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Introducing Design With: A Reboot Podcast Series

Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.

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.

Wang Jun: In Pursuit of Urban Dreams

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized (event details and RSVP here), we’d like to feature some of their stories.

 

Wang Jun, 27, is a migrant worker. He is among a floating population of 250 million strong with no legal status that has been the engine behind China’s economic boom.

Ten years ago, at the age of 17, Wang Jun packed a small bag, left his village in northeastern Hebei Province, and boarded a 40-hour train to bustling Kunming in China’s southwest. He left behind his parents and grandparents, all of whom worked as subsistence farmers on the family’s meager plot, and traveled to a big city.

Through a friend from his hometown, Wang Jun met a laoban (a labor boss and middleman). The laoban got him a job on the construction site of a five-star hotel. Working six days a week in 12-hour shifts, he earns RMB 1,000 (USD 160) each month.

All of Wang Jun’s possessions fit into a small suitcase he carries home every year for Spring Festival. He lives in a shared dormitory, with 12 bunk beds to a room, no walls, and no secure place to store his belongings. His room is one in a series of low-slung, non-insulated buildings that house hundreds of workers on the site. He owns a simple mobile phone for keeping in touch with his family, but rarely uses it because those calls are always filled with pressure to find a wife.

Wang Jun desperately wants to find a wife. But in order to be considered a viable suitor, he needs to first buy a home. At the rate things are going, Wang Jun worries he will be an old man before he can afford such a purchase. He’s heard of training courses that would qualify him to work in skilled mechanical trades to earn a higher wage, but the cost of such courses would deplete his meager savings, putting him further from what he needs for a house.

He can’t decide which is riskier: staying at his current, low-paying job with the hope of one day becoming a laoban himself, or making a huge investment in training that may—or may not—pay off in a few years.

With no basic financial literacy, Wang Jun doesn’t trust or participate in the modern banking system, but with his communal living situation, he has nowhere to store his earnings. Instead, his laoban holds his wages for safekeeping, an arrangement that reduces the risk of theft but keeps him locked in the working relationship. He gets paid twice a year. If he needs money before his biannual payday, his laoban will give him an advance as long as he has worked the days to cover it.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial but also lopsided. While Wang Jun avoids the temptation to spend his earnings and his laoban maintains control over his workers, Wang Jun remains indebted to his laoban, working without a contract because his boss holds his money.

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Reaching the Bottom Billion

On January 18, for the first time in over a decade, China released official figures on economic inequality.

The verdict?

Even the government is calling the wealth gap “relatively large.” Part of the problem is that China’s incredible growth story is overwhelmingly urban. City residents currently earn on average three times as much as their rural compatriots.

But an important corollary is that financial access has not kept pace with an increasingly transient population. As hundreds of millions of migrant workers flood Chinese cities in search of opportunity, they lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods

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Migrant workers sit on their bunks in a dormitory beside a Beijing construction site. Hundreds of
millions of migrant workers flood Chinese cities in search of opportunity, but financial access has not kept pace with an increasingly transient population.

With the support of the Institute of Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion, Reboot undertook a study to develop a deep understanding of the daily lives of migrant workers, as well as rural villagers and ethnic minorities. Our goal is to inform the development of new financial services that can tap into this immense potential market and, in doing so, greatly increase these populations’ access to economic opportunity.

On February 11, we’ll be releasing the results of our research publicly in Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized. We’re excited to be hosting our first book launch, and invite you to attend! You can find more details and RSVP here.

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In the run up to our launch event, we’ll be using our blog to feature some of the human stories we captured along the way. Stay tuned to meet Wang Jun the migrant worker attracted by the opportunities of urban life, Peng the elderly rural villager trying to make ends meet, and more. Our hope is that by understanding the lives of China’s most vulnerable, we can design services that align with existing behaviors and help lift millions of Chinese citizens into stability.

We're Hiring!

We’re searching for an exceptionally talented set of collaborators to help expand our team as we enter our next phase of growth. You can find out more details on our Careers page. If you think you’re an ideal candidate, or if you know someone who is, we’d like to hear from you.

Panthea Lee Speaks at Microsoft Research

Last week, Microsoft Research Fuse Labs hosted Reboot’s Panthea Lee at its annual Social Computing Symposium. This year’s symposium focused on populations and topics “off the radar.” In the era of Big Data, Panthea asked what might exist in the “negative space”? Who are we not capturing in our datasets? And how might we reach them?

Welcome to Adam Talsma!

