A human-centred approach to innovation and digital technology
For the past five years, Sonia Valladares has taught women in rural Spain how to use a laptop. She still remembers the first time she helped a group of women become familiar with a computer during one of her workshops. It was a simple exercise – write the recipe for the Spanish omelette on Microsoft Word, add an image and print the new document on paper. At first, the women were afraid to even touch the mouse, unsure about whether they would damage the computer. By the end of the workshop, they were excited about the possibility of doing the same with all their favourite recipes – “so they wouldn’t be lost, so they’d be there forever,” Valladares says.
A solutions engineer at Adobe, Valladares joined Spanish nonprofit Cibervoluntarios to give back. The organisation promotes social inclusion and citizen empowerment through technology volunteering, reaching people at risk of digital vulnerability in partnership with grassroots groups and large tech corporations alike.
“It’s important that everybody has access to what I have access to,” Valladares says. “It’s become something basic. If you don’t know how to apply for a job on LinkedIn, for example, even if you’re a valid candidate for the position, you have no access to it just because you’re lacking the knowledge.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, this realisation only grew stronger, as learning to use a laptop or smartphone meant being able to keep in touch with loved ones during national lockdowns and cope with prolonged social isolation. According to Valladares, at first some of the people she worked with were devastated at the thought of not being able to have face-to-face conversations with their families for months.
“We helped hundreds of elderly people who asked us how to access online services during the pandemic – e-banking, booking doctor’s appointments, buying groceries – because most of them have smartphones, tablets and a connection, but they don't know how to use them,” Angel Sola Lopez, Head of International Programs at Cibervoluntarios, says. “The most touching examples had to do with being able to communicate with friends and relatives, and learning how to use digital tools for video calls such as Zoom and Google Meet. Several people thanked us for helping them get access to their grandchildren, nieces and nephews – for being able to see them on a screen.”
Cibervoluntarios in Spain is part of a burgeoning global movement to ensure no one who could benefit from digital technology is left behind due to lack of access or knowledge. As new digital tools become embedded in everyday life, a series of initiatives has sprung up to advance marginalised communities’ digital awareness, helping them engage with emerging technologies in a way that works for their daily needs and supporting them in taking advantage of the opportunities they offer
“We've seen societies rapidly digitise in a way that we couldn't have foreseen, and the focus has been on volume – on the techno optimism that with access would come use,” Ellen Helsper, Professor of Digital Inequalities at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says. “What has been overlooked is that there are certain people within society who are able to do that to a far greater extent than others. With massive diffusion of technologies, without appropriate policies or systemic thinking about how they’re designed and how we interact with them, certain people are ever more excluded as existing inequalities are amplified.”
For Helsper, this is particularly evident within education, where the pandemic has shined a light on learners’ living conditions and access opportunities in obvious ways, humanising these challenges also thanks to the widespread adoption of new digital tools and behaviours.
“It's hard to ignore when you're confronted with somebody sitting in their room not being able to connect, and you see the different circumstances in which we live,” Helsper says. “Our faces have been put into this.”
As the focus shifts away from issues of software and infrastructure to people’s diverse range of needs, digital inclusion initiatives have increasingly embraced a more human-centred approach, helping people use digital tools in a way that is meaningful to them and their community.
“It’s not just about training people or giving them a computer,” Rodrigo Baggio, founder of global digital empowerment nonprofit Recode and a leading voice in the field, says. “This is just the first step.
The idea is to inspire [people] to be changemakers – encourage them to apply that digital knowledge to the reality they live in, choose a problem they’re passionate about and turn it into action. - Rodrigo Baggio, Founder of Recode
When Baggio first saw the need for a new kind of approach, it was 1995. He was working for the likes of Accenture and IBM Brazil while living in Rio de Janeiro, not too far from Dona Marta, one of the city’s oldest slums, in a country where less than 8% of the population had internet access at the time.
In Dona Marta, Baggio founded Informática para Todos, Brazil’s first campaign for donated computers, and opened the first Information Technology and Citizens Rights School (ITCRS). His goal was to train local people, teaching them how to become technology and civic engagement educators so they could continue to grow the project and create sustainable change within their community. On the day of the launch, the digital empowerment centre welcomed more than 300 young people from the favela.
