In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes.
- Andy Warhol
In the future everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.
In a recent interview, the MIT linguist and critic of mass media Noam Chomsky was asked about social media, and had this to say:
Well, let’s take, say, Twitter. It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication… It is not a medium of a serious interchange.
Although this conforms with many mainstream views of the shallow nature of digital communication, it perhaps misses the point, considering that Twitter and many other forms of social media often aren’t trying to be a medium of “serious interchange”. By serious exchange, I’m assuming Chomsky means substantive argument, but why should ‘serious communication’ be limited to persuasion?
Among the many uses of language, two important forms are persuasive, and informative. We use the persuasive mode when we try to convince others of the correctness of our views or the necessity for action, while the informative mode is used to exchange information about our world and coordinate action. 140 characters is a terrible length for persuasive arguments – a claim, reason, evidence and acnkowedgement of counterarguments don’t fit well into 140 characters – but it’s an excellent length for exchanging information: “there are rioters burning the bank on High Street”, “floods expected in the north of the city, residents should evacuate.”, or “read this amazing persuasive argument: (link)”
Where Chomsky goes wrong is in assuming that ‘public’ language is the only significant language. While exchanges like Twitter posts may be displacing some types of communication, in many cases, they can also enable and enhance other forms of serious, though non-public discussion.
• Nathan Jurgenson, ‘Why Chomsky is Wrong About Twitter‘ – Salon.com
• An interesting recent interview with Chomsky covering everything from the comic potential of bananas to 1940′s baseball statistics to Twitter and transparency in government, can be found here. Incidentally, this post includes some great photographs from around Chomsky’s office at MIT
What is Crowdmapping?
Crowdmapping is the aggregation of crowd-generated inputs such as text messages and social media feeds with geographic data to provide real-time, interactive information on events such as wars, humanitarian crises, crime, elections, or natural disasters (the results are sometimes referred to as crisis maps). If properly implemented, crowdmapping can bring a level of transparency to fast-moving events that are difficult for traditional media to adequately cover in real-time, or to longer-term trends that may be difficult to identify through the reporting of individual events.
Who can create crowdmaps?
Ushahidi is a Kenyan technology initiative developed in response to the 2008 post-election violence:
Potential benefits of crowdmapping
Although the benefits depend on effective organization, public awareness and accurate information (no small feat to coordinate all three), the use of interactive, real-time mapping to track fires, floods, crime, political violence, the spread of disease, or instances of government corruption are just a few of the ways crowdmapping promises to enhance knowledge and transparency about a range of public health and safety issues.
For public security organizations such as police forces, crowdmapping could be used to build stronger connections to the communities they serve. If an effective, widely known crowdmap had existed for London during the recent rioting, perhaps more time could have been spent coordinating an effective police response and less time wasted following in the footsteps of Hosni Mubarak by trying to figure out how to shut down Twitter.
The challenges of effective crowdmapping
The deployment of crisis mapping technology is on its way to becoming a standard tool to collect and track ground truth from crisis zones, but very little work has been done to evaluate and mitigate the threat posed by adversaries with offensive infosec capabilities.
Aside from questions of building effective public awareness, the scope of usage, and the reliability of user information, the flip side of the optimistic public service vision of crowdmapping is that of a repressive regime using the technology to more effectively track and quash dissent, or adversarial groups engaging in disinformation campaigns.
The more that individuals learn how to effectively self-organize using social media tools, the more authoritarian governments or adversarial groups will learn about how to effectively use these same tools for their own ends. Crowdmapping was used in the recent Egyptian revolution, and this blog briefly explores the exchange between Egyptian activists using Ushahidi and the government authorities who tried to disrupt them.
For an interesting exploration of these issues, see veteran crowdmapping organizer George Chamales’ presentation notes and slides on defending crisis maps from the 2011 Black Hat security conference. Although I didn’t have the chance to attend, it sounded like an interesting exploration of just these sorts of issues:
In this session we’ll setup, operate, attack and defend an online crisis map. Bring your laptop and toolsets because you will have the opportunity to play the bad actor (a technical member of the secret police or terrorist organization) as well as the defender (the response agency, citizen on the ground, and sysadmin trying to keep the server online).
The experience will bring together everything we know and love and hate about defending online systems including buggy code, naive users, and security vs. usability tradeoffs and do so in a situation where people are dying and the adversary controls the network. We’ll also introduce some not-so-typical concepts like building trust on the fly, crowdsourced verification, and maintaining situational awareness from halfway around the globe.
See also this piece from the MIT Technology Review on Chamales’ presentation: Why Crisis Maps Can Be Risky When There’s Political Unrest
My introduction to crowdmapping came through researching Kenya’s tech scene, and talking with Ushahidi team members Erik Hersman (Director of Operations & Strategy) and Heather Leson (Director of Community Engagement) at a recent community development meeting at iHub Nairobi. I can tell you from personal experience, they’re an exceptionally talented, energetic and helpful group of people, who are serious about the expanding the reach and utility of their platform. Expect interesting things from them.
After the initial focus on the Somali dominated economy and social structure of Eastleigh, I hoped to contribute additional material to the project by mapping out the online social networks of Somalis (or at least as many as I could convince to grant me access to their network data). I hoped such material would add a quantitative element to the oral reports of geographically distributed social and economic trust networks prevalent among Somalis in Eastleigh, and give us a way to create interesting, simplified visualizations for complex data sets.
I intended to find out whether online social networks serve as relatively close proxies for real social networks, and if so, whether comparative analysis of several ethnic groups might reveal significant differences in the geographic diversity of Somali social networks relative to other groups. The loose hypothesis being that a wider geographical distribution of the social networks of Somalis living in Eastleigh compared to their non-Somali neighbors could perhaps explain some of their relative economic success, due to wider access to information, economic / trade opportunities and sources of funding.
