We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.

Visual Storytelling for Data & Development: Infographics for the World Bank

Here at Reboot, we believe deeply in the power of design. We often find ourselves applying its principles and processes in shaping programs that focus on meeting the needs of people. And fundamental to this challenge — that of addressing complex ideas with real world impact — is the ability to spread information through compelling communications design.

We have found that many of our colleagues in the social sector undervalue the role of communications design. This perspective is understandable – when creating a $200 million program to overhaul a nation’s water and sanitation system, the significance of fonts and colors and layout can seem quite minor.Read more

Technology, Institutions and the Future of Civic Participation

On May 16th, at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum, I presented Reboot’s recent World Bank report on post-revolution Tunisia, as part of a panel discussing how technology is transforming civic participation around the world. The topic posed was, how is technology changing institutions of governance, particularly those facing conflicts and crisis?

I started from the perspective that technology has always and is increasingly impacting the nature of public life. From our earliest collective societies, technology has made up a critical layer in our capacity to participate in civic affairs. As technology develops more quickly, and exponentially expands our ability to communicate and inform, the impact of technology on civic participation is only becoming more important. In several contexts, technology is eroding traditional barriers to entry for civic participation, enabling increasingly more citizens to organize, broadcast and advocate for their needs on rapidly scalable platforms. This expanded capacity for civic action has already helped topple governments, but now that citizens can more easily make their voices heard, how do institutions respond? The future health of governments that aspire to legitimacy through mature, peaceful and progressive political participation will hinge on the answer to this question.Read more

PDF:Applied image from flickr user : personaldemocracy

Notes from the PDF:Applied Hackathon

Recently, several Rebooters took part in PDF:Applied, a hackathon leading up to the Personal Democracy Forum’s inspiring annual Gov 2.0 conference.

Now, at first blush, Reboot’s process might seem contrary to that followed at hackathons. Read more

The Messy Art of Saving the World: Social Accountability in Nigeria

This is the final post in Reboot co-founder Panthea Lee’s seven-part series on design in international development for design blog Core77.

Communications technology provides government with the tools to be more transparent and accountable to its citizens. But just as giving someone a hammer doesn’t make them a carpenter, there’s more to the accountability equation. Achieving accountability requires creating a successful relationship between people—those in the government and those on the outside. An accountability system, then, is a two-way street: not only is the government responsive to citizen needs, but citizens must also be able to effectively communicate their grievances to the government.

Nigeria is a country that is oil-rich but accountability-poor. This is partially due to a lack of connective infrastructure, such as roads (only about 10 to 15 percent of Nigerian roads are paved), Internet access (only available to 11 percent of the country), and electricity (most of the country only has access to a few hours’ worth a day), upon which service delivery and social accountability systems rely. This lack of infrastructure doesn’t just hinder people’s daily lives and opportunities. It also prevents them from being able to demand better services, and over time, it undermines their confidence that they have power to make demands at all. For a social accountability framework to be successful, then, it must account for and overcome these deficiencies.Read more

Testing Assumptions: More Closely Approximating the Truth

A reminder from the field: Always test assumptions.

Recently, alongside a colleague from the Global Health Project at the MIT Sloan School of Management, I have been trying to determine how LifeSpring, a maternal health hospital in Hyderabad, India, might utilize mobile technology to gather data about its outreach efforts.

In the past few years, many mobile-based solutions have been developed to support health workers in low-resource contexts. (Some are better than others.) Many at LifeSpring, including outreach workers themselves, agree that the hospital could benefit from digitally collecting information about its clients. These records could help assess the effectiveness of outreach efforts by capturing indicators such as the number of women who visit for prenatal care, a key goal of communications campaigns.Read more

Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions, Reboot

Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions

Reboot is proud to announce the release of “Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions”. Commissioned by infoDev, a global technology and innovation program in the World Bank Group, and generously supported by UKaid as part of a series analyzing the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in post-conflict contexts, this report presents a unique on-the-ground perspective of life in post-revolutionary Tunisia, illuminating how technology is being used to enable better governance, stimulate economic development, and support social cohesion.

Tunisians today are wrestling with how to wield the power of their increased connectivity to build a society that is more responsive to the needs of citizens and more capable of addressing the economic, political, and technological complexities of the modern world. The opportunities and setbacks faced by the new government as it seeks to provide the health care, economic development, justice processes, and other services demanded by its people will tell us much about the future of governance in a world that grows more complex every day.Read more

Tackling Human Trafficking

Here at Reboot, we’re honoured to be partnering with Safe Horizon, a preeminent service agency for trafficked persons* in New York City. Over the coming months, we’ll be working with Safe Horizon to design and deliver materials about their support services to trafficking survivors — and developing tools to measure their impact.

Victims of trafficking are often hard to reach — which is why we’ve been called in to help identify key opportunities for impact. We will be building upon a strong history and existing body of work. The anti-trafficking community, in the US and globally, has been highly creative in its efforts to support these isolated populations.Read more

Calling for Service Design Entries for the Core77 Design Awards

Reboot is thrilled to be participating in the second annual Core77 Design Awards, a progressive, industry-leading initiative that celebrates excellence across a broad spectrum of design. From its website:

Recognizing excellence in all areas of design enterprise, the Core77 Design Awards celebrates the richness of the design profession and its practitioners. For our second year, we present 17 categories of entry, providing designers, researchers and writers a unique opportunity to communicate the intent, rigor and passion behind their efforts. From client work to self-initiated projects, entrepreneurial to pro-bono engagements, we embrace a wide diversity of enterprise: commercial, cultural, social, environmental and discursive.

I’m honoured to be serving as the jury captain for the Service Design category, and along with an exceptional jury — made up of thought leaders and industry pros in the field — we’ll be evaluating exceptional service design work from around the world.

