The T Word

नमस्ते Namaste! I’m learning नागरी (Deva)nagari which is a challenge but also very beautiful. Watch me struggle with Hrishikesh: 

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Unfortunately, this week I got a little sick. Nothing too serious, but when thinking about trying to hold all my bodily functions together for my hour long commute, I thought I’d better just stay home this week. So for two days I have been stuck in bed drinking “lemon sherbet” instead of tea and groaning into my pillow a lot. While I’m not happy about being away from work so much, I have had a lot of time for reflection and thought, which I will now try to remove from my brain and deliver to this page, hopefully successfully. Another miscellaneous note is that I’m currently trying to “get in to” twitter and other tech things that have to do with my internship so if you have a twitter please follow me and follow Pratham!

Development: A tale of two cities

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This week on the Seattle sub-Reddit, a very angry Seattle-newcomer posted a rant about how his car and Amazon employee sticker had been vandalized on the hill, including a note that he should leave town. In a comment that includes some salty language, the abused Amazon-er writes “What the fuck, guys. Why do you have to be such assholes? I wasn’t doing anything to harm anyone.” In a city not unaccustomed to the ongoing debate about tech-invasion and in a time where everyone is incredibly afraid of inheriting San Francisco’s toxic tech-vs-non-tech culture, this caused quite a stir in the online community. 

It has been interesting to compare Seattle to Pune, another tech capital on the rise. Pune is home to countless tech universities and companies, as well as a thriving start-up community. And Pratham is trying to leverage this much in the same way much of the non-profit community in the Bay and Seattle are – convince the techies to give their time and resources to social causes instead of large companies. These efforts have the reputation of going terribly wrong in San Francisco. That time tech-bros tried to strap gopros to the homeless in order to “build empathy” comes to mind. While I haven’t heard of anything nearly as disastrous in Pune, I definitely feel a disconnect between the tech community and the urban poor in Pune, similar to that of urban centers like Seattle (albeit on a much larger scale). Then zoom out to rural centers, and that scale becomes even larger. At the hackathon kick-off, the demographic in the room could not have been any farther from Pratham’s client base, for example. When I talk about ASER or Pratham with anyone I’ve met in my family’s network, many of whom are in tech, they have no idea what I’m talking about, even though ASER is the largest non-governmental survey in India. 

And so, like in most urban centers in the world, my work is a tale of two cities. In the map above, I’ve circled a couple of locations. The first, Baner, is where I work along a road that includes the centers for Amazon, Symantec, and more. I travel this road every day to my comfortable office space on a quiet road off Baner. As I zoom by in my six-seater, there are even “Mercedes Benz” buses lining the road, dropping off programmers at their companies – sound familiar? Rewind to my first day in Pune, which started in Varil Nagar, where Pratham’s educational foundation is officially located, sipping my first cup of tea with Survana, as she told us about the seven educational programs we were about to see. We would spend the next ten hours, windy through backgrounds in slums and crowded colonies, finding our way to crowded rooms stuff with computers and curious children. I watched them digest the information that once was just an idea in that roomy Baner office, eyes fixated on the screen, playing the videos and tutorials over and over. Shivajinagar is next, crowded and polluted, with eyes following our steps as we walked through the winding roads, on what felt like an endless journey into the heart of a rabbit hole. This was not my first time in slum, but it was my first time so deep into a slum. Reaching our location, crowded in a dark, barely lit room at sunset, we sat awkwardly with the children as they looked through Pratham materials, possibly developed back out in Vahil Nagar or maybe all the way back at Baner. Sitting in that room, Seattle and my office in Pune felt worlds away. In reality, while one was thousands of kilometers in distance, the other was less than twenty. 

 What impact does this disconnect have? This thought has captivated my mind in the last couple of weeks. In order to have applications for games that kids play to learn, you need app developers and they need a lot of time to develop the games. In order to know if the tablets you gave to children in Manipur are actually teaching them, you need data analysts and they need software to analyze the information. All of these things need office space and an organizational structure for support. All of these things need tech. So should we concentrating on changing the culture? How? Does the culture need change if it’s producing the products necessary to elevate children out of the system? I think so. Here’s why. Culture is about demand. It’s about demanding less inequality and about demanding better education for children and about demanding change. I don’t know if that can be done with an inseparable divide between the people creating content and those receiving it. We can’t just be the ones talking about change in culture, we have to be a part of it.

Tech Culture & Doing Good

People have long been skeptical of technology’s power to solve social issues on its own. I am incredibly excited about Kentaro Toyama’s new book on rescuing social change from the cult of technology that speaks to this issue. There are two diverging schools of thought: technology as amplifier not poverty-alleviator or technology as a save-all. A lot of this is reminiscent of the supply/demand-wallah debate that Duflo and Baneree discuss in Poor Economics. Toyama argues that social challenges are best met with social solutions, not tech utopia babble. On the other hand, what about when it isn’t social solutions but larger systemic problems? I am currently reading Dataclysm by Christian Rudder, co-founder of OkCupid. It is really cool to see all of the things Big Data can do and tell us about systemic issues and trends. This is the main topic in Patrick Merier’s Digital Humanitarians, which concentrates on the overflow of informed generated during disasters and analyzes how we can make sense of this information (text messages, social media, etc.) through crowdsourcing solutions. This is also pretty convincing, although I have to admit not having a strong computer science background puts me at a disadvantage when evaluating the veracity of these claims. Regardless, this technique seems to be successfully employed all over the place, from international development to the news

However, I still think there is a gap between Big Data analysis on Twitter trends and solutions to social problems. Yes, big data can make aid more effective in disaster situations and yes: technology can solve huge problems like overpopulation, vaccine awareness, and agricultural problems. But what happens after the disaster, after the public health initiatives, after the infrastructure development when there are still deep systematic problems like inequality, unstable government, and deep poverty? Data and tech may not be able to solve those problems on its own. 

Madhav Chavan, CEO of Pratham, agrees that technology is not the whole solution. For him, the culture in India must change first. He argues that focus on curriculum and a narrow-minded education system cripple young people’s ability to succeed. Technology is possibility – it is non-linear. And, having witnessed it myself, I can tell you the education system in India is about as linear as it gets. Students are marched through the system and curriculum without ever looking back. Technology is the opposite. You’re in first grade and want to learn about quantum mechanics? Nothing can stop you! But the education system will not support you. Pratham believes that the system, the government, and technology have to work together in order to succeed. 

I tend to find the arguments that technology is not a fix-all very convincing. This is because I lean towards becoming demand-wallah or “seller of the demand side theory.” I agree completely with Joe Brewer and Jason Hickel in their criticisms of Bill and Melinda Gates when they write, “Poverty is made by people. It is not just part of nature.” Many big minds in development come at poverty like it just exist, and not that it has a history and that is a history of creation. We cannot just concentrate on big bets on the future, but what created the problems in the first place. Us. And the inequality we perpetrate because it is good for a few of us. Talking about global poverty without talking about inequality is absurd to me. Optimism about the future through innovations is great, but the language of the Gates Foundation is problematic in the way that it doesn’t talk about a reorganization of the power structures that contributed to such vast poverty in the first place. 

I think data can tell us a lot about ourselves and is absolutely key in telling us where to target our efforts and if we are on the right track. But I don’t think it can solve these problems for us. Only we can do that. So I tend to shy away from saying technology is the “answer” because 1) absolute answers scare me and 2) it denies the more complex and intriguing solution of technology being part of the answer and 3) it absolves ourselves from our participation in an unequal society.

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