We are so excited to welcome Adam Talsma as our new Program Designer. Adam comes to us by way of a diverse international background—with a recent focus on Latin America and South Asia—bringing extensive experience developing products and services in resource-constrained contexts. A trained engineer and innate maker, we’re thrilled to have Adam leading participatory design across our projects and helping us develop creative, appropriate, and locally sustainable solutions. Welcome aboard!

An Election System in Need of Redesign

The results are in!

Since November 6, we’ve been hard at work digesting the data we received from Pollwatch. We kicked off the Pollwatch project at the PDF:Applied hackathon last year in collaboration with Websava and Common Cause NY to uncover and alleviate the challenges that voters face on election day.

With inauguration day two weeks away, we thought it was a good time to share what we learned.

The verdict? Voting is much harder than it should be.

We received hundreds of reports on Pollwatch, revealing many areas for improvement in the voting process. But one problem in particular took the cake with one third of all reports: wait times (2 hours on average among those that reported the issue and up to 5 hours in one instance).

 

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Importantly, wait times are symptomatic of other issues, and the Pollwatch reports provided some insight into what those issues might be. For example, many reports for long wait times also indicated that the ballot scanning machines were not working. Other reports spoke of a lengthy voter check-in process (when poll workers find voters in the registration book and give them their ballots).

The timing of these reports alluded to a more serious issue: poll sites are incapable of handling peak periods, especially during the morning rush.

The New York City Board of Elections’ Poll Workers Manual (page 8) demonstrates the theoretical voter experience flow. This layout is sensible when demand is low and lines are short.

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But, the reports indicated that the system strains and ultimately breaks down when lines are long, which they inevitably are during peak voting periods. Apparently, the Board is not properly accounting for the variance in demand (see endnote) for voting, and this is causing cascading failures.

Long lines and wait times also contributed to another widely reported problem: confusion. Confusion manifested itself in several ways, but was widespread in over 40% of reports that had comments about poll site crowding and layout challenges.

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The Board of Elections is most likely aware of overcrowding and the other challenges that voters faced on election day. But the Board faced challenges too, and we should give credit where credit is due.

The Board had the monumental task of:

  1. Building and training a workforce of some 33,800 poll workers;
  2. Calculating a sufficient supply of ballots, booths, and other election materials for over 1,200 poll sites;
  3. Distributing materials to each of those sites; and
  4. Collecting the results for the portion of the 4.2 million registered voters who cast ballots this past November.

Additionally, Governor Cuomo’s order in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to allow affidavit voting in the affected election districts was received literally hours before polls opened, leaving election staff with little time to print and distribute the additional ballots.

The Board’s work must be recognized as both diligent and earnest. In an era of widespread government funding cuts, the Board is doing more with less. But there is clearly still room for improvement.

The good news?

Inexpensive and impactful interventions exist that can make voting a markedly smoother process in the short run. For example, simply improving signage or changing the queueing layout could make wayfinding easier and cut down wait times significantly.

Voting is the foundation of our democracy and part of the fabric of American society. But when our election system fails us, voters become disengaged. We do not need a new iPad at every poll site check-in or a complete revamp of internal HR technology to keep voters enfranchised. What we do need are common sense solutions that can go a long way toward improving the voter experience.

We’ll be hashing out those solutions in upcoming posts, so stay tuned for more to come from Pollwatch.

End note:
The average is demonstrated in the calculation of ballot machines, which is based on the average number of voters in the district. The poll worker allocation algorithm is not immediately evident. But the Board’s poll worker hiring practices indicates that each poll worker is hired for the full election day, which turns out to be in some cases upwards of 18 hours. Hiring all poll workers in this fashion leaves little ability in poll staff to ramp-up supply in periods of peak demand.

Reboot: A Year in Review

Reboot was founded to realize open, inclusive, and participatory platforms for human development. Working with the world’s leading institutions, we sought to work towards a 21st century social contract.

2012 has been an incredible year for us toward reaching these goals. The end of the year is always a nice period of reflection, and we thought we’d share some highlights from our year.

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We started 2012 with an article in Touchpoint: the Journal of Service Design discussing our belief that improving services is the key to realizing human rights in practice. Services matter because it is largely through these relationships between citizens and institutions where human outcomes are improved. To affect social change, the right policies are important – and we do plenty of work on those. But, ultimately, we frequently return to services because they are where ‘the rubber hits the road’.