Brief note on methodology:
Facebook network data was collected using Netvizz, with the resulting gdf file fed into Gephi for visualization and analysis. This was done with the subject present after a short briefing of what data would be collected, and a short demonstration of what can be seen with the resulting data. Subjects were selected from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, though demographic diversity was limited to available facebook users, which tended to be in the 18-34 year-old range. Samples were taken from Somali diaspora living abroad in countries like the US and Sweden, Somalis who fled Somali directly for Kenya and settled in Eastleigh, and Kenyan Somalis who were born and raised in Kenya.
No subjects declined access to their network data or refused permission for the data set to be retained, and all were quite interested in the resulting visualizations. Many reported that they were impressed with the visual structure of their network, were surprised by finding unexpected friend-to-friend linkages during the analysis, and most requested a copy of the resulting visualizations, often so they could share them back on Facebook. There seemed to be a certain pride in seeing their friend networks, with comments such as “this is my universe”, or “my galaxy of friends” common.
Collection of online social network data was seen as a way to avoid problems of weak and unreliable data commonly associated with self-reporting of social network connections. Some newer methods of tracing out personal social networks promise significant improvements, but at the moment are quite time, space and material consuming, and relatively impractical for a brief exploratory study such as this one.
Early assessment of the methodological approach
Although the evidence collected thus far has been quite interesting, I have strong doubts about whether such an approach would yield quantitatively significant evidence to support the original hypothesis.
The first problem comes from selection biases. Are the groups that are significant users of social networks here likely to represent a broad enough cross section of the population here in Eastleigh to tell us anything applicable to the broader community – I would tentatively conclude no, for three reasons:
1) The surprising diversity of the Somali community as a whole.
- Somalis came to Eastleigh in multiple waves over more than a 100 year period, and effort to define what actually constitutes a diaspora are problematic. Cleanly dividing Somali Somalis from Kenyan Somalis, from Issac Somalis, much less clan divisions such as Darood and Hawiye for example will require much more in-depth research and survey work before the various groups’ economic impact can be examined. Simply put, there is too much diversity within the community to make simplistic assumptions about a ‘Somali diaspora’ whose communal and wider social ties can be meaningfully aggregated into a single comparable group that can be measured relative to another Kenyan ethnic group.
- There are also deep questions about geographic dispersion that need to be further understood before any generalizations can be made about the community as a whole. Are Somalis living in the United States more or less significant sources of funds and opportunities than Somalis who have a much longer history in Dubai for example? How could we weight the economic impact of those groups, much less for the dozens of other Somali diaspora communities spread across the globe?
2) The limited sample of the community that are active facebook users
- While Facebook usage seems to be surprisingly widespread, with only 3% of the total Kenyan population using facebook, would this be a realistic way to make broader assumptions about the community as a whole?
- Although the demographic profile of FB users in Kenya is perhaps good for understanding youth and young professional networks (62% of Facebook users are between the ages of 18-34), are these mostly the young and urbanized? There are also questions of gender representation. With only 37% of FB users in Kenya being female, how does this compare with rates of female participation in the Eastleigh economy?
3) The wide diversity of usage behaviors even within the community of active facebook users.
- The sheer range of facebook network sizes encountered has been surprising. Discovering last year that Somali and Kenyan facebook users tended to have much larger average network sizes than Europeans, I was expecting to find a greater degree of fidelity in those networks in terms of identifiable clusters of context (individual networks sub-groups that represent distinct groups of friend interconnections, often denoting geographic separation)
- The meaningful identification of network clusters corresponding to real-life social contexts or connections, however, seems to be a combination of network size and behavior associated with link establishment. For example, on the low-end, typical German social networks are often in the range of 50 – 200 friends. From informal surveys of small networks, I would conclude that little meaningful information about larger social structures, past experiences, deeply connected communities, or social behavior can be generated from networks of less than perhaps 200 connections. There hust isn’t enough community density to tell much about real-world social contexts.
- The mid-range of say 300-600 friends seems to generate a good deal of clearly discernable structure, depending on friendship behavior (are the connections those actually known and deemed even somewhat significant in real-life by the user?) These are common, but may be representative of little more than individual idiosyncrasies in friend selection behavior.
- Networks of 1,000 and above seem to lose the clarity of structure, as dense central clusters and high betweenness centrality (typical measures of context and closeness, respectively in the mid-sized networks) are often unrepresentative of meaningful social ties, rather than highly permissive friend acceptance behaviors.
- Even significantly larger networks are reportedly common. Just as an illustration of the diversity of social network ‘friending’ behavior, in a focus group run with a cross section of young Somalis, within a sample size of only ten people, diversity ranged from 50 friends, to more than 14,000 friends spread out over 3 personal accounts.
- It appears very common to establish facebook connections almost as a casual form of business card exchange – less formal than a phone number exchange, but offering the possibility for social discovery and continued contact. - Multiple accounts specifically tailored for individual audiences are common. For Somali girls especially, one account may be created with a family audience in mind, and another for purely ‘social’ use. This would be a venue where forms of interaction that might be unacceptable to the family (photo sharing, humorous wall posts and exchanges, flirting, etc) would take place. One informant reported that it’s common for some young Somali girls to create many more accounts, “One for a boyfriend, one for girlfriends, one for the family, one for a cousin who’s a notorious snitch, and so on.”
Recommendations for further research:
This diversity which makes many generalizations impossible, also reveals quite a lot about the identities of Somalis negotiating lives within multiple cultures, and yields rich ethnographic and sociological material on their views about subjects such as appropriate forms of socialization in the digital world, the use of digital information flows, and perceptions of online security.
Although these are all topics that warrant separate discussion, one interesting anecdotal insight to emerge is the nearly inverse perceptions of physical vs. cyber security threats to what is commonly encountered in Germany. In Germany, the physical world is often viewed as relatively low-risk environment, and the digital world full of dangers (threats to privacy, fraud, hacking, identity theft, reputational dangers, potential for the misuse of personal data, etc.), while nearly the opposite is true in Eastleigh. Here the physical world presents a host of dangers to guard against, while the digital world is often viewed as relatively low-risk.
