Hera Hussain “No matter how dangerous it is for young women to be online, they still want to get online. Their social activities are there. Now there are so many things you can _only_ do online.”

Hera Hussain catalyzes communities, journalists, and activists, helping them make the most of open data and technological innovation. A leader and pioneer in the open data and open government communities, she currently runs OpenCorporates’ community and impact programme. This involves working with investigative journalists and NGOs who want to conduct investigations using open company data. An active member of social innovation networks such as Wikipedia, MakeSense, Startingbloc, WEF’s Global Shapers, and Yunus&Youth, she is also the founder of the volunteer-led women’s rights group CHAYN and part of OpenHeroines — a collective that highlights women’s roles in the open data, open government, and civic tech movements.


Hera’s Story

Can you start by telling me a bit about your work?

I wear multiple hats, like many people in this space. During the day, I work for OpenCorporates, which is the world’s largest open database of company information. My job is to work with NGOs and investigative journalists to use the data that OpenCorporates has to help them conduct investigations into corruption and companies that are involved in financial crimes.

That’s what I do during my day job. But in the evenings, I wear a cape. (Just joking!) I do a gazillion other things. Three years ago, I founded an organization called CHAYN, which uses simple open technologies and engages volunteers to create resources for women who have survived or are experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of violence and oppression.

We help women find information to answer questions such as, “How do I get divorced?” “What are my rights under the child custody laws in my country?” “Am I depressed?” “Do I have anxiety?” “Do I have PTSD?” To questions like “How can I build up my CV?” We address a range of issues..

What started as a project that I started for Pakistan, my home country, has now expanded to India, Italy, the UK, the US — and we have a lot of traffic from New Zealand, Australia, Lebanon, and the UAE. We’ve got over 300 volunteers from 15 countries running 15 projects. Sixty to seventy percent of our volunteers are survivors of abuse.

Looking back at your work, is there a specific instance — an example — that stands out as a time where you felt a real sense of success?

There have been multiple. I suppose one my favorite examples — because I feel like it’s really simple, but so powerful — is that we launched the CHAYN India website in around 2014. The site collects information, crowdsources, and publishes information around abuse and mental health for women in India. India is a huge country — one of the most populous in the world.

We had a section on our website which was about divorce law. I remember that we got a volunteer sign-up from a woman who wanted to volunteer. We have a question on the form that said, “Why do you want to volunteer?”

She wrote, “For two years I looked through different blogs to try to find out to divorce my husband. But they were all written by men — all talking about how women misuse the penal code. It was only when I came across your site that I learned what my rights are under the law. I feel so empowered. You have no idea how this makes me feel. I want to help other women feel the same way — others who are stuck in the same situation.”

The severity of the fact that a woman had been locked in this disempowered situation for two years — just because she kept coming across content discussing the law that was written by misogynistic men — that really blew my mind.

That’s when I thought, “You know what? Forget all the hackathons and other stuff we’re doing. One of the most impactful things that we’ve done so far was as simple as posting the legal code on a website.” This is one of my favorite examples of the importance of this work.

How about an example of a challenge?

There are so many. For me, personally, one of the biggest challenges is working with other organizations. Unfortunately, I don’t know why — maybe it’s because of “The Hunger Games” we’ve created around funding — but it’s really difficult to partner with others.

We create content and resources that survivors write themselves about their communities around problems or information gaps. But what we really want is people to spread it further. All of the content we create is openly licensed, so literally any NGO can take it, stamp it with their own logo, make whatever changes they want, publish it, and start giving it away to their users. But that doesn’t happen.

So the barrier is not licensing, and it’s not about a lack of need for this content. There’s just this really strange and unhealthy unwillingness to collaborate and to use something that you have not written. I think it comes from this competitive atmosphere in the NGO space.

This is true globally — we work in more than 12 countries and we run into this problem everywhere. It’s the most depressing part of my work. We are all fighting for the same causes, we live in a world where there’s a dearth of resources, and still there’s this unwillingness to collaborate.

That is the biggest challenge for me. How do we forge stronger bonds? How do we work, not just with each other, but in a way that builds on top of each other’s work? That’s the underlying principle of openness. It kills me that working openly is not taken up in this space.