Eleven newspapers, seven TV stations, three radios and two magazines covered the news, propelling the project into the mainstream. Soon after, more computers were donated, dozens of volunteers approached Baggio to get involved, and one year later, ten technology centres had opened across several slums in Rio. Today, the initiative has evolved into Recode, a global organisation with operations in Latin America, the US and Europe.
Each centre invites students to come together and identify a challenge they would like to focus on because it affects them closely as a community, and educators invite them to prepare an action plan to overcome it with the help of new technical skills. This initiates a ripple effect that extends far beyond the digital empowerment centre itself, as students are encouraged to put their newly acquired skills to the service of their community.
The primary focus on learners’ circumstances and priorities is the strength of Baggio’s vision. In digital empowerment centres, digital skills aren’t taught in a vacuum, but become a tool to amplify local initiatives and create social change.
Wanderson Skrock is one of the students whose life trajectory was changed by Recode. As a teenager, he had been arrested and charged with drug trafficking while growing up poor on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. While in prison, he took a computer skills class through the organisation, which motivated him to continue his studies and earn a degree. Back home several years later, he started working as an educator at Recode, in turn influencing the lives of hundreds of thousands of students. His story was featured in a Microsoft video about the power of digital technology.
“Back then, we started hearing about a concept coined by the World Bank – they called it ‘digital divide’,” Baggio says. “The translation in Spanish or Portuguese is horrible:‘la brécha técnica’ or ‘la brecha digital’. I prefer to think about opportunity and inclusion, not just focus on the problem.”
For the Recode team, while access is the basis for digital inclusion, it shouldn’t be the only concern. That’s why Baggio chooses to refer to the idea as digital empowerment rather than digital inclusion, to highlight the active involvement of learners while refocusing the conversation on people rather than infrastructure.
Daniel Pimienta, one of the early changemakers in the field and former president of FUNREDES, an organisation that focused on information and communication technology (ICT) for development before ending its operations in 2017, also prefers to think of digital inclusion as a way to develop people’s sense of ownership over new technologies.
“Connecting people shouldn’t just be about selling them a smartphone or Facebook,” he says. “Information literacy should be everybody’s concern.”
One of the programmes developed by Pimienta is MISTICA, which stands for Methodology and Social Impact of the Information and Communication Technologies in Latin America, a collective experiment that brought together researchers and grassroots actors in the early 2000s to discuss obstacles and opportunities to tackle the digital divide by developing a framework for knowledge creation online.
The digital community saw the free internet as an “extraordinary chance”, according to their website, yet they highlighted the need to focus on often overlooked obstacles such as language, education rather than just internet access. This would allow learners to become “content producers and development players” within their community.
“Perhaps the time has come to [support] genuine solutions emerging from the field instead of continuing the practice of imposed solutions designed far from [local] realities,” Pimienta wrote back in 2002.
The need to put people, culture and context at the heart of digital inclusion initiatives has only grown stronger in recent years, with the pervasiveness of digital technologies in today’s society. Now, Pimienta keeps track of the space occupied by languages online as the founder of the Observatory of Linguistic and Cultural Diversity on the Internet. The project aims to raise awareness of the disproportionate representation of English in digital content when compared to the percentage of actual English speakers globally, to ensure the democratising nature of “the initial internet”, as Pimienta calls it, is fulfilled.
Baggio’s Recode has also reinvented itself as an organisation with a mission to humanise the Fourth Industrial Revolution, updating its content and programmes to teach people how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by emerging digital tools. Alongside technical skills, Recode learners are also taught to evaluate the ethical implications of new technologies such as artificial intelligence or augmented reality, empowering them to critically engage with society through their skills and become tech changemakers.
One such example is a 2019 initiative launched in the northeast Brazilian state of Maranhão, the poorest in the country, where Recode, in partnership with Facebook Brazil, taught high school students to use immersive video technology such as 360 cameras and virtual reality. As part of the Filmmakers 360º – Virtual Reality for Impact project, three students found out about the community of Tuntum, a small town without a road in their state where residents lived in isolation, having to walk through the woods to take children to school or even improvise hammocks to carry the sick to the nearest doctor. They decided to make a short film about it, and used their skills to raise awareness of the issue, winning awards and ultimately getting the attention of the state governor.