Analyzing how social networks evolve over time could prove insightful (network dynamics is currently a hot area in Social Network Analysis), as current methods such as these offer merely a snapshot of network structure, which may be conditioned by a number of factors previously listed. Observing the evolution and development of these networks over time could help researchers develop more incisive questions about social behavior and the dynamics of knowledge flows in online social networks than is practicable with current methods.
We may be able to learn quite a bit about individual Somalis through the analysis of their online social networks, but for the moment probably best as an adjunct to the more traditional methods of direct oral engagement. In simple terms, when it comes to the bigger questions of global connections, I doubt facebook network analysis in its current form can tell us much that we don’t already know, or couldn’t find out simply by talking to people. Thus I would conclude these sorts of instruments should serve as a compliment to, rather than a replacement for, more traditional methodologies such as interviews, self-reporting of data, surveys and participant observation.
As a final disclaimer, none of this is meant to be an authoritative summary of research findings, but merely some early observations to set up as road markers of a sort, and ideas to be shared with others who might see different weaknesses or opportunities with this methodology.
As always, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
A brief list of references for further study:
An excellent non-technical introduction to the science and theory of networks is: Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, by Duncan Watts
Lewis, Kaufman, Gonzalez, Wimmer and Christakis, Tastes, ties, and time: A new social network dataset using Facebook.com, Social Networks, 2008
Bernie Hogan, A comparison of on and offline networks through the Facebook API, December 1, 2008, Oxford Internet Institute, 2008
A good methodology for the development paper-based sociograms is: Hogan, Carrasco and Wellman, Visualizing Personal Networks: Working with Participant-Aided Sociograms, Field Methods 2008
For large-scale social network information collected from mobile phone data, see Eagle, Pentland and Lazer, Inferring friendship network structure using mobile phone data, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009
A sense of the general debate over these new methods can be found in this recent New York Times article on analyzing historical court records, with one critic claiming that for much of data mining, “as yet it’s all method and no results.”
An interview with Jamila Abass, CEO and co-founder of M-Farm
The winner of the first IPO48 Nairobi event in November 2010, M-Farm is an all-female mobile / web start-up that seeks to improve the economic condition of Kenya’s farmers. Using a basic SMS interface, M-Farm helps farmers by providing them with access to current market prices, aggregating their needs into discount orders with suppliers, and giving them direct, collective access to both regional and export markets for their products.
The young company has faced many challenges over the past 9 months, not the least of which was a change of their short code by mobile service providers after four months in operation that necessitated an awareness and retraining campaign for their existing customers (the current short code is 3535 in case you’re in Kenya and want to use M-Farm).
Despite a host of steep learning curves, challenges and setbacks familiar to many startups, M-Farm is currently used by more than 2,000 farmers. M-Farm is planning to target five additional regions for marketing and awareness campaigns starting later this month, and have a goal of adding 10,000 more users by the end of the year.
I met with CEO and co-founder Jamila Abass, a 27-year-old Kenyan Somali from Wajir, at this year’s IPO48 event and asked her about life since the launch, lessons learned, her perspectives on the Kenyan tech scene, and her thoughts on the promise of mobile digital technologies for development.
What first got you interested in technology and computing?
Well, my path was a bit different. My dream was always to become a neurosurgeon, but that never happened. I got a scholarship to study in Morocco, and I thought it was to join the medical school, but we got there, we found out that of the seven of us who had received the scholarship, only one of us would get to study medicine.
I had to look for other options. One of my friends from Sierra Leone was studying computer science, and he encouraged me and showed me what computers can do. That’s how I ended up getting a bachelor’s in software engineering. I wasn’t prepared for it at the start, but I’m really, really glad that sometimes nature dictates what we are supposed to do.
It’s so exciting, the little effort you put into technology, and how it can change people’s lives. The beauty of it is that you can do whatever you have to do anywhere and anytime. As a technologist, you can come up with something that touches a lot of people’s lives.
How did you first get involved with the other women of M-Farm?
I was working with a company called Kenya Medical Research Institute, as a medical records… developer? I’ve even forgotten what I used to do! All I remember is that I used to develop medical records systems. One of my colleagues told me about iHub being put together, and the first thing I saw on the blog was something about AkiraChix – this group of ladies who came together to promote the presence of ladies in the Kenyan IT community. I was wowed… I never knew such a thing existed. I emailed them and they welcomed me to the iHub. When I saw this place being built, I realized there was a big potential here. When iHub was launched, the IT boom was just crazy. It was a hard decision, but I quit my job and joined the iHub as an intern.
You see how they have all the daily newspapers over there in the rack on the wall? Me and Susan Oguya (M-Farm’s CTO) noticed that the farmers were complaining – at one point you’d see at least three articles every day talking about different complaints. They don’t have price information, the middlemen just come and dictate what the prices are – they’ll come and tell the farmers, ‘the markets are really flooded, there’s overproduction, so you can’t get good prices. You either sell it to me cheap, or you’re not going to find anyone who will buy.”
People were just manipulating the lack of transparency in the market and the farmers were the ones losing. So we linked the farmers’ complaints to a lack of information. We said, ok, what do we know how to do best? Delivering information, right? So how can we use that knowledge to deliver that information to the farmers? As we were brainstorming it, IPO48 was announced. Then we got more serious about our idea, and decided we were going to present it.
M-Farm’s winning final pitch at IPO48 Nairobi in 2010:
During the 48 hours, Susan, Linda Kwamboka and I and two other ladies kept on working on the idea. We developed the business plan, the prototype, everything within the 48 hours, and we won. I remember that night, I didn’t believe we won. When they mentioned our names, you know all that excitement that you really won, and that you wanted all that to pass through, launch it, and become a business… we all left out jobs to make this business work. Then here you are – you’ve got the opportunity to make that happen. So it was so overwhelming, those first three day, it was crazy. Nobody knew us before, but all of a sudden within three days of competition we become a local star. OK… what next?
