How Smart Automation Can Be Used In International Development

This article was originally posted on NDItech.org.

Artificial Intelligence is one of those buzzwords in tech that everyone’s heard, but few people actually understand how it can be used in practice. If you’re to believe Hollywood or Stephen Hawking, AI either means androids that are indistinguishable from humans (except for the inability to use conjunctions) or super-intelligent computers that could spell the end of the human race. After attending a Tech Salon on how AI can be used in international development, I can say with absolute certainty that it is neither of those things… yet. But the “commodification” of AI is making “smart automation” — a term I quite liked as a useful synonym for AI — much more accessible outside Silicon Valley. In fact, you probably already used some form of AI today without even knowing it.

Before we get into how AI can be used in international development, let’s first understand for what type of things smart automation can and can’t be used. These capabilities or limitations can be broken down into three categories.

First, computers can now be trained to automate human intelligence. In other words, we can now train computers to do simple tasks that only humans used to be able to do — things like find which photos in your photo album have cats in them. This is a learning process whereby a human sorts out cat photos and a machine-learning algorithm (another tech buzzword) builds its own model to automate the process of finding cat photos.

Second, smart automation is only really useful as a way to augment human ability; it does not replace humans wholesale. AI is really good at classification and prediction, but it will never be 100 percent accurate. You still need a human to monitor the results, check for bias and make judgment calls.

Ok, so, now that the AI found the cat photos, it’s up to you — human — to exclude the one that is just a realistic-looking cat-shaped slipper (how’d that get in there?!?) and post the cutest, most relevant one as your animal shelter’s Facebook cover photo. We’re trying rescue kittens, not sell cat slippers…silly computer.

Finally, computers are way better than humans at doing simple, mundane tasks over and over without error or referencing vast databases of complex information. Smart automation is, therefore, a pathway to scale.

The cat example doesn’t work quite as well in this case so I’m going to dispense with that metaphor and instead turn to a real-life problem. There are simply too few doctors in Nigeria, and — given the size of the population and its rate of growth — it will be generations before we can train enough doctors. Smart automation has been shown to be surprisingly accurate at diagnosing medical ailments. Combining AI-assisted diagnosis with community health workers — who require way less training than a doctor — could be an important pathway to scaling access to medical services in places like Nigeria.

So how would an organization like NDI get started in smart automation? The Tech Salon folks recommended starting with a mid-scale pilot project tied to metrics for success and getting top-down institutional buy-in. But for me, the “how” is way less important than the “what.” In other words, selecting the right pilot project based on previously successful use cases is way more important than the size or institutional buy-in of the pilot. Also, your organization should probably have the capacity to support “dumb automation” — automation that doesn’t employ machine learning algorithms — before it makes the leap to supporting smart automation.

NDI is currently looking for ideas on an appropriate pilot project for smart automation. If you have ideas, you can email me at jfrant [at] ndi [dot] org (<= hoping the AIs aren’t smart enough to read that… yet).

“Youth Bulge” is Making Waves In Nigerian Politics

This article was originally posted on DemWorks.org.
Nigeria population pyramid

Nigeria’s population pyramid shows a population heavily weighted toward youth. Youth account for 60 percent of the Nigerian population and 55.4 percent of the voting-age population.

Margaret Mead is quoted as saying, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In late February, I traveled to Abuja, Nigeria to meet with one such group of thoughtful, committed citizens.

The Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement (YIAGA) is one of Nigeria’s preeminent youth organizations. YIAGA, along with the Youngstars Development Initiative (YDI), has conducted a very successful advocacy effort to lower the eligibility age to run for elected office in Nigeria. From humble beginnings, the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign has grown into a national movement.

Nigerians become eligible to vote at 18. Once eligible to vote, politically-motivated youth must wait another 12 to 22 years to be eligible to run for elected office. This policy seems foolhardy in a country where youth account for 60 percent of the population and 55.4 percent of the voting-age population. This “youth buldge” is both an opportunity and a potential challenge. By marginalizing young people from full participation in the political process, Nigeria is missing a huge opportunity to harness their creativity, energy and inspiration for national development. On a darker note, violence may ultimately be the cost of their political exclusion. Noting the mass violence unleashed by Boko Haram, one YIAGA member pointed out, “the ruling elite in the north have not come to terms with the resentment of young people about their exclusion.”

The #NotTooYoungToRun bill seeks to take on one barrier to youth representation in political leadership. The bill seeks to amend the constitution, reducing the eligibility age for President from 40 years to 30 years; Governor 35 to 30; Senate 35 to 30; House of Representatives 30 to 25; and State House of Assembly 30 to 25. Through YIAGA’s tireless efforts, the amendment seems poised to pass the National Assembly and move on to ratification by the states.