Do you think another reason for this is because most funding is project-based? Instead of core support to the institution? I’ve seen leaders have to lay off staff between projects, because funding was tied to specific initiatives. So, re-writing the content that CHAYN has already produced may mean that someone gets to keep their job, and their organization has some sort of staffing continuity.

Yes. I completely agree. And also there’s this very corporate worldview of resources — they’re seen as an organization’s pride, as their trademark. This way of looking at information is really bad. This is exactly what’s wrong and we need to change that.

Given the current funding climate, and the fact that funding is tied to projects, if an NGO shares someone else’s stuff then what are they doing? Why aren’t they creating it? It has created a really, really unhealthy environment.

Have you thought of approaches to address this challenge?

This is my main challenge. I’m hoping others also have some ideas.

A few things that have worked: First, really investing a lot of time in a relationship with a charity, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to end up using your resources, but it will mean is that they’ll share bits of it. Next, since most of our volunteers are survivors of abuse, the quality of our content and approach is as user-centered as you can be. I’m very proud of this bottom-up approach and I’ve noticed this is is something that charities really appreciate, too. Most organisations are still stuck in a workflow where they, as the experts, create solutions for women and then use focus groups to get feedback. We’re getting the survivors to be the project managers, the co-authors, and the people driving forward each part of the project.

We invested a lot of time in a couple of organizations, which is very difficult for us because we’re volunteer-led. We don’t have a lot of time. Our biggest challenge is time. But we made the decision to try investing more time in relationships, to see if it generates results. And it has worked somewhat.

The other thing we do is try to work on things together from the get-go. That has been a good approach, although with any partnership you have that challenge of trying to match each other’s beat. We are very agile and iterative but with many organizations that’s the opposite of what they want to do. They want everything to be perfect — and that inflexibility is sometimes very difficult to work with. So that’s a big challenge.

In the past year, we’ve embarked on two partnerships that have been so good. They give us signs of hope that there are organizations out there who — despite being five times larger than us in terms of funding, structure, and experience — are willing to work with us as equal partners. These partners have endorsed us and that has given us a lot of publicity and credibility. Now suddenly everybody is interested in working with us. This is kind of sad — but also great for us. It just shows you how big the barriers to entry are in the NGO space.

One of the things that impresses me with CHAYN is the way you produce and share resources. You use Google docs so that the toolkit is always up to date, anyone can copy or print it, and you don’t spend a lot of money producing expensive glossy publications. Over my career, I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars producing publications — and throwing away boxes and boxes of them because the project ended or they were out of date.

It’s really sad. There is a really good article that I read somewhere which had this line that said “From the app nation, we’ve now become the toolkit nation.” I found that very funny because we produce toolkits — it’s so true.

Sometimes we’re the middleman — we work with NGOs and want to give them our resources. But we also work directly with survivors. Our main focus is getting out good information, so when people search for it they can find it. We also interact a lot with survivors on survivor forums, where we’re talking to them and we find out what’s happening. That’s how we learn about the gaps in knowledge in different countries and communities. We put lots of ears on the ground.

The number of funders that will support the production of a toolkit versus a core service is shocking — because they can see the end product. When it comes to investing in services for unsafe women or anything to do with child abuse, these are high-intensity and high-resource services. There are going to be sunk costs because cases are complex. Cases might take years to solve. They might require work by multiple people. The return on investment isn’t great, if you’re being brutal about it.

If you’re working on saving the environment, for example, you can invest an amount of money and have a mini forest planted. But if you’re investing in humans — trying to prevent violence, supporting women — you need a lot more. Again, this is a very capitalist, isolated way of looking at a problem. It does not account for the real costs. If children grow up in abusive environments — and it does not matter if they are abused or not, even if they’re witnessing abuse — it affects their productivity. It affects their mental health. Later on they grow up to become people with issues. There is some part of them that is broken, to the extent that they will not reach their potential. They might in turn become an abuser, and the cycle repeats itself. All of this results in extra costs for the government in terms of providing counseling, funding law enforcement, and collecting less taxes because of lower incomes. These are some of the real costs when citizens don’t reach their productive potential.