Patrick and Jeremy

That same month we welcomed Patrick Ainslie, our Director of Operations, and Jeremy Canfield, our Service Designer. Patrick has formerly held positions with NYC Mayor’s Office, Wieden+Kennedy, and the Center for Urban Experience. He is a systems engineer, researcher, and storyteller who both runs the Reboot ship and conducts fieldwork across projects. Jeremy is an experienced systems designer who specializes in creating technology platforms that enable good governance. He was among the inaugural class of Code for America fellows, where he led the design of the Civic Commons Marketplace. He also previously worked for the US Government Accountability Office.

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In February, we kicked off two projects near and dear to our hearts. The first was with Safe Horizon, a victims services organization here in NYC, to help them improve their outreach to trafficking survivors. This collaboration wrapped up in September, and saw us delivering an innovative intervention through over-the-counter financial services centers. While these centers are often stigmatized, they are also effective (and underutilized) channels to reach trafficked persons.

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We also began work on a social accountability program for agriculture and healthcare services in Nigeria. Our system allows citizens to report on the delivery of these services using basic mobile phones, and uses their inputs to improve these services. This was the first of three collaborations with the Government of Nigeria and World Bank social accountability team that we initiated this year.

And we welcomed Beth Dunlap, Associate, to the team. Beth is an international development specialist with expertise in human rights, political transition, and cross-sector development programming. Prior to Reboot, she worked with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and the International Organization for Migration in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia.

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In March, we published “Tunisia: From Revolutions to Institutions”. Launched just after the one-year anniversary of Tunisia’s revolution, and of the Arab Spring, it examines how the international community can leverage technology to support good governance, economic development, and social cohesion in post-revolution Tunisia. Our findings were featured widely, including at the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society, on Harvard’s Radio Berkman, and at the Information and Communications Technology for Development Conference – where we were also lucky enough to lead a workshop with our good friends at Grameen Foundation on “People-Centered Design for Marginalized Populations”.

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In May, we helped judge the Ashoka Changemakers Citizen Media Global Innovation Competition. The competition yielded some fantastic entries, such as: Mideast Youth’s CrowdVoice, a way to view, share, moderate, and organize information about human rights movements and demonstrations; 5th Pillar, whose tools empower Indian citizens to help battle corruption; and FreedomBox, which enables digital privacy, anonymity, and security.

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In May we also participated in “Recharging Communities”, an event hosted by desigNYC at the Wanted Design Fair, where we shared our experiences in addressing social challenges in NYC. It was great to see designers and social justice organizations come together to tackle issues from food security to economic development to green infrastructure.

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PDF: Applied, the first hackathon by Personal Democracy Forum, in June saw two podium finishes by Reboot-infused teams. First place went to PollWatchUSA, a platform to crowdsource reporting problems at elections polls developed with our friends at Common Cause NY, Websava, and TurboVote. Second prize was OpenUp NYC, a user-friendly way to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, cooked up in collaboration with NYC’s Public Advocate’s Office and with friends from Code for America, GovHub, and Reinvent Albany.

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July was a big month for us, beginning with the wonderful Kate Krontiris joining Reboot as our third principal. Prior to Reboot, Kate built an impressive portfolio of projects at Google Ideas, the US Department of State, and the Center for Court Innovation, spearheading a diverse range of justice-related initiatives in the US and abroad. At Reboot, Kate has continued to be a force of nature, leading our US-based client engagements and managing our internal culture.

Core77 Design Awards

Although July saw our Core77 series on design and international development conclude, we were pleased to captain the service design jury for the Core77 Design Awards. Along with colleagues from Deloitte GovLab, Method, Parsons, and Doblin, we evaluated an impressive number of entries from around the world and celebrated innovation in service design.

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Our infographics for the World Bank’s Information and Communications for Development 2012: Maximizing Mobile launched in July, translating a complex set of ideas about technology and development into a format that inspires and informs. Ultimately, international development is about narratives of change; we embrace using strong communications design to ensure critical ideas are effectively translated, so they can be effectively acted upon.

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In August, we were head down in project work, but did find the time to head to the Behavioral Economics Summit to learn about the latest developments in the psychology of decision-making to apply to our own project work. We also popped over to visit our good friends at SVA: Impact! Design for Social Change.  It’s our second year guest-lecturing, and we have a special place in our heart for Impact!, given that we found our incredible Creative Lead Mollie Ruskin there.

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In September, we started gearing up for a very busy fall. The month started with us working with Internews to support the political interests of citizens in the most deprived region of Pakistan. The upcoming 2013 general election will be the first time communities from the region will have their interests represented on the national stage. To leverage this moment, independent and good quality information about the political process will be vital to these communities.