So why has the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign been so successful? Samson Itodo, the executive director of YIAGA, said that while the campaign had started in 2009 it didn’t begin to gain traction until 2015 when previous efforts consolidated on increasing political will and compelling campaign branding. The full answer is complicated and will be a main focus of YIAGA’s forthcoming toolkit for youth activists, but they identified a few key lessons:

  • Narrative is powerful – “We didn’t have a campaign until we came up with the hashtag.”
  • Build a movement – “It’s not about one organization.”
  • Focus on partnerships that work – “Legislative-civil society collaboration was key.”
  • Stop agonizing and organize!

Even as the national #NotTooYoungToRun campaign continues to gain momentum, the African Union and the United Nations have shown interest in replicating YIAGA’s success. The UN launched its own global Not Too Young To Run campaign, and the AU has expressed interest in working with YIAGA to provide guidance to enable other youth groups across sub-Saharan Africa to achieve greater youth representation in the political leadership of their own countries.

While the tide is moving in YIAGA’s favor, there is still a lot of work to do. They will need all of their creativity and fortitude to see this amendment through to full passage.

Organizations/Networks Working To Resist Trump and/or Support American Democracy

Here is a list of organizations/networks that are working resist Trump and support American democracy. If you know of others, please add them in the comments. And PLEASE sign up with your favorite(s) to get involved:

Jesper Frant at NDI training in Nicaragua

“Training of Trainers” Strategy Needed to Democratize Access to CiviCRM: Nicaragua Pilot

This article was originally posted on NDItech.org.

I had the opportunity to work with NDI’s technology and Latin America teams last month to train our Nicaragua-based staff on Civi — a contact relationship management (CRM) system that makes up 1/6th of NDI’s DemTools technology suite. While it was not the first time NDI’s DC-based staff had traveled abroad to train users on this platform, this training took a slightly different approach. Instead of focusing on building the capacity of Civi users, we identified a local staff member who could serve as a Nicaragua-based Civi trainer. This “training of trainers” strategy addresses a key barrier to adoption that may be the final piece in the puzzle that will allow Civi to scale around the world.

Civi is based on an open source technology, namely CiviCRM, which is one of the most widely adopted open source CRMs in the United States, but it has not enjoyed the same scale in less-developed countries where NDI works.

NDI’s modified version of the software, and its Software as a Service (SaaS) platform, DemCloud, have sought to address barriers to scale that have limited adoption of the tool in developing countries. Specifically, NDItech has sought to lower the barriers to international adoption by: 1) expanding support for multiple languages, 2) offering the software at a cost that is manageable for NDI’s partners, and 3) taking on the technology burden that would otherwise fall on small organizations with no technology expertise. But handing a partner a piece of technology, telling them it’s free, and assuring them that they will be able to use it in their native language is not enough to make them expert users.

My trip to Nicaragua revealed two additional barriers to scale that must also be met.

Marketing

Before they decide to make the leap to adoption, potential users need to be excited by the tool and how it can help them be more effective and efficient with jobs they are already doing. NDI partners in Nicaragua had an appreciation for how technologies like this might be able to make their lives easier, but they wanted to learn the detail of the capabilities of the Civi platform and how it compared to the platforms they currently use, such as Google Forms, Microsoft Outlook, and MailChimp to name a few.

My experience in Nicaragua also taught me that potential users are also very concerned about privacy. Tracking contacts and their activities — a task that Civi excels at — is inherently sensitive and could become problematic if the “wrong” people got their hands on it.

Certified Civi Trainers

Once potential users have bought into the platform, there is still a significant learning curve to becoming an expert user. Civi — even the simplified version developed by NDI — is a complex platform with a lot of interesting and useful features, but it also has a number of quirks that could become problematic for the uninitiated user. Having qualified Civi trainers work with partners to implement and customize the platform sets them off on the right direction and provides them with ongoing support they need to become accustomed to the platform.

NDItech has made great strides to reduce technical barriers that are associated with adopting Civi. I believe that the last remaining barriers to scale for this product are human in nature and will require a human-centered solution. Civi is a powerful piece of software that — as much as if not more than any of the other DemTools IMHO — has the potential to make NDI’s partners more effective and efficient in their work. Positive feedback from the Nicaragua pilot indicates that a “Training of Trainers” strategy, combining marketing meetings for potential users with building the capacity of a cadre of expert trainers in the field, has potential to be an effective strategy to drive adoption of the platform. Onwards to scale!

Photo credit: Bartolomé Ibarra Mejía

Solving climate change will require technological and political innovation

This article was originally posted on DemWorks.org.

