“The community, the [Mozilla] clubs, as much as they get structure and guidance from above, they tend to also have the comfort of using local solutions on the ground to be of impact in society.”
Duncan Washington is a technology professional, researcher, and digital inclusion activist. He is a Deputy Research Director and Data Analyst at Digital Divide Data and has been active in the Mozilla network as a Research Analyst& Project Lead, working on the Digital Skills Observatory — a critical project for the digital inclusion and working open movements. Duncan is known for his leadership, coordination, organization, critical thinking, and technical skills. His generosity and contributions come through in this conversation — as well as his insights into advancing development in Kenya and beyond.
- Digital Skills Observatory: Learnings from Our First Interview
- Work and Play: The Digital Skills Observatory Meetup — Mozilla Kenya
- @danthepoet on Twitter
- Duncan’s LinkedIn profile
- Download photos of Duncan: Photo 1, Photo 2
If you could just start by telling me your name and tell me a little bit about your work.
Duncan Washington: My name is Duncan Washington. I come from Kenya. Currently I’m working as a researcher and a data analyst at Digital Divide Data. My education background is computer science; I’ve done a bit of software development. Now I’m helping in designing, implementing research and also doing data analysis.
In this work that you’re doing, can you tell me about a specific time — one example — where you felt a real sense of success?
There’s a project we did with Bankable Frontier, it’s called Financial Diaries. It was funded by Gates Foundation for FSD Kenya. FSD Kenya is a financial sector deepening development organization conglomerate of different sectors and stakeholders.
We were following 300 households in Kenya, and at the same time Financial Diaries in the U.S was running. This was a methodology of collecting data in the view of learning about financial inclusion behaviors. It was initially done in South Africa, but this time we are revamping it.
We were collecting a huge dataset and seeing to it that data is being disseminated and shared around. That was a big success for us. We shared stories of individuals struggling with different issues, be it finance, insurance, or just even maintaining a normal steady job. That was a big success in terms of me joining the research firm.
Flipping that question, how about an example of a challenge?
I’ve faced two big challenges.
First, sharing what we’ve learned. It’s critical now that everybody wants data. They want information from cooperatives, from businesses, and from the public sector. How do you share this information in a way that positively impacts society? That’s a big challenge.
Second, people are yet to figure out how to openly disseminate data. They are still holding on to data — trying to see how they can benefit from it financially or how they can use it to grow their enterprise. Corporations that collect data want to use it. They ask, “What am I getting out of the data I collected?”
The internet has broken down boundaries. A kid in Africa can learn the same thing as somebody in India, somebody in US, somebody in Europe. And information that has to do with development, or that have to do with domains that are knowledge-based, tend to disseminate quickly.
I think it’s critical to have a way of disseminating data that enables people to grow or develop. It should not be held on to because finances were invested. Data collection can be very expensive, but holding on to that data does not impact society. There can be no impact if only a few people are privy to it.
Is the challenge just in how to disseminating the raw data? Or are you also talking about packaging it in ways that make it more understandable and accessible — about utilizing research outputs and sharing findings?
I think both. There’s a basic level whereby sometimes it’s not even really complicated. You just want to know how many people live in region X, how many are unemployed versus how many have jobs, how many women are in region Y and how many among them are struggling with a pregnancy.
Some datasets are so basic and they just need to be out in the open. That way, if someone is planning anything in that direction or location, or on that issue, they can get it at their fingertips — without having to re-do the whole exercise of gathering it.
There are balancing acts in the sense more complicated methodologies may generate layers and layers of data. But, the more they get shared, the more people can learn those methods and understand the dataset layers.
Disseminating even the smallest amount of data helps people learn. It takes time. A child learns one word, after a few days learns two words, three words. The more words they get the more they learn the whole construct of language. Data operates the same way.
When you share your data and explain the demographics of the people: male/female, kids/grownups. Those are all layers. The more you share the more people understand the layers.
There’s a balance. But just sharing a small amount still goes a long way toward people learning and understanding the data that has been gathered.
How do you approach addressing this challenge? What I’m hearing you say is that you start addressing it by sharing slowly, and sharing basic data. Little pieces at a time.
We have seen how the internet makes it easy to disseminate information. Right now you’re recording this interview, and next you can take it to somebody who lives far away. So someone in Southeast Asia may end up reading this — in a blog, on a news site, or on a web page.
Now even research reports spread in this way. Knowledge can be spread and built on in the same way people share and develop open software. You can go to a library to learn something in Java. But online you don’t need the whole book, you can just figure out which piece of code you need to complete a given task.
Research feedback and reports can be shared the same way. You can also create a community to participate in a research project.