We’ll be sharing more about this work in 2013. For now, here are some key takeaways from a talk at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and a guide to using design research for media development that have come out of this project. Although the guide is aimed at media development practitioners, we believe it has valuable lessons for the broader international development community.

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In September, we also began to support Merck for Mothers. Merk for Mothers is a new USD 500 million, 10-year initiative from the global healthcare leader that seeks to harness Merck’s core areas of expertise to reduce maternal mortality globally. While we’re keeping mum on this for now – pun intended – we hope to be sharing more in the coming year.

With such a busy month, we were pleased to welcome Meng Yan, Design Intern, and Megan Marini, Program Coordinator, to our team. Yan is a visual communicator and design thinker who brings creativity, empathy, and a keen eye for beauty to her drive for translating complex information into meaningful and bite-sized designs. Megan is an urban planner and architect who has taken a keen interest in the economic and political landscape of cities and regions.

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And, of course, in September, we also celebrated our two-year birthday! It was a period of celebration (cake and bubbly!) and reflection. In looking back on what we had set out to do two years ago, we realized we’ve done alright. We are grateful to all those who have supported us in reaching this milestone.

In October, we were honoured to join the Community Advisory Board for the Harlem Justice Corps. Harlem Justice Corps is a career development and service learning program for justice-involved young men and women who are seeking employment, education services, and meaningful opportunities to serve their communities.

We were also pleased to see friends old and new at the Code For America 2012 Summit where our service designer Jeremy Canfield returned to show the new fellows the ropes.

And we welcomedlong-time collaborator Kate Petty onboard as an Associate Editor. Kate has been the editorial guiding light behind many of Reboot’s publications, and we’re lucky she’s chosen to work with Reboot, along with her other great clients such as Ashoka and Rebuild the Dream.

nigeria

October also saw a good chunk of our team in Nigeria working on two projects. The first is an open government program with the Government of Nigeria and the World Bank, focused on public financial management in the Niger Delta, alongside PricewaterhouseCoopers Nigeria, Stakeholder Democracy Network, and a host of other partners. The other project focused on education reform broadly, and teacher management and support in particular. Given the nature of both projects, that’s all that we’ll share for now, but stay tuned for more updates in the coming year.

ted

We also were able to share our vision for inclusivity at TEDxDumbo, where the theme was City 2.0. As we continue to make leaps and bounds in urban planning, sustainable development, and civic technology, we hope (and work hard to ensure) that our cityscapes of the future will be designed to benefit those most in need.

In November, Election Day saw the launch of our beloved PollWatch (mentioned above) – an event worthy of coverage by the New York Times. Take a look at some of the results. In the same month, at Parsons Desis Lab, we spoke about the need for designed ser­vices and explored how this plays out in the NYC landscape, with a focus on the criminal justice system. And we curated a conversation about the use of technology to tackle social issues, shining a light on how technology can help empower women at Ashoka Changemakers.

We also had the opportunity to flex our visual design chops, creating digital annual reports for the changemakers at the Bus Federation Civic Fund, to help them communicate about their successes in engaging young people in democracy during the 2012 election.

And that brings us to December.

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Perhaps the most exciting news this month is welcoming Ethan Wilkes, our Director of Communications. Ethan comes to us by way of a diverse background spanning four continents and over 50 countries, including stints with the US Embassy in China, the US Department of State, and as Columbia University’s former media mogul. As our new chief storyteller, he’ll be responsible for bringing Reboot’s “people first” vision of good governance to a global audience.

In more team happenings, this month also saw our brilliant Communications Designer Jennifer Thibault present her thesis on personal brand and identity in the modern day at Pratt. Janessa Goldbeck, our amazing associate and one of the original Rebooters, also finished Officer Candidate School with the US Marine Corps. So that’s now Lieutenant Goldbeck to you!

We also had the great pleasure of supporting Internews’ Center for Innovation and Learning in its launch of its new Design Research for Media Development Guide [PDF] and its companion portal. Over the past few months, and into 2013, we are working together to leverage design to positively intervene in complex human systems and to catalyze information exchange. The journey of the site follows the design research study in Pakistan mentioned above.

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We’ve also just wrapped a book on our work around financial inclusion in China, with the support of the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion. Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized explores the daily lives of China’s poor and discusses how to develop new services that can help increase these populations’ access to economic opportunity and security.