My co-jurors are:

As visitors to our website well know, Reboot champions the principles and practices of service design in our work the world over — you’ve probably seen us write or speak on the topic in the past. Thus, we are so glad to be taking part in a program that’s so relevant to our own mission and projects, and we’re looking forward to seeing many examples of outstanding service design.

Core77 has been serving a worldwide audience of design practitioners, firms, students, and educators for over 16 years. Its awards program responds to the changing terrain of design, social media, and environmental stewardship, in part by employing progressive categories like social impact, educational initiatives, and speculative — with the jury for the latter headed by none other than Bruce Sterling himself. Core77 is accepting entries of design work, research, or writing from the year 2011 in 17 categories. The deadline to enter is April 10 and both professionals and students are encouraged to apply.

Both Reboot and the service design jury is excited to see what our community has been up to over the past year, and how others have been thinking about and working on systems and processes that better serve people. Many of Reboot’s recent projects have focused on how governments and institutions can utilize new technologies to more effectively connect with and serve their constituencies. Thus, we’re keen to see — and to learn from! — all the other talented practitioners out there tackling similar challenges.

More about the 2012 Core77 Design Awards are here. Details about entering the competitions are here, and the deadline to apply is April 10. Best of luck!

Design Research: What Is It and Why Do It?

Design research is foundational to creating products, services, and systems that respond to human needs. In the public and international development sectors, understanding and meeting human needs are critical for improved livelihoods and better governance.

Yet despite its utility, design research is largely overlooked by many institutions important to an effective society. This oversight is unsurprising—the definition, purpose, and role of design research is not well understood. But in collecting the critical data they need to run their programs, these institutions do engage in ‘design research’. The information they gather, however, is often purely functional—‘just good enough’. But a lack of deliberation and formalization in process limits the value of research, and thus the utility of collected data.

I’ve been privileged to learn the art and science of design research from some of the best in the game. Time and again, I’ve seen what can happen both when design research is overlooked and when it is thoughtfully applied. So, to advance the conversation, I wanted to lay out some basic principles, approaches, and tools of design research so public institutions can better understand how it serves their work.

What is Design Research?

reboot design research visual notes

By ‘design research’, I mean research specifically undertaken to support the strategic design and development of products, services, and programs. Sometimes confused with market research, the practices differ in a few key ways.

Market research identifies and acts upon optimal market and consumer leverage points to achieve success. Its definition of success is not absolute, though metrics are often financial. Design research, on the other hand, is founded in the belief that we already know the optimal market and consumer leverage points: human needs. Unearthing and satisfying those needs is thus the surest measure of success. Through this process, we earn people’s respect and loyalty.

Both market and design research are necessary in developing effective solutions. I’ve drafted the following table to help clarify their complementary yet differing approaches and their roles as part of a larger strategy:


In design research, the methods and data collected differ from those emphasized in market or academic research. Ethnographic approaches to participant interaction clarifies complex human needs, behaviours, and perspectives. Field immersions unearth contextual and environmental factors that shape user experience. Rigorous, old-fashioned desk research and expert consultation support the fieldwork.But let’s be clear: good design research doesn’t end with good data. The contextual study (sometimes called ‘field study’, though I personally dislike the usage of ‘field’ in these contexts) is just the beginning. Once we have the data — often thousands upon thousands of photos, and dozens or even hundreds of interviews– the real work begins. The next steps include:

  • Process the data into useful formats. This includes filtering the data for relevancy; anonymizing outputs for participant privacy; tagging all artifacts with metadata; and categorizing data using taxonomies that support future needs and opportunities.
  • Make sense of the data. Using processes collectively known as ‘synthesis’, we prioritize, evaluate, and make connections between all collected data points. This often involves exercises to map the data in meaningful ways. Tools include: visualizations of the stakeholder ecosystems, diagrams of user experiences, detailed personas that give dimensionality and depth to those we are designing for, and affinity maps to draw relationships between data points. These outputs help us decipher the information and identify the most critical for the task at hand.
  • Distill data into insights. The tools above produce insights that inform the problem-solving process. Insights may include revelations on why people currently do the things they do and hypotheses on how their experiences can be improved. I’ll be writing more on this process in an upcoming post.
  • Test insights against existing knowledge. How do the generated insights map against broader social and industry patterns? How to they map against institutional strengths and capacities? How do they measure against known best-practices? Are they suitable for both institutions and the people they serve?
  • Translate insights into actionable formats. The data must be easily accessible to all stakeholders who may need it, and immediately useful to the design process. In this stage, we extrapolate initial design concepts to work on — our ‘best-guess’ attempt at how to solve the problem based on all the information we have gathered and processed.

Design Research in Action: Improving Emergency Relief Distribution in Pakistan

After a natural disaster, rural communities are often twice disadvantaged. Not only are physical infrastructure of rural areas more vulnerable to damage, but there is often a lack of financial infrastructure for delivering emergency relief funds directly to those that need them most. Creative solutions are needed to better connect disaster victims to sources of relief funding.

After the 2010 Indus River floods in Pakistan, UBL, a large financial institution, distributed over 2.3 million prepaid debit cards to Pakistani households that had lost their homes. While this was an innovative first step, UBL realized that there was substantial room for improvement. Among a population unaccustomed to banking, the intervention faced critical execution challenges. For example, flood victims that did not how to use ATM machines, which dispensed relief funds from the prepaid card, were forced to pay up to 20 percent of their allocated aid to opportunistic officials.

In 2011, Reboot was brought in to evaluate and improve UBL’s emergency relief distribution and mobile banking systems, to ensure that aid quickly reached those most in need. Nearly the entire Pakistani population—89 percent—lacks access to any financial service. Any project addressing the “unbanked”, then, must acknowledge and embrace the immense diversity of this population.

In order to understand Pakistan’s unbanked, our team conducted field research in towns and cities across Southern Punjab, speaking to nearly 300 individuals in the contexts where they live and work. Our team analyzed these interviews to gain a complete understanding of the population’s habits and attitudes toward financial services, and developed a series of user archetypes that highlighted common themes and behaviour patterns that a branchless banking service must cater to.

