do so in an equitable way.
This is a question UNICEF has thought a lot about, and our Innovation Unit has created a set of principles that puts the ideas of equity and a “social contract” that respects and prioritises the end user at the core of our work in some specific ways: e.g. “Design with the User” “Understand the Existing Ecosystem” “Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, Open Innovation”. Strongly recommend:http://www.unicef.org/innovation/innovation_73239.html
"Take Open Data Kosovo – the young people visualising municipal procurement data to uncover suspect transactions are prepared with, in some cases, better evidence for advocacy around transparency than are traditional actors."