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Alongside folks like John Maeda, Chris Anderson, and John Hockenberry, we had the opportunity to share Reboot’s vision in American Dreamers, a compilation of dreams from inventors, optimists, and mavericks with ideas for a brighter future. Read an excerpt of our chapter here.

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And finally, December saw us showcase our work at Making All Voices Count, a partnership by Sweden, USAID, DFID, and Omidyar Network, that challenges solvers, technologists, academics, development specialists, and others to think different about accountability, transparency, and transitioning the way governments and citizens interact. We were invited to share our thoughts on how Reboot works towards this goal every day, and look forward to seeing how others will respond to this challenge.

It’s been quite the year!

We’ve tackled some big problems, we’ve made many beautiful things, and we’ve done it with a passionate, dedicated, and visionary team, and the best collaborators we could ask for. Thank you to all those who have supported, challenged, and engaged with us through the year – we’re all better because of it.

Of course, the above is just what we can share. There’s been a fair bit going on that we can’t talk about just yet, and a lot more that we’re cooking up for the new year, so please do come back and visit. But by all measures, 2013 is shaping up to be pretty exciting, and we can’t wait to dive in.

In the coming year, we hope to continue demonstrating how an empathetic, people-driven approach to governance can yield better and more sustainable improvements in human livelihoods worldwide.

And, as always, we’d love to hear from you, or to connect with you on Facebook or Twitter.

Happiest of holidays to you and yours, and see you in 2013!

City 2.0: A Call for Inclusivity

This is a modified version of a talk from TEDxDumbo, where the theme was City 2.0.

Cities matter.

For the first time in human history, over half of the world’s population are urban animals. By 2050, the United Nations projects that the portion of our planet residing in urban areas could rise to 70 percent. We live in a world in which urban problems will become, almost by definition, national and international problems. Cities are the workshops in which many of the world’s most intractable challenges—from poverty alleviation to environmental sustainability—will be solved.

Here at Reboot, we are deeply interested in improving 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. The notion of City 2.0—the idea that we have at our disposal the technologies, relationships, and human capacity to make cities better for everyone—is immensely exciting for us. City 2.0 represents 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 longtime 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 operated. 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 person. 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 does City 2.0 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 indeed many new tools that 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. Rather than enabling, these services confined Fatou and helped keep her captive.

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 instead to disconnect.

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 person, Fatou was terrified that one look at her papers—any of her papers—would mean it was all over. Whether it was not seeing a doctor when she got sick, or crossing the street when she saw a police officer, Fatou was constantly trying to escape from connected institutional service systems.

I got to know Fatou, and many others like her, through work Reboot recently did with Safe Horizon, an amazing victims’ assistance agency here in NYC.

We are making leaps and bounds in urban planning, sustainable development, and civic technology, but by which metrics are we judging our own progress? What does City 2.0 mean when the fundamental security, freedom, and dignity of the most vulnerable amongst us cannot be secured? When we work to empower people to exercise the change they want—the aim of City 2.0—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.” In the era of Big Data, many still aren’t captured as datapoints. For all that we’ve accomplished through groundbreaking open government initiatives, most still have a barrier to participation that is not insignificant.

Thus, we must be imaginative and proactive in engaging with those who are not represented in the City 2.0 ideas du jour.

As humans, we are biased toward looking for information in places where information is quick to find and easy to work with—these days, that largely means digital and online. But the next time you’re looking at a dataset, beyond looking at the demographics that are represented, look for the gaps—the ethnicities, the age groups, the neighbourhoods, and 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. In the digital age, however, be forewarned that much of their data may not be machine-readable. You may need to pick up the phone or go to their office. While maybe not the most efficient means, the efforts will pay off in rich, useful insights about populations that must be considered 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. Ethnography means literally “a portrait of people.” By talking to thousands of people worldwide whose lived experiences are so different from our own, we have learned to recognize our own flawed assumptions, and we try to paint deeper, more accurate portraits of people 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 oft-overlooked people get what they need.

Our ethnographic work has taught us to see the gaps in today’s data-driven portraits of people and place, and to advocate for a more balanced approach to understanding each other and to build our collective future.

As we work together to build the cities of the future, let us remember the most vulnerable amongst us. Let us recognize our own blind-spots and work to address them, so that we build future cityscapes that are inclusive and empathetic. Through intentional, thoughtful, inclusive design, we can define the values that guide our cities and represent us as a people.

This is our vision for City 2.0, and we hope you’ll work with us to make it yours as well.