A branchless banking system utilizes local, third-party retailers, known as agents, as the primary sales and customer service representatives. We interviewed, ‘ghost-shopped’ with, and shadowed agents across the region to uncover habits and pain points to target for improvement. Finally, our team embedded with employees and executives at UBL, in order to understand their visions, capacities, and constraints in developing a better branchless banking network.

Among other results, we discovered that UBL’s network of human agents, the primary delivery channel for its mobile banking services and the only channel accessible by the poor, was not optimized. These independent retailers acting as the bank’s cash-in and cash-out points were often the sole human touchpoint between customers and the bank, yet they were not seen as a marketing tool by the bank. As the first point of contact for poor and often illiterate customers, they were in a strong position to explain the security that banking services could bring to their lives. UBL applied our insights to create a new team of specialists for providing agents with increased coaching and support.

By illustrating how branchless banking services can be designed for low-income users, we helped turn a commendable but unsustainable corporate social responsibility initiative into a long-term business growth area that was better able to meet the needs of the marginalized. The result? Banking became more relevant and accessible to Pakistan’s poor, and millions of people transformed from helpless victims reliant on aid to economically empowered customers with a stake in their futures.

Design Research for Public Service

Design research is a vote against hunch-based reasoning. It prevents the need for endless testing, and provides a basis for evidence-based decision-making. Today’s leading private sector organizations are wielding it with great success. They are developing products and services that improve the lives of their customers and, as a result, building loyalty for their products and brands. Procter & Gamble, for one, has employed design research for years as part of a larger commitment to integrating design methods in their organizational strategy. This has yielded many market successes. Intel is another example of using design research to develop products that meet needs users have yet to even articulate to themselves.

We must bring the same value to the public sector. Driven by different considerations than private corporations, the fruits of design research have, to some extent, remained unclaimed among institutions that serve the common good. Our hope is that more formalized methods for gathering, using, and processing information — both new and existing — will help public institutions better serve their constituencies and communities.

(Images: Peter Durand of AlphaChimp Studios, created during the PopTech Social Innovation Fellowship Program 2010.)

The Future Starts Now: Designing the 2020 US Census

Photo ©2010 Quinn Dombrowski (Flickr: quinn.anya). Used under a Creative Commons License (BY SA-2.0)

As a lover of history, I always find myself drawing parallels between today’s headlines and consequential events or figures of the past. So when someone asked me why the Census mattered, I immediately thought of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, and a passage that recounted LBJ’s first years in the United States Congress. A snippet:

“When, in 1937… Johnson became their Congressman, Hill Country farmers were still plowing their fields with mules because they could not afford tractors. Because they had no electricity, they were still doing every chore by hand, while trying to scratch a living from soil from which the fertility had been drained decades before. They were still watching their wives made stooped and old before their time by a life of terrible drudgery, a life that seemed, as one Hill Country woman put it, ‘out of the Middle Ages.’ Four years later, the people of the Hill Country were living in the twentieth century. Lyndon Johnson had brought them there.”

Legislative horse-trading aside, this passage speaks to the dramatic changes that the New Deal brought to families and communities across the country, and helps us grasp the incredible impact that government can make on the lives of citizens through policies, services, and investments. Government doesn’t have a monopoly on social impact, but it certainly has significant market share.Read more

A Call For Visionaries

Photo ©Gurbir Grewal. Used with permission.

Everyone who works to improve social conditions – from a UN official in Geneva, to an aid worker in Pakistan, to the mayor of Pittsburgh – is desperate for solutions. But a lack of solutions should not be confused with a lack of effort. While multi-billion dollar expenditures, high-profile conferences, and bold promises continue to increase every year, poverty, illness, and illiteracy continue to choke the dreams of people and societies around the globe.

I work and meet with folks every day who are on the front lines of the battle against these wicked problems. We see the sobering reality that throwing money and pledges at complex problems will not work. We see the need for institutions to better understand the people they are trying to serve. We see the need to radically rethink the design of policies, programs, and investments.

In short, we see the need for change.

What I realize more and more each day is that there is a critical mass of individuals in this generation – and beyond, for that matter – who are ready to get to work.Read more

Empathy in Design: May Efficient Never Replace Human

Why do humans enjoy architecture? Why do we feel inspired in well executed spaces? Some say good architecture expresses the complexity of humanity. Are we moved that someone took into account our humanity, our complexity, in their work? Is feeling understood itself a source of comfort and inspiration? If so, how can designers bring this same consideration into creating and improving services?

Design’s reliance on empathy has, until recently, been a foreign concept for me. I associated Design with disconnected individuals busy creating the next useless yet beautiful chair or glasses I couldn’t afford. This perspective was rocked by a series of unfortunate (hindsight now says fortunate) recent circumstances.

Two years ago, the combination of a financial crisis, a poor labor market, and dwindling savings found me standing in line at 8am on a weekday in Spanish Harlem waiting to enter a windowless building. The day before, I had found myself researching the different options for someone in my situation: someone struggling to make ends meet yet too proud to tap into his ‘private’ social safety net of willing family and friends. To my surprise, the service best suited for my situation was called ‘public assistance’. In other words, welfare. Read more

The Messy Art of Saving the World: Three Things Every Designer Should Know About International Development

This is the first post in a 7-post series published at Core77 by Reboot principal Panthea Lee, exploring the role of design in international development.

International development and governance projects have a notorious track record. Every day, it seems, we hear another report of foreign aid siphoned off by corrupt officials and projects losing money to bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Take this story, published last year in The New York Times: The Egyptian government, hoping to increase internet access, had established over 2,000 telecenters across the country. But an independent researcher found that almost none of the centers were functioning; in one city, just four out of 23 were active. The telecenters weren’t being used in large part because they weren’t even necessary—the rise of internet cafes in Egypt had made them redundant.