“We went to São Luís to present the video and the story of the community,” Luiz Eduardo, one of the students involved in the project, says. “We talked about how poverty is still latent in Maranhão and set up the virtual reality equipment for the governor to watch the documentary. His eyes filled with tears.”
The students left the meeting with a commitment: a new road would be built in the area.
Today, life in the community is different from what it looked like a couple of years ago. Agricultural products grown in the village can easily be carried into town by land, and a new well to access water has been drilled with machinery that previously could not have been transported there.
The number of innovative grassroots projects, programmes and initiatives aimed at leveraging new digital tools for social change has grown exponentially in recent years. Across the world, a new generation of social digital innovators is responding to the fast digitisation of society by involving communities in the process to localise digital knowledge.
Always in Brazil, startup Hand Talk has developed a smartphone app and plugin that uses artificial intelligence to automatically translate text and voice to Libras, the Brazilian sign language, and now American sign language, through a 3D-animated virtual interpreter. Founder Ronaldo Tenório and his team feed the tool thousands of sentences every month and match them with animations to ensure the interpreter stays up to date.
There are close to 10 million deaf people in Brazil, 70% of which are illiterate in Portuguese. Only 1% of websites are considered accessible in the country, Hand Talk reports. The startup also provides a wider range of content with tips on how to improve accessibility within organisations, inspired by insights and experience acquired from engaging directly with their community of users. Google Play recently featured the app in its social impact stars category.
In Finland, an AI truck tour born out of the collaboration between the City of Espoo, Microsoft Finland, Lenovo and Omnia is putting people and learning back at the heart of technological innovation. The prototype for the AI truck was developed by a team of vocational students and Aalto University product development students, continuing an earlier initiative directed at senior citizens in the region that trained them to become AI mentors.
The truck is an escape room in which small teams of participants have to solve tasks that help them understand how artificial intelligence works in practice, the role of data and algorithms, and the potential of these technologies. For instance, at one point players see their faces on a screen as the AI equipment in the room recognises their emotions. By performing all the facial expressions linked to the corresponding emotions as requested by the software, they are able to unlock the next phase of the game, which involves interactions with a robot and speech recognition.
Visitors are welcomed by senior citizens and vocational students rather than experts, to encourage people to approach the truck.
“In all changes, learning has a key role, and it is great that the AI Truck will help visitors get acquainted with and learn more about AI,” Jussi Tolvanen, Managing Director of Microsoft Finland, said when the project was first launched.
Also in India, where the digital platform for vaccine registration in a country ravaged by COVID-19 has proven difficult to navigate for many, activists and volunteer groups have come up with innovative tools and initiatives to engage marginalised communities.
The Robin Hood Army is an organisation with operations in more than 200 cities that has developed a conversational WhatsApp chatbot to help senior citizens book their vaccine slot on the portal, redirecting them to the local WhatsApp group in their city for assistance. Here, they can connect with a volunteer who can help them with their booking process.
The organisation has also teamed up with Uber to help people get rides to their vaccine appointment. So far, this model has helped seniors in more than 140 cities get vaccinated.
Another example of innovation arising out of local needs is Kumoontun, an organisation based in Oaxaca, Mexico, that has developed an app to translate Ayöök, an indigenous language spoken by about 140,000 people according to the 2020 census, from and into Spanish and English.
Kumoontun, which means collective work, was launched in 2018 by four young people who wanted to do something to preserve their local language. The grassroots initiative aims to disseminate the culture and language of the Santa María Ocotepec community through the production of educational content directed at the new generation of Ayöök speakers in particular, such as audiobooks collecting their ancestors’ oral tradition and children’s stories that teach the importance of self-expression.
In the UK, charity Apps for Good aims to improve young people’s confidence while teaching them to solve problems in their communities through technology.