Panthea Lee & Zack Brisson Pen Chapter in American Dreamers

The newly released book American Dreamersa compilation of dreams from inventors, optimists, and mavericks with ideas for a brighter future, features a chapter by Reboot’s Panthea Lee and Zack Brisson. Titled “A Fighting Chance,” the chapter is an exploration of our vision of how good governance contributes to a better tomorrow.

Toward a 21st Century Social Contract

In a small office on East 20th Street in New York City, Reboot is working toward a social contract for the 21st century. We’re driven in this work, because the rules of the game are changing. An emboldened global citizenry, empowered by increased connectivity, is demanding more from its leadership: justice, accountability, a shot at a decent life, and a livelihood with dignity.

And, frankly, because we can do better.

Too many of the world’s people live in difficult, debilitating circumstances. Some factors are beyond our control. We cannot prevent the occurrence of droughts, floods, and earthquakes. Luck of the draw dictates whether we are born into a rich country or a poor one, with fertile soil or famine, with clean drinking water or waterborne diseases.

But many disasters are not random acts of fate. They are man-made, the products of bad decisions and ineffective systems that compound the negative effects of unpredictable events. Hurricane Katrina was unavoidable. The socio-economic breakdown in New Orleans that ensued from an inadequate, poorly planned government response was not. As development practitioners, we share a responsibility to mitigate what factors we can, not just out of a desire “to do good” but to actively minimize harm.

The good news: we already have the tools to do so. Technological innovation has made contributing to the processes of governance a more easily understood and accessible affair. New channels for constructive engagement are redefining the relationships between service providers and their users, opening myriad opportunities to deliver better outcomes. This is the promise of open governance, and the foundation of a 21st century social contract.

Reboot is working on the frontlines of these transitions.

We partner with the world’s leading organizations to develop, design, and deploy platforms for inclusive and participatory governance. By helping these powerful bodies become more responsive to the communities they serve, we build on existing structures to affect positive change sustainably and at scale.

Our focus is largely on service design and delivery. We view services as the regular interactions—the relationships—between individuals and institutions. While the right policies are important, ultimately services are where ‘the rubber hits the road’. The most concrete means of improving livelihoods, good services allow people to lift themselves out of poverty, to make their voices heard, to live better lives.

Technology is an important enabler of good services. A recent United Nations report estimated that 86 percent of the world’s population—some six billion people—now uses a mobile phone. These are exciting statistics when considering the deployment of mobile-based systems for political participation, social accountability, financial inclusion, education, health care, justice, and more.

Still, the key word here is “enabler.” The provision of better technology is not an end in itself. The most state-of-the-art systems, fastest computing, and best mobile apps offer no guarantee on a better tomorrow, nor do they resolve a more fundamental chasm between institutions and the individuals whose lives they hope to improve: service providers and their users often inhabit two very different worlds.

Reconciling this disconnect requires innovation of a different sort: empathy.

Reboot believes that good services are rooted in ground realities and driven by human needs and aspirations. Discovering these qualities is a process that foremost begins with humility—toward both users and service providers—to understand people and the environments they inhabit. In the age of Big Data, we advocate face-to-face interaction to surface actionable insights on human behavior that the bias of statistical certainty might otherwise overlook.

Ours is a time-consuming, difficult process. But a “people first” approach ensures that the services we deliver are well calibrated to the organizations that aim to implement them and the communities that hope to use them. Nowhere is this more apparent than our current efforts in Nigeria. Working with the Government of Nigeria and the World Bank, we have engaged individuals at all levels of civil society—from farmers’ community groups to traditional village leadership—to design a social accountability program that is both innovative and realistic. The program allows citizens to input on the quality of public service delivery via basic mobile phones, and creates incentives for government to provide timely, tangible responses.

This is one example of the work we do globally and among our contributions toward a more open, inclusive, and participatory tomorrow.

The challenges plaguing our world are many, and the search for solutions is difficult. But a 21st century social contract offers the promise of individuals and institutions engaging each other to collectively produce better outcomes. This is a vision of the future where we all have a fighting chance, because our voices have been taken into account. This is a future where we are stewards of our circumstances and not prisoners of fate. And this is a future that should be available to all of us, irrespective of whether we are born into a rich country or a poor one, with fertile soil or famine, with clean drinking water or waterborne diseases.

Portrait of our Times: Women, Technology, and Inclusivity in the City

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.