Was winning a blessing or a curse?
Can I say a combination of both?? Most of it was a blessing, and some of it was a curse. The blessing was we got free publicity and free marketing. Almost everyone who’s a blogger here talked about us, so the word got out very quickly. Many NGOs and farmers’ groups got to hear the news quicker than we thought. So that was the big blessing. The second blessing was we got many people interested in the idea, and many more people beyond our small team believed in the idea, so we got support from the whole community.
The curse was, sometimes you’re just too new, you don’t know what to do with what you have. You have this big anxiety inside of you. You don’t know how to control it and it overpowers you. You just won the investment prize, but that takes some ownership of your company before you have any concept about valuation, legal or financial issues… the list goes on and on.
Also, having all these people who know about you and are interested in your idea, it really becomes difficult to select who to talk to and who not to talk to. We didn’t know how to selectively choose who to set up meetings with. So the first three months were non-stop meetings, everybody wanting to talk to us, everybody wanting to meet us. Some days I would spend all day replying to emails… some of our time was simply misused.
What’s been the most difficult part of developing a viable business in the year since you launched?
The most difficult thing was getting the business model right. When you’re sitting in your office, you think that your business model is really set. It isn’t. When you go out into the real world, launch the product and hear what the people who are supposed to use the product say, everything changes.
When you’re an entrepreneur, you really wish that people will really accept the idea that you brought forward, and they will buy the service from you and you’ll start making money quickly. But when you have to spend six more months coming up with new business models, testing it out, coming back, changing everything… you have to be very, very patient for that kind of work. So that’s been a really big challenge.
How would you describe the change from the business model you started with to the one you have now?
The change isn’t so drastic, but things that we thought would work easily didn’t work out. For example, we started with the business model where the farmers would use the service to collectively buy farm inputs like seeds and equipment. Having aggregated the farmers’ needs, we would link them with a supplier so they got a competitive price and that would make their lives easier. What we found is that if you’re not helping the farmers sell their produce, then they don’t have the money to investing in the planting cycle.
For us, we planned to start our relationship with the farmer from the time they put the seed in the ground to the time they harvested the crop. Apparently, it needs to be the other way around. You start from the time they harvest – that’s the beginning of the business cycle. If you don’t help them sell, they don’t have the money during the planting time, and then you can’t sell any other services to the farmer. So you have sell for them first, and do the rest afterwards.
Next, we thought the pricing information was going to be such a genius idea, but later on we found out that giving them price information alone is not enough. OK, I so you’ve given me the information, right? If I don’t have any other way of finding out what to do with this information, then you haven’t changed anything in my life. We later on found out that information alone isn’t enough. Information needs execution – without that you’re not changing anyone’s life. The way our ideas worked was almost upside down. We had to start from the selling, then to the buying, then to providing other information that they would have required.
What’s the biggest challenge for building brand awareness in a place like Kenya?
It depends on whom you’re targeting. If you’re targeting the urban dwellers, it’s really easy – TV, radio and newspapers. If you’re targeting the rural areas like we’re doing, then things take a different direction. It would be a waste of money if we started doing radio campaigns or TV or newspapers, because the people that we’re targeting won’t get the news. The challenge is finding out the proper channel to use to deliver this information.
We approach the local leaders in the rural area, tell them what M-Farm can and cannot do, and if they buy the idea, they’ll spread it to the rest of the people. That was the difficult thing, because using people as your agents to spread the word is much more difficult than running an ad campaign on radio or TV. The local leaders are trusted much more than radio or even TV, so even though the process is slow, it’s also short in a way. People will believe it because they heard about it from the local chief, the local counselor or something like that – they need someone they can trust in the process. The challenge in that approach is in scaling that up quickly and delivering the news to the people who are supposed to hear it.
How do balance the needs of running a business with the need to keep up on IT and programming trends?
Most of the time I feel outdated, especially because I also have to run a business. When you’re running a business, you can’t do everything by yourself. When you have customers waiting on you, you can’t say, ‘you know what? Let me just finish up what I’m doing now, and then I’ll come back with the software and I’ll do it myself.’ So you have to trust other people to do things. For me that means depending on other people to do the development while I run the business. That’s why sometimes I find myself feeling so backwards that when I try to look at code that other people have written, I just get lost.
What websites do you use to keep yourself updated?
Net.tuts – I like that one because they summarize everything in a sweet way, and you can easily know what’s going on. And I also like Business Insider and Tech Crunch, even though they don’t write much about programming, at least they keep you in the loop about what’s going on in the IT world.
What do you find exciting about the tech scene in Kenya?
Now we have a place we can call home in the iHub – a place where we share ideas about the problems the tech community is facing, and we have representatives who can talk about it and have our voices heard. Before having structures like the iHub and the m:lab, and the other incubation centers that exist, however loud you shouted, nobody heard you. But now you can sit together, talk about something, and all of a sudden you’re speaking the same language.
With that you get to do more things. For example, you never, or at least very rarely used to walk in somewhere and meet the head of Google in Kenya for example, but that’s happening now. You meet people you’d otherwise never have the chance to meet.
Nowadays you hear lots of people in the tech scene in Nairobi using an elevator pitch. Before, nobody even knew what that was – why would you want to speak to an elevator? So we’re bringing all the stakeholders under one roof, which rarely happens. We also have more people focusing on the social problems that Kenyans are having. We have many creatives and entrepreneurs coming up with solutions, so two things happen: the entrepreneur gets to do a project that they really enjoy and you get to address a social problem that’s affecting millions of people.