“One interesting example of a digital product developed by kids on the Apps for Good programme was an app for stop and search,” Joe Cullen, director of Arcola Research and senior consultant at the Tavistock Institute, says. “In some areas of London, if you’re black and young, I think you’re 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police and searched. With this simple but extremely effective app, if they were stopped and searched by police they could instantly get access to what their legal rights are, as well as legal help that would help in the situation. It’s a really good example of how if you take digital technology out of its narrow focus and disrupt the way it operates – it can do groundbreaking things.”
Over in Spain, Goteo is a digital platform that follows a crowdfunding model and also invites the community to contribute in non-monetary ways through crowdsourcing and collaboration with the goal of creating open-source technologies and inventions that benefit society. This way, projects crowdfunded on the website can be replicated, modified and localised to address different needs. The platform has raised more than €12 million since 2012.
In Italy, leveraging art and design to feed a crowdsourced campaign for inclusive communication, the ITCILO recently invited artists and designers globally to submit posters on the theme of digital inclusion as part of its upcoming Digital Inclusion Summit on 7 and 8 July 2021. Past editions included visual reflections on the future of work, building diverse communities, AI and robotics and more.
Though rooted in earlier digital inclusion efforts, these initiatives are characterised by a deeper awareness of the evolving needs of the individuals and communities they seek to empower. They reclaim technology as a tool to disseminate wellbeing, focusing on collaboration, promoting knowledge and innovating by leveraging simple, widespread technologies for social inclusion, meeting users where they are.
For Cullen of Arcola Research, digital inclusion initiatives today tend to mirror three factors that have transformed our understanding of what it means to create social change through technology. Firstly, there’s access.
“If you don’t have access to decent bandwidth, for example, then you’re physically excluded,” he says. “But access alone is no use. You can have as wide a bandwidth as you want, but if you don’t have the skills, then you’re not going to be able to use the technologies.”
The acquisition of skills is another key element that should be considered alongside access, accompanied by what Cullen refers to as “quality of use”.
“There’s no point in having access or the skills if you don’t have the capacity to take advantage of not just economic opportunities that the digital world offers, but also cultural, health – the whole spectrum."
This is a recent development, and has something to share with intersectionality – the idea borrowed from gender studies that different disadvantages intersect together to amplify social exclusion.
“The most recent evolution in thinking about digital inclusion is the intersectional convergence of gender, social class, occupational status and more, and how that shapes your capacity to get the best out of what digital tools can offer,” Cullen says. “The big challenge is tailoring policies to the realisation that digital exclusion is interconnected with other forms of structural exclusion that make it much harder for certain groups not to be left behind.”
Moving forward, other challenges will likely include, according to Cullen, matching the aspirations of digital upskilling policies with the aspirations of people who go on these programmes, ensuring the labour market has the capacity to absorb them; developing collaborative partnerships involving a wide range of organisations, community groups, institutions and tech companies, to secure adequate resources for initiatives that create impact at the local level and replicate successful projects wherever they are needed; moving beyond initiatives targeted to individual learners and instead embracing what Ellen Helsper of the London School of Economics calls “more ecological models of thinking” – creating collective change by engaging entire communities and networks.
Back in Spain, Cibervoluntarios in partnership with Facebook recently recognised Elena Rodríguez of Villanueva Matamala, a town of 51 inhabitants in the country’s north, with an Extraordinaria Award 2021 by Zona from Facebook for women entrepreneurs in rural areas. Rodríguez owns a 2,000-square-metre organic orchard with traditional varieties of plants and vegetables, such as white aubergines, grown from seeds she enjoys recovering and preserving. She calls her plot of fertile land ‘Huerto de Tulipanes’ – Tulip Orchard – and sells her products locally.
A few months back, Rodríguez had attended a Cibervoluntarios workshop in digital marketing to learn how to promote her business and reach more customers in the nearby city of Burgos through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. When customers place their orders through these channels, she loads her car, drives into town and delivers freshly picked vegetables at a previously agreed location.
As part of the award, Rodríguez is also receiving personalised coaching to manage her social media channels more effectively.
“For us, it’s a question of ownership,” Ángel Sola Lopez of Cibervoluntarios says. “Once people feel they own these new tools or software, this generates social impact. It’s the most important part of our work. The purpose of our training is not just to teach people new digital skills, but offer them a tool that has the potential to change their life – and positively impact their community.”