“If You Break It, You Fix It” and Other Creeds of the Young Makers Among Us

This blog post was one of the series we did for the “She Will Innovate” competition, launched by Intel Corporation and Ashoka Changemakers to find innovative technology solutions to enrich the lives of girls. In this series, we discussed the question of “What is a challenge to the women in your community and what solution have you found from within your own context and resources to address that challenge?” We welcome you to share and join the discussion with our thought leader Kate Krontiris in the Speak Up Space.

 

I recently had the pleasure of meeting 11-year-old Raven Holston-Turner. The day I met her, she had henna tattoos all over her hands and was handling a digital soldering iron.

A native of Detroit, Raven solders badges that light up, creates gigantic puppets, and sews Indian saris.  She says that when she first started soldering — at the Mt. Elliot Makerspace in the bottom of a local church — she couldn’t stop.  “I just kept soldering and soldering and soldering,” she said.  Raven thinks that the coolest thing she has ever made was an enormous puppet for Mardi Gras festival and while she is working on a robotic arm right now, her next project is going to be a remote-controllable RC car.

Among the things she learned from making these various inventions is patience: “something doesn’t just build itself overnight, you’ve got to build it yourself,” she says.  She’s also learned that if something breaks, you don’t just go buy something else.  “If you break it, you fix it.”  When I met Raven about a month ago, her dream was to study journalism at Harvard University. In her free time, she writes stories and reads books — oh, and takes for a ride in the park a bike that she constructed herself.  Even though she has now taught over 200 people how to solder and displayed her inventions across the United States, Raven says that her heroine is still her mom.

She’s not all that different from Kelvin Doe, even though he’s about 5 years older and from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

What is notable about Kelvin, aside from his sweet smile and humble personality, is the fact that he built an entire FM radio station and a generator all from spare parts.  When the generator is not being used to provide electricity to his home in Sierra Leone, it powers his radio broadcasts. Kelvin is a DJ — his professional name is “DJ Focus” — and he keeps a regular schedule of parties and events, for which he uses his custom-made music mixer, salvaged CD player, and hand-hacked antennna to make sure that the whole neighborhood can tune into the fun.  The community has come to expect regular radio content from DJ Focus, so he has hired a few of his friends to serve as reporters and station managers.  This cadre of crew members interviews fans at local sports games and manages operations for the station.

At some point in his development as an inventor, Kelvin got sick of paying for batteries, so he opened up one he had lying around to inspect the contents.  He saw various kinds of metal and some acid, and decided he could replicate the mechanism himself.  After scrounging for the component parts in the garbage bins by his house, Kelvin dumped the materials in a tin container, let it dry, and secured entire thing with tape.  After a few attempts, he had successfully created his own battery.  Kelvin’s mom is certainly grateful, since it is the voltage from this battery that keeps her mobile phone fully charged.

I had the opportunity to get to know Kelvin and Raven when they were invited to present their inventions at the World Maker Faire this September (you can watch Kelvin, Raven, and their peers describe their inventions here).  Kelvin’s visit was facilitated through Global Minimum, an organization that launched a national high school innovation challenge for which Kelvin and his teammates were among the winners.

The World Maker Faire is a two-day event that convenes “makers” from all over the earth to show off the useful, kooky, colorful, technical, and jaw-dropping contraptions that they have come up with.  “Invention, creativity, and resourcefulness” are the values that drive its creed and evidence of that can be found in every demo booth, populated by participants who represent a rainbow of ages, ethnicities, genders, talents, and nationalities.

What binds these individuals together, however, is a deep sense of pride in being a maker.  These are people who see a need for something in their own lives — or the lives of their neighbors, or schoolmates, or industry peers — and instead of complaining, or buying something, they make it.  They make alternative energy, and bicycles, and computers, and crafts, and food, and furniture, and GPS devices, and robots, and tools, and toys, and wearable devices, and magic.  They make these things from the parts they have around them, or from ideas they brainstorm with friends, or from inspiration they find online.  They make their inventions individually and in groups, at school and at home, with all the perfect equipment or with just the bare minimum.  They think into the future for the rest of us, and they help us realize that we need not be bound by the constraints we imagine for the world.

Raven, Kelvin, and their peers are scientists, engineers, and artists and they represent what we aspire for future generations of young people: that they may be “makers” of whatever craft they pursue, that they may have access to the resources that will fuel their creativity, and that they may flourish in a world that realizes their talents and puts their capabilities to full use.

Welcome to Ethan Wilkes!

