We recently attended the Chat for Impact summit – a four-day virtual event powered by WhatsApp in partnership with Praekelt.org and Turn.io. The summit brought together 30 organizations, each doing incredible work to support communities around the world.
Whether providing training and skills building, enriching and empowering people with the arts, bringing people together with vital services, or providing safe ways for people to speak up – we all had one common goal: to find new and engaging ways to connect with people wherever they are. During the summit, we drew inspiration from the passion and mission of these organizations, as well as from the speakers and panelists.
Three key takeaways that struck a particular chord with us include:
1. Necessity is the mother of invention
We’re in an exciting period where we have access to a dizzying array of new digital tools to build those inventions. The last year stretched our imaginations far beyond what we thought was possible, and everyone has had to reach deep beyond their comfort zones to come up with new ways to connect, engage, and inform. The explosion of digital access has fortunately opened up new avenues for innovation, and we’re inspired by how organizations have tested the potential of these new digital tools to the max.
One great example is the My Body My Space festival in South Africa. The organizers had the audacious vision to conduct their entire art festival through WhatsApp. People could send a message to an automated bot, who would respond with the festival program. By entering the name of any of the listed performances, the person would then receive, via WhatsApp, a video of the performance together with a short description. The festival organizers also used this as a way to crowdsource participant responses via videos, voice memos, and images. By focusing on short performances, or cutting performances into multiple videos, they could also respect the needs of people who are impacted by the digital divide, such as having limited mobile data.
2. Center services around the people who will use them
Although it’s been said many times before, it continues to bear repeating. Support for communities needs to be grounded from within those communities, and services and programs cannot be effectively designed without the participation, perspectives, and energy of the very people who will be using them. Nadia Murad, activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, spoke compellingly about the need to place people at the forefront of any action in order for it to sustain over time. Whether it’s trying to bring displaced populations back to their homes in post-conflict zones, developing programs to support women entrepreneurs, or providing skills training – as Ms. Murad said, “no one knows a community’s needs better than the community itself.”
You know when something is driven by the excitement and energy of a community vs. something that’s top-down, driven by a donor or a work plan.Evan Tachovsky, Rockefeller Foundation
3. Inclusion and social justice must be at the heart of tech conversations
As Evan Tachovsky of the Rockefeller Foundation succinctly put it, it is imperative to continuously reflect on “who makes the tools, who gets to use them, [and] who sets the agenda.” As always, we need to be intentional about supporting activism, training, skills building, and data literacy amongst all populations to make sure that the technology empowers – rather than alienates or excludes – communities to put their energy and creativity into initiatives that work for them.
Technology is a transformative force that is still being shaped today and is still significantly misunderstood. It’s changing the rules of social engagement and justice in unprecedented ways…but also in a way that creates threats.Jessica Chemali, Legal Agenda
What this means for CitizenLab
These learnings helped inform our own prototype at CitizenLab. During the week, we rolled up our virtual sleeves and built an experimental chatbot to enable cities and organizations to connect with their constituents via WhatsApp. Through this, people could provide ideas and input, respond to polls, and be alerted to new engagement opportunities. In building the chatbot, we thought a lot about what it means to have an ‘automated conversation’ with people – in what ways does the experience of ‘chatting’ with a bot affect the nature and quality of the interaction? Does it build or deteriorate trust? Does it provide a safe and private space for a conversation, or does it feel impersonal and robotic? How much information and detail do people want to provide via a text message? Who would prefer and benefit from this means of participating as opposed to an online, browser-based experience or an in-person meeting?
We left really energized about the potential of new technologies to support more robust public participation, whether it’s online workshops or integrating with mobile messaging, so that people have a direct line to provide their input to shape local decisions.
But most importantly, at the end of the day, we must not forget that whatever the method or whatever the tool, the goal remains the same: to bring in diverse voices and perspectives into the conversation, to enable the community to define their needs and priorities and to drive holistic, sustainable and well-informed decisions that are powered by the people.