“The failure, in other words, was in not understanding the ecosystem in which the telecenters would be operating,” said the Times.

Too often, projects like these are born and developed by corporations, foundations, governments, and other institutions without a day-to-day understanding of the lives of the people they’re meant to help. There’s no shortage of good intentions, hard work, and committed individuals. Where the field of development falls short, however, is in process.

This is where the discipline of design can help; its tools and principles can help address the flaws in strategy and process that plague the field, and help develop programs that impact people’s lives in concrete ways.

Right now, many disparate voices—both from development and governance and from the field of design—are working to articulate how design can improve societies all over the world. It’s thrilling to see so many talented designers excited about the possibilities. But this movement is still new, and while a lot of people are talking, too few are putting the practice into action.

One challenge lies in the gap between the discipline of design and the fields of development and governance. The latter two, like any other field, are fraught with history, political complexity, and operational challenges that a newcomer cannot fully grasp. Colleagues in the development sector and from other public institutions have complained that they are being bombarded by enthusiastic designers who have little understanding of the fields they’re so set on revolutionizing.

Just as the Egyptian government needed to look closely at a city before throwing in a telecenter, designers need to build an understanding of these fields before jumping in to innovate.

Over the coming weeks, we at Reboot will use this series to explore the use of design in solving governance and human development challenges, using concrete examples from our own recent experiences. As practitioners with backgrounds in policy, development and advocacy, we understand the histories, philosophies and processes of the institutions responsible for the public good. We’ll share our own success stories, as well as what we’ve learned from failure.

To kick off the series, I wanted to share three patterns of failure that plague development—and that design is well-suited to address:



1. There are empathy gaps between program administrators and beneficiaries.

Many decision-makers in development are located in global capitals, such as Washington, DC, Geneva or Rome. In many projects, program managers’ only local contact comes from a week-long trip to “the field” (read: the country in question), where most of their time is spent in meeting with government or NGOs in the capital city, with a single, obligatory trip to the actual community. Emphasis on community is common in rhetoric but limited in practice. When efforts are made to understand beneficiaries, the approaches used can be laughably misguided and often fail to create an accurate portrait of day-to-day life: I’ve seen poor, rural farmers bussed in to hotels in the major cities for “participatory research” exercises. This fly-over approach creates major gaps in empathy and prevents effective program design.



2. Program design is often determined by quantitative metrics and best practices which lack context and nuance.

Program design—and resource allocation—is usually based on national data, such as large-scale surveys, and on conventional wisdom (“best practices”) from existing literature or expert consultants. Armed with these checklist items—”Column A lists the indicators that need to be addressed, and Column B lists the approaches that have been known to work for these same challenges”—the setup and development of a program can be very formulaic, a little plug-n-play, if you will. Data and rigour are important, as is learning from what’s already been done; but in emphasizing quantitative tools and past experiences, many programs fail to accurately capture and successfully design for the context in question.



3. Politics is always complicated.

I think people outside of the field forget that development is as political as any other sector. Internal politics between organizations’ staff, funders, and other stakeholders have a complicating effect—and that’s not to mention the influence of national and international pressures. I’ve been on projects where the priorities of the funder and those of the community are widely divergent. Sometimes, an area is over-saturated with organizations working on similar issues; in other areas, money “needs to be spent” for political reasons, even though the chances of success are low. (We generally decline those engagements; life is too short to waste on projects that will have no impact.) Navigating these myriad pressures and guiding a project to success often means keeping all stakeholders focused on the priorities of the program beneficiaries. In these instances, design—with its evidence-backed, outcome-oriented perspective—can help push back against the distortion field of politics.


In future posts, we’ll talk specifically about ways that design can address these challenges, drawing from our own experience from humanitarian relief in Pakistan to governance reform in Egypt and Tunisia. We’d also like to explore further opportunities for designers in this emerging space.

Today, we face serious challenges in the fields of governance and development; but there’s a dynamic community committed to translating and evolving the design discipline to help solve these challenges. Here in New York, educators such as the School of Visual Arts, through its Impact! and Design for Social Innovation programs, are educating a new generation of designers to use their talents towards social progress. At the United Nations, we applaud groups like UNICEF’s Innovation Unit (full disclosure: a past employer) and UN Global Pulse, who are using technology to revolutionize how one of the world’s largest institutions serves marginalized populations globally.

Stop Blaming the Stars: The Role of Design in Disaster

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the 2011 Better World by Design Conference (BWxD), where the theme was building for the future in the wake of disasters. A copy of the (very large) presentation can be found here. Thanks to the BWxD team for inviting me — it was an honour to address such a talented, diverse group.

Disaster. The word comes from the Italian word disastro; “dis” expresses negation, and “astro” means “star.” The word literally means “ill-starred event”.

But to call it that would be letting ourselves off too easily. “Ill-starred event” implies that disasters are the outputs of fate — tragic, chance occurrences caused by inescapable forces.

Over the years, I’ve worked in the context of several disasters, both natural disasters and ones relating to governance, human rights, and health care. These experiences have led me to see that most disasters are not random acts of fate. They are man made. Terrible events (such as earthquakes and floods) and ineffective systems (such as those crippled by corruption) devolve into disasters because of bad decisions we make.

Disastrous Decisions


For an example, let’s look at Somalia, where faulty foreign interventions — specifically three bad decisions made by the international community — have led to a destabilized country and an extremely fragile economy that did not stand a chance in the face of this yearʼs drought.

Somalia has been in a state of civil war since 1991, when the US-backed dictator Siad Barre fell, and a three-year UN intervention failed. In 2001, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control shut down al-Barakat, a Somali Islamic bank; it was also a charity and remittance network that sent up to $140 million a year from the Somali diaspora. (This was bad decision number one.) The shut-down was justified by suspicions that financing for 9/11 had been routed through the network; these suspicions turned out to be false. As a result of the ban, the teetering Somali economy fell further into disarray.