Many of the young people have been complaining about the lack of jobs, so now you’re creating jobs for yourself and other people at the same time. The other thing is information is power. All of a sudden, you’re able to put your point across and people understand what you mean. We have the means of delivering a message that we didn’t have before. In the past, how many people would have a mobile that’s internet enabled, or a mobile that could access data? Right now almost everyone does, and that’s a big change.
How is the mobile device changing Kenya?
Traditionally people would use it for calling and for SMS, just to communicate with their loved ones. Now they’re using it for business. So the more people you get using their mobile phones for business, the more opportunities developers will get to develop applications that target specific groups of people. The developer is making money by creating an app, the end user is saving money by using the app.
It’s connecting people as well, for example, most schools in Kenya don’t have quality content to present to their students – they have qualified teachers, but they don’t have the books. If they could use a mobile phone to see what a teacher in a more sophisticated school has written or used, or have s student in the heart of Turkana (the poorest region in Kenya, with a poverty rate of 94%) share a note with a student in Nairobi who has more money to attend a good private school, then sharing knowledge becomes easier.
I could also share information that is negative, but the point is, people get access to things they’ve never experienced before. Just like for myself, before I knew how to use Google, my thinking was limited to what I learned in books, but now my thoughts are broadened just because I can access something written by a professor at Oxford.
Where do you want do go with all of this? Where do you see yourself in the future?
That’s really a big question. I’ve always been passionate about empowering people. I grew up in a place where accessing information was almost impossible, a place that almost everyone has neglected. So I grew up knowing that someone has to make a difference, to go out and get the skills to bring change to the place where I was born. There’s a lot of negative energy coming out of that place, “oh the government neglected us, oh we don’t have rain, we have these droughts.” We don’t have people sitting down and thinking of what we already have and thinking about how to use those things in a positive way. That’s the person I want to be.
Your fieldwork is only as good as the people you work with.
- Neil Carrier
Hassan Kochore is an Anthropology student at the University of Nairobi, and a research assistant with the British Institute in East Africa. We worked with Hassan, a native of Marsabit, on a research project last year in northern Kenya. Hassan’s rare blend of superb language skills, deep local knowledge and an understanding of western anthropological research methods made him an invaluable asset in the field. As the quality of local contacts can either make or break a project, I recently sat down with Hassan in Nairobi to ask him about any advice he might give to other prospective research assistants.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to prospective local research assistants?
Always find out what the research project is all about. You’re the one taking questions from people. You’re the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, as the suspicions and doubts will be focused on you. Research is a spiritual commitment. There are ethical dilemmas in the collection and use of research materials that you can’t immediately resolve. You’re working to balance two worlds – the interests of the researcher and the researched. You take on a third role between those, so you’re not really either.
You have to ask yourself, what’s the interest of the researcher, and what’s the interest of the researched? Learn how to explain those things to both sides. Then there’s the whole issue of collecting people’s information, being in possession of those things. What are you going to do with that information? Are you going to do them justice? How is it going to be used? You don’t really know at the beginning.
What do you mean by the interests of the researched?
They want to know, “What will happen to all this information? How is it going to be useful to us, or harm us?” They don’t care about you publishing – that’s your interest and benefit, not theirs. If you don’t know yourself, you’re only going to be lying to them if you say that it will benefit them. It’s also going to be an embarrassment to you when people find out you don’t know what you’re doing.
Of course sometimes you wake up and realize you’re at a loss about what you’re doing. That’s
normal. It’s hard to understand it all at one go, and sometimes the research focus changes depending on what you find. Take as much time as you need to understand the project, its aims, and what will be done with the research.
The people who end up doing well are those who are willing to walk away from a research project if they’re not comfortable with it.
What are the most common mistakes made by new research assistants in Anthropology?
First of all, you’re tempted to be the broker; it’s very natural. You want to make an impression, because there’s money and prestige at stake. Naturally you want to control the research process and be indispensable. But to really be indispensable, you have to pretend to know all the answers to the questions – you want to feel very important – but that’s more like trying to play PR, “yeah guys, I know all these things.” Be honest from the word go; don’t say anything just to gain entry.
Even initially, I felt that way, wanting to be indispensable. But one thing I’ve always known is not to distort research or impose my own views. There’s a propensity to always answer things from your own perspective. Someone local you’re talking to might answer and give their own view, but you’re a local too and maybe don’t feel like that’s the popular view. So you impose yourself or try to please the researcher. Sometimes you’re not even processing what the subject is saying, but processing the idea yourself.
At the end of the day, just give the raw information, but if you feel something important needs to be added, do it afterwards, “This person thinks this, but I think this…” Suspend your own ideas for the time of the interview, and add your ideas later at the appropriate time to add context and depth to the research. Because I’m a local in my own right, if I don’t agree, I can debate it. But do that later when it’s the appropriate time. I wouldn’t have asked myself these ethical questions 2 or 3 years ago. It’s never perfect – nothing is 100% – but with time you get better at it.
Is there anything in particular you’ve learned about how to avoid imposing yourself on the research?
You should develop a self-induced amnesia for a while. Forgetting that you have a certain position in the community is important to gain a degree of objectivity. But that has to come after you gain an understanding of the project.
You’re not just interpreting language and words, but culture and embedded meaning as well. Try not to mix your own ideas and other people’s. That’s a very important stage as an assistant. Then it will be evident that you have good interpretation and communication skills , that you’re
the right person for this job. That’s how to win the trust of the researcher.
It sounds like it can be tricky to get off on the right foot with researchers.
Take it slowly at first. If you see this person as a tourist and not as a researcher, it’s a different thing. Many people who work as informal research assistants mix those two things up. The researcher you’re working with may not be excited to go around to all the places you’ve found. Researchers won’t be excited about going to sideshows. Maybe everyone can relax and socialize in the evening, but get the timing right – read their mood and do things when they want to, rather than when you want to. It’s hard for visitors sometimes to decline invitations. It’s hard work to follow you the whole day, and if you’re trying to take them where you want and it doesn’t further the project, it damages your credibility.