If you calculate it economically, investing in healthier, happier citizens should definitely come first. But no one’s going to fund it.

What are your thoughts on trolling, bullying, and the lack of civil discourse online. Has that come up in your work?

Definitely. We are in the process of launching a project that has taken the longest amount of time to launch — compared to all of our projects. It’s a toolkit people can use to protect themselves from online stalking and abuse.

This issue has come up because no matter how dangerous it is for young women to be online — we’ve seen them face stalking and a barrage of trolling from people who wish them harm, including family — they still want to get online because so much of their social activities are online. How do you stay in touch with everybody you went to school or to college with, or with your relatives in different countries? There are so many things you can only do online.

This becomes a great problem because it affects women’s participation in online spaces. The divide between online and offline spaces is not as vivid as people think. It’s a big problem. We’re addressing it by working with other feminists who are looking into this issue. We’re surfacing specific use cases.

A lot of the research on trolling and online abuse has centered in Western societies. You have a very, very Western perspective, and it’s really important to address this problem everywhere — but there’s a lot of neglect when it comes to other parts of the world.

There are many people who are working on this issue. In India, there is a woman who works on revenge porn. She’s been shot at multiple times, but she continues to work. I think she probably leaves her house thinking she’ll die. This is how dangerous her work is — but she does it. My friend Nighat in Pakistan is a fearless fighter against it. There are people who are going to extreme lengths to work on this issue.

When you have online spaces, offline spaces, products, and services designed primarily by men, they might think about women but they don’t include them in the design process.

This results in spaces that are inherently biased, not because they’re saying women shouldn’t enter them but because they haven’t thought through the different aspects that need to be considered.

For example, if you use Facebook’s mobile app, sometimes it will force you to add your location. Or, if you have location turned on, it will post your location. Now, someone who doesn’t want everybody in the world to know where they are — because their life may be threatened or they might not want someone to know they’re in the same city. Once that location information is out there, you have to manually remove it from every single item. This is a small example where somebody should have considered people who are at risk when making a feature automatic or forcing users to publish their location. But they didn’t.

Similarly, governments now allow you to take off your name off electoral registers. That’s because of the amount of campaigning that women activists have had to do. Otherwise, where you live was public knowledge.

For most people that’s fine. But you have a problem if you’re a female journalist who has people out to get you because you talk about issues around women, or if you’re someone who has an abusive family. In those cases, you’re doomed.

It’s only recently that people have started to think about these issues because women were never part of the design process. They were always an afterthought. That’s one of the reasons why diversity is so important.

Even in the feminist spaces there are challenges — because the international feminism movement is so white. It just completely misses important issues. We really need to think about who’s in the room.

Trolling is one of the biggest issues that we’re facing in terms of challenges that women face online because, again, online presence is increasing — it has become part of our life.

Platforms need to have a serious think about what they can do.

There’s a lot of lip service from companies like Facebook and Twitter, but when it comes to actually doing something they’re useless.

Turning now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, what for you is the open Internet?

The open Internet is where we have freedom of speech but not freedom of abuse, where we have hyperlink that is not locked down, where the participation of people online isn’t necessarily linked to advertisements and buying their data. For example, Free Basics where people have the opportunity to carve a space for themselves and not be harassed on basis of their beliefs, location, race, gender, sexuality — or so many things.

The open Internet is where all of us are able to create a world of our own and a world together without companies, governments, and different kinds of regulators impinging on our freedom and using us as cash cows.

Have you ever had a sense of this openness? If so, do you have an example of when it’s been important to you?

What’s beautiful about Mozilla and organizations like the Web Foundation and Wikimedia Foundation is their fight for free and open web. I remember when there was a discussion in the EU about putting restrictions on hyperlinks. That shook me to my core. I could not believe in 2016, when the internet has become a part of our lives, the soul of it — the hyperlink — was in jeopardy. It’s through the tireless work of these organizations and others that we have thwarted some of these dangers, but it seems like we win some fights and then more headless monsters rear their head. It’s going to be like that forever.

It’s really difficult to pinpoint an exact example. It’s an important issue, but I’m trying to think of an example that’s a bit closer to home and is relevant. It’s difficult.