Bad decision number two was revealed by a leaked diplomatic cable from 2006; the United States pressed Ethiopia to invade Somalia to suppress the rising Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which was consolidating power in the country. The immediate objective succeeded, but a massive resistance sprung up. The war lasted over two years and left a million Somalis homeless, and the ICU was soon replaced by the radical group al-Shabaab. Following the Ethiopian withdrawal in 2008, radical Islamists seized the southern half of the country, and in May 2009, rebels captured Mogadishu and threw the country into another civil war. Today, conflicts over resources still rage and al-Shabaab continues to hinder aid efforts to southern Somalia.

These two decisions resulted in an extremely fragile country. When the worst drought in half a century hit East Africa in 2011, Somalia didn’t stand a chance.

On July 20, the UN declared famine in two parts of Somalia, the first such declaration in 30 years. It estimated $2.5 billion would be needed to stave off the famine, but only 63 percent of that has been financed to date. The international community chose not to respond to the crisis in a timely, effective manner — bad decision number three — and as result, the famine is spreading through the entire Horn of Africa.

I paint the story of the crisis in the Horn to show that yes, terrible events beyond our control do happen — droughts, earthquakes, floods — but it’s the poor decisions we make that lead to systemic shortcomings and structural flaws which turn unfortunate events into epic disasters.

Having seen this happen in my own experience, I’ve learned that our mechanisms for disaster response and recovery, however innovative, donʼt address the root causes of modern-day tragedies. They donʼt address the poor decisions and the structural flaws that led to their occurrence, meaning that tragedies are bound to repeat themselves.

But if there is any positive outcome to a disaster, it’s the opportunities they reveal. Because we are enraged, because we seek to make sense of tragedies, we start peeling behind the surface and asking the questions that we generally do not ask of ourselves and of our world. As a result, these potent and seismic occurrences force us to see things as they truly are.

This reckoning can create opportunities. In my own experience, I’ve seen how the field of design is uniquely suited to seize these opportunities and address the systemic flaws that underlie disasters.

Floods in Pakistan: From Disaster to Opportunity

For the past year, Reboot has been working on a project that illustrates the potential of design solutions in disaster contexts.

In August 2010, massive floods swept through the Indus Valley, inundating one-fifth of Pakistan. Seventeen-hundred people were killed, 1.89 million homes were destroyed, 20 million people were displaced, and the damages to the Pakistani economy were estimated at $43 billion. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called it the worst disaster he had ever seen.

But these floods weren’t a natural disaster. Pakistan lies in the Indus River basin, one of the most complex and difficult water management situations in the world. The British colonialists had erected several major irrigation projects, which the Pakistanis tried to build on. It was well-known that this was a precarious system that required close monitoring, preventative care, and good planning.

And funds had been allocated to do just that. In its 30 years of existence, Pakistanʼs Federal Flood Commission (FFC) has received approximately US $900 million for preventative measures against floods. But corruption, bad governance, and misappropriation of funds has resulted in only a minority of proposed projects actually being realized. Transparency International estimates that up to 70 percent of the FFCʼs lifetime budget had been embezzled.

Thereʼs no doubt about it: Mankind created the disaster in Pakistan. As a result of corruption and mismanagement, record rainfalls went from a predictable but containable event into a disaster that spiraled out of control.

Now, itʼs not all doom and gloom. In looking at how we responded to the disaster last year, there is some positive news. A group of public and private organizations collaborated to disburse emergency funds in the wake of the floods.

They did so through preloaded debit cards, a revolutionary way to disburse aid. Using the cards, families could collect their money through an ATM machine, at a bank, or (as was far more likely) they could use their own mobile phones to access relief funds and pay for emergency items.

Compared to transporting cash around the country and using purely paper-based mechanisms, it was a faster, more reliable, and more secure way to disburse emergency relief. These cards were a critical lifeline; the program was an incredible achievement.

But they were also temporary. Though innovative, the program did not address the structural flaws that gave rise to the disaster in the first place. Weʼve certainly come a long way with our impressive technology tools and rapid response systems. But at the end of the day, interventions are still incredibly short-sighted.

Letʼs examine how the disaster grew. Why were families so vulnerable in the first place? Why were they so exposed to risk and shock? It was partly because they lacked the basic services and protection mechanisms that you and I enjoy.

I assume most of us at this conference keep our money in a bank account. When Hurricane Irene hit last month, I didnʼt worry about whether my life savings would wash away. This is a luxury that 9 out of 10 Pakistanis don’t have — banks rejected them for accounts. It’s the same with insurance products; because institutions do not see the poor as attractive, viable customers, the poor are not able to protect themselves against disasters.

These have long been recognized as challenges, but in the wake of the floods, we realized the vital importance of access to financial protections, and the impacts of inequitable distribution of services.

As I mentioned, disasters often create and reveal new opportunities. Because of the relief cards in Pakistan, nearly 2 million people had bank accounts for the first time in their lives. It was an important change — and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring formal, permanent protection to millions of rural poor.

But, although everyone realized the massive gains to be had in banking the poor, the service providers and various stakeholders (including a philanthropic foundation in the United States, an NGO in Canada, and the implementing bank in Pakistan) didnʼt have a good sense of what the poor were like.

One Pakistani bank executive admitted: “I was lucky enough to be born into a privileged class; now, though I want to serve the poor, I have no idea what they need and how to get it to them.” To the bankers in Karachi, the poor were just one homogenous whole.

We started with design research to help bridge the distance between the service providers and their end-users, to examine how both their needs could be met.

We started with users. We needed to deeply and intimately understand their needs, desires, constraints, and environment. We did several weeks of intensive interviews and observations, and we used and mapped all sorts of services: health care, insurance, social and employment services, and even a day monitoring the comings and goings at a rural post office, a source of critical services for rural populations.To imagine valid solutions, we needed to understand what it was like to be one of our users in day-to-day situations.