What do you find most satisfying about working as a research assistant?
As a human being, I want to express myself and have my ideas heard, and being a research assistant is a good avenue to do that. It’s also good to participate in research because you get to dispel misperceptions.
Just at this moment a local came up to us in the restaurant where we were talking and asked me somewhat pointedly, “What are you writing down?” When I explained that I was doing research and taking notes about my conversation with Hassan, he replied, “I’m a Kenyan. I’m a stakeholder in all of this. I want you to hear my thoughts too.” After some assurances that I was going to give an honest account of Kenya, he turned to Hassan and said, “Give good information. Sell Kenya properly.”
That’s just what I was talking about. People can be concerned how the information is going to be used, how it might help them or hurt them.
So how do you as the research assistant manage the expectations of people in the source communities?
That’s tricky. There are places you’ll want to avoid because of what people will think about your association with a wazungu – that you’ll have money, so forth. But those are places the researchers will want to go. You have to step up and know there are some compromises you have to make as a research assistant. You have to be direct sometimes with people. Don’t run away from misperceptions or the possibility for misunderstandings, just approach those things head on.
When you run away from people, or try to dodge their questions, they know you have something to hide. When you run away or avoid places, you create a bigger and bigger map of places you don’t want to go. Then after a while you can’t go anywhere.
Be open with friends and relatives about the kind of money you make from this kind of work, that you have a job to do and that it’s not making you rich.
Also, people in these communities sometimes think that you’re looking for something else, rather than the really obscure thing that’s the focus of a Western research project. They don’t expect a mzungu to be looking for such mundane, obscure things. They have the preconception that the researcher is looking for something big.
There is a way I’ll sometimes frame the questions so that I create a scenario of curiosity by telling someone, “I know you might be surprised that what we are asking you is common knowledge but it’s not easy to understand and explain as you do because…” This is why being honest and trying to understand the project as best you can is so important.
How did you get into this kind of work?
I was born in Marsabit, but went to Meru for high school, which a lot of people in Marsabit consider to be a foreign land. When people from Marsabit are going to Nairobi, they’ll often say they’re “going to Kenya.”
In 2008, I had been studying biochemistry in Nairobi, but had deferred because of various issues including personal experience with the course as well as a financial aspect. So I was back in Marsabit with nothing much to do. A girl from my village worked in a hotel and a group from the British Institute in East Africa came to stay. She heard they were looking for local assistants and mentioned my sister. It’s funny, but because me and my sister both went to ‘down country’ for high school the woman thought, “these people are foreigners and these kids have been to school (to learn foreign ways). Maybe they’ll understand each other.”
The researchers came to our home to look for my sister, and she worked with them for some time. After she left for school, they asked if I could assist them in their research. I immediately said yes. I wasn’t doing anything anyway, I just wanted to make some money without even knowing anything about their work. In retrospect I wouldn’t do that now. I’d ask what they were doing first.
I quickly became curious about the research questions – I started asking them about what’s behind all of this. I started asking them questions all the time. “What does Anthropology really mean?” “You’re a professor in Anthropology – what does that really mean?” My curiosity really helped build a relationship between us.
After two days I even forgot I was supposed to be paid. I just trusted that it would accumulate. It built a reciprocal relationship. Try to trust other people, and then they’ll trust you. Another guy working with us wanted to get paid every day, and never really built a trusting relationship with the researchers.
When they went back to Nairobi, I took a ride with them because I had plans to go to Nairobi anyway. On the way, we got into a discussion and they hired me to process and interpret the data. A few days later I was sitting around with some researchers trying to enter data into a computer, and I was wondering what had happened to me, what was I doing? The first few days were hard. But I kept asking questions and slowly started figuring things out.
That’s when I learned that research isn’t just walking around talking to people. It’s also trying to process all of this information. Listening to all the tapes we made, I started figuring out after how poor in communication I was – asking questions before someone was even finished talking, asking the wrong questions, not being attentive in interviews, not taking the time to really listen to what’s being said in an interview. When you work like that the data is so discordant, it doesn’t have any flow. You have to be careful that the questions you ask really build on each other, that you have a flow between the things you ask. When you’re in the field, you just have to bear in mind that this is the start of a process, not the end. It was a very helpful experience for me.
After the project ended, my good friend and mentor Dr. Hassan Wario Arero convinced me to go back to school to study Anthropology—it was not an easy decision to make as I still had passion for Biochemistry, but I decided to take up Anthropology, and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made in life! For that I feel greatly indebted to Dr. Wario who made in me, a ‘jijiram’ (change in boran) –not in the way I look but in the way I look at the world.
Where do you hope all of this leads you?
If you’d asked me twenty years ago what I wanted to become, I’d have said a teacher. I still hold that view: I have a feeling that I’ll end up in academia and my dream is to be a professor in a good university. One of the main reasons I’d want to live long is to see and understand what’s happening… it’s not easy.
“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
- Blaise Pascal
“Further than this, besides simply not hindering progress, I think we might do something to hasten matters, and I have suggested two ways in which this might be done. One is to train scientists to look among the older sciences for wild analogies to their own material, so that their wild hunches about their own problems will land them among the strict formulations. The second method is to train them to tie knots in their handkerchiefs whenever they leave some material unformulated – to be willing to leave the matter so for years, but still leave a warning sign in the very terminology they use, such that these terms will forever stand, not as fences hiding the unknown from future investigators, but rather as signposts which read: ‘UNEXPLORED BEYOND THIS POINT.’”
- Gregory Bateson, from Steps to an Ecology of Mind
In the last post, I examined the hypothesis that cash from ransom payments to Somali pirates was driving the booming development in Eastleigh. If, as I concluded, ransom payments wouldn’t be sufficient to explain the level of development here, then what else could account for the rapid economic growth?