Today, we are thrilled to welcome Ethan Wilkes! Ethan will serve as Reboot’s chief storyteller, guiding our communications strategy, media relations, and outreach. We are particularly excited about his arrival as we grow our capacity to curate a public conversation about the varied ideas that Reboot weaves together, from ethnography to design to technology to policy analysis. Our entire team is thrilled to have full-time access to his intellect and energy. Welcome, Ethan!

Kate Krontiris Presents at the Parsons Desis Lab

Kate Krontiris will be speaking at the Parsons Desis Lab about the need for public interest service design in New York City on Wednesday, November 15th at 6:30 pm. Kate’s talk is the first in series of jointly hosted Service Design Network and Desis Lab conversations exploring NYC service design landscape.  Learn more about the event here and RSVP here.

Hurricane Sandy as Seen from the Niger Delta

I have had a strange experience of watching Super Storm Sandy devastate the resilient city that Reboot calls home. As my colleagues and friends faced terrifying waters, set up makeshift offices where power was available, and helped their neighbors dig out from the storm, I have been watching idly by through images mediated by the likes of CNN and the Internet.

My distance from the suffering at home has been surreally conflated with my proximity to a similar, and inarguably greater, tragedy. I’ve spent most of the last few months in or around Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. During this period, the region has experienced the kind of devastation through floods that come once in a hundred years and they have catastrophically destroyed the homes and livelihoods of countless individuals and communities.Read more

Informalizing Financial Services

Recently, Fidelity Bank announced that they are using susu collectors in Ghana to improve service delivery and reach, and equipping them with point of sale terminals for real-time reconciliation. This is a prime example of how a formal financial service provider can tap into informal networks.

Susu collectors are one of the oldest financial services in Africa. They are traditionally trustworthy people who visit clients in their communities to collect very small deposits over the course of a month. At the end of the month, the susu collector returns the accumulated savings to the client but keeps one day’s savings as commission. Susu collectors occasionally provide advances to their clients. The formal financial sector in Ghana became interested in susu collectors years ago, and private-sector banks such as Ghana Commercial Bank and Barclays used susu collectors to mobilize savings and disburse microfinance loans.Read more

Election Day in the USA: PollWatch Gives Voters a Digital Tool to Report Problems

It’s no secret that we are pretty big fans of civic engagement over here at Reboot.  For democracy nerds like us, Election Day is a special day, one that ignites our passion for both the amplification of individual voices and the improvement of services and structures that promote good governance.  The United States voting system is, as is becoming increasingly apparent, an archaic structure rife with poorly designed user experiences.  American democracy is a far cry from a human-centered service.

Reboot has been doing our part to improve the voting experience.  Today, a tool we’ve been developing since it’s initial birth at the PDF2012 hackathon earlier this year, is getting put to good use as voters cast their ballots nationwide.  PollWatchUSA – a collaboration between Reboot, CommonCause, and Web Sava, with input from TurboVote – equips voters with the ability to live-report problems they may be experiencing at the polls using a mobile website.Read more

Kate Krontiris & Panthea Lee at MIT Center for Civic Media

Reboot Principals Panthea Lee and Kate Krontiris will be in Boston next week, speaking at the MIT Center for Civic Media about our recent investigation of media and information ecosystems in conflict areas of Pakistan.  The event, part of the Civic Media Lunch series is free and open to the public November 1, 2012 at 12 pm.  RSVP to attend here.

Kate Krontiris Curates Ashoka Changemakers Competition

This week, Reboot’s Kate Krontiris is sharing her thought leadership as a guest blogger at Ashoka Changemakers.  Kate is curating the Ashoka & Intel She Will Innovate competition, which seeks to find the world’s most innovative solutions that equip girls and women with new digital technologies.  Join the conversation!

Repurposed Yangon

This blog post is one of a series we are doing to host guest thinkers and researchers to participate in a broader conversation about designing for governance and development.  Today, we feature Zach Hyman, a Fulbright Fellow studying resource-constrained creativity and user-led innovation in China.  His fascinating piece takes us on a maker-hacker journey through Myanmar, where people are acting in very creative ways to manage the constraints of electricity.

 

Myanmar’s offshore natural gas reserves – speculated to be as much as 90 trillion cubic feet – give it the tenth largest reserves on the planet.

And yet this number may as well be describing a different country to people such as Aung Tun,* who, despite living in a relatively wealthy part of Yangon, is still subject to the vagaries of the electrical grid. For the safety of his apartment building’s residents, he has developed a system of car battery-powered fluorescent tube lights that light the building’s entryway when the grid shuts down. Read more