Through this process, we were able to create detailed user personas that were both highly narrative — to give life to the people and contexts we sought to serve — and highly analytical. We recorded indicators such as income, literacy, technology usage, and social habits, so that the implementing bank would be able to do as sophisticated market segmentation and product development as they did for their wealthy customers.

Simultaneously, we also embedded with the service provider (the bank). It was critical to understand their priorities and operations in great detail. We spoke to staff from the corner office to the call center, to ensure we had an accurate picture of what was going on at all rungs and could design a system that met the needs of the organizationʼs internal users and interests.

Armed with a combined understanding of the rural poor and the bank that sought to serve them, we mapped user needs to organizational goals and capacities, and against opportunities both social and commercial.

We delivered a series of new design strategies that made the service more inclusive and relevant to rural Pakistanis. These strategies would allow service providers to better understand, communicate with, and serve the rural poor, both in flood relief programs and as part of longer term, mainstream business operations. They did so without fancy, new, “gee-whiz” technology, but through the basic mobile phones and human networks people already knew and trusted.

We integrated these strategies with the bankʼs operations in all functional areas and helped staff at all levels take ownership of this new knowledge. We made sure that the bank saw not just the social value of serving poor customers but the business value. This would ensure that the program was sustainable long after the aid money has dried up.

In the end, our strategies changed the way the bank thought about serving the rural poor. This reorientation meant that flood victims were no longer helpless causalities seeking aid, but empowered customers with agency in their own futures. From the starting point of what was essentially a band-aid solution, we started a process to protect poor, rural Pakistanis from the next disaster.

Looking Beyond Short-Term Solutions

The events in Pakistan became a disaster because people had not been considered when making decisions. Citizens had not been considered when institutions decided what to do with public money. Citizens had not been considered when government officials decided to pocket flood prevention funds. Citizens had not been considered when when basic risk mitigation plans were left collecting dust. The first challenge was simply to remember those that had been excluded and forgotten.

This, as you all know, is something design is very good at. Design holds its responsibility to users dear, and it is why I believe design is uniquely suited to address the systemic challenges — challenges of citizen neglect — behind disasters. Though the design process is skilled at creating new services and systems, I think its true value is in its philosophy. By putting first those that had been left behind, and are thus most vulnerable in times of crises, design can enable structural change.

And the glass-half-full perspective? Most disasters are man-made problems, which means there is usually a man-made solution. In fact, because disasters are our creations, it means that we can — and we must — have the courage and the persistence to correct our mistakes, so that those that are already most vulnerable arenʼt further punished by our errors.

As Junot Diaz, the Dominican author, has said: “We must refuse the old stories that tell us to interpret social disasters as natural disasters. We must refuse the familiar scripts of victims and rescuers that focus our energies solely on charity instead of systemic change.” We must take responsibility for the Frankensteins weʼve created and pledge to never let them repeat again. Letʼs take advantage of the opportunities provided by disasters to think beyond short-term solutions. Because a disaster, and its accompanying clarity, is a terrible thing to waste.

Innovations for Maternal and Child Health

Maternal mortality is the second leading cause of death, after HIV/AIDS, among women of reproductive age in low-income countries. One thousand women die every day due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. In low-income countries, a woman’s lifetime risk of dying of childbirth is 1 in 120; in high-income countries, it’s 1 in 44,300.

Frightening, isn’t it? But there is hope: 70 percent of maternal deaths are preventable.

The alarm bells have been ringing for decades, and the international community has been trying to tackle this issue for decades. The prevention formula has already been deconstructed and may seem straightforward: give pregnant women comprehensive antenatal care and have a skilled birth attendant deliver her child. But the challenge lies not in the what needs to be done to stop maternal mortality, rather, it lies in the how.

How do we recruit health professionals to work in low-resource areas, where pay is traditionally extremely low? How do we communicate with women so they understand the importance of antenatal care and delivering their child in the hands of skilled birth attendant? How do we address deeply embedded cultural and social norms that prevent women from making their own decisions? How does a woman access a health facility when faced with bad roads, no or expensive transportation, and her only option is to walk for 10 miles?

These are the question Reboot is tackling with Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian organization. Concern’s Innovations project started in 2009 to find bold, new ideas to address gaps in delivery of maternal, newborn and child health services (MNCH), with an initial focus on Sierra Leone, Malawi, and the Orissa State of India. The process began with extensive local consultations and participatory research to reveal what communities perceived as their barriers to accessing health and how they might overcome these barriers.

Click on image to zoom.

The main challenges identified were lack of drugs and effective health equipment; severe shortage of human resources in the health sector; great physical distances to reach health facilities; the gatekeepers to health (husbands, mothers-in-law, etc) having beliefs and adopting practices that often are at odds with modern medicine; and the gaping chasm between the formal and informal health sector.

Using these community-identified barriers, Concern now seeks to redefine existing solutions by adapting well-known best practices in MNCH to reflect localized interpretations of how things might be changed. We have been traveling with Concern for the past two weeks in Sierra Leone and Malawi, and we are working closely with their team to further develop new interventions rooted in community ideas; solicit expert advice on innovative solutions; conduct field analysis and feasibility assessments of proposed concepts; and illustrate how each intervention can be tailored to each context.

We are excited to be expanding boundaries of current public health approaches and supporting Concern Worldwide in their drive to bring cutting-edge solutions to reducing maternal mortality and improving child health. In being one-of-its-kind to truly engage in a community process, to actively seek and hear local experiences, and to validate their voices through co-designed solutions, the Innovations project has already proven to be a powerful catalyst for social change.

Understanding Technology and Stability in Tunisia

As my airport taxi rolled into central Tunis, I was struck by the sheer volume of satellites straining towards the sky. Saucer-shaped dishes sprung every which way from buildings, roofs, and balconies like a sea of invading alien ships. Make no mistake: Tunisians are very well connected.