If you are a firm you can conduct surveys. But a step forward is to involve stakeholders from the outset so they can tell you, “Oh. We know when you are doing this survey. These are the questions you’re asking, these are the types of data you’re gathering, and this is the information that you want to create.” By the time you’ve completed the survey you have a group of people who already have a preview. Now they don’t need high-level learning to understand the method and layers. They participated in it, so they own the whole process.
But engaging communities, engaging stakeholders in the whole survey can sometimes be hard because different stakeholders have different visions. But just involving all stakeholders tends to help in the dissemination of the small bits of the data since they’re been involved with moving forward.
Now turning to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe: keeping the Internet open and free. What for you is the open internet?
The open internet is a platform whereby people can freely share information, using licenses like Creative Commons, but also without fear of damaging their privacy.
We have seen a lot of changes in a very few years in terms of content sharing. Right now Europe is fighting the right to share content as a way to protect people’s privacy. At the same time, we have the desire to share information that goes beyond individual level. It’s a balancing act in terms of openness.
You need to figure out how to protect people while at the same time providing opportunities to share openly. This is the balance to be achieved. Individual privacy needs to be protected, and there are positives impact from sharing information.
Is there a time in your life where you felt that you had access to more open Internet, and that it had some impact on you or some benefits?
Coming from Africa there are a lot of examples. When I was in university we used to read a lot of materials from Western institutions. Some of us studied at universities without online platforms that disseminated or provided access to information.
We need to learn programming. We need to learn algorithms. We need to learn methods. A lot of websites from Western universities could give us that platform. We often use open platforms to learn. We’re seeing those coming now to the African context.
I’ve seen universities in Kenya trying to use the online platforms to share. I hope that in the next few months or years they’ll start opening that information, so not as many students look to universities in the West or in developed countries. I hope they also learn from local universities.
This extends to other information-sharing platforms, be it social media or news sites. We’re seeing there’s a shift, especially for us in developing countries, whereby we’re now trying to develop local content and policies — rather than learning from the West — in terms of privacy, licenses, protections, and sharing.
Thinking about the example of how universities in Kenya are creating online learning, one benefit that comes to mind is having local values and realities embedded into learning artifacts. What are the benefits of accessing local learning content, versus MIT OpenCourseWare, for example?
That’s a very key point. For example, if students are studying laws and legal procedures those are different in Western/developed countries compared to developing countries. Some countries still have constitutions that do not imbue the modernity of human rights. It’s critical to appreciate the fact that there are things that previous students have learned in these universities.
This might be of much value culturally, and context-wise in terms of the learning environment, and also appreciating that some of the challenges that developing countries face and developed countries are different. Sharing content generated in your environment has more impact on how you’re moving forward — even though there’s still lots to learn from the broader global network.
So it’s more culturally relevant and appropriate? And easier to apply because you’re not having to translate it to your context?
Yes. A good example: In Kenya maize is one of the staple foods. But how maize is grown in Kenya is different compared to how it’s done in United States. What are the right planting methods of planting in a place with low irrigation levels? What are the challenges of planting maize in small-scale farms?
Having that information contextualized has more impact. Having access to global knowledge when solving a problem can elevate your solution — you don’t tend to make the same mistakes. But you also have to contextualize your problem and try to see what can be adapted from other places: What can you add? What can you subtract?
Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with Mozilla and what has that been like?
We’re working with Mozilla Foundation on a research project, the Digital Skills Observatory. The experience has been interesting and new for us. As a research firm, we were used to doing research based on a closed model.
When working with a given client, we make sure to have confidentiality and privacy. But this project is based on openness. We work with the Mozilla team and with Mozilla volunteers. This approach has added much value.
We’re conducting research on specific challenges, but at the same time incorporating people from the community where we’re trying to solve these problems. A lot of Mozilla volunteers are trying to use digital skills to solve problems. Now we’re doing research specifically on digital skills.
We have a team of volunteers who come in and added value — conducting interventions through workshops, and helping people solve their problems. The intervention design has been of much value compared to just looking at it as a research firm, whereby you just get questionnaires and do workshops. Now it is more rich because of the volunteers and because of the openness that the Mozilla Foundation brought to the project.
How about for you personally? Can you point to an example of a time when being involved with Mozilla was enriching for you?
I’ve learned to design research on a crowdsourcing platform, and to run research based on openness. That has been a very big plus for me in terms of learning.
I’ve also come to appreciate that you can work with people in the community to be of much more impact, be it in collecting information, creating solutions, or impacting society.
I’m still learning. It’s interesting working with volunteers from different regions. It’s also interesting to learn about working with a foundation like Mozilla in terms of appreciating their goals, their vision, and their desire to spearhead learning in information, policy making, and open sciences.