How did you get involved with Mozilla and what has that been like for you?

I got involved in Mozilla when I was volunteering for Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation was doing a Wikipedia Conference in London. I got involved there. Then they said, “Oh, you know that there’s MozFest happening.” I asked, “What’s that?” They’re like, “Firefox.” I was like, “Yeah? I don’t get it. It’s a conference about a browser?”

As someone who was not part of the space, I was totally clueless. They said, “Just try to volunteer for it.” I was like, “OK, fine.” I turned up and I started volunteering right away. I spent the whole weekend learning about all the different things that Mozilla does.

It was pretty amazing that we have this organization that is larger than what it does and has such a big community. It’s sustainable and it’s running — and it has the right principles. For me, that was pretty amazing because I thought the tech world was mostly filled up with big giants like Google and that’s it.

So it was very refreshing to know that there is an alternative. There are people who are fighting for a free and open Internet.

Can you tell me about a time where your involvement with Mozilla had some sort of impact on your life or your work?

It had a huge impact on my life because, at that point, I had not started my current job. I was looking for something in tech that had more meaning. When I was at MozFest, I met so many interesting people and I learned so many new and interesting things about the free and open Web. I had no idea about it before. I was completely oblivious to these issues and that made a huge impression on me.

After that, I started applying for jobs in open data. Then I got a job in open data. And now I’m a champion of open data. So MozFest will always have a very special place in my heart — and people in Mozilla as well.

Being part of that community was just amazing. So much enthusiasm, so much positive energy. And there was so much pragmatism. There was stuff happening — not just people with lofty ideals. There was action behind the ideals. That’s what makes Mozilla unique.

What year did you first attend MozFest?

In 2012. Last year, in 2015, I wrote a blog about my involvement with Mozilla.

On the other flip side, what kind of feedback would you have? Was there a time that Mozilla didn’t meet your expectations?

One of the things that concerns me is the fact that Mozilla works so closely with Google. I have a problem that it’s quite reliant on Google. It’s very worrying.

Secondly, I think Mozilla has been working really hard on making a more affordable smartphone for people around the world. They engaged people in testing the devices, but it could have been more collective.

I got a device, but then there were no prompts for me to provide feedback. It was really difficult. I wanted to support the project but the phone wasn’t very good. I wanted other people to use it as well because I’m really behind the principle behind the phone.

The whole project has been a bit of a lost cause, though I might be missing something. There might be something amazing happening this year that I have no idea about.

Could you highlight some of the concerns you have around Google?

Google is the antithesis of the open Internet. Google wants to have a monopoly over everything that you do. Everything is connected. They buy up every little competition that they have.

Monopolies are very bad for human rights in any space because they get to decide the rules. So there’s less room for innovations that don’t meet their standards, and less chance that your resistance gets through to them.

That’s exactly what Google is. It represents all those things. It’s big, it’s opaque, and that is really troublesome because Mozilla is completely the opposite and stands for the opposite ideals.

The fact that Mozilla is so reliant on funding from Google is really, really worrying because if it was withdrawn then the future of Mozilla — which is so important for our world — would be in danger.

That’s something we all should be worried about.

How might the stories that StoryEngine is collecting be useful to you — if at all?

It’s good to reflect. My life does not give me a lot of time for reflection. I have a day job, I have CHAYN, I have also started a new organization around open tech and the refugee crisis. I never have time to reflect back on things that are important.

I appreciate you bugging me about this because it has given me the time to reflect back. Reading other peoples’ stories has been amazing — very inspiring. It’s a healthy injection of optimism into my day. I’m really glad you sent me the link to the stories.

I hope that my story gives something to people in the same way. You don’t have to be a developer to do things with the open web. You don’t have to be from the West to do something on the Web. You don’t have to be middle-aged to do something.

I started working this when I was 23, and I feel like I have come a long way. I have a super-long way to go. I’m not going to be one of those people who say, “Oh, but I have so much to do,” because I will recognize that I have made progress. I am proud of it. I want to bring other women, and people from marginalized and overlooked communities, with me on this tech-for-good journey.

This space can exclude people. If my reflections can help other people feel like they can be a part of it, then this is worth me doing it.