Granted, my attention was biased. I’m here in Tunisia with a team from Reboot to understand how information and communication technologies are impacting the nation during this unique post-revolutionary period.

With this framing, it was hard not to also notice the countless advertisements for voice, broadband, and mobile services. These began cropping up from the moment I first stepped into the country. I couldn’t help but smile on reaching passport control, where a massive screen blasted promotions of Tunisie Telecom’s latest 3G mobile apps.

These simple yet pervasive consumer items made clear the Tunisian’s commitment to the knowledge economy. The numerous signs promoting classes in web development, software engineering, and social media marketing only served to reinforce this sense.


A sign advertises technology training classes in downtown Tunis.


But many of the steps undertaken to ‘digitize’ Tunisia’s economy were pushed by the now reviled former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With Tunisians now free to shape their own vision for the future, how might the emphasis on technology-enabled growth change? Perhaps more importantly for a stable society, how will previous investments in technology, and new ones to follow, impact job creation and the capacity of critical service providers?

These are but a few of the questions our team will work to answer over the weeks and months ahead. If you have an interest in these or similar questions, we encourage you to get in touch. Our approach recognizes and respects the vast amount of work being done in support of Tunisia’s future, by dedicated, experienced people here and abroad. We welcome research leads, discussion of methods, and other interesting queries. Just drop a note to insights AT thereboot DOT org with Tunisia in the subject line, and our team will get back with you.

Citizen Media in the Age of Algorithms

[Note: This post was commissioned by Ashoka Changemakers’ Citizen Media Global Innovation Competition.]

What is citizen media? This may seem like a silly question, given the context of the Citizen Media Global Innovation competition. But the concept is worth defining because it’s rapidly expanding.

Our media have been the fluid that connects our ideas since our earliest days as an articulate species. “Media” are any tools, mediums, or channels through which an individual or group creates and shares ideas. This is the process through which we form our conceptions of culture, power, justice, and community.

Our media were predominantly “citizen,” or individual, during the vast arc of human culture, extending over tens of thousands of years. Constrained by existing technology, almost all media — cave paintings, storytelling, song, and dance — were local and community-driven.

It is only recently that mass-produced ideas and broadcast-only media have emerged and grown into the dominant form. In some ways, the emerging, networked commons of citizen media is a hyper-connected version of the participatory media from which we began.

It’s certainly an exciting time to be an engaged citizen of the world. New technologies are creating media and platforms faster than bloggers and pundits can comment, annotate, and analyze them. There are countless new opportunities to manifest ideas and change our collective understanding of civilization.

Yet, for all the promise, we must be cautious and mindful as we move forward in creating the next innovations in citizen media. Great media theorists have long understood that media can be used todistractdisrupt, and manipulate.

We risk losing the ability to differentiate between benevolent and harmful applications as our media grow exponentially in number and complexity. Citizen media, despite the noble moniker, are not immune to these perils.

Much of the conversation around citizen media has centered on optimistic new tools for civic engagement. In pointing to the best examples of citizen media, many cite innovative platforms likeUshahidi and FrontlineSMS, or citizen-driven outlets like Twitter and Global Voices. But these represent only a marginal portion of the media being used by citizens throughout the world.

For a far larger percentage of the population — including those well-resourced and powerful members of our global community — platforms like Facebook and Google are the indispensable on-ramps to the human network. Their users number, not in the thousands or millions, but in the billions. They are the primary gateways to information about our governments, our culture, our politics, and our scientific achievements.

Yet, unlike technologies defined as “citizen media,” we barely understand how Facebook and Google control and manage the presentation of civic information. We need much more public discussion around the complex design decisions that drive the algorithms of these organizations.

Their elaborate calculations are arguably the most widely-used form of citizen media. Until we better comprehend how Facebook and Google control our flow of information, we’re unlikely to realize the potential of citizen media to bring communities together.

In Part Two of “Citizen Media in the Age of Algorithms,” I’ll discuss what is known about Facebook’s and Google’s algorithms, and examine their potentially negative consequences for citizen media.

Mobile Justice: An Argument for ‘Boring’ Solutions

In the past few months, I have been doing some considerable thinking about the most useful role for connection technologies in getting better justice outcomes.  I like the word “moju,” referring to “mobile justice,” mostly because I have this sense that we are on the verge of a judicial revolution the likes of mobile banking or mobile health, and “moju” gives it that kick in the pants that could really take it places.

When I think (more seriously) about how technologies can be useful, I see two main avenues: promoting access to justice and improving the functioning of public judicial administration.  In other words, technology can help regular citizens get connected to courts or it can help courts work more efficiently and effectively.

Both avenues are incredibly important, and many good organizations are working to solve the access-to-justice problem.  It is worth noting, however, the great value of the second, and perhaps more boring, leverage point: judicial administration.  By this, I mean digitizing court processes, using basic technology tools (group bulk SMS, mobile calendar functions, etc) to share judicial information between court personnel, and posting court information online.  In many places, it is not yet standard practice to read the law online or to file forms electronically — often because internet penetration is low or the national technological infrastructure is not yet present to make those activities relevant or even possible.

Some people might think that an approach that supports a justice system, instead of supporting indigent court users, is misguided. They might think it puts resources toward entities that already have some judicial savvy, in lieu of empowering the disenfranchised.

But if I were a large global institution with a lot of money to spend in mobile justice projects, I think I would choose to partner with public justice systems.

Here are three reasons why:

1. There are many, many disenfranchised people, with all sorts of different legal matters.  They are not organized as a group, so it can be hard to partner with some useful representative of their concerns; addressing the resource challenges of public justice systems requires a single and usually unified point of contact.  Partnering with justice systems that would want my organization’s help, ideally at the highest levels, makes this relationship almost golden — not only would I have a single contact point, but I would have a contact who can enact change holistically and at scale.