That has been of value to the whole project. For us, we haven’t looked at it from just a corporate perspective, now we are looking at it from a community perspective.
What feedback would you have? Have there been things that have gone wrong, or areas that you see a need for improvement?
From an African context, when you have a big house, you tend to have different challenges or hiccups. I would say, where there’s room for improvement based on the advantage that you have in terms of the volunteers.
Having a huge number of volunteers from different regions comes as a very big plus. There is room for improvement in engaging them in such activities. I know that volunteers do a lot of other activities for the foundation — not just in open science. We can engage them to be active participants in developing, designing, being part of interviews, and being part of the dissemination.
For me, it’s a big plus. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but based on what I saw in Kenya, Mozilla has a rich number of volunteers. If they were being engaged more and more, there could be more impact moving forward for Mozilla in terms of policy making, enriching society with such a big opportunity that comes from open science. That one could be a very big plus for the Mozilla Foundation.
Do you see differences between Mozilla and more traditional development actors?
There’s something we learned from this project that we have done with the foundation. Having volunteers coming from the community has a different twist to it. You don’t tend to just have solutions coming from outside.
When you have volunteers who are in the community, they’re problem solvers from the community context. That’s a very big feedback beyond the perception that, because an organization is coming from a developing country, then their views and perceptions are the only ones that are right.
The Mozilla Foundation has empowered volunteers in communities or clubs, and they tend to be the problem solvers from the context. I won’t be wrong to say, for example, if you get to India and appreciate the volunteers in India, in the community, they’ll have a different way of solving their problem based on their context.
If you come to Kenya, it’s the same thing. The fact that they’re volunteers, and they’re from the community, tends to have a tangent to how they break the solutions, even though the structure might be coming from up, the solution is coming from their context.
For example, if you want to go and say, you’re going to a rural part of Kenya and talking in English, and then you get this community doesn’t talk in English, doesn’t talk in Swahili, what will happen is they live the local language. But then also there are things you’ll think as solutions, but they’ll give you some of the ideas of the solution. They can communicate to you because they’re empowered. They feel they’re part of the community.
Having that in mind, I would say, the community, the clubs, as much as they get structure and guidance from above, they tend to have the comfort of using some of the solutions on the ground to be of impact in society.
That’s a really great insight, because it’s not like traditional participatory development project where you’re just engaging participation for that one project. What you’re talking about with clubs is more like long-term sustained participation around a certain set of ideals that can be mobilized for different projects. But the reason for the group to exist goes beyond any individual project. That’s one thing. Then what I’m also hearing you say is that, the way Mozilla does participation and taps this is different and works well. They have a nice mix between structure, and local ownership and creativity.
Yeah, it’s true. When we were creating the workshops, the interventions for the Digital Skills Observatory project we involved, for example, the Mozilla community whereby we come up with topics and say, “OK, how are we going to address these topics? How are we going to share these topics? How are you going to teach respondent these topics?”
The community came with solutions, with ideas that went a long way because of the context. They’re within the community. They understand the community then they will have good solutions to match with whatever the topic is to solve the problem or be of impact.
The participatory factor gives a lot of room for engagement but also give a lot of room for learning, and having more impact on societies or communities. That has been a big plus compared to the hierarchy of when you come in and direct people what to do. Sometimes directing people works because people want to follow you, but sometimes it doesn’t have any impact on the communities.
How might these stories that we’re collecting be useful to you — it at all?
I’ll desire to see the stories changing the way we do open science, or where we do research, or where we do development in terms of appreciating, engaging people, communities and clubs.
When corporations or companies want to solve people’s problem, sometimes they come and solve the problem based on how they perceive it. But if you engage the people whose problems you want to solve, then you’ll have a direct view of it.
Also, moving forward in terms of research in an era whereby information is everywhere and is shared without boundaries. I will be curious to see if the stories will start changing the structures or methodologies of research firms, or corporates, or organizations in how they engage with communities or societies.
We’re moving from where companies or research firms are the ones who direct everything, to whereby you engage to get something that is more of value, and more important in terms of impact to society or communities, not dependent on whatever the research firm thinks or dependent on what the communities think.
Most of the time you go to learn from them, but sometimes you’re learning from them while you have your own view already set. It will be interesting to see how the story will start shaping, now that people are moving from closed to open research.
It’s scary for corporates. It’s scary for research firms. But it’s the only way you’re going to adapt faster in terms of solving problems in society, and appreciating what you’re facing. You will notice even something interesting is initially people could do surveys so that they can know what are community’s needs, or what is a disaster in a community. Now, even people coming up with crowdsourcing methods that does not necessarily do a survey, but gets information, or behavioral change, or any impact information from the society up.