Particularly, what could explain the fact that Eastleigh’s development patterns have been largely disconnected from those of the global financial system as a whole, and that development projects, real estate purchases, down payments on stores and other large transactions are often conducted in cash?
This post will present a complex range of historical, economic and social factors that potentially combine to explain the dynamism of Eastleigh, with no single variable likely to be the key driver of growth. It’s important to note that these ideas are in an early form, are not necessarily presented in order of importance, and serve largely to help us get our ideas out in one place. As the project progresses, each idea will be further developed along with additions and changes as new evidence is collected. This is the beginning of a stage that requires making a mess so that we have enough to clean up later.
• Historical factors such as the presence of Somalis in Eastleigh, and the historical role of Isaaq Somali traders in East Africa, and the building of networks through livestock trade
A significant community of Somalis have lived here since the 1920s, having been brought to Kenya by the British Colonial Administration. Isaaq Somali traders have also played a historical role in East African trade, especially in livestock. Somalis were reportedly an important source for cattle in Nairobi, and Somalis often provided beef to the British colonial administration, as it was known that cattle would be slaughtered according to more sanitary halal practices than other local butchers. We were told by one source a reason Eastleigh was chosen as original settlement was the availability of land and thus the ability during colonial days to graze cattle on this side of Nairobi, although another source reported that Somalis were located to Eastleigh after an outbreak of disease in the city center.
• Influx of Somalis as a result of the 1991 civil war
The civil war in Somali pushed out a significant percentage of Somalis with the means to relocate. These included many elites, those of the educated class, successful businesspeople and others with either significant assets or the means to generate assets.
• The collapse of the Islamic courts in Somalia 2006
When the Islamic Union of Courts collapsed in 2006, leading to the reemergence of widespread conflict, so did the hopes of many Somalis to return home in the near future. We’ve been told many times that Somalis who had been saving up for a return to Somalia decided to make long-term investments elsewhere. An influx of capital at this point would correlate much more closely with the surge in development than the later surge in piracy. A few sources have told us that savvy Somali investors anticipated a boom after the collapse of the Islamic Union of Courts in 2006, and thus were offering far above the market price to get prime real estate before things really took off. One Somali currently residing in the US told us, “So many of the non-Somalis in Eastleigh didn’t understand what was going to happen here. My brother bought someone’s home for KS180,000 (Kenyan Shillings) in cash, which is only about $2,000. The owners had paid maybe KS100,000 for it themselves, so they accepted his offer immediately. Then two years later, he had fixed it up a bit and sold it for KS300,000.”
• Push factors from refugee camps / pull factors of city bringing critical mass of people
Hundreds of thousands of other Somalis were pushed into refugee camps throughout Kenya. Although some level of informal economy sprung up within these camps, many refugees sought opportunities in the city. Eastleigh proved an attractive draw to many, as its existing Somali community, separation from central Nairobi and informal economy provided shelter and opportunity for those without official status.
• Somalis as self-reliant pastoralists
Many Somalis have been traditionally accustomed to a nomadic life, and though while pastorialists tend to be less educated due to their nomadic nature than settled farmers, the constant changing conditions in their lives makes adaptation to new circumstances a constant cultural theme. Nomadic herders are often accustomed to risk taking, are willing to travel to find opportunities, maintain close kinship networks for survival, have experience in negotiation and other cultural factors that may make them particularly well suited to migration-driven adaptation and entrepreneurial activity. Many Somalis you meet here say they would much rather build their own business than work for someone else, and the town is ripe with stories of successful businessmen rising up from low-level street hawking via hard work and careful planning of business deals to reinvest profits into growing their businesses and leveraging larger deals.
At one professional school in town, I was struck by the sight of youngsters working in a computer lab on Excel spreadsheets. One boy of perhaps 10 or 12 asked me if I could help him with accounting, as “I want to start my own business and I’m trying to learn how to calculate a payroll.”
• Strong community networks with long-term investment perspective
One of the dominant features of the overlap between traditional Somali culture and current business practice are the tight networks among communities in a clan-based society that allow for various forms of community investment. It’s not uncommon to find real estate deals involving the pooled resources of 30 to 50 members, many of which have now been saving significant capital from developing businesses in higher income countries since the civil war. Families will pool resources to help a relative with a viable business plan start an enterprise rather than sending smaller sums for subsistence only. These factors may combine to allow Somalis relatively easier access to loans on a collective basis, and via the hawala system, such loans from extended networks often take the form of cash. Businesses are often seen as part of longer-term plans to generate capital for eventual relocation back to Somali when the situation stabilizes.
• Willingness to trust, even people far removed geographically
The most common response from Somalis about why they will do business with other Somalis, even ones they don’t know personally, is the issue of trust. “Even if I don’t know you, if you’re a Somali, I’ll trust you to do business with me” was a line reported by one source.
When asked why this would be true if Somalis have such a recent history of civil conflict within Somalia itself, we’ve often been told that once pushed out of Somalia itself, Somalis have developed a much stronger sense of community and nationhood as outsiders in other countries. Another source reported, “Within Somalia, we’re concerned about clan and family, but outside we’re all Somalis.”
Another reason the trust network might function is the traditional aspect of Somali clan culture that creates groups of mutual responsibility along clan lines. An act of wrongdoing by one member is the responsibility of a much larger group to make right, as evidenced through the practices of ‘blood money’ in cases of murder. Somalis are thus born into types of insurance networks that bond the members to each other and thus add a layer of trust outside Somalia, as business cheaters can incur penalties on much wider groups of relatives.
• An economic role as newly arrived immigrants
Somalis, much like the south Asians who preceded them into Kenya a century before, are willing to work hard for relatively small margins, and thus dominate the lower end of the market Interestingly it was reported to us that many Indians who have been displaced from the Eastleigh markets have moved up the economic ladder into light industries like bottling plants, shoe factories and so forth.
