Nanjira Sambuli on Atrocity and the Web

10496134_10152662012556119_5154035777363676966_oPersonal Democracy Forum is in less than two weeks, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. What follows are a few words from Nanjira Sambuli, a research manager at iHub in Nairobi, who will deliver a talk on “During and After Atrocity: How Kenyans Use The Web to Heal and Deal.”

So, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, how does it relate to civic tech?

I manage research around governance and technology at iHub. That basically means that I spearhead and/or oversee research projects that assess how technology is being adopted or co-opted into governance in Kenya, and increasingly in East Africa. Its relation to civic tech is through insights gleaned from, for instance, studying if/how ICTs have facilitated two-way interaction between government and citizens

You’ll be talking at the conference about how Kenyans have used the web to “heal and deal.” What most surprises you about the use of the web after an atrocity?

My country has faced a number of security-related tragedies in the past three years, and due to the increasing uptake of social media, Kenyans have had an opportunity to grieve together, share in their anger, and at various turns engage in collective action towards seeking accountability or raising funds for emergency relief. It has been particularly interesting to observe the various civic roles that Kenyans online have engaged in, individually and collectively. It has also been interesting to observe the life cycle. For instance, very pertinent, difficult questions are often asked, in a quest to seek accountability. Folks, for instance, will tweet various authorities and representatives with great vigor “in the heat” of an event, but that vigor seems to dissipate the moment we move on to something else in the news cycle. Observing this over time has led me to wonder if the use of social media in times like these, and how Kenyans typically engage on these platforms, can be considered civic tech, and what that means for developers, legislators, civil society organisers, activists and others keen on engaging them online, or offline towards a civic action. The Kenyan case is not necessarily unique, but a particularly interesting one off which to ask deeper questions on what constitutes civic tech: is it tools, is it the use of tools, is it both?

The theme of the conference this year is the future of civic tech. As briefly as you like: Where do you think civic tech is going, what do we have to look forward to, and what pitfalls should people working in this sector be aware of?

I’m intrigued by the idea behind the term and concept of civic technology. As yet, I haven’t come across an agreed upon definition, and based on practice, it seems centered around designing specific tools that can facilitate or enhance civic engagement or civic action. I am curious as to how impact is assessed. I am curious (as a researcher) whether citizens’ needs are incorporated into design and implementation. I am curious as to what has been found to be the motivation and incentives among the various target audiences to use and reuse such tools as designed. One pitfall I think should be considered is that people may not be keen to visit 10 different apps designed for 10 different civic actions…how do we ensure that the design, deployment and continued use of civic technology is considered meaningful and worthwhile in the long-term?