The earth faces unprecedented ecological challenges. Human activity has now pushed the earth beyond four of the nine planetary boundaries first identified in 2009 by Johan Rockström, a recognized expert on natural resource management from Stockholm University. Breaking through one or more of these boundaries, Rockström says, may be catastrophic because it triggers abrupt environmental degradation at a continental or even global scale.

Time to throw up our hands in despair, right? Wrong.

The earth is also at an important moment for technological innovation. Renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar, which were seen as a pipe dream just a few decades ago are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, and battery technology, a barrier to the viability of renewable energy in the past, is improving at an equally rapid rate.

But technological innovation is just one part of the solution. To overcome these challenges, technological innovation must be paired with political innovation at every level of government.

At the international level, a new global compact to fight climate change is taking shape. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a development economist at Columbia University, has called 2015 a key year for global action on climate change. A series of high-level international negotiations between now and December will “reshape the global development agenda, and give an important push to vital changes in the workings of the global economy,” Sachs writes.

Political innovation will also be required at the local level, where the impacts of climate change are most acutely felt. Citizens and governments will need to work together to effectively mitigate and adapt to the localized impacts, and causes, of environmental degradation.

In the Chure mountain range of the outer Himalayas, for example, citizens struggle with landslides triggered by deforestation and repeated flooding. These natural disasters have taken a heavy toll on lives and property. A recent initiative, carried out with NDI assistance, enabled 11 members of the Nepali parliament (including five members of Nepal’s Environmental Protection Committee) to travel to Kailali, a district in the Chure range, to learn about these environmental challenges.

The officials connected with local experts, who briefed them on environmental changes in the Chure range, and constituents adversely impacted by mudslides. The delegation presented its finding and recommendations to the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation, which amended its policies to, among other things, immediately stop the felling of trees in the name of “scientific forest management,” which had been taking place across the country.

Simply developing new technology to replace fossil fuels will not save the planet. Technological innovation needs to be matched with political innovation that both lifts the global consciousness and responds to the needs of everyday citizens.

Will there be a fourth democratic wave?

This article was originally posted on DemWorks.org.

As the Cold War came to a close, renowned political scientist, professor and author, Francis Fukuyama, proclaimed the end of history. He said humankind had reached the endpoint of its “ideological evolution,” and Western liberal democracy had won out as the “final form of human government.” At around the same time, another influential political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington wrote that the world was in the middle of a “third wave” of democratic expansion. But 23 years later, the third democratic wave has hit a wall. According to Larry Diamond, founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, the rapid democratic expansion, which began in the 1970s and continued until 2005, is now in recession.

A number of theories have been put forth to explain this democratic stagnation.

Diamond points to “bad governance” as the most influential factor that has led to an authoritarian resurgence and the retreat of Western democracy. Underdeveloped democratic institutions were ill-equipped to handle abuses of power, which were exacerbated by the global economic crisis and increasing inequality. Western democracy suffered a blow to its reputation, resulting from a perceived “decline of democratic efficacy, energy and self-confidence,” says Diamond. The United States has not been immune, suffering repeated bouts of political gridlock and economic turmoil.

Pat Merloe, NDI’s senior associate and director of electoral programs, contends that the struggle against authoritarianism and the deficiencies of established Western democracies are long-term challenges that require resolve. Factors like rapid authoritarian learning and the spread of new forms of terrorism complicate democratic development and must be met with effective democratic learning and innovation to create a “democratic stimulus” and avoid a “democratic depression.”

Democracy Works – a project by the Legatum Institute and the Center for Development and Enterprise, which coincidentally shares a title with NDI’s recently launched blog – says that the resurgent appeal of authoritarianism is also driven by economics.

China’s rapid economic rise accounted for 76.09 percent of global poverty reduction between 1990–2005, and was a primary reason that the world was able to halve global poverty five years ahead of the Millenium Development Goal target.

The Democracy Works project argues that China’s hybrid model – which employs market mechanisms alongside a command economy – has demonstrated an “attractive alternative to Western-style democratic capitalism.” But the Chinese model does not have a monopoly on delivering inclusive economic growth. The project points to three developing societies that are delivering economic growth, along with the other trappings of democratic society: stability, accountability, liberty and human rights. Three fifths of the BRICS – India, Brazil and South Africa – represent an often-overlooked democratic alternative from the South.

Warning that the third democratic wave would not last forever, Huntington’s 1991 article predicted a fourth democratic wave occurring sometime in the 21st century. He wrote: “The two most decisive factors affecting the future consolidation and expansion of democracy will be economic development and political leadership. Economic development makes democracy possible; political leadership makes it real.”

Will there be a fourth democratic wave? It will take democratic stimulus, political leadership and economic development.