I get to work for a firm that is deeply interested in how to improve our urban environments. Specifically, we want to improve the interactions people have with the institutions that serve them, and in the process, improve the lived experience, both here in the United States and abroad.
We have at our disposal the technologies, relationships, and human capacity to make this happen. The city, for us, is opportunity.
But recently, we were reminded of just how vastly different the lived experience could be for residents, even of the same city.
Fatou—not her real name—is a bright young woman from Benin. Several years ago, an American preacher on mission in Benin offered to adopt Fatou and take her to America.
She, and her family, were overjoyed: maybe she would become a doctor, and would be able to send for the family in the future. Fatou moved in with the preacher and his wife in Queens, and they insisted she call them “mother” and “father.”
Fatou was pleased about this; she felt special, taken care of. They started her on English lessons to help her adjust to her adopted homeland, and to allow her to enroll in school, a long-time dream for Fatou.
But even from the outset, some things seemed strange to her. For the first few months, “to keep her safe,” her mother always held her by the wrist whenever they left the house.
Her belongings were regularly searched for any outside material, and, when found, were promptly thrown away. Once her English was good enough, she began working long hours at a school the family owned.
She was never enrolled in school herself, as had been promised, and when she inquired about her education, her new parents told her she was being ungrateful. The preacher, her adopted father, started doing “bad things” to her, acts she still struggles to talk about.
Fatou’s passport was taken from her “for safekeeping.” Once her visa expired, her adopted family refused to apply for another, thus entrapping Fatou, now an undocumented alien.
Although Fatou called her adopted caretakers “mother” and “father,” and attended church with them every Sunday, she also worked punishingly long hours every day, first at their school, then at home, when the preacher wanted her alone. The signs were clear: she was a victim of human trafficking.
In the year 2012, in the city of New York, stories like this are all too tragically common. Which begs the question: what do technology and empowerment mean to someone trapped in the equivalent of modern-day slavery?
When we think of City 2.0, many of us think improved services, technological innovation, and Smart Cities. There are many new tools that indeed comprise the new cityscape and help us in our day-to-day lives. These tools, however, did not help Fatou in hers; in fact, they often made life more difficult for her.
Services like HopStop or Google Maps help us plan our commutes and make sure we arrive at meetings on time. Fatou’s traffickers used these tools for another purpose: to make sure Fatou was home from work at exactly the time she was supposed to be.
Advancements in technology have accustomed us to cheap communication around the world, allowing us to connect with loved ones more easily and frequently than ever before. For Fatou, the ease of communication was stressful, as her family in Benin wondered why she was always so reluctant to call them.
The truth was that Fatou was ashamed, and she knew her family would be beside themselves if they knew what had happened to their daughter. Despite the ease of connection in the modern day, she wanted to disconnect instead.
And while many of us work to streamline the connections in civic service delivery—standardizing data formats, making sure they are accessible across platforms and government agencies—the thought of linked and trackable data was terrifying to Fatou. Every interaction with a formal institution was seen as a booby trap.
As an undocumented individual, Fatou was terrified that one look at her papers—any of her papers—would mean it was all over. Thus, whether it was not seeing a doctor when she got sick, or crossing to the street when she saw a police officer, Fatou was constantly trying to escape from connected and institutional service systems.
We are seeing women use technology at ever increasing rates, but what does it mean when the fundamental security, freedom, and dignity of the most vulnerable amongst us cannot be secured?
My firm got to know Fatou, and many others like her, through work we did recently with Safe Horizon, an amazing victims’ assistance agency here in NYC. When we think about how to provide women with the technology they need to exercise the leadership and change they want, let us remember who we are leaving out.
We have made great strides in data-driven urban planning, but as we imagine and build our way to smarter futures, we must remember that many still live “off the grid.” Thus, we must be imaginative and proactive in engaging with those who are not represented in data we have.
As humans, we are biased to look for information in places where information is quick to find and easy to work with—these days, that largely means digital and online.
Next time you’re looking at a dataset, beyond looking at the demographics that are represented, look for the gaps—the gender ratio, the ethnicities, the age groups, the neighborhoods, the income levels that do not appear. Ask yourself: what, or who, might exist in the negative space?
Once you know what data or populations you are missing, find ways to get this information: to meaningfully help victims of human trafficking, for example, consider going to community organizations that have a history of serving these populations. Be forewarned: in the digital age, much of their data is not machine-readable.
You may need to pick up the phone or go to their office. While not the most efficient means, it will yield rich, useful insights about populations that are worth considering as we build our future.
A lot of our work at Reboot involves ethnographic research—we listen to the stories of people who often do not get to tell their stories; we live where they do, and we sit and observe. Ethnography means literally “a portrait of people.”
By talking to thousands of people worldwide whose lived experiences are so different than our own, we have learned to recognize our own flawed assumptions, and to try and paint deeper, more accurate portraits of people, their situations, and their needs. We then take these portraits to policymakers who can act to improve their situations, or use them to design new services to help these oft-overlooked people get what they need.
Our ethnographic work has also taught us to see the gaps in our data-driven portraits of people and place, and to advocate for a more balanced approach to understanding each other and to build alternative futures. We now have the opportunity to determine what the cities of the future will stand for, and how they will treat their citizens, both women and men.
Through intentional, thoughtful, inclusive design, we can define the values that guide our cities and represent us as a people.