2. Disenfranchised court users ultimately rely on some public justice system (or customary/traditional dispute resolution process) to address their concerns — these institutions are in place precisely to enact sanctions that punish the guilty and restore justice to the situation. Focusing my organization’s resources on court users instead of justice systems is like treating the symptom and not the disease.  Enhancing the functioning of the system itself gets to the root of the problem, and gives the court system an opportunity to create better accountability mechanisms nationally.

3. There are many civil society organizations (CSOs) working the access-to-justice route, supporting legal resources for the poor.  A large grant-funding institution would not necessarily do this any better than these organizations do.  Remember: legal issues are local in nature and these CSOs have local knowledge to make their interventions meaningful.  Challenging 100 of them to submit mobile justice ideas for grant funding might be an interesting way of supporting their work, but the impact here is still indirect, relative to a direct partnership with a judicial system.

Here are two readings that highlight the great need for enhancing public justice systems, much more eloquently than I have narrated — both are well worth the read:

The Enforcer: A Christian Lawyer’s Global Crusade
Samantha Power, New Yorker, January 29, 2009

And Justice for All: Enforcing Human Rights for the World’s Poor
Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, Foreign Affairs May/June 2010

So, in sum, +1 for the boring avenue.  It may be more important than we think.

Beyond the Headlines: Mobile Money Afghanistan

“So then I gave up my daughter to pay off my debt.” My pen stopped.

We were in Mazar-e Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan. The woman in front of me, a poor mother of six, was describing how debilitating debt — to the tune of AFN 140,000, or USD 3,100 — had driven her to give her eldest daughter to the family’s creditor.

Her voice did not quiver, her eyes did not water. It was a thing of the past, a fact of life, something that had to be done. And this mother’s story, while unique in particulars, was common in thrust. Indeed, over the course of three weeks in Afghanistan, time and time again I was told: in times of great hardship, sacrifice is inevitable and exceptional circumstances are the norm.

Such tales of ‘life, going on’ are documented in the recently released Mobile Money Afghanistan. This report was born of a study conducted in August 2010, when Jan Chipchase and I traveled through Afghanistan to study the use of mobile money. Local mobile operator Roshan had launched a mobile banking service, M-Paisa, in 2008. Though the young service had been put to creative uses, including fighting corruption within the the Afghan National Police, mass market success was still unsettled. Thus, Jan and I were there, with the generous support of the Institute of Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion, to explore the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead. And, as services are inextricably tied to the people and environments in which they exist, naturally, we spent as much time getting to know people as we did the products meant to serve them.

Mobile Banking in Afghanistan

The ordinary Afghans featured in the publication are the people many international groups are working for but — due to constraints security-related or otherwise — are unable to access. Those we met revealed their strategies for managing life in times of chaos and their techniques for navigating systems permeated by graft. They described how they bend systems to their will in order to survive, and even flourish. They shared their hopes for themselves, their children, and their nation. And they showed us how, against the odds, in ways small and large, they are working to realize their ambitions.

As for the role of mobile money? Unsurprisingly, mobile technology has the potential to support Afghan aspirations, but significant challenges must be overcome before that potential is realized. Key hurdles common to mobile banking deployments globally include a lack of market awareness, motivating and managing agent performance, and limited customer motivation to adopt the services. Indeed, on the consumer side, a general wariness of institutions coupled with popular preference for the long-established hawala system — “they’ve served me, my father, and my grandfather” — point to the hurdles mobile banking faces in winning over converts.


Other challenges unique to Afghanistan include the absence of a fixed address system. A shopkeeper in Mazar described how he once walked for two hours to find an agent willing to cash out his mobile money transfer. The experience left him wary of mobile banking, and he swore to never place the same burden on a friend. The solution? “Now, I only use Kabul Bank—no matter where you are, everyone knows how to get to the closest one.” Addressing challenges around maintaining agent liquidity, he adds, “And there is never a problem withdrawing cash from the bank—they always have it when I ask for it.” (Granted, this was before the run on Kabul Bank last September.) Textual, financial, and technological illiteracy—mistrust of ‘electronifying cash’ is not uncommon—only add to the barriers.

Despite these challenges, great opportunities remain. To the extent that banking penetration in Afghanistan remains low while mobile penetration is rapidly growing, mobile money represents paths to access, stability, liberation, and power.

Afghanistan’s youth already recognize, and have seized upon, technology’s potential. Mobile in particular factors heavily not just in their daily lives, but in their broader understanding of social empowerment. Female university students in Kabul described how they participated in mass SMS debates on politics and governance. A young man in Jalalabad told us how he and his friends spend much of their day ‘hanging out’ in group conference calls lasting hours on end — gender dynamics in these chat rooms, suffice to say, were fascinating. A young woman in Mazar declared that by facilitating direct, private male-female communication, mobile phones are the biggest driver of love marriages (versus traditional arranged marriages) in Afghanistan.

These signs suggest that mobile platforms are increasingly a part of everyday social transactions. To what extent mobile money will emerge as a force within these transactions ultimately remains to be seen.

The Afghanistan of the news is not the Afghanistan its people live—no place is. Hopefully, Mobile Money Afghanistan, and the accompanying public materials, provide greater insight into a country many only know from tragic, frustrating headlines.

You can find the publication here or from the site of my colleague Jan, where you can also download 170 Creative Commons licensed photos [40MB download].

Thank you to all those who helped us along the way. Our team in Afghanistan: Enayat Najafizada, Airokosh Faizi, Mokhtar Hajji, Hamid Tasal, and Farida Rustamkh. Bill Maurer and Jenny Fan at IMTFI for all their support and guidance. Sam Martin and Tom Manning at frog design for all their help with the publication. Shainoor Khoja, Zahir Khoja, and Evan Decorte at Roshan for making time for us, and for their insights. Grateful, as ever, to Jan Chipchase for his vision and direction on another fine study. And, of course, thank you to all those in Afghanistan that let us into their lives.

Images: Jan Chipchase