HQ folks: Don’t Do This

Hopping on the meme-wagon for a second here… if you care enough, read these three posts about paper pushing in the NGO world:

In the last one, Paul considers what happens after the reports make it to HQ, from the point of view of field people:

…it seems there is no such impact. Country offices receive little or no feedback on their reports, and individual staff receive none. It’s also hard to identify any link between the reports that are generated in-country and any strategic decision-making, although it’s clear that there is some benefit there.

I know this feeling for sure. I once had a bigwig come and waste time in a field planning meeting asking questions that made it crystal clear he didn’t read the reports. In addition to impeding the work of the organization by wasting our time and depressing our morale, he made me lose respect for him and for HQ, which probably tainted my decision making processes for some time after that.

HQ people: be professional, do your homework, and read the reports before you go on a field trip. I know it’s a lot to take in, but if you don’t thrive on reading and integrating information, you shouldn’t be in HQ. Go get a nice cushy job as a project manager in some shithole in the middle of a warzone. No tsunami of reports to read there… and you only have to write one once a month. As you yourself have already proved, no one reads them anyway, so you won’t have to put too much time into them…

That is all.

Economic Meltdown in Iceland

Read this thread on a local geek social group in Leeds. That’s the voice of one scared girl, and perhaps the reality is not so bad. But just the fact that there is one Icelander who’s feeling that freaked out makes my heart go out to her.

I’ve suggested to her that one problem is translations, and that she could earn some hard currency by starting a blog with translations of the articles describing the meltdown and then putting a TipJoy widget on it. I’d pay to hear the voice of Iceland from inside, instead of mediated by the Mainstream Media.

Update: It’s up and running! Your new realtime feed of Iceland journalism, in a language a bit more accessible.

More ideas on how to innovate to serve poor communities

Another reference I don’t want to lose: Innovation in Africa Tips.

Also, why is it “in Africa”? What happened that Africa got so far behind, or is getting so much of the attention? Why don’t we advise people how to make a new clean water technology stick in SE Asia, or in South America anymore? Even a few years ago when I came to this world, there was much more discussion of all the poor places, and not just Africa.

In Search of Deviants

Positive Deviance is a somewhat unnecessarily complicated name for something deeply humane and useful:

In every village, there is at least one woman (usually a few) whose children are healthier than the rest. For whatever reason, that woman is better at navigating the complexities of village life and child nutrition. That woman has knowledge and skills which can be taught. You find her, you learn from her, you support her to teach her peers. That is positive deviance.

I’m collecting references to what Aid-Work 2.0 looks like, and this is part of it, I think.

Why doesn’t this already exist?

Yesterday, I was walking in town and there was a nice guy playing a clarinet in front of North Face. I intentionally fumbled with my coins for a while so as to enjoy his music a bit. Then I paid him a tip and walked along, enjoying the clarinet as it faded behind me.

Why can’t I do that for the gigabytes of copyright violations I illegally download? (Note to RIAA lawyers: this is a hypothetical situation. No need to sue me. Thanks.)

Why doesn’t a website already exist where I can pay a tip into a tip jar?

It’s hard and annoying to rent movies. I went to my corner store, and got a grilling about residency — which is incredibly difficult to prove as a visitor in the UK. Then the DVD didn’t play right on my laptop because I reinstalled Windows XP without the special install disk from IBM, so I lost the right to play DVDs on my own machine (but this same machine runs VLC to decode Xvid movies just fine). Then I forgot to return the DVD that didn’t play right on time, so I got a fine for a DVD I never could see!

I resolved then and there to never rent a DVD again, as long as I live. I’ll just go back to what I used to (hypothetically) do, which was download pirated movies. I’d like to pay for them, but I can’t. Why can’t I? I just don’t understand why I can’t pay somone. There’s lots of people in my life I don’t want to pay, who I have to pay (hello Yorkshire Water Company, are you listening!?!). Why can’t I pay the studio when I get their content via a distribution channel they don’t even have to pay for?

In my dream world, here’s how it works:

Someone sets up a website called OldBatteredHat.com. There’s a form on the front page, that says, “your paypal name? how much? URL of the content? tip!”. The URLs have to be from a small list of sources the site operator wants to trust as catalogs of copyrighted content. I’d make it IMDB for movies, FreeDB for music, and Registered Commons for Creative Commons stuff. You click on “pay by paypal”. If your paypal account is not linked to a bank account, it says, “warning, you’re stupid and will be paying some of your tip to Visa instead of to the artist. Continue?” Then the payment goes through. You get a receipt with a “tip transaction number”. There’s lots of scary leagalese that says that you are making a gift to the website operator, and that they don’t have any responsibility if the money never gets to the right place, but that they will try to check claimants well, but no promises.

The website operator has a nightly job harvesting all the tip money and rolling it into a paypal money market account. It also posts a full accounting, publicly, of the transactions for the day, week, month. It updates the “top grossing” web page, or whatever other fascinating stats he wants to post. Because he’d be committed to running the site with maximum transparency in order to earn and maintain trust, anyone could calculate the stats that he doesn’t bother to list.

There is a UI for content owners to come collect their tips. They have to submit a PDF’d scan of their declaration binding their copyright ownership to their paypal name. The website admin reads the PDF and decides if it’s valid for the given work and if so, posts it in the system with an expiration date. The content owner is able to collect tips as often as they want into their paypal account (they will discover that they have to link it, or else they pay huge fees to get paypal to send them a check). Like everything else about the system, this is radically transparent: the PDF declaration is linked with the outbound transactions, so that tippers can see who’s coming to pick up the money they left.

