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Are ‘small’ stories the key to making sense of big data?

Blog | June 21, 2016 | Anastasia-Areti Gavrili

Last month, on the sidelines of the ICT4D conference in Nairobi, I met with Making All Voices Count partners and got to know more about their exciting projects in Africa and Asia.

Meeting with the team from This is My Backyard (TIMBY), I was enthralled by how they use technology to create powerful stories for development - they sparked my attention, taking me on an imaginary journey to the forests of Liberia, where their citizen monitors report on the mis-management of natural resources, and the real cost of corruption.

Most civic tech initiatives collect and visualise data for governments or other stakeholders to see, understand and use. But what’s the context around the points on a map or the numbers we see on an infographic poster? And most importantly, what happens next? How do we see change through? 

Is taking a step ‘backwards’, to the stories of individual people, the next step in tech for development?

"Stories are how we relate to one another. So, often the best way to communicate complicated information is not through statistics or maps, but rather through narratives, stories of people that you can actually connect with." - Anjali Nayar, Founder of This is My Backyard (TIMBY), Liberia

Human stories are our ‘currency’

Once upon a time…. In Liberia, a Forestry Development Authority (FDA) official handed out an illegal logging permit to a large oil palm company operating in the remote Sinoe County.

The official was eventually exposed by activists, who did real-time investigations using the TIMBY suite of digital tools.

A oil palm plantation in Sinoe County. Photo: Anjali Nayar / TIMBY.org

By investigating the paper trail and putting pressure on FDA management over a series of months, activists, from the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), were able to have the logging permit rescinded, in what was considered a victory for the rule of law in Liberian forestry.

TIMBY helped tell the story behind the statistics.

If you want to know people’s stories, give them tools to tell it themselves

With this project, TIMBY are committed to ensuring that issues faced by citizens are no longer just points on a map. Activists, monitors or even just concerned citizens can safely and easily share what’s happening in remote areas; their problems cannot be ignored.

The teams gather evidence from the frontlines, writing stories, sending photos and quickly updating the local government - and the entire world - about illegal logging in their local communities.

TIMBY’s system was designed and built with their reporting communities, based on what they wanted to report on, how they were comfortable reporting it, with respect to security, and what technology would work to achieve those aims. This co-creation was key to buy-in and use by citizen monitors in the community. It’s no surprise, then, that TIMBY changed a lot along the 

"We put ourselves in an observational position and when people were unable to use the technology we changed it. We learned from them instead of dictating the ‘right’ way." - Anjali Nayar, Founder of This is My Backyard (TIMBY), Liberia

So, in rural Liberia, TIMBY is supporting civil society monitors who use smartphones (supplied by TIMBY) to take pictures and make recordings of events as they monitor illegal logging.

The technology of the project has seen a lot of change and adaptation.

  • The whole system was built and adjusted with users in mind. This co-creation was key to buy-in and use by citizen monitors in the community.
  • There was a security overhaul of the TIMBY app, which was supported be mentors from Ushahidi.
  • The platform is based heavily on colours and symbols, for the illiterate users.

A reporter documents a forest clearing using the TIMBY app. Photo: Anjali Nayar / TIMBY.org

How TIMBY reporters are trained has changed too - instead of sending their own trainers out to communities, the team started training TIMBY trainers in Monrovia, who then trained local citizen monitors.

They found that cascading knowledge – rather than trying to bridge this communication gap - was extremely effective, because trainers and trainees interpreted the technology in the same way, and felt freer to use it in the ways that they wanted to.

Why working with the stories behind the statistics is key to TIMBY’s success

People initially understand arguments emotionally, not rationally – or at least most of us do I hope. Big data sets tell us that we should care… but they don’t often tell us why.

Human stories make a difference in development because it is easier to connect and engage with the individual behind the story – not just for people reading those stories online, but for someone working in a local government office, someone who is thinking about the real cost of ‘doing business’.

An old journalist colleague of mine used to shout ‘bring me numbers and stories!’ and she wasn’t wrong. We need the statistics to contextualise how big or serious the problem is, but we also need the stories to contextualise it to us, as human beings.

There are many stories out there that remain untold. Combining the power of a digital tool with that of a human story is creating real impact in Liberia. Who will be next to follow?

About the author

Anastasia-Areti Gavrili is Communication Officer for Making All Voices Count, based at Hivos International in the Hague.

This blog was originally posted on the Making All Voices Count website

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