Sensing networks for development: experiences from Congo and Mexico

New forms of on-the-ground research during physical distancing may prove relevant beyond COVID-19

13 de Octubre de 2020

Image: Mexico City. Mexico Accelerator Lab.

The unexpected beginning of 2020 has challenged how we all approach our lives and work, forcing us to adapt to new ideas and procedures among an ever-changing context. This holds true for development organizations as well; we must react and attend to COVID-19 affectations, while at the same time advancing other development projects under shifting conditions.

In this post, the Accelerator Labs from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mexico discuss their respective methods of assessing how communities, physically inaccessible to researchers, are affected and reacting differently to the pandemic.

In the DRC, the AccLab is building the first Atlas of Local Innovative Solutions and mapping the citizen initiatives in relation to governance and Covid19. In Mexico, the AccLab is mapping social capital and citizen initiatives to inform and test pilots that strengthens the communities’ capacity to react and respond to crises such as the pandemic. (Read more about Mexico´s project here.) In both countries, we created a sensing network with the help of young people in order to remotely survey various locations.  

Sensor networks are groups of spatially dispersed sensors used to monitor and record conditions of an environment or system, with an interest in their change over time. Commonly used for physical conditions or activity, like pollution, traffic, weather, or seismic disturbances, technological sensor networks collect data from many points to one central location. These networks also track complex human activity such as consumer trends or activity on social media platforms. Beyond these technological examples, human sensing networks are found in many contexts, such as collecting and distributing information during demonstrations that inform or protect participants. Sensing networks depend upon a diversity of tools and guidelines to work efficiently and codify relevant information. In the case of a demonstration, for example, participants throughout the crowd may use codewords on encrypted communication platforms when encountering risk that can be read by other demonstrators.  

While sensing networks are not a new idea, the pandemic has sparked ideas of new ways to put them to use to learn about diverse perspectives in varied locations. Below are some insights from both our Labs and the conversations among each of the established networks of young people regarding the set-up, process and possibilities.   

A network of networks 

To a greater or lesser extent, we are all continuously connecting with our established networks.    This to assess and contest different situations in our lives, or to share and filter information that helps us make choices. Both AccLab teams connected with established and functioning youth organizations in geographically distinct areas of each city, to tap into each local network. The collaboration with organizations helped us react with agility, ensure a balance between diversity and distribution of participants, and create an effective communication structure. 

Design the network tools towards the expectations of quality of information

Connections between individual people aren’t enough. Some questions that assisted the design of the network dynamics include: Who forms part of this network? What are their backgrounds and expectations? What are the preferred modes of communication? How can we design tools, guides or other materials to facilitate the process? Can the questions be understood the same way from different perspectives?

In the DRC, the Acclab experienced different outputs from the network of solution mapping deployed with a youth platform. The lab used 2 sets of backgrounds: youth students from University and professionally active youth. It was noticed that the later got more precise and responsive feedbacks in a limited timeframe than the youth student respondents. The findings show that the active group leveraged the network effect, building on their respective experiences and networks to quickly sense, access, and pool community’s information, trends that were shared later on the platform.   

Open and direct channels of communication

A few people struggled with design limitations or comprehension with the first tools we used: a set of fixed online surveys. In response, we created open and shared communication channels through WhatsApp to support immediate feedback from participants. We discovered that these channels allowed for additional discoveries that would not have been revealed through the original survey. In Mexico, it included several follow up sessions with specific dynamics designed to strengthen connection, improved feedback participation and led to unexpected observations. Still, in some cases, one-to-one communication was preferred by participants. These sessions and communication channels, collective and private, offered new cognitive connections as we engaged in dialogue and contributed to reflect on the process and the subject of the study.

Include feedback loops into the process

To learn more of the process and obtain more research benefits, it is important to share updates periodically within the network, either through open conversations or as guided interactions. This helps reveal tangential, parallel and/or serendipitous observations and ideas of the network.

We saw participation happen in very different levels depending on the area. What marks the difference and why? I believe it is the specific culture of the community, reproduced by people, stories, or traditions that strengthens the opportunity to collaborate.

Pavel, artist of the brigade Rayando en libertad (Street art in freedom), part of the Mexico City’s Youth Institute (INJUVE).

We  enjoyed being in charge as if we were the process owners. Sharing experiences feedbacks for each learning cycle and engaging among us through an open platform helped reinforce the sense of being useful to the communities by building a meaningful collaborative workstream with no compensation needed.

André Muliro, YothConnekt and Ministry of Youth national delegate

Supporting trust and hope

While a stipend or benefit proposition for participants helps establish the network with clear and transparent rules, we found it very important, perhaps even more so, to continuously share with them collective findings and building narratives that could bring us closer together. This included how these discoveries can improve the lives of peoples further down the line. Both hope and trust proved powerful tools of engagement to reinforce the network, encourage participants to keep the subject top of mind, and promote the importance of tangential or parallel information that might add interesting findings. 

Focusing on hope and trust benefits participatory research and development projects while also encourages appropriation of challenges, and more collaborative, inclusive futures. In these cases, we saw a sort of ripple effect of enthusiasm; young people’s attention and hearts are hungry, especially in a time when they are aware of the many complex challenges ahead. 

Our brigade of artists is doing murals to make visible the issues we sense are relevant to the communities. Being part of this network searching for initiatives made us realize a whole new set of relevant dynamics that we were not aware of and felt inspiring.

Jesús Razo, artist coordinator of the brigade Rayando en libertad (Street art in freedom), part of the Mexico City’s Youth Institute (INJUVE).

Networks as a council for future spin offs

As network participants share multiple viewpoints of the subjects based on what they observed in different contexts and conditions, we identified in participants a natural council for testing and advancing references and ideas which can help evolve future iterations of a project—not only sourcing information — but as a sort of an agile proof of concept board.

Questions that we are wondering about

As we shared our experience between the DRC and Mexico Labs, we noticed several common questions. Physical distancing pushed us to find new ways of relating to the territory, and we are curious to see how this approach can be improved upon to offer better understanding of changes within a community. For example:

  • How does a long, invisible crisis affect the disposition to collaborate? Can we advert and respond to factors like crisis fatigue better? 
  • How does the COVID-19 crisis can unexpectedly transition into solving other public health issues? 
  • Will COVID-19 times inform new ways of conducting development projects and if so, how? 
  • Can being on-the-ground create a false impression of having a more complete understanding? Can we fall short in identifying change or emerging opportunities when direct observation creates the illusion of the evident? 
  • How might we compound methods or tools under conditions when physical distancing might be only one of the barriers? 

We all have different stories of how this crisis has caused us to react to the challenges of distancing and trying to assess the world through our screens. Incorporating sensing networks into development projects can foster a collective awareness and return reflections into the communities. What will we learn from this moment that will help us be more resilient in the next unknown challenge? Will approaches from this current crisis evolve into new ways of dealing with reality in the future? How does this hold true when our normal way of assessing a situation is not available? How do we react when change happens at unexpected locations or too rapidly?   

Listening, looking, and interpreting via sensing networks can tune us into collectivity and allow us all to profit from varied perspectives. Please share your thoughts and experiences with the Accelerator Lab on this matter and let’s keep learning and understanding better together.