• Globalization making low-end Chinese goods and those sourced through Dubai readily available.
The influx of Somalis to Eastleigh also corresponds to the rise of large scale Chinese exports in the garment and electronics sectors. The availability of these goods on a mass scale harmonizes well with the low margin, volume based trading that Somalis have built into their retail and wholesale business models.
• The possible shift in the lower end of the African apparel market from second-hand to new
This development of Somali-Chinese trade relationships has also reportedly help fuel an appetite for new, low-end apparel throughout East Africa. Whereas in the past, previously the Kenyan clothes market was dominated by ‘mitumba’ (second hand clothes), often imported from wealthier markets such as Europe, nowadays many lower end consumers seek out new clothing, even if that means a compromise on quality and durability (reported by sources, and seemingly true from anecdotal evidence in town, but yet unconfirmed). As in the West, clothing here is becoming more of a disposable good with a short life span.
• Economies of scale provided by Chinese suppliers
Chinese merchants and producers are also eager to get in on the trade, and allow Somalis to apply a type of leverage in their business models by offering stock on credit. It’s been widely reported to us that once a Somali has a path for distribution and enough capital to purchase in bulk, negotiations with Chinese suppliers might result in a deal whereby a Somali will pay for one shipping container worth of good upfront, with another one or two shipping containers worth provided on credit. As this trade connection has been deepened, Chinese manufacturer have even posted agents to Eastleigh to negotiate such deals directly.
• More willingness to invest post-Moi and Kibaki’s more business friendly policies post-2002
• Innovative business models
Such as the previously mentioned Garissa Lodge model of hotel room retail space leading to micro-subdivision of retail space in current shopping malls.
• Khat trade generating wealth for exporters based in Eastleigh
Somalis have traditionally played a significant role in the trade of the mild stimulant plant khat, which is chewed widely throughout East Africa and by diaspora communities in the US (pre-ban), Canada and UK. This trade potentially raises significant capital which can be directed to other resources. There are rumors that woman who bought the Garissa Lodge from it’s original Indian owners in the early 90s raised her cash equity through the khat trade.
• Growth of banking in Eastleigh and other financial services
Currently there are nine banks in Eastleigh where only a few years ago there were none. We also visited the first insurance company in Eastleigh (Takaful – a Kenyan-owned Islamic insurer), which opened its doors four months ago, and is focused on commercial insurance for shop owners. Generally these both indicate (and promote) a transition to a higher level of financial sophistication in the market, as loans and insurance policies both require more sophisticated risk mitigation practices in the market.
• Attractiveness of Eastleigh for Nairobi residents
The low margin / high volume model in Eastleigh makes the neighborhood a magnet for consumers in Nairobi. Every day you can see consumers from other parts of Nairobi who all report that clothing and electronics are significantly cheaper in Eastleigh than in their own neighborhoods. Residents of the Eastlands especially find Eastleigh attractive, as they can find lower prices closer than the city center.
• People of Eastlands provide a cheap labor force for small enterprises like shops, restaurants and hotels.
• Construction costs relatively low
• Relative stability of Kenya and centrality of Nairobi attracting investment
As previously noted, Nairobi is well situated for easy accessibility to Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Congo, Southern Sudan.
• Wide-ranging diaspora networks
A 2009 UNDP report claims that 14% percent of the population of Somalia currently lives outside the country.
To give a sense of the enormous scale of this outward migration, the equivalent for the US would be the loss of 42 million people, or 4 million Canadians, 5 million Kenyans or 8 million British citizens. Perhaps the closest historical parallel is that of the Great Irish Famine in the mid-19th century that resulted in the Irish population dropping from over 8 million to less than 6 million within a decade.
…Kenya and Yemen have most refugees. In Europe, the UK has the largest Somali community and attracts Somali migrants from elsewhere in the same continent. The next largest are Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Italy. The US and Canada have big Somali communities concentrated in Minneapolis, Ohio and Toronto. The Somali Diaspora is still on the move. Malaysia and Australia are new growth areas.
• Links to significant Somali community in Dubai
Dubai serves as an especially significant location for trade and goods flowing into Eastleigh.
• Diaspora networks with prior business experience and capital, and often access to a Western business education
• Strong desire in the diaspora to return to East Africa
Despite the large number of Somalis living abroad, many report a sense within the community that they want to return home, or as close as possible. Many have been working abroad for relatively high wages, but also often in relatively low-status positions. Savings accumulated from years working abroad can be used to start a business in Nairobi and thus a relatively higher standard of than in the UK / USA or other higher income countries. In Eastleigh, there is also the added benefit of being surrounded by other Somalis, rather than as a potentially unwelcome minority in a foreign culture. While Eastleigh not Somalia, it feels close enough for many returnees, who might also want their children to grow up in a more Islamic / traditionally Somali environment.
• Surge in piracy funds since 2008
With rather opaque investment environment in terms of origination and auditing, coupled with rampant official corruption and weak anti-money laundering regulations, Kenya would make an attractive destination for illicit funds. Some piracy finds have undoubtedly found a home in Eastleigh, but for previously stated reasons, its unlikely they have arrived in a large enough volume to drive overall development or significantly distort prices.
• Possible bribery at Mombasa and Eldoret leading to lower rates of taxes on imports or tax avoidance
• Imports smuggled from Somalia
That’s by no means an exhaustive list of potentially significant factors, but indicates areas we think are worth further investigation. It also gives some picture of the complexity of the issue, and perhaps tells you why I’ll just sigh and nod the next time I hear someone say, “Well it’s all pirate money, isn’t it?”
For the next posts I’ll be leaving the big economic picture behind and instead try to figure out what the online social networks of Somalis here can tell us, give you a look at the research process from the perspective of a local research assistant, and examine emerging trends in the Kenyan social media and mobile technology scene.