As the site gets more popular the load of reviewing the declarations and investigating if they are real or fake will be unbearable for the operator, and he’ll put in place a crowd-sourcing model, where people vote up correct declarations an vote down false ones. The operator then needs only check the top declarations to see if he’s willing to put his credibility on the line by approving them for making withdrawals.

The operator of the website does this out of the goodness of his heart, though he also takes tips if they come for him. He also earns interest on the tips waiting to be collected by the copyright owner. Finally, he has the right to collect tips that have been waiting for a content owner to show up for too long — and because of his radical transparency, everyone can see which tips are about to get claimed by the operator. Tippers cannot be refunded (didn’t you read the scary disclaimer, moron?). But if they are really up in arms about their tip being claimed by the operator, they should just contact the copyright holder and make sure the copyright owner comes and collected the tip. That’s their only recourse, and it’s good enough.

Whoever does this first will eventually get sued. He’ll post a notice saying he is afraid he’ll lose his house, it will all be very dramatic, and people will contribute to his legal defense, etc, etc, etc. These stories all follow the same stupid story arc. In the end, he will in fact lose his house, and he’ll be bitter and not try again, but someone else will. They too will get sued, and after a few more cycles, there will be one or two trusted tip-jar websites that stay up and don’t get sued. And the world will be a better place.

If you take this idea and are one of the guys who get sued and loses his house, sorry. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you take this idea and it takes off, please just send me a bottle of scotch. Thanks.

Update: I actually got around to doing my research on this, and I discovered a Y-combinator startup named TipJoy. Nifty. Give me a tip:

With all due respect Mr Holmes…

You can kiss my ass.

Talking about the risks faced by humanitarian workers, you said:

People in this business have always accepted the risks, there have always been losses, there have always been horrific incidents

There is NO SUCH THING as acceptable losses for humanitarian aid. Period.

PS: I noticed that, according to your bio, you’ve never even worked in the field. So please do not count my life and the lives of my colleages as “acceptable losses”. Thanks.

MoveOn: Wrong on the environment, wrong for America

MoveOn suggests that the best way to further your liberal agenda of reduced carbon emissions is to… (wait for it, wait for it…)

Driving Change: Carpool to a swing state

If you don’t live in a swing state, how can you volunteer in one? Drive!

You can’t make this stuff up…

This is like Daily Show funny. This is like irony at 11 on the irony scale. This is like the look on Tina Fey’s face when Palin kicks her off the stage.

But it does remind me of a much better idea I once had…

PS: I already voted (thanks to OVF). My English colleagues were intrigued to see the ballot and at about a 100 to 1 ratio, were relieved to see one more Obama vote cast. Marina thought the ballot was the dumbest thing she ever saw — the topics of the (as she calls them) initivos, the fact that we vote for the president of the sewer district, etc. The Swiss are nuts about voting, but their direct democracy is significantly more streamlined and significantly less content-free than our feeble democracy has become.

Too Much Travel is Bad for the Soul

There’s an interesting little nugget of reality near the end of the first page of Ask the Pilot this week:

If I have grown more cynical in recent years, it is travel, I think, that has pushed me in this direction. Exploring other parts of the world is beneficial in all the ways it is typically given credit for… But traveling can also burn you out, suck away your faith in humanity. You will see, right there in front of you, how the world is falling to pieces; the planet has been ravaged, life is cheap, and there is little that you, as the Western observer, with or without your good conscience, are going to do about it.

This is something I discovered a while ago as well. Perhaps it is because my work with MSF always takes me to shitholes (*). But even when I happen to not be in a shithole, I find that the cultural constants I find alongside the beautiful ones like “love of family”, “pride in home”, etc are the ugly ones: corruption, apathy, greed. There are just not enough of us on the us team, and way too many them.

I take exception to Patrick’s injection of Western values and/or class into it. It’s just true that everywhere in the world there are shitheads and they are intent on pulling down that which society is struggling to put up around them. If you took a poor African on a tour of all of the sad things you can see in the rich world, he’d start feeling cynical and sad too.

* And I do mean shithole in the kindest, most respectful way. I’m always humbled by how proud people are of home in all the different forms home takes — even the shitholes. And no matter what form home takes, it’s residents should always have their human rights protected.

Update: Read to the end of the article for a touching snapshot inside the heart of a humanitarian worker. What am I doing? Why? Is this right? Is this misguided? All I know is it’s what I’m supposed to be doing…for this hedgehog.

Ethan Zuckerman’s Rules for Innovation

Ethan just posted some rules for innovation which are interesting. The one that speaks most to me right now is #7, which states, “problems are not always obvious from afar”. That’s a big problem with the kind of “innovation” that happens with first-world government-funded NGO IT for Development work. It is easy for a programmer to sit in an office and say, “what Africans really need is more data collection via PDAs!” It is something else entirely for Malian Linux enthusiasts to say, “Downloading is too expensive, I bet I can make money distributing Open Source via a kiosk”.

The former type of “innovation” is (1) colonialist, (2) ignorant, and (3) a theft from the tax payers funding it and from the beneficiaries who need results (not another failed project). The latter is about people, taking a hand extended to them, and lifting themselves up. In the case of Kunnafoni, the hand is a vibrant expat and African IT culture (probably centered on alumni from Geek Corps Mali), and the cornucopia of free content available to them.

Which type of IT4D would you rather be involved in?