It’s different from surveys, the way you structure questions or even have open-ended questions. We go and source for that information. Here is the information even some of them you didn’t know exist comes to you. There’s a lot of changes…
Questions you didn’t even know how to ask?
What are some of these methods that you’re seeing being used?
People are moving towards just using either technology to get information from the ground in terms of…There’s a lot of development in information dissemination, and you’ll see people even using social media to crowdsource information for a government to make a decision or help out.
I’ve seen people developing tools to crowd-source, or crowd-fund, or crowd-map. They seem to be the same but they are sourcing the same type of problem. We have a public that has a problem X, they are getting feedback from them other than from the top, whereby you’re asking the questions or you’re asking for feedback.
This is critical in the sense that, when you go out to ask questions, you might be asking questions thinking that’s the main problem in society, but probably that’s not the key problem in the society. When they raise an issue or raise an alarm, then that’s a key problem — not what you perceived or structured in a method.
I’ve seen people getting crowdsourcing tools in terms of getting feedback from society, or even analyzing data from given communities. Even taking pictures and just analyzing and learning from it without necessarily going to the ground and doing the actual data collection.
Is there anything more you want to ask me or tell me before we finish up?
Are you collecting information also in terms of Mozilla’s core values and strategies?
Yes. In two ways. We’re tagging these stories according to the values that underlie a healthy internet, like inclusion and privacy and security. Second, people’s values are a key part of what comes up in these interviews, and we’re capturing those and will report on them. From what I’m hearing, I’m starting to think that values are at the core of people’s engagement with the Mozilla Foundation. If I don’t feel like you and I have anything in common, or if I find what someone says is offensive, or if they find me offensive, then that’s not going to work. Typically, underlying what people find offensive about each other is misaligned values or really different values. One person mentioned shared values as a “shortcut” which makes it easier to start collaborating quickly — because those basic discussions where that gets sorted out don’t need to happen.
Some of the things I’ve observed is that you find people holding onto some values and they try to change, or be the changemakers in terms of your policies, in terms of skills, in terms of protection of human rights. But you notice, at the same time, the changemakers try to direct a group of people who either they don’t know where they fit in or they don’t know what directions to go in. So they’re gambling.
Where I come from, we have seen big corporations with a desire to make sure there’s digital skills. Google just did a very big funding in Africa for digital skills training. Having that in mind then, you want to see if it’s a good thing in terms of making sure that people learn, but the next question will be “How do they appreciate their rights? How do you appreciate their privacy?”
Then another person will come and say, “These people — for them to learn and have good skills, we need to provide an internet connection.” I’m sure you’ve seen even the Facebook project for free internet. For me, I see some history revolving itself.
Before this platform for training or free internet, we use to have free platforms for Wikipedia or just getting Google for free. Right now, you just see that it has just moved to something else. Meaning there’s a sense of direction but there’s a sense of disconnection. In terms of, “Yeah, you have these things, but do you know your rights? Do know your privacy?” The whole structure that enables people to grow in a society without affecting their rights, without affecting their values, it’s really interesting from that angle, from the changemakers to the people who are getting the impact itself.
There’s a really big difference between teaching a digital skills curriculum that was developed on the West Coast of United States — and rolling that curriculum out all over the world and “localizing” it — where the underlying goal is to “capture the bottom of the pyramid” and get them warm and fuzzy about my brand. So that when they finally make a bit of money, they’re going to be loyal to my brand. A big difference between that versus “We’re doing digital skills. And we’re all going to make this curriculum together in each community. Yeah, we’ve got some frameworks, we’ve got a skills map. And our end goal is to build your sense of self-efficacy and your connections with each other in your community.”
That’s so true.
Right? Those are two really different things.
Exactly. This is a gap that needs to be defeated and held down. For example, for us in Africa, as much as there is a gap in terms of digital skills, there’s a gap in terms of just basic literacy. If you train respondents on stuff that involves a lot English you realize some of them are struggling with just the basic literacy. How do you break down information to their level?
Then also you find unique issues that affect their whole digital skills experience, whereby they cannot afford to even to have a smartphone, or to have a connection to learn whatever you’re teaching them.
If you’re teaching people any digital skills with online streaming media, if they can’t connect then how would they relate to or understand what you’re saying? Having those challenges tells you there’s a lot to be to contextualized to solve more.
I suppose you can’t even take a constant source of electricity for granted in certain places.
Or airtime. The bundles. Some of them will say, “In our country they’ve really reduced the cost, you know.” But when you go to the ground, for some people that cost is still very high. They have basic needs that they need to sort out — anything else is not a necessity.